Tuesday, May 27, 2014

26 Hours in Fair Verona

On Friday, March 28th, I boarded a 6:30am train to Innsbruck, Austria. When I arrived in Innsbruck around 11am, I hopped on a train to Verona, Italy. By 3pm, I was on a local bus in Verona attempting to buy a ticket for my short ride through the city. By 3:01pm, I had an assortment of Italian ladies trying to instruct me in Italian on how to purchase a ticket from the faulty machine. Another woman who spoke English finally came to my rescue and then it was time to get off the bus. I roamed the streets of Verona and admired this quaint and romantic city. My hostel experience was one of my favourites. I stayed in a Catholic family home that offered beds to young females for a low price (even though I am far from Catholic). When I entered the courtyard of the building, two kids and a woman were playing with a kickball. The children were beyond adorable and spoke the cutest Italian. I waved to them and gave a friendly "Ciao". The children ran over and  I communicated that my Italian was not very good and that I speak English. The children were eager to learn a few words in English and to teach me Italian. I was looking forward to seeing the kids around the hostel.

After I checked in and was given sheets, I settled into a bed in the corner of the twenty-bed room and decided to go out and explore Verona. I was ravenous for lunch, so I stopped at the corner cafe for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. The friendly cashier also gave me a used map to get around the city. The camera around my neck must have been the tourist giveaway. I started a photography class the week prior, and my university lent me a Nikon D3100 to fulfil my class assignments. It was fun to have such a nice camera while traveling too.  My first stop on my full stomach was to Piazza Indipendenza on my way to Piazza delle Erbe. In the middle of Piazza Indipendenza was a statue of Garibaldi, so I assumed he was influential to Verona. Once I hit, Piazza delle Erbe, I went in search of  Casa di Giulietta. The relation of Verona and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was my main motivation to travel to Verona. Although the story was created by Shakespeare and not based on historical events, the Shakespeare nerd in me was so excited to visit all of these landmarks. I saw Juliet's balcony, her house, the wall of locks, and the famous statue of Juliet. This was followed by an evening stroll getting lost around town, and gelato.

A balcony on the courtyard of the building of my hostel
Snapping some flowers in Verona
Statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi
Juliet's Balcony
The statue of Juliet 
Love locks at Juliet's house
When I returned to the hostel, the families were having dinner in the kitchen, and another woman had moved into the room. She was a darling Italian girl around my age who was completing her Masters in Verona on the weekends. She spoke English well, and we talked at length until a mom came up to the room and offered us dinner. The girl and I shared a plate of fried mushrooms, and spent the rest of the evening entertaining the children in the living room. It was a joy to meet and make new friends in this wonderful home.

The next morning, I said goodbye to the families and was on my way to meet Emielia and Andrew at the Arena di Verona (after a croissant and cappuccino of course). The arena was epic. I could only imagine what it is like to see an opera on that stage. Maybe the next time I am in Verona, I will indulge in that. After the arena, we walked to Tomba di Giuletta and nerded out some more about Romeo and Juliet. The tomb is totally a tourist attraction, but it was a must-see on my list. We had our fill of pizza and wine following the tomb, and then went to see the Ponte Pietra (a famous bridge). 

Exploring Verona 
Beautiful balconies everywhere
Picture perfect windows
Arena di Verona 
The seating
More seating
Andrew in the arena 
View from above the stage
Andrew and Juliet
Emielia and Juliet
Juliet's Tomb
Romeo and Juliet lines outside of Juliet's Tomb
The tomb
Andrew and Emielia 
Ponte Pietra
With that, it was time for me to hop on the train and head to Milan. I was loving these solo trips in Italy! I couldn't wait to explore the second largest city and fashion capital with great art!

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Netherlands: Amsterdam and Zaanse Schans

After a glorious couple of days in Berlin, Germany, Wyatt and I started our trek to Amsterdam. The two of us decided to pair the cities together in the same weekend because of the easy direct train between Berlin and Amsterdam. Our travel was anything but direct. It consisted of three separate train rides and a bus ride. The railway company in the Netherlands was doing construction during the weekend of our travel. Thus, we had to be rerouted. The trip was tolerable. Each leg ran on time and smoothly. It was the first time either of us had traveled by bus in Europe. I had anxiety that something was going to go awry during our travel, but that didn't come until we arrived in Amsterdam.

The train car we sat in leaving Berlin
The bus we took to get from one train station to the other in the Netherlands
When we walked in the door of our hostel and attempted to check in, we found out the booking had been messed up, and we didn't have beds for the night. The next two hours consisted of us running from hostel to hostel and hotel to hotel desperately trying to find beds. For those of you who haven't visited Amsterdam, I will fill you in on the fact that the city is packed on the weekends and it is nearly impossible to book beds upon arrival. When we were on our last bit of patience and ready to sleep in a corner of the train station for the night, an Eastern hostel owner came to our rescue. After some begging, one open bed magically turned into two open beds, and I slept in a room with nine grown men and myself. It was not the most luxurious accommodations, and it smelled like feet and body odor,  but it had a mattress, a pillow, and clean sheets. I recall not even changing out of my street clothes and waking up very early the next morning to get out of there ASAP. That night after we got the bed and before we went to sleep, Wyatt and I went to a coffeehouse nearby and walked through the Red Light District. I was not incredibly thrilled with Amsterdam at night. My impression consisted of expensive weed and tourists ogling at prostitutes. Luckily, Amsterdam in the daylight was very charming!

The next morning, we checked in at our new hostel (the one we originally booked) and went to go find some breakfast and coffee. I highly recommend The Flying Pig Downtown Hostel. The staff was very friendly, the rooms were nice, and there is a great lobby and smoking room (when in Amsterdam ...) We went to an adorable cafe and had Dutch pancakes and delicious coffee for breakfast. The food in Amsterdam overall was excellent! We walked by the Anne Frank House after breakfast, and the line was incredibly long, so we decided to hit up the Rijksmuseum instead, which is the Dutch national museum dedicated to art and history. It is beautiful and huge. My favourite parts of the museum were the details about the recent remodelling and rebranding of the museum, the costume exhibit, and seeing some Rembrandt. I got to see Rembrandt's The Night Watch. As with many famous paintings, it is very cool to see them in the flesh. This one in particular did not evoke much emotion because I don't have an immense interest in militia portraits or realism. Following the Rijksmuseum, we had lunch at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, and that was a first for me. It was fun! We headed back to the hostel to relax for a bit, and then we walked back to the Rijksmuseum to visit the I Amsterdam sculpture. That is when I found out that Obama was going to be in Amsterdam the next day, and I was so excited! I tried to convince Wyatt that we should follow Obama around the next day, and then he told me to stop being a fan girl. In the evening we ate street food for dinner and capped the night off at a coffeehouse.

The picturesque canals of Amsterdam
Bicycles everywhere! 
My friend, the black cat in the window
More canals, bicycles, and houses close together
The line in the mid-afternoon outside of the Anne Frank House
The colours on the houses were great!
The window styles were cool
The explanations about the colours used in the Rijksmuseum advertising and print.
The lobby ceiling at the Rijksmuseum
Costume pieces being exhibited at the Rijksmuseum
Beautiful pieces
 Rembrandt's The Night Watch
On Monday, the 24th, our final day in the Netherlands, we started the day at the front of the line for the Anne Frank House. Visiting the house is a must while in Amsterdam, and I am glad I did so. It was eerie to be walking about the house that the Franks and the Van Pels hid in. I had been learning about her since elementary school, and I was still learning new things twelve years later. The visit was well worth it!

The Anne Frank House
The "I" at the I Amsterdam sculpture
Kids playing in and on the sculpture
Wyatt and I each counted our money after the visit and we both had about fifteen euros. We could have spent all fifteen euros on admission to the Van Gogh Museum, or explore another city in the Netherlands for the rest of the day. We chose to take a bus to the adorable town of Zaanse Schans (I ended up seeing The Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London for free!). I had lived in Holland, Michigan the summer after my freshman year of college doing summer stock theatre, and I had my dose of wooden shoes, windmills, and everything Dutch. I couldn't miss out on that when I was actually  IN Holland. We saw windmills, visited a wooden shoes factory, ate cheese, and enjoyed more Dutch pancakes in Zaanse Schans. I was so happy to get my fill of the Dutch culture that I knew and loved. Then, it was back to Vienna. The Netherlands was a great time, and I hope to return soon!

The welcome sign at the bus stop
Wooden shoes galore!
Painted wooden shoes
This town is so quaint.
Stroopwafel, a delicious Dutch treat
Someday I'll grow into those shoes ...

Monday, May 19, 2014

History, Politics, and Art: A Couple of Days in Berlin

Traveling to Berlin was a wonderful way to kick off the second half of my European adventures.

On Wednesday, March 19th after a long day of classes, I hopped on a night train with Jenn to Berlin. I didn't really know what to expect. I knew about the city's intense recent history, but I had no idea what was going to be thrown my way. I can tell you I was not impressed when I disembarked the train the next morning. All I saw were gray concrete buildings, chain stores galore, and an ugly television tower dominating the skyline. There was nothing about the city that was majestic or breathtaking -  and that was something I had experienced in most of the cities I had visited. From that point forward, I knew Berlin was going to be different.

After arriving, Jenn and I took the bus to our hostel. I was excited about staying at the hostel because it was a part of the same company that ran our hostel in Budapest, Hungary - Wombat's Hostels. When we got there, it was too early to check into our room, so the woman at the desk recommended a cafe down the street. We proceeded to have a delicious breakfast at this cafe. It was called Blauesband. It had a great vibe, and it was completed by someone's cat napping on the bench next to me. Once our stomachs were full and smiles were on our faces, Jenn and I walked from the cafe to the East Side Gallery. It was a lengthy walk, and I was able to enjoy the pleasant spring weather. The art at the gallery was interesting and provocative. I knew the basic history of the division of Berlin, yet, I didn't have a real visceral and emotional reaction to the happenings until the next day. Here is some of the artwork that I saw:

After visiting the gallery, we took the S-Bahn back to the hostel, met up with Jenn's childhood friend, Jess, and we went to dinner at a restaurant called White Trash Fast Food. It was a converted Chinese Restaurant made into a hard-ass restaurant/bar/club. I had a delicious burger, and my favorite thing about the restaurant was this sign:

Jess, Jenn, and I spent the evening wandering around the Sony Center and the area by the Brandenburg Gate. Chris and Wyatt arrived in town from Nuremberg around 11pm. We capped the night off with drinks at the SkyBar at the hostel overlooking the Berlin skyline.

The roof of the Sony Center - it changes color periodically.
The next morning, I woke up, had a cappuccino, and went on a six and a half hour walking tour of Berlin. I did Brewer's Best of Berlin tour, and I highly recommend this tour to anyone who enjoys history and experiencing a city via foot. We visited the Neu Synagogue, the Jewish quarter, Hitler's bunker, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Sinti and Roma Memorial, Freidrichstraße, the Tränenpalast (the former border crossing train station where East Germans said goodbye to people visiting from West Germany), the Nazi government quarter, the SS Gestapo HQ, the Nazi Airforce ministry, the Nazi book burning square, the Berlin Wall, Check Point Charlie, and more. The tour guide, Matt, was incredibly knowledgeable, the tour was very engaging, and I couldn't have asked for a better afternoon and a better way to learn about Berlin. Learning about the complex history of the city made me admire how Berlin is today. How the city has rebuilt itself, the liberal vibes, and the artistic presence made me fall in love with the city. If I could move to any German speaking city, it would be Berlin in a heartbeat.

The Neu Synagogue
Every single street tree in Berlin in accounted for. There are around 439, 000 street trees.
The Brandenburg Gate
Where the wall once stood
The 56 foot steel sculpture of Georg Elser, the man who tried and failed at killing Hitler in 1939.
The war memorial, Neue Wache, houses the beautiful and moving sculpture "Mother and Her Dead Son" by the Berlin artist, Käthe Kollwitz. The sculpture is directly set under an oculus and is exposed to the weathers, symbolizing the suffering of the civilians during the war.
The Reichstag
Stolpersteins - Small, cobblestone-sized memorials for individual victims of Nazism. They commemorate individuals - both those who passed and survivors - who were consigned by the Nazis to prisons, euthanasia facilities, sterilization clinics, concentration camps, and extermination camps, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.
The Altes Museum - Hitler gave his birthday speech here in 1939. 
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Some of what is left of the Berlin Wall
That night, we went to a bar called Aufsturz, and I had a Murphy's Irish Red. So good. Our last two stops the next morning were to the New National Gallery Museum to get our art fix, and the Topography of Terror - a free museum about the perpetrators (Nazis) during the Holocaust. Wyatt and I grabbed shwarma for lunch, and headed for the train to go to Amsterdam.

That was a wrap for Berlin!