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.