Surprises

And The Winner is….(Part 2)

Continuing on our post from yesterday, we’re reflecting back on our four month trip around the world and picking out some of our favorite stops and visits. Through a series of intense discussion, secret balloting and contemplative reflection, we’ve determined our top choices in a variety of categories. So, once again below are our Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was a real challenge to hand out top honors, but here we go again with our remaining choices:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!

Best Public Transportation– Tokyo and throughout Japan–  This one was a no brainer. The rail system in Tokoyo and throughout Japan is efficient, clean reliable, modern and incredible expansive although not terribly inexpensive. With a system that includes the Tokyo Subway, Regional Rail and Long Distance Trains, there are hundreds and hundreds of stations and stops. A single train map usually does not do the job. One thing we love is that many of the train cars have unique options–there is a quiet car and an all female car on some trains for rush hour.  Announcements and signs are often given in three languages including English. If the trains weren’t enough to win us over, the passengers would be. As a rule, riders are incredibly polite. They even line up in an orderly way to board the most crowded train and rude behavior is rarely seen.  There really is no equal.

Best City-to-City Transportation  Once you place air travel in another category, we have a two way tie. The train ride from Zagreb to Munich finally fulfilled  expectations of what we had hoped for in a European train ride. Up to this point, our train rides in Eastern Europe had been on outdated trains, lackluster, and disappointing. Our overnight ride in a private sleeper to Germany was comfortable, state of the art and packed with amenities. We even had an attentive porter who brought us water and handled customs at the border. Phil spent a good chunk of the night excitedly peering out of the window watching the night landscape roll by rather than sleeping. And pulling into the massive Munich train station at dawn was a fun way to end the trip. The other winner is the bus ride from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. At first, memories of rides on Greyhound made us dread a 14-hour cross country bus ride. It turns out, it was probably more comfortable than sitting in our living room! Over sized seats that rival first class airplane seats mingled nicely with the service that included two meals, complimentary cheap wine, movies and even bingo, It all made for a great ride. If this kind of bus travel was more common in the United States, I think people might rethink their attitudes toward long haul bus rides! 

Best Local Beer– Munich  Shocking, I know. Since every country has their own national or local brew, we tried beer in every city we visited. But virtually all the beer we tried in Munich was simply better than the rest.  We particularly enjoyed the Hofbrau and Lowenbrau labels in all varieties, but they sure know how to do a Dunkel.  Strong and smooth.  Absolutely perfect with a pretzel and currywurst.  Yum!  We enjoyed beers all around the globe from the Quilmes in Argentina, to Carlsberg in Copenhagen and Asashi Ichiban in Japan, but few of them were particularly memorable.  We will give an honorable mention to some of the smaller breweries we tried in New Zealand and Bulgaria, but overall they paled in comparison to all beer in Munich.

There is no doubt – they make some really great beer in Munch

Most Beautiful Nature Setting- We have a split decision here. Actually, we have a no decision. This is likely the thing we get asked about the most. Brooke immediately said the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, with the thick forest and rushing stream.  Phil was convinced it was the panoramic view from the top of Mt. Fuji.  But then, what about sunset in Dubrovnik or the view of the Adriatic?  The rock formations in HaLong Bay or the Waitomo Caves?  For that matter, what about all of New Zealand where they really earn the nickname of the “God Zone”? Honestly, we can’t even choose.

Bridal Veils in New Zealand

Most Beautiful City Setting- Budapest is tough to beat.  The architecture is absolutely beautiful. It has an old style, but in a classic sense, not like ruins which we saw in so many other Eastern European cities.  In addition, Budapest’s wide sidewalks lined with grand mansions and historic homes give the city a Parisian air.  Just around every corner was another stunning building. Toss in Buda Castle, Parliament and the Danube River as landmarks and it only gets better. What certainly stands out is that not a single building or monument is covered by spray paint.  How refreshing!  It is important to mention that we considered Edinburgh as the winner of this award, and it is a close second, but it has a grittiness (probably from all the rain and the fact that it is hundreds of years older) that Budapest is missing.

Budapest at night

Best Surprise–  Dubrovnik. We really didn’t know anything about Dubrovnik before arriving.  We learned that Croatia was part of the Serbian conflict, and we may have expected it to look more like Belgrade and Sofia.  Instead we found streets paved with marble and beautiful seaside views.  Wow and then some. The relaxed atmosphere, beautiful walk along the city walls and the historic nature of the entire city makes Dubrovnik the best surprise of the trip. Walking the city wall provided some of the best views and moments of the trip, hands down.

We could gush and ramble for hours about some of our favorite parts of our trip, but those are some of the  real highlights. As you might imagine, there are tons of categories we could have listed. Anything ranging from Best coffee, Best Weather, Best WiFi Availability, Best encounter with a local and more. But, we have to draw the line  somewhere. We also have our share of low lights (I’m looking at you, Belgrade restaurant who served us massively undercooked chicken kebabs), but we’ll save those for another day. So, if you have any questions about our “Best of” awards or if you have any additional categories you would want to see, just drop us a line and we’ll wax nostalgically about those as well!

–Brooke and Phil

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Categories: Beer, Best Of, City Visits, Exploring, Post Trip Reflections, Random Thoughts, Round The World Trip, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

And the Winner Is…(Part 1)

Our time abroad may be finished, but the Luggage Tags blog is not! On our flight yesterday, Brooke and I realized that we still have boatloads to say about our once in a life time trip. We plan to post on our budget for the trip, reflections on returning home, how we would have packed differently and more. We’re proud that we managed to update the blog almost daily while we were abroad, but as we realign our life, posts may appear a bit less frequently. If this still sounds like your bag of chips, we hope that you’ll stick around and continue the voyage with us for a bit longer! – PK  

Throughout our trip around the world, we have experienced stays in more hotels than we count, ate at more restaurants that we can remember, and need an abacus to add up all the train rides, bar visits and stops at museums. We thought it might be fun to look back through on all of our experiences and present our findings on the best of the best. So, below are Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was tough to narrow down the Creme de La Creme, but we did our best below:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!
Best Bar/Pub– Lord Nelson Bar, (Copenhagen) – A bar for locals located smack dab in the middle of an incredibly touristy area of Copenhagen. Unassuming, unsuspecting and easy to miss. Glad we found it because we had an absolute blast while visiting. The incredibly friendly and knowledgeable bartenders allowed us to sample just about every beer they had. The bar boasted an impressive collection of unique craft beers from around the area and friendly locals. It was just our speed. Honorable mention goes to Cafe Bar Bard in the Old City of Dubrovnik: While it is quieter and has a limited menu, it is right on the Adriatic with the best view any watering hole could hope for.

Best Museum–Te Papa – The National Museum of New Zealand (Wellington)  We visited tons of sensational museums on our travels so that makes this a hard one. But Te Papa was the biggest and the best. The museum is incredible interactive and expansive. The exhibits about New Zealand are diverse and modernized. You can visit without a guide and it’s still awesome. As you might expect, English was spotty or secondary in many museums we saw. The best part about Te Papa? Admission is completely free. Honorable mention here goes to the small but impressive Nikola Telsa Museum in Serbia and their passionate staff and also to the the quirky, effectively informative History Museum of Estonia in Tallinn.

Best Hotel Stay- Hanoi Moment (Hanoi)  Wow, what a hotel! The staff seemed to spend every minute knocking themselves out to assist you. Wine and fruit was waiting for us in the room when we checked in, the room itself was comfortable, large and chock full amenities including a laptop. It was all a real respite from the humidity and hustle of Hanoi. Plus they serve an amazing breakfast. And for all this luxury, the price was astoundingly low. The list of nominees for best hotel list was a bit shorter because mixed up hotel stays with nights through Air B ‘n B, hostels and more along the way. Honorable mention goes to Le Meriden in Budapest (but since the room was through hotel points, we can’t rank against cost) and The Lennox Hotel in Buenos Aires.

Best Airport- Changi Singapore Airport (Singapore)  With an amazing kinetic art sculpture, this airport makes an immediate impression on visitors.  Beyond that, it is new, clean and has a lot to offer.  On a long layover, passengers can visit a swimming pool to get some exercise or relax between flights.  We also loved that the security lines were at the gate when you board the plane rather than in the front of the airport with all other passengers.  There is also tons of shopping because, after all, it is Singapore. It is a big airport that seems to do it all well.  Honorable mention goes to the Amsterdam Airport.  We were just there on a lay over for a few hours, but with a casino, museum and massage center,  it seemed pretty great just walking through.

Best Meal –Dinner at Lubimoto (Sofia). – Man, what a meal! Run by a trio of brothers, a dinner at Lubimoto allowed us to sit outside and pace ourselves over a nice long meal. One of the brothers had spent considerable time in America and doubled as our host (so much more than a waiter) for the evening. We finally relented and began the meal like Bulgarians do -with Rakia! From there, we enjoyed another local staple that’s become a fast favorite and a daily must of ours: A shopska salad. After that, our host brought us two made-to-order entrees that were out of this world.  One pork dish and one chicken dish that I would only shame if I attempted to describe the deliciousness. A couple of pints of Staropramen and a dessert made of cake and pecan ice cream (compliments of our host) rounded out the evening. And the final bill left us wondering if the printer was broken or someone sliced off a few zeros. Great stuff, but not an isolated incident in Sofia.Honorable mentions go to Ocho Cepas steak house in Mendoza, Ippudo Ramen in Kyoto and endless number of Hot Dog carts in Copenhagen!

Insanely great Ramen from Ippudo in Kyoto

Best “Bang for your Buck”– Vietnam. With a conversion rate of 22,500 Dong to the US Dollar, everything is incredibly affordable. There is a ton to see and plenty to spend money on from knock off bags to newly tailored suits and unique pieces of art.  In addition, there are endless wonderful, authentic restaurants, that serving  heaping portions with prices that make your make thing there is a misprint in the menu. Plus, visitors can easily stay at a Four-star hotel for $60 or less. Excluding accommodations, we’re pretty sure that travelers could do Hanoi on a mere $20 a day. A complete bargain for such a lively, friendly and different place.

Halong Bay in Vietnam

We’ve got six more that we want to share as we continue Part 2 tomorrow! Including Best Public Transportation, Best Non-Flight Transportation, Best Local Beer, Most Beautiful setting and, our favorite, Best Surprise. Drop us a line if there is anything you’d be interested in hearing what we thought was top notch. Trust me, when it comes to recommendations, feedback and opinions, we’ve got plenty of ammo!

-Brooke and Phil

Categories: Bars, Beer, Best Of, Eating, Flights, Museums, Post Trip Reflections, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Trip to the Beach

Yes, we’ve been traveling for months and in some ways it has been a vacation.  We don’t have jobs.  We don’t cook dinner.  We don’t have to clean the house.  Even with all that,  our trip has felt less like a vacation and more like traveling.  I think there is a difference.  On vacation you relax, go at a slower pace and try not to think about any other responsibilities.  On the contrary, when traveling you are on the go, visiting different attractions, learning new information and soaking up interesting experiences.  We have been traveling since the end of July.  Now, it is time for vacation.

When we return to the States we will be relocating to a new city.  Looking for a new car, apartment and job means we will probably have to hit the ground running.  Because of this, we have decided to end our trip with a sort of beach vacation–an opportunity to reflect, relax, and re-gather our energy to start anew upon our return.  So, today we find ourselves in Mar Del Plata, a beach town that’s a 5 1/2 hour bus ride south of Buenos Aires and the summer playground for many Portenos.  We took another comfy ride on a luxury coach bus, where I tried to get some much needed rest.  I fell a sleep for a bit, but was rudely awakened by the man across the aisle snoring so loudly I could hear him through my earplugs.  Argh!  I reluctantly woke up and eventually we pulled into this sunny coastal city.  As we cruised down Avenida de Colon toward the sea’s edge, it felt like we were on the drive into Clearwater Beach, Florida.  The road slopes slightly upward and I eagerly anticipated the moment when the Atlantic Ocean revealed itself before our eyes.  Once it finally did, the view took our breath away.  Ocean spread in front of us as far as our eyes could see and the breeze from the water cooled the air at least 10 degrees.  It is gorgeous.

Our Air BnB home for the next five days. Perfect.

We arrived at the final stay of our trip, an apartment we found through Air BnB.  It is hard to believe after so many different hotels, hostels and apartments over the last few months, this is the last one of our trip.  And we couldn’t have chosen a better final stay.  The apartment is small, but absolutely perfect for what we need.  Big comfortable bed, hot shower and a well-equipped kitchen.  But the most impressive feature is the balcony which overlooks the sea.  In fact, every window in the apartment has views of the ocean making us feel like we are floating on the sea.  Our host, Carlos, was incredibly welcoming.  He shared with us they myriad restaurants and attractions we could visit during our stay.  Apparently there is a section of town with great seafood restaurants and his mention of a nearby casino certainly didn’t go unnoticed.  We ventured out for some lunch and to stock up on groceries. We searched for a grocery which was more than just a “mini-mercado.”  We finally found one, excited by its size, but this excitement soon wore off.  The veggies were all caked in dirt, the meat looked a few days old and I couldn’t find any peanut butter.  They sell dulce de lece by the gallon-sized bucket, but no peanut butter.  This makes me very sad.  We finally settled on brown rice and some frozen veggie concoction, along with some other snacks and necessities, then began to walk back to our place.  Exhausted from the early morning, snoring man on bus and the weariness of travel, we then took an epic nap.  Let the vacation begin.   A king sized bed, the ocean breeze blowing through the window and the sounds of waves crashing against the shore are a recipe for the perfect nap.  Add to that the very little sleep we got last night and waking up early for the bus and we were both asleep within seconds of our heads hitting the pillow.

Excited to finally find a big grocery store. Sadness at not finding peanut butter has not yet descended.

Once we peeled ourselves from our comfort, we made a much anticipated homemade dinner.  The first of many in our near future.  If we had to choose the one thing we have consistently missed the most on this trip (besides friends and family, of course), it is cooking for ourselves.  We can’t wait to get back into this habit.  Happy to be in the same place for 5 days, we plan to continue much the same way we did today, with the addition of some beach time and maybe a trip to the casino.  We will cherish each moment of this “vacation” from our travels because the real world beckons and will be here before we know it.

–Brooke

The view from our balcony. I’ll take it!

Categories: Argentina, Beach, Casino, City Visits, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Relaxing, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Rode a Horse!

Finally. I am 34 years old, grew up in a fairly rural area and I even went to summer camp, yet somehow I have managed to live my whole life without ever having ridden a horse. No more, my friends. What better place to try my hand at equestrian sports than Argentina, home to gauchos and ranches galore? Okay, so I didn’t rope any bulls or gallop through a field of cattle, but I had a fantastic time nonetheless.

Our lovely hotel in Maipu, Tikay Killa, arranged for Phil and I, plus three other guests (our new friends Dan, Lyn and Sophie) to experience the countryside in a whole new way. We threw down our bikes and mounted horses instead. I was a bit nervous, but very excited to ride a horse for the first time. Cesar, our guide, offered me a helmet since I was a fledgling rider, but I declined feeling quite confident in my abilities. With a bit of an assist from Cesar, I mounted Esperamiento, my horse. I got a 30 second lesson in riding–“Pull back to stop, pull right to go right, and left to go left.” Sounds simple enough. We were off!

In fact, it was that simple. Cesar’s horses were well-trained and listened to everything. After getting used to the feeling of being bumped around and realizing I wasn’t going to fall off, I began to relax and enjoy the countryside. Our ride began on a back road, complete with cars, dogs and kids playing. This was great practice in navigating the horses into single file lines and even stopping when necessary. Thankfully, we soon turned off the road and onto a dirt track which wound through a nearby vineyard. I was taking my time, allowing my horse to walk and still getting the hang of how hard to yank on the reins when I needed him to stop eating snacking on the surrounding grapevines. On the contrary, Phil was in his element. It isn’t as though he has tons of equestrian experience, but he had his horse, Noche, trotting and almost to a full gallop before I could say “yee-haw.” Smiles filled our faces as we traversed the vineyard.

We didn’t stay on this dirt trail forever, however. I expected fairly easy terrain, and all in all it was. But Cesar wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth. We walked up a rocky slope to get a beautiful view of the vines below, but it was going down the slope that seemed a bit more treacherous. Luckily our horses were sure-footed and didn’t slip a bit. Once at the bottom of the hill, we headed toward the Mendoza river. I assumed we would ride along it, but instead we crossed it! Only 1-2 feet deep at the point of crossing, our horses easily managed through the water and up the bank on the other side. Sophie, who got stuck with the hungry horse, had to urge hers on a bit more because he constantly wanted to stop for snacks and a drink. I understand how that feels–it was hot out there and those horses were working hard. We crossed back over the river several times, trekked through the mud and wound our way through tall brush. It was a blast! I am so glad we didn’t simply stick to the dirt road–in retrospect that would have been much less fun. Feeling very confident in both my abilities and those of my horse, I began to bring him to a trot as we headed back to the stable. I didn’t mind going fast, but man it hurts a lot more to be bounced at those speeds, so the trotting didn’t last long. After riding for about two hours, dismounting Esperamiento was a welcome relief to my aching legs. Despite the minor joint and muscle pain, I had a wonderful time and will definitely try my hand at horseback riding again in the future.

Lyn has to sit on the floor of the backseat to make room for all five of us. Luckily, she’s flexible like Gumby.

This being our last day in Mendoza, we couldn’t leave without going to one more winery. The five of us got into a taxi (Lyn sitting on the floor in the backseat) and headed to Carinae, a small winery run by French couple Brigitte and Phillipe. Besides running a winery, this couple loves astronomy and sometimes hosts star gazing alongside the wine tasting. They have several different options for tastings, all named after an astronomical object. Not offering any views through the telescope today, we focused on the wine instead. We were each able to try five different varieties. I’m not sure if it was because I was warm from riding in the sun, or just because this is becoming a new favorite, but their Torrontes was the most delicious I tasted. This wine is such a wonderful surprise for those who often find white wines to be too sweet. When you smell a Torrontes, it is very sweet and sometimes flowery. But, there is a reason why it is called the “lying grape.” When you taste it, the sweetness is understated and instead it is a bit tart with a dry finish. I have loved trying this variety at many of the vineyards we have visited, but Carinae’s version is my favorite. We bought a bottle for the group, one for back at the lodge and yet another for Phil and I to take on the road. Yum!

Once back at the lodge, we popped the bottle of wine, sipped and enjoyed our last hour together. All heading our separate ways, we were thankful for having met one another and sharing in two great days together. After an exchange of contact information and big hugs, we said goodbye to Maipu. The trip to this small part of the Mendoza wine route is exactly what we had hoped it would be. We couldn’t be happier with this part of our trip.

–Brooke

Doesn’t she look like a natural? Watch out Clint Eastwood, this girl’s your next Western star!

The ride was beautiful with flowers in bloom everywhere.

The wines available at the Carinae tasting. Delicious!

Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Surprises, Tours, Unusual Experiences, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Voting, Bus Stations and The Argentina Reciprocity Fee

Hello again from Buenos Aires! We’re continuing to explore the expansive Argentine capital as we spend time in neighborhoods like San Telmo and Palermo. We’ve traded in one comfortable hotel for another across town in order to check out another section of the city and we’re quickly mastering the Subte (Subway) system. Our plans were thwarted a bit when had some big rain roll through the other night which ended up causing some flooding throughout town. But the storms really just made for a good excuse to stay in, order delivery empanadas and watch Three Amigos and Shawn of The Dead on television. Yesterday, however, we packed in a full day that included everything from Tango Classes to a visit to the US Embassy.

A real highlight of the day was that we managed to take part in one of the most patriotic actions an American citizen can do: We voted in the 2012 United States presidential election! Hell yeah. Brooke and I have never missed a big election but we were fairly certain that our four month trip around the world was going to cause us to forfeit our votes for this one. Bummed about potentially missing out on our chance to be part of the democratic process, we had looked into the possibility of voting absentee before we departed NYC. But since our departure date was so far in advance of the election, absentee voting was a difficult, unlikely and cumbersome proposition. The woman at the board of elections seemed to have no clue as to how we should proceed.  At that point, we gave up and figured we would probably have to miss out on voting.  Not willing to settle for this, we took a long walk down to the United States Embassy of Argentina to see what could be done.

The expansive US Embassy was more like an administrative compound than the lovely, grand mansions we’ve seen in some of the smaller European capitals. The guards directed us to a bank telleresque window where we were quickly assisted. To our surprise, it turned out to be an incredibly simples process for us to vote in the 2012 election! A pair of passports, two registration forms and a blank ballot for writing in choices were all we needed. High fives commenced! It felt like an awesome win and left us with a strong dose of American pride. I’m ready for my screaming American Eagle tattoo on my bicep. In retrospect, we should done a little bit of research on our local New York ballot in order to be more informed about local and state issues, but we were honestly so pessimistic about actually being able to vote that we never took the time. Our embassy guide told us that we just missed out on “Voting Day” a few weeks earlier that was made up of giveaways from American companies and a speech from the ambassador. I think for years we’ll remember how for this particular election our ballots were cast in the middle of Buenos Aires at the US Embassy.

From the Embassy, we made our way over to the central Buenos Aires bus station – La Terminal De Omnibus – to secure our bus tickets for our travel to Mendoza. Ever since Argentina’s government dramatically cut back on train subsidies in the 1990s, buses have been the preferred method of traveling from city to city across South America’s second largest country. Knowing all that, we weren’t surprised to find that the main bus station is absolutely massive. We’ve seen plenty of airports in our travels that are much smaller than this behemoth three-story station. Our first mission was to determine which of the 100+ ticketing windows best suited our needs. Once at the correct set of windows, we were able to adeptly apply our very broken Spanish to determine bus times, cost, service class, arrival and more. Brooke and I are actually feeling pretty strong about our abilities to hammer out the basics in conversation using the little Spanish that we know. For these long haul bus rides, there are several different classes of service. We decided on “Ejecutivos” which is somewhere between Semi-Cama, Cama or Suite. If we’re understanding the counter people correctly (fingers crossed), our ride should be in seats equivalent to Airline Business Class seats that lay at a 160 degree angle complete with in-seat meal service from a bus attendant. Snazzy. In short, it ain’t Greyhound. I’m a little apprehensive about doing a fourteen hour overnight bus ride to Mendoza. But then I remember some longer journeys in the states in which I’ve been in much less comfortable seats. And then Brooke stated that she didn’t realize she had married such a wimp when it comes to riding on a bus. So, I  got over my concerns pretty quickly.

Brooke celebrates after successfully securing our bus tickets….all by using our Espanol!

Speaking of traveling, we wanted to mention the dreaded Argentine Reciprocity Fee that we had to pay when entered Argentine the other day. Fellow travelers we talk to are always a bit amazed by this, so we thought we would share our experience. In order to enter Argentina, citizens of America, Canada and Australia have to pay an entry fee which is in place as an equivalent “payback” for the cost of a visa application that an Argentine citizen is charged to enter those three countries. The cost? $160 per person (recently increased by $20 a pop). Not a small amount when you’re circumnavigating the world on a budget.

When we landed at EZE, the imigration lines quickly diverged for visitors like ourselves. A friendly cashier soon invited us to pay the fee using cash or a credit card. Lucky for us, We had been aware of the fee long in advance and had budgeted for it accordingly. But there certainly seemed to be some people stumbling off a 10-hour overnight flight who received a rude awakening when they learned that they have to fork over the cash before getting any further. The real pain of it is that this relatively new fee is ONLY enforced at the two Buenos Aires airports; the fee is not collected at any other entry point in the country. For what it’s worth, the fee is good for ten years which I guess might be beneficial somewhere down the line. Brazil and Chile also have similar policies. We’ve also read that by the end of 2012, all visitors must pay the fee online in advance of your arrival rather than at the airport. Good times.

Somewhere along the way between trips to the bus station in the rain and voting, we managed to cram in an amazing Wine Tasting, Tango Lessons and drinks with fellow ex-pats in a pub San Telmo – all which Brooke will write more about. All in all, today was a great day to be traveling around the world.

-Phil

Brooke enjoying a legendary South American treat: Buenos Aires Ice Cream!

Our swanky room at The Tango Hotel

Categories: Argentina, Destinations, Self Guided Tours, Surprises, Tango, Uncategorized, Voting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

¡Buenos Días, Buenos Aires!

After 10 cold, cloudy and often rainy days in Scotland, we were delighted to wake up to the sun beaming brightly through the window in warm Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Still adjusting to the 5 hour time difference, we were up bright and early, ready to see a new city!

One of the reasons we were excited about Argentina is because Phil and I both know a very small amount of Spanish.  Normally, one of the first things we do upon arrival in a new country is ask how to say basic phrases, like “hello”, “please”, and “thank-you”.  However, thanks to a few classes at good ‘ole Miami University (and of course having lived in New York City for six years) we are both able to crudely communicate basic ideas and we can even understand quite a few phases in Español.  I was so proud when I was able to buy subway tickets and not use any English at all.  The ticket agent even asked me a question and I was able to respond.  Wow! What a change from struggling through Eastern Europe.  However, one of the things I find interesting is that there is far less English spoken or on signage here than we have seen in almost every other country.  Luckily, we are able to manage our way through Spanish well-enough to figure out where we are going, but if we didn’t have any knowledge of the language, Buenos Aires would be quite a struggle.

We originally intended to start our day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour in order to get an overview of the city.  After searching for the bus for a bit, we finally found a line 25 people deep waiting to board.  When the woman who worked for the bus company, clad in bright yellow, informed us the next one would be in about 40 minutes and we’d just have to wait in line until then, we decided this wasn’t going to be the best option.  We didn’t want to waste so much time just waiting around and clearly with lines like this, they don’t have enough buses in operation.  We decided instead to explore some tours suggested by our hotel.  We found the Tangol office at the end of Florida Street and chatted with Enrique.  We lamely tried our Spanish, but we all found English was much easier to communicate with.  Tangol offers all kinds of tours and excursions, from a 6-hour walking tour, to an all day Gaucho expedition.  We inquired about various city tours and their Argentinian Fútbol trip.  We had tons of information swimming in our heads, so for starters we decided to go with a 3-hour city tour on a small bus.  We figured this would be just as good, if not better than the hop-on/hop-off tour because this time we would have a live guide who could answer all of our questions.

After killing some time walking up and down Florida Street, the pedestrian only shopping street, we boarded the bus.  We discovered that we were the only 2 of 16 passengers who spoke English; the rest spoke Spanish and Portuguese.  Once again reminding us how inferior we feel in the language department, our guide Fakundo, gave the tour in all 3 languages.  However, we often felt his translations into English were a bit of an after thought.  We could pick up a few words in Spanish here and there–enough to know that he wasn’t giving us all of the information in the English translation.  Still, we managed to glean some new information and see some new neighborhoods.  We drove down the avenue Nuevo de Julio, the widest avenue in the world at 140 meters across. (Correction: we’ve since found out that Argentians just like to SAY it is the widest avenue in the world. Turns out that there is a much larger one in Brazil. Don’t tell the Argentians.)  In the center of this avenue we saw the Public Works building with an iron likeness of Eva Peron on either side.  One side looks in anger and seems to be speaking with vehemence toward the wealthy area of Buenos Aires.  The other side is a friendly iron portrait, smiling down on the lower class sections of the city.  Images of Eva Peron can be seen everywhere, and the people still speak of her as a true Argentinian hero.

As we continued our drive, we saw the elegant and sophisticated neighborhoods of Palermo and Recoleta. We then drove toward an older futbol stadium which is home to the Boca Juniors.  Driving through this area immediately reminded us of Wrigleyville in Chicago. Every shop and storefront had jerseys, team colors, flags and mascots hanging from the windows.  This area is clearly centered on their love of this team.  It is situated right alongside the colorful neighborhood, La Boca.  This used to be one of the poorest neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The materials for the tenements were leftovers from other buildings and the paint used was whatever leftovers would be handed over to the people.  Because of this, the whole neighborhood is a mish-mash of colors and textures.  It has become a center for bohemian and art culture; streets are lined with paintings, cafes and tango dancers.  Although perfectly safe, our guide warned us that you wouldn’t want to stray too far from this neighborhood at night.  There is still quite a bit of poverty in Buenos Aires and in fact they have 3 shanty towns inside the city.  Apparently outside the city there are many more.  The largest one in Buenos Aires lies very close to the wealthy area and holds 60,000

One set of protesters wanting acknowledgement and benefits for their part in the Falklands War.

squatters.  Our guide explained that they have been there for decades and it is almost more like a neighborhood than a shanty-town.

This overview of Buenos Aires was certainly interesting.  Phil thinks this city has one of the biggest dichotomies between rich and poor that we’ve seen.  To be honest, I’m not really seeing the wealth.  I see poverty everywhere, buildings covered in spray paint and protesters in at least 2 spots in the city.  There seems to be struggle and unhappiness.  At the same time, there is also great pride in their heritage–signs for tango shows, classes and clubs are everywhere.  We have only just arrived, but I am interested to dive a little deeper and see how my impressions of Buenos Aires evolve throughout our visit here.

–Brooke

Categories: Argentina, City Visits, Differences, Landmarks, Reflections, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Near Perfection

I've got my flippy-floppies on.Visiting Dubrovnik has been near perfection.  I know that sounds a bit extreme, but it is true.  This paradise in the Adriatic Sea has been relaxing, beautiful and affordable.  Although often mobbed by cruise passengers during the day, being here during the off season has thinned the crowds and made this an idyllic experience.

Look at that shoreI would have been truly happy just sitting on the terrace looking out at the passing boats, kayakers and swimmers, but there are plenty of activities to occupy our time away from the apartment.  Having already walked the city’s walls and explored much of what is housed inside Old Town, we thought today we should venture out onto the water.  Dubrovnik has a plethora of water activities, including snorkeling, scuba diving, sea kayaking and island hopping tours.  Because we have very little time here, we didn’t want to spend the whole day dedicated to one activity such as a three island tour, so we opted for a 50-minute cruise along the shore of Dubrovnik which also goes around a nearby island turned national park.  It seems each time we turn a corner or get another perspective on the city, the views are even more beautiful.  As we cruised the shoreline, we glimpsed people taking a dip in the sea or enjoying a drink at bars just outside the city walls.  Sailing around the island, we saw caves begging for exploration and natural private shelves in the rock where people could sunbathe wearing nothing but a little SPF.  We neared the shore and spotted a group of kayakers jumping from a cliff into the beautiful blue water.  All around us people radiated happiness and relaxation.  After spending ten days constantly on the go in Turkey, our friends Jack and Jon were thrilled to end their vacation in this way.

The beach in the rocks – only accessible by kayak and complete with cliff divers!

Scattered among the rocks, you can see our bar.

After sailing the high seas, we decided we couldn’t let our last day pass without heading to our favorite bar one more time.  As a bar (drinks, service, music), Cafe Bar Bard is relatively average, really.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  And yet this is probably the most extraordinary bar I’ve been to.  Chairs settle on rocks, while people lay around in swimsuits, occasionally jumping in for a swim.  However, it is the view which makes this place so wonderful.  Save a few boats and a nearby island, there is nothing but wide-open sea as far as the eye can see.  As it turned darker with clouds, Jon kept taking photo after photo amazed at how the sky kept changing its shape and form, each time a bit more beautiful.

It is not only the natural beauty that entrances visitors to Dubrovnik.  The city itself has white marble streets and buildings making it seem like something from a movie set or a painting.  The marble literally sparkles at night and we all wonder if it secretly gets buffed when no one is around. It certainly has marks of age and wear from pedestrians trampling on it for centuries, but considering the age of the construction, it is remarkable how well it has held its beauty.  The perfect setting for any wedding, we were not surprised when we saw two wedding couples  getting photos and celebrating their nuptials.  Our Air BnB host, Boris, informed us that  getting married in Dubrovnik has become quite popular and people come from all over the world to say “I do” in this beautiful place.  Of course, this has not always been the case.  Boris also shared stories about the war in 1991 when Croatia was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army.  He was here in Dubrovnik during a three month siege with no water, electricity or other resources. Boris watched the Old Town get bombed and saw the fortress at the top of the hill be destroyed.  The same fortress where, just last night, we watched a gorgeous sunset.  He spoke of this time with lingering amazement and recalled foraging the town gardens for food and spending $40 for 2 eggs to give his mother so she would not starve.  Knowing Dubrovnik was actively engaged in war 20 years ago makes it even more remarkable that it has restored itself to a beautiful marvel.

For our final night, we wanted to have a slow evening filled with wine, food and friends.  After getting kicked out of one restaurant because we were only going to order drinks, we combed through the menus trying to ignore the barrage of “barkers” trying to entice us to eat in their establishment.  We finally chose one and started our evening.  After finishing a bottle of wine, we decided on some appetizers.  The friendly staff and tempting food at the next table convinced us to stay for dinner rather than moving on to another option.  We are glad we did.  The food was good, not great, but the atmosphere was warm and inviting.  Our server brought us delicious bread with “Dalmatian” Sauce which is not made from cute, spotted dogs but  rather a combination of olive oil, parsley and garlic.  Yum.  We were even offered blankets as the evening chilled and the rain began to set in.  A nice long meal with drinks and dishes slowly being served in a great setting. All in all, it was a perfect end to a perfect day in this perfect city.

Now we must say goodbye to our friends as they head back home to real life.  It was really wonderful to spend time with Jack; it was like having a little piece of home here with us in Croatia.  Tomorrow, we board our return flight to Zagreb then grab the overnight train to Munich, Germany.  Time is moving so quickly and we are trying to savor every moment.  Luckily, we have no shortage of beautiful photographs to help us recall our experiences here and elsewhere.

–Brooke

Jack enjoying his wine over our last dinner in Dubrovnik

A look at the gleaming marble of the old city at night. Beautiful!

One of our views of Old Town. Yeah, this might be going on the cover of our Round The World photo book!

Categories: City Visits, Croatia, Destinations, Eastern Europe, Eating, Friends, Reflections, Relaxing, Surprises, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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