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French Fries,Waffles and Beer

24 May

Northern Europe must be my kind of place because so far the people there are serious about their french fries! I was already impressed after the cones and plates of fries piled high topped with ketchup and mayonnaise. (I was also surprised that I liked mayonnaise on my fries.) So, that was the first thing Beau and I tried when we got to Bruges, Belgium. The mayonnaise was just O.K. so we were a little let down. That didn’t stop us to getting fries a second time, and that’s when we found “samurai” sauce (aka super spicy mayo-based dip). It was AMAZING! And it is the reason why we ate two large servings of french fries with samurai sauce both days we were there. (We split them…so that’s just one a person…definitely less unhealthy than two each.)

Day two, serving number three.

 Belgium is known for a few other foods, which we also tried. The chocolate was super rich and you can find every type and flavor under the sun in any of the 100 chocolate shops within a five-mile radius of the center. The waffles were to die for! I’ve had waffles with nutella (in Florence) and it was good, but the waffles in Bruges blew them out of the water! They were so delicious that we turned around and bought another one from the same shop as soon as we finished eating the first one. (Luckily, there was a different attendant at the window, haha.)

As good as all the food was, I can’t forget to talk about the beer. We visited a brewery the first day we were there where I found my new favorite beer, Brugse Zot. The brewery, De Halve Maan- I definitely suggest going, you get a beer with your tour!, seemed small but went on forever. It was cool to learn some of the history and see how beer is made, but the best part was definitely trying the beer. We tried a few more Belgium beers throughout the weekend and found another really good one, Leffe. These are probably the only two not light beers I actually like.

Hops home-grown in Bruges

 

Real beer that actually tastes good!

 We didn’t just eat and drink while we were in Bruges. My favorite thing we did was ride bikes through the countryside. Not only did it burn off the extra calories from all the french fries, waffles and beer (hopefully!), it was beautiful! The sky, windmills and fields looked like postcards! We biked through two tiny towns outside of Bruges until our butts were sore, had a picnic lunch and found a windmill that was still used to grind wheat into flower. All for only the 6 euros it cost to rent a bike for the day!

This windmill is open to the public so we got to climb around inside and see how flour is made!

 

We biked through towns, fields and tree-lined trails

 

So pretty it almost doesn't look real.

 We opted to go to Bruges rather than the bigger city of Brussels thanks to my trusty Rick Steve’s guide book, and I’m so glad we took his advice!

XO

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Back to the Land that I LOVE

7 May

Yes, Italy! Laura and I’s next stop during Semana Santa was Florence. It’s the fourth city I’ve visited in Italy only a month after my trip with Beau. My general rule while here has been to try not to repeat countries and cities since there is so much still to see, but I can’t stay away from Italy. Going to Florence only reaffirmed that I am in love with everything about that country and absolutely MUST retire there one day…maybe with my own bed & breakfast.

Every city in Italy has had a homey and laid-back feeling with a hint of complete awesomeness in the air while also still staying true to itself and standing apart from all of the others. Venice was romantic, Cinque Terre was beautiful like I’ve never seen before and Rome was enormously impressive, Florence was artsy. From the sculptures in Piazza Signoria and the Dumo to the panoramic views from Piazzale Michelangelo, the entire city is a piece of art.

One of the statues in front of Palazzo Vecchio, the old palace.

 

The Dumo and baptismal chamber in front.

 

Night view of the city from across the Arno River at the top of Piazzale Michelangelo.

 I love Florence for more than just its art and beauty. The center of the city is compact, so it’s completely walkable and doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to get anywhere on foot. This convenience made it easy to really get to know the city and eat the best paninis (mmmm fresh cheese and yummy truffle sauce) and gelato (sheep cheese is the BEST flavor in the world). We walked though all the markets, which smelled of genuine leather, and shopping streets filled almost exclusively with high-end stores. Next time I am in Florence, I will have a bigger shopping budget!!

My favorite two things were definitely seeing The David and going to a wine tasting. The David absolutely is as amazing as everyone claims it is. The larger-than-life sculpture is so detailed, I honestly thought his skin was glowing in the light. It really puts all other sculptures to shame.

The Accademia's main attraction.

 

Bravo Michelangelo!

 I had never been to a wine tasting before, but this one will surely be one of the best I ever go to. Our host, Pinot (as in Pinot Grigio? LOL), really knew his stuff. He told us all about Tuscan wines, three of which we got to sample…if “sample” means two or three glasses of each, haha. We also tried extra virgin olive oil and 10-years-aged balsamic vinaigrette that was to die for! (And cost 35 euro!) We ate and drank all we wanted, then I bottle one bottle of each wine we tried.

Florence was an especially great trip because we stayed with Laura’s friend, Maddie, who was a great host and tour guide! The people were so nice there, as they have been everywhere in Italy and which always makes a place more memorable. I  Italia!

XO

Valencia

30 Apr

Okay, so the entire east coast of Spain is totally different from the middle and southern half of the country. I mentioned that in my Barcelona post and it’s definitely true after visiting Valencia and Alicante during Semana Santa (aka Easter Break). Valencia was Laura and I’s first stop…CORRECTION: technically it was our second stop. We accidentally bought tickets to “Valencia Don Juan”, a pueblo in Leon…to the north of Madrid…land-locked. (Who knew there were two Valencias and that Alsa buses don’t go to the Valencia on the Mediterranean coast? Not us!) We noticed this after the confusion of finding our bus, getting on and passing El Escorial, which is north of Madrid, as well. Luckily our bus driver was extremely nice and called his pal to pick us up in the middle of nowhere and take us back to Madrid.

"Where are we?!"

 Anyway, Valencia is probably one of the coolest cities I’ve been to. I mean, which other city has turned a drained river bed into a park? Or built a giant ship-wrecked pirate as a playground? Or where museums look like the set of Star Wars? Or where paella for 10 or more people is served in pans as big as a table for four? All of this was in Valencia plus a beautiful beach, big boardwalks and the typical old city center and cathedral. The air was definitely fresher in Valencia and it made me miss the water a lot!

I REALLY wanted to play on this!A bridge and aquarium are straight ahead and the science museum is on the left...all museums look like this, right?This isn't even the biggest pan of paella we saw!

 

All museums look like this, right?

 

This isn't even the biggest pan of paella we saw!

 Our favorite thing about Valencia, though, were the random Spanish friends we made. (More often than not these were friendly old men. Haha)! We chatted with one nice old man while waiting for an hour on the bus and flirted a little another with our waiter that agreed to serve us the paella we wanted despite our many dietary restrictions (I’m vegetarian, Laura is allergic to shell-fish). Our new BEST friend was our bus driver. He only was our driver once, but we must have made an impression because when he saw us walking the next day he stopped his bus, honked and waved. (P.S. He looked like Jake Gyllenhaal!) I love vacationing in cities with nice, laid back people!

XO

SanSe

26 Apr
 I remember saying that El Escorial was the best girls’ trip ever, but I think my weekend in San Sebastian topped it. (O.K., bothwere awesome, so I guess El Escorial was the best day trip and San Sebastian was the best weekend trip.) San Sebastian is on the north coast of Spain and the beach is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen! It looks like a horseshoe made up of the two mountains on each end of an arch-shaped strip of sand and one more island mountain in the middle. We took a bright red cable car up to the top of one mountain got breathtaking views…and ice cream.
 
(From Left) Laura, Amy, Paige and myself in front of the beach.
From one of the mountains at the end of the beach.

Speaking of food, the cuisine in San Sebastian actually is the best in Spain. A friend of mine told me some of the best chefs work in northern, coastal cities because of the tourism and French influence. I didn’t fact check this, but I believe her because everything we ate was delicious! The food in Spain has just been O.K. I haven’t been blown away by much except for good paella, brava sauce and aioli sauce. SanSe is apparently famous for its pinchos, aka small servings of gourmet food, which were piled on every other bar’s counter. I loved anything and everything with mushroom sauce!

The old part of the city was great for bar-and-pincho hopping, which phased into just drinking at a pirate bar that was blaring hard rock music while playing Taylor Swift on CMT with Captain Hook’s look-alike as the bar tender and John Travolta’s look-alike as our new friend…??…whatever Spain. LOL! After that bar we went to a couple of clubs, neither of which charged a cover. (Thank you, SanSe!) Regardless of where we went, there were people all over the streets, lots of bars, the usual lack of an open container law, and everything was walkable.

Why not?

In addition to a beautiful beach and entertaining night life, the shopping was comparable to that of Amsterdam, which has had the best shopping of anywhere I’ve been so far! There are a lot of boutiques and shops in the old city of SanSe that are different from the usual Zara and H&M. (Not that I’m hating on either of those stores at all!) Basically, I highly suggest San Sebastian to anyone looking for an awesome vacation!

Last minute shopping. Not even the little bit of rain we got could put a damper on our trip!

XO

Thanksgiving in Spain

27 Nov

Thanksgiving in Madrid was a huge success! I think we all missed our friends and family, home and some of the things Spain just doesn’t have, but we all enjoyed each other’s company. My Thanksgiving started Thursday with an unofficial dinner at my friend Laura’s apartment with her Spanish roommates. We had breakfast for dinner because we thought that concept and breakfast food were the most different from a typical Spanish meal. Her roommates were so excited! One of them made pumpkin cake in honor of Thanksgiving and another girl printed each of us a copy of the national anthem and had us all sing it in honor of America and us Americans. (By the way, we completely butchered it! Not one of us could sing in tune even with the video pulled up on YouTube, ha.) The menu was French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon and mimosas, in case you were wondering.

Friday was our traditional-as-possible American Thanksgiving dinner. A big group of Auxiliares, plus a few English, French, Australian and Spanish friends, got together at my friend Siury’s apartment and we each brought out favorite Thanksgiving dish (needless to say, there were plenty of desserts…and lots of alcohol!). It turned out amazing!

Spending Thanksgiving with friends. (From Left) Our hostess Siury, Juany, me and Katy.

I made a broccoli and corn casserole and sweet cooked carrots (I was going for a Cracker Barrel veggie plate meal), Laura made stuffing (ALWAYS my favorite Thanksgiving food), Jeta made sweet potatoes, Jaylene and Kyla made amazing apple pies (from scratch!), and people who actually eat meat brought a small turkey (or maybe a chicken?) and KFC (keeping it classy). There was enough food for everyone to have seconds. I think our foreign friends were very impressed.

Nacho at his first American Thanksgiving. This picture sums up the general feeling after Thanksgiving dinner, haha.

Like I said, Thanksgiving here was a success. I’m so thankful to have found such great friends in Madrid to be my family while I’m away from home 🙂

Catching the metro before it closes for the night with our clean plates and a bean bag chair?

XO

Eat, Drink…Repeat

12 Nov

I LOVE to eat! And I enjoy drinking occasionally (aka on the weekends). Monday through Thursday I work and have to get up early, so I sometimes meet friends for dinner, drinks, or wine and tapas one or two of those nights, and I think a lot of Spanish people are more relaxed during the week, too (even though they still consume alcohol way more often then I would ever think to). The weekends are a different story.

A friend of mine from South America who has lived in Madrid before told me the first week I was here that everyone in Madrid hangs out in La Latina on Sundays. I asked why and what happened there every weekend and she said, “Eating and drinking. We just go there to do that all day. Then we go out.”

I had my own experience with one of these marathon feast-’til-you-go-out days last Saturday. Some Spanish friends invited a bunch or people over for lunch at noon. I didn’t get there until 4 p.m., but no worries because everyone was still eating and drinking. When I walked in, there was a huge spread of Australian and Spanish food and at least 8 open wine bottles and an empty case of beer. I ate my lunch, then everyone had coffee, then dessert was served all the while with more drinks. After dessert, liquor drinks were made for everyone and the Americans and Australians tried to teach circle of death to the Spanish people in Spanglish. It was great! Four or five hours after I arrived (so 8 or 9 hours after everyone else had started) we left for the bars. Needless to say, I was the second person to leave to go home. I don’t know if I can keep up with the Spaniards!

 

The dessert that marked the end of a 4-ish hour lunch and beginning of pre-gaming: rum soaked pineapple, custard with kiwi and whipped cream and chocolate liquor

 

This weekend was kicked off with even more delicious food. This morning (and by morning I mean noon, ha) some friends and I got together to make French toast for brunch.  It was so good…we used enough sugar and butter to make Paula Deen proud! And it reminded me of home 🙂

 

Making french toast and caramelizing bananas to go on top, YUM!

 

 

Our brunch included homemade syrup, bananas, whip cream and orange juice

 

After working out and relaxing, I think I will meet everyone for drinks and tapas…and then go out! Tough life, right?

XO

Idiosyncrasies

6 Nov

Monday through Thursday flew by easily this week so I must be getting used to my schedule (thank goodness!). There are, however, other little things about Spain that I am still getting used to…

  • Cheek-kissing vs hand-shaking. People probably think I am socially awkward since I always still stick out my hand for a shake. While I think it’s cute to kiss your friends on the cheek, it’s still a little weird to do it to strangers. (What if they’re dirty?!)
  • Crosswalks. In Madrid, the crosswalks are about 15-20 yards from the actual corner. This not only means that you have to walk down the street to cross, but also that if you don’t a car will probably hit you since they pull all the way up to the crosswalk before stopping for the red light.
  • Coca-Cola Light. It just isn’t good at all. Thankfully, there is always Coke Zero.
  • Lack of tall people. I’m still not used to people looking at my feet all the time. No, they aren’t looking at a cute pair of shoes I have on or noticing that I haven’t gotten a pedicure in months, they think I must be wearing 6 inch heels. Dear people on the metro and in the street, yes, I am just this tall.
  • Unrefrigerated dairy products. Milk and eggs are not refrigerated and I don’t know why. There is cold milk at the store that comes in a plastic container, but it comes at a price. There is boxed milk on the shelf that doesn’t expire for a year, and, naturally, I buy it because it’s cheaper despite the fact that it doesn’t taste exactly the same…

XO