La La Lost at the Louvre

Enveloped in art, join Blanca as she explores the world’s largest art museum. Dip into this story of Blanca’s visit to the home of the Mona Lisa, the French crown jewels, and many, many more priceless pieces at the Louvre.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020 | Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in February before the travel restrictions and shelter in place mandates.*

In 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z shocked the world by dropping a collaborative music video, a portion of which was filmed at the Louvre in Paris, in an extravagant, stunning visual experience lasting just over 6 minutes.  The music video follows the Carters in various locations in the museum; first they are seen leaning nonchalantly on the stanchion in front of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, then they stand regally at the top of one of the Louvre’s many marble staircases, overseeing a battalion of writhing dancers on the steps. 

Artifacts in a Louvre exhibit
Artifacts in a Louvre exhibit

In actuality, neither of these actions are allowed for typical Louvre visitors; in fact, there’s usually an attendant who curtly reminds you to keep the line moving if you take too long in front of the Mona Lisa, much less if you dare place your weight on the barrier keeping her many admirers at bay, and group entry to the museum is stated to be capped at 25 people.  Then again, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and the millions of dollars they share, are by no means typical, so it made sense to me at the time that they were granted the privilege to film all around the Louvre.  Now, after visiting, I, myself, am beginning to think that perhaps they just got lost.  I did, anyway.

Believe it or not, outside of arriving at/departing from the Charles de Gaulle airport, I was only in Paris once during all my time abroad (crazy, I know—but then again, I also thought I’d have so much more time than I actually did).  What’s more, I only had a few hours to spare on that day, so of course I decided to spend the bulk of the day at the Louvre Museum.  If it wasn’t pretty obvious by now, going to art museums is one of my favorite pastimes!  I have waxed lyrical about them in the past, I am bona fide gushing right now, and I will probably continue to sing their praises until the day I die—it’s what I do.  Naturally, I was excited to see the largest art museum in the world.  While I’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, the largest art museum in America and the fourth largest in the world, and have gotten slightly disoriented there (which was by no means an unpleasant experience, as I was wandering around period rooms the entire time), I’ll admit I was a little unprepared for the vastness of the Louvre. 

Entryways into the museum are numerous, with the most prominent probably being that at the iconic I. M. Pei glass pyramid.  This entrance is also the most crowded, though, so I elected instead to enter directly off the metro, which meant weaving my way through the maze of stores of the Carrousel du Louvre shopping mall before finally seeing the refracted light (of the inverted glass pyramid) at the end of the tunnel.  After storing my coat in a locker in the museum’s cloakroom—the lock on the locker later malfunctioned, and I had to wait for it to be manually opened, which is apparently a common occurence—I entered the exhibition hall. 

Pro tip!  Entry to the Louvre (and many other museums) is actually free for International Student Identity Card (ISIC) holders, as long as you show security the ISIC card and perk that allows for free entry, so be sure to download the ISIC app if you plan to visit.

The existing remains of the Louvre Palace’s beginnings as a fortress
The existing remains of the Louvre Palace’s beginnings as a fortress

The Louvre museum itself is well over 700,000 square feet—it was a royal palace, after all, and you know how the French absolutists liked their castles—built rectangularly around the expansive Napoleon Courtyard in the center.  The close to 38,000 objects it houses are arranged in winding galleries that follow this odd shape.  In short, can you even blame me for getting lost multiple times?

Fortunately, as the adage goes, [museum-going] is a journey, not a destination.  In addition to seeing tons of amazing art during my meanderings, I learned a lot about the history of not only the pieces within the museum but the museum itself.  Initially, I spent a considerable amount of time on the museum’s basement level, which primarily showcases the actual remnants of the fortress that made up the origins of the Louvre Palace.  As I ascended to the ground floor, I gazed out of the windows across the Napoleon Courtyard.  Though the western end of the space remains unenclosed today, open to the Tuileries Garden beyond, it was almost easy to imagine the now demolished Tuileries Palace that once stood there.  What was harder to imagine was the significance the area held: the Tuileries Palace was the place to which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were relegated during the French Revolution, but now, like the Place de la Concorde where they were executed a few years later, the square was simply filled with ambling tourists and plenty more pigeons.

Necklace and earrings of Empress Marie-Louise
Necklace and earrings of Empress Marie-Louise

The Louvre held more sculptures and stone masonry than I’d ever seen in one place, much to my delight, but my favorite pieces of my visit were the French crown jewels, on display in the Galerie d’Apollon, or Apollo Gallery.  While I will never get tired of looking at paintings, sculptures, and artifacts, I simply cannot resist sparkly things.  These jewels were on an entirely different level of grand, with geometrically pleasing arrangements of colorful gems that scintillated in the light.  Then again, the opulently decorated Apollo Gallery, with its vaulted, muraled ceilings and ornately gilded mouldings made for an immersively splendid experience.  I’d seen my fair share of impressively painted ceilings at this point (remember the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice?), but the vivid colors and soft Rococo brushstrokes on this ceiling, coupled with the light streaming through the windows and glinting off the golden woodwork, created an airy splendor like no other.

The Galerie d'Apollon
The Galerie d’Apollon

After departing the Louvre (read: finding my way out of the Louvre), I had lunch in the area neighboring the famed Arc de Triomphe.  This area was surprisingly calm and quiet, perhaps because it was beginning to rain, but afterwards I walked off my meal with a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, where I met significantly more people.  I then decided to stop by the flagship Ladurée bakery, where, for the experience, I picked up half a dozen overpriced macarons.  Later, after ambling my way through Avenue Montaigne, home to iconic establishments like the flagship Dior store and Hotel Plaza Athénée, I sat down on a bench in the park near the base of the Eiffel Tower and munched on the macarons, which I found to be largely overrated.  Seriously—I do not recommend the Marie Antoinette-flavored macaron (frankly, I thought it tasted quite foul).

The phrase “let them eat cake” is commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette, however unreliably, but I do not recommend the Marie Antoinette macaron (second from right).

As you’d probably imagine, I didn’t get through the entirety of the Louvre, even though it was where I spent the bulk of my day.  While I’d thought at the time that I would be able to return in a few weeks to see the undiscovered gallery corners, even more art museums (come on, it’s Paris), and all the sights and eats that the City of Lights has to offer, this turned out not to be the case.  For now, though, I can hold on to the memory of being lost in the Louvre.

Hungary for Adventure (and Falafel)

Feeling as blue as the Danube? Read along for a story sure to lift your spirits as Blanca recounts the second part of her trip in the “Pest” side of the gorgeous city of Budapest.

Monday, May 18, 2020 | Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in February before the travel restrictions and shelter in place mandates.*

This post picks up after my first full day in the glorious city of Budapest (featured in My (AirBnB) in Budapest), most of which I spent on the Buda side, west of the Danube.  The next morning, armed with an itinerary that involved seeing more of Pest, I once again set off on foot for some more adventuring.  My first destination was Hősök tere, or Heroes’ Square, which is a large, open-air square in Pest most notably boasting the Millenium Monument, a cluster of statues honoring the Seven chieftains of the Magyars and major Hungarian leaders.  To get there, I walked down the grand Andrássy Avenue.  Earlier, my Airbnb host, George, had mentioned that Andrássy Avenue is very much like the Champs-Elysees in Paris.  I had scoffed a little at the time, but after having traversed both famed avenues, I realize I should’ve never doubted George’s words (and, as I write this, I’m noticing that George was right about practically everything).  Andrássy Avenue is an equally grand and striking boulevard, flanked with shopping centers, dining establishments, and, closer to Heroes’ Square, a smattering of neo-Renaissance mansions and townhouses.  Some of these, I realized, were actually foreign embassies, which made the street seem even more stately and dignified.  Bathed in rays of sunshine and peeking from behind leaves just beginning to sprout from the tree branches, the elegant exteriors seemed to take on a golden glow.  If George Ezra, another George whose word about Budapest is always to be trusted, had actually had a beautiful house in Budapest, I imagined it would be in the area along Andrássy Avenue.

The Millennium Monument at Heroes’ Square
The Millennium Monument at Heroes’ Square

On either side of the Millennium Monument in the center of Heroes’ Square is a neoclassical building with grand columned porticos and ornately adorned pediments.  Both are actually prominent art museums (yay!), with the Museum of Fine Arts on the left and the contemporary Hall of Art on the right.  I absolutely wanted to go into both, but having spent most of the day at the Hungarian National Gallery the day before, I resignedly decided to diversify my activities and stroll around the Budapest City Park instead.  The Városliget, or City Park, was by no means a downgrade, though.  Located in it, just behind the Millennium Monument, was Vajdahunyad Castle, an eclectic architectural feat whose variety of styles made it rather whimsical and inviting.  Entering the castle gates, I was surprised to find a church and a rather Austrian Baroque-looking building, which I learned was the Magyar Mezőgazdasági Múzeum, or the Hungarian Agricultural Museum.  My visit in the latter didn’t last long, but from the ticketing area, I could see vaulted ceilings and many more sets of deer antlers than I’d ever seen in one place—and I live in the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania.  Europe’s largest agricultural museum certainly doesn’t disappoint, even from the lobby.

The exterior wall of the Transylvanian-esque Vajdahunyad Castle even features a bust of Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film
The exterior wall of the Transylvanian-esque Vajdahunyad Castle even features a bust of Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film

Across the street from the Vajdahunyad Castle was the Széchenyi Thermal Bath, the largest of Budapest’s well-known thermal baths.  Though I didn’t enter the spa (something about being in the same bath as a large crowd of tourists while a new virus was going around didn’t really sit well with me), I’ve heard from many who also visited Budapest that any of the baths are worth checking out.

The Széchenyi Thermal Bath
The Széchenyi Thermal Bath

All this walking was resulting in me being pretty hungry in Hungary.  Leaving the City Park, I once again embarked on the long but pleasant walk down Andrássy Avenue toward Budapest’s Jewish Quarter.  Though once a ghetto during World War II, nowadays the neighborhood is heralded for its celebration of Jewish culture, and rightfully so.  Filled with lively ruin bars and vivid murals on the sides of buildings, the Jewish quarter was spirited, welcoming, and full of life—and some of the best food in Budapest.  I stopped at Mazel Tov, an airy cultural space filled with warm lights and greenery, for their famed Mediterranean dishes, where I happened to have the best falafel of my life with hummus, sumac eggplant salad, and a delicious pistachio raspberry cake (who knew that pistachios and raspberries go so well together?).

The next day—my final full day in Budapest—was spent doing what is perhaps my favorite city activity: walking around and simply looking at everything.  The architecture, urban planning, pedestrians, and even the way local residents drive paint a very telling picture of what a particular place is like, and Budapest was no different.  There’s also something humbling but rather gratifying about standing on the very stones where the bygone regimes of Ottoman Turks and Austrian Habsburgs once ruled, passing present-day residents who were hurrying off to work or carrying home bags of groceries, and realizing that I would have been just as insignificant before as I was now.  Knowing that you’re so small in comparison to everything else around you is perfect for shedding any inhibitions and endeavoring to see anything and everything you want to see (and also a good reminder that traveling alone can be extremely dangerous without thorough planning and caution—don’t skimp on measures like mapping out your routes and sharing your location with those you trust).

St. Stephen’s Basilica also serves as a venue for numerous musical ensembles
St. Stephen’s Basilica also serves as a venue for numerous musical ensembles

I paid the St. Stephen’s Basilica a quick visit, doing a precursory Wikipedia read and finding that, for a period of time, it was forbidden for any buildings in Budapest to be constructed taller than the basilica.  With a stature of 96 meters, St. Stephen’s Basilica is as tall as the Hungarian Parliament Building and tied for the tallest in Budapest.  Speaking of Budapest’s salient parliament house, that was my next stop.  After admiring the building from afar the night before, I didn’t think it could be any more beautiful up close.  As I am with most things, I was wrong.  The meticulous detail of the exterior stonework is positively sublime, and I wondered if the inside was just as splendid.  Unfortunately, while entry is free before 8AM, I happened to be there in the early afternoon, which was really quite heartbreaking.

The west-facing side of the Hungarian Parliament Building
The west-facing side of the Hungarian Parliament Building

Since the sun was making a rare appearance, I paused and spent some time along the east bank of the Danube River, parallel to the parliament building.  I’d always assumed that Strauss’ The Blue Danube Waltz was simply named so because “blue” emphasizes the tranquility of the waltz, but sitting on a bench and looking over to Buda while the wind mercilessly whipped me in the face, I realized that the Danube is actually quite literally the bluest river I have ever seen.  So much for being deep and profound.  As you can see, traveling is full of learning opportunities, no matter how obscure.

The menu of the elegant Vígvarjú Étterem, along the east bank of the Danube, advertising the specials of the day. It’s my opinion that whoever did this calligraphy deserves a raise
The menu of the elegant Vígvarjú Étterem, along the east bank of the Danube, advertising the specials of the day. It’s my opinion that whoever did this calligraphy deserves a raise

I spent the rest of the day forging a meandering path around Pest, passing bustling shopping areas, ducking into quiet cathedrals, and venturing onto less-traveled streets.  Doing so was perhaps my favorite part of my entire visit, and along the way, I came to realize that much of the beauty I’d seen depicted about Budapest in photos and film is quite true.  Take, for instance, that 1987 image of a woman perusing a fresh produce marketplace in Budapest (which has recently been recreated), carrying her nonchalant baby in the same bag as a curiously large leek, which paints grocery shopping in Budapest as a serene, leisurely activity: after stopping at a grocery store for some huge strawberries and delicious blood oranges, I can confirm that grocery shopping in Budapest is indeed remarkably almost idyllic.  Then again, maybe that was just the strawberries talking.  And after stepping into the lobbies of the New York Café and Párisi Udvar Hotel, both of which sport ornate ceilings, opulent décor, and warm lighting that radiates soft, glowing light, the stunning visuals of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel seem less fantastic and more like a pretty accurate depiction.  While many cities are often viewed through rose-colored glasses, with Budapest, you can toss tinted shades; the city and its ambiance are already rosy enough.

My (Airbnb) in Budapest

After dreaming of visiting for years, Blanca details the beginning of her trip in Budapest. Read on for an adventure in the “Buda” side of Budapest with stunning views sure to give even George Ezra something to sing about.

Friday, May 15th, 2020 | Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in February before the travel restrictions and shelter in place mandates.*

George Ezra’s 2014 smash hit single “Budapest,” off his first studio album Wanted on Voyage, begins with the lines, 

“My house in Budapest

My hidden treasure chest.”

Ezra then goes on to detail the finery and treasures of his purported residence in Budapest before proclaiming that, believe it or not, he would leave the beauty of his home and the hard work put into acquiring it all behind in order to be with the object of his affection.  Listening to this song in 2014, I’d simply thought that Ezra had put a lot of time into curating home décor and buying the many “acres of a land” on which it all sat, but that these were insignificant compared to the feelings he held for the person for whom “Budapest” is meant.  Clearly, I was formally more naïve.  After traveling to Budapest for 3 days toward the end of GT-Lorraine’s spring break in February, I now realize that the song was in fact an ardent declaration of love to someone for whom the magnitude of Ezra’s feeling transcended even his love for Budapest, unequivocally one of the most marvelous cities in the world, much less his prime piece of real estate located there.  When my three days were up, I even seriously contemplated just how bad it would be if I didn’t leave (very bad, I concluded), and I had been staying in a single room of an Airbnb which was rather lackluster compared to the estate George Ezra describes.  The person for whom “Budapest” was written must’ve been a pretty extraordinary (an understatement, if you’ve also seen Budapest) individual to have warranted a song of its nature.

While George Ezra certainly writes catchy tunes, I jest; “Budapest” was not why I traveled to the capital of Hungary.  I’d simply wanted to see the city for myself, and had wanted to for a number of years, so after a brief stint in Prague, I took a 6-hour train into Hungary.  I arrived at Budapest Nyugati station, located on the Pest side of Budapest (I’ll elaborate more on this in a bit), as the skies began to darken. 

Fun fact!  Nyugati was built by the Eiffel Company, the same firm behind the eponymous Eiffel Tower. 

Although I later learned that the interior of the station, even its strangely baroque McDonald’s, were as grand as its exterior, I regrettably didn’t loiter for long.  I had promised to meet my Airbnb host in front of the rental at 5PM, which was fast approaching; besides, after hearing a bit of Hungarian over the train intercom upon arrival and realizing it made no sense to me whatsoever—unlike the languages of countries in western Europe, those of eastern Europe have zero cognate words in English—I decided it was probably best for me to find my way before the sun dipped below the horizon entirely.

Sure enough, I found György (or George, as he introduced himself upon learning I spoke English), my Airbnb host, on the hour.  Despite managing hundreds of properties and living 40 minutes away, he took the time to acclimate me to the Airbnb before sitting me down in the kitchen and showing me a map of Budapest aksing, “Had I ever been to Budapest before?”  I replied that I hadn’t, but I’d heard much about it and was excited to see as much as I could of what already seemed to be a beautiful city.  George seemed unimpressed by my lack of planning, (which I tried explaining that I’d intended to do that night) and gave me a much needed rundown of all things Budapest.  He told me that Budapest is the amalgamation of formerly separate cities divided by the Danube River: Buda on the west, and Pest on the east.  We were located in Pest, he told me, but I could easily get to the magnificent Buda Castle on the Buda side by crossing the Danube on the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a sight that I ought not to miss.  Castle Hill is extremely steep, so travelers can reach the Castle via funicular railway, although he found it to be unreasonably expensive; after giving me a once-over, George determined that in my young age, I’d probably enjoy the scenic hike up the hill anyway (spoiler: I did).  Other attractions that George thought I should see were the Hungarian State Opera House, which I regrettably was unable to visit, St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the Heroes Square.  If I had some more time, I could also visit the Royal Palace of Gödöllő in Pest county, which was the Hungarian residence of Empress Elisabeth of Austria.  Elisabeth loved Budapest so much, George told me proudly, that she spent half the year at Gödöllő.  It’s clear that Hungarians adore her just as much, because they affectionately refer to her by her nickname, Sisi.

A bronze statue of Sisi in Erzsébetváros, Budapest
A bronze statue of Sisi in Erzsébetváros, Budapest

After answering my concerns about riding the Budapest Metro, which I would be using in a few days’ time when I headed back to Metz—George informed me that the Budapest Metro was the among the oldest of functioning electric underground railways, second only to the London Underground, and also a breeze to use—George and I parted ways: he to his home, and I to a local coffee shop called Mon Chéri.  Unlike most other non-nightlife establishments of continental Europe, which tend to close earlier in the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find that coffee shops in Budapest stayed open much later, many until 11PM.  While studying isn’t the most glamorous activity for a first night in Budapest, Physics 2 homework waits for no one, not even those who finally have a few precious days in a city they’ve yearned to visit for ages.  A slice of tiramisu and a vanilla latte certainly helped to soften the blow.

The baroque Buda Castle, as seen from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge
The baroque Buda Castle, as seen from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

The next morning, I set off, Google Maps in hand, for the Buda side of Budapest.  Weaving through elegantly baroque avenues, I arrived at the banks of the Danube and crossed the Chain Bridge.

The Danube River, Chain Bridge, and Parliament Building in the distance, as seen from Castle Hill
The Danube River, Chain Bridge, and Parliament Building in the distance, as seen from Castle Hill

Stately Buda Castle perches atop the rather steep Castle Hill, but the sweeping views of the Danube, the Hungarian Parliament Building, and the rest of the city make the trek well worth it.  Set on a site that was once home to Habsburgs, Ottomans, and Hungarian nobility alike, nowadays Buda Castle houses Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, or the Hungarian National Gallery, which shows off the works of Hungarian artists from the Middle Ages to contemporary times.  To the surprise of absolutely nobody, I spent a handful of hours inside, wandering the U-shaped palace, marveling at its painting-adorned walls and its massive (and seriously impressive) collection of medieval wood altars.  I found the National Gallery to be a particularly meaningful visit, because while many great Hungarian artists studied and worked in Paris and elsewhere in the west, the exhibited works weren’t copies of Italian Renaissance or French Impressionist styles as one might expect.  Many seemed to me to be particularly somber and/or subtly distorted, as if they represented the struggles and unrest Hungary experienced throughout the centuries.  Then again, my eye is also extremely untrained.  Maybe Hungarian painters just liked to use the same kind of paint or something, but in any event, I came to realize that all the works in the museum shared an unobtrusive but decidedly Hungarian style.  

At the time of my visit, the National Gallery was also showing a temporary exhibit on the life and works of Hungarian Jewish painter István Farkas, and while making my way through the chronologically-ordered gallery, I realized how his artwork reflected the progression of his life, of the hardships he faced as a Hungarian Jew.  Farkas was a victim of the Holocaust, so it was hard to find optimism or beauty in any of the pieces upon reaching the end of the exhibit, but I immensely appreciated the level of curation that must have went into it.  Through Farkas’ art, I understood the history of the diaspora in Hungary in a way that a history book probably couldn’t teach me (and indeed more than any of the history books, though few, I’ve ever read).  Budapest is home to the largest synagogue in Europe and to a lively Jewish quarter, so the history of the Hungarian Jewish people is intertwined with the history of Hungary, and as a foreigner to Budapest and to the country as a whole, and as with any of my travels, I always appreciate the moments where I can more deeply understand the background of the particular place I am visiting.

The sun was beginning to dip by the time I departed Buda Castle.  Luckily, my next destination was only a few cobblestone streets away.  The neo-Romanesque Fisherman’s Bastion is an eye-catching landmark in itself, and it offered a gorgeous panorama of the sunset.  I often find that my expectations of tourist attractions are too high, but my opinion of the Fisherman’s Bastion was (and still is) completely the opposite.  The landmark reminded me almost of a fairytale sand castle, except the bastion’s towers were very real and quite permanent.  But, like Cinderella rushing down the palace steps at the stroke of midnight, the setting sun meant that I soon needed to descend Castle Hill to return to my Airbnb.

The iconic Fisherman’s Bastion
The iconic Fisherman’s Bastion

Before crossing the Chain Bridge back to Pest, however, I stopped at the banks of the Danube to gaze at the Hungarian Parliament Building.  GT-Lorraine students might recognize the Hungarian Parliament Building as the edifice that graces the front of the Eurail pass cover—I personally recognize it as the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen—but no pictures could possibly do the striking neo-Gothic exterior justice.  I tried anyway, snapping a few photos before putting my phone away and watching the exterior light up, left to right, as the sky faded from pink to purple to blue.

The magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building is the largest building in Hungary!
The magnificent Hungarian Parliament Building is the largest building in Hungary!

London Sunday

After a brief hiatus, Blanca is back on the blog to detail the end of her trip in the British capital. Join her as we flash back to February for the tale of Blanca’s delightful Sunday in London.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020 | Written by Blanca

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in February before the travel restrictions and shelter in place mandates.*

I’m of the opinion, after having stayed for a mere weekend, that London is an extremely underrated city.  The architecture, the wide array of food, the marvelous and uber-convenient London Tube—what more could one possibly want?  I had actually planned to return to London 3 weeks after the weekend on which I visited in February, but that regrettably didn’t end up happening, so I thought I’d instead wrap up the details of my trip and some of my observations of England’s capital city.

Stratford, London
Stratford, London

When I left the Airbnb in Stratford for the day, it was raining again.  No surprise there.  I decided to take the Tube to London’s Notting Hill district, perhaps best known for its quaint townhouses and the Portobello Road Market, which is housed along Portobello Road, running the length of Notting Hill.  While I went with the intention of seeing both, unfortunately the Portobello Road Market is closed on Sundays.

The colorful, whimsical Portobello Road
The colorful, whimsical Portobello Road

It turns out I was just a day too late: the Portobello Road Market is a Saturday street market that boasts countless vendors, most notably clothes (fun fact: Vivienne Westwood got her start at Portobello Road Market!) and antiques.  But no matter!  Some stalls were still open, allowing me to peruse the unique trinkets—delicate porcelain tea sets, glass miniatures, ornate pewter candelabra—inside.   A handful of vintage and charity shops were also open, so I popped into a few; since there isn’t a perfect American equivalent, I was curious to see what they looked like.  In Goldsmith Vintage, I was greeted by racks of faux fur coats and stacks upon stacks of vintage Levis that made walking through difficult.  As it appears, vintage stores live up to their name.

The iconic, charming white townhouses of Notting Hill
The iconic, charming white townhouses of Notting Hill

London probably has the highest concentration of white townhouses of anywhere in the world, but those of Notting Hill have a particular charm to them.  Maybe it was because the sun was intermittently peeking out, between bouts of unpredictable rain, so that the rows of white houses, with their curved carved ornamentation and swirly railings, resembled low-hanging clouds.  In any case, seeing the architecture I’d admired for so long in-person meant that I was certainly on cloud nine.  Notting Hill is also home to quaint shopping and food locations, including a fabulous bookstore decked head to toe in classics with gold-bound covers.  For lunch, I stopped for a bite to eat at a ramen spot called Tonkotsu.  Did I mention how great London’s diverse food options are?

Traveling on the London Underground is such a great experience! No wonder the oldest subway system in the world is still around; they got so many things right.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the Underground platforms spanking clean, as well ventilated as a subground system can get, and with frequent and punctual train arrivals.  Take some notes, MARTA.  That being said, I decided to forgo the crowded Tube in favor of walking.  If the weather permits, I always love doing this in large cities, since strolling through neighborhoods is when, I feel, the character of that city really comes out.  London is an exceptionally unique one, with some of my now-favorite architecture and plenty of open green spaces, so this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  Following streets lined with small cinemas, cafes, and specialty shops, I walked from Notting Hill, which is in the northern section of the district of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, through to Kensington.  

The Churchill Arms Pub and Restaurant in Kensington
The Churchill Arms Pub and Restaurant in Kensington, which was unfortunately overbooked for the day. Remember to reserve in advance in London!

Kensington was my last stop of the day before meeting up with everyone else for dinner—which, speaking of, is nearly impossible to get at a sit-down restaurant without calling to reserve in advance.  This is especially true for large parties, so be sure to make a reservation if you don’t want to be waiting for over an hour for some biryani (which was, however, extremely worth it).  Kensington also has some beautiful architecture, especially its red brick townhomes, so I opted to stroll through its tranquil and quiet residential neighborhoods, probably to the bewilderment of those who lived there.  

Kensington townhouses
Kensington townhouses

My final destination was my favorite: the Design Museum in Kensington.  Europe has some fantastic museums, and I made it a point to go to as many as I could, but it’s no surprise why the Design Museum won the European Museum of the Year Award in 2018.  It exhibits product, industrial, graphic, fashion and architectural design, and my inner Industrial Design minor was jumping for joy.  Some of the installments at the time displayed the evolution of electronic technologies and design projects unique to London; the latter included a case study into a potential project that repurposes the animal fat waste from London restaurants, which was interesting for a number of reasons.  Apparently organic fatty materials cannot end up in London’s sewer system—understandably—so they are instead carted away by special trucks.  This is just one of many sustainability issues today, but it was encouraging to see that there are people who are taking the initiative to address the problem in a thoughtful and conscious way that would, in turn, benefit London.  After visiting so many museums that exhibit the work of the likes of Monet and Michelangelo, learning about the aspects unique to the current city was surprisingly refreshing and a perfect note on which to end my trip to London.

Apple of my (London) Eye

With all that is going on around the globe, we hope to provide a bit of distraction through some wonderful travel stories. Enjoy this excerpt as Blanca recounts her exciting weekend in London.

*Disclaimer: This story takes place in February before the travel restrictions and shelter in place mandates.*

Sunday, April 19th, 2020 | Written by Blanca

I’ll admit this title might be a bit misleading, as I have actually never been on the London Eye; I am a fan of neither heights nor ferris wheels (the latter of which has always seemed a bit precarious for my liking. I mean, a huge wheel spinning around mid-air that could at any point detach and roll across the streets, wreaking havoc over the city and the passengers along the rim? No thank you).  I can now say, however, that I’ve been in London! Despite only having a weekend there, the sights and experiences were like no other, and the city has secured itself a place on my (now rather lengthy) list of cities that I absolutely love.

I arrived at London’s St. Pancras Station just after noon on the first Friday of Georgia Tech-Lorraine’s spring break, courtesy of the Eurostar, and immediately noticed how bleak and grey the skies were—it might always be sunny in Philadelphia (ha), but all those stereotypes about how it’s always dreary and rainy in London are no joke.  Luckily, the city itself shines brightly enough that the sun isn’t needed for a lovely weekend (although its presence is certainly appreciated). Having just arrived, the only thing on my itinerary that day ended up being taking a quick trip to SoHo to do some window shopping and to grab a bite to eat—after which I highly recommend the beef massaman curry at Rosa’s Thai Cafe Carnaby—that evening.  

The City of Westminster

The next morning, I woke up bright and early, ready to tick some London attractions off my bucket list.  Departing my Airbnb, I took the historic London tube to Westminster, where I did a spot of sightseeing. Take my following words with a grain of salt, as I tend to find major tourist attractions rather underwhelming (looking at you, Eiffel Tower), but I didn’t find there much to see.  Of course, Westminster Abbey was a sight to behold, especially when I remembered its celebrated history, and the Palace of Westminster was as grand as it is in photos; maybe it was the dreary grey London skies or the scaffolding enveloping the Big Ben, but I was becoming quite blasé with tourist attractions and the crowds of people they entail.

The Great West Door of Westminster Abbey

Leaving the crowds of the Old Palace Yard behind, I took a scenic walk through Westminster, finally arriving at the Tate Britain, which houses much of UK art since the Tudor times.  Entry is free, as it is for many London museums, so I was able to see some impressive works of English art at no extra charge—I even stumbled upon Sir John Everett Millais’s iconic ‘Ophelia’ in one of the galleries.  Having not been aware that the acclaimed painting was housed there, I imagine I was just as shocked as whoever found Ophelia submerged in a lake to have found Millais’s ‘Ophelia’ at the Tate. Talk about a pleasant surprise!  Prior to entering, I also joined the Tate Collective, so I snagged a ticket to a traveling exhibit, ‘British Baroque: Power and Illusion,” for £5 (something I highly recommend if you’re a student looking to see the temporary exhibits as well).  After seeing so much of the notable Flemish and Italian art of the Baroque period in other museums and collections, it was fascinating to see the British contribution to the art movement and its unique characteristics.

The Tate Britain

After the Tate, my next order of business was picking up some iconic fish and chips.  I opted for takeaway from The Laughing Halibut in Westminster and brought my (very late) lunch to the banks of the Thames, watching the occasional boat and many a tourist pass by.  Around the time I finished my chips—I have to say that I still prefer Belgian frites over any other type of fry—the wind had picked up, so I left my perch by the river and was on my way again.  Heading west through St. James’s Park (some greenery at last!), my walk brought me to Piccadilly, a recommendation of a friend, where I discovered yet another architectural marvel: arcades.  

In architecture, arcades are a series of contiguous arches; Wikipedia lists the High Medieval arches of Place Saint-Louis in downtown Metz, which many GTL students may recognize, as a prime example of an arcade.  From my Wikipedia research, I also learned that many medieval arcades included shops and vendors, so “arcade” has morphed into a term for a group of shops in a single building, regardless of architectural form. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciated the covered walkways of the Piccadilly, Royal, and Burlington Arcades and peeked at the quintessentially British tailoring and bath shops housed within.

Burlington Arcade

As I was not in the market for men’s suits or luxury cosmetics at the time, I wrapped up my arcade window shopping, exiting the Burlington Arcade into London’s famed Bond Street.  Apparently there are two sections: Old Bond Street (which links to Piccadilly) and New Bond Street, but this distinction typically isn’t made in everyday usage; moreover, I, like many other ignorant tourists, was only familiar with the conglomerate Bond Street as a prestigious shopping hub.  Nevertheless, ambling up Bond Street as the bright, warm lights illuminated the elaborate displays of luxury retail stores and art galleries (including the historic London Sotheby’s office!) proved to be the perfect way to end an exciting and culture-filled Saturday in London.

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.