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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New blog, check it out!

Hello friends. As I am sure you have noticed. I have not updated this blog in over a year. I had every intention of keeping up with it, but my second year as a language assistant was a lot more difficult. Not so much in terms of work load, but I felt like I was unwanted at the school. It was definitely not a all fun all the time year like my first. And as a result of that I didn't really feel motivated to keep up with the blog. HOWEVER! I live in a new city now and I feel like it is time to start again. I have began a new blog where I will hopefully be able to help the new language assistants and will be able to talk about my food and travel adventures in and around Europe.

So please, head on over to my new blog: A Foodie in Europe

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weekend in Poland


Anyone who knows me well knows that I have wanted to go to Poland for a really long time. So, when my friend Colleen (who I met on the Morocco trip) asked if I wanted to go I was on board immediately. We only had one more break from school left, at the end of April so that was our last opportunity to go. We didn't have a ton of time so we decided to only go to Krakow, which is the second biggest city in Poland.
Not really knowing anything about Eastern Europe, we just assumed that the weather was going to be cold and foggy. We were definitely wrong! It was in the upper 70s-80s (21-26) and sunny the whole time we were there. It was perfect. Better weather than we had been having in Almeria.

All together 3 of us who met on the Morocco trip went. Since all of us live in different parts of Spain (Sarah: Cadiz and Colleen: Toledo) we met in the Madrid Airport at about midnight. Our flight was at 6:45 and took about 3 hours. Weirdly, even though Poland is really far away from Spain it is still on the same time zone. It took us forever to get away from the airport because of a money problem. The ATM only gave big bills, and the bus only took coins. When we finally made it into the city we went to the hostel and dropped our stuff off and went to walk around. Our hostel was just one block away from the main square so that was super convenient.


On the other side of the Cloth Market, which is right in the middle of the square.


We wanted to get a good map right away so we tried to go to the tourist office, but the street was blocked off and police were standing there (no one seemed to be in a panic though). While we were waiting for it to open up we went to a little restaurant just down the street. While we were eating a police helicopter started flying over. After we finished we went back to the main square to go check out the basilica. There were SO many police cars and a few ambulances and TV cameras waiting. It was super weird. We found out on Sunday that it was because the Prime Minister of China was there. So, nothing bad. :)

Lots of police cars


St. Mary's Basilica

This basilica was really pretty inside. Very different than all the other cathedrals I have seen in Western Europe which are very stark. This had a beautiful blue ceiling and red and orange walls. This church is most famous for housing the biggest gothic altar in Europe. It was pretty big. They also had a huge shrine to Pope John Paul II, the first of many we would see on this trip. Another interesting thing about this basilica is that every hour they have a trumpet player play part of a song out of one of the towers. It stops suddenly to commemorate a trumpet player who was shot through the throat in the 13th century while he was warning the city about a mongol attack.

Altar for Pope John Paul II


The altar


After we finished at the church we went and walked through the cloth market which is a really old market building which now sells touristy things and a ton of amber jewelry. Underneath the building is a medieval market exhibit. We didn't get a chance to check it out unfortunately but it seemed really cool.

Inside the Cloth Market

On the other side of the square is the old town hall tower. Which was actually used as the town hall way back in the day. Like all towers in Europe the stairs are super sketch, but it was a nice view from the top so it made it worth it.

The main square. The Cloth Market is on the left and the Town Hall Tower is in the center



View of the castle and the river from the tower

View of St. Mary's Basilica from the tower



When we were finished there we went down towards the castle and the river to start exploring that part of town. We didn't do much for the rest of the day, just took a ton of pictures of all the cool architecture (I did at least...I'm weird).

Another church. I definitely thought Poland was mostly Jewish, but it turns out it is over 70% practicing Catholic


Yeah....I don't know....



The next day we woke up early to go to the train station to catch the train to Wieliczka to see the salt mines. Luckily for us someone on the train spoke English and was able to tell us that to get into the town we had to take the free bus. Who knows where we would have ended up if she wasn't there. The salt mine is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so that was another one I can add to my list. Overall, it was pretty interesting. We went with a guide who told the same joke about 1000 times (about how she is the queen of the mine and has been living there for 400 years, it wasn't actually funny....). But, we learned about how they mind salt back in the middle ages when the mine was started and how it has changed up to today. It is the only continuously functioning mine in the whole world. There was a surprising amount of art and sculptures on the tour. A salt statue of Pope John Paul II (he is Polish after all), a salt Jesus, salt The Last Supper, a Polish king, and lots of other things. Probably the coolest artistic thing to see was the salt chandeliers. Instead of being decorated with crystals they are decorated with little pieces of salt.


wood beams that hold the mine up. the ones by the hand are 100 years old and the ones on the other side are 300 years old.

Salt The Last Supper

Salt JPII


I'm a theater nerd at heart. I had to take a picture with my good friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Although the mine goes down 327 meters (1,072feet) we only went to just over 130. At the end of the tour to exit the mine instead of climbing all the way back up you take the sketchiest elevator I have ever been in. Its a 4 stack of cars and its made out of metal with a bunch of holes in it. I was pretty sure we were going to die (I may have a slight fear of elevators..... :p) When we were finished with the tour I bought some salt for my mom and we went across the street and had our first attempt at eating at a restaurant where oddly, the menu was in English but no one there spoke it. Everything worked out though and we ended up with some fantastic homemade pierogies.

Pierogies.....yum

When we got back into Krakow we went onto the castle grounds and walked around in there. We were being cheap/didn't have a ton of spare time so we didn't go in anything that cost money. The cathedral is really famous for it's gold dome so we stopped and took pictures of that. I was more enthralled with the dragon shaped drainage pipes though. :p We went into the cathedral and it was nothing special, the basillica was a lot prettier and more interesting. This cathedral looked just like your average European cathedral. The cool part though was in the basement they had the tomb of Frédéric Chopin, my music nerd self was too excited about that.


The cathedral, and gold dome

Dragon drain!

Chopin's tomb

After the cathedral we left the castle and went to search for the fire breathing dragon statue which was down by the river. This river area is beautiful. Lots of people were laying out relaxing and walking around. We took pictures with the statue and waited for it to breathe fire before we continued on our walk into the old Jewish quarter. (note on the video: make sure you look at the kid do a double take, its hilarious)




video

The castle at sunset

View of the river from the castle

There is lots of history in this part of town and it was noticeably different than the main part of town. Most of the signs were written in Polish and Hebrew (occasionally English if it was a touristy sign) and there were a ton of synagogues. I wanted to go to the Schindler Factory which is a museum about Krakow during the Nazi occupation, but sadly it was closed by the time we got there. So instead we just continued our tour of the synagogues and went searching for some Jewish food. We ended up eating at a hotel but it was still really good.

Jewish cemetary

The old synagogue

A memorial in the Jewish quarter. Written in Polish, Hebrew and English


After that Sarah went back to the hostel to relax and Colleen and I went on a search for buffalo grass vodka, one that Poland is super famous for. We were unsuccessful that night but we ended up at the same cafe that we ate at the first day we were there and got dessert and some other weird flavored vodka. Mine was smoked dates and currents and Colleens was raspberry. It was pretty weird but good.

The next day we woke up early again and headed to the bus station to go to Oświęcim which is the town where Auschwitz is located. (Note: Out of respect for what happened there, I [unlike SO many people on our tour] didn't take very many pictures, if you want to see more you can take a virtual tour here ) We took a WAY over crowded mini bus for an hour and got dropped off right outside the museum. Between the hours of 10am and 3pm its required to go with a guide. I would have much rather gone without one because I like to take time reading the signs and looking at everything. It felt really rushed going on the tour, but there were an insane amount of people so I completely understand why they have that rule. We started by going through the old blocks in Auschwitz I, most of which have been turned into museums and one was kept in its original state. That was definitely eerie to see, in the basement of the original one they had the solitary confinement cells, a few were completely dark, where people would die from suffocation, a few were for death by starvation and some were standing cells that are only 75 x 80 cm (29.5 x 31.5 inches) which 4 people would have to be in all night. It was pretty crazy. One of the most disturbing things we saw was almost 2 tons of human hair that was in the process of being sold to fabric making factories. Also in that block there were all the things that were confiscated from the prisoners, we saw huge rooms of shoes, suitcases, kitchen supplies, glasses, and brushes and combs. The suitcases were really strange to see too because they all had names on them.

One of the last things we saw in Auschwitz I was one of the last standing gas chambers and crematoriums. The Nazis burned most of them in an attempt to cover up what was really going on in the camps as they were being liberated. That was an incredibly disturbing thing to walk into. I couldn't stay in there for very long.

After that we took a short mental break and then took the bus 3 kilometers to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I is the work camp, and the prisoners were mostly men for a lot of the time that the camp was in use, but later women prisoners were included. Birkenau is considered to be the death camp and housed the women prisoners. Birkenau is massive and what is most shocking about it is that it was built by prisoners of Auschwitz I. Most of the buildings were deconstructed by the Polish government because it was costing too much money to keep them up, but they left all the chimneys standing for the barracks so everyone could still get a good idea of how many there were.

We started by walking along the train tracks to where the trains would be unloaded and the prisoners sorted. We continued following the same path as the prisoners who were sent to the gas chambers at the end of the train tracks. There are only remains of those two buildings as they were burned down. Also at the end of the tracks is the memorial to the prisoners. After we had time to walk around the memorial we went to the brick barrack. Its pretty much exactly what you think of as a barrack from the holocaust, and really similar to what they look like in movies. It was hard to imagine so many people sleeping in a building that small.

When we were finished there we went back across the train tracks to the other part of the camp that had wooden barracks. There were only a few of these standing, because as you can imagine, it would cost an incredible amount of money to keep wood from WWII standing. The first one we went in was the “sanitary” barrack which was anything but sanitary. Followed by the sleeping barrack which literally looked like a barn. Even though it was only early May it was so hot in there, it was hard to imagine people living in there year round without any windows to open or knowing that they didn't have blankets or anything to keep warm during the winter.

Over all, I wouldn't say I particularly enjoyed the day. It was really emotionally draining, but it was incredibly interesting. I'm definitely glad we went.

Entrance gate to Auschwitz I. Arbeit Macht Frei (Work brings freedom)

Right next to the entrance gate to Auschwitz I. Both rows of barbed wire were electrified and we learned that a lot of people came here to commit suicide. Guards in the towers (in the back right of the picture) would shoot anyone who would somehow be able to make it into the middle of the fences.

Rows of blocks in Auschwitz I

Entrance to Birkenau


Hebrew sign

When we got back to Krakow we decided to get cupcakes and do a little retail therapy at the Cloth Market to cheer ourselves up. The exchange rate was so nice to us while we were shopping. We all got authentic amber jewelry (really famous in this part of Europe) for crazy cheap. After we stopped in a few more stores Sarah went back to talk to her family and Colleen and I went to find the English language book store and to find a bar to try the bison grass vodka. I of course had to buy a book about WWII to add to my already way to large collection. :p

The bar that was recommended was in the Jewish quarter so we decided to walk by the river again to watch the sunset. Finally at the end of the trip we were able to try the famous vodka. We were both pretty apprehensive to try a grass flavored vodka, but man it was delicious! We had it the way the Polish drink it normally which is mixed with apple juice. I think the best way to describe the flavor is Christmas. Haha. It has a really holiday-ish spice to it. After we finished the drink and restrained ourselves from getting another one (we were trying to save some money to buy a few bottles at the duty free shop) we went to a 24hour pierogi place to end our trip on a traditional note. It was really funny at this restaurant because the guy (who was obviously very overwhelmed) was cussing up a storm in English, although he didn't appear to be a native speaker.



Apple pierogies. So good.
I have to say, even though we only spent a few days in Poland, it is definitely one of my favorite countries that I have visited so far. The atmosphere and the people are amazing. I would love to go back again. Anyone want to come with?



Friday, May 4, 2012

Katelyn's Visit


As a lot of you know, my best friend's name is Katelyn. We have been friends since we were 12! Long time! So when she said she was going to come visit I was super excited! I tried to convince her to stay for 3-4 weeks but she only stayed for 2 so she could make it back in time for her brother's birthday. One of the weeks she was here was Semana Santa (like spring break) so I planned a big trip for us so she could take advantage of her time in Europe, but I'll get to that.

Katelyn had finished her student teaching in December so she is fully trained as a teacher. I have been telling her about my school here since I started so I was really excited to take her to school one day and show her my life here. We went on Monday since that is my only full day. Everyone was really excited to meet her and she was even able to help out in Antonio's English class while I worked on translating something for Javi. She taught the kids freeze tag during PE and they loved it. Luckily for her she doesn't speak Spanish so she was spared from our not very PG rated conversation during lunch. :p Over all I think she had a good time though, and the kids really enjoyed meeting her.

I still had to work Tuesday and Wednesday (I took Thursday and Friday off) so Katelyn just hung out here and worked on looking up things for us to do on our trip. Thursday morning we left really early for Granada. It was the day of the Huelga General (General Strike) so it took us FOREVER to get to our hostel, we were lucky that we were even able to get to Granada. When we got settled we went up to the Mirador de San Nicolas to look at the view. We spent the rest of the day wandering around trying to avoid the huge groups of people protesting. :p The next day we woke up at 6 to get to La Alhambra by 7. I'm not going to lie, I was not super excited about going again (It was my 4th time). But I was excited to show Katelyn one of my favorite places in Spain. She loved it just as much as I did. After we were done there we got some falafel and it in the plaza before wandering around again. 

At the fountain below La Alhambra

La Alhambra from el Mirador de San Nicolas

Closed for the strike

Finally saw a gardener at La Alhambra! What a hard job that must be!
The next day we woke up really early again to get to the train station. The guy at our hostel told us the wrong bus to get on so we were really close to missing our train, but luckily I speak Spanish and the bus driver was really helpful so he told us where we needed to go.I didn't plan very well for this trip so we only had one day in Sevilla. Sevilla is the city most famous for the Semana Santa processions so when we got there a lot of the streets were closed/limited access since they were still setting up. We made it to our hostel, dropped our stuff off and headed out. I really wanted to show her the cathedral but it was closed so we went to the Real Alcazar instead. It was really obvious that we were sleep deprived because we were not taking the experience seriously at all. We took a lot of stupid pictures with flowers, a picture of me being a lion statue, a picture of Katelyn being a bird and pictures of us jumping out of a tree. Even though I have been there 4 times we couldn't find the exit. It was hilarious. When we finally made it out we went to get ice cream and wander around down by the river. After relaxing for a bit we headed over the river to the Triana neighborhood to walk around and get dinner. We went tapa hopping and then on the way back we found a truck selling churros con chocolate. Those were on the list of things she had to try while she was in Spain and she loved them. And really who wouldn't? It's fried dough dipped in chocolate!


Hobbit door in Real Alcazar

Us in the Plaza de España
The next day was another early morning. Both of us are paranoid travelers so we got to the airport way earlier than we needed to, but better safe than sorry! I didn't realize when I booked the flights that Paris had so many airports. I bought the cheapest tickets I could find, not realizing the Beauvais airport is literally in the middle of nowhere. It took us an hour and a half to get into the city so that ate up a lot of precious time. Also, our hostel was really far out of the center of the city so we dropped our stuff off and went to the most touristy spot first, the Eiffel Tower. It was anticlimactic. Haha. It was still really pretty though. We stayed there wandering around taking pictures for the rest of the day. We got lunch at a little restaurant a few streets away and then came back to watch the sunset and see the tower at night. We wanted to stay longer to see the lights at night but a weird Moroccan guy decided he wanted to not leave us alone, so that was our cue to leave. The next day we woke up early to get to the Lourve right when it opened to avoid the lines. We went in the side entrance so that saved us a ton of time. We tried to power through everything since we really only had one full day in Paris. This museum, like the British Museum is overwhelmingly big. It definitely needs more than one day to see all the art.. We made sure we saw all the important things (the Mona Lisa, of course) before we left. After taking the obligatory tourist picture in front of the glass pyramid we started walking towards Notre Dame. It was such a pretty walk! Paris is such a beautiful city. Once again, we were underwhelmed with this famous landmark. I really don't understand why this cathedral is so famous, it was pretty on the outside but inside is really nothing special at all. But, its still cool to say that we saw it. When we were finished there we went to Shakespeare andCompany, and English language book store that was just across the street. I bought a graphic novel about wine for my dad and Katelyn bought a really old edition of A Tale of Two Cities. After that we found a really good Italian restaurant with homemade pasta. Delicious.

Tourists


I've been learning Photoshop...... :p



After lunch we went to Le Jardin du Luxembourg. It was really pretty. It was full of people relaxing in the sun. We got some delicious crepes from a little kiosk in the park. Katelyn's (and my) favorite Disney movie is Beauty and the Beast. The whole time we were in Paris Katelyn wanted to take a picture of herself reading in front of a fountain (like in the movie) so while we were walking towards the Catacombs we found the perfect fountain. We unfortunately got to the Catacombs after they had closed so I will have to go back to Paris soon to finish seeing everything we missed. Since it was closed we walked around trying to find some Feur de Sel to give as gifts to people. After that we went back to the hostel to eat dinner and repack for our fight to Barcelona.





I had never been to Barcelona before, but everyone I know who has been there told me I would love and, and they were right! Its such an awesome city. Unfortunately it was raining pretty hard the whole time we were there so that made us not want to spend too much time outside. When we got there and all settled into our hostel we went to La Sagrada Familia (Barcelona's most famous landmark). It was going to close an hour later so we decided not to go that day. Instead we went to the train station to buy train tickets to Alicante since our original travel plan (a flight from Barcelona to Alicante) didn't leave us enough time to get to the bus station to catch our bus to Almeria. After that we wandered around and found a cool mall in an old bullfighting ring. You can go up to the top and get a nice view of the whole city. After that we went to the hostel to watch the football game and eat dinner. The next day we went to La Sagrada Familia again. I studied Gaudi in one of my classes in college so I was really excited to see the inside of the cathedral. It was just as amazing as I thought. Gaudi's style is really unique and it is VERY different than any other cathedral I have ever seen before. When we left the cathedral it was raining really hard so instead of going out to eat we went back to the hostel to save money and wait for the rain to stop. Luckily when we had finished eating the rain had stopped so we went wandering around Las Ramblas so Katelyn could finish buying presents for her family. We finished the night like all the other final nights in each city, repacking our suitcases.

One of Gaudi's buildings

La Sagrada Familia
Inside La Sagrada Familia

View from the top of the mall/old bullfighting ring

The next morning we woke up early to catch the train. It was really pretty watching the scenery change. Katelyn got lucky that the train went through Valencia so she was able to see the Arts and Science center (from far away, but it still counts!) When we got to Alicante I tried to change our bus tickets to something earlier in the day but there is only one bus per day between Alicante and Almeria, so we were stuck for 6 hours. We went to walk on the beach and then got lunch (Paella for Katelyn, because Valencia is world famous for it's Paella). We killed the rest of our time walking around the city. We got back at 12 to a house full of people (los chicos de Valencia! :) ) By the time Katelyn repacked her suitcase and talked to her family on Skype it was 2:30, and we had to get up at 5 to get to the airport in time. So, I'm sure by the end she wanted a vacation from her vacation. Haha. I was sad to see her go, but super glad she was able to come! It was a nice break from my weird life here to see someone from home. :)

Alicante