Europe

Madrid: Street Entertainers, Lottery Booths and Ham Museums

I was surprised with myself that I’d never visited Madrid. After 10 years of learning Spanish, I guess I’d just never got around to it. I had in this time taken three trips to Barcelona but Madrid had never happened. So I felt a sympathy for Madrid before I even boarded the plane from Lisbon. Madrid turned out to be a pleasant surprise and an arty and bohemian yet smart and classy city.

Having said goodbye to Hannah in Lisbon, I was travelling on my own for the first time since I was in hospital in Bangkok and it felt really strange! On one hand, it was easy to just trundle around but on the other hand, I was yearning for someone to point out the street entertainers to. Street entertainers. That’s something they’re not short of in Madrid. There’s the good kind – my favourite was two men coated in gold, one of whom appeared to be floating on top of the other. Then there’s the Winnie the Poohs and Bart Simpsons and Spongebobs. I’ve never seen so many! They hover around La Puerta del Sol and the parks waiting for photos to be taken with then and cash to be handed over. I don’t have a problem with this, everyone has to make a living, but some of the costumes are just awful!

They don’t directly approach you, or maybe I just didn’t look like the type who wanted a photo with Woody Woodpecker. I was, however, approached by a couple of Eastern European deaf and dumb girls with a clipboard of “donations” who I’m sure I encountered once before in Paris. Pleasure to see them again.

There’s also a lot of ‘Once’ lottery booths, which although they make for pretty urban photos, did look a little shut most of the time. I have a feeling I remember studying about the Spanish lottery at A level and I’m sure I remember it’s a big thing, but perhaps only at certain times of the year. Do you know?

Other than the obvious choices of the Reina Sofia and Prado museums (both of which have free evenings on the weekend – a great time to visit Madrid!) I had been recommended by Hannah to visit a Museo de Jamón. This translates as Ham Museum. I’m not a big meat eater but I followed her advice and entered one of the infamous ham museums one lunch time. I didn’t regret it! With rows of meat, strip lights and mirrors, the place looked like it never ended. And with a ham baguette for just 1 Euro, I was onto a winner! I sat casually at the bar as if I knew what I was doing and ordered myself the 1 Euro sandwich advertised.

“Señor? Señor, can you cut it into two, please? Gracias.” A thick American accent questioned over my shoulder, “Dos, por favor? Gracias!”

With a mouthful of ham and bread, I turned to smile at him for using Spanish. I think he interpreted that as me being Spanish because he and his friends seemed a little taken aback when I asked where they were from in a rather British accent.

Another favourite from Madrid was visitng El Rastro flea market early on Sunday morning (see, I told you the weekend was the time to visit!). Just like Marrakesh, El Rastro is a place to visit when you’re buying your first house. Full of quirky antiques, toys and comic shops it’s a real delight to meander your way through as it gets busier, before diving into a cafe for some churros for breakfast.

However, I think my absolute highlight was the terrapin pool in Atocha train station. I didn’t have to take a train, but being drawn in by the awe inspiring exterior, I felt it rude not to take a look inside. The terrapin tank proved it a worthy venture!

Overall, Madrid won me over and I think it’s a shame so many people come to Spain and don’t see it. Madrid shows a very different side of Spain to that of the other cities I’ve visited in Spain and that’s what keeps me engaged about this country – the sheer diversity. Every region, every city has it’s own story to tell, and they tell them well.

Have you visited Madrid? What were your highlights? I’d love to read about it in the comments below! 🙂

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Lisbon: Trams, Hills and Sexy Toilet Paper

Being so close to Portugal following our Andalucian adventure, we couldn’t not go to Lisbon. That would have been rude! So we scheduled a few days in the Portuguese capital into our plans. Definitely a worthy detour from Spain. After a sleepless late night bus from Seville, squashed next to a rather nosy Romanian lady who insisted on shouting “DORMIRE?!” in my ear once I’d began to drift into dreamland, I think you’ll understand when I say we were relieved to arrive early morning at our hostel.

Once suitably freshened up, we headed out on the hunt for food. I was keen to try out my newly learnt Portuguese on the locals and enjoyed ordering a custard tart and orange juice for breakfast in a local restaurant. (Yes! Custard tart for breakfast! Amazing, right?)

Shortly after our morning stroll introducing us both to Lisbon and Portugal for the first time, we joined a free walking tour we’d seen advertised in the hostel. Our  tour in Granada had convinced me that Hannah was onto something with her love of free walking tours! Unfortunately, this one wasn’t as good in my opinion. The guide was clearly passionate about Lisbon and he had some interesting facts to share with us – he even recommended a great local restaurant to us that we would never have found on our own. However, the one memory that really stands out was him taking us all through the underground system passage to get from one place to another by skipping a rather large hill climb, and instead escorting us up escalators through throngs of commuters. Not really my idea of making tourists, or locals, feel comfortable.

Still, there were some nice photos to be had on the tour – and as I said, the restaurant he recommended was excellent. With a handwirtten menu on a paper tablecloth stuck up in the window, we knew this was the place we wanted to eat. As it turned out, we got lucky with our food in Lisbon, and managed to find a “paper tablecloth menu” place most days. The prices were amazing (and a great shock after Spain) and the food was delicious.

The city of Lisbon is beautiful. However, after over a week of nothing but urban landscapes (well, minus a few language filled days in Essaouira) we planned for a day at the beach! Cascais to be exact. Cascais is an easy day trip from Lisbon, as the crowds of tourists and locals alike on the train proved. The journey takes 40 minutes by train and the beach is just a stone’s throw from the train station in Cascais. We’d read about surfing possibilities there but the water looked rather calm and the wind looked rather strong. Feeling a little doubtful, we asked at the surf place but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. Minus surfing, Cascais still made a great excursion from Lisbon and I’d definitely recommend it if you fancy a little peek out towards the US of A! (Disclaimer: You can’t actually see America!)

One of my favourite things about Lisbon, other than the food, the cute yellow trams and the company that make multicoloured toilet paper, was the Oceanarium. Partly because it’s the biggest aquarium in Europe. Mainly because they had a sea turtle exhibition at the time. Yes, please. I don’t think the exhibition is still there,  but if you go to Lisbon, I would say the Oceanarium is a worthy morning or afternoon chilling with some penguins and jellyfish.

Lisbon did not fail to disappoint. In fact, I preferred Lisbon more than I thought I would and was slightly disappointed when I had to leave for Madrid.

Have you ever been to Lisbon? Did you like it? I’d love to read your thoughts below! 🙂

Categories: Europe, Portugal | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Slightly Secondary Seville

Granada is amazing. So wherever we went after Granada was going to have a lot to live up to. Wanting to make our way over to Lisbon, me and Hannah headed to Seville once our Lorca dreaming days in Granada were over. I was excited about Seville! Oranges, bullfighting and more flamenco! How very stereotypical of me. However, personally, Seville was just another city, really. It didn’t grab me the way that Granada did. Sure, there are a few cool sights and I enjoyed our tour of the bullring, the Mirador, Plaza de España, the Alcázar and all of the other must-sees. I just didn’t “feel” Seville as a city.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re visiting Andalucia, or even just Spain, Seville is still worth your time, and I have spoken to people since who said they preferred Seville over Granada! Shock horror!

Our first day was spent wandering by the river and gradually heading inwards to the city. We soon stumbled upon the Plaza de España, which is a very impressive building built for the Expo in 1929. Currently being used as Spanish Government offices, the huge structure encompasses little nooks for each region of Spain with a mosaicked image of the area. My favourite thing about this was seeing a woman lounging beside the Canary Islands nook!

We made our way across town and ended up visiting the bullring in the heat of the day. Now, I don’t agree with killing animals for ‘sport’. However, having spent an afternoon in Indonesia at a cock fight, I feel it’s sometimes part of a culture and something that I’m prepared to see once, form an opinion on, and move on. There was no bull fight on the days we were in Seville though – I think, in all honesty, we were both slightly relieved about this. We did opt for the tour of the bull ring though in an attempt to understand more about bull fighting. The tour was really informative and worth the 4 or so Euros.

Something that costs a little more than 4€ in Seville is Isla Mágica! A reasonably sized theme park that Hannah decided to treat me to for my birthday! Is it good? Well, without looking at my photos, Isla Mágica is where the majority of my memories of Seville lie. So, yes. Especially   Indígenas contra alienígenas (Indigenous vs. Aliens). I know, right?!

Writing about it now, and revisiting Seville in my mind, maybe I was a bit harsh at the start of this post. Maybe I would have felt the same about anywhere post Granada. I take it back – Seville is cool.

Have you visited Seville? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!

Categories: Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Grand Granada

Back in July, my friend Hannah and I took a bus all the way from Morocco to Granada in Spain. Due to the fact it was Ramadan and all ticket holders for the early morning buses had been transferred to the lunchtime ones, we didn’t arrive until 4 hours later than expected. Considering we were originally due in at 2 in the morning this was actually a welcome delay. Arriving about 5.30am, dawn became daylight as we walked into the city from the bus station desperate for food. There’s not a lot of choice for breakfast at 6am on the streets of Granada. Churros and chocolate it was then. Shame, eh?

Our hostel, White Nest Hostel, was a great place and very easy to find down a side street from the riverside cobbled road. We were able to leave our bags there until check-in and even allowed to take a shower after our long, long bus journey. We headed out for the day thankfully clean and fresh! We’d been told about a free walking tour (well, tour for tips) of the city that started at 11am. Hannah is a lover of free city walking tours so we opted in. I’d never done one before but the guide was very interesting and knowledgeable, and clearly a huge fan of Granada so we even decided to rejoin him that evening for the Sacromonte Caves tour, which was a great move! After a rather filling 3 course €8.50 Menú Del Día and a stroll around in 40° heat, we met our guide again that evening and he took us up and away above the city to places we wouldn’t have dared to go as tourists. We were even allowed to visit inside one cave and speak to the residents. Unfortunately, the Spanish government is trying to evict them.

On heading back into the city, we decided to go the whole hog on the gypsy front and managed to bag ourselves the two last tickets at Le Chien Andalou, an authentically styled Flamenco bar. Arriving for tickets moments before the show, we were able to grab 2 reserved but uncollected tickets, which meant we found ourselves right on the front row. Although I wouldn’t recommend risking it on tickets until the last minute, as we got really lucky getting those tickets, I would recommend the show at Le Chien Andalou. The Flamenco dancer and band performed in a small cave shaped room, with the audience crammed onto rows of benches and the alcohol flowing. The atmosphere and the performance were absolutely fantastic – the dancer’s skirt swished upon my lap many times! It was exactly what we wanted from a Flamenco show. It was intense, intriguing and intimate. The perfect introduction to live Flamenco!

That first day was jam-packed, but it was nothing compared to our next day visiting the attraction in Granada: The Alhambra. The Alhambra is so sought after, that tickets need to be bought online via Ticketmaster. We opted to collect our tickets at a ServiCaixa machine in Spain, often found outside CaixaBanks. The online process felt slightly ‘unofficial’ so we were glad when we had our tickets in our hands!

We’d spent the previous day oooing and ahhing at the Alhambra which dominates the view from the city, however, that didn’t compare to seeing it up clopse and personal. The Alhambra is a real highlight of Spain, and dare I say it, Europe. Compared to the big sights that everyone knows about such as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, the Alhambra remains to feel slightly secretive and personal. Shh, don’t tell!

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Granada itself is one of Europe’s best kept semi-secrets. It really is a gem of a place, memories of which linger long after leaving.

Have you visited Granada? What did you think? Leave a comment below, I’d love to know your thoughts! 🙂

Categories: Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Disparu!

Why hello there! So, me and Ashley have had some exciting news recently….

Last year I did a French translation for a short animated film, made by Ashley, called Disparu.

The film went on to win 2 awards at Film Northants Film Festival, and has recently been nominated for the Youtube Digital Innovation Award at First Light Film Festival!

The film is only one of three in it’s category and will be screened at the Odeon in Leicester Square.

The winner will be decided by public vote so please click here to vote for DISPARU! Thank you! **

Categories: Hometown | 2 Comments

Awesome Warsaw.

Hello!

This is nearly a 2 month belated post! It’s been a rather busy year. I’ve started my own business which has taken off well and consequently taken up a lot of time! I’ve also spent the year learning more French and Italian as part of my degree. I finished this in October and am now working on a comparatively easy German course before starting Spanish again in February next year.

So with all this language learning going on in my life, what would seem a good place to go for a weekend break back in November? Paris? Barcelona? Rome? Berlin? Nah, we went to Warsaw.

It was a very last minute decision so our choice was mainly based on price seeing as we booked very late on a Tuesday night to fly out Friday morning!

Last minute Eastern Europe = budget airline = paying for every possible thing considered an extra. So off we trotted with our French exchange student style rucksack. Woop!

Now, I’d visited Poland once before, I say Poland, I mean Auschwitz, it hardly seems fair to consider that part of the country. Although everything else about Poland had been a bit gritty in my memories…crossing the smooth Autobahn at the German border to be greeted by a rickety rockety pot-hole laden track, to shortly being stopped by a man waving frantically by the side of the road meaning my granddad stopping to help, only to have him claim to be out of petrol and offering his Argos chains in exchange for petrol money. Where he was gong to find petrol in the forest I still don’t know, needless to say we drove off.

Landing with these memories was a little nerve-racking, especially considering the airport was half build. However, within seconds of getting off the airport bus in the city centre, me and Ashley looked at each other with the same thought.

“I, err, it sounds mean, but I feel safer than I did in Budapest all ready!” I said.

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, I was about to say that.”

And as it goes, first impressions do count for a lot. Not once did either of us feel remotely unsafe during our time in Warsaw.

Not once did either of us go hungry either. With the most incredible Singaporean style glass shopping mall minutes from our hotel, finding food was never an issue. I’d been advised by my good friend Hannah, who speaks pretty niffy Polish and has spent a lot of time in Poland, that we must try “pierogi”. Everyday we passed many a chain restaurant selling this mysterious word, but that wasn’t good enough, we wanted the real deal. Imagine a Pole coming to England and having a Roast in a Little Chef not a pub and going home and telling all his mates it was “just alright”. This was not what we wanted, we knew there must be better, and so we waited.

On the Saturday, we headed into a “milk bar” which is a traditional canteen style place serving home cooked meals by a group of old women heating their story filled faces from the giant bubbling vats of sauces and broths. But alas, pierogi was all sold out. Thankfully, on the last day, a moving yet inspiring visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum provided us with the goods just in time before we left Poland! They were delicious! Thank you for the advice Hannah!

The last day also happened to be Independence Day as in-keeping with my unexpected and unplanned visits to countries on their Independence Days. Although Indonesian Independence Day was also the saddest birthday of my life due to being treated as a Couchsurfing pet, this foreign Independence Day was the scariest. Yes, I know I said we never once felt unsafe…maybe once. After a morning of contemplation and appreciation for a nation so brave and strong, we headed back to Homage To A Singapore Shopping Mall (name as decided by myself, right now.) which was conveniently next to the bus stop. But we weren’t the only ones, there was a small crowd near the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a gift from the Soviet Union. I think socks would have done the trick, but they was feeling generous I guess.

“That’s nice! Nobody does anything on St George’s Day!” (That’s the closest thing us English have to an Independence Day for any international readers!)

“I know right! Loads of flags, loads of support. I’m glad we went to that museum this morning.”

And in we went to the glass dome for some food before the flight. Or should that be food before the fight?

As we wandered the mega dome we began to hear some rather loud bangs. We decided to check it out so made our way to the glass, which wasn’t difficult in a snow globe. Wow. Just wow. Each time we headed back to sneak a peek, the crowd had multiplied like bacteria in a Petri dish. That’s right, I know science. What’s more, each time we headed away from the glass again, the bangs became more frequent and interluded with sirens.

As we walked to the bus stop, I felt like I was in the midst of a war torn city but still felt relatively safe standing in the middle of a car park about 500 metres from the protests.

Still, with all of that taken into account, Poland remains a fond memory. It’s quite interesting writing about it so far after it happened, because I was quite literally reliving the Independence Day tales I’ve just told for the first time as I wrote them. That’s not actually what stuck with me at all.

I’m currently teaching various groups of immigrant workers, the majority of whom are from Poland, and not only do I now feel less naive about their history and country, but I also feel better prepared to engage with them on a personal level and have even ventured into a couple of Polish shops since our return for a sneaky packet or two of pierogi.

Categories: Europe, Poland | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life Through A Lens.

My boyfriend, Ashley, makes films. So, there was no option but for a film to be made of our travels together in Asia. Here’s the result…Enjoy! Oh, and the beautiful song that makes me want to close my eyes when I’m driving is by Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros. No surprises, it’s called Home.

Categories: East Asia, Hometown, South East Asia | Tags: | Leave a comment

Well I wasn’t expecting this!

So here I am, typing away in my bedroom, sat on my bare matress getting ready to leave at 12 for take two. On the 2nd of August.

HUH??!!

I know right, I should be sat in a Saudi Arabian airport paying 100000000 Saudi Riyal per minute to type this! Well, things didn’t quite go to plan. If you read the last post, you’ll know that I was pooping my pants a little about my Saudi transit. Thankfully, all the kerfuffle was this side of the check-in desk and I’m all booked to fly EMIRATES (yeah, uh huh, screw you Saudi Arabia Airlines!) through DUBAI (yeah, uh huh, screw you Riyadh!) to Singapore arriving a mere 5 hours after my expected arrival time of the past 6 months.

I’ll start from the beginning….

We arrive at the airport, I head over to the check-in desk, we queue for ages because quite a few people have more bags than there are people in the queue. One woman literally had 4 trolleys worth of huge suitcases. I’m glad I didn’t get on that plane it wouldn’t have made it very high off the ground. Anyway, we’re queueing, making friends with the woman behind me in the queue (who was, I would like to add, bigging up Emirates!)…..eventually, we get to the front of the queue. Man asks to see my passport and ticket. He says:

“Are you aware this is a 21 hour stop?”

I say:

“No, what, really, what, what’s an hour?”

I’m kidding:

“Yes, I’m actually rather good at incredibly simple maths.”

No, seriously, I played innocent:

“Yeah, I’m staying in the airport, it’s a long time, I know. Ha.” Attempting to laugh it off.

He calls his client over, we have the same conversation. She says “You’ll need a visa for being there more than 18 hours,” I tell her I know and that I’ll be staying in the airport and I know it’s a long time in an airport but I’m prepared for that and she says, “Ok, if you’re staying in the airport, it’ll be fine.”

I get called to the check-in desk, no time to say goodbye to my new found friend (who would have been in the airport for 3 hours – someone to talk to!). The man there was not as nice, very grumpy, very grizzly, very I’m-talking-about-you-on-the-phone-and-I’m-not-going-to-tell-you-what-I’m-saying…y. He said I wasn’t allowed to fly without a visa and that I’d need to see what the “airline ticket service” desk could do. Basically he passed the buck. Coward.

So we trot over to the “airline ticket service” desk. I’m feeling pretty angry at this point. Not surprisingly, I think it’s fair to say. The people there were lovely, still refused me but they were much nicer about it than grumpy grizzle guts at check-in. They said there was nothing they could do for me other than advise me to call my travel agent who sold me the ticket. At this point, I’d like to make it clear that I purchased the ticket as one product, therefore, as far as I’m concerned, meaning that the travel agent had deemed it possible for me to make this journey. The “airline ticket service” folk told me that it was an illegal connection and I shouldn’t have been sold the ticket without appropriate visa advice from my travel agent, which I was not given. Fuming, I left the “airline ticket services” desk and burst into tears. Again, not surprisingly, I think it’s fair to say.

Me and my boyfriend went and sat down and hunted for a telephone number for the travel agent. I then made a very angry 15 minute phone call to Shervin or whatever he said his name was. He started arguing with me! Surely if you’re representing your company, regardless of someone being rather annoyed with you at the other end, you keep as calm as possible, you can’t argue back!! Apparently “the system” is to blame for the whole thing because “the system” is responsible for making this a possible flight combination. Ridiculous.

My favourite line from the phone call was:

Shervmin: “How do you expect “the system” to tell you if you need a visa?”

Being quite taken aback by this and not feeling the need to reply with a rant about how computers and “systems” were controlling the entire airport I was sat in and were controlling the plane I should have been heading for I opted for:

“How do I expect a computer to tell me something?! Because we’re living in 2011, my friend!”

What an idiot Charmin was. No use. “non-refundable” and “non-changable” and “system” were clearly embedded into his little mind, and the fact that his company could make a mistake was beyond belief. “The system” avoids mistakes for them, of course!

After finding out from the Malaysian Airlines lady that the only ticket they could offer me via Kuala Lumpur to Singapore was over a grand, we headed over to arrivals to use the overpriced and underpowered internet. And that’s when we found my new flight. Luckily.

One thing our friend Shervmir had suggested (I say one thing, really the only thing, he was absolutely useless) was to ask the airline for a partial refund. So once we were all sorted I suddenly remembered his little bit of advice and we trotted over to ask at “airline ticket services”. The same nice woman was there, and she remembered me. She said she’d need to ask her manager – who was the first woman who had said it’d be ok. She ok-ed me flying and said they could fax something over!!!!

What a joke! That really was the cherry the icing, on top of the cherry, on top of a huge, dirty cake of bad luck.

What I learnt from yesterday:

  • Be prepared for the rest of the trip re: visas, onward travel info etc
  • Boss knows best – don’t listen to the people at grassroots level, if you want something ask for the big boss, worth a shot
  • Saudi Arabia sounds pretty dull, or so according to my new found and never to be found again friend behind me in the queue
  • DON’T USE TRAVELPACK
  • “The system” can be blamed for anything
Categories: Hometown, South East Asia | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

This time next week…

…I’ll be on a plane to Singapore from Saudi Arabia…hopefully.

This week I’ve been double checking the visa situations in the countries I’m planning to visit. You don’t need to apply for a transit visa for Saudi Arabia – oh, that is if you’re there for less than 18 hours.

I’m there for 21.

Great.

Ok then, so it looks like I’m gonna need a transit visa.

Right, scroll down the page….you cannot apply if: you’re a lady travelling without a male relative.

Oh right, ok, brilliant.

So am I going to be detained?

 

 

 

Arrested?

 

 

 

Imprisoned?

 

 

 

Thrown to the wolves that are so common at all international airports these days?

 

 

 

 

 

I’m hoping none of the above. I have no choice but to risk those three teeny weeny hours not causing me any problems. And then, this time next week, I’ll be on a plane to Singapore from Saudi Arabia…hopefully.

Categories: Hometown, South East Asia | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Bittersweet.

It’s gradually sinking in. Just how long I’ll be away from people I’m so used to being around, routines I’m so used to following…

It’s starting slowly, the realisation hit me this morning that I won’t see my boyfriend’s mother for 6 months. But I’m still blissfully unaware of how long I’ll be away from him, or even my own mother!

I’ve tutored French and Spanish to pay for the bulk of my trip and my first last session was today…if that makes sense?! I finished with one of my tutees – the first one I’ve finished with…hopefully that’s a bit clearer! Why are we finishing? Because I’m nearly leaving!! < That’s it sinking in!

Then I went to my second class of the evening and she took a photo and I realised that this is my last hectic Wednesday!! I’ve cursed the late Wednesday for ages now it’s over and I’m going to miss it! So at 8 o’clock next Wednesday, and the Wednesday after that, and the next Wednesday after that, I will have eaten my dinner by 8pm rather than walking though the door to heat it up. Nice thought but also kinda sad – I think the word I’m looking for is bittersweet.

Categories: Hometown | Tags: | 2 Comments

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