Joanna Martin — France, Italy, & Spain (2015) ‡

martin-Madrid- tmeple of debod overlookTraveling is an adventure and it can be frightening. What if I don’t like the food? What if the people aren’t nice? What if I get lost? But if you can move past all the “what if” questions and move past your fears you will come out of this adventure a better person. Someone once said

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.” – Anonymous

I completely agree with this statement. Over the summer I had the blessing of traveling to Europe for the first time. Over the course of almost three weeks I visited Paris in France, Venice, Florence, and Rome in Italy, and Barcelona and Madrid in Spain.

Paris panorama from the Eiffel Tower

Paris panorama from the Eiffel Tower

Being the planner that I am I had been planning this trip since a year in advance and although this trip did not go completely to plan I would not have had it any other way. On the morning of August 8th my sister and I boarded our plane on the trip of a lifetime, we were off on our 14-hour plane ride to Paris.

Originally I had planned to start our trip in Greece however that portion of our trip became too pricey so we decided to spend more time in Paris, as we are hopeless romantics we were most excited for the city of l’amour. We arrived in Paris the next morning at 8 am, dropped off our bags and we were ready to go. Paris was everything we imagined and more. The streets lined with colorful doors, bakeries, crepe shops, and cafes. Couples walk their dogs around the Eiffel tower and then sit for their afternoon expresso. I was in love with the city within the first hour.

Eiffel Tower at sunset

Eiffel Tower at sunset

France offered us the best weather of all the cities we visited so my sister and I took full advantage of this by walking everywhere. We walked to the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, and back to the Eiffel Tower for our first sunset. We took a tip from one of the locals we met and bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate our first night. As we poured the bubble champagne we watched the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower – I can’t make this stuff up.

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

We arrived at our room kicked off our shoes and waited to fall asleep, however the mix of excitement and jet lag did not allow us to sleep until 3 am. This was no excuse for us to stop, we woke up bright and early the next day and were ready to keep going, adrenaline really works wonders. The second day we took a cruise on the River Seine, entered the Louvre to see the famed Mona Lisa, went to the top floor of the Eiffel Tower, and visited L’Arc du Triomphe.

martin-The Louvre

At the Louvre

On our third and final day in Paris we got lost in the Palace and gardens of Versailles. It was beautiful, immense, and left us in awe. Picnicking in front of Venus’s fountain is by far one of my favorite experiences. We headed back to Champ de Mars to see the Eiffel Tower light up one last time, this time we did so from a lounge along the Siene River that was bustling with nightlife.

We got to our room, packed our bags, and slept a couple hours. In the morning we left early to the airport and boarded our plane to Venice, Italy. Venice is everything you see in the movies and more. The tiny streets lined with bridges and flower pots. The houses packed so closely together that you are not allowed to iron in your room because in case of a fire, all of the houses would light up. The island is so small and rustic that there are no cars allowed which means that the only way to get on and off is through a water boat.

Canal bridge in Venice

Canal bridge in Venice

We spent an hour trying to find our hotel since the closest we could get dropped off was in Piazza San Marco. We explored the island and fell in love with the Italian food almost immediately.

The following day we headed to the local outdoor market on the other side of the Rialto Bridge. Thank goodness for hotel receptionists, they always pointed us in the right direction. We decided to take a small excursion to the three islands off the coast of Italy: Murano, Burano, and Torcello. This is where spontaneity and flexibility really were important. By the time I got to Venice I realized that my itinerary was not going to be followed and it was okay.

Visiting Burano

Visiting Burano

The next morning we left our hotel and were off to the next city. This was our first encounter with the European train system and we had no idea what to expect. We were pleasantly surprised. The train system is so easy and efficient I definitely recommend the train to anyone visiting Europe.

The next part of our trip was my absolute favorite. Florence is beautiful, the food is great, and the people are charming. As soon as we arrived we were in awe. Our hotel was beautiful (not that we spent much time there). This is where the Globetrotter Grant was really helpful. In Florence we took two full day excursions. The first was to Tuscany where we got to go wine tasting, visit the medieval town of San Gimigiano, and the city of Siena where they were preparing for Palio. Palio is an event where the city of Siena is divided into 12 districts. Each district has their own horse and they compete in an all-out racing battle to claim victory for the year to come.

The following day I took a day trip to Cinque Terre. This was something I had always dreamed about and it was amazing. The colorful houses hanging off the cliff side with the beautiful blue waters. It was like a movie. We hiked through some of the town and took the train through another part of the town. My sister and I tried some of their fresh seafood as well as their home made pesto pasta.

Florence panorama, from the Duomo

Florence panorama, from the Duomo

On our last day in Florence we climbed to the top of the Duomo. 463 steps later we were staring at an amazing view of this beautiful and warm city. After that we spent a couple hours shopping at the famous leather market. We discover the gem of all gems, the Florence Central Market. As soon as you walk in you see stands upon stands of fresh gourmet food waiting for you to try it. We feasted on steak, dessert, wine, and seafood that night and that is how we said good bye to Florence.

martin-Pope Francis

Pope Francis

We were off to see the Pope in Rome. Our family friend had set up reserved seating for the audience and we could not be more excited. Yet again plans fell through. Due to unforeseen rain, pouring rain I might add. The audience was moved from the outside seating that is customary to a smaller indoor arena but nonetheless my sister and I showed up bright and early for the audience in hopes of getting a good seat. The amount of people crowding in to the Mass was insane. As soon as the pope stepped into the hall the clapping echoed throughout.

When the pope began to speak I got the chills, he gave his sermon in Spanish and had roughly 10 translators to give his speech in other languages. I had chills the entire sermon. Later that day we visited the beautiful city of Trastevere outside of Rome. We walked around the piazza and the beautiful vine covered streets. Then ate a pizza and wine and watched the street performers.


The Colosseum in Rome

On our last day we visited the immense Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the ancient Roman ruins. We were in such awe to see the history nestled into this city.

Rome was beautiful and the Vatican was immense however we were ready to explore Spain, the third and last country we would be visiting on our trip.

We flew to Barcelona the next morning and we finally felt at home, we spoke the language which had not been the case for the last two weeks. The people in Spain were so great, nice, and willing to help. We arrived at our hotel around noon and went to purchase a “hop on hop off” bus ticket to make the most of our short time there.

martin-Paella caldudosa

Paella in Barcelona

First things first though we went straight to a tapas bar that had been recommended by someone we met on the plane ride over. For the rest of the evening we walked around Las Ramblas, window shopped, and made our way over to the Barceloneta, Barcelona’s beach. Along the way we made new friends who all told us to eat a paella at Restaurant 7 Portes. We made our way over there around 10 pm, which is a common eating time in Europe, bought a paella and a glass of sangria and sat and people watched until midnight.

The following day we visited the most of Gaudi’s art possible. We went to La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, and Park Güell. La Sagrada Familia was amazing, the detail, color, and light inside were perfect and the outside a masterpiece that paints a story of the nativity. We ended our night taking a tour of Camp Nou (home of FC Barcelona), then having one last paella in Barcelona.

All of these days we were averaging 10 miles walking, we were exhausted, our feet were blistered, we were starting to run out of money but we had no intention of slowing down. We had three more days in Europe and we were going to make the best of them. We hopped on to our final train ride, this time to Madrid.

martin-Temple of Debod

Temple of Debod in Madrid

Our hotel in Madrid was right off la gran via so as soon as we dropped our bags off we went to buy our hop on hop off ticket and we were ready to go. We explored plaza mayor, theater real, the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Real Madrid stadium. We made our way over to Puerta del Sol, and had dinner there as the night life began. We walked home on the Gran Via, a street that truly never sleeps. We stayed out later than usual that night just watching as the people came and went. The weather was finally a perfect 75 compared to the scorching 95 we were getting accustomed to.

On our last day we hung out in Parque del Buen Retiro for a couple hours. Had another picnic but this time we were in such a bitter sweet mood as we were happy to come back home but so sad to leave. We walked around the crystal palace then headed over to the Temple of Debod to watch the sunset over the Palacio Real.

Thanks to the Globetrotter Grant we were able to add in all of our excursions which made such a difference in our trip. We got to see Siena, the 5 cities of Cinque Terre, activities in France such as the river tour, and so much more.

My sister and I bonded so much on this trip and really learned about each other but more than that we learned about ourselves. This trip taught us what we like and dislike, it showed us what our limits were and showed us what we can accomplish if we set our minds to it. She became the perfect travel buddy for me and we are already planning our next trip to Central and South America, this time hoping to explore the Aztec and Mayan ruins.

The saying is true: travel is the only thing you can buy that will make you richer. I am ready to submerse myself in another culture and learn both about those people as well as about myself.

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