El albergue

El albergue

Thursday, April 26, 2012

On the eve of a friend’s arrival

I don’t normally think of myself as a person who tends to get homesick.  It’s not that I don’t miss my family and friends back home.  In fact, I more often than not find myself thinking that my parents, siblings, or a particular friend would absolutely love sharing in something that I am experiencing.  Or more to point, that I would love sharing the experience with them, certain of their enjoyment.  However, I seldom feel that melancholic yearning down in my gut that I define as homesickness.  Of course, such modern marvels as Facebook, email and Skype really help a lot – the internet is such a great way to keep connected and involved in the lives of the people who matter most when you can’t have them always at your side.  Via such lines of communication, you can exchange not only spoken and written words of love, support, encouragement, advice, etc, but also pictures and videos giving a visual idea of where your separate lives are leading.  On top of that, you get to actually see their faces, to feel as though you are practically by their side.  But….there is no possibility of sharing the sweet closeness of a hug with them.  When I truly miss my family and friends, those moments when I feel that yearning deep inside, that’s when all I really want is to wrap them tight in my arms and feel theirs squeezing me back.  But that’s a little difficult when they’re halfway across the world.  That’s part of the reason that I’m so excited for tomorrow morning, when my life-long friend Katie steps through the arrivals gate at the Madrid airport.  I won’t just be getting her hugs when I greet her either, because I know that just a couple days ago she saw my parents, and that they gave her hugs for me.  Maybe it seems a little silly to think of sending hugs, but I know that when I hug Katie tomorrow, that will be one more precious link to my parents and my home that I simply cannot have over even the most sophisticated of modern modes of communication.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

Eating our way through Prague

Prague was a good way to end our Easter vacation.  We spent nearly three days there with Kels’ younger sister, just hanging out, taking lots of pictures with the beautiful scenery of the old city, learning a little about the history of the place….and eating lots and lots of amazingly delicious food at the Easter fair in the Old Town Square.  We spent a couple of hours in that market every day, enjoying to the utmost the delectable profferings of the various vendors.

The unchallenged favorite of all three of us was some kind of traditional cake with a name unpronounceable to these English-speaking lips.  It wasn’t really like any cake that we had ever come across – rather than being baked in big sheets and served in squares on plates, it was cylindrical.  How is that possible?  Well, the dough was rolled into strips and wrapped around a metal cylinder that rotated over an open fire, and as it cooked, the strips baked together to form a winding pastry with a texture something like a fluffy, bready pie crust.  Once done, the steaming cakes were rolled in sugar and almond flakes and then served straight into our adoring hands in all their steaming glory.

Nom nom nom!!!

A close second were the potato pancakes.  These were small patties of shredded potato and onion fried in boiling oil and served up fresh with a pile of sauerkraut.  They were incredibly savory, with a hint of tanginess and more than a hint of delicious saltiness.

We also tried a fry bread of some sort doused in garlic butter and covered with cheese, a paper bag of homemade potato chips, sausage wrapped in dough similar to that of the cylindrical cakes, steaming spaetzle with spinach, barbequed chicken kebab baguette sandwiches, and some breathtaking gingerbread.  This gingerbread came in thick, toothy chunks covered with a sugary glaze, releasing with every bite a symphony of flavors – cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and a few other spices forming the background against which the sharpness of anis really shone.  It felt decadent.

The astronomical clock in the Old Town Square
was a true work of art.
There were many other incredible things about our stay in Prague, including a historical tour, a couple of hours in the Communism Museum, exploring the castle, meeting people in the hostel and walking up and down the uniquely wonderful Charles Bridge.  But really, to be completely honest, the food was my favorite part.  

Maybe that’s why I’m starting to feel a little soft around the middle…

We quite enjoyed walking by the river

Prague really is a beautiful city.

Our last visit before we headed back to Madrid was the John Lennon wall,
where Beatles lyrics, random quotes, and the like had been boldly painted
by hundreds of anonymous hands.

Our day in Vienna

Once we got to Vienna, we had two nights there, but we really only had the one day between those two nights to go sightseeing, as we got in latish the fist day and left really early the last.  So, we packed that day as tightly as we could, and this is what it sort of looked like:

Get up.  Eat breakfast.  Chat with the friend we got to stay with.  Then….

Get on the subway go to the Schönbrunn Palace which used to be the royal summer palace ask awkward tourists to take our photo for us climb the steep hill to the magnificent Gloriette behind the palace pause to look out over the giant gardens stroll back down through the shade of the foresty area and the bright sun of the open grass find our way around the side of the incredibly symmetrical palace with softly glowing yellow walls come across a small Easter market in the palace’s front courtyard…

Just the summer residence, no big deal...
A certain queen had the Gloriette built so that she
could take her coffee there every morning.

Kels had a sugar-covered pretzel.  Me, definitely went for the pizza pretzel.
How could I pass up such tastiness?
Eat amazing pretzels.  Sit in bright egg-shaped chairs.  Relax in the sunshine and watch as various young people attempt to master using stilts.  Relax some more.  Then…

Get back on the subway get off at Karlsplatz sit in front of the gorgeous Baroque cathedral there people watch head off try to help some other tourists find their way sneak into Starbucks to use the restroom go on a little detour to check out a building hiding around the corner come across the cutest park realize that it’s actually the park behind the Hofburg Palace wander around to the front of the newer wing of the palace sit at the foot of a statue and look out over more trees and city buildings at the Rathaus/the beautiful gothic town hall wander around to the front of the older wing that is inconspicuous in that it opens directly onto the street with no intervening gardens or courts look around the inside court a little try to figure out which Hercules statues we recognize from the Disney movie go find the famous Demel café go right back out when we see the line waiting for a table…

Karlskirche, the beautiful Baroque cathedral in Karlsplatz

It would have been nice to actually visit the Rathaus, but
since we didn't have much time we just had to content
ourselves with looking at it from afar.
Even though it didn't boast any grand gardens or outer
courtyard, the older wing of the Hofburg certainly was
Find the tiny café recommended to us by our friend.  Sit down.  Have a café mélange.  Relax.  Then…

Go back up the street towards Stephansplatz to admire the ancient gothic cathedral dominating the center of the city pray earnestly that the occasional rain drops don’t turn into a downpour get lost a little shiver over our map as the wind picks up miraculously find our war again reach this rather interesting housing project built by an architect who professed to be a student of Gaudi wander some more streets catch the subway and…

It would have been super interesting to see the inside too,
but I don't think the people living there generally open
their apartments to the public...
Make it back to our friend’s apartment for a quiet evening. 

It was one very full day, for sure!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The scent of Hallstatt

The next stop on our trip was Hallstatt, described by some as “the pearl of Austria.”  So, imagine all the beauty that that phrase implies in your mind…think about it…conjure up visions of complete gorgeousness…and multiply it by two.  Seriously, multiply it by two.  Only now can you truly imagine what Hallstatt is like.  It’s breath-taking.  It’s stunning.  It’s quite literally a jewel nestled in the middle of the Alps.  I tried taking pictures, but the result is so much less awing than the physical reality of the majestic peaks rearing their snowy heads high above the small, shimmering lake embraced tightly on every side by the dramatically steep slopes. 

Hallstatt itself, which claims to be the oldest still-inhabited village in the world – or at least in Europe, I can’t quite remember – clings to a sliver of the shoreline, backing up right into the solid rock of the mountains.  The little cobbled alleys, the quaint and colorful buildings, and the gentle lapping of the water along the walks and quays all combine to create a sort of paradise in miniature. 

One of my favorite parts of this village though was the smell.  I fell in love with the scent of Hallstatt.  I guess my nose had become accustomed to the strange combination of the myriad smells of the big city, so when it sniffed the pure and magical air of the Alps, it was a moment of sweet and unadulterated joy.  That may sound a little strange, but let me explain by delineating the distinct elements of this wonderful scent:

It smelled of the crisp, pristine snow on the surrounding peaks;
the pure aquamarine waters of the lake gently ebbing and flowing in an eternal cycle;
the rich earthiness of wood smoke rising from a dozen family chimneys;
the distinct hominess of our hotel, which reminded me of my grandparents’ house;
the moist greenery of the forest as we hiked up the mountain;
the dashing, splashing waterfall that tumbled down the slope;
the subtly fragrant freshness of the local fish we had for dinner;
the sunshine warming the land.

It smelled free, clean, pure, wild, and quite simply amazing.

An hour or so in Bad Ischl

On the way from Salzburg to Hallstatt, we had a connection to make between bus and train that happened to land in the little village of Bad Ischl, one of the many charming little towns tucked away into the lakes region of the Alps.  We had been planning on catching the soonest train after getting off the bus, but it was such a lovely day, and the tiny streets and adorable buildings gleaming in the sun convinced us to stop and enjoy the scenery.  And because we stopped, we not only got to relax in the sunshine in a beautiful garden and stroll along an enchantingly aquamarine river, we also got to meet to friendliest little Austrian lady.  We were wandering around the entrance of the above-mentioned garden, when she came up to us, greeted us with the hugest of smiles and the crinkliest of eyes, and excitedly asked us in her broken English where we were from and how long we would be staying in town – Kels and I were more bummed than ever that we didn’t speak even a word of German, because she would probably have been really fun to have an actual conversation with.  And as she wished us the best of journeys and we watched her spry little back bobbing away, I think we both felt our hearts grow a size or two bigger.  Definitely worth the pause in our trip.

It really was a lovely little town

Savoring Salzburg

The beautiful city of Salzburg!
Not only was the fort really old, it was made in
gigantic proportions.
The second leg of our trip took us to Salzburg, Austria, where Mozart was born.  It’s a beautiful little city at the foot of the Alps that can boast of being not only the birthplace of that musical genius but also the site where most of The Sound of Music was filmed!  We immensely enjoyed our slightly cheesy Sound of Music tour, as well as exploring the world’s oldest and biggest existing fort, but my favorite part was the food.  Yes, surprise surprise, the food. 

Just look at all that amazing deliciousness.
Our first meal once we got into town was composed of amazing bagel sandwiches and delightfully creamy caffe lattes topped with inches of foamy milk.  I sank my teeth into my caprese sandwich, savoring the fresh brightness of the pesto, the sweetness of the tomato, and the suave flavor of the mozzarella, all framed by the amazing chewiness of the bagel.  I sipped my coffee through the cloud of foamy milk.  I was happy.  Later though, when we walked by a bakery, I was still up for trying out some Austrian breads.  One of the two rolls we picked out was kind of like potato bread, fluffy and slightly sweet, but completely covered with some mild cheese.  Delicious.  The second was dark, heavy, and nutty, and tantalizingly topped with parmesan cheese.  Double delicious.

Maybe you think me silly for this picture, but this bread was totally deserving.
And dinner was heavenly.  We went to this tiny family-owned Italian place near the hostel that served only three pasta options that changed each day.  I ordered the anchovy pasta, which turned out to have nearly as much olive and sundried tomato as anchovy, all chopped up together and liberally doused with olive oil, with just a hint of spiciness that lingered on the back of my tongue.  By itself, the pasta was amazing.  But the real magic happened in combination with the wine the waiter served me.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t anything more special than the house white wine, but it was the absolute perfect partner for my dish – after swallowing each bite, I took a sip of the cool liquid, reveling in the bursts of flavors that exploded in my mouth.  I was particularly delighted by the surprising almond flavor that seemed to dominate everything else – absolutely heavenly.

The next day, after some simple gnoshing on more bread and a light sandwich, we indulged in another amazing dinner.  The location: St. Paul’s Stub’n, a pub-like place on a small side street in the old town with locals filling the richly dark, smoky interior.  The fare: spaetzle, salad, and wiener schnitzel that blew our mind.  First, the spaetzle.  Imagine taking really small gnocchi, fried onions, and all the cheesy goodness of homemade mac’n’cheese, and combining all that in a steaming pan that beckons you like some sort of savory Siren.  Oh yes.  It’s that good.  Next, the salad.  No more complicated than a small head of green lettuce placed in a bowl, what made it shine was the creamy balsamic dressing drizzled over the top.  I’m a sucker for creamy balsamic.  Last, the wiener schnitzel.  The meat itself wasn’t anything super special – a wide, thin pork steak breaded and fried – but the combination of the meat with the accompanying potato salad and cranberry sauce was magical.  The sweet tartness of the sauce perfectly paired with the heaviness of the meat and the slightly oniony and vinegary potatoes that exuded a profound creaminess coming from the perfect state of the tubers themselves rather than any additional ingredients.  It was so much food that Kels and I were unable to finish off the second half of the meat (the sauce and potatoes however were gone).  We looked at each other and said, “We came.  We ate.  We NEARLY conquered.” 

Our last bit of deliciousness as we headed out from Salzburg was some brown bread and cheese that we bought at the grocery store.  A German friend in Madrid had bemoaned to me a while back the lack of decent hearty bread anywhere outside of her home country, and I finally understood what she was talking about.  This bread comes in super thin slices, with the understanding that just a couple of these nutty, grainy, dense, savory slices with just a hint of the sourness of a good sourdough are enough to fill you up.  And it really is quite filling.

Now, here's what you've been waiting for, I know - Sound of Music pictures!!!!!

We got to see the church where the wedding scene was filmed!

We also got to skip down the same lane they used when Maria sang
"I've Got Confidence."
And the graveyard they used for the escape scene is really beautiful.

Moments in Munich

When I finally met up with Kels at our hostel in Munich, it was pretty late, so after a rather tasty Italian dinner, we headed to bed in preparation for a big day of sighseeing on Saturday.  First, we spent a few hours wandering around and check out some really beautiful spots, like the huge Englischer Garten that seemed to stretch out in an endless succession of manicured open fields, streams, ponds, and stands of trees, intersected and connected by meandering sandy pathways and dotted here and there with joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, and the odd Frisbee flying around between a group of young people.  We also spent a fair bit of time at one street vendor’s table, where she was selling hollow hand-painted Easter eggs with the most delicately beautiful designs – we learned later on that it is traditional in Germany and Austria to hang such eggs on a sort of Easter tree in celebration of springtime.

In the Englischer Garten

In the afternoon, we joined a free tour of the city in order to learn a little bit about the things we were seeing.  The tour guide was fantastic, energetic and entertaining, with an obvious interest in the information she was imparting and a voice that carried.  She told us too many things to remember, but here are just a few tidbits that you might enjoy:

- “Munich” comes from the German word for monks.  Apparently, in ancient times, Munich was heavily populated by monasteries, and famous for it, and the people who lived near would always just say they lived next to the monks…so eventually the town sort of took on that name.

- Once, when the Opera house was burning down, the people tried to put out the fire via bucket line, except all the buckets were filled with beer from the nearby Hofbräuhaus (biggest beer hall in town)…pretty soon the buckets were arriving at the end of the line empty, and the streets were filled with raucously drunk men.  Unfortunately, the Opera house burned completely down.

- Oktoberfest started as a celebration of the wedding of one of their kings, and the people liked the giant party so much that they repeated the festivities every year thereafter. 

- Before the major fighting started in WWII, the people of Munich went out and took detailed pictures and sketches of every building in the city so that they could rebuild them exactly as they were in case they were destroyed.  Good thing they did, too, because almost the entire city was in smithereens after the roughly 70 bombs that were dropped on it.  Because of their foresight, the city is as beautiful today as it has always been.

- There are about 120 discreet memorials placed around the city in memory of different people who died during the time of the Nazis.  Most of them have no immediately obvious explanation because their purpose is to make you curious enough to go investigate their meaning, the thought being that if you search for the significance of the memorial it will be more memorable, have more of an impact.

- Also, Germany has the third highest per capita beer consumption in the world, but if you don’t include Bavaria (the area in which Munich is) in the tally, it falls to 27th place. …Bavarians are very serious about their beer.

We were trying to fit in.
The last part of our day of sightseeing was quite lovely too – after the tour, we meandered around the open air Viktualienmarkt (can you guess what that means?) and ended the day by sitting down in a beer garden with giant soft pretzels and steins of beer.  Completely Munich.

The Rathaus, or Town Hall, another impressive site in the city

Oh the joys of traveling

This past Easter vacation, my roommate and I went on an epic journey through Austria and a small bit of Germany and the Czech Republic.  Our itinerary: Munich, Salzburg, Hallstatt, Vienna, and Prague.  Not only did we get to visit all of these charming cities, we got to enjoy various hours of countryside scenery as we traveled between places via bus or train.  Of course, forming the bookends of all this lovely traveling were our flights, both into Munich and out of Prague, the parts of the trip that were perhaps not quite so charming.  Nothing exactly bad happened, just routine traveling annoyances.

For instance, on our flight out of Madrid the plane was overbooked, leaving me behind for a few hours while Kels flew on ahead.  That meant that instead of two full days in Munich, we were going to essentially have only one.  Bummer.  In the end though, it wasn’t TOO bad, since the airline gave me 250 euros in remuneration that we were able to use for various things on our trip.  Bummer canceled.

On the way back, our flight got delayed by two and a half hours, meaning that our dreams of getting to bed early were shattered and that we got back into Madrid just barely too late to catch the metro, which closes at 1:30 am.  So, we had to wait outside for the night bus, which wasn’t running with normal frequency what with it being Easter day and all, and didn’t get home until close to 3:30 in the morning.  Bummer.  But I did get to get all hyped up on sugar in the airport because we got rid of the last of our extra Czech crowns by buying ice cream.  Bummer canceled?  Not quite.  But maybe ameliorated.