Eurotrip 2016: Part 3 (Madrid)

See Part 1 here and Part 2 here. 

The final leg of our trip was Madrid, Spain. Doug and I were both eager to experience Madrid since neither of us had been there before—and we were going to see our friend from college, Jonathan! Actually, having a friend in Madrid was one of the main reasons we booked a trip to Europe in the first place. We want to travel, well, everywhere, but were drawn to the prospect of seeing an old friend in a new place. We were glad to finally see the sun!

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The first day in Madrid didn’t quite go according to plan. Originally, we were supposed to arrive around 2:30 p.m. and check into our airbnb right away. However, as you may have read in my last post, our flight from Paris was cancelled and we rebooked the next, cheapest flight available. It happened to leave Paris around 6 a.m. which meant we woke up between 3:30 and 4 a.m. since we were worried about getting to the airport, checking baggage, and everything. (Paris’s airport is kind of far outside the city and it’s worth adding in extra time to get there). Anyway, our flight put us in Madrid around 10 a.m. We couldn’t check into our airbnb, so we had 4 hours to kill in a new city with all our luggage in tow.

We ate at a nearby restaurant called El Madroño. The staff were a bit confused about Americans eating a full-fledged lunch at 11 a.m. because most of the restaurants don’t even open until around that time, and the lunch rush at most places is closer to 2. (note: I discovered that I loved running on Madrid Time). Anyway we really tried to drag out the meal because we didn’t have anywhere to go with all of our stuff.

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After we’d overstayed our welcome at the restaurant we headed up to Plaza Mayor, which is probably the most famous sight in Madrid and wasn’t very far from our airbnb. [Cut to us dragging rollerbags up a cobblestone hill.] Plaza Mayor is a nice, open square with a statue in the center. There are lots of restaurants and gift shops around the perimeter. We made a couple laps and stopped in the tourist center to get pamphlets and use their wi-fi. We walked a little farther to just outside an old monastery where we found a concrete bench. Doug read a book while I napped (comfy!).

Finally we were able to check into our flat. The wait was worth it! Out of the three airbnbs we stayed in this was… well, tied for the most picturesque, with Paris, but it only had four flights of stairs instead of six!

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After another nap and a shower, we were ready to explore some more, meeting our friend when he got out of work at 6pm. He showed us around a few more parts of town including Catedral de Almudena, which we went into; it is an old cathedral filled with interesting art, and the Palacio Real, or royal palace (we just looked at the outside).

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We continued to trek around the city—including to his apartment in the south part of the city to drop some stuff off, then we checked out Mercado San Miguel (below), had tapas for dinner, did more exploring out to the east, then back to our flat to stay up really late catching up and talking about old times—the best kind of conversations in my opinion. My fitbit clocked over 26,000 steps that day!

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The next morning we were exhausted and a bit under the weather, due to the rain in London and rain+stress in Paris. So, I slept in while Doug went out to explore the city. He didn’t find much because nothing really opens before 10. So, we had a lazy morning. Then we went to Retiro Park which is a beautiful huge park that has a variety of things to see, including Palacio de Cristal, and a large lake where one can rent a rowboat and paddle around. I bought a comic book (in Spanish) from one of the bookseller booths and we sat on the grass trying to decipher the plot using intuition, Doug’s beginner Spanish skills, and adapting my French knowledge to fit.

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During the evening was more bumming around with our friend. We had a fancy dinner at a culinary art school (so it was fancy but inexpensive) and checked out more of the Centro neighborhood. Lots of walking, but not as much as the day before.

On our final day in Madrid we went to Reina Sofia, the modern art museum. There is also one of the world’s top art museums, Museo Nacional del Prado, but we’d seen a lot of classic-style art in the Louvre and overall, we prefer modern art. (Also, Reina Sofia was a bit cheaper and we were nearly out of Euros by this point).

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That evening, we were able to see Jonathan in a variety show! It turns out there is a thriving expat performing arts community in Madrid. I was really excited to be able to attend—he does stand-up too, usually on the weekends. This show was on a Wednesday, fortunately for us!

The next morning we made it to the airport with plenty of time, and didn’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to do it. Ah, it’s so nice when things go according to plan.

The beat of life in Madrid was much more slow and leisurely, which was a great change of pace after busy, bustling London and cosmopolitan Paris. By this point in the trip Doug and I both had full-fledged colds so it was nice (and necessary!) to slow down.

Busy-busy-busy trips have their pros, and so do relaxing trips. What pace of life do you look for on a vacation? 

Eurotrip 2016: Part 2 (Paris)

See Part 1 here. 

Early on the fourth day of our trip, which was a Saturday, Doug and I got up and jumped on the train from London to Paris—we went through the Chunnel! From the train we got to see some nice countryside; the Chunnel was only 30-45 minutes of the whole three-hour train ride. I was reading The Secret Life of Bees so I didn’t have a chance to feel claustrophobic.

Our airbnb was in Le Marais (neighborhood), at the Arts et Métiers metro stop. The listing did not exaggerate, our place was right above the metro. This is a huge plus, especially considering our luggage. The minus was that the building’s elevator was broken and we had to climb six narrow flights of stairs to the seventh floor. This kind of cramped my style—I’m the kind of person who likes to pop back in to “home base” a couple of times throughout the day to regroup. Still… the view of the rooftops of my favorite city was certainly worth all those stairs.

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We were in Paris less than 48 hours so we really jumped right into our itinerary. We got something to eat at this hipster restaurant called Holybelly that I found on Instagram. The food and coffee lived up to my expectations! Heading to Paris and then eating at a brunch restaurant where everybody speaks English (so many American expats there) isn’t what I’d necessarily recommend to a first-time visitor, but since this was my 4th time in Paris it gave me a glimpse of what my life might be like if I actually had the opportunity to live there. PS: Know anyone in Paris hiring foreigners? ;)

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After lunch we headed to Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine river where (uber famous) Notre Dame cathedral is located. We joined the long but fast-moving line to enter. Originally we’d planned on climbing to the top of the towers, but after having climbed to our apartment, my trick knee wasn’t really ready for another giant flight of stairs. Inside was even more beautiful than I remembered from my visit in high school. The stained glass windows are the most famous and beautiful aspect. The cathedral was not very crowded compared to Westminster Abbey from a couple days prior.

After Notre Dame we went to the Île’s other famous chapel, Sainte-Chapelle. I’ve only in recent years started hearing about this chapel, in part I think to its small size, and also owing to the fact that it was under a huge restoration took up the greater part of a decade. This was really the showstopper of the whole weekend in Paris. Approaching the chapel, it’s quite nondescript and there isn’t much buildup (construction zones, hallways, etc). Then, you enter a beautifully painted (dark) lower chapel, then go up a tight stone spiral staircase to the main event. The stained glass in this chapel was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s hard to put into words so I highly, highly recommend that if you ever travel to Paris, you must stop in. I’ll let my photos try to convey the beauty:

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After Sainte-Chapelle I explored (legendary) Shakespeare and Company book store, then we had a crêpe and bummed around in the Quartier Latin, which I’d always read about in textbooks but had never ventured to. It was so-so. It reminded me of Pacific Beach here in San Diego, meaning bustling but pretty mass-market-y. Not so quaint, authentic, or tucked away. The crêpe was cheap and good, though. We ate in a nearby park; it was nice to sit for a while and just soak in the ambiance.

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The next day got a bit derailed when we found out that the Air France pilots were on strike and the flight we’d booked for the following morning was flat-out cancelled. We spent a big chunk of the morning fretting about this, and we even went to the Air France office in the city, but it was Sunday, so naturally everything was closed. We didn’t have cell service or data, which made us feel hopeless. Trying to make the best of it and put the predicament out of our mind (plus, it was pouring), we went to the Louvre because honestly when you’re in there you can’t think of much but art. Like Notre Dame, I hadn’t been to The Louvre since 2005 so I was eager to visit.

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Underneath the Louvre is a small mall-type area. I used wi-fi at the US Embassy Apple Store to send off a few messages to Air France in hope of a resolution. Then we sat at a nearby brasserie (the ubiquitous corner cafes with colorful awnings and outdoor seating) and really stretched out our dinner, grateful to be out of the rain.

We went back to the (wi-fi less) airbnb to pack, determined to get to Madrid one way or another, in the morning. Long story short, we ended up mooching wi-fi off a shady cash-advance type of store at 11:30pm and buying two not-terribly expensive plane tickets from a different carrier (EasyJet) leaving at 6am. I’m still waiting on a refund from Air France for the cancelled flight. Frustrated about the unexpected cost and the second day of sightseeing being mostly derailed, but relieved to have flights booked, we rushed to our flat to try to get some shut-eye before heading out for the airport really, really early the next morning.

You can catch part one here, and my next post will cover Madrid! Have you ever had an unexpected trip-up while traveling? Was it before or after the smartphone age? How did you deal with it? 

Eurotrip 2016: Part 1 (London)

Four years ago, I took a trip with Doug to Europe. Now, finally, things have settled down around here for the time being, so we decided to take a big summer trip instead of multiple long-weekend trips like we did last summer. So, we booked our second trip to Europe!

Note: I wrote the majority of this post last week, and then as I was editing the copy… the Brexit results came in. It seems strange to publish a happy-go-lucky vacation post while the country is in crisis, but… We had a good trip, and I really did enjoy myself. For more information on the Brexit, the BBC seems pretty comprehensive. Oh, and on a related note… it’s relatively cheap to visit Britain now, after all this! 

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Our first city was London. Doug is a big Anglophile and he is really into British Premier League soccer. Also, London Heathrow is a fairly inexpensive airport to fly into, as far as transatlantic trips go. So, we started out– my first time to Jolly Old England! Parts of the city were jolly, but much of our three days in London were rainy! We saw the sun a few times, saw Big Ben a number of times, and had lots of good food.

The first day we arrived, we took the metro to King’s Cross Station (the Harry Potter nerd in me geeked out) and walked up to our airbnb. After we settled our bags and changed out of our airplane clothes, it was time to hit the city. I booked us on one of those cheesy hop-on, hop-off tour buses because I didn’t know much about London and wanted a guide to tell me stuff.

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I would give the hop-on, hop-off bus a 5/10. Traffic in London is pretty bad so for a lot of the ride you are moving very slowly and listening to the guide’s rudimentary stand-up comedy routine (maybe it depends on the guide). We got a pretty overview of the city but it started to rain, nay, pour and the bus ended up getting, well flooded out. (We’d looked at the forecast and we came prepared with raincoats). It got really bad, though, so we hopped out with the intention of seeing Westminster Abbey, but that was experiencing a bit of flooding as well, so we got a coffee and sheltered until the rain let up a bit.

Since we were already wet, and it kept sprinkling, we decided to take the Thames river tour that was included in our tour bus ticket. For me, this was the highlight of day one. Old European cities are almost always built along a river for practical reasons, so seeing it from this vantage provides a good view of new and old buildings and some good history.

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After the boat, we headed to Covent Garden which is like a fancy mall and dining area. Judging from the design, I’m thinking it probably used to be a train station? Correct me if you know. We ate pot pies at Battersea Pie Station, which I’d scoped out online before we left (I didn’t want to eat just fish and chips for three days). The pies were really good, and the crust was amazing.

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The next morning, we had a full English breakfast at Cafe Oz a pretty short walk from our flat. I had bubble and squeak, which is like a potato pancake with veggies in it. From there we saw Buckingham Palace, which was beginning to get decked out for the Queen’s 90th birthday festivities, and then back to Westminster Abbey, which was open after the previous day’s rain. The Abbey was unlike any of the cathedrals I’d previously seen in France and Belgium. It was hundreds of years old and instead of preserving it in an ancient state, the royal family kept adding on to it– tombs and memorials, and paintings, and more! The entry fee included an audioguide which was extremely helpful. I would have been overwhelmed without it and wouldn’t have appreciated my visit as much.

The weather was really good and rain was predicted for the following day, so we went to the Emirates Stadium, where the soccer team Arsenal plays. This pilgrimage was one of Doug’s bucket list items, and listening to the audioguide certainly told me more than I ever knew there was to know about the storied history of the team.

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For dinner, we went to another restaurant I’d looked up before our departure, BAO. This Soho shop is on foodie lists of “new, must-try” places to eat in London, and we had to wait in line to get in. I wanted to bail (my feet were so tired from a day of walking) but we persevered and were rewarded with yummy pork buns and a sesame-kale salad. After BAO we walked around Soho a while longer before heading in for the night.

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On our final day in London, we went back to Soho to visit Carnaby street! I’d put Liberty of London on my itinerary but it was much more than I even imagined and I was blown away by the size of the store, the medieval tudor style building, and the beautiful items inside! We went to Kingly Court and ate at Le Bab where we had a surprisingly high bill and realized we were almost out of pounds.

We went to Monocle, a coffee shop, where we each had a coffee and discovered we had juuuust enough money for dinner. The rest of the day was an exercise in not spending money! We went to the Tate Modern, which was free, and walked around Shakespeare’s Globe and the Anchor, London’s oldest pub.

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We grabbed dinner from a supermarket and headed back to our flat to watch soccer. It was the first day of a month-long European competition. Our train (through the chunnel!) was leaving at 6 the next morning so we hit the hay early.

My next Eurotrip post will cover Paris and my third will cover Madrid! Have you ever been to London? What was your favorite part, or what do you wish you could visit? I think I skipped some touristy stuff in favor of some hipstery stuff… but #noregrets!