Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Surf Weekend in Rabat

"I'm going to Africa for the weekend."

Leading up to my trip to Morocco, I couldn't stop saying this phrase. AFRICA for the WEEKEND? It sounded crazy and I loved it.

Living in Madrid with its large airport makes it easy to fly cheaply across Europe, but I had forgotten that Spain is also just one tiny Strait of Gibraltar away from Africa.

So one Friday afternoon with a cheap RyanAir ticket, I flew down to Morocco's capital city for a surf weekend with a few friends.

None of us researched much before the trip, but a friend recommended a hostel with a free breakfast and reasonable priced surf rentals and lessons - that's all we needed!

The hostel was located in the old part of the city, known as the medina. When you enter the neighborhood's clay walls, it is a maze of narrow, winding walkways with no windows or streets signs. We would have never found the hostel if one of the guys hadn't picked us up at the airport and guided us through the labyrinth.

When we eventually arrived at Medina Surfing Association, we were greeted by the owner and surf instructor Abdel El Harim. Abdel is Morocco's most famous professional surfer with repeated success in the World Qualifying Series.

Abdel gave us a quick tour of the hostel transformed from a riad: a traditional Moroccan house with an open-air courtyard in the middle. Each room faces the center and has no exterior windows. This old design helps residents cope with the Moroccan heat as the rooms stay dark and cold and the heat rises out of top of the structure.

We spent the day exploring the city, trying to navigate our way around the medina and then enjoyed tajines at Dar Naji to fuel up for the following day of surfing. And with no alcohol available in traditionally Muslim Rabat, our sobremesa wine was replaced with many, many cups of peppermint tea.

The next morning we began our day with a rooftop breakfast (and of course more tea) before squeezing into some wetsuits and hitting the beach.

Unfortunately, the pictures stop here. We could only bring ourselves, the boards and a pair of flip flops to the beach to be left underneath the cart of a street vendor.

Abdel helped us warm up and explained some basic tactics before ditching us to catch his own waves. This was a little disappointing, but I guess a pro-surfer has his own priorities. We hit the water with another instructor that only knew one English word: "UP" - very practical when the most difficult part of learning to surf is actually standing up.

Now this was not my first time surfing, but the sport has never been something I've really wanted to tackle. I had my first lesson in Australia in 2009 and then picked up a board every once in a while while living a year on the beach in Ecuador. I've always preferred to jump in on a game of sand soccer instead of getting beaten up by the waves.

But as the only one within my group of friends who had surfed before, I felt a tiny bit of pressure to do well. So we paddled out together and the instructor was to help each of us individually catch our first wave. I went first. We saw the wave coming, he gave me a little nudge and I paddled as hard as I could. Then a strong French accent yell "UP" and I thought about yoga class: engaging the core and floating from plank pose gracefully into forward fold. Lo and behold, I was up! First try, phew!

By the end of the lesson, all five of us were catching waves - with a lot of face plants, wipeouts and water up the nose in between. Overall, we had a great time and were discussing our next surf weekend before we even returned to the hostel.

It was quick trip to Africa - only Friday to Sunday, but I highly recommend a surf weekend in Rabat as a short getaway from Madrid.

Check out Medina Surf Association's blog and Facebook page for more info.

Have you surfed before? Always wanted to try?
Leave me note in the comments below with your favorite surf spots around the world! 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Croix-Rousse in Lyon, France: Old friends in new places

I first met Mathilde while living on an organic farm in Ecuador. She arrived with freshly chopped, dusty blonde hair barely brushing the straps of the large backpack swung over her shoulders. She had brand new working boots, cleaner clothes than mine, and an openness about her that I was immediately drawn to.

I was in month number five at the farm, feeling a little beaten up by the struggles of South America, and she was refreshing. We swapped stories from Sweden and New Zealand, bonded over essential oils and played cards after dinner and into the nighttime.

About a month later, Mathilde left. She was just at the beginning of a six-month trip through South America. I later found a little note and an almost full bottle of citronella oil on my bed - for the mosquitos. Nos vemos, she wrote, we will see each other, maybe in Sweden.

Last weekend, as I stepped off the train, Mathilde was there to greet me. This time with a long, fishtail braid over her shoulder - proof of the two and half years since we'd last seen each other.

We weren't in Sweden as planned, but instead in Lyon, France where she is three weeks and one long thesis shy of receiving her second masters.

She welcomed me into her quaint loft above a tiny theater in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood. This artsy area is above the busy city center of Lyon. Most tourists don't make it up the hill to explore the colorful shops, unique cafes and various parks with overlooking views of the city.

We picnicked in the park at sunset and caught up over local beers at Dikkenek Cafe. Coming from Madrid where you order a beer by size, not type, this extensive menu was a treat. It offers international beers, but also many bières brewed in Lyon.

The next morning, we visited the diverse outdoor food market that Croix-Rousse hosts every morning Tuesday through Sunday. We picked up brunch supplies, including these colorful treats from Dorodi Pastry and of course the traditional French baguette, for another picnic under the warm spring sun to fuel up for a day of exploring.

We stopped at Terre Adélice in the city center for an ice cream break. This place is special. It has around 100 different ice cream and sorbet flavors with about 50 organic options. I tried the organic lavender, organic white peach, and organic rhubarb. Délicieux.

Ending my final night with homemade crêpes, we talked about our uncertain futures and later visits. Mathilde may soon be in Africa and me, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll be hosting Mathilde next time in Spain or maybe we'll finally meet for WOOFing in Sweden. Who knows. But there is something very special and a little strange about meeting old friends in new places.. collecting contacts from across the world.

Merci, Mathilde. À la prochaine!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Tapas, Taverns & History with MADRID FOOD TOUR

"So.. what's your favorite Spanish food?" Luke asked as we rounded the corner into Plaza Mayor.

I scoured my brain for a good answer... something interesting and authentic that wasn't too typical like paella. But I came up short.

"Um. I don't know," I said, before I could blurt out something stupid like "free tapas."

How do you not know, I asked myself.  You have been living in Spain for eight months and you don't have a favorite food?! Pull yourself together, Kelsey.

I guess it was a good idea for me to be on the Madrid Food Tour that night. Not only to eat a ton of delicious tapas, but to also learn a little more about this city that I currently call home.

Usually, I try to avoid playing tourist and I prefer exploring on my own, but this tour was something I had had my eye on for awhile. When my cousin Kristin was told last-minute that she'd be flying to Madrid for work, I was determined to make it happen for us.

So on a rainy Saturday night in March, Kristin and I joined a small group huddled under umbrellas to bar hop around Madrid on a Tapas, Taverns & History Tour.

We were immediately pulled into a quaint, old bar to set down the umbrellas and enjoy a glass (or two.. or three..) of vermouth during introductions by our tour guides Luke and James. I had probably walked past this bar hundreds of times before and never even thought to take a look inside - not knowing what I was missing.

Along with the vermouth, we wasted no time and started snacking on the traditional delicacies: cured Iberian ham, salted Marcona almonds, toasted bread with chopped tomatoes, Manchego cheeses, country olives, and more.

"So, if you're wondering what to do with these olive pits.." James said to the group as he took one from his mouth and tossed it on the floor. "It's tradition."

Many of the men laughed at this and joined in by throwing their pits under the bar, but Kristen and I hesitated. She had been collecting her pits in a napkin in her hand and said it just didn't feel right to throw it on the ground. But Luke soon noticed this, took the napkin from her hand and chucked it along with rest of the trash - well, if it's tradition!

I think I would've been content if our tour had ended there, but we were just getting started. We ventured out to the next destination while our guides did their best to keep us dry without skipping a single historical sight or interesting tidbit along the way.

Stomping through puddles in Plaze de Oriente, we found ourselves looking up at a statue of King Phillip IV on a rearing horse. It's based on a painting by Valezquez where the horse is standing on its back legs, explained our guides. In order to ensure that the bronze sculpture would balance, Galileo was called in to calculate the stability. He suggested to make the rear of the horse in solid bronze and the rest hollow. Surprisingly, the weight of the statue rests on its tail and hind legs.

We continued on, twisting and turning down glistening cobblestone streets and crammed into a tiny old wine cellar from the 1800s. With standing room only, we cozied up to the bar with the locals and tasted a few more tapas: enormous meatballs, anchovies in vinegar, spicy chorizo and my absolute favorite - queso de cabrales a la sidra.  This gourmet blue cheese from Northern Spain is blended with the signature cider from Astruias and generously spread across a slice of fresh bread. Each bite has an intense, tangy flavor that paired perfectly with the dry white wine chosen by the guides.

And as the night kept getting better, our next stop was La Casa Del Abuelo. While I'd like to keep some of the tour destinations secret, this one is too good not to share. The restaurant was founded in 1906 and still holds that old charm. They specialize in gambas al ajillo, a delicious shrimp dish that arrives sizzling in garlic and olive oil. Soak up the oil with some bread and wash it down with their signature sweet Alicante wine and you'll be hooked. While the wine may be a little too sweet for some people on its own, combining it with the salty shrimp is a perfect pair.

Another favorite dish was traditionally a poor man's food made from the wastes of the cow: Callos a la Madrileña. It's a hearty spanish stew of tripe, spicy chorizo, ham and chickpeas in a thick tomato sauce with a slight spicy kick.

To balance out your diet with some green, I recommend the freshly grilled asparagus with a generous squeeze of lemon.

We finished off the tour with chocolate crepes and sat down with a few pitchers of sangria to digest before calling it a night.

My stomach was full of delicious foods, but also aching from laughter. Of course I enjoyed tasting everything and learning about Spanish history, but James and Luke's quick wit and good conversation really made the tour something special. Kristin and I both agreed that this was a wonderful way to spend an evening in Madrid.

I really wish I had decided to take this tour much sooner to learn about the city, its history and discover the best dishes in Spain.

So, what did I choose as my favorite Spanish food? Well, that's a whole 'nother blog post…

Have YOU ever tried a food tour? If so, how was the experience? Comment below!

For more information about Madrid Food Tour and the many different tours and tastings they offer, check out their website. I'm dying to make it to one of their wine events! And if you want to start drooling, follow their posts on instagram.

Lauren, MFT's owner and author of the blog Spanish Sabores, hosted my Tapas, Taverns, & History Tour in exchange for this post. As always, all opinions are entirely my own.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Spring in Madrid + Blog updates + *Lettr Giveaway*

Happy Spring everyone! It seemed that spring had arrived about three weeks early in Madrid: people out on the terraces with tapas and wine, picnics strewn across the parks, even shorts and sandals seemed acceptable! Then I went to Morocco for the weekend and when I came back, it was gone.

The sun is still shining here in Madrid, but the temperature has dropped and the wind has picked up again. The Spanish have a saying that warns about this unpredictable temperature:

"Hasta el cuarenta de mayo no te quites el sayo"

Don't take off your coat until the 40th of May. Well, obviously there is no 40th of May, buy sayo doesn't sound as well with Junio (June), so the 40th of May = June 10th. But I hope this saying is as true as the Spainish's exaggerated description of Madrid's "arctic" winter. I've got some exciting travel plans coming up with a few important visitors arriving soon. I know we're all hoping for some sun!

Along with exciting upcoming travels, I also have some exciting news! I was featured on The Local for one of the six best expat blogs in Spain! I am thrilled to have been featured on Spain's section of the largest English-language news network in Europe. Also, check out the other five blogs for great information about different Spanish regions.

And now for my inaugural giveaway on Route Words…

As much as I love receiving postcards, I am terrible at sending them. I hate finding the correct stamp, writing cheesy words about the historical picture, locating a post office and also collecting addresses. It's just not my thing. 

So I was obviously intrigued when Lettr recently contacted me to sample and review their virtual postcard service. 

Lettr allows travelers to send a personalized postcard from any place in the world without a pen, stamp or even postcard - it is all done through a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

You take a picture of an awesome travel moment (or select a previous one), upload it onto the site, write a short message, sign your name through the touchscreen or trackpad, and send!

Lettr then prints and sends your card for a flat rate of $2.49. After delivery, your friend can also see exactly where the postcard was sent through a small map. Pretty cool and simple, right?

I decided to really test their services by sending a card to a far away place. So I sent a picture of Templo de Debod in Madrid to my Kiwi friend Frances in Auckland.

I met met Frances during my time in New Zealand. She is a fellow travel addict and also a very talented writer preparing for a move to The States! Check out her website and creative photos on instagram.

What I love about using Lettr:
  • I could use my own photo (or a photo of me) which is so much more personal than a store-bought card.
  • The whole process takes no more than five minutes - no buying stamps or running to a post office
  • The map printed on the card shows the specific location of the sender
  • The overall price ($2.49) is cheaper than the price of buying a postcard and international stamp
  • Even though you're typing your letter, the signature still makes the card unique and personalized
  • If you sign in with Facebook, you can send a postcard to any friend whether you know their address or not. Lettr will give them up to 14 days to enter an address and you can surprise your friends with some mail. If they don't enter an address in those two weeks, you will not be charged.
What I didn't love about using Lettr:
  • You can only write a message of 250 characters - not much at all!
  • My postcard to Frances in Auckland, New Zealand took 13 days to arrive. I know New Zealand is far, but the site boasts that delivery time usually takes 2-3 days
  • Frances noted that there is a big scuff mark down the front of the card and the corners are a little scuffed - but I'm assuming that is all just the wear and tear from traveling across the world
Overall, do I recommend using Lettr? Absolutely! The price, personalization and convenience make it a great service for travelers.

And luckily, I am giving YOU the opportunity to test it out as well!

The first 25 readers who click the button below
get to send their postcard FOR FREE!

If you are one the lucky 25... who are you sending your postcard to and what's the picture? 
In general, what is your take on sending postcards? Love it or hate it?
Please share with a comment below! 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Madrid's Little Secrets: El Capricho Extremeño

Tucked away on a narrow street, south of La Latina and west of Lavapies, there is a place. It barely fits the category of "restaurant." Monday through Friday its metal doors are closed and strewn with graffiti. But on the weekends, it comes alive.

El Capricho Extremeño is THE place to go for cheap tostas on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. While there are no menus, no waiters, and no place to sit, it serves up some of the best open-faced sandwiches in Madrid.
On some Saturdays, you'll be able to enter calmly and examine the sandwiches before telling the old, smiling man behind the counter what you want. If you're lucky, you'll even be able to order a beer to drink at the bar with your food. The tostas are not always the same each day, but at most times you can choose from an assortment - each one with a generous serving of toppings over ciabatta bread.

The usual options are pulpo de Gallega (Galician Octopus), tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette), bacalao con pimientos (cod with peppers, olives and pickles) ensaladilla russa (potato salad with veggies and chicken/ham), smoked salmon, toasted brie with raspberry marmalade, and of course Jamón Serrano (the very famous Spanish ham!).

If you go on a Sunday, you'll find El Capricho Extremeño situated right in the center of El Rastro Market, Madrid's famous (and busy) open-air flea market. Get in the long line that trails out the door, but don't hesitate. You'll be placing shouting your order in less than five minutes.

When you enter the door, elbow your way to the counter and take a quick glance at the offerings. Then, when the man shouts in a friendly voice over the crowd while looking at you, shout back and tell him what you want. The sandwiches are cheap, so don't be scared to ask for more than one. He'll put them on a styrofoam plate and add a long drizzle of olive oil before handing it over. Give him your money and grab a few napkins before the line pushes you out the door.

Then, go take a seat on a bench, curb or stoop nearby while soaking in the sun, people-watching at the market, and enjoying your tostas. It is the perfect Madrileño Sunday afternoon.

El Capricho Extremeño can be found on Calle de Carlos Arniches, 30.
The tostas are either €2.50 or €3 each.

Have you ever been to El Capricho Extremeño? Will you try it? What are your favorite places for cheap, easy and delicious food? Let me know in the comments below!

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