Aha! Praha!

Ah Prague, a seemingly slumbering, enchanting, timeless city that Blanca is back to detail to us for a second time. Enjoy the continuation of her story as Blanca discovers more of placid Praha!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 | Written by Blanca

The saying is, “All good things come in pairs,” and blog posts about Prague are no exception to this rule!  This week, I’m revisiting Prague—figuratively and literally, as I’m currently writing this while reclining on the bed of my Airbnb in the heart of downtown Prague, the second (and penultimate) destination of my spring break itinerary.  I’m actually back in Prague on a solo trip for the next two days, and I couldn’t be more excited to see the city even more thoroughly and closely, but first I wanted to recap the second half of my visit last week.

The end of last week’s blog post saw us retracing our steps down Nerudova Street and back across to the Charles Bridge on Friday evening, after which we stopped for a traditional Czech dinner (or maybe quasi-traditional? consensus is lacking) of pork knuckle and returned to our Airbnb for some much-needed rest.  The next morning, I headed out bright and early before the rest of my travel group, determined to hit all the spots on my map of must-see places in Prague. First up was the Jerusalem Synagogue, sometimes also referred to as the Jubilee Synagogue, a vibrant Art-Nouveau-meets-Moorish synagogue known for its richly patterned exterior and elaborately painted interior (unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to see the latter, as it was Saturday).  My walk to the synagogue took me through the Old Town, which on that chilly morning seemed as if it hadn’t yet awoken from its slumber. Surprisingly, though, that seemed to make it all the more enchanting, as if I was sharing an early morning stroll with the buildings themselves.  

The Old Town, complete with an iconic Prague tram
The Old Town, complete with an iconic Prague tram

Upon arriving at the synagogue, I was in for another surprise, this time a less pleasant one: half of the synagogue was covered in scaffolding for repairs.  Building repairs seem not to be an isolated incident around this time of year, as a week later I encountered the same thing in London with the Big Ben, the entirety of which, save for its clock face, was obstructed by scaffolding.  Although slightly dismayed, I must admit that the dancing patterns of the Jerusalem Synagogue were still brilliantly striking even when only half exposed.

Pretty in Pink in the Old Town
Pretty in Pink in the Old Town

My first destination satisfied, I was soon on my way to the next, which was admittedly less of a single location and more of a network of streets that surrounded the Old Town Square.  Abandoning my trusty Google Maps in favor of serendipitous exploration, I wandered the tucked-away streets and cobbled lanes, taking note of the buildings lining the street as they shifted from exhibiting motifs of Historicism and Baroque styles to becoming increasingly Medieval closer to the Old Town Square.

A little while later, I was rejoined by my traveling companions at Paneria Paul Kaprova, the café in which I’d met up with Livia the day before, where we had a light brunch and planned out our itinerary for the rest of the day.  As we had much to see, we were soon off, crossing the Vltava (this time on a bridge that was significantly less crowded than the Charles Bridge) into Prague’s Malá Strana, or the Lesser Town.  

Despite its diminutive name, the Lesser Town is no less interesting and full of character than anywhere else in Prague.  To illustrate this point, the first place we stopped was the Vojan Gardens (Vojanovy Sady), which we entered through an unsuspecting and rather missable set of plain wooden doors.  We initially weren’t looking to enter the garden, but afterwards were grateful to have done so as it turned out to be a hidden gem, with a long, bench-lined central walkway and a pond with ducks snoozing nearby.  I’m a huge fan of any feathered friend, so I was pleased to find that the ducks were in the company of pigeons (a familiar sight in Prague) and peacocks (a not-so-familiar sight in Prague), preening their feathers in the morning sun.  On a side note, I was initially rather concerned for the peacocks’ wellbeing, since I’d only ever seen peacocks before in Orlando, Florida, the climate of which is starkly different from the harsh, Eastern European setting of Prague, but they seemed not to mind.  In any event, the presence of peacocks contributed to the serene, enchanting air of the garden, and I could only imagine how much more idyllic it would be in the spring and summer months with the grass greener, flowers blooming, and the foliage on the blossom trees and willows much fuller.  A quick Google search informed us that the secluded park originated as a monastery garden, and although it is the oldest partially preserved garden in Prague, the same tranquility seems to have remained.

The next stop after the Vojan Gardens was the John Lennon Wall, upon which I could read years upon years of scrawled messages—love notes, pleas for peace, and uplifting thoughts on humanity and the world.  Deciding to leave my mark in Prague, however small, I added my name to the layers of writing, a tiny script that occupied three square inches of real estate. Given how small I felt compared to the sprawling city of Prague, this seemed especially fitting.

Our walks took us back up Nerudova Street, which during the day seemed even more steep than we’d remembered, and through the Prague Castle gates.  During the day, we had an even clearer view of the city below, but deciding that we wanted an even more expansive aerial view, we continued hiking uphill to Petřín Hill.  Amidst secluded rose gardens (which I’d imagine would have been magical during the summer) and the Štefánik Observatory, our view framed by tree branches (which, again, probably would’ve made the scene all the more picturesque during the greener summer months), we surveyed almost the entirety of Prague 1 and some of Prague 2.  Descending Petřín Hill, we traversed winding paths, many of which were impressively cobbled, and stepped alongside streams of water, which made their way down the steep hill much more gracefully than we did.

With all this walking, we’d begun to work up an appetite, so the next order of business was to get a bite to eat.  As we strolled through the neighborhoods of Malá Strana toward Café Savoy, a restaurant about which we’d heard plenty of positive recommendations, I began to see why the area is called the Baroque Heart of Prague. 

Malá Strana
Malá Strana

And to my delight, peppered among the ornate facades of Baroque architecture were streets lined entirely with pastel buildings reminiscent of the Italianate Renaissance style that you might see in SoHo, Manhattan, albeit a bit less cast-iron and industrial and more stately and classically baroque.  SoHo is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Manhattan because of this architectural style, so walking among buildings of a similar style, but which were distinctly unique in their own right, meant that I was absolutely entranced. If I hadn’t been in love with Prague already, I suspect this would’ve been the tipping point.

We found ourselves at the entrance of Café Savoy a few minutes later (and much too soon, in my opinion, as I was having the time of my life obsessively looking at buildings).  The term “café” might be a bit misleading, as just like the outside of the restaurant, the interior of Café Savoy was what can only be described as positively swanky. It wasn’t hard to see why the lavish, jazz-lounge-meets-art-deco-bar-meets-First-Czechoslovakian-Republic eatery was completely packed, and their food certainly met the same standard.  I personally ordered a plate of eggs benedict (can you ever go wrong with eggs benedict?), and after chowing down, we were off on our way again.

Baroque buildings along the Vltava River
Baroque buildings along the Vltava River

Our next stop was the Dancing House, an architectural collaboration between Frank Gehry and Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić.  A deconstructivist building that looks as if it’s dancing, hence its name, the Dancing House certainly stood out among its Baroque neighbors along the Vltava River.  Nonetheless, it was a fascinating building, and if you’re into contemporary and modern architecture, this is definitely a building to add to your list of places to see.

The final destination of the night was Vyšehrad, a 10th-century fort on the East bank of the Vltava in Prague 2.  Recommended to us by both Livia and our server in the restaurant in which we had breakfast the day before, the fort proved to be one of the highlights of my trip.  Though the sun had long begun to set, we strolled through a charming village at the top of the (once again very steep) hill on which Vyšehrad is situated, which was abuzz with light and activity.  The gothic Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, which could be seen during our travels for miles around due to its stark, dark spires and prominent location on top of a hill, had unfortunately closed to the public half an hour before our arrival, but no matter, as Vyšehrad proved to be the perfect way to end a weekend in Prague.  

The sun dipped behind the hills, its dwindling golden light painting the cotton candy sky a swirl of purple and magenta and blue.  As a layer of calm came upon the houses that blanketed the hills, warm glowing lights emitting intermittently from the far-away windows, I watched the twinkling of headlights wind around the banks of the Vltava and thought, for the umpteenth time that weekend, that Prague just might have been the most enchanting city I’d ever visited.

[vysehradSunset.jpg] Watching the sunset from the battlements of Vyšehrad

Day One in Prague

Join Blanca as she spends Valentines Day with her new love— the gorgeous city of Prague!

Friday, February 21, 2020 | Written by Blanca

This past Friday was Valentine’s Day, and I was lucky enough to spend the weekend with the most beautiful one of all.  Who might that be, you ask? Only Prague (or Praha, as it’s called in Czech), the capital of the Czech Republic, the City of a Hundred Spires, the apple of my eye and the object of my heart’s affections.

With some (extremely sparse and poorly planned) plans to visit Geneva and Interlaken for the weekend falling through a few days before, my Switzerland travel group disbanded, each member choosing a different location to visit for the weekend.  I joined to form a 4-person travel group to Prague, a spontaneous, last-minute decision that I’m really grateful I made. In an activity-packed two days, the first of which was spent primarily in the municipal district of Prague 1, I was able to experience a bit of the endless beauty and culture Prague has to offer.

We left on Thursday evening, and following a near disaster involving a series of canceled train stops, we found ourselves on an overnight bus to Prague, our final mode of transportation of the night.  After arriving at the train station at 6AM, we miraculously found a hotel restaurant open at 6:30AM (finding businesses that open early is a near impossible feat, as I’ve realized, in Europe), refueled, and scouted out our Airbnb.  A quick 2-hour nap later, I was out the door again, off to the Old Town Square to meet a friend from high school, Livia. Liv is studying abroad in Prague at Charles University this semester, and after badgering her for suggestions for my trip, we decided to grab a quick Friday lunch at a cafe before she left for Slovakia for the weekend.

Prague is full of so many world-renowned wonders (hello, Prague Castle!) and hidden treasures alike, but catching up with Liv was one of the highlights of my weekend.  In a city so large (to illustrate this point, I walked fifteen miles on our second day there and was still yearning to see more) and so full of people, we occupied our own corner of the Paneria Paul café; this was made all the more intimate by the fact that those who surrounded us each had their own separate lives and stories.  Tucked away from the bustle of it all, we swapped college housing horror stories and snippets of all that we’d been up to since we saw each other last over a slice of Milka cake.

One end of the Old Town Square, with prime examples of Prague Baroque architecture, the Jan Hus Memorial, and the turreted Gothic towers of the Church of Mother of God before Týn in the background.
One end of the Old Town Square, with prime examples of Prague Baroque architecture, the Jan Hus Memorial, and the turreted Gothic towers of the Church of Mother of God before Týn in the background.

After sending Livia off, I met up with the rest of my GTL travel crew, awakened from their snoozing at last, in the Old Town Square.  From there, we embarked on a series of tourist traps: doughnut ice cream cones (which, according to a disgruntled Liv, aren’t remotely Czech, and one should opt to visit a cukrárna instead if craving something sweet), the Prague Astronomical Clock (in my opinion underwhelming), and a traversal across the packed Charles Bridge.  I’ll admit that while the lattermost, lined with baroque statues, is less of a tourist trap and more of an attraction, it’s certainly hard to navigate at almost all times of day due to the sheer amount of people who flock to cross it.

Having journeyed across the river, we made our way further in the direction of the stately Prague Castle, making sure to watch our step as we went.  Perhaps the most notable part of visiting Prague, aside from the diverse yet distinctive architecture and rich history, was the sheer amount of cobblestone.  Now, much of Europe’s streets are cobbled, but Prague beats them all in terms of variety and expanse. In which other city can you find miles and miles of stone-paved roads with sidewalks, also cobblestone, comprising even more precise cuts of stone (some marble!) that are more intricately placed than the actual streets themselves?

Heading up Nerudova Street
Heading up Nerudova Street

We arrived in Prague’s Lesser Town with ankles intact, having managed not to stumble over the bumpy stone roads, and made a quick stop at the St. Nicholas Church.  While I personally didn’t enter, choosing instead to seek a much-needed caffeine pick-me-up, two of my traveling companions did pay the admission fee and view the church.  Upon exiting, they raved about the gilded Prague Baroque interiors, which are supposedly the most prime example of the architectural style.

The daytime view Nerudova Street from high above
The daytime view Nerudova Street from high above

Onward again!  Our itinerary next led us up charming, winding Nerudova Street, the steepness of which provided a perfect opportunity to stop to peek into shops and take an embarrassing number of photos along the way.  Legs burning, we finally reached the entrance to the Prague Castle, providing a perfect outlook over the entirety of the Prague 1 Municipality as the sun set.

The view over the city from the castle, during the day
The view over the city from the castle, during the day

When the golden glow of the sun finally ebbed away, we took to the streets once more and retraced our steps.  The downhill march along Nerudova Street was significantly less taxing on the knees than the uphill trek, and as we made our way back over the Vltava River on the Charles Bridge, which was a bit more tranquil after nightfall, we were able to see the medieval heart of the city as it lit up in the night.

Food You Can’t Get In America But Quite Frankly Should Be Able To

Blanca has been munching away on her favorite European snacks. Now, she’s chomping at the bit to list some of her favorites you can’t find in the United States in this delectable blog post.

*Disclaimer: Blanca was not paid to endorse any products mentioned in this article, nor does Georgia Tech endorse any of these products.*

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 | Written by Blanca

One of the things which excited me most about studying abroad was the chance to be fully immersed in an entirely novel culture, whether that specifically meant French culture or the broader category of European culture in general.  In any event, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to experience the nuances of life in a different place, the small details that truly define what it’s like living somewhere else. To be sure, there have been quite a number of these small details. To name a few, smoking cigarettes is much less frowned upon, for instance, and some forms of public transportation, primarily articulated busses (those busses with the accordion-like connections) and trains, require boarding passengers to tap a green button on a specific set of doors in order for them to open. (This is something which I learned the hard way by patiently standing in front of the doors of a bus and staring, dumbfounded, after it as it drove away without so much as cracking its doors open an inch.)

That being said, the particular objects of my attention today are certain food items sold abroad that aren’t offered back home in the States.  America is no stranger to processed foods, but despite the fact that European snacks share many of the same familiar brands, their repertoires are vastly different. I’m fascinated by the different versions of snacks which I’ve encountered here—tasting them has been such a fun experience in itself—and I’m here to enlighten the rest of the unsuspecting world (or Americans, at least) about them.  And seeing as I’ve spent many a late night study-session in the GTL Student Lounge with nothing but the vending machine to sustain myself, I can’t think of anyone with more ethos with which to do so.

Kinder Bueno

An image of a Kinder Bueno bar. The name ‘Kinder Bueno’ was inspired by the Spanish ‘bueno,’ which means ‘tasty’ or ‘good,’ and it’s a particularly apt description.
The name ‘Kinder Bueno’ was inspired by the Spanish ‘bueno,’ which means ‘tasty’ or ‘good,’ and it’s a particularly apt description.

Upon a quick Google search, it has now come to my attention that Kinder Bueno bars are actually now available in the US.  I, however, have never seen them, and I suspect this may be the case for many, so I consider it my duty to break the news.  Crispy wafer encloses hazelnut cream and is enveloped by a layer of chocolate (they come in milk chocolate and white chocolate, with white chocolate being my favorite).  What better combination to take the edge off of poring over electricity & magnetism problems at ungodly hours of the night?

Paprika Pringles

A can of Paprika Pringles. Paprika Pringles are the best traveling companion.
Paprika Pringles are the best traveling companion.

First introduced to paprika-flavored Pringles on one of many interconnected train rides while en route to Brussels, I now consider them to be one of the many unhealthy (but oh-so savory!) snack cravings I’ve picked up.  Subtly spiced, the Paprika Pringle initially tasted little different than the iconic original Pringle, but after a few bites, the balance of salty and savory won me over, and I just might need to buy a few (a lot) of cans to bring back home with me.

Crunch Snack

Have you ever wanted a Crunch bar, but in the even-crunchier form of a wafer? 

A crunch bar. The crispy, chocolatey, (wafer-y?), late-night fuel of champions.
The crispy, chocolatey,( wafer-y?), late-night fuel of champions.

Perhaps this is instead something that you, dear reader, much like myself, didn’t know you needed.  Take it from me—a combination of milk chocolate, wafers, and crunchy rice cereals is an unexpectedly perfect way to both satiate your newfound sugar craving (from all the Nutella you’ve been eating, since the French seem to favor Nutella quite) and refuel yourself during a long night of writing your ECE lab report.

A (Not So) Lonesome Traveler

After many weekends in a row of traversing Europe, Blanca is ready for a more calm weekend. In this blog, read about her tranquil trips around Metz and Luxembourg City as she details her enchanting experiences of traveling solo.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Written by Blanca

As much as it is part of the allure of a semester abroad, traveling week after week (or rather, weekend after weekend) can get tiring.  While destinations like Venice and Barcelona certainly are glamorous, sleepless nights spent sitting on airport floors, shivering while waiting for the late night bus, and dashing across train platforms to catch your connecting train are decidedly less so.  To compound matters for the worse, while scurrying about during my travels in weeks prior, lack of sleep and unfavorable weather contributed to a slight but persistent sniffle that simply would not go away.

So, while my friends had planned an eventful weekend excursion to Munich and the surrounding areas of Germany, I elected to stay back in Metz for some rest, relaxation, and work catch-up this past weekend.  During this time, I also embarked on two day trips of my own, first exploring the twists and turns of the historic cobblestone streets of downtown Metz, and then, on the next day, the equally-cobbled streets of Luxembourg City, Luxembourg.

 

Bread lamps
Bread lamps

Each time, I was able to fully observe the nooks and crannies of the cities in question.  In Metz, I wandered around the Ancienne Ville, strolling past artisan craftsman shops and ducking in and out of uniquely stocked concept stores. During a visit to boutique called POPWHITE CONCEPT STORE (82 En Fournirue), which was handsomely outfitted with twinkling string lights, vibrant faux flowers, luxurious homewares, and lavish charcuterie, I saw some uncannily realistic bread-shaped lamps, which I am now seriously considering purchasing and bringing back with me to the states for dorm décor.  Downtown Metz has quite the smattering of home goods shops, and as these are some of my favorite places to visit while I pine for the days I might own a property of my own and furnish it top to bottom, they make day trips into Metz the interior design lover’s dream.

 

The next day, after a good night’s sleep and a morning trip to Cora (which is, by the way, the time of day when you get the best pick of produce and of pastries), I hopped on one of the many trains between Metz and Luxembourg.  A quick 50-minute train ride and an even shorter bus trip to the city’s center later, I found myself, once again, in Luxembourg City. In a previous blog post, I detailed the events of my day trip with a large traveling group, but this time, I was visiting solo.

A charming, tucked-away street in Luxembourg City
A charming, tucked-away street in Luxembourg City

I have to say, traveling alone makes for an even more intimate experience in getting to know a place.  While doing so obviously requires a heightened sense of caution, as you now lack the safety in numbers, I realized in Luxembourg that you truly get to explore on your own terms.  Making and following my own itinerary gave me the freedom to wander as far as I pleased or to stand in the same spot for as long as I wanted, staring at the same artifact in a history museum.  Alone in an otherwise bustling city, no architectural detail goes unnoticed, and no side street is too humdrum, too lacking in interest. Each avenue warrants a visit, even if it’s a quick stroll-through, and when traveling solo, the quaint shops and cafes that beckon do so just for you.  Though I might’ve been unaccompanied by other people, in the welcoming embrace of a city abuzz with life and character, I definitely wasn’t alone.

A Night at the Opera

Bravo, bravo! Encore, encore! Blanca is taking the stage once again, join her as she recounts her experience seeing La Traviata at the Opéra-Théâtre de Metz Métropole!

Monday, February 10, 2020 | Written by Blanca

Fabulous Parisian fêtes.  The infamously dire consumption.  Dramatic displays of love, affection, and despair.  Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is the most frequently performed of all operas, for a good reason, and last Tuesday night, I got to experience La Traviata in all its glory at the Opéra-Théâtre de Metz Métropole.

A little over a week earlier, on a relatively mundane and unsuspecting Monday morning, I received an email regarding student tickets for an upcoming production of La Traviata at the Metz Opera, causing me to gasp in an otherwise silent classroom.  And for five euros? I nearly jumped out of my seat. The score to La Traviata is among my favorites of all time (I highly recommend adding the 1977 La Travita album , as performed by Plácido Domingo, Ileana Cotrubaș, Sherrill Milnes, and the Bavarian State Orchestra under the conducting of Carlos Kleiber to your Spotify playlists with this link, as I have), so as soon as class concluded, I rushed down to the GTL academic office to purchase my ticket.

As the day of the opera rolled around, I was slightly miffed by the fact that I had two exams the next day for which I needed to study that night, but no matter!  I came to Europe with the intention of experiencing European culture as fully as I could, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do so than by seeing my favorite opera in France’s oldest opera house.  Studying could wait until after Verdi’s compositions filled my ears.

A view from the outside of the Opera: The Metz Opera is stunning during the day but even more stately at night
The Metz Opera is stunning during the day but even more stately at night

In addition to being the oldest working opera house in France, the Opéra-Théâtre de Metz Métropole, or the Metz Opera, is also among the oldest in Europe.  Located on the Petit-Saulcy island in downtown Metz, the Neoclassical opera house, lit up in the chilly night, was literally the star of its own show. Its cobbled drive welcomed us and the rest of the night’s patrons inside, where we were ushered across red-carpeted floors and up a winding wooden staircase to the third-floor balcony.  From there, we had a perfect vantage point for viewing the onstage escapades. The set was nothing short of sublime: a semi-opaque screen backdrop provided a set while simultaneously allowing us to see the silhouettes of lithe dancers, mysterious figures illuminated by glowing lights, behind it; the forced perspective floor made the ballroom scenes seem grander and more vast than the stage on which they were held.

La Traviata, as I later learned, was first performed in 1853 at Venice’s La Fenice opera house (by which, I realized giddily, I had passed several times only a few days earlier on my trip to Venice), but despite being over 150 years old, it hasn’t lost any of its beauty.  The plot is one of lavish glitz and glamor, reflecting the prosperous social lives of the bourgeoisie, but it is also an observation of, if not a commentary on, a society which staunchly values morality but is steeped in hypocrisy, in which a woman navigates her diminished role in an environment that is decidedly male-dominated.  La Traviata also wouldn’t be an opera without a pinch of lament, so at its conclusion, we saw Violetta, the protagonist, undeservedly meet her tragic end.  Set to an Italian libretto, this all goes down entirely in Italian; fortunately, there was a screen above the stage displaying a current translation of what is being sung, but unfortunately, this translation was in French, a language which I can neither speak nor read.  For this reason, it’s highly recommended that opera-goers familiarize themselves with the opera beforehand (or, in my case, while in line for the bathroom during the intermission).

I couldn’t sign off on this blog post without mentioning the music, which exceeded my admittedly already-high expectations.  The recordings to which I’ve listened were already stellar, but nothing beats the in-person, immersive experience of hearing it all live.  Tuuli Takala’s performance as Violetta was superb, her adroit soprano piercing through the performance hall, but I could also honestly wax lyrical (pun not intended) about the rest of the cast.  I also have an immense appreciation for chamber orchestras, having played in one myself in high school, so hearing the score I’ve so ardently admired being played by a live orchestra was the highlight of my night.  The National Orchestra of Metz couldn’t be more deserving of applause.

The Metz Opera performance hall
The Metz Opera performance hall

After a good couple of minutes, the clapping eventually died down and the performance hall’s massive chandelier came back on.  As the audience began filing out of their velvet-upholstered seats into the equally sumptuous, palm frond-littered lobby, my opera buddy, Mai, and I glanced at each other.  Proclaiming, “that was so good,” her words voiced my very thoughts.  La Traviata at the Metz Opera made for a truly magnificent night.

 

I Went to Venice and Liked It, A Lot

Where can you find stunning seascapes, endlessly curving canals, and an abundance of art? Venice of course! Join Blanca on her short but splendid time in the city of bridges!

Friday, February 7, 2020 | Written by Blanca

Venice is a destination I’ve always wanted to visit. Something about the novelty and intrigue of a city on water had made it seem, in my mind, the absolute epitome of the confluence of human imagination, engineering, and creativity.  What could be more romantic, more elegantly surreal, than azure canals hugging the bases of Venetian Gothic and Renaissance buildings, so full of diverse architectural character and unique elegance, stalwart in their foundations but delicately ornate in the balustrades and trefoil arches high above?  (Spoiler alert: nothing.) Having experienced Venice for a weekend, during which time I saw both major tourist attractions and hidden gems tucked behind narrow alleyways and winding streets, I can confidently confirm that my prior notions regarding one of Europe’s most illustrious cities were, in fact, correct.  Call me a romantic, but Venice was nothing short of magical.

The Grand Canal, as seen from the Rialto Bridge
The Grand Canal, as seen from the Rialto Bridge

Despite only being there for two and a half days, a fleeting amount of time when considering all that it has to offer, I saw Venice at every hour: first at dusk, upon my arrival, as the sunset cast a rosy glow over the city; then during the day, the streets abuzz with tourists; at the crack of dawn, tranquil under a hazy morning mist; and finally at night, when the twinkle of string lights over shop-lined streets was punctuated every once and a while by the mystique of dark passageways (I don’t recommend going into these alone at night, not only for obvious safety reasons, but also because many streets simply stop at the edge of a canal without warning, which could result in a rather wet and unpleasant surprise if you don’t know to stop walking).  The weekend afforded us a range of weather, including foggy skies that shrouded the city in an ethereal veil, a light drizzle that threatened, unsuccessfully, to rain on our parade (pun intended), and the golden Italian sun, timid at first, which gilded the elegant palaces lining the Grand Canal and made the waters themselves glimmer like gold leaf. Like Venice at different times of day, Venice in different types of weather makes for completely different experiences, all just as beautiful and as magical as the others.

I could gush about Venice, as I have been doing for a while now, for days, but even then I don’t think I could adequately articulate all its marvels—and how could I, if I didn’t even get to see them all myself in the short time I had?  Nevertheless, here are some things that I did see, which are the highlights of my trip. ( And if given the chance, I one hundred percent recommend you visit too.)

St Mark’s Campanile

St Mark’s Campanile is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica, located in the bustling Piazza San Marco.  None of the other buildings in Venice are particularly tall, so standing at about 100 meters, the campanile is rather imposing.  For the same reason, the belfry at its top offers spectacular views of the city below, which you can see for an €8.00 admission fee.  The spot where Galileo once viewed the skies, the campanile provides stunning vantage point for a panoramic view of Venice’s signature red rooftops complementing the expansive blue Venetian Lagoon.  I stayed at the top for an hour, until the wind and cold made staying a bit unbearable, completely in awe and trying to commit the entire scene to memory.

The view from the top of St Mark's Campanile, on the side overlooking St Mark's Basilica, which provides a stunning aerial view of Venice.
The view from the top of St Mark’s Campanile, on the side overlooking St Mark’s Basilica, which provides a stunning aerial view of Venice.

Vaporetto Ride

The Grand Canal on a sunny day, as seen from a vaporetto station.
The Grand Canal on a sunny day, as seen from a vaporetto station.

 

A vaporetto is a Venetian public waterbus, which has multiple lines that travel in and around Venice.  We hopped on the vaporetto on our second afternoon, and it brought us up the Grand Canal. Even on an overcast day, seeing the restaurants, shops, and stately palaces lining the Grand Canal was an unforgettable experience and a great way to view the sides of Venice you can’t see from the streets.

 

Major Tourist Attractions at Dawn

On Sunday morning, the rest of my travel group headed off to Florence for a day trip, but I, absolutely captivated by Venice, decided to remain.  The port was set to be closed starting at 7AM that morning to defuse a recently discovered WWII-era bomb, taking all trains out of service for a handful of hours, so they departed before the sun even rose.  Though not trying to catch a last-minute train off the island before a bomb was to be defused (which, looking back, was pretty absurd in itself), I still blearily dragged myself out of bed for an exciting day ahead.  Venice is a tourist city, and major landmarks had been positively packed when we visited during the two days prior, so I thought going at the crack of dawn would be the perfect opportunity to see major tourist attractions—they’d still be major, just not as tourist-y, and I was excited to see a more peaceful side of the best-known attractions in Venice.

My first stop was the Rialto Bridge, on which I’d already crossed over the Grand Canal several times.  In the early hours of the morning, however, the bridge was almost entirely empty, save for a few other early risers.  Accompanied by a couple seagulls and pigeons, none of whom stayed for very long, I stood on the bridge and took in the serenity of a Venice that was just waking up.

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice
The Bridge of Sighs, Venice

Next, I made my way back to Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), another spot that had been populated by tourists for the past two days.  At dawn, however, St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace stood completely quiet, as if they were still asleep. Continuing walking, I rounded the corner of the palace to the renowned Bridge of Sighs.  Fun fact: The Bridge of Sighs was designed by Antonio Contino, the nephew of the designer of the Rialto Bridge from which I had just walked. Lord Bryon dubbed this the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ to suggest that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken from the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to their prison cells.  Watching the bridge, suspended above waters that lazily lapped the walls of the palace, and I, too, breathed a sigh, albeit one of content.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

I’m a big fan of art museums, where form, composition, and technique gather all in one place.  What better place to visit for it than Venice, home to some masterful examples of the Italian Renaissance, and a city whose architecture is in fact a delightful amalgamation of several architectural influences that I consider to be art on its own?  While I typically gravitate toward pre-20th century art, because I tend to favor light impressionist brushstrokes and Flemish chiaroscuro over more contemporary styles and techniques (just a personal preference!), Peggy Guggenheim’s exquisitely curated collection of contemporary, modern, and postmodern artwork won me over.  Shout-out to yet another member of the Guggenheim family for having impeccable taste (Peggy Guggenheim, if the name isn’t telling enough, was the niece of Manhattan’s Solomon R. Guggenheim).

My favorites included a Picasso or two, an early Jackson Pollock that provided a fascinating contrast to the later, more recognizable abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock paintings nearby, and a couple Kandinsky pieces.  My mom introduced me to Kandinsky’s improvisations when I was very young, and there’s even a print of Improvisation 31 in our living room back home, so seeing them in real life was especially exciting! I have to give an honorable mention also to the Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof Collection, which had not one but two (!!) sketches by Cy Twombly, an artist with whom I have an admittedly huge obsession.

Santa Maria della Salute

Just a stone’s throw away from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the Santa Maria della Salute, often referred to as simply the Salute, was a must-visit.  Despite only being a minor basilica, the Salute and its prominent dual domes are emblematic of the Venetian skyline. A symbol of Venice, I’ve been in love with this building and its striking octagonal Baroque and Palladian Classic facade for literal years, and anyone in my travel group can tell you that I simply would not shut up about it.

Entry into the Salute is free to the public, although it was closed for midday when I arrived, set to open its doors again at 3PM.  As a result, I sat on the stone steps in front of its grand doors, fraternizing with pigeons (I love pigeons) and watching vaporetti and gondolas leisurely drift through the Grand Canal.  At 3PM, I returned and entered the church, whose interior proved to be just as beautiful as its exterior. Though, like with many historic religious institutions, I didn’t take any photos out of respect and to abide by the rules of visitation, there turned out to be no need.  I can still clearly recall all the details, including the strikingly Byzantine influences (which comes as little surprise, since Venice was once occupied by the Byzantines) and ornate brass lanterns surrounded by glowing red lamps. The moody interior of the Salute contrasted significantly with the glittering gold mosaics of St Mark’s Basilica, just across the canal, but both were pretty remarkable in their own rights.  My goal of finally seeing the Salute in person fulfilled, I stepped back out into the afternoon sun.

A minor basilica of the Catholic church but a major basilica in my heart
A minor basilica of the Catholic church but a major basilica in my heart

To conclude what has been a rather long (but not nearly long enough, in my extraordinarily biased opinion) blog post about a comparatively small city, Venice is absolutely beautiful, and it offers a variety of activities for the aesthete, the history lover, the foodie (be warned, however, that Italian food is obscenely salty), and everyone in between.  My friends and I decided to visit during this weekend, still technically during winter, to experience Venice before flooding inevitably hits and the entire enchanting city disappears under water, as it sits a precarious few feet above the water, and we figured it was now or never. Despite a rather exhausting travel schedule (due to poor planning above anything else), it’s been perhaps my favorite place I’ve ever visited, and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.  To quote Peggy Guggenheim herself, “to visit [Venice] means that you fall in love with the city itself,” so if you don’t take it from me, at least take it from her.

A Cultural Awakening of Sorts

A trip to Venice was life changing for Bianca the art buff, as she got to see the places pieces she’s studied were created! Read about her change in perspective on art in this blog!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020 | Written by Blanca

Going to art museums is by far one of my favorite things to do, ever—I consider it in an exalted vanguard that is otherwise occupied only by eating, sleeping, and walking up and down the same streets five times in a row to observe the architecture and experience the genuine atmosphere of the whichever city I happen to be visiting at the time.

It might be due to the fact that I had to self-study virtually the entire curriculum of AP European History for the AP exam during my junior year of high school, but I hold a special place in my heart for European art, particularly for the softness of plein air Impressionism and Rococo and the awe-inspiring glory of Italian Renaissance paintings.  Oh, how I miss the days of patronization when oligarchs would commission pieces even more expansive and impressive than the very obscene amounts of money with which they were doing so. Visiting art collections, however, assuages this longing a bit, but for some reason, it wasn’t until this past weekend that I realized that being in Europe presents the most prime location and opportunity to see European art.

 Sculptures at the Gallerie dell'Accademia
Sculptures at the Gallerie dell’Accademia

As a frequenter of art museums back in the states, I’m no stranger to seeing a diverse range of art forms and styles, and European art is no exception.  But while triptychs at the Met, a Gutenberg bible at the Morgan Library & Museum, and Monet’s Houses of Parliament in the Fog at Atlanta’s very own High Museum of Art—at which I’ve stared for so long on many an occasion that I can actually see the silhouettes of houses of parliament despite the fog—are all adeptly crafted, they pale in comparison to the treasures that are on display in the very places in which they were made.  

Take the art I saw in Venice, for instance.  In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Venice was a driving force in the Italian Renaissance, and the Venetian School of painting trained the likes of Titian and Tintoretto.  In fact, paintings by both were on display in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, which I visited on my last night there. The Scoula was established as a confraternity in the late 13th century, and craning my neck to view the expanse of Tintoretto’s finest works on the ceiling of the Salone Maggiore, I could almost hear music, religion, and discussion that had filled the halls centuries before.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Scuola Grande di San Rocco

I also visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia on my final day in Venice, an art museum housed in the Scuola della Carità and the collections of which boast numerous pre-19th century Venetian masterpieces.  There, in Venice, where composite altarpieces were first introduced, the polyptychs were more detailed than any I’d seen, their reds and blues seemingly more vivid than in paintings that are housed elsewhere.  I’ve also craned my neck to see my fair share of ornately decorated ceilings in American galleries and private collections alike, but looking up, the gilded Baroque ceilings of the Gallerie dell’Accademia gleamed even more mesmerizingly.

Polyptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini, 1475, Venice
Polyptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini, 1475, Venice

Perhaps it was the generally enchanting environment of Venice that made me feel this way, but experiencing key parts of European culture, in Europe and in the very place from which they originated, was an incredibly riveting experience, one that was so much more immersive than seeing similar pieces in other collections.  While still from the same eras and by the same artists, artwork imported and put on display in other countries feels a bit far removed, almost foreign. A Titian in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s private collection in Boston is simply a beautiful painting (and a masterful one, at that), but seeing a Titian in the very city where he trained made me feel as though I could understand the places from which he drew inspiration, making a connection between the art and the cultural influences surrounding it.

While I’m in Europe this semester, I’m planning to continue to take advantage of my location to experience more history and culture in the places from which they originated.  Wherever else I might travel in the future, I hope to do the same, and I highly recommend it!  

Napoleon Bonaparte at the Gallerie dell'Accademia
Napoleon Bonaparte at the Gallerie dell’Accademia

As I exited the Gallerie dell’Accademia that day, I passed by a bust of Napoleon, who conquered Venice in 1797.  Had I at any point, while observing the winding canals and elegant palaces, stood in the same place as Napoleon had, surveying his conquest, over 200 years before?  Maybe not, but the thought of having the same experience as those in Venice’s history was thrilling enough.

Europe: Through the Looking Glass

At Georgia Tech Lorraine, new experiences are never-ending, and sometimes show up in unexpected places! In her latest post, take a look through Blanca’s eyes as she details her observations of daily life in Europe!

Friday, January 31, 2020 | Written by Blanca

Being at GTL for the semester makes for an incredibly auspicious location from which you can conveniently traverse much of the entire continent of Europe (a perk of which I have taken advantage multiple times already).  But, while it would bring me no greater joy than to inundate everyone with my tales recounting weekends gallivanting cobblestone streets and misty mornings among Flemish architecture, each façade with more character than the last, I think that the most insightful portrayals of European life actually emerge from the little details.  Sure, I’d anticipated that studying, eating, and traveling might be entirely different experiences in places with so much culture and history (and they are!), but nobody informed me about more mundane aspects of life, like that grocery stores here stock milk in six-packs and that a lactose intolerant person like myself can simply puncture the six-pack and remove a single bottle instead of having to buy an entire six-liter package of milk.  (On a side note, scenarios like this one are ones in which it becomes especially useful to employ a hawkish eye in observing the local residents and their grocery store behaviors.)

Experiencing the nuances of life in a new place are, dare I say it, perhaps even more fascinating than sightseeing, picture-taking, and general tourist-ing.  While I’ll still be doing plenty of the latter, I thought I’d share some of the quirks and unique details I’ve noticed about being abroad as well. Behold! Europe: Through the Looking Glass*.

(*actually through my glasses, which always seem to be smudged and are, at this point, a years-old, outdated prescription because my favorite frames seem to be perpetually out of stock—but rest assured that this takes away nothing from the Authentic European Experience™)

  • Everything in France seems to be smaller: chairs, elevators, cars—and by extension, the width of roadway lanes.  Public transportation (i.e. busses) are also widespread, and for the bus lines that don’t drive along designated bus lanes, I’ve been left to marvel at how their drivers are able to maneuver the large, cumbersome busses through such narrow and meandering roads.
  • While there are definitely still traffic lights scattered at intersections, European cities increasingly employ roundabouts/traffic circles instead of traditional four-way junctions.  Perhaps they’re on to something: studies have shown that roundabouts significantly reduce injury crashes at intersections.
  • On the topic of transportation, it seems that the vast majority of cars driven in Europe are hatchbacks.  I haven’t the slightest idea why this is so.

    The fruit stalls at Marche Couvert in Downtown Metz
    The fruit stalls at Marche Couvert in Downtown Metz
  • Fresh produce in even the most generic of European supermarkets is, put quite plainly, on another level.  The carrots? Simply sublime. And, despite avoiding grape tomatoes like the plague in America because they always seem to be so watery (and not much else), I’m pleasantly surprised to announce that I’ve yet to encounter a European grape tomato that I didn’t like.
  • Many restrooms, commonly referred to as water closets, in public spaces require a payment to use, usually a Euro or less.  Beware of those which ask for a specific amount of change, like €0.50, though. If you instead insert a €1 coin, assuming that you’re essentially paying double for entry, prepare to be left bewildered when the coin collection slot simply eats up your Euro and then defiantly refuses to budge.

    A classic cone of frites from a Belgium friterie—a must-try
    A classic cone of frites from a Belgium friterie—a must-try
  • Many Europeans are multilingual, especially those that live in areas where there are a multitude of languages spoken, and even more so, I’ve noticed, if they are young.  Maybe this is out of necessity, but as someone who speaks, reads, and writes only English fluently, I am equal parts impressed, grateful, and feeling slightly under-accomplished.  Perhaps it’s time to brush up on my Duolingo lessons after all.
  • The best ‘French’ fries I’ve had since arriving have been in Belgium.  Go figure.

Adventuring in Antwerp

Blanca is back on the blog, with a new post detailing her trip to Antwerp, Belgium. While she was hunting for the authentic Belgian waffle, she stumbled upon another thing to hunt for. Check it out for a story that will leave you asking, “Where’s Mary?”!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 | Written by Blanca

Last Thursday, partially fueled by a desire to scout out the best, most authentic Belgian waffle, I found myself, at the end of a five-hour train journey, stepping onto my final concrete train platform of the night.  A sign informed me and my travel party that we had indeed arrived in Belgium in one piece, and, huffing a relieved breath of air into the frigid night, we were soon off to our Airbnb.

The next morning brought a wave of sleep deprivation that was soon overtaken by excitement; we were off to Antwerp, and ever a sucker for seeing new architectural styles in the flesh, I was eager to take in all of Antwerp’s stepped gable building fronts and perhaps even a peek of the Mosan Renaissance.

After hopping off our train at the Antwerpen-Centraal railway station, which is a stunningly eclectic architectural feat in itself (Mashable even crowned it the world’s most beautiful train station in 2014!), the first stop was brunch.  I’m never one to pass up a meal in a cute café, or a photoshoot of said food, or a pan of shakshuka, for that matter, so on this day I did all three.

A shakin’ shakshuka
A shakin’ shakshuka

Traversing sidewalks and absorbing the buildings lining the streets is perhaps my favorite pastime, and I saw much of Antwerp this way.  If you find yourself in Antwerp doing the same, don’t forget to look up! I soon noticed that there sat perched on many a building corner in Antwerp a Virgin Mary statue, which quickly presented the opportunity for a twist on the classic, “Where’s Waldo?”.  I should warn you, however, that Mary and her cherubs can be quite elusive. Be prepared to run across the street in order to take a photo when you finally encounter one, leaving the rest of your travel party wondering what on Earth is wrong with you.

Where’s Mary?
Where’s Mary?

Later, I found myself passing through the famed Grote Markt in Antwerp’s old city quarter, lined with strikingly Flemish Gothic guildhalls.  No doubt looking quite foolish (and even more like a tourist), I spun around in place to take in the full 360° view, which was still stunning, even on an overcast day.

Grote Markt, Antwerp
Grote Markt, Antwerp

Our meandering path across the city brought us along the Scheldt River next, where we made a stop in the Museum aan de Stroom.  MAS houses collections on nine floors, although making my way around Antwerp with a group of eight other people meant that I wasn’t able to pore over each exhibit as I normally like to do at museums.  I’d been warned of this before, but if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about traveling, it’s that the larger the group with which you travel, the harder it is to agree precisely on how to delegate everyone’s time collectively—which makes perfect sense, since everyone has different desires and interests.  So, while staring longingly at impressionist paintings and gawking over ornate period rooms is absolutely my cup of tea, for others it might seem downright dreadful. Conversely, though, seeing new sights and exploring new environments with friends makes the experience all the more sweet, so no complaints here!  The MAS roof offers an expansive panoramic view of the city, so up we went, viewing the city from 200 feet in the air and tracing the steps we’d taken to get there.

The view from the roof of MAS
The view from the roof of MAS

The rest of my weekend was spent still in Belgium, where I visited charming Ghent and strolled the streets of Brussels, lit up so magically in the night.  Like Antwerp, these Belgian cities were both beautiful and full of character in their own rights, each with their own hidden gems (and each deserving of their own blog posts, if we’re being frank).  

On a final note, in case you’re wondering, did Blanca ever get to eat her Belgian waffle?  Yes, yes I did.

Lots of food, all of which I ate.

Are you hungry? If you aren’t now, you will be after reading Blanca’s next blog! Check it out for mouthwateringly delicious looking pictures and the details of her first week food adventures!

Thursday, January 23, 2020 | Written by Blanca

 

After wrapping up my first full week in Metz, I think it’s high time to address a topic about which I’m sure everyone back in the States is wondering:

What is the food like in Europe?

As the GTL blogger for the semester, I feel that it’s my duty to showcase all the aspects of life abroad, and foreign fare is no exception.  This is a duty not to be taken lightly, so in order to adequately address the above inquiry, I made a point to try as many foods as possible, and as wide of a range of foods as possible, before and during my first full week in Europe—for the sake of furthering everyone’s collective knowledge, you know?  

Aux Petits Choux, 207 Avenue de Strasbourg, 57070 Metz

 

A low-quality image of a high-quality sandwich
A low-quality image of a high-quality meal

Only a ten-minute walk from the GTL building, and an even closer walk from the Lafayette residence where many GTL students reside, this bakery offers a selection of baguettes, viennoiseries (baked goods), and the best sandwiches at affordable prices.  I ordered the Toscan sandwich (€4.10), which encased cured ham and piquant tomatoes, not unlike sun-dried tomatoes, in a near foot-long baguette.  Enjoy the blurry eating-while-walking photo of it to the right!

 

McDonald’s, 43160 Rue du Palais, 57000 Metz

 

The good ol’ Golden Arches-- lots of mcDonalds!
The good ol’ Golden Arches

To conclude our first week in France, a few friends and I made a 10PM trip to McDonald’s—because what better cuisine to eat in a country heralded for its culinary eminence?  Nevertheless, the trip yielded some interesting insights: McDonald’s portion sizes are noticeably smaller than those in America and are significantly more expensive. That being said, the offerings in France are much lighter and healthier than those back home, and some menu items are unique to France, so it may be worth checking out for those interested in the differences.

 

Burger Kebab, 5 Rue du Palais, 57000 Metz

 

Burger Kebab’s Kebab Burger—say that 10 times, fast
Burger Kebab’s Kebab Burger—say that 10 times, fast

Disillusioned with American fast food chains after my trip to McDonald’s, that weekend, I instead went to Burger Kebab, a French joint serving a range of menu items from tacos to kebab wraps and burgers.  It seemed fitting to order the kebab burger, which did not disappoint; in addition to being more affordable than Americanized fast food, the burger also featured more complex flavor notes from its combination of kebab meat, fresh vegetables, and a house burger sauce.

 

Technopôle University Restaurant, CROUS, 4 Boulevard Dominique François Arago, 57070 Metz

A convenient lunch spot frequented by many a GTL student, the Crous Cafeteria is a practical choice due to its proximity to GTL and its competitive student pricing, so I decided to try it for myself.  For a mere €3.30, students are able to grab a baguette roll, a side salad, an entrée (check the menu for each week’s offering), a serving of cheese/dairy, and a dessert. If you’re looking for a quick and easy-on-the-wallet bite to eat on a weekday, the Crous Cafeteria is hard to beat.

Di Clara, 3 Rue Dupont des Loges, 57000 Metz

Last Thursday night, and incidentally also the night of the last day of the first full week of class (a cause for celebration, for sure), a group of friends and I traveled to downtown Metz in search of sustenance that we would not need to prepare ourselves.  We decided on pasta, and after inputting a few vague phrases into Google Maps, we meandered the streets of Metz, where we were found, fifteen minutes later and completely off-route, by a group of local French residents. Fortunately, they spoke English, and after a short chat with us fired off a list of Italian restaurants in the area.  Ultimately, we found ourselves in front of Di Clara, an ambiently-lit restaurant boasting a diverse menu of pastas, risottos, and pizzas in red and white sauces, and despite not having a reservation for our party of six, we were ushered in.

 

The best—the best—risotto
The best—the best—risotto

I ordered the asparagus risotto (risotto di asparagi), a creamy and perfectly-balanced risotto with green asparagus, fresh tomatoes, leeks, and Italian cheese.  Other orders at the table included shrimp scampi tagliatelle, tortellini in gorgonzola sauce, and Tuscan rigatoni, and after stealing a bite from many other plates, I can say without a doubt that this was one of the best meals I’ve had in France so far.  Though on the pricier side—this is no Crous Cafeteria—like the locals, I definitely recommend paying Di Clara a visit if you’re in Metz!

 

Metropolitan, 35 Rue du Fort Elisabeth, 1463 Luxembourg

 

A Metropolitan meal in a metropolitan city
A Metropolitan meal in a metropolitan city

After an early start to the day and an hour-long bus ride to Luxembourg City, my Luxembourg travel companions and I dropped into Metropolitan for brunch.  Bordering a bustling square, Metropolitan’s contemporary, glowing lighting and cozy seating were invitingly warm, much like its menu. I ordered Oscar’s Classic Burger, which comprised a juicy burger patty, crispy bacon, buttery melted cheese, and fresh vegetables on a toasted bun, all served with a side of thick, golden fries.

 

If burgers aren’t for you, there are a variety of other menu items to try!  Other orders at the table included fragrant Moroccan lamb chops, a savory Mexican-style breakfast, raspberry cheesecake, steak and potatoes, and the classic brunch staples of pancakes and eggs on toast.