Paris is Always a Good Idea

Back in March, there was some sort of holiday on Thursday the 19th so I asked my school if it’d be OK if I missed that Friday as well in order to travel (it was the only day all year that I planned on asking to take off for travel reasons). I was given the OK so I booked a trip to Paris. This would be my third trip to Paris in four years (I’m spoiled, I know). Many people asked, “Why do you keep going back to Paris? Why don’t you go somewhere you haven’t been before?” This is true. But there is something about Paris that always leaves me wanting more. I seriously can’t get enough of the city. It’s so beautiful, classy, and cultural. There are also SO many things to do that my Paris to-do list is never complete. Apart from Spanish cities, it has quickly become possibly my favorite city in Europe, even though I know it’s cliché to make Paris your favorite city. What can I say? Audrey Hepburn was right when she said that “Paris is always a good idea.”
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I finish work really early on Wednesdays so I was able to catch a 3 pm flight out of Madrid. I was so tired from going out the night before for St. Patrick’s Day that I could have easily passed out on that flight (it was siesta time after all). However, I hit the lottery with my fellow flyers: a whole school class of what appeared to be 3rd of ESO (9th graders or 14-year-olds) going on a school trip. As if I don’t deal with these kids enough during the work week at school. Not only that, but out of the entire plane, I was lucky enough to be directly in front of the three loudest and most talkative girls in the entire class. Needless to say, there was no siesta time for me on that flight.

By the time I got to my hostel in Montmartre from Charles De Gaulle airport it was late evening, so I couldn’t do much, plus I was exhausted. I walked around the area a bit (which actually seemed like a run-down part of Paris. But at least the hostel was nice and cheap) and grabbed a quick to-go meal from Carrefour. My hostel gave me a super upgrade from a 10-person dorm room which I had booked to a 3-bed ensuite (with our own bathroom & shower)! Since it was a 3-bed dorm, I got my own single bed (yay to no strangers sleeping above me!). Also, my roommates didn’t come back until late and they left early the next morning so I basically had the entire room to myself. It was amazing and just what I needed.

The next day was very relaxing. I started the day with my hostel’s free breakfast of fresh croissants, bread, and coffee. Afterwards I spent the rest of the day roaming around the city. I ate a ham and cheese crepe in the gardens behind Notre Dame which actually happened to be from the same place that my mom and I got crepes from four years ago on our trip to Paris! Then I did some shopping and walked through the gardens at the Louvre. I wanted to go into Musée de l’Orangerie so see some of Monet’s masterpieces but I had forgotten to tell my Thursday private lesson that I needed to cancel therefore I was on a hunt to find wifi.

A perfect lunch :)

A perfect lunch 🙂

By the time I found wifi it was time to head up to the Moulin Rouge to meet up with the Sandeman’s tour of Montmartre. It was a great tour and I learned a lot! We saw Van Gogh’s old house, the old brothel (now a restaurant) where the prostitute he was in love with lived, the cabaret that Picasso used to always go to, and the café that is featured in the film Amelie. We ended the tour wandering around the inside of the Sacre Coeur.

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Nighttime tour of Montmartre.

I spent the rest of the weekend with my friends Kat and Trisha who booked tickets to go to Paris when they found out that I was going. Trisha and I stayed in a studio apartment that we found on Airbnb while Kat stayed in another Airbnb around the corner. Apparently old Parisian apartments are separated from their toilets. So our apartment’s toilet was in a private room down in a cellar-type area. It was sooo creepy, especially at night because the light in the hallway didn’t work. We called it our dungeon bathroom. Our shower was also an interesting experience. It was this strange, individual pop-up shower in the corner of the apartment. It was TINY. I can’t imagine even a slightly overweight person being able to fit in it!

Trisha, Kat, and I all met up on Friday morning to do Sandeman’s free walking tour of the city. It was a lot colder and windier than we thought it would be. We were freezing. Our tour took us places like to what’s left of the love lock bridge and to outside the Louvre. Unfortunately, after last year’s incident of part of the love lock bridge crumbling due to the weight of all the locks (actually right after I was in Paris with my sister!), the city doesn’t let you put on love locks anymore. Most of the bridge was boarded up to prevent people from attaching locks. It’s sad, and it feels like the end of a travel era!

What was left of the Love Lock Bridge :(

What was left of the Love Lock Bridge 😦

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Trisha took an amazing picture of me flying around the Louvre.

On my Paris bucket list this time around was going inside the opera house, or the Palais Garnier, so after the walking tour we went in to have a look around. It was gorgeous! I’ve never actually seen Phantom of the Opera but, like most people, I’m familiar with the story and I know that the Phantom lives beneath Paris’ opera house, so it was cool to actually be inside! I would love to see a show there one day.

Inside the opera house.

Inside the opera house.

We were starving after the opera house, so we immediately set out on a hunt for food. Unfortunately there weren’t many options around the opera house so we hopped on the metro to the third arrondissement. We went to a place called Paris Beaubourg, located right next to the Pompidou Centre, where I had the most deliciousssss burger! One memory that I’ve really taken away from this time in Paris was how incredible the food was. I was literally in heaven with every single meal. Either I was oblivious before or Paris has really stepped up its food game, but everything was amazingly delicious!

On our way back to our apartments we saw our first signs for Charlie Hebdo which we were surprised by because we expected to see a lot more things related to the terrorist attack. I had booked this trip in December and when the attack happened in January I was really nervous to travel there in March because Europe was still on a terrorist alert. Everything felt fine and normal while we were there and there didn’t seem to be much talk going on about the attack.

Another thing that has been on my Paris bucket list for quite some time was to go to this bar that I first heard about during my semester abroad. Some people I knew that travelled to Paris during study abroad came back and told me that they went to a bar where the coctails are served in baby bottles. Yes, it’s very very random, but it’s also unique and sounded like a fun experience! So I dragged Kat and Trisha to Zéro de Conduite in the sixth arrondissement to drink some alcohol from baby bottles. Each drink was given the name of a cartoon character and the way this bar’s ordering system works is that they give you a whiteboard and you have to draw that cartoon character and then give it to the server. So if your Spongebob actually looks like Tommy Pickles then I guess that’s too bad! I ordered the Dora the Explorer and Trisha and Kat both ordered the Scooby Doo. When the server gave us our drinks, I realized that mine tasted a little…..juicy. As did Kat’s and Trisha’s. So I flipped over our menu and realized that there was a whole list of more drinks on the back. Not only that, but the two sides were split between “with alcohol” and “without alcohol” (in French of course). Turns out we ordered from the without menu without even knowing there was another side. So how did we spend our wild Friday night in Paris you ask? Drinking actual juice out of baby bottles. We were so embarrassed and we felt really stupid, but at least they were tasty! Haha.

I'll have the Dora, please!

I’ll have the Dora, please!

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Really gives “juice coctail” a whole new meaning.

Our plan for Saturday morning was to have breakfast at a café that appears in one of Kat’s favorite movies. After arriving, we were told by the waiter that they actually weren’t serving breakfast. So instead we just ordered coffee and then moved on to another café across the street where we were served by an adorable older French man that didn’t speak a lick of English and none of us spoke French, but we got along just fine. I got a tasty open-faced nutella and banana crepe because that combo in a must when in France.

After breakfast we made our way over to the one– the only– the Eiffel Tower! That view will just never ever get old. I bought a couple baguettes and made Trisha have a baguette sword fight in front of the tower with me. I was a huge Mary-Kate and Ashley fan growing up (what 90s girl wasn’t?) and in their movie Passport to Paris they had a baguette fight in front of the Eiffel Tower so OBVIOUSLY my inner 10-year-old self needed to recreate it! Trisha and Kat were good sports about it. Afterwards, we attempted to go to the Musée d’Orsay but of course the line was outrageous so we opted out of that decision.

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I challenge you to a baguette duel…

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Just like my girls!

That night we had “reservations” for a cabaret at Au Lapin Agile in Montmartre, the same cabaret that Pablo Picasso used to go to. It was recommended by my tourguide of Monmartre as a cheaper but still good alternative to the Moulin Rouge. When we arrived at 7 for our “reservation” the place was closed and the sign said it wasn’t open until 9 pm! It turned out there was a mixup when Kat was emailing the owner and we thought he told us to come at 7. To kill time before it opened, we walked to get some dinner and drinks. Again, Paris did not disappoint me with its food. I had delicious French onion soup. After dinner we headed back up to the cabaret and this time it was open (thankfully). I was looking forward to being able to pay the student price of 20 euros but it turned out Saturday is the only day that you can’t get the student discount! So we all ended up paying the full price of 28 euros, but it’s ok because it was an incredible experience.

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Au Lapin Agile

The second we walked in it felt like we were thrown back in time. The entire place was dimmed with red lights. When we first walked in we were in the lobby and kitchen area. Then up the small set of steps and behind the curtain was the main sitting room. It was a very intimate setting and I didn’t realize we would be sitting IN the show. The performers were in the middle sitting around a table while the audience were scattered around the edges, clapping and singing (if they knew the words) along. We were given a welcome shot that had some sort of strange berries at the bottom but it was good. There was an energetic piano player and the music was fun, old French folk tunes. The performers did such an incredible job making us feel like we were in Paris in the early 20th century and the place was so well-preserved.

After the show Trisha and I rushed to the Trocodero to see the Eiffel Tower twinkle on the hour. Unfortunately we just missed the midnight showing so we walked down to the Arc de Triomphe and by the time we walked back to the Trocodero we saw the last glittering show of that night. Such a spectacular sight. Even moreso that late at night when only a few other people were around!

On Sunday Kat and I didn’t have much time to do a lot because we had to come back to Madrid that night. So the three of us went to get lunch near our apartments. On the way, my left leg felt really numb and I couldn’t figure out why. When I went to go feel it I realized that it was SOAKED. I looked in my bag and my entire water bottle emptied out! Fortunately my phone was OK but my camera was a goner. Thankfully I chose to take my back-up camera on this trip and therefore it wasn’t my good camera that got ruined, but still, I was upset about this camera dying. There wasn’t much we could really do so we just went on with our day and got lunch (another amazing burger) and then did some souvenir shopping until it was time for Kat and I to catch the bus to the Beauvais airport and then our flight back to Madrid.

Sidenote: We picked an excellent weekend to go to Paris. The city decided to be “green” that weekend and as a way to promote public transportation and help prevent all of the pollution from cars, Paris’ metro was free for all on Saturday and Sunday! It was great!

Free metro rides for us! :)

Free metro rides for us! 🙂

As always, Paris never fails to make me fall deeper in love with it. It was yet another great trip and there will for sure be more trips there in my future.

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Las Fallas in Valencia, Spain

Las Fallas festival is a traditional celebration that happens in Valencia, Spain every year in March. It is known to be Spain’s loudest celebration and arguably the coolest. Each neighborhood in Valencia is in charge of building a falla, which is a huge, cartoon-like wooden structure. These neighborhoods spend the entire year preparing their falla only to burn it down on the night of March 19th which is known as “La Crema.” This is the biggest night of the festival when it might feel like all of Valencia is burning down.

One of the many fallas.

One of the many fallas.

I sadly was not in Valencia on March 19th because it was a Thursday, but since Las Fallas lasts for a couple of weeks with other festivities, Lindsey and I went the weekend before La Crema. For example, everyday at 2 pm in front of the city hall was “La Mascleta” which was five straight minutes of pure loudness. It was crazy! Imagine 100 billion of those tiny poppers that kids throw on the streets going off all at once with a ton of smoke. The crowd was really into it which made it really exciting.

Waiting in the sea of people outside city hall for La Mascleta to start!

Waiting in the sea of people outside city hall for La Mascleta to start!

La Mascleta.  Sooo loud!

La Mascleta. Sooo loud!

The rest of the weekend consisted of eating, drinking, and walking around. There were lots of pop-up stands selling food and drinks. Since La Mascleta was at Spanish lunchtime, once it ended, the Spaniards FLOCKED to every restaurant and pop-up stand to eat. Lindsey and I miraculously found two open seats at a stand and we camped out there for a while with a jarra of cerveza and Spanish tapas. We also walked around the city looking at all the different fallas. They were so detailed, I couldn’t believe they would be burning them all down just a few short days later!
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Valencia has been a city that I have been wanting to visit since I first came to Spain but for some reason I have just never made it, so I was very excited to finally be there! Eating Paella in Valencia has specifically been on my Spanish bucket list because this famous Spanish rice dish originates from Valencia. Fortunately for us, we were staying at a hostel where the woman who owned it was from Valencia and she offered a paella menu del dia (a popular meal menu all over Spain that includes a drink, bread, often two dishes, and a dessert or coffee) for just 10 Euros. The hostel also opens up as a public restaurant where many people from Valencia actually go to eat her paella, so we figured if we wanted authentic paella for a good price, this was the place to get it! And it was so delicious that I got it twice that weekend!

Paella in Valencia!

Paella in Valencia!

Overall, spending a weekend in Valencia during Las Fallas was a fun time but it wasn’t as crazy as people told me it would be. It is thought by many to be the best festival in Spain! It makes me wish that we were there the night of La Crema even more because maybe it gets crazy once it feels like the whole city is burning down. Either way I’m glad we went so that I could see the fallas in person and finally visit Valencia!

March 19th:  La Crema.  When all the Fallas burn!

March 19th: La Crema. When all the Fallas burn!

A Pulpo & Pilgrim Packed Weekend in Galicia

Back in February over Valentine’s Day weekend, schools were given Friday off for Carnival. Carnival is essentially like Halloween in Spain in the sense that everyone dresses up in crazy costumes. For this long weekend, I decided to visit my friend Erin in Galicia (for only 40 euros roundtrip! By far the cheapest flight I’ve ever paid for). Galicia is an Autonomous Community in Spain in the very northwest, just above Portugal. Since it is located on the northern coast, it is known for it’s delicious seafood, particularly pulpo or octopus, as well as it’s rainy weather. With it’s rainy weather comes a beautiful green countryside which contributes to its reputation of being the “Ireland of Spain.”

Yummy Pulpo

Yummy Pulpo

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Reunited!

I met Erin last year when she was living here in Madrid with me but for her second year she decided she wanted to change regions, thus ending up in Galicia. Erin now lives in Santiago de Compostela, which is the capital of Galicia. I also took a day trip to A Coruña, the second largest city in Galicia, even though to me it felt even larger than Santiago. It was on the coast so it had beautiful views of the water, a port, and a lovely old town.

Hercule's Tower in A Coruña

Hercule’s Tower in A Coruña

For the rest of the weekend, Erin showed me around Santiago. On Saturday night we traveled to a teeny tiny town nearby to see their carnival festivities. There was a headless horseman, old women dressed in neon tutus following the dance steps of a younger girl on stage as if it were a fitness class, and children dressed in medieval clothing on horseback reciting poetry VERY loudly (seriously, they should have turned down the mics!). It was pouring rain so everyone stood under a large tent.

 

The winner of the non-existent costume contest in my mind.

The winner of the non-existent costume contest in my mind.

My flight on Sunday wasn’t until late so we had all afternoon to tour. Besides its endless supply of pulpo, what Santiago de Compostela is most famous for is being the final destination of the Camino de Santiago or the “Way of St. James” which is a Catholic pilgimage that originated in the 9th century and is still a popular thing for people to do. In fact, one of the teachers I work with at my school does this pilgrimage every summer and he changes his starting point and route every time. How long it takes depends on the person’s route and how fast they walk, but this teacher in particular does it for a full month! Since you can do this pilgrimage at any time during the year, I was excited to see some real pilgrims in Santiago. When the pilgrims arrive to Santiago, they go to the cathedral in the center of the city because the remains of Saint James are inside. Sadly Erin and I were not pilgrims, but seeing the inside of this cathedral was necessary. Fortunately the weather cleared up and we were able to take a rooftop tour of the cathedral which gave us gorgeous views.

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I was a bit bummed that there was scaffolding while I was there so I leave you with what the facade of the cathedral is supposed to look like.

View from the roof of the cathedral.

View from the roof of the cathedral.

My Galician weekend was a great escape from the city life. When I travel, I tend to go to the big cities and I often don’t realize I’ve been spending the majority of my time in cities as opposed to nature. So when I breathed in the fresh Galician air and saw the green rolling hills of the countryside, I realized that it had been a long time since I’ve been in nature and it felt great!

A January Weekend in London

Back in the Fall, my school was given a schedule with newly-added holiday dates, one of these being Friday, January 30. As it turned out, school was actually in session that day, but the problem was I had already booked a trip to London. After explaining to my school the confusion, they gave me permission to miss work for the day, so off to London I went!

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This was my third time to London, but I just can’t get enough of this city! And at the time that I booked it, I thought this was going to be my last year in Spain (which it might still be, but my mind changes all the time so who knows) so I wanted to be sure I went back to one of my favorite cities before leaving since I’m not sure when I’ll make it back to Europe in the future.

London is always calling!

London is always calling!

After a delayed flight, I arrived to London Gatwick Airport on Thursday night. I had a bunch of problems trying to print my train ticket to get into the city. Eventually I had to go pay to use the airport’s computers. What I immediately noticed about London was how rushed everyone seemed! There was no waiting for anyone. The woman working at the ticket line was so rude and hurried everyone along, meanwhile all of the people in the airport were walking at warp-speed. This observation shows just how long I’ve been living in Spain. As a country, Spaniards walk SO SLOW. Normally us English-cultures are hurrying the Spaniards along. But in London, I couldn’t keep up! I felt like an annoyance to everyone because I know how it feels to have someone in your way when you’re trying to get somewhere (basically every single time I step outside in Madrid).
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I finally boarded my train into the city center, navigated the underground, and checked into my hostel located just north of Hyde Park. The next morning I ate breakfast at the hostel with my Swedish roommates who came to London because they just wanted to live there and they had been living in the hostel for quite some time while they searched for a job and a place to live. We also sat and talked with a girl from Taiwan. We had the most interesting conversation. The girl (who was actually 32-years-old, so maybe not really a girl) from Taiwan was just days away from leaving London because her visa was expiring. She had been living and working in London for two years for the sole reason of finding a white husband! She said she preferred white men to Asian men, so she had spent a good amount of her life searching for a white husband. I felt sad for her because she never met Mr. Right and was now forced to go home to Taiwan. I hope that things work out for her in the end. It was just so interesting because I had never met anyone to move to a new country just to find a husband of a different race.

After breakfast, I took London’s free walking tour which met in Green Park. Though I have been to London before, I had never taken one of its free walking tours which I like to do in most cities I go to. I always learn new things and it’s a great way to meet other people. We were a small group of only 8 and half of us were traveling solo so it was nice getting to know everyone. After the tour I grabbed lunch and drinks at a pub with a couple girls from the tour. I ordered a ham and cheese melt with SWEET POTATO FRIES!! Oh how I’ve missed sweet potato fries. I was a happy camper.

Messing with one of the guards on duty.

Messing with one of the guards on duty on the tour.

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Sweet Potato Fries!! <333

That night I met up with my high school friend, Claire! I haven’t seen Claire in years so it was so great seeing her! She now lives in London with her fiancée, Josh, so it was great having them to show me around London for the weekend. We grabbed dinner and then I left to go to the Camden district of the city for the pub crawl that was advertised on my tour earlier that day. I met with one of the girls I went to lunch with and we had a fun night! The pub crawl took us to 4 bars and a club all on the same street. There was one bar that used to be an old horse hospital so in the barn area, each stall was either turned into a seating area or into a bar area. It was so cool- unlike anything I’d ever seen before. We ended the night at Koko nightclub which used to be a theater. I love European clubs because often old theaters are turned into nightclubs which I find really cool. Finding my way home was interesting because I got off at the wrong bus stop and ended up having to walk a half hour to my hostel. It was actually snowing while I was walking which was beautiful and freezing at the same time. The streets were deserted at 5 AM which was the polar opposite of Madrid. I definitely prefer Spain’s nightlife for that reason.

London at 5 A.M.  Snowy and deserted.

London at 5 A.M. Snowy and deserted.

For the rest of the weekend I hungout with Claire and Josh as they showed me around. Saturday afternoon we had tickets for a Charlton Athletic football match. It was FREEZING, so it was hard to fully enjoy the game, but it was still cool going to an English soccer game since I never have before. That night Claire and I walked around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, got fish and chips for dinner, and then went to a pub for a couple ciders before calling it a night. Sunday afternoon before my flight, we hiked up Primrose Hill for a view of the city skyline, went to Trafalgar Square and went inside the National Gallery, walked through Convent Garden, Picadilly Circus, and Oxford Street. We ended our time with getting some of the best burgers in London before it was time for me to head to the airport for my night flight back to Madrid.

Charlton Football Match

Charlton Football Match

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

View of London from Primrose Hill.

View of London from Primrose Hill.

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

It was a wonderful and relaxing weekend in London. It went by way too quickly. Though it wasn’t my first time there, 3 nights is just not enough time to explore London! But it was a great trip and it was so nice seeing an old friend in one of my favorite cities! Until next time, London 🙂

My Second Year Winter Break Trip!

When I returned to Spain this year for a second year, I thought I had made a definitive decision that I would go home for Christmas break no matter what. Well, after my hectic month in September, I didn’t get fully settled back in until October and by that point Christmas was already creeping up quickly. Since I had made no travel plans yet, I found myself dreaming of where I would travel to over the holidays rather than looking up [expensive] plane tickets home. Since it’s difficult for me to travel around Europe on the regular weekends, I knew I had to take advantage of a full 18 days off of work. As difficult as it was to make the decision to spend another Christmas away from home, I also realized how much more comfortable I felt living over here this year and I felt like I was emotionally more prepared to spend the holidays away from home this year.

Fortunately for me, my friend Lindsey was also planning on staying and traveling during Christmas again this year! Lindsey is my good friend that I met when we studied abroad together through the same program in Sevilla (4 years ago!). She and I took on Central Europe last year during the holidays in an amazing trip to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and Hamburg. It was such an incredible trip that when we both decided we were going to stay and travel again this year, we got together with Lindsey’s friend Angela (they worked in the same town last year) and planned another amazing itinerary.

Lindsey and I enjoying the Christmas markets in Vienna last Christmas Eve!

Lindsey and I enjoying the Christmas markets in Vienna last Christmas Eve!

This year we went to Geneva, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. This trip was filled with a little less eating and Christmas markets than last year’s (probably for the better) but it was far less cold and possibly even more fun! Last year, Lindsey and I faced a lot of problems with transportation and sleep (on my end). This year, our problems had more to do with our health, which somehow didn’t get in the way of it turning into one of the best trips of my life!

Here are the links to read about each place:

Geneva, Switzerland: Days 1-4
Brussels, Bruges, & Ghent, Belgium: Days 4-10
Amsterdam, Netherlands: Days 10-14
Copenhagen, Denmark: Days 14-18

Copenhagen, Denmark: Days 14-18

DAY 14: JANUARY 1, 2015
We used the first day of 2015 as a travel day to get to the last city of our trip: Copenhagen, Denmark!

Copenhagen's town hall.

Copenhagen’s town hall.

After about 5 hours of sleep, we reluctantly rolled out of bed at noon to pack our bags and check out of our airbnb by 1 pm. After a 30-minute walk to the train station and a 30-minute train ride to the airport, we arrived to the airport at 2:30 pm with about 2.5 hours to spare so we grabbed lunch at Burger King (I seriously eat more American food in Europe than I do in America) and relaxed before our 5 pm flight.

We arrived to Copenhagen around 6:30 pm and took the metro to the center of the city where our hostel was. We stayed at the Generator hostel but it took many back and forths until we finally found it. Once we checked in and got settled into our room, we went to a pizza/kebab place around the corner from our hostel because it seemed to be the only thing that was open on New Year’s Day. The whole city seemed pretty dead when we arrived. Apparently the night before was so crazy that everyone went to sleep early on New Year’s Day, which is exactly what we did once we finished eating.

DAY 15: JANUARY 2, 2015
Like every other city, we wanted to spend our first full day in this new city getting to know it by doing one of the free walking tours that was advertised in our hostel. And just like our usual late-selves, Ange and I were a couple minutes late to meet our special hostel pickup so we ended up having to go to the town hall on our own to meet everyone. On our way, we stopped for some breakfast at 7-Eleven!! YES, that’s right, Copenhagen had 7-ELEVENS! In fact, it had a lot of them. I was so shocked to see them because I had no idea they went international. Next to the town hall, there was what I like to call “American Row.” In a straight line there was 7-Eleven, Burger King, and KFC with a huge McDonald’s advertisement that hovered up above.

I'm still shocked they exist in Denmark!

I’m still shocked they exist in Denmark!

The tour was great because since Copenhagen is so small, it really covered most of what we needed to see. I feel guilty because we were given a lot of information about Copenhagen and its history on our tour, but since it was more than 2 weeks into our trip, we were all feeling a little burnt out so it was hard to pay attention. Things we saw on our walking tour, however, included the Nyhavn, which is the city’s old port, which used to be filled with sailors, prostitutes, a pubs. We also saw that Amalienborg Palace, which is a square of four buildings, one being a museum and the others being the houses of the Danish royals, and it is also where you can see the changing of the guard everyday at noon. Our tour ended just a few minutes away from The Little Mermaid Statue. This [said to be] most overrated tourist attraction is a bronze statue that was inspired by the characted of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale was unveiled in Copenhagen in 1913. It was definitely underwhelming, as it was just a tiny statue that, I mean, didn’t even look like Ariel- like, come on! But I already knew what the statue looked like and that it was small so I didn’t have any feelings of disappointment when I saw it.

There she is!

There she is!

Nyhavn

Nyhavn

After getting stir-fry for dinner and resting a bit at the hostel, we decided to go on the pub crawl that was advertised by our tour guide. We were surprisingly on time (if not early! *Gasp*) for this ridiculously early pub crawl that started at 8 pm. It included 4 bars and a club at the end so I suppose there was a lot to fit in and therefore needed to start early. This was definitely one of the best pub crawls I have been on. It was a great group of people and we all had a lot of fun. Our night ended in the wee hours of the morning with Ange, Lindsey, and I all getting separated all over Copenhagen from one another but luckily we found each other in the end.

DAY 16: JANUARY 3, 2015
We were complete waste of lives this entire day. After all waking up past noon and getting ready, we found a burrito place near our hostel that hit the spot in our hungry bellies.

Our plan was to go back to the hostel for a bit to re-group but that “bit” turned into the rest of the night. Luckily the Generator Hostel was like a huge college dorm and student center. It had a café and bar, an area to watch TV and movies, a pool table, and plenty of comfy seating. We stayed on the couch next to the pool table for HOURS napping and listening to soothing Ed Sheeran play through the speakers on repeat. I was loving life. When people started to use the pool table things got intense because an old Swedish man who was staying at the hostel started dubbing himself king of the pool table and was challenging poor young guys who just wanted to play pool. It was entertaining at least.

When we finally decided to move, we only moved about 30 feet to one of the tables next to the café. We ordered dinner from the hostel which was actually delicious and then we called it a night and went to bed early. After a crazy New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam and then an even crazier night two days later in Copenhagen, we were feeling pretty exhausted. Luckily Copenhagen was a small city and we didn’t have a long list of things we wanted to see or do so we had some extra wiggle room to take a day off and not feel guilty about it.

DAY 17: JANUARY 4, 2015
Since we missed the day before, we got up early to make the most of our day of sightseeing. As I was showering, our roommate came in and told us that there was a siren going off and we had to evacuate the building. Of course it was just as I got out of the shower- lovely timing. Being the slow-movers that we are, Ange, Lindsey, and I finally made it outside after the majority of our hostel had already been there. But lucky for us, we only had to stand there for 10 minutes before we were allowed to enter the building again. Thank god because Copenhagen’s temperatures were not exactly ideal for standing outside with wet hair! To this day we still don’t know what happened but we assume it was a small fire of some sort since we saw firemen in the stairwell.

Our first stop was 7-Eleven (of course) to grab some breakfast and we ate it next to the beautiful Nyhavn area. Then we walked over to the royal palace to watch the changing of the guard which happens everyday at noon. It was so much better than London’s changing of the guard! For starters, there were MUCH less people there so we were actually able to get up close and personal as the guards marched by. Second, they performed the changing out in the open, instead of behind giant gates, so we had a perfect view the entire time. I really enjoyed it! And being able to stand right next to the guards allowed us to see how some of them are complete babies! (Babies as in probably 18-years-old but still, that’s young!)

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

Next we made it over to the Strøget, which is a pedestrian, car-free shopping street. It’s one of the longest shopping streets in Europe, stretching over 1.1 km. Naturally we had to do a little shopping! Afterwards, we spend a couple hours in the National Museum before it closed at 5 pm.

Our last stop was Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world which opened in 1843 and is located right in the center of the city, next to the town hall. It was great how everything was in walking distance of each other in Copenhagen! We decided to pay only the entrance fee instead of buying unlimited rides because we weren’t sure if we would actually go on the rides. The Christmas season had been over for quite some time by this point- but not in Tivoli Gardens! It was like walking into a Christmas wonderland and I absolutely loved it! There were lights everywhere, Christmas music surrounding the park, and even a Christmas market. We treated ourselves to some gløgg which is the Danish version of mulled wine, just a little sweeter with more fun surprises (like dried fruit at the bottom) and we walked around the park. We saw the water fountain light show in the lake, Ange and I rode the swing ride, and then we caught the impressive firework show since it was Tivoli’s last day of the season.

The Christmas-y entrance to Tivoli Gardens.

The Christmas-y entrance to Tivoli Gardens.

Glogg!

Gløgg!

The end-of-season firework show.

The end-of-season firework show.

It was a great day of sightseeing! And since it was the last night of our trip (sad face) we went to an Irish bar on the Strøget street for some drinks. We got some Carlsberg’s since that’s a must-do in Copenhagen, where the brewery is located. There was an American singer/guitarist performing for all 8 of us spectators. Once he found out we were American he dedicated his cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” to us and then an even more special one to Ange since she was from Chicago. The best was when he said he was going to do a cover of our “homegirl” and then burst into “Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears haha.

DAY 18: JANUARY 5, 2015
The official last day of our trip- WAHH 😦 Our flight wasn’t until later in the afternoon so we had time that morning to do some last-minute exploring. We decided to walk over to Christiania, or Freetown Christiania, which is an autonomous neighborhood in Copenhagen that is regulated by a special law. Like Amsterdam, Christiania is said to be tolerant of cannabis and this neighborhood represents the liberal and progressive side of Denmark. Unfortunately we got there, walked around, and saw nothing special about it. Everything looked closed and there weren’t many people. Something tells me that we didn’t go into the heart of the neighborhood, though.

After walking back to the hostel, the time had come to hop on our flight back to Madrid and officially end our trip. The definite perk of living in a big city is that once we reached Madrid, I was home. But poor Lindsey and Ange still had a little more travelling to do to get to their cities in the south. I was sad to say goodbye to them and our trip, but I was definitely looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and relaxing!


CONCLUSION
Lindsey, Ange, and I mutually agreed that we were a little disappointed by Copenhagen. It was a nice city and we had a great time there, but we weren’t very impressed. Everyone we had talked to prior to our trip said that they LOVED Copenhagen, so we had high expectations. So naturally I was expecting to be wow-ed but I just wasn’t. Perhaps it was our timing.  Cities seem to be a little lackluster the week after New Year’s.  But overall, it was my least favorite city on our trip but I’m still very happy I got to see it.

Amsterdam: Days 10-14

DAY 10: DECEMBER 28, 2014
AMSTERDAM! A city that has been high on my bucket list since I studied abroad but I just never made it there…until now. So saying I was excited our entire 4-hour train ride from Bruges to Amsterdam would be an extreme understatement.

We arrived around 2 pm and the second we walked out of the train station we caught glimpses of those famous canals, crooked houses, and racks on racks of bikes! It took us a while to figure out the bus system, but once we did we met up with our Airbnb host who walked us over to the apartment to show us the place. We stayed in a small studio apartment which was about a 20 minute walk from the center, which was a little further than what we would have wanted, but it was the best-priced option we could find considering we were staying for New Year’s and therefore all of the prices for accommodation were outrageously jacked up. Also the apartment had a giant window that faced a canal which was awesome and really made us feel like we were in Amsterdam.  With time, we got used to the walk to the center so it wasn’t bad at all.

Crooked houses and canals!

Crooked houses and canals!


THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT

After getting settled in, we ventured into the city and got dinner. Afterwards, we wasted no time and went straight to the famous Red Light District. This district was like nothing I had ever seen before- I was so intrigued by it! The widely-known fact is that prostitution is legal in the Netherlands. It is a very liberal country that believes something is okay as long as it covers three criteria: 1. It must bring the city money. 2. It can’t hurt anyone. 3. It must be discreet. Since prostitution covers all of these things, it has been legal in the Netherlands for centuries and consequently, prostitutes are granted with access to medical care and a help building in the center of the district called the Prostitution Information Center. Shockingly, the Red Light District is also the safest in Amsterdam as there are plenty of policemen and bodyguards for the women.

PIC:  Prostitution Information Center

PIC: Prostitution Information Center

Doubling up as also being the oldest district in Amsterdam, the small cobble-stone streets are literally lit-up in red. I was amazed by how big the district actually was. There are about 300 total windows that the women themselves usually rent out, where there are all different types of half-naked women posing seductively, mostly from Eastern Europe. The women are organized according to type so that it makes it easy for the men to find what they like. There were skinny women, curvy women, old women, young, white women, black, Asian, big boobs, small boobs, etc. It is the law that the prostitutes have to be at least 21-years-old. The oldest prostitutes just retired- they were twin 70-year-old women! There is even a website where men can see all the women that are offered so that they can read actual reviews about these women (like how they treat the men and whether they offer a girlfriend experience or not) and the location of the girl. The price of the “services” are negotiated at the door, but usually cost about 50 Euros for 15 minutes. We witnessed a couple different men actually negotiating with the prostitutes and then entering the small, red-lit rooms often only consisting of a single bed. Of course these men got a lot of stares from us fascinated spectators on the streets.

Red Light District

Look at all those red lights.  That means they’re open for business!

The streets of the Red Light District are not only filled with women in windows but also a lot of the famous coffee shops that sell cannabis and a lot of sex show theaters. You would think that this district would only be filled with creepy, solo men searching to pay for sex but there were actually all different types of people wandering the streets (I mean, we were three, young women walking around, right?). Yes, there were plenty of those loner men, but there were also groups of men, groups of women, tourists, couples, and even families with young children (though I can’t say that’s an appropriate place to take your 10-year-old but hey, every culture does things differently).

I found a red light in the Red Light District!

I found a red light in the Red Light District!


COFFEE SHOPS

Speaking of the coffee shops, they are another icon of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Another widely-known fact is that Holland is very lenient with their drug policies. What’s not widely-known, however, is that marijuana and all other drugs are actually illegal. So then why is the Netherlands known for being a country where you can walk into a coffee shop and buy a blunt and openly smoke it there? It’s because the Dutch people know that it’s impossible to stop all drug consumption and therefore as a method to lower the consumption, coffee shops (not cafés) are permitted to sell small amounts of soft drugs, like marijuana. This also follows the three criteria that says in order to be allowed, it must be good for business, it mustn’t hurt anyone, and it must be discreet. Since these shops are hidden under the identity of being “coffee shops” it stays discreet and the police are able to pretend like these coffee shops don’t sell drugs. There are about 200 coffee shops in Amsterdam (which is sadly dropping in numbers) and they are easy to pinpoint because the official ones have a green and white license sticker in the window. It was crazy walking down the streets of Amsterdam and immediately knowing when we passed a coffee shop because a strong smell of weed would surround us.

I personally really liked the name of this coffee shop:  Mellow Yellow.

I personally really liked the name of this coffee shop: Mellow Yellow.

I personally am in love with Holland’s liberal approach because it seems to be working. Since the Dutch people have easy access to soft drugs, the police are able to focus on catching the people selling harder drugs. They must be doing something right because Holland has the lowest number of drug-related deaths in Europe. Also, our tour guide, who had been living in Amsterdam for several years, told us that when he first arrived, the cool thing to do was to go to the coffee shops to smoke. But since it was “legal”, it sort of lost it’s appeal because it was no longer a rebellious feeling. Now the Dutch people don’t find it very exciting and these shops just draw in a lot of tourism (which is great for business!).

While we were walking around the Red Light District on our first night, we ran into an Australian guy who we met at our hostel in Bruges (small world!) so we went into a “coffee shop” to check it out and it was like walking straight into a cloud of marijuana. The atmosphere was so relaxed and everyone was just chilling in their seats with their friends engaging in conversation or, you know, just staring blankly into space. The coffee shop sold the cannabis in many different forms. You could buy it in a joint, a space cake (which is a brownie), a pound cake, or every person can buy a maximum of 5 grams. You have to be 18 with an ID in order to purchase and you cannot smoke outside of the coffee shops. We also saw in the Red Light District that there were shops advertising “magic truffles” AKA mushrooms so apparently those are allowed as well.

DAY 11: DECEMBER 29, 2014
We started our day off by doing the Sandeman’s New Europe free walking tour which met in Dam Square at 11 am. Whenever I go to a new city, I usually like to spend my first day doing these tours because in a few hours you get to see a lot of major attractions of the city, learn about the history, and hear about some interesting little-known facts. These tours are run on a tip-only basis, so at the end of the tour I normally like to give 5 Euros. Although our guide in Amsterdam was the best tour guide I have ever had so I was tempted to give him 10.

After the tour, Ange went to meet up with her friend Emily who was in Amsterdam at the same time as us and they went to the Van Gogh Museum together. Lindsey and I wanted to go to the Anne Frank House at that time but the line was crazy so we decided to walk around the city instead. We met Ange and Emily at the big IAMSTERDAM sign and then walked around the city some more. That night, Lindsey and I took a special tour of just the Red Light District, since that was the most fascinating part about Amsterdam for us. This tour, though we had to pay 10 Euros, was worth it because we learned so much more about the district, including the history and recent times.

IAMsterdam Sign

IAMsterdam Sign

DAY 12: DECEMBER 30, 2014
Lindsey and I slept in while Ange went to go meet with Emily. Lindsey and I had quite the list of things we wanted to do, but that didn’t stop us from spending a good chunk of our morning trying on samples of make-up at HEMA- the Dutch version of Target. That’s not a fair comparison for Target since HEMA definitely cannot compare, but Target is the closest thing to describe it. Fortunately for me, there is a HEMA a couple streets over from my apartment in Madrid! We also bought an oliebollen from a food truck- a Dutch donut with powdered sugar, usually served around New Year’s. They were delicious!

We wanted to squeeze in both The Heineken Experience and a canal cruise that day but apparently we had lollygagged too long and we were only able to do the canal cruise. We bought a combo pack, though, which allowed us to do The Heineken Experience the next day. This called for a busy day the next day because it was our last full day in Amsterdam and we still needed to see the Anne Frank House. So Lindsey and I planned to wake up early the next day to fit everything in and still have enough time in the evening to get ready for our New Year’s Eve celebrations!

DAY 13: DECEMBER 31, 2014
Happy New Year’s Eve! Or so we thought. Lindsey and I planned to get an early start so that we could get at the front of the line for the Anne Frank House right as it opened but our plans changed a little bit…

I woke up about an hour before our alarm to go to the bathroom and I saw that Ange was also awake. When I came out of the bathroom to go back to bed, Ange said “Sam. I’ve been up for an hour and I can’t move. My side is in excruciating pain, I can’t pee, and I don’t think I can go on like this.” Not knowing how to react to this, I woke up Lindsey to hear her thoughts. Apparently Ange had told Lindsey about this about an hour beforehand but Lindsey rolled over and went back to sleep haha so since the pain was still pursuing an hour later, she figured it was serious enough to wake up this time hahaha.

After some serious discussion about the matter, we used Lindsey’s Skype credit on her phone to call a taxi to take us to a hospital. We signed Ange into the emergency room, as she could barely stand up straight. Lindsey and I sat in the room with her as she was given an IV of morphine. After 30 minutes, the pain was still not subsiding so Ange requested stronger pain medication. It was a really scary experience as we didn’t know what was wrong and we were in a completely different country, but the doctor ended up diagnosing it as a kidney stone. We waited in the hospital for about 4 hours waiting for the stone to pass. Lindsey and I, being the supportive friends that we are, spent our time running back and forth to the FREE coffee machine (we’re both addicts and there were so many different options like mochaccinos!) and using the free wifi to play quizzes on our phones. Luckily Ange finally passed it and she felt much better and was then released from the hospital. Also, the charges weren’t nearly as bad as we had expected.

After Ange went to the hospital pharmacy for her prescribed pain medications, she and Emily went back to the apartment while Lindsey and I booked it to The Heineken Experience in the hopes of still being able to accomplish everything we wanted to do that day. We got to The Heineken Experience around 1 or 1:30 and tried to zip through the whole thing in order to make it to the Anne Frank House in time but it was nearly impossible as it was flooded with people. The whole thing moved much slower than expected and we could hardly enjoy anything. We got two free beers at the end which we chugged on empty stomachs, then we grabbed our free Heineken glass and ran out of there.

The Heineken Experience.  Advice:  Do NOT go on New Year's Eve.

The Heineken Experience. Advice: Do NOT go on New Year’s Eve.

We tried to flag down a cab to take to the Anne Frank House but it was impossible so instead we walked. We made it before closing, but the line was already cut off by a guard who said they weren’t accepting anymore people. I was SO bummed because the Anne Frank House was a top thing that I wanted to see in Amsterdam, but we made some poor decisions regarding our time and there was no way we foresaw Ange having to go to the ER that morning.

The outside of Anne Frank's House.

The outside of Anne Frank’s House.

Feeling disappointed, Lindsey and I just decided to accept our defeat and enjoy our free time before our big New Year’s Eve plans. We got dinner, bought some alcohol, and walked back to the apartment to relax and get ready. On our way back, we got deja vu from our last NYE in Berlin. Amsterdam’s and Berlin’s New Year’s celebrations are comparable in that they are both like firework war zones. On this day, people just go crazy setting them off everywhere- in the middle of the streets, from balconies, etc. I have a video from last year in Berlin where you can see a firework literally land at our feet. So as Lindsey and I were walking back to our apartment in Amsterdam, everyone had started with the fireworks and one guy set one off right next to us and we had minor heart attacks. Welcoming the New Year with the possibility of being killed by fireworks was thrilling in Berlin, but one time is definitely enough. Which is why I was thankful that we purchased tickets for an all-night party on an ocean liner that cruised the harbor instead.

After our very hectic morning in the emergency room, we were very happy to see Ange feeling better and willing to still go out! Since we’re all English teachers in Spain, Emily and Ange had the cute idea of bringing Spain’s New Year’s tradition to Amsterdam. It’s a tradition that at the strike of midnight, everyone eats one grape for every chime of the bell. These 12 grapes represent good luck for each month of the new year. Since we didn’t have a real bell and we were going to be at our party at midnight, we made our own little make-shift countdown at 10 PM with an alarm on Emily’s phone. The chimes were spread a little further apart than the normal countdown so eating all of the 12 grapes was a little easier than it normally is. Before we knew it, the time we needed to leave to catch our boat party had passed and we were late! It was at least a 20 minute walk away, in addition to locating our particular boat because the harbor was a large place. Once we realized how close we were cutting it, we ran. And I mean RAN. We made it JUST in time and the ship set sail pretty soon after we boarded.

Twelve Grapes!

Twelve Grapes!

We found our boat just in time (and still had time to take a picture)!

We found our boat just in time (and still had time to take a picture)!

The ship was definitely impressive. The interior reminded me of the Titanic (of course) because there was a large staircase (obviously nothing like Titanic’s grand staircase) that lead down into the middle of the boat where the large dance floor was. The dance floor faced a stage where the music changed back and forth between a DJ and a live band. It was an open-floor plan so the 2nd floor of the ship looked down onto the dance floor. Before midnight, everyone gathered outside (it was FREEZING) for the countdown. At midnight, we sailed parallel with the city and we could see all of the fireworks in the city light up the whole skyline. I was in literal awe. Amsterdam is known to go firework-crazy on New Year’s, and we got to see all of them. And the best part was that we weren’t in the middle of the mayhem so there was no chance in being hit by one haha. Our ship shot some off the back, just not in our direction thankfully.

A Titanic pose is a must!

A Titanic pose is a must!

Welcoming 2015 on the ship deck!  No coats=bad idea.

Welcoming 2015 on the ship deck! No coats=bad idea.

The ship docked early in the morning and we were back in our beds by 6 or 6:30 am. It was definitely a New Year’s Eve to remember forever. Waking up the next morning to check out of our Airbnb and fly to Copenhagen was a killer though, as one would expect.

CONCLUSION
I loveloveloved Amsterdam. It was my favorite stopping point on our trip. It’s rich history and liberal mindset is enough to draw anyone in (well, maybe only those who are liberal). It was a place unlike I’d ever been before and was a perfect location for our New Year’s Eve celebration. The only thing I can think of that I didn’t like about Amsterdam was the biking culture. I thought I would like it but there are SO many of them and they come from all directions. So when you think you’re good to go to cross a street because there are no cars coming from a certain direction, you need to make sure you look the other way because a cyclist could be speeding around the corner. But I suppose it’s the perfect city if you are a cyclist yourself. I 100% intend on visiting Amsterdam again in the future. If not to see those beautiful tulip fields in the spring, then at least to finally see Anne Frank’s house! (I will be forever bitter about that lol).

The biking culture:  the only thing I didn't enjoy about Amsterdam.

The biking culture: the only thing I didn’t enjoy about Amsterdam.