Posts by Country

Thursday, December 31, 2015


On Friday, December 25th, I flew from Madrid to Copenhagen, Denmark. Upon my arrival, I met up with my good friend Marcus and we set out to see some sites. First we went to Christiania, also known as "Freetown Christiania", for some backgammon.

The area itself, aside from the funky, hippy sort of vibe, has a pretty interesting history. It's a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood covering 84 acres regarded by civic authorities as a large commune. Apparently, a special law in 1989 transferred parts of the supervision from the municipality to the state. I guess this made some people unhappy as the area was abandoned temporarily in 2011 while the Danish government was deciding what to do with it.

After a couple games, we went to find a bike. The funny thing about Copenhagen is that there are so many bikes that you can literally find a busted one, fix it up and have a free bike! You just have to look for the yellow tape placed on the back tire by authorities which signifies that the bike has been officially abandoned. Marcus, with his history of bike recovery/repair, and resulting collection of tools, was able to sort me out with a bike in a matter of minutes.
The next day we went grocery shopping with some friends and cooked up a bunch of food for a traditional Christmas day feast. The following day we would be eating: mushroom bake, award winning bacon, meatballs, liver paste, hummus and a shot of intentionally bad snaps every hour. We also played a few games... the one I can mention here being the hidden almond game - a game where you get a prize if you find the almond in your food. The other games were just... creepy.

Over the next couple of days we biked around, made burgers, slept and I went to the Bakken - the oldest operating amusement park in the world. Opened in 1583, the park has a few rides and some things to see, but what I really liked about it was the forest out back. Considering that the park wasn't really open, I went straight back and started looking around for wildlife. It wasn't long before I found a whole herd of deer and, later, even more still.

Up to this point I had been really enjoying my visit to Copenhagen. Of course, we still had New Years Eve to celebrate. Marcus has friends all over the city (he's even moving closer so that he can imitate the cast of the show "Friends") so we had a big night ahead of us. First we went to dinner at Phillip's place, where we watched the queen give a botched speech, and then we went to Thomas' house and watched a traditional NYE special about a butler who gets drunk trying to serve a lady who keeps insisting that he "help" her finish the wine. He makes a solid effort to maintain his professionalism but, in the end, he just can't hold it together.

As the night continued we visited a number of Marcus' friends by bicycle and eventually ended at a nice apartment where we literally jumped into the New Year off of some chairs. The fireworks during this time were going full bore, like I've only seen in a short bursts during a show, but for over an hour! The last house was where I had to leave Marcus, as we were up quite late and he was still going hard, so I took my bike and rode it home on a flat tire and with no map... thankfully I remembered the station near Marcus' place "DR Byer" and was able to arrive back without a problem.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

El Escorial

On Thursday, 17th of December, I joined my colleagues for some paella at Julio's in Pedro Munóz just because. That's one of the great things about life in Spain - people don't need a reason to come together and enjoy good food. Like everyone else, Spaniard's have their special days for being with friends and family (though I reckon they have quite a few more than the rest of us), but they're also just incredibly sociable! I like to talk about the kids as an example. Kids in Spain have their video games and things just like the rest of the world, but they also spend a considerable amount of time just standing out on the street talking with their friends. I mean JUST talking... for hours. They do this so often that you literally see them everywhere you go. I seriously can't think of one time when I've seen kids in America standing on the street just chatting with their friends. I think we just enjoy being on the go so much that we can't stand the idea of just standing around talking. Of course, I suppose either case has its pros and cons.

The next day we went on an excursion with the students to El Escorial (Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial), a large complex of royal buildings historically called home by the king of Spain. Completed in 1584, the site has a number of buildings, including a monastery, royal palace, museum, library, school, etc. Unsurprisingly, it took us the better part of a day to see the whole place.

I spent the next couple days in Madrid and then took the bus back to Belmonte. Now only a couple days away from holidays, I started looking at travel destinations (flights around Europe are generally quite cheap and easy to come by even last minute). I already had a big trip planned for Andorra with friends from Madrid, but that wouldn't start till January 2nd, so I sent a message to my friend Marcus in Denmark about going to visit him in a couple days. Then, back in Las Mesas, the whole school had chocolate and held singing performances by the students.

The next day, having confirmed my trip to Denmark leaving the following day, I stopped in for a short visit with Julio and friends for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve dinner) and had some amazing food - Jamon, baked shrimp, mussels, roast lamb and cheesecake. Well, it was midnight before I finally hopped on the bike for my 3.5 hour ride to Madrid through fog and ice... the things you do to make a flight!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


On Friday, the 4th of December, I went up to Madrid and had another go at driving in what I call "the city on LSD". Thanks to the crazy drivers and unusual layout (a British friend recently visited me and confirmed that the Spanish roads are strange for Europeans as well), driving in Spain in general is no picnic. I've also determined that the drivers here are maniacs bent on overtaking (passing) anything that enters their line of sight and at any cost - just read this TripAdvisor driving guide for foreigners. Indeed, the people being overtaken include even those who are going well over the speed limit... the Guardia Civil has clocked some of these lead-foots overtaking at 280 kph!

So, the reason I call Madrid "the city on LSD" (the crazy driving culture is not limited to any particular part of Spain) is that there are three things about driving here in particular that leave me feeling rather... vulnerable.

Lights: in America, and the many other parts of the world that I have visited, you can't miss them. The light dangles directly in front of your face - a logical system if you ask me. Of course, in Spain I have had to learn to look to the side of the road in order to find the traffic signals... the same place where the pedestrian crossing light is. And, if that isn't confusing enough, you often have to stop again at the other side of the intersection because the pedestrian crossing isn't synchronized with the flow of traffic!

Signs: aside from the obvious benefits of having drinking fountains in every corner of every venue, America also has some pretty decent signage - at least compared to Spain. In Las Pedroñeras they literally put a sign for Las Pedroñeras directing traffic away from the pueblo... but, at least it's not difficult to turn around. In Madrid, on the other hand, the consequences of poor signage are often quite dramatic. Not only are signs generally a bit misleading but, in many cases, there aren't any at all! Again, my British friend attested to this during his recent visit as, many times, he was left wondering where traffic was meant to flow. In any case, the real nightmare of driving in Madrid is when you come to a fork in the tunnel (Madrid has a great many tunnels) and, while many of the initial signs direct traffic into the left lane, the last sign (at the turn itself) directs you to the right! Assuming that the new information on the last sign actually makes sense (often specific destinations, like cities way up North, are listed on the last sign), you have literally seconds to cross several lanes in order to access the tunnel going the correct direction. If you fail to get over in time, this can result in over an hour of delay in getting to your destination as one tunnel takes you a half hour north while the other takes you a half hour south! Certainly makes you think twice about taking the M-30...

Divisions: just pointless... Madrid has center medians everywhere you look. Well, you may ask, don't we need traffic divisions to keep both sides safe? Well yes, of course, but not when both sides are going the same direction! It seriously seems to me like they put in these divisions just to take up space. You'll be driving along and suddenly you're forced to make a choice - left or right. You think, "Oh... I want to get off soon and I don't want to be stuck on the left side but, on the other hand, I don't want to be forced into an early exit!"

Well, don't fret, turns out it doesn't make any difference. Left or right, the lanes will converge again later anyway... or not.

Despite the awkward period of adjustment, I have managed to adapt to driving in Madrid for the most part. This particular weekend was quite an interesting time to be driving around in Madrid as many people were visiting thanks to Día de la Constitución (Constitution Day). Walking around the main square, my group and I found ourselves weaving through the vast crowd of people in order to see a few street performances and some monuments.

We visited the Royal Palace of Madrid, the nearby park and other monuments while walking back to the main square in search of food. We waited in line for some churros con chocolate but, when that wasn't going anywhere, we settled on a bucket of chicken and some bocadillos.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Holy Toledo!

On Saturday, the 28th of November, Preston, Angelo and I got on a train from Madrid and went to Toledo. I had driven up from Belmonte on the bike the previous day to visit friends in Madrid as I would do many times in the coming months. The train ride from Atocha was nice and only took about 20 minutes. After we got off the train, we talked to some people at the station about a bus into town but ended up just walking in since it wasn't very far.

The walk took us along a beautiful river on a trail that led us into the city. We soon arrived at a bridge and saw a castle up on a hill opposite the city center and decided to have a look. Well, the castle was pretty neat but, as it turns out, it was actually serving as a youth hostel. Still, we were able to get some pretty good photos from up there. After coming back down and crossing the bridge, we came to the entrance through the old city walls. As we entered we saw some holes above our heads which, according to Preston, were for pouring hot oil on invading forces. We climbed up the walls and walked along until we found a view of the hostel we had visited on the other side.

We ate lunch on the walls and then made our way into the city center. There we went through the busy tourist areas, saw the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo and wandered through many narrow alleys as we finished our visit to the place that most of us know as "Holy Toledo!"