Siena & The Mazzei Winery

Last weekend when my family was visiting, we took a day trip to Siena -- a little under a two-hour train ride from Florence.

Specifically, we ventured into the beautiful Tuscan area on the outskirts of the city of Siena -- by Castellina di Chianti -- to attend a wine tasting & tour of the Mazzei winery. It took a few transportation setbacks between being told to take the wrong buses and not having buses show up, but we made it!

After a lovely wine-tasting (Zisola is possibly my new favorite red wine), our guide Vittoro led us through the enchanting little village of the winery.

I was so happy that my mom could see the picturesque countryside of Italy that we always sigh over in chickflicks ๐Ÿ™‚

There were barrels and barrels of vino stored away in the rustic cellars... The Mazzei winery is still family-run from the original family line that started the business in 1435!

This is the "library." (Now that's my kind of library!) Vittoro was telling us how part of his job is to test these wines. "It is good job" he remarked in a tone as if we needed convincing.

Even the gloomy weather couldn't take away from the village's quaint beauty.

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Bonjour, Paris & Versailles! (Spring Break: Part IV)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

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Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

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Paris felt very similar to NYC between the way it's laid out, the way the people spend their time, and the Westernization. The Eiffel Tower was certainly the main attraction for us. We spent very much of our day lounging on the green beneath it.

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rawr

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At sunset, we went up to this building where people congregate outside to watch the sun set over the city. The atmosphere was like a giant, relaxed party for the community. People brought their wine and baguettes, guitars, soccer balls, etc. It was like sitting among a bunch of friends you've never met.

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Although the sky was hazy, the view was quite nice. Check out the guy showing off his tricks with a soccer ball while he climbs up that lamp post!

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At night, we walked around the area of our hostel in search for a good, chill bar. Along the way, some French guys asked for a cigarette. While we couldn't provide their request, they were kind enough to provide us with a suggestion of a great bar near our hostel. There, we befriended a large group of Parisians. I had been warned before going to Paris that the French are not friendly to Americans at all. However, I found them to be very welcoming and friendly--whether it was a shopkeeper, restaurant waiter, random woman walking her dog, guys we were talking with at the bar, or people sitting next to us in a restaurant who helped us translate the menu. Most young Parisians speak English very well, too. So, this was all a nice surprise that added warmth to our experience in Paris.

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And of course, we saw the Eiffel Tower do its sparkle (happens every hour). It's hard to appreciate just through a picture, but the sparkling lights were very over-the-top.

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Versailles

We spent almost an entire day visiting the great palace of Versailles, which was absolutely incredible.

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"CARTWHEELS IN EVERY COUNTRY!"

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Every room of the building was unbelievably lavish. Here, we're standing in the Hall of Mirrors. I wanted to put on a ball gown and dance away to piano music!

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The outside was decorated with elaborate gardens that I've only ever seen in movies.

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...Impressive backyard.

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You could literally spend hours walking through the kilometers of roaming space behind the palace. Many people rent bicycles so that they can actually explore it all. We ventured out by foot though.

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It was like I was in a Jane Austen novel. All of a sudden, I was Elizabeth Bennet, rendezvousing through the simple, quaint woods beyond the extravagant palace.

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"Oh, Mr. Darcy! Come meet me at the gazebo!"

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Here, we enter the idyllic estate of Marie-Antoinette's cottage.

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โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”

It was almost surreal to be back in time like this...

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Well, that concludes my Spring Break series. Since then, I’ve also visited Fiesole, and will be visiting Siena tomorrow. I am very excited because my family is visiting me in Florence this weekend for Easter and my 21st birthday! Unfortunately, the weather is not ideal for this–it’s raining for the first time since I moved to Florence in January! But, hopefully it’ll clear up, and we’ll nonetheless have a great time. I’m excited to share this experience with my family, and to watch them relive my first reactions to the overwhelming buildings and atmosphere in Florence that I’ve grown accustomed to by this point. So, ciao for now!

Hey, Amsterdam! (Spring Break: Part III)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”

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.

Hallo, Berlin! (Spring Break: Part II)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

  • Part I: Ahoy, Prague!
  • Part II: Hallo, Berlin!
  • Part III: Hey, Amsterdam!
  • Part IV: Bonjour, Paris & Versailles!

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Welcome to BEARlin! ๐Ÿ˜€ …We saw these silly bears all over the city.

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This was actually my first impression of Germany…spotted in the LADIES’ restroom on our way to Berlin.

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We arrived in Berlin on a rather gloomy evening, which made the city feel so dark and creepy that it was almost surreal. It actually reminded me of a rainy day in NYC though, except much more deserted and eerie.

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Berlin was the only city where we stayed in a true hostel–a space for travelers to communally share a temporary living space with. Our room was shared among 16 girls, set up as a little labyrinth of bunk beds. The community shower wasn’t particularly delightful, but it was a good experience to have as someone traveling through Europe.

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Our hostel had an AWESOME reception space though, which was also just a public bar.

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Cheers! This hostel reception space was a great place to mingle with other students traveling on this Northern Europe Loops trip, and with other travelers in general.

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Lubzer is the best beer I tried on this trip — and it was cheap on draft in Germany!

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Maps are indeed necessary when traveling. And my navigation skills truly elevated from city to city! Practice makes perfect ๐Ÿ˜‰

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We took the Metro in both Berlin in Paris. The European public transportation is GREAT–at least in these cities. Clean, frequent, organized and very accessible.

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The East Side Gallery

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The East Side Gallery

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The East Side Gallery

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The East Side Gallery

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Oh hai

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WWII history surrounded us everywhere. At one point, we were even standing where Hitler killed himself. Cue goosebumps.

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The only Nazism-style building that remains.

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Berlin Wall

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Checkpoint Charlie

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This is one of my favorite things we saw on our tour through WWII history. It’s an underground monument outside Humboldt University, where the great book burning took place. The monument is a library of empty shelves built underground that is inaccessible, and only viewable through a small transparent piece of ceiling walked upon on the street above. It represents the absence of those books that were destroyed.

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On a lighter note, Berlin ended up being really fun despite the melancholy moments of dark history! And speaking of making history, this is possibly the most hilarious picture ever taken of my friends and me.

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I started “The Great Cartwheel Race,” which attracted a large audience of onlookers, and a group of Italian tourists also outside the site who decided to partake.

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“CARTWHEELS IN EVERY COUNTRY!!!”

Ahoy, Prague! (Spring Break: Part I)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

  • Part I: Ahoy, Prague!
  • Part II: Hallo, Berlin!
  • Part III: Hey, Amsterdam!
  • Part IV: Bonjour, Paris & Versailles!

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Architecture / City

Prague is truly full of stunning architecture. Not only will the historic sites impress you, but also the residential & commercial buildings as well.

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The famous clock tower. We had an AWESOME walking tour leader, Filip, who is honestly my favorite European I've met yet. He is young, quirky, and really brought the city's history to life through his animated storytelling. It was very amusing to hear him mock the clock tower, though, because of its anticlimactic "show" that happens every hour, which people come from all over the world to see and are always just like "oh" when it's over.

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The Old Town Square

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"Frodo, watch out! NAAAAAZGUUUUUL!"

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Very possibly my favorite building I've seen in Europe.

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To the castle we go!

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City by day

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...And city by night

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Czech out the people & culture!

I wasn't sure if I was looking at a soldier or a LARPer...

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The classic old dude playing accordion-like instrument with monkey ๐Ÿ™‚

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I have no idea what instrument this guy was playing, but it was awesome.

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I LOVED the people and culture of Prague. The Czechs are extremely friendly and communal. And they say "Ahoy!" as a greeting, which is badass. I would like America to adapt this pirate lingo.

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The Czech currency is crowns instead of euro, and will make you feel like an absolute 'baller. I only took out 40 Euro (~$52), which equated to 1000 crowns. It came in just one bill. Madness.
P.S. I did not mean to flip you off in this photograph -- I apologize.

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Marionettes were EVERYWHERE. This is one of the creepier ones I encountered...

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Absinthe is huge in Prague. If you've seen Eurotrip, you know all about "the green fairy" behind the craze of this bright green beverage. I had never seen it before, but it was a major component of every bar and liquor shop.

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Beer is by far the greatest drink of Prague, though. Apparently, Czechs drink more beer per capita than any other nation! Pilsner Urquell is one of their major beers, and all beers were generally cheaper than water where we went ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

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Nightlife in Prague

Prague has excellent nightlife. Whether you're looking for a relaxed atmosphere, a jolly pub to drink some beers, or a crazy club with good dance music, the city is full of great locations to have a great time.
We happened to be there St. Patrick's Day weekend, so we kicked off Spring Break with some green beers!

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On our first night, we partook in a major Pub Crawl that brought us to four different locations. It felt really silly traveling in this giant mob of young people from place to place, but it was a fun experience to try.

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Cheers!

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I am on the hunt for the kind of Electronic/Techno/Dance music that I heard in Prague. It was unlike anything I've ever heard because it had a noticeable influence of polka beats under the music (which may sound weird/corny, but it was very well done, very unique, and very enjoyable!)

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The next night, we czeched out a five-story club -- the largest dance club in all of Europe!

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At an AWESOME Irish pub we found on St. Patrick's Day, we asked for tequila shots. The bartender asked "silver or gold?" and I had no idea what that meant. He then explained that silver is taken with lemon, while gold is taken with cinnamon and orange. I said I wanted silver, but with salt and lime, and that I had never heard of the latter. "Aaaah, you are American, huh?" he replied. Apparently, tequila with salt and lime is a very American thing, and tequila with cinnamon and orange is something that most Americans don't know about. We eventually tried it...I didn't like it. But the Olmeca brand (also a tequila I've never heard of) was wonderful!

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After checking out the five-story dance club, Heather and I ended up going back to that Irish pub that we loved so much. It was late at this point, but it was still really energetic in there. We met some very friendly people from Dublin and conversed with them a bit. Then, the bartender who had served us the tequila earlier that night emerged next to us, now dressed in normal attire because his shift was done. He introduced himself as Jacob, joined us, and we were welcomed to stay until the wee hours of the morning. He introduced us to a shot of Absinthe lit on fire--which I guess is part of the Prague experience, but a pretty awful one! The alcohol literally burns down your body and leaves a terrible aftertaste. It's no wonder why he kept laughing to his friend, "I can't believe I'm having this!" One of the interesting parts of our conversation with Jacob was about Czech's attitudes towards Americans. We explained to him that we're constantly warned about Europeans' disdain for Americans. His instant response was, "What? We LOVE Americans!" And I must say, of everywhere I've been in Europe, Czech Republic is by far where I felt the most welcomed and accepted. What a great culture and great people.

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Our last night in Prague ended when the sun was rising...We truly made our short time there matter. Two hours after going to bed, Heather and I were woken up by the girls sharing our room in the hostel (who were also on this "Northern Loop of Europe" trip). "Wake up! We have to board the bus for Berlin in 10 minutes!" That was the quickest getting-ready/packing job I've ever done.

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John Lennon Wall

In my opinion, the John Lennon Wall is a must-see if you go to Prague...

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We all took a turn contributing something new to the wall... I put up lyrics from a Scranton, Pennsylvania-based indie band I love, Tigers Jaw, and sent them a picture of it on Facebook with a "Welcome to the John Lennon wall!" caption.

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"POW!"

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Sending lots of love from Prague! โค

Spring Break series

Ciao!

Over the 10 days of Spring Break, I traveled through 7 different countries and visited 4 major cities–WHEW! I spent over 48 hours total on a bus, and have over 848 photos on my camera. And now, I have ~1 million things that must be done…or so it seems.

So, my Spring Break series is on its way slowly but surely! I’ll share some highlights, stories and pictures from my experiences in Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris (and Versailles) through a four-part series. Here’s a small sneak peak of what’s to come:

As exhausting as this trip was, it was downright the most amazing experience of my life!

Adventures in Assisi

March 3, 2012 - I decided not to look up anything about Assisi before boarding the train, so that everything I saw would be a complete surprise and adventure. That's the way to do it.

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When we arrived in the Assisi train station, we looked out at the medieval city up on the afar hills. The castle on top seemed so high and far away that we had some doubts about reaching it, at first. There was one desolate road that went towards that city, so we started walking, unsure of exactly how long and direct this journey would be.

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...It was a beautiful walk.

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(Photo credit: Heather Ayvazian) As we entered this medieval city, every winding layer of road we climbed only became more and more impressive. I kind of felt like I was climbing up the city of Gondor, except with an atmosphere of warmth instead of gloom.

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This was my first visit to a Tuscan countryside area, and it truly was picturesque.

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I love Italy ๐Ÿ™‚

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As we approached the top of the hills, we ventured off a main road and through a dirt pathway that lead us through the woods and up to the castle. Along the way, I spotted so many intriguing encounters, like this.

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STORM THE CASTLE!

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Feeling on top of the world.

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Rocco Maggiore

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oh hai there ๐Ÿ˜€

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Rob the Majestic

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I love feeling like I'm in Robin Hood...

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Basilica Papale di San Francesco

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...The most incredible sunset I've ever seen.

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And that concludes my adventures in Assisi...