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48 Hours in Milan

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Milan was never on my lists of places to visit. All I’d ever heard about the universal capital of fashion was how ugly and industrial it was…I could survive without seeing Milan.

Even so, EasyJet offers amazing prices on flights from Madrid to Milan, and Milan happens to be very close to the Swiss border where I’d be visiting family in December. For convenience’s sake (and the temptation of a beautiful hotel we found on Jetsetter), my mom and I decided to meet in Milan for some Italian food and fashion before heading north for the holidays. Though Milan had never tempted me before, I was at least wise enough to know that Italy is never a bad idea.

I was welcomed to the city by chilly winds and Christmas spirit. My first impression was that everyone was right. This city was U.G.L.Y. My bus from the airport dropped me near the train station where some questionable folk loitered and trash spilled over bins. I was hungover, make-up-less and all I wanted to do was get to the hotel, hug my mama and soak in the tub for a bit.

As my cab headed towards our neighborhood, Milan went from dingy to charming, with ivy-covered houses and painfully fashionable men and women speeding by on Vespas engulfing the wide streets.

When I finally rolled up to my hotel, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Not only was the place whimsical and a modern take on the rabbit hole from the story, but the people who filled with lobby were wonders in themselves. Women wrapped in incredible furs and tiny men in perfectly tailored suits and the most beautifully crafted leather and suede shoes I’d ever seen sipped bellinis and didn’t touch the food in front of them. I towered over all of them, even the women in their enviable 6 inch Miu Miu heels, and wondered why I couldn’t have been bothered to even slap on some mascara before heading to Barajas.

After a nice long bath and a catch up with my mom, we headed out for drinks and dinner and, of course, some people watching. We had a cozy dinner of pasta by the river complete with the best Italian wine I have ever had the pleasure of tasting, a Barolo from my mom’s favorite winery (she’s quite the traveler herself), and a view of the twinkling Christmas lights over the old town.

Our 48 hours in Milan were filled with delicious bites, luxury and eye-popping fashion. I loved browsing the Christmas markets by the insanely beautiful cathedral, wandering the design museum and ogling da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The Milanese eye for fashion and their ability to dress themselves is truly mind-boggling, even for this New York gal. I now know the importance of a good tailor and quality materials, though my budget allows for neither. Someday dreams, I suppose.

 Though Milan in itself isn’t a stunner, its importance in the world of fashion has molded into a charming and impossibly cool spot to spend a few days eating, drinking and, of course, shopping.

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Mystified in Marrakech

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Africa has been the setting of so many of my happiest memories, from laughing with my cousins at Victoria Falls and chasing leopards in Botswana, to watching the sunrise from a hilltop mosque with my best friends in northern Morocco. I think of Africa and I smile.

My memories of Marrakech are different. They are blurry and incomprehensible; colorful and chaotic.

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As soon as I left the airport, I knew the southern city was going to be different from the white and blue villages of the north that had welcomed me two years before. The city was at once more modern and ancient than anywhere I stopped in the north. Wide, paved roads were jammed with traffic and hastily constructed horse-drawn cabs. The old medina’s walls closed off the souks and tiny alleyways from centuries before and our cab zoomed past it as we headed into the new part of the city.

Everything was so much more commercialized. Billboards, big storefronts and racks and racks of clothing contrasted with the hooded men carrying live chickens by the dozen and veiled women wrangling hordes of playing children. My brother elbowed me and pointed out the family of four, newborn included, balancing precariously on the moto ahead of us. The chaos of the city overwhelmed our senses before we even stepped out of the car.

While the tranquility of the northern cities and the openness of its people helped me to look inside and reflect, Marrakech started off as an out-of body experience. I had never seen, or felt, anything like this before.

When we got to the Palmeraie area where we were staying, my heart started to calm. Out in the desert, surrounded by palm trees and open sky I breathed in the fresh air and relished the silence. The sky sparkled with stars and I felt a familiar feeling wash over me. I have always said that staring at the African sky makes me believe in God, be it at sunrise in the Kalahari or sunset over the Atlantic in Asilah. For something that beautiful to exist, there must be a divine creator out there watching over us. I went to bed with renewed hope and energy for the city.

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We wandered the souks under the hot late-morning sun, and I felt the anxiety from the evening before return to my body. I had been in markets like this dozens of times before, why was this so different? I didn’t understand. People were blatantly trying to rip us off, even as we bargained. They made fun of us and cat-calls awaited at every turn. I enjoy haggling, and have become very used to cat-calls from the streets of the Bronx to Madrid. I can always ignore it.

In Marrakech it bothered me deeply. I never felt comfortable and welcome like I did in Rabat or Chefchaouen. I was so grateful to return to our little oasis in the desert that afternoon.

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I spoke with an old friend from Granada whose family has Moroccan origins. He explained to me that in Marrakech people tend to be much colder than in the north, as they know tourism is always a sure thing. People become hardened by the groups of privileged travelers and learn to take advantage. Hostility is palpable.

I was disappointed. My mom and brother were disappointed. We had all heard so many positive things about the city, and wanted to be able to see that part of it too. We vowed to try again, this time in the new part of town. We wandered and shopped and dined with the locals, but simply never connected. People continued to treat us coolly, and the city never seemed to calm.

I know that so much of what we saw is cultural, while most is not a representation of the people of the country. We stayed in the desert and drove in daily, so we never had the chance to really immerse ourselves.

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I still found the colors, the food and the rhythm of the city fascinating. I still think that Islam is an incredibly beautiful religion. I am still in love with Morocco. And I would love to go back.

If I could do it again, I would stay in the old medina. I would wander the streets on foot and be more prepared. I would try to chat with more locals, as that made all the difference in the north. I would try to learn more helpful phrases in Arabic.

I absolutely enjoyed my time with my family in Marrakech, though it was not what I expected. It was stimulating and thought-provoking, and at times scary. There was something mystifying about Marrakech, and I’m determined to go back and solve that mystery.

Granada: This Must be the Place

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I couldn’t go back.

The last days of May 2012 were etched in my memory, playing on a loop every day since my return to the States. I dreamed of watching the sun turn the Sierra Nevada peaks pink once more, of jumping on the back of a moto and weaving through the old streets one last time, but everything was different and I couldn’t go back.

Granada became a sort of fairy tale for me. The cloudy, fabled type of fairy tale that makes real life seem sad in comparison. The city nestled between mountain and sea was a paradise that I wasn’t completely sure truly existed.

How could what I lived during those five months be real? How could a place like that go on existing when I was drowning in New York with two jobs and a full course load?

My first taste of Granada changed my life forever. It opened my eyes to the magic that’s possible each and every day when you seek it out, to a new rhythm of life, and left me with an insatiable hunger for Spanish language and culture. I worked like crazy to return to Spain and come August found myself in Madrid, four hours north of my precious oasis. With a trip planned south soon after my arrival, of course.

I was convinced that Madrid would never capture my heart. Poets didn’t write about Madrid, its history doesn’t do much for a romantic and madrileño Spanish is much too proper to be charming, I thought. Andaluz and the land of Falla and Lorca and the olive groves would always be the dueños de mi corazón.

But within ten days of arriving in Madrid, I cancelled my trip to Granada.

Against my internal protests, the capital was sucking me in. The diversity of the city, the vibrant nightlife and abundance of interesting souls I had encountered in a few short weeks told me I couldn’t go back just yet. I couldn’t give my heart back to the city of my dreams just yet, for fear that it might stay there forever. I needed to give this new place that was being so good to me a fighting chance.

So I spent five months falling head-over-heels for my new home, and one January evening I wrapped myself in a blanket, lit candles and sat down to reread my well-worn copy of Romancero gitano for the hundredth time. As soon as I reached the third ballad, I knew it was time. My heart cried out for the land that first called me to this country and I finally felt ready. Within an hour I had a flat booked, bus tickets set and stars in my eyes.

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Within the past month I have spent a total of ten days in Granada, and it is even more heart-stoppingly dreamy than I remember.  The city found little ways of showing me why it will always be the be-all, end-all in my eyes. From wandering the winding streets and spotting puppies peering over walls, to letting my thoughts escape me under the strong February sun as the enchanting cadence of my beloved Andaluz accent and Spanish guitars transported me to an alternate reality, Granada wasted no time in wrapping her beautiful hand around me, promising that this time she wouldn’t let go.

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This time, I don’t want her to. In no time I forget about my past in Granada, about my constant desire to relive it, and decide to start a new romance with this beauty. Without trepidation I retrace my steps to my old haunts, but now with new friends and more life lived under my belt. We spend our days in the sun and our nights laughing with locals in crowded, hidden tapas bars then adventuring out to cause the best kind of trouble.

Granada makes me feel like I can do anything. She inspires me to chase my dreams, all the while making them even bigger than I thought possible.

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I am more than content in Madrid, but as for the soul-stimulating, utterly captivating and mysterious jewel to the south….well, she’ll continue to be my mistress in this Spanish love affair until the day of my return to her inevitably arrives.

For me, Granada will always be the place.

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captivated in cuenca

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City life demands rest every once in a while. Sometimes you just need to get away. Luckily, it is much easier to escape Madrid than it was New York. Smack dab in the middle of Spain, you can get pretty much anywhere in under half a day.

For the most tranquil of trips, there’s an array of charmers within a couple hours of the city center to choose from. A few weeks ago, we piled into the car and headed to Cuenca for just such a getaway. We chose the Castilla-La Mancha mountain town after seeing pictures of its winding roads and colorful houses; a taste of Andalucía in a region we’d never been to!

In a little under two hours we had the car parked on a precariously steep hill and found ourselves running to the sunny side of the street to escape the morning chill. This pale Irish lass usually avoids the sun at all costs, but during the colder months in Spain I seek it out without thinking; it is so strong that the color springs back into my cheeks almost immediately.  You’d think it were spring if it weren’t for the smell of the changing leaves.

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Cuenca, like most Spanish cities, has a lot of history. Built as an Arab fortress in 714, the city was impossible to conquer due to the fact that it was built into and on top of a steep, rocky hill. It was only handed over to the Christians when Toledo was conquered in 1080, though Cuenca remained technically untouched. As warriors became more accustomed to the mountainous terrain of Spain, the hilltop became an easier conquest, and changed hands between Arabs, Berbers and Christians until 1177, when the Christians took over for good.

The architecture that remains is nearly all Christian-influenced, including Cuenca’s cathedral, which was the first gothic-style cathedral in Spain. The only real Arab structure is El Castillo, or the old fortress, of which remains only a tower that provides a fantastic view of the city. Interestingly, the castle constructed by Muslims also served as home to the Inquisition in the 16th century, meaning the attacks against and persecutions of non-Christians were planned there.

The most famous of all structures in Cuenca are, of course, the hanging houses. Typical in the 15th century, the houses are built right into the rocks of the mountain and appear to be hanging. Only a few remain today and attract thousands of tourists daily, causing the city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Aside from the sites I’ve mentioned, there really aren’t that many destinations in Cuenca. It is the prefect place to wander, spending a few minutes at each spot and then moving on. That’s what we did, at least. We saw everything in under two hours, and then found ourselves chatting about Spanish history and culture at the overlook, while looking down on a city that represents so much of what makes this country so interesting.

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After a long conversation, I let my thoughts get lost in the scenery below. The trees make the rocky hill look like it’s going up in flames. They have turned bright yellow, red and orange, matching the colors of the houses perched on the peak. I find myself wondering if the city was designed this way, its houses painted to match the colors of the trees and clear sky, or if its residents are just quirky life-loving beings. It seems impossible to have a bad day when you tread among such happy colors.

That’s a problem of mine, though. A wide-eyed romantic, visions of lives full of happiness play out in my mind each time I visit a place with so much charm. Anyone who reads my writing must know that by now. I leave pieces of my heart nearly everywhere I go, but is my heart deceived by the pretty houses, quaint neighborhoods, fantastic food and seemingly-still-in-love elderly couples who fill the plazas? Do I see the place I want to see? If I do, is that wrong? I worry that if I lived in Granada or Madrid as a real person, that is someone with a real job and obligations, as opposed to a student and writer, I wouldn’t be as enchanted. I hope that I would always notice the details, return the smiles of kind strangers and make time for good food and friends and wine no matter how stressful life became.

The dilemma of the life of a traveler: am I really seeing the world if I just stop by for a little while? A head full of wonders, questions and romantic visions really ain’t much of a dilemma it seems, but how lucky I feel to struggle with it.

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madrid mola: the key to falling in love with spain’s capital

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Madrid is hard to love. Every time I visited, I left disappointed. Next to colorful Andalucía, captivating Basque Country and fascinating Barcelona, the capital seems industrial and plain. Sure, the city is home to some stunners like the Palacio Real and the Prado, but they somehow get lost in the shadow of commercial Gran Vía, touristy Plaza Mayor, and too many restaurants claiming to have the best paella in the peninsula.

Madrid seems to close itself off to visitors. Tourists run the risk of getting lost in the parts of the city made just for them. I know I did. In all honesty, I was terrified of having the same negative reaction I experienced both times I passed through before.

Third time’s the charm, it seems. I persevered, moved my life here, and the heart of Spain opened up its heart to me.

My secret? Well, I’ve walked down Gran Vía twice, have only gone to Plaza Mayor for five minutes, and avoid any restaurant with international flags on the menu like the plague.

Madrid is a city meant to be lived. It rewards you for going off the beaten path and into lesser-known neighborhoods with boutique galleries, artisan shops, avant-garde graffiti and every type of food you could ever want.

I spend my days here weaving my way through Chueca’s vibrant streets, people watching in the ultra chic Barrio Salamanca and discussing culture and politics with new friends over vino in outdoor cafés. I only go to the Centro and Sol at siesta time during the week, when I can really see how the locals live. I’ve found that the Palace is best seen just before sunset, when the sky sets itself on fire and the swarms of tourists stop in their tracks, and that the only way to do the Prado is an hour or two every other week.

The most important thing is to not let the capital overwhelm you. Stop for a big lunch and linger over café con leche. Browse in any shop that catches your eye. Don’t get bogged down with “must-do’s.” Instead, let the social atmosphere guide your plans, as it does for the city-dwellers. Go to a pincho bar where you can sample everything, or better yet, let an expert guide you. Check out Plaza Mayor for a moment, then head down to La Latina where you can see the real madrileño culture. All you need is a curious mind, adventurous spirit, good walking shoes, a tapa and a great bottle of wine at the end of the day, and you’re golden.

The remnants of Madrid of years passed are important, but it’s modern life that will capture your heart. That’s how it got a hold of mine.

If you visit Madrid, don’t get caught up in research and planning. Get caught up in moments. Moments of la vida madrileña, like the ones I leave you with below.

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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.