Euro Top Ten: #9 – Carcassonne

#9 – Carcassonne

My name is Sally, and I am a giant nerd.

I’ve been this way my whole life, but this trip to Europe really cemented the title.  When Katie and I first started planning our trek through France (before we even knew who else was coming) one of us had the brilliant idea to go to Carcassonne.  We love the board game of the same name – it’s one of the best two-player games ever.  In it, you build walled cities, claim roads, farm fields, and complete cloisters.  You know, typical activities of the French countryside.

Because this isn’t some made-up place (ahemahemCatanahemahem) – it’s an honest to god city in France, and we planned basically our entire lives trip around going there.

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It was everything we dreamed it would be and more. The walled city itself was incredibly beautiful – cobblestones, winding paths where you have no choice but to get hopelessly lost. Abandoned fountains in courtyards, chip shops run out of literal holes in the wall, a beautiful cathedral.  Everywhere we turned we saw sunshine slanting between towers and over the stone walls.

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The main castle at Carcassonne – Château Comtal – was built in the 12th century.  Over the years, this French city actually served as the border with Spain (which is crazy, if you see if on a map today). The city had a turbulent history which mostly involved many phases of people taking over the walled city, driving out all the old inhabitants. and gradually developing suburbs (from which they tried to lure people back into the city to actually fill it).

The castle was restored in 1853, back when preservation/restoration was still a relatively new idea.  It was a challenge to find a single period to restore the castle to, so they went with a bit of a mish-mash and the result is fascinating.  Horseshoe shaped towers stand next to ramparts that are separated by hundreds of years. My favorite parts were the views from the top of the hill (way to pick a prime castle location, builders of yore!) and the simple, practical design of the entire place – like the carefully crafted yard by the drawbridge that was designed to give archers easy aim at anyone who snuck in.  Imagine shooting fish in a barrel and you’ll know how likely it was that the people on the ground weren’t going to make it to see the inner courtyards.

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Our day in Carcassonne was nothing short of spectacular.  It was a reminder of the value of the past – and the joy of the present, which lets NH nerds visit the land from their board game dreams.
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Tips for visiting Carcassonne:

  • You don’t need to stay overnight – we took a train in the morning from Toulouse
  • Spend some time winding you way up to the castle – the bridges leading there are gorgeous (but you can skip the museum in the city center)
  • Take the audio tour – it gives you some seriously amazing history
  • Splurge on some fun souvenirs – where else are you going to get a Carcassonne shot glass or tea towel? NOWHERE.
  • Generally, follow your weirdest, nerdiest dreams and you’re bound to find some pretty great adventures in the real world along the way.

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The #9 is brought to you from a playground in a schoolyard in Carcassonne.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

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I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

I CLAIM THIS ROAD!

Mic: check!

I’ve never been shy about taking the stage. I remember being in third grade and singing the solo in the Hanukkah song in an elementary school holiday concert.  As I got older, I sang with choirs, played my clarinet in band, even tooled around on a bass guitar in jazz band.  I had a few lines as a lovely lady in Les Mis and was a Bali Ha’i dancer in South Pacific.  But since I didn’t take up acoustic guitar until after I’d graduated from college, I never had a chance to play in public – until this weekend.

I headed back to my hometown in NH for the weekend to play at the local (read: only) coffeeshop’s open mic night. The shop itself is related to my theatrical past – it’s housed in the old train station, which was actually the hardware store when I was growing up. Katie and I used to go there about twice a week (or day) to buy paint for flats and signs and furniture. In the audience were old friends, my middle school shop teacher, the town librarians, etc. So much hometown love.

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And SO MUCH FUN.  I played two songs – cut out the middle one because the program was running a little long.  First my dad and I sang “Jolene” by Dolly Parton – I was inspired by a first date I went on a few weeks ago where I heard a woman kill it. Thanks for taking me to that bar, Ryan! And then I sang and played “You and I” by Lady Gaga alone – an anthem to my “cool New Hampshire guy.”

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After all that time of planning, and all that hype, it was so much easier than I expected.  And so much more exhilarating. I added this to my five year plan because it seemed like something good to try “before I got too old” but actually, it struck a serious chord (teehee) in my heart. I think I’m going to have to look at going bigger… maybe even seeing if there are any bands that need guitarists…?

Lesson learned: always push yourself and try new things – it might not only make you tick, but also inspire some further desire!

So much love to my mom and sis for cheering me on, bro-in-law Wes for also playing for the first time, cousin Sophie and uncle Andy for rocking it, dad for always playing by my side, and Ashley, Zak, and Rachael for coming to cheer me on.

Now, onward to the rest of the fun adventures on my list, and all those I haven’t even thought to write down!

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Euro Top Ten : #8 – Airbnb

#8 – Airbnb

I like to think of Airbnb as the totally unofficial sponsor of my latest journey abroad.  Of the 31 nights I spent in Europe, all but one evening was spent in an Airbnb.  It’s what made it possible for me to afford a month of rent in London.  It’s how we were able to stay in four cities in one week, and how my parents were able to stay with me for no extra cost.

Airbnb is part of the new “sharing economy” that allows people to rent out their homes to travelers.  It’s free to register, and the rates for housing vary by location.  My apartments in London were a steal at $100-120 a night to have a one-bedroom to myself, including fees, exchange rates, and the fact that I had lots of nights when my friends and family were staying with me. In our upcoming trip to Hawaii, my sister and I are paying $100/night for two twin beds in a guest house in Maui.

But more than just the price, Airbnb gives you a home.  It gives you a kitchen, and a bath, and your own space (as opposed to a hostel where you share everything).  It comes with a washer, a dryer, a wonky floor where the tiles creak under your feet as you walk to the balcony for your morning coffee.  Someone else’s books to leaf through and closets to resist looking at (though one host did tell me I could wear his sweaters if I got cold!). It includes a friend to text when the hot water doesn’t run in the morning (“just wait until everyone else goes to work!”) and a recommendation for a coffee shop where the locals really do go, along with access to neighborhoods and cities and experiences that you’d never get if you stuck to the beaten path.

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Our home away from home in Montpellier

 

Airbnb really did lead me to some amazing places.  In London, I stayed a bus ride away from Big Ben and then right off Gray’s Inn Road and found that I loved the more remote location better.  In Paris, we rented a space the size of a trailer (too small for what ended up being four of us!) and had to check under all the fourth floor doormats for keys because we had no idea which apartment was ours – luckily no one caught us in the act.  In Montpellier, we stayed in a gorgeous apartment with the most comfortable couch I’ve ever slept on in my life. In Toulouse, our adorable host carried ALL OUR BAGS up the stairs himself, and invited us to go through his DVD collection (he and his wife have also written to me since we returned to say Merry Christmas, etc. Merci Amelie et Manu!). And in Barcelona, the weird dorm-like place we rented was perfectly located for late nights out and coffee at the bakery downstairs.

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Rooftops of London from Airbnb #2

 

I know that in some parts of the US especially, Airbnb has had some negative press lately for people who are using the service to operate what are essentially hotels, or to undermine the rental market. I can’t speak to the economic impact of Airbnb (I was an English major…) but I do know that it opened doors to me that surely would have stayed closed without this housing option, and I’m grateful.  I hope the regulations can be worked out so that people with good intentions can keep lending their spaces and encouraging adventures, here and abroad!

As a 29-year-old woman, I think I’ve outgrown the youth hostel scene – I want more personal space than they allow.  And as a solo traveler, it’s key that that space is safe and centrally located, and I can stay much longer since it’s also affordable. When I did have a problem with one of my London apartments, Airbnb tried to help me solve it (then I fixed it myself, because I’m badass like that).  I’d go back to the rest of these places in a heartbeat, and would love to be a host myself some day.  Until then, I’ll just keep dreaming of the treehouses, igloos, mansions, and islands I could rent with the click of a button!

Check out Airbnb – use my code and get $25 off your first reservation!

The #8 is brought to you from somewhere in Paris.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

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Euro Top Ten : #7 – A geek’s paradise

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#7 – A Geek’s Paradise

Confession: #7 was going to be the Harry Potter Experience, outside London, because it was easily one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life.  But it’s also one of the few things I covered well in the midst of my travels (you should read about it here!) so I’m expanding this superlative to include a wider swath of geeky adventures.

This post is dedicated to the literature nerd – the girl with her nose in a book, the one who bought a wand even though the conversion rate was ridiculous, who was late to meet her friend for dinner because she was too busy trying on deerstalkers and seeing which one would go best with her pipe.

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On duty at 221B Baker Street

 

It’s for the roommates whose very first piece of art in their apartment was a reprint of an oil painting of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  For those travelers who dance on the steps of the Mirabell Gardens just like the Von Trapp children, and those whose itinerary is driven by their favorite board games (more on that later…).

Just posing with some french bread, waiting for the town to wake up and saaaaaay - BONJOUR!

Just posing with some french bread, waiting for the town to wake up and saaaaaay – BONJOUR!

While people around the world dream of seeing the Big Apple (which is lovely, don’t get me wrong), my heart belongs to the rooftops of London, where Bert and Mary Poppins could appear on the horizon any time.  To the corner of Covent Garden where you expect to see Eliza Dolittle selling her flowers, to the Notting Hill bookstore where Hugh Grant would fit right in.  Europe may be the land of culture and history, but to me, it’s also the land where my wildest, nerdiest dreams come true.

Exchange rates be damned - YOLO!

Exchange rates be damned – YOLO!

And yes, that’s the elder wand.  Go big or go home, right? In the end I had to do both – but I left some of my nerdy heart in Europe.  As if I needed a reason to return!

 

Read more about my Harry Potter nerdiness here.

The #7 is brought to you from a train platform in France.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top Ten : #6 – A weekend in Paris

#6 – A weekend in Paris

There’s nothing quite like meeting Paris for the first time.  Or being there when your friends do, which was the case for half our party on this recent adventure.  Yes, it’s touristy and such.  But it’s also beautiful and truly romantic and steeped in so much history that you can hardly breathe.

Shakespeare and Company - a tribute to the famous ex-pat bookstore beloved by Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald

Shakespeare and Company – a tribute to the famous ex-pat bookstore beloved by Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald

My favorite moments in Paris this time around were the moments, not the big scenes.  We didn’t go into the Louvre or Notre Dame (though I kind of regret it).  Instead, we walked down small streets and into old courtyards.  We hunted down the best chocolate shops.  Katie and I arrived and immediately ate one of the best three-course meals of my life, from the salad to the boeuf bourguignon to the crème brûlée (parfait!).  We walked by the Seine, even getting to a place where we saw more than a few rats and realized we should probably turn back…. but couldn’t find a staircase to exit the embankment. (Don’t worry mom, there were a few other people around!)  We picked “our cafe” and ate breakfast there multiple days.  We navigated ourselves around our neighborhood based on our proximity to an iPhone 6 sign posted on the side of the police headquarters.

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Our breakfast spot (we managed to avoid Paul, since they have that here in the US!)

My friends did indulge my touristy side a bit by agreeing to go on the Sandeman New Paris walking tour with me – I love this company and have been on their tours in Berlin and Amsterdam too.  I think it’s a great way to see a small slice of the city within a set structure – no one needs to worry about watching the time or holding the map (though we did get totally separated at the end and almost have to just go home without each other…).

Kate at the Louvre - please note the people behind her posing for the exact same photo!

Kate at the Louvre – please note the people behind her posing for the exact same photo!

It took us all over the city, to the monuments and bridges and parks.  We learned about the kings and queens and the French government’s attempt to keep their culture intact through actions like trying to come up with a French alternative to “selfie” (good luck!).  We also visited the Pont des Arts, which was made famous by Carrie and Big’s kiss in the final scene of Sex and the City and which has essentially been destroyed by tourists since then.  The idea is to add a lock to the bridge to symbolize your eternal love for your sweetheart and throw the key in the river (dozens of vendors sell locks nearby in case you didn’t plan ahead) – but our guide pointed out all the combination locks, which he said were from coy French lovers who make promises to women, then come back and collect their lock again the next day to re-use it on their next date.

Locks on the Pont des Arts

Locks on the Pont des Arts

It was a whirlwind trip – I think I could stay in Paris for at least six months and not get tired of it, even though our Airbnb was the size of a small camper.  The bubbling fountains and historic buildings – the late dinners and uneven streets – the artists and bookshops and museums galore – and these friends by my side, at sunset at the Eiffel Tower.

Best friends in Paris!

Sunset at the Eiffel Tower

What’s your favorite part of Paris?  I’ve still never been to Sacre Coeur and could spend an entire week in the Musee d’Orsay, which I’ll aim to do on my next trip back!

Katie and I also took a detour to Versailles – read about it here!

The #6 is brought to you from the street of our Airbnb in Paris.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

Click here to read the other posts in this series.

Euro Top 10: #5 – Barcelona’s beaches

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#5 – Barcelona’s beaches

This was originally going to be #9 because it was definitely one of the top moments of the trip, but after the month we’ve had, I needed some sunshine a little earlier in my life.  Boston has been walloped with more than seven feet of snow in the last three weeks, making this the snowiest month since weather was first recorded in the city in 1872.  Let that sink in.  But don’t get frostbite while you do it – the temps are so low that you can be at risk of losing fingers in just 10 minutes.

It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, I was lying on a beach in Spain.  Yes, it was fall.  Yes, we had about 10 total hours of daylight each day to work with. But coming from New England, I was more than satisfied with the mere moments we were able to spend on the warm sand.

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Le Barceloneta

 

This is the beach in Le Barceloneta.  We walked all the way down to that harbor area with the ships, where there was a concert going on, including food truck and a DJ, whose smooth jams we heard up and down the beach all day.

We lay on the beach on the two small towels we brought with us, and Sara told us about how in Valencia, people give massages on the beach.  Alas, here we “just” saw people selling mixed drinks out of coconuts, big beach blankets, bottles of water, etc.  We liked to watch the drama unfold and see who else on the beach was giving into these passing temptations.  And I declared that if Sara could materialize a masseuse for me, I would be the happiest person who ever killed her back lugging a suitcase for a month.

Then, behold! Someone did come by.  An older woman who Sara was able to negotiate with in Spanish.  She gave me one of the best massages of my life, and it only cost 5 euros for about 15 minutes.  Ridiculous.  It was a surreal, lush experience, to be lying on a blanket with my bare back to the sky, my friends sitting next to me, getting my shoulders rubbed.  I would like to go back there right now, pretty please!

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Barcelona beach stones

 

The other amazing thing about the beach was the sand itself.  It contained so many large, beautiful stones, unlike any beach I’ve been on before.  They were all about the size of your fingernails, and the most beautiful colors (the photo above has had zero editing!).  They hurt to walk on after a bit, but Katie and I had a blast digging through them and filling our pockets with treasures.

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Le Barceloneta with the W Hotel in the background

 

Because October is the off-season, we didn’t have to share the beach with many people, which was perfect for us.  But getting here at all was a good reminder that even though we might not think of ourselves as beach people, even though we love the culture and history and gourmet food the actual city has to offer, we all need some time on the sand every now and then, whether or not we know it in advance.  This has already played a big part in planning my next trip to Hawaii with my sister, where we’re trying to limit what we book ourselves for and instead leave ourselves lots of time for just soaking up the sunshine.

And next time I go back to Barcelona, I’m aiming to get a massage AND a drink out of a pineapple.

The #5 is brought to you from a sign in the Barcelona metro.

All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.

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Galentines + Valentines

love Valentine’s Day.

I’m as single as they come and have been for most February 14ths in my life, but I love this holiday.

To me, it’s about spreading love with glitter, chocolate, crafts, and syrupy sweetness.  Sure, it has been ultra-commercialized over the years. My solution: don’t give in to that hype.  Make it the holiday you want to see.  For example, Amy Poehler and the writers at Parks and Recreation invented “Galentine’s Day” through one of their episodes – today, dozens of my friends and thousands of people around the world are celebrating their lady-friends.

My version of this holiday involves spending the weeks leading up to it watching rom-coms and making handmade cards which I send out (despite the rising postage rate) to my loved ones.  I’ve also organized my Mount Holyoke classmates to send cards to the students who have our old mailboxes now (hey hey 1168!).  Friends from college, cousins, colleagues – no one can escape my glitter pen and warm wishes.

And no one should try – because once you back away from comparing what other people are doing on this day, you’ll see that it’s just a nice excuse to tell your pals that you think they’re swell, and offer them a mini-snickers bar or two. Or maybe just love yourself and #treatyoself to a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream.

Here’s hoping you have a lovely Galentine’s AND Valentine’s Day!