Destination: Budapest, Hungary

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 Bachelor(Stag) and Bachelorette(Hen) Party Capital? Possibly. The City seems tailor made for them. With just enough tourist sites to fill your day. Open area bars and food truck courts to start your evening. Follow that up with  dinner at a hip bougie restaurant. Heading to one of the many clubs through out the city. But wait! As great as that night was and as horrible as you probably feel the following morning, Budapest has you covered with its Turkish bath houses, including one in the center of the city. Recharging you just in time to hit all the cool places you wish you hadn’t passed up the previous night.

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Not on a Stag or Hen party? Not a problem, neither were we! I was here with my wife (obviously) and our two friends/ travel companions Mel & Leah. Which meant first stop: Girls Day Out to the Turkish bath house. As described by Siobhan below:

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The girls and I  navigated the Hungarian train system and made our way to the baths, not sure what to expect. It costs about $14USD to get in which I thought was a bit much. But my expectations were blown out of the water, so to speak. We started the day in the huge outdoor baths, heated to different temperatures. With so many people in them, it was surprisingly clean and minimally chlorinated. 

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We took our time sampling almost every bath both outside and inside, as well as the multiple saunas.

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I’ve only been in one or two saunas before, but they were NOTHING compared to these things. First, they were unbearably hot and second, they were filled with so much steam that I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I couldn’t handle the first one because I had this image in my head about getting lost in the lava-temperature steam and slowly burning to death in the back corner of this Hungarian sauna.
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After we made the rounds and came back to the death-by-steam sauna, I decided to stop being such a baby and suck it up. The second time around I took some deep breaths and realized the steam was infused with lemon and mint, which totally cleared out any congestion and felt great on the skin. As long as I stayed near the door, I could finally appreciate why people could spend all day at these baths and come home feeling super relaxed and rejuvenated!

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After the Ladies spa day, and some rest from our quick paced travel, we made the best of our Friday evening in the vibrant city. First stop, always, Food! Karavan, a street food lot was the perfect place to start the night.

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Karavan was conveniently located next door to an open air/ two story abandoned building turned into a massive bar. it had a very arts district feel. A bit later we wound up at a 90s hip hop n R&B club where the short line was filled with several groups of Hen Parties (aka bachelorette parties).

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Fun times! Except for when I was stuck with my camera in hand (from being a tourist and all that). While taking pictures of my wife and friends, I was mistaken for being a club photographer?!? How? No idea! But after the 4th group kept insisting I take their picture yeaaaa, aaaaawkward. Coat/camera check please!  Anyhow, a great Friday night that was long over due.

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The next day we did what we do best. Walk around the city. Amongst the first stops was The Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall.

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A gorgeous multilevel warehouse building with meat, produce, and bakeries on the ground level then food and shop stalls  on the upper level. Reminded me of the Ferry Building in San Francisco but more grand. While we ate on the second level we met an an expat married to a local who highly recommended the cake shop hidden away in the corner of the first floor. Nothing fancy, just delicious cake rolls.

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Walking off our dessert we crossed the Danube River & headed toward the Castle District.

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(probably one of five desserts we had that day)

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The beautiful Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion.

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Capping off the evening with a wonderful meal at Mazel Tov followed by a few drinks at a large outdoor bar. Budapest proved to be lovely by day and relaxing/ vchill by night.

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We made our way back to Vienna by train where we met a cool Ukrainian who had studied at UC Riverside & learned that the train tickets are valid as return tickets for up to three months. Evident by the guy who asked if he could have our tickets nearing the end of our Journey. Apparently he works in Vienna but travel home to Budapest each weekend, which seemed to be a common practice.

We came to Budapest like most, to enjoy the weekend. And that we did. Though the small glimpses of Hungarian culture that we experienced left me wanting more, and only reassured our desire to return for an Eastern European trip sometime in the hopefully near future.

Destination: Prague & Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic (GUEST POST)

Guest post written by Leah.

July 2 – Prague

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And so the adventure begins! Melissa and I arrived from the states in the evening, while Richie and Siobhan were still on a train traveling from Poland, so we took a taxi from the airport to Wenceslas Square.
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On our way we saw the Dancing House, designed by, Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry (other known works by Gehry you may know: Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, Experience Music Project in Seattle, etc).

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After checking in with the Airbnb host, we took our time walking to our place on the west side of the Vltava river, in the charming Malá Strana neighborhood.

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Prague is divided into districts, like Paris. It’s a fairly small city so you can walk from place to place easily and there are many bridges, giving a variety of route options. It reminds me a lot of home (Portland, OR) in that aspect.

July 3 – Explore.

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This is my crew – my travel buddies, models, fellow foodies and roommates over the next few weeks

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We grabbed a quick breakfast across the street at Cafe Savoy before heading off for a day of exploration. The sunshine made for perfect picture worthy lighting.

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We wandered through the city following the stream of tourists, strolled across the historic Charles Bridge and found the John Lennon wall. Since the 80’s the Wall’s graffiti has represented a global push towards peace and love. I noticed someone wrote in Korean, “독도는 인식 우리땅!” which translates to “Recognize that Dokdo [islets] is our land!”. Which references the infamous territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan, both claiming sovereignty over a small group of islets.

Brief History Tangent: Dokdo became a part of Korean territory about 1500 years ago, during the Goryeo dynasty in year 512. There are multiple historic documents and maps that state and support this claim. The first time Japanese documents mention Dokdo (Oki is the Japanese name for the islets) is in year 1667, which is far later than Korean documentation. Their documents are records from an inspection trip to the islands, not a valid territorial claim. Yet the Japanese government ignores this evidence and to this day, claim the land is theirs.

On the surface it seems like a petty quarrel over a few rocks but it’s much deeper than that. It’s symbolic and emotional. It ties to the residual feelings left from the brutal war crimes the Japanese committed during the occupation of Korea that left millions lost, broken and stripped. After liberation by the United States, post war circumstances left the country divided into two – all national identity was lost.

It’s sunny today and many tourists buzz around in front of the wall to read its worldly messages, take selfies in front of it, or leave their own mark of identity or passion. Many write about peace, love, equality or quotes about happiness… and way up top near a giant stencil of Lennon’s face, someone was thinking about tiny Dokdo.

 

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Afterwards, we made our way up the steps to the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. The view from the top is gorgeous! The red rooftops seem to go on forever.

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We had dinner at Pivovar U Tří Růží, a place known for local comfort dishes like goulash and bread dumpling. I had schnitzel. We watched France play Iceland in the UEFA EURO quarter final as we ate and drank beer.

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Post dinner we walked around the alleyways and stepped into Kafe Damu for a night cap, sweets and played some Heads Up! (game by Ellen DeGeneres, which I highly recommend it if you haven’t played before). We laughed a lot.

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July 4 – Happy Birthday, America!

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Naturally, we started the day off with coffee (and a raspberry rhubarb roll) at Supertramp before meeting up with friends that Richie and Siobhan met in Poland.

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For lunch we went to Sisters Bistro for open faced Czech sandwiches. After we got some food in our bellies, we crossed the street to the Prague Beer Museum because it was America’s birthday after all. We sat on the patio, rated a flight of beers and chanted, “USA USA USA!”. Ah, bliss.

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In an attempt to walk off the food and beer, we wandered around Old Town Prague and the square to see the Astronomical Clock. It was installed in 1410, which makes it the third oldest astronomical clock in the world! And to top that, it’s the oldest one that is still working today. Wow. We spent more time exploring until we caught a whiff of…

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Trdelník! A must try dessert in Prague – it’s a sweet pastry made from rolled dough that’s wrapped around a metal stick, then grilled and topped with sugar and a walnut mix. We got the ice cream version and clearly, we were hooked.

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After departing from our fellow patriots the four of us made our way to Eska, a restaurant located in the Karlin neighborhood (district 8)

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The pork belly dish was paired with beetroot, apples and clove and it was melt-in- your- mouth good. Also pictured is the steamed trout. It was the perfect meal to end our stay in Prague. Tomorrow we leave for Český Krumlov.

July 5th- Český Krumlov

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We arrived mid afternoon and found our cabin-esque hostel not too far from the main square. After settling in, we ventured back out into the charming, medieval town.

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The sun was starting to set and live musicians played every few blocks, serenading tourists. We ate dinner on the river bank and watched the rafts float by.  Afterwords we climbed the hill to the Český Krumlov Castle that dates back to 1240. From here, we got an awesome panoramic view of  Old Český Krumlov, which is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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JULY 6th

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The next morning we ate a hearty breakfast at Kolektiv before our rafting shenanigans.

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Rafting on the Vltava river was… slow and lazy. I don’t think we paddled very much, except for this part. We had a ton of fun regardless.

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Post rafting, we bee-lined straight to MLS Creperie to fit in one last trdelník before heading to Austria. Ending things on a sweet note is our MO. Until next time, Czech Republic.

  • Leah.

 

 

  Leah is a friend of ours from Portland, Oregon. An Art Director who’s easy going, a true foodie, and  loves to cook and bake (with the potential to someday turn her hobby into a possible career).  She was a blessing to have along the trip as she made a point to find hidden gems from restaurants to cafes. Leah and Melissa decided to meet us in Europe after I convinced them to look into the benefits of traveling via miles and points. They were able to fly round trip to Europe  with only 60,000 United Points + $100. Thanks again for sharing in the adventures as well as writing this guest post ❤ – Richard & Siobhan

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Destination: Krakow, Poland

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Before arriving in Krakow we knew very little about the country of Poland, let alone the city of Krakow. Most tourists seem to visit for its proximity to Auschwitz & Wieliczka Salt Mines, both of which we skipped. Instead we enjoyed our week exploring the culturally rich city by foot, through a cooking class, and by a few walking tours.

A big help in doing so was locallife.com , which was recommended by a hostel mate. With Yelp being hit or miss in certain European cities because of its lack of sample size we were sure glad to have found the website.

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Our first stop was Massolot Books & Cafe where Siobhan had her now typical cappuccino and I found a first edition modern Polish cookbook (in Polish).

The following day we found ourselves on a Guided Food Tour where we met some of our new favorite fellow travelers from Miami (more on them later). The food tour took us from the Jewish Quarter through a farmers market whose merchants were mostly from the local mountain areas who seldom see any foreigners.
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This was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed pickles! Possibly because they were fermented instead of pickled in vinegar. We also visited a  “locals only” tiny pierogi place (which I had coincidently bookmarked from locallife)

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Then a bakery…
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And finally for some vodka tasting and Bigos (a hunters stew)

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Another highlight also revolving around food, surprise, was a pierogi (polish dumplings) cooking class! Found on eataway.com (again through locallife.com)  we made the fillings, one vegetarian and one lamb, kneeded the dough, tasted some Winsniowaka (a polish cherry liquior) and finally filled and folded the polish dumplings.

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We sat down with our host and teacher Magdalena, her husband a french pastry chef, and her father. sharing a meal and chat with multiple generations of locals was a great part of the evening topped only by some dessert Perogis.

-Richard

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To break up the food fest that we( or Richard) seem to always write about, we had the chance to visit The Museum Of Contemporary Art, Krakow.We were told about an exhibit being shown about “medicine in art”. Neither of us are very big on contemporary art but it sounded interesting to me, so off we went. It turned out to be very educational and we were able to view some beautiful and thought-provoking pieces.

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My favorite was a portrait series of surgical patients before and after surgery to remove or repair tumors, facial injuries, burns, etc. It was part of an art therapy program for both the patients and the surgeon, helping both to cope with their respective challenges.

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I decided to visit the Schindler factory on my own, and I’m glad I did. It turned out to be one of the best museums I have experienced. The inside of part of the factory has been converted into a museum dedicated to the Polish experience leading up to WWII, the events during the war including those at Schindler’s factory, and the after-effects of the war. The displays are completely immersive and interactive and I could have spent HOURS there if I had the energy. My favorite exhibit was one that shook me to my core. A tiny corner of a concentration camp was re-created in one of the rooms. Leading up to that point, the displays had been bright, colorful, and close in proximity. When I stepped into this room I was suddenly in grey emptiness and complete silence. It was dusty, gravel-filled, a shard of metal placed in the center of the room, and barbed wire lined the ceiling. As Richie mentioned before, we didn’t make the trip to Auschwitz. This tiny display was no comparison, but it definitely hit a chord and I’m so glad that element was included. I highly recommend this museum to anyone travelling to Krakow, but make sure it’s the first activity of the day since it requires a lot of time and energy to really absorb all the information!

-Siobhan

Back on the street, immersed in a crowd peering through the doorway of a bar, cheering on Poland’s futbol squad during its quarterfinal Eurocup match vs Portugal. Chants, songs, flairs, and drunkenness…the frenzy was is full swing.

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Futbol at its best. Unfortunately the Polish squad was not, and went down in a penalty shoot out. Oh well, off to try some after hours drunk food. In this case Zapiekanka (an open faced pizza sandwich). It may just have been our lack of intoxication but they were pretty disappointing. Oh well.

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Most days we found ourselves going back to the jewish quarter again and again.From its food trucks and hip stores dotted throughout, there were so many hidden gems I couldn’t wait to go back.

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A favorite was the spicy pulled pork sandwiches with JALAPENEOS (I think the polish refer to them as Cyklon pepper perhaps?) but they are jalapeneos none the less. I was so glad to have finally found something with spice! (Western Europe seems to fall short on the spice realm, unless you count black pepper #shotsfired) I felt like I was in Austin TX the pork was so good!!!Rarely do we eat twice at the same place. (With the small exception of the ice cream spot we also found)

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Lastly there is the Unesco World Heritage site of Old Town. The ancient walled town in the center of the city. Rich in medieval history and nearly unharmed from either of the major world wars. Unfortunately we missed out on most of that history as we showed up late to the free walking tour. However our new friends, Liz n Oscar, from the previous walking tour suggested the Macabre Tour. A ghost tour through Old Town … um sure? Turns out it was tons of fun! The guide’s humor was simalur to that of the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, except holding us in suspense about serial killers and making puns and jokes about ghost, or medieval torture practices. Brilliant!
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POST POST POST SCRIPT: the encounters we have had with fellow travelers, be it one night conversations with people we’ll never meet again, or the ones we add on facebook and hope to sometime run into again at a future destination is something I’m still trying to put into words… But for now I must take a minute to remind myself that these new friends we met from Miami are inspirational. And as the lazy, pretentious, cynic I am most of the time, thats not a word I find myself ever using. He, a self proclaimed history nerd turned lawyer and a prom queen turned cancer research scientist, BOTH left those careers to return and teach at their high school where they met. AND NOW THEY’RE THE COOL TEACHERS! And my goodness is he a history nerd, of which I am beyond jealous. All we share in common is a sense of humor and a love of travel. But thanks for reminding me that THIS is in fact the BEST time in history to be alive. As well as reinforcing the notion that despite scary headlines intended to drive up ratings, its the globalization of mass media that is painting a false image of this beautiful world we are so fortunate to be traveling. ❤

-Richard

Destination: Swiss Alps, Switzerland

We owe a big thanks to Stephan working at the new SBB office in Basel. The man performs miracles! After going over our week long itinerary for travel through the very expensive Switzerland, he granted us a promotional offer (that was for residents only) by using the train station’s address as our own! We now had 1/2 fare cards that we bought at a hugely discounted rate allowing us to travel for the price of one person! Thank you also to Pat & Carla for the wedding gift of funding our train ride from Basel to the Alps!

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^ A man in a flying squirrel suit “falling with style” pulled open his chute and appeared out of nowhere right in front of us.

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We pitched our accommodations for the week at Camp Jungfrau. Then explored the nearby Trummelbach Falls followed by hiking, hiking, and more hiking the rest of the week. Our three favorite trails being  Gimmelwald (the good); Grindelwald (the accidental adventure); & Bauchl Lake (the beautiful).

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The Good. The route from Gimmelwald > Schiltalp> Murren was  picturesque with incredible views. The trail was a steady incline further up the mountain and down through hilly flower filled valleys, past grazing cows, and tiny pig pens. Siobhan had a chance to reenact a scene from her favorite movie. 🙂

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The Accidental Adventure. Sometimes I (Richard) over estimate… well, pretty much everything. This day was no exception. We took a train to Grindelwald and set off on a 4hr hiking trail to Kleine Scheidegg. The trail started with a grueling  600 meters of incline. The higher we went the better the views were of the Eiger Mt. North Wall. The trail eventually relented and opted for the more gradual ascent. Despite the workload it was an incredible feeling being immersed in the surrounding natural beauty. 

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With Kleine Scheidegg, the highest point & end of our trail, in sight we were satisfied with another gorgeous day in the mountains. The 4hr trail only took us 5.5 hrs. Which turned out to be 2 hours too long, as we had missed the last train out of dodge.

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This is when wives gives their husband that look/ when husbands realize their own mortality ::gulp:: ::assess the situation:: No train. No taxis. Current time, 8:30pm. Sunset, 10:15pm. Closest train was two towns over with a final departure at 10:30pm. Its a 2.5 hr hike to said town, mostly downhill. We could make it in less than 2hrs right? Sure? If not it would be a further 2hr hike all the way down the mountain to our campsite in pitch black. Headlamps? Check. Off we went.

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Despite the frustrations a husband might cause a wife, the adventure and beauty of it all could still put a smile on her face… JK thats 75% a forced smile 🙂

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Just past the train tracks and pine trees, down in the valley, the village was in sight! Leaving just enough time to snap some photos at dusk, before continuing quickly down hill. 

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Through the darkened pine trees we finally arrived to the train with 15 minutes to spare. And the husband was the hero once again!!! Hurray!!!… remember folks, history is shaped by those who write it #justsayin 😉

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The Beautiful. With tired legs we opted to take gondolas up from Grindelwald and took a short hike to Bachlee Lake. We picked tiny wild flowers all along the way until we reached the snow surrounded lakes.

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 The lack of crowds, scenic trails, and eye popping natural beauty, made the Alps our favorite destination thus far. ❤

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Destination: Ghent & Bruges, Belgium

Medieval/ Chocolate/ Beer/ Fries/ Waffles. Belgium!

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We arrived in Ghent to what could only be described as a medieval ghost town. Five major factors for this were: 1) It’s a bit of a college town and people were off on summer break. 2) It was the middle of a Belgium vs Italy EuroCup football match (which garners the attention of a March Madness/ Superbowl tournament). 3) The old town of Ghent is the largest car-free/ pedestrian-only zone in Belgium. 4) It was slightly raining. 5) It was also 9:30 in the evening.

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^Our hostel, the one with the red umbrellas in front

We spent two and a half days in the peaceful old town of Ghent visiting chocolate shops, eating fries and waffles, and drinking  gueze lambic beers, as recommended by our beer connoisseur friends.

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On one of the days we took a Free Walking Tour. I highly recommend these whenever possible. the knowledge gained adds an extra layer of perspective. Just simply tip the guide at the end. From the tour we learned about the architecture and history of the city. Each building’s facade tells the story of who lived there or what work they performed. We learned that during the middle ages, Ghent was the second largest city in Europe (after Paris) thanks to its wool textile & port industry. We also explored chocolate shops and the Free-Grafitti alleys where street art is not only legal but encouraged.

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^Castle Gravensteen, or “the castle of the counts”

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 ^The “Our House” & The Bond Moyson Socialist Buildings

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^Walking out of the old city center toward the train station, Ghent emerges as an incredible modern city.

En route to Bruges we expecting more of the same. Admittedly, the movie In Bruges is what drew us to the town, it being “ like a #@&%ing fairytale or something.” And though it was lovely with “those canals, and bridges, and cobbled streets, and those churches, all that beautiful @#$%ing fairytale stuff…” it was also overrun by hordes of tourist as well as the many shops catering just to them, removing much of the authentic feel Ghent had. Though that should have been expected as summer was in full swing. I’m sure in the spring or autumn it retains its magic. Still, the charm did win this grumpy old man over and we had an enjoyable time wandering the village and  listening to a free concert in the square by The Belgium Navy Orchestra, while drowning in some Belgian stew and fries. 

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Note: we spent two nights in Antwerp. However, all we saw was the impressive main train station, the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood 5 blocks away from the train station where our AirBnB was located, and a market where we got groceries for the two days we spend locked up in our apartment relaxing, recuperating, and resting before heading to the Swiss Alps next!

Destination: Road Trip, France

Camping gear: check. Rental car: check. 5 days of (mostly) open roads through France: check.

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We rented a car in Marseille, and after a morning  kayak trip in the Calanques National Park, we made our way up the the Alps De Haute to a beautiful campsite overlooking the largest reservoir in France.

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As we drove by the artificial lake we stopped to take a photo and noticed kayaks and pedal boats! We opted for the pedal boat and made our way from the reservoir up through the Verdon River that “cuts a ravine to a depth of 700 meters through the limestone mass.”

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Back in the car we were off to the countryside. We made the decision to avoid the quick and efficient toll highways and opted for the rural roads that lead from one small village to the next.

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Though the draw back to the magic of spontaneity, or just lack of data/wifi,  was when we arrived to a closed reception at a campsite. With no way to get our rental car in the gate & no where to leave it, we opted to drive through the night. We drove from one medieval town to another, on pitch black roads, often with narrow lanes where perhaps two cars can pass without collision, only to be followed by an even narrower long tunnel. Around 3am we spent 30 minutes navigating through a small  medieval town whose single main road was closed for construction. We drove through every tiny alley with Siobhan’s head out the window so we could avoid running over flower pots or leave car paint on the stone  walls.

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The next day we picked up three 20-something French hitchhikers. They explained how it was common and simple for them to get around this way.  Admittedly, I was jealous that we were not doing the same. Maybe next time.

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Arriving near Bordeaux, we dropped off our passengers by an onramp and left our car at a campsite just outside of town. In the city we had the opportunity to have a private wine tasting & workshop (thanks Anne & Tom for the wedding gift!).

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We got to smell and (sheepishly) attempt to identify precise scents. Our closest guesses were chocolate when it was coffee & roses when it was violets. We tasted wines and learned about the different regions within Bordeaux  and the complexity of their value. The highlight being Chateau La Violette Pomerol, which was  hands-down the best wine we have ever had 🙂 (that is until we go proper wine tasking in California, because west coast is the best coast)IMG_6004

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We set out for the city of Rouen, stopping along the way at a gorgeous campsite nestled in the hills by a lake with a beautiful sunset just as we arrived. ❤

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Rouen:  (by Siobhan)

This was the last stop on our road trip before returning the car and catching a train to Paris. The EuroCar employee had no idea what we were talking about when we told him we wanted to return the car in “Roo-en”. It took some creative hand motions and finally writing it down to realize it’s pronounced closer to “rw-aww”. It’s a fun word to say over and over again, and we definitely did for the entire road trip.

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The reason we wanted to visit this city in Normandy is because it was the place where St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Sounds morbid, but Joan of Arc is my patron saint (assigned by my parents due to the English translation of my name) and she is someone I have looked up to my whole life. Turns out, Rouen is a beautiful city with delicious food and a lot to see. So although Joan of Arc was the main focus of the day, we were able to enjoy a traditional Norman dinner and a walk by the river.

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The Joan of Arc museum was well worth the visit. The exhibit is set up in the building where her trial was held. As groups move through each room, a  three dimensional projection displays scenes from a “re-trial” where actors, playing the parts of important people in her life as well as court officials, review the evidence presented against her. In this way, the history of the time period and a detailed description of the players in her story are presented in a very creative and entertaining manner. At the end of the “re-trial” we were brought to another exhibit that shows how Joan of Arc’s image was used in France and throughout the world and what her image and legend meant to various groups of people. It was very interesting and probably the highlight of my time in France.

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My dad and brother were in Paris for the week (attending the Ireland vs Sweden Eurocup match), so we met up with them for our last two days in France. Those 48 hours were spent enjoying cafe au laits in corner cafes, watching Euro Cup games in bars, eating nutella crepes, beignets, dinner in the latin quarter,  and waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower. We made a conscious decision to take it easy knowing we would return at a later date for a extended visit to the city of light.

 

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It was a cloudy day with scattered showers, but this newly wed couple couldn’t have been happier. And we know exactly how that felt. ❤

Destination: Calanques National Park, South of France

From June 1st to June 7th there seemed to be a giant rain cloud over most of Europe. We had planned on camping in Switzerland for a week after meeting up with friends in Barcelona (who brought our camping equipment) and meeting with family in Paris (with whom we had planned to send our camping equipment back). But, Mother Nature had other plans. So instead we searched for any place with sunshine in the forecast. Option A: Greece! But unfortunately 96*F was too much sun. Option B: Copenhagen, but we decided that Scandinavia deserves its own trip. So option C it was: the south of France!

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Marseille was on our original itinerary but after about 6-7 revisions, it had somehow been dropped off. This was due to the amount of criticism we’d heard & read regarding the grimy-ness of the city. We didn’t actually spend much time in Marseille, however to be fair, we were not there to explore the second largest city in France, but instead the Calanques National Park. It did not disappoint!

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We joined up with our Baltimorean friend we had met in Barcelona, who was couch surfing in Marseille before moving on to a farm in Italy for a Work Away. A short bus ride out of the city and a short walk into the National Park, and our eyes lit up with the beauty of white rocky trails and clear blue ocean views.

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Upon a split in the trail we opted for the “direct route” over the “easy one”. This proved to be the more worthwhile trail as we worked our way down steep declines and narrow mountainsides, passing rock climbers along the way. 

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Arriving at the bottom, the cliffside rocky coast was everything we had hoped for. Though the chilly Mediterranean water took a minute to get used to, it made for a welcoming change from the nearly shadeless hiking trail. A small rocky island also served as the perfect diving board, however the clear sea didn’t do any favors for our depth perception just before jumping!

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Afterwards we layed out on the smooth rocks soaking up the sunshine and enjoying this small paradise before taking the easy trail back out.

The following day we rented a car and  made our way to the small town of Cassis, on the opposite side of the National Park.

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From the beach we rented a kayak and paddled through the sea to the popular Calanque d’en Vau, a tiny pebble beach at the end of a narrow creek sandwiched in between high white rocky cliffs.

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The water in the seaside creek was much warmer than the previous day, which allowed for Siobhan to hop out of the kayak for a relaxing swim. Calanques National Park proved to be an amazing adventure which we were fortunate not to have skipped!

 

Destination: Barcelona, Spain

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Friends; Gaudi; Beaches; Food; Youth Hostels; More Gaudi; & old age.

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These are my friends. After traveling for just over a month it was refreshing to have them sitting across from us for meals and drinks (or photobombing us left and right). More than just familiar faces, what I had missed was the common humor and free wheelin’ conversations without worry of offending, or being lost in translation. Thank you guys for coordinating your vacation with us!

Our days consisted of a windy visit to a beautiful beach,

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a trip to Park Guell,

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drinking at a punk bar,

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eating more delicious food,

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shopping & markets,

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and a lot of wondering the city by foot. In other words, Tourism 101.

The top of our tourist priorities is always food. One the most traditional tapas bars in the city is El Xampanyet, and everyone seems to know it. Once through the door it’s as if we were attempting to push our way to the stage at a sold out concert. A blessing from the food gods is the only explanation of how we found ourselves seated and at the mercy of a gracious Filipino waiter who brought out all sorts of his recommended tapas.  He ended our night with complimentary liquor to dip our sweet bread in, as well as some home brewed house Cava!

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With our friends off to Paris, we were  off to a hostel where we would eventually (& intentionally) miss our flight out of town and end up staying one night too many.

But first the good. Sagrada de Familia.

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A beautiful basilica designed and started by Antoni Gaudi, this place is really something to behold. Building began in 1882 and is projected to be finished by 2026. The architecture and design are somehow both traditional and modern, introducing earth-centric concepts to a traditionally Catholic holy space. Gaudi designed an absolute masterpiece and we will have to come back in 2026 to see the finished product!

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Following up with more Gaudi, we returned to Park Guell after finding out admission is free if we arrived before 8am. 

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Back at our Youth Hostel, we met a handful of travelers, one 26 yr old who had been traveling for 5 months starting in Southeast Asia then made his way through Nepal and was now in Europe before heading home to Baltimore. Another was a 19 yr old woman with an old soul from Detroit, who got a lot of slack for that from fellow Americans.  There was an incredibly genuine solo traveler form Utah, and another beaming, kind hearted Baltimorean ginger hippy whom we were fortunate to befriend, as well as a woman or age who was the picture of an up-and-coming career-oriented New Yorker enjoying every minute of her life with a smile and a laugh.  Meeting other travelers continues to be one of my favorite parts of this trip.

And now the bad. With thunderstorms forecasted for the entire week in our next destination, we opted to skip our Easy Jet flight and instead stayed in Barcelona two more nights while we figured out our next course of action. As much as our extra day proved to be great, discovering a new neighborhood and doing some shopping, the final night was one too many. Let me just say: avoid the hostel-organized pub crawls. I’m too old for that shit.

Destination: San Sebastian, Spain

To quote Anthony Bordain “You’d have a hard time finding anything better than Barcelona for food, as far as being a hub. Given the choice between Barcelona & San Sebastian to die in, I’d probably want to die in San Sebastian.” If I had a last day on earth, San Sebastian is where I’d spend it. But I’m definitely not waiting that long to return.

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Knowing we’d be spending a week on the Camino de Santiago and staying in albergues & hostels, we booked (3 months in advance & via points) a stay at Hotel Maria Cristina in San Sebastian.

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It was our treat at the end of a foot-killing walk. The hotel was luxurious, beautiful decor throughout, with a welcoming staff, a giant comfy bed that felt like a cloud, a Vegas-type large bathroom with a rainfall shower and seperate bathtub. Relaxation at its best. But the real treat was the Pinxto Bars. We asked the hotel for suggestions and they provided us with a pamphlet guide to food in the city. This included the types of pinxtos (traditional or modern) and recommendations of dishes to try at each place. When we asked the concierge the difference between pinxtos and tapas, she first had to compose herself before replying something to the extent of “a tapa is an after-thought, something that bars once gave to their customers for free just to place above their glass, a pinxto is something greater. It’s thoughtful, it’s for you to enjoy, to be pleased.”

Best of all, a majority of the bars are concentrated in one neighborhood. Walk out of one incredible pinxto bar and go two doors down, or a block over, and arrive at another mouth watering, jaw dropping, perfectly prepared, heaven on a small plate, bars covered in pinxtos awaiting your arrival. Let me assure you, I am not getting carried away.

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Yes, I’ve had exceptionally seared foie at Terrine in Los Angeles (for $25). Here its prepared equally well and accompanied by the right amount of apple puree (or a baked apple) and  assorted berries for $4.50.

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  The prices, a mere $2.5-5 per small plate (as opposed to $12-25) were as surprising as each delicious bite. Perfectly seared foie gras ( the beginning of my 7 concecutive days of foie), blood sausage with tomato sauce and a quail’s egg, an incredible slice of seared slow cooked whole piglet (including shoulder; belly; cheek; pigs head),

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cheek with per puree and green salsa, hoquera de bacaloa, and Kobe beef sliders with sweet potato buns just to name a few. On one occasion for lunch, we decided to order every dessert on the menu (the only dessert we remembered to take a photo of before scarfing them down)  I was in heaven, or a dream, or a vacation within a vacation. I was waiting to walk past Leo having a conversation about dreams…

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San Sebastian does offer more than just pintxos, there is a pretty bay with a beach  to kill time between lunch and dinner 🙂 also a few michelin star restaurants we’ll have to come back to ❤

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Feeling completely satisfied and replenished, we were off to Bilbao with just enough time for a trip to the Guggenhiem Museum before catching our flight to Catalonia.

 

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ps: I normally do not condone taking photos of food in public, but when in heaven it is important to come back with proof.

Redemptions: Portugal & Spain

Explained bellow is how we used 51,000 points + $316 for a likely cost of travel worth over $1700.

Redemption: 2 tickets RAK (Marrakesh) > LIS (Lisbon)

Total Cost: 24,000 Member Rewards Points (American Express) transfered to Avios, Iberia + $90.00 Total

Likely Cost: $449

Booked: 3 months in advance

Earned from: 50,000 points bonus from an American Express Premier Gold Rewards card

Opportunity Cost: $0

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Redemption: 2 tickets SCQ (Santiago de Compestela) to BIO (Bilbao)

Total Cost: 5,000 Member Rewards Points (American Express) transfered to Avios, Iberia + $108.00 total

Likely Cost: $575 for the same one hour non-stop flight!!! An alternative would be a one-stop four hour flight for $230, or $124 for a 11 hour train ride

Booked: 3-4 months in advance

Earned from: 50,000 points bonus from an American Express Premier Gold Rewards card

Opportunity Cost: $0

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Redemption: Hotel Maria Cristina, A Luxory Collections Hotel

Total Cost: 20,000 Starwood Preffered Guest Points

Likely Cost: $620.00

Booked: 3 months in advance

Earned from: 30,000 points bonus from an American Express Starwood Preffered Guest card

Opportunity Cost: $8, Del Amo Simon Mall gift card fees that were liquidated via Target prepaid red card – no longer available 😦

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Redemption: 2 tickets BIO (Bilbao) > BCN (Barcelona)

Total Cost:2,700 Member Rewards Points (American Express) transfered to Avios, Iberia + $116.00 total

Likely Cost: $202

Booked: 3 months in advance

Earned from: 50,000 points bonus from an American Express Premier Gold Rewards card

Opportunity Cost: $0

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