A Travellerspoint blog

March 2010

Friends & Las Fallas

From Barcelona to Valencia!

What a week!! Sunday night I returned to Barcelona from Sevilla, and Monday afternoon Katie and Andy (two of my closest friends) arrived in Barcelona! We spent Monday through Thursday in Barcelona before heading down to Valencia on Thursday evening to experience the amazing Las Fallas celebration!

It was so great showing Katie and Andy around Barcelona, hitting the main tourist attractions and also some of Kristina’s and my favorite spots! The sun was shining everyday- perfect weather for strolling and wandering; so that’s pretty much what we did when I wasn’t in class! With some sangria, tapas, siestas, and a taste of the nightlife, I think they got a pretty good taste of Barcelona! Olé! Here’s a picture of Kristina, Katie, and me, with the beautiful mountain of Montjuic (which we visited on Thursday) in the background!

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Wednesday night, we all went to a Flamenco show with my program! The venue was super small and personal, and it was very entertaining to see some authentic Flamenco. There were a few live musicians, and one singer, and the singing style was so unique and interesting- like very expressive, and sometimes the lady sounded like she was wailing in pain. About halfway through a little girl, I think the daughter of the singer, came out on stage and first sang a song with the band, then danced a solo piece! It was so adorable, and she was so good! Such a cool tradition! Here’s a short video of the dancers!

Drum roll please……….. LAS FALLAS!!!! What an amazing experience! I feel like I can’t fully put it into words, and I’m pretty positive that no description or number of pictures could do it justice, but I’ll give it a whirl! So much to tell!
Well it all started Thursday night. Valencia is like the Spanish capital of paella, and since (I am embarrassed to say) I had yet to try paella, Thursday was the perfect day to do it! Plus, fyi, it is known in Spain that Thursday is the best day of the week to eat paella at a restaurant because it is always the freshest on Thursdays! Having received a recommendation to eat at the hotel restaurant, we tried our first paella there. And WOW…it was amazing! The waiter walks out of the kitchen with an enormous, maybe 1.5ft diameter, steaming paella de verduras (vegetable paella) with peppers, onions, beans, and artichokes. It had the perfect consistency, perfect taste…amazing!
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A side note about Las Fallas: it is a big festival celebrated most in Valencia from March 12-19 every year with fireworks, fire crackers, music, all night parties, paella contests, and most importantly, the burning of Las Fallas. The ’fallas’ are float-like sculptures, made out of paper maché on wood, built throughout the entire year by teams of local artists, with each neighborhood sponsoring its own falla. The fallas are all satirical and they represent different things that have happened during the past year. They are displayed all over the city, and on Friday, March 19th, they all go up in flames and are burned to the ground! 2pm each day, there is a little of over five minutes of super loud fire crackers, noise makers and fireworks, called mascletá super loud and super fun!
Thursday night we headed into the city center a little after midnight and the metro ride into the city was packed tight with all sorts of people—families, kids, teenagers, drunken people singing songs—it was great! We arrived just in time for the big fireworks show of the night, and then strolled from street to street, checking out the amazing Fallas on display at just about every intersection and plaza. It was so cool we literally had no sense of direction, but there was so much going on that it was so easy to just stroll from place to place, always seeing something new and exciting. Beer stands, churros stands, music blaring, dancing, lots of firecrackers, you name it!
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Since Friday is the last day of Las Fallas, it is of course the biggest day! And there was a ton going on during the day—lots of people, street musicians, paella cooking in the streets (YUM), tons of outdoor markets! Also it was interesting that there were soooo many people, lots of drinking, noise, crowds, and fun, and yet somehow it was all very civil! I don’t think we saw anyone getting out of hand the whole time- everyone was just enjoying themselves—how great! Here are some pics!
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But Friday night is what really blew us away! After a siesta and some dinner we returned to the city center nice and early to see the first, smaller ‘fallas infantiles’ being burned at 10pm. They were being set off all over the place, and we caught front row spots for one from start to finish. JAW DROPPING. We crowded around the gated falla as the firemen prepared, draping a long fuse all over it, splashing some gasoline, etc. Then this family arrived, super dressed up in like hoop skirts, Princess Leia hair, and special costumes. We were thinking that this family was either the main sponsor or main builder of this particular falla. Okay, so finally it was time…first--> fireworks! Because we were so close they were right over our heads and so low so there was firework debris raining down on us--> it just added to the excitement of it all! Then they lit the fuse, which had firecracker explosions leading up to the sculpture and then the falla went up in flames! Super opaque red-orange flames with thick black smoke billowing up! We watched it burn in amazement until even the frame burnt to the ground! THEN the dressed up family returned around the statue as the flames grew smaller and they were bawling! We were so confused at first, but then realized that this is what they dedicate all of their time to for an entire year, and this night is the culmination/destruction of all of their hard work! It was just so much more emotional that we were previously aware-even the grown men were crying! And then a bunch of people, who seemed to be everyone from their neighborhood joined hand and circled around the remains of the falla, chanting some sort of kids song in Spanish! We had known what to expect, but this was SO much more than we were expecting! We were speechless! Here are some pictures, but i am going to try and post a video of it soon!
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But there’s more, because that was only a small falla, and we also caught the BIGGEST falla from start to finish! After waiting an hour in the super packed crowd, the anticipation was built up! The whole process was just like the small falla, times a million! The fireworks alone were so much more than I’ve ever seen on any 4th of july or new year’s celebration! The sky was completely lit up, flashing red, pink, white, unreal!!! The firecrackers went off, and when this hugeee falla lit up in flames it was just incredible! Huge huge flames with super thick smoke filling the sky, and a sea of red sparks and fireballs hovering over the crowds of people that extended for blocks! It was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life!
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Saturday was our last day, and since Las Fallas was technically over, it was our chance to check out the city without the giant crowds. We hit the beach for a little snooze, the park for a little lunch, and the Cathedral, where we climbed the bell tower for some great views of the city before seeing what is rumored to be the Holy Grail! I actually loved Valencia as a city! It’s really beautiful and white and spacious, with some really quaint narrow streets as well! Maybe my second favorite (after Barcelona, of course)!!!! It was a nice relaxing day, and the perfect way to end our amazing weekend! What a visit!
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NEXT UP....Prague, Vienna, and a visit from the fam!! (minus niki and ana!)

Posted by Micheline 04:06 Comments (0)

Sevilla y Cádiz

So this past weekend my program went to Sevilla! Sevilla is the capital of picturesque Andalucia in southern Spain, and has a reputation of being exactly what you might picture a Spanish city to look like. Food, drink, tapas, and just about everything is a lot cheaper in the south, and the people of Sevilla take their Spanish traditions (like midday siestas) a lot more serious than northerners…and they are known to be a lot more family oriented, lax, living a ‘work to live’ lifestyle. So needless to say, I went in with some pretty high expectations! And I’d say overall the city lived up to them pretty well---it maintains a perfect balance between being a quaint town and a bustling city--with a narrow street, small European city kind of feel!

Friday we toured the Cathedral, Giralda, and Reales Alcázares. The Cathedral was really something---it’s the third biggest in all of Europe, after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London! One thing I loved is that, typical of Sevilla, there is a courtyard filled with orange trees in the center of the Cathedral. The pictures don’t do any justice for the amazing Royal Chapel, entirely plated in gold, and the beautiful superhigh ceilings. I actually learned a ton on this tour because the Cathedral was built in the 15th century, on the foundations of a Visigode church, so our tour guide dug into the history a lot. The Cathedral also is the official site of the Tomb of Christopher Colombus as well as his son so we saw both of those. Pretty cool! The Giralda Minaret is connected to the Cathedral and it is a symbol of Sevilla. It has a super high belfry tower which we climbed 35 floors to catch some amazing views of all of Sevilla!

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Reales Alcázares is a super old fortified palace that is now used as a residence for the Royal family. I thought it was pretty cool to learn that the main level of the palace is open to tourists until the Royal family calls and says they are coming to Sevilla, at which point Alcázar is cleared of tourists and the gates are shut. The many rooms, patios, halls, and gardens all have such different styles and still consists of a lot of original 13th and 15th century architecture. We walked through the royal gardens a bit before getting shooed away by the guards, but they were just incredible—orange trees, vines, fountains resembling mini volcanoes, interesting trees. It also helped that the weather was perfect!!

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Friday night I got some tapas and delicious helado (ice cream/gelato). Empanadillas con carne y salsa soya, aged manchego cheese, olives, wine, dulce de leche banana helado….YUM! And the tapas (and wine) are super cheap as well!!
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Saturday we had a day trip to Cádiz, an Atlantic beach and port city about 2 hours from Sevilla. We took a bus tour and walked all around the small city with our local tour guide, who also brought us to the Cathedral of Cádiz..yet another beautiful Cathedral! With beautiful 70o weather it was the perfect day to stroll around, stop for some lunch at an outdoor café, and hit the beach for a bit! Buenísimo!

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Saturday night….TAPAS HEAVEN! A group of my friends went to a delicious tapas restaurant and we ordered a great spread of tapas…Chicken breast in a creamy almond sauce, fried zucchini, traditional patatas bravas, sliced tenderloin in a Roquefort sauce, spinach croquettes…and with some red wine in an oversized glass, it was the perfect thing!

Sunday was my favorite day of all…..BIKE TOUR! It was so perfect because I felt like I finally got a real taste of Sevilla and many snapshots of everyday life there! We went all over: through the site of the 1992 World Expo, along the Guadalquivir river that runs through the city from the north to the south, through the typical Santa Cruz neighborhood, the Plaza de España, and, my favorite, through the Maria Luisa Park. This park was so awesome—sunny day, grass, palm trees, orange trees, tons of people strolling, chilling, hanging out..it was sooooo great!!
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So it was just a fantastic weekend, yet again, of my European travels! (However I am still glad to call Barcelona home!!!) And today Katie and Andy get here for the week! So great! What a month!!!

Besos!

Posted by Micheline 03:08 Comments (2)

Amsterdam & Brussels

Waffles, beer, and chocolate: life of a rockstar

Well this weekend was quite the experience!

Thursday night I jet off to Amsterdam with six other girls (six girls = too many!), psyched up for our long weekend in Amsterdam and Brussels! So we get to Amsterdam, and find our hostel….and well, look at the picture! Haha it was great, exactly what you might expect a youth hostel in Amsterdam to look like—super steep narrow stairs, crazy/borderline creepy spray paintings on the walls, bunk beds, dirty communal toilet with no soap, haha AND us six girls were sharing a shower and sink area with the room next door, which happened to be occupied by giant scary men! Haha welllll we all managed to make it the three nights we spent there without showering once, but it was a good place to sleep and the beds were super warm and super comfy!

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So Friday we did a walking tour through the city---> so great! Amsterdam is just fantastic, with the most beautiful buildings, cool houses with tons of personality, quaint little cobblestone streets, TONS of crazy bikers, and some interesting history too! And the canals!!! They weave through everything! It just amazed me how easy it was to walk around the city despite all the canals…because there were bridges everywhere! We went all around… through the red light district…saw some of the more famous coffeeshops…and just got a feel for the city while learning all sorts of fun facts!

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Of course we worked up an appetite during the tour, so after we went to get some lunch at ‘Sara’s Pancakes’! Yummmm. Here’s a pic of my friend Olivia and I with our traditional Dutch mini pancakes (I forget the Dutch word for them!)…soo delicious!

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The Anne Frank House was the perfect spot to hit while it rained…It was really cool to see, and chilling to walk through the Secret Annex and see/read/watch some of the displays.

On Saturday we rented bikes!!!! This was the best thing ever! Being on a bike in Amsterdam is like a power trip; pedestrians AND cars yield to bikes! So we hit some more sites (Like the ‘I amsterdam’ sign) via bike, grabbed some lunch, and also dropped by a cool bohemianish street market! Also, the people in Amsterdam were noticeable more friendly than in other cities. Everyone was just so approachable and eager to help and strike up a conversation! Love that! So all in all, Amsterdam was clearly great, and I liked it so much more than I expected to! It would definitely be a fun place to live for a little!
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Sunday morning we were up bright and early on a train to Brussels! And Brussels was like a day and a half of waffles, chocolate, and beer----> a.k.a. best day and a half ever! There weren’t many tourist spots that we had to make our rounds to, so we just strolled to the Grand Place, and walked all around the city, seeing different sites as we continued along. Grand Place had some super big, beautiful, gaudy buildings, and also some cute taverns, cafés, and chocolate shops scattered throughout as well! We got our first meal here at a cute café. WAFFLES. Heaven on earth. I got a waffle with chocolate, whipped cream, and strawberries. Seriously, it was unlike any waffle I’ve ever tried and it was just amazing! One difference I noticed was that they make their waffles with dough, rather than batter like we do in the US. So it was almost like a fried dough waffle. Covered in sugar. Right down my alley!

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I got an interesting feel for the buildings in Brussels. Like some of them were typical European, quaint, cute streets, fun buildings. And then the important ones (We saw the Royal Palace, Parliament, Cathedral, and some others)were just SO BIG and kind of ornate and intense. They were definitely beautiful, but they almost stood out from the other buildings too much for my liking. We hit up acool market in Brussels as well with all sorts of independent vendors and artists and jewelers. Very cool!

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…….oh, the Mannekin Pis! This statue of the little boy peeing is so famous and I was just dying to see it, and it was hysterical, but such a letdown! Haha I can’t figure out why this thing is famous! It’s like the size of a cabbage patch doll and it’s just on a street corner-not even in the center of a square or anything! How comical!
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With a good portion of the afternoon left, we decided to break up our walks with pit stops in Belgian cafes and taverns for some Belgian beer! This was so fun because I am definitely starting to enjoy some good beers so it was great to try some new ones! My Belgian friend in Barcelona told me that Patatas Frittes (French fries) are best in Belgium so I had to try some with my first Belgian beer of the day at our first stop at a delicious Fritteria! The fries were great (I got them with curry ketchup!) and I got a Hoegaarden—also great! Others throughout the weekend included Leffe, Affligem, Duvel, Kriek Mystic (a cherry beer that tasted like a melted cherry popsicle mixed with champagne and a splash of beer!) I actually liked them all! But I think my favorites were Hoegaarden and Affligem.
And the delicious chocolate shops! Each one was like a mini piece of heaven because almost all of them gave out free samples! Some had people making truffles in the windows, others had chocolate fountains! Kind of like Willy Wonka Land! I clearly went crazy, and I think I stopped in like thirty + chocolate shops, not exaggerating! And I got some to bring back to the states—haha hopefully I won’t eat it before then!!
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Lastly, before heading to the airport, I got a waffle from a street vendor! It was also amazing! There are waffle trucks all over the place as well! So funny!
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So the story’s not over!! We got to the airport, and after three hours of waiting, our flight was cancelled because of snow in the Barcelona area!! So we got a flight for the next morning, and spent the night in a nearby hotel, that just happened to serve a delicious dinner and a mean hot chocolate haha! BUT our morning flight was cancelled too! So we spent the whole day stranded in the hotel lobby at a hotel where only one staff member spoke English! Imagine what this must have been like with six girls who have already had too much of each other! Tense! But really none of us could complain because we were stuck in Belgium! How bad can that be!? We finally made it back home at 1am Tuesday night!

Ohhhhhh the life of a euro traveler! Next up…Sevilla TOMORROW!

Posted by Micheline 04:22 Comments (2)

When in Rome.....

Mangia!

Overall--->Rome was SO GREAT! I don’t think the weekend could have worked out any better!

Intro---->So this trip to Rome was with half of my program and half the staff, so like 70ish students and 3 staff members. We went Friday to Sunday night, and had a few planned activities and tours, but mostly free time. I was pleasantly surprised by how walkable everything was; there are tons of tiny little streets and cute alleys, but with a map at hand, the city was extremely navigable-I think more so than Barcelona! And I saw so so so many historical/beautiful sites in such little time!

So for the highlights/ a little play-by-play………..

Friday-->Our plane was a few hours late because of the strikes in Paris, so we had a rough start…dropped our stuff at the hotel, had 20minutes to find lunch, then we had our bus tour! Since we were late, the bus tour ended up being after it was already dark out! Shucks! After, I walked to the Trevi Fountain with a few friends, and of course threw a coin over my left shoulder for good luck!
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And then….dinner! We found a cute little restaurant with candlelit tables outside and had a nice long dinner for our first real meal in Rome! First course…gnocchi pomodoro! Second course….Pizza Margherita! With a few glasses of Merlot…perfecto! I kept it pretty simple for this meal, but can you really go wrong with a nice plate of gnocchi and classic margherita pizza in Italy? No! It was great!323654_1010..06123_n.jpg

Saturday was the most beautiful day I have seen in Europe. It was sunny, warm, a little breezy! Our adorable tour guide took the group to the Colliseum, where we got to skip all of the lines and have a tour with walkie talkies so we could stroll at our own pace but still hear everything! The Colliseum was enormous, and so cool, I learned tons!
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The tour continued to the Forum, the ruins of the old city center of Rome. I don’t really know what to say about this besides that it was really interesting to see and to get an idea of all the history we were surrounded by! And it was beautiful!DSCN0701.jpgDSCN0705.jpgDSCN0706.jpg
Since we had the rest of the day for ourselves, Kristina and I made a master route around the entire city, and did EVERYTHING!!! We strolled to the Pantheon, and sat in the piazza right outside it, where we enjoyed our first gelato in Italy ever! I got a mix of pistachio and caramel crema! Yum!DSCN0719.jpg And here is a pic of the inside of the pantheon...DSCN0717.jpg

From there we went to Piazza Navona, where we wandered up and down the rows and rows of artists selling beautiful acrylic and watercolor paintings! Precious! Then…lunch! Instead of another sit down meal, Kristina and I shared a big spinach-fresh mozzarella Panini, with a cup of red wine to go! So we meandered onto our next sites with a Panini in one hand, plastic cup of wine in the other! Grazie! Non che male!!DSCN0723.jpg

The Spanish Steps and the Trinitá dei Monti came next…..Great views of Rome, and the Trinitá dei Monti was just beautiful, and one of the more peaceful touristy churches. And I lit a candle there! We spent the rest of the afternoon hitting some other important stops, including a nice big park! Our feet were dirty and tired after all of our walking on Saturday, but we still had lots to cover on Sunday!DSCN0724.jpg

Sunday we went to the Vatican….QUITE a day!!! We got there at 9am (a little delayed) and waited in line for a little over 2 hours to get into the Vatican Museum because it was free that day so everybody goes!! By the time we got into the museum, we had just over a half hour to make it through the 55 [crowded!] rooms of the museum, see the Sistine Chapel, and make our way to St. Peter’s Square where the Pope was blessing the crowd and giving a speech at noon!!! SO.. we just about jogged through the museum, still managing to snap all of the necessary pics while we weaved through the slowly moving museum-goers! The Sistine Chapel was very beautiful though; the whole museum/building was just so detailed and gold and grandious, and gaudy! After the Sistine Chapel, we got to the museum entrance, and then realized we had to backtrack through half of the museum to catch the shortcut to St. Peter’s Square! We At this point we had exactly 8 minutes left until the Pope was giving the blessing! AHH! So…we ran! Back through the Sistine Chapel, and finally we got to the square literally JUST IN TIME!! Couldn’t have been more perfect! So we saw him speak, got our rosary beads blessed, and then saw the AMAZING St. Peter’s Basilica, and St Peter’s tomb. Those two gave me chills! Some artwork and ceilings--->DSCN0752.jpgDSCN0760.jpg....the Pope Speaking!!!--->DSCN0768.jpg....St. Peter's Basilica during the day and night--->DSCN0774.jpg3DSCN0645.jpg...and St. Peter's Basilica on the inside-->DSCN0778.jpg

After more gelato, we explored the Vatican side of the Tiber River, and went for a late lloonngg relaxed lunch at a Restaurant in Trastevere that had been recommended to us, called La Scala. It was just the perfect way to end the weekend. The restaurant was quiet, dimly lit, with very few tourists, and the perfect ambience for a long meal! After some rustic, tough on the outside- perfectly soft on the inside bread, I had the most delicious pasta meal. I tend to be pretty picky with my pasta since I’m pretty spoiled at home with papas homemade pasta and mom’s sauce, but this won my approval! Tagliotelli pasta (kind of like thin fettuccini) with an impressively light cheese (maybe cheese and white wine?) sauce, grated parm, cherry tomatoes, black pepper, and zucchini flowers. So good! For dessert, Kristina and I split amazing homemade tiramisu and sipped foamy cappuccinos! And then the waitress surprised us with her favorite dessert wine on the house! What a perfect ending to a fabulous weekend!

Next up…..Amsterdam and Brussels this weekend! What a life!

Posted by Micheline 05:29 Comments (1)

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