An Overwhelming Heaping of Travel Help

I have recently become an amateur travel agent, as I have been planning Eric and my upcoming European travels. So far we will be venturing to Rome, Naples, the island of Capri, Girona (Spain), and Paris. Yes, Paris. And this weekend we will also be traveling, via car, with some exchange student friends to the Basque Country (Pais Vasco) to see the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the gorgeous beaches of San Sebastian.

So, having been elbow deep in search engines and travel sites for the past week and a half, I thought I'd share the wealth a little. Several of you are planning trips out across the pond to Europe, and I hope this will prove useful and time saving. And if you aren't planning a European vacation, maybe you should be.

And in case you don't make it to the end of this exhaustive list, I have a request. It would be a great help if you all could share any travel advice or travel websites that I might have left out. Also, suggestions of where to stay, eat or play for any of the above mentioned destinations would be very welcome. Or even other European travel suggestions for the future. Many thanks and happy traveling!


General Travel Search:
- Travelocity
- UK Expedia (can be helpful – but be aware that everything is listed in British Pounds - 1₤ = $1.90) http://www.expedia.co.uk
- Alsa (a Spanish high speed train service)
- Kayak (a pretty good search engine for everything – it does a searches of other sites)
- Site 59 (this has fantastic deals – they are all last minute, however, and from the U.S.)

Airfare (most also have search engines for hotels and cars as well):
- Air Berlin
- AirFare WatchDog (a reliable source of fares and specials)
- AirFare WatchDog’s Blog (with the most recent air fare specials)
- Bravo Fly
- Cheap To Travel
- Clickair
- EasyJet
- RyanAir (I’ve used this one several times – the low fare search in the left hand column is great – it let’s you search up to 20 days after the date you want to fly and up to 20 days before you want to return so you can see what’s most affordable – just be aware of extra taxes and luggage fees)
- SkyEurope
- Wizz Air (for travel to Eastern Europe)
- Transavia (for travel to Amsterdam)
- Spainair

- Venere (probably my favorite – you can see where in the city your hotel actually is and instantaneously change your search criteria – AND usually the best price)
- Late Rooms (interesting deals on higher end places)
- Booking.com
- Priceline Europe (pretty much the same results as Booking.com, above)
- Hotel Club
- Otel.com
- Secret Places (interesting places, missed by the general search engines)
- Ebookers

Hostels (for those of you wanting single beds, or the cheapest accommodation)
- Hostelz
- Hostel Bookers
- Gomio
- Hostel World (associated with RyanAir)
- European Hostel Guide (more informative than practical)

For those of you wanting to get a head start on Barcelona:
- Barcelona’s Tourist Guide
- The website of Barcelona

If you want to learn a little Spanish for free before you travel (or other languages, as well):
- BBC Spanish
- BBC Languages
- Coffee Break Spanish (a great podcast that starts out super simple and runs in about 15 minute segments)

General Travel Help:
- Rick Steves’ Travel (the guru of travel – great tips on sites, packing, etc…)
- Frommer’s Travel Guides
- Currency Converter
- Michelin (this site has great maps, plus hotels, although these are a little spendier)


Valencia on Fire

I've washed the smoke from my hair, thrown my smoke-filled clothes in the wash and wiped the dust and ash from my shoes. With these tangible evidences gone, it is hard to believe that it was all real.

Yesterday morning at 8 a.m., Eric and I boarded a charter bus, along with eight of our exchange student friends and a busload of strangers, to make the four hour voyage to Valencia, Spain, for the annual celebration of the Fallas.

When we finally got to the city we hurried off the bus to walk, single-file, among the hordes of people in Valencia to see what we could of the giant papier-mache sculptures (las fallas), built over the previous year with some estimated at as much as $75,000, before each and every one of them was burned to the ground. We became teenagers again, lighting firecrackers in the streets and eating churros fresh out of the hot oil, filled with the energy and excitement of the impending nonsensical destruction.

By the time the sun set, the city was pulsing. The fallas were set ablaze in three stages, each getting progressively more grand in scale and artistry, while the bomberos (firefighters) looked on, hoses ready. One by one the creators of each falla, dressed in typical Valencian costume, would ignite the lovely monuments, each time fascinating us just as much as the one before. Fireworks, crowds and blazing statues filled Valencia for three hours in the culmination of the annual week-long festival.

With the fallas cremated and our ears ringing, we piled back on the bus, now chilled from the freezing Mediterranean wind that we hadn't noticed while the fires were burning, to ride back in silent exhaustion back to Barcelona.

So unreplicatable. So fantastical. So childlike. So grand.

**To see more of my photos of the Fallas, visit Barcelona Days.


Fuego to Follow

I'm headed off tomorrow for a epic day filled with fire, giant sculptures and Spaniards in Valencia, Spain. Details and photos to follow.
P.S. I just bought 2 tickets to Rome for a week in April for less than the cost of two tanks of gas. I love Europe.


Patrick, Patxi, Patty

Growing up, I was often the only Patty my age. In the United States, the baby boomer generation was filled with Patty's, but by the time I was born, the name had lost some of its luster.

Every March 17, however, my heart fills with pride as people all over the world celebrate my namesake. St. Patty's Day. And this year, while living in Spain, I have even more reason to be proud.

Yesterday, our Andalusian flatmate bounced over to our apartment and announced that he was making paella, a typical Spanish dish, for everyone that night. I think he might have even sung that announcement, he was so enthused. So we joined them for dinner with our Minnesota guests, who were here on vacation, for a wonderful homemade meal of paella with chicken and beef, during the course of which we were also able to meet their out of town guests, along with several other of their friends.

As we left for another Spanish fiesta, I went around the room and kissed each person twice, as is the custom in Spain. Once on the right cheek and once on the left. The last person I said farewell to was a Spaniard whom I had not yet met, so I said hello and goodbye together. When I asked him his name, he replied, "Patxi."

"Right, Patty," I said, impressed that he knew my name.

"Patxi," he repeated.

"Yes, my name is Patty," I responded. "What's yours?"

"My name is Patxi," said the dreadlocked gentleman. "I am Basque."

I nodded in comprehension. We kissed each other's cheeks again and went on our way.

Later that night, at a fiesta at another exchange student's apartment, I met yet another Patty. This one was also Spanish and she was full of life. We felt instantly connected to each other, feeling that a lifetime of being called the same name is enough to bond two people. It was this Patty that reminded me that it was the day of "her saint," as she put it. Saint Patrick's Day.

So, as that is my saint too, I feel thankful to have such a wonderful name. And I feel thankful to have found several others with whom to share this with.

Happy St. Patty's Day.



Confession and Clarification

To all those who offered input and feedback on my recent (some would call dramatic, others bold) hair cut, I want to say thank you. For those who want to know about my Spanish hairdresser - it's Eric. I know, I know, who would let their spouse cut 10 inches off of their hair? But, he did a wonderful job and just reaffirmed my belief that he is the most patient man alive. For the record - the marriage is still intact and everyone made it through just fine.

In other news, still a little obsessed about the naked man wandering the streets, I shared the anecdote with some of the other exchange students studying abroad here and it turns out that Eric and I were not the only ones who have seen him out and about in all his finest. He has been spotted by several other students in various random places in the Barcelona. Always casual. Always nude.

And, it also turns out that Europeans from the northern part of the continent share my shock and horror. At least those in Belgium, Denmark and Austria. So, I would like to modify my blanket statement in the aforementioned post regarding Europeans and their attitudes towards disrobed displays. The further south you go, the less the people are bound by social appropriateness. The further north you go, the higher the necklines.

So, all is well, but I'm still on guard for the Bare Barcelonian.


No Shirt, No Shoes, No Pants, No Problem

It has turned balmy in Barcelona. A week or two ago, the beaches were empty, save for an enthusiastic dog and his owner playing catch and a few onlookers bundled up in colorful coats and winter scarfs. Yesterday, however, the beach was packed.

The change to warmer weather has brought up something that I've known I was going to encounter in Europe, during my six month stint abroad while my husband studies law. Something that would be far different from what I've known to be normal in the United States.


The European attitude towards nudity is far more open and relaxed than that of Americans. Far less taboo, much more accepted. My husband, the law student, tells me that there is actually a law on the books here in Spain stating that nudity is not illegal anywhere, so long as it does not cause a disturbance. In the U.S., except for private property and nudist resorts, going around in your birthday suit is considered indecent exposure and will get you sent to prison. In America it seems as though any person without clothes on is somehow erotic or sexual. In Europe, they see the body as a body, made sexual by the context of the situation. I
n Utah, a woman breast feeding in a Burger King was front page news, yet in Spain, well...Iet me tell you about Spain.

Yesterday, as I was strolling lazily along the Mediterranean pier with my husband, stopping every few feet to browse the wares of local craft merchants, I encountered my first real nude person in Europe.

He was an older gentleman, in his mid-60s, and he seemed to be out for a Sunday morning stroll in the sunshine as well. He was so casual in his bare skin that I didn't actually notice him at first. I was examining a rack of handbags when my husband nudged me and whispered under his breath, "There is a man passing you right now and he is stark-naked."

"He's what?!" I said, probably a little to loudly and began turning my head back and forth frantically trying to understand what he could possibly be talking about. And then, I saw him. Well, I saw the back of him anyway. Head to toe without so much as a sandal on. His derriere was tattooed blue, giving the onlooker at first glance the appearance of a speed-o. As for his front, I have no idea if this was tattooed or not, but it swung freely between his legs and ended with a piercing. He should have joined the circus. Maybe he already had.

As I gawked at this au naturel Spaniard, he continued on his way looking as comfortable as if he had been in jeans and a t-shirt. I looked around to see the reaction of others on the wharf. Surely they must be as affected as I. But hardly anyone took notice as he sauntered along. Only one shopkeeper who waved and called out hello, as if they were old friends. I shook my head in disbelief.

Later that afternoon, as I sat on the edge of the beach sipping my soda, I saw a young family make their way through the sun bathers to find a spot of sand and claim it as their own. This done, the girl, 4 years old, began to shed her clothing as fast as she possibly could. Twenty or so seconds later and she was frolicking on the beach, playing in the sand and the waves, the happiest, freest child in the world.

This second instance of an unattired human didn't phase me in the slightest. She was young and innocent and who was I to say if she had to wear clothes. Especially on the beach.

The difference, it seems, was not in the comfortableness of the unclad, but in my own


A Done Do


And after...

So, I finally did it. What do you think?