Category Archives: European Travel

Festas, fiestas, and a little Italian heat

One effect of Boston’s summer heat is that it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Delft’s seasons don’t run as hot and cold, and there weren’t many genuine shorts-and-tank-top days (by my reading, not the TU Delft undergrad-girl reading) per summer. I like the hot-hot days, and for the last four summers I’ve associated them with the Mediterranean: Ostuni. Dubrovnik (lord, it was hot in Dubrovnik). Barcelona. Ventimiglia.

The places where everything shuts down in the afternoon because it has to, because the only thing you really can do is swim or siesta after a fresh lunch with a glass of white wine. The places optimized for that thing you always heard about as a kid where you could cook an egg on the pavement.

With our warmest days peaking around 90 F, OK, it hasn’t been Mediterranean hot. And as I look out my front windows to a suburban leafy street where cars and the occasional rogue cyclist rush by, the atmosphere is rather altered as well. But this past Saturday, sick of unpacking boxes and sorting through old photos and files and whatnot, I went online looking for weekend activities and found another Italian echo: the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, MA.

I have memories from growing up of the Catholic church in our town having a carnival every summer. (A kermis, we’d say in Holland.) But when we were in Italy it was my thrill to stumble several times upon Italian saint festivals: lights on cobbled streets and men in their suits in the evening heat, somber-faced as they carry a gigantic statue through the town, while women behind them bark prayers into megaphones. The local band follows with a march. Gelato is scooped late into the night and the saint eventually retires to the church for another year.

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Last summer while in residence at the lovely Palazzo Rinaldi, I was taken by my hosts to a small nearby village for an event known as the Festa della Pita, the identifying feature of which is that men hoist a tall stripped tree trunk, and then try to climb it to earn prizes.

This perfectly primed me for the Pita’s horizontal cousin in Gloucester: the Greasy Pole competition. During the five-day tribute to the patron saint of the seaside town’s fisherfolk, a thick wooden pole is stuck out over the water, slathered with grease, and given an Italian flag at the far end. We made the one-hour drive to Gloucester on Saturday with greasy-pole viewing high on our agenda.

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

We headed to the beach after a quick stroll through the town: quaint and pretty, with some tempting Italian cafes, and gift shops selling over-priced sea-themed trinkets. The pole and platform had been erected a short distance out from the beach, nearby a massive conglomerate of boats: a floating party, of everything from kayaks to speedboats, with swimsuited people moving between. It was a hot day, but the water was still cold.

The opening act for the greasy pole was the Seine Boat Race—three rowboats labeled the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, each manned by about ten guys, racing each other to some point on the horizon and back. The race was fun enough, but heavily negated by the long maneuvering of the boats into position and a ridiculous string of false starts. A cheer went up when a large, pontoon-style boat ferried all the contestants out to the platform for the greasy pole, where I can only presume they took some time to sober up in the hot sun and remember why they had agreed to do this. As the crowd on the beach grew enormous, the first man stepped up onto the pole, promptly fell off, and the action was underway.

A greasy pole contender

A greasy pole contender

The objective for these men–some in bathing trunks, others in everything from superhero costumes to a suit–was to get that flag. As each man’s effort tended to last between zero and four seconds, the line cranked right along. After a half-hour, only one man had made it past the halfway mark, but had tumbled into the water before grasping the flag. We began seeing repeat contestants and wondered how the rules were defined: does the event simply continue until a) everyone quits or b) the flag is won?

Although attempting the greasy pole seemed fairly unsafe (some contenders fell straight to the water, but others smacked various body parts off the pole en route), the local police, fire department, and Coast Guard were all represented on the water–I suppose in case anyone were to become seriously injured. This struck me as an American touch.

Beachside crowd

Beachside crowd

Around the one-hour mark, our interest began to wane, and we were making our way along the beach when a roar from the crowd turned our heads. A man made his way half, then two-thirds the length of the pole–he was within arm’s length of the coveted flag–and though he fell into the water before grasping it, he managed to dislodge the flag, which fluttered down after him. Does that count? I barely had time to ask myself before the entire beach surged. People went wild with cheering; the contestants on the platform all began jumping into the ocean; “Who was it?” a stranger asked me eagerly–“Did you see who it was?”

I confessed that I did not know any of the contenders. The whole group swam toward shore, the champion with the flag held high, and as soon as they reached land, he was pulled up onto others’ shoulders and whisked away into the streets.

Carnival, Gloucester

Carnival, Gloucester

We had intended to drive home and make dinner, but the lure of the seaside atmosphere became too strong; so we wandered the town while the sun sunk and had seafood at a restaurant. Probably two hours after we’d left the beach, through the restaurant windows we saw the champion pass by, still clutching the flag, flush with celebration. The entire place cheered, and to me, it felt like summer.

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Alghero

With Europe slipping through our fingers, we had one weekend clear for a last getaway. One weekend on the calendar without plans scrawled across, and it was the last weekend in March. We ran through a few destinations, leaning toward revisiting an old favorite, Barcelona or Ostuni. Busy, we waited to book, and the tickets escalated (way) beyond what we could justify for a 2-3 day trip. Back to the drawing board, I went to the budget airlines and just began plugging in those dates to see what came up cheap.

Alghero, Sardinia

Alghero, Sardinia

What came up cheap was Ryan Air from Eindhoven to Alghero, Sardinia. I really like Eindhoven Airport. From Delft, it’s two hours on public transportation while Schiphol (Amsterdam) is one. The train tickets are twice as expensive, too; so that’s annoying. But it’s quite a nice airport. It’s small enough that there are rarely delays. It’s clean and sunny. There’s a big Starbucks, an Albert Heijn, and a surprisingly good cafeteria. Baggage comes fast and you walk to and from the plane. We’ve flown budget airlines there including Ryan Air, Wizz, and Transavia and never had a problem.

What did I know about Sardinia or Alghero? Nothing. Tim had been to Sardinia once, ten years ago, but not to Alghero. Some photos and phrases online intrigued (fresh fish; local wine; maze-like old town); two friends who had been in Sardinia raved; and we bought the tickets.

Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean (Sicily is #1), and Alghero is an ancient port town in its northwest. Alghero’s complicated history has left it with a strong Spanish influence and Catalan as an official second language. (I’m sure we weren’t the first visitors perplexed by the dual street names.) Malaria kept it off the tourist map until after the 1950s. The small airport at Fertilia is around 10km away and accessed by an easy bus that makes a car unnecessary (and undesirable, if you have to park it anywhere in that old town). Alghero’s beautiful harbor welcomes luxury yachts in summer, and still sees local fishermen unloading in the mornings near the town’s new, flashy fish market.

Alghero Harbor

Alghero Harbor

The old town, with its sixteenth-century walls still braced against the sea, was lovely for a stroll, though it didn’t take long to feel like we’d “seen it.” We spent hours just enjoying the view from the terrace of our rental apartment. Long conversations and the feel of the Mediterranean sun were among the main attractions. It wasn’t summer, but at midday we could shed our jackets. We were slightly ahead of the main tourist season; the boats to nearby Neptune’s Grotto would open for the year on April 1. The city didn’t feel crowded, and we repeatedly saw the same handful of tourists we’d ridden a bus with. (We’re not the only people who find restaurants on Trip Advisor.)

Alghero Market

Alghero Market

On Monday we visited the daily produce market (via Sassari), realizing it was going to be awkward when we entered the open hall and found ourselves the only shoppers. It was either a slow day or the slow season; the time-worn hall was about half occupied, by four sellers, all of whom had no one to watch but us as we moved from spot to spot. Artichokes were in season, local, and ludicrously cheap. I bought some to bring home, and Tim was kind enough not to protest. The man whose artichokes we bought had a box labeled with black marker on cardboard: MY WINE. (A similar box held: MY OIL.) The bottles, red and white, were completely unlabeled, and the signage was almost the full scope of his English. We bought a bottle of the white (€5). Later in the week we opened it in Delft. If we’d opened it in Sardinia, we’d have gone back and bought more. I would love to tell the man how much we enjoyed his wine.

View from our terrace over Alghero

View from our terrace over Alghero

On Sunday morning we wandered through the town after the bells from a dozen churches had summoned worshipers to Mass. Though there were much larger churches I was drawn by the sound of chanting to a simple open door in the street. I could just see into a tiny chapel, barely even a room, ornately decorated in an Orthodox style with a blue-silver robed priest presiding. Congregants stood in a tight pack, with a few women spilling over into the street, children fidgeting beside archaic candelabras. Just next door, a restaurant was preparing to open for lunch, blaring The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

Santa Barbara Church, and Mabrouk Restaurant

Santa Barbara Church, and Mabrouk Restaurant

The main tourist drag was a stretch we referred to as “Gelato Row” (Via Carlo Alberto). It had a small piazza, shop after shop selling coral jewelry, several bizarre shops selling only giant candy, and many vendors of gelato. One night we sat on a stone bench and my attention wandered to an eclectic group of men sitting nearby. They were middle-aged and older; some looked as if they might be homeless or down-and-out; others did not. I had puzzled over their relationship when one of them (a sharp-suited, somewhat eccentric man) approached us. He asked where we were from, and though a little wary of tourist scams, we began a conversation. To my surprise, he guessed that we were American but had lived outside the United States. Languages and accents are his hobby, he said, but really he is an artist. He teaches painting to the rest of the bunch. (Some of them were drawing on cardboard.) Don’t be intimidated, he assured us; they are very friendly and would love to show their art. We excused ourselves to head to our dinner reservation, but the Alghero old town is small—a day later, this same man passed us on the street in the middle of the day and said he were welcome to stop by in the evening. The gathering, I suppose, is a ritual: one of the ongoing happenings in a town where—in the off-season, at least—any tourist stands out.

Our recommendations:

We enjoyed Alghero for a long weekend, for atmosphere more than for things to “do” or see or buy. Nearby beaches must be absolutely swarmed in summer.

If you want to buy wine, try the Cantina of Santa Maria la Palma (Via Don Minzoni). The prices were way better than the shops in the heart of the old town. There were also good prices at the Conad supermarket (same street), and a better food selection than the small supermarkets in the old town.

Also on Via Don Minzoni (111), we saw a shop called La Vineria that advertised local wine, oil, and beer. We were intrigued, but it wasn’t open when we passed by. The shops of “traditional Sardinian products” in the old town seemed very touristy.

We enjoyed some tasty pizza (twice!) at La Botteghina.

We did a three-hour “food tour” (farm visit with tasting) with Naturalghero. This isn’t the sort of thing we normally do (organized tour), but we really enjoyed it. The young couple who have recently started Naturalghero have a great enthusiasm and eco-mindedness. The price (€35/pp) was unbeatable for what we did and the amount of food we tasted (almost enough to be a meal, with wine). It was also a great way to see some of the land beyond the city, without renting a car.

Pecorino sheep's milk cheese aging at the farm

Pecorino sheep’s milk cheese aging at the farm

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The Semi de Paris 2014

Semi de Paris 2014

Semi de Paris 2014

I signed up for the Semi de Paris (Paris Half Marathon) on the day it opened. I was still on my runner’s high from Dam tot Dam and thinking that since my ten-miler had gone so well, I needed to get a half on the calendar. Amsterdam was right around the corner, by date and geography, but it was sold out (I later got a bib). By chance, I discovered the Semi at the lowest price tier (€40), and I enlisted.

As the new year turned and it became certain that we were moving, I went ahead and booked everything else that meant I couldn’t back down. This included a new (to me) fine point of racing in France: the medical certificate. When I signed up, I saw a note that to pick up your bib, you had to present a doctor’s form stating that you were fit to run in an athletic competition. There was a simple form to download and get your doctor’s stamp on. I’ve raced in the US, the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands, and generally you tick a box absolving the race of liability if you have a heart attack while participating. Not in France. Nevertheless, I knew I was fit and figured it couldn’t be a big deal.

This was incorrect, as I discovered when I called my huisarts and was told that I would have to pay between 90-150 Euros for a doctor to attest to my fitness, not reimbursable by my insurance because I wasn’t sick. (“But if you know I’m not sick,” I argued, “can’t you just sign it?”) The unfairness of this form was not, to my mind, that it had to be done—but how non-standard the fulfillment of it is, dependent on where you live. I scoured runners’ message boards and read that in the UK and US, people mostly found that their doctors (or their doctors’ receptionists) would smack a stamp on there for $5, free, or maybe $20 if they did a quick exam. In France, a friend explained, your family doctor would know you so intimately from your regular check-ups, that they would also sign away. But the Dutch approach was not confined to my own doctor; I confirmed this. I also confirmed that the French were serious about the certificate—no form, no bib. (“You could bandit,” my sister said. “You paid for the race.”)

Everyone offered to forge to form for me. Several of my husband’s colleagues, who are in fact “doctors,” if not of medicine. “The volunteer who has to take that form from you cannot check 35,000 forms to confirm their authenticity,” more than one person pointed out. And I knew they were correct. But all I could think of was somehow that forged form coming back to haunt me, or having my bib taken away after I suffered through one of my last long runs on a stormy Dutch day with 25mph winds.

And so two weeks before the race I went to the doctor. It was insult to injury from this point on. The doctor lamented the entire time (all ten minutes): “WHY would you want to run a marathon? Isn’t it enough to run to the bus? I am tired just thinking it!”

“Half marathon,” I corrected her several times. And aren’t you a doctor?

To verify my very expensive health, she asked me questions such as: Do you smoke? and: Has anyone in your family died of a heart condition? She weighed me (“You’re not the biggest person, but, I guess you are running a lot.”). She asked if I had any allergies. In the spirit of truthfulness, I declared that I am lactose intolerant. She then asked if I had considered how this would affect my food consumption during the race (at the water stops). I told her that I had considered it.

She poked me in a few different places and said that my vital organs felt normal, and informed me that I have low blood pressure. She never asked about my training, or any of my previous races. She charged me €95. And as all of my friends had said, the fifteen-year-old girl who stamped my form at the Expo on Friday looked at it for all of about two seconds.

Fine.

Between that form and the delightful but last-minute decision that Tim would accompany me to Paris for the weekend and needed train tickets—Paris was becoming an expensive race. I became a little nervous that if I didn’t “do well,” it wouldn’t all have been worth the cost.

Runners at the Metro

Runners at the Metro

On Sunday morning I was up early and on the metro from Cadet all the way out to the end of the no. 1 line, Chateau de Vincennes, and the start of the race. The metro was full of runners, which is always a race-day sight I enjoy. There were food trucks in the start area, including a vendor advertising hot wine at 9 a.m. I love France, I thought.

Race morning outside the Chateau

Race morning outside the Chateau

On some of the runners’ forums where I’d read about the medical form, I’d also read that the start area for this race could be disorganized, and to allow extra time. I was glad I did. I didn’t wait long to check my bag, and I was able to use one of the really, really inadequate quantity of toilets. Of course, I was so early I wanted to use the toilet again about a half hour later, and then I had to get on one of the ridiculous lines. (It was like they didn’t know 35,000+ people were coming.) I found my way into the 2:00 starting corral, and MAN. We waited there forever. There were so many people doing this race; the corrals were massive. I wasn’t even in the last one (AND I DIDN’T FAKE MY ESTIMATED TIME! This is exciting because in the past I’ve been pretty consistently in the back corral, which is demoralizing.).

After between 45-60 minutes in the corral with all of my thousands of new friends, I was ready to go, and we finally did. As we funneled toward the starting arch, I looked back and was amazed by how many people were still behind me. “So many people!” I said to the closest person nearby. She turned out to be a Parisian girl running her first half marathon. She told me how nervous she was, and squeezed my arm a couple times as we began. (I didn’t see her after that, but, Alicia, I hope you did well!) The instant we went under the starting arch, dozens of men peeled off to pee on the side of the road—I guess that’s what happens after too long in the corral. I had to laugh.

Waiting for the runners at Bastille

Waiting for the runners at Bastille

Mentally, the first few miles of a long race are always the hardest for me. It’s when you’re asking: “Do you have it in you?” “Do you feel good enough today?” It was—I should have mentioned—an absolutely gorgeous day. Earlier in the week I’d told a runner who had fond memories of a spring run in Paris that we were too early for that “touch of spring.” I was totally wrong. We had sunshine, and it was around 50 degrees. I couldn’t have been happier, and Paris couldn’t have looked prettier. I saw Tim at our arranged spot right around 10k, and just afterward the course came to the first part where you could really see the Seine, the skyline, and Notre Dame. It was beautiful.

After a slow first mile (congested start), I started cruising, warning myself that I needed to back off a little, but continuing on. This was, mentally, the fastest a race had ever gone for me. I saw Tim at 10k, 11k, and 15k (he said I looked “a bit tired” at 15k, prompting him to say something like: “Only five more!”). It was true—by the back end I was feeling how fast I’d gone earlier. My goal had been 2:05, and around 8-9 miles I started to wonder if 2:00 was in reach; the 2:00 pacer was always just in my field of vision. There may have been some hope for 2:00, until I got to the long, gradual incline around mile 11. Holy goodness. I wasn’t the only person that incline wrecked; people were walking all around me. Don’t walk, don’t walk, I kept urging myself. 2:05 became the goal once again.

Around mile 12 (?) a police convoy came up behind us, blowing sirens and waving all the runners to one side of the course. It didn’t change my stride, but many of us exchanged nervous glances. Boston, I thought; and I’m certain I wasn’t the only one. I said a prayer. As far ahead as I could see, the pack was moving, so it seemed that the course wasn’t being halted. This was encouraging. A few minutes later, we passed what I’m pretty certain was the cause for the police convoy—a medical emergency on the course, and a runner in a heat blanket being lifted into an ambulance.

Then we hit the point where you’re close enough to the finish that you start seeing runners going the other way, in their medals and plastic ponchos, because they’re already done. And you so want to be them. They cheer for you, which is really nice. After twelve miles, I was looking at every click on my Garmin, until I finally crossed at 2:03:56 (new PR!). And then I stood basically still in the giant end-funnel trying not to pitch a fit about how badly I wanted water and how long it took to get it.

Finishing area with Chateau in the background

Finishing area with Chateau in the background

Ah, Paris. We rode the metro all the way back to other parts of the city where there weren’t as many people wearing the unfashionable, blue finishers’ poncho. I showered and hustled faster than anyone who has just run a half marathon should, so that we could have a great, long lunch with two French friends. There is no better city in which to replenish your calories than Paris.

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Paris Alone

A couple years ago I wrote a post about traveling alone in Barcelona. It wasn’t a very long experience, and I wasn’t totally comfortable. The first time I traveled alone, I had fun during the day, but as soon as evening fell, I felt self-conscious or lonely or paranoid and would stay in rather than go out alone. Since that trip, I’ve spent a bit more time op reis solo, for over a week this summer to Italy but also several times to Paris for a few days each time. And I have loved it.

pastry for one

pastry for one

WordPress tells me that my “solo Barcelona” post gets a lot of traffic, presumably because a lot of people are curious about traveling by themselves—so I thought I’d share some of my updated thoughts. My advice is more on traveling alone to enjoy being alone, rather than traveling to a city and hoping to make a whole bunch of new friends or meet a guy in a bar, etc.

1. Stay in a place you’ll like and feel safe. As a solo traveler, it’s worth it. I was jumpy in Barcelona because I was staying in a total dive, trying to be cheap. My own safety and comfort are more important to me now than only paying €25/night. I’m still on a budget, mind you, so I don’t put myself up in five-star hotels. I mostly stay in AirBnB apartments with lots of good reviews, and I look for reviews by other women traveling alone.

2. Embrace the art of dining alone. The first time I was in Paris by myself, I went to the grocery store at the end of my adopted street and got pre-made meals or takeout most nights.

IN PARIS.

For shame. I felt “stupid” going to a table-service restaurant by myself; or, if I did, I ate so quickly I was done in twenty minutes with a meal I could have lingered over for two hours with a friend. It has taken me a few meals to get comfortable dining alone, but I don’t think it’s weird anymore. I take a book, or a notebook. This keeps me from plowing through the food too quickly and gives me something (apart from people-watching) to do. And I’ve realized, other people aren’t half as interested in the fact that you’re dining alone as you fear they are. If anything, you enjoy a mysterious air. Once or twice, strangers have started a conversation with me, which can be enjoyable (or, irritating).

If you’re in a wonderful city, find a good place to eat within your budget and order whatever you would if you had a companion. And enjoy it just as much.

3. Plan something. I have a high threshold for spending time by myself, but I find that it helps to put something on the calendar—if possible, something where I might interact with other people. A couple times I’ve gone to concerts. Checked for readings at a local bookstore. Once I booked a spot on a walking tour. I enjoyed the rest of the group and chatted happily with people during a week in which I otherwise spent most of my time alone. Knowing which landmarks in the city have a night where they stay open late (a museum, or a historical site) can help you pick evening activities, too, if you’re not planning on diving into the nightlife.

4. Don’t be foolish. Use your radar, and keep your eyes open. Have a phone. Know the emergency numbers for the country you’re in. When you go out, take the # of your host or hotel.

I wouldn’t travel everywhere alone. The more times I return to a city like Paris, I feel more and more comfortable and know the neighborhoods a little better and a few more words of French and can jump right into the experience.

As a solo traveler, I get mistaken for a local fairly often. I think part of this is that people don’t expect as much that you’re a tourist if you’re alone, without your head shoved in a guidebook. I am happy to keep up this pretense if I can, as I think it makes you less of a target for petty crime or just the guys trying to sell you bracelets and little plastic toys.

5. Enjoy what you enjoy. If you normally travel with a friend or partner or family member, spend a day in the flea market that person would never be interested in. Bring a book and read it for hours in a cafe—you’re not holding anyone up. Keep your own hours, and use the time for thinking and exploring. When I’m in Paris, I often realize I have literally walked miles in the course of a day, just wandering toward the address of some place I read about online (inevitably to find it’s closed, or missing).

IMG_5252

As I reread this post (as I inevitably, compulsively do), what I’m saying isn’t earth-shattering. But if it gives someone the confidence to embrace a trip alone, or to sit down at that restaurant table for one—I’m happy. Feel free to add your other tips, or solo travel memories, below!

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Light Up the Nights: Delft, Gouda, Budapest

Please tell me I can still blog about the holidays. I’m a little thrown by the “high of 13 C / 55 F” today, and the sunshine that has me scrambling to wash laundry. We haven’t seen a single flurry this year, but darkness—darkness we’ve had plenty. The long days of summer take their toll on Delft: two weeks past the solstice, the sun’s still coming up just before 9:00 and setting around 16:45.

Delft's tree

Delft’s tree

All across Europe, the winter nights are the setting for Christmas markets and light-up nights. Delft’s lichtjesavond (mid-December) is similar to a US town’s “tree lighting” as pertains to the first illumination of a large tree—but Delft’s also includes a Christmas market, stands of hot chocolate and gluwein, free concerts outside and in the historic churches, and fire on the canals.

Christmas market in Delft on lichtjesavond

Christmas market in Delft on lichtjesavond

Lichtjesavond is one of my favorite nights of the whole year. The Christmas market is fun to browse, though some of it is outright junk. The best stalls are those by local artisans or food establishments (the ham sandwiches outside Slagerij Leo van Vliet—mmm).

Vintage ornaments at the market

Vintage ornaments at the market

The Gemeente estimates that 50,000 people turn out for Delft’s night, and that’s a lot on little medieval streets. This year I took a walk just as the sun was setting, between 4 and 5, which was quite pleasant. Then we felt less pressured to fight through the thickest crowds (probably 7-9 PM). Things quiet down pretty early, as vendors close and families turn in.

At the end of that same week, we finally made it to an event that’s been on my list for years—Gouda bij Kaarslicht (Gouda by Candlelight). Gouda’s night is more specifically focused around candles—notably the 1500 candles illuminating the town hall windows (below).

Gouda bij kaarslicht

Gouda bij kaarslicht

In contrast to Delft, there was no specific market in Gouda, and the main activity was a longish dramatic reading with music that occurred just before the tree itself was lit (the tree is dark in the photo above). This was in Dutch, and we were way in the back of the crowd; it was mostly lost on us, so we decided to keep walking (rather than standing still in the freezing cold). If you enjoy atmospheric strolls, Gouda bij Kaarslicht is lovely. Every little house and establishment seemed to participate in the candle-lighting, from tapers in the window to rows of tea lights along the canals.

DSC_0227

Gouda

We didn’t find a lot to “do” in Gouda that night, and wound up just choosing a restaurant and eating a long leisurely meal, with a walk both before and after. When we’d finished dinner, the crowds had thinned and the candles in the stadhuis had been extinguished, but the tree remained (electrically) lit in Gouda’s dramatic main square.

IMG_0197

Gouda

The following week we were off to Budapest, happily using the last of Tim’s vacation days for 2013. We enjoyed the Christmas markets in Budapest very much, and the warm foods and drinks were a welcome fix after hours touring in the cold. By food I mostly mean meat. Meat, meat, and meat (though it was our fortune to discover kürtös kalács: warm, fresh pastry cylinders rolled over a fire and then rolled in a coating like crushed nuts or sugar).

Budapest Christmas market

Budapest Christmas market

We strolled several times through the busy market at Vörösmarty Square (Ter), but would happen upon others through the city’s open spaces. There was one spilling out in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica; an artsy market in a building just near Deák Tér metro (Help me out if you know the name!); and a beautiful, quiet local market in front of the church at Bakáts Tér, off Ráday utca.

Vörösmarty Square, Budapest

Vörösmarty Square, Budapest

I’m not a person who loves being in the cold just for the sake of the crisp air, but I love the Christmas market season. We found this an enchanting time to be in Budapest (though I was grateful for my down coat and had my scarf yanked up to cover 3/4 of my face most of the time).

Vörösmarty Square, Budapest

Vörösmarty Square, Budapest

I nearly finished this post without remarking on New Year’s Eve (one of my other favorite nights in Delft). After a very, very quiet expat Christmas, we had dinner with a handful of friends in our apartment on December 31. A French friend had organized the meal, with everyone responsible for a different element. We know too many good cooks, and we were stuffed to the point of disaster before we even reached the last courses (French cheese, and cake). We hauled ourselves to the Markt in Delft to add our firework to the maelstrom.

Delft in 2014

Delft in 2014

I hope that your winter has been full of light, and that you make many warm memories in the early months of 2014!

More info on Budapest Christmas markets:

Budapest by Locals

Budapest Moms

We Love Budapest

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When Travel Goes Wrong

It’s fun to blog about when travel goes well: Lovely sunsets and photos of luscious food and wine (perhaps combined into a wine-glass-with-sunset combo). Winding alleys and stairs that are uneven in the most picturesque of ways. Finding the most splendid pottery shop, and meeting a local artisan. Talking over a meal with friends for hours. Stumbling upon a postcard-perfect beach, all your own. Or just passing a relaxing hour in a foreign cafe, reading a book.

I’d better just stop, or I’m going to get carried away.

In addition to a learned skill and a certain amount of savvy, good travel experiences rely in part on luck. The unseen pickpocket passes you by. The bus doesn’t break down. The flight isn’t delayed. You don’t get food poisoning. Today, on my first run of 2014, I found myself thinking about the times when travel has gone “wrong.” Thankfully, this has rarely meant anything drastic. “Wrong” on one of my trips usually means wasted holiday time—a wild goose chase trying to find a site that sounded cool in the guidebook. An argument in the rental car about who failed to follow the GPS correctly. Buyer’s remorse over an overpriced meal. Sometimes bad travel can become, after a waiting period, humorous. Other times… not.

We begin with buses to nowhere. Roads to nowhere. GPS maps to nowhere.

On two different occasions in foreign countries we’ve ridden a public bus way too far. Once was on Santorini, Greece. Either the driver wasn’t calling the stops, or we didn’t understand the pronunciations and missed the one we wanted that was going to take us to a certain beach. We rode the bus all the way to the end of the line before realizing our mistake, and had to turn around and ride it all the way back. Impatience resulted.

They weren't even frequent.

They weren’t even frequent.

On our recent Budapest trip, I’d been captivated by photos online and in a guidebook of Art Nouveau memorials at the Kozma Street (Jewish) Cemetery. Our B&B host didn’t seem to know what we were talking about when I expressed interest. The woman in a tourist info booth told us we could get to the cemetery via a 30-ish minute tram ride. Though it was our last afternoon and there weren’t many hours of daylight left, we hopped on the tram and rode it, for a long time, through some questionable-feeling suburbs (I tried to consider it instructive seeing a small piece of Hungary outside the city center). We hopped off at the end of the line near the New Public Cemetery, knowing Kozma Street was supposed to be adjacent to this. Confused by the busy road it seemed we had to walk down, we jumped on a bus to take us further (and got yelled at by the driver for not knowing we were only supposed to board at the front doors). (Luckily I don’t mind being yelled at as much when I can’t understand what’s being said.) From the bus we passed the cemetery—behind its walls, looking vast and absolutely closed and unwelcoming. Unlike the New Public Cemetery, it had no obvious point of entry, parking lot, information booth. (At least, not visible when we were there.) Daylight was fading and there didn’t seem much point or sense to disembarking and poking around for a way in. Frustrated at the waste of time (and not being able to see the monuments), we decided to get off at the next bus stop and turn around.

Only, the next bus stop wasn’t exactly around the bend. Just when I became concerned that the bus was getting on a highway and we’d never get back to Budapest, the bus came to a halt and we ran out the appropriate doors, to repeat our journey in reverse. On the up side, I think Tim took a nap.

We’ve been booted from a public bus taking us from Croatia into Montenegro, where after a lengthy stop at a roadside cafe, the driver simply announced that the bus wasn’t going any further, and that everyone should offload their baggage.

When we travel in non-urban areas we often rent a car, and we’ve gotten to know our GPS the way you might know a friend who gives you directions. When they start to seem suspect, it’s OK to question the technology. This, and having a backup map, can save you from such events as backing down a narrow, winding medieval street that dead-ended abruptly, while the GPS insults you and small-town cops watch eagerly for you to make a mistake and dent something.

Having better information and a map might have spared us a travel headache resulting when we could not figure out how to reach and park at an Italian beach we could literally see (mirage-like) from the car windows.

I asked Tim to reflect on “travel gone wrong” and thought he would groan about the time he had a terrible stomach flu on an Italian train, or the run-in with the Carabinieri when the rental moped broke down (I was not a part). Instead he talked about expectation management. Sometimes a guidebook or friend will talk something up like it’s the one thing on earth you must see before you die: a church, an art exhibit, the view from a certain point. You go there with anticipation, only to discover: the site doesn’t resonate with you, or there’s a construction project where the nice view is supposed to be, and you wonder why you put time into this expedition in the first place. Conversely, sometimes by following our noses and allowing the day’s plans to change, we stumble onto something that becomes one of our best memories.

Another area of bad travel involves luggage, packing, and clothing. Regardless of how much I travel, I seem consistently unable to pack light, and to pack “for the weather.” I am always the person who wishes they’d packed one layer warmer, or who didn’t throw in the rain jacket because the chance of rain was only 20%. I am the person wearing the same ill-fitting sweater in all the photos because I had to buy it at the local department store. My suitcase has only been lost once, and it was years ago when we flew to Greece. It was my first time in mainland Europe, and I was blown away by how effortlessly classy Mediterranean women seemed to be—while I spent the first days of our trip borrowing my boyfriend’s clothes. Whatever my travel accomplishments may be, I’m pretty sure effortless class is not among them.

But from 2013 I’ll count to my credit a long solo journey to southern Italy, and the absorption of a minimal amount of Italian. I’ll remember the delicious meals we’ve enjoyed abroad, most recently at Zeller Bistro in Budapest (I made my reservation via their Facebook page, and you should too… they were certainly full when we were there. As we sat at our table, a couple nearby were finishing their meal and asking the host if he could squeeze them in the following night—we thought this was a good sign). Last night in Delft we raised our glasses with friends from a variety of nations, over food we’d all prepared. To the journeys of the past year, and those of the coming one—proost!

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Happy New Year!

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Budapest and the Ruin Pub

At midday, the street Kazinczy utca in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter was quiet. Cars and pedestrians passed by on their way to somewhere else, and delivery trucks obstructed the sidewalks. A metal bin filled with cigarette butts proclaimed in loud signage that it was not an ashtray. There were hints that by night, this was a livelier place; and that when it wasn’t December, something in the vicinity of a street party. Behind elaborate gates, and walls covered in graffiti, we could see outdoor bar set-ups, and signs pointing toward an absent taco truck. (A few food trucks were parked in the area, one selling hamburgers and Hungarian beer.)

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That night, after seeing the Nutcracker at the Hungarian State Opera House and sampling some burgers and Hungarian beer of our own at Kandalló, we wandered back to Kazinczy utca to Szimpla Kert: perhaps the best-known of Budapest’s ruin bars. (You’ll have to forgive us for only sampling the “best-known.” As we imagined one of our Amsterdam friends saying: “Well, yeah, all the tourists go to that one, but the locals know there’s this way more ruined pub over on….”)

Szimpla Kert by day

Szimpla Kert by day

The concept of the ruin pub (an evocative label) is simple. In the early 2000s, people started moving into derelict buildings in Budapest, bringing in junk furniture and basic bar set-ups, and selling affordable drinks in a city that was elsewhere growing an upscale scene beyond local tastes and pocketbooks. And while the ruin pubs are visited by tourists, they’re also casual and comfortable places, where Hungarian is very much heard and spoken.

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Entering Szimpla Kert was like wandering into an abandoned mansion (albeit one full of people). You could head any direction you chose: To the garden out back, where old films were playing on a giant projector and a group of friends shared drinks in an old Trabant auto. Upstairs, to a room labeled “Wine Bar.” Around various bends to various bars; a room where a band was playing; a hall where a DJ was spinning; a room where everyone was smoking a water pipe. There was something Alice-in-Wonderland about the whole thing, and if I had shrunk or grown when we entered another floor, I might not have been surprised.

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The couple who directed us to the ruin pub are old enough to be my parents, and while there was a constant stream of twenty-ish study-abroad-ers weaving through the rooms (a whole group wearing their university sweatshirts for easy identification), drinks ever in hand, there were also family clusters and distinctly greyer patrons, settled into chairs of various vintages, comfortable with their beers or wines or soda or hookahs.

If the scene had been two steps tidier, it might have felt like we were in a giant Anthropologie store—where everything carefully reeks of a fabricated vintage air. But the legitimate unsteadiness in a few floorboards, the very real stains on the furniture and the who-gives-a-crap way the innards of my chair were escaping saved this scene from being kitsch. We wandered through the maze of preserved decay, sitting for a moment in different rooms, people-watching, object-watching.

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When we wound our way out and continued into the night, we immediately passed a much smaller, more nondescript pub, where a live string ensemble was playing folk music and a man was dancing in a tiny space. This was no tourist show, and we stood captivated on the street until the band finished their number and went on (to our disappointment) break.

I fell in love with the buildings of Budapest: the glorious remnants of the 1890s, the last time the city was truly rich—before Hungary’s land was parceled off after WWI, before occupation by the Nazis and relentless decimation in the final year of WWII, and before the liberation by the Soviets that became the chains of Communism. I couldn’t help thinking that the whole city felt like one giant ruin pub: magnificent, tired, faded, but with unusual and surprising signs of life. Around the bend was always a color I didn’t expect, or a building that looked as if it should be condemned—with Christmas lights in an upstairs window.

There’s something honest about not hiding the scars, about not covering up the holes in the wall.

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More on ruin pubs:

CNN: Budapest’s Best Ruin Bars

The World in Between: The Ruin Pubs of Budapest

Ruinpubs.com

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