Scottish Highlands

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The day after Christmas, Connor and I loaded up a rental car and took off for the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. After a full day driving, we arrived near Lochgoilhead and settled into one of the best Airbnbs of the last couple years. Our hosts converted an old stable into a gorgeous eco tiny home (she is an architect) and it’s now a Grade II listed building. Fresh baked sourdough, a fire in the stove, piles of wool blankets, and a puppy named Pixie greeted us. We immediately regretted not booking the place for more than two nights. Continue reading “Scottish Highlands”

Scottish Highlands

Affording a European Adventure

View from our window
View from our Airbnb in a fancy Paris neighborhood

Without further ado, let’s talk about affording travel in Europe. Why? Because it often feels financially impossible or irresponsible to travel extensively, but I think some of the lessons Connor and I have learned may be helpful for other (non-millionaire) people who want to travel. Secondly, I want to dispel any myths that this stint is being paid for by someone other than yours truly + hubs (it’s not), or that we’re taking on debt in order to travel (over my dead body).

The biggest obstacle for Americans who want to see Europe is usually the price of airfare. The initial flight over can be a bear, but with more airlines dropping prices and introducing new routes, it’s getting a bit easier. If you want to take a trip abroad and haven’t added Condé Nast Traveler to your Apple News app, I suggest you do so. They seem to announce a new $399 USA to Europe route every other week. Once you have that sorted, it’s up to you whether you hemorrhage money abroad or stay on par with your usual living expenses. We’re a one-income household at the moment and having no trouble making this affordable. Here’s how we’re doing it.

3 ways we afford travel

1. Planning & Researching

TripAdvisor is your friend. So is RyanAir. Once you’re in Europe, hopping a cheap flight to a new city is a piece of cake. European budget airlines generally charge more for checked luggage than your airfare, and their prices are pretty set, unlike flights in the States that are all over the place. Opt only for carry-on luggage (yes, seriously!), book in advance, and marvel at the number of flights you can get for under £15. To be fair, we rarely have our act together that far in advance, but the cheap seats are there for the taking.

TripAdvisor user forums are loaded with sightseeing secrets that save you time, money, and aggravation. Many museums and touristy things offer free entry on certain days. In the UK, its better to avoid official visitor’s centers and parking lots that charge you for the convenience. Check out TripAdvisor for your destination and plan your trip around the advice in the forums. The restaurant reviews are also helpful, and we always seek out the tiny authentic places on side streets. The food is always tastier and more affordable than what you find on busy streets or the main square. In Rome we had dinner and a drink for the price of the drink. This stuff isn’t hard to find, you just need to look past your guidebook.

Finally, familiarize yourself with public transportation options and avoid taxis! Unless you need to be at the airport at 5am.

Barcelona
Tiny side streets in Barcelona. This is where you should be looking for your next meal!
2. Airbnb

Renting an apartment has changed the travel game for us. Why pay for a tiny, dark hotel bedroom when you can rent an entire apartment with living room, kitchen, and private terrace for less money? We can do laundry if needed (carry-on only, after all), shop at markets and make a few meals instead of eating out constantly, and experience local living. We’ve met some of the nicest people when picking up apartment keys. Imagine you’re in downtown Chicago and your hotel recommends deep dish pizza or Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse for dinner. Then imagine staying with a friend in the same city and experiencing their neighborhood’s non-touristy gems. You’d probably eat the best tacos of your life and end the night at a microbrewery. Which sounds more fun and authentic to you? Airbnb hosts are invaluable.

View from our Airbnb
View of the ocean and traditional Portuguese tiles on our private porch in the Algarve. Thank you, Airbnb.
3. Living Simply

We are not living a fancy life. Our travel memories and time together have made us feel richer than a Lord in a Manor House, and that’s what is important to us in this season of life. We’ve learned there’s quite a bit we can do without, and simplifying has opened up so many possibilities to see and experience new things. We’ve learned to focus on what we truly value and started to recognize what bogs us down. What can you cut out to make room for travel, new experiences, or whatever is next on the horizon?

Things we’ve eliminated include TV and cable, “I made it through the work day I deserve a reward” syndrome, and superfluous home decor items. Our Ikea collection is slowly but surely destroying my back and neck, but whatever. I shouldn’t be sitting at home often enough to care. I’m almost cured of the very contagious Michigan Avenue Shopping Flu. I no longer need moral support from Chick-Fil-A milkshakes and coffee just to get through the day. When your surroundings are simple and peaceful, you have less to worry about, are less tied down, and more free to get up and go. More sunsets, less Netflix, amiright?? And honestly, learning to live without helps prepare you for what you’ll experience in new countries. The American way of living is very cushy and full of conveniences, but in Europe…

So cut out some pointless expenses, take a look at flights to your dream destination, and start planning! I apologize in advance for the constant pop-ups on TripAdvisor.

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Affording a European Adventure

Unplugging in Portugal’s Algarve

After a hectic summer, I started to feel like I needed a vacation from myself. Have you ever experienced that? Like you need to get away from your habits and unconscious thought processes, turn your phone off, empty your brain, and just exist. My head is so filled with random travel information and my neurons haven’t figured out a proper way to file everything. Junk is just floating around up there. I needed to get away from technology and the (self-imposed) pressure to fully take advantage of our time abroad, and just go bliss out in the sun with a good book (not a guidebook). And so, with Hemingway and Amor Towles in my reading queue, Connor and I flew to Portugal to celebrate our 4th anniversary.

Quarteira iPhone

Straw sun shades

The Algarve is a popular destination for the sun-starved English, and we’d heard of the parties and clubbing and restaurants that specifically cater to British tourists. But where there is a sea, there is usually fishing, and somewhere there had to be a quiet fishing village full of locals, peace, and quiet. Normally, the west end of the Algarve would have been our obvious choice – rocky, rough, good hiking, surfing. But, we didn’t want to rent a car and the bus routes were unclear online. So we stayed in lovely Quarteira, just west of Faro, easily reachable by taxi from the airport. We swam in the ocean everyday, huddled under a sun umbrella with our books, ate breakfast on our balcony looking out at the water, and enjoyed amazing seafood. The town was super walkable, it was sunny everyday, and extremely hot. Also, Vinho Verde. Slightly sparkling, crisp and acidic, I’ve found my new favorite summer wine.

Quarteira from the water

Igreja de São Pedro do Mar, Quarteira

PS – the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are my go-to sources for quick lessons on the wines of Europe. It’s detailed enough to satisfy my OCD need for all the information but not so detailed that I’m overwhelmed. If you’re horrified to learn this and want to point me toward a more oenophilic publication, be my guest.

One afternoon we wandered to the neighboring village and hopped on a sailboat that took us past Albufeira (party central, if you’re interested), aiming for the the hidden beaches and neon turquoise coves carved into the rocky cliffs. Talk about beautiful… the crew helped us into a little dingy and we zoomed in and out of caves, ducking our heads to avoid the low rocks and marveling at the colors. This was definitely a highlight of the trip and I was tempted to ask Connor if he wanted to do it again the next day. For only 18€ we had 3+ hours on a catamaran, fabulous views of the coast from the water, and little tours of sea caves. Kind of felt like stealing. It also felt like something that would be a lawsuit in the States – getting people in and out of those dingys and making sure no one was decapitated in the caves…

Quarteira iPhone

Yes, I bought myself a new hat in honor of our anniversary. That ratty old Marquette hat that I’ve been wearing everywhere is like a scarlet letter for American College Student. Connor’s anniversary gift was a bathing suit (“swimming costume” in England) since he apparently decided he wouldn’t be needing one in Europe and therefore didn’t pack one. Fun times looking for men’s bathing suits on Amazon UK. Brace yourself. Actually, don’t even go there. #scarredforlife

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Overall, everything in Quarteira was very affordable. For under 50, we had a feast of sardines, sea bass, acorn-fed pork from the Alentejo, an excellent bottle of wine, and bread. Sardines are popular in the area, and we’d see locals carrying big bags out of the fish market every morning, so naturally I had to try them. They were fantastic!

Quarteira iPhone

We spent a night in Faro before heading home and the city surprisingly empty. Almost everything was closed, including the Chapel of Bones church I wanted to see. It was Sunday so I’m not sure why this was the case. Perhaps it had something to do with the intense heat. Empty streets make for efficient wandering, so we saw quite a bit and then chatted with a nice man who owned a Portuguese craft beer shop. He introduced us to a few of his faves and that was that! It was the perfect unplugged getaway, especially since sightseeing material is sparse.

Old Castle and Cactus

Exploring Faro

The Portuguese were some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and they made us feel so welcome. Hope to make it to Lisbon and Fatima someday!

Sunset

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Unplugging in Portugal’s Algarve

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

Planning a short trip to a new and epic city is always a bit daunting. NYC, London, Rome… PARIS… I want to see as many of the iconic sites as possible, but also spend time away from tourists, mingling with the locals and experiencing their favorite corners of the busy streets. Finding this balance in a short trip is challenging, and my list of must-sees in Paris was much longer than I could tackle in 2 days. But we managed to see a lot for almost no money thanks to one simple decision. We rented bikes!!

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Biking at the Louvre

Budget friendly, efficient, scenic… biking in Paris was so so fun!!

We used the bike sharing scheme called Vélib’ which has more than 14k bicycles available for grab and go rides. A 24-hour pass for unlimited bike rentals was about 1.70. Crazy cheap! Type in your user code at one of the machines, pick out a bike, and it’s yours for free for the next 30 minutes. Every time you check out a bike, the first 30 minutes are free, and you can do this as many times as you want. We used Vélib’ constantly and it was so simple and easy. It was also the only time we felt a breeze while in Paris. Try it and you’ll be amazed at all the ground you can cover!

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Biking at the Louvre

We woke up very early on Saturday to see some of the big stuff before the other tourists were awake and swarming. Despite our lack of sleep, this was definitely a good choice. We biked along the Seine and stopped to return the bikes and wander whenever we saw something we wanted to check out. It was early enough that the sun hadn’t baked the city to a crisp and the only cars were delivery trucks and a few taxis. We visited Notre Dame, the Louvre & Jardin des Tuileries, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées and the Petit Palais all before lunch. The city is gorgeous and packed with fabulous buildings, and I know we biked by other significant things that in my ignorance I can’t name. We had second breakfast at a cafe, grabbed lunch to go, and enjoyed a midday siesta at our Airbnb. The joke’s on all those other tourists gritting it out in the sweltering sun, dodging elbows and dudes selling tchotchkes.

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Unknown Beautiful Building #1. I think it’s a library.
The Louvre
the Louvre
Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars
Eiffel Tower from Champ de Mars
Arc de Triumph
Arc de Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
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Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries

After a nap, another cup of coffee, and a shower, we went to Saturday evening Mass at Notre Dame. Confession: this was one of those “pinch me” moments that was so moving and overwhelming that I’m really at a loss for words. I had some kind of a “moment” and I should probably take some time to process whatever it is that went down, because I just couldn’t keep it together once we were inside the cathedral. It’s like I stepped through the door into a cloud of emotion that was completely unexpected and overwhelming in its intensity. I was not PMSing, drunk, or tired, thankyouverymuch. I just felt this profound sense of gratitude… for my life, faith, wonderful husband, the many eye opening experiences of the past year, my sister’s recent engagement, the fact that I was basically standing in the World Headquarters of Mary, Inc., and so much more. It’s like the realization of this crazy beautiful life I’m living hit me in the face. Each time I think back on that evening I can’t help but tear up all over again.

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In John XXIII Square before Mass
Inside Notre Dame
Interior of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
Notre Dame de Paris

So that happened. Then we had dinner on the Seine at a great place Connor found that was a secret little local hangout. It took forever to find, and was completely worth the trouble. We shared a table with another couple and enjoyed a mini jazz concert going on in the background. After dinner and some wandering we plunked down on the Seine like everyone else and feasted on wine, Camembert, apples and crackers.

Ready for our picnic
Picnic on the Seine
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Dusk

We ended the day with a walk back to Le Marais where we were staying (fab neighborhood, Jewish Quarter, straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements) and saw the glittering Eiffel Tower from a bridge. The little dude knows how to sparkle, let me tell you.

Sunday morning we walked around Place des Vosges, a beautiful little square around the corner from our apartment, also former home of Victor Hugo and a bunch of fancy Frenchmen whose names do not ring a bell.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges
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Place des Vosges

We biked over to Musée d’Orsay and guess what!? No line! Fun fact about me: I can’t stand lines. Or queues, as I’ve learned to call them. There are very few things that I consider worth queuing for. Museums and tourist things are generally no where close to being on that list.

Musee d'Orsay - Sunday morning adventure
Musée d’Orsay

I do, however, have a soft spot for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art so I’m glad my patience wasn’t tested that morning. (Before you feel sorry for Connor, he enjoys this genre, too. Also, he didn’t suggest any alternatives…) Musée d’Orsay has a really robust collection and to say we were impressed is an understatement. I’ve never seen so many Degas sculptures in one place in my life! And the Monets on display were so diverse. The more I check out the work of Impressionists in the cities we visit, the more I love them. (RE: the Louvre. I couldn’t spend half our trip in a single museum. Maybe next time.) We narrowed our museum options down to the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay. l’Orangerie is the smaller museum famous for the oval rooms designed by Monet and covered in his waterlily murals. I’d love to see that someday, too.

We visited some shops that afternoon including the legendary English bookstore Shakespeare and Co. that I think every English major has on her bucket list. The current store is a descendant of the one Sylvia Beach opened on Paris’ left bank that was a haven for writers and would-be-writers that closed during the Nazi occupation. The eccentric George Whitman opened the existing store that is now run by his daughter, Sylvia, and it continues the tradition of providing a home for Tumbleweeds in exchange for help at the store. I fully intended to purchase something here but they marked up the prices so drastically I couldn’t justify it. Instead, I bought a paintbrush from Charvin Arts. I hoped to make it to Sennelier where Picasso, Cézanne, and others shopped for supplies, but again, next time!

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Shakespeare and Co

We mostly wandered little streets for the rest of the day, ate macaroons, relaxed in some gardens, saw the Louvre one last time, and had a delicious dinner.

iPhone Paris
Sunset at the Louvre

Be forewarned if you visit Paris in August; you need to be flexible because August Closures are a real thing! But don’t avoid the city because of this. More than enough is open that you could stay busy for months!

Paris & a Fab Way to See a Big City in a Weekend

4 Days in Western Ireland

Months ago, our friends Andrew and Melanie invited us to spend a day or two with them while they honeymooned on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Naturally, we jumped at the chance to see them! We added a couple extra days to the trip so we could see the Cliffs of Moher and maybe a town or two, leaving our itinerary open so we could be spontaneous.

We drove from Dublin to Limerick and pulled into our Airbnb well after midnight. Our hostess’ name was Sadhbh (love it) and she could not have been more welcoming. She must have said “grand” twenty five times in the span of five minutes. We were sorry to crash and dash since she was so kind, but we wanted to make it to the Cliffs of Moher the next day before lunchtime. A failed study-abroad experience in Ireland taught me that if you look out the window and see a dry Ireland, get your butt moving because it won’t last until your next meal. I think its the only place with weather more miserable than England. Which must be why they paint all their buildings in bright, cheerful colors.

Colorful Dingle

We did a drive-by of Limerick’s city center along the River Shannon, saw King James’ Castle, and grabbed coffees and a smoothie from Arabica Coffee Co. on Shannon Street. We highly recommend this place if you’re a coffee lover and find yourself in Limerick! Then we hit the cliffs.

Major travel tip: you can easily avoid the crowds and ridiculous per person “entrance” fee to the cliffs viewing area by parking somewhere other than the official Cliffs of Moher welcome center. We parked at a farm south of the official entrance for 2 euro and then had a glorious hike along the entire south arm of the cliffs. This was the best weather we had for the entire trip, and the views were stunning. If you’re traveling with children, be aware that there are no fences or guard rails. You can get as close as you dare to the edge…

Western Ireland iPhone

Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

Visiting the Cliffs of Moher

Western Ireland iPhone

On the way to Dingle that afternoon, we accidentally took the scenic route through Conor Pass, a twisty narrow road up and down a mountain, not really wide enough for two-way traffic. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t see beyond the car in front of us, but the few glimpses we caught of the mountain were breathtaking. And so begins my repetitive narrative about our time in Dingle. I’m sure it was all beautiful, but we couldn’t see a thing.

Western Ireland iPhone

We had a great dinner in town that evening with our friends and the next day the four of us drove around the peninsula to see some ancient sites and ruins. Half of these were not worth the entrance fee, but to be fair, if the weather was nicer, I’m sure each site would have provided beautiful views of the sea and countryside. If you plan to do this driving tour in bad weather, skip the hill fort and random stone piles and opt instead for the largely intact structures like the Gallarus Oratory…

Gallarus Oratory

Kilmalkedar Church (ruins with cemetery)…

Church door

and Fahan Beehive Huts…

Western Ireland iPhone

Each site has a little Irish boy sitting in a booth or playing with his dog ready to collect 2-3 euro per person before sending you through to the sites.

Connor and I stayed in a perfect little flat on a sheep farm 2 miles outside of Dingle Town owned by a woman from Missouri and her Irish husband. Their Airbnb listing mentions:

We are farmers, so we are early to bed and early to rise. The apartment is directly over our bedroom, so if your lifestyle means you don’t know night from day then booking our accommodation might not be suitable… for you or for us.

Noted! Combined with the little signs of scary leprechauns sprinkled throughout the flat reminding visitors to remove shoes, turn off lights, unplug computers, etc we decided our hosts were either grumpy or funny. Later, Jan invited us to a drop in music session at a pub where she would be playing. She asked if we played instruments and said we could borrow some of hers! Naturally, I pressured Connor to seize the day. Playing in a pub in the motherland with a bunch of long lost kin!!! DO IT! Eventually he agreed. So what if it was actually bluegrass music, and the guitar was out of tune… Jan was our new favorite person.

Western Ireland iPhone

When we left Dingle we decided to drive the Ring of Kerry before heading to our next Airbnb on another farm outside of Killarney. Once again, the fog prevented us from seeing anything. We had 1.5 moments of clarity, and here are the pictures to prove it.

Driving the Ring of Kerry

Western Ireland iPhone

I’m actually surprised how many decent photos we ended up with from this trip. It was rainy and foggy every day except the morning at the cliffs. Too wet and foggy to hike. Fishing charters were cancelled. To sum it up:

Western Ireland iPhone

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4 Days in Western Ireland

2 Days in Bruges

Bruges is a magnificently preserved Medieval town in Northern Belgium, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fabulous place to spend a long weekend. One of the first things we noticed was that Bruges is incredibly clean. No pigeons, which means no poop riddled buildings and nothing to trip over in the main squares, no garbage on the streets, no graffiti, impeccably maintained buildings, and very fresh air. We’ve become accustomed to the smokey atmosphere of Europe, the garage door-like shop fronts usually covered in graffiti, and some element of crumbling buildings since everything is just so old. Those things are part of the charm of Europe, but Bruges seems like a fairy tale in comparison.

St. Janshospitaal & Memlingmuseum
St-Janshospitaal and the Memlingmuseum

Markt
The Markt, center of Bruges

The wealth of Bruges came from their position as an important trading center and manufacturer of textiles, especially wool and eventually lace, and was a thriving market city until the 1400s. The city was constantly at odds with their overlords, especially the French, and continually fought for independence. In the 1300s, Jan Breydel (a local butcher, how fitting) and a friend led an uprising against the French remembered today as the Bruges Matins. Their group of guildsmen knocked on doors all around the city, and if the inhabitants were unable to correctly pronounce a national phrase “shield and friend” they were murdered. Basically, if you had a French accent, it was over. A statue of Jan Breydel and his buddy holds a prominent place in Bruges’ Markt square, and the Bruges football stadium is named after Jan.

Markt Statue and the Belfort
Left: Statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. Right: The Belfort, or belfry. One of the city’s most prominent buildings in the Markt

Some time later in the 1400s, the people of Bruges were fed up with the Hapsburg empire so they kidnapped the heir and imprisoned him for 4 months. Pretty bold move for such a small city. The angry Hapsburgs ordered Bruges to tear down their city walls, and today, the only part of the walls that remain are 4 gate houses. They also ordered the city to keep and take care of swans… something about “long necks” translating to the same word as the last name of a friend of the Hapsburgs who was executed by men from Bruges. This was the beginning of the end for the city, and because it fell in prominence, it was left untouched by both world wars. Tourism picked up again as people visiting Waterloo passed by the town, and today the city seems to have a love/hate relationship with tourists. Day-trippers from Brussels are insufferable and they crowd the tiny streets, so staying overnight is essential if you want to soak up the magic of the canals without selfie stick people all up in your business.

Ezelpoort Gate
Ezelpoort gate/bridge near our Airbnb

We joined the Bruges free walking tour on Saturday morning and it was excellent, as usual. At the end of the tour our guide handed out coupons for free beers at a Trappist bar, a discount on waffles, and I made sure to ask for advice on buying chocolate. We took all his suggestions and they did not disappoint.

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Church of Our Lady

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Church of Our Lady. Its tower is the 2nd tallest brick tower in the world
Begijnhof
The Begijnhof. Former home of a women’s lay religious community.
Minnewater, or the Lake of Love
Minnewater Lake, the lake of love

The tour ended in the Burg, the square adjacent to the main Markt center. We went inside the Stadhuis (City Hall) and checked out its Gothic Hall, which is gorgeous. The Burg is the administrative center of Bruges and the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica) is tucked away in one of the corners. The chocolate shop recommended by our guide was here (Chocolaterie de Burg), as well as the most amazing waffle truck in the history of the world. We had waffles covered in chocolate sauce for lunch.

Stadhuis
Stadhuis
Gotische Zaal, or Gothic Hall
Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis

Happy girl with her waffle

In the evening we tried the house beers at Cambrinus bar and then went to Le Trappiste Bruges and redeemed our drink coupons. There is such ceremony in the presentation of Belgian beers! They scrape the foam off the top with a tool that looks like a letter opener, and there’s usually a snack to compliment the drink. I tried a lambic at Le Trappiste and the bottle was served in its own little basket. We had a fun time chatting with the bartenders at Le Trappiste and taking their advice. There are a few cellar bars around Bruges and Le Trappiste was one of them. Really really cool.

Cambrinus
Cambrinus bar, my lambic in a basket, the giant book of beers at Cambrinus, and the house brews
Cellar bars
Left: Connor by the tiny door into ‘t Poatersgat. Right: Inside Le Trappiste Bruges cellar bar

On Sunday we went to mass at the Basilica which is a lot smaller than I was expecting. It was a bit unusual in that the wall frescoes were very patriotic. The repeating pattern on the walls featured swans, a symbol of the city since the 1400s, and there was a giant fresco of the man who brought a relic of the Blood of Christ back to Bruges after the Crusades.

Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges
Heilig-Bloedbasiliek

After mass we had some more waffles since they were sooo good and then took a boat tour through the canals. We learned about the stepped gables of the houses – the more steps you had, the richer you were. The number of windows on your house also indicated your level of wealth. At one time there was a window tax, and many people filled in some of the windows on their homes to reduce the tax they had to pay. Only the wealthy were able to afford to keep all their windows. 

Notice all the filled in windows and the number of steps on the roof
Neighbors would try to outdo each other in the stepped gables game
Church of Our Lady seen from the boat tour
Church of Our Lady seen from the canals

After the boat tour we checked out a brewery that recently opened along a canal, but they wouldn’t let us sit outside unless we ate lunch, and we had already eaten waffles, so that was not a good plan. It was warm and sunny so we walked east to see the old windmills in the St-Anna district. They are still used to grind grain but I don’t believe they are in their original locations. There used to be quite a few of these in Bruges, but I believe there are only 4 or so left.

St-Janshospitaal. Look at all those small panes of glass! Beautiful!
Molen, Windmills
Windmill/Molen

We walked past Jeruzalemkerk, a church that was built to imitate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and went inside a stunning old church with massive framed paintings on the walls. Our canal guide said there are 22 churches in Bruges and 21 are Catholic. I didn’t fact check that, but it’s a lot of churches for a small place.

That evening, we visited Connor’s favorite bar of the trip. De Garre is tucked into an alley off one of the main streets full of chocolate shops; one of those streets where your eyes can’t help but jump from one tempting chocolate display to the next, glazing over whatever may fall between.

De Garre. Thanks for the cheese!!

Dinner was outside at a little cafe, followed by a brief visit to ‘t Poatersgat cellar bar, which means Monk Hole. ‘t Poatersgat was cute, mostly because of its teeny door half submerged below ground, but I preferred Le Trappiste Bruges. Better service and beer presentation.

And that’s that! The trip back to England on Monday morning was uneventful, and we stopped in Dover to see the cliffs and break up the drive. I’ll post cliff pics next week! Happy Fri-yay peeps!

2 Days in Bruges

5 Days in Barcelona

Two days before we left for Barcelona we discovered that our flight home was on Wednesday, not Tuesday as we had originally thought. Cue ridiculous surge of excitement! A bonus day! With 5 whole days at our disposal we decided to try to have a more relaxing trip and not cram in a million museums. I was fine with this since I could get my art fix by walking around and looking at architecture. I did hope to see the Picasso Museum, but if you don’t leave something for next time, there will never be a next time. Amiright?

I’ll be as brief as I can here, but 5 days in a FABULOUS city is a lot of material, especially at the pace we’ve set for ourselves. PS: if anyone has a Mac version of Photoshop they want to give me, I can shorten these posts up by doing some sizing/combining work on all the images. Just want to throw that out there.

We arrived late on Thursday, and had great luck catching the last train out of the airport into the city. This time I followed the signs instead of running like a fool in all the wrong directions. Barcelona’s public transport system is really great and we used it all week. Very affordable, too, if you buy the T-10 ticket from any of the machines in any of the metro stations. It’s a 10-ride that can be used by multiple people, priced under 10 euro.

Day 1: Friday was Good Friday and we had 9am tickets to Sagrada Familia, so we were up early and over to the basilica before the crowds. Definitely a good choice. By the time we left it was crawling with people and not as peaceful as when we arrived. Entry tickets are rather expensive, but after you’re inside you don’t care about that anymore. Also, the ticket sales are helping fund the construction of the basilica, and the city is very open about this being a community effort. Gaudi, the famous architect who died in 1926, ran out of money for the project so he went door to door in Barcelona begging for contributions. Usually I’m averse to church entrance fees, but paying to help build a church? I can get behind that. Especially if it’s as awesome as this one. Connor and I agreed this is one of the most stunning buildings we’ve ever seen. The detail is incredible and varied. One facade looks like a drippy sandcastle. Another is polished and bone-like. The inside is built to resemble a forest and the ceiling looks like palm fronds. All the light inside is natural, and Gaudi took great pains to ensure the interior was neither too bright nor too dark; he described each extreme as blinding. The doors and windows are magnificent, and the colors inside change as the light shifts through the stained glass. Don’t skip Sagrada Familia if you visit Barcelona.

Sagrada Familia  Sagrada Familia The Scourging at the Pillar Sagrada Familia Sagrada Familia

We went up into one of the towers (there will be 18 but only 8 are completed at the moment) which gave us a great view over the city and an up-close look at some of the basilica details. There’s a lift to take you up into the tower, but the way down is all you – lots of spiraling stairs. I tried to SnapChat this while walking and that was stupid.

 More spiral stairs

Our tickets included an audio guide and while nice to have, it was too simple for my taste. I ended up reading about the basilica quite a bit that evening and after arriving back in England. I would recommend skipping the provided audio guide, reading before you visit, and taking along a simple printed guide to orient your time there. I’m sure there are free podcast episodes somewhere too, but I didn’t look into it.

We also visited the crypt beneath the main basilica and a museum-like area that contains models, sketches, and items related to building the church. You can see into the workshops where artists and architects do their thing. I enjoyed this glimpse into artist life immensely. The crypt is accessed through a separate entrance, no tickets needed. Mass is held here until the basilica is completed.

Later, we made our way towards Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian drag into the city. We stopped at a few buildings designed by Gaudi and other Modernisme gems along the way. Modernisme architecture is really fascinating. So colorful and fun. The lines to enter these buildings were quite long, and after being inside all morning we were grateful for an excuse to skip out.

La Pedrera Casa Batlló Casa Amatller

Our goal for the evening was to catch a Good Friday procession. Holy Week in Spain, or Semana Santa, is full of festivities and I was so looking forward to this. Very different from anything back home. We had a rough idea of where processions were leaving from, but no idea what route they took and where we should go to see this happening. Then it started raining and I was miserable without a rain coat. We took shelter in the closest open building, the Cathedral, and went through the Holy Door. At this point it was around 6pm and we were exhausted from having only 5 or 6 hours of sleep the night before, so we decided to skip the parade situation. I was disappointed, but also had no idea where to go. I was envisioning some spectacle similar to Dia de los Muertos that would be tough to miss, but that was not the case.

Pictures of the Cathedral, Placa Reial, and an initial wander through Barri Gotic are up on Flickr. I am backing up my photos there and have little narrative comments on some of the pictures so I don’t forget anything. Everything is in chronological order. You’re welcome to have a browse if you like more pictures than words.

Day 2: Saturday was a long, busy, and very fun day. We started at Parc Ciutadella, built in the 1800s and the only green space in the city for many years. Fountains, little boating lakes, museums, walking paths, gardens, a zoo… lots to see. We packed a lunch and wandered for awhile.

Barcelona Fountain in Ciutadella Park

That afternoon we took a break at a restaurant outside Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th century Gothic church in the Ribera district. We checked out the church once it opened again in the late afternoon and explored the El Born area for awhile. Santa Maria del Mar is so unlike Sagrada Familia and gorgeous in a totally different way. Just massive, very Gothic, beautiful windows, but no superfluous detail.

In my Top 10 Most Beautiful Churches list Stained Glass in Santa Maria del Mar the beautiful Passeig del Born

Next we went to Mercado de la Boqueria, the huge, popular, main market off Las Ramblas, and very very crowded. We picked up some olives to snack on (soooo delicious!!) and I wanted to buy something from everyone. Spanish sausage, olives, tapas, wine, fruit, FISH, so much fish. The only thing stopping me was the crowds, honestly. Also the image of raw fish in my purse.

Then we went to the water!! Sunshine!!! We had our first successful barter experience of the trip when Connor decided he wanted sunglasses from one of the sidewalk dudes. He mimed that he needed some extra large glasses, so they would fit his head. (“Cabeza grande,” I offered. Their Spanish was worse than ours.) Not the most successful conversation. We moved on and at the next sunglasses dude, we offered half what the first guy was charging and Connor walked away with some slick new shades.

Made it to the beach! Impressive sandcastles! There's fire on the top!

Barcelona has great shopping… many small places selling handmade, really unique, quality items. I’m not exactly a shopper, but I had quite the list of places that I wouldn’t mind popping into if we happened by, including an ancient candle shop, La Manual Alpargatera (traditional espadrilles), and a beautiful shop selling Spanish masks made on site. The masks were disappointingly far outside my price range, but the espadrilles were not! You pick a number, tell them your size and color when your number is called, and off you go. While I waited I watched a lady stitching up a new pair in the roped-off workshop.

Tada! Legendary La Manual Alpargatera!

Later on, we had tapas and awesome Spanish wine at Zona d’Ombra (very very good! one of the best places for local wine in the city), then we went to a flamenco show at Los Tarantos in Placa Reial. Shows were only 30 minutes and more affordable than the fancy theatres. While it caters to tourists, it’s definitely a good option if you want espadrilles AND flamenco but don’t want to devote your whole evening to dinner and a show. Such a fun way to experience this piece of Spanish culture!

Goodies at Zona d'Ombra Flamenco!

Day 3: Sunday we checked out Montjuic, a hilly area south of the city where the Catalonian history museum, Font Magica, and Montjuic Castle are located. There are great walking and biking trails, beautiful gardens, some restaurants and cafes, and quite a bit we didn’t have time to see. The fountains were beautiful and we had another picnic in one of the gardens. The Volta Catalunya cycling race took place in Montjuic that day and we watched and cheered for the cyclists for awhile. I’ve never seen a live bike race and it was very exciting!

Despite my weak protestations, we took the funicular down the hill because we were tired. It’s just a stupid gondola and way too expensive. 10 euro or something each for a 5 minute gondola ride. Skip this for sure.

Barcelona  Racers! Montjuïc Castle

We walked from Montjuic back towards the beach for an hour’s rest, and then went to Easter mass at the cathedral. It wasn’t swimming weather by any means, but sitting on the sand and staring at the water was so refreshing and glorious. Evidently we weren’t the only people to flee gloomy Britain during the Easter holiday. We saw many British families sleeping on the beach, kiddos playing in the water even though it was freezing, and all of us had sunburns by the end of the long weekend.

Barceloneta BeachEaster Mass at the Cathedral

Day 4: Monday was wine tour day! Catalonia produces the vast majority of the world’s cava (sparkling wine, fermented in the bottle like champagne) and Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is the region just outside Barcelona that churns out more cava than anywhere else. Neither Connor nor I had ever visited a vineyard and we had a great time on this excursion. Freixenet is the major producer in the area, and they have a combined train ticket/winery tour deal that is really great value. At the train station, you buy a “Freixetren” ticket and off you go. Tours need to be reserved via email in advance but you buy the combined ticket in person at the train station on the day of. (Ignore my usage of vineyard/winery/producer/whatever. I realize they are all different and no, I don’t really care.)

As it happens, champagne and cava are made exactly the same way, and all the rules apply about only being allowed to label yourself as cava/champagne if you are using the specific grapes that grow in that specific region. After fermentation, the wine is bottled and a secondary fermentation takes place in order to carbonate the wine (like beer! who knew?!) and eventually they remove the sediment by reopening the bottles. Crazy! There’s a whole process of rotating and tipping the bottles upside down over the course of months to get all the sediment to settle in the right place, and then they freeze the neck of the bottle (the reason for the bottle’s unique shape), pop open the cork, shoot out the ice cube with the sediment trapped inside, and then re-cork the bottle. Sorry if you already knew this. I did not. Super fascinating, and the tasting at the end was delicious.

Freixenet Cava Tour Freixenet Cava Tour Freixenet Cava Tour

Freixenet has something like 15-20km of tunnels, and 3 or 4 different floors or levels all underground. It was a total maze and so gigantic. Our tour guide had to go find a few other girls who had wandered off. Very easy to get lost.

We decided to turn the day into tasting day, so we also visited Mikkeller Bar Barcelona and tried some of the famous Danish gypsy brewer’s incredible beers. This was way out of our way and totally worth it. We also visited BlackLab Brewpub back down in Barceloneta area near the water. Also a great place with outdoor seating. We went out for tapas that evening to hold us over until a later dinner, and we walked through Parc Ciutedella again and watched the sunset. DISCLAIMER: Tasting your way around breweries in Europe is a lot easier than in the States. Everyone offers pints and half pints, and many breweries offer 1/3 pints. Some offer flights of even smaller glasses. The majority of places we’ve been to simply cut the price of a pint in half or thirds, so you don’t lose out by buying the smaller glass, either. So there you have it. We were by no means drunk the whole time. I wish places back home would offer 1/3 pints. Perfect for someone like me.

Day 5: By Tuesday we had walked quite a bit and we just wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather. A market sets up not far from the Barceloneta beach so we planned to buy some food there and spend a few hours relaxing near the water. First we stopped to check out the Hospital de la Santa Creu which was pretty close to our Airbnb – a bit outside the main part of the city. Beautiful Modernisme building! We walked by Sagrada Familia again for a last look, braved the crowds on Las Ramblas, and made it to the water.

A final look at Sagrada Familia

One thing about Barceloneta beach: every minute, no exaggeration, someone walks by you trying to sell something. Under normal circumstances, this would drive me up the wall, but I think traveling is teaching me to be more patient and less irritated in certain situations. Also, I wanted one of the beach blankets. I had been eyeing them all week. The first day at the beach, I only had 3 euro in coin. You can’t barter and then hand them a 20 and ask for change. Not worth the trouble. We tried various ways to barter down to 3 euro, and after an hour we knew it wasn’t going to happen. The next day we tried again. Only this time, all the guys recognized us as the couple who only had 3 euro. They started avoiding us. A few had a sense of humor and kept coming back. After yelling “solo tengo tres euro” countless times I realized that very few of them actually knew Spanish. The ones who did weren’t that desperate to part with their wares.

We tried again the next day, and Connor held up 3 fingers to the first guy who approached us and said “tres” and the man thought we wanted 3 blankets. He was thrilled. When he realized solo tengo tres euro, he laughed in our faces. “Where are you from?” “Chicago.” “I see. I’m from Pakistan. Chicago must be very poor country.” Wah Wah.

He came back a few times but I just wasn’t going to pay 20 euro for one of those things. We eventually settled on 10, but I sort of feel bad… he has to make his money somehow. Also, I was so focused on the fun of bartering that I ended up buying a white beach blanket. What is wrong with me? What am I going to do with a white beach blanket? Connor thinks we’re going to have all these lovely picnics on the lovely new blanket that will cease to be lovely the first time it hits the slug infested grass. Ugh.

Other things we could have purchased: mojitos of a very vivid green not found in nature, tattoos, massages, beer… The people selling drinks were the worst. They were walking around with half empty bottles of booze that were all different shades of brown that they would mix into the unusual green mojitos. They do that trick where they somehow manage to force one in your hand.

Him: Five
Me: Five what? No, I don’t want this.
Him: OK special price. Four.
Me: No.
Him: OK special price for you. Two for eight.
Me: That’s the same as four. I don’t want one.
Him: OK fine. Two for seven.
Me: NO!
Him: OK fine. Special price. Only for you. Two for six.

I mean I was about to just dump out the drink or tell him I was pregnant. He was actually rather mad that I didn’t want his drink.

Another fun beach story: two super jacked bro-like dudes were sitting behind us all super handsy with each other, and really enjoying having their shirts off at the beach. I positioned Connor so he wouldn’t have his beach time ruined by PDA, but he eventually noticed. Maybe half an hour after we arrive I hear one guy say, “So… you travel a lot for work?” Answer: “Well, I recently moved into a different role and I’m traveling more than normal, but no, not really.”

How very fascinating! They didn’t even know each other!! Pleasantries continued to be exchanged for quite some time and I was just amazed. Am I missing something? I lean more towards the Stranger Danger end of the spectrum, but apparently some people are more Stranger = Opportunity for PDA on the Very Public Beach.

So anyways. Sorry for that. After a few hours fighting off the drink guys we wandered through the Gothic Quarter again and relaxed at a cafe, checked out a few more shops and just enjoyed some favorite spots before packing up that night.

Casa Almirall

Such a fun trip! The city combines modern conveniences like great public trans and longer opening hours (two of our gripes about Italy), has all the great food and bev that you hope for on vacation, great places to hike, a waterfront, really friendly locals, fabulous markets, colorful and accessible cultural events, and many many day trips to choose from. If we make it back, we’ll add a museum or two to the itinerary and maybe a trip to Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi, or a day trip up the coast to a small town. Scooter rental! We almost did this, but sort of ran out of time to make it work. While locals speak Catalan, they know Spanish and were really friendly about switching to English when our rudimentary skills ran out. They didn’t mind letting me practice though, which I appreciated. Now it’s time to cram our brains with Budapest, and a week later, Bruges. Wish us luck!

 Port of Barcelona

5 Days in Barcelona

Weekend in Dublin

Guinness Tour!
A few months ago we nabbed insanely cheap flights to Dublin (under £40 for both of us, round-trip. Don’t hate me.) and spent last weekend exploring the little city. And it didn’t even rain! Miraculous!

First stop, Guinness Storehouse. Your visit is of the self-guided variety, and the building is shaped like a gigantic pint, guiding you upwards and steering you around the circular floors until you end up in a chic bar with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. Not a bad deal. The “exhibits” explain the brewing process, show off old brewing equipment and some of Arthur Guinness’ collections (including really cool old model boats), etc. One section covers the brand’s advertising throughout the years, which I thought was fun.

Bahahahahaha!

Brewing equipment. Sorry for the glare.
Some things were rather cheesy. Check out that electronic harp! We sampled the West Indies Porter, learned how to “properly” drink a Guinness with a mini pint (I’m still questioning the point of this exercise), and listened to a little Irish music.

Later, we checked out an excellent free walking tour of Dublin. We recently learned that many European cities have these free tours (tip your guide!), and Dublin’s had great reviews on TripAdvisor. The tour north of the River Liffey is at 3pm, south of the river is at 11am, and they also offer an evening beer/whiskey/Irish music adventure for 12 euro.

We chose the north side tour because the time was more convenient. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the tour gave a great overview of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Our guide was awesome and he talked quite a bit about the current state of Ireland and the UK… we were hanging on every word. Maybe because this whole Brexit business is illustrating just how different it really is over here… and because he was so forthcoming with information.

After dinner we had drinks at The Black Sheep, a bar owned by Galway Bay Brewery. A+ for beer options, A+ for Galway Bay Brewery, C for crazy factor. It was packed, and I felt very old. Also I was recovering from the flu, so I may have been a bit of a party pooper.

One of my favorite parts of our trip was visiting the Trinity College Library. We saw the Book of Kells and then the Long Room Library. It took my breath away, and I snapped entirely too many pictures. So, so gorgeous. Does anyone else ever experience the uncontrollable urge to touch all the books when they enter a place like this? There’s something magical and sacred about this room. Everyone can feel it. Even the high school students were voluntarily quiet.

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Long Room Library at Trinity College
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Gorgeous staircase
Gorgeous staircase

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Trinity College
We walked around Temple Bar area, just to say we did it, checked out Dublin’s Castle, St. Andrew’s Church, Christchurch Cathedral, and wandered through some great little shops in the Creative Quarter and on Drury Street. Industry and the Irish Design Shop were great for souvenir perusing. Powerscourt Centre also had great independent Irish shops, antiques, and an incredible looking bakery on its ground floor.

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Irish Whiskey Museum

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Shamrocks!

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Made me laugh

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Dublin Castle

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On the grounds of Dublin Castle

Cafe Considered
We had lunch at a great little cafe on Drury Street (above) and then checked out the Brazen Head, Ireland’s Oldest Pub.

The Brazen Head Pub
Also, at some point during the trip, this happened:

What on earth?
What on earth?
This, my friends, shows a child being forced by his PARENTS to HOLD STILL while they FORCIBLY PLACE A BUNCH OF PIGEONS ONTO HIS BODY. What in hell is wrong with these people? The child was clearly under 5 years old and not into this at all. Disgusting. Also, I sincerely hope that crazy red-haired woman is a stranger, and not part of the plot to cover a child in pooping, diseased, nasto birds. I should have rescued him. Poor little guy.

Anyways, we checked out some AMAZING Irish music after dinner. I found the names of two tourist-free pubs that have live music most nights, both north of the river tucked away in little neighborhoods, and the one we checked out was such a gem. Definitely full of locals and as authentic as you could ask for.

When we arrived Sunday night there were already three fiddles, one accordion, and three dudes playing different instruments in the flute/Irish whistle family. The musicians’ ages ranged from probably 25 to 65.

Connor proclaimed one of the fiddle men “a wizard” so many times that I started thinking of him as Gandalf. An hour after we arrived, a classy little lady in her 70s showed up and was given a prime seat in the “musicians only” sitting area. She bobbed along with the music for awhile, and all of a sudden, she procured a fiddle from the corner and jumped right in! That made my night (unfortunately, she isn’t in the above picture).

Another woman hopped up at one point and started tap dancing. My mother pointed out it was probably Irish dancing, and I’m embarrassed to say that never occurred to me. I’m blaming it on the image of bouncy curls, high kicks, and crazy outfits that are promoted back home. This was the real deal and it was so fantastic!

Dancing!
Unfortunately, a cab was picking us up at 4:30am the next morning, so we had to leave. Right as a dude walked in with his bagpipes. BLAST!!! We just couldn’t stay.

Overall, super fun trip. We did a great job digging out some of the local Irish culture and avoiding the gimmicky nonsense, and we felt like two days was the right amount of time. We agreed that if we had one extra day we would check out a couple of their smaller museums (Dublin/Ireland literary museum sounded fab) and take another one of the walking tours or the beer/whiskey/music tour, but we don’t feel like we missed anything major. AND we had a great Airbnb, north of the River Liffey.

Most importantly, happy happy milestone birthday to my wonderful Irish husband!! I love you dearly. MWAH!

PS – Flickr album from the weekend is also up to date. You can find it here.

 

Weekend in Dublin

A Very British Birthday – Weekend in London

 

maltby street market
Maltby Street Market and the Ropewalk. Photo via the Bookatable blog.

Connor always likes to suggest that his birthday be celebrated over the course of an entire week. For once his wish is coming true. Last Friday we kicked off the celebration at BrewDog Birmingham, the quickly expanding UK brewery that we also visited in London. (Craft beer: So rare that if you order something more complicated than a lager they ask you if you want to taste it first to be sure. We’re sure. Trust.) Early Saturday morning we popped down to London to roam, eat, see a show, and check out the Bermondsey Beer Mile. Next weekend we’re heading over the Irish Sea to the motherland. Quite the birthday week!

A quick Google search for “best craft beer in London” directed me to the Bermondsey Beer Mile and nearby Maltby Street Market. Six or so craft breweries have set up shop along a mile-long stretch in Bermondsey and thanks to the growing popularity of the market, the breweries open to visitors for a few hours on Saturday afternoons. We watched a bit of the Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace to kill some time and then headed to Maltby Street for lunch. The market and breweries are housed along a stretch of beautiful old rail line (still in use) with huge brick arches. Each arch contains a tiny bakery, restaurant, cafe, distillery… purveyors of all things delicious. Pop-up shops and food vendors line the street outside and make up the “Ropewalk” portion of the market. See above picture.

LUNCH: I had an AMAZING goat cheese, honey, walnut, and rosemary grilled cheese from The Cheese Truck, owned by a couple dudes who claim to make “melted cheese heaven” out of British cheeses. Yes yes and more yes. I almost went back to try another option off the menu. Connor had equally delicious steak with homemade chips (fries) from The Beefsteaks. This vendor specializes in “sustainably sourced, charcoal grilled, naturally reared British beef served with sauces inspired by the London steak clubs of the 17th and 18th centuries.” (I guess that’s a thing?) I’m typically in the anti-steak sauce camp; beautiful steak does not need to be contaminated with condiments (don’t yuck my yum!), but this was a totally different story and I can’t call the juicy, delicate, herby stuff a condiment.

We were having such a blast sampling all the goodies (mead, chocolate, cheese…) that I didn’t take a single picture. Those of you who follow me on SnapChat caught a glimpse, but I forgot to save the images. Rookie mistake. Follow me there @erinksd.

After lunch we met some friends at brewery #1: Anspach & Hobday. The 6 of us had a blast hopping from one brewery to the next despite the cold and lack of toilet situation. Definite need for improvement here. The whole experience was very warehouse-esque and rough around the edges, since this is where all the beer is actually brewed. Super cool.

anspach&hobday
Anspach & Hobday. Photo via thecitylane.com
Inside Anspach and Hobday
Inside Anspach & Hobday

We also visited Brew By Numbers and UBREW, but didn’t make it to all 6 stops for obvious reasons.

We eventually headed north to the West End and checked into our Hell Hole Hostel from Airbnb. You guys. OMG it was so so SO bad. (Mom you would die.) I’m not going into detail because the weekend was incredibly fun and this HHH is not about to ruin it for me. Never again will I try to find someplace to stay just because it’s within walking distance of our activity. There is nothing wrong with taking the Tube. Also, I don’t recommend staying in SOHO/West End unless you splurge on a nice hotel. Total carnage party central = loud and sticky streets.

We quickly left HHH, had dinner, and went to see Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. If anyone wants to come visit and see Phantom of the Opera with me 10 more times I’m totally down!!! Andrew Lloyd Weber’s production opened at this theatre in 1986 and eventually spread to theatres all over the world. It was incredible to see this show in it’s original location with the original set.

Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre London
Stage before the show
Chandelier for Phantom of the Opera
The Chandelier!

We bought the cheaper restricted view seats and didn’t miss a thing. The music was so beautiful and moving… I definitely cried and people were sobbing all around us. Two girls got up and left because they couldn’t lock it up. Pretty funny in hindsight, but the music was just incredible. Not even the HHH could ruin our mood. Seriously, if we had done anything other than see an incredible, cloud-9 show before returning to that dump, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

Side note: ethically speaking, what do I do about the review for HHH? On the one hand, it was a hell hole!!!! On the other, I kind of knew it would be. The Airbnb listing clearly showed it as a budget/hostel type place. The reviews were all good, but I kind of knew they were from students and people with no standards (sorry).

After basically zero sleep we left HHH around 10am and walked around Westminster, enjoyed the gardens and massive government buildings, had a fabulous burger lunch at Byrons Hamburgers in Covent Garden, and caught a late afternoon train back to Birmingham.

National Liberal Club in Whitehall
The National Liberal Club

PS: This building was really beautiful. It’s an old gentleman’s club around the corner from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence. Notable members included Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, G.K. Chesterton, and George Bernard Shaw. The club IS open to women.

Lessons from the weekend:

  • Eat all the market food, especially if there are long lines. You will be sick later. It is worth it.
  • HHH: some standards exist for a reason. Embrace them.
  • Buy restricted view theatre seats and use the money saved on classier lodgings.
  • Or, see a matinee and take a train back to Birmingham to sleep.
  • Do not eat Chinese food at midnight.
  • London is very expensive.
  • I want to see Phantom of the Opera 10 more times.
A Very British Birthday – Weekend in London

Florence

Brunelleschi's Dome

Ah, Firenze. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth of the Arno,
The breadth of thy hills,
The height of thy Duomo…
And simply for your abundance of gelato and stunning Renaissance gems.

If you ever have the chance to visit Florence, GO!!! I have a fabulous Airbnb recommendation for you.

For two months leading up to this trip, I immersed myself in the history of the city (of which I knew absolutely nothing), the Renaissance, Michelangelo, the Medici family… anything I could get my hands on, and it made all the difference. I fell in love before we even arrived. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone hooked me, and I came close to reading Blue Guide Florence cover to cover. More history book than guide book, this was my secret weapon to discovering the many treasures of Florence. There’s nothing worse than standing in front of a building and having no clue what you’re looking at. Amiright??

The award for most stunning goes to Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral church of Florence also known as the Duomo. Brunelleschi’s dome is still the largest brick dome ever constructed. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Giotto’s Campanile and the Baptistry, which are on church grounds. I mean look at this thing.

Santa Maria del FioreInside Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto's Campanile Looming Dome 2

It’s just massive. It looms over the city and is visible from almost everywhere. The entire exterior is marble, and the sculptures on the Campanile were by Donatello (originals have been moved to a museum). The interior could use some jazzing up… it’s alarmingly empty when you step inside.

Other favorites:

River Arno

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Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

Santa Croce is a Renaissance goldmine. They charge an entrance fee, which you can avoid by going to mass. For over 500 years, monuments were erected in Santa Croce in honor of notable Florentines. Michelangelo, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Machiavelli, and Galileo are buried here. The frescoes on the altar wall and in the side chapels are remarkable – the most famous are by Giotto and his pupil Taddeo Gaddi. Donatello’s famous crucifix is tucked away in a dark side chapel, and the stained glass windows are from the 14th century. A statue of Dante stands directly outside. It took 15 pages for my trusty Blue Guide to spell out the wonders of this church.

We had plans to see Michelangelo’s David, but the line for the Galleria dell’Accademia was ridiculous and there are a few replicas positioned throughout the city. We visited the Uffizi Gallery, a must-do, and well worth the price of admission and skip-the-line fee. I’m not even going to try to list what’s included in their collection. My head is still spinning. I couldn’t resist documenting a few things (*cough* DaVinci) so if you’re curious head over to my Flickr album.

Other highlights from this trip:

  • Chianti
  • Walking up to Piazzale Michelangelo and San Miniato for city views.
  • Wandering the streets, visiting tiny street markets, practicing our rudimentary Italian with the friendly locals, soaking up the sun.
  • The wine shop on our street selling liters of wine out of their giant vats for 3 euro.
  • More affordable and better tasting food than Rome. Also, less aggressive selfie-stick salesmen.
  • Overdosing on gelato… I honestly didn’t see this coming. I didn’t know it was possible. I’m SERIOUS. No puke, though, Mom and Dad! Best gelato EVER can be found at Gelateria la Carraia, not far from Ponte Vecchio. This is an official endorsement by someone who knows these things.
  • Sparkling water from a fountain hidden away in Piazza della Signoria. Why is this not a thing in America?? Oh yeah, because people bathe their dogs in public water fountains (or at least they do in Chicago). Maybe I can install one of these in my house?
  • Walking through the Holy Door in Santissima Annunziata.
  • Google Translate fails.
  • Stumbling upon a small, rarely open museum above Orsanmichele containing original sculptures by Donatello, Ghiberti, and others.

Jackpot in Museo di Orsanmichele

My pictures may be a bit church-heavy for some of you. I can’t resist the architecture, marble, sculpture, frescoes… but even you non-religious readers would catch your breath when bumping into the Duomo.

Ok lovelies. Ciao for now. We’re headed to London for a couple days next week and again the following weekend for a friend’s engagement party.

Florence