Hola everyone. After a break from traveling, I had the opportunity to spend 2 weeks in Spain to start off the new year. I visited Barcelona in the summer for only two days, and I knew that I would definitely want to go back some day. I had met a girl this semester who is an exchange student. She invited me to come visit her and her family for a few weeks. I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to embrace another culture. Staying with her family allowed me to really take in the culture: the food, holidays, social lives, schedules, and much more. I did not take my computer there, so many of my thoughts were probably lost over the past few weeks. This post will be long and possibly hard to follow my random thoughts, so please bear with me.
As always, I use student travel agencies to buy my plane tickets. These agencies are perfect for cheap traveling. The prices are lower than anywhere else but only students can take advantage of these. I’d definitely recommend these to students looking for really good deals. As I was looking for tickets, I noticed that every flight on these agencies’ websites had layovers in Amsterdam. Many had very long layovers (up to 7 or 8 hours). My curiosity forced me to research a bit further, and a little help from Google taught me that traveling to the city of Amsterdam from the airport is cheap, easy, and quick. Only about $6 each way by train and about a 20 minute train ride. This obviously intrigued me. Seeing such a famous city like Amsterdam for 3 or 4 hours for almost free, could it get much better? I immediately found a flight that worked with the 7 hour layover and started planning. I booked my ticket only about 3 weeks before I actually left. This was the spur of a moment kind of thing. Although my friend lives in the northwest part of Spain, I decided to fly into Madrid for three reasons: 1) Flying into Madrid was about 30% cheaper 2) I wanted to see the city of Madrid while I have the chance 3) Public transportation in Europe is amazing. An 8 hour bus right overnight to a small city in northwest Spain doesn’t bother me a bit when I could see another city with so much history, and actually save money by doing it. Obviously I chose my major as finance for a reason.
I decided to fly out on the night of December 30th and reach my final desination of Madrid on New Year’s Eve at 8:00 p.m. Accordingly, I booked my hostel two blocks from Puerta Del Sol, the sight of the biggest New Year’s event in Spain. Pretty much the Times Square celebration of Spain. I couldn’t ask for better timing. Then I was to take a bus on the 1st of January to Pontevedra, her hometown in northwest Spain. Now that you know the plans, come along with me on the journey.
I carefully researched Amsterdam and what to do there since I only had 3 or 4 hour to actually walk around the city. I decided on the Anne Frank House, walk to the Dam (the city square), walk through the red light district, and to take a canal boat tour if I have time. Since I hadn’t read the Diary of Anne Frank since I was 11, I picked up the book right before going to the airport. On my flight, I was able to read only 20 pages between my naps and conversations with the people sitting next to me. This 20 pages was enough to refresh me on the book and to get a good idea of how the hiding is described in the book. On a side note, I get excited on these long flights to find out who I will be sitting by. Sitting by someone for 8 hours can be absolute silence or it could be a fun time. For example, I still keep in touch once in a while with the guy from Botswana who I met on my way to London in May. On my flight to Amsterdam from Chicago, I sat by a guy from Chicago heading to Ghana for a vacation and a guy heading back to his home in France after a week vacation in Chicago.
The guy from France was particularly interesting, because we talked about a topic that interests me: why do Americans have relatively so few vacations days? I may have talked about this before, but the average American gets about 12 vacation days a year (not including national holidays) compared to the French who, on average, have about 30 vacation days per year. I did a bit of research on this, and the US does rank first in productivity in the G8 countries. But somehow France is ranked #2 in productivity with this many vacation days.
After landing in Amsterdam, I quickly found the lockers to store my luggage and then went right to the train station. After accidentally paying double for a 1st class train ticket, I got into the very comfortable upper level of the train with nice leather seats and as much space as I needed. Was it worth the extra 3 euros for the 15 minute right? Of course not, but I bought my ticket too quickly without noticing what I was doing.
I got off the train, got my bearings, and began walking towards the Anne Frank House. Immeditately, I noticed the beautiful architecture and canals. Amsterdam has been called the Venice of the North because of its extensive canal system, and it makes for a very nice design for the city. While walking along the non-tourist streets, you would never think Amsterdam is as big as it is. It is so quiet with such nice architecture, you would never know a million people live here. These quiet streets also make it seem like such an innocent city, and you’d never guess that it’s two biggest attractions are its legal marijuana and its Red Light District.
My research paid off at the Anne Frank House. I had read that if you don’t buy your ticket online, you will be waiting in line for at least an hour or two during peak hours. I saw the line, then saw the Internet sales entrance. Surprisingly, I seemed to be one of the few that actually bought the ticket ahead of time. This was crucial since I only had about 3 or 4 hours in the city, and I didn’t want to spend half of that in a line. The Anne Frank House was a tour at your own pace. None of the rooms has furniture, so you just look at old pictures to imagine what it was like. Strange to have just read about all the activities Anne had wrote about in each room, and here I was standing in those same rooms. It was interesting to walk through the doorway that was blocked by the bookcase, since this was the bookcase that blocked the office from their hiding place. The rooms were all very small in the hiding, so I an understand why Anne talked a lot about the annoyances of all the other people in hiding.
After the Anne Frank House, I walked to the main square called the Dam. They had it set up for a concert, so the square wasn’t at its natural look. But it was still nice to be there because it has been the main square in Amsterdam. I then walked to the Red Light District, which is actually very touristy. I was there during the day, so I imagine that there were many more people there at night. This is obviously a shady area. I really didn’t feel good about walking around this area, but not because I didn’t feel safe. I just didn’t like people, and I didn’t like being offered drugs that are even illegal there. The drugs are a very interesting part of this city. All over the city are “coffeeshops”, which just signal that they sell marijuana and that it’s legal in these shops. Walking through the city is similar to a Bob Marley concert. Every few people smell like marijuana. It’s a different place. I then made my way back to the airport to wait for my flight to Madrid.
I arrived in Madrid at 8:00 p.m. on December 31st. I had my directions all printed out since I knew that there would be crowds of people around the area of my hostel. Unfortunately, the subway stop I had planned was closed that night since that was the very center of the Puerta del Sol. I didn’t realize this until I watched the subway keep coasting by the Sol subway stop. Against my will, I was forced to get off at a subway stop that I had no idea where it was from my hostel. Not to mention it was New Year’s Eve with crowds of people, I was pulling my luggage, and I can’t speak their language. I walked up the stairs from the subway to see Madrid for the first time, and having no idea which direction to go. I looked around, trying to find some signs or some kind of clue as to which way I was to go. After a few minutes of looking clueless, a nice guy noticed this and asked what I was looking for. Funny, because he immediately spoke English to me. I believe he said he was from Venezuela, but I am not sure. But he was nice enough to point me in the right direction.
After wandering around the area, I finally found my hostel. I threw my stuff in my room and headed over to Puerta del Sol. The number of people was incredible. I started out right near the main building around 11 p.m. I decided to keep walking. After about 20 minutes of working my way through the crowds, I realized it was a bad idea. I was towards the back of the crowd, it was becoming tougher to move, and I still hadn’t bought my grapes yet. It is a Spanish tradition to eat 12 grapes at midnight for New Year’s. The bell at Puerta del Sol chimes 12 times, and one grape goes in every chime. This started because Spain had a surplus of grapes in the early 1900s, so they encouraged everyone to eat grapes at midnight.
So I walked out to an alley and bought 12 grapes from a lady selling them there. I then worked my way in towards the middle as far as I could. At midnight, I started downing my grapes. To my surprise, they weren’t seedless grapes. You can’t imagine my surprise when I bite into four grapes, all with seeds, while still throwing more grapes into my mouth. Sadly, I was unable to finish them right away but finished them minutes later. After squeezing through the scattering crowd for an hour, I finally got to my hostel which was only a few blocks away.
I got back to the hostel and was surprised to see that 25 or 30 people were in the main area just hanging out. I found some people that spoke English and began talking to them. Most of the people didn’t speak much English, so I was limited to who I could talk to. Some of the people I were talking to were from Argentina, Italy, Mexico, Australia, and the US. After an hour, we decided to go out to a bar. Going out this late is typical in Spain. We left the hostel around 2 a.m., and I didn’t get back until 6:30 a.m. If you go out at midnight in Spain, it is still too early to see big crowds of people on a normal night. Going home when it gets light out is very normal in the Spanish life.
After I got to northwest Spain, we had the chance to travel around that area. The whole area is mountainous along with the bays on the coast. The food, the coffee, and the historic sights filled the rest of the trip with good times and good memories.