Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice

Written by Lillian

October 23, 2022

What do “Game of Thrones”, “Interstellar”, and “The Dark Knight” Trilogy have in common? They all used the gorgeous, remote island of Iceland as their backdrop when filming! More recent movies, such as Will Ferrell’s “Eurovision Song Contest: the Story of Fire Saga” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, have put Iceland at the center of their narratives. 

After seeing Iceland on the big screen, I felt so compelled–I had to see it in person. I flew to Iceland’s capital Reykjavík, and I rented a car to explore the famed Ring Road: a highway that circles the entire island. But first, I had to load up on Icelandic snacks including pastries, licorice, and pylsa (Icelandic hot dogs covered with raw onions, fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard, and a remoulade sauce).

Icelandic pastries; I got the Kanilsnúða (cinnamon roll) and Vínarbrauð (Vienna bread: a puff pastry with a layer of fruit jam). 

Bragðarefur: an Icelandic blended ice cream similar to a Dairy Queen Blizzard. This was a size small, and the ice cream was literally too big for its container! I filled mine with chocolate and Icelandic licorice, a staple on the island.

After sampling the local cuisine, we took to the road! The first stops were the Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls located on the Southern portion of the island. Close by was Skógafoss, a 60m waterfall which marks the former coastline of Southern Iceland. These waterfalls were gorgeous, but so frigid. The air temperature was 2 degrees Celsius; that paired with the cold misty water made my bones shiver! It was all worth it for the amazing views of the tumbling, unpredictable water.

Some of the stunning waterfalls along the Southern Coast of Iceland!

Further down the Ring Road lies the Reynisfjara beach. The black sand is striking as it emerges from the sea, formed from the erosion of volcanic rock. It is framed by a cave formed from regular basalt columns, which are oddly geometric for a naturally occurring rock feature. Out in the sea loom two rock pillars which have been compared to trolls in folklore. The day was overcast when we made it out to the beach, and the environment reminded me of a scene from Game of Thrones. The beach actually was featured in the series as a beach near Eastwatch near the Wall, a fact we learned shortly after visiting.

The black beaches of Reynisfjara which was featured in Game of Thrones as part of the Wall. It is characterized by the black beaches and basalt column cliffs.

After a weekend of hiking, we decided to take a much needed Spa Day at Blue Lagoon: a man-made geothermal spa. One of the most striking qualities of the spa is the opaque powder blue of the water that stays at a constant 38˚C. The color is due to the mineral Silica, which is a chemical compound of Silicon and Oxygen known for its regenerative properties. At the spa, there are complimentary Silica mud masks and drinks.

Best way to relax from a semester of non-stop travel? A trip to a geothermal seawater spa in Iceland!

Finally, I attempted to watch the Northern Lights before I left Iceland as a swan song to the trip. Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole and its remoteness makes it an ideal location for seeing the Northern Lights. Only on one of the days that we were in Iceland were the clouds clear enough to see the Northern Lights. We drove an hour away from the city to a dark, remote parking lot near the side of the Ring Road and waited. While the Northern Lights sadly never appeared, the night was ideal for stargazing. I was able to see the Milky Way for the first time! I don’t think I have ever seen so many stars!

So far, my trip to Iceland has been my favorite GTL trip. I loved the landscape of Iceland; the snow-capped volcanoes and large glacier patches covered the horizon. Everywhere else was dominated by moss covered Volcanic rocks and steam rising from geothermal vents. It’s no surprise that so many movies and television shows have been set in this distinct other-worldly island. It was a weekend filled with views that took my breath away, and I’ll never forget it.

A Weekend Full of Adventure in Interlaken

 Written by Lillian

October 17, 2022

Since applying to GTL, the one country that I have been the most excited to explore was Switzerland. The beautiful alpine hikes, extreme adventures around every corner, and a close proximity to Metz makes Switzerland a great destination for weekend travels. After weekends of exploring historical downtown cities, I was excited to finally get out into the European outdoors! 

Right when we got into Switzerland, the first thing we did was hike to Harder Kulm, a 1,320-meter viewpoint of Interlaken. The weather was forecasted to rain later in the day, so we quickly hiked up the 800-meter (about 2,500 ft) trail to the viewpoint. By the time that we were hiking down, the sun set, the rain started, and we used our phones to navigate down the now dark slippery slopes. It was an adventure to say the least. 

View of Interlaken from the Harder Kulm hike. 

The next day, we went canyoneering near the Jungfrau Mountain. Canyoneering involves traveling through canyons by jumping off cliffs, swimming through gorges, and abseiling (or repelling) down the canyon walls. There was even a rope swing! My favorite part was the camaraderie that was built between the members of my group: we cheered each other on as we jumped off the rocks into the water and trudged through the swiftly moving water. 

Abseiling! The drop was 10m (about 30 feet)! 

To round out my trip to Switzerland, there was one activity at the top of my European bucket list: hiking the Mürren Via Ferrata. The Mürren Via Ferrata is a 2.2 km “via ferrata” which is Italian for “iron path.” On these types of hikes, you cling to cliff faces, using iron rungs cemented into the rocks for foot support. Additionally, you traverse over suspension bridges and hiking paths right on the edge of cliffs. This Via Ferrata takes you from the alpine village of Mürren to Gimmelwald. To get to Mürren, you must ride on a train, bus, and cable car from Interlaken. Even though the journey is long, it was worth being able to get a bird-eye view of the Alps and walk on iron rungs over a 1000 m (about 3,300 ft) drop. The days before my hike were filled with rain, so I am thankful that the weather cleared, and I got to do the Via Ferrata with almost no clouds in the sky! 

Left: One of the suspension bridges on the Mürren Via Ferrata; the town in the background is Stechelberg. Right: a view of the iron rungs and 1000-meter cliff face; part of the hike, called the ”Cliff Walk” involved walking on just these iron rungs with nothing underneath! 

Even though I had a great, adventure filled time in Interlaken, one of the biggest downfalls of Switzerland is the cost; the trip is notoriously expensive. Most other students spend, on average, 20-30 Euros on one meal alone! My group decided to move in a different direction where we attempted to save as much money on food as possible. We ate Kebab almost every meal that we had there which clocked in at 10 Euros a piece. Another money saving tip was that we cooked chicken rice bowls with vegetables one night that cost 2,11 Euros each. We used all the money we saved to do more of the more expensive one-of-a-kind activities. 

Overall, I loved my time in Switzerland, and the weekend was my most adventure-filled one yet! It was super nice to escape the city and head outdoors, even if it was just for a weekend. Interlaken itself was very touristy and expensive, but because of that, it has a ton of different activities to do in one central location. Even though I only participated in three, Interlaken also has parasailing, skydiving, and large canyon rope swings. It also has a ton of other hikes right outside its doorstep! 

The Leonardo Program 

Written by Lillian

October 13, 2022

Studying abroad in Europe, we find ourselves in the center of so many important arts. GTL’s own backyard is home to Metz which is rich in history. A quick train ride away houses all of Europe’s art museums, public sculptures, art performances, and architecture. However, these opportunities are often overlooked by the students at GTL. To remedy this problem, the Leonardo Program was created. The goal of the Leonardo Program is simple: to interest hyper-focused engineering students in the arts. Professor Sonia Serafin, a French teacher at GTL, tackles this goal by shocking students with the beauty of the arts and the positive influences they can have on science and engineering. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci – one of the best examples of innovators blending art with STEM, Professor Serafin aims to interest students in the arts by organizing various events focused on art and history for them. 

For example, a mere 20-minute walk from campus resides the Centre Pompidou Metz: a free-for-students museum of modern and contemporary art showcasing both temporary and permanent art installations. One of the exhibitions features Eva Aeppli, a Swiss painter and sculptor who focuses on human expression. Walking through her exhibit as part of the Leonardo Program was a unique experience. It included large crowds of hooded figures with fingers reaching out to touch those who passed by, sculpted pairs of scissors dangling from the ceiling, and a pin-drop silence which was cut by an eerie screech coming from a wooden wheel which raised and lowered a couch of mannequins from the ground. Eva’s art was profound and discomforting, which I believe was the desired effect. Starting on November 5th, a new art installation focusing on art in science fiction will open; I will be sure to visit given how much I enjoy the current exhibits. 

The unsettling exhibit of Eva Aeppli 

Another Leonardo Program event introduced us to the auditory arts: we were given reduced price tickets to see Madame Butterfly at the Metz Opera House. Madame Butterfly is an Italian Opera about unrequited love between a geisha and an American soldier in 20th century Japan. Throughout the three acts, we listened to the amazing soprano, Francesca Tiburzi, and tenor, Thomas Bettinger, belt out beautiful, narrative songs. I was amazed by their ability to sing for nearly three hours straight with minimal breaks. 

Image courtesy of 

To cultivate our own art, a local artist is invited to the GTL campus once every week by the Leonardo Program to teach an art class focusing on sketching and drawing for all students. Additionally, the campus is home to a piano practice space for students to play in private. Communal events, such as a chess tournament, are planned to cultivate camaraderie between the FYSA, undergraduate, and graduate students.

A local Metz resident and chess teacher played the top 10 students from the chess tournament at the same time and won all 10 games.

Professor Serafin says one of her favorite things about this program is listening to the impact the arts had on each student. She loves hearing about a student’s first time at the Opera or about a student’s interaction with art over a weekend trip. She believes when students at GTL get in touch with their artistic side, they can allow creativity to influence their engineering side as well. When you mix STEM and art together, a broader variety of solutions to problems in both fields emerge. Professor Serafin says it best: “art touches you; I profoundly believe that life is richer with art”. 

Mid-Semester Reflection

Written by Lillian

October 11, 2022

Seven weeks have come and gone in a flash. It feels like just yesterday I was trying to learn how to read the train boards in the Metz train station and attempting to locate the GTL shuttle. While many of my friends have studied at GTL before and I’d heard plenty about their experiences, several things have still surprised me during my time here thus far: how early one must rise to reach the train station on time, how heavy a full backpack can weigh on your back, and the rapid five-minute transfers between trains in a flurry with the dozens of others. Balancing classwork and travel has also been more difficult than I anticipated: I feel like I ask myself every week, “Will this be the week I don’t finish my system dynamics homework an hour before the due date?

In addition to classwork, traveling comes with its own set of growing pains. It gets easier as you learn what to pack, when to leave, what to do, but you also learn more about how naïve you are. Safe travel is important at GTL, and my friends and I have had our share of close scrapes. Throughout the semester, I’ve set more boundaries for myself to avoid these situations. But with new boundaries comes the inevitable fear of missing out. “Should I leave a day early and spend the night in a train station so I can get four more hours in Switzerland? Is it worth it to spend an extra $400 to book plane tickets to Greece?

Sometimes at GTL, it can feel like other students are experiencing so much more than you and traveling to more countries. For example, one place I knew I wanted to visit before coming to Europe was Switzerland. However, the weekend I visited was wet and rainy, and all other weekends since have been plagued with torrential downpours. I wish I could have traveled earlier and bypassed the rain and while I know hindsight is 20/20, I still sometimes find myself jealous of others who experienced better weather.

To overcome this fear, I remind myself of something that I heard during a talk at a conference: think of everyone like Venn Diagrams. You always want to assume that your circle is within another person’s circle, but in reality, we are intersecting circles. While they may have gone to Denmark, or Great Britain, or even Switzerland and you have not, you have been to Austria, Italy, and Ireland! It always feels like you are the one missing out, but in reality, there are so many experiences that are uniquely yours and yours alone, and I personally would not want to trade my memories of GTL with anyone else’s.

I have been able to travel to so many different countries and experience new surroundings and cultures, and I’ve met so many interesting people. On a train in Germany, the girl sitting next to me was visiting her Aunt in Frankfurt and showed me pictures of her Spanish home. In Amsterdam, I met an American who has been working virtually from abroad since 2020; he’s changed his location every two weeks while staying in hostels all around Europe. In Switzerland, I ran through the train station with a hundred others attempting to catch a train in a four minute transfer. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as I ran amid the chaos, everyone’s bags flapping behind them. In the lounge of a hostel, my group successfully got over a dozen Europeans to dance the Cotton Eye Joe at midnight; we taught them the steps as we bounced to the song. It’s these situations that make every tight transfer, every midnight homework session, and every early morning train jaunt worth it. I love walking into the student lounge and seeing my friends huddled around a table, ready to go over this week’s homework in preparation for this week’s travels. We are all in this crazy situation together, and we all have each other’s backs no matter what happens or where we have visited— GTL’s community is unmatched!

Cephalopods in Southern France

Written by Lillian

October 10, 2022

Day 1:

I arrived in Marseille in the afternoon after a very lengthy train ride from Paris. I definitely recommend taking a train that is a straight shot to Marseille, to avoid unnecessary travel time. Once we got there, we headed to the city of Cassis to start our hike in Calanques National Park: an oceanside reserve with hiking trails that connect the many different coves which cut into the limestone mountains. It was simply gorgeous. As the trails passed by each cove, we found a trail that made its way to the small beaches. We swam in the Mediterranean and spotted an octopus clinging on the rocky walls. I never would have thought I would see one in real life, especially in France. It was the first cephalopod of the weekend!

The views during the hike- it was breathtaking.

Day 2:

Early the next morning, I got on a train headed to Nice. After spending the next two hours gawking at the Calanques mountains, we arrived at the Nice train station. We headed directly to the Mediterranean Sea, stopping to window shop at the stores that won our attention. Soon, we spotted the sea. The beach was covered with dark grey stones and smelled strongly of fish and salt. Snorkelers and waders dotted the ocean. We made our way into the Old City by this time looking to relieve our hunger. We stumbled upon a small restaurant near the Cathedrale Sainte Reparate. After being recommended it by a local, I tried the cuttlefish ink risotto with squid. The risotto was black and almost had no flavor except the faint trace of a salty umami flavor. That paired with the soft texture of the risotto and the chewiness of the squid made for an interesting combination. According to the local we met, it was a Nice delicacy! 

We spent the next couple of hours exploring the many different little thrift shops and bakeries that hid within the tight alleys. We stopped for ice cream at the world famous Fenocchio’s: an ice cream store known for its distinct, wide ranging flavors such as Avocado, Tomato Basil, and Coca Cola. I had to try the Olive flavor which tasted… exactly like olives. I mean what was I expecting? It was jarring at first because I would never consider olives as a suitable dessert, but I slowly got used to the milk + olive flavor combination after every lick. I highly recommend. 

We started up the steep incline to Castle Hill: a mountain with the remains of the Castle of Nice, a man-made waterfall, and a church with a cemetery. More famously, it allows visitors a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea and the city of Nice. The rain that was predicted for the day started to come in, and we quickly made our way over to the MAMAC (Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) which was free with our international student identifications. I saw yet another Octopus, this time in the form of a wooden playground, and the modern art museum had an exhibition on the layers of squid from a biological and art perspective. 

The view of Nice, my ink risotto, the playground octopus, and my delicious olive ice cream- what a day!

Day 3:

On the last day in the French Riviera, we explored Marseille. We dodged seafood sellers, street performers with untuned instruments and an off kilter tempo, and stands advertising cruises and boat tours in favor of heading to the Mucem: an old fort. Ducking under the short archways and tunnels and climbing up the dizzying spiral staircases, we explored the history of the fort. Attached to the fort was a gantry way to the museum which had exhibits on the Mediterranean diet and the history of the groups that influenced modern day Marseille.  

We returned to the port after exhausting the museum. Since Marseille has influences from all over the Mediterranean- Italian, Greek, and North African, we decided to explore one of these roots and stopped by a Tunisian restaurant. I tried the North African Merguez sausages which were served on a bed of rice and French fries! The portion sizes were huge! Afterwards, we drifted through La Panier— Marseille’s old district— and assessed street art and small art vendors that filled the streets.

Finally, we walked up the even steeper route to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. Unfortunately, the inside of the church was closed to visitors, but the outside terrace and the crypts underneath were open. This mountain top church also had a panoramic view of the city that stretched from the Calanques in the East to the islands in the South. We ended our final day going bakery hopping for pastries and desserts.

The three cities in the French Riviera that I was able to explore— Cassis, Nice, and Marseille— were all very different from one another. Cassis clung to the side of a mountain, the roads winded up and down the steep hills. Nice, which was definitely the most touristy of the three, stood out with its old city. The crowded streets bustled with activity and beautiful colors. Marseille was definitely the most untouched city from tourists between the three; the city is larger and more empty which made us more alert when walking down the streets and stopping for food. However, it was more cultural out of three three. The many different cultures blended on the streets of Marseille, and local artists were more prevalent. Overall, the French Riviera was absolutely gorgeous, and I loved exploring the diverse Mediterranean culture that surrounds the region. And according to the local we met in Nice, “there’s only one thing you must do in Nice— come back.”

A Weekend in Northern Italy

Written by Lillian

October 3, 2022

When I was younger, my mom took my sister and me on a trip to Italy to explore our Catholic heritage. One of the cities on our itineraries was Venice, Italy, the city of canals. However, our experience was anything but pleasant: we got most of our entire travel savings pick-pocketed on the Rialto Bridge! And so Venice was definitely not my favorite city after that incident. Now that I am a little older and wiser, I decided to revisit the city. My travel group woke up bright and early to catch the train to Luxembourg to board a plane to Venice on Friday morning. When we got into the city, we took the water taxi to travel to the island. 

After disembarking, I was on the hunt for tiramisu. Tiramisu is my all-time favorite dessert, so I was looking for the real deal, and fun fact, tiramisu was said to be invented about 20 miles from Venice in the city of Treviso! It was a lot easier than I expected as literally every restaurant was selling some. We zig-zagged around the labyrinth of thin alleys and large squares that filled the island. In Venice, the canals take precedent: the alleys funnel pedestrians across the few bridges that cross the canals. We decided to go sight-seeing in St. Mark’s Plaza as it started drizzling. Since the plaza is below sea level, elevated walkways were set up to allow pedestrians to avoid walking in a few centimeter-deep puddles. There were a couple of orchestras playing for local cafés that filled the square with classical music. That paired with the dozens of umbrellas, the misty haze, and peacefully empty plaza made for such a cinematic aesthetic: it felt like I was in a romance movie waiting for a cloaked figure to emerge from the heavy fog to sweep me off my feet.  

The canals of Venice from one of the bridges.  

It was pouring by the time we got back to our hostel, but we still needed to find dinner. We ended up walking around mainland Venice in search of pizza with sit down service. After finding our fourth location and when our shoes were completely soaked through, we finally stopped at a place that had whole personal pizzas for €6. I tried this interesting combination of kebab, lettuce, and tomatoes on a margarita pizza. 

The next day, we headed back out to the island. We stopped at a café for cappuccinos and pastries. After dining for a little bit, we headed to ride in a pair of gondolas. The gondola service in Venice is set at a standard price based on the time of day— €80 for daytime and €100 for nighttime— for a maximum of five people per every 30 minutes. The gondoliers are required to wear the iconic black, blue, or red stripes to denote that they are part of this service; all other gondoliers are private and may cost differently. We floated down the Grand Canal as our gondolier explained the sites and history of Venice. He also told us that he has served as a gondolier for the past 26 years! The biggest stand out were the rising water levels because of the rain. There was not a lot of height to go under the bridges, and oftentimes the water would spill over the pathways and plaza from the canals showing the impact of rising sea levels on the small canal city.  

We learned from our gondalier that the city of Venice is actually very green although you cannot see it when walking through the alleys. Most of the gardens are private for use only by the residential blocks. 

After our ride, we went sunset searching on the Western portion of the island. The sunset was gorgeous: the buildings were splashed with the orange glow of the sun as the sun slowly retreated below the horizon. Once the sun disappeared completely, the city changed: the alleyways became quiet and dark, only being lit by a handful of streetlights. The canals that were once a bustle of activity carried singular gondolas that slowly and calmly drifted through the water. We stopped for pizza at Birraria La Corte which was recommended by our gondolier— we even saw him dining there at dinner time. 

The next day, we trained to Milan for a quick layover as we headed back to Metz. I will admit, Milan was way different than what I was expecting. The city was becoming very modern with tons of construction happening around every corner to build large skyscrapers and office buildings. One of the only relics of its historic and medieval past is a castle at its heart where wild cats roam around in the dry moats. At the Sforzesco Castle there was a farmers’ market funded by the agricultural society. There were booths of farmers selling their cheeses, olive oils, and tomato sauces. Even better, the entire museum and festival was free! Afterwards, we got some gelato (I got tiramisu gelato of course), and it was some of the best that I have had in Europe! 

From the top left going clockwise: a mochaccino and croissant, tiramisu gelato in Milan, the real-deal Italian tiramisu, a wide selection of gelato flavors at a vendor ranging from Stracciatella (milk with chocolate shavings) to Nocciola (hazelnut), Pizza Capriccioso (prosciutto-mushroom-artichoke) from Birraria La Corte, and spaghetti carbonara. 

Overall, Venice surprised me. After getting pickpocketed there when I was younger, I always dismissed the city. The small pieces that I remember from my childhood were always looked down on with contempt. During this trip, I really focused on paying attention to my belongings and my surroundings: which were gorgeous! I did not remember Venice being so pretty and navigating through the maze of winding streets was an adventure as I stumbled upon empty narrow alleyways and ducked through some of the low entryways. When night fell on the city, the streetlights cast a romantic glow on the colorful worn buildings and made the canals shimmer.