Vamos a Hablar de España

27 05 2013

When I look at a map of Europe there are a number of places I have not been, but none stand out quite like Spain.  I really can’t say why I never made there.  Spain definitely has its charms, historical relevance, big cities, and a cuisine worthy of attention, yet somehow it was never on my radar.  That is until a few months ago when I began pondering my Autumn 2013 destination.  So I decided this would be the year I would explore the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Madrid.

Like I said, I started to float the idea a few months ago.  It began with my typical pattern of researching flights, hotels, and attractions, but one thing I didn’t plan for was having a companion along for the journey.  As a solo traveler, I have become accustomed to going it alone.  My friends here have lives that prevent the kind of travel I am fortunate to do.  Be it work, college, or family, most of them just don’t have the ability to tag along with me.  Well this changed in a big way when my friend Alex assured me he was joining this trip.

Alex and I enjoying tapas and sangria in Denver while plotting Spain.

Alex and I celebrate our booking over tapas and sangria in Denver.

Now to say I’m not a little nervous at the idea would be a lie.  We are great friends, but my penchant to go off trail and avoid scripting could prove to be a struggle for any travel companion.  So, before we booked anything, we talked and researched.  I shared my stories from past trips and my philosophy.  Luckily, he is easy going and agreed to much of it.  Aslo, I have one other aspect of this trip I am excited about, I have a friend who lives in Barcelona.  David will be a huge asset that I have not been afforded in the past.  A local’s perspective is always a bonus.  I am certain we will be able to find and do things with far less effort by having him show us around.

In the early stages of planning I discovered the only thing I wasn’t pleased about with traveling to Spain, the cost.  Yep, Spain is a bit pricey.  I searched and delayed, I even went beyond my rule of booking 6 months early.  The flights are just going to cost more when flying from Denver to Spain, I just had to accept it.  Our plan is to fly from Denver to Barcelona and return via Madrid to Denver.  When I first started to search the prices were about $1250 each (I know, yikes…my entire flight and hotel package to Istanbul was only $1420), but after a few weeks they dipped to $1145 and stayed there for a few weeks.  Since it is now only 4 months away, I finally got the itch and we decided to just book our tickets before they jumped back up.

One important detail Alex and I had to discuss was the sleeping arrangement.  We might be close friends, but we both want space.  Two hotel rooms would be a little exorbitant for us, and the idea of a twin or double room didn’t appeal either.  This is where we decided to book an apartment through Airbnb (a site that provides an avenue for homeowners to rent out an empty guest room, apartment, or entire home to travelers).

For information on Airbnb click HERE

For information on Airbnb click HERE

Airbnb has a good structure for reviews with pictures of both hosts and their property.  That provided for some confidence even though the concept is quite foreign to us.  We must have spent weeks looking at different apartments before we finally settled on a Barcelona and a Madrid location we could agree on.  In the end, I believe what we booked will make for fantastic stays in both cities.  Our place in Barcelona is a high floor 2 bedroom apartment with a massive patio that affords an amazing view of nearly the entire city.  Our cost for this apartment is $960.  In Madrid it seems everything was less expensive.  We found a nice 2 bedroom place in the heart of the Grand Via neighborhood for $445.  Both of these locations will give us the space and location we desire.  Alex and I couldn’t be more excited.

The final part of the trip still to be booked is the train from Barcelona to Madrid.  The tickets can’t be bought this early, but I already know they will be about $120-140 each depending on the exchange rate at the time of purchase.  With the train tickets included, that brings our total cost for transportation and lodging in Spain to $3960 (roughly $1980 each).  Ouch, I told you Spain was pricey.  All I can say is that I’ll take the bargains when I can, but this one definitely would have been much more expensive without Airbnb.

So now the long months of anticipation and planning begin.  I can’t wait to explore the Gaudí structures of Barcelona, browse the Picasso museum, and photograph the many plazas of Madrid.  This should be an incredible trip.  This will also be the first trip I won’t see alone!

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Feasting on Istanbul

13 05 2013

Turkish food is more than kebabs even though that’s what you’ll end up eating the most.  Why?  Well, because they are delicious.  I can’t imagine anyone struggling to find good food in Istanbul.  It’s literally everywhere.  Like every major city there are high end choices that will bust your budget, and there are street foods that won’t.  I tried to strike a balance between them, but ended up eating mostly street food.  Sure I had some full service restaurant meals, but the cost, taste, and convenience of street vendors made it just too easy to eat cheap and on the fly.  Besides, the money you save by eating cheaply can be put towards a couple expensive meals later on.

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Chicken kebab at Med Cezir.

Now I talk about research a lot, but researching food is one of the most important things one can do.  I couldn’t possibly take a trip with zero knowledge of the local flavors.  I mostly use Trip Advisor to find highly rated eateries, then I’ll make a list of places to dine but never fully hold myself to it (I refuse to be overly structured when I travel).  Trip Advisor also has several offline city guides that’ll allow any traveler to find restaurants on a GPS equipped smartphone without cel service.  I used the Istanbul guide several times to locate what I felt would be gastronomical wins for me.  Thanks to my planning, I had far more hits when it came to my dining experiences than misses.  So, let me point out the restaurants I’d recommend if you ever visit Istanbul.

  1. Med Cezir was just around the corner from my hotel and the place I dined the most, 4 visits to be exact.  I found the food to be simple yet delicious.  This place is not fancy, it was affordable and reliable, two things I look for in a restaurant.  The service was attentive and the manager enjoys a good conversation with his guests.  My favorite meals there were chicken kebabs and a spicy lamb pidé (something of a Turkish pizza without cheese).
  2. The House Café is located along the famed İstiklal Avenue pedestrian zone.  Their outside seating provides you with a great opportunity to people watch while dining on an eclectic menu of international foods.  So it wasn’t Turkish food, but it was still damn good.  I enjoyed one of their customized lemonades, delicious grilled chicken, and a pear salad.  Reviewers complain about the prices, but I always plan on eating a couple of expensive meals each trip and had no complaints here.
  3. Galata Meyhanesi specializes in mezes, Turkey’s answer to Spain’s tapas.  These little plates of deliciousness are varied and plentiful.  There is also live music and plenty of dancing to be had once the raki has taken hold of you.  Raki is a love or hate alcoholic drink flavored with anise, and since I have a taste for licorice, I found it easy and enjoyable to drink.  On that night, after only a few drinks, I surrendered to the Raki and danced the night away to traditional Turkish music.

    Typical Istanbul food cart.

    Typical Istanbul food cart.

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Slicing lamb for a wrap or pita.

When it comes to eating on the go, Istanbul is filled with tasty offerings.  Among my favorite was the tortilla-like wrap filled with chicken or lamb freshly sliced from a spindle.  They don’t offer much in the way of flavor, but they were hearty.  I was easily filled up for only 4-6TL.  Another favorite of mine was the bagel-like sesame seed covered breads that were sold from small red carts conspicuous throughout the city.  There are actually several types of cart foods one can enjoy in Istanbul.  Vendor carts selling corn-on-the-cob and roasted chestnuts were also quite common.

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Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice was a favorite of mine.

As for the need to quell my thirst, I couldn’t resist buying freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.  Honestly, I have never tried pomegranate juice before this trip.  That changed in dramatic fashion after my first cup, and with those little juice stalls everywhere, I seemed to always have it readily available.  Other prevalent drinks are tea and coffee.  Tea is tea, it’s served hot in a glass and saucer with a sugar cube.  Simple, yet delicious.  Turkish coffee is the more interesting of the two in my opinion.  Served in a small cup with saucer, Turkish coffee is sweet and strong.  The extremely fine ground coffee beans must be allowed to settle before you drink, don’t stir it or you’ll get a mouth-full of what can only be described as coffee mud.  Since you have to let it cool down anyway, time will allow the grounds to rest at the bottom of the cup.  I found it appalling that a country with such an amazing coffee drink was littered with Starbucks everywhere, blasphemy!  If you go to Istanbul and get a coffee at Starbucks then you are no longer my friend, you’ll be perpetuating a western coup of their traditional drink.

Trays of baklava tempted me from nearly every angle.

Trays of tempting baklava.

But I must say that my biggest culinary weakness in Turkey came in the form of layered phyllo dough and crushed nuts all soaked in a heavenly sweet syrup or honey, baklava!  Holy baklava, this stuff was staring at me from every window it seemed.  Calling to me, “come taste another variety and savor another blast of sweetness.”  Once I started eating baklava it became apparent I wasn’t going to stop.  My favorite variety contained crushed walnuts rather than the traditional pistachios, but that favorite was by a narrow margin.  I will never turn away any baklava!  I am all about treating them equally and with dignity right down to the last crispy and syrupy bite.  This desert ruined me forever, no baklava will ever compare to what I had in Istanbul.

Endless mounds of spice at the Egyptian Bazaar.

Endless mounds of spice at the Egyptian Bazaar.

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Turkish coffee served with a small square of Turkish delight.

A great place to pick up and sample baklava is the Egyptian Bazaar (also called known as the Spice Bazaar).  This place is filled with booths selling every possible temptation known in the region.  Dried fruits, nuts, baklava, spices, and even some cheeses are easily sampled and bought here.  Are the prices a little high, yes, but haggle and sample your way to a better deal.  What I didn’t get in the bag was made up for by what I managed to eat for free.

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Basil and pear lemonade from The House Café.

The Spice Bazaar is also a good place to find the famed Turkish delight.  This sugary confection is known for it’s varieties.  It’s not terribly sweet.  In fact, turkish delight has a refreshing light sweetness to it that won’t leave you running for insulin the way baklava can.  Funny, I didn’t eat as much of it as the baklava, but I enjoyed it thoroughly when given the opportunity.

A full month after returning home I still find myself yearning for the wonderful flavors of Istanbul.  One of the ways to extend my taste bud’s satisfaction was to bring some food home.  US Customs will allow prepared and packaged foods without problem.  Your only restrictions are fresh fruits, vegetables, and/or meat.  Knowing this, bought a few boxes of Turkish delight and baklava to share with my friends and family.  Nearly every shop, especially at the Spice Bazaar, has a vacuum pack machine and will gladly seal these items for free.  The best part, none of it requires refrigeration.  Baklava can last for about 7-10 days without refrigeration if it’s kept sealed, and Turkish delight can easily go a month or more.  It was a successful way to ease the withdrawal symptoms of my addicted taste buds.

Damn, here come the cravings again!  Does anyone know a place that serves quality baklava in Denver?





Tips: Book Early or Pay

1 05 2013

I am obsessed and it’s a good thing.  Some guys spend all their time online looking at porn, I spend all my time searching for flights.  I don’t believe it’s unhealthy to try and save money, but I do spend an exceptional amount of time on booking sites searching and looking at prices.  This is especially true when I am in the throws of booking my next big trip.  I see it as a challenge to try and outsmart the airlines and catch them when their fares dip.  It’s a fact of air travel that we all must deal with, prices fluctuate frequently.

There are a lot of tools out there to help you catch tickets in that narrow window when prices drop.  Take a look at Kayak.  It’s a great app that allows you to set up price alerts.  So when the fare starts to drop, you will be in the know.  Of course that means you have to be ready to buy at any given moment.  Having a little vacation savings account stocked and ready to go will help those, like myself, who are on a budget.  So try and start saving money ahead, I don’t even begin looking until I have a nice kitty of cash ready to spend.

The one common thread I have seen consistently is that booking early will often save you money.  Sure there are last minute deals, but are they to the place you actually wanted to visit?  Sometimes, but it’s a real gamble to wait until these deals publish.  I find that booking 7-5 months early has proven to be the best overall pricing.

For example, when I was searching for my upcoming trip to Iceland this September, I booked my complete itinerary on March 10th for $1021.  This price includes round-trip flights from Denver to Reykjavik on Icelandair and 5 nights in a studio with Apartment K.  Six months early seems extreme to many, but doing the exact same search on Expedia today (2 months closer to the trip) yields a price of $1732 for the same accommodations.

The same trip for I booked on March 10th is now $700 more for the same dates!

Ouch!  Now maybe I don’t have to stay at the same place.  If I repeat the search and just choose the lowest priced package near city center (not including hostels or rooms with shared bathrooms) I can book for $1252.  Still more than $200 over what I paid by searching often and booking early.

Are there destinations where it pays off to wait a little bit?  Sure, but it’s definitely not the norm.  Here’s and example from my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta.  I paid $587 for flights and 5 nights hotel that I bought in mid November for mid January travel.  When I started researching this trip I was seeing it fluctuate around $700-750 for a solid two months, but knowing I booked the same hotel in Puerto Vallarta the year before for $615, I knew it could/should get lower.  It dropped around 3 months out and I booked it immediately.

What I want you to see here is a common theme, constant price checking until you feel you’re getting the best deal.

Here’s a short summary-

  • Have the money ready so you can pull the trigger when prices drop
  • Start searching early
  • Be aware the best deal might be a hostel or shared facilities (not my thing, but book what’s right for you)
  • Check other booking sites and compare
  • Consider packages based on the reported discount for booking flight and hotel together.
  • Booking a flight and hotel separate can also be a good thing.  Try using AirBnB (I’ll expand on them in another post)

Be patient.  If you loose a couple dollars waiting for prices to go down, I’ll bet you still get a better deal than if you booked less than 2-3 months out.