One Last Hurrah

Hey there, from 34,000 feet! I'm about a half hour into my flight to PDX and I thought I'd squeeze in one final post before I get home (and have a burger!) while flying. So here we go!

The last two days in Barcelona were pretty quick, so I'll just touch on them briefly. I got a swanky four star hotel in the Eixample area for only 40/night...gotta love HotWire lol. The first night, I immediately ran over to Casa Mila to get a glimpse of the roof at sunset, since it was going to rain Saturday. It was very surreal to say the least lol. Afterwords, I went on the shopping hunt again in the Plaça de Catalunya area, turning up nothing once more in terms of jackets. Oh well, I'll find one in the States. I wandered the Barri Gotic area for souvenirs, window shopping down all the twisty alleys before heading back to the hotel to recharge and figure out my Saturday plans. That evening, I had a nice, cheap meal at La Rita, a restaurant recommended by my dad, and then had a little paseo from the Ramblas all the way back to my hotel.

Saturday was one last gasp of sightseeing before my flight from one end of Barcelona to the other. First up, the Palau de la Música Catalana and into its shop to look for trinkets that my parents recommended. Afterwords, I hopped a metro to the opposite side of town to see Camp Nou, the FC Barcelona stadium. Very impressive and informative, though I don't know if it was worth 23 to get in. At least I found a cool scarf lol. Next up, a metro to Montjuïc and back to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya after our failed attempt last time in town. The museum was very nice and I easily covered it in two hours, though most of it was in Catalan lol. Finally, one last stop at the Museu de la Xocolata to grab a cup of chocolate (I missed out last time hehe) and to look for gifts.  Man, that stuff made me almost as hyper as Sarah!

A stop at the hotel to re-sort my bags and figure out the bus to the airport for today and then I was off exploring the Eixample in search of one last good tapas dinner. The first place I chose was packed (a good sign), but there was some confusion between the host and bartender as to whether I was waiting for a table or getting food at the bar. After 20 minutes, I just left since I couldn't get anyone's attention. Continuing back towards my place, I found a new age style dinner place and had a nice meal instead; it's okay, I've had my fill of tapas so I wasn't too disappointed. I then went back to finish packing, watch Casino Royale, and pass out.

This morning, I quickly packed, grabbed the metro to Plaça d'Espanya and took the Aerobus to the terminal. Now, I wasn't too happy to get “randomly” selected to be screened before boarding, but whatever. I always get picked...I think I'll have a chat with my friends at the TSA. Anywho, here I am now, ready to write my final post, which will be right after the break.

Until then!

- Mateo

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Tangier and 'evilla' (I thought you don't pronounce the 'S'?)

Wednesday started out with me getting up and playing on Facebook before my ferry to Tanger. By then, I had forgotten about the whole wind thing (a sign that my travel anxiety was pretty much gone). Well, 10 a.m. rolled around and I headed over to the FRS terminal to meet my tour guide and wear my little 'FRS' sticker (*shudders*). After taking the five minute stroll, I arrived at the terminal only to have the person at the gate and the ticket window SUGGEST that I get a refund due to weather. I've rarely had a company refund me for a tourist related ticket (FRS said the ticket was nonrefundable previously) so you can understand my shock. The wind had been pretty strong that morning, which probably meant it was hell out in the strait.

The ferry was there, so what was the deal? The problem was I could go out on the ferry and tour, but I might not make it back because they were canceling ferries likely later in the day when the winds picked up. Now, if I had a very open itinerary or several days to spend in Morocco like one of the girls back at the hostel, this posed no problem, as the morning ferry was still there. However, I had already spent more time in Tarifa than I cared to and I was really looking forward to Sevilla, so the idea of getting stuck in Tanger for a day (or more) didn't really appeal to my schedule.

After a quick runaround back and forth between the ticket office and terminal, I got my refund (in cash amazingly) and quickly made my way back to the hostel. The host told me that winds were only going to get worse over the next several days, so that made me feel better about my call. I speed walked to the bus station (about 5-10 minutes away) and had my Sevilla ticket changed to the next bus that day, which was in about an hour. Back to the hostel (I'm getting tired again just writing about all this back-and-forth lol), I added a day to my hostel in Sevilla and canceled Tarifa (no refund this late of course), got directions for the new hostel and went to my room to pack my bags.

The Dutch guys were just heading out for kite surfing, so we said our goodbyes as I quickly packed up and left. If there's one thing I love about backpacking, even for a planner like myself, it's the ability to make a quick switch, pack up in 15 minutes and be gone to the next big's very exhilarating. Shuffling out the door, Gustavo let me know he'd be in Sevilla on the 5 p.m. Bus, so if we had a chance to meet, we'd hang out for tapas and touring. I walked casually to the bus station this time, as I had my backpack to lug. Man, thank God I downloaded a Bond movie the night before on my laptop (the one that features Gibraltar), so I had that ready to roll on the bus.

Dropping my bags and plopping into a seat at the bus stop with a Coke, I took a breather just to take in all that had changed in all of about a half hour. Frankly, I was surprised I wasn't more upset and down on not going to Tanger (I know I can get that way sometimes). I thought about it and here's what I came up with to validate my decision (which I'm forever doing):

  • I trust peoples' advice first and my guidebooks second. In this case, both said the tour I had booked for Tanger sucked.
  • Leo and countless others made the rest of Morocco (Casablanca, Marrakesh, etc...) sound so much more interesting, so I figure a trip to Morocco (or northern Africa) is warranted.
  • “You can always come back”, a great Rick Steves mantra
  • Even if I went, my anxiety about the wind would just spoil it
  • I had already missed out on having a good guide
  • After the whole ER experience, I wasn't looking for another trip-jostling event

In the end, I consider what I did smart, not just safe...I mean, I like to think I take some risks (i.e. solo travel), but in this case, there was the potential for several days of my trip lost (pretty much Sevilla gone) and a possible plane ticket in my future if the ferries were down through the weekend. Probably not the case, but still even a day would've been a bummer.

Okay, that's enough of that. Another smooth bus ride and I arrived in beautiful Sevilla at 4 p.m., enjoying the warmth and sunlight while also starving. I ended up at a restaurant where my fumbled Spanish earned me not one, but two “raciones” (larger portions) plus the wine I had intended to order. I couldn't be rude, plus I was hungry, so I just ate both lol.

My new hostel was probably the nicest hostel I've ever stayed in...that's probably why they named it a 'boutique' hostel. I mean, it has a full dining room (with a host serving crepes and waffles in the morning!), a fitness center, really nice beds and everything brand-new. Keeping along my philosophy for the trip of small, non-party hostels (more on that in a future post), I found this one a little unusual. It had way more older people and families (with kids) that I'm used to, probably due to the large number of 2 person rooms. Most of the other people were quiet or nonexistent (it is middle of off-season). Rather than switch hostels (this one was ONLY €10/night!) I decided to stick with it and get out and tour to meet people. After all, I had the extra time now.

Out I went, going on an evening “paseo” (stroll) to see what Sevilla was all about. I wandered Plaza Nueva, around the cathedral, and into the winding Santa Cruz district, which I heard had an ample supply of gift shops. No gems, I admit, but I did poke around here and there. I'm going lighter on the souvenirs this time, since getting one thing from each city usually just earns me a bunch of junk lol. No finds in Santa Cruz (damn!) but maybe back in Barcelona before I leave. I went back to Plaza Nueva to shop the many stores in the area, as it was now evening and people were out and about. I was looking for a new coat (mine's getting a bit raggity) as well as a scarf, which I so desperately needed this whole trip but never found one warm enough (frankly, I didn't look that much lol). Why look in Europe? I had luck when I needed a jacket last time in Berlin, so I figured since European clothes are pretty stylish and seem to fit me well, why not? Turns out, I didn't have luck in Sevilla, but I added that to another of my Barcelona to-do items.

Back at the hostel, I met Mane (Mah-nay) who led the tour to the flamenco show. We ended up only having five people total at the show, so it turned into our own personal little show. It was a lot of fun, though I wasn't always sure where to clap or “Ole!” lol. I also met Pieterjan (he says just call him “Peter-John” to make it easier) who was from Belgium. We went out after, along with Paula, the other guide, for tapas and then some drinks. Overall, it was probably as exciting as we could make Wednesday during off-season. I got back late, of course waking up everyone in my room (I hate being that guy), even though it was only 1:30 a.m.

Thursday arrived and I must say, it was indeed a very different Thanksgiving :-) Throughout the night, I had played the noisy roommate in my hostel, banging the toilet shut (the thing was apparently really loose) and dropping my eBook off my bed while sleeping (oops). It happens. In the morning, I met my Taiwanese roomie over breakfast. I grabbed food before the guy could make me a waffle, but I figured I get one the next morning. She, along with my other roommate, were just leaving, so we only had a few quick words before we parted ways.

I made my way over to the cathedral at 11 a.m. to catch the tour that was being led by Mane. Pieterjan showed up, along two German girls, Jay (aka Jono) from Australia and Aleah from friggin' Oregon (Eugene to be exact). Together, we toured the city (Plaza de España, simply AMAZING by the way, don't know why the guidebook was down on's also planet Naboo for all you Star Wars fans), ending up in a nice park two hours later. Me, Pieterjan, Jay and Aleah walked over to a tapas place for lunch that Mane recommended (the dates were awesome!) and then we headed to the cathedral to tour around the inside.

Afterwards, the four of us agreed to meet up at 8 p.m. to do our own tapas tour and bar crawl for dinner. Instead of going directly to the hostel for a siesta, I did a quick tour of the bullring, which was pretty cool. The tour itself wasn't much (and mostly in Spanish, which I luckily could follow), but it was worth getting a picture of the inside. By now, it was beginning to rain and I was beat, so I made my way back to the hostel, made my Thanksgiving phone call to the family and then passed out for a little bit.

Before going out on our crawl, I began to reconsider staying another day in Sevilla. I really didn't have much left to do other than perhaps the Alcázar, and I already had been to Granada. Of course, I couldn't refund my Ryanair flight, but I was already not looking forward to getting up at 3-4 a.m. To be hassled by them for something I didn't pay for, plus it was only €44 (€10 of which was the actual fare). I also had two train tickets on my pass still after the ER thing, and I love trains.

So I made the switch to go to Barcelona a day early in hopes of some sun, the second such change in the last few days. I must say, I was getting pretty good and this switcheroo thing. I booked a new hotel (not hostel for my last leg) in Barcelona, got the train ticket and printed it, canceled my Sevilla hostel and got directions in Barcelona. The unfortunate side-affect was that my previous hotel in Barcelona was nonrefundable (I chose one closer to downtown than the airport, as it had better transit options), but I figure I can fight that by refusing payment.

With all that settled, I was late for our tapas tour. Luckily, Aleah and Jay had gotten a hold of me on Facebook a half hour earlier, and we had all agreed to meet for the 8:30 p.m. tapas tour put on by Mane's group. I realized that Pieterjan hadn't chimed in, and asked the other two to see if they could find them in their hostel or at our previous meeting spot by the cathedral. Unfortunately, I arrived at the tour meeting spot and Pieterjan wasn't there (so sorry man!), so Mane and I went looking for him with no luck. By then, it was 30 minutes after we were supposed to meet for our original tour. No hard feelings, I hope.

Our group consisted of me, Jay, Aleah, the German girls and a group on others from the other hostels. We toured three tapas places, getting lots of different tapas to try courtesy of Eddie, our host, along with a ton of sangria. A very nice Thanksgiving indeed. I was beginning to wonder if changing to Barcelona was a good idea, as I might not be back too early. Fortunately, I was able to cut out between the end of the tapas tour and beginning of the pub tour (I guess Eddie had a fight with another host and left us hanging, so we were all confused). The remaining group was going to try and find a disco-tech, but I decided to be lame and turn around ta 1 a.m. to get a little sleep before my morning train. I know, I should've stayed out, but I think that whole ER thing still has a me a little subdued, not to mention that I tend to only party here and there.

Asleep at 1 a.m. after meeting my Brazilian roomies brings me up to being on the train to Barcelona this morning. Aaaaaaaand...we're like an hour and a half away! More updates from Barcelona, including a little summary of likes/dislikes, etc will be coming your way in the next couple of days.

I leave you be while I try again for Casa Mila and perhaps the Museo Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, along with some last-minute shopping. I loved Barcelona, and I'm looking forward to spending a bit more time there. And of course, I come home in a few days! This has been an interesting trip, but I'm reaching the point where I'm ready to take a vacation from vacation and come home and relax for a bit.

With that, I bid you “adeu” (in the Catalan style of Barcelona).

- Mateo

P.S.  The joke in the title comes from the fact that Sevillians choose not to pronounce the 's' in words (saying "gracia" instead of "gracias" for thank you), so it's just my tip of the hat to them :-)

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A Surfer Spot and a Piece of England

Hey there, readers! Guess what? Another long train (this time 5 hours) means more time that I can spend hanging out with you, yay!

Last you heard (unless you've been watching Facebook), I just coming into Tarifa via bus. That morning was the usual quick pack-and-go with me shipping out of the hostel around 7 a.m. and catching the city bus to the main bus station. MAN, that thing was packed early in the morning! Doesn't help that I have a nice 30 pound weight swinging around my back lol. Getting to the bus station, I grabbed a quick breakfast (my staple has now become an OJ and croissant), deciphered the bus schedule and boarded around 10 a.m.

I must say, Alsa knows how to treat their customers. The “Supra” bus I was on was more like a first-class bus, better than any train or plane I've been on so far. It had WiFi, individual TVs and even a goodie bag with snacks! Now, the Moroccan lady next to me insisted that “ventana” doesn't mean window, so I didn't get my seat, but whatever. I was perfectly content watching Slumdog Millionaire while cruising towards the Mediterranean coast. After a pit stop in Malaga (and a dash to the bathroom by yours truly to make sure I didn't get left behind), the second driver forgot to turn the TVs back on, which was a bit of a bummer, but I chose to read and stare at the coast. This was my first view of the Mediterranean and I must say it's absolutely beautiful, especially with the rolling hills in southern Spain.

Getting to Algeciras, I had to figure out how to transfer to the regional Comes bus to Tarifa. Before I knew it, I walked to the bus next to ours, threw my bag underneath and paid my 1-2 Euros. MAN, talk about a quick transfer lol. Forty-five minutes later and I was in Tarifa. Overall, I've been very impressed by the Spanish bus system. I had my doubts about getting around the second half of my trip that way, but I gotta admit, the buses are very nice and clean and there's always a spot (at least during off-season). The ones to/from Algeciras and Tarifa are basically nice charter buses that work like a city bus, where you pay on board or swipe a card. Other ones require you to purchase a ticket at the counter. Either way, I was very happy indeed.

Ah Tarifa, a town I would deem “The Pismo Beach of Spain” for all you Cal Poly peeps out there. It's got the total relaxed surfer town thing going for it, which makes sense. This town, which also happens to be the southern-most town in continental Europe, hosts an onslaught of international tourists during the busy season for surfing and especially kite surfing. The beach is also very pristine, getting much less attention than the rest of the overdeveloped southern coast of Spain. Of course, when it's winter, the place is a bit of a ghost town. Even so, after Granada, it was my second easy-going vacation spot, so no complaints, other than it tended to get a tad quiet in the evenings.

I found my hostel, which happens to be right by the coast and the ferry to Tanger. The place was deserted, as most hostels are during the day and especially during the weekdays in off-season. I seemed to have 3 other roomies at least, so that was a good sign. Out in Tarifa, I walked along the southern coast where you can literally SEE the coast of Africa. So cool! I also cruised around the terminal and to the beach where I finally enjoyed a little sun in the warmer weather (I define warm as not needing two coats lol).

Other than that, wandering the town proved there wasn't much else left to do. I went back to the hostel and lounged on the rooftop terrace, watching the sunset and the ships going in and out of the straits while I read. I also began planning both of my daytrips, Gibraltar and Tanger, which I'd be doing over the next two days. A little blogging and then I was off to find dinner. Tarifa, being an internationally recognized surf/wind spot, has a matching set of international eateries. That allowed me to take a brief repose from tapas and eat some sushi! I was very satisfied, even if the rolls were small, as all the fish was very fresh.

Touring the bar area, I didn't find too many people (including Gustavo and Adam, whom I met briefly at the hostel in the evening), so back to the hostel to blog, write, make phone calls and call it early. It's amazing, I've actually been getting a decent amount of sleep on this trip. Maybe I'm doing this wrong (aka I should be partying until 5 a.m. Everyday), but honestly, I'm not going to complain when I'm awake during the day and can remember the amazing sites that I've seen.

Speaking of amazing sites, I woke up early the next morning to head off to Gibraltar. That was by far one of my favorite sites so far on this trip. The main trick with Gibraltar turned out to be getting the buses right. In order to get there from Tarifa, I had to take two buses from Tarifa to Algeciras and finally to La Línea de la Concepción. That's the Spanish town right on the border (Spaniards still are a little sore about Gibraltar, so they don't like to mention it). The buses were okay as usual, through the La Línea bus made a TON of local stops; next time, I would remember to grab a “directo” bus. The border itself? Sheesh. You literally walk through a terminal and flash your passport! I was hoping for at least a stamp to add to my collection lol. Once you're in, it's either another bus ride or a 30 minute walk. With the daytrip I had planned, I chose the bus. When backpacking and walking everywhere, you need to pick your battles wisely lol.

Landing at Casemates Square, I tried feeding not one but two map machines Euros and got snubbed! It least I didn't pay one pound instead, since that would be a worse exchange rate (Gibraltar accepts both, though usually Euros are accepted with a 30% markup). I wandered main street towards the cable car, grabbing some British pounds and checking out all the shops along the way. I guess there's a cheap duty on certain goods in Gibraltar, since all I saw was cigarettes, electronics and watches in every shop. The first cigarette stop after the border was absolutely MOBBED with people. Anywho, without a map, I used the cable car wires as a guide through town (which isn't very big) and finally found the spot where I paid and rode to the top of “The Rock”.

For my little adventure, I chose the cheaper option of riding to the top and hiking (walking down the streets) back to the bottom. I decided to pay for the five or so attractions along the way as well, since it seemed worth seeing at least a few of them. Arriving at the top, I grabbed a coffee from the little shop and took a TON of pictures. I then began hiking down to visit the sites, first heading for St. Michael's Cave. Along the way, I ran into monkeys everywhere...I mean, they literally took over the street to the point of me having to scoot around them. It was fun to watch them play and inundate the taxi tours that drove by. One even jumped on a lady's shoulders with help from a guide lol. The apes were by far the best attraction as you were able to get close up (just don't try to feed them or show them any plastic bags).

Everything else along the way down? I'd say if you want to spend a little time, check out St. Michael's Cave and maybe the Siege Tunnels if you're a history/military buff. The other big sites (Ape's Den, City Under Siege exhibit and Moorish palace) were all totally not worth it. The monkeys you get to see just by walking along the top; there weren't really any by the Ape's den, which is also where you stop if you take the cable car back down. Of course, navigating down the tiny, twisty roads was an experience in itself. Add in the people driving super fast and the loads of taxis and tour buses careening around the corners, and you have yourself a grand old time hiking down haha.

Back at the bottom, I wandered back through main street, a little slower this time to look for any souvenirs. Of course, the American dollar is TERRIBLE vs. the British pound (like 2 to 1), so any “deals” I saw in those shops didn't look so good to me. Of course I had to stop for some fish 'n' chips as well! Now, I was a little mystified why I got cold beer, but that's okay I'll take it. I sound like an anti-ugly American lol. Afterwards, my feet were feeling pretty good, so I took the walking tour back to the border, admiring the runway that you literally walk/drive across to get there. Too bad no planes were flying in that day, that would've been so cool!

Finding my bus, I made it to Algeciras with no problems only to find that this time there wasn't just a bus waiting for me to Tarifa. I had become spoiled lol. Instead, I had like an hour and half wait (!) between Tarifa buses. It's kind of strange, since they run regularly, but the schedule has these random gaps (and I happened to find one lol). In the time I had, I decided to hang and finish my current book since Algeciras isn't really much more than an industrial port. When I did finally make it back to Tarifa, I checked out the San Mateo church briefly, the one major site I missed, and then proceeded back to the hostel, where I happened to run into Gustavo, Adam, and three vegetarian girls (named such because I forgot names) who were from Utah, Vancouver B.C. and Australia.

We all began to talk about Morocco and heading over there, since the 35 minute ferry is the main reason people come to Tarifa. It's the only direct ferry to the main town port in Tanger (the Algeciras one takes you to a port about 30 minutes away from the Tanger town center). This whole trip, I've been hearing how awesome Morocco is (from Leo and others), so I was looking forward to my little daytrip the following day. Unfortunately, my personal guide has been a bit flakey since finding him...or may it's just the Moroccan way. Either way, I hadn't heard anything from him since booking back in the States, so I emailed him again and in the meantime I booked one of the cookie cutter tours the ferry company puts on. Anxiety got the best of me for a moment lol. The guide, Aziz, actually did get back to me saying we were still on, but then a follow-up saying we could meet once I figure out how to get out of the tour yielded nothing. I'm guessing either he thought I was blowing him off or he was just being Aziz.

Either way, over dinner I heard more from Adam and others how great going deeper into Morocco is and how the tours are so awful (which Rick Steves agrees with, though 90% of people traveling there do them). The problem is that the tours are made in such away that you're thrown into high-pressure buying situations with crappy souvenirs. You get guides in Tanger mainly to 1) keep the hawkers away and 2) to see the sights lol. But the tour companies get a cut from the vendors they walk you buy, which is why the tour with ferry is actually cheaper than a roundtrip ferry ticket. Such a scam. By this point, I was feeling a little down and out about buying a ticket (which was also non-refundable), but I kept telling myself I just want to see a quick glimpse of Morocco and Muslim culture, no matter how bad the tour is. I mean, you can't glitz over all that, right?

Out I went for dinner, grabbing a salad to try and balance out all this bread and meat in the Spanish diet. I came back to hang with the hostel cat, who took over my keyboard as cats do, while I researched and read a little bit. At this point, my Dutch roomies (who I met the night before) were back from their kite surfing lessons, so we talked with Adam about random travels. At this point, Adam told me that with how windy it was today, the ferries might cancel during my daytrip. Oh no! Well, all you can do is wait and see, right? The girls whom I met earlier weren't worried, since they were all going to Morocco for days or weeks. Then you have me, who's on a tight schedule and only has a day here and there.

In the end, I decided to just sleep on it (Tarifa was still dead) and see what the next day brought. Stay tuned for word on Tanger and Sevilla...I'm going on a reading break :-)

¡Hasta Luego!

- Mateo

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Oh Granada...

Passed the one week mark already!? My goodness. Better get started on this blog of my favorite city so far, Granada!

As you saw by the 3 blogs I churned out in one day, I had a boring 4 hour train ride down to Granada. Lots of reading, blogging and staring lol. I arrived to construction at the train station and no signs for the bus I needed; nice. Luckily, me and another backpacker started wandering and found the stations and it was all good. Freddie, who runs my hostel, was EXTREMELY nice (as most hostel hosts are), showing me on the map all the best spots to sightsee and eat tapas. The place only held 20 people, and there's just one 6-person backpacker room; the rest are for couples. That's a bit of a switch, but a mellow hostel is cool with me; after the ER scare, I'm not planning on partying all night anytime soon.

Speaking of tapas, I took Freddie's suggestion and had lunch consisting of a beer and free tapa (they're big on that in Granada AND you can choose). The best part, I did the whole thing in Spanish; I was very proud, especially in a local lunch place by the university.
Afterwards, out I went with the afternoon ahead of me. I explored the outside of the cathedral and grabbed my Alhambra ticket. Following the river, I wandered up the hills of the Albayzín stopping at all the view points on the map. That included San Miguel, which is way the heck up there, but has the best view of the city. I may have wandered into some of the gypsy caves instead of the main tourist path, but it was all good. The view was simply stunning.

Back I strolled to the hostel, sitting down to post all those blogs, noticing that everyone around me was a couple. Usually, couple travelers keep to themselves, and it seemed to hold true here too. Fortunately, Kate and Catherine? (sorry, so many names in traveling) came in. They're study-abroad students from Madrid; Kate is originally from Minneapolis while Catherine is from...wait for it...Grosse Pointe! You have got to be kidding me, how many Michigan people am I going to meet in Spain? Amazing. We gabbed about GP for a while, then after getting ready I went with them and Kiko, one of our hosts, to grab dinner and then possibly make it to the Arab Baths.

Unfortunately, the baths didn't have any appointments (and I totally brought my swimsuit!) so Kiko and I split off from the girls after dinner, heading back towards the town center. I asked Kiko to recommend another tapas place (since I only had one with my drink), so he showed me and then headed to the hostel.

Getting back, stuff got done for once. I mean, this whole trip, I've felt I'm just steamrolling over all my plans and setting things up, which is fine, but it's a bit seam-of-the-pants. Granada is the first city where I've been able to relax, even though I lost a day there. I made phone calls, called the insurance about the whole ER thing, read up on buses and messed a lot with Facebook. Taking an easy night and thinking I'd see the college drinking seen the next day, I went to bed a little early.

Turns out, in addition to the two girls, our room was pretty much full, including Tom, who was biking from England to Morocco. He was hanging out with Natalie from Canada, who was in a separate room. Then there was also another Polish girl, who's name I cannot remember (sorry!)...MAN, she was a talker, but it's always good to meet a fellow Pole.

Anywho, the next morning I got up at 9 a.m. to plan and was out after a quick breakfast at 10 a.m. for the Alhambra. I walked up the other giant hill in Grenada and entered the Moorish palace through the shortcut Justice Gate, since I already had my ticket. Even though my time for the visit was 11:00 a.m., you're allowed to visit all the other sites before 2 p.m., which is cool.

As for the Alhambra itself...just WOW. This is simply THE site to see in Spain and has made Granada my #1 city so far. First up, I wandered the Alcazaba and Charles V Palace before waiting for my time to enter the Palacios Nazaries. And man, once I got in there...just SO many pictures lol. Major picture overload on Facebook, I know. The tile work is simply amazing; it's like Park Guell all over again, only on a much larger scale. Luckily, the mob was held off by the fact that it was morning, it was cold and it was off-season, of which I was thankful. The entire site, despite the knots of people, was very serene and peaceful, with birds chirping all over.

After the main palace, I hit the Generalife Gardens, which I personally thought were just as worth it simply for the colorful photos. That and the AMAZING views. I guess that crisp 0...err 32 degree weather made for good photos, huh? Finally, I wandered back out after 3 hours, a long time at one site for me. I will remember that place forever, that and now I have several GBs of pics to remind me lol.

Back in town, I watched a band of women drummers perform before heading down to find lunch. I went to a tapas place that looked good the previous day, ordering the plato del dia (plate of the day). I was hoping for a raciones size item rather than a tapa, which is what I figured I was getting based on the other menu items (and the price). Instead, I got some chicken and egg soup, which was good don't get me wrong, but not worth €8. I actually waited much longer than normal to ask for the check because I thought I had another course coming...oops. Next time, I'll either ask what the plato del dia is for the day or just order something else. Instead of asking for more, I got a free tapa with a drink at another restaurant haha. I can see where this can get you in trouble.

Back at the hostel, I met Rob, who was originally from Kalamazoo (What the heck is with all the MI people?) and now lives in SF. I only stayed around for a little bit before heading over to look for shopping. I first went to Alcaiceria to wander and shop for souvenirs. Evidently, everything is as cheap as my guide book says, so no winning trinkets there. I don't know, after forcing myself to buy something from each city I visited last time and ending up with crap, this time I am only going for things that are of value to me. Needless to say, I didn't find much.

Elsewhere, everything was shut down for Sunday, so I couldn't get any of the items I needed, like a thick scarf and gloves lol. It's cold here! Instead, I came back to the hostel and fixed photos, played with my computer a bit, chatted with folks and relaxed. I must say, for the first time all trip, I finally was feeling relaxed. It usually takes me a week to fight through all the travel anxiety, based on my last Eurotrip. So yea, just a nice quiet couple of hours. That, and it was just cold lol

Natalie invited me, Tom and Rob out for flamenco, and since my second attempt to book the Arab baths failed, we went out that night for dinner and the show. We split tapas and a bottle of wine downtown and then hit up a little flamenco place next to the river that our hostel recommended. The dance area was literally in a basement bunker-style area, like a little cave. It made the experience feel much more authentic than those massive tourist operations. We clapped and shouted along while drinking sangria; overall, I felt very Spanish haha.
When all was said and done, we braved the cold once more to head to the hostel. Tom and me were the only ones left in our room, so we crashed early.

Now, I'm in Tarifa after a whole day of buses. More on that, along with Gibraltar and Tangier, to come!

¡Buenas noches!

- Mateo

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Back on My Feet and Up the Hills of Toledo

Third post of the day, here we go! I think we're almost to Granada now lol. Okay, so Friday came and I felt much better, so I woke Leo at 10 a.m. when I wobbled out of bed. We were cleaned up and headed out for the Metro to the bus station by 11:00 a.m. as we planned. I figured since Toledo was only a 45-minute bus ride away and I was feeling better, it was “kind of” like staying put in Madrid.

By the way, although the train is faster (only 15 minutes), at €5 and less crowding, the buses are the way to go. This was also a good intro for me on the buses in Spain, as I'll be using them a lot in the next few days. Anywho, we arrived at 12:30 p.m., grabbed a map and walked up into the city center. EVERYWHERE you look, tourists and buses, my God! I guess Rick Steves wasn't kidding when he said that Toledo is mobbed with tourists during the day and more fun at night. Well, I only had a day now, plus the cold weather kept the city still fairly quiet.

Sarah had reached Toledo the night before, but unfortunately the lack of free Wi-Fi made it too hard to meet. Have fun in Sevilla Sarah, I'm sorry we missed each other, you were such a great buddy to have on this trip! Leo and I wandered from one side of Toledo to the other (not hard to do), stopping at the Cathedral, one of the synagogues and several other sites along the way. We made a point of checking out the jewelry shops, which are known for their thread-woven silver and gold that is pounded into earrings and necklaces by hand. So many cool pieces, especially from the one shop owner who barely spoke English and whom we debated various pieces and styles with; always a treat to hang with a local!

As we headed back, I realized that my minor aches and tinges were not really going down. That, along with the fever overnight made me suspect a possible minor infection still from the previous day. Now, I didn't want to go back to ER just to get meds (which the doc said I could do) and everybody was wondering why they didn't just given them to me, so I took matters into my own hands. I walked into a pharmacy in Toledo and explained as best I could with my ER papers that I might have an infection and needed some “antibióticos”. Luckily, the pharmacist had Amoxicillin and was willing to give me an 8-day supply for €2.50 so I jumped at it. Better safe than sorry, right?

We skipped the Santa Cruz and Military Museum, which I originally wanted to see, but oh well. I'll be back. We took the 6:30 p.m. bus back to Madrid, Leo nodding off from being dead tired. After getting back to Madrid, I grabbed my bags from the hostel and headed to my hotel.

I admit, the hotel was a nice mid-trip treat, even for such a short time. It makes me wonder how long I'll be doing the noise/discomfort of the hostels, but we'll see. I repacked all my bags, called the parents to check in, planned the trip to Granada and settled a bunch of my itinerary snafus. After 10 p.m., Leo and I met up to head to the Mercado de San Miguel once more (honestly, it's the best price and the only busy place) to grab more tapas. Feeling great, I decided to toss my eating restrictions and try a variety of tapas I hadn't had yet, including more sangria from me and Sarah's guy; the stuff's great, man! He even added some extra port for my €1 tip (the first I've given) lol.

I parted ways with Leo where we met, wishing him well. Maybe we'll see each other in Morocco, man! I lounged at the hotel, working on pictures and emails before crashing for my morning train.

Which brings me to now...whew! That said, my 48 hours were up this morning and I'm feeling pretty good, just some minor aches and a little sleepy, so in 20 minutes I'll be in beautiful Granada! Check back in soon, with the smaller towns, I might have more time to catch up and write. Until then, hasta luego!

- Mateo  

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Before I start this next blog, I just want everyone to know that I'm feeling much better and that I'm continuing my journey today to Granada (albeit a day late) since my 48 hour waiting period has expired. With that said, let's get started...

Thursday morning, I woke up at 6 a.m. with some of the most intense pain I've ever had. I mean, it was enough to wake me up (and then keep me awake as I tossed and turned for the next 2 hours). The pain radiated from my lower abdomen, so I knew it wasn't a stomach-related thing like food poisoning. It also didn't seem like just gas. Then, I started to notice that my lower-right side hurt the most as the pain intensified, leading me to believe it might be appendicitis. Oh crap! Traveling alone is one thing, but having a serious medical issue while abroad? Talk about anxiety.

At 8 a.m. I stumbled out of bed, which was when I was supposed to get ready for the train to Toledo with Sarah. Instead, I plowed through the hall looking for the boy Marco who works the night shift. He speaks no English and his Spanish is a little rough, so I didn't have much luck explaining that I needed to go to the hospital. Thank God Luciano walked in for the morning shift! I immediately talked to him (apparently he used to be a medic in the military) and he agreed that I should go to the hospital. André was also super concerned and offered to skip his trip to Ávila to escort me down to the hospital. Sarah also chimed in, altering her train plans to come over to help. I must say, I am so thankful to Luciano, André, Sarah and the entire hostel community. It's a great bunch of people and they are so helpful. I don't know how I'll ever be able to repay you.

Without waiting, André and I hopped into a cab before Sarah could get there and sped off to the hospital. As we wove through traffic, the pain increased and I was bent over crying while André patted me on the back. Finally, we made it to the hospital, which Luciano mentioned was good for English-speakers, so we ran around the building before finally finding the ER and checked in. Rapid-firing some Spanish, André quickly got me checked in with my medical insurance and into the diagnosing doctor. I'm so thankful he could translate, it made things that much more bearable, even if they did know a little English.

Struggling into the doctor's office, I explained my condition with the help of André and she proceeded to ask a detailed set of questions to diagnose me. Funny thing was, sitting on the examining table made me feel better. Luckily, the doc said the fact that I was doubled over in pain (at this point my hands went numb from pain) was a sign that it wasn't my appendix, since I wouldn't be able to lean over like I did. At this point, a nurse rushed in asking if I had an 'hermana' (sister) who was looking for me. After being confused for a moment, I smiled probably for the first time that day, explaining that my friend Sarah was looking for me. Evidently she was tearing through the floors trying to hunt me down. God bless you, Sarah.

Some more waiting and going through an endless array of rooms with tons of doctors (or maybe residents, it was a university hospital...) and I had an x-ray, blood test and urine test done. Not too shabby, I'm glad to see that national healthcare works well at least in some countries (U.S., you need to really kick it into gear). I also had to sit in a room full of people 30+ years older than me and receive a IV drip of pain meds to help me; that was a little bit awkward lol.

Meanwhile, André and Sarah hung in the waiting room chatting about anything and everything. I joined in after an hour or so, waiting for the blood test results, which took two hours. Evidently, Sarah was eyeing a particularly attractive intern walking around while André had his eye on my diagnostic doctor. I laughed and told him that he was really missing out, since the back rooms were full of 20-something year old female interns. We joked and laughed (apparently my meds worked) and talked way too loudly for the waiting room, but it was a good time.

Finally, I was given the results in the early afternoon. The doctor said I most likely had a kidney stone, which Sarah agreed with. I've never had one, but I guess that's what I get for not drinking enough water and eating bad foods including too much sugar. The less likely issue was some minor infection, which showed as a single elevated level in my blood. However, since that could also be from the pain earlier, she told me to get the European equivalent to Tylenol, eat light and monitor myself in Madrid in 48 hours. I was a little down on that, but I said okay and we went our way.

We almost walked out of there without paying, but going back, they gave me the forms and numbers I needed to get my insurance to pay (which I still need to do haha) and we headed outta there without paying a cent, at least for now. We'll see what Anthem Blue Cross has to say about international emergencies :-)

Afterwords, I was still in some minor pain (the meds began to wear off), but now we were all starved more than anything. We found our way over to a nice sit-down place to order menú del día (menu of the day, BEST deal for lunch in Spain). André had mine modified to rice/chicken while he got the typical: 2 plates, a dessert, a drink and a coffee. Gotta love it for €10! Sarah grabbed herself a slice of cake but...oh man, our waiter. This guy was as tall as they come and he mumbled his Spanish so much that even André had a hard time understanding. We all just figured he might be drunk. He gave Sarah a hard time for our money though haha. He kept rearranging her silverware every time she moved something (she's as OCD as me) which we all laughed at. Oh, and after her first slice of cake, he said something that I told Sarah sounded like “second piece of cake” that she had said yes to and wouldn't you know it? She got more cake! I couldn't help, so André had to chime in and take a cut, since the guy would not let Sarah get rid of it no matter how politely she asked. In the end, we had a great experience and we underpaid, so all-in-all a good meal.

Back at the hostel, Luciano thankfully booked me one more night (though the next night I'd need to find a place), so I went into my room to settle things out. I told Sarah to head to Toledo and I might see her the next day on a trip if I was feeling well. André would monitor me overnight and then head to Barcelona. I shuffled all my hostels and trains to fix my itinerary, even grabbing a hotel for Friday night just for a change of pace. I called my parents and Sandy just to clue everybody in...well like I said, the insurance company still doesn't know, but soon lol.

André and I settled for a nap, and soon after Leo, our new roomie, arrived. At this point, I was feeling more pain, but it was more of a food poisoning-type of pain. Leo turned out to be another great guy, offering to take care of me when André left if anything came up. He was from New York, and he was an encyclopedia of travel and money-saving knowledge. It was amazing!

Together, we hit Mercado de San Miguel again since every other place was still dead in Latina and had a good time grabbing tapas. I settled for crackers and water while Leo and André had their fill. We even met a nice couple from Virginia at one of the bars and shared stories over tapas. With Leo egging first me and then the couple on, we even got characters of ourselves drawn lol. Hopefully that paper survives the rest of the trip.

With André and Leo staying out to try and find a party, I took myself back to the hostel to rest up. I had been in the ER all day and running on 2 hours of sleep, so I really needed to get to bed. I washed up, watched a TV show on my laptop and passed out at midnight, sleeping for 10 hours. I did have a fever scare around 3 a.m. right after Leo and André got back, but a wet towel on my forehead (thanks Leo) and taking off all the major blankets solved that.

By morning, I was feeling well enough (only slight pain and no fever) to daytrip with Leo to Toledo, which is up next...

- Mateo

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Madrid: A city of twists and turns

Well hey there, blog readers! I've been leaving you in the dark for a couple days, that'll happen on a trip like this. I'm on a 4 hour train to Granada from Madrid this morning (finally...more later), so I have some time to sit down and compile all the happenings from Madrid over the past several days.

Now where did we leave off? Oh yea, last you heard, I was inbound to Madrid on a 8:30 a.m., that was a long day. I guess the choice to party til 2-3 a.m. was not the smartest idea lol, but whatever, it happens when doing the hostel thing. So yea, Umayr and I parted ways and I arrived in Madrid around 11 a.m., lugging my backpack through the busy Metro and street of Gran Vía to my hostel. This time, my place was up on the seventh floor of a high rise, with a layout that reminded me of Ars Hostel back in Krakow. No common room again, but maybe that's what I get for going with these smaller hostels. The place also seemed deserted, which was a bit eerie. Anywho, Luciano, the host, was nice enough to give me directions and take my bags since I couldn't check in. So off I went with a few hours sleep!

First up, Puerta del Sol, which I got seriously lost finding following the diagonal streets of Madrid. Amazing, being the navigator that I am and since this plaza is the center of Madrid. Well I made it, finding a giant golden Christmas tree, a few walking cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, Papa Smurf, etc...) and a pile of tourists. Ok, next stop: Plaza Mayor. Just down the street, I easily found the square plaza with identical buildings on all sides. Again, not much to see other than some guys trying to sell tiny helicopters like those I saw in Paris and a whole mess of elementary school kids on a field trip.

Actually, I ended up following the same group of kids by accident to my next stop, the Royal Palace. It was an absolutely beautiful site, though it's too bad that they actually enforce the no photos rule (even without a flash). The armory was my favorite, with tons of suits of armor for men as well as horses, not to mention all the different swords and other weapons. The royal chambers were beautiful of course, full of all sorts of colors and fabrics.

A short lunch, then over to the biggest Spanish flag in Madrid (courtesy of Nikki's friend Javier) over in Plaza de Colón and on to the Prado for the free time after 4:00 p.m. I got there at 3:30 p.m. To find that it was the anniversary of the Prado, so the whole day had been free admission! That's okay, 2 ½ hours was more than enough time for me in the museum, sleepy as I was, but still it was very impressive. I especially loved to watch the people painting the reproductions next to famous paintings.

Back to the hostel in the early evening, and only 6 people total in the hostel! That's what off-season and weekdays bring to the hostel world. There was only one person in my 4 bed room, but he wasn't back yet (turns out he was in Toledo for the day), so I just relaxed for a bit, making some calls back home. And wouldn't you know it? Sarah showed up!

Okay, so Sarah was supposed to come with me in the morning on the train to Madrid. However, when she didn't show up in the hostel lobby at 6:30 a.m., we left without her. Turns out, after being out for the same rough night (including banging her head on the ground and maybe getting a concussion), she awoke at 5:00 a.m. to her roommate Matt (there were 3-5 Matt's in the hostel, I forget) telling her that their other roommate Sam, a Brit who just came that day, had peed all over the floor, wall AND out of the window. Out the window, really? That must've taken some skill in that Barcelona hostel. Either way, they had to get up and move their stuff into one of the other rooms and alert the hostel (apparently the maid got seriously pissed; I wouldn't blame her). After the whole fiasco, Sarah went back to sleep and missed our train, then spent the morning in the hostel with Iva just trying to get her bearings. In the end, she got on a later train for Madrid and met me that night at my hostel. Yay!

We ventured out on the chilly streets of Madrid, wandering around talking about everything possible, getting lost and having endless people offer us tickets to shows and free drink cards. For dinner, we ended up at the Mercado de San Miguel, which came recommended by my dad and the hostel. It was awesome, just the tapas experience I was looking for! The place was packed with people scrambling for bite-size meals at every counter, often only costing €1 each. We had our fill, including some sangria from a nice guy who let us even take a picture of us pouring it! It might've been a little more, but his unique mix (so he says) tastes much better, definitely stronger than the sugary versions I had in Barcelona.

We walked and talked a bit more, finishing up at a bakery to round out the night. We parted, planning to meet the next day for sightseeing. Back at the hostel, nobody was still around, so I cleaned up and went to bed. André, my Brazilian roomie, ended up waking me up at 2:00 a.m., but other than that I just passed out.

I blinked awake at 10:00 a.m., realizing I missed my alarm to call Sandy (so sorry!) and meet up with Sarah. Rushing through a quick hostel breakfast, I reached Sarah and we met at Puerta del Sol to start our tour. First up, Parque del Retiro to stroll through the palaces and to see the various statues in this huge park. We then ended up wandering all over the neighborhoods looking for food, ending up first at Dunkin' Coffee (not donuts, guess that's not a European word) for my coffee and later at Wok to Walk for a quick lunch of noodles.

At this point, we split up, Sarah heading to the Prado while I toured the Reina Sofía for a couple hours. I have to say, while the Prado is the pride of the Madrid art museums, this one was my favorite, and not just because I could take pictures. Modern is more my style and that's what the Reina Sofía has. The building is HUGE; its four floors used to be an old hospital. Picasso's Guernica is amazing; I'm just sad I couldn't take a picture.

Back to Starbucks, Sarah and I met up and went on to tour the outside of the palace, the surrounding gardens and we walked to the bridge spanning the nearby river. Finally, we ended up at Príncipe Pío, an old train station turned shopping mall. We decided to call it and head back for dinner, so we grabbed the Metro and went to our hostels. There was STILL nobody home at mine; I had no idea where André was, so Sarah and I met up for tapas, combing La Latina district, which I had heard had pretty good tapas. Sad to say, but on cold weekdays during off-season, most of the restaurants were closed or empty. We ended up at an Indian restaurant across from Sarah's hostel which looked good. This whole time, we talked about the anxiety of solo travel. Evidently, Sarah's hostel was also empty. The loneliness is just something that you have to learn to deal with on a long a trip; I wish I was a little better at it, but it takes practice.

At this point, I also decided to take an earlier train to Toledo along with Sarah, since I was done with Madrid. I truly feel like Barcelona is more interesting. There's nothing wrong with Madrid; it's a nice, clean city with several great attractions and neighborhoods. I'd just say that if you have to choose between spending 2-3 days here vs. 2-3 in Barcelona, Barcelona deserves 3 while Madrid deserves 2. I changed my train ticket (thank God for my Renfe Spain Pass) while chatting with André once I got back to the hostel. As usual, it got way too late and I ran out of time to do anything else (like write hehe) so I decided to just go to sleep.

Little did I know what would happen the next day...

- Mateo

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