Summer Sun – Weekly Travel Photo

Copenhagen in June

For Danes and their expat guests alike summer is a special treat. It comes as a reward for those who have survived the long dark winter months and while Denmark is not nearly as cold as one might imagine, days with more than 17 hours of near complete darkness can be a hefty challenge. So, it is with an unusual zeal and zest for the sun that Danes embrace the spring and summer months where the opposite occurs.  With less than four hours of darkness at the summer’s apex, there is ample time to bask in the warmth of the sun.

This creates an incredible sun-centered summer culture in Denmark where locals flood the streets for no better reason than spending a few relaxing moments outdoors. Visitors often note a certain level of surprise at the hundreds of Danes lounging along the city’s many bridges, wonderful outdoor cafes, and the thousands of Danes that add color, vibrancy, and the scent of BBQ to the city’s many parks.

I snapped this photo while meandering my way through Christianshavn’s back streets. The Christianshavn part of town lies in the heart of Copenhagen and is crisscrossed by a series of small canals.  It is a wonderfully historic district, full of beautifully painted old buildings and sagging cobblestone streets.  The building’s walls are decorated by thousands of leaning bicycles, while doorways are often framed by blooming rose bushes.  In the photo above, I captured a Danish woman relaxing in the sun while chatting on her phone. Half lost in conversation and half distracted by the afternoon’s warmth. For me, it helps showcase the charm and spirit of summer in Copenhagen – something that everyone should experience.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Emergence of A Third Type of Hostel: The Official Party Hostel

Generator Hostel

Old vs. New Model Hostels

In the past I’ve talked about two primary types of hostels which I’ve classified as “Old Model” and “New Model” hostels.   To re-hash these two types, Old Model hostels tend to only provide the bare basics.  If you traveled 10+ years ago, they’re the type of hostel you are no doubt familiar with.  They charge a premium for everything from sheets to wifi (when offered).  They’re usually lacking key amenities like kitchens and break rooms, usually only offer same-sex dorm rooms, lack 24 hour receptions and perhaps most egregious in my book tend to still view lockouts as acceptable.  For those of you familiar with my past posts, you’ll recall that I tend to avoid HI Europe and YHA Europe hostels like the plague because the majority of the European member hostels in these two chains (They’re great elsewhere), embody the Old Model hostel structure and are, for a lack of a better word, absolutely dreadful.

In stark contrast New Model hostels (like the photo from Generator Copenhagen above) typically offer better facilities, sheets are almost always included, outside sleeping bags/sheets are prohibited, they often have on-site kitchens/common rooms/bars, 24 hour receptions, no lockouts, free wifi, computers available for users and mixed dorm rooms among other key differences. While the sticker price may be a few dollars more for the room, they’re usually the same price/cheaper by the time you add in all of the nonsense fees the Old Model hostels tack on.

The Party Hostel

The concept of a party hostel is nothing new.  Party hostels have been around for years.  In truth, party-ing is also a common and (dare I say) almost essential part of a good hostel.  That said, as with the evolution of any industry things change, especially as the need to differentiate oneself increases due to competition.  As a result there are now groups of hostels which have begun to brand and tailor their offering specifically as “Party Hostels”.  Perhaps some of the best examples of this are based in Budapest, Hungary.  With more than 125 hostels in the city, competition for filling hostel beds is absolutely brutal.  These new Party Hostels have embraced a spring break like mentality issuing guests  tivek wristbands, offering nightly theme events and innovative versions of traditional hostel pub crawls, investing in costume boxes for guests, throwing theme party nights, and perhaps most importantly a no apologies approach to their party focused experience.  They’re New Hostels, but supercharged by jagger, absinthe and a liters of beer.

While bonding over beers, late nights out, noise, adventure and a fairly active experience has been an integral part of the hostel experience for a long time, most hostels have always aspired to balance their varied customer’s experience.  Partying within reason was tolerated, noise limits were enforced, and some communal events were typically organized to help solo (and social) backpackers and hostel goers bond.  This is a similar, but fundamentally different approach than the new Party Hostel.

The Next Hostel You Book

While Party Hostels are still fairly rare, they are a growing presence in the hostel space and one which I expect to continue to become more and more common.  So, when you go to book your next hostel consider what you’re in the mood for, what you hope to accomplish, what you’re comfortable with and which hostel is right for you.  Old Model, New Model, or Party Hostel?

If any of you have stayed in a self declared Party Hostel I’d love to hear what your experience was, your take, what drew you to it, and of course if you sought it out or accidentally stumbled into it?

Granada Part II

When I tell people I absolutely love traveling on my own they look at me like I’m crazy.  With a skeptical eye they usually pause, think for a second, then ask where I stay. When I respond with, “Hostels – they’re amazing” I usually get a sideways look, another pause and then “Did you see the movie Hostel?’.   It’s a shame really that in many ways that movie has become our generation’s Jaws – only this time frightening the average Joe/Jane away from hostel travel instead of the ocean.

That said, during each of my extended backpack/hosteling trips I have had 1 night that left me bleary eyed, pissed off and ready for a nap. Not because I was in danger or frightened but rather because of unfortunate bunk mates. Even the rare unpleasant experience though is well worth it. It’s not an adventure without them and let’s face it – they often make for some of the best stories.

My first evening in Granada was this trip’s one evening.  It involved a tired German switching into the wrong bunk, a horrible smelling drunken Irishman with his heart set on the German’s newly claimed bed, and a number of other late arrivals who were apparently unaware of basic hostel etiquette (making your bed before you go out, leaving the lights off at 3am, etc.). The combined effect made for an interesting – and trying – evening. Needless to say the guy’s smelly feet were probably the worst of it…somehow managing to waft all the way up to my poor embattled nostrils on the top level of a 3 level bunk bed.

The next morning I was up early and out the door. As I walked through the crisp mountain air I retraced my steps through the narrow twisting hillside streets back to the main staircase which would quickly lead me down to the entrance to the Oasis Granada hostel.  The photo at the beginning of this post is of that stairway.  Note the creative parking jobs.   There were very few vehicles in Granada without some sort of scratch or dent and the city as a whole was a constant reminder illustrating the power, advantage and necessity of bumpers. I can’t imagine what happens when the city gets ice or snow.

The walk back down to Oasis was the first real view I’d had of the city by day. Needless to say it was drastically different than the city I’d first experienced the night before. As I paused and stood looking out over the city it dawned on me just how high up I’d traveled.  The air was significantly cooler than it had been in Cadiz – not cold – but cooler. Before, I’d just thought it brisk, but as I looked out across the city I was greeted by an impressive backdrop – the snow covered Sierra Nevadas. Laughing softly at myself I continued down the stairs and soon found myself relaxing in the hostel lobby.  The feisty gal at the reception window told me that rooms would be ready by one, backpacks in the corner until then, bar opened at 6, gave me a drink coupon and sent me off on my way with a smile. I unloaded my bag, grabbed a huge glass of water from the kitchen and set to exploring the hostel. As luck had it my room was on the top floor and accessed off of the rooftop terrace.  The view from the terrace was spectacular:

The terrace rooms were excellent, with wall mounted mini-safes for each bed, sturdy wooden double bunk beds, an en suite bathroom and a small table area  all of which made for a fantastic stay.

Eventually, I made my way downstairs and introduced myself to a few of the others in the common area.  It turned out that they were gathering for a 10:30 free walking tour of the city. Always a fan of spur of the moment I decided to join the group and before long we were off and walking. From the hostel it was a quick walk down through one of the more flavorful flea market streets:

The street was fairly steep with a slight V designed to funnel water away from the shops and down to the main street below. The shops were overflowing with vibrantly colored scarves, rugs, hats, caps, hookahs, beautifully inlaid boxes and a multitude of other flavorful keepsakes. Eager to explore it in greater depth later I made a mental note to return and followed the group the rest of the way down the street…around several corners…and into a large square.  There we paused and waited for others from throughout the city to join us while he had us introduce ourselves. At 11 o’clock sharp the fountain spluttered to life and the tour began.  The square was absolutely charming:

The day was partially cloudy and crisp – if not overly cool. As we made our way across the square laughter bounced back at us off the old stone streets and storefronts. Our guide was a slightly odd, high energy Oregonian who had a box of jokes – some funny…some not.  Although, even the more spectacular comedic failures got a small chuckle or two.   Our path led us up a small street bounded by building walls on the right and a waist-height stone railing on the other.  Beyond the railing there was a 15 foot drop to a small stream which wound its way down between the two hills that sat on either side of us before eventually diving under the central square where we started.  After dodging cars and mopeds on the narrow sidewalk-less street, we paused and our guide shared with us the small river’s history.  From stories of wooden bowls full of fruit set adrift and used to serve reclining Moorish party goers in the 1400s to the noteworthy construction project that had covered most of the stream and facilitated the building of the large square we’d just left.

The buildings to our left were all in excellent condition.  Aged but well maintained, some still had ancient fresco work decorating their plaster facades.  The area to our right sloped up towards the Alhambra gardens, fortress and palatial compound.  One thing that stands out in my memory is the subtle signs of terracing which decorated the steep hillside.  It never ceases to amaze me how prolific mans touch is in Europe.  Even the things that initially strike us as untouched or more wild inevitably end up being little more than neglected areas once shaped by human hands.

The streets to our left were beautiful.  Narrow, paved with cobblestones. Typically too small/steep for cars they were ripe with personality. Before long our guide led us up one – seemly at random.  Our tour of the Albayzin had begun.

Huffing slightly we worked to keep up with each other as we wound up the hill towards its summit…all the while winding through the old Moorish streets.  It’s an amazing feeling – something about the physical exertion – perhaps the slight blur it brings to your eyes – makes it easier to squint and slip back in time. Though I’m sure my imaginings of what the streets looked like 400 years ago are grossly off base, I can’t help but still be captured by the thought.  As the group paused I returned from my musings in time to hear our guide launch into a story about the “Carmen” or small garden we were standing in front of:

The guide’s story suggested that it was a beautiful Carmen.  One so beautiful that when Disney sent their researchers to Granada in preparation for the movie that made the phrase famous – they found this garden and were inspired.  Skeptical or not – it was still more than enough to make me smile. After all, as a wandering backpacker I couldn’t help but feel a certain affinity with the phrase and all of the imagery and message that goes with it.

The hill that the Albayzin is built upon is steep enough that a delightful view of the Alhambra is periodically visible … beautifully framed by the trees towering up and out of the local careens and the multi-colored, tiled rooftops:

Towards the summit of the Albayzin we paused in front of an outdoor water fountain to rest our burning legs and refill our water bottles.  From there we found our way to several small cathedrals as our guide explained that every cathedral in Granada had initially been a mosque which had since been converted.  We then paused near the only mosque in the city – a building which had just recently been reclaimed. Allegedly, it was the first mosque in Granada in hundreds of years. An interesting fact reinforced by the existence of the stacked 3 round balls representing Islam that decorated the tops of all of the cathedral towers.  In every place that they appear they have had a large Christian cross welded on top of them, intended to forever illustrate Christian dominion over Islam.

As we neared the end of the tour we passed this small heavily decorated home.  Each year there is an annual competition among the women in the Albayzin for the most impressive and best-decorated house.  This one showcases local plate/tile work combined with a wonderful mixture of fresh flowers. As we paused and took in the sight, the construction workers renovating the house across the street paused – watched – waved and smiled our way eager to see people enjoying and appreciating a local cultural icon.

I wrote earlier about the strange juxtapositions of old and new that seem to be every day occurrences in ancient medieval cities.  I snapped the following shot spur of the moment and can’t help but feel it illustrates those strange contrasts:

The gateway is actually the old city gate through which all of the Albayzin’s original traffic was funneled.  It dumps out into one of the longest running market places in Granada…A small square that has by all accounts been a market in some shape or form far longer than all of the cities in the Western U.S. have existed.

To add to its mystique, the gate still has rusted old weights nailed above the entrance as a warning to those wayward merchants who would cheat their customers. I’d rather not dwell on what else was no doubt nailed beside the weights a few hundred years ago. Now the gate serves as a normal street – trafficked by pedestrians and the odd moped. It even has a rather flavorful piece of graffiti which you’ll no doubt  recognize. What a clash of different worlds.

Once through the gate we found ourselves in a large open area next to one of the largest cathedrals in the Albayzin.  The square led up to a wonderful viewing area full of local gypsies, artisans and musicians all set to the backdrop of the Alhambra across the way – beautifully framed by the snow capped Sierra Nevadas.

There we bid our guide goodbye, tipped him and set off to find lunch. Before long I’d scarfed down a chicken kebab and was sitting in a tiny internet cafe fingers furiously pounding away as I tried to get caught up on my blog posts.  From there it was back to the hostel to find my bed, wash up and take a quick nap.  Then the evening’s explorations began!

Stay tuned for stories of cave bars, odd live Flamenco, late nights in beautiful old cities and more!