19.03.2013 - 21.03.2013 60 °F
AT&T Around the world
Day 1 – Austin.
A busy start to our crazy trip. I’m up at 6, making sure the last day of our Immersion gets going. Bags packed, car loaded, breakfast done (for the group – my bowl of collards and fruits sits in the front seat of the rented Jetta, in a ‘borrowed’ bowl from the resort, waiting to be eaten while I’m driving home.) Once Rip is thoroughly finished with his presentation, and on to start the graduation ceremony, everyone on our team gets a last hug, and I’m warming up the cold Jetta engine in a hurry, heading back to Austin at about 80mph at 9:36, to catch our 12:50 flight to Chicago. The trip takes 45 min (land-speed record between Marble Falls and downtown ATX), and I pull up at 10:15. Boxes unloaded into the storage shed for Jillian, I get a beautiful run out the door at full speed greeting from Tessa. A great start to the adventure.
The biggest concern of the trip is Walker. Maybe it’s been slowly progressing for a year, but the poor guy’s hips took a major turn for the worse in the last week. The Tuesday before our Immersion started, he and I were in the AM/PM vet at 9:30 at night, getting an x-ray. That he has arthritis is not surprising for a Great Dane, but man I wish he could get better over time. That’s not the way this one works, according to the vet, so the judgment call is to make him take it easy while we’re gone (read – he’ll spend his time on the couch, with little kid stool and rolling chairs blocking his access to the rest of the house, and Grace overseeing his activity level. Grace rocks, and we’re leaving with him in good hands, without the level of concern we had over the last week that we shouldn’t go.) He was in the backyard when I came around the corner with boxes to load into the shed, and was moving quicker that I thought he would be to come see me…big sweet boy dogs.)
We’re off at 10:45, packed into the car, with a big trekking backpack (Traci), a regular yellow backpack (me), and two rolling carry-on bags for everything else. And a BOB stroller, which I’m not convinced is a great idea at this point, but we’ll see. 15 minutes to the airport, car checked in the rental counter, and we’re at the ticket counter. The tickets take a bit of sorting out, as they were re-booked so many damn times that we actually have two sets in the computer, but she’s quick to sort it out, and soon we’re in the Admiral’s Club sitting down in laughable comfort.
So the way it works is this: because we’re flying business class on the whole trip (courtesy of the fact that it was a miniscule 30k more miles to upgrade from coach to business for our round-the-world tickets – will the massive difference in comfort and fun of flying with the rich kids and being able to sleep actually whole lying down on a airplane) – we get to hang out in the first class travel lounges in every airport of the trip. Should be interesting.
The Austin Admiral’s club is nice – relaxed and low key, with four drink tickets and free wine and OJ for momma and Tessa. They call for our flight to Chicago and we’re smiling all the way down to Gate 14.
First class to Chicago on American (business class doesn’t exist on US flights) is boring and easy, on the CR700. Drinks and some food that I’ve already forgotten, and a quick two hour flight, and we’re in Chicago, heading for the Admiral’s Club, and a awesome little kids playroom for Tessa while I try to get off a call for an hour.
We head to Gate K19 for our Iberia flight, and find a mob-scene of Spanish folks already lining up. This is where the VIP seats are so nice – separate line, first on board, and heading for seats 7 A,C and D – back of the business cabin.
A note on Iberia – first of all, all of the reviews on this airline make it sound horrible. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as the flight attendants and pilots had been on strike for a week in late February and the first week of March, protesting the fact that the parent company of the airline (which also owns British Air) was laying off 20% of their workforce, and forcing everyone else to take a pretty big pay cut and loss of vacation days. Not exactly a recipe for a friendly flight crew.
The place was a Airbus 340-600 – a big, super long cool plane.
This one was on the older side, and the cabin looked the part – nice, but worn.
The seats had more room between rows and aisles than any airplane I’d ever seen, though, and Traci thought it was crazy nice. There was nobody else in the entire row (three sets of two seats across), so we had our pick. The flight crew (all men and one woman purser) were friendly but curt – as you might expect a crew of folks who were working for less money with less job security than they would hope for to be. Tessa eyed them with suspicion when they tried to be nice to her though – maybe she sensed their vibe.
Tessa sat next to me in the window seat, and we pointed out all of the different color planes as we taxied to the runway, and then we lumbered down Chicago tarmac and slowly headed up. Curving over the downtown skyline, we headed over Lake Michigan and towards Europe, hoping to get some sleep.
I will say that we ordered gluten free (for momma) and vegetarian (for Tessa and I) meals on all of the flights, and were very curious what Iberia was going to do with this. When the tray came, and there was a simple salad on it, Traci and I looked at each other and laughed. Wow guys. This is it? I was glad I brought a bag full of Lara Bars. We laughed harder when they actually brought out dinner. At least it wasn’t just going to be salad, like we thought. Needless to say, it wasn’t amazing food, but we ate enough to be full, and tried to get Tessa to fall asleep.
The funniest part of the flight were the couple in their mid-fifties sitting in front of me (left side of the plane), who actually GOT UP and moved over to the other side of the plane mid-flight – after the woman kept looking back at Tessa (who wasn’t doing a single thing, or even being loud). They clearly wanted some version of the child-free first class experience. Fair enough. But she gave Traci the evil eye after she moved! Wow! And then the purser went over, spoke to them, looked at us, and laughed. We were both as amused as we were offended. Whatever. Mental note – older, rich Spanish women may be rude.
We got a few hours of sleep (me more than Traci), and Tessa got 3-4 hours, which wasn’t horrible.
We crept in over the Spanish countryside, which was beautiful, and landed at the really very cool Madrid airport. The pictures say it all – just really one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen (by FAR the coolest airport). You know the big ‘mountain range’ look that Denver’s airport has, and how cool that is? This was way cooler. See for yourself.
We waited forever to get the stroller (damn gate checking – I’m already bummed we have it, even if it’s good for pushing Traci’s big backpack), then walked through customs in a breeze. I will say this though – for a beautiful as it is, you walk forever to get through this place. Outside, to the hotel shuttles, and our Hilton airport shuttle literally cruises right up – bueno.
At the hotel, which is actually really nice too, and they let us check in at 9am – very nice. A modern, big courtyard, with really cool architecture, and a very modern, stylish medium size room: just right. We had to the breakfast buffet (41 euros for the two of us – not cheap by any means, but we’re starving.)
A nice breakfast later, and after a extended three hour nap, and we’re in a cab heading for downtown Madrid.
The cabbie takes us to the Prado museum, which is one of Europe’s finest. It’s in a beautiful, central part of Madrid, with classic older European architecture, and next to the exquisite Parque del Buen Retiro (a massive park, with a big lake in the middle of it that people rent rowboats and try to impress their dates in). We walk through it, taking pictures, and Tessa plays on everything.
It’s maybe 60 degrees, sunny, and just a perfect day. We have a bite at a lake-side café (coffee, sparkling water w lemon, green olives to die for, a veggie sandwich that Tessa doesn’t touch, and a bag olive-oil cooked potato chips (how Spanish). It’s just a really nice spot.
We walk around a big statue (Mto. Alfonso XII) dedicated to a Spanish (king? President? We should know this), with big lion statues, and the aforementioned boat rental, and spend an hour taking in the park.
One of the great city parks in the world, no doubt. Tessa is getting tired, so we catch a taxi home (20 min, 20 euros), and try to get to bed (this takes me no time at all, but Traci is up til 2 with Tessa, as someone wants to watch Daniel Tiger videos at 11pm – poor thing isn’t quite on the time-zone yet.)
We sleep til 10:25, and I manage to catch the breakfast buffet before they close. For 25 euros, it better be worth it, so I pile on the food (omelet, salmon, three glasses of fresh OJ, a coffee for Traci upstairs, and toast w honey for Tessa (wrapped in a napkin). They charge me 15 – good start to the day.
We pack, and head back to the Prado, this time to see it for as long as we can before catching our flight to London this afternoon at 4:50.
There are lots of Spanish school kids outside, but inside it’s really not crowded at all – NOTHING like the Louvre was the summer of 2011 when we were last in Europe. With less than two hours, we had a quick bite in the café...
and then headed right for the good stuff – the masters collection of (mostly) great Spanish painters from 1100-1800.
I don’t have enough cliché’s to explain how amazing it was to see some of these paintings. First of all, it was a great time to be there – really not that crowded, with a tour group of teenagers in front of the really famous pieces here and there, but nothing you couldn’t wait two minutes for them to (looking bored) move on with their guide. Some of the paintings were so awe-inspiring that you just stared. I caught myself thinking something along the lines of “so this is what people spent a lifetime perfecting – I can imagine that being a life unequivocally well spent”. As in, if I spent a lifetime making one masterpiece this perfect and extraordinary, I would have no regrets. My favorite painting of the day was a landscape by Joachim Patinir called ‘Crossing the Styx’, which showed a soul’s journey between earth and hell. It was mesmerizing.
They also had a version of the Mona Lisa, painted by one of the Leonardo da Vinci’s understudy’s, which was pretty amazing to see form three feet away. And the floor to ceiling paintings by Raphael were just unreal.
Three times during our time there we came across an artist (clearly with the permission of the museum) set up in front of a masterpiece, easel and all, painting a replica of a painting. One was right in front of Raphael’s ‘The Cardinal’, and was chatting with a guard while making what looked to us like finishing touches. His painting was amazing – about 5% lighter in skin tone than the real thing, but really really really good – an amazing work all by itself. To be able to paint by eye in such a way….. We were both pretty blown away. I wish I took a picture.
Tessa held up for about an hour, and then was – very justifiably – bored by the art (and got us followed by Prado security for the last three rooms we were in for accidentally going on the wrong side of a rope in front of a painting.) So we decided to head for the hotel and the airport to catch our flight to London.
A quick 20 min taxi back to the Hilton, grabbed out bags caught a shuttle, and we were right back at the beautiful Madrid airport. Traci said that if every airport has an architect, then the guy who designed the Austin airport (which I think is one of the nicest in the US) must feel like an idiot if he ever comes to Madrid. Seriously. This is one impressively good looking building.
We had ‘Fast Track’, which is British Airlines version of VIP security treatment, so we sped through the lines, and got to the gate in easy time. A quick 2 hour flight later (with much better vegetarian/gluten free meals – Traci had tofu and some nice fruit), and we touched down in London. Fast Track also helped through customs (a.k.a., the 'Border')...
...and we found the car service I booked right outside holding a sign with our name on it (it’s easier and cheaper than taking a taxi in London, or so I read on-line). 45 minutes later we pulled up in front of the Winston Churchill Hyatt Regency London. Pretty sweet.