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A Tale of 3 Cities

Part 1

sunny

Well, long time no see! Apologies for posting this so late: this past week we had Monday thru Wednesday off from school, so we decided to take our weekly travel a tad further from base camp. We departed from Metz on Friday afternoon and rolled back into town on Wednesday evening. This time, our curiosity brought us to visit the homeland of my mustachioed, turtle-throwing, plumbing cousin: Mario! Like a pinball in a machine, we bounced around Northern Italy from Cinque Terre, to Florence, and finally to Venice. Our crew of seven made for an interesting cast. There were the von Matterhorn Brothers, Lorenzo and Jake, who were ready to do just about anything if you’d ask them to do it. Then there was Rosalind, who was always on top of things and kept everyone together. Coming up next was Smalls, who was the right-hand man of the von Matterhorns and whom hated hiking. Batting cleanup was the dynamic duo of Glenn and Maggie: you never knew what would happen next with them around. Before I delve in, I should tell you that this will be a 3-parter. With six days of travel to cover, I’d prefer not to write one giant essay. Instead, I’ll release two parts and leave the third as a cliff-hanger to begin again next season (just kidding)! There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started, shall we?

This blog wouldn’t be complete without a school update, however! In short, everything is still going well. Right before I left, I took a thermo quiz that I felt fairly confident about as I walked out. Thermo quizzes are ones where you end up working the entire fifty minutes given. Even as he called time, my pencil was still streaking across the page trying to double and triple-check my work. I should find out the grade next week, so hopefully it will go well for me.

Everyone left early on Friday afternoon to get into Paris, but I had a late class, so I ended up going alone and meeting them there. After class got out on Friday, I sat around in nervous anticipation for the weekend to come. I had two hours to kill, so I spent the time watching Netflix and cleaning out my fridge. I got so caught up in “How I Met Your Mother” that I almost missed my bus to the train station! I had to run like a madman across campus to make it to the bus stop in time, which got me to the station with ten minutes to spare. The train ride was short and quiet, with no breakdowns or cancellations to speak of. I’m beginning to learn that French trains are notorious for the frequency with which they have delays or are cancelled due to “strikes”. When I got into Paris, different groups were scattered throughout the city, so I decided to join Maggie and Rosalind down at the Eiffel Tower. It was about 8pm when I got into Paris, so I was able to get to the Tower just in time to see the sun’s rays scattering through its patchwork of metal, signifying the end of another day.

Around 9pm, the von Matterhorns, Smalls, and Glenn came rolling up to join us on the packed green pasture that the Tower presides over. Talking and taking it all in, we sat there and enjoyed the tranquility of the warm evening until 11:30pm. This was my first time with this group, so I spent some time getting to know a bit about each of them. Our accommodations for the evening would be in Glenn’s apartment, which was really more of a studio meant for one or two people at a max. Taking the metro to the flat, we rolled up around midnight and had to climb a mountain of stairs that eventually deposited us at our room for the night. If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice that there are seven of us in the group. With only one bed, four people had to squeeze onto its tiny frame. Meanwhile, two of us (myself included) slept on the floor and one slept curled up in a ball on the terrace outside. By the time any of us could actually fall asleep, it was almost 1am.

Sleep was intermittent and hard to reach with the cold drafts that kept floating in through the window (not to mention it was a hardwood floor!). However, we had to be up at 4:30am to make it to our airport shuttle, so it’s not like we would get much out of sleeping for three hours anyways. At precisely 4:30, the blaring alarms set by Rosalind and Smalls jolted us out of our stupor and signaled the beginning of the long day of travel we had ahead of us. Begrudgingly, we packed up our belongings and hit the road. Shuffling like a pack of zombies, we trudged the mile to the airport shuttle and got there in time to collapse in a heap at the busses’ entrance. By 5:30, we were seated in semi-comfortable chairs and on our way to Beauvais Airport, a regional airport North of Paris that specializes in budget flights for cheap people like us.

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We arrived at Beauvais by 7am, which gave us plenty of time to hang around the airport until our 8:35am flight. There wasn’t a lot to see, however. In its entirety, it wasn’t much more than a security checkpoint, a few shops selling food, and two gates for airplanes. In our sleep-deprived state, none of us did much talking. Instead, we snagged a few empty seats and sat there with glazed-over expressions and arms wrapped around our bags. I was incredibly thankful when the airplane showed up, because it meant one step closer to our destination for the day: Cinque Terre. I gave up on attempting to sleep during the flight, which seemed determined to make you as uncomfortable as possible: My legs were perpetually jammed into the seat in front me of thanks to the non-existent legroom, attendants wouldn’t let you close the shades, and they would come down the aisle constantly trying to sell you useless magazine subscriptions. Despite these drawbacks, I made a new friend on the flight! The girl next to me had NASA stickers on her laptop. Being the ultimate space nerd, I started chatting with her and found out that she was from Colombia and working on her masters in mechanical engineering in France. More so, she had spent some time at JPL and is even interested in being an astronaut herself! She is a certified scuba diver and also intends on getting her pilot’s license. The last half hour of the ride flew by after that (haha, get it?).

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After touching down, everyone on board was ecstatic to get out and stretch their legs. I’ve become a master at staying in one position for long periods of time with all this traveling, but even I need a break from it. Our plane deposited us at an airport an hour outside Milan, which required us to take yet another bus to get to the central train station. One more agonizing hour of remaining motionless and we would finally be in Milan! As the bus made its way to the city center, we passed through crowded streets packed with vendors. It made for an eclectic collection of open-air shops that created a maze to navigate. By the time we got off at the train station, we were feeling the pangs of hunger beginning to set in. Most of us hadn’t eaten since yesterday evening.

With only an hour to find a place to eat, we wasted a lot of time standing around in indecision. Finally, as if a sign from the Heavens, the Golden Arches descended down upon us and guided us to our decision. I’ll admit, I’m ashamed to have succumbed to the McDonald’s bug, but it tasted incredible after eating nothing but a croissant in the past 12 hours. After refueling our tanks, we got ready to begin the final part of our journey. The train from Milan would take us to Pisa, where we would hop on another train to get to Monterosso. As we made our way to Pisa, we came very close to missing our connecting train. Although we started out behind schedule, our conductor did a good job of getting us in on time. When we transferred at Pisa, we had a whole five minutes to find our train! Through the hot, sticky, humidity, we stumbled onto our train to Monterosso, which would mark the end of our long travel.

Now, a quick side note about Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, which is Italian for “Five Villages”, is a UNESCO world heritage site that is comprised of five unique towns perched on cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The northernmost village is Monterosso, where we would be coming into. In between each village are narrow trails cut through the rock. In the late 1800’s, through a marvelous feat of engineering, they were able to connect the five villages by train. This region is known for its white wine, fishing, lemons, rugged beaches, and breathtaking views. As I mentioned, each village has a unique personality that appeals to different people. The villages, as colorful as a box of crayons, are so small that you can walk through their entirety in half an hour. However, the amazing part is how the houses cling to the cliffside on ledges that are mind-bogglingly small. This region is best for more able travelers, ones who don’t mind getting a good hike in. The majority of your day will be spent getting a calf workout as you work your way up hill after hill. However, what some might deem “drawbacks”, were the exact reasons why we would be going to Cinque Terre.

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On the way to Monterosso, we caught glimpses of the sea and the beaches that lay in wait. The last half hour before we arrived was spent in excited anticipation to finally get out of our sedentary positions. When the doors clanged open, we burst through the train station and down onto the beaches below. What greeted us was something straight out of a movie. A picturesque walkway formed a protective semi-circle around shimmering blue-green water. The beaches, filled to the brim with people, contained pure, white sand. Moving along the walkway, we made our way over to get our reward from the day’s long adventure: a hefty scoop of gelato. As we scarfed the cool treat down, we spent some time walking through Monterosso and over to a quieter beach. Within twenty minutes, we had stripped down to our bathing suits and were wading into the refreshing water. There were a series of rocks perched on a sandbar not far from shore, so Jake, Lorenzo, Maggie, and Glenn went to check them out and go cliff diving. Meanwhile, Smalls stayed behind to watch our stuff. After forty-five minutes, we met back up and walked through the miniature town. There were as many tourist shops as there were restaurants (and I even found one named after me!). We had some time to look around before we began the hike to Vernazza, which we expected to take us an hour and a half. Although only three kilometers long, the path wound its way up and down the steep cliffside. It got so tough that Maggie and Glenn almost turned back. However, we convinced them to keep going and were able to stick together. Every ten feet we would have to stop and take pictures, because the view was out of this world. The narrow ledge we followed plunged down to meet up with the sea, which crashed against the rocks below like thunderclaps. If there was one thing we were certainly wary of, it was making sure our footing was solid. Along the way, we passed by various groups of travelers and swapped stories with them. We met exchange students from China, couples from Australia, and even other GT students!

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When Vernazza came into view, it did so dramatically. Walking around the edge of the cliff, it began to appear below us as if it were rising up out of the sea. With it in sight, we picked up our pace: our footsteps a bit quicker. We were ready to get some real dinner, and we were eager to try the fresh seafood. Making our way down the steep staircase, we emerged onto the main street of Vernazza and regrouped before a water fountain. At this point, our criteria for restaurants was if the “Open” sign was still hanging in the window. The restaurant adjacent to the water fountain ended up being our pick for the night. Serving traditional food that highlighted the region, it was exactly what we wanted. We chowed down on seafood platters mixed in with bowls of spaghetti and washed it all down with glass after glass of cold water. With full stomachs and the evening setting in, we made our way down to the crescent-shaped harbor that defines Vernazza. Boats of people came and went as we watched the sun go down behind the cliffs that loomed over us. We spent a half hour exploring the streets and hidden coves of the town before making our way back to the train stop that is nestled in the center. Although I said that we were done with travelling, I actually lied. We would have a short, twenty-minute ride over to our Airbnb for the evening, which was located in a town called La Spezia.

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Getting in at 9:45pm, we split off from Maggie and Glenn, who had their own place for the night. Lucky for us, our hosts were nice enough to meet us at the train station. They gave us a ride from the station to their apartment, which normally would have been a forty-minute walk. As if that wasn’t enough, when we walked into the place that would be ours for the night, our draws dropped: it was a spacious apartment with three bedrooms complete with air conditioning, a fully-stocked kitchen, and even a terrace! It felt like a palace compared to the hardwood floor and cramped quarters from the night before. After some difficulty getting the hot water working, we spent the rest of the evening showering off the layer of grime and relaxing. Within minutes of laying down, I was fast asleep. Getting this at the end of the day was an amazing surprise after nearly sixteen hours of travel. It also made us sad that we would only get the chance to spend one night here in this mini-oasis.

The next morning, I helped myself to the croissants our host had got for us. Slathering the baked bun in Nutella, it was a delicious combination of chocolate and bread that made for a great start. While the others slept in, Rosalind and I went out for a walk through La Spezia to see what we could find. We went down along the waterfront and then through the old town, completing a two-mile loop that got our legs warmed up for the day. They were still pretty sore from the steep inclines that we made our way up yesterday. Around us, shops began to open their curtains and begin their day as well. We found a tasty, little, bakery with apple desserts that we munched on as we headed back to the apartment. At 10:00am, we rolled up to the train station and met up with Glenn and Maggie, whose host had given them a ride there. They had an equally awesome experience with their stay: their host keeping them up late with stories of fishing expeditions.

We were sad to leave Cinque Terre so soon, but Florence was next on the agenda. The beauty of the land around us and the friendliness of the locals made a great first impression. If I could go back and do it all again, I would stay in Cinque Terre longer. However, we were moving on to a new city and a new day! Who knew what would wait in store for us at the next stop? I guess you’ll have to wait and see what went on in Florence……

Posted by oklempay 05:46 Archived in Italy Tagged paris palace italy cinque_terre milan monterosso vernazza matterhorn pasta genoa airbnb la_spezia Comments (0)

The First Forray

sunny

Okay, this is working….I think. I had been worried about the class load and travel combination, but this might be doable. With only four hours of class every day, I have plenty of gaps in my schedule to study and get homework done. I just need to be vigilant about doing it and not slipping behind too much. Psh, if I made it through last semester, then this should be a piece of cake (is what I tell myself to stay sane). The teachers of my classes all seem sincere and understand the allure of travel mixed with schoolwork. Hopefully all will continue to go well like it has thus far.
I get the feeling you don’t want to hear about my boring classes, though. Hey, it’d be fun describing Mohr’s circle or the times when a flow can be called viscous, but let’s be real here: you want to hear about the travelling and what my croissant count is up to (only 10 I believe). This past weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Both were only an hour away by train and seemed to be a good baby step into the pool without diving in head first. The high-speed rail was fairly intuitive to figure out and travelling with a person who knew French made life much easier.

We left for Luxembourg at 8am and passed the time counting cows on the trip (it’s a game all the kids are playing these days). When we finally pulled in, we were surprised to realize that no one had even checked our tickets! Now, I don’t condone illegal activity, but we “technically” could have ridden for free…. Just saying. The train station at Luxembourg was nondescript, which in Europe means that the stained glass was only 100 something years old. Leaving the station, we ambled along the empty streets towards Luxembourg’s old town. Passing by some old churches, we popped our heads in and marveled at the (for lack of a more articulate words) craptastically tall ceilings that seemed to reach to the stars and were covered with frescoes of Jesus in every aspect of his daily life: walking, talking, biking to work, you name it. Luxembourg’s modern city is perched on the top parts of a valley. The fun comes when venturing down into the valley. This is where the old town is nestled. It’s a steep trek to get down and we were very much aware that every step down would mean another one coming back up. It was worth it, though, because the view was incredible. We spent several hours walking among the ancient battlements that had once been crucial during World War II and took in the views across the valley as we crossed the large connecting bridge.

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As lunch time approached, we moved back into the old town for a cheap bite to eat. Eventually settling on a popular sandwich chain called “Paul’s”, we were able to enjoy our baguette-sandwich’s whilst sitting in a park serenaded by musicians performing for the jazz festival. People were swaying to the music in front of us and enjoying the beautiful day just as much as us. There are moments that stick out in a memory, and this will be one of them.

Following lunch, we moved out of the old town and down to the Casemonts du Boc. These are a system of tunnels built into a looming rock wall which were used during World War 2. They offered an amazing view of the valley and led us down to a meandering river bordered by gardens. While walking down to the river, I heard familiar voices: there was a tour being given in Russian! I knew my 5 semesters of Russian would finally be useful for something: I could get a free tour! Although I wanted to stick around and be a nuisance to them, we moved on for a stroll along the river. We wrapped up the trip in the mid-afternoon and took the short train ride back to Metz. For first travel adventures, this one was a success!

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The following day was Strasbourg, a city to the south of Metz and close enough to the border of Germany that one could walk there in several hours. Leaving around 8am again, we arrived to the sight of a slightly more extravagant station. There was a massive glass awning that had been built over the old, stone exterior and which housed various shops and benches. Our plan was simple: walk to the old town and get lost. Unlike most other cities, Strasbourg did not have as many major touristy attractions, but could be appreciated more through its architecture, food, and big-*** church (Seriously, this church was massive). While walking to the city center, we heard it before we even saw it. Following the bells, we saw the building unfold from top down. This church dwarfed all other buildings around it. It even made ME feel small. The sculptures lining its sides were intricately detailed and its parts seemed to disappear and reappear again in the shadows that hid its exterior. We didn’t venture inside yet, because mass was being held. Instead, we would make our way back here later in the day.

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Instead, after having all sense of ego stripped away by the sheer magnitude of that church (which, it turned out, was named Notre-Dame. And no, not the Paris Notre-Dame), we moved on to the waterfront. There are several rivers that weave their way through Strasbourg, resulting in some cool mini-islands. There’s even a playground on one! I would have gone on it too if I didn’t fear being hauled off by the police for what might seem as acts of drunkenness on a Sunday morning. The waterfront provided a great backdrop for pictures that captured Strasbourg’s iconic architecture. We eventually made our way to a breakfast place that won my heart over. The foodie in me was just as satisfied as the frugal half of my brain that hates to spend heaps of money on small meals.

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As the day progressed, we headed over to our Airbnb to check in. There was some difficulty in finding the place, but when we did, we weren’t that impressed. For one, our host had an above-ground pool with a giant, pink flamingo half-submerged in its murky water. Tacky lawn ornaments were strewn across the grass and her three dogs barked incessantly with each ring of the doorbell. Unfortunately for us, she was not there at the prearranged check-in time. We waited twenty minutes at the door before turning back and heading into the city for the second time that day. We sent her various emails, text messages, and phone calls, hoping that she would eventually respond.

Making a beeline for the church, we visited the royal palace adjacent to it that housed three museums. There was an archaeological museum in the basement, a tour of the palace on the ground floor, and a posh art museum upstairs. Six euros was enough to get us into all three, all thanks to student discounts! The basement was full of rocks (yes, I paid money to stare at rocks) that had plaques written in French describing their importance. I guess I’ll just make up my own stories for them. Moving out of the palace, we went back for round two with the church. We went inside this time and felt our jaws drop as we crossed the threshold of the entrance. This ceiling truly stretched to the stars. Massive stone pillars lined the edges of the pews and led up to an impressive altar. We snagged some seats (because we’d walked about 8 miles at this point) and took a break.

As dinnertime approached, we began looking for good, cheap eats. We eventually settled on a German-themed place that was pretty popular with the locals. The line was long and the tables filled as we walked up, but it was very much worth it. I ate some potatoes mixed in with sausage which was reminiscent of kielbasa and pierogis. Leaving the restaurant, we took a long stroll to wear off the effects of eating a large meal. We continued meandering until we decided to head back to the Airbnb and give our host one more shot (she eventually got back to us that afternoon, but it was via email). If she didn’t show up this time, we would’ve hopped the last train of the night and gone back to Metz. When we came to the door backed by the cluttered lawn, we rang the doorbell three times with no answer. Right when called an uber to take us to the train station, our host came barreling out of the house with a towel on her body and her hair sopping wet. She had been taking a shower right when we showed up. Our timing was just very unfortunate with her. We were greeted by her three dogs and showed to the spare room. The bed was a welcome relief after walking over thirteen miles.

The next morning, we took an early train back to Metz. Although we encountered some delays due to technical issues, we passed the time by spotting cows once again and watching Green Arrow (DC’s less cool version of Hawkeye). It was good getting back early, because I had some time to relax for the afternoon and catch up on work. All in all, it turned out to be an amazing first weekend and an awesome introduction for what France has to offer! I’m looking forward to traveling to other small French villages and enjoying the culture. Although, next weekend, I was looking at going to Paris….

Until next time, Au Revoir (for those that only know American, that means goodbye in French)!

Posted by oklempay 13:14 Archived in France Tagged church jazz german luxembourg strasbourg airbnb casemonts Comments (0)

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