To GT-Lorraine...and Beyond!

25 years of academic excellence and adventure

Category: Travels (Page 2 of 7)

5 Tips for Train Travel

From using the Eurail pass, I have learned a lot about traveling on trains. Especially when one doesn’t speak the language, going on trains can be a bit daunting. Trust me, I have taken my fair share of wrong trains, slept in a few very cold train stations, and been to many an information desk. This post is a ‘learn from my mistakes’ type deal so I hope everyone is ready!

1. Make sure you are in the right car.
I know, I know, this sounds like a no-brainer. However, a lot of the newer trains have the capability for cars to split off from one another and go to different places. Make sure that the car you get into is going to your destination, because there is no way to switch once you are en route.

2. Secure your valuables with your companions so you can all sleep.
It’s always a good idea to keep your personal items close to you. I keep my passport, Eurail pass, and money in a money belt, and put it under my clothes. However, sometimes I worry about my backpack. I want to sleep, but I don’t want to have to worry about my bag being stolen if everyone in my group falls asleep. So, I came up with a plan. Whenever we are planning on napping, my crew and I all buckle and tie our backpacks together. That way no one can grab our backpacks and quickly make off with one, but will have to struggle through the tangle of backpacks and thus become discovered. It makes me feel a lot safer.

3. Bring a scarf or neck pillow for sleeping.
One thing I learned about taking trains is that you will never know when or where you will be stranded. It is always a good idea to bring extra warm clothes in case you are stranded in a train station, because most of them are not heated. Also, most train stations don’t have places to lie down for sleeping, so having a pillow to rest your head on can come in really handy.

4. Leave enough time for transfers
Even though trains are usually on time, small delays or train strikes can lead to some close calls and missed trains. When planning your route, make sure that you can always get to the next platform for your transfer. I think 20 minutes is a safe bet. Every train station is different, and you need time to figure out where the train is and how to get there. Leave stress out of the equation and plan for decent transfer time.

5. Bring snacks!
Although many trains have dining cars, bringing snacks along for the ride is always an awesome idea. Train travel makes you sleepy, and a quick granola bar, apple, or other snack can be a great pick-me-up. Trust me, you will love yourself later.

Happy travels everyone!

Krakow: The Old City of Eastern Europe

As a Lithuanian, I was very excited to go to Krakow, Poland. As any Lithuanian will remind you when you respond, “I haven’t heard of that country,” the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe during the 14th century, and Krakow was one of the main capital cities of the country.

This is a monument dedicated to the 1409 cooperation of Lithuanian and Polish forces in Grunwald.

The Polish are a proud people. They have seen some of the most brutal wars, famines, and atrocities of any European country. Since the 11th century, they have only seen about 100 years of peace total, in the 16th century. In the span of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union, they lost about 35% of their population to death camps, shootings, war, and gulags. They have a fierce hatred for oppression, extreme national pride, and they oppose all things Nazi and Soviet. According to our tour guide, ask a little girl about 4 years old what the colors of the Polish flag stand for, and she will respond with intense expression, “White is for the innocence of our country in the many wars waged on its soil, and red is for the blood that our people have sacrificed in those wars.”

This is the beautiful square in the heart of the city. The old city was so prosperous because of trade with Middle Eastern countries for horses!

After the lighthearted tour of the old city, famous for its walled defenses, beautiful castles and wonderful cathedrals, my group and I were ready to face one of the most difficult topics in human history: the Holocaust. About 1.5 hours outside of Krakow is the site where the most people were killed in the shortest span of time in history. Auschwitz and its sub-camp Birkenau, Nazi death camps, are today Krakow’s main tourist attraction. No one is excited to go to Auschwitz. Remembering all of the atrocities committed there is not a fun day trip. But it is something that every human should do, and it is a burial site that everyone needs to make a pilgrimage to.

The victims were mostly Jews, but also included Soviet prisoners, Romani people, and Polish people. Here are some statistics from the US Holocaust Museum website: “Jews (1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died); Poles (147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died); Roma (23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died); Soviet prisoners of war (15,000 deported and died); and other nationalities (25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died).” When you enter Auschwitz, you see the sign above the entrance “Arbeit macht Frei,” meaning, work sets you free. However, this was not true at all for the prisoners sent there.

After arriving off the cattle cars after days of journey without a break, food or water, you would be filtered through the entrance. If you were sent to the left, you would be sent directly to the gas chambers. If you were sent to the right, you would be put in the forced labor camp or sent to the human experimentation area. The only people sent to the work camp were strong young men. Women, children, the elderly and those with any sort of disability were sent to the gas chambers.
When you entered the gas chamber, you were told that you would be taking a shower. Prop shower heads would be on the walls. However, the room was filled with Zyklon B, which would kill you painfully in about 10-20 minutes depending on your proximity to the vent. We walked inside the gas chamber, and could see the nail marks on the walls where people had tried to claw their way out of the gas chambers.

We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the camp as a sign of respect. Here is a view of the barracks from the outside. 700 people were kept in each building.

After the people were murdered, a forced Jewish labor force would have to shave all of their hair to be used for coat lining or mattress filling, and all gold teeth and rings would be taken (along with any possessions they had taken on the cattle cars) to houses in the camp known as ‘Canada.’ These storehouses for valuables were called Canada because Canada was a symbol of wealth for the Polish. Then, the corpses would be placed in ovens and incinerated. Walking the paths of these people was incredibly moving and powerful.

If you were sent to the work camp, you would be given insect-riddled and soiled uniforms and tattooed with a number. You would sleep 8 in a bed in barracks with mud floors, full of rats and insects. Only one latrine was provided and almost everyone had dysentery. You were given about 200 calories per day. You had to work 14 hours or more of backbreaking labor, and if you fell, injured yourself, or passed out from starvation, you would be sent to the gas chamber. If you did not fulfill work quotas, you would be subject to capital punishment, including having your arms broken, lashings, beatings, spending a night in a suffocation cell (no ventilation, many people to a room, only a few survive) or a standing cell, (four people placed in a 1 meter by 1 meter cell with no room to move at all. After all of this, you would be expected to work the next day.

At Birkenau, the site of the largest mass killings, our tour guide informed us that there was a 1 inch layer of human ash just below the grass. The camp was liberated by the Soviets. Many of the prisoners that survived, however, were sent to gulags – Soviet-enforced labor camps – immediately following their liberation.

I know this post has been really heavy, so I want to leave you with an inspiring story. On our tour, our tour guide mentioned a professor that was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in the beginning of Nazi occupation. He survived four years of hard labor in the camp. After the war, his political ideals landed him in a Siberian gulag, because he opposed the Soviets, where he survived another four years of starvation, hard labor, and cold. He lived to be 104 years old. When asked by a student how he lived so long, he responded “I wanted to live long enough to see Poland peaceful. Now, after 80 years of nonstop war, I can tell them at the moment of my death that everything is alright.”

Castles and Cobblestones

Throughout all of my European adventures, I’ve noticed one thing that most tourist cities have in common: castles and cobblestones. The cities themselves are so old and commercialized that the house tech repair shops and Internet cafés are within one kilometer of their marvelous castles. Most downtown streets are covered with ancient cobblestone, and although, at times, you may trip or stub your toe (it happens to the best of us), it is so amazing getting to walk the same paths as so many people did before us.

This past weekend, I brushed up on my German “Ordering In A Restaurant” skills and sat on a train for three hours to visit my girlfriend in Heidelberg. Thankfully, with her German competence, I didn’t make myself too much of a fool! In all seriousness though, it was a great weekend!

Heidelberg, Germany

Even though I’ve got some Irish blood running through my veins, I completely forgot that Friday was Saint Patrick’s Day, and so did my girlfriend. With neither of us wearing green that entire day, we decided that we were thankful we weren’t in middle school anymore, hiding from overly excited, shoulder pinching, four leafed clover, leprechaun lovers. This isn’t to say that I have anything against Saint Patrick or the day that honors him, in fact I love it, it’s such a fun holiday. However, we all know that one kid who went out of their way to find their non-green-wearing-peers and pinch them when they least expected it. Aside from that, this weekend was full of unnecessary amounts of broccoli, the World’s Largest Wine Barrel, and schnitzel with noodles!

Thinking it would be both frugal and fun to cook our own dinners while we were at our BnB, we stopped by a grocery store on Friday to pick up a couple of things. We wanted to make this kind of pork stir fry, so as we went through the ingredients we usually see in stir fry, we eventually came across broccoli. Instead of finding small, single stalks, we only found packs of three giant stalks, so we had broccoli for breakfast and dinner, the whole weekend. It’s safe to say that both of us can go without broccoli for a while now!

On Saturday morning, after having stir fry for breakfast, we made the trek up the the world famous Heidelberg Castle, home to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel, the Heidelberg Tun. Built in 1751, the Heidelberg Tun is seven meters high, eight and a half meters wide, and able to hold 220,000 liters of wine. It even has a staircase along the side leading up to a dance floor at the top of the barrel!

Heidelberg Castle.

After our trip up to the castle, we went back down to the main part of the city for lunch at a typical German restaurant. Now, I really had no idea what schnitzel with noodles was before this weekend. I just remember Julie Andrews singing about it being one of her favorite things, so when I saw that it was on the menu, I immediately ordered it. What I got was this huge plate full of really, really thick noodles, an amazing mushroom cream sauce, and a giant chicken nugget to top it off. It was way better than how I’m making it sound, but really that’s how simple it was!

We visited the Lindt chocolate store and a couple of bakeries after that, but don’t worry, I will soon dedicate an entire blog post to all of my sweet tooth conquests! All in all, Heidelberg was good to us, and if I have another chance to visit again, I think I definitely will! So until next week,

Tschüss!

Amsterdam, a Severed Ear, and a Whole Lot of Garbage

This weekend, we made the journey to Amsterdam. Although the weather was bleak, we bundled up, and woke up in the morning ready to make the most of the day. Before I begin my usual account of historical events, I would like to give a small shout-out to the Amsterdam public transportation system. With frequent buses and trams and a ticket that allows you to swipe on any mode of transportation, my companions and I never had any trouble finding our way around the canal city.

The most tourist-y picture, smack in the middle of the museum quarter.


Now, to the history part! Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter with his bold brush strokes and distinct style. When I was about 7 years old, my family took me to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. When I visited this weekend, I messaged my parents: “This museum was honestly life changing.” To which my mother replied: “It changed your life in elementary school too! You went from a perfectionist to ‘Oh, just get it done!’ It was after you saw the bold brush strokes.” So I guess I owe my adult personality to this painter.


Everything about Van Gogh is inspiring to me. He struggled with mental illness, didn’t begin painting until 27, and had the courage to challenge the social and societal norms of his time. The museum itself is in a modern glass building, where well-displayed galleries take you through his whole painting career from his earliest painting to his last days. His impressionistic style was quite revolutionary, and he is considered today the most famous painter in the world. The museum was thorough and excellent, displaying everything from Vincent’s letters to his brother, with whom he had a very close relationship, to his painting technique. (He didn’t typically mix colors on the palate, but rather mix the wet paint as it was applied to the canvas.)


My favorite thing about Van Gogh’s art is that his paintings aren’t meant only to depict a subject, but to depict what the subject is feeling. He preferred painting and living in the country, because he thought country living to be more honorable and honest than that in the city. He attributes the city to what drove him to madness. Indeed, in his last paintings while he was living in a mental asylum, he used much more red than in his previous work because he was trying to reflect the emotions of the patients there.


Van Gogh was truly mad, and many know the story of how he cut off his ear. He was living in a small house with his friend and fellow painter Gauguin, but after a few weeks, Gauguin began to find Van Gogh utterly intolerable, and attempted to leave. Van Gogh, angry at his friend, chased him into the street with a razor, and then being unable to catch him, cut off his ear in a fit of madness. He then presented it to his mistress, who was understandably horrified at the whole affair. Van Gogh knew he needed help, and a few years later actually admitted himself to the asylum, comforted by his brother’s shipments of painting supplies and letters. However, the tortured artist could not live with himself and shot himself in the chest. He will go down in history as one of the greatest artists of all time.


After the amazing visit to the Van Gogh museum, I embarked on a canal cruise. Amsterdam, by necessity, has become a city expert at controlling water flow, water levels and flooding. Using a system of locks, seawalls and sluices, they have kept their marshy city below sea level flood free. Drifting along the man-made canals, I could see that the facades of all of the houses were very skinny. This is because the taxes on the properties were determined by the width of the facades of the houses, so the skinnier the facade, the less taxes you owed the state.


Another very interesting fact about the city is that the term ‘flea market’ originates there. This is because in the very poor sector, floods happened so often that they sunk garbage into the water to prevent their houses and streets from flooding, and therefore made a sort of city out of garbage, riddled with fleas. In this area, most of the square is covered with stalls, and is a busy market during the day. Therefore, we get the term flea market.

Notice the skinny facades? Cheapskates!

Amsterdam has so many amazing museums, and I would love the chance to go back and see more.

All in all, a beautiful visit.

Time to Van Gogh!

As I look out my single window tonight and stare at the beautiful full moon, I am made to reflect on what else in life is full, or what makes life full? Is it good food and good company? Is it inner peace and joy? This may just be sleep-deprived me overthinking a giant, glowing space rock, but these things are nice to contemplate every once in a while. What do I really want from life? Well, I want to experience all of what life has to offer! I want to sail into uncharted waters, both literally and metaphorically, to explore and discover countless new places and states of being. I was a bit wary about traveling to one city more than once while I was studying abroad at GTL, but I fell too much in love the first time, that I couldn’t just do a ‘one and done’!

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Sam I am!

A couple weeks ago, I visited Amsterdam and got to see a maritime museum and a cat cafe, but that trip didn’t even scrape anything off what this beautiful city had to offer me, so I decided to go back this past weekend and see more of it with a couple of my friends!

On Saturday, I went to the Van Gogh museum, which was definitely the highlight of the trip. All of the exhibits were laid out in a way that, when they walk through, people are taken on  a journey through Vincent Van Gogh’s life as an artist, which I thought was really cool. One of the really great things about the museum, is that there is a special interactive tour that people can take which lets them experience some of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings through physical touch, smell, and song. This tour, fittingly named ‘Feeling Van Gogh’, was designed especially for the blind and visually impaired to enjoy Van Gogh’s works with their family and friends. Although I didn’t take the tour, I thought that this was a really interesting and cool way of experiencing visual art, and I think its very neat of the museum to do this kind of thing to accommodate to all kinds of people with disabilities that might otherwise keep them from visiting an art museum!

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Almond Blossom (1890) by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

That cool feature aside, as I walked through the museum, I got to see a lot of beautiful paintings and prints that I had only seen in my high school literature books, including The Bedroom (1888), Sunflowers (1889), and Self-Portrait As A Painter (1887-1888). Still, I discovered a piece that I had not yet seen before, Almond Blossom (1890), which I’ve got to say is my favorite Van Gogh piece to date. I got chills a couple times as I stared at all of these paintings, and maybe it was just the intense air conditioning, but there is something about studying Van Gogh’s life while in his own homeland of tulips and clogs that feels so surreal.

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Sunflower maze outside of the Van Gogh Museum (2016), courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Definitely feeling blessed and highly favored after this last trip to Amsterdam, I’ve decided that traveling and art are two things that make me feel complete, and that make my life feel full. Looking at the full moon tonight makes me want to explore so many places and do so many things with my life, and I have realized that just because I’ve already seen one place, doesn’t mean that I have actually experienced it. With all that said, I hope that if you ever get the chance to travel to Amsterdam, you’ll pay a visit to the Van Gogh museum, a truly magical place. I wish I had spent longer in the Netherlands, but alas, classes and studying were calling me back, and those are two calls that one cannot miss! Thank you for tuning in this week, and until next blog post, au revoir!

Berlin, a Wild Pig and lots of Currywurst

Berlin: the capital of Germany, known as the most international city in Europe, and the headquarters of one of the most evil regimes in history. The city is beautiful, modern and shiny (as a result of the old buildings being bombed so much), but dig a bit deeper and you find a scarred and difficult past.

My favorite activity in Berlin was the 3 hour walking tour we took. Beginning at the Brandenburg gate and ending in the square where the book burnings took place, I don’t think I have ever learned more about a place in that span of time.
The Brandenburg Gate, topped with the statue of Victory carried by her triumphant horses in her carriage holds a German joke. After Napoleon took the initial statue back to his personal collection in France, the Germans built the new statue to look straight at the French embassy that sits in the square, constantly watching. Funny right? Speaking of embassies, Berlin holds one of the few North Korean embassies in the world. Our tour guide joked that his hand had been to North Korea.

See the gaze of victory? Totally pointed at the French embassy!

World War II, as you can imagine was not a good time for Berlin. Especially at the end. Citizens were not permitted to leave as Allied forces took the city, and many were caught in the crossfire. Our tour guide took us to the site of Hitler’s suicide bunker, which was below what is now residential apartments and a sad playground. In his final days, Hitler behaved very madly, obsessing over his dog and eating an entire cake for every meal. The bunker was blown up and filled in, and now is marked with nothing but a tiny plaque stating what happened. The city didn’t want to make anything bigger for fear of it looking like a memorial.

The Holocaust memorial, on the other hand, is a very powerful place. The large stones, situated in rows on uneven ground, and tilted slightly from one another give a sense of the anonymity of the Jews that were murdered in Europe. The museum below, tracing stories, quotes and the lives of the jews killed in mass shootings and concentration camps was exceedingly powerful. Another amazing museum was the Topography of Terror, with powerful photos of the atrocities committed.

Then, the tour shifted to the Cold War, and the very famous WALL. The wall went up to prevent the East Berliners, specifically academics, and skilled workers from leaving to the more prosperous and decidedly less Communist West Berlin. We walked past Checkpoint Charlie, the American controlled way from East to West, where Cold War tensions arose over one American man’s desire to get to the East Berlin opera. We saw the last remaining Nazi building, in grand but severe stone, that served first as the Nazi air force headquarters, then as the Soviet government building, and is used today as the tax department of Germany.

Although the sign is a replica, the frame is original.

We also learned that the Berlin Wall came down entirely due to a TV announcer’s error. After delivering an exceedingly boring and dry report of the East German state of affairs, he was slipped a memo that said travel restrictions would be lifted for those over the age of 65 that could pay a hefty fine and give 12 months advance notice. Because he was flustered, he read only the first part. When the reporters asked him when “travel restrictions will be lifted,” he panicked and responded with the only date he saw on the paper: the very same day as the press conference. As a result, thousands swarmed the wall, overtook the guards, and were reunited with their western brothers once again.

Another really interesting thing about Berlin: the Nazi’s planned it to be the capital of the world. It was designed to hold 8 million people. Today however, it houses only 4 million. The sewers must be periodically flushed with water because their is not as much flow as anticipated. Lots of wild animals live in sewers and other such unused spaces. In fact, about 6 weeks ago a wild pig attacked two people at a bus stop in the city.

Berlin still remains a thoroughly international and political city.

My absolute favorite thing about Berlin is the currywurst. Currywurst is a delicious snack consisting of a sausage in a curry ketchup, covered in curry powder and paprika. It is absolutely delectable. Total currywurst tasted: 4.

Καλημέρα!

During GTL’s mid-winter break, I made my wallet pretty unhappy and traveled to Greece with my girlfriend! We spent about a week in Athens – walking through different flea markets, hiking up to various archaeological sites, and eating gyros pretty much every single day (and by the third day, we were considered regulars at The Pita Bar). We ate ice cream, laughed, and stood in awe underneath incredible and incredibly ancient feats of architecture, making for one of the coolest weeks of my life!

We arrived late Saturday night, and didn’t have anything planned for Sunday except napping all day to rid ourselves of jet lag and then maybe going out for dinner. As both of us are living in countries in which basically everything is closed on Sundays, we expected Athens to do the same. We were dead wrong. The plaza near our hotel was in no shortage of fresh fruit vendors, northern tourists who mistakenly packed only summer clothes for their trip, and the sweet, sweet smell of grilled pork and tzatziki.

As we squeezed our way through crowds of amateur photographers and convincing shop employees, we found ourselves adapting to our new environment. We crossed busy streets as the Greeks do, without a traffic light, and as hard as it was for two people who don’t like saying “no,” we learned to ignore salesmen without remorse. As unsafe and unfriendly as this may sound, that’s just how life in Athens is, or at least what it seemed to be. We were eventually pressured into eating at certain restaurants or cafes by very sweet and friendly waiters, who would wait just outside the building with a menu in one hand, ready to pitch to the next couple that walks by. Nevertheless, trying to blend in and seem like a local was a fun adventure. At one point, someone came up to my lady and complimented her shoes, then was surprised when they found out she was very much not Greek. Girlfriend: 1, Sam: 0.

On one of our last days of the trip, we decided to take a day trip to see the islands of Hydra, Poros, and Aegina. We made it through the somewhat seasick-inducing boat ride and arrived at our first destination – Hydra. Hydra is a very small island, and in fact, cars and other motorized vehicles are not allowed on the island. Even though we were given the option to ride donkeys around the island (I guess that’s a big thing on Hydra, all of their gift shop had donkey souvenirs. And yes, of course I bought one), my girlfriend and I wandered around the many, many sets of stairs, and found ourselves in what seemed to be the heart of Hydra. We ended up walking so far that instead of overpriced ice cream or even fruit vendors, we saw chickens running around and smelled fertilizer. Still, a very cool experience, and that was definitely my favorite island that we visited.

After Hydra, we hit Poros, where we wandered along the seaside and sat down after a bit of a break to have a picnic. We didn’t see much of the island, but the sun was shining, the water was glistening, and we were okay with just enjoying the beautiful weather. Thankfully, we picked the hottest day of the week to do this trip! We left Poros and sailed to Aegina, where I saw one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen before – a wild octopus! We were sitting on these big rocks on she shore, looking at the tide pools and pretending like we knew anything about marine biology, when we saw a tentacle unfurl under one of the rocks. My girlfriend instinctively took a stick and tried to coax it out, and we got so close to seeing the whole body, but the little guy was too shy. It was pretty amazing though to see something like that in the wild and up close!

We left Greece two days later, our bellies full (we took Pita Bar gyros to go), and our hearts happy (not just because we took Pita Bar gyros to go). Ha ha! You thought this post was going to be about the Parthenon and different ancient temples, gotcha! Even though those sites were really cool, there is so much more to Athens than just its history! Thank you all for taking your time to read, and tune in next week when I talk about Amsterdam: Part 2!

***Oh, and P.S. Καλημέρα, pronounced KalimEra, means “good morning” in Greek!***

Traversing Italian Time and Space

Italy was an awesome historical overload of knowledge. This past week, I dove straight into the Roman empire in an action-packed week of late nights, early mornings, and an impossibly long list of monuments, museums and ruins.
My journey started in Venice, and Carnival was going on, and watching the beautifully costumed and masked Venetians walking the streets was a dream. Venice used to be an independent city-state famous for it’s rich trade network and impressive navy. After touring the beautiful cathedral of St. Mark and the opulent Doge’s palace, we were ready to continue our journey into the heart of the Roman empire.
Rome was absolutely jam-packed with history. You couldn’t even walk two blocks without finding an obelisk, pillar, campanile, fountain, or other monument. After taking our traditional touristy pictures in front of the Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps and the Campidoglio, we went to bed early to queue up the next day for the Vatican Museum. The Vatican was overwhelming, with every inch of free space filled with priceless art and artifacts. We learned the history of the many popes that lived in Vatican city and viewed Raphael’s famous paintings and Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. We then climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, so rich and opulent that my brain ceased to process it and I needed to go to sleep.

 

View from St. Peters Basilica.

The next day we hit the Capitoline Museum in the morning. The museum boasted many original sculptures, including fragments of the statue of Nero that once stood 100 ft tall in bronze. Let me pause for a second to talk about Nero, because this guy was something. He declared himself divine at an early age, and considered himself to be perfect in every way. He commissioned this enormous statue, along with many other monuments in the Roman forum, destroying other monuments to Roman gods to make room. It is also rumored that he started the great fire of Rome to make room for his ideas in architecture, playing his fiddle and dancing while thousands of citizens perished in the flames. Sounds pretty metal!

 

What’s left over of Nero’s Face.

The ruins of the Roman forum were amazing. Walking around the ruins of old temples to gods and goddesses, seeing previous senate and meeting houses, and seeing the remnants of the once magnificent residences on Palatine Hill were all so fascinating. Once the heart of Rome and the intersection of the three main Italian roads during the reign of the Roman empire (hence the saying, all roads lead to Rome), one can imagine the grandeur of the heart of all Roman civilization.

The Roman forum!

The next day we visited the Colosseum, which, as you can imagine was absolutely spectacular. Learning about the intense theatrics, with imported exotic animals, stage sets that emerged through the floor with complex pulley machinery, and the

Michelangelo’s David.

intense training schedules of gladiators, we walked around it with wide eyes. Not only was the Colosseum a source of entertainment for the senate and emperor, but the masses as well. The violent place brought a whole civilization together.

Florence was absolutely fantastic for a crazy history buff like me. I got to see so many Michelangelo works (including the David!!!!) and see the famous Dome. But what I found especially fascinating was the Medici family. They started out as bankers, lending money to many city-state rulers and important dignitaries. As they amassed wealth, many city-state royalty borrowed more than they could pay pack. Threatening these families with a hired mercenary army, they were able to gain power. Like, ‘Hey Prince, we are going to attack if you don’t pay back your debts, with our impressive mercenary army. We might consider letting it slide this time if you marry your heir off to our daughter…” and thus they became one of the most powerful families in Italy. They were like the OG mob bosses. Sounds super Game of Thrones-y! Needless to say, they weren’t very well liked and built private walkways above the city and above to Ponte Vecchio bridge to avoid being assassinated in the streets.
Our journey concluded in Cinque Terre, the region of, well, five cities, who – against all odds – managed to farm the rocky coastal soil on mountain and cliff faces. Each city with it’s unique personality, was an absolutely lovely ending to a perfect and jam packed week.
 

View of Manarola, one of the 5 cities of the Cinque Terre.

Trains, Trams, and Automobiles

Today, I write to you from the sweet and small balcony of room 412 at the Attalos Hotel in Athens, Greece. I can hear the quiet, perpetual buzzing of the street lamps, the metallic screech of car brakes, the deep roar of a tour bus, and people below carrying drunken conversations in a language I cannot even begin to start understanding. Klick-klack, a train goes by. The sound of a skateboard rolling past carries up high to my balcony, and a church bell rings to the turn of the hour. All of these night sounds have me focusing on the wheels that are constantly turning to get masses of people from one place in Europe to the next.

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Zoom! I wanted to take a picture of the aesthetically pleasing subway wagons before I needed to hop onto a bus, but it was already moving :/

The efficiency of public transportation in Athens is not really comparable to what we have in the more northern countries of the EU, like France and Germany, but it is still quite the feat. Back at my home in Washington, we only had a bus that ran through town maybe once every hour. In France, even in small towns, there is a bus that runs at least twice per hour, and there is a train station to get residents to further destinations. Because of this, everything seem more accessible here.

From what I’ve noticed by talking to EU citizens, most people prefer a reliable public transportation system than a car. Sure, sometimes cars can come in handy, but it seems that taking a bus or a tram to work and back is both cheaper and nicer than weaving a car through traffic. It especially comes in handy for students and younger people, and it really helps if they aren’t old enough for a driver’s license, which are often expensive and difficult to get. People can easily get from one end of town to the next, cheap and quick, which is really nice (especially when student debt is looming over your shoulder asking you when you want to make a deal with the devil for free education)!

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Frankfurt Am Main Hauptbahnhof was giving me really intense hanger vibes

Throughout my European travels, I have taken international trains only a couple of times, but I already know that I love it. There is almost always a restaurant wagon, the seats are gracious enough to be spacious enough for my giraffe legs, and you can look out the windows and watch the beautiful countryside pass as you sip your macchiato. All of this and more adds to the temptation of Europe, and it increases the chances of catching the travel bug by about 48% (these are not, of course, real statistics, but I feel like this would be a pretty accurate number if there even were statistics on this).

The other main mode of public transportation in Europe, besides long distance trains, are short distance buses and trams. The inner city public transportation is absolutely incredible, with different wagons coming in every 2 to three minutes to get you where you need to be. You can’t even compare this to the transportation back home- it would be a dishonor to European transportation. I, for one, love taking the buses and trams here. They’re so convenient and affordable, and now that I see it in action, I really wish the US had better public transportation systems. I thought I was fine with my car, but taking a train is so much more fun! Maybe that’s just because I’m still pretty new to all of this, but I guess only time can tell!

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A wild Public Bus has appeared! What will you do next?

And until then, here is your French Word of the Week!

Ballot (n.): bundle, package

Example in a Frenglish conversation-

Sam: “Hey, have you mailed in your ballot for the election?”

Tina: “What do you want me to send them? A care package? I mean I don’t know the senator personally, but I guess I will…”

Ciao!

Skiing Through History

When you think about it, skiing is actually really ridiculous. Someone was like, you know what would be really fun? Sliding down a bumpy mountain on two thin sticks attached to your shoes. And then people were like, yeah sounds great, and the rest is history.
This weekend, we began our journey to the ski-town of Garmisch Partenkirchen, close to the Zugspitze. The Zugspitze, close to the Austrian border, is the tallest mountain in Germany, measuring in at 2,962 meters in elevation. The town itself was quaint, with the traditional painted cabins lining the cobblestone streets.

The view from the Zugspitzbahn Station.


To get to the top of the Zugspitz, one takes the Zugspitzbahn, which is a scenic one hour train ride that takes you over 1.5 vertical kilometers to the top of the mountain. After climbing for about 40 minutes, the train goes through about 500 meters of tunnel straight through a mountain. Finally, we arrived at the top of the mountain, and took in the breathtaking views right outside of the station.
The ski resort itself is situated in a sort of bowl, with the barren snowy peaks surrounding the ski area on all sides. A cable car is available to take you up to the tallest peak. The ski trails themselves spanned all sides of the bowl, with two chair lifts and two surface lifts to take you up the sides of the bowl. Armed with a GoPro, rental skis and boots, my friends and I made our first run.

The view from the top of Germany.

 
The snow was light and fluffy, and although back in the town the weather was cloudy, up at the summit was above the clouds and completely sunny. We had to shell some layers to prevent overheating. The air was clear, and although we were a bit dizzy from the elevation, the amazing white capped mountains as far as the eye could see was the most breathtaking part of it all. We stopped for many photos for sure.
After our second day of skiing, I found myself in a small pub for dinner, with exposed beams, classic German clocks and carvings decorating the walls. I ordered some classic Wiener Schnitzel, which I found delicious (although my companion compared it to a giant chicken nugget). Because of the busy tourist system, there was no room at any restaurants, and the only reason I got a seat at that one was because the hostess was impressed with my attempts at speaking German. Even in a country where pretty much everyone speaks English, speaking the native language can really take you a long way.

The view from the bottom of my favorite trail.


The next day, before our return, we found ourselves in the Olympic Ski Stadium of the 1936 Winter Olympics that had taken place in Garmisch Partenkirchen. In addition to an Olympic ski slope, the stadium also had an Olympic ski jump. Outside the stadium, we saw many skiers and ski jumpers warming up, stretching, and practicing their technique. We watched a few children practice their ski jump approaches on small square platforms on wheels. They would crouch, head down and hands back on the platform down the street, and then leap up, arms outstretched. Then their coaches would correct them and they would start again.

The 1936 Olympic Stadium.


Ski jumping has always been really fascinating to me, mostly because it looks mortally terrifying. And if you think watching the Winter Olympics on TV is nerve wracking, watching someone ski jump in person nearly made me faint. I watched, heart in my throat, as the skier slid down the track and then leaped into the air, landing gracefully. I was in awe.
I love to ski, and was so happy I was able to do it in such a beautiful and quaint place over the weekend.

 

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