Traveler’s Takeaways: Madrid

Once you have visited several cities in Western Europe — you start to notice a certain “Europeaness” about the places you go. Despite that the city will have it’s own language and it’s own culture, there is a distinct unifying quality that makes it similar to other European cities. Madrid is no exception to this rule. However, unlike most major European cities — there aren’t many main landmarks here which attract visitors. The architecture of the city is beautiful and there are some fantastic sights such as the Palacio Royal (Royal Palace). But, what seems to be the big draw for travelers is the attitude of the city which is distinctly and completely Spanish.

The rhythm of Madrid is much slower and more relaxed than anywhere else I have ever been. People wake up at 10 or 11 in the morning and have a cafe con leche and churros with a cup of bitter-sweet chocolate for breakfast. Lunch is about 2 p.m. and is no mere meal. It is a long feast which might be enjoyed over two hours with tapas and Tinto de Verano (red wine and Sprite) . Even business professionals are given two hours for lunch every day. Then dinner is at 10:30 and can go until midnight. There are plazas all over Madrid where bars have outdoor seating and customers can sit, enjoy their food and drink until 2 a.m. Even people who aren’t sitting at the tables and chairs provided by the bars may still enjoy the plaza by buying cerveza from vendors in the square and sit on the ground in small groups to chat and relax once the sun has begun to set.

The locals, the tourists and the ex-pats all co-exist relatively well in this diverse place. Everyone seems to have a dog and it’s not uncommon to see unleashed canines following behind their masters or playing with other canines on small brick roads. Flamboyant gay men walk about — dressed to the nines. Middle-aged prostitutes stand on street corners smoking cigarettes looking tired and weather worn. Overall, it’s a unique yet unremarkable city. It’s not a place I have found myself falling in love with (unlike Edinburgh or Nice). I don’t feel the need to go unearth any secret amazing bars or monuments. Yet, I appreciate why this place would be an ideal city to live in for a few years. The idea of living in one of the beautiful old style apartments with their balconies and French windows in a city that doesn’t wind down until 4 a.m. is a pretty enticing thought. Madrid provides a vivid and laid back charm that is impossible not to appreciate.

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Three Bars in Three Cities

If there is one thing anyone can rely on when traveling in most parts of the world — it’s that there will always be a bar. When traveling, bars are not just a place to get a drink but a place to meet other travelers on the road and swap stories.  In my experience, it’s a place to meet the locals who can tell you more about the area you’re visiting and maybe even give you some good recommendations for getting off the beaten path. These are the places (drinking or not) that you start experiencing more of the place you’re visiting rather than just being a casual observer.

Budapest, Hungary — Szimpla Kert

I had heard about Szimpla long before I was even considering going to Budapest. Friends of mine from Germany, the U.K. and not to mention my Lithuanian husband had all been to Szimpla on their own respective trips to Budapest. So by the time I took my own maiden voyage to Hungary in October — I had high hopes for the bar.  Ruin pubs are unique to Budapest and they sound exactly like what they are, which is old buildings that are turned into bars. Szimpla is the ultimate ruin pub — it’s a massive old factory that has no roof (so everyone can smoke inside) and  multiple levels which include numerous bars. The place is covered in spray paint over it’s dingy walls, bath tubs cut in half serve as couches and old rusty bicycles hang from the walls tangled up in Christmas lights. I had never been to a bar quite like it. But, it lived up to expectation. When we were there we made friends with other pub goers who were from all over the world. People from Chile, U.K, Somalia, Romania, Italy, and of course Hungary were all happily sipping beer, sharing cigarettes as well as  stories. It was a fantastic place to go if you were looking for a friendly bar in Budapest.

Prague, Czech Republic — Hemingway Bar

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Hemingway Bar could tie first with Szimpla but it is a completely different type of experience. Hemingway was a huge highlight for my friends and  when we visited Prague in the fall of 2012. After a day of sightseeing we came upon a speakeasy style bar near the Vltava on the Old Town side of Prague.  This was a bit of a surprise as I’ve never seen speakeasy bars outside the U.S. and I admit I was skeptical. I rarely drink cocktails when I’m outside of the states because they often are over priced, way too sugary and just not as good. But, Hemingway won me over. They made a fantastic gin fizz and one of my friends couldn’t stop raving about his Manhattan which we all agreed tasted “magical.” In addition to great cocktails, Hemingway Bar offered a wide variety of cigars to enjoy with your cocktails. The atmosphere was incredibly laid back and we enjoyed our Cuban cigars and drinks on plush couches and chairs at the back of the bar.

Vilnius, Lithuania — Alinė Leičiai

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I am always on the hunt for a good home-brewed beer when I visit a new country. I find its a good cultural experience — especially if the country you’re in is renowned for it’s brew. My husband had been telling me for ages that Lithuanians make good beer and often win international brewing competitions. So when we visited his old stomping grounds in Vilnius, I was anxious to see if he was right. Leicai (pronounced Lay – chay) is a brewery in the old town of Vilnius that serves their signatures brews (light, dark and everything in between) as well as traditional Lithuanian food. Leicai is more of the perfect place to meet up with old friends (which is what we were there to do) than to go for a big night out. It’s a  place to relax and have a couple of beers and maybe a cheese/meat plate (which was enough to stuff three people).

What are some of the best bars you have been to?

Photo Credit: Aline Leiciai photo from Aline Leicia’s Facebook page; Hemingway Bar photo from Hemingway Bar photo’s Facebook page

Movies that will give you itchy feet: Roman Holiday

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A postcard I picked up in Rome of the film poster

Those who suffer from wanderlust or the ‘travel bug’ can attest to the fact that it is a pricey passion to enjoy. So, for those of us who are not millionaires or lucky enough to work in the aviation business (where discounted or free flights are an option) there might be large gaps between our travel adventures. It is during this down time that I indulge in the only travel I possibly can afford — the movies. Movies help us travel vicariously through the lens of a camera. I can honestly say that there are some locations I would never know about had I not heard or seen it in a film. One of my favorite movies (and definitely my favorite Audrey Hepburn film) is Roman Holiday.

For those of you who have never seen the film — it’s about a Princess (Audrey Hepburn) that has become frustrated with the rigidity and structure of her life. So, while on a trip to Rome she sneaks out and takes in the night life of the city incognito — until she falls asleep on a bench and is rescued by an American newsman (Gregory Peck) who quickly realizes he has landed a potentially big story. False identities, romance and a lot of physical comedy make the movie a quick favorite.

Despite that the film is in black and white — the scenes of Rome in this film are incredible. All the big landmarks are showcased; the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain. But, the film also shows what its like to experience Rome — riding a vespa through traffic, eating gelato, and sleeping in a realistic cramped Roman apartment. It’s a film about experiencing life and Rome for the first time which is endearing because it reminds me of the first time I started to travel and how amazed I was by everything and how I still am. I saw Roman Holiday long before I finally went to Rome and every time I see the film now — it only makes me yearn to go back. Especially, since I did not find the Mouth of Truth last time I was there! If you’ve seen the film you’ll understand…

What are you some of films that inspire travel for you?

Life is What Happens When You’re In Transit — In flight between Dublin and Nice

When I travel there is never a shortage of things to see and discover. But, over the years I have noticed that a lot of the stories I bring back from my travels actually happen when i’m in between
destinations. Whether it’s in an airport, on a train or waiting for a taxi. Here is but one of those tales…

We have all heard the phrase “It’s a small world.” But, when you start actually seeing more of the world — and realizing you will never be able to truly see it all, you really don’t believe it to be so small. Until…you start to meet other people along the way. My Mom famously recounts how her and my Dad ran into an old high school classmate of his after not seeing him for twenty years — in a bar in Hong Kong. I have gone off to graduate school and met people from Seattle who shared a mutual friend. Or, in Prague I befriended a fellow traveler who grew up down the road from where I worked in Washington state. But, nothing quite tops the true exemplification of “small world” like the fateful 4 a.m. flight I took in December 2007 from Dublin to Nice after a weekend of touring Dublin pubs and very little sleep…

I had been in Ireland for two days with some friends after finishing finals during my semester abroad. I was going back to the U.S. in two weeks and this was my last hurrah. At the end of our two days in Ireland our group was splitting up with two going to Amsterdam and three of us to Nice. I was part of the trio and our flight was at 4 a.m. In a very irresponsible decision, rather than get some rest — we all decided to stay up throughout the night and make one last lap of the Irish pubs in the Temple District of Dublin. So, by the time we arrived at the airport we were all thoroughly dazed with exhaustion and copious amounts of Guinness and Irish whiskey. The idea of sleeping for the three hour flight to the south of France was a met with huge anticipation.

We made it to our gate with little trouble and out of the corner of my eye I saw a tall boy ahead of us with close cropped reddish blonde hair and a thick black sweater talking to two girls. I blinked and looked again. The boy was so familiar. He looked just like an old friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in four years. My two traveling companions asked me if something was wrong. I told them about the shock of familiarity and that there was a slight possibility it could be the same friend. We hadn’t spoken in quite some time but we were Facebook friends and I had noted that he was doing a study abroad program in France at the same time I was in the U.K. But, it was still so unlikely.

My friends’ response to this was to start saying the guys name aloud (in true mature fashion) to see if he turned around in response. Nothing. This was obviously not the same person — just someone who looked a lot like him.

We finally boarded the flight and as we entered the plane, we were asked for our boarding pass stubs (RyanAirs odd policy). I suddenly realized I couldn’t remember which pocket of the many pockets I had put my stub. My two friends went ahead to find their seats while I apologized to the flight attendant and scrambled around in my bag for a few minutes until I located the scrap of paper. The plane was mostly empty and the few people in it had apparently noticed my fumbling around at the entrance. As I gave my stub to the flight attendant and made my way to the back of the plane I heard a surprised, “KEELI?!”

There — now in full view of me was the same guy I had glimpsed earlier now staring at me in surprise. I had been right. It had been the same friend I hadn’t seen since I was 16 from a small town in Washington state. Now, here we both were 20-years-old and meeting on an empty RyanAir flight from Dublin to the south of France at 4 a.m.

Coincidentally, he had seen me earlier as well and wasn’t sure if it was me. Only when I was fumbling around for my boarding pass (at a total loss) was he certain that it could only be me.

I would not get the much needed sleep that I was hoping for. My friend as it turned out had no time to spare when he got back to France as he had finals. We spent the whole three hours of the flight catching up (while my travel companions luckily got sleep). Hours later after bidding farewell to my friend at the airport and continuing onto Nice; I would literally begin to fall asleep mid-stride as I was walking the streets near the Mediterranean. It is still the most exhausted I have ever been to date.

In life and especially in travel — there are so many moments we get to experience. These gems that you never would have found had you stayed in one place. One such moment is that very isolated time of being on a plane in-transit on the other side of the world and talking to someone you hadn’t seen in years. That moment gave me a real sense of how small the world really is.

Photo Credit: By Jacob Axford (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Capitol Hill Books: An afternoon in a quirky book shop with a sense of humor and free beer

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Two weeks ago on an extremely cold but sunny Sunday afternoon. A friend and I were slugging our way back to the metro station after seeing the last vestiges of Eastern Market in D.C. As we were turning to leave the market — I spotted a local bookstore my friend had mentioned wanting to check out. Upon entering, a grumpy looking old man in a worn baseball cap yelled at us to shut the door behind us. Then in the same breath informed us that there was home brewed beer in the back yard.

This, Ladies and Gents, was our first introduction to Capitol Hill Books.

Amused and a little disconcerted — we took in our surroundings. The bookstore was literally in a row house and it looks as though a hoarder of used books has filled it with every volume imaginable. Complete with three floors (basement, ground floor and upstairs) — the place was entirely cluttered and disorganized with large hulking book shelves filling every nook and cranny of the building. If there wasn’t space for a shelf to fit then there would be a pile of books stacked high. No part of the shop was safe from the onslaught of books. Even the bathroom had a whole genre of books in it — French poetry or theatre, I believe.

As we made our way slowly around the cramped shop (trying not to bump into people or shelves) we started to notice the signs for some book titles. On a copy of The Little Prince was a little note over it that said “The story of a young Vladmir Putin, the self-appointed prince of Russia.” When walking over towards the coffee table book section a handwritten sign on the shelf informed us they were great for “emergency kindling, step-stools, intellectual peacocking.”

As we made our way to the back of the shop — there was sure enough a door leading to a back yard. As promised, there were two kegs of home brewed beer with several people already filling up their plastic solo cups. A coffee porter and cherry ale.

By the time we left (45-minutes later) the shop had begun to get crowded. We made our way to check out with four used books between us (including the earlier mentioned copy of The Little Prince) and having consumed four cups of the coffee porter (which was delicious).

Capitol Hill Books as I came to find out, is a known D.C. gem and it’s no wonder why.  In spite of how easy it is to order books online these days or go to a Barnes & Noble — there is something special about a quirky book shop. Capitol hill Books offers tons of personality. It’s not a place to go searching for a specific book but rather a place to discover a new one.

If you’re in D.C. and love bookstores — check out Capitol Hill Books. But, claustrophobics beware — it’s a tight squeeze!

Snapshots of Northern Wales — My Home Away From Home

Aside from being the former residence of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as well as some highly amusing and inappropriate sheep jokes — Wales tends to be the most overlooked country in the U.K. It’s a bit like the embarrassing relative of the family who no one wants to admit being related to but is still invited to the reunion because hey…they’re family. Some people who don’t live in the U.K. actually think Wales is a part of England. So, here I am to set the record straight for a country that is very proud, has it’s own language, it’s own flag and what’s more some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen. Not to mention it’s a cheap weekend getaway when you don’t want to spend tons of money to fly somewhere. Here’s a few great areas to check out in northern Wales.

Trearddur Bay

Trearddur Bay (pronounced “trather) is only a few minutes outside the small village of Holyhead, where one can catch the ferry from Wales to Dublin. The area looks a bit like something from a period drama. The bay opens up into the Irish Sea and is dotted with small white houses and Inns. If the weather is decent, it’s not uncommon to see a photographer out on the bay taking pictures of the sunset which I have been told are “some of the most beautiful in the world.” I have made it a routine to wake up early in the morning and walk around this bay with a pen and journal to write on the banks. My American accent stands out a long mile in this small area but everyone is always friendly and happy to give a “good morning” as you walk by.

Conwy

An hour’s drive away from Trearrdur Bay is Conwy. This ancient walled city boasts it’s own castle on a large bay that is always filled with colorful sail boats. The castle was originally built as a fortress as were the walls which surround the city during the 1200s as part of the English’ conquest of Wales. For a few pounds, visitors can walk around the castle and get a great view of the town and the sea. Lastly, one of Conwy’s quirky tourist attractions is “the Smallest House in Britain.” You can access the house for 1 pound, and as it only takes less than five minutes to view — it doesn’t exactly eat up much time but it wasn’t really worth looking in either.

Colwyn Bay

There are a lot of bay’s in Northern Wales (as already illustrated) but the last one to visit is the seaside resort town of Colwyn Bay. The area here reminds me a lot of Brighton with it’s posh looking little white 19th century hotels that line the beach and it’s own pier (the Victoria Pier). Colwyn Bay is a very touristy city but it’s not too overwhelming and a great place to get away for the summer.

Venice – The City With No Locals

My parents took me to Venice during the summer of 2012 to celebrate my 25th birthday. I was living in the U.K. at that time and in the thick of working on my dissertation — so it was a very welcome birthday trip. I was only there for a few days and unfortunately was so caught up in just walking around and sight seeing that I didn’t get a chance to get off the beaten path too much. But, this is what I took away…

Venice is truly as beautiful as advertised in every vintage poster or postcard you have ever seen. There is absolutely no other place like it. As many of you probably know, there are no roads in the historic part of Venice. If you need to get somewhere you can hop on a water taxi or a water bus (yes, they exist and they have routes).

The city of Venice is literally a city full of tourists. People from all over the world clamor to Venice for it’s unique beauty. Also, I feel like there might be some urgency to people wanting to see Venice as it’s a sinking city that won’t necessarily stand the test of time. As Venice is a city of tourists, it doesn’t really have locals. The Italians you see working there don’t actually live in the historic part of Venice. It’s just too expensive.

A friend and course mate of mine is Venezian and he was back in Venice when I visited. I met up with him and his girlfriend in the city one night and they explained that outside of the Venice I knew was a Venice with actual roads and cars.  The “locals” don’t live in the main part of the city but they work there in the thriving tourism trade selling Murano glass and Venecian carnival masks or running shops and working in restaurants. Tourism is an old trade in Venice — it’s probably one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world and people have been coming to marvel at it for centuries. And it’s no wonder why…

A Coffee Snobs Guide to Seattle

Seattle is one of the best places in the world for coffee. And no, i’m not talking about Starbucks. When I meet people who are planning on visiting the Emerald City, my biggest piece of advice is to check out the local coffee scene. Coffee shop owners in Seattle put a lot of love and attention into their coffee.  Many coffee houses in Seattle roast their own beans or buy from a local roaster. You can find coffee beans from Honduras to Rwanda and they all taste totally different. Here is a small list of a few cafe’s I have been able to sample during my time living in the Seattle area.

Espresso Vivace (Locations: Capitol Hill and Eastlake)

When I first moved to Seattle in 2009, I had not quite come to appreciate the vibrant coffee culture the city was famed for. But, then an old friend took me to Espresso Vivace on Capitol Hill and so my education began. Vivace is something of an institution within the Seattle coffee community. They have served Seattle since 1988 and they roast their coffee beans on sight at their flagship store on Capitol Hill. My favorite coffee drink to get there is the Cafe Nico. This is a very rich drink that comes in a 4 oz or an 8 oz and is essentially a breve (half cream and half milk) macchiato with orange zest and cinnamon. However, it’s definitely more of an afternoon pick-me-up than morning fuel.

Milstead & Co. (Fremont)

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Cold brew coffee

Milstead & Co. coffee is located in the artsy neighborhood of Fremont, just down the hill from the famed Fremont Troll. I first went there last summer in the middle of a heatwave and was immediately impressed with it’s rotating selection of roasted coffee and it’s outdoor seating area which features a large piece of the Berlin Wall. Okay, the piece of the Berlin Wall actually belongs to the historic society next door that also shares the space but it’s still a very cool feature. Milstead’s cold brew coffee served over ice in a large pint glass was the perfect thing to kick the summer heat. If you aren’t feeling up for coffee their burnt sugar lemonade/iced tea over ice is also pretty noteworthy.

Slate  (Ballard)

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A “de-constructed latte” from Slate. Espresso in one glass, steamed milk in the second and a latte in the third.

Slate was a coffee place that was a huge disappointment the one and only time I went. I was immediately put off by the fact that rather than being a coffee house the place had the atmosphere of a cramped wine bar that happened to serve coffee. While you can pick up a coffee to go, if you choose to stay and sit in the cramped quarters of Slate you soon learn that they have table service — which is unnecessary since the place is so small and isn’t a restaurant. This means that you are obligated to tip the wait staff for a cup of coffee. The coffee, while just as good as any in Seattle, isn’t exactly mind-blowing or offering anything different to what you have tried before. This makes the fact that they charge you $4-$5 for a cup of coffee that comes served in a 6 oz wine glass even more ridiculous.  Overall, the place wasn’t worth the money or the time.

Trabant Coffee & Chai  (University District)

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Trabant was not one of my main stops for coffee when I lived in the U-District. It’s known as one of the best places to get a chai tea in the city. I don’t  like chai tea so I never bothered to go there until I got my first big job out of college. The bus I had to catch in the early hours of the morning stopped directly in front of Trabant. It soon became the place to go to when I was running late and hadn’t had time to grab breakfast or coffee.I soon realized that while Trabant is famed for their chai tea– they were no slouch when it came to espresso. Then one morning I was running VERY late. I quickly ordered a non-fat latte and a chocolate croissant to go. Just as the barista finished my coffee —  my bus pulled up outside the door. I would either have to pay and miss my bus or leave my order and run for it. The barista took one look at me and shoved the coffee and croissant into my hands and said “Go! Don’t worry about it!”After that, the coffee and the staff totally won me over. Trabant has continued to do well for itself in the years since. They have solidified themselves as a go to place for coffee in the U-District neighborhood and have opened a second location in Pioneer Square.

Next time you are in Seattle, indulge in one of the city’s favorite pastimes and enjoy a very high quality cup of joe!

Other worthwhile cafe’s to check out:

Seattle Coffee Works (downtown)

Bauhaus Coffee (Ballard)

Bulldog Newsstand (University District)

Victrola (Capitol Hill)

Photo credit: Espresso Vivace coffee sign image was taken by “Another Believer” and obtained through Wikimedia Commons

Another Move, Another City!

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Nomad – a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.

At the age of ten — after my first re-location from Japan to the U.S. — I had this unnerving feeling to “move”. At the time, I attributed this to my extreme homesickness for my birth place. Perhaps that was a big part of it. But, as I grew older I realized it wasn’t so much a need to go back to Japan but to just go….anywhere. Itchy feet, the travel bug, wanderlust…there are many names for it. Either way, I knew early on that settling down in one place was not for me. Today, at 27 I can happily say that I have succeeded (so far) in being a bit of a nomad.

In the last ten years I have managed to live in six cities on either side of the ocean. Now, I am thrilled to say I have moved yet again. Washington D.C. will be my current place of residence — at least for a little while.

I still have some posts on the back burner that I have been meaning to write about my beloved Pacific Northwest and I will finish those up in due time. At the moment, I am busy dealing with the stresses of starting a new job in the next couple of days, finding a place of residence and getting accustomed to my new surroundings. This is my first time living on the east coast and so far I love the fast pace of D.C., the diversity and of course the history!

As I begin this new chapter of my life, I reflect on a few things I have learned. As we get older, it’s very easy to lose sight of what we actually want in life. We often settle for the jobs that pay well enough but don’t inspire or challenge us. We get too focused on making decisions that are safe as opposed to choices that will make us happy.

Life is too short to just be comfortable. When it comes to getting what you want — sometimes you have to take a leap.