Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Note: So, I suck at consistency. This post and two others have just been hanging out in "drafts" with only pictures and brief commentary, but I keep coming back to the thought that it is important to me to finish this little series eventually. So... maybe expect the last one sometime next year (I joke, maybe.)

I left Bilbao early afternoon on Tuesday, had a short layover in Barcelona (where I almost lost my wallet, EEK, before my scattered-ness was pointed out by a kindly European), and landed in Lisbon late Tuesday night. 

I had scheduled two full days in Lisbon, and by this time, I was getting pretty darn good at living out of the carry-on-sized suitcase and small backpack. It's strange to admit, but by Wednesday afternoon or so, I was also getting a little tired of it and travel fatigued (why yes, that sound you hear is the world's smallest violin.) As a result, I do not think I really dove into Lisbon as much as I know I would have otherwise -- I took it pretty easy. That said, Lisbon was such that I think I could take it easy and still enjoy and embrace the city immensely.

Lisbon is beautiful and bright and warm, with touches of old and new throughout. It's built around the mouth of the Tagus River at the Atlantic Ocean.

Loved it.


Murals (and trash, woops)
Entire walls of buildings were painted or tiled in bright colors.

Mosaic cobbled streets.

Loved this alleyway.

Art everywhere.

Beautiful days and nights. Above, I spent both evenings at this overlook, which according to Google is called the Jardim de São Pedro de Alcântara. Just such a beautiful view and vibe with performers (guy with guitar playing Bob Dylan... oh, and somebody else breathing fire.)

Dogs and fish.

Sao George Castle

Pretty cool. Nice views. Worth a morning and a few euros.

Port Wine Institute

First sip: I don't think I like port.
Second sip: Well, I don't love port.
Third (and subsequent) sip: Hey, this stuff's pretty alright.

This was highly recommended by several guidebook-y sources. They had an amazing selection, a bit overwhelming to this port ignoramus. I put my life in the hands of the person working there, and she did right by me. I forget what kind this is, but I'd trust her again.


Another commonly-referenced must-do/see in Lisbon was visit a fado club. My awesome AirBnB hosts, Claudia and Pedro, recommended a couple of fado places in the Alfama neighborhood.

I loved it. I guess I'd describe fado as Portugal's blues -- but that comparison is pretty lame. The women who sing are like the sultriest, most heart-broken blues singer you ever heard (guys too, but the ladies slayed). It is like nothing else.

Also -- the fado club I visited was totally reasonable. I guess there are a bunch of touristy places where you can expect to drop a ton of dough on dinner and music. They had a minimum (I think 10 euro) but that was easy to meet with a glass of wine and some cheese -- seriously, that was it: a good-sized wheel of cheese (which was clearly intended for more than 1 person) and a knife. I feel like there is a fado song in there somewhere -- a good-sized wheel of cheese and no one with whom to share it.

River Beach and Praca do Comercio

Singing "On My Own" from Les Mis beautifully. One of my favs.

I did not make it to any of Portugal's ocean beaches (which are, by all accounts, legendary), but I did the "river beach." My AirBnB hosts mentioned that the area was fairly new and had come a long way in developing the surrounding area. It was a nice place to just stroll along, find a cafe with sandwiches and wine, and chill out. I am sensing a pattern in the final leg of my trip.

First (and hopefully last) time flying RyanAir
Flew RyanAir back to Paris on Friday for my flight home on Saturday (glad I didn't try for the same day, because I got back to the city almost 4 hours after I thought I would.) And I almost didn't make it on the plane because I didn't save the boarding pass correctly on my iPad. Classic RyanAir. But here we are. 

Plus, as a result of that nerve-wracking incident, I had a really interesting conversation with 2 other almost-didn't-make-it-ons (a super nice Portuguese couple) about Portugal's and Greece's economies.

Considering the amount of time devoted to RyanAir in my MBA (2 case study discussions in 2 separate classes) and to the European Union (basically an entire quarter and then some), I wouldn't have had it any other way. It was a nice capstone to my degree. Who doesn't love symmetry.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Bilbao (Days 2-3)

The next day (a Monday,) I had planned to visit the Guggenheim. I made the mistake of not checking the schedule (my casual traveler mindset failed me) -- if you visit Bilbao, the museum is closed on Mondays. I ended up wandering around Old Town, which was far from disappointing. That did leave me with only a couple of hours to see the museum on Tuesday, between the museum's open and my early-afternoon flight, which was a mistake.

Old Town

Arriaga Theater

This kid playing keyboard in the square outside the church of Santos Juanes. Awesome.

There is a Basque museum in Bilbao, which I thought would be interesting to visit. It was, somewhat. The museum focused on industry and art of the Basque people -- fishing, smithing, pottery -- I don't know what I was expecting. I expected there to be not much English, but I read online that everything was also in English. That isn't quite the case, and I find dioramas and reproductions are only as interesting as the story they tell. At any rate, it was a fine way to spend a quiet and inexpensive couple hours.

Later, I had a delicious lunch at a vegetarian restaraunt, Jatetxe Berdea (also on my hosts' list of recommendations!) I'm pretty sure some of my food was at least re-heated in a microwave (I also eat at weird times when travelling alone, so I'm not mad) but it was a TON of food, yummy, and I think 11 euro for the "full meal" (soup, bread, entree, dessert, and a glass of wine.)


Another goal I had while in Bilbao was to visit the coast. I found Playa Gorrondaxte, Azkorri, mapped my trip on the metro, and headed out. 

The beach is maybe 2-3 miles walk from the Berango metro stop (some hills), but not bad. Much of the walk is through residential area, but there are also dirt trails that wind around alongside the road. I took the trail on a whim, and I started to get a little nervous after walking a few minutes through high greenery, unsure where I was going. I was relieved when the trail dumped me out on the same road, just farther along.

The beach, like the mountain vistas, was totally stunning. I spent some time just sitting and looking at it, walking up and down...

This guy started following me on the road back, getting closer, barking at intervals... I'm leaving your territory, dude, lay off. I yelled at him (one of those yells that don't come out how you expect, and startle even you) when he got a little too close.

This excursion was so much easier than the day before to the mountain. I attribute that to no buses -- just the metro. It was a longer ride (about 45 minutes from where I caught it) but there's a map right there on the wall with all the stops, so I knew when to start paying attention; it's a smoother and less twisty/turny ride, so easier to read and pass the time; and generally the stops are a lot more of a hub than bus stops, so getting oriented and regaining directions and bearings on foot is quick.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I set my alarm to get up in time to be at the museum just before it opened. I slept through it (of course) but made it just a few minutes after open. There was already a line, which dismayed me, but it shouldn't have -- the line moves really fast.

Before even entering the museum, there's a ton of sculpture and architecture to appreciate. The building itself is the obvious example, but the sculpture garden just outside and along the river and contemporary pedestrian bridges across it also shape the vibe of this little port town. You could be in the Old Town, with buildings dating back to the 1600s, then later that afternoon be in this very contemporary part of the city.

I really enjoyed The Matter of Time permanent installation; it's a huge work and a really unique and unusual way to experience art and form. There's a better picture at that link.

When I visited, there was a special Jeff Koons retrospective, with pieces from throughout his career. I love cheeky art, which he definitely makes. I took a ton of pictures, but the stainless steel balloon-looking sculptures stuck with me the most. So shiny. And the tulips especially -- such a big, colorful, shiny contrast to the cloudy grey sky outside.

I do wish I had more time at the museum. I was only left with about 2 hours, and plenty unseen (especially of the museum's permanent collection). Another "what would I do differently" moment: I packed very light, so in hindsight I could have brought all my luggage to check at the museum. That would have given me up to an extra hour or two if I had known to pack up and check out before. Live and learn.

I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed Bilbao. I have this dream to someday live abroad, even just for a couple years -- could see home in Bilbao or Toulouse. I loved Barcelona and Paris, but I felt small and temporary.

I caught my flight for Lisbon, and the last new city of the trip, early Tuesday afternoon.

Bilbao (Day 1)

Then I went to Bilbao, then I went to Lisbon, then I came home. The end.

I'm a slacker. But I have two more cities, and they were each my favorite yet! Have some time off this week, so maybe I can wrap it up before the new year (in 2 days...)


Travelling alone, in a foreign country, is kind of wonderful. I love to pick out just a couple things to do, map out my day, then see what else I find along the way. Knowing I would have limited time, and knowing I'd just have come off two weeks of fast-paced and regimented school and sightseeing, Bilbao sounded perfect. It's a smaller city with unique history, nestled between mountains and ocean. 

If you Google "Bilbao" one of the first things you'll find is probably its Guggenheim Museum. The museum is absolutely worth seeing, but the Basque region of Spain's culture and geography is also unique and wonderful.

I took a short flight from Barcelona (thank you, bonus miles!) and landed ready to take on day 1 (of 2.5) in Bilbao. I caught the bus to my AirBnB to get the key and meet my hosts. It was a beautiful day, and they suggested that if I wanted to spend some time outside I should enjoy it while I could -- it had been unseasonably wet and unpredictable, so there was no telling what was in store for the rest of my short time there.
My feline AirBnB host. This cat is hilarious.


My short list for Bilbao included: Guggenheim, mountains, beach. I live in a city that is built right up to and around mountains, so I did some research into where I could take a hike without taking a full day trip. I found Pagasarri. Pagasarri is a small mountain range, part of the Basque Mountains, sometimes referred to as "the lungs of Bilbao" but the translation/root words have something to do with a goddess.

I was determined to take public transit as far as I could, then walk to the trails from there. Public transit in a strange place -- in a foreign language -- is serious mental aerobics. Eat your heart out, Lumosity. I don't really speak enough Spanish, and, as with any unfamiliar public transit line, I really didn't know where I was going or when to really start looking out for my stop. I ended up following the blue dot on Google Maps to see when my stop was approaching (international data saves the day again.)

Despite technology, I got off a bit too early (see above, "no idea where I was going") and ended up walking maybe 2 miles more than necessary (uphill... to a mountain). Maybe I should have taken a cab... Even so it was nice to see a little more of the city and the region.

My short hike was totally breathtaking and worth it.
Not pictured: ominous storm clouds

Wish I knew what this is.

This picture was taken early in the hike, and shortly after, the mostly blue sky turned grey and ominous. A light rain gave way to heavier downpour and loud thunder cracks. I thought it best to turn back at that point, not knowing how bad it would get and thinking it unwise to be out alone on an unfamiliar mountain during a thunderstorm. It cleared up before I got back to the road (Pagasarri, you trickster) but not before my legs were wobbly and tired.

It was so different than where I had just come from (Barcelona, Catalunya), and from the (admittedly under-informed) image I have of, say Madrid or Sevilla. I also read in my limited research that the Basque Mountains are sometimes referred to as the "Spanish Alps" -- though this was merely a foothill compared to those, I can see it.

Somewhere on this map is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino del Norte passes near Bilbao on its route along Spain's northern coast, from San Sebastian to Santiago. If the few hours I spent out around Bilbao is any indication of the rest of the camino, that seems like not a bad way to spend a couple months...

Something else this picture shows is the "amnistia" graffiti, which I began to notice as somewhat pervasive throughout the early part of this jaunt. The Basque people identify as very different from the rest of Spain, tack on unhealed wounds from the Spanish Civil War, and while the Basque nationalist or separatist mindsets continue, there was violence from the extreme wing of the separatist movement (the ETA) from the 1960s up through the early 2000s. The "amnistia" is for ETA prisoners, for whom there is still apparently strong sentiment for release. For an outsider who has a lot to learn, but it was an eye-opener to a just-beneath-the-surface but essential element of the region. Once I saw the "amnistia," I saw it tucked in pockets throughout the city. 
I am still struck by how little I knew about this (still do) as, I think, an informed and globally-engaged adult. I guess not. A couple of (long-form) pieces on the history which I found very interesting. Both are admittedly written by an Brit and an American, respectively. It's history written by an "other," but I had a hard time finding alternatives written in English, rather than Spanish or Euskara (I'd welcome suggestions!)
And a news article about a 2,500-person demonstration, only about a month ago (in Spanish, so, full disclosure, I only about 75% read/understood)

"Pinxtos" which sounds like a dirty word in American Spanish.
I asked my hosts where they would suggest some authentic Basque food after my hike, and they suggested pinxtos at Cafe Iruna. From there, I guess that would be in Bilbao's more downtown/commercial district. Old Town is just a short walk across the river. I was content to finish the day reading in the small park across the street from the restaurant.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Montserrat (Barcelona side-trip)

Got a little sidetracked! To be honest, I began writing this post over a month ago, and I just started to go in a really surprising direction. I wasn't sure what to do with it, so I decided to put it aside for a bit... and it ended up there for longer than I expected.

Our first full day in Barcelona was a free day before classes started the next day. The options were one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tours, or... choose your own adventure. One of my travel buddies had the great suggestion of a day trip to the Santa Maria de Monserrat monastery, about an hour outside the city (by train.)

As much as, once I had to leave, I would have loved an extra day to explore Barcelona, I have no regrets spending this day away.


The story is that the Virgin Mary appeared to some sheepherder children, they fetched the adults, she appeared to the adults, and they built the monastery on that site.

Up and away...

To get to the city, which is somewhat touristed-out but still pretty awesome, you ride a death trap, dangling hundreds of yards (more appropriately, "metres") in the air from a cable of unknown age. I mean... It adds to the experience.
DOOOOOM! But not really.

You thought going up was terrifying?

The City

There are several holy sites in the city to visit, including the main monastery building and several more remote sites, as well as an expansive cafeteria and gift shop. Because this was a sort of last minute decision, we didn't do much research other than what we could pull up on the train and in the city. That would have been a good idea.

Very Barcelona Knight Templar
We had planned to see the Lady of Montserrat statue, which is one of the rare and more famous "black Madonnas" in Europe. The line was longer than we'd liked, so we skipped in favor of a trip to the the Santa Cova (or Holy Grotto), the cave where the vision is said to have appeared. It seemed the most reasonable to get to, and, besides, a cave? How awesome does that sound? It's only about a 20-30 minute walk, but it has some reasonably steep and strenuous spots. Tangent: I really need to get myself some bad-ass adventure babe sandals. This is the not the first time I have found myself sort-of-hiking in open-backed sandals while travelling (Exhibit A: Petra 2009. Not pictured: flip flops.) Flip flops not recommended.

The path to the cave

The view from the path to the cave
The views from this walk were just spectacular. No picture could compare.

In the Santa Cova, there are offerings to the Virgin: wedding and confirmation dresses, babies' onesies, written letters and prayers, little trinkets and jewelry...

I've decided that reflecting on Montserrat, and putting it into a blog post with some semblance of purpose has been complicated for a couple of reasons.

First, I am not a religious person, but I imagine the peace and wholeness that I feel in nature is similar to what others experience in a different context... A part of the universe in a way that is comparatively small yet also whole and significant. This kind of site was awesome, for me, to bask in the warmth of that shared human experience.

Second, and more unexpectedly perhaps, my grandmother used to love this stuff. When I was much younger and they were still pretty healthy, she and my grandfather used to go on trips all over to visit Catholic sites. It's been a tough year for my family (though back on the up!) but it's a site she'd be all about (the history of which begins with a vision of the Virgin Mary.) I couldn't help but reflect on the line of bad-ass women from which I descend. Girl power.