The past few days had been so full of breathtaking beauty that I couldn’t imagine there being any left in the country to see. But, I learned that Ireland is a country full of surprises, and it’s wealth of beauty proved endless.
We woke in Derry where we’d spent the previous night and boarded the bus immediately after breakfast. First stop – the ancient pagan burial ground known as Creevykeel. Beginning as early as 3,000 BC, this site was used to dispose of bodies in ceremonial ways. Archaeologists have identified a central court, perhaps once used for ceremonies, and a passage grave, presumably thought of as a “door” to the other world.
Then, we headed to a very old yet still active church in County Sligo – Drumcliff Abbey. The abbey was founded in 525, but as we walked in, a man was setting up a projector for an event later that day.
The abbey is also home to the final resting place of W.B. Yeats. His grave is located in the adjacent cemetery associated with the nearby church of St. Columbia. The famous poet actually died in France, but his body was brought back to County Sligo so he would be near his family and the land he loved.
Then we headed to the coastal town of Strandhill, still in County Sligo, to grab a bite to eat. County Sligo is known for its world-class surfing beaches, Strandhill being one of them. So, to see what all the fuss was about, Camilla and I decided to take our sandwiches to the beach.
It was pretty chilly, but seeing the long stretches of sand and grey water was so worth it. There was an abundance of beach-life along the water line, too, since it was so far from tourist season. We saw so many snails, seaweed, and birds just enjoying their environment, while a few surfers braved the cold waves.Can’t say it was surfing season, but, to each his own I guess.
That night, we stayed in what I’ve decided was my favorite town in the country – Galway. It’s known as the cultural hub of Ireland, a place of music, dance and endless folklore. The town itself was adorable – the perfect little seaside village, and the culture was fun as well. We had the chance to experience live traditional music on the streets, in our dinner, and in an Irish pub later. Definitely a must-see for anyone visiting the country.
As we made our way south, we paused to check out the unique landscape in “the Burren.” The Burren is a sprawling national park, characterized by exposed limestone and many unique plants and animals. Our guide told us that it’s the only place on earth where flowers from the Alps, Arctic, and Mediterranean grow together. (It was easy to understand how the Alpine/Arctic flowers can grow there. Note to self: Ireland can be chilly!) We also saw some wild horses running around and grazing. Minus the bone-chilling sea breeze, it was like a scene from a fairy tale.
Next stop was the Baby Cliffs – the stretch of coastline resembling the Cliffs of Moher, just north of their more famous larger counterparts. We were still in the Burren, so we were surrounded by that characteristic limestone on all sides.
It started to rain, but thankfully that would be the only rain we’d get that day. It lasted just as long as our bus ride to lunch, where I enjoyed the best cup of seafood chowder I think I’ve ever had. And that’s coming from someone who grew up in New England!
Then, it was on to one of the main attractions: the Cliffs of Moher. With over five miles of jaw-droppingly beautiful cliffs, it’s no wonder that over a million visitors a year make the trek out here. In some places, the cliffs are over 700 feet high, with nothing but a bit of grass (and a very long fall) separating the visitor from the crashing waves of the grey Atlantic below. It’s a place so magical it’s inspired countless stories, songs and poems, and so popular that it’s been featured in films as notable as The Princess Bride and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. It’s the icon of Ireland, the edge of the world.
It’s hard to describe exactly how it felt to be there. I’ve dreamed of being at the Cliffs of Moher for ages. And finally, there they were.
Then, we headed for Killarney, where we’d spend the night. Killarney, much like Galway, was a cute little town with lots of shops and restaurants for us to choose from. We’d see more of Killarney the next day, so for the night we were happy to explore the downtown area. Little did we know what natural beauty we’d see in the daylight!
Camilla and I met our tour guide, Shaun, and about 20 other travelers from all over the world for a six day tour of Ireland. Leaving from Dublin we’d head north, then make a loop through the west and south before returning to Dublin.
At first, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew the trip’s highlights, where we’d be staying, etc. but had no idea what the in-between time would be filled with. Turns out, lots of surprises!
About an hour into the drive, we stopped at Monasterboice, a picturesque site in County Louth dating back to the 5th century. It’s home to a cemetery, the remains of two 14th century churches, and a “round tower.” Round towers are thought to have once served as bell towers. They almost always face the west side of a church (or the remains of one) and can be found all across Ireland.
In the Monasterboice cemetery, we saw some of Ireland’s best examples of headstones known as “tall crosses.” These types of headstones (like the towers) can be found everywhere in Ireland, but the ones in Monasterboice are notably intricately decorated and reach up to 18 feet.
Then, it was off to Belfast. We stopped along the way for a quick snack break, and the drive didn’t take long at all. We were in Belfast by lunchtime.
We began our Belfast adventures with a “Black Taxi Tour.” In groups of four to five, we boarded special tour taxis with local guides to learn about the area’s (rather recent) history. So recent that our drivers had lived through it.
The conflicts in Northern Ireland began in the late 1960s. Several marches and eruptions of violence, mostly in the towns of Belfast and Derry, snowballed into guerilla-like conflict that lasted until 1998. On one side, there were the loyalists – citizens who thought of themselves as British, and who mostly followed Protestant religions. On the other were the mostly Catholic, Irish-identifying nationalists. The divide between these two groups began back when the country was being colonized. In the 1600s, many British citizens were sent to Northern Ireland to make their homes and populate the area, and these people never lost their feelings of loyalty to the crown. Eventually, the discord between the Irish and the British grew and grew until it popped, in what’s known now as “the troubles.” The protests in the 1960s were meant to challenge employment discrimination, voting rights, and certain government processes, but due to these deeply rooted divisions, they got out of hand very quickly.
The two sides harbored such extreme hate for one another that a wall was built in Belfast to keep the people separated. Even today, after almost 20 years of peace, the gates of the wall are closed at night, because, as our guide told us, they still don’t trust each other.
We stopped by the Crumlin Road Jail, where prisoners of the conflicts were kept while the violence continued. The conflicts, our guide told us, were so bloody that otherwise good people found themselves imprisoned for murder – sometimes multiple murders. He then mentioned in passing that he’d seen his share of the jail’s interior. I still haven’t figured out if he was joking or not.
While the tour was hardly what I’d expected our introduction to Belfast to be, it was certainly one of the most fascinating and engaging parts of the week. I was so surprised at how little I knew about these conflicts. I’d heard about them in passing, in references and in the news sometimes, though I suppose that my days of paying attention to the news didn’t begin until after most of the headlines subsided. Regardless, now I knew – and I’d learned from those who’d seen it firsthand.
After the tour we had some free time to explore the city before we were to meet back up with our original tour group and leader for dinner in a traditional Irish pub. Here are some of the things we found.
The next day was nothing short of incredible. We saw so many ancient, legendary, and downright beautiful sights – many of which were exactly what I was hoping the trip would be like (and more!).
We started at a site that’s attracted artists and photographers for centuries. The “Dark Hedges” are two rows of beech trees, planted by a wealthy family in the 18th century to line the sides of their driveway. As the trees grew, they formed a canopy – almost a tunnel – that the family’s visitors would drive through before reaching the estate. Now, the trees are most famous for their role in the popular television show, “Game of Thrones.”
Next stop: Carrick-a-Rede park. When I imagined Ireland before our visit, I imagined the endless, rolling green fields and a bold Atlantic coastline. That’s exactly what this trail was.
As if Carrick-a-Rede wasn’t breathtaking enough, the day’s main attraction was still to come. It was a location steeped in just as much lore as it is geological interest, and of course, one of the most popular attractions in all of Ireland: the Giant’s Causeway.
Legend has it that many years ago, a giant named Fionn Mac Cumhaill was caught trespassing in his neighbor’s yard. His neighbor happened to be a much bigger giant living across the sea in Scotland. Fionn, upon realizing he’d been spotted, ran back to his home in Northern Ireland and in a panic, told his wife what happened. They had to think fast – their neighbor was on his way. Just in the nick of time, Fionn’s wife came up with an idea. She told him to wrap himself up in some nearby blankets and pretend to be asleep.
When the couple’s neighbor came knocking, asking for Mr. Mac Cumhaill, Mrs. Mac Cumhail told him that he was off on a journey and wouldn’t be back til much later. The neighbor pressed her for more information. Where had he gone? Was he anywhere near his home Scotland?
Fionn’s wife replied that no, he wasn’t, but her neighbor wasn’t convinced. He explained to her that he’d seen her husband trespassing on his property. She laughed.
“Oh! You must have seen our little boy. Our son is very adventurous – we’re very sorry he trespassed. We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. Look here, he’s just returned and is taking his nap now,” she said, gesturing toward the pile of blankets her husband was wrapped in.
The Mac Cumhaill’s neighbor had seen all he needed to see. If that was the size of the child, he didn’t want to stick around to see how big the father was. He ran all the way home, breaking the ground beneath him as he ran.
And that’s why the Causeway looks the way it does.
Then, it was off to (London)Derry for the night. (To the loyalists, it’s “Londonderry,” to the nationalists, it’s just “Derry.”) Before eating dinner and catching some sleep, though, we had one more adventure in store.
Derry, like Belfast, is full of murals remembering the conflicts from the 1960s-90s. And Derry has a lot to remember – it was the center of it all.
The Troubles officially began in Derry with the “Battle of the Bogside,” a three-day riot between the citizens of the part of town called the “bogside” and the police and loyalists. The use of petrol bombs, rocks throwing and tear gas made for an ugly three days. There were miraculously no casualties, but over 1,350 people were injured.
A few years later in 1972, the most deadly day of The Troubles happened right outside of that same neighborhood. 26 protesters were shot, and half of those died immediately. The day was dubbed “Bloody Sunday.”
We took an eye-opening walking tour over a city wall (still intact to encourage people to stay on their own sides), into “Free Derry” and into the Bogside neighborhood itself.
What an eye-opening experience. To see these murals, the community’s response to their own recovery process, and to hear the stories straight from someone who’d been there was truly incredible.
We ended the day with a good meal and a good night’s rest – after all, we would need our energy for the adventures still to come. The next day, we’d be heading to the west coast of Ireland, to the beautiful path known as the Wild Atlantic Way.
Just an hour in a plane and we were in Ireland. It didn’t feel real. I’d been hoping all my life for that moment, and there it was.
We flew over the green fields dotted with fluffy sheep that I’d only ever seen in movies and my dreams before landing in the city and taking a bus into the center. We set off right away to see all that we could.
Our first stop was Trinity College – Ireland’s most prestigious university. It’s known for its medical program, famous alumni (including one of my favorite authors – Oscar Wilde) and beautiful campus. We took some time to explore, taking note of where the most important spots were. We’d planned to come back when the exhibits opened – it was still pretty early in the morning.
Then, we headed west toward Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral. The castle was closed because it was Sunday, but the grounds and exterior are always open to the public. We walked around the courtyard, marveled at the facade of the chapel, and eventually stumbled upon a garden in the back. It was there that we saw another building that looked castle-like, though this one appeared to be open. As we walked closer, we realized that it was the castle’s stable building, and that there was a small photography exhibit going on inside. Such a fun find!
Then, we picked up a light lunch at a cafe to eat on the lawn of Christ Church Cathedral. The foliage and almost cloudless sky made for the perfect day for a picnic. Though records of human activity on the spot date back to the early 11th century, the cathedral as we saw it that day was built between the 1300s-1500s (and majorly renovated in the years since). It is one of two remaining medieval cathedrals in Dublin. (Stay tuned for the story of my visit to the other one on my last day in Ireland!)
After visiting the church, we made our way back to Trinity College to check out the now-open exhibits – namely, the Book of Kells and the library. The Book of Kells is one of the oldest surviving original prints of the Gospels, having been completed around 800. It’s also a masterpiece – every one of its 680 pages is decorated in some way. In fact, many pages are fully covered with intricate Celtic knots, crosses, symbols and letters barely distinguishable from the scenes embellishing them. Unfortunately, photo-taking was not allowed in the exhibit, but you can check out some photos of the book here.
The library? Not only is it the largest in all of Ireland, but it’s said to have inspired JK Rowling’s image of Hogwarts’ library. It was nothing short of magical.
We took the rest of the evening to do some shopping, eat some good Irish pub food, and check in on the tour that we’d be joining the next morning. We’d be hopping on a bus to see the entire country – making a loop to the north, to the west, and to the south.
My dream trip into the Irish countryside was about to begin!
What a trip this was! Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to see the Celtic lands. In fact, if at any point you’d asked me where in the world I most wanted to go, the answer would have always been “Ireland and Scotland.” I’m not sure exactly what started the dream (I suspect a book and some music), but nonetheless, it lived and it grew. So, when it came time to decide where I wanted to spend my midterm break this semester, the choice was pretty easy.
My friend, Camilla, and I tackled the journey together. We started before sunrise with a flight to out of Florence airport, arriving in Edinburgh around 10 AM. It was an early morning, but having the day to explore the city (and watching the sun come up from above the clouds!) was totally worth it.
The first thing we did, after celebrating our arrival with a good cup of coffee, of course, was hike King Arthur’s Seat. King Arthur’s Seat is an 822-foot tall hill/mountain in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park with a breathtaking view of the city and its castle. One side is more rocky and dramatic while its opposite is sloping and green – though both are accessible by foot. We climbed up the rocky side and down the grassy side. Both were full of surprises and paths we deemed fit for the fairies of Celtic legends. I’d truly seen nothing like it before.
We thought we would end the day with a visit to St. Giles Cathedral and a hearty dinner at a traditional Scottish pub. Just what we needed after all that hiking! But, on the way back to the hostel, we walked by a sign advertising ghost tours of the city that evening. And, well, you can guess what happened next.
We met our guide near St. Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. She was dressed in full Halloween costume – it was Halloween weekend, after all! We learned a lot about Scotland’s history, and then about the mysteries that have come of such stories. We were even led into Edinburgh’s underground, once a place of bustling activity – now allegedly haunted.
The next day, we woke up early to get a head start on our agenda – we wanted to see Edinburgh Castle, another cathedral and Dean Village all in one day. The castle was massive – what a structure! It was far less of a singular castle than it was a small (but grandiose) village. There were so many museums within the castle, we were very glad to have allotted the whole morning for it! We learned so much about Scotland’s ancient history, royal family, modern history and culture in those museums. We stood in the oldest building in the city, saw the castle’s famous Great Hall, saw the crown jewels and so much more. Scottish music playing either live outside or from speakers inside the buildings made the experience even more unforgettable.
We were sad to leave, but had lots of other exciting places to visit before the day’s end. It was about 2:00 by then, so we made finding some lunch the first priority. We chose a little tea shop/cafe, and settled in for a traditional Scottish afternoon tea. It was served with scones, two types of jam, and a generous portion of clotted cream. I’d never had clotted cream before, but I’m definitely going to keep my eye out for it now!
Then, we started to make our way toward Dean Village – little suburb of Edinburgh known for its quaint houses and beautiful riverside walk. It used to earn most of its income through mill work, using hydro-energy from the River Leith. Nowadays, though, these old factories only add charm to the village.
When the sun set we decided that it was time to get some dinner. A traditional pub near the castle was serving up local fare, so we headed in and settled down. It’s going to be hard to find fish as good as that salmon was that night!
Unfortunately, that marked the end of our time in Scotland. We headed back to the hostel to get a good night sleep. (We had to wake up at 5:00 the next morning to catch our next plane!) But on the walk back, Scotland had one more magical surprise in store for us. Turns out we’d come just in time for “Samhain” – the ancient Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. We passed a group of performers practicing their reenactment of the ancient battles between the fall and winter gods/goddesses, to be performed the next day as part of the celebration’s festivities. We stopped and watched a bit, chatting with a few locals who were part of the group. It’s unexpected encounters like this that make traveling such an adventure.
As much as we didn’t want to leave, we were excited for what was to come. The next day’s early-morning flight was taking us somewhere just as magical as Scotland. We were going to Ireland!
This weekend was quite and adventure. Volcano exploring aside, it was my first solo trip and my first trip by airplane. I’m happy to report that both of those went incredibly smoothly. And what a weekend it was!
I landed in Sicily on Friday morning, leaving the rest of the day open to explore Catania. Catania is a large-ish city (approx. 300,000) on the southern coast of Sicily. It’s a city that’s lived through lots of change – it’s been a part of Greece, the Roman empire, Spain, and (now, of course) Italy. It’s endured the mafia, bombings in WWII, and a constantly changing – and sometimes fiery – landscape. Its residents have learned to adapt. The result is a completely unique culture, the likes of which I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Another interesting thing about Sicily (and the Etna region, specifically) is that it’s not really on the Eurasian tectonic plate, but not really on the African one, either. It belongs to neither – it’s on the fault line. It belongs to itself, in that sense.
My host father was born in Catania. He still loves it just as much as he did then. (Note: He loves my host mother more – that’s why he lives in Florence now.) He was so happy to hear that I’d be visiting the place he grew up, so he made me a list of places to go and things to do. It was like having a local guide show me the way! Here are some photos from my first day in Catania, all places recommended by my host father.
I ended the night with a ricotta canoli (a Sicilian specialty) and an early bedtime. After all, the next day was going to be a big one!
I ate breakfast with the two owners of the hostel/B&B I was staying at – they were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met! We chatted about where we were all from (one of them was from Rome, the other, born and raised in Catania) and about Mt. Etna. Turns out they are both in the process of getting certified as guides to lead tours like the one I’d be going on that day. They were very interested to hear about it when I got back.
Then, at 8:50, a sturdy looking off-roading vehicle came to the hostel to pick me up. We drove to another hotel where we picked up the other two adventurers – making us a nice and small group of four. The other two travelers were from a little town between Venice and Verona. They were so friendly! We were all fast friends.
Our first stop was a little village just outside of Etna Park to pick up lunch supplies for the day. We’d be picnicking somewhere on the volcano when the time came. My travel companions helped me pick what to put on my panino (I truly believe that no one can make a better panino than the Italians) before we got back in the car and headed for the park. I was so excited!
Our first stop was a very old volcanic crater on the southeast side. It had been formed so long ago that trees had grown over it (which can take more than 1,000 years). Our guide told us all about the area’s geology and history, and that there was once a small village living in the crater. We learned about some of the plants that can grow in volcanic soil, and how the volcano has changed and continues to change the landscape.
Then, we got back in the car for a bit of off-roading. Turns out you can, in fact, drive a vehicle both up and down a trail that I would have deemed “for advanced hikers only.” At first, I was a little scared. The car was bouncing and tipping and shaking. Then I remembered that the driver, our guide, did this every day for a living, and he was calm as could be. Once I relaxed a little, it was one of the most fun parts of the day.
Then, we stopped in one of the 300 year old paths created by the 1792 eruption. Since it was a much more recent eruption, only lichens and smaller plants had begun to grow. We ran into some thick fog here, too, introducing us to Etna’s ever-changing micro-climates. The weather on the volcano is almost always vastly different from the weather below. The weather on the south side is almost always different from the north. And the east – you guessed it – is always different from the west.
With the clouds moving so quickly, our guide predicted that we’d have better weather if we headed west. In small tour groups, he said, it’s easy to adjust the itineraries to suit the weather. That was fine by me – this way, we’d actually end up seeing more of the volcano than we’d originally planned. Off we went!
Our next stop was easily one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen.
Then, we headed a little farther west in the car. We were heading to a meeting point where we’d get a new guide who would take us for a longer hike and into some lava caves. After introductions, we were given trekking poles and set off on our way. Our new guide was just as friendly and informative as the first. It’s like they personally know every rock in the park.
Then came the real adventure. We got back in the car and drove a little farther west, stopping on what appeared to be a very random spot in the road. Turns out it wasn’t random at all. Our guide pulled out our helmets, taught us how to put them on, and headed toward a meadow. First, we learned about a few of the plants and the geology of the area. Then, we headed in.
Once we were back outside, it was time to head back. What a full and exciting day! What a full and exciting weekend!
That night, I had dessert before dinner and explored the city when it was lit up by sparkling streetlights. Pretty good end to the day, I’d say.
On Sunday, I headed straight to the airport and back to Florence. I’m so thankful for the luck I ran into with the buses, airplanes, and connecting flights – I truly could not have asked for it all to run more smoothly. I’m also incredibly grateful for all of the people I met in Sicily. Every single one of them was easily one of the nicest, friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever met. And, I was able to talk to them all in Italian. Who says you don’t study on the weekends when you’re abroad?
All in all, it was a great experience. I’ve heard that you should travel alone at least once when you’re abroad, and after having done it, I fully support it. I feel so much more confident and capable, and it was definitely one of the most fun and rewarding things I’ve ever done.
On October 7-9, I took a whirlwind trip through Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg. This post will focus on day three: Salzburg.
Salzburg, the fourth largest city in Austria, has two major claims to fame. In 1756, it became the birthplace of the famed classical composer, Mozart. Then, many years later, the Von Trapp Family Singers put the city on pop culture’s map. The Sound of Music, as a book, stage show, and movie, told the world the harrowing story of how this family of musicians escaped the Nazi regime, captivating the hearts and imaginations of millions. Having loved the movie and its songs since I was a kid, I was so excited to learn that we would have the opportunity to take a “Sound of Music tour” while in Salzburg. We got to see so many of the movie’s filming sites, plus the real places that the Von Trapp family lived, and some breathtaking sites of the Austrian alpine countryside.
Our bus arrived in Salzburg from Vienna just in time for lunch, so we stopped by a little cafe for a quick bite to eat (and an apple strudel!). Then, it was time to meet our guide for the tour. She was a delightful woman, clearly in love with her job. That was the first sign that it would be a good afternoon.
Our first stop was the Mirabell Garden, located on a beautiful palace complex once owned by Austrian imperial emperors. The palace was originally built in 1606, and was opened to the public by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1854. Then, in the 1960s, it was used to film parts of the movie – most notably two scenes featuring “Do Re Mi” and “I have confidence.” Nowadays, it’s home to the famous gazebo, though during filming the gazebo was located elsewhere. The city of Salzburg had to move the gazebo because it was originally on private property, and too many tourists were trespassing to go see it. Now it is open to the public!
Then, we got back on the bus. We drove by the yellow house that the film crews used for the front of the house, and then we passed the neighborhood where the real Von Trap family lived. Then, we headed to the beautiful lakeside Leopoldskron Palace. This sprawling palace’s exterior was used as the Von Trapp’s backyard in the movie. Now that its time in the spotlight has passed, it is a successful hotel/bed and breakfast.
We took some time at the lake to stop and appreciate the view. It was so nice to just take in the fresh air and enjoy the scenery. The way that the clouds reflected in the water reminded me of a certain lake back in Syracuse, where the water is so still that the trees and sky are always reflected like a mirror.
Then, it was back on the bus, this time bound for a destination outside of the city. Had to see if the hills really are alive, after all!
Then, we headed to a lakeside village that looked like it was straight out of someone’s tabletop Christmas village setup. There, we got to see the church used in filming Maria and the Captain’s wedding, and had some free time to explore. My friends and I walked around the town before picking up a slice of cake each to eat by Lake Mondsee.
What a weekend! It was a definitely busy one, and definitely one I’ll never forget. I’m so grateful to have seen all that I was able to and to have experienced the different cultures that I did.
On October 7-9, I took a whirlwind trip through Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg. This post will focus on day two: Vienna.
You know you’ve found a special place when immediately upon arrival, you decide you want to go back.
After having breakfast at our hostel in Budapest, we boarded a bus bound for Austria. We journeyed through the types of villages and hillsides that only ever seem to exist in movies or fairy tales, until you see them in real life.
Then, just before lunch, we arrived in Vienna. We fueled up, made some plans for the rest of the day, then joined a local tour guide for a walking tour of the city.
We learned so much about the city’s history and culture on that tour. My favorite fun fact was that Vienna’s schools still teach their students how to ballroom dance while they’re in high school, and that the city and its opera still hold annual balls each year. Think big gowns, Viennese waltz, princess-type balls. Our tour guide’s son even opened one last year – she told us about how proud she was when he was chosen. It sounded like a scene out of a Disney movie!
After the tour was over, my friends and I made our way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum – the Fine Arts Museum of Vienna. It houses some of the most important and well-renowned works of art in the world, compiled over many years by the members of the imperial Austrian court.
The museum closed at 6:00, giving us just enough time to see the whole thing. And, what’s more, when we finished, it was time for dinner! We’d been told about some of the traditional Austrian dishes, and were eager to try one of the most famous – wiener schnitzel. That plus warm cherry tea made for a hearty fall dinner to offset the cool temperatures.
Full and satisfied, we set off for a walk around the city to see all of the beautiful buildings lit up at night.
Aside from its reputation and history of elegant music, art, and dance, Vienna is famous for another thing – the sachertorte. It’s a certain type of chocolate cake made with dark chocolate icing and apricot spread, known for being incredibly rich and flavorful. So, we thought, what better way to end a day in Vienna than with a slice of its own culinary specialty, right in the cafe where it all began?
Unfortunately, one day in Vienna was simply not enough. There are so many more museums, churches, and important historical sites that I still want to explore, plus the famous Viennese musicians and dancers who I’d love to see perform!
I guess that means I’ll just have to go back one day!
On October 7-9, I took a whirlwind trip through Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg. This post will focus on day one: Budapest.
Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is one of the worlds prettiest cities. With over 1.7 million citizens and 200+ museums, fairs, festivals, and other attractions – it’s a world-class cultural hub, too.
We started our day in Budapest with a tour from a local guide, who showed us some of the major sites and told us about some of the city’s history. Who knew that it used to be three cities? It gets its current name from two of these cities – “Buda” and “Pest.” They used to be separated by the Danube, but now the river just runs straight through the city. Here are some of the sights we encountered on our walk:
The Hungarian Royal State Opera House, a good example of neo-Renaissance Hungarian architecture. Construction was completed in 1884. Nowadays, the building houses over 50 shows a year, plus the annual Hungarian Opera Ball.
Having worked up quite an appetite (we walked at least six miles during that trip!) it was finally time for lunch. Our guide took us to a street lined with restaurants, shops, and other cultural hot-spots. There were craftsmen selling their products all along the sides, and people from all over the world strolled along, enjoying the lively atmosphere so characteristic of Budapest. The street was closed to cars, so it was safe to simply walk through. It was truly incredible to be a part of that scene.
Lunchtime marked the end of our walking tour, so we said goodbye to our guide and chose a restaurant. I’m definitely *not* sick of Italian food yet, but I was still really excited to try something different. We sought out a place that looked authentically Hungarian, and ordered the most traditional foods we saw. I got chicken paprikash with dumplings – a dish I definitely intend to remake when I return home in December. That, plus the hot black tea on such a chilly day, made for an unforgettable lunch experience.
As if the day could get even more perfect – our weekend guides had a surprise for us. We were going to Budapest’s famous natural thermal baths. The trip was optional, and my friends and I decided at the last minute that we wanted to go. And we were so glad that we did.
We left as it was beginning to get dark, perfect timing to walk around the brightly-lit city. They say that the city takes on a whole new character once the sun goes down, but it was hard to imagine what that might be until I actually saw it for myself. We stopped for dinner (yet another great Hungarian dish, a salmon steak with traditionally cooked vegetables, plus a cup of hot green tea – I was into the tea that day, and a creamy mousse-like dessert) before setting out to explore. What we saw took our breath away.
Unfortunately, it was getting late. With the next morning’s early wake-up call in mind, we headed back to the hostel to rest up for our upcoming Austrian adventures. I’ll never forget my time in Budapest, and I’m so grateful that we were able to see so much of the city in our short time there.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a weekend as packed as September 30 – October 2 was. All three days were full of the best that Rome has to offer, from the Vatican to ancient monuments to some really, really great food.
I started my Roman adventure with SU Florence. Rome is SUF’s “biggest” all-school field trip, as it involves an overnight stay and two days packed with activities. I chose to stay an extra night with a few friends after the SU Florence agenda ended, since Rome is such a huge city and an extra day would give us more time to get a better sense of it.
We left from Florence by train early Friday morning, arriving in Rome at around 10:30. We made our way toward the huge stone walls of the Vatican, where we split apart for a half hour to grab a snack and some coffee. After all, we needed our energy for our upcoming whirlwind tour of the Vatican. Then, we met back up at the entrance to the museum.
Security to get into both the city and the museums looked like that of a large airport – this was my first introduction to Rome’s crowds. Our incredibly talented tour guides somehow got us all through security together and into the museums, where unfortunately, the crowds didn’t spread out. No matter, though, we had art to see!
The Vatican museums were nothing short of incredible.
After the museums, we were ushered into the Sistine Chapel. Check that off the bucket list! I can still remember being at a summer art camp in elementary school learning about frescoes for the first time. My teacher told us about how Michaelangelo painted his masterpiece on wet plaster, piece by piece. At the time, I couldn’t believe it was possible. Now, after seeing it, I’m sure it was impossible. I guess that’s why they call it a masterpiece! (Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the chapel, so I’m unable to show you what it looks like. You can get an idea of it here, though.)
Then came the moment we’d all been waiting for – our visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica. While I do have photos of this one, remember that the photos can never do it justice. She sheer enormity of this space combined with the unmatched extravagance in its decoration simply must be seen in person to fully comprehend.
After that mind-boggling experience, we were given some free time to explore on our own. My friends and I decided to try to see as much as we could. We climbed the 320 steps to the top of dome on St. Peter’s, visited its underground crypt, and still had time for gelato afterwards.
After a very full afternoon came an incredibly charming night in Rome. The school guides brought us to our accommodation, an adorable hotel that looked like it could have been featured in an old Hollywood movie about Rome. Then, since all of our school-trip activities were done for the day, my friends and I set out on our own to choose a place for dinner.
Rome is famous for a few types of pasta, but the most popular are carbonara and pasta all’amatriciana. I decided that for me, night one was going to be carbonara night. It was so good! Full and satisfied, we set off for a walk around the city to see some of its most iconic sites.
The next day was “Ancient Rome” day with SUF. We started at the Colusseum…
…then moved onto the Roman Forum – the oldest part of ancient Rome still visible.
After seeing the Forum, we headed to the Pantheon. The Pantheon, whose name means “temple to every god” in Greek, was, well, a temple to every god. It’s in incredibly good shape for its age – it was completed in 128 A.D.
Then came an optional site visit to the Galleria Borghese, one of the most famous and highly regarded art collections in the entire world. What an experience! I learned about some of the most famous and talented artists in history, and even recognized a few of the works. It was fascinating to see in person some of the art that I’ve been learning about here in Florence, and to see the subjects reflect what I’ve been studying, too. (I’ve been noticing a trend here in Italy – if the painting or sculpture is not a scene from the Bible, it’s probably a scene from Greek or Roman mythology. If it’s neither, just look closer.)
We finished that afternoon with a walk through the Villa Borghese, which is sort of to Rome what Central Park is to New York. It was a beautiful and very welcome break from the crowds of the city. We had coffee at Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè (renowned as the best place to get coffee in Rome and among the best in the world) and headed back to the hotel to check out. Since I was staying an extra night with a few friends, we left the school group as they departed for Florence and headed to the AirBnB we were staying at that night. On the way, we passed something I thought only existed in my dreams – ballroom dancers having a social dance in a piazza. Unfortunately, they were dancing one of the few remaining styles I have yet to learn (Argentine Tango) so I was unable to join in, but still, it was pretty cool to see.
We checked into the AirBnB, dropped off our bags, and set out for dinner. Night two, I decided, was pasta all’amatriciana night. Very good, and very spicy! Good for warming up before that evening’s rain came. The rain didn’t slow us down, though. In fact, we all agreed that the streets sparkled even more in the rain. And, as one of my friends so aptly put it, “the rain washes away the tourists.” We had beautiful the streets of Rome almost all to ourselves.
We used the next day to both return to some of the places we felt we wanted more time to see (like the Forum) and to check out a few other sites. We made our way up to Capitoline Hill, to the markets in Campo di Fiore, and to Castel Sant’Angelo. We stopped by Piazza Navona and saw the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (or, Fountain of Four Rivers). We took a little walk along the Tiber River, saw the Ara Pacis, and ended the day in what’s known as the best gelateria in Rome – Come il Latte.
What a busy weekend! I’m so happy to have seen and done all of the things that we did. On our way out, my friends and I came across something that summed up the city pretty well. Here it is:
Little details, big details, and all the details in between – Rome was an incredible experience.
“When you go to Switzerland, you will find that everything there is perfect,” my host mother told me Thursday night.
And how right she was.
I chose Interlaken, Switzerland to be my first big, outside-Italy weekend excursion this semester. What a great country to start with. Hiking, fresh Alpine air, chocolate, Swiss cottages, more chocolate – how could anyone go wrong?
“Interlaken” is German for “between lakes.” The name refers to the two lakes on either side of the city – Thun and Brienz. They’re connected by the Aare tributary, a pale blue river stretching from east to west. The waters (mostly Brienz and the Aare) are a distinct, exotic-looking turquoise color, somewhat reminiscent of the shallow and warm waters of the Caribbean. These waters are anything but shallow and warm, though. Their color comes instead from glacial deposits. The silt-like material left behind from the glacial movements reflects sunlight just so, making the waters look bright, light aqua.
My friends and I took an overnight bus on Thursday night with a tour company to get from Florence to Interlaken. I fell asleep quickly and managed to stay asleep for quite a while (a lucky feat, given the circumstances. #OvernightBusProblems). However, when I did wake up, (around 3:30 AM) I saw the most magical sight I’ve ever seen.
Our bus was traveling through the Alps. I could see the peaks’ jagged, snow capped shadows rising on both sides of the bus, and when I looked down, well, lets just saw my fear of heights was put to the test. We were snaking through winding mountain roads, not a town or city in sight. The stars and the moon were the brightest I’ve ever seen them – a detail that my sleepy mind attributed not to the lack of light pollution but rather to our dramatically increased proximity to them.
We arrived at the hostel around 5:00 and took the next few hours to make up for the sleep we lost en route. When our alarms told us it was time for breakfast, we rose without regard to our less-than-routine sleep and were rewarded with a view to rival the one from earlier that morning. From our terrace we could see Jungfrau Mountain, the 13,641′ snow-capped poster child of the Bernese Alps. (Yes, our hostel room had a terrace. Told you Switzerland was perfect.)
Breakfast was provided by the hostel, and we met our tour guides in the dining room to ask about the area. My friends and I were planning on hiking that day so our tour guides gave us information on nearby trails, how to get to their trailheads, and what to expect on the way. We set off for HarderKulm, an “easy-ish” hike with a panoramic view of Interlaken at the end.
4,337 feet and 3 hours later, we made it to the top.
We took the next few hours to explore the summit, take some photos and have a picnic. We could see all of Interlaken, both lakes, and so many of the surrounding mountains. (And even though we were on top of one, the others around us still looked huge.) On the side of the summit opposite the town, we could see grassy mountainsides dotted with little Swiss cottages – just like you see in the movies.
Back at the bottom, we were overcome with excitement at having hiked an Alp. Total bucket-list check mark!
We headed into the town for a much-anticipated dinner, then after, refreshed and full, for a walk around the town and its shops.
The next day we decided would be our lake day. Not to go swimming (though the glaciers have long since passed by, the water feels like they did so yesterday), but to explore. We set off toward Brienz, using the river as our guide, through a village of signature Swiss cottages. Talk about garden-inspo. It felt like we were walking through a fairy tale.
We made it to the lake’s shore around lunchtime, so, we figured, what a great place to eat. It was definitely the most beautiful lunch view I’ve ever experienced. After lunch, we took some time to just sit there and take it all in. I’m the type of person who typically likes to feel constantly on the go, so stopping for those moments admittedly felt a little unnatural to me. But, as I learned by the end, its so important to appreciate the world around you. Sometimes that means running around and seeing as much of it as possible, and other times that means taking a moment to just be a part of it. This time called for the latter.
The walk back was full of another host of surprises. The first – puppies. We were making our way toward the sandy part of the shore, when out of nowhere, two corgi puppies bounded out of a nearby covering to say hello. They were the friendliest and fluffiest dogs we’d seen since arriving in Europe last month. And everyone knows that few things make dog-deprived college kids happier than friendly, fluffy, corgi puppies.
We walked through a perfectly peaceful Swiss farm and said hello to the cows who lived there, remarking to each other that they seemed unnaturally happy. (Later that night, we were told that the reason Switzerland became famous for chocolate in the first place is because the “happy cows made happy milk,” which then made “happy chocolate.”)
We walked around the town for a little while, bought some chocolate to take back with us, and had another hearty Swiss dinner. Then, it was time for another bucket-list worthy experience – we took a Swiss chocolate making class.
The class was held at a fun, upbeat chocolate shop with a back room that doubled as a workshop space. We were each given aprons and chef hats to add to the fun. We started by tasting raw cacao beans and six different types of chocolate – two milk, three dark, and one white – while learning about each one. We learned to look for quality by the sound that the chocolate makes when it breaks, the health benefits of dark chocolate, and that white chocolate isn’t really chocolate at all. Then, it was time to make some chocolate.
We used a technique called tempering, a process of heating the chocolate, cooling it down, and heating it again to specific temperatures to ensure that when it cools, it does so smoothly. If it is done wrong (or not at all), chocolatiers run the risk of the coco butter separating from the chocolate – leaving their confections looking spotty.
Next came the fun part – decorating! We all made three chocolate bars. For the first, we used paper transfers to leave professional-looking designs on the chocolate. For the other two, we were free to use our imagination. My aesthetic strategy was more of a which-of-these-add-ins-look-the-most-tasty strategy, so I added a whole bunch of surprises in mine. In a few different sections, I added some orange pieces, sea salt, coconut flakes, fruity candy, and pieces of other types of chocolate. They might not have been the prettiest chocolate bars ever made, but they sure are delicious!
As we waited for our chocolate bars to cool off, we wandered over to a nearby field and watched the last of that day’s paragliders return to earth. With the morning haze long gone, we had a perfect view of Jungfrau, clearly outlined by the glow of the just-passed sunset. It was truly the perfect end to the perfect weekend in Switzerland.
Sunday was largely spent traveling, since we had to get back to Florence in time for Monday classes. Fortunately, though, to break up the drive, we stopped for four hours at the third largest lake in Italy – Lake Como. Largely renowned as one of the most beautiful in the country, the 90-square-mile lake is incredibly popular among tourists both Italian and from elsewhere. We rode a funicular up to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view of the lake, had some lunch, and enjoyed some gelato. We arrived back in Florence just before 9:00 PM that night.
Switzerland was everything I dreamed it would be and more. I’m so thankful to have been able to go, and so happy about all of the things we were able to do and see while there.
And while classes (as great as they are here) are certainly no Alpine hiking adventure, homework has gotten significantly more fun. Anything would, with a little bit of Swiss chocolate to help the process along!