There seems to me to be a fine line between tradition and artifice. The thing is it can often be difficult to tell which side of the line you’re on. I often find myself wondering where I am in regards to this line as I travel and visit these foreign countries. Coming back from Ireland I can help but feel I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes for the last few days. There was certainly enough wool in the country to keep me from seeing anything. Our time in Ireland was so spectacular though, that it almost feels as if I spent my weekend on The Truman Show: Ireland edition.
Ireland is a country I’ve always wanted to visit—simply because part of my family comes from that little island. Yet for some reason I didn’t have very high hopes for my trip there. Don’t get me wrong I was excited, and I thought it would be a cool place to visit, but I guess after visiting cities like Paris, London, Barcelona, and Lisbon, and after seeing the absolutely awe-inspiring beauty of Costa Del Sol in Spain and the Lake District it was hard to imagine Ireland topping them.
It may be the down side to studying abroad. Spending so much time abroad can possibly desensitize you to the excitement of travel. A trip to somewhere exotic that might normally leave you daydreaming about going back and buzzing from the experience for a month or two may be topped the next weekend here. It may seem like a great problem to have,—and in a lot of ways it is—but really how do you get excited about a new place every weekend?
Somehow you manage, trust me.
I’m extremely grateful for the time I’ve had over here and this tremendous opportunity to see so many different parts of the world in this way, but I must explain why I went into Ireland, not with the idea that it would be bad or boring, but simply just—well I went. I went not knowing exactly what I’d be seeing for three days on our Paddy wagon tour. I went knowing little about Dublin other than that I’d purchased my ticket to the Guinness storehouse ahead of time. I went with an open mind, without little in the way of preconceived notions to get in the way of my experience, and for that I was rewarded.
I’d heard great things about Ireland from other people at school that had gone earlier in the semester; however, reviews of Dublin hadn’t been glowing. Word was that there was little to do or see there other than the Guinness storehouse and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I found my day in Dublin to be delightful. I think it would be a city I would enjoy living in. I thought it was beautiful, and easy to walk.
If we had planned to spend a whole weekend there I might not have left with such fond memories. Dublin, as others had told me, was really just a city—albeit with a heavy Irish flavor—which is nice, but it doesn’t really stack up with some of the other great European cities. It’s nice, but not anything out of this world. The Irish countryside however, is like getting punched in the chest over and over again; you will lose your breath and wonder how you continue to see more and more beautiful things.
This rugged and wild land was not what I expected. Before going, I expected rolling hills of lush green. What I saw was something closer to England’s lake district, if she had an older sister who was way prettier and more interesting. Instead of showing us gently rolling hills Ireland showed us; mountains, and sparkling lakes, and stands of tall majestic pine trees, and sheer cliffs that must be experienced in person; and we drove through valleys and we listened to locals play Irish folk music in pubs every night and we had the wackiest coach driver who sang Irish folk songs one day and the backstreet boys the next and when it rained and we didn’t like the weather we waited fifteen minutes; and we climbed on castle ruins and we stood at the edge of the world—mini cliffs actually, but it may as well have been the world—and I chased a sheep, and we learned a little gaelic, and we learned a lot of Irish history, and we learned a lot about Irish culture, and we saw the biggest most perfect rainbow of our lives.
Ireland simply showed us the best time. It was so good it all seemed too good to be true. After spending a night singing to the traditional Irish folk songs Seanie—our coach driver and tour guide, whose name used to be Sean till he solved his midlife crisis by adding an “ie” to the end—had been playing for us on the bus, along with locals in a pub in Kilarney; After eating the most delicious lamb stew, which reminded me of the type my parents used to make; after finding live folk music with ease every night; after having a woman come up to us in Dublin while we looked at our map to ask if we needed help; after meeting the nicest people out of any country I’ve ever been to throughout our trip; after all this and so much more I can’t help but wonder if it was tradition or artifice we experienced.
I can’t help but wonder if those four days were some elaborate act put on for the sake of us tourists. I lie awake at night, and I can still hear all the music, taste the Guinness and the stew, and I just wonder if they’re still singing and playing their violins and guitars, are they still being so helpful kind and polite, are they still doing it all, are the mountains and trees still that beautiful, are the cliffs still that steep? Was that all real? Does it continue after we’ve left, or did they just put on a big show for our benefit? I can’t help but wonder because it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was too good to be true, and usually that means it is. This time I don’t think it was.
I may wonder, but I like to think—and I sincerely hope—that yes, it all was real. In a few months, when I’m sitting at home at night watching tv they’ll still be singing and playing music in Ireland, and Seanie won’t be the slightest bit saner. I’d like to hope that’s the case because if not, it would be simply tragic.
I won’t claim to be a connoisseur of bars or clubs having only gained access to those establishments a few months ago, but I have been to bars on two continents and in six different countries. I’ve been to country pubs in England as well as the bars in London. I’ve sampled absinthe in bars in Paris and Brussels. I’ve sipped cerveza and enjoyed tapas in the bars of Madrid and Barcelona. I’ve also been to the college bars in Champaign and Charleston. By far though, by a great distance, by leaps and bounds the coolest bar I’ve been to and the coolest bars I’ve seen are in barrio alto of Lisbon, Portugal. My favorite bar of all time lies on an unassuming street in Lisbon with a great deal of elevation change.
There was no name, but it should have been called goldilocks because this place was just right. It wasn’t crowded, but there were people there so you didn’t feel like the place was deserted. The place was full of comfortable seating in the form of old armchairs, loveseats, and couches that looked like they had been brought from people’s living rooms. Each one looked like it had more character, comfort and stories to tell than the last. The armchairs were kept company by skinny end -tables with colorful marble tops and coffee tables. The end-tables were topped with lamps that provided a soft warm lighting to the room making the place easy on the eyes.
One of the things that really set this place apart from most of the other bars in the world was their restraint in volume of their music as they didn’t feel the need to play bad music far too loud. They also didn’t feel the need to play bad music. They were spinning really great old funk 45s. Stuff you could groove to, and dance to, or just sit and enjoy. You could clearly hear the music anywhere in the bar and it was loud enough to dance to, but you could also enjoy the comfort of the chairs and have a conversation without shouting, while sipping one of their inexpensive drinks. They were also projecting old black and white videos of people dancing onto a big screen. The place was absolutely perfect. The street featured a lot of other really cool looking places to enjoy a drink, but this was the only one we visited since we had a moderately early flight the following morning.
Prior to finding this street we enjoyed a lovely meal at a little Fado restaurant. You could hear them singing Fado from the street and this is what drew us in to the dark little restaurant where you could see the women of the family cooking in the kitchen as the men worked to seat and take orders from people. Two other men sat against a wall, one with a classical guitar the other with a traditional 12 string Fado guitar and they played as a woman showed off her pipes. When they’d take a break from playing the woman would go to work taking orders and serving people their food while another woman would come to sing a few songs. At one point a woman that seemed to be the grandmother in the family came out from the kitchen where she’d been cooking people’s dinners to sing three songs for us and her voice was amazing. All three of the different ladies that sang for us that night had stunning voices and the food was fantastic.
Lisbon is old, predating Rome by hundreds of years. A city built on several hills; the many changes in elevation facilitate stunning views from unlikely places. When walking down a street in Lisbon you must make sure to look both ways, not for traffic, but because you might otherwise miss a breathtaking view lying down what looked like an alley or gateway to someone’s house. It’s also always smart to look out for traffic.
The architecture and feel of Portugal is very similar to Spain’s. The two countries have a very similar style, but Lisbon felt less touristy than the major cities of Spain felt. Lisbon had the same beautiful streets with clay buildings and tile roofs. Located next to the ocean, with one of the mildest winters of any European city it is a wonder that Lisbon isn’t much more of a tourist destination. They also had the best public transportation of any city I’ve been to so far. This probably is partly because it has a much smaller population than cities like Paris and London. All their metro stations were clean and easy to use. It was also only 5 euros for unlimited use of the public transportation for 24 hours. This was unlike other cities where our day passes stopped working whenever the trains stopped running for the day. In Lisbon we were able to continue using our passes the next morning as well, which saved us some money on the last morning when we only needed to get to the airport.
Portugal was a wonderful place to get away from the rain and cold of Britain for a few days. The country was warm, and sunny. The city was beautiful and relaxed. The weekend was what I hope was a great anniversary present to my love.
(Much of the following was written in my journal at 4:00 in the morning in Manchester airport after traveling all night.)
Didn’t they learn their lesson? Didn’t they learn when they started WWI by not letting the Germans in? No, Belgium has not learned. It has been so hard getting to Belgium that at 4:00 in the morning I threw down 200 Pounds for a plane ticket just to Brussels.
The problems all began weeks ago, now I sit before sunrise in an airport 200 pounds poorer. With the knowledge I’ve caused two fellow travelers great financial burden. It all began with a whim, cheap bus tickets and an open weekend. It started out with “Brussels—why not?” We’d never even considered Brussels, or Belgium till we saw there were cheap bus tickets. People come to Europe and they go to London, Rome, Paris, Oktoberfest, Amsterdam, Prague, Ireland, Barcelona. Who goes to Belgium? Extreme waffle enthusiasts? So, something new. Something a little different. Off the beaten path. A quick internet search revealed that Brussels was quite beautiful, and she was cheap so we were on board to buy our tickets.
See She’s pretty.
Pretty, yes, but not cheap. Soon she became the girl that turned us down, and it only made us want her more, and more, and more. Every rejection festered within us. Each failed attempt to woo the beautiful lady made us want to stalk her more. We became infatuated with Brussels. The bus tickets were cheap, yes. But the website denied us again, and again. Soon our mouths were watering for those Belgian chocolates. The smell of their waffles was wafting right under our noses, but we could not eat them. England’s ales grew dull as we longed for the lagers of another land.
Check out the size of those brussel sprouts…
So the dream was put away. We headed York for a weekend full of adventures and misadventures you can read about in my blog about how it pays to be a loud American. Our dream had not died though. It was put on the back burner while we were in York, and when we returned the kettle was screaming as the water boiled over. We prepared for a long weekend in Paris desperately trying to purchase bus tickets to Brussels. We were further frustrated by a blessing in disguise. We had no idea yet, but it was the grace of God that we were denied by that coach site. Later, we would joke that the coach site was denying us because they knew it would simply be too much for someone to ride their coaches consecutive weekends. This was after spending 16 hours on one of these coaches over the course of a weekend; after finding that their coaches were devoid of leg room, fresh air, people with knowledge of deodorant, and babies with an understanding of the concept of shutting up. We wouldn’t find any of this out till the weekend though, and being kept out of Belgium was getting personal so we began to explore other options.
A ferry was looked into but scrapped. Finally we found Ryan air and decided that the last thing old Brussels would expect was an aerial attack. Ryan air had flights for 10 Pounds there, and 10 euros back, how could we say no? We had no idea how hard it would be just to say yes. So after missing out on some transportation deals this semester due to waiting, we went ahead and purchased our tickets to Brussels—content, for the moment, with the knowledge that we would be going to Brussels, we would worry about getting back the next day.
When it comes to booking trips, I double check. I triple check. I quadruple check. I do this for dates, for locations for times. I try to make sure every detail is in order before pressing the button to pay. Yet it was not till we were at the airport at 4:00 in the morning, two hours and twenty minutes before our flight—or at least we thought it was our flight—was set to take off for Brussels that we realized our departure tickets were for Thursday morning the following week, and we were flying on a Friday. Somehow I had not only gotten the date wrong, but also the day of the week. There is no way to explain how this felt especially when you add in the fact that to save time and streamline things I had bought my girlfriend Katelyn’s ticket as well as our friend Anna’s ticket (this was also 4:00 in the morning on Anna’s birthday). It’s as if this whole time you think you’ve been travelling with your stomach intact in your body and then you get to the airport and you realize, you’ve left your stomach three hours away back in the manor.
So we went to a desk to find out what could be done. We were told that there were about 40 seats left on the plane, but if we wanted one of those seats it was going to cost us about 200 pounds. After a quick sidebar we decided that since we had a hotel booked, and our return flights were correct we would bite the bullet and shell out the money necessary to get on the plane. So after a scary and costly few minutes we were back on track, and once again headed to Brussels. We made it through customs,—where Chet found out you can’t bring a corkscrew on a plane—and had an easy and uneventful flight to Brussels Chaleroi airport which we then found out was a 120 euro cab ride to the center of Brussels. Luckily, there were shuttles and we were able to each purchase a ticket from the airport to the city and back for only 22 Euros.
Our stay in Brussels was great. We had a lovely dinner our first night there in the main square, then hit the town. We did flaming shots at one bar, and ended the night in a bar that had three different serving bars, one with all different types of Belgian Beers, one with all different types of rum and tequila, and the third had all different types of absinthe. The next day, Saturday, we were able to purchase train tickets to Bruges for Sunday. That night was Nuit Blanche which is a festival that Brussels has held the last ten years. It begins at 7 p.m. and goes until 7 a.m. There are all sorts of food vendors and little free exhibits all over the city. Since beer is such a big part of the Belgian culture it was easy to walk into a convenient store and purchase what would be a really nice expensive import craft beer in the U.S. for very cheap. We did this all night, and walked around checking out all the different things going on. There were churches open with exhibits inside, projections on buildings, people creating art, and parties with DJs and live music. It was a great night to be in Brussels experiencing their culture. A big part of which is their fries which come in paper cones. They take their fries extremely seriously in Belgium, and for good reason. French Fries were invented in Belgium, and I’ve never had such great fries in my life.
The next morning we woke up, got some more Fries and hopped on a train to Bruges. Bruges is a small, and exceptionally beautiful town just an hours train ride from Brussels. It is a canal town often called the Venice of the north. There is little to do in Bruges other than walk around and admire how beautiful the town is. We were quite fortunate because although it rained the first two days we were in Brussels we had wonderful weather for our day in Bruges. It was a perfect fall day, the air was crisp and the trees were just starting to get tinges of color in their leaves we couldn’t have asked for a better day to walk around, do a little antiquing and enjoy a city.
My one recommendation if you’re ever in Bruges is to avoid eating in the main square as the food is overprice compared to other areas and as is the case with many tourist restaurants it is not very good. We ate at an Italian restaurant in their main square and I’ve had better meals prepared by chef Boyardee. Yet this didn’t ruin our day in Bruges. If you’re ever in Brussels, and have the time I highly recommending spending just a day or two in Bruges, it’s well worth the trip just to take a relaxing stroll around and take in the beauty.
One last thing about Brussels, their most famous statue or landmark—and we didn’t find this out until we got there—is a little boy pissing into a fountain. Seriously this kid is everywhere. You can get him on corkscrews, bottle openers, key chains, chocolate, as a life sized replica for your own fountain, and of course on postcards. The little guy is interesting because there are many different stories about his origins. He’s about five hundred years old (to put that in perspective he’s only about a hundred years younger than the statue of David). We saw his picture and replicas at every tourist shop for a while before ever actually seeing him or even had any idea where he was. Indeed he is at a pretty random street corner and there is not much in terms of markings or signs to point you towards him. Both times we saw the little guy during the day he was dressed up in something different, but when we saw him at night he was naked. It was just a very odd thing to be such a huge tourist attraction for the city.
Belgium, is a wonderful country. It is clean, and the people were friendly. They make the best chocolate in the world. Their waffles are outtasight. The place is a beer lovers dream, and if you consider yourself any kind of French Fry connoisseur Belgium is without a doubt the place for you. It is full of lovely architecture and has a very European feel, if you know what I mean—it is also not overly touristy.
Also, you just might get lucky like us, and see a celebrity in the airport. As you can see in the picture above that is clearly Santa Claus doing his best attempt at being incognito. We spotted old Chris Kringle in departures of the Brussels airport. I believe he was in Belgium picking up chocolates to stuff in stockings. I’m hoping he’ll stuff some Belgian fries in my stocking this Christmas.
On Sunday I was in Paris. On Monday I skipped breakfast, and almost cried at lunch. Up until now I’ve been quite pleasantly surprised with the food here in England. I’d heard lots of horror stories. How the English get off on boiled potatoes. How there would be no Captain Crunch—which there isn’t. The school cafeteria here is on most days, passable. There are some days when it seems as if none of what they dole out on our plates is even close to palatable, but most days there is at least something to eat. After all they generally have bread and butter. I hope this doesn’t make me seem like some sort of food snob. There is just only so much meat paste a human can take before it becomes an indignity.
(This shop above was totally in Ratatouille)
Eating out in England has been where I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised. We had a few wonderful meals in the lake district, all of which were quite cheap. All the food I had in London was quite enjoyable and not badly priced considering London is often referred to as the most expensive city in Europe. Katelyn and I both enjoyed some lovely steaks at a nearby country pub on our 1 year anniversary recently. For a country with a reputation for bad food things have been quite alright, or so I thought. Then I went to Paris.
For a time we had it in our heads that we would go out to one really nice 3 course meal while in Paris. The kind of place where we’d each be paying between 50 and 100 dollars for our meal. Unfortunately being young, poor, and in school these sort of plans fall apart. We get busy with school and other things and run out of time to plan such an evening. So I still don’t know what a hundred dollar meal in Paris tastes like. To be honest I can’t even fathom it. At times over the last month I’ve been so content with the food in England I’ve thought can Paris really be that much better? This food is good, how much better can food get? It can be. Oh, it can be so much better.
(Absinthe, that didn’t make anyone hallucinate)
Here, at school, there are many days where we subside—in a very defeated sort of way—on bread. In Paris, bread was something we looked forward too. Baguettes are wonderful cheap things. We had a great dinner in Paris our last night there with just some tomatoes cheese, and olive oil, (all from a little bodega near our apartment) on baguettes. The fact that we ate these sandwiches along the seine watching riverboats pass and sipping champagne under the lights of Paris, and a full moon certainly adds to the flavor. But I assure you they tasted just as good in the apartment (I made two and ate one there before we left). For breakfast that day I’d had a baguette with ham from a street vendor, for lunch I’d had a baguette with chicken on it. You’d think having baguettes for breakfast lunch and dinner I might’ve been sick of them, but I only miss them all the more.
Of course we did not survive solely on baguettes in Paris, although close to it. Our last morning there I enjoyed what I believe has been the best omelet of my life, full of ham onions, and potatoes. Our first day there I had the best tortellini I’ve ever tasted for lunch in a creamy sauce with champignons (mushrooms). You could just tell the tortellini had been hand made very recently. The second night we were there we went out to dinner in the center of town at a moderately priced restaurant (10-20 euros for a meal) where I had some of the juiciest, tastiest chicken of my life. It came with some mashed potatoes that would probably rank somewhere in my all-time top 5.
While walking up to the Sac le Coeur I bought a fantastic bunch of grapes. It was just a wonderful weekend of food in a beautiful city, the two go together very well; a freshly made crepe just before one in the morning while you wait for the Eiffel tower to sparkle; A baguette and some champagne along the seine at night, it simply can’t be beat. Certainly not by an English cafeteria.
York is a wonderful town to spend a short weekend away in. There are numerous pubs, and if you go on the right weekend in the fall you will be able to experience their wonderful outdoor market festival. We sampled lots of locally made jams, cheeses, sausages, salamis, chorizos, mustards, and even some sloe gin. We saw as people picked out their choice of a large salmon from a pile covered in ice, and then watched as the man cut off the head and fileted the fish for them right there.
There were numerous other shopping opportunities in York, not to mention the tremendously magnificent Minster. Of course if you ever find yourself in York do not miss one of their ghost walks. Although, it may sound a bit hoky that’s sort of the point. They’re more about entertainment and comedy than scaring you or finding ghosts of course. They generally start around 7:30 and cost a few pounds. The price is well worth it to be led about town for an hour by a man that is dressed in 19th century fashion. The city has numerous different ones and you will inevitably run into the other tours as you hit the cities most haunted spots. The tour guides of other groups may even tell you how you’re on the wrong hunt and that you won’t find any ghosts on that tour.
In York we stayed in a hostel which had a sign on their wall stating they had been rated number two among England’s hostels for 2012. I guess who ever gave that rating had only stayed in two hostels in England. The building was extremely cold and the bathrooms were in serious need of attention. Next weekend we’ll be in Paris where we’ll be renting an apartment for three nights. And paying the same amount per night we paid for this hostel, if not a few pounds cheaper. We’ll have our own bathroom and privacy there as well as a kitchen so we can save some money on food by cooking for ourselves. There is also the comfort of knowing that when you enter your room at night you won’t find a large tattooed Norwegian man sleeping in your bed.
It was dark and all I could see by the light of my phone was a large leg covered in scary looking tattoos. I don’t know about you but I have no interest in waking up anyone past 1:30 in the morning especially when it’s clear they’ve been drinking quite heavily. So when Chet told me I should just wake him up my response was “No way man, he’s got tattoos.” (Not that I’m prejudiced against people with tattoos. I know and have many wonderful friends with them. Trust me, this guy was scary looking—at least by the weak light of my cell phone). Chet then asked where I would sleep, I told him I would probably just sleep sitting against one of the walls. Chet, being the upstanding human being that he is, said, “Well, I’ve got a bed right here man. You wanna sleep with me?” If it hadn’t been so cold in that hostel I probably would have thanked him for his kind offer and declined but instead I decided to accept. So I climbed in and with minimal awkwardness we tried to arrange how to position ourselves and sleeping back to back we both laid there silently trying to suppress giggles at the ridiculous nature of the situation and wondering what it would look like to everyone else when the morning brought light to the room, and there we were two full grown men huddled against each other in a single bed on the top bunk right in the middle of the room. We couldn’t have been in a more noticeable location, but, who knew—by then we might not be back to back—by then we might be spooning.
The next morning we informed reception of what had happened but were offered no refund, and instead told we should’ve come down to the person on duty at reception last night. I’ve never been good at things like haggling or arguing over a refund so I didn’t explain all the things I wanted to tell him: like I wouldn’t feel very comfortable sleeping in the same room with an angry man once the bed situation had been straightened out, or that I paid good money for a bed and had no interest in sleeping in one that had been inhabited by some sweaty drunken stranger for part of the night. We simply walked away to enjoy our last day in York. It was really a gorgeous Saturday morning. The sun was out and the air was especially crisp and cool, maybe slightly warmer than inside the hostel. We enjoyed seeing numerous street performers play live music. We were almost never without music that morning whenever we walked away from one street performer and turned onto another street we could faintly hear the sounds of the next performers.
But eventually we had exhausted York, and realized that we were too poor to afford all the things we wanted. So, noting that we were only a few blocks from the train station and that there was a train in 7 minutes we ran. Fortunately we made the train just in time we had no idea how lucky we were just yet though. Finding three open seats around a table where a young woman was reading with headphones in we sat down and began to discuss the weekend and talk about our upcoming weekend in Paris. At some point the young lady sharing the table with us took her earbuds out. I noticed she was listening in to our conversation but said nothing and continued on as usual. Eventually, she mentioned that she couldn’t help but overhearing and began talking to us about our travels and recommended we go to northern Wales (up in the sticks, she said), or to a coastal town in Wales. Just as our conversation with her was starting to get good our stop had come and we had to get on the next train. Sadly we headed to the platform for a half hour layover.
After 3 platform changes our train finally arrived and we boarded where we found ourselves in an almost identical situation. Anna, Katelyn and I seated around a table with a young woman. I looked over at her a few times because even though her hair was much longer she looked very similar to the last girl. As we began talking about Paris she interjected in eerily similar fashion to the last girl telling us that she’d just spent 8 months studying there. She was able to give us lots of suggestions on places to go and what to do and even wrote half a page in my journal about a cheap but great restaurant she ate at all the time. We couldn’t have asked for a greater train ride. It’s amazing the encounters you can have sometimes. If you’re having a loud conversation on public transportation you can end up meeting some wonderful people.
I’ve been thinking a lot over the past weeks about what a difference two years makes. Due to a series of milestones that took place over last few months my experience here at Harlaxton has become radically different than it would have been had I come two years ago as a sophomore (when most of the other students here have come).
Many of the sophmores are completely enthralled with drinking and their new liberties in regards to the practice. Having gained the liberty myself –after far too many years of waiting—just a few months ago the novelty is somewhat lost on me. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy drinking, and quite a bit if we’re being honest, but a lot of the novelty has worn off on me. Also, having limited time in Europe, and limited funds and all the rest of my life to imbibe large amounts of alcohol when I’m not facing a steep conversion rate allows me to put things in perspective, and prioritize. So, while my goals are getting to as many cool places as possible, and their goals are chugging as many pints as possible I work to put that in perspective. I understand that two years ago I was of a similar mindset.
There are other things though. This castle—for instance—is nice, but I fear it may have been a great deal more magical to me two years ago. It’s rather unfortunate really. It’s a magnificent and truly gorgeous structure. Just about anyone would, and indeed should, be happy to call it home—even for just a few months. First impressions are very important things, and you wouldn’t think it possible or at the least very easy to take the wind out of a manor house as magnificent as this.
It got better though because after the bus stopped and we were shuffled inside and sat down we got to meet the guy from the video in person. He didn’t give us another speech though about how great harlaxton was, and what a great thing studying abroad was. No. He gave us the exact same speech, word for word that we had just seen on the video on the bus. There is nothing better than that when you’re hungry (I can only imagine how the sleep deprived people felt) and eager to explore and get settled into your new home than hearing an old guy repeat a speech he just gave.
That said, Harlaxton is lovely. The view coming up the drive at twilight, or night, or in the middle of the day is something spectacular to behold. It’s just best taken in with your own thoughts, or whatever music you’d like to be listening to, or simply enjoying the simple sound of the wind rushing through the trees and the birds causally chirping back and forth to one another. To each his own I suppose, but for me I can think of ten better ways to approach the castle than listening to someone try to sell me on it, and tell me how I should feel.
I’ve talked a lot about Spain already, and I’m quite behind on my adventures in England so I’ll just share one quick story from Costa del Sol before move my focus off the continent and north towards that soggy island known as Great Britain.
Marbella was nice, but not unlike other coastal resort towns around the world. Lots of seafood restaurants and touristy things. Lots of shops full of knick-knacks and odds and ends. Enjoyable but not exactly culturally stimulating—although we did find a art gallery with some lesser known Picasso’s and Miro’s that were quite enjoyable.
Just a short ten minute drive into the mountains from Marbella though we found a gorgeous little whitewashed town known as Ojen. It was built on the side of a mountain, and the little brick streets dropped and rose because of that.
We found the town square, and a tiny schoolhouse, as well as an old olive mill used for making olive oil. In the town square women would come to fill up buckets with water. Unfortunately, they moved too quickly for me to snap an amazing picture of them. Katelyn is nice enough to pose by these fountains.
It was in this square that we had one of our most memorable meals in Spain. There were a few little restaurants and cafes situated around the square but one was far more populated than the others, bar diego. We figured all these other people must be eating here for a reason and looked for a table. I forgot to mention it was extremely hot in Ojen, and we’d been walking around for quite a bit at this point. So after a quick survey of the establishment we found that there was only one open table with four chairs—the exact number of people in our party—but it was out in the sun. The hot Spanish sun. The hot Spanish sun that had been beating down on us all morning. We looked on at the happy diners, seated at tables shielded from the sun by umbrellas as they cheerfully enjoyed a meal at bar diego, and knew this was the spot, this was the place for lunch, but there was no way we were sitting out in that sun.
So, with sunken heads and heavy hearts, we slowly began to shuffle away from bar diego. We were down on morale and had little hope we’d find anywhere better to eat in Ojen and dreaming of what a great meal Diego would have fed us. We had not even shuffled past the front of the restaurant when who should come out to us, but Diego himself. He asked if we wanted a table, and we told him we did, but not one in the sun. Diego looked at us with sympathy then scanned the square. He held up a single finger to me and said, “One minute, ok.” Before hurrying down the street away from the square. We looked on as he took an umbrella from one of the tables outside an almost deserted little bakery, and brought it back setting it up and the lone empty table at his restaurant. Once the umbrella was in place he looked at us and said “ok?” to which we informed him it was better than ok it was great.
Just as we had sat down he told us we’d need to come inside to see our meal options. So, we followed him inside the dark little interior of Bar Diego. There on the counter under a glass case he described what we saw to be the five options we had for lunch. We all decided to order the half portion of Pork with fried potatoes. Diego wrote this down on his notepad before telling us, “eh four I think will be too much food for you. No, I think two. Yes, two is enough.” As he crossed out the four and replaced it with a two on his notepads.
He ended up bringing out two huge platters piled high with pork and potatoes. Paul and Dee shared one plate, while Katelyn and I shared the other. It may have been the best meal we had in Spain. Not just because of the food but the situation and atmosphere. Sitting out in the old square of this little old town in the coastal mountains of Spain which surrounds an old church where an old man sits with his cane under the shade of lemon trees that scale the wall chain smoking cigarettes and wagging his cane and yelling in Spanish at little girls as they pass. I snuck some pictures of him.
Between Barcelona and Madrid I spent the greater portion of my time in Spain exploring Barcelona. I cannot lie Madrid is the more beautiful city. It’s a magical place, that Madrid. How magical? Well people can basically suspend themselves in the air.
Madrid was full of the most picturesque streets and wacky and interesting street performers. Barcelona simply cannot match the consistent and unrelenting beauty of central Madrid. Yet offer me the option to travel to one of those cities again and I’ll choose Barcelona every time.
Madrid is a classic concerto. It’s beautiful and cohesive and flowing and well classical. She is fountains and statues and balconies. She is the Prado—full of old religious paintings and portraits of royalty and aristocrats.
Barcelona is free form jazz. Barcelona is Gaudi and gaudy. Barcelona is Picasso and Miro, she is opulently diverse. She is the beach, and the city. She is bordered by the mountains, and she has mountains of street performers all with mountains of talent.
Madrid is a fun city, but it can be seen—evenby walking in a day or two. Barcelona has far more things to offer. There are the numerous buildings designed by Gaudi.
There are the Picasso museum and the Miro museum among others. (This is a painting by Miro, you’re not allowed to take pictures so I had to be sneaky.)
There are parks, the beach, wacky sculptures. There are numerous wonderful streets, panoramic views and vistas. Yet Barcelona’s greatest icon may be a church. Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada Familia.
If it is not the most beautiful church in the world it is possibly the most interesting to see. It is one of the most breathtaking. I considered not putting up pictures of it. They don’t do it justice. La Sagrada Familia cannot be explained other than by registering it up close with your own eyes. Imagine the wildest church you can imagine and I bet it won’t even come close to La Sagrada Familia. And it’s only 60% complete at the moment.
Barcelona is a town where you can find a little shop selling great gelato quite easily. You can walk along the streets and sit on the steps of a cathedral from the gothic period. You may turn a corner and find a woman belting out world class opera—only to realize that this is the night you forgot your camera at the hotel, so instead of concentrating on trying to film what’s before you to enjoy some other time you’ll just have to savor it as much as possible for the few minutes you linger there.
When you leave Barcelona try not to think about how if you had gone down one more alley, turned one more corner you might have found something else truly remarkable. Just be grateful for the days you had there and all the wonderful things you experienced.
Central Madridis a seemingly endless scattering of crooked streets teeming with cafes, tapas bars, and souvenir shops. A quick look at a map will show you that the further you get fromCentral Madridthe straighter the streets become. The city follows the traditional grid format Americans are accustomed to outside of centralMadrid.
During my first few days in Madridit became hard for me to understand why everyone in the world isn’t trying to live in Central Madrid. I still sort of wonder. The area is numbingly beautiful—even with tons of graffiti. Gorgeous buildings, statues, and fountains come at you in unrelenting waves.
Turn a corner in central Madrid, any corner, and you will find yourself on the most picturesque street you can imagine. There’s a few people seated at an outdoor café drinking some of the best coffee you could ever hope to enjoy. Other people casually meander down the street as if it’s no big deal that they’re on the most picturesque street ever.
The street is lined with buildings between four and seven stories in height and generally white, pink, or yellow in color. They are almost always covered in quaint little balconies and often feature stunning tiles or ornate decorations. You stroll down this street, lingering to enjoy the sights for as long as possible, gazing up at the balconies, dragging your chin along the brick street, and when you get to the corner you will turn and find that you have just found the most picturesque street ever.
If you ever need to make a wish inMadridyou won’t have far to go. The city is full of fountains. Every few blocks you can find a little square with either a fountain or statue. More commonly there will be both.
One of the most famous statues in the city is of a bear pawing at a madrano (strawberry tree). Found in Puerto del Sol this bear is the emblem of the city. If you are ever standing in Puerto del Sol you have found the center of Spain. This is where all distances in Espana are measured from, and as such there is a large clock tower that shows 0km. Many gather around this clock tower to ring in the New Year when it strikes midnight.
This blog is a way for me to document my travels acrossEuropeover the next few months. It is for me and anyone else interested in reading it. I hope it will be a living, growing, evolving online memory of a traveler living inEurope. I hope you will enjoy reading it, or at least looking at the pictures. If you don’t, then feel free to pretend it doesn’t exist. Feel free to come along on this adventure with me, as I work on answering the question, “How wasEurope?” I anticipate an answer along the lines of, “life-changing,” but who knows, it could end up being so much more than that.
Both seem to leave something to be desired. So, to leave nothing desired for any of the parties involved—I’m sure your own questions will leave me wanting to look back and remember the way I first experienced these cities and nations, so that I can better answer the question myself—I’ve created this blog.
Yet I’m here—and for 18 weeks—which is a lot of time for me to forget all the things I’ll see. 18 weeks is overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact, that by the time I make it back to the U.S.and you ask me, “how was Europe?” I may—as I struggle to catch my breath—look back and wonder, “how was Europe!?” leaving me able to muster little more for an answer beyond, “it was great.”; a three word answer for a three word question. Both seem to undersell the magnitude of a continent overflowing with culture, and the amount of time I’m lucky enough to be spending here.