European Travel Nifty-style: Some Recommendations

Porto, Portugal

Howdy Travel Fans! NiftyNotCool here, back in Canada and feeling fine. I survived a month of hostel living, train riding, and living out of a backpack, and I managed to tear myself away from the charms of Portugal and Spain and return to you all to give you my recommendations for European travel Nifty-style (lucky you!).

I. Preparations

Guidebooks: I bought a Lonely Planet for Portugal and also one for Spain. At first they felt a little pricey (about $30 a pop) but they were absolutely invaluable. A lot of train and bus stations don’t actually have a tourism office or provide free maps of the city you just arrived in. Even though the maps in the books are rather small, without my Lonely Planet there are a few times I would not have found my hostel, the train station, the site I was looking for, etc.

I also stayed in Lonely Planet recommended hostels and hotels through most of my trip and I was not disappointed in them. They were clean, safe, usually centrally located, and, because they were recommended in the Lonely Planet, they helpfully appeared on the Lonely Planet maps.

Because I didn’t know all that much about that places I was going, my guidebooks were also invaluable in helping me plan my trip and decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see. They give an overview of regions, history, language, transportation, accommodation, safety, and just about anything else I would wonder to myself about the country I’m visiting. Even if you get to a place and decide to just wing it, get a guidebook. I consider mine practically life saving.

Travel insurance/travel medical: I got mine through World Nomads (recommended by Lonely Planet of course) and it only set me back around $150 for four weeks. Whichever company you decide to become insured with, do become insured. I think lots of people like to think nothing will ever happen to them, and usually nothing does, but when I was sick in Madrid I remember thinking that if I got much sicker I would need a hospital (because I simply couldn’t take care of myself in a hostel) and I was so glad that I had insurance and therefore had that option.

Passports: I usually renew mine as soon as it expires. It’s a good idea because they can sometimes take a long time to obtain/renew and you don’t want to have a whole trip planned and be worrying you won’t receive your passport/visas in time. As a Canadian and British citizen, I did not need a visa for EU countries.

Itinerary: I didn’t completely plan out everything I did, but I do think it’s a good idea to at least narrow your travels down a bit. For me, having an abundance of choice is paralyzing. Once I decided I wanted to work Portugal north to south, and then focus half of my Spanish adventure on the Andalucia region, it was far easier to choose the specific cities I wanted to stay in and the things I wanted to see. Which makes it easier to pin down accommodation, transportation, etc. down the road.

If you do want to try to get off the beaten path and out of the cities, make sure you do your research ahead of time, and make sure you won’t need a car, a certain time of year, etc. to access the nature you’re trying to see. This will save you a bit of heartache and quite a big headache.

Documents: I made sure I brought my flight itineraries and my statement of insurance with me. I also brought photocopies of my passports and credit card, along with the number to call if my credit card was stolen. I left a copy of all of these documents with my TC as well, just in case the bag these documents were in was stolen. I have also heard of people keeping a photocopy of their passport in their shoe, but I did not do this.

Guarda, Portugal

II. Packing

The pack: First things first– If you’re going to be living out of a backpack for a few weeks like I was, you should have a good backpack. Schlepping 40 lbs. around the Iberian Peninsula sort of took it out of me and I was incredibly happy I’d shelled out the money not only for a swanky Osprey backpack with a zip-off day-pack, but one that was a women’s size small (because I am a small woman). The fact that the bag was well-balanced and fit me properly made a huge difference in how easy it was to lug around.

The stuff in the pack: It’s a family joke that I am a terrible packer (like the time I brought only one t-shirt on a trip to the Rockies in the heat of July because “the mountains are cold”). Thanks to some consultations with them pre-trip I was actually able to do a pretty decent job packing this time round. I checked the weather in Portugal and Spain beforehand and saw it was going to be unseasonably warm, but it’s good to be prepared for anything. I brought one pair of long pants, two pairs of capri pants, and one pair of shorts. I also brought two sweaters, two long-sleeved shirts, four t-shirts, and four tank tops (given how hot it was for parts of my trip I’m glad I had the option to change my shirt often). I brought a pair of hiking shoes, a pair of walking sandals, and (at my sister’s insistence) a pair of flats to wear to nicer places, like the flamenco restaurant I went to in Madrid. I brought pajamas, one dress, a bathing suit, my Hat With A Brim, and a windbreaker jacket. AND underwear and socks of course. I must have done a good job packing this time because I wore everything I brought except one exceptionally fluffy pair of socks, and there was no article of clothing I regretted leaving at home. And all of this fit into my pack, which I managed to carry around with me for four weeks. So congratulations me.

My major packing regret is that I did NOT take my student card, which would have saved me almost 50% at some tourist sites. Sigh.

III. Transportation

Air travel: I can’t really say much about the actual booking of flights because I am a little sucky-poo and I have a mother who is really good at finding cheap flights and she booked my flights for me. I flew cheaper airlines because I’m not made of money but I do have this to say:

Thomas Cook Airlines (the airline you get when you book with Air Transat to London) is terrible. The seats are tiny and incredibly close together (I pretty much felt like a chicken in a crate for 10 hours). Every seat had a black electrical box mounted underneath it, leaving no room for your carry-on (or your legs). The seats did not recline, not because they were broken, just because they didn’t. Words cannot describe how disgusting the food was. Terrible airline food is a cliche but this really hit new lows. Not only was it all, without exception, revolting, the portions were tiny. Basically, they give you enough food-like substance to legally claim they didn’t starve you. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Greenland (I think)

Condor airlines (the cheap airline I flew back from Frankfurt with following my connection from Barcelona) is, by comparison, fantastic. I didn’t get my own TV, but that does mean my feet actually got room. The seats were a little larger, and reclined. For our “hot meal” we received a cole slaw, a large vegetarian lasagna, a roll with a triangle of real Camembert, and a lemon square. Oh yeah, and a complementary alcoholic beverage (I declined) and all the fruit juices were REAL juice. Then we got a snack and more juice. Then for our “cold meal” a breaded chicken cutlet, potato salad, and rye bread. I know I’m gushing a bit much for a charter airline but compared to Thomas Cook it was absolute heaven. Flying over Greenland and seeing a landscape that was simply pure untouched snow as far as they eye could see was pretty great too.

Train travel: The train is a very civilized and pleasant way to see Europe. My train days allowed me time to relax (i.e. have a nap), slow down, and think grand thoughts while watching beautiful countryside fly by. It’s more expensive than busing though (in some cases a LOT more expensive) which is why I bought a Eurail Pass.

The pass was rather convenient, but in the end I don’t really think the Eurail Pass saved me much money. I bought three travel days in Portugal and six in Spain, but only used four of my Spanish travel days. To use a Eurail Pass properly, you really have to make sure you are going to be covering a lot of ground, and plan your trips carefully. I overestimated the amount of travel I’d be doing and ended up making day trips just to use my pass. Since you have to pay in Spain and Portugal to reserve seats on trains anyways, even with your pass, if you aren’t making many trips you may as well just buy individual tickets for the journeys you want.

Bus travel: Bus travel is MUCH cheaper than taking the train and the bus usually reaches more locations. Being a romantic, I definitely preferred the train but I enjoyed the three bus journeys I did take during my travels and both Spain and Portugal seem to have rather good long-distance bus services.

Real Alcazar, Seville, Spain

IV. Accommodation

Hostels: Most of the time, I looked to my Lonely Planet for accommodation recommendations (the Madrid hostel where I saw bedbugs was NOT a Lonely Planet suggestion). One hostel group I can certainly add my thumbs up to is Oasis. (I stayed in the Oasis Lisboa, Oasis Sevilla, and Oasis Granada.) These hostels were slightly pricier but they all included breakfast, free access to wi-fi and computers with internet, and safe storage (the first two had electronic safes and Granada had a locking cupboard). They had cheap food in the evenings, cheap booze, kitchens, and information about all sorts of tours, activities, and sites. The friendly atmosphere helped me meet a lot of cool people and I was probably more social and had more fun in these hostels than anywhere else.

Because I was travelling solo, I really appreciated hostels not only for their affordability (they’re SO much cheaper than staying in hotels I’m really not sure how anyone my age could afford to travel without hostelling). but also so that I didn’t have to spend my entire trip eating alone and talking to myself. That would have been quite lonely. I also appreciated the informative and helpful staff I encountered in most places I visited who could provide me with maps, tours, admission booking, and transit info.

What to bring if you are staying in a hostel: I am glad I brought a luggage lock (my combination lock was too big for all of the lockers I encountered), a flashlight (there’s ALWAYS someone asleep in the hostel room, at all times it seems), a travel alarm clock (no wake up calls in hostels!), and a facecloth (works as a towel when you don’t have one). I’m also glad I brought camp laundry detergent so I could wash things by hand. I wish I had brought a travel towel, a better luggage lock to use on the lockers, and a pair of flip flops to wear in the hostel showers.

Granada, Spain

V. Food

I believe that eating is a very personal experience, so my recommendation for food is simple but mighty: go to a grocer or a supermarket, buy food (esp. fresh fruit which I found an abundance of in both Spain and Portugal) and have some food and water with you at all times. There’s nothing as tiring and frustrating as trying to look for a good restaurant or cafe when you’re already so starving you’d eat at McDonald’s even though you’re in an exciting new city. So take food and water with you so you can hold out for an eating experience you really do want (P.S. I never did eat at McDonald’s thank the gods).

VI. And one last recommendation…

Travel itself: I recommend it. If you want to go, I recommend that you go. If you are scared to go, I recommend that you go. For some (like me), the idea of four weeks of solo travelling in Europe would be daunting. For some it would be no big deal. And that’s fine. The journey is personal, it’s what you make of it, and for me it was exactly the balance of challenge and security I needed.

This was the right trip at the right time. The reasons I had for going changed as I planned, but the good I knew it would do me stayed the same. I returned to Vancouver not disappointed with the city and the cold as I expected I might be , but rejuvenated and able to see the beauty of my West Coast life afresh. The thing I had hoped to find on my journey was right here where I left it, right where I hoped it would be. And that’s worth searching for.

Beautiful Barcelona, Figueres, Good-bye

“Beautiful Barcelona!”

It’s a cliche phrase I know I’ve heard somewhere before and I was hesitant to use it. And then I thought, what the hell, it’s cliche because it’s true. Barcelona is beautiful. This is what struck me about the city. It’s actually a bit small, a bit crowded, a bit touristy, but my god, it is beautiful. Emerge from the Metro–beauty. Duck into an alley–beauty. Turn a corner–beauty. And that’s when you’re not even looking for it, so imagine the gob-smacking beauty you encounter when you actually make the effort to go to a park or a touristy site.

My relationship with Barcelona began as anything but beautiful. When I climbed out of the Liceu metro station onto La Rambla it was pouring rain. This rain became even harder once I checked into my hostel (located most conveniently right in Placa Reial, though I was too dejected at the time to notice). I knew it would be a bit hard to return to a hostel after my two nights at the Holiday Inn in Madrid, but I was unprepared for how hard I’d actually take it. The internet in the hostel was expensive. The hostel was a party hostel and all I could hear when I checked in, tired and hungry, was noise noise noise. The hostel didn’t rent towels, just sold them for 10 euros. My trip almost over, there was no way I was going to spend 10 euros for a giant towel I didn’t have the room to bring home again, so I was forced for four days to dry myself with the Doctor Who facecloth I had bought as a souvenir in London (it has a picture of a Tardis on it, and, Tardis-like, there was more to this tiny flannel than met the eye because it actually did not half badly). And to top it all off, I couldn’t even escape the noisy stupid no-towel hostel, because outside it was raining and thundering and being as miserable as I felt.

Basically, at that moment, I was emotionally done with my trip. I didn’t want to spend five more nights in Barcelona, I wanted to go home. To hell with the Sagrada Familia and the pretty streets. I wanted my kitchen and my bed and my glorious bathroom filled with glorious towels.

Luckily for me, all storms pass over and my emotional one subsided as soon as I met some people from my room, ate a decent dinner, and spent the better part of the evening discussing the finer points of Harry Potter with an Australian and a Brit (note: Dobby would win in a cage fight against Dumbledore). Fun fact: the Brit is a boom operator on Coronation Street! Wow!

On Tuesday morning the sun came out and I am sure glad I didn’t say to hell with the Sagrada Familia because it is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. From the outside it looked pretty cool, I mean, I’d certainly never seen a church before that replaced gargoyles with giant lizards, but it is also still under construction and cranes and scaffolding sort of take away from the general splendor. Waiting in line, I was impressed but wasn’t really sure what the church’s insides would hold.

Sagrada Famila, Barcelona

Beauty. Exquisite, unconventional, organic beauty. The Alhambra was beautiful, but the Alhambra is heavy and saturated with luxury and tradition. The inside of the Sagrada Familia is a surprising forest of pillars and light. It is open, it is airy, and it is incredibly incredibly joyful. Even the crucified Christ is suspended beneath a circus-like tent hung with grapes made of glass, and bathed in so much natural sunlight that it makes his predicament seem, again, joyful. Each angle inside the church reveals a whole new sense of wonder. The architect, Antoni Gaudi, carefully studied natural supportive structures formed by mineral crystals and plant growth in order to create his designs, and it shows. The Sagrada Familia does not feel built, or human-made. It feels like it grew. I met people in my travels who saw the Alhambra and were unaffected, but I have not met one person who has seen the inside of the Sagrada Familia whose eyes do not light up when retelling the experience.

I soaked up every bit of the church that I could, visiting all of the museum areas (highly recommended, especially the exhibit relating to Gaudi and nature) and taking the lift into the towers. I decided that after my Gaudi morning I wouldn’t mind a Gaudi afternoon so I made a point of visiting Barcelona’s Park Guell, a park designed by Gaudi whose gates are flanked by two Hansel-and-Gretel style houses. It is an interesting and very pretty park (and free!), and I was pretty much obsessed with everything Gaudi at this point, but the place was crawling with tourists and illegal souvenir vendors and after the devout and tranquil beauty of the Sagrada Familia it was a bit anti-climactic.

Candy stall in La Boqueria

The Sagrada Familia and the Park Guell were my only real goals for Barcelona, so on Wednesday I made loose plans for myself (the best kind of plans when travelling) and basically wandered around all day loosely achieving them. I wanted to check out the beaches of La Barceloneta so I wandered down there and did that. Kneeling on the shore to touch the Atlantic a giant wave came and soaked my sandals so I was forced to sit on a beach chair and read in the sun for half an hour while they dried off (poor me!). Got lost and wandered around some more, ate a doughnut, bought some fruits and vegetables at La Boqueria (St. Joseph’s Market) just off La Rambla. Ate a muffin and read a TIME magazine.

Parc de la Ciutadella

Wednesday afternoon: visit the Parc de la Ciutadella. Lovely fountain. Inexplicable giant statue of a woolly mammoth. Another pond with rowboats. Ducks. And then, music. Two guitarists sitting under a tree playing extremely well. Someone on the grass saw me watching and waved me over. When they found out I could sing I was brought to the guitarists and we had a magical musical hour or so. We sang the Beatles. We sang Bob Dylan. We jammed (vocal improvisations on my part…not my finest moment probably but I did my best). I think our best numbers were “I Will Survive” and “Eye of the Tiger” with amazing guitar solos courtesy of Pedro, a Venezuelan who moved to Barcelona ten years ago and was, the day I met him, on day four of being sober and delighted to discover he could play the guitar without alcohol. While I couldn’t quite shake my self-conscious caution throughout our jam session (I never took off my backpack) and insisted on excusing myself as soon as it began to get dark, jamming with these open-hearted musicians, total strangers to me, was a new and wonderful experience. If you know me you’ll know that while I am loud and talkative with those I know, I’m actually a little frightened of those I don’t. Opening myself up and being brave is actually something I’m a little bit proud of.

I knew that Thursday would be rainy so instead of spending it in the hostel or tramping around Barcelona pretending not to mind being wet and cold, I took the train to nearby Figures to see the Teatre-Museu Dali, the museum Salvador Dali built in his home town. My two-hour train ride also gave me lovely views of the interesting (and old-looking) city of Girona, which I would love to explore sometime.

Painted ceiling, Teatre-Museu Dali

I am a fan of Salvador Dali’s paintings and jewellery and I enjoyed those displayed in the museum (for example, I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, to realize that “Atomic Leda” is obviously a painting of Dali’s wife, Gala, with whom he was artistically obsessed). I am not sure I like the museum itself. Housed in Figueres’ old theatre, the passages between the rooms were narrow and crowded and many of the spaces seemed cluttered and full of installation-type art that felt….junky. As if you hung Dali’s paintings in a gallery space and then you had your tacky “artsy” grandmother fill the rest of the space with old brocade, velour, and stuff she found in her garage.

Mae West Room, Teatre-Museu Dali

Do I think my trip to Figueres was a waste? Nope. If I hadn’t gone I would have wished that I had. Besides, captivating art is captivating art no matter how you feel about its surroundings. (By the by, Figueres also has a Toy Museum, which, if you’re looking for something to tack onto your day in the city, is a cute, and kind of creepy, attraction.)

Friday was my last full day in Barcelona and I decided to check out of my loud crowded party hostel and check into the super pricey Hotel B, just off the Placa Espanya (right near a stop for the airport bus) for my last night. Before I did that, though, I visited the beautiful Santa Maria del Mar church. I sat in a pew and stared at the stained glass oriel window above the altar for a long time and thought many thoughts. I thought about the past year and those I have lost. I hoped that wherever they are, if they are anywhere, that they have peace. I thought about the people I know who are struggling with difficult circumstances and I hoped that those things would get better. I thought about the trip I had taken, and how lucky I was that I had the opportunity to travel for a month on my own, how lucky I was that I had been safe and, for the most part, my plans had worked, and how lucky I was that I was going to return the next day to the people who loved me.

I do not practice any faith. But I do like a nice, quiet place to reflect once in a while and an old Barcelona church did the job nicely. After four weeks of constant movement to return to a point of internal stillness and contemplation helped prepare me to say good-bye to my adventure, good-bye to the beautiful city that had been so good to me, and say hello to my old life as the new person I have become, a person who is older now, more independent, less anxious, and has more beguiling images stuffed in her memories than anyone should be allowed to have.

So until we meet again, my beautiful bewitching Barcelona, gracias. Thank you so very much.

View from my hostel room, Placa Reial

Madrid: A Tale of Boos and Yays!

Boo: Waking up in Granada on Thursday morning and throwing up all the lovely Moroccan food I ate the night before.

Yay: Making it on time to the train station anyways and having a solid nap on the train.

Boo: Having to wait an hour and a half at the hostel before my friends from Canada (whose paths I was crossing in Madrid) arrive.

Yay: Meeting a man named Ricardo in the hostel lounge who speaks only Spanish and French and actually using my French to have a half-hour conversation with him, albeit a very limited one. (“Ne sont pas cher!” I exclaim as we look at his souvenirs, because I can’t remember the word for cheap. “Magnifique!”).

Boo: Still feeling too nauseaus to really eat dinner or enjoy walking around the city with my friends.

Yay: Eating dinner and walking around the city with my friends. It’s nice to have them there.

Boo: Waking up on Friday and throwing up again.

Yay: Free and very bland hostel breakfast that makes me feel much better.

Boo: The Spanish Civil War. It was very bloody and lots of people died on both sides.

Yay: Informative, educational, and enjoyable Spanish Civil War walking tour. Did you know that Madrid was the first city to be blitzed (that’s right, the Nazis tried out blitzing in Madrid BEFORE WWII)? You do now!

Boo: Madrid’s glaring lack of monuments to the Republican (i.e. non-fascist) victims of the Spanish Civil War (not surprising given the decades of Franco rule that followed, ending only with his natural death).

Tempe Debod, Madrid. Bigger inside, "Tardis effect".

Yay: The Egyptian Temple Debod, which is full of cool things like heiroglyphics. It is the only Egyptian monument to be gifted to a European country (as in, all that stuff in the British museums is STOLEN!), for Spain’s help in preserving Egyptian monuments during the building of the Aswan Dam.

Also Yay: Ice cream and row boats on the large pond in the Parque Buen Retiro. Also yay to singing Canadian sea shanties while rowing (such as “Farewell to Nova Scotia” and “I’se the B’y”) and my friend Kayleigh’s siren song, performed while lounging siren-like at the prow: “Come to me boys/ Come into my lair/ I love you so much/ La la la la la!/ These rocks aren’t very sharp at all/ They’re actually very rounded/ La la la laaa!”

Rowing ´round Buen Retiro

Boo: Still not feeling up for drinking while on tapas/Flamenco tour.

Yay: Having a great assortment of tapas (with chorizo and goat cheese and potatoes with garlic sauce and fried hollandaise balls) at a nice bar while on tapas tour, and then moving on to a Flamenco show.

Boo: Pillar that blocks my view at Flamenco bar.

Yay: Actually seeing a Flamenco show and NOT getting kicked out, and seeing a show with dancing this time! Feel the fire! Feel the passion! Let’s just say if everyone behaved the way these people dance all the time, the streets would be red with blood. Epic.

All in all, Friday was a great day in Madrid. And then, just as I am laying myself down to sleep……

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO: Bedbugs! Ew ew ew! Crawling next to my pillow.

Yay: Checking out the very next morning (after checking my pjs for more bugs and finding none) and heading out to spend the next two nights in the Holiday Inn Express – Alcobenda. Luxury!

Boo: Me being too careless to write down the actual address of the Holiday Inn, or drawing us a map, or anything. Showing up at the metro station in Madrid’s equivalent of industrial South Burnaby with no idea where you’re going is silly indeed.

Yay: Helpful taxi driver who saw us wandering around being lost. He goes into a gas station, gets directions to the hotel, and takes us there. Gracias, senor!

Boo: LONG metro ride back the centre which means we will need to take an expensive cab back after Saturday night dancing.

Yay: Free afternoon at the Reina Sofia art gallery.

Boo: The destruction of Guernica and death of its citizens during the Spanish Civil War.

Yay: Picasso’s “Guernica” (it’s huge) and the preparatory sketches also on display at the Reina Sofia. The piece is full of movement and grief and, in comparison to some of his sketches, surprisingly subdued. He was searching for exactly the eyes, hands, tongue, etc. that would best show the horror of that night, and the exploration next to the final painting is very interesting.

Boo: Paying 20 euro admission at Club Kapital, where they throw away not only my water and juice at the door, but also my baguette, for some reason.

Yay: Dancing in a massive club in Madrid on a Saturday night, a club so big and crazy it has exotic dancers on a stage and a sound and light show that rates about as epic as a “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, and silver confetti, and seven floors, AND some kind of crazy machine that blasts the dance floor with ice cold air every once in a while that makes you think the world is ending but completely rejuvenates you for more dancing!

Boo: Realizing on Sunday that my shins hurt and I’m tired of walking.

Yay: Riding the Teleferic cable car over the city! Wheeeeeeeee!

Boo: The first rain I’ve seen my entire trip.

Yay: Getting to spend a lot of time indoors at the Prado (fine art gallery) where I enjoy the Titians and Goyas but mostly the painting known as “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch.

Boo: Final night in the awesome comfort that is the Holiday Inn and having to say good-bye to my friends while we continue our separate journeys.

Yay: Heading onwards to beautiful Barcelona! Stay tuned…

Granada: the Sierra Nevada and the Alhambra

As a lone traveller without a car, it can be very difficult at times to escape the trap of simply travelling from city to city to city without ever escaping into the countryside. My heroic attempts at hiking in the Serra da Estrela in Portugal had come to naught and although I knew that the Sierra Nevada mountain range rose up behind the city of Granada, I had no plans to visit it.

This is where the awesome organization at the Oasis Granada hostel comes in. On my very first night I saw that a trip to a thermal pool outside the city was running that evening for 12€ so I hopped aboard. I have no idea where exactly we went, or what the pool was called. All I know is that we bumped along unholy roads before being dropped off, in total darkness, at the pool. It was warm, the stars were bright, some nice folks from my hostel shared their beer with me, and I had an interesting and relaxing evening (my evening made more interesting by a group of men whose actions I will perhaps recount someday as The Tale of the Naked Frolicking Spaniards). Then it was back into the too-full van, back onto the unholy roads, and back to the hostel, where I discovered a layer of bright red clay now covered me and my bathing suit. In some ways, though I’m sure I was completely safe the whole time, the experience felt so weird I’m just glad we all returned unscathed.

Sierra Nevada, Spain

On Monday, on a whim, I decided to join up with a walking tour into the Sierra Nevada. I am so glad I did. Our guide took us on the bus to a little mountain village called Monachil and from there led us on a hike into the mountains, over wood and cable bridges, through a gorge, into a gorgeous valley with the red cliffs of the Sierra on all sides, and back again with a stop at a small waterfall. I’m glad I had good walking shoes because the hike was a little more intense than I had anticipated: crawling almost on my hands and knees under rocks, walking on an embankment so narrow that where the rock face hung over the trail there were handles put into the rock so you could lean back over the river and navigate around the rock without falling backwards. The landscape was impossibly rugged and wild and beautiful, with cacti, boulders, and a backdrop of blue sky everywhere you looked.

Such is the artistry of Mother Nature.

If you are interested in human artistry, Granada can certainly provide it in the palaces of the Alhambra, the city’s most famous landmark:

Oh. My. Stars. It was beautiful.

While the Alhambra and Generalife (garden) complex is actually huge, the most beautiful (and famous) parts of the site are the Nasrid Palaces. These are the parts you need to pay to see, and these are the parts you need to purchase a ticket for. If you want to purchase a ticket on the day you go, people begin to line up at 7am or so and the available tickets are usually gone shortly after the site opens. I did NOT line up at 7am, I paid the extra 2€ to book a ticket through my hostel (I could have saved a little booking on my own online but I would have needed to do that two weeks in advance).

Nasrid Palaces, Alhambra

I ended up spending almost five hours in the huge Alhambra complex and about 45 min in the Nasrid Palaces alone. These palaces are the location of some of Spain’s finest Islamic architecture (I’d make the leap and say it’s the finest but some people I met liked the Alcazar better). The attention to detail and the level of skill required to make something so intricate and so beautiful is absolutely mind-boggling, almost overwhelming, and truly has to be seen to be believed. My photos hardly do justice to the exceptional work of the artists who created these palaces.

The entire time I was wandering through the Alhambra I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the noble personages inhabiting these grounds: what it would be like if the Generalife gardens were mine for my own private enjoyment, how it would feel to be a commoner summoned to one of these palaces for an audience with royalty, how daunting (or perhaps excitingly challenging) the task of decorating and maintaining these spaces would have been. I wonder if any of those people had an inkling that one day, long after they were gone, these palaces would be here still, with thousands of people walking through these rooms daily, exclaiming at their beauty, taking photographs, writing blogs and postcards, and wondering.

Wall detail, Alhambra

Occupying Sevilla

Flamenco bar in Seville

When I arrived at my Seville hostel on Thursday afternoon, it was so hot (35 degrees!) that I decided not to do anything with myself until the evening (good call). I signed up for a little tapas and Flamenco tour being offered through the hostel and figured it would be a nice way to make something of my first evening in Seville and to meet people in my hostel.

Check and check. Seville is a tapas town, and although that evening was unfortunately the only time I actually “did the tapas thing” during my time there, I enjoyed my sangria and beer, as well as the two tapas I ordered (fried vegetables and, much to my eternal delight, fried camembert). The Flamenco was, unfortunately, fleeting. When we all packed ourselves into the tiny bar it was pretty obvious that it would be soley a Flamenco music show, as there was no space for any dancing. I knew I was too tired to last until the show ended at 3 am so I stood near the door (and the tiny bit of breeze that was wafting in) and prepared to enjoy the music.

I certainly did enjoy the music. The three musicians (two guitaristists and a man playing a drum) played and sang with love and their ability to project their voices in such a packed and acoustically poor space was incredible. I have no idea what they were singing about but their music provoked a longing feeling I often get when I listen to something that sounds beautiful and powerful and sad, even if I don’t understand the language.

What the tapas and Flamenco tour leader forgot to tell us, and what made my Flamenco experience “fleeting”, is that the owner of the bar would require us to buy a drink to be able to remain in the bar. That actually makes a lot of sense, but since I didn’t know, and since I was sort of standing all squished in at the back, I didn’t really feel like ordering a drink when she came by, so she kicked me out of the flamenco bar.

That’s right. I, Lauren Kresowaty, who has never been kicked out of anywhere in her life, was kicked out of a Sevillian Flamenco bar. Oh well. I tell myself I was about to leave soon anyways, and at least two of the girls standing near me ended up in the same predicament so we were all able to walk back to the hostel together (which was on the other side of the river). Absolutely sumptious raspberry gelato, which I found at a gelato bar still open after midnight, made everything better.

I only officially visited two tourist sites while in Seville. On Friday, I went to the Seville’s cathedral, and on Saturday, I visited the Real Alcazar, a huge palace and garden complex (sometimes referred to Seville’s answer to the Alhambra).

Cathedral, Seville

Perhaps the fact that I have visited so many cathedrals already coloured my feelings about Seville’s, but I feel that for an admission fee of 7,50€ (compared to other cathedrals so far which charged about 3€), something really ought to be pretty cool. Seville’s cathedral is impressive because it is very VERY big, and very rich. It also houses the remains of Christopher Columbus (although there are still many reasons to believe his remains are actually still in the Dominican somewhere).  For me, the most interesting part was the tower of the cathedral, which is actually a minaret left from on earlier mosque that had been on the same site. If you like cathedrals and haven’t already gotten sick of them, I think you may really enjoy Seville’s. If, however, cathedrals don’t really float your boat and/or you’ve already seen so many that it doesn’t impress you anymore, you may wish to take pictures of the impressive outside and give paying the 7,50€ admission fee a miss.

Another aspect of the cathedral you should also pass on are the women outside who will try to give you “rosemary” and read your palm. I unfortunately fell prey to this one and before I knew what was happening I had some green sprigs in my hand and was being told I’d have two children, and also that Santa Maria would now like me to give this woman 5€. I wasn’t into a confrontation so I gave her the 3€ that were in my pocket, but I wasn’t too happy about it. The fortune she told me was quite nice but I don’t trust her palmistry any more than her horticultural skills–the “rosemary” in my hand did not look or smell like rosemary, and I’m quite certain that it was just a clipping from a nearby hedge.

Islamic architecture, Real Alcazar, Seville

Saturday’s visit to the Real Alcazar was another slightly pricey affair but much more worth it to me. The palace complex is so large that even though I spent two hours within I don’t think I saw everything there was to see. My favourite parts were probably the Mudejar Palace (the section featuring the beautiful Islamic architecture) and the huge gardens. The gardens were complete with fountains, benches, a hedge maze, and peacocks. In fact, the gardens were so big that I almost forgot I was in the middle of a city. I guess it just goes to show that anyone can have the tranquility of country living in the city provided they have enough money and space.

It turns out that because the Alcazar gardens are so beautiful, it is a favourite spot for wedding photos in Seville. I saw five or six different newlywed couples wandering around the Alcazar, being followed by a photographer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many brides in one day. It was kind of exciting to see so many people celebrating a special day in one place.

Aside from the major landmarks, the thing I actually loved most about Seville was the atmosphere. Although the city was almost intolerably hot (and therefore completely quiet) during the siesta hours, its evening life more than made up for it. As I was wandering through the streets at around 9 pm on a warm Friday evening, I found the city incredibly active, but also not at all busy. People were drinking and eating tapas in restaurants. Families were bringing their children into the squares and the kids were all over the place, skateboarding, playing on scooters, and chasing one another. While I was eating dinner in the Plaza Encarnacion, I watched a little boy practice kicking his soccer ball, completely intent on getting it over a concrete retaining wall and heedless of the passers by. I absorbed the activity all around me but still felt relaxed and centred as I enjoyed a beer with dinner.

Occupy Seville, Plaza Encarnacion

On Saturday night the square became even more active as the Occupy Wall Street movement found its way to Seville. I watched from the roof of the hostel as hundreds of people poured into the Plaza Encarnacion, dancing, drumming, blowing whistles, waving signs, cheering, singing. People at home asked me what the police presence was at the protest but as far as I can tell there wasn’t any. Occupy Seville was a completely positive experience, with families present and venders selling roasted nuts to the protesters.

My evening (and my time in Seville) ended with pizza in the Santa Cruz district with a Winnipegger I met in the hostel. We talked about travel, we talked about politics, but mostly, we talked about love.

And truly, what else is there to talk about on a warm night in Seville? Warm hearts and warm-blooded passion are all over the city and it was such a priviledge to stop trying to be such a rush-rush tourist for three days and simply drink it in.

Up, up, and away! Nifty’s European Adventure

40 lbs of adventure in $300 worth of backpack!

I’m no stranger to European travel. I’ve lived in Latvia, Poland, and England (in addition to Canada) and travelled through many other countries besides. But never by myself. I’ve always had a family member with me (a parent, sibling, or cousin) and most of the planning was done by them.

I’m also no stranger to adventures, though most of them are in BC, the city, my neighbourhood, or in my own head.

Now it’s time to take the plunge and have my own big adventure in a faraway place. Ladies and gentleman, for the month of October, NiftyNotCool will be coming to you from Portugal and Spain. And I will be ALL BY MYSELF.

(Ironically, my Travelling Companion, TC, will be unable to accompany me on this journey. Such is the life of a freelancer.)

My mom and I were talking on the phone the other day about my preparations for my upcoming big adventure. My mom said, “Are you getting excited or are you just scared?” I said, “I’m scared.” And I am.

I’ve bought all sorts of gear for the trip (expensive travel backpack, Lonely Planets, etc.), likely a few things I don’t need, and I think somehow I feel comforted by having done this. As in, look at me. I’m ready for this. Look at my Money Belt. Look at my Not-too-heavy Jacket That Will Keep Out The Wind. Look at my Quick Drying Underpants For Easy On The Go Laundering. I’m capital “P” Prepared. I even remembered to get my tetanus booster.

But in actual fact I am capital “P” Petrified. When I see myself in my Keep Out The Wind Jacket and my Walking Sandals and my Hat With A Brim I see an impostor. “Hey there Girl With a Hat,” I think, “what makes YOU think you’re ready for this? Who are YOU to presume you can be an adventurer and go on a caper all by yourself?”

Portugal will be lovely. Spain will be beautiful. I will meet people in hostels, drink port (that’s the plan, anyways), immerse myself in Moorish architecture and natural wonders, take trains, and look at art. I will visit places whose names whisper like a sand-worn dream: Porto, Faro, Seville, Granada. I will probably get mixed up somewhere along the line, or lost, freak out, and wonder why I possibly thought I could do this.

And that’s why I’m going. Less than 24 hours now. I’m ready. I’m prepared. I can do this. Even if I have to stroke my expensive backpack and Quick Drying Underpants for assurance.