Last Friday was the exact midpoint of my time studying abroad, and it was also the first time I left France since I arrived in August.
I have never taken a Spanish class in my life. The entire extent of my Spanish is “si,” “gracias,” and counting to 39. However, this was not the first time I’ve been to a country where I don’t speak the language. In March, I went to Chile with the SCM live case study, and Chileans speak as much English as I do Spanish.
By far the hardest part about Madrid was getting to my hostel. I arrived in Madrid just after 8pm and had to take the metro to my hostel. My philosophy is that if you can figure out public transportation in a foreign language, you can do anything. it took me 10 minutes of looking at a map to figure out how to get where I needed to go, and both times I had to change trains, I spent another minute or so looking at the map to make sure I was going the right way. Once I got to my stop, actually finding my hostel was harder than I expected. The hostel I was staying at was 2 floors of a fairly nondescript building, and I walked right past it at first because I didn’t see the small sign labeling it as a hostel. Fortunately, I was in Spain, so when I left in search of dinner at 10 o’clock, everything was still open. Naturally, I had tapas and sangria, then went to bed.
The best thing to do on your first day in a new city is to take a tour. Luckily, I found a free walking tour to go on. Unluckily, it was raining and I didn’t bring my rain boots because they didn’t fit in my bag. I thought that one of the pairs I brought was waterproof. It wasn’t. It was only water resistant, and by the end of the tour, my feet were soaked. I wasn’t thrilled about that, but it didn’t stop me from learning a lot about the city, and continuing to explore even after the tour was over.
Pro tip: check the forecast before you leave, and if it says rain, bring shoes that are actually waterproof. You will regret it if you don’t.
On Sunday I got to go to mass at the Almudena Cathedral, which was very cool, but also difficult to understand. Afterwards I went back to some of the stops from the tour to get more pictures, and to the oldest chocolate and churros place in the world. There’s nothing better to cheer you up on a cold, rainy day than fried food and chocolate!
Once I had finished, I walked the rest of the way to the art museums– the churro place was about half way in between the Almdena Cathedral and the Museo del Prado. I am not a big ‘art person,’ but both the Museo del Prado and the Riena Sofia are very famous, and (as a bonus) are indoors! My favorite painting was “Guernica” by Picasso. I am not a great Picasso fan, but I have taken an art class and we studied that painting, so it was very cool to see it in person.
My flight tof Barcelona was very early in the morning (I rode on of the very first trains after the metro started for the day to get to the airport), so I got there before I could actually check into my new hostel. I was staying at the Black Swan, which is my favorite hostel so far. I only had 2 days in Barcelona, so as soon as I had put my stuff away, I left to go see La Sagrada Familia. When I got there I learned 2 things: 1) you need to buy a ticket to actually go in, 2) tickets needed to be bought at least a day in advance. Thankfully, I was able to get tickets to go the next day, so I went back to my hostel for the free dinner and the bar crawl.
The next day it was raining again– as it had done every single day that I had spent in Spain– but this did not stop me from going to the beach. Barcelona has some famous beaches, and I was determined to at least put my feet in the Mediterranean. I didn’t stay at the beach very long because it went from dripping to a downpour almost as soon as I got to the water. I spent the next couple of hours hiding inside the hostel until the rain stopped and I had to go back to LA Sagrada Familia.
La Sagrada Familia is really cool because it doesn’t look anything at all like other basilicas or cathedrals. It also isn’t finished yet, but is set to be completed in 2026. According to my audio guide, the basilica is designed using a lot of natural themes and scenes from the Bible.
I had to pull an all-nighter that night because I am a huge Cubs fan and the Cubs were playing in the first game of the World Series. Baseball games, especially playoff (and World Series) games start at 2am in Europe.
Nice is nice! It has everything you could want out of the French Riviera. Just like in Barcelona, I got to Nice too early to check in. This time, though, I spent most of the wait laying on the beach. The beaches in Nice are great because they are pebble beaches, so you don’t have to worry about sand getting everywhere.
Once I had gotten my room, I found lunch and then took a nap in preparation for another 2am Cubs game!
Every day of the week except Monday, Nice holds the Marché aux Fleurs (market of flowers). It is really cool because local people and business owners are not just selling flowers– though here are plenty of people selling those– there are people selling fresh vegetables and breads, candied and dried fruits, soaps, and all kinds of other souvenirs.
After wandering through the market, I climbed up to l’ancien château which has great panoramic views of Nice and the Mediterranean Sea. It was afternoon and quite warm by the time I took the (free) elevator back down, so I decided to spend the rest of my day at the beach! The Mediterranean Sea is not nearly as cold as the Pacific Ocean, but it’s not warm either. Besides the minor drawback of walking into the water with bare feet, the Med is great for swimming– it gets deep very quickly and the water is very clear.
Pro tip: shoes that can be worn in the water (like rafting shoes) would have been great because walking around on rocks, especially into and out of the water, is not very comfortable with bare feet.
Monaco is just a 40 minute bus ride from Nice, so that’s where I spent my last full day before heading back to Cergy. A bus ticket only costs 1.50€ each way, but you can stop in Eze, France on the way. Eze is about halfway in between Nice and Monaco, and has wonderful, 360° panoramic views. The bad news is that you have to pay to get up to the garden with the views (2.50€ for students, 10€ for adults), and the busses don’t come very frequently. I had taken all of the pictures I wanted and was ready to go in around 30 minutes, but there was 3 hours between the bus we got off of, and the next one. This meant that I got to take a very leisurely lunch before continuing on to Monaco. It also meant that my ticket (which was good for one journey, up to 74 minutes) had expired and I needed a new one.
Happily, when you get to Monaco, the bus drops you off right near the Monte-Carlo. Out front is a continuous parade of super-cars; it was the obly place I’ve ever been where the one Audi that went by looked cheap and out of place. Parked out front were a handful of Bentleys, several Rolls-Royce, a Moserati, and nearly every color of Ferrari.
After admiring the nice cars (and picking out our favorites), we went inside.
Pro tips: 1) There is a dress code to go inside, especially at night– so dress nicely. 2) You will need your Passport to go in as well, both into the building, and especially to go into the room where you can actually gamble. 3) to get into said room you will need to buy a 10€ ticket, which just gets you onto the floor– no chips. 4) if you are planning on gambling, you buy chips at the table, and the lowest minimum was 5€ at one of the roulette tables.
Naturally we figured what was the point of going in unless you actually went onto the casino floor, so we did. It was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, bUT I’m sure they have separate rooms where they host poker tournaments.
Behind the casino is the port, which is full of yachts, sailing ships, and boats from the World Rowing championship. we walked through the port picking out our favorite yachts, and identifying the flags on them, before wandering down the roads (which are used in the Grand Prix) toward our bus stop. Sadly, the last bus back was at 8pm, so we couldn’t stay to watch all of the super rich people show up to gamble.