Break 1 – Paris

Moulin Rouge; Paris, France | Alyssa's Abroad Perspective -

Valentine’s Day weekend in Paris—what a time to visit the City of Love as a solo traveler!

After strolling through the streets at sunset and stopping for a satisfying pizza at Bianca, a cozy and casual café/bar, I arrived at the Moulin Rouge.  Though also a tourist destination, this iconic attraction draws much less of a crowd than the Eiffel Tower, yet is an equally entertaining spot to people watch and snap photos after dark.

I stayed at Adveniat Youth Hostel, a Christian hostel, though very hotel-esque.  Lobby-only wifi was constricting, but considering I booked a 6-person dorm room and got a double room with an ensuite all to myself for the duration of my trip, I wasn’t complaining.


Hidden Paris

I began the next day in search of Rue Crémieux, a rainbow streak of homes slid among the streets of cream and navy Haussmann architecture.

Not difficult to find, but seemingly a different world, the little row of houses was quiet and quaint, more like the country than the giant, French metropolis.

From here, a short walk lead to the Coulée verte René-Dumont, or the Promenade Plantée, a railroad track-turned-green space on the east side of Paris.  Though I was blessed with wonderful weather for my entire trip, I appreciated the sun a little bit more while wandering down the path, which was surprisingly lush and green for winter.

To finish the morning, I revisited the artisanal boutiques of l’Île Saint-Louis and the bustling streets of Le Marais, a neighborhood north of the island, where I stayed with my mom and aunts on my first trip to the city.  Solo travel comes with amazing individual experiences, but I’ll always associate Paris with the special time I got to spend with my family.


Destination Locations


Paix, Amour, Paris,


Break 1 – London

10 Days, 3 Countries, 1 Backpack and Me

Reaching a traveler milestone, I am taking my first solo trip!  We have a week-long break from school this month, which means time to travel.  First stop: London.


I traded sunny Nice for snowy London, which I discovered was unseasonably cold even for the characteristically dreary city. With inspiration to tour London from a friend who studied abroad there last semester, I approached the city with a insider list of things to see and do.

I took the tube from London’s Heathrow airport to the city center, which took longer than I expected. Nonetheless, I was very happy with my hostel location, as well as with my overall experience. Because of my solo status, I stayed at St. Christopher’s Inn London Bridge at the Oasis, an all-female section of the hostel.


With many places to visit and only a few days to do so, I set out to explore the city.

House Hunting

For reasons I can’t quite explain – maybe it’s the soundtrack, maybe it’s Dennis Quaid, maybe it’s because my sister and I bond over every line – The Parent Trap (1998 version) is one of my favorite movies.  Because of my love for the film, I had to visit the James’ residence, or the home of the London-living Lindsay Lohan.  Though under construction, the home still transported me back to movie memories.  At 23 Egerton Terrace, it sits in one of the most wealthy neighborhoods of the city.  The James’ were living large in London.

Covent Garden

I spent my first evening in London in Covent Garden, a district near the center of the city. Getting to the area, the Covent Garden underground stop only offered options for the “lift” and for the stairs.  Rather than wait in the large crowd for the elevator, I decided to walk, and soon realized why there was a crowd for the lift.  With 193 spiral stairs, equivalent to 15 stories, I felt like I was climbing up a lighthouse!  Fortunately, Covent Garden was worth the effort. A mixture of luxury stores and artisan shops, the neighborhood was the perfect place to wander after a morning of travel. There were multiple indoor/outdoor buildings, including the central Covent Garden Market, of stalls of pricey perfumes, homemade crafts, and food vendors scattered in between.


Nestled within the criss-crossing streets, Homeslice Pizza‘s golden-lit glow invited me in for some Friday night pizza.  I got there at 5:30 p.m. and snuck in at a table alone, but by the time I finished, there was a crowd at the door.  As for the food, the paper-thin crust was dusted with a salty pizza flour that added a punch to the incredibly fresh ingredients. One could taste the quality of the basil leaves, tomato sauce, and mounds of mozzarella, a filling end to a full day.

Travel Tips

  • Two words: Oyster Card.  The Oyster Card is the tourist payment card for those who plan on utilizing public transportation while in London.  This card was a life saver!  I put about 30€ on it at the airport when I arrived and it lasted all trip.  The highlight of this system, though, is the daily charge cap.  While the capping calculations themselves are a bit complicated, depending on where and how you travel, the idea is simple— travel more, spend less.  I reached my spending cap each day I was in London, and was always thrilled to realize when I was no longer being charged for my travel.  Tourism done right!


Destination Locations

Peace, Love, London


Spring Break – Florence/Pisa


Inter-country travel in Italy is relatively quick, convenient, and cheap.  My friends and I took a train from Venice to Florence without issue, checked into our hotel, and went to the Mercato Centrale for dinner, recommended to us by our hotel receptionist.  Similar to the Mercado de San Anton, the Mercato Centrale sells groceries on the first floor, offers numerous, free-seating food vendors on the second floor, and a sit-down restaurant on the third floor.  The market is a great option for a quick, no-fuss meal.  Surrounding the Mercato Centrale, the Mercato San Lorenzo, a large spread of stalls selling (most likely fake) leather and other souvenirs, offers an outdoor shopping experience, making the area a perfect place to spend the afternoon.

My friends and I spent as much time at the market as possible, waiting out the evening for our late-night/early-morning activity—Florence’s secret bakeries.  The idea behind these conspicuous curiosities is that Florentine bakers begin producing their goods between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. in order to deliver the fresh breads and pastries to the distributor shops in time for opening.  These bakers work in unmarked kitchens around the city, but have been sniffed out by hungry party-goes making their way back home.  Those who have visited the secret bakeries share that a quiet knock on the door, a polite request, and a euro will get you a freshly baked pastry, straight from the kitchen.  Though operating without addresses, these not-so-secret locations have descriptions all over the Internet.  Even with the help of many study abroad students before us, though, we were unable to secure a pastry from the secret location we chose to peruse.  Instead of discovering an Italian treasure, we spent thirty chilly seconds outside of an abandoned building before we decided that the lack of sweet scents meant that we’d be going home without snacks.  Disappointed, tired, and cold, we went back to the hotel, vowing to be more prepared should we have the opportunity to try again.

Our first morning in Florence was spent on a train to a half-day trip to Pisa.  We took the regional train to the efficient Pisa San Rossore station, rather than the popular Pisa Centrale station, because it was a shorter walk to the Leaning Tower.  A ten-minute stroll took us to the Piazza del Duomo, with the Tower, the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and the Composanto.  There were two museums too.  I’m glad we only had plans to observe the monuments, because examining the Tower consumed all of our time and attention over the course of our 3-hour visit.  It really is leaning!  Most photos that I have seen do not accurately depict its tilt, but I attempted to capture the awe we felt standing beneath it.




On our way back to Florence, outside of the Pisa San Rossore station, we stopped to get lunch at a pizza truck.  Though slightly suspicious, we were sold after seeing the flames of the brick oven in the truck.  With their “student menu,” we got a drink and two slices of pizza or calzone for 5€.  I got a slice of pizza with “spicy salami” and a piece of sausage and cheese calzone, and it was the best pizza that I had my entire time in Italy.  I would travel back to Pisa San Rossore just for the pizza truck!

Closer examination of my photos show that the banner above the windshield of the pizza truck reads “Original Italienische Holzofenpizza,” a German phrase.  I have thence come to the conclusion that the best pizza I ate in Italy was German pizza.  What a disappointment.


Destination Locations


Pace, Amore, Pisa


Spring Break – Venice

Venice, Italy


What a difference from Prague!  Leaving the Venice Airport, I immediately felt the sea breeze in my hair and Italian sun on my skin.  My friends and I were already pleased to be Venice, and we hadn’t even gotten into town.

Getting to town, though, was not at all enjoyable.  From the mainland of the Provence of Venice to the town center of San Marco, where my friends and I were staying, we took a 15€ one-way waterbus, a popular choice from the airport.  Maybe it was because we were tired, and hungry, and anxious to see Venice, but this boat ride was miserable.  The waterbus glided by at a little over 5 mph, so the entire trip took a very slow, very long hour.  Additionally, we sat in the bottom of the boat, so we were unable to watch the journey, obscured by opaque, ocean-sprayed windows.

When we finally arrived at the Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, we were all reminded of Plaza Mayor back in Madrid.  The two areas are similar, large squares lined with countless cafés and shops.  Piazza San Marco, however, is also home to a cathedral tower, the Campanile di San Marco, a clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, and the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, or St. Mark’s Basilica.


Albergo San Marco


Not far from St. Mark’s Square we found our hotel, Albergo San Marco.  Because we were only spending one night in Venice, we wanted to stay as close to the central sights as possible to use our time efficiently and save money on transportation.  Our family-style room had two bedrooms and a spacious bathroom, the most expensive and most luxurious lodging of our trip.  The staff was only average, especially compared to the hospitable Czechs, but the included breakfast was plentiful and convenient.

With such a short time in Venice, my friends and I made sure to explore as much as we could, day and night.



The next morning, we waited in line to enter St. Mark’s Basilica.  Of all of the religious buildings that I’ve seen in Europe thus far (and I’ve seen a lot), this was the most impressive.  We wanted to go up the cathedral tower, but did not have the time, because we had pre-booked a gondola ride (via for that morning.

My friends and I were excited yet skeptical of the gondola cliché, but it was worth it.  The boat brought us through the narrow canals of Venice inaccessible by foot, and around the open areas of the Grand Canal that winds through the city.  If you have free time on a beautiful, sunny day, a gondola ride is the perfect way to explore and enjoy Venice.


DSC_0261 (1)

The final stop on our Venetian vacation was Antico Forno, a praised pizzeria not far from our hotel.  Though the hours claim availability until 9:30 p.m., we stopped by on our first day in the city around 6 p.m. and found it closed.  When we asked a neighboring shopkeeper if it would reopen later that night, she informed us that it was done for the day.  Our second trip, made around noon, was successful, and we got good-but-not-great slices of Italy’s signature food.  The pizza shop, or, more accurately, pizza window, had very limited seating and a demanding lunchtime crowd.  With unclear hours and mediocre meals, only stop by Antico Forno if you are already in the area.

Visiting Venice is subtle experience, with few sights to see, but much to explore.  A weekend would have been preferred to our few 24 hours!  We got a small taste of life in Venice, but you cannot truly know a city, no matter how small, in such a short amount of time.  Luckily, we would have a greater opportunity to enjoy our next destination.


Destination Locations


Pace, Amore, Venezia


Nice, France

Tout a commencé avec français. 

Incremental exposure to French language and culture sparked my international curiosity and called me to come abroad.  In elementary school, I participated in a lunch-time French club, where I was introduced to the basic words and phrases of a language that seized my attention.  My official French studies began in middle school and have not stopped (aside from this short break in Spain).  Though I’ve adjusted my lingual learning throughout my education, I do not have a passion for the other languages and cultures as I do for French.  University logistics dictated that I study in Madrid before France, so after years of fantasies, studies, and patience, I was beyond eager for the opportunity to visit the country that I had never been to, but that already had my heart.


The University of Maryland operates a study abroad program in Nice, France, which I intend to take part in next spring.  A friend from one of my French classes is participating in the year-long version of the program and invited me to spend a weekend with her while we were both abroad.  I would be able to preview the city, learn about the program, and have my own personal tour guide in Nice.


Bonjour, France!

After getting off of the plane, I stood at the gate for a moment, taking in the ocean views from the Nice Côte d’Azur International Airport.  I was finally in France!  After locating my my friend Olivia, we made our way to her apartment via scenic bus ride, a default privilege whenever one travels along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.

For dinner, Olivia brought me to La Claire Fontaine, and we both got pizza.  Though we were in France, she informed me that there were Italian influences in Nice because of its Mediterranean location.  I took the heavy rain that began during dinner as a sign to extend my stay in the restaurant and finish my entire personal pizza pie, one of the best I’ve ever had.  Once the rain slowed, we dashed across the street for dessert.  Continuing Italian influences led us to Fenocchio, a gelato shop that my friend claims is the best in Nice.  I wouldn’t argue with her assessment.  The shop boasted endless flavor options, and my cup of white chocolate gelato was delicious.

As thrilled as I was to have been in France, I was much less enthusiastic to speak.  My French was embarrassing.  Originally eager to finally use French after only practicing Spanish for the last two months, I thought that this trip would be the perfect opportunity to exercise my skills.  All of the confidence that I had developed in my French speaking abilities, however, disappeared when I attempted to talk in Nice.  I could not think of much of what I wanted to say, Spanish slipped out nearly every other word, and the French accent that I had worked so hard to develop was nonexistent.  I know that I can credit this to my immersion in Spain, in addition to a complete lack of use of French, but nonetheless, it was frustrating.  I will do my best to practice my French while in Spain, even if only mentally, with hopes that it will come back to me in French class this fall.


Day 2 – Monaco

With so many other destinations accessible from Nice, Olivia brought me to the Principality of Monaco.  A 45-minute bus ride for 1,50€ brought us right into the center of the little land of big boats, fancy cars and people looking to spend money.  Taking in the impeccable grounds, beautiful buildings, and happy visitors relaxing in the sunny, 60-degree weather, I felt like I was in Walt Disney World.  From the landscaping to the sky, the town felt staged.  Everything was perfect, too delightful to be true.

Strolling past green lawns and luxury shops, we arrived at the Casino de Monte-Carlo.  Though I expected more grandeur after all that I’ve heard about the famous gambling hub, it was still a stunning structure.  Even more underwhelming was the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, but the views from the courtyards of the royal residence were impressive.  Upon the same hill as the palace is Princess Grace Kelly’s grave, in the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, along with the other monarchs of Monaco’s past.


Casino de Monte-Carlo


Prince’s Palace of Monaco


Views from the Palace courtyards


Grace Kelly’s burial site

For me, where Monaco lacked in architectural richness, it made up for in linguistic diversity.  Similar to Nice, but even more so, Italian influences intermingled with French flair.  Though it has been a year since I have studied Italian, after 5 years of study, I was pleased to find that I could still understand some of the language that I saw and heard.  Studying in Nice would allow me to practice my French, as well as some Italian, keeping my language studies well-rounded.

When Olivia and I returned to Nice, we picked up a local snack called socca.  Socca is, essentially, a crêpe made out of chickpea flour.  Though I had never had chickpeas before, the socca tasted just as I imagined.  Served warm with only salt and pepper, it was slightly bland, but tasty.  It is not something I’ll ever be craving, but it was a nice lunchtime snack.

As the day progressed, we decided to pair our salty socca with sweet cupcakes.  Emma’s Cupcakes was luxe yet inviting, and though we could have spent the day in the shop, we took our treats to go. Sitting on the wall of the beachside Promenade, Olivia and I took a break from our miles of walking and enjoyed the sea, the sunshine, and our cupcakes. Similarly to those in Spain, the French cupcakes were not as delicious as I’d hoped. Though the Europeans can deliver delectable, flaky pastries, they are unable to master a squishy, moist cupcake.


With plans to watch the sunset, Olivia and I walked along the Promenade, stopping on the beach so I could observe the shore of stones, instead of sand.  How does anyone enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice!?

We waited for the sunset at Castle Hill, the highest point in Vieux Nice, or Old Nice.  Unfortunately, weather and natural landscape took away from the overall effect of the experience, but the views of Nice were perfect.



Funny side note:  While on Castle Hill, Olivia and I were shocked to spot a boy in the ocean!  Despite what the sunny photos may convey, it was chilly and windy, especially near the sea.  He stood in the waves for about 10-15 minutes, seemingly unaffected by the frigid temperatures of the winter water.

On the walk away from the viewpoint, after sunset, we found ourselves behind Crazy Ocean Boy!  Something had to be wrong with him, seeing as he was soaking wet wearing shorts and a T-shirt while his friends were dressed appropriately for the weather.


Crazy Ocean Boy, toting his wet bathing suit and towel in a plastic bag.

Ready for dinner, Olivia brought me to Le Blue Whales, a recently renovated diner.  She explained that even though I was in France, I had to  try one of their burgers.  Though it is an American food, it was crafted by French hands, and that made a delicious difference.  It was easily one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, which I attribute to the house sauce.  It added a cool, flavorful compliment to the warm, juicy meat.  If any visitor of Nice is wary of spending a meal eating American food, burgers at Le Blue Whales is worth it!

The walk across town helped to digest our meals as we prepared to end our night with one last excursion.  Olivia told me that the Ferris Wheel in Place Masséna had been set up in the fall, but is not erected year-round.  Closing down Nice’s Carnival festivities, the ride was set to be removed the day of my departure.  I convinced my friend to take the Ferris Wheel up for nighttime views of the city.  Though distracted by the incessant, Nicoise wind (Olivia explained it is caused by the meeting of ocean and mountain air) and the teetering of our little gondola, we enjoyed yet another perspective of Nice.




Day 3 – Èze

The town of Èze was on our agenda for Sunday morning.  On the same bus route to Monaco, just a closer stop, Èze is a mountain village located on the Mediterranean coast. Once we arrived, we quickly set off and began climbing through steep, narrow streets and tiny shops and restaurants to arrive at the top of Èze’s most accessible seaside cliff.  To experience the best views, we paid 4€ (2,50€ with my ISIC) to enter the exotic Jardin d’Èze.  Guiding you up the steps to the top of the cliff were cacti and other succulents of many different kinds.  Earth goddesses were also scattered among the plants, accompanied by prose of womanhood, love, and life.  The views of the French Riviera from Èze were even more brilliant than those from the night before.



Goddess Isabeau: “Le sol me retient/ Et alors?/ J’ai la tête au ciel.

Though the ground keeps me rooted, my mind is in the heavens.





Wanting to be well fed before my journey back to Madrid, Olivia and I got brunch at Café de la Place.  I desperately wanted a good, French, quiche lorraine, one of my favorite dishes, but the Quiche of the Day was ham, and I have had quite enough jamón in Spain!  I opted instead for the mini-brunch for 15€, where I chose three dishes from a list of about 10 breakfast staples.  Of my trifecta of choices, my least favorite were the pancakes, which were slightly undercooked.  My fruit salad was tiny, but refreshing, and lightened the rest of my meal.  The “egg muffin,” or breakfast sandwich, was fantastic, competing with Le Claire Fontaine’s pizza and Le Blue Whales’ burger for best fare of the trip.  Where I got fruit salad, Olivia got French toast, which I was curious to taste because of its name. The dish served at this restaurant was very eggy, and consequently soggy, leading me to favor American French toast.  We finished our little late-morning meals, leaving just enough room for one more treat.

I could not leave France without a crêpe!  Olivia recommended the restaurant Lovebio, the best crêpes that she’s had in Nice.  I was surprised at the choice because of the limited menu options and high prices, but nonetheless, I got a Nutella crêpe with whipped cream.  As it had seemed, the crêpe was not as tasty as I’d hoped.  In fact, I liked my crêpe from Madrid better than the French one.  I wonder if I do not appreciate the form and simplicity of a true French dessert, or if I just had a crappy crêpe.  Future French travels will tell.

Crêpes aside, I hope that further exploration into France reveals a stronger sense of French identity (because if I know anything about the French, I know that their ego exists, loud and proud).  During my visit, I was unable to recognize the Nicoise as people of France.  Though my judgements could be inaccurate due to the short length of my stay, it seemed as though there were too many tourists for Nice to retain its French character.  My expectations for French immersion may have been misplaced on this Mediterranean town.  As much as I appreciate the diversity of cultural influence in Nice, it wasn’t the France that I was looking for.

Visiting Nice, no matter what your motive, is like going on vacation.  With wide streets for strolling, where people feel the mountain/ocean breeze reach their senses, while greenery soaks up the Mediterranean sun, the city demands to be enjoyed.  Though I wasn’t there long, Nice affected me, as all seaside destinations do.  The beach-town vibes gave me joy in a way that city sensations simply can’t.  Yet as much as I felt at home in this French town, after the constant activity of metropolitan Madrid, I am unsure if I would like to study in Nice for an entire semester.  Forgetting future decisions, Nice is a beautiful city, with great food, great views, and a great summertime feel (even though I went in March).  Overall, my first trip to France was a success.


Destination Locations


Paix, Amour, Nice