Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Best Hostel in the World

Traveller's House in Lisbon. Go There.
I've been traveling. A lot. I've stayed in dozens of different hostels and hotels, most of which have been a positive experience - but the Traveller's House takes the cake (and many agree - it is one of the top rated hostels in the world!)

The hostel is in a great location in the heart of Lisbon, just a few blocks from the sea. They give you free internet and use only Mac computers (I'm a mac nerd - if you want me to convince you to get one, just ask), have daily social events, great TV and common rooms (with chess and a library, right), comfortable bedrooms and we were given a personal tour around the hostel upon arriving, as if we were old friends visiting someone's new house - all in all it felt like home.

It's a great atmosphere and its small enough to meet the other guests. Through some of the events set up by the hostel, we did just that. During our stay, we took an epic road trip up the coast to Sintra (see Sintra post) with some Aussies, enjoyed a Portuguese wine tasting night (right), tapped a keg with travelers from Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Australia, Brazil, Austria, Canada and the States and continued the fun on a pub crawl led by our friendly host Miguel (below).


Best All-Saints Day Ever.
Really, do you remember any November 1st's in your life? Unless it's your birthday, probably not. However, the Fall Break crew (Tom, Zack, Isabelle, Dani & myself) spent our All-Saints Day (our last day of fall break) in Barcelona and Girona. Partly because I don't remember any other November 1st's, but mostly because we were in Barca and Girona, this was the best All Saints Day ever.

We were never initially planning on visiting Girona (above), but because Ryanair often flies to smaller airports near major destinations, we flew in and out of Girona, about 100 km southwest of Barcelona. Girona is situated in the beautiful Costa Brava ("rugged coast") a region with high cliffs, lovely beaches and blue water.

Considered one of the loveliest unsung cities in Spain, I found the winding alleys and streets of Girona, home to approximately 95,000 inhabitants, very charming. Divided by a river (like most cool European cities), the medieval city center is surrounded by a modern periphery. It also has a very interesting history, as the city was constantly switching hands - Girona has been ruled by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors and more. It has a well preserved Jewish ghetto, dating to the times before Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic kings. Other attractions are old Arabic baths, a few towering churches (right) and quirky shops and boutiques lining the city center.

However, the highlight of Girona for me? The All Saints Day carnival. Spain is a very Catholic country, so it's only fitting that they would have a big celebration on All Saints Day. Girona's main streets were clogged with food vendors selling meats, cheeses, pastries, candy, different national cuisines - pretty much anything you could think of. Artists were selling their creations, teenagers and kids milled about and the city felt very alive. The best part? There was a carnival packed with games and rides. The whole experience can be summed up, for my Iowa friends, as a mix between Adventureland and the Iowa State Fair (for those who don't know these places, please do yourself a favor and go some time).

It was kind of like the carnival scene from The Sandlot. We got all sugared up on a bunch of candy and junk food, whooped and hollered, strolled the bright walkways, rode a ride fittingly called "EXTREME" (left) and played a few games - winning our new friend Danye (like Kanye with a D) the dominatrix camel (right) in the process.
Zack put it best when he said, "This carnival just kicks the sh*t out of every fair I've ever known".


Halloween & the sights of Barcelona
We spent a few days in Barcelona, arriving October 30th and leaving November 1st. (Sorry I'm going out of order). We met up with Katie, who is studying in Barcelona and was a great tour guide. Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain (behind Madrid) and the 11th most populous municipality in the European Union. As the capital of Catalonia, the language is Catalan which sounded like a confusing mix of Spanish and French. Thankfully for me, most people spoke Spanish!

Barcelona definitely has plenty of sights, sounds and smells (click for an overview video)!

Las Ramblas
It's not often that you come across streets that are an attraction, but Las Ramblas is definitely something you must see in Barcelona. It's a 1.2km pedestrian-only strip, offering some great people watching. This bustling drag leads from the Mediterranean Sea into the city center and has street performers of all sorts, pet shops, markets, a gajillion souvenir stalls, food stands and more.

La Boqueria
While the earliest mention of La Boqueria was in 1217, it became the metal roofed enclosure situated on Las Ramblas in 1914. Today, La Boqueria is Barcelona's main food markets and is a bombardment on the senses - the smell of seafood or fresh produce, dodging the crowds, seeing the fishermen's morning catch on ice. We enjoyed delicious fresh squeezed fruit juice and checked out the plethora of stalls.

Placa Reial

(Royal Plaza in English) Featuring palm trees and lanterns designed by Antoni Gaudi, this Plaza is a popular meeting point and has multiple clubs and cafes. Designed in the 19th century, is just off Las Ramblas in the Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter) where most buildings date back to medieval times.

Built up as the site of the 1929 International Exposition (World Fair), this hill boasts many different attractions and museums: the Font Magica ("magic fountain"), Castell de Montujic, Palau Nacional (housing the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya), Fundacio Joan Miro, Olympic stadium, the Poble Espanyol ("Spanish Village" - an open air museum) and more.

We spent an evening watching the magic fountain show (click for video) that happens multiple times each weekend. It's a glorious mix of music (with a varying soundtrack - it was classical music when we were there), colors and water  - combined with the Palacio Nacional, lit up as the backdrop, and the city of Barcelona below you.

A large, sandy beach dotted with shops, bars and restaurants, Barceloneta is the nearest beach to the city center. It's great to stroll the boardwalk (title picture), checking out the impressive sand sculptures (below), watch the windsurfers or just enjoy the palm trees. Nearby Port Vell, rejuvenated for the 1992 Olympics, boasts an aquarium, shopping center, IMAX theater and more bars & restaurants.

Aside from the giant line to get in, this museum was great. It was very manageable and informative about Pablo Picasso, his life and how his experiences shaped his work. The museum was separated by time periods, taking us through the stages of his life and showing how his style grew and changed.

A peaceful park in hectic Barcelona, this park had many different ways to spend some time - rowing boats on the lake, the Castle of Three Dragons, checking out the Cascada (right), hanging out with the mammoth or going to the zoo. To get there, we strolled through the Arc de Triomf (left) through the Passeig Lluis Companys (below). 

Halloween in Barcelona

For Halloween (we sadly didn't dress up in costume), we headed to the Razzmatazz Club - the largest in Barcelona - with five different rooms (main one, above) playing different genres. The Spanish are known to party hard and late - starting around midnight or 1am and lasting well into dawn the next day. The highlight of my night was a performance of Michael Jackson's Thriller dance!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gaudi's Barcelona

Gaudi's style is the perfect definition for Barcelona's dynamic and unique culture
Antoni Gaudi was an architect ahead of his time. Born in 1852, his modernist designs, inspired by nature, are in a class of their own and have had a distinct impact on Barcelona - his work can be seen all over the city. Gaudi's original style relied more on nature than on geometric forms or influences from other artists and architects as a result of his life experiences. We had the opportunity to visit a few of his most famous works.

(If you want more Gaudi, check out the Gaudi page on Artsy)

Sagrada Familia
Gaudi's most famous work, La Sagrada Familia was left incomplete when he died at age 72 after being hit by a tram in 1926 - and it is still under constuction today. Gaudi devoted the last part of his life to this work, living in the crypt. A devout Catholic, Gaudi designed the church to be highly symbolic.

He planned to have eighteen total towers; twelves for the apostles, four for the evangelists, one for the Virgin Mary and one - the tallest - to represent Christ. However, this tower representing Christ would be 170m - one meter less than Montujic, a hill in Barcelona - because Gaudi believed his work should not surpass God's. Additionally, there are three facades to the Latin-cross shaped church representing the Nativity (east), the Glory (south) and the Passion (west).

Parc Guell
Gaudi's most ambitious project after La Sagrada Familia, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is named after Count Eusebi Guell, an rich industrialist who became Gaudi's patron. Built upon a hill overlooking the city, the park was originally meant to be a gated community of 60 houses for Barcelona's wealthier residents. However, only two houses were built and the project flopped so the city purchased the land and turned it into a municipal park in 1922.

Upon entering, there is a large staircase leading to the column-filled marketplace supporting the city square above. In the city square, ergonomically correct (and extremely comfortable!) benches, colorfully tiled, line the perimeter. Not wanting to disturb the nature, Gaudi decided not to level the terrain so the roads going through the "city" are a twisting network following the contours of the land. Pieces of art, tiled aqueducts and other cool sights dotted the park.  For more photos click here.

Casa Batllo
This building appears almost organic and alive - many think it resembles a dragon. With colorful tiles ranging from oranges to blues, rounded forms and a "spine" on the roof, this building was definitely cool!

Casa Mila (aka "La Pedrera")

Friday, November 13, 2009


A pickpocket, Zack's 21st and more
Most of our 6 flights on fall break were early morning flights, meaning we were up very early some days. Our first day in Madrid was one of those days. However, we were quickly woken up upon arriving.

We stepped of the metro and began taking the escalator when it jerked to a stop. Next thing we knew, Isabelle had just been pickpocketed - but she knew who did it. He had pressed the emergency stop button to create a distraction and was getting away as we realized what just happened.

None of us really knew what to do, but I began tracking him - trying to be calm and not alert the thief. However, he knew he was being followed - instead of taking the exit, he tried to shake us by going to other platforms. Thankfully, he took the time to see what he had stolen - when he realized there was no money or cards, he dropped the passport into a trash bin which I luckily saw, otherwise we would have never found it! Isabelle was really shaken up, but its a quite common occurrence - so please travel smartly: wear a money belt, keep your bags in front of you and be aware of your surroundings.

Thankfully, that was the low point of our visit to Spain's capital city. Literally the center of Spain, Madrid became the capital in 1561 under Philip II as he aimed to symbolize Spanish unification and centralization. Today, the city is a mix of old and new - boasting great museums, parks, architecture, shopping and a reputation for partying hard and late.

Other Madrid highlights include: (pictures below)

Visiting the Museo del Prado

Celebrating Zack's birthday

At the Palacio Real

The Catedral Nuestra Senora de la Almudena

Fat Spiderman?!?

Parque del Buen Retiro

Hanging out at the park

We were there for a while...

Eating dinner at Bazaar

Cave life, a beautiful sunset and a Flamenco show

A drunk cave lady called me Jackie Chan.
 That's right. A drunken cave lady with three teeth and the baritone voice of someone who has smoked for 167 years told me I look like Jackie Chan.

In Granada's Sacromonte area, man-made caves dot the hills on the outskirts of the city - and it's common for people to live here. We had heard about these gypsy caves during a walking tour of the Albayzin quarter and decided to walk through the area to see it for ourselves. We weren't let down.

As we approached the rugged area, stepping over the random junk scattered everywhere, we heard the aforementioned voice roaring out incomprehensibly. We put our heads down and tried to keep walking, but it was too late - we had been spotted. In drunken Spanish, the cave lady began convincing us to visit her cueva (cave). So we went.

She actually took us to another person's, a living statue street performer, who gave us a brief tour of her home. Then we were invited to hang out on her "porch" (she actually had a beautiful view of La Alhambra and the Albayzin quarter from her cave) for a chat. This is where things got akward.

As the only one who spoke Spanish, I was the focal point of the conversation. As I tried to converse with the street performer, the toothless lady kept interrupting - yelling how she wanted more wine, demanding money for beer or asking if we liked "chocolate". This pattern lasted for about 30 minutes, as there was never an opportunity to get away.

Finally, the street performer asked us each for a euro so she could buy a bag of cement to improve her cave - at which point the drunk lady told me I looked like Jackie Chan. We each doled out a euro (a decent price for that interesting experience) and booked it out of there!

We made our way back to the edge of town and climbed up the old city walls (right) to watch the GORGEOUS sunset over the Sierra Nevada mountains (below). Afterwards, we spent our last night in Granada enjoying a Flamenco show with dinner (below).

Zack doing his best Batman impression.

The lonely trail.

Hanging out on the old city walls.

Granada at dusk.