Franco-Spanish Adventures

Last year turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster, one that I never thought I would have to go through. I literally felt like I was struggling throughout the whole year, even though I was trying to put on a bright face and fool myself and everyone else. I believe I have learned my lessons. I felt trapped in my head and in my life. I just needed to escape from reality and the best way to do it was to take a three-month break and travel back to Europe. Surprisingly, this healed my heart. The year 2018 started off in an unexpected way – I was admitted to a Ph.D. program in finance, something for which I had been working on for the past two years, and planned out the next big steps in my life, which seemed to be a little bit too unattainable to share with anyone but with my parents, but I was never the one to take the easy road. Traveling is one of the best remedies and I recommend it to anyone who feels lost. We are all works of art and anytime we board the plane, get on the bus or in the car, we are one step closer to finding ourselves. The last trip I took was to France as well as Spain. I visited Barcelona, Pamplona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Lourdes and Avignon. Here is a list of the activities I enjoyed in the different cities I visited, which highlight both countries’ cultures.

 

Find hidden and peaceful spots.

I personally love taking strolls in the park to clear my head from all types of negativity and stresses that I meet in my day-to-day life. That’s why every time I travel, I seek places where the crowds are far away and I can capture breathtaking views with my camera. The beach in San Sebastian was one of those spots. I spent two hours just sitting there, taking in the view and freeing my head from all problems. Another spot was The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which is the largest Guggenheim Museum in the world, where I spent three hours looking around, listening to the audio guide, and two hours walking outside of the museum itself. The Guggenheim Museum was designed by architect, Frank Gehry, and is one of the most astounding representations of Deconstructivism. It is home to the works of famous Spanish and international artists. What seemed like an optimistic work of art to me is the Puppy Sculpture in front of the museum. It is carpeted in flowers and almost looks like a flower garden, but it isn’t. Another site, which is away from the big crowds, is The Palais des Papes in Avignon. It is a historical palace which used to be the papal residence during the fourteenth century in Western Europe. Today it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive gothic buildings and the biggest gothic palace in the world. It is worth the visit provided that you also learn a lot from the interactive guide upon your entrance to the palace. You can walk around all of the different rooms, take a picture and you get transported back in time. You witness the interior design of every room as it used to look in the past, with the interactive guide in your hands. The whole experience has been educational to me since I haven’t seen anything like this before. It is worth your time if you want to bask in some history. The Magic Fountain of Montjuic in Barcelona was another site which truly impressed me. Even though it was crowded, when the fountain started singing and displayed the plethora of colors at night, I forgot I was surrounded by people. That night we went, the fountain played one of my favorite songs - Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida.’ Like its name says, the fountain is absolutely magical and is a site worth visiting. Finally, I would like to mention two sites designed by Anthony Gaudi - Park Güell and The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, both of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They both show Gaudi’s genius modernistic point of view and inspiration with organic shapes. Just like when you visit The Magic Fountain of Montjuic, you cannot escape the crowds, but you can marvel at inspiring and innovative buildings at both sites, and an astonishing view of the Mediterranean in Park Güell.

 

Image Courtesy of Kristina Lalova

 

Go to a soccer game.

My family has always appreciated the soccer culture. I had been dragged to soccer matches ever since I was a little girl. My dad and I used to watch soccer all the time when I was at home, even though my mom used to frown upon that. When I heard that FC Barcelona and Atlético de Madrid were playing the weekend I happened to be in Barcelona, I instantly knew I wanted to go. So, tickets were bought a day before the game at Camp Nou, which is the second largest soccer stadium in the world, and plans were set. The atmosphere at the game was indescribable – you just need to witness it to understand it. I was rooting for the better team to win, although I had my preferences for Atlético de Madrid. The night before the match we went to The Magic Fountain of Montjuic. Atlético de Madrid’s bus passed and the whole crowd was booing at the team. So, do not mention you are a fan of Atlético de Madrid when you are in Barcelona. Also, if you are looking for a taxi ride right after an FC Barcelona game, think twice. I could not believe how hard it was to find one, but again that was a lesson learned. The taxi driver entertained me on the importance of soccer in Spanish culture in the taxi back home. He even knew of Hristo Stoichkov, who used to play for FC Barcelona and is the most successful Bulgarian soccer player, which was pleasant to hear. Soccer is almost like a religion in Spain that people pay tribute to. The taxi driver then went on comparing Spanish and American culture which turned out to be more than interesting to hear. It opened my eyes on a different perspective on the American lifestyle.

Image Courtesy of Kristina Lalova

 

Savor in the local cuisine.

I apologize for admitting it, but savoring local dishes is by far my most favorite part of traveling. In Barcelona, you must most definitely try sangria, tapas and churros. I suggest walking around the center of the town to find charming places to stop by and enjoy an hour of good food and conversation with a friend, a significant other, a family member, or even a bartender if you are traveling alone. This personally fills me with positive energy and vibes. If you happen to visit San Sebastian, which has more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world, try their pintxos, which are bite-sized appetizers. You can enjoy them with a glass of wine or two, just like I did, even though I don’t drink alcohol. But, just as I have mentioned above, tapas and pintxos must be enjoyed in the company of friends and family. You may sit down, relax and savor in the food and some sweet conversation. I highly recommend the Bokado Mikel Santamaria restaurant near the aquarium in San Sebastian. It has a breathtaking view of the Atlantic Ocean, along with a peaceful setting, Michelin-quality food, and accommodating and friendly staff. Wherever you are in France, you must try their croissants with butter and jam, and the crepes, either savory or sweet depending on your preferences. By the time the trip was over, I was certain that I would not eat a croissant anytime soon, but admittedly, they were the lightest and most delicious croissants I had ever eaten. It was worth gorging myself on them. Another food to try in France are the many different types of pastries, sweets and cookies. I personally found a lovely store with all types of such treats in Avignon – Autrefois. When I entered the store, the storekeeper offered samples and was nice enough to make recommendations as to what I should purchase. After contemplating on the matter, I bought a package of Meingues Framboise, which are the strawberry meringues (there were many other types to choose from), assortment of chewy caramels, and a package of chocolate pequelets, which are small cookies made with butter and chocolate. I bought all of them as gifts for my parents, which they appreciated. How I carried them with me on the flight home and got away with an oversized suitcase one more time (just like any other time) remained a mystery to me.

 

Image Courtesy of Kristina Lalova

 

Search for local fashion designer stores.

Even though I did not end up buying anything from a local designer, I must admit that there were some charming stores with plenty of quaint and vintage-style items. I decided that it was not my cup of tea since I purchase all of my clothes online because of the wider range of selection and sizes, the opportunity to search for discounted designer pieces and the opportunity to customize my clothes and shopping experience, overall. Nevertheless, I admired the local designers’ points of view, and think you should do the same.

 

Challenge yourself.

My challenge on this trip was visiting Lourdes, which is a small religious town in France. If I were asked why I put myself through this, I would not find a logical explanation. The night we arrived at the hotel, no restaurant or store was still open and I had no food in my bag, except for a bag of hard pretzels. The hotel had only stairs and I had to drag my suitcase, which weighed almost as much as I do (I never travel lightly), up to the stairs that night. I just asked the receptionist to help out the following morning. That was another lesson learned. The hotel, which I ended up being in, lacked heating. The room was so cold that I spent the whole night freezing in my bed. The morning after, when we walked out of the hotel to go to the main attractions, including the church and the cave, I could feel neither my legs nor my hands. I had to push myself to walk to the attractions. Thankfully, they were only fifteen minutes away from the hotel. I spent no more than forty-five minutes there because I could not think straight and decided that health was more important to me. We went back to the hotel, grabbed our suitcases and off we went.

 

All journeys make us thick-headed and lead us to beautiful places. Beauty is everywhere around us and we need to open our hearts to see and appreciate it. Even though things do not seem to be working at the current moment, we should be thankful for the ability to follow our dreams and passions. We should see the collateral beauty in everything and work toward making someday today. Take trips, be reckless while you are young and make your own mistakes because mistakes are lessons learned and lessons learned lead to success.