Kicking it in the Balkans in 2014!

If you read my last blog post you’ll notice that I set a very important goal for myself – to travel somewhere completely out of my comfort zone in 2014. To that end, I booked a trip this summer that will hopefully be the trip of a lifetime.

In May, I’m traveling to the Balkan region with two of my favorite travel bloggers – Larissa from Blonde Gypsy and Nate from Yomadic. After following Larissa and Nate’s adventures across the globe for the past year, I jumped at the chance to participate in their very first group trip to the Western Balkans.

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What’s so unique about this trip?

I’ll be traveling with a group of 15 like-minded people from all over the world; on a group tour that will by no means be rushed or superficial. As Larissa and Nate have both spent a lot of time in the Balkans, they have connections all over the region and plan to show us the hot spots that will be on next year’s tourism lists.

The first two nights of our journey will be spent in Belgrade, Serbia, which is the largest city in the Balkans and the former capital of Yugoslavia. After the communist victory in World War II, Yugoslavia was set up as a federation of six republics: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Macedonia. After the death of the socialist dictator Marshall Josep Tito and the fall of communism in 1992, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia crumbled and the republics became independent countries, with Serbia being one of them.

In Belgrade, we’ll explore communist architecture by day and hopefully immerse ourselves in the vibrant club scene at night. After a quick two days in Belgrade, we’ll travel by bus through the southeastern Europe countryside to Sarajevo, the cozy capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, many ethnic conflicts sparked up in the region leading to the Yugoslav Wars in the mid ’90s. One of the biggest conflicts was the Bosnian war, in which the city of Sarajevo was under siege for four long years. During our two day stay in Sarajevo, we’ll explore underground tunnels and hang with locals in eclectic cafés. Although most of the city has been reconstructed, there is still evidence of the city’s war-torn past in bullet holes and mortar damage on the city’s buildings and sidewalks.

Our next stop will be Mostar, the cultural capital of the Herzegovina region and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We will most surely take a scenic tour of the quaint city’s most famous landmark, the Stari Most (Old Bridge) that was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. Unfortunately this bridge has a sober history – it was destroyed during the Bosnian war but since has been rebuilt. I’m hoping to check out the old bazaar for some shopping or take a stroll by the Neretva River.

Next up we’ll spend a few days in Kotor, Montenegro, a charming city with dramatic views of the Bay of Kotor. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, Kotor is famous for its medieval architecture and historic sites. We’ll check out the cobblestoned piazzas in Old Town and explore the steep city walls. On the final day of the trip, our group will travel from Bar, Montenegro back to Belgrade via train.

But this isn’t your average train ride. Because Larissa and Nate have some awesome connections, we’ll be traveling from Bar back to Belgrade on Marshal Josep Tito’s infamous Blue Train, a palace on wheels in which Tito entertained dignitaries from all over the world. Built in 1959, it was used regularly by Tito until his death in 1980. Unlike the rigid communist rule in Russia, the Yugoslavian era in which Tito reigned was prosperous and he was hailed by many as a great leader. I can’t wait to hear stories about his legendary rule of socialist Yugoslavia from the train operators that interacted with Tito himself.

After 10 incredible days of sightseeing and chilling with locals, we will all sadly depart and go our separate ways. I hope you’ll join me this summer as I live-tweet (where WiFi permits) and Instagram pictures from my journey. And of course you can expect many blog posts when I return (I know you can hardly contain your excitement!)

Talk soon!

The Year of Change: How Did I Do?

“Gonna be some changes made, changes made, can’t keep on doing what I’ve been doing these days.” – Bruce Hornsby

2013 was definitely a year of change as I transitioned into my new life in Chicago and began adjusting to all that comes with living in the Midwest – including the sub zero temperatures and harsh reality that home is not a short car ride away.  Although I was blessed with an amazing career opportunity, the normalcy of life as I knew it would be forever changed. It was daunting considering I didn’t really know anyone here, but at the risk of sounding super cheesy, I can definitely say that over the past year I’ve met some of my best friends for life.

Here are a few highlights of 2013:

Travel

I flew more than ten times this year, which is more traveling than I’ve ever done in previous years. From Atlanta to Rhode Island to visiting family back at home, I managed to head back to the East Coast quite a bit. I also received my shiny new passport back in March and took a trip to Curacao with some of my best girlfriends. In June, my mom and I had some great bonding time over a week long trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Writing

In April, I purchased a web domain and spent countless hours drafting my very first blog post. Using WordPress to get my blog site up and running was a lot harder than I thought, but over the past several months it’s evolved into something I am definitely proud of. I completed an online blogging course and received one-on-one critiques of my writing from Jon Morrow, author of CopyBlogger and owner of his very successful blog, Boost Blog Traffic. In November, I landed my very first guest posts on Her Packing List and Brazen Careerist.

2013 was great but I’m striving to meet even more goals in 2014:

1. Continue to build my blogging portfolio through guest posting opportunities

2. Get my foot in the door at a top Chicago lifestyle publication

3. Create a mini e-book (more on that to come!)

4. Quench my travel thirst by exploring more countries on my bucket list

What are your top goals for 2014? Are you satisfied with your 2013 achievements?

New England Charm in Newport, RI

Nautical chic, seaside swanky, classically preppy; there are so many ways I could describe Newport, RI, a seaside resort town about 40 minutes from the capital city of Providence.

Called the Hamptons of Rhode Island by many, Newport is known for its luxurious resort living; a place where the New England rich elite live, and others vacation during the summer. I visited the week prior to Labor Day weekend, so the city seemed to be winding down for the season. Nevertheless, I was still able to experience the essence that is Newport – boating, fine dining and meandering through the hilly estates of the country’s wealthiest families.IMG_0495photo

Newport was an 18th century port city, famous for sprawling mansions and colonial buildings. The town was an early center for shipbuilding and served as the center for trade with China in the early 1800s. In present day, it’s a haven for sailing, mansion tours, and many vibrant festivals year round.

Our hotel was a quick walk to Bowen’s Wharf, an outdoor shopping and dining area located right on the water. The wharf, lined with brick walkways, was formerly a thriving seaport. Now, the wharf is a symbol of Newport’s rich history and flourishing culture.

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After exploring the wharf, I was fortunate enough to be able to take in the city’s sights on a boat. The views were breathtaking – see for yourself.newportbyboatnewportsunsetboatphoto (1)

All the locals we talked to said a trip to Rhode Island is not complete without New England Clam Chowder, which I quickly discovered was the best I’d ever had. Scallops, lobster, and seafood galore – I’m pretty sure I tasted some of the best fish in the world during my short five day stay.

On my last day in Newport, I went off on my own to explore the downtown historic district. My first stop was the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  Built in 1954, the museum spans over 20,000 square feet and contains six grass courts and 18 galleries chock full of videos, interactive exhibits, and memorabilia from current and former tennis champions.

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Even if you aren’t into tennis, this a definitely a place worth visiting. Housed in the historic Newport Casino, a social and recreational club built in 1880, the first ever U.S. National Championships were held on the legendary museum courts. The Casino hosted the event until 1915 when the tournament moved to Forest Hills, N.Y and was renamed the U.S Open.

The Casino’s historic courts are the world’s oldest continuously used competition grass courts and the only competition grass courts open to the public for play.

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My next step was the famous Cliff Walk, a 3.5 mile stretch of rugged trail along the Newport shoreline. Although the weather was chilly and overcast in the mid-50s (not ideal photo taking weather), I worked up a sweat as I trekked over rocks and narrow walkways to catch a glimpse of New England’s most famous vistas. viewsofshoreIMG_0474duckonrockIMG_0489flowersnewport

As I continued to make my way down the Cliff Walk, I passed by The 40 Steps, a stone staircase that drops down the side of a cliff to a balcony overlooking the sea. During the mid 19th century, the wooden steps served as a gathering place for the servants working at the nearby mansions. After being destroyed by a hurricane in the early 1900s, the steps were reconstructed with stone and cement. Carved into each of the 40 steps is the name of an individual who donated money for this restoration in 1980.

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And last, but certainly not least, the mansions! Along the walk you’ll see many historical homes, including the Breakers, Newport’s most famous summer cottage, serving as a symbol of the Vanderbilt’s financial and social significance in the late 1890s.

Beauty, elegance, and style – the homes along the Cliff Walk, the history of a thriving seaport, and the exclusivity of a posh casino allow us to reminisce (and only dream) about what life in Newport’s gilded age must have been like.

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Vieques: Puerto Rico’s Best Kept Secret

You’re probably wondering why I’m blogging alot these days about the trip I took to Puerto Rico earlier this year. As the cold weather starts to set in here in Chicago, I’ve been scouring the internet for cheap tropical travel deals. In the meantime, I’ve been reminiscing about the serene island of Vieques.

On our trip in June, my mom and I planned to take a snorkeling cruise with East Coast Island Excursions from Fajardo to Culebra, an island about 17 miles off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico. Known for it’s pristine waters and amazing snorkeling, we were so excited to check it out.

After being warned before boarding the boat that the Caribbean waters were fairly rough that day, we took off to sea. About twenty minutes into our cruise, water flooded the catamaran and about half of the vessel was submerged underwater. No one was injured although we were definitely shaken up.

The captain told us it was too dangerous to continue on our current path, so we were forced to turn around. We were all disappointed to be unable to explore Culebra, an archipelago consisting of a main island and 23 small islands, thought to have harbored pirates during Spanish trade with the New World. The captain didn’t want the choppy waters to ruin our trip, so he suggested we divert to the island of Vieques in the Spanish Virgin Islands, located only 8 miles from mainland Puerto Rico.

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We weren’t disappointed. We lounged on the upper deck of the boat, snorkeled for hours, and tried the crew leader’s delicious rum specialty. We even had the chance to learn some interesting trivia about this sparsely populated island thought to be discovered by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. Our crew told us that Vieques was the place where Mariah Carey’s infamous “Honey” video was filmed way back in 1997 (can you believe it was really that long ago?). “Honey” was Mariah’s third single to debut at the top of the Billboard 100, a feat that has yet to be repeated.

One thing I wish we had the chance to do was explore the bioluminescent bay (bio bay).  A bio bay is a body of water containing millions of micro-organisms that glow in the dark when agitated. The best way to view this phenomenon is by kayaking on a moonless night. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, Vieques is home of the brightest bio bay in the world. Oh well, you can’t do everything – it’s definitely on my to-do list when I return.

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Of course I couldn’t leave you without the “Honey” music video, for your viewing pleasure…

 

East Coast Reunion Tour: 48 Hours in New York

Visiting New York City in the fall is by far one of the best times to go. My trip to NYC earlier this year was during the sweltering hot summer and jam-packed with work meetings, so it was nice to spend a relaxing weekend hanging out with some of my best friends. From bar-hopping all over the Lower East Side to leisurely strolling around Central Park, we had a great girls weekend and a blast catching up on life.

After spending a few days in DC (my second home) hanging out with friends, I took the four and a half hour bus ride up to NYC to continue my east coast reunion tour. Well, four and a half hours turned into seven, and I didn’t get into the city until close to 8 pm. We were all pretty beat from the week, so we spent Friday night catching up over dinner and drinks, resting up for Saturday’s festivities. For those of you who know me well, you know that I am a bit starstruck when it comes to celebrities, and can be asked at just about any given time who is dating who in Hollywood. So, when talking about the next day’s itinerary, a celebrity sightseeing tour was obviously in order.

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On Saturday afternoon (after a diner-style brunch of course), my friend and I set off on the TMZ celebrity tour. Our Australian tour guide, Mathew Chatwick, was so charming. A former finalist on Australian Idol, he charmed us with obscure celebrity facts and showed us the posh pads of Katie Holmes, Beyonce and Jay-Z, and Marc Jacobs, just to name a few. Nothing beats traveling around the city in a bus hearing facts about Jim Carrey’s weird art obsession, or seeing the venue where Lindsay Lohan’s infamous bar fight took place. If you are looking to explore NYC in style, I would highly recommend checking out the TMZ tour here.

By the way, if I’ve sparked your interest with the Australian Idol tidbit, please check out Mathew’s new album,  Undefined. His Australian accent is adorable and his music gives me the chills!
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After a Saturday night out in the Lower East Side, we were ready to soak up some of the crisp fall air in Central Park on Sunday. For many New Yorkers, Central Park is a safe haven for relaxation. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of it all every so often is so necessary. One minute we walked past eccentric musicians playing flutes and the next we approached the Central Park fountain, where a dance troupe was jamming out to Taylor Swift songs. From the naked cowgirls and toy story costumes in Times Square to the attention-seekers in Central Park, the people watching in NYC is unparalleled to any other city.

To top off this gorgeous fall day, walking around Central Park with two of my best friends makes for a pretty awesome Sunday!

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Photo Essay: Hiking El Yunque

Hey ya’ll! I know it’s been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but I’ve got a few projects in the works that have been occupying my time. Since the summer is slowing down you’ll definitely be hearing from me more often! 🙂

On my trip to Puerto Rico last June, it was my goal to get out and explore as much of the territory as possible. After speaking with a few locals about the best way to do this, my mom and I decided against the guided tours and opted to go off the beaten path instead. My one “can’t-miss” activity of the trip was a hike through El Yunque National Rain Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System.

On our last day of the trip, my mom and I set off in a rental car, driving the 45 minutes to El Yunque. The directions given by the concierge at the hotel were mediocre at best, but we still managed to find our way with no major issues. Although my Spanish is definitely a bit rusty, I was quite impressed with my ability to read the road signs!

When we arrived at the Rain Forest, we decided to hike the trail along La Mina River, which is a beautiful trail along the water. It’s the shortest trail to La Mina Falls, which is located at the end of the trail. Although the hike itself was only about a mile, I will give some caution to those of you who ever attempt to hike this trail – the terrain is very steep and precarious in some places. But it is sure to give you a good workout!

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Lucky for us, it was a cool day with no rain. Surrounded by lush foliage and massive trees, it was hard to believe we were at a popular tourist destination…it seemed as if we were truly out in the wild. You can see in the picture below that the leaves were more than 3 times the size of the palm of my hand!

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After hearing the calm rush of water as we followed the river down the trail, we came to the biggest attraction of them all: La Mina Falls. Many people were climbing on the rocks and reveling in the cool water.

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After our workout for the day, my mom and I spent the remainder of our afternoon at Luquillo Beach, located about 5 mi from the rain forest and frequented mostly by locals. We made friends with a basket-weaver and a waiter who served us drinks from coconuts! The scenery was perfect – with El Yunque in the background and the ocean running over our feet, it was a pretty good day.

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Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

“The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page.” – St. Augustine

Howdy! As you all may gather from reading, I have been bitten by the travel bug. From my very first trip abroad to Japan at age 13 to my latest adventures in the Caribbean, there is just something about exploring a totally new place. I love taking it all in and seeing something I’ve never seen before (and will likely never see again.) It’s just magical.

After a few months of writing about my personal experiences in and around Chicago, I’ve decided to go in another direction with this blog. I plan to focus solely on my desire to see as much of the world as I can over the next several years. Budget travel tips, fashionable vacation wear, travel planning, and solo travel are just a few of the topics I plan to discuss over the coming months.

Want to come along for the ride? Make sure you subscribe (the snazzy green box on the right) for email updates!

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Exploring Old San Juan

Last month my mom and I took a much-needed vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Chicago is a lot farther from home than DC, so I was getting a tad homesick and wanted some family bonding time. After long flight delays leading me to miss my connection to San Juan, I was so relieved to finally get there, albeit 5 hours late.

Our first full day in San Juan was filled with rain showers and storms. I had read that it rains daily, intermittently, (especially during the summer) so I was hoping the weather would eventually come around, and it did.

We stayed at the Conrad Condado San Juan, which proved to be an excellent choice. Although the hotel’s beach was smaller than some of the other resorts, we were in a prime location, equidistant to both Condado and Old San Juan. The first night we explored Condado, an oceanfront neighborhood consisting of designer shops, hotels, museums and vibrant nightlife.

The next day, we set off on our first adventure – exploring the quaint town of Old San Juan. Built while under Spanish possession, Old San Juan is located on a small island connected to mainland Puerto Rico by three bridges. Lined with cobblestone streets and brightly colored buildings, Old San Juan architecture dates back to the 16th and 17th century.

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It was a perfect day – the sun was shining brightly over the water and visiting one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, was at the top of our agenda. Located at the entrance of the San Juan Harbor, el Morro is an intricately designed fort that was built by Spain to guard Puerto Rico – which at that time was considered the gem of the New World.

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From the 1500s-1700s, Spain was successfully able to ward off attacks from the English and Dutch. However, during the Spanish-American war, the old cannons and structures at the fort were no match for US weapons. Parts of the fort were destroyed and rebuilt, including the lighthouse. During the war, US claimed Puerto Rico as US territory, and later used the fort during World War I and II.

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It was amazing to walk around and view a structure that has gone through so many changes and modifications. To my left was a sentry box the Spanish used in the 1500s, while to my right was the modern observation deck the US used in the 1900s. Breathtaking views combined with centuries of history makes El Morro a must see in Puerto Rico.

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Our next stop was the Cathedral of San Juan Batista, the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere and the oldest in the United States. The cathedral contains the tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer that discovered Puerto Rico in 1508.

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Built in 1521, the Cathedral boasts gorgeous stained glass windows and grand ceilings with intricate designs. As we entered the Cathedral quietly, there was a traditional Roman Catholic wedding ceremony in progress. We noticed that the wedding party was a group staying at our hotel – and we had briefly spoken with them at the pool earlier that day! The fact that we had spoken to the couple earlier in the day and just so happened to stop at the cathedral at the exact moment the vows were exchanged really made this trip special.

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As we continued to navigate through the streets of Old San Juan, we saw a group of people admiring a variety of paintings and drawings on the side of a building. We stopped to ask a group of locals what was going on. They told us that once a month, children from all over Puerto Rico showcase their artwork in the hopes of being discovered.

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We ended our day by grabbing a drink on the patio at a a Puerto Rican restaurant featuring live music. Looking around at the streets and buildings it was easy to forget that I was still in US territory. The vibrant Spanish influences continued to pulsate through this town on this lazy, hot day, turning it into a mysterious city with a culture all its own.

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Art in Old Town

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine came to visit from DC. She had already been to most of the touristy spots here in Chicago, so I wanted to show her around a few of the eclectic neighborhoods in the city. Because the Wells Street Art Festival in Old Town is one of the “must do” events here in Chicago, I decided it would be something fun to go check out.

On Saturday and Sunday, Wells Street was lined with hundreds of artists looking to showcase and sell their work. The art featured was of a diverse variety – including jewelry, photography and 3D sculptures. The price tags for the larger pieces (including the gorgeous panoramic photo canvases I was in love with) were fairly hefty, but you could purchase many of the smaller items at a reasonable price (including the vintage key necklace Meredith bought!)

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One of the booths that really caught our eye featured Renee King; an artist who creates oil and acrylic paints as well as mixed media art. Her paintings were heavily influenced by the underground jazz culture in Florida, featuring saxophones and other instruments in vibrant, sultry colors.

As I went to snap a picture on my phone, Renee ran over quickly to see what I was up to. She said that in the past, individuals have tried to zoom in on her paintings with DSLR cameras, looking to recreate them. After chatting with us for a bit, Renee let us take a photo of her booth area (guess we passed her test!)

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As we made our way down Wells Street towards North Ave, we came across some very odd 3D pieces – including bizarre ceramics and animal-like sculptures created with wire.
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The event was entertaining for both adults and kids alike. It was nice to get out and enjoy the beautiful day with my girlfriends, and our furry friends as well!

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Picasso and Chicago

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Ever since I was old enough to remember, there was a Picasso print hanging in my family’s dining room. Today, when I see that piece of art, memories of childhood come flooding back. It’s nice to bask in the warmth of memories when nothing really seemed to matter, except maybe how far I could ride my bicycle around the block without getting in trouble.

When I lived in DC, I had the opportunity to see Picasso’s collection at the National Gallery of Art. When I found out there was an exhibit in Chicago, I knew I had to check it out. What I didn’t know prior to doing some research was that Picasso had a special bond with Chicago. The funny thing is that throughout his life, while being highly celebrated in the United States, he never set foot on US soil.

In the 1960s, an architect from Chicago wrote a poem to Picasso asking him to design a sculpture for the city. Picasso normally did not accept commissions for work, but said that because he considered Chicago a “gangster city” (alongside Marseille, France) he would do it.  What Chicago and Marseille have in common, I have no idea, but it was enough of an explanation for me. So lo and behold, in August 1967, Picasso’s unnamed sculpture was dedicated to the City of Chicago. He was offered $100,000 in payment but refused – he wanted the sculpture to be a gift.

On a sunny Saturday, I took the trip to Daley Plaza to check out the Picasso sculpture for myself. Mixed in with the photographers were some curious-looking individuals dressed in green from head to toe, rolling around and posing for tourists’ pictures on the sculpture.

The unique sculpture is representative of Picasso’s Cubism period.

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After my trek (okay, a one mile walk) to Daley Plaza, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago for the “Picasso and Chicago” exhibit, which celebrated Chicago and Picasso’s relationship by bringing together 250 pieces (sculptures, paintings prints, drawings, ceramics) from all over the city.

For your viewing pleasure, I’ve put together a collection of my favorite Picasso pieces from the exhibit.

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“Mere et enfant,” 1921
"Red Armchair," 1931
“Red Armchair,” 1931
"Head of a Woman with Straw Hat on a Pink Background," 1938
“Head of a Woman with Straw Hat on a Pink Background,” 1938
"Blind Minotaur Led By a Girl Through the Night," 1938
“Blind Minotaur Led By a Girl Through the Night,” 1938
"Nude Under a Pine Tree," 1959
“Nude Under a Pine Tree,” 1959