The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne

 

How Bratislava Surprised Me

There was nervous anticipation on the boat. 

“And tomorrow,” Marek said shrilly, “we tour the greatest country in the world, my home of Slovakia!”

I didn’t share his enthusiasm, though have always thought that their flag is pretty sweet. For an itinerary packed with so many European highlights, Slovakia seemed like a necessary stopover because we didn’t have any onboard entertainment (save Marek dressed as Mozart the night we left Salzburg). All of the opportunities I had had in the past to visit Slovakia’s capital city had been met with the same response: “Skip it, there’s nothing to see there.”

And then, of course, there’s the city’s shining portrayal in the film Eurotrip.

So I wrote Slovakia off altogether until it was part of our Viking Cruise plan; a morning in Bratislava. This also meant my 31st country, one I’d merely passed through on an overnight bus between Budapest and Prague in the past and where I laid groggy eyes on the castle from the gas station.

We piled into buses at the small Danube port. Remnants of Communism remain, but the city proved to be a strange juxtaposition of Maria Theresa’s opulence and Czech repression with a few modern structures thrown in for good measure. 

Climbing into the hills behind the castle, we passed the various embassies, monuments to liberation and elegant states houses, plus TV towers, grungy hotels and decrepit houses. Squat housing developments and factories lay just across the Danube towards Vienna. Our guide pointed it all out, joking about how Communism meant that she grew up getting her knuckles rapped at school for having a shoelace untied, but her kids now graffiti the school without punishment.

Calling the castle an “overturned castle,” she confessed that it was, amidst crumbling buildings and Soviet architecture, quite possibly the biggest eyesore in the city. Maybe because it was glistening white and unspoiled by war and oppressive regimes, but I had to agree (and then took my obligatory picture).

Crossing into the historic, traffic-free center of town through Michael’s Gate, the streets were lined with small shops and cafes. Cannonball holes made for interesting stories about tax payers who purposely mutilated their own homes to get out of fees for a few years, even when the trajectory made no sense. Our guide was quick to make fun of oppressors who had tried to take control of the landlocked territory.

Pressburg’s former glory was reduced to ruins quickly during the last century, but it seems that the iron-clad spirit of the Slovaks have given the city a sort of revival; it was no wonder that every Slovakian staff member on board or ship was colorful and good-natured. The country has seen its share of battles, changing of rulers and didn’t gain independence until 1993. Amidst the cannonball-laden buildings, there are McDonald’s, boutiques and whimsical statues. 

Once we’d tipped the guide, we set Nancy loose in the city to do some shopping, and we joined a family from Maine in one of the city’s most famous chocolate shops. In a city where coffee culture is king, we opted for beers – and the Slovak beer, Zlaty Bažant, was awesome. Bratislava is rumored to have great nightlife, as evident by the slew of bars on Sedlárska Street.

 

While not a dazzling European capital, Bratislava was an easy-going break between regal Vienna and Budapest that gave us a chance to drink in a bit of small-city Europe. It was a place where I, for the first time on a trip that had us in four countries and eight cities, didn’t need to blindly follow a tour guide and tick things off my list.

Between the coffee culture and architecture, I could have spent the entire day popping in and out of locales for a drink or snack. It seemed to blend a tragic past with a hopeful future and a fun-loving, self-deprecating present.

Would it be it worth an entire trip? Perhaps, but as just an hour’s drive from Vienna, it’s definitely recommended for a quick visit (if even just for its cheaper prices, hilarious locals and yummy beer).

Have you been to Slovakia or Bratislava? What did you like (or not) about the city?

Exploring Passau, Germany

One of the cities that really surprised me during my winter travels was Passau, Germany. Known as the Dreiflüssestadt, or the city of three rivers, this Bavarian town was walkably charming and the departure city for a cruise down the Danube with Viking River Cruises.

Passau reminded me a lot of Sighisoara, Romania with its pastel-colored rococo buildings and cobblestone alley ways. The peninsula of the town meets not only the Danube, but also the Ilz and the Inn. 

Lukas, an Austrian who is also a lecturer at the renowned university of the city, told us the city’s history, peppered in with anecdotes about city life and statues of patron saints floating down the river (really! That tricky Saint Nicholas). Having lived in cities with rivers all of my life, I found it irrisistably charming and picturesque, from the cobblestone alleyways to the dimly-lit beer gardens and antiques shops.

 

Before our official embarkation and welcome cocktail, my family and I stretched our legs by taking a taxi to the Oberhaus and taking in the view from above. Bavaria has famously good weather, and we were treated to a memorable sunset above St. Stephen’s Cathedral and nearby Austria to the south.

Have you been to Bavaria or Passau?

My Biggest Travel Fiasco (or, the time I spent New Year’s Eve alone in Romania)

Budapest, Hungary

The clock reads 7:32 a.m. The man in the front seat is antsy, nervously playing with the manual lock system on the minivan. 

“Where are these people? Don’t they know we could be late for our flights?”

I assure Fidgety Floridian that the Budapest airport is quite small and easy to get through, but his wife isn’t convinced. She rolls her eyes and says, “We have the worst luck with planes. We nearly didn’t make it on the cruise.”

My flight to Tirgu Mures, Romania doesn’t leave for four hours, so I’m cool. I settle into the jump seat at the back of the van, wedged between luggage.

Three hours later, I’ve sailed through security and pursue the food options. I decide to wait until I land in Tirgu Mures, as I will need something to do for three hours before leaving for Madrid. My foot taps impatiently against the floor as we begin to embark. Wedged into an airport bus, I choose to stand next to someone who hasn’t showered.

For thirty minutes.

After which we are unloaded back  into the terminal and delayed another thirty minutes. I settle into my third book of my holiday break and return to tapping my foot again while doing the mental math: I have a one hour flight, a one hour delay and a one hour forward time change. I have just enough time to grab my bag, check in again and head to my gate once we touch down in Tirgu Mures. 

My foot taps faster.

In the air, I relax a little, as I’ve been assured that it will be taxi, takeoff, ascent, quick passage of the metal cart for snacks, descent, landing, taxi. Plus, I’ve snagged a seat on the aisle in the third row (thank you, Amazing Race, for teaching me how to get on and off planes quickly). Flipping through the inflight magazine for the third time, the captain announces something in Hungarian. Then, in English: Due to zero visibility in Tirgu Mures, we’ve been rerouted to Cluj, to which we have begun our descent. There will be buses on hand to take you to Tirgu, unless you’d prefer to stay in Cluj. We apologize for any inconvenience.

My heart skips a beat and I call the flight attendant, slightly panicked. How long until the buses arrive? Is it a far drive to Tirgu Mures? Will I have to go through customs here? I continue to fire, but she comes back with two responses: first, I don’t know anything about Romania and second, we are a point to point airline, sorry.

No shit. 

Cluj-Napoca Airport, Romania

Once on the ground, I call the Novio, fighting tears. Our New Year’s plans were to spend the night with his extended family which had come from London, Peru, Murcia and Madrid. He assures me they’ll come and pick me up from Madrid when I get in, whenever that may be. I hastily get through customs, and my checked bag comes barreling down the belt first.

My first stop is the tourist information counter. Unfortunately, the woman speaks limited English. There is no bus to Tirgu Mures out front, and I check my watch: with the time change, my flight closes in 90 minutes. I return to the desk and slow down: How long in taxi to Tirgu Mures? 

“One hour thirty, maybe two.” Remembering my Romania road trip, I think of the poor state of most highways in Romania and bite my lip.

Other travelers are taking pity on me, asking if there’s anything they can do to help me or if I’d like a lift to the center of Cluj. I rack my brain – I’ve been here before. It’s a large university city where we made a quick stop, and the food was cheap. A large, domed church with a fountain in front gets shaken from my head as I try to think straight.

The Cluj airport flies to many more destinations, including Barcelona and Madrid, I tell myself. If I fly out of anywhere, it will be here.

I have to say, I have never been a nervous flier. I always arrive to the airport early, pack my bag without liquids and know how planes work and why they just don’t fall out of the sky. Yes, I even pray to the Virgin of Loreto, patron saint of pilots (and I can’t believe I just admitted that). But now I’m antsy, channeling Kevin McCallister’s mother as I half-run to the Wizz Air ticketing office in the departures terminal.

The woman is quite nice and speaks English, and looks up flights to anywhere in Spain – Valencia, Alicante, Palma. Nothing more will fly out today to Spain, just to Budapest at 8pm, more than six hours in the future. She assures me there are flights from Budapest to Madrid the following day for a mere 145€, and the woman in the other information booth looks up overnight buses and prices for me.

Just then, a young Lufthansa worker touches me on the shoulder. Nothing is flying out of Targu this afternoon – there’s no ground visibility and they’ve already sent word that we’ll be getting flights bound for other destinations here, he tells me.

Feeling a stroke of good luck, I buy myself a cold sandwich and a warm Orsus beer and pace the empty departures hall.

For the next five hours, I jockey between the Wizz Air office, the check-in counters for news and the information desk. Passengers from other flights to Lutton and Beauvais pass through, looking at me as if I am in the movie Terminal. Time ticks by slowly, but I don’t pick up a magazine until several hours into the ordeal. Food doesn’t appeal to me, and even the nice Romanian girl who offers me tea gets a no, thank you.

The Lufthansa worker is nowhere to be found, so I ask another for help. Thankfully, he speaks English perfectly and makes a call. 

“We’ll know in thirty minutes, but I think you’re in luck. Just stay within sight.” Doing as I’m told, I finally start to try to occupy myself, returning to my e-book. Still distracted, another hour flies by and the Novio calls back. He tells me, pity in his voice, that no one could help him in Barajas, then, angrily, “And the call costs 1,15 a minute, joder!”

Just then, nice Lufthansa man steps out from around the heck-in desk with a long face. “Yeah, so, your flight will leave in 15 minutes. From Targu Mures. I’m sorry, the weather has cleared up.”

Well, crap.

Nice Lufthansa man turns into an angel when he gets on the phone with Wizz Air and scores me a new ticket, free of charge, for the misinformation he alleges I’ve received. An email in my inbox confirms this. I could hug him, but instead I give him the bottle of wine I was carrying home for the Novio’s family. One good deed deserves another, and he gladly accepts it, saying that he was made to work an extra eight hours with the influx of re-routed flights.

I grab my things and find a taxi after seven hours in the terminal. There is general confusion, as the taxi driver asks me which bus station I want to go to. I dart back into the terminal to find it completely deserted. I leave it to blind faith and nod when he asks the name of the company and just takes off, racing towards the city.

Cluj-Napoca City Center

We pull up to what appears to be an abandoned junk yard with a few plastic huts. “Bus!” the driver calls out and dumps my bag on the cold, wet ground. Never mind the vintage stein I’m bringing back…or the other bottle of wine.

Everything is dark. I can’t read anything. My watch read 8:22, or one hour, forty-eight minutes until the bus apparently passes. Music is playing at the hotel around the corner, so I go in and plead my way into sitting in the still-cold lobby, tired enough to want to cry, or just curl up and say to hell with an overnight bus.

Welp, turns out there was no overnight bus, or any bus or train on New Year’s Day, so I turn on my Internet data (happy Christmas bonus, Vodafona) and look up hotels, figuring it would be money well spent. There’s a Hilton.

There’s a Hilton.

The closest I can get to home is a Hilton, and they would definitely have wi-fi and breakfast. I realize, rubbing my eyes, I’ve barely eaten or even drank since 6:30 in the morning, adding to my drowsiness and overall pity party.

The Hilton glows green on the empty street, just a few yards from the city center. I practically collapse as the receptionist charges my credit card and writes down my information to the tune of 58€. Giving him the cliff notes of my sob story, he promises to call me a taxi.

Upstairs in my room, I’ve just taken off my bag when the phone buzzes. “Um, yes, my friend can take you to Budapest Airport tomorrow. It is five, maybe six hours. It will cost 250€. Yes?” Without even thinking, I say yes. Besides, I already did the mental math. If I waited another day, I’d have to spend another 58€ for the hotel room, over 300€ for the flight from Cluj on the 2nd, and then another train ticket from Madrid. 

I kick off my shoes and run the shower. I stare at the water and steam for about a minute before I decide I’m too tired to even stand under the jet of water. The clock says 11:23 p.m., a full 15 hours since I left the dock in Budapest. I should have arrived to Spain three hours ago.

My night is sleepless, punctuated by fireworks, whatsapps from well-wishing friends and a very nervous mother. My in-laws send pictures of themselves eating my 12 lucky grapes, and all I can think is, vaya suerte. 

Rural Romania

The driver nods his head at me as I slip in the back seat of his car. He punches something nervously into his GPS and I wish him a happy new year, surprisingly sunny, given the circumstances and the money I am about to fork over to him. It doesn’t seem that he speaks English, which both relieves and disappoints me.

One thing I can say since my road trip through Transylvania and Mures: the roads have definitely gotten better. We speed out of Cluj along the E-61 towards Hungary, and I am flooded with memories of my trip. The intricately carved wooden crosses on the side of the road, the haystacks behind homes and the women in black fly by as we take the twisting roads west.

There’s definitely a common theme amongst Romanians – they’re all so damn nice, and it’s amazing what a terrible night of sleep did to me – I feel 100 times better and pray to the travel gods that I will be back in Spain on the first day of 2014.

Romanian-Hungarian border

The driver is nervous. He backs his car up, pulls it back in, changes positions, smokes his smokeless cigarette pipe thing. I’m sipping down water in small amounts, not sure if he speaks enough English to know I need a pit stop. After seven long minutes (for him, not me), the guard approaches the car and hands me back me passport and Spanish residency card.

On the first day of 2014, I’ve already got two freshly stamped entries in my passport. Every cloud…

Budapest, Hungary

Once we’re into Hungary, the roads become straight and the hills disappear. While I can understand some words in Romania because of its Romantic language roots, Hungary has me completely stumped. All I can make out is the ever-dwindling number of kilometers between our car and the airport.

The driver drops me off right in front of the terminal. I’ve given him a tip of close to 30€ (after all, he charged me in Romanian leu and that conversion is not easy on a sleep-deprived brain) for his trouble on New Year’s Day, and he shakes my hand firmly after helping me put my heavy bag on my back. I thank him on the only word in Romanian I know, multumesc. Thank you very much.

My phone picks up the wi-fi immediately in the airport, and I re-book a train ticket for 9:30 p.m. I have three hours before my flight, which will give me time to finally have a beer, get checked in and get through security…and maybe eat fast food and not feel ashamed about it. Spanish permeates my consciousness and I relax.

Once on the plane, the sky is a dreamy pink with streaks of red until night falls.

Madrid, Spain

As soon as the plane touches down, the first thing that comes to mind is Manolo Escobar’s famous Spain anthem, Que Viva España. My phone is turned on before we reach the gate, and I send whatsapps to everyone I know. I feel like I’ve returned to a place where everything makes sense and where language is no longer an issue. I get Spain. 

Time seems to pass by in three seconds as I grab my bag, transfer to terminal 4, hop on the cercanías line and make it to my train – the last of the day – with 20 minutes to spare. Being a holiday, my car was only half full, so I could curl up across both seats and sleep for two hours. Stepping onto the platform and seeing ‘SEVILLA – SANTA JUSTA’ as I take a deep breath reminds me that I am, at long last, home.

Sevilla, Spain

I arrive home five minutes to midnight on January 1st. The travel gods heard my plea, it seems. I’ve traveled, by my estimate, over 3900 miles in 40 hours. The Novio hasn’t changed the sheets in two weeks, but I hardly notice as I sleep, finally, in my own bed for 10 hours.

I’ve since recounted the short version of the ordeal to my friends. While some are shocked and glad it didn’t happen to them, I can say this: I am relieved that I am a seasoned traveler and that I’ve watched my parents navigate standby and weather delays like champs. My nerves and even my tear ducts were put to the test, but I got home, unscathed (just poorer). Had I been new to international travel or unaware of European flight compensations, I may have made rookie mistakes.

One thing I have realized? I am not cut out for round-the-world travel. While it seems challenging and fun, I’m too accustomed to my comforts and hate wearing dirty clothes (there, I admitted it). I can handle when things don’t go as planned, but I don’t like it because I am not spontaneous. I like feeling grounded. I like the feeling of familiarity. I like having wi-fi and no roaming data (my bill came yesterday…ouch).

That’s not to say that I won’t travel for extended periods of time – I most certainly will travel as far as my body and my salary will take me, and have big dreams when it comes to doing it. But I think I’ve finally mató el gusano. The idea of round-trip travel is no longer a little tickle that flares up once in a while.

The idea of becoming an expat in another city or another country? THAT is the new gusanillo.

Have you had any travel disasters recently? I’d love to hear them, and if they’re Spain-related, feel free to send me the story for publishing!

Tapa Thursdays: My Favorite Food Markets of 2013

As I grow more and more interested in food and its place within culture, I find it hard to resist visiting markets when I travel. When I went to China five years ago, I got to witness the fish monger chopping up fish parts, whipping them, unwrapped, into a shallow pool of salt water while customers grabbed at whatever they could. Pig feet, sheep intestines and even a sandbox full of white rice were clucked over, and the international food aisle had just one Spanish product: Ybarra salsa rosa.

I was hooked.

In 2013, I made visiting markets a must on my trip itineraries. Sampling weird and local fare, watching patrons haggle and understanding shopping and cuisine in other countries is one of my treasured memories from my big year in travel in 2013. Here are some of my top picks:

Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel

While becoming heavily touristy of late, the Mercado de San Miguel is a stone’s throw from the elegant Plaza Mayor and a perfect introduction to Spanish cuisine. Within the glass and wrought iron structure, far from all over Spain is peddled: Madrid-made vermut in half a dozen varieties, oysters and shellfish from Galicia, salted cod from the North Sea.

For my parents, who trust their sight more than their stomachs, snacking at the tall tables in the center of the venue was the best way to try Spanish cuisine without trusting blind faith (or their fluent-in-Spanish daughter).

Florence’s Mercato di San Lorenzo

I surprised the Novio with plane tickets to Bologna in early 2013 as part of his plea to visit the Emilio Romagna region of Italy. He insisted that we go to Florence (one of my tops in travel anyway), and I made I insisted we stop by the central market. On my first trip to Florence in 2008 my Couchsuring host’s flat was just off of the mark square, and I fell in love with the smells that wafted into her airy apartment (mostly spiced meat).

We took a quick trip around the square’s leather offerings outside, bu I was mostly interested in finding a few hundred grams of parmesan and perhaps an espresso stand. We made out like bandits for a few euros, and stumbled upon a great trattoria nearby, Trattoria da Guido.

Valencia’s Mercat Central

In August, I returned from the Camino de Santiago to a quick jaunt to Valencia for the Tomatina. On my third visit to Spain’s third-largest city, I wanted to do something else than the normal tourist route of Calatrava and paella. K and I browsed the numerous stalls in Valencia’s central market, which feature local seafood and produce, as well as non-traditional items such as Ecuadorian and even British offerings.

What is especially impressive about the market is its structure, with two naves adjoining the central building, which is built in an art-noveau style and decorated with stained glass and azulejo tiles. The cupola is impressive, and the market bustles everyday with locals and tourists alike.

Munich’s Christkindle Market

While not a traditional food market, Munich’s Christmas market was a treat. I met my cousin early for cappuccino, which soon turned into glühwein and sausages as we browsed two of the city’s most acclaimed christkindle markets.

 

Christmas decorations, sweets, toys and other gifts lined the stalls near the Rathaus and on the famous Neuhauser Straβe. There are numerous markets around the city, including a medieval market behind Odeonsplatz, a children’s market (with cheaper booze prices) in the courtyard of the papal residence and an enormous punchbowl of mulled wine off of Frauenstraβe. 

My advice? Come hungry. Fast if you need to.

Vienna’s Naschmarkt

Though we mostly missed the Christmas markets in Vienna (there were two smaller New Year’s markets at the Museumplein and Schönnbrun Palace), our first stop after a bus tour was the Naschmarkt. Outdoors, nearly a mile in length and punctuated with small coffee houses and sushi takeout, you can find practically everything in its stalls.

Part of what makes Naschmarkt so great is that there is an endless stream of food, from the traditional produce and meat products, to spices, kebab and Turkish delight. My only purchase that morning was 100 grams of wasabi peanuts, but we ogled over fruit we’d never seen before and cuts of lamb that we’d never tried.

Later that morning, as we sped in a taxi towards the palace, we could see that there was a small flea market on the grounds, just on the banks of the Danube.

Budapest’s Great Market Hall

Known locally as Nagycsarnok, the central market of Budapest is part market, part souvenir store. Erected as a market in the 19th century at the end of shopping street Vací Ucta, it’s the most beloved indoor market in Hungary’s capital. There are three levels – the ground floor has produce and meats (including horse meat!); the basement, seafood and a supermarket; and the top floor houses souvenir stands and snack bars.

A must-buy in Hungary is paprika. I bought eight packs for the Novio’s extended family, only to be grounded in Cluj-Napoca, Romania and never get to meet them. Oh well, more goulash for us!

I’m working on a food-related project or two this year and am excited to share my passion with la sobremesa and el tapeo with you. For more, check out my reviews of tapas bars in Seville or my bi-weekly look at Spanish dishes, Tapa Thursdays.

Where are your favorite European markets?

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