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Italy Part Two June 26, 2012

Posted by kavya.mk in Travel Log.
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Here is the continuation of our Italy adventure!

The next day, we walked around Rome to see all the local vendors and eat more food before getting on our train to Florence.  We killed just enough time to theoretically hop on our train right away.  However, once we got to the station and were checking our ticket, we saw that we were at the wrong Rome train station.  We didn’t have time to run around and find it, so we got on another train hoping it would stop at the station we were supposed to be at.  We stood, thinking it’d be a short ride, and it did take us exactly five minutes…. to blow right through our station.

The train we were on was headed to Venice, and we were just desperately hoping we’d stop in Florence as well.  We sat down in a random compartment, musing about our fourth missed train, until we started seeing Florence stops.  The three we saw were not the ones we wanted, and we started getting concerned that if we waited too long, we would go right through Florence too.  We resolved then to get off at the next Florence stop to see how we could get to the right one. After all, if we’re in the right city, how tough could it be, right?

Answer:  pretty difficult.  The stop we got off in did not even have a ticket counter or visible time table.  It was situated in the middle of nowhere, Florence.  We had no one to call, and there was no one even at the station to ask in our broken Italian.  It was at that point that I actually was concerned about us getting anywhere.

We saw a random set of stairs in the distance, so we went over to see what there was. There was a short but dark and terrifying passage before we saw the light of a blessed time table! We ran over, and thankfully, there was a train that would (hopefully) stop in the station we wanted (Fireze SMN).  We decided that if nothing else, we could at least find a person to talk to on that train.

We did finally end up getting to Florence, but we weren’t ready to relax until we’d checked into our hostel and sat down.  We walked through a sweet little square on our way and passed plenty of local restaurants that we decided we wanted to eat in after we’d checked in.  Our hostel was blissfully clearly marked, and had competent and awesome staff.  Our room was huge, private, and glorious (PLUS Florence Hostel- highly recommend it!).

We finally got to go out and get ourselves a well-deserved, homemade pasta dinner with truffle oil, local olives, and fresh bread with herbs.  It was divine!

Florence was a very pretty city.  We walked around the huge street market and tried our hand with bargaining.  I got a pair of sunglasses down to a euro just for fun, so I just had to buy them at that point.  We went and saw the picturesque bridge with shops, and had more homemade pasta before going back to the hostel to watch the Italy vs. England football game.  Italy won, and the staff ran around with a huge flag while the fireworks went off for the patron saint of Italy (whose day happened to be that one!)  Florence was a success!

The next morning, I woke up with a swollen face, much to my dismay.  We had to check out and get to the station though, so Silvia was my guide over as I kept my head down 😦 We successfully got on the FIRST CORRECT TRAIN that whole trip!!  We grabbed some good ol’ McDo for breakfast as we went to Milan.

There, we ran into many other GTLers who had connections from there all the way to Metz.  We were feeling pretty good about the return journey as we boarded the train, until we were all shuffled off into connecting… buses…. We were in the middle of Switzerland and had connections from Zurich to Metz in an hour, and were apparently no where near the area.  Turns out, there had been a landslide that blocked our rail.  We were probably going to miss our connection… which just basically went along with the whole feel of our trip.  While the others were panicking, Silvia, Jason, Eric and I just exchanged looks, sighed, and decided to curl up for a nap.  Might as well.

As predicted, we missed our train to Metz.  Once we got to Zurich, we got on a train to Basel (near the border of France) with the intent of just taking regional trains without reservations and seeing where we got.  On the bright side, we got to see most all of Switzerland’s beautiful scenery on the way!  We got to Basel and took a train to Strasbourg and got off just in time to see the LAST train for Metz leaving in ten minutes.  We ran to get on it, and were thrilled, counting down the six little stops between us and bed.

But just ONE stop away, we were shuffled into ANOTHER connecting bus (where do they get these buses??) after an hour and a half of just sitting in the station.  Metz apparently had some security threat and was not letting any trains in.  Of course.

An hour and a half of driving later, we finally reached Metz at 930, three hours after we were supposed to reach, had we gotten our train.  We paid for a taxi since all the buses were not running and dragged our feet to bed.

After having caught only one of our seven scheduled trains (with reservations), a random night in Milan, many unscheduled trains, a landslide, two connecting buses, and a security threat, I am able to look back on it all and laugh.  It was certainly quite the adventure, but I’m definitely ready for some more sleep!


Italy Part One June 26, 2012

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The awaited five-day break that marks the halfway point of our summer is here!  Let’s just say, it was a very interesting experience…

The plan was to leave Thursday early morning, get to Rome, spend a day and half there before another day and a half in Florence, and return the night before we had school again.  That was thrown, no, CHUCKED, out the window even before we’d gotten on (rather, failed to get on) our first train.  Stuff happened, and we missed our 8 am train to Zurich.  We frantically checked train times and if we could get to Zurich on time to catch our next train to Milan and then to Rome, only to find that the only non-reservation trains could only get us to Milan that night.

So, we decided to spend a night in Milan in a last minute, somewhat sketchy hotel.  It would have been a pretty good room, with a bathroom, sink, and shower all in the same place… if the toilet at least had a door and the shower had a curtain.  But I guess for a last minute place, it was good for us.  We split guys and girls to diffuse the awkwardness of the bathroom situation a little bit to not much avail.

The next morning, we got on a 5 am train to Rome, finally.  We had reservations at the Vatican for 1130 am, and by the time we reached Rome, it was 930.  We assumed we could check into our hostel, which was supposedly fairly close to the train station, drop off our stuff, and catch a taxi over the Vatican, which was a little over a mile away from where we were.  Alas, luck was just not with us.  Our hostel didn’t seem to exist, even to the locals.  We ran around for 30 minutes, until we found a teeny tiny sign with the hostel name on it, and ran inside.  The staff was unorganized and startled to see us, since we HAD missed our first night there.  So after 45 minutes of sorting it all out, we were already behind schedule.

We decided to flag down the taxi near the hostel instead of running back to the station.  But every time Jason used his Chicago skills to hail us one, the driver would look at us really weird and just drive away.  It happened once, twice…. six times… all while we were walking towards the general direction.  (We later found out that the workers in Rome were on strike.  Would have been nice to know!) We gave up on the taxi and just walked all the way there in the heat (which I’d missed a lot!).

Tiny baby Vatican City (also a country!) was beautiful and very well kept.  We were an hour and a half late on our ticket to the Vatican, but we were able to get in just fine, thankfully.  We walked around the area and saw the museum as well as the Sistine Chapel!

But by the time we were done, it had already been over 16 hours since any of us had eaten a solid meal.  We dragged our famished selves over to the best pizza parlor in Rome and stuffed our faces with delicious, authentic Italian pizza!  It came to us in a sort of panini form, which I was very surprised to find.  The staff did not speak much English, so we knew it was going to be good.

We then walked over to the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.  The area surrounding the fountain was packed with tourists!  (Probably the most tourists per square foot that I’ve ever seen).  We explored the basilica within the Pantheon and marveled at the dome before getting some authentic gelato and heading back to get some rest.

This was not even halfway through our trip, and I’ve managed to write a fairly lengthy post.  See “Italy Part Two” for the rest of our adventure!

(Castle) Tours in Tours on Tour (Eiffel)! June 19, 2012

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This weekend, we had a group of eight people to travel with, instead of our usual four.  It definitely made for a fun train ride!

Originally, the eight of us had planned to take an all day tour of three different castles, complete with transportation and food.  However, timings didn’t work out too well, and we decided to just go ahead and do our own tour of two castles, Villandry and Chenonceau.  We took a train over on Friday night and arrived at our little hostel, Hotel Stars Tours!  It was an adorable little bed and breakfast style place that was kinda far from the train station, so we flagged down two taxis and got ourselves there.

The next morning, we got up pretty early to rain (surprise, surprise).  The bus station was a solid walk from our hostel, so we set off into a really cute little neighborhood to find one.  We both family bus tickets (aww) and got ourselves back to the Tours train station, where a bus than ran from Tours to Villandry was waiting.

Le Château de Villandry (Castle of Villandry) was situated in a little town.  The castle itself was pretty small, but the gardens surrounding it were spectacular.  Each garden had a different plan and a different theme.  One was a set of hedges cut into four different patterns, each filled with a different color flower representing different concepts of love.  There was a huge herb garden filled with at least seven different kinds of fresh mint (which was delicious! Not that we ate any…)  There was a whole garden dedicated to different kinds of pollen (allergy central), and another with seasonal flowers and a fountain.

The majority of the group! Minus our photographer Conrad 😦

The best gardens though had to be the maze and the kiddie playground.  All eight of us raced through the maze in the rain (and mud) to get to the little pavilion in the middle, and tried to keep each other balanced on a four-person swirly chair.  Thankfully, since it was raining, there were not many people there to see our antics 😉

Only a little bit terrifying!

After a rhubarb crepe, we got back on the bus to the Tours train station, where there was a regional train to take us to Chenonceaux to visit the le Château de Chenonceau.  This castle was much bigger, filled with the most, largest, freshest arrangements of flowers I’d ever seen!  The castle itself was quite impressive, surrounded by a moat, and some more gardens.  Chenonceau features both the Queen’s garden as well as the mistress’s (which was larger… ouch!)  We walked all around the grounds and ran around some more in the maze before hopping on a train back to Tours for dinner and a few rounds of cards before getting some rest.

The next day, we checked out of our hostel and got on our train to Paris for the day.  Upon arrival in Paris Est, we got luggage lockers for the day, and set out.  Paris always seems to be PACKED with tourists!  So, we decided to save any actual visits for our Paris trip we planned to make on Bastille Day weekend.  We visited the outside of the Louvre and giggled at the line that literally would at least once around the castle in which the museum is located.

We walked around more and stood in line to go to the top of Eiffel Tower! (It was a pretty long line, but the view was totally worth it).  After getting to the very top, we took lots of pictures and checked out the tallest buildings from around the world in comparison to the Eiffel Tower.  Of course, Silvia had to use one the tallest bathrooms in the world 😉

It was a beautiful day as well, and we got ourselves some ice cream before heading back to the train station (yum, stracciatella!).

The next day (Monday), Silvia, Jason, Eric and I went to a Slash concert in Luxembourg!! It was amazing and was a super fun experience running around the city, dropping off our stuff, and hopping public buses and trains over to the Rockhal concert hall.  We didn’t want to get pickpocketed during the concert where we were all super close, so we didn’t really get pictures. 😦  But we’ve certainly got the memories!

Next weekend– the five day to Italy!!

München June 12, 2012

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German food is delicious. Really. It is.

We make it a point to have at least one traditional meal each place we go, and I have thoroughly enjoyed each one we have had.  But maybe it was the exhaustion, or the welcome and dry warmth of a local German eatery that made the food so much better.  We all basically rolled ourselves out of wherever we ate!

München is adorable and so very clean, as I was surprised to find!  After a night of being pretzeled up (heh, Munich is famous for its fresh German pretzels- might as well practice right?) in a little compartment for six people, we were all thrilled by our hostel.  It was super close to the station (the Wombat- definitely recommend it!) and was also very cool and had very nice staff.  We reached super early in the morning, so most things were closed.  So, we decided to drop off our bags and go ahead and enjoy the fresh breakfast buffet at our hostel.

After we were a little more revived, we stepped out with all our rain gear ready to go.  München was rainy and chilly all weekend, but surprisingly, it didn’t detract at all from the beauty of the city.  We stumbled upon (we seem to do that a lot!) a very regal looking building while we were walking around.  We wanted to know what it was, so we went to read the sign… But unfortunately, none of us speak German. (Except for Jason, who seems to be REALLY good at pretending like he’s a local!)

We visited the Olympic Village that was built for the ones in Munich, and had lunch by the lake. However, the duckies all around were under the impression that our food was theirs.  They kept following us around, and giving us the most petulant “feed me” looks they could muster.  So of course, being the sweet kids we are, fed them some of our delicious fresh German pretzels with homemade mustard!  Sooooo good.

After lunch, we visited the BMW Welt (or vault) where tons and tons of models of BMWs are kept.  We witnessed a show by one of the staff that took one of the motorcycles for a ride around the inside of the vault!  He was going up and down the stairs, on rails, and zooming all around the place!  It was pretty fun,and I saw some cute models of BMWs :) Check it!

We really didn’t plan out for our day to work as well as it did.  Nearby, we stepped into the Nuremburg castle, where we enjoyed the gardens and walking the whole length of it!  It was HUGE!  I bet you could sleep in a different room every day and not repeat for at least three months.

On the way back to our hostel, we visited the biggest beer garden in the world without realizing it!  We just wanted to stop and get some more sausages, but upon entering it, Jason and Eric recognized a few names and so we decided to stay.  We tried some bretzel soup (surprisingly yummy and buttery), along with more German pretzels with homemade mustard and honey mustard, sausages, sauerkraut, and potatoes!

Most of our meals from then on consisted of that very same thing, with a different kind of sausage every time (pork for me though!).

We definitely want to make a trip back to Germany– if anything, just for dinner ;)

Barcelona! June 7, 2012

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Hey everyone!

So for four day weekend, we decided to go to Barcelona, Spain (along with the 80 other GTLers who had the same idea!) .  We packed our backpacks with warm weather clothing (finally!) and hopped on the night train that took us all over!  Most of us were in reclining chairs- which made for an interesting night while trying to fall asleep- but in our excitement, I don’t think we cared all that much.

Getting into Barcelona was a frenzy of passport checks (four to be exact) as the customs control marched up and down the length of the train.  I think they eventually got tired of all the US passports floating around, and all the blank stares as they rattled off in Spanish to us (well, for me, as a French speaker!).  We finally got off our train to step into beautiful, breezy, and sunny Barcelona.  Heavenly.

Our hostel was quite a walk from the train station, but we were just seconds away from Gaudi’s Casa Batlló, one of his many works of art around the city.  We checked in, dropped off our stuff, and immediately got ready for the beach!

On our way over, we noticed that the street blocks of Barcelona were very interesting, in that they were literally BLOCKS!  There would be a large, square complex of buildings, shops, and businesses that would repeat at every street.  These blocks were like squares with rounded edges, so instead of having a corner in each street, it would just be a flattened off facade.  It was all very efficient, and even the most mundane grocery store was located in one of these lovely buildings.

After catching a bus, we finally got to the beach, which was absolutely gorgeous.  The weather was just perfect, and so we decided to walk around a few of the shops before settling down on a towel and basking in the warmth of the sun.  Unfortunately, none of us brought cameras or anything of value, with the fear of something getting stolen or overly sandy while we were enjoying.  So, no pictures of that day :(

We did go back later and see some awesome sand sculptures!  This was an orchestra that actually “played” some music.

And of course, the guys had to get a modeling picture on the insanely picturesque area surrounding the beach.

Us girls looked on :)

We went out and had some delicious local paella that night, and enjoyed walking the streets at night to see the street performers play into the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, we trekked over to La Sagrada Familia.  This insane basilica under the creative, and a bit wacky, eye of Gaudi.

Under construction since 1882, La Sagrada Familia is still not set to be complete until 2030.  We were able to visit the crypt, and locate a chart for the future plans of the basilica.

The areas highlighted in red are the ones that are set to be completed from now until 2030.

The next day, we went to La Rambla and walked around the open air market.  I have been to plenty of those in India, but it is always interesting to see the different products that different areas produce!  We saw the strangest fruit, so of course, we decided we had to have one.

It had a strange, subtle, but sweet flavor, and the most gorgeous deep pink color I’ve ever naturally seen.  Silvia was ecstatic to find a whole Columbian section of the market, and I was thrilled with all the fresh fruit.  We bought a giant cup of fresh, plump cherries and walked through all the different vendors.

So, I have an almost irrational fear of caricatures. (Don’t hate! :( It’s real!) Of course, Silvia, Jason, and Eric had to make me get one.  It wasn’t as scary as I thought :D

There is just too much about Barcelona that made me want more time there.  The food was delicious (tapas and paella!) and the weather was divine.  I am loving all the European culture so far, and can’t wait for our other visits :)


Luxembourgish May 26, 2012

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I’m not a slacker- I just suck at finding good internet.  I promise. :)

Our first weekend here was one that we decided to take a little easy, with a trip to downtown Metz on Saturday and a day trip to Luxembourg on Sunday.  Our little primary pod of six (consisting of Jason, Iva, Maria, Silvia, Eric, and myself) ventured out to Metz a second time after our first trip with GTL as a whole.

Metz is a little known, and often overlooked, beauty.  The buildings are each unique and even the most mundane shop was situated under some impressive architecture.  We wanted to get a better feel for the city we would be spending the rest of the summer in, as well as find some spots for us to hang out while killing time before trains.   (We made sure each person knew where the train station was too- for those of us that are directionally challenged!)

Metz Ville Train Station

Metz Ville Train Station

Where we will be visiting many, many times the rest of this summer!

In our search for a church that Silvia desperately wanted to see, we ended up stumbling across some very pretty areas.  I feel like this will be a major theme of our summer- just wandering around, exploring the cities to get a sense of the culture of the area.  We came across a mini music festival across from one of the main shopping plazas, which we found out was run by the local French students.  We hung around for a while eating crepes while we listened to the music mixes, and were surprised to find how much of the popular music amongst French youth was pretty popular back home too.

We wandered a bit until we came to an arc, Porte Serpenoise.  Porte Serpenoise was the memorial in honor of France regaining rule of Metz several times.

There were many shops in Metz that we browsed around.  I was surprised, and a little disappointed, to find more common stores that I’ve seen in the US than specialty stores to France.  (Other than the very expensive ones).  I am sure I’ll find more unique stores, which is where I’ll be buying most of my souvenirs!

We finally caved after a few hours of wandering around and asked someone for directions.  (I have been designated as the French speaker for our group) . The cathedral was definitely worth our searching- it was a vision to see over a bridge, with the water reflecting the eerie but still pretty glow it had at night.

We went and grabbed some dinner at a local cafe after our little photoshoot, and decided to wrap up the day all hanging out in one of our dorms.

The next day, we took our first train to Luxembourg.  Figuring out the composting business was definitely not as difficult as I was told it would be, though!  (Well, I didn’t think so… Maybe I did something wrong ;) )  We reached clean little Luxembourg early that morning, and were ready for some breakfast before exploring the city.

The cleanliness and wealth of the city was apparent from the moment we stepped out of the door of the train station.  The streets are all well maintained, and every person we ran into was very well dressed.  The streets were kind of empty when we first reached though- probably because it was Sunday morning and most people were in church.

We turned quiet little Luxembourg, with all of its modern art, into a playground!  We came across a beautiful war memorial of a copper sculpture that has a flame that is never turned out.  Behind the memorial stood a large blue gate, but beyond the gate, we saw a glimpse of an engraved design into the wall.  Curiosity overtook us, and we decided to go explore and check it out!

Turns out, the words describing the mural were all in faded Luxembourgish, one of the three local languages.  Luxembourgish is a mix of French and Flemish, and it is one of the COOLEST sounding things to hear!  Our pictures didn’t do the mural justice, and my French wasn’t enough to translate the Germanic hints of Flemish.  Jason can tell you all about the Northern and Southern Luxembourg conflicts over language ;)

Once we got hungry again, we visited a kebab shop and found a beautiful little area to have a picnic.  We ate our food while Jason and Conrad scaled a wall (why, boys, why?) so we ran after them to make sure they didn’t die.  Our worries were quickly eased as we discovered another little hideway building, which turned out to be a bank museum (I didn’t know that was a thing!) but it was beautiful to see.  But our favorite part by far had to be the random metal sculptures on the lawn area.

Like the 5 year olds we really are, we scaled, jumped, laid on, hugged, pulled, twisted, and jumped off every surface we could, much to the amusement of any bystander that happened to see us.  We easily spent an hour here until it started raining, and we decided that slippery metal wasn’t a great idea.

We basically walked the length of the city almost twice in our efforts to see every nook and cranny of it, as we discovered all our fun spots that were not on any tourist map.  I’ll be sure to locate them soon, so that I know for any future visits ;)