Photo Post: Colorful Copenhagen

My knowledge of Denmark was relatively small: the Danes created my favorite childhood toy and eat their fair share of pastries, and that they and the Swedes enjoy a hot-cold relationship. And that traveling to Copenhagen in December would mean thermal underwear.

Over four days, the Danish capital quickly became a city I’d love to live in – even with the sun setting at the same time I eat lunch in Spain. I found that what I expected out of my trip didn’t prepare me for the beauty and the colors of Copenhagen. And it went further than postcard-esque Nyhavn:

Nyhavn harbor colorful houses

Between twinkling Christmas markets and two rare days of sunshine – not to mention pristine old buildings juxtaposed between modernist architecture – Copenhagen’s colors won me over. And with the cost of street food being more expensive than two beers and a montadito in Seville, I spent a lot of time outdoors (and ate a lot of hot dogs!).

Little Mermaid statue Copenhagen

Nyhavn harbor

Rosenborg Palace Copenhagen

Danish crown jewels Rosenborg Castle

Amalienborg Palace guards

Christiania Free Town Denmark

Christianshavn Copenhagen canals

ferris wheel in Copehagen

Copenhagen sunset over Christianshavn

Tivoli gardens at night

Christmas time in Copenhagen

The trip was expensive, despite a free plane ticket and a favorable euro, but all of the feels and sites and smells of baking cinnamon snegl were free.

12 Images

Have you ever been to Scandinavia? Which picture is your favorite?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Extremadura

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collageOn my first visit to Extremadura in 2009, Tita explained the meaning of the comunidad to me: Extre because it’s extremely far west, cozying up to Portugal, and madura because the hardened plains shaped the conquistadores that grew up there.

Extremadura is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. It’s sandwiched between western Andalucía and Madrid and traversed by the A-5 mega highway, yet most tourists conveniently (and thankfully) leave it off their list. From hidden monasteries to a wine region you’ve likely not tried, these far-flung plains have the potential to attract visitors and their tourist euros.

Name: Extremadura

Population: 1.1 million, a mere 2.36% of Spain’s total population

extremadura collage

Provinces: Two; Badajóz and Cáceres

When: December 2009, 13th of 17

About Extremadura: Despite its reputation as a sleepy, sparsely populated corner of Spain, Extremadura has seen some of the most important developments of Spain, beginning with the Romans. Known back then as Luisitania, the capital of Mérida (then Emerita Augusta) was an important city for trade and culture. Roman ruins, like a beautifully preserved theatre and an aqueduct visible from the highway, rub elbows with the ubiquitous old man bars and banks in the administrative capital.

Merida Spain amptheatre

When the Muslims moved in during the first few years of the  eight century, Mérida was one of the Caliphate’s most strategic regions due to its proximity to Portugal. The Córdoba Caliphate fell three centuries later, and power was jockeyed to the Taifa of Badajoz and remained under Muslim rule until 1230.

During Spain’s golden age, Extremadura took its place in the sun: not only did it produce a great number of conquistadores like the Pizarro, Hernán Cortés and Núñez de Balboa, but a great deal of the riches that arrived from the new world never made it to Madrid, finding a permanent home in Extremadura.

Statue of Pizarro in Trujillo

Nowadays, the region is famous for its cork production and acorn-fed ham, as well as outdoor wildlife areas. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s little surprise.

Must-sees: Extremadura boasts dozens of hidden gems. I say hidden because of the province’s network of lonely highways, many of which curve through mountains and around man-made lakes. Given its crop of conquistadores, you’ll likely see places that share a name with South American cities – Valdivia, Medellín, Orellana – and the medieval cities seem to be living back in time.

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

Mérida’s Roman Ruins are recognized by UNESCO, and the city houses an excellent museum with artifacts from Lusitania. At just two hours north of Seville, it’s beyond easy to get to, and castles and monasteries pop out along every curve.

Cáceres’s elegantly preserved walled city is also a UNESCO site whose mix of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture is unparalleled and worthwhile, and I swooned over Trujillo‘s stone churches and Renaissance palaces. On  a whim, the Novio and I also went to see the Guadalupe Monastery (surprise! Also a World Heritage Site) and visited the charming little town of Garganta la Olla. I also love the names of towns, which pay homage to famous residents or local lore.

The Patio of Monasterio de Guadalupe

Food is a big deal in Extremadura, particularly big game, cheese and wine. You can expect huge portions of tender meats from pigs, cows and wild boar, as well as pheasant and quail. As a matter of fact, much of the Extremaduran plains are perfect for birdwatching (and protected!), and the national park of Monfragüe is home to several rare breeds.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll choose a robust glass of Ribera de Guadiana to wash down your migas, or fried breadcrumbs, and stinky Torta del Casar cheese. Paprika is also produced in the cherry tree-dotted foothills of La Vera.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

One thing you could skip? The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s last residence, Yuste, was a big (and expensive) letdown. 

My take: Sharing a border with occidental Andalucía, Extremadura is closer than my go-to destinations like Granada or Málaga. Its stark plains, hollow sky and long stretches of highway are similar to my surroundings, with blips of civilization on lone roads. 

What really draws me to Extremadura is that it hasn’t experienced the heavy tourism that the coasts and bigger cities have, meaning it’s Spain Spain. From the warmth of locals in teeny towns to the cheap prices and filling meals, I’m a pretty big proponent for Tita’s Extremadura.

Have you ever been to Extremadura? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla-La Mancha

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

At the risk of breaking my engagement, Castilla-La Mancha only conjures up one thing to me: Don Quijote de la Mancha, the star-crossed lover and would-be knight who is synonymous with Spanish culture. While I can admire Don Alonso’s attempt to bring back chivalry in the early 17th Century, the very thought of him reminds me of high school Spanish class and having to make a video of our own quijote-like adventures (we attacked the rickety jungle gym in my back yard with a stick and made up a parody to a Backstreet Boys song, in case you were wondering).

The expansive region east and southeast of Madrid has quite a few claims to fame besides Quijote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, and the ‘giants’ he fought at Consuegra. I’ve admittedly only been to Toledo for two days, and spent two weeks living in the Monasterio de Uclés, but my hunch is that the medieval architecture, the sunflower fields and the Manchego cheese (yep, it’s from La Mancha, bendito sea) would win me over.

Name: Castilla-La Mancha

Population: 2.1 million


Provinces: Five; Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Toledo.

When: September 2007, 8th of 17

About Castilla-La Mancha: “Shifting Borders Since 711” could be the unofficial tourism slogan of this area of Spain. Once part of the the Muslim caliphate in the early 8th century, Christian crusaders slowly fought back and the whole region was eventually unified under the Catholic Crown in that infamous year, 1492. 

During those centuries, the region became known as Castilla la Nueva, a shout out to its cousin, the Kingdom of Castille. This area actually included Madrid, then a small farming village, and its capital was named as Toledo. Under the Catholic Kings, New Castille regained its Christian heritage, giving way for Cervantes to pen sweeping ideas in his famous novel.

In the late 18th century, José Moniño, Count of Floridablanca, redrew county lines, so to speak, creating several comarcas and making Albacete a region of Murcia. It was not until the creation of Autonomous Regions with the 1978 Constitution that Albacete returned home to Castilla-La Mancha, and is now its largest city.

Despite being one of the largest territorial regions, Castilla-La Mancha is sparsely populated (I lived in Uclés, population: 220, for two weeks. We were lucky to have a place to escape from camp food!). Just take the high-speed train between Madrid and Córdoba for proof.

Wine, olives and livestock thrive on the dry plains, and historically La Mancha has been known for agriculture more than industry.

Must-sees: Castilla-La Mancha is home to one of Spain’s former capitals and a heralded city, Toledo. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for being the Ciudad de las Tres Culturas, or a haven for religious tolerance before Torquemada and the Inquisition rolled around.

In medieval times, Catholics, Jews and Muslims rubbed elbows in the Plaza del Zocodover, and the artistic and cultural legacy is still present. Famed Spanish painter El Greco made this city his home and his artwork remains preserved in his home and workshop near the Tajo Gorge, and the Alcázar’s historical significance is renowned. If you’re in Madrid, make the trip.

The old school windmills at Consuegra are under an hour’s drive from Toledo, and while they’re no longer used, they have whimsical names of knights.

The famous casa colgantes, or hanging houses, of Cuenca are widely known. Built on the gorge of the River Huécar, they’re the main attraction in a town full of noteworthy monuments, churches and museums. Its historic center is also a UNESCO site. 

And wouldn’t you know? Manchego cheese is largely produced in this region of Spain, as is wine and sunflower oil. So eat, drink and be glad you found out about this region. And try Marzipan, a traditional Christmas sweet that is mass-produced in Toledo.

My take: If you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll know I champion small-town Spain and count food and drink among my favorite things. Toledo is a quick train ride outside of Madrid and an absolute treasure, and you can reach Guadalajara and Cuidad Real in no time. There’s absolutely no reason why you should skip Castilla-La Mancha.

And if you want a Quijote fix without traveling too far, there’s always Alcalá de Henares.

Have you ever visited Castilla-La Mancha? 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Castilla y León

 Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

Finally, after six months, we’ve hit my first taste of Spain – a taste that is as tender as a suckling roast pig, as fiery as a robust glass of red wine and something that, honestly, feel like home to me.

In May 2005, I studied abroad in Valladolid, the de facto capital of Castilla y León and one-time capital of Spain. It’s where Cervantes, Columbus and Torquemada once called home. It may not have the monuments, the vibrant culture ubiquitous to Spain, the soaring skyscrapers – but that’s what I liked about it. 

Andalusia means so much to me, but it all started in Old Castille. 

 Name: Castilla y León

Population: 2.5 million

Provinces: Nine: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid, Zamora. 

When: May 2005, 1st of 17

About Castilla y León: Castilla y León is the largest of the 17 autonomous communities (close to one-fifth of its landmass!), and one of its most illustrious. It was here that marriages (and thus kingdoms) joined and saints roamed, where scholars changed the face of modern Castillian Spanish, and where cities practically shine gold.

Can you tell I’m a fan?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Despite having been inhabited for a millennia, the modern-day Castille and León was born out of the marriage of two monarchs. The Leonese crown had long been stronger and held more land, though at the beginning of the second millennia, their power began to wane, losing the kingdoms of Galicia and Portugal, along with their prestige. 

In 1230, the kingdoms became one when Castillian King Ferdinand III ascended to the vacant Leonés crown. These two crowns would fight independently in the Reconquest, eventually defeating Muslim taifas, though not before the Catholic kings – among the best-known Spanish monarchs of all time – send Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492. Castilla has long been known for its scholarly and democratic traditions, which include being the region responsible for spreading castellano Spanish, as well as the first place where a curia, or public forum to address issue affecting the pueblo, was held.

In fact, Valladolid was the capital of Spain for five years in the early 17th century.

Among illustrious castellanos are El Cid Campeador, Felipe II (my favorite Spanish king with his funny hat), Santa Teresa de Ávila, Miguel Delibes, San Juan de la Cruz, Adolfo Suárez, and even former prime minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Must-sees: Oh geez, where to start. I started, of course, in Valladolid, though there isn’t much to see in the capital city. There’s the national sculpture museum, a contemporary art center, a beautiful Plaza Mayor and a smattering of churches, though I spent most of my free time at the manmade beach on the Pisuerga River and at a bar called Sotobanco.

Skip Vdoid and head to the other treasures in the province, including nearby Peñafiel and its castle, which now hosts a wine museum. Castilla y León has a few protected wine regions, including Ribera del Duero and Toro – two of my personal favorites.

Castilla y León has six UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other region in the world, and several are a quick day trip from Madrid: the old cities of Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia (plus its aqueduct), the Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the old Roman gold mines at Las Médulas (check out Trevor’s post and pictures) and the archaeological remains of Atapuerca, near Burgos. This, plus the numerous pilgrim routes that cut through CL and eventually lead to Santiago de Compostela.

Castles are a prominent feature in Castilla y León – like in Ireland, they’re practically everywhere and there are rumored to be around 300 of them. Check out the Templar castle in Ponferrada, Segovia’s fairytale-like Alcázar and Castillo de la Mota in Medina del Campo, which was a prominent fortress in the Battle of Castille. You’ll also only find Gaudí outside of Cataluña in León and Astorga, where a beautiful palace lies along the French Way of Saint James.

Food is also a huge reason why Castilla y León shines. Apart from wine, Castilla produces a number of specialty meats, including morcilla de arroz in Burgos and roast suckling pig, pungent cheeses and milk, and is the largest producer of grains in Iberia. Cracker giant Cuétara is based in Aguilar del Campoo (not a typo), near Galicia, and with reason – there is nothing but fields around! Be sure to check out León’s Barrio Húmedo for free tapas, as well – I once at a croqueta de pizza pepperoni! You can also pick up sweets in Ávila that throwback to the town’s famous saint, Santa Teresa the Mystic.

The cities themselves are lovely, from the golden hue of Salamanca, a city famous for its university and Lazarillo de Tormes, to León’s juxtaposition of Gaudí palaces and humble stone homes. Burgos’s old town shines and Ávila’s fortified stone walls are still intact.

My take: If you’re a history or language buff, you have to get to Castilla y León sí o sí. If you love wine and meat and cheese, head out there. If you love churches, castles, rivers, limestone villages… you get it. 

To me, Castilla y León is more Spain than Andalucía. Call me crazy, but it’s the Spain I fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and the Spain that beckoned me back. Andalucía is flamboyant where Castilla is demure, yet a bit coy. And the wine… 

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria

Have you been to Castilla y León? What were your impressions of it? Cue Kaley and Cassandra chiming in now...

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper.

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too.

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight.

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle.

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer.

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne


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