These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
“You’ll love it there. The Greeks are so nice.”
A friend who had just left Athens told me this before my arrival in Greece. I was skeptical at first.
My first interaction with a Greek person happened as soon as I had gotten off of the connecting train from the airport into town. My suitcase is big (I’m abroad for four months, after all), but I normally have no problem navigating it through a European city.
This time was no different. Upon leaving a train station, there are sometimes small gates you need to pass through in order to exit. These gates are small and not meant to fit a suitcase. I usually try to fit my suitcase through, and then have to pause and turn it to the side so I can lift it through the gates.
However, right as my suitcase was caught in the gate, I paused to lift it up when I noticed someone behind me. At these moments in time I usually go into anti-pickpocket mode. This time it wasn’t necessary. The man behind me had seen that my luggage didn’t fit, so he gestured to my suitcase, and helped me lift it through the gate.
After he had gotten through the gate, he dropped my luggage and smiled, while I said thank you, and he walked away. It was such a casual but kind thing for a stranger to do. Although I could’ve lifted the suitcase myself, the gesture was such a nice one.
It seems like nothing big, to have a stranger help you with your suitcase. But I’ve been traveling for over two months now, and it’s something that doesn’t happen often. People have busy lives, and not enough time to stop to help a stranger.
I have now been in Athens for a few days, and I’ve noticed that in general, most Athenians seem to have this same kind disposition. When you walk down the street or enter a store, people smile at you. That hasn’t been the case in a lot of other European cities in my experience. Here, bakeries will give you free pastries with your coffee. Restaurants will give you wine on the house. This is because they value their customers and want you to keep coming back.
One other time in particular when I was exploring my new neighborhood here with a few of my classmates, trying to find the nearest school supply store, we ended up having to ask several people for directions along the way. Each time the person was sincere and kind, pointing us in the right direction. In contrast, in Rome we had some bad experiences asking the locals for directions.
This isn’t to say that the people of Rome or any other urban European city are mean. It’s simply to say that my first impression of the Greeks is that they are very kind people. In a few weeks, I may have a very different impression of Athenians and the city. Recognizing these first impressions, and every other impression a city leaves on you throughout your time there, is one of the most important things about travel for me. The great thing is, I have six weeks left here to gather even more impressions of Athens.
Part of the nature of traveling while studying abroad is that many of my vacations tend to be weekend trips, meaning that I am not normally longer in a foreign city for longer than three or four days—I mean, I have to go to school on occasion… Hence, when I am able to spend any longer amount of time in a city I absolutely love it. I love finding the less touristy restaurants and neighborhoods, I love escaping the massively crowded tourist attractions and finding any place off the beaten path because those are the places I will really remember.
If you’re going to have an extra few weeks to explore a city thoroughly, you just will not find a better place to do so than London. I was lucky enough to be staying with the most wonderful family who was willing to drag an
annoying picture taking tourist me around their home city for a week and a half, showing me some of their favorite places as well as the tourist attractions that I would not be able to find time to see in just a few days! Although I could talk about London for years, here are a few of my absolute favorites from this trip. Obviously you just won’t want to be in London without traveling the almost obligatory route of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, etc. but if you ever have a spare day or two to explore a little further: this list is a good place to begin.
1. The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A): All of London’s awesome museums are FOR FREE so let’s give a big gold star to London for that, am I right? Your first inclinations will be to hit the British Museum and the National Gallery, but if you are in the least bit interested in anything regarding theatre, art, or design, you just cannot miss the V&A. Located by the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, it is chock full of awesome jewelry, theatre, tapestry, fashion, and literary exhibits that will blow your mind. Make sure to check out the reading room (filled with original Charles Dickens manuscripts) and the cast courts from when the English were in a phase where they copied Roman monuments in plaster—useful? Not particularly, but still awesome.
2. Oxford University: If you are in the mood for a day trip, head up to Oxford for the day to check out a gorgeous, ancient town housing one of the oldest universities in England. Even if you cannot go into any of the colleges, it is still worth a wander around! I was lucky enough to have a see into Exeter College with a friend who is a current student; it is a little glimpse of history and prowess that will inspire you for months to come. The Oxford Tube runs from London straight to Oxford and is a comfortable, cost-efficient way to travel plus the bus has wifi…so…
3. Portobello Market: For an antique and vintage freak like me, Portobello Market in Notting Hill was HEAVEN. Not only is it in the gorgeous West London neighborhood, there are stands and stands filled with antique cameras, vintage jewelry, and cute restaurants. Take note of the Notting Hill bookstore, featured in the popular movie with Hugh Grant and Julia Robert and for a snack, try a crepe or a cupcake from the famous Hummingbird bakery. Some of my other favorite London markets are found in the winding alleys of Camden Town and the delicious fresh and international foods found at the Borough Market (the latter is open on weekends only).
4. Windsor Castle: If you’re all ‘been there, done that’ when you hear the words Buckingham Palace, take a few steps outside the city to see Queen Elizabeth’s weekend home and reportedly favorite residence. The chapel, holding the tombs of King Henry VIII and several of his wives was completely gorgeous and the room containing the elaborate royal doll-houses was also a standout. Make sure to have your ticket stamped at the end of your visit, as you can then come back for free anytime in the next year—not a bad deal!
If you have even more time, do stop by the National Portrait Gallery (just behind the National Gallery) for some really amazing artwork. And for relatively inexpensive and healthy meals, step into one of the numerous Pret a Mangers, marked by their trademark burgundy sign marking practically every block! I can’t wait to go back and explore even more.
Have a happy St. Patrick’s Day this Saturday! I’ll be sending the most Irish of wishes over the sea from Dublin.
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”
One of the reasons I am so in love with the University of Limerick is because of its beautiful, vividly green, and natural campus. The river Shannon running through the center with swans casually hanging out, the secret streams and miniature waterfalls sporadically placed between buildings, and the rolling hills watchfully enveloping the perimeter make it a lovely place to live if you happen to be someone who thrives upon the outdoors. Since my school in the states is relatively small, it’s a treat to be able to constantly explore the massive Limerick campus- and I’m serious, it looks like there could be a leprechaun hiding behind every corner! Yes, it’s rainy- but that’s the price you pay for living in a neon green wonderland, right??
Here’s a little story that exemplifies one of the other massively cool parts about Ireland: CASTLES. One of my favorite activities since I’ve been at Limerick has been attempting to explore the campus on nice days, and finding little nooks and crannies I didn’t know existed! On one of the nicest days last semester (a.k.a. it wasn’t raining or hailing for once), I decided to take an afternoon walk along the river Shannon. It was sunny and beautiful, the river was sparkling, and the path was completely empty except for me and the occasional dog-walker.
Taking advantage of the lovely weather, I kept on walking after several options to turn around. My head was down for most of the time in a relatively futile attempt to save my rainboots from the muddy slush that the path had turned into after so much rain! All of a sudden, I looked up.
To my left were huge, abandoned ruins of a CASTLE. WHAT?! A castle was just sitting there, hanging out, within walking distance of my village?? No signs, no markings, no gate, separated this castle from being an anonymous object. I stopped for a minute and gaped with my mouth opened, then immediately opened my phone to call my friend Bridget in glee.
Naturally, I brought her back the next day so we could explore it together. We weren’t the first to find the ruins, as they were covered in graffiti already from some clever kids who apparently couldn’t afford an easel. Nothing could take away from the grandeur of this ancient ruin, though! With a bit of deft climbing, we defied gravity (and probably a few safety standards…don’t try this at home) and climbed to the top of the castle on some stairs that were almost completely intact (AFTER THOUSANDS OF YEARS. THIS WORLD IS COOL). Sitting at the top of the castle, gazing over Limerick fields, I fell in love with Ireland all over again.
There’s not a lot of countries where you can take an afternoon walk and find an ancient ruin on the side of the road…but Ireland is one of them. Lucky me!
Stay tuned for more posts about Rome, Barcelona, Munich, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London (I’ve been busy…)!
P.S. Photo credits to Bridget McQuillan, more of her work can be found at http://cargocollective.com/bridgetmcquillan.
After years of French class, a weeklong vegetable fast in preparation for the disgusting amount of baguettes I was planning to eat, and hours spent in the pages of Rick Steves Takes Paris, I was ready.
Everyone dreams of Paris, and it’s one of the only cities I’ve ever visited that could actually live up to the uber-high expectations that the rest of the world had set for me! Our friends joked that throughout the whole visit, the word “fabulous” must have been used at least 70,000 times. While lacking the extraordinary amount of green space found in London or the friendly, welcoming people in Vienna, Paris has a kind of magic to it that’s altogether unique and completely Parisian. Not to mention that if you look at any random person on the street, there is 100% chance that they will be chic, long-legged, well-dressed, and drop dead gorgeous! I’m serious- I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
With a minimal amount of high-school and college French, we were able to get around pretty easily- Paris is most definitely used to excessive amounts of tourists filling their streets constantly. While this means that the vast majority of people speak English, they are also used to churning people in and out without any particular desire to speak to you or get to know you. We didn’t interact with any ‘mean’ people, but they definitely weren’t quite as friendly as people in Austria or Vienna (especially after hearing our obnoxious American accents). The metro system was also easy to navigate and a two-day metro pass was not nearly as expensive as we were expecting, which was fantastic! For museums, what we did (and what I highly recommend) was purchasing the two-day museum pass, which then lets you in to pretty much any museum you would care to see, including Versailles. And best of all, it was only thirty-five euros! Pretty good, considering that most museum prices were somewhere around thirteen euro. We managed to make it to several of the museums we wanted to see, but due to time constraints we missed out on a few of my must-sees including L’Orangerie and the Rodin Museum.
We stayed in Perfect Hostel, which was probably the best bet for our money at only twenty-six euros a night (HOSTELS IN PARIS ARE EXPENSIVE. I practically choked on my coffee while we were looking at prices, but it turned out just fine!). We were a short metro ride away from most of the major attractions, so early in the morning on day one, we hopped on the metro and began our sightseeing immediately! We popped up at St. Germain and walked along the beautiful Seine until we reached the Musee D’Orsay, our first museum of the trip. What I really loved about the museums in Paris is that the buildings themselves were remarkable, without even considering the world-class art they contained! Musee D’Orsay originated as a train station, with an amazing high ceiling and a layout that was very easy to navigate and wander through. It was even a bit more manageable than the Louvre, since the Louvre is just so massive that it can sometimes be a little overwhelming- aesthetic overload is absolutely a real thing!
After leaving the Orsay, we strolled through the Tuileries and down the Champs-Elysees, which had about a mile of Christmas booths selling meats, cheeses and scarves- and let me tell you, there is NOTHING I like better than a European Christmas market! We metro-ed over to the Grand Opera house, and just sat and people-watched for a while- people-watching is absolutely incredible in Paris. And last but not least: the Eiffel Tower. Just like Big Ben and the Trevi Fountain, it’s just one of those things that can’t be captured accurately on camera. When you’re standing underneath it, it’s a rather surreal experience! We unfortunately didn’t go to the top, as it was twenty euros, but it was a magical thing to see all on its own.
Some of our other favorites were Versailles: hands down one of the coolest, most interesting buildings I’ve ever been to in my life. The grandeur and splendor of every single room was breathtaking and over the top. One of my favorite things to do when I’m in old buildings is to imagine what it would have been like at the peak of it’s existence- thinking about everything the walls of Versailles have seen was fascinating. Also, I would most definitely recommend going to the top of the Arc de Triomphe: even though it’s a climb, the view from the second-highest viewing terrace in Paris was phenomenal. Seeing the Eiffel Tower as part of the skyline and being in the center of that massive roundabout was absolutely gorgeous, and it was free with our museum pass too!
This goes without saying, but the Louvre was incredible. I’m a little sad that we didn’t get to it until the end of our trip, because at that point our feet were ready to fall off our legs and we were just a little weary. And let me tell you, the Louvre is NOT a good place to be weary! I managed to see the Mona Lisa and some other great Renaissance art as well as the Greek and Egyptian art wings, all of which were amazing. I will definitely have to return fresh-faced and ready to spend a day in some comfortable shoes walking through the miles and miles of halls of awesome art.
And last but not least, the Latin Quarter! We visited Notre Dame, which as a Catholic, felt like a little peaceful slice of home in the middle of a crowded and crazy city. We also found some very cool bookshops there, such as the Abbey Bookshop and Shakespeare and Company! The towering stacks of books made for a very magical bookshop experience. After rounding out our Paris experience with a banana and nutella crepe (YUM, that’s all to be said), we hopped on the metro back to Charles de Gaulle for our two-hour flight home to the green grass of Ireland.
As I previously mentioned, there’s so much to do and see and visit and explore in Paris that it’s rather difficult to condense into a 2.5 day trip, much less an easy-to-read blog post! I cannot wait to return to see everything that we didn’t have time for, because I’m sure that we could have easily filled another week, probably even a month! That city is truly full of endless magic and opportunity.
Sorry for being a bit behind on posting, but we just returned from Rome! Stay tuned for posts on the Dingle Peninsula, Rome, Barcelona, Berlin, Amsterdam and more!
P.S. Many of the pictures in this particular post were taken by Bridget McQuillan, a good friend on the trip and a fantastic photographer!
If you’re in the market for a cute, non-touristy and easy to navigate town in the heart of Austria, find the next train and take it immediately to Graz (the capital of the region of Styria). And if you’re looking for the definition of the phrase ‘autumnal bliss’- take that train to Graz in early November. Think I’m kidding? Think again, and take a look at the pictures below!
The town of Graz itself is most recognized throughout Europe for its incredibly cool town square (Old Town), which is extremely pedestrian- friendly as it doesn’t even allow cars! The entire city centre is accessible by foot or by the streetcars, so it’s an extreme pleasure to walk through a European city without wondering which way to look before you cross the street or sprinting to avoid being hit by the tiny cars whizzing through intersections! Graz also has a river down the middle (the river Mur), and there’s just nothing I love more than cities with charming rivers and hills framing the landscape. There’s also plenty to see in Graz, definitely enough to fill up a weekend trip just in the city itself.
Our first stop in the city was to the gorgeous Baroque palace, Schloss Eggenberg (Eggenberg Palace in English). Since it was a Sunday, we unfortunately were unable to explore the supposedly beautiful inner rooms such as the Planetary room, but we were still able to explore the open park and grounds of the palace as well as the courtyard. I can’t tell a lie, some of my favorite parts of the gardens were the numerous peacocks wandering around (both the pure white and Indian blue varieties)! The palace was beyond cool- one of my favorite parts was how it was constructed according to the Gregorian calendar: the palace has 365 exterior windows for each day of the year and 31 rooms on each floor for days of the month, in addition to other details. It was also very relaxing to wander among the autumn leaves and large statues littered among the trees, surrounded by the Austrian countryside.
While we were there, we stopped for a traditional Austrian autumn snack: Maroni, which are essentially roasted chestnuts. They are sold on the streets of Vienna and Graz through the fall season, and are a must-have if you happen to pass by one of the stands.
Graz is full of interesting sights, some of which have been constructed by the city to increase tourism and the cultural influence of the city. The art museum, with a “unique” architectural structure is one major standout, as well as ‘The Island’, a circular bar in the middle of the River Mur. After a walk around the city exploring the various platzes (squares), we found some amazing street food in the town square (bratwurst with senf, which is mustard and AMAZING). We headed into one the largest and newest department stores I’ve ever been in called the K&O- if you’re ever there, make sure to take the escalator all of the floors to the top. You’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Graz’s red roofs, which are prominent all over the city and very, very cool.
And since we were apparently very into climbing great heights on this trip, there was no better way to end our time in Graz than with climb to the top of the Schloßberg, a hill overlooking the city at the site of a demolished fortress. Schloßberg literally means ‘castle mountain’, and that’s exactly what it is! The hill contains an Uhrmturm, which is a clock tower that is a recognizable symbol of the city, and some amazing views! If I lived here, I could picture climbing up with a cup of coffee and a fantastic book- and just sitting for hours reading and thinking.
All in all, the last stop of our trip was amazing. The people could not have been friendlier, the scenery could not have been more gorgeous, and there’s just no getting around the fact that Austrian food is FANTASTIC. I’ve already made my Austrian friend, Nadia, commit to shipping me some of the Styrian pumpkin seed oil that they use as salad dressing- it’s a little slice of heaven. Austria is definitely an underrated tourist destination, in my opinion, and was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been: inside and out.
Next week, my Tuesday post might fall a few days later due to the fact that I will be in PARIS until Thursday! I mean, there's worse problems to have. Keep checking back for a post on our visit to the adorable Irish Dingle Peninsula (especially if you like sheep...)
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