Tag Archives: travel

A perfect Barcelona itinerary

 

If you’re planning to visit Barcelona, I’d like to offer a tested, enjoyed, and real-life itinerary for a perfect visit. ¬†How do I know? I just got home! ūüėČ

Tip #1:  Take your time

We spent 8 days in the city, arriving on a Monday (midday) and leaving the following Monday afternoon. ¬†Barcelona was our home base, and aside from a few day trips, we didn’t try to travel beyond the borders of Catalonia.

Why?  Barcelona is a city best absorbed slowly, one sip at a time, one sunset at a time.

We’ve traveled through Europe several times, usually cramming in everything we can, moving from city to city every few days. It’s exciting but also exhausting. This time, we set aside that little twang of FOMO pain (“But we’re so close to Madrid!”) and agreed that we would stay put. ¬†The result? A fantastic, interesting, restful vacation that brought us home with great memories instead of exhaustion.

Tip #2: Get to the locals

With AirBnB and other companies offering excursions and adventures, there’s no reason not to get out there beyond the museums and cafes to experience local culture. ¬†A few of our highlights:

  • Sailing the Mediterranean Sea at sunset — AirBnB Experience led by a fantastic sailor on his gorgeous sailboat (link). The evening concluded with tapas and wine at the marina where we chatted with our new-found friends.
  • ¬†Making paella with a local in Sitges – AirBnB Experience. ¬†Not only did we get to eat delicious paella, the ingredients were as fresh as that morning’s catch, we enjoyed visiting the local market (so much fish!), and we learned a lot about local culture from our host chef Rosa. ¬†She took us on a mini tour of Sitges as well, a lovely beach town a short train ride down the coast. Once we were done with lunch, we were free to roam the city and enjoy the beach.

Making gazpacho and paella with Rosa in Sitges! @airbnb

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Tip #3: Don’t overdo it

We developed a rule back when we took students on field trips to big cities or overseas: one museum a day, and two “big things” a day, max. ¬†It’s just as true for adults as teens: you need downtime to really soak in what you just saw.

It’s tempting to cram as much as you can into every day, because “you only live once!” and “sleep when you’re dead.” ¬†But you’ll get much more out of the experience if you select just a few museums, parks, cathedrals and the like to fill your days.

Tip #4: Embrace the snack culture of Barcelona

I loved Barcelona for many reasons, but topping my list is their ability to spread little snacks throughout the day. It makes touring much more fun:  finish up an activity, then beeline for the nearest cafe for an inexpensive yet tasty cafe con leche and pastry or a bit of jamon.  Retreat to a museum during the heat of the day, then find some churros and chocolate.  Kick off the late afternoon with some vermouth and patatas bravas.

Barcelonans seem to snack their way through the day yet without overloading their calorie budget at any one point. It was a great way to experience many tastes and views around the city.

Our Itinerary

Day 1: Depart on international flight

Day 2: Land in Barcelona.  Check into AirBnB and get settled and refreshed.  Tour Park Guell. Visit local grocery store for basic supplies: yogurt and cereal for breakfasts, fresh fruit for snacks, and wine, jamon, cheese, bread etc for suppers at the apartment.

Pro tip: stay up on your feet until local bedtime to get over jet lag faster. It’s brutal but worth it in the end.¬†

Day 3: Day trip to Sitges. AirBnB Experience: Paella in Sitges (8am-2pm). Went with our host Rosa to the market to buy fresh fish and seafood for the paella and vegetables for gazpacho. Cooked and ate like royalty!   Beach day in Sitges; light snack before taking the train home. Supper at the apartment.

Pro tip: The train system in Europe will take you nearly anywhere you want to go, but it can get expensive. Our tickets to Sitges were only 3 or 4 Euros after the station attendant explained we could buy a pack of 10 rides for a reduced rate. ¬†We were traveling with someone fluent in Spanish, but if that hadn’t been the case, I would have done more research before arriving at the station. Don’t expect to find English speakers working the windows.¬†

Photo

Day 4:  After a brief ramble down Las Ramblas looking for coffee, we did Montjuic Fort (in the morning) and Gardens (afternoon). Leisurely breaks throughout the day including coffee and lunch at the Juan Miro Foundation. Lovely cable car ride up the mountain and back.  Sailing the Mediterranean and Sunset Tapas: AirBnB Experience. Supper at a restaurant on the shore.

Pro tip: ¬†Learn to use public transportation! We did a few taxi rides the first day or so until we got our bearings, but the metro stop was a short walk from the apartment and we used the bus system several times. With Google Maps on your phone and international data (or a local SIM Card), you can get anywhere you need to go without having to plan everything down to the detail. It’s great! Such a change from our trips to Europe just a decade ago! ¬†

We also traveled with a laptop and the house had free WiFi, so we spent a few minutes each evening researching the next day’s adventures.¬†

Day 5: Day trip to Girona. Rented a car and drove to Girona. Stopped off in Blanes (one of the Costa Brava towns) along the way to visit a friend and have lunch there – crepes at a seaside shop. (Needed a break from ham sandwiches.) Toured Girona (site of Game of Thrones filming – Circi’s “walk of shame”) with views of the cathedral, the old city, and the city walls. ¬† Toured the Museum of Cinema there, which was an absolute delight. ¬†Drive home. Supper in the apartment.

The medieval church of Girona, famous for its backdrop in several Game of Thrones scenes

One of our group decided to spend the day on her own, and visited a Gaudi museum and did some city walking and exploring. We enjoyed swapping stories about our divergent experiences that evening.

Photo

Day 6: ¬†¬†Sleep in! ¬†It was Friday, and we were all pretty tired, so we enjoyed a very leisurely morning at the apartment. Lunch at Tasso, a great little lunch and tapas place near La Sagrada Familia. Back to Montjuic.¬†After an unsuccessful attempt to see the cathedral without having purchased tickets in advance, we changed our plans…. ¬†In the afternoon we all went to the National Museum of Art, and walked down the Montjuic paths to a local Churro shop for our first real taste of churros and chocolate – magical! ¬†That churro shop was well off the beaten track, and the owner poured us some of the biggest drinks (whiskey, scotch, gin & tonic) I’ve ever seen for an incredibly affordable price.¬†

Day 7:  Half of us toured the Gardens and Olympic Stadium and Plaza in the morning while the other half caught up on sleep.  The Olympic area is well worth your time!

Pro tip: We use AirBnB for travel lodging ¬†because you can’t beat having a whole apartment or house as a retreat when you’re genuinely tired. There’s little that a hotel could offer that we didn’t have at our AirBnB (aside from a pool, but we were in a coastal city), and much that an apartment can provide which far outshines any hotel I could ever afford.

Awake, we went out to a little cafe for lunch then gaped at the awe-inspiring beauty of La Sagrada Familia. Get tickets online in advance! Plan to spend a while at the cathedral just soaking up the beauty.

La Sagrada Familia cathedral

Off to the Gothic Quarter for shots of vermouth and a late afternoon snack. The vermouth was a house blend and it was just fantastic. Wish we had done that earlier in the week. ¬†We shopped a bit too and enjoyed wandering the Gothic Quarter for its architectural interest and quirky little side streets – definitely recommend! ¬†Later in our trip, we found the best souvenir shopping here. ¬†Wrapped up the day by seeing the Maritime Museum –¬†I’d give it 3/5 stars.

Day 8: Leisurely brunch at a lovely little shop lear Plaza Catalunya off Las Ramblas.  Strolling!  Finally back out for a delicious final evening meal in Barcelona at a Basque place  recommended by a friend of a friend, and more wandering in the Gothic Quarter and down by the Port.

Rejected: Mount Tibidabo. We could see it from our apartment, but after researching the fees to ride up the mountain for the views, and the insane price to get in to ride the ferris wheel, we decided to use our day in other ways.

Day 9: Shopping and departure! ¬†We don’t recommend leaving shopping for the final day of a trip, but that’s how it ended up for us. Thankfully, we found some neat souvenirs in the Gothic Quarter, and hauled everything back to the apartment for final packing and taxi ride to the airport.

Pro Tip: We should have checked into whether shops would be closed on Sunday.  They were.  Everything was closed except restaurants.  Really put a wrinkle in our shopping plans.

Final Thoughts

Barcelona was a delightful city for a one-week stay.  It felt more like becoming friends rather than rampaging through the city.

This was the itinerary that worked for us. ¬†It didn’t include as much wine as we’d expected; we found that tapas and jamon got tiring after a few days too. ¬†But coffee breaks were a consistent source of happiness, and we had no trouble finding beautiful places to explore.

In retrospect, I’m very thankful we booked the AirBnb Experiences for paella and sailing, because those gave us such a rich exposure to people and places we would have missed otherwise.

I’m also thrilled that we took the time and trouble to rent a car and drive to Girona. It’s a beautiful medieval city, and the Cinema Museum was one of the neatest collections I’ve ever seen – for just 5 Euros!

My only disappointment was that we had trouble finding good souvenirs. Many of the “tourist junk shops” were owned by people with zero connection to the city, and the merchandise there was worse than usual. Hucksters were swarming us at most¬†popular sites, but their wares were subpar and derivative. Ugh. ¬†¬†Museum shops didn’t really offer a great selection of merchandise worth taking home for the price they were charging.

We’re used to European cities having a signature product that makes a perfect gift. Barcelona offered many wonderful experiences, but little to take home. ¬†Las Ramblas and the shopping districts are fun, but I don’t think of Gucci or Prada or Zara as places to buy souvenirs, just as I don’t shop Fifth Avenue when I visit New York. ¬†We did buy some vermouth (Yzagerre, if I remember the brand correctly) at a grocery store and some chocolate and saffron. I found a neat t-shirt at a local shop in the Gothic quarter along with a few other real gems in that area. ¬†If you’re headed to Barcelona, start looking for your take-home gifts early and often.

But if that’s the worst I can say, it was a great trip! ūüėČ

We’re lucky to have a couple friends whose travel style matches ours. Go find yourself a few people who will be your adventurers, and good luck on the Path!¬†

I’ll upload the best of our photos as soon as I get them sorted and edited.

That Vegas Glitz

I spent half the week in Vegas, not because I necessarily wanted to go to Vegas, but my employer located our most recent conference there.

These Meccas of American capitalism always prompt me to reflect on the consumerism that drives so much of our culture. One of my colleagues was visibly miffed to be in Vegas at all Рshe finds their water consumption an appalling moral outrage. (She lives in the West, so water issues are more at the forefront of her opinions.)  I have to admit, she has a point.

Am I a snob? As I walked through Caesar’s Palace, the Bellagio, the Luxor, the Paris Hotel, I was mostly struck by the cheapness of it all. Bright casino machines flash and whiz everywhere as patrons lay down hordes of cash in hopes of beating the House at its own game. (Never bet on it.) The architecture is beautiful because the originals they’re aping are gorgeous. Sure, it’s lovely to see the “forum” with the statue of Caesar, or walk on the Bellagio’s lovely inlaid mosaic floors.

But I’ve walked the inlaid marble floors of the master cathedrals in Venice and Florence and Rome. Vegas cannot hold a candle to them. I’ve seen the notch in the Pantheon in Rome where Brunelleschi cut into the ceiling to figure out how the Romans built a dome so large – then took the technology home to Florence to help them finish the Duomo there. ¬†I’ve been to Paris, so the mock “cobblestone” streets of the Paris Hotel simply make me wistful for the real joie de vivre of that mother city. ¬†I haven’t been to Egypt, but I’ve soaked up every Egypt exhibit I could find from the East Coast through the British Museum through Berlin, and the Luxor can only attempt – but not succeed – to draw the same awe.

To me, Vegas’s shine as the city of lights dims when I consider that the bulk of the casino and service workers are paid minimum wage…. ¬†that the rapid influx of Californians fleeing their housing crises has gentrified neighborhoods in Vegas …. that so many of the people walking the streets are there for sex, gambling, or drinks. ¬†It makes Vegas a sad place, honestly.

Don’t get me wrong – I had a lot of fun with my colleagues. I finally found my tribe and enjoyed wandering around the city with them. I put $20 in a penny slots machine (made $12 then lost it all eventually, so no Vegas magic for me). ¬†One of my coworkers won nearly $500 — good for her! ¬†I got to watch part of a match at the e-sports arena at the Luxor (would have happily spent all night there if I could have found a coworker with a similar passion). ¬† The fountains of the Bellagio are beautiful, and the indoor garden even more so.

We were terrified by a creeping Mickey Mouse, drank quite a few overpriced cocktails that were definitely better than average, found some delicious food, and met an Uber driver who’s a competition-level break dancer. ¬†Great memories!

But if we never go back to Vegas, I’m not going to feel that sad. ¬†The Vegas Strip and Disney World are alike to me: ¬†their allure is dull and uninspiring at the core. ¬†“Spend money! Drink more! Buy more!” ¬†It’s not an invitation to grow into a better version of oneself so much as a Vanity Fair of temptations to let your lesser self have the upper hand for a few days. (And empty your wallet.)

I already have nearly everything I genuinely need. ¬†I still have my shopping list of wants,¬†but I’ve found that it includes far fewer things and far more experiences to crave. ¬†Experiences can be shared, while things are static. ¬†I’m happy to cross Vegas off the list (and on someone else’s dime) and move on to new adventures in new places.

Las Vegas 2018
Flickr Album: Las Vegas 2018

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Direct link: https://flic.kr/s/aHskCeRCKG

The Backstory: That Time I Tried Out For Jeopardy

Sitting here in Alexandria watching fat snowflakes float lazily past the windows, I thought of my first-ever trip to the DC area.

It was in the summer leading up to my senior year of high school that I sat on the couch watching Teen Jeopardy! and thought to myself, “I could do this.”

Indeed, and there’s no point denying it, I have been¬†100% a nerd for pretty much my entire life. ¬†I have always read voraciously, loved school, sat near the front row, aced tests, and watched public television. ¬†Jeopardy! became¬†the show that occupied my 7:30-8:00 TV viewing¬†slot as soon as I was old enough to realize that there are people in the world who get paid for raising their hands faster than anyone else because they knew a bunch of stuff. ¬†My tribe ¬†lol

So when I saw at the end of the week of Teen Jeopardy the invitation to audition, I sent in my postcard and figured nothing would come of it.

But then I got the letter: ¬†Come to Washington, D.C., it said. ¬†You’ve been invited to the tryouts, it said.

My dad went around telling everyone who would listen. ¬†My mom started freaking out a little about how we would get to D.C. ¬†You gotta understand, we weren’t a traveling family. ¬†I loved going places and seeing things, but I did most of it through school. (God bless teachers.) ¬†D.C. was going to be a 5 hour drive (what?!) into a giant city (OMG!). ¬†My mom got car sick anytime she wasn’t the one driving, and she abhorred big city traffic, lane changes, or pumping her own gasoline. (Hey, PA was the land of plenty, where gas station attendants waited at beck and call to keep drivers from having to smell like gasoline.)

Salvation came in the form of Suzanne, one of my mom’s coworkers. ¬†Not only was she happy to go on adventures, she had a friend near DC who worked at Andrew’s Air Force Base. ¬†I think he might have been a chaplain’s assistant, but I can’t remember. ¬†In fact, about the only thing I remember is that his name was John, and he and Suzanne seemed *really* friendly. ¬†And he was a nice guy.

Thus, in a cold November, I found myself in the back seat of a car headed to DC for a weekend.  I was missing two days of school (the tryout was on Friday) Рalso extremely rare. So this was 1000% exciting.

Source: http://s283.photobucket.com/user/ethos3/media/1280_jeo_alex-738030.jpg.html
Source: http://s283.photobucket.com/user/ethos3/media/1280_jeo_alex-738030.jpg.html

The Jeopardy! tryout consisted of meeting in a room with about 30 other high schoolers to take a multiple choice¬†test. ¬†Alex Trebek was there afterward to talk about the show & the process while we waited for the tests to be graded. I don’t remember the bar for passing; I think it was 80% correct. ¬†An assistant came into the room and called seven names to advance to the real tryouts.

Alex stood at a makeshift podium while the assistant handed us a bell (like the ones you ring at a counter for service) and explained we would play a mock round of Jeopardy, 3 people at a time. ¬†If you knew the answer, “ring in” and follow the “What is…..” format of the show. ¬†It was nervewracking, I’ll be honest. ¬†I’m sure they were looking at this point for poise, personality, charisma. ¬†I did ok; my stage experience at that point in my life was nearly non-existent, so I was quickly given a thank-you and shown the door.

But it was cool. ūüôā

With that out of the way, the 4 of us had time to explore the city. ¬†John took us onto Andrews AFB — there was extra security at the gate because George HW Bush was there playing golf! ¬†We drove up to the clubhouse where several black SUVs lined the drive, surrounded by bored Secret Service agents. ¬†I got my photo taken with one of them. ¬†He was quite friendly. ¬†I’ll have to scan my photos & upload them sometime.

We attended the Protestant serviced at Andrews on Sunday morning, one of my first glimpses into a world of Christianity that wasn’t defined by separatism.

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

This trip also marked my first visit to the Smithsonian — that occupied the bulk of Saturday. ¬†I think I wore out the adults in the group. ¬†My goal was to hit as many of the museums on the Mall as I could. ¬†We made it through an art gallery, the Castle, the American History museum (parts of it), and Air & Space. ¬†Truly, Air & Space was the absolute highlight. ¬†I had inherited my dad’s love of all things flight plus developed a devotion for space exploration and science fiction. ¬†Mind-blowing.

We fit in a few landmarks too – I saw the Vietnam Wall for the first time on that trip, where my mom paused to look up the name of someone she knew in our hometown. ¬†We did a rubbing of his name and took some photos to take back to his mom, who had probably never been to DC to see her son’s name memorialized on the wall.

Alexandria. ¬†The Old Town is famous for its brick streets, old buildings, and quaint shops and architecture. ¬†I’ve been there several times since then (and I’m typing this post from an apartment only a few miles away) but I’ve never found it as magical as that first time when the lights were twinkling on the streets as we crossed the drawbridge into the historic district.

Travel is mind-expanding. ¬†It’s funny to me now to see myself as a kid with little experience beyond the narrow confines of Western Pennsylvania, but that’s where I got my start. ¬†I’m thankful for all of the adults who threw me in their car and took me places – near and far – because I can’t imagine living a life without those opportunities to see that the world was bigger than I ever imagined.

~~~~~
My “Backstory” series collects a variety of stories from my formative years. You can find them all under the category “Biography.”

Gallery of Pics from NY Trip

Click to view full-size shots.

In Honor of Sochi: When you say “Russia,” I think “dill”

It’s Olympics time. What does that mean for my household?

Well, even if an epic snowstorm in the Southeast weren’t sitting on top of my house, forcing me away from going into my day job and opening up dozens of extra hours for Olympic watching, I’d still be glued to the TV whenever I had the chance. ¬†You have no idea. I loooooooove me some Winter Olympics.

As the world knows, the ’14 games are in Sochi, Russia. Where’s Sochi? ¬†On the Black Sea. Where it doesn’t really look that cold and where the downhill slopes are coming in at 60 degrees (a bit too warm for good snow). ¬† And where things aren’t entirely put together all neat and tidy, as a flood of amusing tweets showed last week when journalists started arriving.

That’s old news.
As is Shaun White’s disappointing 4th place finish on the half-pipe, but at least we can feel good about the guy, despite the media hype that he’s cold & not un-chill for a skater dude.

But I digress. I came here tonight to tell you about “that time I was in Russia.” ¬†Yeah, the real one! ¬†I’m still pretty surprised myself.

As I finished up my undergraduate degree, I signed on for a 10-week mission trip traveling through both halves of Europe.  As a choir, we prepared spirituals and other music to sing in public, in recital halls, in churches, on street corners. And in every town, we met (and often stayed with) locals Рmy favorite part.

In late June, we spent about 3 weeks in Eastern Europe, Belorussia, and Russia. I’ll save the long versions of the story for another day, but here are a few highlights:

Um, monuments. ¬†Russians know how to do spectacle. You haven’t seen a WW2 monument until you’ve seen the ones Russia built. Or the countries under Soviet rule. ¬†My first experience with this came in Brest (Belorussia), where the pock-marked brick fortress outside the city held off the Germans …. for a bit.

The fortress in Brest, Belorussia. The pockmarks on the front are from the Germans' machine guns during the WW2 attack.
The fortress in Brest, Belorussia. The pockmarks on the front are from the Germans’ machine guns during the WW2 attack.

But if you really want to see grandeur, check out the statue within the fortress park commemorating the Russian soldiers. ¬†This photographer’s shot captures a gigantic granite solder crawling for water; behind him a huge head stares across the plains.

You haven't seen WW2 memorials until you've traveled East.
You haven’t seen WW2 memorials until you’ve traveled East.

Russians love dill. It’s unnatural, and if I never see that herb again, it’ll still be too soon. ¬†We ate tomatoes and cucumbers sliced and sprinkled with dill, ¬†we had fish with dill, they put dill on slices of raw pork fat (ew), the borscht was probably garnished with dill. ¬† ¬†Beets and dill. ¬†Dill and cucumbers. ¬†Dill on dill. ¬† It was a dill-pocalypse.

21 Disturbing Examples of Russia’s Dill Addiction

When we weren’t being hounded by the herb of doom, our hosts served us warm fizzy water (cold stuff is bad for you, so they said), hot tea and coffee (in high summer), and the most delightful fruit juice called, generically, “sok” – which is just a term for “juice.” (The O is long, so “sok” sounds like “soak.”)

Sok, or "juice," is thicker and sweeter than what we have in America.
Sok, or “juice,” is thicker and sweeter than what we have in America.

I’ve asked my Russian friends how it’s made; the best I could get was this: ¬† layer a big jar (like a sun-tea jar) with fresh fruit and sugar. Pour in boiling water. Immediately can the jar or cap & sterilize it, and then flip it upside down. Leave for several months. ¬†When you open the jar, the resulting liquid is smooth and thick, like sunshine in a jar. ¬†I’ve never experienced anything like it apart from our time with people in Russia, Belorussia, and to an extent Poland. ¬†(I Google’d it… came up with a recipe in a Slavic language I can’t read….. my search goes on…..)

It was in Russia that I had my first Magnum bar — that was heaven on earth. ¬†You can buy them in America now, but back then, a plane ticket across the Pond was the price for enjoyment. ¬†They sold them in Western Europe too; I just happened to eat my first Magnum in Moscow, I think. Or maybe Smolensk….. hafta check my trip journal.

I shamelessly borrowed this image from the Magnum website.  Soooo gooood.
I shamelessly borrowed this image from the Magnum website. Soooo gooood.

But aside from meeting many very kind people (including several pastors with stories of years lost to labor campus because the Soviet Union pounded on churches) and learning to eat fish for breakfast (sometimes) (it was gross), I’ve got some weird stories too.

Like the time I peed in No Man’s Land at midnight-thirty, a Bathroom Stop Without A Country.

Some explanation:

Somebody took a picture of their border crossing from Poland into Brest..... so I would have gone through this one too, I suppose.
Somebody took a picture of their border crossing from Poland into Brest….. so I would have gone through this one too, I suppose.

— Although the Soviet Union had fallen by the time I went to Russia, all travel required specific visas. My passport from that year is stamped with plant of border crossings – the EU hadn’t kicked in yet either. ¬† We discovered (as a group) that our contact in Russia who set up meetings for us miscalculated our visa dates and we were scheduled to be in the country a day longer than our visas allowed. ¬†And you haven’t seen anything like a border crossing into the former Eastern bloc (at that time) ….. lines could last for hours. ¬†Somehow our team leaders knew a way to cut us into the front of the line. I’m so happy we didn’t get shot……

–No Man’s Land is the half mile or so of neutral land in between two countries, the Neutral Zone if you will.

-Eastern Europe really isn’t into rest stops or public bathrooms. In fact, we were munching a quick lunch as a team in far eastern Poland when our team leader explained that travel day pit stops would take place “in the woods” from now on. ¬†That was a …..bonding experience…..? ¬† “Boys take one side of the road, girls go to the other.”

So what do you do when 1) you’re not supposed to be in a country today but 2) you have a church service to do anyway, so 3) you ¬†decide to do your border crossing in the middle of the night in hopes that the border guards will either be more forgiving or at least sleepy …. which puts you on the road for an overnight 8-hour marathon drive from western Russia to Brest, Belorussia, and to top it all off, it’s nearly 2am and ¬†4) you all really gotta pee?

Well, you go in No-Man’s Land!

No Mans Land

The vans pulled through the border crossing (always a bit tense), and as soon as the guard house was out of sight, we pulled over. ¬†It was quite cold, despite being high summer. The roadside was incredibly dark; ¬†I’d been sleeping (since I volunteered to stay up through the graveyard shift later to help keep the drivers awake) and I groggily stumbled down into the deep side ditch to take care of business. ¬†We weren’t going to have any other opportunities for quite a while.

I gotta admit, we did giggle a little later. ¬†It’s not every day you get to break international law…. I mean, I’m sure you’re not supposed to use boundary land as a restroom.

I don’t remember much else from that night — we saw the most glorious full moon rise around 4am, as we passed through the flat eastern lands of Belorussia. ¬†The driver and I were both dangerously close to nodding off by 5am, when we switched off and I crawled in back for a much-needed nap.

By 7am, we pulled into the outskirts of Brest to find an actual bathroom (a public outhouse; it was disgusting) and eat the only snack we could find: bars of thick, creamy, fat-filled Russian ice cream. (Seriously – the fat content in that cream was off the chain – you could feel it on your tongue.)

Of course, I’m leaving out all of the wonderful parts of traveling in the ¬†East — to see St Basil’s cathedral with my own eyes, buying matryoshka dolls and chess sets in the outdoor Moscow market (come over and I’ll show them to you), singing a cappella in the amazing Smolensk cathedral, looking out across Moscow from our hotel room on the 8th floor. ¬†It was a great experience, and I’d love to retrace many of those steps. ¬†But I’ll stick to indoor toilets…..

Bonus story: I made only two phone calls home during the 10 weeks I was away — my, how life was different before everyone had a cell phone!) — so it was from ¬†that Moscow hotel room that I rang my dad and my boyfriend both at 4am to say “I’m still alive!” (we’d been on the road 4 weeks) and “I love you!” ¬† My dad was stoic and surprised that I would call him just to say I was fine. ¬†My boyfriend (who is now my husband) was a lot more excited once he woke up enough to realize what was happening, but I’m not sure he ever quite forgave me for the 4am wake-up call. ūüôā¬†

 

To the North! Christmas 2013 trip in review

We are blessed to have such great friends across America and around the world. Visiting them whenever we get the chance is one of my favorite pastimes. So having Christmas vacations that align means The Man and I can often travel during the holidays. ¬†2012 wasn’t a big year for adventures afar, so we were pretty happy to get out of the state for Christmas 2013.

I won’t bore you with a lot of words. ¬†Here are images instead.

Happy New Year! 

DC: All About Food!

I think I’ll just let the photos do the talking in this post.

We pinched pennies but still managed to find some good eats in and around the District.

I think my favorite was Founding Farmers–a delicious farm to table, local produce & meat restaurant in the District. I don’t have a photo of our food, but please believe me when I say it was some of the best I’ve ever encountered. Stevo & Jesse threw down chicken & waffles that included some of the best friend chicken I have ever tasted (I stole a nibble of Jesse’s). ¬†Coart & I divided a couple entrees — a black pepper gnocchi in a sweet cream sauce (made with amaretto!) and one of their grilled open face sandwiches with prosciutto, marscapone, and fig jam. A-ma-zing. ¬†I hear their cocktails are great too, but like I said, we were pinching pennies.

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The bar downstairs at Founding Farmers backed up against our round table/booth.

If you don’t make a reservation a while in advance, you’ll never get a table at Founding Farmers. Actually, even with a reservation we waited for a while and service isn’t exactly fast. ¬†But it was totally worth the wait.

*****

From the sublime to the simple: One of our other favorite places was a Yelp find: ¬†Tortilla Cafe near the East Market by the Capitol district. ¬†We were hungry we didn’t want to spend a lot of money, we like little neighborhood places, we had just worn ourselves out in the Library of Congress and needed some food quick. ¬†Those factors led us to this delightful El Salvadorean place with wonderful food. ¬†Even Guy Fieri says so!

Guy ate at the Tortilla Cafe too!
Guy ate at the Tortilla Cafe too!

Coart had the pupusas, which are kind of like a tortilla with baked-in cheese and shredded pork. Um, yes please! ¬†Amazing. ¬†I had their beef nachos — hearty and delish chunks of beef included. ¬†Actually, my favorite part may have been the hand-bottled fruit juices available for purchase with my meal. And folks were snapping up their guacamole and chips, which was probably fantastic.

*****

Every good trip deserves a little sweetness, so after catching Joss Wheadon’s Much Ado About Nothing at the local arthouse movie theater (why do I have to travel 8 hours to finally get to see the movies I want to see?!), Coart & I found ourselves tucked into the tiny Best Buns Bakery in Shirlington, VA. ¬†No lie — behind the counter is a painting of a¬†construction¬†worker that highlights his “best buns.” haha

Anyway, they’re locally owned and staffed and bake up amazing bread and sweets for sale. ¬†Coart picked out his favorite, a coconut confection. I got the English toffee-caramel cupcake. ¬†yuuuuuuum. ¬† Even the CAKE part was good! (I mean, who eats cupcakes for the cake, right? It’s not hard to make good icing IMHO. Proof is in the cake.

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Best Buns Bakery serves up fantastic cupcakes like this English toffee delight.

This was our second great discovery in Shirlington after our movie. We’d also wandered through a Greek place called Medi …. Imagine if Chipotle served Greek food and did it well. ¬†They offered up something they called gyritos — like taquitos made with gyro flavors and meat, drizzled with a very light balsamic glaze. ¬†Throw in some pomegranate sangria and I was definitely in my zone! ūüôā

*****

Honorable Mentions:

Bruegger’s Bagels in Old Town Alexandria VA because they were the only people open at 5:30am to serve us breakfast after our overnight drive. Their siracha egg sandwich is actually really good.

Flying Fish Coffee & Tea in the Columbia Heights area, for brewing us some of the absolute best iced tea ever on a hot afternoon (I had pear green tea. Fantastic.)

CakeLove in the U Street area seems to be missing its nice sit down part that I remember from last time, but the cake is still fantastic.

Dogfish Head Brewery has brew pubs in the DC area. S&E took us there for supper after seeing the Air & Space Museum on July 4th – a great end to a great day.

Only Burger in Durham, NC got us home by serving up a great burger made with high quality, local ingredients, a bright & cheery staff and interior, and one of the best root beer floats ever.