A Travellerspoint blog

Basque Country

OMG! WTF! FML! There really are not enough acronyms to describe what I just experienced. Everything about this trip preparation was classic Ashley. I will be a broken record of "Mark, you told me so" until the end of time. The first part of preparation involved going out and buying all of the necessities including biking shorts which are tight spandex shorts with a built in diaper, fingerless gloves with padding so your hands don't go numb, and 75 powerbars. Also for some reason I thought nine months of Pilates would be enough preparation, apparently not.

I met up with the rest of the bike trip Sunday evening in our hotel in Vitoria. There were four other riders and our guide. There was a couple from Michigan, an Aussie, and a Brit. We were all various levels of cycling experience ranging from me at zero to the Brit who brought his own custom made carbon fiber bike weighing only 3 kilos and his $1500 pedals which relayed heart rate and speed logistics back to him in real time. I called him Lance.

In seeing what I was up against I chickened out and went with an ebike for backup. Definitely helpful on the hills but weighing over 50 lbs, even going flat felt like towing a trailer. Also the battery was no match for these long rides so I was stuck huffing and puffing this heavy bike up several hills. Ugh.

The rides ranged from 70-110 km per day with three days over 100 km! They were self guided; we were given a map and directions for each ride on the first day. The guide rode along in a van and we saw him at several stops along the way but otherwise we were completely on our own. We could each go at our own pace which was nice. The first three days the couple was nice enough to adopt me and let me tag along but the last three days I ventured off on my own which was exhilarating!

Our first day was from Vitoria to a small town called Estella, 100 km away. We passed through lots of farms, mountains, and vineyards. We also rode through a bunch of tiny Spanish towns with adorable town squares and lots of little cafes. The next day we rode to Pamplona, a slightly larger town where they were preparing for the running of the bulls which is taking place in a couple weeks. I was shocked at how incredibly narrow the street they run down actually is. It's tiny. The following day we rode through the Pyrenees Mountains and into a very tiny town in France called St. Etienne. The Pyrenees were absolutely stunning. Miles and miles of beautiful green mountains with flowers of every color! I specifically remember being in awe of the most fresh aroma of pine I had ever smelled, it made me delirious for a minute. Also along this route we started to see people walking along a pilgrimage route called Camino de Santiago or some refer to it as The Way of St. James. This famous route has many starting points depending on how long you want to walk and ends in Santiago, NW Spain. People start from all over, some even from as far as Poland. Hundreds of thousands of people do this pilgrimage every year, most by foot, carrying heavy bags in incredible heat. Most people start just before the Pyrenees which is just over 800 km! Damn. There is a scallop shell on the ground that marks the trail and lots of food trucks and cafes offer "pilgrim meals" to the walkers at a discount rate.

After stopping for a night in France we came back across the Pyrenees into Spain and stayed for a night in San Sebastián. This city was absolutely gorgeous and I need to come back asap. We went to a restaurant where you serve yourself from an array of tapas splayed along the bar. Best buffet ever. So damn delicious. I think I got approximately 9 plates and a glass of wine for $13 and it was one of the best meals of my trip so far. America needs to think on this.

We then made our way to another adorable town in northern Spain called Leteicio, then rode onto Bilbao which is the largest city on the northern coast of Spain with a beautiful Guggenheim museum on the water.

All in all this bike trip was an amazing experience. It was terrifying and difficult and most of the time I was exhausted or lost or delirious but I'm so happy I did it and alive to tell. It felt so great navigating through these small Spanish towns and through the mountains on my own. Definitely something I want to do again some day with Mark and next time with proper preparation!

Posted by EuroAsh 05:07 Comments (0)

Barcelona

(Freddy Mercury voice) Barcelona!!!! Barcelona!!! Ok world you win- this city is beautiful! Bright colors, unique architecture, and delicious tapas on every block. You can't really talk about Barcelona without talking about its amazing food. For me- this city had the best variety and flavors of food, I could eat it every day. We had plenty of the classics- paella, sangria, calamari, even had pizza one night just to keep things interesting. Tapas galore! My mom and I were particularly fond of this goat cheese and red pepper dish that was unreal. Just like France, the wine was cheap and really good! There is a wine region in northern Spain called La Rioja which has great reds and we quickly became big fans.

Our first day we did a walking tour downtown Barcelona, soaking in all the ancient history (that actually goes back to Roman times!) and also orienting ourselves with the city. The history of this city is crazy. We learned a lot about the Catalan culture and its troubles throughout the years. The Catalans have been oppressed for centuries and more recently, for over 300 years you could get arrested or murdered of you spoke the Catalan language or celebrated any of its holidays. They essentially were under a dictatorship until the 70s! Pretty damn impressive of the Catalan people that they were able to overcome and keep their culture and language alive. So much respect for these people. We also learned a lot about the Catalan independence movement (they want to break away from Spain) which is currently a pretty hot current topic as its possibly going to referendum soon. The movement is gaining a lot of momentum and I'll be interested to see what happens over the next few years.

Again, my mom and I were pretty nonstop here. We went to the Sagrada Familia which is a huge basilica designed by Antoni Gaudi that was started in 1882 and still isn't complete. They estimate 2026 but based on the models displayed they still have a ton of work to do. The central spire is supposed to be over 550 ft tall, just short of Montjuic, Barcelonas tallest point. The Sagrada is a gorgeous church that towers over the city and each facade is a different depiction of a story in the bible. You could spend hours just looking at the outside of the building.

We also visited Park Guell which is a beautiful park in the northern part of town that has a lot of sculptures and mosaic designs also by Gaudi. His mosaics and use of color are absolutely gorgeous. We went to the Picasso museum which mostly focused on his early works when he was just a teenager. They have some pieces he created while in art school and some when he was just 14 years old which are stunning and very impressive considering how young he was. Each section of the museum was from a different period in his life and it was interesting to see his evolution and also the influence of the region of Spain he was in at the time as well as historical context. We also took a trip up to the top of Montjuic to visit a castle and see the beautiful view at the top. The castle was originally built to defend Barcelona but during Franco's dictatorship it was actually used to maintain power of Barcelona so locals do not revere this part of town. We then took a gondola type ride down the mountain and saw more beautiful views.

We also squeezed in some beach time while we were there! The beach is absolutely beautiful. We rented chairs and umbrellas, bought $2 beers some guys were selling out of plastic bags, and soaked in the sun while resting our feet. It was perfect.

On my last evening here, in preparation for my bike trip, I went on an evening bike tour of Barcelona. I was the only one who signed up so it was more or less a date with this Catalan dude Jordi who was my guide. We rode around lots of neighborhoods, along the water, and he shared some local insight about Barcelona. He also is a passionate proponent of the Catalan independence movement so it was really interesting hearing his perspective.

Here was where I split ways with my mom, she flew back to the states and I am taking a bus up to Basque Country Northern Spain for a weeklong bike ride 😁😁. My mom and I had an amazing time together and I was so happy to share this experience with her!

Posted by EuroAsh 04:25 Comments (0)

Paris

Paris blog:
Why can I say about Paris that hasn't been said before?? Ugh this place is magical. So far-second favorite city! (Amsterdam still in the lead so far 😻). The wine, the art, the food, the buildings, the food. This place has it all. Love is seriously in the air. The girls are hot and all dress to the nines even to the grocery store. The guys are even more attractive and literally just stepped off a Ralph Lauren photo shoot. These people are classy! They also make out a lot, and everywhere, the land of PDA!

We were non stop in Paris. So much to do and so little time. I drove my poor mother insane and pretty sure one of her ankles had accelerated arthritis by the end due to all the walking. We also battled numerous obstacles including aftermath of flood, a strike of train conductors and garbage men, and also the Eurocup which attracted mobs of drunk loud men. BUT despite all that we had an Incredible time.

Our first day we visited the palace of Versailles, rode bikes around the beautiful gardens and fountains, had a picnic lunch we bought at an outdoor market and toured the palace. It was a perfect day! The grounds are absolutely beautiful with lots of French gardens whose aesthetic is extremely manicured and geometric compared to British gardens which tend to be more natural. The palace sits on over 2000 acres and we biked all over. We saw fountains and farms and even a little peasant village that Marie Antoinette had built for her so she could "dress up and play poor farm girl". We also saw a house that Louis the 18th built just for the lady who organized his mistresses (aka female pimp.) The palace was insane. Unreal. There was gold in every corner and crevice. Half the time I was in awe of how beautiful and the other half I was pretty furious that they were building this when much of the country was living in such poverty and poor economic times. Cue the French Revolution.

The following day we continued our marathon and tackled and Louvre, Notre Dame, and climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. We both really loved the Louvre! Yes we saw the Mona Lisa which was pretty anti climactic but check we did it. Our favorites were the Egyptian antiquities with sculptures, pottery and hieroglyph which date back to 2500 BC! Also the building itself was really beautiful and actually used to be the main royal palace before Versailles was built!

The next day, more walking till our feet hurt, we did a general walking tour of central Paris, learned so much about French history, the bad and the worse, French architecture, and current French culture. We did a second walking tour that night in a part of town called Montmartre which was my favorite part of Paris. It is the birthplace is the French Caberet, including Moulin Rogue, and also where many famous artists built a community including Monet, Picasso, and Van Gogh. This neighborhood lies on a hill with quaint little narrow streets and beautiful gardens and even a small winery. It also is adjacent to a mini redlight district which I didn't know existed in Paris. We finished our night with a delicious dinner in a cute cafe in Montmartre and headed home. We couldn't say enough about the wine here! In a restaurant a good bottle of red will set you back about $14 and in the grocery store about $5.

Our last day in Paris we started out our day at the Musee D'Orsay, which is a museum converted from an old train station, and today focuses on mainly
Impressionist art. It was a nice experience to see this collection after hearing the stories of the artists the night before. It was nice to have that context of the time and community in which the art was created and why some pieces were controversial for that time. My Mom and I both agreed we preferred this museum over the Louvre. That day was pretty rainy so we relaxed a little and rested our feet and that night took an evening boat tour on the Seine to see the Paris lights at night. The Eiffel Tower at night really is spectacular, call me cliche, but damn it's beautiful. On the hour, they do a light show with sparkling lights and lots of colors and it was just the perfect way to end our time in Paris!

Posted by EuroAsh 03:05 Archived in France Comments (0)

Prague

Prague!! The Bohemian Kingdom where the beer is (no joke) half the price of water!! I arrived in Prague after a gorgeous four hour train ride from Berlin on June 3rd and was immediately in awe of the beautiful landscape and architecture! The hills and mountains are bright green and there are tons of red-roof houses scattered about. The beautiful Vltava River flows through Prague and there are lots of unique bridges that span the river. My Mom successfully landed the following day and I met her at the airport. She had to stop in Moscow and despite months of worry and anticipation it was quite uneventful. She can't stop talking about how hot the Russian flight attendants were. Despite taking a red eye, she was as eager as I was to explore the city. That first day we walked around on our own, over the beautiful Charles Bridge, to the Lennon Wall (a wall dedicated to the life and music of John Lennon, decorated with quotes and cool street art, and a busted dude with an acoustic guitar), and around the neighborhood we were staying in -Old Town- which is now a UNESCO world heritage site thus very preserved. We had our first traditional Czech meal- lots of delicious duck, pork, and sauerkraut! And cheap beer ofcourse!

The Czech was the birthplace of Pilsner beer, first made in 1842 in a town called Pilsen and there is definitely plenty of it. The average pint of Pilner Urqell will run about 1.6 euro while a water is over 2.5 euro. Apparently Czechs revere their beer industry so much that it is not taxed! My Mom and I went to a beer museum (obviously had the sampler) and I can finally say I now thoroughly know the difference between an ale and lager!

The following day we did a wonderful walking tour of the city to orient ourselves and learn some history about the beautiful city! Like any country- it went through many years of dark history including religious oppression, wars, and lots of "defenestration"- which was a term I learned that means to throw someone out a window for doing something you didn't like (mostly being a different religion). These bohemians were really dramatic. For a while they would throw people out windows of the Prague castle onto large wooden spikes but one time they forgot the spikes and there is a legend that one guy survived the fall because he was saved by angels/landed on a pile of cow poop. I like the latter. My Mom and I visited the Prague Castle and saw this infamous cow poop window. The castle towers over the Vltava river and can be seen from very far away; it dates back to the 9th century, consumes 18 acres of riverside and has beautiful cathedrals and gardens. Other sites we saw include the astronomical clock (800 year old clock in Old Town Square), Franz Kafka museum, Old Jewish Quarter, and we walked (Mom took the lift 😉) up to their version of the Eiffel Tower which gave us an absolutely gorgeous view of the city! The Old Jewish Quarter was very interesting to walk through: they have the oldest synagogue outside of Israel dating back to the 13th century and we also visited a Jewish cemetery that had to be built up due to its limited space and is thought to have possibly up to 40,000 people buried.

Our last night in Prague we took a beautiful boat ride along the Vltava and enjoyed the city lit up at night. Hard to believe but it was even more gorgeous at night!

Overall I absolutely loved Prague for its beauty, its beer, its quaint streets and neighborhoods, cobblestone literally everywhere, and the fact that it was cheap as hell!!

Posted by EuroAsh 15:22 Comments (0)

Berlin

I recently just spent five days in Berlin and as I'm posting this now I am on a train to Prague where tomorrow I meet up with my mama- but first- Berlin. Berlin was different for me than my other legs of this trip, mostly because my hostel was not in a great location so I was far from the nightlife and really didn't get the chance to experience that part of the city culture.... Next time Mark 😉. What I missed in booze and raves I made up for with historical site seeing... I know- I'm such a badass.

This city has so much history- I really felt like I was back in seventh grade history class. Berlin is a city with 800 years of history dating back to the Prussians and recently WW2 and the Cold War. So much of the city was damaged in WW2 but there is so much restoration.

I did a general walking tour my first day just to orient myself. We saw lots of buildings that were once used by Prussian royalty in as early as the 1200s and then also saw buildings used by the Nazi's in the 30's and 40's. I visited the Brandenburg gate- a famous site of celebration after the wall came down. I saw Hotel Adlon where Michael Jackson infamously hung baby Blanket off a balcony. I visited Checkpoint Charlie and saw many Nazi watchtowers lining the Berlin Wall. I also visited many parts of the Berlin Wall still standing today including the famous East Side galleria where there is a lot of famous street art that decorates the wall on both sides. The history around the Cold War was fascinating to me. At the time the wall came down I was just a chubby four year old who went by the name "the Refrigerator" (thanks Mom), so I really had no idea what it was really all about. It is unreal that overnight this barrier went up, changing families and relationships forever. Bad night to have a one night stand. Learning about the escape attempts was mind blowing; one lady dressed up as a car seat cushion and a man sat on her and drove the car to West Berlin, another guy ziplined across, and another used a hot air balloon. It's also amazing to me to see the aftermath of the wall coming down. There are still parts of East Berlin where it is very visible they are still rebuilding. Current Berlin is very much a city of unity and freedom to be who you want to be. There is a really cool culture of artists and musicians and the neighborhoods are each so unique! I also went on a street art tour and learned a lot about some very famous art and I also met a street artist who was commissioned by the city to do a piece and he chose a piece that was a take on the American voter....it wasn't pretty but all too real.

My favorite memorial I visited was the Memorial of the Murdered Jews. It takes up one full street block and is comprised of 2711 huge cement blocks lined in a grid but they are actually all individually different slightly in shape and angle. You walk through the structure and it's almost disorienting. It was really an amazing experience. The designer is a Jewish American who has refused to tell his inspiration in the hopes that people would walk through it and develop their own ideas and beliefs about what the memorial is about. It's different than any memorial I've been to and definitely more powerful than any statue or plaque. They also have a great museum below that tells the stories of six individual families effected by the holocaust in a very personal and emotional way.

Also in Berlin I went to Potsdam which is a city about an hour away where most of the old Prussian palaces are, including Frederick the Great! I also rented a bike one day and biked around the city and only ran into one street sign 😬.

My take away from Berlin- I was absolutely amazing that every corner you turn there is some reminder of the holocaust. Whether it be a memorial or museum or gardens, the people of Berlin are reminded everyday of the lives lost and that horrible dark part of their history. I learned that part of the German high school curriculum is to go visit a concentration camp! I think this speaks to the people of Berlin today that they keep the memories alive and refuse to ignore or forget what happened but quite the opposite -it is very much part of their daily lives and they chose to remember and learn from it.

Ok now off to Prague!!

Posted by EuroAsh 04:30 Comments (0)

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