Land of Sangria, Tapas, and Port Wine

Truth is, that as much as I love writing in my blog, I am horrible at actually uploading it.  I have done so much since the last time I posted. I hope these posts will fill you in.

I had the most fantastic fall break. The amazing thing about fall break while studying abroad, is that it is a full week which allows you to go on a long trip and see multiple countries. I spent time in Spain in high school with a host family and loved it. I knew I wanted to go back as well as see other places I didn’t get the chance to.

My friend Lindsay and I flew into Barcelona. The first night was a bit of an adventure. We got to the hostel that we were supposed to stay in and they said they were full. Bummer. So we tried to find another one, but that was full as well. The metros closed at midnight and my watch read 11:55 pm. We quickly took the metro to the train station beacause we were hoping that we could stay there. Unfortunately, they kicked us out and we set out to try to find a hotel. We found a large group of hotels and prepared ourselves to drop a lot of euros. Our luck was really running out because they were full too, as well as the surrounding hotels. Luckily, the receptionist offered to keep our bags for us behind the front desk and gave us a map and told us where we could find areas that were open 24 hours. We set off towards the ocean. After making friends with  two professional water polo players, hanging out with the owner of a local bar, walking until our feet fell off and finally crashing in a McDonald’s where we slept, the night was over.  The next couple of days were much more relaxing and filled with the beach, tapas, sangria, Gaudi architecture and shopping.  Barcelona was everything I hoped for and more. The Catalan capital is filled with vibrant people and culture.  My favorite place in the city was Park Guell which was designed entirely by the Catalan architect Gaudi.  * Side note, for those of you America’s Next Top Model viewers, the Season 7 finale fashion show was in this park. It was built overlooking the city.* There are mosaic sculptures scattered around the trees and it is a very eclectic little spot.  This combined with the squawking parrots really transports you to a tropical paradise. We went back twice we loved it so much. The second time we saw a catalogue photo shoot.  It apparently is a fashion hotspot.  Everyone is friendly and there is so much to do and see. Barcelona has such an energy to it, is is almost impossible to put into words. The shopping is amazing, the food quite tasty, and the sun and the sand are heavenly.
Our next stop was Porto, Portugal. The most well known city in Portugal is its capital Lisbon, but we decided upon the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Porto. We took Ryan Air,which had tickets as inexpensive as 20 US Dollars (definitely look into using this airline).   The city was the most picturesque one I have seen besides Prague.  It hugs the Duoro River and is minutes away from the ocean. The old city is teaming with small crooked cobblestone streets that weave along the river. There are hundreds of cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, and houses all from different centuries spanning as old as the 13th century to the mid 19th century. Along with the amazing history, Porto is also known for Port Wine. We went on several wine tasting tours and saw how the wines were made and stored. It was delicious!  We couchsurfed here. For those of you who do not know about the wonder of couch surfing I will take this time to give a brief intro into the backpacking community.  Couchsurfing is a backpacking community that allows individuals to stay at someone’s house on either their couch, bed, floor, or any space that is available for the sake of building new friendships and learning about new locations from a native’s perspective. I had heard about the CS community before in the States and knew that when I had the opportunity in Europe I would try it. I first couchsurfed in Paris with 4 of my other friends, then again in Brussels and this was my third time. I highly recommend couchsurfing and dipping your feet into this unique and exciting travel experience. In Porto, we had the priviledge of staying with this gentleman who hosts people constantly and  literally becomes your tour guide. He took us all over the city, told us the history of every important landmark, and showed us spots even other Porto residents do not know. We could not ask for a better place to stay.The 2 days we were in Porto were blissful and not enough. This is honestly one of my favorite cities that I have traveled to in Europe. I would jump at the opportunity to visit again.

Lastly, we headed to Madrid. I love Madrid. I loved it when I first visited as a mere sixteen-year-old and if I had forgotten why I loved the city, I quickly remembered the minute I stepped into the Plaza Mayor. The city has such a colorful energy to it. It is fast-paced and relaxing at the same time. Spaniards truly know how to have a good time, and it is so clear in this city that never sleeps. We toured the Palacio Real or Royal Palace, watched flamenco in the Plaza Mayor, shopped in all the little local tiendas that sell handcrafted pieces made in Spain, visited El Parque Retiro, ate amazing tapas,and met my Spanish friend from the university.  Spanish hot chocolate is something that everyone must have before they die, I swear. It is fantastic, with a consistency like pudding, it is so thick and creamy. There so many bistros and cafes filled with locals and tourists alike with their hot chocolate. I was able to practice my Spanish and I was even able to help some other tourists who were a little lost in translation. One of the funnier moments, was that when I was helping an Asian woman understand the Spanish at a little cafe, she told me that I spoke really good English. I guess my Spanish appeared to be so good, that she thought English was my second language. It made my day for sure, and although I know that my Spanish is far from being fluent, it motivates me to practice more at home. Overall, It was a jam packed 3 days and so worth it. I was so sad to leave because honestly I could live there.

Few Notes and Handy Advice

1.) Note to the wise, be careful when arriving into new cities at night. Even if you book a hostel online, sometimes things happen. Have a backup plan. Also, if you are forced to stay up all night, try to find a place for your luggage. You are a much lesser target for any sort of pickpockets without your luggage that screams tourist. Try the lockers in the train station, or ask at a hotel. Chances are if you ask, they will let you.

2.) Try cities off the beaten path. I would have never had gone to Porto if I had not found incredibly inexpensive tickets on Ryan Air and if I had not researched best places that tourists have not found yet in Portugal. Porto is now one of my favorite European cities and I cannot wait to go back. Often, the lesser known places are the best. They are often clear of teams of tourists, and the local people are overwhelming happy to escort you around.

3.) Go to Spain and Portugal. This is all I can say. I have gone to Spain twice and I can not get enough of that country. So pull out that middle school Spanish dictionary and visit. I promise, you won’t regret it.

My departure date is nearing.  It’s not enough time here. I better get going. I have places to go and people to meet.

Happy Reading!