Sunday, 9 May 2010

London Again? YES please!

To kick off my second week of traveling, I headed back down to London for the second time to meet up with my dad and grandpa for while before they were planning on coming up to see Edinburgh. London, easily, has turned into one of my favorite place--especially after my first trip there in January with the girls--so having the chance to go back and see it with some London-experts was SO exciting.

April 9th--Day (Night) 1 in London: Note to self, don't fly with a congested head
After spending the day attempting to recover from what was now a full blown head cold, I got myself to the airport for my evening flight to London and just prayed I'd make it through the take-off and landing-cabin pressure changes. While I did make it through, by the end of the flight, I couldn't hear a thing out of either of my ears, and this problem would persist for almost the entire London vacation. However, I was so incredibly excited to back in the city and to see my dad and grandpa, that I blocked out my head cold (no pun intended) and was determined to not let the sickness slow me down. I successfully found my dad and grandpa in the London airport and after lots of hugging and smiles, we headed for Picadilly and the RAF Club so that we could drop our bags and settle in! Compared to our hotel in Little Saudi when I was staying with my friends, the RAF Club was located right on Picadilly, only a couple blocks away from the Circus and right across the street from St. James Park. It was an absolutely incredible location, and I couldn't believe I got to stay there for the next 4 nights!!

Day 2 in London: Billy Elliot and Walking tour of the city--emphasis on WALKING
Starting the day off with an impressive breakfast at the RAF club was the perfect introduction to this London vacation. Afterwards, having sized up the weather an being impressed by all of the sun, my dad and I said goodbye to my grandpa for the morning and set off to tackle the city on foot. And did we ever accomplish that. We started by walking through St. James Park (which, again, was RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET from our hotel) and to the other side where Buckingham Palace is. Of course, because we had perfect timing and perfect weather, we got to Buckingham right around 11am, which meant so did thousands of other excited Londoners and tourists looking to see the changing of the guards. Having decided that we've both been there and done that, we skirted around the massive crowds standing in front of the palace gates and went to the left hand side of the compound to where the stables are. Here, we found the guard's band warming up for the show, and so we decided to stay and watch for a bit before they left. They were warming up Yellow Submarine, of all songs, so there we were, in London and a gorgeous afternoon and we were listening to the royal band play a Beatles song! It was the perfect start to a great day.

Yup, that's my dad....being suuuuuper touristy :)
From there, we went continued walking through the park and onto Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Parliament Building, and finally got across the bridge to the London Eye. Even though I'd been in the exact same spot 3 months ago, those sights just don't get old. There are definitely a million pinch-me-I'm-in-London moments while you're walking around the city, and the Westminster Bridge is definitely one of them. As we walked towards the London Eye and then past it on our way to the Globe Theater, I was amazed by a) how freaking nice it was out! and b) how many more people were there than when we were there in January. We stopped at the same great bagel place I had found with the girls that was right near the Eye and soaked up some more sun before walking along the Thames again. The whole promenade around the Eye was packed with people, and as we continued to walk down the water, we saw tons of street performers lined up doing all sorts of stuff--there were painted people, dancers, musicians...everything you could imagine. We stopped at a few performers to check it out and then kept on walking, and after a long long ways later, we finally made it to the Globe Theater. However, we were cutting it close on time because we needed to get back to the hotel in time for dinner before our musical that night, so we decided there wasn't enough time to do the entire tour of the place. However, we did sneak in to the exhibit part of the theater and looked at some of the history surrounding the building and Shakespeare. There was this incredible poster that listed all of the sayings that came from Shakespeare's writings and reading through them all was really interesting. Things like "tongue tied" and "in a pickle" can all be traced back to one of his plays.

Massive crowds and crazy street performers on the Thames
Alllll of the sayings that come from Shakespeare--look closely and you can read some!
Finally though, we had to go back to Picadilly, so we started the long trek back. We talked the entire way back (and there for that matter) about everything we needed to catch up on from the past couple of months, and it was so great to be able to just stroll around London with my dad and relax. We were excited to meet back up with my grandpa at the hotel though before we headed out to our favorite Tapas restaurant in the Shepard's Market in the Mayfair area of the city. Of course, this was right around the corner from our hotel, so my grandpa, dad and I went there almost every night to sample all of the amazing restaurants we had found back there. However, tonight, we were headed somewhere even more special after dinner--the musical, Billy Elliot! Right next door to the theater I saw Wicked at in January, we got to see another amazing show. Billy Elliot's cast was probably around 80% children, and all of them, especially the boy who played Billy, were absolutely amazing dancer. It was so much fun to see them tap dance, sing, and perform a show about British politics while we were in Britain! Also, just being at a musical in London was awesome. All and all, it was an incredible first full day back in London, and I still couldn't get over how amazing the location of where we were staying was. We just really felt like we were in the center of this amazing city. My cold persisted, but it was nothing compared to how happy I was to be in London.

Where we saw Billy Elliot, the Musical!
Day 3 in London: Soap boxes in Hyde Park and Windsor Castle!
After an extremely long day of walking the day before, we decided to cool it a little for a day and only walked to Hyde Park to see the Sunday morning soap-box performers. This was an experience. There were three different guys speaking about different politics and religion, and they were all pretty crazy. We only stayed for a little bit but that was long enough to gather that these guys had no idea what they were talking about, they just liked when people listened to them. Either way, it was another gorgeous day, so just walking through Hyde Park was glorious. In the afternoon, the three of us headed out to Windsor to get out of the city for a little bit and see the enormous castle out there. We took the train from London to Windsor which turned out to be a great ride but much longer than we expected. A good 45 minutes after we boarded the train, we were dropped off in Windsor though and told the castle was not hard to find. Well, we ended up going to the wrong way outside of the station so it was a little difficult to find, but eventually we realized all we needed to do was follow the massive castle wall that was in front of us to find the entrance to the place. So, after getting there, we toured around the enormous grounds of the castle and went into the state apartments to look around. The most impressive part of the tour was definitely the enormous dining room that we were able to see. IT WAS HUGE!!! I can't remember exactly how many people they could fit at the dining room table in there, but it was a lot. Windsor itself was gigantic. We walked all around and admired the gorgeous buildings, but once we were done at the castle, we decided to skip walking around the little town and just head back to the city for a nice dinner at my favorite Greek restaurant, Sofra (the best hummus in the world there!). I never complain about seeing castles and it was just another amazing weather day in London (which don't come around too often) so in the end, it was another great day!!

My dad, grandpa and I outside Windsor Castle
Day 4 in London: 'Hey dad, I think we're in Johnny Depp's backyard!'
Again, we left the city on the fourth day to see Stonehenge and the town of Bath with a tour bus group. Luckily, our bus was far from full so it wasn't like one of those massive and annoying tour groups that tend to take over every place they visit. We were much cooler then that. We successfully found our pick-up point in the morning and set off towards Stonehenge and after only an hour or so, we were at the amazing stone ruins. I always thought that Stonehenge must look exactly like the pictures of it when you are there in person, and to some extent it definitely does, but actually standing there and trying to figure out what the stones meant to the people who struggled so hard to get them there was pretty incredible. We learned about the history of the site and all of the theories on why the stones were placed in the way they were and how they were moved there. I mean, these stones are heavy, and somehow the people that were moving them got the big ones up on top of some pretty massive base stones. Also, we learned that the top stones are not simply balanced on the base stones--they are actually placed there as a piece to a puzzle almost with little notches built in that make them like a ball and socket connection with the stones they are resting on. We walked in a huge circle around the site and heard about how the sun shines a certain way through the stones during the different peaks of the seasons. The other unexpected part of our visit to Stonehenge was the intense wind that blew on top of the hill, so by the time we made it back to the buss, we were ready to get a little warmth going before we headed to bath.

Stonehenge!! Look at how massive those stones are!
Another hour on the bus and we were in city of bath. Everything, we quickly saw, in bath is made out of sandstone, so the entire city is the same color. It was, again, sooooo sunny outside, so we were excited for the chance to just walk around and explore the city. But first, we were taken in to see the Roman Baths that the town is famously known for. These were awesome. I've seen pictures of this place in my Celtic Civilization class and I remember seeing my brother's pictures of the baths when he visited London last year, so actually standing there with my dad and taking in the insane history of the place was super surreal. For starters, the entire complex is really old. All of the stories and theories on how the baths were used were fascinating, and there was one part of the museum that explained how coins and curses were thrown into the baths in hopes that the gods would answer them. Some of the curses written on stones that have been recovered were hilarious to read. That was probably my favorite part of the tour...that, and throwing a coin into the bath that was supposed to bring you luck. I've been pretty lucky this semester, I'll admit, but you can never have too much of it, right?

Dad and I at the Roman Baths
After we were done at the baths and had decided to pass on drinking a cup of what was legened to be miracle bath water, we ventured off into the small city of Bath to go exploring. We ended up at what our tour guide had told us was the smallest pub in bath for lunch. It was off of the main street, down a small alley that was squeezed between two massive building complexes, so it was kinda a hole in the wall place which is just what we were looking for. I insisted on sitting outside, which proved to be only a little chilly, but the place (The Heart of the Lion or something like that?) had great food and my dad and I each had a bottle of cider, so it was a great lunch regardless of his complaining about the slightly cooler weather. We also ran into a couple who was on our tour bus at the pub and talked to them for a while about how their son was also abroad in London before we headed off to the Bath Circus to do some more exploring. We walked up to the Circus, which we had been told was home to many celebrities including Johnny Depp, via really neat back alleys, and at one point, I lead my dad over to what looked like really pretty back gardens. I explained that I thought it would be really cool to go in there, so we attempted to open a couple of doors that seemed to lead into theses mysterious gardens without any luck. They were all locked, but my dad kept trying, and eventually, we found one door that let us right into these private little backyards. Turns out, we had gotten ourselves invited (sorta) into what was these really fancy apartment's private backyards. They were gorgeous, but after staying for a second, we decided we should leave before we got into any trouble. We continued walking up towards the Circus, and once we turned the next corner, found ourselves exactly in the center of all of these fancy apartments. Immediately, I looked at my dad and exclaimed that we must have just been in Johnny Depp's backyard, because our tour guide had told us he owned a house in this area, and I mean, of course that had to be the yard we had wandered into!! For me, that was extremely exciting.

The gorgeous city of Bath
Realizing we were running out of time in Bath, we continued to walk around the city, passing Jane Austen's book house and some really pretty putting greens and gardens. While Bath is famous for their Roman ruins, they are also famous for a dessert called Sally Lunn Buns, and having had our tour guide tell us all about these amazing sounding treats, we had made a deal to get one before we left the city. So, with our time running out, we made a b-line for the Sally Lunn House for one of her buns. After seeing how cute the tearoom was, we not only bought a bun to take home with us but we also sat down for a little afternoon tea and dessert. I'm not sure I can explain what we ended up with after we ordered our respective desserts. These bun were not only enormous, but they came out warm and with an insane amount of whatever flavor jam you ordered. I had raspberry and my dad had cinnamon, and they were quit possibly the most delicious thing I've ever eaten in my entire life. Having downed the entire thing though and having had tea and lots of clotted cream to boot, we were both ridiculously full and still wanted to see the Bath rugby field before our bus left without us, so we ran out of the Sally Lunn House and sprinted to the rugby stadium. We took a minute to take in the beautiful city and the huge rugby fields before hurrying back to our bus just in time to realize we were the last ones to arrive back and so we got on our way back towards London. Arriving back at the RAF club just in time for dinner was a perfect way to end the evening, and we got to catch back up with Grandpa and tell him all about our great day in Bath.

Sally Lunn's--the best dessert of all time.

Day 4 in London: The Magical Harrod's Ice Cream Sundaes
Like all of my trips throughout my Europe travels, I couldn't believe this one had approached it's end so quickly. However, we still had one day left together, so the three of us made the best of it. In the morning, my dad and I walked all the way down Picadilly, veered off onto Regent Street, and proceeded to window shop all the way down the street that was lined with all of my favorite stores. We looked into the packed apple store and then we headed over to Oxford Street, where we passed all of the stores I remember going into with the girls in January. We passed by Selfreges's amazing window displays, got a delicious wonder waffle, and kept on walking down some back alleys towards Hyde Park. On our way from Oxford Street to Hyde Park, we ended up in yet another private garden area (we must have a knack for finding those), but the park was gorgeous and so quiet for being in the center of London, so we hung out there for a little bit before wandering into Hyde Park. We marveled, once again, at how lucky we had gotten with the weather, as we strolled all the way down the side of Hyde Park and looked at how crowded it was with people trying to soak up every bit of sunshine they could. With all the walking we had done, the three of us decided that it was about time for some ice cream after the morning, so we headed to Harrod's, because where else could you possibly get ice cream in the city? Once at Harrod's, my grandpa and I made a b-line towards the ice cream parlor and snagged good seats for my dad to join us at. We all ordered our own sundaes and proceeded to chow down on the amazing ice cream in silence for the next 10 minutes or so. First of all, I love Harrods and it absolutely never gets old sitting in there. And second of all, their ice cream sundaes are impossible to top. They are enormous and absolutely delicious, and it was so much fun to eat them with my dad and grandpa. Not wanting to spend any more money in Harrod's though, we quickly left after our ice cream and headed back to St. James park for an afternoon of reading in the park. It was so peaceful and nice outside, and it was a great way to spend our last afternoon together relaxing. After finishing up our eating tour of London at one of our favorite Italian restaurants in Shepard's Market, my dad and I got ready to head to Edinburgh the next day. Unfortunately, my Grandpa's knee had been flaring up a little too much for him to want to make the trip up to Scotland, so we also had to get ready to say goodbye to him. I was so sad about saying goodbye to him, especially after an amazing trip in London, however, it had been a pretty special 4 days together, so none of us were too sad about the time we had spent together.

The three of us with the three biggest sundaes at the parlor!
Day 5: Dad comes to Edinburgh!
Wow, so after having an incredible time in London together, my dad and I headed up to Scotland so I could show him around "my Edinburgh". We got to the city around mid-afternoon, and to our complete shock, it was sunny in Scotland too!! We still could not get over our luck with weather, and in hopes to take advantage of our luck, we decided to attempt to hike up Arthur's Seat that afternoon. Before I could do that though, I ran over to the Health Clinic to check out what exactly was going on with my ears and my head cold. The doctor told my dad and I that we would have to wait an hour to see him, so while we were standing at the Health Center's counter, my dad and I looked at each other and both agreed that we should go for the hike in hopes we could run up the mountain and back in time to make my appointment. We knew we would be cutting it close, but we also knew that you cannot ever pass up sun in Edinburgh, because it never lasts too long. So, off we ran towards the mountain, the whole time questioning our judgement. However, the second we were both at the summit, we knew we had made the right choice. I've never seen a nicer day in Edinburgh, and the view from the top of the mountain was incredible. I had been wanting to take my dad up the mountain since the first time I'd climbed it in January, so to finally be standing up there with him was pretty special. But, we didn't have much time dawdle, so we ran back down the mountain and literally walked back into the Health Center with 1 minute to spare. While I had to sit in the doctor's office sweating, it was totally worth it to take advantage of that hour to go hike. After getting my anti-biotics from the doctor, we headed off to a nice dinner before taking my dad to my favorite Scottish pub, Biddy Mulligans. We sat there and shared a beer in a traditional Scottish pub while watching a soccer (or football I guess) game on tv. It was an awesome and authentic experience, and one that I won't ever forget.

My dad and I at the top of Arthur's Seat--look at how clear it is up there!!
Day 6: Volcanic Ash? Really??
After a great first afternoon in the city with my dad, I couldn't have guessed in a million years what was about to happen on what would turn out to be his last day in Edinburgh. I headed to his hotel in the morning expecting to have a full day to explore the city but quickly heard about the massive volcanic eruption that had taken place in Iceland and had subsequently grounded all flights around the UK and Europe. So, that changed things. My dad and I headed back to my flat to get online and try to figure out what was the best course of action for him to take in order to get back to London and be back with my Grandpa so at least they could deal with this mess together. In the end, we agreed it was smartest for him to get on a train that afternoon heading back to London because no one had any idea how long the ash would affect flights or how crowded the trains were about to get leaving Scotland. This meant that we had even less time to cram even more into our shortened day. Squeezing in Arthur's Seat the day before was looking like the best idea we'd ever had! Anyway, we made the best of it and set off to race around the city. My dad being the third visitor I had to hurry throughout Edinburgh, I had become a slight expert on the hosting front, so I took my dad straight down Princes Street to the Princes Gardens to give him a good introduction of one of my favorite parts of the city. The flowers were just starting to bloom and we walked along admiring the extent of the park that was right in the heart of the city. We climbed up towards the castle from the gardens (which was a steep climb!) and got an amazing view of the city and the water on our way. From the castle, I took my dad back down the Royal Mile (which never gets old walking down) and then we headed for lunch at, where else, the Elephant House! We got lucky enough to get the prime table, so we sat at the place that JK Rowling wrote the books we had read together since I was too young to read on my own. THAT was really cool. After a pretty quick lunch though, we had to keep moving so we walked around my campus and down my favorite street in Edinburgh before we had to grab some snack food for his train and head to the station. All and all, we did hit all of the major parts of the city that made up "my Edinburgh" so I was happy with that, but it was frustrating that his trip had to be cut short because of a volcano! Who would have thought that could ever happen??!!! And when I said goodbye to my dad at the train station, no one knew the extent to which travel plans would be effected and changed by this crazy event. Stay tuned, because this might not be the last time I saw my grandpa, dad or London during my Europe trip!!

Our view of the castle from the Elephant House--JK Rowling really knows how to pick 'em
On the way up to the castle with the city in the background

Thursday, 6 May 2010

PORTUGAL, My Grandparents, and Becky!

Having to leave Amsterdam so soon was sad, but 3 days in that city definitely seemed like a good amount of time. And whatever sadness I may have been feeling about saying goodbye to Alice's and my vacation was completely replaced with excitement every time I realized I was now on my way to Portugal!! Yes, next up on my European vacation was a week of sun in Lisbon with my grandparents and Becky. After spending the semester in Edinburgh, and despite the nice weather I lucked into in Switzerland, the idea of spending some quality time with the ocean and the sun--and of course my grandparents--was absolutely splendid.

Day 1 of Portugal: Wake up in Amsterdam, fall asleep in Portugal
One of my favorite things about Europe is the ease with which one can hop on a plane in one country, and a few hours later, be in a completely different country on the other side of the continent. After a pretty painless morning of flying from Amsterdam, I arrived in Portugal and immediately found my grandparents waiting for me at my baggage claim. It turns out their travels had not gone as smoothly initially as mine had, and they had already been separated from their bags coming from Chicago. However, we were finally about to embark on the trip we had been talking about for months, so the excitement overwhelmed the frustration with baggage almost immediately. The drive from the airport to the hotel only confirmed our excitement. The city of Lisbon is gorgeous! Again, another completely different city with it's own feel, culture, and architecture, and I was blown away by the buildings and the tiled sidewalks that filled the city. Everything was so bright, colorful, and artistic, and the atmosphere of the city definitely matched the sunny weather. Once I saw the ocean, I was hooked on Portugal. Anyways, we arrived at the hotel by early evening...our hotel had an amazing location. It was right off of the main street through Lisbon that eventually lead down to Rossio Square, through Lisbon's 'downtown' area, and ended at the waterfront. After settling in and resting for a bit, we headed out for our first authentic Portuguese meal at a local's restaurant right outside our hotel! We quickly learned what a traditional Portuguese meal consisted of--either fish or meat, both served with fries. Since I'm not a huge fish fan, I stuck with steak, and it was absolutely delicious. The waiters in this local's place were so much fun, and combined with wine and a fabulous dessert, it was a great first night in the city.

Day 2 in Portugal: Sintra, Cais Cais, and Rodrigo!
For our first real day in Lisbon, we decided to leave the city and go explore Portugal with our trusty driver, Rodrigo. This turned out to be an absolutely amazing idea. First of all, Rodrigo was incredible. He knew so much about everything involving Portugal from politics to cork trees. So, as we ventured out of Lisbon and towards a quaint little resort town called Sintra, my grandparents and I bombarded Rodrigo with questions and listened as he told stories and listed off fun facts about the country. As we drove, we got to see the Portuguese country side (which we would see more of on our next day trip), but this little introduction was stunning. Our first stop on our day trip was Sintra--this town is set up on a mountain (by Portuguese standards) and therefore benefits from cooler weather during Portugal's hot summers. Because of this attractive climate and semi-exclusiveness of the area, the Portuguese kings and queens enjoyed summers in Sintra. Thus, we spent a lot of our time there touring their magnificently tiled palaces and gardens. And, since people usually followed royalty around wherever they went back in the 13th-or-so century, the town of Sintra prospered because of the attention given to it by the kings and queens. The buildings and streets in the town were old but beautiful, and being built on the side of a lush mountain side added even more charm to the gorgeous town. Everything, we quickly began to notice, was decorated with tiles. Streets, buildings, palaces, furniture--literally anything you could think to stick tile work on, Portugal did it, and we would only see more of these beautiful decorations as we continued our tour around the country.

The town of Sintra from the Royal Palace
The inside of the Palace with all of the amazing tiles!
Colorful buildings in Cais Cais. I want my next house to be that color!
Next up on our list of stops was Portugal's, and therefore Europe's western-most point and lighthouse. The white-washed lighthouse on the cliffs was eerily reminiscent of standing at Dunnet head's lighthouse in Scotland and being at the northern-most point in Great Britain. So, having made it to the western-most point now, all I needed to complete the hat-trick (if you will) would be south and east. That seeming quit improbable, I settled for soaking up this point in Portugal, because the ocean, cliffs, and lighthouse were definitely an amazing sight to see, especially with my grandparents standing at my side. Once we had our fill of the wind that refused to leave us alone at the cliffs though, we headed for Cais Cais, another resorty-type of town on Portugal's coast that proved to be yet another reminder of why everyone should visit Portugal--beautiful tiles, amazingly colorful houses, the ocean, and super friendly people everywhere. We walked around the streets for a while before ducking into a really great restaurant for some lunch. Afterwards, we attempted to visit Cais Cais's famous casino so we could test out or gambling skills, but it wasn't open until later in the evening, so we would just have to wait to put our skills to the test.

The western-most point in Europe!!!
Having soaked up a good taste of Portugal's smaller towns, we headed back to Lisbon and took a little driving tour of the older and most noteworthy parts of the city with Rodrigo, who of course, had lots of knowledge to share about every place he took us to. We drove past the various monuments dedicated to all of Portugal's explorers (and there are impressive amount of these!), lots of cathedrals and nunneries, and finally, around Lisbon's most historically rich section of downtown. Rossio Square and the Alfama neighborhood are traditionally recognized as Lisbon's jewish quarters, and the neighborhood is one of the only surviving areas of the massive earthquake that flattened the city in the 1700's. Rossio Square, historically, is also sight of extreme violence against the Jews that were forced out of the city's walls, and so as we passed through the square, my grandparents and I said the Yahrzeit prayer in honor of that memory. With Rodrigo's special privileges, we were also allowed to drive all the way through the Alfama, which consisted of some of the smallest, steepest streets I'd seen yet, and houses that were so close to each other, that you could literally reach out of one window and be able to shake hands with your neighbor across the street. This, as Rodrigo explained, is one of the foundations of Portuguese culture--the concept of a neighborhood being so engrained in one's life. When you live that close to your neighbors, a family type of environment is almost impossible not to cultivate, and it was really interesting to try and imagine coming from that type of atmosphere.

Lisbon's Alfama neighborhood
After a long but amazing day touring around Portugal, we got rested up in the hotel and set out to one of the fanciest dinners I've ever been a part off. As a birthday gift to my grandma, my family bought us a dinner out at Lisbon's nicest restaurant, so my Grandpa and I were able to tag along on my Grandma's present, and it was incredible! This restaurant sat on top of a hill overlooking the water, all of Lisbon's down town, and the castle walls, and as the sun set and all of the city lights began to turn on, we felt like we were the king and queens of Portugal. After 4 courses of amazing food and wine, we finished up the dinner with the best strawberry rhubarb pie I've ever tasted, and proceeded to roll on back to our hotel vowing to never eat again. Since the next day was Easter Sunday, we all agreed to sleep in a little and try and recover from our massive food coma, so we called it a night and went to sleep dreaming of the amazing dinner that capped off an incredible day perfectly.

Day 3 in Portugal: The Expo, casinos, and more meat (of course)
As we suspected, Portugal shuts down on Easter Sunday. For our first full day in Lisbon, most of the shops and all of the museums were closed, so we decided to check out the Expo area of the city and take advantage of the extremely warm and sunny day we had been given. So, after a delicious breakfast at our hotel, we headed out to the Expo. However, before we made it into a taxi, my Grandpa and I spotted a little Sunday fair going on steps away from our hotel and took my Grandma over there with us to check out the vendors. I spotted a beautiful ring at one of the stands, and after telling my Grandpa about the rings I've been able to collect from China, Spain, and Scotland, he helped me pick out one that I could add to my collection from Portugal!! After that though, we headed to Expo--this part of the city was recently renovated and remodeled by a couple of famous architecture and with the aid of lots and lots of government money. The result is an entire area that was saved from swamp land and is now home to fancy apartment buildings, nice restaurants, lots of space to walk and meet near the water, and lucky for us, and enormous casino!! So, after walking along the water and admiring all of the new buildings that had intricate tile designs everywhere, we stopped for lunch at nothing less than a restaurant that featured meat (not that we hadn't had enough Portuguese meats by this point) before we finally made it to the casino for some serious gambling. When I say serious gambling, keep in mind this was my first time ever sitting down in front of the slot machines, but with some quality tips from my Grandma and lots of support from my Grandpa, I proceeded to loose every penny I had. We all decided after that to give up our hopes of hitting it rich, but I know get to say I've gambled, and in Portugal for the first time of all places!

New train station in Expo--isn't it cool?
After coming up short in the slots, we headed back to Lisbon and walked back to Rossio Square to soak up some of the Easter Sunday crowds. I can't even explain to you how much I loved being in the sun, after being separated from it for about 8 months, so any excuse I could find to be outside I took. We walked around for a while, but after almost too much time in the sun, we decided to head in for a light dinner and then bed. We began to realize though, that our stay in Portugal was just over half way done which was not a very comforting thought. However, another day trip around the country and a visit from my friend Becky were all still ahead of us, so life was still ok.

Day 4 in Portugal: 2nd Road Trip and Becky's arrival!!
Day 4 started early, with Rodrigo picking us up at our hotel and setting off up north, through the beautiful countryside and past the heart of cork-land in Portugal. We learned all about hour cork, Portugal's number one export, is made and how it takes trees 9 years to replenish their cork bark after it has been removed. That's a really long time! We also heard more about Portugal's history, how they are adjusting to their new membership in the EU, and we even heard stories about Rodrigo's history. His family was incredible to hear about. His grandmother became Portugal's first female working tour-guide in a time where work permits were not given to women under very many circumstances. His grandfather used to be an extremely wealthy land owner until he gambled away his fortunes (a lesson to us after all of our gambling the day before!) and left his grandmother with something like 11 children! As we drove, Rodrigo pointed out all of the small towns built up around various castles that stood in ruins along the countryside. It was incredible to have a tour guide that knew so much about the country and who really loved his definitely added to the entire experience.

We made it to our first stop of the day, a very small Portuguese rug-manufacturing village that consisted of one central square and a few surrounding streets. Rodrigo explained that the houses were all white and had one of two colors painted around the windows and doors for a very specific reason. Either blue or orange paint could be seen on the houses because those colors had significant meanings of protection and health. So, the entire town looked the same, but it was gorgeous. We got out to look around a rug making store, and saw two old women working hard on a few massive rugs. They were so beautiful and just trying to imagine sitting in a dark room and having to painstakingly stitch every inch of these massive rugs was hard to do. After the rugs, we walked around a bit and finally made it to the main square, where we saw old men gossiping on one side of the benches and old women gossiping on the other. After soaking in the sun and getting a little caffeine, we headed back out into the countryside though and headed for the next big town we wanted to see that day.

The small town of Tapetas de Arraiolos
Making rugs...look at how big they are!
Our next stop was Evora, a slightly larger town where the majority of the city is crammed together inside 5th century temple walls that still stand today. The streets are narrow and Rodrigo hesitated even driving through the city because of the massive traffic jams that are caused within the castle walls. However, after taking us on a quick driving tour, he dropped us off in the central square and let us explore for the afternoon. We picked up a map from the tourist center and proceeded to walk to the Roman ruins that stood at the top of the town. These were incredible and after taking some mandatory pictures there, we were able to go into the public library that boasted incredibly old books that were caged away out of reach. We were lucky enough to also see some really old letters and papers that one man had out while he worked on restoring them. The history of the entire country just continued to boggled my mind. We kept walking around after that, eventually ending up at an outdoor lunch place and some beautiful gardens where I befriended a peacock. Finally, since the outdoor market was closed for the day, we made our last stop in Evora at the Temple of Bones. This, to say the least, was quite the experience. The Temple of Bones is exactly what it sounds like...and entire temple constructed out of human bones. The walls were made out of femers while the pillars were made out of skulls and arm bones. It was really eery and kind of gross, but something about it was also pretty neat. I'm not sure if I never need to see another temple like that one (even though we were assured there are more out there like this one), but it was just another experience to add to my list of them over the past couple of months.

Me and Grandpa in front of the Roman ruins--we're a pretty good looking pair
My grandparents in Evora!! You guys are the best!
The narrow, crowded streets of Evora
The Temple of Bones!!!
After digesting the bones, we headed back to Lisbon with a quick drive around one of the main marble and tile manufacturing towns of Portugal first, but we had a very important person to meet up with back at our hotel, so we hurried back. My friend Becky had come down to Portugal to meet us from where she was studying in Spain, so I was super excited to see her once I found her sitting in my hotel room. I haven't seen very many people from Bowdoin this semester because no one else chose to study in Scotland, so seeing Becky was so nice. My grandparents agreed to let her tag along on the last portion of our trip and we all had a blast together that night as we took her back to the local Portuguese restaurant that we had found on our first night. Becks got a little taste of the real Portuguese food....meat, of course...and afterwards, Becky and I walked around the city and down to the water before getting a glass of wine and going to bed.

Becky arrives!
Day 5 in Portugal: Museums and Taxi Troubles
With Becky with us, my grandparents and I were determined to get in a little museum time on our last day in Portugal. We all decided to go check out the big art museum that boasted one man's private collection of all types of art from B.C. artifacts to Van Gough paintings. Not really sure what to expect, we were all blown away by the museum. The extent of the man's art collection was mind-boggling, and to think of one man collecting all of these beautiful and so completely different artifacts throughout centuries was pretty impressive. He had bibles and old testament books, Roman and Greek coins, amazing sculptures dating wayyyyy back, and an astonishing painting collection to top it all off. After some serious time being impressed by all of the art, we went out for lunch at the museum's cafe and were even more impressed by the gardens that the museum had. As a little present to Becky and I, my grandparents got both of us jewelry that was inspired by these gardens, so not only is it extremely unique, but it will also always remind us of the amazing museum and our overall incredible trip to Portugal! After having our jewelry in hand, we set off to the next museum we had chosen, but would never make it there. Instead, the taxi we got into took us to the Electricity Museum which was a twenty minute ride away from where we actually wanted to be, even after showing him the address of the museum we actually wanted to go to. Before we could realize his mistake, he had dropped us off in basically the middle of nowhere and drove away. Well, that was interesting. We decided to walk to the main street that was near the museum to look for another cab, but the main street turned out to be a highway that proved to be nearly impossible to catch a cab from. After trying for about ten minutes on the side of the busy road, we spotted what turned out to be a smaller square where a line of taxis had lined up, so our crisis was averted, but after having that many troubles and being that far away from our museums, we decided to give up and just take Becky back to the Expo to relax and walk around some more.

Expo area with all of the flags, water, and cool tiled sidewalks!
This ended up being perfect. We made it back to the Expo unscathed and walked around the huge mall there for a while before getting some ice cream, wandering around outside for a bit, and finally going back to our hotel before our last dinner. Becky and I got some afternoon wine, because you know, why not?, and then met up with my grandparents for dinner. We decided we had had enough meat for...ever we set out to find a restaurant that had chicken. We found one that was off of the main drag on a little side street and had the most amazing roast chicken. A very delicious and fitting meal for our last one in Portugal. It was hard to believe the trip had finally come to an end. It was an absolutely amazing 5 days in one of my new favorite countries. All of the people we met were incredibly nice, the weather and cities both were absolutely beautiful, and spending some quality time with my grandparents was incredible. Also, being able to have them meet Becky and see her in Portugal was so much fun. All and all, it was a trip for the ages...thanks Grandma and Grandpa--I'll never forget it!

Day 6 back in Edinburgh: Becky comes to Scotland..Without her Wallet!
Leaving Portugal meant another day of traveling, but this time I was doing it with Becky, so it was all much more fun. Everything ran smoothly enough until we got on our flight to Edinburgh when mid-way through we were approached by the flight attendant and asked if anyone in our row had lost a wallet. Becky and I both shook our heads, but the flight attendant asked us again and then asked if we would just check our bags to make sure. Turns out, Becky had indeed lost her wallet, or at least left it, at the airport in Portugal. Luckily, some nice person had found it and returned it to the desk, and we were now assured that it had been airbussed up to Edinburgh. However, this still left Becks without a wallet, which meant no money, no credit cards, and no ID. We realized things could be worse because at least we were together and I could help her out until the wallet came, but we also quickly realized that we had no confirmation of the wallet being sent or any instructions on where to pick it up once it arrived in Edinburgh. It turned out that the wallet would never make it to me in Edinburgh, but instead, Becky was contacted almost a month later by the US consulate in Scotland who had somehow ended up with it, and she eventually got it back. A very interesting start to Becky's trip up to Scotland.

The rest of the flight went well enough though, and as we flew into Edinburgh, I started pointing out all of the amazing sites we were going to see in the next day. Once on the ground, we headed straight to the Elephant House for some coffee and sandwiches--both of which Becky has had to do without while in Spain. In fact, her entire trip to Edinburgh turned somewhat into a food and coffee fest of all of the things she had been missing while in Spain. I didn't mind that at all because it meant a lot of time spent at my favorite sandwich shops and Starbucks, and really, what could be better? Anyways, after dinner at the Elephant House, I took Becky to my favorite pub in Edinburgh to get a little taste of Scottish culture to finish up the night.

Day 7 with Becky: Busy busy busy busy busy day
So, since Becky was only in Edinburgh for ONE DAY, we got up super duper early and tried to pack as much into the day as possible. We met up with Nora, who Becky actually went to high school with, immediately got some Starbucks coffee, and proceeded to take Becks up Arthur's Seat to get a nice little view of the city. On our way down, Nora explained to us how she had semi-forged annual passes for Becky and I to the Holyrood Palace, so we went straight there to get a tour of the place. The passes worked flawlessly and so for the next hour or so, we toured around the magnificent residence of the Queen when she comes to Edinburgh. Afterwards, we got some bagel sandwiches (another one of Becky's food requests) and headed towards the castle and down the Royal Mile for some more cultural tours of the city. Basically, we just did a bunch of speed walking and tried to get Becky to see the entire city in a couple of hours. Once we had worn ourselves out sufficiently, we decided to take a little afternoon nap before our final dinner together, and then we all met up for Indian food that night! For Nora, Becky and I, Indian food is one of the greatest things on the earth, and since my flat is right next door to the recently voted "Best Indian Food in Scotland", we went there for our farewell meal. Afterwards, we continued to walk a bit and just talked for a while before going all saying goodbye. I dropped Becks off at the train station the next morning super early and spent the rest of the day doing laundry, trying to get over the cold that had suddenly appeared and worsened, and re-packing for my week in London with my Dad and Grandpa!

Alice, Amsterdam and the Friesland

March 30th--Day 1: First day in Amsterdam with Alice
On Tuesday, after an amazing tour of the swiss alps and week with my mom, I headed off to Amsterdam to meet up with my friend Alice. I had an early flight and a long wait in the Amsterdam airport, but by mid-day, Alice and I were on the train heading towards central Amsterdam planning out our 3 exciting days to come. We arrived at the central train station by mid-afternoon and the adventure of finding our hostel began. We had a print out of our hotel confirmation that said which dock we had to find (now would probably be the time to mention that our hostel was a house boat....) so we headed to the main docks to hunt down The Friesland. Our directions took us through the main parts of the city, so the walk ended up being a nice introduction to the city.

Amsterdam was different, again, than any other European city I've seen. The city is cut up by canals that run every which direction, and there are more bike paths then car lanes and sidewalks. Every type of person you could imagine was on a bike too: lawyers, old men, pregnant women, little kids, college students...EVERYONE has bikes there and no matter the weather, the streets are dominated by them. It was pretty impressive to see a city run on bikes and canals like that. Pollution wise, obviously the bikes keep the city clean, and I liked the idea of biking around all day. The states should really try that system out. Architecture wise, I loved the narrow buildings that were stacked on top of each other lining all of the canals. I kept thinking that the buildings looked like they were leaning on each other, slightly tilted one direction or the other. To me, Amsterdam looked like a city straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, or at least a suitable place for Dr. Seuss to reside, but Alice never agreed with me on the tilted buildings, so maybe it was just all in my head.

Buildings stacked on top of eachother--see, they are tilted!
Anyway, we finally made it to the docks after dragging my ripping suitcase halfway through the city, but The Friesland houseboat-hostel was not on the dock it claimed to be on our print out. After checking all of the other docks, we finally found our boat on the last dock in the harbor, right next to a huge pirate ship and outside of a very strange-looking, massive green building that was called The Nemo. We would never quite figure out exactly what The Nemo was, but after many hours spent debating about it and analyzing the crowds that we would see going in and out of it, we figured it was some sort of children's aquatic museum. By the time we located our home for the next 3 nights, both Alice and I were already regretting our decision to book a room on The Friesland. We walked onto the boat and got to our room on the bottom level of the boat, and the regret just kept getting worse and worse. Our room was tiny. Tiny, in fact, may be an understatement. The room consisted of a small closet, a sink, and a set of bunk beds....basically, if one of us was doing something in the room, the other either had to move outside or climb onto the top bunk to get out of the way. Our window, a tiny circular opening, basically provided us with an underwater view--if the seas even got slightly rough, we would have had water pouring into room. BUT, having said all of this, Alice and I decided to make the best of it, unpack our stuff, and hit up the town immediately. In the end, the Friesland would treat us well, and to be able to say we stayed on a boat in Amsterdam definitely made the whole thing worth while. I chalked it up to yet another crazy experience of Europe.

THE FRIESLAND!!! Our amazing house-boat/ hostel for 3 nights
Alice and our tiny room on the boat.
So our first afternoon in the city began with a stroll through the central district of the city that eventually ended at the Heinekein Museum. The walk was much longer then we expected it to be, and we got caught in a little rain on the way, but in the end, we made it to the museum and proceeded to learn about the history of Heinekein, how the beer is made, and we even got a free pint at the end of the tour. The vintage Heinekein posters and beer labels were my favorite part of the tour, and we even had a celebrity citing in the museum to brag about. Of all the people to see in Amsterdam, Alice and I spotted non other then MINI-ME during the Heinekein experience!! That would prove to be our first and only celeb spotting during our trip, but we were pretty happy with that one. Once we were done learning about beer, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city and exploring all of the crazy shops, coffeehouses, and cafes Amsterdam has to offer. The day of traveling finally did catch up to us though, and by early evening we called it quits and retired to the Friesland, hung out there for a while, and went to bed wayyyy too early.

Day 2: Museums and Hail-Storms
The second day in Amsterdam was dedicated to museums. We woke up pretty early and found our way to the Anne Frank house to start us off. The line outside the house was super long, but we waited and it turned out to be fairly fast moving. Once inside, it hit me where I was, and it was a pretty intense tour from there on. The first floor is dedicated to stories and diary entries that explains the context for Anne Frank's diary, and then the tour leads you into the Secret Annex where Anne and her family spent years in hiding while World War II was being fought outside. Having had Anne's diary as assigned reading for many years as I was growing up, it was a very strange reality to be standing in the place where all of her writing took place. The annex was kept exactly as it looked after the Gustapo came and cleared it all out, so no furniture remained, but it was pretty crazy to imagine how upwards to eight people stayed in the dark rooms all day and night, having to remain perfectly silent. It was emotional, but in the end, I'm glad I was able to see the Anne Frank House.

Next on our museum list was the House-boat Museum. We figured we needed a little lightening up after Anne's annex, so we headed down the canals to find our next stop. The museum was pretty cool--very small and not too informative about life on a boat, but the best part was the video at the end of the tour that showed pictures of all the different types of house-boats that exist in Amsterdam. They come in all shapes and sizes...some have grass on their roofs during the summer, some look like actual houses that are just sitting on water, and some have ice-fishing events as their backyards during the winter. The message that the museum was trying to project was that house-boats were a part of dutch culture, not just an alternative way to live. It was interesting to see it that way, and cool to try an imagine growing up on a boat everyday of your life.

The canals break up the city, and are lined with house-boats and side streets
Next, we saw some pretty cool modern-art museums. We tried to find a couple we had heard about through guide books, but two of them had moved or had been shut-down...this only meant more walking around and more exploring. We did manage to get ourselves slightly lost a few times, but with our trusty map and excellent directional skills, we always managed to find our way around the canals in the end. We did end up in a residential neighborhood at one time, and finding our way back on track wasn't look too good for a while, but we made it out in the end. We knocked off a few photography museums before deciding we had been productive enough for the day, and proceeded to further explore the other aspects of Amsterdam-culture. We found some weird shops to go into, including a junk-yard turned supermarket that had a mexican twist to it, the china-town area shops that we didn't know existed, and lots of drug paraphernalia shops scattered along the streets. However, our exploring didn't last too long because once again, we got caught in bad weather and it actually started to HAIL at one point. Needless to say, we found our way all the back to the Nemo, and after trudging through the hail and rain for 30 minutes, didn't really feel like going back out in the storm. Again, we hung out in our tiny room for the night and chilled, and proceeded to fall asleep early. BUT, day two was a definite success...lots of Amsterdam culture, museums, and exploring checked off the list.

ALL of the bikes lined up
Day 3: Van Gough and Red Lights
For our last day in the city, we decided to wake up early (again) and go out for an amazzinnnggg breakfast that we had heard about. At Barney's Uptown, Alice and I sat down for probably our first real meal since being in Amsterdam--a pancake burrito of scrambled eggs and bacon. Literally, one of the greatest things in the world. Afterwards, we headed towards the Van Gough Museum to spend some quality time with the art. It was the nicest day we had yet, so we lingered in various parks and coffee stands on the way to the museum, and just continued to soak up all the bikes and crazy shops we saw everywhere. The Van Gough was incredible. I loved the majority of paintings we saw there, and learning about the artist's life was also really interesting. Not knowing really anything about art, I realized I really like Van Gough's style overall. However, once we were done with the museum, the only other things we had planned to do in the city were finding the IAMSTERDAM sign and seeing the Red Light District at night. The sign was not difficult to find, and in fact, we found two of them! We waited for a while to see if the massive amounts of tourists would disappear enough for us to get good shots at the sign, but that proved to be quit difficult.

In front of the sign
So, the Red Light District. THAT was an experience. I thought I knew exactly what to expect when we ventured over there, but once we got there, I was completely shocked by the entire environment. I think what put me over the edge was actually watching someone choose a girl for the night, and proceeding to go into her glass room after 'shopping' for a while. Once we saw that, Alice and I basically ran for our lives to get back to some normalcy, and concluded that our stay in Amsterdam was officially complete with some of the weirdest and craziest experiences and sights we'd ever seen. We headed back to The Friesland, packed all of our stuff up, and got ready to leave in the next morning. All and all, I loved the city, and I had incredible time conquering it with Alice, but it was something I'm not sure I'll ever do again. But, that's the way all great experiences should be--do them once, do them need to repeat!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Mom's trip to Europe--Exploring Edinburgh and Touring the Swiss Alps!!

March 24th: Mom's first day in Edinburgh
My mom arrived in Edinburgh on Wednesday morning and I gave her about 20 minutes to adjust to her long flight and the massive time difference before we started touring the city. Because I only had 2 day to show her around, we crammed as much as we could into the short time, and definitely accomplished tons. For our first activity, we walked up the 286 steps of the Walter Scott Monument. Luckily, the weather was pretty nice (for Edinburgh standards), so we were able to see a pretty good view of the city and old town from up there. My mom was too excited about the narrow stairs or the height, but we made it up and down without any major issues. Next on our list was shopping--we walked down Princes Street and up to Rose Street, which is an amazingly narrow street of boutiques and restaurants crammed in between the two major streets in New Town (Princes and George). If you weren't looking for it, you may miss Rose Street altogether, but we found it successfully, and proceeded to spend a large portion of the afternoon wandering around, window shopping and eating Mexican food down there before heading back towards Old Town and my flat. Before calling it a day, we walked up Calton Hill--a site for WWI memorials, but also just another good opportunity for a pretty view of the water and the city, so lots of pictures were taken before the rain (finally) caused us to turn in for the day. After relaxing for a little bit, we headed back out for a nice dinner and a night-walk to see the castle lit up. I dubbed it a very successful day of tour-guiding by the end.

The view of the city and castle from the top of the Walter Scott Memorial
Day 2: FOG
We woke up to fog the next day, and when I say fog, I mean can't-see-2-feet-infront-of you, signal-the-lighthouses type of fog. It was insane...I've never seen the city covered like that in dense clouds to the point where you couldn't make out buildings that were across the street. Unfortunately, this meant a large amount of my tour-guiding plans had to be adjusted, because all of the amazing views of the castle and the city that I had planned to show my mom were ruined by this horrible fog disaster. However, we made the best of it and strolled through Old Town, down my favorite street in Edinburgh, and around the Grassmarket until finally ending up on my campus for a class I had to take before being done for the semester. Lunch at the Elephant House was a must (unfortunately without the amazing view), but at least my mom got to see the place I spend so much of my time during the days here. With the weather being so crappy, we spent lots of time in various coffee shops around the city just catching up and talking about our upcoming trip to Switzerland! That night, we had dinner with all of my friends at a cool wine bistro, and it was also the last night my friends and I would see each other before our breaks, so we were excited to hang out for the evening. By the end of the night though, I realized I had not packed AT ALL (of course) for the upcoming weeks, so some serious speed-packing occurred into the wee hours of the morning. Despite it's short length, it was so much fun having my mom in the city I have fallen in love with.

March 26th: SWITZERLAND and a Day in Geneva's Old Town
Friday morning was the beginning of my 4 week trip throughout Europe, and I was SO excited. It was an early morning, so I wasn't that excited when we first set off for the airport, but once we arrived in Switzerland, I couldn't believe I had started quite possibly the craziest 4 week-trip of my life. Our arrival in Switzerland also reminded me (very quickly) that not everyone in the world speaks English, and in fact, people in Switzerland speak at least 4 different languages, none of which I came close to being able to understand. Immediately, everything was harder to do there. Figuring out how to get into the city, buying train tickets, and locating our hotel once getting to the city turned into a string of crazy adventures aided by a few nice Swiss people and a few not-so-nice Swiss people helping or not helping us along the way. Without a map initially, we finally made it to our hotel from the central train station in Geneva (having already obtained lots of swiss chocolate-duh), and proceeded to fumble our way through the city for the rest of the afternoon with our lack of ability to speak French, German, Dutch, or Italian. Needless to say, we were completely lost. Once obtaining an illusive map however and getting some advice on which sites to see from our hotel, we set off to get a quick lunch before exploring Geneva's old town. Lunch proved to be our first big cultural adventure. The place we went to came recommended from our hotel, so we figured it would be a quick and easy stop before exploring for the rest of the day. However, after entering the restaurant and sitting down, we realized that the Cafe Paris only served one thing for lunch--steak. You could get french fries or a salad, but that was the only choice you had...the steak part was decided for you. We decided to stay and try it out, but it was definitely not what we expected. However, in the end, I was extremely happy with the lunch because steak is the least common thing for me to eat in Edinburgh, so I was in heaven.

After lunch, we set off to find the old town. It was exciting to be in a foreign city and not have any clue where you were going. We had our map, but we didn't really have any clue what to do with it, so we just wandered around and headed in what we thought was the right direction across the city. It was a really nice sense of adventure that I had, and it was nice to not have too much of an agenda for the first day, so we had plenty of time to just wander. Our first site we saw was the Swiss fountain--the largest fountain in Europe in fact. Right as we were crossing the street to get a better look at the water, the sun came out in full force and the day turned into an incredibly beautiful afternoon. The fountain was insane, and with the Swiss Alps setting a nice backdrop, it was the perfect introduction to the country. We continued on towards the old town, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of steep cobble stoned streets that were lined with old romantic style-buildings. We both assumed we had made it to the area we had been looking for, so we put the map away, and began aimlessly strolling through the beautiful area. Highlights included following an old, steep stairway up to god-knows-where, but it turned out it lead us straight to the Cathedral de St. Pierre--a stunning building that overlooked the entire city of Geneva. There were also old water fountains scattered around every corner that actually had running water still, gorgeous colorful shutters on old white-washed buildings, and lots of old crepperies and cheese shops. I loved seeing how different Edinburgh's old town was from Geneva's. While both were constructed on narrow cobble stoned streets, the buildings were completely different and both have completely different feels to them. We chased the sun around the old town and found the building where the Geneva Convention was signed, Rousseu's old house, and the oldest house in Geneva along our way. By late afternoon, we were ready to duck in for a snack, so we found an amazing looking crepperie right outside the Cathedral de St. Pierre....there chocolate crepes were to DIE for, and made us realize how much more swiss chocolate we had to consume before leaving the area. So, with that in mind, we headed for what our guide book said was the best chocolatier in Switzerland, and along the way, saw dozens of street performers with accordions. In Scotland, it's bagpipes--in Switzerland, it's accordions. After having picked out our box of chocolates though, we realized how tired we actually were from traveling and exploring Geneva, so we headed for the hotel and began preparing for our tour through the Swiss Alps the next day!!

Highest fountain in Europe!
Cathedral de St. Pierre--reminds me of Pillars of the Earth!
Me outside building where Geneva Convention was signed
Very pretty buildings in Geneva's Old Town

Day 2 of Switzerland: Train(s) through the Alps to GIMMELWALD!
The morning had another early start, but this time, we were headed into the Alps! Final destination for our 2 day adventure: Gimmelwald, a small town of 120 people that is set on a cliff in the heart of the Swiss Alps. But first, we had to make it there. We arrived at the train station and continued to realize the difficulties that come with a language barrier--we had no idea where or how to buy tickets for all of the trains we needed to catch throughout the day. After cutting massive lines somehow and pleading with key train-station officials, we obtained all our tickets and a walk-through of our itinerary just in time to catch our first train. Almost immediately, the train took us clear out of the city and along Lake Geneva and its' stunning surroundings. Um, wow. The Swiss Alps are stunning. And the mountains along the lake proved to be probably the least stunning mountains we saw, so that's saying something! Anyway, we made it to Montreaux (our first change-over stop) and loved the town so much that we made a pact to try and come back on our last day in the country. From there, we switched to the Panoramic Train that would take us up and through the Alps to our final destination. Immediately, we began climbing up away from the lake on the Panoramic train. I felt a little like I was on the Polar Express train at times because once we had left Montreaux and the lake, we were surrounded by high peaks and snow, and the train just kept going further up. The next two hours of the train ride were stunning. It's hard to find words to describe the Alps. The rugged peaks that were every where you turned your head shot up from the ground and were covered in snow--as if it wasn't pretty enough on it's own, we got lucky enough to have a beautiful sunny day, so the jagged edges of the mountains contrasted against the blue sky for one of the prettier sights I've ever seen. The towns and small random houses we passed by that were scattered at the base of these mountains also stunned me. Each house looked identical--they were all typical Swiss chateux's mixed in with white churches with tall steeples and old cemeteries. I couldn't imagine people actually living so secluded, but this turned out to be nothing compared to what we would find in Gimmelwald. We went through Chateux de Onx (the town famous for their hot air balloon festivals), and Gstad, and many more small towns along our way. After two hours of breathtaking views, we ended our train travels in Lauterburnen and proceeded to take a bus to the cable car that would take us up to Gimmelwald. Yes, that is correct--the only way to access this suspended village was by cable car or by walking up the cliff's side. At the bottom of the cable car, we were in a valley of cliffs that rose straight up from the valley floor, and by the time we had ridden the car up to Gimmelwald, we were staring down some of the Alps' tallest peaks.

The Swiss Alps from our train ride--this doesn't come close to how pretty it actually was!
After gawking at Gimmelwald for a while, we rode the next cable car up to the next suspended town, Muren. A slightly larger ski resort town, Muren sits further up the cliff side then Gimmelwald but is more of a tourist area. We went up there in hopes of finding food because no one told us that a meal would be unobtainable on our train journey. After walking through the streets for a little bit, we finally found a place that was open and right as we sat down for hot chocolate and dinner, it began to snow in Muren! Can you say perfect timing? Sun all day and then snow flurries for our hot chocolate in the Alps! After eating even more delicious swiss cheese and chocolate, we decided it was time to head back to Gimmelwald and check into Esther's Guest House. We realized we didn't know where in Gimmelwald the house actually was, but this proved to be a non-issue seeing as there are only a handful of buildings in the entire town. Once locating the guest house and meeting Esther, we settled into our room and checked out the AMAZING view of the Jung Frau (the tallest summit in the Alps) and other mind-bogglingly tall mountains. I decided to curl up next to the window for the rest of the evening and read--and of course, think about the incredible and surreal day I had just had traveling through the Alps. It was definitely a strange feeling knowing I was falling asleep on the cliffs of the Swiss Alps. CRAZY!!

GIMMELWALD! Our view from our room.

Day 3 in Switzerland: Gimmelwald and Murren
After so much sunshine the day before, SNOW was the last thing I expected to see when I woke up in Gimmelwald. However, it kinda just added to the entire experience, and realizing we were basically IN the snow clouds made it that much cooler. However, the snow and clouds meant that our plan to go all the way up the mountain to Schilthorn (the world's first and highest revolving restaurant and the location for one of the Bond films) to check out the views and have breakfast had to be rethought. However, our plan B wasn't too bad--we had a homemade breakfast at Esther's and then proceeded to explore the incredible small town that is Gimmelwald. The thing that struck me the most about walking around was the absolute silence we found. It was SO quiet and SO peaceful because of that. It literally felt like we were the only ones standing in the midst of Europe's tallest peaks. On our way around the town, we saw one woman come out of her house and start combing the hay, which I thought was incredible, because again I wondered what in the world her life is like living in Gimmelwald.

Me in Gimmelwald...Jung Frau looms in the back (Europe's tallest peak)
Typical day in Gimmelwald (note woman combing hay on left)
It only took us about 20 minutes to explore all of the town, so we headed back up to Murren to look around some more and take pictures. Once in Murren, the clouds cleared and the sun came out for just enough time for us to take millions of pics of every mountain and cool house we saw. However, the top of the mountain remained socked in, so we did get done out of Schilthorn, but having to 'settle' for Murren and Gimmelwald was not too much of a sacrifice. We spent the rest of the morning wandering around, soaking up the surroundings, and buying (of course) lots of Swiss food for the long train ride home. After we had gotten our fill of the Alps, we decided it was time to leave the cliff, and we headed back down the cable car system and onto our trains back to Geneva. Of course, riding back through the Berner Oberland valley was just as cool the 2nd time as it was the day before, and I just tried to take a million mental snapshots of the surroundings so I could remember it forever. Back in Geneva, we went out for our first swiss fondue (finally!) for dinner and just kept talking about how proud of ourselves we were that we had made it to Gimmelwald and back on some of the most confusing trains I've ever experienced. However, after spending two very long days on trains, we decided to change our plans slightly for our last day and head back to Montreaux instead of the previously planned trip to Zermat. So, having settled that, we headed back to the hotel (after getting some mandatory ice cream) and got ready for our last day in the country!

View of Murren in the sun!
Day 4 in Switzerland: Montreaux, Castles, and Picnics
Having decided to skip Zermat and head to Montreaux, we set out to have a fun last day in this amazingly beautiful place. Amazingly, we lucked out with weather AGAIN and we were blessed with sun all day in Montreaux. After a short train ride from Geneva, we arrived in the lake side town that is home to the beautiful Chateau de Chillon castle, and decided to walk along the lake for a while. The castle was about a mile from the train station, so we just strolled in the sun and stopped along the way for a little picnic snack before finally arriving at the Chateau de Chillon. The castle was built in the 13th century and was never damaged by invaders, so it was spectacular to tour and learn about. The entire place was like a fairytale...all of the courtyards, rooms, and views were so romantic looking, and of course the entire time we were touring around, I was imagining being a princess and living there. Once we were done at the castle though, we headed back into the heart of Montreaux for lunch and some quality tourist shopping. Once these both were accomplished (I bought a cool mug and we got crepes for lunch), we spent the last few hours of sun just relaxing by Lake Geneva before heading back into Geneva for the night. Needless to say, we had become pros at the Swiss trains, which leave on the second they are scheduled to, EVERY TIME. However, we didn't do much on our last night in Geneva because we both had a 4am wake up call coming the next morning. I was off to Amsterdam, so I had to get ready to be traveling on my own again. However, getting to look back on the past week was pretty exciting--I got to show my mom around my city and then we got to explore and conquer a new city together, all while eating our way through Switzerland and touring the Swiss Alps! After lots and lots of cheese, chocolate, coffee (of course), and language barriers, it was definitely a trip I'll never forget, and an amazing start to my whirlwind tour of Europe!

Walking along Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva and Chateau de Chillon