My strange adventures in Barcelona

Morning came on June 23 telling us to pack up camp and head across Spain towards Barcelona. The Spanish countryside is absolutely breathtaking. Quaint, red-roofed houses are scattered across the hills and the view kept my eyes occupied for hours.

We stopped for lunch in Zaragoza, Spain, the fifth largest city in the country. The coach dropped us off in front of a huge cathedral in a central square of the city. The cathedral, Our Lady of Pilar, looked like a castle and was the most visible facet in the city. We walked around the square and grabbed lunch at a local café. Afterward, since it was Sunday at noon, we got to watch the procession go through the square into the church for Mass. We were so lucky to see such a beautiful ceremony take place, though most of us could not go inside the church since our dresses and shorts exposed too much skin 😦

Euro Trip Summer 2014 896

After an hour and a half in Zaragoza, we made the final leg of our journey to Barcelona. When we finally arrived in the city, we took a driving tour around the major roads, stopping at an overlook on the highest peak of the city. Barcelona is as bright and colorful as I had hoped. The trees and other foliage are so tropical; all I could think was that I’d finally found my paradise.

We stopped again at la Sagrada Familia, the expansive gothic cathedral designed by the famous Spanish architect, Antonio Gaudí. Scaffolding covered the majority of the architectural masterpiece, but we were still able to see the bizarre features of each façade, including fruit, animals and a Christmas tree.

After leaving the city, we headed back to the campsite, which was about 30 minutes away. This was by far the best campground we’ve been to so far. Called Tres Estrellas, the campground bordered the beach and was equipped with a pool, full service store, laundry facilities, and night club and a bar. How cool is that?

The first night, our onboard cook, Laura, made us a huge bowl of sangria which we used to kickoff our nighttime beach party. After dinner, all 45 of us headed to the beach where we blasted music and had an incredible time. My amazing friend Sasha and I even striped down to our skivvys and jumped in the ocean. I’m not quite sure what the name of the body of water was that we went into,but once I find out, I’ll be able to say that I officially went (somewhat) nude in that water 🙂

The next day, we went back into Barcelona and started the day with a walking tour of the Gothic Quarter. We roamed the narrow side streets, making our way to the main cathedral in the area. I was mesmerized by the beautiful, authentic gothic architecture and the historical significance (I know I’ve been using that phrase often, but I can’t help that these places have played such important roles in Europe’s history). We learned from one of our tour guides that a courtyard we visited was the site of one of the most deadly attacks on civilians ever to happen in Spain.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 976

We roamed the quarter for a while longer, taking plenty of photos before splitting up for free time in the city. A few friends and I were keen on seeing el Parque Güell, a fantastic park designed by Gaudí that sits raised on the edge of the Barcelona with a beautiful panoramic view of the city A picture of the park has been the background on my laptop for the past year, and I could not have been more excited to go there.

Of course, nothing goes smoothly when you’re really excited for something, right? As we rode the metro from the Gothic Quarter and as we climbed the hill on our ascent to the park, I kept raving to my friends about how excited I was to finally visit the place I’ve been dreaming about for months. When we finally arrived in then park, we walked to the spot where my background image was taken, but could not get in! Apparently, the beautiful section of the park where intricate mosaic tiles on a wall create an overlook of the city was a ticketed area.

So I told my friends I would go around the corner to inquire about tickets and meet them in back in 15 minutes. Going to the ticket booth, I found that n order to actually get to the overlook, I would have had to wait in line to buy an €8 ticket at a designated time (the next slot available being an hour from that time). I was with a group of people and seriously did not want them to have to wait for me soooo I had to skip out on the thing I was most excited to do in Barcelona. But it’s okay… I’m sure I’ll be back!

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1036

 

I went back to meet my friends at our meetup spot but didn’t see them anywhere. I waited about 10 minutes then walked around to look for them, and still nothing. I panicked for a second, but I remembered we had agreed to all get lunch at 1:00 at the food market back near the Gothic Quarter. By then it was 12:30, so I figured my other friends had just headed there already and I could meet them at that spot.

So I left the park a little disappointed and took the metro back to our starting point. I walked to the food market, getting there at 12:50 and looking around for my friends. Still nothing. I waited for another 20 minutes, wandering around the market in case they were already inside, and still didn’t find them.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1065

At that point, I figured it was a lost cause and decided to get something to eat and explore the city on my own. I knew the full Contiki group was meeting at 5:30, so I had four hours to experience Barcelona however I wanted to. Which, of course, means I went shopping! I spent the next two hours walking around stores like H&M, Zara, Mango and a few jewelry and accessory stores. I bought a couple of really cute, super cheap dresses and a few souvenirs for friends.

As I was walking about in search of a shoe store, I ran into those friends with whom I had been separated in the park. What a coincidence! We met and hugged and they said they thought I was dead (an exaggeration of course, but I can still image how scary it could have been for them!) and I explained what had happened. It turns out that I had just come back to out meetup spot much earlier than they had. It was all a miscommunication with time.

Reunited, we got sangria at a streetside café, then bought a few more things and a souvenir shop. It was pretty embarrassing when I knocked into a porcelain mug at the shop and shattered it. Not only did I have to pay €20 for it, but a shard of porcelain hit my foot and cut it. So I walked out of the shop with a bleeding foot, an empty wallet and a story to tell. Could have been worse.

Our free time in the city shortly ended, and we met back up with the full group at 5:30 for a flamenco show. I have been to a flamenco show once before in Sevilla, the birthplace of flamenco and home of the Flamenco Museum. I was, then, a little spoiled going into this show because the Sevilla show was probably one of the best in Spain. We all sat around a table facing a small stage with complementary glasses of sangria in front of us. The dancers were professional and definitely skilled but I do feel that the dresses and choreography were still incomparable to the ones in Sevilla.

Overall though, the show was good and I am glad I went. After the dancers finished the audience members were all invited up to the second level of the hall to learn on keys dance moves of our own. This was probably the best part of the flamenco experience but we all got to go crazy dancing on a small stage with lasers shining from the walls. Pretty fun, eh?

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1101

After flamenco, we hoped back on the coach and headed to Port Olympico for dinner. Being in Spain (though Catalonia would beg to differ), we of course went to a tapas restaurant for dinner where we had some of the best tapas I think I’ve ever had. Well done, Barcelona. Then we headed down the street to meet our tour manager for some drinks at a local bar.

We were fortunate enough to be in Barcelona on el Día de San Juan, a major holiday in the country. Most people on the tour went back to the campsite after dinner to join in a beach party that the campground was hosting. But a few friends and I couldn’t imagine missing out on a night out in Barcelona! So, we stayed in the city and had an amazing time dancing the night away with some locals. We ended the night by walking to the beach and watching the fireworks go off everywhere that we’re being set every few feet. The beach was immensely crowded, and we had to dodge people as well as firecrackers going off in the sand, but it was the best way to experience Barcelona the way it’s meant to be experienced. It was awesome.

London, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, Zurich: The ultimate itinerary for my trip to Europe

Euro Trip 2014 MapIs this real life? Am I seriously heading to Europe in less than one week? I’m so excited, I can’t even see straight, and I really hope I haven’t scared away any strangers as I randomly gaze off into the distance as I daydream about the trip. I’ve been planning to go back to Europe since the day I stepped foot back in the U.S. last summer after returning from Spain. I just can’t believe it’s now one week away.

I’m finally taking the time to jot down the entire itinerary of my 24-day trip through 11 cities in six countries. Primarily, I’m making the list for personal reference, but I hope my friends and family can use it track where I am along the adventure. And of course, I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to plan a fast-paced Euro trip of their own. I’m sure it will be the experience of a lifetime.

June 10th – Washington, to New York, to London

I live in D.C., but my flight to London leaves from JFK airport in New York City. So I’ll be using Megabus to get to New York (have I written my ode to Megabus yet? I’m practically married to the company at this point), where I’ll then have four hours to make it to the airport and get myself through customs. This will be my first time flying internationally alone and I’m, like, crazy nervous. But I’m so excited for this trip that I know I’ll combat my nerves with thoughts of beautiful England, enchanting Ireland, feisty Spain, alluring Italy, majestic France, intriguing Monaco… wait, what was I talking about again?

June 11th – London Calling

I’ll arrive around 10 a.m. where my lovely, lovely travel pal Sarah will pick me up from Heathrow airport and help me get acquainted to the city. She and I will be staying with her aunt in Wimbledon, and Sarah will have arrived a few days before I do, so she’ll be ready to hit the town as soon as I get there.  Sarah’s been to London more times than I have fingers, so she’ll be my personal tour guide and take me around the London bridge, Big Ben, the London Eye, Abbey road, Platform 9  and 3/4, etc. She and her aunt are being so awesome about letting me stay with them and showing me around, and I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it.

June 12th – Explore London

Sarah and I will do more sightseeing and souvenir shopping early in the day. We bought tickets to Once, the musical, and will have to make our way over to the theater midday. Afterward, there will be time do more exploring after the show before we retire early to get a good start the next day for Dublin.

June 13th – Off to Ireland!

For more details, see my post: How we’re seeing Dublin in 38 hours (we might just be crazy)

Rising early, Sarah and I will take a train to the coast of England and then ride a ferry across the water to Dublin Port. The 8-hour journey will take up most of our day, but we’ll arrive with just enough time to hang out in Temple Bar and take a nighttime sigh-seeing tour of Dublin.

14th – Irish Overload

This will be an incredibly fast-paced day, with a morning 3-hour walking tour and then back-to-back visits to the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery. At night, we’ll go out like true Irish lassies and hit up a bar crawl with our fellow hostel visitors.

June 15th – Back to London for a Bit

A ferry and a train will take Sarah and I back to London, and spend the rest of the day relaxing and recovering. Sarah will be preparing to head back to the States, and I’ll get ready to start my Contiki tour the next day. But we must get one last scone together before we part.

June 16th – Head to the hotel in London to start my Contiki tour

I’ll have to check in to the hotel by 2 p.m. and then spend the evening getting ready for the tour. There will be orientation for the trip where I will meet the tour manager, chef and my fellow travelers. The checked-in travelers have a chance to go out to dinner, but we can’t get cray cray since we have to get up early the next day to head to Paris.

June 17th – Depart London for Paris

Off to Paris! We’ll begin our voyage on a ferry to France, where we’ll pass the White Cliffs of Dover. Then we’ll hop on the Contiki coach bus and travel through World War I battlefields in the Valley of the Somme to Paris.

Once we arrive at our campsite, we get to set up camp – which I’m super excited about because apparently, we’re sleeping in pairs in these cute little blue tents. I’m sure tight quarters will force us to become very close with our fellow travelers – literally. Once we have set up camp, our bus will leave for the Tour of Illuminations, which will take us around the beautiful, lamp-lit streets of Paris, passing the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Champs-Élysées.

June 18th – 19th  Explore Paris

The city of love will bring us plenty of sightseeeing to do over these two days: Left Bank, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre and more. I know the enchanting smell of French baguettes will draw me in and I’m so looking forward to chowing down on some French cuisine. Plus, shopping!! I know everything will be way expensive, but I will do my best to find a few Parisian gems to ring back to the states. Our tour also includes a trip to Versailles, France’s most well-known château, where we will explore the impressive exterior of the extravagant palace. I’ll have to make sure I bring extra memories for my camera!

On the last night in Paris, we get to experience a Parisian night out, starting with an optional dinner in an atmospheric restaurant and authentic cabaret experience, complete with can-can girls and champagne. I’m so ready to live the high life.

June 20th – Depart Paris and drive through Bordeaux

Surely tired from the previous night’s festivities, we’ll pack up our campsites and head through Loire Valley, traveling past rolling vineyards and chateaus. On our way to Spain, we’ll stop in Bordeaux and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed St. Emilion, with its fortified medieval city.

June 21st – Biarritz and Pamplona

Leaving Bordeaux and heading south, the bus will stop at the beach resort of Biarritz, known for some of the best beaches and surf in Europe. Since I’m not a huge sun-bathing person, I’ll probably spend most of my time in Biarritz hitting up the coastal shops and boutiques. Apparently, Biarritz has great beach fashion and locally made linens and regional produce like hams and salamis.

Leaving Biarritz, we cross the border to Spain and spend the evening in Pamplona, the city know for the Running of the Bulls. Pamplona has an awesome Gothic cathedral that I’m sure I’ll obsess over, and amazing Basque restaurants that serve traditional foods like barbecued lamb, fresh trout and red peppers.

June 22nd – Off to Barcelona!!!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with Barcelona. Already suffering from an obsession with Spanish language and culture, I can only image how I’ll soak in the incredible, vibrant colors and beachy vibe of one of Spain’s best-known cities.

So on the way to Barcelona from Pamplona, the bus will head through the Baroque city of Zaragoza, set on the banks of the Rio Ebro. We’ll stop for lunch and engorge in Spanish tapas, and get a chance to check out another amazing Spanish cathedral. Once we arrive in Barcelona and set up camp, we depart for the city just in time to hit up Montjuic, a hilltop with full vistas of the city and location of the 1992 Olympic Games complex. Then we will check out the Sagrada Família!!!! I can’t wait!

Later, we get to enjoy a night out in Barcelona, which I’m sure will be one we won’t want to tell the kids.

June 23rd – Explore Barcelona

After a morning walking tour of the city, we’ll have free time to visit shops on Plaça de Catalunya, La Rambla, Parc Güell, or hang out on the beach. That night, there will be a family dinner and optional Flamenco show, then we head out for a night out in Barcelona – part two.

June 24th – Off to the French Riviera

The rugged coast line of the stunning Côte d’Azur will capture our attention as we roll along on the coach bus, stopping for lunch in Arles.  The beautiful city of Cannes will great us as we roll along the Riviera on our way to Antibes.

June 25th – Explore the French Riviera and Monaco 

On this sunny Wednesday, we’ll stop at the Fragonard perfumery, the home of the French perfume industry. We’ll have some free time to explore the area and try some French wine and, at night, get to explore Monaco and maybe even blow some cash at the Monte Carlo casino.

June 26th – Off to Florence

Leaving France, the tour crosses over the border to Italy. First stop: the Leaning Tower of Pizza (hehehe had to do it 🙂 ). We next drive to our campsite, have a family dinner, take a tour along the river and unwind with a glass of Tuscan wine.

June 27th – Explore Florence 

We’ll hit the museum and the city centre, take a guided tour through crowded streets, and watch a demonstration of Florentine leather making. At night, we’ll have an optional group dinner  (an authentic Tuscan feast, which there’s no way I’m missing), and then head out to experience Florentine nightlife.

June 28th – Head to our last stop: Rome!

Traveling through Tuscany, we’ll leave Florence and head to Rome where we’ll set up our last campsite on the tour.  A coach tour if the city will guide us through the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, where we’ll then then step off the bus to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. With our free time later, we get to check out the Trevi Fountain or see the Spanish Steps. And at some point, obvi, we’ll  be stopping for pizza and gelato.

June 29th —  When in Rome…

In the morning, a tour guide will take us through the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Then, of course, the tour leads to the Colosseum and Roman Forum.

Free time later in the day will give us a chance to explore the city, eat more pizza, go shopping, and, knowing me, take lots of pictures. I just really want to know what it means to “do as the Romans do.” Ha.

Then, it’s our last night out! I know that I’ll have made some awesome friends during this crazy Euro adventure, and the group will want to go out with a bang. And if that predication is wrong, I’ll just go out by myself. Whatevs.

June 30th – Ciao for now Rome!

On this day, everyone packs up and rolls out. The tour ends midday Monday and we’re all on our own to transport ourselves back home. But Europe won’t be able to get rid of me that quickly. I’ll have a few more days before I head back to the States.

July 1st – 2nd – ?????

Still not quite sure what I’ll be doing these two days before heading back to London. My friend Rachel, who is studying abroad in France, and I planned to meet up in Switzerland, but that might not be possible anymore. So I will probably just be spontaneous and pick up a one-way ticket to some place I’ll want to explore before heading back to the Heathrow airport the night of the June 2.

July 3rd – GOODBYE EUROPE

Oh, parting is such sweet sorrow. I fly out from London that morning, expecting to be back in Washington, D.C. later that evening. With the next day being July 4th (U.S. Independence Day), I can’t think of any better way to feel welcomed back to my home country than with firework, hot dogs, and everything stars and stripes.

Gracias, Merci, Grazie

My Upcoming Contiki Tour: The Mini Rider

I browsed through the Contiki tours and discovered on somewhat within my budget and target duration. It’s the Mini Rider, a 15-day tour through London, France, Spain and Italy. I want to see the major Euro tourist attractions — the Eiffel Tower, Colosseum, London Eye, etc.– since this will be my first trip through Europe. When I go back after graduation, I’ll explore the off-the beaten path spots.

TOUR TYPE

This is a camping tour, which means I will be sharing a tent with another traveler. It’s not as glamorous as staying in hotels, but camping is more adventurous and fun– and it’s a fraction of the cost. Along that note, I am assuming my tour mates will also be adventurous and open — and hopefully as broke as I am, since they, too, chose the budget tour.

COST

The tour is $1,620 with an additional $250 for food. In total, it will cost $1,870. I didn’t purchase the traveler’s insurance, which was another cost. Luckily, Contiki has a layaway option, so I can pay two to three hundred dollars toward the trip every month, or as often as I would like. Contiki layaway also allows other people to donate money to the fund through a link that users can email to others. On that note — I am writing this post on Dec. 24 and hoping tomorrow may bring some monetary gift from my parents (I’ve been good this year, I promise!)

TRAVEL PATH

Commencing on June 16, 2014 and concluding on June 30, the tour follows a curved path though southern Europe. Travelers are to fly into London on June 16, meet the tour mates and receive a Contiki orientation, then depart for Paris on June 17 (I plan on flying into Europe a day or two early to have more time to explore there). We’ll spend a few nights in Paris, then head to Pamplona, Spain. After leaving Pamplona, we will head to Barcelona for two days before traveling back to France, along the French Riviera. We’ll stop in Monaco along the way, then embark into Italy, where we will spend a few days in Florence and then swoop down to Rome. After two nights, the tour ends, and travelers are responsible for getting ourselves home.

 

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From contiki.com.

As many of the reviews mentioned, the trip involves a significant amount of time on the bus. As someone who spent her childhood on road trips, though (and who, even at age 20, is rocked to sleep like a baby on any mode of transportation), I am fine with long bus rides. As long as I am sitting where a video is visible, I’m set.

ATTRACTIONS

But along with those long rides, there are also tons of sightseeing and cultural immersion opportunities. These are the major sights and destinations the tours covers:

Paris

Image from wikimedia.org
Image from wikimedia.org

Arc de Triomphe

Eiffel Tower

Louvre

Notre Dame Cathedral

Champs-Élysées

Château Versailles

Loire Valley

Pamplona & Barcelona

Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com
Image from independent.myreaderoffers.com

The Lighthouse & Bay in Biarritz

Sagrada Família

Rio Ebro

Montjuic and the 1992 Olympic Games complex

Zaragoza

Gothic Quarter

Parc Güell

French Riviera 

Image from royalcorrespondent.com
Image from royalcorrespondent.com

Côte d’Azur

Arles

Royal Palace in Monaco

Monte Carlo

Florence

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo Cathedral

Statue of David

Image from thewondersoftheworld.net
Image from thewondersoftheworld.net

Ponte Vecchio

Medici Palace

Duomo

Basilica Santa Croce

Giotto’s Bell Tower

Baptistry

Piazza della Signoria

Rome

Vatican City

Image from destination360.com
Image from destination360.com

Colosseum

Roman Forum

Piazza Venezia

Trevi Fountain

Pantheon

Piazza Navona

St. Peter’s Basilica

Sistine Chapel

This extensive list of sights is, of course, paired with a list of night clubs, restaurants, bars and shops for souvenirs and nightly outings. I am beyond excited. As more plans unfold, I will be adding posts with details regarding the Contiki Mini Rider Tour!