The Magic of Florence

Lisbon to Florence

What can be said about Florence that hasn’t been already imbibed by hundreds of others over the centuries? There is simply no other city like it. There are great cities, wonderful cities, fucking stellar cities all over the world, and Florence will always rank in the top echelons for me. What is it? The food, the architecture, the history, the narrow streets, the strong cafe culture… the list goes on and on. I think in essence, Florence is a feeling. Having recently arrived from Portugal, I was feeling quite fond of Lisbon. The seaside city had all of the things I’ve just mentioned. A rich history, quant cafes, the European feel without the overdone trite Disney-fied vibes. I have an inkling that I could live in Lisbon, and that I will enjoy visiting Lisboa for many years to come. I had not been back to Tuscany since 2016. I remember being enthralled with my time here. but there was only so much time and so many other destinations…and then there was covid and by that time I had discovered South America and began a torrid affair with the Latin world. This run over the pond I ended up here almost by accident.

will never look like this during the summer season

Stepping off the plane, the airport is provincial and a bit shabby. My taxi was a Prius piloted by an intense elderly woman with a heavy foot and an even heavier brake. She apologized profusely as the rate for Sunday fares from the airport are an additional 2 euro. I consoled her the best I could. I knew there were great things ahead

Panino magic

I would never dream of coming here in peak season. This city is a rather severe experience. Not to be trifled with. Some of these crazed “ tour groups” hit this city like an army of marauding bandits armed with phones/cameras, twisted yelp reviews and “best of guides” to plunder the landscape over only a few hours. Post pillage moving back into their foul caravans en route to yet another destination, molesting an entire country in only a few days. Flying home with stuffed storage, crooked selfies, and plastic souvenirs…liked crazed perverts ready for their next act of debauchery marked as “vacation” to repeat the process a few years later. Just watching them makes me shudder and my lower digestive organs pang with unease.

Pay tribute to these pieces as often and as many times as possible.

This city is like a long lost favorite lover. Preparation is key, patience an absolute necessity. January proves near perfect, the chill in the air drives one to the cafes, cappuccino or Chianti powered afternoons provide the serendipity for wandering the narrow streets and stopping in the small shops, taking in the history and feeling this place that has truly captivated so many before us, and will continue to do long after we are gone. Can you “do” Florence in a few days? Fuck no. Don’t try.

Wander and enjoy

Visit. Relax. Go slow. Savor the moments. Enjoy the flavors. Revel in the art and the history…And promise yourself you will come back.

The New Legend of Lisbon

Okay, as wandering in Western Europe goes, things can be hit or miss.

We are all faced with the conundrum, in the eternal search for authentic travel experiences, but swamped with tens of thousands of tourists all clamoring after the same thing. Countless assholes all seeking that perfect instagram shot as if they weren’t actually there if the ‘gram doesn’t document it. (Of course, I am personally guilty of posting semi regularly to the platform, I have also been one of said assholes). Between the crowds and the queues…the inflated prices and the hawkers one can quickly find a creeping sickening feeling of “what am I doing here”?

Street steps for days

There is a oft bantered phrase of many a guidebook promising “off the beaten path” travel, which in essence doesn’t really mean anything. The term is 1000% subjective. For some you will need to discover a rare cannibal tribe on an uncharted island to check the “off the beaten path” box. For others, a new menu item at a foreign McDonald’s is exotic enough. For this entry I am going to go with the perfect blend. Portugal.

Specifically this go round, the capitol of Lisbon. Now as I write this everyone and their mother is talking about Portugal. Once thought of as

“Europe’s best kept secret” the post covid landscape has ushered this small, affordable yet world class country into the proverbial lime light.

Candle moments

Lisbon has the goods. That euro magic you’re looking for with the quant cafe and friendly shopkeepers, the tile/Cobble stone walkways and the abundance of 18th century architecture, cathedrals and all the rest…it’s here. The prices are great if coming from the midwestern USA, the flight is easy and the weather is damn near perfect.

Saturday book market

Here in mid January Lisbon is bright and brisk which is perfect walking weather… complete with actual sunshine! The best way to explore the city proves on foot over a week or so for the first visit. I’ve come back now a few times and this city grows on me every time. The food is clean, the ocean is never far, and the cafes always invite a smile.

Evening steps

Hotels and apartments can be had in the center for $75-125 USD as of this writing which makes Lisbon extremely competitive on the euro capital scene. With a smattering of new visa options, Portugal has become of keen interest for Americans looking to retire abroad. I keep visiting as I’m strongly considering this option. If given a week to spend in Europe, Lisbon is easily in my top five for capitol cities. I have a feeling I will keep coming back here although as it becomes more popular through posts like this I will invariably move on. I’m okay with this as travel is inherently cyclical, and Lisbon (as well as Portugal as a whole) deserves it’s day.

No Lisbon trip is complete without

This year will be one of adventure. For once this is a dispatch not from Colombia (don’t worry ill be there in a few weeks). Lisbon has proven to be an ideal location to begin this first full year away from the classroom and on the road. Next up I’m making my return to Florence, which I’ve been eager to get back to now for years. Have you been to Portugal? What did you think? Could you imagine retiring here? Please let us know in the comments.

Notes from Madrid

Spain is such a twisted fascination in the mind of modern history. Spending time here having read many of said histories, this stuff proves perplexing and at the same time organically fucking beautiful each and every time. As you may not remember, Barcelona, while easy to love is not my favorite city in the wide world. barcelona-is-easy-to-love/ Madrid however is near and dear to my heart. If you possess more personality than a prolapsed sphincter you cannot hate on this country. The food, the wine, the people, the architecture…the list goes on. For me, coming here after a 5 year hiatus, a global pandemic and assorted other drudgery proved completely serendipitous.

I ended up here by chance. Seriously. When a sub $300 fare to Spain popped out of Grand Rapids MI no less…I felt/feel obligated to grab it. That’s a cornerstone of my wandering. Fate based airfare. I have a shortlist, sure, but that does not 100% dictate where I’m headed. Some diety somewhere had smiled down upon me. Carpe diem. A 5 year hiatus is enough. Surely no better sign that it was time to hit Madrid, venture to near by regions and bask in Spanish glory.

This trek I brought along a non literal guest in the form of a hardcover, recently released book that had popped up in my google news a few days prior to departure. I was going to Spain with uncle Tony.

I absolutely fucking needed this book. After Bourdain died I was incredibly confused. How could the coolest guy alive with the best job in the world hang himself in a bathroom?! What I needed was to untangle what Tony and his work meant to me, and what I was going to do with that. I annihilated this book on the flight over. Laurie Woolever did such an inspiring job collecting, synthesizing and publishing over 90 interviews. For anyone left hurt, confused, or frustrated after his passing, you need this book as well. This work is like the closure you always hope for after something shitty happens. After finishing this book I felt something. I felt moved. I wandered through these streets of Madrid just like the hungry ghost Tony had talked about before. I wrote to Helen Cho, who I adored in the Roadrunner documentary, and she even replied!!

I felt my brain stem on fire, I felt all the wanderlust, all the yearning, uncertainty, doubt, apprehension and drive that has provided the rocket fuel for my travel adventures come bubbling up. Sorting through the mental gurgles…Going to Poland in 2003 opened the door, Ireland, Russia, and Thailand a few years later shredded what was left of that door down to the hinges. After Russia in 2005 there was no going back. I was a hopeless addict. Not some corny weekend warrior with a clever passport cover and cruise tickets…I mean I was done for. Married to the road. It was the fall of 05 when I realized my life would be different than most folks. The SUV, kids in matching outfits, trendy luggage sets, house in the burbs, the golden Labra-doodle thing with the dumb name and the deceptively adorable wife…? Wasn’t going to work for me. I’d be dedicated to the pursuit. Engaging the beast, like some holy warrior so it doesn’t engage me. Peeling back that onion, Pushing those boundaries, running down a dream by any and all means possible. Saving myself, because who the fuck else is supposed to do it? Would it be pretty? Hell no. I just knew (hoped) it would be worth it. To this day, I am unmarried, no kids, no pets. I have a few houseplants. I am am a travel addict. Pure and (not) simple. Tony’s show No Reservations, encapsulated that dream. My buddy showed me the Ireland episode and after that I was hooked. I devoured Bourdain’s written words like the holy gospel, and never looked back. Deep discount fare to Istanbul? Let’s do it. Christmas in the Balkan’s? I’m there. My parents friends were convinced I worked for the CIA, or some clandestine service. FB friends from high school thought it must be drug running, weapons smuggling or some sordid combination. The rumors made smile, and build more infrastructure to travel more…with no sign of slowing down just yet. Up until 2018 uncle Tony was always there like some wayward Saint with daft wisdom to encourage me along.

“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.”

I threw myself into traveling, into experience, into the unknown. I’m eternally grateful for that. Grateful for the influences along the way that pushed me to do it. Grateful to Bourdain for such brilliant work.

Being here in Madrid, finishing that book and hitting these streets I felt a kind of familiarity. Like coming home in a way. Perhaps that’s what we are all searching for.

Barcelona is easy to love

Ah Barcelona. Bright, beautiful and exotic to the American mind. The home of Gaudi, the stunning architectural master that adds yet another flavorful layer to the Catalan city by the sea.

I visited Barcelona in the early summer 3 yers ago. It was my first time in Spain (A country I have come to love the fuck out of). I had spent the majority of my travel time off the beaten path as it were. Trekking through the rapidly changing regions of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. Friends and colleagues, fellow travelers and Instagram alike had hyped Barcelona to impossible heights. “The absolute best city in the world”.

I had to go right?

And thus I did.

And I get it. I truly do. Barcelona is the topless beach, where someone passes you a joint and invites you to hacky sack. Barcelona is all night sangria. Barcelona is shockingly gorgeous people of damn near every stripe. (Seriously though, where did all of you beautiful people come from??) It’s mostly safe and enchanting enough.

But therein lies the rub. Not to sound like a wanker, but I’ve been at this for a bit. I thrive on finding that travel magic and at this point I gotta dig for it. Barcelona…is like Disney world. Barcelona is a dream, an idea. This City is the myth that keeps you working over time to be able to pay for that vacation. So, it shouldn’t be shocking that It’s a place SATURATED with tourists. Now, I recognize that I am one of those tourists. Albeit not in a backward ball cap and flip flops getting blind wasted in the afternoon and cat calling passing ladies.

I had an idea that since the world and everything in it changes so damn fast (who’s getting old?!) that perhaps Barcelona would be different 3 years later. Don’t get me wrong, as I’m not overtly hating. Every place has elements of awesome. Barcelona certainly has more than its fair share. If you go, and if you most certainly should, stay outside the Las Ramblas area. When you venture near grace yourself for heat, crowds, that overpowering scent of urine and airport style prices.

Stay anywhere else, and try to at least make an effort to engage some aspects of Catalan culture. Don’t be a sack of asses and enjoy your holiday.

This August Barcelona was under 300$ RT from the midwestern US. The best option on the continent and a great hub to explore the Mediterranean regions I am keen on.

Did I enjoy it? Abso-fucking-Lutley. Barcelona just doesn’t have that magic for me. The primary industry is tourists, who flock to its sunny shores and bars like a European Cancun…only without the resort culture.

Loads and loads of people love Cancun, and even more love Barcelona I’m sure. It’s a personal preference thing. I don’t really dig cruises or theme parks. I’ve always been on the hunt for something more…visceral. For a first trip to Europe, I would still go with Barcelona over London/Paris. I would land in Barcelona, then head elsewhere in Spain or the region. Which is exactly what I did.

More on that next post!

Europe, on sweet training wheels.

You know I’m all for savage adventure. After Colombia and a brief respite back in the mitten, through chance and a bit of luck I’ve found myself back on the road. An easy flight to Amsterdam, and a few days on the canals turned into a run to Brussels and the push down to the Mediterranean. I’ll start by saying I love the Netherlands. I’ve used Amsterdam well over a dozen times to base invasions or departures from Europe. Winter, summer, spring…never a bad time here. Stroll the Red Light district, have a waffle, enjoy the people watching and the canals. Take it all in and relax. You’ve arrived! This is the perfect starting point. I’ve come to look at Amsterdam a bit as the perfect beginners gateway to Europe. Or, as the title suggests, Europe with training wheels. Let’s start with the airport. It’s big, sure, but easy to navigate. Make your way through customs and viola, the train station is in the basement of the airport. 25 min and 6$ and you are now in the city center.

How easy was that?!

Arriving in the morning is cool as the city is disarmingly quiet. Make your way to your accommodation, drop your stuff, grab a shower/charge your things and get out there! The people here are used to tourists. Don’t worry too much, if you’re confused about something, ask. There are tons of foreigners here, especially in the center. Find a cafe, grab a coffee and start your exploration. I’m a total sucker for canal shots as you can tell. These make for the ideal morning wander as they have a tendency to get jammed packed as the day goes on. You will log serious miles marveling at the old world architecture, waterways, and other sordid attractions. As this is the red light district, you will walk past people engaging in the time honored wake and bake, hitting it hard in the various coffee shops as well as on the street.

Yes. Weed is legal, taxed, and regulated. Enjoy that shit. Just don’t be a wanker about it.

One of the other big taboos for Americans is legalized prostitution. Get over it. Also, respect the ladies. Don’t try to take their picture or waste their time. Smile and walk by. Enjoy the ambiance. How many places like this exist in the world?!

Enjoy the European cafe culture, walk this city, and see how much different things can be. The Dutch are awesome, and as an American they may just ask you why everyone in the States is so sensitive. Grab a beer at one of the dozens of eclectic bars and think about this question. Hang around for the night life, and soon you will be with people from 10 different countries, sampling beer and snacks that simply don’t exist at home, expanding your mind with conversations you never thought you’d have.

A mind stretched by new experiences has a terrible time being closed again. Instead, it will leave you hungry for more.

Buy the ticket, take the ride, and let the good times roll. Amen.