Winter break is behind me and I’ve returned to Madrid, exhausted, resistant to starting classes again, but content. It’s strange to see so many of my friends prepare to go abroad, watching them through the lens of facebook or instagram saying their goodbyes, seeing their excitement and knowing exactly what they’re going through. I still have so much more time to grow and learn here, and I’m so grateful I do, because I don’t think I’ll be ready for my experience of Spain to end for quite some time.
So what did I do for the three weeks in between some of my finals and the resuming of classes (hello, final I’ve been ignoring! So awful to see you)? I ended up on trips through four countries, spent my first Christmas away from home, and met a lot of people along the way who proved to be fulfilling travel companions.
From the beginning, then: Saturday, December 19th, I took a plane with three other girls to London. I had been to London in October, but as anyone who has been there knows, you could go back a hundred times and not see everything worth seeing. We were staying in the Astor Victoria Hostel, which had a decent location close to the river. Our days in London were marked by all the touristy stuff, the London Eye, lunch at Borough Market, walking along the Thames river, seeing Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Appropriate amounts of fish and chips were consumed. London is impossibly large and overwhelming, so we had to be really selective about what we filled our four days with there, but we balanced them out quite well.
After London, we flew to Dublin, where we had booked a Paddywagon tour for Christmas. The one other person who signed up for the tour didn’t make it, so it was just the four of us and our sheepish tour guide, Shaun. Our first stop was the Guinness brewery, which convinced me Guinness was the best beer in the world after I was taught how to drink it right (big gulps, fully coating the inside of your mouth). After the factory tour, we hit the road towards the west of Ireland. We stayed in Galway the first night, which had a surprisingly vibrant night life for being two days before Christmas, but maybe it was just everybody doing last minute shopping.
Our next day was on the road to Annascaul, a small town on the coast of Ireland where we stayed in a B&B for two nights. Our drive was marked by various stops at abandoned castle ruins, rocky seaside cliffs, and various pubs. About every twenty miles there were more castle ruins, which is so far from what I experience in the U.S., where everything is less than a couple hundred years old. I also was delighted by the abundance of sheep and cow farms we passed in the countryside, though it didn’t stop me from eating lamb stew two nights in a row.
The thing I liked most about Ireland was the weather and landscape, the way it made you struggle against it. Something about the wind pushing me towards the sea and threatening to send me over the Cliffs of Moher left me breathless, and I could see how the wildness of the landscape had shaped Ireland’s people and culture. I could also see myself returning to Ireland as an old woman, perhaps to take up sheep farming, gazing out towards the blustery sea every morning and reflecting on my past. That’s one retirement option, I guess.
We swam in the Atlantic Ocean on Christmas day, a tradition in Ireland. Of course it was drizzling rain and freezing cold when we went, and the walk from the start of the beach to the water was about half a mile. But nothing quite convinces you you’re alive like submerging your head in the icy ocean. For a moment I thought, “I can’t breathe, this is it, this is how I die, swept away at sea —” but of course it was fine. A lovely natural alternative to the effects of about six cups of coffee. Spending Christmas away from home was not as difficult as I thought it would be; of course I missed my family, but god, how many chances do you get to be young in an Irish pub on Christmas? The pub/restaurant we went to for Christmas dinner was surprisingly crowded, full of families with young kids enjoying the elaborate four course menu.
After more rain, more wind, more stops among creepy castle ruins shrouded in fog and waterlogged national parks, we returned to Dublin for a night before flying back to Madrid (or onto other adventures, respectively).
The second leg of my winter break, after spending five days in Madrid, began in Santiago de Compostela, a small city in the northwestern corner of Spain. I was traveling with my boyfriend, Jed, for the following 11 days (sounds long, but time passed way too quickly). Santiago de Compostela was surrounded by forest and littered with mossy old churches and cathedrals, as it should be: it’s is the destination for Christian pilgrims who complete the Camino de Santiago. I loved Santiago, the small size, the fresh seafood that you were expected to rip apart with your fingers, the little stores selling handmade seashell earrings and other accessories. Of course we checked out the cathedral there as well, which didn’t disappoint, though it did give me a weird feeling to be one of the many tourists in a religious institution that is still in use.
After a few short days, we caught a bus to Porto. I read the ticket time initially as 12:52, and we discovered at around 11:40 that the bus was actually due at 12:00. Luckily, we were right by the bus station and made it in no time. The first place we wandered into when we got to Porto (where it was pouring rain, apparently a theme of my winter break) was a basic café/restaurant where we somehow bought two full dishes of red meat, potatoes, and vegetables, a side of black beans, bread, two coffees and water for 15 euros. I’m not sure how we stumbled across this miracle restaurant, by it sure set my expectations way too high in terms of the cheapness and quality of the food in Portugal.
Porto was one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been to. Just small enough to be walkable but big enough to have everything. We walked miles up and down the hilly streets, from vintage stores to vegetarian buffets to port wine stores down to the river. The land that sloped down towards the river was covered with dilapidated houses with red tile roofs that looked extra vibrant in the rain. The street art was also very cool; I wish I could have spent more time there. But we had a train ticket booked for the next day (that was where I had seen the 12:52 time). We got to the train station plenty early to pick up our tickets, leisurely enjoyed a coffee before realizing that we were going to be late and consequently hurried back to our Airbnb to pick up our backpacks and catch our train. In addition to rain, nearly missing or completely missing public transportation was a prevalent theme of this trip.
The train ride was just as gorgeous as the cities we were exploring. It was right down the coast, passing villas and small towns with the ocean at our side as we made our way towards Lisbon. Just generally a more pleasant way to travel than waiting in line at the airport. In Lisbon, we were staying in a Surf House on the sixth floor of an apartment building (they give surf lessons when the weather is better). The view from the balcony was incredible, and you could go up a narrow set of stairs to the roof as well. Lisbon is a lot like San Francisco, from the hills to the ancient trams to the bridge that looks suspiciously similar to the Golden Gate bridge. We managed to ride one of the rickety trams around, and they’re actually quite useful as transportation, though it kind of felt like they were going to fall apart before making it to the top the hill.
The Lisbon aquarium was probably the most entertaining thing we saw while we were there. The middle section was huge, full of sharks and rays and grotesquely large fish, and then there were four corners that had animals from four different sections of the world. Lisbon is one of the many European cities that has so much to do; no matter what you use your time doing, you’ll wish you did more. The contemporary art museum there was also really cool, and it was in an old biscuit factory with old, out-of-use wood burning ovens.
The final stop of break was in Sintra, Portugal, which is about a 45 minute train ride outside of Lisbon. The trains come every half an hour, but of course we missed two of them in a row, because why wouldn’t we? Which, in turn, led to us missing the last bus that goes to our Airbnb, a farmhouse in the middle of the countryside. The buses in Sintra are few and far between. We eventually made it, and to what was surely one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed. It was an ecovillage comprised of a few permanent residents, all incredibly kind, some volunteers, Airbnb guests, a chubby baby that could be found crawling all over the house, two cats, and a wary dog. The woman running the ecovillage prepared huge vegetarian buffets for dinner every night for only 6 euro, served with sage tea. We stayed up talking with the other travelers: an American boy also studying abroad, a Portuguese boy from a farm not too far away looking to change it up, a man from Brussels who entertained us with stories from his travels across India.
Sintra itself was also just gorgeous. Rolling green hills dotted with palaces and castles, which we could see from the farm and then visited. The Pena Palace was one of them, painted in primary colors and covered in detailed tiling. Then there was the Moorish castle, which was very old and reminded me of the castle ruins I had seen in Ireland. The last one we went to was the Quinta de Regaleira, a huge palace-like estate that had incredible landscaping, waterfalls that you could access via stepping stones that led to underground tunnels, exiting in an enormous, out-of-use well. We rented a tiny electric car for a bit and took that around Sintra, which was a fun way to see things.
Portugal made me want to learn Portuguese, and while there were a lot of similarities between Portugal and Spain (there are general cultural attitudes that I think span across all of Southern Europe), it really is quite different, and knowing Spanish certainly is not the same thing as knowing Portuguese. The whole “you know one romance language, you know ‘em all” thing is such a myth. But it did make me want to see more of Spain and the surrounding countries, and it made me want to interact with other travelers. Who knows, maybe I’ll be returning to the farmhouse sometime in the future, but as a volunteer and not a traveler.
A few things I learned on these trips: don’t expect everything to go right. In fact, don’t expect anything to go right, and be pleasantly surprised if it does. Being an uptight, inflexible traveler will bring you nothing but grief. Second piece of advice: really try to interact with locals and learn some of the language. Saying “obrigada” instead of “gracias” says a lot about you as a traveler, mostly that you’re making some sort of effort to connect with people and learn about the country you’re in. Third and final piece of advice: traveling with other people can be really challenging, especially when you want to strangle them. But when you get to that point, eat something, because you’re probably just hangry.