Small town, city feel

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.

IMG_2524Our tour guide was amusing, but not as knowledgeable, in my opinion, as the one I had had in Vilnius. Still, everyone is different, so despite the rain I stuck it out and gave him a chance.

The architecture in Riga is one thing that really differentiates the city. The building below is jokingly referred to as “Stalin’s Cupcake.”

IMG_2526Statues are a big thing in Riga, more so than most cities. The one below is of the former mayor of Riga. The dog? Not his. The sculptor’s.

IMG_2530There’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.

IMG_2594This particular statue is out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You’re supposed to rub the noses of all the animals for good luck. This is easier than it seems. If you’re short, bring a friend to help.

IMG_2614The ballet that I went to see was at the opera house. It’s just outside old town. Or maybe technically inside, depending on how they define old town. It’s really beautiful inside.

IMG_2531The 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.

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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.

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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.

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The writing reads:

The Berlin Wall separated us,
The wall unites us.
Let us love one another,
And pray to God for our enemy.
In a time where the certainty of the Baltics could almost be called into question, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit these three amazing countries. Each has a unique story to tell and is so relevant to our world today. We can’t forget with everything going on in the Middle East that events in the Ukraine and the Baltics are still happening. Media attention diverts, but these issues all affect our world today. Be knowledgeable. And see it for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

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More than the one city

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.IMG_2445We headed next to another quick stop, an old abandoned house.

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And then headed to stop at a beautiful waterfall– the biggest in Estonia. Remember… it’s a small country!

IMG_2449From 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.

IMG_2453It 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.

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At one point we were able to climb a lookout and get amazing views of the bog we were trekking around.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

The Disneyland of Europe

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!

IMG_2440Um, yes, hello, it is straight out of Walt Disney. I’m not sure if Walt Disney ever traveled this far but it’s definitely eerily similar.

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.

IMG_2359For 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.

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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.

IMG_2400You also pass this pretty sweet bakery which was still pretty empty as it was early, but definitely worth a stop. I opted for a cherry pastry and a sausage roll.

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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!

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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.

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Tradition

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.

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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.

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You can definitely see the theme in the carpet, both at ground-level and above.

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The photo above’s from about the mid-point of the balcony.

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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!

That Local Life: Madrid

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.

Madrid SkylineIf you didn’t know, would you guess this was Madrid?

IMG_2060Yeah, 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?

Rooftop horses MadridAnother fun fact: did you know that there are turtles in Atocha Metro/ train station? Yes, turtles.

Madrid turtles AtochaAtocha 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.

IMG_2070One 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.

Madrid Chamberi advertisingWhen 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!

IMG_2073All 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.

IMG_2158One 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.

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Daytrip: Segovia

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 view

 

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.

IMG_2109You can also walk up the side of the aqueduct via the stairs, giving you a great view of both the aqueduct and the valley and mountains beyond.

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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.

Segovia church

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!

Cinderella castle Segovia

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.

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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.

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“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.”

Above and underground in Orvieto

This past week I have been very lucky to have a very dear friend visiting, and so I’ve been playing a bit more tourist than I normally do in Italy. We wanted to get out of Florence a bit, so we headed to nearby Orvieto, somewhere I have never been, and only about two hours on the regional (slow) train. Orvieto is located on a (very tall) hill, so we took the funicular from the bottom of the hill where the train dropped us off to the old town, and then headed straight for the main piazza del Duomo. We picked up tickets for our main interest first, and while we waited headed into the Duomo. Orvieto’s Duomo is pretty low-key overall, but the chapels are what are most noticeable and they are much more ornate than the rest of the empty-feeling church.

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The church is similar in feel to the Duomo in Siena, but as previously noted the chapels here are what are incredibly ornate. One chapel in particular was created for a piece of bloody cloth from when the wafer began to drip with the actual blood of Christ to convince a doubting priest. The cloth and host were taken to the pope, a miracle was declared and the chapel was built where the cloth is enshrined to this day. The majority of the frescos in that chapel were done by Luca Signorelli, and are said to have influenced Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The influence is obvious; Signorelli’s figures are incredibly muscular.

After viewing the church we headed from the beautiful city aboveground to under the ground, to the main attraction of Orvieto and what we were most excited to see: the Orvieto underground. During the time of the Etruscans thousands of man-made caves were dug out of the hillside and they are spread throughout the city. I tried to find an example of the map that you can see there, but was unsuccessful, but imagine a small Italian town city map: now draw thousands of red circles all over it and you’ll have an idea of how many caves there were and the reach of them. We took a guided tour in English, and were able to get some backstory on the caves and see them up close and personal.

The caves look pretty much like you would expect– they are caves after all– but what is perhaps most surprising is the temperature drop after you descend even just one level down into the caves. It is so much cooler there, and it is no surprise that the Etruscans used the caves for things such as olive oil making. Below you can see an ancient olive oil press. The straining mat is modern, but something similar would have been used to press the oil out of the olives and prevent pieces of the olives from joining the oil.

IMG_1979The caves were incredibly extensive; we felt we had seen so much, but in reality we only covered two tiny circles on the map of thousands. At one point our guide pointed out that while it seemed we had covered a lot of ground, it had all been vertical, and there certainly were a lot of stairs– this was not a tour for those who can’t do stairs– or the claustrophobic! The caves were quite spacious, but the tiny staircases and passages between them, not so much.

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Many of the rooms in the caves were studded with holes, as you can see in the photograph above. For a long time they believed that these holes had a different purpose, but now archeologists are pretty certain that they were used to raise pigeons, which are actually a pretty common food in Orvieto, one of the things the city is known for (the others being ceramics, Orvieto classico wine from Trebbiano grapes, and olive oil). The pigeons were self-maintaining, because they would fly out the window that was ever-present to eat, and also bring back food for their young. Unlike other animals such as rabbits, people did not have to put in as much effort to raise them.

After some time the caves reached their final hurrah when the people of Orvieto were forbidden from digging out any more caves due to the instability of the area; landslides, thanks to the instability caused by the caves were increasing and there was fear that the entire city might disappear. Now there are spikes driven through the hill to protect the city, but the caves are now an archeological and historical site as opposed to a functional one.

Orvieto, being a hill town, had beautiful views, and we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and enjoying them before heading back to Florence on the train. Below you can see a convent (I believe) from the hillside where we entered the underground caves.

IMG_1975Orvieto was sacked by the Romans, but the city withstood their attacks for two years thanks to its prime hilltop position: easy to defend. There are walls around the city as well, and facing the train station you can climb atop for the best view of the valley below.

IMG_1984Sometimes living in Florence it’s easy to forget that Italy isn’t really a land of cities. I’m lucky enough to have a view of the hills from my balcony, but visiting a small hill town is a good reminder of what Italian life is really like for most people– in the past, and in the present.

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The fourth time, I fell in love with Paris

Paris is, for some, the city of lights and of love–the best place in the world. For others, it is merely another stop on the big cities trail, full of tourists and having lost most of its precious charm over the years. For me, Paris always fell somewhere in the middle. I loved the museums of Paris, the food, the atmosphere, but at the same time it felt big and impersonal. I’d been to Paris several times in the past- once in high school with my French teacher and fellow students and twice the last time I was studying abroad when I took a month to travel around France, so this time I knew I wanted to do something different.

So instead of staying near the tourist attractions, I picked the closest hostel to the Latin Quarter, an area that I remember particularly liking when I was previously in Paris. The hostel was located on Rue Mouffetard, and while that street was touristy, it still felt charming and the area was lovely. Even the graffiti was fun.

IMG_1802While I did spend some time hitting major attractions, I think this trip was marked more by what I didn’t do than what I did do. I didn’t rush around feeling like I needed to see 20 different museums. I didn’t spend a lot of time waiting in line. I didn’t make myself do anything I wasn’t in the mood for. Instead, I spent the time much more as a vacation–actually taking time off as opposed to feeling obligated to check items off a list or rush around from dawn til dusk trying to see everything because you never know if you’ll be able to go back.

I prebooked a ticket for the Musée D’Orsay and went straight in, waiting less than five minutes in line and having plenty of time to explore–they have changed the layout and done a complete remodel since I’ve been, so I was particularly glad I had dedicated time to spend with some of my favorite impressionists. A different day I went to the free museum across the street, the Legion of Honor museum, and explored a bit of French (and international) honors.

IMG_1808I hit two major street markets and admired the freshness.

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I ate tons of traditional French food but when a cute little man was making fresh, hot churros I thought “why not?”

I popped into small churches that normally I wouldn’t know about without just walking past and went back to one for a free German high school girls’ choral concert one night.

IMG_1842I went to a poetry reading one evening hosted by Shakespeare and Company and bought a collection of Hemingway’s articles that he submitted to Canadian papers while living in Paris while there.

IMG_1824I tried watermelon soup, and enjoyed when the waiter became flustered because we were speaking in French and he didn’t know the word for “watermelon.”

IMG_1805I walked past Notre Dame and admired the view while skipping the insane line to go inside and instead exploring those smaller churches.

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I read books in French and drank the most amazingly subtle chai latte.

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I caught tiny glimpses of the Eiffel Tower.

IMG_1854I celebrated Bastille Day in style, with a picnic in the afternoon and fireworks viewing to celebrate not only the national holiday, but the 100 year anniversary of the Eiffel Tower.

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This time more so than any other time Paris felt smaller, because I made it smaller– the only time I took the Metro was in and out of the city and on the way to the parade on Bastille Day, the national holiday when I wanted to have a quicker, more direct trip. I deliberately took it easy and was able to do the trip my way because I was traveling alone. While I still have a great love for other French cities, I was able to connect with Paris by making the city smaller and getting to know a neighborhood better, and doing like the locals do, like shopping in the Sunday Richard Lenoir market. It was tough to come back to Florence afterwards… the fireworks show for July 14 is just such a high note and the last time I was in Europe was a perfect sendoff– I flew home the next day. I still have a few weeks left here in Europe, but I was so grateful to have this time in Paris.

What do you think– have you ever unexpectedly connected with a city after not having felt that connection before?

 

 

 

 

Foodie Istanbul

So as I’ve been sharing over the past few weeks with you about my experiences in the great city of Istanbul, you might have notice that with the exception of the Asian side, I shared very little about one of the most important parts of traveling in a new country… the food. Living in Italy, I’m sure you can imagine that I have access to great food all the time, and it’s true–but it’s always nice to get away from the Italian classics and experience something more out of the box, and Florence isn’t exactly known for its great variety or its exceptional foreign food. Heading to Istanbul was just as exciting for the potential culinary opportunities as it was for the amazing culture and we enjoyed every minute of it.

I’ve already mentioned the Istanbul Breakfast Club, a great and highly recommended way to eat a traditional Turkish breakfast and meet really interesting people on the Asian side.

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I mean how can you resist all those great looking vegetables and cheeses? But there is so much more to Istanbul than breakfast, beginning with the notable Turkish coffee. Strong and served in a tiny cup like in Italy, it’s similar and dissimilar to espresso. Notably the grounds are kept within the coffee, so you have to be careful to not get a mouthful of them towards the end of your cup. It was okay, but overall I wasn’t super impressed– though we only had it once, so I’d be willing to give it another chance.

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Juices were huge on the streets of Istanbul, and super cheap– one thing my friend and I really enjoyed about Istanbul was the available options of street food, something that we don’t really have a lot of here in Florence. You can get all types of juices– we opted for orange which was super cheap but they also have pomegranate juice. If it wouldn’t have set me back about 8 USD I might have gotten it, but that seemed a bit much for a juice!

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When we were on the Asian side we walked through the fish market and the surrounding streets– it seems every few shops there is an option for purchasing tea or dried fruits… yum yum!

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Food in Turkey was amazing, and really reasonably priced. It was nice to be able to go for a sit-down dinner and feel like it wasn’t going to break the bank, even if you ate in courses! We tried a place the first night and split a bunch of different dishes so that we could taste different things. We started with hummus, what else? They also gave us complimentary pepper dip, which I’ve previously mentioned to you in the Istanbul Breakfast Club. The pita bread that we ate them with was incredible– so soft and fluffy and the vegetables were superb… we definitely could have eaten some more summer tomatoes.

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Then we indulged in this pida, which was similar to a white pizza, and a meat dish that was served with vegetables and rice.

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We got kebabs another night, in the Galata area… they were some four meat kind, we weren’t positive, but they were amazing! Just a little hole in the wall place but definitely delicious.

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Pretzel-type things are a big street snack in Istanbul, and we couldn’t resist getting them one day… the Nutella filled ones of course!

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Another night we went to a different restaurant we had wanted to try based on its great people-watching windows and low-slung chairs. We tried raki that night… it’s a Turkish liquor that has a licorice flavor. Orhan Pamuk talks extensively about it in The Museum of Innocence (see last week’s post for more on him), and the characters seemed to drink quite a bit of it. All the time. So we figured we had to try it! Ours was served in these ice bowls and diluted a bit with water.

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For dinner I opted for a veggie kebab, wanting something a bit healthier after all the street food we had been eating! The pretzel-type things are far from the only option, and in fact earlier that day we had indulged in watermelon on the street. Seriously, get on that Florence! I have a feeling it would sell way better than the light-up things the street vendors throw in the air.

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Who, though, could go to Turkey and NOT indulge in baklava? Yep, dessert was definitely on the list and we tried baklava multiple places. Turkey serves many different kinds of baklava– milk and walnut are available, though pistachio seemed to be the most common. Below you can see a sort of syrup-cake that I tried one day… it was pretty good, but you can’t beat baklava!

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We typically got samplers so that we could try multiple kinds. You only live once right? Plus those honey-soaked fritter things were SO good.

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And finally, don’t forget Turkish delight!

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What about you? When you travel, are you a food-experience seeker? What’s your favorite?

 

Through the eyes of an author: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

One of my favorite things to do when exploring somewhere new is to see it through the eyes of a local. Sometimes a great way to do that is through literature, and I was lucky enough to have a Turkish author from Istanbul recommended to me in advance of traveling to Istanbul. The book is called The Museum of Innocence and it’s really a great read, I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of traveling to the city. Orhan Pamuk is from Istanbul and that clearly shows in his writing as he intimately describes the neighborhoods his characters traverse. I felt like I really got to know the city even before arriving, and I wasn’t disappointed when we got there. Pamuk conceived the idea for the book and a corresponding museum at the same time. The book was published in 2008, and the museum opened in Istanbul in 2012, a testament to Pamuk’s importance and high level of respect in the Turkish community. He has won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is a truly talented writer. The book isn’t for the faint of heart–it’s long and very introspective with a slow plot, but it is beautifully written. We were able to stop by the museum and explore the neighborhoods surrounding it during one of our days in Istanbul. Below you can see the front of the museum, which contains mementos that have significance in the book. If you’d like more details than that, feel free to ask, but I don’t want to spoil it for everyone!

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We wandered around that area of town for most of the rest of the day, just walking and exploring, getting off the beaten track and for the most part seeing very few tourists. We wandered the backstreets, winding up (and up and up) hills and just exploring. We saw this really cool graffiti on one of our notable uphill climbs.

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All this uphill walking was for a purpose– we were heading to the Pera Palace hotel, where famous people the likes of Agatha Christie and Atatürk have stayed. One of my DAR ladies had recommended we stop here and ask to check out the rooms, so we did. Christie’s room, is, unfortunately for a big fan such as myself, still rented out, so I couldn’t check it out, but I do definitely plan to try to sleep there someday! Atatürk’s suite was converted into a museum room and a manager in training took us around it and shared some stories with us, so that was really interesting. He had left many things in the room at the time of his death, and those objects are what are now displayed there (two rugs that were gifted to him, pajamas, documents, etc). From there we walked around the area for a bit, checking out the cable car and shops… this was a very bustling and busy area.

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We wandered down to Galata Tower from there– it was nice to be walking downhill for a change!

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The line was ages long so we didn’t end up climbing the tower but we walked around it before deciding to continue downhill and meander our way back towards Sultenhamet by walking across the bridge over the Bosphorus.

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The bridge has great views and local Turks still fish off the bridge as well. You can see them fishing below with Galata Tower in the background.

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The bridge has great views looking towards both sides of the river.

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It’s a great reminder of how important the river was and is to Istanbul, both for trade and transportation.

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In this instance, a great day was created thanks to the recommendation of a friend and being willing to get out and explore a different area of the city, but when traveling it’s just as important to be flexible and to go with the flow when things come up. Getting off the beaten track in a destination can be challenging at times, but sometimes it’s a simple as appreciating events when you stumble across them. After one long day in Istanbul we stumbled across a military band playing and took advantage of the opportunity to indulge in watermelon from a street vendor and a bit of music.

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Istanbul is a beautiful city and exploring all of the hidden corners of it would take years. Finding all of the tiny things that make a place stand out to you is one of the greatest things about exploring new (and even old) places. For us, it was the reminder that Ramadan was coming, as we walked back through Sultenhamet at the end of our stay.

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For me, living in a Catholic country at the moment, the reminders of daily Muslim life couldn’t have been more different than my normal life, but it was a really amazing way to become a part of the culture of the country.

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