Buying Cookies from Nuns in Sevilla, Our Strangest Experience Yet

You Can Buy Boxes of Cookies from Nuns in Spain!

You Can Buy Boxes of Cookies from Nuns in Spain!

I grew up in Kansas and call Seattle my home, so nun sightings aren’t something I’m very much accustomed to. A couple days ago, Kevin and I were standing in line to visit the Alcazar here in Sevilla, and a van full of nuns came driving across the plaza! Nuns! Driving a van! I’ve seen nuns driving minivans in movies (I didn’t grow up in a barn… I clearly saw Sister Act and its sequel), but something about seeing nuns driving a minivan in real life struck me as so surprising that I couldn’t help but laugh. The next day, we saw a minivan with eight nuns (eight!) driving down our street. Chuckles ensued. And my affection for nuns was born.

So you can imagine that I was delighted when I learned that it’s possible to buy cookies and sweets from nuns at a few different convents around Sevilla. We visited the one nearest our apartment, Real Monasterio de San Clemente, to get our goods.

So, How Does One Buy Cookies from Said Nuns?

It was trickier than I thought it’d be to get convent cookies. We stopped by San Clemente twice to try, and the outer gate was closed both times. I was afraid that my dream of buying cookies from nuns in Sevilla was dead. So I did what any person trying to buy convent cookies in the 21st century would do – I emailed the convent using my stellar new Spanish skills (assisted by Google Translate, of course).

Look for a Sign like This When You're Trying to Seek out Convent Cookies

Look for a Sign like This When You’re Trying to Seek out Convent Cookies

I was surprised to receive an extremely prompt, very friendly email response from Sister Claudia. She informed me that you have to buzz the outermost intercom to get in, and ended our correspondence by sending me God’s Blessings. I exchanged email with a nun, in Spanish. I can check that off of my bucket list.

So we headed back over to San Clemente, buzzed the outside buzzer, and I used my best Spanish to tell the Sister on the speaker that I wanted to buy some sweets. She gave us a bunch of instructions in Spanish that flew WAY over our heads. We walked into the courtyard and there were like eight doors to choose from! Somehow we managed to find our way.

If you're in San Clemente, this is the WRONG door. Do not pick this door.

If you’re inside San Clemente, this is the WRONG door. Do not pick this door.

This is the right door at San Clemente. I think it was a miracle we found the sweets.

This is the right door at San Clemente. I think it was a miracle we found the sweets.

We happened to pick Door #3, which was the correct one leading to the Torno! What’s a Torno? I’m glad you asked. It’s basically a giant lazy susan mounted in a wall, through which the nuns sell their cookies and sweets.

The San Clemente Torno

The San Clemente Torno. It can be closed off so that you can’t see the nuns, but today’s nun wasn’t shy. We talked to her directly through the bars.

A Torno enables nuns to sell things while protecting their cloistered privacy – in many cases, you’ll never even see the nun helping you! I’ve read that lots of convents have stopped selling cookies; it seems like it’s a dying tradition. So if you’re in Spain and see a convent selling sweets through a Torno, be sure to stop by for some cookies while you still can!

Waiting for Our Convent Cookies

Waiting for Our Convent Cookies

Next to the Torno is a list of prices. Tell the Sister what you’d like, and the lazy susan will whip around with the things you’ve asked for. Grab the sweets, lay down your money, and send it back around. If you need change, it’ll come back to you in a moment. And voila! Magic! Cookies from the nuns.

Convent Cookie Prices

Convent Cookie Prices

Why Buy Cookies from Nuns?

If you scrutinized that list, you’ll notice the prices (in euros) are a little bit steep. It’s far more than the 1 Euro we’ve gotten use to paying at our neighborhood bakery for a cookie the size of my face. Just remember, this is a way that the community can support the local convents. It’s sort of like buying cookies/popcorn/wrapping paper from kids to support Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts/Church Groups in the USA. It’s also a fun adventure!

What did we buy?

We snagged a box of Pastas de Almendra (almond cookies) and a box of Piñonadas (pine nut cookies).

Almond Cookies and Pine Nut Cookies

Almond Cookies and Pine Nut Cookies

We liked the almond cookies the most.

Pastas de Almendras

Pastas de Almendras

While they definitely weren’t the best cookies in the entire world, I’ve been telling myself that I’m really just paying for the experience, especially as a tourist. Plus, where else can you buy cookies with a cartoon of a nun on them?

Nun Cookies

Nun Cookies

The verdict? I’m glad we went!

Freezing Our ***** off in Granada, Spain

How Cute is Granada?!

How Cute is Granada?!

The cute little town of Granada, Spain is perhaps best known for its star attraction, the Alhambra. It’s a huge, impressive Moorish palace that can attract up to 8,000 visitors a day during high season, so we felt pretty smug about our decision to visit in the dead of winter. Little did we know that temperatures would drop down into the 20s (Fahrenheit) overnight and “extreme cold temperature” warnings would be issued during our visit. At one point, it even snowed! We were like human icicles. Let’s just quietly add this onto the list of our huge mistakes…

Granada's Famous Alhambra Is on the Hillside behind Me

Granada’s Famous Alhambra Is on the Hillside behind Me

In spite of the cold, we lucked out and got some sunny weather for exploring the city. We put on our ridiculous-looking puffy coats from a thrift store in Paris, donned our $1 gloves from a hardware store in Thailand, wore our knock-off United Colors of Benetton scarves from Chiang Mai, and ventured our double-socked feet out into the cold. What we found was a lively bar scene where you get free tapas with your drinks, a confusing mish-mash of food terminology, an outrageously politically incorrect Cathedral, and a thriving hippie scene in the hillside Albayzin neighborhood. It was pretty weird.

A Glimpse at Granada, Spain

Granada is an easy 3-hour train ride east of Sevilla, our home base here in Southern Spain. We love train travel in Europe, and while train travel here in Spain seems surprisingly expensive, the beautiful countryside almost makes up for it. We rode past rolling hills covered with olive tree orchards, through cute little Spanish towns with churches poking up over the horizon, and even saw handfuls of palm trees here or there! But our favorite part was the slow approach to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a beautiful train ride!

Here We Are, Enjoying Our Train Ride Which Came with SO MUCH LEG ROOM.

Here We Are, Enjoying Our Train Ride Which Came with SO MUCH LEG ROOM.

We stayed at the Hotel Molinos, which we later learned holds (or at one point held) the record for the narrowest hotel in the Guinness Book of World Records! What a weird record to seek out.

Hotel Molinos - That's One Narrow Hotel!

Hotel Molinos – That’s One Narrow Hotel!

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m one of Rick Steves’ biggest fans (which makes me sound approximately 75 years old), so we definitely explored Granada with help from his fantastic walking tour:

Here's Kevin in Plaza Nueva, the hub of tourist activities in Granada.

Here’s Kevin in Plaza Nueva, the hub of tourist activities in Granada.

We strolled along Granada's Darro River, a cute little stream that runs between the town's two big hills.

We strolled along Granada’s Darro River, a cute little stream that runs between the town’s two big hills.

One of Granada's cute cobblestone streets. It's a fun town to just wander around.

One of Granada’s cute cobblestone streets. It’s a fun town to just wander around.

The Alhambra

The first thing you need to know about the Alhambra is that they have a giant doorway called the Puerta del Vino, which translates to Wine Gate. Let me put your hopes down right now – there is, in fact, no free wine on tap at the Wine Gate as I had hoped. DREAM CRUSHED.

The Alhambra's Magical Wine Gate

The Alhambra’s Not-as-Magical-as-I-Had-Hoped Wine Gate

My love of wine has deepend here in Spain, due mainly to the endless selection of 1-euro bottles of delicious vino tinto (red wine) available at every market. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I go through I’m-unable-to-have-wine phases in my life. I suspect there will be an uptick in grape juice demand in the greater Seattle metropolitan area.

Back to the Alhambra! This is the last and greatest Moorish palace, and is THE reason most people visit Granada. It was the last Moorish stronghold in Europe as the Christian Reconquista moved south, and didn’t fall until 1492 when the last sitting Sultan in Spain, Boabdil, signed surrender papers. Years later, in the same room where those infamous surrender papers were signed, Christopher Columbus received permission from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel to go on his infamous journey around the globe!

This is the Alhambra's Justice Gate. I wonder if someone was being clever when they made a key-hole shaped door inside a key-hole shaped stone alcove. It's like a key-hole within a key-hole within a key-hole.

This is the Alhambra’s Justice Gate. I wonder if someone was being clever when they made a key-hole shaped door inside a key-hole shaped stone alcove. It’s like a key-hole within a key-hole within a key-hole.

To visit the Alhambra, it’s necessary to make a reservation days or weeks in advance. In fact, you are required to reserve a specific time slot at the Nazarid Palaces, and will not be admitted if you show up at the wrong time! They do this to keep things from getting too crowded, a move which I support fully. If you’re planning a visit, do your research and book your tickets before you go, or you may be disappointed once you arrive.

The Alhambra is absolutely packed full of history, but we found ourselves enjoying the beautiful buildings, the fantastic views, and the awesome gardens the most. Here’s a peek at some of our favorite sites at The Alhambra:

The Alcazaba

The Alcazaba

The Alcazaba

This part of the Alhambra is the oldest and most ruined part of the whole complex. It was the fort from which soldiers defended the Alhambra, and offered incredible views of the entire town of Granada! The spots with the best views definitely had me hoping that restoration efforts were going flawlessly on this part of the Alhambra…

Here are some of our favorite Alcazaba photos (click to enlarge):

Awesome Views from the Alcazaba!

Awesome Views from the Alcazaba!

The snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains!

The snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains!

The Palacios Nazaries (Nazarid Palaces)

The opulent Nazarid Palaces, built mostly in the 14th century, are the main attraction here at the Alhambra. They offer an interesting look back into Moorish civilization and culture. Throughout the palaces, there is a striking absence of figural images (forbidden by the Quran), but the rooms are not lacking in ornamentation. The ceilings, tilework, and fountains are amazingly elaborate and detailed.

The room with the most interesting story was the Hall of the Abencerrajes. According to good ol’ Rick Steves, the name of this room comes from a legend of the 16th century. The father of Boabdil (the last Moorish Sultan, whose reign ended in surrender in 1492) took a new wife and wanted to disinherit the children of his first marriage, one of whom was Boabdil. To do this, the sultan killed nearly all of the pre-Boabdil Abencerraje family members, thinking this would pave the way for the son of his new wife to be the next sultan. The legend says that he stacked 36 Abencerraje heads in the fountain shown below. His scheme ultimately failed because Boabdil eventually did assume the throne. According to Rick, “bloody power struggles like this were the norm here in the Alhambra.”  …And I thought it was rough that I had the smallest bedroom growing up. Sheesh!

The fountain in the Hall of the Abencerrajes where the 36 heads were said to have been stacked.

The fountain in the Hall of the Abencerrajes where the 36 heads were said to have been stacked.

The Gardens at the Alhambra

The gardens at the Alhambra are amazing (I imagine they’d be breathtaking in the Summertime). We roamed around the Partal Gardens, which are just next door to the Nazarid Palaces:

The Partal Gardens

The Partal Gardens

Then we made our way to the Generalife Gardens, which were the sultan’s vegetable and fruit orchards and his summer retreat. Let me save you some embarrassment if you ever visit the Alhambra: Generalife is pronounced heh-neh-raw-LEE-fay. I was WAY off.

Eventually, we got tired of all the opulence, and things got weird:

We need to work on our palace stamina.

Charles V’s Palace

While this is probably one of the least interesting buildings at the Alhambra complex, it’s worth a visit because it’s Free and it’s not crowded. The central outdoor area also has great acoustics, so you can make fun of all the random tourists who walk out to the center of the courtyard and clap their hands. (Don’t worry, we did it too.)

The Charles V Palace also has a free little museum with some really old artifacts on display, including some amazing intricately carved doors. You know I can’t resist a beautiful door…

Granada’s Politically Incorrect Cathedral

Granada's Enormous Cathedral

Granada’s Enormous Cathedral

The Granada Cathedral is enormous, the second largest cathedral in Spain after Sevilla’s cathedral. It also has an enormously politically incorrect history. It was built over the remains of a mosque that was destroyed during the Inquisition, when Jews and Muslims were evicted or forced to convert to Catholicism. Even though there was better soil just 500 yards away that would’ve made for an easier spot to build the cathedral, the Christian conquerers refused to build there because they wanted to assert their power by destroying the mosque and building here on the sandy soil. Kind of a dick move, if you ask me.

Inside, there is even a statue of “St. James the Moor-Slayer” with his sword raised high and an armored Moor trampled under his horse’s hooves. Sigh.

Granada's Cathedral

Granada’s Cathedral

In spite of its slightly distasteful history, the Cathedral is still fun to see, if for no other reason than it has a beautiful interior with some badass organ pipes:

The Albayzin

The Albayzin is a cute little neighborhood perched on a hillside in Granada, and is perhaps Spain’s best old Moorish quarter, according to all the tourist books. It’s full of Moroccan tea shops and eateries, fun little cafes, narrow winding lanes, and hippies. There is no shortage here of young adults sporting dreadlocks and harem pants – I almost felt like we had teleported back to Thailand.

It’s a great neighborhood to explore on foot:

Stop for a cup of tea in one of the Albayzin’s many tea shops. We managed to find the weirdest one of them all. The owner was French, but spoke fluent Spanish and English. It was decorated in Moorish style, but french music was playing, and we drank Indian Chai Tea. I think I got cultural whiplash!

The Tapas Scene in Granada

Several towns in Spain are known for free tapas. Order a drink, get a free tapa! It’s magical. We tried a handful of spots around Granada, but knew immediately that Bodegas Casteñeda would be our fave. Aside from delicious drinks and food, they have two things that are essential at a good tapas bar:

They also have a variety of local vermouths on tap in wooden barrels. Kevin fell in love with the house Calicasas cocktail, a concoction of local vermouths, soda water, and magical deliciousness.

Other Food in Granada

Shawarma

One cannot subsist on free tapas alone, especially since you have to drink quite a bit to get enough food to fill you up. Lucky for us, Granada is also a hotbed of kebab, shawarma, and falafel eateries! It was like I had died and gone to heaven. We were only in Granada for 50 hours, but we had Shawarma no less than three times…

We hit the Shawarma shops hard in Granada

We hit the Shawarma shops hard in Granada

It almost lived up to the high expectations set by our favorite kebab spot in Seattle, Aladdin’s Gyrocery in the University District. Almost.

Desayunos

We also had our first traditional desayunos, or Spanish Breakfast. I already mentioned the confusion that is the Spanish Tortilla (see the tapas section above). Now I’m going to blow your mind. Think you know what a tostada is? Think again – in Spain it’s a breakfast food! A Tostada here is a long toasted sandwich roll that can come with butter and jam, olive oil and tomato, honey, or a number of other things.

For about 3 euros, you can get a tostada, cafe con leche (coffee with milk), and fresh squeezed orange juice!

To continue our food terminology confusion, we also ordered the Tortilla Española Bocadillo, which is essentially the potato quiche on a sandwich loaf. Because nothing says “healthy morning” like putting a starchy dish between two slices of bread, AMIRITE.

Our Biggest Mistake Yet: Chocolate and Churros

If you love greasy fried things dipped in fattening low quality chocolate, have I got something for you. Spain’s famous “Chocolate con Churros” dish.

Chocolate con Churros in Granada

Chocolate con Churros in Granada

Honestly, churros just belong in a theme park. I’m not sure who let them out into mainstream cafe culture here in Spain, but I am not a fan. The waiter was sure we would each want our own order but we insisted on sharing. We couldn’t even finish it between the two of us – I was afraid I’d soak up enough grease and slip off of my chair. Try them if you must, but set the bar low. I’m mentally adding churros into our big mistakes column.

A Week in Paris: A Cheese, Bread, and Wine Extravaganza

We Love Paris

We Love Paris

Three hours into our week in Paris, we realized that our trip would be completely centered around several things we were completely deprived of in Chiang Mai: Cheese, Bread, Wine, and Sidewalks. Luckily, we walked enough on sidewalks to compensate for the obscene amount of cheese, bread and wine we were consuming each day. Nothing says “time to move back home” like “outgrowing” all the clothes you have with you…

So why did we go to Paris? In a nutshell, my dad is a Rotary fanatic and is super involved in the youth exchange programs. Recently they became good friends with the Barbé family, because Zoé did a yearlong exchange in the town where my parents live. Because of my parents involvement Rotary Youth Exchange, I have “siblings” all over the world, people who have stayed with or have become very close with my family during their year in the USA. The Barbé family is one of those wonderful families, and they have an apartment in Paris where they very generously let us stay for a week! It. Was. Amazing.

Here we are with Zoé at the Paris Airport!

Here we are with Zoé at the Paris Airport!

Enough with the background, let’s talk about the food!

Cheese

Anyone who has ever traveled to Southeast Asia can back me up when I say that the cheese there is just so, so sad. I ordered a ham and cheese panini at a cafe in Chiang Mai once, and I am 99% sure they used Easy Cheese to make it. Even the American Cheese slices are expensive and just melt into a gooey mess the moment you take them out of the wrapper. The fancy import grocery store stocks great imported cheeses, but they’re absurdly expensive. That didn’t keep me from window shopping, though. Whenever we visited the Rimping Market, I would lust over the fancy cheese while Kevin stood drooling over the imported beers. Sigh. That was a big event for us on weekends.

Enter Paris. The Barbé Family gave us SUCH an awesome welcome the night we arrived. Check out the spread they laid out:

There are no less than TWELVE types of cheese in this photo. TWELVE.

There are no less than TWELVE types of cheese in this photo. TWELVE.

There are so many things in that photo that make me so happy. Aside from 12 types of cheese (obviously, we tried every single type), there is a wonderful bottle of bordeaux, delicious foie gras (where have you been all my life, foie gras…), and two types of bread.

We also went out for a lot of cheesey dishes. One day we got French Onion Soup, which we learned is just called “Onion Soup” when you’re in France:

Onion Soup, Topped with Cheesey Goodness

Onion Soup, Topped with Cheesey Goodness

We also got a Croque Madame. If you’ve never heard of one of those before, it’s basically a Grilled Cheese sandwich on steroids (it even has ham!), topped with a fried egg. Are you salivating? I am too:

Croque Madame. Highgly Recommend.

Croque Madame. Highgly Recommend.

Bread

Here's Kevin with a baguette and a chocolate croissant. The bakery was just a 5-minute walk from the apartment, but we definitely ate the croissant before we got home...

Here’s Kevin with a baguette and a chocolate croissant. This bakery was just a 5-minute walk from the apartment, but we definitely ate the croissant before we got home…

I don’t even know how to describe the bread culture in France in a way that does it justice. It is probably the best thing I have ever encountered in any culture I have ever experienced, ever. There are Boulangeries located all over the city, and locals tend to go out every morning to get fresh bread for the day. (Sidenote: Boulangerie is the French word for bakery.) Bakers typically go to school for three years before opening up a boulangerie. THREE YEARS!

When we were in Paris, we adhered to our do-as-the-locals-do mantra, and went to a boulangerie each morning. We tried croissants, croissants with butter, chocolate croissants, baguettes, “traditional” (more rustic) baguettes, bread with dried fruit and nuts in it, and the Barbés introduced us to the best type of bread known to human beings: viennoise. It’s a hybrid between brioche and a typical baguette, and it is the best thing since, well, sliced bread. The kicker? There is also a viennoise variety with chocolate chips baked into it!

Each morning, we enjoyed a traditional French breakfast of fresh baguettes with butter and jam. The best part is that you dip your buttered and jammed bread in milk before each bite! Try that at home, readers, it’s a little piece of paradise.

French Breakfast! The Viennoise bread is 2nd from the bottom.

French Breakfast! The Viennoise bread is 2nd from the bottom.

If jam isn’t sweet enough for you, there are also macaroons:

Delicious Wonderful Macaroons. So Buttery and Wonderful...

Delicious Wonderful Macaroons. So Buttery and Wonderful…

If you’re not into macaroons (you might not enjoy them if you don’t like butter, in which case we should not be friends), there’s definitely a dessert for you. Look at this madness:

Wine

We did our best in Paris to drink all the wine we could get our hands on, focusing on bordeaux, which typically costs north of $25/bottle in the US. In France, it’s easy to find a great bottle for just five bucks. We were only in Paris for 6 nights, but we took down 5 bottles of wine. We are champs.

Finally, a delicious red wine. (Wine's pretty spendy in Chiang Mai, and they sometimes serve red wine chilled! NOOOO!)

Finally, a delicious red wine. (Wine’s pretty spendy in Chiang Mai, and they sometimes serve red wine chilled! NOOOO!)

We made dinner one night in Paris. The star of the show was another bordeaux. This one cost us just north of 2 euro. I love a good bargain, especially on wine!

We made dinner one night in Paris. The star of the show was another bordeaux. This one cost us just north of 2 euro. I love a good bargain, especially on wine!

Don’t worry, we weren’t just drunk the whole time we were in Paris. We drank other things too, like incredibly adorable tiny cups of espresso:

I felt like a giant holding such an adorably tiny cup of espresso.

I felt like a giant holding such an adorably tiny cup of espresso.

Sidewalks

In Thailand, sidewalks are not sacred pedestrian areas. I’m not sure I’d even call them “pedestrian areas” at all, actually. Most “sidewalks” in Chiang Mai are riddled with uneven pavers that turn into what we call “gushers” after a rain storm. If you step on a gusher after it rains, then warm, muddy, gritty water might shoot up your leg. Fun, right? If you’re not worrying about gushers, you’re trying not to trip on random uneven sidewalk edges, or you’re avoiding advertising signs that have been erected in such a way that it blocks 98% of the sidewalk. I’ve seen loose electrical wires dangling in pedestrian paths, as well as random wires sticking out at eye-level from telephone poles. And the very best part is that it’s actually not at all uncommon for motorbikes to park and drive on the sidewalks. For months, I’ve been saying that I’m going to walk so hard on sidewalks once we move back to a more pedestrian-friendly culture. Here’s Kevin basking in the glory of a wide, wonderful sidewalk:

WE LOVE SIDEWALKS. Here's Kevin, taking up as much room on a sidewalk as humanly possible.

WE LOVE SIDEWALKS. Here’s Kevin, taking up as much room on a sidewalk as humanly possible.

We did a lot of walking in Paris, which is our favorite way to experience a city, even if it’s the middle of winter. Here’s a run-down of some of the sights we saw while we were exploring:

We Visited Notre Dame

A fun view of Notre Dame from jus down the Seine River.

A fun view of Notre Dame from just down the Seine River.

Kevin and Notre Dame.

Kevin and Notre Dame.

Can you find me in this photo with Notre Dame?

Can you find me in this photo with Notre Dame?

At Notre Dame, you can feed the birds! Put a piece of bread in your hand and they'll fly right up for it! There is so much joy in this photo - look at all those smiles, especially on the kid!

At Notre Dame, you can feed the birds! Put a piece of bread in your hand and they’ll fly right up for it! There is so much joy in this photo – look at all those smiles, especially on the kid!

Kevin dressed in colors to match the Notre Dame Christmas Tree.

Kevin dressed in colors to match the Notre Dame Christmas Tree.

I sneakily took one photo inside Notre Dame. Who can resist with beautiful stained glass like this?!

I sneakily took one photo inside Notre Dame. Who can resist with beautiful stained glass like this?!

Beautiful Notre Dame

Beautiful Notre Dame

Montmartre and Sacre Cœur

We visited Sacre Cœur.

We visited Sacre Cœur, a Catholic Church located on top of Montmartre Hill.

The wonderful view from the steps of Sacre Cœur.

The wonderful view from the steps of Sacre Cœur.

A harpist was playing on the steps!

A harpist was playing on the steps!

There was also a band playing near a Sacre Cœur side door. I loved the impromptu music all over Paris!

There was also a band playing near a Sacre Cœur side door. I loved the impromptu music all over Paris!

Another view of Sacre Cœur.

Another view of Sacre Cœur.

Montmartre is one of the most fun neighborhoods to explore in Paris. Here's Kevin, at the very top.

Montmartre is one of the most fun neighborhoods to explore in Paris. Here’s Kevin, at the very top.

Look how cute Montmartre is! I could live here.

Look how cute Montmartre is! I could live here.

One thing I love about Paris? Even though it's winter, people still eat outside in the sunshine.

One thing I love about Paris? Even though it’s winter, people still eat outside in the sunshine.

Someone put a clown nose on this statue in Montmartre!

Someone put a clown nose on this statue in Montmartre. Hooligans.

The La Marais Neighborhood

This quickly became our favorite neighborhood in Paris! These photos show why:

We stood in a crazy line to get food from L'As du Falafel, which translates to The Ace of Falafel.

We stood in a crazy line to get food from L’As du Fallafel, which translates to The Ace of Falafel.

It was worth it. The Falafel was incredible.

It was worth it. The Falafel was incredible.

Great music on Sundays in the La Marais neighborhood!

Great music on Sundays in the La Marais neighborhood!

I Became Obsessed with Doors

Paris just has the most beautiful doors ever. Period. I quickly became obsessed with them, which I know is a bit weird…

This one was my favorite.

This one was my favorite.

And here's Kevin making fun of my obsession.

And here’s Kevin making fun of my obsession.

This one still had up its Christmas decorations!

This one still had up its Christmas decorations!

So so beautiful.

So so beautiful.

The Louvre

Confession time. We looked at the outside of the Louvre, but didn’t go in. I mean, check out these lines:

Crazy lines at the Louvre!

Crazy lines at the Louvre!

A plaza at the Louvre.

A plaza at the Louvre.

I took this door photo at the Louvre, and Kevin made me zoom out and re-take it because he felt that the nude statues really gave the photo some extra oomph.

I took this door photo at the Louvre, and Kevin made me zoom out and re-take it because he felt that the nude statues really gave the photo some extra oomph. That guy on the right is totally naked, but he’s being so casual about it.

The Louvre pyramids.

The Louvre pyramids.

And here is Kevin walking on water at the Louvre.

And here is Kevin walking on water at the Louvre, because he can do that now.

L’Arc de Triomphe

Here's Kevin making his triumphant pose at the Arch of Triumph.

Here’s Kevin making his triumphant pose at the Arch of Triumph.

It's free on the first Sunday of each month! We climbed all of these stairs to get some fun night views from the top.

It’s free on the first Sunday of each month! We climbed all of these stairs to get some fun night views from the top.

The night view from the top of L'Arc de Triomphe.

The night view from the top of L’Arc de Triomphe.

L'Arc de Triomphe

L’Arc de Triomphe

The Local Market

There was a morning market on Saturday near the apartment. We are suckers for local farmers markets, so we made sure to go!

 

Beautiful flowers at the market.

Beautiful flowers at the market.

Did we get crepes? You Betcha! We had a delicious caramel one at the market. We also tried a sugar and lemon crepe, and a butter, cinnamon and sugar crepe. The Cinnamon one won, hands down.

Did we get crepes? You Betcha! We had a delicious caramel one at the market. We also tried a sugar and lemon crepe, and a butter, cinnamon and sugar crepe. The Cinnamon one won, hands down.

Other Paris Sights

Hôtel de Ville, Paris' City Hall, has an ice skating rink out front during the winter!

Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ City Hall, has an ice skating rink out front during the winter!

We saw this once in Seattle. Apparently parents in Paris let their kids play inside giant plastic bubbles, too. This was at a pop-up carnival near the Bastille.

We saw this once in Seattle. Apparently parents in Paris let their kids play inside giant plastic bubbles, too. This was at a pop-up carnival near the Bastille.

Here I am at the square near the Bastille. This was right near the carnival.

Here I am at the square near the Bastille. This was right near the carnival.

After walking down Montmartre hill, we found ourselves in a seedy neighborhood with lots of adult shops. I realized, "Hey, we must be near the Moulin Rouge!" Sure enough, we were just 2 blocks away. Here I am, practicing my kicks for the burlesque show. Nailed it.

After walking down Montmartre hill, we found ourselves in a seedy neighborhood with lots of adult shops. I realized, “Hey, we must be near the Moulin Rouge!” Sure enough, we were just 2 blocks away. Here I am, practicing my kicks for the burlesque show. Nailed it.

We stumbled upon the lock bridge near the Louvre. Couples get a padlock, write their names and the date on it, and lock it on the bridge as a symbol of their love. We figured we'd skip it - who needs a symbol of love when you already have a mortgage together, AMIRITE?!

We stumbled upon the lock bridge near the Louvre. Couples get a padlock, write their names and the date on it, and lock it on the bridge as a symbol of their love. We figured we’d skip it – who needs a symbol of love when you already have a mortgage together, AMIRITE?!

We walked over lots of Siene River Bridges.

We walked over lots of Siene River Bridges.

Sunset in Paris.

Sunset in Paris

We accidentally saved our Eiffel Tower daytime visit for a day with a low cloud cover. Oops. As consolation, here's a nude statue with the Eiffel Tower.

We accidentally saved our Eiffel Tower daytime visit for a day with a low cloud cover. Oops. As consolation, here’s a nude statue with the Eiffel Tower.

The Beautiful Eiffel Tower

The Beautiful Eiffel Tower

A New Years Celebration

We went with Zoé and her friends to the Eiffel Tower to count down the seconds until 2015!

The last photo we took in 2014.

The last photo we took in 2014.

We were so glad the Barbés loaned us coats for our week in Paris! Otherwise we would’ve rung in the new year with frostbite. At midnight, the Eiffel Tower sparkled with strobe lights, and unofficial fireworks were set off all over the city. It was a fun way to ring in the new year, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone. The crowds at the Metro (Paris’ Subway System) afterwards were the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a riot:

This picture doesn't even come close to conveying the crowded craziness after midnight!

This picture doesn’t even come close to conveying the crowded craziness after midnight! I only took my phone out once we were on the platform, out of the biggest crowds. It was a lot better up here, because policemen were only letting a certain number of people through the subway station entrance at a time.

Our advice? Get a hotel in the city so you don’t need to use public transit after the clock strikes midnight!

We Want to Hear From You!

We’re going to be here in Europe for the next 4 months. Do you have any cold-weather destination suggestions? We’re all ears.

Our Guide to Koh Lanta, the Happiest Place on Earth

Koh Lanta is Beautiful

A Beautiful Koh Lanta Sunset

We did it! We found the happiest place on earth. After visiting Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Ko Chang, we found the island that will forever hold the torch with us as the best beach destination in Thailand: Koh Lanta. It’s a small island in the Andaman Sea south of Krabi, and it’s a bit of a challenge to get to, which I think keeps the crowds at bay. Koh Lanta has a low-key vibe, not a ton of tourists (even in the high season), amazing food (see my post from last week) and beautiful beaches. It truly is an island paradise – seriously, go book your tickets to visit now!

Enjoying Some Solitude in Koh Lanta.

Enjoying Some Solitude in Koh Lanta.

Koh Lanta is unique because it hasn’t been overdeveloped like so many of Thailand’s other islands. There are building codes that prevent properties on the beach from being more than 1 story tall, which helps avoid the overly resorty feeling. The lush green hills cascading down the center of the island are mostly undeveloped, and whole sections of the island’s coastline are just wild forested areas. It’s amazing!

Don't Worry, Even Though Koh Lanta Hasn't Been Overdeveloped, There Is Still a Beachside Tree Swing!

Don’t Worry, Even Though Koh Lanta Hasn’t Been Overdeveloped, There Is Still a Beachside Tree Swing!

We spent a lot of time motorbiking around the island, devoting an entire day to beach hopping. There were times when we had entire beaches all to ourselves! Even the more touristy “Lanta Old Town” wasn’t crowded. The island has a National Park on its southern tip, and as you get closer and closer to it, it becomes more common to see monkeys running around in the road!

Welcome to Lanta Old Town! The Motorbike Trip to Get There Is at Least Half the Fun of Going!

Welcome to Lanta Old Town! The Motorbike Trip to Get There Is at Least Half the Fun of Going.

Because it hasn’t yet been overdeveloped, Koh Lanta’s waters seemed clearer, and the beaches seemed cleaner than others we’ve seen around Thailand. There was far less trash littering the roads and walking paths than we’ve gotten used to, which was such a breath of fresh air. It also seemed like fewer people were burning garbage than on Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.

Beachcombing at Long Beach on a Rainy Day.

Beach Combing at Long Beach on a Rainy Day.

The very best thing about Koh Lanta, however, is the people who live there. Thailand is often called the “Land of Smiles”, and no place lives up to that nickname like Koh Lanta. People on the island are incredibly warm and friendly, are always willing to help you out, and want nothing more than to meet you and say hello. Sadly, this isn’t the case at some of the other more heavily visited islands in Thailand. I’m not certain why this is, but I have a hunch it has to do with the fact that Koh Lanta is a bit lower on the tourist radar. Maybe the locals haven’t had a chance to get tired of all of us tourists yet?

Or maybe they’re all so friendly because it’s so easy to find a Magic Mushroom Shake, or because you can buy a joint at your friendly neighborhood beach bar.

Koh Lanta, the Island with a Relaxed Mushroom and Weed Culture.

Koh Lanta, the Island with a Relaxed Mushroom and Weed Culture.

Whatever the reason, we loved our week on Koh Lanta, and highly recommend it to anyone headed to Thailand. We put together this little Guide to Koh Lanta to try to convince you to visit the island we’ve dubbed the Happiest Place on Earth.

Some of Our Favorite Koh Lanta Experiences

Blue Moon Bar

Be sure you visit Blue Moon Bar on Klong Nin beach. You can use their beach mats and lounge chairs as long as you order food or drinks. The Fried Glass Noodles dish is delicious, as is their Papaya Curry!

Blue Moon Bar, Where You Can Sit at a Table and Have a Meal with Your Toes in the Sand!

Blue Moon Bar, Where You Can Sit at a Table and Have a Meal with Your Toes in the Sand!

Sunset Drinks at Blue Moon Bar

Sunset Drinks at Blue Moon Bar.

Order a Beer, Smoothie, or Fresh Coconut and Settle down for an Afternoon of Sunshine!

Order a Beer, Smoothie, or Fresh Coconut and Settle Down for an Afternoon of Sunshine!

Blue Moon Bar, One of the Best Spots in Koh Lanta to Lay on the Beach.

Blue Moon Bar, One of the Best Spots in Koh Lanta to Lay on the Beach.

Visit the local market

The local market is in a different place each day, so you’re bound to be near it at least once during your stay:

Veggies at the Local Market

Veggies at the Local Market

I Never Got the Courage to Buy Fresh Meet at the Local Markets in Thailand, Do You See Why?

I Never Got the Courage to Buy Fresh Meet at the Local Markets in Thailand, Do You See Why?

Big Bags of Chilis at the Local Market

Big Bags of Chilis at the Local Market

The Shrimp Looked so Good I Almost Wanted to Eat It Raw!

The Shrimp Looked so Good I Almost Wanted to Eat It Raw!

Sunset Cocktails

All of Koh Lanta’s beaches are on the west coast. Find yourself a bar, order up a cocktail, and enjoy the beautiful sunset:

Picasso on Klong Dao Has Happy Hour Cocktails until 6pm, Perfect Timing to Catch the Sunset.

Picasso on Klong Dao Has Happy Hour Cocktails until 6pm, Perfect Timing to Catch the Sunset.

If You're Lucky, You'll See Some Sunset Acrobatics on the Beach.

If You’re Lucky, You’ll See Some Sunset Acrobatics on the Beach.

Hammock House

Hammock House Is in Lanta Old Town

Hammock House Is in Lanta Old Town

If you have lots of time, motorbike on over to the Hammock House in Lanta Old Town. We had fun trying out all the hammocks:

Hammocks Make Great Souvenirs!

Hammocks Make Great Souvenirs!

Do You See Kevin in This Photo? We Were Excited They Had a Huskies Colors Hammock!

Do you see Kevin in this photo? We were excited they had a Purple and Gold Huskies colors hammock! This one is made out of parachute material.

If you’re lucky, you might just catch the cat napping in a hammock of his own:

A Cat Hammock!

A Cat Hammock!

Relax and Enjoy the Sun and the Sand

There are some talented people lurking around Koh Lanta. Check out some of these sand creations:

There Are Some Seriously Talented Sand Masters Lurking around Koh Lanta.

There Are Some Seriously Talented Sand Masters Lurking around Koh Lanta.

Who Built This?! The Sand Whisperer?

Who Built This?! The Sand Whisperer? The text in the background says “Merry Christmas”.

Beach combing is exciting here, where tourists are probably outnumbered by hermit crabs:

Hermit Crab Tracks Are Everywhere on Koh Lanta's Beaches!

Hermit Crab Tracks Are Everywhere on Koh Lanta’s Beaches!

We Enjoyed Bamboo Bay, Where We Were the ONLY People on the Entire Beach.

We Enjoyed Bamboo Bay, Where We Were the ONLY People on the Entire Beach.

Two Words: Fresh Coconut

I have a two-coconut-per-day quota on beach vacations, and did my best to meet it in Koh Lanta. Almost everyone sells them (for just 40 Baht!), but the best one I had was at the Indian Bar on Klong Dao. YUM.

A Delicious Coconut at the Indian Bar

A Delicious Coconut at the Indian Bar

Getting Around

Motorbike is the most efficient (and most fun!) way to get around Koh Lanta. Thailand must be one of the only countries in the world where you can rent a motor vehicle without proving you have a drivers license and without having any car insurance. If you have the cash, they’ll give you the keys. (They’ll also hold your passport hostage while you have the motorbike, and won’t give it back unless you pay for any damages you might incur during your rental period. This is pretty much standard practice all over Thailand.)

Everyone in Koh Lanta seems to rent out motorbikes, from the barber to the restaurant owners to all the hotels and resorts, and the going rate everywhere is 250 Baht per day. Make sure you’re safe, and be sure you get a helmet when they give you a bike!

We used the Koh Lanta Biker Map to find our way around the island:

The Lanta Biker Map

Out Guide to Koh Lanta, the Lanta Biker Map

When you need gas, it’s cheapest to find a petrol station, but you can buy fuel sold in used whiskey bottles from almost any roadside establishment. The bottle-style purchasing is also a fun way to meet some of the locals – we met a nice guy and his family in a hillside stilt home on our way to Lanta Old Town, and he gave us some fun tips on places to see around the island.

If you don’t want to rent a motorbike, you can always use the local taxis:

Tuk Tuks Are a Fun Way to Get around Koh Lanta, but Are Definitely More Expensive than Motorbiking.

Tuk Tuks Are a Fun Way to Get around Koh Lanta, too.

It’ll be more expensive, but if you’re not confident motorbiking or if you have luggage with you, it’s well worth the money.

Where to Stay

We spent a few nights at the Ananda Lanta Resort and loved it. At over $50/night, it was definitely a splurge, but who wouldn’t splurge for a balcony with an ocean view:

Our Ocean View Room in the Ananda Lanta Resort

Our Ocean View Room in the Ananda Lanta Resort

It’s located very close to the beautiful Klong Dao Beach, is within walking distance of Long Beach, and is near tons of shops and restaurants. Every single staff member we encountered was super friendly, and the front desk folks are happy to help you book tours at very fair prices. They also have a great pool area we used a lot:

I Love Me an Infinity Pool!

I Love Me an Infinity Pool!

Getting There

If I’ve convinced you to visit Koh Lanta, you first need to get to Bangkok. From there, we recommend booking the flight + island transfer with Nok Air. Nok has some great rates if you watch for hot deals, and you get free checked bags! (PRO TIP: checked baggage is definitely necessary, because you should bring a LOT of sunscreen in with you. It costs an arm and a leg everywhere in Thailand!) Nok flies you from DMK to Trang, busses you to the nearby ferry terminal, then transfer you to Koh Lanta via high speed ferry.

If you’re more adventurous, you can fly into Krabi (Air Asia has some really low fares on the Bangkok to Krabi route, but you have to pay to check your bag) and take a 3+ hour minibus to Koh Lanta. While this option is pretty cheap (the minibus will only run you 300-400 Baht), we’ve grown to hate minibusses. They are always cramped, the aircon never seems to work, and carsickness is almost guaranteed unless you’re in the front of the van.

We Want to Hear From You!

What’s your favorite island? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Have I Convinced You to Move to Koh Lanta? Here's a House for Rent Just a Few Minutes Walk from Long Beach!

Have I Convinced You to Move to Koh Lanta? Here’s a House for Rent Just a Few Minutes Walk from Long Beach!

A Saga to Find Good, Cheap Food in Koh Lanta

For the most part, the food scene on Thailand’s islands is a barren wasteland full of overpriced and under-flavored foods that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I don’t know what causes this phenomenon, but I think it has something to do with the fact that a lot of Thai people keep trying to feed us spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti! We stayed for two nights with a Thai Woman in Chiang Rai, and she cooked us macaroni with meat sauce on the first night. Only after spending a lot of time convincing her that we wanted to eat what she likes to eat did she relent and make a delicious stir fry for our second dinner.

The food in most of Thailand’s most touristy areas just tends to taste subpar to me. I’m not sure who to blame, the locals or the tourists. Is it the tourists fault for always asking for “Mai Ped” (Thai for not spicy)? Or do Thai people water down the food because they think all we want to eat is spaghetti? I think the answer lies in the latest crackpot theory Kevin and I cooked up: The TripAdvisor One Third Rule.

In this post, I’ll explain our TripAdvisor One Third Rule, our Golden Rule for eating in Thailand, and I’ll tell you where to find the absolute BEST cheap food in Koh Lanta. We found a gem that serves up some of the best curries we’ve had in Thailand, at prices that rival the ones we’re used to in Chiang Mai.

The TripAdvisor One Third Rule

We came up with The TripAdvisor One Third Rule when we were in Koh Lanta for a week, and it states that “When traveling in countries where the locals do not use TripAdvisor, one should automatically disregard the top one third of TripAdvisor Ranked Restaurants, and take all reviews with a grain of salt.”

I don’t want to offend my fellow tourists out there, but I think some tourists might have a skewed idea of what Thai food is supposed to taste like. I blame Thai food restaurants in our home countries. Let’s face it, there are a lot of bad Thai food restaurants in countries where TripAdvisor is popular. I can vouch for a handful of bad Thai places in Seattle alone, and I know there are a lot of less than stellar spots in Europe. I think this sets the bar for Thai food really low with a lot of people, so when they come to Thailand, even a mediocre restaurant seems fantastic.

This is the problem with TripAdvisor – people making the ratings may have this skewed idea of what Thai food tastes like. Also, some of the best places I’ve eaten don’t have an English name, so they’re less likely to be on TripAdvisor. That’s why we like to disregard the top third restaurants and focus on those in the middle of the pack.

As a specific example, we tried Jai-Dee’s, the #16 ranked restaurant in Koh Lanta (out of 203 total restaurants). The staff was really nice and we met the lovely owner, but the Pad Thai was just awful and their Panang curry was not good. Several doors down, Blue Moon Bar (Ranked #96) serves up far superior noodle dishes and had a really delicious Papaya curry. The One Third Rule in action, people! (Blue moon is beach front, so it has fairly high prices; 80 Baht for noodles, 120 Baht for curries, and a whopping 40 Baht per serving of rice, ouch! But the view is probably worth it, and the waiter Ken is awesome!)

The Fried Glass Noodles at Blue Moon Bar were Delicious (80 Baht)

The Fried Glass Noodles at Blue Moon Bar were Delicious (80 Baht)

Blue Moon also has a delicious Papaya Curry (120 Baht), but white rice will run you an extra 40 Baht!

Blue Moon also has a delicious Papaya Curry (120 Baht), but white rice will run you an extra 40 Baht!

The Golden Rule for Eating in Thailand

Stop looking on the internet for good restaurants! Most spots with a good internet presence will be more expensive, more crowded, and often times if they get more popular the food quality gets watered down. I suggest completely ignoring Trip Advisor. Instead, search for good food with your eyes! Walk around and look for restaurants that are packed with locals. Go outside of the touristy areas. The number of motorbikes parked outside the food stall directly correlates with how good the food will taste!

The golden rule of traveling is to eat where the locals eat. Someone once explained it to me like this – if you eat like the locals, it will be tastier (obviously), but it will also reduce your chances of getting food poisoning. Why? Because local people know the right way to cook local food, and might not be as good with foreign food. I’ve heard multiple stories about people getting food poisoning in Thailand from deli meat. We think it’s because refrigeration isn’t as important here since most food here is so fresh. Lack of refrigeration with fresh food is fine, but with deli meat it can be dangerous.

If you MUST look on the internet before you go, I don’t blame you. I am one of those people who like to plan ahead, too. The very best source of info in Thailand for us has been travel blogs! Sometimes you have to dig deep into the interwebs (page 4 or 5 on Google search results, PHEW) to find the best posts, but it’s worth the effort to get a blogger’s perspective. Some of our favorite spots in Chiang Mai were found that way.

Finally, the Good Cheap Food in Koh Lanta!

We found it. The holy grail. Delicious food on one of Thailand’s Islands. We’ve been to Koh Samui, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Ko Chang, and never found anything that even comes close to this place. The best part?! Prices are similar to the ones you’d find in Chiang Mai, and the portions are big!

This is Part, the guy behind the magic at Pad Thai Like. SO much good food comes out of this kitchen!

This is Part, the guy behind the magic at Pad Thai Like. SO much good food comes out of this kitchen!

Located near Klong Dao beach, this awesome little food stall nearly blends into the noise around it. The restaurant doesn’t have a name, but loyal customers have nicknamed it “Pad Thai Like”. It’s run by a wonderful couple (The husband, Part, and his wife, Oou) that serves up some of the best curries I’ve had in our entire 8-month stay in Thailand.

Here we are, enjoying our first meal at Pad Thai Like:

Pad Thai Like - So Delicious!

Pad Thai Like – So Delicious!

It even impressed my brother-in-law Albert, who probably loves eating more than anyone I’ve ever met:

Here's Albert, Enjoying the Best Food in Koh Lanta.

Here’s Albert, Enjoying the Best Food in Koh Lanta.

Here's Albert with Chef Part.

And here’s Albert with Chef Part at Pad Thai Like.

They served the best Green Curry I’ve ever had in Thailand (50 Baht), and also the best Tom Kha Kai (coconut soup with chicken) I’ve had in the 8 months we’ve been here:

Tom Kha Gai, which is Coconut Soup with Chicken. Just 50 Baht!

Tom Kha Kai, which is Coconut Soup with Chicken. Just 50 Baht!

The Muslim-style curry (50 baht) was stellar:

Muslim-Style Curry with Chicken

Muslim-Style Curry with Chicken

The Savory Curry (50 baht) was even better:

Savory Curry from Pad Thai Like

Savory Curry from Pad Thai Like

Becca and Albert enjoyed the Pad Thai with Shrimp (50 Baht):

Pad Thai with Shrimp

Pad Thai with Shrimp

And don’t miss the shakes. I would swim across the ocean to reach Koh Lanta if it meant I could have their pineapple shake (30 Baht) one more time. The Mango shake with yogurt (60 Baht) was also delicious:

Delicious Shakes at Pad Thai Like!

Delicious Shakes at Pad Thai Like!

So how do you find this mythical, magical, wonderful restaurant? It’s on the main road near Klong Dao beach, across the road from the Ananda Lanta Resort where we stayed. It’s just south of Salad House:

IMG_1556

Here’s a view of the storefront:

The Pad Thai Like Restaurant

The Pad Thai Like Restaurant

Once you see this sign, your saga to find delicious, cheap Thai food in Koh Lanta is over:

Look for this Sign!

Look for this Sign!

Be warned that if you go after 7pm, they might be starting to run out of food. It’s a small place with only a handful of tables, so do yourself a solid and just go early.

We Want to Hear From You!

Have you ever discovered a little known gem of a restaurant during your travels? If you have, leave us a comment and let us know! Who knows, maybe we’ll travel there and give it a try. Stranger things have happened!