India: The Dream I Didn’t Know I Had

Have you ever dreamed about a place you didn’t even know you wanted to visit?

When Hayley mentioned the idea of going to Asia for Holy Week, I figured it was a pipe dream, given prices and our limited travel time. But what happens when it’s almost as cheap to jet to India as it is to fly round-trip to Berlin? On a whim, we chose to book Lufthansa flights from Madrid to Mumbai and figured we’d let the rest of the chips fall. No one could talk us out of 450€ roundtrip.

Many friends of mine have gone to India and can’t seem to shut up about how it lives up to its touristic nickname, “Incredible India,” but it was never a place I yearned to see. That’s a special place on my mental bucket list reserved for Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and Seattle. But I bought a Lonely Planet off of Amazon UK and soon realized that India must have been buried deep in my conscious as a place I’m dying to see.

 

There’s been hold-ups with visas and how to get to and from Madrid with limited options, the immense task of whittling down dozens of worthy destinations to fit our short, nine-day itinerary, plus the the push-pull of two seasoned travelers with different ideas of what to see and how.

At the moment you’re reading this, I could be laying eyes on the Taj Mahal. Or pinching my nose in a marketplace in Delhi. Or picking out a sari for myself in Jaipur’s garment district. I have a feeling that my journey to India will be diving into the deepest dreams I’ve always had for my life – of travel, of discovery, of self-realization, of having that freshman feeling over and over again.

I think that’s what India will be to me – seeing life unfold before me, the contrasts that so seem to characterize the country. Mariellen Wallace of the excellent India page, Breathe Dream Go, refers to a traveler’s first trip to India as “Beginner’s Mind.” Experiencing India as if you were seeing the world for the first time and reminding my senses to wake up and associate new sights, sounds and tastes.

I’m reading Shantaram, a Novel, a book I can’t put down that explains life in the underbelly of Mumbai. Not three pages in, he summarizes the majesty and the poverty of the world’s second most populous country through its myriad of smells:

“I immediately recognize it. I know now that it’s the sweet, sweating smell of hope, which is the opposite of hate; it’s the sour, stifled smell of greed, which is the opposite of love. It’s the small of gods, demons, empires and civilizations in resurrection and decay. It’s the blue skin-smell of the sea, no matter where you are on Island City, and he blood-metal smell of machines. It smells of stir and sleep and waste of sixty million animals, more than half of them humans and raw. It smells of heartbreak, and the struggle to live, and of crucial failures and loves that produce our courage. It smells of ten thousand restaurants, five thousand temples, shrines, churches and mosques, and of a hundred bazaars devoted exclusively to perfumes, spices, incense and freshly cut flowers…But whenever I return, it’s my first sense of the city – that smell, above all things.”

I expect India to be nothing short of overwhelming, exhilarating, eye-opening and heart-breaking. I expect to battle my stomach and the urges to talk to strangers. I expect to feel defeated and uplifted in the span of a day.

And at the same time, I don’t have too many expectations. I just want to experience India with an open mind and heart.

If you’re interested in our itinerary:

We arrived to Mumbai early morning on the 12th and took the first flight out to Delhi.

Today, we’ll take the famed Shabati Express to Agra, where we should be now. We’ve heard Agra isn’t too exciting, so we’ll be there to see the Red Fort and the Taj and sunset and sunrise before jumping on an early train.

Jaipur is next on the list, and I’m psyched to shop and see the Amber Fort, which is supposed to be mind-blowing. 

We have a flight from Jaipur to Mumbai, where we’ll experience the city’s chaos and imperialism in Colbata.

You can follow me on twitter and instagram, where I’ll be uploading photos as wi-fi allows. If you’re interested in an India trip yourself, I’d recommend the monster Lonely Planet, with up-to-date information, fail-proof advice and loads of pretty pictures.

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?

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?

My 2013 Travel Round-up

Leonor predicted it – she said she thought 2013 would be my year. Apart from earning a master’s in Public Relations 2.0 from the Universidad Autoónoma de Barcelona, I did big things in travel: crossing off a major goal from my life to-do list, traveling to my 30th country and celebrating world-famous festivals.

Oh, and I got a promotion, too!

2014, you better live up to this year in travel, one in which I visited five new UNESCO World Heritage sites, 30 cities, and eight countries, and took nine round-trip flights and a boat. I also walked 325 kilometers across Spain for charity.

July

For the fifth straight summer, La Coruña welcomed me with sea breezes, seafood and a smattering of festivals. I love returning to a city over and over again that I truly enjoy, and Coru is one of those places. The rain held off for all but the first and last day of camp, meaning a bit of beach time and more freckles.

It wasn’t all fun and pulpo, though, as I was working on the oral defense of my master’s thesis project, one that dealt with promoting Marca España in the US. I wish I could say that this blog was enough, but, alas, I had to catch a Vueling flight to Barcelona in the middle of camp. In 20 hours, I had flown across the country, met my group members for the first time face-to-face, had the Powerpoint stop working when I got to the numbers part of our presentation (for real, these things only happen to me), and then flew back with a 9,0 in the presentation and the need for a small celebration.

Once camp had wrapped up, I sent my rebajas-laden bag to Seville and traded it for a hiking bag and boots. I stopped in Oviedo to visit my friend Claudia and take in the pre-Romanesque churches of the city before spending the night in Avilés.

You know what follows.

August

When August hit, Hayley and I were about ten days from reaching Santiago de Compostela by foot. Traipsing through Northern Spain with our own two feet was at trying as it was rewarding, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

Luarca, Ribadeo, Vilalba, Playa de las Catedrales and Cudrillero got our touristic euros, but I think we gained a lot more than we thought we would.

We reached the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela before Pilgrim’s Mass on August 12th. Going home, I experienced an enormous slump where I found decision making difficult, the heat unbearable and a body that just needed to move, move, move.

That didn’t last for long, because I had purchased tickets to go to the Tomatina. For an American, this is one of Spain’s claims to fame, and though I had a great time slinging rotten tomatoes, I’m not keen on going again.

September

I began the new school year with a new job title – Director of Studies – and new responsibilities. After a successful start (just a few hiccups!), I traveled to Frankfurt to visit my cousin, Christyn, who works in Kaiserslautern. We took an overnight bus to and from Munich to attend Oktoberfest.

As a beer lover, I think this was as close as I’ll ever get to Nirvana.

October

I traveled locally this month, going to a fancy dinner party in Jerez at a bodega, and then rekindling my love with the province of Huelva by attending their ham festival.

We ate and drank all weekend. Perfect.

November

November found me in Malaga twice – the first time was for a conference of Anglo Writers and Bloggers About Spain held in Pedragalejo. We got a warm sunny weekend, and spent the days under a tent at OnSpain, an innovative language school just steps from the beach. Hayley and I launched our up-and-coming business idea, as well as met other bloggers, like Molly of Piccavey.

Later that month, Mickey and I were invited to take part in A Cooking Day in the Malgueño countryside. While we got horribly lost, we did spend a morning picking fruit, and the afternoon cooking up local specialties  and eating, enjoying the Spanish sobremesa until it grew dark.

December

The Novio and I finally escaped to his village, San Nicolás del Puerto, for the first time since June. In a town with not much to do, we find time to relax (although I did get a turn as a farm hand!) and attend a festival for one of the patron saints, Santa Bárbara.

December also brings me back to Munich, but this time I actually get to see some of the city!

Currently, I’m somewhere on the Danube River with my parents on a Viking Cruise. Along the way, we’re stopping in Passau, Germany, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava (oh goody, a new country!) and Budapest. I’ve already traveled to the majority of these places, but have not written about them on Sunshine and Siestas, surprisingly!

Then I’ll spend the 31st in the Madrid mountains with the Novio’s family, no doubt thinking about how good 2013 was to me, both personally and professionally.

On Docket for 2014

These itchy feet only have two things on the agenda for 2014 so far: a weekend in Tenerife visiting my friends Julie and Forrest, and a trip home to Chicago. I’ve also got to get to Trujillo from an invitation from Trujillo Villas, and am hoping to make Toulouse, Jaén, Ceuta and Dublin happen.

What did your year in travel look like? What’s up for 2014?

Cruising: Spotlight on Royal Carribean

My memories of cruises are far from what their marketers want you to think of – days trapped on the kiddy deck while my family cavorted, piña colada in hand, because I was too old for the kid stuff, but too young for the disco. When my father suggested a cruise this winter down the Danube – hitting Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary – I was initilly skeptical.

Then I remembered that I’m now of age.

All of the sudden, I find myself considering cruising as a relaxing, less stressful way to travel. Though we’ll be taking a different cruise line, I thought about the first two experienced I had, one of which was on Royal Caribbean.

Royal Caribbean International is one of the biggest and best-known names in the cruise holiday industry. With their blend of innovative onboard facilities, exciting entertainment and scintillating destinations, there’s plenty to love about cruise holidays with Royal Caribbean.

For starters, they sail to over 260 destinations around the world, ranging from the frozen wonderland of Alaska and the paradise beaches of the Caribbean, to familiar Mediterranean shores and far-flung exotic cities. Some of their itineraries are short 2-night taster cruises, which offer the perfect short break or a great way for first-timers to have a go at cruising. Other itineraries last for a week or even longer.

Depending on your choice of itinerary, you can often find cruise holidays with Royal Caribbean that set sail from the UK, usually Southampton, which offers a flight-free holiday – perfect for anyone who doesn’t like flying! It also means you get to spend more time onboard while you’re sailing to your first port of call, and in that time you can enjoy the ship’s fabulous facilities – be it the rock-climbing wall, the ice-skating rink, the shopping malls or evening entertainment.

Royal Caribbean has helped to revolutionise cruise holidays and is attracting a much wider audience than ever before. With family-friendly cruises, romantic escapes and exciting adventures for thrill-seekers, never before has cruising been so widely accepted – and enjoyed. What’s more, given this wide-ranging appeal, you can now find plenty of Royal Caribbean cruise deals, too. Head straight to the Royal Caribbean website or, for a fantastic range of choice and the chance to compare itineraries across all the major operators, use a travel agent like Cruise Thomas Cook. Take a look at their website here - http://www.thomascook.com/cruise/lines/royal-caribbean/ -  and search for the latest Royal Caribbean cruise deals on itineraries departing this year and next.

In short, whether you’re after a fun-filled weekend away or the adventure of a lifetime, Royal Caribbean can take you there, and beyond.

This guest post was contributed by N. Rudenko.

Any ideas one what to see in Passau, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava or Budapest? I’ll be on a seven-day booze cruise with my family!

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