the last hoorah in budapest

I’m interrupting my regularly-scheduled activities of fact-checking, Works Cited-making, and wearing the same 3 outfits over and over again for the next three weeks to tell the blogosphere all about my fantastic and wonderful and magical trip to Budapest this weekend!! It was my last big international trip before the biggest international trip (home), and what an incredible one it was!!! I truly loved the city and had a fabulous time, and I’m excited to share some of my pictures and stories with y’all!

Felicitas and I chose to go to Budapest because our friend Domi, who studied in Dresden last semester, lives there, which was as good a reason as any to pick one city over another! A few of our friends had gone several weeks ago to visit Domi and we had heard great things from them, so we were really excited for the trip. We used airbnb to book an apartment for the weekend… I think this is a relatively new start-up, or at least new to me, and we had a great experience with the guy we rented from. The best feature of the apartment (besides the great location and totally unreal price) was that it included the use of 2 bikes, which was absolutely clutch. No public transit for us!

We arrived in the early afternoon on Friday (July 4th, for anyone keeping track) and made our way from the airport to the apartment with only some minor confusion, and as soon as we had dropped off our stuff, changed into cooler clothes (it was HOT), and figured out the bikes, we were off to see what Budapest had to offer!

Budapest, if you don’t know, is actually the “fusion” of two cities, Buda and Pest, each lying on one side of the Danube River, so the river dominates the city landscape and most of the major sites are along it. And, like most cities on rivers, the bridges are all-important. It was crazy how much bigger Budapest’s bridges are than Dresden’s, though not surprising when you observe how much bigger the Danube is at Budapest than the Elbe at Dresden (esp. this year).

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We were really hungry and we (I) were (was) starting to get hangry, specifically, so we tried to find somewhere to eat something inexpensive that would still leave us free for dinner a few hours later. We settled for some pastries right before stumbling upon the first of many great discoveries: the Budapest Central Market! We thought it was the train station at first, which should clue you into how big it really is, but it’s just full of stands and kiosks selling fresh produce, dairy products, dried fruit, meats, spices, etc. etc. etc. Absolutely magical. I wish I could shop there every week. With some cherries and nectarines in tow, we set off to see as much of the city as we could before finding a viewing location for Germany’s quarter final World Cup game at 6.

We didn’t get to see MUCH in the limited time we had, especially while getting used to the… not exactly perfect quality of the bikes, but we crossed the famous (and beautiful and massive) Chain Bridge, saw the Citadel up on its hill, and observed the locations of some of Budapest’s more famous sites: the cathedral, fisherman’s bastion, and Parliament. It was great that we were able to cruise up and down the river (well, parallel to it on bike paths) as we oriented ourselves and made plans for the next day. And then, we staked out our World Cup viewing spot, which was hilariously a British pub… on the 4th of July.

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We enjoyed our meal and a few beverages while watching the relatively uneventful game (but GERMANY WON!) and hiding our disdain of the rowdy and rude international clientele at the pub. Then Felicitas discovered that she had lost her iPod, which was a huge bummer. I resolved to take twice as many pictures for the both of us, the results of which promise you have already partially experienced, dear reader.

After the game ended, we continued on our bikes towards the Parliament building to get a closer look, and I can honestly say that it was one of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen in my life. Apparently it is the third largest government building in the world (behind only Buenos Aires and Bucharest, if I remember correctly, so maybe the competition is limited to capitals starting with B?) and has a total of 365 towers. It is the tallest building in Budapest (actually, maybe just in Pest?) and is legally required to remain so. St. Stephen’s Basilica is exactly the same height, although during the Communist era, a red star was placed on top of the Parliament building to signify the state’s dominance over the church. (The star isn’t there anymore, clearly.)

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We rode back to the apartment as the sun was setting and night was falling and experienced the most magical of Budapest experiences: everything lit up at night! It was so gorgeous.

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The next day started bright and early with another trip to the market to stock up on fruit, cheese, and bread for the day, before we headed across to the Buda side of the river. We parked our bikes at the bottom of the Gellert hill and hiked up to the top, where the Citadel is located. We were surprised to learn that the fortress had only been constructed in the 19th century! It has now fallen into disuse, but the Citadel as a symbol of political power was a complicated topic during the Austro-Hungarian Empire years (it was seen as an imposition of Austrian power on the Hungarians), as well as during the Nazi occupation through to the Communist regime. Besides learning some of the history behind the structure, we also enjoyed fantastic views of the city.

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Continuing to follow the Danube north, we climbed up to see the Royal Palace, which is absolutely stunning. It is an imposing but beautiful presence up on its hill, overlooking the river, and the grounds, including the surrounding buildings of the National Gallery, are all very picturesque. We scored some free tap water from the restrooms in the Palace (again, SO HOT. We were staving off dehydration the whole day) and continued walking north to the Cathedral.

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The Royal Palace

St. Matthias’ Cathedral is one of the more distinctive churches I’ve seen. It’s built in a gothic/probably neo-gothic style, but the building itself is very bright because it’s built all in white stone! And it has a colorful, tiled roof. The whole thing was an interesting mix of western (gothic) and eastern (almost byzantine) aesthetics, including the inside! A lot of the decorations were geometric, which reminded us of some Islamic decorations (no graven images).

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Right in front of St. Matthias’ is the Fisherman’s Bastion, a word that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me but I think it’s some sort of fortress or embarkment. Regardless of what its purpose is/was (and I don’t remember actually learning any of the history for this particular structure… oops), it is very unique and striking… and offers some gorgeous views, as well, and it’s one of the defining landmarks of the city.

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After exploring a bit more of the Buda side, we crossed over the Chain Bridge to Pest; first stop, St. Steven’s Basilica. The Basilica is the biggest Catholic church in the city, and it could fit right in in Rome as far as I’m concerned! When we first went in the church, they were getting ready to have a wedding, so we could only see a small part of it. However, a short time later we came back with our walking tour and got to see the whole thing!

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Displayed in the basilica: a relic of St. Stephen (his preserved hand), who converted Hungary to Christianity

Displayed in the basilica: a relic of St. Stephen (his preserved hand), who converted Hungary to Christianity

Our tour was the “Essential Pest” tour and concentrated a lot on sites with historical meaning, so we learned a lot about the history of the Hungarian people, religious milestones, and events during the Communist period from 1945-1990. One interesting fact: the roots of the Hungarian people and language are actually in Asia! They claim Attila the Hun as their great ancestor, and the Hungarian tribe was one of the tribes he ruled. On the tour, in addition to the Basilica, we saw many historical landmarks and statues (many of them Communist but some hearkening back to the Austro-Hungarian days), Liberty Square, a nuclear bunker, the former Hungarian television headquarters (which was closed after it was attacked by protesters in 2006), and Parliament once again.

After the tour was over, we made our way slowly across the city to a church we knew would be having an English mass about an hour later. Domi met us for Mass! It was great to see him again, and to have someone to translate for us!

Dresden friends reunited in Budapest!

Dresden friends reunited in Budapest!

We enjoyed a post-Mass ice cream cone on our way to our next highly-anticipated destination: one of Budapest’s famous thermal baths. Many of these baths were built during the time of Ottoman occupation (Turkish baths, you see), and we definitely wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Our original plan was to buy reduced price tickets starting at 7 and stay for a few hours, but it turns out that the bath closed earlier than we had anticipated. Instead of paying full price for only 45 minutes of bathing time, we decided to wait until one of the baths re-opened at 10 pm.

In the meantime, we headed up to Margaret Island, an island in the middle of the Danube between Buda and Pest. It’s named “Margaret” for the daughter of one of Hungary’s kings, who lived in isolation on the island as a nun during her life. (She’s now a saint.) There’s a big fountain on the island, and as we sat down to put our feet in the water, the 8pm water show began! The fountain is synced up with lights and music, and it was such an unexpected surprise! It was nice to be able to sit down and enjoy something relaxing and fun at the end of a long day. We ate the rest of our fruit, and Felicitas and I took a little spin around some of the rest of the park before coming back to enjoy the 9pm show! Some of the music selections: “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel, The Blue Danube, appropriately, and Bruce Springsteen complete with red, white, and blue lights.

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Poor posture exacerbated by exhaustion

Poor posture exacerbated by exhaustion

We returned to the bath in time for the 10pm re-opening, changed into our swimsuits, and bought our tickets (kind of pricy, but worth the splurge). I had no idea what to expect from the baths. It was like being transported to a different world! The bath itself was built in the 16th century, though you would never know from the exterior and the main building, which is modern. The bath itself was a cavernous little room with five separate baths: one in each corner, and a large one in the middle, each one kept at a different temperature. The water is all natural and directly drawn from the earth, though of course it’s cooled and regulated at each temperature. (The whole area smelled faintly of sulphur, a smell that didn’t leave my hair or skin until after my second shower, two days later!) Domi, as he is Hungarian, had been to thermal baths before, and Flitzi had looked up some articles about the best “strategies”: going from the coolest bath to the hottest, then maybe a trip to the steam room or sauna, and then back in the coolest one. We did go in both the steam room and the sauna, though I can’t say I particularly enjoyed either one… I’m more a “cool water” gal. Shortly before leaving, I did take the plunge into the 60-degree “cold tub” which was… only refreshing after having spent time in the 110-degree bath. Overall, I would say it’s absolutely worth it to go to one of these baths while in Budapest. What a crazy and otherworldly experience! I don’t know that I’m really conveying that effectively, and I don’t have any pictures because no cameras were allowed, but I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Before thermal bath

Before thermal bath

After thermal bath

After thermal bath

Shortly after midnight, we bid farewell to Domi (he was catching a flight at 6 am and planned on just staying at the bath until 3 am, which I’m sure was a good alternative to sleeping at the airport) and biked back to our apartment, both absolutely collapsing into bed after such an eventful day. Something about a thermal bath at the end of the night will really take it out of ya!

On Sunday, we “slept in,” got the apartment ready for our departure, and tried in vain to find a good place to eat breakfast. The place we did eat was absolutely terrible and our waiter shortchanged us like CRAZY… but, in our exasperation, we decided not to fight it… we were trying to spend our Hungarian currency, anyway. (We did leave scathing reviews on Tripadvisor after we got home, though.) As we made our way back to the airport and eventually to Dresden by way of Berlin, I was a little sad that this was my last big trip before I return home. However, that sad emotion is always mixed… in this case, I was tired and ready to be in my own bed, as well as knowledgeable of the fact that I will be traveling (just within Germany) for the next two weekends, and of course anticipating my impending trip home!! I can’t believe it’s already mid-July, friends. I just can’t.

One thing I was sure of, though, in leaving Budapest, was that I would love to return one day. I guess I drank the Kool-Aid, but Budapest really was one of my favorite cities… just don’t ask me to list all of my favorites!!! One of my new favorite travel tips is “go to countries with cheap currency,” because seriously… Budapest has all the magic of Paris and all the mystery of Prague for probably half the price! Highly recommended 😉

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berlin in the rain

It is currently really, really hot in Dresden [ok, fine, a high of 90 according to the Weather Channel, but it’s stifling in my room] and the air conditioned library is closed today because it’s a holiday… so frequent work breaks are necessary. {it’s so hard to type while fanning oneself with a folded up piece of paper} So here we go.

Daniel flew into Berlin two Wednesdays ago so I took the bus to the airport to meet him. It had been pouring cats and dogs in Dresden for a few days and it seemed to be the same in Berlin, so I brought both of my umbrellas just in case, which really worked out for us 🙂 Despite a bus delay, I made it to the airport just in time to welcome Daniel to Germany for the first time ever! It was so good to see him again; I missed him!

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We caught a regional train from the airport to Alexanderplatz (or Plaza de Alejandro, as I told Daniel so he would understand me 😉 ) and walked in the rain to our hostel from there… the whole time I regretted wearing a dress because it was also really cold! Trying to recall those sensory memories right now… our hostel was super cool and built over a bar, the best type of hostel in my opinion! We really should have just stayed at the bar and enjoyed their happy hour deals, but I was driven and motivated to show Daniel as much of Berlin as possible, rain be damned!

So, after a stop at a Hackescher Hof restaurant for sausage, potato salad, and beer [we like the orange beer!] we did some quick drive-bys of all the important sights: Fernsehturm, Museum Island and the Berlin Cathedral, Under den Linden, St. Hedwig’s Catholic Cathedral, the Ampelmann gift shop of course, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. That is a lot of stuff. And the whole time we were cold and wet and needing to alternate holding umbrellas with taking photos. Basically it was pretty ill-advised and we should have just gone to a museum or something, but by golly, we saw everything, if only for a few moments before we decided to move on and get out of the rain.

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We did seek respite at a café where we enjoyed some cake… which was not very good, especially after I had spent about 9 months singing the praises of German bakeries to Daniel. We passed by the English and French Cathedrals shortly after our cake break, and continued on to Checkpoint Charlie, which in addition to being an historical crossing point of the former Berlin Wall also has a McDonalds with a free bathroom!

Lots of people dislike Checkpoint Charlie because it is overhyped and kind of touristy, but I really enjoyed the museum there the last time I was in Berlin, and this time I appreciated it as a good jumping-off point for people who aren’t incredibly knowledgeable about the history of divided and reunified Germany (e.g. Daniel).It’s an easy way to connect to the history via the reconstructed checkpoint and actual signs welcoming you to the American and Soviet sectors respectively, and there is a very informative timeline which explains the events between 1945 and 1990 that we perused under the protection of our umbrellas. I know a lot a lot a lot about that time period (thanks almost 8 years of German in high school and college) but it’s always good to get a quick refresher, and it was nice that Daniel was able to learn some of it via a source other than me giving a very enjoyable lecture. I assume it was nice, anyway. He’ll have to speak for himself.

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I remembered from last time that the Topography of Terror was nearby, so we headed there as our last stop before giving up on productive sightseeing. The Topography of Terror is built on the site of the former S.S. Headquarters, and it consists of a library and indoor exhibit (where I’ve never been) and a free history exhibit situated along a still-standing segment of the Berlin Wall. It covers the very vast timeline between the unification of the German empire in 1871 and the reunification of Germany in 1989-1990, focusing greatly on the Nazi party’s ascent to power. We rushed through the exhibit and agreed not to read any photo captions for the sake of our soaked and sore selves.

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And then I noticed a nearby bar that served Kölsch, Cologne’s signature beer and one of my favorites! (Houston people… St. Arnold’s Lawnmower is a Kölsch and it is delicious!) So we enjoyed a nice half liter (again, for Daniel it didn’t live up to the hype… sigh) and some wonderful conversation before steeling ourselves for one last walk to the U-Bahn station nearby!

The next day it did not rain–but it was still cold and I regretted not packing correctly for that! 😦 Also it was Ascension Thursday which I completely forgot about until right before we went to bed so everything was closed except the tourist shops and it was a bit creepy! We started the day with a nice, long walk to the East Side Gallery. On the way, we also saw the Fernsehturm, again, and the Rotes Rathaus (town hall). The East Side Gallery is a segment of the Berlin Wall which was re-imagined as an art exhibit: in 1990, artists were invited to paint murals on the wall to overcome the ugliness of division and war (and the wall itself frankly) with beauty and color. Apparently the last time I was there in 2011, the wall had recently been renovated to remove large amounts of graffiti, so I was surprised at how much the murals have been defaced since I saw them last. Nevertheless, there are some really cool, striking, and beautiful ones (as well as some frankly strange ones).

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We then took the U-Bahn all the way west to Kurfürstendamm, or KuDamm, the biggest shopping street in the city. There are a few sites there, including a Protestant “memorial church” which is frankly really ugly and there was also a service going on inside so we didn’t go in. Also, since it was Ascension Thursday and everything was closed, there wasn’t really a huge incentive for us to walk down KuDamm so instead we continued past the zoo and aquarium and walked to the Victory Column. It was a very uneventful and kind of cold walk, but it was nice nonetheless… plus, I had never actually seen the Column up close!

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We continued down the long boulevard between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate (but for half the time we just walked through the Tiergarten instead). On the way we saw the Memorial to the Soviet Soldiers which I just think is funny and a little creepy, and eventually ended back up at the Brandenburg Gate. It was good to be at Pariser Platz when there were actually other people there!

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I had really wanted to make an appointment to see the Reichstag and to go up in the dome, which I have never done before, but I completely forgot until the day before and you need to register at least a week in advance. So that was sad. Instead, we went down into the U-Bahn station near the Brandenburg Gate that now houses a touristic, 2-stop line in memory of the West German U-Bahn workers during the time of the divided Berlin, and also an exhibit about the history of the Brandenburg Gate. Then we hit up Starbucks for some free WiFi to consult Trip Advisor and we found a Prussian-style restaurant nearby. We indulged in some heavy, heavy German food just to say we did it (pork, potatoes and cabbage… the stereotypes have to come from somewhere, don’t they?). Also, more beer. More true stereotypes. Something went wrong at the restaurant and they forgot about our order for a LOOONG time so we did get a free espresso out of it!

Our next stop was the German History Museum, which we had seen the day before on our walk down Unter den Linden. In hindsight we should have gone right then to avoid the rain, but hey, live and learn. The museum is a really impressive account of all German history starting before the Middle Ages… and because “Germany” wasn’t a thing until 1871, the older exhibits are really all-encompassing. Europe was very interconnected what with the Holy Roman Empire and people conquering different lands and marrying each other all the time… hence, the history was very dense and we spent way too much time in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. So by the time the museum was closing, we were rushingrushingrushing to get through World War I and we never even made it to the separate floor that details 1918-present. Which is some of the most interesting stuff. Oops!! I consoled myself with the fact that we’d done a lot of 20th century historical stuff the previous day.

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We made one last walk through the Museum Island/Berlin Cathedral area, admiring the huge advertisements for the X-Men movie on the way. If the weather had been about 8 degrees warmer it would have been lovely to just lounge in the grass, but it was simply too cold to enjoy ourselves outside for too long. So we headed back to the hostel for some R&R before dinner. That was clutch because we got a good restaurant tip from some other guys in our room: a cheap Vietnamese place around the corner, which ended up being really good! We also took advantage of a stellar Ladies’ Night deal at the hostel bar: I got a free shot of Jägermeister (which I actually do like… probably the only liquor that is semi-enjoyable as a shot) plus a pitcher of Tequila Sunrise for a steal! It was a great way to end our time in Berlin for sure… making up for all the sunlight we hadn’t seen while we were there.

Meanwhile, this was the weather we enjoyed while sitting in a bus to Poland for four hours

Meanwhile, this was the weather we enjoyed while sitting in a bus to Poland for four hours

To be continued…

pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 3, part 2, aka lots of thinking in paris

[Longest title ever! I challenge any forthcoming comic book movies to take this record from me!]

On Wednesday, we walked quickly down to the river to avoid the impending rain… but were only partially successful. We chose a path that took us past the Opera again, but this time down the high-end shopping street at Rue de la Paix and Place de Vendome… we fit right in in our rolled-up pants and rain gear!

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We quickly enjoyed a stroll through the Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre, and then picked up the pace for another brisk walk along the river, this time to the Pont de l’Alma, home of the Museum of the Paris Sewers! I had had this on my list since my Greece conference, where a presenter had mentioned the wonderful sewer exhibit in Paris. And since I’m a water nerd and Laura is a chemical engineer, this was right up our alley — not to mention perfect for an incredibly rainy day. The museum was full of school children — several classes’ worth on field trips. One teacher we met had lived in the Woodlands and actually knew Sugar Land when we told her where we were from! Small world.

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The sewers and sewer exhibit was fascinating. There was a mix of technical (seeing the various techniques, current and historical, used to clean and maintain the sewers), historical (learning about the development and growth of the Paris sewer and water system), hands-on (actually seeing black and greywater channels and pipes), and interdisciplinary aspects (a fascinating exhibit about the growth of Paris and the impact on the city’s sewer, waste, and environmental management development; as well as several homages to Les Miserables).

Valjean carries Marius through the sewer

Valjean carries Marius through the sewer

I loved learning about Napoleon’s contributions to the wastewater system: at the beginning of his reign, one of the emperor’s ministers advised him to work on providing a stable source of clean water for Paris as a way to make a lasting impact on the city; later, in his last memoir, Napoleon acknowledged that his development of Paris’ sewer system had been his proudest accomplishment! He really knew what was up. I love learning about the pivotal role of water management to different civilizations, especially since most of us totally take it for granted. The people in power always know it’s important… it’s in the job description!

It was still raining after we’d finished our sewer tour–perfect museum weather–so we headed to the Army Museum next. We didn’t have much planned for that afternoon, so we speculated that we could afford to spend several hours there … and we did!! The museum covers a total of about 700 years, and it is all fascinating… particularly the narrative of the end of the 19th century and how European power grabs led to the First World War. That’s a time in history I don’t feel I’ve ever learned enough about.

The history of the building was also fascinating: it’s called the Hotel des Invalides, as it was built by Napoleon as a hostel/convalescent home for injured soldiers of the French army. It is absolutely gorgeous!

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[a few nerdy asides. to carry you through this part, consider watching this in honor of the sewer tour-army museum combo]

It was fascinating to read about how Bismarck, the Prussian leader who helped to unite Germany after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, worked to prevent feuding alliances in Europe: if France and Russia became strong allies, and the Balkans still struggled to maintain peace after the Ottoman Empire broke up, Germany would be surrounded by turmoil and divided between its French border and its Russian border… inevitably fighting a war on two fronts. Once Bismarck died, the other European leaders disregarded his advice and what happened several decades later? A war on two fronts for Germany. And things just went downhill from there.

We were also able to walk ourselves through the history of the French Revolution a bit more during that part of the museum; I know a good bit from history and literature classes over the years, and I tried my best to explain to Laura the Engineer 😉 but some of those classes were a while ago now, so it was interesting to read about the different stages of Revolution as we progressed through the 18th and 19th centuries in the museum. It really makes you glad to be an American and thankful that our Revolution “took,” so to speak.

As we entered the Napoleon/imperial epoch, I was also taken by the apparent parallels between Napoleon and Hitler. Both took power during a turbulent time in their country’s history and used patriotism to gain the support of the people; both sought to conquer all of Europe, causing warfare and violence along the way, and met their downfall in Russia. Yet one is regarded ambivalently, as a powerful yet possibly oppressive emperor who did lots of good things for France but maybe could have cooled it with his ambitions of expansion, while the other is the most evil figure in modern history. I don’t want to defend Hitler, and obviously there are several dimensions of “human rights violation” and “racism” that set him apart from Napoleon, but the difference in PR between the two was intriguing to me as I noticed the parallels between them.

Finally, it was interesting and amusing to learn about the World Wars from a French perspective. There were several funny little quips that seemed to over-inflate the importance/adequacy of the French war effort… but maybe that was just our American bias 😉

[Nerdiness over]

Of course, the Army Museum is also the home of Napoleon’s tomb, so that was cool.

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Once we finished at the museum, we were intellectually and physically exhausted – and our feet HURT. So we found a little café near the museum and treated ourselves to coffee and creme brulee… just the perfect indulgence for a rainy and museum-filled day!

Our second indulgence was an extra Metro ride. We had found a restaurant in the 13th Arr. that got rave reviews: it was supposed to have amazing food typical of the Basque region (near Spain) at a student-friendly budget. So we splurged and were rewarded for our risk, because the restaurant was amazing. We both had duck, because we figured we’d go for the option that isn’t typically found in the US. Mine was served with a Rocquefort cheese sauce, which I had had in Spain when I was there and really loved. It was delightful in France, as well! 🙂 My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We also enjoyed some delicious wine. The restaurant got really busy shortly after we arrived, so they seated another guest at our table, and it was really interesting talking to him. He was from Israel, an animation student a bit older than us, and it was cool to talk to him about his travels and his opinions about animated movies. He listed Sleeping Beauty as one of his favorites, which made me proud of my taste in Disney, since that is one of the best in my opinion!

Back at the hostel, we enjoyed more chocolates and Friends episodes after planning our excursion for the next day… a trip to Versailles!!

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When I went to Versailles with my family in 2001, the biggest story of the trip was me getting lost on the Metro on the way back. All I wanted from this trip was for it to be less eventful and I think we accomplished that! It was raining — of course — when we arrived, but my free entry to the palace made me feel better about the terrible weather! The palace is magnificent of course… we paced ourselves a bit oddly, spending a lot of time in the exhibit at the beginning talking about the history of the palace, which kings built which parts, when different renovations were done, etc etc. Which is interesting and all, but… you will never find a museum talking about my landscaping decisions at my vacation house. And that’s all I’m saying.

So maybe I was a bit tired out from that, but nevertheless the furnished parts of the palace are gorgeous! I guess I was surprised at how heavily Greek and Roman mythology themes figured into the decor, but the idea of decorating one’s home allegorically is fascinating! It was interesting that the audio guide didn’t mention the Treaty of Versailles at all in the Hall of Mirrors, but I knew about it anyway so I suppose I win. Do I sound jaded? I’m sorry. I sound totally jaded. I would use the excuse of “but I’ve just been to SOOO many royal palaces in Europe… Munich, Würzburg, Vienna… how is one supposed to have energy for them all?” but come on. Worst problem ever. 😉 Maybe I just had museum fatigue at the end of a jam-packed week in Paris!

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The good news is that by the time we had finished with our tour of the palace, the sun had come out!! So we were able to walk through the gardens with blue skies overhead. That was just wonderful. The gardens are just massive!! And the mythology tropes persist in the decor (the fountains and the naming of things and such). It was so nice to celebrate the return of the sun in such a gorgeous location.

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We took a little walk through the town of Versailles after leaving the gardens… we got a coffee at a little café and I went to buy stamps for my postcards and we even saw the architecture school where my Aunt Mary Beth, blog commenter extraordinaire, spent a year during college! I hadn’t really thought of Versailles being a “town” outside of the palace (though I knew that it was) but it seemed like a cute little place. I’m sure the locals are tired of palace tourists, though!

On our way back to the hostel, we grabbed some pastries we’d had our eyes on all week, which we then ate during a quick siesta. Our plan was to spend the evening in Montmartre, which we hadn’t seen much of outside of our hostel and the Metro station. So after a little rest, we headed up to Sacre Coeur, which is up a deceptively high hill!! It is absolutely gorgeous. Just totally striking.

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We decided on a whim to climb up to the top of the Dome, which was incredible. You already have a great view of the city (sans the Eiffel Tower) from the overlook at the foot of the church, and from the Dome you can see EVERYTHING! It was just gorgeous.

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We descended just in time for Mass, which was beautiful. There are (Augustinian? Benedictine? I think Benedictine) sisters who live at the convent next door and they sang Evening prayer and at Mass. It’s interesting to go to Mass in a language you don’t understand… on the one hand, you could use it as an excuse to zone out, but on the other hand, it can be an opportunity to deepen your prayer because you have to really concentrate on what is going on, and in the end it’s your belief in what actually happens at the Mass that determines your experience… that doesn’t depend on the language at all!

Anyway, we finally got our crepe fix after Mass when I spotted a little creperie on our descent from Sacre Coeur. It was really delicious… especially the very simple lemon crepe we had for dessert.

Afterwards, we went on a little stroll through the neighborhood looking at souvenirs and ended up at Moulin Rouge, our last sight of the week. We didn’t see a show or anything; we just wanted to see what all the fuss was about from the outside. We spotted some mini horses being brought in, ostensibly for that evening’s show! Then, after an awkward walk through the red light/sketchy district full of sex shops and burlesque clubs, we made it back home and called it an early night…. since we both had very early trains/flights in the morning!

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It’s already been 2 weeks since I got back from Paris and I am really nostalgic for the time Laura and I spent there. It was such a lovely week seeing lovely sights in the best company… the city is so full of life, there’s so much to discover, and everything is so pretty… even when it’s kind of ugly. I really do think I could live in Paris (but maybe just short-term), a distinction I’ve only awarded to a few cities I’ve visited. I do hope I get to return someday 🙂

the dos and don’ts of athens

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As a continuation of my semester break adventures, I signed up to attend an International Water Association symposium in Greece. This was really an incredibly flimsy excuse to do a bit more traveling. I flew into Athens, stayed there for several days before attending the conference about 2.5 hours away, and then returned to Athens for a few more days. I absolutely loved Athens, and I’m really glad I got to spend some time exploring the city! I thought I’d share some tips for people who might want to go there someday…

DO bring good walking shoes. (Self-explanatory.)

DON’T buy your walking shoes two days before your trip. (Oops.)

DO go to Athens while you are a student in the EU. Seriously, if you have a European Union student ID, people will throw free things at you like there’s no tomorrow. I got into the Acropolis and all of the other major and minor archaeological sites for free (as opposed to paying a whopping 12 Euros). My visit to the Acropolis Museum was also free (compared to 5 Euros), and I suspect that I would have gotten reduced or free admission to the city’s other museums had I attended any. I also used public transit for half price!

Part of my ticket snuck into this clearly awesome photo, and you can see that I got in for "FREE"!

Part of my ticket snuck into this clearly awesome photo, and you can see that I got in for “FREE”!

DON’T wear a skirt when you go up to the Acropolis. Wannabe hipster that I am, I usually shy away from having “typical” favorites, but my favorite Athens attraction was no doubt the Acropolis, the famous monuments on a hill overlooking the city (including, most famously, the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike). I went up twice because it was so wonderful (and because it was free). The second time, I learned from my previous mistake: it’s super windy up there, and wearing a skirt shorter than probably ankle length is not advisable. I spent the whole time half focused on avoiding a Marilyn Monroe incident.

Clearly not super successful

Clearly not super successful

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DO fondly recall your education in Greek mythology/philosophy as you see the sights. I loved learning about Greek mythology in school (my favorite goddesses were Demeter and Athena, namesake of Athens, and I also really liked Hermes, the wing-footed messenger god). It was cool to see all the ancient temples dedicated to the cults of the different deities. I have also studied Greek philosophy and literature somewhat extensively (thanks Plan II) so it was fantastic to see the Academy of Athens, which is steeped in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Ancient Agora, the birthplace of democracy!

I'd like to thank the Academy

I’d like to thank the Academy

The Temple of Hephaestus, which honored the snubbed, crippled husband of Aphrodite

The Temple of Hephaestus, which honored the snubbed, crippled husband of Aphrodite

Stately columns at the Ancient Agora

Stately columns at the Ancient Agora

 

DON’T be fooled by disparate English names. Don’t follow my example; I was the world’s least educated tourist during most of my time in Athens. I had a vague idea of the things I wanted to see, but I barely knew the difference between the Acropolis and the Parthenon ahead of time. (The Acropolis is the entire hilltop of monuments and ruins; the Parthenon is the most famous of those monuments/ruins.) And so in my ignorance, I created a bit of confusion for myself… for instance, I knew I wanted to see the “Roman Gate and Tower of the Winds,” but even when I followed street signs and wrote down the exact Google Map directions to this supposed monument, I could never find it… until I realized that I had actually already seen it, and that the signage calls it by a different name (the “Roman Agora”). So, in general, I guess it’s a good idea to be a bit more informed than I was, but when all else fails, remember that the translations into English/the Roman alphabet won’t always be exact…

The confusing Roman Gate/Agora

The confusing Roman Gate/Agora

DO eat ALL the Greek food! Souvlaki, various roasted meats and vegetables, hummus, gyros, feta cheese, Greek salad, Greek yogurt and honey… there’s a lot to love. Try it all! (As I’m not an eggplant lover, I did not try moussaka, but that’s one of the most famous dishes.) Greek beer is also surprisingly wonderful! I was glad I went off the beaten path to find less touristy restaurants with better value. I enjoyed a spicy “drunken” beef stew at a tiny restaurant in Plaka (where the waiter treated me to a free aperitif!), and I had delicious fresh mussels from Lesvos in one of the residential districts north of the Academy.  Also, the pastries are delicious; I had one for breakfast every morning and never regretted the decision (but what else is new?).

DON’T casually look at too many street-side menus as you try to pick a restaurant. Waiters and hosts at restaurants are SUPER aggressive. I had to walk past a strip of touristy restaurants several times in the process of getting money from an ATM, and at the time I was literally eating an ice cream cone, so I figured I would be safe from harassment, but no… one of the waiters actually called after me, “That’s not enough for you. You need more.”  If you so much as slow down in front of a restaurant, let alone look at the menu, you will have a table, a menu, and a glass of water faster than you can say “baklava.”

DO see the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square. I’ve seen several changings of guards now, including the famous one at Buckingham Palace and the less famous one at Prague Castle, and the Athenian version is definitely the most entertaining. It involves ridiculous uniforms, slow-motion marching, and lots of high kicks (also in slow motion). Fun for everyone.

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DON’T be alarmed by the number of intimidating looking police officers everywhere. Around Syntagma, there really are police officers everywhere, ostensibly guarding the parliament building and the many embassies in the area. [I found out later that there were so many police in the city because of the Greek Independence Day Parade, which occurred my second-to-last day in Athens.] They’re really intensely outfitted with shields, large guns, and what looked like gas masks, and around the Parliament building they seemed to gather in large groups. I jaywalked as I rushed to get to the square by the top of the hour to see the guards change, and at that moment a HUGE group of officers started processing through the square. I was convinced for several minutes that they were going to arrest me.

Also, DON’T plan to be in Athens on March 25, Greek Independence Day. The whole city shuts down and it’s impossible to get anywhere because of the large military parade that runs through the middle of Athens. I had Vietnam-style flashbacks from the time I was in New York on St. Patrick’s Day…

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DO climb Mount Lycabettus. It’s the highest hill in Athens and you get an absolutely breathtaking panoramic view. There’s a small Greek church at the top, which is gorgeous. Especially if you’ve already been in Athens for a few days, it’s fun to spot all the different landmarks from way up high!

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

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This view upon summiting the mountain just seemed very Greek to me.

This view upon summiting the mountain just seemed very Greek to me.

DON’T be tempted to take the funicular tram to the top. That was my original plan, but then I realized that I shouldn’t plan to pay for something that I could do for free! So I hiked instead, and it was a really great decision. There were so many gorgeous flowers and beautiful vegetation, and I got to enjoy a range of spectacular views as I ascended the mountain.

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DO take a gratuitous number of selfies if you are traveling solo.

At the Parthenon

At the Parthenon

Climbing Mount Lycabettus

Climbing Mount Lycabettus

On the East Slope of the Acropolis

On the East Slope of the Acropolis

DON’T be ashamed of it.

With the Erechtheon

With the Erechtheon

At the National Library

At the National Library

Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora... are we getting tired of this? Clearly I was not.

Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora… are we getting tired of this? Clearly I was not.

Enjoying a windy day on the Acropolis

Enjoying a windy day on the Acropolis

And a final one at the Ancient Agora to bring us home.

And a final one at the Ancient Agora to bring us home.

The historical everyday

The historical everyday

I just found this picture (very small and bad quality because I couldn’t find it anywhere else on the internet!) while clicking through some websites to find interview contacts for my research. This is the street leading up to the castle and cathedral in Dresden… taken in 1934, a year after the Nazi Party gained power. I walk down this street at least every week. Kind of striking, isn’t it? It’s just crazy to me that so many of the places I go every day have hosted some of the most decisive historical people and events of the last century.

4.5 days in london, or: now that i’m broke, i’ll have more time to blog

We had Thursday off for Reformation Day (yay for eastern Germany…), and since I don’t have class on Fridays or Mondays (yay for being done with my degree already), I decided that this would be my chance for once nice, long trip to somewhere of my choosing.DSC03734

I chose London. I’d never been there before, but I’d heard amazing things about the city from almost everyone I know who has been there. Also, my friend Joey is in London studying abroad until December, so if I wanted to see the city and see a friend from home, this was my opportunity! I spent 4 full days in the city and did a LOT during that time, so I’ll break it down by day 🙂

Thursday: To skip over some ridiculous hurdles I encountered during the planning process, I arrived in London on Wednesday around midnight. My hostel for that first night was, just by chance, right in the middle of the action… only a 15 minute walk (not counting getting lost, of course) from Westminster Abbey. Bright and early, I grabbed a trusty tourist map from the hostel and headed out to see the sights on my own before catching a free walking tour at 11.

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I saw Westminster Abbey (from the outside only), cruised past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which I’ll admit was not quite as big as I had expected), walked across the Waterloo Bridge to see the London Eye from up close before heading back across the Thames to the Whitehall neighborhood near Charing Cross. Then I (eventually, after getting a little turned around) walked to Trafalgar Square, which is the first place I really realized, “Whoa! I’m in London!” Why that didn’t occur to me while looking at Big Ben or literally gazing out over the Thames, I’m not sure, but Trafalgar Square is bustling with double-decker buses, you’re surrounded by huge, impressive buildings and statues (and currently one ridiculous blue chicken), and in the rush of all the activity, I could hardly believe I was actually there!

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From there, I walked down Pall Mall past St James’ Palace and Park, which then led me past Buckingham Palace. At this point, it was about 10:30 and the tourists were swarming in for the Changing of the Guard an hour later. However, I kept walking through the Green Park to where my walking tour would soon begin! I found the tour group, which included several other Americans, a few people from France, some native Englanders (is that what they’re called?), and maybe some other people thrown in there. Our guide was a native Londoner, and he showed us around the major sights with a perfect combination of informative-ness and humor. We saw all the stuff I had already seen that morning, as well as the Athenaeum Gentlemen’s Club (so many famous members! It’s crazy), Horse Guard’s Parade, and some parts of the Houses of Parliament complex I’d missed. And probably some others I’m forgetting right now. It was great to actually hear some of the history behind the sites rather than just walking around and looking at buildings, as I normally do 😉

Outside Prince Charles' residence

Outside Prince Charles’ residence

Horse Guards Parade, aka the site of the 2012 Olympics Beach Volleyball! I don't know why that fact blew my mind more than anything haha.

Horse Guards Parade, aka the site of the 2012 Olympics Beach Volleyball! I don’t know why that fact blew my mind more than anything haha.

After the tour, a group of us grabbed lunch at a pub. It was really interesting hearing about everyone else’s travels… what brought them to London, where they’ve been before, where they’re going next.

My next stop was the Churchill War Rooms, an underground exhibit in a bunker near the Houses of Parliament where Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet would work and (mostly) live during the Battle of London and the rest of the war. Despite all the other (free) museums, I really, really wanted to see this one, and it did not disappoint. It was incredible to see the rooms from which Winston Churchill commanded the progress of the war–and many of them were in their original condition, as in at the end of the war, the workers turned off the lights, locked the door, and left, and then it got turned into a museum. As an amateur WWII buff, it was absolutely fascinating to see the maritime maps, the BBC radio broadcast center, the scrambled phone from which Churchill could directly call Roosevelt or Truman, the Churchills’ private dining room… it was just awesome.

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By the time I was done at the museum, it was already getting dark, and I had to pick up my bag from my hostel and move down to my new hostel in Battersea, where I’d be staying for the rest of my trip. I was glad that I decided to finish up my sightseeing in the city before heading down there, because it ended up being quite a haul. However, my hostel had an absolutely charming bar and free wifi, so it was a great place to relax before going to bed every night. (Actually, it was mostly a bar… you walked into the bar, and then you could continue back towards the rooms. Kind of like the Leaky Cauldron! Awesome!)

Friday: After my absolutely delightful first day, I worked hard to put together a perfect plan for Day 2. I wanted to see the East End, as I’d spent the previous day all on the west side. Because I’d bought the East End Tour ticket, I figured I’d take the tour at 11 and then spend the rest of the day at some other East End sites: the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Globe Theater, maybe check out some of the markets… and of course because this was November 1, aka All Saints Day, I would start by going to Mass. So I found a Mass scheduled for 9:30 right near Tower Hill.

However, my first experience with London public transit was not smooth sailing. I got on my first bus headed the wrong direction, and then because the hostel WiFi had stopped working on my phone (since I wasn’t in the hostel anymore, obviously), I didn’t really have a contingency plan. So I saw a bus going to London Bridge and hopped on it. After about an hour (the buses stop approximately every 3 seconds), I wasn’t even halfway to London Bridge, which was not even my eventual destination. So the first chance I got to disembark and hop on the Tube, I took it.

The Tube is wonderful, but why must it be so expensive??

The Tube is wonderful, but why must it be so expensive?? However, the alternative is the bus… it took about an hour to get from Clapham Junction to Elephant & Castle. Gag.

At this point, I had 10 minutes before Mass was supposed to start. So I got on the Northern line and then changed to the District line, sprinted to the church, got there at 9:39, decided that it was worth it to still go, and then realized that the church was totally empty. Apparently because the parish school was on holiday, they only had masses at 12 and 1. So I made the snap decision to skip the tour (my ticket wasn’t bound to a particular day, so I could always go Saturday or Sunday) and spend a few hours at the nearby Tower of London until Mass.

The Tower Bridge

The Tower Bridge

The tower itself!

The tower itself!

The Tower of London was my one big splurge for the week. It cost 18 pounds, but I knew I’d regret it if I came all the way to London and didn’t even see the Tower. Because, you see, as much as I am a WWII buff, I am probably an even bigger Tudor England enthusiast. I have read countless books about Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn and King Henry’s other wives, and even though the Tower is kind of a gruesome place, it was totally cool to actually BE there. I went on a tour guided by one of the yeomen who lives at and takes care of the Tower, and once again was glad to hear the history behind the places I was seeing. There have been some very famous prisoners at the tower… Sir Walter Raleigh, who is even more hated in England for his introduction of line dancing from the States than he is for bringing tobacco here; William Penn, who was released from imprisonment on the condition that he leave England, which he did and shortly founded Pennsylvania; Rudolf Hess, the deputy leader of Nazi Germany; and of course Anne Boleyn, Jane Boleyn, Katherine Howard, and even future-Queen Elizabeth herself!

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And, not to mention, the Tower is now the home of the Crown Jewels. I couldn’t take a picture of them, of course, but you can imagine that there was some intense diamond action going on in there.

After getting my fill of Tudor history, I headed to Mass at the Roman Catholic Church of the English Martyrs. It’s always so refreshing to go to Mass in English! 🙂

During my post-Mass Wifi sesh at Starbucks (seriously, God bless Starbucks for their free Wifi on every corner!), I finally got a response from my friend Joey saying that he was free to meet up later that evening after his lab! We decided to meet at the British Museum, so in the meantime, I headed back to the West End.

My first order of business was to find somewhere to eat, so luckily I stumbled upon a delicious Thai restaurant whose spicy Pad Thai and hot peppermint tea helped me overcome the fact that I had slept horribly the night before. Seriously, I think I will dream of that Pad Thai until August, when I can get back to Thai Cottage 😉

The restaurant was right across the street from the Natural History Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. I chose the latter and treated myself to a few hours of (free) museum time learning about Britain from 1600-1900. I always immediately regret committing large chunks of time to a museum, because inevitably, my feet will start hurting and my main objective will become trying to find a bench to sit on instead of actually enjoying the museum. However, I never learn my lesson. But at least this museum was free!

The gorgeous lobby of the V&A Museum

The gorgeous lobby of the V&A Museum

Then, I made the near-fatal decision to get on the tube at 5:15, which I can only assume is actually rush hour, and it was terrible. I did make it to the British Museum, though a little late, and immediately realized that it was a terrible choice of a meeting place for 2 people unable to contact each other via cell phone. It’s huge and there are people everywhere. However, after about 15 minutes of frantic searching and trying to borrow someone’s phone, I finally found Joey!

A bit about Joey, in case my readership ever expands and people are curious.

This is me and Joey near the George Washington statue on UT's campus. We love freedom, clearly.

This is me and Joey near the George Washington statue on UT’s campus. We love freedom, clearly. (And Mary. And America.)

 

Joey is my brother’s age, a 3rd year at UT. I met him after he went on Longhorn Awakening his freshman year, but actually the first thing I knew about him was that he had a class with my brother! Small world. Joey is a Plan II major, so he is currently holding down the Plan II/Catholic fort after all of us graduated last year. Except he’s in England now. In any case, he is a rockstar Biochemistry/Pre-Med kinda guy, which means he knows way more science than me and he has to do things like go to labs on Friday afternoon. After we finally connected, we got to spend the weekend doing fun London-y things, gossiping about our mutual friends (I mean, what?), and being our sassy selves.

At this point, I was really tired of museum-ing so we decided to get something to eat and then just walk around for a bit. Joey introduced me to the wonders of Pret, a ubiquitous, affordable organic-y eatery on every block. With our sandwiches in tow, we headed to his university plaza, where we ate, avoided fire jugglers, and talked about our abroad experiences. It’s always nice to talk to people going through the same thing as you! (I always make it sound like I’m at war or something, don’t I? I don’t mean to be dramatic.)

Since I knew I had quite the trek to make back to my hostel, the night ended there, but not before we made plans to go to High Tea together the next day!

To be continued, since you’re a rockstar if you’ve even made it this far!