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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Me: Five what? No, I don’t want this.
Him: OK special price. Four.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.