It has been awhile since I made a blog post, but in my defense, it has been a very busy semester. Since my last post, I have substantially increased my traveling which includes: Lisbon, Portugal; Madrid, Spain; Oslo/Tonsberg/Skien, Norway; Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; and Athens/Santorini, Greece. The last six cities I visited during a whirlwind 12-day trip with a friend from the States. I have called this post ¨Dos Mochilas¨, meaning two backpacks, because it represents my existence as both a University student and an adventurer. This is one of the greatest challenges that students who are abroad face. There is a conflict between the desire to explore and experience but also our duties to our studies. The following is an intermingling of my adventures and pro tips about travel.
Lisbon // Portugal
Lisbon wasn´t on my list of places to explore, but I went because I had a friend studying abroad there for the semester. My trip to Lisbon couldn´t have come at a better time. It was the weekend after midterms and I was under a lot of stress and was doubting myself. It was only a month and a half into the semester and I felt unsuccessful. All my other classmates had been traveling while I was staying in Barcelona. I didn´t know if I can travel by myself and was worried about not finding friends to travel with. Going to Lisbon refreshed my faith in myself.
I stayed in a hostel for the first time in my life and met amazing people and friends. The city of Lisbon is beautiful. My favorite part about visiting a place is walking around and finding my way without a map. Lisbon is a very hilly city, so there are many lookouts over the water and city itself. As I was walking to the famous castle, I heard music from a small shop and walked in to find an incredible view over the city and an older Portuguese man who did not speak English or Spanish, but we still tried to communicate. He gave me an informational pamphlet about how the neighborhood of Alfama is working on revitalization. The windows of his shop were two huge arches lined with yellow and blue mosaic tiles that Lisbon is known for. Instead of continuing my original path to the castle, I walked through the neighborhood of Alfama and do not regret it. I found gorgeous overlooks, buildings, gardens and murals. I felt like I was walking with the people of Lisbon instead of the tourist destinations. I probably walked 15 miles that day but regret nothing.
Pro tip: Walk the city and walk to your destinations instead of taking the metro. I could have used the metro in Lisbon and arrived at my destinations much faster, but I would have never found that shop or found my way through Alfama. I never did visit the St. George castle, but I found something better.
Madrid // Spain
Madrid did not make a very good impression on me. I went with my program where we were always waiting around (30 minutes to 2 hours) to do something and it rained almost the whole weekend. I booked this trip with the IES program because I thought it would be more organized, but wish I would have gone on my own. Despite these drawbacks, I loved the museums of El Prado and La Reina Sofia and the architecture when it wasn´t raining. I also visited with two friends who were studying in Madrid and it was great to see them.
Pro tip: You will be tempted to book pre-planned trips because they are easier. Don´t do it. Traveling is about learning how to navigate a new place on your own and about discovery. Do your research and ask locals about the best places to go, but don´t let someone else plan. There are a couple of exceptions where it is better to go with a group, but Madrid is not one of them.
Oslo/Tonsberg/Skien // Norway
Of all of my travels, Norway is the place that people gasp with envy. Since I am studying in southern Europe, it is unusual to make it to northern Europe, especially Scandanavia. Other than the stunning views, I traveled to Norway to visit with family who lives there and to ski. I have been Nordic skiing (also called cross country skiing) since I was 3 or 4 years old and it has been a dream of mine to ski in Norway. I was able to ski not only once, but twice! I skied with my Uncle near their farm and on the famous Holmenkollen trails of Oslo that stretch for thousands of kilometers (over 2,600 google tells me)! I went to the top of the ski jump and snuck into the ski arena to watch the Biathlon World Cup races. Interesting foods that I ate include: whale, elk, and reindeer. Also, despite visiting in mid-March there were multiple feet of snow still on the ground. We would pass by cars that were completely buried in snow!
Pro tip: Take the time to visit with family. While people were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland or partying a lot wherever they were, I was in Norway with family and skiing in the woods. I would argue that my experience was more memorable.
Paris // France
Everyone always talks about how amazing Paris is and that you need to visit. My honest opinion is that it’s overrated. The French people do not like people who do not speak French, the city is very expensive and spread out. Even though Barcelona is very large, it is still walk-able, and I love that. Paris was the first stop my friend and I made as we traveled to 6 cities in 12 days. Thankfully she is fluent in French, so the people were nice to us. Besides the drawbacks, Paris was wonderful. My friend and I had a picnic below the Eiffel tower and took pictures at the Louvre with our Mona Lisa socks. People thought it was hilarious that we had Mona Lisa socks and encouraged us to lift our legs up higher to take pictures with her! Since we only had two days for each city, we would fit in as much as we could the first day and then do whatever was leftover the second day, which often included relaxing in a park or exploring a neighborhood. My favorite was walking around Notre Dame to find a place to eat. We came upon a man making crepes outside of a restaurant and bought crepes from him. We ate them by the river while listening to distant music and later found flower shops. We stopped to smell the flowers.
Pro tip: Bring your student ID and passport to all the museums because you can get in for free.
Pro tip: Don´t sleep in the Orly airports (West nor South) or at least bring lots of layers because they turn off the heat during the night. The Athens airport is great to sleep in (we slept there twice). Athens has lots of benches without armrests, so you can lay down during the night and they let you into the terminals. Make sure to bring ear plugs and an eye mask for the very loud Jazz music that starts at 3am.
Berlin // Germany
Berlin was a very somber city. Important to visit, but not to stay in my opinion. The food was amazing. We had slept in the airport the night before (See tips above, it’s not as bad as you think). We arrived in the city at 9am and were surprised to find out how close together everything is and within walking distance. The stereotype that the Germans are efficient and on time is true. Berlin was the only city we encountered rain, which brought us to a great restaurant. We ate a lot of good sausage and the famous currywurst (which I´ve heard is not German at all, but you still find it everywhere and you should eat it). The most interesting part of the city to me was around Checkpoint Charlie. I thought it would be an actual building, but instead was just a photo with two soldiers on either side. As you enter this area, you encounter many more American fast food restaurants like McDonalds and KFC. There are also soldiers stationed at the checkpoint for photos and I am not sure if they are real soldiers or not.
My favorite place that we visited was the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall. It stretches for 1316m and the murals are incredible. Some address political and social issues while others are simply beautiful to look at. See below for a photo of a beautiful section.
Pro tip: Go to the historical places. Berlin is not exactly a fun city, but it is important in the history of Europe and the world. Traveling is not always about having fun in places, but also about learning.
Prague // Czech Republic
My favorite thing about Prague is the architecture. All the buildings are different and beautiful. Since we visited during Semana Santa (week of Easter), there were lots of markets throughout the city and everything was decorated for the festivals.
The difference of how we arrived in Prague and how we left Prague was vastly different. We arrived in Prague via a bus and struggled to figure out the metro to get to our hostel. They do not use euros in the Czech Republic and the metro ticket machines only accepted coins (they were very low-tech). We had to exchange our money for the local currency and thankfully were not ripped off like we have been warned happens a lot (avoid the exchange stores that are orange or have a Western Union sign posted. These places sometimes take up to 40% commission when they advertise 0%). We made it to the hostel to find out that the desk had closed at 6pm and they were not answering their 24-hour phone line they claimed to have. Although I am a very stressed out person, in this situation I was strangely calm. I thought of all of the worst-case situations and we were far from that. We went across the street to use the KFC wifi to book a new hostel and went there with no problems.
Other great things we did include: walking tour around the city, John Lennon wall, visited the castle with the St. Vitus Cathedral (the most beautiful building I have ever seen, and I currently live in Barcelona). I did not go into the Cathedral, but I can imagine it is incredible. Ate at the restaurant called Kolkovna where I ate too much amazing food.
Pro tip: Go to Prague. Prague is the best. The city is always alive, and the architecture is incredible. Eat at Kolkovna restaurant and get the Bohemian platter to share between 2-3 people. My mouth is still watering thinking about it.
Pro tip: If you mess up your hostel, just book another one. You´ll figure it out. Also, always screenshot your information or directions because you never know when the wifi will be spotty.
Pro tip: Try to always pay in the local currency. Even though they accept euros, they end up adding on a euro because you are confused from the transaction rate. Also, you will almost always receive change back in the local currency, so only break big bills if you know you will spend more in the country.
Budapest // Hungary
After having just traveled to Prague, my traveling partner and I kept confusing the two cities. Although Prague was my favorite, Budapest was hers. We arrived at night like we did in Prague and I loved seeing all of the historical buildings lit up at night. Our first day we did another walking tour around the city. Our tour guide was hilarious and here are some crazy fun facts we learned about Budapest: the city was founded by the son of a woman who became pregnant by a hawk in her dreams; they have a statue of a man named Uncle Charlie who was a national womanizer; and the hand of the much-loved ruler St. Stephan naturally mummified and is on display in St. Stephan´s Cathedral.
We also went to the famous Szechenyi host springs. The outdoor spring is huge and great, but the indoor springs (there are 12 total) smell horrible like sulfur. But I guess that is what to expect when they are natural hot springs.
Pro tip: Go to the bridges a night. Also go to the top of the St. Stephans cathedral and bring your student ID for a reduced price (1E difference, but still). There was this one view that we really liked and were taking pictures at, but this woman kept standing there filming something. Hence my ridiculous photo.
Pro tip: Eat the langos but share it with someone. Langos is a food famous in Budapest. It is made of fried dough, sour cream and cheese. Absolutely delicious, but very filling. I don’t like to waste food so clearly, I ate my whole langos (which was not a great idea in reality because we went to the hot springs afterwards).
Athens // Greece
Athens is full of markets, however, the only thing I really wanted was an olive wood spoon for cooking. Thanks to my educated travel companion, I learned all about the spoons. Such as: they do not use the wood of the tree until the tree has stopped producing olives, the wood is basically indestructible, and they use a diamond cutter to cut the wood for products. I talked with the shop owner where I bought my spoon and found out that they are also dishwasher safe and no sauce will ever soak into them (for those who are chefs, you have probably seen how sauces soak into your wooden spoons. This seems gross and not sanitary to me). The tree and shop where my spoon is from a Greek island called Paros and the owner was kind enough to show me where on the map this island exists. They also coat their cutlery in olive oil. I am very excited to cook with my Greek spoon!
Other places that we visited include: the Acropolis which has a lot of the famous temples like the Parthenon, Hadrian´s arch, a cool park with very noisy peacocks and the markets.
Pro tip: Visit the flea market. Barter with the owners. Do not buy the jewelry even when they tell you it is sterling silver, it isn´t (my friend´s finger turned green from her ring).
Pro tip: Don´t buy the combo ticket at the Acropolis. It isn´t worth it.
Santorini // Greece
Santorini is one of those places I never thought I would go. You see it in movies with the white buildings and blue-domed churches (there are a million of them, all beautiful). If you want to get to the famous blue-domed church it is on the northern part of the island in a city called Oia (pronounced EE-a). We were looking for it and stumbled on it by accident! I tend to wander to places that look pretty, and it happened to be one of my tangents. It is a famously hard place to find. We walked around the area to the very tip of the island where there is ruins of a building and watched donkeys carry plaster and cement up the cliffs. We also went to the other tip of the island to the lighthouse and found a random swing of the side of the road where, naturally, we pulled over to swing.
Other places we visited include: black beach, red beach, El Greco restaurant (food pictured) where we got a platter of the traditional food. Fun facts about the beaches is that they are more pebbles than sand because they are made from broken down volcanic rock. Santorini is the rumored site of Atlantis and the whole island is a volcano.
Pro tip: Splurge the money. I am a very frugal person who prefers to save my money, but my friend convinced me to rent an ATV to get around the island. It was a once in a lifetime experience and strangely my parents were cool for it.
Pro tip: Don’t used a taxi before 7am because it will cost you an extra 8 euros to get from the airport to your destination. The bus doesn’t start up until 7:30am and is unreliable. Overall, just rent the ATV or a car if that’s what you prefer because the public transportation is not great.