Wednesday, December 7, 2011
My episode covers the Tampa Bay area including Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa. Click here to listen to the Tampa Bay podcast on Amateur Traveler and learn more about why you might want to visit this area or get updates about various sites and events if you have been here before (or if you're a local looking for new things to do). Feel free to leave a comment here or on the Amateur Traveler blog about the episode or anything you think I missed.
Happy travels! (As is every Floridian's duty, I have to inform you that it has been in the 70s here lately...a nice start to December!)
Thursday, November 17, 2011
I've heard many people in the last few months complain about their 'phone bill'. I've shared my set-up with several folks and thought that writing up how I do it may help more people break free of contracts and save some money in the process.
Disclaimer: this is not an endorsement of any company or service. The services I mention are simply what I've found works for me. The costs are as of the date of this post. With the flood of VIOP, cell and service providers, you are likely to find alternatives that work better for you. Knowing what is possible is half the battle... making it work for you is the other half.
First, I'll start with what I had... an iPhone with AT&T service (unlimited data, texting and around 900 minutes a month). This ran me a little over $100 a month including fees, taxes, etc. My 2 year contract with AT&T ended shortly after we returned from Europe, so I had some time to try my alternative plan back here in the States before deciding whether or not to renew.
Last year, before leaving for Europe, we did some research on European cell plans and SIM cards. One thought was to simply get a pre-paid "burner" phone for use over there, but there were a couple problems with that idea. First, I did not want an overseas phone number that my friends and family back home would have to pay international rates to reach me or have to pay international rates myself to call the US. Second, I really enjoyed my iPhone apps and games and did not want to have to carry 2 devices.
For those that are not familiar with cell phone network protocols, there are two types; GSM and CDMA. There are many differences, but that is not the subject of this post. What's important to know is that in Europe and most countries outside North America, cell phones are of the GSM variety. Most North American carriers are CDMA. So if you are not on AT&T or T-Mobile, you have a CDMA phone that simply will not work in GSM countries... regardless of "international plans, etc".
As my iPhone was with AT&T, I did have a GSM phone. Our research led us to a 'Dual Number Global SIM Card' from GeoSIM (see link on right side of this page). This SIM card works pretty much anywhere in the world and is a no contract, pre-pay plan. Your GSM phone has to be unlocked in order for GeoSIM to work in it. You can set it to auto-reload (in my case $15 at a time) when the balance nears zero. The appeal of this GeoSIM for me was that it comes with two phone numbers... a UK and a US. This means that my phone will ring when either number is called. There is no contract and no monthly fee (although there is a small, $10, annual fee each year)... you simply pay per minute of use. In coming calls to your UK number are free and calls to your US number are 14¢ per minute. Outgoing calls depend on where you're calling from and where you're calling to. Calls from the US to the US are 48¢ per minute. This can get expensive if you talk a lot, but this is only one link in the chain.
The second piece is Skype. While Skype is no secret and has tens of millions of users, I believe most people just scratch the surface of what is possible with Skype. Skype has a plan that allows you to call any US or Canada number (unlimited minutes) for $2.99 a month. There are other subscriptions that are country or region specific, but US and Canada is fine for my needs. Once you have a subscription with Skype, they will give you 50% off of a Skype phone number ($30 a year). This is a normal US phone number like any other, the difference being that when someone calls it, Skype rings and you answer with whatever device on which you have Skype running at the time... your PC or Mac and if you have a iPhone or Android, get the free Skype app and it works just like your phone. An internet connection is required to use Skype, so this may not be an option at all times.
The last piece of the puzzle is Google Voice (GV). GV is a free phone number, but a virtual one. It can not make or receive calls in the literal sense. Once you sign up for GV and pick a phone number (or port a number to it) you have one number to give people as a way to reach you. (If you've been keeping track, I have 4 phone numbers). There's no need to tell people which number to call or when or worry about if you have wifi... for me, the only number people know is my GV. Behind the scenes, you register your other numbers (GeoSIM, Skype) with GV, then you tell GV where to send your calls. If you're home or somewhere with wifi, send them to Skype. If you're on the road with no data, send them to GeoSIM. The person calling you simply dials your number and you decide where to answer. The other benefit of GV is free SMS (texting) to US numbers. Skype charges per text message, but open up GV on your computer or smartphone and (if you're on wifi) you've got free SMS from the only number people have for you. Skype allows you 'spoof' your outgoing number, so when I call people from Skype it shows my GV number. GV also has free voicemail so if you don't or can't answer (there is caller ID), your caller can leave you a message. GV can not "forward" to non-US numbers, so the US number on my GeoSIM becomes even more essential, although it does cost 14¢ a minute.
I use my GeoSIM as little as possible since that is the one variable cost in the equation. I find I am much more selective in making cell phone calls - do I need to make this call or just want to? Can it wait until I am on wifi so I can call with Skype? Receiving calls on my GeoSIM is a matter of severity. If I choose to answer, I find out if its urgent. If not, I ask if I can call back later (with Skype when I'm on wifi). If it is urgent, I pay the 14¢ a minute. I've found (being selective with my use, not stingy) that I am 'topping-up' my GeoSIM about once a month, $15 at a time, or $180 a year. Skype costs me $66 a year for a phone number and unlimited calls to US/Canada. That's it and that is over $950 less per year than what I was paying! Even if I doubled my GeoSIM use, I'd still be about 1/3 of what I was paying. Note: The cost of home internet is not factored into this as I am paying for that with or without a "phone plan".
- I can make and receive calls anywhere in the world
- I have one US phone number (behind the scenes I have 4)
- It doesn't cost anyone in the US anything extra to call me
- It doesn't cost me anything extra to call someone in the US
- I choose where my calls go and when
- I have free SMS, Caller ID and Voicemail
- $20 a month (averaged) vs. $100
- No contract
- It is complicated, although once you get the hang of it it is actually very easy
- I do not have cellular data
The over-the-air data was the hardest thing in all of this to give up, but with public wifi becoming so ubiquitous, it is becoming less of an issue. When we were in Spain, pretty much every cafe, bar and restaurant had wifi. It was protected, but stop in for a pint and they would gladly give you the key. Eventually I had almost all of them on our walking route from our apartment to downtown. As we walked I would jump from hotspot to hotspot. I essentially had a (free) data plan at that point. Just make sure your phone has wifi capability
My iPhone was locked to AT&T when I bought it, but unlocking was pretty easy and when I popped the GeoSIM in, it worked like a charm. Recently my iPhone bit the dust, so I purchased an unlocked GSM Android based phone on-line for about $350. GeoSIM works perfectly. I downloaded Skype and GV (both free) from the Android Market. The transition was seemless and even with the new phone purchase I'm still way under what I was paying.
Lastly, I should point out that GeoSIM and most other companies that offer these type of cards are not based in the US. So setting up a pre-pay/auto top-up with them will result in foreign transactions fees on your credit card, if your card charges them.
Happy traveling. Happy talking. Happy savings.
Sunday, November 13, 2011
A few weeks ago we joined a small group for one of the national Meet, Plan, Go! events in Orlando, while others were being held throughout North America. Meet, Plan, Go is essentially a movement to encourage North Americans to take part in career break travel. As the name entails, the idea is to meet at the events and via web channels with others who have fulfilled such travel dreams or are in various stages of planning, to then be inspired to begin one's own planning and then to go!
For us, it was a bit backwards since we have already done career break travel (or in my case, digital nomad travel), however it was still great to hear stories, learn about some additional resources and ideas, and be surrounded by like-minded people. When you're passionate about something, you can sometimes be a bit hard to take for others who don't share that passion (thought bubble above the head of any person talking to me, "Enough already with the travel stories!"). Getting together with those who share your passion is energizing (and is the next best outlet to blogging for telling all your stories and hearing about places you dream of going:-).
What impressed me most about the panelists we heard was the variety of lifestyles, situations and motivations they started from to reach the common denominator of extended travel. I hear a lot of different comments from people when we're sharing our story, along the lines of "You're lucky to be able to do that" (yes, I agree:-) and "You can do it because...(you don't have kids, your job allows it, fill in the blank here)" or "How??" (which often relates to money). For us, it is true, some of the challenges were easier because of our jobs, lifestyles, etc. However, the panelists proved that people in a variety of circumstances were able to overcome obstacles they faced.
This isn't just about travel though, because that may not be something that matters to you. But if it is a priority and you think you can't do it, there's a lot of people out there who can tell you otherwise. For example, on the Orlando panel, there was a couple with three high-school aged children who traveled around the world for a year (after a slight detour in planning when their original savings plans were derailed by the housing market crash) and a solo woman traveler who is also a "digital nomad" and is now venturing out with her young niece for a year! I've read a number of blogs and articles about every type of traveler you can imagine: from older women who travel amongst youth backpackers to families with all ages of children and people from wide-ranging career and financial situations.
I guess my biggest take away is that these lessons can be applied to life whether travel is important to you or not. It's about what you want in life and the feeling many people have that they are stuck without choices. As a conservative worrier, believe me when I say, I know it isn't easy to face the unknown or make big changes. I am someone who generally sees the glass half-full and sometimes can get all too comfortable with the status quo because of this. I'm always pretty pleased with where I live, who I am with and what I do for a living or fun. I can easily get into a rut (and often do). But, I guess I've also always had a certain restlessness (I'll put the positive spin on it and call it intellectual curiosity) that doesn't allow me to settle in to my rut for too long.
What do you want to change in your life? What little steps can you take to start making that happen today? Do you try to prioritize the things you are passionate about daily?
If you're curious about the logistics of how some of these career break travelers made it happen (how did they save the money?, school the kids?, what did it cos?t, how did they handle medical insurance?, etc.), check out the Meet, Plan, Go! website and some of the blogs and social media sites of the various panelists or other round-the-world, career break travelers or digital nomads.
I would also recommend The Passion Test, a book and methodical system of identifying your passions and putting them first in your life (whether those passions are a hobby you want to improve, a business you want to grow, your children and family, friends, a better relationship with your partner or travel...).
Does this inspire you or tick you off? Do you think my view is unrealistic, idealistic, unsympathetic? Have you or someone you know changed courses in a big way and lived to tell about it?
Friday, October 21, 2011
Most of the towns in the Tampa Bay area have a full schedule of events throughout fall (and spring). Part of the reason we chose Dunedin was that we found ourselves visiting for some event or another almost every weekend when we moved to the area.
If you are planning a trip to the area (oh, or if you live here!), here are some resources to find out what might be going on (or to plan when to visit):
Old Palm Harbor Main Street website: events in downtown Palm Harbor, Florida
St. Petersburg, Florida official site: events in St. Pete (today there is more than one thing listed for almost every hour!)-events are color-coded based on the type of event
Island Time: links to the various towns' events calendars plus more festivals throughout Florida
Dunedin Wines the Blues is one festival I would highly recommend, whether you like good blues music, wine or just a general good time in a fun, downtown atmosphere. For all of the events happening in Dunedin, visit the city of Dunedin events calendar.
In addition to the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, which is one of the area's premier events for locals and out-of-town visitors, you can find a variety of arts events, crafts shows, great music festivals, beer events, sporting events (we loved going to the Indy car races in St. Pete), and unique local celebrations such as Stone Crab weekend at Frenchy's Restaurants and the Palm Harbor Citrus Festival. The Strawberry Festival in Plant City is one of the most delicious!
Because of the beautiful weather and scenery, you'll find some type of outdoor celebration on almost any night. For example every evening, Sunsets at Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach has live music/entertainment, arts and crafts and (free!) one of the most striking sunsets you will ever see.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Listening to The Amateur Traveler podcast (highly recommended!), I was inspired to write about my hometown area. The podcast guests often talk about places they have traveled, but are mixed with guests from a particular area talking about their hometowns. Even though we sometimes neglect to take advantage of all our hometown has to offer, we all know some of the great spots and can be inspired to get out and explore those things that we should be enjoying!
I've had the chance to visit a few local treasures lately that are well worth a visit. First is the Salvador Dali museum in St. Pete which I covered in a recent post, "A Surreal Adventure Nearby". This is a world class collection, now housed in a world class building. While you are taking in some art, it is worth stopping by the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center. Many people would be surprised to learn St. Pete is such a great arts destination. Complete your day of the arts with the Museum of Fine Arts and touring the local galleries and shops. Or, check out some great local theatre at American Stage or the Progress Energy Center for the Arts.
Of course, for those less inclined towards art, there are all of the expected activities in the area such as beaches and water sports. Cross the bridge from Tampa and head in almost any direction and you'll find some of the most beautiful beaches you have seen. Honeymoon Island State Park is one of my favorites and often voted a top beach in the U.S. For outdoor enthusiasts, there are unlimited opportunities to fish, swim, kayak, paddleboard, bike and do just about any activity. I'll dedicate another post to more specifics about the beaches and outdoor activities, as well as some ideas on specific towns to visit and places to stay.
For now, I cannot neglect to mention Clearwater's biggest current celebrity, Winter the Dolphin. If you've seen (or heard of) the movie Dolphin Tail, you know Winter's story. Winter lives in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, another local treasure worth a visit. Not only can you see Winter (and buy any type of merchandise you can imagine) but you'll see many other animals with similar stories and learn about the rescue and rehabilitation done by this facility. Expect crowds, at least while the glory from the movie lasts. However, it is still very manageable. They offer various packages too, including a combination with a "Sea Life Safari" cruise and several behind the scenes and interactive options (and photo opportunities with the celebrity:-). You can get discounted tickets as a AAA member or senior citizen (sidebar: I find it amazing that 60 and older is considered senior!). I'd recommend checking it out online and consider purchasing your tickets online too (especially if you want to do any of the special tours) due to the popularity.
After your visit to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Winter, hop over to Clearwater Beach for a sunset dinner at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, preferably a grouper sandwich. If you're in town from about mid October to April/May, you have to try the stone crab claws. Frenchy's actually holds a big stone crab celebration every year at the beginning of the season. That same weekend is the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. If you are a fan of jazz, or just like sitting in a beautiful setting outdoors listening to live music, plan to visit this event. Another big surprise, this is currently a free event, run mostly by volunteers (such as ourselves) and embraced by the community for many years. Read more about the event in our Clearwater Jazz Holiday post from last year's event and on the Jazz Holiday website.
When you attempt to talk (or write) about your local area, you gain a better appreciation for all the area has to offer...and you realize you can't possibly cover it in one post. My goal is to do a series of posts covering the area as we "travel locally" so check back for more soon and let me know some of your local Tampa Bay favorites!
Sunday, September 4, 2011
St. Petersburg, FL
After spending time in Dalí´s home country of Spain (well, Catalonia, really), it is interesting that we only have to go a short distance from home to see one of the best (if not the best) collections of his works. Not that odd, I suppose, since the U.S. was his adopted home during the war years and he deeply identified with the innovation and discovery he saw and experienced here. During this time, he and Gala befriended the Morses, a couple who became not only friends, but serious collectors. It is thanks to them (and the locals who helped eventually bring the collection here for its permanent home) that we in the Tampa Bay area can enjoy a world-class collections of Dalí´s work. You can read more about the history of the collection and museum at the museum site here.
We had been to the museum before, but it has moved to a new home and we wanted to see the building as well as view the collection now that we have more context of Dalí's homeland and influences. It means a lot more to view his paintings of Cadaques after seeing the beachfront in Catalonia and to hear about his admiration for Velasquez after viewing many of his works at the Prado. And, with the complexity of Dalí, you could visit many times and discover something new each time, to say nothing of rotating exhibits and new features.
The new museum is a truly worthy home for this collection. Dalí would have appreciated the building's and grounds' aesthetic. Set on the waterfront, it is a beautiful area to enjoy, rivaling the seafront towns where Dali spent much of his time in Spain. The collections are housed in two wings divided by a stunning circular staircase and wall of over 1,000 glass triangles known as the Glass Enigma. Lennie Bennett of the St. Pete Times did a great overview of the unique features of the building.
Because there is so much complexity to this art and it helps to understand the context and meaning, which are so tied in with what was going on in Dalí's life and the world around him, I recommend a guided tour. The museum has regular docent-led tours as well as audio guides. Both are free! The museum has a fairly pricey entrance fee ($21) so this is a nice feature that they should offer (there are senior, student, and member discounts as well as discount tickets available at AAA, which we purchased and also helped us avoid the ticket line). I got one of the audio devices and listened to most of the segments as we viewed the collection (and building, as the audio also talks about the museum's history and creation of this new building). Bryan didn't get an audio guide, but listened to bits of a docent tour which had started before we arrived. The crowds were a bit much on this fall Saturday and locals are probably better off choosing a weekday or weeknight (the museum has $10 admission Thur. nights).
This new building provides space for all the works to be on display at once, and I will certainly go back to spend more time exploring each one. This is the largest collection of his Masterworks and one can spend a lot of time soaking in all the detail and expression held in these intriguing works (to say nothing of reflecting upon his personal evolution along with the context of what was going on in the world and specifically the creative movements of the times). Our visit was truly enriched by the memories of viewing art from Picasso, Velasquez, Miro and others in Spain as well as immersing ourselves in the scenery and culture of Catalonia and Spain. If you can't have that context, you will still get a lot out of the museum but I would recommend doing a "mini immersion" by perhaps reading up on Dalí, Spanish history and culture, and the Surrealists or even watching some films or shows about Spain.
If you visit, plan some time in St. Petersburg beyond the museum. This is one of the nicest cities nearby, with a pretty lively downtown and waterfront. Feel a little Spanish by taking in a coffee in a local cafe or wine and a snack or meal at a sidewalk table (the museum has a cafe offering a small array of Spanish selections to get you in the mood). One of the other treasures in the area that I highly recommend is the Holocaust museum. I was surprised by the quality of this museum, which doesn't compete with the size of the D.C. Holocaust museum but is done very thoughtfully. It may be a lot to take in within one day, though. Instead, spend a night and explore the city and its many art galleries, the new Chihuly museum (another local treasure), the waterfront and beach and much more. Make that a few nights!
More pictures of the new Dalí museum:
Thursday, August 4, 2011
Most of the time we explore new places on our own, but a great tour can help bring context to a place and better organize your explorations. Here are some ponderings on tours and highlights of some favorites from over the years of travels...
We made a good choice contacting Aziz Begdouri (pictured above) based on Rick Steves' recommendation in the Morocco side trip section of his Spain guide. Actually, we initially planned a short bus tour to take us from Denia, Spain down to the Costa del Sol and over to Morocco...but in one of life's more fortunate detours the ferries were canceled due to high winds and we ended up joining the others in the group on the day trip to Gibraltar. We got to enjoy Gibraltar, get a nice refund and ended up with a more personal experience of Morocco.
Being a slow time for tourism, we almost ended up with a private tour but had an even more enjoyable experience with another American couple, swapping questions and conversation with each other about travels and with Aziz about life in Morocco. We had planned on a shorter tour of the markets and old town, while they had wanted a longer tour including a short mini-bus ride to the outskirts and beaches. Aziz was completely fair and kept with his quoted price for our original tour even though we got the extras. And, it was nice seeing the larger context of Tangier and the beautiful beaches. The tour through the markets and tiny, winding streets of the old town was fast-paced and an overload on the senses. We had some downtime over one of the best lunches I have ever eaten and some requisite shopping (minus pressure from our guide). Missing out on any big rug commissions, Aziz was kind enough to help us find the specific souvenirs we wanted...some Moroccan coins for Bryan and a charm for me to add to my travel charm bracelet.
One of my absolute favorite tours was our Old Madrid Wine and Tapas tour, which Bryan found online and booked for us and our friends on our first night in Madrid. Our host was passionate about Madrid, great food and wine. This was where we first learned about Vermut del grifo, which became a favorite treat for the rest of our short time in Spain (we were pained that we had missed out on this for so many months). It was so fun to chat with the other tour-goers and we did not leave hungry (or thirsty) and felt truly welcomed to Madrid.
We also had a wonderful historical walking tour in Granada, with a small group of English and Spanish speaking tourists. It put the city and region in to the context of the history and struggles between the Moors and Christians. The local T.I. (tourist information) offices in Spain and elsewhere often offer good, inexpensive city tours such as this. Other times we have also used Rick Steves' podcast tours to get some background and good information while walking on our own (I particularly liked his Venice tours, especially the one to go along with the Vaperetto ride).
Many travelers will roll their eyes at this, but another favorite for us is the "hop on, hop off" city tour. Some, especially trolley tours in Savannah, GA and Washington, DC, have offered knowledgeable guides and a delightful experience. Other times, we see it more as a means to get oriented and be transported around to spots we get off to further explore. Sometimes the tours aren't that pleasant in places where it is hard to see much (or too cold to go on the top of those double deckers), traffic is clogged and the headphone narration is pretty basic. I still find it worthwhile, though, as you have a sense of where everything is and typically get two days worth of transportation for the fee. You'd really miss out if you didn't get off and explore on foot too, though.
We generally don't take fully-guided trips, but there are times when it makes sense. For example, we had a great trip with Sports Travel & Tours to the Cal Ripken Baseball Hall of Fame Induction (along with several stops at games along the way from Camden Yards to Yankee Field). We did "do our own thing" a few times, such as taking the subway to the Mets game instead of getting back on the bus again. For an event like this where hotels were booked well in advance and there are a lot of logistics for an individual traveler trying to fit in with huge crowds, the tour made life a lot easier. They even brought us ice-dipped towels and cold drinks when we were all sweltering in the audience. I was impressed by their level of organization and the quality of the overall tour-great for sports fans! But, generally I'd rather plan on my own and take some risks, have some adventures and work on our own time table.
I started thinking about this post after reading a book, Too Much Tuscan Sun, recently. It is a funny glimpse in to the world of a Chianti tour guide and his often amusing customers (you can find it in my Amazon favorites on the sidebar of the blog).
I will review some additional tours we have taken in future posts. You will find information within our specific travel posts about additional tours, resources and favorite spots from our travels over the years and we welcome comments and input from others!
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
We took the opportunity to spend the holiday weekend exploring a new place (thanks to an email alert about good deals!)--San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a beautiful island. It is pretty easy to get to from Florida and a nice cross of staying in the U.S. while feeling like you're in a whole different place. I look forward to exploring it more, as I know there are many beautiful spots. For this trip, we stayed in old San Juan and got to explore all of the historic sights, beautiful architecture and lively shops and restaurants.
San Juan feels like being in some small Spanish town, as it should. Puerto Rico's location on the route to the "new world" has made it a strategic spot since its early discovery (in 1493 on Columbus' 2nd voyage) and founding by Ponce de Leon as a Spanish colony in 1508. Two major fortifications were built (La Fortaleza and Castillo San Felipe del Morro) and later, the city was walled in and further protected by Castillo San Cristobal. The island was an ideal spot, along the current of the trade winds and the major island with water, shelter and supplies for ships sailing from Europe. San Juan's deep bay made an excellent port, readily defended.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 and its future fate may be considered again soon by its residents. President Obama made the first presidential visit in 50 years recently and offered his support to the residents' decision, possibly on statehood. It was interesting to contemplate the island's history and future as we visited over Independence Day weekend.
We really enjoyed walking all over the small town, rambling through the cobblestone streets (check out this picture of the unique blue cobblestones and explanation of their origin), peaking in the shops, photographing some of the beautiful buildings and enjoying plenty of good meals.
Castillo San Cristobal offered beautiful views of the surrounding seas and overlooking the town, as well as a glimpse in to history. I especially enjoyed going in to the observation posts created during World War II, with small windows to spot approaching threats. We walked around the city walls several times, and enjoyed taking in the view from El Morro as well. I enjoy old cemeteries, and San Juan has a beautiful one right at the water's edge. (Really-don't be spooked by them-you're missing out. They can be so beautiful and interesting. I spent a long time wandering through one in London, looking at the inscriptions and different grave stones. My favorite inscription: "Got her wish-gone to nag him." I hope she's haunting someone over that!)
The colorful buildings in San Juan give the town a bright, Caribbean feel with an interesting mix of architecture. There are numerous outdoor cafes and tons of jewelry and souvenir shops for the cruise ship visitors. I had fun window shopping and met the friendliest ladies in a local shop selling miniature replicas of the old houses and buildings of San Juan ("Feel free to ask us anything. It doesn't have to be about the shop, anything about San Juan...").
We stayed at the Sheraton, which was pretty standard but recommended for its great location to explore the town. We barely walked through the casino, but the on-site restaurant came in handy for brunch when we were hit with a deluge on Sunday morning. Three cruise ships were in port on Sunday, but the sites didn't seem completely overwhelmed (we ventured out after the flood receded).
We had a lot of good food...too much, in fact. A few places we tried that I would recommend: on Fortaleza St., the main shopping artery-Pirilo (good pizzas, tasty Puerto Rican tapas and creative drinks), Marmalade (a bit pricey, but unique takes on classics, very inventive), Pieria (good tapas) and nearby, Fefo's Deli & Tapas (great mofongo, sandwiches and breakfast). We had a nice dinner in the beautiful courtyard of El Convento Hotel at El Picoteo. It was a great setting and the tapas were quite tasty. After leaving there, though, we spotted Rosa Triana Tasca and visited the next night...it just had that authentic Spanish Tasca look, and didn't disappoint. In no way the atmosphere of El Picoteo, but at the same time it felt like we could be in Spain. And, the tapas were very authentic (with the addition of some Puerto Rican specialties), though the portions were more American (should have ordered much less!).
We also made the obligatory stop at the home of the Pina Colada (how did I miss this important historical fact that the drink was invented here?!?...though the details are open to some dispute apparently), Restaurant Barrachina. Regardless, it was tasty and sometimes you just have to be a tourist!
To view the rest of our pictures, check out our San Juan gallery.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
It has been a fantastic year (almost) of being road warriors so I thought I'd do a little summary (well, I will shoot for little, but it's been a big year!) and share some thoughts.
200 days on the move (with a few more to come soon...)
6 countries (U.S. included)
Here's a list of all the cities where we touched down:
U.S.: Atlanta, Greensboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge, TN, Nags Head/Outer Banks, NC, Charleston,SC, Richmond, Washington, D.C, Baltimore, Charleston, SC, Seattle, San Clemente, Laguna Beach & Anaheim, CA
Canada: Vancouver, British Columbia; Parksville, BC; Victoria, BC (& a few other little towns on Vancouver Island)
U.K.: Gibraltar, London, Bath, Lacock, Stonehenge
Spain: Alicante, Valencia, Denia, Benidorm, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Sevilla, Vejer de la Frontera, Jerez, San pol de Mar, Montserrat
People most often ask what our favorite place/experience was, and that is truly a hard question to answer (like picking your favorite child:-). But, overall I tell people that the ability to live in Spain for three months and the day-to-day experiences are some of the fondest memories. That may not be the most exciting answer, compared to standing at the top of Gibraltar looking out into Africa or absorbing the sights and smells of the crowded markets in Tangier, but it holds the dearest spot in my heart. There is something different about being settled in a "home away from home" and doing all of the day to day (sometimes mundane) tasks in a new place that made me feel very alive and refreshed. I never did a "gap year" or a semester abroad, but I fully believe it is something everyone should experience at some point in life.
There is so much to discover, no matter how short or long a distance you travel. We went to new neighborhoods and caught up with old friends in places we had lived before, like Atlanta and Nashville. We delved in to bits of American history at Oak Ridge and on a Charleston carriage tour. Our relaxing visit to the Outer Banks was full of memories of family beach trips over the years. We've tasted wine in such a wide variety of regions, I've learned good wine is not exclusive to one terrior. And, we've seen the differences and similarities of people of many cultures. And, rediscovered the goodness inherent in humankind.
One of my other loves in life is reading and I always try to put my books together with my travels and places. I have tried to absorb things about the history and culture of some of the places we have traveled by simultaneously reading books about them or by local authors. I think I read every memoir of expats in Spain (and there are quite a few, full of humorous stories). I enjoyed some wonderful novels based in Barcelona, a history of Venice, a modern day look at Spanish culture and politics , and laughed my way through Bill Bryson's account of England during our days in the U.K. I try to rotate some of those books throughout the Amazon favorites section on the blog, but feel free to email me for (or with) suggestions too.
What will I take away from our journeys? A brain bursting with memories...sights, sounds, smells, newly discovered favorite foods and beverages and new friends. Also, a renewed love for travel and zest for life. Travel can be discomforting in many ways, and that's a positive in that it gets you "out of the rut"...that's my experience at least.
You can not only discover new things about the world, but about yourself. You may rethink your priorities or be opened up to ideas you wouldn't have at home. For some, it means coming home and feeling a renewed appreciation of the comforts of home. For others, it is a reminder of all that there is left to explore. And, that coming home can mean many different things. Personally, I have learned that home is not my house and that things mean very little to me. But, home is friends and family who mean everything. Home doesn't have to be a place...I feel the world is my home and that I was meant to see more of it. I have had wanderlust as long as I can remember and I know it is part of me. I am anchored by my friends and family who I know will be close by wherever I go. Fortunately, with today's technology and (relative) ease of travel, we're never far apart.
We've been lucky to do a lot of travel before this whirlwind trip as well, and you can read about more of our adventures in past posts. You can see we don't necessarily discriminate in the type of travel we will do...everything from baseball trips around the U.S. to luxury cruises. But, our favorite travel really is getting in to the local area and discovering as much on our own as we can...and getting those glimpses of day to day life even if it isn't a three month stay.
Happy travels to all and here's to many more adventures!
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
One of the things we've been able to experience more and more on our trips is staying in vacation homes/apartments instead of hotels. I love a good hotel and enjoy the little perks (I am enamored with different tiny toiletries--the more unique, the better!). Having someone make up my bed every day is a nice little luxury, but there are definite advantages to staying in apartments instead. I think we will stick with hotels for one or two night stays and otherwise seek out apartments or homes in the future.
Staying in an apartment gives you a feeling of home and a small taste of living in the place as a local, even if only for a few days. Of course, the space is nice and being able to cook meals can help the budget. Dining is one of the best ways to experience a culture, so we still eat out for many meals but even being able to grab a quick breakfast or coffee at home each day can save a lot of money and make the day feel less hectic. It is nice to have a refrigerator for drinks at a minimum.
Apartments may be in neighborhoods where you find few, if any, hotels, so they give you the chance to explore different areas and get to know neighborhoods that a typical tourist would not likely explore. This was true of our stay in London's Forest Hill area. It was a quick, easy train ride in to all the sights of central London (10 minutes to London Bridge) but a quieter neighborhood with nice parks and local residents. The Forest Hill apartment was a lovely little studio set within this commuter neighborhood. I especially loved the bookshelves full of books on every subject and enjoyed getting cozy with some good reads.
We visited the Horniman Museum and Dulwich Picture Gallery, two spots we never would have discovered if not for staying in this area. The Horniman has a unique collection of items from around the world, gathered by this tea magnate on his travels. Dulwich was a cute little village with a beautiful park and the gallery had an impressive collection of Rubens and some visiting works of El Greco. We also enjoyed the local pub's Saturday comedy show on a rainy evening.
When we visited Barcelona, we chose an apartment via HomeAwayUK, a website I had become familiar with by following a couple on Twitter (@ gran_tourismo) who traveled for a year staying at various HomeAway properties. The "Magic Fountain" apartment, so named for its proximity to the Mountjuic fountain with evening light show, was an ideal spot for us and our friends to explore the city. The neighborhood was more removed from the tourist bustle (and pickpocketing hassle) of other areas, but located a few blocks from Plaza Espana with easy train access to all points.
The apartment was super modern, with a great kitchen that allowed us to cook a couple of meals at home, even though Spanish restaurant food is hard to beat. The owner had some tourist information and pamphlets handy, as we found at all the places where we have stayed. Having internet access at the apartments not only allowed me to do my work, but also makes it easy to do some quick research and find places to go. You feel more like a local visiting neighborhood spots and navigating public transportation (so handy most anywhere in Europe).
The spot where we spent the most time was our apartment in Denia, Spain, found through the wonderful SabbaticalHomes website. You can see our previous posts and pictures on our time in Denia and the warmest welcome we received from our hostess there. We fell in love with Denia and enjoyed being there in the off-season when there were few tourist crowds. We got to know the local markets, walk everywhere in town, discover hidden gem restaurants and slowly fall head over heels for the place. As someone who is fortunate to be able to travel while working, staying in apartments is the only way to really accommodate both leisure and work time comfortably for longer periods.
Some other great finds we have discovered on our journeys, besides the HomeAwayUK and Sabbatical Homes websites, are two different options for traveling. One is home exchanging, which we have explored but not done yet. We have traded emails with many lovely families and hope to plan an exchange soon. From everything we read, it is another great way to travel and feel at home in a place...as well as a cost-effective means to do so. By trading, you get the added advantage of a local's advice and experience and might just get to know some great people as well. We have been using the site HomeForExchange.com which seems to have a great number of participants and we are so excited to travel to some of the wonderful places we have been offered. Check us out on the site if you want to come to a great place in sunny Florida!
The other experience we have had is housesitting. This can be a great thing to do for people in situations like ours with a lot of flexibility. It gives you a way to see a new place, but of course there are responsibilities that go along with it. Each listing is different, some require a lot of pet or lawn care, while others simply involve bringing in the mail and watering a few plants. Generally, these are not paid jobs and you would not be expected to pay anything either. However, you will see some jobs that mention you covering some costs and generally housesitters don't feel this is fair considering you are providing a service that can be costly otherwise. If you can travel freely and afford to front your travel costs, this can be a great way to see new places and help someone at the same time. It can be fun to get to know some sweet pets too!
A site I recommend is Housecarers.com, which has jobs all over the world. It is an Australian company, so you will see a lot of Australian area listings, but there's a wide variety from the U.S. and elsewhere too. It seems there are quite a number of people looking for housesits as the listings seem to get bombarded with responses. People may be more likely to have someone housesit within the same country or if you are already visiting the country, as they worry about reliability and travel (and Visa) issues. If this is something you wish to pursue on a more regular basis, you may want to list with a couple sites or consider other ways to get the word out about your availability.
With any of these options, use standard caution that you should when conducting business via the internet. Ask for information, pictures, references and have good conversations beforehand. We have been quite pleased with all of our experiences, but it is essential to do your homework. Safe travels!
Monday, April 25, 2011
The last time we were in London, we wanted to see Stonehenge, but our visit was too short. This trip we were able to take a full day and tour the south of England; Bath, Lacock and Stonehenge. Stonehenge is only about 75 minutes outside downtown London by car. Usually we are not fans of organized tours, however after some research we chose a package from 'Premium Tours'. The main reason for this was the unique access they provide to Stonehenge itself.
Since 1978, direct access to the stones has been extremely limited. The fence surrounding the property sits a good 50 yards from the stones at its closest point, so viewing Stonehenge for free from the road is not very fulfilling. If you pay (around £8) to get inside the fence, you get an unobstructed 360° view but you're still outside the roped-off area, about 5-10 yards away at best and with the masses of other visitors. Premium Tours offers a tour of Stonehenge before and after opening hours (sunrise or sunset). Moreover, you are allowed inside the circle! Our tour group was about 50 people, but we had Stonehenge totally to ourselves, unrestricted, for about an hour... worth every pence.
So much has been written on Stonehenge and its history that anything I add here would be redundant. I guess we will never truly know who built it or its original purpose, but it is history... human history and when the main challenge of daily survival is finding food and water, one can only assume that the motivation and extreme effort behind building Stonehenge had to be for something extraordinary. Even with all of the mystery surrounding Stonehenge, my only question is how it is not one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Best estimates date it 500+ years before the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Before arriving for our sunset tour of Stonehenge we stopped in the towns of Bath and Lacock. Bath is beautiful English city and home of the natural hot springs (still flowing today) around which the Romans built a public Bath House in the 2nd Century AD. The Baths are open for viewing only... no bathing, not that you would want to. The Bath Abbey is situated next door to the Roman Baths and worth a peek inside. Today the city is filled with stores (many chains), cafes and pubs. The architecture of Bath is beautiful, but monotonous. John Wood and his son, John Wood designed the city that still stands today and while absolutely worth seeing, I cannot imagine one needing more than a few hours (perhaps a day) to see it.
Our tour also included a short trip to the town of Lacock. One of the oldest cities in England, it has been untouched by time. All of the buildings are original and from the 1300's. There are no street lights or visible electrical/telephone wires in this town. A quick trip through the cemetery one finds no names on the grave markers. In a town this small, the residents simply know who is buried where. Lacock's claim to modern fame is the Harry Potter films with several scenes filmed on location. We had a wonderful late lunch (Steak and Ale Pie/Fish and Chips) at The George Inn before the drive to Stonehenge.
For organized tours, this one ranks up there as one of the best we've experienced.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
We're staying in an area Southeast of the city, Forest Hill. A very nice "commuter" town, with some great local pubs, restaurants and parks. Our flat here is very cozy and the perfect place to relax after long days of sightseeing. Our hosts have been most friendly and accommodating. Forest Hill is a very quick and convenient train ride into London Bridge and downtown London.
Here are some of the highlights I'd like to share:
Shortly after arriving, we quickly found our favorite place for beer and mussels in London, Belgo. Last time we were here, there was only one location, now there are several... but just as we remember, the food was fantastic and the beer selection (mostly Belgian and Trappist) was extensive. The specific Belgo location we tried was close to the Covent Garden tube station which is nice, but touristy, shopping area with many shops and pubs.
Vinopolis (like Metropolis of Vino) is a newer attraction that is in an old warehouse below London Bridge train station. This place is a delight for those wishing to try fine wines (and other spirits) from around the Globe without having to circumvent it. We choose the tasting option that included a two course dinner from their Cantina. Pricey, but well worth it. The food was delicious and the beverage tasting plentiful. Vinopolis is in the Bankside area of town and surrounded by waterfront pubs, medium to high-end restaurants and the Borough Market... go there hungry.
Proud Cabaret, a couple blocks from the Monument Tube Station is a step back in time. Mainly a burlesque and dinner theater, this place has a style and charm that seems all but gone these days. From the impeccable service of the staff and the flair of the bartenders to the emcee and performers, this place is a class act. Dinner reservations are hard to get, but if you show up about 90 minutes before the show you can get a good seat at a bar table and see the show.
The Camden Town area of London is a fantastic market and shopping district. As with most markets in London its best to go between Thursday and Sunday. There are several hundred vendors selling every thing from food (name the ethnicity and style) to clothing and random junk. A must see. Spend an afternoon wondering through the many markets and if you fancy a tattoo... there is no shortage of parlors. Think Little 5 Points in Atlanta about 25 times larger, London style.
Greenwich is the home of the Royal Naval College, the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and due to it's location at 00'00.0" longitude, the home of Greenwich Mean Time. A small area of town, but delightfully quaint. It is very reminiscent of old town Annapolis. The park leading up to the Observatory is vast and on a warm spring afternoon full of sunbathers, bicyclists, picnickers and the like. There is a small market off the main square that is typical of London markets... and as such, open Thursday - Sunday.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the free admission to both the British Museum and the Tate Museum of Modern Art. The British museum's exhibits on the history of world currency and timepieces are worth the trip alone. While the Tate seems to be everything the British Museum is not... the surrealism exhibit is quite nice.
I don't know when we will make it back here, but each time I am in London I learn to appreciate it more... I hope the next time is not too far off. We're on a journey to visit Bath and Stonehenge tomorrow... stay tuned.
Thursday, March 31, 2011
After spending several months in Spain and experiencing a majority of the country, Barcelona is the last place I will recommend for someone looking to go to Spain on a short vacation... ok, second to last just ahead of Benidorm. Don't get me wrong, Barcelona is not a bad place but seemed the least Spanish of any of the places we've been in Spain. This is partly due to the Catalan culture that makes a point of separating itself from the rest of the country. The other part is that it is absolutely flooded with tourists and not in a charming, "oh, you're here from the US too" kind of way. Experiencing Barcelona for a week or less finds the city short on quality, overpriced and overrated.
Perhaps if one had a month or longer to spend in Barcelona, the view might be different. The few times we were able to get out of the touristy areas and blend in with the locals were most enjoyable. The challenge is finding these areas in this large and spread out city.
Pickpocketing is a serious problem in Barcelona. You will hear this everywhere and for as prepared as you feel, it will hit you when you least expect it. You must be on full alert... constantly. Now in all fairness it is not the US, so you're not likely to get randomly shot, mugged, carjacked or raped... just pick pocketed. However, you should count on a pickpocketing attempt to happen to you while you're there. Perhaps consider it part of the Barcelona experience... see the nearly 20 year old Olympic ruins, the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi architecture, Las Ramblas, get pick pocketed and return home. We (and our friends visiting from the US) knew of the pickpocketing problem and took all precautions to prevent it. Hurrying to catch the green line metro from Sants, with suitcases in tow we must have looked the perfect targets. A couple guys entering the train in front of us suddenly wanted to get off the train, while their 'partners' were behind us pushing to get on. This created the perfect 'sandwich' for them to attempt to clear our pockets. However when one has nothing in their pockets, there is nothing to steal and so this turned out to be just a quick 'TSA pat down' and the would be thieves left empty handed. I call this out because it is so pervasive that everyone should be aware and expect it when you least expect it... it is not always subtle.
Here is a great article that talks about the scams and ways to protect against them while in Barcelona. It is just no fun to have to be on guard every second you're trying to enjoy the experience of a new place. However, if you are overly-cautious and bring only what you're willing to get stolen with you when you leave the house... you will survive. It doesn't hurt to try to fit in with the locals and not make yourself a target by outwardly appearing to be a tourist.
As for Barcelona itself - the city is clean and the public transportation is cheap and efficient. The city does have some charm. The 'Magic Fountain' is just off of Plaza Espanya and on weekend nights it has a very nice water display choreographed to music. Barcelona has a nice hop-on/hop-off bus tour with 2 routes through the city (3 in the summer) that hit the popular spots. The former Bull Ring converted into shopping mall is popular. The Gothic District just off the Ramblas is reminiscent, albeit much more touristy and expensive, of the Old Towns we've seen in other Spanish cities. The Picasso Museum is quite good.
There are some nice neighborhood tapas bars and taverns in the Poble Sec area of town on either side of The Paral-lel. There were a few stand outs. 'Lolita', a small, modern tapas bar with an excellent variety of seafood, beef and veggies. 'Casa Jacinta', a tiny, old tapas bar with excellent food, drink and rock-n-roll atmosphere served by the owners. On the other side of The Paral-lel is 'Raxeria', a tap on your table, pour your own beer bar... quickly becoming my favorite kind of place.
The highlight of Barcelona for me was not actually in Barcelona, but an hour train ride out of town... Montserrat. This is a small tourist town built around a working Monastery at the top of a mountain. There are several ways to get up to Montserrat, we chose the 'gondola' over the train. The funicular was under repair and closed the day we went. The Basilica is beautiful and the town has wonderful views of the surrounding areas and the valley looking toward Barcelona.
Overall Barcelona was nice to see and I am happy we went, but it is very easy to hit the few highlights worth seeing in a day or two. For fans of Gaudi, the city does not disappoint and aside from that, one does not need a lot of time here. It is an overly expensive place, especially for what you get and the quality compared to other cities in Spain.
Madrid on the other hand, was fantastic. There is no doubt you are in Spain, and the capital no less, from the second you enter. We took the high speed AVE train from Barcelona that gets you into Madrid in around 3 hours. Driving would take more than 6.
We stayed at a very nice hotel - Hotel Opera, which is just off Plaza Isabelle II near the Opera House, Theater and Palace. Our first night there we we joined 'The Old Madrid Tapas and Wine Walking Tour'. The host, Andres, is very knowledgeable about wine and took us through the oldest part of Madrid, popping in and out of tapas bars sampling the house specialty at each place. We tasted Spanish vermouth which although dark amber in color, actually starts as a white wine. Up to 40 different spices are added as it ages. Very tasty on its own - on the rocks with a slice of orange, or in a martini. As we discovered, if you want to try this tasty unique vermouth, ask for "vermut de grifo" (on tap) and make sure it is poured from the wooden barrel. The Tapas tour is well worth the 60 euro (includes all the food and wine) a person. We sampled fantastic wines and ate enough tapas that we were full and satisfied. This is a must if in Madrid.
Our second day in Madrid we took the obligatory trip to The Prado Museum which is vast and worth seeing, even if it is just a quick pass through. You could, of course, spend all day (or more than one) at The Prado, but there is so much more to see in Madrid. We enjoyed a great lunch
just across from the Market San Miguel and ended our day by taking in a Bull Fight.
Before taking the afternoon AVE train back to Barcelona, we spent our last morning in Madrid touring the Palace. The 3rd largest in the Europe, the Madrid Palace is typical of European Palaces and worth the trip. The line to get in was long, but it moved at a steady pace. The view from the main courtyard overlooking the countryside was vast. The Cathedral is situated right next to the Palace, but as it was under renovation we were only able to see the outside... next time.
Just walking the streets of Madrid, viewing the Spanish architecture, people, culture and town plazas is a treat in and of itself. Cheerful (and somewhat talented) musicians play for money in the subway cars while locals sometimes sing along and tourists get a laugh. When people think of Spain, they typically think of Andalucia - Seville, Granada, the White Hill towns - sunshine, beaches, Flameno, Sherry, Grand Cathedrals, etc. and with good reason, however while Andalucia may be the soul of Spain, Madrid is definitely its heart. Our few days there were just enough to whet our thirst for more. The next time we are in this wonderful country, Madrid and a minimum of a week there is at the top of the itinerary.
Our recent trip to Madrid (accompanied by good friends from the US) enabled us to catch one of the final pre-season matches for 2011. Pre-season is really no different from other Bull Fights except the Matadors are young novices trying to gain popularity in the sport.
I was recently asked, "so they kill the bull, right?" Yes, and 5 to 7 more. Each "match" lasts around 15-20 minutes from the time the bull enters the ring, until they drag its dead body out. I call it a "match" but in reality the bull doesn't really stand a chance. Although we did see one pass where the bull got hold of the Matador, flipped him airborne and came close to trampling him. The other Matadors, assistants and men on horses quickly came to his rescue and distracted the bull. It happens but is rare. In that match, score one for the bull.
When we were in Seville we toured the Bull Fighting museum. Our guide told us how many years ago, in the 1950's I think, one of Spain's most celebrated Matadors was killed in a match. She then pointed to this killer bull's head mounted on the wall, next to its mother. After they put the killer bull down, they killed its mother so that she would never produce another killer bull.
Bull Fighting is not pretty, but does have a beautiful artistry and ceremony to it. It is bloody, cruel and has to be seen to really be understood. I am not advocating the sport or recommending everyone sees a Bull Fight, but when in Rome... or in this case Spain. It is truly unique and very, very Spanish.
The next part of this post describes a match... and in some detail, so be warned.
A match starts by several Matador's assistants (Picadors) and Horsemen (Rejoneadores) teasing and angering the bull. This is in an attempt to gauge the bull's behavior and reactions. After about 5 minutes of this, the Horsemen stabs the bull in the shoulder once to twice to start the bleeding. The Matador's assistants have the bull take several passes at them while they attempt to drive Banderillas (long decorative spikes) into the bull's back. Once the bull is further weakened and made more bloody by the Banderillas, the Matador throws his hat into the ring and comes out to finish off the bull.
The Matador and bull perform a sort-of dance to the death as the bull makes many charging passes. The Matador is judged by his skill and artistry at getting the bull to charge and successfully avoiding getting gored in the process. After the bull has made many passes and the Matador is ready, he is presented with his killing sword, or Espada. This time it's the Matador that charges at the bull and attempts to drive the Espada into the bull's heart. If he misses, he is booed by the crowd and tries again until he succeeds. The bull will then fall to the ground and will finally be put out of it's misery as the Matador drives a Puntilla (small dagger) into the base of bull's skull severing it's spinal cord. Lastly, the dead bull is attached to horses and dragged out of the ring. Within minutes, a new match starts. Most Bull Fights consist of 6 or 8 matches.
People say, you either love bull fighting or hate it. I'm not sure how I feel about it. I imagine in the dead of summer, with seats in the shade among a packed arena of fans and more experienced Matadors is a better way to see a Bull Fight. I would like to experience that, perhaps with a local fan who can better explain the history, culture and sport. I'm not sure my sensibilities would allow me to become an ardent supporter, but I think to travel is to explore, be open and learn more before judging via those sensibilities.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Fallas (Falles in Valencian) began as a festival celebrated by the local artisans in honor of St. Joseph. In the Valencian Community this festival dates back to the mid-1700´s, when it was just a small part of the general St. Joseph´s Day celebrations. At daybreak on March 18th small straw stages appeared in the streets on which one 1 or 2 doll-like figures were displayed depicting in a satirical way, some local event, misconduct or town personality. During the course of the day, the local children collected as much combustible material as they could find and constructed large trash heaps which they called fallas. At dusk, on the eve of St. Joseph´s Day these fallas were set on fire as the town people gathered to watch them burn.
The Fallas in Dénia started in the early 1900´s when a group of locals would make a fabric figure filled with seaweed, they they named ¨Tio Pep¨ (Uncle Joe). On St. Joseph´s Day they paraded this figure around town and eventually set it on fire atop a mountain of old furniture and other household trash that would easily burn. As the years passed, more groups became involved, each creating their own figures. The special characteristic of these satirical fallas is that they are intended to portray a criticism of social policy. They choose a specific topic and give it either a satirical or humorous twist, representing scenes alluding to personalities, events or political actions which the falleros (members of the fallas groups) consider worthy to be made fun of.
Today, Fallas in Dénia has evolved into many groups working all year to raise money and commission the building of their individual fallas, which can run in excess of 80,000 euro. These groups are very large and the members consist of all ages. For the children, special fallas are commissioned by the groups. These are not political or satirical, just more ¨cute¨ and cartoonish... but of course, these are also eventually burned.
The fallas themselves are extremely elaborate and very large, some are 5 and 6 stories tall. The order in which the fallas are burned is of significant importance. Each falla, both large and children´s is (independently) voted on by the main Fallas committee with the winner in each category getting burned last... usually around 3am on the 20th.
In the week leading up to March 19th, the fallas begin to take shape as they are constructed in their respective area of the city. Each day at 2 and 7pm there is a massive fireworks display. There are tons of members-only activities for the fallas groups that take place throughout the week. While walking the city streets and eating in the local restaurants you are sure to see the members in costume enjoying the entire Fallas experience. On March 17th (who´s St. Patrick?) they announce the ¨winners¨ and there is more partying.
St. Joseph´s Day and Las Fallas, starts early with a very long parade that includes all of the members (from elderly to infant) of the groups. They parade through main street carrying flowers that will be used to construct ´Our Lady of the Foresaken´ in front of the main church. The parade ends with yet another fireworks display before Siesta.
The evening is kicked off by a fireworks display and there is club like atmosphere in the streets. Instead of music, the beat is provided by children lighting firecrackers, while the parents admire the fallas, eat and drink. Street vendors sell balloons, toys and food. At around 9pm, the cremá of the fallas begins. If you aren´t sure of the order in which they will burn, just follow the crowds or a fire brigade.
Each falla is loaded with cardboard and paper, and doused with gasoline before the lights are dimmed. Fireworks (what else?) are set off around the falla and if that doesn't set it ablaze, then they just throw lit fireworks on to it. The crowd ¨oo´s and ah´s¨ as these things burn. There is cheering when it finally falls, amidst the fire fighters trying to keep the very close buildings, trees and people from also going up in flames.
The burning process is systematic and actually pretty safe considering the flames from the big ones shoot into the sky higher than most of the buildings. Even more surprising is the apparent lack of injures (or parental concern) from all of the firecrackers being constantly set off by the children... of course, we didn´t stop by the Emergency Room to view the waiting area.
For as much as we heard about Fallas beforehand and sortof knew what to expect, it was difficult to really understand this bizarre, but incredibly wild and fun festival without seeing it, so I did my best to condense my hours of Las Fallas footage into this short (4.5 min) video.