A City a Day: Antwerp, or ‘Hand Throw’ (A Guide)

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings 🙂

After saying goodbye to beautiful Ghent and Bruges, we headed off to our last Belgian city of our Benelux tour: Antwerp. I didn’t know much about the city itself, but after doing some research it seemed like a worthwhile and quirky place to visit.

We got off the train, and the first thing you are struck by is the beautiful station. It is huge and just gorgeous to look at, has numerous floors, and there is even a zoo attached to it! In fact, Newsweek once rated it the world’s 4th greatest train station, and the British Magazine Mashable rated it the world’s most beautiful. It is definitely worth a peek around!

From there, we headed towards our hostel so we could get rid of our heavy bags. We stayed at Antwerp Student Hostel, which was okay but I would not highly recommend it. The price was pretty high for what it was (although it was a holiday weekend, so that might have contributed to it) and the staff weren’t the nicest (in fact, they were a bit rude). About half of the beds are in what they call “capsules” – basically wooden boxes with one open side. If you’re claustrophobic, this is not the place for you!

Anyways, Antwerp is a decent sized city, but if you’re able-bodied, you can pretty much walk everywhere (at least, that’s what we did). I have starred all of the main attractions that I found in my research.

Our first stop was St. Carolus Borromeuskerk, a quaint church in a quiet square. It was pretty on the outside, but (as I’ve mentioned before) when you travel around Europe, all of the churches kind of begin to blur together. My friends and I even joked that we should start a blog just on all of the churches we had seen in this one trip alone.

A short walk from there is Grote Markt and Antwerp City Hall. It is a lovely square with a quite unique and eye-catching centerpiece. If you look very closely, the man at the top of the statue is holding (and about to throw) a severed hand. Ew. Legend has it that there was a giant who used to charge people to cross the river, and when they couldn’t pay, or refused to, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. One day, a dashing young knight came along and said “Screw you, giant!” (I’m sure more eloquently than that) and cut off the giant’s hand, throwing it into the water like all of the giants’ victims. For good measure, he cut off his head, too. Lovely story, isn’t it? The name of the city, Antwerpen, literally translates to ‘hand throw.’

A couple of blocks away, you will find the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp, or Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal. It’s imposing tower and prominent clock can be seen from all over the city, and it is rather impressive. Inside, you have to pay a small fee in order to see the famous paintings it houses. To get a peek of the cathedral, just sneak off to the left of the ticket booth and go into the prayer area, but stay quiet! It took 169 years to build this masterpiece.

The above picture is the free view you get from the prayer area, and below is one of the halls of paintings you can see if you pay the entrance fee. I hear it is definitely worth a visit and holds many Rubens, but we didn’t have time to go.

At this point, we were starving so we decided to head to one of the restaurants on my list. About a 10 minute walk away from the cathedral and through Groenplaats square (shown below, with a nice statue of Rubens), and admittedly a little hard to find, we stopped at De Groote Witte Arend, a lovely restaurant inside of an old 17th century convent building. It was definitely charming, and the food was local and delicious.

The waiter recommended the local specialty Stoemp, basically mashed potatoes with eggs, lettuce, and bacon added. It was quite delicious (I was a little wary about the eggs) and extremely filling! I would definitely recommend it. However, if you’re with friends, it might be a good idea to order a meat plate as well and share, so you can have both your carbs and a meaty protein.

After that filling lunch, we decided to head toward the river and see Hetsteen Castle then try to make it up to the MAS Museum. We asked the waiter for directions, and he warned us “You know it is a small castle, right? Not really anything to see?” However, when we got there, we were glad we made the short journey. Although small, it is still very picturesque and right on the river. There is even a nice cafe inside where you can have a rest and look out over the water.

We wandered along the waterfront for a bit (be sure to look back towards the city center, there are some nice views of the cathedral), then headed up north towards the MAS Museum. We stopped at St. Paul’s Church, or Sint-Paulusparochie, along the way. The church was unique because in the gardens they had statues and a diarama of sorts of various important scenes from the Bible. I had never seen anything quite like it. The inside was nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. When you walk in, at the far end there is another hallway with some interesting paintings that are worth a visit.

One thing that surprised (and confused) us was at the far end of the Cathedral, near the altar. In the picture above, you see white, black, and gray balls of differing sizes connected by strings. Weird, right? There was no informational poster or anything, but I have the feeling it was a temporary exhibit of some sort.

From there, we headed directly North. It was getting late and we wanted to be sure that we got there before dark (while the MAS exhibits close at 5 or 6, you can still go all the way to the top for the views). What we didn’t realize is that Antwerp has a mini Red Light District. We were so busy trying to read street signs and check our map that we didn’t realize where we were headed. Next thing we knew, there were women in string bikinis posing for us in the windows and men perusing slowly, deliberately. In fact, thinking back now, just a couple minutes prior a guy passed by us and gave us a weird hand signal and laughed, then power walked towards the main street. We had no idea what to make of it, but perhaps that should have been a clue.

Since we were heading to Amsterdam the following day, we decided to let this be a ‘taste’ of what was to come. We walked a little bit faster, but slow enough where we could still see what was happening. It felt nerve-wracking to be the only girls walking this street, surrounded by half naked women. I couldn’t believe how popular it was in the early afternoon! If you’re in the area during the day, it is worth a look if you’re in a decent sized group. However, I wouldn’t recommend anyone coming at night or even going by themselves during the day. It isn’t Amsterdam, there aren’t a lot of tourists around. It seemed like mostly a local thing, and a sketchy local thing at that.

From there, it was about a 10 minute to MAS, or Museum aan de Stroom. It is a very unique building, 10 stories high, with big, curved glass. If you arrive after the museum closes, you can take the escalators all the way to the top.

I hear it is a very nice museum, so if you’re in the area and have time, it is probably worth the visit. The views from the top are also nice, but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see it if time was an issue.

By this time, our feet were killing us, it was freezing, and we were dying for a drink. We headed back towards the center and bar hopped a bit, and luckily were able to catch the beautiful sunset against the Cathedral.

It is a very lovely city, especially when wandering the streets at night. We went to a nightclub that night and I met a guy who was from there, and he asked me why the hell we came to Antwerp because there was “nothing there.” A lot of Belgians seemed to have that opinion, but don’t let it stop you from making a visit if you have time! We truly enjoyed our time, and enjoyed lots of good Belgian beers and fries. We were sad to say goodbye!

THINGS TO SEE

  • Rubenshuis (Ruben’s House): Wapper 9 to11 – We didn’t make it to this, but if you are a fan of art (and, of course, Rubens), you should definitely take a look. The inside holds a lot of special treasures and also has a nice garden.
  • Carolus Borromeuskerk (Carolus Borromeus Church): Hendrik Conscienceplein 12
  • Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp): Groenplaats 21, €5, 10am-5pm – Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral, took 169 years to make. You can see it from all over the city. It costs money to enter the main portion with the altar and paintings, but you can have a free glimpse by (quietly) entering the prayer area.
  • Grote Markt – The main square, also where city hall is.This is where you will find the famous statue where Antwerp gets it’s name. The man at the top is named Brabo, and he cut of the giant Antigoon’s hand (and head).
  • Antwerp City Hall: Grote Markt 1 – Built in the mid-1500’s.
  • Groenplaats: 2000 Antwerpen – Lots of bars and restaurants.
  • Museum Plantin-Moretus: Vrijdagmarkt 22-23, €8, 10am-5pm – We didn’t visit, but it is highly rated. It is a medieval building and has a lovely courtyard, an antique library and bookshop.
  • Het Steen: Steenplein 1 – Small but beautiful castle on the river. In front, there is a very strange statue of a peeping Tom (we didn’t get it). There is nothing to see inside, just a cafe.
  • Sint-Paulusparochie (Saint Paul’s Church): Sint-Paulusstraat 22 – Lovely church, some Rubens inside!
  • MAS: Hanzestedenplaats 1, €5 – We didn’t see the museum portion, but be sure to get the ipod guide or use your phone with QR code capabilities because apparently nothing is in English. It is free to go all the way up to the top for the views.
  • Cogels Osylei: Zurenborg – A lovely street to walk down (supposedly, we didn’t have the chance to see it!) but a bit out of the way.

FOOD and DRINK

  • De Groote Witte Arend: Reyndersstraat 18, €13-22 – Built inside a 17th century convent building. Great, local food and drinks! Try the stoemp, carbonnades, or rabbit.
  • Den billekletser: Hoogstraat 20 – unique beer bar
  • Falafel Tof – cheap
  • Le John: Kasteelpleinstraat 23, €13-26, dinner only, very artistic inside.
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A City a Day: Luxembourg, a Fairytale City (A Guide)

This will be my first Guide Post, so let’s see how it goes! Before my most recent trips, I have spent hours and hours researching and planning everything, and instead of just throwing everything away when I’m finished, I figured that this information might come in handy for others interested in visiting these places. Below, I will not only share pictures and personal experiences, but also include names of restaurants, hotels, museums, etc. that I researched and might be of use for those coming to visit. If you have anything you think I missed, please feel free to let me know in the comments! I will also link to informational websites that describe each site further.

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I don’t know how we did it, but we found really cheap flights to Luxembourg during Spring Break (we paid €45 one way). If we had left on any other day, the prices shot up to over €200… insane! You really have to do your research if you want to include Luxembourg on your itinerary if you don’t want to pay a fortune.

We arrived at around noon, and it was a rainy day. The rain normally wouldn’t bother me too much, but it was also EXTREMELY windy… it was almost pointless to use an umbrella because it kept either flying away or getting blown upside down. In fact, all of my friends had to throw away their umbrellas at the end of the day because they were ruined. But, no matter… we weren’t the type of people to let a little rain and wind ruin our day!

In my research, I read that it was pretty easy to catch a bus from the airport and take it straight into the city. In front of the bus stop is a machine where you can buy tickets, and a short term ticket costs €2. We bought our tickets only to find out that buses were free on Sundays =X No matter… Also, we were told to take Bus #9 and it would take us very close to where our hostel was. However, when Bus #9 arrived, it drove right past us and a group of at least 8 other people… wtf? We ended up hopping on a different bus and getting a transfer in the city center.

There is only one hostel in Luxembourg City, and it’s actually a pretty nice one: Luxembourg Youth Hostel. It is HUGE, and looks more like a hotel than a hostel on the outside. It was very clean, and we only paid about €25 for the night. Plus breakfast was included! Can you get better than that? Yes, you can! We paid to have a 6 bed dorm, and there were 4 of us. I emailed the hostel asking if we could be placed in the same room, and to our surprise they upgraded us to a 4 bed room so we could have our privacy. The staff were also extremely friendly. I highly recommend it!

The hostel is right down the hill from the main road that takes you into the city center. It is a little bit of a hike to get back up, but not too bad. The views as you cross the bridge are also incredible. Unfortunately, there was a lot of construction going on… one entire bridge was covered in ugly steel and tarps. And there were cranes everywhere. But it was still unbelievably beautiful, even in the rain.

As you cross the bridge, you will pass by the Casemates du Bock, which are basically old passageways carved into the mountainside. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore all of them, but you will find them throughout the city and they are highly recommended to see.

One of the first things we came across was Saint Michael’s Church, which was unfortunately under construction on the outside. I’d recommend having a peek inside, I really loved the unique stained glass.

We were starving after all of that travelling (woke up at 4am and got to the hostel around 2pm), so we started out immediately trying to find a place to eat. One of the first restaurants we came across was a lovely French cafe called Le Friquet’s (1, rue Sigefroi, L-2536 Luxembourg). We arrived pretty late, so we had the entire restaurant to ourselves. They were advertising their plate of the day, which appeared to be chicken. We were all going to order it when luckily the waitress warned us that it was basically stuffed chicken intestines… I’m all down for trying new foods, but I’m really glad we figured that out in time!

In the end, we decided on a specialty called Bouchée à la reine, which I highly recommend! It is basically a stuffed pastry covered in a deliciously creamy sauce, we were all very impressed. It cost €18.50, but it was honestly one of the best meals that I’ve ever had and was enough food to keep us full for the entire evening.

Bouchée à la reine

One thing that you hear about Luxembourg that it is an extremely expensive city. In fact, it is the richest country in Europe! Who knew. In all of my research, I read that you couldn’t really expect to eat cheaply in Luxembourg… and I’d have to back up this consensus. The receptionist at our hostel even told us that we wouldn’t be able to find a meal cheaper than €15, and that it would be at McDonald’s. If you’re planning to come here, keep this in mind! Also, be careful about ordering water at restaurants… we ended up paying €7 for a bottle of water that gave each of us a small glass’ worth =0 Such a rip-off! Might as well have bought wine.

Nearby the restaurant is the Musée national d’histoire et d’art Luxembourg (MNHA), which was on our list of things to see but we decided not to go in. I have heard very good things about it, though, so if you have the time and you enjoy museums, give it a try.

Kaale Kaffi Shop (9 Rue de la Boucherie)

From there, we continued on towards the palace. On the way, we passed by a cute coffee shop… and caffeine was greatly appreciated after our long morning. It was probably one of the most delicious coffees I have ever tried, and also one of the most unique coffee shops which also sold vintage wares. It is called Kaale Kaffi, and is definitely worth the pick-me-up and caffeinated deliciousness.

The Palais Grand Ducal is very small, and not at all what you’d think of when you think of the richest country in the world. There weren’t gates around it, either… just one lonely looking guard keeping watch. You can’t go in, either. So it was a little anti-climactic.

What it looks like on a sunny day, Photo Cred: inzumi.com

Nearby is the Place d’Armes, a large square where young people meet up. There are many restaurants in this area, along with shops, and it’s a good place to waste some time. There weren’t too many people there on the day we went due to the rain, but I imagine it’d be lovely on a sunny day. Nearby is another square called Place Guillaume II, which is worth checking out on a nice Sunday because there is an open market.

If you’re interested in museums, there is the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg which has great reviews on all of the travel websites. Apparently it is state-of-the-art and very interesting. Unfortunately, my friends and I prefered to walk around and explore rather than stay inside, so I can’t vouch for this.

Going south a little further, you hit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame (no, not the big one in Paris). Like most cathedrals, it is very beautiful… but the more you travel Europe, the more these cathedrals start to blur together. By the end of our trip, my friends and I were joking that we should start a blog just about churches because we visited so many. We ended up sitting inside for a bit as a safe haven from the wind and rain… which is exactly what a church is supposed to function as, isn’t it? A safe haven?

Nearby is the Place de la Constitution, a nice square with a tall monument in the middle and topped with the statue of a girl in gold. It has lovely views of the valley and city across the way, but the wind made it really difficult for us to stop and admire it for longer.

If you continue down south a bit, you will find the Chemin de la Corniche, otherwise known as Europe’s Most Beautiful Balcony. And it lives up to it’s name. As you look around, you feel even more like you’re in the middle of a fairytale. There’s just a charming atmosphere that emanates through the entire city, and being able to see these views from above is just marvellous (even in the rain!). It is very green here, and it’s easy just to sit there and admire the views for awhile. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, a lot of construction was going on during this time… so you can see cranes in the background of a lot of these pictures.

Nearby, there is an elevator that you can take to go down to the bottom level of the city called Grund. When you exit the elevator, you walk through a small tunnel showcasing local artists. Some of them were very interesting! Others were just… weird.

At the other end of the tunnel, there are a bunch of small streets, cafes, and a lovely river cutting through it all. Not much was open on a Sunday, but we did stop at a local cafe called for a drink. It was an English bar, and the bartender was very nice. It had a cool feeling to it because one wall of the cafe was the hill-side. It is easy to find because it is the first place you find to the left when you exit the tunnel.

The Grund Neighbourhood is very beautiful and quaint, plus there’s a lot of places to pop in for a rest. Definitely worth the visit, but preferably on a nice day!

Forgive the crazy hair… the wind and rain got to it!

After seeing all of that, and stopping in yet another church to shelter us, we decided to just head in whatever direction felt right to explore what was left of the small city. We ended up coming across these strange statues in the middle of town, and couldn’t help joining in on the fun.

We wandered around some more at night, but unfortunately all of the lights and rain didn’t allow my photos to show up correctly. But here’s an idea of what beauty you can expect from the amazing Luxembourg City at night:

We didn’t end up going out to eat that night, but rather just grabbed some warm soup and a beer at our hostel. However, I had done some research on affordable places to eat that might be useful to other people:

Food

Bars

I had also planned a half day across the river in the more industrial part of town, but we never got around to seeing it because we thought we should head to Brussels in the morning. But, from my research, I hear these are pretty nice to see as well:

Weekend Getaway to Lyon, France, Part I: Vieux, La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, and Roman Ruins

Time seems to be flying by, and I don’t like it! I’m only two weeks away from moving in with my third host family, which means there are only 3 months left in the program 😦 How did that happen?! What am I going to do next?!

My immediate reaction has been to plan as many trips as possible during my time left here. This last weekend, some friends from the program and I hopped on a plane to go see the beautiful city of Lyon, France. Haven’t heard about it? Don’t worry, we hadn’t either. But tickets were cheap and, when we asked other people in the program if they knew anything about it, a few people said it was great. So off we went!

We had set off to the airport around 5am but, but after all of the hassle of getting to the airport, the flight, and the plane ride, we ended up ready to explore the city around noon… and we were ravenous. We heard from our hostel that most of the places in the center of the city are way overpriced, and that we should head across the river to the west side that had the La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. We heeded their advice and headed on over, passing some beautiful views along the way.

La Saône River, west side of Lyon

Paroisse Catholique Saint Nizier

I have a weakness for cities with rivers. I don’t know what it is about the water, but I absolutely adore it. I think rivers and beaches make cities 100x prettier. So the fact that Lyon was a city situated along two rivers really impressed me. The way the buildings reflect off the river, boat cruises, the lights at night… it is just fantastic. Oh, and hills… I have another thing for hills. Not walking up them, of course (that’s never fun), but seeing the views from the top. I love that you can look down a street and see the entire city laid out before you.

La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière on the top of the hill, and the mini-eiffel tower (Metallic tower of Fourvière) to the right.

Once we crossed the river, we began a desperate search for something to eat. None of us really spoke French, which was a problem… I tried learning the basic phrases but my accent just sucked. We ended up deciding on a little cafe (Crock ‘N’ Roll) that had a lot of locals inside, so it seemed to be a good choice. The menu had various options of a sandwich, salad, drink and dessert for about €13. I got a delicious ham sandwich with a dessert of “white cheese.” We were a little skeptical about the dessert but decided to try it since, hey, when in France… eat cheese. It was tasty! It came in a glass, pretty much purely liquid like yogurt. Then you poured honey and sugar into it because calories don’t count while you’re on vacation 😉

‘The Streets’ Sandwich. Pretty tasty! French Comte cheese, Ham, Mushrooms… yum! Everyone’s sandwich was pretty tasty.

The bathroom at the restaurant. A strange thing to take a picture of, I know, but I thought the collage was pretty cool!

After that, we wandered around the Vieux part of Lyon, a renaissance district and famous for it’s bouchons (nice restaurants) and traboules (old secret pathways used during the silk-weaving period and also the war). It was a really nice area to explore because it was just so French-looking. I’m sad we didn’t make it to a bouchon this trip (they were a tad pricy), but the whole area was beautiful.

  Another thing about France that I suppose is to be expected… There are more pastry and chocolate shops than you can count. And everything just looked so amazing! Even after eating a full meal we’d always stop at one of these shops and stare into the window, salivating. They were very creative with the way they presented everything. Some of the chocolates didn’t look real, and others (like in this picture) were made to look like corks and wine bottles. Yum!

I happened to notice a couple tourists enter this small alleyway, so we followed them since I was aware of the Traboules. I kind of wish we had hired a guide to show us around because, during the whole weekend, we only found a couple of them and didn’t really know the history about them. You really have to know what to look for, I hear some of the traboules are only accessed by knowing which closed doors you can go through. I was afraid of knocking on someone’s front door! Especially with my limited French.

After that, we stumbled upon the beautiful Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Unfortunately it was under construction on the inside, so we didn’t get to see much, but I was struck by the exterior. I loved the detail in the circular window at the top, which was a bit difficult to capture by camera.

Because you can never see enough churches in Europe, we decided to trek up the hill to see La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. It is definitely worth the climb, but try to ask locals for the correct way to go! We ended up taking a very long and roundabout route and got lost a few times. Luckily, because we went the wrong way, we also stumbled upon the The Ruins of Lugdunum, Fourviere Hill. They are ancient roman baths, and it’s interesting to wander around and maybe have a rest by sitting in one of the grand ampitheatres.

Just a short walk away from the Roman ruins, you find the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière. I am not impressed by too many cathedrals since I have seen so many in my life that they start blurring together, but I really enjoyed this one (another that stands out in my mind is the mind-blowing Sagrada Familia). There is a lot of detail on the outside, including the golden man on the tower, but the inside is what really impressed me. There was so much gold and color, it was incredible.

  There’s also some amazing views from right outside the cathedral. I’m a sucker for cityscapes. We met some really nice guys there who were living in France, they were nice enough to show us around a bit.

On our way down the hill, we decided to take a different route. There are billions of stairs every which direction, such as the one shown below. We neared the bottom when a guy asked us nicely to wait a moment because they were shooting a film at the bottom steps. It was super cool to see all of the film equipment and the filming in progress. Now I want to see it!

After that, we just wandered the city aimlessly to take it all in. It is such a gorgeous city to walk around, but it was surprising because there weren’t many people around at all. Such a big city, so few people! But everyone came out at night in the clubs.

The coolest entrance I have seen to a bookstore!

We met some fun people at our hostel and went with them to the Boston Café right behind the statue shown above. I personally wouldn’t recommend anyone to go… it was alright, but (as with many French people, I have noticed) the staff were incredibly rude to non-French speaking people. Order in French or they’ll chastise you that you are, in fact, in France and need to speak French. Or (like me) attempt to order in French and have them still glare at you because your accent isn’t perfect.

Anyways, another thing to mention about Lyon is that drinks are pretty damn pricey.  It was hard to find a beer for under €5.50, which was surprising because that’s on par with Dublin‘s crazy pricing (which makes more sense, since Dublin is known for their beer). We ordered beers at Boston Cafe, and a couple of the girls added syrup to theirs. I guess it is common in France to flavor your beer with syrups like peach, raspberry, strawberry, etc. I had a taste of one of my friend’s and it didn’t taste awful, but I definitely prefer my beer straight up.

The bar played some strange music… we were there for about two hours and the music didn’t get any better. There were some old hits that we could get down to, but the majority was really strange. Again, I wouldn’t recommend going there.

We ended up leaving and pretty much as soon as we left, we were approached by a group of 4 guys begging us to go back into the club with them and they’d buy our drinks for us. I was really thrown back by this; I guess it is really difficult for men to get into a club without women because they want a higher ratio of ladies. We politely declined but they kept insisting. We got even further and yet another group of guys approached us asking for the same thing. After saying no for the 5th time, a girl from their group came up to us and said “You guys want drugs?” Wow, that escalated quickly. We quickly said no and rushed off. A definitely strange end to the night!

Lisbon, Day 2: Castelo de São Jorge, Sé de Lisboa, Igreja de São Roque, and Flaming Sausage!

On January 2nd, we woke up bright and early to take advantage of the day since everything was closed the day before. We wisened up and decided to take a taxi instead of bothering with the public transportation, per our concierge’s advice. It only cost us €7 to go from one side of the city to the other, and up a steep hill! For 2 people, that was fantastic. If you have problems walking uphill, or are just plain lazy, do not try to make the trek all the way up. Get the famous trolley or grab a taxi.

We started at the Castelo de São Jorge, or St. George’s Castle. It is at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, which gives it some absolutely breathtaking views. I’m pretty sure I said “wow” more times than is socially appropriate. Once again, with the lovely view of the bay, the hills, and that red bridge, I kept thinking we were in San Francisco.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1640 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1649 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1653When we were done gawking at the city skyline, we walked through the castle walls and were introduced to some gorgeous peacocks. There were at least 15 of them just chilling in the courtyard. Who doesn’t love peacocks? They’re just so goddamn pretty. Very nice touch.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1664 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1666Then we reached the actual castle, which dates back to the medieval period and was built by the Moors. It was nothing all too interesting, though. Perhaps a guided tour (which I’m not sure they even offered) would be more educational and interesting. We just ended up wandering around, climbing all of the turrets and stairs we could see, and snapping away. There wasn’t any art on display or any educational signs explaining anything, so that’s pretty much all there is to do there anyways. But hey, you’re in a castle… which is pretty damn cool.

Quick note… if you’re afraid of heights, you might have a problem here. My mom is, and she was terrified at certain points because there were no hand rails.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1669 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1678 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1684 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1688From the castle, it is a short walk (downhill – hooray!) to the Sé de Lisboa, Lisbon’s oldest cathedral which dates back all the way to the year 1147. Crazy, right? It is unfathomable just how old some buildings are and how much history they have. It is free to go inside, but towards the back you have the option to see the cloisters for a fee. We decided against it because we have seen our fair share of cathedrals in our lifetime.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1702We ate lunch again at the My Story Hotel that I mentioned before, which has delicious cabbage soup and Portuguese dishes for good prices. Then we headed to another part of the city we hadn’t yet visited to the west of Chiado called Bairro Alto. To get there, you have to find hidden elevators or take the famous Santa Justa Lift (we decided against it because we had already seen lovely views of the city). After asking numerous people, we finally found the correct door and elevator to get there. It took us up to a multi-story mall, where on one of the levels you could exit back out onto the street, but on the other side and at a higher level. It’s very interesting how they constructed this city!

We arrived at the Igreja de São Roque, the world’s most expensive chapel. It really doesn’t look like anything special from the outside, and I was a bit worried that we had wasted our time in coming. However, when you walk in, you can see how it won this title. Everything is covered in gold, it’s insane. It is very lavishly decorated on all sides. It was interesting to see, and had free entrance, but honestly this is something you can skip unless you’re a deeply religious person.

From the outside... pretty plain looking, eh? Especially for the world's most expensive chapel.

From the outside… pretty plain looking, eh? Especially for the world’s most expensive chapel.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1719Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1721 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1727After that, we didn’t feel like walking across the city yet again (plus we had some shopping bags weighing us down). So we found a little wine bar called Wine Lover Bairro Alto (let’s be honest, the name got us inside). It was a lovely bar with a knowledgeable waiter who told us about all of the different wines and encouraged us to come back later that night for some live music. After a glass of vino, we shopped some more and came back! The waiter there was amazing.

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When we came back later that night, they had prepared many big plates of food that you could choose from, such as the pig shown above. It looked amazing, but unfortunately we didn’t try it. Instead, we tried a portuguese specialty called Assa Chouriço, basically a flaming sausage. They have special serving plates (that kind of look like mini boats) where they pour oil into the bottom part, place the sausage on top lifted up from the oil, and then set the whole thing on fire to cook it in front of you. It is super cool to try! Expect to get the attention of everyone in the restaurant, also trying to steal pictures… but totally worth it.

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Sevilla: Love at First Sight

Before coming, I had asked many people in Barcelona what they thought about Sevilla. A couple said they loved it, but warned me that it is “very small.” A few others (and most notably, the mother in my host family) told me she didn’t care for it all that much and you could easily see it all in two days. In addition, everyone told me that I wouldn’t be able to understand a word anyone was saying because the Andulucian accent is so ‘strange.’ Not many people here in Barcelona seem to have too high of an opinion of the South.  Taking this information in, we decided to make our trip to Sevilla short.

But we regret it. Sevilla, while obviously smaller than Madrid or Barcelona, is still rather big. We had to take the bus numerous times because the walking distances would be too far. My mom commented, “When they said small town, I was expecting a 2 street town… this is a big city!” Also, it was gorgeous. We fell in love immediately. It is located along a beautiful river, and there are many points throughout the city which you can get an aerial view of it all (el torre del oro, el catedral, el metropol parasol, etc.). We had two full days here and we didn’t even see everything that we wanted to. I’m dying to go back. I even have considered trying to find a job in Sevilla, but I don’t know if I could deal with the torturous heat in the summer.

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We started our trip at the Torre del Oro, which is a tower along the river believed to be the last Moorish building constructed in Sevilla. Inside is a small museum but the real reason to go is to climb to the top and enjoy the views.

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After that, we headed over to the famous Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, or simple the Sevilla Cathedral. It won the Guinness World Record for being the biggest cathedral in the world. It is definitely huge, and you can see it from pretty much any point in the city. It is also very lavish inside, with one alterpiece covered completely in gold.

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So… Much… Gold…

2014-12-30 14.30.15If you’ve been in many cathedrals before, most of it will look familiar. But my favorite part of this cathedral was La Giralda Tower, which raises up high over Sevilla and gives you breathtaking views of the city and also a different perspective of the gigantic cathedral. To get up, there is no elevator, but instead of stairs there are ramps so it isn’t as difficult. I even saw old lady nuns making the trek, so you can do it too!

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The neighborhood surrounding the cathedral, as seen from La Giralda tower.

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Unfortunately we spent too much time at the Cathedral so we were running low on time for the Alcázar of Seville, which is a royal palace and used to be a Moorish fort. My mom even wanted to skip it because it was a bit expensive, I believe somewhere between €14-18. However, we are extremely glad we went in… I have honestly never seen anything like it! We just wish we had left more time to see it all.

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As we walked around the interior, we saw a few things that drew our attention but nothing that made our jaws drop. However, the second we walked outside into the garden we had that desired reaction. Even in winter, it was gorgeous. There was just something mystical about the gardens there, especially near this pond in the first picture.

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After we were kicked out of the Alcazar at closing time, we decided to just roam the streets to see what we came upon. I must say, it was exactly how I had imagined Sevilla. Small winding streets, beautiful patios and plants, cobblestone… Just such an amazing vibe to this place! We ended up just walking around, looking into shops, grabbing a glass of wine here and there, and just going wherever the streets took us. And the people were so friendly! I did not have a problem whatsoever understanding their accent, and what was even better was they seemed to understand what I was saying, too! Versus in Madrid where they would just rudely tell me to speak in English, here they would start a full on conversation asking where I was from, how I was liking everything, etc. Seriously fell in love with this city.

The next morning, we went to Plaza de España in the Parque de María Luisa. We entered through the back, and when we walked through the building and came out the other side we were in awe of just how beautiful this place was. I knew it’d be nice, but this took things to a new level. We must have taken a billion and two photos here. It is one of those places where you just keep snapping away, hoping desperately that the camera can come anywhere close to capturing the beauty you see in front of you. But it never does.

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 Another thing I absolutely adore about Sevilla is their tile work, which they are famous for. I have never seen anything like it. Their bridges, walls, stairs, buildings, EVERYTHING is adorned with beautiful tiles which makes everything even more unique. It honestly didn’t feel real, it was too pretty.

2014-12-31 11.44.03 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1399Around the interior of the semi-circle, they have mosaic depictions of each region in Spain. It is typical to get your picture taken at the booth with your hometown, and I wanted to take one with Barcelona… but it was fenced off and under construction 😥 But oh so beautiful!

2014-12-31 12.05.11We had a really hard time leaving. We literally walked around this entire plaza at least 3 times taking pictures. The only thing that convinced us to leave was that my camera was dying and we still had so much to see!

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 14232014-12-31 12.18.29Next up: Metropol Parasol, one of the strangest pieces of architecture I have ever seen. It’s criss-crossed like a waffle and locals lovingly call it “Las Setas,” or The Mushrooms. It is a very recent addition, having only been completed 4 years ago. It is also the world’s largest wooden structure. While unusual, I loved it. It was just so surreal looking up at it, and hey… I value originality. You can also go up to the very top of the structure and see some breathtaking views of the surrounding city.

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So, one thing I have failed to mention so far is that the people of Sevilla take their ‘Siesta’ time seriously. That means that every day from about 1 or 2pm until 4 or 5pm everything shuts down. Seriously. The same happens in my small town in Catalonia, but not to this extent. Literally everything is closed besides restaurants. Well, in addition to this, it was New Year’s Day… so most places just decided to close down for the rest of the day. When we left the Metropol, it was difficult to find a restaurant open with space available, let alone to go somewhere after eating to see something else on our last day. Quite a shame, really. The streets were deserted.

Luckily we had reserved a Flamenco show at the Casa de la Memoria. It was about an hour show with one female and one male dancer, along with a guittarist and a singer. When you go to Sevilla, you HAVE to see a flamenco show. It is the birthplace of flamenco and it’d be a sin not to see it. You have two options, really… go for a more touristy show with lots of dancers and nice dresses that appeal to what the typical person expects from a dancing show, or to go to something a bit smaller and more authentic. I chose the latter.

I did a decent amount of research and finally decided on Casa de la Memoria. I must say, it was nothing like what we expected. It was very small an intimate, which I liked, but it was completely different than what most people imagine. First, a guittarist came in for a short solo. Then another man joined him and started doing some unique chants and foot-stomping. Then another man came in to join with the stomping (sorry, I really don’t have a better word for what they were doing). Finally, the lady came out to dance. And she really got into it. It was one of those things where it felt like she wasn’t just performing some memorized dance she had done a million times. Instead, it seemed like she really had to feel it. There were numerous times where she’d be posed, waiting for the wait moment… and there would be a long pause as she mentally prepared herself to the music.

My mom and I were in the front row, and the stage and room we were in were so small that at certain points her long flamenco dress (not pictured) would brush up against us as she did her turns. It was quite the intimate experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! On the other hand, my mom didn’t. She was expecting one of the more touristy experiences, so it is definitely necessary to evaluate what you want before reserving a show.

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After the show, we walked towards the cathedral trying to see if there was someplace to get some food or a drink. Unfortunately, most restaurants were doing a special menu of something crazy like €99 for a meal, drinks, and the 12 special grapes at midnight. It was rather frustrating, but hey… the streets were absolutely gorgeous at night! I think Sevilla mastered the whole Christmas lights thing.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1507We ended up going up to a bar on a rooftop that overlooked the lit up Cathedral. We had gone the night before as well because you can’t beat such an amazing view. The bar was at the top of the Hotel Doña Maria and it is a must see before leaving. My mother and I sat there discussing how we can’t think of anything else more beautiful than this view. It is that good.

Photo Cred cortadordejamonbajoaragon.es

Photo Cred cortadordejamonbajoaragon.es

At midnight, we tried the 12 grapes tradition for the first time. In spanish, it is called Las doce uvas de la suerte. Basically, after the clock strikes midnight there are 12 chimes of the bell. At each chime, you have to swallow a grape. If you do this successfully, you have a year of good luck. Such a simple tradition, but it was fun to try. A nice change from the required kiss at midnight in the States!

We had to leave Sevilla early the next morning, and my mother and I came to the consensus that we truly wished we had had more time there. Sevilla is such an amazing city and I feel like I didn’t even get to see half of it. For instance, I heard the little town of Triana just across the river is a fantastic place to visit and we didn’t get the chance to go. However, I am extremely grateful that I got to end and begin my year in Sevilla.

It’s not a goodbye, it’s a see you later.

A Day Out in Barcelona: Palau de la Música Catalana, Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, and La Boqueria

One of the most commonly visited places in Barcelona is the Palau de la Música Catalana, which is understandable because it is quite beautiful inside and out. However, it does carry a steep price tag… €18 a person. I was almost tempted to skip this beauty, but it definitely is something worth seeing once in your life. Many people mistakenly think this is yet another marvellous piece of architecture by Gaudi, but it was actually designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of Gaudi’s rivals.

(Not my photo... my camera at the time was awful!)

(Not my photo… my camera at the time was awful!)

The tour starts with a 5 minute video describing the making of the building and also the importance. Numerous world-renowned figures have performed here and insist that it is one of the most magical and honouring places to be.

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The Muses behind the stage, half in mosaic, half in statue

The first thing you notice when you walk inside is the ceiling. It is a dome made of glass that extends down towards the floor and is in the shape of the sun. It allows the building to be filled with beautiful, natural light. Never seen anything quite like it! There is also beautiful detail on the rest of the ceiling in the shape of roses, yet another inspiration from nature.

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During the tour, they also take you out onto one of the little patio areas which has some beautiful mosaic pillars. Throughout the building you see references to Catalan culture, such as in the windows and on the ceilings. And besides that… I don’t really have much to say about this building. It was beautiful, no doubt, but I think the tour was pretty lacking considering the steep price tag.

1fe4b8314fcd8e80a96e51bbed8cba2a24e0e8b9f22432c41b1aad108b56fb01After that, my host family and I went to visit the Basílica de Santa María del Mar in El Born. It is definitely a beautiful cathedral, and located in a very nice area (I love El Born!) but honestly, if you’ve been to as many cathedrals as I have been to… it isn’t all that special. However, the area surrounding it is quite lovely… many cute and artistic shops and some great restaurants and tapas bars to visit! If you go there at night it is also a really nice area to listen to live music.

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El Born is known for it's artsy side

El Born is known for it’s artsy side

After wandering around some more, we ended up at the famous La Boquería market. I had heard so many things about this place, so I was very city to finally get to see it. It is basically a huge marketplace where you can buy pretty much any food item for cheap. It is a sensory overload… there’s so many smells, colors, and sights to see all the while trying to push your way through the crowd. The vendors are smart and take any chance possible to try and get you to buy something. This is also a place known for pick-pockets, and it is definitely smart to hold onto your bag and be cautious. But it is definitely worth experiencing! I’d love to go back. I’ll shut my mouth now, the pictures speak for themselves…

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Champignones, their prized mushrooms

Champignones, their prized mushrooms