Made it to Marrakech!

I have always had a strong desire to go to Morocco. After missing the chance the first time I lived in Spain, I told myself I could not leave again without visiting. With only a few weekends in Europe remainly, I grabbed a couple of tickets to Marrakech and me and Gabe were off last Friday afternoon.

Welcome to Marrakech!

Thankfully I have a couple of friends who just went and  gave me great tips regarding where to stay and what to do. One recommended theRiad Maison Belbaraka for lodging. Riads are old houses that have since been converted into places to stay, undoubtedly beating out any hostel or hotel. Ours conveniently provided transportation to and from the airport, a gorgeous room and an amazing dinner on their terrace the first night.

And I have to mention the breakfast every morning. Freshly baked breads, chocolate cake, cheese, fig and strawberry jam, honey and freshly squeezed orange juice to our hearts content.They also helped us arrange our excursion for Saturday. We headed to the High Atlas Mountains to see waterfalls, safely in the hands of a friendly Berber guide. We left in the morning and made many stops along the way including a Berber house where we were treated to bubbling mint tea, a very common drink here that is delicious and refreshing despite the fact it is boiling hot outside.Then, we pulled off onto the side of the road for a camel ride.Walked back and forth across a rather scary bridge (still not sure why).And eventually arrived in Siti Fatima, a Berber village at the foot of the mountain. We were passed off to a younger guide who led us into the mountains towards the waterfalls. Along the way we saw many restaurants and spaces for people to hangout mid-hike.

Then we made it to one of the many waterfalls that was gorgeous.I must say that this was no easy, trail-blazed hike. Instead, we were scaling rocks and sliding down dusty hills. Word to the wise: Don’t wear Toms. Although I do think I was managing a bit better than those I saw in flip-flops.

Afterwards, we relaxed at a restaurant by the river where we had some traditional Moroccan food. On the way back to Marrakech, we had our driver drop us off at the Majorelle Gardens. It was not big but definitely pretty with more kinds of cactus than I have ever seen before.

We rested up a bit before heading back to the Djemaa El-Fna, the big plaza which comes alive at night with food stalls and plenty of people swearing that theirs is the absolute best. Well, we actually did find a pretty good one (which we picked based on all the locals eating at it) and walked away full on only 8 Euros for the both of us.

We also managed to do some haggling in the souks. I walked away with a pair of brown flats and a small purse which I talked down to half the price! If I did not have to worry about luggage space, I think I would have bought a lot more. From the lamps to bags to tagines, the amount of things for sale (and cheap) is absolutely mind-blowing. Regardless, I’m happy to say I made it out with a little bit!

Once we got back to our riad, we relaxed with a wine made in Morocco. But not just any wine- gray wine.

Although Muslims do not drink, I read that they have a rather good wine industry going on. This bottle definitely a unique flavor with a bit of citrusy tang to it. I would happily drink it again.

Sunday we woke up with not much planned but since we did not explore all of Marrakech yet, we took to the streets and checked out the Saadian tombs, spice market, El Bahia Palace and got a closer look at the Koutoubia mosque.

That night we headed to Cafe Arabe, a restaurant that kept seeming to pop up in every article I read about Marrakech. It is a three-story space with, again, a beautiful terrace, and also one of the few restaurants that serves alcohol, making it very popular with tourists. We found ourselves amongst many but that did not bother me. The food was pretty good and cheap considering all that we ate and the setting was perfect.

We had Monday morning and early afternoon to relax before flying back to Madrid. Overwhelmed with the crazy city by this point (and all out of Dirhams), we had some tea and pastries at our hostel and a quick walk around.

Overall, I am very happy I finally made it to Morocco and was even more thankful to have a French-speaking travel companion. While most locals are used to tourists and can speak almost every language, French is their second language (after Arab), so the fact that Gabe could fully communicate with just about everyone made it a lot easier. Lots of people said it would be dangerous, but I never felt threatened (especially when you see so many other tourists walking around). People sure are pushy when it comes to trying to get you to check out their souk and buy something, but once you learn to embrace (or just ignore) that, it is not bad. From the prayers five times a day that are heard all around the city (it’s broadcasted over huge speakers from the main mosque) to snake charmers and thousands of motorcycles buzzing around the streets, it is definitely unlike any place I have ever been but enlightening, nevertheless.

Plus, now I can say I have stepped foot in Africa!

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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.

Alicante Left Me Sunburnt

I’ve been hooked on the new Jason Mraz album “Love is a Four Letter Word” for the past couple of weeks now. There is one song, Everything Is Sound, that has the lyric: You don’t need a vacation when there is nothing to escape from. For better or for worse, that’s how it felt when it came to my so-called vacation to Alicante, Spain. While I was longing for sand and sun more than a Chipotle burrito (and that’s pretty serious), I was not necessarily eager to escape from the stresses of work and the city simply because they rarely exist. However, at times like this, I constantly remind myself I am living the dream right now, life will never be this easy and I need to enjoy it while I can. So that is what led me here:

Hello Alicante!

I got a great deal on a flight thanks to the opening of Iberia Express. I spent Friday relaxing on the beach by myself, reading Spanish Cosmo and snacking on finds from a local market. That afternoon, I made my way up to an old castle that overlooked the city and had stunning views.

Like this.

That night, I was joined by Anna and her friend Chelsea who is visiting from the United States. We checked out some tapas bars in El Barrio and rested up for the next day. We resided at one of the best hostels I have ever experienced. It was in a great location and had an amazing rooftop terrace with excellent views of the city and castle. We never cooked in the large kitchen but I did make friends with an old German man who let me try his delicious dinners both nights since my reading time on the terrace happened to coincide perfectly with his dinnertime (funny how those things work out).

I could live on this rooftop.

Saturday we went a little further out of the city center to a beach called San Juan that was longer and a bit nicer. We all left burnt and very sandy, but relaxed nevertheless. That night we had pizza on the terrace before going to a couple tapas bars. I cashed in early because I had to leave for my flight at five in the morning! One of the “perks” of cheap flights is that they usually leave at awful times but c’est la vie.

Although it was only two days, it was perfect because I am not sure I could have handled another day in the sun. Unfortunately my body is no longer accustomed to a year round tan like it used to be living in Miami.

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!

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.

Basque-ing in Bilbao

March has arrived and in Madrid it feels as if spring has sprung a bit early this year.
With so much sun, last week I was walking around in t-shirts and even felt compelled to buy a pair of bright yellow pants which I wore to the dismay of my co-workers. Seems as if they are a pretty bold fashion statement for the folks in Estremera. Anyways, I’m excited March is here because, along with the change of seasons, comes many visitors from overseas and exciting happenings! Before all that though, me and Gabe decided to head up north to the Basque Country for the weekend to take in the refreshing sea breeze and discover new places.

We arrived Friday afternoon in Bilbao and the green hills and humid air immediately
signaled we were no longer in Madrid. After checking into our hostel located smack dab
in the center of the old town, we took a tram to the top of a hill overlooking the city.
Unfortunately the fog got in the way of the supposedly great view.

The city is down there somewhere

The city is known for pintxos, the Basque form of tapas, so for dinner, we did a txikitea, or pintxo crawl, up and down the streets. We tried everything from tortilla made of morcilla to all kinds of fresh seafood on toast. The whole custom is quite crazy. All of the bars set delicious platters on the bar and you are free to take what you want (with each costing 1-3
Euros), order a drink (I fell in love with the city’s white wine called txakoli) and chow down
until you are ready to move onto the next one. I went to bed a full and happy camper.

The next morning we took a stroll to  el Mercado de la Ribera, the largest indoor food market in all of Europe. Although it was mainly a place for locals to pick up fresh fish and meats to prepare what I can only imagine are delicious meals, it was cool to see. After that, we made our way to the notorious Guggeheim Museum, the main sight of the city. Not only was the building’s architecture truly inspiring, I really appreciated all the modern
paintings, sculpture and art found inside. One of the coolest parts? The audio guide
was free! (You can argue it came with the ticket price but I’m still giving them props).
Sometimes it’s the little things.

With stomach’s rumbling, we made our way to El Globo for some of my favorite bites
of the trip including a banana wrapped in bacon (proving once again bacon goes with
anything), and tempura fried stuffed artichoke. This city was a food photogs dream.

Beautiful tuna concoction

Bilbao is known to be rainy this time of year but we got lucky and were able to take a
break in the park and later, made our way to a beach that was equally relaxing. We took
it easy that evening with a nice Italian din before crashing.

Sunday morning we grabbed a bus for a one hour trip to the coastal town of San
Sebastian. I have heard great things about it’s beach and, of course, pintxos. We
enjoyed a tasty lunch of just that before soaking in our final views of the beach. We both agreed its a place we’d love to come back to when it is prime beach season.

You could call these next few days the calm before the storm. Some friends from UM
come in this week followed by a trip from my lil’ bro on Sunday. This are gonna get
crazy.

Here are a few more pics of the trip!

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Trip Back in Time

If we are keeping score, one area where Europe scores a point over the United States is the ease in which one can travel back in time with just a simple drive outside of the city. Two women Anna works with at school invited us to visit the town of Pedreza located in the province of Segovia. Yesterday, they picked us up and we made the hour-long trip to this medieval town which was unlike any other I have seen.

We began our tour at a stone castle made back in the thirteenth century. Next, we visited an old jail and then came my favorite part: an amazing lunch of the town’s specialty, roasted lamb, which was the juiciest and most savory dish I have had in a good while.

The group consisted of the two couples, us, and  the combined five kids who are all under the age of five. They actually behaved quite well and seemed to enjoy themselves. Not to mention, one of the perks of being with kids is finding the excuse to hang out in parks and we took advantage of that at one located at the bottom of the Alcazar, Segovia’s huge castle that I have visited a couple times in the past. It’s the one they say inspired the iconic Disney castle.

Eventually we made it home absolutely exhausted but thankful for the chance to see a place we would have never found on our own. It was also a great chance to practice our Spanish as these people didn’t know a lick of English. Apparently, they enjoyed our company too and offered to take us somewhere else we want to go which we aren’t reluctant to do soon!

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