When you go to a restaurant in Europe, especially in Spain, your wine will cost less than your water. That was definitely something to get used to. When you order a glass of water, it comes in a bottle with a glass on the side, but the glass does not have ice cubes or a straw. Wow, I know I'm blowing your mind right now. I am not going to miss paying for water or the lack of ice cubes and straws and I relish in the idea that will be able to receive a glass of water free of charge. With ice cubes and a straw. Holler! But I am going to miss the cheap cost of vino. That's is wine in Spanish, folks.
 
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My favorite Gaudí masterpiece: Casa Batlló in Barcelona, Spain.
Who would have thought traveling eight hours north of Madrid, Spain to Barcelona would make me feel as if I entered a whole other world filled with beauty, national pride and well, a language that seems to be a mix of French and Spanish. Thursday night at midnight I embarked on my journey to Barcelona and on Friday morning we arrived to what seemed like a whole other world. The people seemed more genuine, the language was unlike any Spanish I have ever heard and the streets and boulevards were the canvas for street artists, Antonio Gaudí and many more.

For our trip to Barcelona we did not really have a plan of attack, we knew we wanted to see the major sites: Gaudí’s master pieces, the 1992 Summer Olympic Games stadium, the beach but soon after a conversation with a woman at the hostel we realized we had a lot more things to fit into our two full days than we thought. I liked it. 

After the eight hour, moderately comfortable bus ride we all were a little tired because the sleep we caught was less than ideal but we knew we couldn’t take a nap because we would end up wasting the day so instead we freshened up and headed out to explore Barcelona.

A common misconception I think about many European cities is that they are too large to cover on feet, that you need to take public transportation or a taxi, but that is not the case. We left the hostel which was located in the southwest part of Barcelona and walked north to many of the sites we would end up seeing for the day. First was the Cathedral of Barcelona which turned out to be stunning. Yes, I say turned out to be stunning because by the end of the first month in Spain we all were tired-out from seeing so many places of worship. But, this was different and not just in the sense that you could take photos of the inside but that it was a basilica with Gothic arquitecture, a rare site to be had. After the basilica we stumbled upon a Christmas market where we found the cutest elderly woman and her daughter who made crocheted, knitted, and beaded ornaments by hand. The two girls and I swooned over them and Tor was mildly impressed. 
Rachel, one of the four girls on the trip and self-declared guide, really wanted to see the lamppost Gaudí designed for the city of Barcelona in the 1870s.  We wandered the streets of Barcelona until we stumbled upon the lamp in Plaça Reial. It was ... interesting, for lack of a better word. I think all of us were expecting something very elaborate and profound and instead were a little disappointed in the simplicity of the street lamp. The red and black colors with the six shades were intriguing and the snakes that were wrapped around the head of the lights were symbolic, but it just didn’t have the oomf that we expected. Nonetheless, it was important to see and Rachel was impressed with her navigation skills, and I must say I was too. 
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Amanda and Rachel in front of the lamppost.
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Six shades of the lamp.
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Snake around lamppost.
At this point it was going on noon and our lack of sleep hit us hard and we headed back to the hostel where we could eat our packed lunches of bocadillos, take a nap and relax.  Much to our surprise our hour and a half break turned into all four of us concking out in our bunkbeads and waking up three and a half hours later. It was deemed a successful nap when Rachel tried to kick me to wake me up and I didn’t even feel it and when we all noticed the drool on my pillow. A girl has got to sleep! 

Now that we were all energized we decided to take a metro ride north to La Basílica de la Sagrada Família and work our way back to the hostel by walking since we had to meet another girl who was meeting us via train. The metro in Barcelona is cheap, ten rides was 9,50 euro and four of us shared one pass. Cost effective and efficient. 

When we excited the metro at Sagrada Família we immediately turned around and were in awe as to what we were looking at. The detail, ornateness, painstaking and never ending labor, and the sheer size of Gaudi’s cathedral was incredible and proved to be too much to soak in. It was amazing to see something so many of us just read about in our Spanish culture classes and never thought we would be able to see. We could not afford the 16 euro to see the inside so instead we walked around the church and soaked in all the beauty we could. I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that the basilica is undergoing restoration while it is simultaneously still being completed. The group of us consistently asked the question: How did Gaudi have such an intricate imagination? Some say it may have been chemically induced, others say he was just a mastermind. I am going to go with the latter.  
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View of La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.
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View of La Sagrada Família from the metro stop.
As we left the ever touristy and jaw dropping Sagrada Família we walked south towards La Pedrera. Along the way we ran into a former Marquette student who transferred my sophomore year. What a small world, we even would see her the next evening. 

When we hit the street La Pedrera was on we couldn’t believe how such a monumental building just fit in with the city. We almost missed the building because it fits perfectly within the city of Barcelona, the only give away was the crowd of tourists and ticket information sign. Again, we didn’t go in because we could not afford the 14 euros.

I had read and researched that if you had to choose between what to go in you should go into the houses of Gaudí rather than La Sagrada Família, but we still could not justify spending that much on a ticket. I think we are spoiled with the reasonable prices and numerous free hours and days for monuments and museums in Madrid. 

After we looked at La Pedrera from the outside and snuck a few peaks through the glass windows and doors we headed to Casa Batlló that was just a little ways down Passeig de Gracia. In my opinion Batlló was the most simplistic and gorgeous of the Gaudí sites we had seen at this point. With the pastel colors making up the facade, a brightly lit indoors made the inside appear to be spacious and illuminated the warped shape of the rooms, ceiling and windows. It reminded me of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and as soon as I realized that there was no denying that it would be my favorite out of the three. 

I would suggest that if you are traveling to Barcelona and want to see Gaudí’s architecture and most famous work that you go to the houses a bit before dusk, when they are turning the lights on inside and illuminating the outside. It makes for a gorgeous photo but also easier to sneak some peaks of the inside without paying the steep prices. 
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La Pedrera, house of Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain.
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Casa Batlló, house of Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain.
After spending a decent amount of time staring at Batlló we continued our walk back towards our hostel to meet the other girl who would be arriving shortly. We didn’t realize we were on La Rambla until we smelt the mixture of waffles, gelato and flowers and heard music from street performers. Barcelona was lively and was lit up not just from the light of storefronts but from the Christmas lights hanging in the streets and on the buildings. We hit Plaça de Catalunya and were overjoyed in the fact that there were snowflake Christmas lights hanging above the entrance to Corte Inglés and an ice rink open for skating. Suddenly, we were overwhelmed by the fact that we were heading home in less than three weeks and would be seeing snow, having to wear real winter coats, and celebrating the holiday season. When we arrived at our hostel for dinner and met up with the final member of the group we ate dinner with travelers from all over Europe, a man from Australia, and one man from the United States. We were the only students there who were studying abroad, the rest were backpacking. We heard some incredible stories and couldn’t believe how many places these people had been to. The man from the U.S. had been to 14 different countries in the matter of five months and plans on coming back and doing it all over but for an entire year. I think it would be an incredible experience to travel the world for a year and live simply, but I also can't help but think why they are avoiding the real world back home.

That being said, I guess we all are living in a fantasy world here in Spain, and the fact that we slept in until 12:30 p.m. the next day didn’t help our case either. However, in our defense once we were up we were on the go and out the door. First on the agenda was checking out the waterfront. I didn’t think Barcelona would have such a large quantity of green space, but we ran into several parks next to the bay area where there were several boats at the docks waiting to be taken out on the water. It was a perfect day for sailing but none could be spotted out on the water. As we walked we found statues and monuments that were simply just plopped in the middle of the streets and roads. First we saw a sculpture that had, in my opinion, a half-eatten banana on top (no one agreed with me on that one), it is called the Barcelona Face and built for the Olympic Games then we saw a lobster statue where we obvisouly had to stop and take a picture and make lobster claws with our hands. Then we found the Mirador de Colón where people were mounting the lion statues for photo ops. We obviously partook in that as well. 

This still amazes me though, the fact that you can climb or go very close to national monuments in Europe. In Budapest when we stumbled upon Heroe’s Square and then were able to climb the main statue, I thought we were going to find ourselves in a snag, but we all realized that it is acceptable to be up close and personal with monuments and sculptures here. A relaxed approach on the government’s side that I think the U.S. could use at times.  
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Banana statue, aka Barcelona Face.
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Rachel on a lion at Mirador de Colón.
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Andrea (top), Amanda (bottom) with lobster statue.
After relaxing by the water for some time we headed back to the northern part of Barcelona and spent a solid chunk of time at El Park Güell, a public park designed by Gaudí and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here I realized why a close friend of mine who studied abroad in London, England last semester fell in love with Barcelona. She told me that was her favorite city she visited and I can see why. With the mosaic benches, lizards and walls, the columns where you can peak out from and reinact childhood games, the view of the city and all the languages you hear walking along the dirt paths make for a surreal experience. Never did I think I would be at Park Güell with some of my favorite people but I was and we looked out at Barcelona with smiles on our faces, happy that we were able to share this trip together. 

After relaxing at Parque Guell and agonizing over what gifts to get for people and how much money we were willing to spend on a miniature lizard figurine, we stopped for some delicious and cheap paella on our way back south to the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc. As we walked, Amanda, Rachel and I chatted about the things we are going to miss in Spain and the things we aren’t. We talked about how much we are going to miss our señoras and their hilarity but how we also cannot wait to be home with our families and friends who we miss so much. It is a tradeoff, of course, but we all realized on this trip to Barcelona that we are ready to go home. 
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A look out from the top of El Park Güell.
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Sign of El Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain
As we walked to Montjuïc we stopped at Escribá to try a pastry, it wasn’t easy to split but it was worth every bit of sticky chocolate that ended up on our fingers. Once we arrived at the entrance to the fountain we realized it was more than just a fountain, it was a procession of fountains on each side leading to one incredibly large, elaborate and well lit masterpiece that had the most beautiful backdrop of another fountain and Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The view was nothing short of stunning and romance was obviously in the air as Amanda and I hugged one another during the magic fountain show. If you visit Barcelona and miss this, your trip was not complete. It occurs every night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. At Montjuïc I realized I was in love with Barcelona. As we watched the fountain show, that now has given me high expectations for Las Vegas, we listened to the music playing and observed as people around us smiled, hugged one another, and even danced as they sat on the stone steps watching the breathtaking show. As I sat soaking in the culture I had to pinch myself to make sure that I was in reality, I couldn’t believe the beauty of this city. I can safely say I think it is prettier than Madrid in many ways, but is much more touristy than Madrid. 
We left after about twenty minutes and walked back to our hostel, I said I wanted to leave before it ended so I could just pretend it lasted forever. I think that is a decent philosophy. That evening for dinner you wouldn't guess what we had. Paella, of course. Complete with eyes and all. After dinner we headed out and had a glass of wine and Rachel, Amanda and I headed to the infamous Espit Chupito and partook in taking the best tasting shot of my life. I know this blog is supposed to be PG-13 so all I will say is that Rachel and I took the Boy Scout shot, where you roast a marshmallow on the bar, dip it in the shot, eat the marshello, drink the shot and are done, and Amanda took the Harry Potter shot, where the whole glass and slice of orange covering the top of the shot is lit on fire and carmelized, then you drink the shot and suck on the orange. Best 2.5 seconds of my night. 

Now, as I sit on the bus heading back to Madrid I stare out at the scenery of Spain and can’t help but have one regret; exploring the country more. With the mountains in the background, open fields with windmills poking up here and there, and the sun setting I can’t help feel I have neglected the country of Spain a bit and took it for granted. Barcelona turned out to be a wonderful trip, quite possibly my favorite (or a close tie to Lisbon, Portugal), and I know that other cities such as Sevilla and Cordoba would have been in my top five as well had I gone to them. I guess it is just another reason to come back to visit and explore a culture and country that has been so kind to me. Five year reunion, anyone? 
 
This week has been the longest week for me I think, that includes the grueling two weeks of mid-terms, and after a long week what do you do when you study abroad? Travel, of course. 

Tonight four other students and I are heading to Barcelona, Spain for the weekend. We will be taking the bus tonight and arriving in the city tomorrow bright and early around 8 a.m. and will have two full days until we leave Sunday afternoon to head back to our home base, Madrid. 

Emily, a friend of mine and student here, went to Barcelona with her family a few weeks ago and she gave us a list of things to see and try. Although I knew what I wanted to see before Emily's assistance, I can't help but think how nice it is to have advice from someone who has already traveled to a city and wants others to get the most out of the trip as much as they have.

Now, unlike France I think I will be a wee bit upset if I don't see most, if not all of these:
  • If I continue my streak of tripping over my own two feet because I am in awe of Gaudi's architecture I solemnly swear to not be embarrassed.
  • La Rambla: I hear people watching on this world-famous boulevard is incredible. As a journalist I feel obligated to partake in this and listen to the music and watch the dancers. 
  • Because I know I have the potential to be an Olympic athlete and just have not been discovered yet it is obligatory to visit the buildings from the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.
  • Sagrada Família is absolutely necessary, if I don't go here I will never admit I have been to Barcelona because it is the one place you need to go. 
  • In every country I sample the sweets so why should this time be any different? I plan on eating some delicious chocolates from Escribá and then ... 
  • ... Grab some chocolate y churros from La Granja
  • If there is time bargain shopping at La Roca Village just outside of the city would be great for the four of us girls, but Tor, the only male, may use his veto powers on this.   

As you can see I am OK with being a tourist this weekend. In addition to those listed above I also hope to follow in the footsteps of Emily and do the following:
  • Eat at the hole in the wall, La Xampanyeria and try the Rosat Cava that cost 2,30 euro for a bottle and a sandwich with ham, grilled onions, cheese and roasted red pepper. With a dash of the red sauce that is apparently on every table in the restaurant. And no, the red sauce is not ketchup. 
  • Check out Carrer de Ferran, just off of La Rambla, for local shopping and unique gifts.
  • Look more closely at Gaudi's architecture at Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two of his most famous apartments in Barcelona.
  • And what wouldn't be a college study abroad trip without going out in the evening. We plan on going to a bar called Espit Chupitos, an experience that is impossible to pass up when you know the significance of the word "chupito" (shot) and when you hear that it is packed every weekend with locals. We will be taking Emily and her father's suggestion and trying the "Boy Scout" and "Harry Potter" shots. 

Overall, the weekend is going to be extremely fun but also incredibly cheap. We are coming to the end of our time here and we are all pinching pennies, as a result we have chosen a hostel that costs 20 euro per night with a dinner included, as well as choosing the cheapest means of transportation: the bus, costing 58 euros round trip. Now all there is to do is to embark on our journey this evening, sleep on the bus the whole night and see what Barcelona has in store for us! Stay tuned for a recap and a post on our upcoming trip to Brussels, Belgium! 
 
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Exterior of El Escorial, in San Lorenzo, Spain, from the view of the road leading up to the monument.
In October I wrote a blog about visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites while in Europe for the semester and I have just added another to my list for the semester, El Escorial. The tally now is seven overall in Europe, five in Spain. How exciting this is! (Yes, Yoda-Speak I am.)

Going to El Escorial was a great day trip. While the majority of our group was visiting Geneva, Switzerland for the weekend Rachel and I decided to stay local and see historical sites that we have yet to be able to, unfortunately we both had a late start on Saturday morning so we only saw El Escorial, but that proved to be enough as we wanted a more relaxed weekend anyhow. 

El Escorial is located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a region near Madrid and in the center of Spain. If you are based in Madrid like myself you can either take the bus or the train, both are inexpensive costing 7,50 euro roundtrip and is a relaxing 55 minute ride both ways. When you arrive in San Lorenzo you don't think El Escorial is far from the train station, but it is about a 20 minute walk uphill, so for those who do not enjoy a steady incline or have issues walking I suggested taking the bus offered that runs for the station to El Escorial. Rachel and I decided to see how fit we were and walked the incline, wrong move. 
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Rachel outside of El Escorial entrance.
Once we reached the area we were shocked as to how large this five century old monument was. I personally believe it has the potential to put the Queen of England's palace to shame, sorry Buckingham Palace. El Escorial is quite possibly the most important architectural monument from the Spanish Renaissance, and I say quite possibly because every Spanish history and culture professor I have had has said this. My señora even said this once I returned from my day trip. The monument, the brainchild of King Philip II, took 21 years to complete, beginning in 1563 and ending in 1584. Phillip II wanted the building to be a place that had multiple purposes and being the determined man he was he made it happen. El Escorial was not just a palace for the King but was also a burial ground where many of the Kings of Spain are buried (originally it was meant to solely be a burial place for his father Charles V), a monastery, church, college and library. 

If you are more of a visual person here is a break down by date:
  • 1582: Iglesia de San Bernabé 
  • 1584: Royal Palace, Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, university 
  • 1592: Biblioteca de El Escorial 

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Hallway leading to the pantheons.
Rachel and I wanted to take our time going through El Escorial but our leisure lunch took a bit longer than we anticipated and did not enter until around 4:00 and it closes at 6:00. As a result we bypassed the numerous rooms of paintings and armory from past wars, we quickly gawked at the tools and apparatuses used to build the monument located in the basement and then strolled through the living rooms - yes, there were multiple living rooms - and enjoyed visiting the ornate bedrooms and offices, the five century year-old chairs that still had their cushions and tapestry in tact and also the pantheons where 26 kings and queens are buried. This was probably my favorite part and Rachel's least favorite. That sounds morbid so let me explain a bit. 

I have never been a fan of cemeteries, I mean who is? But, on the other hand I think their is something special about how as a family you all are together in one unified location in the end. (I am probably not helping myself sound less grim right now, my apologies.) The pantheons and the several other rooms where the princes and princesses are also buried signify a single location where hundreds of years of history are conjoined. Yes, the kings and queens may not have gotten along, really boosted Spain's economy or even lead Spain downhill (Philip II, that is aimed at you) but they played pivotal roles in Spain's history. It was a little creepy, for lack of a better word, to walk from room to room and see more crypts and tombs that have decayed bodies in them, however it makes you realize how far back the history of Spain goes and how young the United States of America is. At one point I asked Rachel what she thought the bodies would be like after so much time has passed, she did not like that question and began to walk faster towards the exit. Once we came to the last of several of the stone, white, and rather cold, pantheons we decided to take a peak at the basilica and then get some fresh air by taking a gander through the gardens. The Church of San Bernabé  was beautiful and we stayed for a few minutes then said to one another, "Why do these all look the same to us now?" So we soaked in the beauty of the church and headed for the gardens. 

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Iglesia de San Bernabé.
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Rachel in the gardens of El Escorial.
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Gardens of El Escorial.
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Rachel and Andrea outside El Escorial entrance.
We saw swans, took in the brisk air and soaked in the view of the mountains and really could not believe that the grass was still so lush and green, in Minnesota there was six inches of snow. As we walked through the gardens I couldn't help but think how nice it would be to have this much green space but how I would hate to groom the shrubs and maintain the fountains. Whoever does deserves a raise. El Escorial and San Lorenzo were pleasantly quiet and I think Rachel and I both needed that after celebrating Thanksgiving away from our families and the comfort of our quiet hometown, Minneapolis. All in all it was a great day-trip and I think it is quite possibly my new favorite UNESCO site in Spain I have seen. Props to King Philip II, you didn't do all that bad. 
 
Oh Ryanair, how I love you so. 

Last week I came across an article in the business section of Time and what caught my attention? Three words: Ryanair, standing, flight. 

The article, "New Low for Flying? Standing-Room-Only Flights Possible," informed me that the European low fare airline is currently attempting to launch a standing-room-only section on their aircrafts for short-distance flights within Europe. The cost you may ask? A whopping 1.50 USD without the airline administration fee, and with the fee flying one way the cost would most likely come out to be around $11.00 -- drastically less than even its cheapest flights currently. 

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about an airline who has a habit of having technical difficulties allowing standing-room tickets, but the student in me thinks it is a great idea. With the creation of a stand-room-only section the cost of all tickets will decrease, bring more name recognition and popularity to the airline, and maybe even make them a profit so they can fill the plane all the way with gas. It seems like a win-win in my mind. 

That being said, I do have my reservations about how safe it would be during the takeoff and landing but I think, like any student who wants to travel Europe, they would install some sort of handle bars both vertically and horizontally so you can brace yourself. I would hope. Then again I will contradict myself and say I recall reading that Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, did say that if an aircraft did crash a seatbelt would not save you. He is correct, but I just wonder what else he may skimp out on. Time will only tell, but for now I wish my flights all cost $11.oo. Viaja con Dios, lucky ducks. 
 
Streets upon streets filled with crowds of people, multiple languages and cultures, and colorful stalls selling different products, it is all you can ask for on a Sunday morning at el Rastro just south of the La Latina metro stop. 

El Rastro de Madrid, or more commonly known as el Rastro, is one of my favorite parts of Madrid. The open air flea market is held every Sunday during the year and offers everything you could possibly need, and that is not an exaggeration. The market is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., a solid six hours for you to find what you need. A winter coat for 10 euro that would normally cost 30 to 40 in a store, is easily found during this time of year, cute clothing for males and females can be found at bargain prices, especially if you look at the two euro liquidación piles. If you're looking for handmade jewelry and original artwork, then this is the place to go. Last but not least, if you want to get your hands on authentic Spanish music then look no farther than the several vendors who blare their favorite picks and allow you to sample them before purchasing. 

The first time I ever went to el Rastro was several years ago when I first came to Madrid. It was sensory overload with the number of people in the streets canned like sardines and the occasional vendors yelling their deal of the day at those who walked by. The prices were unbelievably cheap and the numerous souvenirs, house products, clothes, artwork and more were too much to choose from. I learned from that experience that you have to go in with a plan, and my plan for my trip last weekend was a warm coat or hat and a gift for my mother. 

We went to el Rastro at 12:00 in the afternoon, a good time to go if you want to be behind the tourist crowd that comes along around 11:00 a.m. and the bargainers between nine and ten. The group of four and myself walked up and down, strolling to see if what we were looking for popped out at us. Some of us purchased wool socks and tights, a jump drive and winter hats and headbands, others bought gifts for family members. I purchased a knit headband and a gift for my mother, though I can't say what I bought for her since she reads this blog more than everyone combined. Sorry, folks. 

While shopping and hunting down the best deals you can't help but just people watch. With all the different nationalities and languages being spoken it is hard to not whip your head back and forth in awe. I am 100 percent guilty of staring at people at el Rastro, I won't deny it. It's too fun not to do. 

The best thing about open air flea markets is that you can take your time moseying through the aisles and no one will care because they are doing the same thing. The same is true at el Rastro though I do believe that this market has something over others I have been to and I wasn't sure if my observation was correct until I did some more research. Here, the aisles are broken up into categories and each street has something different to offer but the one common thread between all the streets is the fact that local antique shops open their doors for the Sunday cliental to stop in and peruse if the stalls prove to be overwhelming. Now, the antique stores weren't the observation I was talking about it is the following streets that seem to have something special to offer.   

  • Calle Rodas: Where lots of people, mostly young, swap trading cards. The street is known for buying and selling magazines, stamps, and trading cards. Get your Yu-Gi-Oh! on here. 
  • Plaza de Cascorro: Get your fashionista on here. This is known for it's fun and unique clothing and accessories. 
  • Calle San Cayetano: has permanent stalls that sell hand crafted paintings, drawings and of course art supplies. Also known as "street of the painters" or "Calle de los Pintores." This is a LeRoy Anderson, Jr. type of aisle. 
  • Collectable and rare books, magazines and other reading material can be found at vendors around calle Rodascalle CarneroPlaza de General Vara del Rey, and calle Carlos Arniches. If you want to brush up on your old Castilian, be my guest. 

Having no rhyme or reason is difficult when you're shopping, but knowing these streets consistently offer the same items week after week is comforting. 


After spending time at el Rastro it is customary to go have a beer or sangria and enjoy tapas. There are multiple places that you can go, relax and talk about all your great deals. So, by the time five o'clock comes around on a Sunday after the market you should have no reason to not be all smiles. After all, you at least got to hear lively Spanish music and look at beautiful artwork for free.  
 
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The Generalife in Granada, Spain.
Before leaving for Madrid a dear friend of mine and I exchanged decorated block letters for us to remember each other by. When times are rough and we have no motivation to do anything, or we simply want to remind ourselves of our silly life moments, we look at the letter. Mine hangs above my desk, hers sits on top of hers. On the "E" she gave me is a quote saying, "Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer" and that couldn't be more true. 

Traveling is the one thing that you walk away from being a more informed, experienced and cultured individual. After researching a few places I have visited this semester I realized that several of them are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, places considered to have significant cultural and natural importance regarding humanity and the heritage of the world population. 

As of 2012 there are 962 sites, and over the course of my travels since I was girl I have been to over 20, six of which I have seen since the beginning of the semester. Traveling makes you richer and the fact that these sights were recognized for doing so makes the fact that I went that much better. 

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Engraved details are everywhere in the Alhambra.
SPAIN, 44 UNESCO SITES: Andrea = 4
1.) First is Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, in Granada, Spain. The Alhambra was originally built to be a military base in the tenth century but became home to royalty and the court of Granada in mid-thirteenth century  As the centuries went on the Alhambra slowly became both a fortress and a home. The walled town had quarters for the military, the Alcazaba; an area for the top government officials, the Medina; and quarters for the servants. To the east of the Alhambra is the Generalife, the royal gardens of the Alhambra. Both the Generalife and Alhambra look over the district of Granada called Albayzín and are incredibly beautiful architectural monuments that pay tribute to Muslim Spain in the 16th century. 

While you walk through the Alhambra your jaw will drop in awe. Don't even bother lifting it up either because it will just keep falling down. Also, if you trip over your own feet, like I did (I have a battle wound to prove it) don't be embarrassed, its happens more than you think. Here, the Moorish and Andalusian architecture blend beautifully, the amount of hand engraving makes your hand hurt just looking at it, and the best thing about the architecture and art is that none of it has been altered, even with the Christian conquest, the buildings and art have only ever been restored. This is by far my favorite UNESCO site in all of Spain.

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Chapel of El Salvador del Mundo.
2.) The Renaissance Monumental Ensembles of Úbeda and Baeza. I won't sugarcoat this one, it was rather boring but the Chapel of El Salvador del Mundo was beautiful. Úbeda and Baeza, frequently called twin towns, are approximately 10 km from one another and combined make for decent day trip, we did it within two hours on our way back from Granada. The significance of Úbeda and Baeza and why they are considered 
 UNESCO World Heritage Sites is due to their Iberian and Roman backgrounds that lead to their abundance of Renaissance architecture.

3.) Segovia, rhymes with Genovia (that's right I watched The Princess Diaries), Spain. Segovia is amazingly old. I don't know if I have every used those two adjectives together and for the same noun but for this medieval city it definitely works. The three cultures that coexisted: Moors, Christians and Jews created unique architecture and style while also paying homage to the Acueducto, the symbol of Segovia for all intensive purposes. Built in approximately 50 A.D. and restored by the Catholic Kings of Spain in the fifteenth century, the roman bridge is one of the few well-preserved monuments of its age left on the peninsula. Walking around the city and stumbling here and there on the cobblestone is nothing but a treat as you gaze at the ancient buildings, the immaculate Segovia Cathedral and try the delicious pastries. When we left Segovia after our day visit I was filled with new knowledge on architecture and art, but also full of delicious chocolate and cream filling. Never say no to a pastry from Segovia. 

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Acuedcuto in Segovia, Spain.
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Segovia Cathedral
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Rear entrance of Cathedral of Toledo.
4.) The last is Toledo, Spain, The City of the Three Cultures and home to El Greco. Toledo is a city that has been home to several civilizations, architectural styles and was influenced by many cultures but primarily by three religions that co-existed: Islamic, Hebrew and Christian. The imprint of the three religions accompanied by the many civilizations Toledo was home to make the city beautiful. Mudejar architecture, a mixture of Catholic and Islamic styles, is the predominate style in the city and is a reminder that religions have the ability to co-exist. 

      Important (and of course beautiful) places to see in Toledo: 

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Banks of the Seine in Paris, France.
FRANCE, 38 UNESCO SITESAndrea = 1
4.) The one UNESCO site I have been to in France counts for a lot more than one monument, thank gosh. If it hadn't I feel I would have cheated France with my 24 hour day trip. The site is Paris, Banks of the Seine and includes seeing various landmarks such as the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame de Paris, city squares and basically anything along the Seine River. Paris, being the river city it really is, is a beautiful city that has historical masterpieces every which way along the Seine, from hundreds of years-old to more recent developments Paris balances the different architecture styles. The only thing left for me to do is go back and visit the rest of the breathtaking country. 

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Tor Peterson and Kevin Kriz in Heroes' Square.
HUNGARY, 8 UNESCO SITESAndrea = 1
5.) My three day trip to Budapest was wonderful and I'm pretty sure it will be deemed the highlight of all trips I will have taken this semester. I know I said knowing a place I have visited is a UNESCO Site makes my experience even richer, but if Budapest hadn't been it still would have been well worth the trip. The World Heritage Centre entitles the location Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue and I can happily say I have been to each tourist sight listed in that title. Budapest is a city that used to be two, Buda and Pest, and is now joined by several bridges. On the right bank is Buda, on the left is Pest and civilization can be traced in both cities back to the Palaeolithic period, we're talking Stone Age here people. Budapest is a beautiful city that has some of the most amazing things including bath houses, labyrinths, monuments and a democracy that is only a year older than me. 

      Important places to see in Budapest: 

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The Banks of the Danube and Parliament building.
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A quick snap of one of the churches in the Castle District.
PORTUGAL, 14 UNESCO SITES, Andrea = 1
6.) If you read my blog post about my weekend trip to Lisbon, Portugal you know I fell in love with the ocean, beautiful city, the people, and of course the pastries - what else is new. The history of Lisbon dates back to over 300,000 years ago, needless to say I was told a lot of information on the walking tour that I could not digest, but these are the important things to know. 
  1. Though it dates back to over 300,000 years ago, only in the early 12th century did it became a nation state.
  2.  According to a legend the city was named Olissopo and founded by Ulysses. Olissopo has origins in Phoenician Allis Ubbo which means "enchanting port" and this is where Lisbon, or Lisboa, received its name.  
  3. During the 15th century Lisbon was the departing point for Portuguese discoveries that lead to finding colonies in Atlantic islands, shores of Africa, Asia and Americas. 
  4. It was during this same time period that the UNESCO sites I have seen were built: Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon
  5. Earthquake of 1755 destroyed almost the whole city and it was rebuilt by Marquis of Pombal
  6. It is one of the world's longest founded cities 
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Monastery of the Hieronymites in Lisbon, Portugal.
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Rachel Arsen on Atlantic Coast beach in Lisbon.
After traveling to each of these destinations I have walked away being happier than I was when I arrived and also more informed about each city's culture, history and people. The more I immerse myself into the Spanish culture and the culture of being a frequent traveler, a nomad some would say, the more I enjoy investigating the places I have been and want to go. You truly do walk away from a place being a richer person, and I have learned to never  doubt the power of traveling because of this. 
 
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Map of Madrid's Metro. Click the image to take you to the online map.
We all know the drill when it comes to transportation that isn't reliable: arrive ten minutes before the bus in case it is early and don't be surprised if you have to wait ten minutes after the bus is scheduled to come. That is the case for Milwaukee, and sometimes Minneapolis, but here In Madrid, Spain I have never waited more than eight minutes for a metro or bus and when I do it is because I  am running late. 

The public transportation is clean, efficient and fast. There are 13 metro lines with over 213 stations, more than 170 bus lines with stops less than a block apart from one another, and the InterBus and 10 Cercanias lines take you from the city center to the suburbs and other communities within the Community of Madrid.  The most commonly used if living in Madrid however are the Metro and the EMT buses

The Metro: 
The Metro is extremely easy to use. The lines are identified by both number and color, so knowing Spanish is not even necessary and if you miss one the odds of one coming in the next three minutes are high. The Metro trains run from 6:00 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. and the frequency of the trains depends on the line, time of day and day of the week. On average the trains come every two to three minutes and every five minutes during rush hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., it is not recommended to travel during rush hour, unless you want to feel like a sardine in a can. At night and on the weekends the metros run every 10 to 15 minutes. It's all very convenient and when in doubt hop on the main line called the greysix, or circular, which continuously goes in a circle around the city center. All lines, at one point or another, connect directly with this route and if they don't they connect to one that does. Also, if you are directionally challenged, don't worry. There is a new application Madrid Metro iPhone application that calculates the easiest route to your destination for you, it even estimates the time. A personal treasure of mine.

The EMT buses: 
Buses come all the time in Madrid. The stops are equipped with electric signs that countdown the minutes for the next four approaching buses. All EMT buses are air-conditioned as well, which is a great thing in the hot Spanish summers. They are fast, frequent and if one is completely full you won't wait more than five to ten minutes for the next bus. The most common buses in Madrid are the C1 and C2, the Circular, just as the frequent Metro line is Circular. The route runs in a wide circle around the city, stopping at major Metro stations such as Atocha, Plaza de España, Moncola, Retiro, Argüelles and more. During the night the day buses do not run, but there are 24 Búhos (owls) that run from 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. every 15 to 30 minutes and are numbered N1-N24. They all begin from Plaza de Cibeles (metro stop is Banco de España)  and go to the suburbs and within the city, while Metro Búho, weekend night buses, leave from the bus stops closest to the 11 central metro lines. They are L1-L11. For all night buses the times vary though you should never wait for more than 15 to 30 minutes. 

Safety:
If you are worried about your safety, don't be. If you are conscious of your surroundings you will be just fine in the Metro and on the EMT buses. At each Metro station there are also guards and plenty of security cameras to ensure that you are safe. 

Demonstrations:
Spain is in an economic crisis and one way people in Spain are showing their opinion of the matter and actions made by the government is through strikes. The unions representing Madrid's public transportation companies have followed suit and have both planned and spontaneous demonstrations. In the past two months I have experienced delayed and packed bus rides and hot and uncomfortable Metro rides during the times of 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.. On the days of the strikes the Madrid Metro operates at 50 percent of the usual services, and though the EMT buses only strike for two hours on the designated days, you never know what time of day it is going to occur. 

The cost:
I use the metro and bus more than three times a day and wouldn't have it any other way. If I had to pay for each individual use I would mind but Madrid makes it cost-effective with an Abono. An Abono is a transportation card you renew every thirty days and it is valid for all modes of public transportation except the InterBus and Cercanias, but you rarely, if ever, take these. The cost is 52,20 euros for adults (ages 23 and up), €33,50 for 22 and younger and €11,80 for the tercera edad, or senior citizens. If you break down any of those prices and take the metro twice a day that is less than a single euro round trip, the price of single trip is 1,50 to 2 euros. I think you have a bargain on your hands with the Abono.
 
This weekend I breathed the smell of Minnesota. The smoke from a fire in the mountains mixed with the smell of hot s'mores, that then combined with the smell of a fresh downpour and cut grass. After a bit the smell of fallen leaves and fall came and soon I couldn't help but take deeps breaths of the wannabe Minnesotan air. Cercedilla, Spain you had me fooled from the get-go. 

This weekend  seven of us hiked the trails of the Sierra de Guadarrama, a stretch of mountains located approximately 60 kilometers from the capital of Spain, and in the Northwest of the Community of Madrid in Cercedilla. Madrid is a cosmopolitan city, there is no doubt about that, and when we found out there were hiking trails and outdoor activities nearby we all became anxious to get out of the city and stretch our limbs. 

Getting to the town was easy. You can hop on the Renfe or take a bus, each the same price, and it takes you directly to the bottom of the mountains where you walk up the road for about half a mile before you get to the beginning of the trails. At first we planned on taking the Yellow Trail, a five hour hike with a slower incline but farther distance, but before we began our trek we found the Orange Trail with a duration of three hours with a steady incline and better views. We opted for the latter. To our surprise the approximated times were not accurate, we finished the Orange Trail in two hours, with stops for the views and lunch. Next time we will  dominate the Yellow Trail instead. 
The weather was unpredictable. For hiking it's better to overdress than underdress and the majority of us came covered in layers but some opted for a more breezy experience. As we hiked I became hot, I took my North Face fleece and rain jacket off, ditched my scarf and was still hot hiking up the hills in my t-shirt. Being bundled up served me well when we came to the top where the wind was strong and the temperatures were significantly lower. I even donned a pair of mittens while we ate our bocadillos at a plateau in the mountain ridge. Emily and I bundled up as much as we could at this point, but we soon realized that our group had a wide spectrum in terms of tolerance for cold weather. 
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Andrea and Emily bundled up at the top of the Orange Trail.
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Emily and Kevin: one bundled, one not.
Not only was it nice to get some exercise it was a great way to see a different side of Spain. We're used to such a busy city where it seems no one ever sleeps and cars are on the roads 24/7. In Minneapolis and Milwaukee there are at least times of the day and places where you can go an escape the hustle and bustle, but as of yet we haven't been able to find somewhere to do that, until now. 

The pine trees, rocks, gravel, actual green grass, and the action of hiking all made the three of us from Minnesota feel right at home and added a little kick to our step. Nature was upon us and it felt oh so good. The views were absolutely stunning. Clouds covered the peaks of the Sierra, mountain bikers engraved their paths on the side of the trails, there were actual boulders on the side of the trails and for the first time in months we saw wildlife, including  a n earthworm Kevin named Herman and later a cow we all took photos next too. Needless to say we needed a dose of nature rather than city. All-in-all our excursion took about six hours from meeting at the metro station to arriving back to our designated Señoras and it was a highlight of the study abroad experience. Could we go again? Yes, but it's beginning to get cold and we all know Emily and I don't handle that well here. 
 
Who knew it would take me traveling to Europe to see the Golden Gate Bridge, well at least its semi-twin. 

In Lisbon, Portugal the 25 de Abril bridge is the longest suspension bridge in Europe and happens to look like a cross between  the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge. The Portuguese bridge was built in 1966, has a reddish-orange tint, and was constructed by the same company, American Bridge Company, that built the Oakland Bay Bridge. One of the girls on the trip cracked the joke that San Francisco was coming to us, I thought that was funny since I have been all over the world but not all over the United States. This sounds melodramatic but going to Lisbon, seeing the Golden Gate Bride/Oakland Bay Bridge look-alike, and traveling Europe has made me realize I have not seen enough of my home country. An early New Years resolution: Go to a national park before another country next year. Lets hope that happens. 

Back to Lisbon. What a beautiful country. When we arrived we were astonished by how beautiful and modern it was. We took the metro to our hostel, Yes! Lisbon Hostel, and each metro stop was absolutely gorgeous. The metro has been called "an underground gallery" since many of the stations are decorated with modern art, and the architecture is there to match. Unfortunately I was so in aw of what I was seeing I didn't take any pictures, luckily there is such thing as the internet and a website for the metro. 
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Photo courtesy of Metro Lisboa
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Photo courtesy of Metro Lisboa
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Cristo Rei monument, Lisbon.
When we arrived at the hostel we dropped our belongings off, changed and headed out for dinner. Irene, my señora said Lisbon was very cheap and my goodness was she right. My dinner of fresh salmon, potatoes, wine and bread cost ten euros, I was pleasantly shocked. After eating dinner we walked around the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and saw a beautiful view of the water and across the way was the Cristo Rei statue. I had seen the Catholic monument on the television and travel shows but never did I think I would be seeing it myself. We never went very close to it, but I think I will leave that for another visit to Portugal. The monument was built in 1959 as a symbol of gratitude to God for excluding Portugal in WWII. Many statues and national monuments in Europe are from centuries before the United States was founded and it was nice to see something that was more modern and relatively close to the ages of many sights in the U.S. After gazing at the water for a bit we headed back to the hostel to get some sleep for our big beach day the next day. When you take later flights they are always considerably cheaper, but you have to be prepared for the trade-off of being tired that night and OK with having a quiet evening. 

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Cascaes beach in the early afternoon.
The next morning we headed to Cascaes, a suburb approximately 40 minutes from Lisbon via train. The weather that morning was chilly but once the sun poked outside of the clouds it heated up and turned into the perfect beach day. Lisbon and the surrounding areas are known for their beaches and are extremely accessible. You can take the train, bus or taxi. It was strange to be in the capital of a country and a big city and have a number of beaches nearby, but I am not complaining. Being from Minnesota I was positive that the Atlantic Ocean was going to be absolutely freezing in mid-October, I will have you know that it was great. The water temperature was between a Lake Superior and summer beaches in the city of Minneapolis, more towards the latter temperature. It took a while to become acclimated to the temperature but once you creep in little by little it is not so bad. Throughout the day at the beach I couldn't help but think how lucky I am to be in Madrid and be able to travel. We all laid on the sand , attempting to tan, soaking in the bright blue water and listening the different languages surrounding us and I still could not grasp that I was in Portugal, at a beach, in the middle of October. It is all still very surreal.  

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Rachel soaking up the hot Lisbon sun.
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Braving the water! From left: Kevin, Emily, Andrea, Rachel
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The Minnesota crew. From left: Kevin, Rachel, Andrea.
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The day came to an end. Sunset on the beach in Lisbon.
The day on the beach was relaxing and rejuvenating. With sun kissed faces we headed back to Lisbon to shower and get ready for dinner and a night out in Lisbon. There is an area named Bairro Alto in Lisbon and is known for having a big nightlife where you hop from bar to bar, all the locals go to that area so we decided to make an appearance. Well, it proved to be more difficult than what we thought. In Madrid you can tell that a bar is a good place to go by the loud music, numerous people coming in and out and it all just seems to be alive, in Lisbon it was different. It was much more casual. It is customary to grab a drink at a bar and take it outside to drink in small groups. If you don't want a drink from one place you can go grab it from another and you all reconvene in the street. The music was decently loud but nothing like we have become accustom to in Madrid. In order to blend in a bit more we went to a bar to get a drink and sit outside, to our liking it played 80s and 90s music. One word: perfection. We sang to a few songs, gasped at ones we missed hearing and soon began a conversation about what music from our generation would be popular when our kids would be growing up. We were all over the map, but we came to the consensus on three: Lady Gaga (because you just can't forget her), Britney Spears (obviously), and Taylor Swift (of course). After our heated, intellectual conversation we decided to call it an early night so we could be prepared for our culture day.

When you're traveling  you want to get the best of both worlds; the fun, local experience and the touristy side where you learn the history and see the important monuments. Hostels are a good way to find cheap, and periodically free, tours, transportation and activities that allow you to do so. A free walking tour was offered at our hostel Sunday morning we walked around Lisbon and saw amazing views and learned more about the Portuguese culture. The six of us and two Canadian girls, backpacking across Europe, walked in the rain up and down the cobblestone hills and roads getting our workout in. When it's raining and you're on a European adventure you can't really be mad, that's my philosophy at least. With umbrellas in hand and raincoats on we learned about the Fado, a Portuguese music genre that originated in the 1820s, saw tile art posted on apartment buildings (a common sight in Portugal),  and a beautiful rainbow on top of a grocery store of all places. There are not many monuments in Lisbon, it is mostly populated by towering apartments, quaint houses, narrow streets and of course the beautiful ocean view
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Kevin by tile art illustrating a Fado performance.
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Rainbow over Lisbon. Photo courtesy of Emily Schmidt.
Following the tour we headed to eat pastries, what else is new? My diet totally went out the window the day I arrived in Spain. Lisbon is famous for a pastry named Pastéis de Belém and ironically the best are found at the bakery called,   Pastéis de Belém. The custard tart was absolutely to die for. They give you packets of cinnamon and sugar to put on top of the palm-sized piece of Heaven and I swear, once you have had one you can't stop craving another. After we nommed out of control and ate our daily consumption of calories in two pastries we went to Jerónimos Monastery. The building was beautiful but by this time in our trip we have seen so many beautiful churches and monasteries that they all are beginning to blend together. It's a sad truth. 
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Pastéis de Belém before first bite.
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So happy to have the Pastéis de Belém.
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Best Pastéis de Belém I have ever had.
All in all, Lisbon was a great decision. If you're looking for a nice weekend getaway this is the place to go. It's reasonably priced, the people are great, and the views are incredible. You will walk away sad you have to go back to reality, but everyone needs a few days of R&R, and what better way to do just that than at a beach in Portugal?