Friday, June 21, 2013

¡Vamos a la Playa!

Seriously, is my best friend. Weekends away? No problem!

Rachel and I had a plan to "escape" Navalmoral for a few weekends. Where else would we go? TO THE BEACH. We needed sun; we were the whitest people in town. When the weather is nice, I have no ganas to work... no ganas to be inside... no ganas to do anything except relax!

And relax we did. We had seen bits of Spring here and there before escaping to the beach... Once, we hiked into the mountains near us and had a picnic. We played rummy like old maids and drank the classiest, store-bought tinto. The picnic was short lived after we realized there was "un animal dentro" of the field we had chosen to lay out in. We had basically trespassed (ok, we lifted up a log that was acting as a gate), but the man was nice enough to let us stay with just a warning of "you know there is an animal inside there with you" statement. While we had seen a horse at the bottom of the hill upon arrival, we got pretty anxious that it could be a bull. You know, we were in Spain after all. 
Spanish security; how could we not help but enter?
Overlooking Navalmoral and the Sierra de Gredos Mountains snow-covered in the distance!
No shoes!
Tranquilidad at it's best.
So we had to take it to the next level: BEACH. We had it planned out perfectly, with three week intervals. First up, Sardinia, Italy, the Italian island just off its southwestern coast. Second, Spain's Canary Islands... to Fuerteventura.

While both places were so different, we were able to do exactly what we wanted: tomar el sol. Since sunscreen was super expensive in Sardinia, we bought the cheapest we could find for 18euro/24dollars: 50spf. Yeah, so I got absolutely NO color. But, Fuerteventura was different... I got so much sun that I was still peeling three weeks later. Whoops!

For Rachel and I, it was like being on an episode of The Bachelor/ette. We had private beaches just for us, our umbrella and our cameras. We took stupid photos and ate too much because we could. The views were incredible... and the water was crystal clear and similar to a beach in the Caribbean where you could wade out into the water for a long time before it ever went above your knees. 
Just for us!
Toes in the water!
Ridges of sand and everything! So picturesque!
Umbrella and clear skies!
Doesn't get much better than this!
Since we were the only people, we took lots of photos like this.
This was the second beach... just as pretty!
Unique flowers, private beach, views in the distance... ahhhh!!!
Costa Rei, our third beach for the day was nothing less than ideal!
There were lagoons with flamingos... I mean, if I were a flamingo, I'd choose to live there too! The food was spectacular and we splurged on this part of the trip at dinner time. Lunch on the beach. Italian pasta and pizza and prosciutto and other tasty Sardinian dishes at night. We even found some traditional Sardinian treats made of amaretto which left you wanting MORE. Sadly, none remain. I also have no photos because we ate it all too quickly!

Overall, I had no expectations of Sardinia, and hadn't really done any homework on it before going. It was a total surprise how beautiful everything was. Even the town, which we saw for about 10 minutes (due to a marathon in town and the city bus system really being a mess) was cute. If you're looking for a beach get-a-way, with no tourists, Sardinia is definitely a place to spend some time! 
Let the sun shine in!
Looking out on Cagliari's port!
As usual, throughout Europe, there are random ruins all over the place.
I prefer photographing photos of people's plants rather than having my own.
Last year, Rachel and I went to Lanzarote, another island in the Canaries. And I had also previously visited Tenerife when I went for Carnaval two years ago... this year, we decided to go to Fuerteventura for its beaches and sand dunes.

Turns out, when everyone learned we were American, they absolutely loved us. Free honey-rum shots, free appetizers... "typical Canary treat for you" ... we acted like we had never had it and made friends. Everyone was telling us that Americans don't go to Fuerteventura mucho. Everything was in German, English and then Spanish, making you feel like you are super far away from Spain, when you're actually still in Spain.

It was very beachy with huge sand dunes just near the water. There was a boardwalk along the beach. The buses even smelt like sunscreen when you entered them! Be careful before you sit down on the bus, because chances are, the person who sat there before you was fresh from the pool/ocean and left the seat soaking wet.... for someone like me who hates getting wet in her clothes (yeah, none of those water rides for me) it was a horrible feeling. Thank goodness it was steaming hot outside that you dried quickly. Sometimes it was just so hot, that it felt like you couldn't breath... that a short walk turned into an hour because you just couldn't go any faster. haha

So nice to see bars and restaurants next to the beach!
Walking the boardwalk.
Music to the right. Beach to the left. We chose the beach.
Enjoying the sand dunes! As, we were there all alone, we took a lot of these!
Proof that there were multiple shots. (PS check out the ridges in the sand!)
We decided to take a ferry to a small island nearby "Isla de Lobos" where we (I bet you can guess) went to the beach. While the walk to the beach was only 10 minutes, it felt like an eternity... and it looked a bit like what I imagine Mars to look like. 
The ferry.
Walking through Mars on a path in scorching heat.
A more beachy view of Isla de Lobos and Rachel, of course!
Yet another foot photo. Total relaxation.
Waiting on the dock for the ferry to come back for us... the water was a beautiful color!!!
We drank champagne sangria on the beach during the day. At night, we were total tourists and sat in a small plaza and listened to live music while we drank mojitos that came with sparklers in them. Sometimes it's just nice to get away from your life and go site-seeing but just to relax. I don't think I do that near enough... (don't argue with me on this one, mom -- a weekend in Navalmoral is hard work going out until 6am!)
A perfect refreshment on a hot day!
Our beach weekends have come to an end, but as the weather gets better and hotter, I forsee myself going outside to enjoy the nice Spanish sun, which has been shining brightly these last weeks. Here's to getting morena!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Semana Santa

It was my third Semana Santa in Spain; my third one spent with my mom.
It's always a tough decision on where we want to go, but it's never hard to enjoy ourselves. While the weather was a bit un-cooperative, we managed to turn our journey into a hot chocolate I believe we saw every cafe in each town we visited to avoid the windy, rainy, cold and even snowy weather. See, there's always a bright side, and since we were on holiday, the calories didn't count. Right?

It's always nice to escape for a little while and get out of your routine, but it's also nice to get back into a routine. As I write this and reflect on all the memories and moments of our Easter trip, I'm also glad to be catching up on sleep and getting into a routine again - where public transport and suitcases are the farthest thing from my mind. Here goes brain, let's relive Semana Santa!

Mom arrived bright and early to Madrid; like all flights of friends and family who come to see me, it was delayed. This flight caused me to have my first hot chocolate of the trip followed by a siesta in the airport, on the ground, coat over head... I later greeted mom with one of those signs with her name on it: MOM. I think she got a kick out of it!

Since we'd both seen Madrid (a few more times for me!) we decided to go to Cuenca, Spain, a town just an hour or so away to pass the weekend. While I didn't know much about Cuenca before, I knew we were to see some houses that are built into a cliff: las casas colgadas. And, wow, when we saw them I was so happy we had gone there! And that was just the start of me saying "how pretty!" The town was super picturesque, with colorful houses and views that allowed you to see for miles. I don't know why I hadn't been there before!
Together, braving the super bridge in Cuenca to get a good look at the houses colgadas!
Simply, incredible!
Trying to be artsy. >> Cuenca was so interesting!
We walked to the top of the hill to get a view of the old town, which is built onto the edge of the cliff!
Next stop in Spain was to visit my town: Navalmoral de la Mata. We did nothing fancy, but I think it was one of my mom's favorite parts. When I travel, I like to see the daily life of the people... What they do. Where they shop. What they eat. What they do for fun. Well, mom lived my life for three days as we went to my lessons and had lunch and dinner with friends and families. I think she saw why I feel so comfortable; everyone made her feel welcome and showed her that they think of me as another daughter or friend they have had for a long time.
Main pedestrian street in Navalmoral during siesta....
We ate things like this... blood sausage made of pumpkin and a smelly cheese from this region.
I absolutely love this stuff.... ol' Extremadura.
We dyed Easter eggs with the primary school students, and they loved it!
Caught in the act! Hanging out with the third graders (who are secretly my favorites!)
To pass the time, they had to do a St. Patty's worksheet...
and Hamid (my absolute fave) took my "color it green" to heart.
They LOVED "Cool" Carol.
And, at some point during our days, mom met Rodrigo's family! :)
Since it was Easter holiday, I wanted to leave Spain and see more of Europe for the rest of mom's time here. We made the most of our time and were able to see quite a lot of places (where we, of course, judged their hot chocolate!)

To sum it up a little:
1. We visited 7 countries: Belgium, Holland, France, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Luxembourg. (8 counting Spain!)
2. Spain has the best orange juice.
3. Always pay extra for a good umbrella, especially during these last weeks of March.
4. People don't move out of the way... It's like the know we were foreigners and expected us to move.
5. Staying close to the bus/train station pays off because you don't have to lug your luggage across town or mess with the metro or taxi.
6. Croatia is one of the cleanest countries I've ever visited.
7. Nothing is open on Sunday...
8. Belgium has wonderful chocolate... but I think my favorite cup of hot chocolate was in Croatia - in a wine bar.
9. Maastricht, Holland is a shop-alcoholic's paradise.
10. Venice with no tourists is absolutely fantastic... Early in the morning, just behind the train station, watching the garbage boat do its work.

On our super Euro trip, Brussels, Belgium, was our first stop, where we stayed in a nice bed and breakfast that had the biggest cats we'd ever seen. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the cats that ate breakfast with us each morning. :(

Our first night, we ventured in to the center of town to see, what some people say, Europe's grandest plaza. (which it might just well be...) The buildings have so much detail and a ritzy feel - it definitely has a different air about it than any of Spain's grandest plazas.. It was early evening so we were able to see the lights turn on and get a really good "night view" as well.

To keep the view going, we decided to have dinner in one of the bars located on the plaza (which we ended up doing every night...and each night the food continued to impress us!) After a few unsuccessful tries, we managed to find an open table. Our first meal? Mussels and fries, a Belgian specialty. And for dessert? None other than an original Belgian waffle, which we ate next to the Mannequin Pis statue - a small, little bronze statue of a boy peeing into a fountain. It has lots of fame, but if you weren't looking for him specifically, you'd miss him completely.

Brussels' Gran Place
First waffle of the trip!!!!!!
Mussels and Frites for two!
What else would you have after you have a waffle in Belgium?
Inside Bar Delirium, Brussels' most famous pub that serves 2,004 different beers from over 60 countries!
Bright and early the next morning, we set off to find the Atonium structure, which was built for the 1958 Universal Exhibition. Unlike the time I visited the Atonium with Katie, my old roommate from Valladolid, there were no lines so we decided to go inside and get some good views of Brussels center, which you could see in the distance.
You can go to the top ball by elevator and into the others via steps or escalators!
What a view, even on a cloudy day!
In the afternoon, we went to Brugge, Belgium, a wonderful town just about an hour train ride from Brussels. We walked around, explored, ate... Then we decided to get a map. Yeah, we probably should have done that first, but in the end, we were able to see new parts of Brugge we had missed in the morning and other places Katie and I had missed a year ago during our visit.

Brugge's architecture is one of a kind!
They say it's best to explore Brugge by boat...
How cute!
Backs of the houses, along the canal.
Afternoon snacks, when in Belgium...
One of my favorite places was the Begijnhof Monastery. Located on the opposite side of a canal, reachable only by crossing a bridge. It looked like a scene out of The Notebook, when they go to look at swans. The whole area around the monastery was swarming with swans and it gave it a truly magical feeling.
Up close and personal. Hey guys!
Total romantic!
Begijnhof Monastery, inside, over the bridge... where there is complete silence!
Begijnhof Monastery...
I really loved this place...

To escape Belgium, and to take full advantage of Brussels' fantastic location and train system, we ventured to Maastricht, Holland, for the day to take in all the bikes. It's amazing how different the landscapes, architecture, and means of transport changes just two hours away from Brussels. All I can say is "holy bikes!"

How could you ever find yours back?
Regular street...normal view...
I wouldn't say Maastricht was a let down, but it definitely wasn't what I was expecting. It's said that Maastricht is Holland's easiest city to get around, which it was. If you're looking for shopping, it is THE place to be... I'm pretty sure everyone from the region had ventured there for that sole purpose. Yes, we joined in and I got a new, army green coat which I absolutely love wearing. (Army green is very fashionable in Spain at the moment!)
Maastrict had a beautiful bridge!
The old city walls...that enter to a shopper's paradise!
Basically, we were always lost. How do you even pronounce this?

We ended the day having fries with mayo before getting the train back to Brussels. And, boy, were they tastttyyyy!

How do you eat your fries?
Stuffing my face at the freitz-erie. jaja
This was the low point of the trip... mainly due to weather and our day trip being on a Sunday. Lille, France, was just cold in all senses of the word. I don't have much else to say about this place except, maybe we should have gone in a different part of the year, during the week.

It was snowing in Brussels, so we thought we were lucky to escape for the day...
We didn't have a map and we ended up here. A street market gone wrong.
We were absolutely FREEZING and walked around like this.
...but since we were practically the only people on the street, it didn't matter.
This was the cute part of town, nothing like the market we had previously visited.
We wondered on strange things, like this "park"...
And, when it got too cold to be outside/we had had our fill of Lille, we got nutella/banana crepes. Happy ending!
This was the highlight of the trip for me, finally visiting Croatia. It had been on my "to visit" list for a while... and while I only got a glimpse of what it is about, I fell in love!

For starters, the people are so friendly. We had some difficulty finding our apartment and the kind people guided us to it; one even got us map and then walked us to the door. We stayed just next to the Coliseum, Pula's main attraction.
Hello, next door neighbor... this coliseum "Arena" is on the Croatian 5 Kuna bill!
I fell in love with the colorful shutters... these were on our apartment!

I believe we were the only tourists there; as we even arrived on the first flight of the "tourist" season! The streets weren't crowed. The restaurants were nearly empty; but it was much better that way. We got lots of attention!
Entering the old town through Hercules' Gate.
Exploring and taking photos of someone's garden.
A bit too cold for terraces...

Mom and the dvojna vrata, double gates! Can't see her too well under the umbrella...

Spring time flowers in bloom!
Exploring Pula's castle!
Although the streets were clean, they weren't in the best shape! They had lots of character though!
We went on a day trip to Rovinj, a small town nearby that resembles Venice. And, without tourists, we were able to meander through the streets and really enjoy ourselves. It was such a fantastic place! I'm pretty sure it's one of my favorite places I've ever been...
First views of Rovinj over on the hill.... WOW!!!!
Exploring the other side of Rovinj, opposite the port!
Shutters and clothes: Rovinj
Gaps between the houses let you see the sea~ :)
At the highest point in Rovinj! Where we were able to take our jackets off for the first time on the trip!
Balbi's Arch
Rovinj, Croatia
I spy a sailboat in the distance.
Rovinj artwork; I love seeing these in the streets!
Super colorful... one last view of Rovinj~
In Rovinj, we had the best lunch in this small trattoria, which was like eating in a friend's house! Some typical wine from the Istra region, some fresh seafood, truffle risotto, grilled squid, yum. I didn't want to stop eating! That was our souvenir... Food. Good food. We tried to find really local places with good, quality food. I'm pretty sure we succeeded in this category - and - it was warm inside! We didn't let the rain stop us from doing our favorite thing!
Dinner in Pula, our first day!
Grilled squid and truffle pasta that melted in your mouth!
Cheers to us! Lunch in Rovinj. ~ Istra wine~
How cute is this place we stumbled upon? I wanna go backkk!
My partner in crime, also enjoying the wine!
Lunch in Rovinj was just as could as it could get!

We couldn't pass up the chance to re-visit Venice... as it was just a (short) ride away! We went by bus, early in the morning and were able to see the sunrise over Padin, Croatia, along the way.
Absolutely beautiful. I didn't mind being up so early....
We even had to cross into Slovenia, exiting the bus and walking into the EU. I was so excited to get a stamp... But the police officer was checking my passport so closely that  I got nervous and pulled out my Spanish residency card, to which he threw up his hands and just handed it all back to me. Without a stamp. Mom got a stamp... I was so jealous! (But I didn't get it out on the way back and I got one!)

We arrived to Venice and were so happy we had chosen to go back. It was really nice to not have to run from monument to monument, but rather relax and just walk around and see what we could see. I have been to Venice three times now, but continue to see new things, new bridges, new neighborhoods... This time we wandered into the "real" Venice, where there are neither tourists nor gondolas. We saw people hanging out clothes, watched the garbage boat / garbage men work, saw schools, etc. It was my favorite part of our short stay in Venice! Highly recommendable... Jut behind/to the right if the Santa Lucia train station. 

Awaiting passengers....
Bridge of Sighs
Having lunch amongst some gondoliers!
Feeding the birds my leftover croissant.
New friends in Plaza San Marco!
Venice, you are wonderful.
Carnival souvenir?
Watching the garbage "truck" go down the canal early in the morning.
Real Venice, where gondoliers aren't busy at work.
Exploring the non-touristy parts of Venice. Check out that house on the right!
One of my absolute favorite photos from the trip!
Venice, Italy
Back to touristy Venice, with love locks and gondolas!
One lasting image of Venice's main canal from the Rialto Bridge.
Another highlight was casually running into an old friend from high school. Yeah, seriously. After exchanging long, strange stares, I finally asked him if we knew each other. Turns out, he knew I was "Whitney" but he couldn't place me. After speaking with him, I still didn't know who he was... Until we realized it was from Helias. But, over the years, people change--and grow much taller! Little Kevin Miller isn't so little anymore! We shared stories over dinner and had a nice evening catching up about life after Helias and us both currently living/studying in Spain. What a small world!
El mundo es un pañuelo.

Our last stop of the trip was to Luxembourg, another new country I hadn't ever visited. We spent Easter here, attending mass and treating ourselves to a nice dinner with family friends.

We spent one whole day touring all of Luxembourg, as it is a very small country. We saw castles, small towns, and a flower market in the center of Luxembourg Capital. It was a very local tour, very informational and laid back! We had a wonderful dinner with traditional food in a restaurant my grandparents had eaten in during their first trip to visit Luxembourg. What a nice way to finish our super Euro trip!
Inside the Cathedral, Luxembourg City
Overlooking the old town!
Another panoramic!
Flower market in the center square!
Easter baskets!
American General Patton Memorial, Ettelbruck, Luxembourg
Easter tradition on Holy Saturday: the kids go door to door asking for eggs, chocolates, money while ringing bells and beating drums and driving around the cart with their bunny! I want a bunny like THAT!
Clervaux Castle
Chateau de Vianden, wow!
Mom and our wonderful guides, Robie and Rosie!
View while eating dinner.... of GERMANY!
We were getting our flight back to Spain from Brussels, so we had to spend another night there. But, since it was Easter Sunday, the Gran Place had a spectacular light show going on, which we enjoyed while we had dinner in a cave, just off the main plaza.
The absolute final day of the trip was spent in Madrid, having tapas around the Plaza Mayor. We even ran into a very good friend if mine, Kortney, and her mom! It was very cool that our moms were able to put a face with a name after years if talking about each other! And, after a late night if packing and repacking, we finally called it a night and that was that.
Flying over Spain...
I wonder what city that is below?
Madrid, Plaza Mayor
Kortney and her mom. Me and my mom! :)

Templo de Debod, an Egyptian temple in the heart of Madrid
Where will Semana Santa 2014 take us...... UNTIL NEXT TIME, MOM!