Touring Scotland

August broiled us day by day in Barcelona. My birthday was approaching at the beginning of September, and Amber asked “Where would you like to go?”

The year prior we’d spent my birthday flying to San Fransisco to finish our paperwork for moving to Spain. Not exactly festive. This was a welcome opportunity to actually, you know, celebrate! And answering the question of where wasn’t hard either–Scotland. Amber and I had visited before and wanted to go back ever since. In recent years I’ve become a fan of single malt scotches, so a distillery tour seemed in order.

Good Crieff

But how do you balance visiting fine distilleries when you’re traveling with your kids? The first rule is “Everyone gets something.” Fortunately we knew just the thing. A few years back Amber and I went to Scottish Ruby at a Victorian spa called Crieff Hydro. This covered the kids perfectly, with swimming, archery, horseback riding, and other activities. Excitement ran high.

We flew into Glasgow. As we landed, it was overcast and raining. No bother, as Oregonians, we’re used to this sort of thing right? We gathered our bags and headed out the front door. The drizzle we’d observed turned into a hefty slap of cold rain like we hadn’t felt in months. Scuttling under the nearest shelter, we dug out the coats we’d packed, but not worn, in Barcelona and headed to pick up the rental car.

It became apparent after we got on the road that the kids would need food soon. There’s a certain tone to their voices that’s unmistakable. Amber had heard about a place called Nando’s, a South African chain known for its spicy peri-peri chicken. The first try and we were hooked; we’ve gone to Nando’s every time we’re in the UK since. (For those wondering, I prefer the moderate spice, while the rest of the family finds the mild quite enough thank you).

Holding up the Nando’s

With full bellies and less crankiness, we set off north. The first activity at Crieff we’d signed up for–air rifle shooting, which Asher was greatly anticipating–started at 4pm. Google Maps informed us that this was a stretch. We arrived fifteen minutes late to the resort, hoping to still salvage the situation, but matters got worse. As we talked to the front desk, we found that all the activities we’d reserved online weren’t showing up. (The room, thankfully, wasn’t impacted). We rescheduled archery for the next day, but sadly the air-rifles and horses didn’t happen. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Archery!!

Between pools, arrows, a family-friendly dance concert each night, and a massive chess set on the lawn, the family found Crieff perfect to kick the trip off.

Distilleries

Our plan involved driving from Crieff in the central Scottish Highlands, up north, then looping back south to catch our flight home in Manchester (cheap tickets yo).

Crossing the highlands

The country is littered with distilleries of all shapes and sizes. I did some research and built a jam-packed itinerary that was obviously impossible for our timeframe. That list served perfectly as a starting point, though.

The first stop was Edradour. We had visited years before, with the full tour and a wonderful tasting afterward. Edradour has a line of peaty scotches that they age in different wine barrels, everything from port to Bordeaux. Sipping the same liquor aged differently, side by side, taught me a ton about scotch. This time we enjoyed a nice selection in their tasting room. They make two main lines–classic Edradour, and their newer peaty Ballechin. We bought several bottles only available at the location (marked SFTC, “straight from the cask”).

The creek by Edradour

Cragganmore was the second distillery we reached. Part of a larger company, their sampling room had some rarer bottles from a variety of different lines. I came away with two very nice bottles of their flagship product–one a 15 year, and another a special 150th anniversary edition only available at the distillery. (You may be detecting a theme here…)

Entry to the Cragganmore Distillery

The final big whisky location was not a distillery, but a whisky shop called The Whisky Castle. The shop is tucked away in a tiny unassuming village called Tomintoul. This place is beautiful. The only time I’ve seen more whisky in one location is in the beloved Multnomah Whisky Library back in Portland. The Whiskey Castle runs a wonderful tasting, including local favorites and a willingness to indulge people’s curiosity.

The Whiskey Castle

We settled into a small hotel nearby attached to a pub with an outsized scotch collection. Amber and I had a lovely evening playing games, reading, and sipping the good stuff in comfortable chairs while our children slept in the room across the hall.

Tomintoul at sunset

Cairngorms National Park

Our drive took us through the central part of Scotland, which is largely occupied by Cairngorms National Park. There we got to introduce the kids to some of Scotland’s lovely scenery. Along one stretch we passed by massive fields of heather. Amber pulled the car over, and we all got out and flopped down on the springy plants.

Heather, so soft and springy

The kids and I trotted up a nearby hill. I was a little ways away when the kids started eagerly calling me over. In a gravely spot, huddled up against the blustery cool, was a toad.

TOAD

Scotland was a lovely break, and I brought home a wonderful collection of scotches to replace what I’d built up over years back in Portland. We loved Scotland, and I’m sure we’ll be back.

Yum

London Calling

February in Barcelona. While not too wet by Oregonian standards, the weather was cool with plenty of gray skies. The bustle of the holidays had passed. The kids were back in school. The daily routine was settling in again. Homesickness tickled at everyone, and we were all feeling tired and stretched. It was time to recapture why we’d come all this way, why we had uprooted our lives. We hadn’t really embraced one major facet of coming to Europe yet.

Travel!

Amber texted me at work “London next weekend?” and we were off.

Friday

Living in Barcelona, travel to so many places is wonderfully inexpensive. We got cheap flights on Ryanair, took off midmorning, and soon we were in Great Britain. It’s worth noting that cheap flights to London often land at airports that are “in” London, but may involve up to an hour worth transit to get into the city proper. We landed at Stansted, grabbed a train, and headed in.

We stayed at the Qbic Hotel, a fun, funky spot in Whitechapel a short walk from the Aldgate Underground station. Our room was bright and reasonably sized. They even provided an extra cot so the kids didn’t have to share the futon. A nice breakfast buffet greeted us downstairs so everyone could be happy with the food to start their day.

Our first activity was candy-making lessons at Spun Candy. We managed to keep it secret from the kids until we arrived. Needless to say that shook off any travel weariness and cranks. The folks from the shop mixed the hot sugar, and then we shaped our own lollipops on the warm stone tables.

The staff handled the dangerous parts of candymaking, leaving us to roll lollies!
Cora working in her new favorite medium
Amber getting creative

Just down the street from the candyshop was another amazing place: Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles. This restaurant hand-pulls their own Chinese noodles, and it was so up our alley both to watch and to eat. Barcelona has a lot of good Japanese, but we haven’t found as much Chinese, Vietnamese, or Thai as we’re used to in Portland. Exciting to find such a wonderful spot right next to the day’s main activity.

Watching the magic happen at Xi’an Biang Biang

Saturday

A key lesson in traveling with kids is to not cram in too many things. Given that, our plan for Saturday was simple–visit the Tower of London and then the Diana Memorial Playground.

After breakfast we got a late start to the Tower of London. By the time we arrived the kids were already verging on “hangry,” so we paused at a cafe outside. The Tower is huge, with numerous different areas to visit. We skipped the exhibit on Torture at the Tower–bit too gruesome for the kids yet–but went to the White Tower with room upon room of armor and weaponry on display.

The White Tower

A children’s room topped the tower with computerized displays and games for the kids. This kept their interest pretty well. An unfortunately a large number of stairs were involved, though, which Amber’s knee didn’t appreciate. I remember distinctly sitting in this vaulted room with children running rampant everywhere, pretending at drawing bows and swinging swords and I wondered–what would this look like to someone who had lived in the Tower as an actual military stronghold? Would they be amused or dismayed at their center of power turned playground?

Late in the afternoon we caught a cab out to a playground that we’d heard about in Kensington Park: the Diana Memorial Playground. Kensington Park itself is a vast stretch of green space in the city, with tons of walking paths and grass, but the Playground takes it to a whole other level. It’s entirely fenced in to provide a safe space for kids to roam. The gate in is monitored by staff. Kids can’t get in or out on their own, and neither are adults allowed in without an accompanying child. There’s a large scale pirate ship, hidden pockets in dense bushes, and all manner of other treasures to find. Unfortunately though, we arrived just 15 minutes before it closed, much to Asher’s dismay. Vigorous promises to return were made.

Arrrg

Retreating from the prematurely closed playground, we managed consolation at Viet Food. The kids’ top food is a runoff between McDonalds (ugh) or pho. Barcelona isn’t a strong spot for hot bowls of soup. London on the other hand fed our souls with the rich broth and tasty noodles.

So. Satisfying.

Sunday

Sunday morning we skipped breakfast at the hotel to instead trek off to one of Amber’s favorite treats in London–High Tea at Fortnum and Mason. For those who haven’t had the pleasure High Tea is not simply a beverage. Oh no, at its fullest expression it is an avalanche of delicious small bites, perfectly suited to go with that pot of tea. The children were astonished to learn that they could pick whatever tea they wanted, or even (gasp) hot chocolate. The tiny cucumber sandwiches on gleaming silver towers filled Cora’s heart and tummy with delight, and the desserts to follow… all in all, for a slightly fancy outing it was a huge success for everyone. Amber even obtained a blend of tea that had been discontinued in the years since our last visit because they keep a massive tome with every blend they’ve ever created.

After tea we were headed back to fulfill our park promises of the day before, but ended up waylaid by a bookstore. Though it wasn’t evident from the front when we stepped in, it was a giant Waterstones with multiple floors going up and up will filled with books… in English. A funny thing we’d heard from Asher’s teacher was that he was perfectly happy to read in Spanish or Catalan, but refused in English because translating the letters to sounds is so much harder. Sorry about your native tongue buddy! In any case, the lovely staff there helped us find a whole pile of books at just his level about topics he’d find interesting (lots of reptiles, dinosaurs, and robots). Cora also made out like a bandit, as books are a thing we have a hard time refusing, even with our limited shelf space.

The park proved cold but Asher was not daunted and played relentlessly until we had to leave. Dinner that evening was Beijing Dumpling for lovely soup dumplings, another favorite we’d yet to find in Barcelona.

A late flight home, and we were worn but happy with our first major excursion. We hadn’t accomplished all we set out to do in London, but we knew before long we could return.

First Holidays Abroad: Three Kings

As mentioned previously, Three Kings Day (aka Dia de los Reyes) closes out the holiday season on January 6th. Traditionally it was more the center of gift-giving, though this year we did most of our gifts on Christmas.

The Cake

A common part of Three Kings Day is the king cake. This is a bready pastry, often halved and filled with cream. A little king figure is hidden within, and whoever finds it has to buy the cake next year. 2020 king cake’s on Cora y’all!

Tasty treats
Tasty treats
My ticket to not buying the cake next year!
My ticket to not buying the cake next year!

The Parade

In Barcelona January 5th is a major city celebration, with the Kings arriving in the harbor, then making their way through town to a parade in the evening. Overnight they then bring the presents to kids (except in our house, where Mom and Day buy the presents, and the kids know well and true who to thank!)

While we didn’t catch the Kings earlier in the day, we made it to the evening parade. We got there uncharacteristically early, and even so the kids had to wend their way through the crowd to perch at the front where they could actually see. I’m not sure that Amber got that good of a view, but fortunately the spectacle was large, loud, and often tall.

Creepy tall puppet-like characters? Check.
Check, check
Choreographed routines on many of the floats
One of the kings. I don't know which.
One of the kings. I don’t know which.

There was a ton of music and dancing as well. Quite the spectacle!

The parade apparently ended with huge amounts of candy being thrown from the final floats. I say apparently because we’d already slipped off a little before that when the kids declared they were done. The dense pack of people was a little much on their hungry tummies.

The Pho

In solid Clark fashion, we used the outing to try a restaurant we’d had an eye on–a Vietnamese place. We’d visited a few others in search of decent pho and fallen short. But at last Bun Bo Vietnam filled our bellies with the noodley goodness we craved.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thoroughly enjoying Spanish food, but pho ranks near the top for the kids. Often back in Portland the kids would ask to go out, and their top choices were either McDonalds (eek) or pho. So finding somewhere to replace that soup-shaped hole in our hearts was a critical moment.

Overall these first holidays in Spain were a success. We found ways to keep our most important traditions, while trying new things on for size. I’m looking forward to the even deeper chances this next year will bring!

First Holidays Abroad: Thanksgiving

As an American, the holiday season kicks off in the fourth week of November with Thanksgiving. This is not a holiday in Spain, but we bucked the trend and celebrated anyway. And what better way to enjoy the holiday than by introducing our traditions to coworkers!

The weeks before involved a lot of research into what was available in country, and what we’d have to improvise around. Turkey (pavo en español) was the biggest difficulty. It wasn’t hard to find parts–a leg here, a breast there–but the whole bird was almost unheard of. But a few days before Amber found a reasonable sized one at Boqueria Market.

Using that paella pan for it’s intended purpose 😅

Most everything else was available–vegetables, potatoes, breads. But what about the cranberry sauce?! Taste of America to the rescue! This specialty store is uniquely American. The scent of high-fructose corn sugar slaps you across the face on entering, as more than half the store is sugary cereals and candy. But they had the goods a week before the big day. I heard they ran out closer to the holiday 😰. This allowed Amber to introduce the wonders of American cranberry sauce to our friends amidst gales of laughter.

We invited the team I’ve been working with at New Relic BCN. Among those who made it were an American couple, an Irishman, and a ton of Spaniards. I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s enthusiasm leading up to the event. It turns out, American Thanksgiving is commonly seen in movies and pop culture but faintly mysterious beyond that. What is this pumpkin pie? What does stuffing taste like, or is it called dressing? This proved an excellent chance to lift the veil on this American tradition.

Who doesn’t use their paella pan to roast pumpkins?

We also pushed the max capacity of our flat for a sit-down meal. There were about 16 people, every scrap of table space filled with boisterous conversation, good Spanish wine and charcuterie, galician treats, and American classics.

The holidays have definitely made us more acutely aware of the normal connections with family that we’re missing out on during this grand adventure. But in the end, sharing this tradition with our new friends was absolutely something to be thankful for.

Eating in Barcelona: Part I

Being the family that we are, we’ve all been looking forward to the food in Barcelona. I mean, Cora asked for salami and green olives for her second birthday party. This part of the world aligns very well with our family palette.

Almuerzo a Enrique Tomas

Enrique Tomás de Glòries

We reached Barcelona in the middle of the day and immediately we didn’t have a US->European power adapter for Amber’s CPAP. Oops! Fortunately, a shopping mall, Glòries, was in walking distance of the hostel. So our first expedition was a Spanish mall. 😂 A mall is a mall, and although plenty of the brands were unfamiliar, it gave the whole family a sense of familiarity.

Why is this in a blog about food in Barcelona, you might ask?

The lower level houses a space called El Mercat. It’s filled with small shops and stalls with higher-end food products. We stopped at Enrique Tomás for jamón, chorizo, olives, and lemon Fanta (which the children are obsessing over). It hit the spot and covered it in salty, cured goodness.

ARTEspañol

Friday we viewed our first flat on Avinguda Diagonal (more on flat hunting in Barcelona soon…. you know, once we’ve found one!) Obviously the effort left us hungry, and in the whole week we hadn’t yet sampled that Spanish mainstay: paella.

A quick search nearby turned up ARTEspañol. I don’t know whether it’s particularly authentic–felt a little touristy, lots of bull fighting decor–but wow was it the meal we needed at that moment.

They had kid-sized paellas with chicken that after minor prompting the children inhaled. Amber and I split a larger paella with chorizo and pork ribs. The richness of the rice, that lovely crispness. Yum.

I look forward to trying a seafood option next time. I’ve also had the Valencia (rabbit, snail, and chicken) recommended by my cousin Hannah. Clearly, there’s more paella in our future, and the future is bright!

Shaka & Shack

I’ve heard lunch is often the big meal of the day here, and that’s been working well for the family in the July heat. Thursday we set out to visit New Relic’s office in Eixample, but first we needed lunch. Along the way to the Metro we’d spotted a restaurant with signs reading “Burger Bar.”

Personally I’ve found hamburgers to be a hit or miss when traveling in Europe. By the same token, much of that experience was a couple decades ago (eek!) in the UK. When Amber suggested we try lunch at this Burger Bar, I agreed with reservations in my heart.

My concerns proved unfounded. The place, actually called Shaka & Shack, had nice juicy burgers alongside small portions of thick fries. To my delight, mayo and ketchup were both offered with these fries. Apparently Amber didn’t know my deep love for mayo and fries, probably from my time visiting Belgium. So good.

The staff was friendly and helpful. All around I’d go again, and given the proximity to the hostel it seems very likely to happen.

Wonder when the cease and desist from a similarly named large burger chains in the States is coming, or if this corner of Barcelona is distant enough to avoid the litiginous corporate eye. 😰

More to Come

This first week we’ve mostly explored with a focus on finding a flat. All the walking, figuring out transit, etc. has stretched the family’s energy. By the time we need food, dining out or searching for cool places has been out of the question. As we settle in more, expect more Eating in Barcelona reports!