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Barcelona, tapas, and free hotels!!! July 19, 2011

Posted by Andy Barrenechea in Travel Log.
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Buenos dias, amigos!

It’s been a few weeks since we last talked, but just yesterday I came back from Barcelona for my last 4-day weekend and I have a few things I’d like to share, because to tell you the truth it was a fantastic trip! 🙂

So, the journey began with an early departure on Thursday morning via a TGV to Paris for Bastille Day, otherwise known as the French Independence Day. All GTL students had been informed that there would be much celebration in the nation’s capital, so we figured it would be a great experience to see how the French celebrated their “4th of July” on the 14th of July. We arrived in the morning and immediately started searching for a good spot to watch the parade down the Champs Elysees, and it was surprisingly difficult to find a good viewing spot, but thank goodness we didn’t need one to watch a magnificent display of French planes that flew over the crowd – check out some pictures:

A few of the many planes that flew over us.

Horses at the parade!

We were not able to stay for the concert and the fireworks because we left early to Perpignon, where we would spend the night and depart to Barcelona early Friday morning. We arrived to Barcelona shortly after noon and went straight for the hostel, which turned out to be a very nice place (Sant Jordi Sagrada Familia) and then walked “5 manzanas”, which actually means 5 blocks, to Sagrada Familia, the famous Gaudi-designed church in Barcelona. Take a look:

That's Sagrada Familia, still under construction after 100 years, in the background.

From there we went to visit Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s giant soccer stadium (the best team in the world, in my humble opinion) and participated in the Camp Nou Experience where we got to see the FC Barcelona museum, the stands, the locker rooms, and even a chapel located in the players’ tunnel. Check it out:

It's known as "La Orejona".

That means "More than a club".

This chapel is actually located in the players' tunnel.

On Friday night we went to a hilltop where we saw the sun set over all of Barcelona and it was beautiful – unfortunately, I did not have my camera with me! On Saturday we had planned on going on a bike tour, but were late to the meeting point, so we walked around the city instead and were able to explore the beach, the main port, Las Ramblas, and enjoy a fine Spanish lunch consisting of “paella” and “sangria”, a classic Barcelona combo! Here’s a picture:

On the Barca coast.

In the afternoon we visited Gaudi’s park, where we saw some of his masterpieces, and then had dinner at an excellent “tapas” restaurant, and ended the night by listening to a street performer play his guitar who ended up being an American citizen himself! Here are some Gaudi pictures for ya:

Those are Gaudi's famous arches.

Gaudi's house...very Disney-esque!

Finally, on Sunday we went as a group to mass at Sagrada Familia, which was quite a moving experience, and took one last group picture in front of the Spanish “Arc de Triomphe” with our excellent tour guide, Mo Khosravanipour:

The group on the last day!

Finally, no story is worth telling unless it ends on a happy/funny note, so it turns out that we took a train back to Paris to then take a TGV back to Metz, but the train to Paris got delayed 50 minutes and made us miss the last train back to Metz. However, and thankfully, there is a man whose name is Andres Borda who negotiated with the conductor and amazingly managed to get the SNCF (French train company) to pay for a night at a free hotel and breakfast so that we could leave the next day on the earliest TGV back to Metz! Thus, although at first it seemed that 21 GTL students would be hopelessly stranded in Paris, the story turned out just fine and yet again we completed another week in Europe, all members accounted for. I will be writing my final post in about 2 weeks, so stay tuned to see how this crazy Euro trip ends…I promise it’s going to be an exciting finish to the “Tour de Europe” 😉

Hasta la proxima,

Andy

Désolé! May 19, 2011

Posted by Dustin Hsu in Travel Log.
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What does désolé mean you might ask? Désolé is simply how you say “sorry” in French. I’ve only been in France for four whole days, but I’ve already used the word more than enough. Let’s start from the beginning of my stay in France.

I flew into Frankfurt, Germany the morning of May 16th. From there, I rode a bus filled with fellow GTLers to the wonderful campus of Georgia Tech Lorraine. After checking into my dorm, I quickly began to unpack and arrange my room. Before leaving home, I had been advised to pack a power strip so that I could plug in my electronics without having to buy an exorbitant amount of adapters. So naturally, I plugged my power strip into one of the sockets of my room, eager to hook up all my electronics. Unfortunately, my power strip knocked out power to the entire floor of my dorm. Désolé!

A few days later, my friends and I decided to venture into downtown Metz. Thinking it was close enough to walk, we began trekking towards the scenic downtown river area…about a half hour later, we realized we were going the wrong way. With some innovative location sensing devices (read map), we navigated our way to downtown Metz just as the sun was setting. Hungry for some food, we sat down for our first French dining experience. As the waitress took our drink orders, I spotted a delicious looking item on the menu. Much to my chagrin, the waitress looked at me and said, “No that is impossible!” Thinking she was joking, I gave her a shy laugh and a confused look, to which she promptly replied, “You are not child! That is for child.” Désolé!

After our meal (which was delicious by the way), we made our way to the river and took some pictures of two beautiful churches. The lights of the city made everything look spectacular!

By the river in downtown Metz.

Last night, some of the French students who are staying in the dorms with us hosted a BBQ dinner for us. The food was very good, and everyone had a great time getting to know each other. Their English was impeccable, and much to our delight, they were all engineers at one of the local universities. We quickly found a similarity between their school and Georgia Tech: the ratio…to which I quickly said désolé!

Tomorrow I will be traveling to Interlaken, Switzerland and will be canyoning on Saturday. I’m excited for my first weekend of travel and will be sure to let you all know how it went in my next post!

Until then…au revoir!

July 2-5: Italy August 10, 2010

Posted by Stefanie Olivier in Travel Log.
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During our long Independence Day weekend, we decided to visit three different Italian cities. We got to Italy by taking a Ryanair flight. (Can you believe it costs lest than twenty Euros to fly from Germany to Italy?!?) In order to finally arrive in Venice, however, we had to take another train trip from the airport, the ending of which was a very unusual experience since the train tracks were surrounded by water and little else. It felt as though the train was traveling on top of the water. Unsurprisingly, my eyes were glued to the window during that part of the train ride.

I was even more fascinated by my surroundings, however, when we took a ferry to our hostel in Venice. Venice is truly unlike any other city in the world. It seems like all the buildings are drifting in the water just like our ferry was. After we grabbed some of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted in my life on the way to our hostel, we set out to discover the city. This city is ideal for souvenir shopping. Venetian masks, Venetian glass jewelry, and leather-bound journals were everywhere to be seen, especially on the Rialto Bridge. After doing some window-shopping, we devoured some Italian gelato next to the water and then took in the sights while traveling in the ferry all around Venice. We finally stopped and relaxed within a Venetian park (Yes! A drifting park!) before buying “gondolas” for dinner. We finished the night in a café that was streaming a world cup game from its large television. We went to bed with sinking hearts when Uganda lost.

We took a train to Florence the next morning and ate some more pizza and did some more souvenir shopping when we arrived there. I have to say, Italy is definitely the place to buy souvenirs! Their open-air flea markets are excellent! After checking into our hostel, we visited the Duomo (whose outside decorations make me think of the candy house in the story of Hansel and Gretel), the Uffizi Gallery, and the Ponte Vecchio (one of the few remaining medieval bridges in Europe). On the Ponte Vecchio, we danced along with some gypsies to their music and then hurried back to our hostel to ready ourselves for the evening. That night, we signed and stapled a Georgia Tech t-shirt to the roof of one of the Florence’s most famous Irish bars.

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I was sad to leave Florence the next morning, but knowing that we were on our way to Rome made me feel much better. Once we arrived there, we bought tickets for a “hop on, hop off” bus tour and then sat on top of the double-decker bus while it drove all around Rome. It was amazing to see the modern architecture mixed with old architecture mixed with very old architecture, and this kept on amazing me throughout the two days we spent there. The first stop where we dismounted the bus was the stop next to the Trevi Fountain, where we made wishes, filled our water bottles from water spewing out of a wall, and bought gelato from San Crispino, a shop that is judged to be the best gelaterias in Italy. I sure thought so, anyway! We finished of our day with a visit to the Coliseum and then our trip the next day with a visit to the Vatican.

June 11-13: Paris, France August 10, 2010

Posted by Stefanie Olivier in Travel Log.
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During the first of our few “short” weekends (the weekends that lasted “only” two days each), we traveled to Paris. Desiring to spent as long a time as possible there, we departed for Paris Friday evening and checked into our Americanized hostel as soon as possible. Ravenous, but not willing to spend a great deal on dinner, we looked for a local kebab restaurant. (Kebabs are some of the best things Europe has to offer!) While we ate our kebabs, it started to pour, but that didn’t hinder us from walking towards the Eiffel Tower, which lights up at night. Few words can describe the ordinary Eiffel Tower, so just imagine looking at a sparkling one. I had few comparable moments in my life up to that point and expect few from now on.

The Eiffel Tower was our first stop again the next day, followed closely by the Arc de Triomphe. Although I have been to Paris several times, I have never climb the stairs up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and I enjoyed looking at the radial layout of the Parisian roads and following the Champs Elysees with my eyes to the Louvre, which is situated at its end. What interested me more, however, was the traffic around the Arc. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes freely entered and exited the circle surrounding the landmark and traveled around it without anything indicating the amount of lanes in the circle or where, when, and how one can turn out of it.

Next up was a small Peugeot museum, which was randomly located along the Camps Elysees, lunch at a small Asian café just off of the Camps Elysees, and then (of course) the Louvre at the end of the Champs Elysees. It’s needless to say that we did not see the entire Louvre; it is impossibly large! But I especially enjoyed its expositions of African and ancient Middle Eastern art. By the time we made it out of the museum, it was already past five o’clock and thus past the closing times of most tourist attractions. So, we settled for dinner and a good night’s rest.

Early the next morning, we descended into the Catacombs of Paris. I found out that the purpose of catacombs is to store the bones unearthed from cemeteries when they are emptied to make room for more burials. But bones weren’t the only things to be found within the catacombs. One person who worked on the team that constructed the catacombs was impressively artistic and made a couple of very detailed carvings into the walls of the catacombs. After descending quite a few feet down into the ground, we decided to make a U-turn and ascend quite a few feet up into the air by visiting the Notre Dame. The view of Paris from its top was almost as attention grabbing as its architecture, yet I preferred to admire the Notre Dame from its foot.

The view of Paris that I would rate as better than any other is the one I had from the steps of the Sacre Coeur, our last stop in Paris. It’s no wonder many artists prefer to paint and sketch from the top of the hill where that Basilica was built. Their paintings and sketches, however, were not only of the city, but also of flowers, food, and, most exciting of all, tourists’ faces. The last thing I can remember of Paris is walking from the Sacre Coeur past the Moulin Rouge to the train station. And once again, I wish I were there.

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June 5-7: The Netherlands August 10, 2010

Posted by Stefanie Olivier in Travel Log.
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We visited Amsterdam in the Netherlands, one of the most imperative stops for any tourist in Europe, during our third weekend spent in Europe. Since we started travelling to the city on Saturday morning, we didn’t arrive there until the afternoon. The several train rides we had to take to get there, though, were saturated with interesting sights. In Luxembourg we saw countless castles and old-fashioned mansions, in Belgium, one really impressive train station (the Liege train station), and in the Netherlands, fields of modern power-generating windmills. Every train that we traveled in was different from the others as well. In one of them, the seats within a single compartment could be folded down to form one massive bed! (As a side note, I really recommend traveling via train in Europe. And getting the Eurail Pass to do it. It saves you big time!)

After we arrived in Amsterdam, we encountered another very impressive train station; however, its classical architecture looked very out of place within its unkempt surroundings, which included disorganized bicycle parking lots, smelly outside urinals, and flyers for a tattoo convention strewn everywhere. We took our time strolling through the Red Light District while at the same time searching for our Hostel Arosa. After we found our hostel and relaxed in our room a little bit while a Dutch orchestra played what sounded like Dutch melodies from five floors beneath our window (we seemed to be greeted by live folk music in every country we visited), we walked to Amsterdam’s China Town and had dinner there. For the rest of the night we strolled up and down the canals of the city, familiarizing ourselves with its sights, sounds, and smells.

The following day we familiarized ourselves even more with the sights available in Amsterdam, this time by visiting museums instead of aimlessly wandering along its canals. We took our time examining the masterpieces found in the Van Gogh Museum, read all the stories behind the devices displayed in the Torture Museum, and were moved by the exposition in the Anne Frank House. A couple of intermediate stops in Dutch shops made that an all-day experience, and after we walked through the Red Light District at night (a very unusual adventure!), we were ready for bed.

We rented bikes the next day and made extensive use of them to see the part of the city we weren’t able to see on foot. After we had breakfast within a windmill that was renovated to serve as a restaurant, we pedaled to Vondel Park and raced on its cemented pathways until we saw an incredibly big tree. Within seconds, the guys in our travel group climbed onto its branches, followed closely by the girls in the group. Surprisingly, no one ordered us out of the tree; only one passerby called us “apies” (which means monkeys) and told us how he used to climb in that very same tree during his childhood. Soon, our train’s departure time approached, and we had to hurry back to catch it.

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May 29-31: Spain August 10, 2010

Posted by Stefanie Olivier in Travel Log.
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Our second weekend in Europe included a trip to Barcelona, Spain. This trip was an adventure even from the very beginning, with our very first experience with the couchette, the train compartment designed for sleeping. Let me tell you, there is few things as comfortable as sleeping while listening to the periodic sounds train wheels make on train tracks, and thus, I was almost disappointed when our train reached its final destination at Portbou, Spain. Our temporary layover in this town couldn’t have been more pleasant, with the most extraordinary freshly squeezed orange juice I have ever tasted and a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea. It was during this layover that most of the members in our travel group made their first contact with the body of water that separates Europe from Africa.

This contact was solidified during the rest of the day in Barcelona: our group decided to postpone sightseeing to the following day and to instead spend the rest of the day baking in the Spanish sun on a beach and splashing in the Mediterranean’s waters. (Believe me, it is true when they say the waters of the Mediterranean has a very pleasant temperature!) Afterwards, we bought Spanish paellas for dinner and walked past the numerous lighted cathedrals, one of which was the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, back to our hostel.

We saw the cathedral the next morning. This Sagrada Familia, designed by Antoni Gaudi in 1883, is difficult to describe in words even in its unfinished form (it is predicted to be finished in 2015) and is what made the whole trip worthwhile for me. Afterwards, we continued to peruse Gaudi’s architecture in Park Guell. We had to mount several escalators to get to the park, and so we were able to enjoy a remarkable view of the entire city as well as the interesting Gaudi benches, tunnel, and sculptures. Only our craving for more Spanish food was able to drag us away from Park Guell.

After satisfying that craving, we visited the Maremagnum, which is a huge mall that was built on the water of the Mediterranean Sea, and we were surprised to see that such ordinary and familiar stores are to be found in such an unusual mall. We spent a couple of hours there until finally deciding that the prices the mall offered were a little too steep for us and settled instead for the free live Spanish music presented in a park very close to the mall. Needless to say, we stayed there until very late into the night and then walked along the La Rambla back to our hostel.

We decided that the La Rambla, with its many souvenir shops and moving statues, is to be experienced in the daylight as well, so we spent the majority of the next morning there. Next, we jumped on a train that was headed to a small town in southern France, where we were planning on catching our couchette back to campus. The sights in this town are undoubtedly some of the prettiest I have ever seen: the stormy harbor, the colorful houses, the landscapes… A picnic (consisting of Brie and baguettes again) in the middle of a screaming group of French kids was the perfect end to our weekend in southwestern Europe.

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May 22-24: Belgium August 10, 2010

Posted by Stefanie Olivier in Travel Log.
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Spending only a mere three months within Europe, my travel group and I had to scramble to see as many of the countries of that diverse continent as possible. Consequently, our first trip, which included Brussels and Bruges (both of which are located in Belgium), was planned very hastily since our travel group congregated only two days before that adventure. And yet, I have never had so much fun doing things spontaneously.

Immediately after we arrived in Brussels, our eyes were assaulted by the impressive Cathedral of St. Michael, which is located very closely to the city’s train station. It was difficult to believe that this cathedral has been standing there since 1047! After our eyes had feasted on both the outside and the interior of the building, we started looking for a café where our mouths could feast on traditional Belgian food. Contrarily, we bought everything but traditional Belgian food (Italian lasagna, French Croque-monsieurs, Irish beer); however, we did get a complementary concert of Belgian accordion music right at our table.

The free accordion music wasn’t the only surprise we got. As soon as we reached our hotel, crowds of spectators gathered on the streets and loud music signaled the start of a parade, the Zinneke Parade that claims to “celebrate Brussels culture.” Who could’ve predicted our luck of getting to our hotel on the exact date and at the exact time of this remarkable parade? Even more luckily, we were able to enjoy the parade from the comfort of our hotel rooms! Later that evening, after we visited Brussels main square, the Grand Place, and marveled at the surrounding architecture while laying on the warm cement in the center of the Grand Place, we finally got our share of the Belgian delicacy “Moules et Frites” (mussels and fries). That was the perfect ending to a great first day in Belgium, but even more excitement was yet to come.

The first of these came in the form of the Musical Instrument Museum, the first place we visited the following day. This seemingly endless museum contains virtually every musical instrument ever invented, from the harp to the balalaika. Its lively music and hands-on activities made our next museum, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, relatively boring in comparison. But trying to guess the meaning behind every masterpiece, even those consisting of single lines, was a fun diversion!

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We spent the remainder of our weekend in Bruges. If there is something I remember about Bruges, it is its breathtaking architecture. Even getting lost while searching for an affordable dinner in this town was pleasant because of the collage of varied rooftops that forms Bruges’s skyline. After our dinner, we went to gaze at the highest of these rooftops in Bruges’s main square, the Burg Square. The lights cast on the buildings made the architecture seem even more remarkable.

Throughout our last day in Belgium, we rented bicycles. I can’t think of a better investment of my money. For several hours we spent riding across the bridges that give Bruges the title “Venice of the north,” all the while comparing the windmills that were scattered all across the town. After pedaling up one hill to view one of these windmills from up close, we bought Brie and baguettes at a local grocery store and went to have a picnic in one of Bruges’s many parks. It must have been either the siestas we took in that park or the thought that we would be leaving soon that made us drag our feet while we admired Bruges’s Saint Salvator Cathedral and tasted samples of the inventory of a local chocolatier. As we took our seats on the train that carried us back from Bruges to reality, I vowed to myself to never forget the first spontaneous weekend I spent with my fellow Techies in Europe. And I haven’t yet.