Friday, February 28, 2014

Take Me Back To: Carnaval de Cádiz

Four years ago today, I was experiencing the madness of Carnaval in Cádiz, Spain. This week as I was looking through my pictures for the thousandth time, I felt my heart sink out of pure nostalgia. What I wouldn't give to experience the epic locuras of Carnaval once again! But sadly, living off a teacher's salary isn't as glamorous as I had once assumed it to be, so a trip to Cádiz for Carnaval proved to be out of my budget this year. (But I have high hopes for next year...)

How to describe the absolute insanity of Carnaval? I wish I could accurately portray the outrageous mayhem of Cádiz's most celebrated tradition: Mardis Gras on crack. It's like going to the fair on Halloween in Disneyland. The whole town dresses up in garish costumes, indulges on delicious treats such as gofres (like waffles but better), baked potatoes, caramel apples and fresh mini-donuts, and then shamelessly gets completely plastered in the middle of the streets.

The whole town is adorned with festive lights and decorations as if it were Christmas

In the streets, people dance and laugh along with the charmingly sarcastic chirigotas (witty bands in costumes that sing about controversial issues) with their liters of Cruzcampo beer and plastic party cups filled with tinto de verano. Even the bars are located outside, so they can accommodate the hundreds of tourists that pack the quaint gaditano streets. The streets are so jammed, it’s impossible to get anywhere – it took me 45 minutes to get to Plaza de San Francisco, which would have normally taken me 15 minutes to get to from my old apartment. But it’s not a typical big-city traffic jam, for everyone is drunk out of their minds in elaborate masks and costumes. Confetti and silly string litter the winding streets and pathways while locals erupt into impromptu sing-a-longs and dances. It is completely surreal.

Enjoying a parade of chirigotas during the day
Chirigotas are famous for their satirical songs about political issues
Many elaborate floats entertain the crowds during the city's big parade

“Wild” doesn’t even begin to describe Carnaval de Cádiz. The whole city suddenly comes to life, and everyone is filled with the joyous spirit of Carnaval. It made me feel like a kid again! Maybe it was the sugar high or the bizarre feeling of living in a dreamlike alternate universe, but Carnaval utterly fascinated me. I dressed up as a peacock, while my other friends flaunted costumes comprised of sequins, feather boas, body paint and balloons. We roamed the crowded streets, bar hopped, met crazy locals who were more outrageously dressed as we were, and feasted upon festive candy and freshly made donut holes. The celebration usually lasts a week, but the first weekend of Carnaval is usually the most out of control. Even after my first night of Carnaval, I came home to find remnants of my host mom’s bright pink wig in the sink. I kid you not, the entire city goes nuts.


If you ever get the chance to experience the madness of Carnaval, I urge you to do so. It is definitely a bucket list-worthy experience! Next year I'll force myself to be better at budgeting so I can relive the madness that is Carnaval de Cádiz.

Have you ever celebrated Carnaval? What was your favorite part?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Eating My Way Through Huertas with Madrid Food Tour

I'm a self-proclaimed foodie and lover of all things Madrid, so when I was asked to photograph Madrid Food Tour's newest tour - the Huertas Neighborhood Food & Market Tour - I simply couldn't say no.

Olive tasting inside Mercado de Antón Martín.
Sampling different kinds of jamón at Mercado de Antón Martín. Spain is notorious for their savory cured hams, and the quality of the meat depends on how the pigs were raised and what they were fed.
Indulging on authentic Spanish cheese and wine inside the market. This was my first time tasting wine that is actually from Madrid, and I was pleasantly surprised!

We started our day walking through the literary quarter of Huertas, snacking on typical Spanish treats while we admired the gorgeous architecture and learned about some of Spain's most famous writers. We met shop owners at the local market, feasted upon traditional dishes, and got to know one of Madrid's most historic neighborhoods. Huertas has a very traditional vibe, which made it the perfect area to explore many local eateries. We ventured into places that I would have never discovered on my own!

Tasty cured meat topped off with another authentic Spanish delicacy - olive oil!
A peek inside the kitchen of one of Madrid's best Valencian paella restaurants, Azahar.
Pass the paella, please!
The best paella I've eaten in Madrid. Naturally, I helped myself to two more scoops...

The things we tasted along the way portrayed a very accurate representation of authentic Spanish cuisine. Overall the tour was engaging, informative, and immensely satisfying. Our tour guide Lauren, owner of Madrid Food Tour and blogger behind Spanish Sabores, offered us a wealth of information about the city's rich history and its divine cuisine. I left the tour with a full belly, a better knowledge of my city, and a deeper appreciation for (or should I say, addiction to...) Spanish food.

Tortas de aceite, a typical Spanish breakfast treat. 
Spain is famous for it's thick, decadent hot chocolate - always served alongside warm, doughy churros. Dip your churros into this delicious concoction for a little taste of heaven.
We had "chocolate con porras" at one of Madrid's hidden chocolatería gems. Porras are a larger version of churros, and many people swear that they're even tastier.
Creamy Spanish cheesecake from a local bakery that still utilizes Madrid's oldest communal oven.

The Huertas Neighborhood Food & Market Tour runs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday starting at 10:30 am. The tour lasts several hours, and includes many more stops than those pictured in this post. I recommend this tour to all foodies and hungry travelers who are curious about Spanish cuisine, both visitors and locals alike! Click here to sign up, or check out the other tours available through Madrid Food Tour!

Have you ever been on a food tour? Did you enjoy your experience?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

My 4 Favorite Day Trips from Paris

While I'm currently immersed in my steadfast love affair with Madrid, I must admit that the first city to truly capture my heart was Paris. It's for this very reason that I find myself returning to Paris again, and again, and again...

My infatuation with Paris intensified when I lived there during the summer of 2011. Technically speaking, I was there to study Surrealist art and literature. But in reality, I was there to bask in the magic of the city. While I learned my fair share about André Breton and his crew of surrealists, I spent most of my time eating macarons from Ladurée, frolicking through the Luxembourg Gardens, practicing my broken French in charming cafés and wandering aimlessly through my favorite museums. 

My time spent living there wasn't nearly long enough, but it did allow me to take some pretty memorable day trips. So if your travels bring you to Paris anytime soon and you feel the urge to explore outside of the city, allow me to share with you my four favorite day trips from Paris:



When the overwhelming number of tourist attractions in the city begin to tire you, there's no better escape than to the quaint town of Chartres. This provincial town situated only an hour away from Paris is everything you expect a quintessential small town in France to be. Chartres boasts a particularly stunning cathedral, as well as darling traditional buildings with brightly colored shutters. Chartres defines charm. I halfway expected the locals to spontaneously burst into song as if I were in a scene from Beauty and the Beast.

VISITING CHARTRES:

Travel time: 
~1 hour by train

How to get there: 
Take an SNCF / TER train from Gare Montparnasse to Chartres. 
The town center is a short walk away from the Chartres Station.



Let them eat cake, or at least macarons from the Ladurée shop situated inside of this gargantuan palace. Decadence is taken to a whole new level at this lavish château. Only a half hour metro ride from the center of Paris, there is no excuse not to spend a day soaking in the over-the-top glamour of this palace. It's worth it to pay a little bit of extra money to also visit Marie Antoinette's private estate and gardens.

VISITING VERSAILLES:

Travel time: 
~30 minutes by Metro

How to get there: 
Take the RER C (the yellow line) to Versailles Rive Gauche / Château de Versailles.
The palace is a short walk from the Versailles Station.



While not as grandiose as its flamboyant cousin Versailles, this ornate château is still worth a visit. While some European royal residences seem to blend together as one after a while, Fontainebleau still stands out as a memorable palace. My favorite part about visiting Fontainebleau was hiking through its vast forest, which used to be the residence's former hunting grounds.

VISITING FONTAINEBLEAU:

Travel time: 
~1 hour by train & bus or car

How to get there: 
Take a Transilien train from Gare de Lyon to Fontainebleau-Avon.
From the Fontainebleau train station, take bus 12A to Château Fontainebleau.
For a quicker and easier journey, consider renting a car with EasyTerra.  



Brussels is a magical city brimming with history and beauty, and it doesn't hurt that it's also a stone's throw away from Paris. While this is a particularly fulfilling day trip, it also takes more energy than the three mentioned above. I would recommend this day trip to seasoned Paris travelers who already know the city well, and thus can afford to lose a long day of sightseeing in the City of Light. (Otherwise, I recommend extending your trip and spending a night in Belgium before returning to France.)

VISITING BRUSSELS:

Travel time: 
1 hour and 20 minutes by high speed  train

How to get there: 
Take the high speed Thalys train from Gare du Nord to Bruxelles-Midi. 
To get to the city center, take a taxi or a local train to Brussels Central Station.


Have you ever taken a day trip from Paris?
What are some of your favorite day trips in Europe?


Also check out the 5 best day trips from Madrid!


Monday, February 17, 2014

Weekend Wanderings: Mercado de San Miguel


Last month I had one of my best weekends in Madrid thus far when my great-grand little sis from my sorority came to visit me. Both my great-grand little Morgan and I are complete foodies, so naturally we made a few stops to Mercado de San Miguel during her trip. 

On our first visit we were too full from lunch to feast upon the plethora of epicurean delicacies, so the next day we returned to the market around lunchtime with empty stomachs. We indulged on a gourmet meal of savory tapas at the market, snacking and sipping wine among the chic locals. I devoured a selection of creamy cheeses and rich jamón ibérico, while Morgan sampled a variety of exotic seafood, cheeses and pastries.

We had way too much fun eating and drinking our way through Madrid. One of my favorite parts about living abroad is getting to connect with other friends who are overseas. There's no better feeling than having a little piece of home here in Europe - it's the best of both worlds!

You can find some of my previous photos from Mercado de San Miguel here!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Noordermarkt


One of my favorite parts of Amsterdam was wandering through Noordermarkt on Saturday morning. Naturally I fell in love with the abundance of fresh organic vegetables and charming antiques, but my favorite part was undoubtedly the immense variety of cheeses. I'm a cheese-aholic as it is, (an unfortunate circumstance for someone as lactose intolerant as I am...) but let me just say that Dutch cheese is magical. Don't even get me started on how savory that rich Gouda was. 

After the market, Kelly and I stopped by the Cheese Museum - which pretty much takes the cake for the best museum ever. The Cheese Museum offers unlimited samples of every kind of cheese they sell, which basically meant that I had to take a million Lactaid pills and didn't have to pay for lunch that day. Jackpot.

Visiting local markets is always on the top of my list for whatever city I visit, and Noordermarkt is no exception. 

What are some of your favorite markets abroad?