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Arrival in Amsterdam

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

After a restful three days in Bruge we headed out this morning for Amsterdam, which will probably be the northern-most stop on our travels. (Except for when I fly back to the States through London in July.) It’s much colder here, and very windy too, but not an awful chill – I can still sense spring around the corner, and I am sure we will have our fill of April showers too. No problem, as long as I get to see some tulips while here in Holland 🙂

We traveled through Ghent and Antwerp to get here, and contemplated stopping in Rotterdam, The Hague or Delft on the way to A-dam, but decided that we could do a day trip on Saturday if we really wanted to get out of the city. But between the museums, restaurants, shops, canals and coffeeshops, I think there is enough here to keep me busy for the next three days. I think I could be happy simply sitting on the same park bench people-watching all weekend long! What an eclectic place with a vibrant mix of color, language and culture. I am especially amazed at the language skills of EVERY European, they all seem to know at least two languages and many in Belgium and the Netherlands seem to know three or four EASY…very impressive, and a constant reminder of how lucky I am to be a native English speaker, it really makes traveling that much easier.

My only must-see here is the Van Gogh Museum, although I think we will visit Anne Frank’s house too and maybe another museum. We are in a clean, quiet centrally located hostel, perfect for just wandering around, taking it all in. And there is A LOT to see here. Not sure if I’ll be partaking in the most popular legal activity of this town, but I will at least visit a coffeeshop at some point this weekend. We are here until Monday, when we will head east to Berlin for another four nights. It’s nice to have the next week planned out with accommodation booked in advance, for a change.

Ready for some Chocolate & Waffles

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

We arrived in Bruge, Belgium about 10 pm last night with no accommodations booked. It was a long day of travel from Lyon, but mostly restful, spending the day sitting in train stations and on trains, including the fast TGV that took us through Paris, which we decided to skip. CJ is struggling with a cold so we wanted a private room in a smaller town with no lock out where she can rest for a few days before we move on to Amsterdam. We thankfully found the first hostel listed in the book and they had plenty of rooms, breakfast included and free internet, which I am taking advantage of right now. 🙂

CJ is resting and I’m going to head out soon to explore this historic town, the sun is shining so it should be nice to walk around. Tonight we will make our reso for Amsterdam for later this week, since we don’t want to push our luck and show up in another city without a booked place to stay, although honestly it is easy to do in the off-season and we are very lucky – three for three finding accommodation on our first try each time.

Lazy in Lyon

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

Just a quick hello from Lyon, France, where we wound up on Friday night after a long day of traveling from Barcelona. It’s been slow and sniffly here, we have colds and are tired after an incredible, but busy time in Barcelona. There is so much I’d love to share about the art, culture, people and food from my time in Spain, and our last days in Barcelona – we visited the Picasso Museum, attended mass in Catalan and took a daytrip to Manresa, which my Jesuit pals may recognize as an important place in the life of St. Ignatius Loyola.

I won’t lie, I REALLY miss Spain… but sunnier times are ahead, I’m sure. We just have to get used to the constant language changes – I never realized how a full month in Spain would really throw me for a loop once I left, but it has. Once I get into the groove of being prepared for the continuous cultural and language changes, we should be okay. Or, we will just move slower and visit less places if we struggle too much. Thankfully, we have that luxury, but we also have Eurail passes that we want to make good use of. So it is a challenge to find a balance that is right for our spirits and our health. I’m confident we will sort it out. Once we leave Euro-land and head to Eastern Europe we will have even more changes to juggle. It didn’t seem as challenging ten years ago, and that was pre-Euro! Again, the age thing, but also, traveling slower gives me the chance to observe and process my feelings and reactions more.

We are heading north tomorrow, probably to Amsterdam via Luxembourg and/or Brussels…that’s all for now, going to go walk along the twin rivers here, the Soane and the Roane and then head to the hostel to rest up. Hope to have more time to write from our next stop, the internet cafe options in Lyon are few and far between.

Return to Barcelona

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

This journey through Europe is a semi-reunion trip for me. Ten years ago, in the summer of 1996, I spent five weeks on a whirlwind tour of Western Europe with two great friends, Tawn and Eilish. We visited eight countries and countless tourist attractions with breathtaking speed and the youthful energy of recent college grads. It was a trip of a lifetime, but besides the photos and journal entries I still have from that adventure, many of the details of what I experienced have disappeared.

Ten years later, I´m fortunate enough to have been able to undertake this return visit to Europe, this time, for five months. I now have precious extra weeks and hours to savor and cherish the details in a different way, and as a different person — older, slower, simpler — I get to linger with people and wander through places, taking in the atmosphere and culture at a more relaxed and less structured pace.

As I travel through both Western and Eastern Europe this time around, I will occasionally return to cities I visited on that first post-college trip. And yesterday I arrived in my first return visit city, the wonderful seaside metropolis of Barcelona, a bustling diverse and sprawling center of art, fabulous food, fashion and sandy beaches. As we emerged from the Metro to La Rambla, we instantly came upon the ubiquitous street performers, and for the first time since I began traveling 33 days ago, I was in a place I had been ten years ago. It was a fun feeling, to sense a familiar vibe right away, but then I though, jeez I feel old 🙂

It is great fun to be here again, to try new foods that I would not have dared try ten years ago, and to visit sites I did not get to see on our quick 48 hour visit back in 1996. Tomorrow we will go to the Cathedral, the Picasso Museum and Gaudi´s famous Sagrada Familia. They are predicting sun and 64 degrees tomorrow, so CJ and are hoping for another open-toe shoe day. We have had some fantastic affordable food here, and are looking forward to another two days to try even more.

I´m way behind in catching up on the blogs of my travel buddies and friends, but I hope to make some time this week before we head to France. Sorry for being out of touch, hope all is well in your world, wherever you are! I miss reading about the travels of others…hope to be able to check in very soon with travelers and those back home in B-more, NY and elsewhere. Hello to any of my new pals from Madrid and the Pueblo Ingles gang, say hi in the comments if you stop by for a visit!

Language Lessons

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

I returned to Madrid last night after a week in the wonderful village of La Alberca, located about an hour west of Salamanca, Spain. I was participating in the Pueblo Ingles language immersion program, an intensive English-language experience to help Spaniards become better conversational English speakers. It was a wonderful week of learning about language, culture, food and yet another magnificent region of Spain. We went into the village of La Alberca a few times for shopping, meals and a short walking tour. One afternoon during siesta time a few of us visited the breathtaking Peña de Francia, a magnificent summit that is home to a former monestary. The 40 or so program participants (half English-speakers/half Spaniards) spent seven days together, sharing excellent food, wine, conversation and loads of laughs…resulting in some amazing new friendships that I hope last a lifetime. Actually, I have plans to meet up with a few of my new Spanish friends in Madrid this evening for some live music. I hope we are able to spend just a bit more time together before I head out of town in a few days.

In other news, I´ve now got a new traveling partner with me! My good pal Christina (aka CJ) arrived in Madrid two nights ago and will be traveling with me for the next two months. I´m quite happy to have her along for this next leg of the journey I can hardly believe that I´m on day 31 of my travels — one month is officially over, four more to go! When CJ and I finally met up last night, we headed straight to the first Irish pub we could find to share a beer, honor St. Pat´s Day and began to plan our adventures.

It is rainy here today but we hope the weather improves for tomorrow, we want to explore the world famous Sunday market, El Rastro and visit at least one of the big three museums, probably the Prado, which is free tomorrow and open until 8 pm. I know we will only be able to scratch the surface of the massive collection it offers, but we will try our best, and hopefully fit in mass in Spanish and some tapas too.

On Monday morning we will head to Barcelona by train, about a 5 hour train ride. No accommodation booked yet for there, but we are working on it…any suggestions?

Mild in Madrid

Thursday, March 9th, 2006

It has been wonderfully spring-like in this magnificent city. I have not done much except walk and wander around, enjoying the nice weather. Í spent quite a bit of the past two days in the Parque del Retiro, and even randomly bumped into a German woman I had met in Granada last week while people watching at this awesome city park. It´s crazy how small this world can feel at times.

This will be my last post for at least a week, as I am headed off to Salamanca tomorrow to participate in the hugely popular Pueblo Ingles program. I have been waiting for this week for a long time, I´ve hear wonderful things about this language immersion program and look forward to a week full of new friends and LOTS of talking.

Eats, Works and Reads

Tuesday, March 7th, 2006

I took some time this morning to re-read my handwritten journal and thought I´d share just a few tidbits from certain aspects of my travels over the past few weeks:

EATS

I know that family and friends who are familiar with my sometimes odd and picky eating habits are wondering what the heck I´ve been dining on the past few weeks. Here is a random sampling, some of this was delicious home cooked food made fresh at the two bed and breakfasts I visited, other items are just things I picked up or dined on along the way, all of it fantastic and filling: berbigao (shell fish in Portugal cooked in lemon), Iberian pork, bachalo dorada (golden colored salted cod), tortilla de camarones (fried omlette with baby shrimp tapas), pisto manchengo (salsa-like vegetable tapas), pasta with spinach and salmon cooked on a huge paella pan (at the Granada hostel), lentil soup, chicken kebab take-out, tinto verde (red wine with lemonade), sangria, chicken liver pate, almonds roasted in cumin, Cruzcampo beer, curry chili over rice, cheese scones and tea, warm apple crumbler with vanilla ice cream, rice pudding with fresh strawberries, homemade brownies and chocolate tart. For the record, there are days when I get by on fresh fruit, mixed nuts and a crossaint with a cafe con leche. But mixed in between the budget backbacker diet have been some fantastic foodie moments, some free, made by my gracious hosts, and others simply great cheap finds, like the tapas in Seville — an excellent bargain, and the atmosphere at the Bodega de Santa Cruz was the icing on the cake. Finally, I did a little baking too, and took a stab at making my homemade biscotti for the Finca Buenvino crew. We subsituted anise seed for extract and baking chocolate for chocolate chips, it didn´t taste exactly the same but had almost the same consistancy. [read on]

All the A’s

Friday, March 3rd, 2006

Many of the places I’ve spent my time this week all happen to start with the letter A –

Andalucia – today is my 9th day in the Andalucia region of Spain, and I’ve got a few more to go. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the cities and country villages of this southern province, yet I’ve only scratched the surface. I was speaking with some German girls last night about Cadiz and Cabo de Gato, two coastal areas that I would have liked to visit, but I know I don’t want to cram in too much, so it all comes down to choices, and I am very glad with the variety of places I’ve had the good fortune to visit. Traveling during the week of the Andalucian National holiday has been a treat also, to experience some of the regional customs and festivities that mark the annual occasion.

Aracena – I had a spectacular time in the Sierra de Aracena last week, and was sorry to say goodby on Monday when I left. It is a beautiful historic city, with wonderful hills, trails, farms and a national forest as well. It is a quaint village in a special area that I hope to visit again one day.
Alcazar – This palace in Seville (known as the Real Alcazar) was an unexpected treat for me, I could not have imagined that is would be so magnificent. The colors, shapes and patterns of the place inspired me to purchase a small sketchbook while I was there, so I can try and capture some of the artistic wonders of the places I visit in my own creative way. The gardens were a joy to wander through, they must be amazing to see in summer bloom.
Alahambra – Ditto for this even larger and more amazing palace and fortress. I arrived early yesterday morning and had the place mostly to myself, except for some tour groups and other early risers. But the grounds are so sprawling, it is easy to get lost by yourself, find some corner or ledge from which to view Granada and admire the intricate details of the Moorish styles and designs.

Albayzin – I’ve lucked out with the location of my hostel lodgings thus far, they have all been in or near some fantastic city neighborhoods. In Lisbon, there was the nearby Alfama, Baxia and Chiado. In Seville, the wonderful Barrio de Santa Cruz, and now in Granada, the Albayzin, which I have only just begun to explore. I’ll spend a few hours walking through this maze of alley streets today, taking in the Moroccan vibe that permeates this unique cultural Oasis. (I’ve actually been staying at an Oasis during my two night stay in Granada.)

Alpujarras – This is my next stop in Andalucia. I’ll take a three hour bus ride to Cadiar this evening, where I will be picked up by my next host. I’ll be working for a few days at a small bed and breakfast/farm in the Sierra Nevada mountains, that I found through Helpx. I’m excited to see the mountains, even though I know it may get very cold, especially in the evenings. It’s funny to me that it seems I’ve picked interior, colder locations to visit, as opposed to the coastline that is normally my first choice when selecting where to go. I seem drawn to the hilly and mountainous landscape…so far it has not let me down.

I guess that is all for now, Adios! (There are a few more quick updates at Eurail blog too.)

Tech Troubles in Granada

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

I made it to Granada with no transport problems, but am experiencing some technical difficulties with access to my Gmail account. I can post to the blog but can´t get into my email account, so there may be a delay in responding to emails. It´s a bit frustrating but I´ll tackle my travel planning first and then get in touch with folks when I can. I hope to be able to blog a bit more tonight, but the keyboard I am on now is old and tough to use…the keys keep getting stuck. So, I give in to the tech demons haunting me right now and will try again later.

PS: Lots of good stuff to say about Seville, and lots to get posted on Eurail blog…hoping I can get some of it done later. Happy March, today is the official two week mark in my travels!

Oh, also, check out this cool photo of my mom and bro with Jen Leo in NYC last week. Missing everyone, but so glad these guys got to meet!