Spain, Italy, Switzerland & Greece (2001)
Hello to my readers. Today, I will tell you about a trip that cemented my love for traveling. I had traveled a bit before, but it was not until this trip that I fell in love with walking aimlessly in foreign lands with a guidebook, eating exotic and fresh food, and seeing pieces of history unique to each region.
Right after my high school graduation, I decided to go to these four countries with family. We had a Frommer's guidebook and it was a tremendous help with navigating around places and just a fun read. Today, you can plan your trip online and navigate through your phone so these books may become outdated. However, even today, I buy these guidebooks because they remind me of a wonderous time and I look through them even after the trip with all the notes and dog-eared pages.
I remember we planned for months for this trip. I had a Pakistani Passport at the time so we had an extra task of getting all the visas. Today, thanks to my US passport, I avoid the hassle and fees for visa to many countries. Another difference from today was that we visited these countries when Euro wasn't introduced. So things were fairly cheap, especially in Greece. Today, with the introduction of Euro, the dollar is weaker and you may have to pay more. Nonetheless, it is nothing that you can not save up for. Like any other trip, this trip was laden with personal stories from food fights in the car (and a lot of fights in general) to a pillow fight in our hotel room. I made a lot of memories on this trip.
The first European country I visited ever was Spain. I was so excited to use my limited Spanish language skills (my brother was much better) to communicate with the locals. My Spanish was abominable, but the locales were patient enough to help. We mostly used cabs to get around. At the time we found the public transportation a little confusing and it seemed much easier to take a cab everywhere. Do note, we weren't paying in Euro so it was far cheaper than it is now.
Some of my first impressions of Spain was it was hot and the people were beautiful. One thing I did notice how mature young adults were there. I was a teenager at the time so it was a little odd to see all the young adults smoking. As advanced and progressive US is, purchasing smokes is not allowed until age 21. Anyways, I was so excited to see all the sights and partake in their delicious food. Spanish food is delicious. Word of advice, please don't travel and go to the first McDonald's you see. Look into some eating dishes and restaurants beforehand (the guidebook helps in this case) and do eat some local cuisines. In Spain, you won't be disappointed. The food is delicious and quite global. We stayed near Plaza Mayor in Madrid so there was no end to all the food varieties.
Now, come the sights. We decided to see Madrid, Granada, and Cordoba on this trip. We were interested in the Moor and Islam heritage so we picked these countries. We missed Seville and Barcelona, with Barcelona boasting more of a European influence. Also to note, our trip was in July so it was HOT! That doesn't mean there aren't places to cool down. It is quite common to see young kids dancing in water fountains around the cities to cool down and of course we joined. It is these kind of memories that stick. I won't focus too much on what we saw because you can research points of interests yourself. However, if you still want to know the names, here they are:
1. Plaza Mayor
2. Museo Nacional Del Prado
3. Royal Palace of Madrid
4 Buen Retiro Park
5. Puerto de Alcala
6. Basilica of San Francisco el Grande
7. Las Ventas
One activity I highly, highly recommend is to enjoy a flamenco performance. While it is common to see street art and dances, it is a whole different experience to go to a restaurant and see a whole show. We saw a performance live and it was absolutely mesmerizing. You can book this performance through Viator or at your hotel. Also, bull fighting is huge here. As you know I am a big animal activist so I wanted nothing to do with this. There is a season they hold bull fighting so it's not all year round thing.
Next, on our trip came Granada. Granada is a very historical city. The roads are narrow, the houses are very ethnic and people are friendly and aloof at the same time. I think we stayed there for only a couple of days. We focused mostly on all the Islamic influence on the city. You can't help, but notice it everywhere. If you do choose this city as a stopping point, you have to visit The Alhambra. It looks like you are transported back in time of sultans and princesses. It is still well preserved and you really get to appreciate Islamic Art and architecture. You will see fountains, tile work, calligraphy and arches of all sorts. You can spend the whole day(maybe two) here. This is what we saw:
1. The Alhambra
We went from one city to another on a train and I highly recommend you doing this. You get to see the village life and natural beauty of Spain. Next on our itinerary was Cordoba. This was another beautiful city with a lot of Islamic influence. I remember it being really hot and it was quite frustrating going from one place to another in the heat. I would recommend light clothes and an umbrella. Anyways, there are some great places to check out in this historic city, but nothing stands out like the Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. This building has a wonderful and tumultuous history. It was built by Muslims, but then converted to a church. The beautiful red and white arches are still there, but it was sad to know that a lot of art was white-washed and covered. Still a must-see place to visit in my opinion.
1. Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba
Next country on our trip was Italy!! I was so excited about visiting Italy. I took an Art History course in high school and was eager to see all the paintings I had studied in class. My sister, Hina joined us from here. Our first stop was Milan. Here, for some reason we wanted to be adventurous and rent a car. I don't know if I would recommend it but we did get to see a lot of hidden places while being lost. At the time parking wasn't a big issue. I don't know about today. Pack your cute outfits for this city-it is a fashion hub. I had bought colorful clothes from Costco (lol) and wore them here. Here is what we saw:
1. Milan Cathedral
2. Sforza Castle
3. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele
4. Piazza del Duomo
5. Royal Palaca of Milan
6. San Carlo al Corso
Regret: Not seeing The Last Supper
Do remember, as a young female you get a lot of attention from men. I was actually followed by a gentleman the whole time I was in the Milan Cathedral. Not very religious in my opinion ;) Yes, men are a little too friendlier there so I wouldn't do anything crazy. Please!
After, Milan we drove to the great city of Rome. After getting lost again, we finally found our way to the hotel. Luckily, there was a middle eastern restaurant nearby so we ate dinner every night there to fulfill our craving for spicier food. Rome is big and I noticed the monuments are more like ruins than actual sights to see. Nonetheless, you can't go to Italy and not visit Rome. There is a lot of great shopping in Rome and the saleswomen will lie to make you buy things (lol). We bought some leather good, undergarments, and I believe shoes (yeah!) there. We walked around the whole time. Parking was a much bigger issue and we had no idea how to navigate around on public transportation so we parked our car at the hotel and walked the whole time. One thing about Rome is that it is vivacious and brimming with life. Every corner has something new and unique to offer and you will find people eating, talking, and just enjoying life. Fountains are everywhere. To be honest, everything is so historical here that you don't need to see all of it-you get the idea with a few excursions here and there. But, do try their gelato here.
2. Spanish Steps
4. Trevi Fountain
5. Piazza del Popolo
7. St. Peter's Basicila
8. Sistine Chapel
Our next stop was Florence/Pisa. Ah...Florence. Once you are there you feel like you are Leonardo De Vinci seeing beauty in everything. I remember Florence for it's food. Everything is pretty much walking distance so just park the car at your hotel and walk on. Florence is like any other city in Italy, full of art and history, but vastly more well-preserved. I wish we could have stayed there longer. There are all sorts of myths around Medici and it is fun to read up on beforehand. Some of the sights not miss are:
1. Florence Cathedral
2. Uffizi Gallery
3. Ponte Vecchio Bridge
4. Galleria Dell'Accademia
5. Palazzo Pitti
6. Piazza della Signoria
7. Palazzo Vecchio
8. Santa Croce
9. Florence Baptistrey
10. Piazza del Duomo
11. Medici Chapel
and so much more!
Pisa is about half an hour from the city of Florence. Like usual we were lost bunnies, but we found a wonderful, local angel who had us follow him on his bike to Pisa. So it is true what you hear. Italians are some of the friendliest people on the planet. Pisa is totally worth it. We didn't get to go up to the leaning tower because it was under construction and the lines were long. Nonetheless, we came back to our hotel room full of memorable pictures.
From Milan we drove to Venice. A mishap happened on our way there. We stopped to fill gas and instead of fuel, we filled the car with diesel. Well, a big blunder on our part and we wasted a few hours that way. The next day with renewed energy and spirit we made our way to Venice. Now, we didn't stay in Venice. We stayed a little outside the water canals area so we didn't get to see all the beautiful views. And I remember we only were there for two days (one day lost to the car). I don't think you need to stay in Venice for a long time. A couple of days is all you need. It was sad to leave it, but I was still satisfied. Venice is an absolutely magical city. You truly feel like you are experience Italian Renaissance here in my opinion. I imagined having tons of masquerade balls here. hee hee. Another quirk you will notice in Venice and European cities, in generals are the amounts of pigeons and bird poop. It was a nice scene to sit outside next to pigeons cooing and chowing down authentic cuisines. Anyways, we saw the following:
1. Grand Canal
2. St. Mark's Basilica
3. Doge's Palace
4. Piazza San Marco
5. Rialto Bridge
6. San Marco Campanile
7. Santa Maria della Salute
8. Santa Maria Formossa
and much more!
A couple of things I want to mention. You have to and HAVE to go on a gondola ride. They are a bit expensive and you have to haggle to get the price down, but it's so worth it. The experience of going through the tiny canals, seeing bridges from under, admiring the architecture and seeing the everyday local life (not to mention the Grand Canal) is an absolute delight. Our particularly cute gondala guy (I picked him because of that ;) ) even sang for us. A lovely delight! Another experience not to forget was the shopping. There are all sort of Venetian goodies to shop for. Small paintings, masks, shawls and blown glass galore. We went crazy over the blown glass stuff! They were quite expensive, but my sister and I managed to get small blown glass paper weights for like $50 bucks. A very fun day indeed!
From Venice we drove back to Milan and then started our road trip to Switzerland. That's one of many good things about Europe. You can access nearby countries on trains or cars. The drive up Switzerland was magical and nature heaven. Green lush hills, rugged mountains with water falls, quaint villages and clear blue skies are what you should expect there. We covered the whole East side of Switzerland in two days and reached Zurich. Zurich is another gem of a place. We were so tired of all the sightseeing from Spain and Italy, that we used Zurich to relax. We munched on great food and just strolled around the city. I wish I had my camera then. I used up all my reels (no digital photographs then) and thus took only two pictures of Switzerland-a traveler's tragedy. So if you want absolutely beautiful nature, do look into Switzerland. I have heard great things about Geneva as well so it is totally up to you which main city you prefer. I just recommend a road trip in this country.
From Zurich we flew to Athens, Greece- a totally different experience. While Switzerland was cool, Greece was HOT! We spent several days there. I was impressed with the food of Greece, not so much the sights. To me, it was cool to see all the historic Greek buildings, but it was so hot, and the buildings were so in ruins (and not to mention this was the last leg of our grand tour) that I moaned and groaned pretty much the whole way. Some of the sights to see are:
3. Temple of Hephaestus
People here were friendly as well. It was cute to see all the locals confusing us for Italians and we were like where do we start? I highly recommend a boat trip to one of the Greek Islands. The most well known is Santorini and Mykonos, however, they are a bit in the distance so you do have to spend a night there. We didn't know that so we decided to take a day trip to one of the closer islands. The boat ride was quite adventurous as we literally flew over the Aegean Sea. The island we went on was nothing too spectacular, but I do remember buying a sarong from there. We went on a horse-drawn carriage around the island, which was fun and the driver oogled at us the whole time.
So here is a brief detail of what our 2001 Europe trip was like. It required a lot of planning and cooperation from everyone, but it was totally worth it. Not going to forget this one!