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Category: Travels (Page 5 of 9)

Prague: From Defenestration and Communism to Capitalism and Tourism

Prague and its people have been through a lot throughout the ages. From the 30 Years’ War to World War I, then from Nazi occupation to Soviet occupation, the Czech people have seen it all.
Pulling up to Prague after 18 hours of train rides, sleeping in train stations, and avoiding the cold, the city seemed to glow with an aura of warmth. The city itself sports amazing architecture in basically every building, beautiful stone facades adorning the upper levels of convenience stores and the like. Despite the slight drizzle, our arrival felt like something out of a fairy tale.

Almost every corner of the old city looks like this, so historical and beautiful.

The fairy tale feeling continued the next day, after having some sorely needed shut-eye, as we ventured across the bridge to the castle. The streets were lined with cobblestones and winding between rows of low-lintelled shops and pubs. The castle grounds contained very interesting museums and sights, including the amazingly spired and flying-butressed St. Vitas cathedral. We walked along the Golden Way, which showed examples of what life was like for those who worked on the castle staff that weren’t members of the nobility such as seamstresses, or guards. Inside the castle however, we were able to see the high-ceiling rooms, as well as read up on the history of the place.

In the armory exhibit, we saw some cool combination axe-pistols used by noblemen.

One of my favorite parts of the castle was a small, unassuming room off the main throne room area. It was my favorite because it is home to one of the most famous defenestrations in history. (Defenestration is a word which means the act of throwing someone out a window.) In the castle there was to be a meeting between some important Catholic regents and some Protestant representatives. During the meeting, an agreement was not reached, and the regents promised that they would talk to their superiors to come to a solution. However, the Protestants, knowing that the Catholic leaders would not take kindly to their demands, decided to defenestrate Count Jaroslav Borzita of Martinice, and Count Vilem Slavata of Chlum, through a window with a 70 foot drop beneath it. Although they survived the fall, this incident is attributed to being a cause of the 30 Years’ War.

You can see the Prague castle right there in the distance.

 

In the old city, close to the famous astronomical clock, we stumbled across one of my favorite museums I have ever visited: the Communism Museum. The entrance way was adorned with posters of a cuddly teddy bear holding an AK-47 and the slogan “Dream, Reality, Nightmare.” During the post-WWI period, combined with the economic turmoil of the market crash and Great Depression, the Czech people voted their communist party into office. At the time it seemed like the only option. Soon every seat in the government was occupied by communist party members, and those opposed were falsely accused of crimes they didn’t commit and were imprisoned. In WWII, the Czech region was taken over by Nazis, and later liberated by the Soviet Union. That’s when things started to get really bad for the Czech people.
The Soviet Union, in liberating the Czech republic, was able to gain much support for establishing Soviet communism in the region. They had a non-uniformed police that would make sure that no one spoke out against the party. People were not allowed to leave the country, and those who knew that people were defecting to other countries were imprisoned for not speaking out. Political enemies were tortured and burned alive, their ashes used to melt the ice on busy roads. The new communist system did not allow for imports and exports, and therefore basic essentials like food, soap and other goods were nearly impossible to find in stores. Media was controlled exclusively by the Soviets.

Here is the St. Vitas Cathedral.

It wasn’t until the late 60s, that groups of undergraduate students began to speak out against the party. Using techniques such as self-immolation, doing the work that strikers refused to do in Soviet-organized strikes, and having marches, they were able to spread their message of freedom. The government responded with violence, with secret police infiltrating and beating the protesters. It wasn’t until 1991 that they became truly free of communism and began their capitalist lifestyle.

The museum was cool because it showed a Prague citizen’s perspective on such violent events that were happening in his lifetime. Prague only became free six years before I was born. It was amazing to read about and honor the people that fought to make their own home country a better place for their children, and for tourists like me that can visit now but couldn’t thirty years ago.

Salzburg: A History of Generally Salty People

Salzburg translates quite literally to Salt Mountain. Why is this beautiful alpine city where The Sound of Music takes place called salt mountain, you ask? Well, throughout history, the Salzburg area has been sustained through salt mining and trading. In 1517, exactly 500 years ago, some lucky miners found a salt deposit inside a mountain. Salt, a traditionally valuable and difficult substance to obtain, put the region on the map.
We started our trip to Salzburg with a traditional meal of wienerschnitzel and gulasch. Then it was early to bed to wake up for our bus to the Berchtesgaden salt mines. After missing our bus, one could say I was a bit…hem…salty…but we made it in time for our tour. The mine, 500 years old this year and still active today is located in a beautifully snowy area of the Austrian-German alps. At the beginning of the tour, we were all provided with some coveralls and an English audio guide for the area.

I’ve got salt, but I’m not salty!


We began by boarding a small train, where you straddled a bench and hold onto the person in front of you. We zoomed through about a mile of narrow tunnels so small that if you leaned even 6 inches to the side you would hit your head on the tunnel wall. Once in the main area of the mine, you slide down a 6 story wooden slide to reach the bottom area.
Over the course of the tour, we learned that salt is produced by drilling large cavities in the tunnel floors and filling them with water to leach the salt out of the surrounding rock. Then the sludgy brine is pumped to a facility about 100 km away to be super-heated and treated to produce to the pure, white table salt that we eat today. We have used this technique of drilling and flooding since the mine’s foundation in 1517 (although we have become considerably more efficient and high-tech since then).

Mid-slide into the depths of the mines, my companions and I are having a great time.


The town of Salzburg itself is perched between soaring mountains. The old city feels like it is one giant building full of a spaghetti-like mess of tunnels, alleys, and tiny-hole-in-the-wall bakeries and breweries. It seems to be purposely designed to confuse and hopelessly befuddle tourists. One of my favorite things to do in the city was travel up to the city fortress. In addition to amazing views of the city, the fortress contains a museum that details the entire military history of Austria, starting in Roman times, going all the way through World War II.

The view from the Fortress.


As a huge musical theater nerd and Julie Andrews fangirl, seeing the city’s Sound of Music images was awesome! The fountain, the Dom Cathedral, and the Abby made me sing “The Hills are Alive” at the top of my lungs pretty much constantly, much to the chagrin of my traveling companions.

This is the inside of the Dom Cathedral.


Even though it was freezing cold, the trip to Salzburg felt really culturally immersive. I would highly recommend it if you have been traveling to a lot of big cities and want to have a more colloquial experience. That’s all for this post. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen and goodbye!

Paris: The City of Rivets

Ah, the city of love. It is a place chock-full of art, architecture, and history. I mean, if you tried to read the entire history of Paris, you would be reading a book and not this blog post. Instead, I will let you in on some eclectic historical trivia that I encountered on my way through the city.
Upon arrival in Paris, after checking into our cozy bed and breakfast, my companions and I metro-ed over to the Champs-Élysees, which is a beautiful street populated with high-end fashion stores, restaurants and car makers. It is also the street on which the Arc De Triomphe is located. It was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon, then emperor of France. He wanted a monument to represent the glory of France’s grand army. The Arc has been very symbolic throughout France’s history. Every time Paris is taken over, either by the Germans such as in 1940, or taken back by the French, such as in 1945, victory marches are led beneath the Arc. This occurred in World War I as well. Standing beneath it was truly awe-inspiring.

The Arc de Triumph is the perfect monument to show military prowess.

 
Would any Paris post be complete without the Eiffel Tower? The tower was initially built for the World’s Fair in 1889. The main architects for the project, Maurice Koechlin and Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, had previously worked on the Statue of

Pictured above: A small blonde blogger and about 2.5 million rivets

Liberty project together. It took 2.5 million rivets to hold the structure together. If you gave everyone in Atlanta 4 rivets, you still would not have enough rivets to build the Eiffel tower. The tower was meant to be temporary, and was scheduled to be torn down in 1909.  However, it was saved because officials argued that it could

be used as a telegraph tower. In World War I, it was instrumental in intercepting enemy communications.


 My favorite part of the trip was my visit to the Musee D’Orsay, home to the most impressive collection of impressionist art in the world. The museum contains paintings and sculptures all the way from the classical era to post-impressionism. Walking around the arrays of priceless paintings was simply amazing. My favorite area however, was the Hall of Impressionists. Containing famous Monet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro paintings, this hall showed lots of

Here is my favorite Degas painting in the Musee D’Orsay.

priceless masterpieces. I especially love Degas because he usually paints and sculpts ballerinas as his subjects. As a ballet dancer, the way he captures the motion and fluidity of this style of dance really speaks to me.


Next, we visited the Notre Dame cathedral. This was an amazing experience for me. The cathedral began construction in the 1163, where local serfs and artists were employed to make the monument. It took 182 years to complete, and it is considered the epitome of French gothic architecture. It is also cited for being the first building to utilize flying buttresses in its design. Going inside and looking up into the vast space made me really emotional. All of the stones had been laid by hand, all of the sculptures carefully carved, every mosaic artfully decorated, by people whose memories would live on in the historic building. I, more than 500 years later, was seeing their work.

The most iconic example of Gothic Architecture.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was our meal at L’Encrier. The restaurant served classic French food in three courses, and my group was the only non-Parisian group inside. We couldn’t understand the menu (none of us spoke French well enough), so we each ordered something at random. I ordered a pork dish, which came with the best zucchini I have ever had in my life. Watching us try our best with the French, and listening in to our appreciative “mmmmms” the wait staff brought us an extra dessert and wished us well on our trip. It felt like a truly authentic Parisian experience, which juxtaposed well with our otherwise touristy trip. All in all, it was an enriching weekend.

Tourist-ing

Notre Dame

Although we often stick out worse than a Shetland pony in the Kentucky Derby, sometimes just being an unabashed tourist is worth it. This last weekend, I went to Paris, one of the top 3 tourist destinations in the world and we decided to just bite the bullet and go full out Hawaiian t-shirt, selfie stick, souvenir-buying mode. We saw everything from Notre Dame and the Louvre, to the Red Light District and the Arc de Triomphe, to of course, the most iconic landmark in the world, McDonald’s. I do admit to feeling a bit uncomfortable when I feel like we’re broadcasting to the world: “Stupid Americans, right here!” but these landmarks are actually worth seeing. It’s mind boggling the amount of history behind this city and France itself. I’m currently living in a continent with recorded history dating back hundreds of years before anything was really written down in the Americas. The Notre Dame cathedral in particular literally stunned me into silence. It was a profound experience being able to view this testament to sheer human willpower and ingenuity.

However, there is another side to traveling. These famous buildings and pieces of art that Paris is known for are truly awe-inspiring. However, these things only make up the superficial layer of what the city really is. With only 2.5 days I can’t say that we really got to know Paris, but did try to get a feel for what the city really was while we were there.

Me being dumb in front of the tower.

While the daylight hours were taken up with trying to see every last famous piece of history in Paris, in the evenings we tried to relax a little more and explore the less touristy side of things. Despite how great the sightseeing was, I can say with certainty that my favorite part of our visit was Saturday night when we found a tiny little French cafe to eat dinner in. You know you’ve found something a little more real when you feel very out of place. We were most certainly the only non-locals there, and I could tell the staff was not used to serving people whose French closely resembled that of a 4 year-old ostrich. However, despite all that, they treated us extremely well and were the best hosts we could have asked for. We stayed at the restaurant for the better part of three hours, just enjoying our food and relaxing after 9 hours of walking (rest in peace, feet). Having conversations in broken Franglish with the locals while eating amazing French food was a truly great experience.

Musée D’Orsay

My first time traveling for the semester was exciting, humbling, exhausting, and incredibly rewarding. After so many hours walking in the bitter French cold, anything above zero degrees Celsius feels balmy and I’m fairly certain my feet no longer work, but I wouldn’t have traded that experience for the world. I can’t wait for a whole semester filled with traveling to interesting and historic places, and how much I will grow as a global citizen through it. Thanks for coming along on the journey with me,  and I’ll see you next time!

Breathtaking

It’s not every day that something you’ve always dreamed of comes true. Everyone in life has dreams they want to achieve: visiting the Colosseum, climbing the Andes, swimming with sharks. Each dream varies with each person, yet somethings are iconic bucket list items, such as skiing the Alps. Growing up with European parents, I always heard stories of these great works of glaciers. Always described in such emphasis and magnitude it always made it hard for me to grasp them as real. This was one of my dreams, ski the Alps – but in my case, snowboard them.

So as I get off the Gondola lift one last time, I turn to take one last photo, one last view of something so beautiful I can only describe it as taking my breath away. I turn to Jahin, bump fists and say “Last run of the day bro – lets smash it!” We start slow winding our way down the steep and now icy slopes. In and out I carve, slowing the board to my comfort level. As I glance behind me I see “J” now slaloming his way down from our 2700 meter start, passing dozens of people.

“Stay with me, we’re going to the left this time” I yell. With each second my heart rate increases and so does the burning in my calves. I make a hard bank turn and ride switch (a.k.a. with the opposite foot forward as normal) for a second to make the left turn, and J’s still behind me as we race down. As we near the halfway point the day’s riding catches up with us. Tired and sore, we both make mistakes and come down hard on snow. Panting and groaning, I make my way to J and help him to his feet, we decide to take the longer, easier way down. As we kicked up snow and made our way down, I shed a tear for the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen, something that no words, especially mine, can describe.

Honestly, it’s hard to remember the exact course we took down and which turn we took or made where. That’s the beauty of skiing and snowboarding, you forget about the finals coming up, you’re current GPA, the next semester, even the next few minutes. You move at speeds that force you to only think in the “now”, to truly experience the moment and only think a few seconds ahead.

Two days of amazing snow, sun, and sky, split between two of the most famous ski regions in the world, Chamonix France, and Courmayeur, Italy. Going home, I now get to tell one of the best stories of my life. How 4 friends of mine and I crammed into a car just after 5pm in Metz and drove down to Chamonix. Bright and early the next morning, we over-packed the car full of all our gear and took the tunnel to Italy. 40 minutes later, 2600 meters high we set started our days smiling and free of all thoughts and responsibilities. Saturday morning we did the same, on the other side of the mountains. A jam packed weekend saw a sleep filled car ride home, and the best memories of my life. In two weeks I can now depart France and go home knowing I saved the best for last!

My Own Thanksgiving Break, Part 2: HackJunction

Photo courtesy of HackJunction.

Being the somewhat nerd I am, the second part of my thanksgiving break was spent in Helsinki, Finland, at a hackathon called HackJunction. Junction is Europe’s largest hackathon, and draws over 1200 programmers from around the world each year to participate. There were 52 countries represented at this year’s HackJunction, working on different tracks that ranged from Financial Technology to Internet of Things. There were expert programmers who have worked in industries for years that attended, as well as inexperienced newbies such as myself. All in all, it was an awesome experience where I could use some of the skills I’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to a project or challenge.

First, before anything, let’s talk about the venue. The venue was SICK. The sponsors rented out a place called Wanha Samata, which was this big warehouse with multiple rooms for the different tracks. The coolest part was the laser that stretched from one end to the other that you can see below:

HackJunction’s venue.

The venue also had a snack room that was constantly filled up with energy bars, energy drinks, coffee, etc.; basically, whatever you need to not sleep and keep coding throughout a night! There were also many companies that came to talk about what they do, give out freebies, and network. It was a great space where lots of innovative minds came together to do all things tech.

Since I was a relatively inexperienced programmer, I decided to tackle on some the mini challenges rather than the big tracks that some of the fellow GTL-ers I came with. One such was a music challenge, where there was a jumbled audio clip and we had to figure out the name of the song. At first, there was an inaudible voice that couldn’t be understood. So I threw the clip on Audacity and reversed it and came a clear message this time “Come tell us the name of the song, but it’s not as simple as you think.” That’s honestly about as far as I got as after that, I tried nearly everything: encoding the clip, decoding the clip, modifying the bitrate, tracking down messages in the source code, etc. but nothing really seemed to work. Another challenge I did was mess with some algorithms a local Helsinki tech company provided, which put my creative mind at work with varying success.

One team, made of Ryan and Maria, decided on the track “revolutionizing the bus stop”. Their project was PetStop, where each bus stop had an interactive screen with a puppy that the user can interact with. They can feed it, play with it, walk it, etc. I got to see them demo it and it was really cool!

Being at a hackathon such as this one just opened my eyes to a world of technology; I saw some amazing creations (a guitar hero type platform, but with a real guitar – Yousician Company) and things that I didn’t think I would need until I saw it (a smart, social, interactive coffee cup that was fueled by the thermal energy of the coffee – Paulig Muki Smartcup). Even if you’re not a programmer, I would recommend dropping by a hackathon if it ever comes up. There’s plenty of neat things to see!

The Dream Team!

P.S. You also get a free t-shirt.

My Own Thanksgiving Break, Part 1: Hunting for Auroras

Since I decided it would feel weird to have school when it is usually Thanksgiving break, I decided to make my own vacation! To be honest, I wasn’t planning on skipping class, but after already booking a journey to Helsinki for a hackathon that weekend, I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity of going north and try to catch some Northern Lights while I was at it.

My journey started Wednesday morning with a quick train ride to Paris. From there, I took a flight to Helsinki, and then another flight to Rovaniemi, which is a northern town in the Finnish Laplands.

Photo courtesy of blog do-you-know-about.blogspot.com.

The weather was very cloudy the first evening I arrived, so I decided against hiking out to the middle of nowhere to hunt for lights and just sleep. The next morning, I explored what the town had to offer. I walked around town and saw the Christmas festivities and lights and some views of the frozen surroundings before making a trek up to Santa Claus Village. Oh yeah, did I mention? Rovaniemi is the official town of Santa Claus! It was bit of a long walk, but I thoroughly enjoyed the wintry scenery around and especially the Christmas mood of the village.

harry-w16-p3-p2harry-w16-p3-p3

Following that, I went back into town and took a nap. Since the town is so far north and within the Arctic Circle, the sun rose around 10am and set around 2:30pm so by the time I was back at my AirBnB, it was already dark! Waking up, I went to a local bistro and got myself a reindeer sandwich in placement of the usual Thanksgiving turkey. It was quite delicious!

Now came the fun part. Since this was going to be my last trip, with my Eurail expiring the next day, I decided to go all out and book a Northern Lights hunting snowmobile safari! It started with an hour drive to the middle of nowhere where we then hopped on the snowmobiles and rode around to different “prime” locations to see Auroras. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t the most generous, as it was cloudy again. However, that meant we got to ride around much more, and that we did. We went on various trails through the forest and when we got to this flat, swampy area, our tour guide let us go on a little joy ride and crank up the speed to about 70 km/h!  Regrettably, my phone died in the freezing temperatures and no photos were taken besides the dashboard of my beast.

Even though it was a short trip, it was definitely one of my favorites and was an excellent way to end my travels with a bang. It also means I must buy a snowmobile in the future, as I had a blast!

Planning With The Parents

Photo courtesy of Travel Trazee.

As a tangent to a blog post I had a couple weeks ago about doing fall break with my parents, I’ve decided to give an overview of coordination and planning to help assist those who might want to do trips with their parents while at Georgia Tech-Lorraine in the future!

 

Pre-Departure

Well first off, you and your parents have to pick a time to do the trip. Popular choices are usually before the semester starts, fall break (since it’s a week long), and after the semester ends. Some parents decide to just drop by for a weekend, and that’s not usually too tough to plan since it’s a couple of days.

Next, is the “where” of the trip. I’d say this is pretty important since this is a picking a place that both you and your parents want to go and visit. It’s also very important because from here, train or flight schedules need to be made to match. I offered to buy tickets for my whole family but my parents opted to buy them online. We simply decided around a certain time to leave cities and I let my parents book first. After they got their tickets, I cross referenced them with my Eurail app and proceeded to buy the matching ones. It was quite interesting, as some of the trains they bought weren’t on Eurail plan (ex. Italo in Italy is not part of the Eurail network) so I had to improvise and buy train tickets that were close to the same arrival and departure times.

Once that was settled, we needed places to stay for the night. I let my parents take the reins on this one, as they booked hotels for all three of us.

 

Arrival

“All roads lead to Rome” – and that is where we decided to meet. I took my overnight train from Munich to Rome, and they took a shuttle from the airport. I arrived two hours earlier than they did so I did some exploring before meeting up with them. We decided that in case the train station Wi-Fi wasn’t working, there would still be a rendezvous place. Notably, this was going to be the McDonald’s in the Roma Termini station. Luckily the Wi-Fi did work, but we still met at the McDonald’s since it was convenient.

 

During the Trip

Plan out some things that you would want to see and see what your parents want to do as well! Things should run pretty smoothly from here, since we’re basically all pros at traveling at this point and can point our parents in the right direction. Gotta keep in mind that they aren’t college kids and won’t do the typical “college” things that we’ve come to expect when traveling.

 

After

I don’t think there’s anything left to do but to give them goodbye hugs and wishes until you see each other again! Or if you’re traveling with them back to the United States, enjoy the trip back to the homeland.

A Little Treasure in Our Own Backyard (Kinda)

Posted by Harry

With the semester over in just under 4 weeks, I have begun to see some slight problems I was running into. The first was that the places on my bucket list (e.g. Spain, Iceland, Denmark, etc.) were getting a little far and difficult to travel to. The second of which was that my wallet was running a little dry. Next week, I’ve already planned a pretty epic hunting-of-sorts trip mixed in with a bit of nerdiness (stay tuned!), so this weekend was going to be a little more relaxed. I spent much of the weekend catching up on work and even getting ahead in preparation of what was going to come. One thing though, I did end up finding a little treasure of a hiking trail(s) nearby Metz in an area known as the “Little Switzerland” of Luxembourg.

To get to Luxembourg is about an hour’s train ride. From there, you take another hour bus to Echternach, a little commune in Luxembourg where much of the Mullerthal Trail runs from.

Photo courtesy of mullerthal-trail.lu.

As you can see from the map above, there’s plenty of trails to hike in this area. My friends and I just did a short day hike on Saturday to break up our workdays. The actual distances of each of the three trails are over 20 miles each, but we followed a shorter loop that let us hit the lake near the town and then parts of trails 1 and 2.

The trails weren’t too hard, and it just offered a lot of fresh air when you’re submerged in a forest and get to see parts of Luxembourg that you ordinarily wouldn’t see. It was a great way to spend a day, and would recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a simple and close (and cheap!) day trip. Even though two hours isn’t exactly in Metz’s backyard, it can seem that way when a majority of the places you’ve been to have been 6+ hours away!

Visiting Van Houten

Photo courtesy of iamsterdam.com.

(Photo courtesy of iamsterdam.com)

I’m going to throw us back to 2012 and 2014, where the book The Fault In Our Stars and the movie came out, respectively. In the story, the main character, Hazel, is a fan of a book authored by Peter Van Houten, who resides in Amsterdam. And if you couldn’t already guess, she ends up taking a trip to Amsterdam to go visit him. Thus, this is where I got the inspiration for the title of this blog post! (Even though I actually did not go visit Van Houten, sorry to disappoint.)

I’ve got to admit; Amsterdam has got to be one of the most aesthetically beautiful cities I’ve visited so far. The first and foremost reasons is the water in the city. If you walk less than 10 minutes in any direction, you’ll stumble upon one of the numerous canals lined up in the city. Sometimes there will even be boats that float by, with people enjoying the luxuries of life on the inside. I even actually got to take a public boat to get to the hostel my friends and I stayed at, crossing from Amsterdam Centrum to Amsterdam Noord and back.

Another point of beauty are the museums in the city. I’m usually not a person to seek out museums, but I actually went to both the Vincent Van Gogh museum and the Rijkmuseum (pictured right past the “Iamsterdam” sign in the photo above). Wow, was I blown away by both of these exhibits. I was transported to the 1800’s in the Van Gogh museum, and was pretty much scattered across the world in all sorts of eras at the Rijkmuseum. I’d even go on a limb and say it was up to par with the Louvre in Paris! That’s how much I enjoyed it.

Photo courtesy of Luke Zeme.

Other than that, just walking up and down the streets is breathtaking. The interior of all the stores are all so elegantly and creatively designed; the food on display looks as good as it tastes; and the jingle of bicycle bells becomes your little hymn as you wander. It’s truly a marvelous city with a charm that I haven’t really found anywhere else. Oh Amsterdam, Oh Amsterdam. For now we part, but only to see each other again in the near future!

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