Hotel Review: Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards and Inn

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Living in Southern California is definitely a privilege. Awesome weather, a diverse array of cuisine, and of course, access to some of the best wine in the world.

However, I never realized that Mexico had its own wine country as well! I guess I always assumed the weather there wasn’t quite right for producing quality grapes. Luckily, my friend Ian Blackburn (wine educator at Learn About Wine) knew better and gave me some tips on the region and where to stay. He highly recommended Adobe Guadalupe Vineyards and Inn, nestled in the Valle de Guadalupe (Valley of Guadalupe), just 14 miles (20 kilometers) north of Ensenada, Baja California.

driveupagAfter two hours of breathtaking coastline, goosebump-raising mountain curves, and expansive golden fields, I turned off the main road and drove slowly up the bronze-dusted path lined with bushes sprouting vivid purple and pink flowers. Wrought iron horse sculptures greeted me the closer I got to the entrance. A kind security guard opened the gate and showed me where to park (free parking whoo hoo!). I stepped out of the car (more like slid out since my legs refused to obey), and stretched my angry limbs. It was then I allowed myself to really gaze ironhorsesupon the property. Excuse me, did the website say inn? This was a massive estate, a real hacienda. The cool points increased exponentially as I crossed the rectangular courtyard on the way to the main office. A large stone fountain occupied the center, surrounded by palm trees, manicured bushes and potted, succulent plants. I could already tell that this would be my main hangout spot.

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bedroomagAt check in, I was greeted warmly by the management and led to my room to unload and relax for a bit. It really felt unique; the high ceilings, windows, and wicker and iron furniture made me feel that it was truly my space. I was also offered a complimentary glass of wine, which I could either enjoy in the room or the living room. Eager to see mewine1more of the property, I opted to take it in the living room. It was a wonderful, refreshing rose which boasted tempranillo, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, barbera, sauvignon blanc and grenache varietals. Oh yeah, they know what they’re doing here.

As I meandered around with my glass of wine from room to room — the kitchen, the living room, dining room, library/entertainment area— I realized that this wasn’t a large house turned into a hotel. This was someone’s home, opened graciously to visitors. Plush rugs, comfy sofas and antique furniture dotted the cool, clay floor. Sculptures, paintings, lamps, and vases from the owner’s travels also adorned the living areas. My favorite room by far was the beautiful kitchen, with its long, wooden communal table and stone oven sitting in the middle. I was tempted to ask the cooks if I could hang out and spend the day cooking with them, Like Water For Chocolate style.

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I love this kitchen!

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This dog clearly feels right at home.

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Pathway to the winery

The surrounding landscape was just as gorgeous. Every area of the property had a front row view of the lush, ambrosial vineyard. I loved that I didn’t have that confining, boxed in feeling associated with most hotels. I had a sense of freedom wandering those dusty paths, as if it was my home.

The hotel’s main activities feature wine tasting, horseback riding, and massage. I only had two days to spend in Guadalupe Valley, so the wine tasting was my main focus.meflowers However, if I had more time, I would have indulged in the latter two! Premium Azteca Sporthorses are bred right on the property and have seasoned staff dedicated towards raising and training them. There is an on-site masseuse/reflexologist who can take away your horseback aches using oils and exfoliants that contain plants and herbs from the organic garden. All of the vegetables on the breakfast and dinner menu come from there as well.

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Horses' stable

Horses’ stable

Wine tasting was on the agenda for the next day (including Adobe Guadalupe’s own incredible winery), but I found myself spending a couple hours stargazing after dinner. If this place needs anything, it’s a planetarium! The stars almost completely blanket the sky. I was like a giddy little kid, trying to find as many constellations as I could, and using my phone app The Night Sky to help me identify planets and moons. I even saw a  few shooting stars! It was simply amazing.

Useful tips:

Adobe Guadalupe Inn has only six bedrooms. Be sure to book at least one week in advance.

Lunch and dinner is optional, but must be booked at least 24 hours ahead.

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Positively Sideways: Exploring Wines in Santa Barbara County

ButtonwoodOne of the reasons why I love living in California is the easy access to high quality, affordable wines. Sure, there are a variety of great wine stores everywhere, but being able to tour a winery that produces incredible wine and meet winemakers that have a strong passion for what they do— that is quite an experience!

Ever since I saw the movie Sideways, I have been eager to visit the burgeoning wineries dotting Santa Barbara County. Ian Blackburn’s wine education company Learn About Wine here in Los Angeles had an upcoming tour; I quickly made a reservation.

vineyard sbThe scenery took my breath away. Sun-drenched, rust-golden rocky formations swam in a sea of beautifully pruned vines. As we climbed higher into the mountains, the straight and narrow road began twisting like the roots of a baobab tree. It was harder to take pictures up here!  I soon gave up trying to focus my lens and just let my camera go click click click… walkharvestroomWe finally arrived at our first destination, Buttonwood Farm and Winery in Solvang. This impressive locale is not just known for its vineyard; it is also known for the peach orchards, vegetable, and herb gardens. Buttonwood has been dubbed “The Georgia of California” due to its super-ripe, tasty peaches. Peach preserves, olive oil, and freshly-dried herbs are all made and sold on the farm.

Winemaker Karen Steinwachs provided us each with a glass of their prized Sauvignon Blanc and led us to the harvest room and cellar. She took us through a brief history of the vineyard and explained a little about their winemaking process. Karen is a wonder herself, having ditched the comfort of the corporate world 12 years ago to tackle a back-breaking harvest job. She’s never looked back since. buttonharvest

KarenNext we were treated to a delicious farm-to-table lunch in a shaded alcove ringed with statuesque trees. We savored several Rhone varietals from the 39 acre vineyard above, such as Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier. My favorite was a glass of luscious slightly-sweet 100% Semillon. button lunch

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buttontastingroomIan seemed pretty excited about our next stop— Dragonette Cellars in Los Olivos. After meeting brothers John and Steve Dragonette and their partner Brandon, I could see why. They were super funny and engaging dudes, the kind of guys you wouldn’t mind having a steak and a beer with in a shack up in the mountains somewhere. They’re the cool camp counselors you wish you had as a child, making you believe that the mundane rock they hold in their hand has the power to impact your life in a tremendous way. dragonettebros

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dragonbarrelOur group tried around 10 wines in the cellar, each glass of Pinot or Syrah astonishingly better than the last. I would have been happy to bring home any bottle they offered.

We ended the tour in the famed “Funk Zone” in Santa Barbara— essentially a lively grid of tasting rooms, gastropubs, and artisan shops planted near the Pacific Ocean. We took over Riverbench Winery’s new tasting room. I was only too happy to plop down on a soft, leather sofa after a long day of walking. I would have loved to explore the area more, but I was in the eye of calm, happily accepting my glass of Reserve Chardonnay from the tasting room attendant. riverbenchBottles of wine I highly recommend:

Buttonwood Farm and Winery: 2012 Semi-Semi (100% Semillon)

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Dragonette Cellars: 2010 MJM Santa Ynez Valley

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Riverbench Winery: 2010 Reserve Chardonnay

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No Shrinking Violets Here: The Spectacular Flower Parade of Medellín

joy's dancersDuring the time I lived and worked in Medellín, Colombia, the flower festival (La Feria De Las Flores) was an event I marked on my calendar and circled numerous times. There was so much to look forward to: taking in all the varieties of beautiful orchids at the Jardín Botánico, strolling in San Alejo Market munching on slices of salted green mango dripping with fresh lime juice, staring in awe at the polished, well-groomed horses prancing down the dirt road.

However, it was the breathtaking flower parade passing through the downtown area that I mostly looked forward to. Called the Desfile de Silleteros, this amazing event features the best flower growers the region has to offer.

Cool Fact: The United States imports 70% of its fresh cut flowers from Colombia.

The word silletero comes from the word silla, which means “seat” in Spanish. During colonial times, slaves and other servants strapped wooden chairs onto their backs in order to carry Spanish nobles, children, and produce up the rocky hills and mountains. Over time, the term silletero was applied to any person carrying a wooden contraption filled with flowers from farm to city.

In preparation for the parade, families combine their profound knowledge and artistry to create elaborate flower arrangements which depict stories of life history, land, and culture. 30-70 different kinds of flowers can be included in a silleta, such as orchids, chrysanthemums, carnations, lilies, sunflowers, and roses. The outcome is absolutely mind-blowing.silletero 2

The desfile (parade) consists of school marching bands, talented musicians, and spirited dancers. Beautiful women brandish flowing skirts which showcase the Colombian national colors. Strains of cumbia and vallenato fill the air. Even the military get involved, jogging in synchronized fashion in camouflaged gear. girl dancershorseback ridersmore dancerspageant queenolder women dancersmusicians

militaryThen come the silleteros, first a few displaying simple flower patterns, then larger groups showing off more complex flower designs. It is obvious who the real stars of this show are. Carrying the flowers is not easy. Some silletas can weigh up to 100 pounds (around 45 kilos). I was relieved to see that there were assistants walking alongside each man and woman brave enough to carry these flowers in the sweltering heat.

silletero 1more silleterosgrand silletagrand silleta 2Finally, the street is completely filled with dynamically arranged silletas, to the point it is difficult to see the people bearing them anymore. It is truly a sight to behold. Proud Antioqueños and thousands of visitors from around the world revel together in this sublime moment of joy, inspiration and pride.

flower wonderTip: The festival lasts for ten days and takes place around late July and early August. Be sure to make living accommodations well in advance. Arrive early for the parade; even though it starts around 2pm, the stands lining the streets fill up quickly.

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Stimulating and Satisfying: Six Awesome Tokyo Restaurants

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I love coming to Tokyo. I can spend all my time ogling the mind-bending fashion, drooling over speed-of-sound technology, and contemplating the duality of its ancient and modern architecture.

It’s no different with the food. The cuisine is all about freshness, flavors, and vivid presentation. It aims to take your senses to the highest level possible. Tokyo chefs strive to take risks, and are not afraid to color outside the lines. The following restaurants are sure to have your senses firing on all cylinders:

Fresh Fish

May I have the ocean with that octopus please?

Uoshin - There are 5 branches situated throughout Tokyo, but the Nogizaka (Roppongi) branch is the most popular. It used to be a 1950‘s era Coca-Cola shop; all the furniture and embellishments remained. You can actually consume a fair amount of sushi and sashimi without breaking the bank. Fresh fish is sent from Tsukiji seafood market everyday. For dinner it’s about 5,000 yen ($50) per person, but it’s a decent price with all the appetizers and drinks that come with your order. Nogizaka Uoshin

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Daiwa SushiYou cannot pass up a sushi/sashimi breakfast in Tokyo. This tiny shop is located at the Tsukiji Market, and is known for taste bud-altering, umami-reaching experiences. The Omakase (chef’s choice) depends on the catch of the day, and runs about 3,500 yen ($35). The food takes almost no effort on your part to eat; it literally melts in your mouth. Visitors leave wondering how they will ever go back home, eating food that will never quite measure up to this new found moment of zen. 500-tsukiji-daiwa

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Noodles Baby

You better be slurping, or else.

Jangara Ramen – This tourist-friendly ramen shop in Harajuku is known for their delicious tonkotsu (pork bone) based broth. The pork bones are slowly cooked for several hours, creating a super tasty rich milky broth. For 1,000 yen ($10) you can order a large bowl of ramen that comes with slices of braised and stewed pork, boiled egg, bamboo shoots and a vast array of available toppings. jangara_db2c9f18-6998-42c9-96a1-bd9c302c0cac

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Afuri Ramen – Like many other ramen joints in Tokyo, this spot in Ebisu is a quick slurp-slurp-slurp at the counter. Although you’re inhaling it, you’re bound to thoroughly enjoy it too. What sets this place apart is the clear chicken and fish broth brightened by citrusy yuzu. It is very light, but don’t be fooled; although lacking in fat and not as heavy as tonkotsu, it simply bursts with flavor. tumblr_m6e0tzN7KU1qb3qcf

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Cool Ambience

Don’t get too involved in your tempura. Gogo Yubari and Hattori Hanzo might be coming after you with a samurai sword.

Gompachi – This head-turning izakaya-style restaurant was the inspiration for the Crazy-88 scene in the movie Kill Bill. Think Japanese Robata (meat and vegetables on a stick cooked over charcoal) with a Western influence. Try the specialty dishes like seared foie gras with balsamic strawberries and miso-glazed cod. Making a reservation beforehand is probably a good idea since this place is insanely popular with expats and first-time tourists. w227233620

Ninja Akasaka – This is a fun, Disney-esque themed spot. You’re led through a secret ninja lair setup before arriving at the private tables. Ninja servers bear trays of surprisingly inventive and delicious food. Magicians grace your table hoping to mesmerize with their slight of hand. A bit on the expensive side, but worth it for a night of cool, campy diversion. ninja-1

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Final Destination: St. Vincent

St. Vincent

I smile broadly as the plane’s wheels scrape the runway. I jump up to grab my bag and nudge my way past scrambling passengers.The island’s caress of ocean air fills my pores as I gingerly make my way down the narrow metal stairs. I’ve got stony-faced immigration and customs agents yet to face, but none of that matters. I’m looking ahead to my uncle’s warm blanket of a smile that reaches way past his eyes, to the steaming bowl of callaloo soup, golden, crispy breadfruit, and impossibly tall glass of coconut water. My steps become more buoyant when I hear my friend’s breezy Vincy patois greeting in my head. “Whatta gwan Tan?” she will say. I already know what I’m going say in return. “What’s up? What’s up is that I’m home.”

KingstownI’m still surprised when I see tourists skipping St Vincent in favor of the pristine white beaches and 5 star hotels in the Grenadines. The Grenadines have a lot to offer to be sure — I mean who wouldn’t want to sit around with Mick Jagger, sipping bottles of ice-cold Guinness on Mustique?

imageOverlooking St. Vincent however, is a mistake. The island is the epitome of rugged abundance, an eco-tourist’s dream. La Soufriere volcano is an incredible hike, rising 4000 feet above sea level. The foot trail winds imagethrough banana and coconut plantations and ambrosial rainforest. You’ll travel up along cool, misty volcanic ridges to the crater at the summit. The Owia Salt Pond is a spectacular bathing pool located on the northeastern coast, a two-hour scenic drive from Kingstown. The pond is partially enclosed by lava rocks, which provides protection from the swells of the Atlantic. It is perfect for picnics and basking in the sun. The natural beauty surrounding Dark View Falls is stunning. Crossing the river on the bamboo bridge to get there is quite a lip-quivering walk, but it is worth it! The invigorating pools at the base of the tumbling falls are great for swimming.The Montreal Gardens is an alluring garden estate resting in the mountains above the Mesopotamia Valley. Blessed with fertile volcanic soil and frequent rainfall, this gorgeous expanse of land is replete with a unique array of flowers, plants, and dense foliage.

Hang Like A Local

imageMake some new friends over refreshing beers and platters of succulent wings at Famous Ritchie’s BBQ Shack in Kingstown. Flowt Beach Bar is an uber-chill spot that offers up burgers, samosas, and other local bites like saltfish, grilled conch, bakes, and green banana. After a long day’s work, men gravitate towards Pollen’s Rum Shop in Layou to let off some steam and slam the dominoes. Bambereaux is a beautiful secluded black sand beach— perfect for a quiet beach lime with a significant other or family gathering.

For a more upscale experience, Flow Wine Bar in Kingstown will not disappoint. Good luck choosing your vino from the extensive global wine list! Feast on delicious tapas in this warm, comfortable, and elegant atmosphere. Driftwood Restaurant is located right on the water, and has breathtaking views of Blue Lagoon and Bequia. The decor, ambience, and food make this an ideal place for a romantic dinner. The chefs at Wilkie’s (located at the Grand View Hotel) will wow your taste buds with dishes like conch and breadfruit chowder, simmered with herbs and white wine, and spicy grilled shrimp and tomato kebabs marinated in jerk seasoning and lime, basted in a tangy tamarind glaze.

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Vincy Mas

Ain’t no party like a Vincy party… St. Vincent’s carnival, or Vincy Mas, starts up in May, and the festivities last through the middle of July. The street parties and concerts are exhilarating and a delightful assault on the senses. Highlights include the Miss SVG Competition, Soca Monarch, Junior Pan Fest (my personal favorite— those kids can PLAY), J’Ouvert, and of course, the Mardi Gras Parade of Bands. 

imageWhere To Stay

The Grand View Hotel at Villa Point lives up to its name in every way. It has sweeping panoramic views of the island and the Grenadines; the grounds are fun to explore and are full of lush vegetation. Owners Tony and Heather Sardine are extremely professional, helpful, and friendly. The staff is very accessible and works hard to meet your every need. The Grand View Grill, located just down the hill on the beach, serves up amazing jerk chicken, pizzas, and cocktails.
From $94 (US) a night.imageimageimage

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Spending a Day in Manila

Makati city

Manila is one of the most exciting cities in Southeast Asia. Filipinos are passionate about this city steeped with turbulent history and rich culture. Due to the fact that over half the population is under 25 years old, Manila is now finding itself headed in new directions. Familiar tradition now merges with bold, progressive ideas surrounding technology, entertainment, and design.

Places to Visit

Alaya museumFor a thorough introduction into Filipino history, visit the Alaya Museum located in the neighborhood of Makati. The country’s material treasures and long-lost artifacts are proudly displayed, along with contemporary fine art. The main attraction however, is the sixty hand-crafted dioramas which beautifully chronicle the struggle with colonization and independence. The Cultural Center of the Philippines features the best performing artists the country has to offer. Lastly, one absolutely cannot Philippines 08 203miss a walking tour through the old city (called Intramuros) with super-guide extraordinaire Carlos Celdran. His unique breakdown of Manila history is both informative and hilarious. It’s street performance art at its best.

Shop ‘Til You Drop

Manila is a shopper’s dream, home to three of the world’s ten largest malls. For Filipinos, shopping is right up there with eating, and that’s saying a lot! In metro Manila, malls are the equivalent of mini-cities. You can spend the whole day at places like the Mall of Asia, Glorietta and Greenbelt, which house luxurious spas, high-fashion stores, supermarkets, cinemas, golf courses, Olympic-size skating rinks— even Christian and Muslim religious services!

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Must Eat… Now

Philippines 08 039Food in the Philippines is as essential as air. Filipinos in Manila eat several times a day, and the number of restaurants and street food stalls are astounding. You can find a wide variety of meat and fish, including classic foods such as adobo (bay leaf, thyme, and garlic seasonedPhilippines 08 187 chicken), pansit (traditional noodles), lumpia (eggrolls) and of course, lots of kanin (rice). For an exceptional dining experience, head to Café Juanita, located in Pasig City. This place screams of European bordello meets antique store. Where should one put one’s worldwide collection of random knickknacks and furniture? Why, in a restaurant of course! You’re going to have a hard time concentrating on the delicious food; your head will be twisting here and there to gawk at the massive chandeliers, tapestries, fountains, and flashy colors. Don’t leave without ordering dessert— the cassava cake will move mountains in your world.

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Music Please

Take some friends with you to Saguijo Cafe +Bar in Makati. Twenty-something Pinoys descend to this lively spot to showcase their rock band talent. Some of these bands are Philippines 08 174actually really talented, and at the very least, extremely spirited… And well, dedicated to what they’re doing. The lyrics consist of English and Tagalog (Taglish!). Lots of ladies representing too! They don’t stand around looking pretty, posing with a guitar. They can play, and belt out songs with crazy passion.

Day Trips Outside Manila

Philippines 08 112If you have the time, getting out of the city is a must. Once you negotiate past the mind-numbing traffic, stunning views of picturesque mountains, rice fields, lush vegetation, and rolling hills will greet your eyes. Visit Hidden Valley Springs Resort in Laguna, just two hours south of Manila. Centered in the crater of an extinct forest volcano are several natural warm thermal pools, and an immense botanical garden which hosts trees that are centuries old.I lounged all day in the cool and warm freshwater pools surrounded by waterfalls, towering trees, vibrant plants, colorful gekkos, and red monkeys. It was very difficult to leave!

Travel to Sonia’s Garden in the scenic city of Tagaytay, about an hour drive from  Manila. What started as a humble garden venture became a stunning Philippines 08 147greenhouse restaurant. Later a spa was added, and finally pastoral cottages—turning the place into a very popular bed and breakfast. After my masseuse gave me a thorough rubdown, I scarfed down the delicious greens and herbs straight from the garden.The scenic tour of the landscape and walkways alone made me believe it was worth the drive.

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Street Art in Berlin

Having just finished a lively conversation over beers and pizza with friends in Alexanderplatz, I wondered what to do next. I had one more day in Berlin. I had no desire to participate in another lackluster tour to the Berlin Wall or Brandenburg Gate. I wanted to connect with this city on a more visceral level, to really get a feel for its pulse.

After bidding my friends goodnight at their hostel, I quickly scanned the array of tour brochures that blanketed the table near the door. My gaze quickly honed in on one titled “Street Art Tour” organized by a group called Alternative Berlin. I thought, “Aw yeah, that’s for me.”

The next morning, Adrian, our tour guide, met us in cool, damp imageconditions under the TV tower in Alexanderplatz. He greeted our group warmly, then proceeded to herd us onto the U-Bahn for the first leg of the tour. I was pleased that we were using public transportation and not squeezed into a double decker bus. image

On the train, we introduced ourselves to the other members of the group. Then Adrian said, “In order to appreciate street art in Berlin, it is important to understand its complex history.” He explained that between 1970 and 1989, the west side of the city was covered with newspapers, graffiti, and paintings. Since reunification, the dilapidated walls have attracted international artists, and the spirited art scene has surged even further.image

We covered a lot of ground that morning, spanning the neighborhoods of Friedrichshain, Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, and finally Kreuzberg. Adrian didn’t just breeze by the graffiti; he had us stop and thoroughly examine the letters, colors, symbols, and texture. After several blocks, he asked us if we knew what the difference was between street art and graffiti. He imageexplained, “Graffiti focuses on letters and tags. The message isn’t easily discernible and isn’t meant for a wide audience. Street art involves stencils, paste-ups, sprays, etc.; it strives for attention and there is a considerable effort to make sure that the message is heard.” I thought I knew a lot about this subject— I guess I didn’t!

It soon became apparent that these urban virtuosos saw Berlin as a massive art playground. Stenciling paste-ups, spray-paint murals, and the palpable rage of graffiti covered huge swaths of the city; government buildings, corner cafes, condominiums and department stores couldn’t escape this massive tidal wave of ingenious expression.image

imageimageimageI loved the work of Italian street artist Blu. His epic murals seem to connect with neighborhood residents. The intuitive spray-painting and hip-hop influenced graffiti of the Brazilian twins Os Gemeos conveyed strong socio-political perspectives. French painter Miss Van hypnotized me with her sultry, independent feminine characters. My imagefavorite however, was Berlin’s own street artist Alias. Dealing exclusively with stencils, his work pops up in the most unexpected places. His human images displayed such powerful emotion; they stayed in my mind long after I left Berlin.

imageThe tour ended at a small street art gallery where Adrian invited us to create our own stencil graffiti. For me, this was the cherry on top of some glorious whipped cream. After poring through what seemed like a imagemountain of stencils, I finally chose one. After we finished (I was shocked that I hadn’t destroyed mine), the gallery owners led us out to the back where we experimented with spray paint. I had the time of my life trying out different textures and patterns. It was an experience I’ll never forget— finally feeling like I was a part of this incredible city.image

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