Epilogue in Spain

“A man or woman of noble character holds a far greater asset than those who have traded it for material possessions.”

To finish off my trip, I traveled to a pair of cities that I should have visited when I studied abroad in Madrid eight years ago.  Ibiza, a party island known for its crazy clubs and world-class DJs, was my first stop.  After that I headed to Barcelona, a beach town in the north of Spain.  I’m glad to say both of them lived up to the hype.

Ibiza is very well known for being a party island, and some of the most recognizable DJs like David Guetta spin at clubs there.  I planned on being there on a Friday and Saturday night thinking that those would be huge, but it turns out that the clubs are more packed during the week.  Go figure.  No matter, I still hit up a club both nights, and went to the beach during the day to catch some sun.

I couldn’t take any pictures at club Amnesia the first night because they had this stupid camera check system similar to a coat check, and no one was allowed to bring their camera inside.  If your club is so awesome, don’t you want people to be able to show others?  I don’t get it.  Regardless, I brought my camera the second night to one of the lesser known clubs because I didn’t want to go somewhere that had a strict dress code.  That actually turned out to be a good move because the people came dressed in crazy costumes like this:

Both of the clubs started to get really full around 2 am, and closed around 7 am.  I didn’t stay that late, but I definitely took in my fill of heart-pounding bass until early in the morning.

After Ibiza, I flew to Barcelona, one of Spain’s most lauded cities.  Everyone told me that I had to see the Sagrada Familia, a famous church.  Hopefully by now you know what I think about viewing my 58th church of the trip, but I went for kicks.  I’d say it was one of the more impressive churches I’ve seen, but it wasn’t that big.  Here are a few snaps:

After getting in touch with The Man, I went to visit Park Guell, a series of structures designed by Gaudi, a famous Spanish architect.  Even though I went on a Monday afternoon, the place was absolutely mobbed with people, which was pretty annoying.  Getting a beautiful view of the city and seeing the unique characteristics of the park was worth it, though.

I quickly stopped by Las Ramblas, a busy street with vendors and businesses of all sorts.  I was only there at night, so it was hard to take any really good pictures.  It’s also the area most known for pickpockets, so I didn’t want to stick around too long.  Other than that, I did head to the port and the beach the day before I left, and that was quite a sight.  This is why people say Barcelona is so beautiful:

The last night, I went out with some people from the hostel.   I suggested that we dine in traditional Spanish style, which is by sharing small plates of food called tapas.  We had everything from garlic shrimp to tortilla Espanola, a concoction made with potatoes and egg.  Paella, another traditional dish, also made the cut, but I forgot to snap a pic of it.  Here are what the tapas look like:

Later that night, two things happened that made me pretty negative on Barcelona.  First off, a guy came up to our group pretty late in the night and started dancing with one of the girls from the hostel.  No big deal, that happens all the time in bars.  He was dancing so closely with her that he was able to take her cell phone out of her purse and put it in his pocket.  She thankfully noticed, and I was standing right by them.  I had some choice words for the guy in Spanish, and I went to follow him out of the bar, but several of the bar staff wouldn’t let me.  I talked to the bouncer afterward and he said that this unfortunately takes place often.  What can even happen is if the thief gets caught and you piss him off, he will be waiting with some of his buddies to f**k you up when you leave the bar.  Seriously?

Then as we were walking back to the hostel at bar time, this guy passed by our group and slapped one of the girls on the butt.  Her husband was literally right next to her, and the guy did it anyway.  Her husband chased the guy, but didn’t catch him.  How crappy is that?  I didn’t have any incidents like this my entire trip, and then two happened in one night.  Not cool at all Barcelona.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful a city is if the people are a**holes.

On a brighter note, I’ll give you guys a few stats from my trip since I like numbers.  You’ll have to ask me for some of the unofficial stats when you see me in person.

Trip duration:  49 days

Cities:  16, or 3.1 days per city

Countries:  9 – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Spain

Days I worked out:  12, very disappointing and frustrating

Days I spoke almost entirely in Spanish:  15, thanks Michaela!

Dollars that I got swindled out of by a street hustler:  $25

Days that I drank:  I thankfully didn’t keep track, but I would estimate about 18

Pictures taken:  1,513, or 31 per day

As you can see, I kept up a swift pace since I was only in each city for about three days.  When you consider that traveling from one city to another could at times take nearly a whole day, that’s not too much time in each place.  It’s because of this that the trip was more exhausting than you would think, so I might take a slightly different approach for my next one.

I’m going to write at least one more post after I get home with some more thoughts I have about travel, so stay tuned.  I’m looking forward to coming back home and seeing you guys!

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Walk Like a Parisian

“Life is simple.  You find what makes you happy and you do it.”

Carrie came up with the title of this post, and I immediately loved it.  Thanks CJ!

Ah, Paris.  Where do I even start?  Between the incredibly nice people, out-of-this-world food, and numerous sights, Paris ended up being my favorite large city of the trip.  I was glad to meet up with Carrie for the duration of my time in the city, and Michaela also came to visit for the weekend.  I had a blast with you both!

The first thing that I have to get out of the way is the prejudice in America that exists against the French.  I know a lot of people in the States think that the French are arrogant, unfriendly, and don’t take kindly to us Yankees.  I experienced the exact opposite during my stay in Paris.

The French were by far the friendliest people out of all the countries that I visited in Europe.  A guy who didn’t speak any English walked me to the correct exit in the train station at 10:30 at night.  All the people in the gym that I went to let me work in because the place was packed.  Even the customer service people wore a smile and said, “Have a good day.”  And for the first time since I started traveling over four months ago, somebody proactively asked me if I needed help when I was looking at a map in the street.  I think this is really impressive given that Paris is obviously France’s most populous city.  In New York, the American equivalent, you’re more likely to hear, “Get the f**k out of my way,” instead of, “Can I help you?”

It’s not surprising that nearly everyone looked incredibly fashionable in the world’s supposed center of style.  Scarves are a popular accessory, even for guys, and for some reason people seem to think Beats by Dre headphones are a good look.  As a joke I took a scarf that Carrie bought and tucked it into my v-neck while we walked through the streets.  Nobody even gave me a second look.

In the first full two days we had in the city, we walked a total of over 15 hours, so we knocked out a lot of the sightseeing right away.  We saw Sacre Coeur, the highest point on land in Paris, Notre Dame, and of course the Eiffel Tower, among many other sights.  The view from the top of Notre Dame was pretty slick, but seeing the top part of the church itself wasn’t incredibly impressive.

Carrie and I hung out at Sacre Coeur before Michaela arrived, and there was great people watching there.  However, the street vendors were insanely annoying, and we probably got propositioned to buy a Heineken more than half a dozen times.

The Eiffel Tower at night was a sight to behold.  It was much bigger in person than I had imagined, mostly because people take goofy pictures like this:

I had no idea that every hour there is a light show at night, and that turned to be a great unexpected treat.

Here’s a shot that’s closer up so you can see the architecture better.

I guess I caved in and let Carrie drag me to a few museums.  Of course we saw the Louvre, Paris’ most famous museum that has more than 35,000 works of art.  Guess what famous painting is there?

We ended up seeing the Mona Lisa, but that was pretty much it because we entered the museum for free about half an hour before it started to close.  Speed Louvre!  Hey, that was perfect for me.

The other museum that we saw was the National Museum of Modern Art, and it was by far my favorite museum of the entire trip.  First off, it’s designed to be like that club in Night At the Roxbury where the outside looks like the inside, and the inside looks like the outside.

The art displayed there was definitely my style.  Here are just a couple of the cool works we saw:

If you’re not hungry right now, I can guarantee you will be after reading the next part of this post.  I was really impressed with all the food in Paris, and I didn’t eat a single thing that I didn’t like the entire week.  Even the crappy looking cafes served really tasty treats.

The French take their food very seriously, especially bread.  Carrie ended up taking a three-hour bread baking class during the trip, and the instructor gave her a lot of fun facts about bread and food in France.  For instance, nine out of 10 Parisians will buy fresh bread each day.  You can tell how good a restaurant is by the quality of the bread they serve.  Even if the rest of their food is outstanding, if their bread isn’t passable, the restaurant won’t be successful.  Here are a couple of pics from Carrie’s baking class:

The cornerstone of bread in France is the baguette, which is a long, skinny piece of bread.  A couple of decades ago the French established legitimate laws that mandate specifications for baguettes, and there are actual baguette police that go around to all the bakeries and make sure they comply with the standards.  Each year there is a contest that is held to see who can make the best baguette.  The winner gets to make his or her bread for the King the following year.

With both Carrie and Michaela in dessert heaven, my PPH (pastries per hour) went off the charts.  I had probably eaten five or six desserts up to this point in the trip, and I sampled that many in the first 24 hours in Paris.

This is what a typical pastry shop in Paris looks like, and there is practically one like this on every block.  With so many choices, the girls just had to sample a lot of indulgences.

The chocolate binet on the left is my favorite French pastry.  It’s like a deep-fried doughnut with chocolate on the inside, which sounds pretty standard.  But the dough was really rich, and the chocolate tasted like they put an actual chocolate bar inside the pastry, not something synthetic.

This is a freshly made Belgian waffle drizzled with Nutella and dusted with powdered sugar.  Michaela liked it so much that she did a little dance as she was eating it.

These little gems are called macaroons, and they’re Carrie’s favorite food from France.  Their texture is simply unparalleled.  The top and bottom of the cookie has a slightly hard outside shell, but it breaks easily when you bite it.  Then the inside has a similar texture to marshmallows, but it’s not as sticky.  In the middle is a type of paste that is the same flavor as the top and bottom.  I’m sorry, but my description can’t do them justice, you just have to try them in person.

Michaela ordered buffalo mozzarella cheese with bacon and tomatoes, and it was served with bread.  Carrie thought this was one of her favorite non-pastry foods in France.

Carrie is a big hot chocolate fan, and she heard the best stuff in the city comes from a tea room called Angelina.  We went to one of the few branches in the city inside a really high-end shopping center, and it didn’t disappoint.  After sitting down next to some of the higher-class Parisians during tea time, Carrie ordered a single hot chocolate that came with a side of cream for about $10.00.  Even I can say that it was worth it.  We agreed that it tasted like they melted the most decadent chocolate bar you can think of and served it to you in a cup.  Swiss Miss who?

The day before leaving the city, Carrie and I decided to check out the catacombs.  It was kind of a creepy experience, but I’d recommend seeing them.  By the end, the stacks of bones were repetitive, and I was desensitized to them.

That was my best attempt at taking a creepy picture around all the skulls and bones.  Did it work?

I’m off to finish my trip in Ibiza, a party island off the coast of Spain.  After that, the last city I’ll visit is Barcelona, Spain.  I’ll be back home this Wednesday!

I-a Lov-a Italia

“Don’t count the days, make the days count.”

Thanks for that quote Smalls!

After draining my bank account in Switzerland, I traveled to the land of pizza, pasta, and gelato.  I really wish I had more time in Italy, but I was able to visit Venice and Rome.  I definitely have to get back here some day to see the rest of this amazing country.

Venice combined my two arch nemeses in life – meandering, unlabeled streets, and mosquitoes.  Even with a map, it’s certain that anyone will get lost in this city.  The geniuses at Google can’t even map this place.  What does that tell you?  Here you can see how small some of the streets actually are:

Nevertheless, getting lost in the nooks and crannies of the city is part of the fun.  To my surprise, I actually think I did pretty well with directions.  Having the canal snake through the center of the town helped a lot.

Taken at face value, many of the buildings in Venice actually aren’t beautiful, mainly because they are so old.  The numerous canals aren’t nearly as clean as those in Amsterdam.  But when you look at the city as a whole, Venice has a lot of character.  I really hate to use the word character to describe anything, because usually when people employ it, they are putting lipstick on a pig.  No lipstick needed here.  Venice has more true character than any city I’ve visited.  Here are a couple shots of the city:

I met a bunch of solo girl travelers when I entered the hostel, and within the hour the five of us decided to go for a gondola ride.  Our guide Marco took us around the city for about an hour, and since we split the ride, it only cost about $20 per person.  I’d more strongly recommend doing this for couples, but it was still worth it for the experience.  This picture isn’t the best, but you get the idea:

The most ridiculous question I’ve probably asked on the trip so far was to Marco: “Do people have s*x in your gondola?”  Instant laughter from the girls.  “Yes, of course,” was his reply.  “Well, what do you do then?”  “Nothing.”  Um…play on!

I don’t know why there are so many mosquitoes in Venice, but our hostel even had a bug light in the room.  I got more bites in 48 hours than I have the entire rest of the summer.  I would’ve paid $20 for one of those anti-itch sticks back home.

The girls and I decided to take a water taxi, the main mode of transportation in Venice, to a nearby island.  Murano is known for its hand-blown glass, and there was lots of it:

We saw a free live glass blowing demonstration where the guy made a cat and a horse in a matter of minutes.  Pretty neat.  We also chatted with one of the shop owners and found out that he had been blowing glass since he was eight years old.  He took us in the back of the shop to show us where the magic happens, but he said I couldn’t take a picture because it was a place for himself.  Fair enough Giorgio, I understand.  I was able to snap a pic of the live glass blowing demo though:

After Venice, I made my way to the city with the most history in Europe, Rome.  I feel like I saw a lot of the city, but by the end I was so sick of running around that I just took it easy.  I think if you had three full days and you really got after it, you could see almost all of the main attractions.  Since there are way too many sights for me to show you, I’ll just cover a few of the highlights.

My favorite thing to see in Rome was easily the Coliseum.  I went with a few people to snap some pictures the first night, and then I came back the next day to see the inside.  I was supposed to do a walking tour of Rome, but there weren’t enough people.  Instead, our guide Justin took us to the Coliseum and explained everything he knew about it for an hour and a half.  But he didn’t just explain the history, he described in excruciating detail what it was like to attend an event in the monument roughly 2,000 years ago.  Justin was easily the most captivating guide of the trip, and I walked away wanting to watch Gladiator on repeat.  Check out the awesomeness:

The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument was a breathtaking building, though I couldn’t enter it.

St. Peter’s Basilica was also incredibly beautiful, and it was free to enter.  They had a strangely strict dress code, but luckily I got the nod to get in.

I honestly wasn’t that impressed with the food in Italy.  To be fair, I didn’t seek out amazing foodie restaurants.  A lot of the food was really salty, and it just didn’t blow my mind.  There is literally a pizza restaurant on almost every block in Rome, so I had a lot of pizza.  One place that I tried was so bad that I would’ve preferred a Jack’s rising crust made in the oven back home instead.  This thin-crust asparagus, cottage cheese, and ham pizza in Venice was pretty good:

I think this concoction I got from the grocery store is minced up mushrooms with olive oil.  It went well with the crackers in the photo.

The food highlight of Italy was easily the gelato.  I tried at least half a dozen places between Venice and Rome, and Brian Runnells’ suggestion in the latter turned out to be the best.  I had banana and Oreo gelato with cream on top.  I can’t say I’ve ever tasted anything quite like it in the States.  Incredible!

Thanks for the suggestion Brian!

Since Italian culture is so strong, I wanted to find out a little more about it.  I talked to Margherita, a 29-year-old lawyer from Bologna, Nicla, a teacher from Switzerland who has an Italian mother, and numerous other people who live in Italy.  My impression is that Italians are very hard-headed, heavily favor other Italians over foreigners, and are extremely protective of their girlfriends.  One tourist said he was talking to an Italian girl in a club and her boyfriend practically started a fight with him on the spot.  Justin, the tour guide, said that it’s very difficult for him to get Italians to work with him since he’s a foreigner.

The first night in Rome I went out to some clubs in the trendy area of the city with people from the hostel.  That night I saw about eight guys who were literally forming a wall shoulder-to-shoulder so they could check out women that walked by.  Did these guys just do lines in the bathroom with The Situation and Pauly D?  There were so many douchariffic guys at the club that I couldn’t handle it since I wasn’t drinking that night.  I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Jersey Shore stereotype is all that far from reality.  The main difference is that Italian men have arms like Olive Oil and not Popeye.

People seemed to have a bipolar attitude with me in Italy.  Either they were really nice and helpful, or someone s**t in their oatmeal that morning.  Ironically, the people in customer service jobs were almost all the latter.  Not even a genuine smile could bring some levity to their day.

Don’t get me wrong.  On the whole, I absolutely loved Italy, and I certainly want to come back to see a lot more.  I could even see myself living here some day.  I’m sure some of the people warm up once you get to know them too.  Hopefully you’ve noticed that I try to be objective when I’m evaluating a city and its food.  To quote our visually impaired waiter Manuel from Germany, I try to “See the world as it is, not as it appears to be.”

Now I’m off to Paris to meet up with Carrie and Michaela.  Hide your pastries, hide your croissants, here we come!