Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2015 Travel Highlights

Happy New Year, friends! It's hard to believe that 2016 is already upon us, and a part of me is sad to see 2015 go. Through all of the memories and misadventures, twenty-fifteen has been an incredible year of travel. Last year took me all over Europe, while this year allowed me to explore more of Spain. I've savored some of the most mouthwatering meals of my life, shared laughs with new friends on the road, showed old friends around my home in Madrid, and fallen deeper in love with the Spanish culture (and cuisine!).

Each place I visited captured my heart in a unique way. Seven countries, 25 cities and countless adventures later, it's safe to say that this year has been one of my best yet. Though it's impossible to pick favorites, here are some of my best travel memories of 2015!

Barcelona, Spain | 2015 Travel Highlights
Giving Barcelona a second chance

Valencia, Spain | 2015 Travel Highlights
Getting a taste of Valencia

Costa Adeje, Spain | 2015 Travel Highlights
Canary Island hopping in Puerto de la CruzCosta Adeje and Las Palmas

Canarian papas arrugadas | 2015 Travel Highlights
Living off papas arrugadas con mojo in the Canary Islands 

Santiago de Compostela, Spain | 2015 Travel Highlights
Getting drenched in Galicia

Lloret de Mar, Spain | 2015 Travel Highlights
Surviving my first TBEX conference in Costa Brava

Copenhagen, Denmark | 2015 Travel Highlights
Learning to love solo travel in Copenhagen

Pintxos in San Sebastián | 2015 Travel Highlights
Stuffing my face with gluten-free pintxos in San Sebastián


Mallorca, Spain | 2015 Travel Highlights
Being beach bums with my mom in Palma de Mallorca

Skydive Snohomish | 2015 Travel Highlights
Skydiving in Seattle for my 25th birthday

Porto, Portugal | 2015 Travel Highlights
Falling head over heels for Porto

Florence, Italy | 2015 Travel Highlights
Spending Thanksgiving weekend devouring pizza in Florence

Strasbourg, France | 2015 Travel Highlights
Enjoying Christmas markets and family time in Strasbourg and Heidelberg


Today I'm off to Seattle to ring in the new year with friends and family, and I couldn't be more excited to be home again. After a week in Washington, I'll be headed back to Madrid to finish my third (and final) year of teaching English in Spain. But I'll be going out with a bang, so stay tuned to see what adventures are in store for the new year! Bring it on, 2016!


Cheers to a 2016 that's just as epic!
What are your favorite travel memories from 2015?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Gifts from Abroad They'll Actually Love

Forget the kitschy souvenirs! Here's how to shop for the best holiday gifts from abroad.

After my first time going abroad, I hauled countless kitschy souvenirs back for my friends and family: magnets, keychains, figurines, and enough shot glasses to nourish an entire fraternity. While the gesture itself may have counted for something, the truth is that nobody needs any extra junk. It's likely that many of those gaudy trinkets are tucked away and collecting dust, or perhaps they've made their way into storage or the hands of Goodwill.

Looking back, I wish I had spent my money more wisely and brought home gifts that could actually be put to good use. Since moving to Madrid, my new favorite holiday tradition is bringing back presents that I know people can actually utilize and enjoy. So when Annie of MontgomeryFest asked me to take part in her new series The Expat Holidays, I felt inspired to share this newfound tradition. Giving is the cornerstone of the holiday season, and living abroad offers a definite gift-giving advantage! For expats and world travelers alike, here's how to shop for the best Christmas gifts from abroad.

Wine

IMG_0501-3
Can you ever go wrong with Italian wine?

A bottle of quality vino is my go-to holiday gift, because quite frankly, who doesn't love nice wine? (If you don't, I'm probably not friends with you... just kidding. Kind of.) One of the best parts about living in Europe is getting high quality wine for ridiculously cheap prices. Bottles that cost 8€ here in Spain may very well cost over $20 back in the USA. Above all, the selection back home pales in comparison. Spanish wine is having a moment right now, and I am dedicated to taking full advantage of that.

Packing Tip: Since the mere thought of a having a bottle break in my suitcase is enough to give me a full-on panic attack, I never travel without several WineSkins. (You can find these ingenious creations at Total Wine, specialty wine shops or select wineries.) It's also possible to make due with Ziplock bags, Scotch tape and an obscene amount of bubble wrap.

Local culinary delights

IMG_6441-2
Cheese from Spain's Basque Country

As a self-proclaimed foodie, I tend to surround myself with fellow food-lovers. So unsurprisingly, most of the gifts I bring home tend to be edible. I try to seek out local specialties that you can't find elsewhere, or that would otherwise cost a small fortune. For example, good olive oil is exorbitantly priced in the States, but the good stuff here in Spain costs a mere fraction of the price. Quality Spanish olive oil is consistently one of the most popular gifts that I bring home. (And for me, it's also one of the most economical!)

Packing Tip: Due to the extreme pressure and temperature changes on an airplane, it's better to transport olive oil in tins as opposed to glass bottles. The only thing worse than a bottle of red wine exploding in your suitcase is a bottle of greasy olive oil...

IMG_0307-4
A colorful assortment of German mustard

I've learned not to leave holiday shopping until the last minute, since some of the best gifts can come from earlier trips. For example, last month I took a spontaneous trip to Florence. While I was browsing through an upscale Italian supermarket to kill time before dinner, I realized that it would be the perfect spot to pick up some unique presents. As I stuffed my cart with everything from Limoncello to truffle salt, I felt like a true Italian Santa Claus.

Packing Tip: The USA has a strict ban against bringing in any sort of meat. Sadly, this means no Italian prosciutto or Spanish jamón and chorizo. You can try sneaking it in if you have the cojones, but be prepared to face a hefty fine if customs catches you.

IMG_0474-8
A classic trio of Spanish treats: wine, extra virgin olive oil and saffron

Christmas ornaments

IMG_0318-5
Ornaments at Heidelberg's Christmas market

No matter where they're from, travel themed Christmas ornaments make for great gifts. Decorating a Christmas tree with unique pieces can be a daunting (and not to mention, incredibly expensive) task, so ornaments with a story behind them always seem to be the most special. When picking up ornaments for friends and family members, I usually treat myself to one as well (even though I still don't have a tree of my own! Why not start the collection early...) 

IMG_0497-9

Packing Tip: When packing glass ornaments, you can never use enough bubble wrap. I tend to wrap breakable ornaments two or three times around with bubble wrap, tape the ends together, and then wrap it in a bulky scarf or sweater. Better safe than sorry!

Dessert

IMG_0469-7
Chocolates from Germany

Need I say more? We've already deduced that edible treats make for the best presents, and sweet gifts truly take the cake. (See what I did there?) Rich German chocolates? Check. Spanish cookies made by nuns? Check. Traditional French candy? Check. Crumbly Spanish turrón? Check, check, and check.

Going beyond the traditional souvenir

IMG_4769-11
Spanish pottery in Toledo

When you look past the gift shops catering to tourists, some of the most useful and enjoyable gifts can be found. I try to find local pottery, which is usually a big hit with moms, aunts and female relatives. I also look for locally made artisan soaps and candles that put their overpriced counterparts from Anthropologie to shame. When shopping for the fellas, Cuban cigars are my favorite thing to smuggle in. (I'm not sure if that's totally legal, but I have yet to get in trouble for it... knock on wood.) 

Packing Tip: You can find Cuban cigars at any Duty Free shop in the airport, but it's better to go to a specialty tobacco shop and hand pick them out. If you don't have a humidor, store them in a sealed Ziplock bag. Once your gift is given, make sure your cigar aficionado puts them in a humidor so they can freshen back up.

IMG_0443-6
Some souvenirs sure are pretty, but how often will your friends actually use them?

If you look past the kitschy souvenirs and junky collectibles, you can easily find Christmas presents from abroad that are sure to impress. Not only can your loved ones actually utilize and enjoy your gifts, but they can also share in some of your incredible memories and experiences from abroad.


What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?
What gifts from abroad do you typically bring back for your family and friends?


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Community and Cuisine: Taste Porto Food Tours

Not your average food tour, Taste Porto Food Tours gives an insider's look into the intimate, community-based narrative of Porto's cuisine.

In the city of Porto, food tells a story.

Here to narrate that story for me was André, a born and raised Porto native and the co-founder of Taste Porto Food Tours. With the intention of getting hungry visitors off the beaten track and discovering the "real" Porto, André led us to his favorite local restaurants and watering holes. As we tasted traditional delicacies that guidebooks don't typically recommend, André provided a personal and passionate account of Porto's history, cuisine and local traditions. 

I've always regarded Portugal as a highly underrated destination. Its breathtaking sights and inviting culture never seem to get enough credit. After experiencing its phenomenal gastronomy, I can now add Portuguese cuisine to the country's list of underappreciated assets. Thanks to my afternoon with Taste Porto Food Tours, I left Porto inspired by the deep-rooted relationship between the city's unique gastronomy and its intimate community values.

IMG_9176-8
IMG_9250-16

Perhaps the epicenter of Porto's gastronomic narrative lies in Mercado do Bolhão, the most iconic open air market in Portugal. Though located in the heart of the nation's second largest city, this market feels as if it resides in the center of a small neighborhood. Epitomizing raw beauty, Mercado do Bolhão has been serving up fresh and local ingredients for over 100 years. Although the structure is in mild disrepair, this no-frills marketplace showcases a kaleidoscope of produce and an unparalleled selection of freshly caught fish and seafood.

IMG_9158-5
IMG_9239-15

Many of Porto's finest restaurants and hotels exclusively buy their ingredients here, for its high-quality products are widely regarded as the freshest. As our guide André greeted and joked with all of the butchers, fish mongers and produce vendors, it became clear that this market is like a big family. Raw, authentic and enduring, the strong community ties found within Mercado do Bolhão tell a colorful story about Porto's people and history.

IMG_9236-14
IMG_9166-6

Exemplifying these community values is Bolhão Wine House, an up-and-coming wine bar that's run in the owner's grandmother's old flower shop. This quaint family wine bar uses products from other shops in the market so that everyone can benefit from their success. Here we tried gourmet canned sardines, local olive oil from the Douro Valley and sweet Muscat wine.

Up until this past spring, I harbored a strong aversion to seafood. Imagine my surprise when I took my first bite out of a canned sardine and found myself wanting more! Canned by Georgette, these mouthwatering treats were delicately drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chili peppers and herbs. When washed down with a smooth glass of Moscadel do Douro, I could have easily treated myself to a second helping.

IMG_9204-11
IMG_9223-13

Next, we dipped our forks into the past at one of Porto's oldest eateries, a rustic 152-year-old restaurant famous for its 24-hour sandwich. "Slow food" takes on a new meaning as this magnificent creation takes a full 24 hours to make. First, juicy pork belly is marinated in spices for 20 hours. Then, the meat is cooked to perfection for four hours in a wood-fired oven. Combined with cured Portuguese ham and roasted tomatoes, this dish provides the perfect balance between sweet and savory.

To accommodate my gluten-free needs, I was served this sandwich without the homemade bread. However, it was still one of the best things my taste buds delighted in all weekend. After a generous glass of sparkling red wine that we were served alongside our comfort food, I put on a mini concert at the restaurant's well-loved piano. I blame the vinho.

IMG_9251-17
IMG_9263-18

In between getting lost within the city's hilly back streets and devouring typical Portuguese dishes, we were introduced to some of the city's local shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and producers. Each stop on the tour gave us an intimate and personal glimpse into daily life in Porto that we would have never otherwise experienced.

André peppered the tour with countless personal recommendations, with everything from can't-miss restaurants to favorite wine bars. His enthusiasm was positively contagious. I spent the rest of the weekend following his ironclad suggestions, which unsurprisingly made Porto one of the most delicious destinations I've visited in Europe. 

IMG_9279-19
Refueling with a cimbalino in one of Porto's most historic cafés
Café Guarany

Since there's always room for dessert, our next stop was a bustling creamery that serves up decadent dairy products. Steeped in tradition and history, this artisan pastry shop is one of Porto's sweetest secrets. While everything on the menu is supposedly divine, the creamery's most coveted treats are their fluffy éclairs. Since I was unable to indulge in the glutenous goodness of the éclairs, I instead savored a heavenly concoction of whipped cream and fresh strawberries.

Portuguese Eclairs
These bad boys are supposedly Porto's best éclairs
Taste Porto Food Tours
My exquisite gluten-free option
Taste Porto Food Tours
We concluded our tour with a parting feast of petiscos and a generous sampling of the country's different wine regions.

Taste Porto Food Tours offers culinary walking tours every Tuesday-Saturday morning at 10:30 and 16:00. The tour lasts about 3.5 hours and includes ten different tastings and six drinks. They also donate 5% of all ticket sales to a local charity that helps the homeless.

Thanks to our insider's look into the intimate, community-based narrative of Porto's cuisine, the thorough expertise and enthusiasm of our local guide, and the overall deliciousness of the meals we enjoyed, I genuinely recommend this tour to all foodies and hungry travelers!


Taste Porto Food Tours graciously invited me on their tour, but as always, all opinions expressed are my own. 


Have you ever tried Portuguese cuisine?
Which city would you like to taste your way through next?


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Copenhagen on a Budget: 6 Ways to Save

Although Denmark is expensive, it's still possible to navigate Copenhagen on a budget. Here are six ways to save money while exploring the Danish capital.

Famous for its high quality of life, remarkable efficiency, renowned cuisine and unfavorable exchange rates, life in Denmark certainly isn't cheap. As one of the most expensive European destinations, adhering to a tight budget in Copenhagen can be a tricky feat. 

Although Scandinavia is one of the priciest corners of the world, you shouldn't feel deterred from visiting the breathtaking city of Copenhagen. With a little bit of planning, it's possible to navigate Copenhagen on a budget and experience the city without breaking the bank. Here are six ways to save money while exploring the Danish capital.

Copenhagen on a Budget: 6 Ways to Save

1. Cruise the canals

Since Copenhagen is made up of several different islands, the city's striking landscape is dominated by water. Some of Copenhagen's best views can be seen from its series of sparkling canals, and boat tours offer a decidedly unique perspective of the capital. While most canal tours charge 75 DKK (10€), Netto-Bådene offers hour long tours from Nyhavn for only 40 DKK (5€). The Netto boat tour boasts stunning views of some of the city's most memorable sights, such as the Opera House, the Little Mermaid statue, the Black Diamond, Amalienbourg Palace and Christianshavn.

Nyhavn Canal Tour | Copenhagen on a Budget
The colorful ships of Nyhavn as seen from the Netto-Bådene tour

2. Soar up the Tårnet

As the tallest tower in Copenhagen, the Tårnet offers unparalleled views of the Danish capital. Completed in 1928, the tower gracefully rises above Christiansborg Palace, which currently houses the Danish Parliament. From the top of the tower, you can see all the way to Sweden on a clear day. Not only does the tower of Christiansborg Palace boast the most spectacular panoramas of the city, but it's also completely free. The tower is open every day except Monday.

Copenhagen on a Budget: 6 Ways to Save
The view from the Christiansborg Palace Tårnet


3. Embrace your inner hippie in Christiania

Anything goes in the hippie freetown of Christiania, a self-governing commune in Christianshavn. Established in 1971 by squatters, this semi-autonomous community is now Denmark's vibrant hub of counterculture. Upon leaving the district, you'll even notice a sign warning, "You are now entering the EU".

While exploring Freetown Christiania, you can find whimsical artwork, eclectic huts and homes, picturesque lakeside views and a handful of cafés, eateries and beer gardens. The district is perhaps most notorious for its Green Light District, where you can openly purchase cannabis products from the stalls along Pusher Street. It's free to explore the grounds, but keep in mind that photographs are not permitted.

Freetown Christiania | Copenhagen on a Budget
Outside the entrance to Christiania

4. Grab some grub at Paper Island

In the aftermath of the new Nordic food revolution, Copenhagen's gastronomic scene has become a defining element of Danish culture. Thankfully, you don't have to pay astronomical prices to get Noma-quality food. At the former cellulose processing plant of Papirøen (also known as Paper Island), you can find an entire warehouse filled with Copenhagen Street Food's glorious array of food trucks.

The market houses over 35 different food stalls with a plethora of international options to choose from. Focused on promoting sustainability, Paper Island utilizes old storage containers and recycled materials for its food stalls and dining areas. Meals typically cost between 50-75 DKK (7-10€).

Paper Island Street Food | Copenhagen on a Budget
Don't miss the Belgian fries doubled fried in duck fat from the Copper and Wheat stand!

5. Relax in the city's many green spaces

Copenhagen is celebrated for its variety of parks and lush green spaces around the city. Although the weather isn't always nice enough to enjoy them, these areas get crowded quickly when the sun eventually makes its debut. Hop over to King's Garden, home to the Rosenborg Castle, for a picnic and some people watching. The Botanical Gardens, which are part of the University of Copenhagen's Natural History Museum, also offer picturesque spots to relax. Don't be afraid to copy the Danes and explore more of Copenhagen's parks by bike!

Copenhagen's Botanical Gardens | Copenhagen on a Budget
Copenhagen's Botanical Gardens

6. Brush up on Danish history on a walking tour

It would be a shame to visit Copenhagen and let its enthralling history slip through your fingers. Get a mini history lesson while exploring the city with Copenhagen Free Walking Tours. On the three hour walking tour, vivacious guides will cover most of the city's major sights and landmarks while also explaining their historical context. Although the tours are advertised as "free", guides typically expect around a 75 DKK (10€) tip at the end of the tour.

Copenhagen on a Budget: 6 Ways to Save

Have you ever been to Copenhagen?
In your opinion, what are the best ways to save money in Scandinavia?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Snapshots of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain

The rain in Spain stays mainly... in Galicia.

Tucked away in the northwest corner of Spain, the city of Santiago de Compostela is most famous for being the final stop of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage that draws thousands of trekkers each year. The city takes its name from St. James the Apostle, whose remains are supposedly housed in the old town's cathedral.

Santiago de Compostela's lush landscapes, striking architecture and mouthwatering cuisine assert it as a hidden gem destination in northern Spain. As a non-pilgrim visitor, I set out to explore Santiago de Compostela the best way I know how: by eating, drinking, and snapping an obscene amount of photos. Thanks to my friend and tour guide Trevor of A Texan in Spain, I got in a healthy dose of history and culture as well. 

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain

Aside from the celebrated Camino de Santiago, Galicia is best known for its phenomenal seafood, breathtaking landscapes and coastlines, and - you guessed it - incessant rain. Upon seeing Santiago's verdant hills and moody slate skies, I felt my heart skip a beat; the scenery bore a staggering resemblance to my homeland, the stunning Pacific Northwest. For the first time in ages, I felt surprisingly homesick.

It only took 24 hours to remember why I left the rainy Pacific Northwest in the first place. It's not my intention to downplay the beauty of Galicia, but I simply couldn't handle its constant showers. Madrid has spoiled me with sunshine and dry weather, and I've officially abandoned my once optimistic, "The rain can't bother me, I'm a Seattleite!" attitude. 

It rained for almost three days straight. While I was tempted to hibernate inside the nearest tasca with a bottle of Albariño and tarta de Santiago to myself, we rallied through the downpours and drizzles. One broken umbrella, one ruined pair of boots and a short-term case of seasonal affective disorder later, I can safely say that I could never live in Galicia. 

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia

But what Santiago de Compostela lacked in weather, it made up for in charm. The old town, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, emanates magic. With each corner I turned in the picturesque maze of streets, I fell in love with the city all over again. The arched soportales, or covered walkways, sheltered us from the rain as we admired the whitewashed granite and coordinated earthy tones, accentuated by pops of emerald green street lamps and shutters.

As much as I may have complained, Santiago de Compostela is a city that genuinely looks good in the rain. Even during a shower, the streets positively glimmer.

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Pulpo | Santiago de Compostela, Galicia

Santiago de Compostela also challenged me to broaden my culinary horizons. Of course, I'm referring to Galicia's most celebrated dish, pulpo a la gallega. The Galicians work their magic by boiling octopus and serving it with a slight dusting of paprika and a healthy drizzle of olive oil. The lightness of the sauce highlights the freshness of the dish, rendering it hearty yet surprisingly simple. Since I'm not the biggest seafood lover to begin with, I was shocked by how much I actually enjoyed pulpo.

Along with the world renowned seafood, Galicia wowed me with their delectable assortment of local cheeses, crisp white wines, pimentos de padrón, grilled meats and fresh produce. Per Trevor's recommendations, we gorged ourselves on churrasco (tasty Galician barbecued meat) at La Codorniz and treated ourselves to a gooey slice of tortilla almost every day at La Tita. We devoured a feast of traditional Galician dishes at Bodegón Os Concheiros Pulpería, a no-frills local favorite outside the touristic center. Suffice it to say, sightseeing through your tastebuds is one of the best ways to experience Santiago de Compostela.

Clams | Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
Delectable clams at María Castaña
Pulpo | Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
I came. I saw. I ate pulpo. I conquered.
Pimientos de Padrón | Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
Pimientos de padrón, yet another famed Galician dish that has seduced my tastebuds
Queso Gallego | Santiago de Compostela, Galicia

Thankfully, we balanced out our overeating with a serious amount of walking. Since there's no shortage of things to do in Santiago de Compostela, we busied ourselves with getting to know its captivating sights and history. From the iconic cathedral to the vast parks and green spaces, we kept ourselves active between discovering the city one bite at a time. 

Galicia boasts a wide variety of day trips, so we hopped on a high-speed train and zipped through the breathtaking countryside towards Ourense. This relatively undiscovered town is worth visiting for its natural hot springs along the Miño River. We relaxed in the thermal baths at Termas Outariz, which was the perfect way to warm up on an otherwise cold and rainy day.

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia - a hidden gem destination in northern Spain
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
Thanks for being a great tour guide, Trevor!

Despite the adverse weather, I was thoroughly impressed by Santiago de Compostela's charm and natural beauty. While the rain would deter me from ever living there, it certainly wouldn't stop me from visiting again. Thanks to its enthralling cuisine and culture, I consider Galicia to be one of Spain's best kept secrets. 


Have you ever visited northern Spain?
What are your favorite off the beaten path destinations?