Europe: England, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, and France (Oct 8 to Nov 10, 2015)

After 7 days trekking in the Scottish highlands (see previous post), I went on a brief tour of several  other countries of Europe, visiting England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and France, for a second time.

So how did I spend about 5 weeks in western Europe? Exploring the culture and history of some beautiful cities and surrounding natural areas and hanging out with friends, of course!

London, England (Oct 8-11)

After a 5-hour train from Glasgow (Scotland), I arrived in England’s capitol city of London (population over 8 million), to visit my friend Sally who moved from Austin, Texas, where I know her from, to London over 5 years ago. It was great catching up with her on my first night over a bottle of wine at her cozy flat in Highgate. For my first full day in London, I explored the city. It was fun to see the sites I’d only seen on TV and in movies, including Piccadily Square, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Thames River walk. I also visited the British Royal Museum, renowned for its extensive art collection from all over the world and the Tate Modern Art Museum. Later, Sally and I walked around the Springfield area and she took me to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, for a drink. They usually adhere to a strict dress code but thankfully our smiles persuaded the door man to let us in wearing jeans and sneakers. The next day, Sally took me out for more sightseeing, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and The London Tower. After, we explored the market areas:  Camden Lock, Borough Market, and Inverness Street Market. It was an explosion of people and color and cool unusual things, mixed with repeat versions of the same old touristy crap. It was people watching and window shopping at its best! We roamed around these market areas for several hours enjoying the scene, then stopped for an pint at a pub where the crowd was completely enthralled in the World Cup rugby match on TV. It seemed like the quintessential London experience.

Antwerp, Belgium (Oct 11-14)

After a great visit with Sally in London, I took a 3.5-hour bus to Antwerp (population 510,610). It was interesting to be on the bus as it was loaded onto the train that then traveled under the English Channel to be offloaded on the other side in France. I went to Antwerp to hang out with my brother, Jabal, one of my favorite people in the world! He was on holiday in Antwerp to return to Belgium DesertFest, one of his favorite psychedelic rock festivals. I met him for Day 3 of the 3-day rock festival. We had a great time drinking Belgium beer, listening to music, and being the silly siblings that we are. Over the next few days, we explored the beautiful city of Antwerp, including the Main Square area, several lovely cathedrals, and the Scheldt River walk. Per Wikipedia, the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world, ranking third in Europe and within the top 20 globally. The city has a historic vibe despite the fact that it was hit by more V-2s than all other targets during the entirety of WWII combined. While the attack did not succeed in destroying the port, the city itself was severely damaged and was subsequently rebuilt after the war in a modern style. We also walked to an old fort located in a beautiful forested city park a few hours outside Antwerp. After a short train ride to Brussels, we visited Atomium, a structure constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Its stainless steel spheres are connected so that the whole forms the shape of a cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was very cool, as was hanging out my awesome bro!

Paris, France (Oct 15-23)

After a great visit with Jabal in Antwerp, I took a 5-hour bus to visit Paris for a second time (see previous post). This time, I visited my friend, Mathieu, a Parisian who I’d met in Argentina, then crossed paths with in Bolivia and again in Peru. I enjoyed relaxing at his flat and exploring parts of Paris I missed during my first visit, including the Eiffel Tower. Not only did I get to enjoy the amazing views of Paris from the tower, but Mathieu and I watched a movie from there. It so happened that NetFlix was having an event on the second floor to which we got last minute tickets. So we relaxed on bean bag chairs and watched the 2015 movie, Aloha, starring Bradley Cooper, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. So fun!

Amsterdam, Netherlands (Oct 23-26)

After a great visit with Mathieu in Paris, I took a 7-hour bus to the Netherlands’ capitol city of Amsterdam (population 831,279) to hang out my friends, David and Paul, who came all the way from California to hang out with me! And, they brought me a large bag of tortilla chips, two bottles of salsa, and tequila, three things I’d been missing from home. I’ll admit it, I ate almost the entire bag of chips the first night. We had fun exploring the Amsterdam night life, hitting some bars and dance clubs, and exploring the sights of the city including the infamous Red Light District, “coffee” shops, and the areas along the endless maze of lovely historic canals. It was so great hanging with my California boys!

Berlin, Germany (Oct 27-29)

After a great visit with David and Paul in Amsterdam, I took a 10-hour bus to Germany’s capital city of Berlin (population 3.5 million). This time, I was not in the city to meet friends, but to explore some history. To learn more about this historic city, I took a walking tour during which we visited sights including Brandanburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the largest remaining section of the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Topography of Terror Historic Site, and the Spree River walk. During the tour, much of the WWII information I’d learned in high school history class came to life. On my second day, I visited the Sachsenhaus Concentration Camp and Historic Site. It was an emotional but very educational day. Interestingly, visiting a place where humans did horrible things to other humans helped me remember to always try to be compassionate, understanding, and loving towards others.

Prague, Czech Republic (Oct 29-Nov 3)

After visiting Berlin, I took a 5-hour bus to the Czech Republic’s capitol city of Prague (population about 1.2 million) to visit my Czech friends, Renata and Gabriela, who I’d met and trekked with in Peru (see previous post). It was great to have my local friends showing me around the beautiful city of Prague, taking me to sights including Old Town Square, Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge, and the Vltava River walk. Per Wikipedia, Prague suffered considerably less damage during WWII than some other major cities in the region, allowing most of its historic architecture to stay true to form. As a result, the extensive historic centre of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with exploring the city, Renata and Gabriella took me on a road trip to the Cesky Kras Protected Landscape Area, about an hour from Prague, where we hiked through a gorgeous forest in fall colors to one of the Czech Republic’s many castles and the nearby quaint village. It was so cool to hang out with such cool girls.

Paris, France (Nov 3-10)

After a great visit with Renata and Gabriela in Prague, I returned to Paris. This time, along with hanging out in Paris again, Mathieu took me to Cassis, a small city (population 7,793) on the south coast of France, just east of Marseille. We traveled there via high-speed train. By car, this trip takes about 8 hours; by high speed train, it takes about 4.5 hours. Wow! Cassis is a small, quaint coastal town filled with many shops, cafes, a small marina, and lovely beaches. During our visit, we also explored the Espace Naturel des Calanques (Calanques Natural Landscape Area), trekking along the limestone cliffs overlooking the gorgeous clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, and the Plage d’En Vau beach, swimming in the gorgeous clear but cold blue waters of the Mediterranean. Per Wikitravel,  “Qu’a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire: n’ai rèn vist” (He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, I haven’t seen anything.” These words, spoken by Nobel-prize winning writer Federique Mistral, reflect the great attraction that Cassis exerts on all those who go there. I concur. It was great to hang out with Mathieu again and explore such a magical place.

While somewhat brief, my visit to these lovely, historic European cities and beautiful natural areas was wonderful, and my experience was made even more memorable by the people with whom I shared it with. Thank you Sally, Jabal, David, Paul, Renata, Gabriela and Mathieu for a great visit!!

Here are a few pictures. Click the links to see the full photo albums:

London, Antwerp, Paris: https://goo.gl/photos/RnWGC8T5oV46oJm3A

Amsterdam:  https://goo.gl/photos/vpc9h2GEvZiFBWau7

Berlin, Prague, Cassis:  https://goo.gl/photos/n9RxrgfxCdBx82mA7

Enjoy!

DSC03069
London with Sally.
DSC03178
Antwerp with Jabal.
DSC03225
Paris with Mathieu.
IMG_2844
Amsterdam with David and Paul.
DSC03426
Berlin – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
DSC03478
Prague with Gabriela and Renata.
DSC03657
Cassis with Mathieu.
DSC03716
Cassis sunset.
Advertisements

UK/Europe: Ireland, Scotland, and France (July 7 to 29, 2015)

After exploring and trekking in South America for about 5 months (see previous posts for Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador), it was time to move on. I had an unforgettable experience in South America and definitely plan to return to explore the beautiful landscapes and cultures of the countries I didn’t get to visit, and revisit some of my favorite areas and new friends.

From Latacunga, Ecuador, I took a day bus to Guayaquil (Ecuador) where I caught a 14-hour flight to Dublin, Ireland, to join Steve and his mom, Glenda (Texas) and his brother, Jim, and friend, Sam (Illinois) on their 3-week vacation in Ireland, Scotland, and France. Steve, Glenda, and Jim had been planning this vacation for several years so I felt very lucky to be able to join them.

So, what did we do for 6 days in Dublin, Ireland? Explore the city and it’s pubs of course!

Dublin, the capitol of the Republic of Ireland, is a large bustling city (population 527,612) which, due to its accessibility, has a small city appeal. We stayed in a great apartment close to all the action. We spent most of our time exploring the city but also visited the small coastal village of Howth, about a 30 minute train ride northeast of Dublin. We had a great time walking around and checking out the sights, which of course, included the pubs where we chatted with the locals. Per Lonely Planet, “Dubliners at their ease are the greatest hosts of all, a charismatic bunch whose soul and sociability are so compelling and infectious that you mightn’t ever want to leave.” It’s so true! We were amazed time and time again by the genuine friendliness of the people we met on the street, on the train or bus, at restaurants, and at the pub.

From Dublin, we flew to Edinburgh, Scotland and stayed in Elie, about an hour north of Edinburgh and more importantly to Steve, Jim, and Sam, about 30 minutes from the town of St Andrews, the “home of golf” and the location of the 2015 Open Championship.

What did we do for 7 days in Elie, Scotland? Explore the beautiful Scottish coastline and immerse ourselves in golf of course!

We stayed in a beautiful house with a front patio overlooking the beach. Elie is a quaint, charming coastal village (population 940) whose resident population swells in the summer with tourists enjoying the beaches, watersports, and golf courses. We explored the idyllic coastal towns between Elie and St Andrews. While much larger than Elie, St. Andrews (population 16,680) is also charming. Per Wikipedia, “St Andrews is known worldwide as the “home of golf” in part because the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, founded in 1754, exercises legislative authority over the game worldwide (except in the United States and Mexico), and also because the famous links course is the most frequent venue for The Open Championship, the oldest of golf’s four major championships.” The day before the start of The Open, we toured the famous golf course and got to see several famous players (i.e.,Tom Watson and John Daly) on their practice rounds. I don’t watch or play golf, but even I couldn’t resist getting caught up in the excitement of walking on such a historic course and seeing some famous players. Steve, Jim, and Sam were like kids in a candy store walking on the course and even more so as they watched their favorite players battle it out on Day 1 of The Open from the sidelines of the historic course. While I didn’t go with them to The Open, I kept up on the golfer’s scores while relaxing at the house. That’s how infectious the vibe of The Open was!

Besides being the home of golf, St Andrews is home to the beautiful University of St Andrews, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world and the oldest in Scotland, founded in 1413. Notable alumni include England’s Prince William and Princess Kate. We also explored Edinburgh, Scotland’s capitol, for a day, walking around the large (population 492,680) but very accessible city and visiting the Edinburgh Castle (12th century). It’s a beautiful historic city which explains why Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And while in Scotland, we had to try the national dish, haggis, “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead.” It was….interesting. We had a great time walking around and checking out the sights of coastal Scotland, which of course, included the pubs where we chatted with the locals. Like the Irish, the Scots we met on the street, on the bus, at restaurants, and at the pub were genuinely friendly and fun to chat with.

From Scotland, Jim and Sam returned home, Glenda went to London, England for a few days before returning home, and Steve and I went to Paris, France.

What did we do for 9 days in Paris, France? Explore the well-known sights of the city and indulge in fabulous wine and food of course!

Paris is the amazing, vivacious city I always imagined it would be. This capitol city is large (population 2,241,346) and bustling but accessible and filled with history, and of course romance. We stayed in a lovely apartment close to Canal Saint Martin and Republique Square, an area with numerous cafes, patisseries, small markets, and shops. We spent the days visiting some of Paris’ famous sights including the Notre Dame Cathedral (12th century), the Saint-Chapelle (13th century), Louvre Museum (1792), Père Lachaise Cemetery (1804), Arc de Triomphe (1836), and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (1914). It was very cool to finally visit these places I’ve only seen pictures of. We also had the good fortune of hanging out with Steve’s friend, Eddie, and some of Eddie’s friends, all French. It was cool to hang out at their favorite spots and feel like a local. Along with hanging with the locals, we also adopted the local  lifestyle and picnicked along the Canal Saint Martin and the Seine. It was surreal to drink wine on the banks of the Seine while watching the daylight fading behind the Eiffel Tower. In addition to the good wine, cheese, bread, and fresh veggies that made up our picnics, we also enjoyed delicious wine and food at some fantastic restaurants, and, oh yeah, more than a few macaroons from the local patisseries. Holy crap, it’s no wonder Paris is a gastronomic capitol!

Exploring Dublin, Ireland, Elie and St. Andrews, Scotland, and Paris, France was a fantastic experience made much more special since I got to share the experience with Steve, Glenda, Jim, and Sam. Thank you all for letting me share your vacation and thank you Steve for a wonderful time in Paris.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/tTMnexAWsMG5UcUT9

Enjoy!

DSC00022
In Dublin, Ireland enjoying a beer with Glenda, Steve, Sam, and Jim before a tour of the Jameson whiskey distillery.
DSC00258
In Scotland touring the Edinburgh Castle with Jim, Glenda, and Sam.
DSC00147
In St. Andrews, Scotland walking the historic golf course before The Open.

DSC01425

DSC00460
In Paris enjoying wine with Steve on the banks of the Seine.
_20150808_082514
In Paris at the Louvre museum.