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That’s Amore! July 22, 2013

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The longest weekend of the year saw me traveling the width of Italy in an adventure of history, romance and sweet treats.  Having flown over the Alps to Pisa on one of those lofted advertisements, a Ryanair flight, Kara and I disembarked with one mission: see the Tower before our train three hours later to Rome.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa + me

As is evident, we succeeded.  The Tower is more impressive than I imagined it would be.  I actually did a double-take when I saw it from a few blocks away for the first time.  For reference, three hours is plenty long enough to get to the city from the airport, walk to and from the Tower from the train station, ponder buying a cheap souvenir, admire the city for more than one building, and have a delicious Italian lunch.  While most of the tourists spent all their time taking many, many pictures at that one crowded lawn, Kara and I made a point to stop and enjoy the rest of Pisa as well, or as much as we could.  For example, just down the road from the Tower is the foundation of an ancient Roman bath.  Roman baths are literally EVERYWHERE on this continent.

The Roman bath ruins at Pisa- see the Leaning Tower in the background

A couple of hours later, after the most scenic of train rides through the Italian countryside, we arrived in the ancient capital of the great conquerors, the Roman Empire.  I soon discovered there was much more to it than that history.

 

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Amsterdam, the First Two Day Weekend July 5, 2013

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Approx. 6:00 AM, June 8

My first two-day-long excursion of the summer was the second weekend in June to Amsterdam.  Before the trip, I would have said that getting to and from a place so far away with no intention of going back anytime soon in just two days was at the least tedious and at the most insane.  Afterwards, I would still say the same thing.  At both times, however, I stood behind the decision as totally worth it.

It all started before we got there, when construction and delays on the Belgian and Dutch railways set our time of arrival back to around 3:30 AM on Saturday.  We proceeded to skirt the Red Light District and eat at a McDonald’s at 4:30 AM, just at closing time, before getting a local’s directions to the I am Amsterdam sign.  I have to admit, it was interesting to see the clean-up crews making the streets presentable after the previous evening’s partiers and late-night loiterers.  And, as tired as I was, it was awesome to get a round of solo pictures with the I am Amsterdam sign in front of the Rijks Museum.

After that, we made our way to a tram stop, only to wait for close to thirty minutes in the biting wind before a taxi van approached us.  The wind would not have been a problem had I been blessed with the foresight to bring pants instead of shorts.  In my defense, we had just been to the Spanish coast the previous weekend.  Anyways, the taxi driver explained that we had read the sign wrong, and the tram would not show up for another hour.  Indeed, we had, so I we took his offer and made it to the hotel in a short time.

Our ‘first’ stop of the day was the Anne Frank house.  To many people, especially those who have not read Anne’s diary, like myself, it may not seem like much.  Within those walls is a journey that expertly whisks you away to a time of hope, fear, and despair.  There is really no way to convey the feeling with words, only that every living person owes it to that girl, and all the other children cut short of their dreams by hatred and intolerance, to visit and to understand.

The front of the Anne Frank House

 

The church tower by the Anne Frank House. The family could hear the bells every day while hiding in the secret rooms

The rest of Saturday was spent roaming the streets and canals, pausing at a floating playground, and taking a nap at a peaceful park (I will spare my friends the shame of a wonderful photo) before hoping on a canal tour.  Honestly, the boat tour saved the experience for me because it offers so much history about the city that I otherwise would have just passed by.  Not to mention, we got to hear everything in at least five different languages.

Kara and Rachel on the floating playground

The entrance to the park

The dancing houses

They use these hooks to get furniture onto upper floors

The smallest house in Amsterdam

The ‘building of glass’- it has lots of windows

The next day, other than a little exploring, our big stop was the Van Gogh Museum, just down the way from the Rijks Museum.  He was truly a master of color, and it was amazing to see so many of his famous paintings, even if the reds have all but faded into blues and violets.  My only regret there is not realizing that we in fact were allowed to take photos of most of his paintings.

Me in front of a blown-up wall print of Van Gogh’s Yellow House

The flag of Amsterdam

 

Barcelona, the Four Day Weekend June 24, 2013

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Five days ago, I would have said the the Barcelona trip of week three was the best of the summer, but the explanation of that change is to come later.  Five days ago, my mind still wandered back to the first time I stepped out from the underground and into la Plaça Catalunya.  Right away, I knew that Spain would be my favorite country yet.

Me at La Plaça Catalunya

From the bustling markets all along La Rambla down to the pier to the breathtaking views of Park Guell, Barcelona is filled with excitement, color and beauty.  Not to mention the food!  Tapas bars are the greatest places to enjoy eating out with friends that I have discovered.  Never will I forgot the scents and explosions of tropical foods and candies in the St. Josep Market or the truly over-the-top architectural designs by the man with the name Gaudi.  Nor will I forget the most relaxing day-trip of my life to the warm beaches and stark Roman ruins of Tarragona.

A view down La Rambla

 

Christopher Columbus in spirit- Go Barca!

La Sagrada Familia

 

Groups of people doing a traditional dance to the tunes of a live band

The Gaudi House

 

Inside St. Josep Market off of La Rambla

Barcelona from the peak of Park Guell

 

Tarragona

Roman amphitheater, just off of Tarragona’s beaches

However, my most cherished memory of the Spain weekend is of a train ride. On way to Tarragona, Kara and I sat across from an older Spanish gentleman with an old leather bag and an aged, yet well-kept suit.  We had not gotten too far before we struck up a conversation of very broken Catalan Spanish and discovered he had been a painter for most of his life.  Kara is an artist as well, and the gentleman was so delighted to hear it that he opened his bag to reveal three photo albums filled with pictures of his work.  His fine vision had mostly gone over the last ten years, so we helped him flip through the pages as he explained through keywords and gestures his inspirations and meaning behind each painting.

It is one thing to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a city, but it is truly special to connect with its people.

Trier, the Other Ancient Rome June 10, 2013

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My second weekend excursion from the GTL campus was a relatively short train ride to Trier, Germany.  This small city boasts the old capital of the western Roman Empire, and since I studied Latin for four years in grade school, I could not wait to see the ruins!

Being outside of Italy, it was surprising to me how numerous and well preserved the Roman ruins of Trier proved to be, from the excavated bath house of the ancient forum to the breathtaking amphitheater just outside of town, from the throne room turned church to the original Roman bridge over the river.  The most prominent of the Roman structures at Trier is the Porta Nigra, the so-called Black Gate of the ancient city that actually used to be white.  It to had once been converted to a church, but now stands as part of a museum housing other artifacts of the city.  I absolutely love Roman history, and this German jewel of a city provided more than I could ask for in that respect.

The excavated Forum Bath House

Part of the hypocaust, the heating system of the Roman baths

The imperial Roman Bath House

The Roman amphitheater

The old throne room, now a church

The Porta Nigra

Apparently, Trier is also the birthplace of Karl Marx, and there were little statues of him everywhere!

Karl Marx and the Porta Nigra

Little did I know that our small group of three would find just as much excitement in the city life of modern day Trier.  Our little hotel, Hotel Astoria, radiated with the most homey and welcoming atmosphere, complete with a fine, old-fashioned breakfast.  They even had fancy egg crackers for boiled eggs, which turned out to be more entertaining to watch as guests struggled to figure them out.

Kara in the Hotel Astoria breakfast area

Downtown Trier bustles with shoppers during the day as they go between the diverse open market vendors, cafes, and modern stores.  We happened to be there on a weekend during the celebration of the local police force, something I have never heard of before, and looked on as children had fun learning what it meant to be part of the city’s task force.  The big spectacle of the day unfolded right as we arrived at the Imperial bath houses, where the police helicopter landed for people to see.

One of the busy market streets

Police chopper landing at the Imperial Baths

Trier is more than a city with a rich past; it has a rich future.  The people seem happy, the hospitality is great, and the preservation of all that their city is in no way hinders it from moving with modern trends.

First Weekend Abroad May 27, 2013

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It may be a cliche, but I cannot believe that two weeks of study abroad have already flown by here in Metz, France.  Seriously, after next week, our classes should be about a fourth of the way done!  I also cannot believe that I have let the time get ahead of me; this post should have come a week ago.

One week ago today, I was leaving Belgium with a group of five other Tech students and had in the past week expanded the number of countries I have visited twofold, from four to eight.  Last weekend was our first three day excursion from the Georgia Tech Lorraine campus, and on Saturday  morning our group hitched a ride on the railway from downtown Metz to Luxembourg.  We arrived before the twilight had  finished melting into the day and headed straight for what seemed to be the hoppin’ part of town on the map.  Getting there was a longer journey than expected, but only because we decided to hike down into the small ravine gouged out by the rivers flowing through the city.  For those of you who do not know it well, Luxembourg is a small city of literal ups and downs, with more vertical obstacles between destinations that I have seen anywhere else.

A view of a western portion of Luxembourg City, towards the northeast

With the more downtown area apparently deserted at midday on a Saturday, I suggested we cut through a block over to the tourism office.  The square on the other side was hosting none other than the weekend open market and drawing locals and tourists from all over the city.  With the bustling people, live jazz band and sunny skies, I found myself soaking up European city life and feeling like I was on vacation for the first time in a long time.

Guillaume II Plaza, Luxembourg

Throughout the rest of the day, we saw many of the older structures and ruins of the older city, the natural history and art museum (with some fantastic Roman era and prehistoric exhibits), and the impressive Kirchberg district.  A short bus ride to the northeast of what I would call the ‘market area,’ it houses several European Union institutions, a huge indoor mall and a newer theater where we could see the latest Star Trek movie in its original version.  The hostel we booked for the night was nestled down in the gorge by the river, and it went beyond my expectations for cheap shelter.

Sunday morning saw us making our way farther north, to Brussels, Belgium.  Another bight and comfortable day was ahead of us in a new city, with one much, much larger and busier than the last.  After a disorienting wrong turn, I was able to get the group to the hotel in the south of the city.  On the way, we weaved through a massive open market and saw a small castle structure dating from medieval times, which if I recall correctly used to sit near the water.

The small castle in Brussels, Belgium

It was not long before we were back out on the town, and an even shorter time before I bought a Belgian waffle from a waffle truck.  Yes, a waffle truck, similar to an American ice cream tuck, only infinitely cleaner looking on the inside.  It was worth every euro cent.  The volume of variety in architectural styles and sheer size of some buildings made Brussels stand far apart from Luxembourg.  For example, the monumental structure housing the judiciary of Belgium easily swallows up four blocks, but is only a speck on the map of the city in its entirety.  It isn’t even the largest building.  The Grand Plaza was just as impressive, as well as the Royal Palace and art museums.

The Grand Plaza in Brussels, Belgium

While we missed out on seeing the Little Man statue, I think we saw plenty of it in all of the shops.  Actually, it was impossible to see most of the city in the time that we had there.  I would like to head back sometime, especially to see the old World’s Fair grounds and to simply explore the storefronts again.  We ventured into one hole-in-the-wall antique/pawn shop to see such artifacts and hundreds of years old swords, a room full of ornate picture frames, and a giant jade (maybe) ring of oriental origin.  I would also go back solely for the waffles, with my case supported by the wonderful breakfast I had on Monday.

The huge ring from the antique shop

Me, along with a delicious pile of waffle, ice cream and strawberry syrup

If the first weekend was any indication, there are two things certain about this trip.  The first is that it will be amazing as long as I choose for it to be amazing.  The second is that it will be over before I can blink twice.