Part three of my eurotravels! After Amsterdam, I got to return to Oxford for a week for some serious R & R. I’m talkin’ sleep, gym, food, shop, TV, read, Skype. Every day. It was glorious. I got to catch up with people from home and I got to see my fourth year friends, Raquel and Simon, since they were in town as well. After 19 days of straight euro-tripping, you’d be surprised how shattered you are afterward.
On the morning of April 3rd, I flew to Pisa from London Luton Airport. The National Express buses to Luton are few and far between so I got there at 8 AM for a noon flight. And then I found out my flight got moved to 2:40 PM. AWESOME. Nothing will teach you patience and the art of doing something out of nothing like waiting in an airport. I had also forsaken my Blackberry for a rinky-dinky flip-phone for traveling so I couldn’t even have internet (God, that made me sound like a diva). All in all: important lesson in learning how to pass time! I bought a Dawn French book (a light-hearted, comedic read) at the W H Smith in the airport and just read! After my flight, getting to Florence out of Pisa airport wasn’t too bad. A really lovely British family actually took me under their wing when I asked for their help in getting on the right train so that was a comfort.
I met Ashely in our hotel, Hotel de Lanzi, at around 8 at night after a full day of traveling. We hit up an outdoor cafe near the Duomo (our hotel was only a thirty-second walk from it. SCORE) and then got Grom gelato. This place is famous for their organic, super well-made gelato. It was absolutely delicious- and basically right at the doorstep of our hotel. The next day we went to the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and Piazza del Meracto Centrale (a market strip where I got a pink winter scarf… not my brightest choice considering I had no room to pack it, and therefore, had to wear it to the warm country of Spain later that week. Good goin’, Liz). I then met up with the wonderful Liz Mahoney from HC who’s been studying in Firenze for the year for lunch. We went to an incredible, authentic restaurant. We sat outside and I got to hear her speak in really impressive Italian to the waiter! Later that afternoon, Ashley and I went to one of the most memorable places I’ve been in all of Europe- the Piazzale Michaelangelo. After you cross the Arno River through the Ponte Vecchio (a famous bridge that is filled with jewelry shops- right up my alley!), you go down the road a bit and climb up steps for a little while. Once you do, you reach a piazza with a fake statue of David and sweeping views of not only Florence, but of the Tuscan countryside right next to it. Words can’t describe how awesome the whole experience was. My favorite was getting to see the Duomo from such a cool angle. Ashley and I attempted to climb the Duomo the next day to get some other cool aerial views but it was closed in preparation for Easter (forgot how religious Italy is!) so I’m glad we took advantage of the Piazzale Michaelangelo when we did.
We happened to run into John and Courtney- both HC and Mansfield kids- on a random street. What are the odds?! I swear I ran into more people I know while euro-tripping than I have in the past few years of my life! We hit up the Galleria dell’Accademia where the real statue of David is which was super cool and WAY bigger than I ever imagined it to be. But I’m not gonna lie… what I’ll most likely remember far more than the statue of David is the unbelievable pizza I had later that night. We went to Gusta Pizza- definitely a tourist hot-spot and filled with an alarming number of American college kids (who didn’t even try to speak in Italian even though it was obvious they were studying there. Tsk tsk.) but the pizza was literally out of this world (pictured to the right). I have never had anything like it and probably never will. Mmmmmmm.
The next day we explored a bunch of other piazzas and markets, one of which being the famous raised leather market. Ashley got an incredible leather jacket– and after deciding it was a good and memorable investment, I got a two-toned beautiful leather bag. Of course, I proceeded to get blue denim stains on it not long after. How lovely. But I’m in love with it so it’ll do. We went inside the Duomo which was MASSIVE and then I got a wonderfully fresh ham and mozzarella sandwich at Fratellini’s. Yumyum. One of the best surprises in Florence? When Ashley and I went to a random restaurant for dinner off the beaten path and bumped into my longtime high school friend Gina on the street as we walked out. Gina (who was spending her semester abroad in Florence) and I had tried to coordinate a time to meet and it didn’t seem in the cards for us- until by sheer luck I ran into her. And low and behold, the street we were on was the same street where she lived. I got to see her apartment and catch up with her. Funny how life works out like that. 🙂
After Florence, I flew to Barcelona to meet up with Sophia for our tour-de-force of Spain. We were in love with it from the get-go– probably because I discovered it had a Dunkin Donuts (I literally almost lost it when I saw it on the Rambla- you can see this in the photographic proof provided to the left). Well, it’s kind of a fake Dunkin as it’s really called Dunkin Coffee. LIARS. They didn’t make my iced latte like they do in the states. But was I still there every morning? Yes. Anyways, Barcelona is amazing- much bigger than most of the other European cities we saw actually. On our first night, we roamed most of the Rambla- a huge, busy strip in the center of town. It’s so unbelievably lively and leads straight down to this gorgeous fountain/ statue near a port. If you ignore the people trying to sell you toys and begging you to go to their bars, then it’s perfection.
The following morning we started our day off by going to Dunkin (of course) on the Rambla and exploring the famous strip more carefully in the sunlight. We stopped at La Boqueria, an incredible covered market with rows and rows of fresh fruit, meat, smoothies, candy, and every kind of food you could imagine. It was so colorful and, not to mention, delicious. I got a wonderful banana smoothie and a savory crepe. Mmmm.
We continued down the Rambla to a bunch of tents set up selling different kinds of jewelry– so perfect for me. We probably spent a solid hour milling through everything. After, we made our way to Catedral de la Santa Creu, a GORGEOUS church. To get there you pass by a ton of adorable streets and shops too. Necessary pit-stop after was of course churros in melted thick chocolate at Cafe de l’Opera back on the Rambla- SO yummy (you can see me, ecstatic with my churro, to the right). And we got to witness some stellar street performances while we were sitting outside. Next up was Museo d’art Contemporani; luckily Soph shares a similar affection for modern art so it was a really cool experience. Of course I managed to buy a pair of earrings in one of the tents set up outside the museum. God help me.
Catedral de la Santa Creu.
Later that night was kind of hilarious– me and Soph really do have bad luck, so together it’s disastrous. We picked out a place that was supposed to have the best paella in Barcelona. We walked for AGES- a legitimate 50 minute walk to get there, basically because we’re cheapos and didn’t want to pay for a cab. Gotta love traveling on a student budget. After we finally get to the address, we found that the place simply did not exist. Nope. Nowhere. We were STARVING. We sat down at the next closest thing but with a chain smoker sitting within two inches of me and her boyfriend staring at us creepily, we opted out. Down the way we spotted a crepe stand. At that point we would have eaten anything. Just as we pull up though, they’re closing. Of course. So we head across the street to a gelatoria but the line takes 20 minutes. Once again, OF COURSE. We did finally get fed and it tied us over for the 30 minute walk back to the Rambla where we sat down to eat shitty, street-style paella. But we laughed the entire time and shared a pitcher of Sangria so I’d say it was one of my favorite memories 🙂
The next day was mostly spent exploring the Parc de la Ciutadella:
It has views of the entire city and gorgeous architecture. Later, we tried to see the Picasso Museum but it was Easter Sunday and the line was outrageous. We consoled ourselves by grabbing coffee and more churros, naturally. We checked out some of the Gaudi architecture and the Sagrada Familia, their most famous Gaudi monument. It’s a gorgeous church and we actually got to sneak into an Easter service. Such an incredible experience. I’m not super religious, but seeing how Catholicism feels the same and a lot like home, even thousands of miles away, was really touching. Later that night we said “screw it” to the crappy street paella we’d been having and walked straight into a dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant and LOVED it. We ended the night at the Torre de Agua, a huge lit-up building. All in all: Barcelona is beautiful and there’s so much to explore. I’m not sure the people enjoyed our presence as much and the Catalonians definitely don’t value customer service (I was told no when I asked for a sugar for my cappuccino because it “was already sweet enough”. Cool.) But it really is stunning and I want to go back, especially to explore Park Guell (CAN’T believe I didn’t go!)
Moving on to Palma de Mallorca- possibly the funniest experience of my entire life. Firstly, the Ryanair flight there was the flight from hell. On my way to a tropical island, I had to wear three shirts, a sweater, and a winter scarf (I knew the scarf from Florence would haunt me!), in addition to sneakers and jeans. I. Was. Sweltering. Then Ryanair informed me my bag was too heavy. So I took out my massive professional Canon camera and wore it around my neck. Then, when I got in line, I was told I had to put it back in my suitcase. I actually told the attendant I had a fear someone would steal it and that’s why I wanted it on me and not in my suitcase. LIES. And it didn’t work– she made me do put it in my suitcase anyway. Then I had to stick my bag in the metal frame to make sure it fit. Torture. I was dripping in sweat by this point. Oh, did I mention this was an 8 AM flight? Icing on the cake.
The flight included wailing babies, turbulence, and then a 30-minute wait for a bus to collect us. Then an additional 40-minute wait to get into town. Once we did, we took a cab to our hotel (where the entrance was near impossible to find), and HOLY HELL, we were in for a treat. We booked a room at the Palma Bay Resort Club- sounds nice, right? Wrong. So, so wrong. It was disgusting. I’m talkin’ blood on the lobby floor and a room with a view overlooking feral cats, a dirt road, and rubble. Not to mention, there was an old-people convention so I was constantly almost-tripping over oxygen tanks. I swear you can’t make this stuff up. To put it simply- when Sophia and I saw a McDonald’s after we walked into town (if you can even call it a town), we finally felt safe. That is how rough this part of town was. While El Arenal, the beach itself, had pretty blue waters and soft, white sand, the area surrounding it was pretty crummy- and included women barking at me to corn-row my hair and random people begging me to go into their restaurants. Very overwhelming. But Sophia and I had an absolutely hilarious time. We found a British bar later that day and felt like we were home back in England again, enjoying conversation with the British bartender and sharing a few cheap drinks. We even brought a few of them by the water and had a ton of fun. So even though we could rarely get a seat by the pool, were denied entry to the Jacuzzi at our ‘resort’, got rejected by two bus drivers when we we asked to go into the city of Palma the next day, and also endured an entire day of cold rain, we truly made the best of it (anddd the fact that drinks were all-included). Plus, we got henna tattoos. So overall? I refuse to go back until I have the money to pay to stay in a decent part of the island with a real resort experience. But getting to watch old people jazzercise at 11 in the morning and dancing on a tiny dance floor to bad music with 50-year-old women (with their midriffs showing and tramp stamps on their backs) — I wouldn’t pass that up any day. P.S. Shout out to my girl Soph for going through this with me. Survivors. When in Mallorca, babe.
My last leg of the trip was meeting up with my parents in London and Lisbon. I was so excited to see them, especially my dad who I hadn’t seen since December. We stayed in my parent’s friend’s flat in London which was so nice. And getting to travel with my parents was awesome; FINALLY– amazing food, hotels, the whole she-bang. I felt like I was in the lap of luxury compared to all of my student traveling. In London, we relaxed a lot. Traveling with parents is so much more low-key and definitely a nice change of pace after all my euro-tripping. We explored Oxford Circus, ate at the unbelievable La Petite Maison (which I HIGHLY recommend!) and saw a West End show called One Man, Two Guvnors. Actually side-splitting, laugh-out-loud hilarious. I am a slapstick humor kind of girl so I was crying laughing. Absolutely loved it. We spent the next day in Oxford- even though I had already taken my mom on a tour of it, I was excited to show my dad everything. We explored so much, including Christ Church (Mom and Dad are standing in front of it in the pic above), Radcliffe Camera, the Randolph (where we had cream tea!), Mansfield, and ended our day with a delicious trip to Al-Andulas with Sophia- a tapas bar with far better paella than we ever had in Spain.
Then we were off to Lisbon. Lisbon was wonderful and quintessential Europe, but run-down and in need of cleaning and paint-work. We decided to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city– I don’t know why I had never thought of that beforehand. It’s pure genius. You get to relax while exploring all the areas of the city that would have most likely gone unexplored otherwise. It took us everywhere, starting at the Marques de Pombal, going through the Torre de Belem, and Baixa (the lower town area with lots of cute streets and shopping). My favorite was going up Alfama – the hilly, mountain part of the lower town- and getting to see the most incredible views of the sea and city. It had cobble-stone streets, trolleys, and shops- so wonderful. My favorite experience in Lisboa (as the Portuguese say) was going to a restaurant called Faia (my mom and I are there in the pic to the right!) to experience authentic Portuguese Fado– it can best be described as an operatic singing combined with a mandolin. It’s usually pretty mournful but also stunning. It was declared a World Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO so getting to witness it firsthand (the singers we saw were supposedly really famous as well!) made me feel like I got to truly be apart of something important to Portuguese history. I never would’ve been able to do it without my parents because it is on the expensive side so I’m super grateful.
We also spent a day exploring Sintra, a village about 40 minutes away, and Cascais, a gorgeous beach town. Sintra was one of my favorite villages in Europe. It had winding roads up a mountain and a quaint village center with cute cafes. It also has a tropical climate so the greenery is unbelievably gorgeous. The trees there are used to make cork for wine bottles too. We went up the Palácio Nacional da Pena which is a beautiful palace/ castle built upon one of the highest points of Sintra by the Moors. Then we drove around Cascais and got to see some of the most gorgeous beaches (even if it was raining!) One of the coolest parts was the Boca de Inferno (Mouth of Hell); I didn’t get a picture but it looks like this. Amazing, right?!
Portugal is very beautiful (the language sounded like Russian to me, even though it looked Spanish. So confusing!) It makes me sad that they’re suffering high unemployment rates and that Lisbon looks so run-down and graffitied. I hoping in the next few years it can be resorted to its potential.
That about wraps up my European travels! Definitely the most incredible six weeks of my life. The next few posts will be about my last term at Oxford. Officially 20 days till home. WHERE DID THE TIME GO?!? I’m freaking out. But savoring every last second. 🙂 More to come!
Elizabeth Masi '13