It’s a testament to how busy life has been that I’m writing this blog post at zero hour, hurrying up to get it out on time! You have all been so faithful over the transition and while I really haven’t gotten any feedback I hope that I will over the next weeks as we transition along with my life in Texas. This week I want to share a great coffee find in the Dallas- Fort Worth area with you: Roots. With two locations in the DFW area, I’m fonder of the North Richland Hills coffee shop, inconvenient as the location might be for someone like me. Still, the great atmosphere, good baked goods and fabulous coffee are a big draw, and the great service doesn’t hurt either. From the unique blends of coffee constantly being rotated in the shop (think Bolivian, Peruvian, Ethiopian and many more) to the sausage rolls and cranberry muffins, this place is definitely worth a stop. While no longer truly off the beaten track, you can still always find a table. Hottest tip– don’t miss the lemon cake!
Hello friends! It’s been two weeks, but since I’ve left Florence, and my travels are completed (for the moment!), I wanted to give you guys an idea of what’s going on and what to expect going forward.
I was very lucky to have not just six months in Italy on study abroad, but another year afterwards. Some people fall in love with Italy and stay for a lifetime. It’s extremely difficult to do so, and I have friends struggling with “stay or go” decisions all the time. I, however, always knew Italy was not my destiny and returned to the place I currently call home, Dallas, at the end of August after traveling for a few weeks (see previous featured posts). It is an experience that I will treasure, and I’m not sure if I will stay in Texas forever, but being closer to family (I have cousins in high school and grandparents in the area) was a big priority for me right now.
So what should you expect going forward? I’m still figuring that out myself, and I would love any input you have in the comments! I’ll be moving to a biweekly posting for now, while I sort things through. I’ll be sharing bits of my life here in Texas with you, and my travels will continue, though for the moment they will be staying closer to home. I’ll be hitting local events like the State Fair (note the photo, though Big Tex has been updated since due to a fire). I’ll be back in two weeks, and in the meantime, please share any ideas or preferences in the comments below. All the best!
My last stop on my travels before heading back to Italy to pick up my luggage and bid goodbye to friends was Riga, Latvia. It was the last of the Baltic countries for me to visit and my trip was very timely, coming in between a visit to Riga by Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. As a result, talk of politics was definitely on people’s thoughts, if not in the bar conversation. Riga was extremely interesting as a city because of its city feel. Despite the fact that it is comparable to Tallinn and Vilnius in terms of size (at least for the old town area), Riga felt much more like a cosmopolitan city than the other two, which seemed quieter, older. The first day I met the same organized free tours that I had done in Vilnius at the church below for a behind-the-scenes look at Riga.
The architecture in Riga is one thing that really differentiates the city. The building below is jokingly referred to as “Stalin’s Cupcake.”
There’s another major statue in Riga, one of an author. One thing that I really love about Europe is that there is so much support for the arts. When was the last time you saw a statue in the US of a famous American author? Or saw a ballet other than Swan Lake or the Nutcracker? I was able to see locally choreographed pieces because the state commits money to support the arts.
The second day I spent in Riga I went on a different walking tour that I’m not sure is just due to Riga being the capitol of culture this year or if it runs all the time. It’s called the Riga Culture tour and mainly focuses on architecture– specifically art nouveau, which Riga is known for. If they opt to continue the tours you should definitely check them out– the art nouveau district is pretty well known but our guide was really knowledgeable and it was really interesting to hear the stories behind the buildings as opposed to reading them from a guidebook. In addition, we got to go inside some buildings, an advantage of having a guide.
The three brothers are three houses that sit next to one another. They are built in different styles but their history ties them together.
Pardon the lighting– it was cloudy/ rainy both days in Latvia and so sometimes finding the balance between the color of the buildings and that of the sky was tricky. But in general, enjoy seeing some of the photos of amazing Latvia architecture! If you have time, read up some on art nouveau in Riga… it’s been too long for me to talk about it cohesively but it was very interesting.
Did you know that Riga has a piece of the Berlin wall? It’s a bit off the beaten track, but worth a stop by for the history there. The other pieces are from the barricades built in 1991 after Latvia declared independence.
The writing reads:
Often I have only been lucky enough to hit one, maybe two major cities in a country that I have visited. While seeing some of the most famous and beautiful cities and sites is amazing, sometimes it leaves you feeling as if you don’t really know a country– you have seen only a piece of it. For this reason, on my second day in Estonia I chose to get outside the city and see a bit more of the country. The Baltics aren’t big, and originally I had hoped to spend a bit longer exploring them more thoroughly; unfortunately because of flights that didn’t work out, but thanks to a tour that my hostel advertised I was able to get off the beaten track a bit in Estonia.
One major recommendation: even in summer, it can be chilly in Estonia. And rainy. So pack smart. We headed out bright and early and piled into a van– I didn’t know any of the other people on the tour but they were nice enough. Our first stop (other than for gas) was to see these ancient burial sites. Fun fact: they used to be on the other side of the highway. The Soviets moved them when they built the highway from Estonia to Russia. However, it is believed that there are many more that were paved over.We headed next to another quick stop, an old abandoned house.
And then headed to stop at a beautiful waterfall– the biggest in Estonia. Remember… it’s a small country!
From the waterfall we continued on to what was, for me, the highlight of the day, a bog walk in the Lahemaa National Park in Estonia. I had double checked with my hostel, but was all set in my flats; I was assured that hiking boots were not needed. Still… plan for the unanticipated, I say. I wore my swimsuit under my clothes and carried my umbrella and a change of clothes and flip flops with me just in case. We entered the park, and it was like entering another world; I definitely wasn’t in the city anymore.
It being a chilly, rainy day the paths were mostly deserted, making the forest all the more beautiful. There really aren’t words to describe it, so I think for the most part I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
At one point we were able to climb a lookout and get amazing views of the bog we were trekking around.
You can see the path winding through the bog above. It was really cloudy, but I focused some of the pictures on the ground so they would be brighter. It rained off and on throughout our walk, but never too badly.
It was both serene and stunning, a perfect way to spend a late morning in Estonia. We grabbed lunch afterwards and then our guide took us further to the coast, where we were able to walk along the coastline, in the water and enjoy what was likely the furthest north most of us had ever been.
You can walk from the shore to this first small island, and then to the further one that you can see in the distance. The rocks were painful on bare feet so I opted to stay at the first and relax.
Exploring further afield in Estonia was a great reminder of how many things a place has to offer. There are so many places I have been that are amazing, but hardly a representation of the country they represent. When possible, take the time to get a bit further away from the hustle and bustle. You won’t regret it.
I started traveling around the Baltics in Lithuania. Because the Baltic states are so small and close together, it’s common (if not universal) to find people traveling through one to be traveling through all three. So everyone you meet is either on their way to another Baltic state and/ or coming from one… and they are a wealth of travel information about the cities. When I told people that I was heading to Tallinn next, everyone described it in exactly the same way: Oh, it’s the Disneyland of Europe! Everyone had a different opinion about which city was better, but I was already intrigued. Disney? That’s a high standard to live up to, and an interesting comparison for a city. Still, fresh off Segovia I had high hopes.
I took the overnight bus from Vilnius to Tallinn. Most people go direct between the Baltic countries (i.e. either straight up or down) but the flights were more limiting for me and so I opted for Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, instead of a more direct path. Ryanair doesn’t fly every single day of the week from every city so depending on where you are coming from and going to it can make a big difference on your travel path. Anyway, my bus got in at the crack of dawn (AKA 6 AM) and Estonia was still sleepy… and confusing. I had a heck of a time trying to find the proper bus to get to my hostel because the trams weren’t running for one reason or another and no one in the bus station spoke English. But I finally made it into the old town and I could immediately tell what people were talking about!
Since I arrived so early I took a few minutes to freshen up and do some research at the hostel since I knew I’d only be spending one day in the city proper (more on what I did on day two next week), and then I headed out to wander. Tallinn is very tiny as well and I practically had the city to myself as I wandered.
For this reason I highly recommend getting an early start while in the Baltics. It’s becoming a big party scene for young Europeans (I’ve never seen hostels explicitly state that bachelor and bachelorette parties are unwelcome before) but because mostly they sleep in after partying late into the night the early morning can be the best time to see the city. I hiked up the hill to get a view of the city, and nearly had the view to myself. I definitely recommend the sugared nuts–the smell is intoxicating and they make a nice snack while you survey the city.
The red rooftops, the church steeples… the harbor. It’s all visible when you get above the city. From this vantage point you can clearly see the cruise ships that dock in the harbor as well. Both longer cruises on major cruise lines as well as ferries to nearby port cities such as Helsinki depart out of the harbor and while you would never notice it from old town, when you get above the city it is suddenly so obviously close that you wonder how you can miss it.
At the top of the hill there are some other interesting landmarks, including the Russian Orthodox church that has inspired many mixed feelings among Estonians because of the history of the country (see last week’s post for more info or just look into simple Baltic state/ USSR history). Still, the church is very beautiful and worth a stop. Coming down the hill or going up, depending on the path you take, you pass some interesting architecture that has deep city history.
Another major stop as I was exploring Tallinn was the Hotel Viru, where the Soviets kept a radio transmission station secretly enclosed on the top floor of the hotel and since it was a hotel dedicated to foreigners and visiting former Estonians who had left the county they also used a variety of high-tech devices to spy on the guests. I’d highly recommend it. They have several tours a day, typically conducted in a few different languages, so I recommend stopping by the front desk to ask about times first thing in the morning so you can ensure that you are able to catch a tour– you can’t visit alone. I’ve heard mixed reviews depending on the guide but I really found it very interesting. The views from the top are pretty sweet, too!
Tallinn was a really pretty city, much more the glamour as opposed to the harshness of history that seemed so much more prevalent in Vilnius. It was really interesting to compare and contrast the two. I heard a lot of people say that Tallinn was their least favorite of the Baltic cities, because it felt so much like a tourist destination and had that “Disney” feel. I really enjoyed the time I spent there, though, and the rest of the time I spent in Estonia. The only way to really know? See it for yourself… and go soon, before this tiny corner of the world really hits the big tourist boom.
Forty five percent of the population of Vilnius, Lithuania was Jewish prior to the start of World War II.
And now? Less than five percent.
The city of Lithuania, as modern and beautiful as it is now, can only be seen through the lens of history. The differences are staggering, and bring the horrors of the Holocaust right up to your face, even for those of us born afterwards, who never experienced it or the isolation of the Cold War that came after. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the Baltic states, or rather it just doesn’t occur to us to think of them at all; they are small, they are far removed, they have little impact on us. With current events involving Russia, however, the Baltics are just as significant now as they ever were and as world citizens we should be more knowledgeable about these small but significant states. Lithuania was an extremely interesting jumping off point because while the three states were affected in similar ways by the Holocaust, the Russian occupation, and Soviet work camps, Vilnius was by far the most impacted by the Holocaust and it is a very significant part of their history because it greatly altered the look of the city today. I took the free walking tour of Vilnius… these tours are offered in all the major Baltic cities and are hit or miss depending on your guide, but for me in Vilnius it was an invaluable look at the history of the city through walking through the different neighborhoods. Below you can see the last remaining synagogue in Vilnius. There used to be 105.
Vilnius first had a Jewish ghetto before most of the Jews were sent to concentration camps and killed. The city is beautiful, with wide streets and old buildings, but a glimpse at the city’s history shows that it is still wrapped up in the past.
There’s much more to Vilnius than it’s history, though we’ll return to that later. For example, did you know that the city has an entire district that has established its own constitution? They used to have their own army as well– but with less than 15 people in the ranks, they eventually disbanded. Below you can see the sign as you walk into the area of the city. It’s just over the river from old town, and it has some silly rules– artists and such created the area more for fun than anything else, it seems.
The angel stands guard over the area. There is a fountain beneath her, and rumor has it (AKA our guide told us) that originally on the anniversary of the founding (April 1) the fountain would run with beer. Thanks to the economic downturn, that’s no longer the case.
Vilnius has an astonishing number of churches. In the top of the arch below you can just make out a tiny chapel– it’s a place of pilgrimage for many Lithuanians and even Europeans, though personally I don’t know enough about it to know/ remember why.
Interestingly I learned that the USSR was quite atheist (I had no idea) and one of the churches in Vilnius was actually used as a museum of atheism or something of the sort during the occupation. Next to the church below, at the statue, marks the point where a line of people holding hands stretching the length of the Baltic states from Vilnius to Talinn. Known as the Baltic Way, or the Freedom Chain, began. The peaceful protest occurred in 1989 and was designed to both advocate for independence as well as show the unity of the Baltic states. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that these states were a part of the USSR, a fact that they are very conscious of in today’s world given current events. For some, the last Russian troops left just over 20 years ago, and many can still remember it.
Vilnius is a pretty small city… very walkable and pretty flat, unless you climb the hill to overlook the city. There’s a cable car, too, but climbing is free– just make sure you are wearing decent shoes so you don’t slip! It’s very doable and the path is paved but it’s still steep. The views of the city from the top are really great.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you are in a city how much of a country can be wilderness. Not so here! The trees are really prevalent around Vilnius. Below you can see the tower, atop the hill we climbed.
It’s just as easy to forget when wandering old town that there is a busy area just across the river that is bustling with commerce and life. The new area of the city might not be as historically interesting, but it’s an important part of the present and future for Vilnius. As an introduction to the Baltics Vilnius exceeded all expectations and I wished I had had more time to explore this gem of a city and country. Many people asked me how I ended up traveling around the Baltics, and the simple answer was that I had wanted to explore somewhere new, and had always been interested in the history of the area. It is less touristed than western Europe, but becoming more known and touristed and I wanted to see it before the big tourism boom hit. Truthfully, though, I knew very little about the Baltic states before going and had looked forward to learning much more. From wandering through the exhibits at the Museum of Genocide Victims to listening to a Lithuanian guide share the history of her city, it was so easy to be transported back in time to experience the city. For Lithuania, the past, their history and establishment, is so much more recent than it is for us. For an American, as I can only truthfully speak to my own experience, it is easy to take our history, independence and rights and freedoms for granted. For many Lithuanians, they remember a time when they were not so lucky.
So first things first– my apologies that this is going out a day late! I started a new job last week and with the holiday I somehow just did not get around to writing in time for Tuesday. So Wednesday surprise! We’ll be back to our new posting schedule next week. I’ll let you in on a little secret: in Italy because of the time change I was posting at 7 PM so if I ran out of time the week before I had plenty of time that day or even evening. Not so here.
Anyway, recently I planned while traveling to return to Brussels. I wanted to add a French-speaking destination to my itinerary and I just lucked out and ended up in the city right when their annual flower carpet festival was going on. I had traveled to Brussels previously, but only briefly, for about 24 hours and so I figured I would hit the museums and walk around. The flower carpet was a total bonus and a complete coincidence. The flower carpet is composed of petals, created every other year in August and stays up only for a couple of days. You can see the volunteers as they scoop the petals out of the boxes and arrange them on the ground. I’m not sure how they get the petals to not fly away–originally I thought they used whole plants but it’s just the petals, stored in big boxes and arranged the day before the festival officially begins.
The design changes every festival; this year’s design was created to commemorate the anniversary of Turkish immigration to Belgium and so the flower carpet was designed like a traditional Turkish carpet. You can go up to the balcony of the Hotel de Ville which… I do recommend, but keep in mind that it’s pretty packed out. In my experience, it wasn’t the coolest experience because they are constantly yelling at you to keep moving. You have a decent view on the ground, but for 5 euros it’s worth heading up to the balcony to get a better view of the pattern they create. Here’s a BIG HINT for you: prebook your ticket online IN ADVANCE. Once the festival begins you can’t buy online and will have to wait in the massive line, whereas if you have a ticket you bought you can skip most of the line. So it’s definitely worth the effort to prebook. Below you can see that they have also incorporated the flower theme into the wreaths that are decorating the building.
You can definitely see the theme in the carpet, both at ground-level and above.
The photo above’s from about the mid-point of the balcony.
I don’t know that I would recommend a specific trip solely for the purpose of visiting the flower carpet but if you are already in the area I would recommend stopping by! Brussels is the kind of city that you can see in a day or a week or a month, depending on the kind of traveler you are, but my experience this time is a good reminder to always check for what’s going on locally… you never know what you might run into!
For the past year I have been living and working in Florence, Italy, with all the perks and challenges that living abroad offers. This week I returned to Texas, where I grew up, to start a new chapter of my life. All things end, and my time in Italy has as I seek new opportunities and pursue new dreams and adventures. I will still be blogging weekly; different things about my time here, day trips and weekend trips I might take and perhaps a look back at my old travels that I haven’t written about. Things will be different, but the same, and I hope you will stay along with my for the journey!
Looking back on my time in Florence I’m so grateful for the friends I was able to make and the new experiences that I had. If you have any questions about Italy, always feel free to drop me a line. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing more about my August travels, including the Brussels Flower Carpet Festival and the Baltic states: Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Come and see!
So I have to admit something: the first time I went to Madrid, it didn’t impress me.
Now don’t all jump down my throat at once. I’ve since been corrected in my misunderstanding, and while I’m not sure it’s the right city for me to live in, it is a great city in and of itself. All it took was getting a bit of a behind the scenes tour, and that was all possible because yours truly has a friend who lives in Madrid–and who has lived in Madrid for the past four years, making her the perfect source for finding those great local places that make a city special.
One great place that we went in Madrid was to this arts center. They had a few photography exhibitions going on, but basically anywhere you can get a view of the city you can have the same experience.
Yeah, me either. Getting up high in small towns, or in particular hill towns, is common, but sometimes in a big city we forget. Madrid might not have a super memorable skyline, but it is a pretty one nonetheless. And come on… did you know THIS existed in Madrid? Fun rooftop sculptures, anyone?
Atocha is where the bombings occurred in Madrid, and the memorial has now opened. We stopped by to see it; it’s an interesting representation. I’d recommend reading up on why they chose the design they did if possible before visiting.
The best part about visiting a friend? Not having to be responsible for planning anything. Still, I couldn’t help but google “free things to do in Madrid.” Seriously, try this–even with your own city. I’ve been doing this with my hometown area recently and have found some cool things. But one thing I found while looking at Madrid was that there is an old Metro station that has been turned into a museum. My friend had never heard of it before, and we went one morning together to check it out. It’s small, but definitely worth a visit. Below you can see the metro map from the time. It hasn’t held up against the course of time, but it’s super cool to see the original stations/ line.
One thing that we really enjoyed was seeing the old advertising that was never taken down. We saw some old ads for products that are still a thing in Spain, and for things that are not common anymore. It was really neat.
When the Metro was being updated Chamberi was closed as a station, but trains still run through it. My friend got a big kick out of watching the Metro trains go past. As someone who had previously never heard of this museum, I wondered what all the people must have thought about us standing around on the blocked off platforms!
All of the ticket counters, turnstiles, etc in the station are original, so it’s a really unique (and free!) place to spend half an hour in Madrid. It does keep odd hours, though, so check online before going.
Another thing I really enjoyed was checking out a few cute coffeeshops that my friend enjoys going to. I particularly enjoyed the atmosphere in this shop, where we sat at the window seat and browsed books while enjoying coffee…
Though this shop, with its Van Gogh inspiration, was also fun. Sit in the front. though… it feels much more intimate and you don’t have to pay for table service since you order at the counter. The back feels very commercial. I would have gone for something cozier, but the Van Gogh reproduction paintings (which are for sale!) are super fun.
One of the best ways to get to know a city is by walking… and we certainly did a lot of that. My friend lived outside the main city center, much as I do in Florence, and walking more helped me to realize that not only is Madrid smaller than it seems, but it is also full of beautiful places that make you feel as if the city is a million miles away. If you are traveling to a big city, don’t let it overwhelm you… find the local places, small places, do something you would do at home and you won’t even realize you are in a major metropolis. Don’t get me wrong… I visited the Reina Sofia and the Prado and some other major Madrid sites, and it’s easier to get off the beaten track if you’ve been before or if you have a friend in the city. But you can do the same anywhere you go, if you simple open your mind to the possibilities.
It’s so simple to day trip from where we live, but do we ever think about doing it when we are on vacation?
When a friend heard I was heading to Madrid, she insisted I check out Segovia. Turns out Segovia is only just over an hour away from Madrid on the bus, so the friend that I am visiting and I took the bus down on Saturday to check out the town. She’s been several times before, but to be honest I had never really considered day trips outside Madrid. There are other major Spanish cities that I would like to visit, but I didn’t know much of anything about what was close by. Segovia is up on a hill, though not an overly large one, so it has a nice view of the farming land and mountains nearby but isn’t too painful to walk up.
Segovia has an old Roman aqueduct smack in the middle of town, among other notable sights. You can observe the aqueduct from the ground… it definitely makes you feel very tiny compared to its notable height! Such an interesting piece of history in Spain… and appropriate, given that I flew here from Italy.
It was even nicer to be in Segovia because it was about 10 degrees cooler than it has been here in Madrid. It’s a sweatbox in Madrid right now… mid to upper 90s and super sunny. I have this nice tan line on my feet from my flats, but that’s beside the point. Point being, you should check out this town, and not just for the bit of Italian history here. The church is also quite impressive, both inside and out.
The church is very gothically inspired and is a short walk between the aqueduct and the castle. It’s very Gothic and the artwork inside is really impressive. Not too expensive either at only three euros. Continuing on, the really notable piece of Segovia (other than the food, which is really renowned in Spain, and also expensive) is the castle. Known for supposedly inspiring Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, the castle in Segovia still is host to events from time to time. The last time my friend came, they couldn’t enter because there was a knighting occurring. Yes, Spain still has monarchs. And castles. Don’t forget that in Cinderella the Duke calls out “Señorita!” when she is fleeing!
I have to say, I buy it. The blue-looking roof, the towers… definitely looks Cinderella-esque to me. You can tour the castle, which mainly holds the armory but also a quite impressive throne room and some interesting decor and design. Guided tours and audio guides are on offer, but the display signs are pretty good and the castle is actually quite small (relatively speaking) on the inside, so in my opinion it isn’t necessary. You can also climb the tower, for an additional fee if you feel the need to be that much higher. It being the middle of August, the surrounding countryside is pretty dead, but it’s still pretty impressive to be outside the city and see more of the country of Spain.
The day was really relaxing and it was nice to be outside the city and with the amazing weather we were able to sit outside in the shade and really enjoy ourselves. I highly recommend Segovia for anyone looking to get outside the city when visiting Madrid! I’ll share a bit more later about what I did in the city itself, but I couldn’t resist sharing this tiny charming piece of Spain this week.
I think my favorite part of the castle was the wishing well. I don’t know if it technically IS a wishing well, but it definitely was a very charming and royal sight. If you’re close to Madrid, this view alone is worth the visit.
“A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep. In dreams you will lose your heartaches. Whatever you wish for, you keep. Have faith in your dreams, and someday, your rainbow will come smiling through. No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”