Lizzie Wannabe

Just as the wheels of the aircraft made contact with the asphalt tarmac, I could’ve sworn I heard the soft notes of “This is What Dreams are Made Of” begin to play from some unidentified source. And by the time we reached this final destination of Rome, I’m sure even Lizzie McGuire would agree—we had been living the ultimate dream.

If I could describe the city of Rome in one word, it would be dense. Dense with art; dense with history; dense with architecture and people and culture and life. While it wasn’t necessarily my personal favorite destination during our two-week adventures, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as the must-see location for someone who could only choose to visit one European city. Florence may have the best museums and collections of fine art, Venice may be the most enchantingly unique with its watery passageways, and Paris may be the most posh and classy metropolis known to man, but Rome?

Rome has it all.

Like our rentals in the other cities, the apartment in Rome just happened to be right outside a famous tourist attraction. But while the legendary Trevi Fountain sat just outside the living room window, I quickly realized that bumping into my Paolo and becoming a famous celebrity was never meant to be… The entire structure was under intense construction, which left disappointed visitors to settle for obscured snapshots of the exposed portions of the façade from a make-shift walkway.

I didn’t want to be Lizzie anyway.

The majority of our time in the historical city was spent in full-out exploration. And—as we soon discovered wandering through the streets forever thick with people, vendors, and curiosities of every kind—it was almost impossible to go a block without running into some random chunk of ancient ruins. Forget the Pantheon. Forget the Coliseum. Strewn all about Rome like discarded pieces of shrapnel are bits of millennium-old remains of buildings and monuments along with other miscellaneous parts of crumbling architecture.

Occasionally my nose would be buried in the creases of my tourist map and I’d practically trip over one of these random Classical artifacts.

And that’s Rome for you.

Of course while we were there, we couldn’t help but do all those typical touristy things… We visited the Coliseum. We climbed the Spanish Steps. We wandered through the ancient Forum. And we tried that classic, char-crusted pizza at a local diner where the giant pies measured larger than our faces.

All of these things, of course, were amazing. But then again, I knew they would be. Yet there was one popular Roman destination, however, that left an even greater impression on me than I ever could’ve expected.

That place was the Vatican.

Before visiting Rome, I knew about this Catholic capital, but to me it hardly registered as more than “the place where the Pope lives.” It wasn’t until we arrived in the world’s smallest country that I really began to comprehend it as a grand and expansive masterpiece.

St. Peter’s Basilica—the world’s largest church and most impressive piece of Renaissance architecture known to man—took center stage, of course. Its immense size alone is enough to bring a person to an awestruck, jowl-dropped state. Combine that with its magnificent columned façade, marvelously-crafted interior, and lavish sculptural decoration, and suddenly the Catholic shrine is more than just an overwhelming structure of worship—it’s a work of pure artistry. And apparently, the place is home to a few items of great importance as well…nothing too special, though…just a few dusty relics, Michelangelo’s marble Pieta, and the crusty remains of that one fisherman apostle Peter…

But what I discovered was that beyond the walls of that Catholic shrine lies far more than I ever had imagined. The Vatican museums—more like an extensive labyrinth of elaborately decorated rooms and hallways—rest behind the basilica’s mighty walls and boast of some of the world’s most celebrated sculptures and paintings. But just when you think you’ve seen everything that makes up the definition of pure beauty, you arrive at the Sistine Chapel in all its breathtaking glory. Upon entrance, there is nothing more a person can do than simply pause, breathe, and stare unblinking at the majesty of that ceiling. I remember picturing young Mike strapped up there in his self-fashioned apparatus—painstakingly maneuvering every brushstroke for four straight years to create the beloved masterpiece.

Michelangelo or Da Vinci? No comparison.

Before we knew it, our fairytale spring break adventures were coming to a rapid close. We had seen so many things and had been so many places in such a brief period of time—and not without a great physical toll either. By the end, all of us were tired, weary, and on the cusp of some grappling sickness. I’m pretty sure Carla was even coming down with a serious case of the consumption, and I was worried that if we would’ve gone even a day more, we would’ve had a cadaver on our hands…

But regardless of our weakened frames and exhausted souls, the approach to the end of our trip was melancholy to say the least. Though sapped of every last ounce of energy, the thought of boarding the plane one last time had us all in dismal states.

I hoisted that bursting pink backpack of mine closer and closer to security until it was time for us to go our separate ways. Once more, I was wrapped up in that sweet, perfumed mother’s embrace—a hug I’d come to cherish and would have to wait one month more before receiving again. Carla said goodbye. Mom said goodbye. I said goodbye.

I set my backpack on the conveyer belt.

Then I smiled to myself…this is what dreams are made of.

Italian Gosling

Before I could even protest, Ryan Gosling had snatched our camera and was squeezing between me and my mom with arm extended in an attempt to capture the perfect selfie.

Say cheese.

With the cotton-foamed shore against rugged bluffs as our picturesque backdrop, we thanked the heartthrob actor for the photos and continued on our hike.

So maybe our tour guide through the charming cliff towns of the Cinque Terre wasn’t actually The Notebook celebrity, but if his prominent Italian accent hadn’t been such a dead giveaway, I still would be questioning his true identity to this day.

During our stay in Florence, the three of us travelling damsels took a day trip to the coastal region of the Italian Riviera. Called the Cinque Terre, its title refers to the five small villages connected by the surrounding seaside hills. Most people give me questioning expressions when I try to describe this leg of our journey, but the minute I tell them it’s that super-popular Pinterest destination with those colorful cliffside houses along the shoreline, confusion immediately gives way to recognition.

Even though my family is generally not the tour type, we decided to book an all-day guided hiking excursion that would take us through each of the little towns on foot. I was truthfully pretty hesitant about the whole thing…especially considering how anything in a group usually turns out to be far more difficult and irritating than it’s worth and almost always leaves a person wishing they had opted to go solo. But in this particular tour comprised of about 35 members, I was pleasantly surprised to find how totally and completely hassle-free the whole day unfolded. Not a single thing went wrong, and each part of the day flowed according to our perfectly-balanced schedule. Absolutely no minute was wasted, there were zero hold-ups, and each and every person returned to the bus in one recognizable piece. Even the seemingly weak links of the group—the older and out of shape folk that would be the first to kick the bucket in the Hunger Games—proved their strength and resilience the entire way through.

Beginning the day with a pristine sky and a smiling sun, the weather was perfect for blazing the rolling dirt trails. The trek was fairly long and strenuous (making it even more surprising that we had no stragglers), but such difficulties only made the tour feel like more of an all-out adventure. Copper flecks of light glistened in the sea to our left, while the slender grasses and their purple-petaled friends practiced yoga among the stony crags. I remember becoming mesmerized by the sparkling froth that cumulated with every crashing wave into the gravelly shore—but only until the trail opened up again, and my attentions were directed to yet another rainbow mosaic. While each of the five towns possess their own unique qualities, a shared characteristic is their uncanny resemblance to colorful kaleidoscopes laden in the cliffs.

In these quaint, seaside villages, we enjoyed some of the grandest moments of our trip… We relaxed. We inhaled saline air. We let our skin simmer to bronze in the overhead rays. We sipped the regional white wine and nibbled on octopus and pesto.

And more than once, the three of us could be found tipping our heads back and chortling until our abdomens ached for no apparent reason.

In the Cinque Terre, all was bliss.

…Especially when you add Ryan Gosling to the mix…

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.

Babes in Deutschland

I spotted the homemade Willkommen poster, and in a matter of seconds my arms were wrapped tightly around my lovely German friend. It had been nearly two years since I’d seen my favorite foreign exchange student, but my first completely-solo travels had delivered me safely to the land of lederhosen, effectively bringing an end to our prolonged separation.

Little did I know as our car rumbled away from the Munich terminal that a weekend of majestic castle-top panoramas, illegal chocolate eggs, and knuckle-clenching European TV voice competitions awaited. Or, of course, that every last part of my Deutschland excursion would prove to be an utter success.

We were driving over the soil of my ancestors, and from the window I watched as the buzzing metropolis gave way to the field-laden countryside—uncannily reminiscent of the rolling Wisconsin landscape I know so well. This scenery was soon replaced as well, but this time with some charming German village lined with shops and homes constructed in the customary timber-framed fashion.

We were in the southern province of Germany—Bavaria—which is more or less the country’s cultural hub. All stereotypes associated with food, clothing, and architecture (among other things) find their roots in this part of the nation. I was exposed to this first-hand when we made a stop at a traditional German restaurant. It was past noon at that point, and not having eaten a thing since the previous day, my rumbling stomach was thankful for the filling cuisine. I devoured my herb-garnished potato dumpling that rested in a bed of savory purple cabbage, said dankeschön for the wonderful service, and set off on the final leg to Clara’s home.

In her small, old-fashioned village, I was surprised to step across the threshold and into a modern home that boasted an open floor plan, airy and minimal furnishings, a light color scheme, and trendy accent pieces placed strategically throughout.

My stock of sleep was close to nothing, but between my growing excitement-adrenaline and the large quantities of Mio (caffeine water enhancer, a.k.a life liquid) that I consumed during travel, I was ready for the adventures to begin as soon as my bag hit the floor. And so it went that Clara and I spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring her hometown, where we wandered through streets, shops, and other points of interest until our weary legs brought us back to her home for an evening of Princess Diaries 2, schnitzel, and the highly-anticipated week’s episode of the Eurovision Song Contest—the upsetting results of which caused headline news the following morning.

We left home the next day with hopes as high as the first. Our goal was to see as much as time and physical capacity would allow—which, as we discovered, was actually a ton. Arms draped in plastic bags as evidence of shopping success, we returned home once again where we took a much-needed meander down memory lane. How hilarious it was to look back at our high-school selves in her perfectly-assembled scrapbooks and recorded videos from her time in the U.S… But the thing that really had us doubling over in laughter was the ridiculous music video we had made to the German one-hit-wonder “Lemon Tree.” That, of course, only propelled the night into a full-on jam session to 90s throwbacks (think N Sync), Viennese waltzes, and obscure European band favorites (think Aqua and their somehow-famous “I’m a Barbie Girl”).

Good times…good times.

We awoke the next morning to a happy sun kissing our cheeks, letting us know from the moment our tired lids flitted open that it would be another perfect day. A journey to the enchanted land of Nuremberg was in store, and after a stroll through town and the purchase of U.S.-banned chocolate, Clara and I were prepared for the long day ahead.

The pair of us along with one of Clara’s best friends arrived in Nuremberg early in the afternoon. It was as if we had been deposited within the bindings of a Grimm fairy tale—and that at any moment we would encounter an elf, a witch, or perhaps even a trail of colorful gumdrops.

Sadly, we were unable to witness any of those things, but the day was glorious regardless. We climbed castles like real-life princesses (I was, of course, clad in pink Cinderella socks), explored the year-round Christmas shops, and enjoyed the views of the landscape and antique facades reflected in the crystalline water sparkling beneath our perfect stone-bridge perch.

Earlier that day, we decided to go to Bratwursthäusle, which is apparently considered to be the most famous brat house in the world. But—not particularly the sausage fan—I opted to just appreciate the fact that I saw the place instead of actually ordering the fare. I preferred instead to enjoy a cup of coffee at a charmingly posh little café. I ordered a regular, and to my delight, actually received a normal-sized cup—not the disappointing Barbie portion I’ve become accustomed to in Spain.

Our magical adventures in Nuremberg concluded with a haunted tour beneath the historic winding streets. We crept through the underground tunnels that at one time stored enormous quantities of beer and, at another, served as the perfect sanctuary for war-time protection. It was definitely interesting, but I’m not quite sure what I would’ve done if Clara hadn’t been there to whisper translations in my ear.

Before the time came the following afternoon to make the journey to the airport, Clara and I spent our final hours in Munich at the Olympiastadion, home of the 1972 summer games. From its 300 meter lookout tower, we gazed across the sprawling Munich metropolis nestled against a hazy outline of the exquisite Alps.

But the afternoon’s pixie dust soon wore off, and it was time for the airport and the inevitable goodbyes. Hugging my dear friend, I said tschüs to the terrain of beer and brat.

Auf Wiedersehen Deutschland.

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.