Saturday, November 29, 2014

Funky Old Medina



We are pretty open-minded travelers. And the things we’ve seen on the road have made our outlook on life increasingly positive. Knowing how lucky we are, witnessing incomprehensible beauty, meeting the people we do…  It’s difficult to be negative when you’re blessed with the perspective that travel gives you.

Because of this, there really hasn’t been anywhere in the world we’ve been that we don’t like. Even towns that aren’t great will always have a silver lining. That one meal we had. That one person we met. Some redeeming quality will rise to the surface of every place we visit.

Until… We went to Tangier. I’m sorry. But for the first time ever, we just couldn’t find anything to like about this city. And I think that’s saying a lot, considering how many places we’ve been. The vibe is unmistakably shady. We may or may not have been followed once or twice. There was no real charm to speak of. Plenty of hassle to go around. And the only other tourists were confused cruise ship passengers.

We tried not to judge. To embrace our surroundings and dive in with an open mind. But neither of us could ignore how sketched out we felt. And our #1 rule of traveling is: If we aren’t into something, move on. It pained me to leave feeling like I hadn’t given it enough of a chance. But after just two nights, it was time for us to go.

Granted, our experience could very well be circumstantial. Much like that time we encountered nothing but assholes in Wellington, New Zealand. Or had a travel meltdown and never left that café in La Paz, Bolivia. There are times when surely if a few details were altered, our opinion of a place would be very different.

Our first greeting with Tangier was at night, which is never a good thing. It rained, non-stop. And we went in with expectations based on it's nickname - "The Tijuana of Africa". Each time we ventured out, we couldn’t wait to get back to our hostel. Which, as I write this I realize, WAS our silver lining. We seriously loved our hostel. Super comfy bed, incredibly kind staff, absolutely delicious breakfast, and a pleasant rooftop overlooking the medina. So, there you have it. Guess we’ve still never really been anywhere in the world that we just don’t like.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Change of Plans

We weren’t originally planning to leave Europe on this trip. We figured we’d divide the two months that fell between Meghan’s wedding (in England) and Christmas (in Florida) fairly evenly amongst Spain and Portugal. But a funny thing happened to us in Spain.

We got tired of it.

I know. Even the notion of this is blasphemous. Tired of Spain? What?? I feel like a horrible human being even writing that statement. But we’d pretty much had all of the food and booze and late nights and sleeping in and wandering around not actually doing anything that we could handle. I must sound like a crazy person. It was so flipping beautiful. So much fun. So delicious. But we felt like spoiled, indulgent jerks sleeping until noon, spending two hours over our morning (afternoon?) coffee, strolling around all day taking photos, sipping wine, and eating more tapas than any two people ever need to consume. And my pants would have to agree.

We’re used to roughing it a bit when we travel. Shlepping our bags around humid, third world countries. Living for mere pennies on the dollar. Seeing sights we could only imagine and encountering cultures that change our perspective on our own. We don’t feel guilty going months without work when we’re out experiencing such strange and unique and foreign places, collecting a lifetime’s worth of crazy stories, forming friendships with fellow vagabonds from around the globe, all while spending a fraction of what we would at home. When prices start to rise and life starts to feel like one long spring break, it comes time for us to re-evaluate.

So, re-evaluate we did. After five glorious, unforgettable weeks in Spain, we decided it’s time to step a little out of our comfort zone and check off a place that’s been on our bucket list for years.

Morocco.

It promises unseen landscapes and an unknown culture. Confusion and frustration and magic and mystery. Some outdoor adventures, some physical and mental exercise, some personal challenges and shared growth. The type of travel that together, I think we do best.

I can’t reiterate enough how amazing Spain has been to us. The decision is by no means an indication that it wasn’t everything we hoped for and then some. I can think of few places in the world better suited for a vacation. When you have just a few weeks and want to unwind and indulge in some of the best this life has to offer, before going back to the daily grind. But I think the things we seek are a little different when we’re, well, traveling

I wouldn’t be surprised if after a few weeks navigating our way around Morocco, we’ll need a vacation. And I’ll know just the place to go.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Granada, Spain

Granada is that girl you’re dating that you never introduce to your parents. You first met on Calle de Elvira late one evening, and thought she was a little sleazy. Rough around the edges. Not to be trusted.

Everyone said she’s so great, but you aren’t sure how to feel. You don’t want to fall too easily. Yeah she’s mysterious. But also a little shady. Admit it, you’re intrigued by her. And with good reason.

Sure you could go out with beautiful San Sebastian. But the whole time she’s sitting across from you at dinner, you’ll be thinking about Granada. Hey, go ahead and give sophisticated Barcelona a whirl. But you’ll soon grow tired of her thinking she is too good for you. Even though she’s probably right. And you’ll probably sneak into the bathroom to see if Granada texted you.

Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. She’s elusive that way. She’ll take you flamenco dancing in a cave. Show you views that are to too beautiful to be real. Get you high on shisha. Make you dizzy in her maze of streets. She’s a tough one to tough to figure out in the beginning. But as soon as you discover her best spots (tapas bars, that is) and dig deeper into her gypsy soul, there will be no turning back.

For photos of our one-week affair with Granada, click HERE.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Madrid!!

In the Spanish capital we…

Celebrated this guys birthday!


Strolled miles through the city streets.


Ate a lot of jamón.


Brushed up our Donkey Kong skills.


Stayed in a converted metro tunnel.


Found Fat Spiderman.


Fell in love with this market.


Indulged on chocolaté con churros.


Got up close and personal with Pablo Picasso's Guernica.


Spent a beautiful day in the park.


And stayed up really, really late.


For our album of pics from Madrid, click HERE.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tastes Like Freedom

Where do you go when you just have to have a $13 box of Lucky Charms??

Taste of America, of course!!



Your home away from home for all things packaged and processed!

Saturday, November 15, 2014


18 days. 16 cities. 1,300 miles (500 with Irish company, and 800 on our own)!

We navigated confusing highways. Did our best to avoid exorbitant tolls. Got lucky with nonsensical parking signs. Screamed at our navigation system. Apologized to other drivers. Laughed in the face of one-way streets. Perfected the art of the roundabout. Used our windshield wipers, a lot. All with ME behind the wheel!!

And in Madrid, our Spanish road trip came to a close. Next stop: The bus stop!

video




Friday, November 14, 2014

The thing about GPS navigation systems...

is that they don’t work underground.

I was pretty nervous about driving in Madrid. From my first visit years ago, I recalled massive multi-lane boulevards packed with traffic and gigantic lawless roundabouts, neither of which I cared to traverse in a tiny stick-shift with a dubious insurance policy.

Still, we opted to return our car at the Atocha train station, just blocks away from our airbnb apartment. Upside: No timely/costly transportation from the airport. Downside: Risking life and limb on four motorized wheels in the heart of the city.

Question: Have you ever experienced an entire freeway system, complete with interchanges and exits, UNDERGROUND? Me either. So imagine my surprise when we casually enter a tunnel, and don’t see the light of day again for 15 minutes. That’s enough time to get really, really lost, as my GPS freezes worthlessly.

Each time we’d find ourselves back at street-level, the navigation system would re-calculate our route and inevitably send us underground again. Then, dutifully, stop working. We drove around like this for well over a half hour, as the minutes until our car was due ticked by. It was SO much fun, let me tell you. A real riot.

We finally managed to escape the maze and, hallelujah, find the train station. And that’s when the fun REALLY started!

We pulled in at arrivals. We pulled in at departures. We pulled into the taxi waiting area. We pulled into long-term parking. Every visible entrance of the station lead us to the wrong place, and every time we exited we’d be dumped into the largest roundabout in the city. When common sense didn’t get us there, we turned back to technology and entered every possibility we could think of… searching by the name of the train station, the name of the car rental facility, via points of interest, via “rental car return locations”. Nada. By now we had five minutes until we’d be charged for a late return, and I was ready to just throw my hands up and drive off a bridge.

Moments before we ended up on the evening news, we spotted a teeny, tiny, adorable little sign pointing us to where we needed to be. We screeched into the lot with seconds to spare. Nobody at the facility spoke English, so they were spared my angry tirade. We dusted off our hands and walked away from that car feeling at once light and free. Nothing but the bags on our back and our own two feet. 

And those f*ckers charged me for the extra day after all.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Road Trip Days 10-11: Segovia, Spain

Guys. Can we talk about the aqueduct of Segovia for a minute? What’s that, you aren’t familiar with it? Well, let me tell you a thing or two.

It’s only THE most important Roman civil engineering work in Spain.

It was built in the FIRST CENTURY. Or maybe the second. They aren’t sure. Either way, that is REALLY FREAKING OLD.

Up until recently, it was STILL USED to transport water to the city. That’s like, almost 2,000 years of functionality.

It is nearly A HUNDRED FEET TALL at its highest point.

It's made from about 25,000 granite blocks, assembled WITHOUT MORTAR. And the damn thing is still standing today.

Mind. Blown.

If you want to see more shots of this historic wonder, and the fall-fun-photoshoot we had in Segovia, click HERE.




Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Road Trippin' Day 9: Ávila, Spain

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like inside a living, medieval fort, go to Ávila. If you want to run rampant in it basically all by yourself, go in November. And if you think it’d be awesome if it were lit up like a fairy tale at night, well, you’re in luck.

We are so lucky to have stumbled upon “The Town of Stones and Saints”. More than anyplace else we’ve ever visited before, it truly made us feel as if we'd been transported back in time. Walking along the top of the fortress walls shooting pretend arrows at unsuspecting enemies. Brandishing non-existent swords as we lurked the eerily quiet streets. Storming its gates in suits of invisible armour. We ran around like little kids playing make-believe all day and night. Well, little kids who drink a lot of wine.

While Ávila is technically part of the Castilla-León region of Spain, it was so amazing that I felt it deserved it’s own set of photos. And it might be my favorite little album. To see our fun times in what has been described as “the most 16th-century town in Spain”, click HERE.

Oh this old thing? It's just the largest fully illuminated monument in the world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Castilla y León

We spent four days making our way through Castilla & León, the large flat region of Spain that divides the mountainous north from Madrid’s urban sprawl.
  
For a small handful of photos from the city of León, Astorga and Salamanca, click HERE.




Monday, November 10, 2014

Next up: Anything!

We hatched a very exciting potential new plan today. Well, by we I mean I, and by hatched I mean presented it to Reece. And he loved it! He may have given it a standing ovation. Or maybe I imagined that part.

But if there is one thing I know about plans, it’s that they never turn out the way you think they will. And we change our minds a lot. So we’re not going to elaborate too much right now.

All I will say is that it’s pretty freaking cool to have been born in a time and place where our lives can take just about any darn direction we choose. It’s a tremendous privilege that we all stop to appreciate very rarely. The world is our oyster! And I want to see it all.

Hello. Step into my adventure planning office.

Starting his day off right.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Salamanca Surprises

We've got a little system for booking hotels during this, the so very low season in Spain.

1) Find the place we want online.
2) Arrive, with no reservations.
3) Negotiate a price much lower than we would have gotten if we booked ahead.

Sometimes, this backfires. Like when you get to Salamanca and it's dark and you're exhausted and it takes forever to finally figure out where you can park in the city and you shlep your stuff several blocks in the cold to your hostel of choice and ring the buzzer repeatedly and nobody answers. The friendly sign on the door provides a phone number to call if you want a room, which would be quite useful if you had a phone. Guess it's so slow, they don't bother showing up if there are no advance reservations.

Sometimes, this pays off. Like when all of the above happens, and then you find yourself another hostel on the fly and it's even cheaper and more centrally located and you open your balcony doors and find this:

Surprise!
You've just won quite possibly the best view in all of Salamanca!

Just pondering the meaning of life from my room's terrace
in the most beautiful plaza in all of Spain.

Road Trip Day 6-7: León & Astorga

In our opinion, there wasn't much to Leòn. Not a ton of charm outside of the small old town. Cold and gray and rainy, it served its purpose to us as a stop for the night.

We spent our evening the usual way, in a crowded tapas bar. I'm starting to sense a theme here, España!


Nearby Astorga was fairly quiet and empty, as most Spanish cities are on Sundays. They do have a beautiful Gaudí church though, that looks straight out of a Disney movie.

El Palacio Episcopal de Astorga

And, some pretty creepy looking street art.

Not that kind of hood.

Next stop: Salamanca!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Oviedo

On the fourth day of our road trip, we pulled into the first real city in what seemed like ages, though I realize now was just a few days. Where do we park?! Hooray there are PEOPLE! Look there’s a Zara!! In roughly 48 hours in Austurias' capital city of Oviedo, we… 

Started to get really into this coffee-drinking ritual.

So THIS is what all the fuss is about?!

Learned how much Spaniards love ham.

Pig on pig on pig.

Appreciated how pretty they light stuff up at night.

The stunning Iglesia de San Juan el Real

Caught a really full moon.

Cathedral of San Salvador, and, the moon.

Discovered Duffin Dagels.

What's a dagel??

And perfected the art of sitting in a plaza, sipping wine and watching people.

All. Day. Long.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Basque Coast, Cantabria & Asturias

Just five short days, but a lifetime's worth of beauty. And apple cider. And rain! Our San Sebastian -> Madrid road trip is only halfway through, but I must pause and post our first set of pics.

To take a peak at our jaunt across Northern Spain, click HERE.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Heartbreak in Covadonga

As I began the damp, grassy decent towards the water’s edge, all was silent but for the wind whistling off snowy mountain peaks and a herd of sheep’s bells clanging in the distance. Out of nowhere, warm tears started to roll down my icy cheeks. Never before in my life have I been moved to tears by the sheer beauty of something. Today, Los Lagos de Covadonga broke my heart.

Let me back up a bit.

Just when the nonstop rain had soaked our spirits and we were ready to throw in the towel on Northern Spain, the sun rose over the mountains this morning and totally redeemed itself. We tooled around the hillsides taking in everything the area had to offer, from this 800 year old bridge...

Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onís

To this rose-colored castle of a church...

Covadonga's Basílica de Santa María

To this pint-sized cathedral built into the side of a mountain, hovering above a waterfall… !

No big deal.

It was one of those perfect days spent frolicking around town that made the entire price of our car rental worth it. I’d heard there were some amazing lakes a few kilometers up the road from where we’d been happily snapping pictures all afternoon, so we decided to venture further into the mountains to take a peak (no pun intended, haha).

The drive started innocently enough, some twisty-curvy-uphill roads revealing increasingly prettier views. 


I see snow!

As the ascent became steeper and the road became narrower, this is when things started to get hairy. The wind picked up, the clouds rolled in and threatened to burst on us, and there was no picturesque lake in sight. Nor guardrails between us and the vertical drop below. Higher and higher we climbed, until we began to catch glimpses of breathtaking snow-capped summits. I could see Reece clinging to his seat as I negotiated each hairpin turn, tediously shifting gears to accommodate the changing speed and incline while praying an oncoming car wasn’t coming around the corner. Nearly 3,500 feet of altitude, we'd later learn, we gained in less than eight nerve-wracking miles.

Of course our navigation system failed us up there, so we had no way of knowing if we’d gone the wrong way or if our desired destination was just around the next bend. I could tell Reece wanted to turn around, but I was determined to push on. I forced the thought of rain out of my mind and decided we’d give it one more mile. Surely we were almost there.

And we were! I can't tell you the relief I felt to finally be greeted by this small body of water. 
  
Victory!!

We pulled off the road and got out to take photos, but sadly it was overcast and drizzly by then and the incredible snow-covered hills in the distance were hidden from view. Still, the moment was peaceful and a little bit surreal and I insisted we continue even further, to see the final lake.

Reece thought that was a wolf coming to eat us. It was a big black sheep dog.

Which brings us back to where I started. It sounds insane now to recount, but it is truly indescribable how moved I was by this place. The oddest part is, I’ve seen tons of prettier lakes. Greener hillsides and bluer skies and more dramatic peaks. But for some reason, this place was so powerful that it still haunts me. My heart literally ached in my chest as I took it all in. Was I pained that I may never see it again, saddened that photos couldn't possibly do it justice? Was I overwhelmed with relief over finally making it there, releasing the tension of our journey? Was I shaken by my unyielding urge to explore, moved by the satisfaction of finding whatever it is I am seeking? 

I'll never quite put my finger on it. All I know is that I lingered in that moment as long as the graying skies would allow. I felt so tiny. So at peace. So fulfilled. So overwhelmed by the beauty of this world around me. Endlessly grateful for these experiences. Humbled by our tremendous blessings. And hopeful that someday, somewhere, I'll come across this feeling again.

That tiny black dot = Me.

"We do not want to merely 'see' beauty. Though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words - to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it." - C.S. Lewis

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Day 3: Cangas de Onís


One of the most significant things I’ve learned through our travels is the ability to adapt. On the road, things very rarely go as planned. Sometimes the surprises are amazing. Sometimes, not so much. And I firmly believe that our happiness is based upon how we react to things falling apart.

Reece and I have gotten pretty damn good at staying calm in these moments, if I do say so myself. Lately, we’re taking it a step further and learning to deftly switch gears, turning the bad times around before they have any time to fester.

The main reason we rented a car to do this road trip at all is because I wanted to visit the Picos de Europa. Meaning “Peaks of Europe”, this mountain range promised breathtaking scenery, isolated villages, and a very famous hike inside a gorge that is reputed to be one of the most stunning experiences in all of Europe. We’ve been indulging in the food and wine arts quite a bit here in Spain, and were looking forward to some exercise in the great outdoors.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, when we arrived to the national park we couldn't find a single open place to stay. Everything appeared to be shut down for the season as we drove around in frustrating circles. Dead ends, one way streets, and narrow alleys tested my patience at every turn. Our attempt to park and investigate on foot was thwarted by pounding rain, and our navigation system decided to stop working in the inclement weather. I was tired, soaked, disappointed, and basically at the end of my rope, when we decided to just move on. If this village didn’t work for us, we’d find one nearby that did.

Fast forward through several more small towns dotted amongst the dramatic peaks. Nothing. We visited tourist offices (closed). We knocked on doors (no answer). The sun was falling quickly and this was not working out for us. So, we parked the car, opened up the guidebook and changed plans. Next stop: Cangas de Onís! The cheese and cider capital of Austurias, for some good old-fashioned pub-hopping to lift our soggy spirits. Onward we drove until the clouds parted, we found a suitable place to stay, and enjoyed one of the most fun nights we’ve had yet.

This is what we WOULD have seen, if the Travel Gods had cooperated.

This is what we saw instead.

The famous apple cider of this region (which tastes, alarmingly, like blue cheese) is poured from the highest height your bartender can muster, to produce a little fizz and make the taste more enjoyable. It's customary to swig the pour in one sip (don't let any sit in the glass!), and give the man nod every time you're ready for replenishment.

In the lazier establishments, they have these cute little machines to do the fizz-work for you.

Endless entertainment.

Well, at least our livers are getting some exercise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Menú del Día

As much as we love tapas (and oh, how we love them), we’ve been craving a warm, hearty, sit-down meal lately. A stick-to-your ribs, I’m-so-full-I-want-to-go-lay-down meal. The weather has turned cold, the skies have gone gray, and we want to feast. Reece, in particular, has been on a comfort food kick and all the guy wants is soup. A steaming hot bowl and a great big spoon. No more jamón. No more queso. Somebody find this poor man some stew!

When I reserved our hotel in Santillana del Mar, I noticed a nearby restaurant on google maps and checked out their menu. It offered a hearty three-course meal, starting with several delicious sounding soups! We had to go there. 12 Euros per person is steep compared to our usual spending, but this was a special occasion.

We visited the charming restaurant and took a seat in their cozy upstairs dining room. I noticed each meal was served with “desert, bread, water or wine” and thought that was an interesting choice to be given. I suppose we should go with a glass of wine, we are celebrating after all. I quickly learned the OR only pertained to your beverage. And they don’t mess around with glasses. Wait. This can’t be right. We get a BOTTLE of wine? At no additional charge?? Suddenly our 24 Euro splurge seemed like a steal.

Our first course, Fabada Asturiana, was love at first bite. A rich traditional stew of white beans and several types of pork, which we’d go on to eat almost daily. 

Reece finally got his soup!!!

Our afternoon continued with saucy roast beef and wild mushrooms, tender braised pork cheeks, creamy rice pudding, decadent layer cake, and fits of giggles as the food coma and mid-afternoon buzz set in. 

In the weeks that followed, we'd share a menú del día just about every day. It actually shocks me that it's not meant for two people, the portions are so huge. And somehow, we're still given a whole bottle of wine every time. We're always unsure if we're expected to drink it all? Leave half? Do they refill the bottles? Recycle the unconsumed wine? We better just keep ordering 'em until we get to the bottom of it.

Our Drive, Day 2: San Vicente de La Barquera & Santillana del Mar

A sleepy seaside town where the rainclouds parted just long enough for us to soak up its splendor.



Some frolicking amongst the sand dunes on a cold Atlantic beach.




This lady who likes apples as well as snow-capped mountains.


A medieval town so committed to perfect preservation that no cars are allowed to litter its historic cobblestone streets.


A shared love of Guatemala with our hotel's owner, discovered upon recognizing his paintings of Antigua adorning every wall.


Our very first “menu del dia” – The heart-warming three-course lunch complete with a bottle of wine that was to inadvertently become our daily tradition.