Montserrat: A Must-see Mountaintop Monastery

Montserrat: A Must-see Mountaintop Monastery

Day tripping has become one of my new favourite ways to explore a region. I love the convenience of settling in a cozy apartment for several days and then taking mini day trips to explore sights outside the city limits. Some of the perks of having a home base include not having to pack up and move every couple of days, getting familiar with a neighbourhood (like I did in Gracia), and actually feeling like you have a home away from home.

When it came to my day trip to Montserrat, I was definitely excited to get out of the city. But if truth be told, I wouldn’t have complained about an extra day in my beloved Barcelona either. I didn’t know much about Montserrat but the interwebs highly recommended this easy half day excursion so the decision was made. And what do you know… I think it was quite possibly my favourite day of the entire trip.

For starters… we had amazing timing. We masterfully navigated the Espanya station and purchased our train tickets (sounds simple but not always so) allowing us to catch our train with mere seconds to spare. We enjoyed a peaceful one hour ride to the Montserrat Aeri station where we then took a cable car to the mountaintop. Can I just say how much I love cable cars?

IMG_0475Our early arrival time made for a thoroughly relaxing morning with relatively few crowds. In fact, we were pretty much the only people on the Degotalls trail. This scenic pathway lined with sculptures, wall frescoes, and other artistic works was the perfect leisurely stroll to start the day.

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And then there was the monastery itself. It just so happens to be Catalonia’s most important religious retreat. Many make the pilgrimage to the sanctuary to visit the Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia’s favourite saint. Make sure to get there early or be prepared to stand in an extremely long queue for time with the saint.

The impressive basilica houses a museum with works by many prominent painters and sculptors as well as one of the oldest printing presses still running. And if you happen to be there at 1:00pm you can hear one of the oldest boy’s choirs in Europe.

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But more than the peaceful walk, more than the beautiful monastery, was the V I E W ! Montserrat could not have been more gorgeous. We got a bit out of control with all the photos but what else is new.

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Do yourself a favour and visit Montserrat. On a clear day like we had, this is a must-see sight!

New Year’s Eve: A Catalan Celebration!

New Year’s Eve: A Catalan Celebration!

We are three weeks into 2015 (how did that happen!) and I’m still enjoying the fresh start feel of a new year. But, January is also a great time for reflecting on past goals – and one of my recent travel-related missions has been to ring in the new year in a different city every year!

Last year I counted down to midnight alongside friendly strangers and my best friend by the Mississippi River in New Orleans! From devouring beignets in Jackson Square to catching beads on Bourbon Street, we thoroughly enjoyed our NOLA experience. Fireworks over the river. Drinking hurricanes in the street. Dancing the night away. If you haven’t been to New Orleans yet… then maybe 2015 is your time!

New Year's Eve in New Orleans

New Year’s Eve in New Orleans

This year I flew from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain on December 31st with just enough time to prepare for some authentic Catalan celebrations. In my pre-trip research I discovered that the most important Spanish New Year tradition is to eat twelve grapes just before midnight. You eat one at a time at each chime of the clock as it counts down to midnight and then you toast with Cava, a sparkling wine produced in Catalonia. My friend Megan and I chose to pre-drink our lovely rosé “champagne” before we left our apartment but we brought the grapes with us for the midnight countdown! IMG_3094 The main event was held at the spectacular Font Magica de Montjuic (or Magic Fountain) near the Plaza Espanya. I think we ended up here at least three times during our stay in Barcelona. It’s fantastic by both day and night but especially on New Year’s Eve when the fountains were lit up and dancing in time to the music. It was a short metro ride to the festivities and the mild winter weather made it easy to stand outside. The perks of living on the Mediterranean!

At 11:30pm the main stage featured a fabulous show by La Fura dels Baus, a Catalan theatrical group with a 15 metre high iron man sculpture. My explanation probably won’t make a lot of sense but essentially it was a human tower of lit up figures high above the crowd. Definitely my first time seeing anything like it. IMG_2970 IMG_2969 And lastly, a fireworks show over the Palau Nacional! Apparently, this was the first year that Barcelona had ever had a fireworks show so it looks like we timed our trip perfectly. IMG_3084 I have had two back-to-back fantastic New Year’s Eve celebrations and I sure hope the streak continues. I don’t know where I’ll be in 2016 but it definitely has some steep competition.

Where do you think I should ring in 2016? Leave a comment below.

I left my heart in Barcelona

I left my heart in Barcelona

I’ve experienced love at first sight before. It just took one glance at Dubrovnik‘s old town to knock me off my feet.

But sometimes you meet a city at the wrong time. Maybe the weather is bad or you’re feeling under the weather. First impressions are important and can really affect how you feel about a particular place.

Over the past couple of years, I have given out some second chances and revisited past cities that didn’t thrill me the first time. Each of these second impressions gave me a new outlook and a remarkably better experience.

So nine years after my first ambivalent visit to Barcelona, I returned for a do-over. The result: LOVE! In fact, I could see myself happily living there someday. It was just that good.

Here are five reasons why I’m crazy about Barcelona:

1. Mediterranean Climate IMG_0365 It’s no secret that I hate cold weather so any city that boasts palm trees and year-round sunshine gets my vote. I love that winter in Spain feels like spring anywhere else. Some people like having four distinct seasons but I could easily do without the rain and snow.

2. Delicious Food IMG_3025 One word. Tapas. Spanish cuisine is based around these bite sized delicacies that essentially turn every dining experience into Happy Hour. Not to mention the cheap alcohol and relaxed drinking laws in Europe. What’s not to love?

3. Coastal CityIMG_3067I’ve grown up living within 45 minutes of the Pacific Ocean and now live a whole 1 minute walk from the beach. I don’t think I could ever be happy living away from the coast. Fortunately, Barcelona has a gorgeous pier and great beaches.

4. Cosmopolitan CataloniaIMG_0486Let’s be clear about one thing. Barcelona is not Spain. Although it’s technically located in Spain, it’s actually the capital of a region called Catalonia. They have their own language, customs, and culture – giving it a distinctly modern and classic European flavour. Whereas the rest of Spain is a bit rough around the edges, Barcelona is clean, organized, and reminds me a lot more of Paris than Madrid.

5. Drop Dead Gorgeous IMG_0518Unique architecture. Palm Trees. Plazas. Beaches. I could go on and on but I think the pictures say it better than I ever could. Barcelona is beautiful.IMG_2961 IMG_0479 IMG_3076 IMG_3080 IMG_0500I’m not sure why Barcelona didn’t wow me at first but it definitely stole my heart the second time around. I don’t know when I’ll be back but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being sooner than later.

Park Guell: Exploring the World of Gaudi

Park Guell: Exploring the World of Gaudi

I have a confession. Sometimes I get tired of sightseeing.

It hasn’t happened to me very often, but travel fatigue can hit even the most passionate and voracious globetrotter.

Back in January 2006 I was halfway through an 8-month European backpacking expedition when I ended up in Barcelona. Cold. Tired. And honestly ready to give my camera a break. I had already been through four countries and had five more ahead of me. After months of traipsing around in freezing cold climates I was more than ready to feel the warm Spanish sun on my skin and to kick back and relax. I sat on the beach. I went to Starbucks. I taught myself about siestas. I was taking a little vacation from my vacation.

It wasn’t until I had moved south and started covering the rest of Spain that I realized all of the amazing things that I had completely missed while in Barcelona. How is it possible that I hadn’t seen even one piece of Gaudi architecture? In my frustration, I promised myself that someday I would return and make up for my little episode of burnout.

Nine years later (almost to the day) I finally made it back. This time was different.

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Hola Gaudi.

His architecture is unmistakeable and seemingly unavoidable (although I previously proved that theory wrong). This time it felt like we couldn’t walk anywhere without passing by one of his distinctive achievements.

But of all Gaudi’s works, our favourite spot was absolutely Park Guell.

This public park system on Carmel Hill is composed of gorgeous gardens and architectural elements that entertained us for hours. The park was designed by Gaudi and built between 1900-1914 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

It can get quite crowded and in order to preserve the monuments, portions of the park are only open to paying guests. Access to the most famous areas are limited to 400 people every 30 minutes. We ended up having to wait for a while but the rest of the park had plenty to keep us occupied with stunning city views and street performers playing Spanish guitar.

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And the monument precinct was definitely worth the price and the wait.

The Dragon Stairway

The Dragon Stairway

The most popular area is without a doubt the Greek Theatre. This open square is surrounded by a gorgeous tile-shard mosaic bench. While we were frantically trying to get the perfect photo… it seemed like everyone else was using the seating to take a nap in the sun. Clearly they didn’t appreciate the art in the same way we did.

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So after nine years of suspense I finally got to see what all the fuss was about and it lived up to my expectations. Beautiful. Unique. Awe-inspiring.

Next up: More Barcelona and the Magnificent Montserrat.

Departure Lounge: Portugal & Spain

Departure Lounge: Portugal & Spain

I am finally doing it! I am actually going to visit one of my Top 5 Dream Destinations – PORTUGAL!

Most of the time, my next travel destination is rarely the place I want to go most. That may seem a bit strange but there are a lot of factors to consider when you’re a part-time traveller… for example:

(1) Other people. Am I visiting someone? Am I travelling with someone? This can majorly affect where you go. I probably never would have visited Colombia when I did had my friend not been living there at the time.

(2) Budget. This probably goes without saying but some of the destinations of my dreams are really expensive. I’m looking at you Scandinavia and Australia!

(3) Time of Year / Weather. Call me wimpy (I certainly do) but I am not the least bit excited about the prospect of winter in Iceland. I can usually deal with the extreme heat (and I have – Egypt, Vietnam, Texas, and Italy in summer!) but cold weather makes me quiver like a baby Chihuahua. Not cute. I prefer to travel when the weather is nice and the crowds are less hectic.

So yeah… it doesn’t actually happen very often that I end up going exactly where my heart desires… until now!

On Boxing Day 2014, I am heading to Portugal and then on to Spain with my new favourite travel buddy, Megan. We met in Vietnam a few months back and we are deliriously excited about our next travel adventure. We have limited time off work/school so we chose to split our time between two world-class cities: Lisbon & Barcelona. They are both coastal cities with a mild winter climate… and I’m crossing my fingers for sunshine! Barcelona is known to be a really fun, party city so I’m hoping they show us a good time for New Year’s Eve!

The countdown is on!

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Lisbon to Barcelona

My 7 Wonders of the World

This is a special edition of my Favourites series.

It seems like there are so many variations of the Seven Wonders of the World floating around that I decided I would create my own from places that I’ve actually been.

My 7 Wonders of the World

Machu Picchu, Peru

Without a doubt, Machu Picchu is the most spectacular, awe-inspiring site that my eyes have ever seen. It absolutely lives up to all the hype! I trekked 33 kilometres over three days from Lares to Ollantaytambo before finally taking a train to Aguas Calientes and making the early morning trip to Machu Picchu. From touring the ancient capital of the Incas to hiking Wayna Picchu, the whole experience was incredible from start to finish. These Incan ruins need to be on every person’s bucket list.

Machu Picchu

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

While I was planning my trip to Egypt, people were constantly asking me Why Egypt? This question seriously puzzled me. Don’t people understand that to see the pyramids one would have to go to Egypt? Well this original wonder of the world certainly earned its place. Riding camels around the site didn’t hurt either…

Camel Time

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The most recent wonder on my list is the magical Halong Bay. Even on a mostly cloudy day this place had a mystical hold on me. With nearly 2000 limestone islets and floating fishing villages creating a tropical kaleidiscope above the green waters, this place is more than worthy of a spot on the new 7 wonders of the world list… and mine too!

Fishing Village

The Colosseum, Italy

I’ve visited this famous amphitheatre twice now and both times it transported me back in time. I’ve read so many stories and seen so many films (Gladiator anyone?) from the era of the Roman Empire and it is always haunting and humbling to be standing in a place so rich in history and tragedy. I can only imagine how impressive it would have been back in its glory days.

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The Eiffel Tower, France

Paris je t’aime! Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m not living in a chic apartment in the Cinquième (5e) arrondissement splitting my time between the cafe culture and long walks along the Seine. But, I digress. There is no building on earth that I was more excited to see than the Eiffel Tower. After studying French for 8 years, this was the place that I most wanted to see when I went to France and the place that I would most like to re-visit… and soon!

Paris

Alhambra, Spain

This palace/fortress, originally constructed in 889 and reconstructed in the mid-11th century by the Moors was a major highlight of my 3 months in Spain. It might not be as popular as some of the other wonders on this list but it is every bit as beautiful. My only regret is that I didn’t take more pictures… I was too busy experiencing in the present tense.

Alhambra

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Croatia, Croatia, Croatia. The country that won my heart in one, all-to-brief week. And the crowning jewel is this absolutely stunning national park filled with turquoise lakes and magnificent waterfalls. This was the perfect day trip from Zagreb and a must-see stop for any trip to the Balkans. I can’t wait to go back!

Plitvice Lakes

 

My Top 5 Favourite Beaches

I decided to finally take the time to reflect on my travel past and document some of my absolute favourite finds over the past twenty-something years.

This is the first post in a new series on my travel Favourites (yes – I am Canadian, and this is how we spell favourite!)

Since it is summer, I thought it would be apropos to begin with the best beaches I’ve been blessed to sink my toes into.

 

Top 5 Favourite Beaches

 

Bai Dai Beach, Nha Trang, Vietnam

This gorgeous beach on the South China Sea had everything: White Sand, Warm Waters, and No one around. Touted as the best beach in a country with over 3000 km of coastline… it is easy to see why people love Southeast Asia.

Bai Dai Beach

Muchavista Beach, El Campello, Spain

I was incredibly lucky to spend 3 months living just a mere 5 minutes from this expansive beach north of Alicante. The entire length of the beach is lined with a boardwalk and a tram so that even getting groceries became an exciting event.

El Campello

Lanikai Beach, Kailua, Oahu

On my second trip to Oahu, I decided to do my research and find a beach, ANY BEACH, other than Waikiki. My search landed me on lovely Lanikai in the sleepy town of Kailua where public access is restricted to pedestrians only, making it the perfect island escape. It’s also made quite a few top 10 lists so this one is a no-brainer.

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Coronado Beach, San Diego, California

Whenever I go to San Diego (which is fortunately quite often) I always look forward to spending time on the island of Coronado. I can’t believe that people actually live there all the time because it is almost too lovely to be real.

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Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver, BC

No top 5 list would be complete without the place that makes me happier than any other. I live about 1 minute from the Pacific Ocean and it is a frequent stomping ground for me all year long. Vancouver has a lot of great beaches that I could include on this list (English Bay, Jericho Beach, Spanish Banks, Wreck Beach) but Kits beach is home. With breathtaking views of the North Shore mountains, Stanley Park, and the Vancouver skyline, it’s my favourite walk in the city! Our version of Venice Beach is also great for people watching, dog walking, bike riding, or playing some beach volleyball all year long.

Kits

 

What is your favourite beach?