Yes, I was just in Barcelona, Spain and now I am headed to Brussels, Belgium for a two-day trip to partake in some holiday shopping at the Christmas Markets and indulge in waffles. Sue me. Actually, please don't because I could not afford that at this point in my journey. 

We leave tonight on a Ryanair flight (gulp) and come back late Thursday evening, also on a Ryanair flight. Prayers are appreciated. We really do not have anything planned whatsoever for Brussels and in all honesty, that feels extremely nice in comparison to Barcelona where we went all day for two and a half days. 

We know we want to spend some quality time at the Christmas Markets, ice skate, look at the incredibly tall Christmas tree at the Markets and be reminded of Rockefeller Center, visit La Grande-Place (an UNESCO World Heritage Center site) and then go to the Musical Instrument Museum, where it is free the first Wednesday of every month. What a coinkydink! But other than that we do not have many plans and we all are content with that. 

Many of us have several papers to write so some of us decided that Thursday in between our check out time and catching our flight we are going to find a cafe with Internet and hunker down. Homework in Belgium? Why not!

This is my last trip outside of a day trip to Aranjuez, Spain on Friday and I am a little sad that my traveling has come to an end. However, I have been blessed to have such wonderful excursions and a great group of students to share them with. It is hard to believe that I have been to so many different countries and cities in my short time here and it is coming to an end so soon, but it is time to say goodbye to Europe and hello to my home in the United States. 
 
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My favorite Gaudí masterpiece: Casa Batlló in Barcelona, Spain.
Who would have thought traveling eight hours north of Madrid, Spain to Barcelona would make me feel as if I entered a whole other world filled with beauty, national pride and well, a language that seems to be a mix of French and Spanish. Thursday night at midnight I embarked on my journey to Barcelona and on Friday morning we arrived to what seemed like a whole other world. The people seemed more genuine, the language was unlike any Spanish I have ever heard and the streets and boulevards were the canvas for street artists, Antonio Gaudí and many more.

For our trip to Barcelona we did not really have a plan of attack, we knew we wanted to see the major sites: Gaudí’s master pieces, the 1992 Summer Olympic Games stadium, the beach but soon after a conversation with a woman at the hostel we realized we had a lot more things to fit into our two full days than we thought. I liked it. 

After the eight hour, moderately comfortable bus ride we all were a little tired because the sleep we caught was less than ideal but we knew we couldn’t take a nap because we would end up wasting the day so instead we freshened up and headed out to explore Barcelona.

A common misconception I think about many European cities is that they are too large to cover on feet, that you need to take public transportation or a taxi, but that is not the case. We left the hostel which was located in the southwest part of Barcelona and walked north to many of the sites we would end up seeing for the day. First was the Cathedral of Barcelona which turned out to be stunning. Yes, I say turned out to be stunning because by the end of the first month in Spain we all were tired-out from seeing so many places of worship. But, this was different and not just in the sense that you could take photos of the inside but that it was a basilica with Gothic arquitecture, a rare site to be had. After the basilica we stumbled upon a Christmas market where we found the cutest elderly woman and her daughter who made crocheted, knitted, and beaded ornaments by hand. The two girls and I swooned over them and Tor was mildly impressed. 
Rachel, one of the four girls on the trip and self-declared guide, really wanted to see the lamppost Gaudí designed for the city of Barcelona in the 1870s.  We wandered the streets of Barcelona until we stumbled upon the lamp in Plaça Reial. It was ... interesting, for lack of a better word. I think all of us were expecting something very elaborate and profound and instead were a little disappointed in the simplicity of the street lamp. The red and black colors with the six shades were intriguing and the snakes that were wrapped around the head of the lights were symbolic, but it just didn’t have the oomf that we expected. Nonetheless, it was important to see and Rachel was impressed with her navigation skills, and I must say I was too. 
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Amanda and Rachel in front of the lamppost.
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Six shades of the lamp.
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Snake around lamppost.
At this point it was going on noon and our lack of sleep hit us hard and we headed back to the hostel where we could eat our packed lunches of bocadillos, take a nap and relax.  Much to our surprise our hour and a half break turned into all four of us concking out in our bunkbeads and waking up three and a half hours later. It was deemed a successful nap when Rachel tried to kick me to wake me up and I didn’t even feel it and when we all noticed the drool on my pillow. A girl has got to sleep! 

Now that we were all energized we decided to take a metro ride north to La Basílica de la Sagrada Família and work our way back to the hostel by walking since we had to meet another girl who was meeting us via train. The metro in Barcelona is cheap, ten rides was 9,50 euro and four of us shared one pass. Cost effective and efficient. 

When we excited the metro at Sagrada Família we immediately turned around and were in awe as to what we were looking at. The detail, ornateness, painstaking and never ending labor, and the sheer size of Gaudi’s cathedral was incredible and proved to be too much to soak in. It was amazing to see something so many of us just read about in our Spanish culture classes and never thought we would be able to see. We could not afford the 16 euro to see the inside so instead we walked around the church and soaked in all the beauty we could. I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that the basilica is undergoing restoration while it is simultaneously still being completed. The group of us consistently asked the question: How did Gaudi have such an intricate imagination? Some say it may have been chemically induced, others say he was just a mastermind. I am going to go with the latter.  
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View of La Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.
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View of La Sagrada Família from the metro stop.
As we left the ever touristy and jaw dropping Sagrada Família we walked south towards La Pedrera. Along the way we ran into a former Marquette student who transferred my sophomore year. What a small world, we even would see her the next evening. 

When we hit the street La Pedrera was on we couldn’t believe how such a monumental building just fit in with the city. We almost missed the building because it fits perfectly within the city of Barcelona, the only give away was the crowd of tourists and ticket information sign. Again, we didn’t go in because we could not afford the 14 euros.

I had read and researched that if you had to choose between what to go in you should go into the houses of Gaudí rather than La Sagrada Família, but we still could not justify spending that much on a ticket. I think we are spoiled with the reasonable prices and numerous free hours and days for monuments and museums in Madrid. 

After we looked at La Pedrera from the outside and snuck a few peaks through the glass windows and doors we headed to Casa Batlló that was just a little ways down Passeig de Gracia. In my opinion Batlló was the most simplistic and gorgeous of the Gaudí sites we had seen at this point. With the pastel colors making up the facade, a brightly lit indoors made the inside appear to be spacious and illuminated the warped shape of the rooms, ceiling and windows. It reminded me of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and as soon as I realized that there was no denying that it would be my favorite out of the three. 

I would suggest that if you are traveling to Barcelona and want to see Gaudí’s architecture and most famous work that you go to the houses a bit before dusk, when they are turning the lights on inside and illuminating the outside. It makes for a gorgeous photo but also easier to sneak some peaks of the inside without paying the steep prices. 
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La Pedrera, house of Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain.
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Casa Batlló, house of Gaudí in Barcelona, Spain.
After spending a decent amount of time staring at Batlló we continued our walk back towards our hostel to meet the other girl who would be arriving shortly. We didn’t realize we were on La Rambla until we smelt the mixture of waffles, gelato and flowers and heard music from street performers. Barcelona was lively and was lit up not just from the light of storefronts but from the Christmas lights hanging in the streets and on the buildings. We hit Plaça de Catalunya and were overjoyed in the fact that there were snowflake Christmas lights hanging above the entrance to Corte Inglés and an ice rink open for skating. Suddenly, we were overwhelmed by the fact that we were heading home in less than three weeks and would be seeing snow, having to wear real winter coats, and celebrating the holiday season. When we arrived at our hostel for dinner and met up with the final member of the group we ate dinner with travelers from all over Europe, a man from Australia, and one man from the United States. We were the only students there who were studying abroad, the rest were backpacking. We heard some incredible stories and couldn’t believe how many places these people had been to. The man from the U.S. had been to 14 different countries in the matter of five months and plans on coming back and doing it all over but for an entire year. I think it would be an incredible experience to travel the world for a year and live simply, but I also can't help but think why they are avoiding the real world back home.

That being said, I guess we all are living in a fantasy world here in Spain, and the fact that we slept in until 12:30 p.m. the next day didn’t help our case either. However, in our defense once we were up we were on the go and out the door. First on the agenda was checking out the waterfront. I didn’t think Barcelona would have such a large quantity of green space, but we ran into several parks next to the bay area where there were several boats at the docks waiting to be taken out on the water. It was a perfect day for sailing but none could be spotted out on the water. As we walked we found statues and monuments that were simply just plopped in the middle of the streets and roads. First we saw a sculpture that had, in my opinion, a half-eatten banana on top (no one agreed with me on that one), it is called the Barcelona Face and built for the Olympic Games then we saw a lobster statue where we obvisouly had to stop and take a picture and make lobster claws with our hands. Then we found the Mirador de Colón where people were mounting the lion statues for photo ops. We obviously partook in that as well. 

This still amazes me though, the fact that you can climb or go very close to national monuments in Europe. In Budapest when we stumbled upon Heroe’s Square and then were able to climb the main statue, I thought we were going to find ourselves in a snag, but we all realized that it is acceptable to be up close and personal with monuments and sculptures here. A relaxed approach on the government’s side that I think the U.S. could use at times.  
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Banana statue, aka Barcelona Face.
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Rachel on a lion at Mirador de Colón.
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Andrea (top), Amanda (bottom) with lobster statue.
After relaxing by the water for some time we headed back to the northern part of Barcelona and spent a solid chunk of time at El Park Güell, a public park designed by Gaudí and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here I realized why a close friend of mine who studied abroad in London, England last semester fell in love with Barcelona. She told me that was her favorite city she visited and I can see why. With the mosaic benches, lizards and walls, the columns where you can peak out from and reinact childhood games, the view of the city and all the languages you hear walking along the dirt paths make for a surreal experience. Never did I think I would be at Park Güell with some of my favorite people but I was and we looked out at Barcelona with smiles on our faces, happy that we were able to share this trip together. 

After relaxing at Parque Guell and agonizing over what gifts to get for people and how much money we were willing to spend on a miniature lizard figurine, we stopped for some delicious and cheap paella on our way back south to the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc. As we walked, Amanda, Rachel and I chatted about the things we are going to miss in Spain and the things we aren’t. We talked about how much we are going to miss our señoras and their hilarity but how we also cannot wait to be home with our families and friends who we miss so much. It is a tradeoff, of course, but we all realized on this trip to Barcelona that we are ready to go home. 
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A look out from the top of El Park Güell.
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Sign of El Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain
As we walked to Montjuïc we stopped at Escribá to try a pastry, it wasn’t easy to split but it was worth every bit of sticky chocolate that ended up on our fingers. Once we arrived at the entrance to the fountain we realized it was more than just a fountain, it was a procession of fountains on each side leading to one incredibly large, elaborate and well lit masterpiece that had the most beautiful backdrop of another fountain and Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. The view was nothing short of stunning and romance was obviously in the air as Amanda and I hugged one another during the magic fountain show. If you visit Barcelona and miss this, your trip was not complete. It occurs every night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. At Montjuïc I realized I was in love with Barcelona. As we watched the fountain show, that now has given me high expectations for Las Vegas, we listened to the music playing and observed as people around us smiled, hugged one another, and even danced as they sat on the stone steps watching the breathtaking show. As I sat soaking in the culture I had to pinch myself to make sure that I was in reality, I couldn’t believe the beauty of this city. I can safely say I think it is prettier than Madrid in many ways, but is much more touristy than Madrid. 
We left after about twenty minutes and walked back to our hostel, I said I wanted to leave before it ended so I could just pretend it lasted forever. I think that is a decent philosophy. That evening for dinner you wouldn't guess what we had. Paella, of course. Complete with eyes and all. After dinner we headed out and had a glass of wine and Rachel, Amanda and I headed to the infamous Espit Chupito and partook in taking the best tasting shot of my life. I know this blog is supposed to be PG-13 so all I will say is that Rachel and I took the Boy Scout shot, where you roast a marshmallow on the bar, dip it in the shot, eat the marshello, drink the shot and are done, and Amanda took the Harry Potter shot, where the whole glass and slice of orange covering the top of the shot is lit on fire and carmelized, then you drink the shot and suck on the orange. Best 2.5 seconds of my night. 

Now, as I sit on the bus heading back to Madrid I stare out at the scenery of Spain and can’t help but have one regret; exploring the country more. With the mountains in the background, open fields with windmills poking up here and there, and the sun setting I can’t help feel I have neglected the country of Spain a bit and took it for granted. Barcelona turned out to be a wonderful trip, quite possibly my favorite (or a close tie to Lisbon, Portugal), and I know that other cities such as Sevilla and Cordoba would have been in my top five as well had I gone to them. I guess it is just another reason to come back to visit and explore a culture and country that has been so kind to me. Five year reunion, anyone? 
 
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Exterior of El Escorial, in San Lorenzo, Spain, from the view of the road leading up to the monument.
In October I wrote a blog about visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites while in Europe for the semester and I have just added another to my list for the semester, El Escorial. The tally now is seven overall in Europe, five in Spain. How exciting this is! (Yes, Yoda-Speak I am.)

Going to El Escorial was a great day trip. While the majority of our group was visiting Geneva, Switzerland for the weekend Rachel and I decided to stay local and see historical sites that we have yet to be able to, unfortunately we both had a late start on Saturday morning so we only saw El Escorial, but that proved to be enough as we wanted a more relaxed weekend anyhow. 

El Escorial is located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a region near Madrid and in the center of Spain. If you are based in Madrid like myself you can either take the bus or the train, both are inexpensive costing 7,50 euro roundtrip and is a relaxing 55 minute ride both ways. When you arrive in San Lorenzo you don't think El Escorial is far from the train station, but it is about a 20 minute walk uphill, so for those who do not enjoy a steady incline or have issues walking I suggested taking the bus offered that runs for the station to El Escorial. Rachel and I decided to see how fit we were and walked the incline, wrong move. 
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Rachel outside of El Escorial entrance.
Once we reached the area we were shocked as to how large this five century old monument was. I personally believe it has the potential to put the Queen of England's palace to shame, sorry Buckingham Palace. El Escorial is quite possibly the most important architectural monument from the Spanish Renaissance, and I say quite possibly because every Spanish history and culture professor I have had has said this. My señora even said this once I returned from my day trip. The monument, the brainchild of King Philip II, took 21 years to complete, beginning in 1563 and ending in 1584. Phillip II wanted the building to be a place that had multiple purposes and being the determined man he was he made it happen. El Escorial was not just a palace for the King but was also a burial ground where many of the Kings of Spain are buried (originally it was meant to solely be a burial place for his father Charles V), a monastery, church, college and library. 

If you are more of a visual person here is a break down by date:
  • 1582: Iglesia de San Bernabé 
  • 1584: Royal Palace, Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, university 
  • 1592: Biblioteca de El Escorial 

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Hallway leading to the pantheons.
Rachel and I wanted to take our time going through El Escorial but our leisure lunch took a bit longer than we anticipated and did not enter until around 4:00 and it closes at 6:00. As a result we bypassed the numerous rooms of paintings and armory from past wars, we quickly gawked at the tools and apparatuses used to build the monument located in the basement and then strolled through the living rooms - yes, there were multiple living rooms - and enjoyed visiting the ornate bedrooms and offices, the five century year-old chairs that still had their cushions and tapestry in tact and also the pantheons where 26 kings and queens are buried. This was probably my favorite part and Rachel's least favorite. That sounds morbid so let me explain a bit. 

I have never been a fan of cemeteries, I mean who is? But, on the other hand I think their is something special about how as a family you all are together in one unified location in the end. (I am probably not helping myself sound less grim right now, my apologies.) The pantheons and the several other rooms where the princes and princesses are also buried signify a single location where hundreds of years of history are conjoined. Yes, the kings and queens may not have gotten along, really boosted Spain's economy or even lead Spain downhill (Philip II, that is aimed at you) but they played pivotal roles in Spain's history. It was a little creepy, for lack of a better word, to walk from room to room and see more crypts and tombs that have decayed bodies in them, however it makes you realize how far back the history of Spain goes and how young the United States of America is. At one point I asked Rachel what she thought the bodies would be like after so much time has passed, she did not like that question and began to walk faster towards the exit. Once we came to the last of several of the stone, white, and rather cold, pantheons we decided to take a peak at the basilica and then get some fresh air by taking a gander through the gardens. The Church of San Bernabé  was beautiful and we stayed for a few minutes then said to one another, "Why do these all look the same to us now?" So we soaked in the beauty of the church and headed for the gardens. 

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Iglesia de San Bernabé.
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Rachel in the gardens of El Escorial.
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Gardens of El Escorial.
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Rachel and Andrea outside El Escorial entrance.
We saw swans, took in the brisk air and soaked in the view of the mountains and really could not believe that the grass was still so lush and green, in Minnesota there was six inches of snow. As we walked through the gardens I couldn't help but think how nice it would be to have this much green space but how I would hate to groom the shrubs and maintain the fountains. Whoever does deserves a raise. El Escorial and San Lorenzo were pleasantly quiet and I think Rachel and I both needed that after celebrating Thanksgiving away from our families and the comfort of our quiet hometown, Minneapolis. All in all it was a great day-trip and I think it is quite possibly my new favorite UNESCO site in Spain I have seen. Props to King Philip II, you didn't do all that bad.