Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer in Spain?

Back in Madrid after a great week in Valdelavilla. I met some truly amazing people and walked away with so much more than I expected.  There is something indescribable about what happens when you put a group of people who are essentially complete strangers in the middle of nowhere and give them very limited access to "the outside world".  Valdelavilla happens to be the only venue with that type of isolation, and in a strange way I am glad it worked out to be my first program. The rest of the venues are either in a city or within walking distance of a city, and while I was slightly skeptical of the limitations of our little village at first, it actually worked in our favor.  The volunteers and participants got to know each other really well (while joking about the fact that we had no choice but to spend time together), and we all left with more than just the accomplished goal of stronger language skills.

As I was hoping, the time I spent there gave me a wealth of information on this country and where I definitely need to travel.  The participants came from all over Spain and they were more than happy to tell me about their little piece of the country.  In my very loose original plan, Spain was the place I was planning to spend the most time and for several reasons I am now considering staying here until I head to Macedonia.  Since I can't sit and chat with you guys about it, here are some of those reasons:

1) I am discovering that I prefer slow travel as opposed to the rush of seeing as much as possible in one or two days of staying in a city. Yes, you can spend 4 nights in Madrid and hit the major sites, but if you spend a week, you really start to appreciate and understand the city.

2) I am looking into taking a Spanish course to refresh the little bit I remember from Spanish 101 at Rutgers and give me a base for my time in South America as well.

3) The south of Spain is hot in August. Very hot. If I shift that part of my trip to the beginning of September, I can actually enjoy Seville, Granada, Cordoba, Cadiz, etc. without hiding indoors between 1pm and 5pm.

4) The thought of skipping Italy to allow myself extra time in Spain is actually a relief in some ways.  The whirlwind tour I was planning to accomplish in under 2 weeks was going to be slightly stressful/rushed which is probably not the best idea right before a 10 day build with HFH in Macedonia, in addition to being rather expensive since I would need to get from one city to the next quickly. (Also, see item #1 regarding slow travel.)

5) I really like tapas.

So, we'll see.  I am looking into a few different programs and talking to several people over the next day or two and I'll figure out the plan from there.

~ N

Monday, July 25, 2011


Volunteering in an English immersion program in Valdelavilla this week. The short description is - Spanish companies send their employees here to strengthen their English.  There are also several masters students attending the program this week who are completing their studies so their English is quite strong.  The venue is a small restored village in the mountains in the north of Spain and the landscape is amazing (pictures soon).  I was definitely right about the change of pace…the closest civilization is a 20 minute car ride.  The volunteers are from the US, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Brussels, and Scotland and the age of the entire group (volunteers and attendees) is 19 to 65.

We’re just really getting into the program so more on that later but for now I can say this much – the food is amazing and there is way too much of it.  Every meal is a sit down affair with multiple courses and each one is an exercise in self-control.  Pretty thankful for all the hills I’m hiking up here right now…maybe my hips will have a fighting chance of still fitting into my jeans at the end of the week.

~ N

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Next Stop: Middle of Nowhere, Spain

Arrived in Madrid to head north and I can't wait to be back here in a week to really spend some time in the city.  So beautiful.

I am spending the next week in the mountains of Soria in a small rustic village called Valdelavilla that was abandoned in the mid 1960's then restored in the 1990's.  Not sure what the WiFi situation will be there as it is quite remote so if you don't hear from me, no worries - I am fine. (Mom & Dad, that is for you!)

Here's the link to the place I am staying, it's about 3 1/2 hours outside of Madrid and I think the ride there will be quite scenic.  As most of my trip will be in major cities, I am really looking forward to the change of pace.

~ N

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Few Random Thoughts

Hard to believe more than a week has gone by.  I truly enjoyed the nice, slow start to my trip. I've spent the mornings visiting museums or touring sites, and the afternoons sipping sangria by the river and just reading or talking with other travelers. I have made some great connections here and will be a little sad to leave. The Portuguese people are so warm and truly make you feel like family. 

In any case, tomorrow I head to Madrid to meet the group for the first of my two volunteer programs in Spain. As I pack up and get ready to move on, here a few random thoughts rolling around in my head...

- European license plates are awesome.

- Port wine and dark chocolate make a delicious lunch.

- I love the sound of young children speaking foreign languages.

- The Portuguese are not fans of vegetables.

- In some cases, there is a little "magic" button that you need to hold when you turn on the faucet so that your shower has hot water.

- Is it really necessary to have 1¢, 2¢, 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, 50¢,1€ and 2€ coins?  I pretty much need one of those old school train conductor coin dispensers at this point.

- I have found the holy grail of ice cream bars (for me), and I am thankful that I did not discover it until yesterday. There are not enough stairs to undo the damage that could have resulted if I found it on day one.

~ N

p.s. I added a few more pics to the album (the album link is now on the top left side of the page)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pictures Posted

Link to album:  Portugal 7/2011

A Purple Tree

Yesterday I took a full day boat ride down the Douro River.  Rather than trying to put into words how breathtaking it was, I am posting the pictures. I'm fairly certain even they won't do the view any justice.

Since it was a weekday, the group on the boat was small which was great.  The morning was spent floating through the vineyards, then we had an incredible lunch followed by gorgeous countryside all afternoon.

Side note: One of the really neat things (geek alert) was getting to see how they move ships through the dam when the river is at two different levels.  They put us in a "hold" of sorts, drained the water, let the boat drop to the lower level, and opened the opposite gate.  Sounds really basic, but it was really cool to see, and they had to drop the boat really far. The pictures are in the album.

The scenery was (of course) beautiful, and every once in a while amid the lush green there would be a single tree with bright purple flowers.  There was a really nice family from France that I ended up spending most of the afternoon with, and the kids were entertaining themselves by trying to be the first to spot a purple tree.  During that time, Marie (the mom) and I chatted in somewhat broken English about my trip, her family, life in general. As we got off the boat she told me how much she enjoyed our afternoon, kissed me goodbye and said - "You are a purple tree".

Awww. What do you say to that?

~ N

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Spent the day in Gaia, the town just across the river from Porto.  There is a famous two level bridge that connects Porto and Gaia which was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel so the ironwork has similarities to the Eiffel Tower.  I'll post pictures soon, but in the meantime - wow! The view walking across the top level is spectacular.  As it turns out, if you take the lower level back, you need to walk up concrete stairs on the Porto side. A lot of concrete stairs. 210 concrete stairs to be specific. Yes, I counted.  Today's lesson learned: always take the top level back.

Okay, back to my great day before the 210 stairs.  Most of the vineyards in the northeastern part of Portugal have their wine cellars in Gaia, some for hundreds of years. I toured a few today, and while the beer nerd in me didn't find them quite as intriguing as brewery tours, the cellars are really incredible structurally and it was interesting to learn the process and the history.

Tomorrow I'm heading north to take a boat ride through the Douro Valley (where all the vineyards are located). From what I understand, it is one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world, and I'm sure seeing it from the river will be amazing. 

~ N

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Arrived in Porto this afternoon and I am so glad that I chose to start my trip here. The weather is unreal right now (this week's forecast: upper 70s during the day and 60s at night), and although it's the second largest city in Portugal, it has a completely different feel than Lisbon. A little slower..? Older...? Hard to describe just yet.

My head is still spinning a little from the last few days and I haven't actually slept yet since flying out of NJ so putting together my plan of attack will need to wait until tomorrow. I'll post again later in the week when I'm not a groggy mess...just wanted to touch base that I have arrived safely.

~ N