Tag Archives: travel tips

Travel lessons/truths learned…(Vol. I)

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I don’t claim to be the most seasoned traveler out there, but I’ve had the marvelous fortune of being able to travel sporadically throughout Spain and Europe during the last 8 months of living in this beautiful country. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned….some gems from fellow travelers or friends that’ve saved my skin; some learned on my own—more often than not, the hard way.

In no particular order (and my apologies for the utter randomness…also, some of these photos are related to the post below, others are just randomosity):

1. Umbrellas. You will never regret bringing one along. Maybe you can really rock the drenched-cat look, but as for me, it’s not a pretty picture.

Don’t hate the rain…just be prepared. Umbrellas can turn into fun photo-opps!

2. A smile, a laugh, a small act of kindness—they transcend language and cultural barriers. We’re all people. Despite our differences, there are some things that most everyone understands.

3. Layers. You read this all the time, but it really is a tried-and-true travel “clothing” tip. Wear ’em, pack ’em, do whatever you need to do. My favorite trick is to bring a fleece jacket along in my backpack wherever I travel during the non-summer months, as it does triple duty: extra layer of warmth under a jacket or raincoat; pillow on the plane/bus/train; cozy hang-out wear in a chilly hostel or hotel at night. Also leggings. They might be my very best travel friend. Wear ’em as long underwear (under jeans), under a long shirt for bed, throw ’em in your purse for under your skirt or dress when the night turns cold. And they take up SO little backpack/suitcase space. (Obviously girl-tips on clothing topic. Sorry dudes. You get it easy in this area, so you don’t need my help).

4. On the packing train of thought….my mantra? Five words: pack light and be creative. Tanks, basic t’s (long-sleeved and short, fitted), one or two pairs of neutral pants, a dress/skirt, one or two scarves, one or two pairs of shoes and your outfit combos seem endless! Another favorite mix-and-match packing item is a short-ish black cotton skirt. I can wear it with nearly every top I bring and in nearly every weather. Scarves are fantastic, functional and can mix up any outfit. They also happen to be my favorite souvenir….and/or travel purchase addiction.

5. No matter what you hear about this city or that country, there are good and bad people everywhere. Just like in your city/country. You might get swindled, or you might just experience the most incredible hospitality/warmth/generosity you’ve ever known. Call me an idealist, an incurable optimist or just plain naive, but the good people are a lot more common. Just sayin’.

Tip number 6,a : Seize the moment (and/or opportunity). If Spanish guitarists ask you to join them in a tapas-bar-serenade, do so.

6. That said, it’s never good to be oblivious to your surroundings. Be smart. Pay attention to what’s going on around you and look confident in what you’re doing/where you’re going (even if you’re not). Don’t wave your map around in the air like a flag with your purse hanging open and your passport sticking out of your back pocket like a gibbering idiot. Then you’re just asking for it.

7. If you ever have the choice of eating at a restaurant or having a meal at someone’s home, ditch the restaurant. There will ALWAYS be restaurants. Never pass up the opportunity to receive the (offered) generosity/hospitality of another human being.  You have the chance at getting to know another person(or getting to know him or her further); warm conversation; an insight to their lives/culture and an experience that is completely and utterly unique. Not to mention the food is most-likely going to be unbelievably good, and if you’re in another country, different than what you’ve ever tasted before. Some of the most wonderful memories I’ve had this year have been while enjoying a simple meal and good conversation with friends (old or new).

8. For those of you weekends-of-intense-spurts-of-traveling-at-a-time folks (like those of us on this program in Spain): It can be tempting to go long and hard every day you’ve got, trying to make the most of every moment in your exciting new location with the time you have. But sometimes you just need to sit down and have a coffee. Or sit in a nice square and enjoy the sun/shade. Or go back to the hostel and nap. You might feel like you’re wasting precious time at the moment (like I always seem to) but you’ll thank yourself later when you are fresh and ready to go later on (and happier/drier/with less-aching-feet/etc) and not crabby and wanting to collapse. Plus, you’ll get to thoroughly enjoy your city/location by night, which is nearly always as interesting/beautiful or moreso.

Coffee breaks=wonderfulness. Especially by the sea!

9. Don’t be THAT tourist. Don’t get me wrong: when you travel, you’re a tourist, no matter how well- traveled you are. But there are ways to be good ones, and certainly ways to be bad ones. The list of how to be the bad ones is endless, but one in particular stands out continuously to me—if you’re marveling at a church, temple, mosque, burial ground or other holy place…show some respect. It’s easy to get excited about the grandiose features, awe-inducing structure or what have you, but loud talking/shouting,  flippant comments and otherwise disrespectful behavior are just plain rude. Come on, folks. You’re better than that.

10. Use the bathroom before you leave. You learned this when you were 5. It is even more important now. Finding (decent) restrooms while sightseeing but not having to buy a sandwich every time you use one=skill.

More (a lot more) to come as I think of them/discover them.

Much love to you all & safe travels!

Besos,

Brianne

Finding your happy (and healthy) place: exercising abroad

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Fitness. Working out… on a travel blog? Random. I know. But just follow me here for a bit.

Let me preface this whole thing by saying that I am not, nor am claiming to be a workout guru/serious marathoner/hardcore yoga-ite/other sort of uuber-workout individual. No offense to those people, as they are pretty fantastic and disciplined to do those things, but I think this is an important point to make. Yeah, I’m a moderately active person, but that’s mostly in the form of  some pretty casual running (and by casual I mean only in nice weather and not for crazy long distances) and going to the gym for classes or a bit of weight room time. A few times a week.  Nothing major.

Going abroad changes your workout scene. Oftentimes you can replicate the routine you had back home, but sometimes it’s a little more difficult.  I chose not to join a gym here solely for money/convenience reasons, but  luckily I’ve found other ways to stay active. To be honest, though, for the first few months, I didn’t do a darn bit of “intentional exercise” (by that I mean, the only activity I did, really, was walk to work—about 40 minutes to an hour each day). While that, perhaps, may have kept me from GAINING all kinds of weight from the tapa/wine/kebab heavy diet I started to have, it definitely didn’t get me “in shape.” After lots of trial and error and lots of slacking, little by little I’ve gotten back into a fitness routine. It’s taken a while, though.

Like I said in the title, you just have to find your “happy place.” For me, and I would think for lots of you out there, you have to be realistic and find something you at least enjoy doing a little bit, otherwise you just won’t stick to it. Finding a good exercise routine (or getting back into one) can be a great way to help yourself adjust to a new environment while living abroad (routine is SO important), help keep your stress levels down, and keep you healthy, which is always good. Looking good for the locals is a nice side effect. 😉 

Let me just cut to the chase and share what’s been working for me.

-Exercise bands. Cheap (maybe 10 euros for 3) easy and a relatively good way of getting some strength/resistance training into your workout, which I read again and again is so important. Also LIGHT. Major plus for Miss lack-of-adequate-suitcase-space-and-its-only-getting-worse, over here.

-Running outside. I specifically say outside, because for me, the outdoors element is what motivates me. I’m one of those people who crave sunshine and fresh air and nature, so going out and running is the perfect combo for me. Maybe you’re one of those who loves watching your favorite TV series while on the treadmill, but for me, the outdoors is where it’s at. It refreshes, energizes and revitalizes me. It’s therapy and a workout. My happy place. I love it. (I’m also lucky enough to be only few city blocks from a gorgeous park with a rushing river running through it. Man I’ve got it rough.)

-The occasional yoga/Pilates/cardio workout video. I’m going to be real with you all here. I have a helluva time sticking with workout videos. But after a while of guilting myself for skipping so much, I just went with the flow instead of fighting it. I get it—I’ve got commitment issues with workout videos. But these days I seem to be more receptive (read: actually do said videos) if I just sprinkle them in every now and then for variety. Lesson learned? Do what actually works for you, not what you THINK you should be doing.

-Sometimes just not “working out” at all. Admittedly I am not one of those people who on their weekend/holiday travels, finds a local gym or goes running at 5 a.m. I count those as my “vacations” from my regular workout schedule, but to be honest I’m usually walking an average of 6+ hours a day on those travel weekends. So I give myself some slack on those. Call me lazy, I call myself realistic. But also lazy.

And what about you? I’d love to hear from other expats/folks living abroad, but also to any of you who moved to a new place and had to re-figure out your workout routine. What’s worked? What’s failed? 

Annnnndddd I happened upon this fantastic video the other day, which sparked the idea for this blog post, which you NEED to watch. It will just make you smile, and then maybe want to go do push-ups on the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, jump rope in the middle of downtown Shanghai, or do jumping jacks on the edge of a canyon in South Africa. Much love to NerdFitness for this gem. 

Hake ladies unite! (Mom and sister visit)

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Another backtrack post! I know. And I haven’t really caught you all up on things as I promised. However, in my defense, I did have a week-and-a-half traveling spree in there that I am in the process of posting about….but first things first! This post is documenting the visit of some of my family during mid-March. Then I assure you, more travel tales!

Talk about a sight for sore eyes…

It had been about 7 months since I’d seen my Mom and sister (the longest I’ve gone without seeing them in my life) and my, was it a good feeling when I (finally) saw them walk through the doors in the Arrivals gate of the Madrid airport.  And by finally, I mean after a two-hour flight delay and waiting about 45 minutes after their plane was supposed to land (their luggage had been lost and they were trying to sort it all out) all the while not even knowing if I was at the right gate, let alone TERMINAL (we had unfortunately forgotten to talk about that prior to me picking them), finally, I spotted the blonde and dark brown haired-combo of ladies I’d been so impatient to see for so long. Despite the ensuing travel delay/annoyances we ended up experiencing (missing our bus home, having to buy new tickets, having to kill time for 3 hours, waiting two more days for the bags to arrive, etc) the trip definitely improved from there.

Without going into every detail, we enjoyed a delightful mix of fun outings/experiences over the course of the week:

-A trip to the village of Nalda, of which I’m so fond, to see the old ruins of the convent, have a picnic, hike up to the mysterious caves and have the wonderful fortune to run into one of my dear sweet older friends, Maria Angelines (who, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, was one of the many wonderfully kind residents of the village who helped us in many ways when we had first arrived to the country and were temporarily living there). It’s not terribly exciting, just a pretty, quaint little pueblo, but they (my madre y hermana) loved it, I think. Loved showing them around a place where I spent so much time and that was so special to me!

Exploring the ruins of the convent in Nalda

-A wine tour! Later that day, we had the fabulous good luck to go on a wine tour with Alfredo, the boyfriend of my friend/coworker Aleksandra, whose family happens to be in the bodega-business (bodega is the Spanish word for winery, FYI). They gave us an entertaining, fascinating tour of the family-owned place, with tastings straight out of both giant holding vats and barrels…just delightful! FanTAStic wine. Check ’em out online  to see if their wines are sold near you: http://www.cunadereyes.es/ On Alfredo’s insistence, we headed to a darling little cafe/restaurant in the same village only to be treated to more wine from his bodega, a plate of Spanish jamón, various delicious sauteed veggies and other tasty finger-foods. It was simply the best welcome in the world for my mom and sister. I cannot express how amazing it was for him to give them such an experience and how grateful we are for it!

Alfredo, our fantastic tour guide/wine expert at Cuna de Reyes Bodega

-Next few days—shopping for them and working for me! As much as I wish I could have taken off the whole week to spend with them, I do have to hold down a job. Luckily I live in a great area of town with plenty of shoes/purses/dresses-shops/etc they could tempt themselves with!

-Their first experience going out for tapas/pinchos (both are used as names for the small, bite-sized ish portions of food served at bars usually with a small glass of wine or beer)! My mom fell in love with Bar Angel’s incredible stacked mushrooms and the pimientos rellenos (stuffed peppers) while my sis had more of a taste for the patatas bravas (small chunks of fried potato smothered in a creamy something-like-but-better-than-mayonnaise and the slightly-spicy-but-super-flavorful “brava” sauce). With my ultra-convenient flat location (Calle Laurel and the tapas bar streets are literally in my backyard) we definitely went out more than once that week.

Shrimp and pineapple skewered, then slathered in olive oil/salt/something that must be cocaine its so addictive. Just kidding. But they're really that good.

Enjoying some vino with our tapas!

-Friday/Saturday: a fun overnight trip to San Sebastian! Walking on the beach; “shuffling on the boardwalk” (don’t ask); walking through the lovely old quarter; enjoying the SUBLIME pinxtos (the same as tapas or pinchos, but in the Basque language– for example: a prawn skewered with a piece of bacon smothered in a scrumptious red pepper sauce); stopping for crepes for desert AND breakfast; hiking up stunningly green/lush/fascinating hillside path to get to the giant Jesus-statue-on-top-of-a-fortress; and just all around enjoying ourselves! Advice: San Sebastian may or may not be on your travel radar for Spain, but if it’s not….it’d better be. What a splendidly beautiful, beach-side city with fascinating everything, but among other things, food. You won’t regret making it a part of your trip!

Fancy cider-pouring and fabulous pinxtos. What more could you ask for?

The ladies on the beach!

Crazy waves crashing against the wall

One of my favorite pics I took.

-Saturday night: St. Patrick’s Day and a chance to show my mom and sis what Spanish nightlife is all about! Included but not limited to: healthy amounts of wine, obligatory Guinness-drinking, a great Irish band at Biribay Jazz Club and lots of dancing.

Our Irish entertainment...the Derty Gerties

-Sunday: a short but fun daytrip to Zaragoza to see the astoundingly large/beautiful Nuestro Señora de Pilar cathedral on the river (absolutely worth a trip to the city on its own) and La Aljaferia, the striking fortress on the outside/incredible work of Arabic architecture on the inside. Owing to my own woefully-under-preparedness, it was not open for visitors that day (ERRRRRGGH! I was a smidge frustrated and still am) but my lovely Hake ladies graciously assured me that “the outside is still really awesome!” Such dolls they are.

The amazing cathedral and my lovely mother and sister!

La Aljeferia!

-Last day: Madrid. Basically me just helping them find their hotel and spending a few hours seeing some sights…not enough time, (especially as the reality that they’d be leaving soon set in), but a fun afternoon seeing some big-city Spain. Also, an opportunity for them to get one last fix of Euro-shopping in. 🙂

Their last jaunt in Spain---Madrid!

All in all, a fabulous week with some of my favorite people in the world. It was odd and wonderful at the same time…odd in that I’ve never been in the position of showing them around somewhere they’ve never really been, nor been depended on so much for help with language, logistics, etc. Wonderful of course in that I got to spend hour after hour with these two incredible women: drinking wine, laughing, wedding planning, story-telling, tapa-tasting, drinking more wine, and just having a ball. Gah, I miss them. But here I’ve gone and wrote way too much again. You get the idea. Just a marvelous time all around. Next visitors: Jake’s mom and aunt!

Until next time…

Besos!

Our inter-European adventure (aka holiday break). Parte Dos.

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As promised, part 2. I’m attempting to write this back to back from part 1 (quite a marathon, I might add), mostly because I think I’ll never do it if I don’t do it now, and I quite simply don’t want to go to bed. (Oh 7 pm cafe con leche, you probably weren’t the best idea…my but my caffeine tolerance as plummeted since the all-nighter days of university. But I digress. A lot.)

So, where were we? Ah yes, Munich.

We wanted to get a taste of Bavaria and the south  (in contrast to our experiences in the west) and Jake (my fiancé) is somewhat of a beer connoisseur and was practically (actually he literally was) drooling over the chance to sample the city’s world-famous brews. Minus the cold and short time to actually be there, we just loved it. I’m sure he won’t appreciate me sharing this, but Jake was simply giddy to be, as he put it, “in the presence of such beer tradition….and it’s just so incredibly quaint, too.” He even skipped. Just for a moment, but if you’ve met him you know that seeing a 6’2” football player-esque of a guy giddily skipping is rather amusing. 😉

Some highlights:

-Marienplatz and the Glockenspiel. Munich seems to have a never-ending supply of lovely quaint little squares, but this one’s the granddaddy. The enormongous (no that’s not a word, but I believe it to appropriately describe this) “new” town hall, or Neues Rathaus, makes up one whole side of the square and houses the huge Glockenspiel, sort of like a giant cuckoo clock/chiming/dancing figurine like thing, here, just watch a clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb4XOBTXKDU&feature=related. We loved walking around with a Bavarian cream pastry or a bratwurst (I know, so stereotypical, but completely and utterly delightful all the same) and just enjoying the atmosphere. There’s also a large market, called Viktuelienmmarkt, adjacent to Marienplatz that’s wonderful to wander through as well.

-Hofbrauhaus. This famous brewery & beer hall got its start in 1592 (!!) at the request of Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria, due to his unhappiness with the current malted beverages  in Munich at the time–he recruited the master brewer of Geisenfeld Monastery to create  the future beer empire that is now Hofbrauhaus. The beer hall itself is crazy huge…it can seat 1300, and is a maze of wooden tables, rosy-cheeked patrons, traditionally dressed wait staff and live Bavarian music. You may not find a seat very quickly and will mostly likely have to sit with strangers…it’s still worth it. We met a cool Australian couple this way and had a ball chatting and sipping on our brews with them. Way cool. Oh right. The beer. It was amazing… obviously. Coming from not a beer-hater but definitely not a choose-beer-over-everything-else type of chica, this means a lot.

-Neauschwanstein Castle. Ok, this is quite a bit outside of Munich, more of a day trip, but let me tell you—it is 1 MILLION percent worth the expensive travel (tip, go with a group of up to 5 on one ticket and you can save quite a bit of cash) and substantial bit of time to get there. The actual castle Walt Disney used to model the iconic Disneyland castle after, it is perched in the stunning, snow-capped mountains near a pristine Alpine lake, and a view of the Bavarian countryside (when we were there) blanketed in snow and as perfect as a painting. When we were there, the air was as crisp, cold  as could be and the walk up the mountain to see the castle (plan for about 30 minutes each way) was itself full of picturesque views of the countryside, mountain springs trickling down a slope, just the works. The “main” road leads you up to the entrance of the place, with the great views of the countryside, but no matter when in the year you go YOU MUST take the little side-path you’ll see on the way down. It leads up a really steep trail that leads to a bridge that gives you the postcard, birds-eye view of the castle…all while standing over an immense gorge filled with a spectacular waterfall. In the winter, though, this path is often closed due to ice. We ignored the signs and hopped the barriers…everyone else was doing it! Not to advocate dangerous rule-breaking or anything, and I admit there was quite a bit of ice on some very steep paths, but if you don’t mind biffin’ it a time or two, I wholeheartedly urge you to do it.

A few tips: drink the beer. Generously. The bratwurst is incredible, as well. I’m not a huge brat fan in the U.S. but I promise you will not be disappointed here. Go to the English Garden, a greenspace bigger than New York’s Central Park (though, maybe not as much of a priority to visit in winter), as well as the Nymphemburg Palace—both incredible and definitely worth your time. Eat the pastries. Join the crowds to watch the  Glockenspiel at 11 or 12. DO go to Neauschwanstein, but prepare for it to take up much of the day. We weren’t able to visit this, but if you can, visit the Dachau concentration camp outside the city as well.

    

The giant Glockenspiel!

Marienplatz by night

Just a small bit of the Hofbrauhaus beer hall.

Gorgeous view of…the other, also super cool castle near Neauschwanstein. Nestled among the mountains and the random lake. Just breathtaking.

Neauschwanstein from the bridge. One of the most awe-inspiring scenes I've ever witnessed.

And now, Paris. 

It was nearing the end of our two-week traveling frenzy, and we were definitely feeling the effects of it (in my case many blisters, ankles that felt like they would snap and an in-the-process-of-breaking boot heel) but we were excited and energized for the last leg of our journey in the “city of light.” While the weather for our big day of exploring left some to be desired (blowing wind and rain, then just rain, then rain while it was sunny, then no rain just ridiculous wind) we tried to make the best of it, and were rewarded with a lovely clear-sky day the next (sadly, much shorter) day.

Some highlights:

-The Louvre. Of course. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to visit this museum of masterpieces, and it did not disappoint in any way. It was simply overwhelming to be around such mastery and skill and simply works of absolute love/passion for their craft. The magnificent, vast halls are filled with more art than I think you could see (let alone appreciate fully) in a week, so don’t expect to see everything. We made a list of our priority things to see and found most all of them, miraculously, though a few had been moved to other countries for exhibition then just let ourselves get lost in whatever wing we ended up in. I just cannot adequately explain how incredible it was to spend a morning/afternoon there, just wandering amidst the genius. !!!  Also, it’s an EXCELLENT thing to do for a rainy, crappy day, as we had.

-The Eiffel Tower. Ok, I know that’s just the most touristy, shallow thing to say, but it is hard to ignore the pull of this iconic structure…we got to see it first completely illuminated at night, then in the day with green grass and a blue sky, then shining gold against a dusky cornflower/periwinkle sky. Something I’d recommend but we unfortunately didn’t get to do is climb the thing (or take the lift). The first two times we visited, there was a wind advisory that closed the top of the tower to tourists, and then the last clear morning there were lines that looked 6 miles long and we didn’t have time to stand there and wait before we needed to get going. Sad, but another reason to go back. Still amazing to simply see, though–and remember to catch the 10 minutes when they set the tower ‘atwinkling. Not something to miss.

-Sacré-Cœur Basilica. This one I hadn’t really heard as much about until coming to Paris (I know, I’m woefully uninformed) but it’s a definite must-see. Perched on the top of Montemarte, the highest point in the city, it’s quite out of the way (relative to other sights in the city, though much of them are spread out) but FOR SURE worth the extra metro trip. Walk up the lovely green (even in winter) hill and sit for a moment with the sun on your face, enjoy the fantastic view of the city and then do your round inside the incredible building itself. You aren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so make sure you mentally soak up as much as you can, or better yet, buy one of the many postcards that showcase the gorgeous interior and the stunningly beautiful, bright blue and gold fresco that fills the whole largest dome above the altar.

Some tips: if you’re traveling alone, in a pair or in a group, 10-pack metro ticket books are your friend. Way better than one at a time, and cheaper too…Paris is a city that’s walkable to a point, but unless you want to keel over in the first day trying to see everything, you’ve gotta utilize the metro. It’s not hard, just know the name of the stop you want to find, use the metro maps and follow the signs. Get a decent, full map of the city. It is worth it. Our hostel just gave us a kind of “partial” Paris map, and we ended up buying a big, awkward full city map, but seriously kept us knowing where we were always. Go up the Eiffel Tower if you can, if not, spend time just enjoying its beauty and stroll the lovely park that surrounds it. WALK AROUND THE LOUVRE AT NIGHT. Cannot stress this enough–it was a sight I’ll never forget. Also, when you actually go to the museum, go early & get in line before it opens. You will not regret it when you get some of the world’s greatest masterpieces almost “to yourself.” The crowds are intense and can even detract from the experience as the day progresses. Bring an umbrella. Go to some other churches besides Notre Dame and Sacré-Cœur (of course go to them, they are incredible)–but there are SO many amazing cathedrals in Paris. A few we saw were St. Sulpice (has a metro stop of the same name) and St. Genevieve next to the Pantheon (in the Latin Quarter), both really wonderful and different. Meander along the river, day or night. You’ll feel like you’re in a movie.

Eiffel at night...the city really is incredibly romantic. Ok, ok, enough with the cheese.

Sculpture of The Winged Victory (or Nike) of Samothrace in the Louvre. So, so graceful and powerful and beautiful.

Ahhh, the Louvre at night. Heaven.

Sacré-Cœur Basilica...and our one good-weather day.

St. Sulpice...off the beaten path, but worth a visit.

Sorry for the length on these folks, but there’s just so much to say! Hope your own adventures (home or abroad) help you see the world with wonder-filled eyes.

Besos!

Our inter-European adventure (aka holiday break). Parte Uno.

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Speaking of late, I’m going to try and tackle the “big one”: our fabulously exciting (not trying to be arrogant, just being truthful) two week trip through Rome, Cologne, Munich and Paris. Wow. That’s really all I can say. (Not true. I can say more, and I’m no more capable of being that brief than I am of turning into a penguin. Which I can’t. Obviomente.)

So, I’m going to try it this way:  a few highlights, special moments and pics of all the trips, but, heck, who am I kidding it’s  going to be really long. I’m sorry. You’ve been fairly warned. You just can’t shorten some things. Oh jeez, I just need to stop all this drivel and start already. This is my form of literary/blog-iary procrastination and it will go no further. Well, it might have to be two posts… Enough already!!

Vale (ok).

So, Rome. Can I gush enough about this city? To anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of going to “the eternal city,” I promise you, it lives up to the hype. We walked for hours upon hours and while not seeing everything, (is it even possible to do so?) we saw just about everything we wanted to in the 2.5 days we had there.

Some highlights:

-Rome’s city center at night, in general. Not always a sight you’re able to see as a tourist unless you have a hotel/hostel nearby and we were lucky enough to snag a pretty decent one about a 7-10 minute walk from the Colosseum. Seeing it, the Forum, the fountains, just everything in that magical, romantic evening setting is just that. Romantic and magical.

-The most fantastic pizza on the face of this earth. Not kidding/exaggerating in any way. I spent a month in northern Italy a few years ago and I fell in love (or lust, perhaps) with the stuff and knew to take advantage of every opportunity upon my return. HIGHLY recommend wandering the Trastevere neighborhood (across the river, to southwest-ish) for great finds that are a little less touristy (read: reasonably priced and extremely good quality) as well as populated by locals. We had the best experience at a packed little place full of long wooden tables, which provided a unique opportunity to meet other people, one of which happened to be a particularly friendly Roman gentlemen who spoke English and was there with his ballroom dancing club (too adorable or what?!!!).

-The Forum and the fountains. The Roman Forum,  the ruins of what was once an important center of Rome’s commercial and governmental life, is just stunning. It’s literally like stepping directly back in time or into a history book or something. Some people may think the fact that so little of it remains is a detractor, but I love the opportunity to use one’s imagination to think of the splendor it used to have in its time. And of course, the fountains. You’ve heard of the Trevi Fountain, and it’s incredible, to be certain and you must see it, preferably at night. But the sheer amount of fountains in the city, each of them unique and intricately detailed and gorgeous…is just incredible. And for a person who LOVES fountains, like I do, it was pure ambiance heaven. 🙂

A few tips: go to the Colosseum early in the morning (right after it opens or before) and you beat a ton of lines. Get pizza and gelato at every opportunity…it’s worth it. Wear good shoes. There is no such thing as “too many pictures.” Take time to sit in a plaza, let the sun (or moon) shine on your face and soak up the wonder that is Roma. Visit any one of the many catacombs (seriously, must-see). If you’re a Christian (or just interested in history), definitely see Peter’s prison (Mamertine Prison). Go to the Gianicolo (the top of one of the famous hills) and see the whole city laid out at your feet (especially at dusk or night). Go to Vatican City…get in line immediately to see St. Peter’s; it’s free (and amazing) but the line can wind through the entire giant square. See the Sistine Chapel & Vatican Museums (we weren’t able to unfortunately—next time) but be aware of the impressively large lines & 20 euro admission fee.

The Colosseum at night. (Obviously) Simply awe-inspiring.

The Roman Forum

Vatican City & St. Peter's Basilica at night...wow.

This is one of the far smaller, simpler fountains in the city, but there's something lovely and charming about it.

Pizzzzzzaaaaaaaaa. Om nom nom nom.

Now, Cologne. 

Cologne became a priority stop after we met our friend Jan, who studies in Logroño as an Erasmus student at the university. He was wonderful enough to invite us into his home (and the flats of his friends) and show us around not only Cologne, but also his university town, Münster, as well as give us the most INCREDIBLE New Year’s Eve of our lives. We love ya, man, and are in your debt till you come visit us in Nebraska. A lively, historic-meets-modern city set on the Rhine river, Cologne used to be an old Roman colony (“Colonia” means “colony,” and thus “Cologne”). In addition to a generous amounts of great pubs and restaurants, it’s also home to the busiest shopping street in Europe, called “Schildergasse.”

Highlights:

-The Cologne Cathedral, of course. A looming, impossibly tall, spire-spiked Gothic masterpiece that looms darkly over the central train station. Beautiful/impressive day and night, building on it begun in 1248 and it houses relics of the Magi (yeah, you read that correctly, the Magi or Wise Men of the nativity story) transferred from Milan in 1164. Just astounding. And, not for the faint of heart (literally), you’ve got the challenging climb up the tower’s 533 steps. Not an easy feat, and by not easy I mean absolutely exhausting for someone not in the best cardio shape like myself. But worth it, if even just for the bragging rights.

-New Year’s Eve. We somehow managed to ring in the new year on the top floor/roof-top terrace of a building with our already dear friend Jan and wonderful friends of his who welcomed us with such hospitality. Oh, and the minor detail that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) in Cologne sets off fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve. So we all gladly stood out shivering in the cold, misty night on the terrace and toasted/watched in absolute awe as the whole city was practically set on fire—a panoramic view of fiery green, blue, orange, red, purple and yellow explosions lighting up the sky. Then back inside to the warmth for drinking and dancing into the wee hours of the morning. Amazing.

A few tips: go to the cathedral & climb the tower, no excuses. We were too late for the Christmas markets and too early for Carnival, but the city’s world famous for both, so I highly recommend hitting one if you can. Definitely sample the city’s own Kölsch beer, a delightful easy-to-drink brew to help you “do as the locals do.” Cross the bridge near the cathedral a night to get a postcard-esque photo of the bronze bridge leading to an almost greenish-glowing cathedral, as well as marvel at the thousands of locks fastened to the bridge’s edges– each with the initials of a unique pair of love-birds.

The majestic, looming Cologne Cathedral.

Jan (far left) and our new friends--thanks for making NYE unforgettable.

Fireworks at midnight NYE...from the roof. Unbelievable. Couldn't even see the cathedral in the distance there was so much smoke.

What a view!

Lovers locks on the bridge…there must have been hundreds of thousands.