Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Overlooked: La Alberca, Spain

La Alberca is a little known town in the northwest of Spain, just a hop, skip and a jump from Salamanca and the Portugal border and a four-hour bus ride from Madrid.

I found my way to this quite little town by force. I had signed up for my volunteering English teaching position for a week through the highly recommended Pueblo Ingles and was sent to the program's outpost in this wee place.

I've blogged about the program before (though not in depth, which I should do one day. although right after the program was finished I did blog this MEMO), but never really about what the village really has to offer. After all, besides the gaggle of English-unundated Spaniards and Anglos that come here to learn every week, other tourists come to La Alberca.


First off, the village is ancient...over a thousand years old and extremely well-preserved, as you can see in it's fabulously medieval architecture, cobblestone roads and thatched roofs. In fact, all new buildings must be made in the same manner and style as the old ones. It also the first village to be declared a National Historial Monument by Spain and it's easy to see why:

Reported fountain of youth

Built in the 1300's, the town church may look unassuming from the outside but inside it tells a different and historically rich story. The Church of the Asunción, houses many revered wonders such as a 16th-century pulpit sculpted in granite, a splendid Gothic copper processional cross and a figure of Cristo del Sudor.

The scenery is astounding too, as the village combines softly pastoral landscapes with the rugged Sierra de Francia mountains.

Also worth noting is the local cuisine and shops. People flock to this village to sample the tasty, but pricey, serrano hams. These black pigs get fat on acorns...

...before the are sold in any of the numerous Jam shops...

...and make their way to your dinner table.

The local shops are vivid, quaint and all-encompasing, catering to the young tourist:

Old tourist:

And locals:

*Located an hour and a half from the lively student city of Salmanca, with daily bus services.

*The hotel I stayed at is primarily used for the volunteer program, though the chalets can also be rented out. Otherwise, The Paris Hotel (http://www.hotelparislaalberca.com/, +34 923 415 131) is closer to town and comfy.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Carcassone on a Budget

I promise to come up with some brand new blogging tidbits on travel when the time is right, as my life is kinda topsy turvy at the moment. I keep contacting certain travel blogs to see if they want my submissions - and they do - but then I forget to write them. What is wrong with me? I really need my head on straigh :S

Anyhoo, if you're going to France anytime soon, please go visit the wonderfully captured town of Carcassonne. For anyone fond of remembering the days of yore and running around a castle pretending to be a princess (or a knight) this place is for you. The shopping ain't too shabby either! I recall there being an excellently stocked Mango, however I also recall that was the weekend I ran out of money (one of the weekends, sigh, oh me).

For budget's sake, I am going to blog about Sid's Mum's Backpackers in Carcassonne. Or rather, just outside of it.

I will get into the WONDERFUL town of Carcassonne next week, but because I feel rushed and tipsy, I should first blog about this wonderful backpackers.

For anyone going to the medieval village of Carcassonne - and I am sorry but ALL visitors to France MUST make time for this place - Sid's Mum's (Sidsmums) is the place to go.

Of course, I may be biased because they gave me free (leftover) champagne upon my arrival and they were totally ready to feed me (again, this had a lot to do with running out of money that weekend - thank God I prepaid for the hostel!)....

And of course the cabins were a wonderful place to get some shut-eye....

And the nearby landscape of vineyards and lavender fields were soothing to the soul...

And the hostel itself is a beautifully rustic farmhouse of open spaces and relaxing grounds...

And if you don't believe me, read the following:

SIDSMUMS is a small, English family run hostel (backpackers) located in the tranquil village of Preixan on the northern foothills of the Pyrenees. This circulade village (500 people and 1,000 years of history) is just 10 kms (6 miles) south of the famous medieval Cité of Carcassonne, overlooks the Aude River and the woodlands and vineyards of the Malapère region.

The function of a hostel is to provide a comfortable and affordable base from which to explore the surrounding region. Having explored the area ourselves, we are happy to help you plan walks and tours and to provide detailed maps of the area. We have our own excursion book which we hope you will help us to expand and improve, and we can point you towards castles, caves and abbeys, we can hire you a pushbike or even lend you the dog! From the best biking roads to the most spectacular view, we are in the know.

When your day of exploring is complete, we are confident that you will find Sidsmums to be a welcoming place where you can relax and unwind - and it is our sincerest hope that you will make some new friends - or get re-acquainted with old friends - while doing so.

We offer a large, well equipped kitchen so that you can eat the food that you want, whenever you want, and at supermarket prices. You may choose to prepare a picnic - ask us to suggest some wonderful places to eat it - or perhaps join with us and other guests for a BBQ on the terrace.

We provide fridges so that you can stock up for a couple of days at the supermarket on your way through town. There is a "boulangerie" in the village for French bread and croissants, and there's a small general store in the next village 3 kms away. We provide tea and coffee and you can pick your own herbs in the garden to give your food that special French feel ..

Also in the village, the Relais de Preixan offers excellent traditional French cuisine and a small bar. Close by there is a Pizzeria/Brasserie and a Routiers (truck stop).

For those who crave a little respite from the often hectic pace of backpacking - we know, we've been there - there is a large garden behind the hostel where you can work on your Mediterranean tan or read a book under a tree. A small library of books is available; we have cards; we have board games; you can even try your hand at pétanque (boules).

Town (cafés, restaurants, bars, etc) the infamous O'Sheridans Irish Pub and the medieval Cité are 10kms away. The hostel provides a lift each day into Carcassonne to complement the buses which operate to and from town every day, except on Sunday.

The hostel itself accommodates 6 people in three twin bedded rooms. In addition there are four cabins available for bookings of two to four people each. We provide bedding at no extra charge.

What do you say? Go to Sidsmum's today!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Top Ten Things to See and Do in New Zealand

I can’t wax on enough about New Zealand. The “Endzone” first struck a cord with me when I was 18 years old. I packed up and headed off to Australia, only to add New Zealand to my itinerary at the last minute.

My half-sister Linda had married a New Zealander, Hamish, years ago and lived in an area called Kati Kati. I figured it would be foolish to travel that far and not drop by and pay her a visit. Besides not seeing them both for a looong time, they had two children, Tor and Bjorn whom I had never met. I’m not, and especially not seven years ago, a big fan of kids but I figured since they were my nephews it would do me good to meet them.

Interestingly enough, when I finally got my trip together, Hamish and Linda had moved down to Paekakariki, on the Kapiti Coast, a 45-minute train ride outside of Wellington. While they still had their place in Kati Kati, they rented a wee (and I do mean wee) house in this wee town in order to be close to Hamish’s work.

Hamish was the key grip for ALL of the Lord of The Rings Movies, which meant he basically worked from 1999-2003 on it. My sister and him are actually good friends with Peter Jackson and have worked as grips on almost all his films from Brain Dead to Heavenly Creatures to The Frighteners. I got to hear a LOT of gossip about the film and eventually got to visit the set itself. But that happened a few years later.

Anyway, to make this story short, I flew down to New Zealand, spent two weeks in Paekakariki and Wellington and two weeks during a Magic Bus tour of the South Island.

The country left such a lasting impact on me that even though I thoroughly enjoyed my five months in Australia afterwards, I still yearned for my time in NZ.

Fortunately, I was able to return to New Zealand three years later, as I arranged to attend the Auckland Institute of Technology and start my brilliant career in Communications. It was a three-year Bachelors but I only stayed for just over one year. Circumstance and fate led me back home to Canada.

What’s the point of all this? Well NZ made such an impression on me after two weeks that I returned years later with all intentions to move. That’s gotta mean it’s pretty special. Also, because I was somewhat of a “local,” for a year at least, I got to see and do some pretty amazing things, things that the average tourist wouldn’t know about.

So without further ado, here is Top Ten List of Things to See and Do in New Zealand:

1. Milford SoundThis goes without saying. No trip to New Zealand is complete without seeing this justifiably famous park. Yes, it might be a bit out of the way and a pain to get to, but it’s worth it. Just prepare for rain. Lots and lots of rain.

2. Lake Wanaka – Wanaka often gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Queenstown, even though its scenery is just as stunning, its activities are just as mind-blowing and it’s less touristy. Its easy to get to and its location makes it a convenient base for exploring Makaroa (the Siberia Experience is highly recommended) and Queenstown.

3. Te Anua Located further south than Milford Sound, Te Anua is just as beautiful, made even more so thanks to its isolation and “off the beaten path” feel. It’s the starting point for exploring the remote Doubtful and Dusky sounds, houses the well-traversed Kepler and Routeburn tracks (known as the Walking Capital of the World) and a gorgeous lake just ripe for exploring.

4. The East Cape – The East Cape is the tiny eastern section of the South Island. It has the highest Maori influence of any place in the country and is dotted with down-to-earth and traditional towns. The surf-friendly city of Gisborne and the Art-Deco influenced structure of Napier provide a cosmopolitan twist among the capes verdant forest and fern-covered gullies.

5. The Otago Peninsula – This peninsula is conveniently located near the scenic and Scottish town of Dunedin (which literally means “little Edinburgh”). For all your wildlife needs, the Otago Peninsula is your one stop shop. Where else can you see sea lions up close, little blue penguins at your feet, big Hoiho penguins frolicking in green meadows with sheep and the mighty albatross? I highly recommend this tour company.

6. PunakaikiA small settlement on the West Coast of the South Island, its mainly known as a quick bus stop to see the famous “Pancake Rocks.”
But aside from these Dali-esque, sea-scuplted formation, Punakaiki has lush rainforests, best seen by kayaking or walking up the Pororari River, and a wild, desolate wind-swept coast dotted with New Zealand’s only native palm tree, the Nikau Palm.

The area also boasts a wonderful backpackers.

7. Nelson – This happens to be my favourite city in the whole country. Aside from its small-town charm, huge array of quality hostels and encompassing scenery, its biggest draw is its location. It’s a great base for exploring the transcendent Nelson Lakes National Park and the lush Abel Tasman National Park. While Abel Tasman is a lot more visited and well-known than Nelson Lakes, they are both a hiker, kayaker and photographer’s paradise and crucial to any trip to the country.

8. The Alpine Tranzscenic Train Ride – Proclaimed the “Most Scenic Train Journey in the World” this four-hour train ride from Christchurch on the South Island’s East Coast to Greymouth on the West Coast passes through towering, tussocked peaks, isolated ranches and sub-tropical rainforest. Arthur’s Pass is the stop in the middle of the journey and well-worth spending a couple of days, no matter what the season. Staying at these cottages will make your stay extra memorable.

9. A weekend in the Marlborough Sounds – The Marlborough Sounds are what many people see upon their visit to the South Island…the Interislander ferry passes through them on route to terminal town of Picton. While most people pick up and go from there, my advice would be to plan for a couple of days in the sounds. Most of the accommodations in the sounds are wonderfully isolated, some accessible only by water taxi. This is an excellent place to recharge in the luxurious landscape whether it be kayaking among whales and seals or walking through the verdant hills.

10. Kaikoura – This South Island town is justifiably popular for its Whale Watching excursions, but it has other activities such as dolphin and seal swimming, shark diving, hiking and skiing that make it so much more than the best place to spot a Sperm Whale. A variety of good backpackers, wild shores and mild climate make this a great place to visit, rain or shine….but plan for rain ;)

As you can see, the majority of these places are in the South Island. This is just because the South Island is a lot more geographically diverse than the North Island. Where else can you go from palm-fringed beaches to glaciers in the course of a few hours?

If planning a trip to New Zealand, it is possible to see everything in a few weeks. But believe me, if you really want to get the best of it, plan for at least a month, get the BBH guide (rates the backpackers and hostels in NZ so you know when you are staying at an awesome place) and rent a car. The Kiwi Experience and Magic Bus tours are a great intro (Magic is a tad more respectable as the Kiwi Experience is generally full of drunk, shagging Brits...if you've come to NZ to do that I suggest you save your money and stay at home...or go to Amsterdam) but it can’t compare with the freedom of the open road.

Finally, after nearly 7 years, I am going back to New Zealand, a place where parts of my heart still remain after all these years. I am going for three weeks in December 2009 for my bestie's wedding and dragging my bf along with me, where we will spend a glorious week up North on the white sand beaches of Waiheke Island and Bay of Plenty and then two weeks touring the South Island in a campervan. Bliss!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

So you want to go to Mexico...

I've been to Mexico many times before but I had never gone by myself, until November, 2006. I thought Mexico would be a fairly easy country to bribe navigate. What I didn't realize is the fact that it seemed easy because my parents were the ones in charge of bribes negotiations. When you are on your own and don't have your usual wits about you, it becomes a whole different ball game.


Bring cash. Bring American cash. You don't even have to exchange it. In Cabo San Lucas, where I am right now, the US dollar is just as acccepted by the Peso. But just bring a lot of cash, in a lot of small bills.

Don't think that you can get money from a cash machine. If there is a cash machine, it is probably broken. And don't be surprised if there is only one cash machine for miles (as was the case in the airport).

Don't think you can rely on your credit cards. Mexico is not very credit card friendly. Sure, the touristy and upscale restaurants and bars take credit cards but most other places do not, even places you swear they should. Also, do not think that you can go to a money exchange and extract money from your visa card. Most currency exchanges operate on a cash only basis.

Do realize that if you don't bring hard cash into Mexico, there is a chance you could be stranded at the airport for hours because the shuttle/taxis into town do not take credit cards. And the ATM might be broken. And the currency exchange booth can't help you. And you have to rely on the overwhemling generosity of Mexican airport workers named Irak who lend you the 14 dollars (140 Pesos) in order for you to take the bus into town and not get swept up into a rogue prostitution ring for lost and penniless Gringas.

If you do find yourself in the said situation, make sure you seek out boys from Alaska. They will buy you beer and dinner until you can afford to live again.

That aside, let's look at some amazing Mexican Doors, shall we?:

I think Mexican architecture is genius. The warming adobe, white-washed walls, vibrant blues, searing yellows, red-tiled roofs. The detail even goes into their doors, where a door is not just a portal with a doorknob but a work of art, melting with the essence of the house.

I strive to convey a sense of this south-western style in my own home with terracotta pots, blue margarita glasses and glistening sunflower picture frames but it never does the originality of the Mexican style any justice.