Friday, December 27, 2013


Friday, August 12th:

Myself, Golfing in Scotland:

            With a bit of a change of plans, today I decided to change my return flight and to head home. A combination of overall illness, fatigue, homesickness, and the desire to spend more than two days in Iceland led me to my decision. Iceland shall wait for another day. After all, over two months spent travelling can be tiring!

            What a truly remarkable experience this trip has been—one I will never forget. I met wonderful people, saw incredible things, and tasted flawless dishes. I like to think of this trip as a feeling-out trip for all the beautiful places and cities that I visited, as I plan to return to nearly all of them when I have more time to enjoy them with friends and family. In the end, I can’t decide which city or country was my favorite; they were all magical in their own way. Thanks again to all the people who helped me out along the way. Until next time, Europe!

Myself, on the Dubrovnik City Walls:

Thursday, December 26, 2013

France: Day II (Paris)

Thursday, August 11th:

Notre Dame:

            What a whirlwind of a day! It certainly does not help when you start feeling ill while travelling, but with such a short time in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I had to make the most of it. Well rested, Matt, Max, and I had some breakfast at the Marriott Rive Gauche before heading out to our first site of the day, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, or as the French call it, the Sacre Coeur. A quick trip on the incredibly efficient Parisian subway, and a short climb up the hill of Montmartre had us there in no time.

The Sacre Coeur:

            I had admired this church from a far before, during my last trip to Paris in 2006. The short stay during that trip did not allow for me to come see the Sacre Coeur, so I was delighted to finally be able to visit it. From a far, the Sacre Coeur resembles the Taj Mahal in its bright white marble exterior, but inside it is covered in gold leaf and tile mosaics on all walls. I was amazed at the color contrast from the outside to the inside, and wish that I could have taken a few pictures! After a few moments in silent thought, it was time to move on and talk another walk through the neighborhood of Montmartre.


            Notoriously the district of Paris to house writers, artists, musicians, actors, and performers, Montmartre has a very interesting and different feel than the rest of Paris, almost like Brooklyn differs from other parts of New York. Montmartre is built entirely on a hill and without subway access, and is also the cities center for strip clubs, sex shops, and burlesque performances. We took a long walk weaving in and out of artists offering their skills for a quick portrait odd part of the city for sure, but it was time to get back into the center of things.

The Arc de Triomphe:

            Next up was the Arc de Triomphe in the center of the great star of the Champs Elysees known as Place Charles de Gaulle. Completed in 1836, the massive stone arch commemorates those who fought for France in the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolution. Underneath the arch is France’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier, representing all those whom were not identified during World War I. The square itself is very cool, as twelve straight avenues come together at a single point, and tourists need to use underground tunnels to get to the Arc and avoid stopping the many lanes of traffic!

The Eiffel Tower and Trocadero Gardens:

            We continued our tour of the city by walking over to the Eiffel Tower, or Tour Eiffel. My family and I went up to the top of the Tower on our first trip to Paris, so I suggested that we do that again, this time avoiding the huge line for the first elevator by climbing the first set of stairs. I guess we got our exercise in for the day, because that climb did not prove as easy as it looked, but it definitely saved us lots of time spent waiting in queues. Humorously, Max waited until we were halfway up the second elevator to tell us he was afraid of heights. He must’ve swallowed his fear, though, because shortly after we walked out onto the platform 900 feet up. What an incredible view! The tallest building in the world for over forty years, I am still amazed that this building was built in 1889.

Notre Dame Cathedral and the Seine:

            All of us were beginning to feel the affects of rapid travel and our bodies were beginning to slow down by now. We decided to take in one more sight before returning to the hotel for dinner and more rest. We hopped on the subway again to Notre Dame Cathedral that stands on the Île de la Cité in the oldest part of Paris. Completed in Gothic style in 1345, the Cathedral reached world-wide recognition as the setting for Victor Hugo’s novel, and subsequent Disney animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was absolutely blown away by the detail on the stained glass and the magnitude of the windows. For such an old church, the stone and glasswork were exquisite and very well maintained. If only other churches around Europe could be that well preserved!

Stained Glass Inside Notre Dame Cathedral:

            After a long walk back to our hotel, all of us were exhausted. Tomorrow, Matt would head home to New York. Max was off to begin another adventure meeting family in his native country of Ukraine. For me, it was on to one more country before home: Iceland! Au revoir Paris! À la prochaine…

Monday, December 23, 2013

France: Day I (Paris)

Wednesday, August 10th:

The Arc de Triomphe inside the Jardin des Tuileries and the Eiffel Tower at Sunset:

A return to the city of lights! After a rather annoying morning motivating my hungover travel companions to get to the airport in Barcelona, we finally made our way to Paris, France. Bonjour! For both Matt and I, this was the second time we had been to Paris, but the first for Max. Both of us thought we had the city figured out pretty well, but our inability to get to our hotel proved us wrong. After multiple cab rides because there are apparently three hotels with the same name as ours, we arrived at the Marriott Rive Gauche. Thanks again to Matt’s father for putting us up in a wonderful hotel after so many nights in hostels!
Matt and I immediately hit the ground running, as it was already late in the day and we wanted to get some sightseeing in. Luckily we had heard that the Louvre was open late on Wednesday nights, and Matt was eager to show me around as I had not visited the Louvre on my first visit, so we headed straight there, leaving Max behind to rest.

Entering the Louvre:

What a remarkable art museum. It seems cliché to say, but the Louvre truly is spectacular, and it would take months to take in all the magnificent works. We opted for an accelerated tour of just the highlights, focusing on key items in the museum’s collection. These key items included the Greek sculpture known as the “Winged Victory,” another Greek sculpture in the “Venus de Milo,” the Egyptian collections, and, of course, the Grand Gallery including numerous Italian Renaissance artwork and the world-famous “Mona Lisa.” Our visit consisted of about two hours running around the world’s largest art museum, and we didn’t even get to more than half of it!

Winged Victory and Venus de Milo Inside the Louvre:

Following our Louvre visit, we decided to walk towards the Eiffel Tower while the sun was setting to meet up with Max for some dinner. The walk across the city of Paris was certainly not short, but definitely made us realize why it is nicknamed the City of Lights. At night, the city really comes alive with beautiful shades of red, white, blue, and gold. We walked through the Jardin des Tuileries, passed the Grand Palais and Hotel des Invalides, where Napoleon rests, and finally met Max at a restaurant called Café le Dôme. I ate some traditional Steak Frites and gulped down some Kronenbourg beer after a little bit of waiting on a disgruntled waiter.

Notre Dame Cathedral at Night:

Immediately after we fueled up, we wandered over to the park in front of the Eiffel Tower, now illuminated in beautiful gold light. Every hour, on the hour, for five minutes, the entire structure twinkles with thousands of light bulbs for the whole city to see. We remained here for a long while, speaking with other tourists and college students, all of whom have gathered to drink beer and wine and enjoy sitting underneath what is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in the entire world. After a while, and a few beers, we decided to return to the hotel to turn in and get some rest before a long day of sightseeing tomorrow. After all, we are only in Paris for a short time, and there is so much to see!

The Eiffel Tower at Night:

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Spain: Day VII (Madrid)

Tuesday, August 9th:

Retiro Lake and the Monument to Alfonso XII Inside Buen Retiro Park:

            Another day in paradise! I still can’t get over how much I have lucked out on weather on my entire trip. I think I can count the days it has rained on one hand! Today was another awesome day, and perfect because we got to relax a lot. Max slept in again while Collins and I decided to head to the Museo del Prado.
            The Prado Museum ended up being far larger than I had thought, and I was definitely impressed. The museum showcased some of my favorite artists’ works, including many by Goya, Velázquez, and Bosch. Many of these works are extremely dark and odd, which is in stark comparison to much of the work I have seen on my trip so far. It was definitely a breath of fresh air seeing modern art again after spending so much time observing classical Christian themes. We spent the majority of the morning here before deciding to enjoy the sunshine outdoors.

Crystal Palace Inside Buen Retiro Park:

            We decided that for the rest of the day we would wander around the massive Buen Retiro Park in Madrid’s city center. Just before entering the park, we grabbed an outdoor table to fuel up called Harina. I ate a delicious chicken and dried fruit salad with goat cheese. Love the food around here! The Buen Retiro Park is absolutely enormous, and it was truly beautiful to spend such a nice day wandering around enjoying the sunshine. Some of the highlights were the Crystal and Velázquez Palace buildings inside the park. Both of these buildings have little function outside of being works of art and small greenhouses. Sunflower seeds in hand, we also got to watch a traditional Spanish dance lesson, complete with traditional dress and music. It was quite the treat!

San Miguel and San Benito Church from Buen Retiro Park:

            It was really nice to relax today, as I was starting to feel pretty run down after bouncing between sights in different cities all around the continent. We had planned on going out again tonight, but after starting to not feel too great I decided it was a better idea to get a good nights sleep before an early rise to head to Paris in the morning. Matt and Max decided they were going to paint the town red, and by the 4am drunken knocks on the door, I knew they had accomplished that feat. Oh well, Adiós España!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Spain: Day VI (Madrid)

Monday, August 8th:

The Palacia Real Madrid (Madrid Royal Palace):

            Spain is a wonderful place. Today was one of the hotter days of the trip, with temperatures in the upper 90s, but it really did not feel that hot due to the extreme dryness away from the coast. We started off the day by grabbing a salad for breakfast near the Palacio Real. Max slept in while Collins and I explored the grounds around and inside the Royal Spanish Palace.

The Palacio Real Madrid:

            The Spanish palace was particularly interesting to me because it is one royal family in the world that I know almost nothing about. Walking around the beautiful halls of the palace also gave me a history lesson along with the immaculate décor and beautiful artwork found all over the place. The palace is not one of the tallest I have seen on my trip, but it contains hundreds of rooms and extends laterally in many directions. We wandered around the palace for what seemed like a couple hours before meeting up with Max in the massive palace courtyard to check out a nearby church, the Almudena Cathedral.

The Almudena Cathedral:

            The idea behind the Almudena Cathedral came about when the capital of Spain was transferred from Toledo to Madrid in 1561. Madrid did not have a massive Catholic cathedral for royal use at the time. Unfortunately, plans were set aside and the Almudena Cathedral was not completed until 1993, over 400 years later. As a result, the church is lavishly decorated with modern Spanish art, but used for such important events as the weddings of royals. The church is a pretty unique combination of modern art and ancient artifacts, and it was a welcome change from many of the other churches I have been visiting over the course of my trip.

Max and I eating Caviar at the San Miguel Market:

            Following our visit to the Almudena Cathedral we decided that we were pretty hungry for lunch. Wandering around the city for a little while, we stumbled upon a market that we later discovered was the San Miguel Market and known as the “upscale food market of Madrid.” We wandered around in here for a while, sampling different exotic seafood dishes and traditional Spanish tapas fares. Max and I even had some Russian Beluga Caviar with Russian Standard Vodka! I had never had real caviar before, and Max, being from the Ukraine, treated me to a unique experience.

Plaza Mayor:

            We spent the rest of the day wandering around Madrid and relaxing. It was a very hot day, so we didn’t end up doing a whole lot. We did find Plaza Mayor, one of the main meeting places and lively scenes in the city, and we found a bar crawl to join up on for the evening. To pass the time, we walked up and down the Gran Via main road in the city before getting hungry. We got some dinner at an Italian restaurant back near Plaza Del Sol where I ate my usual, Spaghetti Bolognese and a Caprese Salad before heading back to Plaza Mayor. We found an Irish bar to grab a Guinness or two before starting the crawl, again with the same Sandemans company that I used for my bar crawl in Scotland. We had a fun time wandering around Madrid with a crew that was much smaller than the Edinburgh pub crawl. This crawl didn’t take us into the early morning hours, but we had fun and made a friend in the Sandemans host. Only a few more nights of my trip left!

The Gran Via:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Spain: Day V (Madrid)

Sunday, August 7th:

A Matador Fights a Bull:

            Today I got to experience one of the cooler cultural events of my life, a bullfight. But we will get to that. We slept in a little bit before getting a cab to the Barcelona train station. I should note that a couple of days prior we had stopped at the train station to purchase our train tickets. This was one of the main times that I had to use my Spanish, as the ticket agent literally spoke no English, but I did fine. We managed to get the correct tickets and we were on our way to Madrid in no time. I should also mention that it was odd after travelling on so many trains that the Barcelona to Madrid train is the only one where we had to pass through metal detectors and put our luggage through security. This must be aftermath of the Madrid train bombings.

The Real Casa de Correos (Office of the President of Madrid) at Puerta Del Sol:

            The train ride was relatively quick and offered some cool views of the Spanish landscape. There is a lot more desert than I had realized. Anyway, we arrived around midday in Madrid and took a subway to the Puerto Del Sol Square. We then took the short walk to check in to our new hostel, the RC Miguel Angel hostel, where we were greeted with tiny bunk beds and very few amenities. Oh well, we are only here for a couple of nights.
We were eager to check out what the city was all about, so we wandered around for a little while before deciding to get food before the bullfight. We found a place called La Taurina which fit right in with our evening plans. The walls were covered with autographed photos of famous bullfighters alongside the heads of many famous bulls. TVs all over the restaurant also displayed vintage bullfights for anyone to watch. I enjoyed some Paella, Mushroom Caps with Minced Ham, and a tomato salad. With little time to spare, we took a cab to the Madrid bullring and got in line for our tickets.

The Plaza De Toros Las Ventas (Madrid Bullring):

            The atmosphere at a bullfight in Spain can almost be compared to going to a baseball game back home. Thousands of people come out for the events that happen about once a week in the summer, and many people are regulars that occupy the same seats each time. The line for tickets was long, but street vendors selling waters, sodas, beers, nuts, fruits, veggies, and seeds are there to help you through the line. We bought some sunflower seeds and purchased our actually pretty expensive tickets to a Corrida de Toros (bullfight) at the Plaza de Toros Las Ventas (Madrid bullring) and made our way inside.

A Poster Advertising the Corrida de Toros (Bullfight):

            While we purchased some (bucket sized) Cruzcampo beers, we were informed that it was considered rude to enter the seating area while a bullfight was going on. We were a little bit late, so we had to watch the first fight on the TV screens in the vendor area before being allowed inside. Not to worry, though, each event features three matadors who each get two bulls to fight, so missing one fight was not a big deal. After the first fight we made our way to our seats, apparently in the Ernest Hemingway section, and sat down to watch.

The Bullring at Dusk:

            The bullfight begins as an angry bull is released into the bullring. Assistant matadors called Banderilleros use purple and yellow capes to fight the bull. This offers the matador a chance to see how the bull will react when he gets his chance to fight it. It also gives the fans in the stands a great opportunity to see the bull charging in all its fury. The matador may also participate in this stage, but mostly he is watching and learning from the moves of the bull.

A Banderillero Confronts the Bull:

In the next stage, two men on horseback called Picadors come out wielding long lances. In the days of old, horses would frequently perish by the bullhorns hitting their undersides, so the horses now wear blinders and are heavily padded from such attacks. The Picadors wait until the bull charges the horse, and then open a large and deep wound in the back of the bull. This is the main wound that will weaken and fatigue the bull over the course of the bullfight. They try to open two or three deep wounds before making their way out of the ring.

A Picador Lances the Bull:

            Next, the Banderilleros return. In a bizarre act, the Banderilleros tempt the bull to charge them while they also run at the bull. The goal is to attach two weighted sticks called Banderillas to the opposite sides of the wound in the bull’s back. This will help keep the wounds open to tire the bull even more as he loses blood. Once the bull is prepared for the fight with the matador, the stage is set for his entrance.

A Banderillero Stabs the Bull with Banderillas:

            These guys are like Spanish celebrities. People cheer as the matador enters the ring with his majestic red taunting cape. He is given a large wooden sword to use to taunt the bull some more, and he begins the Faena, or display. This is the part everyone has come to see, as the bull charges the red cape and the matador dances out of the way. As foolish as this sounds, it is quite beautiful to watch and really takes some skill. The matador is awarded by cheers and good marks if he can get the bull as close to his body as possible without being struck. The bull expands most of its energy in this stage, and all the while it is losing more and more blood through the wound in its back. After a long series of displays and charges, the bull finally will tire to the point of not charging from a mere few feet away.

The Faena (Display):

            The matador will then ceremoniously receive his Estoque, or the kill sword, and prepare his kill strike. Good matadors are able to kill the bull in one quick strike to its heart while it charges, through the open wound in its back. This is seen as a quick end for the bull, and the animal does not suffer as much. Unfortunately, this does not always happen, as we saw. The kill strike, or Estocada, is pretty brutal, and a massive animal quickly passes away after a deep blow. The bull is then carted off by horses and the ring is prepared for another fight while the matador receives cheers, jeers, hats, roses, and applause. With rare, exceptional performances, the judge can award the bull's ear, both its ears, or its tail, or any combination of these items to the matador as a prize.

The Matador Prepares the Estocada (Killstrike):

            We got to watch five of these over the course of a couple hours. After you get passed the fact that you are watching the killing of a live and beautiful animal, you realize how cool the event actually is. It is just beaming with Spanish culture, and you can tell from the cheers that people really live for these events. We did see one matador awarded a bull ear for his performance, and we also saw the same matador get jeered out of the stadium after his second fight. He struggled to kill the bull in that one, and people do not like to see the animal truly suffer.

A Deceased Bull is Carted Off:

            We enjoyed quite a few beers at the bullfight, and had a nice long walk across the city at night. There are some beautiful buildings in Madrid that are lit up with pretty lights at night, and I am eager to see the city during the day! We stopped for another drink near the Plaza Del Sol, where a protest was occurring outside of the Offices of the President of Madrid, the Real Casa de Correos. I think it had to do with the economic problems that the EuroZone was facing at the time, and about unemployment in Spain. After a long day of travel, it’s time for bed!

The Palacio de Cibeles (Madrid Post Office) at Night:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Spain: Day IV (Barcelona)

Saturday, August 6th:

A Mosaic Lizard in Park Guell:

            Today we visited even more parts of Barcelona that we had not seen before. This has to be one of the bigger cities I have visited on the trip. We woke up extraordinarily late, as we did not get to sleep until around almost 8am. Collins was out looking for his wallet and phone, which was eventually presumed pick-pocketed, so we decided to head out around 4pm to see some more sites. With none of us really hungry at this point, we walked straight over to the Medieval district of the city to check out the famed Gothic Cathedral. On our way we also passed the Arc de Triomf, a red and smaller version of the famed arch in Paris. Some movie company was also filming what looked like a scene of death and destruction at the Arc, but we carried on.

The Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona:

            We made our way to the important site of the day, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia, also known as the Gothic Cathedral. Unfortunately, the church was undergoing renovations (I was doing so well for a while without these!) but visitors were still able to go inside and explore the church. It reminded me a lot of the ones I had seen early on in my trip in Germany and Scotland. The church walls were made of stone that seemed almost scorched and charred, and the interior was filled with magnificent gold decoration. We hung out there for a little while before grabbing a cab to check out Park Guell, a park designed by Antoni Gaudí.

An Entrance Building to Park Guell:

It was actually a pretty long ride before we were there, but it was quite apparent when we had arrived. The entrance to Park Guell looks like it is straight out of Dr. Suess Land in at Universal Studios. The buildings are designed in such a unique and distinct style—none of us had ever seen anything like it. Each building that Gaudí makes is just so different than the next! As the park is also situated on one of the higher hills in the city, we walked around the park trails to take in all of the incredible views across the city to the Mediterranean. It also gave us a pretty cool and unique photo opportunity overlooking the Sagrada Familia. Pretty cool that the city is so interconnected with the life of Gaudí and his famous work.

The Sagrada Familia from Park Guell:

            Following our time spent at the park, we decided to walk back down the hill to our hostel and get some food on the way. It was now dark and we were very hungry, so we stopped at an Italian place where I ate some Barcelona Pizza (Minced Beef, Onions) and a Caprese Salad (I just can’t escape these even if I wanted to!). The walk took a very long time but we were happy to enjoy our last night in the city. We also found our way back to the Sagrada Familia so we could experience what it looked like at night. The building is illuminated with powerful lights, and it will truly be a world masterpiece upon completion. It already is now! We decided to turn it in pretty early after some post-dinner drinks seeing as we had such a long night prior. Tomorrow we will take a train to the capital city of Spain, Madrid!

The Arc de Triomf: