Thursday, January 30, 2014

1/29/14 Day 13 Segovia

Woke up to a snowy Segovia! Time to bundle up it is going to be a cold day. We enjoy a breakfast of homemade bundt cake and milk before 9:00 when Lorena has to work. Carlos drops us off at the aqueduct roundabout where a busy flurry of traffic whizzes by (this is where pretty much everyone in town gets picked up and dropped off). 
We agree to meet back for lunch and head into a cafe for some cafe con leche and wifi to wake up and come up with a plan of attack. We thank the barista for our coffee and head vaguely in the direction of the Alcazar. This castle was built sometime the 12th century over top of previous Roman Ruins, up on a craggy outcrop a few hundred feet above the river below it. If this wasn't a deterrent for attacking the royal family one would only need to look out the huge windows of the banquet hall to see pretty much all of Segovia to realize that sneak attacking is not an option. We paid the 5 euro fee including a visit up the tower, saving 2 whole euros with our ISIC student cards.  We walked from room to room admiring the beautiful stained glass windows, ornate ceilings. The castle was completely empty as all of the tourist bus hordes don't cross the actual threshold of touring a place just snapping pictures and clamboring back on the bus for the next vacation scrapbook page. When we had thoroughly seen everything with unlocked doors (and probably tried almost all of the locked doors as well) we headed up the nauseatingly repetitive tight spiral staircase to the tower. I thought you could see all of Segovia from the first floor, anything out of view there was proudly beaming from here. After admiring the city from up top we paused for a solid selfie before heading back down to the snow line on the street. 

We wandered down the path leading from the castle around the city and castle fortification walls winding around to an amazing viewpoint and then back up and around to Casa del Sol (house of the sun, Segovia's museum) we inquired about the price, and with our ISIC student cards we get a free visit, I always knew those degrees would come in handy ;-) we flowed through the museums information on Segovia geology, wool making, and coin creation (the house of money is right down the street and was the first mechanized mint in Europe, unfortunately we didn't get to visit). The museum ran continuous films on the creation if the aqueduct and how-to videos for some of the first tools used by humans, personally my favorite was instructions for "sharp rock". After the museum we zigzagged down some more beautiful streets, past the amazing cathedral and to the beginning of the above ground portion of the aqueduct, there is also a below ground portion of the structure for a grand total of 14,965 meters of aqueduct. We followed the 166 stone arches all the way to the beginning point where the first of two filter stations was located to separate debris from the water. In complete awe of the structure with no cement or mortar to hold it together, just amazing engineering by the Romans. 

Almost 2:00 time to meet Lorena and Carlos at the roundabout and head home for lunch and siesta. They prepared us home made chorizo sausage, fried eggs, rice, fresh French bread and local mushrooms. Quite the feast especially the chorizo, Lorena's family is in the pig industry, which besides the Alcazar and Aqueduct, Segovia is known for their suckling pig dish which as tradition goes the meat is so tender you can cut it with a plate. For us no suckling pig but all the chorizo we can get for sure.  A glass of milk to wash it all down, Carlos really likes milk, probably drinks 3 liters a day or more and buys it 18 liters at a time, only the milk here people don't worry about refrigerating, same thing with eggs, still getting used to lukewarm milk. After we finished eating time enough for an hour of siesta  before Lorena's two hour lunch break would be over, we spent it on a small nap. 

Alright nap time is over, let's see how many layers I can fit on my body for a hike in the mountains. Helly Hansen warm base layer. Patagonia down jacket. Arc'teryx atom mid layer jacket. Topped off with an Arc'teryx rain shell, yeah you would hope that that and three pant layers, two scarves and a hat would do it. Feeling like a marshmallow we head out 45 minutes to the local mountains with Carlos while Lorena finishes up her work day. 
Parking beside a secretive looking military base the wind starts to howl, I seriously consider letting the boys go and curling up in the car for a few hours for a moment...then pull my buff up above my nose, tighten up my hood and shoelaces and jump out into the snow. As soon as we start walking and get into the treeline my worries of freezing dissipate and for ten minute of huffing it uphill I almost start to get warm but unzip one layer and am quickly brought back to a comfortable temperature. On the first hill we climbed up was a hidden army hideout among the rocks. This area was instrumental in the civil war and as we can tell would be very easy to hide in, especially in the winter. 
We strolled through the rocks and pine trees. This trail has a waist high rock wall dividing Segovia and Madrid counties and showing us the path of the trail. Without this waist high wall we could have gotten easily lost in the mountain with how low the visibility was while hiking. Up and down the first hill we went and already the skies were darkening at 6:00 when we started to summit the second peak. We explored the shelter at the top meant for hikers caught in storms and with a beautiful lookout over the top, unfortunately the visibility was nada. We decided to head back, so we turned on our headlamps and galloped down through the knee-calf-thigh high snow another hour and a half back to the warmth of the car. 
On the way home we stopped by Carlos' fathers so he could pick something up and we got to meet Sophie his little Black and Tan dog and her 2 week old baby. So cute, but made us miss Mocha quite a bit. We ended the night with long hot showers and pizza covered in chorizo. Exhausted we went to bed after setting our 7:00 alarm, tomorrow is a day filled with travel. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

1/28/14 Day 12 Madrid to Segovia

It's our last morning in Madrid! We're taking a bus at 4:30 p.m. to Segovia...but first we must finish some loose ends in the city. First things first we need to get ourselves a Spain SIM card for the iPhone. After some basic research and running around to all of the different phone stores in Puerta del Sol we settle on a plan by Movistar. However after a little more of my broken Spanish mixed with the Movistar reps broken English and we realized it is actually a plan that used Movistars network, but is sold by Tuenti, the first ah hah moment of the day but far from the last. After getting what seemed like easy instructions to the store we set out to find the Tuenti, no luck and no one around could tell us where it was located. After a half hour of doing laps around the square we dragged ourselves back into Movistar to again ask...where? This time I specifically ask the name, Snap he tells me. Another while wondering and I start to ask random people, everyone knows where I am looking for and points us in the direction, finally I feel we should be so close yet no snap! However there is a huge department sized store in front of us called FNAC, could it be?! Walking in the door and instantly we are reassured by the mobile phone department level 2 sign. Ah hah moment number 2! We glide effortlessly up the escalator to the Tuenti pagoda and after agreeing on the plan I want and all of the details he asks for my passport...I glance over at Kevin to be reassured that of course, they are at the house...(of course they are)! I learned later that they need a passport to ensure that I am legally in the country and that I do not plan to ignite a bomb as a terrorist, but of course. Well nothing left to do but run home and grab the passports, so much for the lunch we were going to cook for Alberto. So we head back and pack up our bags as it is already 3 we will have to take care of the phone on the way to the bus station. We head back in and get a prepaid phone with essentially no snags we purchase a 12 euro plan with 1gb of data and 4 euros of credit for calls and texts. 

Well that was a frustrating morning, now we are off to catch our bus to Segovia! It's an hour and fifteen minutes to Segovia and we arrive in town at 5:45 and got off at the wrong stop so had to walk all the way into town, we figure out we have arrived when we look up and see a huge aqueduct towering above us, yep I think we are here. Carlos and Lorena, our hosts for tonight and tomorrow pick us up at 7:00 we do a quick night-car-Segovia tour before heading out to some bars. At the first bar Lorena orders a caña (small beer) with lemon,, an amazing new discovery for us. Since all of the beers here are simple lagers anyways it's nice to have a little more pleasant flavor! With our beers we get two free tapas, chorizo and a new one for us rice cooked in pigs blood...when in Rome, surprisingly not bad. I doubt I would ever order it just due to the mental bias but I would never be rude and turn it down if offered either. The next bar more cañas con limón and calamari and bread came with it this time, yum! During the middle of our conversation a 6 piece Spanish band came waltzing in complete with tuba for our listening pleasure. Oh how magical this place can be. Walking out to the next stop through the main plaza of the city and the first snowflakes begin to fall, we head in and order our wine and beer and decide on some fancier larger raciones instead of tapas. We had a lamb dish, a vegetable and curry dish, filo pasta filled with chicken and turkey and a baby eel and ricotta cheese dish. All were phenomenal and with that dinner was finished we walked back to their place had a hot cocoa and did a load of laundry in the small washer that is typically in the kitchen in Spanish homes, and no dryers, it's all hang dry here. 

To end the night with one more snag, I'm using my new Spanish number for a call to my debit card company to clarify some of the fraud stuff and here minutes into the conversation the call ends and I get a text saying I have used up my and why is that even possible, stupid phone! Ugh, back to Tuenti on Thursday it is. Luckily Carlos let me use the land line to take care of the call and all is well again. Now after a long day of Ah hah moments, phone snags, and some amazing food it is time to rest up for a big day of adventure time in the morning. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

1/26/14 Day 10 Madrid

We have been back home at Alberto's all weekend and after a good night and half a days rest....Woke up this Sunday morning excited to go to the weekly Rastro market that we failed to get to last week. Between 7a.m.-3 p.m. Every Sunday The streets fill up with vendors selling almost anything and everything. 
Some of the items are beautiful handmade creations while other items are cheap tourist inspired junk. I was per my usual in search of some nice earrings the bone and wood variety. I also have realized my scarf and neck buff are two of my surprisingly more valuable pieces of clothing so far as it is cold so I found myself surveying the booths for a nice scarf as well. Kevin on the other hand perused the majority of the leather booths for a quality thick leather banded bracelet. We must have gotten to the market around 10 and I can't even put into words how crowded it was. The market in whole takes over the entirety of the La Latina district funneling from one street to another until finally filtering out to a place where you can walk in the direction of your own will, instead of wherever the hordes choose to go.

 So we kind of oozed along with the crowds of tourists and locals alike looking at new goods, used telephones, pet cages and piles upon piles of "I love Madrid" t-shirts. We snaked our way along the alleys of sunglasses, homemade soaps and broken but still functional chairs for sale. Every time it looked as though the market was about to come to an end the bottom of the hill would come into sight and thus the continuation in a new direction of the market stalls. Going into it blindly we didn't realize that there is an order to the chaos: one of the streets is for the sale of animals, there is an area where the used I.e. Garage sale items are mostly contained, much of the food is contained in one area that we of course didn't find until after we had settled on our prosciutto pizza, and the main drag is essentially for the market stalls who pay their permits and sell new items. Well next time we will certainly be more well prepared for the chaos. We successfully got out if without buying anything more than lunch as well...winning! While I did see some nice scarves most of them were fairly bulky so we decided that we would go back to a store on gran Via street that had a nice and more packable infinity scarf that I wanted. Since we are down to our last euro coin we make a pit stop at the ATM, as we are getting used to Minor card issues it is no surprise we receive an error message, and move on. At the second machine the transaction doesn't go through again, frustrated but thinking nothing of it we decide to go to the store and use my debit card directly for the purchase. After picking out a new scarf and neck buff we head to the counter and are rejected 3 times, confused and distraught we head back to check the account online, perhaps I forgot to transfer money. As soon as my account page opens up I realize there are fraudulent purchases on my card...fml! Seriously! There are 6 purchases in the last two days totalling around 300$, four of them from the same company. After lunch I called Capital One to figure out what to do, luckily they already knew and had cancelled over 50 other purchases attempted. The operator told me that they left me voicemails, but I of course no longer have a cell phone or I would have known sooner. Unfortunately for the six or so purchases that occurred before they caught on to the fraud I have no choice but to wait for them to go through this week and then after that I can claim them as fraud each individually and most likely have them refunded. A frustrating and annoying way to start the week to say the least. 

To round the day off we watch the entirety of the sunset over the cityscape and off to the market for a bottle of vino and supplies to make curry with Alberto for dinner. 

1/27/14 Day 11 Toledo

Today we are going to Toledo with Alberto and his friend, Natalia. We are up fed and out of the house by 9a.m., only about an hour southwest by car and we are in beautiful Toledo. This city is known for producing some of the best weaponry; knives, swords, and shears are presented to eager tourists in every shop it seems.
We are here not for the weapons but the beautiful historical city architecture, the walls, synagogues, mosques and churches. Oh and also the Greco museum, which we find out quickly is closed on Mondays, so back to the architectural focus. As for the mosques and synagogues, they pretty much all charge entry fees, so we enjoy them from outside, after all the town is mostly about defense and the best defense is the outer buildings anyways. We zigzag our way through the city and up and down staircases looking at turrets and aged brick all day.

Finally finding ourselves a tourist information center we get a map and visual confirmation that yes all of the types of churches in town cost money...except for the Greco museum that is closed Monday, two other things that are also closed and one museum, Santa Cruz that is free and open, but out of the way and not well known. By now it is 1 p.m. And we are hungry so we find a small bar and order ourselves bocadillos (sandwiches made with a large baguette) and sangria, followed by coffee and an hour or so of conversation. Once we finally were ready for some more exploring we ventured back outside into the sunshine and blue skies that we were accompanied by. We find the library which should have a viewpoint cafe at the top. Half expecting to pay an entrance fee for that too we walk in and find an elevator waiting to take us to the top. Going all the way to the top we find a beautiful view from three different balconies and better yet No pressure to even buy anything from the cafe. After a quick view we head back down the nine stories. 
Wandering aimlessly in the direction of beautiful buildings we find ourselves luckily in front of Santa Cruz museum, the one free open thing in Toledo today, perfect we thought! Little did we know that it is only free because it is where the leftovers from other better museums and churches go to rot. The paintings and art were all famous biblical scenes but not versions done by a famous painter simply alternatives. The benches were all mismatched and awkward and all of the sculptures were broken; missing arms, hands, and facial features. The whole place seemed so ridiculous after spending this week in the Reina Sofia and the Prado. But we had fun doing it nonetheless. After more castle sightseeing we headed towards the river Tejo. 
We walk along the riverside path climbing in and around some of the ruins enjoying the beautiful day until the sun starts to sink and the warmth begins to fade. 
Meandering back over and down the hills to city center where we parked the car we drive back to madrid for a last dinner and bottle of wine in the city. 
Beautiful Toledo. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

1/22/14 Day 6 Madrid

Moving to another host today, surprisingly close, still in Lavapies. We are meeting Pepe at his place at 11a.m. We easily find the apartment with only about 6 blocks of distance between our hosts. After meeting and getting to know each other we are given the keys to the place and head out for the day. As Pepe is a software designer he works from home but will be busy until 10:30p.m. We decide to first grab some lunch at the market: baguette, chorizo, Gouda and a 1liter wine juice box, grand total 4 euros, score! We spend a while trying to locate a nice place to eat it and settle on a park overlooking the city with a variety of dogs playing together. Upon sitting down, pulling out our lunch fixins and realizing that a third dog was core begging for food and being yelled at by its owner we come to the conclusion that, we are enjoying our lunch in a dog park...stupid. so we pack up our things and move onward so that we won't be such a tease. We land in the gardens behind the royal palace, a place we have missed open hours 2 times now. 
The gardens ended up being overrated and under cared for, but there was some nice bird watching, we saw a little green parrot, and this migrating flock of birds circling and regrouping up in the clouds, a really phenomenal thing to watch, so many birds! Bored of the gardens we walked up to the Temple of Debod, but was on a two hour siesta break so we decided to sit in the park and enjoy the view from the plateau on which the temple rests. Soon after of course the blue sky we had begun the morning with turned to a grey chasm and the rain began to flow. So naturally it was time for a café con leche to wait out the rain. When we returned to the temple it was pretty busy, I think the first time we have seen a tour bus group parked where we were. 
The temple was a gift to Spain from Egypt for helping them with flood recooperation. Inside are beautiful hieroglypherics and a few models of what the original temple site in Egypt would have looked like along with a fair amount of sideshows and reading material. By this time early evening the sun about to go down, time for churros! Kevin in his infinite directional skills leads us confidently to what was pointed out to be the best churro place in the city, open 24 hours a day, San Gines. For 3.8 euros we get a plate of 6 fresh churros and a cup of hot dipping chocolate (like a cross between pudding and cocoa) and a seat outside to watch the sunset. 
We end the evening at the Reina Sofia museum for our 2nd visit we are able to make it to Guernica by Pablo Picasso. All there is to say is Wow! Such a powerful and moving anti war sentiment. He painted it to spotlight the intentional bombing of a town of innocent women and children. It is also one of the more documented processes of art pieces as famous as Guernica. With a thorough picture capture and sketch collection of the piece through all of its stages.  We returned home around 9 to find that there was an extra backpack in the living room, apparently we weren't the only couch surfers for the night, luckily we got the futon not the air mattress! An hour later Rob a 19 year old Australian boy came knocking and then minutes later Pepe who invited us to a flamenco show for only 5 euros. How could we resist. So the four of us went out for some traditional Flamenco music. Amazing and soulful!

1/21/14 Day 5

8 a.m. Sure came early this morning, but it is time to go to the mountain so at least it is for a good cause. Alberto, Javi, Kevin and I packed up the car finished our breakfast and headed for the mountain range northeast of Madrid and halfway between Segovia, Parque Nacional de la Sierra de Guadarrama. After an hour drive we arrived at the lodge and Alberto dropped the three of us while he we back to a lower village to pick up two more of his friends. 
After a delicious café con leche the rest of the group arrived and we began our ascent. There are no amenities, or ski lifts in this park just beautiful natural scenery. At the bottom of the hill many skiers were hiking up the short slopes to learn how to glide down, as well as many mountaineer heading up to practice their skills for bigger climbs in their futures. It was a beautiful area for people to practice all sorts of different alpine sports. 

The snow is so much different than home, so light and dry and with a fresh coat overnight still only ankle deep on the single track trail up, luckily I was able to borrow some good waterproof hiking boots or I would have been so cold. The scenery was so beautiful, blue skies as far as we could see with stunning views. 
After about an hour of hiking up though the clouds starting to roll in, the snow was getting deeper, knee high in some areas and getting colder, definitely time for lunch. Our lunch stop was in view a small radio tower with a small shelter built into it. We could either hike over and around, the easier, but longer way or straight up the steeper shorter way. Four of us decide to huff it up the harder steep side and two of our group went the other way. 
It really wasn't that difficult although the snow was getting to be thigh or hip depth in some areas and there were some large rocks we had to climb over that were making it easier and harder. We made it up to the top, unfortunately our view had been eaten up by the clouds but at least we were rewarded with a fantastic lunch of bread, cheese,tomato, an apple, and of course some well deserved vino! 
After lunch we decided we would head back down and not tempt the storms by trying to make it to the peak. On the way down we saw an ice climber practicing and also a kite skier in action, a great day for it, although the visibility was poor.
 We took a more well groomed path back down to the lodge which made for a quick and easy decent and of course ended the hike with more cafe and tea to warm us up.  
After, we were dropped off at home so Alberto could return the car I almost immediately curled up into a ball in front of the heater and took a fantastic siesta for a few hours. Waking up around 7 to the boys talking we all conversed for a while before deciding it was time for food around 9. Alberto wanted to show us to the best vegetarian burger in the city, luckily it was only 20 meters away. We split a huge burger and a barbecue vegetarian pizza between the three of us along with wine, beers and coffee for dessert. I'm still not ready to give up on meat just yet...but the vegetarian fare was definitely a tasty change in pace. Leaving the restaurant after 10 pm the stores close by were no longer selling beers so we had to resort to mix drinks with the whiskey back at the apartment for our night cap. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

1/20/13 day 4 Madrid

Monday morning we had to pack up our bags and actually pick them up for the first time in a few days, they seemed a little more evenly balanced this time around much better to handle. After we cleaned up the apartment we said goodbye to our first couch host home and walked across the street to the Rivas Futura train station. Since we had spent all of the rest of our cash we stepped over to the ticket machine to buy our two, 2 euro train tickets to downtown with a debit card with a pin but, the machine wouldn't respond, after looking like idiot backpackers for another few go a rounds a security officer came over to explain that as posted in front of our faces...minimum 5 euro purchase on cards. Of course how easy! Not so fast after fumbling around a bit longer she came back to explain that you need a European MasterCard or Visa, frustrating indeed after all a visa should be a visa, apparently not. Defeated we walked our annoyed selves down to the mall where we successfully withdrew some more euros. After a short metro ride to downtown we were at the train station within Lavapies looking for an internet connection to contact our host via WhatsApp which is a program that allows you to text for free with a connection to wifi. Once we got ahold of Alberto he brought us to his place and within minutes dropped a set of keys into Kevin's hand and said "welcome home." How amazing it is to have this trust between people just another level. 

After we feasted on his homemade vegetarian "everything in it lentil soup" he took us out to see some more of the city we walked to the river at the cities edge and admired the many bridges and man made natural impression parks that are on the banks. We got to the gardens below the palace fifteen minutes late and were turned away. After walking around for a few hours awe turned towards Lavapies so that Alberto could get his car from his parents at their home in the suburbs, which will be necessary for the next adventure, tomorrow it's off to the mountains! One he returned with the car and his friend Javi, we picked up the next days menu, baguette, cheese loaf and tomatoes the evenings drinks; beer and baileys on the rock and returned to the apartment for great conversation, some drinks and a bit of sleep. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

1/18/14 Day 2-Madrid

Woke up feeling sore, but I've definitely felt worse, but definitely held all of the weight on the hips. We had breakfast with Abraham, typical croissants and juice, then said our goodbyes as he had a salsa class to get to and we, much to see. First things first we still hadn't seen all of Retiro Park so we hopped on the Metro and away we went, first wandering into a random art gallery full of very abstract paintings and next making our way to the Crystal Palace. Such a beautiful building I only wish we could have enjoyed in the sunlight instead do the rain, but nonetheless a palace made of!
Next on the agenda, time to get lost...on purpose! We randomly walked through the streets enjoying all of the stores and admiring how many tapas bars Madrid can possibly support, our epiphany...a lot! We  shared a multi course lunch including bread, paella, short ribs, cheesecake and a glass of wine for only 12 euros. 
We arrived in Puerta del Sol, one of the main downtown hubs for nightlife and the location of the Oso and Madroño a statue signifying Madrid's past plentiful presence of bears and Madrona trees. 
Also one of the more beautiful and artistic Metro entrances.
As the sun sets we make our way over to the Prado museum for the 6:00-8:00 free museum hours. We take in all of the Goya, Velasquez, Tiziano, Rembrandt and sculptures we can and just before they start to rush people out we are able to spend 10 minutes admiring Bosch' "Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych which is just endlessly amazing. Look up a better version there was obviously no photography allowed. 
[Bosch Prints - The Garden of Earthly Delights]
After getting herded out of the Prado we had enough time to catch the last 45 minutes of the Reina Sofia Museums free hours. So we went straight up to he top floor and waded through a amazing photography collection showcasing a lot of early 1900's work including the toil and work of tiremakers, coal miners and more. We had only just gotten to the 2nd of three floors when we were ushered out of this museum. Oh well probably enough art for the day. And almost time to meet Abraham for tapas/dinner and drinks in Purta del Sol at 10:30. The first place he took us included Northern Spain tapas with a salmon brochette, Spanish omelette and a chicken pepper snack, and of course beer. Next was a real treat we strolled right into this wonderful little Jamòn place. With a fantastic plate of Bellota Jamòn (these pigs are fed an acorn diet the last three months of their lives to enhance the flavor) really a delicacy for us to enjoy with our wines. Lastly we went to one more place where we split a portion of huevos estrallados another Spanish delicacy, egg cooked with cheese, potatoes and Jamòn. So good but so filling. At this time it was late, cold and there was no more room for any food or beer. As the Metro only runs to the zone we are staying until 11, we hailed a cab back for a pricy 30 euros to enjoy a good nights sleep. 

Day 1 Madrid

After a long, but pleasant and full day of travel we arrive at the morning, ready to begin a new day. After staring at the ground transportation signs for what seemed like an eternity we figured out we needed to take the Metro (subway) rail line to downtown, where we would spend our day and then take another line to where our first couchsurfing host lives in the suburbs of Madrid. To fully grasp the transportation exasperation it is imperative to know that in Madrid you can take the metro which is an all encompassing subway, or the Metro Ligero a light rail system, the Cercanias or the Renfe lines, both of which are high speed train lines that also connect Madrid to other cities within the country and abroad...if all of those trains don't have you spinning, add in the huge bus system, along with the night bus system (night owl) which operates on some of the lines, and your in for a transportation treat. Of course there are taxis, moto taxis (essentially a scooter) and planes as well. In other words we can pretty much get anywhere that we need to go, anytime of day. For ease of mind we spent the majority of the time on the Metro; they are fast, efficient (1 train every 7-15min) and affordable at only 2 euros per train ride within the main city zone A. 
We got off the Metro at Nuevos Ministerios walking up and out into the city we were really here, finally. First things first, time to find a map so off to the tourist information, the only problem...which way is North, West and up?!? We must have started to walk down the block and then up the block 3 times before actually being able to figure out what street we were on and in what orientation we're going.  We arrive at the T.I. Get all of the maps and answers to the questions we can think of and head forwards Retiro Park. This is a 350 acre park that was once owned by royal family but was opened up for the citizens of Madrid, and definitely one of the most beautiful city parks we have ever seen! Complete with a lake where you can rent rowboats, mesmerizing marble sculptures, a crystal palace and a large variety of trees including Madronas (our favorite) and palm trees, both of which we were surprised to see. The olive trees still have not completely shed their fruit and the magpies and ducks are plentiful.
While most of the park was relatively quiet Tigger was still able to identify the tourist within us and ask us for money (which he did not receive)! After we had done about four hours of walking with our heavy packs it was almost time to meet Abraham our first couch surfing host. We got on the red line of the Metro and connected to the Purple line that takes us to Rivas Futura and try as we might didn't arrive until 3:25... Almost a half hour later than the 3:00 meet up, oops! He was nowhere in sight, and after pacing and walking around the building and back to the train station we did the only thing we could...we trudged the quarter of a mile to Macdonalds to sponge off of their wifi. We were able to contact Abraham via Whatsapp and he met us outside the apartment 30 minutes later. We gladly got inside and took off our bags and opened the bottle of wine we had brought as a host gift. The apartment is beautiful and new as he has only lived here for 6 months and very fashionable with a sleek black and white theme, and what's better we actually get to sleep on a bed, score! After some wine and socializing we agreed on a siesta before going out on the town. Waking up around 11 we realized it was raining and we were so much more tired than we us realized, quickly agreeing on back to bed!

We made it!

A little late on the post, but yes we have made it to Madrid! The travels here were a breeze with no troubles at all, except the whole jet lag thing that I think we have both finally gotten over after two nights of 12+ hours of sleep. 
Firsts off, international flights rule! We flew on IBERIA Air and it was great. It was a direct flight from Chicago and took about 8 hours. The flight had all the necessities that our flights used to have; free food, more space, free movies, pillows, blankets, and even free wine. It was a smooth flight with minimal turbublance, we slept the majority of the way, watched a couple of movies, and played a little bejeweled on our individual screens. Once we landed it was a quick jaunt through customs with absolutely no hassle at, a quick wait for our bags, and we were ready to go. 
We had made it to Madrid!
Our next challenge was to figure out the metro system, find our way to downtown for some exploring and then to find our way to our first host.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Schengen dilemma....

The Shengen. "What's that?" You might say. Well if you don't know, it is all the countries in Europe that you can travel between without having to cross a border to get into another country (see map below). Most countries are part of the  Schengen, 26 to be exact. So, what does this mean for us? Well after doing countless hours of research on all the countries that we want to visit and planning the general route that we wanted to travel we had thought we had the perfect plan. We had read a lot about how you can't stay in any one country for more than 90 days without a visa. No problem at all, we had no intentions to stay in any one country for more than 90 days so visas were not on the mind from then on; probably 4-6 months ago. Until just the other day when the Schengen came up in conversation with my (Kevin) old co-workers wife, who was from Amsterdam, and she suggested we look into it a little more closely. That night we learned that every time a country in the Schengen refers to it's 90 day visa it is in fact referring to a visa for itself and all of the other Schengen countries as well. So Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Norway ect. All require you to have the same visa if you wish to travel within them for more than 90 days. "Well, shit!" We thought, this really changed the way we had to think about our plan because After you have traveled in the Schengen  for those 90 days you must remain out of it for another 90 days. 90 in then 90 out, this is the new plan. Luckily, Ireland and the UK are both outside of the Schengen and it is where we want to spend the most time volunteering for Workaway. So we will travel as much as we can in the Schengen for our 90 days then move to Ireland for our first work away volunteering program. Hopefully we will be able to be involved with two or possibly three different programs while we are in Ireland for the 90 days. Once we are allowed back in the Schengen we will head up to Scandinavia and Netherlands area to travel around there for another 90 days of Schengen.  We will keep you posted as to what happens after that.

It's was a slight panic upon first finding out about the situation, and more than anything baffled by how we could have overlooked such a huge issue with all the research that we have been doing. Either way it is but the first of many learning experiences that we are sure to encounter along the way, things are once again good to go. We are just continuing to pack up everything else that is not going with and getting it off into storage, which is a whole different challenge of its own!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

14 days and counting

Melissa and I are now 14 days away from take off, for the biggest adventure of our lives, thus far. Because in 14 days we are off to Europe for a planned 16 month journey; planning to travel as light as possible with one backpack each and only the essentials within. The rough plan of itinerary is to start in Spain and Portugal (mid January-mid March) enjoying Carnavale celebrations on the way, then moving to Ireland and the UK (mid March-mid June), up to Scandinavia for the summer visiting Norway, Sweden, Helsinki and Tallinn Estonia and experiencing the Midnight sun (up until late July), at which point we plan to head to Belgium & Luxembourg, and from there the Netherlands in August, spending September in Germany (hopefully partaking in Octoberfest), from there we will be possibly heading to France to see the countryside, moving from there to either Italy and Greece, then Austria and Switzerland or vice versa depending on what months we actually make it that far South by. If we have time and money at the end we will do some more adventuring, but the basic plan is to do all of this and more and make it home roughly around Spring of 2015.

Over the next couple weeks we have a little more packing of our everyday stuff and getting it stored away. Its been quite a weird experience having to put everything that we have taken years to acquire into boxes and completely reducing our lives to the one bag each. Just a few more boxes to fill and put into our family's garages awaiting our return.

There has been much preparation and research happening over the last 6 months but we, I think, are mostly ready to go. After trying on many pack and countless visits to REI and many other local outdoor retailers, we both decided to carry Osprey packs. Mine is the Aether 60 and Melissa's the Ariel 55, both big enough to carry everything we need inside the pack but small enough to keep it light. Packed full of as light of weight and as little stuff as we can manage. Just have to make a few last decisions on clothing, pack and unpack our bags a few times then we are off. We are looking forward to spending this last amount of with family and friends and prepping for our Big Adventure.