2013 Lessons Learned/Favorite Moments


Yes, I know that it's a week into 2014 and I'm stuck in the past, but forgive me. It was an adventurous year, so I'd rather be a bit late in reflecting before properly moving on to anticipate whatever 2014 has to bring. So I'm taking a moment to reflect on some lessons learned and some of my favorite moments. I've never been a succinct blogger, so feel free to settle in and enjoy. My Biggest Lesson

Life can happen in a bazillion different ways. Seeing how people around the world live their lives, make a living, care for their families and loved ones helped me realize that I don't need to adhere to the 9-5, American, live-to-work model if I can make something else work that's fulfilling. With a little creativity, I can shape my life in the way that is most fulfilling. A simple lesson, but also one that can be hard to stick to.


I learned this phrase while living in Senegal in 2003, but now it's really stuck with me. It's Arabic and basically means "god willing." It's customary in any situation where one is not certain of the outcome to say, 'incha'allah' at the end of a statement, because, really, how can you be certain, and god willing the thing you're speaking of will come to pass. Example: "Jon and I are flying to Belgium and then on to Mali." Really? Are we certain? Incha'allah all that happens. It also presents itself in smaller situations. "Tonight, I'm making soup, incha'allah." Because, simply, it's not up to you. God willing all goes well and you can make soup. I actually love this sentiment, not so much for the religious aspect, but for the purpose of surrender. To me, it says that we should never be totally certain, but rather keep ourselves open to the possibility of something else.

Our new friend Penda at Lac Rose

Know at least a bit of the language

As a travel tip, knowing something of the local language was hugely important. Not only is it a sign of respect and that you do actually have some reverence for the people that make up the country you're visiting, it can transform an experience. Example: Jon and I hired a car to visit Lac Rose outside of Dakar. Lac Rose is a pink lake that is no more than 3 meters deep, and is the center of an extremely robust salt industry. It's a pretty touristy place, and so one has to be prepared to get hassled - a lot. We were walking along the shore when sure enough a woman came up to us to hawk her trinkets. She said hello and bonjour, and I replied with, "Yo! Na nga def?" which is the wolof greeting for "hello! how are you?" She was delighted to say the least, and instantly went from someone trying to make a buck to a kind local who ended up giving us a complete history of the salt operations, as well as introduce us to her relatives who were standing by. It ended up being a really pleasant exchange, all with the help of a simple phrase. Case in point and lesson learned: be open to locals, don't just treat them as people trying to take advantage, and know a bit of the language.

Our beautiful blanket from Morocco!

You don't need souvenirs & travel light

I'm bad at both of these things, just to be honest. But with each of us having only one bag, it meant that anything acquired equated to something else being tossed or given away. Sure we bought a few things here and there, and the packable duffel bag was a good way to take home gifts when we returned to the States for the wedding. But all in all, not being prone to shopping meant we could enjoy our time doing other things. We spent a lot of time in the souks (markets) in Morocco, but they are so fabulous that we really didn't want to do anything else. Plus for people who weren't buying souvenirs, our best takeaway (in terms of material goods) is an incredible handwoven blanket from the local craftswomen in the Atlas Mountains that our friend, Ismail, sold to us from his hotel. And that deal came out of just spending time with Ismail and loving the area. I think other than that, our biggest souvenir is our memory, this blog, and our photos. The word souvenir is french, and it means to remember anyway, so that works out nicely.

Splurge every now and then

This is also a good one for the non-traveler who is on a budget (aren't we all?). When you are constantly watching the pennies (or dirham, or cfas or euros or whatevers), I highly recommend doing something nice or special every once in awhile. It takes the pressure off. I did this in the grocery store the other day. I'm still completely attuned to not spending money on anything. I wanted to buy jam and spent about 7 or 8 minutes looking at the whole shelf trying to decide which of the absolute cheapest ones might taste ok. And then there was the one I really wanted. It was a whole $1 more than the rest. I thought about it and said to myself, "It's really ok if I treat myself and get the thing I really want, this is not a normal occurrence, and yes, this delicious jam will make me happy." Back to our theme of buying experiences - I have a wonderful experience with my toast every day now, it was totally worth the "splurge" :)

Traveling with a partner is both amazing and challenging

Jon and I traveled together for 10 months. It's a long time. The best parts about traveling with someone you love is that you always have a sidekick, you are building wonderfully unique experiences together, and it's a lot easier to feel safe. On the other hand, you are less likely to do something completely spontaneous, may spend a bit more money, and well, like the good, unfortunately you always have a sidekick. The key is balance. We weren't very good at this, but taking a day or even half a day alone and coming back to share stories strengthens the experience. In the end, having the shared experience of something grand is pretty great.

My List

I tried to pair these down to a manageable 10 or 20, but whatever, these are some of the most memorable moments of my 2013. I would post photos for all of these, but instead I give you links to related posts. On to great things in 2014!!

FAVORITE MOMENTS (chronological order)

  1. New Year's Eve in Bruges - what's better than 15,000 people at a sing-a-long in a perfectly preserved yet totally classy Baroque city??
  2. Sunday tea with friends in Mali - all day music, sharing a meal out of a communal bowl, impromptu dancing and hot desert tea
  3. Beachy private sunset walks in the Casamance, and getting taken to a tiny remote village to see how palm wine is extracted + meeting the village chief aka our taxi driver's dad.
  4. Cap Skiring street party
  5. Being the recipient of true Senegalese taranga (hospitality) and having a stranger take us under his wing to guide us through the Mauritanian border crossing.
  6. Seeing camels in Mauritania
  7. Leaving Mauritania and entering Morocco
  8. Fresh orange juice from the man who looked like Aladdin in Dakhla
  9. Seeing the landscape change from 2400km of endless desert to the deep red earth and green trees of the Middle Atlas
  10. The freedom of having a car rental and driving through the Valley of 1000 Kasbahs
  11. Meeting our friend Ismail and staying in his riad.
  12. Buying fresh chickens, pigeons, spices and vegetables to make Tagine in the market in Essouira (and by fresh I mean, we picked out the live ones, went and bought our spices, and came back to pick them up).
  13. Endless hot water in our first Western shower upon arrival in France.
  14. Listening to French kids try to speak English - they say the funniest things.
  15. Counting the chateaux while bike riding in the French countryside - I counted 9 in 14km - that's a lot!
  16. The dance parties, or "Boom" we threw for our French campers - honestly I've never had as much fun in a real dance club...
  17. Our amazing apartment in Lyon and its proximity to some of the best Pho I've ever eaten plus the Asian grocery stores.
  18. Showing Jon around Paris.
  19. Getting to fly back to the US to see my brother get married.
  20. Getting to fly back to Europe to keep traveling, despite having no itinerary or clue of where we wanted to go.
  21. Afternoon tea in the garden with friends during our first day in England.
  22. The drive to Hadrian's Wall and seeing the plains of Northern England.
  23. An awesome CD release party in Newcastle where the power went out and the concert continued outside in the rain.
  24. Live folk music in Edinburgh
  25. Buying a huge whole sea trout and eating it in an astonishingly large variety of ways in Norway
  26. Alicante, Spain - all of it was a highlight
  27. Sunbathing in the buff in Spain - yep, it's real nice, and it helps that Spaniards are a beautiful beautiful people.
  28. Enjoying tapas and spanish nightlife
  29. Festival Cante de las Minas, La Union, Spain.
  30. Festival Gracia, Barcelona
  31. Hanging with my friend Olivier, playing board games, speaking nothing but French and drinking Rosé in the south of France.
  32. My first real panini in Italy - it was at a gas station cafe, and I'm not kidding, it was divine.
  33. Walking in Rome with Jon, eating unbelievable gelato, and well, being in Rome - it's ROME people.
  34. Freshly whipped mascarpone cheese topped with peaches preserved with bay leaf and pink peppercorns (our first dessert at the homestay in Italy).
  35. Truffle pasta
  36. Montefalco Wine Festival - Italy
  37. Daily sunbathing - I was TAN ok??!.
  38. Eating the best pizza in the world for less than $5 in Naples.
  39. Pompeii
  40. Istanbul - all of it

I hope you enjoyed taking this journey with us! Who knows what 2014 will bring, but my goal is to continue to pursue things that inspire. What are your goals?

A Layover in Istanbul


When Jon and I made our arrangements to go back to the United States, we had to get ourselves to Springfield, Illinois for a 3 day visit and then on to Seattle where Olympia would be our final destination (until we find a place to live in Portland). In an odd yet perfect ending to this journey, our flight path back included an overnight layover in Istanbul. Knowing that we would be incredibly frustrated by landing in such an exciting place and having to turn around the next day, we were able to add a night to our layover, giving us 2 nights and 2 days in the Queen of Cities. Even though we’re pretty much out of money, we’re kinda tired of packing and unpacking the suitcase, I have no warm clothes for winter, and we got to a point where we’re actually a bit jaded by touristy stuff (“Oh, it’s a 9th century church, meh” or “Roman ruins? Seen ‘em”); we’re a little weirded out by the end of our trip.

This 2 day layover was a great buffer between our life for the last 10 months and our return to whatever life we’ll have in America. Plus, Istanbul is so incredible that it reignited that love of travel just so we know we’ll want to keep doing it. Here’s what we saw.


Ataturk Airport is an easy connection to the city on public transportation, if you have time. We took the M1 to the Tl and got off at Sultanahmet, the very center of historical Istanbul. When you get off the tram and walk about 100 meters, you find yourself right in the middle of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. It’s breathtaking and overwhelming; humbling and inspiring. You realize quickly where you are – this incredible ancient city with monumental historical importance. The gravity of it all has yet to leave me.  Our hotel was situated in the historical quarter. We knew that with a half day and one full day we’d want to be close to the sights. Hotel Senatus was great by the way – good value and excellent service!

Republic Day

We didn’t mean to, but we ended up arriving in Istanbul on the nation’s version of the 4th of July: Republic Day. After a bit of reading on the great site, Istanbul Eats, we decided that we should head across the water to Taksim Square, see that side of town and search for street food. Being in Istanbul on Republic Day made you feel like there could be no other country in the world with as much pride. Flags flying everywhere, people carrying flags, and the bridge crossing the Bosphorus lit up red. An impressive fireworks show and joyful crowd gave us the impression that this is a very happy and contented country.

After the fireworks we walked up the hill to Taksim Square. It was a great party atmosphere and we enjoyed our sampling of the famous ‘wet burger’ and a doner kebab (which was yummy). We ended up strolling down the main street of _____ with thousands of other people enjoying the cool night, open shops, hundreds of bars (apparently there are over 1000 bars in this neighborhood!), and the realization of just how hip, young and vibrant this city really is.

Our wanderings took us to have lacmahun (pronounced lakmajoon) a seasoned flatbread that you roll up with lettuce, tomato and lemon. Delicious! We decided that we should also have a solid hooka experience and while we were almost sold on the outdoor touristy looking hooka bar, we opted to continue further down a small alley where we found a funky place serving hooka for half the price. Once upstairs and installed on a comfy sofa we enjoyed our honey flavored hooka with a roudy group of Turks who took the opportunity when the night club music came on to start clapping and dancing.

Sightseeing day – The Blue Mosque

You can’t go to Istanbul and not see the Blue Mosque (ok I realize we went a lot of places and didn’t see really important things, but most of that was a budget issue – the Mosque is free – GO).  Bring a scarf if you’re a lady and be prepared to take off your shoes. It’s as every bit as incredible on the inside as on the outside.

There’s something about Islamic art and architecture that is rich and astounding in such a different way from other religious art. The detail, the symbolism and the color instantly transport you to a holy place. In Islam there is no portrayal of people as it would be seen as idolatry, so you are presented with patters, design and stunning Arabic script. The low-hanging lamps and plush rugs for prayer provide understanding into this beautiful religion. And yes, Islam is a beautiful religion – it just has some really crazy followers.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that cleanliness is a tenant of Islam and the mosque itself and its grounds are impeccably clean, the throngs of tourists with no shoes makes for a pretty stinky visit. Didn’t expect that one!

Basilica Cistern

Because we arrived just before the mosque closed for prayer time, our visit was short. We were going to cross the square and visit the Hagia Sophia, but the lines were stupidly long so we decided to check out the 3rd site we had on our plan: the Basilica Cistern.

Built in 542 AD, the cistern held a large supply of the city’s water. This is no basin of water, it’s an underground palace, with over 350 columns and archways to match. Cool, shallow water still gathers, and koi effortlessly meander in the water. The dim, but striking lighting and quiet Turkish music make this place truly a wonder, and one where I found myself just wanting to sit peacefully, soak up the coolness and history and enjoy the quiet. Definitely worth a visit.

Hagia Sophia

There are some things about the Hagia Sophia that make this site almost too much to believe:

It was originally built in 360 AD. It burned down and was rebuilt twice. The final time, and the main structure that stands today, only took 5 years and 10 months to build and was finished in 537 AD. 10,000 unskilled workers and 1000 craftsman pulled it off. It was a church for 900 years – yes 900 - before Sultan Ahmed II came and conquered the Byzantine capital and transformed it into a mosque in 1453 AD. What’s even more amazing about it (and the Ottoman conquest in general) is that although it was converted to a mosque, it’s Christian origins, artwork and symbols were kept and retained. I have never been in one building where in same view frame of your eyes you can see a Virgin Mary holding Jesus, and the symbol for Allah. Again, the gravity of the place starts to sink in.

The Grand Bazaar

The world's largest indoor market is indeed big and there are lots of ways you could spend money. Given its size, this market actually felt calm, completely organized and plain easy compared to the markets in Marrakech, Senegal and Mali. Turks are also incredibly fair when it comes to a sale, and although bargaining is a must, they're very unlikely to take advantage of you. Makes the whole experience a lot easier.

Seafood on the Bosphorus

We had a chance to meet up with a friend of mine from my study abroad days in Strasbourg. Since Jon and I had no idea what there was to do, we let Bilge be our guide for the evening and were treated to a locals tour of the best Istanbul has to offer (so it seemed). We had fresh Mackerel and a spread of local dishes for dinner. Followed by a visit to the best Baklava shop in Turkey (that’s what she and everyone else says!). This was followed by a walk up the hill back to Taksim where we wandered the back streets only a local would know in order to get a hill top view of the Bosphorus Strait.

It was at this point where I embarrassingly realized that when everyone was talking about the “Asian side” of the Bosphorus, they weren’t talking about a super large Chinatown per say, it’s actually ASIA. Yeah I know, you think that’s silly, but when you’re standing on the actual line between continents and they are only separated by a small body of water but these two continents are still part of the same country, then what would you say?!

Our visit with a local also drove home the juxtaposition between the seemingly calm and peaceful Turkey we had as tourists, and the underlying tension and anger that actually exists among Turkish people. We hadn't really followed the news of the riots earlier this year in Taksim Square, but were fascinated by how different a place can feel than what is really going on.


We had a great, short visit to Istanbul, one that whetted our appetites for travel, even though we're now back in the US and taking one final flight back to the Northwest tomorrow. But homecoming is a different topic!

What's been your favorite layover?

This is Pompeii


So that catastrophic historical event that you learned about in grade school – where a volcano erupted and perfectly preserved an entire city under ash and stone for nearly 2000 years before being discovered? Yeah, it’s every bit as incredible as you might thing it is. This is Pompeii – the city that was buried beneath the destruction of Mount Vesuvius. We went there, and it was astounding. When we arrived in Naples one of the first things we did in the morning was to walk down to the water and view the bay. If you didn’t know the history behind Mount Vesuvius, you’d just be mildly impressed at the large dome-shaped mountain across from the city that clearly is missing a good third of it’s top. But when you know what it caused, standing there and thinking, that is Mount Vesuvius – wow – makes the experience that much more impactful. It also reminds you how long the land has been inhabited; by so many different people; and in so many ways that are important to the Western World.

Pompeii is a short 45-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano train that leaves from Naples’ central Garibaldi station. The ride isn’t particularly interesting; that is until you round the southern slope of Mount Vesuvius and see just how much of itself it blew into nothing. Like Mt St. Helens, Vesuvius was a significantly higher elevation before its most recent eruption in 79 AD.

There were 2 things that struck me up arrival at the Pompeii Scavi station (which leads directly to the ruins): 1) I had imagined that Pompeii was further up the slope of Mount Vesuvius, but it’s actually quite low in the valley; 2) Pompeii was huge – not just some small town. Pompeii was a thriving city and its completeness in terms of how extensive the ruins are really is mind-boggling.

Somehow Jon and I missed getting a map or any sort of guide to the city. This was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that we had no schedule for our visit – just an open curiosity that led us to many places where there were no tourists whatsoever. It was a curse in that we didn’t know what we were looking at at the time. It’s ok. I bought a book to read up later.

Archeological Finds in Pompeii

When you walk into the main city square and approach the Temple of Jupiter, you have the first real understanding of the grandeur of the city and of its scope. Between Rome, Athens, visiting Greek Islands and many Roman ruins throughout France, Spain, England and Italy there is nothing that compares for me to the scale of Pompeii. It’s not tall and massive like the Colosseum. It’s simply that it’s an entire city, excavated, and completely accessible.  It really hits home what this place is when you come to a large storehouse of excavated pottery, in the midst of which are plaster-casts of the human shelled remains that were found at the site. Crouching, laid out, looking frightened – this is the only museum of sorts (except the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC) where I’ve felt such a human connection to the past.  Even the fact that they are plaster casts (there is one case of actual remains to see, the rest are in the Archeological Museum in Naples), does not distract from understanding that fear and disaster completely transcend time and culture.

Crouching Pompeii Victim


One of the treasures of Pompeii upon its discovery was the mosaic and fresco artwork. Although much of the art has been moved to the Museum in Naples, there are still frescos and mosaics to view at Pompeii. Again, it’s one thing to see a fresco here and there at a ruin; it’s another to see it in the context of the vast city. You begin to understand the scale. I cannot imagine what the sight may have been like to discover homes, temples and taverns complete with furniture, tableware, art, sculpture and yes, the people, upon Pompeii’s discovery. Pompeii is special because you can walk down the original stone streets, see the grooves in the stone from cartwheels and look along the main thoroughfares and archways. Letting your mind fill in the missing columns and rooftops it’s easy to see Pompeii as a busy city center and commercial hub – all buried in one night.

In terms of ‘attractions’ this visit was probably the best 11€ I’ve spent on the trip. We took about 5 hours to walk and explore and missed an entire quadrant of the city.  If you go, bring food and water, and a keen curiosity to explore. This was a special treat for us, and I will always be grateful for seeing what is left of Pompeii.

Ahh…Napoli, i.e. Naples doesn't care what you think!


Naples is not the first place you think of going when you hit Italy, or the second, third, fourth, or maybe even fifth; hell, many people would see all of Northern Italy before hitting Italy’s red-headed step-child of a city (I mean this most affectionately). Well I’m here to tell you that if your 2-3 week trip in Italy does not include Naples, you have planned poorly or simply are not interested in seeing what Italy really has to offer. Napoli Architecture and 'art' - graffitiA complete opposite to the meticulously lined and polished landscape of Tuscany, Naples is in a mountainous, sort of sprawling strip of coastline in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, a couple hours train ride from Rome. Naples is a disappointment to see on the train/bus upon arrival, as the outskirts of the city are mostly factories and ugly high-rise buildings made of concrete.


When we got to Naples, a very nice man explained where we were to catch our bus back to home and was a bit shocked we were from the States, stating: “America! Why are you HERE, mamma mia!?” At this point Jess and I thought we were pretty much going to get mugged any minute and our short walk to the station did not change this perception as it looked a little like a demilitarized zone. We arrived at Garibaldi station and started our way to our hostel/hotel.

As we exited our metro (after getting a little lost due to the rather unintuitive and completely unsigned metro system) we entered Dante plaza, a large open space with a triumphant looking Dante and our first introduction to the old city. We walked down the Via Toledo and were immediately shocked: It was crazy; people everywhere, garbage, graffiti, countless shops, teeming and electric. We made it to our hostel, which like all the buildings was mid-collapse, and settled into out tiny room before embracing the streets. Our first destination: Pizza in the old city, as Naples is the birthplace of the glorious pizza (which by the way was considered filthy and disease causing by the upper crust [pun intended] Italy’s past as it was made in the poorest part of Naples).

Yes Please!We traveled through the old city to our first real pizza experience at Sorbillo, the only pizzeria in the world to have a Michelin star. After the 45 minute wait, a common wait time for tourist and Neapolitans alike, we entered the crowded dinning room and ordered. They have many pizzas, one beer, one or two kinds of wine, and are pretty short on patience. We got the margharita and one with toppings and the result: Better than any pizza you have tried anywhere unless it was at this place; I say this with 100% certainty. The crust was thin and chewy, sauce tangy but not overwhelming, and the mozzarella bufala creamy and delicious. It was one of the best eating experiences we have ever had. We ate at this place again a day later and would have waited as long as it took. Just a little bonus: The pizza was less than 4 Euros!

Food & Shopping

The next day we were on a mission to get Jess a jacket, and shopped our way through the crowded streets. Another thing Naples is known for is clothing; that sought after Italian fashion but 30% cheaper than elsewhere in Italy. Fashion in general in Naples was kinda funny; think Park Avenue meets Jersey Shore. Jess had no luck finding a jacket, but I certainly could have spent some money. Naples is a wonderland of mens fashion. Shop after shop of hand made suits, shirts, stylish pants and cheap jeans awaited any willing buyer. I’m so used to having to look in the tiny men's section of shops dominated by ladies clothing, that this was quite a treat.

That evening we had fried vegetables, another staple of Naples, and engaged in an awesome Naples experience: Public drinking. Every night tons of people gather in a small plaza surrounded by bars, restaurants and take-away shops to drink a cheap beer sitting next to 2600 year old Greek ruins. The plaza is disgusting. There is just no other way to put it. However, as you sit with 20-30-40 somethings drinking a beer in a small cloud of cigarette and marijuana smoke, Italians gesticulating wildly, laughing, and Armani clad socialites rubbing elbows with the cities homeless, you get an awesome view of humanity, and why this city is great.

Street Scene waiting for Pizza


The next day we went to Pompeii. Right off the train you will find one of the largest, most intact historical sites in the modern world. In the shadow of the once great Vesuvius is road after road of homes, shops, temples, and public squares, many of which still have detailed mosaics, intact ovens and tools of the times. Jess and I were there for 4-5 hours and maybe saw half of the site. It is really amazing. We also saw the famous “people” of Pompeii, once living citizens immediately cased in ash and frozen in time. Just the scale of the ruins justifies a trip for every history buff that comes to Italy. Jess is writing a more through piece on Pompeii, so look for that!

Day 2

That afternoon we walked around the old city to see some of the oldest shops and trades. One kind of bizarre trade was the making of very detailed wooden figures for nativity scenes, which is fine until you see a whole street of 40 shops bursting into the street with strange masks, figures, and whole little villages in wood. They were really amazing, but kinda creeped me out. We also explored some of the more questionable parts of town, which would have made for foolish nighttime wandering. Unfortunately, the Neapolitan mafia is still a very real deal here; past certain streets were until recently the scene for gang related shootings, hands-on crime, and forced pay-offs (which are still the case). Indeed upon arrival our hostel owner showed us where not to go on the map, "best not to cross this line at Via Duomo, over there is where a lot of shootings between the families happened a few years back." Wha?!

That evening we had pizza again (shocker…but common, what could we possibly get that’s better for 5$?!) and had another thing Naples knows best, espresso. Café Mexico is regarded by some as the best coffee in the world. It is very simple, strong, and quite worthy of the praise (although “best in the world” is questionable). Due to Italians setting national standards for the price of espresso at about a euro (it was getting too high due to taxation and Italians revolted) it certainly does not break the bank either.

Us in NapoliWe had to leave early the next day but really wanted to stay; Naples gritty charm had worked its magic on us. There is really no way to describe the city that is Naples, but I’ll give it my best: When I think of Naples I liken it to a once exquisite armchair, now torn and soiled through years of heavy use, that you cannot bring yourself to throw out because it is so comfortable. You know that you will not find another chair to replace it, so regardless of how it looks, it will never leave your living room.


Jess's additional thoughts:

I went to Naples to eat, and to eat pizza specifically. I'm happy to report, as Jon has, that we were not disappointed. Pizza plus the unending pastries, sweets, fried deliciousness, coffee and gelato at ever turn is a feast for the senses and stomach. Napoli isn't where you go to start a diet, but one shouldn't care. Eating here, and in all of Italy in fact, is such a pleasurable experience, one that deserves time and focus and I love obliging in every way.

Naples' rough edge but juxtaposing style made me really feel like I was in the old world. At the same time walking around at night, with shops open late and goods pouring out of small storefronts, including kitchy home items, plastic goods, electronics and of course cloths reminded me of similar night time scenes in Dakhla, Morocco and some other small towns. Somewhat old, somewhat second-world, urban but not all the way modern, Naples has a really special vibrancy to it.  Grit, grime and all, it's a place we completely loved.

Our Work Exchange Part 2


We arrived at our HelpX stay almost 1 month ago, and life in Italy has been good. We’re doing a fine job of enjoying the dolce vita (sweet life) in addition to working hard and seeing a lot of what Umbria has to offer. This has been a great work exchange and we’re incredibly grateful for the experience. From Farm to Hotel

As you may recall we began our work exchange at the home farm of our hosts, Ev and Claudia. We tended grapes, did a bunch of gardening and weeding, took care of the chickens, ate a lot of figs and enjoyed the quite life of rural Umbria.

Before we arrived, we knew that there two other volunteers who had made arrangements to be at Ev and Claudia’s during the wine harvest so we had some overlap. And since we wanted to stay longer than these other volunteers they offered to let us stay at Claudia’s bed and breakfast near Perugia, Il Casale della Staffa, in exchange for sanding and re-staining all the windows and me finishing the website. So for the last 2 weeks we’ve been living in one of the apartments at the B&B, working in the morning, sunning by the pool midday and then visiting the beautiful towns and villages of Umbria in the afternoons.

I won’t lie, it’s been pretty great. Being in Italy is like being on a never-ending honeymoon for us. Everything is beautiful, delicious, romantic and even if the work isn’t too exciting, how could one possibly complain when you have this view out your kitchen window???

View from our temporary kitchen

Assisi & Montefalco

It seems that there’s always some kind of festival or event going on here. Maybe that’s because it’s harvest season, but we’ve been really fortunate that there’s a festival going on all the time – I’m serious – music, arts, food, wine and soon to be chocolate. There’s a lot happening in Umbria apparently.

Jon is going to write about the incredible Montefalco Wine Festival that we went to so I won’t steal his thunder there. I will say that Montefalco – also called the banister of Umbria – is a delightful little hill town. If you like wine, this is the place to go in Umbria. It’s known for its Sagrantino, a grape that only grows in this region of the world. That in addition to the other “typical” products of honey, truffles and cured meats makes for Montefalco to be a delicious place to be, both for the eyes and the senses.

We also had the opportunity to visit Assisi – the namesake for Francis d’Assisi or Saint Francis (hello San Francisco). Despite the fact that Saint Francis was practically a hermit and lived in nature, trying to be a very humble figure within the grandure of the Catholic Church, Assisi is an impressive town with an even more impressive Cathedral built in Saint Francis’ name. We saw it first from the road at night, and then up close during a visit with our fellow helpers.

The climb up to the historical center is not only a good workout but also a beautiful introduction to this holy city. Signs of devotion are everywhere. Making one’s way down the main road you pass a Roman temple from the 1st century BC, which became one of Saint Francis’ churches. I loved being able to clear see the Roman qualities to this temple, and then the medieval addition that is the church. It’s such a great example of how these ancient sites have developed over time.

Another thing that caught my eye was the banner hanging from the church depicting a visit by the Pope, Francis, to Assisi on October 4th. Have you ever met a Jew who’s this excited to see the Pope? Probably not – I mean, come on, he’s pretty hip you have to admit.

St. Francis’ cathedral is really stunning, and I love that all the paintings and frescos (by Torriti, Cimabau and Giotto on the upper level and by Lorenzetti, Giotto and Martini in the lower basilica) inside tell the story of his life and deeds –something rare for churches at the time. This is a place of pilgrimage for many Catholics. Despite that, I still didn’t feel pulled in by a spiritual magnet to this place, until we went below to visit St. Francis’ tomb. A quiet, simple, modest room, candlelit, with St Francis resting in the very stone column that runs the entire height of the cathedral – not only is this structurally important – it’s symbolically perfect – he’s holding this place together. I was really moved by that place, in the midst of all the art and magnanimity of the churches and the age and beauty of the towns we’ve seen – the tomb of St Francis is something I will never forget.

I also won’t forget the truffle/lardo/salami sandwhich we got right on the main drag in Assisi – surrounded by touristy places it was a slim chance we’d get good food. But that was a spiritual experience in and of itself.

Harvest Time

This arrangement has clearly been pretty great. It’s allowed us time to intimately get to know the region of Umbria, and our hosts are accomplishing tasks they haven’t been able to.

This week is what we’ve been waiting for: grape harvest. We’ll head over to the house early in the morning on Wednesday and hand-pick the grapes. They’ll be taken up to the ‘cantina’ - not a bar – but the place where the wine is made. The cantina is a small room in a 15th century church by the way that’s up the road from the house. Our first day’s work in Italy involved painting it and cleaning the floor in preparation for wine making. It’ll be wonderful to actually mash the grapes, and see the whole process from start to finish – actually building the cellar, to tending the vines, picking the grapes and making the wine.

Umbria is really beautiful and if you ever get a chance to come here, I can’t recommend it enough. We’ve visiting Corciano, Orvieto, Todi, Betona, Montecastello di Vibio, Castiglione del Lago, Passignano, Marsciano, Foligno, Montefalco, Assisi and driven through countless hamlets and villages which all have their own charm. What’s amazing about these towns is that they all feel different and have their own traditions. They’ve all survived hundreds of years of turmoil and wars being propped up on their hills. Pretty smart if you ask me.

We still have the big Tuscan cities on our list: Siena, Arezzo and of course Florence. I can’t say it enough how grateful I am for this arrangement. A few hours of work a day is a small exchange to live here for 2 months, practically for free.

Perugia Italy


The other day Jon and I had the opportunity to trade some work hours at the farm in order to spend the day exploring Umbria's capital city, Perugia, Italy. Aside from today (at the time of writing) it's been a bit rainy, so working out in the gardens hasn't been the most enticing prospect. Our hosts are both artists and arts lovers and carry a museum card, which meant we could spend the majority of our time, aside from general exploration, visiting Perugia's many museums and indoor highlights.

Perugia is old - for lack of better words. Many of its foundations are from the Etruscan times (Roman Iron Age 1-400 AD). In the early 14th century it became an academic and artistic center - with the founding of the University of Perugia. It attracted both artists and scholars, including the painter Pietro Vannucci, nicknamed Perugino, who was the teacher of Raphael (thank you wikipedia!). Although Raphael's paintings have been moved elsewhere you can still see his fresco in a small church. We seem to be destined not to actually see any of Raphael's work, because we happened to make it to said small church right as it closed for lunch. Booo.

Thanks to our hosts' museum card, we did however get an intense dose of medieval and renaissance art - that which we've dubbed 'god art' - at the National Gallery of Umbria. There's no getting around it since at this time the only people with money to commission art were in the church, or noble/wealthy people that wanted blessings and so forth in their home. It's, of course, beautiful, but after an entire museum of it we were really excited about the one contemporary sculpture installation in the entrance of the museum. I shouldn't minimize this artwork - it's important in its place in art history. The frescos are truly beautiful and the fact that they've survived is even more amazing. Also the fact that so many interior surfaces were covered in frescos is mind-boggling to me.

Our next stop after the Gallery took us to the Cathedral, which is beautiful and also full of priceless works of art. But this was not the highlight church for us.

After the Cathedral we walked across the length of the city center, on the spine of the hill on which Perugia sits, to Piazza Italia, where we located the steps and escalators that take you beneath the surface to explore the incredible underground structure below Perugia - Rocca Paolina. Ancient cities with well preserved buildings on the surface always make me wonder what treasures lie underneath. Perugia is a singularly special place where you can wander through the medieval underground city and see what it might have been like. What is so impressive is how tall the ceilings and archways are, how they are tiered just like the city above ground, and how perfectly engineered it all is. It's one of the cooler things we've seen on this trip to be honest. Highly recommended.

Once we re-emerged we made our way back across the city to visit the Collegio del Cambio - the 14th century seat of the exchange guild. The beautiful wooden inlay interior reminded me of the inlay work we saw in Essouira, Morocco - but this was an entire room of intricately carved and decorated wooden facades. Beautiful.

We made a brief lunch stop of Porchetta (pronounced porketta) - herb stuffed whole roasted pig, cut in the thin slices on a fresh roll (with a bit of the cracklin - yum) - and continued wandering the winding streets and staircases of the city. We found the Raphael fresco, but as mentioned it was closed for lunch. There was so much else to see that we resigned ourselves again to come back another time.

We'd been told that the church of St Pietro was an incredible bastion of art so we huffed across the entire city to see it. Originally a 10th century monastery, it was central in Perugia until it was burned in the late 14th century (thank you again Wikipedia). In addition to the medieval-style botanic garden, the interior of the church is a floor to ceiling lesson in frescos and 15-16th century painting. It's stunning, with treasures from great renaissance painters at every glance. The fact that we also snuck in to the crypt made for a particularly exciting church visit. It always urks me that there are interesting places in old churches you're not supposed to go - it was time we took matters into our own hands.

Anyway, if you know renaissance art (which I don't really) you'll recognize the names of Perugino, Salimbani, Alfani, Reni and Vasari; all of whom are represented in this art-laiden place of worship. As a music person - I was also struck by the stunning wood-paneled choir and large format chant manuscript on display. Just being in this place transports you to another time.

Once we were transported back to the modern era, we were over due for a coffee and snack. I opted to try a canoli since - hey we're in Italy - but then quickly understood why our Sicilian host advised us we should never get canoli outside of Sicily. Now we know - not so good. But we made up for it with gelato later so don't worry about us. After walking back to the main square we were really quite tired and got a glass of wine to rest our feet. We had a couple more hours to kill before our ride came so the last of our Perugia visit was spent exploring the many beautiful and winding side streets.

Perugia is really an incredible city. I know I haven't seen really much of anything in Italy (Florence, Arezzo and Siena are coming later), but this city that is steeped in a rich artistic history is not to be missed. Plus, it's the home of the Eurochocolate Festival in October, and where the famous Italian Baci come from - so what's not to like?

A Farm Stay in Italy


Jon and I have been in our little Umbrian paradise for just over a week now. Aside from somehow getting on the bad side of one of the roosters (who now wants to attack me), our farm stay in Italy has been everything I could have imagined it to be. We are living in a beautiful 12th century stone house just outside of the hilltop town of Todi, in the province of Umbria. We're nestled right in a bend of the famous Tiber river, yes, the one that flows across Italy, through Rome and into the sea. It meanders here through the hills, the sides of which are dotted with olive trees, or plowed into golden fields that grow sunflowers, wheat or various other goods. Just above our own fields of wine grapes (sangiovese and sagrantino) is a 12th century castle and church, which even has a small but beautiful fresco from the 16th century. While walking up there we met the building owner, who kindly took us up to his terrace for an incredible 360 degree view. This is a special place for which I'm grateful at just about every moment.

Opposite our little farm, way on top of the hill, is the village of Montecastello di Vibio - a beautifully scenic town that is home to the world's smallest opera house. It's modeled after the famous La Scala in Milano, but this one is like walking into a dollhouse. 35 seats on the floor (plush red velvet) and 2 tiers of tiny boxes for a grand total of 99 seats. The entire interior is hand painted and is truly a tiny masterpiece of art. I can only imagine how special it is to see a concert or opera there.

Our arrangement here is through a site called HelpX. We work 4-5 hours per day in the fields, gardens or around the house in exchange for all our meals and accommodations. Sometimes it doesn't feel like a fair trade because the experience of living in this place, eating home cooked Italian food and getting to explore or just relax on our time off is so wonderful.

Our tasks are varied, but the overall project for the home and farm is ambitious. The owners moved here 6 years ago when the house was apparently a complete ruin. The olive grove had been abandoned, the grapes neglected, I guess there was just nothing here. Slowly, and with the help of volunteers like us over the years, they've completely renovated and furnished the home into a beautifully restored living space. They've built stone walkways, a vegetable garden that provides greens, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, squash, and so many other goodies. This is not to mention the fruit trees that are plentiful and the fig trees that seemingly grow wild around the property. It's also home to 15 chickens that provide fresh eggs and 4 geese that...are geese. The flower gardens they built are beautiful and from what I understand are a rose-lovers dream come true in the spring. 2 years ago they built a traditional brick oven and can now make true Italian homemade pizza (which we enjoyed our first night here), aside from breads and just about anything else that needs a perfect convection oven.

Eventually there will be another room added to the house, the foundation for which we'll seal and paint again while we're here. We've painted and cleaned the 'cantina' - the room that's being rented in a nearby church that will be the site of the winemaking. We've pruned the olives and plowed part of a new field for grapes. We're constantly weeding, trimming and maintaining the expansive gardens. We're putting in fall and winter vegetables; and anxiously awaiting the hatching of the 10 chicks that are soon to come! Part of our exchange is also that I'm building a new website for our owner's bed and breakfast, the Casale della Staffa. All this while I'm trying to avoid the one rooster that has decided he doesn't like me and wants to attack me. It seems fine with Jon though, so that's good. I'm ready to put it in a pot!

Of all the travel we've done, the experiences we've had, and the places we've seen, this is a really lovely way of being somewhere new. It's only one family, and one vantage point, but we are getting to see what farm life in Italy is like, and learning so much about caring for land in the process. Even just working with the grapes, learning how to tend them, testing pH and sugar levels and waiting for the harvest has been a unique experience. It's also really nice to be here for a good length of time in order to relax and truly enjoy the dolce vita - the sweet life Italians so cherish.

Enjoy some photos from Todi, the farm and beautiful Umbria!

A Quick Trip to Rome


You may be wondering why these posts are always about a 'quick trip.' 2 days in Barcelona here, 2 days in Frankfurt there, 1 day in Nice, and now only 2 quick days in Rome. Why spend so little time in these magnificent places? I'm beginning to ask myself that too. But simply, at this stage in the game, it's a question of cost. Cities are expensive. Even budget accommodations, coupled with food and the biggest expenses for us - accommodations and attractions - make it difficult to be able to spend a lot of time in big cities. It's a shame really, because there's a lot to see in these places. But we've settled on the idea that these are small 'scouting trips,' for future visits. At least then I can convince myself that I'm coming back :) Regardless, Rome is an incredible city. I mean, for one, it's Rome. There's old stuff there; and that's an understatement. It may not be as old as Jerusalem, Athens or Cairo, but let's face it, Rome has an undeniable importance in the world's history.

This is our first trip to Italy and so everything is new and shiny (even if it's 2000 years old). Through a fluke in my understanding of Jon's arrival from Frankfurt, I arrived in Rome on the 31st, while Jon arrived on the 1st of September. No worries, I got a head start getting the layout of the city, trying gelato and taking a glimpse at the once-center of the western world.

Alone in Rome

I will admit, I was a little nervous to be a very blonde woman in the Italian capital. But I quickly realized that Rome is extremely safe. Also, given that Italian ladies are gorgeous I'm pretty sure no one is interested in hassling an obviously-unfashionable tourist who clearly isn't carrying much other than a water bottle and camera. So with confidence I easily managed to walk to a nearby restaurant in the Termini neighborhood and dig in on a 9euro 3-course meal. Pasta, the best chicken salad I've ever had and beautifully roasted eggplant were a perfect introduction to easy Italian food. I spent the rest of my first evening memorizing useful phrases (like, 'una coppette di gelato per favore' or 'a cup of gelato please') and creating our plan of attack for our 1.5 full days of sight-seeing. Plus, I had to find out where great pizza was located.

What to see in Rome when you have no time

The theme of this post is clearly that we had little time in Rome; as well as a small budget. Once we were happily reunited from our 10 days apart, we did the best free thing one can do in our situation. We walked everywhere. Jon and I walked to the Piazza della Republica down to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (which is enormous and incredibly impressive) through the Roman Forum down to the Colosseum and back to the Termini station where our hotel was located.

First impressions? Roman ruins are everywhere. Some of them don't even have signs. I felt that Rome must be much taller than it was in Roman times, given how deep the excavations are, and how much has been built upon since then. I also wondered if Rome has a building ordinance for height because nothing is taller than the Colosseum. No skyscrapers, no modern buildings. This is really interesting to me.

We of course stopped for a slice of pizza - which they price by the kilo - and gelato at the recommended Il Gelatone on Via dei Serptenti. Delicious. I satisfied one of my images of Italian cities of people sitting around a fountain in the center of a piazza, chatting, drinking wine and socializing. We partook in this and it was lovely. There are beautiful tiny churches everywhere and one of the joys of walking in Rome is stumbling upon them, going inside and seeing the frescos and art.

I cannot overstate the grandeur of Rome. It's different from that of Paris, which is hugely expansive with iconic monuments popping up everywhere. Rome is actually quite compact, walkable and accessible to the visitor. But you cannot help but feel steeped in history, with something to oggle at every turn of a corner. Indeed during our walk across town at night, we were dumbfounded by the constant thought of, "Oh, there's another Roman thing!"

Finally, I love eating in Italy. It's such a fantastic food culture and just the prospect of another meal is exciting. I did find a great pizza joint, and according to Let's Go Rome, this is one of the best in Rome - Pizzaria Baffetto. We pulled a Spain and arrived around 11:15pm, but we scored a small table right near the pizza counter and got to watch the magic happen. The pizza was fresh, delicious and overall a great neighborhood experience.

Vatican City

Having been to all these catholic churches all over Europe we couldn't see a reason to visit Rome and NOT see the Vatican. It is, of course, the smallest country in the world - so that naturally sealed the deal. But really, the Vatican is impressive. Plus, it's the Pope's house - and Pope Francis is hip, so we had to go visit his digs.

The freaky narrow stairway to the very tippy top of St Peter's Basilica and dome was not a stairway to heaven. It was hard - and freaky narrow. However, you can't beat the 360 degree view of Rome and the Vatican square below. I can't really convey the massiveness of St. Peter's - it's simply grand. Fit for a Pope as they would say.

We're not sure if we actually had to pay the 5 euro to get in or if we somehow got herded into the pay-line, because I'm sure there were people going into the basilica without paying. But, there aren't signs for anything here, so whatever.

Unfortunately, the time it took to wait in line to go up the non-stairway to heaven, the crowds at the Vatican Museum, and the new entry cost (12euro per person - apparently 3 years ago everything in Rome was free) meant that we were not able to see the Sistine Chapel. I'm super bummed about this. It's the Sistine Chapel for goodness sake! I'm resigning myself to one of those, "next time" moments.

Onward from Rome

After spending the morning at the Vatican - where you can actually send a postcard from the world's smallest country if you're willing to wait in a line that doesn't match the size of said country - we made our way back to central Rome and headed north to Umbria. We had agreed with our new hosts to be in the small town of Todi on the 2nd and had to battle the complicated, unsigned and erratic Umbrian regional train system.

We're here for the next 4 weeks. We're about 15 minutes from Todi, on a beautiful piece of property owned by Ev and Claudia an American/Italian couple who are building a wine and olive farm. It's a HelpX work exchange - we live here and work 4 hours/day in exchange for room and board. We'll be here for the wine harvest. The food is delicious, the company is great, the work satisfying and the scenery divine. All in all, between Rome and here, I feel incredibly grateful at this time.

2 Days in Barcelona

What a whirlwind! I arrived in Toulon, France on Friday night after 2 days in Barcelona. Is 2 days enough to do that city justice? Absolutely not. Did I give it a good go? Hell yes. Would I ever want to go back to Barcelona? Are you crazy for asking such a silly question?? Ok, I guess I asked that question - but anyway, of course I would! Here's how I spent my 48 hours in Catalonia. Arrival

After leaving Alicante at 12pm on Wednesday I drove with several Spaniards via BlaBla Car (another post on that method of transport coming soon) to the Barcelonian suburb of Sant Joan Despi. I had written instructions via Google on how to take the regional train from there to my hostel and so I didn't think it would be a problem. I was incredibly grateful to a fellow passenger who just happened to be going to the exact same metro stop as me (coincidence or did I really seem like I wasn't going to make it??) and helped me buy my ticket because none of the train numbers matched the directions I had. Thank you kind stranger!

I found my hostel easily after that and checked in. I looked forward to staying in a hostel because, despite the lack of sleep I knew I'd get, I wanted to meet some fellow travelers. The lady at the desk asked me if I was "going to the festival" and I said, "Sure. What is that?" "Every neighborhood in Barcelona has a street festival. This one is in the Gracia neighborhood, we're leaving at 10:30." Cool, I had some time to ditch the bag, relax and meet my roommies.

Festival Gracia

Ok, so my hostel was kinda dirty and the AC in our room didn't work but it is SO awesome that they led a group of guests to the Gracia festival for free. We were about 15 people - Americans, Germans, a Canadian, 2 Kiwis, some British guys and a Polish guide from the hostel. Fun. Although they had said it was a street fair with "lights hanging in the streets," that was a completely lame explanation for what it really was. Dozens of small streets throughout the neighborhood were themed and decorated, some completely covered, with hanging lanterns, sculptures, lights and art. There were stages with live music - each a different kind of music - and bars and food carts selling drinks, empanadas and sandwiches. Every bar in between had it's doors open offering take-away cocktails and snacks. Basically this was a giant neighborhood movable feast. It was incredible.

In the plazas between the streets, the city had erected tents and dance areas. In one square the band played swing music, in another there was a DJ. In a lot of ways it reminded me of the atmosphere during New Year's eve in Brugges - unbelievably happy people celebrating just to celebrate out and about - one hundred percent happy positive goodness. This plus the artsy element to it made it an all-trip highlight. The big thing that was missing was my hubby!!

A 13-mile walk

The next day I woke up leisurely ready to explore the city. You already know from my last post that I intended on visiting the Joan Miro Park - which was mildly, well ok, not really that successful. After my 'experience' I wandered up past the Placa Espanya to the 'magic fountain' which wasn't so magic as it was turned off, and up to the Museo de Arte de Catalanya. This impressive, palatial museum overlooks Barcelona with incredible fountains, sculptures dotted about and a grandeur that's humbling. I was even more excited to see the interior until I learned it was a hefty 12 euro ticket. So much for the free museums of the UK! They do offer a free day on Saturdays from 3pm-9pm, but being a Thursday that didn't work for me. So I grudgingly skipped the art museum and continued up Mont Juic towards the Olympic Park.

I'm getting closer to having visited all the olympic cities from the 1990's. Although Nagano probably won't be on this trip's agenda. The stadium and park was impressive - I love the Olympics. I continued my walk in search of Joan Miro's actual museum, only to find that after waiting in a very long line, the entry to that museum was 11 euro. Being on a meager 25 euro/per day budget makes these things difficult! So I moved on but was delighted to find myself descending Mont Juic in the incredible tiered gardens of Laribal. What a beautiful and romantic place to have so close to the center of the city.

Deciding that I needed a snack, I made my way back to the Metro and hopped off at the Placa Catayluna, right in the thick of downtown and at the top of the famous La Rambla. I didn't really have it in me to walk La Rambla, but I did head through part of the old city to the Cathedral and had a nice sandwich whilst watching throngs of tourist pay the 5 euros to enter the church (which I also skipped - although apparently there are gardens inside the cathedral - that's cool). Feeling like my 10 miles of walking before 3pm was taking it's toll, I headed back to the hostel for a proper siesta.

The remaining miles for the day took place during the evening, while enjoying the company of my roommates, the unbelievable artistry, and art of the city, the balmy coastal air, tapas, sangria and the lively vibe that Barcelona has to offer. 13 miles is a lot - and I was certainly ready for a good night's sleep.

The remaining few hours

In the morning I decided that I better check out the Rambla, the Mercato Boqueria - the famous indoor/outdoor food market - and catch a bit of the Gothic Quarter. Most gratefully I had already seen the Gaudi houses and Picasso Museum while in Barcelona with my family in 2001 - otherwise this post - and my 2 days- would be a lot different. I will say that if in Barcelona and you haven't seen the museums, the tourist card, which includes 6 museums for 30 euro is a great deal. But beware, that line out of the Picasso Museum was HUGE. It's August, what can you expect.

My day-2 walk took me through the old city and up to the lively market - which was a bit too crowded for me given the number of tourists. It was still an enticing sensory experience - the presentation of the fruits and fish in particular were really amazing. This would be the place I'd hang out in May or October - and definitely with a bit more cash so as to sit at one of the market tapas bars and enjoy the fresh food and great atmosphere.

I headed all the way down La Rambla, through the Gothic Quarter (which is stunning) and up to the Arc de Triomf. A really lovely circuit. My 4pm departure loomed so I decided to check on the progress of the Sagrada Familia and made a quick trip on the metro for a photo op. It's looking good! I think the 2026 completion date is on track (since of course I clearly know about such things). Hmm, perhaps that's a celebration to take part in! After admiring such an interesting architectural feat, I sped back to the hostel, grabbed my bag and raced to meet my next BlaBla Car ride to Toulon. Sound quick - yeah I'm still tired.

My 2 days in Barcelona were fabulous, albeit exhausting. I didn't have a great impression the last time, but I think now that's because I was simply too enamored with Sevilla to really see Barcelona's advantages. It's nice to be back in France - especially because now I can talk to people! It has been strange to be solo, after being with Jon for so long. We'll be back together soon and I'm looking forward to it! Hasta Luego!

How I Almost Got Scammed in Barcelona


Ok, I get it, it's summer, the high of European holiday season and Barcelona is packed with tourists. But, I've been in the beautiful city of Barcelona for less than 24 hours and already had an attempted-rip-off scheme. After this little interaction I realized that in all my travels, in so many places, I have never once been the target of a scam and even though I've read about them and been warned, I was still somehow surprised to find myself in the middle of one. Here's what went down - and what to look for if you're in Barcelona.

The Scam

I decided this morning that I wanted to visit the park that holds the namesake for one of my all time favorite artists - Joan Miro. So I hopped on the metro out to Placa Espanya (which is stunning and grand and totally incredible) and found my way to the the park. Thinking that it would be an entire Miro sculpture garden I was somewhat disappointed that there was only 1 - albeit enormous - sculpture. Ok ok, it's really impressive and I was happy to see it.

Placa Espanya Barcelona

But thinking that there might be more smaller sculptures hidden in the little palm-tree lined garden beside the sculpture I started walked through the shaded pathways. This was at about 11:30 in the morning.

Dona i OcellNot far past the gate a young man came up to me and asked me where the Olympic Park was. Although I thought it odd that he was clearly Spanish, I figured that there are a ton of Spanish tourists and maybe he was just lost, so I looked at his map (which was completely in tatters) and started to help him find it. Bizarre event #1.

At that moment another guy came up and said he was a policeman (undercover of course - but why would you say that?!) and that there was a lot of drug trade in Barcelona and that he needed to see our ID's and make sure we weren't doing a deal (really!?). He proceeded to flash some kind of identification card - and by flash, I mean there wasn't an opportunity to even look at it. Bizarre thing #2.

Bizarre thing #3 happened with the guy who was "lost" gladly whipped out his wallet and ID, opened it up and handed it to the "plainclothes policeman" who thumbed through it and said, "ok no money." Then he looked at me and asked if he could see my passport (which I did not have on me).

I then proceeded to ask him if I could actually see his ID, to which he flashed it again, and I said, "Um sorry, no you can't see my ID, there's no problem here, I'm leaving." And before I could walk away the "policeman" turned on his heal and left. The guy with the map didn't seem interested in knowing where the Olympic park was, but I told him anyway.


Jess and Dona i Ocell

Upon walking away it dawned on me that this interaction could have gone in several much more unfortunate ways for me, as in I was kinda surprised that one of them didn't just take my bag.  I also realized that they had probably been watching me take pictures of the sculpture so they knew I was a tourist. I'm generally pretty discreet about such things, but hey when you want to take a picture of a giant sculpture you gotta take it.

Looking back on it I also see that the 'policeman' played his part terribly and really wasn't convincing. However if they had wanted to make a quick getaway, they both had the moment of hesitation that was needed. I guess that's my fault for wanting to help a seemingly lost person.

Of course I'm grateful for being safe, I still feel at ease in this great city and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of my time here. It just goes to show that jam-packed-tourist time really does equal scam time.