Sunday, January 26, 2014

Playing "Tour Guide" in Madrid!

Hello all! I'm just going to pick up right where my last entry left off. But just to get everyone caught up, Ashley and I had already traveled to Paris, Brugge and Brussels and were now headed back to Madrid!  I was so excited to show Ashley around my current city. Although I've already had a couple of visitors this year, they've all been short-term, so usually I only have a day or night to show them around. However, having Ashley around really changed everything. I had 9 days to show her the best of Madrid, and I think I did exactly that.

Of course, our first day wasn't anything too exciting. After our non-stop travel it was nice to spend the first afternoon in Madrid doing some laundry, showering, resting and having a nice HEALTHY meal. All those Belgian waffles, fries and fried food really did us in. In addition to Ashley, I was hosting another friend and fellow Bennie, Baylee, that first night. Once Baylee arrived, we all went out to grab something to eat. It was Monday, so naturally we went to 100 Montaditos for their weekly Monday promotion. For those of you who don't know, 100 Montaditos is a restaurant that specializes in small sandwiches or "montaditos." Can you guess how many sandwiches they have on the menu? That's right, 100! Everything from traditional jamón y queso to oreos and whipped cream on chocolate bread!  On Mondays the sandwiches are only 0.50 euros. I introduced Ashley to that and she loved it. After dinner, Stavros and I took the girls out for a drink on the famous street Cava Baja in the La Latina district. We found out about a week later the the second bar we went to is one of the best in Madrid according to CNN! I guess it was a good find. It's called Taberna Tempranillo and this is the article we found it on

Enjoying the amazing view of  Madrid from Templo de Debod 
The following day was still considered a "holiday" since it's the day after Three Kings Day.  My intercambio partner/Spanish friend Isabel and I took Ashley on a tour of Madrid! Our tour spanned a full day of activities including a trip to retiro park, row boat ride in the lake at Retiro, Puerta de Alcalá, Plaza Cibeles, Plaza de Colón, Chueca, Malasaña, Plaza España, Templo del Debod, and the Prado. It was a jam-packed day but we had a blast! Also, the only thing we spent money on was lunch. That felt good after a few weeks of abusing our wallets in France and Belgium.

Wednesday I went back to work. In the morning, my roommate and her boyfriend took Ashley out to lunch, which was really nice of her. Although Ashley's Spanish is a little rusty, she managed just fine! Later, Ashley met Isabel to go Rebajas (sales) shopping! I met them in the centre after work, and we continued to shop for another hour or so. Then, we went to the Reina Sofia (contemporary art museum famous for being home to Picasso's "Guernica") the last two hours it was open because it was free entry! I had no idea there was so much free stuff to do in Madrid, you just have to do your research.  Then, we sprinted from the museum to our favorite tapas bar "El Tigre" to meet with Stavros, Alexa, Makeda and her roommates. Unfortunately, it was Makeda's last night as she decided to end the program early and head back to Chicago. It was a bittersweet night but it was fun to have Ashley at one of our regular hangouts.  We LOVE "El Tigre" (short for El Tigre del Norte) because with your drink comes endless amounts of food, and I truly mean ENDLESS. The servers will continue to bring you platters of food until you ask them to stop.  The food is typical Spanish bar food which means a lot of bread, ham, potatoes and meat.  Later that night we had one last group hug and said our goodbyes to Makeda. Like a said, a bittersweet night.

Thursday Ashley came along to work with me! I had it okay-ed ahead of time with the teachers, so I was really excited to take Ashley around my school. Most of my co-teachers worked Ashley into the lesson was well. The students interviewed her and asked her all about her life in the US.  She was a natural with all of the kids, and we had a really fun day. After work on Thursday Alexa, Stavros, Ashley and I went to a Real Madrid futbol game! It's been on my bucket-list of things to do while in Madrid, so Ashley's visit seemed like the perfect time to do it! We paid for the cheapest seats 20 euros, and we expected a not-so-great view. But man, were we wrong.  Real Madrid's stadium, Esadio Bernabéu, is absolutely incredible.  It's capacity is 85,000+ yet there is not a bad seat in the house.  Furthermore, we bundled up because it was a chilly night but it wasn't even necessary because the entirety of the outdoor stadium is HEATED! I don't want to know what that bill looks like. Anyway, the game was fun to watch; Real Madrid has some of the best players in the world! But, just being in that incredible stadium and the atmosphere of the futbolismo was entertainment enough. As Alexa said, "Why does this feel religious? Because it is"

Friday, Alexa took Ashley around Madrid while I was working.  Afterwards I met up with the two of them, and we went to the infamous San Gines, which has the best churros and chocolate in all of Madrid. Ashley had loved the Real Madrid game so much that we decided to go to the Real Madrid basketball game on Friday night.  Seats were even cheaper (only 8 euro!) so we thought it would be foolish not to go. The game was fun to watch because once again, Madrid is the best team in the league and has some amazing players (including a few Americans!).  After the game we met up with some friends for a drink and went to bed early. We had a big day to follow.

Saturday we took a day trip to Toledo! Like Segovia, it's only 30 minutes away buy fast-train and is a mere 20 euros for the roundtrip ticket.  We only had about 6 hours in Toledo so we didn't waste any time. We took an audio-guided city tour on a cute little train-on-wheels that took us through and around Toledo. This tour was worth it just for the once view of Toledo from the outside, it's an absolutely breath-taking city. After our tour, we enjoyed a long Spanish lunch and then explored the city the rest of the time.  Later that night, after arriving back in Madrid, Alexa, Stavros and I took Ashley out for a proper night in Madrid! We had a lot of fun, and stayed up late just like the true Spanish way.

Sunday was pretty chill but we still managed to fit in some touristy goodness like going to the Sunday "El Rastro" market, lunch at Mercado San Miguel, taking the Teleférico (chairlift) to Casa de Campo and back, and going to Sunday night mass at "La Almudena."

Monday was Ashley's last day and we decided to spend the first half on a walking tour of Madrid. It's a little embarrassing how little I know about Madrid after living here for 4 months, so I was just as excited as Ashley about this tour. We learned all about Madrid's history, the Hapsburg kings and insider stories of the city. I really enjoyed learning more about my city! Later on, we walked down to Rio Manzanares so Ashley could see the river, and went back to the Prado to see the rest of the masterpieces that we missed after the first visit. Since it was Ashley's last night, I rounded up a few of my friends and we went out for tapas. I must admit, with Ashley being a picky eater, I was nervous about her reaction to the Spanish cuisine. However, she surprised me! There's tons of things she tried and loved like the ham, croquetas, patatas bravas, Spanish tortilla, paella and of course, all the pastries. I was happy that she enjoyed everything so much! After tapas, Ashley said goodbye to all of her new friends and then we headed back to my place so she could finish packing.

Ashley left on an early flight on Tuesday morning. It was sad saying goodbye, but we had an amazing time! I was so happy at how easily we were able to travel together, and she was an extremely grateful guest. The best part about Ashley's visit, was I got to rediscover all the reasons I loved Madrid! After living somewhere for a while, it becomes your normal and doesn't seem as amazing anymore. But, the truth is that Madrid is an amazing city that has a lot to offer gastronomically, historically, esthetically and in entertainment. Furthermore, she helped me cross off a few things on my Madrid bucket list, and helped me find the free and cheap events of the city. I couldn't have asked for a better visitor. Can't wait for my next one!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Winter Break: Italian Alps, the City of Lights, Beer Capital and Good Company

It's been a long time since my last update, but there are many reasons why. The in the last 3-4 weeks, I've been traveling around western Europe and hosting a friend. It's been exhausting, but in the best sort of way. There's so much to catch up on so I will do my best to cover everything without going into too much detail. No one wants to read a 1,000+ word blog post ;)
My winter break trip started in the same place it did last year, Italy! Once again, I was invited by my former neighbors in the US to stay with them for Christmas.  I'm so lucky to have a home-away-from-home for the holidays in Europe as holidays can be a lonely time if there's no one to spend it with. Anyway, I stayed in Italy for four days and ate lots of good food and spent a lot of time on the couch relaxing.  My time on the couch was the result of being sick with a nasty cold and the bad weather, it rained nearly the whole time I was there, just like last year.  Luckily, on the last day of my stay the clouds party literally and figuratively because I finally got better and the sun came out! The family I stayed with live on Lago Maggiore, a giant lake that straddles the Swiss-Italian border. Although I know that the Alps are close to the lake, I've never been able to see them because of the fog and low-hanging clouds. That all changed on my last day. Daniel (my best friend as a little kid) took me to his special place, which was only a 15 minute walk through the woods near his house. On the way, he also pointed out the ruins of the Roman wall that used the be the northen border of the Roman empire. Nearly 2,000 years old and right in their backyard, HOW COOL IS THAT? Finally, we hopped over a fence then, I knew I had arrived at the special spot. It is a small cliff that hangs about 150 feet over Lago Maggiore. To my left stretched the lake father than I could see and to my right, the snow-capped Italian Alps. My mother would have probably had a heart attack if she saw where I was standing. Falling off this cliff would surely mean my death but being that high above the lake with that beautiful of a sight gave me the adrenaline rush that I so often crave! We spent about a half hour at the special spot but then we went back to the house as we had much more to do before I departed that night. We took a ferry across the late form Angera to Arona, two small picturesque Italian lake-side towns. We walked around and had a coffee but then it was time for me to go. I said my goodbyes and was driven to the airport to head off to Paris. It was a great stay and I loved every minute, but with my newly healthy body, I was ready for some adventure in France!
Daniel's "Special Spot"

I arrived in Paris at nearly midnight. I took one of the last trains into the centre where I met my friend Chris who I haven't seen in a few years! Backstory: 3 years ago when I was traveling in Peru with my friend Caroline, we meet these three nice Aussie boys from Melbourne. We got along so well, that we ended up traveling together for about 5 days. We've always stayed in touch, and about a year ago Tim (one of the aussies) said he, Chris (another aussie) and some friends were planning on doing a Euro trip the following year and were hoping to see me! So we chose Paris as our New Years Eve destination and have been planning on reuniting ever since! It was great to see them again after all those years (although I did see Chris two years ago when we visited Minnesota for a weekend during a family trip in the US). The first night Chris and I got a drink and then we crashed. The following day I was reunited with Tim and introduced to the rest of the group: Tim's girlfiend Justine, James (a childhood friend of Chris), and James' girlfriend Nikki. They let me stayed in the apartment they had rented the second night, and we spent the day exploring Paris a bit. The next day, my friend Ashley arrived! Backstory: Ashley is a friend of mine from Eden Prairie (hometown) and she spontaneously decided to visit me about a month prior! It was an exciting surprise. Anyway, Ashley and I checked into our hostel (St. Christopher's Inn Canal, Paris. I'd highly recommended it to any young budget traveler) and then did some exploring of our own. Throughout the next few days Ashley and I (and sometimes the aussies joined us) hit all the main tourist sights including Versailles, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, etc.  We spent a special New Years Eve night at the aussies apartment. We had a delicious dinner and shared some drinks. Then we went to the famous lock-bridge and watched the Eiffel Tower light up at midnight! There were tons of people on the bridge hooting and celebrating and sharing champagne.  It was a New Years I'll never forget.

Ashley and I parted ways with the aussies the days after New Years day as they were going to Amsterdam and us to Belgium. It was sad but Ashley and I were excited to see Belgium. After a 6 hour bus ride and one hour train we arrived in Brugge! Now I'm going to be honest, I knew nothing about Brugge (sometimes spelt Bruges) before getting there except for EVERYONE that's been there says it beautiful and raves about it. Also, there's a fairly well known thriller movie called "In Bruges" that was filmed there a few years back.  So I had no idea what to expect from Brugge, but I was not disappointed.  Brugge is one of the most picturesque cities I've ever been to. I found out during our walking tour that it's one of the best preserved medieval cities in all of Europe. The houses reminded me of gingerbread houses or something from a fairytale. Beyond the colorful, beautiful buildings there is a river that forms many canals which wind throughout the small city. Between the cobble stone streets, winding roads, foot bridges, and stunning architecture, Brugge is insanely beautiful. But there's much more to Brugge than it's beauty. The people are friendly and there's many tasty things to eat and drink. Everyone knows Belgium is known for four things: beer, fries, chocolate and waffles. Although tasty, it wasn't the best for my health.  My favorite of all was the beer. Over the past few years, due to my brother's experimentation with brewing his own beer, I've really become interested in craft beer and beer in general. The beer in Spain is pretty ordinary, so being in the beer capital of the world was a little slice of heaven for me! The first night we were there, we did a beer tasting at our hostel, the best decision of the whole trip. Not only did we sample and learn about many Belgian beers, but we also met a ton of great people that were staying out our hostel.  We met a group of three siblings from Australia who were traveling together, two guys from Cali, a chinese guy among others. This group of us immediately clicked and we ended up spending the next two days together trying the local beers and exploring Brugge. Some of the cool things I did/saw in Brugge included getting to see the supposed "blood of Jesus Christ", going to a French Fry museum where I learned more info than I'd ever need to know about fries, and seeing all the famous buildings and towers. Honestly, the best part was the beer and the company though.

After 2.5 days in Brugge, we said goodbye to most of our friends (a few hostelmates were traveling in the same direction as us) and headed on to Brussels. Now, I don't want to badmouth Brussels, but everyone we had met that visited Brussels before Brugge said Brussels was nothing special. So we weren't too excited for Brussels, thinking it would just be a dull European capital city. But, we were pleasantly surprised. In our two days in Brussels we took a wonderful walking tour which showed us the main sights of the city, including the famous peeing baby statue! We also happened upon a GIANT Christmas market which was buzzing with locals and travelers alike and lit with bright lights. The market was like so many others that I've seen with stands selling everything from mulled wine, to local food and handmade goods! This Christmas market also included tons of places to try Belgian beer, carnival rides and a skating rink. It quickly topped the list of every Christmas market I've ever been to. Another highlight of Brussels including visiting the infamous "Delirium" which is a bar that has a selection of 2,004 beers! Although choosing what beer to drink was a bit overwhelming, the experience was unforgettable. Imagine a bar with three levels, multiple bars on every level selling different beers, and hundreds of people from all over the world there for one common passion, BEER! They had everything from a cherry flavored beer to a beer with 14% alcohol to Budweiser (God, WHY?!). Also, in Brussels we continued to munch on fries and dipped them in many different sauces.  At fry stands they don't have just ketchup, mustard and mayo... but a wide range of dipping sauces with pickle sauce, andalouse sauce, and spicy curry sauce always making the list. We also tried a more traditional Belgian waffle which instead of being topped with "touristy toppings" like ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce, was simply topped with powdered sugar. The last thing I have to mention is Grand Place, Brussels' main plaza. On our walking tour they said some people consider it to be the most beautiful plaza in all of Europe and after seeing it, I have to agree. The buildings are all so beautiful and the plaza has very few signs of modern influences (big neon signs, McDonalds, etc.).  What made this better is that both nights we were there, they'd have a music and light show every 15 minutes or so. They coordinated lights of every color against buildings with music, and it was quite the sight to see.  After two days in Brussels, I can honestly stay that it IS worth a stop, don't just pass over it like many people may tell you to. But the bigger mistake would be skipping Brugge, because it is one of the most unique, interesting and picturesque cities I've ever seen.
Grand Place mid light show!
Well, there's a lot more to Ashley and I's adventure, but it includes 9 days of activities in Madrid. So, I'm going to save that for my next blog entry. Until then, hasta luego.