Mooching around Madrid [Part 1]

Eight weeks long, the first and also the longest half term in the school calender finally came to a close last week. The first 2 months as an NQT have been tough,  but having my little trip to Madrid kept my head above water.

I booked cheap flights on a whim earlier in Spring, knowing very well that neither J. nor any of my friends would be able to accompany me. The Ryanair scare of thousands of cancelled flights did not affect me and I was still able to go.

This was not only my first time back in Spain since my Year Abroad and but also the first time I have done solo travel in two years. I visited Madrid on my own before flying home two years ago; three days in summer was not enough to make the most of the city, so this time I booked 5 days to make the most of my time off.

I have travelled alone so many times over the last 5 years and really enjoyed it: Paris, Madrid, Porto, Wroclaw, Warsaw, Lisbon… but admittedly, it was something that took a few days for me to get re-accustomed to. I chose my hostel in particular as from the reviews, it was very sociable and friendly, but unfortunately it was anything but. Frustrating, as when I have travelled alone in the past, the hostels have really been a highlight of the trip.

Even after having spent a total of 8 days in the Spanish capital, I cannot say I have done everything, but that was not my intention. I did what I wanted in my own time. I saw some museums, slept during siesta, did some shopping, did the day-trip I wanted, splurged on that opera ticket, went to a spa, went to the cat café. I actually did quite a bit but it was not rushed. That is the beauty of going to a place and having the time to do it slowly, you don’t have to rush and cram everything in.

So I am home now, mentally preparing myself to go back to work tomorrow and also for the next seven weeks before the Christmas holidays. At least it is Bonfire Night tonight!

Stay tuned for Part 2

Weekly blog posts about my South American adventure published every Sunday!

Robyn

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Travel Update: Autumn in Madrid

My travels from South America this summer are still making their way onto the blog but I am also looking ahead at my upcoming adventures! 

The next trip will see me going back to Madrid for 5 days during half term. I haven’t set foot in Spain since completing my Year Abroad – which feels like a million years ago by the way!

I am going back to the Al-Andalus baths to relax on my first full day – wash away the stress from work – at least for a few days.

I will be catching the high-speed train to Córdoba another day, somewhere I have been dying to visit for too long. Then, for my final night I have managed to snap up a ticket for my favourite opera, Carmen! It was too perfect an opportunity to miss. I bought some opera glasses in an antique shop this weekend so I’m glad to be getting use out of them so soon. 
There will still be plenty of time for delicious food, shopping and hopefully I will make it to some museums and the Royal Palace which I skipped last time. 

I haven’t travelled solo for quite a while now, so it feels a bit strange, but I am excited to do whatever I feel like doing, having some me-time and more Spanish practice!

Any recommendations for Madrid/Córdoba? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Robyn

Japan Series: Tranquility in Tokyo

How to describe Tokyo in three words? Massive, dazzling, overwhelming. Tranquility ain’t normally one of them!

This was certainly not the case either, when I woke up at 3am on the first night and the room shook for 3 seconds – yes, that was an earthquake! It was only a 2.0 so was not horrific but earthquakes are common in Japan.

As a first-time traveller to the country, Tokyo was really something. I have never been in a city comparable in size to it. The scale of Tokyo only began to unravel when I gazed out through the window in the Government Building tower one night. So. Big. (this is a great way to see the city day or night for free by the way!).

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Still, despite the hustle and bustle of city life, stuffed metro carriages and huge zebra crossings, there are pockets of calm in the form of gardens and shrines that slow down the pace.

Meiji Shrine is one of them. It is currently being renovated in time for the 2020 Olympics, so I did not see her in her true glory, but the size and beauty of the surrounding area is so serene, only a stones’ throw away from Harajuku.

Hamarikyu Gardens, a 40-minute ferry-ride away from the beautiful yet touristy Asakusa temple, is such a tranquil spot to appreciate natural beauty surrounded by the cityscape. The gardens do not hide from the skyscrapers and modern buildings, rather they embrace them. The tea rooms here gave me my first experience of Japanese green tea and wagashi (sweets).

asakusa

Asakusa

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Asakusa and my first sight of sakura!! (cherry blossom)

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Hamarikyu

 

On my final day, I braced the area of Shinjuku on my own, clutching my phone with the GPS on, using Harrie’s trusty portable wifi, stashed in my bag, to go to the Shinjuki Gyoen (Gardens). These gardens were massive and only 200 yen to enter. It took me a good 2 hours to walk the length and breadth of this place, but it did not feel anywhere near as magical as the last two places. My only guess is that this is just such a huge area and they simply don’t have the means to truly care for every corner of it. It did feel like it wasn’t looking its best, or maybe I just have high expectations. Either way, it is a great way to spend some time away from the faced-paced city, whilst still in the center of it.

This city really threw me in the deep-end as my first stop on my whirlwind trip to Japan. Despite all that, it was exhilarating and totally different to anywhere I have been before.

 

What do you think of Tokyo? Let me know in the comments!

Robyn

 

Impressions: Madrid

I had passed through Madrid, or should I say, Madrid-Barajas Airport, five times already.

Madrid. It has always seemed like an annoying necessity; a stop-over when travelling to Peru, the closest city with an airport when heading to my Year Abroad destination, Salamanca.

Although only a 2h45 minute journey from Salamanca and the closest city of interest, you would have thought I would have visited Madrid sooner – but I didn’t. Instead, the capital was the final trip during my semester in Spain after a determination to visit everywhere but.

Whenever people had mentioned Madrid to me, words such as “underwhelming, overrated, not as good as Barcelona” soon followed. The ‘idea’ of Madrid just didn’t reach out to me all that much because of this. It seemed like a trip to visit the city for a few days would be worthwhile, before I headed to the airport to fly home, just to see it for myself. I had really wanted to go to the Hammam Al-Ándalus baths again which are in Madrid as well as Granada and other cities in Andalucía, plus I found out there was a cat café there too, so it couldn’t be all that bad.

Perhaps going to Madrid with no expectations at all made my experience better, but all I can say is this – I loved it! Yes, I actually absolutely loved Madrid, who could have seen that coming? I am kicking myself for not wanting to go earlier, even after three days there I didn’t even manage to go into the Prado or the Reina Sofia… (well you are talking to the girl who has gone to Paris twice and has yet to even go inside the Louvre…). It is indeed extremely different to Barcelona, and although Barcelona is fabulous to visit, I wouldn’t ever consider living there, whereas Madrid gave me the vibe “Wow, I could totally see myself living here, but why it is so hot?!” So that was good. I’m pleased Madrid surprised me but I understand it may not be for everyone.

I stayed at SunGate Hostel which was in a fantastic location near Puerta del Sol and loads of shops. The vibe in the hostel was great and I met some truly lovely people to enjoy Madrid with. They do free evening meals every evening which proved to be popular but I didn’t manage to actually go to any during my stay. Still, after staying in the luxurious Gallery Hostel in Porto the week before, I wasn’t used to some of the issues with normal hostels and I was utterly disappointed with breakfast which was cold churros con chocolate and nothing else.

My first thing was to get some tapas at El Tigre. If you order anything there be warned, portions are massive. A tapa is more like a ración (sharing plate) and I ordered a plate of pimientos de padrón to feed 100 people.

That evening, I ended up going to the Templo de Debod at sunset which was the most perfect moment. As I was there on a Monday evening, it may have been less crowded than at a weekend which was great for taking loads of photos! The light on the temple was beautiful and it was amazing to look at as the sun was going down.

Me at El Templo de Debod

Me at El Templo de Debod

The following day I walked all the way to Retiro Park which is somewhere you have to visit when in Madrid. It was boiling but it was lovely to walk around and enjoy the quiet of the gardens in the center of the city. Next time, I am hiring a rowing boat on that lake!

Oh and what is Spain without a bit of frozen yogurt in the afternoon? Smooy were handing out an offer for a free extra topping on your frozen yogurt – perfection!

As I said, I also went to a cat café, but I was the only one there and the cats didn’t seem to want any attention as they were already so spoiled with affection and were quite moody. But there were free unlimited drinks which was much needed! It was right by the Reina Sofia which I intended to visit, but I was walking around ages trying to find the right entrance and I was exhausted -a siesta sounded much more appealing at that moment in time instead of walking around one of the most amazing art galleries in Spain (next time?).

After a well-earned siesta, it was time to go to the Hammam Al Ándalus baths which I wrote about here – the perfect way to relax during my final evening in Spain before going home!

The following day, my flight was not until late at night so I had all day to see more of Madrid. I took the Sandman’s Free City Tour of Madrid with my hostel, as I still hadn’t seen anything at all of the historical center of Madrid (cathedral, Royal Palace etc.). It was well worth it as Madrid has a very interesting history from humble beginnings which is not very well known. Plus, it only lasted 2 hours which was good as any longer would have been unbearable in the heat.

Next, I purchased some cookies from a Convent by talking to some nun’s through wall without seeing them which surely was an experience, with some new friends from the hostel. We also intended to visit the Royal Palace which apparently is even larger than Versailles (can you imagine?!), but it was closed for an official event which was a shame, so it is worth checking before you go if it is open to the public that day. It is no longer the offical residence of the monarchy but is still used for state affairs.

We made a quick detour inside the cathedral but I must admit, for being the cathedral of the capital of Spain, it is so ugly and it was quite sad. It has nothing on Barcelona, Sevilla, Salamanca, Toledo… the list goes on. It could be at the very bottom of a long list in all honesty.

We stumbled across the Mercado San Miguel on the walk back. It’s a beautiful building although quite small with a wide selection of stalls offering tapas, patisserie, wine and other products, but it does seem to be high-market and quite touristy.

It wasn’t long until it was time to head to the airport, to say goodbye to Spain for the forseeable future. Yet due to the air strikes with Ryanair, my flight was delayed an hour and a half and I didn’t manage to get home until 2am! Spain obviously didn’t want me to leave…

So all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Madrid and what I saw of it. I will definitely be returning in the future.

But for now, VOU PARA LISBOA (I’m off to Lisbon!)

Beijinhos (getting into the Portuguese vibe now),

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Highlights from Porto

It’s been a whole three weeks since my trip to Porto and although I wrote a brief overview of my time there (Five days in Porto), I would like to share some of the best parts of my trip: seeing the city, meeting with friends, eating the most amazing food and staying in the best hostel I have ever stayed in!

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, behind Lisbon the capital. Porto has a very different vibe and identity to Lisbon and I loved exploring a new city and region of Portugal. Just like everywhere else in Portugal it seems, Porto is very hilly! My five days spent there was a great work out for my legs and I am glad I took comfortable trainers, I don’t know how these other travellers walk up and down those hills in flip-flops!

Ponte Dom Luis I

View from Miradouro da Victória

View from Miradouro da Victória

This is by far the most essential thing to do in Porto; walk along the top level of the Ponte Dom Luis I, which gives great views over Porto from Gaia (the city on the other side of the river), especially at sunset. The walk back from Ribeira (the area on the riverbank) back to my hostel was the must brutal climb ever.

I also stumbled across the Miradouro da Victória which was a gem and gives views of the bridge, Gaia and the wine caves and Sé cathedral.

Estação de São Bento

Interior of São Bento train station

Interior of São Bento train station

This train station is absolutely beautiful and you will fall in love with it if you appreciate azulejos (that’s those blue tiles which the Portuguese adorn everywhere on their buildings).

Many tourists come to the station simply to admire the artwork on the walls but the station also has trains (shocker, I know) with destinations to nearby towns of interest. I hopped on trains to Guimarães (the birthplace of Portugal) and Aveiro (the Venice of the North) during my trip, but there are also trains to Braga too. There are so many tour companies which offer day trips to these places, but they are usually no less than 40€ each. Train tickets are a mere 7€ return for a one hour journey each way (rough estimate), and the towns are small enough to visit without a guide, just maps from the local tourist offices, which saved me a lot of money.

Torre dos Clérigos

View of the Torre dos Clérigos in the distance

View of the Torre dos Clérigos in the distance

The Clérigos tower was the first thing I did on my day of arrival and it’s a great place to climb to get a view over the city of Porto. It’s 3€ entry and there are exhibitions in the tower to look at and you can also enter the ajoining church.

Nearby is also the Livraria Lello, a famous bookshop known for inspiring the library in Hogwart’s for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. It’s very touristy and difficult to get a picture without people getting in the way which can be frustrating, but it is worth the stop as it is indeed a very pretty bookshop. It was interesting to learn that J.K. Rowling lived in Porto in the 1990s and that her time here gave inspiration for many aspects in the novels; from the Hogwart’s uniforms, to the library and the house at Grimmauld Place. It’s something not much talked about so it was really interesting to learn something new about Harry Potter.

Jardins do Palacio de Cristal

Jardins do Palácio de Cristal

Jardins do Palácio de Cristal

View from Jardins do Palácio de Cristal

View from Jardins do Palácio de Cristal

Jardins do Palácio de Cristal

Jardins do Palácio de Cristal

The Gardens of the Crystal Palace were a short five minute walk from my hostel. Although, I probably would not have gone there if it were not so close, it turned out to be one of the highlights during my time in Porto. The gardens, although unfortunately surrounded by the ugly “Crystal Palace” building that is falling apart and deserves levelling off, are absolutely beautiful and when exploring you come across spectacular views of Porto and the River Douro too. Personally, these gardens deserve a visit to anyone visiting the city. I’d recommend visiting in the morning as the gardens are quieter and more opportunities to get photos.

Year Abroad perks

What I have loved about the Year Abroad is that my coursemates and I are scattered across Europe (some more further afield), and it has been in many cases an opportunity to visit both somewhere new and also catch up with friends I haven’t seen in a few months. As my friend Nathan has been living and studying in Porto this semester, I promised I would come to visit, as it isn’t all that far away from Salamanca!

Although his mum was visiting that weekend as well, we met up and walked along the Ponte Dom Luis I, which was obligatory during my time in Porto before having an Italian meal (I am amazed at how cheap the food is in Portugal still!).

The weekend I was visiting coincided with a music festival at Serralves called “Serralves em festa.” Serralves, as far as I understand, is a Contemporary Art Museum in a massive park (it is huuuuge), which happens to be the most visited museum in Portugal and a short bus ride from Porto’s city center. The festival is a 40 hour nonstop thing all weekend but we ended up going on the Saturday night to see what it was all about. We caught the free bus from the Casa da Musica Interface and met up with some of his friends. We managed to stay until 3am, which for me was quite an achievement as I had been climbing up and down hills all day without even a siesta. The music was totally bizarre, there were no lyrics, but the park was littered with people, so some people must have liked it. It was difficult to see as there was hardly any lighting and walking around was a safety hazard. We stayed until 3am as we were waiting for the “Brazilian music” to start, but it wasn’t what we were hoping for so we caught a taxi back.

The funniest moment

On the way to the festival, I met Nathan’s Brazilian friend Julio and he later promised us that before I left Porto, he would cook us a Brazilian beef stroganoff. This was set for the Monday evening after Nathan’s language class, and I was looking forward to some good food – although of course, nothing went to plan. After getting all the ingredients, we forgot to get rice (oops) but it’s okay, it got sorted, until the glass jar of rice broke on the floor. Then, when cooking the beef, the plate that was on top of the pan keeping the heat in, shattered under the pressure of the heat and landed in the meat in tiny pieces, making it unedible. We couldn’t really believe it for a few moments but we accepted the inevitable. It was already quite late, 11pm more or less, so we tidied up what we could before ending up in a kebab shop eating falafel kebabs, or as the Spanish say “Kebaps” but that is a different story…

Disaster

I’ll hopefully get some of this famous stroganoff without the plate bits someday.

My final evening in Porto was rounded off just how it should be; I really wanted eat somewhere which served cod because no trip to Portugal is complete without consuming cod – this is a fact. I ended up having Bacalhau à Braga, fried cod, surrounded by half chips half crisps (I still am amazed how they manage to do this) with onions and lots of olive oil and peppers. It was a good moment. I would really recommend this dish but I still uphold my love for Bacalhau à Lagareiro which I had in Lisbon in March.

We then walked along the RIver Douro at sunset until it went fully dark and then walked back to Ribeira. It was a lovely walk and the views were stunning as there was even a full moon that evening! By the time we reached Ribeira I was already exhausted but then I remembered there was still the massive hill to climb back to my hostel, so that was something!

Me, Nathan and Julio, full moon on the River Douro. Perfeito!!

Although I love Spain for its tapas culture, the pintxos I had in Bilbao, the tortilla… Portugal’s cuisine is much more accessible to me; Spanish cuisine is heavy on pork and seafood dishes, foods I don’t eat. I have therefore been limited in sampling my region’s specialities such as hornazo amongst other national dishes. Portugal however is very fond of cod and chicken and there is always an option for me at a restaurant in Portugal, something less common in Spain, so my experiences at finding somewhere I can eat has been more positive there. Plus, there are pastéis de nata, enough said.

Pastéis de nata = perfection

During my five night stay, I stayed at Gallery Hostel in the art district. It was rated number one on TripAdvisor in Porto and I am so, so pleased I stayed there! Unfortunately, I now have extremely high expectations for every hostel I stay in, yet none can comapre to Gallery Hostel *cries inside*: from my room, to the comfy mattress, to the lack of noise levels, to the in-room bathroom, to the delicious breakfasts, the exceptional evening meals, the fact that they wash up your dishes for you and make your bed every morning… the quality of this hostel is superb and there was nothing I could fault. It was like staying in a hotel but sharing a rooom with 5 other travellers at the price of any other hostel.

Rua Miguel Bombarda (art district)

Rua Miguel Bombarda (art district)

Overall, I had a fantastic visit to Porto, it’s a beautiful city, some great memories were made and it was also good to practice speaking plenty of Portuguese in context outside the classroom.

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I wasn’t too sad to leave Porto on my return to Salamanca because I already knew it would not be long before I was back in the country! I was anticipating my return to Spain as my time there was more limited as I don’t know when I will next be going back… I fly to Lisbon in 11 days for 4 weeks, it has come around so fast! Some prefer Porto, but I am still whole-heartedly in love with Lisbon, it’s just got that something.

I have already blogged about my return trip to Hammam Al Ándalus in Madrid, but I’ll be blogging next about my visit to the city in general. Madrid really surprised me as I thought I wouldn’t like it, but I couldn’t be more wrong, as I absolutely loved it! I had been putting off going for so long. I don’t regret leaving it until now but I am so glad I gave it a chance while I could!

Hasta luego (from cold Northern England – for now)

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Embracing Solo Travel

Travelling on your own opens you up to new places, new people and you have the flexibility to do what you want when you want!

Tomorrow I am off to Poland and for the first two weeks of my trip and I am flying solo.

First I am visiting Wroclaw, then volunteering at a summer camp for a week at Angloville (teaching English to Polish kids aged 12-18). Then it is a few days in Warsaw before my going to my last destination – Kraków, where I am spending a week with my boyfriend.

Rnek in Wroclaw

Rynek in Wroclaw

This isn’t the first time I have travelled alone. A few weeks after turning 18 I tested my new found freedom of being an adult and headed off to Paris for 4 days. The main reason I ended up travelling on my own to Paris was because I had no one to go with. I am glad that didn’t stop me from going! It turned out to be the most enjoyable holiday I have ever had, it really was that good – especially because Paris is an amazing city, but also probably because since then, I have been really ill every single time I have travelled: Peru, Paris (second time) and Valencia.

It was a great experience and I learnt a lot about myself, such as: I can survive on my own in a foreign country – success.

As a solo traveller you are able to travel on your own terms and that is the real beauty of it. Of course, safety is the upmost-priority as you can be more vunerable out and about, especially if you are a woman (I have included a short list of safety advice at the bottom of this post).Other downsides may be lonliness and having to pay more for a single-room.

Me having a great time at the Tour Eiffel during a solo visit to Paris #selfie

Me having a great time at the Tour Eiffel in 2012 during a solo visit to Paris #selfie


Why I love Travelling on My Own:

Self-indulgence

Travelling alone means that you don’t have to worry about anyone but yourself.

So you want to go to that art gallery this afternoon? Great, no one is stopping you. No one is going to kick up a fuss because they don’t want to go. You can eat where you want, when you want, leave the hotel whenever you’re ready in the morning. You are free to take it easy and just soak up the atmosphere or pick up the pace depending how you are feeling.

Meeting new people

Smile and pick up the courage to start a conversation. Or if you really don’t want to talk to people, you can just avoid them – your choice!

Usually when you travel with family or friends, you are more likely to stick together. Yet, when you are on your own you are looking for any opportunity to interact with others.

In a Parisian restaurant, I saw another young woman eating on her own. We started a conversation and ended up sitting together for the rest of the meal . It turned out she was also a solo traveller but from the USA, and it was great to meet someone else who was doing just what I was doing. During my trip I met a variety of other solo travellers from around the world, usually they approached me to take a photo of them in front of a monument and then we started a conversation. I doubt any of that would of happened if I wasn’t on my own.

Luckily for me, growing up as an only child I have never minded my own company and that has helped a lot. I never felt lonely in Paris but being able to meet other travellers was still one of the highlights of my trip.


Preparing for solo travel – a bit of advice

Plan in advance: In order to make my trip run as smoothly as I can, I have researched as much as possible about where I am going. I have read Tripadvisor reviews and forums, booked my hostels and coach reservations in advance and written down phone numbers and addresses (just in case).

Don’t be put off by dining alone/The dreaded eating-dinner-on-your-own issue: For me, I think this is the worst part of solo travel and it is probably one of the main things that puts people off travelling alone. But when it comes down to it, I have never had an issue eating on my own in a cafe/restaurant (except once when I tripped on the way back from the bathroom and it was really awkward, but anyway, moving on…)

The best you can do is:

1. Start up a conversation with someone else on their own and ask if you can join them (worst they can say is no).

2. Take a book/newspaper to read to occupy yourself with – so you are not sitting around starting at the ceiling, plus it will signal you are on your own and  may be a conversation-starter.

3. Choose a casual restaurant. One with communal tables or where the tables are close together.

Here are a few safety tips to bear in mind:

1. Trust your intuition

2. Take a taxi back at night – don’t walk back with anyone and don’t tell people where you are staying

3. Avoid dodgy walkways – it’s never a good idea.

4. Stay on main roads with street lights

5. Inform your hostel/hotel where you are going and when you are expected to return

6. Stay sober.

7. Don’t wear flashy clothes/jewellery that will attract attention to yourself.

8. Always carry a map with you.

9. Always carry a phone on you but keep any technology you have with you out of sight as much as possible.

Do you like travelling on your own as well?

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