Monday, July 21, 2014

From Lalaland to Amsterdam: Q+A with Aubrey

One of my beautiful friends, Aubrey, planned a Europe trip in between jobs in Los Angeles and I thought it'd be fun to get her thoughts on planning and preparing for her eurovaca. She made the trip solo, which I find super impressive because I can only imagine how lost I'd be within seconds of leaving the airport if I was traveling alone. I am crossing my fingers she can come back soon to Spain/Italy/Greece. 

What made you decide to plan this trip to Europe? 

Planning a trip to Europe had always been a HUGE dream of mine, so the place I was in my life with my job and living in Los Angeles, it was the perfect time to call it quits and go explore. My good friend Mike is a traveling machine, and then my best friend Daisy just got back from three months in Rwanda, along with various other friends going places, it gave me the courage and inspiration to just finally do it and make my dream come true.

Did you use any travel sites or airline miles to find a good deal on a flight?

For my flight, I did not use any airline miles. I had enough money saved up that I was willing to pay for my flights, and save my airline miles for a different trip. My airfare ended up costing around $1100, from Columbus, Ohio, (layover at JFK) to London, England, and then on the return, from Amsterdam Schiphol, Netherlands, (layover in Detroit, Michigan) back to Columbus, Ohio. It was a two week trip, and I searched on Travelocity/Kayak for the best deals, then once I found a flight, booked directly on the airline's website. 

Favorite city?

I traveled to London, Paris, and Amsterdam on this trip, which was my first time overseas, AND as a solo traveler. My favorite city was Amsterdam, as it felt like you were in the middle of a dream with all the canals, people biking everywhere and just the love of being outside, the friendliness, and the food. London came as a very close second, as I just fell in love with that city and the reality that you are in a completely foreign land, but still very similar to the United States. As for Paris, I too loved that city, but it was quite different than how I had always imagined it. It is a very historic city (obviously), with many sites and tourist attractions, TONS of delicious wines, and truly, the "City of Love."

Favorite famous site?

I had a favorite historical site from each city. For London, it was by far the Westminster Abbey. If you have never been there and inside the cathedral, the beauty of that church will leave you speechless. It absolutely blew my mind the detail and history that lies inside that church, along with all the monarchs and prestigious people that have attended, and still attend to this day. All I could think about was the super long aisle that Princess Katherine (Duchess of Cambridge) had to walk down, on her wedding day, with so many world dignitaries lining the red carpet, and the nerves she must have had knowing she had to walk a MILE (not literally) to even get to Prince William at the other end of the church. Quite the fairytale when you are there experiencing even as a tourist :)

In Paris, my favorite historical site was of course, The Eiffel Tower. It is HUGE! It is awesome to see how many people, DAILY, visit that site and experience the history that that one landmark represents for the entire city of Paris. There are many lawns that you can sit in and have a picnic, drink a beer or champagne, and sit there for a moment, really taking in exactly where you are right now in the world. At night, the Tower lights up on every hour starting at 10pm, and lasts for 5 minutes. It is truly magical.

In Amsterdam, I completely fell in love with all of the canals. They are so romantic and hold so much beauty. If you ever get the change to do a canal ride in Amsterdam, DO IT. As for a true historic site, I really enjoyed the Anne Frank house. This moment in history was my favorite to study throughout school, so to actually physically be there in the exact place all those history books talk about, was really, really awesome. The other thing I did that was SO FUN, was took the Heineken Brewery tour. If you love beer, and even if you don't love beer, you HAVE to do this tour. It is extremely interactive, and it goes really in depth as to how the Heineken beer is made, brewed, bottled, marketed, etc. You get to have some beer tastings, along with an optional canal ride on the Heineken boat. Absolutely 100% worth the 18 Euros--- this is a MUST.

Where was your favorite meal?

Hands down my favorite meal was in Amsterdam. I would use the TripAdvisor app to locate the best restaurants in each city, and my last night in Europe, I ate at this place called The Pantry. HOLY COW. You literally may have died and gone to heaven when eating at this place. This a true Dutch restaurant, with the best service, and their menu has every language one need's to be able to order. Here is the online menu in English:

I had the Zuurkoolstamppo, which is mashed potatoes mixed with sauerkraut, served with a smoked sausage, and then asked for a side of the Hutspot, which is mashed potatoes mixed with stewed beef, carrots and onions. It BLEW MY MIND. I then had the Dutch dessert of Poffertjes, which are mini pancakes covered in powdered sugar with butter. Again, you will have died and gone to heaven. I can't speak highly enough of this place and their true Dutch food. My mouth is watering just thinking about it again.

Any travel mishaps, such as missed trains, lost baggage, etc? How´d you cope?

I was VERY nervous about public transportation in all those foreign countries, especially since I'm by myself, and especially after living in NYC for 3 months and still not being able to figure out the subway system, I didn't know HOW I would learn to do it in London/Paris/Amsterdam. Luckily, the travel gods were looking after me and I never missed any flights, trains, or buses. The only thing that did happen was that I was getting off my train from Belgium to Amsterdam, and I wasn't paying attention to what stop we were at, and by the time I realized we were at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam (my stop), I had to hurry up and grab my purse, my roll-away luggage.... and once off the train (doors were closing) I realized I left my backpack on the train! Goodbye train... goodbye backpack. So funny. Luckily I had all the important documents in my purse which was across my body and I never took off, so if I never got my backpack back, I would only lose my toiletries and makeup, with some misc. items. Luckily I went to the information desk and told them what I did, and they said "oh it happens all the time. Let me call the conductor, have them go to your seat, find your bag, and we'll get it on the next train back." THANK THE LORD! I only had to wait 45 minutes for the return train to come back with my bag, and then I was off to figure out my way to the buses to my hotel.

If you could do it again, would you change anything?

If I could do the exact same trip again, there is absolutely NOTHING I would do different. It was a dream come true and I am SO SO SO happy I did it. If I had to choose one thing, I would make sure that I had enough American money already printed, instead of using the ATM's in each country to get more money.

Any recommendations as far as cities, restaurants, sites, bars?

In London, my favorite pub was at the end of the Millennium Bridge, called Founder's Arm. You absolutely HAVE to get a pint of the Aspall Cider Beer, with the Steak & Ale dinner entrée. HOLY WOWZERS. True London food right there and it was SO delicious. A walk through Hyde Park, London Bridge, Brick Lane, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, Big Ben/Parliament/London Eye, etc. are the top tourist sites. If you can, try and do "high tea" at one of the more high-class restaurants or hotels. There is nothing better than tea and crumpets when you are in London.

For Paris, you have to eat the macaroons that have ice cream in the middle, and also get a crepe from a street vendor. I had the nutella/banana crepe in front of the Musee d' Orsay from a street vendor and it was really delicious and a third the price if buying from a restaurant. The #1 bar I went to and absolutely LOVED was called Le Piano Veche. They have live jazz playing on certain nights and it is the cutest, little whole in the wall bar that anyone would enjoy. Another place one must go is called Angelina's. It is right on the Rue de Rivoli (across from the Tullieries, between the Concorde and Louvre), and they serve the world's best hot chocolate and pastries. There are no words to describe the hot chocolate. Just WOW.

In Amsterdam, you must do a Yellow Bike Tour. I learned SO MUCH from my guide on that tour and got to see every tourist site that I had already seen and/or had yet to seen, and learned various facts about Amsterdam and the little areas that you wouldn't ever learn from a tourist book. Another great food place I went to was called Italiano Restaurante Antonio's and I had the best Penne Arrabiata and focaccia bread. WOW. The best wine in all of Europe (that I had in each country) was called Trebbiano... it's like a fruitier taste of a Reisling.

Where do you want to go on your next overseas trip?

There are many places I want to still go, but I absolutely want my next trip to be Italy and Greece. I want to do all the major cities in Italy, and then Mykonos and Santorini in Greece. I also want to hit Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, along with drinking a few beers in Ireland. On the other side of the world, my dream place is Bora Bora, to stay in one of the ocean huts with glass floors. How romantic :)

More tips from Aubrey....

TripAdvisor Travel Guides - LIFE SAVER. Download each city's travel guide within TripAdvisor and it will give you all restaurants, tourist sites, ticket links, etc. and best of all, which saved my life in each city, it gives you directions (compass like) from one point to the next. So if you are standing on the middle of a bridge somewhere and you want to go to Buckingham Palace, you just press on Buckingham Palace and it directs you which way to walk and how far. It is GENIUS. You don't need wifi for this, as it all works on GPS radar.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Summer in the South of Spain

Soooo summer life at the beach is pretty fantastic. Cadiz, the southern region of Spain is so so so gorgeous. I am living with a British/Spanish family (who are wonderful) in their beautiful family estate that has white-washed walls and a red stucco roof. Sitting on a hill, it is surrounded by pine trees and flowers - it smells amazing. The view from the south side of the house is not joking…. Africa! You can’t see like zebras or tall women with baskets of water on their heads of anything, but you can see the outline of the Atlas Mountains. The property is also a few minutes from the famous pueblos blancos, tiny all-white villages along the coast! We can see Vejer de la Frontera from the porch! Everything down here is just beautiful.

In the mornings, I give the kids a little creative writing prompt like what superpower would you choose or what are you thankful for and why. Then we spend the day at the beach swimming/surfing, crab hunting or whatever. It's a tough job, lemme tell ya. At the end of June, Madrid was started to feel a bit overwhelming and stressful so I am truly blessed by this chance to relax and reflect. Besos! 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

#NoFilter Madrid

I'm excited and honored to contribute to London City Airport's #NoFilter photography competition featuring an unedited portrait of Europe's greatest cities. And yes, unedited means absolutely no Instagram, Mueller, Photo plus or other popular photo enhancing programs. The project's purpose is to celebrate a city's beauty without deepening sunset hues, brightening flower-filled parks, or adding a sparkle to full wine glasses and perfectly arranged macaroons.

Jade Conroy, editor of MSN Travel UK and former Madrid expat, is evaluating local blogger's posts to see who best shows an authentic portrait of selected European cities beginning with Madrid. Some upcoming cities to look forward to are Dublin, Geneva, Rome and Stockholm. 

Moving ten months ago, Madrid won me over with its history, architecture, food, wine, art and sunshine. Plans to live here and teach English for a year quickly extended to two years after I fell in love with the city. My advice for a first time visitor is to slow down and appreciate the Spanish lifestyle. Take your time. Sit down for a cup of coffee. Enjoy a two-hour lunch on a terrace. 

My amateur tips for a traveler with a smart phone or digital camera:
1. Take photos of the same subject from different angles. You´ll be surprised by what you will find when you change perspective.
2. Take advantage of natural lighting. The flash feature on smart phones can make subjects look over processed.
3. To make a travel album more interesting, vary your photo subjects from architecture to food, people, landscapes, hotel room views, parks, etc. A few weeks after first moving, I started noticing most of my photos were of sunsets and wine glasses and realized I needed more picture variety!

Photos from top to bottom: rooftop view from Circulo de Bellas Artes, Puerta del Rey, Plaza Mayor and Temple de Debod

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Feria de Abril in Seville

If the Texas State Fair, Mardi Gras, Kentucky Derby, and San Antonio’s Fiesta all combined, it would explode into Feria de Sevilla. I really don’t know how to explain it because it kind of blew my mind. And the most mind-blowing of all was that everything happening there was completely normal to Spanish people. Of course we put on these traditional dresses and cowboy outfits and ride horses to a plaza where everyone makes out with their date. Of course you wear a huge flower on top of your head and ride in carriages to get around while drinking sherry with sprite.

La feria originally started as a cattle trading fair in 1847 and has evolved into an amazing week of Spanish-style celebrations based on flamenco music and culture. The parties take place on the streets and inside private casetas, which are made of brightly-colored canvas and are decorated with thousands of paper lanterns and traditional spanish paintings. 

In April, my very American friends and I started taking Sevillianas dance classes from Maria Jose (who we lovingly call our feria godmother). There are five traditional dances and #3-5 are hard as heck. The boys have it really easy and just kind of stomp and wave while the girl does all the work. Maria Jose also loaned beautiful Sevillanas dresses to my friend, Laura, and me. We were so so grateful because they can be really expensive to rent. The weekend was amazing. It was definitely one of the most fun experiences I’ve had since moving here and I’m really grateful to all our gracious Sevilla hosts who made it so memorable!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Biarritz, France

I mean, why not take a day trip to France? Normal.

Biarritz is gorgeous. We loved it so much we accidentally missed our train back to San Sebastian. We were running around the closed train station trying to figure out how to get back and finally decided it would be less expensive to take a cab back to Spain than to pay for a hotel in Biarritz AND San Sebastian. Travel woes…. Oh well, completely worth it!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

San Sebastian

Most beautiful place ever. Honestly, it needs to be at the top of anyone travelling to Spain’s list. The beach is gorgeous and the food is amaaaaazing. I went with friends for the San Isidro puente (aka long weekend) and fell in love. You can surf, hike, sail, or just lay on the beach like we did.

The north of Spain is famous for the food and it definitely lived up to all the hype. Here are the restaurants we loved: Astela, La Cepa, Gott, La Perla and La Cuchara. Ciao!