April 14, 2015
It’s been a while since I posted anything, so I’m sorry for the delay. I’ve been busy traveling and now have homework to do (didn’t know Ireland believed in homework…), but now I’m back to recap my spring break. I spent 16 days away from Galway, and by the time I came back last night, I was so happy to be able to collapse on my own bed in what’s beginning to feel more and more like a home (until I go to my real home in one month!). Anyway, I traveled to 10 different cities in 5 countries over the cross of my two-plus weeks away, so I figured I’d need a concise way to present my experiences, one not as deep but hopefully at least more comprehensive than what my blogs have been so far. So, in the spirit of the start of the MLB regular season, the NBA and NHL playoffs, and Mark Lisanti’s Mad Men recaps on Grantland, here are my power rankings of my 10 destinations.
10) Pisa, Italy (Stop #4; April 2)
As a general rule of thumb, if a city is known only for a tower that looks like it’s about collapse, don’t spend the night there. Don’t even spend three hours there. Please just be on your way. Justin and I overstayed our welcome, and I’d like our hours spent there to be redeemed as overtime hours for 150% of their real value that I can spend instead of Spain.
9) Milan, Italy (Stop #2; March 30)
Okay, so I didn’t really spend much time here. I only spent a couple hours at the airport, got pizza downtown, and wandered around the train station until our train to Cinque Terre arrived. But the weather was great, the train station reminded me more of a mall than a transportation hub, and my first couple slices of Italian pizza lived up to expectations. But I wasn’t there long enough to get a feel for it distinct from any other big city.
8) Dublin, Ireland (Stop #1; March 29)
I love Dublin, but after my fourth time visiting, it loses its luster in comparison to the new stops. Maybe if I could afford the Guinness tour and a few extra pints each time, it wouldn’t have slipped due to mere familiarity.
7) Rome, Italy (Stop #5; April 3-5)
I had incredibly high expectations for Rome, seeing as I was going there for Holy Week and staying for free at the family apartment of one of Justin’s friends, and I certainly enjoyed my visit. I went to Pope Francis’s Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Square, visited the Vatican (which, in my opinion, was not quite as wonderful as Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família, but astounding nonetheless), witnessed Pope Francis say the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum, ate pounds of pizza, pasta, and gelato, and saw tons of friends who had also trekked to Rome for the pinnacle Christian celebration.
But of the big cities I’ve been to, Rome had the least charm. Perhaps it was due to the influx of tourists, the annoying quasi-entrepreneurs heckling the throngs of visitors to buy their selfie sticks and Roman souvenirs, or the pouring rain throughout Easter Mass. Whatever it was, I just didn’t feel a connection to the city. I’m glad I experienced what I did, but it wasn’t enough to crack the top half of these power rankings.
6) Madrid, Spain (Stop #8; April 8)
Other than the mass amounts of food fed to me by Spanish host families, this visit to Madrid was much different than my last one, to say the least. No Kapital, no 4 am buses, no sleeping until 1 pm. I stopped by solely because the cheapest flight to Morocco flew out of Madrid, but it turned into a good day of preparation and catching up with friends at SLU’s Madrid campus. I dropped my laptop off with Amanda so she could get it to Kristy to give to me in Lisbon, and Dewie, Blake, and I came up with some big plans for the future of JMD Lawn Care (you’re welcome, Dad) and the inaugural summer Chili’s Committee while we sat beneath the Spanish sun. It wasn’t an extravagant or adventurous stop, but it was the time I needed to relax before a couple days in Morocco.
5) Morocco (Stop #9; April 9-10)
I initially hadn’t planned to leave Europe at all during my abroad travels, but as I talked to friends who studied abroad last year, I kept hearing that Morocco was one of their favorite trips. So when Annie and Rachel wanted to plan a trip there during spring break, I jumped at the opportunity to ride a camel and sleep in the desert. And while those experiences certainly made my first trip to Africa memorable, they alone didn’t make it worthwhile.
When we arrived to the Marrakech airport, we were on our guard and made absolutely sure that we had safe directions to our hostel. When our bus dropped us off at the vast city square where the market was still lively near midnight, we met a worker from our hostel who chauffeured us to our place for the night. He and the other hostel worker were extremely hospitable and helped us settle into a completely unfamiliar country with its lower economic standing and heavy Islamic influence. The next morning, we met our tour group: a young Argentinian couple, and older Chinese couple, and two Canadian girls. We spent much time with them and our Moroccan tour guide over the next 36 hours and heard stories from diverse cultures. At night, after riding our camels to our campsite on the desert, we watched the stars with Yousef and Moustafa, both employees of the tour company. Moustafa grew up as a nomad, knows 5 languages, and jokingly offered Annie the entire herd of camels, including Maurice, the one I rode both times.
Morocco turned out to be one of the most eye-opening and exciting adventures of my break. But by the end of the trip, I was exhausted and excited to be heading back to Europe.
4) Cinque Terre, Italy (Stop #3; March 30 – April 1)
I’d seen the colorful mountainside homes and the tree-covered mountains that overlooked the empty and blue Mediterranean Sea. But the pictures on Facebook completely fail to grasp the breathtaking beauty of a landscape that refuses to be defined by a single feature.
Justin and I began our Cinque Terre retreat in Corniglia, the central of the five small, coastal towns. With easy access to the hiking trails, we trekked north to Vernazza and Monterosso on first day there and south on the more treacherous path to Manarola and Riomaggiore on the second day. When we reached the peak of each climb, we stopped to catch our breath and take in the wonderful panoramas of green mountainsides, blue waters, and speckled pastel towns.
I’m a city person, but I enjoy opportunities to retreat away from the ever-stimulating concrete jungles. Two and a half days in Cinque Terre proved to be the perfect retreat I needed. But even this magical place is just number 4 in these power rankings, as three other cities I visited proved to be of even more value to me during my long vacation.
3) Bologna, Italy (Stop #6; April 6)
I have a feeling that Justin, who hosted me in Bologna, will likely disagree with what I’m about to say. But I loved Bologna most of all the Italian cities I visited mainly because it reminded me more of St. Louis than any other place I’ve been to in Europe. After a busy and exhausting weekend in Rome, Bologna offered me a place to relax while still exploring a culturally rich town (with the best food in Italy, to boot).
When we arrived in Bologna the night of Easter, Justin’s dorm was closed and we didn’t have a place to stay. But Justin found us a B&B near the city center. After searching for it for about half an hour, we found it inside a forgotten building and waited outside the door as an Italian shouting match conspired on the other side of the wall. Our expectations sank, but we stayed in a room with an American and two Brits who were very friendly, and I got to watch the Cardinals season opening win against the Cubs.
I didn’t do anything super noteworthy in Bologna, but I did feel as comfortable there as anywhere else in Europe. It’s that elusive feature of comfort that bumps this city over its Italian counterparts and at number 3 overall in these power rankings.
2) Lisbon, Portugal (Stop #10; April 11-12)
I’ve always has some desire to surf, but it was never on my bucket list. But in Lisbon, on my last day of spring break, I had the chance to surf on the tame waves of the Atlantic. I managed to get up a couple times on my own after a couple hours with an instructor and a cramp calf that bullied me as I struggled to escape the water. But when I made it up on the board, I felt free. Free to relax on the beach, to enjoy not just the rest of my spring break but also the rest of my entire time abroad.
In Lisbon I also had a gelato-filled and chocolate-covered crepe, got a strange sunburn on my back as a result of falling asleep on the beach after poorly self-applying sunscreen, ditched a shitty walking tour, and stayed in a hostel that overlooked the river. I needed a relaxing finish to spring break, and the Portuguese capital gave it to me. It could certainly have been number 1 in these power rankings, but number 2 isn’t a bad finish.
1) Valencia, Spain (Stop #7; April 7)
In contrast to Milan, despite spending only about five hours in Valencia, I fell in love with the city.
In How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby supposes that the lead up to something wonderful is always better than the actual execution of this thing. He verbalizes this theory the night he meets Victoria at a wedding and nearly hooks up with her but agrees to withhold because they agreed that the hook up couldn’t possibly be as great to the build up. So, they settled for the perfect build up (well, for a bit, and then they started dating because, well, sitcoms). I think that perhaps my experience in Valencia might have been of a similar nature.
I had less than six hours to explore the city (which is roughly the size of St. Louis), so I ordered lunch at a restaurant run by a man and his wife who spoke no English. It took about five minutes of humorous hand gestures and Google translations to finally order what I could’ve gotten by merely pointing at the menu, but it turned out to be an amazing interaction of cultures. Afterwards, I spent the rest of my time at the beach and walking along the mile-long stretch of palm trees that run adjacent to it. Spain was already my favorite country, but my third stop there reinforced even further how wonderful it is.
So maybe I didn’t spend much time in Valencia. But based on the time I did spend, it was nearly perfect. I didn’t do much, but I had my first day alone in at least two weeks, and it was the midway point of my trip. As became a trend, I found this day of quiet, rather than frantic adventure, to be among my greatest during my two-week endeavor. And with that, this Spanish city claims the top spot in my Spring Break 2015 Power Rankings.
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” – Albus Dumbledore – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
“If I Had a Million Dollars” – Barenaked Ladies https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCImrmR63JE