The Greatest Day Ever

I bet you can’t make it through this post without thinking I’m crazy.

I know this will sound incredibly dramatic, but in my mind the success of this study abroad semester rested almost entirely on a single trip. There was no way I was going to go home without going to the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 men’s tennis tournament that takes place in (duh) Monte Carlo.

So how exactly did the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters become my highest priority of the semester? Well as you all know I’ve been playing and watching tennis for as long as I can remember. Thus far I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been able to attend Wimbledon and the Sony Open in Miami as well as tour Roland Garros. I’ve also been extremely blessed to have grown up in a “Golden Era” of tennis, having been able to watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s entire careers. Now it’s no secret that I adore both Roger and Rafa, and I was lucky enough to see Roger play when I was in Miami. While I’ve been able to see him and seemingly every other professional tennis player while I’ve been at these tournaments, Rafa is the big gaping hole in the list of players that I’ve been able to see in person, something that I obviously cannot accept. I hate to admit it, but I realize that Rafa is getting older and given his history of injuries he may not be playing professionally much longer. I knew that I was running out of chances to be able to see him, and since I would be in Europe during the clay court swing leading up to Roland Garros, I had the opportunity to not only see him but also watch him play on his best surface. The Monte Carlo Rolex Masters is considered the most picturesque tournament site on the tour, and that combined with Monte Carlo’s proximity to Milan and the fact I’ve had a vintage poster of the event hanging on my wall since my freshman year (proof below) made Monte Carlo the perfect tournament to make the dream come true!

DSCN6638

Now making this happen was actually pretty difficult. The first challenge was figuring out which day to buy tickets for. The tickets were not cheap so I knew I was only going to be able to go to the tournament for one day, and that meant I had to pick a day that maximized my chance of seeing Rafa. I literally spent hours analyzing old tournament brackets and creating different scenarios based on projected rankings and seeds, ultimately deciding that tickets for center court on Thursday would be the best way to go. Unfortunately, I have two classes on Thursday and everyone else in the Milan program has classes on that day as well. While I was 110% willing to miss class for this, I realized I wouldn’t be able to go with anyone else from my program. Since I couldn’t travel by myself, I sent a desperate plea to all of my friends studying abroad in other programs in Europe, and God bless Maggie Condon for coming to my rescue and agreeing to go with me!

IMG_6955

Co-chair!

Once I had the tickets booked, there was still no guarantee that I was going to see Rafa on that day. He had a bye in the first round, but he still needed to win a match in order for me to see him on Thursday. This match was against Lucas Pouille and took place on Wednesday as I was taking a long and very delayed train to Nice after my classes. Needless to say, I was checking the match score constantly, and was incredibly relieved when Rafa won easily 6-2, 6-1. With that, the schedule of play for the next day was set and it was finally official – I WAS GOING TO SEE RAFA NADAL!!!

IMG_8730   IMG_8729

The reason I took a train to Nice is because Monte Carlo is so expensive, and it was much cheaper for Maggie and I to stay in Nice and take the 30min train to the tournament (more on Nice and Monte Carlo in my next post!). It may have been cheaper, but getting to the tournament was unexpectedly a huge struggle. Long story short, train schedules are really hard to read in French and we ended up unintentionally getting off at a stop just outside of Monte Carlo. Taxis weren’t an option, so we had to walk along the coast in order to get to the tournament. The walk really wasn’t that bad (honestly the French Riviera is not the worst place in the world to be lost), that is until GoogleMaps told us to walk through a path (if it could even be considered a “path” – see the picture below on the far right), which also required hopping a fence. But again I was going to do anything it took to get to that tournament, and once again, bless Maggie for being such a good sport.

IMG_6747 IMG_6746 IMG_6748

This is was obviously a stressful start to the morning, but also proof that things happen for a reason because the most amazing thing ended up happening! Google Maps had us walk along a road that went above the practice courts, allowing us to see the players that were preparing for their matches later in the day. I was super excited because some incredible doubles teams, like the Bryan brothers and Granollers/Lopez were warming up on the courts, and then I started really freaking out because I could see a player on the last court wearing all grey that looked very familiar…We were far away but I was pretty confident it was who I thought it was because 1) there was a huge group of people watching the court, and 2) no one else looks like that. As we got closer,  I could barely hold myself together because YES IT WAS RAFA NADAL!!! Again, this was the first time I had ever seen him in person, and I was so excited I thought I was going to die of happiness! It took a ton of self control to pull myself away from the fence and head to center court to go watch the first match, which at this point had already started. Oops.

IMG_6752   IMG_6757 (1)

The first match was between Stanislas Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov. I may not be a passionate fan of either of these two, but  I definitely don’t dislike them and they’re both two of the top players in the game so I was excited to be able to see both of them play. Though he’s had a tough season thus far, Stan had a great year last year, winning this tournament as well as the Australian Open (still bitter about that) and the Davis Cup with fellow Swiss teammate Roger Federer. Grigor on the other hand, who is Bulgarian, is considered to be the future of men’s tennis. While I can’t stand people comparing him to Roger (it’s a joke to think anyone could ever be on Federer’s level), I will admit that out of all the “newcomers” I am rooting for him to be the future face of men’s tennis. Stan did not have a good day, and Grigor won easily 6-1, 6-2. Wasn’t the most exciting match, but again I’m glad I was able to see both of them play!

IMG_6764

The next match was between Roger Federer and Gael Monfils. To put it simply, Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. Not only does he hold the record for most weeks ranked number one in the world (302) and Grand Slam singles titles (17), he’s a wonderful ambassador for the sport of tennis and is one of the most beloved and respected athletes in the world. Despite all of this, Monfils is French, making him the crowd favorite in this case. He’s known for being one of the most athletic players on the tour as well as one of the most mentally/emotionally unstable. He’s incredibly unpredictable, on any given day you’re not sure if you’re going to get good-Monfils or bad-Monfils. Well that day good-Monfils showed up playing extremely well, beating Roger 6-4, 7-6. While this was obviously not the result I wanted, I understand that clay is not Roger’s best surface and also respect the fact that Monfils played some exceptional tennis. Roger Federer is my hero and the way he plays the game is simply beautiful, so at this point I just consider any opportunity to watch him play a huge honor and blessing!

IMG_6783

It was finally time for Rafa’s match! He was playing John Isner, the ridiculously tall American who’s game I despise since he has nothing more than a big serve. Rafa of course is the greatest clay court tennis player of all time, having won this tournament a record 8 times and a record 9 of his 14 major singles titles at Roland Garros. His work ethic and willingness to battle and fight for everything never ceases to inspire me. He won the match 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, and even though going to a third set was super stressful for me to watch, I like to think that he knew I had made such an effort to see him play and he just wanted to give me the chance to see him on court longer 🙂 Gracias me amor

As I’m sure you can imagine, I had been dreaming about this for a long time so I had pretty high expectations. Happy to say that the King of Clay did not disappoint! It really is obvious that he is an incredible clay court player, the way he moves on the court and strikes the ball is absolutely beautiful to watch! The entire match I was flipping between sitting silently in awe and being so giddy I was talking Maggie’s ear off with my match commentary.  She, like everyone else sitting around us, probably thinks I’m crazy.

IMG_6799

So after the match, Rafa does his usual thing where he takes his shirt off (we scream), does his post-match interview, waves to the crowd, etc. Maggie and I decided we were going to use this break before the next match to get closer to the court and take some pictures. I wasn’t expecting us to be able to get all that close, since security normally checks tickets before allowing you to get to the good seats near the court. Shockingly no one stopped us, and as we were walking down closer and closer to the court, I was realizing how close we were getting and I was literally (ugh this is so embarrassing) having trouble breathing. The pictures make it still seem like we’re still pretty far away, but let me tell you we were standing in the front row and we were close. Honestly if we were any closer I may have passed out, my heart was beating out of control. I was seriously freaking out, and since girls our age don’t really go to this type of event, I’m sure all of the rich old people thought I was insane.

IMG_6956

CAN YOU TELL I’M EXCITED?!?!

IMG_6858

Yes, he’s waving at me ❤

The last match of the day was between Novak Djokovic and Andreas Haider-Maurer. Djokovic doesn’t need much introduction, since he’s currently ranked number one in the world, has won 8 major singles titles, blah blah blah. I can’t really provide much of an introduction for Haider-Maurer, since I had literally never heard of him before (this is saying something, since I watch a lot of tennis), so all I can tell you is that he’s Austrian. The match, as expected, was a beat down with Djokovic winning 6-4, 6-0. Still glad I got to watch though, since even though it may not seem like it, I’ll admit that I actually really like and respect Djokovic. I just have to root against him a lot since my heart obviously belongs to Roger and Rafa.

IMG_6920

Even though that was the last center court match of the day, Maggie and I walked around the grounds for a bit. After all of the effort that went in to getting there, we were going to stay for as long as possible! As I previously mentioned, the tournament’s location, which is at the Monte Carlo Country Club, is considered the most beautiful of any tournament on the tour since it’s located right next to the Mediterranean. It is so beautiful and such a cool atmosphere! I also needed a souvenir, so I bought an official program only to find out later that I can’t read it because it’s in French (whatever, still totally worth it).

IMG_6917 IMG_6938 IMG_6777 IMG_6776 IMG_8731

Well, that concludes the greatest day of my life. Words really can’t describe what an amazing time I had, I hope this post did it at least a little justice. I can’t thank everyone enough for helping me make this happen, this meant so much to me and I am honestly the luckiest girl in the world that I can dream up crazy things like this and then actually get to experience them! Studying abroad is literally the coolest, it makes you believe that anything is possible.

nadal50030

Thanks for the greatest day ever ❤

Advertisements

Spring Break: Vienna

The hills are alive…with the sound of eight girls snoring on a train.

Our day started off very very early in order for us to catch our 6:42am train from Prague. After a nice nap on the train ride, we arrived in Vienna, Austria around 11am. We made our way through Vienna’s underground system since our Airbnb was a bit of a ways outside of the city center. Totally worth it though, the apartment was absolutely perfect for the eight of us.

By this time we were pretty hungry, so we decided to grab lunch at a traditional Austrian restaurant that was only a few blocks away. Our host had recommended the restaurant since it was authentic, and let me tell you it was really authentic – as in they didn’t speak English and the only thing on the menu was schnitzel. It was really surprising that this of all places was where we had the worst language barrier all trip. We each ended up getting served some kind of mystery soup and schnitzel, though honestly can’t complain because it wasn’t horrible and now I can say I’ve eaten schnitzel.

Our Airbnb was very close to Schönbrunn Palace, so we decided to spend the afternoon there. Even though it was kind of grey and cloudy outside, we walked around the grounds and up a hill where there was a beautiful view of Vienna. Half of us stayed to do an audio tour of the inside of the palace while everyone else went grocery shopping. I was with the audio tour crew and got a nice lesson on Austrian history and the Habsburgs.

The weather must have really gotten to us because once we all met back at the Airbnb we decided to stay in for the night. We made brownies and curled up on the couch to watch The Sound of Music. Seemed like an appropriate movie to watch while in Austria 😉

We had a full day planned for the next day so we made sure to start off with a big brunch at Nashmarkt. Naschmarkt is a famous outdoor market, and we ate outdoors at an adorable restaurant that our friends studying abroad in Vienna had recommended. Got to try my first melange (the Viennese version of a cappuccino), and I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had eaten a bagel!

We then proceeded to walk to the center of Vienna where we decided to do our own sort of walking tour based on the research we had done. We walked by the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera buildings, the Burggarten that has a statue of Mozart, the Austrian Parliament Building, and the Rathaus (city hall).

We made a stop at Beethoven Pasqualatihaus, a museum dedicated to Beethoven in one of his former apartments. Then we continued to wind our way through the city center, past Hofburg Palace, and towards St Stephen’s Cathedral. The church, which is the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, is in Stephansplatz which is in the very center of the city.

We refueled at Gelateria Castelletto with gelato shaped like spaghetti, and we rode our sugar high through Mozartwohnung. This is an apartment that Mozart used to live in that has now been turned into a museum (the former clarinet player in me would have been proud I was having such a musical day).

Our evening ended up being the exact opposite of the previous night. We headed out to Prater Dome, a club located in the middle of an amusement park (should have been a red flag). Apparently Austrians don’t go out on Thursday nights because the place was very very empty, but thanks to some excellent drink deals we still managed to have quite the experience.

In the morning we went back to Naschmarkt to recover with some carrot/ginger juice, another melange, and another delicious brunch. Some of our friends studying in Vienna had returned from their Spring Break so it was nice to be able to meet up with them and catch up on their semester.

I totally get why everyone loves studying abroad in Vienna. It’s clean, safe, has good food, is easy to get around, has a lot of history and stuff to do, and I’m sure is a wonderful place to live. Wish we could have stayed longer, but we had a 2pm train to catch and Budapest waiting for us!

IMG_6222

Spring Break: Prague

Celebrating a holiday is a little different when you’re abroad.

After returning from Cinque Terre I had a day to recover, do laundry, and pack for a week in central Europe with seven other girls. Despite living in the very Catholic country of Italy, none of us had realized that we had booked our departure flight from Milan to Prague for Easter Sunday (no wonder the flights were so cheap). So, we found ourselves spending most of our Easter in transit before arriving in Prague in the late afternoon.

After checking into our hostel, we headed to a local beer hall for some traditional Czech food and beverages. I had three different kinds of homemade sausage and some raspberry soda (since I don’t like beer). The beer hall was gigantic and it felt like a very authentic meal, so it was a great start to the trip. Also, I appreciated the fact that they gave us eggs to decorate so we could at least get into a little of the Easter spirit.

The next morning we went on a free walking tour of Prague. Prague (aka Praha) is the capital of the Czech Republic and is known for it’s architecture. Compared to the rest of central Europe, Prague was relatively unharmed during WWII which meant that we had a lot to see! It was actually pretty cold and we did get some snow (not ideal Spring Break weather…) but we managed to tough it out.

The tour started in the Old Town Square, my favorite part of Prague. There’s the Church of Mother of God before Týn, the Astronomical Clock on the side of the Old Town Hall, and a memorial to Jan Hus. There’s a medieval market in the square for Christmas and Easter, and since we were in Prague for Easter we were lucky enough to get to experience it!

We made our way to the Vltava River to see the Czech Philharmonic, and then continued on to the Jewish Quarter. We got to walk by the Old New Synagogue which is the oldest active synagogue in Europe, and rub the feet of the Franz Kafka statue outside of the Spanish Synagogue for good luck.

Then we made our way back to Old Town where we saw the Powder Tower (one of Prague’s original city gates) and Estates Theatre (where Mozart premiered the opera Don Giovanni). Despite the weather the tour was a great way for us to learn our way around the city and get some exposure to the history of Prague and the Czech Republic.

After the tour we headed back to the Old Town Square to warm up with some chimney cakes. Chimney cakes, I’ve discovered, are basically sugar coated cylinders of happiness, so you’ll notice that they’re a common theme throughout my time in central Europe.

Out hostel was in a great location right near the square and was also a pick up location for the infamous Prague Pub Crawl that we would all go on that night. On the Pub Crawl we went to 3 pubs, and then finished the night at a “five-story mega-club.” For an indication of how the night went, let’s just say that absinth is legal in the Czech Republic…

Don’t worry, we were still able to get up relatively early the next morning to see more of Prague. Having spent the previous day on the eastern side of the city, we decided to cross the famous Charles Bridge and see the other side of the Vltala River.

Our first stop was the Lennon Wall. Since his assassination in 1980, the wall has been covered in graffiti inspired by John Lennon. Even though the Czech Republic isn’t communist any more, people still like to graffiti all over the wall so it is constantly changing.

As we started to walk up the hill to the castle, we stopped for lunch at a Czech restaurant. I learned that I don’t like camembert, and that it’s really hard to find a Czech meal that doesn’t involve sausage and rye bread.

Once we got to the top of the hill we could explore the castle. Prague Castle is “the largest coherent castle complex in the world,” so while the only building we actually went inside was the St. Vitus Cathedral, we loved strolling around the complex and gardens. It’s an absolutely beautiful vantage point of Prague, so we sat up there for a while and soaked in the view.

We wrapped up the day by going back to the market in the Old Town Square for dinner and using up the rest of our Czech Koruna before we left the next day. It was a feast of sausage and rye bread (surprise surprise!) and nutella crepes. With a 6:42am train the next morning, we made sure to get to bed at a decent time.

With the snow, the markets, and the medieval vibe, Prague was an absolute fairy tale. While I definitely struggled to pick up the Czech language, I can’t say Děkuji enough because it was a fabulous first stop on this trip!

10583946_10205720961476059_1876907763221028023_n.jpg

Spring Break: Cinque Terre

I am a planner. I am not a last minute kind of person.

After spending the last week and a half traveling, I had fully intended to spend a few days back in Milan to catch up on sleep, laundry, blogging, etc. before setting off again for the last week of Spring Break. However, I got persuaded to tag along on a two day trip to Cinque Terre. This meant that I had only one full day of relaxation in Milan before having to hop on a train the next morning. Also, because I had decided to jump on this trip so late, the train my other friends were taking had sold out so I had to take an earlier 6:10 train by myself. The train ride to Cinque Terre is only about 3 hours since you just need to get to Genova at the coast and continue a little ways south to get to the Italian Riviera. This gave me a nice chance to get some more sleep.

Cinque Terre is Italian for “Five Lands” and is a perfect name since Cinque Terre is made up of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. These five villages are built into the coastline and are only accessible by train, boat, or hiking path. The train dropped me off right near the beach in Monterosso al Mare, and I headed into town to grab a cappuccino and wait for the rest of my friends to arrive.

Once they arrived, our first order of business was to find a place to sleep that night. Because Cinque Terre is so small and relatively remote, there are no major hotels or hostels and we were in the unique position of showing up without having reserved accommodations. Even though Monterroso al Mare is the “largest” of the five villages, we decided to look for a place in Vernazza, the next town over, since it’s known as the prettiest of the villages. We hopped on the local train to Vernazza and then proceeded to wander around and ask restaurant owners if they knew anyone renting rooms. We finally found a guy who could rent us a room for the night that would fit all four of us.

The Liguria region is known for pesto, so of course I had foccacia with pesto for lunch. After we were all fueled up we started out on our first hike – Vernazza to Monterosso. Even though we had already been to Monterosso, this hike is known for having the best views of Vernazza and let me tell you the guide books weren’t lying.

At some point we lost sight of Vernazza and continued to wind our way along the coast. The hike is about 2 hours and has a lot of elevation changes so were pretty tired by the time we got to Monterosso. We grabbed a lemon granita and relaxed on the beach for a while before catching the train back to Vernazza.

There were some rock formations just off of Vernazza’s harbor so we sat up there and watched the sun set over the ocean. Afterwards we found a restaurant to have a dinner, which ended up turning into a seafood feast.

We woke up early the next morning to continue hiking. This time we headed south to Corniglia, the only one of the five that is elevated off of the coast.

The hike only took a little over an hour, so we decided to continue hiking to the next village, Manarola. The trails are supposed to get easier the further south you go. Unfortunately for us, this was not the case. Up to this point we had been staying on the coast trails since they were faster, easier, had better views, etc. However, the coast trail between Corniglia and Manarola was still closed due to rock slides from a couple of years ago and we had no choice but to take the mountain trail. While I’m very happy we kept hiking and Manarola was certainly worth the trip, the hike was really freaking hard. We literally had to climb the mountain.

By the time we got to Manarola we were starving, so we grabbed some pizza and then took the train back to Vernazza. We grabbed our bags and since we were still hungry, decided to try some fried anchovies, a Cinque Terre specialty. Then we took the train back to Monterosso, where we had time to grab some gelato (yes, we were that hungry) before getting on our train back to Milan.

We all know that I had a lot of reservations before going on this trip. Now looking back, I realize that this was really my only chance to get to Cinque Terre this semester and I am so incredibly glad that I didn’t miss this opportunity. We go to so many large cities over the course of the semester it was a wonderful change of pace to settle into the Italian village life. This ended up being one of my favorite trips all semester, and I can’t thank my friends enough for convincing me to go 🙂

Spring Break: Granada

I had thought we had a pretty good game plan before arriving in Granada.

The Granada study abroad program is very popular with Spanish minors at UIUC, so both Julie and I had plenty of recommendations from our friends who have lived there. We had a full two days of sightseeing (and eating!) planned, but like most things during a study abroad semester things didn’t go *quite* as planned.

The train ride from Madrid to Granada was over four hours long, so it was already in to the afternoon by the time we got to Granada. We checked in to our hotel and after realizing public transportation in Granada isn’t really a thing, walked in to the center of town.

IMG_4732 IMG_5062 IMG_4551 IMG_4559 IMG_5059

It wasn’t hard to find the Catedral de Granada. As we walked around to the side of the cathedral we saw a small gathering of people lined up next to one of the doors (left). Being the curious travelers that we are, Julie and I decided to join the line. A few google searches later we realized it was Semana Santa!

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 10.36.08 PM

Semana Santa is what the Spanish call Holy Week (last week of Lent, right before Easter). While Holy Week is obviously a big deal in most Catholic regions of the world, it’s especially big in Andalucía, the southern most region of Spain where Granada is located!

There are 32 “fraternities” in Granada, and during Semana Santa each brotherhood processes through the streets of the city. Each brotherhood’s procession features two “floats”, one of Christ and one of the Virgin Mary. These floats are accompanied by women dressed in the traditional Spanish black lace, hooded cross-bearers (which is really freaky since they look like KKK costumes), and bands. That being said, each procession is unique. Each brotherhood decorates it’s floats differently, takes different routes, and process at different times during the week.

IMG_5222 IMG_5242 IMG_4653 IMG_4604

Anyway, the crowd outside of the cathedral grew and 45 minutes later the doors opened and the procession began! Let me tell you, the processions are an absolute spectacle. I really wish I could figure out how to post the videos I took to this blog, but take my word for it and try to judge from the pictures how cool it was. The sheer number of people involved is amazing, especially when I realized the floats are literally carried on people’s shoulders. No wonder everyone claps when they make a turn or maneuver a flight of stairs.

IMG_4627 IMG_4842 IMG_4696 IMG_4678

This was the first of many processions we saw during our couple of days in Granada. It meant the city was packed and a lot of times it took us a while to get places since the streets were blocked off, but the inconveniences of the crowds and detours were well worth it. Like I said, before arriving in Granada we had no idea Semana Santa was going on. We got incredibly lucky to be able to be a part of such a wonderful tradition, it made our experience in Granada very authentic and memorable.

IMG_4718 IMG_5225 IMG_4720 IMG_4831

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around and getting a feel for the city. Keeping with the religious theme, we stopped by the Monasterio de San Jerónimo and the Basilica de San Jan de Dios, each known for their history and beauty.

IMG_4745 IMG_4747 IMG_4751 IMG_4753

That night we went Casa del Arte Flamenco to watch a flamenco show. Originally we had planned on going to a flamenco show in Madrid, but we had trouble booking a reservation (obviously very popular with tourists), so we decided to wait until Granada. Turns out this was a great decision, since flamenco originated in Andalucía!

The performance at Casa del Arte Flamenco was incredible. The venue was very cool since it was a small room like the original café cantantes, and the guitar player, singer, and male and female dancers were incredibly talented. It felt like a very authentic cultural experience, and I was absolutely blown away. There’s something about Latin countries that always makes me want to sign up for dance classes…

IMG_4796   IMG_4769   IMG_4811

The next morning we found ourselves waking up at the crack of dawn in order to see Granada’s most famous landmark, the Alhambra. The number of people allowed to enter each day is limited and since we weren’t able to buy tickets in advance we had to get up very very early to wait in line and make sure we got inside.

Luckily we did get inside, and we started at the Generalife, the palace and gardens that served as a sort of vacation spot for the Muslim royalty when they wanted to relax. It’s a beautiful estate and was a very peaceful way for us to start the morning.

IMG_4878 IMG_4904 IMG_4929 IMG_4880

We then made our way to the Alhambra, a fortress/palace for rulers and government officials when the Muslims ruled Spain. There is a lot to see in the Alhambra, with all of the different palaces and towers and walls and such. Our scheduled time to enter the palaces wasn’t until 2pm so we wandered around and enjoyed the view.

IMG_4988 IMG_4953 IMG_4985 IMG_4982

There was no way we were making it until our 2pm appointment without eating lunch so we walked down to the Carrera del Darro, one of Granada’s oldest streets that runs along the river. We found a cute cafe nearby where we I got one of my favorite Spanish foods, pan con tomate, as well as a cappuccino and fresh squeezed orange juice.

IMG_5034 IMG_5045 IMG_5056 IMG_5057 IMG_5207

From there it was back to the Alhambra for our turn inside the palaces. There are so many different rooms and courtyards and chambers it felt like a bit of a maze. Personally, my favorite was the Court of the Lions, but everything was absolutely gorgeous. Given the fact that the Alhambra and Generalife were built around the 1200s-1400s it’s incredibly well preserved and a great reminder of the Moorish rule of Spain.

IMG_5105 IMG_5130 IMG_5079 IMG_5108 IMG_5121

After that we walked back down to Albayzín, the old Moorish neighborhood. We slowly made our way up the picturesque (but also winding and narrow) streets to the Mirador de San Nicolas. From that vantage point there’s a beautiful view of the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada in the background. This is definitely the postcard shot.

IMG_5200

Once again we were getting hungry so we walked back into the center of the city and got gelato from a place called Los Italianos. Since I live in Italy I was pretty skeptical of getting Spanish gelato, but Kristen recommended it and when Kristen Cantieri tells you to do something you do it. Also the casata that I ordered came in wedge form, so I figured it was different enough that I was cheating on my host country. As usual, Kristen came in clutch and the gelato was A+

IMG_5214

The rest of our time in Granada was spent eating and walking. Granada is such a cute, quaint city we really enjoyed strolling the streets and stumbling upon procession after procession of the Semana Santa festivities. The city is pretty small compared to the other places we’ve visited so even though it seems like we walked a lot it was definitely manageable.

That night we had some fantastic paella for dinner (oh Spanish food how I miss you), and the next morning we actually slept in for the first time in what felt like forever. We had a long, relaxing lunch outside in the beautiful Spanish weather before heading to the Granada airport.

IMG_5265 IMG_5301 IMG_5302 IMG_5303

Being the good, safe travelers that we are, Julie and I showed up at the airport 2 hours before our flight which ended up being completely unnecessary. The Granada airport only has a couple of flights to Madrid and Barcelona (yep, that’s it) each day so it was empty when we arrived. So while that part of our trip home to Milan was relaxed, our connection in Madrid was the opposite. The Madrid-Barajas airport is GIGANTIC, especially compared to the usual airports our budget airlines fly us to, so we were a little stressed as we ran across the airport to catch our flight.

Thus concludes Part 1 of my three week Spring Break. After being gone traveling for over a week, it felt great to get back to Milan. That being said, I loved Berlin and I loved Spain so I was excited by the prospect of falling in love with even more places in the coming weeks!

IMG_5299

Te quiero España ❤

Spring Break: Madrid

My feelings for Madrid can be summed up very well by Gareth Bale:

Gareth-Bale

I had been wanting to go back to Spain ever since my family visited Barcelona a couple of summers ago. Plus, Spain has such a fun and relaxed culture, amazing food, great weather, a language I can *kind of* speak and understand (though the Italian hasn’t been helping), and also blessed the world with Rafael Nadal.

IMG_4076

I approve of any city that puts this man’s face on it’s public transportation ❤

I was dead set on visiting Madrid over my spring break and was lucky my schedule matched up with Julie who also wanted to do a Spain trip. She had already been in Sevilla and Barcelona, and I was meeting her and her friend who had flown in that morning at our hostel. Madrid has a top notch metro system, so after landing from the three hour (long by European standards) flight from Berlin, finding my way to the hostel was easy.

It was already dark at this point, but the Spanish usually eat dinner really late so we headed over to the Palacio Real de Madrid. The palace is HUGE (actually the largest European palace by floor area), and it’s gorgeous at night.

IMG_4030  994446_10152693774321338_2166303828841947233_n  IMG_4029

Around midnight we headed over to the Mercado de San Miguel to get some dinner. The market is a full of stalls selling gourmet tapas, and the three of us shared quite a few things such as calamari and potato chips and mussels.

IMG_4052      IMG_4057      IMG_4058

For dessert we stopped at Chocolatería San Ginés, the famous cafe that serves churros and hot chocolate (which is basically melted chocolate sauce). Chocolate con churros is apparently a traditional Spanish dessert, and even though it was kind of weird you can’t argue with fried dough and chocolate.

IMG_4074  IMG_4073  IMG_4071

That night was a great indication of how well we would eat the rest of our time in Madrid. Who doesn’t love tapas and paella?! As a resident of Italy I can’t say that Spanish food is the best, but I can say that they definitely know what they’re doing and I whole heartedly approve.

IMG_4455 IMG_4264 IMG_4107 IMG_4534 IMG_4265

The plates of food weren’t the only masterpieces we saw in Madrid. Julie and I started off our first full day at the Museo del Prado and then the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, two of Madrid’s most famous art museums that also happen to have free entry for students (woooo!). Both have impressive collections of Spanish art, and while El Prado is larger and more famous, the Reina Sofía contains Picasso’s Guernica, which I had studied in depth in my AP Spanish class in high school (would have taken pictures but photos weren’t allowed in the Reina Sofía). AP Spanish actually helped a lot, I was surprisingly still familiar with works from El Greco, Goya, Dalí, and of course Picasso.

IMG_4089  IMG_4085  IMG_4097

After spending a lot of time inside art galleries, it was time to get outside and enjoy the beautiful Spanish weather. El Parque del Buen Retiro is a huge, beautiful, peaceful park once owned by the Spanish monarchy. Inside is the Palacio de Cristal, a glass pavilion built as an exhibition of the Philippine Islands, the former Spanish colony. There’s also Estanque del Retiro which is a picturesque pond built next to a monument in honor of King Alfonso XII. Julie and I rented a rowboat and enjoyed a relaxing hour out on the water.

IMG_4151  IMG_4162  IMG_4187

As we exited the park we walked through one of the most iconic squares in Madrid. The Plaza de Cibeles has four corners occupied by the Palacio de Cibeles (city hall), Banco de España, Palacio de Buenavista, and Palacio de Linares. From there we headed to another famous landmark, the Estatua del Oso y el Madroño (Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree), which is located in the Puerta del Sol plaza. The bear and strawberry tree are a symbol of the city, found on Madrid’s coat of arms.

IMG_4459         IMG_4228         IMG_4229

Our last stop of the day before a siesta and then dinner was the Templo de Debod. It’s a reconstructed Egyptian temple that was given by Egypt to Spain as a gift for helping to preserve temples threatened by dam construction. The temple, originally from Debod in the Nile River Valley, is an unexpected but pleasant surprise for visitors to the Parque del Oeste.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 9.39.10 PM

Madrid is of course home of the one and only Real Madrid Club de Fútbol. Julie and I have both embraced our European lives and taken an interest in football (and football players), so were super pumped to spend the first half of our second day touring the home of Real Madrid, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

IMG_4276 IMG_4273 IMG_4367

There’s a lot to like about Real Madrid. They’re the world’s richest and most valuable football team, were the FIFA Club of the 20th Century, have won countless trophies and records (10 European Cups, 32 La Liga titles, 19 Copas del Rey, the list goes on), not to mention they have a world class squad (just to name a few: Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, James Rodríguez, and oh yeah some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo…), and bonus points for being Rafa Nadal’s favorite club too! As you can imagine, their trophy cases are insane, which is why a part of their tour is referred to as ‘The Best Club in History” Room.

As a Blackhawks fan I’m used to seeing a successful team putting on a good show, but I was absolutely blown away by Real Madrid. Very very impressive, and also surprisingly moving. Go ahead and watch this video, turn the volume up, sing along, and you might get an idea of how captivated we were.

IMG_4342 IMG_4313 IMG_4345 IMG_4335

From there they let us in the Presidential Box, and just when things couldn’t get any better they let us in the dressing room. I think Julie and I did a pretty commendable job of maintaining our composure and not making a scene.

IMG_4383  IMG_4389  IMG_4377

And if that wasn’t cool enough, next they let us on the field. It’s not like they let us run around or anything, we could only go in the technical area (which is the dugout and the area where coaches and subs are allowed), but it was still really cool to walk out of the tunnel and imagine the players standing where you are.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.04.48 PM

The tour ended in the press room where we got to sit behind the interview table, another example of how surprisingly open and accessible the club was. This tour was one of my absolute favorite things that I’ve done so far this semester, which is really saying something because I’ve done a lot of amazing stuff. I don’t care if you’re not a Real Madrid, I don’t care if you’re not a football fan, I don’t care if you don’t like sports, if you’re in Madrid you need to do this tour.

IMG_4447

The rest of the day we went to the landmarks we had missed the previous day, like the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, so that we could say we had seen every site on the Madrid postcards. Las Ventas is the most famous bull ring in Spain, and even though bull fighting is pretty controversial I can appreciate the cultural significance. That being said, we didn’t want to pay to go inside so we just walked around and admired the outside. Side note (not that anyone cares but me), but Spain also used Las Ventas as a Davis Cup venue, so Rafa Nadal has played there!

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.18.28 PM

From there we went back to the area around the palace. It’s just as beautiful during the day as it is at night, so we sat on the steps of Madrid’s Catholic Cathedral (Santa María la Real de La Almudena) and admired the view.

IMG_4478       IMG_4480       IMG_4481

The rest of the day we spent strolling through the gorgeous streets of Madrid, stopping in a couple of famous plazas (the Plaza Mayor and the Plaza de la Vida) and then heading back to the hostel for a siesta. The Spanish do a lot of things right, and siestas are definitely one of them. Since we wake up early to do the touristy things before it gets crowded but we can’t eat dinner until really late at night, a quick afternoon nap is a tradition that I can definitely embrace. After our siesta we headed to a tapas bar for dinner and then went to bed (relatively) early before our train to Granada the next day.

IMG_4502  IMG_4503  IMG_4505

I’ve basically become obsessed with Madrid, it’s such a beautiful city and I could totally see myself living here. Now I just need to find a Real Madrid player to marry…

Real Madrid CF v Sevilla FC - La Liga

I spy a couple of excellent options ❤

Muchas gracias Madrid, I will be back!

Spring Break: Berlin

So I’m finally getting to the Spring Break blog posts.

Brace yourself, there’s going to be seven. It feels like I’ve barely spent any time at all in Milan during the month of April, and with all of the traveling I’ve fallen pretty far behind with the blogging. I had gotten back to Milan from Florence on Sunday night, and Monday morning I had an International Relations midterm. That was my only midterm, and I proceeded to have the next three weeks off of class – the rest of exam week, Holy week, and then the week of Bocconi’s official Spring Break. After the midterm I got myself to the airport for my first solo-flight of the semester to Berlin, Germany.

At the start of the semester I had absolutely no intention of going to Germany. I’d already been to Munich and Germans have the stereotype of being so stiff and uptight I figured there were plenty of places in Europe that would be way more enjoyable. However, when you’re trying to plan three weeks of travel with a bunch of people with different schedules, you end up with a few free days on the front end and a friend who really wants to go to Berlin.

Jill had been to Berlin before so her knowledge of the city and the fact that she wanted to go there again so badly totally cast aside any of my doubts. She met me at the gate when I landed, and we somehow managed to take the right combination of public transportation systems to the Airbnb we were staying at. This was the first time I had stayed at an Airbnb and let me tell you it was AWESOME. We were staying in the spare bedroom of this really cool Polish couple that had the cutest apartment, and even though Kinga was super pregnant they were still really helpful with making sure we were taken care of (Stanislaw makes really good cappuccinos!) and giving us recommendations for restaurants.

IMG_4010 IMG_3994 IMG_3996 IMG_3593

Berlin is huge, definitely the biggest city I’ll end up going to all semester. There was a lot to see and do (and eat!) but Jill is awesome and came up with a great itinerary to fill our two days. The plan was to do most of the necessary touristy things on the first day, so we started at the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial). The memorial has a section of the original wall along with a visitor center and observation tower.

IMG_3609 IMG_3603 IMG_3602 IMG_3608

Then we walked to the Plenarbereich Reichstagsgebäude (Reichstag buildingwhich is the home of the German parliament. We would have loved to have gone inside, but in order to get a reservation you need to either book months in advance (which obviously wouldn’t have been possible for us) or wait in an incredibly long line (which we didn’t have time for). Ah well. I’m sure the view from the glass dome is amazing, so it’ll definitely be on my bucket list for the next time I’m in Berlin.

IMG_3621 IMG_3632 IMG_3628

A short distance away is the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate), which is Berlin’s most recognizable landmark. I’d seen the Brandenburg Gate in so many history classes, whether it’s a painting of Napoleon, photos of Nazi processions, or footage of JFK’s and Reagan’s famous speeches, it was really cool to see such an iconic landmark in person.

IMG_3643

Close by was the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. More on that later since the museum underneath was closed and we had to come back later. Instead we headed over to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between East and West Berlin. It’s basically just a tourist trap now, but once again it was cool to actually see something I had learned about in history class.

IMG_3661 IMG_3660 IMG_3692 IMG_3680

At this point we were really hungry, so we went to Mustafa’s Gemuese Kebab which is considered the best kebab place in all of Berlin. We didn’t get there until 2pm, but there was still a long line! Everyone always raves about the kebabs in central Europe, and let me tell you they aren’t lying. The stand was a little out of the way, but the long walk was definitely worth it because the döner kebabs are incredible! Just look at how happy I look 🙂

IMG_3696        IMG_3703        IMG_3702

Now fueled with the heavenly goodness that is a Mustafa’s kebab, we were ready to take on the Topography of Terror. The Topography of Terror is a museum that documents the Nazi regime’s institutions and crimes, built on the ruins of the Gestapo and SS headquarters. When learning about the Nazi regime we’re used to hearing about the victims, so it was interesting to learn about the perpetrators for once. While it was definitely educational, overall it was pretty dark and disturbing.

IMG_3710      IMG_3713      IMG_3718

After all of that heavy stuff we needed a pick me up. Well, chocolate to the rescue! We headed over to Ritter Sport Bunte Schokowelt (Ritter Sport Colourful Chocoworld), which is basically a Ritter Sport flagship store. We may have gone a little overboard, but when it’s a German brand and you’re in Germany, and there’s so many delicious flavors, and there’s Ritter Sport cake, and there’s a make-your-own chocolate bar station, do you really blame us? While we were waiting for our chocolate bars to be made we had time to explore the exhibit explaining the brand’s history and the chocolate making process, so at least I can say it was a little educational.

IMG_3729 IMG_3742 IMG_3758 IMG_3735

As you can imagine we had kind of ruined our appetites at this point (no regrets), so we decided to walk around a bit so we could see Berlin lit up at night. We went back to the area around Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, and eventually decided to find a German pub to eat some legit German food: sausages (good), meatball (questionable), lard bread (horrifying – I thought the lard would be baked into the bread, but instead it’s spread on top – yuck), apple strudel (wonderful!).

IMG_3793 IMG_3762 IMG_3770 IMG_3797

The next morning we had breakfast near our Airbnb, thanks to a recommendation from our wonderful hosts. Our Airbnb was in a sort of “hipster” neighborhood, so there were plenty of cute cafes to have breakfast each morning. It’s true Italy has great coffee but they don’t really do breakfast unless it’s a croissant or some ham and cheese slices, so when Jill and I saw a legit breakfast menu that included eggs we were thrilled!

IMG_3816 IMG_3822 IMG_3817

Since we had already covered most of the historical/touristy stuff the day before, we decided to switch things up a bit and start off Day 2 with the Alternative Berlin Tour, an “authentic local experience of Berlin’s famous underground subcultures, alternative lifestyles and street art and graffiti scenes.” Our tour guide looked like Kenneth Branagh if he was a drug dealer (he was also British so this is actually a really accurate comparison), but we actually learned a lot of interesting things. We got to see some really unique, quirky neighborhoods and learn about everything from graffiti gangs to train bombing and surfing.

IMG_3831 IMG_3827 IMG_3853 IMG_3843

The tour ended at the East Side Gallery, a long stretch of the Berlin wall that has become an open air gallery. One side is covered in murals (“My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” is probably the most recognizable), and the other is a graffiti free-for-all. It’s a really cool expression of how hopeful Germany was when it was reunified.

IMG_3895 IMG_3876 IMG_3882 IMG_3864

After all of that walking we were really hungry again (you’ll notice this is a common theme), so we went and got currywurst from Konnopke’s Imbiss, the best currywurst stand in Berlin. Currywurst is classic German fast-food, consisting of a bratwurst covered in ketchup and curry powder. Sounds gross, but I swear it’s fantastic! Like I said we were really hungry, so we also made a stop at a Portuguese bakery that our Airbnb hosts had recommended. Since it’s Portuguese, we of course had to get a pastel de nata! And even though it’s not Portuguese, we’ve been told cheesecake is apparently the next “big thing” (Berlin is cool so they would know) so of course we had to get that too!

IMG_3904 IMG_3902 IMG_3917 IMG_3909

Now amped up on a sugar high, we set off to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe again so we could go to the exhibit underneath. That buzz went away quickly because this obviously was not a very happy place. The museum is dark and solemn, and it packs a powerful punch. Overall I think Berlin does a pretty good job of taking responsibility for the horrific actions taken by Nazi Germany. Not a perfect job, but at least these kinds of things are visible and free and open to the public so that they’re never forgotten.

IMG_3931   IMG_3928   IMG_3925

At that point it was starting to get dark, so we made our way towards the The Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower), passing monuments like the Gendarmenmarkt (a square holding the Konzerthaus and French and German cathedrals) and Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). Though they were damaged during WWII, Berlin has tons of these kinds of buildings, especially in the city center along the Spree River, that have been restored and are absolutely beautiful when they’re lit up at night. That’s why we weren’t worried about saving our trip up the TV tower until the evening, so that we could see everywhere that we’d been the last couple of days illuminated before us. Berlin is so flat and spread out that the view from up there was incredible!

IMG_3934 IMG_3951 IMG_3980 IMG_3979

The rest of our time in Berlin revolved around (big surprise) food. We had dinner at this awesome vegan place just around the corner from our Airbnb (yet another fantastic recommendation), and breakfast the next morning was at a another adorable cafe a few blocks away. After breakfast Jill and I parted ways as she headed off to Prague and I went back to the Airbnb for another cappuccino and then off to the airport to catch my flight to Madrid. Jill was an awesome travel partner, and I’m glad we were able to get so much closer the couple of days we were in Berlin. Not that I don’t like traveling with a big group of my friends, but traveling with only one other person can be so much easier!

IMG_3992 IMG_4005 IMG_3998 IMG_4006

Like I said at the beginning, I had pretty low expectations about Berlin going in so I was shocked by how much I loved the city. Berlin is so so unique and quirky and fun (not to mention the food scene is top notch), I definitely plan on going back there some day. So glad Jill convinced me to go, and so glad I was able to start off my spring break on such a positive note!