Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Travel Inspiration #5


What inspires you to travel?  A photo from a friend or a news/magazine article often inspires me to research a new destination -- or to plan a trip.


Do you know where was this photo taken? Does this photo make you want to pack a bag and take a trip? How do you get inspired?

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Ways to Travel for Free?

Well, who doesn't want to travel for free?  So many other travel bloggers leverage the credit card sign up bonuses to allow them to travel in premium cabins worldwide.  I never really got into this before.  I was concerned about my credit score and meeting minimum spend requirements to get the full bonus.  I knew that I also wanted to refinance my house and I didn't want a bunch of credit pulls from various banks to affect any rate or ability to refi.

Fast forward to last week. After 4.5 months of working on a refi (there were no issues, Wells Fargo is just super slow), we closed.  I decided to get a couple new cards for the sign up bonus.  I put all my spending on a credit card (that I can -- can't do a student loan, a mortgage, my dry cleaning or the housekeeper, all else on plastic) then pay it off each month.

My go to cards now are the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Chase Freedom Card (if you want to know how I choose between these cards, let me know).  I have no intention of getting rid of my two Chase cards, but I do want to get sign up bonuses for other cards.

Which new cards did I choose?  I decided to get the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card (with 25,000 SPG points after $5,000 in spend within 6 months) and the Citi American Airlines AAdvantage MasterCard (with 45,000 American miles after spending $1,000 within 3 months).  I was approved instantly for the City AA Card.  My Starwood card wasn't approved immediately, the website said it would require further review.  I had this issue earlier this year when it came to my Chase Sapphire Card. A simple call, confirm a couple items and you are done.  I pop over to check my email and see that American Express had already approved my application -- 45 seconds after they put a hold on it...and I didn't have to call the reconsideration line.  Neither of these cards have annual fees for the first year either.

The cards should be here next week, which will allow me to start getting the minimum spend behind me.  Will I keep these cards for the long haul? I doubt I'll keep the Citi card when it comes time to pay the annual fee, but I've heard the Starwood card is pretty great because of the earning options and how great the Starwood points transfer to airlines (or even for use at their great hotels).

Do you leverage credit card sign up bonuses to travel the world? Were you afraid how it would affect your credit score?  What cards are you churning right now?

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Olympics & More: Dining in Vic

We wandered around the ghost town of Vic, Spain looking for a bit of lunch.  As I said before, this down was dead -- Zombie Apocalypse dead.  As we started making our way back to the car, we stumbled upon a small restaurant called El Jardinet - it was open, but empty.  

The chef/owner greeted us and walked us to the back garden for lunch.  MS asked for an English menu for me, but they had none - they had menus just in Catalan and French.  Good enough for us (while I suspect they had a Spanish menu around too, it wasn't offered).  I told the chef that I am studying French and he walked me through everything on the menu in French...and surprisingly I understood a vast majority of it -- and was able to explain some of it to MS who was reviewing the Catalan menu.  Ultimately we managed to figure out the menu and order lunch.

Lunch Menu
Of course we started off our lunch with a bit of water and a nice bottle of white wine.
No lunch is complete
without water and wine
By the glass or the bottle?
No questions here.
We both started with the gazpacho with shrimp and ham -- it was amazing! I don't think I've ever had gazpacho with ham -- it totally makes the soup. Hell, ham would make any soup so much better, eh?



For our entree we each had a great paella - MS had a black paella and I just had a lobster paella. The food was so great. I do love some lobster, but really hate when I have to fight with the shells -- it's just a big pain in the neck for me.  The servings were so big, we could have easily shared one paella -- but since we are Americans we did eat a huge portion...and still had room for dessert.



Flourless Chocolate Cake
Flan
This stop on our road trip to Toulouse started out a little rough - an empty town, nothing really to do and almost no food to speak of, but it really turned around when we found a fantastic little Catalan restaurant and an amazingly gracious chef/owner.

Have you been to Vic?  Do you love Catalan food?  Don't you love when someone adds a pork product to an already great dish -- making it even better?

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Olympics & More: Visiting Vic, Spain

We left Barcelona heading to Toulouse, France.  On the way north we decided to stop off in the Spanish town of Vic, which is about 70 kilometers from Barcelona.  We decide to eat lunch in town, so we set the GPS to bring us to the main square.

The City of Vic dates back to the Romans and sat in the border land between Frankish Europe and Islamic Spain.  When we arrived we were quite shocked at how empty the City was.  We knew August was vacation/holiday month for people in Spain and France, but we had no idea it would be so extreme here.  It felt like we were in a Zombie Apocalypse film - not a soul on the streets, just a couple other lonesome tourists wandering aimlessly around a dead square.



We continued to walk around the empty streets, looking at the beautiful architecture from the Roman to Medieval to Modern eras.  The City was really beautiful and had a good lively vibe, even though no one was around.  We weren't able to go into any of these great spaces on this trip, but since it is such a quick trip from Barcelona. We will be back.





 


Have you been to Vic? What did you think of it?  Would go back? Have you been to a Zombie Apocalypse City before? 

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Travel Inspiration #4: Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and before the unification of the North and South in the early 1970s was called Saigon and was the capital of the south.  This sprawling metropolis has more than 7 million people.

The French colonized (conquered) Indochina in the mid-19th Century and remained there until they were kicked out in the 1950s.  Wars continues with various foreign parties until the reunification in the 1970s.  Ho Chi Minh City is located on the Saigon River.  Like many highly populated cities, traffic accidents are a common occurrence -- one travel book I have indicates on an average day, 30 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents.




Have you visited HCMC? What do your recommend in the City? Where did you stay?  We plan on going to Vietnam in March (like we TRIED to do last year) - any advice you have is greatly appreciated.

What inspires you to travel? Do you have a photo (to share) that would inspire others to travel - if so, please share it.

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Travel Inspiration Photo #4

What inspires you to travel?  A photo from a friend or a news/magazine article often inspires me to research a new destination -- or to plan a trip.  A travel blogger took this photo as he was landing in this highly populated City.



Do you know where was this photo taken? Does this photo make you want to pack a bag and take a trip? How do you get inspired?

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Olympics & More: Montserrat

Montserrat was our destination after we visited the Mies Pavilion in Barcelona. We hopped the train just a few feet from the Pavilion and headed northwest to Monistrol de Montserrat.  The suburb train trip took approximately an hour and the train was packed.  There are two ways to get to the top of the mountain once you get to Montserrat - either take the funicular or the cable car.  We opted for the cable car only because it is much faster.

The real reason to visit this area is because of the Monastery. Built over 4,000 feet above the valley floor this Monastery was home to one of the first printing presses, which is still operating.  Many of Spain's great painters have work on display at the museum and basilica including Pablo Picasso and El Greco.

A major pilgrim site, Monistrol de Montserrat also houses the Black Madonna, or Virgin of Montserrat.  It is thought by some pilgrims that this Madonna was carved in Jerusalem in the early years of Christianity - but research shows that it was probably created in the 12th century. We didn't wait in the enormously long line to walk up to the Virgin. We aren't Catholic and weren't there on a pilgrimage. Although I did stand in the line for about 15 minutes while MS took off to see what I was actually in line for. We often visit locations like this -- no point in both of us doing to research THEN getting in the line.





The Black Virgin - full camera zoom
















The trip back from Montserrat was rough. It was very hot in the valley and since the trains back to Barcelona are limited (leaving every hour) they are very full. We had to stand (not a big deal), but the train was as full as a subway train during rush hour.  Plus the air conditioning on the train wasn't sufficient -- we were dripping.

If you are spending a few days in Barcelona I would recommend visiting this great little mountain town. It allows you to get out of the City and in the summer you'll love the temperature change at this altitude.

Have you been to visit the Black Virgin?  When you have a choice of a cable car or a funicular, what would you choose?  How do you beat the summer heat in Barcelona?

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Olympics & More: Mies in Barcelona?

Mies van der Rohe is my favorite 20th Century architect and being in Chicago I get to see a ton of great Mies buildings (like the IBM Building, IIT Campus, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, Promontory Apartments, Commonwealth Promenade, etc).  I don't think of Mies van der Rohe when I think of Barcelona and architecture but one of my favorite spaces in Barcelona was designed by this cigar smoking German.

Mies designed a the German pavilion for the International Exposition in Barcelona in 1929. This building was designed to host the opening of the German portion of the exhibition.  The building has large plate glass windows that help blur the lines between the indoor and the outside.  

The building was designed to be an open, flowing space - blending the inside with the surrounding environment. It succeeds masterfully.











The most famous item to come from International Exposition in Barcelona?  A lovely chair, designed by Mies himself -- the Barcelona Chair. This was the one piece of furniture designed to be placed in the German Pavilion.  I love this chair.


When you think of Barcelona and Architecture, who do you think of? Mies or Gaudi?  Do you prefer the ornate work of Gaudi or the sleek modern design of Mies?

Be the first to know when a new post is published: sign up to receive them via email or directly in your RSS Reader. Follow me on Twitter or Google Plus too!