Zanzibar - Stone Town and Prison Island

Zanzibar has been on my travel bucket list since I moved to East Africa.  I've always fostered a burning jealousy whenever one of my friends visited Zanzibar and I would see their pictures of what looked like paradise.  Ever since Eric and I took a road trip up and down the Kenyan coast a few years ago, I've fallen in love with the Swahili coast - its blend of cultures, its incredible architecture and decor, its idyllic beaches and warm Indian Ocean water - it never gets old.  So Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania that is bursting with history and culture, had become kind of a Swahili mecca in my mind.  And this year for Christmas, I finally took the pilgrimage.

Eric and I met his parents in Zanzibar to celebrate Christmas together on the beach, but we went with Leo a couple days early to spend time in Zanzibar's historic center, Stone Town.  Once the center of trade between India, Africa, and the Arab world, Stone Town's architecture, food, and people offer a complete blend of cultures.  We spent two days walking the winding streets of this old Swahili town while also visiting a smaller island nearby, Prison Island, now home to giant tortoises and historic buildings.

If you visit Stone Town, here are my recommendations:
--- You absolutely must have dinner at the Emerson Spice Hotel.  It's a splurge, but it's worth it.  A 5-course meal of the freshest seafood and creative use of Zanzibar's famous spices on a rooftop overlooking the city, it will be one of your most memorable meals.  As a bonus, look through the hotel's rooms, which they leave open for dinner guests to browse, for a sampling of the best contemporary Swahili architecture.
--- Take a tour of the city with a local guide.  They'll be able to tell you the ins-and-outs of the town's history, you'll make a friend, and you can visit places like the local markets without too many hagglers latching onto you.
--- Prison Island.  It's not a far boat ride and the gigantic and huge tortoises are certainly worth seeing.  I've heard the snorkeling is great, too.
--- Forodhani Gardens.  Every evening street vendors gather to sell local food.  Mix with the locals while you eat and watch a gaggle of energetic boys jump off a wall and into the ocean.
--- Princess Salme museum.  We actually found out about this place toward the end of our stay and we only had time to poke our heads in.  But upon my return (and I will return!) I'll be sure to come back and learn more about this incredible woman's life.

La Pedrera and Casa Batlló: Barcelona, Day 3

Day 3 in Barcelona: La Pedrerea and Casa Batlló

By day 3, we were tired; long travels and lots of walking in the previous days wore us out.  We spent lots of time walking the streets of the city on day 2, so we stuck with a couple of tourist sites on day 3 and called it good enough. 

Of course, La Sagrada Familia is Antoni Gaudí's most famous work, but there are plenty other marks he left on Barcelona that are worth seeing, so we set off to tour La Pedrera (AKA Casa Mila) and Casa Batlló.

Admittedly, when I saw photos of Gaudí's buildings before our visit to Barcelona, I didn't love them; his style seemed a little over-the-top for my taste.  But when touring his works and learning more about the inspiration behind his designs, I gained a true appreciation for his genius and his unique contribution to Barcelona and the world of architecture.  Nearly everything he did was inspired by nature.  He is quoted as saying, "Nature is a large book that always lies open and which you must try to read."

La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell: Barcelona, Day 1

Barcelona! It's the city everyone who had visited raved about, so when Eric had a conference there for his PhD, I jumped on board.  After telling my Mom of our plans, she jumped on board too.  And so we toured the city together with Leo in tow.

We just returned last night from our time in this lovely city.  Here is how we spent our days:

Day 1: La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell
Day 2: Gothic quarter, La Rambla, La Boqueria market, Barcelona Cathedral, and Ciutadella Park
Day 3: La Padrera and Casa Batllo
Day 4: Gracia, El Raval, and La Rambla
Day 5: Barceloneta and Labyrinth Park

Day 1: La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell

Before Eric's conference began, we had to tick off the most famous of Barcelona's landmarks - La Sagrada Familia.  I heard many wonderful things about this masterpiece of a church, Antoni Gaudi's seminal work, but I was still unprepared for the amount of awe I felt during our visit.  My first words upon entering were "holy crap."

From the astounding trunk-like pillars to the minutest of details in the doors, everywhere you look in La Sagrada Familia, you'll fine something at which to marvel.  The structure, the light, the symbols - it's all fascinating and you can easily spend hours in wonder at this gem of a landmark.

After our tour, we grabbed lunch across the road (Eric and I tried the local favorites of paella and tapas) and then we attempted to make our way to Park Güell, another of Gaudi's famous works.  We got a bit lost along the way and by the time we arrived, tickets had sold out, so we couldn't enter the most well-known areas.  We were also in a hurry to get back, so we just strolled around the outside of the park for a few minutes.  I do wish we had more time to spend at this site, but Eric needed to attend his conference and our energy tanks were running low from a long day of travel the day before and a morning full of standing and walking.  We told ourselves we would return to Park Güell, but there was much more to see in Barcelona and we never made our way back.