After Madrid, I hopped on the first leg of my Rail-pass route, headed for Barcelona. My cousin already had plans to meet up with her friends (from the states) there and then they had a whole trip planned for Italy and Greece, but since I had already been to Italy, I was headed north to do a more Western Europe route, but I still wanted to go to Barcelona. Once I arrived in Barcelona, I headed to check into my hostel. Even though I had technically stayed in a hostel in Guatemala, this was my first European hostel experience, and it was a great one! Albareda Youth Hostel was a couple minutes walk from one of the more central Metro stations, a short walk from the wharf, and a block set back from the main street of Par-allel, so it was in a nice, quiet neighborhood. Later, I met up with Brooke and her friends, whose hotel was just a couple blocks away from me, and we headed to the wharf for a delicious lunch of Tapas and Sangria in the sunshine!

That night, my hostel had a paella and sangria making night, so the girls came over and joined our group of about 15 where we had the chance to somewhat learn how to make true Spanish seafood paella, and also sangria. For our evening plans, another “activity” at the hostel took a group of people to this “shot bar,” but because we were meeting another group from a hostel we had to wait around for a while so we could get free entrance. While the group waited, Brooke and the other 2 girls, and an Australian we had met at Paella night all went next door for a drink in this cool, very hipster little bar. Then, once inside the shot bar, Chupitas, we were able to order 1 of their 300+ shots. They had a large menu on the wall with just names of shots (not knowing what kind of alcohol is inside) and you order whatever sounds fun or crazy, for only 2€ each! After hanging out there for a while, we all decided to call it a night, as we were all pretty tired.

The next morning, the girls had a tour planned out, so I was on my own for the day to explore! I bought my online ticket for the Sagrada Familia, with a timed ticket entrance, and arrived a little after 9:30. Just walking up the church is an absolutely stunning view. The incredibly unique style of the church is nothing like you’ve ever seen. Constantly under construction since 1882, the church is following Gaudi’s vision and style of architecture, which can be viewed all over the city in many of his buildings; the most famous of course being the Sagrada Familia. Although the church is attributed to Gaudi, less than 25% of the church was finished when Gaudi suffered a tragic death after being hit by a streetcar in a poor neighborhood, where no one recognized him. Since then, many architects and designers have stepped up to fill his shoes. The construction is expected to be finished in 2026, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. But until then you’re going to see a lot of cranes when you go to visit, so don’t be surprised!

And if you think the outside is impressive, just wait until you step INSIDE! The design and color inside is absolutely breathtaking. Rainbows of color from the stained-glass windows reflect onto the red-marble pillars, which essentially spin into a unique geometric pattern on the ceiling of the church. The designs, again, are nothing like I have ever seen, and even without the color bouncing off the walls; it truly is a work of art! Every last detail, down to the shapes of the columns, and the tippy-top points of the spires (each decorated with colored, mosaic-decorated “fruit” bunches), was carefully thought out by Gaudi himself, and is being realized by the equally extravagant dreams of other local artists. Inside the church, above the pews, is the choir area, which can fit 1,000 singers sending their voices to the heavens. Absolutely breathtaking! Trying to describe the magnitude of this amazing work, and showing photos absolutely does not do it justice, you have to see this in person! Funny enough, even with the sheer size of the church, with included basement exhibit containing Gaudi’s workroom, sketches, designs, and even models of the church, I happened to run into Brooke and Lauren and Bridget while they were on their tour. We really do live in a small world! One thing that really stood out to me from my tour was, even though the church is obviously an absolute showcase and maybe a little over-the-top, Gaudi was a devout Catholic and wanted to design and build this church in celebration to God. He stated that, although he wanted the church to stand out in the busy city of Barcelona, even at its tallest peak, it could not surpass the surrounding mountains, as he believed no work of man should outdo the work of God. Pretty cool J

After Sagrada Familia, I took myself on the Rick Steve’s Self-Guided walking tour through Barrio Gotique (Gothic Quarter), which was a fun way to see the city and its hidden gems (Rick just knows all the best spots…Good ol’ Rick!). There was a big shopping district, with stores like H&M, Zara, and even Nike, all tucked into beautiful old buildings. Then I walked past the Cathedral and through the Jewish quarter, before rounding back by the Parliament buildings we had walked by the previous afternoon. Then it was time to meet up with the girls, and as I was walking along, I ran into their tour (mostly old people) and had a short history lesson from their guide as their tour finished in front of St. Mary’s church. Then it was time for lunch where we enjoyed the most creative and delicious tapas place I had experienced! We walked up to the counter, which was covered in all kinds of tapas; everything from olives & anchovies, to mini soups, fish and cheeses, to chicken skewers, and even little dessert plates! Each dish had a large toothpick stuck into it, and you placed the used ones in a little cup on the table. At the end of the meal, when you were ready to pay, the waiter counted up each toothpick and that’s what you owed! Each item was 1,70€, with drinks and larger menu items costing more, but for the variety and decent size, I was happy as a clam when lunch was over!

Next, we headed back through the streets to find the steps where Christopher Columbus met with the King and Queen of Spain after returning from America. Then we did a bit of shopping on a few different popular streets before embarking on a bus adventure to find Park Güell, Gaudi’s famous park. I had a ticket, combined with the Sagrada Familia, to enter Gaudi’s home that he designed and lived in, and was a template for the housing development he had hoped to build in Park Güell. However, we were unaware of the reservation/ticket needed in order to enter the actual park and see all of his crazy park designs. So instead we walked up to tres cruces, where we had an amazing lookout over the city. We also encountered one of the weirdest street performers I’ve ever encountered, which provided for some great entertainment after our little hike. Then the girls headed back to the hotel to relax, while I did my best to try and get into the park before my tour, but since only around 400 people are let in every 30 minutes, tickets are snatched up quickly, and the next entrance time was 2 hours later. So I toured through the elaborate and quirky home, and then walked down a very long hill and a very long street to find the “closest” metro station, about a 25-minute walk. The place really is quite out of the way!

Once I got back to the hotel and got ready for dinner, the girls and I met up and wandered around looking for a good place to eat. We settled on a sort of tapas restaurant, and while their 8€ mojitos were very generous in size and strength, we were pretty disappointed with the food quality. After dinner, it was back to the hostel to gather a crowd, and have a drink before heading back to the shot bar!  At the shot bar the night before, as we were leaving, a Canadian had told us when we came back the next night that we had to order the Boy Scout shot; good call. The “Boy Scout” was a shot of some type of alcohol, and you are given a little marshmallow on a stick before the shot is lit on fire, and you roast the marshmallow, then take the shot (after the fire burns out of course), and then chase the shot with a marshmallow. SO much fun! That night we had wanted to find a fun club to go to and ended up at Terrace club, but we hadn’t been told about the entrance fee, and a bad impression from the extremely rude front desk staff, left us not wanting to go in. So instead we headed back to the shot bar, but the fun had somewhat been sucked out of the evening, and the group headed back to the hostel to keep drinking, but I chose to call it a night and get some sleep.

The view from our hotel room!

Vamos a España!

Our Madrid stay got off to a hilariously rocky start. Brooke and I arrived on different airlines and of course, as we failed to realize, that meant our arrival terminals would be different, so we had no clue how much our parting words of “meet in baggage claim” lacked any sort of common sense. Of course, after my flight arrived an hour late, I walked to my baggage and, after talking with the tourist information desk, realized I was two terminals away. I proceeded to wait (forever) for my baggage to arrive and then go in search of Terminal 2. However, Terminal 2 was a solid 15-minute bus ride away from Terminal 4, and by this time I already had my phone on and was texting Brooke, hoping she had also gone into minor panic mode once discovering I would not in fact be meeting her at baggage claim.

By the time I arrived at Terminal 2, I had received a text back saying she would be waiting where the terminal shuttles were. But in natural airport chaos, the Terminal 2 shuttle arrival and departure stations were 2 different places. So, I started walking around Terminal 2 looking for the shuttle departure area, and Brooke. Finally, like a scene of a movie, one that I might call Terminal 2 (hahahah I’m hilarious, I know), I was gliding down the moving walkway and I saw Brooke standing way up ahead of me. And in true movie fashion, she started walking away from me. So I took off hustling down the walkway calling out her name and FINALLY we were reunited, a good hour after we had arrived. Then we bought our metro passes and we were off to the city!

After exiting at our metro stop and walking one way for a while and trying to decipher our map with the corresponding street signs and numbers, we finally asked a local man (In Spanish! And I could understand him!!), if he could point out the address. Of course, thanks to the terribly labeled European streets (yes it’s a massive and correct generalization) we had actually passed it while walking. The hotel was hidden down a driveway, but just steps away from the metro stop — so handy!

Once we unpacked and relaxed a little, we took off in search of some food, or more specifically: sangria and tapas! Walking through the streets was so fun! Madrid was a city full of culture and color, definitely a contrast to the uniformity of Paris and its old, large, beige buildings! After discovering the grocery store around the corner was closed, as it was Sunday evening and siesta time, we decided to just wander around and find a restaurant. After walking a while, we ran into the park, Plaza España, just a few blocks from our hotel, and kept walking down a large shopping street where we kept passing restaurant after restaurant, all of which were obviously touristy and definitely over our budget. Once we were fairly burned out and hungry we finally saw a sign for yet another tapas place, but once that was actually reasonably priced, La Sureña. I ordered a delicious plate of meats and cheeses and a glass of Tinto de Verano, sparkling red “summer wine.” And it was SO delicious! After a long day of travel, we were both exhausted and ready to call it a night. Even though, as we headed back to the hotel around 10pm, the party was just getting started!

Oui Oui Mon Chéri!

That’s probably the only cool thing I can say in French, and I definitely never used it while there. There was a lot of oui and non, but it was mostly “parlez-vous anglais?” (Yes I had to look that spelling up.) French is not my language, nor is German, or even “Spain” Spanish, thankfully English is the language everyone chose to be the common denominator when it comes to languages. Though I do feel it gives we Americans a handicap, as we don’t feel the need to learn another language (everyone else understand us — for the most part.)

But France was still a lovely country! Our last 3 days were spectacularly filled with just about every activity in Paris that we didn’t fit into the first 2 days. Day 2 started off with a visit to Fragonard perfumerie, complete with my very first perfume purchase! We’re talkin’ the real deal here, folks! Real French perfume, specifically “Belle du Noi.” Smells amazing and it actually lasts, unlike anything else I own, which of course are all “eau de toilette” or “eau de perfume,” and yes obviously I learned all about the differences. Eau de toilette is the weakest of the three, only meant as a quick freshen up (to freshen up a bathroom smell, for example), and eau de parfum is a stronger level, meant to last a few hours, while perfume is meant to last a full day of wear, about 8 hours or so. So I splurged on my first big girl perfume and it was a great choice! So cool to see the actual oil on your skin and know that the smell will last for so long ;)

After the perfumerie, we had a few hours of free time. The coach bus dropped us off across a bridge from Notre Dame cathedral and we waited in the long, but fairly quick-moving, line to go inside. I had my handy dandy Rick Steves “Best of Europe 2014″ book with me, so I walked myself through the guided tour (lol, travel dork) and after about an hour found the other kids I was with and we all went for an early lunch just next to the cathedral. Then we proceeded to walk through the Latin Quarter, taking photos and meandering along the River Seine. I’m not proud of it, but we happened upon what was basically a group of gypsies playing a small lottery scheme/game and I and another kid in our group lost a bit of money being scammed into thinking we could win the game, until we realized the “crowd” of people around the game were actually all working together. Terrible judgment on all our parts, getting caught up in the excitement. However walking along the river more and looking at the beautiful view, as well as the lovely art, I quickly put that silly mistake behind me.

Our next activity had us meeting up with the coach bus in front of the Musee D’Orsay before driving out to Versailles Palace. We had only about 40 minutes to wander through the gardens, but it was a special day there! They only turn the fountains on in the Gardens of Versailles every so often (typically once a week) because there are so many of them and the upkeep costs so much! Luckily we arrived just before and walked down to the main central fountain to watch the “show” and then it was already time to head back up to the palace. To give you an idea of how large the gardens are, it was about a 12 minute each way from the palace to the 1st large fountain, walking at a fairly steady pace, and we only saw maybe 1/8th of the gardens. I could have spent all day there, and wish I had! But we had a tour of the palace, and I was also pretty excited for that. I knew the palace was going to be amazingly extravagant because the reason Versailles was built in the first place was because the Louvre wasn’t “good enough.” And the Louvre itself is jaw dropping in beauty and size, so Versailles and its gardens were just over the top impressive! After a few hours of a very informative guided tour from a local French woman, we were back on the coach to head back to the hotel and get ready for dinner.

The bus dropped us off down the hill from Sacre Couer cathedral, and we walked all the way to the top of the hill to get a beautiful view of the city! All the way along, and at the top, there were foreign men selling all kinds of little trinkets, and the trickiest ones are trying to make bracelets on tourists wrists, and before they even know what has happened, they have a bracelet attached to them that the man expects payment for. So pathetic! They tried to stop us on the way up and get going for my wrists and one even grabbed Brooke and tried to pull her wrist away! Not okay. We all yelled at them and quickly kept walking to the top. at the top were even more guys, and the worst was the one selling these plastic flying birds that would set off flying and often crash into people’s heads on the way down. Well I was not going to let that happen to me so just as I saw one heading for me, I firmly slapped and spiked it to the ground, while everyone around me cheered. It was a successful moment, and the man who had let it go sheepishly came to collect it as the whole crowd stared him down. I also quickly ran inside the cathedral and loved seeing the difference in architecture from that of Notre Dame, and others! Then we were off walking through Montmartre, the artist’s district on our way to the restaurant. Dinner was a traditional French restaurant with all of the traditional French cuisine available! French wine, escargot, duck a l’orange, tiramisu dessert (though I had to mostly pass on that one), and finished with an espresso. Then Joel took the whole group to a bar to party away our last night together!

The next 2 days were our “pack everything else in” days. Day 3 started off picking up our Museum Pass, which we aimed to get our money’s worth, and boy did we! The Louvre was first on the list and we made sure to hit all the “big ones,” but fit just about the entire museum into our stop: Mona, The Feast at Cana (click the link to find out why it’s significant and click here to find out why it’s significant to my family), Napoleon’s Apartments, the Venus, the French castle the Louvre was built over which showed the Medieval architecture, and all the Greek, Oriental, Italian, and artifacts from all over the world that the French brought back in their world conquests and now refuse to return to their rightful countries…haha awkward! After an exhausting few hours of battling crowds and wandering through ventilation-less rooms, we took a break to sit in the Touleries Gardens. Then on to L’orangerie Gallery, then the Arc du Triomphe, and all the way up, before heading back to Montmartre for dinner. After getting lost for probably an hour or two trying to find this popular “locals only” crepe place, we found a little cafe after booking what was essentially a dessert reservation at the crepe place. Then we decided to hike all the way up the hill to see what kind of art we could find. And we each successfully found a piece we liked, then back down the hill to make our dessert reservation where I enjoyed a delicious Gluten Free crepe (made with buckwheat flour, if you’re wondering)! Then it was back to the hotel to rest up for another busy day!

After a later start to the day to get all our travel plans squared away, we started our final day in Paris off at the Musee D’Orsay, where we bypassed the line thanks to the Rick Steves suggested Museum Pass! Great deal, seriously! I’m not being paid to say this. If you want to pack in a bunch of activities, it makes so much sense; they have other day passes also. After the Orsay was a walk along the Seine, then towards the Opera House. We first picked up a picnic lunch form MonoPrix, the Target equivalent, although it looks more like a department store in the clothing area, and then we headed to the steps of the Opera to bask in the sunshine and enjoy our lunch. Next we tubed it to the Latin Quarter. We walked around a bit and then decided to find a bathroom stop. Thanks to our Museum Pass, we decided to go to the St. Chapelle chapel, and our bathroom break ended up being way too worth it, with amazing views of some of the most amazing stained glass works of art. And then we found the bathroom. Our final stop was meant to be at the Army Museum but we got lost after getting off the metro and instead ended up in the King’s Cathedral, where we saw Napoleon’s tomb which is a GIANT, even without comparing it to his height.

We walked around and started heading back to the metro but decided that resting on the grass was our first priority and relaxed a bit before hopping on our last metro ride in Paris, with a last peek at the Eiffel tower. Then it was back to the hotel to pack and prep for Spain!

Madrid & Barcelona stories to come . . .