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!!!!!!!
Every year, Lyon hosts La Fête des Lumières, an elaborate festival of lights with colorful and dramatic installations all over the city. I’ve shared some photos from my first Fête des Lumières in 2013, but it’s impossible to do justice to the gorgeous moving lights and cinema set to music.
December 8th is the official day of celebration, so the festival always includes the 8th and extends over four days including a weekend. The population of Lyon supposedly triples during the festival, and I believe it. Streets are blocked off, security guards herd pedestrians like cattle, restaurants are booked solid, and you have to queue just to get down into the metro. Accommodation prices are astronomical, even to rent a student loft on Airbnb.
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?
I don’t think I could have told you a damn thing about Basel before I went there in May. (Remember, I promised more slow blogging? …As opposed to all the fast blogging I’ve been doing.)
I still don’t know much. It’s in Switzerland. It’s on the Rhine river. They speak German. (Or, Swiss-German – I’m told it’s not the same thing, but I don’t know enough German of any kind to tell the difference.) They love their bikes. OPI nail polish costs 20 Swiss francs a bottle (more than 20 USD). And if you want my opinion, it’s surprisingly quirky.
Not wacky, in-your-face quirky like the colorful Hundertwasser house – just… delightfuly, subtly quirky.
The Blue Sheep
I wandered up a random narrow staircase and happened upon this courtyard with a flock of blue sheep hiding out in the grass. I googled “blue sheep Basel” and found out that it’s a modern art exhibit in the cloisters courtyard and that it’s the #4 tourist attraction in Basel on Trip Advisor, but I didn’t know that then. I just saw a courtyard full of blue sheep. In the Trip Advisor photos, the blue sheep are standing proudly on mown grass, but when I was there, the grass had grown up around them so they were peeping out, not immediately visible. Maybe they’re just not hungry at the moment.
The Funny Fountains
Basel is a historical and beautiful city, with fountains a-trickling all over the place. Indiviually, they’re detailed and often colorful. Collectively, they could be a cast of characters from a ridiculous comedy. Picture all of these fountains guest-starring on Arrested Development.
This one is also a fountain but it deserves it’s own category because it takes quirky to the next level. It’s like in Beauty and the Beast when all the objects come to life, in fountain form. It’s also called the Carnival Fountain (or “der Fasnachts-Brunnen”) but it’s usually called after the artist, Jean Tinguely. He was a Swiss artist who, among other things, created quirky, kinetic fountains and sculptures.
You can’t tell, but all those metal sculptures, made out of parts from old theater equipment, are twitching and spinning and spraying. According to this source, they all have names – dr Theaterkopf, d’Spinne, dr Waggler, d’Fontääne, dr Spritzer, dr Suuser, dr Wäädel, dr Schuufler, s’Seechter, dr Querpfyffer. How’s that for funny German words? Google Translate wasn’t terribly englighting, so all I know is one of them is “Splashes” and one of them is “Spider.”
Don’t tell me that’s not quirky.
Tinguely also created the Stravinsky Fountain outside the Pompidou in Paris and, for Indiana-dwellers, a sculpture called Chaos in Colombus.
This seems like a good time to mention that we had a lovely sunny day in Basel, which means that all my photos have bright sunlight and harsh shadows and I hate them as photos but like them as memories. Except this photo of two ladies at a bakery – they look like old friends gossiping on a weekday morning to me, and I love the pale blue shutters and flowerpots above.
The prescence of a ferry in a city straddling a river shouldn’t be too surprising. Except that the ferries resemble gondolas and they’re powered by the river’s current and a man with a paddle. They’re attached to a cable by a string that keeps the current from making off with a boatfull of people.
The town hall is called the Rathaus in German, and it means council house, not rat house even though that’s what it sounds like. It’s quirky because it’s a bright rust red, and how oftern do you see that?
I found this Pippi Longstocking postcard in Basel. I haven’t thought about her much since I had the movie on VHS. Freewheeling Pippi can lift her horse over her head and she has a monkey for a sidekick, so she pretty much has quirkiness coming out of her horizontal pigtails.
Not all the stuff I learned about Basel was quirky. Apart from all this quirk, it’s also home to architects, pharmaceuticals, a major international art fair, and humanists. Erasmus is buried in the cathedral, which showcases Romanesque and gothic styles of architecture. There’s a tax on trash to encourage residents to throw away less rubbish. (Did I mention I’m learning British?)
Basel is a sizeable city, but with oodles of charm. It seems like a nice place to live (as long as you’re getting paid a nice fat Swiss salary to go along with the big fat Swiss prices). If I lived here, I would picnic along the Rhine in the sunshine and maybe name some of those blue sheep.
Have you been to Switzerland? Did you visit a city as quirky as Basel?
Santander was one of the best surprises of my recent trip to Spain. I didn’t really know anything about it except that the Spanish royals had a summer palace there. I was not prepared for the long stretches of breathtaking ocean views and expansive beaches. (Although, hello, I guess that’s why the royals had their palace there.) I don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about a place so beautiful.
The foamy waves crashing on the rocky coastline reminded me of home. Doesn’t it look a little like Big Sur? Well, except for the busy beaches with blue umbrellas. I don’t know if it gets hot enough in central California for that very often.
I’m writing a longer post on getting around in Santander, the blue cafe I liked so much I went three times in one day, and the storm that rolled in at the end of the day, but I had to share some of these photos first. Partially because I think they’re so beautiful they deserve their own post, and partially because I took so many photos in Santander that they won’t all fit in one blog post. (But seriously.)
Hi there! Guess what? I’m actually in Bilbao right now! Usually it’s “Postcard from somewhere I was weeks ago” because I am a nut about editing photos, and I’m also just really slow at blogging most of the time. (Don’t worry, more slow blogging posts will be coming your way. Eventually.)
This region of Spain is breathtaking. I’m so glad I decided to come here. The weather is perfect! I’ve spent one day in Getxo, just north of Bilbao (I might have liked Getxo better than Bilbao itself) and today in Santander, an hour and a half west in the Cantabria region. (Did I spell that right? Cantabria?)
Yesterday I just walked around Bilbao for hours and took a million photos of the Guggenheim. I know the spider sculpture is art but it still freaks me out a tiny bit. (#arachnophobe)
There’s a giant festival going on here this week, and last night kicked it all off. The streets of the old town (Casco viejo) were overflowing (sometimes in an alarming could this crowd crush me to death kind of way). Then it started absolutely pouring down rain – the build-an-ark kind of pouring down rain that stays in permanent downpour mode. I was stuck in a Carrefour grocery store entrance and the security guard wanted everyone taking shelter from the rain to clear out, but he didn’t insist because this wasn’t the kind of rain you send people out into. The guys next to me opened up their purchases to make the most of the situation – ice in a giant cup, filled halfway with red wine, and then topped off with lemon Fanta soda. Is there a name for this drink in Spanish?
Anyway, here are a few photos of Bilbao and Getxo. Some of them are edited, some of them are straight off my iPhone – I’m getting crazy here.
It would be a lie to say that paid vacation isn’t an awesome part of being a lectrice. If anyone’s like, “Oh, the vacation doesn’t really matter to me, I love teaching French students at the fac so much I could do it twelve months a year!” they are full of shit.
No. Vacation is awesome.
But I still manage to overthink it.
Because I feel like I’m doing vacation wrong.
I feel like I should pack a bag and take the train all over Italy for a month, or hang out on the beach, carefree, in Croatia or Greece. It would be the perfect time to visit Normandy and Bretagne, where I’ve never been. Escaping the heatwave is reason enough to go!
But I’m still in Lyon.
It’s too hot, my favorite cafés (aka where the AC is) are closed in August, and almost everyone I know is out of town. It’s the ideal time to get out of town. So why haven’t I?
I was traveling for a few weeks in May and June when my family came to visit from California. We went to Germany, Switzerland, Paris, Bourgogne, and Vienna. I needed a little break to rest and you know, get clean underwear.
Then we moved apartments. It was the slowest move ever. Snails move house faster than we did. (Snails have an unfair advantage because they don’t have a washing machine.) My roommates moved out a week and a half before we did, and with them went the furniture, the stove, the refrigerator, the plates, everything. I tell ya, you don’t appreciate stuff like cutlery until it’s gone!
Also, it was 100 degrees, we lived in a five story walkup, and we had no refrigerator. I’m not convinced we wouldn’t have been better off dragging our mattress down by the river.
We moved into the new apartment gradually over a month. At the beginning, I was just happy to have a fridge and a coffee maker. Now I’m excited that we finally have a table. Tables are awesome!
Hugo found out that I was not exaggerating when I said I had the upper body strength of a chipmunk, but unfortunately we were already lugging a fold-out couch down the street (from two blocks away because there was no parking!) We are going to have to live here forever because no way are we moving all this furniture again.
So now we have a home, and instead of summer travels, I have a weird summer non-routine. It feels like being unemployed, even though I’m not. Do you know when you’re home all day, and you do everything on your list that you’re supposed to do, but you still feel like you haven’t accomplished anything at the end of the day?
Some days it’s hard to focus because the heat makes me feel braindead, so I languish in front of the fan and look up how much it would cost to go to Girona or Bordeaux, like, right now. But instead of hitting the road whenever I feel antsy, I’m learning to stay put and chug forward steadily.
Even so… I still have one trip planned for the end of the summer! After much should-I-or-shouldn’t-I agonizing, I booked tickets to Bilbao and San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. I was dying to go and felt that I would regret it if I didn’t while I have the time and the resources. Then I’m flying directly up north for a wedding, so I’ll crash through Brussels and Lille on my way. (Which city is more awesome? I have an afternoon to spend in one or the other!)
A lot of people might roll their eyes when I call this “not traveling.” Visiting Germany, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, and, for a hot second, Belgium, is not traveling?
But on the flip-side, travel junkies would probably be equally flabbergasted that I spent almost eight weeks of paid vacation at home.
(And if you’re American, you might just be gob-smacked that I have so much paid vacation. But don’t worry, you earn a lot more money than I do.)
I do feel (self-inflicted) pressure to travel around Europe as much as I can while I can, because I have no idea how my life is going to change in a year. And there are a lot of places I want to go. I’m already dreaming about Toussaint vacation at the end of October. (Lisbon? Florence? Istanbul? Budapest?)
But for now, I’m doing the best I can to balance wanderlust with other priorities. I’m not a glamourous jetsetter, but I’m okay with that. Sometimes it’s nice to stay home.
If you’ve blogged about the Basque Country, post a link in the comments! I’d love to hear your tips.
Let me start by disclaiming that I am by no means an expert on Vienna. But have you ever noticed that it can be hard to think like a tourist in your own city? A Viennese local I am definitely not, but I feel like for five days, I rocked at being a tourist in Vienna.
You absolutely must take the metro down to Schönbrunn and frolic in the gardens. They are huge and magnificent and [drumroll] free! There’s a restaurant at the top of the hill (the Gloriette) but it was just okay, so I would pack a picnic instead.
You can also visit a zoo and other attractions on the ground for a small fee. My mom and I wandered around the labyrinths and played on the weird garden toys for the low low price of three euros.
Go if: the weather is nice and you have at least an hour or two to stroll around.
The Albertina wasn’t even on the list of things to visit, but we squeezed it in on the last day and it was one of my favorite things in Vienna. It’s a gorgeous estate that now houses many famous works of art. You can tour the rooms and, if you’re me, lie down on the floor in each room to get a shot of the chandeliers from below (they are like snowflakes! Each one is different.)
Then, you can view works by artists like Monet, Picasso, Rodin, Munch, Chagall, Miro, Magritte, and many more in their Batliner collection, and then say hi to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and their contemporaries across the hall.
I was most surprised by the photography exhibit dedicated to Lee Miller. She began as a surrealist while dating Man Ray, and later went on to document stuff like Hitler’s living quarters, and Germany and Austria after World War II. She worked as a photographer for Vogue and was the only authorized female photographer from the press during the war. Then she spent four years in Egypt photographing deserts and the like. Badass lady, am I right?
They have a nice restaurant on location, although the cover charge is something like 3 euros per person.
Go if: you love art and beautiful historical homes with chairs you can’t sit on.
The Hofburg Treasury is a collection of jewels and crowns and capes in illuminated cases within a dimly lit maze of exhibition rooms. You can see things like swords bejeweled with diamonds, an emerald the size of my fist (which is small for a fist but big for an emerald), a narwal tusk, and dazzling crowns that look like they would be uncomfortable to wear. This kind of museum isn’t my favorite, but it does have a large collection of shiny artifacts, if that’s your thing.
Go if: you loooove jewels and seeing pieces of royal history up close
Chateaux are cool, but after awhile they all start to look the same (gold doors, velvet chairs, blah blah blah. Wow, I’m such a snob) so I love that Belevedere is also a museum! Like the Albertina, it’s a chateau and an art museum in one. Efficient. Nice.
The Belevedere is most famous for The Kiss by Klimt, but it has a large collection of works in a variety of styles. I liked these funny heads:
It also has a garden, which is free to visit. The gardens are nowhere as spectacular as Schönbrunn’s, but they do have this selfie mirror which lets you take your photo in front of the chateau!
If you like quirky, this colorful, shiny building is for you. Hundertwasser was an architect who believed in recycling objects and wasting nothing, and he was an interesting multitalented dude. He even designed the public toilets across the street, and I heard a tour guide saying, “You can’t pee on a Rembrandt, but you can pee on a Hundertwasser!”
It’s free to visit, but you can’t go inside because people actually live here.
Go if: You like weird, free stuff and don’t mind going a bit out of the city center (it’s a 20 minute walk, or you can take public transport.)
Skip it if: The idea of looking at the outside of a building with bits of mirror glued on doesn’t sound like fun to you.
Mariahilfe neighborhood / Neubaugasse
When I go to a new city, I like to spend time wandering around cool neighborhoods where people actually live. The Mariahilfe neighborhood is centered around Mariahilfestrase, a long shopping street, and although most of the shops on the main drag are chains you could find anywhere, I discovered cute cafes and boutiques on side streets like Neubaugasse.
Go if: You want to escape the tourist center
Skip it if: You hate shopping and hipster cafes, or don’t have a lot of time to spend in Vienna.
The Vienna opera house is grand. The chandeliers are crystal and the ceilings are gold. Bust out your pearls and your cufflinks. You can choose between seeing an opera or a ballet. It’s right in the city center, so there’s no excuse not to go!
Even if you don’t normally go to the opera, Vienna is the place to try it out. It’s hard for me not to sound biased when I say that because I like, majored in opera (sounds like a joke, but it’s the truth, so the joke’s on me) but really, the opera is worldclass. We saw Placido Domingo in one of the last performances of his career (Nabucco) and a lovely ballet, La Sylphide (gorgeous dancing, idiotic storyline.)
Go if: You like music and/or dance and/or golden ceilings.
The place to see operetta, musical theater, and select operas. If you’re an opera beginner, you might find the Volksoper more accessible than the Staatsoper, but you’ll miss out on the golden ceiling. It’s not in the city center, but there is a tram stop across the street, and a cab is about 10 euros.
We saw Die Fledermaus – the quintessential Vienna operetta by Johann Strauss. Subtitles were in English, but most of the German dialogue was untranslated. Judging by the reaction of the German speaking audience, it was hilarious. But it would have been nice to be in on the joke!
I loooove food, and I loooove to go to local markets. I had a good time walking through Naschmarkt. It was filled with trendy cafes and little shops, and I got a kebab as big as my head for three euros. The pushy falafel dudes annoyed me (can’t a girl stroll the market in peace?!) but their falafel did look damn good.
Go if: You like food.
Skip it if: Outdoor markets make you claustrophobic.
Demel is a Vienna institution. It has so much cake. Cake so famous, it was even featured on Buzzfeed (which we all know is the height of fame). It is to Vienna what Ladurée is to Paris, only with tortes instead of macarons. Buzzfeed called it “one of the 25 bakeries you have to see before you die” and while I don’t know if I would go that far, it’s worth checking out if you’re in Vienna. It’s right next to the Hofburg Palace in the city center.
It has a little shop where you can get gifts and souvenirs, a cake museum (check for opening times), and of course, lots of cake. The enormous kitchen is separated from the cafe by a glass wall, so you can watch cake-makers like fish in an aquarium.
I am most definitely a dessert person, but I honestly didn’t care for their chocolate-liqueur Annatorte. There were so many options that I just went with their specialty, but it was too sweet and cloying alcoholic. Their rhubarb apple strudel was the best dessert I had in Vienna, though. (Thanks for sharing with me, Mom!)
I can’t see myself ever coming here if I lived in Vienna, but it was fun to see it once.
Go if: You love dessert.
Skip it if: You’re “not a dessert person” or you’re on a tight budget.
What? Sofitel? Why is this a Vienna attraction? It’s not, exactly, but it has an amazing view over the city from the restaurant on the top floor. You can pop up and check out the view even if you’re not dining, as long as it’s not peak meal time and you don’t disrupt people who are actually buying something.
Go if: You’re in the area and you like a good view.
Skip it if: You get frustrated trying to take photos behind glass because of the reflections (DAMN YOU REFLECTIONS!)
You may have heard of the Sacher-torte. It’s a chocolate torte with apricot jam filling and it’s a big deal in Vienna. There was a whole lawsuit war over who invented the original Sacher-torte, and the Sachers won. They are very, very proud of their torte. And hey, it is good. My gourmet-cook dad said it was very good. So if you like famous cake, sure, come wait in line and give it a try.
But if I can offer my opinion, don’t bother getting a meal. The food is so overpriced and it’s nothing special.
Go if: You enjoy eating famous food in an elegant setting.
Skip it if: You are willing to eat equally good but less famous cake elsewhere.
I would love to see the modern art museum mumok, go up to the Danube and the Vienna Prater, and try more local food. Maybe brunch with cocktails at one of the Naschmarkt cafes! What do you recommend?