Sepia City

I poked my head from our fourth story apartment window where the signature green and rose paneled façade of Florence’s Duomo stood just meters in front of my curious eyes. The city’s identifying piece of architecture sat just outside our sill, its geometric detail and massive brick dome displaying its undisputed grandeur and majesty.

In this land of Medici (the political and royal family dynasty of centuries past), art and history are king. Architecture and design take center stage, and every nook and cranny of the city teem with antiquity. However, the characteristic I found most notable of Florence was how everything appeared to be in sepia…the camera filter that gives everything a golden-tan glow. From the impressive statues that graced every square and plaza, to the ancient buildings huddled together like family, to even the water that flowed lazily down the city’s main river—all possessed a similar auburn sheen.

No Insta-filter needed.

As a city known for its extensive collections of fine art, the three of us made it a priority to visit its two most prominent museums: the Academia and the Uffizi. While on the small side, the former houses the legendary Statue of David and other marble sculptures by genius artist Michelangelo. When I entered the main hall and beheld the mighty Dave in all his glory, however, I couldn’t help but recall a particular Spongebob episode—one in which the yellow sea critter outdoes Squidward in a marble-sculpting class. Even though Spongebob miraculously creates a lifelike masterpiece, he isn’t completely satisfied until he’s added an unsightly glob of clay to the statue’s face that resembles Squidward’s droopy nose.

As I stared up at the famed block of marble, I wondered if young Mike would’ve been better off if he had thought to include a large, floppy sniffer.

The Uffizi was a grander museum of sorts—the building itself a remarkable work of art—and within its walls were the celebrated pieces of Rembrandt, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Velázquez. But being surrounded by so much prominent art for so many hours on end can be both a daunting and exhausting task. At one point, when the sun began to set on our full day of snobby masterpiece-browsing, we had to take a break on a bench where we amused ourselves with themed would-you-rather questions…

Would you rather look like the guy in the painting with the weird face and awful curly wig or change your name to Meatball?

Pretty soon the questions had nothing to do with art or the museum…

Would you rather have your name be Trash Boat or be a duck as big as a battleship?

I think we were ready to leave.

All that art business really took a toll on us, so before returning to our Duomo-side apartment, we stopped for some gelato at a small shop called GROM—apparently the place to get the real-deal good stuff.

I highly concur.

Bellies filled with ice cream’s Italian cousin, we went to sleep that night with visions of sculptures, oil paint, and those adorable leather pursues dancing in our heads.

We would have to be fully charged for the next day’s adventure…which, of course, had an entirely different Insta-filter.

Nancy Drew in Venice

My frail frame nearly crumbling beneath the weight of my overstuffed backpack (the pink checkered one that’s survived since freshman year of high school), I did my best to catch up to my mom, sprinting ahead with a vigor and stamina I never knew she had.

Our mission: water bus.

All valiant efforts were in vain, however, and we ended up missing our shuttle to the main island of Venice by less than 20 seconds. Fortunately we caught the next one, and on the ride over—as the sun began to set in the land of the liquid streets—it was again one of the many times along the trip where I just had to pause and consider where I was.

Exhausted, weary from travel…on a water bus.

We were led through the darkened, winding alleyways to our apartment by two peculiar men who somehow were involved in our rental. They almost walked faster than a pair of snails, mumbled indecipherable Italian, and finally deposited us in our canal-side abode. After poor attempts to exchange a few words of logistics, they made their exit, leaving three of us alone in the middle of Venice.

But the real reason I’ll never forget that first night is because of Alex.

Starving from a long day’s travel, we wandered our way into the closest hole-in-the-wall we could find, which (surprisingly) just happened to be a hot-spot among the locals. Shortly after we were seated, a man entered clad in brimmed hat, floor-length coat, scarf tucked neatly beneath his chin, and a newspaper folded under his arm. We watched as he sat down alone at the table next to us and fluffed out his paper in search of some eye-catching article.

He was one of those.

A man of about 50, he still possessed some boyish good looks with his dimples, rosy cheeks, and those blue eyes that held both sparkle and mischief. I’m sure he was just waiting for the opportune moment to start up a conversation, because as soon as there was a lull in ours, he made his clever entrance.

“Oh you speak English! I was sure that she (gesturing to me) was Russian!”

And that’s how you do it, folks.

We discovered that Alex was one of those aristocratic worldly travelers, a Venice native currently living among the Swiss Alps. He was the type that adored literature on anthropology and only took his cappuccinos chocolate-drizzle-free. Alex was so city-savvy, in fact, that he gave us a few recommendations…including a great communist bar we should check out…if only he could remember the secret knock… He continued to ramble on as our dinner arrived and even had the audacity to leave his seat to scold me on my eating methods, whispering in my ear how it’s an absolute social faux pas to cut the pasta in Italy.

Twirling it around the fork is the only acceptable option.

At one point we finally thought he’d leave us to eat in peace when he started to remove one of those giant, high-quality cameras from his man-satchel. But of course, a spectacle like that surely required some form of explanation. Alex promptly informed us that his daughter likes him to take pictures of his travels. But, of course, being the unconventional sort of man he obviously was, these photos were never of people or monuments or scenery…they were artsy snapshots of the doorknobs.

How hipster.

Our bizarre, Alex-filled evening finally did come to an end, of course—but only after he bought my mom and aunt six-euro coffee shots and bid us farewell.

After that first night encounter (and though we did randomly bump into Alex again one afternoon), the rest of our days in that magical water city were nothing short of magnificent. It was everything my Pinterest-inspired fantasies had hoped for and just as enchanting as every National Geographic photo makes it seem. Of every place we visited during those two weeks of spring break, I can confidently say that no other was quite as captivating…

Venice was magical.

Every morning I would arise while the rest of the city was still in deep slumber and go on long, destination-less walks—wandering the twisting, narrow streets solo as the sun poked its head above the horizon. I truly believe these lengthy sunrise strolls enhanced the quality of my time there more than anything else because I was able to see a side of the city that most miss out on as they snuggle in their beds.

Free of the ally-clogging crowds, the silent, empty streets of the early hours possess a tranquility and calm that’s kept secret to the unaware…or to those simply unwilling to find it. Free to explore without a route to determine my steps, I plodded over the ancient bridges and ducked through the skinny side streets like Lucy discovering Narnia for the very first time. These mornings I was on my own, out of the dusty wardrobe, and in a pristine, untouched paradise.

On nearly every vacation, one of my favorite things to do is to imagine my new surroundings as the setting of a new Nancy Drew game. I’m truly sorry if playing the best PC computer mysteries ever invented was lacking from your childhood, but don’t worry…you can never outgrow the Drew.

In Venice, though, I didn’t even have to dream up a new game plot because there was already one in existence that took place in the city of water. In fact, I am the proud owner of that edition and have successfully completed it in the advanced mode. From the sights and feel of the enchanting sea town to the shop windows filled with those gorgeous, elaborately-crafted Carnival masks (the kind you’d sport if you were lucky enough to attend one of those swanky masquerade balls), everything mirrored my favorite PC game to a tea and made me feel like the sleuth Nancy herself.

Unfortunately I was unable to locate a cat suit and go-go dancing bar…

The three of us damsels were lucky enough to be in this storybook land on Easter as well. But while I’m sure the majority of my American family and friends were sitting down to their platters of ham and deviled eggs, my mother and I decided to go for the local cuisine and ordered the seppie al nero (cuttlefish in its ink). My mom wasn’t too thrilled when the waiter delivered our plates of unappetizing black mush… In fact, I’m pretty sure she thought I was actually the one who pressured her to order it and held this against me for the rest of our Venice stay…

I don’t care what she says though… If you have the chance, order the cuttlefish.

From the antique bridges and colorful, crumbling facades reflected in the still water below, to the blossoms snuggled in their rusted, wrought-iron potters and whimsical hand-blown glass resting in every store sill, I’ve never witnessed a single location on this globe more purely exquisite.

Maybe I didn’t actually solve any mysteries, but I still like to think that as I wondered through those watery streets, I became Nancy Drew.

Without the cat suit, of course.

Viva Sevilla

In just a mere two hours of plane travel, I opened my drowsy lids to find that the perpetual gray of Paris had miraculously transformed into a spotless cerulean sky.

But I didn’t need a fluffy companion to convince me that we weren’t in France anymore…

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to step off the aircraft and be smacked in the face with some powerful invisible force.


Heat: my wonderful friend, my comforter, my favorite season and temperature… As someone whose skin maintains a permanent layer of goose bumps and who can be found beachside wrapped in a blanket, it’s not hard to guess why I welcomed the sweltering climate with such gusto.

Once again in Spanish territory, I had to flip my brain’s language switch—not only to communicate effectively with the rest of the population, but to act as the liaison between my family and the natives. These bilingual abilities of mine were put to use the minute we met the taxi. I was volunteered into the shotgun spot, where I had to relate directions, ask questions, and—of course—make all that delightful cab small talk. I started to worry just a bit when the driver stopped paying so much attention to the wheel and instead proceeded flipping through a little booklet, all the while spouting off every detail of Sevilla’s Semana Santa activities and pointing out the very best processions.

Like I’ve said before, one of the best aspects of travelling with family is the access to a bit more luxury than vacationing solo or with friends. When our driver deposited us in a five-foot wide alleyway in front of our rental home, it was clear that we had decided to stick with this high-living trend we had started in Paris. My favorite dwelling of the entire break, our home in Sevilla stuck out as a major highlight of the stay in the land of Andalucía. The homes and apartments that formed the four-story complex created a border around the fountain-and-flora-decorated indoor courtyard. Our spacious home was split in two sections connected by the open deck walkway that overlooked the space below. Although I must say that the best part of our living quarters was our access to the two rooftop terraces—private escapes onto gorgeous, sprawling patios where we could gaze across the vibrant city, absorb the intoxicating aromas of the blooms bursting from every corner, and touch that ever-blue sky if we felt like it.

No place in my life has ever stimulated each and every one of my senses quite like Sevilla. Everywhere we went, my olfactory receptors were triggered by a perpetual fragrance of orange and blossom-infused air. Between the city’s grand supply of citrus trees and massive flowers that flourished on every tree, building, and street, there was no doubting the source of those beautiful perfumes. The color spectrum also seemed to be intensified—compared to the dull and sophisticated gray-scale hues of Paris, the pigments of Sevilla dazzled. I can distinctly remember tipping my head back in the sun’s glorious burning rays…

Because all was brilliant. All was vivid. All was wonderful.

Being the heart of all Holy Week festivities, the city of Sevilla hummed with life even more than usual. Crowds filled the narrow streets, ebbing and flowing with the motions of each day’s processions. For those unaware of the country’s custom, Holy Week (or Semana Santa) represents one of the grandest holidays on the Spanish calendar. While the manner and type vary from region to region, the celebrations are generally characterized by processions that commemorate the Passion of Christ. Catholic brotherhoods—or cofradias—clad in their signature cone-shaped hoods and cloaks (capirotes)—march along a designated route through the city. With one great cross to lead the way and the majority of the members following with their candles, the rest are assigned to hoist the large pasos—grand, elaborate floats depicting images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Oftentimes the procession is accompanied by a blaring brass band to further add to the splendor and majesty of the centuries-old celebration.

We soon discovered that these “parades” can be found at absolutely any place and at absolutely any hour. The four of us would be wandering the streets, and all of a sudden, we’d slam into a giant mass composed of eager onlookers trying to get a view of the cofradia clogging the path ahead. The choice at that point was to either wait it out (half an hour if you were lucky) or wind back and find a completely different route to your desired destination. It also became clear that the general sleeping hours go unrecognized during Semana Santa. My mom and I were awoken from our peaceful slumber at 3:30 in the morning to the sound of trumpets blasting from the street below. Slightly annoyed at the disruption, we decided we couldn’t miss the opportunity and ran down to watch the procession slink by in our bare feet and PJs.

Apart from our typical Holy Week experiences, we also had the chance to visit other gems of the city—including, of course, the wonder that is the cathedral. The largest in the world of its characterizing Gothic style, the place of worship left us with our jaws sagging to our bellybuttons. From its intricate decoration and massive size, to the fact that it houses the remains of Christopher Columbus, the cathedral of Sevilla is a place I will not soon forget.

But the landmarks and places-to-see aside, above everything else, Sevilla will stand out in my memory for its undying energy. I’ve never been in a place more human, more real, more alive… The 24-hour nightlife and tapas culture kept the city’s gears forever turning while the combination of sounds, colors, and aromas maintained its flow of life.

When I said goodbye to Sevilla, I said goodbye to a person.

Who didn’t need to sleep.

Paris Posh

Seemingly out of nowhere, my body was hit with a forceful jolt, which sent a ripple of shudders down my unsuspecting vertebrae as my shoulders were smothered in a in a suffocating embrace. My senses were permeated with the familiar Estee Lauder fragrance, and before I could even turn to look my captor in the eye, I knew exactly who was holding me.

And so commenced my two-and-a-half week European spring break—right there in the Paris airport wrapped up in my mother’s arms.

It had been three months since seeing my mom face-to-face, so naturally, the reunion incited contrasting waves of emotions. The feelings of joy and nostalgia, however, may have been partially hindered by my recently-acquired feelings of cultural superiority—fostered, of course, by all those weeks in a foreign country and independent travel experience. But regardless of how posh and cosmopolitan pretentious I was, nothing was going to stand in the way of our magical, cross-European adventure.

And so there we were—me, my mom, and my aunt Carla—three American damsels in the City of Lights, the world’s fashion capital, and the hub of all things luxurious. Even though we were prepared for our single-stoplight-Friday-fish-fry-corn-field roots to clash with the world outside the airport doors, we didn’t care… We strutted out that sortie (the first—and pretty much the only–French word we acquired on the trip), with intentions of encountering the unforgettable.

We did, of course.

Movies…books…reality TV top-model shows…all of them dress up the great French capital as a symbol of romance—an emblem of perfect beauty and sophistication… And guess what I discovered?

It really is.

Nothing I’ve ever seen before quite compares… The life and vitality of the city was tangible to the point where I swear I could feel its breathing, its movement, and its ever-pulsing heart. Stately buildings with distinctive grand facades flanked the humming streets, while scents of duck and fondue wafted from every open window. As we wondered along we took note of the men clad in their scarves and newsie flat caps and the women who strutted in their impossible heels and classic blazers—the signature simple-chic Parisian style that’s undoubtedly a part of their DNA.

Oh, and I mustn’t forget the berets—people there ACTUALLY DO wear them.

We spent each day in pursuit of covering as much ground on foot as our bodies would allow. With that goal in mind, we were able to see and breathe in more of the French jewel than I ever could’ve even hoped for. Whether it’s prancing down the glitzy Champs-Élysées, taking in the views from the summit of the Sacré-Cœur, waving fronds at Notre Dame Cathedral’s Palm Sunday service, or traipsing along the sparkling river Seine (Sane? Sine? Seen? …we never really figured out the appropriate pronunciation), when you’re strolling through the City of Love, you can’t help but feel like a completely classy and sophisticated aristocrat. At least the three of us ladies did, of course.

But as much as my mom and aunt tried to adapt to this high-class European lifestyle, they quickly discovered the coffee racket just as I had upon being deposited on foreign soil. All three of us are NOT fans of the way this part of the world does size, strength, and caffeine concentration…and basically how far they stray from the American Starbucks ideal brew. In order to combat our caffeine woes, my ingenious mother developed a home-made coffee filter system. Who knew that with just a pot, a colander, a sheet of paper towel, and some boiling water, you could produce a cup of joe that would rival almost any steaming thermos of Caribou?

Coffee aside, when it comes to living quarters and cuisine, I discovered that a definite perk to vacationing with family members is the finer standard of travel. While other spring-breakers were surely getting stoked over their French fries (in FRANCE!), I was happily enjoying escargot (snails), foie gras (fancy pâté spread made of duck liver), and specialty brie for dinner in between sips of a glass of dry red.

My goodness, I’m such a snob.

But despite those fine dining experiences, the Parisian fare that all three of us actually enjoyed the most were those delightful little macaroons. The multicolored cookies were stacked happily behind the glass counters inside Paris’ most renowned bakery Pierre Hermé. Faced with the most difficult decision of our lives when it came to picking flavors—especially when choices included basil-chocolate and mango-lavender, we eventually were able to come to an agreement and left feeling pleased as punch with our purchase. We sat down on a park bench and gingerly pried open the little box to reveal the colorful row of cookies nestled inside. With how pretty those delicate wafers looked lined up in their package, the three of us hesitated before finally deciding to pluck one out. And let me tell you, that first bite was just as much a flavor experience as it was an olfactory one. In a million years, I never expected to know what a rose tasted like…

It tastes beautiful.

On this leg of the trip, I also realized that even more of a benefit than just vacationing with family members is having a relative who actually lives in your place of travel. I don’t know how I had managed to stay out of the loop for so long, but only a year ago, I found that my mom’s cousin just happens to be a resident of the romantic metropolis. This, of course, was great news for the three of us unworldly ladies, who had the pleasure of being treated to her city-savvy ways. From her in-vogue haircut to her sleek, motorbike leather, I knew from the moment I saw my recently-discovered kin that she was the epitome of Paris posh.

We enjoyed the company of her and her gregarious beau, who not only invited us to dinner at one of those small-portion-big-plate-with-drizzle-of-fancy-sauce places, but also took us on a nighttime cruise through the city. The five of us piled into her hip, cherry-red car, winding through the never-ceasing traffic until we reached the mighty Eiffel. Although we had already seen the unsightly incredible structure at nearly every time and angle—including from the breathtaking upper decks of the tower itself—there was something extra special about viewing it just as the clock struck midnight…

It may or may not have involved millions of twinkling lights.

While it would be impossible to recount every last fairytale highlight of this trip, one that undoubtedly deserves mention is our art-filled day at the Louvre. Knowing it to be the home of the famed Mona Lisa and her oh-so-mysterious smile, I was excited to get inside and see what all the hubbub was about. As soon as I entered a room with a giant, amoeba-like mob gravitating towards the center, I knew I had located the da Vinci masterpiece.

And sure enough, there she was.

Over the countless jostling heads I could make out a small, poorly-lit portrait—a brown-locked madam with the most interesting…wait? Is that a smile?

At this point I decided to test my luck and take the plunge into this Mona Lisa Mosh Pit. It was the most intense ordeal I had ever been a part of—my personal bubble was popped like an unwanted balloon as bodies started squeezing in around me. I was completely squashed in the wriggling mass in my efforts to nudge myself, inch by inch, closer to Mona. It seemed like forever, but finally, in an effect that I would say parallels an egg bursting out of a chicken, I was spewed out into the front of the mob…nothing but a velvet rope separating me from that mysterious smirk.

I snapped my front-row pics as quickly as I could before ducking out of the crowd. If you were lucky—and with the right amount of twisting and squirming–you could maybe manage to maneuver your body around and take that coveted selfie before being swallowed whole by the mob. Although choosing to risk your life for such a photograph is for the daring only and should NEVER be attempted by the weary-hearted.

Though I still think da Vinci is vastly overrated, and I left the Louvre still stumped at the popularity of his most famous painting, I wouldn’t trade my experience in the Mona Lisa Mosh Pit for anything.

Sadly our dreamlike experiences there in the French metropolis eventually came to an end. The sparkling city lights faded, the sounds of traffic dimmed to silence, and the Paris fantasy evaporated in a grand cloud of pixie dust.

Next stop: Sevilla

Joya Española

Moonlight squeezed into the network of coiling alleyways, trickling through the cobblestone crevices to guide our uncertain steps. Higher and higher we ascended into the labyrinth of clay-shingled homes nestled snugly in the Andalusian cliffs. The white facades wore their evening shadows, the streaks of starlight the only indication of their daytime hue. To the outside, the neighborhoods of Sacromonte appeared to be in deep slumber, but we knew of the life that was humming behind those antique walls.

We snaked our way through the narrow web of streets, inching closer and closer to our destination, which we would’ve missed completely had we not been on our keenest watch (although Google Maps may have played a significant role as well). The small tavern—and location of that night’s flamenco spectacle—bore nothing other than a small, wooden sign half-hidden by overhanging boughs. Like precious crystals encased in a plain, rocky shell, it was the place that would go overlooked by those who passed it as just another pebble in the rough. But we knew the secrets that this place concealed up in the hills held, and there was no mistaking it for just another weathered stone.

The performance itself took place in another room separate from the main tavern, and in the minutes leading up to the show, people began filtering into the outer courtyard—completely dark, of course, but for the glowing tips of cigarettes dangling from the lips of those hoping to squeeze in a pre-show smoke.

At last the room lit up from inside, and the awaiting spectators gravitated to the small side door. As the man at the entrance checked his chart to validate our spots on “the list,” I felt as if we were being led into a 1920s speakeasy—a place for a night of fun and merriment kept on the absolute down-low. We took our seats in the long, rectangular room packed tightly with chairs and tables dressed in fresh sangria. Stuffing us in until the room buzzed in low murmurs of anticipation, the bright lights above were finally replaced by the sudden illumination of the stage up front.

A single Spanish guitarist took the spotlight, his hypnotizing melody (and perhaps the sangria as well) lulling us into a semi-present trance. The singer soon appeared at the musician’s side, his voice erupting in emotionally-charged wales that even rivaled the Mariah Carey’s incomparable range. But then the real show began, and in a glorious flash of ruffle and silk, the beautiful flamenco dancer emerged on stage. Every step, clap, and twirl exuded sheer elegance and passion, and it was obvious the damsel on up front was no novice to the trade. Completely awed by the display of powerful synchronization, we stared in awe as every sound, beat, and vibration intertwined in perfect harmony as they floated into the rafters above.

At one point, I swiveled around in my seat and realized we were the only Americans present in the audience. It was clear that the show wasn’t a tourist hot-spot, and after seeing subsequent performances, I can confidently say that the distinction is obvious. That particular night, however, my friends and I were treated to something altogether authentic, passionate, and absolutely stunning.

All tucked away in the magical hills of an ancient Granada—a sparkling Spanish gem hidden in the rough.