Friday, May 2, 2014

Glimpse of Europe

So, here's another long post. I honestly wasn't sure how to break it up in any manner that made sense, so I figured one post would have to do it.

I had to wake up obscenely early Monday morning, by which I mean we left the hotel at 4:00 am (or, as I like to put it, not too bright and far too early). We took a bus from London to Dover, where I caffeneited myself (you can use that as a verb right?) before we got on a ferry heading to Calais. Since Calais is part of France, my passport stamps for this trip are French (even though we spent comparatively little time in France).

On our way towards Amsterdam we drove through France for a little while, before entering Belgium. We drove through the Flanders region, which was lovely, and passed Antwerp (where there are lots of Gothic churches).

As we entered the Netherlands Annerieke, our tour director (who is from the Netherlands), educated us on the disinction between Holland and the Netherlands. The Netherlands is the country, while Holland is just a part of the Netherlands (although north and south Holland do contain many of the more famous cities: Amsterdam, the Hague, Rotterdam, etc).

Among the other interesting facts we learned during our drive was the fact that most of the Netherlands is below sea level (leading to a saying that while God created the world, the Dutch created the Netherlands), tht around 8000 bikes are stolen each day in Amsterdam and that there are actually more bikes than there are people (leading to another saying: that the canals are made of one meter of water, one meter of mud, and one meter of bicycles). A non-bicycle related fact is that if you see a coffee shop spelled with a "c" then they will sell you everything but actual coffee, and if you want coffee you need to find a coffee shop spelled with a "k" instead.

Once we got into the city we had a little free time to wander around and find something to eat. I picked up a container of stroopwafel (basically waffle cookies filled with a honey/caramel syrup), which were delicious. Some of the souvenir shops were mildly traumatizing, including a particularly memorable apron with appropriately (or not) placed male anatomy.

Then we went on a canal cruise around the city, which was a pleasant way of seeing a lot of the sights (especially considering the fact that it was rather rainy and it was nice to sit in a covered boat). Among my favorite sights were: the house boats in which seem to line every one of the canals (with the apparent exception of the Gentlemen's Canal), the Sea Palace (a pagoda on the water which houses a chinese restaurant), the Blue Bridge (which is no longer blue but retained the name even after it was no longer accurate), Westerkerk (the church where Queen Beatrix was married and Rembrandt is buried), Anne Frank's House, and the Basilica of St. Nicholas (the largest Catholic church in the city).

After our cruise we headed out on a walking tour of the Red Light District, which was a combination of uncomfortable and interesting. The district itself contains a combination of actual brothels, sex shops, and museums (also frequently of the vaguely innappropriate variety). However, because there has been a drive to take back the neighborhood, there were also fashion houses, high-end chocolate shops, and fancy restaurants. Also, on the ironic side, the neighborhood was original the area of Amsterdam in which monks lived and was the religious center of the city.

The next morning I had an appropriately Dutch breakfast (as recommended by Annerieke), of bread with butter covered in chocolate sprinkles. Healthy, right?

We settled in for more driving (there's going to be a lot of driving in the recounting of my week, but I have some gorgeous pictures from the drives, so it was worth it). We drove through the Netherlands towards Amersfoort, before entering Germany. In Germany we drove past the Cologne area, although we unfortunately could not see the famous cathedral.

We made a stop at a lookout on the Mozel river, in a white wine producing region of Germany. The view was lovely, but we certainly had no shortage of gorgeous views during the rest of the day.

Our next activity was a cruise of the Rhine River. On the cruise we saw several castles, including: a set of two that apparently belonged to two warring brothers (and appropriately named the fueding brothers' castles), Rheinfels Castle (the largest castle overlooking the Rhine), Maus Castle, and Katz Castle. We also saw the Lorelei, which is the rock that marks the narrowest part of the Rhine. According to the famous poem by Heinrich Heine, later set to music by Franz Liszt, a siren sang sailors to their deaths (basically the men got distracted by a pretty girl singing while combing her hair and crashed into the rocks, totally not an embarassing way to go at all).

After the cruise was over we drove along the Rhine for a little longer (seeing another castle in the middle of the river, Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, which was used as a toll station), before heading towards Heidelberg.

Heidelberg is a famous university city, which was luckily not bombed during World War II, and is home to a Gothic Renaissance fortress and the Church of the Holy Spirit (which originally housed the Palantine Library, the most important library of the German Renaissance), as well as the Zum Ritter St. George (one of the only buildings to survive the War of Succession in the 1740s). There was also the Old Bridge that bridges the Neckar River, at one end there is a statue of a monkey holding a golden plate with mice around its feet. The story goes that if you touch the plate you'll have wealth, if you touch the monkey's fingers you'll come back to Heidelberg someday, and if you touch the mice you'll have many children. I of course only touched the plate, I figure if it does turn out to be true I'll be plenty wealthy enough to come back to Heidelberg should I so choose.

The next morning we drove towards the Black Forest, a wooded mountain range in the German state of Baden Wurttemberg. The name originated from the Romans, due to the dense growth of the trees blocked much of the light.

In the Black Forest we made a stop at a cuckoo clock shop, where we saw a demonstration of the making of the clocks. It was interesting seeing all the parts involved in making cuckoo clocks, as well as seeing what the iterations of the cuckoo clock looked like over time. The coolest part of the shop was that the front of the building was also a cuckoo clock, and on the half hour life-size dancing couples rotated around the little balcony. There was also a glass blowers' shop next door, which I will admit was a little more to my taste.

Following that stop we continued our journey on into Switzerland, where we saw the Rhine Fall (the largest waterfall in Europe). It was gorgeous, but size-wise it had nothing on Niagara Falls (which admittedly I still have yet to see in person, I'll have to add that to my list).

We made it to our hotel (the Pax Montana) fairly early, so we got to enjoy the beautiful views of the mountains and lakes while the sun was still out. It was by far my favorite place we stayed during the course of the trip, what the hotel lacked in amenities (like decent wifi), it made up for in its amazing location.

On Thursday we started out our day with a trip up to the top of Mt. Pilatus (whose highest peak is about 7000 ft high). We traveled up to the top by way of the Pilatus Railway, which is the world's steepest cogwheel train (and which I admittedly found a little unnerving).

Unsurprisingly the views from the peak were amazing. I braved the stairs up to the highest point we could reach (which involved some probably a bit unsafe scrambling up actual rock to a sheer drop, but YOLO?), Shaunta' (my roommate and partner-in-crime for the course of the trip) chose to stay on the main platform (which housed a restaurant, gift shop, and a hotel). Afterwards we headed into some tunnels that curved around the side of the mountain and which had some periodic lookouts down the side of the mountain.

After about an hour at the peak, we all headed back down the mountain, this time by way of a gondola system (which I found rather more terrifying than the cogtrain, although the views it granted us were superior).

We headed into the city of Lucerne for the rest of the day, making our first stop at the Lion of Lucerne, a monument to the Swiss soldiers who died during the French Revolution. Mark Twain describes the monument as "carved from the living rock of the cliff" and says "the Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is" in his book A Tramp Abroad.

For lunch we attended a folk show, which included demonstrations of several interesting swiss intruments (my favorite being the alphorn) and, of course, yodeling. We also got a taste of Swiss food: swiss cheese fondue,  rosti (a wonderful potato dish), and beer. I have a somewhat misleading picture of myself holding an empty glass, which I planned to tell people was mine. Then I realized the unlikihood of anyone actually believing that, the truth is that I barely finished a third of my own glass (clearly I am not a beer person). Ironically I got another free glass of beer (which was completely wasted on me) because I volunteered to yodel during the course of the show. The yodeling was actually really fun, even if Koenraad (our largely silent, although very nice, driver during the trip) did yodel at me everytime he saw me the next couple of days.

After lunch was over we met up with some of the rest of our group (since not everyone decided to go to the folk show and lunch), for a boat ride around Lake Lucerne (which is actually called the Lake of the Four Forest Cantons). The ship's captain pointed out some of the sites as we sailed around the lake, like the Richard Wagner Museum and an example of a traditional Lucerne farmhouse.  The lake itself was apparently the inspiration for the naming of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata when a critic said it reminded him of the moonlight on Lake Lucerne.

We had a little more free time in Lucerne after the cruise. I got to see the famous Chapel Bridge, the oldest covered bridge in Europe (although most of it is replacement from fire damage in 1993), next to the bridge is the Water Tower (an octagonal fortification from the 13th century). Shaunta' and I also made a stop at a bakery, where we grabbed a box of macaroons to eat while walking around.

We had another early night back at the hotel, druing which I almost lost my camera. We'd been sitting out on the patio and when I headed upstairs to our room I left my camera on the couch I'd been sitting. Shaunta' kindly waited with it downstairs when she noticed I'd forgotten it, so that we wouldn't pass each other in the hallways (and so I wouldn't spend even more time panicking). Luckily that was the closest I came to losing anything over the course of the trip, so I'm going to count that as a win.

The next morning we had a fairly early start (though still nothing on the first day), because the drive to Paris was going to be a long one. After entering France we drove through the Franche-Comte region before reaching thr Burgundy region. In Burgundy we passed through Beaune, which is the wine capital of Burgundy and a wine region in which the pinot noir is the most used type of grape. In Burgundy we also passed Chateau Neuf, so I can say I saw at least one chateau over the course of my time in France.

Once we'd arrived in Paris, after checking in to our hotel, we drove into the city for a cruise on the River Seine. While on the cruise I got my first glimpses of the Assemble Nationale, the Musee d'Orsay, the Louvre, the Pont Neuf (the oldest bridge in Paris, whose name translates to 'new bridge'), the Notre Dame, and of course the Eiffel Tower. The lights of the tower came on just as we docked, it was so pretty!

Then we took a drive through Paris by night, during which we saw: the Champs-Elysse, L'eglise de la Madeleine (a church built in the Neo-Classical style as temple to Napoleon's army), the Garnier Opera House (where the Phantom of the Opera supposedly takes place), the inner courtyard of the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde (the largest square in Paris, which features an obelisk brought from the Luxor Temple in Egypt), and the Arc de Triomphe (twelve avenues meet there and it's a terrifying example of traffic, I would not want to drive there).

We made a stop at Trocadero, which grants an obstruction-free view of the Eiffel Tower, to watch the lights show. The Eiffel Tower lit up and glittered like a diamond, it was amazing! I took a, probably excessive, amount of pictures which all look essentially the same (but it still seemed like a good idea at the time, and they're all gorgeous pictures).

Back at our hotel Shaunta' and I got into being in France and watched Bones on TV (it was in French, so it counts right?), it was actually a little weird.

Saturday was our final day as a group, and our only full day in Paris. We started the day with a driving tour around the city (it was a lot easier to get good pictures from the bus in the daytime, so I appreciated seeing some of the sights again). We saw several amazing places: the Boulevard du Montparnasse (where in the 1920s you could meet artists like Picasso and writers like Hemingway), the Latin Quarter (so called because Latin became the official language of the students there), the Luxembourg Gardens (which houses the miniature original Statue of Liberty), the Pantheon, the Chapel of the Sorbonne, the Pont de la Concorde (a bridge built from the stones of the Bastille), and Les Invalides (the church which houses the burial place of Napoleon).

Then we took a tour of Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most famous examples of French Gothic architecture and whose stained glass rose windows are articular fantastic and which were miraculously spared during the rioting of the Huguenots.

For lunch I had a particularly healthy meal of a Crepe Canelle (basically a crepe with cinnamon sugar liberally sprinkled on top), it was amazing. Besides, everyone knows calories don't count when you're on vacation. I picked up a gorgeous silk scarf and some prints of iconic sights in Paris by which to remember the trip.

We then headed to the Eiffel Tower, where we took the elevator up to the seocnd landing (about 350 ft up). It was windy, rainy and foggy and yet the views were still breathtaking (if not quite as far-reaching as they might otherwise have been).

During our remaining time in the city, at this point we had about another hour and a half, Shaunta' and I decided to head to the Louvre. we basically sped walked to the museum from our drop-off point at the Opera House and, after waiting in line for security and then tickets, heading straight for the Mona Lisa. After we'd finished getting our tickets (excitingly, I got in for free with my EU student ID) we only had about half an hour to actually spend in the museum, so we didn't get to see as much of the museum as I would have liked. We walked through the exhibits on greek, roman, and egyptian antiquities (although I was admittedly a little distracted by the painted ceilings). We also saw some gorgeous statues, including the Venus de Milo in passing, on our way to the hall containing the Mona Lisa. I wasn't disappointed by the size, I had never actually pictured it as being that  large (it measures 30 x 21 inches), I was a little disappointed by how hard it was to see though. It was so crowded that I basically had to squeeze through a hoard of people and awkwardly take my photo of the painting from above people's heads (not an easy feat when you're my height). After our visit, which was enjoyable if a bit short, we booked it back towards the Opera House to meet up with our group.

That evening we attended a show at the Moulin Rouge. The show was actually amazing, if a bit risque (you know something is up where anything that covers as much as a bikini can be considered modest), but the costumes were still specatcular (lots of sparkling stones, feathers, brocade fabrics, and elaborate headdresses). My favorite act was an amazing segment of acrobatic rollarblading, which was a combination of terrifying and unbelievable. The dancing in general was impressive, although the lipsyncing was hilariously awful. It was a show-stopping end to a wonderful trip.

Sunday morning the few of us who were going all the way back to London got on the bus, enjoyed some more of the French countryside, took the ferry from Calais back to Dover (I got an amazing view of the White Cliffs of Dover on the way back), and said our goodbyes in London.

I took the train back to Exeter from the Waterloo Station, unfortunately the second half of my train had been canceled last minute, so I spent an hour or so waiting for the next train to Exeter at the Salisbury station. Luckily I had recently added several new books to my Kindle, so I was well-occupied.

It was surprising how much getting back to Exeter felt like coming home, I'm not sure how I'll feel when I leave it for the last time.

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