Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The hills are alive...

Grüß Gott! That's how people say hello in Austria! Sorry I'm a little bit behind on my posts, but we have been having a great time! We spent the majority of this week in Austria and it's such a beautiful country! We spent Monday and Tuesday in metropolitan Vienna, then on Wednesday we took the train to picturesque Salzburg, where we spent the day Wednesday. We didn't actually stay in Salzburg though, instead we stayed just across the border in Germany in a beautiful town called Berchtesgaden. We stayed there Wednesday and Thursday nights, then returned to Salzburg on Friday afternoon. It's funny because Austria and Germany are extremely similar, while also having their own histories and cultural differences! It's also been a really nice week due to the fact that we slowed down our sightseeing pace just a bit to relax a little more and rest up for Italy and the end of our trip!

On Monday, we arrived in Vienna a little bit later than anticipated on Monday afternoon because our train was 2 hours late leaving Prague! (Considering that our train was supposed to le
ave at 6:40 am and didn't actually leave until 9 am, we were none too pleased...oh well, it's the first major delay we've had yet!) When we arrived in Vienna, the weather was sunny and hot, finally! After checking in to our hostel, we decided to jump on the tram and head out to the Schloss Schönbrunn, the summer residence of Austria's long-ruling Hapsburg family. The palace is known for it's beautiful gardens so we thought that it would be a great way to enjoy the nice weather. The palace itself is very impressive, and it was built to rival Versaille in Paris. Now had we not just seen Versaille a few weeks ago, we probably would have been a little more impressed, but as beautiful is Schonbrunn was, I think Versaille is more grand. While we were at the palace, we were able to tour 40 different rooms that were decorated just like they would have been when the Hapsburgs lived there. Austria is also really big into pastries, especially apple strudel, so while we were at the palace, we were able to to go an apple strudel making demonstration and see the famous way that the royal bakers have been making studel for over 300 years! They gave everyone a copy of the recipe at the end, so I am definitely going to try to make it when I get home because it was delicious! After touring the palace, we spent the rest of our time there just relaxing in the gorgeous gardens and enjoying the sunshine! There is a large monument in the back of the garden called the Gloriette, and we were able to climb to the top of it and get a great view of Vienna. After the gardens, we explored the city a little bit, then got some dinner at a place that served traditional Austrian dishes where we were able to sit outside and people watch. After dinner, we were able to walk around in the nice weather and see all different sights of Vienna lit up at night which was very pretty. Vienna, or Wien, as it is called in German, is a very classy city with lots of shopping. Granted some parts of it are touristy, you can definitely tell that is a more refined city, so it was fun to explore.

On our second day in Vienna, we woke up to POURING rain, so we took our time heading out in to the city. We ended up having brunch at this lovely cafe called Kurkonditorei Oberlaa where they had great spatzle and an amazing chocolate mousse torte! Cam actually said that he thought that the meal he had at this restaurant was the best overall meal he has had all trip! After brunch, we went to the Karlskirche, or St. Charles's Church, where we were able to see the beautifully restored frescoes that adorn the dome of the church. What was cool about this church was that you could actually take an elevator in to the dome and look at the frescoes up close. We spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around the city; being it was Tuesday, unfortunately a lot of the museums were closed. However, we really weren't too upset as we are starting to get a little museum-ed out! One of the area's of the city we walked through was this huge open air food market. They had so many varieties of fruits, vegetables, olives, cheese, spices, and basically any food you can think of. As you may know, Cam and I love food (and if you didn't know that, you probably do now as about half of my Europe blog posts so far have been about the food we've been eating!), so getting a chance to experience European markets like this is really great. Overall, just being in Vienna and people watching was fun experience in itself. People here seem to be very in to reading newspapers and magazines and just lingering over a cup of coffee and a piece of cake at one of the city's many refined cafes-it's a lifestyle I could definitely get used to! Later in the afternoon, Cam and I actually got afternoon coffee and cake and one of Vienna's most famous chocolatiers/bakeries, Demel. It was very fancy, and a nice way to spend the afternoon. That's really all we did during our two days in Vienna, nothing too crazy, just a few relaxing days in a lovely city.

On Wednesday, we took the morning train to Salzburg, Austria, which is on the opposite side of the country from Vienna. It was definitely a nice change of pace because Salzburg is a much
smaller city. It's population is around 150,000 people, whereas Vienna has over 1 million people, so it's a lot more urban. Salzburg is really well known for 2 things-it's Mozart's birthplace, and it's also where the movie "The Sound of Music" was filmed. (It was also the home to the real Von Trapp family that the movie was based off of!) Sound of Music is one of my absolute favorite movies ever, growing up, Melissa and I probably watched it at least 1000 times. So knowing this fact, my sweet husband said he wanted to take me on one of the Sound of Music tours! He's never even watched the movie all the way through, but he knows that I love it, so he got tickets for us to go on a 4 hour minibus tour, what a sweetheart :) Our tour didn't leave until later in the afternoon, so we had a few hours to kill, and we spent them walking around the city. Salzburg is a very cute city, and it's interesting because the city has a lot of Italian influence in it's design. One of the 5 squares in the center of the city has a big statue of Mozart, and there are touristy stands selling t-shirts with violins on them and things like that all over the place. We walked along the river that runs through the city and popped in a few pretty churches, but then went to grab some lunch before our tour. Refering to our handy Rick Steve's guidebook, we found a place right off Mozartplatz, or Mozart's square, called Saran's. Cam and I about died laughing when we found the place because in the front of the restaurant, the owner, Saran, had this little shrine to Rick Steves. He had copies of the cover of all of his guidebooks, and then he had a huge picture of him and Rick Steves together, it was so funny. We had a delicious lunch there, then headed to meet our tour guide to start our Sound of Music tour. When we got to the mini bus and saw the crowd that was waiting to start the tour, we quickly realized that we were maybe a third of the average age of the group. It appeared that the Sound of Music was a big draw for all the elderly American tourists in Salzburg, just picture Cam and I in this situation in your mind and laugh a little, because it's really all we could do. (I had to give Cam an extra big hug for agreeing to go on this tour with me haha!) We loaded into a mini bus with a bunch of retirees, and off we went! Our tour guide, Marcus, took us all around dowtown Salzburg and we saw different things from the movie such as the convent where Maria was a nun and one of the fountains where Maria and the children are singing the 'Do Re Mi'. Then we drove out of the main city center and saw a bunch of other things from the movie, such as the palace that was used for the back of the Von Trapp home (it has a lake in front of it, it's where the Maria and the children fall out of their row boats into the water and Captain Von Trapp gets all mad!), we saw the gazebo where Liesel and Rolf sing 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen', and then we drove out to the lakes district near Salzburg and saw the wedding church from the movie. Being we haven't had a car on this trip, we've mainly been sticking to the cities we've been visiting and using public transportation, so this tour was a great way to get out in to Austria's gorgeous countryside. The lakes we saw were gorgeous and there are green mountains everywhere; our tour guide even pointed out the mountains where they filmed the scene at the very beginning of the movie where Julie Andrews sings the movie's title song. Being there in person was really amazing, it's even more beautiful then it looks in the movie! Cam and I have had SO much rain on this trip, but thankfully we had beautiful, sunny weather for the entire afternoon of our tour! While we were driving around in the minibus, our tour guide also told us a lot about the real Von Trapp family, and then we listened to the Sound of Music soundtrack while driving through all the beautiful scenery. Was it cheesy? Yeah, kind of. Was it awesome? Most definitely.

After our tour finished Wednesday evening, we hopped on a train from Salzburg to Berchtesgaden, which is a little bit south of Salzburg, right over the border in the German Alps. When we stepped out of the train station, the beautiful mountains were right in front of us, and the mountain
side was dotted with adorable little brown and while chalet-style resorts. Our hotel was about a mile from the train station, and it was quite a hilly climb! (And of course it started raining while we were walking to our hostel, that has happened quite a few times this trip...) We finally got to our hotel, which was high up and had a great view of the mountains and the valley below. After staying in hostels all trip, it was SO nice to check into an actual hotel, and this one was actually really really nice! After our walk in the rain, we were in the mood to have a little snack, so went to one of the hotel's restaurants and ordered some apple strudel-hands down, BEST apple strudel we've ever had. (It was so good, we originally got one to split, but then as soon as we tasted it, we ordered a second one because we each wanted our own!) After a great night's sleep in the comfy hotel bed, we woke up Thursday morning to...rain. So we did what we have done all trip, just put on our rain coats and proceed with our day! (I think Cam is a lot more used to the rain then I am!) We had breakfast in downtown Berchtesgaden, then walked around the cute little resort town with all it's little stores and cute German facades. It's funny, of all the places we have been so far, Berchtesgaden is probably where we had the most difficulty with the language barrier. So far most of the cities we've visited have been much larger and have had tourists from all over the world, and every service person we had spoke English. However, Berchtesgaden seemed to be a much more regional tourist attraction, and the only people that seemed to be vacationing here were Germans and Austrians, so basically nothing was in English. However, Berchtesgaden has one claim to fame that might ring a bell with history buffs-it is the sight of Hitler's Eagle's Nest. This is basically a house that sits high a top this mountain which was given to him as birthday present. It's apparently been featured in different History Channel specials about WWII, and it's how Cam first heard about Berchtesgaden in the first place. We took the bus out to the Eagle's Nest on Thursday afternoon (in the rain). You take a bus way up into the mountains, then you go in an elevator thru the mountain to the top, and end up inside the Eagle's Nest. Today, the building itself is a restaurant, but the sight is a major tourist attraction because of the beautiful views it offers of the German Alps. It was really cool because we were actually so high up, we were above the rain! So we were able to take pictures and enjoy the nice views of the mountains. After the Eagle's Nest, we took another bus to one of the lakes near Berchtesgaden, Lake Königssee, where we were able to just sit and relax since the rain was starting to clear up. We had dinner at a local place where we got to sit outside, and I had a fish that was just caught right from the lake! (And they served me the entire fish, head to tail...I love fish, but I had to cover up the face with a napkin while I was eating it because I don't like anything staring at me while I eat!)

On Friday morning, two great things happened! First we woke up to the sun shining through our hotel window, it was a beautiful day out! Second, we turned on our cell phone and found out that Cam's brother and sister-in-law had had just had their baby girl! We have been waiting all trip to get this exciting news, and we are so happy to have a new niece, Meara Elizabeth
! With that joyous news, we went to go have breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants. They had a huge buffet and we were able to sit out on the terrace in the morning sunshine, where we had a breathtaking view of the mountains. As much as I love the city, it was so refreshing to be out in nature again, and being in these mountains, you really like you are in God's creation. After breakfast, we went back down to Lake Königssee and decided to go for a boat cruise around the lake. The lake is surrounded by mountains and it is crystal clear, it's such a scenic area, I understand why so many Germans come here for vacation! Our boat cruise stopped at a few different points around the lake where we could get out and walk around and enjoy the scenery. At our second stop, we were able to hike a little way to this smaller lake that was so beautiful because it was so smooth and glassy, it gave great reflections of the mountains around it. On our way back to the boat, we walked by this pasture on the side of the mountain where a bunch of cows were grazing. These cows weren't fenced in, but they all had cow bells on, so it was just very idyllic with the mountains, the lake, and the sound of cowbells clinking in the breeze. We saw a little sign that said Käse (the German word for cheese!), so we headed in that direction. We got to get right up close to all the cows in the pasture, and when we got to the cheese house, there were these two baby cows that came running up to us, they were so adorable! Here we are in the middle of the mountains, petting some cute baby cows, it was amazing! And to top it off, we got to sample some different types of cheese that had just been made that morning! Of all the fun things we have done this trip, this afternoon definitely ranks near the top for me! At the end of our boat cruise, we hopped on another train and headed back to Salzburg in order to get our train to Munich. We had a few extra hours, so we were able to spend some more time walking around Salzburg, checking out the street markets, having some dinner, and just taking in the city before catching our train to Munich (where we are now, and I'll be posting about soon!).

We really enjoyed our time in Austria and Berchtesgaden; not to be redundant, but it really is just so beautiful here! The mountains, the picturesque towns, and the delicious food made it another wonderful week here in Europe, and it was really nice to get in to the outdoors a little bit more. While Vienna was a lovely city, I personally think I enjoyed Salzburg more just because it had a little bit more of a smaller feel (ok, and the Sound of Music tour may have had something to to with it!). Being out in the lakes and mountains for Germany and Austria gives you that great, peaceful feeling of being that you get when you're in Northern Michigan, but mulitiplied by about 1000! In Austria and Germany, we've seen so many retired people traveling, and it makes me sad to think that Cam and I might not get to travel for a really extended period of time like this again until we are that age, which is kind of depressing...sorry to be a Debbie Downer, hopefully that won't be the case, we both love to travel and are having a great time on this trip, and we definitely would like to come back to Europe (especially this region) again soon, even if it's not for as long! Well Munich calls, so I need to get going, but I'll be posting again soon!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Prague = Perfection

Well after weeks of the most unpleasant weather ever, we finally had a beautiful weekend in one of Europe's most beautiful cities--Prague!! When we were planning our intinerary for this trip, Cam originally wasn't so keen on going to Prague, but now having been, he said that it's his favorite city that we have been to so far. I think it's tied with Paris for me, but it's definitely on my top 5 list of places I've ever been to! We had an amazing time, it's just a gorgeous city!!

We took the train from Berlin to Prague on Friday morning, and we passed through a lot of beautiful scenery on the way. We took the subway from the train station to our hostel, which was a little more confusing than some of the other cities as there was less English, but we managed to figure it out. The city seemed fairly busy, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that people here in Europe had Monday off, so it seemed like a lot of people were in Prague for the long weekend. After checking in to our hostel, we headed to the Old Town Square in the center of town to see the heart of the city. After getting some giant bratwursts from a vendor in the center of the square, we watched the large Astromonical Clock chime on the hour. It's cool because at the top of the hour, the clock is animated and you see all the 12 apostles appear, and it's just a neat thing to watch. I mean, it's not super high tech or amazing, but considering the fact the clock dates back to the early 1400's, it is pretty incredible. That's the great thing about Prague, it has so much beautiful medieval architecture, and the city was basically spared from the destruction that took place in so much of Europe during WWII, so it's extremely well-preserved. When you are walking around, you really feel like you're in a fairy tale! The Czech Republic is also very famous for it's beer, so since the weather was nice, we spent part of the afternoon sitting at an outdoor cafe trying some Czech beer, as well as trying out some of the delicious pastries the vendors on the square were selling. (I just love how they put Nutella on EVERYTHING in Europe, because Nutella on anything is amazing!) We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the city and just exploring the areas around the Old Town Square and Wencelas Square. Even though the city of Prague is fairly large, we basically stayed in the historical center of town, or the area known as Praha 1, and it was great because everything in this area was really walkable. We had heard that going to a classical music concert in Prague was a great thing to do, so spur of the moment, we got some tickets for that evening for one of the many classical concerts held around the city. The one we saw featured the Czech Chamber Orchestra playing a variety of pieces from composers like Mozart, Vivaldi, and Dvorak. The concert was held on the steps inside the beautiful National Museum, and it was a really cool experience. The only problem was that both Cam and I were having a little bit of a problem staying awake, as we had gotten up really early that morning to catch our train, and classical music is just so soothing...After the concert we had dinner at this local Czech place near our hostel called The Ropemaker's Wife, and we really enjoyed it.

Saturday morning, we were planning on doing a walking tour of the city, but when we looked out the window, the weather looked rainy and overcast. I was about to lose it because I just couldn't take the thought of another city having terrible weather! We begrudingly put on our raincoats and headed out to do the walking tour anyway, trying not to let the weather dampen our spirits. We went on one of the free walking tours from the company New Europe, and our tour guide, James, was from Ireland and boy was he a hoot! He was very energetic with lots of funny and interesting stories about the city. Prague has a very long history full of legends, so I think that going on the walking tour was a great way to see the city and get a lot of information that we wouldn't have heard otherwise. The walking tour lasted about 3.5 hours, and during that time we were able to see the majority of the sights in the different sections on the east side of the Vltava river including, Old Town Square, Wencelas Square, and the Jewish Quarter. The Jewish Quarter was particularly interesting because it has had quite a long history, and it is home to Europe's oldest synagogue. During our walking tour, something wonderful happened--the sun came out! And it didn't just come out, it got hot. Really hot. And being that it was cold and rainy when we left our hostel, Cam and I weren't really dressed for the heat. Actually, I was wearing jeans and a cardigan...with a (basically) see through white tank top underneath. Sitting in the sun during our tour, I was blistering hot that I had to take my sweater off, but I kept awkwardly trying to tie my cardigan around my shoulders to keep my bra from showing through my shirt, go me. I was just so irritated because I had brought so many dresses and non-see through tank tops and other warm weather clothing on this trip, and luck would have it that on the first day of nice weather we get, I'm not wearing any of them! Oh well...After our morning walking tour finished, our tour guide said that he was doing another tour right after that which would cover the other side of the river, the Castle Quarter, home to Prague's beautiful castle. Cam and I decided to pay to go on this castle walking tour, and we were so glad we did!! The other side of the river was much less touristy, and it was extremely picturesque. We saw both the Lesser Quarter, an area near the castle where people used to live that provided services for those living in the castle, and then we also saw the Castle Quarter itself, which was just gorgeous. During this second walking tour, we saw the John Lennon Wall, this wall of graffiti that people made in memorial to John Lennon's death. During Communism, the government tried to get rid of it several times, but people kept painting it, and are still adding to it today. Another fun thing we saw on our Castle Tour was the monastery near the castle; this monastery still brews their own beer, and we got to try some which was really cool. Our last stop on the tour was the castle itself; the castle grounds themselves are very beautiful, and I think it's cool that they are so accessible and open to the public even though they still house the Czech government today. The castle serves as the home of the Czech president, and the flag that was flying while we were there meant he was in the castle, however, we didn't see him during tour! The last stop on our tour was a beautiful overlook point near the castle that gave us a breathtaking view of the city. After our tour group left, Cam and I decided to stay up there and get a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe near the castle so we could keep enjoying the beautiful view and the amazing weather! It was awesome to just sit, relax, and enjoy the scenery and each other's company. While this trip hasn't exactly always been glamorous (staying in hostels, riding on crowded subways, schelping our backpacks from city to city, etc), sitting on that terrace, drinking wine and enjoying the view made it all worth it and felt so very European :) Later that night, based on the recommendation of our tour guide, we took the subway out to the edge of the city to check out the annual Prague Beer Festival. Our tour guide said it was basically like Prague's version of Oktoberfest, and it was...except since it was out in these huge tents in a field at the edge of town, we kind of felt like we were at a county fair. It was a great way to get out of the touristy city center, and to feel more like a local! All the waitresses were dressed up in these traditional Czech outfits, and a ton of different Czech breweries had beer there. We had a really fun night sampling Czech beer (including a 19% alc porter that was amazing!) and eating Czech food. Some of the other people that were in our tour group during the day were at the festival as well, so we ended up sitting with them, and we had a great time hanging out!

After a few weeks of traveling, Cam and I have tried to get in to a little bit of a rhythm where we do a lot of sight-seeing when we first get to a city, then that way we have the last day to go back to the areas we liked and just relax. For our last day in Prague, we decided to head back across the river to spend some more time in the Castle Quarter. Even though we saw a lot of it during our tour, we weren't able to go in places like the Castle church. So we walked back across the river, and our first stop was a beautiful park that had another nice overlook point of the city. (Prague is hilly, so there are ton of places to get great views!) We had lunch at a great restaurant near the monastery (recommended by Rick Steves of course), that served traditional Czech food and had more amazing views of Prague. After lunch, we headed to the castle, and were able to see the inside of the beautiful church right in the center of the grounds, St. Vitus. Similar to the day before, the weather started out overcast, but ended up beautiful and sunny! Later that afternoon, we ended up heading to the other side of the castle and walking all the way up this huge hill where we were able to just sit in the grass and relax. On top of the hill was this tower that looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower, except there are no lines to go up to the top of it! Cam and I decided to climb to the top to get yet another gorgeous view of this amazing city! When we got back to our hostel that night, we heard a ton of commotion outside our window. People were cheering and parading through the streets, and at first we didn't understand what was going on, but someone told us that the Czech hockey team had just won the World Championship. We figured that the celebration would be over quickly, but people were seriously in the streets for hours and the noise level was incredible.

Overall, our weekend in Prague was simply amazing, and if you are planning a trip to Europe, make sure to visit this breathtaking city!! :)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ich bin ein Berliner

Guten tag from Germany! Just a word of warning, this German keyboard I'm typing on is a little bit different than a normal keyboard, with the most notable difference being that the 'y' and the 'z' are flip flopped (you'd be surprised how often you use the letter y!), so just bear with me if there are any typos! We've been in Berlin for the past 3 days, and it's been really great! I didn't really have as many expectations or preconceived notions for Berlin as I did for some of the other cities on our itinerary, and I've been really pleasantly surprised! The city is HUGE! Much bigger then I thought, and it's fairly spread out, in a weird way it reminds me of Chicago? The past 3 days have been quite the history lesson for me, and it's really fascinating the role that Berlin has played in German history for hundreds of years. One thing that Cam and I keep talking about as we tour all these different historical sites is how little we really know about European history; I feel that in high school I learned a ton about American history, but on a lot of the details of European history, I'm pretty hazy. I guess I didn't realize that Germany didn't become a unified nation until 1871 (prior to that it was a bunch of seperate little states), and I'm basically clueless on Prussian history. But here in Berlin we've gotten to see it all, from Prussian architechture to Nazi headquarters to famous Cold War sites to the abundance of modern developement that has taken place in the last 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We arrived in Berlin at 5 am on Tuesday morning after taking a night train from Amsterdam-sidenote, I LOVED taking the night train! It's like that feeling of being a little kid and falling asleep in the car, but instead of being uncomfortable because you're sitting upright, you have your own little bed to lay down in. Cam said he only slept about 3 hours, but I was basically in a coma the whole train ride, it was awesome. Anyway, we got in to the enormous Hauptbahnhof train station in Berlin, and I was amazed how many stores were in this train station. (It was basically like a mall with train tracks, housed in a very modern building, very cool). We killed time drinking coffee and eating German pastries at the train station, then headed out to go explore the city. We got to the Reichstag right when it opened at 8 am, and were able to climb up to the top of it's beautiful giant glass domed ceiling. The Reichstag currently houses the German legislature, but it has had quite the interesting history. In 1933, the building was set on fire, and this is just when Adolf Hitler was coming on the scene, and he blamed the event on the Communists, and used it as an opportunity to seize power, even though many believe he was actually the one who started the fire. Then when West and East Germany were divided after WWII, the building sat unused. Today, it has this really cool column of mirrors in the center of it's huge glass dome, and we were able to get a great 360 degree view of the city. Next, we decided to go on a walking tour to help us get more familiarized with the city, as we had been told that it was a great thing to do in Berlin. We did the Original Berlin Walks tour, which wasn't one of the free walking tours, but it was the one that Rick Steve's recommend in his Best of Europe guidbook, and RS never steers you wrong. The tour was great! Our tour guide, Holly, was an American who has been living in Germany for the last 9 years, and she was extremely knowledgeable and knew a ton about German history. She basically took us all around the city and helped to place all the builidings and sites she pointed out in Berlin's long history. It's amazing the big, bustling city that Berlin is today because a large majority of it was completely flattened in WWII, and anything that didn't get leveled is full of bullet holes. We visited one of the only remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, saw Checkpoint Charlie, and she told us stories of the many escape attempts as people tried to get over the wall from East Berlin to West Berlin. For me, the 2 most interesting sights she took us to were memorials relating to the devestation caused by the Nazis. The first was a memorial to commemorate the book burnings of the Nazis in 1933. They burned 20, 000 books in the square right across from Humboldt University to demonstrate to the people of Berlin that no one was going to read anything that didn't support their agenda. Today, there is a glass plate laid in to the cobblestones in the square and when you look down into it, you see tons of empty bookcases, and our tour guide said there the artist who created the memorial made enough bookcases to hold 20,000 books. The second memorial we saw was a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the memorial consists of all these tomb-sized concrete slabs, which vary in height. They start out shorter, around knee high at the edge of the memorial, then as you move towards the center, the slabs get taller and the ground starts becoming uneven, so by the time you are in the center of the momument, the slabs are much taller then you. Cam and I actually got seperated for a few minutes while looking at the memorial, and it was kind of scary because there are all these huge, gray, imposing slabs of concrete around you, and it just creates a feeling of total isolation, confusion, and gloom. The artist wanted the memorial to be very text free to leave visitors to interpret it in their own way, and I thought that he did a really excellent job at evoking emotion with his design. One other sight we saw on the tour wasn't a sight really, it was a just a patch of grass, but our tour guide told us that underneath us was Hitler's giant bunker in which he committed suicide. There is a small sign with info about the bunker near the area, but the German government wants to really downplay Hilter related sights that would be of any interest to Neo-Nazis groups, however, our tour guide did provide us with a lot of info about the rise and fall of the Nazis in Berlin. The walking tour took up a lot of our afternoon, but it was so worth it as we were able to see a ton of the city and I learned a lot!

We conveniently ended our tour right near this famous chocolatier with a huge shop and a elegant cafe, so Cam and I really enjoyed having an afternoon cup of hot chocolate there, so delicious. We had heard a lot of great things about the Jewish Museum, so that's where we spent the remainder of our afternoon, and I'm really glad we went there. The museum showcases 2,000 years of Jewish life in Germany, and it's housed in a building with a very modern design, an ariel view of it sort of looks like a twisted silver Star of David. One section of the building is dedicated to the Holocaust, and it features a concrete tower that is designed for reflection. The tower is extremely tall, and the only light comes from a tiny slit in the roof. There is such a sense of despair and hopelessness when you step in this tower, but you can hear the echo of the traffic from the street through the window way above your head. I felt very small and trapped, and all I could think was, there are people up there on the street, but no one knows I'm in here! Obviously the Tower might evoke different emotions for everyone, but for me it was very moving and I still am just in awe how such a horrific tragedy could have occured in the Western World so recently and years went by before it was stopped. I can't begin to imagine the way that the Jews here in Europe felt during this time, but I thought the Tower at the Jewish Museum did a really good job of making you think. After the museum, we got dinner at a traditional type German restaurant and it was delicious (but super filling!) Then we finally made our way back to our hostel, which was in East Berlin. It was a little bit confusing to find, but once we got there, it was awesome! It's funny, a lot of the buildings in East Berlin are quite plain, very much Soviet style architecture from the outside, but then you get inside and they are really modern and updated. Our room in the hostel was huge, and it had a TV in it that actually got English CNN, score! (Except it wasn't the American version of CNN, it was like this weird less professional English version of CNN that was actually really funny)...

The next morning, we headed over to Museuminsel, or Museum Island in English, which is basically a section of Berlin with a bunch of museums right next to each other. Before our day of museum hopping, Cam and I got an amazing brunch at this place called the Opernpalais, an adorably fancy little restaurant right across from Museum Island next to one of Berlin's opera houses. After brunch, we first headed to the giant Altes Museum, where we saw Berlin's collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. After that, we went right next door to the Alte Nationalgalerie, or Old National Gallery in English, which was another huge museum where we saw a variety of paintings and sculptures from the Classicism and Romanticism periods. Because the museums are all clustered together on Museum Island, it makes it really easy to go from one to another, so after the art museum, we headed to the Neues Museum. The Neues Museum houses a lot of Egytian artifacts, but their most well-known piece is the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The bust is 3300 years old and extremely well-preserved; it was really cool to see this beautiful artifact in person! Then after three museums in a row, we were starting to get a little burned out. It turns out the place we had gone for brunch is actually famous for the cake buffet that they have every afternoon, so we decided to go back and check it out. Similar to the way that the Brits have tea and scones and such in the afternoons, we were told that there is a custom in Germany called "kaffe and kuchen" where at 4pm, Germans like to have a piece of cake and cup of coffee. That sounded like a great idea to us, so we were able to indulge in this tradition back at the Opernpalais, where we had a huge selection of cakes to choose from. I'm pretty sure that we were maybe 1/3 of the average age of the majority of the people in this restaurant, but oh well, we enjoyed ourselves! After our afternoon snack, we took the U-Bahn (German subway) to the Western part of Berlin to see the famous KaDeWe department store. I had heard that it was like a German version of Herrod's in London, and it basically stood for capitalism and the West while Berlin was divided. It's an ENORMOUS store, you can buy every possible item you can imagine there. I didn't think it was as cool as Herrod's, it wasn't quite as ornate and luxurious, but it was still a lot of fun to see. We spent the rest of the evening walking around the streets of Western Berlin, where we saw the Kaiser Wilhem church. For dinner, Cam really wanted to try currywurst from a street vendor, as it was supposed to be one the things that you have to try when you're in Berlin. I was a little skeptical, as I'm not a huge fan of curry, but it was actually really good!

One our last day in Berlin, we started the day out by walking around the Alexanderplatz area in East Berlin, not too far from our hostel. One of the things that's a little different about Berlin is that, in large part due to it's turbulent history, there really isn't one city center, rather, there are mulitple squares in different parts of the city that each serve as a hub for that particular part of the city. Alexanderplatz had lots of stores and restaurants and seemed like a nice area to hang out. We jumped on the U-Bahn and headed up to the Documentation Center for the Berlin Wall. This is an interesting little museum that has all different things relating to the Berlin Wall. However, the most interesting part about this museum is there is a tower that you can climb up that allows you to see the only remaining section of the Berlin Wall that still has both the inner and outer wall. This was something that I was really unaware of when I heard people talking about the Berlin Wall, I didn't realize that it was actually two walls, and the space between the two was a "no-man's land" and Soviet border guards were instructed to shoot anyone found in this area. Being on top of the this tower at the documentation center allowed us to see both sections of the wall, the strip of land in between, and the guard tower that was used to monitor that portion of the wall. It's so strange to me to think that this was something that was actually in use during my lifetime. After this museum, we went to Postdamer Platz, or Berlin's time square, and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of all the actvity of all the great stores and restaurants in this area. In the afternoon, we visited an exhibit called Topography of Terror. This is a museum that sits on the rubble of the former headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo, the main two forces of repression in the Nazi regime. The actual buildings were destroyed in the war, but the modern museum that now sits on the ruins is extremely detailed (with a ton of info in English), explaining the role that the SS and the Gestapo played from Hitler's rise to power to the fall of Nazi Germany. The museum was very interesting, however, after 3 days in Berlin, I was really starting to feel a little depressed learning so much about the Nazis and the Holocaust. There is no doubt that this was one of the very darkest chapters in human history, but learning so much information about this time period is extremely heavy. After the Topography of Terror, Cam and I decided to head back to Museum Island to see the other 2 museums we weren't able to get to the day before, as we had bought a museum pass that gave us admission to basically all the museums in Berlin. We saw the Berliner Dome (which is right by all the museums), a giant Protestant cathedral that was supposedly built in an attempt to outdo St. Peter's in Rome. It definitely wasn't anywhere near that grand, but it was still a beautiful church, and we were able to hear the organ being played which was cool. Afterwards, we went to the Bode Museum, which is known for housing a lot of beautiful older paintings and scultuptures. Then finally, we went to the Pergamom Museum, home to the famous Pergamon Altar and the beautiful Ishtar Gate from Babylon. We had dinner at a really cute restaurant called 12 Apostel, or the 12 Apostles, and they had amazing pizza and a great atmosphere.

If you're thinking that we spent a lot of time at museums, it's because we did. And a big reason for that is because the weather the entire 3 days in Berlin was windy, rainy, and cold. We have honestly had terrible weather this trip, it's much cooler and wetter than Cam and I anticipated. Talking to locals in each of the cities we've visited, they said that the weather is really unseasonally cold right now, and that it had been nice basically up until we got here. Awesome. From checking weather reports and our experience so far, the weather seems to be nice when we get to a city, and then it turns terrible, and then gets nice again when we leave. It was kind of frustrating because Berlin has a lot of lovely outdoor spaces, but we spent a lot of our time indoors due to the weather. I'm trying to let myself get to frustrated with the conditions, and on the upside, we're not even halfway done with our trip yet, so we're thinking that this cold snap can't last forever, right?

All in all, we both really enjoyed Berlin. It was fascinating to learn about all the different layers of history that make up this city. In a way, I was thinking that Berlin really didn't seem like that "German" of a city. It's such a huge metropolis with tons of shopping, modern architecture, and food from all over the world, I definitely didn't feel like I was at Frankenmuth! However, I think what most Americans think of as "German" is really more the Bavarian part of Germany, so I'm thinking that we'll get our fill of beer gardens and lederhosen when we go to Munich. The more I started to think about it, the more I think that, in fact, Berlin, is probably the most "German" city. It's the place where the country has been both unified and torn apart multiple times, and since the country's reunification 20 years ago, it's the place that really the city that's defining where Germany is going as a country, all the while keeping a constant memory of where it's been.

Ps: The title of this post is in reference to JFK's famous speech in West Berlin where he meant to say that he was a fellow Berlin citizen in an effort to sympathize with the people of Berlin, but he used the wrong article while saying this sentence in German and he accidentally called himself a Berliner, which over here is what they call a jelly donut. We actually had a Berliner while we were there, along with a lot of other deliciously heavy German pastries....people in Berlin weren't quite as svelte as the people in Paris...hmmm...we're feeling a little bit like donuts ourselves after all the amazing foods we've been eating on this trip :)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Amsterdam: The "trashiest"city I've ever been to

Greetings from Amsterdam! I'm currently sitting in the city's gorgeously modern public library waiting to get on our night train to Berlin, and to be honest, I am not going to be the least bit sad to leave. I personally didn't care for Amsterdam at all, it was much different then I was expecting it to be. When we got in to the city from clean, picturesque Bruges on Saturday afternoon, I was struck by just how dirty it was. And I don't mean just a little bit dirty, I mean there was literally garbage EVERYWHERE. At first I thought it was just at the train station, but then I realized the whole city was filled with trash, and every garbage can was completely overflowing, with piles of trash around them. Apparently, the trash collectors have been on strike for about the past 3 weeks, and it's just completely awful here right now. There is garbage on the streets, in the canals, and basically everywhere. Luckily it's not very hot here, or else it would have smelled a lot worse then it already does. To be fair to Amsterdam, I think the trash was a major reason I didn't like the city, and maybe I would have had a different perception of it had I not had to walk through piles of garbage. But that aside, I still didn't really like it. I found the city to be confusing, and even though it's not that big in comparison to some place like Paris or London, I was just completely overwhelmed. Most of that had to do with the fact that there are bicycles everywhere. I felt like half of the city was on bike, and it really made me uncomfortable, just because you can't hear them coming. I almost got run over about 10 different times, and that was just leaving the train station...not a good start...

One good thing about Amsterdam was were we stayed. Cam booked us a room on this houseboat hotel that was docked in a quiet harbor near the train station, and it's also right near this beautiful public library, complete with free internet! Hallelujah! The woman who runs the hotel boat is very nice, and she had an awesome breakfast for the the 2 mornings we were here! Even though our room was tiny, it was really neat to stay right on the water! Right after checking in to our hotel, Cam and I decided to go rent bikes, since that seems to be the popular way to get around. As tramautizing as it was just walking around the city amidst all the bikes, for me it was 10 times worse actually riding my bike through the city. I love big cities, and am not usually easily overwhelmed, but biking around Amsterdam honestly scared the bejesus out of me. Intersections were extremely confusing because you'd have bikes, pedestrians, people on Vespas and motorcycles, cars, and then the tram that runs through the city. On Sunday, I was trying to follow Cam through a busy intersection and accidentally rode out in front of a car that was trying to turn, they almost hit me, they honked at me, and....I started crying. I wish I were joking. I literally pulled my bike over to the sidewalk, threw it down, and started sobbing. (Gotta love throwing a tantrum when you're 23...) I just really do not like it here...

Not to be completely negative, we did see some good things during our time here. Saturday night we went to the Anne Frank House, and that was very moving. It was really interesting to read the excerpts of her diary they had printed on the walls of the actually rooms that her and her family hid in for years while the Nazis occupied Holland. Going through the house, it really hits home for you what people in Europe had to go through during the Holocaust, and it seems just so unfathomable that something so awful could have taken place. Anne Frank's father did a tremendous amount of work getting her diary published, opening this house to the public, and starting the Anne Frank Foundation, in an effort to educate people against discrimination.

On Sunday, we went to the Heineken Experience; Heineken beer comes from Holland and right dowtown they have a really cool museum set up in one of their old breweries. You find out all about the history of the Heineken family, how they make beer, you get to see their horse, and see how the brand has evolved over the years. It sounds kind of cheesy but it was actually really really cool, and you got 2 free beers, so it was well worth it. After the Heineken Experience, we got lunch at the amazing restaurant called Bazaar (another recommendation from Rick Steves!) The restaurant was a colorful, eclectic mix of cultures, and we had a smorgasboard of Middle Eastern food for lunch. Sunday afternoon, we walked through the Red Light district, as we had heard that it was a must-do while in Amsterdam. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was basically just super shady and very dirty, with all the trash piling up everywhere just adding to the overall grossness. Prostitution is legal here, so all through the Red Light district there are scantily clad girls, well I guess I should say women since a lot of these women appeared to be in their late 30's, trying to entice people to come in. I don't know if because it was Sunday afternoon they had the B-squad on display or something, but these women were definitely not attractive. It was just really sad walking through that part of town (which was pretty busy) and seeing the depravity that fills some people's lives, it was just all very seedy and disgusting.

Honestly, Cam and I have been spending quite a bit of our downtime here in Amsterdam at the public library just to get out of the craziness of the city. It's a huge, gorgeous, modern space, inside and out, and it has 2 amazing restaurants right in the library! Last night we got dinner at the Italian cafe and it was delicious! Luckily we've had a bit of sunshine during our 2 1/2 days here, so this morning, we biked out of the center of the city to see a more residential part of town that Cam had heard about on a "green" building show that he watched. (Oh don't mind the fact that I broke down crying again this morning because I got so overwhelmed riding my bike in all the traffic...) Anyway, once we got to this neighborhood, it was much calmer and quieter, and it seemed like a nice part of town, plus I finally saw my first windmill! Cam was telling me that all the buildings we saw, primarily residential homes, have been recently developed using green building techniques. All the architecture was really modern, and it had a way different feel then the center of the city. We had lunch in a cute little cafe, sat by the water, watched the boats, and enjoyed the sunshine!

We're about to catch an overnight train to Berlin, and I'm definitely ready to leave; Amsterdam was just not for me. I knew that smoking pot was a big part of the culture here, but I was hoping for more wooden shoes and tulips, and less drugs and sex, however, it seems that weed is really the main focal point of the city from what I could see. It's sad because I could tell that there were many of old buildings throughout that I'm sure were significant at one time, but now they're covered up with tacky souvenir shops and "coffee" shops selling pot. We didn't smoke while we were here, so I kind of feel like unless you're going to do that, there really isn't too much else to come to Amsterdam for. I don't mean for this post to be all negative though, all the people here were extremely nice, and everyone is blonde, tan, tall, and healthy looking. (I'm Dutch and so I wanted to come here for my heritage, and Cam said that I actually look like I'm on the short side here!) If we come back to Holland, I definitely think that I'll want to venture out to the coast or to the countryside, to hopefully get a little more of the picturesque ideal I enivsioned. Alright, that's all for now, but I'll definitely keep you posted on what we're up to once we get to Germany! Tot ziens! (goodbye in Dutch!)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Beautiful Bruges

After my London/Paris posts, you might be expecting a lengthy writing about our recent visit to Bruges, Belgium, however, I don't really have to much to say except that it was lovely! We were only there for one night, and after the jam-packed days of sight seeing in 2 huge cities, it was really nice to be a smaller town. We took the train from Paris to Bruges on Friday morning, and it was very nice to be able to see some of the scenery. We took the bus from the train station to our hostel, and then basically just spent the afternoon walking around the city. It was nice to just relax and enjoy ourselves without feeling too pressured to try to squeeze in a bunch of museums and historical sights. While Bruges does have museums and historical sights, the cool thing about being there is just seeing the town itself. The center of the city is shaped like an egg, and when you're there, you feel like you've stepped back in time. The city used to be extremely wealthy due to the cloth trade and it's position right on the coast. The Dukes of Burgundy resided in Bruges, and it was the center of the art world at that time. However, during the 16th century, the channel that they used for transport started to silt up, and the economy declined and there weren't any new buildings built. The city was basically forgotten until tourists realized what a hidden gem it was, and now it's a wonderful place to come and see extremely well-preserved medival architecture, pretty little cannals, lovely cafes, and more shopping then I was expecting. It kind of reminded me of a mix of Holland, MI due to the tall skinny Dutch style buildings and pretty flowers, and Mackinac Island because there were tons of horse-drawn carriages in the cobblestone streets and lots of chocolate shops! Often called "the Venice of the North", Bruge is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the fact that the city itself is so well-preserved. The town is very picturesque, and we enjoyed stolling around the different parts of town and just enjoying the nice day.

Belgium is really well known for a few things food-wise: Beer, waffles, fries, and chocolate! So of course, I had to try all of them in the 24 hrs we were there! When we arrived, we headed to the Market Square in the center of town to get some fries from one of the stands right underneath the big bell tower. (Apparently, french fries were invented in Belgium, not France, who knew?) They were delicious! After that, we decided to take a tour of the De Halve Maan Brewery right in the center of town. There are lots of breweries in Belgium, but this was the only one left in the historic center of Bruges, and they've been brewing beer since the 1500's! The tour was really fun, we learned a lot, and we got to climb to the top of the brewery which gave us a nice view of the city. Also, they give everyone a free beer at the end, so it was nice to drink them on the terrace in the sun! Later that afternoon, we got a fresh Belgian waffle topped with chocolate & ice cream, so good! And then of course, we made more than a few stops in the many chocolate shops all over the city; Belgian is world famous for it's chocolate, and for good reason, it's delicious! Basically Cam and I were really looking forward to coming here so we could just relax (and eat!) after Paris and London, and we really enjoyed it here! I'd say a day was definitely enough time to see the city, and it's probably best we're leaving before I buy anymore chocolate! On to Amsterdam!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Breaking News-The Graybeals' are moving to Greenville, South Carolina!!

After many months of waiting, we finally found out where Cameron's first rotation for his job with GE will be--Greenville, SC! This was where we had suspected/hoped that we would be placed all along, but we knew that we also had the possibility to be put in upstate NY, Houston, or Atlanta, so we weren't positive where we'd be ending up. However, we jsut found out for sure, and we're thrilled! I've heard a lot of great things about Greenville, SC and after 23 years of living in freezing cold Michigan, I'm so pumped to live somewhere semi-warm!! Since we just found out, we haven't worked out to many of the details yet, I just know that we're going to be moving there at the beginning of July. Life has been so chaotic recently with quitting work/Cam's graduation, and now traveling around Europe at a pretty intense pace, I honestly haven't even wrapped my mind around the fact that we're going to have to pack up our little apartment in Ann Arbor as soon as we get home. But it's nice to finally know where we're going, and we're both so glad that Cam was given his first choice of location of the 4 places we had to choose from. I'm definitely looking forward to experiencing life in the South, and while Cam isn't looking forward to the heat, he's excited to live in a place that isn't completely flat. We'll most likely only be living in Greenville for a year, but I think it's going to be a wonderful opportunity to experience life in a part of the country that is new for both of us. I'll obviously be posting more about this as we progress through our move, but I just wanted to let everyone know! Yay for South Carolina and we would definitely love for people to come visit! :)

J'aime Paris

Bon jour everyone! Sorry I didn't get a chance to post before we left Paris, things have been pretty crazy with only being in each city for a few days. We've been really trying to see and do as much as possible in each city, which means a lot to write about and not much time to do it! Plus our hostel in Paris had really slow/expensive internet, so that made it difficult as well. I know that I'm going to need to start being a little more brief in my posts due to the fact that I don't have the time over here to compose short novels about each city...but I really do want to try to write as much as I can while it's fresh in my mind, so here goes...
Let me just start by saying, I LOVED Paris! Although I had heard mixed reviews about it from friends and family, it totally lived up to my idealized expectations, and we had an amazing 4 days there. The city has amazing art, tons of shopping and very fashionable residents (amazinggg people watching!), and unbeliveably delicious food, it was like my perfect city. The only thing that I wasn't prepared for was the weather, it's so cold! In both Paris and London, we unfortunately had really freezing, rainy weather. Everyone here is still dressed in winter coats and boots, which took me by surprise, as I thought the spring weather would be much milder. I was expected the rain a little more from London, but I thought springtime in Paris would be beautiful, but that was definitely not the case. Oh well, c'e la vie!

Anyway, Paris was lovely despite the chilly temperatures. We took the Chunnel from London to Paris (I slept basically the entire way) on Monday morning (5/10), and then walked to our hostel which was in the Monmarte neighborhood of the city. (For those of you familiar with Paris, we were staying right near Sacre Cour). The area itself seemed a little touristy, but our hostel, Le Village, was wonderful. We were supposed to be in an 8 person room, but lucked out as they ended up switching us to a 3 person room (that we were the only 2 people in 2 of the 4 nights we were there) with a private bath. (It's amazing how a few days of staying in hostels will make you appreciate even the simplest of amenities!) After checking in, we walked all the way up to this big, beautiful church, Sacre Coeur, which was on the hill right near our hostel. From the front of the church, we were able to get a really great view of the city. We toured the church, then walked to a nearby cafe to get lunch. Our waiter didn't speak much English, and the menu was all in French, but we managed to get by and have a great lunch.

After lunch, we hoped on the Metro (the subway in Paris) and headed to the very center of the city to go see Notre Dame. (One nice thing about Paris is its fantastic subway system-it's an inexpensive way to get all over the city, and there are tons of trains so you are never waiting longer than 2 or 3 minutes). There is actually a little plaque on the ground in front of the cathedral that marks Point Zero, the very center of Paris, where all other distances are measured from. The outside of Notre Dame is really intricate with tons of amazing sculptures, and the inside of the church is beautiful. It was also interesting to be able to contrast the style of the church with all the churches we had just seen in England, as the church here in Paris didn't have the strong connection with the monarchy like the churches we saw in London. Notre Dame is actually on a little island in the Seine River, and right behind it, there is another little island called Ile St. Louis. It's a very nice neighborhood of the city, so we had fun walking around it and getting some of it's famous Berthillon ice cream! We crossed over the Seine to La Rive Gauche, or the left bank of the river, where we walked around the Latin Quarter, an area around Sorbonne University that's bears that name because the university students all used to speak Latin. We also saw St. Sulpice, one of the churches featured in the Da Vinci Code. Then it was time for our first French dinner. We had passed some restaurants earlier in the afternoon that looked delicious, but we got a little turned around trying to find our way back to them. Then it started raining. And raining. Then pouring. So we basically walked around for what seemed like forever until we'll finally made it back to the restaurant I was looking for. We looked like drowned rats, but we had an amazing dinner of wine, bread, French Onion soup, and cheese fondue for dinner, and boy was it good! (I think the fact that we were cold and tired from walking in the rain made it taste that much better!) We had the french dessert profiteroles for dessert, and the friendly restaurant owner gave us a each a free shot of cognac, all in all, a good start to Paris.

The next morning, we had breakfast at the hostel, which consisted of croissants and delicious hot chocolate (much better then the English tea and toast in my opinion!) Since the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, we decided to take the train out to Versaille, the famous palace of Louis XIV that's about a half hour outside of the city. The only unfortunate part is that is was freezing cold and rainy, so we weren't able to see the famous palace gardens. However, we did see the inside of the palace which was really luxurious, and we learned a great deal about French history. The palace has a large room called the Hall of Mirrors which King Louis XIV would impress his guest with, as the mirrors that line the walls were rare in his day, so we really enjoyed seeing that and all the other lavishly decorated rooms. After the palace, it was so cold and rainy we ended up having lunch at a McDonald's, which was actually really cool because it's so different from ours. They have a lot of different items and you place your order on a computer so it all seems very high tech. After lunch, we headed back to Paris and saw the Orsay Museum which showcases French art from 1848 to 1915, and is known for its large collection of impressionist/post-impressionist paintings by artists such as Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Cézanne. While this personally isn't my favorite time period of art history, I really enjoyed the museum. Later that afternoon, we saw another well-known Parisian church, Saint Chapelle, which is famous for having been the house of the Crown of Thorns, which were purchased for France by King Louis IX (The Crown of Thorns is still in Paris, however, it's housed in the treasury of Notre Dame now, and only brought out on special days so we didn't get to see it unfortunately). The church has amazing stained glass windows which tell the story of the Bible from Genesis all the way to Revelation, and they were extremely beautiful. After seeing St. Chapelle, we toured the Conciergerie, a famous French prison. (Marie Antoinette was housed there during the French Revolution!) Afterwards, we walked to the Pantheon, which is the building that houses the tombs of some of France's most famous citizens, including Victore Hugo and Voltaire. Built by Louis XV, it's a beautiful church, both inside and out. After dinner, we walked around the adorable Marais neighboorhood, and had dessert at a cafe near it's picturesque park, Place des Vosges.

Wednesday was Lourve day, so Cam and I got up extra early to catch the Metro to be there before the crowds when the museum opened. I love love love art history, and have been looking forward to coming to the Louvre forever, so I was really excited. Luckily Cam is really on top of things and ordered us Paris Museum Passes before we left the States. These passes allow you get into almost all the museums in Paris, and they allow you to skip the ticket line, which we had heard was key for the Lourve. We got there @ 8:30am and took some pictures in the courtyard, and watch the ticket lines build in anticipation for the museum's 9am opening. We went to the entrance for people with museum passes, and were one of the first people in line, however, more and more people who also had museum passes began lining up behind us. The problem was that everyone who had these museum passes thought that they didn't have to wait in line, but lots of people had the pass and everyone has to go thru security, so even museum passholders have to wait. However, a lot of people weren't understanding that and were trying to cut in line, and one thing that bothers me more than anything else is when people cut in line! I was basically having a panic attack because it was so chaotic and I was getting mad that people were just cutting in line, whereas my calm husband kept going up to the line cutters and politely telling them that we all had museum passes and there was a line. It was basically just a zoo until we finally got in the museum! Once we got inside, we headed straight for the Mona Lisa, and didn't have to wait in line to see her at all, which was really neat, because wee had heard that sometimes there are huge lines to see it. It's just a small painting, but it was really cool to see such an iconic image in person.
The Lourve is huge, so we basically just made a game plan of things we wanted to see and we're able to do it within a few hours. We had lunch at a great cafe near the museum (another recommendation from our Rick Steve's guidebook), and then walked thru the Tulieries Gardens in front of the Lourve all the way to the Champs-Élysées, Paris most famous shopping street. We walked down to see Napolean's tomb, then headed to see the Eiffel Tower. We saw the tower from both sides, the little park in front, Champ de Mars, as well as from the Trocadero, which sits on hill on the other side of the tower. After dinner, we climbed all the way up to the top of the Arc d'Triomphe and saw the city at night which was really gorgeous. The Eiffel Tower was all lit up, and we even got to see it sparkle, which it does for the first five minutes of each hour in the evening.

After 3 full days in Paris, Cam and I spent our final day in the city of light just trying to enjoy it's simple pleasures. On Thursday morning, we strolled around the Monmarte neighborhood near our hostel (I wanted to get a picture in front of the Moulin Rouge sign!) and bought a variety of foods from different vendors to have a picnic that afternoon, since it appeared the weather was warming up a little. We bought pastries, bread, fruit, cheese, meat, and wine, and headed down to the Tuileries Gardens in front of the Lourve. Even though it was still pretty chilly, it was wonderful just to sit and relax, take in the scenery, and enjoy some delicious food. We spent the rest of the afternoon just walking around the city and doing some shopping ;)

We had some amazing food in Paris, ranging from nice restaurant to street food, but it was all delicious. I kept thinking of thinking of that famous Kate Moss quote, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,"and thought, she must have never eaten the food they have here because it was honestly worth the 10lbs I'm sure I gained. Some of the random deliciousness we had included nutella crepes, this really good cheesy toast, amazing gelato, rich hot chocolate, goat cheese quiche, tart tartin (apple cake), a hot dog in a french baguette covered in cheese (sounds kind of gross, but it was really good!), lots and lots of yummy cappucinos, and the best cupcakes I've ever tried. But I'm pretty sure the best thing I had in Paris that I would go so far as to say is the best thing I've eaten ever was what I had for dinner on Thursday night. We were originally trying to go to this restaurant we had read about in the New York Times, so we walked and walked trying to find it and when we got there it was closed due to the fact that it was Ascension Day, which is apparently a big deal in France. At this point we were tired and starving, so we just decided to head back towards our hostel and find food on the way. We accidentally got off at the wrong Metro stop, and were just not happy campers at this point considering it was like 9:30 at night. So we decided to just go to the first restaurant we saw that was open, and luckily it happened to be a place called Relais Gascon. It was a pretty busy place, and it seemed to be filled with locals, which seemed to be a good sign. We finally got a table and I kept seeing everyone around me order these big salads that looked really good. I was skeptical about getting a salad since I was so hungry, but I decided to order their Salad du Bearnais which consisted of greens, tomatoes, hot goat's cheese, bacon lardons, and a garlic herb dressing, topped with these amazing fried potatoes which were soft like a french fry, but shaped like a potato chip. I don't know what it was about this salad (which clearly wasn't very healthy), but the combination of all these ingredients together was the most delicious thing I've ever eaten, hands down. I'm definitely going to try to make one when I get home because it was amazing!!!

I loved Paris, the end. On to Bruges!

The adventure begins...greetings from foggy London town!

Cheerio from London everyone!! Well, we're actually in Paris right now, but since I didn't have time to write before we left London, I wanted to post about it while it was still fresh in my mind...

We arrived last Thursday morning (5/6) at Heathrow, well rested from our red eye (not really since we basically watched movies for the entire flight), and hit the ground running. After dropping our backpacks off at our hostel, Cam and I walked all around the city because the weather was beautiful and sunny!!! We were staying at Clink Youth Hostel, which was on the north side of the city, near the King's Cross/St. Pancras Train Station where I'm told the Harry Potter train stop is? (I'm not really an HP fan so we didn't look for it) We walked through the 'City,' or Wall St-like area to the Thames River the crossed over to the South Bank and walked along the river by the London Eye, then walked back to the other side of the river and took pictures by Westminster Abbey, Parliment, Big Ben, and in Trafalagar Square. We had fish and chips at an English Pub for dinner, got dessert at a cute little cafe, then walked through bustling, brightly light Picadilly Square back to our hostel, a great start to our trip.

The next morning (Friday), we had a tea and toast breakfast at our hostel, then headed to St. Paul's cathedral. St. Paul's is the 4th largest church in all of Europe, and it was very interesting to see all the royal history that is very much a part of the church. We climbed the 562 steps to the Golden Gallery at the top of the dome and got a nice view of London, it's a really beautiful city!! In the afternoon, we went to the Tower of London, and learned a TON about British history. Cam and I are both history/museum buffs, so we're trying to see as many historical sites as we can in the cities we're visiting. The Tower of London has been a part of British history since the beginning and has served many different purposes, most famously a prison/private execution site where 3 queens of England were beheaded. I'm a really fascinated by the historical drama of King Henry VIII and his wives, and so it was really interesting to see the actually place where his wives were beheaded, in a weird sort of way...At the Tower of London, we also got to see the Crown Jewels, many suits of armor that has belonged to hundreds of years of kings of England, as well as the torture devices they used on prisoners at the Tower. My favorite part of the Tower was getting a tour from a Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater; these are the guys who are the ceremonial guards of the Tower, and our tour guide, Barney, had lots of great stories. One thing that I really enjoyed about Thursday and Friday is that Cam and I had lunch at 2 different chain restaurants (London seemed really big on local chains because we'd see a restaurant or coffee shop, then see the same one a few blocks later) We had lunch on Thursday/Friday at places caller Pret a Manger and EAT. and both were great. I mean they weren't anything super special, they were a lot like Panera, just good for a quick lunch, but they both used all fresh, organic/local ingredients for their sandwiches and salads, and the food just seemed much healthier/better then Panera, so I'm hoping one of them will decide to move across the pond...After the Tower, we walked over the Tower Bridge (what most people think of when they think of London Bridge), and had traditional English meat pies for dinner at another English pub called the Barrow Boy and Banker on the south side of the Thames. After dinner, we walked along the Thames down to the Tate Modern Art Museum. The museum is in an old power plant, so the it has a very industrial look and feel and it features art dating from 1900 onwards. I'm a big fan of cubism, abstract impressionism, as well as Pop Art a la Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, so I really enjoyed the museum.

On Saturday morning, we went to Westminster Abbey, which is a beautiful church where basically all of British royalty is buried. We had downloaded a Rick Steve's audioguide on our Ipod, so we used that to navigate around the Abbey, which was very helpful. (Also, I'll probably be doing another ode to Rick Steve's post when we get back, Cam and I are pretty much obsessed with him, and his books/tv shows/audio guides/recommendations have been instrumental in planning this trip!) At the Abbey, we were able to see all of the church's beautiful interior, as well as the tombs of all the British monarchs (including King Henry VIII, Queens Mary & Elizabeth) as well as famous Brits like Jane Austen and Sir Issac Newton. One of my favorite parts about Westminster Abbey was seeing the Coronation Chair, the chair that every British sovereign has been crowned in since 1300, awesome (or at least Cam and I thought it was since we are huge nerds who love stuff like that!) After touring the Abbey, we saw the beginning of a parade near Parliment Square to honor the 65th anniversary of VE day, then walked to Leichester Square, which is in London's version of Broadway, the West End. I really wanted to see a musical while we were in London, so Cam and I were able to get 7th row tickets to "Chicago" for that night! We then headed to the British Museum, a huge museum that houses England's enormous collection of artifacts. We saw the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon (apparently a British Earl took them during the Ottoman Empire, and there is a lot of controversy surrounding this...), as well as many other artifacts from ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Greece. We had dinner at a Wagamama Noodle Bar, which was very hip and modern food. London is very much like New York in that there are people (& restaurants!) from all over the world, so Cam and I were glad to be able to get some good ethnic food. Then it was time for the show, so we headed to the Cambridge Theater in the Covent Garden area (an adorable part of town with tons of stores/theaters) to see Chicago! The show was fantastic, I don't know if I'd say it was quite Broadway quality, since the sets/costumes weren't super elaborate, but we really enjoyed it!

On our last day in London, we went out for a traditional English Breakfast (tea, eggs, sausage, beans, tomatos, potatos, and toast) and then went to the British Library. The British Library houses an insane amount of books, but what we came to see was their Treasures Room, which contains notable documents from British history. We were able to see the Magna Carta, an original Gutenberg Bible, some of Da Vinci and Shakespeare's original notebooks, original writings from Jane Austen and Lewis Carrol, as well the actual notes and napkins that the Beatles scribbled their lyrics on. After the library, we hopped on the Tube, the British Subway, and went to go see Harrod's department store. It was definitely worth all the hype I had heard about, it was such an amazing store! It's HUGE, and Cam and I had fun exploring all the different departments, especially the food rooms! We did some more shopping near Harrod's in the Kensington Area, then walked all through Hyde Park to Notting Hill. Our final dinner in London was some yummy Thai food at Busaba Eatthai, followed by a visit to the Hagaan Daaz cafe :)

All in all, I loved London! It's a huge city, but to me it had a much more cozy feel then NYC since the buildings, for the most part, aren't nearly as tall. We were really surprised how little English we heard spoken, it's truly a global city with tons of people from all over the world! Everyone on the street has great, edgy style and it was great for people watching. It's definitely an expensive city (as evidenced by all the $100,000+ cars we saw parked on every street), but I'm so glad we got to experience it. The only downside was that it definitely lived up to it's rainy reputation, it was rather cold and gloomy for the majority of our visit...oh well, we still loved it! Cheers!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The end of a chapter, the beginning of a journey...

We leave for Europe TODAY. (well I still need to get some sleep first, and our flight doesn't leave for another 17 hrs, but we're still leaving TODAY). After months of planning (ok, mainly on Cameron's part, thank goodness my hubby is organized!) and anticipation, it's hard to believe that our trip is finally here! I don't think it will hit me until I'm on the plane that we're actually going...

As excited as we have been for this trip, this past weekend also marked another big milestone that has been a long time coming--Cam's graduation from his Master's program @ U of M! The past week has been quite the whirlwind. I had my final day at my job here in Ann Arbor, which was bittersweet (alright, definitely much more sweet, I liked my job, but I'm glad to be done!), and then Cam's family arrived from Oregon! It was nice to be able to visit with Cam's parents, brother, and sister-in-law, and we had a really great time together the past few days. We were able to visit Frankenmuth, Holland, Lake Michigan, downtown Detroit, as well as spending plenty of time in Ann Arbor, and we were blessed with beautiful weather (for the most part, with the exception of graduation morning which was a little stormy, but the rain stopped for the ceremony!) We also ate. A LOT. His parents were excited to visit their favorite Ann Arbor/Michigan restaurants one last time, and so we packed lot of meals that we in to a 5 day span, which was really filling, but a lot of fun too :) The highlight of the weekend was seeing Cam graduate in the Big House, we are all so proud of him! I hadn't been inside the stadium since the fall, and there is just such a wonderful sense of familiarity I get whenever I'm there, as it reminds me of all the memories of the past 5 years. Many things have changed since I went to my first U of M football game as a freshman, and seeing my husband graduate this weekend, I feel like things have really come full circle. This weekend marked the closing of a chapter of our lives here in Ann Arbor, and Cam & I are both more than a little sad about it, so we definitely plan on coming back for plenty of football games! The graduation managed to miss the thunderstorms that rolled thru Ann Arbor early Saturday morning, and the event was made all the more momentous due to the fact that President Obama was commencement speaker. Politics aside, I felt extremely proud of my alma matter, and I truly enjoyed his speech to the graduates.

Cam's parents headed back to Oregon on Monday, we headed to Lake Orion to celebrate my dad & grandma's birthdays, then yesterday was all about saying goodbye to friends and packing! We are backpacking through Europe meaning we're just bringing backpacks. Not to be redundant, but I just think I should repeat, I am ONLY bringing ONE backpack for FIVE AND A HALF WEEKS of traveling. I figured this fact was worth repeating as many of our friends and family have been a little confused about this. The confusion probably has something to do with the fact that usually I have difficulty using just one suitcase for a weekend trip...I'm staring at my packed backpack right now, and I did my best to pack only what I need, and I'll admit, I think I did a pretty good job. The real test starts when we land, and we'll see just how superb my packing skills are, and if what I brought will get me through our trip. (I figure what's the worst that can happen, it's not like there aren't stores in Europe!) This has been an busy, emotional week, and leaving for this trip is something that I've been looking forward to for so long. I am filled with excitement (and I'll admit, a little bit of anxiety), and am really looking forward to all the things that Cam and I are going to get to experience together during our time there. Near the end of our trip we'll be celebrating our first wedding anniversary, and I can't believe how fast this year has flown by!! This trip is the perfect end to an amazing first year of married life, and I can't believe how blessed I am sometimes :)

Ok, I need some sleep, sorry if this post rambled/made no sense, I don't have time to reread it before I go to sleep! I am going to try my best to blog here and there on our trip so I can share our experiences while they are fresh in my mind...so keep checking back/follow my blog for updates!! Ciao everyone!! xoxo


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