Tuesday, March 31, 2015

48 Hours in Granada

As often as I shout my love for Madrid from a mountaintop, sometimes my soul still yearns for the magic of Andalucía. One city that has been on my heart lately is Granada. The majestic Alhambra, the bustling streets at golden hour, the captivating glimpse into Spain's Moorish past... oh yeah, and the free tapas. Granada exudes an intoxicating, mysterious charm that can't be found anywhere else in Spain.

Today I'm excited to introduce Christy Swagerty of What Up, Swags?! Christy is an American expat and volleyball player in France, who also happens to be a fellow victim of wanderlust. I've been shamelessly stalking following Christy's gorgeous Instagram for ages, and her adventures constantly inspire me to see more of Europe (and revisit the places I love the most!) 

With all of her recent travels through Spain and Morocco, Miss Swagerty really does know what's up. Here's how to make the most out of 48 hours in Granada according to the fabulous Christy!


Why Granada?

The Andalucía region in the south of Spain attracts many visitors every year to the likes of Sevilla, Málaga, Córdoba, and the white hill towns of Ronda and Arcos de la Frontera. If you’ve been considering Granada as a destination, but maybe it’s not “on the way” to your next place, I encourage you to commit to it and make it a priority to get there anyway! Find those two extra days in your itinerary or book your next free weekend for a journey into an entirely different version of Spain.

The last Moorish kingdom to fall in the Spanish Reconquista of 1492, the city still basks in its Arabic glory of the Alhambra. The natural beauty of Granada cannot be missed either, with the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas crowning the edges of the valley. In Granada, you will make friends, whether with the shopkeepers, tea brewers, bodega owners, or just the kind people on the street. Granada is best experienced on foot, as the city center doesn’t allow extra vehicles on the roads, and the crooked turns of the hills invite you to explore hidden paths at your own pace.


Day One

Morning 

The Alhambra. You’ve come all the way to Granada, and it’s only fitting that you pay tribute to the reason Granada is on the tourist map in the first place. Make sure to grab a delicious pastry at a bakery before heading up the mountain on foot, by bus, or with a taxi. Tackling the Alhambra in the morning guarantees less crowds, less heat, and a much better overall sense of meditation that the Alhambra originally graced upon its visitors.


The incredible detail in the tile mosaics, rock work, and designs will impact you with a much deeper reverence for the Moorish empire and their dedication to art, beauty, and peace. Best trick to visiting the Alhambra is to buy your tickets online in advance for a set date and time. Bring the same credit card with you to Granada, and you can withdraw your tickets at any La Caixa ATM.

Afternoon

Meander down from the Alhambra to Plaza Nueva, and pick out a café to enjoy the square and your favorite view. Get the Menú del Día, and ask the waiter to match it with a glass of local wine. This will best prepare you to unwind during your next activity at the Hammam Al-Andalus Granada.


This calming environment will refresh your tired feet and mind, and will allow you to literally immerse yourself in the ancient bathing traditions of the Moors. Most hammams and bath houses have defined schedules and routes for the guests to take, but one of the many wonderful aspects of the Hammam Al-Andalus is the freedom to be in whichever rooms or pools one wishes at any given time. Make sure to include an essential oils massage to relax your muscles or a kessa scrub for a thorough exfoliation.

Evening

Continue deeper into the Moorish world on “Tea Street": Calle Calderería Nueva. Every tea room has interesting aromatic options in addition to the classic Arabic mint tea. Take your time finding the right teteria, in between browsing the colorful Arabic leather goods and decorations.


For an Alhambra-themed tea house, try As Sirat for its intriguing and thorough tea selection. I wanted to try at least ten different flavors before finally settling on mango, and my husband drank the flower honey tea. It feels like your own quiet corner inside the grand palace. When you feel shopped out and rested up, ascend into the Sacromonte for gorgeous lit up views of the historical districts of Granada and the next phase of the night.

Late Night

As you make your way uphill from Calle Calderería Nueva to Camino del Sacromonte (via Calle San Juan de los Reyes and Cuesta del Chapiz), absorb the scenes around you. Real life is still happening in these steep cobblestone neighborhoods and cave homes. The Sacromonte is the traditionally gypsy district of Granada, and the flamenco caves draw the tourists from the valley below.


Try to book your flamenco show and dinner through the venue itself; many hotels will charge extra for bookings. Zambra María la Canastera, Zambra Flamenco Venta del Gallo, and Jardines de Zoraya all have easy to navigate websites and translated menus. If you like to wing it, you can slip in and out of the side streets of Camino del Sacromonte to pick a less-touristy zambra cave for yourself.


Day Two

Morning

Stop into a café on the Plaza Bib-Rambla for churros con chocolate before heading out on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas.


There are several trail options on Trek Sierra Nevada, from a 2-hour walk on the Cahorros trail to a much more advanced 5-hour climb on the Silleta de Padul. It will be excellent morning exercise, as well as providing incredible morning views of Granada and the surrounding areas. If you can get up early enough, it is the most magnificent sight to watch the city of Granada rise with the sun.

Afternoon

Enjoy great and filling Spanish paella at La Parrala or in one of the many cafés in the walking zones behind the Granada Cathedral. After refueling with a “café solo” (espresso) or “cortado” (short coffee with milk), take a pleasant afternoon stroll through the city center, observing the awe-inspiring Gothic and Renaissance architecture of the Cathedral & Royal Chapel and Monastery of San Jerónimo.


Evening

Fall captive to the Spanish siesta - you’ll probably need it after hiking the Sierra Nevadas! It can feel strange to take a nap in the very late afternoon/early evening, but it really is the best time to rest in Spain because not very many sights or restaurants are open. A couple of hours of sleep will rejuvenate your Spanish spirit, and you will wake up just in time to get ready to go out for dinner and enjoy the night for as long as you want! Alternatively, if you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can hike-wander into El Albayzín for more great views of Granada and tucked away homes with beautiful gardens.


Late Night

For an amazing tapas and wine experience in Granada, go meet Fuensanta at La Bodeguilla de Al Aldo. Walk up around 10:00pm on a Saturday night, and you will barely get through the door, it will be so packed. When you finally do manage to get inside, a dark-haired lady will come down the steps of her two-tiered bar to see what you need.

Everyone in the bodeguilla has a genuinely wonderful time together, eating, drinking, talking, laughing, being together. The energy is unmatched in the big city cafés of Madrid and Málaga; this is an intimate setting with intimate friends, and you will get to be a part of it. Just remember; after what you think will be your last glass of wine, Fuensanta will probably pour you another one!


Granada can be experienced on the surface in two days easily. But it is likely that you will fall in love with this beautiful place, where Moorish culture and history are showcased through a Spanish lens. After climbing to new heights, soaking in the hammam, and tasting the delights of Granada, you will want to plan your next stay to last much longer than just 48 hours.


BIO: Christy Swagerty, “Swags,” is an American expat volleyball player and travel blogger in France. Swags and her basketball coach husband, Marc, love living abroad, learning languages, trying new foods, hanging out at the Eiffel Tower, and taking advantage of the unique opportunity to explore Europe and the world through sports. You can join their Volleyball = Travel adventure on What Up, Swags?!, Twitter, and Instagram.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Modernism 101 with Discover Walks Barcelona


Before my first trip to Barcelona five years ago, I had briefly educated myself on modernist architecture and the legend of Gaudí through various guidebooks and countless viewings of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. However, about six months afterwards, what little information I had previously acquired quite effortlessly slipped my mind. For good.

Upon my return to Barcelona, I was anxious to refresh my memory and delve deeper into Gaudí's masterpieces. But this time, I couldn't just rely on a guidebook. I needed a comprehensive overview from a source that would stick with me. 

So when Discover Walks reached out to me, I knew it was fate. More than your average tour company, Discover Walks guides you around the city through the eyes of a passionate local. As my friend Morgan and I began our Gaudí Extravaganza - Best of Barcelona Tour with our native guide Biel, we immediately found his enthusiasm for his hometown to be contagious.


Back in the late 19th century, Barcelona's central living quarters became too crowded - so the city began expanding into the Eixample (which translates to "extension"). Many affluent families took advantage of this extra space to build large, lavish houses along the Passeig de Gràcia, which connected Barcelona's city center to other neighboring villages such as Vila de Gràcia.

Today the Passeig de Gràcia is characterized by upscale shops, prosperous businesses, and some of the city's best architectural gems. Amongst the many eye-catching examples of modernist architecture lies the Block of Discord, one of the most celebrated examples of Catalan modernism. 

We started our Discover Walks tour here, learning how the wealthy "Catalan Gatsby's" of the early 20th century competed to have the most impressive homes. On this particular block in the Eixample, several prominent Catalan families each hired different architects to design their houses. These distinguished modernist architects battled it out for the Passeig de Gràcia's most extravagant building, creating a row of notably clashing homes

Lluís Domènech i Montaner's Casa Lleó-Morera
Josep Puig i Cadafalch's Casa Amatller
Antoni Gaudí's Casa Batlló

Our guide Biel explained the intricate symbolism behind the Block of Discord's architectural elements, from the wavy disposition of the iron to the organic shapes imitating nature. We learned the inside secrets of Casa Batlló's facade, including which metaphor Gaudí was supposedly playing on when designing the house. (Hint: it has to do with the story of Barcelona's patron saint!)

We then moved on from the Block of Discord, exploring more of the Eixample's modernist masterpieces. As we worked our way past Gaudí's Casa Milà and up the Rambla de Catalunya, we learned fascinating tidbits about the origins of modernism, the ins and outs of Catalan culture, and various fun facts about Barcelona. I found myself wishing that I had taken this tour five years ago, for I was beginning to see the city in a brand new light. How had I missed out on this much history my first time around?!

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We finished the tour in front of Gaudí's enigmatic and unfinished cathedral, Sagrada Familia. By this time, our guide's contagious passion and enthusiasm had unmistakably spread to us. We ended our tour buzzing about Barcelona and wishing we had time to learn more.

Refreshing, entertaining and informative, our Discover Walks tour was the perfect way to learn all about Catalan modernism. I discovered more about the city than I could have ever learned from a guidebook, for our vivacious guide made Barcelona's history come to life. Thanks to this comprehensive tour, I now have a deeper appreciation for the city's intriguing architecture and history.



Discover Walks graciously invited me on their Gaudí Extravaganza Tour, but as always, all opinions expressed are my own. You can find out more about Discover Walks and their unique walking tours around Europe here.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Easter Markets in Vienna


As a kid, Easter was always my favorite holiday. Perhaps it's because I used to love the challenge of Easter egg hunts (they were so much more exhilarating than simply walking downstairs and finding presents under a tree), or maybe it's because I've always had a thing for pastels. Regardless, I still get pretty excited about Easter as an adult. 


Aside from the excessive chocolate, an excuse to brunch all day, and shamelessly drenching myself in preppy pastels, some of my most memorable trips with my mom have been during my Easter breaks - also known as Semana Santa here in Spain. 

Last year we ventured to Prague and Vienna over Semana Santa, and everything about our trip was truly magical. Since Easter is just around the corner again, I find myself getting incredibly nostalgic about our trip to Central Europe. (I also really miss my mom. Hi mom! Come visit me again!)


While I have yet to see a real European Christmas market (because let's be real: Madrid's pathetic excuse for a Christmas market in Plaza Mayor does not count), I have seen enough darling European Easter markets to last a lifetime. Prague's Easter markets in Old Town Square surely captivated me, but Vienna's whimsical markets truly made me feel like a kid again. 

While taking in the sprightly colors, intoxicating scents of pretzels and pastries, and picturesque toys and decorations, I felt the same exhilaration as I did when I was Easter egg hunting as a child. (Except this time, I didn't steal all the eggs from the other kids. What can I say, I'm an only child.)


Wandering through the Easter markets of Vienna is one of my fondest memories of last year's trip to Central Europe with my mom. While all other Easters will likely pale in comparison, I can't help but smile every time I think of our adventures together. 

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This year, there are several different Easter markets scattered throughout Vienna. While my favorite is the Ostermarkt at Schönbrunn Palace, the city's other picturesque markets are definitely worth visiting as well.


2015 Easter Markets in Vienna:

March 21st - April 6th
Schönbrunner Schlossstraße, 1130 Wien

March 20th - April 6th
Am Hof, 1010 Wien

March 20th - April 6th
Freyung, 1010 Wein

April 5th
Prater, 1020 Wien

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Vila de Gràcia: Barcelona's Best Kept Secret


Tucked away just north of the city center lies Vila de Gràcia, Barcelona's very own hidden village. While technically Gràcia was swallowed up into Barcelona's city limits in 1897, it still retains its intimate small town charm.


Just beyond the sprawling Eixample, the village of Gràcia is an ideal escape from the chaos of the big city. With its quiet streets and understated charm, Gràcia feels like a completely different world compared to the bustling metropolis that encompasses it.

This picturesque village hidden within Barcelona has succeeded in preserving its identity amidst the city's growth and popularity. Gràcia's shops, markets and plazas retain a traditional neighborhood vibe, while its unique celebrations are still widely revered. Every August Gràcia celebrates its Festa Major festival, where locals decorate the streets and convert the neighborhood into a colorful frenzy of food, drink and music. A classic paradigm of Catalan culture, Gràcia continues to stay true to its small town roots.


By stepping aside from the mainstream culture of Catalunya's capital, Gràcia has developed a notably Bohemian vibe. Between the born-and-raised Gràcia locals, classic and antiquated bodegas, up-and-coming restaurants and hip cafés, Gràcia exhibits an intriguing juxtaposition between trendy and traditional.


Amongst the art galleries, boutiques and architectural gems, Gràcia also boasts several picturesque plazas to soak up the village's captivating ambiance. Plaça de Sol, Plaça de la Virreina and Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia are all idyllic places to grab a café con leche and relax the sun. Not only is the people watching in Gràcia unparalleled, but the neighborhood's vibrant colors also add a welcomed contrast to Barcelona's blended earthy tones.


While I was absolutely enthralled by everything this lively neighborhood had to offer, my favorite part was undoubtedly eating my way through Gràcia with Devour Barcelona - a must for any foodie curious about Catalan cuisine!


Have you ever fallen in love with a small neighborhood 
hidden within a bustling city?