I leaned over the edge of the railing, down the six stories that separated me from the street below. I was just high enough that the noise from the crowds of people hustling along the street wafted into a soft buzz by the time it reached me, creating a peaceful ambient sound.
I gazed at the old world architecture, the buildings in their varying colors of pastel yellows and rusted reds with contrasting white trims, wondering about the centuries of stories they could tell, while a string quartet struck up a song somewhere on the street. As an instrumental version of “Imagine” sang softly across the Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid’s oldest squares, it hit me that I was truly in the heart of Spain.
It took five days before the surreal realization that I was in Spain resonated enough to stop me speechless. But as the afternoon sun began its slow descent and I listened to the string quartet while taking in what was left of the day’s warmth, I couldn’t help but be amazed that I had finally made it to Europe, to Spain, and I prayed the moment would last forever.
The previous four days had been occupied by Barcelona, exploring the seaside city’s Catalan culture through tapas and Cava. My friend and I saw the typical Gaudi architecture required by all tourists, I tried—and loved—my first dish of paella, and we discovered that local wine was surprisingly inexpensive. Barcelona’s finale was the opera in the impressive Grand Teatro Liceu, a building that surpassed every dream I had of it.
We moved onto Madrid, where we slowed down the pace and focused on taking in the intricacies of Spanish culture and the intimate beauty of the city. I fell in love with her architecture, the narrow winding streets covered in cobblestone, and captivating history. I was constantly mesmerized by the fact that the city—like most of Europe—told time in the form of centuries, not decades, with stories spanning lengths of time I couldn’t even fathom.
After we toured Madrid’s cathedrals, palaces and opera house, we took a day trip to Toledo to experience a Medieval city firsthand. Like a time capsule into Spain’s history, somehow the streets were more narrow, more winding than Madrid’s; the churches even older, the culture more ancient. And all the more breathtaking.
While I could have remained in Spain for weeks, maybe even years, eventually we moved onto Paris. The city’s quaint cafés, iconic buildings and famous structures have been photographed a thousand times but seeing them with my own eyes was different. Paris elicits a beauty that is truly enchanting. Every street stopped me in my tracks as being picture-perfect. It turns out that all the hype, the obsession, is justified.
And not just its physically beauty. Every pastry, every sip of wine, every bite of every dish was memorable. So many moments in Paris stunned me to a stop, requiring me to pinch myself. Yes, this was Paris, and yes, I was really here.
So much of Paris was overcrowded by tourists. Like the graffiti that taints the city, it’s easy to get distracted by the grime. But I reminded myself to look beyond those things and see the city for what it is: a fairytale that I have dreamed of experiencing for years.
In four days we marked off an impressive list of sightseeing requirements throughout Paris: the Eiffel Tower, of course, the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre Dame. We visited the Catacombes and the Palace of Versailles. Then we saw the opera followed by a ballet/opera in the most stunning building I have ever been able to step foot in. It was surreal in the most extreme definition.
On our final day in France we took a day trip to the Champagne region, visiting the vineyards of Épernay and Reims that made sparkling wine famous throughout the world: Moët & Chandon and Vueve Clicquot. The side trip had several hiccups but by the end of the day when it was all behind us and our only memories were of sipping first class Champagne, all was well with the world.
In a final display of beauty, as we returned to our apartment on the last night of our trip, a rainstorm appeared suddenly to blanket the Parisian streets in a dazzling display of sparkle. I’ve heard that Paris is stunning in the rain and she showed me that indeed she shines, even during a storm.
And then, just like that, our adventures were heartbreakingly over. The trip was finished and all we had to take with us were memories of amazing moments, amazing places and amazing food.
Over the next few weeks I’d like to share details of my travels through Barcelona, Madrid, Toledo, Paris and Champagne with you. I’ll tell about what we saw and what we ate, including a 17-course tasting menu in Barcelona, eating a dish I always said I’d never touch in Madrid, finding ramen in Paris and one of the most memorable meals of my life. I hope you won’t mind letting me relive my trip and stepping back into the dream that it was, even if for just a moment.