Excurciones Reales: Salamanca

Hace tres semanas, antes de la gran expedición a las ciudades de Barcelona y Lisboa, las dos princesas exploraron un poco más dentro de su propio reino. Era un día de muchos nubles y un viento que amenazaba a soplar los abrigos de las espaldas. Pero no les importaba a las damas regias. Ellas llegaron en Salamanca aquel fin de semana con un propósito y una confianza que no tipo de tiempo ni otra cosa podía impeder.IMG_0815IMG_0820

Cuando su carruaje se acercó a la periferia de la ciudad, la silueta de los edificios antiguos apareció en la distancia para ofrecer su bienvenida. Ellas montaban por las calles, sus caballos las tirando orgullosamente. Cada una de las construcciones que pasaban tenía un estilo distinto. Mientras algunos mantenían el carácter imponente de los romanos, otros poseían una moda contemporánea. Ellas se aseguraron pausar a todos de sus favoritos: La Casa de las Conchas, una palacio gótico con una fechada lo más peculiar; el convento de San Esteban, donde vivieron temporalmente personajes influyentes como Cristóbal Colón y Santa Teresa de Jesús; La Plaza Mayor, donde todos los súbditos congregan; y, por fin, La Universidad antiquísima que tiene más prestigio que todas en España. Si ellas no tuvieran que regular su propio reino, atenderían esta institución sin duda.IMG_0776IMG_0811

Las princesas finalmente bajaron a su carruaje y decidieron explorar lo mejor sitio de Salamanca a pie.IMG_0800 Caminaba a La Catedral—a los partes Vieja y Nueva—con intenciones de subir de la torre magnifica. Más alta y más alta ascendieron ellas hasta alcanzaron el gran tejado. Podían ver casi todo de su percha, y como las princesas que eran, dieron elegantemente la mano al reino abajo.

Rapunzel y Cenicienta finalmente bajaron de la torre, pero antes de volver a su castillo, querían visitar el jardín de Calisto y Melibea. Exactamente como una escena de un libro de cuentos, el huerto poseía una calidad de misterio, mágico, y capricho. Era como si hubieran llegado en un mundo de fantasía. Salmanca1Desde los arboles extraños y curiosos hasta los arcos que cubrían los paseos de ladrillo, todo lo que estaba en aquel parque era preciosa. Las dos princesas no salieron hasta habían brincado y dado saltos de gusto a través del jardín. Cuando estaban satisfechas, ellas dijeron adiós a aquel lugar especial y volvieron a su carruaje con corazones contentos.

La próxima parada: el castillo.

Carnaval Part 2: Lisboa Preciosa

When the train deposited me and Becca on the foreign Portuguese soil, the urban Barcelonan skyline was replaced by a charming town snuggled among the cliffs.

After a bit of hunting, we finally discovered our hostel, appropriately named Lost Inn Lisbon. While the one we had just come from was the epitome of class and sophistication, this one may have had it beat. We were led through a stairwell gilded in flowered tile into our clean, spacious, and absolutely darling guesthouse. The Portuguese receptionist received the two of us with a welcoming smile, promptly giving us the grand tour and making us feel completely at home. It was already past 11 am, and with not a drop in our stomachs the entire morning, our host was even gracious enough to haul out an assortment of jams and bread that had already been tidied away from their morning breakfast.

Moments after this grand reception, Becca and I were off to the winding Lisbon streets. I had a rough itinerary of places we wanted to see, but for the most part, we let our whim and curiosity lead the way as we wondered along the rocky port, explored the grand plaza, and zigzagged through the narrow cobblestone alleyways.

And all was glorious.

From its cotton-candy colored homes cozily nestled in the steep slopes, to the antique trolleys that constantly rumble by, to the unique tiles that adorn each and every building, the city of Lisbon is charming in every sense of the word. Becca and I felt like we had arrived in some storybook land, and that every time we discovered something new was when some invisible hand above turned a page.

Our primary mission that first day was to find the Castelo de São Jorge. But since we are Nikki and Becca after all, the search resulted in prolonged disorientation and fruitless attempts at finding our desired route. Fortunately for us, that meant we were able to see more of the city as we treaded through the less-traveled paths, encountering cute shops and brilliant murals coloring the crumbling facades.

I’m not quite sure why it took so long to find a giant castle perched on the highest peak in the city, but eventually we regained our bearings and located the majestic Moor fortress. Upon mounting the regal battlements, Becca and I gazed out across the impressive panorama before us. The pastel buildings below rolled over the hilly landscape for miles into the distance, interrupted on one side only by the eternally-churning sea. A bridge resembling the Golden Gate hovered in the horizon, and between that, the elevated terrain, and the flow of trollies, it seemed that perhaps we were actually in San Francisco… But then I caught the Portuguese flag waving from a tower in my peripheral and immediately deemed the notion impossible.

We were in the fairy tale world of Lisbon after all.

And how fitting, of course, for Las Dos Princesas to be atop a royal tower… I can only imagine what our reader in the sky was thinking when he reached that page in our story…

Once we had left the castle and began to make our descent, the pain in our feet and legs reminded us that we had been walking over the peak-filled city for hours on end. It didn’t help that we began walking in the complete opposite direction of our hostel and had to consult a native Portuguese speaker to point us in the right path. But—as always—the two of us found our way, and to celebrate, we treated ourselves to the famous pasteles de Belém, tiny yellow custard tarts found cuddling happily in the windows of every last Portuguese bakery and café.

Allowing our exhausted frames a single night’s recharge, Becca and I awoke the next morning with the lofty ambitions of covering even more ground than the previous day.

And boy did we reach our goal.

Not one part of Lisbon was left uncovered by our curious American eyes. Up and down the hills we went, keeping a lookout for special points of interest along the way. We even had the pleasure of riding the adorable trollies, and despite being smashed in the tight little tram like the world-famous Lisbon sardines, we loved it all the same. And just like day one, miles of walking ended with the two of us staring out from a magnificent lookout high above the city.

It was there that we sat on a ledge and contemplated how happy life is.

As I’ve mentioned, the hostel we had procured for ourselves in Lisbon was simply amazing. And something that made it stand out even more had less to do with the building itself and more to do with the folks inside. Becca and I were able to meet so many people from countries all over the world—with whom we enjoyed both good conversation as well as the hostel’s complementary sangria.

That second night, Lost Inn Lisbon even hosted a Carnaval party for all its guests. It was so bizarre to be dancing and drinking and singing with people from all parts of the globe—just a bunch of kids who may or may not be able to speak each other’s languages but are able to have fun together regardless.

And also jam out to T-Swift… Can you believe someone actually requested “Shake It Off”!?

I wonder who…:)

Shortly before the party had reached its end, the head receptionist—fully clad in a Goofy costume–came to lead everyone in a ridiculous display of the Gangnam Style.

It’s moments like those when I have to pause and ask: Is this real life?

The following day was sadly our last, but when the sun woke us up with a happy morning kiss, we both knew it would be a good one. We spent our final hours exploring a separate portion of the city called the Belém district, a delightfully quaint neighborhood positioned along the coast with waters that glimmered as if they held precious gems within their waves. And if the sea itself weren’t lovely enough on its own, add to its splendor the maritime Torre de Belém and its exquisite façade…

Before we left, my companion and I were lucky enough to visit the modern art museum as well, which boasted of Warhol and Dali originals.  But what I really learned from that experience was that virtually anything can be considered “modern art.”

Even a plain square canvas painted completely black.

But art is just one of the many areas I grew in knowledge during this magical Carnaval vacation.  I also learned how to travel.  I learned how to navigate and ask for directions (kind of).  And I even learned—of all things—how to roll a doobie thanks to a man across from us on the train.  Unfazed by the two young girls sitting a foot away, he whipped his leaf baggie and paper from his wallet and completed the task with the same skill and dexterity of a master chef one-handedly cracking open an egg.


The bus chugged into the Valla station, and in minutes Becca and I were back in our familiar apartment.  Our picture perfect vacation was over, and by morning the horse-drawn carriages and glass slippers would return to pumpkins and sneakers once again.

But just like those kids on Christmas Eve with minds full of sugarplums, visions of Lisboa still dance in our heads.

Carnaval Part 1: Barcelona la Belleza

My satisfyingly tired legs dangling over the dock, I let the Barcelona sunshine spill through the swaying palms and onto my smiling face. The sea sparkled like my favorite Spanish wine, and the gulls continued in their happy chatter as they flitted overhead.

In that moment, my heart was content.

The merry-making season of Carnaval had arrived, and to celebrate the extended school-free weekend, travels plans were promptly made. For Becca and myself, that meant a two-part vacation to Barcelona and Lisbon. While we would be blazing the Portugal coasts solo, we shared the first half of our journey with another fellow classmate.

When the three of us congregated near the bus station on that evening of departure, none of us knew that the travels ahead would transpire in absolute perfection. Every last leg of the journey–from the moment we boarded the first bus to the point where we exhaustingly flopped down on our hostel mattresses—was as seamless as could be. I don’t think there could’ve been more of a blatant contrast between these travels and the disastrous experience we had getting to Spain. This time around, everything seemed to work in our favor. We didn’t get lost, all modes of transportations were on-schedule, and—best of all—we weren’t stranded for hours in a Philadelphia airport…

But even though our arrival to Barcelona went smoothly, we still had to pay attention to several specific directions in order to wind up at our final destination. Bus, plane, shuttle, train one, train two, hostel… I echoed the steps aloud so many times that I began to feel like Dora the Explorer and her annoyingly-repetitive Map.

But hey, it did the trick, right?

The three of us girls chose Barcelona in the first place because of a seminar that was offered to study abroad students involved in Intervarstiy, an on-campus ministry at our university back home. But since we booked extra time into our itinerary, we had the entire first day to enjoy as we pleased.

Strutting down the Catalan streets, Becca, Ari, and I were regular Cheetah Girls. We were stars, and nobody could touch us as we proudly pranced on our Spanish Cloud 9. Everything we laid our eyes upon was the embodiment of beauty and glamour—a distant cry from my single-stop-light, cornfield town back home. As we wound our way through the narrower alleys of the antique Borne District, we couldn’t help but explore a handful of the countless posh boutiques. Attempting to blend in with the other high-class customers, we made sure to fondle all of the expensive fabrics and merchandise to appear as if we were actually contemplating purchase. It was crucial that we spoke like snobby aristocrats too. Becca, I just don’t think this silk is quite silky enough…what do you say? Maybe the next store.

After navigating our way through the ritzy part of town, our trio continued on our journey through every sight and attraction in the city. We saw magnificent cathedrals, breathtaking landmarks, every Gaudí creation known to man, and even the sprawling Picasso Museum. By the time we reached the brilliant shoreline, our legs were weary at best, but there was still much to see and do. Fortunately, with a little encouragement from the sun and waves, we were able to pick ourselves up and head in the direction of the famed Ramblas. On this jumbo street teeming with shops, restaurants, and tourist traps of every kind, we encountered the most impressive market in existence. I think I would compare La Boqueria to an extensive farmer’s market on extreme steroids. It boasted of every form and variation of produce, meat, tapas, and bread, and there were more seafood and tentacle-bearing creatures on display than I even knew existed! Many, I might add, were still breathing and blinking on the long tables. Though probably most noteworthy of this grand market was the colorful exhibit of candy that flanked the main entrance. The stalls were lined with exotic and sugary treats that I’m sure Wonka himself couldn’t have even dreamed up.

It was nearing the time to check into our second, program-included hostel, and en route to retrieve our belongings from boarding number one, we happened to encounter—of all people—fellow students from Eau Claire. In a city of over 1.6 million, our two groups miraculously met, reinforcing once again the tried and true “small world” philosophy. And remember the student that rescued me and Becca from eternal disorientation on day one? He was there too.

Many hours and miles of walking since the day began, the Cheetah girls finally arrived at their Intervarstiy quarters of Casa Gracia. I won’t say I’m the most hostel-savvy person around, but I can guarantee that this place was leagues ahead of any that we would ever encounter again. The place hardly qualified as a hostel—it was more like a swanky, high-class hotel with bunk beds. From the polished staff to the elegant foyer to the oversized bathrooms, everything about Casa Gracia emitted an air of pure quality. That night we were even served a traditional Catalan meal by waiters in cuffed shirts bearing giant platters.

Fresh sangria completed the fancy cuisine.

Being in Barcelona in a glamorous hostel was enough to be thankful for already, but the trip only got better once the program began and we got to meet the other dozen study abroad student participants. Everyone there was fun, genuine, and easy to talk to, and I was amazed by just how quickly our small group connected in less than 48 hours. Together we dug into Scripture, together we prayed, and together we worshipped.

And that was refreshing.

Just singing familiar songs of praise quenched what my heart had been thirsting for since I arrived in Spain. Add that to the fellowship I was able to have with these likeminded Christians, and you can be certain I came away more spiritually fulfilled than I’ve been in months.

Apart from study and devotion, our group of study-abroaders took time to enjoy what the city of Barcelona had to offer as well. We experienced the Catalan nightlife and tapas scene first-hand, wandered through Gaudí’s charmingly eccentric Park Güell, and beheld one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture in our visit to La Sagrada Família.

Unfortunately our adventures in Barcelona were cut slightly short due to the fact that Becca and I had to depart in the wee hours to catch our plane to Lisbon. Backpacks in tow, the two of us said farewell to the glittering Catalan gem, allowing the city to fade with the stars above as the bus carried us away to our terminal.

These Cheetah Girls were Lisbon-bound.

Excursiones Reales: Segovia

Era un sábado fresco y soleado, y las dos princesas se fueron su pueblo y se embarcaron en su carruaje para una excursión a uno de sus reinos incontables de España. Dijeron adiós a Valladolid y salieron para la tierra mágica de Segovia. Cuando se acercaron, los dos podían ver los acueductos masivos que estaban ubicados con orgullo en la distancia.  IMG_0645   IMG_0670

Todas las personas les dieron una gran bienvenida y se inclinaron cuando las princesas pasaron. Ellas dieron una vuelta por las calles estrechas, y contemplaron a los edificios antiguos, esculturas históricas, e iglesias hermosas. El líder Juan Bravo en su corcel poderoso aún dio hola con la mano.

Rapunzel y Cenicienta fueron a La Catedral de Santa María siguiente. En esta “Dama de las Catedrales”, lo última gótica en España, las chicas se maravillaban a los detalles preciosos, el gran techo curvado, y las salas impresionantes llenado con esculturas y pinturas religiosas.

IMG_0650

Era una belleza.IMG_0639

Al fin, las princesas decidieron visitar su otra casa: la castilla. Deslizaron por la gran puerta del Alcázar y anunciaron su entrada. No perdían ningún tiempo para subir su torre magnifico. Cientos de escalones después, los dos llegaron a lo más alto.

Estaban allí. La realeza en su lugar apropiado.IMG_0744

Rapunzel and Cenicienta miraron al panorama maravilloso que estaba ante ellas. Las montañas besaban el cielo mientras la Mujer Muerta descansaba en las cumbres. Los nubles flotaban sin esfuerzo en la piscina de azul brillante sobre el pueblo abajo que palidecía en la distancia.

Su reina.

IMG_0715

Papá Mía

Snug beneath a blanket on the sofa, feet cozy in their zapatillas, I watched the traditional Jewish father Tevye make his final exile, escorted off-screen by the Eastern European theme music and the rolling credits that followed. The somber finale filled my heart with post-movie remorse, and it didn’t even matter that the characters had spouted all their lines in Spanish, either. Whatever the language—English, French, or Mandarin Chinese—I’m sure the heartfelt sentiments of The Fiddler on the Roof span the bounds of each and every one.

Felipe had been excited to show Becca and me his all-time favorite film for quite some time, so when he poked his head in our room one weeknight to see if then would be a good time to watch it, our affirmative response caused his face light up in a boyish grin. The three of us all plopped down together in the living room for the 1971 musical—an emotionally-charged plot about family, faith, and the power of love in a time when tradition is everything. When the famous number “If I were a Rich Man” came on, I asked our host dad if he was familiar with the parody song “Rich Girl” by Gwen Stefani. His puzzled stare told me he wasn’t.

Can you believe it?

Even though our host dad isn’t totally in-synch with American pop culture, he still somehow miraculously knew what a selfie was when I attempted to get a pic of the three of us in church one Sunday. Propping my iPhone at the perfect angle, I watched his face register recognition:

“Oh! Es un…selfie?”

Church Selfie
Church Selfie
Felipe and Host Daughters
Felipe and Host Daughters

From deep discussions, to gregarious banter, to the way Becca and I are treated like the spoiled princesses we are, I can’t help but marvel at how close we’ve become with the padre in just a matter of weeks. Sometimes I think Felipe finds excuses to hang out with us too. One night he came into our room, dinner still several hours away, to surprise us with an orange he’d cut up for us in the kitchen—arranged beautifully on the plate to resemble blooming, citrusy flowers.

Maybe the reason he enjoys our company so much is because he misses having daughters of his own around the house…

…Or maybe he’s just amused by our silly chatter.

Not too long ago, the three of us were sitting down for our midday meal, conversation flowing, topics bouncing here and there when we somehow reached the subject of prayer. Felipe explained that talking with God is something both completely powerful and beautiful. As Becca and I nodded in agreement, our host dad surprised us by asking if we were interested in making a contract with him.

With confused expressions plastered on our faces, we listened as Felipe explained the special pact that he wanted to make with us: one that entailed us to pray for one another till the end of our days.

We gladly agreed.

That’s when Felipe took my hand, looked me in the eye, and recited the words of the pact for me to repeat as an oath.

Yo rezo por ti, tú rezas por mí…

He echoed the sentiment with Becca before standing up and giving us both a loving hug and kiss on the cheek. Happy tears beginning to swell beneath our lids, the two of us left the kitchen with full and content hearts.

We understood that we were now Felipe’s adoptive daughters. From that day forward, he promised he would pray for us, and we promised to do the same in return.

Todos los días de mi vida…