Tune into my DTour!

If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to follow my new travel site, A Lady Away. The past week has been very exciting and the next two promise to bring even more adventure! I’m currently enjoying my European DTour compliments of DoubleTree Hotels. So far I’ve visited Costa Brava in Spain, Cappadocia and Istanbul! Up next is Amsterdam, Dublin, Chester and London – whew! A busy 3 weeks for sure, but never a dull moment!

Enjoying Cappadocia, Turkey!

Enjoying Cappadocia, Turkey!

I’ve also been posting regularly to A Lady Away’s Facebook page and my Instagram – please take a look!

Barcelona: Through the eyes of my 20-year-old self

Chapter 4

Trip date: March 20 – March 23

Age: 20

At the Olympic Village in Barcelona

I just couldn’t get enough of Spain!  After spending spring break in Costa del Sol last week I convinced Kristin, who wasn’t on the trip, that España was the place to be so we quickly scrounged together a last minute Catalonian adventure for this past weekend.  While it was partly a comedy of errors we still managed to have a blast.  Let me start by stating that Kristin and I are very different travelers… she likes a map and a plan and a comfortable bed with a hot shower at the end of the day.  I am perfectly happy with a good pair of walking shoes.  We balanced one another out for this trip.  I didn’t have the luxury of time to walk the entire city and absorb culture through osmosis and Kristin just needed to relax when things didn’t go according to plan.  And nothing helps you relax like getting lost in a foreign city, right?  Keep reading…

The deal we found at the travel agent in Monte Mario was Thursday night to Sunday so right after classes on Thursday we headed to Fiumicino and almost missed our plane.  Note to anyone planning on flying out of Rome via Fiumicino.  You will NEVER actually fly out of the gate that is printed on your boarding pass.  Those little announcements over the PA in rapid Italian and then broken English are actually pretty important.  Check the monitors.

We got to Barcelona around 10:30PM and caught a cab to the hotel that the travel agent assured us was “just outside the city center, on a quiet street.”  I handed the voucher with the address to the cabby and he looked confused.  Oh no.  After mumbling to himself in Spanish for several minutes on the side of the road (with the meter running) he decided that the address on the voucher was wrong.  The voucher read “Hotel Verdi” but he decided it must mean “Hotel Derdi.”  I tried to explain in my broken high school Spanish (with a dash of Italian, for good measure) that the voucher was not wrong and that we should ask someone else but he took off at a break neck speed explaining, “Está bien, señoritas.”  We then zoomed into the city, fearing for our lives at every sharp turn made by the mumbling cabby – and that’s saying a lot coming from Rome where everyone drive like lunatics.  We pulled up to a  very nice hotel and the mumbler went inside to check if it was ours.  He came back with a very distressed look on his face and informed us in an invented sign language that our hotel was very far away but “no problemo,” he’d get us there.  The next 30 minutes or so Kristin had her head down dramatically in the back seat while I tried to lean forward, despite the force of the speed of the cab, to practice my Spanish with the mumbling, speeding cabby.  Turns out our hotel was in Sabadell, a suburb of Barcelona.  After a few more wrong turns the cabby pulled up to a police station and asked where the hotel was.  Several more wrong turns and we pulled up in front of Hotel Verdi and our mumbling amigo showed us the price of his little joyride: 80 euro.  I asked the woman at the front desk what it should cost from the airport and she said no more than 30 euro.  The two of us managed to talk the cabby down to 40 euro which he took angrily and sped off.  The woman then informed us that there is a train station just down the street so there was no need to take any more taxis while in Barcelona.  Kristin and I laughed, enjoyed a drink at the hotel bar and turned in.

I would guess that the next day we covered just as much distance as the cab the night before – all on foot!  We took the train (for less than 2 euro, I love public transport) into the city.  A woman heard us speaking English on the train and it turned out that she was in training to be a tour guide, so she pointed us in the direction of Las Ramblas, the famous pedestrian thoroughfare in Barcelona.  We didn’t get too far down Las Ramblas before I spotted the green awning – Starbucks!  Now, you have to understand that this is the first Starbucks either of us had seen since January and as much as I love the little cafes in Rome I don’t love the lack of soy milk.  We HAD to pop in for a latte and used the opportunity to talk to the barista about how to spend our day.  It’s a good thing that we stopped for a bit of caffeine, we had no idea that there was a nine hour walking tour in our future!  And what’s even better, I was able to apply my employee discount to our beverages… delightful!

Tall soy caramel macchiato, por favor!

It was decided that our first stop would be the Cathedral.  While walking there we started to notice chalk outlines of people on the ground with what looked like blood smeared on top of them.  Our first thought was that there had been a mass murder there the night before until we noticed the signs and a woman getting off the ground after being traced, only to splash the fake blood on her outline.  Then it became apparent that this was an artistic sort of protest of the war in Iraq.  I’ve seen several war protests since getting to Europe but this was, by far, the most creative.  Like good American tourists, Kristin and I just kept walking, leaving the scene of the crime – pun?

Kristin atop the Cathedral

The Cathedral was beautiful, both inside and out and I even convinced Kristin to climb with me to the top.  We walked the length of the walkway on the roof of the Cathedral, took some photos and admired the city from above.  From up high we were also able to get our first glimpse of the harbor, deciding that we’d try to eat somewhere by the water for lunch.  Once we came down we visited the courtyard and admired the 13 white geese that are traditionally kept in residence.  If I were a goose, I think I’d like to live there, it was lovely!

A few of the geese in the courtyard

Our next destination was Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, though we stopped by the Arc de Triomf and a bull fighting ring on the way.  All navigated by Kristin and our free hotel map.  We would take a wrong turn now and then and Kristin would get out the map a la Joey from Friends “we have to get in the map” while I would turn to a passerby and ask directions in my adorably broken Spanish.  Between the two of us, we got there.

Arc de Triomf

Eventually we made it to Sagrada Familia and learned that it was part of the worlds longest construction/restoration project.  Our admittance fee was actually a donation to the construction and restoration though, after looking at a timeline of events for this unique structure, it doesn’t seem like it will ever be completed!  For over 100 years this has been going on and while it will be stunning when it’s complete, I can only hope that day comes in my lifetime.  The exterior was impressive and I’m sure that the interior would have been equally so if Id’ been able to see any of it through the scaffolding.


The exterior of Sagrada Familia

The exterior actually reminded me of a drip sand castle.  You take a bucket of really wet sand and mix it up.  Then take a fistful of the sand and let it slowly drip out of your hand into an uneven pile.  Keep adding more sand until it looks lie the Sagrada Familia.  Perhaps this was Gaudi’s inspiration.

Interior of Sagrada Familia

The interior left more to the imagination.

Next stop was the Picaso museum where our International Student ID Card got us in for almost nothing.  ISIC has been possibly the best investment of the semester in that it’s already paid for itself several times over.  Sadly the permanent collection at the Picasso Museum doesn’t open until mid-April and all that was currently open to the public were three rooms of sketches done by the great artist.

The harbor

After a walk along the pier and a late lunch at a little cafe back on Las Ramblas we set out of Mont Juic, the 1992 Olympic Village.  Now, I understand that if you’ve never been to Barcelona you may not appreciate the amount of walking we did that day, but it was a lot!  Especially in an unfamiliar city and lots of wrong turns and unintentional detours.  By the time we reached Mont Juic, walked around a bit, got lost and got on a train back to the hotel it was well after 7PM.  We had a lovely dinner near our hotel in Sabadel and did a little research on the Spanish night life.  Unfortunately for us, the trains stop running at 11PM  and most of the clubs don’t even open until 1AM.  Staying with our vow to steer clear of taxis for the rest of our trip we opted to stay in and watch a movie in Sabadel and to get an early start the following morning.

On the bus tour

On Saturday we felt like pros!  We got to the city early, grabbed our Starbucks and hopped on a bus tour of the city.  Our intention was to see if there was anything we’d missed on our walking tour the day before but, nope, turns out we pretty much covered all of it. Still, seeing it from the bus was nice.  It was a hop on, hop off tour and when we got to the shopping district Kristin grabbed my arm and we hopped off to explore a different side of Barcelona – Mango, Zara, Burberry and the like.  I actually treated myself to a bottle of Burberry perfume*, a very grown up purchase for me!  It was about 7PM before we stopped to take a breath and realized that we hadn’t eaten anything since that morning.  I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but we ended up treating ourselves to cheeseburgers at Hard Rock Cafe (though, I’ll admit… it was delicious and kind of nice to feel like I was back in the US for an hour or so) and thought we were calling it a night…

…Little did we know that our night was just beginning!  Maybe we were feeling a little overly confident in our knowledge of Barcelona or maybe we were in a food coma from the cheeseburgers.  Either way, we got on the wrong train and didn’t realize it until much later than we should have.  Once we noticed that nothing seemed familiar we asked the lady sitting next to us.  She just laughed at us and shook her head “no” while pointing behind her to indicate we were going in the wrong direction.  Fantastic.  We got off at the next stop and asked the conductor on the platform to help us but he simply scratched his head and walked away.  Enter Simon, an incredibly handsome man who came to rescue the damsels in distress.  The only problem was language.  In short, he spoke Spanish and French.  Kristin spoke Italian and I spoke Italian and a little Spanish, though after months in Rome my Spanish was really more like Spatalian.  After drawn out broken conversations, lots of pointing and sign language, Simon was able to get us going in the right direction again.  He and his cousin even paid for our train tickets back and agreed to escort us part of the way.  Before we said our goodbyes, Simon asked for my number and said he wanted to plan a trip to Rome to see me again.  Okay.

Simon took us as far as the city center and then made sure we were on the right platform to go toward Sabadell.  Of course there was a 40 minute wait for our train, but we chatted with Tom from Baltimore who has been working as a web designer in Barcelona for several months.  (I’ve had the good fortune of meeting the nicest people on these little trips!) To top off the night, we somehow got lost again, in the block between the train and the hotel and by the time we finally got back to our room it was nearly midnight.  Sunday morning we slept in a bit and then headed to the airport via public transport – this time successfully!  It was a fantastic weekend and, despite the little directional hiccups and my blistered feet from all of the walking, I’d say it’s been my favorite weekend excursion thus far!

Until next time, Adios!

*Almost a decade later, I still wear Burberry Weekend, despite the fact that Burberry has stopped making it.  I was able to find a couple of bottles online a few years ago but I’m now on my last one.  I’m afraid that when it is finally empty I may have to find a new scent.

Costa del Sol: Through the eyes of my 20-year-old self

Chapter 3!

Trip date: March 8 – March 15 (Exactly 9 years ago today!)

Age: 20

The view from my hotel balcony in Torremolinos

Hola! Last week was spring break for the students at the Romecenter in Monte Mario, though I feel like this semester has been one long spring break.  Regardless, a week without classes was welcome, as was a week at the beach.  My friends and I decided it made the most financial sense to go to Costa del Sol as part of the student trip organized by the school and it offered the right combination of sight seeing and beach time.  The only trouble was Sheila, the uptight trip chaperone.  Oh Sheila.  Never before was there someone in more need of a chill pill – I think this trip aged her about 30 years.

After leaving Rome early and flying to Malaga via Barcelona we finally arrived at our hotel at about 2 that afternoon, just in time to catch the all-inclusive buffet style lunch.  I don’t think it was until we were all on our second helping of paella that we noticed the other hotel patrons.  The average age was around 70 and at least half moved with the assistance of walkers, canes and wheelchairs.  It also wasn’t uncommon to see oxygen tanks and I’m sure there were more than a couple of adult diapers about the place.  In short, we lowered the average age by a few decades.  Our original thought was that they were going to hate us for being loud and running around and doing everything else that constitutes spring break for American college kids.  This opinion changed, however, when we all up on our bathing suits and headed out to the beach.  Every male head turned in the direction of the 20-somethings in bikinis that had just arrived on the scene. The first day was spent exploring the hotel, the beach and the city of Torremolinos (just next to Malaga) where we were staying.  The beach was just across the street from the hotel and there were several little outdoor cafes and adorable tiki-type bars.  My favorite feature, however, was the coastline pedestrian path!  For months I’ve been running on a treadmill in the basement of the Romecenter (I ran once on the streets of Rome but it didn’t go well… the sidewalks are SO narrow and crowded and more than once I was stopped and asked who I was running from) and I welcomed a week of outdoor runs with a beautiful view! Apparently no one in Spain actually goes in the water in March… except for crazy American students who grew up swimming in Lake Michigan.  I’m proud to say that I was the FIRST one in the water, and the only girl.  A couple of boys followed me in, but not many.  Their loss!  I had a blast playing in the waves, even if it was a bit chilly.

Bret and Chris on the climbing wall in Granada

On Sunday a group of us went to Granada.  Granada used to be a Moorish town and is about two and a half hours from Malaga.  It was beautiful!  We were worried at first because we weren’t sure if there would be any action on a Sunday, but we lucked out as there was parade going on.  We weren’t sure what the parade was for, exactly, but had fun using the climbing walls, pogo sticks, stilts and other big kid toys.  The parade was full of clowns and street performers (and more than a couple of drunken streakers) as well as a man in a Tigger costume.  Don’t know why, but that didn’t stop us from getting a picture with him!

The wonderful thing about Tiggers!

Eventually we peeled ourselves away from the action of the parade in town and headed up the hill to visit the Alhambra Palace.  What a contrast from drunken streakers!  It was all so peaceful and serene and absolutely beautiful!  Everything was surrounded by gardens and green and running water and it was full of lovely vistas.  The detailed architecture embellishments of the palace was so intricate and I marveled at the fact that it has survived since the 14th century when it was built.  We were told that it was a perfect example of the Andalusian style of art and architecture.  Very impressive.

Alhambra Palace in Granada

Detail of the intricate construction of the Alhambra Palace

The next couple of days were spent relaxing on the beach, playing beach volleyball, exploring Torremolinos and reading.  A few of the boys got really into the construction of a rather incredible sandcastle that stood about as tall as my waist when it was completed.  It was complete with motes, bridges, decor and a makeshift flag on top.  It was called Castle Kevin and was almost as impressive as Alhambra.

The early stages of Castle Kevin

Midweek we went to Sevilla for the day but after four hours on the bus each way and only five hours in the city I realized that Sevilla isn’t the kind of city you visit merely on a day trip.  I would have loved to have had more time to explore the city but felt like I was in overdrive the entire time in order to take as much of it in as possible.  The weather was beautiful and we enjoyed visiting a handful of sites.  Though, unfortunately, my roommate had her wallet stolen while we were at lunch so about half of my visit was spent helping her – calling the US to cancel bank cards, contacting the Embassy, retracing our steps and consoling her.  Though we did get a chance to climb to the top of the Cathedral.

The view from the top of the cathedral in Sevilla

The final few days were spent chilling on the beach.  We were meant to visit Gibraltar and Morocco on another day trip but for some reason the tour was canceled at the last minute and it was too late to get on another one.  I was disappointed because I’d been looking forward to it, but I’ll get there someday.  The day that we left was a overcast which made it a little bit easier to say goodbye.  We were told that Costa del Sol gets 300 days of sun each year, and we were lucky enough to enjoy almost a full week of them!