Rome in a Day

Everyone told us we’d need more than one day in Rome to see all we want to see, but we proved them wrong–even on a beautiful Friday in May!

We started with a trip back into ancient times, with the Colosseum and incredible city of ruins.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

I thought I only could experience ancient, ruined cities like this in video games ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

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This building is incredible…

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The Pantheon

Trevi Fountain

Next we headed over to the Vatican City. It was crazy how it was an entire little “city” walled off from the rest of Rome.

Vatican City

The Vatican Museum …Now I can see how the Pitti Palace in Florence (post-Medici takeover) was an attempt to mimic the classical Roman styles with lavish Baroque-style and manneristic architurecture/decorations.

The Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum — The Sistine Chapel — Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam and Eve” and “The Last Judgment”

It took a very long time to actually exit the Vatican Museum…We kept getting led through more and more halls, until we got to this staircase and decided that we are probably being sent to hell……especially after Heather yelled “Jesus!” in response to strong sunlight, but right in the face of the nun she wasn’t expecting to see upon turning away from the sun glare. (Instant sun glare to nun glare).

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica — “It’s like God himself is radiating through the dome!” -random man

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica — Michelangelo’s “Pieta”

St. Peter’s Basilica…Definitely one of my favorite sites I’ve seen in Europe.

After the Vatican, we STILL had more time to explore Rome! We ventured along the river, met with a friend of Heather’s for dinner (Rome has awesome pizza), roamed around Rome more, and then headed back to the train station for Florence–all before it got dark.

Looking at these pictures, it still feels surreal that I was actually there. It’s so weird to learn about and know of these sites in such a distant way since elementary school, and then to actually be there. I’m so glad I got to experience it!

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Munich Springfest: PROST!

Springfest 2012 in Munich, Germany

Springfest, modeled after the famous Oktoberfest, is not just a festival of drinking beer into oblivion. It’s a giant, culturally-themed fair with rides, foods and German traditions.

This attraction is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in my life. The children are put into giant balls and then sent afloat to struggle like hamsters who can neither gain any momentum nor maintain any stability.

Groups of attendees in elaborate costumes would spontaneously spring into traditional music and dances of the old German culture.

I was so impressed to see even young adults embracing the cultural traditions. They clearly planned with large groups of friends to coordinate choreographed dances and matching costumes.

The theme decorations were so cute!

You could get your schnitzels and bratwursts at every few stands, including a half-meter one!

And there were cutely decorated sweets all around as well.

And, of course, BEER. Beer served in these giant steins. This is the Radlermass–the most refreshing beer I’ve ever tasted. It apparently involves lemonade, which wasn’t distinguishably tasteable, but certainly added a little sweetness.

The waiters serving beers in the tents were kept VERY busy. I wonder how many giant barrels of Augustiner were consumed ๐Ÿ˜ฎ …What was even more amazing was seeing the waitresses carry up to ten filled steins at a time!

This is what the Augustiner tent looked like during the day–pretty family-friendly.

But from about 7-11pm (when it closed), the Augustiner tent evolved into “the routy tent.” When the band started playing, everyone ascended right up to stand on the benches of the table and remain up there for the remainder of the night singing, dancing, cheersing and drinking.

After the first night, I woke up with a swollen hand from holding my heavy stein all night ๐Ÿ˜ฎ PROST! (“Cheers!”)

To me, the most awesome aspect of this tent and the college-age Springfest experience is how innocently jolly and cultural it was. Yes, it was crazy in there–beer spilling all over the place, everyone being loud and routy, people jumping up and down on the benches, sometimes someone falling–but in a way that I don’t experience in American culture. Tables were shared among strangers who became friends, most the people were dressed in the traditional costumes, people were chanting along with ye olde historical drinking songs and German tunes, and the dancing was not distasteful the way it would be in a club. It was an incredibly unique experience that I will always remember. And as our German companions told us: “This is nothing compared to Oktoberfest!” …I can’t even imagine.

At 11pm, the fair shut down and everyone flooded out of the tents. This is unfortunately when my belongings got stolen ๐Ÿ˜ฆ but Springfest was overall too great to be spoiled.

My weekend in Munchen was not just about festing, though. My friends and I did lots of exploring through the city both on foot and with a bike tour!

We were slightly nervous about biking through the city in a giant group, but we managed!

Munich is full of beautiful architecture ๐Ÿ˜€

Hofbrรคuhaus Brewery

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St. Cajetan’s Church

St. Cajetan’s Church

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We spent quite a bit of time in the English Garden — a large and beautiful park.

The English Garden holds the Chinesischer Turm, the second largest beer garden in the world (where our bike tour guide of course had us stop for a stein at before continuing on our tour…)

There was a large, grassy area for lounging and playing sports, but it came with two major surprises: 1) Nude tanning. When we first approached the area, we realized that a lot of the sunbathers were naked. My friends and I chose to lounge at a spot near the stream that didn’t seem to have any naked people. After laying on my back a bit, I flipped around to read my book and was shocked to see an old, naked man sitting only a few meters in front of my with his junk hanging out. Not cool. 2) The stream went throughout the entire park and moved with a lot of velocity. Every now and then, we’d see people in the stream quickly float past us, carried with the force of the water. It looked fun but crazy!

This stream also had an area with waves for surfers, tucked away in the woods. Again, one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen….

Our weekend in Munich for Springfest is one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life….I hope I can go back for Oktoberfest someday!

Hey, Amsterdam! (Spring Break: Part III)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

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Hello from Amsterdam! ...The city that really did live up to its reputation!

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The city

The city of Amsterdam is a mix of many different cultural influences. The streets are full of diverse kinds of shops and restaurants, from Chinese food to McDonalds. The streets and buildings themselves are lovely.

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Amsterdam is full of beautiful canals. Legend has it that the water is full of bikes thrown into the canals by intoxicated Dutch.

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Between the canals and the old architecture maintained by the houses and buildings, the city as a whole kind of felt like a fairytale city.

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And of course, you can't describe Amsterdam without mentioning the bikes! Bicycles seem to be the main mode of transportation in the city. Around 5:00 was what I call "bike rush hour," when hundreds of bikes would be flocking the streets. I couldn't help notice that all the bikers seemed quite jolly, too ๐Ÿ™‚

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As I've mentioned in some past posts, "Follow the music" has become a golden rule when visiting cities--always leading to good things. This time, the music lead us to this funky fellow playing some odd instrument in a canal.

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Fun fact which has nothing to do with this photo!: Dutch men are on average the tallest men of any nation! They are also beautiful and healthy, from my own observational research--maybe from all that bike riding?

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Alright, I'm just going to point this out despite any judgment I may receive because I KNOW I am not the only one who noticed this... But the street bars appeared like so, and with the nation's "XXX" symbol on it. Even our tour guide couldn't resist pointing out the uncanny resemblance to something regarding Amsterdam's reputation for sex, and challenged whether the "XXX" symbol is just a coincidence. HOW CURIOUS. On that note...

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The Red Light District

We've all heard about the Red Light District... Where prostitution is legal and embraced. Our tour guide explained the rational behind it -- that the Dutch are very pragmatic, business-driven people. This is a successful business, and it's operated in a safe and regulated way which gives more power to the female prostitutes. For example, pimping is not allowed. And if anyone tries to take a photo of these girls working their windows, they will come out and smash your camera or throw a bucket of pee on you. The more I learned about the business angle of the Red Light District from the female perspective, I almost started to feel ok with it.--that is, until my friends and I visited it at night...

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Our hostel was actually located right on the border of the Red Light District. When we turned a street, there was a church and this unique monument in the ground. There were also naked girls in the windows. ("Why a church?" you might ask. Quite a paradox, it seems. Well, the church does not operate with prostitutes--just the surrounding area. But back in the day, sailors who had been trapped at sea without women for many months would land in Amsterdam and want a woman very badly. So, the church saw a business opportunity here--let the men do that with the service of the Red Light District girls, but then have them attend church to repent their sins and pay for it. Apparently, the church would even allow them to pay in advance for however many sins they were probably about to commit with a prostitute that night and maybe even next morning too! So, that's why there's a church in the heart of the Red Light District!) Anyway, as interesting and perhaps even convincing it is to hear about and read about the pragmatism and positivity behind the Red Light District, experiencing it--particularly at night--is completely different. Walking through these streets lined with almost-naked young (and old) girls knocking on their windows and posing for the swarms of guys walking by....its dehumanization suddenly sinks in when you're actually there. These girls showcase themselves like animals in a petting zoo. I couldn't really look them in the eye because I didn't know how they really felt and I couldn't handle the chance of detecting it. I also wondered if they hated seeing females walking through, since we're less likely to be customers and more likely to just be curious onlookers. I didn't see a sex show, like many people my age do while in Amsterdam, because I honestly have no desire or curiosity to explore that. My quick but eye-opening (no pun intended) walk through the RLD was more than enough of an experience.

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Coffee shops / Drug use

(Credit: AmsterdamNightLife.net) Another infamous aspect of Amsterdam is the drug use, mainly with Marijuana. To be clear, pot is not legal in Amsterdam. However, the streets are full of coffee shops, where adults can enter to purchase, smoke or consume weed as they please. It is SO blatant, because "coffee shop" (as opposed to "cafe" or whatnot) is so clearly understood as a place to get high. But, there is a greater policy of not being an idiot about it: if you do it in the privacy of your own home or a coffee shop, and you are not harming anyone, then they let it fly. It's unbelievable, but something the world could maybe use more of. And it all comes back to that Dutch mentality of pragmatism that I mentioned before. They want to encourage prosperous businesses like this--or at least not interfere with them if they are doing no harm.

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Pancakes

On a much more innocent note, Amsterdam has some mighty delicious pancakes.

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Cheers!

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Van Gogh Museum

We visited the Van Gogh Museum, which was absolutely wonderful. If you appreciate art and are in the city, go there for sure.

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The Anne Frank Museum

There is this church in the city which plays the most hauntingly eerie music you could imagine. We heard it from afar, and didn't realize until we approached it that it was right next to the Anne Frank Museum. This is the church that she references in her diary.

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(Credit: ParanormalKnowledge.com) Visiting the Anne Frank Museum is another must-do while in Amsterdam. It guides you through the actual house that Anne Frank and her family stayed in while hiding. The experience is beautifully laid out, first informing you about the house, then immersing you in not only the context of the house but the stories behind their stay, and then the entire experience is capped with the family's continued experiences at the concentration camps. It's a very powerful and emotional experience that's definitely worth taking a break from the fun and carefree activities of Amsterdam.

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The Heineken Experience

Contrary to the Anne Frank Museum, the Heineken Experience is a hella fun museum experience for anyone who appreciates a good brew.

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Oh hai

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First, you experience the history behind Heineken, and then you're guided through the brewing experience!

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After the old photographs, artifacts and replications of old machinery, you're taken through very modern rooms. They're full of unique, interactive experiences using some really cool technology and visual effects.

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And for the finale, you are served a lovely Extra Cold Heineken! ๐Ÿ˜€

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Amsterdam...Certainly the most unique city I've experienced.

Venice (Part I): St. Mark’s Square & Basilica

Venice, Italy

  • Part I: St. Mark’s Square & Basilica
  • Part II: Venetian cuisine
  • Part III: Murano glass-making
  • Part IV: Burano, “The Island of Painted Houses”
  • Part V: Carnival Weekend

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Four layers of clothing & ninja-style scarf-wearing, and we're ready for our boat ride across the lagoon to Venezia!

Introduction

My weekend in Venice (February 11-12th) will always remain one of my favorite memories.

Despite the unusually cold weather (we saw the lagoon freeze for the first time in ~50 years), Chelsea and I had an amazing time. We captured the picturesque sights of the islands and canals, visited churches and museums, learned how the artisans of Murano craft glass, tasted traditional Venetian dishes, and took part in the festivities of Carnevale.

While the pictures cannot possibly convey the true beauty and spirit of Venice, hopefully they can share a glimpse of this wonderful experience ๐Ÿ™‚

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Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square)

St. Mark’s Square is the most stunning piazza I could imagine. When arriving to this main island of Venice, the dock area on the water is lined with adorable shops, restaurants and hotels. As you walk towards the Piazza San Marco, the buildings, statues, canal views and architecture suddenly surround you and can take your breath away. (I must admit, the sunlight–which we didn’t experience until the afternoon of Day 2–makes the views so much more beautiful than the gloomy sky backdrop in some of these photos).

St. Mark's Campanile - The bell tower is over 300 feet tall. In Part 4 of this Venice series, you'll see pictures of "the flight of the angel" Carnevale opening ceremony, when a woman took a "flight" from the balcony of the campanile!

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Ciao! The cold weather could not possibly dampen my mood for this trip ๐Ÿ™‚

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Palazzo Ducale - It took over a century to construct the Doge's Palace (the Duke's Palace), which is a stunning example of Gothic architecture from the 14th century.

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Torre dell'Orologio - The Clock Tower of Venice is so magnificent that legends say the engineers and designers had their eyes gouged out afterwards to assure that no other city could possibly acquire such a wonder ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

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Throughout Venice, the winged lion is the most prevalent animal symbol, representing St. Mark the Evangelist. Horses are another animal symbol, though, particularly found at the Church of St. Mark. They hold a symbolic history of Venetian independence and power, dating back to tales of war booty from Constantine's hippodrome during the fourth Crusade in 1204.

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco (The Church of St. Mark)

St. Mark’s Basilica is absolutely unbelievable. It’s a Roman Catholic church of Byzantine and Gothic architecture built in the early 11th century, and “divine” is really the most appropriate adjective to describe it. The intricate structure and decorations of the exterior blew me away, and then the immense mosaic and details of the interior completely mesmerized me.

St. Mark's Basilica

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St. Mark's Basilica - Waiting in line to enter the cathedral was a pleasure, because even the exterior of the building is extraordinary. I couldn't believe the details in the columns and paintings.

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St. Mark's Basilica

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St. Mark's Basilica - An amazing gold mosaic decorates ~8,000 square-meters of the intricate ceilings and walls.

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St. Mark's Basilica - The horses of St. Mark

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St. Mark's Basilica - The downstairs level is covered in Gothic decorations. It's hauntingly beautiful, filling you with this reflective feeling of awe.

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From inside the Basilica, you can access the balcony to see beautiful views of St. Mark's Square.

Check back for Venice: Parts II, III, IV and V about 2) Venetian cuisine, 3) Murano glass-making, 4) Burano (“The Island of Painted Houses”), and 5) the Carnevale.

Piazza S. Elisabetta

I found my piazza! And guess what it’s famous for: an ancient female prison!

I discovered Piazza S. Elisabetta when on a walking tour for my first architecture class. The professor led us to an interesting but less-known site in Florence: la Torre Bizantina della Pagliazza. It means “the straw tower.” At first, I didn’t understand why it is called “the straw tower” when it is famous for being possibly the oldest structure in Florence, because it is a rare survivor of the original Roman wall in the 9th century. Then my professor explained that this tower was a female prison…and because it imprisoned ladies, the captives had the luxury of a little bit of straw to use as a pillow (unlike the men who just had to bear with the solid ground). Hence, it is called “the straw tower.”

La Torre della Pagliazza is actually part of a hotel now. It's neat to look at, but I don't think I'd want to sleep there!