Dreams, Thanks, and Other Things

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Photo cred Meghan Nolt

Six and a half months. Fourteen countries. Fifty cities. Countless memories.

It’s time to come home, Raya. 

At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

***

As I sit here typing on my computer for the first time since I set off on my two-month European tour in June, I can’t help but wonder if all of this has been real. After all, several dreams came true for me this year.

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I studied abroad in Granada, Spain, and four-and-a-half months and a dozens of crazy adventures and fun times later, I came out fluent in Spanish, in love with the beauty and culture of that Andalusian gem of a city and the rest of Spain as a whole, and with a number of strong friendships I know will last for a while.

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I backpacked around Europe for two months, during which I saw, did, and experienced so many amazing things, and met, visited, and traveled with so many truly wonderful people.

And while the days were long, fun, exciting, and full, the time has gone by unnervingly fast. This dream I’ve been living is now coming to an end.

But that’s just how it goes, isn’t it? Life goes on, and so must we. And while at the moment I’m sad to leave and apprehensive and unsure of what to expect from my homecoming, I take so much comfort in the fact that I’m returning to an incredibly loving and positive home in Seattle and Vancouver.

It’s been a comfort that has stayed with me during my travels, especially during the past two months. As much as I was thrilled beyond belief to be living my dream of traveling around Europe, it was so nice to be reminded every once and a while of the fact that I had such a superb place and family and friends to come home to when the time came.

The following quote painted on the wall of this Madrid hostel, the last I’ll be staying in in Europe, says it all, and I couldn’t have found it at a better time:

There is much to explore, experience and discover on this planet, that you need to grasp the chance when it comes along as your true friends and family will still be here when you feel ready to return.

With these thoughts in mind, and gratitude in my heart for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve shared them with, I will at long last undertake my return journey home.

As they say, don’t cry because it’s over, be happy because it happened. For when one adventure ends, another begins. And now that these dreams of mine have been realized, I get to go find a new dream.

It’s time to come home, Raya.

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***

There are so many people without whom the past six months would not have been possible, nor as amazing and as fulfilling as they were. Words cannot possible express how grateful I am for the following people, but nevertheless they are all most deserving of thanks, so here goes:

Mom, Dad, Madie, and the rest of my dear family, thank you for your unending support, love, and encouragement as I took on Europe and went through the ups and downs of living abroad and traveling solo.

Verónica, Fernando, y Alejo, muchísimas gracias por todo lo que me habéis dado y hecho para mí, siempre os guardaré en mi corazón como otra familia mía; sin vosotros, mi experiencia de intercambio en Granada no habría sido la misma.

The people I met and friends I made in Granada, especially Meg, Sarah, Lisa, Andrea, Maddy, and Ida Marie, thank you for all of the fun times, the memories, and for being there and helping me through some rough patches. I cannot wait until the next time our paths cross.

My friends back home and in Vancouver, thank you for making the effort to stay in touch with me during my long absence. Your support meant so much to me and all those texts, messages, Snap Chats, and Skype calls were such a delight to receive and I absolutely cannot wait to see you all so very soon.

Everyone I met up with, traveled with, and visited (Lauren, Gabo, Lena, Britta, Mika, Maddy, Andrea, and Chris), thank you for spending time with me and in some cases showing me around places you’d lived or were living in at the time, you have no idea how much your company meant to me and I am forever grateful for those times we spent and the memories we made.

And all those other lovely folks I met while on the road, especially you gals at the Stay Inn Lisbon Hostel and you Aussies, Canadians, and Americans at Olga’s Place in San Sebastián, thank you for saying hello, for having a chat with me, partying with me, going exploring with me, whatever it was, it was such a pleasure to meet you, if only for a night or a few days. Hope to see you again somewhere in the world!

Europe, thanks for everything. No es un adiós, sino un hasta luego. I know I’ll be seeing you again soon.

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Photo cred Britta Antonsen

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A Stint in Slovakia

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The amazing thing about going somewhere you know next to nothing about, somewhere you have done little to no research on, a place where nobody you know has been, is that you have absolutely no idea what to expect; everything has the potential to surprise and awe you.

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My brief stint in Slovakia has so far been just that. Knowing so little about this place has made every little thing surprise and amaze me.

At first glance, Bratislava, where I’ll have stayed for only two nights, seems to be not much more than a grimy, grungy, and gritty capital city. The two Slovaks I’ve met at my hostel, both from Slovakia’s second largest and supposedly much prettier and more charming city, Kosice, both told me with some disdain that all there is to Bratislava is its old town and city center.

Well, I managed to explore both yesterday, along with the area between the city center and the main train station today, and, pleasantly enough, Bratislava has continued to surprise me.
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First of all, the city center, essentially the area surrounding and almost blending in to the once-walled old town, is quite nice and refreshingly charming compared to the more gritty industrial streets that appear on its periphery . This dynamic of charming versus modern and industrial reminds me a lot of Bern, as if Bratislava were the more rugged, less pristine and uniform cousin of the Swiss capital.

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There is also a lovely foliage-lined promenade just outside the old town, flanked by pedestrian streets lined with cafes and bars, a quieter area I really enjoyed exploring and photographing.

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It also displays one of the weirdest and most eclectic collections of street art I’ve probably ever seen.

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The eclecticism then is mixed with some grime and grit and, my favorite Instagram subject as of late, colors and colors galore, on the sides of the main bridge leading into the city.

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All in all, I feel my choice to come to Bratislava, despite the fact that it doesn’t have the most favorable reputation and is described by Lonely Planet as “lacking charm” and home to “no unmissable sites,” I’d venture to say that Bratislava is a unique and interesting place worth a stop on a trip to Slovakia.

I also managed to go to the nearby town of Trenčín (pronounced Tren-CHEEN) today. The only thing I’d read on Lonely Planet, which was corroborated by my Slovak hostelmates, was that the town is small, relatively charming, and has a medieval castle on a hill. Castle on a hill…well, that was enough for me, I guess.

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Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. After popping into the tourist office, I headed up to the castle, and the student price for the so-called “grand tour” was a mere €3.10; dirt cheap compared to other museums and other historical edifices I’ve visited.

Then, as it turns out, I was the only one to show up for the grand tour offered in English; for €3.10, I got a private and most interesting and entertaining tour of the Trenčín castle. My tour guide, a very friendly young woman with a Bachelor’s degree in politics, and a wealth of interesting information about the castle, wouldn’t even let me tip her at the end.

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She told me a ton of intriguing and several hilarious facts about the castle’s history, details about the various elite families who owned it and lived there, as well as information on where to view the second-century AD (or as we Classical Studies are accustomed to designating as CE, i.e. the Common Era) ROMAN INSCRIPTION, commissioned by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to commemorate a Roman victory in Trenčínover hostile Germanic tribes. You go to this random hotel and you can view it from a second-story window engraved into the old castle wall.

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As a prospective Classical Studies major, I was delighted to learn about the role of Trenčín castle in Roman history, as small as it might have been.

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Just like I’m pleased I came to Bratislava, I was really happy with my decision to take a short day-trip to Trenčín today.

As I’ve said, Slovakia has been all the more interesting because I knew nothing about it in advance, and had no preconceived notions about what it would be like based on what I’d heard from friends. And I guess, this is how I’d rationalize my visiting less famous or iconic places, especially in the last week, and most likely in the upcoming weeks as well.

I’ve heard so many wonderful things about so many places here on this fabulous European continent, but after much deliberation, I’m now feeling not at all stressed about or hell-bent on visiting “as much of Europe as I can,” as I’ve tended to assert as the purpose of this two-month trip of mine. The fact that I have the time and resources and support-system to be here at all is gratifying enough.

So, from here on out, as I plan the rest of my European sojourn on the go, I’m not interested necessarily in visiting “the BEST of Europe” or that place that everyone tells me I have to go to. I’ll go where I go, when I go there.

And if my upcoming experiences are anything like the ones I’ve had here in Bratislava and Trenčín, Slovakia, then I have all the optimism in the world that things will turn out alright.

A Day in the Swiss Capital

I didn’t feel or really realize I was alone on this trip until I set off for Bern, the capital of Switzerland.

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I’m currently in the middle of a two-month, mostly solo backpacking venture around Europe. I say mostly because, as you may have read in my previous post, I have met up with and plan on meeting up with a couple more good friends along the way.

But after parting ways with my friend in Zermatt (she headed to Florence while I headed in the direction of the Swiss capital), I found myself feeling lonely for the first time since leaving Granada on June 24th.

After dropping my backpack off at the exceedingly stylish and clean Bern Backpackers’ Hostel and Glocke (I can’t help but stress the awesomeness and accuracy of Hostelworld on my trip so far), I started to wander through the Aldstadt (Old Town) of Bern.

I’m not sure if it was because I was feeling tired and lonely, or because it was a bit of a shock to my system to be out of the Alps and quaint and tiny Bavarian-esque towns and back in a metropolitan, tram-, bus-, and taxi-packed city, but it took a good while for Bern to impress me.

The bear garden, the number one touristy site set up in honor of the city’s mascot, was an interesting start to my understanding and exploration of Bern.

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I couldn’t help but feel somewhat sad for the bears, even though the enclosure seemed spacious and comfortable enough. Needless to say I enjoyed reading the various signs talking about the exhibit and the bears kept there, along with watching kids’ reactions to the bears’ behavior, especially when one of them chose to go for a swim.

After saying goodbye to the bears I went back over the Nydeggbrücke bridge (a place I would keep returning to in my 24 hours or so in Bern) and another more modern one and took in different views of the city. I was and still am in disbelief at just how gorgeous the turquoise Aare river is.

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My overall impression of the city kept improving as the afternoon went by. Moreover, thankfully, the sense of loneliness gradually faded as well.

After stopping for some delectable truffles, I wandered the main drag of the Aldstadt up and down, fascinated by the arcades and the striking mix of old and new, in the buildings and cobblestoned street with the busses and cars and retail stores.

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And later that evening I returned on a whim to the Nydeggbrücke right before sunset, and did my best to capture how beautiful the Aldstadt looked in that light.

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But perhaps my favorite part of the evening was stumbling upon some wonderful street music; a larger group of street musicians than I’ve seen before, including three guitarists, a cellist, a violinist, and a guy playing lightly in a single drum. I liked it so much I crossed the street so I could get a better view and leaned up against a fountain and just listened.

It was one of those moments so priceless where you forget or simply choose not to take a picture.

However, in the end I felt inclined enough to drop them a franc at the end of their set and even tell them I really liked their sound. Apparently they’ve been touring around small music festivals for months, and while they’ve mostly been in Germany and Heidelberg they happened to be visiting Bern for a couple of days.

They were a really nice group from Australia, called Worldfly; I found them on Facebook and they’ve got some stuff on YouTube so who knows, maybe I will run into them again in the event I head for Germany (still in the works!).

Anyways, the following morning I only had time for an hour or so meander through the Aldstadt once more, but I did manage to stop by the Rose Garden for some more views and the Münster cathedral because, well, I really have a thing for religious buildings.

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In the end, as I departed for Florence a couple hours later, I felt very satisfied with my short but sweet visit to Bern. It gave me the reassurance that even though at times I will be lonely and missing company on this trip, I’ll never be far from fascinating cities and cultures to immerse myself in, and making acquaintances or even friends from far off places won’t be so far-fetched.

Blown Away in Switzerland

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Oh, Switzerland. The tiny little country that treated us so well and exceeded our every expectation.

I spent five days exploring this magnificent country with one of my dearest friends from UBC, and from its breathtaking natural beauty, the stellar hospitality of its people, to its unmatched skill in the art of perfecting cheese and chocolate, I think we’re in agreement that Switzerland blew us away.

We spent the first leg of our jaunt in the wee town of Fiesch, a quiet, Bavarian-esque place with this cable car that takes you up to the gargantuan, UNESCO-certified Aletsch Glacier, which we found out about during a random Skype session while I flipped through the Suiza (Switzerland, in Spanish) Lonely Planet I’d acquired earlier while school textbook-shopping.

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But the story of Fiesch, Aletsch, cable cars, and frolicking through the Alps (I’ll get to that in a bit) would not be complete without an account of our almost disastrous arrival. So buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, this is no short anecdote. But it is a perfect example of just how incredibly lucky we were and just how amazing Switzerland is.

Despite touching base before meeting up in Geneva last week, neither of us thought to look up directions to our hostel (something that I have never neglected to do since I’ve been in Europe this year). So by the time it was nearing 2330 (that’s 11:30pm, friends, five-plus months in Europe and I’m almost fully on the 24-hour clock), the Matterhorn express train we’re on tells us there are two different Fiesch stops, and suddenly it strikes us we don’t know which one is ours.

We get off at the first stop, get somewhat spooked in the darkness and decide to ask the conductor if he knows where the hostel is (luckily, I had the address on a note in my iPhone). Lo and behold, he says it’s the next stop, tells us to hop back on the train (despite our tickets only being good for this stop and not the next (the last) one), and less than a minute later we hop off at a train stop resembling a sketchy bus stop rather than a legitimate train station. It’s dark. It’s chilly. It’s almost midnight now. And we still have no idea where our hostel is.

Luckily there’s a large, fully-lit map just up the road. We see we’ve arrived at the Fiesch Sport Ferien Resort. One of us recalls our hostel being associated with said resort. And oh my goodness, there’s a Jugendherberge (which my friend by calling upon her expert-but-actually-basic German deciphers as YOUTH HOSTEL!) on the map, so we head there.

Lights are out, all is silent and we are literally the only two people out on the street in this entire compound, and reception is that way. Reception is dark and clearly closed, but the automatic door opens and what so we find but an envelope taped to the inner door to the reception desk with my friend’s name scrawled on it in Sharpie. In it is our key and a map with the location of our room circled and suddenly all is right with the world.

Our brief moment of worry is over, and we thank the travel gods and commend the beneficence of the Swiss for the conductor who let us back on the train and pointed us in the right direction, and whichever godly person left us that envelope of joy. We sleep well in our comfortable and otherwise unoccupied room and pay a bright, bubbly, and blonde German receptionist the next morning for our stay. Thank you, Suiza.

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Oh right, so the next day there were cable cars. You take two to get up to the Aletsch glacier, one from wee little Fiesch to the even tinier Fiescheralp, and a second to Eggishorn, supposedly the best of the three principal viewpoints. We spent a good hour perched on some rocks, taking in the sheer size of it all, and also getting rather excited about the fact that we were indeed, in the Alps.

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Our hike that day essentially consisted of an aimless wandering through the Alps (no big deal). There were dozens of trails and everything was extremely well-signed, so despite having devised a hypothetical route plan on our map, we ended up just following the signs and heading for trails where views looked promising and where the hills looked most alive (yes, that song came up a lot of times, but never in jest and always in full-on, 100% authentic childlike excitement and wonder).

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Perhaps the most thrilling part of our day (other than seeing nuns viewing the Aletsch glacier from a bench at the Bettmeralp glacier viewpoint, thus putting a cherry on top if the idyllic but hilarious Sound of Music fantasy we felt we were living out) was scaling the questionable, erratic, zigzagged, stone-and-snow, and sometimes creaky wooden- and ladder-stepped pathway up the Bettmerhorn, bringing us to another amazing view of Aletsch, a 360-degree panorama of all those majestic Alpine peaks around us, and to what would end up being the highest altitude we would reach during our time in the Swiss Alps.

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All in all, it was a fantastic first full day of wanderlust in Switzerland. All capped off with a pleasant meal of hearty Swiss bread, delectable Swiss (or rather Appenzeller, the best ever) cheese, gorgeous dark Swiss chocolate with a hazelnut and almond filling, and dyed hard boiled Swiss eggs (yes, these exist in Swiss supermarkets. Genius).

The next day we made our way to Zermatt, home of the peak of all Swiss peaks, the famous Matterhorn. And let me tell you, it is so much better in person than the Disney knockoff ride.

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It’s probably best, though, when you serendipitously ascend a couple hundred meters more than your originally-planned route entailed, and find yourself nearly looking it in the eye (an over-exaggeration, yes, but a wow-moment, heck yes).

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The hills were alive once again, and this time they even invited us for a swim later in one of their lakes, Schwarzsee. After debating it for a little whilst wading in the freezing water, as tiny little fish bit and prodded at our tired feet, we stripped down to our underwear and plunged right in, receiving an unexpected applause from the various groups clustered around Schwarzsee’s edges.

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Our dip was brief, as the alpine waters were bone-chillingly cold, but as we were basking in the sun waiting for ourselves to dry, we heard a violin start to play. And what so you know, an entire (albeit very small) wedding party made its way out of the tiny chapel on the other side of the lake, hugging, taking pictures of the bride and groom, even doing the bouquet toss right then and there.

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We couldn’t believe our luck and timing that day.

The hike down didn’t fail to disappoint either. Again, we were very lucky in our choice of hike route. Everywhere you look are Alps, Alps, glaciers, and more Alps. And of course a great perspective of just how tiny Zermatt is.

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That second fine day of Switzerland wanderlust was capped off with another delicious hodgepodge dinner of cheese (more Appenzeller), chocolate, and bread, but this time with some red peppers and cherries to balance out the otherwise (almost) exclusively carbs and dairy diet we’d been following in an attempt to eat cheap in Switzerland (which is extremely hard to do in a place as unfortunately expensive as Switzerland). But at least we had our own bench under a sweet-smelling tree along a river with yet another marvelous view of the Matterhorn.

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All in all, I can’t imagine a better first-time in Switzerland. Everything about it exceeded my expectations and absolutely blew me away. A brief but surprisingly fulfilling trip in the Swiss Alps in the company of a true friend. What more could I have asked for?

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A Unique Experience in Segovia

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My short time in Segovia has been just lovely.

Just like the experiences I had in Toledo and Salamanca (posts I will hopefully get to at some point!), when I got off the bus and started making my way towards the historical center of the town where my hostel was, I instantly felt comfortable and at ease, despite the heat of the afternoon and the weight of my backpacks (yep, that’s plural…I made a conscious effort to pack light, but I ended up with my large backpack on my back and a day pack in front, but luckily neither is 100% full).

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And while I have thoroughly enjoyed wandering the cobblestone streets (which seems to be a favorite activity of mine), and exploring the cathedral and Disney-esque Alcázar with my travel companion, Barbara (who I met in Toledo and who then chose to a day trip out to Segovia today), a few things have really stuck out as the unique and unexpected experiences of this part of my trip.

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For one thing, the welcome I received on my arrival at the quirky and friendly Duermevela Hostel was the most wonderful I’ve had from any hostel I’ve stayed at in my entire time in Europe so far. Guillermo made my transition into Segovia easy and fun, and this little place he runs is without a doubt one of the most charming and cozy hostels I’ve ever stayed at. The beds are comfortable, there are full BATHS and showers in the bathrooms, and the hostel is located in a quiet and convenient area just outside the old city walls.

To top it off, just as I was settling in, Guillermo invited me to eat lunch with him, his friends, and a musical group that had been hanging out and practicing in the hostel that afternoon prior to their performance later that night (I’ll get to that in a bit). In wonder and amazement at this random and above-and-beyond act of hospitality, I munched on some brown rice, chicken and vegetable stir fry and hearty wheat and poppyseed bread (something other than white bread, for once!) and listened to Guillermo, his amiable friends, and the zany band chat away.

My stay here essentially has only further strengthened my faith in Hostelworld as a reliable hostel-booking site. I can honestly say that, in all of the places I’ve stayed at on independent trips (from Tenerife, Lisbon, and Paris, to these past three in Toledo, Salamanca, and Segovia), I have yet to be disappointed.

The other unexpected yet surely serendipitous experience I’ve had here occurred last night. Guille had informed me that I had arrived in Segovia right in the middle of one of their biggest festivals. Both he and the band that was hanging out here at the hostel encouraged to check out in particular the brass band concert showcase that was being held in a square a couple blocks down from the Cathedral and Plaza Mayor.

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After a solid four hours of exploring, instead of calling it a night I chose to take their advice, and I’m so glad I did.

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For what did I find on the way to the concert but a dance performance (labeled a “master class” in the festival pamphlet), on a stage in front of the hundreds-of-years-old Roman aqueduct, with a large crowd of spectators watching and doing their best to follow the hip hop and Latin moves to upbeat and catchy Spanish pop and reggaetón beats. I couldn’t help but laugh, take some pictures and video, and dance along a bit as well.

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And then I came to the brass band concert. Four brass bands played in succession, and oh my goodness were they entertaining. The Dutch band, pictured above, entertained with the likes of Guns & Roses and other American classics, all whilst barefoot and sipping beers from plastic cups between songs.

But the last group to go, from El Espinar (a tiny town just three kilometers from Segovia), and the group that had organized this concert, definitely put on the biggest show, dressed in silly costumes, and by ending their set with a raucous march through the streets, with a jubilant crowd accompanying, dancing along, and snapping pictures.

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As if my parading down a cobblestone street with a Spanish brass band in a UNESCO World Heritage site-deemed city wasn’t random and hilarious enough, we ran into another concert taking place when we reached the plaza in front of the aqueduct.

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And what was this orchestra playing but the Superman theme…and so the brass band cut the music, as was appropriate, and got the rest of the accompanying crowd to pipe down. What a ridiculous evening.

I’ve had such a pleasant stay in Segovia, and thanks to Guille, Duermevela Hostel, and the wacky brass band of El Espinar, it was a particularly fun-filled and memorable one.