Barcelona: Round Two

The last time I went to Barcelona I left a bit disenchanted. I did not feel any sort of spark or special connection with the city like a lot of my friends who constantly sing its praises. Regardless, when my boyfriend wanted to treat me to a celebratory hot air balloon ride there, I could not say no and we packed our bags and were off on Friday.

We got in early afternoon and I could not help but make our first stop La Boqueria, my absolute favorite market that I knew I needed to show him. We grabbed fresh juices while perusing all the stalls before settling down at a bar in the midst of it all for some arroz negro and the first patatas bravas of many this trip.Afterwards, it was prime beach weather so we took a stroll down to the water to check out the beach. It was packed but still a relaxing stop for some sun and sand.On our way back to our hostel, we wandered through Parc de la Ciutadella. It was a lot less touristy than Park Guell and had some interesting statues scattered throughout. I have never heard a lot about it but would happily return for a relaxing afternoon.  That night, we spent more time by the water at restaurant Bestial where I had a delicious seared tuna. We cashed in early because we had to be up at 5:30 in the morning on Saturday for our hot air balloon ride. We were picked up in the city center and driven about an hour to the town of Vic where our balloon was going to take off. Once everything was set up, we floated away with four other people plus our conductor for an hour.It was definitely scary at first but after the conductor told his about his years of experience, I could relax a bit. At the end, they treated us to champagne and grilled cheese sandwiches that they prepared using the fire from the hot air balloon. It was a bit of a surreal morning as I have wanted to go on a hot air balloon for the longest time. Now, I just want to fly around in one all over the world!

We got back to the city around 11 already feeling like we had done a lot that day. Even so, Gabe indulged my desire to go see the artwork of one of my favorite artists, Joan Miró, at his museum on the hill of Montjuic. After a delicious lunch of montaditos at Quimet & Quimet, we were in need of a rest before meeting his sister and her boyfriend for dinner at La Paradeta.

I knew I wanted seafood this weekend and this was the prime spot. After waiting in line for almost an hour, we made our way to the front where there is a huge selection of fresh fish (the lobster was still moving). You pick what you want and how you want it, sit down, and wait for it to be prepared. Thankfully, I was with a local who had been there before so left him to order and it was perfect. We had fresh oysters, shrimp, grilled octopus, razor clams, mussels in amazing tomato sauce, and grilled lobster. You can imagine I was in heaven.The next morning we made our way to La Sagrada Familia to ensure they were making some progress on building it (they are), and then had a delicious lunch at Cervecería Catalana. We wandered around the city a little bit more before beginning our journey back to Madrid late that afternoon.

The takeaway? I certainly enjoyed my time in Barcelona more than before and I think the warm weather had something to do with it. I still do not think I would ever live there but for vacations (and hot air balloon rides), it fits the bill. This trip marked the beginning of the end of my time here in Spain. Thankfully, these next few weeks are sure to be filled with fun.

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Doing Damage in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of those cities I always knew I wanted to go to but without real reason. With time ticking away, I only have a few more weekends to squeeze in all the trips I want to do and made this one a priority. When a group of my friends mentioned they wanted to organize a visit, I made sure to jump on that ship quickly and before I knew it, we had flights and hostels booked for (yet another) long weekend in April. We spent four nights there and, while I could have spent more, it definitely wore this girl out.

Typical Amsterdam

I heard Indonesian food was a must-eat in Amsterdam (if someone could let me know why, I’d appreciate it). Indo-restaurant Kantjil & de Tijger was our first stop after our hostel for a late dinner. It could have been our ravenous hunger from the long trip, but the typical meal of rijsttaffel was amazing. You basically get a few bowls of rice and a bunch of little plates with different types of meat and veggies with delicious sauce ladled on top. We literally scraped every last plate clean.

Our fraternity-house-like hostel, The Bulldog, was conveniently situated in the midst of the Red Light District. I really did not know what to expect from this part of town, as everyone I talked to before the trip would try to change the subject as quickly as possible. Now I know why and will proceed to do the same… It’s definitely just something you need to see.

We were also around the corner from Dam Square

The next morning, we hopped on a  SANDEMANs NEW Europe tour. If you have never been on one of these, they are definitely worth checking out. It is basically a free tour led by really cool people working for your tips. They offer them in cities all over (including here in Madrid!) Plugs aside, we got lucky with our guide, a Dutch-Canadian girl who ended up becoming our best friend. After the three-hour walking tour all around the city, she hooked us up with a two-hour canal tour which she also came on (I think she was happy for the company). We were able to eat, drink, and blast music while navigating all the canals. We proceeded to go to a bar with her after too, leading her to declare this that it was the longest tour she ever gave. We decided to relieve her of her duties after that.

On the boat with our tour guide, Lee

The next day we began at the Anne Frank Museum, which was really great, especially since I am in the middle of reading the Diary of Anne Frank. After a quick stop through the Noordermarkt, a food and flea market, we had a delicious lunch in a hole-in-the-wall cafe where I got a slice of appeltaart!

All it needed was a scoop of ice cream

Next, we went to the Rijksmuseum and saw some masterpieces although the main building is under construction until next year. We ended up right in front of the infamous sign.

Should say "I amsterdam"

A favorite street food of Amsterdam is one of my favorite anytime foods: french fries. They serve them piping hot in paper cones and offer an array of sauces. Their specialty? Mayo. I was skeptical at first but it’s not the same white stuff we can find jarred stateside.

French fry heaven.

The next day we headed to The Hague, the capital of South Holland and a city that has a lot of political significance for the Netherlands. We had a leisurely lunch in a plaza, walked around the city, and saw the Peace Palace, the home of the International Court of Justice.

Peace Palace garden

Before heading back the hostel, we stopped for more waffles and pancakes at the fair in Dam Square. I could eat these all day every day.

Words cannot describe

The next 24 hours requires some back story. About two months ago when we first booked this trip, we were not quite sure why it was nearly impossible to find hostels. Turns out Monday was the biggest holiday of Amsterdam- Queensday, commemorating the birthday of the Queens mother (since the Queens birthday is on a cold day in January). It begins Sunday night, appropriately called Queensnight. We spent that night with a mixture of young kids from all over the world in the crowded streets of the city until the party continued the next day.

It all led to this...

And this.

Everyone wears orange all day, drinks, rides on boats, and sells an array of things in the street. It was such a cool and different celebration to witness. We walked around until we had to catch our airplane back (absolutely exhausted) to Madrid that night.

From a bike ride to the windmills and brewery tours, to more daytrips and city exploring, I could spend weeks in Amsterdam. I’m glad I got a glimpse of the city this past weekend though. It was definitely a relief being able to speak English to everyone and the Dutch people were remarkably kind.

Next weekend I will finally get some sun in the Spanish beach town of Alicante! Until then, I have Cinco de Mayo to celebrate and La Carrera de La Mujer to run on Sunday. It’s our equivalent of Race for the Cure and there are 22,000 women participating. Can’t wait!

Semana Santa 2012

Two years ago I fell for France. This week, I finally rekindled my love affair with a trip to the “City of Light” during my twelve day break known here as Semana Santa. While you may have thought only schoolchildren deserve Spring Break or that “Holy Week” celebrations should occur outside of work hours, the people of Spain think a little differently. If you’ve kept up with my blog and caught on to the numerous days I get off, this probably doesn’t come as a big surprise.

Before my Parisian getaway, I had one of the best gifts of all- a visit from one of my best friends Taylor. We fit in as much as we could in her quick stay from a day trip to the town of Cuenca to running the Madrid Half Marathon side by side. We were exhausted by the end but it was so worth getting to spend time together less alone in another country!

Alongside the Casas Colgadas in Cuenca

Then came France with Gabe. After our first flight was cancelled due to an airport strike, we arrived Wednesday afternoon and I was ready to take a walk hike to the top of Sacre Couer which I heard had a view to rival that of the Eiffel Tower.

It definitely did not disappoint

Afterwards, we took a break in a cafe in the Montmarte neighborhood before walking back to our apartment to rest up before dinner at a delicious creperie. On the way, we made a stop at notorious Lauderée because I was determined to find out what the hype was about. With one bite into a fresh macaroon, I understood.

Simply delicious.

After a tasty dinner of exotic crepes, cidre, and fromage blanc, it was off to bed for our big adventure the next day to none other than…

Disneyland Paris!

We spent all day running around Walt Disney Studios and Disneyland Park. Unfortunately, the weather was not the best but it made for short lines and certainly put a little bit of a spring in our step as I wanted to minimize our wait in line outdoors for as long as possible. Favorite rides? Crush’s Coaster, Tower of Terror (classic), and Pirates of the Caribbean. We were wiped by the end of the day.

20th Anniversary Parade!

Friday morning we woke up and hopped on a train to Versailles. I loved the city last time but missed the chance to tour the palace. This time we did just that and and spent hours wandering the vast gardens. We even stumbled upon a fairytale village, equipped with a farm and everything, near the Marie-Antoinette’s estate that literally threw me into a storybook. Somehow we had enough energy afterwards to make the climb up to the top of the Eiffel Tower when we returned to the city.

View from the top

All that walking had our stomachs rumbling and we stumbled into a tiny French bistro called Le Hide near our apartment. We shared close corners with other Americans but dined on some amazing Parisian food including pan-roasted foie gras, veal, pepper steak, and tarte tatin, or apple pie. I was in heaven and wanted to take a picture of every dish that came out but did not want to feel judged. Regardless, I went to bed full and happy.

Our flight was late afternoon Saturday and I did not want to leave before walking around Le Marais, a neighborhood I already loved from all I had read. Again, it fulfilled my expectations from Le Marche de Enfants Rouges to the most amazing falafel.

Heaven

After a pit stop at a delicious sweet shop for last minute macaroons and chocolates, we boarded a plane to make it back to Madrid in time for Easter Sunday. The best part of the holiday this year was getting to gorge on potatoes which I gave up for Lent this year. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to resist potato chips, patatas bravas, tortilla española, and any other dish the Spainiards like to throw at ya that include potatoes; however, I made it through but am happy to say it’s all over now.

With work on Tuesday looming, I’m a bit sad but seeing as this might be my last “spring break” ever, I will make sure the memories last for a lifetime.

Fire, Felonies, and Las Fallas

Graduating college, everyone was nervous about entering the “real world.” Well, if I am living in this so-called, scary “real world,” then it actually isn’t too bad at all. Maybe I didn’t spend last weekend watching drunk frat boys play dizzy bat on a crowded Key West beach during spring break like I was last year, but instead, I witnessed a festival I had read about in Spanish class for years right in front of me. That festival was Las Fallas and three of us headed to the city of Valencia to take part in the action.

Let me give you some background on the festival. There are a lot of facets to this five day party but the main attraction are the huge fallas, monuments each neighborhood spends all year making to ultimately be burned on the final day. Meanwhile, there are lots of fireworks that go off in the streets and different processions. We wanted to catch the celebration on the last day also known as La Cremá to see the notorious burning.

Our journey began early Friday morning when we hopped on a bus. Four hours later we arrived to the city. Thankfully, our friend Bridget studied abroad in the city so knew her way around. She led us through the city streets and along the way we ran into falla after falla, each more interesting than the last.

One of my favorites

Later, we walked to one of Valencia’s main attractions- Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias which I had visited on my first trip to Valencia in 2009.

Anna and the beautiful buildings

From there, we grabbed a spot to watch the Parade of Fire. It started off calmly with the royal court and  traditional music but quickly turned into something out of a nightmare- people in devil costumes flinging fire around. It was very cool but a tad frightening.

Needless to say we were covered in ashes

Afterwards I hate to say things took a turn for the worse. Unfortunately while eating dinner Bridget had her entire backpack stolen, losing everything from her passport and camera to all her money and Kindle.  That led us to logging in an hour at the police station so that she could file a report to ensure she could make our bus ride home without an ID. We made it out just in time to see one falla burn down.

Definitely the biggest fire I have ever seen

Watching the huge figures falling to the ground brought on some mixed emotions. It is clear a ton of effort went into these works and then they turn to ashes in a matter of minutes! But alas, it is just another Spanish tradition I think you just have to be “in” on to really understand. Nevertheless, I am happy I went and even happier I came back with my hearing intact after all the explosions.

Carnival in Cadiz!

I was told that February would feel like a long month. After all, we have a regular schedule void of any strange holidays off. Unlike the normal working population, this isn’t something I’m used to. I have spiced it up with a few special events like seeing Broadway’s The Lion King in Spanish and doing a cooking class, but this past weekend me and Anna stepped it up and headed down South to the sun and sea for one of the biggest festivals in the country- Carnival in Cadiz!

Carnival is a celebration that takes place all over the world, and is kind of like our equivalent of Mardi Gras. It lasts an entire week and involves a lot of dressing up, singing, and partying. Here, the two biggest cities to celebrate are Tenerife and Cadiz so we chose the latter and took a three and a half hour train there Friday afternoon. We actually stayed in a neighboring city called Jerez de la Frontera after all the hotels in Cadiz were booked quickly, but that ended up being a blessing in disguise!

Jerez is known for their wine of the same name which is referred to in the rest of the world as sherry since jerez can be difficult to pronounce. We quickly dropped our bags off at our hostel Friday evening and walked over to Bodegas Tio Pepe for a tour of one of the oldest bodegas producing tons of sherry and brandy. I wasn’t really familiar with sherry before but after the tour and four-glass tasting, I think I got a pretty good handle on it. After that, we headed out to grab a bite to eat and crashed early to prep for Saturday in Cadiz.

As I mentioned earlier, costumes are an important part of Carnival and we were not sure what direction to go in. Thankfully, an older woman I work with decided to play mom and help me out, lending me bright orange trash bags for us to make Flintstones costumes out of, like her class will be doing this Wednesday for the parade at our school. We decided it was better than nothing and, in the end, the outfits worked out perfectly. Throughout the day we had people singing the Flintstones theme song to us and yelling out “Wilma!!!” which was kind of neat.

Saturday morning, after covering our hands in superglue and permanent marker while making our costumes, we hopped on the train to Cadiz which was only about 40 minutes away. What happened over the next 16 hours is engrained in my memory as a photo stream of ridiculous costumes, talented street choirs singing satirical songs, meeting people from all over the world, and some breathtaking views of the beach. For a peak into my head, take a look at this:

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We didn’t get to sleep until 6:30 am and were kicked out of our hostel at noon on Sunday. That led us to hang around Jerez for a pleasant and extremely sunny afternoon which I pray put some color back into my pale face. It’s definitely hard getting accustomed to not being tan in the winter after living in Miami for four years.

You might have missed the part where I mentioned my school is having their own Carnival celebration this Wednesday. For the kid’s sake, I hope it isn’t as crazy as the one in Cadiz but I’ll report back with more on that later this week. For now, I wish you and yours a happy Carnival!

Where do YOU work?

In case you missed it on my Twitter feed, a few weeks ago my school put together a “LipDub” as a part of a project they are working on. The Spanish government is trying to link schools from all over the country through monthly tasks that we share on a blog to educate one another on different customs and traditions. You can catch a tiny cameo by me in the middle so check it out:

And that’s the entirety of my school that you see on the patio. I’m truly glad I have this tiny momento to look back on a few years down the road.

In other news, yesterday we had a huge celebration for El Día de Paz, or Day of Peace, here in Spain. It involved cake, everyone holding hands and singing “All You Need Is Love” on the patio, and releasing a dove from a cage. Ever heard of it? Me neither. But it was a nice reminder that at the end of the day, peace is something we should all strive for. So I leave you with this quote from MLK (also recently celebrated) himself:

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

Feliz Navidad!

I promise this is my last post exuding holiday cheer (maybe). As I sit on a plane bound for Colorado with eight and a half hours to go, it only seems appropriate to take a few minutes to reflect on some Spanish Christmas traditions that I’ve come to take part in the past few weeks.

Now that I’m a working girl, one could only hope to partake in a “holiday office party” that always seemed so wild and crazy as a young kid listening to parents gossip about. Thankfully, teachers like to have fun too (who knew?) and we have been nonstop celebrating. To begin, last Friday night we had a staff dinner in a town right outside of the city center. Long story short, the dinner began at 9 and did not end until 2:30. Welcome to Spain.

The past few days at school have consisted not of grading homework and repeating questions like “What is your name?” but rather, drilling the lyrics of “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” into my student’s little non-English understanding brains. All our work lead up to the Christmas concert yesterday morning at Estremera’s Cultural Center for all their parents to see and hear. Remember those teachers who would always have to stand at the corner of the stage waving their hands and dancing for the kids to follow? This girl. I figured you would be sad about missing out on the festivities so compiled the hour-long concert into this two minute video:

Jealous much? Probably not… But on another note, I must admit it’s a good thing I am starting to even enjoy being with these little rugrats. I sure hope it lasts the next six months.

Afterwards, us teachers gathered for another huge meal at school to commemorate our last time together until we come back January 9. It consisted of way too much food that left me unable to eat for the rest of the day, along with singing and happiness. While I can’t help but complain about my long commute and tiring days, I feel truly lucky to work with such a great group of people who make going to work not too daunting.

Away from school, me and friends had some gatherings of our own including a festive holiday shindig, Ugly Sweater Party, and boozy holiday brunch. I even managed to get all my Christmas shopping done along the way.

In Spain, kids do not ask for presents from Santa, but the Reyes Magos. These three kings bring the kiddos presents on January 6 but our American Papa Noel is starting to creep his way into households all over, forcing parents to buy their children presents not only on January 6, but December 25. Sneaky, sneaky children. One other Spanish Christmas phenomenon is the lottery. La Loteria de Navidad is gigantic and announced every December 23. I forked over 20 Euros for a ticket but alas, did not win.

Besides that, I can say that I have consumed more sweets over the past four weeks than I did on every Halloween combined. From turon to polvorones to churros con chocolate and bizcocho… I can say for once I am all sweeted out for the time being. (and I didn’t even get to try the traditional roscon de reyes). These treats have infiltrated my school and let me tell you, nothing offends a Spaniard more than refusing their offer for food. One day, I added to the mix by baking pumpkin muffins with cream cheese frosting that I made with overpriced ingredients bought from Taste of America. Seeing as it such an atypical pastry to the Spanish tongue, they were a huge hit. I’ll definitely be bringing cake mix and baking supplies back to Madrid with me because it’s nearly impossible to find and when you do, it’s marked up a ridiculous amount.

I cannot believe Christmas Eve is tomorrow and while I’m definitely ready, I don’t know if I’m excited to return to Madrid in January knowing that all the bright lights, markets and bustling crowds will be gone. Even so, I’ve already begun to draft a bucket list for everything I want to accomplish for my next six months in the city and if all pans out, it’s going to be a pretty great year.

Wishing you the happiest of holidays!