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Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

alhambra spain


Population: 47.7 million

Currency: Euro

Phrase to Know: Buenos dias, buenas tardes and buenas noches (good morning, good afternoon and good evening)

Fun Fact: Spain’s most bizarre (and messiest) tradition may be the annual Tomatina Festival near Valencia, in which thousands of participants fling ripe tomatoes at each other.

We Recommend: Sleep in a parador — a historical building, such as a monastery or Moorish fort, that’s been turned into a luxury hotel.

10 Best Spain Experiences

Have you been to Spain? What was your favorite spot?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Sitting at my desk in New Jersey with the temperature hovering just below the freezing point, it’s hard to believe that spring has arrived. But spring it is, and people around the world will soon be celebrating the season of renewal.

Spring is a perfect time to travel in many destinations. Not only will you find smaller crowds and possibly even pay less (since high tourist season in many places doesn’t start until summer), but you may also stumble upon unique cultural celebrations such as the ones below.

Here are a few spring festivals from around the world to watch out for if you’re ever in the neighborhood around the time of the spring equinox.

las fallas festival


Las Fallas Festival: Valencia, Spain
A spring festival celebrating St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), the origins of Las Fallas go back in time to the days when wooden lamps, called parots, were needed to light carpenters’ workshops during the winter. As spring — and St. Joseph’s Day (the patron saint of carpenters) — neared, workers ceremoniously burned the parots, which were no longer needed for light. Over the centuries, the ceremony evolved into a five-day celebration involving the creation and eventual burning of ninots: huge, colorful cardboard, wood, papier-mache and plaster statues. The ninots remain on display for five days until March 19, when at midnight they are all set aflame, except for one chosen by popular vote and then exhibited at a local museum with others from years past.

Photos: 10 Best Spain Experiences

Whuppity Scoorie: Lanark, Scotland
The arrival of spring is celebrating in the small town of Lanark, Scotland, on March 1 with the delightfully named Whuppity Scoorie. During this celebration, local children gather at sunrise and run around the local church three times, making noise and swirling paper balls on strings around their heads. After the third lap, the kids race to gather up coins thrown by local assemblymen. No one is quite sure how the ritual began; the first written descriptions date back to the late 19th century.

junii brasovului


Junii Brasovului: Brasov, Romania
The “Youth of Brasov” festival is held on the Sunday after Eastern Orthodox Easter every year and involves seven groups of young men bedecked in Romanian folk costumes and uniforms riding colorfully decorated horses through the streets of the city. The parade also features traditional Romanian songs and dances, and culminates in each of the men throwing a scepter into the air to see who can hurl it the highest. The parade finally works its way up to a mountain field above the city where a community barbecue is held. The earliest written records of the ritual parade date back to 1728.

12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

Nowruz: Iran
Nowruz is celebrated on the first day of spring, which is also considered the beginning of the new year in the Persian calendar. It is a secular holiday of hope and rebirth, though its origins trace back to Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion of ancient Persia. It is celebrated in Iran, as well as Azerbaijan and most of the “stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). Rituals typically involve building bonfires to jump over them.

holi india


Holi, India
Also known as the festival of colors, Holi is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated annually as the spring equinox approaches. The ceremony represents the arrival of spring, the end of winter and the victory of good over evil. It is a happy occasion marked by singing, dancing and a free-for-all of color, where participants do their best to paint others with dry colored powders and colored water. Holi dates back as far as the fourth century, though it may in fact be older.

What spring celebrations do you know of around the world?

– written by Dori Saltzman

Every so often, when I’m stuck at home between trips and need a little jolt of wanderlust, I wander over to Vimeo.com and go hunting for travel videos. If I can’t be exploring a new place right now, at least I can spend a few minutes living vicariously through someone else’s footage. And there’s no better inspiration for future trips!

For example, check out this dreamy time-lapse video of the midnight sun in Iceland — I guarantee you’ll want to go.



Also shot in Europe but with an entirely different mood and focus is “Barcelona GO!”, which takes viewers on a frenetic trip around this colorful Spanish city, from narrow medieval lanes to grand cathedrals and concert halls:



This video set in India is so vivid I can practically taste the curry:



I’m ending with my favorite — a gorgeous, contemplative look at Japan in wintertime. Keep an eye out for the Jigokudani snow monkeys.



3 Time-Lapse Videos to Get You in the Mood for Traveling

– 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 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