Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Things I Did in Paris (in no particular order)

1. Went to three different art museums: Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre, and the Centre Pompidou. My favorite was probably Musee d'Orsay because I love 18th and 19th century art, but they were all pretty cool. We didn't really spend much time in any of the museums, probably because you could spend forever exploring them.  The Louvre was so crowded, but I did get to see the Mona Lisa. My thoughts? It's cool to say you've seen it in person, but there's just so many people trying to look at it, and it's really really small. So basically you have a hundred or so people in a restricted space taking pictures of a 600 square inch portrait. But you can't really go to the Louvre and not see it.
The Mona Lisa

2. Visited the Palace Versailles. I really liked Versailles, but it was incredibly crowded, too. The gardens were lovely, though, as was the Hall of Mirrors and seeing all the Marie Antoinette artifacts. I think I'll have to watch that movie when I return at the end of the summer.
The Gardens

3. Climbed the Eiffel Tower. We trekked up the 600 or so stairs to the top level (that's the highest you can walk up) and then took the lift to the very top. The views were incredible. It was a gorgeous day, and we finally made it to the top at about 7 in the evening (though it still seemed like the afternoon) and the rays of sun were streaming through the clouds. It's about as close to heaven as you can get. Also, the Eiffel Tower is huge in person. When you're right up against the iron lattices you really feel the magnitude of the tower.
At the Eiffel Tower

View from the first level

View from the top

About to walk up (top), at the first level (middle), at the very top (bottom)

4. Went to the Eiffel Tower at night. Twice. With bottles of wine. The first night we went it was just a small group of us. We took the metro and got to the tower right at midnight. "It's midnight in Paris!" I said to my friends, as the tower sparkled behind us. Truly incredible. We sat on the lawn, drank, talked, and listened to music before the next light show at 1 am. This one was all white lights, though, so the effect was really different. At that moment, I really fell in love with Paris.
Midnight in Paris

5. Studied for finals. On the night of the Summer Solstice (where there's a huge music festival in Paris) our entire group was basically forced to stay in to study for our exams the next night. I stayed in my room, wrote my art history paper, and memorized image IDs. I think everyone felt cheated that our exams were in Paris (and our midterms were in Florence, no less), which really prevented us from getting out and exploring Paris. The city is so big and sprawled out that it would have been impossible to see everything we wanted, but I certainly tried.

6. Went to the Opera Garnier and saw the gorgeous Chagall ceiling painting in the theater.
7. Went exploring on my own. After our exams on Friday I had basically the whole afternoon to myself. My friends were headed to the Pantheon for an extra credit assignment, and since I didn't need the extra credit, I decided to head to Sacre Coeur and Montmartre. Luckily our hotel was a block away from a major train station and navigating the Paris metro is so much easier than a lot of the other cities we've visited. I climbed up the steps to Sacre Coeur and was rewarded with a gorgeous view of Paris. After heading down the steps I spent the next few hours wandering through Montmartre, window shopping, actually shopping, and enjoying a nice picnic lunch in the park while people watching. I had a bit more time left to kill afterward and decided to head to the Luxembourg Gardens. I wasn't sure what to expect but was amazed when I finally got there. They were beautiful. I'm so glad I took the time to see some more of the city, which is something I hadn't done much of in any of the other cities. There's something to be said for experiencing a city like Paris on your own. Still, I feel like I could spend another weekend there, just wandering around and exploring, which just goes to show how much there is to do in Paris.
Sacre Couer (top) and views of Montmartre (bottom)

8. Enjoyed some real Parisian pastries. Including a french apple tart (awesome), two mini caneles (my first time trying them; was not disappointed), pain aux raisins (not a pastry, but darn good nonetheless), and my absolute favorite, an almond tart. This almond tart was awesome. It was my special treat on the night I studied for exams, and I savored every bite. Goodness.
A mini canele in Montmartre 

9. Departed for Oxford, where I am now. I'll post more about Oxford soon, but to say that it's beautiful would be doing it a disservice. The campus is lovely - gorgeous gardens, centuries-old buildings, and really nice people. I can't wait for the next six weeks.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Belgium: Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels

The Atomium in Brussels

So. Belgium.

It was a long time getting there – we spent probably 24 total hours on the bus, traveling all the way through Italy, then spending the night in Switzerland, enjoying a leisurely lunch in Strasbourg, France, and then finally arriving in Ghent.
The main square in Bruges

After a few weeks of hot temperatures (especially in Italy), Ghent was a complete reversal. It was cold, rainy, and windy. I don’t think anyone in our group was prepared for the drastic changes, especially me. My decision to bring one jacket on this trip isn't looking very good, especially after arriving at Oxford yesterday (more on that soon).
A boat ride in Bruges (and lots of ducklings!)

The hotel we stayed at was in Ghent, which is the home of one of the Belgian universities and therefore one of the youngest cities in Belgium. Our hotel was in the main town square, directly across from St. Bavo Cathedral and a few blocks away from the main river and stretch of shops and restaurants.
 Typical "staircase" architecture seen throughout Belgium

Our first day in Belgium we took a day trip to Bruges, about a 45 minute drive. Picture a small Belgian village and you’ll have a good idea of what Bruges was like. It was touristy for sure, but, unlike Venice, the people were so much nicer, the canals were beautiful (not smelly), and the food was delicious. We took a boat tour through the canals, wandered through the streets, and enjoyed our relaxing afternoon free. I tried a Belgian liege wafel (made with a thicker yeast dough) and it was one of the tastiest treats I’ve ever had. Belgium in general is a sweets-lover’s paradise. On seemingly every corner there’s either a wafel stand, chocolate shop, or gelato vendor. I was pretty overwhelmed just looking at some of the displays. It’s safe to say I was in a foodie heaven.
Chocolate and sweets overload

The next day we took a(nother) day trip to Brussels, which is much more of a modern city than Bruges, which retains a lot more original, antiquated architecture. We visited a few museums there and then went to see the famous Manneken Pis statue. Our music professor then told us all that we should see the female version of the Manneken Pis. We meandered through the streets of Brussels and down a narrow alleyway. After seeing the statue, we realized we were in front of the Delirium Biergarten, a famous bar that sells the namesake Delirium beer, which is brewed very close to Brussels. The next thing we knew, almost our entire group was in the bar, where our professors and group leaders left us for two hours.
Manneken Pis: only in Brussels

I’m not sure what they expected, especially considering this place sells 2-liter portions of all types of beer, but I’ll just say that the walk back to the bus and ensuing bus ride back to Ghent were incredibly interesting. For the record, I was completely sober—I tried the blonde Delirium brew and was not that enamored. They were selling a “cactus” beer (it was green), though, that tasted delicious and that I wished I’d ordered.
The aftermath of 50 college students in a bar in Belgium.

We wrapped up our stay in Belgium by spending the day in Ghent and seeing the St. Bavo Cathedral, which was really beautiful and houses an altarpiece by the famed artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

Overall, I really enjoyed our time in Belgium. The people were some of the most friendly I’ve met in Europe so far, and the scenery is really beautiful. But I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t waiting for Paris the entire time.

More on the City of Lights soon. It was really lovely.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"When in Rome, Y'all"

The Spanish Steps 

It seems hard to imagine that in just eight days we’ll be arriving in Oxford after four weeks of travel, but it’s true. The past two days have been a whirlwind of bus travel, driving through Italy (all the way from Rome), then Switzerland (where we stayed a night in quaint Lucerne), France (where we stopped for lunch in Strasbourg), Luxembourg (where we took a twenty minute bathroom and snack break), and now here we are in Belgium.

This stretch of Europe is markedly different from the Italy we experienced for the past ten days. Yesterday we drove through the Swiss Alps and I’m sure I’ve never seen anything so foreign yet so beautiful. It was remarkable. And the weather here is obviously different, too. Gone are the 85+ degree days and unrelenting, dry heat. France and Belgium (so far, at least) have been grey and overcast, but to tell the truth it’s actually a nice relief.

Of course I’m getting ahead of myself because I’ve yet to talk about the final leg of our Italian journey in Rome. It’s really no wonder Rome is called the Eternal City because I feel like I could live there forever and still uncover new and exciting things about it (what is it about Italy that seems this way?). I wasn’t sure that any city could surpass my experience in Florence, but Rome came pretty close. It’s far more active and tourist-filled, but I loved it almost as much. There’s so much to do and see!

Our first day we explored ancient Rome, from Capitoline Hill to the ancient ruins to the Colosseum. I’m really fascinated by these antiquated structures. The Colosseum was really special—it’s absolutely massive!

The second day we took a three-hour tour of the Vatican. And when I say three hours, I mean three hours. Our tour guide made sure every precious minute was spent detailing some facet of the Roman Catholic Church’s headquarters. I was looking forward to the Vatican tour, and I really enjoyed it, but in ways I didn’t expect. We toured the Vatican Museums, and there is so much interesting art there. The Raphael rooms (where his masterpiece School of Athens is displayed) and the Sistine Chapel were my favorite. I was really in awe of Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings—I became emotional just looking at “The Creation of Adam.” The only downside is how many people there are there. It’s obviously worse in the summer months, but I wasn’t expecting the swarms upon swarms of bodies. I even saw one girl faint in the Sistine Chapel (I’m guessing from the sheer amount of people in the room, but then again you never know).
 Raphael's "The School of Athens"

On our last day in Rome we saw the rest of the customary Roman sights. They may be touristy, but they became that way for a reason. The Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Fountain of the Four Rivers, and the Pantheon are all incredible and beautiful.
 The Trevi Fountain: throw three coins in and you'll return to Rome!

I really can’t get over just how much there is to do in Rome. No one was more surprised than I was at how much I enjoyed our visit to the Villa Borghese, a museum of primarily sculptures that houses some phenomenal sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. To see them up close and notice the details was incredible. If this trip has taught me anything about art it’s to really appreciate it and the craft and skill that goes into making these masterpieces.
 At the Pantheon: the open dome projects a large circle of light that moves quickly around the interior

On our last night in Rome, we all wanted to enjoy a really good Italian meal. Luckily, our hotel was (again) in a residential area and I had spotted a homey-looking restaurant literally right around the corner. Seven of us girls ventured for a late dinner and ended up staying for over two hours. We talked and lingered, and were graciously served by the hostess, whose family owns the small, rustic restaurant. I ordered a delicious pasta dish: large shells with roasted cherry tomatoes and eggplant, buffalo mozzarella (but with a texture more akin to fresh ricotta), and basil. For dessert, I opted for the “apple pie,” although it was more like a crostata, with spiced roasted apples and raisins atop a crisp pastry crust. It was a heavenly meal, easily the best I’ve enjoyed on this trip, both for the food and the company.

We departed Italy yesterday morning, and, like I said before, have been mostly confined to the bus. I’ve been doing lots of Sudoku and napping, with the occasional movie or studying thrown in during the long lulls.

We are in Belgium the next few days, where we’ll take day trips to Brussels and Brugges via Ghent, where our hotel is. I can’t say I’m one for Belgian beer, but I’d go for some moules frites and wafels any day!

P.S. The title of this post is something I actually said. I've said "y'all" more times on this trip than I have in my entire life. Don't ask me to explain.

[Update: I wrote this on the bus Friday. After two days in Belgium I can confirm that 1. it's cold here, 2. I'm definitely not one for Belgian beer, 3. I definitely am one for wafels. Holy yum.]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Five cities down, three to go! I'm continually amazed by how fast the time seems to fly. In each city it feels as though we're there for days yet when I realize only a week ago we were on a long walking tour in Venice I'm pretty shocked.
Florence was a city I'd been looking forward to a lot, but it completely surpassed my expectations. This was the Italy I'd been waiting for. There was a wonderful mix of history, culture, and modern urban life. We were only there for three days, and I feel like I could live there forever and probably still discover new and exciting things about it everyday.
My roommate, Erin, and I, at the top of the Boboli Gardens

We had two full, nonstop days followed by a full day where we were free to do whatever we wanted, so I really felt like I was able to explore different parts and areas of the city. Like other cities, we started the trip with a walking tour. We explored the Duomo, the de Medici Palace, Michelangelo's David, and the Uffizi Galleries. Soaking in the rich history of this city was one of my favorite parts about seeing it. I'm continually surprised how much I'm enjoying the museum visits. Prior to this trip, the last thing I would've wanted to do when visiting a city is go see art museums, but having the guidance and information to understand what I'm seeing has given me such an appreciation for the works of art here in Europe.
The Duomo

Seeing Michelangelo's David was truly awe-inspiring. It's huge! In fact, size seemed to be a running trend in Florence, because the Duomo is also massive. It literally towers over the rest of the city and to see it up close is amazing.
Unfortunately, Friday we had midterms so everyone cooped up Thursday night to study for them. I'm crossing my fingers for good results - I'm more confident in the music exam than the art one, but we'll see.

Friday after exams we visited the Palazzo Pitti, the former residence of the de Medici family. In addition to art galleries, they also have restored the apartments to their original state. It's fascinating to see the luxury and ornate style of the decor.
The Palazzo Pitti, as seen from the Boboli Gardens

Also at the Palazzo Pitti are the Boboli Gardens. They're long and narrow and wind up a (very steep) hill, but the view from the top was more than worth the trek. Crazy, incredibly views of Florence and the Tuscan countryside.

After our exams, everyone was ready for a big night out (and thankfully our day off on Saturday afforded us the opportunity). Most of the group made (another) hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo, a large lookout spot with gorgeous views of the city. We drank wine, enjoyed live music, and watched the sunset. I really never wanted to leave.
But leave we did. After a relaxing and rejuvenating free day (sleeping, shopping, lots of walking), we left this morning for Rome. We have three busy days here and I can't wait. I'm going to see it all! [Update: now the second day in Rome and it's amazing here! More details to come!]

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Vienna and Venice

 Stephansdom in Vienna: weird light effects, but it sure does look cool

So, apparently free Wifi doesn’t exist in Italy. Here in Venice, the only place there is free Wifi is, you guessed it, McDonald’s! I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever been to McDonald’s, but right now I find myself here for the third day in a row (luckily you don’t have to order anything to use it—it really is free!).
St. Mark's in Venice

A lot has happened since I last posted: two cities and another one tomorrow! We arrived in Vienna last Tuesday. We all stayed in that night after an epic bar crawl on our last night in Prague (details withheld on purpose). The next day we did a bit of exploring of Vienna and I was immediately in love. It’s such a beautiful city, and it definitely felt the most “European” of any of the cities we’d visited. Of course, now we’re in the western European portion of our trip after visiting Hungary and the Czech Republic, so that probably has something to do with it.
St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna: the central altar

Much of our activity in Vienna was in the center of the city, around the Ringstrasse, a circular street that encloses the heart of the city. There, we took in the architecture of the city, which is extremely diverse. Gothic, baroque, neoclassical, and modernism are all represented. It really is a cool and diverse city.

My favorite place in Vienna was the Belvedere, though. The Upper Belvedere is a former summer pleasure palace and now serves as an art museum. The grounds around the palace are the real sight, though. I can’t imagine how beautiful the gardens at Versailles will be now!
Belvedere: the gardens (top) and Upper Belvedere (bottom) 
All around, Vienna is my favorite city of those we’ve visited so far. It’s modern and laid-back, but has tons of places to go and things to see. We were staying in a quieter part of ton outside of the city center and one night ventured just a few blocks away to a local bar where the drinks were good and cheap and talked for hours, one of the few patrons there.

Of course, the entire past few months I’ve been eagerly anticipating Italy (oh, Italy!). Had I done any more research prior to this trip I probably would have been less surprised at the type of city Venice is.

Let me just be straight: Venice is an absolute tourist trap. It’s filled with people. People everywhere, walking, shouting, trying to get you to buy something, anything! Venice is also very expensive. Our hotel is down a sketchy little alleyway and our rooms are one step above from hostels. But it’s Italy! And the less nice the hotel is, the more time you’ll want to spend out in the city exploring.
And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Yesterday it rained most of the day and I took the opportunity to go out and explore some of the shops and sights. Naturally, I’ve been most interested in the food and pastry shops, one of the few things in this city that actually feels authentic.

I’ve fallen in love with marzipan. It’s not too expensive and I get way more pleasure from a small piece of marzipan than a scoop of gelato (I’ve never really been much of an ice cream person). So marzipan will be my Italian vice. So be it.
The good news is that I’ve been able to walk a lot in Venice (and on the trip in general; it’s really not uncommon for our group leaders to take us far from the hotel and then leave us to our devices to find our way back), where there are literally no cars anywhere. I’m not sure I’d call the city pedestrian-friendly because there are just so many people, but walking over the bridges and seeing the water and canals is a great experience.

I’m not sure I’d call Venice beautiful (it smells here, the water is gross, swarms of people everywhere), but when you look up, it really is nice. The stucco is rainbow-colored and the flower boxes are always full and blooming. And at night? At night, Venice is truly lovely.
Tomorrow we head to Florence, a city I’m extra excited for. Unfortunately we’ve got our midterms on Friday, but I’m not going to let that spoil the experience. I may need a few glasses of wine shots of espresso to stay up!
Villa Rotunda in Vicenza

Venice by night