My Celtic Adventure | Ireland’s Western Atlantic Coast

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.

The Cliffs of Moher, one of the most famous natural attractions in Ireland.
The Cliffs of Moher, one of the most famous natural attractions in Ireland.

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.

Creevykeel
What at first looks like a pile of rocks was once a very important ceremonial site.
Creevykeel
A pretty extensive ceremonial site, too.
Creevykeel
There’s the door to the other world. We stayed far away from that!
Creevykeel
I wasn’t quite sure why this tree was covered in scraps of fabric, and admittedly, I let the fast pace of the trip win over my curiosity. It was only a few weeks later while I was thumbing through a book on Irish folk tales that I encountered such a thing again. Apparently, it’s called a “rag tree,” and it’s not exactly uncommon. Locals believe that tying something to the tree, usually hawthorn, is a type of prayer or wish sent to the fairies.

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.

Drumcliff Abbey
The tower of the church. I suspect at least this part doesn’t date back to 525.
Drumcliff Abbey
The interior of the church, still an active part of the community.
Drumcliff Abbey
W.B. Yeats’ grave, in his favorite part of his favorite country.

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.

Strandhill Beach
Rocks and shells on Strandhill Beach.
Strandhill Beach
Don’t worry – we didn’t get any rain from those clouds!
Strandhill Beach
The water clung to the sand making the most interesting mirror effect.
Strandhill Beach
Though they look empty from here, these tide pools were full of critters!
Strandhill Beach
Here you can see a few of the critters.
Strandhill Beach
Ahh, the famous Irish seaweed.

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.

Dunguaire Castle
On the way there, we made a quick stop at Dunguaire Castle, the 16th century home of legendary King Guaire.
The Burren
What we call the Burren was once called the Boíreann – an old Gaelic word for “rocky place.”
The Burren
Here’s the road we traveled along. Quite the landscape for some roadside views!
The Burren
Look closely – there’s a pair of wild horses grazing in the center.

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.

Baby Cliffs
The baby cliffs meeting the wild Atlantic Ocean.
Baby Cliffs
Some parts were taller than others, adding to the feeling that the entire landscape was completely raw and untamed.
Baby Cliffs
While we were there, I snapped a photo of our trusty bus. Can’t lose the memory of that thing!

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.

Cliffs of Moher
Almost there!
Cliffs of Moher
We followed that path along the edge. Beyond the path (away from the cliffs) are endless stretches of green fields.
Cliffs of Moher
The tower in the distance is O’Brien’s tower. We hiked to that too.
Cliffs of Moher
Along the way, we made some friends.
Cliffs of Moher
This is one of the stretches of cliffs that isn’t protected with a fence.
Cliffs of Moher
Prepared for all types of weather.
Cliffs of Moher
The green and blue of the wild Atlantic way.
Cliffs of Moher
Up close with O’Brien’s tower!
Cliffs of Moher
Look familiar? You might have seen it in Harry Potter!
Cliffs of Moher
It was so hard to leave.
Cliffs of Moher
Memories to last a lifetime.

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!

 

 

Final Gelato Count: 55

 

My Celtic Adventure | Northern Ireland

My dream trip had officially begun!

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.

monasterboice
Welcome to the Irish countryside!
monasterboice
Some of the intricately decorated “tall crosses” in Monasterboice.
monasterboice
And here’s the round tower!
monasterboice
The crosses depict scenes from scripture.

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.

Belfast Murals
This mural appears to be a memorial to a veteran-type, perhaps a martyr even. However, Stevie “Top-Gun” McKeag was one of the most successful hitmen of The Troubles – personally responsible for at least 12 deaths.
Belfast Murals
This mural’s story is far less violent. It was designed by the women of the area’s quilting guild and calls for peace and love between the people of Belfast.
Belfast Murals
Here, we see various scenes from life during The Troubles.
Belfast Murals
More scenes from life during The Troubles.

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.

Belfast Murals
The Belfast Peace Wall is covered in grafitti. Some of it is painted by local artists, and some is covered in the well-wishes of travelers from across the globe.
Belfast Murals
We had the opportunity to add our messages, too.

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.

Belfast
Belfast was such a modern city. Its origins were in the fishing and shipbuilding industries, and many know it now for its most (in)famous nautical production – the RMS Titanic.
Belfast
The Beacon of Hope statue stands proudly over Belfast’s Harbor. It was completed in 2007 and stands over 60 feet tall.
Belfast
Queen’s University in Belfast is one of the most prestigious universities in all of Ireland. Our overnight accommodation was located in a neighborhood nearby.
Belfast
We had some time to explore the city after sunset before dinner. In the middle/left of this photo, you can see the Albert Clock, designed in 1865 as a memorial to the UK’s Prince Albert.
Belfast
Belfast City Hall is located right in the middle of Donegall Square, making it a good central landmark for locals and visitors alike.

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.”

Dark Hedges
The Dark Hedges are located in the town of Ballymoney in County Antrim.
Dark Hedges
Camilla and me, standing in the tunnel formed by the Dark Hedges!

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.

Carrick-a-rede
The path leads to an island, connected to the mainland by an old fishermen’s rope bridge.
Carrick-a-rede
The first bridge was originally built in 1755 by salmon fishermen, but has been rebuilt many times since then.
Carrick-a-rede
The dramatic coastline near Carrick-a-Rede was our first introduction to the Wild Atlantic Way. We’d be traveling it from north to south.
Carrick-a-rede
Such a perfect day for a seaside walk.
Carrick-a-rede
The fields along the pathway were dotted with flocks of sheep.
Carrick-a-rede
The breeze (or, should I say, gale) coming from the ocean was so cold but so refreshing.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The perfect landscape.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Truly what I’d dreamed about.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I even got to make some new friends, too.

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.

Giant's Causeway
Welcome to the Causeway!
Giant's Causeway
There is a short, beautiful walk between the visitor’s area and the Causeway itself.
Giant's Causeway
I still can’t believe how green Ireland was!
Giant's Causeway
The Causeway is located below some cliffs.
Giant's Causeway
Geologists say it was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption, some 50-60 million years ago.
Giant's Causeway
All of a sudden, the land started to look like this.
Giant's Causeway
The basalt formed thousands of hexagonal structures as it cooled.
Giant's Causeway
More than 40,000, to be exact.
Giant's Causeway
I’ve always loved climbing on rocks at the beach, but this took that to a whole new level.
Giant's Causeway
Waves crash over the basalt, making the ones closest to the water rounder than the rest.
Giant's Causeway
It was low tide at the time of our visit, so we could see how far the rocks stretched into the ocean. Similar structures have been found on the coast of Scotland too.
Giant's Causeway
Either it was a really big volcano, or the Mac Cumhaill’s neighbor really wanted to get home.
Giant's Causeway
Cliffs stretched out across from the causeway.
Giant's Causeway
It started to mist a little bit, but you know what happens when sun and mist mix…
Giant's Causeway
A rainbow!
Giant's Causeway
What a truly incredible place.
Giant's Causeway
We were so sad to go – the sea air, rock-climbing-fun, and unforgettable sights were so hard to leave. We made sure to take one last look at the rainbow on the way out.
Dunluce Castle
After driving for a little while, we made a quick stop at Dunluce Castle. It’s said to still be haunted by the ghosts of staff killed during a feast in 1639, when the castle’s kitchen collapsed into the sea.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The sun sets over the now-peaceful town of Derry.
Derry murals
This is perhaps the most iconic of the Derry murals. It marks the unofficial border of the Bogside neighborhood and was originally painted in 1969.
Derry murals
Here we see Bernadette Devlin, a young political activist celebrated for her leadership and drive during (and after) the Troubles.
Derry murals
Here we see a child wearing a gas mask, about to throw a petrol bomb into the chaotic scene around him. “The Petrol Bomber” was painted in 1994 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside.
Derry murals
“The Death of Innocence” depicts 14-year-old Annette McGavigan, the first child to be killed in the Troubles. She was shot from behind while gathering litter off the ground, still wearing her school uniform. There was no investigation or prosecution after her death. In the mural, she represents all of the children who faced fates similar to hers.
Derry murals
Here we see the faces of those killed on Bloody Sunday – January 30, 1972. Our tour guide told us that the man on the bottom right, wearing the glasses, taught him how to box.
Derry murals
In this mural, we see another scene from Bloody Sunday. Father Edward Daly, a popular priest in the area, waves a white handkerchief as he runs ahead of a group carrying a wounded man out of the chaos. On the left, an officer tries to stop them.
Derry murals
The “Civil Rights Mural” hits on two of the revolution’s main purposes – promoting more fair voting rights and ending job discrimination based on religion.
Derry murals
We ended at the “Peace” mural, designed by the children of Derry and completed in 2004.

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.

 

 

Gelato Count: 46

My Celtic Adventure | Day One In Dublin

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.

Welcome to Ireland!
Welcome to Ireland!

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.

First glimpse of Ireland.
First glimpse of Ireland.

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.

The Campanile of Trinity College greeted us as soon as we stepped on campus.
The Campanile of Trinity College greeted us as soon as we stepped on campus.

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!

Dublin Castle's Record Tower is the last remaining piece of the castle's original structure. It was completed in 1228. Next to it is the Chapel Royal, a stunning example of classic Gothic architecture, built some 600 years after the tower.
Dublin Castle’s Record Tower is the last remaining piece of the castle’s original structure. It was completed in 1228. Next to it is the Chapel Royal, a stunning example of classic Gothic architecture, built some 600 years after the tower.
We could see Dublin Castle and its gardens from the castle's stable houses.
We could see Dublin Castle and its gardens from the castle’s stable houses.

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!)

In we go!
In we go!
Such a beautiful (and massive!) church.
Such a beautiful (and massive!) church.
On the grounds are the preserved remnants of the site's earlier human activity.
On the grounds are the preserved remnants of the site’s earlier human activity.
Inside the main church, looking toward the altar from the back.
Inside the main church, looking toward the altar from the back.
Rows and rows of seats for worshipers.
Rows and rows of seats for worshipers.
There were so many nooks and crannies to explore in the church. Here, we found a chapel behind the main altar.
There were so many nooks and crannies to explore in the church. Here, we found a chapel behind the main altar.
The Christ Church Cathedral crypt is the largest in both Ireland and the UK. It houses lots of artifacts, including this eagle that once served as a lectern from which Gospels and other texts would have been read.
The Christ Church Cathedral crypt is the largest in both Ireland and the UK. It houses lots of artifacts, including this eagle that once served as a lectern from which Gospels and other texts would have been read.
The church's crypt contains the remains of several important church figures, many of the church's treasures, several statues and even some costumes from a television show that used the church as a set.
The church’s crypt contains the remains of several important church figures, many of the church’s treasures, several statues and even some costumes from a television show that used the church as a set.
We then climbed back up into the main church. This is what the main altar looks like from up close.
We then climbed back up into the main church. This is what the main altar looks like from up close.
Beautiful stained glass windows adorn the walls of Christ Church Cathedral.
Beautiful stained glass windows adorn the walls of Christ Church Cathedral.

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.

The library's "long room" is 213 feet long. It's home to over 200,000 of the oldest books in the school's collection.
The library’s “long room” is 213 feet long. It’s home to over 200,000 of the oldest books in the school’s collection.
Marble busts line the walkway in the Long Room, each depicting an important philosopher, scientist, writer or academic.
Marble busts line the walkway in the Long Room, each depicting an important philosopher, scientist, writer or academic.
Several historic books are on display in the library as well - giving visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the library's famous collection.
Several historic books are on display in the library as well – giving visitors the chance to get up close and personal with the library’s famous collection.
This library inspired JK Rowling as she wrote about the library at Hogwarts!
This library inspired JK Rowling as she wrote about the library at Hogwarts!

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!

Such a beautiful time of the year to visit, too. I might have missed fall in New England, but fall in Ireland was a pretty good substitute.
Such a beautiful time of the year to visit, too. I might have missed fall in New England, but fall in Ireland was a pretty good substitute.

My Celtic Adventure | Edinburgh, Scotland

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.

I finally made it!
I finally made it!

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.

Welcome to Scotland!
Welcome to Scotland!

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.

Arthur's Seat from the ground.
Arthur’s Seat from the ground.
About halfway up!
About halfway up!
Just look at those views! That's Edinburgh Castle in the upper right.
Just look at those views! That’s Edinburgh Castle in the upper right.
Some paths included stairs, others were simply dirt trails.
Some paths included stairs, others were simply dirt trails.
It was so windy at the top!
It was so windy at the top!
Overlooking Arthur's Seat and the city of Edinburgh.
Overlooking Arthur’s Seat and the city of Edinburgh.
It definitely didn't feel like spring, but fall in Edinburgh seemed to be just as beautiful.
It definitely didn’t feel like spring, but fall in Edinburgh seemed to be just as beautiful.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The inside of St. Giles Cathedral was just as impressive as the outside. Unfortunately, taking photos of the interior was not allowed, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The cathedral was located right on the Royal Mile, about a five minute walk from where we were staying.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
What better way to celebrate Halloween weekend than with a ghost tour of Edinburgh?
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Edinburgh’s underground is full of stories both historical and 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.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Turns out the castle is so much larger on the inside than its facade indicates.
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Turns out the castle is so much larger on the inside than its facade indicates.
The view from the castle's "driveway" was spectacular. That's Arthur's Seat in the background - the hill that we hiked just one day earlier.
The view from the castle’s “driveway” was spectacular. That’s Arthur’s Seat in the background – the hill that we hiked just one day earlier.
When in the UK...
When in the UK…
So many interesting things to see in the castle! The top was lined with cannons, each poised to protect the castle from possible ancient intruders.
So many interesting things to see in the castle! The top was lined with cannons, each poised to protect the castle from possible ancient intruders.
Another view from the castle.
Another view from the castle.
At first glance, this looks like a scene out of a medieval village. In reality, though, this is part of the castle.
At first glance, this looks like a scene out of a medieval village. In reality, though, this is part of the castle.
St. Margaret's Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh. It's thought to be 900 years old!
St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest building in Edinburgh. It’s thought to be 900 years old!
I first thought that the Scottish National War Memorial was a church, but on the inside are the names and honors of almost every Scottish soldier that gave his or her life for Scotland.
I first thought that the Scottish National War Memorial was a church, but on the inside are the names and honors of almost every Scottish soldier that gave his or her life for Scotland.
The Great Hall was completed in 1511, and was used for gatherings, dinners, and government meetings.
The Great Hall was completed in 1511, and was used for gatherings, dinners, and government meetings.
Some time later, the Great Hall was used as a space for army barracks. Nowadays, it welcomes visitors with its famous wooden ceiling and rows of Scottish armor.
Some time later, the Great Hall was used as a space for army barracks. Nowadays, it welcomes visitors with its famous wooden ceiling and rows of Scottish armor.
We were able to explore some f the castle's passages, and see how its former royal residents lived.
We were able to explore some of the castle’s passages, and see how its former royal residents lived.
There were many smaller museums within the castle's many buildings. In this one, we were able to see some of the awards given to soldiers during Scotland's many important battles over the years.
There were many smaller museums within the castle’s many buildings. In this one, we were able to see some of the awards given to soldiers during Scotland’s many important battles over the years.
A ship displayed outside of the "Prisoner of War" exhibit showed visitors the types of vessels the Scottish army might have used. We learned that all of the prisoners quartered in Edinburgh Castle were treated very well.
A ship displayed outside of the “Prisoner of War” exhibit showed visitors the types of vessels the Scottish army might have used. We learned that all of the prisoners quartered in Edinburgh Castle were treated very well.
Statue of Earl Haig and his horse.
Statue of Earl Haig and his horse.
It looked like a scene out of Harry Potter.
It looked like a scene out of Harry Potter.
View of the castle from the back, as seen from the Princess Street Gardens.
View of the castle from the back, as seen from the Princess Street Gardens.

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.

My favorite flowers in my favorite color - I knew I liked this country! These were growing in the Princess Street Gardens.
My favorite flowers in my favorite color – I knew I liked this country! These were growing in the Princess Street Gardens.
On the way to the village, we stopped in the Scottish Episcopal Church of Edinburgh. It was so pretty!
On the way to the village, we stopped in the Scottish Episcopal Church of Edinburgh. It was so pretty!
The River Leith and fall leaves - the perfect combination.
The River Leith and fall leaves – the perfect combination.
These waters once powered mills along the river.
These waters once powered mills along the river.
Hogwarts or Scotland?
Hogwarts or Scotland?

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!

SO GOOD!
So good!

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!

Arrivederci, Scotland, I'll be back!
Arrivederci, Scotland, I’ll be back!

 

 

Gelato Count: 42

I Hiked a Volcano

…and it was exactly as awesome as it sounds.

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.

First things first: Sicilian food. This gooey ball of goodness was an arancino, a rice ball stuffed with cheese, beef, peas, and tomato sauce, coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. It was from my host father's favorite cafe, Pasticceria Spinella.
First things first: Sicilian food. This gooey ball of goodness was an arancino, a rice ball stuffed with cheese, beef, peas, and tomato sauce, coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. It was from my host father’s favorite cafe, Pasticceria Spinella.
I took the arancino across the street to eat in the beautiful Giardino Bellini. It was so bright and tropical!
I took the arancino across the street to eat in the beautiful Giardino Bellini. It was so bright and tropical!
The main gazebo in Parco Maestranze, the upper level of the Bellini Garden.
The main gazebo in Parco Maestranze, the upper level of the Bellini Garden.
Sicily is on the 37th parallel north, meaning that it has the same longitude as the Virginia/North Carolina border. That explains the warm-weather ecosystem!
Sicily is on the 37th parallel north, meaning that it has the same longitude as the Virginia/North Carolina border. That explains the warm-weather ecosystem!
Catania's ancient Roman amphitheater.
Catania’s ancient Roman amphitheater.
It was interesting to compare Catania's theater to the Colosseum, since the two structures served largely the same purpose and had many structural features in common.
It was interesting to compare Catania’s theater to the Colosseum, since the two structures served largely the same purpose and had many structural features in common.
However, instead of being built out of the classic Roman concrete and limestone, Catania's was made out of volcanic basalt.
However, instead of being built out of the classic Roman concrete and limestone, Catania’s was made out of volcanic basalt.
Catania's Cathedral of Saint Agatha was built and destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions several times before coming into its current Baroque state.
Catania’s Cathedral of Saint Agatha was built and destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions several times before coming into its current Baroque state.
Porta Uzeda, the ancient door connecting the church to what once was the city's center.
Porta Uzeda, the ancient door connecting the church to what once was the city’s center.
Castello Ursino was completed in 1250. When I first arrived, I was a little perplexed - usually castles with large watch towers like these, if built in the Middle Ages, were built atop hills or overlooking water for the best vantage points. Ursino appeared to be neither near water nor on a hill. What I didn't account for, though, was Etna's two eruptions in the later half of the 1600s. The eruptions produced so much lava (and subsequently, new land) that the castle was, in fact, once on a hill and near the sea. It survived because it was built on a hill higher than the lava rose. Nowadays, there's a museum in there.
Castello Ursino was completed in 1250. When I first arrived, I was a little perplexed – usually castles with large watch towers like these, if built in the Middle Ages, were built atop hills or overlooking water for the best vantage points. Ursino appeared to be neither near water nor on a hill. What I didn’t account for, though, was Etna’s two eruptions in the later half of the 1600s. The eruptions produced so much lava (and subsequently, new land) that the castle was, in fact, once on a hill and near the sea. It survived because it was built on a hill higher than the lava rose. Nowadays, there’s a museum in there.
Visiting the opera house! I didn't see any operas, but the building itself was stunning.
Visiting the opera house! I didn’t see any operas, but the building itself was stunning.
For dinner, I had a picnic by the sea.
For dinner, I had a picnic by the sea.
Catania's beach area was pretty far from where I was staying, so I chose a rocky overlook instead.
Catania’s beach area was pretty far from where I was staying, so I chose a rocky overlook instead.
Definitely a unique seacoast. The cliffs and shores were made out of volcanic basalt.
Definitely a unique seacoast. The cliffs and shores were made out of volcanic basalt.
The colors of Catania.
The colors of Catania.

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.

Following the volcanic soil path!
Following the volcanic soil path!
A local nut that grows very well in volcanic soil.
A local nut that grows very well in volcanic soil.
If you look closely, you can see that there is a bowl-like dip in the trees. That's the crater! Once, an entire village lived in there, but moved out when it became much more convenient to live in the city.
If you look closely, you can see that there is a bowl-like dip in the trees. That’s the crater! Once, an entire village lived in there, but moved out when it became much more convenient to live in the city.
The path ran right around the top of the crater.
The path ran right around the top of the crater.
All of those mounds that you see in the landscape are old volcanic craters.
All of those mounds that you see in the landscape are old volcanic craters.
Certain types of mushrooms grow incredibly well in volcanic soil. We saw many locals out with baskets and bags collecting them. This is a poisonous variety, though - definitely not for eating!
Certain types of mushrooms grow incredibly well in volcanic soil. We saw many locals out with baskets and bags collecting them. This is a poisonous variety, though – definitely not for eating!

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.

Our faithful vehicle, apparently better suited for some trails than most hikers.
Our faithful vehicle, apparently better suited for some trails than most hikers.
Remnants of the 1792 eruption. You can see traces of the first signs of life reclaiming the rocks.
Remnants of the 1792 eruption. You can see traces of the first signs of life reclaiming the rocks.

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.

The Silvestri Craters!
The Silvestri Craters!
Looks like the moon to me.
Looks like the moon to me.
Or Star Wars/Star Trek/Dr.Who/Insert-SciFi-Show-Of-Choice-Here.
Or Star Wars/Star Trek/Dr.Who/Insert-SciFi-Show-Of-Choice-Here.
The winds were so incredibly strong - it felt like I was on top of Mt. Washington.
The winds were so incredibly strong – it felt like I was on top of Mt. Washington.
The craters were formed during the 1892 eruption - which explains their sparse plant growth.
The craters were formed during the 1892 eruption – which explains their sparse plant growth.
How's that for a hiking path?
How’s that for a hiking path?
The volcanic soil appears red because it's rusting. It has such a high iron content that it's actually magnetic too. Our guide demonstrated this by picking up a chunk of soil with a souvenir refrigerator magnet.
The volcanic soil appears red because it’s rusting. It has such a high iron content that it’s actually magnetic. Our guide demonstrated this by picking up a chunk of soil with a souvenir refrigerator magnet.
Near the Silvestri Craters are the two main tourist destinations on the volcano - the summit cable car and the Rifugio Sapienza - a rest point for hikers and travelers.
Near the Silvestri Craters are the two main tourist destinations on the volcano – the summit cable car and the Rifugio Sapienza – a rest point for hikers and travelers.
I couldn't believe that something like this was real.
I couldn’t believe that something like this was real.
What an experience!
What an experience!

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.

We learned about the different lichens that begin to take over the rocks. They're the first plants back after the eruptions, only later can larger plants grow.
We learned about the different lichens that begin to take over the rocks. They’re the first plants back after the eruptions, only later can larger plants grow.
Some grasses were able to make it in this field.
Some grasses were able to make it in this field.
Look - another crater!
Look – another crater!
Our guide showed us how unique this crater was, and used it to tell us about how the lava's cooling time affects the rocks it produces.
Our guide showed us how unique this crater was, and used it to tell us about how the lava’s cooling time affects the rocks it produces.
This crater's lava slurped out - it didnt flow or gush out. We can see the layers that this action produced.
This crater’s lava slurped out – it didnt flow or gush out. We can see the layers that this action produced.
Sometimes, the basalt has lots of different minerals in it - like this chunk - that make it extra shiny.
Sometimes, the basalt has lots of different minerals in it – like this chunk – that make it extra shiny.
Back on the trail!
Back on the trail!
What an interesting landscape. Only the toughest plants can survive here.
What an interesting landscape. Only the toughest plants can survive here.
We had lunch in a little cabin made out of the volcanic basalt. We ever made some friends there, too. Two bikers stopped by for a snack break as well.
We had lunch in a little cabin made out of the volcanic basalt. We even made some friends there, too. Two bikers stopped by for a snack break as well.
Definitely unlike any other hiking path I've seen.
Definitely unlike any other hiking path I’ve seen.
Our guide showed us a few more shelters that had been made out of the stones.
Our guide showed us a few more shelters that had been made out of the stones.
Those dark "rivers" were rivers of lava in spring of 2001. My guide laughed when I told him I would have been celebrating my sixth birthday when that happened.
Those dark “rivers” were rivers of lava in spring of 2001. Our guide asked if we’d heard about the eruption on the news, and laughed when I told him I would have been only six.

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.

*excited squeal*
*excited squeal*
Wild saffron flowers! We saw some apple and walnut trees too.
Wild saffron flowers! We saw some apple and walnut trees too.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The first cave we saw was a smaller one just a few yards away from the larger one we’d be exploring. This one is sometimes used by the locals for church services.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Our guide explained to us that some of the smaller caves were formed out of large gas bubbles that keep their shape when the lava cooled, while others were formed when the lava on the outside of a lava stream cools, leaving the still-liquid materials inside free to flow to other places.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Into the big cave! This one formed in two parts – a “first floor” and a “second floor.” We’d be exploring the second floor.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One last look at the outside world.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Even though this cave is many hundreds of years old, there are few stalactites forming on its ceiling. This is because, as our guide explained, less water gets into lava caves than other types of caves.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I felt like I was on the Travel Channel or National Geographic.
14795712_1328707220474238_1376500872_o
Me and my new travel friends – Emelio and Veronica. They’re from a small town just outside of Verona. They spoke very little English, so I had ample opportunity to practice my Italian with them.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Back into the sunlight.
One very happy explorer!
One very happy explorer!

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.

 

 

Gelato Count: 36

Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg | Part Three

Three Cities, two countries, one weekend.

On October 7-9, I took a whirlwind trip through Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg. This post will focus on day three: Salzburg. 

Leopoldskron Palace, whose facade played the part of the back of the Von Trapp house.
Leopoldskron Palace, whose facade played the part of the back of the Von Trapp house.

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The path that Julie Andrews skipped down during the song, “I Have Confidence,” outside the Mirabell Gardens.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
There’s the gazebo! This one was used for to film the exterior of the movie’s gazebo. The interior was a Hollywood construction, since it had to be much larger than a real gazebo would have been.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We had some free time to explore the gardens – a welcome break from our weekend of big-city exploring.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We loved the garden’s flowers!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We loved them so much that they got their own photo shoot.

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.

Leopoldskron Palace, whose facade played the part of the back of the Von Trapp house.
Leopoldskron Palace, whose facade played the part of the back of the Von Trapp house. The palace’s yard was the original home of the gazebo, but the owners of the now-B&B were not too fond of the crowds of tourists stopping by each day.

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We drove by the Hohensalzburg Castle, one of the largest remaining medieval castles, on our way out of the city.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We also passed the famous Nonnberg Abbey, the convent that Maria belonged to in the beginning of the story. Since it’s a real, still-active convent, we didn’t stop to see it, but it was still cool to drive by!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The hills looked pretty alive to me!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We were entering the lake district, just west of Salzburg. Look at those mountains!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We stopped on a hillside overlooking the Austrian village of St Gilgen. The lake in the background is Lake Wolfgang – one of the landscapes used in the film’s panorama scenes.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The adorable village of Mondsee, Austria.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
St. Michael’s Church in Mondsee, used in filming the last scene of the movie’s first half.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The church was beautifully decorated with carvings and paintings. 
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Its interior is decorated in the Gothic style. 

 

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.

‘Til next time, Austria!

 

 

Gelato Count: 34

Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg | Part Two

Three Cities, two countries, one weekend.

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.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Kunsthistorisches Museum, or, Fine Arts Museum. It houses some of the most famous works of art in the world, by artists from Carravaggio to Rubens to Raphael.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Stephansdom – Saint Stephen’s Cathedral – is perhaps the most recognizable Viennese building. It’s located in the heart of Vienna, in a square known as Stephansplatz.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Stephansdom was originally built in the 12th century, and has of course undergone many renovations since then. One of the more recent of these reconstructions was after WWII, when the church was badly damaged by fire.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Stephansplatz is full of shops and restaurants.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Katholische Kirche St. Peter – St. Peter’s Church – was built on the site of the earliest church in Vienna, dating back to the middle ages.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Our tour guide took us to a somewhat hidden gem of Vienna – the Demel pastry and chocolate shop. It’s been in operation since 1786.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Inside, you can see bakers and confectioners preparing Demel’s famous treats. They’re famous because of their high esteem among famous clients – including the Austrian Imperial Court, several U.S. presidents, and countless celebrities from around the world.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
In the basement is a museum, featuring many of the (once) edible window displays used in the cafe. They commemorate events from seasons and holidays to visits from politicians and weddings of royals.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The facade of the Hofburg Palace, the sprawling former residence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now, among other purposes, it’s home to several museums and the acting presidents of Austria.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The architecture in Vienna was so interesting.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Inside the main entrance to the Hofburg Palace.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
After passing through the main entrance, we were led into a court, built gradually over time as the Imperial family expanded. This is where the modern-day presidents of Austria live. However, our guide informed us that at the time of our tour, Austria did not have a president, so the presidential quarters were vacant.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
More from inside the court.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We caught a quick peek at the detailing on St. Stephen’s Cathedral as we walked through Vienna’s streets.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Sala Terrena, a small room that Mozart took a liking to during his days in Vienna. He frequently gave concerts here.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The steeple of St. Stephen’s Cathedral rises above the city.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
St. Anne’s Church might seem plain on the outside in comparison to some of Vienna’s other churches, but just wait til you see the inside…
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We saw lots of people preparing for a wedding in St. Anne’s that day. What a setting!

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 building that houses the collection was commissioned specifically for the collection by the Austrian Emperor in 1891.
The building that houses the collection was commissioned specifically for the collection by the Austrian Emperor in 1891.
The inside took our breath away. It's so beautifully decorated with marble and other precious stones - the perfect place for this couple's wedding photo shoot!
The inside took our breath away. It’s so beautifully decorated with marble and other precious stones – the perfect place for this couple’s wedding photo shoot!
The main rotunda of the Kunsthistorisches Museum is home to a cafe, and is topped with an almost 200-foot-tall cupola.
The main rotunda of the Kunsthistorisches Museum is home to a cafe, and is topped with an almost 200-foot-tall cupola.
Velázquez's portrait of Infanta Margarita Teresa
Velázquez’s portrait of Infanta Margarita Teresa
A room filled with paintings by famed artist Caravaggio and his contemporaries.
A room filled with paintings by famed artist Caravaggio and his contemporaries.
Raphael's Madonna of the Rosary
Raphael’s Madonna of the Rosary
Pieter Brueghel's Tower of Babel
Pieter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel

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.

The steeple of Votivkirche, a church built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to thank God for saving his brother (Emperor Franz Joseph) after an 1853 assassination attempt.
The steeple of Votivkirche, a church built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to thank God for saving his brother (Emperor Franz Joseph) after an 1853 assassination attempt.
Rathaus, the city hall of Vienna.
Rathaus, the city hall of Vienna.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This Neo-Gothic-style building took over ten years to build, finally being completed in 1883.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Perfect day to visit – the circus was in town!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Neue Burg, a palace wing connected to the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

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?

The perfect end to a wonderful day in Vienna.
The perfect end to a wonderful day in Vienna.

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!

 

 

Gelato Count: 33

Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg | Part One

Three cities, two countries, one weekend.

On October 7-9, I took a whirlwind trip through Budapest, Vienna, and Salzburg. This post will focus on day one: Budapest. 

The Hungarian Parliament building, overlooking the Danube River at night.
The Hungarian Parliament building, overlooking the Danube River at night.

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:

Budapest
The Dohány Utcai Zsinagóga (or, Dohány Street Synagogue) was completed in 1859. It is the largest synagogue in Europe, and second in the world only to the Belz Great Synagogue in Jeruselem. It’s a classic example of Moorish Revival style architecture.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gotta love that Eastern European architecture!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
One of the two Klotild Palaces leading to the Elizabeth Bridge.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Inner City Parish Church, built on the site of the oldest church in Pest.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It once served as the border between Buda and Pest, but now it runs right through it.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Part of the Várbazár, or, Castle Garden Bazaar, near the entrance to Buda Castle.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The morning sun shines through the Várbazár’s architecture.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We could see a touch of fall color in the trees of the castle gardens. At 55 degrees, it felt like fall, too!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
From the garden, we had the option to take the stairs or an escalator to the bottom of the castle.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Couldn’t leave the garden without taking a photo of one of the flowers!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Travel buddies overlooking the city from Buda Castle!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Just one part of the massive Buda Castle. Construction was first completed in 1265, but of course, this sprawling palace has been renovated and added to many, many, times since then.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pretty decorative details in a square near the palace. As we walked by, we saw a film crew working in the square.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Széchenyi Lánchíd, or, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, from the top of the Budavári Sikló (Budapest Castle Hill Funicular). When the bridge was finished in 1849. it was one of the largest in the world. It was also the first permanent bridge in Hungary – though most of it was rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII during the Seige of Budapest.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Szent István Bazilika – St. Stephen’s Basilica is the third largest church in all of Hungary, and is named after the country’s first king.

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.

Trying to explain how good this was would simply not do it justice.
Trying to explain how good this was would simply not do it justice.

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.

The Széchenyi Fürdő - Széchenyi Bath. It's pools are filled with natural thermal water, thought to have certain medicinal properties.
The Széchenyi Fürdő, or Széchenyi Thermal Bath. It’s pools are filled with natural thermal water, thought to have certain medicinal properties.

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.

City lights and vibrant Budapest culture.
City lights and vibrant Budapest culture.
St. Stephens, all lit up.
St. Stephens, all lit up at night.
Welcome to Budapest!
Welcome to Budapest!
Back at the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
The sparkling Széchenyi Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the background.
Photos don't do this justice, but here's part of the city reflected in the waters of the Danube.
Photos don’t do this justice, but here’s part of the city reflected in the waters of the Danube. It was so beautiful!
Our first glimpse of Matthias Church and Halászbástya - the Fisherman’s Bastion. We felt like princesses climbing these stairs.
Our first glimpse of Matthias Church and Halászbástya – the Fisherman’s Bastion. We felt like princesses climbing these stairs.
Part of the Fisherman’s Bastion with Matthias Church in the background. The Fisherman's Bastion was built at the turn of the century to commemorate the 1000th birthday of Hungary. It's seven towers represent the seven tribes that came together to found the country.
Part of the Fisherman’s Bastion with Matthias Church in the background. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built at the turn of the century to commemorate the 1000th birthday of Hungary. Its seven towers represent the seven tribes that came together to found the country.
It both looked and felt like a castle. Try to imagine live violin music playing in the background of these views.
It both looked and felt like a castle. There were live violinists adding elegant ambiance to the views, too.
One of the seven towers.
One of the seven towers.
Mátyás-templom, or, Matthias Church. Its long and complicated history begins in 1015 and includes several reconstructions, a few coronations (and royal weddings), and even some time as a mosque.
Mátyás-templom, or, Matthias Church. Its long and complicated history begins in 1015 and includes several reconstructions, a few coronations (and royal weddings), and even some time as a mosque.
Some of the best panoramas of the Hungarian Parliament Building can be seen from the Fisherman's Bastion.
Some of the best panoramas of the Hungarian Parliament Building can be seen from the Fisherman’s Bastion.
Just look at that Gothic architecture!
Just look at that Gothic architecture!
~emoji with the heart eyes~
~emoji with the heart eyes~
One more because I really just can't get enough of this building.
One more because I really just can’t get enough of this building.
Two passersby show the massive size of the church.
Two passersby show the massive size of the church.
And lastly, the icon of Budapest at night - the Hungarian Parliament Building, in all its sparkling splendor.
And lastly, the icon of Budapest at night – the Hungarian Parliament Building, in all its sparkling splendor.

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.

‘Til next time, Hungary! Now, off to Austria.

 

 

Gelato Count: 33

Rome-ing Around

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.

The Colosseum was just one of the sights on our agenda.
The Colosseum was just one of the sights on our agenda.

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.

Massive stone walls mark the borders of the Vatican City, which actually qualifies as its own sovereign country.
Massive stone walls mark the borders of the Vatican City, which actually qualifies as its own sovereign country.

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.

The famous statue of Laocoön and His Sons
The famous statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the Vatican.
Into the Hall of Maps!
Into the Hall of Maps!
The School of Athens - one of the Renaissance artist Raphael's most famous works.
The School of Athens – one of the Renaissance artist Raphael’s most famous works.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
In we go!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Michaelangelo’s famous Pieta in St. Peter’s.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
See the black letters on the gold background running along the top? They’re seven feet tall. Each.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Look at how small the people seem compared to their surroundings. These were normal-sized people, I promise.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The dark structure in the middle of the photo is ten stories tall. Not feet, stories.

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.

Up we go!
Up we go!
About halfway up the climb, we were able to walk around the inside of the dome, looking down into the cathedral.
About halfway up the climb, we were able to walk around the inside of the dome, looking down into the cathedral.
St. Peter's Square as seen from the top of St. Peter's Basilica.
St. Peter’s Square as seen from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Vatican views.
Vatican views.
On the way back down.
On the way back down.
A statue of Saint Peter in front of the basilica that houses his remains.
A statue of Saint Peter in front of the basilica that houses his remains.
In front of St. Peter's!
In front of St. Peter’s!

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.

14642699_1317339861610974_782233410_n
The streets of Rome from the Spanish Steps, made famous by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
The Fontana di Trevi! We all embraced our inner Lizzie McGuires and threw the traditional three coins in the fountain. Legend holds that the first coin ensures that you will return to Rome, the second, that you will find a new romance, and the third, a happy marriage. Either that, or they're just good luck. Nobody really knows for sure.
The Fontana di Trevi! We all embraced our inner Lizzie McGuires and threw the traditional three coins into the fountain. Legend holds that the first coin ensures that you will return to Rome, the second, that you will find a new romance, and the third, a happy marriage. Either that, or they’re just good luck. Nobody really knows for sure.

The next day was “Ancient Rome” day with SUF. We started at the Colusseum…

The Colosseum is so big!
The Colosseum is so big!
We even got to go inside and learn about why it was built and what it was used for. I'll spare you the gory details. Let's just call it an arena.
We even got to go inside and learn about why it was built and what it was used for. I’ll spare you the gory details. Let’s just call it an arena.
This maze of hallways, rooms, and doors was originally under the arena floor. It served as a "back stage" area.
This maze of hallways, rooms, and doors was originally under the arena floor. It served as a “back stage” area.

…then moved onto the Roman Forum – the oldest part of ancient Rome still visible.

This isnt part of the Forum, but it's still cool. It's the Arch of Constantine, built to commemorate the emperor's victory in battle.
This isn’t part of the Forum, but it’s still cool. It’s the Arch of Constantine, built to commemorate the emperor’s victory in battle.
Inside the Arch of Titus, another Roman triumphal arch.
Inside the Arch of Titus, another Roman triumphal arch.
The remnants of the Basilica Maxentius, one of the last basilicas built in ancient Rome.
The remnants of the Basilica Maxentius, one of the last basilicas built in ancient Rome.
Part of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
Part of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina.
View of the Forum with the Colosseum in the background.
View of the Forum with the Colosseum in the background.

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.

The Pantheon's exterior.
The Pantheon’s exterior.
The Pantheon's domed ceiling was one of that era's greatest feats of engineering and architecture.
The Pantheon’s domed ceiling was one of that era’s greatest feats of engineering and architecture.
The people in the photo can give you a sense of how massive this structure is.
The people in the photo can give you a sense of how massive this structure is.

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.)

Our incredibly knowledgeable tour guide teaching us about ___.
Our incredibly knowledgeable tour guide teaching us about Raphael’s depiction of “The Entombment.”
Gods on the ceiling!
Gods on the ceiling!
Pluto and Proserpina (or Hades and Persephone, in Greek) by Bernini.
Pluto and Proserpina (or Hades and Persephone, in Greek) by Bernini.
Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, and leads his son, Ascanius, out of Troy. They would go on to help in the foundation of Rome. Statue by Bernini.
Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, and leads his son, Ascanius, out of Troy. They would go on to help in the foundation of Rome. Statue by Bernini.
Another statue by Bernini, this time of Apollo chasing Daphne as her father turns her into a laurel tree.
Another statue by Bernini, this time of Apollo chasing Daphne as her father turns her into a laurel tree.
Part of the magic of this statue is that as you walk around it, you see Daphne gradually turn into a tree. From this angle, you can see her feet becoming more and more plant-like.
Part of the magic of this statue is that as you walk around it, you see Daphne gradually turn into a tree. From this angle, you can see her feet becoming more and more plant-like.

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.

A replica of the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original was the first of its kind.
A replica of the Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original was the first of its kind.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We made a new friend near the Forum.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A delicious lunch near Campo di Fiori.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sant’Agnese in Agone, one of Rome’s many Baroque-style churches.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was designed by famed sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The figures at the bottom represent four major rivers in the world in the forms of their patron gods – the Danube, Nile, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata.
The Castel Sant'Angelo, originally built to be a tomb for an emperor and his family.
The Castel Sant’Angelo, originally built to be a tomb for an emperor and his family.
A nice Fall walk along the Tiber.
A nice fall walk along the Tiber.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Ara Pacis is an ancient temple to Pax, the Roman god of peace.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The temple and altar were originally completed sometime around 9 BC, but it was reassembled in its current home much more recently.

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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Saying or writing that Rome is an open air museum is too easy. It should be demonstrated even in the little details.

Little details, big details, and all the details in between – Rome was an incredible experience.

My Visit To Interlaken, Switzerland

“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.

Don't worry, I still can't believe it's real either.
Don’t worry, I still can’t believe it’s real either.
Jungfrau Mountain and a paraglider, framed by perfect Switzerland flowers.
Jungfrau Mountain and a paraglider, framed by perfect Switzerland flowers.

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.

Lake Brienz from 4,337 feet.
Lake Brienz from 4,337 feet.
The Aare river running through the city.
The Aare river running through the city.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
45 minutes in.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
They didn’t look like the lilacs we knew, but they sure smelled like them!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Well hello there, Jungfrau.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Paragliders! 15 minutes to the summit.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Through the “forbidden forest!”
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Swiss alpine vegetation.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Almost there!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
View from the top!
Lake Brienz from 4,337 feet.
Lake Brienz from 4,337 feet.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Celebratory “I just climbed a Swiss Alp” photo.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Aare River greeted us at the bottom.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Snail!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Interlaken sign.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Such a charming town!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
#True.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Yummy post-hike dinner!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Brought home a tasty bag of these beauties.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
More of charming Interlaken.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
To make hot chocolate, they started with actual melted chocolate.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Easily the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
So good!

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Someone was growing chard. Swiss chard.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
More paragliders, more alps.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Dream homes.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
River views, on the way to the lake!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
So many flowers!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We used the river as our map to reach the lake.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Aare from a bridge.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Fairytale path.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pristine beauty.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Had to take a photo with the lake.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Alps!

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
So soft! So friendly!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
By the lake.

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.”)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Happy cows.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
How’s that for the perfect farm location?
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Swiss ducks, somehow not freezing their feathers off in the icy waters.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Jungfrau

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Our work station.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Taste testing time!

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Making sure the chocolate is just the right temperature.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Am I a real chef now?

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!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Making the chocolate bars.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My masterpieces.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
We did it!

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The sun sets on a 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Lake Como
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gelato views

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!

 

 

Gelato Count: 25