The past few weeks have been surreal. As COVID-19 gradually worms its way into every aspect of our day-to-day activities from social gatherings to work environment to eventually our relationships with others, I am constantly reminded of how capricious life is. From January 5th to January 9th, I explored Northern Italy without a care in the world. I sauntered around the streets of Venice, humming theater tunes and swaying from the warmth of wine. In Milan, I leafed through racks of carefully curated fashion pieces and wiped my tears as I got one of the last tickets of the day to see the Last Supper in all of its glory. In less than a month from my departure, the two cities I fell in love with were suddenly thrown into dizzying circumstances that spiraled out of control until eventually the whole country was swept into a storm of uncertainty and fear.
Every day, the news details the worsening conditions in not just one but dozens of countries around the globe. It’s hard to stay positive and productive in these desperate times but I try as hard as I can because to be honest, I think I’d go insane otherwise. That’s why I’m writing this blog post over two months after my trip. I need a reminder that life is a rollercoaster and that you cannot have the highs without the lows.
Oh how I love you, Venice! Time genuinely slipped through my fingers. The streets were narrow and windy, leading me on unknown adventures. The water lapped against the stone, softly but steadily, as if reminding the tourists and locals alike that the ocean was always there to listen. The gondoliers crooned melancholy love songs as couples spilled their yearning for each other into the canals in excess. It was the most romantic city that I’d ever been too and it was only then that I truly started to feel the weight of loneliness warming me like a blanket at night. But with the weight of loneliness also came the liberating feeling that is only achievable through solo travel.
11:20 AM: Arrive in Venice
12:00 PM: Lunch at Da Michele Pizza e Ristò
2:00 PM: Check into Hostel
3:00 PM: Piazza San Marco
6:00 PM: Dinner
8:00 PM: Home
9:00 AM: Leave Hostel
10:00 AM: Rialto Bridge and Exploring
1:00 PM: Osteria Da Alberto
3:00 PM: Exploring/Shopping
6:00 PM: Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
7:00 PM: Gallerie dell’Accademia
This blog post is going to be a bit different than the other ones – a bit more like a photo diary than my usual organized long-read posts. Venice is one of those cities that you kind of just wander around. There were certain sites that I wanted to see like the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square but the rest of the time, you let your feet take the lead.
It might have been the season that I visited, but Venice was not as crowded as I thought it would be. The streets were comfortably busy in the mornings and turned eerily quiet as early as 6PM. I didn’t realize that there aren’t any cars allowed on the streets of Venice but that works in the favor of visitors because everything is super walkable!
One of my favorite meals in Venice was at Osteria Da Alberto. Entering the restaurant, I felt like I was enveloped into a big Italian hug. With my book in hand and a half liter of wine, I spent two hours just people watching and enjoying the best appetizer and main dish combination ever. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, I definitely recommend Folpetti Alla Veneta. The one reservation that I had with trying this dish was the fact that the octopus is purposely not cleaned, meaning they are simply cooked and cut the octopus accordingly then served in a citrus-type sauce. However, I can guarantee you that it is absolutely worth it!
Do you like shelves stuffed to the brim with books? Do you like friendly cats that let you pet them? Do you like jaw-dropping views? Of course you do! Well, Libreria Acqua Alta has not one, not two, but ALL THREE of those. From the outside, it looks like any other independent book store would but as soon as you enter, you can smell the pages right away. (those that still read actual print books know what I’m talking about) To the left, you see a repurposed canoe with shelves built into it and haphazardly placed fiction novels. To the right, you see a bathtub filled with different collection of children’s books – a confusing sight but somehow it works. Then, you see a random black cat jumping between the two! According to the sign posted on the outside of the shop, there are seven cats that have chosen Libreria Acqua Alta to be their home. I have only pet two.
Then, as you move further and further into the shop, carefully avoiding random stacks of books here and a pile of newspapers there, you see a staircase (surprise, surprise), also made out of books. I swallowed my fear and took careful steps up and up until…voilá. The pictures do this city no justice!
My only disappointment when I visited the book store was not with what I saw but with my incapability to understand the stories between the covers. Everything was in Italian (obviously), so I could only run my fingers along the spines and judge the book by the things I could see.
The other day, I was telling my mom about my blog and about how disappointed I was that she wouldn’t be able to fully understand the things I write – not because she is unintelligent but simply because she’s not well-versed with the complex connotations of English phrases and terminology. Of course, it’s far-fetched to say that one should learn every single language in the world. But how amazing would it be to be able to speak and truly understand the ins and outs of a culture through their language?
Everything is so beautiful that it is hard to believe that people live here. I had to pinch myself several times because I thought I was in a dream. One of the first signs of residential life that I stumbled upon was a funeral. I saw people walk out of their front doors and then take no more than twenty steps to the church where their loved one was being honored. At any given moment in time, there are kids playing on jungle gyms, doctors seeing their patients, people falling in love – the list goes on and on. It feels as if the world pauses just because my responsibilities fade into the background for a short amount of time but the reminders that life is a continuum always helps me put my emotions into perspective.
I’ve learned that in most situations, offering to take someone else’s picture makes them more inclined to offer to take your picture but being rejected twice after kindly offering hurt my ego enough, so I settled for taking a selfie at the Rialto Bridge. Also, yes I am wearing three layers of clothing, a scarf, a beanie and gloves. It was bloody baltic, okay?
The next day, I found myself at the Rialto Bridge again and decided to try to take a better picture but a girl about my age offered to help me! What luck!
If you have time, I recommend making the trek over to Basilica Di Santa Maria Della Salute. It’s a bit far off from St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge but completely accessible if you are willing to put out the time! I ended up spending my afternoon at the nearby Gallerie dell’Accademia, a beautiful building that showcases Venetian artists like Titian and Canaletto! Because I’m a student, the ticket was only 2 Euros! A steal.
St. Mark’s Square is surrounded by jewelry shops, snooty art dealers and over-priced coffee and pastries (all of which are inaccessible to me until I get married…I’M KIDDING). However, the Basilica itself is a must-do. Like I previously mentioned, the crowds were surprisingly not overwhelming so I didn’t have to queue to enter! The benefits of traveling during off seasons are insane. The building is massive so I wasn’t able to take a good exterior shot, but look at this beautiful piece right before the entrance.
Speaking of St. Mark’s Square, the Grand Canal is right around the corner and let me tell you, both days that I was in Venice, I spent some time just sitting with my coffee and people watching here. I can’t imagine a place like this being a bus ride from where I live. I suppose that’s what tourists think when they visit Newport Beach or Disneyland but to me, this is so much better!
One of my dreams is to go to the Island of Murano and to purchase a glass vase. I know what you’re thinking, your dream is to travel all the way to a remote island near Venice to…buy a vase? The answer is yes! As I was strolling along, I stumbled upon a local glass jewelry shop. While I was having a debate with myself about whether I wanted the periwinkle blue or blush pink pair, the jeweler was telling me about the island and how the glass is beautiful beyond my imaginations. He spoke about the history of the Murano glass-blowing process with a tone of reverence that has stayed with me to this day. So I have to go back. There’s no doubt about it. It’s not a question of whether, it’s a when. I’m excited to see which things will change and which things will stay the same. Maybe I’ll be with different company. Maybe I’ll actually grow to hate glass but will end up going to Murano anyway because young me said that I wanted to. Who knows?
Ringing in the next year was always a very low-key affair in my family, with my aunts going to sleep before the historic Ball Drop in New York City and the lack of alcohol severely dampening the mood. Barcelona, with music that just makes your hips sway, flowing glasses of sangria, and world-famous clubs, sounded like the best place to spend New Years Eve. However, things took a turn on this trip so we weren’t able to hit the clubs at midnight, but partying on New Years Eve will now be added to the ever growing list of why I need to come back to this amazing city!
12:00PM – Arrive in Barcelona
2:00PM – Meduza for Lunch
4:00PM – Park Güell
6:30PM – Casa Batlló
9:00PM – Cervesería Catalana for Dinner
9:00 AM – Exploring
1:00 PM – Tapas, 24 for Lunch
3:00 PM – Siesta
5:00 PM – Ciudad Condal
9:00 PM – La Rambla
12:00 AM: Rooftop of Hotel for New Years Eve
10:30 AM – Gothic Quarter
1:00 PM – Mall of Spain & Port Vell for Gelato
5:00 PM – Plaça Reial
6:00 PM – Les Quinze Nits for Dinner
8:30 PM – Flamenco Show
10:30 PM – Paella Stop
7:30 AM – Sagrada Familia
11:00 AM – Parc de Montjuic
1:00 PM – Milk Bar and Bistro for Lunch
4:00 PM – Flight to Poland
Continuing on from the London trip, I spent the the first couple of days in Barcelona by myself and then the next few days with my friend’s family. They say that the best way to experience a culture is through their cuisine and as always, I took full advantage of this! Being a “Party of One”, I was able to hop in and out of restaurants at my leisure, avoiding being on the waitlist for the entire trip. Each tapas bar brought variations of diners, dishes, and vibes. Here’s my take on the ones that I was lucky enough to visit!
As you read, you’ll notice that I only talk about the tapas restaurants that I was able to visit. The biggest disappointment during this trip was not being able to eat good paella. Most paella is portioned for two people so I had to stick to tapas when I was dining alone. Once my friend and her family came, it got so crazy (will be explained later) that we weren’t prepared enough to find a good paella place. The paella place that we did eat at was lackluster and not worth mentioning. (sorry!)
Something to note about Europe is that they generally use google reviews more than they use Yelp (which is much more popular in the States). Some restaurants may have hundreds of reviews on Google but only a couple of reviews on Yelp. This is significant because Cervesería Catalana has 11,000 reviews on Google and is still 4.4 stars AND they have 12,514 reviews on Yelp and they are 4.5 stars. I’ll admit it, I’m guilty of depending on reviews and what people say about a restaurant before I try it. But this place is not just hype. It’s absolutely worth it.
It’s my first night in Barcelona. I’d just visited two masterpieces by one of the greatest artists of all time. (more on this later) I’d been walking in and out of boutique shops for the last hour. In my eyes, the day had gone perfectly so far. My hostel was in the perfect location right off of Rambla de Catalunya, which seemed to always be buzzing with energy. A quick search lead me to Cervesería Catalana, which had a line out the door and a crowd of people inside at 8PM. As soon as I walked inside, I walked right on out because I thought there was no way I would be able to get a table. The host told the couple in front of me that it would be a two hour wait at least. However, I strengthened my resolve and braved the push and shove crowd until, just my luck, I saw a seat at the bar. Squeezing between a couple and a single diner, I couldn’t help but giggle a bit because I got a seat!
As the host handed me a menu and I ordered a glass of white wine (obligatory), I heard a voice next to me. “I highly recommend the Tapas Sampler. I get it everytime I’m here!”. I turn to my right and see a woman, about mid to late 30s, dressed to the T with a simple black dress but adorned with designer accessories. Two thoughts ran through my mind. One, she is speaking perfect, unaccented english. Two, where can I get her Gucci earrings but for only 20% of the retail price?
For the rest of the dinner, we shared stories of our travels over glasses of wine. She had just visited Armenia and Georgia, both of which she highly recommended. As she shared more and more about her life, I saw a glimpse of what I want mine to look like. Unlike many people, she actually enjoyed her corporate 9-5 job in San Francisco. I feel that as a business major, we resign ourselves to the idea of sticking to a desk for the rest of our lives but in her eyes, that desk brought her to an executive position in an accounting company and has given her the opportunity to travel the world. She shared about how her life went a direction she could have never expected at my age but nonetheless she took things as they came and worked with what life gave her. It’s a strange thought to let life take the wheel in certain instances. Of course it’s a balance that you have to find but I’m starting to understand how to be proactive with our goals but still embrace the chaos.
Launching into the food review now, the tapas sampler was a good introduction to Spanish flavors and was a safe choice for the first time. The sampler came with five items: clams, shishito peppers, sardines, croquettes and shrimp. I’m much more adventurous with my food so I was kind of bored with the flavors but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Though I wasn’t blown away by the sampler, I did enjoy my desserts…perhaps a bit too much. Between the two of us, we shared three desserts. A decadent chocolate cake with gold foil on top, an ice cream/cake concoction that balanced the line between too sweet and just sweet enough, and the most amazing churros with chocolate syrup that I’ve had in my life.
We spent over three hours wine-ing and dining, emphasis on the wine-ing. When I pulled out my wallet to pay for my meal and call it a night, she put a hand on my arm. “Don’t worry about it. I got it! You’re young! Another glass of wine for both of us please!” I was overwhelmed with gratitude but also awe. I want to be in that position where I can offer to pay for the meals of poor college students just because. Thank you Jenn for being a bad-ass and paying for my meal and being one of the best dinner partners I’ve ever had!
The next day for lunch, I decided to try Tapas, 24, a bar with equally rave reviews as Cervesería Catalana. The open kitchen and brightly lit space was unexpected for a basement level bar but was a pleasant surprise nonetheless. Luckily, I avoided the lunch rush by being a Party of One! Speaking in Spanish, I ordered a sangria and was busy putting my purse on the purse hook when I heard a giggle next to me. Confused, I turned to my right and my eyes went wide with surprise as I saw my friend from last night! Delighted, we gave each other a hug and shared in the pleasant surprise that our Party of One turned into a Party of Two once again.
Here, I ordered shredded chicken croquettes and this amazing creation that I forgot the name of. It sounded simple enough to make: a light baguette like bread stuffed with octopus, lightly drizzled with a spicy and creamy sauce. It absolutely blew my mind though. I did not expect such a burst of flavor. I blame it on the sauce! This is a must order. This was also one of the only restaurants that sold sangria by the glass and not by the jug, so take advantage of that, Party of One-ers!
I think that the owners of Ciudad Condal and Cerversaría Catalana may be the same because the menu was almost exactly the same! This place was also showered by good reviews so I knew that it had to be good as well. I was a bit more adventurous with my order this time around. I’d never been a fan of razor clams but these were seasoned and grilled to perfection.
At this restaurant, I started chatting with the woman next to me who struck me with strong “The Alchemist” vibes. We started talking about our love lives and how she’s one of the few people that actually prefers the long-distance type of relationship. She is six-years strong with her Barcelona residing boyfriend, despite the fact that she lives in Florida for the majority of the year. Then we started talking about our relationships with our parents and how time and distance affects it. It was much more somber and a different type of enlightening than my conversations with Jenn. While I admired Jenn’s obviously hard-working nature and adventurous spirit, I really revered my current dinner date’s composure about life and the state of the relationships that she has with the people around her.
Les Quinze Nits
After a day busy with walking and exploring, our group of four was ready to finally sit down and have a full meal. We found ourselves at Plaça Reial, one of the most picturesque plazas in Barcelona. The string lights drape across the plaza that’s framed by palm trees and colorfully lit by the sunset. The restaurants in the area all have heat-lamp decorated patios with Catalan music drifting quietly from the inside. People sat around the fountain in the middle, some taking in the view while others scroll through their phones. We settled on eating at Les Quinze Nits, one of my favorite meals that I had in Barcelona. We ordered a good amount of food for our growing appetites: hummus platter, confit chicken salad, mussels, Pulpo Gallego (mini octopus), Patatas Bravas (potato wedges) and the largest pitcher of sangria.
I don’t eat red meat so Barcelona’s affinity for seafood based dishes fed exactly into my diet. I had been wanting to try Pulpo Gallego the whole trip and was excited to finally have the opportunity to do so. The mini octopus were juicy and the potatoes that they were simmered in exploded with flavor from the sauces. It’s hard to describe what it tastes like but it was sweet and savory and salty all at the same time but in a good way. If you like octopus, I definitely recommend trying this dish!
Milk Bar and Bistro
Before I left for Poland, we tried to fit in one last good meal. The thing about Europe is that there are so may restaurants tucked into little alleyways that you can almost always find a gem within the rough. Milk Bar and Bistro is one of those gems. One of the best brunch places that I’ve ever been to, the cozy restaurant was packed to the brim for Thursday lunch. I ordered the Chilaquiles that to my pleasant surprise was made with Doritos instead of corn tortillas. The freshly squeezed orange juice and the explosion of flavor from my dish was well worth the wait.
Barcelona just seems to hate us though…
One of the craziest stories, which I waited until I got back home safe and sound to America before I told my parents, was when I got pick-pocketed…but not really. On New Years Eve, while waiting for my friend to arrive, I wandered around the city center then eventually making my way to the Cathedral de Barcelona. My walk there was lined with fast fashion shops, one after the next, so I was pleasantly surprised when the alleyway leading up to the Cathedral opened up to a plaza. A guitarist played a melancholy tune, lost in his own world. Rows of canopies, underneath which antiques from Spanish culture sat on display, were crowded with locals and tourists alike. The Cathedral set a dramatic background, casting a shadow over half of the plaza. These scenes are absolutely foreign to me, having lived in Southern California all of my life, so I stood and watched the people meandering in and out, soaking in the pace of life so different from my own.
After taking the obligatory pictures of the Cathedral and a few badly angled selfies, I started to make my way closer to the entrance but then realized that the queue was for online tickets only. I moved to the side and sat on a nearby step so that I could purchase it on my phone. After two attempts with different credit cards but no luck, I settled on going back to the hotel and buying the ticket on my laptop for tomorrow. I sat there for a wee bit longer, content with just people watching.
Then, a Spanish couple, probably 40 or 50 years old, approached me, with the woman sitting next to me and the man standing off to the side-ish. She asked me if I spoke Spanish, to which I replied with “just a bit!”. She then asked me about the ticket price, to which I explained to her that they were 7 Euro online but I was not able to purchase them on my phone, but maybe she can. During this time, she kept pointing in the other direction and saying that it says that they sell them in person for 24 Euro, to which I turned my head, without seeing any 24 on the signs in front of the Cathedral.
This was the first sign that something was wrong. Usually, if you ask someone a question, especially in a language that is not your native one, you really need an answer! She seemed incredibly uninterested in what I had to say and kept repeating the same thing over and over again, even though my Spanish was proficient enough to get the point across. It was then that I realized my purse was by my side, yes, but my hand wasn’t draped over it like it usually was. I stood up in an instant and felt inside my purse where my bulging wallet (because there’s way too many 10 pence coins, not because there’s tons of cash) was noticeably absent.
It was then that I noticed the husband’s presence for the first time. He was avoiding eye contact with his hands in his pockets. I looked at her and she had a smirk on her face. This was when I probably should have thought my response through a wee bit longer but I couldn’t hold it in. Without thinking, I throw out “Did you just take my f****** wallet?” I could tell that they were definitely not expecting that response from such a small, unassuming, stupid, American tourist. I may be a small American tourist, but do not ever underestimate me! They aren’t sure how to respond at first, so I helped them along. “Are you f****** kidding me?” I’m speaking loudly enough that the people near us can definitely hear me and I could tell that I’m making the pickpockets nervous by making a scene. If you’re a pickpocket, you want to slip in and out of crowds. Grab and go, grab and go. An Asian-American tourist in Barcelona with a very loud voice and very colorful language is not discrete. They start to apologize profusely and I stick out my hand, patiently (not really) waiting for my wallet to be returned to its rightful owner. Which it was. The husband was still apologizing as I walked away but the wife had that stupid smirk on her face, which I could have easily wiped off but calm-cool-collected is my 2020 mantra. Even now, two weeks later, I can barely comprehend that I was pickpocketed but then I told them to give me my wallet back – and they did!
So when I went back a day or two later with my friends, I was hyperaware of the people around me. The people that pickpocketed me blended in so seamlessly. They appeared to be so kind and genuine but of course, their intentions in starting a conversation with me were not. So, this is my lesson to everyone that is reading this blog right now. It’s not enough to be careful most of the time. You have to be careful all of the time, especially when you are traveling. Use your common sense. Use your intuition. And sadly, be even more vigilant when you are talking to strangers. I’d like to assume to everyone is kind, fine and dandy but it’s not always the case, so be ready when they’re not.
At the same time that this was happening, my friend was suffering from her own predicament. The hustle and bustle of the train station and bloody early flight that she had from Edinburgh to Barcelona took a toll and she forgot her backpack on the train…and realized it as the train was already rolling away. The loss was devastating: her laptop, her sister’s clothes, her prescription glasses, headphones and numerous other valuable things were in her possession one minute and then they weren’t. A loss as drastic as that is hard to recover quickly from, especially when the stress of traveling nonstop for four weeks, spending every minute of the day with your best friend and family, and going back to America is already weighing on you.
When my friend and her family questioned the employees at the train station, they were reluctant to help. When they filed a police report at the station, it became another lost-item report on the ever-growing pile. Barcelona has one of the highest occurrence rates of pickpocketing so the chances of her being reunited with her backpack were slim. It became an unshakable cloud over our heads for the next few days. But since then, we’ve tried to remain positive and proactive in learning from lessons like these.
Antoni Gaudí and his Wonders
To fully experience Barcelona, visiting an Antoni Gaudí site is imperative. Even if you don’t like art or museums or Gaudí, I think that seeing his artwork in person and seeing the reverence on the visitors’ faces is pretty cool. There are over 20 sites and museums so it was hard to choose which ones I wanted to visit since time was limited. However, I knew that Park Güell was absolutely on the list.
The pictures that I took do not do it justice. There is a free portion of the park and a paid restricted portion for 10 Euro a ticket. The free portion gives you a taste of the beautiful views that the park offers but much of the architecture that Gaudi designed and the various museums on site are restricted to only ticket-holders.
Creativity is always tossed around in academics. “He’s so creative!” “What a creative piece of work she made.” But whenever I walk around places like Park Güell, I see what being creative truly means. I could never in my wildest dreams design structures, rooms, and landscapes like Antoni Gaudí did. Sure, maybe I could mildly recreate it but I can’t create it out of nothing. The capacity of my creativeness is finding pictures on Pinterest to add onto my boards. This man stared at a piece of land and said I want this building to look like this and I want to use these materials. How absolutely astonishing! One of my favorite aspects of his art was his usage of mosaics. Using broken, discarded ceramics that people threw away, he repurposed the material to create something so beautiful that people will travel thousands of miles to see it in person. I wonder all the time if famous artists like him or Da Vinci or Rembrandt knew the magnitude of the impact that their art would eventually have on the world.
The other Antoni Gaudí site that I decided to visit was Casa Batlló. After putting the address into Google Maps, I found myself still walking along the main road and then suddenly, I was standing right next to the building. I looked up and I found myself at a loss for words once again. There was a huge crowd in front of the building, all seeing the building through the screens of their phones. I quickly snapped this picture then sat down on one of the benches out front and just studied everything. The unique skull-esque shape of the balconies, the signature mosaic tiling and the beautiful addition of color with the shutters. His art style is truly one of a kind and while I walked through the many floors of the building, this was further proven.
When I walked inside, I had to take a step back to take in the whole room. Then, I had to take a few steps forward to see the designs up close and to feel the texture of the walls under my fingertips. It was so hard to go through the house because it didn’t seem like a museum to me. The spaces were real areas where guests were entertained, people slept and stories were shared. I wanted to sit down in one of the very few chairs there to have a cup of tea and read a book. I wanted to stay and look out the windows and see the busy streets of Passeig de Grácia below me. I wanted to walk up the stairs and see the snow fall behind me. Yes…there was falling snow inside the building. It was magical.
Things on My Mind aka I Can’t Categorize These Blurbs
One of my favorite moments of this trip was on New Years Day. Rachel and I explored Port Vell, where there was a plethora of shops and restaurants for every time of vacationer. There we decided to stop. We grabbed some gelato and just sat there. We talked about life, boys, jobs, travel – anything and everything. Watching the sunset with my feet swinging precariously between me and the water reminded me of home and of how much I miss California. While I was in Europe, I very rarely missed home. I couldn’t afford it. I was always thinking of next stop this, gotta do that, prepare for this – it was always go go go. I was only in Europe for four months so I had to make the most of it. Sitting there with Rachel, my ice cream, and the most peaceful sunset I’d ever seen – I didn’t need to think about the next step because I was right where I needed to be in that moment.
That didn’t stop us from grabbing a few very beautiful pictures during the sunset though.
On New Years Eve, instead of a night out in town, we had a quiet night in. We got a pizza, rushed back to our hotel and watched the fireworks light up the sky from the rooftop. In Spain, the tradition is to eat a single grape with every ring of the clock once it hits midnight. Eating twelve grapes in twelve seconds is harder than it sounds! The hotel even gave us Cava, a spanish sparkling wine similar to champagne. While we were eating our pizza and sipping our wine, other residents at the hotel kept coming over and peeking into the pizza box, thinking that the food was provided along with the cava. We couldn’t help but giggle at how unexpectedly laid back our New Years Eve was. There was no midnight kiss. There was no booming club music. There was no crazy story about having to use my poor Spanish at the club to order a mint mojito. But that’s okay. It was still a New Years Eve to remember.
I’ve had hot and cold experiences with hostels. Some have been good at most while others were so bad that I shiver just at the thought (see Amsterdam post) However, I can say that Casa Gracia is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at and perhaps may even be better than some hotels that I’ve stayed at. I didn’t take any photos of the building myself but I can attest to the accuracy of the photos that are posted online. I would have stayed there for a week without complaint! The lobby was pristine, with marble floors and brass accents everywhere. The bar literally glistened because of the sun’s reflection off of the perfectly polished glasses. The rooms had complimentary toiletries and freshly folded towels on every bed, but the part that I loved most about the entire building were the ceilings. High ceilings just make a space so much more elegant and airy, which is hard to do when you have six beds, six suitcases, and six people in a room. If you are traveling to Barcelona on a budget, Casa Gracia is the way to go! They have private rooms too!
You’re probably thinking, “I’ve read so much about food and Antoni Gaudi, but what about Sagrada Familia?” I genuinely cried a bit when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to go inside. I was so disappointed in myself for not prioritizing getting tickets over anything else…It’s been my dream ever since I was 15 to see the inside of this building in person. It was a tough lesson learned when I put it off so that I could go with my friends. My advice in these situations is that if you really really want to do something, eat something, or visit a site as popular as the Sagrada Familia, it’s not worth it to wait for your friends to book together. Just book it as soon as you can. It’s worse to not be able to see it at all than to go alone. I woke up early, at 6:30AM on the last day that I had in Barcelona so that I could see it. It was tough to settle for just walking outside the cathedral because the doors were so close, yet so far.
To say that Barcelona went unexpectedly is an understatement. So many things happened that I still haven’t processed completely. Yet, it’s still on my list of top countries in Europe. The people that I met, the things that I got to see, the food…my goodness the food was spectacular! I wish that my friend didn’t have to go through her predicament, but I know that she’s taking it like a champ and has learned so much from it. I wish that I was able to eat good paella, go clubbing and see the inside of the Sagrada Familia but I just have an inkling that the next time I go to Barcelona will remedy all of the lost potential in this trip. Onto the next one…Poland!
Of all the trips that I’ve done so far this term, Rome was probably the most overwhelming. I did the most planning with this trip but I felt the most unprepared this time around, oddly enough. There is just so much to the city. There are 900 churches, more restaurants with adorable patios than I could have ever imagined, and every corner that I turned, there was an alleyway to be explored. Absolutely insane. I only had about 48 hours in Rome and honestly, I feel like I barely dented the surface of what the city has to offer. All the more reason to go back!
9:30 AM: Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel
1:30 PM: Zia Rilla for Lunch
3:00 PM: St. Peter’s Basilica
4:30 PM: Pantheon
6:00 PM: Mamù for Dinner
8:00 PM: Gelato
9:00 AM: Roman Forum and Colosseum
1:00 PM: Trattoria Da Lucia for Lunch
3:30 PM: Chiesa de Santa Maria della Vittoria
4:30 PM: Trevi Fountain
5:00 PM: Shopping and Exploring
9:30 PM: Tonnarello Rome
4/900 Churches Down…896 to go…
My trip started with four hours in Vatican City. Victoria and I chose to do the audio tour and honestly, if you choose to do one as well, prepare yourself. It is a LOT. The whole time that I was walking through the museums, I felt the intense need to just sit down and absorb. There were Egyptian mummies, Etruscan artifacts, Roman statues, and then the casual School of Athens right next to other frescoes by Raphael and oh yeah Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement and don’t forget Pieta either. Each piece of art has a unique story that’s told through this audio tour, so it felt like a classroom at times but an interesting one!
The best part of the audio tour was that it was self-lead, meaning that I could take as much time as I want on the tapestries and breeze past the things that I am less interested in. Tapestry is amongst my favorite forms of art. The intricacy of the whole process and the sheer size of the artwork never fails to boggle my mind and pique my curiosity. For example, I stared at this tapestry for a solid 10 minutes as I tried to figure out how they were able to make the fabric actually shine. Lucky for me, there was an entire hall of Raffaello’s tapestries, 10 total to be exact. I was in heaven!
Another wonderful part of the Vatican museums is that everywhere you look, there’s art. It might be through the structure of the buildings, the frescoes (that are everywhere) or the exhibits themselves. In the 513 years since the museums were first established in 1506, popes tirelessly worked to acquire valuable pieces of religious art, to commission artists into creating unique Christian works and to compile all of these into a space where people from all over the world to marvel at. Catholic or not, I have an immense amount of respect for those that made the trip possible and worthwhile.
It was in this city that I wished the most for a DSLR. I have a barely functioning iPhone 7, so it was quite difficult to maximize the photo opportunities in the museums. My creative outlet has always been through writing, but I’m growing to love photography as well. It’s really easy to be inspired when you’re surrounded by such good photographers (like my roommate). My favorite part of taking pictures has to be the editing though. It’s incredible what a few changes in structure or tint can do.
In high school, I took an Art History course that served as the catalyst for my interest in the subject. Since then, my memory has done me dirty and I’ve forgotten most of it, so I was surprised when I saw Raphael’s School of Athens casually when I turned a corner. I remember spending an entire 50 minute class period talking about each and every philosopher, mathematician and scientist featured in the work. I wish I remembered. I joke about how I think there’s something wrong with my hippocampus all the time but it was in the Vatican that I was most frustrated with my incapability to recall certain details.
I walked through the museums with my friend Victoria and when we got the Sistine Chapel, I felt even more shame when she asked about the art. I realized that all my work in my Art History class really did go down the drain as soon as I graduated high school. Whereas before I could do an accurate analysis of The Last Judgement, from the flayed skin of Michelangelo to the distinction between the elect and the damned, I could barely point out the wingless angels when I sat in front of the fresco in its flesh.
When we entered the Chapel, we were asked to observe absolute silence and to not take pictures. It made me happy that at least most people observed the latter. Occasionally though, the volume in the room would slowly rise and the security guards had to request over a speaker for silence again. Victoria and I sat and just soaked it in. There’s a certain air in a building with so much history that cannot be explained. Even if you aren’t religious, I think it’s difficult to not feel emotional being in a chapel of such beauty.
After spending almost 20 minutes sitting in the Chapel and hours walking through the 54 exhibits in the Vatican museum, we were thankful to finally be able to rest our eyes and minds for a bit. Thankfully, Vatican City is not only beautiful inside the museums but also outside. The square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica served as the perfect photo opportunity. On Saturday, the weather was all blue skies with a slight breeze. 60 degrees may be winter in California but compared to Scottish winter so far, it’s summer! I seized the opportunity to wear a summer dress. (I covered my shoulders with a sweater when I was inside the buildings though, don’t worry).
At one of the churches that we ducked into while we were exploring on Sunday, we took a bit of time to rest our feet and listen to the Mass that the priest was giving. We chose a pew closer to the back as to not disturb the people actually attending the Mass but then I saw a dog. Yes, a dog. In a pink sweater. The owners, who were sitting in the pew in front of us, were diligently listening, unaware that I was now ferociously petting their dog. Mass pushed to the back of my mind, I focused on making sure that the dog knew I love it more than anything in the world. Deciding that if I pet it anymore that I would never leave, I stopped. Then, the dog decided to sneeze and strain against her leash, i= an effort to get back to my ferocious petting. Say no more, cute dog! This back and forth went on for another couple of minutes before her owner scooped her up in her arms and away from my love. I felt the parting like a stab in the gut.
Pizza? Pasta? Wine? Gelato? All Four?
My first meal in Rome was at Zia Rilla, a hole in the wall restaurant that we walked past multiple times before we found. My first impression of restaurants, especially if we are in a country that does not primarily speak English, is whether or not I can understand the conversation around me. When we walked in, I heard nothing but Italian, smelled nothing but butter, and saw a brimming rack of wine. Just how I like it! I don’t think that you can ever have bad pasta, but I think when you have really really good pasta, it’s life-changing. This was really really good pasta.
At this point in the trip, I was still ordering just a glass of wine instead of a bottle. Because of that, the only options available were a red wine or a white wine variety that I’d never heard of before, gewurztraminer. (I know. Try saying that three times in a row) Because I was eating seafood, I decided to go with the white wine and to my surprise, it was the best glass of wine that I’d ever had. I’m not sure if this is a good thing but I’m learning more and more about which alcohol my taste buds and my body enjoy. Tequila and Vodka? Never. Pinot Griogio and Gewurztraminer? 10/10 a good time.
We decided to alternate between pasta and pizza for each meal but honestly, we should have stuck with just pasta. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not one for fancy pizza. I like my pizza on a paper plate from Costco. It doesn’t mean that the pizza in Italy wasn’t good! It just means that maybe the pasta would have been better. This may look like a standard margherita pizza but apparently, this mozzarella is Buffalo Mozzarella, from the Italian region of Campania, which is supposed to make it better. I wish I could say that I could taste the difference but cheese just makes me happy no matter what.
Our second meal at Mamú was at an adorable patio with twinkling lights. What started off as a wonderful idea to sit outside took a turn for the worst. It started to lightly sprinkle, but since we were under a covered patio, we didn’t fully comprehend why people were suddenly starting to walk faster or why someone was now suddenly standing on the corner of the street in a poncho selling umbrellas. Then. It started. The torrential rain that threatened to topple over street signs, created puddles that you could drown in and turned romantic dates into well…unromantic dates. We tried to wait it out but the rain just kept coming down. Even in Scotland, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it rain so hard. (is that statement going to bite me in the butt later?) Thankfully though, we caught a break and the rain let up just a bit so that we could grab some gelato and then head home.
Trattoria Da Lucia had to be my favorite meal in Rome. We turned down alleyway after alleyway until we stumbled upon this gem. Similar to Zia Rilla, we heard nothing but Italian around us. The ceiling was adorned with swinging cloves of garlic and rows of kettles and pans. Pictures of family members and formers owners hung on the walls, making me feel like I was walking into someone’s home more than a restaurant. My favorite part was that there was wine everywhere. On the table, on top of the shelves, in the cabinet by the doorway – so much wine! We ordered a bottle for the table for only 15 euro. Oh how I love Italy. The pasta was amazing as always. Because the options were limited, I ended up ordering one with red meat (oxtail to be exact) and it was absolutely divine.
The last night in Rome, Becs and I decided to go to Tonnarello, which has more than 10,000 reviews on Google! Even at 9:30PM, there was a line out the door! In the alleyways on the way to the restaurant, there were several tables outside with piles of handmade jewelry and enthusiastic vendors, happy to make a sale or simply to have a good conversation. Groups of friends, old and young, stood in clusters around the restaurant, taking their time and enjoying the night air in Rome. I don’t know if I’m just seeing the tourist side of things but if this is how Italians truly live, I think I need to move to Italy permanently. Living in California, I constantly feel time’s presence in my life. I never have enough time, I need more time, time time time time but in Italy, time is an afterthought. It was always about living in the moment and what a breath of fresh air that thought is.
On one hand, I wish that I was more adventurous with the flavors of gelato that I tried but on the other hand, I like what I like! So that means there was a lot of caramel, coffee and matcha flavored gelato action. See below for a picture of the oh-so-photogenic gelato that was served at the shop right near our airbnb! I’m not a big dessert person, so I didn’t try any cannolis or anything but I think I made up for it with how much gelato I consumed.
So what else is in Rome?
What really ate at me in Rome was that I only had 48 hours. There was so much on our agenda that we wanted to do but as I was walking around Rome, I had the sudden urge to just throw all of those plans away and wander. When I was talking to a friend in Glasgow a few weeks ago, she mentioned that even though she’s lived in the city for three years, she’d never been to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, which is arguably Glasgow’s biggest attraction. I asked her if she felt like she was missing out by not going and what she responded with really struck me. Experiencing a city isn’t just checking off the attractions when you google “things to do in ____”. I’ll be the first to admit it, but it’s the first thing I do when I plan an itinerary. It’s always exciting to see the pictures on postcards in person but I can’t help but think about whether or not I’m really experiencing a city if my experience is the same as every other tourist. Food for thought, I guess.
Between churches and pasta, we made time for a few other stops! One of them was the Trevi Fountain. I knew it was big but I didn’t think it was that big! I’ve probably seen more grandiose fountains in Las Vegas, but I felt so much more inspired when I saw this work of art by Nicola Salvi. In one of my favorite classes in uni so far, Rhetoric in Writing, I learned about the concept of exigence. It’s a mixture between purpose, inciting event and symbolism but at the same time, something completely different. I found so much exigence in Rome that it overwhelmed me. These artists actually had something to say. Their message is so valuable that people from all over the world travel to listen and learn about it. I wonder what my message to the world would be.
What boggles my mind is that all of these important buildings that are hundreds of years old are just in the middle of the city. For example, I was walking past pizza restaurants and shoe stores one minute and then a turn of a corner later, the Pantheon is standing in front of me. What’s also strange is that you can just come and go from this building freely! When we got there, we just sauntered right in. A fun fact about the Pantheon is that it is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. How the weight is supported when there’s a HOLE in the ceiling goes over my head. Another fun fact is that during the Summer Solstice, the sun shines through the Oculus at an angle where the light points directly at the entrance of the building. How cool!
On Sunday, we woke up bright and early and headed to the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Again, the weight of history is so incredibly heavy. 70 AD. I find it hard to wrap my mind around the fact that something built around that time is still standing today. Albeit damaged, but standing! In much of the museums that we go to, there’s usually a limit to how close you can get to the art or exhibit. At the Colosseum, I could run my hand along the stone walls. I climbed the same stairs that spectators would have climbed. It may not be a singular experience but what a special experience nonetheless.
When we got past security and were at the first viewing platform, I heard the first Vietnamese speaker since I’ve left home. A surge of emotion had me do a double take. The familiar cadence of the words was something that I didn’t know that I needed. I wish that I would have had the courage to join in and speak with the tour group because I forget how much I love speaking in my native language. Facetiming with my mom and family keeps me in practice but I want to speak it even more. I want to make conversation at the supermarkets, order food at restaurants, and banter with my friends. So much of my connection to my culture is through language, something I hope that I never lose.
Looking at these pictures, you might have done a double take. Wait. Is that girl wearing…heels? Yes. I had no choice but to wear 4 inch heels. (I originally thought they were 3 inches but measured them when I got home and they’re 10cm, which is 4 inches…) So why in the world did you have to wear heels around the cobbled streets of Rome you might ask? I was planning to wear my mules for the weekend, but due to the torrential rain on Saturday night, my mules were soaking wet and it was not appealing to wade through puddles with flat fabric shoes on Sunday. So I figured that my leather heels would be a better option, and they were! Proud to say that I survived 11 miles in 4 inch heels around Rome. My feet were a bit sore by the end of the night but it felt much better than wet fabric flats would have felt. The rain also put a damper lovely outfit I had planned (floor length flowy skirt doesn’t really suit the rain now does it?), but at least the rain didn’t stop our adventures!
One of my biggest disappointments about Rome was the shopping. I went on this trip with only half a suitcase filled and the intention of filling the other half. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not that I didn’t fill the other half. Everyone talks about how Italy is one of the best shopping destinations in the world but I truly found it hard to find something to buy!
Wandering around the city, I popped into more leather shops than I’d like to admit, hoping to find the one purse that I would be able to justify splurging on. With each store, I found that all the leather was dubbed to be “genuine Italian leather”. Maybe it was genuine! However, after the first three stores had the exactly same purses on display, I grew tired on my search. Is it too much to ask to find a cute boutique shop in the middle of tourist-y Rome with a uniquely designed genuine leather at the right price point? A bit? Okay then. I did, however, find a wonderful mixture between a coat and a cardigan that is perfect for California winters! I’m sure that other cities like Florence or Milan are probably better for the type of shopping that I’m looking for though.
Traveling around Europe has made the ability to figure out public transportation a necessary skill. One of the things that frustrates me the most about public transportation is that you aren’t ever in control of it. The schedule may say that the bus will be there at 12:15PM, and you might be there on time, but traffic or delays can make the bus late and then you’re left there on the side of the street waiting for 16 extra minutes when you’re tired and hungry and your feet are soaking wet from the rain. (can verify: it sucks). There’s been so many times when I’ve sat in a taxi or a bus where I’ve wished to just be in the driver’s seat again. I wish I had my car with my comfortable seat cushion, my finicky bluetooth speakers, my crooked steering wheel leather cover – I miss everything about it. I can’t imagine having to depend on public transportation to go to work in the mornings. I’m blessed to say the least.
The Ecstasy of St. Teresa is one of my favorite art pieces of all time. Bernini’s sculpture in Santa Maria della Vittoria is just the perfect amount of extra. The drama, the sensuality, the grandeur – Baroque art is my cup of tea. I’m still in shock that I was able to see the sculpture in person. I could never have imagined it in my wildest dream three years ago when I took the class. The art pieces that I learned about were always so distant but then before I knew it, I was on an airplane to see them in the flesh. I guess that’s how life keeps you on your toes.
One of my favorite movies is Roman Holiday. I suppose it’s quite a common dream to be swept away by someone like Gregory Peck but next time in Rome, I’m making it a point to try to recreate this picture! How iconic it would be! Counting down the minutes until I get to stroll down your cobbled streets again, Roma!