meggrblog

Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


8 Comments

two months of travels

The past two months of my life have been a cycle of packing and unpacking my suitcase, being home just enough between trips to work a bit and do laundry. Poor me, I know. At the end of March I had a 17-day Easter break, was back for a few weeks to catch my breath, and then my parents came to visit. Over the span of 7 weeks, I traveled to Germany (twice), the Czech Republic, Austria, Portugal, southern Spain. and all around the Basque Country of both Spain and France. It was exhausting, enriching and enlightening.

I started out my 17-day Easter break travels in Berlin (more like BRRRR-lin) where temps were at century record lows and winter was still in full swing. The ground was completely covered in snow and ice, which I found out the hard way upon having a full-sprawl wipe-out my first day there. I guess after two years away from the snowy Midwest winters I have lost all my winter-coping skills. Anyway, I had a lot of fun with new friends and old, drank a lot of good hefeweizen and ate plenty of good food. Berlin is such an international hub and also very modern and hip, so you can find just about any kind of food you’re in the mood for. I opted for mostly Mexican food because it’s my favorite and, contrary to popular belief, Spain is quite lacking in that department. I’ve been deprived. Anyway, I made sure to try Berlin’s best currywurst a couple times too:

currywurst? More like curryBEST!

currywurst? More like curryBEST!

After Berlin was a short trip to Prague. The temps were equally bitter, but nothing can get in the way of Prague’s beauty. With it’s colorful buildings lined with gold, spires and more spires and a huge castle overlooking the city from across the river, it takes you in immediately. It’s like everyone says–you just have to see it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Approaching Prague’s main square

After a few days to warm up, re-pack and re-charge back in Bilbao, I headed to Europe’s westernmost city: Lisbon, Portugal. WOW. Maybe it was just the contrast effect from the huge temperature upgrade from my previous trip, but Lisbon just seemed so warm, so alive and colorful. It’s a beautiful, friendly city with tons of character. I can see why so many travel bloggers rave about it. I don’t fall in love with every place I go to the point of saying “I could live here,” but I did feel that way about Lisbon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the highly-recommended day trip out of Lisbon to the magical wonderland called Sintra. Yes, it’s recommended by every travel book and site you’ll ever see about Lisbon, but it is NOT overrated and is absolutely a must-do if you’re in the area.  A short train ride zips you out to this fairy-tale village, literally filled with castles and gardens. If you do only one thing there, catch a bus from the center of town up to the Pena Palace and spend the day exploring the castle grounds and enjoying the view.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

checking out the view of Lisbon from atop the Pena Palace

After Lisbon, it was southward to the beach town of Lagos, where the views are breathtaking and the fiesta is fantástico. Check out this video I made of a day spent mountain biking and hiking around and outside of the city:

From Lagos we headed back over the border back into Spain and visited Sevilla where my friend Allison is now living and teaching English. It was my third time in Sevilla, but staying with a friend who was very familiar with the city was great to experience the city in a non-touristy way, checking out some really alternative, local hangouts and getting in on lots of live music.

I spent the middle of April  back in Bilbao working and regrouping a bit, and then my fantastic parents arrived! We had the most wonderful 11 days together. Within their first day here, we checked out a Galician seafood festival, had lunch at one of Bilbao’s most legendary restaurants, shopped, met with some of my private lesson students for coffee, checked out some Bilbao Athletic Club fútbol action and went pintxo-hopping. I repeat: that was all within their FIRST DAY here. They are troopers. The next day, we rented a car and embarked upon a Basque Country road trip. We started with lunch in beautiful Biarrtiz, France, stopped for dessert (Grand Marnier crepes!) in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, then back to the Spanish side of the border to spend the night in San Sebastian. As a nice capstone for our road trip, we spent the afternoon hiking out one of my favorite places on earth: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. It was my mom’s second time doing the hike, and my SIXTH!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

lunch and laughter in Biarritz

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe...just can't get enough

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe…just can’t get enough

After our road trip, we spent a couple more days here in Bilbao and my parents even came to work with me one day. They met all of my students and it was such a cool experience for all involved. The next day, we jetted off to Munich, the land of our not-so-distant ancestors. I love Germany. This was my third trip there, and it just keeps getting better. I definitely feel a connection to the place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Munich’s main square: Marienplatz

During our time in Munich we also visited a place that has been on my bucket list since I was 16 or so: the site of the former Dachau concentration camp. It was a sobering experience to say the least. If you make it to Munich and want to do the Dachau tour, I highly recommend this company.

The chillingly ironic message on the gate into the Dachau camp: "Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will set you free)"

The chillingly ironic message on the gate into the Dachau camp: “Arbeit Macht Frei (Work will set you free)”

We also took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria and took a countryside “Sound of Music” tour. As the reviews said it would be, it was pretty cheesy but a lot of fun, and a great way to see the countryside outside of Salzburg.

Mom and I outside the famous gazebo from the Sound of Music

Mom and I outside the famous gazebo from The Sound of Music

Salzburg city center

Salzburg city center

My parents and I then headed back to Bilbao for the remainder of their stay and thankfully had some brilliant sunshine (finally!) on their last day in the city.

A beautiful day in Castro, a small seaside village outside of Bilbao

A beautiful day in Castro, a small seaside village outside of Bilbao

The past few weeks that have followed all of these travels have been almost equally busy and fantastic, but those are stories for another day…

Hasta la próxima!


1 Comment

the streets that sing

One of my favorite things about being in big cities is the presence of street musicians. I love the musical spontaneity that comes with living in or visiting a bustling city. The music that street musicians provide can perfectly complement the atmosphere, lift your mood and inspire you.

The other night, while giving a super quick impromptu tour de Bilbao to some friends, we ran into this terrifically energetic drumming group giving flash performances all over the old quarter of the city. After Googling them later, I found out they’re a Madrid-based group called Hakuna Ma Samba, and their motto is “Elige ser feliz”, or “Choose to be happy,” which they do very well. I dig.

Street performers, or musical buskers (you learned a new word today!), aren’t bound to streets as the only place for their performances. Another common venue for these musicians is on big city subways, like this incredible guitar/violin duo my mom and I came across during our trip to Rome in February:

Some of them play for a living while others play to make extra cash doing something they love. I ran into these guys in downtown Bilbao last fall, and after reading their sign I just had to give them my spare change. For creativity, if nothing else!

Their sign says: "Med students...collecting money for books! Thanks!"

A few weeks ago when I was in Portugal, I stumbled upon this random assembling of couples who heard some music in a plaza stopped to dance…. in the pouring rain!

These performances and spontaneous acts of music and dance are, for me, one of the most beautiful things in life. Music can bring so much joy, and when encountered outside of its traditional environments like concert halls and theaters, it reminds us not to take life so seriously and to experience the beauty in every moment.

Next time you see a street musician, I hope you’ll give them your spare change. It’s the least you can do for them making your day!


4 Comments

when RyanAir goes wrong

I set out last Wednesday morning on a trip to Spain’s westerly neighbor, Portugal. I caught an early bus from Bilbao to Madrid, arrive with time to spare,and hopped on the shuttle to the airport.

Once at the airport, I headed straight for what RyanAir calls “visa check.” You see, if you fly RyanAir, you can conveniently print your plane tickets online ahead of time (which you conveniently get to pay 6€ to do, or else pay 60€ once at the airport if you opt not to…blackmail, much?) and THEN all you have to do once at the airport is go through a “visa check” (which is, essentially, the same thing as checking in…) before you go through security. This check consists of a RyanAir employee looking at your passport, asking you if you packed your own luggage (nope, my mom did!) and then drawing arbitrary squiggles somewhere on your printed ticket to indicate you have been “checked.”

I breezed through security and found my gate just on the other side. Over an hour to kill before boarding! I headed to a nearby cafetería for some tortilla española and a caña. I ate my lunch slowly, critiquing the tortilla with every bite (I’m a connoisseur now, you know) and mentally patting myself on the back for being so ahead of schedule.

Time to get to the gate. With RyanAir, there are no seat assignments and no boarding groups: just a clusterfook of travelers huddled around the waiting area at the gate hoping to make it on the plane WITH their luggage. I was in line behind a Portuguese couple, and listening to their chatter I started to get pumped–a new language, a new culture, a new COUNTRY to explore!

I hastily shoved my purse into my cabin baggage (RyanAir doesn’t allow a “personal item” like every….other…airline) and got ready to juke for a window seat. I gave the ticket lady my ticket and started shoving my bag into the size-tester box (a ridiculously obligatory step with RyanAir. If it doesn’t fit they’ll kindly check it at the gate for only 40-50€!) As I was busy proving my obviously small bag wasn’t an 26″ upright, this conversation happened:

Ticket Nazi: “This isn’t the right ticket”
Me: “Ha….what?”
Ticket Nazi: “Yes. This is Madrid, ma’am. This ticket is from Porto to Madrid.”
Me: “I’m entirely aware that this is Madrid. So you’re saying they validatedd the wrong ticket?”
Ticket Nazi: “I’m saying you don’t have a ticket to get on this plane.”
Me: “Oh, but I do. Here it is, see? With the same name, passport number…”
Ticket Nazi: “I can’t let you on the plane without a visa check confirmation on this other ticket. You need to go out, get it validated, re-enter security and come back. You need to run! Last call! Plane leaves in 20 minutes!”
Me: “@&?#!”

Sprinting. In heeled boots. Holding a 20 lb suitcase. Through an entire terminal. Calves killing from yesterday’s run. Couldn’t find an open exit. Saw a security checkpoint, got desperate and asked two Policia Nacional how I could get out. They saw my desperation, had mercy on me, and actually let me go backwards through a security checkpoint whilst running. In hindsight, this may be the single nicest thing a stranger has done for me in this country. I budged to the front of a line of 50-or-so people at the visa check and told the lady she had stamped the wrong sheet and needed to stamp this one. She apologized, didn’t even look at my passport (may try this approach if ever need to travel illegally :-p) and stamped my ticket.

More sprinting. At security again. Ducked under the barricades and cut in front of two large families. Pretended not to speak Spanish while being cussed out for it. Wearing only leggings, a tank top, and socks, but somehow the metal detector goes off when I pass through. The TSA lady pats me down and comments on how sweaty I am. Happens when you’ve maintain max HR for early 15 minutes while fully clothed, I guess. I shove my iPad and liquids back in my bag and run, shoes and coat in hand, to the gate.

No one at the gate. No. One. Look at my watch. It’s 3:38. 7 minutes til takeoff. I had just sprinted through an entire terminal, to visa check, through security and back to the gate in a record 13 minutes. Where is Ticket Nazi and her equally condescending sidekicks? Why does the gate’s screen now say “Santander” and not “Porto”????

Well played, RyanAir. Well played.

There is a reason why my (original) fare was a steal at only 40€ round trip (including taxes and fees!) RyanAir boasts being “The low fare airline,” and that is exactly what they are. Nothing more. Their fares stay low because they nickle-and-dime customers for everything they can. This is no secret. The shadier side of this is that they also depend a great deal on customers’ mistakes and oversights as sources of profit. They create an incredible obstacle course full of hoops to jump through if you choose to fly with them, and any mistakes along the way will cost you. I like to think I’ve mastered these hoops as a pretty experienced traveler, but in this instance I got dooped. Any other airline would have taken the blame (it was, after all, started by one of their worker’s oversights) and re-booked me free of charge, no questions asked. But RyanAir has a very different business model that essentially lacks a customer service component altogether. And their crazily low fares let them get away with it. So hear this, savvy travelers: every time you book a steal-of-a-deal flight with RyanAir, know that someone, somewhere is paying for it. Someday, it might be you!

I made it (on a much more expensive newly-purchased outbound flight) to Porto, Portugal the next morning. And I suppose it was worth all the hassle 🙂

Looking back at Porto from the port near the mouth of the Douro River