Paris

After pulling an all nighter in Lisbon all I wanted upon arriving in the city of love was to sleep. I checked myself into my hostel, went up to my 14 person room, and attempted to pass out for the forceable future. I made friends with my dorm mates who were present and then became very aware that my lofty plans of grabbing a bottle of wine across the street and going to be early were simply not in the cards. Therefore friday night in Paris we rounded up everyone who was interested in going out, and set off. 

Our merry band was made up of two Americans, three English girls, two Kiwis and an Aussie. As we walked to the metro in order to reach our destination, I was peppered with questions from the Brits asking about American boys and whether or not college parties were really like they are in the movies, which was rather endearing to be honest. We got off at Blanche and discovered that our clubbing destination for the night was in Montmartre right next to the infamous Moulin Rouge. We danced most of the night and stumbled back to our hostel at 5:30 the next morning.

After sleeping in the next day I wandered out to see the sights! it was a gorgeous day, which I had been informed was a rarity for the week, and I walked down to the Seine. I came upon a large carnival near the Louvre where food was actually affordable, a rarity in Paris, and enjoyed seeing the attractions before moving on. My objective for the day was to visit the D’orsay (I knew that there was no way I’d get through the Louvre) however I got a bit sidetracked because there were some amazing street performers set up at the entrance, so instead of seeing the impressionists I sat and listened to a jazz piano and clarinet duo set fire to the streets.

From there I wandered along the weaving Seine and enjoyed a street fair that had popped up to accompany a film festival. Now Paris is a rather large and sprawling city, so night was falling by the time I walked to the Eiffel Tower which dominates the skyline for miles before you actually come to it. It’s was as large and metallic as I had expected, but it still prompted the ‘Pinch me to let me know that I’m really here’ reflex. 

The next day was far gloomier but I dressed warmly and attended the international Mass held at Notre Dam, then went and got yelled at for taking pictures in the D’orsay.

Monday morning was equally bleak as far as the weather goes, but it was the day I had waited for for many years. Back in middle school I was quite the Francophile and always wanted to be in Paris for Bastille Day, which is July 14th. I got up and walked to Montmartre (conveniently located through the Arab district so I was able to get some street Melwi), and climbed the hill to see the panoramic view of Paris. After that I toured the Opera house, which was rather appropriate for me due to the fact that The Phantom of the Opera has been my favorite movie since I was twelve.

Around seven I went to find a place on the Eiffel Tower lawn and watch the fireworks that were not set to commence for several hours. It was a good thing that I went so early because there was scarcely room for one person to sit down. However, I did manage to find a seat and promptly made friends with some American girls who were sitting nearby. The fireworks were spectacular, utilizing the tower itself in the show and blasting both patriotic anthems and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in what is arguably the most diverse firework show I have ever witnessed. I honestly couldn’t imagine a better last night in Europe. 

Lisbon

I had arrived for a music festival called Optimus Alive a few days early so that I could explore the city that so many had called “The San Francisco of Europe” and after an eight hour bus ride, all I wanted to do was eat dinner and go to bed. This was not to be, however.

I was sitting out in the hostels courtyard enjoying the nice night and struck up conversation with three English guys sitting nearby. As fate would have it they, and a few friends, were in town for the same festival and staying in the hostel until then. As we talked and waited for their friends to arrive I kept reiterating my plans to go to be early, which were generally met with distain. Soon enough the perfectly manageable group of three, tripled and I found myself wandering around downtown Lisbon with nine rowdy Englishmen at midnight.

Thus, on and off for the rest of the week I found myself playing Wendy Darling to the Derby Boys.

I wandered around Lisbon the next day taking in the sites and enjoying the fact that one can get a sangria for two euros in pretty much any restaurant you choose. That night we all decided to go to the main square where there was a large screen set up and watch the Germany vs. Brazil game. I was determined to pull for the Western Hemisphere and was therefore rooting for Brazil, while all the boys were pulling for Germany. 

Now I had been slightly antagonistic earlier in the evening about how slow soccer is and how it always takes forever for someone to score… and of course that would be the game where Germany scored seven times. I never heard the end of it. After the game the square turned into a massive dance party for as long as the kegs held out, which definitely made the humiliating defeat a little easier.

The beaches in Portugal are different from the ones that I am more accustomed to in a few ways. They are far more crowded and they are ˆcold. So cold. My Southern blood is simply not used to the Atlantic Ocean being less than 70 degrees! Other than that they were rather nice, and I got some good sunning in.

Finally the day of the Festival arrived. I checked out of my hostel, bought some travel food and locked my backpack into a locker at the train station. I got in and began the long wait in the hot sun to see some of my favorite bands, particularly The Lumineers, Imagine Dragons, and the Arctic Monkeys. One thing that I discovered about concerts- they’re not as much fun alone. Fate was on my side however and when I was at The 1975 I saw a 6’4 Ginger who I recognized as my friend Bomber and was thus reunited with my friends. The rest of the night was amazing, and at the end I said my goodbyes as they headed back to the campsite (the festival continued for two more days) and I got on a train at 4:30 am to the airport.

Madrid

My arrival in Madrid was accompanied by tens of thousands rainbow banners and men in hot pants. Unintentionally I was there for Spain’s largest Gay Pride festival, which effected my stay in two ways-

1) I was never without entertainment for the night

2) ALL the hostels were booked and I had to move every single day

It was absolutely worth it hassle.

The first place I stayed was near the Centro plaza and therefore conveniently located for walking to the tourist attractions. Luckily for me Madrid was unlike most other capitol cities in Europe in that everything worth seeing is tightly packed in to the center. 

I visited the Cathedral, the Palace and the Post office, with the post office being the grandest of the three surprisingly. But again my favorite thing to do was wander the streets and through the parks just breathing in the city.

San Sebastian

I cannot reasonably express just how beautiful the costal town of San Sebastian is. Mountains drop off into the ocean while ships are anchored in the cove where the city resides. Gorgeous vistas and an amazing sunset were what greeted me on my first night in Spain. And the next three days it rained.

Some people just have all the luck in that respect I suppose, but I was now two for two on beach towns welcoming me via deluge. Regardless, it was a lovely town where I met many lovely people (mostly Australians for some reason) with quite an active nightlife.

La Rochelle

The weather in Nantes had been pretty bad and ended up following me to the coastal city of La Rochelle. I arrived at my hostel resembling a drowned rat as I had forgotten my umbrella in the car that had given me a ride between the towns. The place that I was staying decided to host a cookout in spite of the rain and I helped to earn my keep (and the free food) by assisting with the set up. A lot of locals who were clearly all well acquainted showed up and it was nice to interact with people other than just fellow travelers.

The next day I decided to walk to the beach since it was finally a nice day. La Rochelle is largely a harbor city, however there are two small beaches that are popular with the locals. Unfortunately, I am accustomed to the Atlantic ocean after it has been warmed significantly by southern waters and couldn’t handle the temperature that everyone else seemed to enjoy. The wind was also quite strong making a great day for the numerous sailboats, but not quite so conducive to seaside sleeping.

The city center of La Rochelle is largely pedestrian with food carts and artisan booths open any day of the week. Walking around the enjoyable atmosphere I could spot many foreigners such as myself mixed in with the local color. It has a very sophisticated vibe for such a touristy place with winding cobblestone streets and large medieval towers marking the harbor entrance, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Nantes

The capital of Brittany was my next stop. Especially after visiting Fourgeres and hearing some of the history of the region I was excited to get to visit Nantes. I only spent one full day there, but I got as much of the experience as I possibly could. 

The Chateau was free to the public so I went and walked those ramparts as many school groups ran around the courtyard and moat park having picnic lunches. There was a small hedge maze that I got to wander around (and by “wander around” I mean pretend that I was looking for the Triwizard Cup) before I went to the Nantes Cathedral. 

It’s always very interesting to me when I visit the grand churches in Europe that you can almost always tell immediately whether or not they were bombed in the second world war. Not by the structural reconstruction which is usually pretty seamless, but by the windows. In the case of the Nantes Cathedral, half of the Nave was blown apart while the rest survived and in order to commemorate this the windows that were lost were replaced by abstract patterns of stained glass as opposed to biblical representations. This was not the first time I’d seen a church with this particular style of half preserved half modern glass.

In Nantes, someone decided to build a giant steampunk Elephant that tourists can ride. I have no idea why, but it’s there. Honestly it is a work of art in and of itself and the scale brings to mind Tolkien’s Oliphaunts in an interesting way. 

All in all, Nantes was a quiet city with many large parks and pockets of tranquility. 

Fougeres and Mont Saint Michel

After arriving in France, I spent one night in a pretty little coastal town called Cherbourg after which I promptly made my way further south to the city or Rennes. Once there I met with a lovely woman who was more than willing to show me around the region of Brittany, including the most important towns to visit. As it turns out I didn’t spend very much time in the city save to sleep.

My first day I took a bus to the town of Fougeres which is home to the largest Medieval castle in Europe. I started my meandering in the town proper which is situated on the top of a mountain, then slowly went through public gardens and gorgeous churches down to the Chateau nestled in the valley. The town was lovely and exactly what one would expect from a small French village right down to the cobblestones, but it was clear that the main attraction for the town was the massive castle which played a large role in the unification of France along with being home to the regional fairytale character Melusine. 

After crossing the drawbridge that allowed one to pass the moat and enter the fortress, I wandered through the various towers and along the ramparts to view the defensive arrow slots. It felt like I was walking around a movie set, but every so often there would be a description of the history of the place to remind one that “Oh yea. This is actually a real castle.” 

My favorite part of the tour was their retelling of the story of Melusine, for whom a tower is named. According to the legend Melusine was cursed for practicing her magic recklessly to become half serpent on the weekends, however she is still able to keep her powers. One day she meets a knight who falls in love with her and they are married. She uses her magic to give him everything from land to riches- only with the caveat that he can’t see her on Saturdays. One day his curiosity gets the better of him and he sees her in her serpent form. She is so furious that he has broken her rule that she turned into a dragon and flew away, only returning to bring bad news.

The next day I went to Mont Saint Michel which is home to a very famous Abbey built into a mountain that becomes an island during high tide. Getting out there was interesting as there is currently quite a bit of construction in order to make the town more accessible for tourists- therefore making it harder. The Abbey was gorgeous with amazing views of the Normandy coastline from the courtyard. Unfortunately it was a bit overcast and raining on and off for my visit, but I did get to see the noontime mass, hearing the monks and nuns singing the cantor was worth the price of admission.

Stonehenge

You may or may not be aware, but there are only two nights a year when the general public is allowed to be among the massive pillars of Stonehenge. It is a protected heritage site and officials are worried about general wear and tear, however it is also considered a sacred religious site for many pagans and druids throughout Europe, so on the Solstice in December and again in June admission is free to all who wish to come and witness the rites.

It’s also a popular night for hippies to come and play in drum circles on the shortest night of the year.

In one of my London hostels I met a girl named Nadia who had also heard about the festival and was planing on attending. We had agreed to meet up, but didn’t follow through with a meeting point so imagine my surprise when I ran into her on my way to get in line for the bus! She and her friend Rachel were rather close to the front so I happily joined in with them and climbed aboard the double-decker bus headed for the stones.

After sitting a forty minute traffic jam, we arrived as the sun was setting. As we were walking in I noticed someone with a rather impressive camera stoping every few minutes to turn around, so I looked to see the amazing skyline that we were walking away from. A few minutes later, Rachel, Nadia’s friend, asked to take a picture with on of the generators because it said “Power Electronics” which is her major. After a bit of an awkward exchange, we were laughing about it when the guy with the camera from earlier came up saying “Sorry, but I have to ask… Why DID you take a picture with that light?” As it turned out his name was Jon and he had come in from London on a whim. Thus our merry band of three became four.

Upon finally arriving at the Stones, we all kind of scattered to take as many pictures as we could before the sun went down and the crowds made it impossible. The sunset was incredible, with the sun itself turning into a pink ball floating on the horizon. During that time we met a girl named Bethan who led us to a group of people who were far more prepared than we, with blankets and a clearly marked nest of things. It is incredible how jovial and friendly everyone was. Naturally there were a few drunk college guys, but for the most part it was just 30,000 people looking to celebrate summer and each other in a fun and lighthearted atmosphere. Making friends was easy.

I enjoyed walking around taking pictures of some of the characters that were present, and listening to the rites and rituals of those here to celebrate religiously. As night fell, my wandering decreased but the drum circles became more and more prominent. I honestly believe that there was not one moment from sunset to sunrise that a drum was not being played. Around one thirty the chill began to set in, so our group of misfits huddled together for warmth for the next few hours until dawn appeared fresh and rosy fingered.

After such an amazing sunset, the sunrise was a long time in coming. The sky had lightened a full hour before actual daybreak, but it was definitely worth the wait. Legend has it that on the Summer solstice there is a specific stone that aligns with the sunrise, however I was lucky to even be next to the circle, those who were inside had been waiting in there all night. After the sun made its first appearance a massive cheer went up over the crowd for the official arrival of Summer. However, once it was fully in the sky, the spell was broken and everyone began the long walk back to civilization.

It was definitely an amazing experience that I will never forget, and if I ever have the chance to go again I will do so in a heartbeat.

Cardiff

After living the London lifestyle, (aka having to spend so much money on food you can’t do anything else) I decided to take a bus and visit the Welsh capital of Cardiff. The first major difference I noticed was the weather. Where London had been blustery on and off, Cardiff was gorgeous with blue skies and a perfect breeze.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest however, my main reason for visiting is because I, as some of you may know, am a huge nerd. I have a deep love for many different aspects of nerd pop culture, including Doctor Who. Since Cardiff is one of the chief filming locations for the BBC, they have set up something called the Doctor Who Experience which is this really cheesy interactive walkthrough adventure followed by a museum of all the old props. I loved it. Sitting and having Daleks scream at you before being shuffled into a forest that just happens to be inhabited by weeping angels and then having to help the Doctor get back to the Tardis? Who wouldn’t geek out over that?

The exhibit afterwards was actually really interesting, being a theatre nerd myself I could really appreciate the costuming details and the different props used. I walked around the Roald Dahl Pass and Mermaid Quay afterwards and window-shopped.

Upon returning to my hostel I met up with some people who wanted to find a pub to watch the second England game. Luckily for us, nobody in Wales really cared about the outcome (there were a few fans, but hardly dominant) so the poor showing on Englands part didn’t put a damper on the rest of the evening. The nightlife in Cardiff is actually quite active so we enjoyed the rest of our time.

London

London was a bit of an exhausting adventure for me. I traveled from quiet and idilic Bruges to the bustling metropolis that makes up England’s capital- and I didn’t have a bed. My first scheduling mistake for this entire trip just happened to be on the day that my host country was playing their first game in the Cup, which meant that everyone and their cousin were in the capital to watch the match. Unfortunately for me I thought I had booked for Saturday and Sunday nights, but as it turned out I had reserved for Sunday and Monday night. Once I realized my mistake, and that any of the available beds were going to be astronomically priced, I found a place to store my luggage for the night and resolved to simply stay out and celebrate England’s inevitable win over Italy. 

I went to Piccadilly Circus in the SoHo region assuming that it would be broadcast there, and when eleven o’clock rolled around I -along with about three hundred others- was surprised to find that the largest screen in the city wasn’t playing the game! A great scattering occurred after as everyone desperately tried to find a bar with a large enough tv to stand outside the window and press your nose to the glass. My final destination was a place called “The Round House” where I was able to pack in enough to lean against a table. 

Energy was high and people were very drunk, especially once the score tied up. I was really looking forward to just bar hopping and enjoying the festivities of a Saturday night in London… and then they lost. The game was over at one, the bar was closed by one twenty, and I was left sitting int McDonalds (the only place still open, and overflowing with disappointed brits) with nothing to do with the next five hours. Everything was closed, so I ended up wandering around Westminster until going and sitting in a train station. As soon as I could retrieve my luggage I went to my hostel, checked in and slept in the common area until my room was ready.

After waking from my much needed nap, I set about wandering around the city. I walked around Westminster by day and saw Big Ben, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace- with Big Ben being the most exciting of the three for me. There is just something so surreal about seeing such and iconic monument, it almost makes you giddy. I went down to the Tower of London and saw the drawbridge go up on the Tower Bridge, so all in all I hit most of the touristy London things. 

In the city there are bicycle stands where you can rent a bike for unlimited half hour rides over a 24 hour period for only 2 pounds, which is quite a deal considering one trip on the tube costs close to 5, so that was how I chose to get around. Now most of the time this was a great quick way to get around, I just grabbed a bike and off I went. The only time I really ran into difficulty was on my last trip, when I had my 20 lbs backpack and my 5 lbs boots on my feet. Now generally I consider myself to be in good shape, I’ve been walking everywhere I go in Europe, hiking in Germany, etc. As it turns out, I’m not. I found myself huffing and puffing up the slightest hills and trying my hardest just to make it to my destination on time. 

In the end, London was really fun but very expensive. Big shock, I know. The thing that really gets you is the size of the city. Most places that I have been you can conceivably walk from one side to the other in two or three hours. London is so unfathomably large that I have no idea how long it would take. I do have some great memories however, including watching the USA vs. Ghana game in the hostel bar and wining a bet with an Australian who had the nerve to doubt my arm. He had to sing Enrique Inglasias for karaoke.

sonofsteeldaughterofair:

Happy Solstice everyone! #stonehenge #sunrise #summersolstice #festival #travel #backpacking #beautiful #eurotrip  (at Stonehenge)

sonofsteeldaughterofair:

Happy Solstice everyone! #stonehenge #sunrise #summersolstice #festival #travel #backpacking #beautiful #eurotrip (at Stonehenge)

Bruges

I arrived in Bruges after spending about three hours in Brussels and deciding that I didn’t want to be in Brussels anymore- a decision I most certainly did not regret. As soon as I got off the train, I met three English guys who were staying in the same hostel. (Generally speaking, when you’ve been traveling as long as I have you can spot your wandering brethren easily.) We sat in the hostel bar and talked for awhile before being able to check into our rooms. 

You may or may not be familiar with the movie “In Bruges” but it is more or less accurate to what I experienced during my visit, in essence- a beautiful medieval city with cobbles stone streets and canals filled with swans that makes you feel like your living in a fairytale. (However, to my knowledge no dwarves were harmed while I was there.) I was easily entertained by walking around the small city and taking picture after picture of the canals and churches there while occasionally sticking my head into the Belgian chocolatiers in order to get a free sample. At night (well, six o’clock. It didn’t actually get dark until 10:30) however, the main part of the city rolled up the sidewalks and the people headed to the few pubs in town. Conveniently for me and my new friends, one of the most popular spots in the city was actually the hostel bar!

This was where I ended up watching the first game of the world cup, in a hostel bar whose design aesthetic I can only describe as hipster saloon  with local Belgians mixed in with my fellow travelers overwhelmingly cheering for Croatia, mainly to spite the handful of actual Brazilians present. Needless to say, the high energy of the game led to a great atmosphere.

I returned the next night for the Spain vs. Holland game and tried to root for the Red Fury while swimming in a sea of orange. However the game didn’t hold my interest for long and I ended up listening to two Australian sailors try to explain the game of cricket to limited success. The rest of the night was spent with my friends from the first night until the early hours of the morning when the barman kicked us out.

Bruges itself is an amazingly beautiful city with unique and beautifully preserved architecture, but what made my time there so enjoyable was the people that I met while there.

Amsterdam

In my opinion, Amsterdam lives up to the hype. I stayed here for four days and enjoyed avery minute of it! Unfortunately food is very expensive here which cut substantially into my culture budget, however I did go to see the Van Gogh museum which was really amazing. They hold his famous “Sunflowers” and “Almond Blossoms”, but really its much more interesting to be able to chronologically see his work evolve as he experiments with color and style, then drastically change as his madness takes over.

Rest of my time was spent walking around the cites many canals, and dodging cyclists as they zoomed by. I did make the obligatory visit to the infamous red light district, but I went with two guys from my hostel which made it infinitely more entertaining for me. I think my favorite reaction was “It just feels like some kind of demented toy store.” needless to say, they were uncomfortable and we didn’t linger long. 

There is an artisan district called Spui (pronounced spao Dutch is weird.) that held a streetfest last Sunday that featured music, performances and (of course) food. Walking down here was fascinating due to the copious amounts of graffiti that grace the walls of the street. There is a famous house called The Snake Houseso named for the large reptile that adorned the side of the building that is facing demolition by the city, so they were holding an exhibition for local artist to sell their work and raise awareness for the preservation. 

All in all, Amsterdam is just a laid back city with beautiful canals lined with flowers and bicycles. It’s definitely a must see.

Frankfurt and Köln

Due to my struggles in Stuttgart I arrived in Frankfurt late at night and only had one full day to see the city instead of the anticipated two. However, the next day I woke up to go walk around the city center and lo and behold there was another street food fest. It has become my observation that any excuse that German cities can find to celebrate eating, they will take. Despite the dreary weather, it was nice to walk around the very modern city center. I mainly wandered around the various kitschy souvenir shops and saw the old parliament buildings.

The next day I went to Köln, or Cologne for English speakers. The weather here was beautiful and I spent most of my day here just seeing the various beautiful parks and going in and out of churches. All told, I enjoyed Germany (particularly the soft pretzels) but I was happy to move on to the Netherlands.

Stuttgart

To be perfectly honest, this city was the hardest for me so far, which is why I’ve been avoiding writing about it. However, it has been a week and a half since I left- so really it’s time.

Kate, one of my fellow ISA students in Morocco, was visiting her past host family in one of the nearby towns so I decided to come and see her in order to catch up on the month that we spent apart. Unfortunately at the last minute she was unable to put me up and the hostels in Stuttgart were all full, so I turned to couchsurfing in order to find a place to stay. There is a huge international community of travelers who post that they are willing to host and show people around when traveling and it’s a well maintained system or reviews and verifications- so perfectly safe. I was so lucky to be able to do so because honestly if it hadn’t been for my wonderful host Elham and her son Sam my time in Stuttgart would have been miserable.

The Saturday of my stay I was finally able to meet up with Kate (there were several snafus with transportation and communication- which was the main source of my frustration with the city) and she took me around the downtown part of the city. Most of Stuttgart was destroyed in WWII resulting in an interesting fusion of modernity and classical architecture. My favorite example of this can be seen in the main cathedral near the old palace. The exterior is completely restored to look as an old german church ought to- but once you go inside you can see high cedar beams being supported by stainless steel and traditional stained glass paired with a more contemporary pattern of color. The organ pictured above was my favorite example. 

After Stuttgart we went to the nearby town of Gerlingen, where Kate was staying, because there was a “very typically German” street festival happening called Sommerfest. Most of it consisted of street food, which I certainly didn’t mind, and a carshow. However the main attraction was a Ferris Wheel that had been set up in the center of town. Kate used her connections and got us free tickets to go up and see the quaint German town from above. It was beautiful, with red roofs and just one small church in the town center.

The next day Kate and I went hiking in the woods near Gerlingen in order to reach a popular picnic destination called Schloss Solitude. Basically it was this old governors palace that was surrounded by horse ranches and offered an amazing view of Stuttgart in the valley below. We stayed there for a bit just enjoying catching up with each other and eating the brats we bought from a nearby (overpriced) cafe.

We made plans to message and meet up on the Monday of that week, but again technology had other plans so I didn’t get to see Kate for the rest of my time in Stuttgart, however instead I got to spend some time with my kind host Elham! We ended up going to a local women’s shelter and helped sort clothing donations for a resell store, and it was really fun just sitting and talking with the other volunteers and eating the cherries that Elham had brought from her sisters garden. I was even given a nice jacket for my efforts, her exact words were “It’s your style I think. You should have it, it’s too strange. We wouldn’t be able to sell it.” Which is probably true, its a really strange jacket. 

I left Stuttgart the next day, again having transportation troubles, and happily went on to Frankfurt.