Hello LA!

After our Florida adventure, the fun in the sun wasn’t over yet: we were still headed to SoCal for almost two weeks.

On Monday 2 January, we touched down at LAX sometime in the evening. The first few nights we would stay at a hotel because the friend’s whose floor we would crash on was still on holiday himself. But that’s OK, I like hotels, especially when they come equipped with free massage chairs just 5 metres away from our room. I can highly recommend the hotel we were staying at, the Custom Hotel, which is right between LAX and Marina Del Rey. From our hotel room we could see ISI, and from our office at ISI we could see the hotel. That’s right, our office at ISI, cos we were there for work. And we shared an office.

It was fabulous to be back. Because of the time difference (2 hours) we woke up at a rather obscene hour on Tuesday, so we headed off to the French Market Café for a sunny, outdoor breakfast, something we normally only have time for on the weekends. There are advantages to getting up early I suppose.

We still made it into the office by 09:30. The best thing about working from the US on a Dutch job is that all the email comes in in the morning, because it’s the end of the working day in Europe. So when you get into the office, you tend to the email, and then the rest of the day you can work without interruptions (I know I could also switch off email, but my mailbox is my to-do list, so I sort of have to keep it open, and I haven’t found a client yet that will allow me to only check email at set times or twice a day. The longest you can have Mac Mail space apart is every hour, or you could do it manually, but still every time my computer comes up from sleep it will pull in fresh email. Another option would be to get a different to do list, suggestions are welcome). Anyway, I got a lot done. I hacked about a little. I read a whole bunch of interesting papers. I graded student assignments. I talked to the awesome people at ISI. Still we managed to drag ourselves away from the office at a decent time in the evenings to go hang out with all the great people we know in LA.

I also rented a surfboard (@ the Rider Shack on Washington Blvd, highly recommended, they also included a board bag so the rental car wouldn’t get dirty), so I could go surfing in the mornings and weekends. On Wednesday morning when I went down to Venice for the first time again, I immediately ran into Kerstin, who took over my room on Rose after I left. She still lives there, and still surfs 🙂 The waves were quite hollow, which is really not my specialty (hopefully my surf coaching sessions will help me this year) but I did get my hair wet, and found a nearly perfect sand dollar. And we saw some dolphins. The day could have started worse 😉

During our stay, we also got to experience some great home cooking by our friends (thank you Gully, Jens and Jason) and were taken to some new bars that we didn’t know about (courtesy of Dirk). On the weekends, we went to Malibu to surf (such a lovely mellow wave!). We fell into the Paradise Cove tourist trap (although it is a beautiful beach).

On Friday night after our last working day in SoCal for a while, we left the office early to have sushi in Santa Monica, followed by cocktails in the Shangri-La hotel rooftop bar with Gully (while looking out over the Pacific). Pure awesomeness.

On our last Saturday in SoCal, we first had brunch in Manhattan Beach with Victoria and Dirk (they do have a knack for finding fabulous places to take us to). Then Paul and I surfed together in Malibu. The waves were super small, and there was a lot of seaweed getting stuck in our fins and leashes, but it was really great to be out there together. After we got wormed up with some coffee & hot chocolate at Starbucks we went out to a nice Italian restaurant in Culver City with Jens. And then we had to get up really early in the morning again to go back to icy Europe…

Getting spoiled

This year my birthday was on a Friday, and I had to work. But still, I got spoilt rotten. It started already the night before, with a book that was waiting for me on the bed (The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, fiction, a fun read for anyone who’s into their vampire/history stuff).

The next morning I found a CD on the table, and it’s seriously one of my favourites ever since (it’s Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars):

My office mate had also decorated my desk:

After work, Paul first got me the coolest apron ever, with all sorts of handy info such as conversions and little cookery tricks. All upside down so if you hold up the apron while you are wearing it you can see what to do. He also took me out to our favourite restaurant on KNSM island, De Wereldbol, and he had arranged for a fancy dessert with fireworks:

The next day my family came over to Amsterdam and we hung out and had dinner together. Oh and cake from Patisserie Kuyt. And I got presents, the tajine that has become one of my favourite kitchen appliances, a handy thermos, a dodgy book and a photo frame, and a gift card for a shop that sells cake decorations 🙂

A trip to Edinburgh

In 2009, mum and I had so much fun on our trip to Liverpool that we decided to do more trips together. This time we decided to go to the far north, to the lovely city of Edinburgh. It was a bit of a quick decision to go, so the trip we planned was really too short (2 nights) but because we got there early on Oct 14, and left later in the afternoon on the 16th we still had a fair amount of time to see the sights. We had found a nice hotel on Grassmarket (the Apex city hotel) so we were right in the centre of things.

After we had dumped our stuff (hand luggage only!) at the hotel, we had lunch at Café Jacques (nice croque monsieurs), before we started exploring the city. Naturally we did the Royal Mile, Greyfriars Kirkyard (aw, Greyfriairs Bobby!), nearby Analogue books (one of the coolest bookshops ever!), and some of the shops near Princess Street such as Bibi’s Cake Boutique (cupcakes!!). After all that walking, we were pretty tired, but it was too early for dinner, so we had a cup of tea in one of the nice pubs before we went out to “The Outsider” on George IV Bridge. It’s a bit swanky, but perfect to celebrate our trip. It was a shame we didn’t get to sit by a window to see the Castle, but I guess you can’t have it all.

The next morning, we needed a good start, so we had breakfast at the Hula Juicebar, which serves just fabulous granola.

The only thing we had really planned for that day was a tour of Mary King’s Close. OK, it’s quite a touristy thing to do, as you are guided by a person dressed up in 17th century garb and there are some silly jokes, but it was really a lot of fun and we learned a thing or two about the history of Edinburgh. What most amazed me was the architecture of the place and the fact that they had built all that stuff over and around it.

When we got out we strolled around the Royal Mile some more (taking pictures by the castle), stumbled upon the writer’s museum (which we had to visit of course), had a lovely lunch at Hendersons and we also visited the National Gallery, just before they closed to see The Skating Minister by Sir Henry Raeburn. To refuel, we had drinks at Bannerman’s (missed the music unfortunately) and dined on pub food. We then again tried to go to the fiddler’s bar on Grassmarket, but there was again no fiddle or fiddler to be seen, oh well.

On our last day, we hiked up Calton Hill where the Survival of the Fittest race was on (well, it was all around town, but that’s where it was most visible with lots of funky obstacles to be taken on by the participants).

After that, it was time to make our way down to Waverley Bridge to catch a bus to the airport 🙁

But, we’re already thinking about our next trip, which will be three nights at least, and will most likely take us to Oxford 🙂

Surfing in the Netherlands again

It had been a long time since I’d surfed in the Netherlands, and even though it’s not as amazing and by far not as consistent as Costa Rica, there is still a lot of fun to be had. My first taste of Dutch waves in four years was late August 2011 again, at the O’Neill Babes on Waves Day in Camperduin (a place I hadn’t visited before, and well, there’s no reason to go there really if you aren’t going to surf). Anyway, my sister Sara also wanted to revive her surfing skills (she got her first stoke in Spain in 2008 on our holiday together) so on Saturday morning 27 Augustus we hopped onto the train from Amsterdam to Alkmaar, where we took the bus to Camperduin. It was a bit of a bummer that we didn’t see each other for most of the day, as she was back in the beginner’s group, but we were all kept busy quite well. Even when it started raining and thundering and lightning, so we just had a big long theory lesson, before it was safe enough to go out. When we finally did go out, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the waves. I even won the expression session at the end (although I did grab a foamie for that as the waves were going down a bit).

After we had changed and warmed up, there was a dinner in the beach club, after which there was a raffle. Now, this lady never wins anything at a raffle, except this time, and it was also the main prize (a beautiful skateboard). I also met some nice new surf girls, so it was a pretty good day.

On 8 October, another girlie surf fest was held, this time organised by Xooka.nl in Wijk aan Zee. The conditions were very, very different this day. It was for example impossible to see the outside as there were pretty big waves with an enormous amount of whitewater. Add to this some crazy wind, and you’ve got nearly impossible conditions, at least for my level of skill. So after about half an hour my feet were pretty much frozen and I decided to call it a day and try out the hot tub that was waiting for me on the beach 🙂

After the hot tob (which can accommodate about 15 girls at the same time), there was a ding repair workshop and some fun with slack lines and indo boards. When we were completely exhausted, there was food, and a movie. Not bad eh?

Because of these clinics, I’ve now also met some surfer girls in Amsterdam, so we’ve also been going out surfing a few times before work, at least in October. The first time was OK, except for the traffic going back into Amsterdam. After I parked the car, I had to rush to the office, so I sat through all my appointments for the day with the sand still in my hair 🙂 The second time, a week later, it was a lot colder all of a sudden and I was freezing in my 3/2 wetsuit, and for the life of me, I have no idea where I put my 5/3.

But then at Christmas my husband surprised me with a nice new 5/4 wetsuit, so it’s on again! (although I’m writing this from sunny California where I won’t have to wear the gloves and the cap and all that).

Holiday!

And finally…summer!

July/August 2011 was not a very warm period in the Netherlands, so I was very happy to get out of the Netherlands at the end of the August to still get a bit of a tan. And what better place to get a tan than in the sunshine state? So on August 29th, I travelled to Florida (Paul was already there) to find the sun. My travel experience was not optimal. There is already the nonsense about not being able to bring unsealed liquids on board, but now they are also limiting the size of water bottles that you can bring on board that you paid entirely too much money for at the airport. So I couldn’t buy a litre bottle of water, but had to buy small 33cl bottles instead, that were then put into a single bag and sealed so I could take them on board. The logic of that is beyond me. My flight to the US was quite OK, I sat next to a Spanish teacher who also organised cycling tours for tourists in New York, so we had a nice chat. Atlanta airport was a horror, as it was super busy, and it took me the better half of 2.5 hours to get through immigration and checked in again for my next flight, but I made it and the warm welcome in Pensacola made it all worthwhile.

Paul and I took it easy the first week. We spent a fair amount of time on the beach (under an umbrella, because the sun is super strong there). I got to try out stand-up paddle boarding, which was super cool, especially when the dolphins came within just a few metres of my board :). We also met up with friends of Paul’s, and went bowling, and we hung out with his parents. It also rained a fair bit (tropical storm) but that just meant hanging on the sofa with a nice book (also not a bad way to spend the holidays!).

As we are both keen on travelling and visiting new places, we had also booked a trip to Costa Rica. The waves there are excellent, and it’s just cool to visit a new place. On September 5th, we took a really early flight to Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport in  Liberia, Costa Rica (via Atlanta). We got there around noon, picked up our rental car, and started the trip along the highway (which looked like a carriageway really) to Tamarindo. We only took a wrong turn once, but it wasn’t too bad, and after about an hour and a half, the last bit of it on a dirt road, we pulled up in front of our B&B: 15 love Bed and Breakfast. The B&B was awesome, really nice decor, cute swimming pool, nice tennis courts, fantastic breakfast (most of the days I started with pancakes and fresh fruit smoothies) and only a few minutes walk to the beach.

The first day, we walked around on the beach and the town a bit, enquired with surf shops how much it is to rent a board and to take a lesson (even within shops it varies who you talk to) and we then had a nice dinner at the Longboards barbecue, where I tasted yucca chips for the first time in my life (I tried cooking them myself but that didn’t go so well).

On Tuesday, I rented a board for the week at Kelly’s surf shop, simply because it’s closest to the beach and our hotel. The really nice thing there was also that I could swap the board whenever I needed to, for example if the conditions were smaller requiring a bigger board etc. This also meant that I could try out a fish, or a slightly smaller board, although I was most happy with a 6’8″Webber semi-fish. On Tuesday, Paul took a surf lesson, but the teaching style of the instructor didn’t work so much for him, so after I got done surfing, I swapped my board for a bigger one, and he got to try to catch some more waves which was nicer. We continued this during the week (I went surfing first, and when the tide went down and there was mostly whitewater, I swapped the board and guided Paul a bit, and sometimes caught a few waves longboard style).

On Saturday, we went for a canopy tour (ziplining through the dry forest), which was really cool. The zipline was a bit different from what I’d done before, in the sense that you also had a thick leather glove that you were supposed to keep on the line, to slow down and to keep you steady, but that worked out alright. There was one at the end where you didn’t have to do that and you could go upside down (which I of course had to do :)).

Although it was the rain season, the weather was truly great. There are quite a few advantages to it being the rain season, namely that the forests are green instead of brown, and it’s not as excruciatingly hot (according to the locals). OK, we did get lucky, because they told us that sometimes it just rains for two weeks on end, but we usually had an hour of rain or so at the end of the day, or sometimes rain during the night, which just meant time for a nap after surfing :).

We didn’t visit many different places while we were in Costa Rica, one being that we didn’t feel so comfortable on the dirt roads with our regular car, and we were just having such a good time around Tamarindo that we didn’t feel the need to drive three hours to visit a volcano (maybe on our next trip ;)). We did go to Santa Cruz (the ‘National Folklore City’) one afternoon, but that took ages, and it started raining rather heavily, so after seeing the highlight (a bell tower, the church got demolished in an earthquake) and walking a few blocks around it. We got back into the car and drove back to Tamarindo through the craziest thunderstorm ever. When we got back, it had gotten dark so we went straight for dinner at one of the little places on the main street.

Most of the week we’d been eating ‘casadas’, which is a dish that consists of some meat or fish, together with a salad, beans, rice, and fried plantains. Usually we would share a casada for lunch at the little beach bar, and at night we would each have one someplace else. We also had some really nice mexican food one night, and we also once had casadas delivered to our hotel because it was raining so hard and we were tired :).

One day, we also took a trip to Playa Avellanas, a little place just 10k from Tamarindo (but a 45 min drive over dirt roads that also take you quite far inland before going to towards the coast again), with a nice  beach bar and a supposedly friendly reef break. Since I’m a chicken, I didn’t go surfing, but I had a good time watching other surfers from one of the marvellous beach chairs at Lola’s bar. Just before lunch, a truly torrential rain shower started, so we were forced under the overhang at the bar where we shared a table with an American guy who had moved to Costa Rica. He was a bit full of himself, but had some funny stories to tell, and some nice tips on the area, so it was a nice way of sitting out the rains.

Monday was our last full day in Costa Rica, and I’d wanted to surf another spot too, so I booked a lesson at the Roxy all girls surf camp to go to Playa Grande. My instructor turned out to be former national surf champion Andrea Diaz and she was really nice. The waves didn’t look so big from the beach, but turned out to be 7-8 ft. basically scaring the shit out of me. But I got to learn to deal with them (best advice of the day: ‘the bigger the wave, the harder you need to paddle’) and I made it through the surf, and back in in one piece so I was quite chuffed with myself :). When I got back in Tamarindo, I found out that Paul had been out surfing too on his own, and he seems quite stoked too now, so I foresee more surf trips together :D.

We ended our day at longboards barbecue again (where we started our first night), because the other place we meant to go to was closed and we knew the food was fine there.

On Tuesday morning, Paul played tennis again with the owner of the hotel, while I took one last splash in the ocean (this time walking to the beach barefoot as a few days earlier my flip flops had been nicked). And then it was time to go back to the airport again :(.

On the way to the airport I bought a coconut (something I’d been wanting to do all week), and at Atlanta airport we had a cocktail to finish off this part of our holiday in style. But luckily we still had another 5 days in sunny Florida!

Those five days were not bad either, as on Thursday afternoon I attended Denise’s bachelorette party, which was a high tea at a lovely old house in Pensacola overlooking the beach. I also got to go to a concert at ‘Vinyl’ on Thursday night, a fairly new concert venue in town. Paul didn’t go because he had a bachelor’s party to go to, so I hung out with one of Paul’s friends, and the concert turned out to be quite good actually. The support act was “Wye Oak”, which was OK. They had a pretty full sound for just a guitarist/singer and a drummer/keyboards combination, but unfortunately their songs were getting a big predictive and I also didn’t quite feel the singer’s passion (yes I’m picky). The main act, Okkervil River, was superb though. Many of the band members played several instruments at some point during the performance, and I was also instantly a fan of the female lead guitarist. One thing that they haven’t figured out in American bars yet is that you shouldn’t put the airconditioning to ‘freeze mode’ if you want your audience to drink much, but it was a cheap night for me ;). I also scored a autograph of the base guitar player on the way to the car, so it wasn’t a bad night at all.

On Friday, Paul and I hit the beach again, this time ‘upscale’ as we lounged by the pool of one of the hotels in Pensacola beach. After taking a nap on one of the chairs, a refreshing splash in the pool and a glass of chilled lemonade we did try going for a swim in the Gulf, but it was still infested with jellyfish so we stayed close to the beach, but it was nice to get my feet in the sand and collect some more sea shells. In the evening, we went to the Gallery Night in downtown Pensacola. The city centre was one big open air party (as the temperature was obviously still fantastic), all the galleries were open, there also were little stalls selling art and bands playing outside. We finished the night with dinner at Dharma Blue, a really nice cozy restaurant just off the main streets.

Saturday was our last day in Pensacola, and what a day! As this the day of Denise and Niranjan’s wedding. The ceremony was very different from Dutch ceremonies (the couple stays standing for example), but it was great to witness. The venue they had chosen had a fabulous view of the Gulf on three sides, and afterwards there were refreshing drinks, fabulous food, great music and dancing! A great way to end a great holiday :).

Anniversary Weekend in Antwerp

Last year around this time Paul and I were still putting the final touches to our wedding preparations (though we weren’t as stressed out we were supposed to be according to the wedding magazines…it was actually really quite a lot of fun :)). This year, we enjoyed a lovely, even more relaxing trip to Antwerp to celebrate surviving our first year of marriage 😉

Paul had found a super swanky hotel (Hotel Julien) in the old city centre, and I had booked train tickets, so we were good to go. We got into Antwerp on Saturday morning (August 13) and had a swell time exploring the beautiful shops on the Meir, in particular the Chocolate Line.

We then hung out a bit around the fashion district (spent entirely too much money on new clothes ;)) and had lunch at the Groote Witte Arend (splendid place) right next to a very expensive but gorgeous tile shop.

In the evening, it was quite difficult to find a restaurant (as customary in Europe, some restaurants were just closed for summer) but the hotel staff helped us out with reservations. We ended up at “De Kleine Zavel” which had the perfect amount of swankiness for our celebrations.

On Sunday, we hung around the Museum aan de Stroom, but we couldn’t be bothered to queue up for a ticket to see the exhibitions. The view from the roof is fabulous though. We then walked around town a bit more, before returning to Amsterdam. There we finished off the weekend in style with a big pan of mussels 🙂

Erpeltjes weekend

After Barcelona, I didn’t go straight home, but I went to Etten-Leur instead, as we were going to spend the weekend with my family in the Ardennes. Somehow I’d booked an earlier flight than Paul, because his presentation was late on Friday (I’m a bit bummed I missed that), so he would come later in the evening.

I got to Etten-Leur around four where I would get a lift from Joyce to Belgium. 2 Metres out of Etten, her car broke down, which was of course annoying, but more annoying was that it had only been out of the garage for a day. Thankfully Joyce’s dad lent us his car, so we only got half an hour’s delay. When we got there, the weather was still pleasant enough to sit outside by the fire.

The next day, the tough people (Frank, Hans, Peter, Dad, Sara, Joyce and I) went mountain biking and even though I cycle quite a bit (300k in total in August), it’s so hard!! I’m really looking forward to them building that mountain in the Netherlands so I can practice a bit :).

After the exercise, we all took nice hot showers and got some groceries (as we’d forgotten to bring charcoal for the BBQ for example). When we started the barbecue in the evening, it only seemed to rain a little bit, but soon it became a little bit more and the food really didn’t need more water….so we went for a Dutch barbecue! (this means we moved the table into a shed and we took turns on holding an umbrella above the barbecue 🙂

Luckily, it got dry again so we could have a camp fire afterwards (otherwise all that chopping wood would have been for nothing) where I roasted marshmallows  🙂

Barcelona!

In July, Paul had to go to the IJCAI conference in Barcelona. I had never been to Barcelona, so I thought it would be an excellent idea to tag along and soak up some Spanish sun. We decided to also spend the weekend before the conference in Barcelona, so we got to do some sightseeing, and sightseeing we did! On Saturday morning, we started with a visit to the not to be missed Sagrada Familia, and lucky for us, I had been smart enough to book tickets in advance, which saved us a really big long queue. The church itself is absolutely gorgeous, there is really nothing like it.

After we wandered around in awe for a few hours, we decided to not queue for going up one of the towers (good reason to go again sometime ;)) and find some lunch. As I always have the funky idea of being adventurous, we ended up at some little snack bar that only had a Spanish menu. Some things on the menu, we recognised, and some we didn’t, but ordered anyway. One thing I now know never to order again is ‘callos’, or the inner lining of a cow’s stomach or something like that. It kind of looks like dog food, and I imagine it tastes like that too. But luckily the rest was nice, so we cleared the other plates (yummy albóndigas) and got on our way to explore more of the city. We walked along a big boulevard towards the Vila Olimpica, which was built for the Olympics in 1992 and is really close to the beach. From there we walked to the beach and got sand between our feet and we actually ran into a surfer we had met in Peniche the year before at the (what seemed to be) one surf shop in Barcelona. After a chat, we walked on towards the city centre again, past the Catalan History museum, where we stopped for a well-deserved ice-cream break. Paul then took me to La Rambla, which I thought wasn’t what it’s all cracked up to be, so we quickly dove into the cute little alleys again, and all of a sudden we found ourselves on the Plaça Reial, which is really gorgeous, so we sat there for a while. We then walked around the little alleys some more, after which we thought we’d try to find a cinema to watch the new Harry Potter movie. Eventually we found one near the Vila Olimpica (to which we took a tram) and we got to watch the last Harry Potter movie in English, with Spanish subtitles :). When the movie was over, we found a fish restaurant nearby which was probably quite touristy, but tasty nonetheless. End of a fabulous first day.

On Sunday, we took it easy, we did some work in the morning and went into town in the afternoon. In front of the cathedral, we bumped into two colleagues from the VU, so we went for a tapas lunch with them. After which we went to the beach and I got to swim in the mediterranean. We met up again with a colleague and an ex-VU-colleague-who’s-now-a-Barcelona-local for dinner. However, before dinner, we first got to watch part of a neighbourhood festival that includes correfoc, or fire-running. When the people were setting up the dragon, we thought it was going to be a quiet procession with some candles, but it actually turned out that the things they attached to the dragon weren’t candles, but fireworks (which also explains the thick gloves and hoods of the participants), and when they finally lit them it was quite spectacular. Not only the dragon had fireworks, but also the runners, who were dancing around the dragon, and running into the narrow alleys. Something like that would never happen in the Netherlands, as they got quite close, but in Barcelona it seemed the most natural thing, with the police officers just observing from nearby while smoking cigarettes.

Afterwards we sat outside at a nice tapas bar, where we behaved like real tourists by ordering big carafes of sangria, but it all tasted splendid! It was also my first encounter with pimientos de padrón, which I’m now a big big fan of.

On Monday, we went to see the other main highlight of Barcelona: Parc Güell. We took a bus up there, and then to get to the higher parts it’s still a bit of a hike, but the views of the city are well worth it, and the park itself is of course gorgeous too. After a few hours, we trotted back down to catch the metro (which is also superb) back to the city centre, where we hung around some more and looked at some shops. We walked back all the way along the beach to our hotel (which was near the conference venue, but a few kilometres north of the city centre). We had sort of misjudged how long it would take us to get there, because we could only change and then we had to get back out, to go to the conference opening reception at the Palau de la Música, yet another gorgeous building. The opening of this conference didn’t just consist of the usual welcome words, but also an opera about robots composed by an AI researcher, which was pretty awesome.

On Tuesday, the conference really started, so the tourism days in Barcelona were over, although there was usually enough time around lunch to go for a quick splash in the mediterranean, and in the evenings to catch some sunlight on our hotel’s rooftop (+pool). You can read about the serious, scientific part of the conference here, by the way and the photos are to be found on my Flickr page.

Easter Holidays in Portugal

Since we were getting Good Friday and Easter Monday off, Paul and I (well mostly I) thought it would be a good idea to take a few extra days and visit Portugal around Easter. Paul really wanted to go to Estoril for the Estoril Open (an ATP and WTA tennis tournament) and I wanted to go because the surfing in Portugal is nice.

On April 20, we flew into Lisbon where we rented a car (they gave us a big station wagon which was handy because I had brought my surfboard) and we drove off to Cascais for our first three nights. Cascais is a really lovely little town just south of Lisbon.

 The beach was absolutely beautiful and the first night we just strolled around and found an Italian place with a nice view of the ocean. The next day we set out to visit Sintra, a town just an hour’s drive away where the old kings of Lisbon built loads of palaces to retreat to during the summer months. It’s located in a national park,  on top of a mountain. Parking is a pain, but once we did manage to put our car away we walked through a park to the main square. It started to rain a bit so we had some lunch in one of the cafes, and when it got dry again we walked over to Pena National Palace which has beautiful tiles, fabulous wooden floors as well as great views of the countryside and the ocean (in the far distance). When we finished our tour, it started raining rather hard, so we got back to the car and decided to go back to Cascais. There we had a little nap at the hotel (cute little place by the way), and when the sun came out again we strolled around Cascais some more.

On Friday, we first stopped by the Boca de Inferno (mouth of hell), a big cliff with a hole in it where the waves pound in very loudly. After that, I wanted to go surfing, but unfortunately the closest beach to Cascais (Guincho) was devoid of waves and otherwise also pretty deserted except for a few kite surfers. The guy at the surf shop told us we could try Carcavelos, which is a little bit more sheltered from the wind that blows the waves flat. Indeed Carcavelos looked a lot better so I put in a little surf session while Paul had some coffee at one of the beach bars. When we got back to Cascais, I had a shower and then we hit town again. We first killed some time in a rock cafe, where we had a nice chat with the bartender, after we made our way to a tiny little place that was only open on Fridays and that did fado. It was truly one of the greatest holiday experiences. The place had about 5 tables in there, as it had opened at 20:00 and we got there at 20:30 we were quite early and only one of the other tables was occupied. The menu was chalked on a blackboard and had three options. The waiter/owner did not speak any English, but whenever he brought a dish to the other table, he would show the dish to us and point out on the blackboard what this dish was, upon which we could say that we wanted that. Paul got some really nice veal chops, and I had some excellent fried cod with very long grain rice (this was probably the best meal of the entire holiday). Then the musicians came in, one of them nearly resting his elbow on my table. The lights would be dimmed and they would play a few songs during which everyone in the restaurant was completely quiet and stopped eating. The lights would come on again and people would resume their conversations. Then someone from one of the tables would get up and join the musicians, the lights would get dimmed again, and he/she would sing a few songs. My description doesn’t do it any justice, but it was just a fantastic experience. At around 11pm, Paul and I were pretty tired, so we unfortunately had to leave otherwise we would have probably fallen asleep at the table, but I’m sure the party went on for another while.

On Saturday, we went to Carcavelos again, where I had booked a surf lesson, just because I’m a chicken and like surfing with someone else in the water. It started out quite windy, but while we were in the water the wind went down. After two hours I was completely knackered, so I got out of the water and hopped into the car to drive to the next destination on our trip: Ericeira. Ericeira is a nice little town a little bit north from Cascais and Sintra and it has one of the four World Surfing Reserves in the world.

Because the swells were coming in just straight from the ocean as well as the wind, the conditions were not for me, too much pounding, but it was very interesting to watch other surfers get taken away rather rapidly by the strong currents, and great to see them having battled through the surf and catch some waves. So we sat around the various little terraces the Ericeira has to offer, overlooking the waves, drinking sangria and eating tostas mixtas. We also played some tennis at the tennis courts right by our hostel and lazed about on the sunbeds. On Easter Monday, we drove down towards Cascais again, this time not for the surf, but for the Estoril Open. It was a bit of a pain to find the stadium and even more so to find out where to park, but once we got the car parked and the shuttle bus had taken us to the entry, we were fine. First of all, it’s a beautiful tennis park, with the cute little tiles you see everywhere in Portugal, and lined with palm trees. The matches we saw were quite interesting too (amongst others Thiemo de Bakker getting his arse kicked by Kevin Anderson). We also saw Verdasco and Söderling practice, and we even almost bumped into Tsonga on one of the narrow little paths. After a long day of loads of nice tennis we were getting a bit peckish, but the food at the tennis park wasn’t so amazing, so we drove back to Ericeira, where we watched the sunset and had a nice meal at a fish restaurant. The next day we briefly dipped our feet into the water and then we made our way back to the airport. With a tan and a big smile 🙂

Hello New York!

Because I was in the neighbourhood (an hour and a half is practically around the corner by American standards), I decided to go to New York for the day.  I was very proud of myself for staying awake until 23:00 after my arrival in Philadelphia, so I slept like a log and on Tuesday morning I managed to get up at 07:30, to catch my train to New York. First of all, the Philadelphia train station is fabulous. They may not be big on public transport in the US, at least they know how to hide that. The train stations look like cathedrals, and some of them have free WiFi. Eat that NS!

So at 08:30 I was on my way on the comfy train and first saw the Pennsylvanian landscape move by, then parts of New Jersey, and finally I saw the skyline of New York get closer.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many cool places already, but really, New York trumps them all. The city is just so alive, and the smells are so amazing! (it’s probably mostly pretzels and pastrami sandwiches, but still….good!). I set out to the Empire State Building first as it was quite close to Penn station, but when I found out it was $21 to get in, and there was a queue, and it was overcast and it was probably going to rain, I decided not to go in, and wander off to the Village instead. Just getting to the south of Manhattan already gives you so much to look at. At one point I found myself in a street where there were only shops selling plants (real and plastic). The highrise also made way for slightly lower building, although still buildings where you’d want a lift. And then finally, you end up in cobblestone streets with fancy houses with steps leading up to them.

So I wandered around somewhat, deliberately not checking my map too often. At one point it stopped raining softly (instead it started positively pissing it down) and there were a few strong gusts of wind, making it very cold all of a sudden. I actually found this quite cool, even though I would only be in New York for one day, I would get to see different seasons! So I kept on walking. After a while I found the river and had a quick look at the grey waters. By that time I was pretty soaked, and getting a tad peckish, so I decided to go find some hot tea and lunch. On my way to the river I’d passed some quirky little places, so I headed back towards Jackson Square and popped into ‘SNice and I was not disappointed: I had a really nice big hot cup of tea and a great mediterranean sandwich. After I got warmed up, I took off again and decided I wanted to see Central Park. I hopped on the metro at Christopher Street and Sheridan Square to go back up north. By that time, I’d walked this (sort of, as my GPS battery wouldn’t have lasted that long, I reconstructed this map from where I know I walked):

While reconstructing this map afterwards, I found out I had been pretty close to the meatpacking district, but I missed that (one could say I should have looked at my map a little bit more often/carefully, but I’d say this is a good reason to go back again to see it).

I got off at 66th Street and lo and behold, I spotted an Apple store on Broadway. I popped in to look at the fancy toys, but didn’t buy anything. Then I wandered over to Central Park. It had started to drizzle again, which meant that I had the park pretty much to myself. Luckily there were some other tourists around Strawberry Fields to take a picture of me, but it was really super quiet (with some noise of the city in the background, but mostly birds overruling that).

I wandered some more through the park, and finally exited at the East side and almost immediately found myself on Madison Avenue. As I was again not looking at my map, I wandered off in the wrong direction, but it did make me come across the Nespresso shop, so I bought some coffee for Paul. Unfortunately it’s not the Nespresso shop that is featuring in the ads with George Clooney, but you can’t have it all.

After hanging around the fancy shops for a bit, I thought I’d go find some postcards and a place to sit, have tea, and write the cards. Turns out that you won’t find postcards in the fancy shopping area. Luckily, they did sell postcards at Grand Central Station. But I couldn’t find a Starbucks or something similar to sit at and write them (there were plenty of coffee places, just none with seating available). So I walked some more and ended up on Times Square :). There I browsed around some of the shops, but then I got a text that Johan had arrived too, and that he was having beer at a place near Madison Square. It turned out to be a proper sports bar, so I had a big glass of cider (I’m not sure about wine in sports bars). We then went to Eataly, a fairly new Italian food court. Johan commented that you probably wouldn’t find so many Italian food stuffs in one place in Italy, but it all looked and smelled terrific. We sat down in one of the little bar places and had some bruschette, minestrone and gnocchi, which all tasted really nice and weren’t too expensive. Even though it was fairly fast food, we did have to hurry up to get back to Times Square to go see the musical we had booked.

What we didn’t know when we booked the tickets, is that April 5th would be the night Billie Joe Armstrong (the singer of Green Day) would return to reprise his role as St. Jimmy in the musical. Lucky us. Anyway, we got there on time, and even had some time left to order drinks. I thought LA was expensive, but it turns out that two drinks at a theatre in NYC will set you back $30. They did come in resealable hard plastic cups though, so you could take them with you into the theatre and not spill.

The show itself was pretty awesome. It was quite interesting to hear the songs in a musical setting (they still rocked out, but they had added some extra voices etc). In some cases the choreography wasn’t really necessary in my opinion, but the set and the energy of the actors made up for that. All in all it was a great night out. And if you wouldn’t be into the show, you would also have a great time at observing the audience, as some of the ladies went crazy when Mr. Armstrong appeared on stage (or even just before he would as they already started shouting and clapping, I reckon they’d seen the show before). When the show was over we left the theatre, and found ourselves standing in the middle of a pathway cleared by crowd control fences, with crowds behind them. When I asked the police officer at the end of the little lane what was up, he said that soon, the cast would come out. So we decided to hang around for a little bit and see what would happen. First some musicians from the show came out, but the crowd paid no attention to them (shame, cos they did a good job). Then one of the lead actors, and as I found out later, runner up in American Idol, came out, and started giving out autographs. And finally, the crowd went crazy as Mr. Armstrong came out. He posed with some fans, signed some playbills and as soon as he was off in a black Mercedes, the crowd was gone too.

As it had gotten dark, we took some more pictures around Times Square (which actually looks smaller in real life than I would have thought after having seen it so often on TV) and then we made our way back to Penn Station to catch our train back to Philadelphia. On the way to the train station, we went and got some drinks at Starbucks, and that was my only visit to Starbucks during the entire week in the US (I thought it was worth mentioning, as they are literally everywhere, at the conference they served Starbucks coffee though…).

So here’s my second leg of the sightseeing tour mapped out:

So I got my exercise in for that day at least. More photos (just to make you jealous) are on my Flickr page. Now I just need to start saving up money so I can go again 🙂