Monday, November 25, 2013

European Adventure, Part 3: Paris!

Paris was the third stop in my tour de Europa.  Admittedly, this was the city I was most excited about visiting prior to actually leaving the US.  I've always been a bit of a Francophile, and I wanted to be overwhelmed by riverside walks and crepes and art and macarons.  I experienced all of those things and more:
the Seine River on a windy day

Notre Dame

inside Notre Dame

On my first full day in the city, I knew I needed to get my bearings a bit, so I elected to take a nice long walk from the apartment I was Couchsurfing at to Notre Dame.  It was blustery and sunny and lovely, and I warmed up along the way with a crepe and some coffee.  Paris is just as much a stroller's city as Florence, despite the fact that the two could not be any more different from one another.  Notre Dame is a beautiful and imposing Gothic structure, and I was lucky enough to arrive just as a service was starting.  Despite my own tenuous relationship to religion, I was immediately taken by the sound of the vocalist's voice soaring through the rafters as the organ accompanied.  If angels are real, then I'm sure that's what they sound like when they sing.

Following my time in the cathedral, I took a little (long) walk to the Louvre and spent about an hour there.  If you know anything about that museum, you know that it takes DAYS to see everything inside.  Needless to say, I returned there two days later.


da Vinci's 'La Belle Ferronière'; better than the 'Mona Lisa', in my opinion.

more Botticelli.  sigh.

Michelangelo's "Rebellious Slave"
In total, I spent about four hours over the course of two days at the Louvre and it was completely overwhelming.  When I visit again, I'll be sure to attempt my visits during "off" periods; I arrived in Paris at the beginning of a public school break, which I'm certain added to the crowds I ran into.  Add to this the fact that the place is ENORMOUS and a bit of a challenge to navigate.   

Following my brief visit on the first day, I took a train over to the Rodin Museum.  Rodin is one of my favorite artists, and I was not disappointed by the well-curated collection of his works.
A view from the gardens of the Rodin Museum.
"The Thinker"

The original "Thinker"; there are many reproductions that exist and they are often scaled to a larger size, like the version in the photo above.

"The Crouching Woman"
Rodin's works look like living, breathing things...perhaps even more so than the sculptures by Michelangelo (at least to my eye).  I'm always amazed when an artist can give the look of sinewy muscle underneath skin to marble or bronze.  Rodin takes things to another level entirely by capturing beings in unusual postures and positions.  It was amazing to be this close to his work, and I was so pleased that I had the chance to see them like this.


oh, heeeyyy.

Arc de Triomphe.

on top of the world.

On Champs-Elysees.  This is the LINE to get into ABERCROMBIE & FITCH.  Unreal.

Macaron heaven.  I had three mini macarons: salted caramel, chocolate, and gingerbread.  All delicious.

Being a tourist means seeing all of the things people expect you to see when you visit a well-known city.  Above is evidence that I did that!  Climbing to the top of the Arc de Triomphe was MUCH easier than getting to the top of the Duomo, for those interested.  :)

On my last full day in France, I decided to head to Versailles.  After seeing the palaces of the Medicis and Hapsburgs, I honestly didn't know what to expect.  But man, oh man, was I ever surprised by how strikingly beautiful Versailles is:

Hall of Mirrors.

my finger makes another appearance!
The palace itself is amazing.  Every last inch of the place is covered in one of three things: marble (of varying kinds and from varying locales), frescoes (on every ceiling, and even on the walls), gold paint/gold foil (seriously baller, y'all).  Take whatever you're imagining in your head and multiply that by a thousand.  I'd have more photos from the inside, but it was ridiculously crowded and also dark in some rooms, which are two things that present a considerable challenge to me as an iPhone photog.

Once you're done with the tour, you have the option of touring the gardens...miles and miles of gardens, each of which is different in character from the one you saw before.  I spent almost two and a half hours walking around outside without even noticing that time was passing.  On this particular day, they were playing classical music throughout the gardens.  It was basically the most idyllic way to stroll about gardens; I felt like a character from a BBC version of some Jane Austen novel (without a corset, obviously).  It was amazing, and I didn't want to leave.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my awesome host, Simon, who let me couchsurf in his beautiful 5th floor walk-up in the 10th Arrondissement.  He took me out on the town with his friends, took me to an African club, and even begrudgingly ate Tex-Mex with me (which was awesome!).
This is our best look.

Barbocoa taco and a cactus and queso blanco tostada.  YUM.

I think one of my friends summed this up perfectly when he suggested that Hemingway would be proud of me for hanging out here.  Hemingway would be proud and DRUNK off of the straight pour of rum that they hand out here.
I'd love to head back to Paris someday with friends or family; it just seems like a city that is best enjoyed with others.  This is the only city where I encountered homesickness in a real and profound way.  Something about witnessing families and couples on the street really drove that feeling home for me.  That said, it is a beautiful cosmopolitan city full of beauty and culture, and I look forward to seeing it again.  Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

European Adventure, Part 2: Florence!

There are very few places in the world where I instantly feel at home.  Now I have the great pleasure of knowing that Florence happens to be one of those cities.  Never before have I been so immediately taken with a place.  I fell in love the moment I set foot on those aged cobblestone streets, and once I met some of the lovely locals and ate their pizza and drank their wine and was all over.  I was a goner.

Now I don't have to wonder why Italians are so full of passion.  Look at where they come from!:
Having arrived at the train station only an hour before, I had no idea that this beautiful iconic sight would greet me as a rounded what seemed to be a normal street corner. Il Duomo.

If you can ignore my GIANT FINGERTIP, then you can gaze upon the stunning sight of Florence in the golden sunlight.
 This was the city where my senses came alive.  I felt so connected to everything and everyone here, and I think it has a lot to do with those terracotta rooftops and the light setting everything aglow.  Florence is a busy tourist destination, and although I certainly was very aware of that fact while I was visiting, I also think the Florentines genuinely enjoy newcomers to the city.  I never felt like an annoyance or like I was unwelcome, but of course, I was on a perpetual food and coffee high the entire time.

One of my first actions: to obtain some gelato right away.  I had it every day I was there.  It lives up to the hype.

First night in Florence: a (FREE!) movie festival... a building built in 1462.  FO' REAL.

My first Italian pizza.  I've daydreamed about this ever since.  We just don't do food right here in the States.

Davide, my host in Florence, and I at the movies.  :)  This guy is awesome, y'all!

Post-movie walk around.  This is Ponte Vecchio at night. 
Florence was also the first place I ever Couchsurfed, and it was an awesome experience!  My host, Davide, was an exemplary host.  I felt at home right away, and we shared lots of good talks and meals.  I learned a lot from him in the few short days I had in the city (including how to say the word "eyeglasses" in Italian -- ochiali), and I really hope we get to see one another again someday!  Come to Annapolis, Davide!  I'll take you for good coffee and then out for some crabs.

The street where Davide's house resides, just half a block from Piazza de Santo Spirito.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention all of the glorious art to be seen in Florence.  This is the home of the Renaissance; the home of Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, da Vinci.  That heritage was oozing out of every nook and cranny here, and I ate up every bit of it.  I visited the Accademia (where Michelangelo's David resides), the Uffizi Gallery (which houses some of the most famous works by the likes of Botticelli, for one), and the Bargello (which is underrated and houses wonderful collections of paintings, sculptures, and textiles from the Renaissance era).  I walked down every little street in the city center.  I got yelled at by a museum attendant for sitting on the steps of the Uffizi.  I drank so much espresso that I was jittery in the happiest way possible.  I had to buy insoles for my shoes.  Life in Florence was beautiful.

Locals claim that Michelangelo carved this portrait into the stone with his back turned...

The view of Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery.  It rained a lot before I arrived, so the Arno River was a bit muddy.

A shot of the David that I snuck.  Of course, I caught his good side... ;)

In the courtyard of the Bargello Museum, which was apparently used as a prison for a period of time.  I love that it now houses fine works of art. 

Inside Il Duomo.  Scenes from Dante's Divine Comedy.  

 I have kind of a funny story about climbing to the top of the Duomo.  It was my last full day in the city, so I knew that pizza would be on the menu for lunch (duh).  After I ate my weight in the stuff, I decided that it was finally time to go visit the Duomo and go inside.  After quietly walking around the interior and snapping the shot just above, I wanted to go up into the dome!  I paid my ticket and was directed to a narrow door where stairs greeted me.  462 steps total.  On a belly full of pizza.  Do you see where this is going?  Luckily, I made it to the top without incident.  I'm just going to go ahead and thank CrossFit for that one.

I felt so good breathing in that warm Florentine air at the top of the dome while looking down on the city and surrounding areas.  Here I was in Florence, on my own halfway across the world from my friends and family.  And I felt whole.  From below, the dome looks like a beacon rising out of the ground; it calls out to you to get nearer to it, to examine it and feel the imposing nature of it.  At the top of that dome, I felt like the rest of the world was rising up to greet me, like I had overcome something (more than my stomach), like I could see things from an uncommon view.  Surely this is what Brunelleschi wanted?  That dichotomy between feeling small and infinitesimal and large and infinite.  Both things incite wonder and curiosity, and both things cause you to go outside of yourself.  I did plenty of that on this trip...Florence was just the first place that I was so vividly aware of it.

I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

European Adventure, Part 1: Vienna.

On October 17, I embarked on a trip through four cities in Western Europe.  My first stop was Vienna, where I stayed with an old graduate school friend of mine, Casey.  Vienna is a beautiful city nestled in eastern Austria (it's actually very close to Bratislava, Slovakia's capital city), and feels like a diverse representation of cultures with it's Germanic and Hungarian history.  Lots of people of Turkish descent inhabit the city, too.  Of course, for me it was exciting to be in a city known for it's music culture, Sachertorte, and Hapsburg family history. 

It was also a place where I struggled to remember the German I "learned" in high school.  That was kind of a fun experiment. 

Flying into Vienna.

Inside the Kunsthistoriches Museum, the main art museum in the center of the city. 

Outside the museum. 

St. Stephen's. 

Inside the cathedral.  Stunning arches.

Walking around the downtown area.  It was cold, by the way!

On the first day, I visited the Kunsthistoriches Museum, peeked into St. Stephen's, and did some walking around.  Casey and I also went for a traditional Viennese breakfast:
Roll with butter and jam and a Melange, which is sort of a cross between coffee and cappucino.  I really liked the coffee in Vienna.   

Schonbrunn Palace.  Just look at that tasteful and not too extravagant architecture!  Nothing like what I saw later in Versailles...

walking around the grounds surrounding Schonbrunn.

The gardens at Schonbrunn; that structure off in the distance is an atrium-like building that rests on top of a small hill. 

The view of Schonbrunn and Vienna from the top of said hill.  Fall was out in full force in Austria, which was lovely. 
 The second day, I decided to head out to the Schonbrunn Palace, which is where the Hapsburgs spent the majority of their time when not inside the city at the Imperial Apartments (...which I visited the first day but have no photos of.  "No Photo" is a very big thing in European museums.)  It ended up being a beautiful day to peer into the modest home (ha) of the former rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Here I got my first taste of how royal families of Europe lived not so long ago. 

I spent some time on top of this hill, writing in my journal about my travel experiences so far and about some of the differences I was noticing about people in Austria versus America.  One thing I was struggling to reconcile at this point was the indifference most people seemed to have when it came to other people.  On the trains and in the street, people do not greet or smile those they encounter.  They stoically look away and mind their own business.  This behavior was especially noticeable when I was clearly lost one day; no one offered to help me.  Casey pointed out to me later that the Viennese do not like to assume that others need help, so they wait for you to ask for what you want or need.

Apparently, while Viennese people prefer to mind their own business in most matters, they are direct in other ways:

Well, they probably do...or they look older than they really are even if they live long lives, so...

Vienna was the first city in which I encountered the "cafe culture" of Europe.  Cafes and bars are a very big part of the daily lives of most European people.  Each place I stepped into had it's own special take on things.
You can't see him, but there's a guy DJing to the right of this photo while folks drink their coffee.

Cafe Hawelka.  Famous for it's doughnut-like desserts, which we tasted.  Of course.  I never turn down fried breads.
Belvedere Palace, which is now an art museum.

On the grounds of the Belvedere.
Stairwell detail.  Ornamentation is a BIG thing in European architecture. 
 My last day in Vienna took me to the Belvedere, which is a palace now used as an art museum.  If I could've photographed it, I would have shown you all the entire ROOM filled with Klimt paintings, including his most famous "The Kiss".  Out of all the art I saw in Vienna, this room was my favorite.  There is nothing quite like the glowing quality found in his works and the expressiveness of the forms he painted.  Again, the weather was amazing (mid 50s and sunny), and I enjoyed a nice long walk outside the museum after taking a look around.

Overall, I really liked all of the offerings this Austrian city had.  I liked walking along the Donau (the Danube for us non-Viennese folks), peering into the former lives of the Hapsburg family, and learning more about European culture in a city that is perhaps more easily accessible to an American than other cities on the continent.  If I go back, I'd like to experience a bit more of the music scene there and hopefully travel to Salzburg, too.  Oh, and get fat on eating dessert as a meal.  Apparently, that's a thing you can do in Vienna.  And why wouldn't you?