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Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two cities with over-the-top architecture.

Would you rather…

… check out Gaudi’s fantastical visions in Barcelona, or …

parc guell gaudi barcelona



… experience the decadence of Dubai?

dubai skyline uae


Visitors to Barcelona can’t miss the influence of architect Antoni Gaudi, whose whimsically designed buildings include the eternally-under-construction Sagrada Familia church, the colorful Casa Batllo and the flowing lines of Parc Guell, pictured above. Dubai is home to Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper; Burj Al Arab, the first hotel to proclaim itself a “seven-star” property; and numerous other lavish buildings.

Best Cities for Architecture Buffs
Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two delicious light bites.

Would you rather…

… nibble on fresh spring rolls in Vietnam, or …

spring rolls vietnam



… nosh on tapas in Spain?

spanish tapas spain


Wrapped in delicate rice paper and stuffed with a tasty mix of lettuce, cucumber, carrot, daikon and either pork or shrimp, spring rolls are a must-try when visiting Vietnam or other Southeast Asian countries. Meanwhile, tapas encompass a range of bite-size appetizers or snacks in Spain, ranging from fried squid to cured cheese topped with anchovies.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies
Beyond Restaurants: 8 Ways to Savor a Local Food Scene

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

There’s something about train travel that just feels romantic. You’re not behind the wheel; you’re not in a middle seat at high altitude; you’re simply coasting along with an oftentimes sweeping view. This form of travel lends itself well to getting lost in thought, so why not use it to do something memorable? Here are three ways to turn your next rendezvous with the rails into more than just an ordinary journey.

Write the Next Great American Novel
girl, train, thinking

Have you ever wished for a prestigious writer’s residency? Well, how about one onboard a train? The #AmtrakResidency program, sponsored by Amtrak, is calling all writers to submit their applications for a multi-day writing residency aboard one of the railroad’s domestic trains. Free of charge, the program is in part marketing for the train line, but it’s also a fantastic chance to use our nation’s passing landscapes to inspire poems, prose or even tweets. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis through March 2015. According to the site, “A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.”

Travel Back to the ’20s with National Geographic
train, spain, El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo is a private train with original British Pullman cars refurbished from the 1920s. Serving the northern coast of Spain, the line is frequently chartered by National Geographic for rail journeys through the scenic region. Your expedition includes the tips of a professional photographer and a special excursion through the wine region with a one-night stay at Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, which claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. Suites onboard the train include a queen bed, living room, large windows, private bathroom with a shower, hydro sauna, and steam bath. Watch Basque country pass by your window as you chat with onboard National Geographic experts.

Relive a Wes Anderson Film in India
train, india, darjeeling, himalayan, railway

Director Wes Anderson’s newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” features many scenes onboard a train in a fictional faux-European region called the Republic of Zubrowka. But another one of his films, “The Darjeeling Limited,” was inspired by a very real train line: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Train travel in India is a microcosm of the whole country: crowded, chaotic, unpredictable, impressive and a feast for the senses. The railway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the beauty of the countryside is just as apparent on screen, during sibling spats, and off. Whether you’re three brothers on a cinematic journey for closure, or just along for the ride, this train trip is bound to bring a plot twist.

Slideshow: The World’s Most Spectacular Train Trips

El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo photo used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Simon Pielow.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

segovia aqueduct spainIn this month’s featured review, reader Betsy Lubis shares her memories of a three-week trip through Spain. “Impressions of and experiences in Segovia: a) beautiful setting tucked between arid hills, b) Alcazar, Roman Wall, aqueduct, all quite impressive, c) the ponche segoviano (marzipan) cake at Limon and Menta was the best part of our day and the best pastry we’d eat on the entire trip, d) dinner at a pizza place with kids playing in a ball pit, e) guys slathering up wall posters announcing a protest against a proposed golf course. ‘Golf is only for rich men,’ one of them informed us. And, golf wastes water in a country running out of water, their sign proclaimed.”

Read the rest of Betsy’s review here: 21 Days of Spain. Betsy has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

rugelachWe had a pass to get into our hotel’s breakfast room. But there was a mistake: Our breakfast pass actually belonged to a couple named Johnston and Shirley. I don’t know who Johnston and Shirley are, but their names were printed on the card.

When we checked with the hotel receptionist, he insisted that it was fine and that we should keep using the pass — so for the rest of the week, we were Johnston and Shirley.

We had fun imagining what Johnston and Shirley might say to each other while having breakfast. Johnston was pretty uptight, I remember, and was concerned with being a successful-looking “man’s man.” Shirley was a total airhead who lost interest in things quickly. I can’t help feeling that we were unfair to Johnston and Shirley. I think we pigeon-holed them.

We were in Barcelona, so we’d expected a classic Spanish breakfast — even though I didn’t know what that was. I’d pigeon-holed that too.

It wasn’t what I’d expected. The hotel pretended to make its own food, but every morning you could watch the waiter or the bar man making the trip across the road to the bakery to pick up fresh goods to serve.

Our Favorite Barcelona Hotels

The bakery was a small place run by an elderly Jewish couple. Every morning, they provided the hotel with delicate scones and muffins, savoury burekas (small, flaky puff-pastries that people could take to eat for their lunch if they wanted to), and bagels. Later, there was rich coffee cake and little rugelach, which tasted how the inside of Christmas Eve might taste.

The owners had migrated to Spain in the 1970′s, along with many thousands of other displaced people, from Argentina, where they faced political violence from the oppressive military junta that had taken control there.

The diaspora’s culture manifested itself in many ways, but for us, it manifested itself in breakfast.
We could only have found such unexpected delicacies by accident. We’d have been so busy looking to find “authentic” Spanish cuisine that we’d probably have missed the exceptional pastries that all the locals were eating.

I remember a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam where a man piloted a smoking wok over a hob that looked like an upturned jet engine. It was one of those floating palaces in the harbor that had looked so much like massive tourist hulks that I’d been pretty happy to avoid them. I’d wanted to eat something Dutch — I was in Holland, after all — but our friends, who’d been living there for a couple of months already, had taken us here instead.

It was incredible! To think I’d almost missed out because I’d had a preconceived idea of what I ought to be eating in Holland. This was one of the best Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to. Everyone who lives in Amsterdam knows about it and heads there to eat after work while the tourists are sipping Heinekens in Rembrandt Square.

There’s no such thing as a mono-culture, and setting out to experience only one facet of a country’s food, music or social life will never give a full or representative experience. So many things influence countries and cities, helping to make them what they are.

The next time I’m pigeon-holing, even if I’m pigeon-holing Johnston and Shirley, I’ll try to remember this. Maybe I’ll enjoy a place more for what it is than what I think it should be.

12 Delicious Destinations for Foodies

– written by Josh Thomas

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot was snapped inside the Alcazar in Seville, Spain.

alcazar seville spain


Spain Travel Guide

Do you have an inspirational photo you want to share with our readers? E-mail it to us at feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Get Inspired: Around the World in 8 Amazing Videos

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Barcelona“What did you think of Barcelona? Did you get pickpocketed?”

It’s been barely a week since I returned from Catalonia, and already I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to field this kind of question. No one asked, “How was the hotel?” (Haunted, in fact.) Or “What were the football fans like?” (Amiable, surprisingly enough.) Or even “Did you see any of Gaudi’s architecture?” (Yes, though paying to get into the Casa Batllo was probably as close to being pickpocketed as we actually came.) For a lot of people, there seems to be an enduring association between Barcelona and theft.

This is, as far as we could tell, completely unfounded. Before my girlfriend and I left, we were given warnings by my parents, her parents, her grandparents, colleagues, the man behind the counter in the bookshop where we bought our travel guide, the hairdresser and the barista at our favourite coffee shop about the constant threat of robbery on Barcelona’s streets. (The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker kept noticeably quiet on the issue.)

Everybody knew someone who knew someone who had seen a guy getting pickpocketed in Barcelona and thought we should know. When I asked my mom to elaborate, she told me about the time when she had been on the Metro with a friend who had found herself wedged into a doorway by two seemingly polite men, while a group of small children rifled through her handbag, taking her passport, mobile phone and purse. Pressed further about this story, my mom admitted that it had actually taken place in Rome — but, she said, these things could happen anywhere.

7 Ways to Keep Your Stuff Safe When You Fly

Forewarned is forearmed, and, after hearing countless warnings against leaving valuables in the zippy pockets on the back of our rucksacks, we arrived in Barcelona a little bit tired and very hungry. Our hotel was opposite a Metro station, so we decided to brave the trains in order to get there and drop off our things as quickly as we could. We descended to the turnstiles only to find that the tickets we had just bought were no good. We fought through the crowds to get back to the machines in the corridor, which did not offer English instructions.

We jabbed away at the touch screen for a while as the crowd thickened and swirled around us, trying not to admit to each other that we had no idea what we were doing. More and more people bumped into us. My girlfriend moved her rucksack so that it was on her front. It looked like one of those pregnancy simulating vests. We’d just arrived in the middle of a busy city, we only had the most tenuous grasp of the local language, we were hungry and our feet hurt.

And then a little man appeared and, after finding out through a burst of quick-fire Spanish that we didn’t understand quick-fire Spanish, asked us if we spoke English. We were that obvious. He had very greasy hair and had a short, blonde beard. His jacket was brown and frayed and, in his hand, he had an empty coffee cup with change in it. Uh oh.

The man smiled and pointed out an option on the screen that would take us back to the language page; this would make it easier for us to buy our tickets, he said without a hint of condescension. Then, he said, instead of buying day tickets or singles, we should buy a special ticket that he pointed out. We could use it in any zone in the city, it would be good for the three days that we were there, it was cheaper than a single-day ticket and it would get us to the airport without any trouble on our departure day. We could even get away with only buying one of them if we were sly enough about passing the ticket back over the turnstile to each other when we went through.

We bought the tickets (yes, two of them) and thanked the man for his help. He smiled and shuffled off into the crowd. As soon as he’d gone we both quickly patted down our pockets. Of course, everything was still there. The man was just being helpful and was not, as we had thought, trying to rob us. We felt dreadful because we’d wrongly made up our minds about someone who was only being kind, even though he could have quite easily ignored us.

I wanted to catch up to the man and say something nice, but there was no sign of him. He had gone. We snapped this photo of the stranger before he disappeared:

Barcelona



– written by Josh Thomas

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Barcelona! Pictured is Parc Guell, designed by Antoni Gaudi — the architect whose vibrant colors and fanciful curves mark some of the city’s most spectacular buildings. The most famous is the Sagrada Familia church, which has been under construction for more than 100 years. Learn more in Barcelona Essentials.

Check back this Friday for another photo guessing game!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

vineyard grapes chorizo olives manchego cheese mediterranean mealLast week I shared the worst meal I’ve ever had while traveling: a cast-iron skillet filled with a seething potato mass and rapier-sharp fish skeleton, accompanied by a noxious yuck-berry soda administered only to keep from choking. Here’s the best meal I’ve ever had:

It was 1999, and we were on the dusty road from Cordoba to Granada, heading for the Alhambra, a 14th-century Moorish stronghold that’s an endless showcase of pools and patterns (mesmerizing arabesques). My father, brother (who was studying at the University of Cordoba) and I were in a rented Peugeot five-speed, flying past olive and grape vineyards, when the rumble of three stomachs jolted the little auto. As is the norm when driving through the southern part of Spain, we pulled over at the first cafe we saw.

It wasn’t a complicated place — red and white checkered tablecloths — and it was nearly empty. “Que quieren?” the waiter asked.

Puedo tener una plata con queso y otras cosas,” I said, blushing, in mangled Spanish. What we got was an antipasto plate filled with Manchego cheese (kudos to the La Mancha goat, who lives a couple hundred miles north of where we were), olives from the nearby vineyards, roasted red peppers and little slices of piquant chorizo. In between swallows, we drank wine made from the vineyard connected to the cafe. The combination of Spanish cheese, wine and sausage can often prove too much to take for excitable Americans, and sure enough, someone tipped over the wine carafe. The waiter mopped up the red and brought us another. What a waste. I would have slurped it up off the floor.

What’s the best meal you’ve ever had on the road?

– written by Dan Askin