10 Unexpected Things You’ll Learn as an Expat in Barcelona, Catalonia

I’m going on my second year living in beautiful Barcelona, obviously because I love it enough to stay. However, as any expatriate knows, there are certain cultural differences that you just have to get used to. Some are only slightly different than your own customs, and others catch you completely by surprise. There were some differences that I expected: obviously there would be different food (and I was super excited for it, the Mediterranean is world-renowned for it’s delicious and healthy food), the bars and clubs would be open later than in America (because the Spanish infamously party until sunrise), etc. But there were some things that most people just don’t associate with Catalan or Spanish people.

1. They are obsessed with pasta and pizza. 

Who isn’t though, right? But this is no joke. Sure, I had my fair share of pizza and pasta back in the states, but people LOVE it here. When I first arrived last year and moved in with my host family, they served a big plate of pasta for lunch. When I moved back to Catalonia last month and moved in with a different host family, what did they serve for the first meal? Pasta, of course.

Pasta Carbonara (Photo Cred: fotom.xyz)

Macaronis

And they really only have 2 varieties: “Macaronis” (normal rigatoni type noodles or the swirly kind) and Spaghetti Carbonara (white sauce with bacon). It isn’t common for families to use any other type of sauce, let alone order it in a restaurant. When they take their kids out for lunch and dinner, what do they order? Macaronis or Carbonara. Seriously. I don´t know about you, but when I thought of Spanish/Catalan culture, I did not expect that.

Cannellonis (Photo Cred: http://www.johnsonville.com)

They also have another variety of pasta that they call “Cannellonis.” It is basically lasagna noodles rolled enchilada style, stuffed with meat and cheese, and covered with a white sauce (bechamel) and more cheese.

Sounds super healthy, right? Like what you envisioned of a Mediterranean diet?

2. They eat sandwiches almost every day, but refuse to add more than one ingredient.

I know, I know… when you think of Spanish/Catalan culture, you automatically think of sandwiches. Oh, no? You never associated it with sandwiches? You’re not alone. I work in a school, and also live with a host family. I see what the kids and even parents eat every day. And honest to God, it is sandwiches all the time. For breakfast? Sure, why not. For their ‘second breakfast’? (see #3 below) Of course! For their afternoon snack? Well duh, what else could you possibly eat?

Bocata de Jamon aka Ham Sandwich (Photo Cred: http://www.20minutos.es)

But what gets me the most is what they put inside of their sandwiches. Back home in America, we eat sandwiches decently often as well. But for lunch. Or sometimes if we’re lazy, dinner. Or if you really want to get crazy, for breakfast. But we put meat, cheese, condiments, vegetables, etc… the only limit is your imagination. There is an art to sandwich making.

Bocata amb Formatge aka Cheese Sandwich

Here? Meat. Or cheese. Both? Oh, heavens no! What kind of a heathen are you?! And they don’t even add a lot of meat or cheese, either. They buy their bread fresh in the mornings, sometimes smother a little bit of oil and tomato on the insides of the bread in the typical “pa amb tomaquet” style, and then add a single layer of meat or cheese. And ya está. For a person like me who isn’t a big fan of bread, it is a tiny nightmare. The bread is often quite tough, so you really have to gnaw on the bread in an animal-like fashion to eat this thing. And your reward? A mouthful of bread with just the tiniest of hints of meat or cheese. Yum.

Pa Amb Tomaquet aka Bread with Tomato (Photo Cred: cadenaser.com)

On one of my first days with my current host family, I was making my sandwich for my second breakfast later (like a good Catalan girl) and they were showing me where the meat and cheese was. I decided to have sobresada (a red meat & spice spread, also a strange thing for expats), and then I went back to the fridge and asked where the cheese was. The host father looked at me in confusion.

Sobresada (Photo Cred: pequgourmet.com)

Him: “But, you have sobresada. Do you want another sandwich?”

Me: “Oh, no. I was just going to add cheese to this one.”

His face was priceless.

3. They eat more than you can imagine, yet somehow stay skinny.

As an American, you know that the world looks at you as if you eat hamburgers and fries every day. As an American moving to Barcelona, I was expecting to lose 20 pounds the first couple of months and eat fresh meats and vegetables every day. Boy, was I mistaken…

A typical day in the life of a Catalan:

  • 7am – 9am: Breakfast, most commonly cereal, bread, meat, cookies, etc (never eggs).

Their idea of cookies, suitable for breakfast, second breakfast, afternoon snack, or dessert. (Photo Cred: http://www.lauravivet.com)

  • 10am – 11am: ‘Second Breakfast,’ as if one isn’t enough. Most commonly a plain sandwich of some sort (see #2) or fruit. But usually a sandwich.

Arroz a la Cubana, a popular dish for lunch. (Photo Cred: http://www.fiesta1037.fm)

  • 1pm – 3pm: Lunch, often consisting of 2-3 courses. And with giant portions that put Americans to shame. Common first courses: soup, pasta, boiled potatoes and peas, lentils with chorizo, garbanzo beans, rice, etc. Common second courses: salad, meat, french fries, rice, another type of pasta… And on top of all of this, a dessert. It is extremely common to have something for dessert after both lunch and dinner. Common desserts: yogurt (never for breakfast), fruit, cookies, ice cream.

Carne Rebozada aka Fried and Breaded Meat, another very popular item for lunch and dinner. Often accompanied by French Fries in a restaurant, like any other meat unless you specifically ask for salad. They’re not much for side dishes in Catalunya(Photo Cred: realworldmeetsgirl.wordpress.com)

  • 5pm – 7pm: Snack, usually more cookies, a mini sandwich, or in some cases, yogurt or fruit. Bakeries are also an extremely popular stop after school, to grab some croissants, ensaimadas, or anything with chocolate. So much sugar!

An ensaimada, basically a puff pastry with powdered sugar.

  • 9pm – 11pm: Dinner, also 2-3 courses. Very similar to lunch, but often just slightly lighter since they eat right before going to bed. They always have a dessert, and I noticed this happens even if the kids are “too full” to finish their dinner.

Photo Cred: http://www.800.cl

OH, and I forgot to mention that they eat bread with everything. So in addition to the sandwiches they always have, they eat sliced french bread with both lunch and dinner as if it’s candy. They can even eat it plain for a snack. Silly Americans, thinking that bread makes you fat…

4. They can NOT handle spicy food. Like, at all.

The Catalan and Spanish people don’t like to add a lot of spice to their food, and that includes pretty much everything except salt, pepper, and oregano. They pride themselves on buying their food fresh, sometimes every single day. Texture is also very important to them. In some ways, I like this a lot. But in others, some of the food is just incredibly bland. For instance, it is quite common, especially during the fall and winter months, to make a puree of fresh vegetables. I really enjoy this in fact, and it is super healthy. They make it from pumpkin, zucchini, carrots, etc. The pumpkin one especially is incredibly rich in flavor, I love it. However, last year one of my host families made a puree of spinach. Now, normally I adore spinach. But it was my first encounter with it in this form, and without salt. It made me gag.

From my Mexican fiesta, including fajitas, enchiladas, guacamole, salsa and rice.

Anyways, I happened to mention to my first two host families that mexican food is my absolute favorite food, and that I make a meannnnn guacamole. So they decided to put me to the test, and gathered a bunch of their friends together to try out my mexican cooking (see how it went here). I tried to make everything super mild, because I had noticed they never eat anything spicy. But even with this, the moment they put a bite of my enchiladas into their mouths they exclaimed in horror “Pica! Pica! Pica!” No joke.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. But very few. One of my friend’s husbands is obsessed with spicy food, and even grows a garden of various peppers. But good luck even trying to find a jalepeno in the grocery store.

5. Water is often more expensive than beer and wine.

In America, water is free at almost every restaurant you go to. I am pretty sure it is illegal not to serve someone water from the tap if you ask for it. However, here in Catalonia and Spain (along with most places in Europe, I think) they charge you extra for water. And often they expect you to buy their expensive, fancy glass bottles of water. Whereas, on the other hand, you can get a glass of wine or a beer for between 1-3 euros. But hey, that’s okay with me… wine it is! No wonder the Spanish have a reputation for drinking. I can’t find a beer at a restaurant in America for under $4!

6. They prefer darker colors for clothes, unless it is Desigual.

If you haven’t heard of it, Desigual is a brand of clothing that is very popular in Barcelona and translates to “unequal.” Their clothes often use black or grey as the base, and then emphasize with bright pops of color, sometimes with one sleeve a different color than the other. Super quirky.

I’ve noticed, and I’m not the only one, that most people in Barcelona tend to dress in darker colors, such as black, grey, and brown. Occasionally, of course, you’ll see someone wearing other colors, but I dare you to jump on the metro one day and tell me what you see. The exception to this, of course, is Desigual. Here and there I will see (mostly) women in a brightly colored dress that proudly has Desigual written across it, or someone sporting a quirky bag or jacket with the typical Desigual designs. But even they are a minority compared to the rest in black.

Another friend and I noticed a vast contrast between Barcelona and Valencia, which is a 3 hour drive to the south. If you get on the metro there, everyone will be dressed in bright, spring colors (and not usually from Desigual). The minority are the ones wearing darker clothes. What causes this change? Who knows!

7. They are obsessed with their digestion.

When you sit down to eat, you will always hear someone saying “Bon profit,” which translates roughly to “enjoy your meal” or “I hope you digest it well.” This, in and of itself, isn’t strange, but the emphasis Catalans put on their digestion is amazing. Normally when I eat, I won’t necessarily rush, but I will eat and then go on about my day. It is very common for a Catalan to sit there for awhile afterwards, chatting with their friends. Sure, they are very social people, and this gives them an excuse to talk and relax. But they have an ulterior motive.

Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents told you not to swim after eating because you could drown? Well, while there is some truth to the benefit of waiting, it is definitely an exaggerated wive’s tale. But Catalans take this seriously. They don’t like to walk around after eating, or do much of anything really if they can help it.

Last spring break, I went with a couple friends (one of which is Catalan) on a trip, where we toured through Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg). Because we only had a little over a week, we pretty much did a different city each day, which required a lot of walking (and definitely not relaxing). My Catalan friend wasn’t happy. She would walk as slow as possible without losing us in the crowd, and when we were together in a group, she’d mutter how “unhealthy” we were being by walking so fast after eating and basically implying that we’d die young. Harsh.

I brought this up in class recently to a group of 14 year olds. When I mentioned how I found it comical, they lashed back insisting how important it is to plan your meals each day, when you can eat one thing but not another, and to rest after eating. This came up after we were discussing the school schedule for a project, where I said that 2 hours for lunch was just ridiculously long. They said I was wrong, that any less time and we’d all have indigestion. I told them that in my high school, we had about 40 minutes to eat. They were in shock. Let me just say that I’ve never met 14 year olds who were so concerned about their digestion.

8. They try to wear their winter clothes as much as possible.

The people of Catalonia seem to constantly be cold. I showed up my first year in late September, and it was still incredibly hot outside. I was sweating walking around in a summer dress. Yet, I started to notice that pretty much everyone else was wearing jackets. What the…?

As soon as mid-September hits, people start breaking out their winter wardrobe. And they wear it for as long as humanly possible. Even in June of this year, when I was sweating bullets in my classes, I saw people walking around with heavy jackets and scarves. As a Californian, I was especially uncomfortable because I didn’t even have winter clothes when I came, so I would wear my summer clothes as much as possible. Since they hate the cold so much, they turn the heaters on high at the school during the winter, to the point where I could wear a short sleeved shirt and a skirt and still be sweating. Everyone thought I was crazy, cozy in their sweatshirts.

In fact, my second host family would get frustrated with me for not wearing scarves or heavy shoes during the winter, saying that I’d inevitably get sick. Has no one here heard the news that the cold itself will not make you sick?!

Another thing – slippers are huge here. Everyone has them, and they wear them all the time. I’m not a big fan of socks myself, so if it’s warm, I am happy to walk around barefoot. In fact, unless it is super cold and I can’t bear it, I walk around barefoot as much as possible. But even in the intense heat of summer, you will see people in Catalonia walking around their homes in socks and/or slippers.

One day, I was teasing my boyfriend for always wearing his slippers, even though it was in the 80’s outside. So he took off his slippers. Soon later, he got sick. He exclaimed “See?! I knew it! Because I didn’t wear my slippers that day, now I’m sick!!!” Silly boy.

9. They go out as much as possible.

The Spanish and Catalan people are infamous for being partiers. So, this shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. But I was amazed at just how much and how often people are out of their homes here, and not just to party. Their schedules are insane! I understand now why they feel the need to party until 7am.

Photo Cred ip-hostel.com

For families with children, school goes from 9am – 5pm (sometimes it can go even earlier or later for older students). That in and of itself is crazy to me, because when I was in elementary, middle and high school, the latest we would ever get out of school is 3pm. After school, the majority of kids have after school activities, such as sports, language lessons, or dance. In all of the 4 families I have lived with, the children and parents don’t generally get home until between 7pm and 8pm. Where is there time for resting? For doing homework? For cooking? It is insane, no wonder they eat dinner so late at night!

Even young adults like to keep busy. Like in the States, most jobs go from 9am – 5pm, or sometimes the night shift, depending on the position. But it is incredibly common for even adults to have activities after, such as dance, volunteer work, band practice, etc. And if they’re not doing that, then they’re going out to a bakery or a cafe for some sweet treats, cafe con leche, or a cerveza. And if it’s the weekend, then they’re out trying to forget about the crazy week they’ve had.

10. They go grocery shopping every day.

Okay, so I can’t make a generalization about every family. But I think I can safely say that at least half of Catalans go to the grocery store or bakery every single day. Whether it be to buy fresh bread in the mornings, or go to the fish store for the freshest catch they can find, they spend an incredible amount of time running back and forth from the store.

And while many of the meals that they prepare on a daily basis are by no means complicated, the Catalans I have spoken to don’t seem to understand the idea of planning meals ahead or buying more things so you only have to go when you run out. I explained that in America, it is very common for us to go to the grocery store maybe only once a week and buy the staples, such as meat, fish, potatoes, rice, etc. If we happen to make a recipe and don’t have something, of course we’ll go to the store again. But it definitely isn’t common, at least where I’m from, to go to the store every single day.

Fresh catch of the day, head, eyes, tail and all. (Photo Cred: travelandtravails.com)

One of the first things that I noticed when I moved here is that they have a different store for everything, not like in the States where we have giant department stores where you can buy pretty much anything you can think of (I’m looking at you, Walmart SuperCenter). There’s a store for vegetables. And another store for fruit. And another store for meat. And yet another for fish. Of course, they do have small grocery stores with a mix of everything, and the occasional warehouse which is the equivalent of a normal grocery store in the States… but they pride themselves on buying things fresh, which is something that I really admire. But dang, it would take so much time!

In closing…

I absolutely love living here, and I’m so happy that I’ve returned for another year in this amazing place. When you travel, one of the most interesting things to see are the various habits of people from other cultures. None of this is intended in a negative way, and I have really enjoyed learning about the Catalan culture!

Are you an expat living in Barcelona? Any other strange things you’ve noticed? Please feel free to comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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Hunting for Mushrooms in Catalunya

Last Saturday, I moved in with my new host family – always a slightly dreaded yet exciting experience. I had been in contact with them prior to meeting via email, and they had asked me if the following day I’d be interested in going with them to the mountains for mushroom (aka bolets in Catalan) hunting. I had heard about this tradition last year, but never had the privilege to go. So of course I jumped on the opportunity!

My first concern, of course, was the fact that there exists many toxic and/or hallucinogenic mushroom varieties. When I asked my host family about this, they assured me that we’d be going with some “experts” (aka friends they know living in the mountains) who know the difference between the edible and inedible varieties. As a side note, they also mentioned that there are reports every year of people dying from eating the wrong types of mushrooms.

So proceed with caution.

When we got to Montseny, the mountain region, I was super ready to find some mushrooms. I stepped out of the car and I couldn’t believe how many I saw! White, yellow, brown, red… they were everywhere!

My host family and their friends quickly calmed my enthusiasm. The majority of the mushrooms I was seeing were inedible. I followed the “experts” around for 10 to 20 minutes, trying to decipher which types of mushrooms were the good ones. Like all good things, the ‘good’ mushrooms always seemed to be hidden quite well!

It took me at least 30 minutes to find my first edible mushroom all on my own. It seems so simple, but it felt like such a huge accomplishment! You either try to pull it up carefully by the stem, or if necessary, you can use a small blade to cut it at the base. It is common to carry a basket with you to collect them all.

We found 5 varieties of edible mushrooms:

Camagrocs, or “yellow legs.” We found a bunch of these in one specific area of the forest, and they were delicious in a Spanish Omelette!

“Trumpetas de Muerte,” or “Trumpets of Death.” They don’t look or sound edible, do they? But they are! I didn’t personally get to try any of these because this was all we found, but my host family’s friends said they were delicious.

Ou de Reig, or “Reig’s Egg.” Everyone got super excited to find this one, apparently it is rare. It is unique because it first starts out looking like an egg (see the white part at the bottom?) and then the inner mushroom bursts out and continues growing.

Pinetells. We found quite a lot of these and the following mushroom as well, but I still can’t tell the difference between them! Photo Cred: usuaris.tinet.cat

Rovelló. Photo Cred: http://www.ambientech.org

And I found a few others that were inedible, but cool nonetheless:

Some years are better than others, apparently. My host family told me that the year prior all of their baskets had been overflowing with mushrooms – they were absolutely everywhere! Although we did find a decent amount, they said it was nothing compared to the year before.

We hiked around the mountainside for a good 3 hours or so, the enthusiasm only dwindling when our hunger started rising. We headed back to their friend’s house and dropped off the mushrooms for an extra few sets of “expert” eyes to look over the mushrooms, just to doublecheck that we didn’t accidentally pick up a poisonous variety.

Once we were given the OK for our mushrooms, we drove back to the city and decided to enjoy the camagrocs in a Spanish omelette. It takes a surprising amount of work to cut and clean them all! And, of course, once you put them in a pan, they shrink considerably. So don’t expect a huge feast of mushrooms! But of course it is so rewarding to eat the things you scavenged yourself.

The following day, we cut up the rovellóns and pinetells, which I obviously couldn’t tell the difference between. We also added in 2 ous de Reig, which the family friends had kindly added to our basket without our knowing. The host dad sauteed them all in oil, and even though we started with what seemed like a big amount, we each only got a small spoonful of our bounty. But it was tasty 🙂 I highly recommend the experience! Even for people who don’t really like mushrooms.

One of the great things about living with a host family is being exposed to new traditions, such as this. And it’s just the beginning of an amazing year! To learn more about mushrooms in Catalunya, visit the official site here.

Your Guide to Santander, Cantabria, Spain

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

Admittedly, I didn’t spend nearly as much time in Santander as I should have. My original plan was to visit San Sebastian and Bilbao for the 4 day weekend, but my host family insisted that Santander was worth seeing. They told me it was only a short drive past Bilbao, but it ended up being about 1.5 hours past Bilbao. Plan accordingly!

When I researched Santander, not much came up online. That worried me a little, because this would actually be my first trip ever alone (besides moving to Spain in the first place, that is). There weren’t many hostels available in the area either, so if you’re planning to take that route as well, be sure to take that into account.

When I told people I would be going to Santander, most people asked “But… why? What’s there?” It’s true, it isn’t the biggest tourist destination, especially for Americans and Brits. But what I’ve discovered is that it is a pretty popular destination for Spaniards.

Getting There

Santander is about a 1.5 hour bus ride away from Bilbao. There are some lovely views along the way! There is also a train, I suppose it would take about the same time or perhaps a little less. However, be sure to plan ahead and buy your tickets in advance, especially on weekends. When I tried to leave on Sunday to return to Bilbao, I couldn’t leave in the morning like I had planned because both the train and bus were sold out! Luckily I wasn’t in a rush, but that could definitely ruin your trip.

Where to Stay

I stayed at a “hostel” in the Puerto Chico region of Santander, only because during that time it was the only (cheap) thing available. The hostel actually turned out to be a spare room in someone’s apartment, but my stay was nice nonetheless. Since it was my first time travelling alone, I was hoping to meet people at the hostel, so it was a bit disappointing. But I had a nice and pleasant stay with them, the family was very nice (but spoke no English, so be prepared with a little Spanish). If you’re interested, you can book it here on the hostelworld website.

There are also many hotels in the area if you’re not on a budget, and many of them are located more centrally near the peninsula. Airbnb is always good to check, too!

Puerto Chico (Port Area)

If you’re coming to Santander by bus or train, you’ll be dropped off in this area. However, this is not the central part of Santander. At least, not where most of the touristy things to see are located. There is the port, which is quite nice to walk along, and there are many delicious pinchos restaurants to choose from. And, since it isn’t a huge tourist city, you can find some amazing deals on food!

I had a lovely walk along the coast enjoying the view of the villages on the other side of the bay, the views are pretty spectacular (even though the weather wasn’t fantastic). There are also a few parks along this route, with some nice sculptures to admire. Nearby, there is also a sailing school, so you’ll probably see some amateur sailors taking advantage of the day.

The Arch of Banco Santander

In this area, there is also the original Santander Bank (if you don’t know why this should be important, don’t worry – it’s just a very popular bank in Spain). It is nice to check out, especially if you’re into architecture. It was built in the early 1920’s by architect Javier González de Riancho.

The Courtyard of Banco Santander

As you wander along the streets nearby, you’ll find lots of cool street art- if you’re into that kind of thing. I walked around this city alone at night, and while I don’t recommend doing the same, it is a safe and beautiful city to explore if you have the time.

If you wander back towards the coast, you’ll find some lovely parks and statues. Grab a gelato, take the hand of a loved one, observe the sailors… take advantage of the beautiful walk.

I noticed that there were many lovely buildings throughout the city of Santander. Just keep your eyes open, you never know what you’ll find 🙂

If you keep walking north along the coast, heading towards the peninsula, you will pass by the sailing school and also the strangest government building I’ve ever set my eyes upon:

It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the main downtown area of Puerto Chico to this region, and then perhaps 10-15 more minutes to reach the beach and peninsula region. There are buses that you could take, but as of May 2015, google maps did not have them listed in my phone. But I assure you, the walk is worth it!

Peninsula de la Magdelena

After walking along the coast, you’ll find yourself at a nice beach. There is a path that goes along the cliff, or you can slip off your shoes and enjoy walking across the sand. At the end of this beach, there will be another path that’ll lead you towards the main entrance of the park on the Peninsula.

Not a shabby place to live, eh?

The Peninsula is definitely worth a visit, and many tourist sites recommend at least three hours to fully explore it. There is a huge park, a small zoo, and even a palace! The views from this peninsula are breathtaking, even on a cloudy day. And the best part? It is completely free! I guess there are tours inside of the palace, which you can pay extra for. There’s also a little shuttle that you can pay for to take you around the peninsula, but I highly recommend just walking it.

If you follow the path to the left first, you’ll find yourself at their small zoo. They don’t have much, but it is still pretty cool! There are penguins (a funny sight to see with the beach in the background) and seals. If you continue following the path, you’ll come across a mermaid with 3 ships – a very typical photo moment in Santander!

Continue further and up the hill, stopping to admire the views off of the cliffs. After a few minutes, you will see the palace. It isn’t anything super impressive, but it is pretty. You can walk all along it, and then continue on the path back down the hill, on the other side of the peninsula. There are a couple of different paths that lead more inland or closer to the cliffs.

Just imagine having a picnic here. Either on the grassy knoll, or surrounded by beautiful trees with a distant view of the mountains or horizon. Think: jamon serrano, a tasty yet inexpensive wine, some olives, a handsome Spanish man by your side…

Playa de los Peligros

Peña Vieja and the Beaches

When you loop back around the peninsula toward the entrance, if you continue through the gate and to the right, you will find yourself at another lovely beach called Primera Playa (or First Beach). The first thing you’re sure to notice is Peña Vieja (or Old Rock), with lovely views of the other main area of Santander behind it. I’m sure this beach would be lovely during the summer! I went during the Spring, and what with the weather being wetter in the North, the weather varies quite a bit from day to day.

From there, walk further along the coast and you’ll find Parque de Piquío, a small break in between the two main beaches of Santander. They have some lovely gardens and benches and of course a magnificent view of the beach in both directions.

The City near the Main Beaches

After you’ve had enough of the beach (if you can ever have enough of the beach), you can head inland to explore the city area on this side of the peninsula. I noticed lots of unique buildings and enjoyed just strolling through the city. In fact, since my phone wasn’t allowing me to find a bus route home, I just walked straight through the city to the other side and back to Puerto Chico (see above). This was quite a long walk, however, and if you could find an alternative route, that’d probably be for the better.

Another popular tourist location on this side of Santander is the Gran Casino Sardinero. When I was there, there was a big formal event going on, so I couldn’t go inside. But other travel websites say it’s definitely worth a look, even if you don’t gamble!

Food and Drinks

So, you’re in Spain. Of course you’re going to expect the best of the best when it comes to food and drinks. You’re in luck, because Santander has some amazing restaurants, both for a midday “menu del dia” and for some lighter pinchos in the evening with delicious wine. Some of the places I went to I had researched beforehand, and others I just happened to be hungry and went to the first place I could find. All of them were delicious, I think it’s hard to go wrong.

My first night, after walking all through the city, I was exhausted. But I can never be too exhausted for a drink. I stopped in a themed bar named “Little Bobby Speakeasy.” It was still a little early in the evening, so when I entered, there weren’t too many other patrons. However, the place itself is quite lovely and well decorated in the 1920’s style. All of their drinks are inspired by old movies and TV shows. I highly recommend stopping by!

I realized I was a bit hungry, so I decided to go to a place that I had found recommended online: Dias Desur. I only planned on having one or two pinchos and some wine, but that turned into 4 pinchos and 2 glasses of wine. It was amazing, even after having such ridiculously decadent pinchos as I had in San Sebastian. This is a must stop for anyone visiting Santander! It can get quite busy, but it is worth the wait. Something even as simple looking as the teeny weeny mini burger they recommended just had the perfect flavor combination to make my eyes roll back in delight.

On my second day, I walked into a random restaurant along Calle Castelar near Puerto Chico. I ordered the menu del dia (if you’re unaware, it’s amazing – each restaurant puts together a couple of possibilities for a 2-3 course meal, generally with wine and dessert included, for a low, fixed price. I’m not talking about small dishes, either. I’m talking massive plates that’ll make you walk away wishing you had your big Thanksgiving pants) and was blown away by the food. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name now, but I am pretty confident that you wouldn’t be disappointed with any options here.

Don’t be afraid to be a stereotypical tourist… order the paella!

I forget what the name of this was, but it was an unusual name for pork… and it melted in my mouth.

Before catching my bus, I decided to stop at one last place in the Port area for some pinchos. This place was called Casa Lita, and it had a great variety of pinchos, although admittedly not as amazing as Dias Desur (it is hard to beat perfect)… but still quite good.

List of What to See

  • Peninsula of Magdalena – Beautiful views of the bay and nearby beaches, with free entrance to the park and zoo.You can go by foot (recommended) or pay extra for a little trolley to take you around. There is also a palace at the tip of the Peninsula, you can pay extra to go in.
  • Playa Primera de El Sardinero
  • Piquío Park – A lovely park separating two beaches, with great views on both sides.
  • Parque de Cabo Mayor – Panoramic views
  • Puerto Chico – Lots of restaurants and bars, a nice area to walk around near the port.
  • Edificio del Banco Santander – A nice archway and courtyard in honor of Santander banks in Puerto Chico.
  • Menéndez Pelayo Library: Calle de Rubio, 6 – Beautiful library inside and out, with lots of stained glass and old wooden shelves stuffed to the brim with books.
  • Gran Casino Sardinero: Plaza de Italia, s/n, 1 – Worth seeing, even if you don’t gamble.
  • Barrio Pesquero – A run down area, but worth it for the seafood restaurants.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • Café Pub La Rana: Calle de Daoíz y Velarde, 30 – lively joint that is popular with its young clientele who want to line their stomachs before a night out; famous for its patatas bravas, but also serves hamburgers and sandwiches.
  • **Little Bobby Speakeasy**: Calle Sol, 20 – A fun, well decorated 1920’s style bar with great cocktails.
  • La Conveniente: Calle de Gómez Oreña, 9
  • Asubio Gastrobar: Calle Daoiz y Velarde, 23
  • ***Días Desur***: Calle Hernán Cortés, 47 – Absolutely amazing pinchos and delicious wine
  • Casa Lita: Paseo de la Pereda, 37

Your Guide to San Sebastian, Basque Country

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

I was dying to visit Basque Country, and when a 4 day weekend came my way, I decided to take advantage of it. I had heard so many amazing things about San Sebastian in particular that I decided to spend two of my days there, and I wasn’t disappointed. You could easily spend a week here! Just expect to gain more than a couple pounds… But I promise, it is worth it.

Getting There

From Barcelona, it was about an 8 hour bus ride. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it? I took it overnight, hoping to get in some Zzz’s before exploring the following day. Even with melatonin, it was nearly impossible. It didn’t help that there was a crazy guy on my bus who thought he had boarded the party bus, and started playing music loudly on his phone and fist pumping the air. Now, why ever would I put myself through the torture of taking an 8 hour bus overnight there? Because it was much cheaper than both the train and a flight. Plus, I wanted to challenge myself. Now I know that I can do it, I just might consider not doing it again in the future.

Zurriola Beach, my first morning.

The train was the next cheapest option, but it would have still taken at least 6 hours that way. I decided not to fly there because airports are awful, by the time I got to the airport and had to wait for my flight, the time wasted probably would have been similar. My friends did end up flying there and meeting me, but they also paid twice as much and didn’t have as much time there.

As you cross the bridge from the Zurriola Beach side towards the center.

Another problem with taking the overnight bus, however, is that it arrives ridiculously early in the morning to San Sebastian. We arrived at about 5am, and what can you do that early in the morning? Nothing. Nowhere is open, including the hostel I was going to be staying at, so I decided to just wander around with my luggage. I ended up on Zurriola Beach (yes, with my luggage) and watched the surfers come one by one to take advantage of the early morning waves.

Where to Stay

San Sebastian is pretty small, so no matter where you stay, you will probably be within walking distance of all of the important places. If you’re on a budget like me, hostels are a good way to go, but be sure to book ahead of time! Even though I booked a few weeks in advance, there were very few beds left. I stayed at the Surfing Etxea Hostel, and enjoyed my stay.

As the name implies, it is catered towards surfers and even allows you to rent out boards and gear. It is also only a block from Zurriola Beach. I met a lot of really nice people there, and the facilities were clean. My only complaint is that the employees there were always gone. If you were trying to check in or check out, for instance, you might have to wait awhile because they were often out walking their dog. One guy had to give up his 20€ deposit because he had to catch a train and the employees were nowhere to be found.

Parte Vieja (Old Town) The old part of town is where it’s at. See the above map? I starred all of the major things that I wanted to see/do, and they’re all clustered in that central part of Parte Vieja. Granted, the majority of the things I wanted to involved eating, but still. That’s pretty important business when you’re in San Sebastian.

Interesting modern art in front of the Parroquia Santa María

As you walk around this area, you will see some lovely boutiques, plazas, a couple churches, and of course… pinchos (pintxos) bars. It is super common to do a pincho crawl, where you have a drink and a pincho at one bar then wander down the street to the next place… and repeat. Again. And again. We ate and drank so much food here it was ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Pintxos

Now, there are good pinchos. And there are meh pinchos. It is important to do your research so that you can avoid the latter! All of the businesses in this area know that tourists are coming for the food, and they often put together cheap ingredients with a slightly inflated price and try to convince you it is legit. It isn’t, don’t fall for it!

Another thing to keep in mind when going for pinchos is that most of the (legit) places do not have much room to sit down. The typical pinchos places are very small and require you to crowd around whatever little counter space is available, so be prepared to stand for awhile! The beer helps, I promise. My friend and I were super hungry after walking around for awhile, so we just stopped inside one of the first places we came across. This was San Sebastian, it had to be good, right? Wrong. The flavors were very bland, and everything was just a bit too fried for my taste. And the beer was more expensive than it should’ve been. One red flag for this place was that it was rather big and had a decent amount of sitting space. I think this is a pretty good indicator that it is more corporate and geared towards tourists.

Our bland, not so bueno first pinchos… Don’t go there!

After that disappointing experience, I looked to my list of recommended restaurants and we decided to heed the online community’s advice. We headed to Borda Berri, which had shown up numerous times in my research as being the best pinchos bar in San Sebastian. When we were at the hostel, also, I overheard some people talking about how amazing it was. When you enter, it is surprisingly small and it can be a bit overwhelming when it’s crowded. Luckily we came at an off-time, so there was plenty of room at the counter. They have a chalkboard with all of their specialties of the day, and pretty much everything there is fantastic. You can’t go wrong, just keep an open mind! I had heard that the gazpacho (on the right) was great and I chose the mushroom risotto (on the left) as a second. My friend loved the gazpacho, but it was a little too strong for me. The risotto was tasty as well. However, I think I played it a little too safe here. I ordered what I knew. As we were eating, we met two lovely ladies from Canada. People are so friendly here! They recommended that we try the local beer (we were upset we hadn’t noticed it before), and it was absolutely delicious. They also recommended us two other dishes that we returned to try the next day.

The octopus at Borda Berri.

I went out of my comfort zone and ordered the octopus and ribs, as recommended by the girls we had met. It was AMAZING. I had tried octopus before, but it had just been meh. This was on another level entirely. It was so delicious, I found myself closing my eyes and savoring every morsel. It was perfectly cooked and practically melted in your mouth. All of the different sauces perfectly balanced with the delicate taste of the octopus, I was tempted to order a second.

The ribs at Borda Berri.

The ribs were also amazing. It was super tender and full of flavor, and all of the sauces along with the flakes of sea salt were just too perfect to describe. You will not regret ordeirng this! And it is a little more in the comfort zone of most people. My friends ordered the gazpacho again and then also tried the stuffed tomato, which they said was delicious. But I don’t think they loved it nearly as much as I loved mine.

Borda Berri is a little more pricy than the other pinchos bars, but it is worth it… I swear. Nearby, there is a quaint and lovely square called Constitución Plaza. It is lovely to walk around and there are also many restaurants and pinchos bar surrounding it, but everything we saw there didn’t look too great. Be forewarned! Go for a quick stroll, but not really anything else. The buildings are really lovely. Nearby, there is a lovely pinchos bar that came highly recommended to us called Taberna Gandarías. One of my colleagues told me that while she was in San Sebastian for 3 days, she went there 4 times… do the math! We were only able to make it once, but we were very impressed by the pinchos. There isn’t much space, and this place in particular had quite a lot of people crowding the counters. Oh, and there’s very little counter space as well. But the prices on tapas and wine are fantastic, and it is definitely worth checking out! Just expect to wait a bit before they can assist you. My friends were super impressed with Gandarias, and I enjoyed it too… But honestly, Borda Berri topped my list for the entire trip.

On the last day, we decided to try something new that wasn’t on my list. We ended up at La Montanera Kota 31, which despite breaking some of my rules, turned out to be fantastic! When we entered, there weren’t many people there and there were lots of places to sit. Normally a red flag. But literally everything we tried here was amazing, including the house wine. We had about 4 pinchos each (totally against the rules for a pinchos crawl, but our feet were tired and we had a table!) and an equal amount of wine, because the wine was actually one of the best ones I have ever tasted. I highly recommend this place!

Another thing, and this is important: Try to plan to be in San Sebastian on a Thursday night. Near Zurriola Beach and along Gran Via Kalea they do an amazing special: 2€ for 1 pincho and one drink of your choice. Is that amazing… or amazingly amazing?! Many pinchos bars around this area participate, and everywhere will be crowded. But it’s worth it… I promise! Some of the pinchos were just alright (I mean, you can’t expect much for such a cheap price), but some of them were absolutely delicious. Definitely take advantage of this! But be careful… it tricks you into drinking more than you probably should… if you can’t resist trying every delicious-looking pincho, like us.

Monte Urgull

View of the bay from Urgull

On the far side of the Parte Vieja is Monte Urgull, one of the two main large hills in San Sebastian. You can climb up this for some lovely views of the city, and can also visit the large Jesus statue at the top. There’s a free museum you can enter, but it didn’t prove to be all that interesting. It isn’t too difficult of a walk, but in the heat, you will definitely start sweating a bit. Dress accordingly! Good thing is, after your hike and working up an appetite, you have loads of pinchos at the bottom of the hill to look forward to. Give yourself about two hours to walk around and explore. There are many different paths that lead to the top, and the occasional bench to take a rest. You will be awarded with some gorgeous views! Don’t miss it.

A peek at Monte Igueldo across the bay. Also worth the visit!

The Beaches

Now, San Sebastian isn’t really known for its beaches in the way other places in Spain are. However, they are lovely and worth a visit! The two main beaches are Playa de la Concha and Playa Zurriola. It is important to know that the North of Spain (or Basque Country, excuse me) rains quite a bit, which is why everything you see is unbelievably green. It did sprinkle a little bit while we were there, and the people we spoke to at the hostel said it had rained all that week. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty, and hey, you can just run into a pinchos bar to ride out the rain!

Playa de la Concha, the main beach in San Sebastian.

If you continue walking along the boardwalk towards Monte Igueldo, you will find many places where the beach disappears and there’s a cliffside instead (depending on the time of day, of course). There are also plenty of places to sit on the rocks to enjoy the waves crashing against the shore. At one point, you’ll come across a little underpass with a pretty building on top and a pretty green garden. You can take the stairs up and picnic there, it is a lovely place to rest and take in the views. The name of the place is Miramar Palace. On the other side of this underpass, you will find the other half of Playa de la Concha.

Miramar Palace

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually make it to the beach during our trip. We were too busy stuffing our faces with pinchos, and probably wouldn’t have looked too hot in a bikini after all of that anyways. But even with the clouds, it was quite warm outside and a few hours later the sky cleared up and it was lovely! This picture below was taken the same day, just about an hour later.

Since San Sebastian is on the northern coast of the Basque Country/Spain and is surrounded by hills, you won’t really see sunsets here. But the views on the beaches are lovely  nonetheless at night!

Monte Igueldo

On the other side of Playa de la Concha, farthest from Parte Vieja, is Monte Igueldo. You have the option of walking up (expect a decent walk), driving up, or taking the funicular up. For the funicular, it only costs about 3€ and includes admission into the mini amusement park at the top (but going on the rides is extra).

The funicular going up Monte Igueldo.

Once at the top, you have some breathtaking views of San Sebastian. I’m pretty sure all of us literally gasped at just how beautiful it was, even though it was sprinkling at that time. It is definitely worth the visit! We came across this cute little boat ride that went along the mountainside, and we just had to try it out. The boats are super small but can fit 4 people. It was about 2€, which was a little pricy considering how short of a ride it was, but it was still fun. There are many other rides there as well, which would be fun for the young ones on a sunny day. However, it isn’t the greatest amusement park in the world and it’s rather pricy. I noticed they also sell beer, wine, and pinchos up there as well for the adults! On the other side of Monte Igueldo, facing away from Playa de la Concha, you can get a sneak peek at the coast. It was so gorgeous, I wish I could’ve just rented a car and spent days exploring all of the small towns along there. It is beyond beautiful in Basque Country.

Pasai and Pasaia (The Fishing Villages)

The fishing villages are to the right of San Sebastian.

Nearby San Sebastian, there are two little fishing villages on the bay. It is popular to go hiking there and take a stroll. We were feeling lazy, however, and didn’t have much time anyways, so we just took the bus. We had google maps at our disposal to figure out the buses, but if you don’t have that just stop into your nearest tourist information point and they’ll give you a heads up. It took us about 25 minutes by bus to get there.

There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re there, but it is very beautiful and old-European looking. It doesn’t even feel real as you walk along the small cobblestone corridors. There are little restaurants and ice cream shops all along the way that you can stop at for a rest (especially if you decide to do the hike, which can take anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on your pace).

There’s a small boat that you can ride to get to the other side, at a cost of only about 70 cents per person. It is very quick, but a fun experience nonetheless.

There seemed to be more to see and do on the Pasai side, so keep that in mind! If you’re looking to save money, it could be a good idea to pack a picnic lunch and eat along the waterfront.

The Basque Culture

I honestly didn’t know much about Basque people before I left for this trip, and I still don’t. But here are the basics: Basque Country is NOT Spain. Do not talk about Spain here. They have their own very distinct language and are very proud of their culture. In the recent past, there was a terrorist group here called ETA that fought for the independence of the Basque Country and harmed many people. Today, it is safe to visit, but please be respectful of their culture and wishes to be independent! Of course, everyone there also speaks Spanish, so you can get by using your basic Spanish phrases. While we were there, we saw a protest march go through the streets. It was very calm, but later we noticed that there was graffiti placed around some prominent places, and it was such a shame to see that they felt the need to deface private property… but oh well.

List of What to See

  • Playa de la Concha – lovely, where most of the tourists go for a nice beach day.
  • Parte Vieja – right in front of Monte Urgull, this is where you will find all of the amazing pinchos places.
  • Monte Urgull – the hill to the right of Playa de la Concha, with a statue of Jesus at the top. A lovely walk, give yourself a couple of hours and bring some comfortable shoes. Free museum at the top. Amazing views of San Sebastian!
  • Peine de los Vientos – translates to “Comb of the Winds.” This is a sculpture along the waterfront. We weren’t actually able to make it here (to my dismay), but it is definitely worth a visit. It is near Monte Igueldo.
  • Museo San Telmo: Plaza Zuloaga, 1
  • Zurriola Beach – Lovely, less crowded beach for surfers.
  • Monte Igueldo Teleferico – Take the funicular up Monte Igueldo for some amazing views of San Sebastian and the bay. There’s also a small theme park at the top. Only costs about €3 to go up, but it costs extra for the rides.
  • Miramar Palace – Amazing views from the top of the gardens, in the middle of Playa de la Concha.
  • Ayuntamiento de Donostia San Sebastián: Zuhaizti Plaza, 0 – pretty city hall in the center of the city.
  • Plaza de Guipuzkoa
  • Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro: Calle 31 de Agosto, 46
  • Alderdi-Eder Park – Lovely park for all ages.
  • Plaza de la Constitución – beautiful to people watch and have a drink, used to be an old bull ring.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • La Gintoneria Donostiarra: Zabaleta Kalea, 6 – Some of the best gins you will every find.
  • Bar El Doce: San Francisco Kalea, 12 – great food, underground bar at night.
  • ***Bar Nestor: Calle Pescaderia, 11 – Claims to have the best steak in the world, and reviews back this up. Also try the tomato salad. Arrive early to get space, and expect to have to stand. We tried to go there but there was no space.
  • Museo del Whisky: Boulevard Zumardia, 5 – great whiskey bar, live piano music sometimes.
  • ***Bar Borda Berri: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12 – AMAZING tapas and local Basque beer! You NEED to come here!
  • Bar Azkena: De la Brecha Enparantza, 2 – Great bacalao
  • ***Gandarias: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23 – Delicious, and great variety! It gets extremely busy here, but it is worth it.
  • La Cuchara de San Telmo: Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 – on NY Times List, delicious veal cheek, bacalao and bonito
  • ***Kota 31: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 22Absolutely amazing tapas and wine. A must try!
  • Goiz Argi: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4 – try gambas a la plancha with Txakoli wine
  • Txepetxa: C/ Pescadería, 5 – try Gilda and drink Sidra
  • Zeruko: Calle Pescaderia, 10
  • La Mejillonera: Calle del Puerto, 15 – delicious mussels, mejillones picantas, calamares

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.

La Diada de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Day) in Catalunya

Since the day I arrived back in September, the Catalan people have been buzzing about St. Jordi’s Day, or La Diada de Sant Jordi (every year on April 23rd). I remember my first host family taking me out into Barcelona and showing me the cathedral and Palau de la Musica, and somehow they always tied things back to their beloved Saint. A couple of weeks back, I decided to ask more about this tradition and the legend it came from (I guess they also celebrate this in England, but us Americans are a little behind the times, I guess).

My 8 year old host sister came out with her Saint Jordi book (a must-have item in every Catalan household) and hers just happened to also have an English translation. She read it to me and we discussed. Basically, there is a dragon that terrorized a city and the princess was captured. A young (of course, handsome) knight came to save the day and slayed the dragon. Out of the dragons blood bloomed a beautiful rose, which the prince gave to the princess. In return, she gave him a book. To this day, Catalan people continue this tradition and exchange books and roses. To read more about this interesting legend, click here. This is basically the Catalan St. Valentine’s Day, and they look forward to it every year.

As you walk down the streets, you see many people holding roses to give to their loved ones. There are little stands littering all street corners with people selling books, roses, and the famous Sant Jordi bread with the Catalan flag on it. When I arrived to school, my friend and colleague was nice enough to give me one of these breads to try. They use cheese and sobresada (a specialty here made from meat, usually spread on bread) to make the yellow and red stripes, then the crust that surrounds it has nuts.

Inside the school, all of the teachers were wearing little rose pins on their shirts and the young students were all abuzz, roses being passed out everywhere. It was so adorable to see! All week the classes had been working on various crafts, and the entire school was decorated for the occasion.

During lunch, my friend and I decided to walk around our small town to see what was happening. Normally during our lunch time, everything is shut down. However, today all stores decided to stay open and sell themed items. There were stalls with more books than I’d seen in quite awhile, rose and dragon crafts, foods and pastries… it was so interesting to see!

After I got back from wandering around, one of my 8 year old students surprised me with a rose. It was so adorable because he is super shy, and his mom (who also works at the school) had to lightly give him a little shove to have him approach me. I later asked why there was the wheat sprig, and I guess it is for fertility. I don’t know if I was a young person that I’d want to give my girl or boyfriend a fertility rose! Sons also give their mothers and grandmothers roses on this day… “Here, grandma, a fertility rose!”

After school, I headed into Barcelona with some friends to explore the festivities in Plaza Catalunya and La Rambla. Everyone at my school told me that I just HAD to go. It was nice to see, and I’m glad I went, but I honestly preferred the festivities in my small town. In Barcelona, it was PACKED with people… everyone was shoving everyone else to get through and see things. In my small town, there was a lot of people, but it was still very easy to see everything and the wares they were selling were a lot more creative, in my opinion.

If you’re ever lucky enough to be in Catalunya on St. Jordi’s Day (April 23rd), I recommend that you try to check out Barcelona during the day (if on a weekday, most Catalans are probably still at work) and try to find a nearby small town to get the full experience. One thing is for sure – I enjoyed my first St. Jordi’s!

A City a Day: Ghent, Here Be Dragons! (A Guide)

Stars indicate main attractions. At the bottom, you will see Backstay Hostel, a short walk from the center.

For food and drink recommendations, scroll to the bottom! 🙂

When we were planning this trip, we weren’t sure whether we should go to Ghent, Bruges, or both. We had all heard great things about Bruges, but one of the friends that was with us had said that Ghent was better and less touristy. Following her advice, we decided to book two nights in Ghent to give ourselves a buffer and allow ourselves to possibly go to Bruges for a day trip on one of those days. Ghent is less than 2 hours away from Brussels by train.

We stayed at Backstay Hostel Ghent, which I would highly recommend to anyone. It was one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, with every floor in a different theme. They even had a cinema room! We never got to check it out, but it seemed pretty cool. The beds were also very modern looking, and each bed had a little compartment near the pillow with 3 personal plugs. They also provided complimentary lockers which was a nice touch. Oh, and their breakfast! It was probably the best breakfast I’ve ever had at a hostel, you could make your own waffles and hard-boiled eggs in addition to the usual lunch meats and cereal. Fantastic! And it is only about a 10 minute walk to the center of town.

The main center. You can pretty much get anywhere in the city within 10 minutes by foot!

Our first stop was St. Bavo’s Cathedral, which is famous for the art it houses including the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (as shown in the movie Monuments Men). You have to pay an extra fee to see the painting and the audioguide is included. Only one of my friends went inside, and she said it was very interesting. The rest of the cathedral is very beautiful, and you can go down inside of the original crypt and see some other timeless art pieces along with some really old books.

Inside St. Bavo’s

Like in the other cities we visited (Brussels and Luxembourg), everything was under construction so we couldn’t get a picture of the exterior. It’s crazy, I’m thinking that maybe they try to build everything in spring before all of the tourists come in summer? Who knows.

Stolen from Wikipedia, just to show the outside of St. Bavo’s which we didn’t get to see.

Just across the small square, you will find the Belfry Het Belfort van Gent, a large tower topped with a dragon. It is one of the most important buildings in Ghent and symbolizes their independence. A dragon was placed at the top of the tower in the late 1300’s to watch over the city and also the precious documents held within. Today, the dragon at the top is not the original. If you go inside, though, you can see one of the originals on display.

The Belfry, with the golden dragon at the top.

Once you get to the very top, you are graced with some absolutely amazing views of the city. It is a tight squeeze to get through some of the areas, especially if there are a lot of people, but it is definitely worth it. The best view is the side the goes towards Saint Nicholas’ Church.

Saint Nicholas’ Church. It was such a beautiful day!

View from another side.

Just some lovely buildings near the Belfry that I couldn’t help but take a picture of.

If you’ve been throughout Europe, you know that there are more Cathedrals than you can count. It can be quite difficult to remember them all, they just all start to blur together. You have to start taking note of unique characteristics of each one if you want to remember them, but the reality is that you really only remember the truly spectacular ones. For me, that includes the amazing Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Notre Dame in Lyon, and the Notre Dame in Paris. Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral is one of those that I think I will always remember for the grand looking exterior. Inside it is nice as well, but there’s something about this medieval architecture that is really impressive.

Saint Nicholas’ Church

If you continue down the street and to the right, you reach the Graslei area of Ghent. The first street will take you down an avenue with tons of restaurants and shops, and the second street on the right will take you down the waterfront. Both are worth exploring! The buildings are all so beautiful. My descriptions don’t do it justice, so here’s some candy for your eyes:

We found a restaurant in the Graslei area, and unfortunately I can’t remember it’s name 😦 But it was near the Pizza Hut! They recommended me a local beer called Petrus, which I highly recommend! I loveloveloved it! Strangely, I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

We ordered the local specialties that I had read were really worth trying: waterzooi and stoverij. The waterzooi was AMAZING. It is a local specialty from Ghent, supposedly Charles V’s favorite dish! I don’t blame him. If you leave Ghent without trying this deliciousness, you’ve failed at life. You can get it with either chicken or fish. I tried the fish, which I guess is the original. The sauce is a very creamy, rich sauce that is sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.

Fish Waterzooi, topped with gray shrimp (another specialty in Belgium). I can not even tell you how amazing and mouth-wateringly delicous this was. I want more. Now.

Stoverij, a decadent beef stew. I never ordered this while I was in Belgium (I just ordered waterzooi repeatedly because I loved it so much), but my friends really liked this dish. I had a taste and it seemed tasty, but very, very rich.

Chicken Waterzooi. Same delicious sauce.

After our delicious meal, we went about exploring the city some more. We crossed the river to explore the Kraanlei neighborhood.

Here, you will find the Castle of the Counts Gravensteen, a cute little castle built in the 1100’s. We ended up not going inside, but it comes highly recommended on most travel sites.

Gravensteen Castle

One thing you should definitely do while in Ghent (well, I suppose anywhere, really) is to stop in the little shops on the way to see what they offer. I ended up picking up some local tea and chocolates that I just couldn’t say  no to. That’s one of my favorite things about travelling. I always ask the shopkeepers what they recommend, and it’s so easy to do that here because everyone speaks English!

After exploring the Kranlei Neighbourhood and Patershol district (it has nice reviews on TripAdvisor, but there was nothing going on when we were walking around), we went back towards the center of the city and happened across Vrijdagmarkt Square. It is adorned with lovely buildings, a statue, and a plethora of great-looking restaurants. We were still full from our lunch, so we decided to find a drink somewhere nearby.

We found a little bar called Cafe Afsnis right next to St. Jacob’s Church. It had a lovely interior, kind of old-fashioned with candles and wood. The bartender was extremely friendly and helpful and encouraged me to try a passion fruit jenever, a popular liquor in Belgium. It was delicious! The smell was unbelievably tropical, yet not too sweet. She also recommended a nice beer.

After our rest, we decided to just wander around a little bit more to see if we had missed anything. Ghent is very small, and even in a day we were satisfied with what we saw. The beauty of Ghent is just aimlessly wandering around and seeing what surprises it has in store for you.

View from St. Michael’s Bridge

St. Michael’s Church

Street Art visible from St. Michael’s Bridge

View of St. Nicholas’ Church from St. Michael’s Bridge

We headed back to the hostel to freshen up, then headed back out that night to find some bars that we had heard were really good.

We went to the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (see address below) and enjoyed some good drinks. The bartenders were great at recommending local beers! We then went to Hot Club De Gand, but we arrived a little too late because it was packed due to a live band playing. It looked like a really nice place, though, and is definitely worth the look. We ended up at ‘t dreupelkot nearby, and it is a must-stop! It is a very small bar, and also very popular. It is famous for having tons of flavors of jenever, including cranberry, cactus, fig, licorice, strawberry, passion fruit, etc… the list goes on! Great prices and definitely worth the visit.

We felt like dancing, so from there we headed back towards our hostel and (thanks to the recommendation of some locals) visited the popular Sint-Pietersplein, where all the young people go out for drinks and dancing at night. We went into the first club we saw and stayed all night! They had one of the best DJ’s we had ever heard, he played all of the classics and hits. We also met some very friendly people, I highly recommend checking this area out! But go in groups – we were told that it isn’t too safe to wander around on your own at night here.

From my research, here are the highest-rated food and drink places:

  • Gentse Stadsbrouwerij Gruut: Grote Huidevettershoek 10 – Local favourite dishes and home-brewed beers.
  • t’Klokhuys: Corduwaniersstraat 65 – eat waterzooi!
  • Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant: Groentenmarkt 9 – beautiful waterfront terrace, great beer pub.
  • Hot Club De Gand: Groentenmarkt 15b – cozy concerts, outdoor seating with candles, nice lounge
  • Dulle Griet: Vrijdagmarkt 50 – selection of 250 different drinks
  • Groot Vleeshuis: Groentenmarkt 7 – old butcher’s hall turned restaurant and cafe
  • ‘t dreupelkot: Groentenmarkt 12 – tons of flavors of jenever! Very popular, worth a visit. Try the cactus flavor, it tastes like a margarita!
  • De Trollekelder: Bij Sint-Jacobs 17 – great locals bar

One thing that I really wanted to do that we didn’t have time for is the Museum Dr. Guislain, a mental-health museum (psych was my major!) housed in an old asylum. How cool is that?! It is located a bit outside the city, which is why we didn’t have time, but if you’re a nerd like me… check it out! And tell me how it is!

Another museum with good reviews is the Huis van Alijn in the Kraanlei neighbourhood. It only costs €5 to go in and displays everyday things from life in the last 100+ years.