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Weekend #2: Edinburgh July 9, 2012

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For the second weekend of travel, I went to Edinburgh, Scotland. After a 5 hour train ride on Thursday night, we arrived at our hostel on Market Street, in the middle of the older part of the city, right below the famous Royal Mile. My girlfriend, Kalli, flew up from Germany to enjoy the weekend with us and it was great to see her!

Friday was spent wandering around the city. We saw various shops, memorials, and monuments highlighting important Scots from history. Most interestingly was a memorial to Sir Walter Scott, the poet. His memorial is in a strong Gothic style and stands very tall. In the afternoon, we visited a somewhat famous pub called “The Half Way House,” a small establishment that had occupied the same location for over 150 years. That evening, we went on a ghost tour that imparted some of the history of Edinburgh while touring the labyrinthian underground vaults. The tour wasn’t especially scary, but it was a lot of fun.

Saturday, Kalli and I went to brunch at Deacon’s Cafe where we had delicious scones and hot tea. Next, we visited the Scotch Whiskey Experience, a museum about the process of making whiskey. The museum was very well done and informative. We visited a room with 3,184 different brands of scotch whiskey, a private collection that had been sold to the museum. Afterwards, we visited the Camera Obscura museum across the street. The main attraction of the museum is the camera obscura located at the top of the building. Using a small mirror that directs light from the surrounding city through a very small hole in the roof, an image of the city can be projected onto a table in the middle of the room. We were able to see a 360 degree view of the city, which was neat. The rest of the museum included various optical illusions and visual exhibits. From the museum, we walked out to Greyfriar’s Bobby, a famous dog who’s owner died of tuberculosis. Bobby continued to follow his owner’s routine, visiting the same pub his owner frequented. After strolling through the graveyard and noting some of the more interesting grave markers, we had a delicious dinner at Greyfriar Bobby’s pub. We spent the remainder of the evening with friends in the bar attached to our hostel enjoying the company and listening to live music.

On Sunday, we visited Edinburgh Castle, an impressive structure standing tall above the city. There were several museums of Scottish military history and great views of the city. Most impressive, though, were the Scottish Crown Jewels, hidden for 111 years before being uncovered by Sir Walter Scott. Unfortunately, pictures were prohibited in the room, but the crown was very impressive and ornate. On our way out from the castle, we had a great picture with a certain William Wallace, no big deal. We finished our stay in Edinburgh with a trip to the Edinburgh Dungeon, a half haunted house style, half historical look into some of the events of the city’s history.

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Edinburgh is an absolutely beautiful city and I would love to return sometime in the future.

Weekend #1: London July 3, 2012

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The first weekend trip took me and several friends to London. Our plan was to tour as much of the city as we could sooner, before the Olympics, rather than later, when things began to get crazy. We took a bus in on Thursday night and got settled in. Our hotel was very nice and modern but was about the size of a large cardboard box and the bathroom was a close relative of those found on regional jets. It didn’t matter, though, as we didn’t intend to spend significant time in the room, we were in town to see London.

On Friday, we spent time meandering around the city browsing sights of interest. We saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Platform 9 3/4 (of Harry Potter fame) at King’s Cross, and ventured out toward Abbey Road (though we got a bit lost and weren’t able to make it), Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben.

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We began Saturday with a double-decker bus tour that stopped at major points of interest in the city. We got off at the London Eye and took a boat tour from there down the Thames to the Tower of London where we walked around for a bit before taking the boat back and boarding the bus tour again. We stayed on the bus as it drove through the city and the tour guide narrated various features as we passed. Some of the people in our group purchased tickets to a showing of The Phantom of the Opera Saturday afternoon so while they attended that, I made my way to Hyde Park and then on to the science museum, which I enjoyed very much. There were some fascinating exhibits on the history of mathematics, time, and energy. The most interesting to me, by far, was an area dedicated to the internal combustion engine, with a strong focus on airplane engines.

On Sunday, before we left, we decided to visit the National Gallery, our first museum in 7 weeks that we entered of our own volition. It was neat to appreciate the art there after having spent so much time on the continent studying art history. Soon after, we returned to Oxford for another week of classes.

To Oxford June 23, 2012

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Having reached the conclusion of the travel portion of our whirlwind European tour, we now settle down to life with traditionally styled classes at Worcester (pronounced “WOO-ster” and rhymes with “rooster”).

Classes run from Monday to Thursday and everyone has registered for whatever classes are appropriate for their major requirements. My schedule is two history classes with the same professor, back to back: “The History of Labor and the Industrial Revolution” and “Modern European Intellectual History.”

The rest of the blog posts here will highlight experiences from my travels on the weekends.

From the UK (where, regardless of what they say, they DO drive on the wrong side of the road), Cheers!

Paris: The City of Lights and Expensive Everything June 23, 2012

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After Belgium, our tour group made its way to Paris for a few days. Our ride in was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Our adept coach driver, Baloo, decided to take us and the bus on a tour through the streets of Paris. And what trip would be complete without a visit to the Arc d’Triumph? Now, anyone who is mildly familiar with the asphalt–for it would be incorrect to presume there is enough automobile organization for it to be called a road–surrounding the arch, knows that it is the equivalent of an eight-laned-without-lanes roundabout. As we plunged straight toward the center of the roundabout, Baloo narrated with the mic in his broken, heavily accented English, “Okay, everybody, close your eyes like me. It’s scary.” We took two very terrifying loops around the arch before maneuvering our way to safety and on toward our hotel.

The first full day in Paris, we rode out to the Palace of Versailles. The building was incredibly impressive and imposing. I was struck by the vast number of rooms in the palace. The tour only included a very small portion of the interior. What I enjoyed more than the palace, was the gardens that stretched out behind it. The gardens included a massive grand canal, beautiful terracing, and lovely greenery. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to wander around the gardens, though I would have loved to.

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One of the best experiences from Paris was climbing the Eiffel Tower. While most people were waiting in line to ride the elevator to the top, we decided to climb as far as we were allowed on the stairs and take the elevator the rest of the way. The view from the tower is incredible; we could get a 360 degree view of the city.

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While most everyone was very happy to be visiting Paris for its various charms and attractions, that was slightly overshadowed by the an ominous evil. What, you may ask, was this evil? The bane of the academic experience at Tech: finals. However, being accomplished and well-learned students, we were aware of the best remedy for such trials: cramming. No test would get in the way of enjoying Paris.

Anyway, the night after our final, our last in Paris, most of the group decided to visit the Eiffel Tower again to enjoy the light of the tower when it lit up. It was really spectacular to see at night.

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Of Waffles and Chocolate June 20, 2012

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Our trip from Rome to Ghent required two days so we stopped midway in Lucern, Switzerland. Here we stayed just one night before getting up early the next morning to continue to Ghent.

We arrived in Ghent late in the evening, which required that our welcome dinner be moved to the next day. Our hotel was situated in the more historic part of Ghent, with open stone squares and several Gothic cathedrals. Rather unanimously, however, at the forefront of the group’s mind were promises of delicious Belgian chocolate and waffles

On our first full day in Belgium, we took the bus north to the town of Bruges. The town was small and felt almost quaint in its architecture and cobblestone streets. There were numerous canals and gardens that divided the town, giving it a very pleasant feel. We had a brief walking tour of the town before having the afternoon free. A few of us decided to find waffles for lunch and I ordered mine with ice cream and raspberry syrup. Truthfully, it was one of the best waffles I have ever had the privilege of consuming. After lunch, a large number of people from our group rented bicycles and rode out of the city and followed one of the canals about 20 miles out of the city. The weather and countryside were absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and we moved at a brisk pace.

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We returned about 3 hours later and, with a little over an hour to spare before we needed to be back at the bus, several friends and I sought out a chocolate shop. I purchased about 7 or 8 pieces, which were gone before we had traveled more than a couple blocks toward the bus. Having tasted the wonders of Belgian waffles and chocolate, my life may very well be one step closer to complete.

The following day, we again took the bus out of Ghent, this time south to Brussels. Here we went to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts where we toured for a couple hours. The museum had a special Stanley Kubrick exhibition going on that, as a photographer, I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, I chose one of his photographs, from his series Sketches from Portugal for one of the works in my art journal I needed to keep for class. After lunch, we visited a 10 story museum dedicated to the history of musical instruments. The coolest part of the museum was that, at most of the exhibits, there was a place where you could connect a pair of headphones and listen to sounds and music of the various instruments. It was neat to see some of the “ancestors” of modern day instruments. Next we were led on a brief walking tour of Brussels that conveniently ended at the Delirium Café, a bar serving over 2,000 different kinds of beer. After a couple hours there, we worked our way back to the bus to take us back to Ghent.

The last full day in Belgium, we remained in Ghent. The itinerary for the day was short and consisted of music class in the morning followed by a brief tour of St. Bavo Cathedral. Interestingly, there was a modern art exhibition going on inside the church, with many pieces making various religious or philosophical statements. The main reason for our visit, however, was the Ghent altarpiece, a polyptych (multi-paneled work) by the Flanders artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck. There was some interesting history behind the work, including how the lower left of the work was stolen and never recovered. The afternoon was spent eating, resting, and packing for Paris, our final stop before Oxford.

Panorama from Orvieto June 18, 2012

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Between Florence and Rome, we stopped for lunch in the town of Orvieto, which is situated atop a volcanic tuff. The location offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

A Taste of Italy June 17, 2012

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So after spending the last few weeks traveling from through Venice, Florence, and Rome, I’ve had somewhat of a taste of the culture, music, arts, architecture, and, of course, food of Italy. Being a cultural center for music and the arts, Italy had much to offer us in the way of museums and concerts.

Venice
My first impression of Venice was that it was quite overcrowded, with people everywhere. By the evening, however, I realized that the vast majority of the people I saw were tourists who had traveled to Venice just for the day.
Dr. Ciejka led us on a walking tour of the city where we meandered through alleyways and across bridges, stopping and pointing out important buildings or interesting architecture along the way. Of the most note was San Marco, a very beautiful and imposing church. On one of the days, we took a drive to Padua, where we visited the Scrovegni Chapel with its floor-to-ceiling Renaissance frescos, painted by Giotto. One of the afternoons, some friends and I took a gondola ride, a very unique experience. Our gondolier was very knowledgable about the history of Venice and pointed out some additional sights that we had not seen on our walking tour.

Florence
Florence was likely my favorite city thus far. With its combination of great architecture and beautiful skyline, it was a very pleasant city to visit.
We had a very busy start to our stay in Florence with a trip to the Accademia to see David by Michelangelo. Standing 18 feet tall, the sculpture is very imposing. After studying the sculpture, one may notice that the proportions of David’s head and hands seems not to match with the rest of his body. I learned that this is because Michelangelo originally sculpted David to be placed at the top of the Palazzo Vechio, high above the plaza. The exaggerated proportions of the head and hands would look appropriate from ground level. As it turned out, when people saw the finished sculpture, they decided that its beauty would be more enjoyed if it were set on the ground in front of the Palazzo Vechio instead. From the Accademia, we set off on a walking tour of Florence including visits to the Duomo and San Lorenzo. In the afternoon, we visited the Uffizi Museum of Fine Arts where we studied some of the great Italian artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
On one of the evenings, a group of students climbed to the top of one of the hills close to our hotel with a great view of the city skyline. From there, we had a beautiful view as the sun set behind the city. The Florence skyline is one of my favorites, especially at sunset.

Florence Skyline
Florence Skyline

Rome
Rome holds so much to see and do, it was impossible to get a full account of the city in our short time there, however, we made the most of the time and visited some of the great landmarks of the city.
During our first full day in the city, we went on a walking tour of ancient Rome. This included the Capitoline Hill, the Roman Forum, and, of course, the Colosseum. As an engineer, I was amazed at the advanced skill of the Roman architects in constructing such large and functional structures as the Colosseum, which could hold up to 50,000 people. Even considering the bloody battles that were staged there, the structure is extremely imposing and awe-inspiring.
The second day, we visited the Vatican where we saw the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican was extremely crowded with tourists, which made the tour progress slowly and with difficulty. Nonetheless, it was exciting to visit the Vatican and see the great work of Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
One of the most interesting experiences I had in Rome was not even on a scheduled tour. Some friends and I decided to tour one the Priscilla Catacomb, which was near our hotel. We learned that, located just a few feet below street-level, the catacombs contain 3 separate levels and about 8 miles of tunnels that hold approximately 40,000 tombs. Contrary to what many might think, the Christians in ancient Rome did not use the catacombs to hide from persecution, rather, they used them solely for the burial of their dead. Regardless, it was an uncanny but extremely exciting experience to walk among the tombs.
The last full day in Rome included another walking tour during which we visited the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, and several churches in the area.

Now, after a two-day bus ride and a stop in the beautiful city of Lucern, Switzerland, we are in Ghent, Belgium, where we are enjoying fantastic waffles and chocolate!

Welcome to Budapest, Hungary May 23, 2012

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After arriving at our hotel, napping, and eating an absolutely delicious welcome dinner, a few friends and I decided to go for a walk around the city. We wandered toward the Danube river which separates Buda from Pest (Buda + Pest = Budapest, get it? Get it?), and over to the Buda side. We observed some absolutely beautiful views of the city and river as well as the well illuminated bridges that span the Danube.

This morning, we had an early breakfast and a short class time before being released for lunch. We strolled toward St. Stephen’s Church, our afternoon art location. The inside of the church was quite expansive and very impressive. After waiting out a nice afternoon thunderstorm, we walked to a trendy cafe nearby to have lunch.

The afternoon was spent in venturing out to the Franz Liszt Music Academy, but we found that it was undergoing major renovations so we weren’t able to go inside. Instead, we went into a small music store across the street which we thought was a shop that sold instruments and music and such. Instead, we found that it was a workshop where a man was making violins! He couldn’t speak very much English and we have no grasp of Hungarian, but it was fascinating to see all manners of violins and cellos in all sorts of stages of construction.

Soon we headed back to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before dinner.

Welcome to Budapest, Hungary May 23, 2012

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After arriving at our hotel, napping, and eating an absolutely delicious welcome dinner, a few friends and I decided to go for a walk around the city. We wandered toward the Danube river which separates Buda from Pest (Buda + Pest = Budapest, get it? Get it?), and over to the Buda side. We observed some absolutely beautiful views of the city and river as well as the well illuminated bridges that span the Danube.

This morning, we had an early breakfast and a short class time before being released for lunch. We strolled toward St. Stephen’s Church, our afternoon art location. The inside of the church was quite expansive and very impressive. After waiting out a nice afternoon thunderstorm, we walked to a trendy cafe nearby to have lunch.

The afternoon was spent in venturing out to the Franz Liszt Music Academy, but we found that it was undergoing major renovations so we weren’t able to go inside. Instead, we went into a small music store across the street which we thought was a shop that sold instruments and music and such. Instead, we found that it was a workshop where a man was making violins! He couldn’t speak very much English and we have no grasp of Hungarian, but it was fascinating to see all manners of violins and cellos in all sorts of stages of construction.

Soon we headed back to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before dinner.

Ready for Takeoff May 21, 2012

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Well, the time has come to board the plane bound for Amsterdam. Our flight is scheduled to leave at 3:10 but it looks like we will be a little late. We will be arriving about 6:30 AM. Next stop, Amsterdam!

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