Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Break Wrap-Up!

I had a wonderful two weeks of spring break travels, blessed by good weather, great sites and a lovely traveling companion. My friend Alexandra and I visited Spain (Barcelona & Madrid), southern France (Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes, Nice & Eze Village), Monaco and Italy, and its taken a few weeks of recovery to get me back to blogging!

The first stop of what came to be termed "Eurotrip 2011" was Barcelona. This marked the first of 3 RyanAir flights during this trip - which is an experience in and of itself. Flights offered at 15 euros seem unreal...but then you fly RyanAir and you understand. One issue perhaps is that they don't fly out of many major airports. So while Paris boosts two international airports just outside the city, RyanAir instead flies out of Beauvais, a hardy 1.5 hour bus trip from Paris' perimeters. The only mode of transport to get to middle-of-nowhere Beauvais is a bus run by the airport for 15 euros each way and they don't seem to run on any regular schedule. Leaving Paris, we had trouble catching the bus intended for our flight, but once we finally got a bus and arrived at the airport we discovered our flight had been delayed a few hours anyway (apparently the majority of passengers hadn't shown up on time...). The tickets for the flight guarantee a space, but not a reserved seat. So when they begin boarding, there is a mad dash across the terminal as all of the passengers on the flight line up to get their choice of seats. Mayhem. Once we were all packed on the plane, tight as a sardine can, we were off. Not too long after, we arrived in Barcelona. The first night at our hostel quickly taught us that we don't know Spanish (or Catalan) and that French with a Spanish accent is really not the same. Through charades and sign language, we were able to check-in and pay and get directions for some sightseeing the following day.

Sagrada Família
Barcelona is full of interesting architecture, mostly designed by Antoni Gaudi. We saw the Gaudi apartments - Casa Mila and Casa Battlo - and Gaudi's masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, which still has about 40 years left until it will be completed. The exterior of the church had a modern facade with Star Wars like depictions of biblical characters, and a more classic nativity scene on the other side of the building. The inside of the church is incredibly gorgeous. Gaudi was inspired by the structure and beauty of trees, so the interior columns resembled a forest, with their canopies panning out to form the rooftop. Boldly colored stained glass windows decorated the walls, which were a stark white color giving the basilica an airy feel.  After we toured the basilica and its adjacent Gaudi Museum, we headed to lunch at a wonderful little vegetarian restaurant, where we were able to speak French to the chef and had several delicious veggie dishes. Later on we walked down one of the most famed Barcelona boulevards, La Rambla. The street was lined with people in costumes and venders selling everything from postcards to noisemakers to bunnies and ducklings. Our stroll on La Rambla ended at the port, where we walked around the harbor to arrive at the beach on the other side. The beautiful beach was packed with Spaniards soaking up the sun on one of the hottest days they had had so far. We had paella for dinner on La Rambla and later on we met up with our friends Katie and Emmet who we shared a hostel room with for the night. We ventured out to the water again to see the Mediterranean in the moonlight, before calling it a night. The next day we wandered around the city's adorable Gothic quarter and walked through some gorgeous fresh fruit markets. We gathered supplies for a picnic and headed to Park Guell. Park Guell was on a huge hilltop overlooking the city and there was an escalator you took to get up to the park from street level. We walked up a structure at the top of the park which offered great views of the city, the coastline and nearby Montjuic. We ate our picnic lunch and then followed the sound of music to a pavilion in the park, where musicians were performing and bounds of tourists were dancing and singing along to the Bob Marley tunes. Later that day we met up with my friend Rhea from Cornell and tried to get tickets for that night's FC Barcelona game. Failing, we went to watch the game at a bar near the stadium and it was still quite an experience with fans cheering and yelling at every goal and good or bad call. The next day we headed off early in the morning to Madrid!
St Josep Mercat, Barcelona
Sunday morning, we arrived in Spain's capital city, Madrid. We checked into our hostel and then walked around in the heart of the city - an area called Sol. We met up with my friend Paige for ice cream and she  took us on a walking tour around the city. We saw an Egyptian temple in a hilltop park, the royal palace, a wonderful indoor market and beautiful Park Retiro. We spent the afternoon in the park, napping in the sun by a waterfall. That evening we ate dinner at an Indian restaurant, which was surprisingly good! The next day, we started with breakfast in a little pastry shop where we were spoiled with coffee, pastry and some of the best and freshest orange juice we'd ever had. Then we spent a few hours at the Museum Reina Sofia, a famous modern art museum in Madrid. The museum's prized possession is Picasso's 'Guernica' which was rather impressive and there were many other interesting works by Picasso, Dali, Miro and others. We later returned to Park Retiro, which we had enjoyed so much the day before, and we went row boating! We ended our stay in Madrid with dinner at a Spanish restaurant with live dancing. And the next day we were off to Marseille!
Row boating in Retiro Park
View from Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
After a several hour delay on our flight to Marseille, we finally arrived back in France. It was great to return to a country where we could actually communicate with people! On our first day there, we walked along the coastline battling the strongest winds I've ever experienced. We walked from the Vieux Port to a beach from which we could see Chateau d'If, the famous prison from 'The Count of Monte Cristo.' We continued along the rocky coast and made our way up to the highest point in the city, the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. By the time we had made it up the kilometer of steps to the mount, the basilica was closed. We sat at the gates and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean before heading back to our hostel by the port.

On the hike to the Calanque of Sugiton
The next day we took a bus to the perimeter of the town near Cassis and took a hike down to the Calanque de Sugiton. Between Marseille and Cassis is an area called the 'Massif des Calanqus' in which there are 12 calanques, inlets in the coast formed as valleys with steep, limestone, mountainous sides. Sugiton was beautiful. The water was still and green in the inlet, and then a fierce blue where it opened up to the sea. In the late afternoon we went to Aix-en-Provence. Aix was adorable and much more of a village then Marseille. The narrow streets were lined with shops and restaurants and opened up onto large squares adorned with bubbling fountains. This town was a favorite of many painters, the most celebrated being Cezanne. We walked to a terraced garden called 'Terrain des Peintres,' where Cezanne was said to have spent time painting the view of the Sainte Victoire Mountain. After dinner in Aix, we returned to Marseille, achy from our morning hike. The next day we discovered some of Marseille's cultural diversity. We wandered along a street full of North African shops that sold a great variety of spices, tea, ceramics and soaps. After purchasing some souvenirs, we headed to the train for Cannes. The train's route was gorgeous as it followed the Mediterranean coast.

View of Ste Victoire from the Terrain des Peintres
Our stay in Cannes was a nice break in the middle of our trip. In our two days there we walked around the tiny town, wandered the sandy beach, shopped and ate, of course. The town is most known for hosting the annual Cannes Film Festival. Surrounding the building where the event is held, the Palais des Festivals, are actors' handprints on the sidewalk, expensive shops and giant yachts in the port.
View of Cannes from The Suquet, Cannes' old quarter
Our next destination was Nice. Nice was exactly what I pictured of the French Riviera. The beach was expansive and along it ran the Promenade des Anglais, a palm-tree lined boardwalk full of strolling couples and rollerblading teens. The city's old town was full of pastel colored buildings, old churches, little shops, and large squares with book and antique markets. The harbor was full of fishing boats and yachts, and off-shore we saw cruise ships and ferries, offering transport to Corsica. One day while we were staying in Nice, we took a bus to nearby Monaco. The hour-long bus trip took us along the coast and it was a beautiful ride. In Monaco (weird to think it was a different country) we saw the casino in Monte Carlo and walked along the coast, passing by expensive cars and fancy boats. We ate lunch by the port, fighting off a hungry seagull and watching the fish swim past yachts docked nearby. In the old town we saw the royal palace with its silly clad guards marching around outside, and we wandered the city streets, much resembling those of Nice. 
Monaco harbor with Alexandra

Monte Carlo Casino
Harbor in Monaco
On our way home from Monaco, we took a detour to a Medieval hilltop town called Eze Village. The bus ride to Eze Village snaked along tiny mountain roads that you would never have imagined a bus could fit on. In Eze there was an old chateau built on this mountaintop with its own roads, shops and residences, still used today. This used to be a retreat for the Swedish Royalty, but now most of it is a fancy hotel called the Chevre d'Or (golden goat). Eze was also a favorite spot of Nietche. There was a long trail along the mountain to the sea called the Nietche trail, which he used to frequent while writing 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'. Eze was great and totally different in feel than the rest of the Riviera we visited. 
Eze Village
View from Eze Village
The next morning we took an early train (actually 3 trains) to get us to Florence. While in Florence we spoiled ourselves with the best gelato ever and wandered the beautiful old city streets. One day we climbed to the top of the Duomo. The views were magnificent from the top - you could see all of the city's terra cotta rooftops and surrounding the city, the Tuscan countryside. We also walked through open air markets near the Duomo. We haggled for purses in a leather market and collected some more souvenirs to bring home. While we were in Florence, Passover was just beginning. The first night, we attended a Chabad seder with friends of Alexandra's college roommate (who we were staying with). The second night, we went to a seder at one her friend's apartments, which was really nice and a great way to celebrate the holiday. There was even an Italian flare - we ate bruschetta on matzoh to start off the meal! While we were in Florence the MTV Italia's TRL Award show was held. The show/concert was being filmed in the square in front of a church called Santa Croce. We went to the concert of all Italian artists, which was crowded with rowdy Florentine teens. We kept holding out for a surprise American star to perform, but we had no such luck. Regardless, it was quite an experience. And after that, as we did nearly each night we were in Florence, we visited what was referred to as the "Secret Bakery." A small hoard of people gathered around a non-conspicuous doorway off an alley. This was the door of a bakery that bakes throughout the night to produce goods for restaurants in the city. One by one, each person knocked on the door, told the baker what they wanted and the door was closed. Moments later, the baker would return with paper bags, passing off each bag in exchange for a euro. Fresh Italian baked goods - delicious!
Il Duomo
The Ponte Vecchio
During our stay in Florence, we took a day trip to the Cinque Terre - five adorable little towns in the Italian Riviera. The first town we visited was Monterosso, which was along the sea and had a beautiful beach. We ate lunch on the beach - feasting on the local specialty, pesto, in the form of pesto lasagna. We tried to swim in the icy waters, but instead retreated to the sand and napped in the sun. With limited time we had to miss two of the towns, but next we made our way to Manerola. This little town had an array of colorful buildings that were built on rocks which descended down to the water. We ended our trip in Cinque Terre in Riomaggiore. We walked there from Manerola along a path called Via dell'Amore. The path offered astounding view of the sea and the sun as it was beginning to set. And as implied by the name, the path was rather romantic - couples had attached love locks nearly everywhere possible and the path's gates were adorned with hearts. In Riomaggiore we stopped in little stores in the colorful village, picking up some homemade pasta and focaccia. We headed back to Florence, packed up, said our goodbyes and then had to leave for the airport to catch an early morning flight back to Paris. A few hours later, we were back in France. While sad to be done with Spring break, there was nothing sad about returning to Paris. It was a wonderful two weeks and full of experiences I'll never forget!
View of the other 4 towns from Montarossa
Sunset from Cinque Terre

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