Monday, August 9, 2010

The Hills, They're Alive

Ever since visiting Vienna during spring break I had wanted to return. My little brother joining me in Europe and allowing me to quarterback the trip gave me the perfect opportunity take us through the country.


We were going to be in Austria for six days, and started in the west in a place that had been described to me in the past as a fairy-tale city: Salzburg. Salzburg is not very large or overwhelming, rather it is more like a charming and quiet city tucked away in the green hillside with a magnificent fortress overlooking it. It’s full of beautiful and well-kept gardens, in which Clay and I dined on fancy Austrian hot dogs, almost a dozen churches (including my favorite cathedral in Europe-the Salzburg Dome), and numerous markets. It is also a big attraction for fans of The Sound of Music, since much of the film is shot there and it’s easy to recognize locations and landmarks from the movie. Everything is within walking distance, so one day we decided to head up to the fortress, an excursion we gravely underestimated as it took us deep into the forests and hills the extend beyond the fortress and offer spectacular views of the city below. And while Salzburg may lack flare and an impressive nightlife, it undoubtedly makes up for it in its enchanting atmosphere. Yea, I know I said enchanting…But it’s true.


A good friend of mine from elementary and high school lived this past year in Austria, interestingly enough doing the exact same thing I was doing in Spain: teaching English. In fact, it wasn’t until we were both in Europe that we discovered our similar situations. I had told him that I would be passing though Austria during the summer and so he and his wife, Sarah, shifted their schedule around and met us in Salzburg. His name is Nick, and he and Sarah live in Wels.

To be honest, Clay and I didn’t really know what to expect at first, however it didn’t take long to feel right at home. Instantly after putting our bags down in their flat, our apprehensiveness was washed away along with schnapps and monk beer. We then proceeded to walk up a hillside and climb a tower in order to get a view of the city from above, while sharing a bottle of wine (and wasabi-flavored potato chips…really, Nick? Really? I must admit, I was not a fan) as well as sharing stories both new and old.

After we descended the hill, we went to dinner at a more traditional Austrian restaurant. In terms of food and beer, we basically put our faith in the hands of Nick and Sarah and they delivered extraordinarily; everything was fantastic. During the meal we were accompanied by one of Nick’s students, Sebastian, and his father, who was more than willing to buy us a round of drinks and continue chatting, as he was enjoying the fresh company.

Upon returning home from dinner Sarah began to get ready for bed, Clay drank water because he wasn’t feeling so hot, and nick and I took shots with the full intention of going out. Clay, though reluctant at first, joined us and was later glad he did. We went from bar to bar in Wels, telling stories, talking about life and offering advice and perspectives on various subjects. Then Clay beat us both at foosball and from there everything spiraled into an whirlwind of cheerful and distorted bliss.


After a well-deserved sleep-in session, the three of us arose to a well-rested and bubbly Sarah who had been up for hours, strolling through the local market. After a shower and breakfast she and Nick escorted Clay and me to the train station to help us purchase tickets for the next train to Vienna.

Like I said before, I had visited Vienna during spring break and had been eager to return. I was even more excited because last time I was there I was supposed to stay with a local girl named Romy, but ended up cancelling at the last minute. However, being the awesome person she is, Romy said if I were ever to return I was more than welcome to stay with her, which is exactly what Clay and I did.

While she was really busy with work and changing apartments, Romy did show a side of Vienna to Clay and I we wouldn’t have ever discovered. One night she took us to the Vienna School or Architecture graduation party, which was a multiple-story dance party with beer, bbq, and live DJs. While we obviously were not architect grads, her friends made us feel comfortable and we had a really good time.

I already have an entry about Vienna, so I’m not going to go into details about this city. All I would like to say is that the second time visiting the city is just as amazing and overwhelming as it was the first time. I really can’t say enough about it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In the Beginning There was Beer

So after a couple weeks of travelling myself, Clay was finally coming to join me in Europe for a 2-and-a-half week adventure. We decided the most logical place to begin would be the centrally located city of Munich, Germany.

Besides its close proximity to the other places we were planinng to visit, one of the reasons I chose Munich to be our meeting point was because I really didn’t know much about it, and although we weren’t planning on spending much time there, I felt like it would be worth it to check out the city. In fact, despite our quick stay, Clay and I did the best we could to soak up the German culture in a city rich with history; a history full of political regimes, sausage varieties, racism and, of course, beer. While we did stroll around the city in order to see the English Garden-the largest public park in all of Europe-as well as the historical squares where The Fuhrer delivered passionate political and wartime speeches to the people of Germany. We even went to the Dachau Concentration Camp for a day, in order to gain a better perspective and appreciation for the atrocities that were permitted throughout the second world war.

However, I don’t want to give off the impression that my brother and I devoted our 3 days in Munich solely to gain a better understanding of Germany’s long and interesting history. We also wanted culture-and the funny thing about German culture is that it is heavily engaged in beer drinking and sausage eating. So, accompanied with our Canadian and American friends that we made in our hostel, Clay and I embarked on a beer garden adventure one night.

We started at the Augustiner Beer Garden-the oldest beer garden in Germany. It was basically everything one could expect from their stereotypical idea of what a German Beer Garden would be like: rows upon rows next to rows of tables full of people drinking and socializing with a backdrop of traditional music performed live by old bearded men in lederhosen and blonde dress-wearing waitresses bringing beer to their customers, carrying up to 5 1-liter glasses in each hand. After sharing a snitzel we decided to head to the Hoffbrauhaus, the largest garden in Germany. While this particular garden gets most of the attention from the tourists, it was basically the same thing only a little more expensive. In both establishments, our favorite beer, hands down, was the Ruß’n. It is the beer the angels in heaven drink.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land

“Just go straight for a few hundred meters, then turn right, and your hostel will be there.” This is what the Moroccan taxi driver told us, in French, when could could go no further into the medina. From the moment Patricia and I stepped out of the car, it was all too obvious that we were no longer in Europe: the smells, the streets, the sounds of an unfamiliar foreign language blended with the noise of goats and motorcycles and the stares coming from the faces of locals who could sense our states of confusion quickly overloaded my senses. Moroccan cities are not easy to navigate around, they are centuries and centuries old, with many small, nameless streets leading to nowhere, sketchy neighborhoods, or back to where you started. Think: "Assasin´s Creed" or "Aladin". So after looking helplessly lost for a few minutes, a man walked us to our Riad (Moroccan hostel).

We were only going to be in Morocco for 4 days, and we had planned to spend each day in a different city. The cities we decided upon were Marrakech, Fes, Chefchaouen, and Tetouan.


Hot. Our riad was conveniently situated in the Medina (a medina is the old neighborhood, where the market and shops are), so everything we wanted to do was within walking distance. However, walking around these old neighborhoods is like navigating through huge laberynths and so we spent a lot of time being lost. But once we found our destinations, it was well worth the frustration. Especially when we found food, because Moroccan cuisine is fantastic (we ate a lot of cous cous and tajine) and rediculously cheap. It was all smooth sailing until the sun went down and we found ourselves in unfamiliar settings. After about an hour of walking in circles, we made it to the neighborhood where our riad was located, only to be led astray by a bunch of little Moroccan hoodlems who were around 10 years old and tried to tell us where our hostel was. When we finally found our Riad I took the best shower of my life.


Fes is another big (and thus confusing) city in Morocco, which boasts a massive medina conprised of an even more complex system of streets than Marrakech. However, if I were to return to Morocco, I would definitely plan to stay longer in this city because it is more or less what I had expected when I pictured the country in my mind prior to going. There are markets and people everywhere trying to sell you the same stuff as the guy across the street, and the smell of trash blended with fine, potent spices provides one with an excellent sense of third-worldness. Also, Fes is home to the oldest university in the world (sorry England) and a famous tannery, which we were able to peek inside of for free.

Maybe the biggest surprise about Morocco were the people, while Muslims may get a bad reputation, these people are super friendly, and at times they seem too friendly. In fact, I am tempted to say as a whole, Moroccans are the friendliest people I have ever encountered. Again, the the Riad that we stayed at was like a museum/mosque/palace and we were treated like royalty.


Chefchaouen is a must-stop if you are travelling through Morocco. It's a small town tucked away in the moutains in the north of Morocco and get this: it is painted blue. That's right, the entire center/medina part of the city is painted a royal blue; probably the most photogenic place I have been to in the third world. However, in Chefchaouen we didn't stay in a riad, no no no, we decided to stay at the home of a Scottish expat. His place was called "Ri-For-Anyone" (refer for anyone). If you didn't get the pun automatically don't feel bad, neither did Patria or I. It was not until our host started to roll a hash joint while we were filling out our passport info and we saw everyone else doing the same that it his us. Basically, the local farmers gives this guy free hash and he gives it to people staying at his hostel/home for free. He and his wife are basically baked throughout the day, and everyone we met that was staying there had either been there for weeks or was planning on being there for weeks (could you really blame them?). However, they were super nice people and waking up to the wife blowing down a fatty and cooking you cheese eggs isn't all that bad isn't the worst thing in the world. And even though it was pretty tempting to just chill with them, we spent most of our time within the blue city walls. Hands-down my favorite place in Morocco.


So Patricia has this friend, Omar, whose family is from Morocco and lives in Tetouan. At first, we were going to pass through and just say "hi" because Patricia had never met them, however they decided to display the Moroccan hospitality and they invited us to stay the night with them. The parents cooked us traditional food, Omar's brother showed us around the city and medina-he even bought us moroccan shoes and patricia a dress!-before meeting up with his wife and taking us to Rincon, a nearby beach. This is where we decided to act like models and take a lot of photos before eating freshly grilled sardines. The next morning, another brother of Omar's privately escorted us through the border because the Spanish border-control was on strike (surprise!) and the border was like something from "Children of Men." I might still be in Morocco if it weren't for his help.

I am writing this from Munich. Clay arrived yesterday and tomorrow we are heading to Austria. We are already having way too much fun.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cod Fish Balls and Green Wine

So to kick off our 1-week trip, Patricia and I decided to head to Portugal for a couple days. I had been to Lisbon a few years ago with my family but nevertheless I was very eager to return to this coastal city which I had instantly fallen in love with.

This experience was quite different, having a basic understanding of the city already allowed me and Patricia-who had been there in the past as well-to move around with relative ease and confidence, only to find ourselves getting turned around a couple times. Also, with a Brazilian family background, Patricia knows Portuguese fairly well which made the experience even better and more authentic. The first day we spent in the Belem neighborhood, situated on the coast. We had 'pasteis de nata'-a popular pastry dish-at a restaurant called Pasteis de Belem; basically the Lisbon version of Cafe du Monde. After that we had a fish and rice soup and a thick, mushy/stu-like shrimp dish, both typical in the region. I washed it down with Super Bock, the pride of Portuguese beer and probably the best unknown secret of European brews (it has several European records-look it up). The second day, we decided to leave the city altogether...

When Patricia was in Lisbon a few months back, she met a Portuguese dude named Thelmo at the hostel she was staying at. Being that he seemed like a cool cat they decided to exchange info in case she were to return to Portugal or he were to make it over to Spain. Luckily for us, he was off work for a couple days and was more than willing to take two Americans to a little town about 30 minutes away which he thought we would like. The town was called Sintra, and I am pretty sure that Alice would liken it to Wonderland.

We started by hiking our way up to an old Moorish Palace (which Thelmo was proud to say that Portugal was able to conquer, despite its excellent strategic location) and then we walked around the 'park' which surrounds it. This beautiful property was literally fit for the king and royalty, and consists of a huge, beautiful and fairytale-like forest, lakes, watchtowers, swans and very confusing paths. We only had time for a few hours here, which unfortunately is not sufficient to see everything, so I look forward to returning in the future to explore that which we were unable to this time.

Returning to Lisbon we had worked up a well-deserved appetite, so we opted to eat in an old neighborhood called Bairro Alto (high neighborhood) which is located on one of Lisbon's hills. It is known for its outdoor dining, Fado clubs, beautiful views of the city, and also its poverty and crime. After weaving our way through the touristy restaurants at the bottom, for those unwilling to climb the hill, and the invitations of owners in the streets to dine at their "very authentic" spots, we found a nice little place that was grilling sardines in the street (they are in season) and couldn't resist. They were hands down the best sardines I have ever had (note: never liked sardines before coming to Europe) and their tastiness was equalled only by Patricia's freshly grilled salmon. We ended the night drinking daqueries at a hoppin Mexican side bar which was surprisingly packed.

Our last day we pretty much spent walking around the main part of town which consists of giant plazas-including the Plaza Comercio, the entrance to the city which boasts one of my favorite European statues-outdoor cafes, bakeries and dozens of people trying to sell you hash and tour bus passes. We ate cod-fish balls, which is a fancy name for fried cod fish, and walked around the old neighborhood where the castle is situated overlooking the city. However, being that we had both visited the castle before, we decided to go to a little wine and cheese cafe that Patricia had visited earlier this year with her friend. Good call, trisha. It was here that we enjoyed a plate of odd cheese assortments, ham, potruguese olives (hands-down the best olives in the world), jam, and Portuguese green wine. That's right, green wine (it's just kinda like a darker white wine, only you feel much cooler when drinking it). Being the generous host that that barman Nuno was, he then offered us a dessert and some 40-year-old Portuguese liquor to wash it down with. It was quite the appropriate end to our 2-day adventure in what is quite possibly my favorite European country. Overlooked by most, Portugal is the only country I have revisited in Europe, and is among the handful of places that I plan to return to throughout my life...everytime I go it just gets better.

Unfortunately, pics will not be able to be posted until I get back to the states. However, I made it back from Morocco alive and well and my Listening Wind entry about that will be coming soon so stay posted.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Future plans

So, the time has come. After nearly 8 months of living in Autol I will have to say farewell in exactly 2 weeks. It's really just hitting me that for the next month or so I will be travelling, non-stop, through 7 different countries before my return to the States. While I have spent the last couple of months trying to get all my ducks in a row, I finally have a concrete (well, maybe wet concrete) plan. Here it is:

-I finish work on the 26th of May. On the 28th my friend Alex and I will be in Barcelona to attend the Primavera Sound Music Festival. I am looking forward to seeing Beach House, Panda Bear, Yeasayer, Major Lazer, Owen Pallet and the Pixies.

-The 30th of May I will head to Barcelona, where I may meet up with maggie Placer, who will be there with friends. I will definitely rendevous with my friend Patricia Duggan, who I met in Granada in December, and we will embark on a 2-week adventure together.

-On the 1st of June we will go to Lisbon for a couple days before returning to Madrid. Although I have been there before, I absolutely love this city.

-On the 4th we will fly to Marrakech, Morocco, and backpack our way to the north of the country, passing through Fes and Tetuoan until we reach the coast where we can catch a ferry back to Spain. I have never been to Morocco, but I must say I am more anxious about this trip than I typically am. I have heard many things about Morocco, some good and some bad, but either way I can't wait to be thrown into such a different culture and soak it up the sites, smells and tastes (well, maybe not so much the smells).

-Upon my return I will have about a week to kill before meeting Clayton. I will most likely go to Granada to chill with Caroline Davis, who will be studying there, and to Salamanca to catch up with Sarah Molbert before she returns to the States.

-On the 18th of June I will fly to Munich, Germany, where I will meet Clayton on the 20th. However, we will not spend much time in Munich-maybe one day-because we have many places to go and people to see.

-First we will head to Salzburg, Austria. I hear nothing but good things about this place, including that it is like a fairytale city. I can't wait to wander the streets, chocolate and beer in hand, and hear Mozart being played in the distance (he is from Salzburg). *Bonus* Nick Shirley, who has been living and teaching English in Austria, may come meet us which, would be awesome. We have been in contact throughout the year but haven't seen each other in years and joining him on his home turf would be quite exciting.

-From there we will head across the country to Vienna which is, if not my favorite, one of my favorite cities in all of Europe. Clay and I will also have a free place to stay-at the flat of this girl named Romy whom I met last time I was there-which will be nice. Plus she can give us a tour of the city and tell us where to eat, go out, etc.

-Next on the list is Budapest, Hungary. I am quite possibly the most excited about this city. I do not know much about it but I can't wait to find out what lies in the heart of traditional Hungarian culture which, from what I hear, still manifests itself in one of the oldest cities in Europe: Budapest. We will spend 3 days here.

-On June 28th we will catch a flight to Amsterdam, where we will spend 2 days. No explination is really necessary when it comes to this city, but I definitely want to rent bikes and bike around the countryside and, uh, drink their coffee.

-After the longest 2 days of our lives we will fly to Galway, Ireland. We have decided to start on the western side of the country in order to visit the Cliffs of Moher (sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, doesn't it?) before busing across Ireland to Dublin, where we will spend a couple days before jumping the pond on the 6th of July.

While some-maybe most-of this is subject to change, I feel pretty good about our itenerary and cannot wait to backpack with my little's gonna be epic.

Nan and Papaw in Spain?!

It was cold. It was wet. It was an atypical affair.

This time last week I found myself in Barcelona, a European summertime hotspot and personally one of my favorite Spanish cities. I had been there a few times in the past; soaking up the welcoming sun, strolling the pedestrian streets filled with performers and artists alike, dragging idly along the miles and miles of inviting beaches decorated with the beautiful people from all over Europe, barhopping with fellow travelers until places started serving breakfast, etc. You know, the typical things one does in a dynamic place such as Barcelona.

This time it was a bit different. This time the sun was perpetually hidden behind blankets of purple and grey clouds, the beaches were as deserted as they probably are on the Gulf Coast, the artists were more concerned with protecting their paintings from the rain rather than creating new ones, and the closest thing I saw to a street performer were the dozens of Moroccan immigrants selling overpriced umbrellas to desperate vacationers. No, this was not the same Barcelona as depicted on post cards and television commercials.

However none of this mattered to me; the external factors took a distant backseat to the real reason I took off work to go to Barcelona on this particular week. The primary purpose of this trip was to rendezvous with my grandparents, Nan and Papaw, for a 2-day stint before they caught a Mediterranean cruise on Wednesday. It was super exciting for me-having the opportunity to meet up with one’s grandparents on the other side of the pond isn’t something that everyone can or will experience-and I was determined to make our 48 hours together special. Besides, they, along with the couple they were with, had never been to Spain.

While the rainy weather deterred us from venturing to the beaches, it did not stop us from hitting several of the cities attractions. We walked down La Rambla-the largest pedestrian street in Barcelona, visited the Sagrada Familia-the still-being-constructed masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi, probably my favorite architect, and even to park Guёll (which Gaudi designed and where he lived).

Also, I was able to avoid the usual diet of Kebobs and street food that I typically have to settle for on a traveler’s budget, and take advantage of the fine dining in a city known for its culinary prowess. I really wanted to introduce to my grandparents and their friends the wonderful food culture that Spain has to offer, which I felt I was able to accomplish on our last night together. It was 5 elderly couples and me, and they basically decided to leave it up to yours truly to find a place to eat. I opted to take them to a tapas bar, where we ate everything from cod fish, bbq’d shrimp, olives, fish salad, calamari, stuffed potatoes and, of course, Spain’s world-famous cured ham. Icing on the cake: we washed it all down with a couple of bottles of red imported from my region. I feel like it was an appropriate ending to a successful and special experience. I hope that Nan and Papaw have a fun and safe cruise. Love you guys.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Es Ist Leiwand!

“Es ist leiwand!” is one of the few German phrases I picked up while in Austria. While we probably over-killed it, it was the phrase that possibly best summed up David and my trip to Central Europe as it literally translates to “this is awesome!”

However, the story really began before even setting foot in the Czech Republic or Austria. Given that our flight was out of Madrid, I decided to go to there a day early and spend the night in a hostel and meet David the following day. The great thing about ‘Catz Hostel’ in Madrid is that is has a downstairs bar/lounge where travellers frequently pregame in order to meet people and have a few drinks. This was not my plan, but I thought I would go down and try to get some reading in (I am currently crawling though Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged). I did not read one page. Instead I sat down at a random table next to a guy who introduced himself as Gaston. Oddly enough, he happened to be from Buenos Aires, where I lived for a summer a few years ago, and so we started chatting. Come to find out, Gaston was actually heading to Prague the next day-on the same flight-and staying at the same hostel as David and me. Being that he was in Europe by himself, it only made since for this Argentine to join David and I in our beer and sausage-filled Prague adventure.

As if this wasn’t enough of a coincidence, we actually met a handful of Argentines at our hostel our first night in Prague who Gaston had gone to school with in the past (small world, huh?). Being that it was their last night in the city and our first, they decided to take us, along with a couple of Brazilian and Dominican girls, to one of the most famous clubs in the city: a five-story dance club called “Lavka”, which is located on the Vltava river. Each floor blasts different musical themes and styles, ranging from 70’s disco to rock to modern-day electronic. Let’s just say it was an appropriate way to start the trip.

The next few days pretty much consisted of David and I taking advantage of the extremely cheap beer and local cuisine (which included everything from an array of sausages, fried cheese and mayo sandwiches, Czech-style pork dishes, and pizza). The main sites we saw were the famous Charles Bridge, the Main Square with the famous astronomical cuckoo-style clock tower, and the impressively unique Prague Castle. We also rented bikes one day and cruised throughout most of the city, exploring parts that we would not have ventured to on foot.

However, despite the picturesque views and impressive architecture that Prague boasts, it has become, over the years, renowned for its nightlife. During the four-day stretch David and I went everywhere from Jazz clubs, underground tavern-style bars, a 90’s-themed dance club, and even a bar in which each table has its own tap and digitally records on a monitor how many litres of beer you have consumed. In fact, at this one particular tap-at-the-table bar, David, Gaston and I were just about the only people there (it was a Monday), aside from a group of about 25 middle-aged Thai women who were celebrating a bacheloret party of come kind; very awkward and a pretty uncomfortable (they were hitting on us), but pretty entertaining nevertheless.

The next day we headed south to Vienna, Austria. Being that it is quite an expensive city, we decided not to stay in a hostel but to Couch Surf instead. We stayed at the apartment of a girl named Sara Schamat, who is from Vienna and is studying at the university there. One of the great things about Couch Surfing is that you get to see a different side of a city, one that the locals know about and which tourists spend weeks or months trying to discover. It helps that the people are genuinely friendly and for the most part speak perfect English, as they must begin to study the language at the age of six. They also are very well educated about their history, especially WWII history. In fact, someone told us that if you attend a university you will end up taking about 8 years of World War II history throughout your life. It almost seemed as if there existed an underlying feeling of guilt that still resonated throughout the contemporary Austrian culture, which I found to be quite interesting.

So we hung out with Sara’s friends at local markets, plazas and bars while they showed us around the city, telling us where to go and what to eat. They also introduced us to one of my favorite things about Vienna: they have a beer delivery service. Yes, that’s right, you heard correctly. In Vienna, there is a delivery system that mirrors that of pizza in the US, except it’s with beer-probably one of the greatest concepts I have experienced since being on the other side of the pond. Is also noteworthy that Austrian beer is among the best in Europe; I’ll just say we didn’t see many people drinking cocktails while we were there.

Aside from the eating, drinking, and hanging out with locals, the actual city is exceptionally impressive. It boasts some of the most beautiful architecture in Europe and, for a large city, is very clean. In fact, it is the greenest city in all of Europe and has been voted as the number one place to live in the world for two consecutive years, and the reasons, as you can see, are quite obvious.

However, there is a very interesting juxtaposition between the old and the new in Vienna, as contemporary art can be found next to and inside classical buildings as well as the existence of random establishments such as the “Anal Bar” and “Sperm help-desk” (both of which are probably designed to look a little too realistic) in plazas surrounded by fancy cafes and contemporary art museums. Yet, it only seems appropriate for it to be this way, as Vienna itself seemed to me to be a city of contrasts. There are obvious contrasts that exist between the locals and the Turkish immigrants, between the lingering WWII hangover and foresight to be one of the most modern cities in the western world, and, like so many European countries today, between the old and traditional generation and that of the 21st century.

*I would also like to thank everyone for the birthday wishes. In Spain, the tradition is to pull the ears of the birthday boy/girl: one pull for each year they have. Yesterday afternoon when I returned home my ears were red and my e-mail was full, and that meant a lot to me.