Reflecting on Spain & France

Rue des Petits-Champs, Paris, in the sunshine and rain.
Walking down Rue des Petits-Champs on the final night of our trip.

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.

Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid.
Puerta del Sol Square is one of the busiest places in Madrid.

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.

Gaudi's Park Güell in Barcelona.
Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona.

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.

The Plaza Mayor and Royal Palace of Madrid.
Madrid’s Plaza Mayor (left) dates back to 1617, while the Royal Palace of Madrid (right) was built in 1738.

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.

Toledo, outside of Madrid, Spain.
The city of Toledo is surrounded by a wall, parts of which date to the 10th Century.

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.

An arch in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter.
An arch in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.

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.

Paris street and cappucino.
One of the many picture-perfect streets in Paris and a light breakfast.

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.

The Palace of Versailles from the garden fountain.
The Palace of Versailles, originally built in 1664, is one of the largest palaces in the world.

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.

Caves of Champagne at Moët & Chandon winery.
Caves of Champagne at Moët & Chandon winery in Epernay, France.

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.

Rue des Petits-Champs, Paris, in the sunshine and rain.
Walking down Rue des Petits-Champs, Paris, on the final night of our trip.

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.

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  • Kelli,
    I’m heading to Paris in 10 days. When did you go last year? Did you really have to wait 2hrs even though you had tickets in hand for the Palace of Versailles? And what did you use to keep your camera battery charged? Did you take a digital camera or use your phone? What shops would you recommend stepping into that you saw? Ann

    • Hi Ann, we went to Paris in the first week of May last year. Yes, unfortunately, we did have to wait in line at Versailles but if you get there early, maybe you can beat the crowd. I took a Canon camera and made sure to charge it every other day so the battery never ran out. Email me (randomactsofkellines at gmail) and I can give you more recommendations, if you’d like!
      Thanks for reading,
      – Kelli

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