24 Hours In: Barcelona

We had a little over two days in Barcelona, but sometimes travel fatigue gets the better of you and you wind up spending a day hanging out in the hostel and doing a whole lot of nothing.

On day 1, that’s exactly what we did.

Day 2, we ventured out into Barcelona for an afternoon free walking tour and were under the graces of a warm and windy day.

Our first stop was the 14th century Placa del Rei, or the King’s Watchtower, where King Ferdinand and his lovely  wife Isabella welcomed back Christopher Columbus from his voyage. Considering America wasn’t even a thought yet, it’s surreal to stand in front of a building that’s three times as old as your country.

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Our next stop was the Barcelona Cathedral, for which construction was began just a few years ago, in 1298. The architecture speaks for itself, and you could spend days taking in each detail. The building is decorated or constructed so every inch floor to steeple commands attention.

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The next point of interest is even older than the cathedral. We visited the old Roman city walls. Remember, at its height the Roman Empire stretched west into Spain and north nearly into Scotland. Here’s a bit of the Roman ruins, and the fortress, currently used as church space.

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The bottom arches are what remains of the Placa Nova, entrance into the old Roman City.
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Note the different layers of brick over time.

We turned the corner and arrived at Placa Sant Felip Neri, A Romantic Square with a Sad History. During the Fascist regime, children hid in a bomb shelter under the church. Bombs were dropped over this square, sending shrapnel and explosives across the square and into the church. 42 people were killed. This harrowing event in 1938 is commemorated by a small plaque, but the evidence is unmistakable.

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After a few moments of silence, we walked on to a picnic area where we learned about the Catalonia movement for independence. (Catalonia is the region in Spain that includes Barcelona.) In every street in Barcelona, you will see flags hanging over balconies and in store fronts and that signifies support for independence from Spain.

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Long story short, the Catalans have always identified as a group independent from the rest of Spain, and they have been fighting (and losing) independence battles for hundreds of years. Now with the referendum going to Madrid, they have a real chance of breaking off from Spain and becoming the Catalonia they want. There’s a booming sense of patriotism.

We ended the evening in front of the Arc de Triomf, found ourselves some lovely Spanish wine, and cozied up to watch the day fade into night.

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Currencies Across Europe

Depending on who you ask, Europe has as many countries as America has states. If you’re planning a sojourn across the continent, you can choose to stay in the euro zone or hop among countries with different currencies. We are a bit of currency collectors ourselves, reveling in the shape and design of a foreign bill or coin.

Because we’ve spent a lot of time in airports and currency exchange booths, we’ve just about got this down to a science. To help you plan your journey, or sate your curiosity, you’ll find:

All the countries on the euro

These countries are on the Euro, from north to south:

Ireland
Finland
Estonia
Latvia
Lithuania

Germany
Netherlands (Holland)
Belgium
Austria
Slovakia

France
Luxembourg
Spain
Andorra
Portugal

Italy & Vatican City
Slovenia
Greece
Kosovo
Montenegro
Cyprus

Everyone else uses a different currency!

Balkans

Croatia – Croatian Kuna
Bosnia & Herzegovina – Convertible Mark
Macedonia – Macedonian Denar
Albania – Albanian Lek
Serbia – Serbian Dinar

Scandinavia

Norway – Norwegian Krone
Sweden – Swedish Krona
Denmark – Danish Krone
Iceland – Icelandic Krona

Central Europe

Switzerland – Swiss Franc
Poland – Polish Zloty
Czech Republic – Czech Koruna
Hungary – Hungarian Forint

Black Sea Area

Bulgaria – Bulgarian Lev
Romania – Romanian Lei
Moldova – Moldova Leu
Ukraine – Ukrainian Hryvnia
Belarus – Belarusian Ruble
Russia – Russian Ruble

United Kingdom

England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are all on the pound. Even the notes will vary in design from Northern Ireland to Scotland, say. However, we were told that if you want to use your Northern Ireland pounds or your Scottish pounds in England, you may have some trouble.

Travel Diary: Milking a Goat

As someone who was raised in the city, I found it incredibly novel to be on a farm in rural Bulgaria. This experience put an entirely new definition onto the word rural. It happened to be mentioned in conversation with our lovely hosts, Joe and Julie, that I had never been on a farm or done any farm-like things. This includes milking a goat. They offered the experience to me, and I promptly added it to my list of must-dos.

One balmy evening, at around 8:00pm, Mark, Joe and I set off in the car to meet their friend with the goats. I shall call him Tony because I forgot his name. We arrive to Tony’s house and he meets us and we start walking up a rocky, dirt road. Joe leaves. Up and up the three of us climb. We have to go pick the goats up from their little goat daycare. All the people in this village in Bulgaria drop their goats off in the morning and then pick them up in the evening. Absolutely adorable.

We arrive to the goat daycare just as they are dismissed for the day. Tony has two goats – a black one and a white one. He quickly locates them and then we begin our walk back down to Tony’s house. It’s not just us and Tony. Children, their parents, and their babas* come to pick up their goats. There’s a dozen people and many more goats all sauntering down this hill. All of the goats have bells wrapped around their neck, creating a symphony of bell tolls and goat noises and baba chatter. I find it hilarious.

Goats are rather stubborn. You probably knew this. I had no idea. So every now and again your goat will decide to just stop to take a pee or it will stop to kick someone or it will stray away and try to nibble some grass. Or it will try to run away from you. So you have to kind of thump them on the noggin to keep them walking the direction you want to walk.

My beloved goat. Not sure if she knows what's up, but I'm about to show her.
My beloved goat. Not sure if she knows what’s up, but I’m about to show her.

I’m growing severely attached to Tony’s white goat that’s loyally walking next to me on this sojourn back to the house. I give it a pet name. We get to Tony’s house and he takes the goats and leads them into their little goat area. I watch him as he takes the goat and he ties the goat’s lead around a post and he secures it. He distracts the goat from what we are about to do – confiscate its milk – by giving it a wholesome snack to munch on.

I squat down in front of the goat and Tony is right behind me. He makes an O with his thumb and his forefinger and, using it as a tourniquet,  wraps it about halfway up the goats “tit.” I say in quotes because I couldn’t help but snicker every time he said “tit.” It was with an English accent and positively delightful.

I digress. So you make an O with your thumb and forefinger, wrap it halfway up the tit, and then close your remaining three fingers around the rest of the tit. And you squeeze. Not a  pansy squeeze. You work every single muscle in your hands to get out just a second’s worth of goat milk.

The tit is warm. The milk is warm. My hands are warm and sweaty and I’m nervous this goat is about to kick me in the face.

Repeat this process for about ten minutes. And you’re in the clear so long as the goat is eating something and is apathetic to your groping and milk stealing. It’s much harder, as a first timer, than it really looks.

We fill up a pail that’s maybe a liter of milk, maybe more. It’s hard to tell. To me it felt like a gallon. Afterward Tony asks me if I want to milk the other one, too.

I can’t. My hand is cramping and I begin to worry I’m going to have a super muscular right hand and a bony left hand.

And now I can officially say, with pleasure, I have tickled a goat’s tit and milked it for all it has.

Prague Must See: The Story Behind the Heydrich Terror Memorial

The National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror is a living, breathing testimony to how the efforts of one person (or seven people) can truly rewrite the ending to one of the world’s most awful stories.

Background: Adolf Hitler was evil, no doubt, but Reinhard Heydrich was arguably worse. Heydrich is considered to be the “architect of the Final Solution,” to exterminate every member belonging to European Jewry. He was the Chief of the Gestapo, and essentially Hitler’s right hand man. Prague was occupied by the Nazi regime and was leniently governed since Czechs were making materials the Nazi regime was using. Heydrich decided the soft governance was misplaced, and decided to manage the area with absolute ruthlessness.

Meat: People in Prague were developing resistance strategies. They were pissed. Seven men (called Operation Anthropoid) decided to assassinate Heydrich to prove that men at the top of the Nazi pyramid were not untouchable. They watched Heydrich take his route from his home to Prague Castle (where he ruled) every day for weeks. Heydrich lived up a steep, curvy road and the plan was to shoot Heydrich as the car slowed to make it through the curve.

Problem: When Heydrich’s car slowed around the curve, the assassin’s gun jammed. Heydrich spotted the assassin and ordered the car to stop. A second assassin threw a grenade at the car, sending shrapnel into Heydrich’s arms and legs, but it wasn’t enough to kill him.

Yet.

Heydrich was operated on through countless hours and appeared to make it through the surgeries just fine. However, right after he ate his first meal post-surgery, he went into shock and died.

Meanwhile, the assassins were convinced the mission to kill Heydrich had failed. They went into hiding to regroup.

Retaliation: Hitler ordered an investigation and decided that the entirety of Prague would be subjected to collective responsibility. Over 10,000 people were arrested and 5,000 were deported to concentration camps. When Hitler was told the Czech village of Lidice was hiding the members of Operation Anthropoid, the Nazis razed it and killed everyone, signaling to the rest of the country, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t cooperate.” 

The members of Operation Anthropoid were loyally hid in the church of St Cyril and Methodius in Prague until they were betrayed. Nazis raided the church and three of the seven men were killed in the prayer loft. The other four fled to a crypt below the church. The Nazis opened fire from the outside until they discovered this tiny window that opened into the crypt. The crypt was flooded with tear gas and then with water provided by the Prague Fire Department. The four committed suicide.

Bullet holes from the Nazis
Window where the Nazis used Prague firehoses to flood the crypt

The man who betrayed the members of Operation Anthropoid tried committing suicide, but was ultimately hanged.

Present: You’ll see bullet holes in the wall, shrapnel remains, and what we’re pretty sure were blood stains on the floor and walls. You’ll see evidence that the men, before committing suicide, tried desperately to create another way out. It’s harrowing. For less than the price of a coffee or tea, you can see and feel what the men who rewrote history saw and felt in the moments before they chose their fate.

Inside the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror
Inside the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror

Please click here for directions and hours of operation. It’s about two hours to read the information (in both English and Czech) and move through the crypt. The church was not available to move about inside, but you can peer in through thick clear glass.

Mission Statement – Why We Travel

Starting in 2013, we began our journey by driving around the United States of America with the only intention being to gather pictures of ourselves next to each state welcome sign. That trip turned into something much more – it sparked the realization that as large as the United States seemed to be, we were missing out on something by staying within the bounds of our home country – a global perspective.

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There are 24,642,757 square miles of habitable space in the world and 7.2 billion people living within 196 countries. With all of these people within all of these countries it doesn’t seem fair to be speed travelers spending two days in capital cities to make determinations about the world. Such quick stays are unlikely to provide much perspective on the way life is lived.

Scoping out this guy's wagon. We kind of like it.
Scoping out this guy’s wagon. We kind of like it.

We want to experience difficulty communicating, difficulty getting around, and completely surrender of the congested, exhaust filled wide highways that belt the United States.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, we have traded in a life of huge highways for two lane roads that

In Costa Rica we drove on roads with potholes so large they could break axles.

Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.
Bulgarian posters in memory of those passed.

In Bulgaria we have stayed in villages with less than 500 people and even fewer resources. Where the best internet we could update our blog from was a half lit connection from an iPhone nestled on the top of the roof, traded American standards of plumbing for long drop toilets and experienced what it meant to reuse and repurpose everything you buy and everything you produce.

We wanted the edge – where you’re wondering why you would ever sign up for a cross country bus with no toilets.

We have been robbed of sleep, found like-minded travelers, and met people living on less money than we made in a week in The United States, yet were a great deal happier and more giving.

While our travels have been filled with challenges and difficulties, we have also received some of the warmest welcomes from people in countries that notoriously ‘despise’ Americans. We have experienced first hand how schools in Finland are operated. We have learned of historic figures that have made pretty dramatic changes within countries that we would never have read about in our history books. We have seen landscapes that make you say, “Wow”.

It’s true, we have also participated in some of the touristy bits of travel, but that is just another part of the experience.

If anything, our appetite for travel has grown during the last 2 1/2 years. We have learned as much (if not more) about ourselves as we have about the world. Our desire to see the world has continued on an exponential growth curve as we have more experiences – ultimately filling us with a greater number and complexity of questions.

While we are not always sure where our experiences and journeys will take us, we will continue to eagerly pursue them.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves. We travel, next, to find ourselves.

It’s Okay! You Can Skip the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

I can’t believe there’s not more blogs promoting this. I really don’t understand why it’s on so many people’s life goals lists (Please tell me in the comments). It’s like millions of people suddenly become devoutly Roman Catholic and suddenly care about the lineages of the popes, what the popes wore, what they did and didn’t do, who they did and didn’t kill, and an even greater number of people pretend to really, really like art.

If you’re not on a pilgrimage to fulfill a religious preoccupation, you can skip the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for any of the following reasons:

It’s expensive

16 euro if you dare wait in the queue (are you insane?) or 20 per person if you pay online. It’s a 4 euro convenience fee to pay online. You still have to stand in a line to pickup your tickets from the ticket counter. Then you shuffle.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

And sweat, sweat, sweat. This is Italy which means there’s no AC in this building. It’s very old and AC is new. I’m not sure where the 4 euro fee is going, but it’s not going into cooling the building where the average number of visitors is more than 15,000 a day. This isn’t an area with wide walkways or an air current or even somewhere to stand off to the side. Throughout the entire walk through the museum, shuffle shuffle shuffle, which reminds me, I can remember taking exactly six real steps. There’s nowhere to really admire artwork, so actually,

It’s visual overload. 

Every room is ornately painted or carved from baseboards across the ceiling. EVERY. ROOM. You begin walking and trying to take in the beauty and enormity of the artwork, but you can’t because these IDIOT GUIDES and their flock of 20-30 something tourists walk right in front of people that are clearly trying to take a picture or admire artwork. You ask them, mi scusi, a photo? and you get the most disgusted look and a 15% chance of someone actually moving. Two hours later, by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, you are so tired of seeing 16th century art that your eyes kind of glaze over and Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, becomes an actual snoozefest. Speaking of Michelangelo…

The Sistine Chapel is last room of the entire museum. 

And you’re supposed to be silent. All the signs before you enter tell you to 1) cover your shoulders, 2) cover up your super cute mini, AND BE QUIET. “Silence” is universal. But thousands and thousands of morons can’t keep their mouths shut and they keep whispering. So the guards shout SHHHHHHH! across the chapel and people think it’s funny so they keep talking. Again, you shuffle, and the museum guards make you shuffle in a particular direction. If you don’t shuffle that way you’ll be forced that way. Shuffle shuffle. All the sitting room will be taken, so you stand in a crowd of people that are smelly and sweaty and you just stare at the ceiling. No point in taking a photo. The ceiling is so tall you can’t zoom in far enough with any camera to get a fair picture of Adam and God. Speaking of which..

Take a picture of the Sistine Chapel and be prepared to get thrown out.

No one ever said #ShamelessSelfie with Michelangelo is a good idea. Signs have a picture of a camera with a line through it. No photo. And what do these idiots do? Hold their camera up above their head and try to take a picture, then act all surprised when they’re approached by a guard. Are you serious? How daft do you have to be?!

After you finish the Sistine Chapel, you’re guided through the histories of each Pope, what they did wrong and what they did right (all in Italian of course). At this point you’re just ready to leave. You came, you saw, you pretended to be Catholic or you pretended to know who Raphael was, and then you leave.

Want to have a good time at the Vatican? Don’t go. Just don’t. 95% of the people who go there are better off somewhere else.

If you insist on going, here’s my sage advice:

  • Buy the ticket online and deal with the 4 euro/pp convenience fee.
  • Enter the “group with reservations” line.
  • Go through security, put your bag on the line, and go straight to the left where it says tickets.
  • Show the wo/man your phone, get your tickets printed out.
  • GO UP THE RAMP. Do you really want to be stuck with a bunch of smellies on the escalator? No, you don’t.
  • Finally, at least pretend to be interested in something other than the Sistine Chapel, and divert if only for a moment to another room. We enjoyed the “Modern” Gallery right before the SC entrance.

Ciao.

Hostels No Longer Cheapest Lodging for Travelers

When we talk about  travel, we are nearly always asked if we are staying at hostels. The answer is: out of 32 days so far, we have only stayed at one. Hostels for a long time cornered the market of dirt cheap lodging, but this is no longer the case thanks to…

AirBnb!

Hostels typically charge by bed, regardless of if its a dorm room or a private room. Let’s start with the dorm room. Let’s say you can get a bed in a dorm room for €20 which is pretty cheap in Western Europe. There’s two of us, which means we’re paying €40 for two beds in a mixed bed dorm. That means there’s people of either gender all sleeping in one room. €40 for zero privacy sleeping and a shared bath with any number of people. In some cases, towels cost an extra euro and the showers are the kind you want to wear sandals in.

In a private room, it gets more expensive. Very rarely a private rooms equipped with only two beds. Usually they are four, but sometimes three. Now we have €60 to pay for a private room, on a good day. 

Disclaimer: since we’ve been in Europe we have not found beds in a hostel for less than €20 per night.

Note also that most hostels have minimum day stays, especially through the weekend. That means if we want to stay Thursday through Saturday,we are paying a premium because it’s a weekend and we are confined to a minimum number of days – usually three days.

Enter airbnb.

In Paris, we are staying 15 minutes away from city center for €38 /$40 each night. Private room. Shared bath, if our host is here. When he’s not,  we have our own flat in Paris.  Kitchen to cook in. Metro across the street. Great food nearby. Amazing bed.

In Glasgow, we stayed with the loveliest couple in a brand new house just south of the city. They provided amazing food, company, and advice on travelling the area. Awesome comfortable bed. They provided a washing machine (invaluable if you’re living on 8 days of clothes), towels and bathing essentials. Also less than €40 / $44.

In Brussels, we stayed with a French gentleman right in the city center in that same price bracket.

We’ve not once had to abide by a minimum stay or pay for a towel.

For couples or group travelers, we remain convinced airbnb is the best way to go if you’d rather spend your money on experiences instead of accommodations. 😉

Travelling somewhere new and looking for the best airbnb? Check out this page and learn the best questions to ask your next host.

Cheers and happy travelling!

Mark and Melody