Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tips for Madrid and Toledo

Library, Madrid
1. Once landing in Madrid go immediately to Casa Gonzalez on Calle de Leon (just off of Calle de Huertas) and order tapas. The Chorizo Iberico, semi-cured Manchego cheese or the Cabreles (the strongest blue cheese made in Spain) and the Foie Gras are exceptional, especially when you forget about animal rights.

2. Don't be picky about your beer. Just order "Dos cervezas" or "dos canyas" and trust it.

3. Definitely do one of those day trips people talk about and if you choose Toledo, plan in go to the RENFE train station a day or two before if you want to get on the 9:20 a.m. or 10:20 a.m. train. Otherwise, you will get on the 12:20p.m. train and arrive at the top of the hill of Toledo right at the hottest part of the day. Be kind to yourself. You can throw caution to the wind when you are there, but plan ahead. And if you do miss the train, the answer to your back up plan is: No, you cannot get tickets to Sergovia at this train station. Also note that Trip Advisor forums are correct when they talk about American's having difficulty using credit cards here. It is the only place Mike's credit card has been denied in the many countries we have used it. Bring cash - 20 Euros each for a roundtrip ticket.

*This is also true for bus tickets to Granada. Go ahead of time. We could not buy online because we don't have a printer, so we went two days before our departure and three of the buses were sold out. Also, purchase your tickets at the window. One of those little kiosks froze on us and it tool twenty minutes before it reset and we learned that no, we had not been charged and not given our tickets. They say accept credit cards, but we they don' least ours didn't.

4. In Madrid, when they tell you to get to the platform twenty minutes ahead of time, it's true. You have to go through security before you get on the train.

5. If you take a day trip to Toledo, wear shoes. Sandals, even those ugly ass Keens of yours with the toe protector, cannot save the balls of your feet from the constant smacking on raw cobblestone up and down that hill.  When I say cobblestone, I mean just rocks in cement. Unlike smooth cobblestone pavers, these bad boy streets are all sorts of uneven rocks, some polished down and some sticking out like mini road bumps waiting for you to stub your toe. Okay. it's not bad...unless you are circling that mystery spot where Mezquito del Cristo de la Luz is supposed to be.

2. After Day 3...okay maybe 5, move on from jamon and Manchego cheese.Yes, even the chorizo!

3. Hablo espanol. Like any other country where English is not the main language, at least try to exchange a few pleasantries in their language before bumbling around for your request in English.
Churros con chocolate

4. That whole myth about "siesta" is true. Get up, get going, and siesta before a late dinner at 9:00.

5. Try Schweppes Limon. So delicious and no, they did not pay me to say this...but I'm open to an offer...any offer. This trip ain't cheap!

6.  Save the money you would have spent in Italy on clothes and buy them here. The clothes are cheaper, but also way cuter (in my opinion) with  more of a funky vibe and a lot more mixing of individual style with designer cuts.

7. Madrid is fucking hot. Yes, even at the end of September, wear tanktops, but pack a light wrap for the night time.

8. The napkins here are shitty. Pack a hankie.

9. When you go to museums, if you have a messenger bag, you must wear it in front of you or check it. That is what they are trying to tell you when they stop you at the ticket entrance. Swing it around!

10. Don't believe TripAdvisor or the Guidebooks on the 19 items it is suggested you can cover in a "Day Trip to Toledo." Toledo is a very sleepy, dreamy-like town with streets that weave you in and out of beautiful medieval architecture...but mind you it is on a hill, so you are in and out and up and down. Sure, it might be nice to see The Alcazar, The Cathedral and the fifty million churches and museums possible...but it also may be nice to take a wrong turn and find yourself at Happy Hour with the locals at Plaza de Montalbanes...or you can keep looking for that Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz. (Where the fuck is it?!) Your call. If I were to do it again, I'd spend a night here and do as the Spaniards do...chill. What we did was take our time at the Cathedral (which is not free. 8€ and it comes with a free audio guide.), saw El Greco's painting El Entierro Del Señor De Orgaz at Iglesia de Santo Tome (2.50€) visited Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca (2.50€) and tried to see the Hospital de Tavera but it was closed an hour earlier than the guidebooks said it would be (5:30 not 6:30). We also stumbled upon San Juan de los Reyes and the facade was beautiful as well as a million other places in Toledo.

11. ART IN MADRID: I don't care if you don't like museums, you have to go to the Museo Nacional Del Prado, and you should do this one first (followed by Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza then the Reina Sofia). And if you are on a budget, go at 6:00 p.m. Monday -Saturday and you can get a free ticket. They give you a map of the masterpieces you must see and although it is more crowded, there is an exciting energy in the museum as people move quickly around each other to take in all of the free art at their disposal. Never have I been to a museum where so many people were so excited to see art! This also goes for the Reina Sofia. The free hours are 7:00 - 9:00 and although they are above giving you an easy guide (probably because they are the modern museum), they do give you a map with an index of the artists you want to see. You can finally see all of those Salvador Dali paintings you used to have as prints in high school when you smoked a lot of pot and dropped acid and thought it said something about you to have them up in your room when your friends came over. What it said...probably that you smoked a lot of pot and dropped acid, but now you can have an actual context for those paintings you loved fifteen years ago!
Monet at Museo Thyssen

12. THE PRADO: See Velazquez's Topers (The Drinkers) at the Prado.  I know you will see his Las Meninas, but Topers was my favorite. Also check out Rembrandt's Judith at the banquet of Holofernes and Rubens The Three Graces and Ribera's The Sense of Touch.

13. SOFIA REINA See Picasso's Guernica at the Sofia Reina. And when you look for that piece by Hitchcock, go see it. It's in English! (And pack a sweater. This one is freezing!)

14. MUSEO THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA: See the Impressionists - Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir. See the cubists - Gris and Picasso. See the American - Edward Hopper's Hotel Roomi crushing. There are no free hours here and Mike and I were the youngest patrons at this museum. To be fair, it was the middle of the day on a Wednesday.  This one has lots of different rooms and a couple floors. Like the Prado, they give you a map/checklist of the master paintings, but many of them were on loan and some were in different rooms than listed (off by one or in one case, one level). Go before lunch and then get a goo meal afterwards. You will be tired.

*It should be noted that Caixa Forum is now considered to be among these three giants. Outside of this museum they have a huge living wall that is pretty cool.

15. Just like Italy, public restrooms are hard to find. Having come from Italy, my bladder has been stretched and I now have the amazing ability to "hold it" for long stretches of time, a consequence that has UTI written all over it.  Been in Madrid a week and I have yet to see a public restroom, but in case I do, I have my emergency one Euro packed (the cost to get in) and a few squares of toilet paper for the 50/50 chance there will be none when I close the stall door.

16. That girl in the green vest speaking to you in Spanish very very fast and very excited and hopeful...much like any promenade or busy city street in America, she is asking you if you have a moment for Greenpeace.
El Transparente, Cathedral in Toledo
17.  Try the Patates Bravas and the Tortilla de papas con pimientos. Also, churros con chocolate and mazapan.

18. If you love yourself, go to Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, close to Plaza de Mayor.  Yes, all those little tapas will add up, but it will be so worth it. While I disliked the empenadas and stuffed olives, I LOVED the jamón, the queso, y tostas. The sweets were excellent, too.

19. The post office...yeah, good luck, if you are trying to find that and you have stumbled on my blog by mistake. La oficina de Correo is hard to find but there is one San Francisco however it closes at 1:00 on Saturdays, unlike what a couple forums said. Yes, we did learn this the hard way. From what I can make out, I think you might want the International Prioritario Paqueta and I still don't know where to find bubble wrap in this city. Looking for a box? Try trash day.

20. Go see The Fallen Angel statue at Buen Retiro Park. It is the only statue of Lucifer in all of the religious art of the world and it is fabulous! We had one of our best days in this park. The temperature dropped and a cool breeze rustled fallen leaves as we strolled through the park on a fall day in Spain. There are tons of cool sections on this park and we generally just enjoyed people watching. We also went to the Botanical Gardens which don't hold a candle to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden but have the most amazing stretch of Dahlias I have ever seen. 

We are off to Granada tomorrow, so more to come!

The Fallen Angel at Buen Retiro Park in Madrid

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wordless Wednesday (With Captions)

Santorini, Greece

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Violinist at Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Monday, September 23, 2013

Two Days in Vienna and One Giant Leap Forward in Empowerment

Cafe Pruckel, Vienna

Cafe Bendl
After leaving Prague with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, Mike and I said goodbye to Danielle who caught a flight back to London and we continued south with a train to Vienna. Oh, Vienna! (*le sigh)  Similar to Germany, the transportation system was streamlined with trains and connections so smooth it was a dream to get to our next airbnb destination, which as of September 19th is still one of our favorite places. Not only was the apartment beautiful with a huge spacious room with open shudders, a comfortable big bed and a suede couch, but this is one of the places we have stayed where we were just renting a room in someone’s apartment. Our host, Sheila, was very warm and a professional at making travelers feel right at home. She had a very open and welcoming attitude with little notes welcoming us to use any kind of spices or jams, but to kindly think of replacing such items or even better, buying something completely different to add to the house. In the bathroom, she had all of her perfumes out and moisturizers and nail polish and I immediately felt relaxed. I was entrusted with her living space and so I immediately felt at ease sharing mine. We didn’t actually meet her until the next morning and she told us where to eat locally and where to avoid some of the tourist traps around the city. We chatted about her airbnb experiences which, so far, have all been pleasant. She saw us off with kisses on the cheek and a wish we could have chatted longer. People have so much to do with your experience of a place.

Vienna feels so long ago but one experience in particular has really stayed with me and that is the opera we saw at an outdoor film festival that was being projected on a screen set against Rathhausplatz. I have always wanted to see an opera live and next to the shitty Mozart variety show in Prague this is as close to it as I have come. Well, not totally true…I did stumble upon another opera in the rain being projected at Lincoln Center in New York. But this opera was epic and people were out in the rain, bundled up to watch it. What impressed me most was the amount of young people in the crowd. The crowd itself was not overwhelming, but for an opera in the cold, it was awesome. And even though we didn’t understand the language, we understood the emotional storyline of the opera and for me, it was like being back in a black box theatre, with that same feeling of suspended reality, that same feeling of magic.
Opera at Rauthausplatz
Vienna was supposed to be a rest stop for us, but once we started walking, we kept stumbling upon more and more places and monuments and cafes! We had cappuccinos (Melange/Schalnge) at Café Pruckel which was served to us on a silver platter, placed gingerly down on pink linens. After the Kaffehaus, we wondered around the city and saw the Vienna Opera house and climbed the south tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) for a 360 degrees view of the city. We went to Rauthausplatz and wandered inside where we saw a giant ballroom set up for a serious looking chess tournament. We went to Karlsplatz, the set of one of my favorite old timey movies, The Third Man, and walked around the Volksgarten, enjoying the roses. We saw the Mozart statue, as well as Goethe’s and Gutenberg’s. We had one of our favorite meals in Eastern Europe (goulash soup, slices of camembert cheese on fresh bread, wild boar sausage and Austrian beers) at Café Bendl where the interior décor has not changed much since the 1970s. The dark walls covered in lots of vintage American pop culture (Marilyn & Elvis) seemed lacquered with a coat of nicotine and the furniture held generations of cigarette smoke that seemed to escape in invisible plumes if you sank down in your chair. But, for whatever reason, what would normally disgust me, adds to the fee in this place. We strolled past Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square) and later had dinner at Schone Perle (Beautiful Pearl) where I took a break from schnitzel and beer and had vegetarian lentil cakes. Divine! At night, after the opera, Mike and I strolled through deserted cobblestone streets, the adventure sinking in a little bit further.

The other awesome thing that happened in Vienna was a phone call I made to a friend in Brooklyn, a friend that I could talk to about the pink shirts in Prague (refer to previous post in Prague) and finally let it out that I was so disappointed but mostly in myself. As I played the situation out to her, she relayed back that it sounded like I had taken responsibility for the girl who ruined my shirts, and rather than allowing space for her to rise to the occasion and take the right action, I had quickly tried to fix it by saying everything was okay. Here is where I get myself in trouble. Here is where I cover up my feelings only to discover much later how angry I am. Here is where I don’t honor myself. After the call, I emailed the airbnb host and requested compensation for the damaged shirts that made up half of my carefully planned wardrobe for the year. After a few back and forth emails, I stuck to a very clear, unemotional request that ended with me getting one night reimbursed, about half the cost of the shirts, but to me, a fair deal in the end.  In truth, it was more important for me to take that action and make that request than the outcome of it.

We left Vienna just as soon as we fell in love with it and took a train ride through sunflower fields and wind turbine crowns to Budapest, Hungary.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pink Shirts in Prague

John Lennon Wall, Prague, Czech Republic (pre-pink shirt)
After an awesome last night in Berlin, Mike, Danielle and I took a lovely train ride to Prague from Berlin. We were headed for another Airbnb destination and after such an awesome experience in Berlin (perfect location, two bedroom flat with kitchen and big bathroom!) I was confident the next one would be just as spectacular. 

When we arrived to another shitty entrance (much like most of the Airbnb places I've booked) I was not deterred, because thus is the beauty of this operation. Not much from the outside, but gems on the inside. We were happy to learn that Danielle had booked a room in the same flat as us and that they were not separate apartments. We were greeted by a young Czech woman with one earring, pink dreadlocks, and a passion for vegetarian food as most of the restaurants she recommended were such. She was not the owner of the flat, but a friend who showed us the ropes, marked on the map what areas would charge us outrageous prices and where the local restaurants and pubs that had the real Prague were.  
Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, & The Charles Bridge
Prague, Czech Republic
Things I did not expect in Prague:
1. The colors. All of the buildings, which are all gorgeous, are different and bright colors that make for an almost magical setting. 
2. The Disney effect. I had seen all of these castles and churches before, they were just animated and in Disney movies or scaled down imitations at Disneyland in California.
3. The beer really is cheaper than the water.
4. Cheese-smothered sausage in a frying pan for dinner will definitely make you gain weight overnight. 
5. That I would walk away from this trip with three pink shirts.

After a great meal at a local traditional Czech restaurant (whose name escapes me) we went for a walk along the Charles Bridge lined with medieval  bronze and stone statues of saints. We entered under a huge arch that looked almost identical to the entry way into the fantasy kingdom at Disneyland. The effect of walking into a real life castle entrance was surreal and all of us lit up like kids on Christmas. We wandered around the enchanted town until our legs were shaking with exhaustion.

We took a tour of Prague castle of which my favorite part was seeing the windows where the defenestration of Prague happened. Basically, three Catholic leaders were thrown out of the windows by Protestant leaders who wanted to change the national religion, but the three Catholic leaders survived and this is what sparked the Thirty Years War. We took a walking tour with a young tour guide on her second tour ever who would often get so nervous she would laugh or blush and then apologize. She walked us through the city past the only working astronomical clock in the world, Kafka's house and Mozart's old street and the theatre he once conducted Don Giovanni. Here, I totally got suckered and fell for my first but not my last tourist trap. I became obsessed with the idea of hearing Don Giovanni in the theatre that once housed Mozart. So, we bought tickets and the next night we got dressed up and basically saw a two bit variety act with an average male lead (at best) as they switched costumes and sang some of the songs from the opera. To say the experience was underwhelming is being too kind. Danielle and Mike still have not let me live it down. You would think the night could only go up from there. But, instead, we could not find a restaurant that would take credit card (we didn't want to take out more Kronos since we were leaving the next morning) and all of us got into disagreements with different vendors that tried to overcharge us or were essentially straight out rude. It got to the point, where we broke out into uncontrollable giggles at the absurdity. We wanted to spend money on a good meal for our last night in Prague and we walked away with two hot dogs and a glass of white wine, none of which we wanted. We even had one restaurant say they could not take our card because they had no electricity. He said this in a fully lit restaurant with blinking lights. We laughed ourselves silly and realized how annoying it must be for the vendors to be dealing with tourists all summer long and chalked it up to a lesson learned in expectations and letting things go.

When we got home, Danielle cracked a bottle of wine open and I discovered that the white laundry load I had left to the flat owner to do (under her specific instructions I was not to touch the washing machine and she promised to put my clothes with like colors) had been washed with a load of red linens. All of my white clothing was pink. Now that seems silly, maybe. But when you have carefully selected multi functional clothing to go with every other article and these are your clothes for the next year, it sucks big time. In a rage I threw them back into the wash and screwed up all the settings and washed them for 3 hours, but still, they were pink.

In the morning, when I asked another American couple staying there (the flat owner was not there and had told her friend to do the laundry) if they understood the washer since they lived in Germany, the woman said she could help me. When I explained my clothes had been ruined, her face dropped and she admitted that it was her who had done the wash and she was friends with the flat owner. Now instead of leaving room for her to step up and take the right action, I quickly told her it was okay because I didn't want her to feel bad. It didn't help that she said she assumed the clothes were old and made jokes about not shopping for new clothes in Vienna because it was expensive. By the time I left Prague I was cursing the city and its people. But after a phone call in Vienna with a very wise friend, I realized I was most angry at myself for not letting there be uncomfortable space in that moment and for not saying anything. I had betrayed myself! But there is a happy ending to that the next post.

We had a blast with Danielle and were sad to see her go, but overall what a wonderful experience! 

How we dry our clothes when we sink wash

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Few Prague Pictures

I cannot get writing together, but I can at least put up some pictures for family members NOT on social media. Here are a few from Prague. I'm working on the stories!
Astronomical Clock, Prague


Library of Strahov Monastery

Sunday, September 8, 2013

One Month of Travel: 5 Countries, 4 Friends, 3 Pink Shirts, 2 Overnight Bus Trips, 1 Cold

Sacred Bath, Pammukale, Turkey
It has been one month since Mike and I set out for this adventure. Just before we left, a friend in Vermont told us that time would feel slow because our experiences would be many. Time has been more than slow, it has been full and rich and inspired and exhausting. I intended to blog more frequently from the start of this journey, but my curiosity has been leading this trip and sometimes leading me straight into the ground.

Ihlara Valley, Turkey
I was not surprised after an overnight bus trip from Antalya, Turkey to Cappadocia, Turkey that I came down with a nasty virus that rocked my body with a cold, a stomach virus and a stiff neck. What does surprise me is that my body fought it quickly and it did not sink into my chest days later when I took another 12 hour overnight bus ride back to Istanbul. This trip has been a wonderful teacher and even better gratitude reminder. It has not been lost on me that I am very fortunate and while I'd love to be more humble with my picture posts, I also feel compelled to share, compelled to connect, compelled to stay within reach of my friends and family. Right now a picture conveys all the things I want to say: Isn't this country beautiful? I am happy and safe. We miss you! We thank you.

Ihlara Valley, Turkey
Kaputas Beach, Kas, Turkey
I am learning as I go on this trip - compassion, patience, and trust. And I don't do it perfectly, but I try to stretch myself and when I feel stretched too far, I take an hour alone. I swim. I sleep. I write. I pluck my eyebrows or finally tackle that dreadlock that has been forming in the back of my head. I look for routine and rhythm in strange places where I don't know the language, but find that a smile and a laugh of humility can be just the right kind of communication. I read. I meditate. And today, I finally did some strength training. It's important to center, important to ground...which is why blogging is so damn tough right now. I don't want to be centered at all. But without it, my instincts run riot, and I lose my serenity quicker than drinking a roadside Turkish tea.

So much to write about: the pink shirt drama in Prague, the outdoor opera in rainy Vienna, the music beneath the bridge in Budapest, the balloon ride in Cappadocia and the adventure in Turkey with two friends and a rental car. But for now, just a little check in, a little centering, and a little hello to so many of the people who made this possible.

With gratitude, love, and peace from be continued...

Kaputas Beach, Turkey