Video: The Prehistoric Cave Art Of Cantabria, Spain

One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you can visit lots of historic sites with your kids. This fosters an interest in the past, reduces museum fatigue and is a great way to learn together.

I live in Cantabria, on the north coast of Spain, a region filled with historic sites from Napoleonic forts to preserved Roman towns. Cantabria is most famous for the prehistoric cave art in ten caves that have been given UNESCO World Heritage status. From about 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, people decorated Cantabria’s many caves with pictures of bison, horses and other animals. They often used the natural contours of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional look. In addition to the animals, there are strange patterns of lines and dots. Archaeologists have spent generations arguing over what these mean, but of course we’ll never know for sure.

My son is going on a school trip this week to Cantabria’s most famous cave, Altamira, and he’s looking forward to visiting a place that Dad has never seen. Yes, my 6-year-old is already competing with me for travel stories! And now he’s reminding me that I haven’t been to the Madrid train museum either. OK, kid, you win.

For more on the Paleolithic cave art of Cantabria, check out this video by Turismo Cantabria, which only has 267 views on YouTube. Sounds to me like Turismo Cantabria need to do more marketing. This is a great part of Spain for hikes, beaches and food, and makes a great alternative to the usual tourist circuit.

A Sunday Afternoon Party In Lucca

As we walked down a quiet street in Lucca, a celebrated medieval town in Tuscany, on Sunday afternoon, we heard drums beating in the distance. Like bloodhounds picking up on a pungent odor, we followed the beat, twisting and turning through the city’s narrow, ancient streets as the tribal drumming grew louder and more insistent. Before long, we were sitting in the town’s atmospheric Piazza San Michele watching a group of young musicians in medieval costumes playing trumpets, beating drums and tossing colorful flags across the piazza.

A few minutes into a spectacular free show, the music stopped for a moment and then we heard ominous drumming coming our way. Another band was marching towards the square and their drum rhythm had a military-style beat to it. The second band made its way into the piazza and several members were wearing suits of armor and carrying ancient-looking weapons, including scary-looking daggers and heavy, bows and arrows.


On the road, a traveler’s fortunes can change in a heartbeat. Last Saturday, my wife and I were cooped up in our hotel room, seeking refuge from a persistent rain. We encouraged our children, ages 2 and 4, to watch a movie in order to give us a break but they wanted to wrestle and jump on the beds and were driving us mad in the process. Few people enjoy rainy vacation days but trying to amuse toddlers in a hotel room in inclement weather without the benefit of their normal complement of toys can be a sanity-challenging exercise.Long before I go on a trip, I enter the destinations onto the saved weather page on my iPod. I’m not quite sure why, but I check the forecast for these places obsessively in the weeks before my departure. There’s nothing you can do about the weather but somehow it’s fun to imagine what a place is going to be like before you get there.

Lucca and all the other Italian cities I placed on my iPod have enjoyed mostly sunny weather for several weeks prior to our arrival, so when I noticed a six-day forecast that showed nothing but rain the day before our arrival, I felt aggrieved. I called my mom, who spent the entire month of April in Lucca last year.

“We didn’t have a single day of rain all month,” she crowed, making me feel even worse.

Any time you encounter inclement weather while on vacation, you can be certain that people will assure you that the weather was terrific just before you arrived and that it will surely clear up as soon as you skip town. After our first day in Lucca was a washout and the icons on my iPod looked ominous for the next two days, I had very low expectations for our Sunday in town. I simply hoped the rain would be light and intermittent, rather than heavy and steady.

A Swiss couple we met in our hotel told us that they were planning to cut their trip short due to the brutal forecast, but thankfully, my iPod had it all wrong. The morning started cloudy, but right before noon the sun’s rays broke through the clouds and the warmth and light felt like an embrace from the gods. Shortly thereafter, the serendipitous battle of the bands played out right in front of us and the day just kept getting better.

After the show was over, the bands marched back out of the piazza and I spoke to a few members of the first band. A young woman who served as one of the band’s drummers said that it was Lucca’s “Liberty Day” commemorating a 14th century victory over Pisa, the city’s rival.

“At that time, they were our bosses,” she said. “But we kicked them out.”

Her band represented the district of St. Anne, located just outside the town’s ancient walls. The other band was from San Paolino – inside the town walls. No one could recall the year the battle occurred but it didn’t matter.

“The important thing to remember is that we beat Pisa,” she said.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

Travel Dilemma: Old Favorite Or Someplace New?

I’ve just spent four days in London, where I saw friends and did some work before heading up to Oxford for two weeks. My family and I do this every Easter and summer. It’s good for my kid’s English (we live most of the year in Spain) and my wife and I both have plenty of work to do up here.

While I love these regular trips, there’s always a nagging pressure in the back of my head to travel to someplace new. We could just as easily spend Easter in Tunisia. In fact, it would be cheaper! Then there’s that hike I’m planning in Scotland for September. While I love hiking in Scotland, why not do that hike in Montenegro like I’ve been talking about?

Or I could skip the hike and take a slow boat up the Gambia River, or visit the pyramids of the Sudan. The world is big and my time is finite. Should I really be going back to the same place over and over again?

Gadling’s own Annie Scott came up with ten reasons you must revisit. Her reason #10 is the most important one: “to check in on friends.” We’ve been coming to Oxford and London regularly enough that they aren’t so much trips as they are homecomings. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that for the sake of simply seeing new sights. Even going somewhere a second time, like I did when I revisited Harar last year, allows you to look up old acquaintances and turn them into friends.

Revisiting a familiar place has so many rewards… and yet the rest of the world beckons.

It’s a constant struggle. Some places like Oxford, I won’t let go, since they’re a part of my wife and son’s lives too. Harar I also don’t want to let go, but that’s my own thing and an expensive thing at that. The rest is a delicate balancing act, one that I feel I’m never getting entirely right.

So do you prefer to travel to a new place or an old favorite? Take our poll and share more of your thoughts in the comments section!

Photo courtesy Archibald Ballantine. No, that’s not me with the map.


Is this the year hotels become more autism-friendly?

It isn’t easy traveling with a child with autism. In every piece of literature I’ve read about autism and sensory disorders and in every daily decision I’ve witnessed in my own son, autism is driven by routine. Travel is anything but routine. The fact that so many facets of travel are left up to chance makes many parents of autistic kids, as well as many adults living with autism, uneasy about leaving the comforts of home to explore new cities, countries, or cultures.

Since Gadling first reported on the Clinton Inn Hotel, a property in Tenafly, New Jersey, that re-designed its Alpine Suite to cater to families traveling with autistic children, more hotels are (slowly) starting to reach out to autistic travelers with autism-sensitive accommodations and amenities. The Center for Autism & Related Disorders, or CARD, a Tampa-based clinic, is ushering in many of these changes by working with local hotels to establish a standardized criteria by which accommodations can be deemed “autism-friendly.” In 2010, CARD designated the Wyndham Tampa Westshore as the first autism-friendly hotel in Tampa. Since then, five Tampa-area hotels and resorts, including the Tradewinds Resorts on St. Pete Beach, have earned “autism-friendly” status.

So, what makes a hotel “autism friendly?”The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, in 2011, 1 in 110 children in the United States have Autism Spectrum Disorders. The neurological disease can affect everything from speech to emotional development to fine and gross motor skills. As it is “spectrum disorder,” autism affects every child it touches in different ways. But there are some easy steps that hotels can take to make accommodations more inviting for special needs travelers and more secure for the parents or companions who travel with them. These measures come from my own experience, suggestions on autism forums, and practices already in use at some autism-friendly properties. Many of these tweaks can be implemented easily at modern hotels, else a hotel can retrofit a room or rooms to accommodate guests with autism.

Measures to Make Hotels More “Autism Friendly”

  • Make all lighting adjustable with dimmers to accommodate travelers who have light sensitivities.
  • Provide temperature controls in rooms.
  • Ensure that all guest room doors have locks on the inside. Put alarms on all exit doors.
  • Many children on the autism spectrum are on restricted diets, whether because of food sensitivities (to taste, texture) or because of allergies. Provide mini fridges in guest rooms so that parents can store their own food and drinks.
  • Bolt down some decorations and amenities, such as lamps, televisions, and telephones.
  • Outfit balconies and/or windows with locks and/or keypads for safety. Many children on the autism spectrum have difficulties with spatial recognition, which could reduce their fear while on a balcony or near a window.
  • Avoid using harsh chemicals or cleaning products and provide frill-free decor. The more basic, the better.
  • Provide extra blankets and pillows. The extra weight simulates the feeling of a “hug” for some on the spectrum, and thereby ensures a more secure and restful sleep.
  • Bathtubs in guest bathrooms are preferable to showers.

As part of its “autism-friendly” services, the Wyndham Tampa Westshore provides kids with an overnight toolkit, which explains visually what to expect during a stay at the hotel; visual schedules have been proven very effective – whether at home, in class, or on the road – with autistic children who need to know what their routines will entail. The Wyndham has also enlisted CARD to train its staff to understand autism and how to cater to guests with autism. In addition to those services, the Tradewinds Resorts touts its recreational activities, such as Splash Island Water Park and the bungee trampoline, as highlights of its autism-friendly services.

Speaking as a parent of a five-year-old with autism and as a travel enthusiast, I would love to see more hotels work to attract travelers with special needs. With every 1 in 110 children in America living with autism, the market for autism-friendly hotels is enormous. And given that families touched by autism are bound by tedious daily routines, I foresee thousands of potential travelers in search of accommodations that will simplify the transition from home to hotel.

Do you know about more autism-friendly properties or hotel amenities? Please let us know in the comments below.

Knocked up abroad: applying for a baby’s passport

As my new baby girl was born in a foreign country, getting a passport was a necessity for her to even return home to America. Though Vera was born in Turkey, she’s an American citizen by virtue of her parents’ citizenship and entitled to a US passport. For Americans born outside the country, the US consulate issues a Report of Birth Abroad that acts as an official birth certificate and proof of US citizenship. After a trip to the US to visit family and a vacation in Malta, Vera’s been in three countries before she reached three months of age and is rapidly racking up passport stamps.

As soon as we brought the baby home from the hospital, the first order of business on the road to getting her baby passport was getting her Turkish birth certificate. While not required by the US consulate, it is necessary in order to get her residence permit, required for anyone staying longer in Turkey than the 90-day tourist visa. I learned that I could obtain this at my local registry office with a letter stating that I had given birth at the American Hospital (this is provided in both Turkish and English by the hospital). I set out with my one-week old baby in her stroller, sleeping peacefully, assuming that the office would be a short walk from our apartment given the local address. An hour later, I had walked as far as one of Istanbul’s busy highways, dripping sweat, in tears, and definitely lost. Google Maps is generally a useful tool for many city addresses, but for some parts of Istanbul, you may as well be mapping a jungle. I enlisted the help of some Turkish friends who found a satellite image of the office online and emailed it to me. In true Turkish fashion, the registry office is actually two streets away from the mailing address and no one in the area can give you an exact street number when you are frantically seeking directions.When we finally got to the registry office, I took a number, left my stroller downstairs (in Turkey, you can trust that no one will steal it, but I did take the baby out first) and went in search of the counter for birth certificates. Naturally, Vera chose the moment I was filling out a form to launch into her first meltdown. As I struggled to write down my contact information and covertly feed her, I was ushered behind the counter and installed at a random guy’s desk, with an old Turkish lady practically forcing me to sit down and nurse the baby. Once the baby was content, I returned to the birth certificate lady but was met with a new obstacle in the form of a major language barrier. Fortunately, another man waiting at the registry office was able to translate for me – I would need to come back with all of our passports, residence permits, and marriage certificate from the US. The next day I returned armed with every possible bit of documentation and while every woman in the office gathered around Vera, exclaiming over her cuteness and wondering why the crazy foreigner was taking her baby out in public so early, I provided information for the birth certificate. I needed more translation help, as you are asked questions about your education level and religion (Islam is the default in Turkey, so many non-religious Turks are still considered Muslim even if they are non-practicing), which I couldn’t answer in Turkish but there is generally always someone around who can speak English. A few more rubber stamps and Maşallahs and I had her birth certificate.

Next step was a passport photo, a seemingly easy task that is particularly challenging the younger the baby you have. The US State Department requires that the baby look at the camera with eyes open, and that the photo be taken with a white background and nothing in the photo such as your hand or a baby seat. Newborns tend to sleep a lot and their vision is quite hazy, so getting them to be alert and somewhat focused on something is easier said than done. While some parents might opt to take the photo themselves, I decided to go to a professional rather than try to mess with the correct measurements and angles myself. One afternoon when Vera was barely two weeks old, I waited until she seemed awake and took her down the street in her carrier. The five-minute walk immediately put her back to sleep, so the photographer and I tried everything we could think of to wake her and get her attention. Somehow a half hour of tickling and a Turkish man yelling “kız bebek!” (baby girl) only made her sleep more deeply. Finally, we managed to get the photo you see above, which will remain her passport photo and primary means of identification until she’s five years old. Though some online information led me to believe they may not accept the picture due to her open mouth, the US consulate approved it for use.

Passport photo in hand at last, we made an appointment with the US consulate to apply for her US passport and Report of Birth Abroad, which will serve as her official birth certificate. The paperwork for this report turned out to be slightly more complex than anticipated, as it requires precise dates of presence both in the United States and abroad for each parent. If you keep good records, this could be simple and straightforward. As I’ve traveled frequently for the past decade and have been living in Istanbul for over a year, this took a lot of time to estimate using passport stamps, old travel confirmations in my email, photo date stamps, and anything else that could give me an idea of dates I spent outside of America. You are also required to provide documentation of the parents’ citizenship (my husband is Russian-born, so we needed the approximate date and place of naturalization), marriage (if applicable, it’s a whole other can of worms if the parents are not married), and dissolution of any previous marriages, which can result in some frantic emails to friends back home and calls to US registry offices if you don’t travel with all your paperwork.

The US consulate in Istanbul is far from the city center (you can take Metro to İTÜ Ayazağa and then a quick taxi ride) and resembles a fortress on a hill, with American-style maximum security. Most places in Istanbul with metal detectors, including the entrance to the airport, allowed me to skip security while pregnant (I got a cursory pat down at the airport) and often with the baby, and often ignore metal objects that cause the detectors to beep. At the consulate, I forgot to remove my camera from my purse and was yelled at when I attempted to remove it myself (“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!”). After clearing security, we waited in the US Citizen’s Services room to present the baby and our paperwork. There was another couple waiting with their month-old baby which turned out to be their sixth child, and they were fairly blasé about the fact that they had come from Iraq to have the baby in Istanbul (we guessed military family) and planned to return home to the US only two weeks after applying for the passport. Presenting our own paperwork turned out to be easier than expected, as they only needed to see that we had in fact lived in the US before, but it’s a good idea to have all of your travel dates on hand in case you are questioned. Finally, we paid our $205 for the report and passport, and had them both delivered to our home one week later (compare that to the weeks it usually takes to get a passport at home!).

We planned our first trip out of Turkey for when Vera would be six weeks old, which was just enough time to get all of our paperwork in order and feel competent enough as parents to travel. She will receive her Turkish residency next month after she is four months old. When we went through passport control leaving Istanbul, there was some confusion as she had no visa or residence permit and we were prepared to pay a fee to leave the country, but we were eventually allowed to pass through free and only purchase a tourist visa when we re-entered Turkey that will cover her until her residency is established. Now the adventure would really begin: actually traveling with a baby.

Stay tuned for tips on traveling with a baby and destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.