It’s January, the time of year when we wistfully think back to our summer vacations! After I got back from Italy, Hugo and I spent a few days in Lisbon at the beginning of July. We had been planning to go for a year, but the summer before he had started a new job and couldn’t take time off (so I went to Spain instead).
Everyone kept raving about Lisbon – it was so beautiful, so cheap, so charming, so friendly, their favorite European city. We had a great time and the weather was beautiful, but I wouldn’t go back in high season. It was quite crowded, and many of the locals didn’t seem thrilled with all the tourists.
The language barrier was frustrating too – I memorized the essential travel phrases before we left, but Portuguese is not a language that comes easily to me despite its Latin roots. It wasn’t hard to navigate the city in the least, but I feel uncomfortable and apologetic when I can’t speak the local language. I do my best not to be an ugly American, but I just don’t speak all the languages. There were several instances where we were treated rudely, I suspect because we didn’t speak much Portuguese, and even though that wasn’t the overall trend, those few bad experiences stuck with me.
I would still like to go back to Portugal and visit more cities; Porto and Comporta (thanks, New York Times) are both on my list.
Today I’ll share a few highlights, some resources (scroll down to the bottom for those), and things I would do differently next time. And gratuitous photos, of course.
Hi! Guess where I am? (I suppose if I really wanted you to guess I shouldn’t have put it in the title.)
I left Lyon (in tears) and flew back to my hometown last week. Most of August was spent emptying our home in Lyon and trying to cram all of my belongings into two suitcases. (Bless the Lufthansa agent who let my overweight bag slide through!)
Everyone knows moving is the worst, but sometimes you forget how really Not Fun it is until you’re weeding through everything you own and getting stood up by Leboncoiners who are supposed to come buy your crappy chairs (RUDE!) August was hot and stressful and I was pretty cranky for most of the month. I pretty much stopped checking my email, which is terrible because some really nice people emailed me during that time. (I’m sorry, nice people!!!) It seems like a pretty wimpy thing to complain about, but I get so overwhelmed by an overflowing inbox.
We heard the news after we got back from the fireworks. We probably would have gone to bed and slept in ignorance until the morning, but Hugo gets news alerts on his phone.
On Friday, there was an outpouring of shock and grief over the attack in Nice on social media. But at least in Lyon, there doesn’t seem to be a public space of tribute and mourning, like there was after the Paris attacks, where people leave flowers and messages. The public reaction is different this time. Maybe it’s because the possibility of more attacks has been hovering in the background, especially during the Eurocup. But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of this tragedy.
I dug up my old photos of Nice. I haven’t been there since 2012. I thought it was only two years ago, but then I did the math. I meant to go back this summer, but time is short. (By “short” I mean “hurtling along at rogue rocket speed.”)
The good thing about #slowblogging is that the buzz of the trip has died down in my mind, and the highlights stand out against the blur of my memory. I don’t remember why I wasn’t excited about visiting San Sebastian when I planned my trip to Spanish Basque Country, but I am glad that I decided to stay two nights instead of making it a lightning-quick trip from Bilbao.
One of my 2015 resolutions was to travel more. I went to nine countries and sixteen new cities, which is not much if you’re a travel fanatic but is still pretty good if you’re me.
For me, it’s always a battle between traveling, saving money, and just taking the time to enjoy life at home. Sometimes I feel like I should go somewhere, but I wonder if I’d actually be happier strolling the cobblestone streets of Lyon with Hugo and gelato (my other main squeeze), than I would be pinching pennies in Rome, even though the latter makes a more interesting story. So I try to be honest with myself and not travel just for the sake of it, just to say I did, or because I think I ought to. I know I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t travel at all, but I also know that I can’t go everywhere I want to and still save and have stress-free time at home, so the hardest part is deciding where to go, because there are so many interesting places to visit just a short plane ride away. OMG MY LIFE IS SO DIFFICULT!!!!!!!
Did I ever tell you that Hugo lived in England for most of last year? He got offered a job in Oxford, and the French economy being what it is, we both agreed that he should take it. I’m so glad that he moved back to France this year, but it did give me an excuse to make a couple visits to Oxford and London.
I visited Oxford for the first time almost exactly a year ago. I know because it was the Toussaint vacation, which was right after my birthday. It was the same temperature as it was in Lyon, but it felt colder. Chillier.
We spent the weekend galavanting in the crisp fall air, visiting really old colleges covered in ivy and crunching golden leaves underfoot.
The colleges are beautiful and charming and imposing all at once… but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you which one is which. Tall stone walls, enchanting courtyards, impressive towers, smarty-pants students coming and going… they all started to look the same after awhile.
The town isn’t too big, but it isn’t too small either. Bikes are clearly the preferred method of transportation.
Hugo lived a bus ride away from the city center, a fifteen-minute bus ride down Cowley Road, if you know the place. The buses confused me horribly. They’re run by a few different companies, but seem to cost about the same, and you have to buy a ticket every time you get on (unless you’ve got a return ticket) and the price depends on where you’re going. It didn’t seem like you could buy a week pass or a monthly pass or anything like that. And really, it was quite expensive – all those £3 tickets add up fast. Everyone seemed to say “cheers” to the driver when they got off the bus, but it sounded weird in my American accent.
No one gave me a particularly hard time about being American, but my accent felt clumsy next to all those Brits, and broader, but in a warm way. England feels just as foreign to me as France. I marvel at some things (cocktails in a can? Pear cider at the supermarket? All the cookies! – I mean, biscuits) and puzzle over others (what is a bap? Why are there beans and mushrooms with my breakfast? How early is too early to have a drink at the pub?) I thought we would be able to have private conversations in French, but it turns out that French is not a secret language and there are tons of French people in Oxford.
Two of my favorite English things are both terribly cozy – pubs and cream tea. I freaking love cream tea. I thought it was just tea with cream in it, but NO, it’s tea with scones with jam and clotted cream. I do not know what clotted cream is exactly, but it’s better than butter and I piled it on my scones on a near-daily basis. It’s a good thing that it’s not readily available in France or I might not live to see 30.
During the week, Hugo had to go to work, so I divided my time between grading translation exams (yay vacation) and wandering the city. I even stopped getting lost after awhile.
Family friends told me again and again to eat at The Trout, which they held very fond in their Oxford memories, but I forgot to go. If you try it, let me know how it is!
Oxford has more than a few cool cafes, but instead of racking up £3 for the bus plus a cafe bill every day, I worked chez Hugo and wandered in my free time. I find that I like the idea of hipster coffee shops more than I actually enjoy cramping myself in a noisy wooden cafe and suffering from heart palpatations because I’m not hardcore enough to properly appreciate “good coffee.” If you’re cooler than me (and let’s be real, it’s not hard to be) hotspots seemed to be The Missing Bean, Quarter Horse Coffee,Zappi’s Bike Cafe,The Jericho Cafe, and The Jam Factory. (Did I get it right, Oxford-dwellers?)
I’ve thought a little about why I decided to write about Oxford, so long after visiting. (#slowblogging). It’s mostly because I love these autumn photos and I wanted an excuse to share them in season. I’m no Oxford expert, and there’s no crazy story here. Just us, wandering this historic English town, crunching the yellow leaves.
Have you been to Oxford? Are you having a golden autumn this year?
Vienna is an epicenter of culture. World class opera, ballet, symphonies, art, museums, castles, gardens – it’s got them all. Its history – both artistic and regular – is rich. Mozart was here. Johann Strauss (dude who wrote all those waltzes and Die Fledermaus) was here, Freud was here, Klimt was here – the list goes on and on. If they had all graffiteid their names on a who’s who wall of Vienna… that would have been cool. (But they have stars of fame on the sidewalk instead.)
At first, I had only planned to come for a couple days, but I’m glad I decided to stay longer. Five days still wasn’t enough time. I was blown away by everything there is to see in Vienna.
Notice I said see. The food… it wasn’t bad. Goulash and boiled beef reminded us that Vienna is geographically in Eastern Europe, but the prices were closer to Western Europe (and I mean France, not Portugal). Many nicer restaurants had a cover charge of 2-3 euros per person – not the end of the world, but a little annoying.
Tapelspitz, goulash, and Wiener schnitzel are traditional meat dishes typical of Vienna. I had always vaguely imagined that Wiener schnitzel was a kind of sausage for some reason, but it’s actually breaded and fried veal garnished with lemon wedges. Surprise!
“Schnitzel” is more fun to say (I ❤ funny words) than it is to actually eat. I was underwhelmed by the food I tried in Vienna, on the whole.
Even the desserts. Vienna is known for its cakes and pastries. The French word for pastries is “viennoiserie” for crying out loud. But in my opinion, France effortlessly surpasses the city that inspired their croissants and pain au chocolat in terms of dessert.
Anyway, disappointing desserts couldn’t ruin Vienna. I loved the Schönbrunn palace gardens, the art collection at the Albertina, the quirky and colorful Hundertwasserhaus, and above all, the opera.
Even so, I couldn’t quite fall in love with Vienna. It was like an eligible bachelor/ette who’s sweet and smart and successful and suave and your head tells you that they’re perfect and you should marry them, but the crazy love drug that makes you want to be with them all the time is missing, so you leave them for your friend that everyone else knew was right for you all along. (That’s how it seems to go down on sitcoms, anyway.)
But friend-zoning aside, I really did have a nice time in Vienna.
For some reason, I had it in my head that I wouldn’t need a place to stay for my overnight layover in Madrid. I had a foggy vision of heading out to see the city, and then coming back late to crash at the airport before my flight to Seville left early Monday morning.
When I came down with a sore throat a few days before the trip, I came to my senses. I am not a night owl and I need my sleep. I can’t function without it. (Read: I’m kind of a bitch if I don’t sleep enough.) No way was I going to rough it on a cold, hard, dirty airport floor for six hours.
But the Madrid metro doesn’t start running until 6am, and I worried about missing my flight. I looked into airport hotels (50 to 100 euros on Hotel Tonight) but that didn’t seem practical as I couldn’t find one accessible by public transport. The “hotel” in the airport cost over 100 euros – not the budget I had in mind for this crash visit.
So when I arrived, I went straight to the tourist information to get some help.
“I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight,” I said in what is left of my high school Spanish. The lovely agent advised me to stay at a hostel in the center and take an early bus to catch my flight.
“Actually, you can catch a train to the city instead of the metro or bus. It leaves in twelve minutes.”
A nice lady with lipstick on her teeth helped me get the right train ticket (2,60€, score!) and I was off to Madrid.
My first impression, even before exiting the train station, was how quiet, clean, and still Madrid was. No trash in the station or on the street. Few people out and about. It was warm and pink flowering trees were planted along the tranquil streets. I stopped into a building marked “Hostal Prim” next to the station. The owner offered me a discount off the regular price of 35 euros for a private room, which is a steal, but I knew I could stay for much cheaper at a dorm hostel, so I continued to the one the tourist agent had marked on the map for me.
In the Chueca neighborhood, sunny terraces, trendy cafes, and fun boutiques abounded. Well, “abounded” borders on exaggeration as it was Sunday and many places were closed. But I was immediately charmed by the neighborhood and regretted that I wouldn’t be there long enough to have coffee in the blue restaurant below the hostel.
I stayed at Hostal Barbieri; there was wifi, a locker with a lock, a bed for the night, and it cost me all of 12 euros.
It was already 4:30pm, so I headed out to make the most of the few hours I had in Madrid. The sunniest ray of the day were gone, but it was still pleasant and warm. I went straight to Parc Retiro.
Parc Retiro was green and manicured and expansive. Parents strolled with their strollers, children rode bikes and scooters, and couples of all ages made out on the benches and in the grass.
The main strip of the park was like Disneyland: crowded, with artists, musicians, human statues (you know, covered in metallic paint, except these guys were mid-conversation instead of pretending to be inanimate), vendors, and actual Disney characters.
Other parts were quiet and hidden under a green canopy of trees.
I stopped by the lauded crystal palace, but it was closed for the installation of what looked like colorful silk tents and pillows.
When it threatened to rain, no one seemed bothered. And they were right. The drops stopped a minute later.
I envisioned sunny picnics in the green corners of the park, long strolls through its winding paths.
I had only eaten clementines and half a package of bacon tuc crackers (have you had these crackers? They are my favorite) so I exited the park to continue my tour of Madrid and find food (an empanadilla, 1,55€). I walked west, zigzagging on slanted streets. I passed the botanical gardens and the Prado museum, surveilled by armed guards. I regret not heading further south to pass through the Lavapies neighborhood, but before long, I was at La Latina.
The whole neighborhood was a party. Terraces overflowed, the lively streets babbled with music and chatter. I thought of stopping for tapas, but I felt awkward sitting down at a table for one in such a busy, social environment. So I kept walking, up Calle Cava Baja, and as I went further north, the crowd got older and the restaurants more touristy, with multi-language menus and photos of their food plastered outside.
I stopped by the Mercado San Miguel, but it was so crowded, it was a nightmare just to walk through.
Onward, I stopped by the Palacio Real and the Catedral de La Almudena (although I didn’t know what it was called).
Plaza de Espana looked adjacent on the map, but somehow I passed it and ended up on the grassy hill of Templo de Debod. This, it turned out, was more impressive than the actual Plaza de Espana, which was a very large monument, many tourist stands, and teenagers making out on the grass.
I had been walking for several hours and my feet were starting to ache. I passed by a cervezaria I had read about near Noviciado (Pontepez), and sat down at the bar. It a relief to take a load off and have a glass of white. (7€ for a small dinner/large tapa and wine)
From there, it was a short walk home. (Well, home for the night, anyway.) The next day, I was up early to catch the RENFE train back to the airport (2,60€).