Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fall Break Cont'd: London

My last day of Fall Break, I visited my best friend Anuja. It was like going back home. I was exhausted and just wanted to nap and talk and drink cappuccinos. No more backpacking and touring around for me. It was Halloween, but we had Indian food for lunch and were sooo full (Indian food always does that to me!), we opted out of going to her boyfriend's Halloween party (isn't she the best friend ever?) and stayed inside and caught up on each other's lives. That's what a real vacation's about. Don't you think? Being completely relaxed.

View from Anuja's apartment in King's Cross

This architecture is very British to me!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fall Break Cont'd: PARIS

Oh my goodness, don't even get me started about how much Paris absolutely dazzled me. It reminded me of when I first visited New York. Something just clicked. The energies of these cities are so similar and familiar, I felt right at home. While I love Prague, it isn't really a true metropolitan-- you know what I mean? Perhaps not, but you'll see when you visit. :) I guess I'm really a big city gal after all...

My two days in Paris were an absolute whirlwind. My friend Kate dragged me off to all the touristy places that I would usually never go to. (Good thing, because I could sit in a cafe for hours on end!) We walked across the bridges over the Seine River to visit the Louvre, the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, took a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, and ohh and ahhed at the Eiffel Tower light show at night.

And of course, I had to go off to some "me" things. We walked around the Pompidou, the most incredibly architecturally modern art museum (too bad we didn't have time to go inside), ate raspberry macaroons at La Duree, the most famous dessert shop in Paris, and then, Kate and I parted ways so I could do some serious vintage shopping.

My friend Beverly, who is au pairing in Paris currently, wrote up the most incredibly helpful guide -- she knew exactly what I wanted! Yummy brunch places and SHOPPING! I scouted out the whole section of Marais, which is known for its gay and Jewish community... and vintage markets! All I had to do is follow some stylish girls and, lo-and-behold, I found a whole line of vintage/thrift stores for my viewing (and purchasing) pleasure.

My favorite shop is Free 'P' Star, which literally had girls packed to the walls because of its 1-euro scarves, fabulous vintage purses, and billions of dresses and jackets thrown around all over the place. It was truly like a grandmother's attic and treasure chest. Thank goodness I love "the hunt" in thrift shopping, because boy was it claustrophobic in there! A downside though is the total lack of dressing rooms. I mean, there is barely enough room to pull something on! I bought a skirt that is a bit too small and a cardigan that is too big in the shoulders, but c'est la vie, I still love them! And I absolutely adore my three scarves -- I had to really discipline myself not to purchase more. (My scarf collection is outrageous already.)

As always see my flickr here for more Paris pictures. Wish I could've stayed longer than 2 days! :(

PS: Free 'P' Star's business cards are so risque. Ooh la la!

Monday, November 23, 2009

a Mediterranean view

Just a clip from Marseille, after laying by the rocks, before drinking cheap 2-euro wine (that tasted kind of disgusting!). We had a goofy day. (Check out Kate's pose at the end, ha!)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fall Break Cont'd: Southern France! Marseille, Antibe, and Nice

After Barcelona, my two friends and I took the bus to Southern France, just because we thought it'd be fun to take the unbeaten path for once. I mean, who goes to Marseille? Well, when we got there, we realized... apparently nobody. We were the only tourists in what felt like the entire city! Isabel and Kate were a little wary, but I absolutely loved that we could just walk around and be spontaneous with where we were going! So we wandered the entire day, admiring the ports and architecture...

Unfortunately, our hostel was just awful and dirty. No hot water, not even real toilets! (Just bowls, you know, very old-school.) So we trekked off to Antibes the next morning, where Isabel had studied for few weeks in high school. We were only there for a few hours, unfortunately. But I remember the teeny streets, yummy food, and cool handmade souvenirs. I bought a colorful straw tote from a local weaver and ate tons of bruschetta.

Later in our second day in France, we arrived in Nice and stayed for the night at Villa St-Exupery, which looked like a precious little villa on the outside, but inside, it was an absolute party house. There were young American tourists everywhere, drinking beer and hanging out in the common space. I totally understood why the hostel was named "Europe's Best Hostel" -- it had all sorts of day trip offerings (Monaco, St. Tropez) and fun activities (water skiing, bungee jumping). I wish I could've stayed longer in Nice! It was just such a relaxing atmosphere and beautiful city... so warm even in October! I dipped in the Mediterranean and didn't feel too cold, instead, it was totally refreshing. I can definitely understand why people vacation in Southern France. I'd love to own a villa here one day! :)

Monday, November 16, 2009

thoughts on traveling

Hello, my dears! I'm writing from Venice now, on the last night of my week-long trip to Italy. It's funny how fast time flies when you're on the road, touring one city after the next without break. My friend from Prague Kate and I visited Milan, Florence, and Rome before Venice, and I'm so happy I was able to spend some time in each one. They're all so unique and lovely!

But I'm really blessed to have had a nice week-long rest after my 10-day Fall Break because traveling can be so mind-numbing! I mean that in mostly a good way. There's so much to see and learn, so many different maps to read, transportation systems to understand, special places to visit, people to observe. I just love how educational my travels have been. And I'm glad I was ambitious in planning everything earlier in September, because if I had known how crazy the actual traveling part could be (especially traveling while being cost-conscious), would I have attempted to tear through 10 cities in 3.5 weeks? Probably not. But honestly, what other time in my life could be more perfect for backpacking and exploring than in college? I have no serious responsibilities or obligations, I'm healthy and young and eager -- it's just the perfect opportunity.

I have so much I want to share with you on what I've learned (about myself, balance, compromise, friendship, being a team player, etc), but I just realized I've been so bad about telling you all about the rest of my Fall Break in Southern France, Paris, and London! So I'll have some quick recaps of those up really soon, I promise. And some more random thoughts of this whole experience. And then, of course, you can expect to see tons more on Italy! I had such a fantastic time, I know I'll be back molto pronto. It's a little sad that this is the last of my travels in Europe before I come back home to the States on Dec. 18. Let's catch up when I'm back in Prague on Wednesday? xoxo, H.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Brunch at Zanzibar

Five friends are visiting me in Prague this month, which means lots of eating out! I usually cook for myself because groceries are so inexpensive, but sometimes it's nice to just...indulge. My friend and I devoured our brunch yesterday at Zanzibar, my favorite restaurant in all of Prague. Look at how much we got just between the two of us! Brunch is my favorite meal, what's yours?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fall Break Recap: Barcelona, Last DAY!

Now, we actually weren't planning on staying an extra day... we should've been in Southern France already! But Isabel, Kate, and I still felt like there was so much adventuring and exploring to do in Barcelona. We hadn't really walked through our own little neighborhood in the Gothic Quarter, nor had we been to Park Guel, the only Gaudi work we hadn't seen. So we resolved to do just that!

Our last day, we took our time taking in the Roman ruins, checking out the souvenir shops, flea markets, and the general surroundings. The Gothic Quarter is everything that I could have hoped it would be. Clothes hanging out to dry from every window, plants (and palm trees!) everywhere, tons of little shops...

We ran into a tiny little Arabic pastry shop, and obviously couldn't resist trying! I got a walnut-y dessert and another treat with figs inside. Yum!

We also looked through plenty of flea markets. There were so many vintage treasures that I wanted to take home: old typewriters, elegant telephones, jewelry, photo frames, tea sets...

That evening, we hiked up to Park Guel, which is not so much a park as it is a beautiful series of rugged hills. We must've climbed about three of them -- the views were incredible. When we reached the tallest rock on the tallest hill, we were serenaded by a funky band, which I loved (and have a video of now!). Everybody looked so happy to be right where they were. Even when it started drizzling, we sat on the rock, looked down at the view, and listened.

View of Park Guel from one of the hills

We were on this rock, enjoying the music :)

Most enthusiastic entertainers ever!

The Gaudi Museum in Park Guel

It was getting late, and we had a bus to catch for France at midnight, so we went out to dinner for our last taste of tapas and sangria, shopped for a thank-you gift for Cande, and bid farewell to Barcelona. I was really sad to leave. Barcelona is so different from Prague -- it's much more energetic and upbeat (while Prague is historic and quiet). I loved practicing my (very rusty) Spanish and experiencing this city. Hopefully, I'll be back?

Last Barcelona tapas dinner

PS: You can find all of my pics from Barcelona HERE. Enjoy!

Fall Break Recap: Barcelona Day 3

The next morning, we realized we were pretty behind on seeing some of the landmarks, so we planned a very ambitious day. We spent the morning in the Picasso Museum, which holds most of Picasso's earliest works. I really, really loved this museum, it was so cool to see a person's artistic transformation. Next, we checked out a bunch of Barcelona's most famous architecture, from the Arc de Triumph to the many creations by Antoni Gaudi (who seems to be synonymous to Barcelona pride): La Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila, Casa Batllo.

Arc de Triumph

La Sagrada Familia

Casa Mila

Casa Batllo

We met up with some girls from our NYU in Prague program for dinner at Cervesaria Catalunya, Amy's favorite restaurant and definitely mine too in Barcelona. It was INCREDIBLE! We just kept ordering tapas left and right and consumed three pitchers of sangria con cava. Absolute deliciousness! The people around us were so amused, one guy even compared us to a pack of pups descending upon a bone! We ended up sooo full and tipsy after 20+ tapas and many drinks, it was the best night. Kaitlin was definitely right, eating tapas with a large group is so much fun! And we paid only about 10 euro per person! (Crazy, right?)

My exuberant friends at Cerversaria Catalunya

So happy after dinner!

Somehow, we wounded up back at Chupitos because the other girls hadn't been there yet. It wasn't as crowded as the last night because it was only around midnight, thank goodness! This time, we tried the "Harry Potter," a flaming shot. (There were lots of other options that were more scandalous, like the Monica Lewinsky where you lick whipped cream off of something very naughty.) Doesn't the picture look insane?! We were also really amused by bar's black light -- our eyeballs and teeth were glowing in the dark, and it was creepy to look at each other :)

From classy tapas to flaming shots!

Black light fun

After Chupitos, we bought some cheap white wine from a drug store and started heading over to our next bar destination, Bikini. The kindest elderly couple with a huge van asked us if we needed a ride (since we looked so lost), and in the state that we were in, we said yes! I know this could have been a terrible decision, but it ended up being one of my favorite stories to tell about Barcelona. All 7 of us piled up in their van (Kate was on my lap!) and gushed about how much we loved Barcelona ... and ten minutes later, we were in front of the bar. How incredibly sweet some strangers can be, right? We were very lucky to have met good people, because we were definitely not in the smartest state of mind. But as we were about to enter Bikini, Isabel and I were a little lame and gave in to our extreme exhaustion, so we metro'd it back and went to sleep. I blame my super low tolerance for alcohol, and the 10 hours of walking. Yeesh.

Fall Break Recap: Barcelona Day 2!

If the weather on our first day in Barcelona was dreadful, on our second day, it was heavenly. Warm and breezy. With Kaitlin in Lisbon, Isabel moved into Cande's with us, so now there would be three of us on a full-sized futon! Around noon, the three of us hashed out the day's plans on Cande's table. We would try to check out all of Amy's recommended restaurants and special sites, starting with tapas lunch at Txapela. This time, we were a little wiser, and ordered a couple tapas per person to try. They were delicious, but since the tapas were literally bite-sized, I still wasn't full!

We decided to walk down La Rambla, Barcelona's most famous street. It was so lively and filled with entertainers, promoters, and street vendors... but we had to be careful too, because it's also one of the most common places to be pick-pocketed, and trust me, I never want that to happen again! We found St. Josep's Boqueria, a huge market that had every kind of food imaginable. I was in heaven! I bought a plate of exotic fruit, which sated my appetite completely.

When we reached the end of La Rambla, we found ourselves in Port Vell, a beautiful port with tons of boats and seafood restaurants. It was so relaxing just to sit by the dock and later the beach to take in the sun and scenery.

But my favorite part of Port Vell was the incredible restaurant we found -- it was truly a gem! I wish I had jotted down the name for you all. We feasted on a 3 course meal (in huge portions too) for only 12 euro! I had a huge plate of mussels for my first course, steak and fries for my second, chocolate mousse for dessert, and sangria. Best. meal. of. my. life! I'm not even sure how to categorize this meal -- we had already had lunch, but it was too early for dinner, which in Spain usually starts around 10pm. But when you find such a great place like this, no matter what time it is, you go!

Look at our mussels!

That night, we went to dinner again, because we met up with Isabel's friend Ali, who's studying abroad in Barcelona. Her friends were super nice, and gave us a bunch of suggestions on places to go out that night. All of the places matched Amy's recommendations, so we were doubly prepared. We headed out to Chupitos at around 1am, and had delicious "Finding Nemo" shots, where you have to fish out an M&M in whipped cream with your tongue while your hands are tied behind your back. (There are all sorts of other crazy shots which I'll tell you about later in my next post.) But it was sooo incredibly crowded in Chupitos, we were getting shoved left and right by the crowd. So we downed our shots and called it a night. They were yummy... tasted like dessert!

Fall Break Recap: Barcelona Day 1

Hello dear readers! I'm sorry it's taken me so long to finally share with you my fall break experiences. I was so exhausted after those 10 days of traveling, I needed to rest my mind a bit before reliving all the adventures! Since we traveled mostly at night, I was pretty sleep-deprived throughout the trip, but I'm all caught up and ready to chat. :)

So first up on our fall break agenda was Barcelona! My three friends Kaitlin, Kate, and Isabel, and I arrived in Barcelona at 6am! (Our flight left at 4am, so it was a really crazy night at the airport.) Sleepy and hungry, we took the metro to Isabel and Kaitlin's hostel, dropped our bags off, and ran into the closest bakery for coffee and sweets. And this is where I learned that if you order a Cafe Solo, you'll end up with only a shot of espresso. Well, at least I got a caffeine jolt!

Cande's apartment

While Kaitlin and Isabel napped, Kate and I headed off to our host, Cande's apartment. We found her through Couchsurfing, an amazing worldwide network of travelers who kindly open their homes to fellow travelers. Cande's apartment was pretty neat because she owned the entire floor, so each door lead to a different part of her home. So we had complete privacy in her kitchen/dining room on a comfy futon, with our own bathroom and even our own set of keys to come in and out as we please! We napped for a few hours as it started to rain, took showers, and then met up with Kaitlin and Isabel at a tapas restaurant nearby in the Gothic Quarter (where we lived!).

Paella and the a view of rainy Barcelona

This was the first time I had ever eaten tapas, and I have to admit, I was incredibly ignorant. I wasn't even sure of what tapas were, so when I ordered paella and only got a few bites of it in the pot, I was a bit upset. But Kaitlin explained that people usually order a lot of tapas (since they're so small) and share with a large group -- so now I know how it's done! By the end of lunch, my stomach was filled mostly with sangria. We sat for a bit and waited for the rain to stop -- it was really monsooning! -- but far too impatient, we trekked out to check out some museums.

Actually, thinking back, our first day was pretty difficult. It was raining so much, even under our umbrellas everything waist-down got soaked. The walk uphill was long and windy, but there were a few escalators to relieve us of the many steps up. We wondered if it was safe to ride escalators in the rain... hmm. When we finally made it to the Joan Miro museum, our boots and socks were uncomfortably damp, but we took our time looking at Miro's very abstract art before drying off in the museum cafe.

Left: Kaitlin and Isabel telling the rain to "kiss my butt!"
Right: Yours truly analyzing one of Miro's work

We all desperately needed to change clothes (especially socks!), so we headed back to our respective places and got ready for dinner. Kaitlin was only staying in Barcelona for a day before heading off to Lisbon, so we had our special dinner with her at Mussel, one of the amazing places my friend Amy, who made a whole Barcelona guide for us, recommended. One cup of their sangria con cava (sangria with champagne!) was enough to get us super drunk, it was that strong! Kate and I walked back to Cande's (since the metro closed after midnight on Thursdays) in a daze. Thank goodness she is an expert map navigator, because I am the worst at directions, just the worst.

Kaitlin on the left, and Kate enjoying our sangria con cava!

Kate and I got back to Cande's and talked to her until 2am about travel, boys, all sorts of things that three girls can think of. Finally, we knocked out from exhaustion and didn't even bother setting our alarms for the next morning, which to me, is probably the greatest luxury. We were planning on taking a bus to Southern France in two nights, but since we hadn't bought tickets yet, we could take our time getting to know Barcelona. We could tell it was only the beginning of a beautiful friendship. :)