Travel Highlights from Europe
I’ve had a few friends ask if I’m ever going to share more about my travels. I finally got a few photos on Instagram, but for those interested in a more in-depth account, here’s the down-low.
After three months in Greece, I was more than a little excited to see Athens. But it was my second day in the city, in the Parthenon Museum, that I began to fall in love with the history. Ancient Athens is the focal point for so much of modern Western culture. Their statues, their philosophy, their democracy, their warfare — a small civilization which rose and fell relatively quickly has left an outsized mark on our society. As I wandered the museums and monuments of Athens, I was deeply moved by how much they had accomplished in that time. One exhibit stands out, on the fourth floor of a tiny museum in a busy section of the city, about the lifecycle of an Athenian citizen. What struck me is that every experience — birth, education, religion, war, marriage, sex, politics, death — was given meaning by traditions and narratives handed down across the generations. It fit into a great whole, a life lived for and with a community, not just for oneself.
I was also struck, however, by how much I was drawn to the modern city of Athens. On my first night, I ended up talking to a couple of young adults watching the sunset next to me. We went to dinner and chatted all evening — they were law students in Greece, delightful people, full of thoughts on economics and politics and real life. And the very next night I spent most of the evening with a Greek man from Crete, about my age, who was quitting his corporate law job to work as an actor in Athens. The city throbbed with life, with people who were passionate about what they did and passionate about making their community and nation stronger. I have written previously about the billionaire who donated a library, opera house, and park to the city. It’s that kind of activity that draws me to Athens.
From Athens I flew into Spain and took the bus down to Gibraltar. The town is an old British naval base at the southern tip and is built at the base of one of the most remarkable rock formations I’ve ever seen. You can see that rock in this 8-second video, along with the Gibraltar airport, which blocks the only road into town each time a plane takes off or lands:
Rarely has a city captured my heart so quickly. Granada is a swath of white buildings across a green-gray hillside, a lonely outpost of culture and history in a region of Spain which has struggled economically. In the parts I visited, it is clean, beautiful, and friendly. I was delighted by jazz and flamenco dancers on various nights. I enjoyed lighted fountains and mountain vistas and Roma/Gitano caves. I ate the most amazing pork loin. I had a kind and eccentric Airbnb host who caught me up on the history of witchcraft and Eastern medicine. But most of all…
The Alhambra. When I went to Spain, there were two things I wanted to see: friends from Greece, and the Alhambra. It did not disappoint. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, its ancient towers loom like frozen giants over the narrow city streets. It was the old capital of the Moorish sultans for almost two hundred years, the last gasp of their glorious Spanish empire before it was toppled by the Reconquista and the Moors retreated into obscurity in Northern Africa. It’s patterned rooms and walls are like something from a fairytale, splashes of color in dizzying patterns topped by latticework of stone so intricate that it looks alive. The devotion of that Islamic Empire to art and beauty has no finer testament than the glorious Alhambra.
I only had less than 24 hours in Valencia, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two things: the beauty of its streets and my dear friend Paula.
Paula Tamarit is one of those people who makes you feel like home when you walk into their house. I arrived in Valencia by bus, and though it was nearly midnight she picked me up from the station and had a meal waiting for me at home. We talked and laughed about memories of Greece and the times we had volunteering there before reluctantly hitting the hay. The next day, I wandered the lovely streets and markers for a couple of hours before getting on the train to Barcelona.
I formed the plan to visit Barcelona before the cataclysmic referendum on October 1, when some Catalans voted for independence and all of Spain erupted. I visited in the tense period between the referendum and the declaration of independence on October 27, so I ended up discussing the issue with every friend that I visited there — Carla Boixeda, Mar Soliano, Mar Betorz, Paula Dominguez. All were volunteers who I met in Filippiada while working in the refugee camp, and they were perfectly wonderful during my visit. We ate good food, visited tourist sites, and enjoyed the caganer (“pooping man”), apparently a fixture at Catalan Christmas celebrations.
Barcelona enchanted me. Its streets are beautiful, its people hardworking, its economy bursting with life. And it has one of the most beautiful buildings that I’ve ever been lucky enough to enter: the Sagrada Familia basilica. Designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí almost 100 years ago, it has been in construction since then and is finally taking on its final form, with only a few towers left to build. The outside is both quirky and lovely, but it’s the inside that literally robbed me of breath — towering forests of marble-white columns, hundreds of feet of stained glass windows shattering the sun’s light into a thousand colored drops on the floor and walls. To me, it symbolized what I saw of Catalonia in those brief days: a dedication to art, to industry, to community, and to beauty. I was so deeply moved.
The New York City of Spain. I’ve never been anywhere which reminded me so much of New York — the quirky fashions, the busy streets, the museums and parks and theaters, the miles of sprawling suburbs on every side. It has a surprisingly similar feel. I was lucky enough to catch an experimental show — a monologue by famous actor El Brujo — and to visit the exquisite Prado Museum of Art. The Prado contains some remarkable works, cartoonish figures by Goya with a strange beauty in their simplicity and overwrought romantic paintings from the 1800’s which still manage to capture so much feeling on a canvas.
I also visited four dear friends — Clara Sopeña, Marta Andrade, Diana Fresno, and Jorge Sartre, and together we went to the remarkable El Escorial. Built as the country headquarters of Felipe II’s government, at the height of Spanish power and wealth, it is a monument to massiveness. From its massive doorways to the massive chapel to the massive crypt housing hundreds of royal relatives, the entire thing has a sense of grandeur so massive that you’re surprised it has managed not to collapse on itself. But survive it has, and we enjoyed laughing at strange room arrangements and discussing Renaissance Spanish politics all afternoon. I also spent one night in a hostel with the most incredible snore in the next bed — I thought I’d never sleep, but I was so tired that night that I only enjoyed the raucous symphony for five minutes before I was asleep.
If you’ve never spent time with Abigail Marshall and Ben Schmidt, you should try it. Or for that matter, David, Emily, Jim, Robin, and Richard — London was about seeing old friends and laughing about old times and new jokes. David’s family made the loveliest of homes for me north of London the first night. A group of us made a day of it at Stonehenge, which was shrouded in fog and echoing with the hoarse voices of crows. Jim and I went to breakfast at a delightful local diner; Emily and I got burritos and ate them by the side of the Thames. And my last night there, Ben, Abby, and I performed ‘Only Yours’ for the local singles ward with an interpretative dance at the end. The people made London wonderful.
I had been told Oxford was posh, expensive, and small. So nothing prepared me for what I saw when I climbed the hill in town on my first night and looked out over the city. It was gorgeous under the setting sun, surrounded by green hills and dotted with church spires and castle towers from the old university buildings.
I’m applying for grad school right now, and it doesn’t make sense to attend Oxford if I get in anywhere else — it’s expensive. But after a few days there, I’m tempted. The LDS young adults were so welcoming. The town’s Bonfire Night celebrations were on point. The university was beautiful and I interacted with several down-to-earth faculty and students there. CS Lewis’ house was a delight. The city is big enough to have what you need and yet small enough that you could live in the country and bike to class every day. Not that I will. It’s just tempting.
How do you write about a place and people who treat you like family wherever you go? I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me and don’t understand what they’re saying sometimes, yet some of the most companionable people I met on the whole trip were in Ireland: the rental car fellow who gave me a ride back to the train station, the cabbie on the way home from the movie theater, the lady with the deli in Hilltown, the farmer near Tollymore Park, the couple teaching the young adult group in Belfast, the tour guide in Belfast, and Raul and Al in Dublin (who are not from Ireland but probably moved there because they’re so good-hearted).
I spent some time in Ireland learning about the troubled history of conflict with England and within Northern Ireland. I had no idea that Ireland declared independence in 1919 (a smaller revolt occurred earlier, during the First World War) and was finally granted independence in 1922. I had no idea that there was a civil war within Ireland about whether to accept the partitioned state they were granted, with the northern 6 counties remaining part of the UK (as they remain today). And I had no idea of the extent of fighting in Belfast or the ideological positions of each side. The fighting is mostly finished today, thankfully, but the disagreements remain. Like America’s own arguments from the US Civil War — the past is never dead.
It is one of the most ruggedly beautiful places I have ever been. After a beautiful ferry ride from Belfast, I spent three days in and around the Isle of Skye, on the northern side of Scotland. On the way there, I caught this view just after sunset:
Skye itself was a delight. I spent two nights in a bed and breakfast run by an adorable English couple. I went hiking, ate seafood, and visited the site of the annual Skye Highland Games. And I spent the evenings watching ‘Brave’ and ‘Braveheart’, which was so American but so great. Then I made my way to Edinburgh, where I spent two days performing ‘Our Story Goes On’ (associated with the LDS British and Nauvoo Pageants) with the best of people. It is a story of human family and adventure, told through songs such as ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Bring Him Home’, and I love both the show and the people who perform it. Old friends and new, they were simply delightful.
Also, Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. I fell in love.
I just arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal yesterday — the European portion of my travel has ended. I will be visiting a few places in India and Nepal in the next few weeks, and will be writing more about that as well as about my future plans. I send love to friends and family all over the world. I miss you, but am so grateful for this opportunity to travel and learn. Onward to adventure and mystery in Asia.