Salzburg and Prague

Day 19: Salzburg
Time to head to Austria! From Berchtesgaden to Salzburg is only about a 20 minute bus ride, so I had most of the day to explore the town. I caught lunch at a restaurant/brewery called Die Weisse, where I sampled a local beer called a märzen. It was light and refreshing with a lot of carbonation, but I won’t count it among my best from the trip.

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9. Die Weisse Märzen
Grade: B

Walking around the Salzburg Old Town was beautiful.

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The cliff dividing the city (Mönchsberg) gives the city a dramatic backdrop.

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An unfortunate trend in Salzburg is Mozart-themed merchandise, which I saw all over the old town. There are some nice buildings, some of which looked awfully familiar… from the Sound of Music.

In the afternoon I went for a “mountain” run up the Kapuzinerberg, the highest hill in the city. It probably involved 150m or so of elevation gain, so it was quick but steep! It’s a bad sign when your run starts like this: stairs or ramp?

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Then I passed some particularly gruesome sculptures depicting the stations of the cross before breaking out into the woods. More stairs?

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At the top is an old monastery. Great location for a bombardment/fortress!

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And for views of the city:

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A bit lower down you can see the old town really well:

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After getting my knees pounded by the stairs and rocks on the descent, I crossed town to run up and along the Mönchsberg. The castle costs money so I didn’t go in, but I found a great lookout nearby with views to the Alps

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Running toward the art museum along the top of the escarpment, I came upon a big piece of the old city wall.

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The route back to the hostel took me past the Augustiner brewery. If only I had an extra day to take the tour! By this time, it was getting dark and I amused myself by watching the Sound of Music at my hostel and noticing all the local places featured.

Salzburg is super pretty but I’m not sure there’s a lot here to keep me busy for several days. Onward to Prague!

Day 20: Prague
Today was interesting. I left Salzburg by train to Linz, then a bus to Prague. But in Çeska Budejovice, we got rear ended by a car and waited about an hour for that to get cleared up. No injuries, so we proceeded on to Prague.

The weather was bad, but I did a walking tour of the old town square and surroundings. The main square has the old city hall with an awesome astronomical clock – on the hour it does a little glockenspiel routine and a skeleton rings a bell. Bones seem to be a motif here in the Czech Republic (the famous “bone church” is in a nearby town).

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I was pleasantly surprised by how pretty Prague is. All the buildings are super old, and there is a somewhat consistent aesthetic between them.

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I got dinner at a local brewery and was blown away by the quality of the lagers.

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10. Il tri ruzi Dark Lager
Grade: A+

This beer had the chocolate/coffee flavors of a stout, but in a lagered beer. It’s hard to explain, but it’s just not as “chewy” or heavy as a stout. Great beer! I ordered another kind!

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11. Il try ruzi Vienna Red
Grade: A-
In the states, red ales are super bitter tasting to me. This red lager, on the other hand, was not very hoppy and had a nice caramel taste.

I finished the day with a walk to St. Wenceslaus Square. He was a king of Czech lands long ago and became the eternal protector and patron saint of the Czech people as his legend developed.

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Day 21
The main attraction today was Prague Castle, and it did not disappoint. Prague Castle has a rowdy history. The castle was the site of not one, but two Great Defenestrations, when Catholic councilors were thrown out of the castle by the Hussites.

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There are a few buildings to visit, the most notable being the Old Royal Palace and St. Vitus’s Cathedral. The old palace is very fortified and has some great stone work:

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St. Vitus is an above-average cathedral. My highlight was the spectacular stained glass window; I believe it depicts the Ascension on top and definitely Pentecost on the bottom, but look at that color!

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St. Wenceslaus is also buried here in a stately tomb.

While in the area I checked out a nearby monastery. They also brew beer here, but I was underwhelmed by the flavor.

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12. Pivovar Natuska Dark Lager
Grade: B-

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On my way back home I bought some game-changing street food, a trdelnik, which is dough wrapped around a wooden stick, roasted over wood coals, and coated with cinnamon sugar. I have to figure out how to make them at home. Less fatty and sweet than a funnel cake or elephant ear but tastier.

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And then it was off to Vienna in the morning! I would like to spend a couple more days in Czech at some point; I missed some key side trips and I feel like Prague has more to offer.

Berchtesgaden National Park

Day 17
I caught a morning train to Berchtesgaden using the BayernTicket and arrived in the early afternoon.

Berchtesgaden is a small town near the Austrian border, a gateway to tourism in the German side of the Alps. The area has a history of salt mining, and the infamous “Eagle Nest” (Hitler’s summer retreat) is located near here.

The weather was crappy, so my original plan to take a boat across the Königsee lake was a bad idea. I decided to run the ~10k road to Schönau am Königsee and back to keep myself busy. While in the area, I picked up a brochure about local hikes for the following day.

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Afterwards I walked around the “old town” and found a Greek place with gyros as big as my face and a great view. The local brew is called Hofbrau Berchtesgaden and it is delicious: crisp and flavorful.

7. Hofbrau Berchtesgaden Helles
Grade: A-

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Day 18
Today I did my first “real” mountain run since getting into trail running: from Schönau to the Arkenkanzel lookout and back: almost high and steep enough to give me a taste of an emerging running event the Europeans call a “vertical K”.

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I headed up the road for the bobsled track, already feeling the steepness in my calves (and a little soreness from the day before). And then the trail got wayyy steeper. I have never seen a trail so consistently steep in the US. They hate switchbacks here, I guess.

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I ended up walking most of the middle section, although I was making great time. The signs say it typically takes more than 3 hours. I popped out at the Kührontalm hut at the 0:55 minute mark, meaning I was ascending at over 3000′ per hour. That’s the best pace I’ve ever been able to sustain! This running thing opens up some interesting possibilities…

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At this high meadow the trail hits a road, and the hut is well stocked with beer and food. I wish I could have stopped for the most scenic drink ever, but I also knew I had a long descent ahead of me and I’d need my coordination. There is also the prettiest little chapel I’ve encountered so far on the trip.

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The run to the Arkenkanzel lookout was quick, and the view of the Königsee was spectacular.

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The descent was pretty brutal. The very steep gravel trail required real care to avoid wiping out. I made it from the hut to the Königsee covered bridge in 0:24 but my body was unhappy with me. But it was fine because I walked another 50 yards to a beer garden to recover with a Hefe and a pretzel. The Franziskaner was one of the best wheat beers I’ve ever had.

8. Franziskaner Hefeweizen: Dunkel
Grade: A-

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I didn’t do much else in the evening because everything in Berchtesgaden is closed on Sunday. Off to Salzburg in the morning!

Munich

Day 14
I arrived in Munich (German: München) via a CityNightLine train from Amsterdam at about 8am. Our car was old and the closed, 6-person compartment did not have reclining seats. Luckily, only one other person shared the compartment so I got three seats to myself: with the armrests up, it was effectively a bed! I slept better than I was expecting until awaking to three random people, one of whom turned on the lights and asked for my passport. I was reluctant to hand it over to a random person, but it turns out they were plainclothes German police looking for drugs. As a young American traveling alone from AMS, I would search me.

Anyways, after arriving I checked out some sights near the station. The Rathaus, City Hall, has the famous glockenspiel with bells and two animatronic scenes.

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The Frauenkirche nearby is free and somewhat interesting due to the history of its postwar reconstruction.

I had lunch at my first stop on the Munich Beer Tour. The summer special was good but not outstanding for a Hefeweisen. I should have gone with the Aventinus, a stronger brew.

1) Schneider Weisse (Summer Brew)
Grade: B+

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That afternoon I went for a run in the MASSIVE “English Gardens”, really just a huge park northeast of the town center. I ended up not making it to the northern park boundary and it was still a 10 mile round trip! The river in the park has a standing wave which can be surfed. There are also some famous beer gardens such as the “Chinese Tower.”

That evening I went to the famous Hofbraühaus, a beer hall seating thousands, with an oompah band. I ordered a 1L maß of Dunkel and it was delicious. Very flavorful yet not so heavy as to not be refreshing. The pretzel I ordered was bigger than my face. I couldn’t finish it.

2) Hofbraü Dunkel
Grade: A-

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Day 15
This morning I visited Dachau, the first German concentration camp. It is nigh impossible to comprehend in a meaningful way how many people died there, even with “only” 30,000 perishing at Dachau compared to over a million at Auschwitz/Birkenau. A couple of places got to me. I think history is most powerful when individual acts are remembered. In one place, our tour guide pointed out the strip of grass on which prisoners would be shot on sight. He mentioned that some would defiantly step onto the grass and await their fate: it was powerful imagining a lone soul standing there in an act of individual resistance.

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Likewise, I was struck by the sacrifices prisoners made for each other. The prisoner Kazimierz Majdanski was one of many subjected to cruel experiments where pus was injected into his blood to introduce a blood infection. He was to receive a dose of a new (ineffective) Nazi drug as treatment. A fellow prisoner, working as a hospital orderly, knew he would die without real treatment, so he administered sulfonamide, at great personal risk. Madjanski was cured and survived the camp… to become Archbishop of Warsaw.

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After relaxing in the afternoon following the tour, I spent the early evening at the Augustiner Keller, the local favorite beer garden. I ordered the house brew in a 1L maß. It was delicious, a crisp, refreshing beer with plenty of kick.

3) Augustiner Helles
Grade: A

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I made small talk with a lederhosen clad local retiree and laughed as he flirted with three Austrian “Jungfrau”, as he called them (all at least 65 years old). The place filled up by 6: with capacity for over 5000 it was quite an atmosphere. 

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For dinner, I sampled a smaller brewery with a restaurant near Marienplatz, called Andechs. The food was good, the beer not remarkable compared to the others but still really good quality. 

4) Andechs Helles
Grade: B+

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Day 16
Today I went to the typical German postcard view at Neuschwanstein. King Ludwig II of Bavaria was heavily caught up in the ideals of the Romantic period and decided he wanted a new German medieval castle. Never mind that it looks wholly inauthentic, it does look imaginative; Disney adopted it for the trademark castle design.

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The side trip takes a big part of the day due to a two hour train ride from Munich: however, it is cheap. With a deal called the BayernTicket, which can be purchased at any DB vending machine at the station, I paid 10.50 for round trip train fare and bus fare as part of a group of three. The more you bring, the cheaper it is. 
We heard the inside of the castle isn’t so exciting so we didn’t pay to go in. The outside is worth the trip. The mountain scenery is the best part though.

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In the afternoon and evening I hit two more brews: a Paulaner Helles from a beer garden in the market and Hacker-Schorr’s Dunkel.

5) Paulaner Helles
Grade: B+
The Paulaner just doesn’t pack as much punch or as crisp a taste as Augustiner.

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6) Hacker-Schorr Dunkel
Grade: B
This beer was not nearly as tasty to me as the Hofbrau Dunkel I tried: it’s even “chewier” and maltier. Maybe I should have tried the lighter beer.

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München was beer heaven. I would love to visit during Oktoberfest. I would also have loved to catch a classical concert, but it was not to be this time. Off to Berchtesgaden, a mountain town on the Austrian border.

Amsterdam

Welkom to Amsterdam, the tolerant, bike riding, pot smoking, subsea urban utopia! I really, really enjoyed A’dam, but not because of the legal cannabis (I’d like to be able to get a security clearance).

Day 11
This day began with a flight from Barcelona to Schiphol airport, where I met up with my expat friend, Katie. I knew Katie from high school, but she decided to go abroad for graduate school. When she suggested I check out the Nederland, the prospect of a local guide and a free place to stay was too good to pass up.

We trained to her neighborhood, dropped off my stuff, and headed to the Concertgebouw for an orchestral performance – on bike. I have never seen so many bikes in my life. Amsterdam has dedicated lanes with traffic lights for bikes, making them almost like limited access bike highways! It was a little intimidating at first. A couple of traffic symbols that don’t exist in the states were apparently “yield” markings. Oops! However, bike is clearly the best and fastest way to travel in the pancake-flat city. It was a ton of fun cruising with hundreds of other cyclists that sunny afternoon.

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The Concertgebouw (concert building), at one end of the gorgeous Museumplein, is the home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the world’s best. It’s only fitting that the acoustic space is also one of the finest anywhere. Beautifully ornate and bright inside, and with remarkable acoustic clarity, the hall adds meaningfully to the musical experience.

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We figured out that the Dutch words written on our ticket meant we were entitled to free drinks before the show. It adds a great social aspect to the concert – everyone gathers to chat in the vestibule well before the downbeat and it was clear that the regulars know each other well. It was also a young crowd. The median age was probably 45 or so. I vote we make all American orchestra concerts open bar and maybe the same effect will occur…

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The program was all French:
Rugby – Honegger
Symphonie Espagnole – Lalo
Symphony No. 3 (with Organ) – Saint-Saëns

The opener, an 8 minute orchestral poem, was pretty forgettable but well played. I could already sense the amazing acoustics.

The Lalo was really fun! It is a five movement violin concerto originally commissioned for Spanish legend Pablo de Sarasate. The soloist was the orchestra’s concertmaster, and you could tell he was feeling the home field advantage. It was pretty well played, far from the best violin concerto I’ve heard live, but his audience gave him a huge standing ovation. He stole the show with his encore.

The Saint-Saëns was what I came for, and the RCO delivered. The opening movement was carefully interpreted and beautifully played by the strings. The “third” movement was lively, not as dark and ponderous as some recordings I own, and other than a little trumpet issue it ranks among my favorite renditions.

And the finale was amazing! The brass was right on, loud and crisp, particularly the horns. I could actually hear the piano part for once! The tempos were perfect. It is so easy to let the end of the finale start to drag, and the conductor kept the sense of forward motion going without giving it too much gas when it drops to double time.

The only nitpick I have is that the organ is a little underpowered. Even after pulling literally all the stops (that’s where the expression comes from!) the organ was still losing the battle with the RCO’s robust sound. Supposedly the organ has a 32′ pedal, but I couldn’t “feel” it like I could in Chicago, or Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. Oh well. Fantastic musicianship, and I’d rank it as my second favorite if it had been recorded.

After the concert we sat and read in the sun on the Museumplein for a while. The Dutch seemed so happy as they biked and played with their families this Sunday evening.

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Day 12
This day I headed out on bike to the center of the city and the Jordaan neighborhood. I stopped by the Anne Frank huis and while the line was too long to justify going in, I paid my respects outside.

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Nearby is the Westerkerk, one of A-dam’s first Protestant churches. It was so plain inside compared to the Catholic buildings in Spain, for some of the strongest reaction to Catholic traditions took place here during the years of the Reformation. It does, however, have an amazing tower.

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Jordaan is super pretty. The canals, houseboats, and flower-boxed windows are the most picturesque part of the city in my opinion.

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The rest of the day was really relaxed. I went back to the Museumplein and finished my Europe history book. Then we had a fabulous Ethiopian feast at a local restaurant. Top notch lentils and lamb!

Day 13
I spent the morning catching up on this blog before meeting Katie in Jordaan again for lunch after class. I had a great club sandwich at Singel 44, and the mint lemonade was even better.

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After lunch I felt obligated to visit the notorious red light district. Fun fact: the XXX in the city’s coat of arms does not refer to adult content. It refers to the three struggles old Amsterdam overcame: fire, flood, and disease.

I found the whole experience pretty underwhelming at 1pm. It was jarring to see people staring back at me from the windows and the famous coffeeshops were tame at this hour. I did, however, catch a good shot of the Oudekerk on my way out.

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Soon it was time to catch my train to München and the next leg of my journey. Reflecting on my short stay in Amsterdam, I realized it wasn’t the hippie capital I thought it would be. The people here are extremely educated, efficient, friendly, and happy. And they love those bikes. I found biking around to be the most enjoyable part of each of the three days I was in town. If I had to live abroad for a long time, I think Amsterdam would be a good personal fit.

Barcelona

Just as I was starting to get a little fatigue from all the amazing old buildings, art, and jamón, here comes Barcelona to the rescue

Barcelona, located right on the Mediterranean in the northeast Spanish autonomous region of Catalunya, has a culture (and a language) all its own. The locals speak catala, which I guess has roots in Spanish and either French or Provençal. Signs are readable but I had to communicate in “regular” Castillian Spanish for the most part. I also observed that more English is spoken here than elsewhere in Spain.

Barcelona feels by far the most cosmopolitan and modern of the four Spanish cities I visited. It has an old quarter (the barri gotic) but is mostly laid out in a semi-sensible grid with new and architecturally forward buildings all over the place. I spent three days in Barca and could have used one or two more, to be honest.

Day 8
I arrived at the airport from Sevilla and took the bus into the city center to check into the hostel. Then I ran about a mile to the beach in Barceloneta. Oh man, that beach. It has great sand, a lively buzz, and warm Mediterranean water. Three downsides: rampant petty crime (watch your stuff), too many people selling stuff (“beer! Cerveza! Ice cold mojitos!” every ten seconds) and some sort of biting insect which left me with mosquito-like bites later that day. Overall I’ll take that tradeoff in a second.

After getting a nice tan I came back to shower… And promptly knocked my (very necessary, only) glasses off a high shelf, snapping the bridge. The crisis now was to restore my vision as quickly as possible, which involved a brisk walk to the Plaça Catalunya, a very long and technical conversation in Spanish with the optician (cristales = lenses evidently), and a hefty bill. Lesson learned!

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Day 9
Woke up to a free breakfast at the hostel and walked over to the optical shop. The glasses look good! Then I met up with my friends from Michigan: Jamie and Eeshan, with their friend Michael. We walked to the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family), the last work and masterpiece of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The exterior façades are unfinished (under construction for about 100 years, the last tower isn’t expected to be completed until 2029) but intriguing enough to get me to pay the €15 to get inside.

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On the nativity façade is a statue I can never un-see…

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Then I went inside. Oh my. I didn’t know I could be affected be architecture like that. Gaudí’s mastery of light gives the altar a striking ethereal glow. The rest of the space is bathed in light, much of it from the stained glass windows. Unlike all other churches I’ve seen, the windows are not figurative, in that they don’t depict symbols or people. Instead, monochrome patterns in light and dark depict ideas like the resurrection. I thought it was highly effective.

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Another distinguishing feature of the interior is the column design. Gaudi, inspired by the geometry of nature, invokes a tree trunk and its branches as the basic design elements. The collection of columns was designed to give the effect of being in a forest. It gives a certain peace and lightness to the space.

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I noticed several artistic choices which seemingly deemphasized Mary. For example, her corner of the transept is less ornate than Joseph’s on the opposite side, and  the tower representing her will be only the fifth tallest. Perhaps this is representative of the way Gaudi practiced his religion, or of the particular tradition in Catalonia.

We had a paella dinner after touring the basilica, walked down the massive pedestrian mall called La Rambla, and enjoyed the sights of the beach at night before calling it a day.
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Day 10

In the morning I ran up a hill called the Montjuïc, located near where I was staying. It’s about 500′ above the rest of the city, so it is a nice little hill climb to the top. There is a gondola to the top for over €10 – no thanks!

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At the top there’s a castle which was fortified to defend the city with the long guns. I ran around the hilltop park, down past the Olympic stadium, and back to my hostel – a fun 6-8 mi route. Then I ran to the beach to cool off and enjoy some more sun.

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In the evening I met up with more Michigan friends for dinner at Txapela, a Catalonian “tapas” place (actually called pinchos – the plates are a bit smaller). It was pretty tasty!

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We walked La Rambla again and happened upon some amazing street music. Take a listen for yourself:

After 3 days, I fell in love with Barcelona’s character a little bit. I wouldn’t hesitate to come back here for a week or more and take some time to explore the surrounding area (and that beach!)

Off to Amsterdam now for a couple of days! ¡Hasta luego, España!