London

I can’t believe it’s already been almost two months since I met two of my best friends in London. Time doesn’t exist for me in Europe, it just slips by unnoticed between countries. Two summers ago I traveled to London with my sister, and I absolutely loved the city and the rather sassy people, so needless to say I was excited to return with Kelly and Ansley for round two. I don’t know what it is about London that has me so hooked, maybe it’s the accent or the blind belief that I’ll meet and marry a Jude Law lookalike, but the city has me charmed nonetheless.

They say that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. We were there for three and a half days and were ready to cover some serious ground. Of course we had to do the typical tourist-y stuff: the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Harrods, Big Ben.. These are all places that I had visited with Shannon a few years ago, but I just as excited to throw down 17 sterling to ride the London Eye as I was then. There were a few places that I had missed on the first trip and was eager to see this time: Notting Hill and Portobello Market, Kensington Palace, the changing of the guards, and of course enjoy scones and a traditional British afternoon tea.

Notting Hill was one of the most quaint and colorful little areas that I’ve ever been to. With cobblestoned streets lined by Victorian townhomes, it’s easy to see why it’s got such cinema cred. Not to mention Portobello Market is a rummager’s dream. The little antique shops and cafes overflowing onto the street that’s already packed with people makes for such a fun and energetic atmosphere. After crowding into a little cafe for a mid-morning pick-me-up of brownies and cupcakes, we hopped back on the double decker and made our way to Harrods for an afternoon of shopping.

I would say that the highlight of the trip for me was afternoon tea and Kensington Palace. A friend of ours who is studying in London recommended that we take afternoon tea at a place called the Saatchi Gallery. She definitely didn’t steer us wrong, the restaurant was amazing. We enjoyed scones, crumpets, finger sandwiches and the accents of the Brits seated nearby, and left that evening feeling very posh indeed. The next morning we woke up to a freezing cold rain, and figured that there was no better place to take cover than in Kensington Palace. I happen to be a huge fan of Will and Kate, and get made fun of very often for the keychain that hangs off of my apartment keys, so visiting the Palace is now one of my all-time favorite memories. The tour is informative and fun, and seeing Princess Diana and former royals’ gowns is definitely worth the entrance fee.

Something that I hadn’t noticed about London the first time around is that life is very structured there. Maybe it’s only because I’ve been living in Madrid for a few months now that I noticed the stark difference in lifestyles, but it really stood out to me nonetheless. In Madrid, no one tells you to “Mind the gap” or to “Take care” if the floor is slippery. Even the washrooms had signs demonstrating how to turn on the tap or how to flush the toilet. I’ve never seen anything like that in Madrid, people just seem to march to the beat of their own drums in Spain. The other cultural element that stood out to me was the amount of personal space that was considered acceptable. In Madrid (I think it’s fairly common in southern Europe), personal space is a non-issue. You get used to brushing up next to people on the metro, double kissing strangers, and sitting within six inches of other diners in restaurants. In England, people were very polite and cognizant of not being too close to anyone else on the metro and ensuring that you wouldn’t be rubbing elbows with anyone else. The things you learn while studying abroad…

Last thoughts on London – I love the way they speak. Here are a few phrases and words that are now a permanent part of our vocabulary:

  • “That’s so posh.”
  • Quid – slang for sterling
  • “Are you right?” Heard in every store/restaurant/hotel and is synonymous with “How are you?”
  • Trolley
  • Queue – line
  • Mind the gap
  • Love – I love being called “love.”

And here are a few pictures from our weekend:

Dress up in Notting Hill

Worshipping

Saatchi Gallery Afternoon Tea

 

Six Weeks Worth of Wandering

Blogging was one of the things that I was most looking forward to while traveling abroad. I mean, my dream is to be a food and travel blogger one day, but what I didn’t realize is how easy it is to get caught up between maps, planes, trains, languages, and new faces. Over the last six weeks I’ve traveled to Lisbon, Oporto, London, and Paris, and have seen two of my closest friends and my parents. Needless to say, blogging was put on the back burner (unfortunately!). Every single day in Europe has brought little triumphs and new challenges (how do you say cinnamon in Spanish or act it out in a way that the grocer will understand you?), and it is these little moments that have made my European experience truly invaluable. So where to start when I have six weeks worth of stories to tell? I suppose this post will begin in Portugal.

Eating, drinking, and strolling are the three ways that I would sum up Portugal. A group of nine of us started this journey in Lisbon, easily one of the most charming places that I’ve ever seen. The lightly faded albeit very colorful buildings were there to greet us as soon as we came up from the underground, lining the cobblestone streets of the city center. Unfortunately the weather was cold and rainy the entire time that we were there, but a little rain never stopped anyone from having a good time. After arriving at the hostel, cold, wet, and a little hungry, we ventured out into the city where we encountered the most picturesque tram cars making way on their daily route. What was a normal mode of transportation for the Portuguese was the perfect photo-op for me… My friends found it funny that whenever I tried to snap a photo the tram, the driver would inevitably decide that it was time to move. Image

….While I couldn’t seem to get the perfect picture with the trolley car, my friend snapped a photo to sum-up the struggle.

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The view from right outside of our hostel!

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On the second day in Lisbon, we took a train four miles outside the city to visit Belem. This little place was a treasure chest of interesting things to see. Belem is home to the Torre de Belem (frequently seen on Pinterest ;), Jeronimos Monastery where you can see the resting place of Vasco da Gama, the Discoveries Monument, and Pasteis de Belem – the home of one of the most famous desserts on the Iberian Pensisula since 1837. I highly recommend a trip to Belem, if not for all the sights then at least for the pasteis – this little bakery pulls more of a line than any of the other places combined! Here are a few pictures from our day trip:

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Torre de Belem

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For some reason, the Portuguese street performers ALWAYS have their chihuahuas on hand.

Something that I found very interesting while in Portugal was that almost everyone could speak perfect English. And not only could they speak English, they could speak Spanish and French in addition to their native tongue. I started asking various Portuguese people why this was – their response was that they don’t “dub” English films or books. They learn to read, speak, and write through watching movies and reading books in English (or French or Spanish). This really inspired me to work on my language ability, and as soon as I got back to Madrid I purchased Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Spanish (talk about a mind-marathon).

After two days in Lisbon and a short, but very funny train ride including boxed wine, we arrived in Oporto. By far the highlight of our time here was the port tasting. It was remarkable how the sommelier was able to tell us the most exact details about the origins of our wine, down to the type of barrel the wine was fermented in. The port was very sweet and very strong, but incredibly enjoyable. Heck, I felt like I could be a wine expert by the time we walked out the door (giggling the whole time, mind you). After the tasting we were ready for some serious franceschina or bacalao (both very traditional Portuguese dishes) to satisfy our port-induced appetites. A brief consultation with our TripAdvisor apps brought us to the perfect restaurant to satisfy these cravings, and a few hours later we were ready to see the nightlife in Oporto.

The nightlife in Oporto was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Imagine hundreds of people of all ages spilling out between clubs, bars, and restaurants, with snippets of old-school pop background noise every time a door was swung open, and you’ll find yourself somewhere between Oporto and your 90s throwback days. The first place that we went to was PACKED to the point where you were rubbing elbows with the multi-lingual person next to you. The DJ drops a few beats and on comes N*sync, a little Crazy a la Britney, and old-school Aguilera and by the screams of the crowd you would have thought MJ had risen for a private concert. As soon as the song was on long enough for it to be recognizable, the crowd was singing along to every. single. word in the most uniquely accented way imaginable. This experience was enough for me to fall in love with Oporto… and renew my interest in my middle school-esque jams, jean overalls, and scrunchies.

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Mercado de San Anton

I love good food. Taking pictures of it, eating it, being in the presence of it. And I especially love fresh, local food which is exactly what I found in Mercado de San Anton. Nestled in the barrio de Chueca, Mercado de San Anton houses multiple vendors, a rooftop restaurant, and a grocery store, all of which left me wanting to eat more. In this market you can find enormous ostrich eggs, fresh sweet potato chips with fruity white wine characteristic of the Canary Islands, truffles galore, and multiple wine/sangria/mojito vendors. The people are friendly, the food is worthy of Michelin stars, and the atmosphere is relaxing and inviting. This place is definitely going to be one my favorite hang-outs in Madrid.

While in Chueca, be sure to visit (or stay at!) the Only You Hotel & Lounge. Duck in for a drink, tapas, or just to soak in the atmosphere, because I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in such a pretty hotel. While the lobby is not extravagant, the large windows filter in light that reflect beautifully on the white washed walls and tan leather furniture. From the moment you step into the hallway, you can see that each sitting room is decorated tastefully and beautifully, with attention to the tiniest of details. Mirrors line the way to the reception area, where you’re sure to find a friendly face and and the loveliest of lobbies.

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Only You Hotel & Lounge

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http://www.onlyyouhotels.com

Touring Toledo

Who knew that this pretty little city played such an important role in the history of Spain? Toledo is the two thousand year old, former capital of Spain and current capital of autonomous region Castilla-La Mancha that is lovingly dubbed “The City of Three Cultures.” Toledo has a certain charm, primarily because it has been home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and architectural influences of each can be seen around every corner. As a matter of fact, every culture that has ruled Toledo has left some sort of indelible mark on this craggy hilltop leaving a treasure chest of art, architecture, and some of the finest swords in the world amongst its’ winding roads.

Fun Facts: In 1986, Toledo was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s home to the third largest Catholic cathedral in the world, and the famous painter El Greco lived here.

Below are a few snapshots from our trip:

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That view though

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Narrow streets

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The original 2000 year old street

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Inside the Toledo Cathedral

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The main chapel of the Cathedral.. That’s all gold

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The Toledo Cathedral, built on the site of an old mosque

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Pretty sites through every peep hole

 

Madrid Musings

Before studying abroad I attended three pre-departure sessions, learned enough history to be a tour guide, and read Lonely Planet religiously. I was was incredibly curious about Spanish culture to begin with, and I wanted to find out if everything that I was reading was true. So often I read and heard that “Spanish culture is just different.” You can make that argument for any culture, but there are things that I’ve noticed here that are strikingly different than other countries that I’ve visited. Below is a collection of observations that I’ve found to be interesting, funny, and charming. The Spanish undoubtedly have a certain “je nais se quois.”

1. Spaniards do WHATEVER they want, WHENEVER they want. Por ejemplo: You think parking in the US is bad. We think that parking in the Royal Village visitor parking is even worse.. If there’s not a parking spot available for a Spanish driver, they’ll make their own. Seriously who needs lines when you can simply park in the middle of the street? In the residential area more often than not you’ll see a row of cars on each side in their respective lines, but you’ll notice there’s very little room for them to get out. That’s because the Spanish drivers say YOLO and start a new row smack in the middle of the aisle that you’re supposed to be driving down… Yet there never seems to be a gridlock of traffic or accidents. Trust me, I’ve been awestruck at least a dozen times already watching a spanish driver squeeze in a half an inch of space.

2. Tipping is completely unnecessary here. Taxis, restaurants, concierges: tipping is a foreign concept to them. While they’ve become somewhat accustomed to having Americans (and Brits usually) tip them, it’s not expected. If you feel the need to tip the accepted custom is to round up to the next dollar.

3. You can’t split a check. If you’re going for tapas and drinks with friends, expect to share the bill equally. The only thing you’ll get by asking them to split the check is an eye roll. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

4. P.D.A. is on a whole new level. If you’re expected to kiss strangers on each cheek (starting with the left), then it’s obviously acceptable to make out from top to bottom of an escalator. Or get stuck in a turnstile because you’re attached to your novio’s lips. Or both.

5. Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. This is because, according to Rosa (my host mom), the people here like to have fun, they don’t want the added responsibility, and it’s expensive. She also says that men are “muy aburrido” and that we are young and should be livin la vida loca. #PreachGurl

6. In the US, it’s common to invite people over to your house, apartment, dwelling, whatever to pre-game, eat dinner, and just hang out. Here, the flats are rather small and the people would rather be entertained at a local tapas bar than in the casa. No clean up necessary.

7. My favorite difference here: the people work to live, they don’t live to work. They aren’t rushed, they don’t seem stressed, and they believe in living life to the fullest. In the words of Rosa: YOLO.

Barrios de Madrid

I can’t believe that it’s already been over a week since we’ve been here. I’m already so in love with this city, and I’m pretty convinced that I was born a madrileña at heart. Time doesn’t seem to exist here, the days go by fast and the nights seem to go even faster. We’ve done a fair bit of exploring, but mainly in the touristy-areas: Plaza Mayor & Royal Madrid (where I live!), and Sol, Santa Ana, & Huertas. Along with those barrios (neighborhoods), Madrid is home to the La Latina & Lavapies district, Malasana & Chueca, and Salamanca. The nomad in me is dying to get lost in all of these neighborhoods because I have a feeling there will be a few gems of stores and restaurants in these areas, particularly in Salamanca. Here’s what I know from the locals about each barrio:

Plaza Mayor & Royal Madrid: Basically the Times Square of Madrid

Sol, Santa Ana, & Huertas: The soul of the city, and it also happens to be where the famous kilometer zero plaque is. Puerta del Sol translates to “Gate of the Sun” so it makes sense that this is where the city’s heart lies.

La Latina & Lavapies: Immigrant areas with a unique mix of ethnicities, locals, and tourists

Malasana & Chueca: Malasana is an up & coming, trendy neighborhood with a young bohemian vibe while Chueca is known for welcoming gay couples with open arms. This area is poppin’ (and let’s be real, it’s pimpin’ too) all hours of the night. We actually went to a club called T-Club in this area last night… It was crazy and so much fun.

Salamanca: The Upper East Side of the city. This area is known for fine dining, upscale shopping, and a high class crowd. This is the barrio that I’m most eager to explore. :)

 

Mercado de San Miguel

The Eataly of Espana. Mercado de San Miguel is located in the heart of Old Madrid, just outside of Plaza Mayor. It’s a collection of restaurants all housed under the same exquisitely decorated roof and attracts quite the trendy crowd. Each restaurant within the mercado specializes in something: wine, beer, tapas, carne, pesce, desserts, you name it. The place is sensory overload for your taste buds, with everything in there looking just as good as it tastes. I have a feeling that I’ll be frequently this place quite a bit throughout the semester! Just looking at the pictures is making me hungry: http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es

Spanish Mojitos: love at first sip

Apertivos

El Rastro: Treasure Hunting

The farmer’s market at home is basically a weekend staple for my family, so when I found out that there was one in Madrid I knew I had to go. I’ve always been a fan of markets, but there’s something especially captivating about a crowded European market overflowing with venders and buyers. El Rastro is one of the oldest open-air flea markets in Europe, dating back to the 15th century. While it used to be a rogue hot spot, the Rastro quarter now attracts locals and travelers alike eagerly wandering the streets to find the much anticipated gems hidden amongst clothing, jewels, leather, and textiles. Browsing over 1000 stalls can be tiring, but the experience and atmosphere of the place is definitely worth it. Here’s a few snapshots we took along the way:

La Comida

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m obsessed with good food. I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I got here about the food or the eating schedule, and I wish I did so that I could’ve had a heads up. So for anyone who’s coming to Spain, whether it be a student, tourist, old and young person alike, I think it’s important to understand the food culture of this country. Here’s a typical day of eating:

Desayuno (breakfast): Super super super strong coffee and toast

Mid-morning (11:30 is mid-morning here): Small snack, maybe another cup of coffee

Comida (almuerzo is how we learn it in the US, happens around 3:00): The biggest meal of the day. Typically two courses + postre, which is usually fruit sprinkled with sugar.

Cena (dinner, around 10:00): Very light tapas and drinks. One of my favorite things about Madrid is that if you go to a tapas bar and order a drink, you get tapas for free at most places. If you’re unaware of this just ask, they usually don’t tell the foreigners that the tapas are free.

One other thing to make note of: the Spaniards LOVE their olive oil. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil in the world, so it’s not uncommon to find half of that production on your salad.

Sun’s Up, We’re Down

Rumor has it that Madrid is more lively at night than it is during the day, and after last night I can attest to that. The real bars don’t even open until around midnight or one, with even the most mild partiers staying out until at least half past three. Supposedly 3:00 is when the hottest crowds come out, so it seems Americans are doing it wrong with bars closing around that time… Who needs an after party when the actual party doesn’t ever stop? These sun-seeking Spaniards have partying down to the T.

Last night was our first night out in Madrid, so we were pretty excited to experience the buzzy  nightlight that we had kept hearing about. We went to three places, the first called Tiffany, in an area of Madrid called Chamartín. A promotor friend of ours told us that this place was poppin’ on Friday nights, but apparently we got there too early to experience the magic of madrileño fiesta-ing. So we took the party elsewhere after figuring out a completely different metro schedule (the metro lines don’t run as frequently and are subject to change at night) and found ourselves with a group of international students from France, Poland, Canada, England and a handful from the University of Geogria (Go Gators). From there we took it to Palace, which I wouldn’t recommend. The dance floor wasn’t as alive as I expected and drinks were expensive, so the group jumped ship and headed for Dubliner’s: a classic international student hang out spot. I had heard about it from friends who had studied here previously, and the place definitely lived up to their word. Students from all over the world rubbing elbows and toasting to life in multiple languages definitely makes for a vibrant atmosphere, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a casual but cool hang out.

Here’s a few links to the places that I mentioned:

http://www.tiffanysmadrid.es

http://www.discotecapalace.es

http://www.irishpubdubliners.com/en