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Europe in the Rear-View September 9, 2013

Posted by kennethmarino in Travel Log.
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For my last post, I’d like to finish my discussion of Europe and highlight some of the places I haven’t mentioned by making my own best-of list.

Best Museum: Vatican Museums

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In my three months in Europe, I visited many museums. The instruments museum in Brussels, a Hapsburg museum in Salzburg and of course the Louvre, once the seat of power of the French Monarchy. But by far the best museum was the Vatican museums. Over the many centuries of its prominence on the world stage, the Roman Catholic Church collected works of art and antiquity. This grew into one of the largest collections anywhere. In 1973, Pope John IV opened the collection up to the world allowing for the world to see what was once only seen by the Pope and high church officials. The museums many parts have everything from Renaissance art to Roman antiquities. Where it beats out the Louvre is its great variety of exhibits. My personal favorite was the exhibit of the carriages and automobiles used by the Popes over the centuries.

Best Cathedral: La Sagrada Familia

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Besides museums, the thing that Europe is most known for is its cathedrals. There is Notre Dame in Paris, and Notre Dame in Brussels, and Notre Dame in Lyon (my personal favorite of the Notre Dames). Also the odd Castle-Cathedral in Prague with its Baroque stonework and Renaissance domes, and the small wooden churches of Interlaken. I was very temped to choose St Peter’s Basillica — truly a masterpiece of the Renaissance with its majestic columns and colored marble. But I had to give the distinction to the still uncompleted La Sacrada Familia in Barcelona. It was designed primarily by Antoni Gaudi in the late 19th century. Construction began in 1882 but was delayed by the Spanish Civil War. The interior and exterior are both magnificent. The outside contains detailed stonework depicting the major events in the life of Jesus including his birth and the Resurrection. The inside is made to look like a forest with the stem-like columns, the leaf-like roof, and the clever use of light that makes it look as though we are seeing the light poking in from the Heavens. The future plans will only make the outside more magnificent. The entry fee was steep, but as the funds go primarily to construction, I was more than happy to pay.

Best Food: Ristorante del Pallaro

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I am not one of those people who takes pictures of his food, so enjoy this random picture from Google. I might be biased on this one — I love Italian food. If I could eat anywhere at anytime, I would eat Italian. Ironically, my runner up is the pasta I had in Prague: basically a local take on Italian cuisine with a spicy beef sauce. What made this restaurant stand out, even to the other ones in Italy, was the quantity as well as quality of the food. It was several courses with lentils, tomatoes, and other starters as a first course, pasta dishes included rigatoni carbonara as a second course, veal as a third course and a custard and a sweet strawberry drink for dessert. It also included a cravat of excellent white wine. Don’t worry reader: I was 21 years old at the time.

Most Overrated Attraction: Mannequin Pis

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This one had some stiff competition. There is the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, the clock tower in Prague, and the Gazebo in Salzburg from the Sound of Music. None of these, however, are as pointless yet inexplicably popular as Mannequin Pis is Brussels. The statue is stuck in a seemingly random street corner in Brussels. It is quite small and unremarkable artistically. And yet, the street was absurdly crowded as dozens of people (the author included) tried to get a picture of this fountain. Maybe its popular just because everyone shows up to see what the big deal is. We may never know.

Most Beautiful Scenery: Interlaken Switzerland

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There are lots of beautiful places in Europe, but the Swiss alps in Interlaken were among the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Rather than try to explain this one, I’m just going to post a bunch of the photos I took so you will understand why this one gets the prize.

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Enough said (or not said).

Best Overall City: Rome

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Finally, my favorite city. This one was hard to choose with all of the fantastic places I visited. I still had to give the slight edge to Rome. Rome has the awe inspiring ancient architectures and one of the best museum collections in the world. The cuisine is superb and the people are extremely friendly. Rome scored consistently well in every category I thought of for judging the best city. As both ancestrally Italian and Catholic, the city was also important to me personally. It is the center of the Catholic world and contains the remnants of one of the most powerful and influential empires in history. If I could just visit one city again it would have to be this one. Well, I did throw a coin in the Trevi fountain.

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With that, goodbye, and thank you for reading.

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Bohemian Rhapsody July 12, 2013

Posted by kennethmarino in Travel Log.
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It took over 10 hours, but after a long day of travel, we arrived in Prague. Once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg Dynasty and subject to over 50 years of rule first by the Nazis and then the USSR, Prague is now the capital of the Czech Republic.

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In the evening we traveled around the area of Old Town looking at the various shops and restaurants. Despite the initial confusion regarding the conversion rate (somewhere around 20 crowns to a US dollar), it became obvious that, compared to our other destinations in Europe, Prague was much more affordable. According to locals, you can have a nice dinner for around 200 crowns ($10), a bargain. We had a good dinner in Old Town Square which included some local Czech beer. Confusingly, it was called Budvar, or Budweiser, but it is not in any way affiliated with the Budweiser sold by Anheuser-Busch.

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After dinner, we walked around on Charles bridge. It really is something you have to see at night; the darkness gives the statues an almost mysterious feel and the bridge gives an excellent view of the Castle (which was apparently lit by the Rolling Stone’s personal light guy).

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After a well deserved rest, we got our chance to truly explore Prague. With our tour guide (Bara) we went around seeing the famous buildings of Prague including the Astronomical Clock (which according to Bara is the second most overrated tourist attraction in the world). We also went around the Jewish district including the Spanish Synagogue and the Old New Synagogue.

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The reason why the city and especially the Jewish buildings were so well preserved in World War II were not the happiest. When Hitler took the city, he decided to that its beauty should be preserved. More disturbingly, he wanted the Jewish sites preserved to serve as the location of an “Exotic Musuem of an Extinct Race.” Thankfully, this horror was never built and the sites have become monuments and museums to all of the culture that was destroyed by the Holocaust.

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After the sites in Old Town and New Town (they are very creative when it comes to naming things), we walked to the Castle District and the surrounding areas. We saw the gardens of the “Generalissimo” with the replicas of the statues that were stolen by the Swedes during the Thirty Years War.

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The most interesting part, however, was the castle. It was the result of centuries of work, but the final result is a masterpiece, if somewhat confusing architecturally. Construction began during the early Baroque period which had a simple style, and continued into the late Baroque period that stressed more elaborate designs and finished in the Renaissance period leading to a renaissance domes on top of what is ostensibly a Baroque structure. 

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During the rest of the time in Prague we also saw the Lennon wall, Petron Hill, and a classical concert. Overall I would say that my impression of Prague was really good. The amount of history on display is simply staggering, the prices on everything are very reasonable and everyone was very friendly. Being right in Central Europe, it seemed at once familiar and foreign. Overall a very unique experience. 

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By the way, in case you are still on the hook about what the most overrated attraction in the world, it was the Mona Lisa.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (and Other Places as Well) June 27, 2013

Posted by kennethmarino in Travel Log.
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After 2 flights,  3 trains, 8 buses, and 6 metro rides my five day adventure to Italy was done.

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After a night and Paris and an early morning flight, I arrived in Rome. One of the major draws of the city, of course, is its connection to the distant past. Once the seat of power for the Roman empire stretching from Britain to Egypt, the only evidence that remains of the ancient city of Rome is the few structures that survived the subsequent rise of medieval, Renaissance and finally modern Rome. We walked around the Roman Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon.

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Unlike the Forum and Colosseum, which are now shadows of their former selves, the Pantheon is incredible well preserved. Converted into a church after the rise of Catholicism in Rome, the structure really captures the splender of the empire. Inside you can see magnificent columns and marble-work, not the dull off-white we typically associate with Classical structures, but rich with color. The truly amazing thing about the Pantheon is that it gives you a tiny glimpse at the true splendor of ancient Rome.

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After quick stops at the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps, not to mention a delicious 5 course meal, we rested for the next day.

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The next day we transitioned from ancient Rome to the Rome of the Popes and Cardinals of the middle ages and the Renaissance. The obvious first stop was St. Peter’s Basilica with its impressive columns and beautiful frescoes. Out of the the churches, cathedrals and basilicas I have gone to in Europe (and there were a lot), St. Peter’s is still by far the most impressive.

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Underneath the church were the catacombs, the final resting place of many of the great Popes of Rome. There was even a memorial to St. Peter himself, although I believe that his actual remains rest elsewhere.

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After the Basilica, we went to the Vatican museums. The result of hundred of years of collecting by the Popes of Rome, the works were finally made available to the public in June 1973 by Pope Paul IV. The collection belonged, it was decided, to the world. In the halls of the museum were works from the ancient Romans, the Etruscans, the Egyptians and the works of the great medieval and Renaissance artists of Europe.

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One of the many interesting exhibits even included the various carriages and automobiles used by the Popes. It includes the very car where Blessed Pope John Paul II was shot during one of his many public appearances. Even years after his death and after two successors, John Paul II still has a very special place in the heart of Catholics, the author included. This is palpable in Rome where his name and likeness often appears and his tomb  is visited frequently.

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After saying “arrivederci” to Rome, we headed off on the train that would take us to the next stop on our tour of Italy (and incidentally another location in the popular video game Assassins Creed II).

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In contrast to Rome where you can clearly see the contrast between the ancient structures of ancient Rome, the Medieval and Renaissance buildings of the Vatican and other areas of the city and the modern structures, Venice is a city that looks as though it is lost in time. True, the numerous and sometimes obnoxious proliferation of touristy key-chain shops and overpriced water stands somewhat limits the effect, but standing in the right places, it still feels like you are in the Renaissance era.

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Like nothing at all, the two days there came and went, in which time we went to numerous museums, many of them small free affairs tucked away inside churches or in narrow street corners, churches and streets. Especially beautiful was the view from the bell tower where the streets of the many island seems to stretch out forever.

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After the still to short trip was over and and I had spent far more than I had intended, I was left with the memories, the various trinkets I acquired and the photos I had taken of the beautiful cities of Italy. If I had to say I learned five things from the trip it would have to be these.

1. Stay the heck away from Gare Du Nord at night.

2. If you see somewhere good to eat around lunchtime, eat, even if you aren’t particularly hungry.

3. Book flights way in advance unless you like paying too much money for things.

4. If a bottle of water costs 5 euros at a restaurant, it is a place that does not like tourists and is trying to rip you off.

5. Take time to stop and appreciate the beautiful things or, at the very least, take a picture of it.

Week 2 or an American in Paris June 7, 2013

Posted by kennethmarino in Travel Log.
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Before I begin talking about my trips to Paris, a joke.

In Europe, you have to watch your bags so they don’t get stolen. In America, you have to watch you bags so that TSA doesn’t blow them up with a robot.

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Anyways, Paris. Paris is one of those cities that looms large in our minds and popular media. Once the undisputed political and cultural capital of the world (some might argue that it still is), the city’s museums, architecture and bustling streets are legendary. With all of this, how could Paris, the real live city, ever live up to the Paris built up in our minds.

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The answer to this questions, in short, is by being absolutely everything that was promised. We started out at the Cathédral Notre Dame de Paris (yes, that one). Taking nearly 200 years to build, the cathedral certainly lives up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful in the world. Possibly as interesting as the cathedral above is the underground ruins of the Roman streets and structures of Lutetia (the Roman name for Paris). Below the cathedral was a maze of old stone from the streets that ran across the site of the church and the bathhouses, built by the concurring Romans to keep the Gauls in favor with the empire.

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Inside the cathedral was even more beautiful. The stained glass, the altar, the statues all gave the church a feel of timeless beauty.

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After Notre Dame, we walked the streets of Paris. We passed street vendors selling their wares, cafes and restaurants. We even came across two bridges covered every inch with locks. Eventually, we moseyed our way to the Champs-Elysées filled with shops and restaurants and bookended by the Egyptian obelisk on one end and the Arch de Triumph. We went in a few of the shops, realized that we could not afford anything and walked out again. It did however lead to a  vow that, if she ever were to win the lottery, she would go back to the macaroon shop with a steamer trunk.

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After that, we took the metro back to the Eiffel Tower, the obligatory sight for Paris. We looked at it until the sun went down, lying in the grass with hot chocolate. The most beautiful part was when the entire tower lit up at night. It definitely lived up to the hype.

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Lastly, we spent a day at the Louvre. Rather than bore you with a long description of all of the statues, paintings and antiquities I saw there, I’ll end the post with a collection of the picture I took there. Enjoy.

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Week 1 or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the French May 23, 2013

Posted by kennethmarino in Travel Log.
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The flight was long and wearing; the seat would not go back all the way and I lost around seven hours due to the time difference. The solution of the man next to me was to exclusively eat jelly beans and Jack Daniels. In my sleep-deprived state, touching down at Frankfurt Airport, it took me a moment to realize – “holy cow, I’m in Europe.”

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Taking the shuttle to Georgia Tech Lorraine – to be my home away from home – I noticed that the Germans are quite proud of their cars. Almost all were Audi’s or BMW’s or Mercedes. There was even a Mercedes electrician truck. After only a few hours on the continent, I could tell that the people here were very proud of their country and their culture.

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After our orientation the next day, we were sent on a bus to downtown Metz. With all the great and well-known cities in Europe, it’s easy to forget that there are hundreds of cities on the continent with their own beauty and fascinating history. Metz is one such city. Most prominent in the skyline is Metz Cathedral, which like all cathedrals it seems, is enormous. It boasts the largest surface area of stained glass in all of France. This and it’s impressive stonework make it a sight well worth seeing.

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After a few days of recovering from jet-lag, finding classes, getting into a normal schedule and learning enough French to function in the city, it was time for our first weekend excursion. We choose to visit the cities of Belgium: Brussels and Brugge.

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Brussels is an interesting city, not quite what I was expecting. It has some of the old architecture and stonework like in Metz, a combination of French and German themes with its own unique flair, but much of this is surrounded by sleek modern structures. The streets went every which way and everything seemed to be jumbled about. It took us a while to find our bearings and go to our first destination: the Brussels Musical Instrument Museum.

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Most of our group were band members – past or present, so the museum was particularly exciting. The building, itself an interesting sight, is crammed full of music boxes, player pianos, Chinese cymbals, brass organs, the early ancestors of modern flutes, clarinets, tubas, trumpets and oboes and many instruments besides. A trombone player myself, I was drawn to the impressive selection of old and new trombones. My personal favorite was called a trombone with seven bells. It is literally a trombone that has seven bells and six valves, although how anyone could possibly play such an instrument is beyond me.

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For a while we just wandered around and took in the sites. We passed Notre Dame (no not that one), a simple little park with tulips and a statue of, in the words of a friend who recommended it to us “some Spanish guys who did something important, I think.” Because it is probably an actual law in Belgium, we had to take a detour to see Manneken Pis. Why it is famous, I could not tell you, but it is. I wonder who gets to decide these things.

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Finally, we got some frites, since the french fry was born in Belgium, at a local stand. We copied the locals and got ours with a kind of mayonnaise sauce. It was good: balancing and complimenting  the taste of the fries, completely different than drowning them in ketchup. Finally, we indulged in some ice cream and beverages and walked to our hotel for the night.

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After a good night’s rest, we headed off to Brugge. Brugge is a much different city than the metropolitan, modern Brussels. The streets are narrow and historic buildings lined the streets. Merchants sold locally made crafts and oddities and hardly a meter could be walked without running into a chocolate shop.

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First thing, we climbed the bell tower. The wait was long, but the view more than made up for an hour spent playing word games and chatting. From the top of the tower, about 80 meters tall, you can see a beautiful panoramic view of the city. From here, it was even more obvious how well preserved the city was. It was almost as though nothing had changed for hundreds of years.

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After a lovely dinner and a chocolate mousse, which is to this day the most delicious thing I have ever eaten, we traveled by train back to our hostel in Brussels and the next day, back to our dorms in Lorraine.

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After only about a week here, Europe is still somewhat a mystery to me. So much of what I thought of Europe was supposition, travel photos and snapshots from popular media that Europe, the real live place, is still a tabula rasa. Already I can see why the people here love it. Still, I am starting to miss my bed, my food and most of all, my Yellow Jackets. This trip has been and will hopefully continue to be the trip of a lifetime, but I will still be glad to be back at home.