Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Ok, now I will finally get to telling you about Madrid, Spain! My friend from study abroad, Emily, was going to be in Europe for a few weeks and wanted to go on a little trip with me, and RyanAir was having a sale or something so I got a cheap round trip flight to Madrid!
I met Emily on November 25th in Paris after work and we stayed in this hostel, since our flight was so early in the morning. We also got a chance to meet up with our friend Mickael and hang out and catch up.
The next day our flight was at 9am, which doesn’t sound too bad. Except that RyanAir flies out of Beauvais, not Paris. Beauvais is a little more than an hour outside of Paris (which is about as far as Charles de Gaulle airport is from Paris as well), but RyanAir suggests you take a bus that is 3 hours before your flight, to ensure that you get there on time. Which meant that we were leaving our hostel at about 5am, since our hostel also wasn’t very close and we didn’t want to risk anything.
One nice thing about a flight that early, is you arrive early. We arrived in Madrid around 11am. We dropped off our things and walked around. Our hostel was in a great location for getting around and I soon discovered that Madrid is actually a pretty small city in terms of sightseeing. Coincidentally, my friend Matt from college/study abroad happened to be working as a language assistant in Madrid and when I hopped on Facebook that first afternoon, he was online and came to come meet us! We went to have pinxtos at a really cool wine bar called Lamiak. Pinxtos are kind of like tapas, but that they are always served on bread (I think so at least). Anyway, mine had goat cheese and caramelized onion on it- yum!!!
After we walked around the city for a bit more and then went to have churros! Apparently, churros are had with this very thick hot chocolate that you dunk it in. They’re delicious, but so bad for you!
Walking around some more, there is an area that is meant to look like New York’s Times Square! The city is also really well done for Christmas, with a giant Christmas trees, an ice rink, and lots of lights everywhere. There is even a building that has a Christmas lights show to music on its wall, just like one I saw in NYC a few years ago.
That night, Emily and I went to this roof top lounge that is worth mentioning. I don’t know what it was called, but the view from the top was unbelievable. Some random girl in the hostel told us to go and we got a crew going and had a really cool time. What a random, swanky find!
The next day was Sunday. In the morning we met Matt outside of a well known restaurant-type place that sell what are supposed to be amazing calamari sandwiches. I love calamari, but this was definitely not the best, and whoever thought putting bad calamari on a crappy role, and then maybe putting mayonnaise on it, they clearly were not thinking straight.
After, that, it happened to be right by the modern art museum Reina Sophia, which is free on Sundays. This museum holds famous and beautiful modern art and is most known for its Dali’s and Picasso’s. There is especially one Picasso that is the highlight of the museum: The Guernica. The Guernica, completed in 1937, is an intense piece depicting the Spanish Civil War. It really is a giant and emotional piece and I would highly recommend seeing it if you go to Madrid.
Afterwards, we walked to a very beautiful park called Retiro Park. On the way, we passed what seemed to be an Occupy Wall street-type protest, which was neat to see. In the park, which is enormous, there are beautiful fountains, trees and shrubs. They even have palm trees because it never freezes there! There is one beautiful man-made pond that has an enormous fountain and you can rent row boats. We sat on the steps in the sun watching the row boats go by…
After, we discovered that there is a free art exhibit in the park that is a gallery of the Renia Sophia. It was particularly striking because all the walls were blaringly white, in contrast to the colorful paintings on the walls. Then, pretty nearby, was the Glass Palace, which we also discovered. Inside was another modern art exhibit, but it was just one work of art. The palace is all in glass so that the sun comes through, and the exhibit was a wall that lined the outer glass wall so you could walk between the glass and this wall or inside of it. On this wall were millions of tiny cut out symbols, so that when you looked at the sun through it, it looked like stars. It was very beautiful.
After that, we wandered around for a long time. I got to see the beautiful cathedral of Madrid and the Palace of the king and queen (who knew that Spain still had a king and queen? Lol I can’t believe I didn’t…).
We also went to the Prado Museum for about an hour, since it is free for the last two hours. Here they have beautiful Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco.
The next day we walked around the area known as Malasaña. In this area, my friend Kristen recommended to me a restaurant that has the best paella in all of Madrid. This quaint little restaurant did have great paella, and Emily and Matt really like what they ordered as well! Which was easy, since we all have very different tastes and Emily is a vegetarian.
After that we walked to the center of town and got nun cookies! In a small square known as Plazuela del Conde de Miranda, there is an old convent of cloistered nuns that make old fashioned cookies. To get them, you have to go to this door on the street and ring a bell, then, after telling them you want cookies, you go in and follow a hallway and at the end, you reach a dark room and on the left wall is a sort of lazy-Susan and behind it is a cloistered nun who you’re not allowed to see. She speaks to you (in Spanish!) and you get to choose what kind of cookies you want. I bought almond and coconut. They are really dense, powdery cookies made with lard instead of butter in the very, very old fashioned way and are called pulverones.
Other things we saw is there is a beautiful covered market that has all kinds of food, wines, and tapas.
I think that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t seem like much, but I really loved Madrid. The weather was excellent and warm and the architecture is beautiful and you can just walk around all day looking at free and beautiful things.
To see pictures, follow this link:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ghent & Frankfurt

So I last left you off on the 2nd of November, when I had just barely made it home from Liverpool... In my memory, nothing too exciting happened in Le Havre (LH), so I'll just skip to the 11th...
On Friday, November 11th it is not only Veterans day in the US, but also la fête de l'armistice (Armistice Day) in France, which meant I had the day off (and since I only work 3 hours Thursday and 6 hours on Friday, I only had to work 3 hours that day!). So, I hopped on a train from LH to Paris and then did this cool thing called "covoiturage." Covoiturage is kind of like modern hitch hiking except for a few major differences: you plan it in advance, and its not free. To covoiturage, or ride share, you use a well known webisite (there are several, but I've found the most popular and easiest one to be and you search your starting city, ending city, and date you want to travel. Then a list pops up of people going that route. The site calculates how much each seat costs in the car based on the car's gas efficiency (drivers post what car they have- model, year, everything), the distance, and tolls. Each person has a profile, contact info, and reviews. I used this site to find someone driving from Paris to Ghent, Belgium. The cost of the ride was 22euro. Covoiturage isn't always necessarily faster or cheaper than buses or trains, but its typically nicer because you get to talk with someone (and practice your French!) and its a bit more comfortable. Trains can be quite comfortable and fast but expensive and buses are cheap but usually take a long time and are uncomfortable... Also, the price never changes, unlike buses and trains which get more expensive as you get closer to your travel date.
So, anyway, I found this very nice young guy who was driving 3 other people as well from Paris to Ghent. He wanted to meet everyone at Ivry-sur-Seine, a really nice area just on the border of paris towards the east. Unfortunately, I miss read the train list and got on a train that was on the right line but was SKIPPING the stop and not stopping again for another 15-20 minutes!!! In a panic, I called him and explained what was happening. I was extremely worried that he was going to tell me, "Sorry!" and leave without me! Luckily, he was super nice and drove to where I was (a good 30-40 min in the other direction by car!) to pick me up. Apparently one of the couples that was supposed to come on the covoiturage bailed (not very nice! Though Jo, the driver, said that it happens fairly often), but there was a girl who was stopping in Lille, a small city in France just before the Belgian border. So we had a nice conversation. Jo turned out to be Belgian, studying chiropractics, and happened to speak French, English and Dutch. The girl (I forget her name now and what she did), didn't speak English but understood it, so it was nice to speak in French, but when I had trouble explaining something or understanding, it worked out.
So after a nice car ride into Belgium, I did another thing that I know might shock you (since I imagine many of you are shocked that I am taking rides with strangers haha). Since Ghent is a very small city in Belgium and I was going there because it is the host of a major indoor electronic music festival, all the hostels were booked. So, I Couchsurfed. Couchsurfing is a cross between hitch hiking and covoiturage-ing couches. For those of you who don't know what Couchsurfing is, it is a free website that connects people looking for places to stay, with people who have places to stay. It's more elaborate than covoiturage and is in many ways similar to Facebook. There are many different forums within it and people can plan events, meetups, etc. It's a really nice way to meet people in your community if you just moved there. Also, the profiles are more elaborate. You write a description about yourself, where you've traveled, life goals, where you live, your age, education, pictures, etc. You can also have friends and they write about what they think of you. Also, when you've stayed with someone or they've stayed with you, you post about each other as well and write about the experience. So there's quite a lot of feedback you can look at when trying to choose someone to stay with or deciding if its ok for them to stay with you. Couchsurfing is how I met my best friend, Emily! :)
Anyway, I was staying with a guy named Simon who is Dutch and studying architecture. When I got there, he introduced me to his roommate Frank and a guy from NY named Erik who was staying at their place for the week... Unfortunately, Simon had to go home to Bruges, and Erik was leaving to go somewhere else in Ghent. Luckily, Frank was super cool! Frank is also studying architecture and he is from the Czech Republic. He was very interesting to speak with and had a lot of really interesting ideas. The Friday night, after hanging out for a long time talking, we went out. Simon left me his bike, so Frank and I rode bikes through the town. Ghent is a really cool city because it is very small and very beautiful. I would definitely recommend it if you just happen to be passing through Belgium. It has a really medieval feel to it. And there's a castle in the main square. There are also really beautiful canals. We rode our bikes through the desolate but beautiful streets to get to the student area where all the bars are. Its really hilarious because the area is really grimy and dingy. The bars are really smelly and the street is just unattractive... As soon as we got there, I was no longer in the mood to be there. So Frank and I just hung out on the street watching people pass by and talking some more...
One funny thing is that they had a public urinal on a street corner. Whats weird about it was that it was open air and it was made of glass that wasn't see through, but there was a light behind it so that you could see the shadows of the guys peeing! It was very strange...
The next day, my friend Emily's friend joined me in Couchsurfing with Frank. Her name was Meli and she is from Argentina but is currently working at a fancy hotel in Spa, Belgium. When Meli got there, her and I spent a while walking around and seeing the sights of Ghent. We went in a few beautiful churches and just generally walked around.
That night we went to I <3 Techno, a huge in door music festival (one of the largest in Europe!). I saw tons of artists and met lots of people from all over Europe. I also brought my LED light hoop. A girl FOUND ME because she hooped too! She and I were the only hoopers there that night and we had a blast. Not surprisingly, she was also from the US. I wish more people hooped here. In the US I could go to a festival like that and easily find people to hoop with... Nevertheless, it was still really fun and crazy!
The next day I took an 8 hour bus to Frankfurt to meet up with Emily! After a crazy fiasco, and nearly missing the bus, I got onto the bus and just sat for ages, wait to get there... We passed through Brussels and I got to see the UN building there... but that was the only cool sight...
Finally got to Frankfurt and was reunited with the lovely and amazing Emily Davidson!! :D I stayed in the hostel she's been living in, 5 Elements. It's such an epic hostel. There is an amazing lounge area with leather couches and free laptops you can rent out and Tuesday is free unlimited past night and the pillows and comforters are super nice as well... Her friends in the hostel are also super nice and amazing! Also, its funny because the hostel is in the red light district of Frankfurt. It's totally safe, especially for girls because the hookers aren't really looking for female clientele, but apparently if your male they can be extremely aggressive in trying to get you into their "store"...
Frankfurt is also a very modern, very clean city. There is this beautiful mall that has this amazing glass architecture inside it and you can go on the roof for free and see the whole city. There's a huge cathedral that we could see from there that was used by the Allied army (I think) in WWII as a reference point, so it was never bombed (while the rest of the city was).
I'm trying to think of what other cool stuff we did in Frankfurt, but I really went there to go see Emily so I spent a lot of time hanging out with her... One cool thing we did do was that there are 5€ films on Monday nights. You pay the 5€ and all you know is that it will be a film in English, but you dont know if the film will be awful or old or sappy or scary... Luckily this one was a good one. It was called Hysteria and it featured Maggie Gyllenhall in it. It was a period piece about the late 1800s when women who were unsatisfied with their lives were labeled with the medical term, hysteria. The treatment: and handjob... that is until they discovered, the vibrator! Haha it was a hilarious film and if youre interested, I've written about it for a friend's blog :
That was kind of it really... On Wednesday I took an over night bus to Paris and then the train to LH in the morning! Worked that afternoon ;)
Up next: MADRID!!!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ireland and a little bit of Liverpool

Im sorry I´ve failed all of you yet again, but to be fair, I wrote this a while ago by hand because my computer has broken. Good news: it can be fixed! :)

I think I left off last time on my way to Dublin?
Well Dublin was really nice. When I arrived, my friend John picked me up, which was super nice! He is a friend of mine who is also an assistant in Le Hare. He is from Swords, just outside of Dublin. After stopping at his home to see what a real Irish home looks like (just like American homes, except the fridge is tiny and they have a "sitting room") we headed into Dublin.
John showed me around the town, explaining to me some of its difficult history. Of the landmarks, I remember the Spire (a giant silver needle in the middle of the center of town, the joke is that its a giant needle because of the huge heroin problem they have there), a statue of some historic figure on a horse (I remember it because it has bullet holes in it from the civil war=, and a statue of a whore pushing a cart (yes, right on a main road through town).
John and I also went to Trinity College. Trinity is very famous as it is part of a triumverate of elite UK schools: Trinity, Cambridge, and Oxford. It was established as an Anglican school in 1592 (any Catholics found on the property could be shot on sight!).
The campus is quite lovely and open to the public. On the campus (for a hefty fee) you get to go into the old portion of the library, which has become a museum that houses really old manuscripts. About 1,000 years ago, the Irish church was mostly a monastic organization, with monks living in isolation, re-writing the Bible with beautiful designs and colors. The most famous of these books, held at Trinity, is the Book of Kells. The book can be found in a glass case, and apparently they turn the page everyday. I also liked that they had a stone with the ancient Gaelic writing system on it, called Ogham. At the end of the visit, you get to walk along the second floor through the old library, with all the old books in old bookcases. It reminded me of the library in Beauty and the Beast, if that helps you to envision it. You could also see in this section, on the other side of a glass wall, the department where they care for and maintain the old books and manuscripts, which is cool.
I want to take a moment here to talk about Irish Gaelic. Since Ireland's independence, the Irish have taken a keen interest in their culture and history. Thus, in high school, Gaelic is a required subject. There are also elementary schools that are taught in all Gaelic, so that the student are fluent. There are certain towns in Ireland where the lingua franca is Gaelic. And in Ireland you dont have majors in college like we do; you choose 3 subjects to study in first year and then two subjects for 2nd and 3rd year (college is only 3 years in Europe) and typically one of those two subjects is Gaelic. All road signs are also in English and in Gaelic. And just so you know, there is a difference between Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, though I'm told they are not terribly different.
That evening I met my friend Amy's cousin, who also lives in Dublin. We hung out with him in a pub and he had a friend who was also visiting him who was from the States and studying abroad in Italy. I felt very cool sitting in an Irish pub drinking with Irish people :)
Amy's cousin also invited me to take the bus to Galway with him and his friend and we could crash with his friends who live there. Apparently Galway is the "cultural capital" of Ireland. Unfortunately, I didnt get there until after 11pm and I left in the morning, so I cant say much about it other than that it has a fun nightlife (haha).
The hostel I stayed at, Isaac's Hostel, was not nice- I wouldnt recommend it. It was super noisy as a result of thin wals and wood foors, so that I was up at 8am every day, which is awful because there really isnt much to do there before noon as most things to do in Dublin circle around drinking lol. I was tempted to go to the Jameson distillery and the Guinness brewery, but I felt that it was just too depressing to go to those places by myself... Honestly, I spent most of my time drinking there because theres not much else to do, which is obviously fun, but not really exciting to write about.
They do, however, celebrate Halloween, which is why I went there in the first place. I dressed as a French sailor. On the night before Halloween I went to a Halloween party with John and on Halloween night I went out on a pub crawl with a bunch of different people I met on a walking tour. A few of the girl were even from Rockville Center on LI!
I also got to go to the 21st birthday party of on of John's friends. It was fun- she had it in a pub with her friends and family. There were lots of finger foods, which was nice (they never have those in France!).
Overall, the experience in Dublin was fun, but I hear that I really should have seen the other parts of Ireland which are very beautiful. I was encouraged by one traveler to go back and do the Paddy Wagon tour, which is youthful, cheap, and sees lots of sights around Ireland.
After these epic few days, I took a ferry over to Holyhead in Wales and then a train to Chester and then to Liverpool. The ferry was at 7:30am, so I caught up on sleep on that and didnt really see much, though it was a really nice boat with free (though painfully slow) internet and computers, duty free shops, restaurants, etc. The train from Holyhead to Chester was nice and made Wales look unbelievable open and beautiful. Sadly, I realized on the train ride that in the stress and confusion of finding the right train in Holyhead, I had left a garbage bag of a few things at the train station! (So typical me!) After a mini panic attack, the conductor called Holyhead and got my bag on the next train. Unfortunately, that train was two hours behind me. Fortunately, the conductor was SO helpful and nice and told me to wait for it at Chester and that I could take a free shuttle into town. Turns out Chester is really quaint. There was a lovely little church with a cute courtyard/park that I could sit in while eating a sandwich. There is also a a really nice square with beautiful brick buildings around it. On the neighboring streets were the old style white building with the exposed beams that you see around England. It may sound really silly, but I'm kind of glad I forgot my things and had to spend time there- it was lovely and I wouldn't have seen this little town otherwise.
After nearly 12 hours of traveling, I finally made it to Liverpool. I made this epic journey because the flight from Liverpool was a bit cheaper and I thought it'd be fun to see this other part of England.
Since I arrived to Liverpool on a Tuesday, it was pretty quiet. However, I luckily found a few people in the hostel and rallied them up for going out. It is quite a modern city like Le Havre (except prettier) since it was also bombed in WWII. Near the hostel is this cool church that was bombed so that all that is left is a skeleton of the church: no roof, no windows, just the framework.
Luckily, one of the guys that I rallied to go out the night before had the day free so he showed me around. By the water are really nice ships that you can go on and there is a modern art museum that is a branch of the Tate Museum, though I didnt go in it.
The highlights of the city are its two major churches. There is a massive Anglican church that looks like a medieval cathedral. What is funny is that inside, above the doors, is a neon pink sign giving a quote from the Bible. The church is just as imposing inside as it is outside, and is large enough that it has a cafe in it, which seemed so weird to me.
The other church was a Catholic church that looks like a cross between a teepee and a spaceship. Apparently the crypt is really amazing because they built it really well and really big first, and then realized that if they continued at that rate it would cost too much money...
Oh, and of course the other major sight there is the underground bar where the Beatles made their debut. Unfortunately, when I went in the afternoon it was closed, but at least I got to see the outside!
That evening I flew back to Paris and sprinted from the airport to the train station where I could get a train to Le Havre (my mom can tell you, its quite far- and I made it in an hour!). The next big thing to come up: Ghent and Frankfurt on Nov. 11!