Exploring England: Southern Lake District

I was 15 the first time I visited England. Every year, my high school takes the upcoming senior class on a European trip. The itinerary for our trip was: London, Paris, and Barcelona. We spent a few days in London, took the Chunnel to Paris, saw Paris and Versailles, and finished in Barcelona. 

My first trip to Europe was great. Since then, I’ve obviously covered a lot more ground. While living two years in Madrid, I took advantage of budget airlines, Euro Rail train passes, and one Mediterranean cruise to see a bit of the European continent. To date, I have visited the following European countries:
Czech Republic
Gibraltar (they actually stamp your passport!)
Morocco (in Africa, I know. But I include it here because I visited during my residence in Spain.)
Spain, including the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands
United Kingdom (England and Scotland)
Since moving to northern England, I’ve been able to explore more of the surrounding areas. Most American tourists don’t get the chance to see much more of the UK than London, Edinburgh, and perhaps Cambridge or Oxford. I feel like living here and seeing the smaller towns gives us a more authentic feel of British life.
Just 30 minutes up the road from our town is the famous Lake District National Park. One of England’s oldest National Parks, the Lake District sees some 15 million visitors per year. The hundreds of parkland includes ample lakeside trails, mountains, fells, and valleys for biking, hiking, or casual strolling. Sprinkled throughout the park are quaint, charming cities with lots of character. 

Map of Lake District National Park
The first time I visited the Lake District was one chilly October morning to go biking with my husband. We started in the southern Lakes, by Bowness-on-Windermere. We rode north along the lake to Ambleside. It’s amazing just how green and lush the English countryside is. Probably due to the high amounts of rain they receive. 
We biked north to Bowness and Lake Windermere.
Windermere and neighboring town Bowness-on-Windermere reminded me of little ski towns. They were compact, with cute coffee shops and outdoor athletic wear stores. There are ample options of B&B’s and elegant lakeside hotels for all the visiting families. You can also take a ferry from Bowness-on-Windermere to the northern end of the lake. I bet that’s a favorite for summer.

Views of Lake Windermere from our ride.
Mental note: research this cute B&B to return.
On the way to Ambleside.
At Ambleside, we tried our first full English breakfast. Having biked all morning, we were quite hungry and, at the time, eating a heavy farm-boy breakfast seemed like a good idea. English breakfast is delicious when you are eating it. Fried eggs, sausages, bacon, toast, sometimes black pudding (sometimes not if you’re American and have an aversion to eating blood), a stewed tomato, and beans make up this “fry-up”. The English breakfast does satisfy a starving adult, however you are left to deal with the bad conscience of just how much grease you consumed at one sitting. We were so full, I’m not even sure we ate dinner that night. 
Dockside at Ambleside.
Can you handle this? This was the “vegetarian” version. Still enormous.
Here’s a pic of a quintessential English Breakfast for anyone who hasn’t experienced it, complete with blood sausage (those black medallions) 
All that being said, definitely check out the towns of Windermere, Bowness-on-Windermere, and Ambleside if you are exploring the southern Lakes. Take the English breakfast at your own risk, or opt for a nice icecream instead. (What? I’m assuming if you’re in the Lakes you’re on vacation anyway!) Rent a bike and go exploring. Don’t forget gloves if you’re going in the fall, winter, or spring! 

Tres Reyes

The final holiday event in Spain is January 6, or Three Kings’ Day. Three Kings’ Day represents the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. It’s also known as Epiphany in other parts of the world.
On this day, Los Tres Reyes Magos bring children presents, just like they brought to Baby Jesus. I actually like this tradition a lot. It’s more symbolic to the Biblical story of gift-giving than our Santa (although I still support him too!). All the children of Spain wake up to see what gifts the Kings have left them in their shoes. My little niece didn’t like the idea of strangers coming into their house at night, so she asked my sister-in-law if the Kings could leave the gifts at the doorstep.

Usually, each town will host a Three Kings parade and throw out candy to the children. The parade in Madrid is the biggest, and competition for candy is fierce. Several veteran candy catchers bring umbrellas turned upside down to catch the candy as it showers down.

In my husband’s family’s town in northern Spain, the Three Kings also make an appearance in the town square and pass out little toys to children. So back we went to the square to see the Kings. The crowd was even bigger this time than when Santa was visiting. Later that night we caught candy and waved at the Kings and their entourage of characters during the parade.

Meeting Los Reyes Magos.

Three Kings Parade
And Spongebob?? Don’t remember him in the journey to Bethlehem.

Finally, you must eat a roscón de reyes on January 6. Similar to a King’s Cake, the roscón is a baked, bready cake with sugar and candied fruit on top. Hidden inside the cake is a small porcelain baby Jesus or Wise Man. There is also a dried bean hidden. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby or the Wise Man, gets to be the king of the party- a paper crown is included with the roscón! Whoever gets the bean has to buy the cake the next year. I got lucky this year and found the figurine!

Queen of the party! 

New Year’s Eve: Grapes and Good Luck

Many Americans have a love/hate relationship with New Year’s Eve. There is so much pressure to do something “awesome” to celebrate the new year that people spend too much time stressing about it. In Spain, there is a pretty set celebration itinerary that is repeated year in and year out.

To start off New Year’s Eve, young people usually eat dinner at home with their families. At midnight, everyone in the nation turns on their TVs to watch the clock strike the new year broadcasted from the heart of Spain, Madrid’s Plaza del Sol. For each of the 12 chimes of the clock, Spaniards eat a grape for luck. Legend has it, if you fail to eat all 12 grapes before the clock strikes midnight, you will have bad luck in the new year. This tradition of grape eating is so serious that residents of Madrid gather the night before to do a practice run on December 30th! A small disaster occurred this year on a local Spanish channel. By mistake, the broadcasters cut to commercials during the midnight hour. When they finally returned the coverage, several chimes had been missed. Having no warning the clock was striking midnight, the viewers were caught totally off guard. Some began popping all the grapes at once, hoping to catch up. Others just sat is bewilderment, not grasping the fact that the TV programmers had bungled it and caused the misfortune of a whole Spanish town. Pobrecitos.

To see the bungled New Year’s Eve broadcasting and a compilation of people’s reactions, click below:

After (hopefully) putting away the grapes and gaining a year’s worth of luck, the Spanish youth put on their fancy outfits and meet with their friends around 2:00 or 3:00 AM. A few hours are passed with friends at a house party until it’s socially acceptable to hit the discotecas around 5:00 or 6:00 AM. The whole night ends when the discotecas clear out and partiers head to the local cafes for churros and chocolate.

My first Galician New Year’s Eve was pretty spot on. The frigid temperatures did not put a damper on the festivities. Living up to expectations, my husband and I made it home at 9:00 AM. (Yes, 9:00 AM!)

Eating our grapes out of conch shells seemed appropriate in coastal northern Spain. 
Churros and chocolate at 8:00 AM. Hashtag Success.

Christmas with the In-Laws

Like most couples, we have to divide up holidays for visiting family. However in our case, the situation is slightly more complicated as we have family living on different continents.

Last year, my husband (then boyfriend) came to the U.S. to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve with my family. It was the first time he missed Christmas at home. This year it was our turn to go to Spain for Christmas. I had spent already one Christmas in Spain, my first year in Madrid, but my parents and brother had been there to visit. We had Christmas in Madrid and then went skiing in the Alps in northern Spain (the highlight of my brother’s trip). We concluded the trip in Barcelona.

The Christmas season in Spain is great, but it’s hard to beat your own family traditions. We decorate the house with lights, we listen to Christmas music all month long, we host neighborhood parties, we bake a ton of cookies… These are the kinds of things that make you nostalgic when living abroad.

I didn’t really know what to expect about Christmas with my husband’s family. Traditionally, Christmas is not as big as a celebration in Spain as the Three Kings’ Day (January 6), or Epiphany as English speakers know it. Plus, New Year’s Eve has a reputation for being one the biggest party nights in Spain, which is really saying something because the average weekend can see partiers until 6:00 or 7:00 AM.  One thing’s for sure: there would be no tacky Christmas sweater parties. Spaniards in general don’t have a lot of costume parties nor do they understand the reasoning behind willingly making yourself look silly. If you’re going to put so much effort into an outfit, shouldn’t it be stylish?

We arrived a few days before Christmas and I was happy to see the “Boas Festas” (Galician for Merry Christmas) lights around my husband’s hometown. On Christmas Eve, the town council organized a visit from Santa, or Papa Noel. Among older generations, Papa Noel was not celebrated, but, like Halloween, this is an American custom that is slowly being adapted into popular culture in Spain. Some lucky children might get a small present from Papa Noel and from the Three Kings on January 6!

The town welcomed Papa Noel in the city hall and children and their families lined up to meet him. One by one the children came to sit on Papa Noel’s lap as I did as a child. My husband’s wife has two young girls and they were excited for their chance to reach the front of the line. Apparently a few years ago, when the city had more resources for holiday budgeting, Papa Noel arrived by helicopter drop. This must have been quite a sight.

Santa!! I know him!!

The big family meal is on Christmas Eve. In the coastal region of Galicia where my husband is from, seafood is the traditional dinner. Much to the dismay of my in-laws, I am not a big seafood eater. Each time I visit, I try to be a little more adventurous about tasting new things they prepare. This Christmas Eve dinner began with shrimp and stuffed clams, leading up to the main dish of baked bream. The bream is cooked many hours in a sauce of potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. The fish is cooked whole: tail, head, and everything. No room for wimps at this dinner.

Seafood Christmas was definitely a first for me. I can’t say I’m a converted fan, but I did eat enough to satisfy my Spanish family. Give it a few more years and maybe I’ll be embracing my coastal side like a pro. My favorite part of the meal was the free-for-all turrón fest. Turrón is a Spanish sweet only served during the Christmas holidays. Traditional turrón resembles an almond brittle; a hard consistency with nuts, honey, and sugar. The more modern kinds also include chocolate or krispies. We purchased all kinds of turrón to last us until the end of the Christmas holidays on January 6. If turrón is something you like, you have to buy it before January 7 because they stop stocking the stores immediately after the Three Kings.

The size of these shrimp!
Contemplating the besugo (bream).