My Love Affair with England

This summer, I had the opportunity to work in North Devon, England.

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It was the tail end of my year abroad and when June hit and most of my auxiliar friends left Bilbao, I was starting to second guess my epic idea to stay in Europe for the summer. To say that I was “over it” was an understatement, but the instant I got off off the plane in Bristol, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was the same smile I had when I landed in NYC after backpacking and when I landed in Atlanta to visit home for Christmas in 2013. It’s that warm feeling you get of being home after a time away, the recognition of the language, feeling a deeper connection with others around you and just the feeling of being at home. I never thought I would experience this in any country but the USA, but when I landed in England, I knew I was in for a great summer. 

Did I mention I was traveling this whole time with a camp of 80 spanish students and 12 counselors? Definitely made for a more interesting travel, but I was used to working with spanish highschool students from the year before. Once we landed in Bristol, we hopped onto charter buses that drove us the 3 hours to North Devon. On the bus, I immediately made friends with the bus driver, who I am not kidding when I say, looked like Prince Harry. It was so cliche, but I can’t even make this up! I asked him what to expect about North Devon, because I honestly did NO planning before hand and frankly, wasn’t even sure where I was going in England (side effect of being “over it” at the end of a year of living abroad). He explained the towns we were staying in (Barnstaple and Bideford) were sleepy towns but definitely had their own culture (as a local, he kind of bashed it the way I bash Mason, OH; which I thought was hilarious). I had mentioned that I had visited London, but he assured me this was nothing like London–not even the accents were the same.

Rolling hills of Devon

Rolling hills of Devon

I arrived late in Barnstaple and was promptly taken to “Elizabeth’s House”, where I would be staying. Angela, the english coordinator for the camp, assured me that I would get along with Elizabeth, as she was a retired fashion designer from London (she had designed dresses for Julia Roberts!). Opening the door to Elizabeth’s house, it was the most elegant house I have even been in. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling, elegant artwork filled the walls, rich furniture infused every room and the house had a color scheme that looked like it was from a Jane Austen movie. Not to mention, the house overlooked Barnstaple and outside was a magnificent garden with small wooden bridges and fountains. Each night, Elizabeth cooked a huge dinner and I definitely improved my manners. I was staying with 2 other english teachers and a spanish student. The 2 other english teachers had been students at Cambridge and the girl, Nora, was the most elegant and proper english girl I had ever met. She had the quintessential english accent and the best table manners I had ever seen. Dinners became hilarious for me and the spanish student because, quite frankly, we were messes at dinner relative to every one else. There were some dinners we couldn’t even make eye contact without laughing–that’s how bad it was. Ron, Elizabeth’s husband, was pretty deaf so we were always shouting so he could understand us, or he would make a comment that actually had nothing to do with the conversation we were having. It was great.

Part of Elizabeth's backyard

Part of Elizabeth’s backyard

My love affair with England continued when I met Elle, another english teacher and her awesome host family. Elle and I clicked immediately and spent every day in England together, from going to the water park with our students to making sushi with her host family. We definitely worked hard to teach the students english, but had fun along the way! I spent a lot of time with her host family, at barbecues and just exploring Bideford, as I was staying in Barnstaple.

Elle + me + snake

Elle + me + snake

While my love affair with England was cut short when the camp ended, North Devon will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s travel adventures like these that make you realize it’s less about the places you go and more about the people. My summer in North Devon came at the perfect time in my life, as I needed to leave Spain, but wasn’t quite ready to leave Europe. Now, when people ask if I fell in love abroad, I always reply that I did…with North Devon. #singlegirlproblems 

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A Day In Tuscany

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click for source

When it rains in Bilbao, I always let my mind wander. Today, my mind has been in one place, and one place only: Tuscany.

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During my Eurotrip last May and June, I spent a little over a week in Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre and Rome. We stayed in Florence for a few nights and decided to do a day trip to the Tuscan vineyards. BEST DECISION EVER.

View of Florence from Tuscany

View of Florence from Tuscany

We made a last minute decision and booked a day trip through Tuscany Bike Tours.

I remember taking this picture with our helmets on to prove that we rode bikes....lol

I remember taking this picture with our helmets on to prove that we rode bikes….lol

I remember sitting in our hostel in Venice (the city we visited before Florence) and just deciding to book a tour. For booking small tours or day trips, I would always recommend to wait until you are in Europe or in the specific city before you book them. Lots of hostels offer day tours or have a wall of brochures for every day tour imaginable, that you probably wouldn’t find through a google search. We booked day tours for the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, Stonehenge in Great Britain and Tuscany in Italy while we were in Europe. I know this might seem like a bad idea, but trust me, when you travel plans change and you want to have flexibility without feeling like you HAVE to go on a certain tour because you dropped 80 euros for it. For other tips on planning a Eurotrip, check out my blog post: How To Plan Your First Eurotrip.

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Anyways, the Tuscany Bike Tour included shuttle to/from Florence, bike/helmet rental, guided tour through vineyards, villas and olive groves of Tuscany, tour of a wine cellar, tasting of Tuscan wine and Tuscan olive oil, meal at a family run restaurant near the vineyard, which was amazing.

Wine cellar

Wine cellar

The guys who led the tour were awesome and I would recommend this day trip to anyone who likes wine, exploring, vineyards, pretty scenery, riding bikes and TUSCANY!

Classic Italy

Classic Italy

My favorite part of the tour was tasting the wine and getting a nice buzz during the day then riding through the hills of Tuscany.

Olive groves

Olive groves

Visiting the old castle and wine cellars weren’t bad either.

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Basically, if you are in Italy, anywhere near Tuscany, GO. If you are thinking about traveling to Italy, add Tuscany to your list. It was one of my trip highlights and my favorite thing I did while I was in Italy. Tuscany is one of those naturally beautiful places. It doesn’t have the fanciest architecture or big cathedrals everywhere, it has rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves. And to me, the natural beauty and simplicity of Tuscany is prettier than a lot of cities I’ve visited in Europe.

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Have you been to Tuscany? Do you prefer places with more natural beauty or more architecture? 

Hiking to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Since moving to Bilbao, I’ve spent a lot of my weekends hiking and exploring! Basque Country is also known as The Little Switzerland because it has so many mountains. After living in Ohio my whole life, living around mountains is such a nice change from the flat farms I’m used to! My first hike I did was  one of my favorites and definitely my most memorable. Two of my auxiliar friends and I decided to hike from Bermeo to Bakio and make a stop at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (pronounced: GAZ-TEL-U-GA-CHE). Our hike overall looked (something) like this:

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We took the bus from Bilbao to Bermeo (about an hour). Bermeo is right on the coast and had a beautiful port.

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On the way to the mountain, we ran into a market in Bermeo and took a few minutes to explore it! It was adorable.

Different kinds of tea leaves

Different kinds of tea leaves

After that, we began our ascend into the mountain and after some climbing, we could see a view of Bermeo.

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When you leave the pueblos in the Basque Country, there are a lot of farms and random houses along the roads in the mountains. Whenever I hike, I always see more animals than people….sheep, cows, chickens, etc. I always get a good laugh from the farm animals in Spain.

Get some serious side eye from the cows

Get some serious side eye from the cows

After about 3 hours of hiking, we reached San Juan de Gaztelugatxe POR FIN (okay, let’s give it a nickname… SJDG for short)! The thing about SJDG is you have to hike to it. There isn’t a bus that goes to it, but once you are there, you also have to climb 274 stairs to get to the top. After a hike up a mountain from Bermeo and back down to see SJDG , the stairs were a little rough, but totally worth it! One things I’ve learned through all my travels is that the climb is always worth it (whether it be the Bell Tower in Florence, the million stairs in Cinque Terre, etc).

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After seeing SJDG (and climbing the stairs to SJDG), we were pretty tired. It had been about 5 hours of hiking at this point, but like I said, there is no bus that goes to/from SJDG, so we had planned on hiking to either Bermeo or Bakio. Luckily, when we were hiking to SJDG, we already saw a view of Bakio, so we didn’t really care which pueblo we took the bus back to Bilbao from. We just really wanted to get to the closet bus stop and get back to Bilbao.

Bakio

Bakio

We began walking on the road, thinking we were going the right way only to be greeted with some traffic cones and the road being closed. Did I mention this whole road was uphill? At this point, we were stumped. We thought we were heading back to Bermeo to catch the bus, but the road was closed. A car drove up and we tried to ask them a question, but they weren’t very helpful and they drove off. So there we stood. Three Americans on the coast of Spain by a dead end road, completely exhausted from hiking all day but 5k from BOTH towns with bus stations. The struggle was real. Just when I was running out of hope and coming to terms with the fact that we were going to be walking from SJDG to Bakio, another car sped up the mountain and stopped at the dead end. We asked them which pueblo was closer and they looked at us like we were crazy for considering walking to either. In the car was a lady, man and their child. I heard the lady and man speaking in Basque. Next thing I knew, he was rearranging stuff in his compact car to make room for us! They drove us from SJDG to Bakio. When we got to the Bakio bus stop, the lady promptly got out of her car to check to make sure the buses were still running for us. Once she found out the buses were still running, she let us leave. We graciously thanked her and her family, and then hopped on the bus back to Bilbao. At least now, I can officially check Hitchhiking off my bucket list….

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Have you ever hitchhiked? Do you enjoy hiking? What’s your most memorable hike? 

Three Days in Madrid

a weekend in madrid

In December, we had a puente weekend (3 day weekend) for school, so two fellow auxiliary friends and I decided to use that weekend to visit the capital of Spain…Madrid! I was so excited to finally see the capital of the country I’d been calling home from 3 months. I was also excited to get out of the Basque Country for a few days. To be honest, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I’m living in Spain. The Basque Country is very unique, as it has its own government and has even had issues with terrorism in the past from trying to break away from Spain to be its own country. Luckily, it is calm here now, but on multiple occasions, I have had basque people tell me that “they are not Spanish, they are Basque”. So, arriving in Madrid and seeing Spanish flags and words not overflowed with K’s and X’s (the Basques also have their own language, and I swear every word has a K or X), was nice.

As it was all our of first times in Madrid, it was a very touristy weekend. I felt like I was backpacking Europe, because we had a list of things to see and a schedule to make it all happen! This would be a pretty good plan to follow if you’re going to visit Madrid for a weekend, as I feel like we got a lot done and saw a lot!

Friday [Day 1]: By the time we took the bus to Madrid and checked into our hostel, it was late afternoon. We decided to visit Plaza Mayor and La Latina. La Latina is a neighborhood in Madrid known for its food and nightlife. We knew that that night, we had to get some Mojitos, as Madrid is apparently famous for them! Who knew? It was Christmas time, so there were also no shortage of beautiful lights and markets to gaze at as we walked through the streets to get to La Latina.

Plaza Mayor at Night

Plaza Mayor at Night

Saturday [Day 2]: Saturday was our sight seeing day. We started the day off with a walking tour or Madrid, where we saw a lot of the main places and learned about the history of Madrid. One of the best parts about staying at backpacker hostels when you visit places is that they always have activities and free walking tours. The walking tours can be hit or miss, and our tour guide was a little dry (aka he was 45 minutes late, I think he woke up 5 minutes before the tour and he seemed to be battling a pretty bad hangover), but at the end of the day, when you are sightseeing it is easier to have somebody leading you around, than to be struggling with a map with limited time in an unknown city. Don’t get sightseeing confused with wandering though. If you have lots of time and no huge places to see, get lost wandering and explore!

Did you know Madrid is the home of the Guiness book record for oldest restaurant in the world? Well now you do! Located in La Latina is Sobrino de Botin, the Guiness book record holder. Once you get over the pig legs and various parts hanging everywhere when you walk in, it is a cute, enchanting restaurant. It looks small, but there is also a basement and even an old, wine cellar.

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My favorite part of the tour was seeing the Royal Palace of Madrid. I love everything about castles and palaces and royal families! It was so beautiful that I didn’t even need to put an instagram filter on it. THAT IS WHEN YOU KNOW!

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The walking tour ended on Gran Via, the main shopping street in Madrid. If you are American and missing the USA, just go to Gran Via in Madrid. It has Starbucks, McDonalds, TGI Fridays, etc. It has more than just food though! It has a nice mix of high end and affordable European shopping. We also decided to eat a late lunch, where I finally tried PAELLA!

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After shopping, eating and wining on Gran Via, we walked to Puerta del Sol (and saw the most giant, outrageous Corte Ingles) and then to Parque Del Buen Retire (aka the “Central Park” of Madrid). We spent our time meandering through the park, stopping to take pictures and jump in leaves. We even saw a lady who had at least 20 cats with her. I obviously wanted to get a picture of this and send it to my cat loving friends, but the instant I pulled out my iPhone to snap a picture, she started jumbling words in spanish and when I heard the word “dinero” thrown in there, it became clear that if you took a picture, you had to give her money. So that happened.

photo cred: my friend Katie :)

photo cred: my friend Katie :)

Our main reason of going to Parque Del Buen Retiro was to go on a boat ride during sunset in Estanque (the pond in the park). At 5:50pm, after about an hour or two of being in the park, we got to Estanque and found the entrance to the boat rides. Unlucky for us, they stopped giving boat rides at 5:45pm! Mierda. We decided we would go the next morning instead.

Because it was a Saturday, the Museo de Prado was free from 6-8pm and it is right next to Parque Del Buen Retiro, so we went there to get our dose of art history. Most museums in cities will either be free or have certain days/times that they are free, so definitely look into that before you go to cities to save you a few euros! 

That night, we explored Madrid’s nightlife and went to Kapital, a 7 story club. In typical spanish style, we didn’t get back to the hostel until 7am and were bruptly awoken by the Dutch girl staying in our room packing her things. It was 10:20am and apparently, we had 10 minutes to check out of the hostel or we would have to pay extra! I’ve never seen 3 girls who went out clubbing the night before move more quickly in my life.

Sunday [Day 3]: After managing to pull ourselves together in roughly 10 minutes, we were walking the streets of Madrid! We had planned on going to Parque Del Buen Retiro, but the last thing any of us wanted to do was sway in a rocking boat that morning. So instead, we decided to visit a Mercado de San Miguel, which we had walked past on our walking tour. The market was nice and had lots of different food vendors!

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We really wanted chocolate con churros though, and couldn’t find that in the mercado, so we went across the street to a cafe conveniently named Chocolate y Churros, located at 54 Calle Mayor. 

After indulging in chocolate con churros and regaining some energy, we walked through Madrid some more, just wandering and shopping. Next to one of the Christmas markets, we came across this adorable store called No Dejes de Sonar (Don’t Stop Dreaming). It was filled with little sticky notes that people left with motivational quotes and inspiring words. It also had lots of cute decor, and would be the perfect store to buy a unique gift at. I couldn’t find a webpage for it, but it is located on Calle las Huertas in Plaza Jacinto Benavente.

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My favorite part of going to Madrid during December was that there were Christmas markets everywhere! We all bought a few things at the markets and by the time we were finished shopping, it was time to head to the bus station and back to Bilbao (and Cadiz for one of my friends!).

xmas market madrid