sábado, 30 de mayo de 2015

May 20 - Berlin, Germany

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer
At the Berlin Wall Memorial Site, you can see a portion of the wall that was left to create the memorial. There are several information points that explain how the wall came to be and how it changed over time. I didn't know that the wall originally started out as barbed wire fencing that just lied on the ground and soldiers were stationed every so often to enforce it. I also didn't know that they added additional structures to prevent people from getting through to West Germany. There is a portion of the memorial that remembers all those who died at the wall, which ranges from infants to elderly. It's kind of weird to see this and think of how the city was once divided, breaking up families and jobs, and of staying that way for years!

Berliner Dom
Shortly after I got into the Berlin Cathedral, there was a prayer session complete with organ playing. It was very enjoyable and a cool experience. The Cathedral also contains a small art museum and a crypt, plus you can go up to the dome and get some amazing views of the city! Interestingly enough, the cathedral was severely damaged during the bombings during WWII, and West Germany paid for the restoration to the church, even though it was in East Germany at the time.

While the cathedral was originally Roman Catholic in the mid-1500s, it has since changed hands a few times and is currently United Protestant. Also, the name is misleading, because it had never been the seat of s bishop, which is what the time title of "cathedral" denotes.

Berliner Mauer East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery is a part of the Berlin Wall that was painted on the east side with various scenes in 1990 by 118 artists from 21 countries painted with anything from brushes go spray cans. The painting of the wall never would have been allowed under East Germany control, so it was a great way to celebrate the fall of the wall.

Jüdisches Museum
The Jewish Museum is an odd place architecturally because the designer made it very abstractly, but intentionally. On the ground floor, the entire floor is at an incline and tipped to the side, so you feel like you're tipping over while you're walking. Also, there's a tall room that is empty, unfinished, isn't heated, air conditioned, or lite up, but simply has a small opening toward the top that lets in natural light. There is also a garden that has a slanted, tilted floor with columns like the ones at the Holocaust Museum, though the columns are also slanted and tilted, so walking through it makes you feel kind of sick.

The permanent collection has over 2,000 years of German Jewish history on display. There's also a computer database you can flip through to learn. There is art and old relics on display. It's one of Berlin's most visited museums and is definitely worth seeing.

Schloss Charlottenburg
Charlottenburg Palace, which was once a royal palace dating back to 1699 for the German kings and queens, is now a museum. Behind the palace is a huge garden, which is nice for strolling through and enjoying the scenery, and even the ponds. The Palace, originally called Lietzenburg because it was located in the village of Lietzow, was commissioned by Sophie Charlotte, wife of Friedrich III, Elector of Brandenburg. When Sophie passed away, he renamed the palace Charlottenburg in memory and honor of her. Later kings commissioned the additions of the two wings, as well as the expansion of the garden to include orange trees, a stable, and more. It was badly damaged in 1943 during a bombing and was feared it would be demolished like some other historical buildings, though it was decided to restore it to its former glory.

Berlin is a lovely city that's very progressive and fun. I am honestly surprised at how well put together the city is and how orderly everything is. Since it was left in ruins after WWII, combined with the splitting of Germany and the city being split by a wall, which only came down in 1989, I was expecting there to be more visible damage from everything that's happened there in the last 75 years. Today, it is a beacon of hope for the future, and I think that's in part due to the constant reminder from all the memorials that are placed throughout the city of their past. They don't want to return to that, so they've gone in the complete opposite direction and are very progressive and liberal, which fits me to a T! On top of that, it's the cheapest capitol to live in in Europe, so who could pass that up?! The only thing that throws a wrench into living in Germany are the frequent union strikes of the DB rail conductors, which can make getting around in the city slightly more problematic, though not impossible by any means.

May 19 - Berlin, Germany

Brandenburger Tor
The Brandenburg Gate was constructed between 1788 and 1791 as the entry to Unter den Laden, which used to lead to the city palace of the Prussian monarchs. Today, it stands at one end of the Großer Tiergarten and leads to a renowned boulevard of linden trees. It was severely damaged during WWII (like much of the city), was inaccessible due to the Berlin Wall until 1989 when the wall fell, and was restored between 2000 and 2002.

Holocaust Mahnmal
The Holocaust Memorial's architectural style is surprisingly modern. It's 2711 concrete columns, or sreale, which are each 3'1" wide and 7'10" long; they all vary in height between 7.9" to 15'9". The monument is bought l built in a slump, so you descend into the memorial and eventually can't see your way out of the sea of columns. You can also go to an underground site, which is interesting to see. There are a ton with short clips about several of the prisoners, each one lasting about a minute, which tells a shortened version of their story. If you were to sit down and watch them all, it would take you over 6 years. How crazy is that?!

Homosexual Mahnmal
The Homosexual Memorial complements the Holocaust Memorial very well. It is across the street from the Holocaust Memorial and is of a similar shape, though larger than any of the individual pillars of the Holocaust Memorial. It is made of metal instead of concrete, but is of a similar shape. One of the sides has an opening in it, and if you look into the opening, there is a looped video playing of two men kissing. They have also added a clip of two women kissing, and it alternates between the two. It is dedicated to the gay men (and few women) who were murdered by the Nazis for being gay (most gay women weren't discovered and murdered, since it was easier for them to pretend to be straight). These "forgorren victims" weren't even discussed: in 1985, the then German president referred to them as the "victim group." It's hard to believe that just a short time ago gay men and women lead lives that weren't even considered recognizable, though LGBTQ rights are hardly protected today by many countries.

Victory Column is in the center of the Großer Tiergarten and is surrounded by a round about, which divides the park into four sections. It was originally in front of the Reichstagsgebäude, but was relocated here. Also, you don't need to play chicken with the traffic going around the round about to go check it out: there's an underground plaza that will get you there and back safely! (Obviously I realized that after I had already crossed the roundabout...) The column is beautifully crafted and almost glimmers in the sunset. It was constructed in the 1860s and early 70s to commemorate the victory of the Prussians during the Danish-Prussian War. By the time it was finished, Prussia had also won a war with France and Austria, which lead to the addition of "Victoria," a large statue on top to commemorate the "unification wars."

Großer Tiergarten
The Big Animal Garden is an amazingly beautiful park in the center of Berlin. It used to be the hunting grounds for the royal family, hence its name. Since then, it has become a public park. After WWII when Germany was in a very bad depression, the trees were actually harvested from the park to help the people. Since then, it has been replanted and is lovely to walk around in.

There are several ponds and streams with ducks and geese enjoying the park also. I sat down next to an old gentleman who was feeding the ducks bread crumbs, and I just thought it was so beautiful to see a kind, old soul feeding birds that most would shoo away or shoot for a trophy or to eat. The birds were very accepting of us being there, and even sat down and rested while we did the same. There was one duck who had a bumb leg and couldn't move very well, and she was perfectly content sitting right next to us getting personal service bread crumbs! It was a teaching moment for me about balance and how kindness can make an otherwise enemy feel comfortable being in presence.

There is also a portion of the park where it is acceptable to sunbathe in your birthday suit. Having never seen such a thing (or even having been to a nude beach), I figured I'd check it out. I read online that people will walk through the park right by those sunbathing and not even stare or give it a second thought, which I think is amazing. It wasn't until I got there and there were several others lying out enjoying the sun in their birthday suits that I decided to join them! Having never been naked in public before, it was a great experience for me. I'm now more comfortable with my body and nudity and wish it was more widely accepted.

Something to note if you're traveling to Berlin: taking a trip up to the dome of the Reichstag Building is great offers wonderful panorama views of the city, has an educational audio guide, and is definitely worth doing; one thing to note: while it's free, you need to either book tickets online or stop by and pick them up. You can't just show up and expect to go up. The building has some neat history too. It was opened in 1894 and housed the Imperial Diet until 1933 when it was severely damaged in a fire. Hitler actually used the fire to convince the public of the government's incompetence to help promote his regime. The building sat unused and exposed to the elements until the 1960s when it was sealed off and partially remodeled. It wasn't completely remodeled between 1990 and 1999. After its completion, it once again became the meeting place of the German parliament.

jueves, 21 de mayo de 2015

May 18 - Oswiecim and Kraków, Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
You would never know on the bus or train ride from Kraków to Auschwitz what you're about to see. The surrounding land is beautiful and serene with bunches of houses throughout the rolling hills. There are forests that consume the land everywhere there isn't a building or road. It's honestly a very peaceful area.

When got my first glance at Auschwitz, I was shocked...because it actually looks fairly nice. The barracks are brick buildings, everything is orderly, it's fairly small, there are grass and trees and birds chirping... But the thing is, that's what Auschwitz is 70 years after it was occupied. There aren't dead bodies lying around. The grass hasn't been eaten by the starving prisoners. There isn't the smell of human feces and burning flesh everywhere. There aren't people crying or screaming. No one is getting shot. No one is being tortured or experimented upon. The gestapo and SS Police aren't watching over you. It's actually a fairly peaceful place. I take comfort in this though, because that means that there aren't spirits lingering around, forced to spend any more time in this now unholy land.

At the entrance to the camp is the famous sign that reads: ARBEIT MACHT FREI, which roughly translates to "Work Makes You Free." Ironically, if it wasn't the gas chambers, it was the work that killed so many there. The only people who were "lucky" with their work were those who worked in the kitchen, because they got enough to eat, didn't have extremely hard labor, and had the ovens to keep them warm during the winter.

There are some fairly shocking sights to see here, though. In one of the rooms you will find 80,000 pairs of shoes; the crazy thing is that only represents 5% of the people who died at Auschwitz. The shoes literally pile up to the ceiling. There's another location that has thousands of children's shoes too.

In another room, there is an incredible amount of human hair, mostly from women, that was shaved off of their heads after they were murdered. Another spot has hundreds of pairs of glasses. Another has suitcases with names written on them. Another has shaving equipment and brushes. Another has cook wear and other household necessities that the mothers brought for their new "homes." All of these belongings that were found here after the camp was liberated is an incredible sight to see. It proves that the Jews who were relocated here were under the impression they were merely coming here to work and had no idea the horrors they were about to witness and experience.

In the living quarters, you can see how the living situation changed over the years. Initially, prisoners slept on straw that was on the floor. Then, they got "mattresses" made of fabric and straw that lied in the ground. After word was received that the Red Cross was going to be inspecting Auschwitz and other camps for living conditions, wooden bunk beds with mattresses, pillows, and blankets were shipped in to make it seem like the living conditions were more bearable.

Prisoners who tried to escape, anyone found trying to help the prisoners, etc. were sent to live in block 11. Block 11 was where the trials took place to justify the murdering of any non-Jews, who were then taken to the area between blocks 10 and 11 and shot. In the basement, there are several torture rooms too: one is a standing room where 4-8 prisoners stand in an enclosed room where there is hardly enough room to stand, much less consider attempting to sit or lie down, and they wouldn't be let out until the morning, at which point they would receive no food and would have to go to work for their 10 hour shift and return to the room again; one room is where they would stuff dozens of people where the only air input was a small hole in the wall, and they would all suffocate to death; another is a starvation room where people would be placed and wouldn't receive any food or water for days. In most of these torture rooms, everyone would eventually die. There is one remarkable story about a man who had a wife and children living outside the camp; after a prisoner escaped, 10 people were selected to be killed in the starvation rooms to deter any others from attempting to escape. When the man was selected, Father Maksymilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place. After surviving for 2 weeks in the starvation room, the Nazis knew they couldn't let him live, so they murdered him so he couldn't bring hope to the other prisoners. The young man who he volunteered for survived the camp, returned to his family, and died at the age of 95. Pope John Paul II later made Father Maksymilian Kolbe a saint for his actions.

In the building next to block 11, block 10, experiments were conducted on women and twins to attempt to discover ways to help the German troops. Many died as a result of these experiments, and those who lived were not in very good physical condition anymore. Children were sometimes shot in the shooting area between blocks 10 and 11, which the SS knew could cause an uprising, so they would do it during the day when the prisoners were at work. Ironically, the prisoners in blocks 10 and 11 could hear the shootings, but they weren't supposed to live very long, so the Nazis didn't care about them. Also, anyone caught trying to help persons in the camp had a trial (which everyone lost) and were shot here. Many survivors want to visit this spot first when they return to Auschwitz to pay homage to those who actually tried to help them. They say that these people paid the ultimate sacrifice because they didn't even have to try, but did, and lost their life because of it.

Also in Auschwitz is the original gas chamber and crematory of this camp. The fact that 700+ people were killed at a time here is truly unfathomable. However, it is important to remember that Auschwitz was originally a military base for the Polish army, so that is why it is as "nice" as it is. Birkenau, however, is another story.

Birkenau is more of what I think of when I think of when I think about a concentration camp. It's extremely large, the buildings go one for what seems like an eternity, and it is dismal. The train tracks lie right in the center of the camp, which is divided into sections; one half of the camp was for men and the other for women. There were also sections for gypsies, families, and others. The train tracks run until the end of the camp, which is where the "showers" were. After being stuck in the train cars for 3-7ish days, those who survived the journey were filthy, exhausted, and hungry. They were told they were going to get a shower to clean up, and then would be receiving some food. Well, we all know that wasn't the case. They went into the changing room, where they were instructed to remove their clothes; adults were instructed to make sure they keep their belongings together so they don't get mixed up with someone else's, and children were instructed to tie their shoes together so they wouldn't get lost. Then they moved into the "shower" chamber, where toxic gas was released in from the ceiling. After the last of the screams died out, which you could barely hear because they were underground, other Jews were instructed to collect any valuables off the dead, and then they were forced to move them into the next room, where their bodies were cremated. The ash was either used to fertilize the surrounding fields or dumped into rivers and lakes, meaning there are ashes from the Holocaust all around the world now.

Some of the healthy, strong men and women were selected to live and work for the Nazis, which may have been a faith worse than dying in the gas chambers, because they were starved, forced to do hard labor, had horrendous living conditions, and most eventually died. The barracks they lived in slept 700 to 1000 people per barrack, with 4 to 9 people per bunk. There were 3 levels per bunk. The prisoners could only use the restrooms once in the morning and once in the evening; at night, 2 five gallon buckets were left in the barracks for the 700 to 1000 people to use. Because of all the health issues, Those buckets filled up quick with diarrhea, so people often went in their beds, meaning you wanted to be on the top bunk so you didn't have crap literally falling on you. Not to mention, there wasn't any air circulation or conditioning, so during the summers when temperatures got VERY hot, it was nearly unbearable to stay in their because of the heat and the smell. Winter was also horrible because, due to building requirements, the Nazis had to provide heaters, but didn't have to supply oil to run them, so it got so cold people froze to death in their sleep.

Our tour guide was amazing. Her grandmother lived during the war and, while she wasn't Jewish and sent to a camp, she was affected greatly by the Nazi occupation. (Interestingly enough, she said the Russians who occupied Poland after the war treated the citizens worse than the Nazi Germans did, apart from the concentration and death camps.) Her father-in-law, however, is a Holocaust survivor, so she had firsthand experience and stories to share with us. She even told us about a young German boy who was the son of a Nazi officer at a concentration camp who used to play around the camp's grounds and had to wear a sign on him that said who he was and who his father was so the soldiers wouldn't mistake him for a Jewish prisoner and kill him. What's truly sad about this is that he could be mistaken for a Jewish boy, meaning he wasn't much different from them. What was the difference between that boy and the thousands, if not millions, of little boys and girls who were murdered at the hands of the Nazis? That especially, but the whole experience reminded me of the amazing movie "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," where a young boy, who's the son of a Nazi camp official, meets a Jewish boy at the fence of the concentration camp, befriends him, and while sneaking into the camp to play with him one day, the Nazis round up a bunch of the Jewish and put them in the gas chamber, the little German boy included, which devastated the mother, who was against the whole Nazi operation.

When we think of the Holocaust, even though we now know much of what too place, we can't imagine what the people in the camps experienced. Even the most horrible situations we could paint in our imaginations couldn't compare to the horrors that took place. Even visiting the camps today does nothing to do it justice. I thought it would be interesting to have a simulation where you are forced to leave your belongings in a pile, fancy phone and camera included, then go into a room and get undressed, file into a shower room, and have fog flow into the room. Obviously you can't get it to be exactly like what happened, but I think something like that would really hit home and resonate with a lot of people.

Overall, I an very glad I went and visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. While a lot has to be imagined because it's just so different than how it was, it is amazing to see. Visiting the camps is free too, which is amazing. However, if you want a tour guide, which help a lot and can answer any questions, it does cost like €8, which is more than worth it for the more than 3 hour amazing experience. Anyone who believes that WWII and the Holocaust didn't actually happen should go visit a concentration or death camp and tell their guide at the end of the tour that they think it's all a lie. I would love to be there and see that pan out.

Rynek Glówny
The Market Square downtown is amazing to see! I have really taken to seeing cities at night. It brings out such a different side to the city when the locals are out having a good time and the tourists are in their hotels relaxing after a long day. It actually often feels like cities are more alive at night than they are during the day! Market Square is full of local, handmade products and food. If it weren't for Poland using a different currency and me only having Euros and credit cards, I totally would have probably bought a few souvenirs and tried some of the foods. There was even tools (real tools like a mechanic like my dad would use) that were made out of chocolate! There are also shops and restaurants all along the outside of the square, adding to the life. St. Mary's Basilica (Bazylika Mariacka) is also on the plaza, which is a gorgeous church. It would have been amazing to see the inside, but it was cool seeing it lite up at night too.

I was very surprised by Kraków. It's more of a small city than a large one, but I think that makes it more quaint and homey. It was gorgeous and there were so many people out having dinner, drinking, or just hanging out in the parks, etc., and it was a Monday night! The architecture and vibe were amazing. If it weren't for them using a different currency and very little Polish people speaking English, coupled with Polish being a hard language to learn and not very useful outside Poland, I would definitely consider moving here! At least for a couple years. I really did enjoy the city a great deal.

May 17 - Prague, Czech Republic

On my train from Munich to Prague, I shared a compartment with a French woman, Marianne, and a Finnish man, Tuomo, who were both around my age. This is probably one of my favorite things about traveling: meeting people from around the world and getting to know them. Marianne was only on part of the train ride because she got off at a town in Germany where she was studying, but I'll never forget something she told me: when you're young, you have the time and energy to travel, but you don't have the money; when you're middle-aged, you have the energy and money to travel, but not the time; and when you're old, you have the time and money to travel, but not the energy. This really resonated with me, making me very happy I took the month of May to travel, because we have the rest of our lives to work. Most people save money all their life so they can travel when they retire, but why not live your whole life instead of just the end portion? That's not to say working and raising a family isn't living, but there needs to be a nice balance. Besides, you can always make more money, but you can't get another life.

While Marianne had to get off, Tuomo was also heading to Prague. We chatted a decent amount on the train, and then proceeded to spend the rest of the day hanging out, because why not see a city with a friend? Something interesting about my Prague experience is it isn't what it would have been if I hadn't done it with Tuomo. He's a big sports fan, and anyone who knows me well knows I really don't care that much about sports. So, after eating this amazing Czech food for lunch, we found a bar so we could enjoy some beer, charge our phones, and watch the US hockey game. Then we did our sight seeing (quickly), and ended up watching the Canada vs. Russia hockey game in Old Town Square. It was a lot of fun, a great experience, and something I never would have done had I not met him!

Tančící dům
I'm not quite sure how some people think of the designs for some buildings. I know I don't have that kind of brain, and kudos to those who do, but wow, what a building. The Dancing House definitely stands out at a very modern building among the more classical or baroque buildings of Prague. If you look closely, you can see that it's designed to look like a man and a woman dancing, hand in hand, with her dress swaying. You can see it, though it's definitely abstract!

Karlův most
Construction of the Charles Bridge started in 1357, and it was the only way to cross the Vltava River until 1841, connecting the castle to the old town. It kind of reminded me of Ponte Sant'Angelo since it has several statues on the sides of the bridge, all are replicas now, of course. The bridge has been damaged several times, by nature and war, though it has been repaired several times throughout history too. While at one point carriages, trams, and even buses crossed the bridge, the blacktop has since been removed and is back to its original design.

Pražský hrad
To get to Prague Castle, you need to hike up a decent sized hill. (Of course castles are always on top of a fricken hill. Who needs protection and fortification, anyway...) The castle and it's grounds are fairly extensive, which is understandable since it is the world's largest coherent castle complex. St. Vitus Cathedral (Chrám svatého Víta), lovely art nouveau cathedral, is even located within its grounds. There's so much to visit and see here, though with everything closed on a Sunday night, we just strolled through the streets and enjoyed the buildings and views.

Staroměstské náměstí 
When we got to Old Town Square, it was full of people watching the Canada vs. Russia hockey game. There were huge screens with the game projected on it and stands selling beer and food. Apart from me being the minority preferring Canada beating Russia, it was really interesting and cool to see. The square has a ton of shops and old buildings on it, including the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, which has been operational since the 14th century. In the tower of the Old Town Hall is the 3rd oldest astronomical clock, and the oldest one still operational, which was installed in 1410. There is definitely a lot of history here, considering Prague was one of the major trading cities between eastern and western Europe.

Prague was a fun city, though it probably isn't quite my favorite. I think what made it the most memorable was spending time with Tuomo, drinking beers, and watching some hockey. It nag be fairly simple, but it reminded me of home and taking life a little slower. I would, however, like to go back; Prague is supposed to be an amazing place to party and has the largest club in Europe with several floors, each playing a different style if music. It just sounds like it could be a blast with a group of fun friends!

domingo, 17 de mayo de 2015

May 16 - Munich, Germany

Karl's Gate is a recreation of the original, which was destroyed in 1857 by an accidental explosion of gunpowder that was to be stored in the main tower. The new tower was constructed between 1899 and 1902. The original was a part of a fortification of the city, which was constructed between 1285 and 1347 and had a moat and all! The current tower is actually larger to allow for modern transportation (ie. horse drawn carriages and the occasional electric tram). It's interesting to see and is the entrance to the old downtown, which is a lot of fun to see and hang out in!

Marien Square has been the main square in Munich since 1158. In the Middle Ages, markets and tournaments took place here. It's usually packed with people due to the convenient location and all the shops around the area. Today, Marienplatz is dominated by the new city hall, which was constructed around the turn of the 20th century. On the new town hall's tower (Rathausturm) is the Glockenspiel, which dates back to 1908 and depicts two separate stories from Munich's history: the first is the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V in 1568, which ends in a joust between knights from Bavaria and Lothringen, and obviously the Bavarian nights win. The second is from a legend of a plague that hit the city between 1517 and 1519; in order to raise the spirits of everyone in the town, the barrel makers would dance through the streets, which has since become a Bavarian tradition and is reenacted every 7 years. There's a small show that the Glockenspiel plays through, though it wasn't when I was in the area, so I didn't see it.

When I went to visit the Cathedral of Our Blessed Lady, it was after a small lunch and a couple beers, but since I was in Bavaria, it's okay to go to church after having been drinking... Well, they were actually having mass when I showed up, so I decided to take a seat and join in, which means I've been to mass in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German now. It's a modest cathedral. The exterior is being restored, so I couldn't see what that looked like, but it was nice and fun to hear a service in Deutsch.

Residenz München
On my way to see the Residence Palace of Munich, I ran into a beer and music festival (of course), so I stuck around there and listened to the live music (and had a beer). German's really like house music, and as such, there was a synthesizer as a part of the band. I've gotta say, it would be very interesting playing in a band with a synthesizer!

After enjoying the festival for a while, I decided to continue on and check out the palace. It's a huge complex, and I hardly saw anything, though I wasn't able to enter it by that time. Interestingly, the palace became a public museum in 1918 after the end of the Bavarian rule, but was severely damaged during WWII. Most of the palace wasn't reconstructed until the 80s, but in a simplified manner, and the frescos and several artifacts were lost. I could definitely go back and spend more time checking out the palace.

Munich was very fun and I definitely enjoyed it a great deal! The Bavarian beers are amazing! I really enjoyed the Augustiner Bäu München Edelstoff, specifically. There were also several bachelor and bachelorette parties going on, and I participated in a bachelorette party activity where I had to cut out a drawn on shape from the bride's shirt. I got free champagne and a muffin, plus the girls were fun, so it was totally with the €3! Hopefully I'll be able to make it back sometime to enjoy this amazing city with some friends and locals! Especially to drink more in the streets, which is legal there!

sábado, 16 de mayo de 2015

May 15 - Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria

Bratislavský hrad
Bratislava Castle is on top of a hill overlooking the river and the city. I must admit, it is a decent view of the city and surrounding area, even if that is slightly bleak. I didn't tour the castle, but you can enter into the inner courtyard and see the inside structure too.

Maximiliánova fontána
Maximilian's Fountain was constructed in 1572 after King Maximilian II ordered its construction to provide a public water supply for the citizens. The original fountain contained a statue of Maximilian in a suit of armor, though the statue has been damaged and rebuilt several times, so there's no way of knowing whether the current fountain looks like the original.

Fontána svätého Juraja a drak
The Fountain of St. George and the Dragon comes from an ancient myth of a general in the Roman army, George, who came across a town being terrorized by a dragon. The town was deciding who to sacrifice to the dragon by flipping a coin, and when the king's daughter lost to the coin flip, George went after the dragon and killed the dragon with a spear. This is symbolic of the constant battle with evil and Christianity's battle over the heathens. Interesting, eh?

Modrý kostol svätej Alžbety
The most notable characteristic of the Church of St. Elisabeth is that it's blue. And not just a little blue, but it's all blue. The exterior. The interior. Even the pews are blue. Well, of course not every single piece of the church is blue, but a large majority of it is. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style to be part of the new school that was designed by the same architect. It is dedicated to St. Elisabeth of Hungary who lived her entire life in Bratislava.

So I'm assuming most of you have seen Euro Trip? And know the scene when they find themselves in Bratislava? Well...it wasn't quite as bad as in that movie, though it could be because it has been several years since that was filmed. Anyway, the city still is kind of bleak and unwelcoming. It's definitely not somewhere I will ever go back to. Maybe it was the cold and cloudy weather that succumbed the city that day, maybe the Slovakian language, maybe the lingering feeling of communism...there was just something that I wasn't a fan of and don't have a desire to see again.

Schloss Belvedere
The Belvedere Palace sits on a HUGE piece of land with a large reflection pool in front of the upper palace and a huge park with fountains and sculptures behind it, followed by the lower palace. There's also a stables, orange grove, and more here. The palace was built for Prince Eugene of Savoy of the Habsburg dynasty after he successfully won a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire.

Hofburg Wien
Hofburg Palace was the imperial palace of the Hamsburg, with the oldest part of the palace being from the 13th century. The palace has been expanded several times since then, and today houses several museums, a stable, horse riding school, the home of the President of Austria, and more. It's quite beautiful and definitely a jewel in the center if the city. When I got to the palace, there was a gentleman playing his cello. Crazily, he started playing the song that has been stuck in my head for days and that I was just singing while walking there!

The Town Hall from a distance, especially if you don't know what it is, looks like a gorgeous castle! It wasn't even on my "to see" list, but I was drawn to it like I'm usually drawn to chocolate or wine! It's probably because it was lite up with a red light...and then a pink light...and then a white light... But yeah, it was gorgeous. They're setting up for the Life Ball, which is the world's largest fundraiser for AIDS! Who knew?! It was very interesting to see what has been set up so far.

Domkirche St. Stephan
The exterior of St. Stephen's Cathedral reminded me slightly of the cathedral in Seville, probably because they are of the same style, but it made me miss Seville... Anyway, I got to the cathedral just 15 minutes before they were closing the doors for the night, so I had enough time to check out the interior a little, say a prayer, and light a candle for my grandparents before they were ushering us out. One thing I particularly liked about this cathedral is that the candles are placed into sand, so I had the idea to draw a little in the sand as though I was a kid again. (I'm trying to stay young at heart.) I drew a candle with a cross, alpha, omega, and a flame on top, and then put my candle into the flame portion of my drawing. It was fun. :)

The only thing I didn't like about Vienna is that their public transportation system isn't loaded into Google maps! Usually that is amazing and will tell you exactly where to get off at and transfer to another metro line, etc. And, since most cities fail to have a good map of the public transit system overlaying a map of the city, it's hard to know which line to take and which stop to get off at if you're not from the city. However, usually I prefer to walk anyway so I can see how the people from there actually live and not just the major touristy attractions, etc. It's good exercise too! I did take the underground to get back to my hostel quickly at the end of the night, which was crazy because after I hopped on, I looked up and saw Jens, a German friend who had studied abroad at UWP! What are the odds that he would be in Vienna visiting his aunt when I was there traveling through the city? Furthermore, that we would both get on the same metro car at the same time?! He only had to go one stop, more, so we didn't get to catch up much, but it was still really cool to have happened.

One fun thing about my time in Vienna is that I was tired when I got to my hostel, so I didn't go out to check out sites right away. Instead, I vegged at the hostel for a couple hours and even washed my clothes (which if course were still damp the next morning...I can't wait to have a washer and dryer again...). Then, I went out at like 7pm, which was amazing to see the city at night! The fountains were all lite up and several of the buildings too. There weren't a million tourists everywhere either. Ugh, so serene and beautiful! I definitely wouldn't mind living here in the future!

viernes, 15 de mayo de 2015

May 14 - Budapest, Hungary

Nagy Vásarcsarnok
The Central Market Hall is an impressive collection of stands selling everything from fruit to fish to souvenirs to jewelry to leather and mink hats! It is a lot of fun to walk around and peruse what each of the vendors has to offer. The upstairs even has a few vendors selling some Hungarian food, which you can't go wrong with! Definitely worth checking out.

Dohány utcai Zsinagóga
Budapest's Great Synagogue on Dohány Street was built in the mid-1800s and is the largest Synagogue in Europe. The interior is exquisitely decorated; it's truly a sight to see. It was also the first time I have worn a kippah, which was difficult to keep on the head. ( At least I thought so...)

There are also a couple exhibits on display and a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who lost their lives during WWII. One of the most touching and impressive memorials I have seen was here; it's a weeping willow tree made of metal, and each of the leaves has the name of a Hungarian Jew who lost his or her life to the Nazi regime. Every single Hungarian Jew who lost his or her life is represented. It is very emotional to see.

Hiking up Castle Hill offers not just some good exercise, but some amazing sights of the Pest side of the city. There's also a tram to that can take you up the hill, since it is a bit of a hike, but where's the fun in that?! (And besides, there was a long line and it would cost like 7 euros to just ride it up and come back down!)

The newly cleaned Fisherman's Bastion is a gorgeous structure overlooking the Danube River. The sights of the Pest side of the city, especially the Hungarian Parliament Building, are amazing to see from up there. The history behind the structure is kind if interesting: it used to be where there was a fortified wall for the castle that was there. However the current structure was built around the turn of the 20th century and has never seen war. The 7 turrets represent the 7 tribes that were in Hungary when it became its present day country back in 895.

Mátyás Templom
The Matthias Church is ridiculously decorated on the inside with designs on all the walls and pillars. It is very colorful, with a lot of red, blue, green, gold... There is a nice complementation of paintings and tile work. Even the roof on the outside is covered in colorful tiles!

The original church on the site that was built in 1015 was destroyed in 1241 by the Mongols. A new church was constructed in the second half of that century, which has been belittled and partially destroyed several times. It was even the base camp of the Nazi occupation during WWII and suffered great damage. Between 2006 and 2013, it underwent a serious restoration, which restored it to its former glory.

The Hungarian Parliament Building is a jewel on the Danube River. It's a wondrous building that is impressive to look at. You can tour its almost 700 rooms, though I decided to opt out if that... Because it's on the river, the only way to get far enough away to take in the whole building is to either hop on a boat tour and see it from the river or check it out from the opposite side of the river, which is what I did.

Hősök tere
Heroes' Square has two museums on either side with a statue centered between them and colonnades behind the statue. It's also one of the entrances to Városiglet, aka City Park. There's even a Castle structure with a half moat in the park, albeit the most was drained when I was there, though how effective is a moat that only goes around the front half of a castle, much less one that's drained?

Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda
My trip to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths was the first time I have ever been to a bath house/spa. It was indeed very relaxing, though it would have been nice to get a massage too! ;) There are several pools, both indoor and outdoor, that range in temperatures. There are also saunas and steam rooms, fountains, water aerobics, and more. I gotta say, the Romans had the idea of bath houses right! There are even guys playing chess in the outdoor pools! The thermal water with its minerals just leaves you feeling so refreshed. It's definitely a must do while visiting Budapest, and since there are bath houses all over the city, it's easy to do too!

I've gotta say, Budapest is an extremely underrated city. Everyone goes to Europe and wants to go to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Rome...no one ever thinks to go to eastern Europe, but it's very fun and cheap too! I stayed with my friend Simón, which was fun to get to hang out with him too and have an expat to give me pointers. The only pain is having to switch my money from euros to huf! I will DEFINITELY be coming back to Budapest in the future though!

May 13 - Budapest, Hungary

So I was originally planning on taking a 7:30 am train from Bled to Zagreb, Croatia for the day and then train from Zagreb to Budapest in the evening. However, I forgot to set an alarm and woke up at 8am, so... Yeah... Unfortunately for me, there aren't many trains that head to Zagreb from Bled, so by the time I would have gotten to Zagreb, I would need to leave for Budapest right away, so I decided to skip it and go straight to Budapest. The nice thing about this was I trained up to Vienna and then over to Budapest, so I got to ride through southern Austria, which is breathtaking! The mountains, hills, fields, and quaint towns are all just perfect! However, I really did want to see the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, which is an interesting, comical museum displaying objects and stories sent in by people who have had a bad breakup; for example, there was a woman whose boyfriend loved playing Frisbee golf and always ignored her to play it with his buddies. Well, when her birthday came around and he bought her a Frisbee, she dumped him and sent it into the museum, haha.

Well, when I got into Budapest, I met up with my friend Simon, whose place I was crashing at for a couple nights. We went to a couple Ruin Pubs, which are old buildings that are repurposed as a bar. The original one, which we went to, has bunch of random junk everywhere for artwork and decoration, which is hilarious, ingenuous, and a little weird all at the same time. Nonetheless, they were very fun and are something I actually think would go over quite well in the US!

miércoles, 13 de mayo de 2015

May 12 - Bled, Slovenia

Lesce Bled
Lake Bled, while isn't that big, is gorgeous! Bled is probably one of the most naturally beautiful places I've ever been! There's an island that's on this lake, which is the only island in all of Slovenia! Turns out, all islands off the coast of Slovenia belong to Croatia! Walking around the lake is very serene and picturesque. Every picture you take is postcard quality! Oh, how I wanted to go swimming in the lake...

Bled Castle
Overlook the lake, there is a castle on a hill that is just over 1000 years old. It's not a huge castle, but it is quaint and the view of the surrounding area is impressive.

Blejski Vintgar
To get to the park to see the Vintgar Gorge, it was a few kilometers walk, but the entire trip was amazing because of the scenery! Mountains, fields, quaint houses and farmettes, Bled Castle...breathtaking. Then you get to the Gorge, and pardon the pun, but it is truthfully gorgeous! The hike through the gorge is so relaxing. The water surging through the different obstacles is entrancing. I could hike this daily and still be in awe every day. This was a top experience for my trip so far, that's for sure!

Bled was so different from everything I have seen so far. The town is very quaint, the people are amazing and helpful, the scenery leaves you speechless... It's honestly a hidden gem and a place I will return to in the future! I NEED to go back to go sky diving, hike through more of the park, and just breath in the beauty and fresh air! On the train into Bled, I even met another traveler who I walked around the lake and had breakfast with before we parted ways. Ironically, his name is also Nate! Meeting other travelers makes me want to just keep traveling the world and not go back to reality because this is like a dream. There are days I miss friends, family, my dog, and even food from the US, but if life is truly measured not by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away, then I have lived more this spring than I have my entire life!

lunes, 11 de mayo de 2015

May 10 - Ercolano, Pompeii, and Capri, Italy

If you're heading to Pompeii, stop by Ercolano, which is Italian for Herculaneum. Said to have been founded by Hercules himself, this city was also devastated by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. However, both cities were devastated in different ways due to the direction of the wind that day. After the eruption, Herculaneum only had a few inches of ash fall on them, causing some to think it would be better off to wait it out than to try and flee. However, after it was all said and done, 17 meters of ash and gas had buried the city. When archeologists were excavating the city, they barely found any bodies, so they believed the town members had all fled to safety. However, while excavating where the beach used to be, they found the remains from around 300 bodies, so it is believed they tried to flee to the sea, but realized they were trapped, so they tried to wait it out in the boat houses. Unfortunately, the superheated pyroclastic material that hit the city at high speeds was hundreds of degrees and burned all their skin, muscles, etc off their bones rather quickly. So, if they hadn't already died from asphyxiation from the toxic gases, they most definitely died then!

While there is a decent site visible to tourists, 3/4 of the city is still buried underneath the modern city of Ercolano. Ironically, the buildings surrounding the site in the city look about as worn down as the ones in Herculaneum! This is due to two reasons: due to the manner Herculaneum was buried, roof tops, building beams, beds, doors, and even food were preserved; many of the buildings are almost completely intact. The second reason is that the "modern" city is quite run down and in a poor area.

Visiting Herculaneum was neat because it shows more of what Roman life was like since it wasn't half as badly destroyed. You still get the eerie feeling Pompeii gives you, but it helps to visualize more about their life before you see the vastness of Pompeii.

Unlike Herculaneum, several meters of ash and rock fell onto the city after the eruption because the winds that day were heading in the direction of Pompeii, knocking down roofs and causing a lot of destruction. Then, when the high winds of gas and ash came, several of the upper structures were knocked down. The eruption occurred on August 24, 79 AD, just one day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the Roman god of fire (including that from volcanoes); ironic, eh?

Interestingly enough, in the Roman empire, phallic symbols were considered good luck, (something related to procreation and fertility) so they were placed randomly on the outsides of buildings as decoration. Try explaining to your children who are visiting that one... In addition, if your kids can read Latin, there is a bunch of graffiti carved into the walls in Latin, which helped historians learn more about colloquial Latin versus proper Latin that can be viewed in texts from writers.

There was also a brothel in Pompeii with a menu for customers (paintings of different positions). A normal bed in a house was made of wood and metal, but the beds in the brothel are made of rocks like walls so they wouldn't break. Crazy, huh?

Overall, it was an amazing experience to see the once lost city. It makes me wonder where mankind would be today if certain events occurred differently. At this point in history, running water, the arts, etc were all in full swing. Architectural and some "technological" advancements had taken place. At this point in time with the Roman Empire, even women were starting to have more rights within society. Nakedness wasn't a problem, and people were very comfortable with their bodies and seeing others naked. Even gay culture was popular; two men or two women having sex with each other was a form of pleasure, and older men would have sex with younger men to teach them the ropes. So many issues we still are facing today were essentially not a problem then. (Though, that's not to say they didn't have their fair share of issues!) Then, due to a few unforeseeable events, everything was lost and it took centuries for society to get back on track.

While I only got to spend a couple hours on the island because Herculaneum and Pompeii ate up a large portion of my day, it was totally worth it to be able to relax and just enjoy the waves of the sea. On the ferry ride back, I even made some canine friends! I just wish I could have had more time there to go hiking around the island and take a boat tour of the blue grotto.

May 9 - Naples, Italy

Via San Gregorio Armeno
So on this street, it's Christmas all year round. That may sound amazing to all you Christmas lovers, but it's not like US Christmas with Santa and presents. Instead, here you can find traditional decorations from the area, which are like small nativity scene-type decorations; some of them are religious scenes from the bible set in Naples, though others are just scenes depicting locals in their natural habitat. You'll also see depictions of a white man wearing a white smock, white floppy hat, and a black mask; this character is Pulcinella, who is a character from the Commedia dell'Arte. His wise but nonsensical jester-like character is the stereotypical citizen from Naples. Ironically, after he became their sort of mascot, the citizens did become more like his personality!

When you are walking along the street that this cathedral is on, all the surrounding buildings are kind if run down...and then the plaza in front of the cathedral opens up and you see this big, beautiful building that has actually had a little TLC over the years, and it is jaw-dropping and actually seems out of place. The inside is equally as beautiful, though it's undergoing some restoration. You can definitely tell it's not in its prime anymore, but it's a lovely cathedral nonetheless.

Napoli Sotterranea
If you fancy going underground where you feel like someone has been conducting secret experiments creating monsters that take villagers randomly and kill them, this is the attraction for you! No, but seriously, it is really creepy; maybe I've just seen too much Supernatural, Stargate Universe, etc though? Well, anywho, there are tunnels that run underneath Naples (and several other villages in southern Italy) that were originally an aqueduct system built by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans to deliver water to all their cities from the mountains. After being functional aqueducts for hundreds of years, they were sealed off and converted into bomb shelters for World War II. Interestingly enough, with the help of this bomb shelter system and the strong will of the Napoleon people, the citizens liberated themselves from the Nazis using basic weapons against their organized military in 4 days in 1943, 2 years before the war ended; Naples is considered the first antifascist city of Italy because of this.

Naples used to have a large Greek theater in it. However, thanks to the government's decree that the city couldn't expand outside the designated city walls coupled with a rise in population, more housing was needed, and the only way to build more was either to tear down nonessential buildings to build more apartments or to build up. Well, they started to build their buildings taller, but when that wasn't enough, they decided to repurposed their amphitheater into apartments. However, they utilized as much of the existing structure as they could. For this reason, you can still see parts of the old amphitheater, and some of the apartments even have access to the old area that used to be under the stage where the actors would hang out. Neat, huh? Another interesting fact is that there was a royal who liked to perform, and he would lock spectators in and force them to clap and cheer him on. Well, during one of his performances, an earthquake struck, but he refused to let anyone leave, claiming it was the gods clapping for his great performance. Well, due to the manner it was constructed, which included the first seismic protective techniques, the amphitheater didn't fall down and everyone was actually more safe in there than their own homes! Pretty crazy, eh?

Santa Chiara
This church and monastery has quite an interesting history. Well, more recently at least. During WWII, it was bombed and much of the church burned. The entire roof with its intricately painted ceiling was destroyed, as well as all the paintings on the inside. However, the rest of the structure remained, so they cleaned it up, put a new roof on it, and it's now operational again. That's one thing we take for granted in the US: while we fought in the World Wars and many soldiers lost their lives, we didn't have the war reach our country. Many priceless buildings and works of art in Europe were completely destroyed during he wars. What an incredibly saddening loss. Oh, I also walked in on a wedding here too... #WeddingCrasher.

Gesú Nuovo
Based on the exterior of this building, you wouldn't suspect that it is a church on the inside. That is because it used to be a mansion for a rich family. Since then, it had been converted into a gorgeous church with inspiring paintings and works of art. Yet another amazing church with a curious history!

Santa Anna di Lombardi
This church (yes, I know...I have visited more churches than I think I've been to in my entire life!) is a bit tucked away and more of a homey church. It's not adorned with gold or frescos every which way you look, but it's simplicity is part of its elegance.

Castel Nuovo
I didn't tour this castle, I just visited it, but it's pretty legit and is on the seaside. It's from the 13th century and was ordered to be constructed when the capitol of the Kingdom of Naples moved from Palermo to Naples. Several historical events took place within the castle, including the resignation of a Pope and election of a new Pope!

Piazza Plebiscito
This large plaza is adorned with a grand building from the early 19th century. In the center, there is a church that is modled after the Pantheon in Rome. Stretching out on either side are colonnades, similar to those found in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. It's quite impressive and beautiful, though interesting how the two different structures were blended together. The extensive plaza allows visitors to thoroughly enjoy the magnitude and grandeur of the building. The plaza has also held concerts over the years to artist such as Elton John, Maroon 5, and Muse.

Castel dell'Ovo
While I didn't visit nor tour this castle, I did see it and it does have an interesting story I'd like to share. Legend has it the location where this castle is is where the siren Partenope washed ashore after plunging herself into the sea after she failed to lure Ulysses to his demise. This is also where got her first name: Partenope.

Metro Toledo
Supposedly this is one of the most beautiful metro stops in the world. From the moment you descend into the station, there are grand mosaics on the wall. Every part of the station is decorated. It's a wonder there hasn't been much (if any) graffiti on the art!

Naples is an interesting city to visit. It was once the best city in all of Europe, but has fallen very far. After a huge factory was relocated to northern Italy and 10,000 people lost their jobs in one day, it kind of crashed their economy. Because of this, the city has kind if crumbled a little. The old part of the city has plaster missing from a lot of the buildings, there is a serious need for some upkeep and paint jobs, the streets are filthy and need to have garbage picked up and some sweeping done, etc. You kind of feel like you're walking into a 2nd or 3rd world country, to be honest. It is kind of hard though; the buildings are all 700+ years old. My hostel in Naples wasn't like most hostels; this is because it is actually the home of a man, Giovanni, who has converted it into his business. It allows him to meet people from all over the world, share some of Naples' history and hidden treasures (as well as some homemade Italian food on occasion), and he loves doing it. It's kind of an ingenious business model if you love meeting new people and don't mind opening up your home!

May 8 - Vatican City, Vatican and Rome, Italy

Musei Vatican
So, turns out the entrance to the museum is actually on the right side of the Vatican from St. Peter's Square, not the left. And if you try to enter through that gate, the guards don't particularly like you. In fact, they are quite rude... Good thing I showed up early! Also, good thing I bought a ticket online, because there were several hundred people waiting in line just to buy their ticket, which I was able to bypass completely! The museum is a large collection of paintings, sculptures, fountains, pottery, tapestries, etc. There are several pieces within the museum that are quite impressive. Of course, everyone wants to speed through the museum to just get to the Sistine Chapel, but I decided I wanted to check out everything the museum had to offer.

Cappella Sistina
Toward the end of the tour route is the Sistine Chapel. I overheard a gentleman saying how the moment is almost ruined because of the sheer amount of tourists packed into the room, which is actually kind if true. It would be a phenomenal to have the opportunity to go in there after hours and enjoy the various paintings in complete serenity. It Is indeed very impressive though with everything looking so 3D, even though it's just a 2D painting!

Piazza San Pietro
This large plaza can hold several thousand people during when the Pope gives speeches, etc. It's very cool to see with all the pillars surrounding it, the entrance between Rome and the Vatican.

Basilica di San Pietro
This is the largest church in the world. And woah, it is beautiful and quite impressive to see. It's free to enter, though you have to wait in a line and go through security to enter. The intricate detail of every square inch is actually quite ridiculous. One interesting aspect is you can go below the church and see the crypts of several of the previous Popes over the last 2000 years.

As a Catholic, visiting the Vatican is a wonderful journey for me to have taken. I can't imagine it has quite as much effect on those who either don't believe in God or believe in some other deity. It would have been neat to have been in the Vatican when the Pope was speaking, especially since I really enjoy this Pope and his thoughts. The direction the Catholic church has taken since he took the reins has given me hope again for Catholicism; it seems like we are finally, at least to some degree, catching up with society. It actually shocks me how against LGBTQ rights the Catholic church has been throughout history considering there are literally hundreds of naked men in the paintings and sculptures throughout the Vatican!

Campo do Fiori
So this plaza used to be a flower field, hence its name. The majority of the plaza has never had a building on it. Instead, it has been a place of trade, largely for fruits, vegetables, and fish. There has been a market there every morning for over 150 years. In the afternoons, kids gather there to play soccer, and at night it's full of people meeting up and having a good time. Ages ago, this plaza was also used for public burnings at the stake of people. In the center of the plaza, there's a statue of Giordano Bruno, who was burnt alive for heresy in the year 1600. Quite the multi-utilization, eh?

Larga Argentina
While this is indeed where Cesar was assassinated, now it's a cat sanctuary. Yup, a famous landmark has been converted into a cat playground. It's kind if ingenious, really to use it when it otherwise would just be sitting empty. Interesting though...

Piazza del Popolo
The Plaza of the People is a giant plaza in Rome with a central fountain. It's themed in Egyptian and is interesting to see. However, if you climb the stairs up to the park, you'll find a great view of the city and it's skyline. You'll also find couples making out, friends passing the time, others drinking, some street band performers, dogs playing with each other, and more...

I honestly thought that Rome would be kind of run down and just full of ruins, so I was surprised when I saw it is decently modern and the old has been blended well with the new(er). In addition, the city is pretty well kept up and enjoyable to visit.

One genius aspect of the city is there are water fountains all throughout the city that have water running non-stop, and it's all drinkable water, so if you carry a water bottle with you, you can just fill it up throughout the day and it's easy to stay hydrated! The only thing that is weird to me is that they run all the time. I wonder what happens to the water that isn't consumed. Where does it go?

Shout out to my fraternity brother, Josh Meyer, for giving me pointers on what to do since he studied abroad in Rome last fall! I definitely enjoyed your city!

May 11 - Venice, Italy

Ponte di Rialto
This bridge kind of reminded me of a bridge in Florence because there are shops on it and lookout points in the center, albeit this bridge is much smaller than the one in Florence! Also, they are doing some restoration, so you can't fully enjoy the architecture.

Scala Contarini del Bovolo
While checking out this staircase on the back side of a building, a tourist group was entering the plaza to make a stop and adore the architecture. As a lady first saw it, she gasped in awe, so apparently it's pretty beautiful! The staircase is designed in the same style as the leaning tower of Pisa and was meant to be a servant's staircase. Who knew...

Basilica di San Marco
Saint Mark's Basilica is a beautiful basilica. At first sight, it kind of reminded me of the Taj Mahal, which I found precarious. The exterior is adorned with intricate and priceless mosaics. The inside also had mosaics and paintings on the ceilings. There is a great deal of gold paint in the design too. One thing I found interesting is it doesn't have pews, but removable instead chairs. Nevertheless, it's a unique church that's worth visiting!

Campanile di San Marco
This tower sends you almost 100 meters above the city and offers some pretty incredible views of the surrounding buildings, canals, and sea. The skyline of Venice is very picturesque. It's also a great place to go to cool down!

Piazza San Marco
Saint Mark's Plaza huge and is surrounded by a huge three story building with columns all around it. It's a nice hangout spot to enjoy the mosaics on the outside of the church and to people watch! If you're lucky, there may even be a college choir rehearsing in the plaza for their performance inside the basilica!

I've had several travelers tell me that one day is more than enough to spend in Venice and that I should be glad that's all I was there for. I actually found it quite relaxing though. The canals are gorgeous, and the sea is equally beautiful. If you're lucky, you'll even see a cruise ship bring taxied into the harbor! Granted is fairly touristy, but it's very clean and picturesque, which is more than I can say about some other cities I've visited! On top of that, it is beautiful in different ways at night versus during the day. I would definitely like to come back and spend more time here, though I think I'll wait until I have a special someone who I can take a gondola ride with!

jueves, 7 de mayo de 2015

May 6 - Florence, Italy

Accademia Gallery
The David. What else is there to say? I mean, to say I went there to see the other sculptures and paintings would be a lie. What an impressive work of art! Any artist understands how hard certain parts of the human body are to get right, and dear Lord, his hands are perfect! Very strong and protective. There are several other parts of his body I'd point out too, but I think you all can figure those out for yourself. I just hope I look that good when I'm 511 years old!

Piazza della Signoria
This plaza is home to many famous pieces of art. There's a Fountain of Neptune, Hercules and Cacus, a replica of the David (this is where the original one was until they moved it to protect it from vandalism), as well as several other replicas of statues that are now in museums in the Loggia dei Lanzi.

Palazzo Vecchio Tower
While I wanted to tour the inside of the building and tower, I couldn't because it was closed because filming was taking place inside for the movie "Inferno" starring Tom Hanks, based off the Dan Brown book. While I've read the series and like them, I thought the movies didn't quite live up to the book. Maybe this one will be better? Or I will like it more because I was present at part of the filming? I guess I will have to wait until it comes out next year to see!

Bardini Garden
This pretty neat garden is on a hill behind a palace, so that's kinda cool. It's full of marble sculptures and even has a pool in it, though it's not for swimming. To top it off, the top point is high up, so you can get some amazing views of the city.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore
The outside of this cathedral is quite grand and it is an incredibly huge, so one would imagine the inside is probably quite impressive. Well, indeed it is. I absolutely loved the inside because it is in such pristine condition! Plus, I loved the simplicity of it; part of the walls are painted white and part are stone, the dome is beautifully painted and in great condition, plus there isn't a bunch of extra touristy "crap" inside like some other cathedrals I've visited. While I maintain that the basilica in Madrid is the most breath takingly beautiful church I've ever been to, the elegance and simplicity of this one coupled with the amazing dome makes it a close second. However, instead of going in, touring it, and taking pictures, I decided to skip waiting in line and paying for a visit in favor of going to mass. As if English, Spanish, and French masses weren't enough for me, Italian had to sneak in there! It was honestly one of the coolest experiences ever! It amazes me the differences between European and US mass. Maybe it's because I've been a part of small parishes where the priest knows everyone. Maybe it's because of how intermingled religion and politics are in the US. Maybe it's because it was in Italian (though I could make out probably 25% of what he was saying because of the similarities to Spanish). Either way, it seemed to be more of what mass should be. And I loved it.

Florence is a lovely city and is one of my favorites so far in Europe. The city is very clean and isn't run down, easy to navigate, the mountains in the distance are lovely, the sculptures everywhere are striking, and everything just seems perfect. I would definitely love to return or maybe even live in Florence.

May 7 - Rome, Italy

Santa Maria Maggiore
This is the main church of Rome that serves the majority of the citizens. Indeed there are dozens of other churches, but this is the big one! It's quite grand and has a large plaza in front of it, which helps to allow enjoying the exterior architecture. The inside is in great condition and is full of beautiful painted ceilings. I was on the phone with my grandma, and she said that a bunch of the churches by home used to have painted ceilings, but they painted over them plain white years ago. I have no idea why on earth they would do that; I think that would make me want to go to church more just to adore the beauty!

So if you're going to the Colosseum, definitely walk up the hill and buy your tickets there versus waiting in line. Then you can go ahead and enter without any issues or waiting! It's incredible how much of the structure is still intact. Something I found comical is that they used to essentially tailgate at the Colosseum, cooking meat, etc right there on the steps! It would be amazing to have seen it when it was still operating, though I don't think I'd be very entertained by the amount of human and animal deaths for a small amount of entertainment. In addition, a guide said they would also make topless women fight midgets, make women have sec with animals and then they would be murdered, etc. Talk about a harsh punishment if you get "caught" doing something illegal! I also didn't realize that the entrance was free to citizens and that it was used as a political ploy to get citizens to vote for a specific person who financed the fights, food, and wine. It's quite the place to see, that's for sure. One thing that's impressive is that all citizens could enter the Colosseum and find their seats within 15 minutes, and as such all leave the building within 15 minutes. Modern stadiums aren't even that easy to get in and out of...

Arco di Costantino
There are 3 arches by the Colosseum that an old road used to travel through that the emperor would ride through on his way to the Forum. The first one is the Arch of Constantine, which is just outside the Colosseum.

Palatine today is quite beautiful as a small park. There are a lot of ruins still there from life a couple thousand years ago. There's an incredible lookout point that allows a great birds eye view of the Roman Forum and surrounding area. It wasn't until I was walking through the Roman Forum that I noticed that the lookout point is actually one of the floors of a huge Roman palace that's built into the side of the hill!

Arco di Tito
This is the second arch that leads into the Roman Forum. Honestly, I don't understand what the desire was to build grand arches. All the Arches of Triumph throughout the countries too...I really need to look more into the history and stories behind them; maybe then I'd be able to appreciate them more?

Foro Romano
While there are just a bunch of ruins here now, this used to be the center of social and night life in ancient Rome. Well, before that it was just a swamp and undesired land, but you get what I mean. Apparently the surrounding towns grew toward each other, and this was more or less the center of them, so that's how it came to be. It's also where some government buildings were located and the country was shaped for the people, by the people. It's crazy to think how far society had come at that point and then how far it fell after. Imagine where we would have been if that hadn't happened...

Arco Septimus Severus
This is the last arch the emperor would ride through, completing his journey and his arrival to the Forum. I wonder if this had any influence on why JK Rowling chose the name Severus for Snape, seeing as he was essential to the end of the road for Voldemort and this arch was the end of the road for the emperor...

Altare della Patria
This big, beautiful building houses several interesting museums. The reason I wanted to go there, however, was to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I haven't seen the one in Washington DC, but it fascinates me. It's quite somber. In the tomb is an unidentified soldier from WWI. An Italian woman who lost her sun to the war and whose remains were never found selected the young man to be placed in the tomb out of 11 unidentified soldiers. There are two torches outside that are always lite, as well as 2 guards who stand watch. It's definitely worth a visit.

Colonna Traiana
Located at the end of the Piazza Foro Traiano is the Trojan's Column. The intricate detail carved into the column makes you want to get a ladder and climb up it so you can see every detail up close and in person. Obviously that's not an option, so adoring it from afar has to suffice.

First of, who knew the Pantheon is, and has been, a church for hundreds of years?! When I walked in and realized this, I had to Google it to read up on the history! It's ironic that a once important political building has become a religious building. It's amazing how well kept the building is for being a couple thousand years old. The reason for this is because it's been occupied all this time and has had people cleaning it and performing upkeep on it. I also didn't realize there's a huge hole in the center of the roof. This is, of course, intentional and part of the design. If and when it rains, there is a drain in the center of the floor that can drain out the water. To be honest, I would have expected them to have put a glass ceiling over it by now so every time it rains they don't have to squeegee out the water and clean again.

Piazza Navona
Plaza Navona is a huge plaza. In the center of the plaza is the Fountain of the Four Rivers, which represents the four main rivers of the continents that the papal authority had spread through: the Nile (Africa), Danube (Europe), Ganges (Asia), and the Río de la Plata (Americas). The plaza was built on the site of the Stadium of Dimition, an old competition arena Romans watched "the games" at.

Ponte Sant'Angelo
This bridge is adorned by several statues of angles on the sides of the bridge. Frequently birds land on the heads of the angels, and some tourists think it's comical and try to take pictures with the bird on the angel. I think it's comical that the tourists do this, so we all get a good laugh, haha.

Castel Sant'Angelo
At the end of Ponte Sant'Angelo is a castle. While it's not at all the biggest castle in the world, it can be confusing to navigate, especially if you want to try and see everything and have to duck in and out of the rooms to find your way through everything. From the top, you get a superb view of the city and even the skyline of the Vatican, since it's so close.

Piazza di Spagna
Close to the Spanish Embassy are the Spanish Steps, which ironically were designed by a Frenchman. At the base of the steps is the Fontana della Barcaccia, a fountain in the shape of a boat. Right now, there are large flower pots on the steps, which enhance the atmosphere greatly. It's a fun place to hang out and chat with friends.

Fontana di Trevi
Ahh yes, the infamous Trevi Fountain. The one that's been under repair and cleaning for the last several months. I had hoped they would be done by now, considering extreme tourist season is just around the corner, however that was not the case. Sad day. They had a small fountain in front that people could toss their coins into and make a wish, but I didn't because I felt it wouldn't be the same since it's not the true fountain. Plus, I didn't want to toss a €1 or €2 coin...

martes, 5 de mayo de 2015

May 5 - Milan, La Spezia, and Pisa, Italy

The Duomo is a famous cathedral in Milan. One of the coolest aspects of the church is that you can go up to the roof and see the city from a different perspective, literally! I can't help but wonder what it would be like to call a cathedral like this your home church where you go for survive. The organ systems alone have to be incredible!

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Located on the Piazza del Duomo, there's a shopping district full of brands I couldn't even imagine being able to justify purchasing. In addition, there are mosaics on the ground. One of them includes a bull, and it's said to be good luck to spin on bull's balls. Literally, I'm not making this up. Google it. Anyway, there's actually a divot in the ground where the bull's balls used to be. What an...interesting... tradition...

Santa Maria delle Grazie
Unfortunately tickets were all sold out for seeing the Last Supper for the afternoon, so I couldn't see it in person, but it can't be too much different from the pictures, right? I should probably start looking into sights and seeing which ones I should book tickets to in advance... The church was pretty though, and the priest was walking around chatting with visitors, so that was cool to see.

Overall, I wasn't too in love with Milan. It's kind of run down with a lot of what appears to be low income areas. The center is beautiful (which is usually the case with European cities). I'm sure if I had more time there and could have gone to the Milan Expo or had gone to Fashion Week, I would have seen much different sides of Milan. It was still cool to see though! Oh, and the delicious bottle sparkling wine for only €3 that I had all to myself was good too!

Castello di San Giorgio
So this castle was closed when I got to it, but it was cool to just see from the outside. It's comical to me to have an old castle in the middle of a town. No matter how many old buildings I see, it still amazes me how much history there is in Europe compared to the US.

I didn't do a whole lot in La Spezia. It is a quaint little town though, and it was fun just to see that side of Italy. I did have an AMAZING Italian meal though, complete with a delicious, red Italian wine, bruschetta, lasagna with homemade sauce and noodles, and tirimusu that was definitely in the top 5 desserts I've ever had in my life! I definitely have fond memories of this town!

Leaning Tower of Pisa
This tower alone is beautifully made and a wonder to see. The fact that one side of it is more than a meter lower than the other is even more ridiculously amazing. I don't think any pictures can capture how much the tower actually leans. It's truly incredible.

Duomo Pisa and Battistero
The church and baptismal buildings are also beautifully constructed. I do not understand why there is a separate building for baptizing, but there it is!

Like La Spezia, there isn't a whole lot to see in Pisa, which is why I literally got in at night and left in the morning! It is a beautiful town though, and wouldn't be a bad place to live a more relaxed life away from the hustle and bustle. The only complaint I have is from the guy who snored louder than the cars passing by and sounded like he was going to die. I tried counting sheep, listening to music, even watching a movie; literally, I couldn't fall asleep until there was a period in the wee hours of the morning when he finally stopped snoring so fricken loud. I'm guessing by that point I was so sleep deprived that if he started back up again, I wouldn't have known!

May 4 - Nice, France and Monte Carlo, Monaco

La plage
Ironically enough, the beach in Nice isn't that nice because it's rocks and not sand. Granted, they don't have jagged edges or anything, but you can't dig your toes into the sand here! The water is amazingly blue and clear though. It is amazing that it has been kept this clean all these years with all the pollution that's happened over the last 100+ years!

Monument aux Morts
This monument is not very eccentric, though it is impressive. The tall monument on the side of the cliff dedicated to those who died in the World Wars is beautiful and a must-see if you find yourself in Nice.

Parc du Chateau
If you want to see some breathtaking views of Nice, take the time and energy to hike up to this park. You can see for a couple miles and could probably see more if there wasn't a marine layer! It's quite an impressive site. The hike up is cool too, twisting through nature. Taking in the smells of all the flowers and plants was both amazing and terrible for my allergies!

Sainte-Réparate Cathédrale
Turns out the cathedral is closed on Mondays, so I didn't get to go inside, but I did get to see the outside. The dome of the cathedral is beautiful and quite impressive.

Église Saint Jacques le Majeur
Since I didn't get to go into the cathedral, I decided to check out another close-by church since I had the time. It is quite beautifully decorated, though has deteriorated some over the years. I often wonder when I see these big, awe-inspiring buildings I wonder how much has changed over the years and what they looked like in their pristine. It would be amazing if they could all be restored to their original glory, but we probably don't even know what most of the paintings in the buildings originally looked like, we wouldn't be able to fix the broken parts of them.

Japanese Gardens
It's kind of incredible these gardens even exist, considering their location. They're right next to the ocean, and since Monaco is a small country, that's prime real estate! It is a small garden, though, but they are very beautiful. I sat down to watch the fish swimming and a duck landed right in front of me, swam around for a few minutes, and then walked out of the water right next to me and walked on the grass that humans can't even be on! Incredible!

Monte Carlo Harbor
This harbor has to be one in a million! That is because it's full of huge yachts that are all worth several million dollars a piece! There was also a cruise ship docked, which was impressive to see.

Grand Prix
While the Monte Carlo Grand Prix isn't until the 21-24 of May, they've already begun converting the streets and harbor into the race track and spectator's areas. I didn't honestly realize that the race takes place on the actual streets of the city; how crazy is that! And since it's throughout the city, pedestrians can walk throughout the area and on the track, which I obviously did. How fricken sweat is that?! It would have been cool to see one of the races, though it is probably fairly expensive... Hmm... Maybe in the future?

This beautiful cathedral overlooking one of the harbors is quite the sight. It always amazes me seeing places like these so close to the water with breathtaking views. The water is literally so blue, it's like it's from a picture in a magazine about a paradise town.

I definitely wouldn't mind coming back to this area down the road on vacation and soaking it in some more. It's fun seeing extremely expensive vehicles and what are considered expensive vehicles to "normal" people be cheap vehicles to others! Just soaking in the views and atmosphere would be lovely. Maybe a cruise?

lunes, 4 de mayo de 2015

May 3 - Marseille, France

Cathedrale de la Major
This cathedral is very distinct in it's design with the mixing of colors of stone. It is quite beautiful, especially since it sits right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea at sea level! In Spain, the use of tiles is extremely common. But just as common as their use is the mixture of designs, which causes it to look out of place. The tile work in this cathedral is amazing and the designs all match and flow with each other, so my OCPD was in heaven! Definitely a must see in Marseille!

Vieux Port
This port is very iconic to Marseille, and equally picturesque. I enjoyed the views while sitting with my legs dangling above the water at the end of the port. All the boats, the blue water, the surrounding buildings...heaven!

Le Jardin de la Colline
While walking through the city, I noticed a little waterfall. I decided to check it out, and followed the path up the hill. It was a small park that over looked the city, and the

Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
I tell you, if the sights of Marseille and the sea from the top of the hill don't take your breath away, the hike to the top of the hill will! This gorgeous basilica is situated on the top of one of the tallest hills in the city, so hiking there from the Old Port is definitely a workout! Ironically, shortly after I entered the basilica, mass started and I got to experience some of a French mass. Sure, it was a tad bit confusing, but definitely a cool experience.

The very touristy parts of Marseille were fairly nice areas, but since I primarily walk between sights, I've walked through the non-touristy areas too, which usually either seems like it's only half put together or is very dirty and has a lot of graffiti, which is truly a shame. It would be nice to upkeep where people from the area actually live too so they can enjoy it more. I guess that level of upkeep falls more on owners of those properties, so who knows if that would ever happen, but that's just my observation. Marseille was pretty, though there wasn't a ton to do/see there. The one thing I didn't get to do that I wanted to do was to go on a boat tour of the Calanques, though the boat schedule didn't fit into mine, so I couldn't go. However, since I'm going to see the Blue Grotto in Capri, I figured I was probably okay! Oh, and a note to myself: visit Agay, France in the future; everything looks perfect, picturesque, and it's on the coast, so it has to be AMAZING!

domingo, 3 de mayo de 2015

May 2 - Barcelona, Spain

Casa Mila
Esta casa fue muy cerca de mi hostal, entonces cuando salí por mí día loco, fue mi primera visita. No fue por dentro porque no tuve suficiente tiempo para guiar a todos los edificios, pero la admiré desde fuera.

Casa Batllo
Querría visitar la Casa Batlló, pero había muchas personas, entonces compré un taquilla por el internet con el fast pass para que podría entrar directamente y no esperar por una hora. Fue una buena decisión. La casa me fascina un montón. Gaudi trataba recrear el ambiente del océano en esta casa, y sus maneras de hacerlo es impresionante. Pero, nunca podría vivir en esta casa con todos sus líneas curvadas; ¡me las transformarían loco!

Plaça de Catalunya
Hay unas fuentes con unas esculturas. Además, un montón de flores. Los edificios por todos los lados son impresionantes y es muy tranquila.

Mercat de la Boquería
Este mercado es como ser en otro mundo! Hay múltiples tiendas con cada cosa entre zumo fresco a pescado fresco del día. Hay gente por todas partes también. Qué interesante!

Catedral de Barcelona
La catedral me parece como cada otra iglesia gótica. Pero, esta es un poco diferente porque hay unas escaleras que descienden a una capilla con una cripta de la santa de esta catedral. Además, se puede subir al techo donde hay unas vistas preciosas de la ciudad, mientras no me parece muy seguro... En adición a todas las capillas en la catedral, hay un patio conectado a un lado que tiene unas capillas más y un museo con unos cuadros.

Mirador de Colom
Claro hay unos significados a este monumento, pero para verlo no le da mucha de una impresión. Es un personaje encima de un torre.

Platja de la Barceloneta
Claro las playas en Barcelona son bonitas y divertidos. Pero, mientras que había más calor más temprano en el día, era nublado y frío cuando estuviera en la playa. Fue divertido ver a personas jugando volleyball, fútbol, y otras deportes.

Sagrada Familia
Cuando llegué a mi hostal, los trabajadores me dijeron que debo comprar mi taquilla por la red porque usualmente se toma mucho tiempo esperar para comprarla, y que más, haya una posibilidad que no hay más taquillas para hoy. Púes, estuvieron correctos. No podría entrar, pero la admiré por afuera. Es increíble y como del otro mundo. Muy genial.

Barcelona me parece una ciudad muy turista, pero por un razón muy bueno. Es muy bonita, muy moderna, y muy chula. Mi hostal fue muy divertido. Tuvieron paella y sangría por solo €7. Además, había un pub crawl muy divertido, pero sólo dormí por 3 horas porque estuviera en un club con personas de muchos países hasta muy tarde. Probablemente no fue el decisión mejor de mi vida... Pero, cuando en Barcelona, haz como las Catalanas hacen!

May 1 - Madrid, Spain

San Jerónimo el Real
Qué iglesia más bonita! Como siempre en las iglesias, recé para mis abuelos, familia, y amigos. No tuve intenciones ir a esta iglesia, pero estoy emocionado que decidí entrar. ¡Las pinturas son muy bonitas!

Museo del Prado
Hay 3 días al año que el Museo está cerrado. Y hoy es uno de esos días. Qué suerte más horrible...

El Retiro
Madrid tiene un mogollón de parques, y esto es uno de los más famosos. Qué tranquilidad y hermosa. Realmente, podría pasar un día entero en el parque!

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Púes, como el Prado, la Reina Sofia TAMBIÉN fue cerrada. El 1 de abril es un día de festival en España (aparentemente), entonces no podría entrar a ver el arte. Qué barbaridad...

La Puerta de Alcalá
Imagino que el Arco de Triunfo en París es un poco como esta estructura, pero más grande... Por lo menos, es bonita.

El Oso y el Modroño
Es bueno que los osos no están en las montañas nada más. ¡No sería bien si había osos en la ciudad buscando por modroños hoy en día!

Catedral de la Almudena
Esta catedral es grande y muy bonita. El techo tiene un montón de colores. Cada sección tiene variedades patrones, y cada patrón es diferente. Es bonita, pero prefiero que las patrones coinciden. Diferencias como estas me corren loco...

El Palacio Real
Hay una guía para el palacio, pero desde que hoy es un día de festival, no está abierto. Por supuesto. Pero para verlo de afuera fue bien desde que es muy bonito y impresionante.

Templo de Debod
Esto además fue cerrado. Me parece sería interesante ver la parte por dentro. La parte afuera es bonita, especialmente con la piscina de reflexión, pero solamente es un templo de 2,200 años pasados de Egipto...

Basílica de San Francisco el Grande
De la parte afuera, no puedes imaginar lo que está por dentro. ¡Pero, esta basílica es la iglesia más bonita que he visto en mi vida! Posiblemente es porque entré al fin de una boda cuando estuvieron sacando sus últimas fotos, pero el techo es increíble con todas las pinturas y todo. Además, todo el mármol es tan bien incorporado que no puedes respirar, y las capillas son igualmente impresionante. Realmente, un día, seria una buena idea casarme en esta basílica...

A mi me encanta Madrid mucho. Es muy bonita y me encantan todos los árboles y parques. Los edificios son increíbles, especialmente en el centro. Si una carterista no había robado mi dinero, sería mejor. Qué más, si el cajero automático no comí a mi tarjeta débito o si el operador por el teléfono era más útil,  sería mejor. Es bueno que el operador de mí banco en los Estados Unidos era útil. Tuve que cancelar a mí tarjeta, entonces tendré uno nuevo cuando regreso en junio... ¡Qué racha de mala suerte!

martes, 21 de abril de 2015

Trip with Kim

After class, I biked home, ate lunch, and headed to the airport for my flight from Seville to London. Navigating the airport was fairly quick and easy as I've done it loads of times by now. When we got into Stanton, we had to go through Customs. For it, there's a section for EU residents who've signed up for a specific program, all other EU citizens, and then way down on the end, there was a section for all others. Well, not even seeing the other section because everything down that way looked empty, I filed into the all other EU citizen queue. While queueing toward the front, I started talking to a girl from the US who was also studying in Seville and heading to London for a few days. When we got to the front of the line, the customs personnel notified us we were in the wrong area and had to go down further. Fortunately, there wasn't too much of a line, so that went pretty quick. I had bought a bus ticket into the city, so I just had to figure out where I needed to go for that! I've learned to just ask people, as most are willing to help and it can save a lot of time. Shortly thereafter, I was on a coach bus driving on the wrong side of the road toward London! Once I got dropped off, then came the fun part: the tube. Until this point, I'd ridden on trains, buses, and above ground trams, but an underground system was new. Fortunately London's system is pretty well planned out and there are workers at every station, so I was on my way to King's Cross Station, which is where my hostel was by.

Now, of course since I was going to King's Cross, I HAD to visit Platform  9 3/4! I've grown up with HP, and it's basically a minor addiction of mine. Since it was late, there wasn't many people around, so it was pretty easy to take a few pictures and be on my way!

My hostel, which was my first time staying in one, reminded me of the Burrow. (There will be several HP references, so mind your head.) Close by there was a burrito restaurant that I decided to hit up. Spanish cuisine doesn't use many spices and doesn't have any heat, so having good Mexican food again was like a dream come true! I then spent time in the common room, which was full of people from all over the world. Africa, South Korea, Germany, South America... I was mildly shocked by the variety of people. I spent some time chatting with a couple girls from Seoul, which was very fun. One is studying in northern England and the other in Berlin, so they had interesting perspectives. I didn't stay for too long though as it was late and I needed to get some sleep in my 16 bed shared dorm. Thankfully no one snored!

In the morning, I quietly got up, got ready, and checked out. (Staying in a hostel was a good experience for me and would definitely recommend using hostels over hotels to save money, if that's an issue.) I hopped the tube and headed to the hotel Kim and I were to be staying at, which is where we were meeting. Shortly after I showed up, she did too, so we checked in early, dropped off our stuff, and set off for our first day of adventures!

Kim had flown from Madison to London with a crying baby also on the plane, meaning she hadn't gotten much sleep, but I forced her to go strong our first day to help acclimate to the new time zone. We started off slow with a nice walk through Hyde Park. Some flowers were in bloom and there were a lot of ducks, so it was very serene. I have never been to New York, but I imagine Central Park has a similar vibe.

Next on our itinerary was the London Bus Tour, which was a great way to see the major landmarks of the city and start to orientate ourselves to the city and it's layout. Our tour guide was very insightful and pointed out things I never would have thought to look for. For example, she pointed out damage to the exterior of specific buildings that was from the air bombing raids during the World Wars. It was a tad brisk out to be sitting on the upper deck of a double-decker bus without a roof, but a great day nonetheless!

After the bus tour, we stopped at our hotel and then headed into the city for the night. We went to the London Eye, which is neat, though I'm glad we prebooked tickets, because it definitely wouldn't be worth waiting in the line that was there to buy them! Especially since the ride around doesn't last that long. It shocked me when I learned that, when it was built, they didn't think it would be there more than 10 years, but due to the large number of people who visit it, it's still operating. Why someone would build something so huge just to tear it down 10 years later is beyond me.

After that, we went and checked out Big Ben and the Parliament building. I've gotta say, I thought the tower that Big Ben is a part of would be bigger. Don't get me wrong, it was beautiful with the style and decoration, but I just kind of thought it would be taller.

After that, we went to our night at the theatre to see one of my personal favorites: Wicked! However, I believe the time I saw it in Chicago was better, though I definitely had a better seat this time! I just thought that Glinda wasn't as ditzy as she should be. But, sweet Oz, did Elphaba have some pipes on her! She was definitely my favorite character (though I think she always is...).  Ironically, in London, Ozians have a British accent, except the Wizard... Which I guess makes sense since he's technically from Kansas! Overall, it was a great show and a wonderful way to end our first day in London.

We had a bit of a late start on Saturday, though I figured I'd be nice and let Kim sleep in since she'd been up for so long the days before. After breakfast, we headed into the city to see Westminster Abbey. We got there at 1:29, and they were closing at 1:30 since they were still on "winter" hours. (Hello, it's spring. Not winter.) It wouldn't have been so bad had the worker not been kind of royal pain, or if they would post their hours in more places other than outside the entrance, like, you know, their website so Google knows and doesn't say the wrong hours. We looked at their services and were thinking about returning so we could see the inside, though it didn't end up working out.

Next we went to Buckingham Palace, which can't be toured right now because the Queen's in residence, even though she doesn't usually even stay there. We toured the royal stables, which weren't really that impressive. The best part about it was seeing the little pony carts that the staff would sometimes pull the little princesses around in if there wasn't a spare animal!

Through the tube again we were to St. Paul's Cathedral, which is one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. It was very beautiful, and you can go up to the dome and look over the church from there. If you keep ascending, you can go all the way up and get some of the best views of the city, which are indeed impressive. The 500+ steps are a bit of a workout and sometimes you need to mind your head, but it's totally worth it.

In addition, when you get to the top, you can even see Millennium Bridge, aka the bridge that was supposed to have been collapsed by the Death Eaters!

Since we had walked and climbed a bunch, we decided to stop at a cafe for a glass of wine and some dessert, which was amazing and totally refreshing. After our relaxing, we went to Harrods. (No, not Jared's, Harrods.) Honestly, the architecture alone is amazing inside this huge store. We just walked around gawking at the ridiculously overpriced goods. It must be nice to be able to pay £55,000 for a decorative peacock! There was a technology room that was pretty wicked, and some of the furniture was pretty neat to look at, but there was no way I was going to buy anything there! On our way out, we did encounter the touristy department with normal priced stuff, so Kim got a nice purse that says Harrods on it. Harrods was definitely more impressive than I anticipated it to be!

Since I had gone to Platform 9 3/4 before by myself, I told Kim about it, and she also wanted to go. Naturally, I willingly obliged! I didn't notice the gift store located close by the first time, so we went in and looked around. I found myself choosing a wand to take with me, which is probably one of my favorite souvenirs so far!

After HP, we wandered around a bit and stumbled upon this AMAZING Italian restaurant. The food was great, the wine was on par, and the service was excellent, which can be hard to come by in Europe. Yet another pretty great day in the books!

We got ourselves moving fairly quickly on Sunday and headed across town to the Tower of London. Kim has read a plethora about this era and it was the highlight of her London experience. To be honest, I didn't think it would be that cool or there would be too much to see. Boy, was I wrong! That place is amazing! There is so much history, it's incredible. We spent hours here, and it was entirely worth it! The entire central building, the White Tower, is full of different artifacts and attractions. They even had "toilets" that just let the waste fall of the side of the building. (Talk about a crappy situation... Could you imagine the smell?! Yuck.) The eventually built a wall to hide the side of the building that had all the crap on it.

When we went into the White Tower, there was a HUGE line to see the crown jewels. Truthfully, we didn't even realize they were there until we got to the Tower of London. We decided to check out the White Tower first and then we would go back and see the jewels if we had time, especially since it was raining. (We had to have some rain while we were in London, right?!) It was the best decision ever! When we came out, there was hardly any line at all and we essentially walked right in! The jewels and crowns are impressive, though it's shocking that a lot of the time, they're hardly worn. If I had a crown, I'd be wearing that thing all the time!! I didn't know much about how the whole Royal family thing worked, but one of the workers was more than happy to share the low down on how the titles and succession, etc., works. It's just comical to me how much everyone loves the Queen, yet people usually dislike the US president. The roles are different indeed, but it's fascinating to me. Whenever Queen Elizabeth II passes away, it will definitely be felt the world around, and the following coronation will be the first one most living people today will have seen! What a fascinating subject and place!

Afterwords, we had some decent burgers for dinner and then headed back to the hotel to rest since we had to head to the airport fairly early to head to Dublin.

So we get up early, get ready, pack our things, take the overground to Gatwick, get through security, get to our gate, and as we are about to get into the terminal, they stop letting people enter, so we had to wait in the queue. After nearly a half hour, when our flight was supposed to leave, we found out that there was a part that was broken on the plane, so we would be delayed a couple hours. Well, a couple turned into 12. Yes, TWELVE hours stuck in an airport. The worst part was the airline had some of the worst communication and customer service you could imagine. What's more, with the way the airport is designed, if you want to leave the airport, you have to get escorted out of the airport and can't go back through security to get back in. We were literally stuck there all day long. We could have gone back into the city and seen Westminster Abbey and some of the other sites we didn't make it to. Heck, we could have taken the train to Dublin in less time!

The worst part is the airport doesn't have free WiFi, so there was nothing to occupy my time. Fortunately, I discovered we could connect to a random store's WiFi, which meant I could watch Legally Blonde the Musical to prepare for Ireland, and I had a Guinness at brunch to live a little bit of Ireland, but we lost half of our time because we were sitting in an airport. Ugh. Fortunately there was an AMAZING chicken restaurant that I got a bomb salad at for dinner, so there's a mild silver lining. It's just annoying because it's only a little more than an hour flight that took much longer than it should have. And we missed our Viking Splash Tour! Gah, so annoying.

Well, we finally got into Dublin, took the bus into town, then a taxi to our hotel, which was so quaint, it was more like a B&B! After settling in a bit, we set off to find a pub because it was going to be our only chance to go to a pub in Ireland, and you HAVE to go to a pub if you're in Ireland!! Well, there were a couple clubs by where we were staying, but no pubs that we could see. After meandering around a bit, we stumbled upon Bruxelles Pub, which had a cool atmosphere and good music, so we were happy. I got a pint of Guinness, Jameson neat, and a Car Bomb. Now, I know that the Irish hate when tourists order Car Bombs. And I know they NEVER drink them and believe Jameson, Bailey's, and Guinness should NEVER be mixed together. Buuuttttt, I do enjoy a good Car Bomb and I HAD to get one for my friend Kayla, so it was worth the flack. We only had like 45 minutes to spend there because they were closing, so once I finished all my drinks, it didn't seem as cold and windy outside as it had on my way there! It was a good first Irish pub experience, that's for sure!

Since we were unable to go to several attractions yesterday, we decided to pick the top attractions on our list of sites to see to occupy our only day in Ireland. The morning started off a little slow, since we stayed out the night before at the pub, but we managed to get up and be ready by 8:30. Our hotel had an amazing breakfast prepared, including breads, biscuits, croissants, fruits, cereals, Greek yogurts, milk, juices, coffee, eggs, Irish bacon, sausage links, toast, and more. It was a great Irish breakfast, indeed!

After breakfast, we hit the town. We went to St. Stephen's Green to enjoy the beautiful park that was built and donated by Rupert Guinness. It was such a peaceful morning. From there, we moved on to Trinity College, which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I back in 1592. The architecture of all the buildings on campus was amazing! Very beautiful.

We even went through a museum to see the Book of Kells, which is an old Irish manuscript Gospel book in made from goat leather hide with handwritten bible texts and tables in Latin. Toward the end of the tour, there was a HUGE barrel vault library, called The Old Library, that had an exhibit about myths, including Catholic, Greek, Norse, Irish, and more.

After that, we went to the Dublin Castle. It's not quite what you'd imagine a castle to be, but it was still very interesting and full of history. I didn't know much about Irish history, so it was very intriguing. First off, Ireland has only been a free country (from the British rule) since 1921 after their rebellion. That means that they have been a free nation for less than 100 years. (How crazy is that?!)

Furthermore, they've only had 9 presidents so far, and two of them have been women, so they're ahead of the US on their acceptance of women in higher up positions. (Cheers to Ireland!) There's a grand ballroom in this castle, St. Patrick's Hall, which is where every president is sworn into office. It is considered the most important ballroom in all of Ireland! Notable persons, such as John F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, and Nelson Mandela have all attended events in this ballroom. I once had someone tell me I should take more time to view the world in other lights, such as how a child views the world. It's amazing what a different perspective can do to change ones views. With this in mind, I lied down on the carpeting and gazed up at the crystal chandeliers and beautiful paintings on the ceilings. I would suggest others to do this as well. It would surprise you what the difference can be.

After the castle, we went to St. Patrick's Cathedral, a beautiful, Gothic style church named for the Patron Saint of Ireland. There has been a church on this site since 890, though the large expansion of the church took place from 1220 to 1259, and there has been several updates since then. St. Patrick himself is said to have spent time at this site baptizing Catholics around the year 450.

There are a few neat stories about this church too. In 1492, there were two families who were feuding, the Butlers and the FitzGeralds. One day, Butler entered the cathedral and into an inner room and claimed sanctuary. The two families bickered back and forth between the door, and FitzGerald tried to enter, wanting to call a truce, but Butler thought it was a trick and wouldn't open the door. So, FitzGerald took an ax and chopped a hole through the door. Then he stuck his hand through it to shake hands and call a truce. This is where the phrase "chancing your arm" is legend to come from. Pretty neat, huh?

After that, we made our way to the Guinness Storehouse, which was a personal favorite. I really like seeing the innovation some breweries have for telling their story, and the Guinness Brewery is HUGE! There is so much to do and see, it's impressive. I'm definitely a Guinness fan and think it's like drinking chocolate milk, it's so good. Kim doesn't like it though, so it wasn't quite as intriguing for her.

On the fifth floor, we ate lunch and had really good beef stew and homemade mashed potatoes, bread, and obviously Guinness, all of which contained Guinness. Talk about taste buds in heaven! Then we went up higher and got to look out over the city from their observation deck. It was unique experience, I believe.

Once we were leaving there, we were a little hard pressed for time since we squeezed in so much in so little time, so we took a taxi from Guinness to our hotel and then the airport. Our taxi driver was honestly one of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure to speak with. He was so nice and knowledgeable. He told us some Irish history that I'd never heard before. One of the stories that stands out to me is about the potato famine. We learn in history that there was a bad famine that destroyed their potato crops for several years, but we don't learn that the British monarchs wanted to take control over Ireland and saw this as their opportunity. They invaded Ireland, established landlords, took all their crops back to England and basically left the Irish to starve to death. At the beginning, there was over 12 million Irish. By the end, only 2 million remained because the rest had either fled to the United States or a few other countries or died. (Keep in mind, there are only 4 million Irish citizens today.) Because of everything the US did to help the Irish and welcomed their fleeing citizens, the Irish much prefer their neighbors to the west than the east! The taxi driver said when he grew up, they had a picture of the Irish constitution, the Irish President, JFK, and a picture of the US constitution hanging next to each other in their home, which is the norm there. The second story is that, after 9/11 happened, because the Irish feel so connected to the US and consider us great allies, they had a national day of mourning on 9/14/2001; everything was shut down (including the pubs!), no stores were open, there was no public transportation running, all government operations ceased for the day, and all government workers were paid a full days wage for the day. When he was telling us about all this, I was starting to tear up. It's amazing what version of history we learn and how much we don't know about what's happened in the world.

Well, as we were approaching the airport, we saw a rainbow, so I knew we would make our flight, even though we were cutting it EXTREMELY close. The taxi driver gave us tips for the airport and we were on our way. We are pretty sure he was actually an angel. He was just that amazing. Again we navigated security and walked the like 10 minutes to our gate (like the taxi angel had said it'd be), hit up the bathroom, and walked up as there were only like 10 other people left to board. Talk about a close call!! Shortly thereafter, we were off on our short flight to Brussels.

When we got off the plane, we made our way into the airport. We managed to find a station to buy bus tickets into the city that would also work for the metro system, so we thought we were doing well. Thought being the key word there. We couldn't figure out which train went into the city, so we had to ask the info guy. Twice. (He wasn't very helpful.) When we got down to the correct train, instead of just hopping on like we should have, I asked a couple workers just to make sure it was the correct one, and they said yes and then asked if we had tickets. We showed them our tickets, and they informed us they were for the other system and we would have to either take the bus or pay for another ticket. Since we had already bought tickets, we decided to take the buses. Well, I loaded the Google Maps directions while we had WiFi, we found our bus and hopped on. We tried showing the driver our tickets, though he just waved us on. We made it to our first stop where we needed to transfer buses, got off, and waited for the next one. When it came, we got on, he didn't check our tickets either, and we were off again. I was keeping an eye on the map, and noticed we were heading north, not south like we were supposed to be doing. I asked the driver about it, and he said we had gotten on the 270 North, not the 270 South. Who on earth would have known the difference?! There's no markings or signs!  Like 20 minutes later, he dropped us off at a bus station and told us to wait for the 660 South. Well, we were in the middle of nowhere, Belgium, and just a little freaked out. The bus finally came and almost didn't even stop, but we raced up to it and hopped on. The bus driver asks to see our tickets in the little English he knew, so we showed them to him and he told us they were no good, that they were for a different company. Our response: ARE YOU FRICKEN KIDDING ME?! TWO OTHER DRIVERS DIDN'T CHECK OUR TICKETS, AND IF THEY HAD, WE WOULDN'T HAVE GOTTEN ON THE WRONG BUS!!! Well, he wasn't moving until we bought tickets, but there was one problem: we didn't have any euros on us. We had used the last of our euros on our taxi fare before and hadn't gotten any more! Kim had some pounds on her, but they wouldn't work. Thankfully there was one other guy on the bus who spoke English and helped us out. He is going to London in July, so we gave him the £5 and he paid for our tickets. He was such a nice guy. Kim and I considered him our second angel. He told us what we needed to know to get to our hotel and told the bus driver to make sure we knew when our stop was for the hotel. He had to get off before us, but I wasn't too worried. We could see our hotel, so I knew our stop was coming up. The bus driver waved us up, so I went up to see what he had to say, and he told us it was our stop. Because I got up so quickly, I forgot my bad on the chair. I literally left all my presents I had gotten in Dublin and my shirt I had bought, plus my book I was only half done with, PLUS a HP present I had gotten for my niece. Clearly whatever luck of the Irish I had ran out in Ireland! The best part is, when I called the bus company, they redirected me to another number, which didn't work. I called several times, and nothing. I stopped into their office at the train station, they couldn't track it or call anyone, but only give me the same number I had been given. So I went on their website and submitted an online form about it, but I know I'll never get it back. Ugh...


Since we were in Brussels, Belgian Waffles was a necessity for breakfast! We made our way to Grand Place, a beautiful, huge plaza surrounded by gilded buildings, including the Town Hall, or Hotel de Ville.

We then meandered toward Manneken Pis, which we kind of stumbled upon. I figured it would be, I don't known, bigger? (Haha, it doubles as a penis joke!) But the people crowding around it let us know that was our destination. I didn't know the back story to the statue, so I was glad there was a plaque there to explain there are several legends about the statue. My favorite is that, in the 14th century, Brussels was being attacked, and after some time, the attackers decided to place explosive charges at the walls of the city. However, a little boy named Julianske was spying on them, and peed on the fuse to put it out, saving the city.

Then we headed towards the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, passing through a neat shopping district along the way. This Cathedral is huge and beautiful. What always seems a shame to me is that there are usually other buildings so close to big, important buildings in Europe that you typically can't fully appreciate the exterior architecture of the building. Thankfully, that's not the case here. Inside, you even go downstairs and see the old base and parts of the walls of the old church that was there before. Another thing I loved about this cathedral is that there was some modern art in it that was beautiful and moving. Truly a special place.

After taking in some church, we went to check out some government at Le Berlaymont! It's the European Commission's executive headquarters, though you can't enter it unless you have an escort. Since the European Commission is the European Unions's governing body, it was cool to see where all the magic happens for Europe!

After that, we were a little toured out and decided to head to Den Haag on the train. We made our way to the station we needed to go to to take the international train (with the help of a nice lady from Latin America who has lived in Brussels for 10 years). When we got there, we went and asked a guy at the info desk when the next train would be leaving, and it was around 30 minutes away, so we got something small to snack on to kill time. When it was getting close to our train leaving, we went up to the platform and waited. And waited. And waited. And when our train was supposed to be pulling out of the station, there was an announcement that there wasn't going to be a train running at that time today. (As if we hadn't had enough transportation problems yet.) Annoyed, we went down to the information desk again, and a guy pulled up the schedule and confirmed that there wasn't going to be a train at that time, which the other guy would have known if he had double checked for us, and that the next train wouldn't be leaving for another hour. Of course. So, we decided to find a cafe in the train station that had WiFi so we could kill some time! An hour later, we were on the train and moving!

When we pulled into Den Haag, we had to transfer trains to go one more stop, but then we finally made it to meet up with Lindsay Eisentrout, who worked with Kim and I at UWP 2 years ago with the Women in EMS Program and was in the Netherlands finishing her training for her job. We went to dinner and caught up, enjoying some amazing food too. After dinner, it was late, so we headed to our hotel, passing by Binnenhof and Ridderzaal (Inner Court and Hall of the Knights), which is just as amazing to see at night as it is during the day! Lindsay dropped us off at our stop, and we parted ways again. Crossing paths with friends is a wonderful part of traveling, that's for sure!

To our happy surprise, our hotel had a free breakfast at it, which was pretty fantastic. They had several types of breads, and a few were fresh loaves that you could just slice off what you wanted. They had this apple cinnamon bread that was to die for.

Our first site to visit was the Peace Palace in Den Haag. Since the Netherlands have a history of not taking sides during conflicts, in 1899 the Hauge Peace Conference was held there, from which a treaty was formed to end war in the world. As a part of this conference, the Permanent Court of Arbitration was born, designed to end war, and the Peace Palace was opened August 28, 1913 as the symbolic home of the PCA. It also houses the International Court of Justice, which is the principal judicial body of United Nations, the Hauge Academy of International Law, and the extensive Peace Palace Library. Because of all this, it is often considered the seat of international law. The palace is still in use today, so we weren't able to visit inside the palace, but they did have a really interesting visitor's center. Talk about some amazing history that I've never heard about!

After that we took the tram to a nearby town called Delft. When we were getting into the city, we passed an old, traditional, Dutch windmill, so we decided to walk to it to take some pictures and check it out. What a treat we were in for! The 300 year old windmill is still operating today, and we were able to go up into it! Seeing the inner workings of the windmill in motion was fascinating! We even got to go out onto a porch that wraps around the windmill just underneath where the blades spin. It was such a unique experience.

After that, we walked along the canals in the gorgeous streets to the Royal Delft pottery factory and museum. The museum is the last factory of the great industry of Delft pottery that's been popular in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. The pottery first became popular from because the Dutch sailors found a region of China that made it, so they brought it back to Europe and sold it. In the 1600s, they started building factories and manufacturing their own to keep up with the demand throughout Europe. In the middle of the 1700s, the English developed a quicker, cheaper way to make porcelain, causing the Delft pottery market to crash and all but one factory went out of business. The owner decided to modify the process to produce Delft pottery, which saved the market and caused them to still be in production today. Most of the pottery is hand painted in the original styles from hundreds of years ago, which is phenomenal to watch!

After we finished our tour, we left and went back to Den Haag to check out Binnenhof and Ridderzaal, a huge, beautiful building with a large courtyard in the center and a large pond in front of the building. Then we headed to the train station to catch the train to Amsterdam. An interesting part of this train ride was seeing fields of flowers along the way!

When we pulled into Amsterdam Centraal, we decided to head to our hotel first to freshen up a bit. Then, we headed back into the old part of town. We managed to find a traditional Dutch restaurant among the restaurants from all around the world. The food was delicious; it reminded me of some of the German food I ate growing up. An interesting part of some European restaurants is being sat at a large table with other people sitting next to you. It's not the privacy or intimacy that's normally found in the US! I felt bad for the servers too because there was very little space between tables for them to navigate through.

After finishing dinner, we went to the Red Light District to go to the Old Sailor Bar, which has a great atmosphere with fun people and great music. We also saw the Oude Kerk, or the Old Church, which is the oldest building in Amsterdam and definitely has an ironic placement!

Sadly, I woke up hotter than insert corny expression here. I was stuffed up, coughing, and you don't want to know what I was coughing up. I took a shower, varying from warm to cold water, and the entire time I was showering, I was coughing up a lung and some other crap too. I popped some ibuprofen to help alleviate my throbbing headache. On our way to the tram, we even stopped at an Apothech to get some cough medicine. Deciphering Dutch instructions for medication can be a bit interesting!

Kim wanted to get poffertjes, so we tracked down The Pancake Bakery that's conveniently located near Anne Frank's House. When we got there, there was a decent line leading out onto the street. While waiting for a table, we started talking to the two women in front of us who were also on vacation from the US. They had been at Anne Frank's house and said that there was a 3 hour wait to get into the museum, but that they were releasing tickets for sale online every hour, and that would be the better option for us so we wouldn't have to wait in line. Talk about a time saver! One thing that you'll definitely notice when traveling to other countries are the different service styles. While, in the US, servers typically visit your table several times, checking how the food is and if you need more to drink, etc., that's not the case in several other countries. Half the time, your server isn't even the person who brings you your food, but just takes your order and maybe drops off your drinks. Another aspect that's different is that the server won't bring your bill until you ask for it, which can be challenging when you can't even find your waiter! Anyway, I got a giant pancake, that was more like a crêpe than a pancake, which had stroopwaffles (God's gift to mankind), cinnamon ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings on it. Talk about a sugar overload! I couldn't even finish 3/4 of my food, it was so sweet!

After we finished eating, we decided to head to Nunspeet, a small town southeast of Amsterdam that Kim has heritage from. We picked up our tickets at the train station, asked the info desk which train we needed, who was less than informative, and made our way to the platform. We were supposed to take the train from Amsterdam to Amersfoort, then transfer to another train which would get us there. Instead, we both fell asleep, missed our stop, and didn't know where we were exactly. Normally my GPS will tell me where I am (thanks Google Maps! Usually it's super helpful!) Unfortunately, the map wouldn't load, so I didn't know where we were in relation to, well, anything. Ironically, train staff don't check tickets very often, so you could probably ride the train for free a lot and wouldn't even get into trouble. Well, a man finally came around as we were pulling into Hangelo, which is only 5km from the German border! We didn't even realize we were so far out of the way. Fortunately, the train staff let us get on a different train to head to our destination, which would only add just over an hour and a half to our trip! What an experience...

To get to Nunspeet, we had to take the train to Zwolle, transfer, and then go south for a few stops. We should have had 10 minutes to get across the train station to our next train, but we had a delay where we were stopped on the tracks part way there, so by the time we got to our terminal, we could see our train pulling out of the station. Fortunately these trains run every 30 minutes, so I found a warm(ish) room to bunker down in (literally sitting on the heater for the room) to wait it out. Well, after 25 minutes, there still wasn't a train at our platform, so I was a little worried. And a few minutes later, I saw a train from the platform next to ours leave the station, and it dawned on me that that was our train, it was just parked at the wrong platform. (Great travel luck, right?!) Well, back at the waiting game for another 30 minutes! Fortunately, the next train pulled into the correct platform, and we were on it ready to head out. I wasn't feeling the best, so I told Kim that we only had 3 stops until Nunspeet, which should only take roughly 20 minutes, just in case I passed out on the train. Well, I only half passed out, and I heard them say "Nunspeet," though when I looked out the window, it didn't seem like we were fully pulled into the platform, so I sat their half zonked out. Well, soon we began moving again, and I asked Kim why we didn't get out. She's not as good at hearing Dutch as I am, so she didn't realize we were there. So, we had to go to the next station, wait 20+ minutes for the next train, and then take another train back to Nunspeet.

Well, it took a long time, but we finally made it! We decided dinner and a little poking around was all we were going to do at Nunspeet, so when we found a nice restaurant in the city center, we were more than ready to stop for dinner! The only problem was, since we were out of the international area, English wasn't a necessity, so the entire menu was in Dutch! Well, our server was a very nice man and translated the menu for us. Kim and I both decided to get the lamb, which I definitely liked better. We also got a free appetizer they were giving everyone, and he brought us little shots of brandy that is from Nunspeet for "dessert." It was very smooth and some of the best brandy I think I've ever had. It was a lot of hassle to get there, and Dutch people on the train told us they get confused with the trains often too, but it was worth it in the end.

We decided to take the train back to Amsterdam so we could go to bed "early" so we could get up earlier and see more in the morning. Well, we needed to switch trains at Amersfoort, though we didn't realize there was a Amersfoort Vathorst, Amersfoort Schothorst, and Amersfoort , so when we saw Amersfoort Vathorst, we thought we were at the correct station. Well, we weren't, and we had to wait another half hour for the next train to show up so we could go two more stops to our next train. To say we were annoyed with public transportation at this point would be an understatement! Well, we finally made it back to Amsterdam, and we even met a young woman along the way who is from Egypt, but has been studying in Germany, and now doing an internship in Nunspeet. She was very nice and it was great talking to her, so it wasn't all bad to have to wait so long. It's truly the little things in life that make it so much better. After another trip on the tram and a short walk, we were back at our hotel and passing out, much later than planned!

By the time we finally got up and got ready (I was moving really slow and didn't feel well at all), it was time for us to make our way to Anne Frank's house so we could be on time to our appointment. As it was the day before, the to get in was huge and the wait has to have been at least 3, if not 4 hours. Thank God we had bought our tickets online and could walk right in! Even though I'd been there before, they had changed around a portion of the exhibit and I noticed different aspects I hadn't noticed before. It's such moving museum, I could go there again and it would still affect me. One of the craziest parts about this is that there is so much about Anne that we know, but there are millions of others who were murdered, and all we know about them are their names. There are no museums for them. No books. No nothing. I think one of the most profound thoughts I encountered at the museum is from a video clip of Anne's father, Otto, where he says "Most parents don't really know their children" after he read her diary because he couldn't fathom the profound thoughts she was thinking and feeling. However, I have a feeling that his thought applies with more than just parents and children.

After we finished our for at the Anne Frank House, we stopped by the Homomonument, which is a series of pink triangles, which is the symbol gays wore at the concentration camps. What's amazing is that, while some 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, 6 million others were also murdered: gays, disabled persons, elderly, etc. Very few people were actually safe under Hitler's regime.

After a short tram ride later, we made our way to the Foodhallen, which is a warehouse full of small restaurant stands with all homemade, specialty food. We decided on some gourmet burgers and fries, which were delicious, though I couldn't fully appreciate it since I was coughing, stuffed up, and had an upset stomach.

Next we went to Dam Square to see it during the day and to pick up some souvenirs. What we didn't expect to find was a huge pillow fight. Who knew it was World Pillow Fight Day?! What a fun idea!

Then we took the tram back to the hotel to grab our luggage, then a tram and bus to the airport. Kim and I parted ways, she flew to London to fly back to Madison, and I flew back to Seville, took a bus into town, got home, and passed out. It was quite the trip with some lows, but it was very fun, we saw some amazing sights, and it was great to see my friend Kim again!