Category Archives: Travels

I like to go places.

A perfect Barcelona itinerary

 

If you’re planning to visit Barcelona, I’d like to offer a tested, enjoyed, and real-life itinerary for a perfect visit. ¬†How do I know? I just got home! ūüėČ

Tip #1:  Take your time

We spent 8 days in the city, arriving on a Monday (midday) and leaving the following Monday afternoon. ¬†Barcelona was our home base, and aside from a few day trips, we didn’t try to travel beyond the borders of Catalonia.

Why?  Barcelona is a city best absorbed slowly, one sip at a time, one sunset at a time.

We’ve traveled through Europe several times, usually cramming in everything we can, moving from city to city every few days. It’s exciting but also exhausting. This time, we set aside that little twang of FOMO pain (“But we’re so close to Madrid!”) and agreed that we would stay put. ¬†The result? A fantastic, interesting, restful vacation that brought us home with great memories instead of exhaustion.

Tip #2: Get to the locals

With AirBnB and other companies offering excursions and adventures, there’s no reason not to get out there beyond the museums and cafes to experience local culture. ¬†A few of our highlights:

  • Sailing the Mediterranean Sea at sunset — AirBnB Experience led by a fantastic sailor on his gorgeous sailboat (link). The evening concluded with tapas and wine at the marina where we chatted with our new-found friends.
  • ¬†Making paella with a local in Sitges – AirBnB Experience. ¬†Not only did we get to eat delicious paella, the ingredients were as fresh as that morning’s catch, we enjoyed visiting the local market (so much fish!), and we learned a lot about local culture from our host chef Rosa. ¬†She took us on a mini tour of Sitges as well, a lovely beach town a short train ride down the coast. Once we were done with lunch, we were free to roam the city and enjoy the beach.

Making gazpacho and paella with Rosa in Sitges! @airbnb

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Tip #3: Don’t overdo it

We developed a rule back when we took students on field trips to big cities or overseas: one museum a day, and two “big things” a day, max. ¬†It’s just as true for adults as teens: you need downtime to really soak in what you just saw.

It’s tempting to cram as much as you can into every day, because “you only live once!” and “sleep when you’re dead.” ¬†But you’ll get much more out of the experience if you select just a few museums, parks, cathedrals and the like to fill your days.

Tip #4: Embrace the snack culture of Barcelona

I loved Barcelona for many reasons, but topping my list is their ability to spread little snacks throughout the day. It makes touring much more fun:  finish up an activity, then beeline for the nearest cafe for an inexpensive yet tasty cafe con leche and pastry or a bit of jamon.  Retreat to a museum during the heat of the day, then find some churros and chocolate.  Kick off the late afternoon with some vermouth and patatas bravas.

Barcelonans seem to snack their way through the day yet without overloading their calorie budget at any one point. It was a great way to experience many tastes and views around the city.

Our Itinerary

Day 1: Depart on international flight

Day 2: Land in Barcelona.  Check into AirBnB and get settled and refreshed.  Tour Park Guell. Visit local grocery store for basic supplies: yogurt and cereal for breakfasts, fresh fruit for snacks, and wine, jamon, cheese, bread etc for suppers at the apartment.

Pro tip: stay up on your feet until local bedtime to get over jet lag faster. It’s brutal but worth it in the end.¬†

Day 3: Day trip to Sitges. AirBnB Experience: Paella in Sitges (8am-2pm). Went with our host Rosa to the market to buy fresh fish and seafood for the paella and vegetables for gazpacho. Cooked and ate like royalty!   Beach day in Sitges; light snack before taking the train home. Supper at the apartment.

Pro tip: The train system in Europe will take you nearly anywhere you want to go, but it can get expensive. Our tickets to Sitges were only 3 or 4 Euros after the station attendant explained we could buy a pack of 10 rides for a reduced rate. ¬†We were traveling with someone fluent in Spanish, but if that hadn’t been the case, I would have done more research before arriving at the station. Don’t expect to find English speakers working the windows.¬†

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Day 4:  After a brief ramble down Las Ramblas looking for coffee, we did Montjuic Fort (in the morning) and Gardens (afternoon). Leisurely breaks throughout the day including coffee and lunch at the Juan Miro Foundation. Lovely cable car ride up the mountain and back.  Sailing the Mediterranean and Sunset Tapas: AirBnB Experience. Supper at a restaurant on the shore.

Pro tip: ¬†Learn to use public transportation! We did a few taxi rides the first day or so until we got our bearings, but the metro stop was a short walk from the apartment and we used the bus system several times. With Google Maps on your phone and international data (or a local SIM Card), you can get anywhere you need to go without having to plan everything down to the detail. It’s great! Such a change from our trips to Europe just a decade ago! ¬†

We also traveled with a laptop and the house had free WiFi, so we spent a few minutes each evening researching the next day’s adventures.¬†

Day 5: Day trip to Girona. Rented a car and drove to Girona. Stopped off in Blanes (one of the Costa Brava towns) along the way to visit a friend and have lunch there – crepes at a seaside shop. (Needed a break from ham sandwiches.) Toured Girona (site of Game of Thrones filming – Circi’s “walk of shame”) with views of the cathedral, the old city, and the city walls. ¬† Toured the Museum of Cinema there, which was an absolute delight. ¬†Drive home. Supper in the apartment.

The medieval church of Girona, famous for its backdrop in several Game of Thrones scenes

One of our group decided to spend the day on her own, and visited a Gaudi museum and did some city walking and exploring. We enjoyed swapping stories about our divergent experiences that evening.

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Day 6: ¬†¬†Sleep in! ¬†It was Friday, and we were all pretty tired, so we enjoyed a very leisurely morning at the apartment. Lunch at Tasso, a great little lunch and tapas place near La Sagrada Familia. Back to Montjuic.¬†After an unsuccessful attempt to see the cathedral without having purchased tickets in advance, we changed our plans…. ¬†In the afternoon we all went to the National Museum of Art, and walked down the Montjuic paths to a local Churro shop for our first real taste of churros and chocolate – magical! ¬†That churro shop was well off the beaten track, and the owner poured us some of the biggest drinks (whiskey, scotch, gin & tonic) I’ve ever seen for an incredibly affordable price.¬†

Day 7:  Half of us toured the Gardens and Olympic Stadium and Plaza in the morning while the other half caught up on sleep.  The Olympic area is well worth your time!

Pro tip: We use AirBnB for travel lodging ¬†because you can’t beat having a whole apartment or house as a retreat when you’re genuinely tired. There’s little that a hotel could offer that we didn’t have at our AirBnB (aside from a pool, but we were in a coastal city), and much that an apartment can provide which far outshines any hotel I could ever afford.

Awake, we went out to a little cafe for lunch then gaped at the awe-inspiring beauty of La Sagrada Familia. Get tickets online in advance! Plan to spend a while at the cathedral just soaking up the beauty.

La Sagrada Familia cathedral

Off to the Gothic Quarter for shots of vermouth and a late afternoon snack. The vermouth was a house blend and it was just fantastic. Wish we had done that earlier in the week. ¬†We shopped a bit too and enjoyed wandering the Gothic Quarter for its architectural interest and quirky little side streets – definitely recommend! ¬†Later in our trip, we found the best souvenir shopping here. ¬†Wrapped up the day by seeing the Maritime Museum –¬†I’d give it 3/5 stars.

Day 8: Leisurely brunch at a lovely little shop lear Plaza Catalunya off Las Ramblas.  Strolling!  Finally back out for a delicious final evening meal in Barcelona at a Basque place  recommended by a friend of a friend, and more wandering in the Gothic Quarter and down by the Port.

Rejected: Mount Tibidabo. We could see it from our apartment, but after researching the fees to ride up the mountain for the views, and the insane price to get in to ride the ferris wheel, we decided to use our day in other ways.

Day 9: Shopping and departure! ¬†We don’t recommend leaving shopping for the final day of a trip, but that’s how it ended up for us. Thankfully, we found some neat souvenirs in the Gothic Quarter, and hauled everything back to the apartment for final packing and taxi ride to the airport.

Pro Tip: We should have checked into whether shops would be closed on Sunday.  They were.  Everything was closed except restaurants.  Really put a wrinkle in our shopping plans.

Final Thoughts

Barcelona was a delightful city for a one-week stay.  It felt more like becoming friends rather than rampaging through the city.

This was the itinerary that worked for us. ¬†It didn’t include as much wine as we’d expected; we found that tapas and jamon got tiring after a few days too. ¬†But coffee breaks were a consistent source of happiness, and we had no trouble finding beautiful places to explore.

In retrospect, I’m very thankful we booked the AirBnb Experiences for paella and sailing, because those gave us such a rich exposure to people and places we would have missed otherwise.

I’m also thrilled that we took the time and trouble to rent a car and drive to Girona. It’s a beautiful medieval city, and the Cinema Museum was one of the neatest collections I’ve ever seen – for just 5 Euros!

My only disappointment was that we had trouble finding good souvenirs. Many of the “tourist junk shops” were owned by people with zero connection to the city, and the merchandise there was worse than usual. Hucksters were swarming us at most¬†popular sites, but their wares were subpar and derivative. Ugh. ¬†¬†Museum shops didn’t really offer a great selection of merchandise worth taking home for the price they were charging.

We’re used to European cities having a signature product that makes a perfect gift. Barcelona offered many wonderful experiences, but little to take home. ¬†Las Ramblas and the shopping districts are fun, but I don’t think of Gucci or Prada or Zara as places to buy souvenirs, just as I don’t shop Fifth Avenue when I visit New York. ¬†We did buy some vermouth (Yzagerre, if I remember the brand correctly) at a grocery store and some chocolate and saffron. I found a neat t-shirt at a local shop in the Gothic quarter along with a few other real gems in that area. ¬†If you’re headed to Barcelona, start looking for your take-home gifts early and often.

But if that’s the worst I can say, it was a great trip! ūüėČ

We’re lucky to have a couple friends whose travel style matches ours. Go find yourself a few people who will be your adventurers, and good luck on the Path!¬†

I’ll upload the best of our photos as soon as I get them sorted and edited.

Concert Review: Gentlemen of the Road, St Augustine

Man, THAT was a music festival.

I always come out of epic experiences thinking, Gee willikers! This will make an amazing blog post! Then I get home and life eats me up and that’s the end of my verbal aspirations.

So before the evening gets away from me completely and I turn into a pumpkin (it’s a work night, after all), let me run down the basics for ya:

Gentlemen of the Road
St Augustine, FL
September 13-14

Bottom line:¬† GOTR was a wonderful outdoor way to enjoy Mumford & Sons and their hand-picked lineup of bands in the lovely town of St Augustine. Why does it work? Mumford puts their stamp of approval on the town, the events, the bands, the experience. If you find them awesome, you’ll probably enjoy GOTR. And it really was that good.

Bands I liked on Friday:  Willy Mason (kinda bluesy rock), Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes (holy crap what an amazing set I had no idea they would be that fantastic and fun!)

Bands I liked on Saturday: ¬†Bear’s Den (though I missed their set, I loved what I heard of them on the GOTR web site via links, and I’ll definitely check them out live when I can), Half Moon Run (what a lush guitar sound!), ¬†John Fogerty (what?! YES! amazing), Mumford & Sons (duh). And JOHN FOGERTY!!!

Great fan-made overview of the weekend — wow. Thorough.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The whole story:  Just what is GOTR?

Basically, Mumford & Sons like to tool around the country setting up the coolest music festival ever in a select list of small “quintessential” American towns. ¬†Not that Brits would necessarily know a quintessential American town, and St Augustine isn’t exactly small. But still, it’s a cool idea. They hand pick the bands and work hard to make sure all the experiences of the weekend are locally owned or produced…. or at least curated. Two days, a bunch of bands, tons of local food & music & art to enjoy, and happy people wearing mustaches.

A window of Mumford song lyrics and obligatory mustache in downtown St Augustine
A window of Mumford song lyrics and obligatory mustache in downtown St Augustine

When did mustaches become THE THING? ¬†I digress…

So let me just sum it all up with a top-7 list (or whatever) – I’ll quit when I run out or fall asleep.

1. Awesome: ¬†St Augustine. ¬†What a great town! ¬†25,000 people fell in on top of them and they didn’t whine, break down, throw objects, scream and yell, or even act inconvenienced. ¬†They worked hard to make the festival run smoothly for all the visitors, and I’d rank them high in the “friendly” and “helpful” categories. Plus the beaches are amazing, the weather was lovely, and we enjoyed amazing food.

2. Awesome.  fun. dropped out.  How is that a good thing?

Because John Fogerty, of Credence Clearwater Revival, stepped up to fill in. Got on a jet plane Friday night, flew to FL with his instrumentally-skilled two sons, and got down to work teaching his “backup band” the music for that night’s absolutely, ridiculously incredible set. ¬†Unbelievable.

Video of Mumford & Songs and the Vaccines playing behind Fogerty and his sons

3. Awesome: ¬†Mumford & Sons set on Saturday night. ¬†Though boozy and tired from the day’s work in preparing to back John Fogerty and all the stress that probably prompted a lot of drinking, Mumford & Sons rocked it with improvised bluesy introductions to their tunes from both albums. ¬†What’s a Mumford show? The biggest, funnest, dance party -sing-a-long you’ll ever attend. ¬†

Video of their introduction and first song “Lovers Eyes,” which took us from darkness to light

Video of the quiet a capella encore – 30,000 people listening quietly to 4 guys sing. Yeah.

I would also like to point out that all of these videos are proof that most people are tone deaf. Or they had drunk too much by this point to sing on key. ūüėČ

One more link: This SceneSC review of the Mumford show in Greenville, SC just a few days before GOTR hits all the highlights of their set, which was the same in FL as it was in SC.

shadowy self- portrait in the shop window alter to Mumford :)
shadowy self- portrait in the shop window alter to Mumford ūüôā

4. Awesome: ¬†the guys who stepped up to be Fogerty’s band at the last minute, at the end of their own exhausting tour, on a night when they had played or would play their own stuff for an hour or more. ¬†The Vaccines (British punk) and part of Mumford & Sons played with Fogerty’s sons and it.was.just.absolutely.amazing. Are you jealous? ¬†You should be. ¬†I sang every CCR song that matters WITH JOHN FOGERTY IN PERSON. ¬†And 25,000 other exhilarated people around me. ¬† [Cool article about it with footage.]

But back to the backup players…. two tidbits. ¬†One, it was fun to watch Fogerty direct these songs on the fly, nodding across the stage to his so-famous stand-ins so they’d play the songs correctly. And two, totally hilarious for Marcus Mumford to blow the drum line at one point in the set, leading Fogerty to poke fun at Mumford after the song. Priceless.

5. Awesome: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. ¬†Wasn’t prepared for this — I’d listened to some of their music on Spotify and it was OK but MAN. Their Friday night headlining set was a blast. ¬†They clearly enjoyed their music and had a ball letting the crowd dictate what songs would come next in true festival style.

6. Awesome: ¬†Food & drink in St Augustine. ¬†Man, I didn’t even know Polish restaurants exist! ¬†But we stumbled into one and had some damn fine food . ¬†In fact, every place we tried was great, from the little pubs to the coffee shops to the fudge places. ¬†Thumbs up, St Aug. You know how to feed a crowd.

7. Awesome:  Unintentionally, accidentally booking our rooms right beside the shuttle stop.  Boom.  Best unintentional planning EVER.

8. Awesome:  Big huge dude raising a barbel to the sky sculpture that M&S haul around with them on these festivals now.  Cheerio and all that.

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Can I explain the barbell statue? No. Was it cool? Yes. ūüôā

9. Did I mention Fogerty?  Damn, that was epic.

10.  Awesome:  Getting to take a cool vacation with Coart.  Is there anything more perfect than getting picked up after work and blazing down the road toward adventure?   Rhetorical question.

I’m so glad I leaped on faith and bought the tickets in February, not knowing whether we’d actually be able to go. It was the right choice.

If you love music, if you like Mumford & Sons at all, if you want to share that experience with other lovers of good tunes and good food and good places…. then you should book a GOTR ticket next summer. ūüôā

DC: All About Food!

I think I’ll just let the photos do the talking in this post.

We pinched pennies but still managed to find some good eats in and around the District.

I think my favorite was Founding Farmers–a delicious farm to table, local produce & meat restaurant in the District. I don’t have a photo of our food, but please believe me when I say it was some of the best I’ve ever encountered. Stevo & Jesse threw down chicken & waffles that included some of the best friend chicken I have ever tasted (I stole a nibble of Jesse’s). ¬†Coart & I divided a couple entrees — a black pepper gnocchi in a sweet cream sauce (made with amaretto!) and one of their grilled open face sandwiches with prosciutto, marscapone, and fig jam. A-ma-zing. ¬†I hear their cocktails are great too, but like I said, we were pinching pennies.

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The bar downstairs at Founding Farmers backed up against our round table/booth.

If you don’t make a reservation a while in advance, you’ll never get a table at Founding Farmers. Actually, even with a reservation we waited for a while and service isn’t exactly fast. ¬†But it was totally worth the wait.

*****

From the sublime to the simple: One of our other favorite places was a Yelp find: ¬†Tortilla Cafe near the East Market by the Capitol district. ¬†We were hungry we didn’t want to spend a lot of money, we like little neighborhood places, we had just worn ourselves out in the Library of Congress and needed some food quick. ¬†Those factors led us to this delightful El Salvadorean place with wonderful food. ¬†Even Guy Fieri says so!

Guy ate at the Tortilla Cafe too!
Guy ate at the Tortilla Cafe too!

Coart had the pupusas, which are kind of like a tortilla with baked-in cheese and shredded pork. Um, yes please! ¬†Amazing. ¬†I had their beef nachos — hearty and delish chunks of beef included. ¬†Actually, my favorite part may have been the hand-bottled fruit juices available for purchase with my meal. And folks were snapping up their guacamole and chips, which was probably fantastic.

*****

Every good trip deserves a little sweetness, so after catching Joss Wheadon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the local arthouse movie theater (why do I have to travel 8 hours to finally get to see the movies I want to see?!), Coart & I found ourselves tucked into the tiny Best Buns Bakery in Shirlington, VA. ¬†No lie — behind the counter is a painting of a¬†construction¬†worker that highlights his “best buns.” haha

Anyway, they’re locally owned and staffed and bake up amazing bread and sweets for sale. ¬†Coart picked out his favorite, a coconut confection. I got the English toffee-caramel cupcake. ¬†yuuuuuuum. ¬† Even the CAKE part was good! (I mean, who eats cupcakes for the cake, right? It’s not hard to make good icing IMHO. Proof is in the cake.

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Best Buns Bakery serves up fantastic cupcakes like this English toffee delight.

This was our second great discovery in Shirlington after our movie. We’d also wandered through a Greek place called Medi …. Imagine if Chipotle served Greek food and did it well. ¬†They offered up something they called gyritos — like taquitos made with gyro flavors and meat, drizzled with a very light balsamic glaze. ¬†Throw in some pomegranate sangria and I was definitely in my zone! ūüôā

*****

Honorable Mentions:

Bruegger’s Bagels in Old Town Alexandria VA because they were the only people open at 5:30am to serve us breakfast after our overnight drive. Their siracha egg sandwich is actually really good.

Flying Fish Coffee & Tea in the Columbia Heights area, for brewing us some of the absolute best iced tea ever on a hot afternoon (I had pear green tea. Fantastic.)

CakeLove in the U Street area seems to be missing its nice sit down part that I remember from last time, but the cake is still fantastic.

Dogfish Head Brewery has brew pubs in the DC area. S&E took us there for supper after seeing the Air & Space Museum on July 4th – a great end to a great day.

Only Burger in Durham, NC got us home by serving up a great burger made with high quality, local ingredients, a bright & cheery staff and interior, and one of the best root beer floats ever.

 

 

DC: All About Aircraft!

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Satellites hanging from the ceiling of the Space Shuttle Hangar, taken with my iPhone and cleaned up a bit via PhotoForge2 and KitCam.

This post needs to have a lot of exclamation points! Why? Because this is how excited Coart was to finally get to visit the Udvar-Hazy wing of the National Air & Space Museum!

[Note to all museum namers: I don’t care how much money Udvar or Hazy gave you. I will never, EVER remember the name “Udvar-Hazy” ….not a chance. It cannot happen. So I call your cool museum “That Other Wing Of The Air & Space Museum, You Know, The Really Cool One. At The Big Airport.”

And I consider that a failure of nomenclature on your part. Plus, your marketing department probably hates you. ¬†“Hey, boss! I can’t get the name of the museum to fit on this sticker! Can we come up with a nickname or something?”

Anyway, if you want to see Coart actually look excited for once, instead of just imagining what it would look like for him to be excited about something (because the man plays his excitement pretty close to the chest most of the time. He really does) then you should get him to give you a tour of anything with military hardware.  Aircraft are the best bet, but he was pretty chipper about our visit to the Battleship North Carolina back in May too.

But I digress.

Why should you visit the UQWYEGCHXTWETEUTRIFBDGD wing of the Air & Space Museum?

Because it’s straight damn awesome.

A P-51 Mustang C (different canopy shape)
A P-51 Mustang C

Wanna see a rare C variant of the P-51 Mustang which did an outstanding job crushing the Luftwaffe to help end WW2? They’ve got one.

Wanna see the Enola Gay, the B29 bomber infamous for dropping the atomic bombs over Japan? It’s there. Behind a spit shield raised by the Museum to protect the aircraft from protest-via-saliva. ¬†[Several years ago we got to hear Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the atomic bomb missions, speak to a veterans’ reunion in Greenville, SC. He was unapologetic about the use of the bomb or his role in it. ¬†As he pointed out, the Allies had already killed and maimed thousands more civilians via night bombing, incendiary attacks, and other traditional weapons.]

The plane is huge. I always forget how big B29’s are until I’m standing next to one. (And a B52 positively dwarfs anything nearby, but the U-H doesn’t have one of those on display.)

The front nose cone & canopy of the B-29 Enola Gay bomber. This huge aircraft occupies an amazing swath of the display floor in the hangar, with many airplanes tucked beneath its shadow.
The front nose cone & canopy of the B-29 Enola Gay bomber. This huge aircraft occupies an amazing swath of the display floor in the hangar, with many airplanes tucked beneath its shadow.

We ran into a helpful docent near the Enola Gay, an older gentleman armed with an iPad and a warm, outgoing personality. I missed his name, but he introduced himself as the lead docent of the museum, in charge of dozens of volunteers who work the floor of the museum every day to offer context and answer questions. Coart and he quickly descended into a long conversation about specifics of the plane and the mission. We learned that only 3 of the crew (12 men, I think?) knew what payload they were carrying. ¬†Another veteran, in his 70s, walked up and added details to the conversation — he remembered being a boy when Pearl Harbor was attacked and served in Korea. ¬†The docent was about 10 years younger and had risen to the rank of Colonel during Vietnam. His dad was a Colonel in WW2 and the docent had inherited his actual bird insignia to wear.

I just love it when you can catch bits and pieces of people’s stories like that.

Anyway, we spent about 2 hours wandering through all the hangars, enjoying a few rare aircraft like this P-47 Thunderbird (cool Popular Science article here):

The hubby was really excited to see this P-41, something we hadn't run across in our museum travels.
The hubby was really excited to see this P-47 Thunderbird, something we hadn’t run across in our museum travels. It also gives you an idea of the size of the B29 sitting above it.

The SR-71 Blackbird still holds the record as the fastest military aircraft (as far as the government will admit). Plus, she’s really pretty:

SR-71 Blackbird, which greets you when you enter the museum.
SR-71 Blackbird, which greets you when you enter the museum.

We finally laid eyes on a Joint Strike Fighter (F35), the political football that was held up due to Congressional finance wrangling, some arguments about design, and technical issues. I didn’t take a photo because it was too hard to get a good angle on anything interesting. But the engine developer (Pratt & Whitney, I think) had one of the engine assemblies on display.

Space Shuttle Discovery in her hangar.
Space Shuttle Discovery in her hangar.

Despite loving all the aircraft, my favorite hangar was the Space Shuttle Discovery. ¬†It’s a great display of rockets, space exploration, and technology in its own right…. but mostly I just loved looking at Discovery with my own eyes. ¬†I remember as a kid watching the space shuttle lift-offs and landings on TV — if I was home, I always watched.

And while it’s probably true that the shuttle program was a massive waste of money and resources, leading to a space station that really isn’t doing anything to move space exploration forward, it’s still SO COOL.

*****

The Udvar-Hazy wing is a great “layman’s museum.” ¬†They don’t really bother you with a lot of the details. ¬†I guess that’s what the docents are for. But if you want to wander through a hundred years of flight, this is a great place to come.

More photos from our trip