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Western Europe Journal Excerpts

 
Beaujolais Region of France
"…After a few hours of incredible scenery, we arrived at our chateau set in the heart of the Beaujolais region—the smallest but most celebrated wine-growing region in France. Alex and I decided to go on a walk to Thieze (pop. 1,000), the nearest village to the chateau. The city dates back to the 11th century and, like much of the region, has a long history of being inhabited by French nobility. The village was so picturesque, with cobbled streets and winding, flower strewn alleys. After a brief pit stop at the village post office to send off some postcards, we hiked up to the "top of the world" for a breathtaking view of the vineyard-covered hillside.

After relaxing for a little while, we decided to go look for a nearby castle that one of the chateau workers mentioned. After a beautiful hour strolling through the countryside, we rounded a corner and saw through the foliage the castle du Jarinoux. It was like stepping back in time—it was easy to imagine knights and maidens would be around the corner. If only I had a time machine…! We tried to get into the castle, but the sign said it would be closed until July. That’s okay…it was quite an experience seeing it from the outside."


 
Aigues Morgues, France
 " …We unfortunately didn’t allow for much free time to explore Aigues Morgues—one of France’s best preserved walled cities. With that in mind, I forewent lunch and spent my time traversing the walls and climbing the towers. My guidebook Lonely Planet says that Aigues Morgues looks today much like how it must have looked when it was completed around 1300. This was actually a very important strategic coastal city—Louis IX’s only Mediterranean sea port. (The Rhone had not, at that time, deposited the silt that now makes this city landlocked.) In fact, it was from Aigues Morgues that Louis IX, the city’s founder, set sail on his crusade of 1248.
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The walls of the city are one mile in length, punctuated by ten gates, six towers, numerous arrow slits, and even overhanging latrines. We went inside the main tower that was later used primarily to imprison Catholics and Huguenots. It even held the salted bodies of the victims of a bloody massacre in 1421, as there were too many bodies to bury. The town was then primarily used as a prison throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a fact that explains why the city’s walls were preserved, allowing us today to visit a 13th century fortified city almost intact!…"

(The photo to the right is obviously not mine.  It is from a brochure that I picked up at the tourism office in Aigues Morgues.)


 
Barcelona, Spain
"...Next we headed for the incredible Sagrada Familia cathedral—Gaudi’s gothic masterpiece. It’s a fascinating structure—looks like a 350-foot ‘drip’ sandcastle. Just looking at all the amazingly creative and intricate detail, it is easy to imagine a passionate Gaudi getting lost in his incredulous ideas and following every creative whim…We then spent awhile strolling along Las Ramblas—the city’s most famous promenade. Comprised of five connected streets, the crowded Las Ramblas is a pedestrian walkway lined with trees, cast iron streetlights, kiosks, flower stalls, and even a bird market. I was excited to see it was full of locals enjoying the afternoon, and I began to see why Barcelona is so loved by its residents. We also visited La Boqueria market, which sold an amazing variety of items such as sold items such as skinned rabbits and barbecued rat’s heads (a bit unexpected!) Off of Las Ramblas, the side streets are endless and all very picturesque.
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The lack of prosperity has left intact the narrow alleys and gothic palaces of Barcelona’s medieval quarter, the "Barri Gotic", and merely wandering through the lively alleys was one of my favorite experiences in Barcelona. In the middle of the quarter is a huge cathedral, built in Catalan gothic style in 1298 and full of little cloisters (some with geese!) and lined with statues everywhere. My favorite little chapel was "Our Lady of Electricity" (enough said). We passed the next few hours visiting the Ajuntament (city hall), Generalitat (parliament), and wandering around the Barri Gotic, where we stumbled upon the famous steps where Columbus presented his discovery of the New World to Ferdinand and Isabella, where non-believers were imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, and the place where Franco had dissenters assassinated (over 30,000 in total—and the bullet holes are visible everywhere.)…"

 
The South of France--Nice & Antibes

After breakfast, we took the train to Nice, about a 30-minute ride along the Mediterranean seashore. I was quite surprised to see that Nice is such a large city (pop. 338,000). I had always pictured a quaint little village full of people dripping with wealth—not a big, crowded, touristy, ‘functional’ city. We walked along the famous Promenade des Anglais aside the seafront and then up Le Chateau hill for a view of the city. Maria and Veronica continued up the hill, but I headed down to the picturesque old town. Nice was an Italian city until 1861, and the pastel facades and balconies of the Old Town have a distinctly Italian feel. There was a lively flower and produce market there, but what really caught me was the beautiful architecture, so full of creamy pastel facades and narrow, cobbled streets. I was like an entirely different ‘town’ than I saw a few blocks away on Avenue Jean Medecin. I like this Nice better, but I was still ready to move on.

After a quick lunch, I boarded the train and (hopefully) headed for Antibes, a city about 45 minutes west of Nice and still along the Mediterranean coast. It is nice to travel alone now and then—it heightens the sense of adventure and the "unknown." And Antibes did not let me down! The city is SOO quaint, full of narrow, winding lanes and housefronts covered in vines and flowers. The beautiful sandy beach is still guarded by 16th century ramparts that run right along the sea, and as I sat on the old walls, I was really glad to be in Europe! After a little rest, I headed for Antibes’ old town and walked around for a few hours, taking pictures and soaking in the atmosphere. One highlight was visiting the Picasso museum, housed in the actual studio in which he worked for years.


 
Pisa, Italy
"…Actually, the leaning bell tower is only one element of the fabulous trio of Romanesque buildings in the city’s beautiful Campo del Miracoli. The duomo is gorgeous, with striking alternating bands of dark green and cream marble (characteristic of the Pisan Romanesque style.) The baptistery is also stunning, but of course it is the tower that is most exciting. The lean of the tower is VERY visible—now fifteen feet off the perpendicular. The tower was in trouble from the start, and the architect managed to finish only three tiers before the tower started to lean. The problem is believed to be caused by shifting soil, and the tower has continued to lean by an average of a quarter inch a year ever since. Galileo, who taught at the university in Pisa, climbed the tower’s 294 steps to experiment with gravity! I don’t remember being thrilled that I would be seeing the famous "Leaning Tower of Pisa," but just as with the Eiffel Tower, I was struck by its beauty and was very glad to have had the experience..."

 
Florence, Italy
"...It was incredible to finally be in Tuscany! Once the skies cleared, it was an absolutely fantastic ride—so fun to see all of the hilltop villages, complete with their towers and church spires. I wanted to jump out the window and explore each village. The center of the Renaissance, full of hilltowns, Etruscan sites, and landscapes of rolling hills covered in grapevines….Tuscany conjures so many images! Florence is a great city to explore on foot! We first visited the Plaza and Church of Santa Croce. In Savonrola’s day, the piazza was used for the execution of heretics but today it is lined with souvenir shops. The church has a stunning façade, a floor that is paved with the tombstones of famous Florentines of the past 500 years, and the famous fresco Annunciation by Donatello. It also houses the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo—which, oddly enough, was actually pretty neat to see..."
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From Santa Croce, we headed through the streets of Florence to the famous Duomo, Baptistery, and Bell Tower. The duomo is remarkable, with a stunning pink, white and green marble façade and Brunelleschi’s famous dome, which dominates the Florence skyline. The duomo just took my breath away. In fact, when Michelangelo left Florence for Rome to work on the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, he is reported to have said, " I go to build a greater dome, but not a fairer one." The duomo is huge—it’s the fourth-largest cathedral in the world—but the vast interior is very sparsely decorated. After such an incredible façade, I expected an equally exquisite interior. It is in the interior of this church that Lorenzo de Medici hid in the north sacristy after his brother, Giuliano, was stabbed and killed by conspirators! Ah, history! The famous doors of the baptistery, The Gates of Paradise, were really fun to see after learning about the competition to design the doors in class after class of Humanities.

We then walked to the Piazza della Signoria, historically the platform for public ceremonies and now a showcase for sculptures—including the Rape of the Sabine Women! Adjacent to the Piazza is the Palazzo Vecchio, the traditional seat of Florentine government and the one time home of the Medicis. Built at the end of the 13th century, its tower is as much a symbol of the city as the duomo and was purposely constructed off center to make the Palazzo appear larger. In front of the Palazzo is none other than Michelangelo’s David—a very impressive work! It is absolutely huge. I read that when someone expressed concern to Michelangelo that the statue would be damaged by being out in the elements, he is reported to have said, "He’ll be fine. He is a strong young man." (Actually, modern residents must have thought him wrong after all, for the one in front of the Palazzo is a copy—the actual is in Florence’s Accademia museum.)

After all the walking, Alex and I decided to have lunch at a café on Piazza del Signoria. Like Champs Elysees, it was expensive ($13), but worth it for the atmosphere and experience. We were both pretty beat and desperately needed the break! After lunch we headed for Ponte Vecchio, the famous 14th century bridge lined with the shops of gold sellers and silversmiths. The shops originally housed butchers, but Cosimo de Medici ordered them removed in favor of jewelers, whose trade was considered more appropriate and certainly more hygienic, since the butchers threw their leftovers directly into the river! Although the retreating Germans bombed much of Florence during WWII, luckily they chose to spare one bridge—the Ponte Vecchio. Next we went back to the duomo and climbed to the top of the dome—463 steps up a narrow, winding, claustrophobic staircase! It was tiring but worth it because the view was fantastic! The Florence skyline has beautiful copper-tiled roofs, and the sun hitting them at mid-afternoon is a beautiful sight. At that point, Alex and I were done being a tourist for the day, and were ready for a more mindless activity. We soon ran into Raj and Enwin, and together we had gelato and wandered through one of the local markets. Traveling is such work!

 




 
Venice, Italy
When the ferry finally pulled into Venice, I was STUNNED! I have never seen anything so breathtaking, so picturesque, so fantastic in my life. Venice is everything it is claimed to be. I stood on the top deck of the ferry and just gasped. The view of the Venice skyline was astonishing, with beautiful pastel pinks and cremes and blues and golds. I think I took a whole roll of film in ten minutes time. ...After a quick lunch, Alex and I hopped on a vaparetto and cruised up the Grande Canale—not in the direction that we intended but still incredibly great! The Grande Canale weaves for 2 miles through the city like a huge, upside-down "S", and the parade of incredible buildings, including more than 100 palaces dating from the 12th to the 18th century was astonishing. As we cruised up the canale, gondolas, little motor boats, and police boats cruised by. There are no cars on the islands—all public transportation is through the canals via the vaporettos...

For more photographs and journal entries for Venice, click on the picture.

 
Rome, Italy
"…Vatican City is really just a handful of buildings enclosed by a wall—so tiny that it is hard to believe that it is a separate state. In fact it is the only country that can and does close its doors at night. It is so small, in fact, that it could easily fit inside of New York’s Central Park. It came about after the unification of Italy, when the Papal States became part of the new kingdom, causing a considerable rift between the church and state. To solve this, Mussolini (in 1929) gave the pope full sovereignty over what is now Vatican City. The Vatican Museum has an incredible collection of art and treasures (Laocoon, Raphael’s The School of Athens…), but was unfortunately another Versaille experience for me—packed with people pushing and shoving, especially as we got closer to the Sistine Chapel. Just as the shoving crowds were making me wish I hadn’t come, we reached the Sistine Chapel. Wow,Wow,Wow! What an incredible experience—the colors, the scale, the setting… I just couldn’t believe one man could be so incredibly talented. Created as a private chapel for Pope Sixtus, it took Michelangelo only four years to complete this masterpiece (and he did the work almost entirely alone after dismissing in disgust the Florentine masters he had gathered to help.) It is truly an awe-inspiring sight. The restoration of the works has really made a difference in how vivid the paintings are. (Much of it was damaged by candle smoke & incense as well as poor restorations and the addition of clothing to some of the nude figures. To show the difference, the restorers left some unrestored areas.) Even with teeming crowds, I was swept away by the paintings—definitely the most moving art experience I have ever had…
…After St. Peter’s, we passed along the Tiber River and past the Circus Maximus, the Arc de Tito, and then the famous Roman Colosseum. Even though it was damaged in the Middle Ages by Romans in search of stone and metal (hence the holes where metal pegs once were), the Colosseum is still an impressive sight. I remember hearing about the wild beast shows that were held here, when thousands of wild animals were slashed to death, and about the bloody gladiator shows, where countless prisoners were forced to fight to the end until only one survived. In fact, I overheard a guide saying that when the Colosseum was inaugurated, the festivities lasted for 100 days and over 5,000 wild beasts were slaughtered and 9,000 gladiators fought to the death. Frightening thought!

(To the right is Trajan's Column.)

We also explored the nearby Forum—the commercial, political, and religious center of ancient Rome. Ironically, the physical destruction of the Forum and much of ancient Rome cannot be blamed on invading barbarians or natural disasters, but on the Romans themselves. For centuries, in the name of progress, they literally dismantled the ancient city brick by brick and marble block by block to build palaces, churches, and monuments. The Forum was even used as a cattle pasture during the Middle Ages.

…From here we headed to the famous Trevi Fountain, the baroque fountain that is one of Rome’s most famous monuments. It completely dominates the tiny piazza it is located in. The sculptures are incredible, with massive bodies and such a sense of movement. The famous custom is to throw a coin into the fountain (over your shoulder) to ensure you return to Rome. If you throw a second coin you can make a wish. When I was there it was PACKED with tourists.

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Just up the way from the fountain is the Pantheon, the best-preserved building of ancient Rome. The original temple was built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC, and although the temple was rebuilt by Hadrian in 120AD, Agrippa’s name remains inscribed over the entrance. Over the centuries the temple was consistently plundered and damaged. The bronze roof tiles were removed by one emperor, and the bronze ceiling of the portico was melted down by another to make the altar canopy for St. Peter’s and to make cannons for Castel Sant’Angelo. When we went inside I just could not comprehend that I was standing in a building that was used by the ancient Romans almost two thousand years ago. I tried to picture myself back in time, gathering with my fellow Roman countrymen, all decked out in togas and sandals. The dome is just enormous and is considered the most important achievement of ancient Roman architecture. Inside are beautiful paintings and the tombs of Raphael & Victor Emmanuel II.

Our last stop was the Piazza Navona, a fantastically beautiful piazza lined with Baroque palaces. It was laid out on the ruins of a stadium and has three enormous fountains. The piazza is a popular gathering place for Romans and tourists alike, and it was a great ending place to relax and absorb all the sights of the day. I sat on one of the stone benches in the piazza and watched the artists who had gathered in the piazza. A couple had just gotten married and were having their pictures taken by one of the fountains, and some kids were having a great time chasing all the birds. What an amazing city.


 
Pompeii, Italy
Bright and early we headed out of Rome for the incredible ruins of Pompeii. Ever since Pliny the Younger wrote about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried the city in 79 AD, Pompeii has been the stuff of books and the big screen. This is the richest insight into Roman daily life, and I couldn’t wait to get there. We got a fantastic guide, who really brought the ruins to life. I had always thought the entire population was wiped out, but actually only about 2,000 of Pompeii’s 20,000 inhabitants are believed to have died. After the eruption, the area was virtually abandoned, being completely covered by the shower, and aside from a few earthquakes and a number of artworks being removed to museums, the city is virtually the same as it was 2,200 years ago!

Although only the bases of columns remain in the city’s forums and amphitheaters, the commercial district and residential areas are fairly well preserved. Even the plumbing that runs along the streets is still there! We saw the bakery (complete with the original oven), the store that sold olive oil (with an olive press), and the street where brothels were located (clearly denoted with a phallic symbol street sign). We also visited residential areas, with walls covered in amazingly well preserved paintings—full of beautifully rich bronzes, golds, reds, and greens. Its just shocking to imagine that people lived in such luxury over two thousand years ago, and that these beautiful paintings were basically just wallpaper in the rooms of the rich.

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The most thought-provoking aspect of Pompeii, however, was the casts of the fleeing residents, which were left in the hardened tufa after their corpses decayed. The bodies are clearly frozen in terror! How awful that must have been to live through, and how painful to die of smoke inhalation. It was almost frightening to see their bodies and know they were real people…

 
Athens, Greece
"...I had a somewhat complacent attitude about the city upon first impression. One thing that was immediately evident about Athens, however, was that it was damn hot. Alex and I jumped off the nice air-conditioned bus at the Parliament Building to see the changing of the guards. They wear little pleated white skirts, knee socks with tassels, and a fez, and they march with slooooooow, straight-legged kicks. It is quite an interesting sight (and there were barely any tourists there. Probably only idiots would be out in the mid-day sun.) The square in front of the Parliament was just covered with pigeons so Alex and I took turn taking photos with pigeons all over us (we were holding bird seed.) From the Parliament building we headed toward the Plaka and Monastiraki areas. Again, it was just unbearably, miserably hot. …We then walked to the main boulevard and decided to take the bus to Lycabettus Hill. After asking people over and over how to get bus #23 to no avail, we decided that #8 goes roughly in the same direction and jumped on. Nope! It looked promising at first but then veered off in the wrong direction and kept on that path. Actually, neither one of us cared much—too elated to be in air conditioning to be bothered with a technicality like getting lost in a strange city. We did finally muster up some discipline though, and decided we had better get off and figure out how to get back to the center of town. It took two stops to finally get off, because the bus was so crowded and nobody would budge.

When we finally got out, the wave of heat was too much, and the whole pathetic scene was just too funny to take seriously. We started to walk back but just gave up and hailed a taxi. The driver would only drop us off at the base of Lycabettus Hill, so we had to walk up about seven flights of stairs before reaching the funicular, which would take us the rest of the way to the top. Once we got to the top, we realized it was worth it. Lycabettus is the highest hill in Athens, looming over the city’s other two prominent hills, the Acropolis and the Philopoppou. The view from the top was stunning and really showed what a large city Athens is. On the very top of the hill is the picturesque whitewashed chapel of St. George and a little café, where we gladly paid the inflated prices for some refreshment and a view….

Day two—"...We started the day with a tour of the Acropolis, which can be seen for miles as its on a high hill in the center of town. Archeological evidence shows that the flat-top limestone outcrop, 512 feet high, attracted settlers as early as Neolithic times because of its defensible position and natural springs. In fact, it is believed to have been continuously inhabited since the beginning of the Bronze Age! Over the years the buildings have been damaged by war and have endured many transformations, from a Christian church to a Florentine palace to a Turkish harem, and even to a brothel.

The loftiest point on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, which served primarily as a treasury. All 46 columns slope inward a slight fraction but are slightly swelled—an optical trick to create the illusion that they are straight. Though the structure is marble, the inner ceilings and doors were made of wood (and hence no longer remain). The original building was ornate, covered with a tile roof, decorated with statuary, and so brightly painted that the people protested, "We are guilding and adorning our city like a wanton woman." Unfortunately, most of the meotopes are now in the British Museum, removed from Athens in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin of Britain (hence the name "Elgin Marbles"), after receiving permission to do so by the Sultan Selim III, whose empire included Greece at that time. It’s a pretty controversial issue--some argue that the marble statues would have been destroyed if they had been left on site (by pollution, wars, banditry…), yet a spirited campaign aims to have them returned to Greece…"

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Mykonos, Greece
"...Neither, however, compared to Mykonos, our third stop and home for the next few days. From the boat we saw an endless maze of whitewashed cube-shaped houses and churches, with dashes of sky-blue on the doors and domes, all huddled together up the central hill. As we got closer to the shore, the little white houses and churches, the colorful little fishing boats in the harbor, the waves lapping on the shore…it all seemed to be straight out of an elaborately staged Broadway show—just too picturesque to be real!

Mykonos is truly fantastic. One of the smallest of the Cycladic group, it is only 10 miles long and 7 miles wide. An ancient myth says that the rocks strewn across its barren landscape are the solidified remains of the giants slain by Hercules. Walking around the small town was truly an experience, and we got lost in the labyrinth of streets quite often. I had read on the ferry that the confusing layout was designed to foil attacking pirates, but at the time it sounded more like a tourism pitch than reality. It wasn’t until we spent hours traipsing through the endless maze of near-identical little alleys that I began to see how effective this plan may have been..."

For more photographs and journal entries for Mykonos, click on the picture.


 
Vienna, Austria
Alex, Toni, and I climbed the latticework spire of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral for the breathtaking view of the city. The 343 steps up the spire were winding, claustrophobic, and NOT built for two-way traffic. The view from the top was worth the torture. Vienna’s streets are incredibly well maintained and still retain a classical ambiance…

We then headed to the Schonbrunn Palace, a second Hapsburg residence located outside the ring road. The palace has 2,000 rooms, a chapel and a theater (although seeing one room was enough for me). Like all imperial buildings associated with Maria Theresa, the exterior was painted a rich yellow, her favorite color. True to the excesses of rococo, the interior is packed with frescoed ceilings, crystal chandeliers, gold-plated vines and delicate little flowers. Walking through Schonbrunn was much better than Versailles—less crowded and with a more unique character—yet just as with my Versailles visit, I left with a feeling of sadness, remembering that this opulent palace built on ‘the backs of the poor.’ …


 
Mathausen Concentration Camp, Austria
This afternoon we traveled through northern Austria to Mathausen, a Nazi concentration camp. When we arrived we walked up the steps near the stone quarry, where the starving prisoners were forced to labor endlessly. The camp was comprised of wooden and concrete barracks, and was surrounded by guard posts and barbed wire. The cold, desolate architecture exuded an eerie feeling, even without the knowledge of what took place here. When prisoners first arrived at Mathausen they were forced to take a cold shower, at which time many died of pneumonia and lung infections. Of those who survived, many soon died of malnutrition or were worked to death in the quarry. The camp had several crematoriums to burn the dead bodies, but had to space out the burnings so as not to alert the local population as to what was going on in the camp. Also on the campgrounds was a burial ground for those who died after the camp was liberated—how tragic! Mathausen was the last concentration camp to be liberated.

We also watched a film about the camp. The thousands of men and women who followed Hitler disturb me. I am willing to accept that this world will produce monsters, but it is hard to comprehend why so many would be willing to follow one. The film had interviews of inmates who had survived the camp, and told of some graffiti found on the wall of one of the cells, stating "if there is a God, he will have to beg for my forgiveness." The fear and betrayal and confusion these prisoners must have felt! There was also an American GI interviewed, who told of having to bury some of the 15,000 dead bodies found at the liberation of the camp. He was sobbing uncontrollably, 40 years later. I was so sad for him. I had been warned before leaving for Europe not to go to a concentration camp because "it will ruin your whole trip." I disagree with that attitude! We can’t just ignore the ‘unpleasantries’ of life—we have to acknowledge them and learn from them.

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Austrian Countryside
Today we went on a bike ride through the Austrian Tyrol—along a running brook and past picturesque wooden houses built in chalet style architecture, complete with flower boxes in the windows. (Sounds cliché, but turns out that the residents actually get tax breaks for maintaining these typically Alpine characteristics. Tourism is a big money maker for Austria, and the province of Tyrol is the engine that drives Austrian tourism!) We rode past locals farming up the hillside and pastures full of goats with bells around their necks. I was so enthralled by one scene that I almost ran into a wall because I turned my head around to take a picture. After our ride, Leoni, Alex, Toni, and I rode into town to try some of the region’s famous apple strudel, which was actually just "quite nice." After our snack, we parted ways and I stayed to ride around the town some more. Like so much of Europe I had seen so far, the town was so picturesque and quaint that I began to doubt its authenticity. Was it simply a façade to attract tourism, or was this authentic? Regardless, I enjoyed my ride through the cobbled streets and narrow alleys of Hopfgarden. I especially liked all the different paintings on the exteriors of the buildings. I wonder how old they are? …

 
 
Lucerne, Switzerland
"…Lucerne was just a small fishing village until the St. Gotthard Pass became an important trade route in 1220, and many of the buildings remaining in the picturesque old town center are reminders of the city’s strategic importance. I wandered through the narrow streets to the Weinmarkt and Kornmarkt Squares, lined with beautiful 15th century buildings with painted facades. The city has done much to retain its medieval atmosphere--you honestly feel at times as if transported back to a medieval city. I loved seeing the gabled houses, the makeshift structuring, the narrow cobbled alleys, and the painted facades so characteristic of the middle ages!"  

 
Swiss Alps (Lauterbrunnen)
We took a very steep funicular up to the town of Murren, allowing for fantastic views of the valley below. Evidence of uplift and glaciation are all over the place in the Alps, and I did my best to explain to Alex and Tanja how the valley had formed. (They were genuinely interested—I promise. In a stunning natural environment like this one, even a non-geographer can’t help but wonder HOW?) This region, the Jungfrau, is said to have some of the best scenery in Switzerland, especially due to the towering triplets: the Jungfrau (4158 m), the Eiger (3970 m) and the Monch (4099m). The white and gray of their snow-capped flanks are truly awe-inspiring, and are made all the more beautiful by the vibrant greens of the valleys below.

The town of Murren is a tiny community (population 320) nestled ‘precipitously’ on the side of the mountain, and is full of the stereotypical Swiss architecture. It is a tourist haven for winter skiers, so I expected it to be picturesque. From here we walked along the mountain path towards the town of Gimmelwald, stopping on the way to enjoy the incredible views of the Swiss landscape. On our walk we passed pastures of wildflowers and fields of grazing cattle with bells around their necks. I expected to see Heidi jump out at any moment. As has been the case so often on this trip, I was completely amazed to see so many landscape features that I had assumed to be simply gross stereotypes. Bells on cows—sheesh! I love it! After a while, we stopped and had a picnic on a grassy spot overlooking the mountains, and then continued on until we reached the Gimmelwald (population 140) and the cable car down to Trummelbach Falls.

Trummelbach Falls is actually a collection of 10 waterfalls inside the mountain, made accessible by dug out caves. The Trummelbach alone drains the mighty glaciers of the Eiger, Monk and Jungfrau mountains! Up to 20,000 liters of water pummels down per second, causing an incredible roar of noise as it rushing down the falls. The power of the water was unbelievable—actually a bit frightening. The force of the water and the little pieces of debris that it carries had weathered the rock along its path into beautiful, smooth formations, and at many parts the water fell in corkscrews. Since it is a glacier-waterfall (the only one in Europe to be inside a mountain and still accessible), it was absolutely freezing inside the mountain. This was truly a glimpse at the awesome power and supremacy of nature!

 
Heidelberg, Germany
"...Heidelberg is a medieval town home to a magnificent castle, a renowned university, and a surprisingly lively place for a city of only 140,000. My first stop was the hilltop castle, built of striking red sandstone and dominating the hillside above the town. Its half-ruined state only adds to its romantic appeal. (When they are in mint condition, you have to wonder how what’s authentic and what’s not!) Unfortunately, the castle wasn’t actually that great once you climb up the steep, cobbled stone path. It actually had no real inside, just an open courtyard. (It did have an enormous beer keg room—which, of course, was just a memorable sight I shall cherish forever.)..."

 
Amsterdam & Vollendam, The Netherlands

 "...Next I went to the Van Gogh Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of works by Vincent Van Gogh.  It was so amazing to be actually looking at the real paint chunks created by Van Gogh himself, and to be seeing Sunflowers, the Bedroom, Lillies in a Vase, self- portraits, etc… What an experience. I then headed for the Anne Frank House—something that has long been on my big list of things to do in this life, ever since I read her diary in junior high school. It was an unreal experience to see the revolving book case, the Frank family’s room, Anne’s magazine cut-outs on the wall, and the van Daan family’s quarters.  It was so moving that I bought another copy of the diary at the gift store to read it again..." 

Anne Franks House                      


 

For more on Europe, check out my Eastern Europe journal!