January 28, 2018

Taking a Toddler to Spain

Doing anything with a 3-year-old has its ups and downs. They always want something, but they bring new light and laughter to every situation. Getting the grumps in public (or worse, on an airplane) is a constant looming threat, but they break the ice with strangers in a foreign country.

Despite the valleys of the rollercoaster ride, I'd always rather have Babs with us. And with some forethought and planning, you can mitigate the valleys into gentle curves.

In November, Mr. Go and I toted Babs on a 2-week trip through France and Spain.

Be real with them. Set the expectation that this travel might be tough but it's going to be SO MUCH FUN when we get there (but only if they're good!). 

There can hardly be a more stressful travel event than taking a young child on a long airplane ride. The plane from Toronto, Canada to Reykjavic Iceland was Babs' very first. We opted to drive from Michigan to Toronto and take WOW Airlines, a budget line we were unfamiliar with.

Or whatever country you're from, obviously. Otherwise, depending on your credit card, you may be hit with a foreign transaction fee.

We were worried about a myriad of things so we got to the airport many hours early, which left us to entertain Babs and wear ourselves out before even boarding the first leg of our journey... But! She made friends with everyone in a 20 foot radius. Try to balance arriving at the airport early enough but not TOO early.

Airport food is overpriced and so are the snacks on a budget airline (you must pre-order if you want an actual meal). Bring snacks from home for the journey to your destination, then go to a grocery store.

The 5-ish hour flight boarded at 6pm, so all of us were able to sleep to some extent. In Reykjavic, the airport is dinky. They like to stamp your passport and they have checkpoints between different areas of the terminal. On the way back we had to go from our incoming C gate to our outgoing D gate and had to go through a passport stamp terminal and had a real tight connection. Keep that in mind.

Also, there are no water fountains. If you want to fill up your water bottle (AND YOU SHOULD) you have to use the bathroom sinks. It's fine, everyone's doing it.

Once you find your gate at Keflavik airport, stay close. As our boarding time approached everyone stood up and started forming a line. The board changed from Waiting to Boarding without so much fanfare as an announcement, and boarding began. No one spoke a word to us. If you are not at your gate, you will not hear a boarding announcement.

We arrived in Paris at 11 a.m. We were all able to sleep on both planes on and off, so we weren't completely wrecked. It was a grey day in Paris and we took the RER B train from the Charles de Gaulle airport into Paris at the Chatelet Les Halles station.

The train system is really great in Paris. Going across as many zones as we did from the airport was almost 10 Euro for each adult (children are free but I never was clear as to the age cutoff), but if you're not going far it's more like 2 euro per ride.

We walked from the station right through downtown Paris, by the Louvre on a Saturday morning. It was terrible. The streets were packed with tourists. It was like New York City, just with older architecture.

We stopped for lunch at Mimosa and screwed up our very first foreign order. I just wanted an enormous coffee and the waiter brought two tiny cups of what I would come to realize are cafe solos, basically a shot of espresso, aka manna from heaven.

We walked a bit further, but were carrying all our luggage and got real tuckered out, so we stopped for another espresso and some desserts, then hopped in a taxi at a convenient Taxi Pickup Spot.

We had pre-booked tickets on a bus going to Beauvais airport and arrived at the station 1.5 hours early for the bus. It was raining so we hung out under their canopy. Babs fell asleep in Mr. Go's arms and we definitely looked like dirty American dirtbags at this point.

Babs fell asleep again on the bus (she loves napping in moving vehicles) before our adventure in the Beauvais airport, easily the worst of Paris' three airports. The tiny terminals are more like warehouses. You walk out onto the tarmac to board the plane.

Our flight to Alicante was short and we arrived just after midnight. I had booked us a room at Hostel Pensimar and we took a quick taxi there. Between the front desk man's passable English and my passable Spanish from a fatigued brain, we were checked in. Zack bought dos cervezas from our Spanish friend and we finally got our first real rest. It was almost 2 am by the time we got settled, yet we did not feel as tired as we should have, since it was only about 9 pm home time.

They served some food in the hostel cafeteria so we ate and chatted with the morning front desk lady, who gave us directions on how to take a bus to Alicante proper, then hop on a train that would take us to Calpe, our main destination. But she gave us the weekday bus schedule and it was a Sunday, so we waited an hour at the bus stop before figuring this out. So we had some lunch at a nearby restaurant, where our waitress spoke no English. We did a lot of miming and pointing. This is also where I realized liver is a regular thing on menus.

At the train station we were early for the train so we had a quick beer then got on the light rail. Babs napped again (glory glory hallelujah). She was such a champ about napping on the go. Also she was exhausted.

We walked from the station in Calpe to our villa we had rented with 4 friends. Babs was reunited with her dear friend C, whom she'd met on our Mexican adventure.

In Calpe we rock climbed, went to the beach and ate some fantastic food. Hands down the best paella (and indeed the best food of the trip) was at L'Era in Parcent, a tiny town 30 minutes or so from Calpe.

Calpe is obviously a tourist town and not many of the places were open in the off season. But the winding streets and dense, high-walled downtown with its terraced apartments above shops and restaurants was all I wanted from Spain.

One day Mr. Go and I walked with Babs to downtown and had a drink at a cafe and it was so chill and beautiful I wanted to do it every day.

But one week in Calpe was over, and we took an ill-advised bus 3 hours north to Valencia, the third largest city in Spain. The bus was hot and whipped around the tiny roundabouts that were made for golf-cart sized eurocars, not greyhound-sized buses. There's certainly no bathroom, either. We should have taken a bus back to Alicante, where the main train station is, and the nice smooth light rail would have taken us to Valencia but c'est la vie.


We are not big city people. After a week in sleepy Calpe, Valencia was a bustling metropolis. But we found, after a LOT of walking (11 miles in one day), the charming, narrow cobblestone streets and high-walled terraced apartments in central Valencia. The architecture is beautiful, especially the churches.

We visited the Valencia Cathedral, purported to hold the Holy Grail. Unless you're a religious buff it's not worth the 7 euros to tour, though in the museum you can go down the stairs to the old graveyard under the church and see some old bones. Make sure you climb the 207 steps up the bell tower (another 2 euro but the view of the city from the top is amazing).

There's a cool park called Gulliver Park (Parc Gulliver) where there's a sculpture of Gulliver from Gulliver's Travels lying on the ground. He's got slides and cool stuff built into him. It's neat.

The old riverbed was turned into a big long park you can walk through, with intermittent playgrounds, that takes you by the cool modernist buildings. There's also an aquarium down there.

During our walking tour one evening we discovered a strip of Chinese grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants so we returned the next night for Chinese dinner.

That was one important thing to us on this trip: to never have expectations. We figured out the night before one (1) thing we wanted to do the next day. Only ONE. And we'd try to do it. But if we didn't get to it we would not be upset. All we wanted to do was see these places, eat the food, see how these people lived and take it slow.

TIP: Pack Your Daypack For Success 
You do not want to be unprepared then have to go find a pharmacy and buy something overpriced that you're not going to be able to bring back to the states with you, ESPECIALLY when you already have a bottle at the apartment but you forgot to pack it. Ask me how I know. 
Tons of snacks
Charging devices
Extra kid's clothes

After lots of eating great food and drinking wicked cheap wine, we took a train to the airport and jetted over to Paris for another two nights of fun. Our Airbnb was very close to the Louvre, which we never entered, though we did walk through the courtyard.

Paris is far larger than Valencia, more like New York City size, and the Go family feels no need to return to the city. It is beautiful, undoubtedly, but quite expensive and very busy. On our walking tour we discovered many beautiful parks, such as the St. Jacques Square, which houses a beautiful tower and some small playground equipment. These made great stops for Babs to get off Dad's shoulders and burn up some energy.

On a recommendation we had a fancy dinner at La Poule au Pot (Chicken in a Pot). The atmosphere is lovely but the food was underwhelming, except for the amazing creme broulee. After coming from Spain, where everything is hella cheap, I nearly passed out at the price of everything. But we'd had similarly priced dinners in Denver, it truly wasn't all that outrageous. I was just used to 1 euro bottles of Spanish wine and enormous 3-course 12 euro dinners.

Our Airbnb in Paris was right above a grocery store so we bought cheese and crackers and wine and had several meals in our apartment. We had some rainy days and we were tired of going out to eat so it suited us perfectly. Honestly, going to the grocery store in a foreign country is enough of an adventure sometimes. We even did Thanksgiving dinner from the grocery store. A pre-cooked chicken, a wheel of cheese and some wine. Making memories.

Traveling back was a little tough; we were tired and just wanted to get home. It wasn't a nighttime flight though our bodies said it should be and we were more thrown off than on the journey there.

TIP: To Combat Jet Lag Drink A Ton of Water

Also, going through customs in Canada is terrible. You wait in an enormous line to use one of the customs machines that scan your passport and take your picture, THEN go to an actual customs agent who looks at your passports AGAIN. Don't expect that to be a quick process, although perhaps we just hit the post-Thanksgiving traffic or something.

We drove for an hour then got a hotel room. It was 5pm but we went to bed because it was actually like 11pm for our bodies. So naturally we woke up at 3am and had to wake up the front desk lady sleeping in the lobby to ask for some breakfast.

For next time:
Make more stops at parks for the kiddo
We walked around a lot, which was super fun for Mr. Go and I but Babs was riding on shoulders and was less interested in architecture and people-watching. Her favorite part of the trip was probably Parc Gulliver where she could run around and say hola to Spanish kids.

Don't be afraid to talk to people. There's a universal language called miming. Even if you don't know the language, don't be afraid to sound like a dumb foreigner. Just try! It's fun, plus it gives you a human connection to this place you're visiting.

Pro Tip: on Google Fi, SMS messages were free with our plan, data is no more expensive than at home and free on wifi and voice calls were only .20 cents a minute. Our compatriots were all afraid to use their data or send text messages so if we had to take two cars they'd split Mr. Go and I so each car would have a phone to communicate with each other.

This little jaunt was pretty tame, but it has probably changed our lives, as you might argue everything does when we bounce like pinballs off one event, one hardship, one lucky break, in the course of our existence. Because now our feet are wet and we know we love Spain, and we know travelling with a 3-year-old is easy and is only going to be easier next time.