What to do in Trujillo, Spain: Food, History and Daytrips

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Extremadura is one of those places you want everyone to know about, but also want to have entirely to yourself. 

Nestled between Madrid and Andalusia, it’s an oft-overlooked part of Spain and not easy to explore without a car. Rich in history, the western plains of Spain were home to the largest and most powerful Roman cities in Hispania, as well as the birthplace of the conquistadores who conquered much of Latin and South America. This legacy has been left in the jewels littered throughout the comunidad autónoma in Guadalupe’s sprawling monastery, the monument-rich Cáceres and Roman Mérida.

In many ways, spending time in Extremadura can make you feel like time has stopped, but even Spaniards look at it with disdain, citing poor transportation links and a lack of things to do. Just like Americans can’t place Iowa on a map, Extemadura to many Spaniards is a corner of Spain that serves as a gateway to Portugal and Andalucía, and little else.

Suckers.

When a free weekend came up in July, I called up two friends in Sevilla and one in Madrid, and we met in the middle. The town of Trujillo is equidistant between the capital of Spain and the capital of Andalusia, and an easy jaunt on the A-5 highway that connects the southwest of Spain and central Portugal to Madrid.

Follow the trail of the Conquistadores

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Name any conqueror from the 16th Century. Save a select few, the big names all came from Extremadura – Pizarro, Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés. Loyal to the Spanish crown, they claimed a sizeable chunks of land, changing the course of history and effectively bringing the Spanish language, culture and communicable diseases to the New World.

Ever drawn the conclusion that of South America’s great cities are named for Spanish towns? Most of those pueblos, like Medellín or even Trujillo, are extremeño towns. On my first trip to Extremadura, a lifelong extremeña told me that the name of her comunidad autónoma came from these mean from the far-lying (extre) provinces whose lives were hardened on the western plains (madura). Take it for what you will, but extremeños have since been known for their gumption.

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The cornerstone of an already gorgeous main square, the Plaza Mayor de Trujillo, the Palacio de la Conquista’s erection was financed largely in part by the riches Pizarro brought back from Peru. It sits at the bottom of a hill that is crowned by a crumbling alcazaba, and the stone mansions and plazas that tumble down are of note.

It’s honestly one of the most beautiful villages I’ve been to in Spain, and I’ve been to a lot.

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Many of the palaces have since been converted into hotels and restaurants, but a morning walk will allow you to see the highlights. Aside from whether or not they pillaged or brought disease, the architectural legacy is staggering. Oh, and Pizarro reputedly brought over a Spanish food staple – tomatoes.

If you want to go further afield and have a car, Trujillo is about equidistant to Cáceres and Mérida, the administrative capital of Extremadura. The Tourism Board suggests the Ruta de los Descubridores, which traces from Plasencia to Trujillo before heading west to Cáceres. Continuing south, you’ll get to Villanueva de la Serena, Medellīn and Mérida; the outpost of Badajóz is a bit further out but is the last stop.

Day trips to Guadalupe and Yuste / the Jerte Valley

My first go at Trujillo was at the hand of a contest won by Trujillo Villas. We had a long weekend, a car and plenty of time to kill on our way up the A-66. Turning off at Valdivia, a small suburb of Villanueva de la Serena (surprise! home to conquistador Pedro de Valdivia), the road snakes into the foothills towards the town of Guadalupe and the Monasterio de Santa María de Guadalupe.

According to legend, the veneration may have been carved in the 1st Century by Saint Luke himself, who then carted her around the world  before presenting the Archbishop of Seville, San Leandro, with it. During the Moorish invasion that commenced in 711, the Archdiocese of Seville looked for a place to hide her as invaders ransacked cities and palaces.

Visits to the Guadalupe Monastery

Like all great pilgrimage sites, like the ending points of the Camino de Santiago or El Rocío, Guadalupe has attracted illustrious names in Spanish history – Columbus prayed here after returning from the New World (and the Madonna is now revered in Central and South America), King Alfonso XI invoked Guadalupe’s spirit during the Battle of Salado, and many modern-day popes have stopped to worship. It’s even one of Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is well-deserving of the nod. Seriously. Do not miss this one.

Further north and part of the Sierra de Gredos lie a number of small hamlets that look like they belong in Shakespeare’s novels than rural Spain. The Gargantas, or a series of natural pools in the foothills, and its largest town, Garganta la Olla, is worth a few hours’ walk to stretch your legs and lunch.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

Just 10 minutes northeast of Garganta la Olla is the Monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste, one of Spain’s patrimonial highlights and where Holy Roman Emporer Charles V retired to live out his days. Formerly inhabited by Hieronymite and boasting picturesque views of the almond tree-covered countryside it’s no wonder he made the treacherous trip from Madrid to Yuste (and El Escorial wouldn’t be ordered to be built for another five years anyway).

yuste monastery extremadura

While it was a disappointment to us with pushy tour guides and a steep price tag, the drive through almond trees in bloom and waterfalls was worth the extra kilometers.

Other towns you might want to explore are Zafra, south of Mérida, and Jerez de los Caballeros. Or, really any town with a castle.

Eat

Extremadura prides itself on its food – from hearty game and foul and some of the best jamón ibérico de bellota to Torta del Casar, the notoriously stinky cheese (believe me when I saw it smells like feet). Famous for its sweet, smoked paprika and hearty, little-consumed wines. For its sweets and earthy breads. Characterized by its simplicity and complexity (like all great Spanish dishes), you can eat on the cheap just about anywhere in the region.

jamon y queso

In a small city like Trujillo, there are few options. I had been to famed Casa Troya, a locale famous for its location on the Plaza Mayor and its patronage, on a previous visit and was not ready to return. The first night, restless but tired after our early wake up calls for work and the drive, we settled on Hermanos Marcelo in the square for their croquetas and plenty of helpings of embutidos, or cured meats.

On Saturday morning, we were able to sneak on a last-minute tour of Bodegas Habla, located just to the south of the village.

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In operation from 1999, Bodegas Habla is one of the newest and most innovative wineries in all of Spain – and it produces a table wine that can be drunk as if it was a special occasion. I don’t pretend to know anything about wine other than that it’s made from grapes and I like it less than beer, but I bought into the energy, the marketing and the experience of Habla.

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The tour and tasting cost 13€, which included four wines – their signature Habla del Silencio, Rita, Habla de tí and a limited edition 13. You can contact the Bodega at habla@bodegashabla.com for more information and availability.

While there is parking on-site, please consider finding a designated driver or calling a local taxi. We opted for the latter and, true to his word, he came back in two hours for us and dropped us right off at the restaurant La Alberca.

Perhaps Trujillo’s biggest draw is their Feria del Queso de Trujillo, an artisan fair dedicated solely to cheese. Held around May 1st each year, around 200,000 people are drawn to the Plaza Mayor for activities and tastings centered around goat and sheep cheeses. Area restaurants create special menus in which local cheeses are the main feature. Considering how much I love cheese, I’m shocked I haven’t made it there yet.

Where to eat in Trujillo?

If you’re spending any time in Trujillo, skip Casa Troya and make sure to make a reservation at La Alberca (C/Cambrones, 8). Between the stone walls and the breezy patio, plus a selection of wines from the region – D.O. Tierra de Barro is a great choice if you’re feeling adventurous or want something hearty – this place delivered on food, service and experience. We got away with about 18€ a head.

The Takeaway

I first saw Trujillo driving up to Valladolid with the Novio after about four months living in Seville. The fortress seemed to appear out of nowhere in the middle of the plains, and I pressed my nose to the window to see it from all angles. It may be small, but it packs that distinctly Spanish punch: the wine, the food and the cultural legacy make it worthy of stopping for a night or if you’re en route to Cáceres. In fact, put Extremadura in general on your list.

Trujillo, Spain things to do

Have you been to Trujillo and Extremadura? Anything I missed on this list?

Here’s a little plug for our super cute AirBnB with two terraces and gorgeous views down to the Plaza Mayor. We seriously loved this place so much that we decided to not even go out but just drink wine and play boardgames! It’s a gem and you can park nearby.

Five of Spain’s Most Bike Friendly Cities

While many visitors to Spain like to see the sites on their own two feet, moverse on two wheels is becoming ever more popular and tourism grows.

From city-wide cycling lanes to innovative and unlimited rental systems like donkey.bike, Spain is following the example of other European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam when it comes to making cities bike friendly, and cycle tours are cropping up as quickly as tapas bars, it seems.

Bike Tour El Arenal Sevilla

Issues such as sustainability, pollution and health have become heavy-hitters that swing in the favor of biking – and that doesn’t even cover the weather or leisure factors. In fact, the sector grew 8,2% in 2o15 and an estimated 10% of Spaniards use a bike daily (source: Asociación de Marcas y Bicicletas de España).

Cities around the country are listening, but you don’t have to be local to take advantage of the ‘pedelea‘:

Barcelona

Even if Ada Colau is all for a touristic ban, you can’t deny that Barcelona is a city rife for cyclistic touring. The local Ajuntament is launching a larger network of bike paths that will take cyclists from one reach of the city to another, scheduled to debut over the course of 2017.

Barcelona bike lane map

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And in a city as large and (almost) flat as la Ciudad Condal, bicycle hire in Barcelona is the way to go; imagine cruising past the waterfront or down Las Ramblas on a bike!

Seville

When my friends Brian and Matt came to visit me in Seville, the city had just launched its bike-share system, one of the first in Spain. My college buddies spent their days riding from dock to dock, drinking beers in between in the January sunshine.
Bike Tour Sevilla Patio de las Banderas

During the nine years I lived in Seville, my main mode of transportation became bike(s) as I made use of the miles of paved bike lanes that crisscross the city, connecting nearly every neighborhood better than public transportation does. And it made me feel extra European!

What sets Seville apart is that its bike lanes are off the street, meaning that it’s safer for cyclists. And because of the weather, you can bike year-round.

If only Madrid would invest a bit more in their infrastructure so this abuelita can stop yelling, “ESTO NO ES UN CARRIL BICI” on my frigid walk to work.

Valencia

When I went to Valencia for Las Fallas last March, it wasn’t the fireworks and burning effigies – it was how many people were still circulating around the city by bike, despite throngs of tourists and raging street party (look for a post soon – it was a ton of fun and worth the burst ear drums!).

Testing out new wings. How do you like them?

A photo posted by Donkey Republic (@donkey_republic) on

Thanks to a push from the local government to make the Mediterranean city safer for bikes, as well as a coastline and the dried bed of the Turia – now turned into a huge park – Valencia (and its 120 kilometers of bike path) is quickly becoming one of Spain’s best urban areas for cycling.

Málaga

An up-and-coming tourist destination in a country full of red-letter cities, Málaga, its coastal counterparts and the surrounding mountain communities have invested in cyclists. And given the higher number of holiday makers and the city’s strong push for infrastructure, culture and gastronomy, bike-friendly laws will likely grow.

Bike Tour Barrio Santa Cruz Sevilla

If you rent a bike, you can use the city’s nearly 100 kilometers of bike lanes to take you from just about Pedragalejo past famed Playa de la Malagueta, to the city center and as far west as the Diputación de Málaga.

Zaragoza

One of Spain’s largest cities, the capital of Aragón has been giving ciclistas priority throughout most of its urban center for years – and it’s relatively flat, despite the region’s fame for mountains and outdoor activities.

What’s more, the town hall website has numerous resources for cycling fans, including the best routes for both urban treks (including how long it will take you and any bike shops en route) and for those looking for more of a challenge further afield.

Seville Bike City

As tourism in Spain surges, many other cities – particularly in the Basque Country and in touristic destinations like the Costas – are expanding their infrastructure to promote safe cycling for locals and visitors alike. A word to the wise: remember that, as a vehicle under penal law, you are subject to the same laws as a driver. This means no cycling after knocking back six botellínes or riding through a stoplight when no one is coming. Helmets aren’t required but strongly recommended.

Spain's Most

These days, the only sightseeing I’m doing is to the doctor’s office or pharmacy, but my legs are aching to be back on my cruiser, Feliciano. That is, once I’ve bought a bike seat for Microcín!

Have you ever rented a bike in Spain or done a cycling tour? I’d love to hear about it!

How to Spend an Afternoon in Triana

Most people leave Triana off of their Seville itinerary – there isn’t much by way of museums or grandiose churches, and it’s across the Guadalquivir from the city’s major draws. But what the historic neighborhood lacks in monuments, it more than makes up for in feeling.

Triana is a barrio that’s equal parts sevillano, capillita and gitano.

Puente de Triana Seville

While most opt to stay in the city center, Triana is only a stone’s throw from the Giralda and Plaza de España, commanding the western bank of the river that slices the city in two. And you can feel it – Triana seems like a world away, despite being connected by bus and subway to every part of Seville.

Consder an aparthotel like the comfortable and spacious ones offered by Pierre&Vacances Sevilla, right in the heart of Triana on Pagés del Coro, on your next Seville holiday. You’ll wake up to the sound of church bells from the adjacent San Jacinto church and be able to pop down to El Pulido for a tostada as long as your forearm.

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Historically speaking, Triana was a poor, working class neighborhood of fisherman, bullfighters and gypsies and one of the seats of the Holy Inquisition, headquartered at the Castillo San Jorge on the riverbank. Today, it’s a neighborhood known for its fiercely trianero residents, flamenco culture and tile production, and is home to several well-known bars and eateries.

I may be biased, but it’s my favorite part of the city, and one whose streets I walk every day as a resident of the 41010. Many days, there’s no need to even cross the Puente Isabel II into town.

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If you have a free afternoon, don’t miss Triana’s charm.

12pm – Start off with food

Start by crossing the Puente Isabel II over the Guadalquivir river, the official entrance into the República Independiente de Triana. The bridge was the city’s first, replacing a pontoon bridge in 1854 and built by an Eiffel disciple.

Capilla del Carmen Triana Anibal Gonzalez

It’s easily my favorite monument and the nearly official symbol of the neighborhood. At the western end, you’ll find the minuscule Capilla de Carmen, which was built by famous sevillano architect Aníbal González (you’d recognize him from the Plaza de España) in the early 20th Century.

Your first stop in 41010 should be the newly renovated Mercado de Triana. Still very much a local’s market, fruit and vegetable vendors, fish mongers, butchers and specialty producers hock their wares just steps from the river. The market was built atop the ruins of the Castillo de San Jorge, visible in the adjacent museum and even in the walls of the mercado (C/San Jorge, 6).

Mercado de Triana typical market

If you can’t stick around all night, there’s a small flamenco theatre flanking the western edge of the market with shows at noon on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

1pm – Work up an appetite

Triana has the privilege being where the sun chooses to sleep nightly, as the famous song goes, and it lingers over the district all afternoon long. Retreat back to the Puente Isabel II and to the yellow bar that sits opposite the Carmen chapel. Trianeros know that the food at El Faro de Triana isn’t anything special, but the views from the terrace or even the steps leading down to Calle Betis get the most sun midday. Order a cervecita and take it outside if it’s a nice day (Plaza del Altozano, 1C).

El Faro de Triana bar in Seville

Continue walking down Calle Betis, the Roman name for the river, away from the bridge and towards the Torre del Oro. The thoroughfare is packed with bars and restaurants, though you should steer clear of them for now and walk on the other side of the road so as to avoid hawkers while drinking in the view across the river to the bullring, opera house and the Torre del Oro itself.

2pm – A comer!

Though 2pm is still a little early for me, it’s time to tapear, or eat, your way through Triana’s tapas bars. At the southern end of Calle Betis, stop at La Primera del Puente, a nondescript tapas bar lined with tiles and grilling fish over a hot skillet, and order just one thing: patatas bravas and a glass of Cruzcampo. In eight years, I’ve tried countless dishes of fried potatoes with a spicy red sauce, and La Primera has some of the best (even if their barman makes fun of my accent constantly (C/ Betis, 66).

Tapa of salmorejo

Backtrack to Calle Troya and head away from the river, then take the first right onto Calle Pureza. I photographed a couple’s first look photos on this street because of its colorful houses and ornate doorways, and it’s home to both Triana’s first church, Santa Ana, as well as several watering holes (C/ Vázquez de Leca, s/n).

If Santa Ana is open, it’s worth a quick peek – commissioned in 1266 (yep, 750 years ago!), Santa Ana is known for its mudéjar hallmarks and Baroque facelift after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, whose aftershocks were felt in Sevilla.

Just in front of the north facing door is Bar Santa Ana, a typical tavern featuring local dishes, like espinacas con garbanzos, bull tail and small grilled sandwiches. This is the bar I bring visitors to when I want to tell them about Holy Week, as paraphernalia of weeping Virgins and Bloody Christs adorn the walls. This is the sort of bar where locals have been locals since the 50s and where waiters still write your bill in chalk on the bar (C/ Pureza, 82).

Tapa of Tortilla Española

You can pop into the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza de Triana just down the road, a stark white chapel that stands out amid salmon, cornflower and albero shaded homes and palaces (C/ Pureza, 53).

A little bit further up the road in La Anigua Abacería, a cozy, dimly lit cold cuts bar whose menu is long and has quite a few surprises. There are plenty of good vegetarian options here, too, and gobs of wines to try (C/ Pureza, 12).

Once you’ve had your fill, the serpentine calles and callejones of this part of Triana are good for walking off the calories – as well as staving off the siesta.

5pm – Explore Triana’s ceramic production

Around the corner of Calle Callao is Cerámica Santa Ana and the Centro Cerámica de Triana. The neighborhood has a long tradition of ceramics production and boasts several small shops that still make azulejos in the ancient way, though the clay no longer comes from the riverbanks. Hand-painted ceramic bowls, pitchers and magnets are my go-to souvenirs and even made them a prominent part of my wedding decoration, and Plaza de España’s elaborate tile depictions of Spain’s 50 provinces were made in factories here (C/ San Jorge, 31).

Where to buy Ceramics in Triana, Seville

If you’re not looking for souvenirs, poke around the Centro Cerámica de Triana‘s small museum, one of the city’s newest. Though the kilns are no longer operable, they can be found in the museum, which also explains traditional techniques in English and Spanish. Plan around three-quarters of an hour (C/ Antillano Campos, 14).

6pm – Grab merienda and an afternoon drink

Head back to Calle Pureza and straight to Manu Jara Dulcería, a pastry shop owned by a French chef of the same name (and did I mention his Michellin stars?). While his brand of desserts, MasQuePostres, aren’t made on-site, they’re fresh, delectable and the shop itself a treat (C/ Pureza, 5).

Manu Jara Dulceria Sevilla

Sevillanos usually take their sweet afternoon snack, called a merienda, with a coffee or tea, then follow it up with an adult beverage. Around the corner, back on Calle Betis, sits La Tertulia, a watering hole that plays off of the famous political and social discussion groups of the turn of the century. Avoid heading inside for anything more than ordering if you can – the bar smells like dirty pipes and mold – and grab a seat along the bench with your mojito. You’ll be rewarded with the same views you had before lunch, just this time as night falls and the Triana bridge lights up (C/ Betis, 13).

9:00pm – Dinnertime again!

Triana is known as one of the liveliest neighborhoods in the city, and as night falls, bars and restaurants again fill with patrons. If you’re not hungry just yet, have a beer at Cervecería La Grande back on San Jacinto (C/ San Jacinto, 39).

Back when the Novio and I started dating, we’d have a routine called the ruta trianera, in which we’d have a few beers at La Grande before popping around to different bars in the area for dinner. Begin at Bar Casa Diego on Alferería (5). Don’t expect an English menu here; order a heaping media ración of pollo frito, friend chicken, and one of croquetas de puerros, or leek croquettes. Local lore states that Diego’s wife grew so tired of making béchamel and rolling croquetas for hungry clientele that she up and quit in the middle of a shift!

Yes, they’re that good.

champiñones mushrooms at Las Golondrinas

Walk around the corner on Antillano Campos to Las Golondrinas I, a Triana institution and at the top of my list. The micro kitchen produces just a few dishes, and tapas are only available at the crowded bar. Ask Pepe for a glass of house wine and a tapa of punta de solomillo, a piping hot pork loin sandwiches, and champiñones, sautéed mushrooms crowned with mint sauce (C/ Antillano Campos, 26).

If you’re still hungry, Paco España has big plates of food to split, most notably their open-faced sandwiches, called panes (C/ Alfarería, 18).

11pm – Take in a flamenco show

Flamenco show in Seville

Though I’m not a huge fan of the boisterous woman whose name and large presence give Casa Anselma her name, the flamenco bar is hugely popular with locals and tourists. Passing down Pagés del Coro, you’d never expect to find a bar behind the aluminum gates at the corner of Antillano Campos (49), but between 11 and midnight, Anselma opens her bar to patrons for impromptu flamenco shows.

Just be sure to count your change – though there’s no cover charge, drinks are twice as pricey here.

Bonus: looking for different food and drink options?

There is no shortage of good restaurants in this part of town, from bars that resemble a closet to restaurants that have garnered top foodie prizes.

Pura Tasca – One of Triana’s first gastrobars was built into what was once a butane tank distributor. The decoration evokes a storage space, but the rotating menu and top-notch wine list are always on (C/ Numancia, 5).

Bar Juan Carlos – Cheese and craft beer, and little else, the small bar is usually packed in the evenings. You can order samplers, cheese skewers and fondue, and there’s a beer of the month selection on offer (C/ Febo, 6).

Plaza del Altozano Seville

La Fábula – People spoke so often of La Fábula that even the Novio, a creature of habit, wanted to try it. Spanish favorites with a twist are the hallmark of the pub, which bills itself as a gastrobar and has a few local craft beers on offer (Ronda de Triana, 31).

Casa Ruperto – known to locals as Los Pajaritos for its signature dish, this typical cervecería roasts quails on a spit. They’re also famous for their snails in tomato sauce (cabrillas) (Avda. Santa Cecilia, 2).

Jaylu – I’ve never eaten at this renowned seafood restaurant, but it’s purportedly one of the city’s best (López de Gomara, 19).

Sala El Cachorro – Started as a playhouse, the eclectic space soon morphed into a cafetería and bar. Grab a slice of carrot cake and a coffee and sit in the outdoor patio, full of plants and sculptures (C/ Procurador, 19).

Hot to Spend an Afternoon in

As always, be sure to check opening times and dates. You can reach Triana by metro (M: Plaza de Cuba and Parque de los Príncipes) or bus (5, 6, 40, 43, C1, C2), or simply walk from the city center. This post contains an affiliate link to Devour Tours’ wonderful Tapas Like a Local – Triana tour, which I have had the pleasure of walking! You can click at no extra cost to you.

Have you ever spent time in Triana? What are your favorite places to eat, drink and visit?

Confession: I’m Nervous to Travel After the Paris Terror Attacks

After a late night trip to the bathroom, my hand fumbled across the nightstand looking for my watch. As my fingers crawled over a pack of Kleenex and the smooth, cold case of my laptop. I found my phone first, lit up with notifications from Instagram and Facebook.

There was one whatsapp from my mother:

“did u c travel alert? <3”

Being halfway across the world, my daily news intake usually comes as I’m eating lunch in Spain. I get the highlights from Facebook when I wake up – from sports to mass shootings to birth announcements – but often find that I’m behind when it comes to the heavy-hitting stuff back home because of the time difference. As 5pm news programs are rolling the opening credits, I’m typically sleeping. As the BBC reported that the US had issued a worldwide travel advisory, I had long since been asleep.

Confession_

When Paris nightclubs and restaurants were under attack on November 13th, 2015, I was dozing on the couch after dinner. The following morning, my entire newsfeed was burping up messages of disgust and horror and changing their profile pictures to shots of them at the Eiffel Tower during college study abroad

I studied journalism and have a piqued interest in developing news stories. Settling in that Saturday morning with a mug of tea and my laptop, the news stayed switched on for hours as I read hard and soft news related to the incident, including this haunting HuffPo piece on European mothers of ISIS.

But it took some time for it to sink in: I am a person living in Europe. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target for terror. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target who is traveling to city with known, active terror cells in three weeks.

The Colors of India - Lonely Planet Guidebook

Ten years ago, I was studying abroad in Valladolid when bombs rocked the London underground. A friend and I were in Barcelona long before travelers had smartphones or tablets, unable to reach our family but blissfully unaware of any real danger (meanwhile, our parents were manically trying to track us down). And Spain, at that time, was no stranger to terror – there were mass casualties the year before on the Cercanías commuter lines in Madrid. Our parents, once they finally reached us at a seedy hotel in El Raval, pleaded us to walk instead of ride the subway, and we did so with cans of San Miguel in our hands. Blissfully unaware of any danger.

Nothing hit home as closely as Paris has – not 9/11, not European terror, not the war in Iraq – at age 30. 

When I was a kid, I was fearless – riding my bike at top speed down hills, attempting dangerous gymnastics tricks, convinced I was made of rubber. As I’ve gotten older, however, fear creeps into my head every now and again (and I sincerely blame driver’s ed for this). I say a silent prayer to the Virgin of Loretto when a flight taxis and raises its nose into the sky, and I am constantly nervous for the Novio in his high-risk job. Anxiety nags at me, low in my stomach, whenever I sense that something could do horribly wrong.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

But I have yet to let fear foil any plans, be it travel or otherwise. While my family wasn’t thrilled about me traveling to India with another female companion, I looked at it as an adventure, a “level up” sort of accomplishment as a traveler. Europe was child’s play to someone who had to have more passport pages affixed after six years of living abroad, and after getting stranded in Romania on NYE and traipsing through rural Morocco, I was in for a challenge anyway.

And India was rewarding on so many levels. I decided to travel less, but to more far-flung places before settling down with a family. But thanks to a new house and a wedding, I’ve been grounded and holed up in Spain. 

Choosing a solo trip to Copenhagen over a long weekend was something I considered being on the right airline website with the right amount of airline miles. It seemed like it’s been ages since I went anywhere outside of the US or Spain, and my feet were seriously itchy to use a free flight on Vueling. Málaga to Copenhagen and back cost me less than three nights at a hostel in the center of the Danish capital, so flights were booked without batting an eye in mid-September, along with a flight to Sicily

On my second solo trip to Croatia

On my second solo trip to Croatia

Life next year is still unpredictable between work and possible relocation. But as I saw it, it would perhaps be the last solo trip I took for a long time.

Following the Paris attacks, I didn’t think Denmark, often dubbed ‘Happiest Nation in the World,’ posed much of a threat. Still I located the American Embassy, copying down contact information into my phone and my notebook to be on the safe side, and I asked the Consular Agent here in Seville if he’d heard of any threats in Denmark. Negative. I went back to finding low-cost activities and places to try reindeer meat and proudly announced I’d take the train to nearby Mälmo, Sweden and find an IKEA.

As a week turned into 10 days, news that threats in Brussels had shut down the city’s museums and public transportation didn’t rattle me. But waking up at 4:32am to a travel alert issued by the US took me aback. Yes, it’s vague and doesn’t pinpoint any cities or countries or even news of a rumored attack, so why was I suddenly reconsidering a trip? Is it silly of me to worry that a Christmas market could end up as a target? Or that many ISIS sympathizers have been raised in Denmark? Am I safer in Spain than in the US or in Copenhagen?

I began reading an English language newspaper straight out of Copenhagen, The Local. Like it’s counterpart in Spain, news relevant to expat and travelers spatters across the pages and, buried under news about footballers and an imminent cold front, there were a few isolated articles related to terror, and only one spoke of an incident. It seems the happiest people on Earth are more about accepting potential radicals and using a soft method to wean them off of their jihad-fueled conviction.

So, I’ll go.

I’ll admit that I’m nervous, the same way I sometimes get nervous in Chicago because of gun violence. I feel safe in Seville, but who’s to say that something couldn’t happen here? Or who’s to say that I won’t be the victim of a gun crime in America? Or fall out of bed tomorrow and hit my head on the same nightstand where my phone had been blitzkrieged with safety messages 24 hours earlier?

We live in weird times, and I’m more convinced that just about every country, race and religion is having an identity crisis.  

My brand-new passport has 52 free pages in it. When I woke up at 4:52am, I couldn’t fall back asleep and began punching out this post, perhaps as a way to sort through my feelings. Six hours later, I am 98% sure I’ll be on a plane come December, albeit with the anxiety rumbling low in my stomach. Could just be my stomach asking for reindeer meat and a Carlsberg, though.

American travelers seriously concerned about threats should copy down information about their home country’s consulate or embassy abroad and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program with the US Department of State. While it’s certainly important to be aware of where you’re headed and what the risks are, only you can ultimately decide whether or not you go. And I’m in the former camp – go, but proceed with caution.

In the midst of global terror attacks, are you still planning to travel, or stay home? Am I silly for feeling nerves?

Waking up in Vegas: Five Things to Do that Aren’t Clubbing or Gambling

I have friends who swear by visiting Vegas once a year (I’m from Chicago – who could blame us when winter descends?). When my family went for a second time during Christmas a few years ago, we did it the right way: we camped out at the Flamingo and everyone was over 21, a far cry from a Motel 6 overnight where we had to stay at least 10 feet away from the slot machines. On our way to Mammoth Lakes to ski, we missed our chance to see the attractions in Las Vegas.

Five Things to Do

Our Vegas sojourn was brief – just two nights sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and a trip to see my snowbird grandparents – and included a night of pure hedonism with my sister and our boyfriends. A hazy gambling session at the Imperial Palace. Hitting the jackpot on a slot machine and winning $640.50 (which I put towards purchasing Camarón).  A round of Jägerbombs. Feeling less than splendid the following day when we explored the non-gaming attractions.

Vegas may be an adult playground, but there is far more to do than you think – and these attractions won’t break the bank.

Visit the Hoover Dam

I was not feeling my best when we took an hour-long trip down Route 93 back towards Arizona to see the Hoover Dam. A feat of engineering that lead to Las Vegas’s incorporation, construction on the hydroelectric dam – then called the Boulder Dam – began in 1930. I was hungover and grumpy, and I didn’t feel much like looking at a bunch of stone for a morning.

Hoover Damn

But the Hoover Damn wowed me. From the Art Deco design to the sheer power of a structure built nearly a century ago, it was worth the trip. The Hoover Dam can be visited every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving from 9am. Parking is $10 and tours run $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, children under 17 and military.

You can also get a glimpse simply by driving the 93 over the Hoover Bypass between Nevada and Arizona (cue the Fools Rush In screens stills).

Check Out Old Vegas

As a History Channel follower, my dad has always been fascinated by the history of Vegas, from a small town on a major railway just a century ago to the building of the Hoover Dam and its subsequent boom – did you know that the casinos and nightclubs catered to the predominately male contraction workers? Or that the Nevada state government legalized gambling as a way to turn profits?

Old Vegas

Old Vegas, located on Fremont Street just east of the Strip, boasts some of the city’s first casinos, announced by vintage neon signs, and a little less hedonism than the more famous Las Vegas Boulevard. There are also less seedy street performers and cheaper buffets. If you do gamble here, payouts are more frequent than the other big-name resorts.

Take in a Show

Entertainers have long set up shop in Vegas, from the Rat Pack to Celine Dion and Britney Spears. Casinos rake in big money by hosting Broadway shows, and while it’s not New York, Vegas is an awesome venue for catching a show.

New York New York Casino

Ever since working on my high school’s costume and makeup crew, coupled with a yearly tradition of seeing Broadway in Chicago with the women in my family, I’ve been fascinated with the Lion King Musical. I missed the opportunity to see it in Madrid, but my dad took us to see the smash musical at the famed Mandalay Bay Casino. And I cried (the Novio fell asleep).

Apart from the big money win, it was the highlight of our trip.

Chow Down at a Buffet

My one memory of a Vegas trip at age 15 (apart from my early-bird-gets-the-worm father arriving at 8am with a plastic cup full of quarters) was the dinner buffet we ate. My parents let us eat jelly beans out of ice cream dishes and as many chicken fingers as we could stomach before collapsing into a food coma at the Motel 6.

Vegas Buffets

Buffets have been around in Vegas for as long as its casinos. El Rancho Casino, the first resort built on the Strip, used its gourmet buffet as a way to defray costs, and because Las Vegas is home to a culinary revolution, and you can find everything from cutting-edge cuisine to fried chicken in buckets nowadays. We chose a hearty breakfast buffet at our resort before a long drive back to Arizona. It didn’t come cheap – we paid $45 per person – but as someone who misses weekly brunches, it was worth it.

Vegas.com lists Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan as its top pick (as does a college friend who calls Vegas home), with Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace) and Studio B (The M) as its other favorites. All three offer different types of cuisines, ample seating and unlimited helpings.

Pay Homage to the City Lights at the Neon Museum

In its short history, Vegas has shone brightly – and I don’t just mean the lights from its casinos. But many of the iconic resorts that lead to the city’s boom have since been bulldozed to make way for newer constructions, and nearly 150 signs have been restored and laid to rest in a Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum.

Neon Graveyard Vegas

Housed in the former lobby of La Concha Casino, the mandatory tour takes visitors to the Neon Boneyard and North Gallery and past signs from haunts of Vegas past. A guide narrates the tour, painting a picture of Old Vegas and how its legacy shaped the City of Sin today.

If possible, nab entrances for a night tour. Tickets run $18 for adults.

Have you ever been to Vegas? What are your favorite things to do?

How a River Boat Changed My Mind About Cruises

My two experiences on cruises were enough to have me docked on dry land forever: at 9, we braved the Big Red Boat’s Disney cruise, where I was too old for the kiddie activities and too obnoxious to hang with my parents near the pool; seven years later, I became the babysitter to all of my younger cousins while everyone else spent the night at the disco.

My dad had been looking into river cruises since I’d announced I was moving back to Europe, gathering information on routes and rivers, sharing tips on saving money for a cruise and mapping out a time when all four of us would have overlapping vacation time. I kicked and screamed digitally, instead convincing them to do Ireland, Northern Spain and even Morocco.

how a

An itinerary for the so-called Danube Waltz popped up in my inbox two years ago, announcing that my parents would be meeting me in Munich for eight days of river cruising past castles, vineyards and quaint villages stuck in time along Europe’s most fabled river. I lost out and continued digitally screaming and kicking as the countdown to our trip ticked from months into weeks.

I was skeptical, having become more jaded about travel and packaged tours, and cruises had seemed like a cop out for people who couldn’t be bothered planning their own vacation. But I hadn’t seen my family in a year and was eager to visit Vienna again and experience Budapest in the wintertime. 

Viking Magni Ship

A few months later, I picked my parents up at Franz Joseph Strauβ and set off for Passau, the City on Three Rivers. It was Christmas Eve and we’d missed the markets, several shops and bars were still open so we could stretch our legs before setting off.

A Luxury Experience at a 2-1 Deal

The company runs amazing deals, offering two-for-one cabin rates and airfares. Sure, it’s pricey when you add it all up, but the devil was in the details. A state-of-the-art longboat, comfortable and stylish cabins (even our double in steerage!) and a fleet of friendly staff sets the company apart.

viking state rooms

Oh, and they spend THREE TIMES the money on food per passenger than the average ocean liner! Between free local beers and wines, incredible bar snacks (and a barkeep who just handed us an entire bag of them when he saw us on approach) and regional dishes on every mealtime menu, we practically rolled down the gangway each morning at port.

Customer service was also willing to discount my airfare from Spain and still honor the two-for-one discount – a gold star in my book.

Breaking the Cruise Rules

Two of my biggest issues with cruises are the schedules and the forced sense of community that entertainment directors try to create. Choosing a river cruise meant far less people aboard and more interaction between my family and the staff.

Each afternoon before dinner, we had a briefing on the next day’s city and entertainment of some sort, but that was it. Dinner tables were not assigned and there were no required meetings – instead, a schedule, optional activities and language guide was left on our beds by housekeeping each morning. My sister and I spent plenty of time catching up in our state room over local beers and a barrage of movies available on our TV when at see, or my dad and I sat on the upper deck, bundled up, to watch the castles perched atop cliffs float by.

Cruising on the Danube

Melk Abbey

I’d long thought that these sorts of cruises, which feature older people in their publicity, were for the AARP crowd, but we had about a dozen of us between 18 and 30. No disco, casino or gift shop aboard – these spaces were filled with elegant viewing decks, a library full of books in several languages and larger rooms for passengers.

History, not just Beaches and Booze

My travel style has evolved greatly over the past few years – I went from ticking places off a never-ending list to focusing on more local and meaningful travel – and immersion is important to me. I spend my euros on visiting cities and not beaches, which is one of the reasons that cruising has never appealed to me much.

Being Christmastime in Europe, we packed long underwear and thermal shirts rather than sunscreen, so we were already on the right track.

alleyways in Vienna Austria

munich christmas market gluhwein

Vienna at nightfall

The cruise company’s curated activities included making gingerbread in Passau, visiting home stays outside Bratislava and wine tasting near Dürnstein. We’d take advantage of morning tours with guides over walkie talkies and then meander until we found a place for lunch and a beer. Afternoons once we’d lifted the anchor meant food demonstrations, lectures on composers and local lore, or even optional tours of monuments. 

Local Guides and no Required Activities

The company uses local guides – we had a university lecturer guide us past Rococco buildings in Passau, a grade school teacher and life-long resident of Bratislava recount stories of a Communist upbringing and our cruise director himself gave us tips for his favorites cafés and food markets in Budapest. Even with just a few hours in the cities we visited, we skipped over the glossy tourist spots and went straight to the heart of a city.

christmas market in Salzburg Austria

Plus, we were given 100% freedom to take the tours or not, and those we did take were done via Whisperbox. No annoying umbrellas, recited monologues or enormous groups – and in each port-of-call, we found ourselves with different families. We skipped Vienna’s bus tour to see the Spanish Horse Riding School and have lunch with my cousin and passed on a guided tour of Salzburg’s city center in favor of the merry Christmas market adjacent the cathedral.

Family in Budapest

Our trip through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary (uh, and then my jaunt in Romania) felt like a perfectly planned vacation that we didn’t have to actually plan ourselves that still left room for us to make the trip our own. The pace, comfort and customer service was unbeatable.

While in Chicago this summer, I flipped through the 2016 promotional brochure, which announced open seas trips to Scandanavia. Maybe it’s time to start considering cruising vacations.

Have you ever done a river cruise? What were your impressions, and where did you go?

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