Building Castles in the Air

I am writing this sat in my lovely house in England that overlooks fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, but I began writing this just over a week ago when I was still in the hustle and bustle of sunny Madrid. A place that over time has taught me that there are so many good and open people in this world and such beautiful places beyond the imagination. It has also taught me that life isn’t just about living to work, but working enough to live and thrive. And I have certainly learnt how to thrive!

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Taking my Erasmus year in Spain has undoubtedly been the best decision I have ever made. Travel has always been in my blood and I have ever wished to have the confidence to get myself out of England by myself and set my life up abroad. I choose De Montfort University largely because of DMUGlobal and the opportunities they offer around the world, including Erasmus and as soon as I stepped into their first presentation about Erasmus, I knew it was for me. The only issue was is that I wanted to go for a year and I wasn’t able to transfer my credits from the year abroad to DMU, thus I would have to do an extra year. But as I felt I had been let down a lot by my English university experience, I decided to take the leap and go for it anyway!

The next dilemma that came was choosing the place out of a huge list of universities around Europe. I was torn between Dusseldorf, Bordeaux, Oulu and Madrid, but since I always had a soft spot for Spain and desperately wanted to learn Spanish, I chose CEU San Pablo in Madrid and there my journey began.

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I visited Madrid beforehand to choose a flat to live in and visit the city and university, both which impressed me but I still didn’t have huge expectations. When I arrived it was hot. Really hot. Madrid seemed hugely intimidating and rather lonely, it was hard opening a bank, finding everything for the flat, getting the transport card, finding the uni and not being able to speak any Spanish.

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But just a couple of weeks in, I was falling in love with Madrid and the people there were wonderful. My time in Madrid went from strength to strength and without me even realising it for a long time, I was living my dream. I had my own little flat, a foster cat, I was learning Spanish slowly but surely, Madrid at my doorstep and at the weekends I took day-trips to neighbouring cities, or if the girls were up for it I went on bigger trips to other countries or the coast. At the start of this year, I did have a wobble after a break-up, moving flats and all my friends leaving from the first semester. But after an amazing trip to Porto with great friends and an eye-opening adventure in Morocco where I had the most amazing time ever with more wonderful company, things just carried on the uprise until the day I left.

Now, it is time to awaken from this wonderful dream and whirl of emotions, experiences and evolution that has been my life for the past 10 months. It’s time now to work hard and study hard so I can accomplish this as a real lifestyle when I finish university. I know that Madrid is a once in a lifetime experience, but this is not the end for me, it’s just the beginning of an international lifestyle.

I have never been so inspired to travel and meet more people as now, and I have no doubt that there are more adventures to come. The only thing I am questioning is not when, but where?

Although not everyone will have the same positive experience of living abroad as this, some of you may not even be interested in travelling and will find your happiness elsewhere in careers or studies or families. But I hope everyone has the chance to find their own Madrid.

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My 8 Favourite Places in Madrid

So my time here in this beautiful city, Madrid, is reaching it’s final days so I wish to share with you my favourite places here that I have discovered over the past nine months, all of which make living here particularly special for me.

If you are still living here and haven’t been to these places yet, they are definitely worth taking a look at before you leave. If you are visiting Madrid, choosing a few of these to go to will make your stay here even more charming.

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Opera

The first tourist stop that most people make in Madrid is Puerta de Sol, which is a beautiful plaza that is the literal centre of Spain. However, one of my favourite plazas in Madrid is that Plaza de Oriente that is very close to the metro Opera. Not only does it recognisably contain the famous Opera house, Teatro Real, but it is framed by some of the grandest buildings in Madrid in an arch, with the largest palace in Europe as it’s backdrop. To the north of Plaza de Oriente, there are beautiful gardens (Jardines de Sabatini) linking the palace to Plaza de España. Just a short walk to the south, near the end of Calle de Bailén, there is a small park with a magnificent view of the Palacio Real hanging over the city that I find particularly stunning, as well as inside the palace itself. I must when visiting Opera at night there is something magical about the majestic buildings lit up against the dark sky.

Parque Cerro del Tío Pío

If you want to see the best sunset in Madrid, Tío Pío is undoubtedly the place to go. Although it is quite a trek if you live anywhere north of the centre in Madrid, it is a trip worth making. This park is just a ten-minute uphill walk from metro stop Buenos Aires on the blue metro line (linea 1). At first this park may not catch the eye, but after climbing to the top of one of the small hills, a breathtaking view of Madrid can be seen like no other in the city. It is the perfect place to visit with a loved one or a group of friends with some vino to watch the sun go down over the sleepy city.

Lago

Just one part of Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid that stretches for miles and miles, Lago is the perfect escape from the city’s heat in the summer! With many different activities, it is perfect for anyone and everyone. There is the option to either go for a short stroll around the lake, sit and relax with a glass of tinto de verano overlooking the palace and cathedral, mountain bike or hike through the many trails in the park, take the cable cars over the large park or even go swimming at Piscina de Lago (my favourite part of lago!)

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Malasaña

Oh Malasaña… what a quirky, fun barrio it is! I must say this will be one of the neighbourhoods I am sure to miss the most when I return back to England. If it is a bar crawl, food crawl or vintage shop crawl you are looking for – Malasaña has it all! I keep finding new quirky things there each time I visit, for example last time I stumbled into this shop (Pinta en Copas) where you get free tea and coffee as you unleash your creativity by painting your own piece of pottery. There is nothing much more satisfying than getting some work done at one of the laid back cafés such as Café de la Luz or Toma Café, then browsing through the vintage stores such as Magpie Vintage or Templo de Susu, having a healthy lunch at Bluenasaña or the Greek & Shop, moving onto to a natural ice lolly for desert at Lolo Polos then meeting friends at one of the many unique bars in this wonderful place to sip sangria or cocktails until it is time to move onto to the party in one of the neighbouring barriosChueca or El Centro. Day well spent!

El Retiro

This may just win the prize for my favourite park in Madrid, which is a hard place to earn as Madrid boasts such wonderful parks. But there is something about El Retiro. This park is located just off the centre, bordering Atocha, Banco de España and Ibiza, but by stepping into this park it takes you miles away from the feeling of the hustle and bustle of the capital city in just minutes. Although El Retiro is slightly busier than the other parks, it is easy to see why. With its beautiful vast lake, the Crystal Palace, exquisite statues, sculpted gardens, la Rosaleda (a charming collection of roses), and last but not least the Monumento a Alfonso XIII which often attracts talented buskers that never fail to transport me to another world in the beautiful surroundings.

La Latina

Not only do I love the way this neighbourhood’s name sounds “La Latina”, but I also love the relaxed, cool vibe that comes with being here. Every week this barrio hosts a large flea market, which is definitely my favourite way to spend a Sunday morning in Madrid, wandering through all the wild and wonderful stalls before stopping off at Mercado San Fernando in Lavapíes for lunch or relaxing in La Latina’s square (Plaza Cebada) listening to the free live music with a bite to eat from the Mercado de la Cebada that backs onto it. But La Latina is not merely good for a lazy Sunday morning, but it’s also great for the bustling nightlife too! Walking though the streets at night in this neighbourhood is like no other, with the excitement for the night to come radiating from the buildings and the streets hard for anyone to squeeze through due to clusters of locals and visitors alike pouring out onto the streets from the bars (such as Leka Leka, La Buha or Los Pajaritos) in animated chatter – even in the dead of winter! 

Gran Vía

Coming up the stairs from the metro to Gran Vía never fails to take my breath away, whether it be on a peaceful winter morning or at dusk on a teeming Friday night, it’s magnificence always touches me. Callao tends to end up being the meeting place for a good day or night ahead, with the Schweppes sign towering above the plaza and the stained glass windows above Desigual, Plaza del Callao always makes it’s statement. Gran Vía is the place for shopping, with all the brands scattered down its elaborate street and Fuencarral leading off it with alternative and hip stores. It is the place to be. But Gran Vía is also the place for parties, with international clubs such as Independence, Moondance and ‘locals’ club Star Coyote that are hosted on the infamous street or nearby.

Parque del Oeste

Quite different feeling to that of Casa de Campo, although it is no where near as large as it’s neighbouring park, Parque del Oeste has many different elements all interlinked through beautiful walkways and maintained gardens. At the top of the park towards the north there is part of the park that rests just beneath the Faro de Moncloa, an observatory tower that allows visitors to see all the way across Madrid in an 180˚ glass observatory zone. At the bottom of Parque del Oeste is the Templo de Debod, a 200bc gift from Egypt rebuilt in Madrid in 1972, it is a place that feels like no other, arguably in the whole of Spain. Because of its high position, the temple is also a wonderful place to watch the sunset as guitarists or saxophone players that leave their impression upon the young night often serenade it.

 

Although I have been here almost 10 months, there are still things that even I have not done but plan to do in the next couple weeks that may be worthy of this list, this includes to:

  • Drink the famous milky cocktail in the cave bar El Champadaz near Moncloa.
  • Visit Mercado Antón Martin and Barceló
  • Watch the sunset from Circulo del Bella Artes
  • Eat the homemade tortilla from La Buha
  • Watch a flamenco show at La Taberna de Mister Pinkleton
  • Listen to the live jazz music in Café Barbieri
  • See the turtles and oasis in the Atocha Railway Station
  • Watch the guards change at the Royal Palace

Journeying across Morocco

“They make a desert and call it peace” – Tacitus

On the morning of our excursion to the Atlas Mountains, I woke up as the sun was rising. Instead of lying in bed listening to the soft stores of the strangers around me, I grabbed my jacket and headphones and went to the terrace on the roof of the hostel. It was so peaceful up there. There were two fellow travellers wrapped in thick furs fast asleep on the cold terrace, silent and unmoving. Marrakech looked beautiful at dawn, the silence was only broken by the sound of a worker sweeping the streets with a straw brush down below. Whoosh, whoosh. I sat there for a while watching the world slowly wake up from my perch above the ancient city.

It was my grandfather’s funeral that day. But rather than allowing myself to be enveloped in sadness in this beautiful place, which I know Howard wouldn’t have wanted, I got up, popped my headphones in and played Gloria by Laura Branigan (Howard’s favourite song) and then I danced. I danced like no one was watching.

After a few more songs, I wandered downstairs to find my friends slowly waking up. So we all got ready, had breakfast and climbed in the car of our curly-haired guide – Iddir. None of us really knew what to expect. We hadn’t been to Africa. We didn’t do much research. We had never taken a tour guide. We didn’t even really know where we were going. But there are a few times when ignorance truly is bliss without harm, and this was one of them. Morocco blew our minds.

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Our journey on day one of the tour

At first there was Iddir getting to know us and giving us all nicknames. Denmark. Spain. Poland. Hannah (I was the one who’d booked the tour, probably the reason he could remember my name). Then we left Marrakech far behind us as we climbed up to the High Atlas Mountains in the 4×4. The scenery changed from red to brown to grey and then to a shocking green as far as the eye could see. The windy roads certainly weren’t appeasing for any of our stomachs, but the snaking climb was worth it for the view at the top of the mountain. There was a vast stretch of grassland that was dramatically framed by the tall, dark mountains, only disturbed by the river jolting through the centre of it, carving a small valley of itself in the otherwise flat foreground. The clouds tickled the top of the mountains and blanketed the ones behind in a soft mist, creating the illusion of an infinite mountain range.

We then crawled back down through tiny Berber villages clinging onto the edge of the mountain and vast expanses of roads to Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, a place in which numerous movies and series have been filmed, including Indiana Jones, Gladiator and Game of Thrones, because of it’s unique beauty. I know I certainly felt like a lost princess in a fairytale climbing up the ancient steps of the Kasbah, despite wearing baggy trousers and an old t-shirt that certainly was very un-princessy!

After, we continued through the Hollywood of Morocco where there was film studios scattered about. Our stomachs were all rumbling by the time we reached the restaurant. A small place with a terrace on the side of a rather busy road with tables clustered together to meet the high demand of people eating there. We were squished together on a small table next to a family who we learnt, through our Spanish friend’s broken French, were Moroccans who lived part-time in France. The vegetarian food was absolutely delicious. The meat apparently wasn’t so good. But it was cheap and filling, so certainly no complaints from us.

Then it was the Dadés Gorges, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Toes’ because of the cliff faces sheer and fascinating rounded appearance, one of those weird and wonderful results of weathering. We then reached our final stop at around 5pm, our hotel submerged in the Dadés Valley, an entire hotel (La Gazelle Du Dadés) that only ourselves and a German couple shared. We were greeted by delicious mint tea and a wonderful meal of soup, tagine and sweet fruit later on.

The next day, after a good nights sleep in our own hotel room, we woke early to a hearty breakfast of pancakes, fruit and bread. We were all excited about going to the desert that evening and chose the appropriate camel-wearing clothes – leggings under baggy trousers and long sleeved tops that certainly did the trick – and off we went!

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Day Two 

At first we went through the Todgha Gorge on foot which was immensely impressive, I also had some interesting and extremely funny comments on my “botty” from some Berben men and finally got the hang of the hole-in-the-floor toilets. We then stopped for a cup of mint tea right by the largest oasis in Morocco, Tafilalt. We were then treated to a wonderful surprise in Rissani – lunch with our lovely guide’s sister, Fatima, a very kind lady who never stopped smiling. And a great cook. The food that I had at Fatima’s house was the best I had in my whole time in Morocco. We started with sweet biscuits, and then onto ‘Berber pizza’, next we had a wonderful cous cous with so much flavour and to finish we ate fresh fruit as we passed around the gorgeous Berber baby, one of their neighbours children. It was nice to get to talk to Moroccan women for the first time in our journey and it was interesting to find out that one of Fatima’s daughters studied psychology at university. We’re not so different after all!

It wasn’t long after lunch that we pulled Merzouga, The Sahara Desert. Oh my. It took my breath away. Seeing the desert on pictures and movies don’t do justice to the feeling you get of being so small within the all-encompassing dunes. Merzouga itself was eerily beautiful; being low season it was silent and it felt like we’d stepped back in time with ancient ruins and derelict dust roads, only disturbed by our own 4x4s engine and the Berber music that Iddir was blasting out of the stereo. We stopped by four camels waiting for us and we were each allocated a camel; I was at the front. I was completely taken with the sweet camels’ big doe eyes, gawky features and laid back demeanor. Even though riding a camel was completely different to riding a horse, there were no stirrups and no connection the camel’s mouth, I settled into the camel’s long strides with ease.

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We arrived close to camp and jumped off our camels, thanked our kindly guides and were pointed towards a dune where a few other people had gathered. It was sand-boarding time. My Danish and Spanish did pretty well gliding down the dunes, but I chose to bum-shuffle down on the board into camel poo, which wasn’t the daintiest, but fun anyhow! We then walked through the hard sand to our camp, feeling very sorry for our camel guides having to tackle this terrain for over an hour. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to the camp, it had showers, flushing toilets, thick, soft bedding on comfy good-sized beds, lights and beautifully decorated in bright colours. That night, we drank tea, cuddled camels, watched the stars, smoked shisha, played charades with the people we met there, shared riddles with one another, laughed a lot, ate delicious food and we all were completely enchanted with the soulful sounds of the desert men and their drums by the fire.

The next morning we woke at 6am to watch the sun rise above Erg Chebbi, at first it was somewhat unimpressive and we were all cold from the biting wind, but then the wind settled and the clouds moved past slowly to reveal a glorious sunrise. Then, we were called for breakfast by Iddir’s cousin and soon enough after our ride back to Merzouga in the bright sunshine, we were back on the road and on the way to Fes.

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In my last post I mentioned an uncomfortable situation with a Moroccan man, but let me tell you now that nearly every other Moroccan that I came across was not only wonderfully sarcastic and refreshingly hilarious, but kind and respectful. With the recent terrorist attack in London being just one of many that have taken place recently and Trump ‘banning Muslims’, it is easy to group a religion together and label them as ‘bad’, but this is awfully sad and hurtfully narrow minded. The people I met couldn’t have been kinder, particularly those in the desert, where we all had a good laugh together and wished each other well in everything, despite being from different cultures.

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Day Three

On our way to Fes, we passed through Midelt, which is known for it’s apples and has it’s own apple festival; here the women were selling beautiful scarves and tapestry. Then we drove onto Ifran, which was a strange city to be found in Morocco. It looked as though it had just been cut out of Europe and placed in Africa, not only were the buildings European styled, but so was the university, all the way down to the Swiss forest just beyond the town, strangely combined with Arabian horses and greedy monkeys.

Morocco wasn’t a traditional holiday. It wasn’t hot when we went, nor was it a place where you would swim or sunbathe, or even sip wine on a roof terrace. If that’s what you’re looking for, than Morocco isn’t necessarily the place for you. But if you want to be excited every morning, the kind of excitement that wakes you up at 6am with butterflies in your stomach and a feeling rearing to go to see what will be uncovered throughout the day, if you want your mind to be challenged by all the new sights and smells and you don’t mind going with certain amenities for a while, then Morocco is for you.

It certainly blew my expectations.

Cumbria, Nature’s Blessing

“The earth has its music for those who listen” – William Shakespeare

As much as I love travelling abroad, I do also appreciate the countryside of my home country, England. Since the last few weeks in Madrid have been difficult (though don’t get me wrong, I am still infatuated with this city) I would instead like to share with you my favourite place from home.

My most treasured British national park is the Lake District. It is particularly special to me as I visit Cumbria at least once a year and I have done since I was just an infant to visit my Granddad who lived in the quaint little town called Ravenglass, but despite my own personal attachment to this place, I believe it to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and I know many who agree.

My favourite places in Cumbria include: Windermere, Keswick, Drigg, Whitehaven, Muncaster, Seascale, Millom, Wasdale, Boot, but most of all Wastwater and Ravenglass. Those I speak about below are just a few that are really worth a visit if you’re in the Lake District.

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Wasdale

Wasdale is the home of Britain’s deepest lake, smallest church and highest mountain. Not only do its great facets draw people to this place, but the way it makes victims of even the most seasoned traveller with its enchanting essence and haunting beauty; the way the summit of the mountains spear the clouds and their backbones carry the weight of aging dry stone walls built over one-hundred years ago; how the lake on a calm day mirrors the mountains creating the illusion of the already immense valley to appear twice the size, engulfing its visitors in its perplexity. Yet on a stormy day the mountains tower over you, the calm lake turned to turmoil making you feel as though you are the pinpoint of the earth, or the main witness of nature’s grand gestures. As though you have stepped into another world.

There are many walks around Wastwater, both challenging mountain hikes across screes and pikes, but also easy strolls in the valley. Of course, there are a couple of pubs situated on the mountains of Wasdale serving traditional British ‘pub grub’ and an interesting selection of local beers and ciders. If you’re feeling brave you can even take a dip in any of the lakes within Wasdale, but take care as the stream can be strong and the water extremely cold.

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Ravenglass

I have seen this little fisherman’s village in the dark of the night, when the air was so still and the sea so calm it looked liked glass delicately frosted and on it’s dreary days when I would blunder through what seemed like a tempest, where the grey sky hung over, the sand turning to a perilous mud, sucking in my trusty boots and compelling us to fall onto our bums in a graceless fashion and the ethereal times when the waterfront was shrouded in a cloud of mist, only shadows of gauntly boats could be seen.

Though this village is particularly special to me, as it is where my grandfather lived for much of his life, thus I would spend most summers here. But other than a personal affection for this place, Ravenglass holds it’s own with hidden treasures and a charming appeal to visitors. There are splendid walks across the fells, the beaches and bridges of Ravenglass that will lead you to the Roman Bath House, Muncaster Castle and beautiful views across the area.

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Boot

Nestled amongst the mountains and rivers of Eskdale, Boot is a small village comprised of old stucco cottages, traditional stone bridges and a tiny railway that can take you to and from Ravenglass. On a warm day, it is perfect to bring a picnic to one of the pebbled river beaches and spend the day relaxing by the picturesque streams.

Although my perception of Boot has been tainted as I was there during the Cumbrian Shootings of Derrick Bird in 2010 where 12 people lost their lives, this devastating and frightening event really shouldn’t put you off this beautiful village. It offers peaceful walks around tiny streams and vast waterfalls and again some tremendous local food and drink in their pubs (my favourite being Boot Inn, shh don’t tell Brook House!)

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Millom

I must admit there is little feeling better than the wind rushing through your hair and being one with the full power and speed of the ten-ton beast beating it’s hooves on the golden sand beneath. Just me and this beautiful creature thundering across the beach without a care in the world, the backdrop of lavender fields and mountains on one side and the endless ocean on the other, there’s nothing that can be done now but to trust my stead and laugh with joy as we recklessly crash through the waves.

Now if you know me, you will know I am a huge horse-lover, hence the mention of my experience with the horses at Murthwaite Green Trekking Centre, which is a perfect riding school in Millom for experienced riders and beginners alike. However, even if you are not into riding, Millom is still perfect for a beach-day with its combination of cliffs, fields, mountains, pebbles and a vast stretch of golden sand.

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And for now, thank you to the beautiful British countryside and the people in England that still make it my home, maybe it is still ‘Great’ Britain after all.

(Credit to my step-dad, Marlon Cole, for his beautiful photography)

Moving Forward

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” – Freya Stark

I hope everyone gets to feel like this someday.

I have finally found happiness. Don’t get me wrong, right now I am still heartbroken, afraid and lost, but the overwhelming wave of joy and love for my life and the people around me that I get is so strong sometimes I feel I could burst. I used to be afraid of this feeling, like the sun beating down on the back of our necks, I feared the passing clouds that rushed to impede its warm embrace. But that’s all the clouds are, passing. Happiness comes and goes, and that’s okay.

I was about to make the wrong decision, go back to the person who had used me for months and attempted to control what I do, but unfortunately for him, I am stubborn. And thank you also to the guidance and actions of those who truly care, I didn’t go to him.

Instead I took the plane ticket that I had bought to see him in Malaga and I went alone. My flight was at 8.45 in the morning, and I had finished my very last minute booking of accommodation and transport around 2am. After 3 hours sleep and my head and heart racing, I took the metro to the airport bleary-eyed and jumped on the tiny plane that took me across the country. One of the best decisions I have made, only falling short of my decision to live in Madrid.

When I arrived in Malaga, I had no expectations, I had booked a hostel on the beach (Bella Vista), which was just beautiful. As I walked through the immaculate streets I was pleasantly surprised by the winter heat, 20C, a whole 15C warmer than Madrid! I dropped my bags off at the hostel to a kindly Frenchman and his fiery Spanish wife (plus my thick winter jumper and parka) and had a bocadillo and a cana on the seafront. I then walked along the still, calm coast simply enjoy the warm air and the gentle waves lapping over my bare feet.

My time in Malaga was very peaceful and pleasant, a perfect place for a time of reflecting and healing. I met an inspiring man who was originally from the Caribbean and had made his success as a Media Production Manager in London and a sweet girl from America who was studying in Scotland and was on her first trip. I had delicious food in a vegetarian restaurant (Vegetariano El Calafate) and treated myself as I was wandering around the shops in the old town. I was sad to have to leave the warmth and peace of Malaga so soon, but I was looking forward to my next adventure meeting my friend in Granada.

As I waiting for the bus I sat next to a woman who I assumed was waiting for a bus too as she was so well presented, but a couple of glances over and a shaky “hola” I fathomed she was homeless, clutching her trolley with few possessions and a distant smile on her face. Not long after I had taken this seat, a brash charismatic gentlemen came over dressed in fine clothes but with the smell of alcohol on his breath, he greeted this lady in perfect English with such gladness, it was clear they were old friends. The man then turned to me, I nervously replied with short answers first of all; selfishly worried they would ask for something from me. But no, how wrong I was, the man admitted his alcoholism had led to him loosing everything and that he too was homeless yet he did not want anything from me as I was a student. We talked about my trip and studies, their families and how they were managing with the winter cold. After the man had left, the woman turned to me with tears in her eyes and thanked me for not judging them and commented how much she admired her friend for his kindness. I soon had to leave for my bus, but I thanked the woman for her company and wished her the best. This exchange made me realise that you really do meet inspirational people from all walks of life while you travel.

When I arrived in Granada I again was taken aback by the cold weather, around 2C, as I had barely eaten that day I didn’t feel well, so that night I curled up in the cold room and only awoke when my friend arrived. On the Wednesday, both of us shattered from the journeys from Malaga and Madrid, I took a walk around Alhambra, had a delicious lunch with mulled wine in a lovely café (La Fontana) near Alhambra and met up later with my friend to watch the sunset over Granada and wandered around the beautiful Arabic stores near the river.

The rest of the trip, we visited the different cathedrals and the city centre, walked up to San Nicholas plaza at night which has the most beautiful view of the palace and Alhambra, I bought some Arabic styled earrings, had a henna tattoo and ate a fairly priced delicious three course dinner in an adorable hippie restaurant (Kasbah), recommended to us by a chatty shop owner from Derby, the city where I grew up in.

We also took a bus up into the famous mountain range, Sierra Nevada, where I admired the skiers on the slopes and felt like a child again playing around the thick snow. We took a ski lift up to the top of the mountain that could also be used for non-skiing visitors, which offered the most stunning views across the mountain range.

I then had to make the trip back to Malaga to get my plane to Madrid on the Saturday, a drive through mountains and tiny Spanish villages greeted me on my way, and when I got to Malaga I simply took my time enjoying lunch in the warm sunshine and arrived at the airport early to take a stroll through the airport shops, taking testers of lotions and vino tinto.

Although I had a great trip, I was pleased to be getting on the plane because I know another beautiful city is waiting for me on the other end, my home; Madrid.

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Travelling in the Digital Age

“I maintain couchsurfing and crowdsurfing as the same thing – you’re falling into the audience and you’re trusting each other.” Amanda Palmer

People no longer appear to travel alone for the pure joy of seeing new places, but they travel to share their adventures for the whole world to see – with Go Pros attached the hip and cell phones awaiting in hostels to give birth to the next beach selfie.

Another addition due to these digital advancements are websites such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing that offer cheap or free accommodation. These are arguably a meandering positive of this new era of travel. Nonetheless, with safety of solo travelling a real worry, do these websites create even more possibility for dangerous situation?

Airbnb and Couchsurfing offer similar hooks: “Stay with locals and meet travellers” and “Live there. Experience a city like a local.” Of course, these have both positives and negatives for both traveller and host. The host is allowing a stranger to stay in their house and the traveller trusts the host to provide a safe environment.

Undoubtedly, most of the hosts on these websites are decent people, but particularly for solo female travellers, we unfortunately still have to be cautious about who we are trusting. With articles titled ‘Couchsurfing’s sex secret: it’s the greatest hook-up app ever devised’, ‘8 signs of a slutty CouchSurfer girl’ and even a website called ‘CouchBangs.com’, this concern is a sincere one.

There are ways that the fear of being endangered can be reduced, the obvious being checking the ‘references’ left by fellow travellers and the host’s own local friends, but there are resources (also thanks to the digital age) that can and will help you, including Facebook communities for travellers, the 24hr helpline on Couchsurfing.com and even researching places of safety in the city you are planning a trip to, so use them!

European Education Clashes

‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn’ – Benjamin Franklin

 As an ERASMUS student, I have met some great from all around Europe (Spain, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Belgium, Italy, France and Scotland) and I have learnt many things about different their European education systems and the influence this has personally on each individual.

Finland previously has been idolized by Europe for their education system being the top in world, and even though they have lost their place to Asian countries using extreme methods to get the best grades (with 16 hour school days in South Korea), they are still considered the best in Europe. Surprisingly, despite its astronomical student loans for university goers and little focus on foreign languages, England is second in this ranking. In fact, it’s even sixth in the world!

So what are these rankings actually based on? In a BBC report on this subject, it states they “include the OECD’s Pisa tests, and two major US-based studies, Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and Pirls (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). They also include higher-education graduation rates, which helped the UK to a much higher position than in Pisa tests, which saw the UK failing to make the top 20.”

But stats about how many people have graduated and generalised test results don’t necessarily mean that it is the ‘best’ education system, what about student satisfaction? Surely this is important? For international students, Ireland has been ranked highest for student satisfaction at 9.04, whilst England is dragging behind the Scandinavian countries at 8.75. This seems to ring true from the pride I have heard from students from Scandinavia and Ireland about their education institutions.

Coming from an English university and studying in Spain, flaws can be seen in the Spanish higher education system, but England can certainly learn important qualities from Spain. I have gone from eight-hours a week lecture-time, only writing essays and exams for my course, to twenty-one-hours a week including essays, presentations, group-work, practical work and exams, which allows for more development in important skills such as communication and technology.

Nonetheless, I do feel I have stepped back to feeling like 16-year-old me in my first year of college, the way the Spanish university students behave does surprise me with the loud talking in class, messaging their friends on Facebook instead of listening to their teacher and making-out in the hallway. But maybe that is simply just difference in culture, which is something I certainly don’t want to criticise. However, the exams set by the teachers have questions with no room for interpretation, which highly frustrates me as a student reading English Literature and Media, Culture and Communication Studies (wow, that’s a mouthful!) as in my subject everything must be interpreted and backed up by extensive independent research, which simply just doesn’t happen here.

Of course, I am enjoying this laid-back attitude and thriving from the lack of stress that overwhelmed me in my first year of university in England and I have heard similar feeling from my friends here, particularly German and Swedish. But, I mean, where else is it acceptable to wander off and enjoy some delicious tapas and vino tinto in their school cafe during afternoon break? Or have a picnic in El Retiro park for lunch and not have to worry about appearing 10 minutes late to class? I certainly know I am enjoying my time here and I am picking up wonderful practical skills I simply never would have the chance to do back home in England.

I believe we all have a lot to learn from one another.

Thailand in Mourning

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” – Martin Luther King Jr.

With Thailand becoming an increasingly popular destination for many different travellers, from seasoned backpackers to avid party-goers, the news of entertainment venues being closed during this time of mourning has caused a ripple of debate and controversy in the travelling community.

Following the recent death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a mourning period of one year began on October 14th 2016. In consequence, many bars and restaurants are likely to be closed or silent until the middle of next month, visitors are expected to wear respectful clothes and a shadow of sadness will hang over Thailand for a long time to come… But some individuals have expressed their frustration through social media at this ‘inconvenience’, stating that this has ‘ruined their holiday’ and others are worried about not being able visit the typical tourist sites. Of course, many others have shown nothing but respect and are seeking advice on ways they should behave.

But what does not seem to being portrayed fully is the importance that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had to Thailand, and that in fact his death may mean that the country may not the be the same place as it once was, for visitors and locals alike. The King wasn’t ‘just a King’ to Thailand, but he was the Father of the Nation and his death was a great and painful blow. The country now has an uncertain future now their figure of unity and peace has deceased.

Four million Thais depend on tourism for their income, so the decision to close and restrict hours on bars has not come lightly. It is a currently a very fluid situation which will change constantly and all visitors must be respectful at this sensitive time.

Although things are now almost back to normal for tourists; for Thais, without their beloved King, it may never be the same again.

Toma Cafe

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in Madrid, with my laptop on my knee after researching different columns for my ‘Opinion Journalism’ course, I decided I wanted to get out of the flat.

But what to do on a rainy day? After considering a soggy walk in the park, messaging a friend for suggestions for a group activity and endlessly waiting for their reply, dragging my reluctant boyfriend away from his game to do something, I settled on visiting a coffee shop on my own.

Now for most travellers, this is an everyday part of their life, but this was actually the first time I had decided to visit a coffee shop alone for no other reason but to take some time out. So first of all, I was panicking frantically searching for reviews of cafes in Madrid for solo travellers on TripAdvisor to no avail, although one cafe did catch my eye called ‘Toma Cafe,’ a seemingly quirky cafe just a few stops away from Canal on the metro.

So off I went, armed with my big fluffy hooded parka and bag with my ‘Diverso 1’ (my A1 Spanish Textbook) and my travel journal, unsure of what to do with my time alone in the coffee shop. Even though as a previous waitress in a coffee shop in England myself I have seen many people enjoying a cup of coffee or a spot of lunch alone, albeit elderly.

When I arrived at the cafe I must admit I walked past it the first time as it looked too crowded to sit down, but I circled back, kicking myself as this stupidity and entered the cafe.

To my surprise, as soon as I walked in the tiny cafe, I spotted many people having coffee alone. Some reading newspapers, others watching the world go by and a couple of people working on their laptops. So having a new found confidence, off I went to order my drink. I was pleasantly shocked to find out in this cafe they have cappuccinos, flavoured lattes and even my favourite – chai lattes – as well as selection of unusual and traditional cakes. I couldn’t help but order a ‘Chocolate Guinness’ Cake I had spotted out the corner of my eye with a cheeky grin from the friendly server. Well, maybe I had been staring at the cakes for a little while, mouth watering…

I then scuttled off to a chair on a long bench where two other people were sat alone and placed myself in the middle and began sipping my delicious chai latte and nibbling on the surprisingly tasty and moist slice of cake. I was completely contented, in fact, I preferred being alone in the coffee than if I had gone with a friend. I simply enjoyed my time away, amongst a crowd of different languages… french, german, spanish, english…, my journal in hand to jot down last weeks events, the lovely mellow pop playing complimenting the sound of the rain outside and the smell of proper coffee, no more ‘cafe con leche.’

So thanks to Toma Cafe, I will now be an avid solo coffee shop visitor, so thank you!