Thursday, May 26, 2011

Potentially my last spring break ever.

I never thought I was a beach person until I went to Lagos. Briana, Jan and I met at Santa Justa (the train station) to pick up our rental car the Thursday during Feria. We were all very excited to be renting a car in Europe. Sadly, none of us can drive stick, so we had to suck it up and pay more for an automatic, but valía la pena (it was worth it.) I had intended to burn some CDs for the ride, but I never got around to it. Luckily, I had one CD that I had made for my 6th graders for some listening exercises during for our conversation class. We may have listened to it about 6 times during the drive there and back.

Getting out of Sevilla was a little difficult, but Briana navigated the city well. The highways were like any other highway, so that wasn’t a problem. Once we got to Lagos the car was a little tricky. Our hostel was in the old part of the city, which meant one lane streets. There was a traffic jam (can you call it a traffic jam when there’s one car stopped and holding up 5 other cars?) so Jan and I jumped out of the car to bring all of our stuff into the hostel. Arthur, the guy working at the front desk offered to show us where we could find a parking spot. We went back outside and around the corner where we’d left Briana, but she was no where to be found. We continued to wind around the tiny Lagos street and finally found her stuck at a dead end. We neglected to immediately introduce Briana and Arthur. Briana was wondering who the heck the man was who we had just offered the front seat to. Thankfully, once Arthur got in the car he introduced himself. In only a few minutes we arrived at the free parking lot and walked back to the hostel. Arthur gave us a very long explanation about the small little town. We were pleasantly surprised when he reminded us that Portugal is an hour behind Spain. That meant we had more time at the beach!

Once Arthur finished his shpiel we changed into our bathing suits and headed towards the beach. It was around 4:00pm and we still hadn’t eaten lunch, so we stopped at this little place called café Odeom, which happens to be owned by an ex-pat, for wraps and coca-cola light to bring to the beach. We were amazed with how small the town was. We walked from the hostel to the beach in about ten minutes. It was perfect. We decided to walk to the second beach. I have never seen anything like this before. These beaches could have been out of a movie. Each beach is nestled within the rocks, the water was a vibrant blue and the sand hot on your feet. Lagos is located at the southernmost part of Portugal. It took us awhile to understand why we weren’t seeing the sunset over the ocean. Instead of setting in front of us, towards the water and what we thought was the west it was going in another direction. Briana informed us that Lagos is in fact at the southern tip of the country and Iberian peninsula. Unfortunately, that meant that the cliffs behind us were stealing our sunlight. Once we got cold in the shade we walked to another beach where the sun was still shining. After a little we got cold there too and headed back to the hostel.

That evening we tried a Thai restaurant close to the hostel in town. It had been recommended both online and by the hostel. I am going to go against those recommendations and I know Jan and Briana would agree with me. We all got food poisoning. Everything tasted delicious, but suddenly things were going downhill. After dinner we walked in the direction of some of the bars. There was one in particular that was by our hostel and recommended online. We stopped in and were literally the only ones there. We were chatting with the bartender and he gave us a couple of free shots. Suddenly, Jan said she wasn’t feeling so well. She said she needed to head back to the hostel. We said we’d either meet her back there or wait for her at the bar. Since there was no one there we decided to go back and meet her at the hostel. She was feeling better so she was going to give it another try. We walked to a second bar with some kids who were staying at our hostel. Jan told us she needed to go back to the hostel again and that she was going to call it a night. Briana and I weren’t quite ready to head home, so we stayed out. Then Briana disappeared into the bathroom at the bar for quite some time. I was getting kind of worried, but then she came back and thought that it had passed. Then it hit me. I power walked up the hill, dragging Briana with me, and got to the hostel as fast as possible. While I was in severe pain and wanting to remove my stomach and intestines myself, I was laughing the whole time. We would go to Lagos and get food poisoning.

To try and calm our stomachs we all had some water. Then it hit us. We had all had water at dinner, too! Then Jan remembered that a friend told her that you’re not supposed to drink the water in Portugal. Oh shit. You’re a couple hours too late, Jan. I asked Arthur if people ever complained about having problems with the water and he assured me it was clean. We went to bed thinking it was the water. The next morning I asked several other people at the hostel and no one said they had any problems with the water. I tried some later that day to test it out. In the end it wasn’t the water, but the Thai food. I guess this was the first time when heading straight to Asian food during our travels wasn’t a good idea.

Friday morning we had breakfast in the hostel and went to the beach. This time we tried out another beach. I don’t know how, but it was more beautiful than the last. It was pretty cool that day and I was just short of freezing when the sun went behind the clouds. We bared it for as long as possible and then went to a highly recommended restaurant for some chicken piri-piri, a Lagos special. I can’t say I was too impressed, but at least it was edible.

The hostel had a really nice terrace equipped with a grill. Several people thought of making dinner and then everyone eating up there together. We had heard that a grocery store in town sold already made shish kabobs. That just didn’t sound beatable. We tried one grocery store and struck out with the kabobs, but we did find wine, veggies and fruit. We dropped that off at the hostel and continued our search for the kabobs. I think we must have asked several different people, all of whom probably thought we were crazy. In the end we had success!

We cooked our delicious meal and ate it up on the terrace. What was really nice about this hostel was that everyone hung out together. It didn’t hurt that English was everyone’s first language, but we flocked from everywhere. There were Australians, Welch, Canadians and Brits. I always love meeting people from around the world. Hearing all of our new friends’ stories was fascinating. I vowed that Lagos would not be my last trip. I may be in transit back to the US, but I am not going to stop traveling. Finding the money and time may be an issue, but I’m willing to make a commitment that it’s not stopping here. I’ve been so blessed with everything I’ve been able to see, but there’s still so much out there. We also pledged that we’d go together to travel to another far off land. I had every intention of making Jan and Briana sign a contract, but I’m not realizing I forgot. It may just have to be an electric signature.

The days and nights blur together in Lagos. Every day we went to the beach and every night we went out. I got accustomed to the beach bum lifestyle far too quickly. Lagos is home to a ton of people from all around the world. We met Aussies, Americans and Canadians who all moved there because of the great lifestyle and beaches. We even asked a few people how difficult it was to get work there. Everyone led us to believe it was pretty easy. I don’t think anyone we met was there legally either.

While we were finishing dinner on the terrace it started to rain. The slippery and hilly Lagos streets weren’t particularly conducive to rain and walking. Jan, Briana and I headed out trying our best not to fall. A woman at the hostel recommended a bar that had a good DJ. We tried another bar first and decided it wasn’t worth it, so we moved down the street to the bar the hostel recommended. That wasn’t worth it either. We brought the average age down about 35 years and that’s not an exaggeration. At this point I was getting super tired and bored. No one seemed to be out and those that were, were over twice my age. We decided to try one last bar, the one that we had stopped at the night before and chatted with the bartender. We hit the jackpot. That’s where everyone was. Most of the bars close at 2am, but this one was open until 4am, so when the 2am bars close the old people go home and the youngens head to Inside Out. Another plus was that it was so close to our hostel. I retired prior to Jan and Briana and was home within two minutes.

Saturday morning we went back to café Odeom. Afterward we headed to the beach. Other than food, beach and bars there really wasn’t too much to do in Lagos. We spent the entire day at the beach.

On Sunday we took our last trip to café Odeom. After breakfast we walked back to the hostel to get directions to the nearby cliffs. It was about a 45 minute drive and relatively easy to get to. There are several cliffs nearby and we visited the ones in Sangres. This was my first time driving the rental car. It was an automatic, but it was built like a manual. You could feel it shift gears and it wasn’t exactly easy to drive. I don’t know how to better explain it, but I think it thought it was a manual, so you kind of had to work at it. Our first stop was on the side of the giant, never ending cliffs. There was a row of cars so I figured I should park in line with them. I left about 4 to 5 feet from the edge, just in case. We got out and explored. We probably got a little too close to the edge considering how strong the winds were. Luckily, there weren’t any casualties.

Getting back into the car and leaving was a little challenging. I put the car in reverse to back out of the spot to leave the impromptu parking lot. Even though I was in reverse the car was moving closer and closer to the cliff. I put pressure on the accelerator, but we continued to move forward. I stomped on the break and turned to Briana and Jan to see if they could lend some help. I went through everything. It said “R” (reverse) and everything else seemed to be in check. Meanwhile Jan is saying that she doesn’t want to die and Briana is ready to jump out of the back seat. We almost put the car in neutral and pushed it backward. I gave the accelerator a slightly harder tap and finally we moved backwards. Only after we were far from the edge were we able to laugh about it. During our freak out it was pretty scary. We thought it might be our last spring break ever for several reasons.

We stopped a few miles up the road and this time I was sure to leave plenty of room from the edge. We walked around for a little and took plenty of photos. It probably wasn’t the best place to use my self-timer considering I had to run inches from the edge in 10 seconds on rocky ground to make the picture. It didn’t take us long to realize that maybe we should try a self-timer shot a little farther from the edge. We’re a smart bunch.

After the cliffs we went back to our favorite beach, Dona Ana. We ran into our friend Farrell and spent several hours in the sun. We even took a dip in the water. It was pretty cold, but once you went all of the way in you could adjust more easily. Not too far from the shore there was a very large rock. I asked Briana if she wanted to swim around it with me, but she said she wasn’t a very strong distance swimmer. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go, so I swam around by myself. As soon as I was out of view from the shore I was a little nervous, so I picked up my pace and made my way around. After our swim we sat on the beach for a while to dry off and even played a little paddleball.

Once sufficiently dry we took a grotto tour in a little motorboat named Simpatico, which assuming it’s the same meaning as in Spanish, means nice. I don’t know how nice our boat was, however it was probably the large waves that were more responsible for the rocky ride. Our boat driver spoke very limited English. He was, however, able to point out several rock formations that resemble various animals. At this point in time I can only remember the rock that looked like an elephant. Sadly, looking through my pictures doesn’t help either. They all just look like rocks.

About 15 minutes into our grotto tour things got a little rocky. I realized that everyone was getting really quiet. I was gripping onto the side of the boat and praying that my camera wouldn’t get ruined. I don’t get sea sick, but I 1) didn’t want my camera to get wet and 2) I didn’t exactly want to go for a swim and 3) have a severe fear of fish. When the seas calmed down and we got closer to shore Briana, Farrell and Jan all said that they’re not very good with waves. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long of a ride. Afterward we walked to our favorite grocery store to pick up hors d’oeuvres and our favorite green wine.

We got ready for dinner and headed up to the terrace to enjoy hors d’oeuvres. It was a wonderful beginning to our last night in Lagos. We went to a traditional, but touristy restaurant. Wine and hors d’oeuvres took longer than expected so many places were closed. After dinner we went to several different bars before calling it a night.

The next morning we walked towards the marina for another American breakfast. On our way we remembered the time change between Portugal and Spain. It wouldn’t have been an issue if we didn’t have to return the car, but unfortunately our forgetfulness came with a fee. We still enjoyed breakfast and then headed out from there.

It was the best last trip a girl could ask for. I loved spending time with Jan and Briana and meeting some new folks along the way. If anything, Lagos in particular made me want to travel even more. My travel days are far from over. It may get more difficult as time goes on, but I’ve got a bad case of the travel bug and I hope it stays!

Monday, May 23, 2011

La Feria de Abril

La Feria de Abril is a special event that I was looking forward to since leaving Sevilla when I studied abroad. The translation is the April fair, however in a typical and confusing Spanish style it was in May this year. I started celebrating early when my parents came into town the Sunday before it started. They flew from Paris to Sevilla and Antonio and I picked them up at the airport. I had found a hotel for them close to my house and in spitting distance from my school. Getting a hotel during feria can be a challenge. Many of the hotels I looked into several months in advance had already been booked for months. With some luck, I stumbled upon this hotel (which prior to Antonio mentioning it, I didn’t even know existed.)

From the airport Antonio drove us to the hotel so my parents could put their suitcases in the room and get ready. From the hotel we walked to Antonia’s house for lunch. It was absolutely beautiful out and we sat outside and ate lunch on the terrace. She prepared, rebujito, a typical drink for feria to introduce to my parents. Rebujito is manzanilla (a dry sherry from the bordering province) mixed with Sprite. Antonia threw some mint in the mix, too. They were also very kind and bought some red wine because they know my parents love it. Lunch was really special. I love when my two families come together. Translating is always a bit difficult, but I think everyone understood what was going on. I also learned that Antonia speaks much more English than I thought! When she came to visit us in Chicago this summer her friend Carmen came, too. Carmen also joined us for lunch. It was the first time I’d seen her since Chicago! She’s a surgeon and has an incredibly busy schedule. Either way, I was happy I was able to see her during feria. Briana joined us for tea and sweets after lunch and then we went out for a walk.

We walked through la juderia (the old Jewish neighborhood) and barrio santa cruz. I thought I knew the center well, but they proved me wrong. We passed by so many things I’d never seen. Since Antonio has his own ceramics store and is quite knowledgeable on the subject he’d stop us every few steps to explain something about the tiles. Their friend Antonio owns a famous house in Sevilla. I had seen it when I studied abroad in Spain in high school, but I’d never been able to find it again. Antonia and Antonio talk about it a lot, so they figured we should walk by. It’s one of the most photographed houses in Sevilla and happens to be on the cover of many guidebooks. In the warmer months flowers line the walls. Unfortunately, Antonio (the owner of the house) and his girlfriend, Juana were at a wedding so we couldn’t stop in. In my last few hours in Sevilla I may try and walk by to see if the flowers are in bloom yet (side note: the torrential downpour yesterday prohibited me from doing so...and all of the other excursions I had planned.)

Our short walk was quickly turning into a long walking tour of the entire center. I wanted to make sure my parents tried out the Italian restaurant that I frequent all too often. That being said, we went there for dinner after our tour and Antonia, Antonio and Briana joined us. Since an insane amount of Italian food wasn’t enough, we had to top it off with some gelato. When in Rome/Sevilla, right? I also frequented the gelato place all too often. Thank goodness we’re not on a first name basis with the staff. Everyone agreed that it was the best gelato they had ever had. I have my friend Julia to thank (or perhaps blame) for introducing it to me. After gelato we walked back in the direction of my parents´ hotel. It was a very long day considering how tired everyone was and we had to get up early the next day to do it all again.

I think the few days that my parents were here were the busiest days I’ve had in Sevilla. I was absolutely wiped when they left and didn’t get out of bed until 5pm the next day. On Monday I made breakfast for my parents at our house. We stopped at Polvillo, our local and absolutely delicious bread store, for some fresh bread, coffee and orange juice. I think my dad was missing his daily fresh squeezed juice, so he had two glasses. At Polvillo we also picked up more Sprite and manzanilla to bring to Antonia’s. After a wonderful breakfast, if I may say so myself, we spent some time looking through all of the photos I’ve taken this year. We only made it to mid January though because we needed to go back to their hotel to drop off my things. When I came to Spain my luggage was overweight. I’ve purchased my fair share of souvenirs (including a very large flamenco dress) so I knew that if I didn’t give my purchases and half of my clothes to my parents I’d be doomed. I unloaded quite a bit of things on them: books, clothes, flamenco dress, teapot, 100 scarves, etc. I’ve started to pack my suitcases to leave tomorrow and I’m hoping that I’ll be under the weight limit…and that everything will fit! (follow up: my bags were overweight again! Also, I guess Iberia changed their luggage policy since I’ve been here, because they made me pay for a second bag. Luckily Antonia was with me and was trying to talk some sense into the lady. In the end, I just had to pay for the extra bag and not two overweight fees. I think she felt bad for me pouring through my bags trying to take heavy things out. Also, the long line of people behind me didn’t hurt. What does hurt, however, is my back. I think my backpack must weigh at least 30 pounds.)

This semester Antonia had another American girl staying at her house. Robin was in Sevilla for a semester during her gap here. Coincidentally her dad and step mom were here at the exact same time as my parents. Antonia had invited Robin’s family over for lunch and invited mine, too. I felt like we were intruding, but Antonia insisted. We delighted in a delicious and classic Sevillano meal: salad, paella, rebujito and several other things that are now escaping me. We lucked out with the weather again and sat out on the terrace. After lunch and after Robin’s family left we skyped with Jose Alberto who’s studying in France. I know my parents enjoyed talking to him. Little did I know that I’d see him the following week. He surprised Antonia and his entire family and showed up at home for feria. He went to Antonia’s house first and expected to find her there after she finished work. That plan didn’t exactly work because Antonia brought her dress to work so she could expedite the process and get to feria faster. However, Antonio walked into the house, stood there in silence for a few seconds, did a double take and asked Jose Alberto what the heck he was doing there. Jose Alberto did the same and surprised his dad at his house. The surprise paid off when he went to feria and surprised both his mom and Alvaro. They couldn’t believe that he was there and that he was able to keep it a secret.

After skyping with Jose Alberto, we continued with our strict schedule. Briana, my parents and I met Jan at a coffee place in the center. Coffee/hot chocolate was very enjoyable, however an argument with the staff left me with a very sour taste in my mouth and no intention to every go back. Time was flying by and I realized it was already 8:00pm and we were supposed to be meeting Antonia at her house at 9:30pm. We tried our best to get the check (that’s where our argument with the wait staff began. For some reason they weren’t very willing to give us the check. Weird, right? I mean who gets mad when you’re asking how much to pay!) We ran to drop my parents off at their hotel and Briana and I ran home. I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten ready faster. We power walked over to Antonia’s to meet her and Antonio. From there we walked to La Albahaca, Antonio’s sister’s restaurant. It’s by far the best meal I’ve had in Sevilla. One of their house specialties is bacalao (codfish.) I’ve never been one to order fish off a menu, but I figured I’d give it a try. I’m very glad I did. Everything was great. After dinner we even got a tour of the building. It’s a beautiful, old 14th century home. Antonio’s sister showed us the upstairs part of the restaurant, which serves as party rooms and her office. We even went on the roof, which was great because it had a wonderful view of the cathedral.

Monday night was el pescaito (fish fry) at feria. It kicks off the fair and after dinner at midnight they light everything up. Our dinner and tour lasted a little longer than expected, so we missed the lighting ceremony, but we went anyway. We walked around a bit and briefly sat in one of the casetas (tents.) By this time it was well past 2:00am, and I needed to work the next day.

The following day was a particularly uneventful day at school. In a typical Spanish fashion, there was only one day of school that week and to make matters stranger, it was a Tuesday. And they wonder why they’re in an economic crisis. I’ve got two words for them: logic and efficiency. Since there was no school Monday the people who don’t like feria go to their beach houses. Then the people who do like feria are at feria for the first day. Meaning, about half of the school was actually present. There were 8 kids in one of my classes. I was super glad to be there doing nothing when I could have been spending the time with my parents. After school I ran home as quick as possible to get ready. I had purchased a traje de gitano (flamenco dress) for the event. Feria is a big deal to begin with, but dresses are even bigger deals. I spent a very long time finding one that I liked and that was also in my price range. The cheapest I saw was 150 euros and they go over 1000 euros. Since my budget was limited, I didn’t have as large of a selection. I really love the dress I ended up with. In addition to the dress it’s important to have the right accessories. You need a mantoncito (shawl), earrings, flower and a peineta (special decorated hair comb.) Let’s just say there’s a lot that goes into feria, both finding your accessories and donning them.

When we were finally ready we walked over to Antonia’s, took some pictures and then took the bus to feria. I don’t know if our bus broke down or if we got stuck in traffic, but it took us forever to get there. Once we arrived we went to a Cajasol tent. Cajasol is the bank Antonia works at. We ordered several different tapas for lunch, listened to the music and most importantly, scouted out the other pretty dresses.

I didn’t understand how exclusive feria is during study abroad. The fair itself is made up of over 1,000 tents. The overwhelming majority of them are private. To enter you have to be a member or have a ticket. Just gaining membership to a tent can be a difficult thing to do. They range from family run to businesses and there are also some exclusive government tents, which seems kind of ironic to me. Carmen was telling us a bit about her old tent. Unfortunately, someone forgot to renew the paperwork, which you have to do every year, so their tent was given away. Her tent was with people from the hospital she works at. Every year there was a 500 euro fee to help maintain the tent. In addition to that you have to pay for everything when you’re there. Since most people renew (or try to renew) their tents every year it doesn’t leave room for new people interested in creating their own tents. I would imagine it could be a difficult time of year if you didn’t have access to a tent. If you’re a member you’re allowed to bring friends, but I’m not exactly sure how that works. I would have to imagine there’s a limit. Some larger tents give out tickets to their members. That’s how we got to go to the Cajasol tent.

Each tent has its own music, dance floor, kitchen and flushing toilets! (The last one makes me the most happy.) In the Cajasol tent we were in there was a very limited amount of chairs. We were able to snag two after a little while, though. It was a long time to be standing, however I don’t know if I could have sat down even if I had wanted to. My traje was very tight. Not wanting to risk ripping the seams (yes, that tight) I offered to stand. We tired pretty easily, so my parents and I left. I went back to my house with my mom and my dad went back to the hotel. Wearing a traje was such a production. Mine zipped very high in the back, so I needed help getting it on and off. Oh, and I had to take the whole thing off to go to the bathroom. That provided for a memorable experience while at feria. I felt like a new woman when that thing was unzipped. I could breathe again! Even though it was a lot of money, I’m very glad I bought one. I will always cherish it and the memories. Better yet, I even have a Halloween costume for this year…and every year after that.

Tuesday was my parents last day in town. For dinner we went to a delicious Moroccan restaurant. I would say it was on par with what I had in Morocco. I’ve been there two times now and each time it was empty. I’d hate to see them close, however I suppose that’s a moot issue now considering I’m finishing this blog post from the Madrid airport. Well, next time I’m in Sevilla hopefully it will still be around. I was very sad to see my parents go, but now that seems irrelevant considering I’ll see them again in 12 hours.

As I mentioned, the following day I slept super late. I had actually woken up early thinking I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. I ate breakfast, watched an episode of Sex and the City and then managed to fall asleep until 5pm. It was just what the doctor ordered. Later that night Briana and I went back to feria. Antonia had already gone home for the night, but she left her Cajasol tickets with a friend, Elena. We found Elena and headed to the Cajasol tent. I had a good time and I’m glad we went, but it just wasn’t the same without Antonia and Co. We sipped rebujito, spilt a huge cotton candy and called it a night. The next day we were off to Lagos and didn’t want to spoil the fun.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chateaus and Wineries in France

Landing at Orly in Paris was a wonderful feeling. I knew I’d finally be able to see my parents! There was 15 minutes of free wifi so I was able to call them via skype. (FYI: I think the very generous wifi hacked my gmail account. Be cautious about airport wifi.) Our first chat was great. They had just picked up the rent a car from De Gaulle and were on their way to Orly to pick me up. The calls got progressively worse. Avis didn’t have a GPS for them to rent and the map was sketchy at best. The next call was about three minutes of me being yelled at because they were lost. It was making me very excited to see them…finally they found their way and found me. Despite the phone calls, I was very happy to see them.

Finding the hotel wasn’t much easier. It was just outside of Versailles in a town called Ville D’Avray. We stopped several times to ask for directions. Problem was no one spoke English. One guy drew us a map, but it didn’t make much sense. Finally, we found a guy on a bike and asked him for directions. He was so sweet and rode his bike to get us on the right street. And they say the French aren’t nice! It was great to find the hotel. We were only there for a night so we couldn’t settle in too much, but I was happy to see a real hotel (a nice one, too!) after so many hostels. We asked the woman at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation. She told us to walk down the street and that we’d find one restaurant but if you kept walking there would be several more. We walked and never found that one restaurant and the several more consisted of an Indian restaurant and an Italian one. We opted for the Italian. It was decent, but it didn’t really matter because I was just happy to finally see my parents.

The next morning we had a delicious spread for breakfast and we were off to Versailles. We had a devil of a time finding a parking space. Apparently everyone and their brother and us were looking for parking to go to the chateau. We ended up finding a spot about 20 minutes away. Once we parked we couldn’t figure out the meter system. Once we figured it out we realized we could only put in money for three hours. We took our chances and were off. We encountered a few more problems before even setting foot in the palace. For starters, the line was ridiculous. I guess everyone and their brother found their parking spot and was now with us in line. I ran up to the front to see if the tickets we’re purchased at the hotel required us to stand in the never-ending line. The security guard handed the tickets over to his coworker. Oh no, I thought. The coworker told me that the tickets had expired in 2008 and obviously weren’t good anymore. Thanks a lot hotel. My mom was waiting in line, so my dad and I ran inside to see what the ticket office could do. They couldn’t do anything, but we found out I didn’t have to pay since I’m a long term resident of the EU. The gardens were also free that day, so that was another perk.

I had visited Versailles two years ago when I was studying abroad. I can’t say it looked too different. This time, however I visited the gardens and Marie Antoinette’s Estate. Now I can say I’ve seen it all. No need to return and stand in that god-awful line again.

After Versailles we walked back in the direction of the car and stopped for lunch at Helio’s Café. We started talking with the owner and he told us he had just purchased a 1987 Cadillac El Dorado. When we told him how much gas it uses he almost had a heart attack. Gas is much more expensive here than at home. He decided that even if he couldn’t drive it that it would be pretty to look at.

From lunch we needed to go back to the hotel to discuss the little ticket mishap. They were profusely apologetic and frankly it’s probably a good thing we went back because I was able to look up directions to our next hotel in the Loire Valley on my droid. Thank god for smart phones. As my dad said, our smart phones paid for themselves because we were able to pull up directions for all of our France travels. Getting out of Ville D’Avray was a nightmare. There were zero well displayed street signs and we were on each street for about half a second before we needed to turn. It could have been a chase scene in a movie. Since I could only pull up the directions with wifi we couldn’t depend on my phone to tell us where we turned wrong while driving. So that meant we needed to be really careful. I have no clue how it happened, but we managed to get on the highway and to Noizay, our next destination. My dad said he had wanted to get there before sunset because he didn’t want to be searching for the hotel in the French countryside after dark. We missed it by a few minutes, but with a heck of a lot of luck made it there. With some more luck, they held our dinner reservations for us.

I was in shock when we pulled up to the hotel. It was literally an old chateau that had been converted into a hotel. Our room was out of this world. We rushed down for dinner and didn’t have time to change our clothes, which was slightly embarrassing. While we were eating a gentleman walked by who was also wearing jeans. My dad commented and said, look we’re not the only ones wearing jeans. The only problem was that the other guy was American, too. I guess we stick out wherever we go. Dinner was amazing. We dined so well in France. It made coming back to Spain that much more difficult. After dinner we were all exhausted so we hit the hay.

The following morning we had breakfast in the backyard of the terrace. The weather was significantly warmer for France than usual, which made it all the more pleasant. Before heading out for the day we took enough pictures to make an album of the hotel and the surrounding grounds. When we were finally finished with our photo shoot we went into the town over, Amboise, to do some exploring. Our first stop was the Chateau Royal Amboise. There was a little chapel that my mom wanted to go into. It didn’t look like anything special. When we walked in we found out that Leonardo da Vinci was buried there. I could not believe that we literally stumbled upon his grave. The chateau and its ground were beautiful. It was fun to explore.

After the chateau it was already time for lunch. My mom and I picked up sandwiches at a little café and my dad bought ingredients for his own sandwich at the grocery store. We sat on some grass next to the river and enjoyed another delicious French meal and some sunshine.

If there’s one thing France is known for it’s probably wine. Needless to say, a winery was our next destination. From Amboise we drove up the road to Vouvray to the Marc Bredif winery. We got a tour of the winery. They had over 1 million bottles stored in a cave. It provides the perfect temperature. It was neat to learn about the wine, however I had a bit of a hard time understanding because our guide’s accent was so strong. After the tour we had a tasting. I wasn’t too big of a fan of any of the wines, but it was fun nonetheless.

I was looking through the guest book and came across this post. “Enjoy. Even though I cannot drink wine. Alexander Burke 12 years old 2010. P.S. I am standing here bored to death. HELP!” It was by far my favorite post. Poor kid.

On our drive to the Loire Valley we kept passing huge fields of vibrant yellow flowers. They were beautiful, so we wanted to find some more to take some photos. Why is it that whenever you’re searching for something you can’t find it? The flowers ended up being much further than we thought. I think we drove for about 45 minutes to find the damn things. I’m unaware of the exact name of the plant, but it’s used to make canola oil.

For dinner we went back into Amboise. We had a very difficult time finding the place thanks to our lack of a GPS. Once we finally found it we sat down to menus only in French with no one that spoke English. Well, let me rephrase that, they spoke very limited and incorrect English. I thought I was ordering chicken, but it was beef. It was quite the disappointing meal, but we didn’t shrivel away to nothing.

The next morning we were up bright to early to enjoy another beautiful breakfast on the castle’s terrace and drive to Burgundy, Chagny to be exact. The drive ended up being a little longer than expected, which tended to be the trend. I think it was around 4 or 5 hours. We waited too long to stop for lunch so everything was closed. Luckily we found a grocery store and bought sandwich supplies. This was the first time I was in a large grocery store since September. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe all of the options. It certainly beat my 3-aisle grocery store here. We ate our bread and cheese sandwiches on the terrace of the new hotel. After our very difficult day everyone was tired, so we relaxed for the afternoon.

My dad had picked up a bottle of wine for us to enjoy prior to yet another amazing dinner. We had reservations at the hotel restaurant, which happens to be a world-renowned restaurant. Dinner at Maison Lameloise was by far the nicest meal I’ve ever had. We started with several tasters. They brought out steak tartar, foie gras and several other bite sized pieces to try. Then they brought out a lobster puree. Then we got the appetizers we ordered! It was a lot of food. We all got escargots for an appetizer. It wasn’t prepared in the traditional way and to stay with the theme, it was out of this world. For my main meal I had lobster with a mashed potato puree. Absolutely divine. This place didn’t miss a beat. They brought out another small taster platter for dessert, but it didn’t really catch my fancy. We had ordered a passion fruit soufflé and a chocolate dish. The chocolate dish was great. I didn’t really like the passion fruit flavor, but as far as soufflés go, my parents said it was wonderful. We stuffed ourselves silly. The food was so rich that we needed to take a long walk through down to try to feel better. We ended dinner very late at around 12:15am. We were only a little way into our walk when all of the town lights went off. I was trying to take a picture without the flash and stand very still so it wouldn’t come out blurry. I thought one of my parents was trying to play a trick by waving their hand in front of my face. Nope, the town lights were turned off! It was beyond creepy so we power walked as fast as possible back to the hotel. So much for trying to walk a bit of dinner off.

Sunday was Easter and we were afraid everything was going to be closed. Luckily, the Sunday market wasn’t closed for the holiday. According to our hotel the weekly market typically brings in about 5,000 people, which triples the size of the tiny town. The vendors’ products really ranged. There was clothing, bread, roast chicken, live chicken (not for long,) fruits, veggies, flowers, etc. You could find anything there. We saw a guy walking around gingerly carrying a box with several holes cut into it. I knew it had to be an animal. We walked a little further to find all kinds of animals, ducks, rabbits, chicken, geese, etc. There were a ton of little kids looking at the animals. I have a feeling they didn’t know it was dinner.

We ate lunch outside at a restaurant across the plaza from the hotel. During the trip my parents had a bit of a hard time getting their languages right and often resorted to Spanish. It makes sense because when you’re in a foreign country it’s natural to go to the foreign language you know, and that was Spanish for them. So for lunch my dad ordered the “poulet burger por favor.” It became a running joke. I think I heard more por favors, gracias, and aguas that I do here in Spain.

After lunch we drove to Le Chateau de Meursault for some more wine tasting! It began with a quick self-guided tour detailing the history of the winery. It also included the owner’s art collection. The wine there wasn’t great either. We came all the way from the US/Spain to the wine capital of the world to find mediocre wine. Who knew that was possible? The bottles that we had at dinner were always great, though. Maybe the wineries were just using their cheap bottles.

From the wineries we drove in Beaune, an old medieval walled city. We just walked around and explored. It was a really cute place. After exploring Beaune for several hours we headed back to Chagny and stopped at the restaurant we had tried to go to the day before for lunch that was closed. It was very another delicious meal. (Note: France is dangerous to one’s pant size.)

When we got back to the hotel we packed and went to bed. The next morning it was time to head to Paris. The drive was longer than we had expected again. We encountered the most bizarre situation at one of the gas stations. We pulled off the highway to find everyone sitting on/near their cars at the gas station. They were blocking off all of the pumps! It looked like the store part of the gas station was open, but we couldn’t use the pumps. I have no idea what was going on. We decided that we had enough gas to make it to the next station, so we were on our way. I have never seen anything like that though.

At the next gas station I was surprised to see several hole-in-the-ground toilets. I didn’t think Western Europe had those anymore. When we finally got to Paris my mom and I brought all of our things up to the apartment my parents were renting. The travel agent met us there and showed us around. It was a really cute place. Since I hadn’t eaten enough over the previous few days all I wanted was a crepe before leaving. We dropped the rental car off and were in search of crepes. The walk from the Eiffel tower to the Louvre (where I had remembered seeing all of the crepes stands two years back) was much further than I remembered. We also had a few other setbacks. A woman pretending to be deaf ripped off my dad and my mom lost her jacket. It wasn’t exactly the greatest introduction to Paris. In the end I didn’t find my crepe. We had to take a cab back to the apartment so I could take the bus to the airport.

It was an amazing trip to France. I hope to return there some day (this is becoming a theme.) France is just one of those places you could spend weeks exploring. It was special to be with my parents, however we all dearly missed Liza. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we can all visit her in India, but I’m not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Getting lost in Vienna and Budapest

I need to figure out how I can continue with the academic calendar. I will miss winter, spring and summer breaks too much. On top of that, this year I got two spring breaks! For my first spring break I traveled to several different countries. For the first part of break I went to Vienna and Budapest with my co-worker, and friend, Jan. Getting to Vienna was easy. It necessitated a layover in Barcelona, but we managed to get there without any major problems. Once we landed we took a shuttle to one of the main train stations and our hostel was just around the corner. I was surprised with how nice it was. I tend to like smaller hostel because the staff is typical nicer and they have more personality. This hostel, however, resembled many of the things I like about smaller ones, but it was still quite large. The staff was incredibly helpful and it was clean! That’s always a major plus. Our flight got in pretty late to Vienna and the downside to that was having to make our beds in the dark. The only two that were left in our four-person room were the top bunks, so we tried our darnedest to quietly make our beds in the dark.

Friday morning we got up and had breakfast in the hostel. They had peanut butter! After breakfast we took the metro to Schonbrunn palace. It had once belonged to the Habsburgs and Mozart played there as a child. Sadly, those are the only details I remember. It was beautiful, but once you’ve seen one palace I feel as if you’ve kind of seen them all. After exploring the palace we went outside to look at the gardens and the surrounding grounds. We climbed up the hill to the get a good view of the city.

Our next destination was Freud’s house. We could find it on our map, but had a hard time actually locating it. I suppose the fact that our map only had major streets contributed to that problem. We found ourselves walking around pretty aimlessly and working up an appetite! We stopped at this strange little restaurant for a bite. We weren’t really sure what we had ordered and left some decisions up to the waiter, but it was good and a funny experience.

I was particularly excited for the Freud museum because my great-great grandma grew up right across the street. According to her Freud was “even crazy back then.” I’m not sure how long she lived there. I know at a fairly young age she immigrated to the U.S. It was very cool to relive my history and see where she grew up. The door to the apartment building was open, so I even got to take a quick look in the lobby. I have a feeling it didn’t look too different from when she lived there.

The Freud museum itself was very disappointing. It talked very little about his work. At the beginning we were handed a thick packet, which had notes on every item in the museum. It ranged from his antique collection to various certificates, pretty boring if you ask me. From the museum we wanted to head to the center of town. We were really interested in seeing an opera so we figured we would try and find some tickets. We found the main drag, but had a hard time locating the opera house. There was one large building, which we walked around, but for some reason we were convinced it wasn’t the opera house. Feeling defeated we asked a woman walking her dogs for directions. Turns out that large building was indeed the opera house. Oops. This was only the first of many times we asked for directions while standing right in front of our desired location. We found a guy selling tickets out front. He brought us back to the store he worked for because I was nervous he might be selling fake tickets. They were real, just very overpriced. Since the opera was sold out we didn’t have a choice. As they say in Spanish, vale la pena. It’s worth it. After purchasing our tickets we wanted to get a quick bite before the opera. We found a cute little coffee house and noshed on some pretzels.

The opera we saw, or perhaps listened to would be more appropriate, was Tosca. I say listened to instead of saw because our seats were in the nosebleed section and I could only see about 1/3 of the stage. For some reason the entire opera seemed to be choreographed on the remaining 2/3 of the stage, so I couldn’t see anything. It was a bummer, but you go to the opera for the music, not the acting. I’m a little glad we were in the nosebleed section because we were incredibly underdressed. Therefore, sitting with the other rift raft (or travelers) we fit in a little better. It was a long day so after the show we went back to the hostel to catch up on some much needed sleep!

The following day we made our way to the Naschmarkt (flea market.) It was divided into several sections. In one area there are hundreds of restaurants and stores selling food products. If you make your way in the other direction you hit permanent fruit and vegetable stands. Continuing in that same direction there are collapsible flower stands. The following section is full of touristy items. The last part is only there on Sunday and it’s the flea market part. Boy did they have an odd assortment of things! We saw antique jewelry, furniture, torah coverings and then plain old junk; there were lots of naked barbies, used remotes and oddly enough a large collection of American license plates. Jan bought a cute little glass egg. As tempting as the naked barbies were, I went away without making any purchases.

After thoroughly exploring the flea market we walked back in the direction of the restaurants and ate at a Japanese place for lunch. Asian food yet again! It hit the spot. While we were traveling Jan was reading a collection of short stories about funny experiences people have had traveling. While discussing the stories we accidentally did exactly what one of them was talking about. One of the waitresses approached our table and I asked for the check. She didn’t understand what I said so what did I do? I repeated it again and louder. It was exactly what one of the stories was talking about. What do you do when traveling when someone doesn’t understand you? You do what everyone does—repeat it! Luckily, in this case the international symbol for the check worked its magic.

Our next stop was the Austrian Gallery. It holds the largest collection of Klimt’s work. His famous painting, “The Kiss” is there. Aside from that, a few of his other pieces and their very small collection of impressionist art it was a little lackluster. I was very glad we got to see “The Kiss,” though. After the museum we walked to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and climbed all 343 stairs to the top. The top of the tower had gorgeous views of the entire city. We went inside the cathedral, too. I’m afraid most of the cathedrals I’ve visited fall into the same category as the palaces. Once you’ve seen several they all kind of blur together. After all that stair climbing (and descending) we did the next best logical move: gelato. I think I may be abusing the “I’m on vacation” phrase. Jan wanted to go to mass at St. Stephen’s and as tempting as that was I decided I’d meet her back at the hostel. I had foolishly forgotten the transportation pass I’d purchased and I didn’t want to risk being caught so I decided to walk. Let me just say it looked a lot closer on the map. I had made a mistake of not bringing great walking shoes with me so my feet were in pain to begin with. What I thought wouldn’t be longer than a 30-minute walk ended up being just over 50 minutes. I guess it pays off to remember your bus card.

For dinner we tried this wonderful place the hostel recommended. I tried wiener schnitzel for the first time. I wouldn’t write home about it, but I was glad to have tried it in its birthplace. It was another early night because the next morning we had to be up bright and early to head to Budapest!

The bus times to Budapest weren’t exactly ideal, which meant getting up at 5:30am to catch a 7am bus. We took the metro to get the bus. We had assumed it we’d be picking the bus up at a bus station, but it was more like Megabus with random stops on the side of the road. After walking around the entire metro stop and asking a woman who didn’t speak English for directions we found the bus! To make matters interesting we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere in Budapest. Luckily, it was by a metro station. We couldn’t figure out what stop it was, so we literally just got on the train. Luckily it was in the direction we needed. We had been warned that very few people spoke English in Budapest so we were worried about getting lost and needing to ask for directions. Jan had directions from the hostel on how to get there and once we figured out where we were it didn’t take long.

Briana went to Budapest after our study abroad program and raved about the hostel she stayed at. We decided to give it a try and ended up being very pleased with the recommendation. Unlike our hostel in Vienna, this one was tiny. I think it slept a maximum of 28 people. It was super cozy and the staff was amazing. After we checked in we wanted to get the local currency (forints) and start our Hungarian adventure. It was a Sunday so all banks and currency conversion places were closed. That left ATMs as our only option. Supposedly you get a better rate with those anyway. I’m not sure if that factors in the ridiculous $5 foreign transaction fee Fifth Third slaps on, though. The forint to dollar calculation was pretty confusing. While we were there the rate was 184 forints= $1. It involved a little rounding, but we ended up using 200 forints= 1 euro to help us with our calculations. We quickly found out math is neither of our strong suits when we tried to withdraw money. We were trying to take out about $100. We got a little confused with the zeros and Jan tried taking out $1,000. Thank goodness her bank doesn’t allow withdraws that large. When that didn’t work I tried writing out the math and realized our mistake.

For lunch we went to a great place called the Hummus Bar. I can’t wait to go back home and have hummus! Spain’s lack of edible food is astounding. After enjoying our hummus and falafel we went on a walking tour of Budapest. It was really interesting. One thing that resonated with me is all of the economic challenges Hungry is facing. Our tour guide said that this is causing a severe brain drain, where many of Hungary’s intellects are leaving the country for research positions in other places. The tour took us all over the center of the Pest side and over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side. It’s really a charming city.

After the tour we briefly headed back to the hostel before heading out for dinner. A woman recommended a restaurant called Koleves. We figured we’d give it a try. I was ecstatic to get there and find out that they had matzo ball soup! Let me tell you, it made my week. It was a cute little place. Halfway through our meal a couple brought their dog into the restaurant (I guess their version of the FDA is a little more lax…) and it entertained all of the patrons for a while. It was really cute and everyone wanted to pet it.

That night I met a Belgium guy named Jonathan at the hostel. He overheard me skyping with my parents about the matzo ball soup and said his parents were upset he was traveling during Passover. I didn’t realize there were many (or any) Jewish people in Belgium. I was amazed with how good his English was. After living in Spain for so long I always think Europeans have challenges with second languages and English. It’s very refreshing every time we travel when I’m reminded it’s just a problem here in Spain. I’ve really been flabbergasted with how well people speak English! It’s truly unbelievable. I’ve met so many people who barely have accents. It shows how far Spain has to go. On a similar note though, it’s a reminder of how few people can speak second languages in the U.S. We’re very lucky that English is the business and common language throughout the world, but I still think it’s important for schools in the U.S. to start improving their foreign language departments.

But back to Budapest...the following day we walked to the parliament building. The building is very similar to the Houses of Parliament in London. Supposedly the architected studied there, but to spite the Brits he designed the Hungarian parliament to be slightly larger. The day we walked by there were several very strange protests going on. Some groups had signs, but we weren’t able to decode them. It looked like one group had to do with veterans. I have no idea why the other group was there. It was a large group of over 100 people standing on the backside of the building by the river. It looked like they were praying and protesting. There were several people filming the event, but it didn’t look like they were from the news. We were very confused. During our trip to Budapest the head of the UN was visiting. Additionally, Hungary was the leader of the EU at the time. We figured the protests/prays might have something to do with that.

Our next stop was St. Stephan’s Basilica. It was very pretty, but you know my feelings about cathedrals. After the basilica, lunch and a quick stop at the opera house we went on a communist tour of the city. It was fascinating. Our tour guide had grown up in Budapest and Sweden and was able to tell us about what she remembered about growing up under a communist regime. I really enjoyed the tour! One of the stops was outside of an old bus station that has since been converted into a restaurant. She said when it was built many people were upset because it resembled a bus station in Chicago and that represented the free world, which was clearly bad. I can’t say I recognized the building, but I enjoyed the Chicago shout out! Our tour ended in a bar where we were able to sit down and wade through a ton of propaganda from the time period. Our guide had books, postcards, games, passports, etc. I thought that the passports were particularly interesting. Hungarian citizens either had red or blue passports. One of the colors meant you couldn’t leave the country. They other allowed you to travel outside of Hungary. Hearing all of her stories made me realize how lucky we are today to have all of the freedoms and liberties that we do. Her stories were so startling that they were hard to believe.

After the tour ended we walked to the synagogue. It’s the largest in all of Europe and the second largest in the world. Unfortunately, it was closed for Passover! I was very disappointed. I tried to ask the guards if I could at least go for services, but they said no. I’m not sure if they fully understood my question, even with the help of a Canadian translator, but the answer regardless was no. If I ever return to Budapest it will be my first stop.

For dinner we tried a restaurant a girl on our communist tour recommended. She raved about it so we figured we had to try it out. Sadly, it was pretty bad. Come to think of it, the girl was in grad school in Spain and the food at this restaurant was still leaps and bounds ahead of Spain’s food. It just goes to show everything is relative.

From dinner we walked all the way to the Buda part of town. It was over a half an hour walk. We wanted to climb the hill to see Pest lit up at night. We walked about 1/6 of the way up the stairs, got creeped out on the wooded path, ran back down and walked all the way back to the hostel. Needless to say, we never got to see Pest lit up at night. I’ll add that to my things to do next time I’m in Budapest.

Tuesday was our last full day in Budapest. We hadn’t really budgeted our time very well and we kept adding more things to our agenda, which meant we didn’t have a lot of time to cover a lot of ground. Our first stop was the Széchenyi Baths. It was built in 1913. There are about 15 different baths ranging in temperature. Three are outside. We happened to be there on a beautiful day, so it was very nice to sit outside and relax in the baths (with 300 of my closest friends.) There were a fair amount of tourists, but there were also a lot of locals. From what we heard, a lot of older people have monthly passes and spend their free time there. Getting to the baths was a similar experience to a lot of the monuments we visited in Vienna and Budapest. We were right in front of it when we asked for directions. We also had some trouble getting out of the locker room to find the actual baths! It confirmed how few people spoke English. Despite the fact that it’s a pretty large tourist attraction all of the signs were just in Hungarian, which wasn’t very helpful. There was one pool that had a current in it, forcing you to swim with it in a counterclockwise circle around the edge. We spent some time in the steam, too, but it was really hot so we were unable to stay for long. While we didn’t spend very long in the steam we did spend a lot of time outside. Not having any sunscreen allowed me to tan (or burn) much faster than I had wanted. I’m glad I got rid of my winter white, though. Neither of us wanted to leave the baths, but we had so much to do.

We quickly dropped our bathing suits off at the hostel and took the metro to our next stop. We went to the central market, which had a mix of stands selling food, fast food stands and touristy vendors. It’s in a beautiful old building that used to be a train station. Briana recommended that we tried the langos, so we scoured the place to try and find it. Langos (pronounced lan-go-sh) is deep fried dough with various toppings. Just ask a Spaniard, it’s healthy! For lunch we spilt a langos with a ton of different veggies. It was quite the rip off. They had a display with the one we ordered. When they rang up the langos and two diet cokes came to the equivalent of 15 euros! Turns out the langos we ordered wasn’t on the menu with the reasonably priced items (ranging from about 3-5 euros.) Ours was the tourist trap where they charged you per ingredient. Well, you live and you learn. We couldn’t pass up getting dessert langos. I opted for mine with powdered sugar and Jan got nutella.

We ran with our langos in hand to catch the beginning of the Jewish walking tour. It was really interesting. Our guide gave tours of the synagogue, so even though we weren’t able to go in I heard a lot about it. At the end of the tour he passed around a book that had photos of the inside, so I got a glimpse of what it looks like. We missed the tour guide’s introduction, but we caught his assistant’s bio. Her name was Shirley and she was born in Israel from Hungarian parents. She was really sweet and very pregnant. It was fun to walk around town and learn about all of the Jewish stops. At this point I can’t remember all of them, but I remember going to the synagogue, seeing some of the areas that used to be primarily Jewish and stopping outside of the mikveh.

After the tour we walked back to Hero’s park (the area near the baths) to get some photos. It was absolutely beautiful out. The sun was setting, which make for a gorgeous backdrop. On our walk back to the hostel we ran into my new friend Jonathan. We had wanted to pick up a bottle of wine for our dinner at the hostel that night and Jonathan had just come from a local wine store. According to virtually every Hungarian we met, Hungarian wine is very good and on par with many other countries who boast about having superb wine. The problem Hungary has is that they don’t have enough money to market their product, which leaves it largely unknown and undiscovered worldwide. The bottle that we got was great and it was a steal, too. It was equivalent to about 10 euros or 14 dollars. I’m going to miss being able to get a really good bottle of wine for cheap in Europe.

Once we had our wine we were ready for dinner. The hostel invited all of their guests for a traditional Hungarian meal. We popped several bottles of wine to get the party started. I cannot neglect to mention the homemade Hungarian specialty shot we also had. One was plenty for a lifetime. I’m pretty sure it was the catalyst to my upset stomach; however, the massive amounts of wine probably didn’t help either. Dinner consisted of bread and a delicious soup/stew. It was really fun to meet all of the people in the hostel. There were three other Americans who were studying abroad in Prague, two Mexicans studying in Europe, my Belgium friend and several Frenchies. Most of the staff from the hostel came for dinner, too. It was a really enjoyable night. After dinner we “had” to go out for a night on the town. We started at a little hole-in-the-wall joint close to the hostel. According to the hostel employee who brought us there, they had cheap drinks. From there we went to a ruin bar not too far away. It was a really fun night and now I feel like I’ve truly experienced Budapest. You haven’t lived until you’ve been out in Eastern Europe.

We got home very late that night. Jan had to catch a 7am bus to Prague. My flight wasn’t until later in the day, but I still needed to check out of the hostel by 11am. Jan woke me up at 6:15am when she was leaving. She went to the common room to print her bus ticket and realized she never got a confirmation. I encouraged her to go anyway. Sitting around and freaking out at the hostel wasn’t going to get her anywhere. At 7am I hear someone rustling next to my head. Jan had forgotten her passport in our locker. Luckily, she realized when she was half way there, so she didn’t make the whole trek. She obviously missed the bus and had to catch the next one. My travels went a little smoother. I stayed pretty close to the hostel that morning because that Hungarian moonshine wasn’t sitting so well. I tried to find a Holocaust memorial next to the Parliament building, but to no avail.

I was told that the cheapest (and fastest) way to the airport was by train. The train station wasn’t far from the hostel so I walked. Time was ticking, the line wasn’t moving and I wanted to get on the 12:38 train. I ran to the platform and got on the wrong train. In my defense, the train I was supposed to get on looked like it was closed off. I got on the train next my 12:38 one. Thank goodness it was still going to the airport. Also in my defense there were two British girls who were equally confused and got one the same train as me thinking it was the 12:38 one. I showed my ticket stub to a Hungarian woman on the train who assured me I was on the right train in rapid Hungarian. I kept saying I didn’t understand and shook my head, but she kept on going. She was very nice and grabbed me by the arm and told me when I needed to get off. She continued with the rapid Hungarian, not that I would have understood had she spoken slower, and pushed me off the train with some hand gestures telling me which way to go once we got to the stop. At that point in time I had given up on saying I didn’t understand and just kept nodding yes. When we got off the train I asked if the British girls had caught any of that. They said no and mentioned they thought I understood since I was shaking my head yes. Either way, we found the airport!

From Budapest I flew to Paris where I finally met up with my parents! Vienna and Budapest were great. Now I just have to look forward to hopefully making it back some day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dam fun in Amsterdam!

Amsterdam does not deserve the bad reputation it has. I suppose you could find yourself in some trouble there, but that’s only if you tried. I absolutely loved Amsterdam. It’s one of my new favorite cities and I hope to go back some day. Our trip started off on an interesting note. We had to leave Sevilla Thursday night for Malaga because we had a 6am flight out of the Malaga airport Friday morning. When we arrived at the train station in Malaga there was a huge line of cabs, but the police had blocked off the exit and were not allowing them to pick up as passengers and thus causing a huge debacle. With a little luck, we were able to find a driver that hadn’t heard about this event (which I believe shortly thereafter triggered a strike) to make it to the hotel.

Briana coined a new phrase, ¨waking up Abu Simbel time.¨ That is what we had to do Friday morning. The term refers to our trip to Abu Simbel in Egypt when our driver picked us at 3am. Other than being way too early, our flight was just fine. We flew Ryanair, which literally lands across the country from Amsterdam. From the airport we had to take a bus to the train station and a train to Amsterdam. I am so glad I do not have any more Ryanair flights. I said a little prayer on my last Ryanair flight that I will never have to fly with them again. It was a beautiful moment.

I loved Amsterdam from the minute I stepped foot in the city. We found our hostel and wandered around to find a spot for lunch. We had asked the hostel for a recommendation, but her directions of go straight through the park and find the blue house, weren’t very helpful. We ended up at a cute fast food(ish) joint called Wok to Walk. Have I mentioned how we always go straight to Asian food when we travel? :)

After lunch we headed to a famous street market. It was nice, but nothing special. I bought a pretty scarf, but only because I wanted to buy just to buy. I always want to get a little something from the countries I travel to, but that has become difficult with all of my traveling. Some countries will just have to go without little mementos. Thankfully, the photos last forever.

From the street market we walked around the corner to the infamous Heineken Experience. I had seen a video of my cousin and his friends attempting to sing a Dutch song there and sadly it was enough to convince me to go. I’ve been to quite a few breweries this year and this by far was my favorite. It had a good mix of history and fun (which included several samples.)

One of my favorite things about travelling is meeting people and we met a ton of nice folks in Amsterdam. While sampling our beers at the end of ¨the experience¨ we met two guys from South Africa. One had been born there and the other considered himself his own melting pot because he had been born in Kenya, raised in France and then now lives in South Africa. I find it fascinating to hear about everyone’s stories. These two guys worked in the IT world and it allowed them to travel regularly. That particular weekend it brought them to Amsterdam.

We were feeling pretty good after leaving the Heineken Experience. It provided for an interesting walk to a nearby venue where Adele was playing. When we first booked our flight we found out she was there and desperately searched for tickets. This was several months in advance and it was already sold out. Online brokers were selling tickets for hundreds of pounds. We figured we’d try our luck and attempt to find someone selling them. Briana and I each wrote out signs in Dutch and English asking if anyone was trying to unload 2 tickets and we stood at opposite ends of the street. In the end, we never got it, but we met a lot of great people trying to find tickets! There was only one guy trying to sell tickets outside. Face value was 40 euros and he was asking for 300 euros. Pshhh was my response. I got him down to 250 pretty quickly, but that was still far out of my range. While waiting we started talking with an American couple that was living there because of the husband’s job. It was another really interesting story. I didn’t catch what he did, but they lived outside of Amsterdam and joked that this was their trip into the big city. She was in the process of starting her own organic cookie company. Their life sounded really cool. The husband’s main complaint about living in The Netherlands was the lack of tequila. They had eaten at a Mexican restaurant a few blocks away to try and satiate their tequila taste buds. They sold the restaurant well, so after giving up on Adele tickets (after almost two hours, mind you) we decided to get some Mexican food.

We had to sit at the bar because all of the tables in the tiny restaurant were taken. We ended up talking with some of the bar staff, who I think may have been the owners. Surprisingly, they were actually Mexican and the food tasted as close to Mexican outside of the Mexico as you can get. I really didn’t realize how outside of the US and Mexico, very few countries offer Mexican food. I guess we were in luck. Chatting with the owners led us to free shots. After ¨the Heineken Experience¨ this was the last thing I wanted, but we didn’t think we could turn it down. After dinner we walked back to the hostel to find a rave on our floor. I suppose it is Amsterdam, but those kids were damn annoying. I would have put them in their mid-to-late teens. I think there were on a school field trip. (Side note: what school takes a field trip to Amsterdam?!) We put in our earplugs because needed to rest up for sightseeing after getting up before the butt crack of dawn that morning.

After what felt like a wink of sleep we forced ourselves to get out and get moving! Our first stop was Anne Frank’s house. It was a really moving experience and interesting to see having heard about it my entire life and reading her diary in 6th grade. Being there made me want to read it again. There’s no furniture in the house, which made it a little difficult to place how they actually lived. Otto Frank, Anne’s dad, didn’t want the museum to be furnished. However, there are pictures of what it looked like. Leaving a place like that never makes you feel happy. We wanted to lighten the mood a bit, so we headed to Dam Square for another one of those great free tours.

The tour was great. It had just the right amount of history and social commentary. We toured the historical parts of the city, the red light district (including the Big Mama alley. Her words, not mine) learned about the canal system and the structure of the houses among many other things. Our guide enlightened us on the bizarre laws surrounding drugs in Amsterdam. She led us to believe that it’s illegal to grow or buy mass amounts, which would make the way the coffee shops get their marijuana illegal. She also told us that a law was passed that prohibits any new coffee shops from opening and that they’ve become very strict with the ones that are open. It sounds like the city is really trying to change their image.

From the tour we went to the Van Gogh Museum. I’m a real fan of his work, so it was great to see more of his pieces. I was surprised there wasn’t more I recognized. I also didn’t realize that he had had such a strong inspiration from Japanese art. Right behind the museum is the now famous Iamsterdam sign. We tried our best to get some photos without anyone else in it, but the hoards of people made that challenging. We gave up and decided to go to the hostel to get ready for the evening.

We found ourselves at a cute Italian restaurant for dinner before heading out to a bar crawl. The bar crawl was fun, but nothing special. The highlight may very well be the free funny t-shirt we got at the beginning.

Sunday morning we found ourselves back at the Iamsterdam sign. Luckily there were few tourists there so we got some great photos! My favorite is of me standing on top of the T. The sign is conveniently right next to the bus stop to the airport. From the airport we were able to catch a bus to Keukenhof. Keukenhof is a flower park in Lisse, Holland, not too far from Amsterdam. While it was pretty, I thought it was slightly overrated. I referred to it as a Disneyland on crack. It was flooded with people, insanely overpriced, eerie carnival music and you had to use your elbows to push people aside to see something. I had been looking very forward to it, so it was a little disappointing. What made up for it by leaps and bounds was the bike ride we took to the surrounding area. We rented bikes right outside of Keukenhof and were off. I’m not exactly sure what types of flowers we saw, but each was more beautiful than the last. The bike ride in itself wasn’t very long, only about 6 miles, but it look a long time because we kept getting off to take pictures of the flowers. If I had to rank it, this afternoon would serve as one of the best things I’ve done their year. I absolutely loved it!

After a fun filled day in the flower fields we had to head back to the city for dinner and to collect our bags and then back out to the airport to our nearby hotel. We were moving a little slow and didn’t realize how late it was getting. Luckily we caught one of the last shuttles to the hotel. Well, technically it was to the Novotel across the street. Our confirmation said the latest check in was 11pm and we were cutting it close. We ran into the Novotel to ask for directions and ran down the middle of the deserted street to find our little hotel. We got there and saw a note on the door. The first thing it said was that there was no reception that day. Our hearts sank. We were too late. Then we kept reading and it said we had to go around the building to the restaurant and they’d let us in. We were running like chickens with our heads cut off hoping that they’d still be open. The restaurant was closed, but there were still a few employees there who let us in. We checked in and turned the TV on to relax for a little before going to bed. We landed on some station broadcasting a show in American English about being in prison in the US. After the commercials when it was back on the title flashed across the screen, Behind Bars. And then Indiana faded onto the screen. We both burst into a fit of laughter. Here we are sitting in an airport hotel in Amsterdam, watching a show about American prisons and of all places it’s in my neighboring state and state where I went to school. I love that the world is a small place.

The next morning we had to wake up at Abu Simbel time again. This time the reception area was gated off so we had to shove our confirmation and key through the gate and pray for the best. Two weeks before leaving Ryanair changed our flight time, which meant we needed to look for a new flight. Our new schedule left us with a five-hour layover at the Barcelona airport. Aside from that, our travels went just fine.

I fell in love with Amsterdam and I can’t wait to make it back there some day!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Luck of the Irish: St. Patty's Day in Galway!

Ireland was such a treat! I’ve really grown to love that country. Early on St. Patrick’s Day we met at the Santa Justa train station to take the bus to Malaga. From Malaga we flew to Dublin and then the last leg of the trip was the bus from Dublin to Galway. It was a very long day of travel. In fact, we could have done it faster from the US!

We were greeted in Dublin by several warm, Irish smiles. It really did the trick. The people are so friendly there. It was a nice break from Spain. While in the airport we made a pit stop for bagels, clearly a necessity. After bagels we boarded the bus to Galway and we were pleasantly surprised with free wifi! Could it get any better? It was easy to find our hotel once we got there, so we quickly dropped our bags off and headed out for a night on the town! Prior to celebrating Patty’s day like the Irish (drinking) we attempted to find some food to nosh on. Most of the restaurants we passed had closed early due to the holiday. We stumbled upon a pizza place with giant pizza slices resembling the ones from home. We ate our pizza standing on the sidewalk because the tiny restaurant didn’t have many places to sit. After devouring it we went across the street to a bar called The Front Door to begin our celebration.

Walking around town from the hotel to the pizza place was quite the experience. During my first trip to Ireland I learned how drinking is often considered a sport in Ireland, and it’s one the Irish have down pat. That being said, Patty’s Day in Galway was a mess. Generally speaking, I think the country can hold their liquor very well, so it was clear how much they had drank when it looked like all hell had broke loose.

The bar was packed. It was hard to find a spot to stand and talk. Everyone really seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was so much fun! After a few drinks at The Front Door we headed down the street to another bar, whose name I cannot remember. There was a decent live band, so that was a definite plus. Live music isn’t really big here, so it was great to hear some music and even better that it was in English! We walked around for a little while, but then I decided to go home. Unfortunately, I was (and still am) battling a cold. I wasn’t going to let it effect my Patty’s Day, though. It was a fun night and only the beginning of our trip.

On Friday we woke up to a delicious Irish breakfast (another thing Spain doesn’t do so well.) After breakfast we were picked up by our tour company and brought to the bus station. We had signed up for two tours and we weren’t sure which order they would be in. The first day ended up being the trip to the Cliffs of Moher. We loaded the bus (with an entire sorority and fraternity, may I add. There are some things I really don’t miss about college and that is one of them. Needless to say, it was a rough journey with these spoiled brats.) Our first stop were the Aillwee Caves, just outside of Galway city. I kind of feel like once you’ve seen one cave you’ve seen them all. It was cool, but not the highlight of the trip.

After the caves we made a short stop at some ancient burial grounds. It was super windy, so we took a quick picture and ran back to the bus. The next stop was the Cliffs of Moher. I had been looking forward to this for months! After seeing pictures online I knew it was something not to be missed. It’s about 7 km (just over 4 miles) of cliffs 200m high. It was breathtaking. We may have crossed over the fence to get some photos. Don’t worry, we stayed far from the edge and no one fell over. While I say that semi-jokingly, our bus driver warned us that a few weeks ago a German tourist got too close to the edge and fell to this death. That shocked some sense into us and our goal of looking over the edge didn’t seem quite as important any more.

There’s an old tower close to the edge that’s open to tourists. We climbed to the very top. The winds were whipping like crazy and it began to rain. For a short period of time it was nasty outside, so we spent our last few minutes inside. Billy, our bus driver, warned us of the penalties for being late and said that he would not wait for anyone. We made sure to get back to the bus on time, considering we weren’t willing to pay the 100-euro per person cab fare back to Galway! After boarding the bus we drove a short distance to a town called Doolin. We dined in a restaurant named Fitzpatrick’s, which put a smile on my face. I couldn’t help but think of my old roommate, Molly Fitzpatrick. We ate our Irish meals and thought of Molls!

After lunch it was almost a straight shot back to Galway. We made a very quick stop by the ocean. It was beautiful with these awesome rocks that looked like they belonged in a sci-fi movie and led right up to the water. Our last stop was Dunguaire Castle. It was closed, but we took a quick walk around the grounds.

After our full day tour and the previous night out on the town, we needed to relax a little before dinner. For dinner we went to McDonagh’s fish and chips. My high school classmate Ana McDonagh’s family is from Galway and used to own this fish and chips shop. I told her we’d be sure to stop by and check on how the new owners are running the place. After dinner we were all pretty worn out, so we headed back to the hotel for an early night.

Saturday morning we were up bright and early again. Our tour took us through the Connemara region with a stop at Kylemore Abbey. Our very first stop of the day was just outside of Galway. We stopped along the beautiful coastline for some photos. Our second stop was in a little town that only spoke Gaelic. I decided to check out the harbor instead, so I missed the Gaelic. Next time, right? The next stop was also short and was an old famine town. The towns around Galway are filled with poorly made stonewalls. I thought they were really pretty and I liked how the light shined through the gapping holes. I don’t know if these walls are characteristic of the area we were in because I don’t remember seeing them when Liza and I were there during the winter.

Our main stop of the tour was Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. It was originally built for a couple as their country home. Since then it has been passed through a few families and now it’s an abbey. It’s a beautiful estate. The gardens were slightly underwhelming, however, I imagine if we’d been a few weeks later when the flowers were in bloom that it would be breathtaking. The bad weather held off for most of the day, but towards the end of our time at the abbey it started to get gross outside. The lousy, dreary weather combined with Jack’s (our bus driver) soothing voice helped put me right to sleep. When we got back to Galway we rested for a little before another night out on the town.

Sevilla’s lackluster restaurant choices always lead us to Asian food while traveling. We found a very cute Thai restaurant online and got our Asian fill until our next destination. After dinner we went back to The Front Door, the bar we had enjoyed our first night out. On Saturday there was a DJ so we rocked on the dance floor until the wee hours of the morning. Well, not really, but it sounds good. We did get our grooves on for a while and then we decided to try the bar out across the street. I was amazed to see how nicely the women dressed for an ordinary Saturday night out. I don’t remember seeing that in the other towns in Ireland I visited. While we didn’t stand out, I think it’s fair to say we were underdressed compared to many of the other women. Most were dressed in fancy cocktail dresses and heels. I’m afraid that didn’t fit in my Ryanair sized carry-on. The bar across the street was lame. It was getting late and I was getting tired. We decided to head on home, but not without a stop at our favorite pizza place. Nothing like a little greasy food to help absorb all of the alcohol we had consumed. It might have been the best pizza I had ever had.

Sunday morning we were in no rush to get up. We had a nice relaxing morning. Jan and her sister who was visiting, Leslie, went to church in the morning. Julia, Briana and I wondered around town and did what we do best: shopping. I bought a pretty Claggagh ring. Supposedly they are originally from Galway. It’s the ring with a heart being held by two hands. If your heart is “taken” you wear the heart facing inward and if you heart isn’t “taken” yet you wear the ring facing outward.

After we met up with Jan and Leslie we walked around town and down by the waterfront. Galway is a very charming city and by far my favorite out of the four Irish cities I’ve visited. That afternoon we went to a very cute tearoom down by the water. I really like Irish and English tea. Can’t get enough of it! After tea it was already time to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags and go to the train station. Train travel in Ireland, and most of Europe for that matter, is so easy. Our train was direct and painless. Once we arrived in Dublin we hopped on the tram to go to our hostel. It was near the hostel Liza and I stayed at, so I led the way. It was a great hostel! I wish I had stayed there the first time I was in Dublin. We dropped off our bags and headed to the Temple Bar area for dinner and our last few pints. For dinner we ended up at a Mexican/Italian restaurant (again trying to hit up all restaurants that aren’t Spanish.) Right across the street was the famous Temple Bar. I delighted in my last pint of Bulmer’s (hard cider) and we listened to a fun live band. For a Sunday night the bar was packed! I would imagine 90% of the occupants were tourists. Either way, it was a fun night and a nice way to end our Irish St. Patty’s getaway.

The next morning we took the bus to the airport to fly back to Malaga. Once in Malaga we had to take the train back to Sevilla. I wish Sevilla had a better airport! Luckily, the train ride from Malaga to Sevilla is absolutely gorgeous. There’s this one stretch with huge cliffs with a windy river below. I’d love to take a day trip there. It looks out of this world.

Overall, Ireland was very successful. I fell in love with Galway and hope to return some day. I have another trip to look forward to in only 10 days—Amsterdam here I come!

Hasta pronto,

Monday, March 7, 2011

Belgium: the land of beer, chocolate, waffles and fries

As the title of this post may suggest, we spent a good portion of our weekend delighting in Belgium delicacies, namely the beer. Our trip started off without any problems. We even had a direct flight from the Sevilla airport to Brussels, which is always a bonus. The flight was uneventful. The only minor issue was the two women sitting in front of me watching the TV show Undercover Boss. Normally, this would have not bothered me at all. I enjoy catching up with the American culture I’m missing back at home. The only problem was that this episode was about the Cubs. I honestly don’t know if there’s anything else that would have bothered me more. I strategically placed my book over the computer screen to avoid having to watch it. Aside from that, the flight was eventless.

From the airport we took the train into the city. We got a little lost getting to our hostel, but finally made it there. We dropped our bags off and headed to dinner. We ate in this little neighborhood that reminded me of the Latin District in Paris. It was very touristy and filled with fixed price menus. We landed on one particular restaurant with an appealing fixed price menu and the perk of a free “welcome” drink. We later learned from a friend of mine studying in Brussels that these guys are paid to stand outside and try to rope customers in. They have even been given the name Mr. Spectacular. Belgium is also known for mussels, so we figured we’d give them a try.

After dinner we were anxious to try out a bar recommended by all of our various guidebooks and several other reliable sources. The bar, Delirium, ended up being right around the corner from the restaurant. They’re known for having over 2,000 different types of beer. Upstairs alone they had about 30 different types on tap. It was out of this world. They rotate them in and out periodically. Having no clue which to sample we turned to the bartender and asked for help. I wasn’t too keen on the first one I tried. Belgium is also known for having many different types of fruit flavored beer. My second beer of the night was an apple-flavored beer, which I’d highly recommend. Our first night at Delirium was certainly the highlight of the trip and even one of the highlights of my year abroad. We met 6 British fellows that insisted we join them for some drinking games. The first game reminded me of something I would have played in my middle school drama class. It was called something along the lines for furry bunny. You have to make rabbit ears (or more like moose ears) and the people around you have to make a corresponding hand gesture. The point is to try and trick your neighbors so that they mess up and need to drink.

The second game we played was a counting game. One person starts the game by saying, I declare a game of 21 beginning to my left (or right.) If they start by saying one the people in the direction they started the game proceeds with two. If they say one, two the order changes and goes opposite of what they said. If they say one, two, three the person directly next to them in the order they originally said is skipped. Maybe I’m not doing the best job of describing this, but it was really fun. In addition to trying to trick your competitors you also don’t want to end up with the last number, 21. Since it is a drinking game, if you end with 21 you drink. Shocker, I know.

The last game was my least favorite. Not only did it again remind me of middle school drama, but also it was like my middle school nightmare. It was called the Witch and it was all about remembering the order of saying something. I’m typically good at things like this, but it was beyond annoying. Our British friends were really into it nonetheless.

All in all, the night was a blast. The bar was great and reminded me of the type of bar you’d find at home. Sadly, we’ve found that Sevilla lacks this type of bar. I guess that just means one more thing to look forward to upon coming home!

Brussels didn’t really offer a ton to do. The one thing I was looking very forward to was going on a tour of the European Union (EU) Headquarters. I had missed the tour of the United Nations because my travels fell too close to the holidays, so I was set on going to the EU. Unfortunately, after a night of drinking, the last thing I wanted to do was get up for an early (relatively speaking) tour of the EU. I guess it will just have to wait until next time I’m in Brussels! When we finally mustered up the energy to leave our lovely hostel room we walked around and explored the city. We went to the Grand Place, a large plaza, which appeared to be home to several important buildings…couldn’t tell you what they were though. We also stopped by the famous Manneken Pis statute. It was slightly underwhelming standing at a merely 1.5 feet, if that. Either way, it was cool to see it!

For lunch to headed to a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant. That’s another thing Spain lacks: diversity of food. I do find it pretty amusing that when we go to all of these foreign countries we run straight for the Asian food. After lunch we met up with my childhood friend, Zach, who’s studying about in Brussels. He was an amazing tour guide and showed us around for a few hours. It was really interesting to hear his take on Belgium and learn more about the culture through him. Zach took us to the famous Chocolate Square. Supposedly, these stores were some of the first stores to really help make Belgium chocolate famous. The first store we went in was a place just to look since everything was out of this world expensive. The temptation got to us and in the next store we each bought a few little pieces of chocolate.

We were beat after a full day of walking around and headed back to the hostel to get ready before going to dinner and another night at Delirium. Our first night at Delirium was so much fun that it was hard to live up to it the second night. That night we tried out the downstairs part of the bar. They had mostly bottled beer. I tried a raspberry beer, which was good, but not as good as the apple from the night before. We called it an early night since we needed to get up and get going to Bruges the following day.

The next morning we were delighted to see the hostel offered Speculoos. Speculoos is a Belgium delicacy that Zach recommended we try. It’s similar to the consistency of peanut butter, but it tastes like ginger bread. From breakfast we were off to our next destination: Bruges!

Bruges is only about an hour train ride from Brussels. It’s an old, beautiful town. We had a very easy time finding the hotel and we were off to explore the city. We were anxious to go to the brewery, but our map reading skills (or lack thereof) set us a little behind. Luckily, in our quest to find the wrong number 11 on the map we ended up close to the chocolate museum.

As I’m sure you all know, I love chocolate like no other. However, I continuously find these museums to be a little disappointing. This was in particular was not anything special. Many of their displays were little Lego people. At the end of the museum there was a short chocolate demonstration. That was probably the most interesting part.

That night for dinner we tried out a restaurant in my guidebook. It was almost completely lit by candlelit and just a charming little place. I opted for the ribs. I cannot remember the last time I had ribs, but these were delicious! My mom laughed when I told her I went all the way to Belgium for ribs. Supposedly they were a house specialty. Who knows, maybe ribs are popular there, too! After dinner we tried out a few of the local pubs. I tried some peach flavored beer, which was right on par with the apple. Very tasty. We decided to end the night at a disco that wasn’t too far from our hotel. Their music selection was appealing and also quite amusing. It ranged from Elvis to Lionel Richie to more recent stuff. Let’s just say I got my groove on.

The next morning we climbed the belfry, the large bell tower in the main square. It was quite the climb and semi-challenging considering there is just one tiny stairwell for people to go both up and down. I did a little social experiment on my way down and noticed it was only the Brits and the Japanese that said thank you when I stopped so they could pass. I won’t mention who didn’t say thank you, but let me just say it didn’t surprise me one bit.

After lunch and the belfry we successfully found the brewery! The tour was interesting and our guide had a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor, which made the tour amusing. At the end we got a sample. I can’t say it was the best beer of the weekend, so I left most of mine in the glass. After the tour we walked around the city a little longer before calling it quits for a break at the hotel. Coincidentally, the hotel aired several TV stations in English! Hear that Spain? It was great to relax and watch some of our good ol’ American favorites.

For our last meal in Belgium we wanted to end on a traditional note. We picked a touristy, yet traditional restaurant in the main square. I had mussels and we all enjoyed reminiscing about our weekend in Belgium.

The next morning we went to the grocery store to buy some Speculoos. From there it was time to head back to Brussels and then catch a train to the Ryanair airport which was conveniently on the other side of the country. We had flown a different (code for reputable) airline in so we were able to go directly to the main Brussels airport. In a typical Ryanair fashion, the airport they fly out of was miles away from Brussels. After reading several people’s suggestions online, we bought our tickets for the airport bus online. We didn’t have a problem finding the bus, but we did have a problem getting on.

I was worried when I saw a huge swarm of people angrily waving their tickets around the bus. I took a deep breath and prayed this wasn’t our bus. Sadly, it was. We walked into a crowd of maybe 30 people yelling, trying to get on the bus and showing the bus driver their tickets. Uh oh. This was one of those things that I’d fully expect in say Spain or Morocco, but I wasn’t expecting to have to push my way on to a bus that I already had a ticket for in Belgium. What I think had happened was that the bus driver didn’t let the people with tickets on first and then began selling tickets to anyone that wanted them. So that meant that the people who had previously purchased tickets, like us, weren’t able to get on the bus because the bus driver sold more tickets to people that were just standing there. Thanks a lot, bud.

Luckily, we were able to get on the next train, not without elbowing a few people and yelling at the bus driver may I add. Luckily again, we got there with plenty of time before our flight. Going through security was a bit of a pain. They took Briana and my Speculoos despite me arguing that it wasn’t a liquid. With a stroke of luck they sold it at the duty free store in the airport, so in the end our Speculoos made it back to Sevilla.

Our weekend in Belgium was a fun one, but after copious amounts of beer, chocolate, waffles and fries I think it’s going to have to be awhile until I return.

Hasta pronto,