Browsing Category: Europe

Snapshot Memories of the Week: Budapest, Hungary

Snapshot memories is a new weekly series, giving a visual glimpse into different destinations and unique ways to view them. It’s also a way for me to look back on travels that occurred before and after I started this blog, and to give each place I’ve traveled the attention it deserves. 

This week my memories go back to Budapest.

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Budapest is a city of vibrant contrasts, a fact that is fitting due its divided history.

Budapest used to consist of the two separate cities of Buda and Pest, until they were united in 1873 after the struggle for Hungarian independence to become the city it is now. The two separate sides of  the city are still connected by the Chain Bridge.

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Budapest has endured a lot in the past years with nazi and communist occupation that has been the cause of a painful history.

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With that said, Budapest is still one of my favorite cities in Europe. It’s also the furthest east I’ve traveled in Europe, and I found the history captivating, heartbreaking, and profound all at once.

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Budapest is different from any other city I visited in Europe mostly because of it’s history and the scars or the growth from those scars that have come since the iron curtain days.

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A lot of Budapest’s tourism is centered around dark tourism, a type of tourism I’ve come across numerous times around Eastern Europe and Cambodia.

In particular, I remember visiting the House of Terror, which not only housed Hungary’s Arrow Cross Nazi party, but was also used by the AVO, or the communist secret police after the nazis were removed from power.

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The basement cells where prisoners were tortured are still intact and were viewable to us as visitors. It was an important building to go see, but it didn’t make it any easier to go to.

In contrast to the darker aspects of Hungary’s history, there’s also a great Byzantine influence in the architecture, Turkish thermal baths of every kind from the 15th and 16th centuries, and an overwhelming feel of a student-centered city that is intellectual, cool, and fashionable.

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In the younger generation you tend to see a free-sprited nature, where couples kiss on the streets and there’s a lightness in the air.

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In the older generation, which has been through so much, there is still a lot of pain and grievances. It would come off as Budapest simply having a high incidence of grumpy old men, that is, if you were unaware of the history that has taken place in such a short time.

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There are some positive ways the communist history has been used around the city, most notably in the unique and quirky ideas and artwork. My favorite thing I came across would have to be the ruin bars in the dark back alleyways around the city.

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Someone had the idea to turn old communist houses that were falling into ruins, into these bars that are actually some of the coolest bars I’ve been to in my travels. Brilliant.

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Above all, even with all of the extras things on offer, Budapest is a city that has so much natural beauty, it takes your breath away.

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When I think back on Budapest I remember the communist history that is still seen all over the city, the Byzantine architecture, and the ridiculously good looking landscapes. 

I think it’s about time I explore more of Eastern Europe.

Communist History

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Byzantine Architecture

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Good Looking Landscapes

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Snapshot Memories of the Week: Dublin, Ireland

Snapshot memories is a new weekly series, giving a visual glimpse into different destinations and unique ways to view them. It’s also a way for me to look back on travels that occurred before and after I started this blog, and to give each place I’ve traveled the attention it deserves. 

This week my memories go back to Dublin.

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Dublin was a place I added on to my Europe trip last minute. I decided to do one of those bus around tours with a company called Topdeck, and I had about 5 days left over at the end of that trip and my flight home to California.

I’ve always wanted to visit Scotland and England, Scotland due to my heritage and England because there are so many historical and famous places I want to see (and music festivals I want to go to), but I only had 5 days, and I simply wanted to relax in a cool place at the end of my trip, not try and squish in a bunch of sightseeing and travel.

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That’s when I set my sights on Dublin, also a city I wanted to see, especially with its live music scene and vibrant drinking culture, it was sure to be a good time.

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After enjoying a chatty ride with the nice taxi driver from the airport, I managed to make friends fairly quickly my first night in the hostel. I had a cool Aussie roommate who I immediately got along with, and who introduced me to all of his friends in the hostel.

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My first night in Dublin we did a bit of bar hopping, checking out the live music to be found at most pubs and drinking pints of Guinness. I’ve never enjoyed Guinness outside of Dublin, but while I was there, it was the most delicious beer – scratch that – meal at the pub. There’s something magical about drinking Guinness in Ireland, and most notably Dublin where the Guinness factory is located.

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Instead of making any plans of all the sights I needed to see while I was there, I spent my days wandering around the city getting lost on the cobblestone streets, and taking in the medieval feel of the city, I even saw my first castle.

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I walked down Grafton Street to see all of the talented street musicians, I found Oscar Wilde’s memorial in Merrion Square and read a variety of his quotes I love so much, I wandered around the famous Trinity College, and walked over the historical Ha’penny Bridge.

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Even with the constant grey and dismal days the whole time I was there, I loved seeing the contrast in the colorful doors and pubs to be found around the city.

I only left the city once, when my Aussie roommate and I went on a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, also known as the edge of the world. Otherwise, I was content taking my time seeing Dublin, and finding a new band to listen to each night, or a new pub to drink Guinness in.

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If I had to describe Dublin, I would describe it by the medieval architecture, the endless nights of going to bars and seeing live music, and the contrast of grey and color you would find constantly around the city.

Dublin turned out to be just what I needed to say a proper temporary goodbye to Europe.

Medieval Architecture

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Bars & Live Music

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Contrast of Grey and Color

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Snapshot Memories of the Week: Paris, France

Snapshot memories is a new weekly series, giving a visual glimpse into different destinations and unique ways to view them. It’s also a way for me to look back on travels that occurred before and after I started this blog, and to give each place I’ve traveled the attention it deserves. 

This week my memories go back to Paris.

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Parieee!

I had wanted to go to the city of light since I was a little girl, enamored with Francophone culture. I didn’t end up taking French language lessons until I reached university level, but that only sparked my interest more, especially since my instructor was from Paris.

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I have to be honest, I didn’t have enough time to get a feel for the city as I would’ve liked, I only had a week at the start of my backpacking trip through the rest of Europe, and it went by far too quickly, especially with the long lines at most attractions in Paris during the summer.

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It rained the whole week I was there. From day 1, I arrived at my little hotel room and found the few warm clothes hiding in the crevices of my suitcase. After spending a month in humid Florence never needing more than a light cotton t-shirt, the weather was something to get used to a little further north.

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My first night I met up with one of my sorority sisters and a few of her friends from back in San Diego. We hit the town and I realized just how expensive a night in Paris can be. We went to a ritzy gay nightclub on Champs-Élysées called Le Queen that had a standard exorbitant entry fee that included a drink, and the same beat that played the whole night.

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Even though it was overpriced and repetitive, it turned out to be an incredible night. We stayed out dancing until 6am so that we could save money and catch the first train of the day home in the morning.

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The rest of my Parisian time wasn’t spent quite so extravagantly to the relief of my budget, but I still managed to squeeze in a lot with my time there.

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I saw the Louvre and the very tiny Mona Lisa, I stood next to the beautiful Notre Dame, I toured the Pompidou Museum, sipped Cappuccinos in Parisian cafes looking out at the rain, sat along the Seine, and learned how to use the extensive underground metro system.

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I found the best hidden kebabs in nondescript shops, stood under the Arc de Triomphe and discovered my favorite neighborhood in Paris is Montmartre, which gave me a chance to see the breathtaking Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, and brought me back to scenes from one of my favorite movies, Amélie.

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I went to a ridiculously good burlesque show, toured the city lights, drove past the Académie Nationale de Musique, where Phantom of the Opera was supposed to take place, and saw the Moulin Rouge from afar. I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower all lit up at night, and I tried escargot for the first time and french onion soup.

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I wish I had taken more pictures while I was there because there were so many character filled cafes (and way too many chocolate croissants that I ate), and so much beauty in the details of every day life in the city outside of just the standard attractions that every tourist and their mom goes to.

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But alas with the snapshot memories that I do have, the way I would remember paris is in Colorful Funky Artwork, the Elegant (mostly gothic) Architecture, and the Famous Historical Monuments I came across on a daily basis. I found it to be the city of light in a great many ways.

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Snapshot Memories of the Week: Florence, Italy

Snapshot memories is a new weekly series, giving a visual glimpse into different destinations and unique ways to view them. It’s also a way for me to look back on travels that occurred before and after I started this blog, and to give each place I’ve traveled the attention it deserves. 

This week my memories go back to Florence.

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Florence, Italy was pretty much everything I could’ve wanted out of a summer in Tuscany. There was history, glorious amounts of food and gelato, and even a fleeting romance.

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Coming from a Hollywood culture that glamorizes all things Italy (read: Under the Tuscan Sun), I kept my expectations low. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how my summer actually surpassed the previous expectations I held.

To sum it up in a word, it was an unforgettable summer.

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Sunset on the Arno River
Sunset on the Arno River

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It was the first time I was to travel on my own, I had just turned 21 and I was open and ready for all that Italy had to offer, whether that be in terms of the nightlife, the language, or the culinary class I attended every afternoon after a humid walk through the city.

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Culinary Class

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I was enamored from my first night in Florence, on a hot summer’s night, getting to know my new flatmates, and eating some of the best gnocchi I’ve tried in my life.

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I loved how the city lit up, how the language was spoken, and how much slower the way of life seemed to be – unless you were brought back to reality by a sudden speeding vespa.

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I climbed the Duomo, went out almost every night for my month long stay in the city, saw Michelangelo’s David up close and in person, and immersed myself in all things art and beauty.

I ate gelato once a day if not more, and I still didn’t get to all the flavors on hand, nor did I get to visit all of the numerous gelaterias there were to choose from.

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I found myself at secret bakeries in the wee hours of the morning devouring Nutella croissants, I became used to walking on cobblestones constantly, and realized pretty quick that if I went down a new street I was sure to stumble upon a great piece of art, a flirtatious or cheeky local to talk to, or a hidden family-run trattoria frequented by locals.

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photo cred: Molly Wascher

If you’re interested in seeing my first ever attempt at a travel blog and the thoughts of my 21 year-old self, here it is in the flesh, my summer traveling through Europe.

And a few of my favorite excerpts that I wrote specifically about Florence:

June 26th, 2011

Let me just begin by saying how much I am in love with Florence, literally IN LOVE with Florence. When we first walked into the city square I was speechless for a good few minutes, it was so incredible. The architecture, the lights, the live music coming from every corner, everything is so attractive here (and yes that includes the Italian boys).

I’ve decided to get married in Florence. I don’t know when, or to whom, but I am going to come back some day and get married in Florence. It is the most romantic place I’ve been to in my life.

Anyway, we started our night by walking around saying ciao to everyone we met along the way, eventually ending up in a little shop to share a bottle of wine. We took it to the steps of the duomo and started drinking wine under the shadow of the architecture and the Tuscan stars.

It wasn’t long before a couple of Italian boys came up and started talking to us, they invited us to come to the local discoteca a little ways down. It was an amazing night, I still can’t believe everything that went down. Old school hip hop, VIP corner with free champagne and fruit plates, lots and lots of Italians, partying til 3am. So exhausted today with all the orientations I had to go to for school, but it was so worth it.

Una notte del leone. More soon, ciao!

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July 18th, 2011

Things I’ve come to love in Italy:

-Hazelnut gelato.hazelnut gelato.hazelnut gelato….hazelnut gelato (oh, and Mango is a close second)

-Men in suits on vespas. hot.

-the cobblestone streets that I trip over on my way to school every day (it’s a love hate relationship)

-everyone drinking from open containers in public (Florence literally feels like a college campus during the summer at night)

-standing cappuccinos. And just cappuccinos in general.

-the Duomo steps (where every great night begins)

-the food. It’s funny, I actually didn’t eat that much Italian food back home before coming here, but when I’m here I feel like I’ll never get tired of pasta and such fresh deliciousness.

-my little apartment with pink walls and tiny appliances everywhere

-the language. I don’t care if I can’t understand it, it’s beautiful. It’s probably better I can’t in most cases when guys yell things at me on the street or I almost get run over (again) by a vespa and they yell something angry at me.

-“ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao ganzo ganzo ganzo” -Katie (my roommate) the pickup line she uses with all the Italians. It surprisingly works really well.

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July 5th, 2011

Last night was a kind of bittersweet missed moments kinds of night. It was fun celebrating Fourth of July in a foreign country, I only had one incident of anti-American sentiment, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying the American spirit. There was a huge concert going on in one of the Piazzas near the Duomo, people were packed close together two blocks straight every direction.

All of Florence, it seemed, was celebrating American independence.

It gave me this gushy feeling of togetherness, like maybe the world isn’t as screwed up as I think it is, and maybe everyone doesn’t hate Americans as much as I think they do. Most Italians I’ve talked to admit to thinking of us as drunk and loud but they actually really like us despite the stereotype.

The only downside of the night is how it didn’t turn out as we expected. One of my roommates was supposed to meet up with her Italian boy, it fell through. Another one of my roommates tried meeting up with an American boy and he ended up being an asshole about it…and then there’s me…well there wasn’t a fault on either side, just bad luck.

I was supposed to be on the steps of the Duomo at midnight but it started raining so we had to go into the nearest gelateria…and the club I had mentioned we were going to we only went to briefly because it was so barren last night. So, I have no idea if he came looking for me. I’d like to think so, but at this point I’m leaving it up to chance. If we meet again so be it. If not then I’m still loving life in Italy, it truly is amazing here.

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July 9th, 2011

As I was exploring more of the city on my way home from the Accademia I realized just how much I’m going to miss this place. This summer will forever be ingrained in my memory and I’m not even half-way through my trip yet.

The faint sound of the accordion player down the street every morning on my way to my favorite bar for my daily cappuccino, the historical buildings and statues that are around every corner; I never know what important monument I’ll come across when I walk out my door every day…

Last night, me and my friend from Ohio walked toward the Ponte S.Trinita overlooking the river. We climbed over the edge of the bridge to this triangular platform (another thing we probably weren’t supposed to be on) and took in the beauty of Florence, sitting over the river. It was absolutely beautiful. We both noted how we didn’t know how we were going to go back and live in the States after witnessing such a beautiful city like Florence. We just sat there for awhile, in peace with everything around us. I finally got home around 5 this morning, but it was so worth it. It was an amazing night.

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As you can see, I was completely and utterly enamored with Florence, I think I used the word “amazing” enough to prove that fact.

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photo cred: Lianne Enage
photo cred: Lianne Enage

I still think of Florence as my home away from home, and I still can’t believe how many good memories I have after only living there for a month.

This week my snapshots consist of art, food, architecture, and my many nights out on the town, because I found these things in abundance while I lived in this beautiful city.

Florence, I miss you like an old college roommate. I’ll come back for you someday.

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Nights Out

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Living the life of an American Abroad

Since the Fourth of July landed on a Thursday this year, I figured I would make my Throwback Thursday post about my first experience celebrating American Independence abroad in Italy, and in general what it means to be an American overseas when we don’t have the best reputation to begin with.

Stereotypes are commonplace in our society. They are an easy way for us to put places and people into organized categories. However, it does seem that Americans have more negative stereotypes than most, and to be fair there are definitely Americans I’ve met on my travels who have made me embarrassed about my nationality and do fit into the worst possible stereotypes, but there are so many more who don’t. That can be said for any nationality stereotype, I’m sure.

I think those who feel animosity and irritation towards the States tend to forget at times that all those judgements are generalizations, and each person you meet no matter what nationality is still going to be their own individual entity.

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There’s an ongoing “joke” that everyone hates Americans. It’s something that I nonchalantly grew up hearing in school in the States, something that I’ve always believed, and used to not really question because it was just a fact of the world. Even now, I still catch myself saying I’m Californian as opposed to American, when I’m abroad and someone asks me where I’m from, as if Californian has less of a negative connotation somehow.

When I was in Italy for American Independence Day, I was a little worried that it would just turn into a trash talking-fest of anti-American sentiment. Instead, there was a huge concert in one of the main piazzas, people were lined up for blocks on end, all in celebration of America. It gave me this gushy feeling of togetherness, like maybe this world isn’t as screwed up as I think it is, and maybe not everyone hates Americans as much as I think they do.

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I can understand the underlying resentments against Americans due to our history, our politics, Bush, our need to get involved in things internationally that we really shouldn’t be sticking our nose into. Our consistent issues with health and obesity, a great amount of plain ignorance, and our general ethnocentric attitude instilled in American society, especially when it comes to reporting world news and understanding what else is going on in the world besides just at home. Oh and of course, our lack of holding valid passports.

With that said, it’s a horrible thing to grow up feeling ashamed of your nationality, feeling that other people want you to be ashamed of calling yourself American. Traveling the world has caused me to face this head on, to take a step back and think of what it really means to be American, and in a way, to try and prove the judgmental naysayers wrong. It’s quite the task when you don’t find that many Americans to begin with on the backpacker trail, and all anyone has to rely on is the negative stereotypes, but I hope I’m proving at least a few of those stereotypes wrong.

Even just the other day I went into a bottle shop in Australia to buy a bottle of wine, and the Australian behind the counter asked me where my accent was from. I told him I was from California, and he replied that I should really tell people I’m from Canada because Australians like Canadians so much better. I get that kind of half joking banter constantly while I travel. Thankfully, I don’t take myself too seriously, so it’s usually just something I accept as I travel, that I just laugh off and make myself numb to, unless it’s said maliciously, in which case there is no way I will let it fly.

It’s an unsettling thing when people attack your nationality, because it’s not something that you should be ashamed of or that you can change. It’s something that you’re stuck with, like your personality, your appearance, and especially for Americans, it’s a part of who you are as a person.  

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When I was in Europe, there were a few cases of anti-American sentiment. One instance in Budapest, an old Hungarian man sneered something about stupid Americans at our group because the Irish girls at the front were talking a bit loud and animatedly. They told him they were Irish, and suddenly his scowl turned into a smile and he said thank god, well Irish is better at least. Me, being the only American in the group, completely quiet and hanging at the back watching all this go down, spoke up and let him know that I was American, thank you very much as I walked past.

What I always remember is that there will always be closed-minded and ignorant people in whatever country you travel, and if they want to categorize millions of people into one negative stereotype than that’s their issue. Although I’m not proud of a lot of aspects of my country’s past, and my nationality is something I’m constantly aware of when traveling abroad, I’m not ashamed to be American.

Now in Australia, it’s my 2nd time celebrating the Fourth overseas, so we’ll see how it pans out. It’s always strange celebrating a national holiday abroad, but as odd as it sounds, experiencing the Fourth of July in Italy changed the way I saw my nationality and how I believe outsiders to view it. It made me proud again to be an American, and to be thankful for my roots, my passion and pride that comes with being a Yank.

Adventuring to the edge of the world

Solo female travel in Ireland, Cliffs of Moher - Europe Travel

When I stepped off the plane in Dublin, I thought to myself, what have I gotten myself into? Traveling to Ireland all by my lonesome, not knowing anyone, and staying in a hostel by myself for the first time. These were the thoughts of impending doom swirling around in my head as I made my way closer and closer to the city, imagining my roommates were going to be some sort of coke addict junkies.

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When I arrived at the hostel, the door was locked. Apparently it was a buzz system, so the guy at the front desk had to buzz you in. He buzzed, I pulled. Nothing. He buzzed, I pushed, a little too late. Nothing. Finally, he buzzed a third time and I stumbled into the hostel. The gruff Irishman at the front desk barely looked up or acknowledged me; and I was a sight to see, with my glasses, volleyball sweatshirt, and hair matted down and frizzy from the plane ride.

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He had already marked me off as an annoying American, who clearly had no idea how to travel. I made my way to the desk, struggling with the suitcase, which I realized had become way too heavy in the last couple months of traveling through Europe, and somehow managed to trip over it and almost fall flat on my face. I caught myself, smiled, and told him my reservation. With what dignity I had left, I made my way to my room on the third floor, only to realize that the stairs were my only option after the elevator made it clear it wasn’t coming. I struggled with all the energy I had left to get my massive suitcase up the stairs and into my room. I looked around and sighed, knowing from the belongings splayed out on the bed, I would be living with guys.

Even with my instinctive initial prejudice, I lucked out with Aussie Tony. He was my roommate for the week, and he was an awesome guy to room with. We connected immediately with our love of music, he introduced me to the friends he had made in the hostel so far, and we all went out for an epic night of barhopping and live music our first night in Dublin.

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One of my favorite experiences in Ireland was when Tony invited me to come with him on a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, or the edge of the world as it’s fondly called. And believe it or not, it really does feel like the edge of the world. It was so windy when we jumped off the bus, but the beauty of where we found ourselves overcompensated for any discomfort from the piercing cold wind.

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We wondered around the cliffs, making sure to get to the best view on the other side of the “Do Not Go Beyond This Point” sign. Let’s be real, the best views are always where you’re not supposed to be.

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The edge of the world is definitely something to see and experience for yourself, I don’t think the pictures quite do it justice.

Finding a ruin bar in Budapest

There is so much to love about Budapest – except for it being the place where I experienced the most anti-American sentiment. I knew from researching the city beforehand that it would be one of my favorites in my journey through Europe. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve been to (Florence is still number one in my book), and I love that it’s an even more hipster alternative than Berlin. There’s a huge student population in the city, as well as very public displays of affection by the locals – the aftermath of living under the iron curtain of communism for so long is overflowing love in the present.

The thermal baths were glorious, except one incident where we accidentally wandered into the men’s changing room and were yelled at by an old Hungarian man. The architecture was lovely, and the history of both the Nazi and Soviet occupations was incredibly interesting and heartbreaking to learn about. Clearly, I loved the enchanting city of Budapest.

One of my favorite experiences in my whole trip through Europe was finding a ruin bar in Budapest. Ruin bars are the new thing for the young twenty-something indie crowd in Budapest. As the name suggests, they’re bars located in random ruins around the city. I gathered a group in the hostel, and asked if they wanted to go exploring with me to find one of these cool ruin bars.

The one we found our last night looked like it was an old communist house, it was awesome. Getting there was exactly how I had imagined, going down a closed off sketch street completely in rubble that smelled like piss, only to find an amazing bar in a dark corner of some random street in Budapest.

There were so many nooks and crannies, different rooms that had the most random and quirky decorations every direction I turned. There were four different bars, two outside, two inside, TV Screens playing random scenes, a DJ that only played off the chart chill indie music, hookah everywhere. At one point in the evening I was sitting in the front of an old car from the 60’s that was cut in half, the lesbian couple was in the back part of the car a few feet away from us.

 

I wouldn’t be able to tell you the name of the bar (they don’t really do labels), but still to this day, it’s the coolest bar I’ve ever been too. Similar to finding the secret bakeries in Florence, finding your own hidden ruin bar is the thing to do when you visit Budapest.

My experience visiting Auschwitz

The Holocaust.

I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank around the same age Anne was in the story, and experiencing an incredible amount of empathy for a girl who was my age, but had the misfortune of being born into the wrong place and time. I’ve seen most movies about the Holocaust, from Schindler’s List to The Pianist, and read more than a fair share of books on the subject, and I’ve realized that it is always going to be one of the many violent events in our history that I will never understand. It’s a subject that affects me with a great amount of sadness whenever I learn more about it, but it is also something that I think everyone should learn more about and pay their respects to.

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One of the more profound experiences I’ve had in my life was visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland.

It was an intense experience walking into all the barracks and streets of a place where so many horrors were witnessed. It was sickening that so many atrocities were allowed to take place, that all the murders, torture and experiments were kept so well hidden for so long. It was a lot to wrap my mind around, that we as humans could commit such things based on someone’s race, appearance and physical deficiencies. It really makes you think. There were a few in my tour group who couldn’t complete the tour, they had broken down into tears after seeing the shoes and human hair piled up in a case.

I feel like going to these types of places with a tour group can sometimes bring out the worst sides of fellow travelers. It no longer becomes a place where a tragic historical event took place, but just another place to take too many pictures of to post on Facebook, and to say that you’ve been there done that.

There were a few in my tour group who were actually taking pictures of the wall of human hair, who were posing and smiling in front of gas chambers. These were the same people who, instead of listening to the history behind the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, were running around and jumping on top of the memorial taking pictures of each other.

To each his own, but to me, that is such a disrespectful way to visit a memorial, to take a moment to cherish the lives of all those who died.

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Even though it was a sad day, I’m glad I was able to pay my respects. Walking out of Birkenau, after just seeing the remnants of what used to one of the largest gas chambers in existence, I coudn’t help but think how lucky I was that I was able to walk out of those gates and back to the bus, when so many people never got the chance to do the same. So many innocent people who never wanted anything more than to be able to see the other side of the gates that enclosed them until their death. The ride into Prague was a quiet one, everyone taking their own time to comprehend the extent of what we had experienced.

Yes, this was definitely one of the most profound  and sobering experiences I’ve had in my life.

Escaping from a salt mine in Krakow

As a way to incorporate my past travels that took place before I started this blog, I’ve decided to start Throwback Thursdays, where I’ll post about past adventures that I’ve had in other parts of the world.

I backpacked through Europe a couple years ago, and one of the most unique (and unsettling) experiences I had was exploring the salt mines in Krakow, Poland. Here is my take on the Medieval city.

Krakow, the land of cobblestones, horse drawn carriages and post offices in old school buggies. Honestly, I hadn’t heard much about Krakow before visiting, but I found myself enamored by the relatively small and historical city. My most notable story by far was exploring the salt mines, the oldest in the world and in operation for 700 years.

It was pretty amazing, discovering another city far beneath the earth. It’s seven levels altogether, the first level was about 400 steps down, we only made it to the 3rd level and that took 3 hours. It is a massive testament to the strength of human intellect and what we are capable of. I would not recommend going down there if you’re at all claustrophobic, however.

Once you get to the first level with a tour guide, it’s impossible to simply get out whenever you want. Part way through the tour, half of our group broke into a run to try and get to the elevators (a big no-no in the salt mine – and being that I was in the group that didn’t know about the plan to escape the salt mine, we were constantly left with the blame for the rest of the tour).

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Once our three hour tour was finished, it took another 45 minutes of waiting in lines for the two elevators that take you up to the top level in a swift 45 seconds. The elevator was another experience in itself, they squeeze eight people in a small lift with hardly any room to breathe, the only thing protecting you from falling far below are shaky wooden planks that you can see in between when you’re going up.

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I don’t think Poland is as big on safety requirements as the States. The lines themselves were a clear sign of that; hundreds of people were lined up in a small tunnel for almost an hour with no way to escape if there was an emergency. Thank god I survived to tell the tale. After spending much longer underneath the ground than we had originally planned, we went off to enjoy the rest of what Krakow had to offer for the day.

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It may not have a hundred famous sights as many of the other cities I’ve visited in Europe, but it has a charm about it that remindes me a lot of Florence, Italy (my favorite place in the world), especially the main square with street art and performers everywhere. Taking a taxi home that night, looking out at the city of Krakow, our driver started randomly blasting Backstreet Boys with the windows rolled down…yeah, Krakow is pretty sweet.

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La Bella Vita

From the time I was very little, I can remember looking up at the sky every time a plane would fly over me on my daily walk to school. I would imagine where the people in it were going, what adventures lay ahead for them. Every time I would see an airplane in the clear blue California sky, I would make a promise to myself that someday it would soon be me on my own adventures. It became a promise that structured my whole life around when I could travel next. It began with a two week backpacking trip through Costa Rica as a graduation present to myself the summer after high school. When choosing a University to attend, the study abroad programs had a significant impact on my decision. My dream was to study abroad in college, the only problem was deciding where exactly I was going to go; I wanted to go everywhere. When it came down to it, I chose go to culinary school in Florence, Italy to learn the ways of Italian cooking, and to ultimately learn about Italian culture as a whole through their love of food.

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Living in Italy, I tasted some of the best food of my life, but there was more to it than that. The food is their culture. The family is centered around meals, bringing people together in a way that I’ve never seen in any other culture. It is completely contrary to the American way of life of constantly eating on the go; many modern families don’t even have the time to eat together anymore. A dinner in Italy is multi-course, including hours upon hours of talking, drinking wine, and eating fresh homemade food. Moreover, it’s not just in the immediate family where food brings people together. Each time I would walk into an eating establishment, I was welcomed in an affectionate manner, almost as if I was being welcomed into their home as a house guest. To be honest, that connection was not far from the truth, as I tried to eat mainly at family owned trattorias.

Florentines pride themselves on their food and the history behind it as much as their culture, because in many ways they are one and the same. My teacher at culinary school was one of the most passionate people about food that I have ever met. After every meal we would cook in our three hour span of class time, we would sit down and discuss the importance of that dish to the region from which it originated, and describe how every region in Italy is respectively proud of their food specialities. We can see why cuisine is so tied to Italian culture through how long it took for Italy to be reunited as one country. As a loose collection of regions, the food and dialect were the aspects that made one region unique from another. In this way, food gives a sense of regional and national pride in a united country that is known for its food.

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One of my favorite moments involving the culture of food in Italy was my first night in Florence, eating in view of the campanile. I had the most exquisite gorgonzola gnocchi. My meal, combined with the chilled pinot grigio and good company, gave me pause to reflect; so this is the epitome of Italian culture, taking pleasure in the simple things of life. The mentality that surrounds you in Italy is that the little pleasures in life are just as important (if not more so) than the practicalities one has to think about on a daily basis. I basked in that Tuscan night, hot but pleasant, taking it all in with my new roommates, who were just as enamored with the city as I was. That night is one of my favorite memories; I had never felt so at home in a new place as I did that evening, I knew everything was going to be alright.

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My Tuscan summer will forever be ingrained in my memory. You can read about these places all you want, but I now realize that you don’t fully know a thing about it until you can actually feel the city, hear the faint sound of the accordion player down the street every morning on my way to my favorite bar for a standing cappuccino, look at the colorful gelaterias on every block, hear the Italian like rapid fire being yelled by a mother scolding her son, or seductively spoken by the amorous couple sitting next to you in the piazza. You can feel the presence of the city everywhere: it’s so alive; it makes me happy to be so young, so malleable and open minded to the experience. I can still smell the pizza around the corner of my little apartment, and see the welcoming smiles of the Italian family as I walk in the door to my favorite restaurant. That is what Italian culture means to me. That is what makes me nostalgic and convinced that one day I will come back to a summer in Tuscany to experience it all over again.

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