A Travellerspoint blog


7 days in Spain (Madrid and Barcelona)

semi-overcast 65 °F

We've just spent the last 5 days in Barcelona, Spain. Barcelona is an amazing mix of traditional and new, both in style, architecture and in cuisine. It has trendy modern shops, organic food everywhere, and people stay out dancing until the sun comes up (not this blogger though). Along one border is sandy beaches where the city meets the Mediterranean. We both agreed that this was our favorite city so far and are hoping to come back for a more thorough inspection some day.

We met Shawna's friends, Bernardo and Mari Carmen at the train station in Barcelona on the first day. They are native Spaniards and had taken the train in from Alicante the same day that we arrived. From the moment we met them, they proceeded to lead us to authentic cuisine, through the winding streets of the Gothic quarter and to a hidden little tapas restaurant which we would not likely have found on our own. They were the perfect hosts and made this the most memorable portion of our trip to date.

Around 3pm our hosts took us to a wonderful seafood restaurant down on the water in Barceloneta overlooking the ocean. Shawna and I got our first taste of real paella after an unfortunate miss in Madrid. It seems the Spanish aren't as well known for their cuisine as the French or the Italians but, in my opinion, the best food we've found was in Spain. At about 5 or 5:30, with the sun still high in the sky, we finished up lunch and proceeded to stroll the Gothic quarter. The Gothic quarter dates back to the Medieval and even Roman times. One could amble about these narrow winding alley ways for hours. At some point Bernardo asked if he should make dinner reservations and would 10:30 be ok. Shawna and I both agreed; any earlier would not be Spanish custom. We continued to explore the Gothic and Borne neighborhoods, stopping for a cerveza/mojito along the way.

Dinner was on a dark, narrow alley, in a dimly lit hole in the wall called "La Vinateria de la call" which looked as if it had been open for as long as the Gothic quarter had been in existence. We were brought plate after plate of delicious tapas: jamon, dry salami, assortments of cheeses, anchovies, fried croquets and of course red wine. Shawna and I weren't in our beds until well after 2am.

We woke to pouring rain and Bernardo and Mari Carmen had to catch the train back to Alicante that day. Since it was raining cats and dogs outside, we decided to enjoy the Spanish national pastime, eating! We weren't sure where to go so we wandered around Plaça de Catalunya in search of a bite. Shawna and I tried to steer the group out of the rain and into some touristy little pubs but Bernardo would have none of it. He let us in on a secret to finding good tapas in Spain, "always find the restaurant with the most people in it". In Spain people will always flock to best tapas bars no matter how crowded, as long as the food is the best. Lo and behold, we turned a corner and found an overly crowded tapas bar with a line going out the door. The four of us squeezed into a little corner of the bar and ate standing up. It was a snug fit but well worth it. Trusting Bernardos knowledge of tapas, we allowed him to handle the ordering. We received all sorts of interesting plates. Flavorful octopus, salty fried sardines, traditional potatoes and jamon. Each one unique and full of flavor. In typical style, lunch lasted until 4pm when our 2 friends had to catch their train. It was hard to see them go, especially for Shawna who hadn't seen Bernardo in over a decade, making it a gloomy walk home in the rain. To perk our spirits, we decided to order room service while watching spanish Simpsons and listen to the rain fall outside.

The Spanish take their dining very seriously. "Lunch" starts around 2pm and can last 2 or more hours and is the biggest meal of the day. Most people don't go out to dinner before 9 or 10pm and again it can take 2 or 3 hours to complete. I thought I was familiar with tapas; after all I had been to Cha Cha Cha over 3 times. I was wrong. If you are lucky enough to find a really good tapas bar, you are in for a variety of tasty treats. Tapas are small plates of food (think appetizers) meant to be shared with a group and can be anything from sliders to cheese plates to calamari to lentil soup. Everyone sits or stands at the bar and orders rounds of tapas and sips cerveza until everyone is satiated. Most tapas restaurants have 15 to 20 different tapas in addition to the daily tapas so its a great way to try a little bit of everything. One of the most popular tapas is thin sliced jamon.

I think Bernardo best sums up the sentiments of his nation when he says "I love Jamon". Jamon is thin sliced ham similar to proscuitto but drier. It is always carved on site from a cured full leg of pork (hoof included) and is found everywhere. Every bar and restaurant that we went to in Madrid or Barcelona had a partially carved leg of pork waiting to be sliced on demand. There are not one, but many "Museo de jamon”s in Madrid. It can cost over $200/kg for Jamon Iberico, that is jamon fed solely a diet of acorns, not to be confused with Jamon serrano or other types. You can take courses on proper slicing of the thin delicacy. You learn a great deal about jamon if you spend any time in Spain.

We spent our last two days exploring Barcelona on our own. We devoted one rainy morning to a cooking class making paella. We started with a tour of the large market off of Las Ramblas, la Boqueria. I’ve never seen so much variety in my life. One can buy 30 different varieties of olives, ostrich eggs, any particular part of a sheep or cow one desires to eat, vegetables from across the globe and fish, more fish than I’ve ever seen. As it turned out, our cooking class was making a seafood paella. This was fine, we had been enjoying seafood the entire time we were in Barcelona. Unfortunately, when you cook seafood paella for 3 hours, you smell like seafood paella, your clothes smell like seafood paella, your hair smells like seafood paella, my socks smelled like seafood paella. Shawna and I walked around smelling like low tide for the rest of the day which was an unpleasant experience.

Later that day I got my first European haircut. It looks very…European. Try as we might, we couldn’t acclimate ourselves to the late night dining experience. We would try to stay up until the traditional dinner hour but ended up ordering room service two nights in a row (our excuse is that is was raining ok?). On our last night we followed Bernardo’s advice and found the most crowded tapas bar we could find. It was fusion tapas with all sorts of interesting options that we hadn’t seen in other places. All extremely delicious.

Prior to Barcelona, we were in Madrid for 2 days. Madrid is also a beautiful city; more traditional than Barcelona. Unfortunately, I was still feeling the aftereffects from Oktoberfest. I guess the hallmark of turning 35 is a 2 day hangover. The night we arrived, we poked around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor (the site of many grizzly Inquisition executions) areas. That night we had a wonderful candle lit tapas dinner in the Plaza Santa Ana.

We spent the next day wandering around the Reina Sofia and then headed over to Retiro Park. Retiro Park is an enormous (300 acres!) park in the center of Madrid. It was the perfect way to cure my 5 stein ailment. We sat and read books in the sun and then rowed rowboats around the pond in the center of the park. Shawna's rowboating skills are only mildly better than her kayaking skills as it turns out. For dinner, we took ourselves on a tapas bar hopping excursion. We would find an interesting looking tapas bar, grab a glass of wine and try whatever tapas seemed interesting or adventurous. Rinse, repeat until you can’t eat another bite.

Our last day in Madrid was spent on one of Rick Steve’s walking tours (Rick Steve is the author of our guide book and has been leading us through Europe thus far). Spain is the last entry in our guide book so we’re going to have to say good bye to Rick when we head to Turkey. For our final night in Madrid and for our five year date-aversary we decided to see some Flamenco dancing. We started with tapas in the Mercado San Miguel, an iron and glass market built in 1916. The market consists of 10 or so different standup tapas bars, each specializing in one type of tapa (cured meats, cheeses, pickled things, etc). You can buy a glass of wine and wander around from bar to bar, sampling as you go.

Its amazing how much your current mindset can affect your impressions of a city. I was exhausted by Munich and so was a little overwhelmed by Madrid but enjoyed Barcelona very much. When Shawna was traveling many years ago she really enjoyed Madrid but didn’t like Barcelona. This time she enjoyed Barcelona as much as I did.

All in all, Spain was a pleasant surprise for me. Shawna had spent a lot of time here in the past and had enjoyed it but I didn’t know much about it. The climate is warm and dry, much like California, the food varied and delicious and the art and architecture rival any other major European country. I think of all the places we’ve visited so far Spain (and Switzerland) are the 2 places I’d like to come back to soon. Spain is the last country on our itinerary that Shawna and I have ever visited.

PS - Shawna would like everyone to know that we are exactly $45.72 under her forecasted budget after one month into our trip and that we are tracking nicely. She’s very talented.

Cooking Classes:
Shopping in the Boqueria Market:
Goat heads, brains, and male organs if you'd like:


Posted by tylerandshawna 08:31 Archived in Spain Comments (2)


Our quick 2 day stop in Munich for Oktoberfest

50 °F

WOW, what a party. We are coming out of this weekend a bit more haggard and beat up, but with some pretty awesome memories.

Full disclosure - our main reason for visiting Munich was to meet up with the Danas and see Oktoberfest. We did those two things, and not much else within the city, other than a stroll through downtown Munich on our first night.

We arrived on Tyler's birthday after 3 transfers coming from Interlaken. The first two train rides were peaceful with beautiful scenery. The train ride from Zurich to Munich was pretty much an Oktoberfest party train! Packed full of people drinking, singing, yelling, hugging. Pretty entertaining, and only a small preview of what was to come.

Once arrived in Munich, we checked in to our hotel and immediately went down the street and purchased Lederhosen and a Dirndl for the festivities; what fun! It turns out about 90% of the locals wear traditional clothing for the festival, so we fit right in, although we froze our behinds off the first day. After a joyful reunion with Danny and Nat, we took Tyler out for traditional Bavarian food followed by beers at the Hofbrauhaus for his birthday. Once sufficiently fed, buzzed, and merry, we went to bed early to prepare for the first full day of Oktoberfest.

In the morning, we dressed in our garb, put braids in our hair, and headed to the fest! We all agreed it was less overwhelming than what we pictured, which was a pleasant surprise. We found that there was plenty of space to move around, all tents had very high ceilings, and one must be sitting at a table to be served. The fest consists of many carnival-like rides, in addition to the beer tents. It's hard to explain what a sight this is to behold once you walk through gates, so here are a few statistics for you:

Surface area: 420,000 square meters
Number of beer tents: 14 large, 20 small
Total seating: approx 100,000
Visitors/year: 7.2M
Beer: Approx 6.9M liters (only a mere 169k of non-alcoholic)
Chicken: 550,000 consumed
Pork Sausages: 140,000 consumed
Fish: 44,000 consumed
Pork Shanks (Haxen): 75,000 consumed
Oxen: 116 consumed (entire Oxen!!)
Calves: 57 consumed
Foiled attempts at mug theft: 111,000 people
Lost property: About 4,500 items, including 1,000 articles of clothing, 950 ID cards, 570 wallets, 300 eyeglasses, 400 keys, 480 mobile phones, 280 purses, 80 cameras, 100 watches, 45 umbrellas, a few wedding rings, and a whole bunch of other random items (french horns, tennis rackets, even dogs).

We were able to visit 5 of the large tents over a two day period. Each tent has it's own look and vibe, but they all consist of a central band-stand with joyous traditional German music. One song you are guaranteed to hear about every 20 minutes in EVERY tent is called Ein Prosit, which is essentially a song that is designed to get you more lubricated and share cheers (eye contact is essential) with your neighbors. At this moment, this song feels eternally burned on my brain, though I had no idea what the real lyrics were until I googled it.

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit (a toast, a toast)
Der Gemütlichkeit (to cheer and good times)
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit (a toast, a toast)
Der Gemütlichkeit. (to cheer and good times)

Here's how it works - you walk in to your tent of choice, find a table with randoms, order a stein (that's all they serve; try ordering a half liter and you will be laughed at), and make sure to eat food as you go. We first visited Augustiner on a whim, which ended up being our favorite tent. We ordered half chickens that were cooked to perfection (YUM) and washed them down with our steins. The entire atmosphere lends itself to being joyful and making friends with neighbors. After that, we went to our second spot, which is a local tent recommended by some friends of Natalies - Ambrustschutzen. We spent the night there, holding down a table until we were joined by a big group of Germans that Natalie used to work with. We ordered rounds of food with pretzels and cheese dips, and kept going with the steins. Tyler and I pooped out around 8pm, but the Dana sisters kept the party going, and Natalie even ended up on one of the carnival rides late night. We were super impressed.

The next day was more of the same! We went to 3 more tents, including Hacker-Festzelt, Lowenbrau-Festhalle, and Winzerer Fahndl, and peeked in many others. We found across both days, that things were fairly civilized prior to 4pm-ish, and the nights slowly take a turn, somewhere around 6pm, when things get more crowded with locals getting off of work, and the people who have been there all day achieve new heights of drunkenness. There is less and less sitting, and more standing on benches singing and swaying. People are constantly overestimating their drinking abilities, and you see areas being littered with what the German's call "Bierleichen" or "beer corpses" (folks that have passed out from drinking too heavily). We saw a few people get kicked out, and one particularly overzealous fellow fell on top of our table twice, spilling a ton of beer all over us. It was unlike anything we had ever seen! Germans definitely know how to party. Only liter sizes of beer, no water, and fried food galore, it's a pretty fun sight to behold.

It was so fun, we may come back another year. Until then, we will be resting our livers in preparation.

This video gives you an idea of the vibe:

More pics:

Posted by tylerandshawna 02:11 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

The hills are alive!

Our 5 day adventure in the Berner Oberland

overcast 70 °F

For the past four days we've found ourselves in the land of cheese and chocolate. Switzerland is unlike any other country we've ever been to. As the train descends into the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which is where we've focused our visit, you feel like you've somehow stumbled into a fairytale. Everything is clean, ginger bread houses line the streets, flowers are everywhere, you can drink water right out of the streams...it doesn't feel like a real place.
We spent the first day poking around Interlaken, which is the largest city in the valley. Paragliders float down from the cliffs above into the city's main square from morning until night. We spent the first 2 nights at the first hostel of our trip. The charm of youth hostels is somewhat lost to us non-youths. I guess the idea of staying up partying and sharing bathrooms with 20 somethings isn't as appealing as it once was. Still it is clean, comfortable and quiet since it's technically the off season.

The next day we took the train to the town of Lauterbrunnen located at the mouth of the valley. From here you can walk the length of the entire valley on meticulously maintained 'wanderweg' (walking paths); in fact you can reach almost any point in the valley via the wanderwegs. For those less inclined to walk, there are trains, trams and funiculars to any city in the region. If you look up you will see base jumpers jumping to the valley floor from high above. Some even wear glider suits which allow them to act like flying squirrels; soaring across the entire valley before pulling their shoots. After walking the valley, we took the funicular, a mix between a train and an elevator, up to Wengen, which sits on a cliff overlooking Lauterbrunnen; completely inaccessible by cars. From there, you can see the entire length of the valley with the snowcapped Jungfrau in the distance. Being in the valley feels like what Yosemite might have felt like before being overrun by hotels, tour buses and crowds.

The next day we set off for Gimmelwald (pop. 120), a small hamlet accessible only by foot at the far end of the valley. We took the tram from Lauterbrunnen, a terrifying experience according to Shawna, accompanied by a bunch of sweaty basejumpers to Grutschalp, then walked on to Murren and finally to Gimmelwald. We were welcomed with steins of beer in the biergarten attached to our lodge. We sat there drinking beer, looking at the mountains and chatting with some Phoenixians (Phoenicians?) as the sun went down. We had a hot, hearty candle lit dinner in our lodge followed by a moon lit stroll through town before hitting the sack. Common advice is to stay in Interlaken and do day trips to the smaller towns in the valley. We both wished we had spent more time in the tiny little villages and less time in the 'Big City' (Interlaken itself is tiny).

Its amazing how well one sleeps in absolute darkness and silence after hiking all day. We decided to go for an early morning walk around town before breakfast. We were making our way up a narrow paved street when we heard quite a commotion coming from around the next bend. To our surprise, a flock of sheep, 150 or more were headed our way. There was absolutely no place to go to get out of their way. Being the city folk that we are, we had no idea if this was a dangerous position to be in. Do they eat clothes? Bite? Being buried under a sea of fluff would have been a hilariously tragic end to our trip. Luckily we discovered that the sheep were more scared of us than we were of them and gave us a wide birth. Watching the sheep herders, who must have been 8 - 10 years old, chase the runaways up the hill side was quite entertaining.

We ate a quick breakfast and then it was off to our second to last night in Switzerland, a charming little hut, high on the mountain side. It was a full days hike from Gimmelwald, the last 2 hours of which were up incredibly steep switchbacks. Upon arrival we were greeted by 2 black Tibetan Terriers and a baby yak. If you've ever seen a baby yak, you know they are one of the cutest animals on the planet. Occasionally he would get up to nibble on some grass or inspect a new guest's lunch bag, but mostly he would just lay in the sun and fend off the terriers who were more interested in playing than he was.

We had arrived at our hut with the sun still high in the sky so we decided to go for a walk (the Swiss call hiking 'walking'). We wanted to see if we could find the other hut where Shawna had stayed a decade prior, and was our first choice for lodging on this trip. After hiking another 20 minute past pig pens and through cow pastures we arrived at our destination. On arrival Shawna was reminded that they had no electricity, no hot water and that she froze half the night last time she stayed there. I think we were both somewhat relieved that they had been booked that night and that we had had to make alternate arrangements. Still, it was fun for Shawna to stir up memories of her last trip to Switzerland. We decided to stay for a while and drink a beer while the sun was still warm. All of the hiking huts server beer, goulash soup and various sausages to the hikers who make their way up to the remote locations. An inviting offering but I imagine a few beers makes the prospect of hiking the 8 miles back to Lauterbrunnen a little less appealing.

We made our way back to our own hut, showered up and read on the picnic benches out front until it was too cold and too dark to continue. We were then invited in by our host for hot, delicious meal with our other hut-mates, none of whom spoke English. After that it was off too bed as we had to make it all the way back to Interlaken the next day.

The hike down proved treacherous. We decided to follow a different path down the the mountain which ended up being much steeper with narrower paths and lots of cliffs. Mostly it was hard on the knees and slow going. We were relieved to arrive at the valley floor. The view of the valley is most striking from from the valley floor with the cliffs soaring on either side and the bright green fields on either side. We experienced a

Swiss cow parade and some sort of base jumper convention.
We arrived back in Interlaken for our last night in Switzerland, Shawna took me out for a wonderful birthday dinner where we sat outside and watched the paragliders sail into the valley. It is bitter sweet to leave Switzerland but we are excited for our next stop: Munich for Octoberfest with Danny and Natalie!


Posted by tylerandshawna 02:03 Archived in Switzerland Comments (3)

Au Revoir!

Paris, part deux

sunny 73 °F

Paris has continued to be a great experience, and we have been traipsing all over the city taking in the sights. Since our last post, we have seen: The Louvre, the Arc De Triomphe, the Pompidou, Versailles, flea markets, Seine river tour at night, the Eiffel tower, and more. It can be exhausting at times, but we have been rewarding ourselves with 2 hours dinners at the end of our days, including wine and dessert, of course! We have found some delicious restaurants at last; the first few days we were mostly eating for sustenance, as an after thought after long days.

Our jet lag is pretty much gone (we actually left the apartment at night!) but we are staying in party central of the city, the Castro of Paris, and have had some noise in our apartment that has made it difficult to sleep a few nights. We are powering through, imbibing tons of coffee (and sugar) to keep us going throughout the day. We have been walking anywhere from 8-13 miles per day, so are pretty exhausted by the time we hit the sack.

We are sad to say goodbye to our Moms! It still doesn't feel real that we will be gone through the holidays. This definitely marks a transition in our trip; we are on our own now! We are, however, looking forward to leaving the big city life for the Swiss Alps, where we plan to do nothing but hike, bike, and sleep.

From here on out, we will be slowing our pace and tightening our budget, so we are soaking it in while we can.

A few photos from Paris, part deux:

Marie Antoinette's bed chamber:

Paris at night:

Saint Chapelle:


Posted by tylerandshawna 11:07 Archived in France Comments (0)


Paris Part Un.

sunny 70 °F

We've officially been across The Pond (pond being a charming euphemism for the Atlantic Ocean) for 3 days now. Aside from a vomit inducing cab ride to JFK, the trip over was easy. The Moms (or Mom2 for those with an aptitude for math) seem to be enjoying themselves. We've seen Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter and Montmartre. After a fitful first night sleep, we naively thought we had overcome our jet lag, but sure enough, none of us slept a wink last night.

The contrast between NYC and Paris is striking after having visited both cities in a short period of time. So far, the cuisine in New York has been better than what we've found in Paris. This is most likely due to having been in the heart of Chelsea, the cutting edge foodie haven of New York, and dining in the more touristy areas of Paris. We did find one authentic little bistro in the Marais called 'Le Petite Fer a Cheval' ('The Little Horseshoe') for dinner last night. With only 6 tables and not a word of english on the menu, this is a restaurant for Parisians. Unfortunately, with 15 years since my last spoken word of french and no internet connection, translating menu items proved difficult; its unclear what you'll be eating when you can't interpret a third of the menu.

The most striking difference between the two cities is how much more visually appealing Paris is than New York (Sorry NYCers). With its classic limestone buildings, open parks and squares and lack of sky scrapers, Paris is light and airy. The way thousand year old buildings have been preserved, Paris feels like a living museum. Its easy to imagine what life was like here one hundred, two hundred or a thousand years ago. By contrast, New York feels purely functional; overwhelming and exhausting.

We've had a wonderful time so far but we both go through bouts of wondering if the trip we've planned is too long and whether we'll get sick of living out of a suitcase etc. Thinking about four months of travel is a bit overwhelming. We've decided that the best approach is to focus on the present and not think too much about the trip as a whole.

Some highlights we've seen so far: Notre Dame, Montmarte, the Orsay museum, the Latin Quarter.

Next, we're off to Versailles, flea markets and hopefully more Parisienne cuisine.

Our Apartment in Marais/Hotel De Ville:
Notre Dame and surrounds:
Montmarte highligts:

Posted by tylerandshawna 15:02 Archived in France Comments (1)

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