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Mozart and Mezzo Mix August 14, 2011

Posted by Steffan Slater in Travel Log.
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This adventure occurred from June 11-13.

I traveled to Austria this weekend.  This was the first trip I’d taken which was to a place I had not been before.  To be fair, I hadn’t been to Luxembourg, but that was just a day trip, so I don’t count that.  And while I hadn’t been to Interlaken specifically, I’d been pretty close, and the Alps look pretty similar everywhere.  I’d never been to Austria, ever.

The trip started with an overnight train ride to Munich, followed by another train to Salzburg.  The overnight train was entirely too long, especially since we’d been unable to get couchettes (little mini-beds) and were in a compartment in seats for the trip.  We had 3 companions in the compartment, two Swedish girls and an Australian guy.  They were pretty cool, but all in all I would have rather gotten a decent night’s sleep.

Salzburg is an old city overlooked by an imposing fortress.  Almost anywhere in the old city you can see the Hohensalzburg vigilantly standing guard.


Upon arriving in the city, we explored the Altstadt (Old City) for a while, before heading up to the Hohensalzburg.  There are two ways up to the fortress: walking up the hill or riding an incline.  We opted for the latter, even though it was more expensive.  The view from the top is fantastic:

Salzburg from above

Inside the fortress there are several small museums, detailing centuries of Austrian military history.  My favorite room had metal sculptures of men utilizing a variety of authentic medieval weapons.

Metal warriors

After the Hohensalzburg we visited both Mozart’s birthplace as well as his place of residence.  They were really interesting (no pictures allowed *sadface*), especially if you’re in to music.  My sister, who’s a fantastic and avid piano player, would have loved them.

That evening, we ate at a pizzeria near our hotel, where I discovered that Salzburg is close enough to Germany to have Spezi!  If you don’t know, Spezi is a DELICIOUS mixture of Coke and Fanta that is available more or less exclusively in Germany, where it is incredibly popular.  I got turned on to the drink when I lived in Germany when I was younger, and let me just say that it was at least as good as I remembered.  I’m not sure why it’s only available in Germany; I think everyone everywhere would like it!  So I ordered a large Spezi, which is .4 liters.  It should have cost 4.10 Euros (half the price of my pizza, yikes!), but it was left off the bill!  Best free drink ever!

The next day, we visited some gardens in town (that’s actually where the first picture is taken from).  They were really pretty, although nothing compared to what was coming the next day.  We also took a walk to the back side of the fortress, where there was a peaceful little lake and a palace we couldn’t get in to.

We left Salzburg in the early afternoon, headed to Vienna.  Vienna has a much newer feel than Salzburg, and I didn’t like it quite as much; I’m a big fan of the Middle Ages, not so much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire time period.  Vienna was, however, full of beautiful gardens and palaces, which we visited over the next day.  We also saw a monument to the Soviet soldiers who liberated Vienna during World War II, which was very interesting, with writing in both German and Russian.  Mozart’s grave was also in Vienna.  I was expecting some sort of mausoleum there, but it was actually a fairly simple grave.  Overall, Vienna was a really nice city, but not really my style.


Who cares if I’m sick? I’m in Switzerland! July 13, 2011

Posted by Steffan Slater in Travel Log.
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Hello everyone, it’s been a while.  I’ve been pretty busy with tests and projects, so now I’m even more behind on these than I was before.  Maybe I can get you all caught up this week.  Let’s go!

This is another “throwback” post; the events described occurred over the first four-day weekend (June 2-5).

This weekend really could have gone better.  It started off on a bad foot: I managed to leave my Eurail pass in my dorm room.  This means that I essentially no longer have a ticket to ride any trains, and any trains I ride I ride illegally.  Lovely, right?  I realized I didn’t have it as the train was leaving the Metz station, so there was not really any option to go back and get it.  Fortunately the conductor on the first train (to Strasbourg) decided not to fine me for riding without a ticket after I told him I had one but forgot it (using his phone’s translation app: he didn’t speak English and I sure don’t speak French), and tickets didn’t get checked on the second train.  When we got to Basel, I had long enough to purchase tickets for the remainder of the journey.  If you ever travel using a rail pass, I strongly suggest not forgetting it: the tickets were about $200.  Ouch!

On top of all this unpleasantness, I was rather sick.  I’d eaten some steak in the cafeteria that was less well done than I’m used to, and whether my stomach just didn’t like it or whether I got a mild case of E. coli I’m not really sure.  The symptoms fit E. coli food poisoning, and it took about a week to clear up, as is typical for E. coli cases.  And of course this was during the “DEADLY E. COLI OUTBREAK IN GERMANY” time, which was not reassuring at all.

Despite all this, I had a pretty good weekend, since I was in Switzerland, the most beautiful country on Earth!  We stayed in Interlaken, a small, touristy town located, appropriately, between two lakes.  We arrived in the early afternoon, checked into our hostel, and went for a short walk up a nearby hill.  The hostel was pretty awesome.  There were ten of us in one room, with bunk beds and a loft.  It was like sleeping in a chalet.  The next day was pretty bad for me.  I woke up feeling far worse than I had yet, so I decided not to do any hiking.  Instead I went to a pharmacy and got some imodium, which helped a ton.

By Saturday I was feeling well enough to go hiking with the others, although I was still very weak compared to usual.  We rode a train up to the top of a nearby mountain and went hiking.  I soon realized that I wasn’t going to make it anywhere near the distance they were planning on going, but we made it to a hilltop, where we stopped for lunch, and I decided to stay behind while the others went on.  I got some great pictures up there, though:

One of Interlaken's lakesClouds in the mountains

The next day we were headed back to France, but first we decided to walk over to one of Interlaken’s two lakes.  Despite the cloudy, overcast weather, it was a pleasant walk along the river connecting the lakes.  We ultimately made it to the lake, where we sat on a dock looking out over the lake for a while.

Lake from water level

Shortly after, it started to rain, so we started back toward the hostel, and ultimately the train station, but not before I saw this:

Lord Baden Powell Boat

(Lord Baden Powell founded the Scouting movement, for those of you who don’t know.)

The train ride home was thankfully uneventful, especially compared to the one to Switzerland.  I also soon overcame my sickness, possibly due to eating basically nothing for about 24 hours.  Overall, the weekend could have been better, but of all the places to be ill, Switzerland is near the top of my list.

Exploring Roman ruins – in France! June 21, 2011

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This was quite the action-packed week this past week.  On Wednesday was our first GTL field trip.  We visited the Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold and the Hackenberg Fortress, part of the Maginot Line.  The cemetery was very impressive and yet another strong reminder of the less pleasant parts of Europe’s recent history.  The Hackenberg fortress was also a reminder of European history in that time period, but not as vividly.  I really think that it is fantastic that GTL puts does these trips (there are two total) for the students, as it lets us see nearby things which we might not get to see otherwise.  We also had a fantastic lunch at a local restaurant paid for by our program fees.

The evening after our field trip, the first lunar eclipse of 2011 occurred, and it was visible from Europe (although not from the United States).  Unfortunately clouds blocked the view of the moon for quite some time, but eventually it was visible.  It didn’t become visible until after the totality of the eclipse had passed, though, so we got a view of the moon as it came out of the Earth’s shadow.  This was a very interesting eclipse because it was the longest one in quite some time (100 minutes of totality) as well as one of the darkest: typically the moon turns reddish during an eclipse, but during this one it was more or less black.  I did get some pictures; they’re not very clear but they look pretty cool since I captured the moon as it was coming out of the shadow.

Lunar Eclipse

And now we come to the most important part of this past week: the weekend!  I spent this past weekend in southern France.  Saturday was a very busy and long day, but extremely satisfying.  I got off the train at six in the morning in the town of Avignon in the Provence region of France.  Avignon is an old medieval city, with much of the city walls still standing.  It is also the site of a famous bridge (now broken and only partially crossing the river) as well as a papal palace.  Apparently, back in the 1400s, a French pope was elected, and he decided that he didn’t want his church based out of Italy, so he essentially moved the Vatican to Avignon.  The Italians weren’t too happy about this and elected a new, Italian pope who ruled from Rome.  So for a while the Catholic Church had two popes.  In any case, when the French pope moved to Avignon, he had a large number of buildings constructed in the town and approximately doubled its population.  The buildings included offices for staff, housing for cardinals, and this, the Palais des Papes:

Palais des Papes

At 8:45 I caught a bus out to the main attraction for the day, Pont du Gard.  Pont du Gard is a massive Roman aqueduct bridge spanning a valley.  The aqueduct was built to take water to the town of Nîmes and was 30 miles long.  Incredibly, the vertical distance traveled by the water from the source to Nîmes was only 56 feet!  Most of the aqueduct is at ground level or below it, but at Pont du Gard it has to cross the deep river valley, leading to the second tallest Roman structure still standing today.  There are a lot of visitors, but the site is surprisingly peaceful, as you have to walk for a couple minutes to get from the entrance to the actual site.  The aqueduct is of course extremely impressive, and there are a large number of trails on the adjacent hills which allow for great views of the site.

Pont du Gard

I was at Pont du Gard for about 4 hours.  Unfortunately I did not get to do two of the activities I was interested in doing at the site, canoeing under it on the river and hiking along the water channel on top.  The weather was not very good for canoeing (it was overcast and not very warm) and the tours on top only run in July and August.  The visit was wonderful despite those issues though.  I caught a bus back to Avignon and visited the Pont Saint-Bénezet, the famous bridge of Avignon.  Less than 20% of the bridge’s original length remains today, but it is still pretty cool to visit and the museum associated with it has some interesting displays about bridges, including some very impressive modern ones.

After that, I took a 20 minute train ride to the town of Arles.  Arles is another medieval city (also with walls still standing), although it is much smaller than Avignon.  The primary attraction in Arles is the very well preserved Roman amphitheater.  For 4.50 Euros you can go in and walk around the entire structure.  One of the really interesting things about this amphitheater is that during the Middle Ages, the arches were bricked off and some towers constructed on it, and it was used as a housing area.  Three of the towers still stand, and by climbing one of them you can get some good views of the city and the amphitheater.

Arles Amphitheater

In this picture you can also clearly see that there are metal bleacher-style seats in the amphitheater.  It turns out that this arena is still used!  There are bullgames, which are non-violent affairs, as well as traditional bullfights hosted throughout the year.  And from July through September there are reenactment gladiator fights on Tuesdays and Thursdays!  I’m really considering going back down to see one later in the summer if I can.  I mean, how often do you get to see a gladiator fight in a real Roman amphitheater?

After Arles I was on my way to Cannes, home of the international film festival and beaches.  My train ride there took me through Marseille, which struck me as kind of a sketchy city.  I spent my layover there near the train station, especially since I didn’t really have any information about it anyway.

The next day was spent in Cannes.  I spent the morning on the beach, but a couple hours was enough for me.  I’m not really a beach person.  In the afternoon I hopped on a boat out to the nearby island of Sainte-Marguerite and spent a few hours exploring it.  There was a small fortress and prison there, which is what the island is known for.  The prison once held the infamous Man in the Iron Mask.  Most of the island is wooded and crisscrossed by trails, so I spent a good deal of time walking around the island after seeing the prison.

All in all, this was a very, very enjoyable weekend.  Seeing the Roman structures has me very excited for next weekend, when I go to Italy!



The way is shut June 16, 2011

Posted by Steffan Slater in Travel Log.
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The way is shut.
It was made by those who are Dead.
And the Dead keep it.
The way is shut.
–The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la Mort

So that’s not exactly what the sign says, but I like the Lord of the Rings translation better than “Stop, this is the empire of Death,”  although that sounds pretty awesome too.  I really feel as if J.R.R. Tolkien must have visited the Paris Catacombs at some point and used them as inspiration for the entrance to the Paths of the Dead.  Or at least Peter Jackson did and used it for the movie adaptation.  The resemblance truly is eerie.

Okay, putting aside The Lord of the Rings for the moment.  This sign is over the entrance to the ossuary in the Paris Catacombs.  The catacombs are absolutely incredible, as long as you don’t mind being underground among a bunch of dead people.  The line is long, but it moves fairly quickly and the wait is definitely worth it.  It’s not very expensive, either.  After you pay, you walk down a spiral staircase into the earth, then move through some old quarry tunnels for a while.  Some of the areas look a lot like the Halls of Moria, with several high arches cut into the stone.  All right, done with LotR for real this time.  You pass some really impressive sculptures along the way:

Carving of a castle in the Catacombs

Finally you get to a fairly large chamber, and over the next door is the sign you saw above.  Pass through the door and you enter the ossuary itself, where lie the remains of millions of Parisians (Wikipedia says 6 million, I’ve heard 7.5 million, either way A LOT of bones).  The bones are arranged in neat, orderly rows, and go on seemingly forever.  For a good half hour you walk through these old mine tunnels with the walls lined in human bones.  And there’s nothing to stop you from touching them (don’t, though.  The French people who work there don’t like that.  You can’t use flash either, so turn up the ISO on your camera).  The entire experience is very surreal and macabre, but completely awesome.  For me, this was hands down the coolest place I’ve been so far.

Me in the Catacombs

So as you may have gathered, I went to Paris this weekend (May 27-29).  I did the normal Paris-y stuff as well as the Catacombs.  I went out to Versailles on Friday.  The place is absolutely packed with people and as such is rather uncomfortable to walk through, but is extremely impressive.  I particularly like the Hall of the Battles, which has large paintings of famous battles in French history, as well as the numerous statues of famous Frenchmen (and some Frenchwomen).  Here’s me with my man Charles Martel:

Me and Charles Martel

I honestly think Charles Martel is one of the coolest guys in French history.  When your name is literally “Charles the Hammer,” you must be pretty awesome, right?  The Pope offered him the title of Consul (historically one of the two leaders of the Roman Republic) and he said “thanks but no thanks.”  He was a brilliant general, stopping the Muslim expansion into Europe, which had gone on unchecked for 20-odd years, more or less conquering the Iberian peninsula, at the Battle of Tours.  And apparently the whole “awesome leader-general” thing was genetic: you might have heard of his grandson, Charlemagne.

On Saturday I did the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Sainte Chapelle, with the Eiffel Tower that night.  Seeing Paris lit up at night from 1000 feet up was pretty impressive, but I really don’t like the elevator to the top. I also bought a pretty cool hat, which you can see in the picture of me in the Catacombs.  On Sunday we visited Montmartre and the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, as well as saw the Catacombs.  I personally found Sacré Cœur to be much more impressive than Notre Dame.  The style is more reminiscent of many Italian or Byzantine churches than Gothic European cathedrals.  It almost looks like a mosque from a distance.  Also, the view from the dome is fantastic.  Montmartre is a fairly significant hill overlooking the city to begin with, and Sacré Cœur is pretty dang tall.  The wait to get to the top is also much less (read: non-existent) compared to the hour-plus wait to climb the Notre Dame tower (and I think it costs less as well).

Well, that’s about it for this weekend.  Paris was great, and if you go you should definitely visit the Catacombs.  Just remember, if you’re quiet, you might pass unnoticed by the Balrog.  If not, make for the Bridge of Khazad-dûm!

Do they speak Luxembourgish in Luxembourg? June 14, 2011

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First, a quick explanation: this post is actually about a trip that happened several weeks ago.  I will be going back and adding posts for all my trips up until now, and from now on I’ll try to keep this updated on a weekly basis.

And to answer the title question, yes, apparently so.

I arrived in Metz on Monday, May 16 after a lovely flight from Charlotte International Airport and a not-so-lovely bus ride from Frankfurt International.  The aforementioned bus ride was plagued by technical issues.  First we hit something trying to get out of a rather tight parallel parking spot.  Then, after about 20 minutes, the bus basically died, on the Autobahn, no less.  All the radiator fluid was gone.  The driver called for a new bus and we sat there for a while, until he realized he could refill the radiator.  He did so, finishing the job right as the new bus arrived.  Rather than transfer to the new bus which we knew would be fine to get us to Metz, we stayed with the one which might or might not have been leaking from the radiator all over the highway, and which might die again in another 20 minutes.  Fortunately it didn’t and the rest of the trip to Metz was uneventful.

On our way to the dorms we got our first look at the GTL building:

GTL BuildingGTL is located in an area called the Metz Technopôle, which contains a large number of schools, both college- and high school-level.  For being in an area with so many academic buildings, the GTL building looks the most like what you would expect to see on a college campus, at least on an American one.

We had an orientation to Metz and GTL on Tuesday, which was actually pretty useful, particularly in the case of finding the nearby grocery stores, Simply (a smaller store, similar to a Publix or Kroger) and Cora (a “hypermarket” where they sell more or less everything you need and some things you don’t, similar to a Super Walmart or Super Target).

Classes started on Wednesday.  I won’t bore you with the details of the mechanics of deformable bodies, or of crystalline structures in metals, but I will say that the pace of summer classes can catch you off guard if you’re not prepared for it.  Most classes meet every day, unlike ones during a normal semester, so there’s no “off day” to catch up.  You have to keep up or fall behind.  This has been particularly difficult for me as I was on co-op rotation last semester.  It’s surprisingly easy to forget that when you’re in school, your work doesn’t end when classes do.

But enough about that.  You’re not here to read about classes, you want to hear about travelling, right?  The first weekend was a two-day weekend.  If you don’t know, here at GTL the weekends are of varying lengths.  I believe in the past every weekend was a three-day weekend, but now the lengths vary to allow for some longer trips.  There are two 3-day weekends, two 4-days, and one 5-day “break” in the middle.  The remaining weekends are two days long.

So for my first weekend I took it pretty easy.  Rather than deal with the hassle of train and lodging reservations (with a Eurail pass, regional trains do not require you to buy a ticket), I went with some friends to Luxembourg for the day on Saturday.  The city was great for a day trip.  Most things in the city are within walking distance of each other, and there is plenty to see, from palaces to cathedrals to old fortifications.  The highlight of the day was probably the casemates, which were part of the city’s fortifications, and were used to fire arrows or cannons.  For a very low price you can get in and walk around these tunnels through the walls.  The casemates were multi-level, with spiral staircases between levels, and even included an outdoor portion.  Here is a view from the outside:

Luxembourg CasematesYou can see the outside passage between sections of the casemates on the left of the picture (looks like an aqueduct).

After doing some walking around the city, we rode a bus almost to the end of the line and walked about a kilometer to the American cemetery there.  It’s the largest one in Europe, where many of the casualties of the Battle of the Bulge are buried.  General George S. Patton was not killed in the battle, but is also buried there.  In addition to the graves, there is a memorial to those who died in World War II and maps showing the fronts of the war.

Inscription on the WWII memorial at the cemetery

Gen. George S. Patton's Grave

This was a very stark and moving reminder that not all of Europe is ancient castles and pretty palaces.  Millions of soldiers have died here in the past hundred years, and while it is not always comfortable or pleasant to be reminded of that, it is something that should never be forgotten.

That’s about it for my first week in Europe.  Stay tuned for more adventures as I take on Europe, one weekend at a time!