Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bonjour, Paris!

"This is what you do on your first day in Paris: you get yourself... some honest-to-goodness rain."  -Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn could not have predicted a more accurate first day for me in Paris, France. Yet even rain could not stop me from enjoying my weekend in Paris.

I traveled to Paris with Lindsay, Sarah, Bethany, Merritt, Chelsea, and Matt (Chelsea's boyfriend who has been visiting for the past 4 weeks). We took a two-hour train ride from Maastricht and arrived in Paris on Friday around noon. We checked into our hostel, which might actually have been my favorite hostel thus far. It's not really located near any major landmark BUT it had free breakfast, wifi, nice bathrooms, plugs by the bed and curtains around each bed. This might not sound too exciting to you, but when you stay in cheap hostels every weekend, you start to appreciate the little things in the location of plugs. Anyway, while Chelsea checked us into the hostel, I introduced myself to the girls waiting in line behind us who were obviously from America (my Ameri-radar is pretty good at this point). And they were studying abroad in London, so it was interesting to talk to them because I was going to be in London the following week....but more on that later.

We had hoped to go on a bike tour with a company called "Fat Tire Bike Tours" that afternoon, but we had to postpone it until the following day due to timing. So, instead, we decided to just explore the city a bit. In Paris, you pretty much have to take the Metro everywhere you go, which is such a foreign concept to the me. Probably because I am foreign. So we hopped on the Metro and made our way toward the Eiffel Tower. We walk up out of the Metro, turn the corner and BOOM there it is:
It was way bigger than I had expected it to be. We walked around the base of it and took probably WAY too many pictures of it. But it's just SO crazy to see something that you've only seen pictures of throughout your entire life. To actually be standing there, in front of the Eiffel Tower is a very surreal experience. 
This is my "This is so surreal!" face. Obvi.

 Just tryin' to pose like all the other Europeans....they seriously do the most ridiculous poses for pictures.

We wandered through the streets a little bit, looking around.  Like I mentioned in my last post, I really don't enjoy walking around a city when I don't always know what I'm looking at. Fortunately, Paris is a famous enough city that I was able to recognize some of the parts of town. However, a lot of my knowledge of the sites came from movies like "The Devil Wears Prada." 

We ended up at the Louvre Museum because it's FREE on Friday nights! That was really exciting. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was a lot bigger than I expected. And it can be really overwhelming if you're expecting to see it all. And you simply can't expect to see it all. You have to just pick a hallway or pick a few works of art and go see those.

(Photo Cred: Sarah Hammerle)

Because I'm taking an art history class in Maastricht, my visit to the Louvre was much more interesting.  There's something about seeing a painting or a work of a certain artist that you know and have studied; it just makes you appreciate the art a lot more.

As you might expect, I was excited to see the Mona Lisa. Once again, that was a very surreal experience. We've all probably seen thousands of pictures of her in our lifetime, and so you really have to take a moment while you're standing there in front of it and remind yourself, "This is the real deal. DaVinci actually stood in front of THIS painting and painted this." It's just crazy to be in the presence of something so well-known.

Also....there is always a massive flock of tourists always around her...i'm pretty convinced that's why she's got a smirk on her face. 

After touring the Louvre, you pretty much feel like you just walked about 50 miles. So obviously we were all HUNGRY. We stopped at a little restaurant and watched the France vs. Ukraine game while we enjoyed some much needed FOOD. And, yes, I ordered French fries IN France. And, yes, they pretty much tasted the same...other than the fact that Europeans like to drown their french fries in mayonnaise. So if you ever want fries in Europe, ask for them withOUT mayo.... or bring your goggles because you will have to practically swim through the mayo to get to your fries.

After dinner, a few of us went back to Eiffel Tower to watch it light up. The Tower itself isn't really that pretty if you look at it long enough...but put some twinkly lights on there and it is BEAUTIFUL.  At this point it was raining quite a bit but seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle was totally worth it.

Saturday morning, we grabbed some breakfast, which was obviously was bread and Nutella. Standard European breakfast.... and I'm ok with that. Then we headed to the Metro. Our first stop? Pere Lachaise Cemetery. This cemetery is the largest cemetery in Paris and home to some of the most famous graves in the world. I was able to pay a visit to the graves of....

Oscar Wilde

...Jim Morrison
 ...and Chopin!

Then we made a quick stop outside the Moulin Rouge.
...And, yes, Bethany and I sang the ENTIRE Elephant Love Melody duet to one another. 

After grabbing some crepes near the Moulin Rouge (France loves their crepes), we headed over toward Notre Dame. I had to transition from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack to the Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dama soundtrack pretty quickly. But that as no problem with me. Side note: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I've decided, is an extremely underrated Disney movie. If you need proof, just take a look here at my favorite scene from that movie. What a classic.  Unfortunately, there were no singing gargoyles or compassionate hunchbacks in the bell tower.
But it was still incredible. The church itself was absolutely beautiful and powerful. And I love that, because that exactly describes the character of God.

After our time at Notre Dame, we hurried back to the Eiffel Tower, where we were supposed to meet our Fat Tire Bike Tour guide. Because we had missed the tour the day before, we were eager to find our guide. Unfortunately, we weren't exactly sure where we were supposed to meet him. All we could remember was that the website said to meet at the Eiffel Tower. So we figured it wouldn't be too hard to find it. However, we soon found ourselves wandering around the base of the tower, searching for anyone who looked like a bike toure guide (whatever that looks like). And that's a lot harder than it sounds. We ended up splitting up and wandering aimlessly around the tower. I was convinced we weren't going to get our much-anticipated bike tour. Feeling defeated, Sarah and I wandered toward a cement bench underneath the tower and stood on top of it, looking around for the other girls. They walked up behind us with smiles on their faces, "You found it!" Confused, I looked to my left and, lo and behold, there was a man standing no more than five feet away from me, next to a sign that said "Fat Tire Bike Tours." WE FOUND IT.

More people gathered for the tour and we soon realized that we had found ourselves with about two dozen Australians. They must've had that tour time reserved or something. But we didn't want to not get to go on the bike tour that we had been looking forward to for so long, so we did our best to blend in...which lasted about five seconds.  I'm tellin' ya, Europeans must have a sixth sense for Americans.

Our tour guide's name was Karl, a 19-year-old French man with hair that matched the color of our red bikes. After a quick introduction and a short bike lesson, we began our tour.

Biking is SUCH a fun way to see the city, especially a large city like Paris. Karl would lead us to a location, we'd dismount from our bikes and he would give us a brief history of the site.  Then we'd move on to the next location.  Here are some of the locations we were able to see:

Ecole Militaire
Napoleon attended this school. And there were still had bullet holes from the French Revolution on the side of the building!

Hotel des Invalides (home to Napoleon's tomb)

Tuileries Gardens

Pont Alexandre (my personal favorite part of all of Paris)

...along with some other places along the way!

I don't think I can conclude this portion of this blog post without describing what it was like to cross the one of the busy streets in Paris on a bike. I could probably write an entire book about this terrifying experience, but I'll do my best to be brief.

You must understand that riding a bike really isn't a skill that you never forget. You can forget. And many of the Baylor students realized this after arriving in Maastricht. All of us Baylor students have bikes and are able to bike to class every day. It's awesome to ride a bike in Maastricht because, in Holland, the bikes always get the right-of-way. So I basically never have to stop or even slow down on my way to class. It's crazy. You can get pretty confident because you gain so much speed and all the cars have to stop for you. You think you're about to go all "E.T." and just start riding up toward to moon.
All in all, riding in Maastricht is da bomb.

But THAT's in Maastricht. In Paris, however, it's a different story. I don't know what the rules of the road are in Paris. But it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that they don't really like bikers. Especially two dozen bikers, many of whom (mostly the Australians, I'd like to add) are struggling to maintain balance. This is understandable, but, come on, have a little compassion, people!

So there were are. A long line of red bikes, led by a teenage red-head, waiting to cross the road. The light is red, which should've given us enough time to mentally prepare for what was about to occur. But, nothing, no, NOTHING could have prepared us for what was about to happen. The light flashed green and Karl yelled, "Let's gooooo!" which sounded a lot like a battle cry. And off we went, bikes teetering and horns honking. I don't even remember if the road had lanes, but, I wasn't really focused on that. I was focused on simply getting to the other side of the road. I tried to keep my eyes locked on Karl, who was skillfully maneuvering between the tiny black cars, with one hand on his handlebars and one hand firmly extended toward the honking cars. He glared through every windshield as he whizzed past them, as if he was channeling his inner Gandalf and telepathically telling them, "YOU SHALL NOT PAAAASSSS." He eventually reached the other side and so I knew we were close. I pedaled faster and faster, behind stopped cars, in front of moving cars and passing any Australian tourist that was in my way. At last, we reached the other side, much to our relief... but not the relief of the native Parisian bikers on the other side, who had no problem making it clear that we were not welcomed on their road. But even the frustrated French bikers did not discourage me from breathing a sigh of relief. I was just thankful to be alive.

We concluded our bike tour at the Eiffel Tower and snapped this picture, before we had to say goodbye to our fabulous red bikes and to our new favorite red-head.

We were pretty worn out and hungry after our bike tour so we stopped at a little French cafe near the Eiffel Tower for dinner. While we were waiting for our food, we watched a little bird fly in through the front door, land on the counter where the chef, whose back was turned, had been preparing our food, then fly out the window. It all happened so fast and we were unable to decide if what had just occurred was cute or disgusting... so we ate our dinner anyway.

Then it was time to climb the Eiffel Tower. Now, you must understand, this task is not for the faint of heart or weak of knees. But when the workers at the Eiffel Tower have GREAT idea of repairing 3 of the 4 elevators at the same time, you are basically left with no choice but to hike your way to the second platform, where you then must take an elevator the rest of the way. After biking around all of Paris, we were up for the challenge of 674 steps. We purposefully paced ourselves, and so it really wasn't too bad.
However, when we made it to the second level and saw men in jumpsuits repelling down the side of the tower! Somewhat concerned and confused, we looked down... police had closed off the tower, and there were over a dozen of police and ambulances lined up on the street! Uhhhhh.... obviously, I was freaked out and pretty convinced that the Tower was probably about to collapse or something. But, not wanting to worry or miss the opportunity to get to the top, we took the next elevator to the top. We found out later that some crazy guy had got into a restricted area at the top and was drinking and smoking and threatening to jump off the tower. Don't worry, he was quickly apprehended....and the tower did not collapse. So, ya know, as if climbing te Eiffel Tower wasn't exciting enough, I'm glad that guy made the trek a little more exciting for me, i guess....

We made it to the top just as the sun was setting and it was BEAUTIFUL. And windy.

Needless to say, it was well worth the time and the climb.

After (finally) getting my feet back on solid ground, we watched the tower light up again. It was still just as beautiful as it had been the night before.

We still had a couple of hours left before we wanted to go back to the hostel, so we took the Metro over to the Champs Elysees, which is the famous avenue in Paris that ends with the Arc de Triomphe.

It's a really fun part of town, if you want to do some shopping. But, just be warned, it's really expensive. Really, really. Even the ice cream. We'd all been craving ice cream (story of my life) and so we thought we'd check out Haagen Dazs... Ummm, unless you're willing to drop 7 euros on a milkshake, I'd recommend just going across the street and getting a McFlurry from McDonald's.... which is exactly what we did. And that was a great way to the end our LONG and LAST day in Paris. We were totally exhausted and practically sleptwalked back to our hostel, crawled into bed and got some sleep!

I would've loved to have more time in Paris. I would definitely love to go back some day and see the things that we just didn't have time to see during our short visit. But I love the history that Paris has and it truly is a beautiful city. It's classy and fast-paced. So, while, for now, it's "Au Revoir, Paris!" for now....I'm hoping that, someday, I'll be able to say "Bonjour" to Paris again!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Prague Blog

Wow. It feels good to be back in bloggerville. It’s been a while.

Welp, never thought I’d say this: but I went to the Czech Republic last week. I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t really even know where the Czech Republic was until this summer. And, in case you don’t know either, it’s in eastern Europe, just west of Poland. And, that’s a looooong way away. The girls I traveled with, Jill, Millie, Sarah, Melinda and I, had to take a 15 hour over-night train from Eindhoven to Prague. I don’t know if I ever really fully expressed how horrible the overnight train back from Venice was; we had to sleep in chairs that reclined about two inches and we were continually awoken by police arresting illegal immigrants and conductors asking for our reservations….not my favorite experience. But we learned our lesson from that train and reserved ourselves a coachette, which is basically a 6x6 room with 6 bunks. It's cozy. Yeah, cozy, that’s what we’ll call it. But, hey, it’s definitely better than sleeping on a chair.

We shared a room with Taylor. And I think the word 'hippie' sums her up pretty well. Originally from Colorado,s he’d been traveling around Europe for the past 3 months. It was interesting to get to know her and hear all about her adventures, and get some insight and advice concerning our future travel plans.

Here is a picture of our cozy lil’ coachette.

The next morning we woke up early, which was lucky, considering the train conductor did not come by with our wake-up call until we were in Prague….thanks, conductor. We were so anxious to get off the train, stood by the window for the final 20 minutes of the train ride. As we pulled into Prague, you could see the nearly the entire city. The rustic orange rooftops and the occasional tall gothic tower were first to catch my attention.  It's a really a very pretty city. But looks different than Western Europe for sure.
After exiting the train, it quickly became obvious that we were no longer in Western Europe.  First off, there is very little English; nearly everything was written in Czech, a language which was nearly impossible to decipher….seriously, just look at the words on this street sign:

…and our Euros were no longer valid.  We found an ATM at the train station and withdrew 2000 korunas, which is the equivalent of about $100. Converting money is really strange. You basically feel like you’re spending monopoly money the entire weekend.... which probably isn’t good. But it’s hard to think otherwise when the bills in your wallet are purple and orange.

(photo cred: Melinda Zanner)

We tucked our money into our always-stylish money belts and made our way to our hostel. Unable to decipher the Czech signs and winding streets, we founded ourselves to be completely lost. Thankfully, we ran into Jordy, one of the guys we had met on the train, and he had a GPS on his phone which he allowed us to use.  So we found our hostel, The Old Prague Hostel, at last! Lesson learned: it’s always helpful to make friends with fellow Americans. Especially the Americans with GPS on their phones.

We dropped off our bags and made our way back out to the city.  We found ourselves wandering the streets and window shopping.  It was fun to wander, but I was very thankful that we were going to be getting a tour of the city at 2pm. I'm realizing that I find it extremely frustrating to be walking around a city and seeing all of these possibly really important monuments and not knowing what I was seeing or what history I was missing.  I had done some research before leaving Maastricht, but it’s still very difficult to know what I am seeing once I’m actually there.

So I was very excited when we found our tour guide in the Old Town Square. She was a young woman from Minnesota and had been living in Prague for about 3 years.  She was very easy to understand, energetic and very knowledgeable about the city, which made for a good tour.  The tour lasted nearly 4 hours but it was SO good! She walked us through most of the major areas and historical monuments throughout the city. Here are some of the sights we got to see:

Jan Hus statue

 the Czechs love their Marionettes
....even ones that look like Michael Jackson and Captain Jack Sparrow.

Wenceslas Square                                                                          


     Fun fact: this is actually a central location 
where the Czechs meet up for blind dates!

And, yes, I did sing “Good King Wenceslas” while standing in this square. Like I always's never too early for Christmas carols. 

Street Performers

LOVED this guy:
...can i keep him?

Astronomical Clock

This clock strikes every hour on the hour. (To see what happens on the hour, click here to see my video! Watch the little marionettes on the wall and the man playing the trumpet at the top!) 

Our tour guide tried to explain to us how to read an astronomical clock, but I think I’ll just stick with my nice little analog watch, thank you very much. It's much easier.

Here’s a fun fact about the Czech Republic.  There are only 365 names for men and women that parents can choose from for their children. Those names are written on this clock and everyone gets to celebrate their name day. So you basically get two birthdays in one year, which is awesome! However, as a result, your name might be Anežka, Bohuslava, Dobroslav, or Vavřinec….which is kinda unfortunate. And it also suppresses the creativity of parents when thinking of names for their babies... But considering that in America we have celebrities getting TOO creative and are naming their kids Apple, I guess it’s not a bad idea.

Jewish Cemetery:

Located near the Vitava River is an area of Prague known as the Old Jewish Cemetery.  This cemetery dates back to the early 15th century, with the oldest tombstone’s epitaph dated as 1439. Although the cemetery is no longer used for burials, burials took place for about 350 years and currently houses about 100,000 bodies.. The Jews of Prague were persecuted for hundreds of years by the Crusaders and the ever-changing regimes that ruled Czechoslovakia. As a result, Jews were expelled from Prague and confined to this area of town, known as the Jewish Quarter Unable to bury their dead outside the Jewish Quarter, the Jews were forced to use this small plot of land for cemetery. However, this plot of land was not large enough to contain all of the bodies, so Jews were forced to dig up the bodies and bury them all vertically and on top of each other, often times up to twelve layers deep (which is why the cemetery actually towers above street level).  Although many of the tombstones were damaged during WWII, Hitler ordered that the cemetery be left in tact.  He had intended to build a museum around the cemetery after all of the Jews had been exterminated.  Hitler’s intentions were evil, but I was thankful that he decided to preserve this cemetery because it was incredibly moving to see what the Jews of the past had to endure not only in their lives but also in their deaths.  

It was so good to learn the history of the city because, by the end of the tour, I had developed a deep respect and compassion for the people of Prague. It was so incredible to hear about how much war and oppression these people had endured…and so recently! And all of that history was right there in the city and was reflected in their culture.  For example, their National Anthem is titled “Where is My Home?” which is fitting, considering their government and borderlines had been changed so often, it’s hard to feel like their own country is home.  And, interestingly enough, the Czech Republic is actually the most atheistic country in the world and the has the highest consumption of beer, which are apparently both results of all of the oppression they have endured. But, despite all of the hardship, the Czechs love their country, and I was really humbled by their loyalty to their homeland.  

The tour concluded in a heavy rainstorm. So we quickly found shelter and grabbed some dinner (the best sausage and potatoes I have EVER had) in the Old Town Square.  AND we got some desserts. The Czechs definitely do dessert right there:

CREPES:                                                                                                                        KOLACHES:


There were hundreds of people watching the Poland vs. Greece Euro Cup game in the Old Town Square and so we stayed and watched until the end of the game. We rooted for the Polish, mostly because everyone else around us was cheering for them too. You really don’t want to be caught rooting for the wrong team in a foreign country.

Saturday morning, we made our way towards Charles Bridge, which was on the way to the castle.  
 Here we are on Charles Bridge....see the castle in the background???
(photo cred: Melinda Zanner)

 The castle in Prague is actually the largest Medieval castle in the world and so we could see it from nearly any place in the city, but it takes a while to get to it because the roads are so winding. (Why can't ever place in the world be like Wichita and just use the grid system? It's so much easier.)  But we finally made it to castle, after making our way through the crowd, and up the couple hundred stairs (with all the stairs and walking I have done this summer, I expect to have calves of steel by August. just sayin.) Because the castle sits atop a hill, the view from the castle walls is spectacular.  All of Prague can be seen and it was exciting to see the monuments from afar, like we did on the incoming train, only this time we actually knew what we were looking at.

 I had expected the castle to be one large building, but I soon discovered that the castle is actually made up of many different buildings. The first building we entered was St. Vitus Cathedral.  This is the tallest building in the castle and was the location of the Czech coronations.

The next building we saw in the castle was the Old Royal Palace, which was originally called the Pernštejn Palace, built in the 9th century. Perhaps the most historically significant room in that entire palace holds the “Defenestration Window.”  This window is famous for its significance prior to the Thirty Years War.  For those of you who haven’t taken a history class in a while, the Thirty Years War was a result of the Holy Roman emperor's attempt to force his Bohemian subjects to return to the Catholicism. Such tension climaxed in 1618 when Protestants, in an act of rebellion, threw Catholic Imperial ministers from THIS window! Having studied the Thirty Years War, it was exciting to actually see the window.  Amazingly, the Catholic men survived the fall… but that was because they landed in a giant pile of manure. Not sure what’s worse: being thrown out of a window or landing in a pile of manure. Either way, the men were not happy and thus began the Thirty Years War.

The Defenestration Window

Next, we made our way into St. George Basilica. Located her are the tombs of St. Ludmila, the first Christian Duke of Bohemia, her husband, Prince Borivoi, and Prince Vratislav, the father of St. Wenceslas are all buried here. Unfortunately, I did not have much previous knowledge of these saints and, therefore, my appreciation for the Basilica was limited.

The final place at which we stopped during our stay at the castle was the Golden Lane.  This lane, which is basically just a street along the outer wall of the castle complex, has been around since the 15th century.  It was a popular residential area for goldsmiths, hence the name “Golden Lane.”  However, today, it is an area for tourists to shop and learn about medieval weaponry and textiles. I even got to learn how to shoot a cross bow here! And, yes, I even hit the target. Be impressed.

After our time at the castle, we made a quick stop at the CHOCOLATE MUSEUM. Czechs aren't really known for their chocolate but the guy out front said 'free chocolate' and so there was really no question about it.

Here is our Czech chocolatier, making some delicious hazelnut chocolate for us. YUM.

After that, we grabbed the same dinner we'd had the previous night (because it was THAT delicious!) and made our way to the train station.

 We unfortunately had to sit in chairs on our train ride back, which was, of course, not comfortable. But we made the best of it.

The next morning, our train arrived in Eindhoven an hour earlier than what our ticket said. An HOUR early! Trains are NEVER early in Europe. So we were obviously all still fast asleep when the train pulled up into the station. But thankfully Jill woke up while our train was stopped and woke us all up. We scrambled off the train, still in our pajamas. The train conductor was outside and so we asked him why we had arrived so early. "I know a short-cut," he said with a wink.  A short-cut? How do you know a short-cut on a train? Whatever route he took, I'm just glad I was asleep during all of it.

We had a wonderful weekend in Prague, and would’ve loved to have stayed longer, but we were all happy to be back ‘home’ in Maastricht.

Prague is an incredible city full of history and beauty; it definitely exceeded my expectations. I would have loved to have stayed longer but hopefully I can go back some day and see it all again. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend that you ‘czech’ it out!