Spring break - the midway point of my time in Rome. I can honestly say (as can anyone else who has studied abroad) that it has flown by. Planning trips and booking weekends makes the weeks that much busier, the months that much shorter. At the beginning of the semester when everyone was scrambling around trying to find cheap flights and trying to coordinate traveling partners, it seemed as if we had all the time in the world. January to May felt like an eternity. We all thought we’d have enough time for everything - of course we were all wrong. We blinked and realized we could count the number of weekends we had left in Europe on our fingers.
Now our time here is so much more precious, we feel as if we don’t get in activities during the week, our time in Rome in between other countries is wasted. It doesn’t help that we have more than the average work load other American students have abroad (yes, I know it is a STUDY abroad program, but let’s not kid ourselves). Made worse by our heftier school schedule, the week before Spring Break was the week from hell: AKA midterms. The overall sigh of relief when our last test let out on Thursday afternoon couldn’t have come quicker. I was especially excited because one of my best friends/roommates from U of I was coming to visit.
Kim got into Rome Friday afternoon around 3 - and for the hour before her taxi arrived at my apartment, all I did was stare out the window and pace my empty apartment. My roommates had all left earlier that morning for Belgium, but we planned to meet up later that week in Barcelona.
Seeing her was such an amazing feeling - a physical connection to my life back at home, of all its comforts, familiarities, and routines. We wasted no time on seeing all the major landmarks - The Colosseum, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Via del Corso, and the Pantheon. We planned to save the Vatican and Villa Borghese for her last day here. Walking around the city with one of my best friends in the world was such a wonderful feeling. There was so much to catch up on, laugh about, and share. We ended the day at one of Rome’s best pizzerias (Dar Poeta) and gelaterias (Giolitti - apparently the Pope gets his gelato from here). Ate too much, drank too much, and soon fell asleep for a few hours before our painfully early flight to Valencia the next morning.
We had planned on meeting our friend Meghan in Valencia for a giant festival called Las Fallas. Las Fallas is the traditional festival in Valencia that takes place every year in the middle of March, marking the beginning of spring. Each year, every neighborhood around Valencia constructs these giant papermache sculptures of political figures, celebrities, and other famous people in the media. Usually they are parodies of the actual people, and many make political statements. People spend thousands upon thousands of dollars erecting these things. Every neighborhood competes to have the best “Falla.” On the last day of the festival, they light each one on fire and watch the whole thing burn to the ground. Slightly counter-productive. Some of the Fallas were pretty cool, but I thought most of them were pretty goofy. There were ones of Aladdin and Elvis, and some other cartoon characters, but other than that they were just bizarre. I felt like we were in a janky version of Disney World.
Throughout the entire festival, kids throw firecrackers and fireworks at anyone who passes in the street. Kim, Meghan, and I never got used to being constantly bombarded with exploding rocks, so of course the little kids targeted us American girls with the high pitched screams. Fireworks went off every night and in the middle of the afternoon. It was pretty hard to get any sleep - the entire city sounded like it was under attack.
Besides the Fallas, there wasn’t much to see in Valencia besides an old church and it’s bell tower. We climbed that the first day and got a beautiful view of the city. We could see right down into the square where a lot of the parades were going on. The Valencian ladies were dressed in their traditional colonial garb, some carrying babies, and the men were playing instruments and waving flags. Even little boys and little girls were marching. Kim noted that it was like a Spanish Who-ville, and Las Fallas was their annual Who-bilation. We couldn’t help but agree.
After walking around and checking out some of the Fallas, we realized that there wasn’t much else to do in town. We went to the aquarium one day (the largest in Europe) and that was pretty cool, but other than that we hung out at the beach, ate bocadillas (Spanish for sandwich), and drank cervezas. It was so nice to lay on the beach - it actually felt like a vacation, as opposed to running from landmark to landmark trying to fit everything in.
The trip was pretty low-key, lounging in the hot sand, munching on churros and chocolate, sipping sangria, dining on tapas (especially enjoyed the seafood plate called “sepia”) and enjoying the Spanish sun. Of course we celebrated St. Patrick’s day properly - got beers at one of the few Irish pubs in town. Not only was there an Irish pub in Valencia, but the fact that there were multiple made me giggle.
On the last night of Las Fallas, we decided to rough the crowds in the street and see what all the fuss was about. Admittedly we had been trying to avoid the loud parades and obnoxious children throwing exploding firecrackers at our feet, but we decided to take in some culture and actual participate in the festival on the final night. It wasn’t until This last night that I finally realized why people travel hundreds of miles to see Las Fallas.
We shoved our way through the crowd to get closer to the massive Falla of some sort of Disney character. We stood waiting for the thing to burn, readily equipped with our newly purchased bandanas to cover the smoke from our faces. When the time came, we watched as the huge structure began to ignite. Honestly, I didn’t think it was anything special, just a slowly smoldering mountain of brightly colored paper mache. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I saw my life flash before my eyes. All of a sudden, a massive explosion went off in a cloud of smoke. The Falla had erupted, and thousands of glimmering bits of fire coated particles were raining down from the night sky. I thought for sure we’d all be singed to death. I grabbed Kim and Meghan and ran as fast as I could away from the volcanic mountain. Of course all attempts were futile against the massive crowds pushing back on me. I knew I wasn’t the only one that was freaked out though - other Spaniards had the same look of terror on their faces that mirrored mine.
It wasn’t until Kim and Meghan pulled me back and started laughing that I finally calmed down. We weren’t going to be singed to death after all. The sparks had stopped falling, and my adrenaline was slowly starting to wear off. We continued to watch in awe as the huge thing burned slowly to the ground, eventually collapsing into a smoldering pile of rubble. It was pretty cool after all.
After that, we dropped Meghan off at the train station so she could catch her 10 hour train ride back to Granada. Kimmy and I trekked back to our hostel, and woke up the next morning to catch our train to Barcelona.
I loved Barcelona, but it is a city that I am still trying to figure out. Parts of it reminded me of Miami Beach, Florida. There were areas that reminded me of Puerto Rico. Other spots reminded me of Chicago or another modern city. But none of it reminded me of Spain. I’ve realized throughout my travels that my original perception of a city is usually completely off. I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing, but it has definitely made traveling so much more interesting.
We got into Barcelona around 2 in the afternoon, after a slight delay earlier that morning. I was determined to get us to our hostel by foot using my guidebook, but of course, we got lost, and ended up surrendering to the first taxi we saw. Our hostel was a dump. Probably the nastiest place I have ever stayed in - made worse by the fact that we would be there for 4 nights. Our room (and the entire place, for that matter) smelled like a wet cat that had been rolling around in spoiled milk. The bathroom off of our room was constantly flooded, pooling under our door. We shared the room with a boy and a girl from Slovenia. They were very nice, and pretty hysterical after a few drinks.
The range of ages staying in our hostel was far and wide. We met three men over the age of 60. There were quite a few 30 year olds, but the rest of them were about our age. I’m not sure if it was just in our heads, but we got the feeling that none of them ever left the hostel the entire time we were there. We would wake up, see them at breakfast, come back from walking around and they’d be there sitting on the couch, and then they’d drink there at night, not even bothering to leave. They seemed perfectly content in the smelly cat/soy-milk flavored hostel.
Kim and I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out of there, even though our walk to and from the hostel was a little scary. We talked to our friend Lizzy who had studied in Barcelona all of last year, and apparently we stayed on the most dangerous street in Barcelona. Typical. It was pretty much prostitute row. Girls were lined up on the corner the entire day, not even waiting for nightfall. At first I didn’t even realize who they were or what they were doing. But then I realized they were in the same spot all day, day after day. The men on our street were “colorful.” Constant whistles, catcalls, kissing noises, and other obscene comments were commonplace. Of course Kim’s bright blonde hair did nothing to help us blend in. She picked up a new nickname in Spain, “Rubia” (Spanish for blonde). We made a habit of speed walking down the street, locked arm in arm, and taking other streets whenever possible.
Other than our pungent hostel and the less than pleasant walk to and from, the city was amazing. Unlike Rome, Guadi’s beautiful architecture was only part of the multifaceted city - it didn’t overpower it. For every intricate mosaic-like building, there was a modern facade. The monuments didn’t dictate which way the streets bent. There was an actual grid pattern to the city, unlike the complete maze that is Rome.
Our first day in Barcelona was spent getting settled into our catnip hostel and finding something to eat before meeting up with Kim’s Nick. We had tickets for an FC Barcelona soccer game, which we were both very excited about. We bought jerseys and scarves from a store on La Rambla (kind of like the Michigan Avenue of Barcelona), bartering down the price about 20 euro. Donning our fresh gear, we headed over to Nick’s place before going to the stadium.
The game was awesome. We were sitting pretty high up, but it was even better that way, allowing us to see just how huge the stadium was. It was massive - Kim and I both felt like we were watching a quidditch match. It started to rain about halfway through the game, but we were having such a good time it didn’t even matter. Barcelona shut out the other team, and their star player Messe set some new record for most goals scored in Barcelona. Go team. After the game we took the metra back to our lovely hostel and called it a night.
The next day the weather was abominable, so we decided to save the sightseeing for tomorrow, figuring we had 5 full days to kill, so we could afford to have one lazy day. I think that day made me the most homesick - it was just like a typical Saturday in Champaign, minus the Slovenians and overflowing bathroom (oh wait…).
We attempted to go shopping earlier that day, but the only purchase we made were a pair of sweatpants (best purchase of the whole trip, seeing as how we were grossly underdressed for a majority of our time there). We went to the store, got a couple of boxes of Sangria (adult juice boxes!) some snacks, and then instantly fell asleep on the common room couches to avoid the cat stench in our room.
The next day we were determined to do some sightseeing. Sagrada Familia and the Picasso Museum were at the top of my list, so we decided to knock those out. Sagrada Familia was beautiful. So different than any church that I had seen in Italy. I doubt I’ll still be alive when they are finally done renovating it, but what we did see was absolutely fantastic. The outside facade reminded me of a giant trip castle, and the inside was just as cool. The whole church was a lot more geometric than any Italian church I had been in. The lines were simpler, cleaner. But at the same time, the entire structure was so complex. It truly was amazing.
The Picasso Museum was awesome, too. It was cool to see how his style developed throughout his life. My favorite were not his more famous pieces (oddly enough, not a lot of them were there), but his earlier sketches. He used to design menu covers, which I had not known before. There was one display that showed an actual photograph of what Picasso was painting, and then the actual painting itself. The difference in what he saw in his head and the reality was ridiculous.
That night, we met up with one of Kim’s friends from high school. Of course her apartment was fabulous. Kim and I were laughing about my shit hole of an apartment and how of course U of I always goes for the cheapest option. Our plan was to go to a few bars to pregame and then go to this club on the beach called Opium, totes one of Barca’s hottest discotecas. The first bar we went to was a shot bar called Chupitos (Spanish for shots). There was a list of about 200 shots you could order, but we had something called the Boyscout Shot. The bartender lit the bar on fire, and then handed us marshmallows to roast. We popped those into our mouths and then immediately took a shot of some caramel flavored liquor. Gross, but still fun. After that we took some sort of mint shot. More fire, some alcoholic fumes. Neat. Mouth smellin’ like Listerine at this point. After that we headed next door to a make-your-own cocktail place. My personal heaven.
Opium (da club) was unreal. I felt like we were in Miami Beach. Usually I am not a pounding music/strobe light kinda girl, but this was so fun. I don’t know if it was the fact that the club was right on the water, the perfect playlist, the fact that Kimmy was there, or other factors, but I was loving every minute of it. The fact that you could be on the dance floor one minute, and on the beach the next blew my mind. The rest of the night was a blur of flashing lights, pulsing music, and the sand beneath my toes.
The next day Kim and I got up early before her friends Maggie and Mary got in from Sevilla. We walked up and down La Rambla, and checked out the giant market. It was unbelievable - probably one of my favorite parts about the entire trip. Stall upon stall of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses, tapas, fruit juices, dried meats, chilli peppers, and other Spanish delicacies lined the crowded aisles (mostly of tourists). The meat counter was lovely - the Spaniards made use of every single body part - including the heads and eyes. The fish counter made me a little squeamish. Still clawing lobsters and crabs were piled sky high for the taking. My favorite, although, were the heavenly bocadillas of ham and queso. I must have had at least 2 every day I was in Spain. I think I could live off them.
After the market, we met up with Maggie and Mary, Kim’s friends from highschool. We hung out at the harbor, drank some cervezas, and basked in the warm Barcelona sun. After that we were feelin’ good. We got some more beers, and hopped on a bus tour throughout the city. Usually I’d feel dumb about doing one, but it was such a nice day out, and all of us were lazy from the sun and beverages. It was a perfect afternoon, even though we may or may not have gotten locked into a soccer field at one point.
That night we met up with Nick again, and we hung out at his apartment with a few of his friends from Wisconsin and Indiana. We pre-gamed at this giant warehouse-like bar with a huge keg for our group, and then went to another club on the water called Showco. Much like Opium, it had the same Miami Beach feel. I was excited because Nicole, Molly and my roommates were going to be there. It was a great night of more dancing, something that my friends and I at U of I almost never do. Ask any of them - my favorite thing to do on a Friday night is to get a bunch of pitchers and hang out in one of the booths at Kams - probably the most non-clubby bar on campus. On the cab ride home I got to practice my Spanish - something that I had been looking forward to the whole trip. My entire time here I have been confusing Italian with Spanish, but of course as soon as I got to Spain, I kept speaking Italian. Such is life.
The next day we got out of our hostel as soon as possible. We walked around the market with Maggie and Mary, and then headed off to find Parc Guell, Guadi’s famous public park. It was magnificent. Millions of colored mosaic tiles, carved out caves, and beautiful natural landscapes overlooked the sea. We sat for a long time and people watched before calling it a day. Our flight back to Rome was at 5:50 the next morning, meaning that we’d have to leave for the airport around 3:30 - not to mention it was daylight savings time, so we had to factor that in as well. We decided to stay up the whole night, so we hung out at a few bars close to our hostel before heading to the airport.
Our flight got into Rome at 8 in the morning. Kim and I had planned to do the Vatican and Villa Borghese, but that never happened. We went right to bed and ended up sleeping through the entire day. We woke up around 8 and then went to dinner at one of Nicole and my usual spots. Ate way too much, and then fell asleep again. The next morning was sad. It was horrible saying bye to her. I wanted to hop in the cab with her and go back home. But I wouldn’t trade the painful goodbye for any of our trip together. Thanks for the memories Kimber!!!