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Category: Travels (Page 1 of 9)

Fall/Spring Break: Learn From My Mistakes

Hello! Recently we had a very long break – a whole ten days, in fact – and this is my reflection/how-to-not-be-like-me post. There are some things that I did right, but there are others that I didn’t do so right, and here they are for your enjoyment!

First of all (and this applies to any trip you take), do not expect Europeans to do American holidays! Yes, Halloween is a primarily American/Anglo-Saxon holiday, but all over France and Spain were signs and Halloween party fliers and decorations, and so I figured it would be a big thing! And it is…just not with costumes. European children will go out earlier in the night, and I’m not even sure if they actually go trick-or-treating (I think people just have square parties with candy) but they dress up! So I said okay, it’s Halloween, I’m in Southern Spain and I’m going to be a pirate for Halloween. I went to go play pool at a local restaurant that was TOTALLY COVERED in Halloween gear… and no one else is wearing a costume. Not a single human. Not even the waitresses or the bartender. We were even pointed at and laughed at a bit, so do not make our mistake! You can’t deny it though, we looked pretty legit.

If you want to do anything particularly wild or involved, book it way ahead of time! There were multiple times when we wanted to rent a moped and zoom around the city we were in, but they needed a full day to process our information before renting to us (and we were only ever in places for two days at a time). We kind of winged a part of our trip and thought we might want to hike the most dangerous (not anymore, but oh well) hike in the world in Malaga, Spain, but apparently that thing sells out months in advance. We ended up spending most of our time exploring the cities or doing our own hikes, which was fine, but just keep these facts in mind when you’re trying to have a trip full of adventure: you can’t be totally on the fly about it if it includes rentals.

If there’s anything you take from this post, dear reader, I hope it is this next point: Do. Not. Travel. Too. Much. Don’t do it. If you have a trip planned that involves hopping between 5 places, calculate the total travel time and see if it’s worth it. When it’s split up between an hour here two hours there it doesn’t seem so bad, but once you realize exactly how much precious time is being spent on a train just playing cards, you’re going to regret it.

Madrid: Tapas and Parks

I promise I’ll talk about other things as well, but I just have to comment on the food first and foremost. Skip ahead if you don’t care about cuisine (I don’t understand you, but I respect it). I love food! I love food. I love it so much, and it breaks my heart to see people not care about it as much as I do. Madrid is the capital of Spanish food (as well as the capital of other stuff, like the country or something), and I was sure not to squander my appetite before arriving. Like Barcelona, you can get any Spanish food as well as any Spanish-conquered food, so there’s half the globe of options. One thing I knew I had to have was arepas: they’re corn cakes  loaded with your favorite toppings like plantains, steamed pork, and mole sauce. We found a place near Plaza Mayor (which is a big, historic square with not much actually to it) and downed some nice arepas within seconds. Not sure what these candies were but they were super good and just fun to have.

Tapas were incredible, ranging from octopus and fried calamari (Madrid is pretty far from the coast, but they love seafood) to shredded cow tongue and mojo chicken. I thought the classic churros and chocolate I’d dreamed of included hot, drinkable chocolate, not literal melted chocolate: so when they were out of churros and they looked at me funny for just ordering the latter half, I was given a strange glance and soon realized why.

Do not be like me and try to drink melted chocolate by itself, your stomach and wallet will thank you later.

Now on to normal city highlights. Overall, the city was very vibrant and bustling. Most of the streets are narrow, and the buildings all around you are quite tall, so it feels a little claustrophobic, but also could be cozy. It’s a lot like many European cities in which many roads lead to a big plaza or square, but Madrid is special in that there is ALWAYS someone playing music or dancing in them. It felt like we just followed one music scene to the next, consisting of anything from steampunk jazzy-funk to African drumming circles. Right near Plaza Mayor was a guy playing the accordion to “Despacito,” and both Spaniards and a group of Asian tourists were getting down.

One thing we loved was the amount of parks, and these aren’t some dinky half-dog park half-playground parks. One of the main parks is five times the size of Central Park, and the one we spent the most of our time in (El Retiro) was also incredibly massive and absolutely beautiful. The fall leaves were right at their peak turning colors – lucky for us – and we bicycled all over the place.

On a side note, I would kind of recommend renting bikes in Madrid, but also not- some parts are super hilly and don’t have bike lanes, so if you’re wimpy like us, your day may require a lot of bike-walking. We went to the top of the hill of El Retiro to see the skyline and the Temple de Debod for sunset. For some reason or another the president of Egypt gifted an entire temple to the city of Madrid, so it was deconstructed and rebuilt on the highest point in this beautiful park. I had a weird feeling about it (not a fan of displacing ancient religious structures/objects/most things), but I have to say it was an incredible sight, especially at sunset.

Madrid is a great place that I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in: definitely on my list to go back to though!

Sweet, Sweet Barthelona

My experience of Barcelona is split up between two short and sweet weekends, one in the spring and one in the fall. I’m definitely going to come back to Barcelona to truly steep in the culture, but the time that I had with it was pretty meaningful. I packed a ridiculous amount of activities in for a total of 72 hours.

The overall feeling of the city is very young and vibrant. Everyone is either a chic, well-dressed woman, a punkish-looking skateboarder, one half of an adorable and small old couple, or a man with an incredible beard reading a philosophy book. Or a tourist, which comes with being anywhere, but especially Barcelona, being the capital of Catalonia. The boardwalk on the beach is always so full of life, with people walking their dogs and rollerblading and playing volleyball. Barcelona is also the skateboarding capital of the world, so you can always spot some young guys and girls doing tricks on any available surface. I’d highly recommend finding a famous skating spot and just watching some professionals take on feats of stairs and inclines that make me cringe just thinking about them.

If there’s anything I want to impress upon you about this particular city, it’s (surprise) to not just go see the Sagrada Familia, but to go IN the church itself. You will never see anything like it in your life, and the beauty of it is literally breathtaking. I gasped out loud. It’s a similar response to seeing the Grand Canyon or the Alps for the first time, except this is man-made which makes it all the more incredible of an experience. The church was designed primarily by Antoni Gaudi, the famous Catalonian architect that has done many crazy architectural feats across the city. They started construction in the 1870’s and it has yet to be finished, projected to be done in 2026 (as of now). The church is designed to mirror the unparalleled beauty of nature, and man does it do the trick: I don’t want to show too many photos because I want you, dear reader, to have my experience, but I’ll give you a little taste. (Photos don’t do it justice anyway.)

LOOK AT THAT. Look at how beautiful that light is. There are so many gothic, dark, and musty cathedrals all over Europe, whose stained glass are full of cluttered depictions from the Bible, but this church completely rejects these norms and uses light for the sole purpose of beauty in color and gradient. I absolutely love it and I will try my hardest to come back when it’s totally finished.

The other highlight that I will mention is food. I love Hispanic food of every kind, so I’m a little biased towards Spain in general, but I will say there are some places in Barcelona that totally blew my mind. There is one restaurant that isn’t necessarily Catalonian, but is too good: Brunch and Cake. Yes, it’s a bit “white girl overpays for Instagram-able plate,” but good God, is that plate incredible. If you want a dark green matcha pancake with strawberry compote while overlooking the harbor, I suggest you try out this restaurant. A great thing about Spain in general is that there’s a ton of immigrants from all the places they imperialized (a little disturbing, yes), so you can find every kind of Hispanic-infused meal in Barcelona/major cities. One of my travel buddies is Colombian so he took us to a few Colombian restaurants and I was schooled in the ways of the Colombian meal.

I ate so much I was on the verge of puking for a few hours in fact. If you like fun at all, go to Barcelona! Maybe not in fall 2017 because of the independence marches, but you should definitely go at some point.

Vlog 4: Bettmeralp

Paris: A Couple of My Favorite Things

Throughout GTL, I’ve technically been to Paris more times than I can count: I know the walk from Gare de l’Est to Gare du Nord by heart. As far as actually spending time in Paris, I’ve seen a good bit of it (I think), and far too much of it to cram into one blog post. Therefore, these are a few things that I’ve done recently that I think are essential Parisian activities (not just hitting all the big monuments).

One thing I love is tea. A good, warm cup of tea is absolutely heart-warming, especially when having to brace the harsh cold that usually hangs over Paris’s shoulder. When you look up tea houses on your phone, it will lead you to places like Angelina, which certainly are a nice couple of restaurants, but they’re very touristy and overpriced. I had a brioche bun with salmon that could’ve fed one cat fully. Last spring I found a little British-style teahouse near the Notre Dame with good tea and incredible strawberry jam, but I was more so looking for a real Parisian tea experience, which this place obviously didn’t fulfill.

This past weekend I finally found it: Mariage Frères. Yes, there is a chain of them around Paris, and yes they are in somewhat popular and touristy places, but man is it an experience. Up front is the whole store with rows and rows of massive barrels of tea, alongside tea sets ranging anywhere from 30-700 euros. There was a line in which you could smell whatever tea happened to be near you, and when you got to the front a nicely-shaven, dapper man greeted you and got you the tea you wanted with incredible speed and agility.

There was a menu, yes, but it was the size of a Bible, and we just went with asking him what his favorites were. We walked out with 200 grams of nice tea for a pretty affordable price (I think). In the back was the restaurant, which unfortunately we didn’t get to eat at, but I’m sure it’s incredible. Pricey, but this place is the real deal, so I’d put down for a brunch at Mariage Frères.

The Montmartre neighborhood is somewhere I’m getting to know pretty well since my friend just moved there, and it’s been slowly growing on me recently. Montmartre is the whole hill of the Sacre Coeur down to the Moulin Rouge, and while it’s certainly a hike to get up there, it’s by far the best view of the city that exists in Paris (not just my novice opinion by the way). The Sacre Coeur is nice; it looks like most fancy big cathedrals (although the outside is cooler than most), but the view from its front porch is absolutely incredible. You can see pretty much any tall monument or church in all of Paris at once.

The foot traffic in that particular area can be a nightmare, filled to the brim with tourists all trying to get themselves drawn by a Montmartre street artist, but if you go down west of the Basilica a ways there’s a really nice neighborhood with some incredible food and cute local Parisian shops. Go to a fruit stand and get white strawberries, or enjoy one of the endless incredible French pastries while sitting on the classic Montmartre staircases that line the Butte. It’s a lively area with a lot of green and a lot of verve. Check it out the next time you have a long layover in Paris.

Freiburg: Short & Sweet

Long story short, I had a major miscommunication with a friend of mine that was coming to Paris to study at the Louvre, and I ended up in Paris with a bunch of nice clothing and literally no plan for the weekend. It was nearing Friday night, so I had to decide quickly what I was doing. That had never happened to me before: I was alone with a backpack of clothes in an incredibly central location, and I could go nearly anywhere. It honestly felt exhilarating and liberating, 10/10 would recommend (if you’re not the anxious type).

After spending an hour at the train station help desk figuring out how to get to Cinque Terre, I actually decided to play it safe and just go back to Metz and figure out what to do from there. I quickly convinced a friend to come with me to Freiburg, the closest, cutest German town I could find. It’s about 2.5-4 hours by train away from Metz, and I thought the fall colors would be in full swing for a nice Black Forest hike. Unfortunately, we somehow missed the train TWICE (this was not a good weekend for me), one because we were late and the other for literally no reason except that we didn’t check our watches. We finally got into Freiburg in the early evening, not giving us time to really do too much, but we made the most of it. The town butts up against a series of hills that are densely forested, mostly pine but a lot of little foliage as well.

We found a babbling brook and a whole host of little fens where a million rabbits lived. We came down at sunset and found our way to a tavern that served the meatiest, heftiest German meals I’ve ever seen. I had Schweinhaxen (pork knuckle), which sounds weird or even gross, but I promise it was incredible. I’m a small human and tried my hardest to finish the whole thing, but there was simply no way that could happen, as you may see in the picture.

My friend captured me with my hand over my heart, in a subconscious pledge of allegiance to the schweinhaxen. It was so good. We also had Black Forest cake, which is this thick cake with a ton of whipped cream and wine-soaked cherries on the bottom. Satisfied that we stuffed ourselves with pure Allemagne culture, we waddled back to the train station to hop over to our AirBnB in a neighboring suburb. If you have time, I’d definitely recommend taking a walk through the place where people actually live. It’s so interesting to see how just little things are similar or different from your own American neighborhood.

The next morning we headed into town for a last meal and walkabout before we trained home. Freiburg is one of the most eco-friendly places in Germany, so everyone is out on their bikes enjoying the cool fall weather. We weaved through a bunch of modern home decor shops and old woodworking stores, finally settling on a nice, strangely cheap fish restaurant for lunch near the old tower.

Fun fact: after WWII, Europe was so devastated that America had to step in and help rebuild, creating the Marshall Plan to stimulate the European economy. While doing so, America saw this as an opportunity to spread U.S. pop culture and business as widely as possible in an effort to unify a broken Europe wracked with inter-fighting and distrust. I love a lot of things about America, but the fact that you can’t take a picture of Checkpoint Charlie without also catching the KFC sign, and that McDonald’s chose to brandish its name on the defining cultural symbol of a small German town: this is absolutely ridiculous and asinine. American imperialism is alive and well.

Putting the America rant aside, Freiburg was a super cute town with a great atmosphere, I’d recommend it as a short weekend trip for sure.

Iceland: The Most Magical Place on Earth

Iceland is…something else. I’m not entirely sure how to explain the place. This is the simplest way I can think of: cross a Narnia or Lord of the Rings-type landscape with Mars. And that’s about the best I can do. Imagine ultra-dramatic cliffs with black, craggy rocks at the top – but a lush green carpet of moss everywhere else, and then add geothermal vents steaming off one edge with a waterfall trailing off the other. Also, add some sheep on the way up and ponies at the base. It doesn’t sound real, does it?

Basically, if you like nature even just a little bit and you have a pinhead’s worth of a sense of adventure in your blood, COME TO ICELAND. Save up money, skip out on a few weekends to study, and go to Iceland. Please. For me. I’m 100% going back, no doubt in my mind. Usually when I go somewhere with cool sand I take a little bit in a bottle, but I’m so confident in my going back that I didn’t bottle anything at all. I know I’m being dramatic, all raving mad about a place that I only spent 3 days in, but seriously, this place has every possible cool nature thing you could imagine. Plus the food is incredible, and their wool sweaters are super cute. What’s not to like?

The first thing we did in Reykjavik was set out for an early morning hike up a small-ish mountain right outside the city. It’s called Mount Esja, and it’s very popular and easy to get to by public transit (bus). It starts out with some low, dense trees, which were changing color at the time (as it’s early October), and soon enough you’re doing switchbacks on a very impressive rocky mountain.

We wanted to climb to the top, but it started to rain/sleet, and we ran back down the mountain (literally running, almost rolled my ankle multiple times) for shelter. We were really booking it up and down the mountain, and it took us 2 hours. On the way back down we passed by a nice brook with little waterfalls tumbling into it all along the mountainside: it was my first Icelandic waterfall sighting so I thought they were lovely, when in fact they were nothing compared to what I’d be seeing over the next few days.

 

As far as the city of Reykjavik goes, it’s a nice little place but I wouldn’t spend too much time within its borders. The cities are not what you’re there to see, although I will highlight a couple things. One of them is the massive beautiful church of Hallgrimskirkja. It looks like basalt columns, and if you like gothic or medieval churches then you’re out of luck. The church has a very pristine and clean feel to it, with the inside all white. Very magnificent though. What I actually want to talk about, however, is what we found on the way there. We took a side street to get to the church, and as we were walking this incredible smell wafted our way. Braud, a bakery within sight of the church, makes cinnamon buns constantly all day everyday, and I swear to you it’s the best cinnamon bun in the entire world. It was seriously so, so good. I went twice. There’s nothing quite like a cinnamon bun fresh out of the oven.

 

 

We then proceeded south to stay in an adorable AirBnB in Hella, and the next day went along the southern coast. We visited Vik, a small coastal town, with this view from their lighthouse on a random cliff on the beach:

 

Doesn’t look real right?? It looks like Jon Snow should be rowing underneath that arch and Daenerys should be flying overhead on a freaking dragon. The cliffs on this place were ridiculous.

We also found some impressive waterfalls: the first one is called Skogafoss (above), and I never did find out what the other one was, as we just ran across it on the main road south.

 

 

Back up towards Reykjavik is the Golden Circle, a small loop that hits a lot of natural wonders in one go. We got to see some geysers in a geothermal region, as well as a waterfall called Gullfoss. I’ve never been to the Niagra Falls, but I imagine standing in front of it is akin to being near this waterfall. The sheer size of it was something in and of itself, but all the different ways it split and tumbled into the ravine was just spectacular. If we hadn’t been on a time crunch I could’ve sat there and watched it for hours.

 

I really wanted to go see a glacier, and we did see one in the distance, but they were actually causing flooding on the roads that we couldn’t get around. Because of this (and many other) reason(s), I’m going back to Iceland as soon as humanly possible.

 

Vlog 3: Interlaken

Night Trains: For the Long-Distance Traveler on a Budget

Basically, after all of the traveling I’ve done, I grew tired of the Franco-Germanic area and aspired to travel elsewhere, which either requires an 8-12+ hour train or an expensive flight. So, I found a nice solution: night trains! Night trains are awesome. Within France they’re very cheap: I went to Monaco for a 20 euro reservation, which is what you’d pay for an inexpensive hostel. From southern France, it’s just a quick train to Italy, and there are also night trains that go between countries as well. I have some friends that took one to Barcelona for 30-40 euros, and I’m positive the night train to Berlin is fairly inexpensive as well.

The trains have rooms that house 6 beds, and yes, they are super cramped. I’m talking Titanic movie cramped.

 

But, all you’re doing is sleeping, so instead of staying up late and doing homework or other irrelevant things, get a good night’s rest so you can explore all the next day! (I’m joking, although if you are thinking of doing homework on this train, then forget about it. There were no common areas to just hang out in (at least on mine), and don’t expect to be able to sit upright comfortably in your bed.

Also, If you’re tall you may end up like this:

These trains usually leave late at night (mine left at 10 pm) and you arrive at your destination in the morning.

One thing to consider is that unless you buy out an entire cabin of all six beds, you’ll probably be sharing them with other people. So, if you have a group of friends that are obsessed with a card game and are refusing to quit at even 1 am, just be courteous of the people you’re sharing the cabin with and try to move out into the hallway. That doesn’t sound fun but it’s better that than pissing off some French women who will 100% use the entirety of their vocabulary to make you shut up (totally not based on personal experience). Also, it’s always good to be conscious of your things, but that’s a bit hard to do when you’re asleep. I cannot sleep with one eye open, and I doubt you can either, so I suggest getting a money belt/something similar so you can keep your passport and phone close to you without fear of prying hands. Get out there and see some far away stuff!

Monaco: Fancy Beach Version of France

I hadn’t originally planned to go to Monaco, but wanting to enjoy the warmth that is quickly getting sucked out of Europe, I decided to look it up on AirBnB and just see what was available. I found a really cheap place pretty close to Monte Carlo, so I went ahead and booked it on a whim. My good friend from spring semester at GTL lives in Milan and was able to come hang in Monaco, and there was a whole group of GTL people happening to go that weekend, so it ended up being quite the party.

You know how in New York City, an okay-looking apartment costs half a million dollars and a spacious one is at least a few million? Monaco is very similar I think. There’s a ton of high rises and apartment areas that don’t look particularly fancy, but then you realize their balcony overlooks a marina where their massive yacht lives.

Which leads me into the yacht talk: if you care about boats even a little bit, come to Monaco and check out these megaliths. I didn’t realize private boats could get this big. Big is an understatement. I’m talking hot tub in the front, helipad in the back, with 12 bedrooms yachts. We looked up some of the names and at least two were on the list of the biggest yachts in existence. It’s absolutely insane, and there’s a ton of high vantage points where you can see the marina’s full of them.

The first thing we did was find our way to the museum containing the Prince’s private car collection. I don’t know much about cars – I’m not a gear-head by any means – but this might’ve been the coolest thing I saw in Monaco. There were so many classic, priceless cars from every decade. My favorites were the 1920’s Rolls Royce’s and I’m determined to build my own or force my mechanical engineering friends to make me one. I feel like if a major vehicle distributor made bodies of classic cars with everything else kept modern, they’d make so much money.

One of my other favorite sites was a big beach in the northern part of Monaco. It was sunny, and the water was so refreshing – not cold enough to be unbearable, but still so invigorating. We jumped off a rock outcropping and swam to a floating dock, where we could tell there was a decent amount of fish underwater but couldn’t actually see. One of our friends actually swam back and bought goggles, with which we soon found out there were hundreds and hundreds of fish just chilling under the dock. They were super relaxed and let you swim right through them, it was incredible and I wish I could’ve gotten pictures.

Of course, I have to touch on the Monte Carlo. I’m not much of a gambler, but we can’t just go to Monaco without seeing at least one game of blackjack or roulette. The majority of our group was worn out after a day of swimming and sightseeing, so just me and my Milanese friend Brando went. We arrived extremely late, around 2am (not sure how that happened, but we’d been hanging with friends and watching music videos for a long time), and I was a bit worried it wouldn’t be open.

Much to my surprise it was 100% open, and when we waltzed in, there were a decent number of well dressed men yelling around the roulette table. We took a tour of the room – a bit smaller than I’d expected but nevertheless intensely fancy = and settled down on a couch to have a refreshment before maybe putting our hand down at some blackjack. Interestingly enough, we never got to it. My friend began to tell me about his new realization of Buddhist faith, and we became so engrossed in the conversation that everyone had left without us realizing it, and soon enough we were getting ushered out. I probably wouldn’t have gambled anyway.

Overall, Monaco was a great experience and I’d recommend it to anyone that especially likes the glory of the ultra wealthy.

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