In Prague, All You Need is Love

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The first time I saw Prague I was 12 years old, watching Mission Impossible with a blanket at the ready to cover my eyes during especially scary scenes. My grandmother always indulged me with movies I may have been to young to see, starting with Jurassic Park. They became a sleepover staple between the two of us since I was about 6, along with ice cream sandwiches and the promise of a midnight swim, though my tired eyes never seemed to make it that late.

By 12 the bombs and gunfire were nothing I hadn’t seen before, and the blanket stayed wrapped around the two of us. I watched Tom Cruise navigate the streets of old Prague, sidestepping through Kampa Island and realizing he’d lost it all amidst the fog wrapped around the Charles Bridge. I was captivated.

To me, Prague has always been the mysterious, artistic, and bohemian diamond of eastern Europe. I imagined myself walking along the river nearly consumed by fog, drinking with artists in smoky bars and writing about the adventures I would surely have there.

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I got the chance to visit Prague not once but twice this fall, before it got too cold but still in time to experience the darkness of her early winter nights. The city is by all means enchanting around Christmas time, the cobblestone streets filled with families, smells of mulled wine and high spirits despite the chill in the air. Perhaps the mulled wine has something to do with that…

Yes, the city itself is a charmer, but I wasn’t head over heels. I couldn’t figure out my feelings towards the city.

At first I thought maybe it was the cold, as the spoiled madrileña that I now fancy myself was missing the Spanish sun. Then again, I mused, maybe it’s the people…the Czechs aren’t nearly as vibrant as the peoples of my beloved Mediterranean cultures. The food perhaps? Sausages, goulash, potatoes and beer are great and all, but I’d almost always prefer fresh fish, produce and great local wine. 

I didn’t arrive at the conclusion until I returned to Prague a month later, just after Christmas: maybe, the problem was me.

I had become so used to falling in love with a place (the sap that I am) without trying at all. In places like Spain, Italy, France or even Morocco, I don’t have to try hard to find what it is that makes them special.

Prague is clearly a stunner, maybe more beautiful than any place I’ve ever been, but I think I had lost my adventurous spirit after so much travel. My first weekend there was spent wandering the streets, bar crawling and segway-ing around the city instead of looking for the bohemian and mysterious side that had always called to me.

I had a wonderful time with fantastic company, but I was purely not in love.

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Listening to an Irish musician playing his guitar in front of the Lennon wall, I had an epiphany: the secret to Prague is just that; love.

It has long been a city that promotes equality,  progress and good vibes. It has long been a hub for artists and musicians looking for inspiration and good company.

Sure, it gets very cold in Prague and night falls at 4 pm in the winter months, but that’s why the pubs are packed with groups of friends and families drinking beer after beer and indulging in comfort food to warm themselves from the inside out. Sure, the people aren’t as immediately charming as the Spanish, but their kindness will make you feel welcome and reassured.

I had so many expectations about Prague that I forgot to go out and make them a reality. It wasn’t until I studied the demands for peace and love on the Lennon wall, watched a Czech girl scribble in her journal in the sun along the river and stifled my shame of not knowing a word of the language to chat with locals that I understood what I lacked was love.

As the Beatles said, it is all you need, and that is especially true in this city. Once I reminded myself to look beyond the physical beauty of the city and open my heart to the subtleties of the people and culture, the love came right back to me.

I suppose that’s how it usually works, isn’t it? Sometimes, once you get comfortable in a place, be it Spain or New York or rural Kansas, you’ve got to go somewhere uncomfortable to remind you of the importance of an open heart and adventurous soul.

Prague is now a very special place for me, and I can’t wait to go back for more inspiration. If that next trip happens to be in the toasty summer months, though, I would not mind. Not one bit.

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segovia is for lovers

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I’m not much of a sight-seer. Never have been, though I am getting better with age. Churches that were once deathly boring now fascinate me and I get giddy in museums that you may have found me dozing off in five years ago. That said, I’d almost always rather be wandering the streets of a new place instead of inside a building or staring at a monument, however historically important they may be. Segovia is full of so many marvels that I was equally as content exploring the Romanesque churches and examining the stunning aqueduct as I was taking in the energy of its streets.

An hour’s bus ride from Madrid, this ancient city could not differ more from the capital. It reminded me so much of Granada with its cobblestone streets and charming ambience, but had a distinct flavor of the north. Instead of Andalusia’s orange trees and falling wisteria, Segovia finds itself smack-dab in the desert of Castilla-Leon, under endless blue skies and hugged by thick greenery. Instead of lively tapas bars and seafood spots, Segovia’s winding alleys are filled with cozy asadores and taverns offering the local special, cochinillo, roasted suckling pig, as well as pig cooked every way you could imagine (and some you’d rather not).

Early on a Saturday morning, I watched the city wake up. Families trickled into the plazas for cafe con leche with their grandparents and furry friends, and I got a glimpse into what life might be like in this land of centuries passed. I made friends with a pair of light-eyed Moroccan boys playing futbol and blasting Gangnam Style in the calle, chased down all the sweet puppies I could find and simply let my eyes wander for hours. I liked what I saw.

Segovia is for romantics. For lovers. For those who let their minds churn as their eyes drink in the wonders before them.

Your senses are assaulted upon arrival with the sight of the glorious aqueduct obscuring the city only slightly, its arches letting the scent of roasted meats waft through. Your passage through Segovia’s front door of sorts is rewarded with gem after gem: carefully crafted windows in centuries-old homes overflowing with flowers, the most breathtaking gothic cathedral you’ll ever lay your eyes on, and the former abode of infamous Reina Isabela. The mixture of hugely important historical institutions and the tiny details the watchful eye catches in the alleyways of Segovia could keep even the most temperamental soul contented for days. Throw in a plate of cochinillo, a bottle of red and a long siesta with the Spanish grandpas in Plaza Mayor and you may be tempted to stay forever.

The Spanish know how to live. Each city I visit proves that to me, though they all choose distinct paths. Whatever they do, they do it right.

According to my heart, Spain just might be the place.

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a perfect weekend in san sebastián

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I’ve been a terrible traveler. A month in to my new life in Spain, I had already cancelled one trip (to my beloved Granada, of all places!) and had no desire to leave Madrid. This city and its people are being so generous and good to me, and I couldn’t imagine finding anything better elsewhere.

After all the incredible things travel has brought me, I should have known better.

Luckily, I had a ticket to the coast paid for long ago, and knew I couldn’t waste it. With a few quejas from my heart, I left my new home behind and hopped on a train north to San Sebastián for what turned out to be the most perfect long weekend.

Soon after the train pulled out of the station, I knew I made the right decision. The five hour ride flew by as my eyes fixated on the marvels we passed along the way: fields of sunflowers, charming old-world towns, herds of grazing sheep and endless green mountains. The rolling olive fields of southern Spain captured my heart long ago, but the north didn’t take long to seduce me. I fell in love through the window of coach number five.

I passed the weekend with the most wonderful company wandering through the city’s old quarter, breathing the sea air and eating and drinking marvelously. The gods were smiling on us as we were treated to fantastic weather and a few happy surprises. We happened to coincide with the film festival, and jumped at the chance to take in a brilliant film and hear the director speak. The following day, we hiked Mount Urgull and stumbled upon an indie rock concert at the top. We found a seat on a crumbling wall between picnicking locals and watched the boats bob in the bay below as the sweet sounds of John Berkhout consumed the hilltop. Our adventures were fueled by tasty little pintxos, plates of shockingly innovative cuisine and lots of txakolí.  Life can be so beautiful, and San Sebastián did a fine job of reminding me.

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Luck was on our side in this port town and it revealed its many hidden, and not-so-hidden jewels to us with ease. I’ll be back soon with a guide to the spots that wowed us, so hopefully you can have a perfect Donostia weekend as well.

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La vida madrileña is very much agreeing with me. My heart feels contented knowing I’m back in the land where I belong. I’ve settled into my new place, and am currently writing this post under the Spanish sun on our terrace. Life doesn’t get much better than this, and thinking of all the wonders I have ahead of me here makes me giddy.

Madrid is like a mixture of my two great loves, Granada and New York City: metropolitan yet calm, booming yet charming, modern and vibrant with constant reminders of centuries passed. I am enamored. As I continue to get accustomed to the city, I leave you with some shots I’ve captured with my iPhone in my first few days here.

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See you soon with a new (wordier) post!