Tuesday, June 24, 2008

spain, in a nutshell

Leaving the tranquility of Finland for the chaos of Spain was a shocker for sure. Getting there was half the fun. I had booked these tickets online with some budget airline that no one had ever heard of before and we weren't entirely sure really existed. The tickets were so cheap (10 Euros return) we were mentally prepairing ourselves to have to rush around and try to get standby tickets on another airline. Plus our connection time was short considering we had to switch airlines, which meant collecting our bags off one airline, then rushing back to departures and checking in with another. It was very slow progress going through security in Helsinki due largely to what seemed like a blue rinse crowd tour we were stuck behind in line. Once we rounded the corner to the metal detectors and such, all became clear. There stood the better part of the blue rinse crowd chugging down the mickeys of hooch the security staff were taking out of their carry on luggage. It took a long time to get everyone through, but it was hilarious to watch. In spite of our flight leaving Helsinki late, we arrived in Amsterdam only a few minutes late and much to our delight as we were taxying to the gate we saw a whole cluster of airplanes with the logo of the budget airline I had booked with. It existed after all. Phew!

We arrived in downtown Barcelona at 10pm on Friday night - wow, what a nuthouse. We managed to find our hostel and dump our stuff, and then headed out to explore the night scene on las Ramblas. Coming from Helsinki which was so peaceful and always light, to Barcelona where it was dark and chaotic was a total shocker. But it was good. We set off to have a beer and some tapas at a restaurant right on las Ramblas where we knew we were going to get ripped off, but didn't really care. Then we needed to find Emily - my sister and her boyfriend Andy who live in London happened to have Saturday free, so they were flying to Barcelona on Friday night to have a short visit with us, returning to London Saturday evening. I admit it, our stellar plan of, "meet you in Barcelona Friday night . . ." wasn't well thought out and caused some problems, but in the end we found each other, and we had a great day of sight seeing together.

Things in Barcelona improved significantly for me once I acquired a set of earplugs and was actually able to sleep at all. We had three great days there of sightseeing, drinking, and eating. The weather was hot and sunny the whole time we were there. The best food definitely came from the market, and this held true all throughout Spain. After Barcelona we headed back to the airport where we picked up our rental car - a kicky Citroen C4 turbo diesel. I wasn't stoked on driving in Spain but Paul was still too injured to attempt to drive, so there I was doing the one thing I said I didn't want to do. We agreed that he would navigate and I would drive and if things got stressful we wouldn't snap at each other. I don't think either job was any less challenging than the others. The Spainish drive crazy, and the highways are market with several numbers and are quite confusing. Right away we took a wrong turn, which wouldn't have been a big deal except for the police had the exits blocked so not only could we not turn around, we sat for nearly an hour in stand still traffic. Still not sure what was going on, but eventually we got turned around and on the right road. The highways were expensive (nearly 40 Euros in tolls from Barcelona to San Sebasitan) but were fast and really nice to drive on.

We arrived in San Sebastian in the early evening and had to find a place to dump the car and then locate our hostel. We located it without much trouble, but the trouble was there was no one there to let us in. We sat outside for a while and then Paul left to try and call them. No answer. We were mulling over what to do and decided to check out some of the other places in the area. Paul left to go check out one that was reccomended in one of our two guide books, and while he was gone the hostel owner came back and was quick to get our bags inside and get us set up in one of the rooms. The place was very clean and modern inside, but was just rooms, no common area or anywhere to sit. The double room we were in ended up being bunk beds, which seemed fine but the room was too small to sit in or anything so the next day when some other people left he moved us into a triple room which had a bunk bed and another bed, and was much much bigger. Also had 2 balconies. San Sebastian was a nice change of pace from Barcelona. Still very beautiful and old and steeped in culture, but way less touristy. Not much english spoken there so we had to sharpen our questionable Spanish skills. I had a really hard time finding vegetarian food there and then ended up eating the same egg and potato fritatta on baguette style tapas over and over and over. Part of the problem was that our eating schedule didn't line up with the Spanish one, so while we were walking around at 7pm starving and trying to find a restaurant, none would open until 9pm. All a part of the Spanish learning curve. San Sebastian was also where we got engaged, so it was extra special there inspite of the weather, which was pretty crappy.

After three days we left San Sebastian and headed into la Rioja region to check out wine country. It was really beautiful - rolling hills with vineyards as far as the eye could see, and spectacular wine for a handful of Euros. We spent one night in Haro, the heart of la Rioja region. We arrived there in the middle of siesta time so the place was a bit of a ghost town, but come 5pm things livened up and we had a really nice night. We found a bunch of wine stores and managed to communicate that we were looking for some wine to drink now, and some to lay down for a few years. So far we haven't been dissapointed in any of them. 4 bottles came home with us. It would have been nice to have more than one day there to get an opportunity to check out the bodegas (wineries) but we needed to move on.

We left Haro and headed for the Pyrenees which was on Paul's list of must visit places, due largely to the Tour de France which always holds at least one stage in these mountains. Paul wanted to look up what the toughest climb would be in this year's Tour and then go spray paint something on the road, but instead we headed for l'Ainsa, a small town very close to the French boarder. We had pretty much just randomly picked it out of the tour book and didn't know much of it, but were pleasantly surpised when we got there. Getting there was quite the adventure. We took some wrong turns on the highways and ended up a bit lost, but once we got into the Pyrenees the road was easy to follow and amazingly challenging to drive on. I was going about 20km/hr for a large part of the drive, and Paul wasn't even telling me to go faster which said a lot about the sketchiness of the drive. Windy narrow mountain roads with crazy drops to the side, but spectacular scenery. Once in l'Ainsa we checked into our hotel and then asked the lady at the tourist office where a good spot for a picnic would be. She told us to walk up the stairs to the old town, and we did, and up at the top was a 13th century town! It was amazing to be sitting on the grass at the top of a mountain surrounded by such old beautiful (and well maintained) buildings looking down on the river canyon, eating cheese and drinking Spanish beer. What luck! We wandered through the village after our picnic, and then had a couple of glasses of wine on a restaurant balcony with the most spectacular views and no one around. Four glasses of wine cost us 4 Euros! It might have been a bit of a deal since I had to open the bottle for the bartender who had an injured hand, but still! Paul got to go for his altitude run in the Pyrenees, so he was a happy camper.

We left l'Ainsa a little earlier than planned because getting there from Haro had taken us so long and the drive was so sketchy, but we took a different road it was way shorter. We headed back to the Barcelona airport to drop of the rental car - I had had enough of driving in Spain and was not about to try to find a hotel when there was a free shuttle from the airport. We stayed the night at an airport hotel, which was relatively uneventful.

Up early the next morning and back to the aiport to catch our 9am flight to Amsterdam. After landing, getting our bags, getting the train to Amsterdam Central and finding our hotel, we enjoyed a day of pure gluttony. We went coffee shop hopping, then pub hopping, junk food hopping, checked out the red light district, more coffee shops, more junk food, walking around seeing the sights. It was a nice end to the trip.

On the flight home we were lucky enough to end up with a section three seats with no one in the middle seat, so that made the long daylight flight much more bearable. The trip was amazing, I had so much fun. Paul and I travelled really well together other than 1 small meltdown. Once I get the pictures uploaded to flickr I'll post a link. To all 746 of them. Yep.

It sucks to be back at work, but it's nice to be back in my own kitchen and bed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Ok, so I have 10 days worth of travelling Spain to blog about, and that will come once the jet lag fades and the copious pile of work on my desk starts to dwindle. But for now, hot news! The mister and I are engaged!!! Yup, atop of Mont Igeldo on a grey day with little to no views of the city I was cluelessly meandering away from what he thought was the perfect spot and I called out to Paul to take a picture but he told me to wait and when I turned to hand him the camera there he was standing with a ring box in his hand. He got down on one knee and asked me to marry him, and I said heck yes!!!!

So there ya have it. Spain updates to come in due time, but that news was bursting out of me first!

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Last Saturday May 31st after working a half day that turned into leaving only 10 min only, I came home from work and frantically packed my bags, and then we were off! We flew the red eye Vancouver to Amsterdam and then a quick transfer to another flight Amsterdam to Helsinki. The flights were relatively uneventful other than poor Paul barfing four times (once on me) and the flight attendants being relatively unconcerned (responding to our button push a good 30 min later when they were serving drinks). The airplane food was gross, but that's nothing new. Arrived in Helsinki Sunday afternoon and made our way to our downtown hotel. We're staying at Glo Hotel an awesome little boutique hotel with a lot of art and character, really central. It's of course way out of our budget, but this is the leg of the trip being funded by UBC, so we're enjoying the luxory while we can. If you can afford it, I highly reccomend it. Finland is expensive in general (the beer is cheap!) but we've managed to spend not very much money all things considered.

I had pretty much no expectations for Helsinki, and it blew my mind! The lightness is really amazing. This time of year it's light out and sunny and warm nearly 23 hours a day. Around midnight it gets a little dim for a while, but no darkness to speak of. The city is gorgeous, steeped in character and history, clean and safe, bustling but not crowded, the Fins are amazingly friendly, and English is spoken everywhere. The Finnish language is very complex - every letter is pronounced. For example Tuullikki, the name of a girl who showed me around on Tuesday - you need to pronounce both t's, both l's and both k's. Challenging for our western tongues.

Monday morning Paul was off to the conference. We had breakfast together at our hotel buffet which was incredible, and had all the fixings for sandwiches too, so we made some for our lunches (and have done this every day, so didn't have to pay for 2 meals a day) and headed in opposite directions for the day. Paul out to Espos, the suburb where the conference was being held, and I meandering around the city. I did a guided tour and learned a lot of Finnish history, and then wandered through the markets and some of the historic buildings. Back to the hotel to try and nap off the jetlag, which proved extra challenging with it being light 23 hours a day. Paul returned around 5pm and had a brief nap, and then we headed out to meet Jens and Antti (Antti is a Finnish boys name, you need to say both the t's) who are in Paul's research group at UBC (Antti is also in my brother's fraternity and comes from a small town in northern Finland but has been at UBC the last few years . . . small world). We went back to the conference site to go to a wine and dine (more like wine and salad for me - vegetarian eating has been somewhat challenging here) with the conference people. Paul shook hands with the Finnish prof who was the external examiner for his PhD.

Tuesday I got up and went for a run with Paul, and discovered the window where I thought I'd be a faster runner than him has already closed, broken bones and everything. Back to the hotel for breakfast and sandwich making, and then he headed to the conference and I headed to meet Tuullikki, a girl friend of Antti's who he had arranged to take me around for the day. She was really kind and showed me around Helsinki's design district - some really cool and really expensive clothes, particularly once you translate Euros into Cdn dollars. In the evening Paul and I met up with Antti and Jens and some of Antti's friends and we went to a Finnish restaurant. My stomach had been bugging me till this point so we stopped at a pharmacy where Antti translated between me and the pharmacist and eventually I left with some Tums type thing. We came home early to bed totally exhausted.

Wednesday I went out to the conference with the boys and watched Paul give his talk. I realized that Paul had been getting a much worse deal - he's been at this conference listening to lectures on paper physics and I've been gallivanting around my new favourite European city. After the talks Paul, Jens, Antti, Juha (another Fin who did a stint at UBC a few years ago) and I got some Finnish beers and drank them in the park, then met up with the rest of the conference congregation and went on an hour boat trip from Espos to a little island (can't even begin to spell it) near downtown Helsinki where there is an old sea fortress built by the Swedes when they controlled Finland, and conquered by the Russians. We had a guided tour and then a banquet in the inner most fortress. The banquet hall was stunning, but the meal was among the worst any of us had ever eaten. There was lots of wine though.

Thursday Paul finally had a day to go sight seeing. We went for a run in the morning to the Olympic Stadium built in 1938 for the 1940 games, but war broke out in 1939 so it wasn't used till 1952. There is a tower you can go up and get a great view from. We went up, but my acrophobia took over and I went right back down after a quick look. After showers and breakfast I took Paul around downtown and showed him all the cool things I've discovered, and then we went and had a treat at Helsinki's oldest bakery where they used to make pastries for royalty. We met up with Jens for a drink at a bar literally on the roof of another hotel which has a great 360 view of all of Helsinki, and then out for a decent dinner.

If Helsinki and nordic Europe hasn't been on your list of places to visit, put it on! This place has really been amazing and I am genuinely sad to leave it. We will be back for sure. We leave this afternoon back to Amsterdam and then on to Barcelona, where my sister is going to meet us for a 22 hour visit! More adventures to come. . .