Saturday, January 31, 2009


Today is the halfway point between the day I left for Sussex in September and the day I'll fly back to the States at the end of the year. When I originally calculated out the middle mark of my year abroad it seemed like an eternity away. Now it's here and I'm amazed by how much I did in the first half. I visited eight countries outside of England and probably a dozen places in England. I've tried foods that I never would have considered even tasting while I was in the States (and really liked a few of them!). I've met scores of people and made many new friends and reconnected with some old friends. Some of those friends have already returned to the States.

I've also figured out that it's okay for me to enjoy myself on this grand adventure and miss people who are back in the States at the same time. My friends and family are still important to me even if I'm some 3500 miles away from them and missing them means that I care. Some of the other things I miss are far less poetic, such as Super Bowl Sunday, Tom Wahl's, and Aunt Cookie's subs. As much as I miss things that are familiar to me, I've learned so much about so many other things by traveling that it's definitely been worth it.
Now I'm a few weeks into my second term, rebuilding my social circle, and trying to figure out all the things I really really want to do before I go back to the States because (surprise, surprise) I don't have time to do EVERYTHING that I wanted to do when I originally set out across the pond. I technically have twenty-one weeks left before the end of the year but between classes, exams, and weekends I knew that they will pass much quicker than I think they're going to.

Milano, Italia (Dec 30 - Jan 1)

The train ride from Geneve to Milano was another absolutely beautiful ride. We traveled along Lake Geneve for quite a while. Sandwiched between the lake, the Alps, and assorted vineyards. The vineyards faded away and were replaced by larger mountains. By this time the tracks were far enough away from the mountains that we could see the transition of dense trees to snowy peaks on each mountain. Not long after that I fell asleep and when I woke up we were back in the thick of the mountains, with the slopes rising up on either side of us. Most of these slopes were tree-covered but occasionally the trees gave way to a village which probably only appeared after the railway was built. The villages were very cramped and crowded on the mountain-side but the church was always clearly visible. As we approach Milan we passed a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. There was a castle of a manor situated on the other side of the lake that I think I recognized from one of the pictures my dad showed me from his business trips to Milan but I can't be certain.

Even though it was a pleasant train ride to Milan, I was definitely relieved when we arrived at our final destination. Our next challenge was finding the bus stop to take us to the hotel. Quite accidentally the first bus we found was the Malpensa Express which we would board in a couple days to go to the airport. The bus we needed was on the other side of the station. As we approached the bus stop we got our first taste of Italian public transport. The bus we wanted had pulled away from the bus stop and was sitting at a stop sign. In Brighton that would mean you were out of luck until the next bus came. However in Milan we were able to walk up at the stop sign and the driver opened the door and allowed us to get on. Our final place of lodging was Hotel 22 Marzo which, thankfully, gave clear directions from the train station to its front door.

We were greeted by a friendly staff and a recently refurbished downstairs. Unfortunately our room hadn't been refurbished but the bed was pretty comfortable and the shower was hot which is all I cared about at that point. It was still too early for dinner when we arrived so we walked around the area for a while before going to a Chinese/Italian restaurant. The menu consisted of pizzas, Italian antipasto, and Chinese antipasto. I opted for a pizza and then tiramisu. The pizza was great. The tiramisu - not so much. Leanna had some sort of ice cream with candied nuts on it which I got to try and that was delicious.

The next day was New Year's Eve and we started the day off early by walking to the Piazza del Duomo to see the Duomo di Milano. I had heard the term "duomo" tossed around and was expecting an average cathedral. Little did I know that this Duomo is the third largest church in the world. The guy that built it was trying to appeal to the Virgin Mary to give him a son. I hope he got his son because this church is insane. First of all it's huuuge. No other way to say it. The exterior walls are covered with carvings of saints, martyrs, gargoyles, etc. in addition to all of the arches and spires. It's almost too much to look at. The inside is just as ornate with probably a dozen alters, in addition to the main alter, dedicated to different saints. There was also an almost life-sized nativity scene. There were even armed guards at the entrances checking people's bags as they went in. In conclusion, the Duomo di Milano is not an average cathedral.

The only other church we went into was the Santa Maria della Grazie. Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" is in the refectory next to the church so we went to investigate. I was expecting a large ornate church but the building was actually fairly small and simple. We went into the church first and walked right into a beautiful courtyard. Again it was small, simple, and very pretty, with a few trees and a fish pond. In one of the rooms off of the courtyard someone was hosting an exhibit of angel paintings. All of the paintings had the angels in bright jewel tones instead of white. I thought they were fairly pretty. I really like the inside of the church. It was probably the simplest church we went into. The interior was mostly flat stone with very few decorations. There were a few alters to saints including St. Catherine of Alexandria, my confirmation name saint. My favorite part of this church was the Nativity. Unlike many of the other Nativity scenes we saw on out trip, this one portrayed a street scene instead of just the collection around the manger. It had the inn and the stable, and had figures of people coming to the stable to see what had happened instead of just standing around. It looked like it had belonged to the church for a very long time and was obviously well-cared for. Not long after we entered the church the Priest shooed us out for the midday service. Leanna and I thought we would try to check out "The Last Supper" while we were there and battled our way to the ticket desk. When we got to the desk the girl informed us that there were no tickets available to see the mural for the next TWO WEEKS. I couldn't believe it. Dan Brown and his novel have caused amateur art detectives to flood the exhibit trying to find a missing clue. It was rather infuriating. As we walked back towards the Duomo we decided that gelato was the only appropriate consolation for missing "The Last Supper" by two weeks. Excellent decision. I got some sort of berry flavors that was absolutely delicious.

Our next destination was the pinecoteca Ambrosiana, a library that also has a small museum in it. The museum had the most aggressive guides I've ever seen. They insisted that we go through the rooms in the correct order and one even stopped me for not looking at a painting for long enough (a fruit still-life of all things). The highlights of the museum were several of Da Vinci's papers and his "Portrait of a Musician," Napoleon's gloves from the Battle of Waterloo, and a wall-sized sketch of Rapheal's "School of Athens." My high school global teacher, Mr. Frahm, had a poster of the "School of Athens" in his classroom and it's been one of my favortite works of art ever since so I really enjoyed seeing the sketch. When we had finished the exhibits and were leaving we kept glancing around waiting for one of the guides to come after us and tell us we had done something wrong but in the end we left without being confronted.

We encountered another outdoor market for our collection in a piazza adjacent to the Piazza de Duomo. This market was not specific to Christmas and had done away with any residual festive wares. It did have several cookie vendors so we sampled some authentic Italian cookies, and a canoli for me, while we looked at the miscellaneous gadgets and gizmos available for purchase and then started toward the Castello Sforzesco, a castle that sits in a direct line with the Duomo.

Compared to the Duomo the Castello wasn't very impressive. It was large and square and had a cool fountain in front of it and a large park behind it so it wasn't a total bust. We decided to skip the museums that are housed within the castle and just walked around the grounds. The exterior of the castle was made of entirely of red brick with lots of angles so I had some fun trying different camera angles. When we got the the back of the castle we found a "snow park" - ramps with something like astroterf so little kids could ski down them. There was also a lodge with a bar and grill food and hot drinks for the parents. Just past the snow park was a legitimate park that stretched quite a ways back to the Arc of Peace, which looks very similar to the Arcs we saw in Paris. Although "Arcs" in general are not a unique idea in Europe. We found a poster saying that there would be fireworks for New Years by the pseudosnow park so we decided to return to the hotel, grab some dinner and then return of the fireworks.

On the way back toward the hotel we found a couple of good-looking restaurants that were closed. We found one just around the corner from our hotel that had its hours posted. The sign indicated that the restaurant would open in about an hour so we decided to chill out in our room and then go for dinner when it opened. When we came down from our room we made two discoveries. First, it had started to snow, and second, the restaurant was not open probably due to the holiday. We decided to just go back to the Chinese/Italian place again since we had passed it on the way and seen that it was open. Apparently that little hybrid restaurant was one of the few restaurants open because it was very full and they were having a hard time coping. Leanna and I both ordered off the antipasto menu but we probably should had ordered pizza. I had risotto Milano (rissoso with saffron), spaghetti carbonera, and apple cake. The risotta was pretty good, the carbonera was not so good, and the apple cake was exactly what I was expecting. I was a little disappointed with my antipasto experience after hearing about all of my dad's delicious antipasto meals. I'll have to try again sometime when I'm in Italy and it's not a holiday.

It was still snowing when we left for the fireworks and in places where the city was quiet it was very pretty. When we got to the Piazza de Duomo we ran into a crowd of people including a lot of teenaged boys armed with firecrackers which they set off periodically with no regard to where they went. After traveling for 14 days I had even less patience for this than I normally would have had and was very happy to reach the castle. The fireworks were being set off in a section of the park called the piazza del cannone, and the event had attracted a crowd. We had arrived early and secured a spot in the lodge in an attempt to stay slightly warmer than we would be in the open air. We watched the beginning of the midnight show and then started walking back to our hotel so we wouldn't get caught in the crowd. What we saw of the show was very good and as we walked back we could see more fireworks being set off in different parts of the city. When we entered our hotel room I turned on TV and found the Italian New Years Eve special. Minus the replays of the Times Square ball dropping, it was extactly the same as the post-midnight show you would see in the States.

The next morning was our last day in Italy and the last day of our trip. We checked out of the hotel and the innkeeper surprised us which a bottle of red wine, which I was lucky enough to bring home with me, and let us store our bags in the breakfast corner so we wouldn't have to carry them around the city all day. Our innkeeper was really friendly to us, which goes to show that trying a little to be friendly and humble goes along way while traveling.

After leaving the hotel, we went to the Milan fashion district. None of the stores were open but the didn't matter because we probably couldn't have afforded anything anyways. We were quite content to look in the windows and discuss what we liked and what we thought was just plain weird. As we made our way out of the shopping district, we ran into several bands that appeared to be finishing a parade or some other type of demonstration. We could hear the music but never saw where it was coming from. The vast majority of the shops around city center were closed and I'm sure the trend would have continued if we kept walking further out. We did find an Italian restaurant/pizzeria that was open. Their "famous" pizza really wasn't any different from the pizza we had had from the Chinese restaurant except it cost more. But, in the end, it was a good lunch and a "free" reststop.

We spent a good chunk of the rest of the afternoon walking down side streets around the city center. We didn't find anything breath-taking but it was still an experience to walk on quiet, cobbled streeted in the 21st century. The streets in old European cities just have a different feel to them than those in American cities. It was also a good way to unwind after two weeks of hardcore traveling and before heading to the airport. When we finally ran out of easily accessible streets, we bought one last gelato (chocolate chip, yum!) and headed back to the hotel to collect our bags. We ended up leaving for the airport a little early and subsequently spent a little more time waiting in lobbies than orinially planned but it was okay. As I sat at my gate in the Milan Malpensa airport, I found it impossible to wrap my head around everything that I had seen and experienced over the previous 15 days. I read through the journal I had been keeping and was even more blown away. However my travels weren't over yet. I was returning to England for roughly 12 hours and then boarding another plane for Detroit, MI in order to spend the last week of the holidays with my family in Michigan.

Geneve, Switzerland (Dec 28-30)

Getting to Geneva was not as easy as we thought it would be. All of the direct trains from Nantes were booked so we needed to take a train to Paris and then take another train to Geneva. Luckily our hostel in Geneva (Geneve in French) had 24-hours check-in so it didn't really matter when we arrived. By this point in our trip we were very tired. So two fairly long train rides weren't totally unwelcome. The ride from Paris to Geneve was very pretty. We passed through miles and miles of open land dotted with villages that looked like they came straight out of an old war movie. All of the houses and buildings were made out of the same kind of bricks with red tile roofs. The vast majority of the grass was still green even though it was the end of December. One thing that I kept noticing were large sections of trees that appeared to be planted on gridlines. It was rather odd because they would appear in random open areas away from the nearest village. The only explanation I could come up with was that the trees were planted after one of the World Wars to try to make the countryside look less war-marked. The countryside became increasingly hilly as we got closer and closer to Switzerland. The mountains started to work their way into the scenery and then all of a sudden we were right against a mountain range following this beautiful steely blue-green river. I've never seen water that color before. It was the perfect color to go with the surrounding mountains though.

Once again we got to our destination right around dinner time. We set off in search of dinner right after we checked into the hostel. After several disappoints we found a sandwich shop that also had some other thing. I got a samosa and an orange. The samosa was not good. It tasted like powdered soup mix. The orange on the otherhand was great. I had been taking a daily vitamin every morning but I think my body was starving for fresh produce so the orange tasted much better than it should have.

The hostel we were staying at had the earliest breakfast we had encountered yet. I was hoping that it was a hot breakfast since they were being really strict about having your room receipt to get breakfast. No such luck. I did opt for the museli instead of corn flakes for the millionth time. One very pleasant surprise was the continuation of real coffee instead of instant stuff. They also had amazing instant hot chocolate. I have no idea how you can make powdered hot chocolate mix taste that good but the Swiss have figured it out. They did let you go back for more coffee and hot chocolate which made up for the average food selection.

One advantage of having to get up ridiculously early for breakfast was that we had plenty of time to reserve our train tickets to Milan before Leanna's friend J.J. arrived to show us around. Geneve to Milan was our last train trip and I was very happy when our reservations were made and I didn't have to think about it anymore. J.J. is an alum of Leanna's fraternity and is living just outside Geneve while his wife gets her masters at the University of Geneve. He was gracious enough to volunteer to show us around for the day. I was so relieved to not have to plan out the agenda for that day.

We began our tour by walking down to the shore of Lake Geneve. At that point we should have seen the Jet d'eau aka really big water fountain that shoot water waaay up into the air. It has become one of the images associated with the city however it was turned off that day so we couldn't see it. We walked around the edge of the lake to the more touristy part of the city. The edge of the lake as parks and gardens all along it. A cool feature of these green areas is that when the city decides that it need to cut down a tree, they turn the trunk/stump into a scuplture instead of grinding it down to nothing. One of these green spots is also home to the Floral Clock. The Floral Clock is a tribute to the city's clock making heritage. In my opinion it beats out Manneken Pis for the most over-rated tourist attraction. I feel like they could have done much better than a clocke shaped flower garden that had to be downscaled after construction because tourists kept backing into oncoming traffic trying to get a picture of it.

We walked up, literally up, to the older part of the city next. Old Geneve is located at the top of a hill within the city and it is a steep hill. Once you make it to the top you can look out over the newer portion of the city, see the church that Calvin preached at, and look over gardens comissioned by Swiss royalty back in the day. We wandered the cobblestone streets and hung out at a playground overlooking one of the gardens. We were sitting on some rocking horses when an "active-seniors" tour group walked by. We got some of the funniest looks as they stared at three 20-somethings sitting on rockers made for much smaller children. We definitely had a good laugh over that encounter.

We made our way down from the old part of town and wandered into a park that had a memorial to men who were very active in the Reformation period. It is interesting to see a big marble memorial to these men although I suppose they were only viewed as heretics by the Catholic church. We continued to walk through the city observing objects of visual interest such as the colored-glass ceiling of the University of Geneva library and a circus site where two national circuses alternating setting up camp for 8 months out of the year. I was shocked to see circus tents set up at the end of December but at that point we were on our way to lunch and I was too hungry to think about it much. Adjacent to the circus was a "modern nomad" aka gypsy camp made up of RVs. Leanna's mother has specifically warned us to watch out for the gypsies so we shared that anecdote with J.J. as we headed for a restaurant.

We were going to go to this Ethiopian restaurant but it was closed for lunch on Monday so we had to search out a plan B. Plan B surfaced as Chez Octtavio- a pizzeria/Italian place. Since arriving in Europe I have become increasingly skeptical of anything referred to as pizza. I was not expecting to get anything like good pizza until we got to Italy. However Chez Octtavio proved me wrong. We each got serving platter size pizzas that were delicious. Mine had lots of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, and pesto on it. I was so happy to have hot, tasty pizza and before we arrived in Italy! We devoured those pizzas so quickly it was pretty impressive.

With happy tummys, we set off to J.J.'s house to pick up motorized transportation and head into the Alps. Technically J.J. and his wife live in France but they live so close to the border that Geneva city transportation runs through their town. J.J. and his wife live in a small modest apartment with an awesome view of the Alps. The funny thing is that at least 80% of the houses in the town share this view so it's not a huge selling point within the area itself. From J.J.'s place we drove up a winding road to the summit of Mt. Saleve. After flat ground and cities for over a week the drive up the mountain was probably even more breathe-taking than it would normally be. We could see pine trees, and snow, and more mountains, and isolated clusters of houses. The top of Mr. Saleve was clear of trees which allowed us to take in the beauty of the scenes around us.

On one side of the mountain you looked out over Geneve. The city and Lake Geneve sit at the bottom of a gap in the mountains. The valley was covered with a blanket of mist which meant that we couldn't clearly see through to the city. I didn't really care that we couldn't see the city because I was in complete awe of the mountains. On one side of the mountain you saw the ring mountains surrounding Geneve. Looking out on the other side of the mountain you saw even more peaks including Mt. Blanc and Mole. Every peak was covered with snow. I couldn't stop staring. I took so many pictures just trying to capture the beauty of the snow and the sun and the mist and the shadows. I ended up with some very pretty pictures but none of them truly did the scene justice. As we stood and stared out over the mountains, a nearby group of people were para-skiing. They were flying large kites and using the wind to propel themselves on skis around an open patch of snow. It looked like a lot of fun but I probably would have fallen off the mountain with my natural grace or lack there of. We finally left the summit when a snow storm appeared on the horizon.

For dinner we wanted a good hot meal. Warmth was an element we has been missing lately and hot food sounded especially appetizing after spending a good chunk of the afternoon on top of a mountain. Leanna and I had been planning on getting fondue for most of the day but changed our minds when we got to the restaurant. Leanna got a steak and I got another traditionally Swiss dish called raclette. My mind also collapsed while ordering so I could do was point at what I wanted because I could form the word "raclette" for the life of me - this was my one really bad "American tourist" moment for the entire time I've been abroad so I've decided to forgive myself. Raclette is melted cheese served with onions, pickels, and potatos. I had my doubts when I read what it was but Leanna assured my it was delicious and it did turn out to be very tasty. As part of my meal, I also got a smallish cutting board of meats, cheese, and bread. I felt uncomfortably full by the time I was finished with everything but my stomach was also thrilled to not eat another sandwich.

The next morning we were set to move on to Milan. We got up early and walked down to the lake shore to see if the Jet d'Eau had been turned on (it hadn't) and then went to the Coop to spend our remaining Francs and stocked up on food for the train ride to Milan. We must have been a site with our rucksacks and handfuls of Swiss chocolate, trail mix, and beer. Leanna also got some of the hot chocolate mix we had at the hostel. I wanted to but I didn't think I had enough room in my pack.

Our train to Milan was not a fancy eurostar train like many of the trains we had taken thus far. It actually had comparments (like the Hogwarts Express!) and a hole onto the tracks for the head. We were lucky that we each got a window seat because much of the trip was through the mountains and completely breath-taking.

Nantes (Dec 26-28)

Number one impression of Nantes was COLD. The city is located on an estuary and there is nothing like the chill of wind coming off the water. Our hotel was outside of the city center so we had to take the tram and a bus to get to it. The room was small and very nautically themed. It could have been a cabin on a hokey cruise ship. We were exhausted from our marathon through Paris so we basically settled in and watched the 'Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer' in French before passing out.

The next day was our only actual day in Nantes since we had gotten in after dinner time the night before and were leaving early the following day to get to Geneva. We got up early to face the frigid cold wind again and catch public transport back into town. We had breakfast at a cafe on the main road and then got Nantes day passes so we had unlimited public transport and free admission to a lot of the touristy things. The first place we visited was the castle of the dukes of Brittany. The castle is just off the river and still has a moat around it. It wasn't as big as Warwick castle but it had even more of a fairy-tale-esque feel to it. There was a museum of the history of Nantes inside one of the buildings. It was probably one of the most informative museums I've been to since I came to Europe. Nantes is mostly a residential city now but it used to be a major industrial hub and a political hotspot (apparently the politics haven't completely died out either). Two of its hay-days were during the slave trade and then sugar processing. Nowadays its known on a smaller scale for cookies and candy. There's an old cookie factory across from the castle that has a tower you can climb and look out over Nantes.

We decided that we wanted to over Nantes in a different fashion. Leanna had heard about this place called Les Machines de L'ile which was the reason we decided to go to Nantes in the first place. It's a small sort of theme park with mechanical animals you can ride on. Much of it is still being designed and built but they completed a 14 meter high mechanical elephant that we can ride on like an Indian War elephant. We bought tickets for an elephant ride and got free admission to the machine gallery with our Nantes day passes. The gallery houses the machines that are being built for a sort of carousel inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Random Fact: Jules Verne was born and lived in Nantes.) So far they've built a crab, a giant squid, an Angler fish, and a couple other fish. The small creature holds two people and they all had levers and other controls so the people riding it could move tenticles, fins, claws, etc. One of the coolest things about the creatures was that they were obviously made out of wood and steel. The elephant ride was freezing due to that stupid wind but other than that it was awesome. We don't really appreciate how huge 14 meters is until you actually see the elephant. It was massive. We watched the end of the ride immediately before ours and were shocked to see the amount of expression and personality the machine conveyed. The ears flapped, eyes blinked, and trunk swayed. At randoms time the trunk would spray a mist at any kids who got too close. Watching the elephant go by in the setting sun it was really easy to forget that there was a human driving the machine and it couldn't think for itself. After the elephant ride we headed for the gift shop. We mostly wanted to thaw out a little but being two RPI nerds was also wanted to find some sort of souvenir because we were wowed by the mechanics and physics involved in everything we had just seen. To our surprise there was very little that was unique to the attraction. The majority of the gift shop was devoted to random elephant and sea life inspired toys. There were postcards of the animals but we were hoping for something a little nicer than that. Finally in the back corner we found a few things that at least said "Les Machines de L'ile" on them. The nicest thing we could find were tins with butter cookies in them. We each got a tin because they were pretty nice and had the logo of the attraction on them. It turned out to be a very good decision because the cookies were amazing! Once the tin was empty it proved to be a safe place to store the rest of my souvenirs during the trip.

The last thing we saw before searching out dinner and going to sleep was the Buren's Rings. These rings are set out along the edge of the same river island as Les Machines. They light up different colors at night and make for some pretty pictures. We went at sunset and were still able to get some good shots. Dinner was a quick affair at a cafe followed by chocolate eclairs from a bakery shop. After eating that chocolate eclair I will never be able to enjoy supermarket eclairs as much ever again. It was soooo good.

Once we were back at the hotel it took us a while to thaw out to the point that we could fall asleep. We were definitely not looking forward to our early morning train to get to Geneva, especially if it was still going to be so cold outside. Alas, morning came and it was freezing but we easily made our train and were on our way to Switzerland!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Paris (Dec 23-26)

Arriving at the train station in Paris was an interesting experience. I was trying not to get too excited because I didn't want to build the city up so much that I was disappointed. At the same time I was ecstatic to final be visiting Paris!

The first thing we did was buy our transportation passes for the four days we were going to be in Paris. We had to get 5-day passes because they didn't have 4-day passes anymore. The extra money was well worth it though. Those passes were the only reason we were able to see as much of Paris as we did and believe me, we saw a lot!

The first afternoon we were in Paris we went to the Louvre to check it's holiday hours and then walked from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe. The walk is much longer than you think it's going to be. During this particular trek you walk past the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Jardin des Tuileries, Luxor's Obelisk on the Place de la Concorde, along the Avenue des Champs-Elysees with it's large Christmas fair which gives way to a high-class shopping district, and finally to the Arc de Triomphe itself. I would guess that it was over a mile of tourist sites one after the other. Add in the crazy Paris traffic and the entire experience was a little over whelming. From the Arc de Triomphe we caught the metro out to the Eiffel Tower. It was definitely dark by then so the Eiffel tower was all lit up. It was lit with blue lights and had the EU ring of stars on the front. I was hoping they had switched it back to gold because I think it looks better that way. It was still an incredible site. We took an elevator up to the very top. The view was amazing. The elevator stops at several levels along the way so people can get out and look around. Absolutely fantastic. Looking out over the metroploitian of Paris, France I found that I had to keep reminding myself that regular people actually live in Paris and go to work and buy groceries and all the other everyday tasks that come up. For some reason I could not wrap my head around 'living' in a place like Paris. I suppose it stems from never living in a big city before. It's just hard for me to comprehend what it would be like, especially in a high-profile city like Paris.

The next day was Christmas Eve. We had a very full day planned because so many places had limited hours for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We got up really early, or so it appeared by French standards, and went to the Louvre first thing. The Louvre is big. Really big. There is no way you can appreciate how big it is until you're actually inside it. The only museums I could think of the may rival it in size are in the Smithsonian. We passed through the ticket line quickly and then battled the early crowd to see the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and the Venus di Milo. Even after seeing the Mona Lisa in person, I still don't quite understand all the fuss about it. Clearly the art historian or conspiracy theorists know something I don't. That being said, I couldn't imagine going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa. Because we got to the Louvre so early we didn't have to wage war against the masses of people that arrive later in the day so we were able to see our three "must-sees" relatively quickly. After that we had no idea which wing to go down next. We ended up going into a hall of prodominantly Greek and Roman statues which were pretty cool. We didn't linger in the Louvre for too long because we didn't want to get lost in the maze of galleries and we had a lot more to do that day. As we were leaving through the glass pyramid entrance (we couldn't find the inverted pyramid they go on about in The Da Vinci Code) we saw droves of people waiting to get into the Louvre and were immediately grateful that we had arrived early.

Our next stop was the Pantheon. I personally thought the Pantheon was much cooler than the Louvre. The Pantheon is the location of the original Foucault's Pendulm. There is currently a working replica set up in the same spot. As a big time science nerd I thought that was really neat. I found the crypts below the Pantheon even more impressive. Entombed in the crypts were close to a dozen extremely influential people that were familiar to me including; Rousseau, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Braille, Victor Hugo, and the Curies. Seeing the tombs of the people from my high school textbooks was awesome. Reading about things that happened in the past is fine but nothing beates visiting the spot where something happened or the tomb of the person who did it. It makes history less of just a story and more real.

We left the Pantheon, grabbed some take away macaroni, and set off across town to Montmatre. Montmatre is the highest geographic point in Paris. Sacre-Coeur is a bascilica at the very top of Montmatre and is moderately famous for the the steps leading up to it. Looking up you see white marble steps leading up to the white basilica. Looking down and out from the steps you see Paris spread out in front of you. Every picture taken on these steps in either direction always has people sitting on the steps in it. This is partly because of the views available and partly because it's a hike to get to the top of those stairs. We walked aorund Montmatre for a while and bought crepes which were pretty good. There were portrait artists and souvenier shops and crepe stand everywhere. Leanna said it reminded her a lot of Greenwich Village. I've never been to Greenwich village but I'll take her word for it. We decided that we would go to Notre Dame for Christmas Eve Mass but still had over an hour before we needed to head over to the Cathedral so we sat on the steps gazing at Paris and listening to this guy play the guitar. Further down the steps were other street preformers. There was a woman dressed as a statue of mother nature, another musician, and a guy juggling a soccer ball. I like watching street preformers especially musicians so much more than dealing with people who try to push cheap trinkets.

Notre Dame was essentially having back to back masses for most of the evening and it was still packed. The youth choir was preforming at the mass we attended. The choir was much older than the choir than the youth choir at St. Matthew's but they were still younger than me and very talented. I was very happy the program had the readings printed in both French and English. I've been to many Christmas Eve masses over the years but it's still hard to follow a mass in a different language than you're used to hearing. Eventhough I couldn't understand most of what was being said during the mass, I still thought it was very beautiful and would definitely recommend going to mass there if you ever get the chance.

Christmas morning was interesting. The calendar said it was Christmas Day and we had reservations for Christmas dinner at the restaurant adjacent to the hostel for that night, but it did not feel like Christmas. Everywhere we went on Christmas day was outside because outside wasn't closed for the holiday. The first place we went was Pere Lachaise cemetary. As we made our way out to the cemetary, the city looked like a ghost town. Pere Lachaise must have been the place to be buried starting about the time of the French Revolution if not before. The oldest part of the cemetary is PACKED with family tombs and doesn't have a lot of order to it. As time passed they expanded the cemetary and made it more orderly but its still obvious that you need to have money to be buried there. You can get a map of famous people buried within the cemetary. We found the final resting places of Chopin, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, and Oscar Wilde. While we were walking to Oscar Wilde's very eccentric head stone, we passed a headstone with the name "Beaudet" on it. Perhaps a very distant relative? who knows.

Our next stop was the "Bastille." There's pillar situated across from the Bastille Oprea house where there prison used to stand. The actual prison was torn down over a hundred of years ago. Part of one tower was discovered when during excavation for the Metro and is now in a near by park. I wish they had kept the Bastille around. I think it would have been really cool to do in. Before we continued to our next destination we stopped at a Mcdonald's so I could get a Royale with cheese in honor of the movie Pulp Fiction (yes, I am nerd). One nice thing about Mickey D's is that it tastes the same no matter where you get it including Paris, France.

The rest of the afternoon was spent taking pictures. We went back to Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower to get some pictures that would have been difficult to get both because it was dark out. We also went to the Centre Pompidou, a museum of modern art with an unusual exterior desgin. Neither Leanna nor I are big fans of modern art so we were perfectly satisfied to just take pictures of the outside.

Christmas dinner was good but definitely not the home cooking I'm used to for the holidays. The first course was fois gras, salmon, and cured ham, served with bread. I ate all over it just because I was in Paris and determined to try what they thought was edible. I definitely thought the cured ham was the best option on the plate though. The main course was turkey and roast vegetables. It was alright but nothing special. Just a piece of turkey breast and standard roast veggies. Dessert was a piece of Apple torte with carmel and nuts. By far the best part of the meal. I knew that dinner would have to be really amazing for it to beat what I would have been eating if I had gone home, and for what we paid for the meal there was no way that was going to happen.

The next day we were on our way to Nantes, France. We had covered a tremendous amount of ground in Paris and had seen a lot of cool stuff. Even though it was definitely a Christmas that I'll never forget, the day we left it still didn't feel like Christmas had arrived yet.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Brussels (Dec. 21-23)

Brussels was not as exciting as we thought it might be. The top reasons to go to Brussels are definitely; chocolate, french fries, waffles, beer, and Christmas fairs. We should have expected that when the first thing the tourist map we got suggested was eating and drinking. We were only in Brussels for one full day so we decided to stay right in the city instead of venturing out to Brupark where the World's Fair was held in the 1950s.

Our hostel was just a couple blocks away from Grand Place so we decided to start there. Just outside of Grand Place, we encountered our first major Christmas fair in Brussels. I am a huge fan of Christmas fairs. We walked through it checking out all the food and crafts and such. Right is the middle of one of the streets was a subterranean archeological site that was covered with glass so people could see it. It was very cool. We decided it was much too early to start with the snack food so we proceeded to Grand Place. Grand Place is actually not that big but is the square in front of several major (old) government buildings and a giant church. The architecture was definitely some of the most elaborate we had seen so far. In the square was a huge Christmas tree and equally huge nativity scene. A few side streets from the Grand Place is Manneken Pis aka the little peeing boy. That's right this statue is the inspiration for all of those obnoxious bumper stickers of the kid peeing on a sports logo, city, anything you can think of. The actual statue is tiny and was dressed as Santa Claus when we were there. Apparently the little guy has worn so many outfits that they started a museum to put them all in. Of course, we were in Brussels on a Monday and essentially all the museums are closed on Mondays so we couldn't see all the outfits or the comics museum which has the original Smurfs strips in it.

After we had explored the area around Grand Place we made our way to Parking 58 which is a parking garage. Following instructions from our free guide/map we took to elevator to the top to gaze over the city. What we saw was a stark difference in styles of architecture. We could also see the Atomium located out by Brupark. Other than the fact that we were at the top of a parking garage and it was still pretty misty out, the view wasn't that bad and it was free. We were able to spot another major Christmas fair from the top and decided to make that our next stop.

En route to the Christmas fair we stopped at a supermarket and stocked up on Belgian chocolate. There were so many choices and it all looked delicious, not to mention WAY cheaper than the fancy chocolate places we had been passing on the street. All of the Belgian chocolate I tried was awesome. The flavor was very smooth and it really had a flavor. As a seasoned chocoholic I was very very pleased. Once we were satisfied with the amount of chocolate we had purchased (it was a lot) we entered the fair. All the Christmas fairs have the same basic things; a spiced hot wine, roasted nuts, candy, and lots of gift ideas/crafts. We stopped by a giant food stand and got french fries served with the traditional Belgian topping of mayo. The drowned the fries in globs of the stuff. Leanna was smart and scrapped some of the mayo off her fries. By the time I realized exactly how much of the stuff was on my fries it had been spread around too much to be scrapped off easily. At first mayo and french fries wasn't such a bad combination but after a while I think I could feel my ateries getting blocks by the copious amounts of mayo. Awesome french fries, avoid the mayo.

Since we spent the first half of the day cruising around city center, we decided to head out to the Royal Palace and hang out in the gardens adjacent to it. It was a good walk through the city to get to the Palace. We didn't go into the Palace, just looked at the outeide. The gardens were very nice, especially for December. It was an okay day too so there were a few people out walking around. We hung out in the gradens for probably a couple hours just people watching. Before heading back to the hostel we armed ourselves with lieges waffles for the journey back. lieges waffles are a species of Belgian waffles that are prodominantly sold on the streerts and have a sweet carmalized crust. Straight up Belgian waffles are served in cafes and such, and are very light and crispy. We didn't get a chance to try the second variety but according to a couple sources you can get an okay Belgian waffle at diners in the US.

As we strolled back to our hostel we decided to acquire some of edible substant one our list of reasons to go to Belgium; beer. I bought a Westmalle, and a Kriek. The Westmalle was a trappist beer. I don't know what that means other than it was fairly heavy and bitter. The Kriek was a cherry beer. I haven't had much experience with fruity beers but I thought it was pretty good. Leanna got a raspberry beer which I thought was even better than the cherry. None of the beers we tried were bad though. Later that evening we went out to grab a late dinner and ended up back in the Grand Place. There was a holiday themed laser light show going on in the square. The lights were projected onto the church and were timed to different holiday musics. It was very cool and a good way to conclude our time in Brussels.

The next morning we were out the door early and on our way to Paris!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Minitrip: Delft

We had to check out of our hostel in Amsterdam fairly early and had already seem pretty much everything we really wanted to see for that trip so we decided to stop in Delft on our way to Brussels. Delft is a small city about an hour outside of Amsterdam that is famous for it's painted pottery (Delft blue pottery). Everything we read in the guidebooks said it was a beautiful city and listed a pottery factory that gave free tours. So we caught a train and off we went to Delft.

When we got off the train we were not greeted with a quaint city but a lot of buildings resembling concrete boxes and a motorway. We walked parallel to the motorway for a while in the direction of the factory we wanted to tour when we came upon this iron gate. It was like something out of a fairytale. The large iron gate led into a courtyard next to a church which opened up to a canal and another church and the quaint city we had read about. It was very "Alice in Wonderland."

Relieved that we had come to the right city, we followed the canal to the river and then the river to the Delftse Pauw pottery factory. The factory is only a single building now but you can tell that some of the adjacent buildings used to be a part of the factory as well. The tour was really informative. We learned that all "real" Delft pottery is made in molds, and that the pieces are actually painted with a black paint. After the pieces are painted they are glazed and fired, and the cobalt and copper in the paint reacts with the glaze to make the color turn blue. There are only two factories left that make Delft pottery by hand; the Delftse Pauw and Royal Delft. After the tour we each bought a small, but expensive, piece of authentic Delft Pottery. They had a table-top Christmas tree decorated with some of their ornaments that was absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately the ornaments were definitely out of our price range. I'd love to get some when I get a real job though.

After our tour we walked around the city for a while. In many ways it was like a miniture Amsterdam. Delft has a fairly well-known university in it. However, I don't think we wandered anywhere too near it because we didn't see anything particularly student-esque. One thing I was very excited to see was the main square. Delft is where the Dutch painter Vermeer lived and worked and where the book and movie "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is set. One of the landmarks in the book/movie is a compass rose in the cobbles of the main square that the main character crosses on her way to work for Vermeer. I was anxious to see if the compass rose really existed. Sure enough, just before a massive Christmas tree was the compass rose. I admit it wasn't as impressive as I thought it would be but it was still pretty cool.

Leanna and I both agreed that we could have spent much longer in Delft exploring and chilling in a coffee shop. Time wouldn't allow for that though. We still needed to get to Brussels, Belgium before the end of the day.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Amsterdam (Dec. 18-21)

The first country in my journey over winter break was The Netherlands. Leanna and I flew into Amsterdam on different flights but easily found each other at international arrivals. We caught a train from the airport to central station. Amsterdam Centraal is located so that the rest of the city extends in a semi-circle about the station. Looking at a map of the city, the main streets and conals form rough line of longitude and latitude, respectively. What the map doesn't show are the dozens of little streets no wider than footpaths that cut through the principle blocks. "Main streets" can also be very narrow. It definitely took us a good part of our time in Amsterdam to come close to mastering how to read the map and relate it to reality.

Leanna and I left the train station and stepped into a cloud of misty rain. For some unknown reason we decided that it would be a good idea to walk to our hostel than to try to figure out the trams. Eventhough we walked the same set of roads several times over the next few days, it never felt as long as it did that first time in the rain with our packs. We found the hostel, with only minor navigational frustrations, and were very relieved to be able to put our packs down.

Since our hostel had a kitchen and there was a grocery store very close by we decided to save some money in the long run and buy some food instead of going to restuarants for every meal. We decided on the gourmet choices of pasta and red sauce, and Dutch brand peanut butter and "nutella." All of the staples for two college students backpacking Europe. Of course we were so hungry by the time we got to eat most days that it all tasted great.

Our first night in Amsterdam was pretty low key. We walked around the blocks immediately around our hostel trying to get the lay of the land and to realize that we were really in Amsterdam. It always takes me a while to realize that I'm somewhere. In fact I can think of several trips when I was on the plane back to Sussex and suddenly thought "holy crud I was just in " We got back to the hostel about 8pm and people in our room were already asleep! There wasn't much we could do while people were sleeping so we decided to go to bed too.

It's a good thing we decided to go to bed early because the next day was crazy busy! We visited the Hienekien Experience, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank Huis inbetween walking ALL OVER the city. The Hienekien Experience is in part of the old Heinekien factory. Everything we read said to get there early so we arrived just as it opened. We took our sweet time going through it and we were almost always the only ones in any given section. All of the staff were remarking at how slow it was that day. By some lucky combination of a slow day and our charming personalities we ended up getting extra free samples at the end of the tour and got to pour our own glasses which I don't think we were supposed to do. The Van Gogh museum was pretty cool. I was surprised by how many Van Goghs I was familiar with and the number of Van Goghs I didn't know. We saw the Sunflowers, Irises, and his self-protrait. The Anne Frank Huis was a completely different experience than the other museums we visited. Ever since I first learned of Anne Frank in the second grade I've wondered what it would be like to visit the Secret Annex. The answer is humbling. The rooms unfurnished. The Nazis took all the furtinture that was in there and Otto Frank requested that it be left unfurnished. There are black out curtains on several windows and exerpts from Anne's Diary posted throughout the Annex. There are also video interviews with Miep and Otto. It's hard to explain what it was like to have a book that I read ten years ago come to life before my eyes. In the very last room they have one of Anne's diaries on display in a glass box. I don't know why, but it shocked me that the diary didn't look very different from the journals I have. It's so easy to forget that Anne Frank was an ordianary girl who enjoyed ordinary things when her story is, literally, known around the world.

We added to an already full day by walking to each of our museums and then wandering around the city for several hour afterwards. While navigating was annoying, the real danger was getting run over by bikes. The residents of Amsterdam rely mainly on bicycles for transportation and they let you know if you're in their way. Leanna and I decided that it would probably be safer if we stuck to walking since we were having a hard enough time following the traffic patterns that way.

Our second full day in Amsterdam we decided to take a little easier. We went to the Rijksmueseum in the morning. There were many beautiful paintings but the one that really stuck out in my mind was Vermeer's "The Milkmaid." I was hoping that they would have "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" but that piece is on display in The Hague. That day we also went to the Waag, a rampart surrounded by a market, and the Oude Kerk (old church) which are remenents of Amsterdam some 500 years ago. For dinner that night we decided to treat ourselves and went to an Argentinian Steakhouse. I greeted our waiter in Spanish almost as a reflex and listened to the specials in Spanish. Then I switched to English because Leanna's Spanish isn't as good as mine. Immediately the waiter stopped making eye contact with me and was no longer as friendly. I was surprised. My Spanish is okay but my accent is not good and you'd be hard pressed to confuse me with a native speaker. The food was very good, especially after a couple days of pasta. On the way out Leanna and I were talking and decided that I definitely should have kept speaking Spanish. So the moral of the story is that if you're going to start a conversation in a language be prepared to continue in that language, unless asked to change.

On the way back to the hostel that night we stopped at a Christmas fair and got poffertjes (baby dutch pancakes). We each got a small order thinking we'd get about 6 of the 2-inch pancakes. We ended up getting about 15 each slathered in butter and powered sugar. I also had chocolate on mine but it was completely unnessecary. They were possibly the best thing we had to eat the entire time we were in Amsterdam. We decided then that one of our summer projects was going to be trying to make poffertjes so we could have them again and again.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Back in Brighton

Alas, the winter holidays have ended and I am back the University of Sussex and still in shock over everything that happened this break. It figures that just as I get used to one major time change I turn around and get to adjust to another one. Hopefully jet lag won't set me back too much and I'll be posting the adventures on my trip soon.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Actually taking a break

Fifteen days of traveling is much different than fifteen days of school. My trip went by incredibly fast and was much more exhausting than I anticipated. I'm still trying to wrap my head around everything that I saw and did while on this epic adventure. Leanna and I crisscrossed Europe from Amsterdam to Delft to Brussels to Paris to Nantes to Geneva to Milan. After spending less than twelve hours back in England I boarded yet another plane to Detroit, Michigan in order to spend the last week of the holidays with my parents and brothers. I'm also taking advantage of the peace and quiet before returning to Uni. Sussex for the spring term. I will post adventures from my marathon after I've had a chance to rest and process my travel experiences.