Thursday, January 20, 2011

La Bella Italia!

Winter break (#3/3)

Well here it is. My final post from my wonderful winter break is…drumroll please…ITALY!

Five classmates and I headed to Italy to spend the first week of winter break, Dec 20 – 27. We started in Rome, but immediately travel to Florence including a trip to Pisa and Sienna, and then returned to Rome for Christmas.

It was a really great trip and I enjoyed part of Italy I saw – how many places can you say that about?

Impressions of Florence – a dreamy city. Everywhere you look there are beautiful buildings with al fresco paintings, statues of Roman gods, ornate fountains, museums and churches that are breathtaking and when looking over the city you see a sea of red roofs.

Pretty Pisa – we didn’t spend much time here, our mission was to see the famous Leaning Tower. Mission completed.

Siena – a different Italy. Sienna is a medieval town and it was so unlike every other part of Italy we saw on this trip. My highlights of the city were the enormous piazza and the inside & out candy-stripped Duomo (cathedral).

Roma! I told my family that since I wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas, I would spend it with the Pope instead. We started with a tour of the Vatican which left me speechless, it really is overwhelming. I have never been in a place that has such wonderful rich history that continues to be written. I am Catholic and I was so excited when we were able to get into St. Peter’s Basilica for midnight mass on Christmas Eve and I was happy again to return to the square for the noon Christmas Day blessing.

While in Rome we also visited many Roman ruin sites (when in Rome!), saw the famous Tivoli fountain, the Colosseum and oh so much more. Rome itself is a living museum and everywhere you I’d see something and wonder “What’s that?” but my tourist map failed me. (Maybe next time I should travel with a Rick Steve’s book?)

One last note on Italy, the pastries, food, coffee, and wine is all amazing. I can’t do it justice by explaining it here, so I won’t even try. You just must go there and taste for yourself.


And as always, click on any pic or the link below for all 447 pics I took!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Drinking the kool-aid.

(Winter break email #2/3)

I met my friend Jill, from the USA, in Brussels on Dec 28. Jill and I have known each other since 2006 when we were selected to be part of the same Rotary GSE (Group Study Exchange) team to Germany. In those past 4 years we have had many traveling adventures together, so when she said she’d visit me where ever I was – I had no doubts. Our days GSE-ing still have so many great memories and so we started off this latest adventure by visiting a dear Rotarian friend we meet back in 2006, Walter.

Me & Jill at the Starbucks (her fav) at BRU airport

Walter is from Kircheimbolanden (Kibo), a small town in Germany “near” Frankfurt (1 hour by train). Kibo is a gem of a town that most tourists don’t think to visit since the train doesn’t pass through. But that’s their loss. Walter waited for us at the train station and greeted us with a large pretzel (so much better than flowers). Over the next 2 days, Walter gave us the tour of the town and we revisited some of the same places from years ago and he took us to some new sites.

Walter gave us a pretzel at the train station

Walter indulged our every need of Kibo. He borrowed the key for the city (literally!) so we were able to walk atop the city wall. We also visited the mountain top, but like last time, the weather kept us from seeing the view. And he even took us for schnitzel and spatzle after I stated my craving.

Don't drool on your keyboard!

We had a really great time, but my most favorite was fondue-ing at the Litchi’s. Walter and his wife Rosemary invited us over for an evening of delicious cheese, wonderful wine and home-baked Christmas cookies. But the food was nothing compared to the company. It was just so fantastic to sit around a table with Walter, Rosemary and Jill, and relive memories from years ago, debrief on the past 4 years, and discuss current situations with us and around the world.

The fondue caldron

I am so thankful for the GSE experience years ago that brought us all together and entwined our lives. I don’t know when the next time we will intersect again, but I’m looking forward to it! As my friend Greg says, I drink the Rotary kool-aid and I have a kool-aid smile. :-)


See you later,

Click on any of the pics above or the link below to see all pics from Kibo

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter break is officially over.

I’m writting this while sitting at the airport waiting for my flight back to Brussels (I'll post it after I return to Leuven, where I don't have to pay for the 'net). It was a great three weeks off! I’m sure your just itching to hear about my experiences and I’m itching to tell you. I’ll start with my most recent adventures since it’s the most fresh in my mind…

If you’re not familiar with the weather in Belgium for the winter months let me shed some “light”. It’s either: cloudy, partly cloudy, overcast, with rain or snow but always grey. Are you surprised that my only requirement for winter break was to find the SUN?! I found it in Barcalona.

One of my friends, Jill, came over from the USA and we spent 8-long days in Barcelona. That is just the right time to enjoy the city, see everything you want and still feel like you had a relaxing vacation. After 4 months of classes, I needed some R&R. We had a great time. We walked around the city visiting museums, churches and parks. I didn’t realize that Barca was home to so many artists, we found: Picasso, Gaudi, Dali, and Degas to name a few.  Good thing we weren't allowed to take pics inside many of these museums, since my blog is rated G for all audiences.

Me & Jill, 2 Americans outside the royal palace where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella greeted Columbus after he returned from discovering the new world (aka. America).

With days filled of visiting museums we needed a little different break in our culture so we went to a FC Barcelona football game (soccer). The Barca stadium is the 3rd largest in the world seating almost 99,000 fans. It was impressive but also surprising to find out that there is no alcohol served inside. It’s so common back in Minnesota to have a beer at the Vikings or Twins games – but not there. After a second thought, it’s probably a good idea that 99,000 fans don't have access to liquor. We can only guess what that much excitment fueled by mood-enhancing beverages would look like.

Those dots are people...not ants!

During our 8 days, we also took 2 day trips, the first time one was to visit Monserrat – a monestary on top a huge mountain that Rick Steve’s recommends*. We took a cable car up to the Monestary and from there a funicular up to the (almost) top of the mountain. We spent the good part of a day up there walking around, looking at the views and talking. It was breathtaking – the views and the heights!

*If you don’t know I’m a huge fan of the Rick Steve’s travel books. He’s never steered me wrong and if you’re travelling soon I highly recommend picking up one of his books.

The monestary is on the left, and I'm on the right. 

Our second day trip was going to be visiting Figures and Cadaques to see the Dali museum and home. We made it to Figures but lost our way back to the bus station and missed the bus to Cadaques. Since that was going to be our chance to visit the Mediterranean Sea, we decided to head back to Barca and find the beaches there. And boy did we find the beaches, it was long and lovely, the water was cold and salty, and we had a great time.
If you're counting...since arriving in August, I’ve visited 6 countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy, & Spain) and touched 2 seas (North & Mediterranean). Taking the whole of Europe, I know that’s not that impressive but I’m optimistic these next 8+ months I’ll be able to multiply those numbers. Besides all the places to visit, I’ve got friends I want to visit. So if you’re out there reading this – be warned. I’ll find you yet! :)

Take care and see you soon!

PS - To see all my pics from Spain, click on any of the pics above or the address below: