I Can Ride My Bike With No Handlebars Tuesday, Jun 8 2010 

Did you pack your Chucks along with your Gucci talons (high heels) from Monaco? Good deal! Because now, instead of promenading along the gilded streets of Monaco, we’re off to Dijon, where the famous mustard originates, the wine flows more freely than water and the tourists get sloshed every day (because they can!)

Countryside near Dijon, France and beautiful vineyards (or as Laura would say, "wine fields!")

Armed with a lot of water, and good shoes, the two Lauras and I took a train from Dijon (which seemed wrong, since we had just arrived in the city less than 24 hours earlier) to Beaune. Beaune is the capital of the Burgundy wine-producing region, and although nearby Dijon is much larger, Beaune is largely unspoiled by gawking tourists and remains blissfully picturesque. It boasts a “smashing Saturday market,” so after renting bicycles for the day, we wandered to the market, and “smashing” it certainly was!

Me and my bike!

We bought fabulous mustard seed-coated formage (cheese), a twisted baguette, sweet tomatoes and the rest of our yummy picnic lunch.  Packed with our pique-nique lunch, we embarked on a 24 kilometer trip to Puligny-Montrachet where some of the world’s foremost Chardonnay is produced. We explored on our bikes via rolling, sweeping hills and zipping down and around the old streets of picturesque villages and gazing at the zigzagged rows of vines on either side of the roads.

A column naming the vineyard's owner and city of origin

Vineyards.... and a horse and plow!

Baby grapes...

Everything was smooth riding (with the exception of some huffing and puffing up some hills) until the moment where Laura T thought it would be a good idea to tumble, headlong, off her bike and on to the pavement, effectively scraping herself in several places and scaring Laura the Chef and I silly. But what a trooper she was! After getting bandaged up (along with popping several painkillers), she hopped back on her bike and away we went.

My Lauras, just before Laura T had a close encounter with the pavement.

The fateful road... and a wicked rough hill to bike UP. (A moment of silence, please, for Laura Trude's skin.)

When we reached Puligny-Montrachet, we were tired. Some of us were sporting abrasions, others were sporting awesome sweat stains and others were regretting the giant 1.5 liter of Coke she had purchased earlier (It turns out that Coke is heavy not to mention NOT thirst-quenching!). But none of the above were going to stop us from tasting the world’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir!

Wine tasting (and spitting bucket in background). In case you didn't know already, you don't DRINK all the wine in a tasting. You unceremoniously spit it OUT, right in front of everyone. Counter-intuitive? Yes.

So we signed up to taste (NOT GULP!!!) wine while we lazily soaked in the atmosphere of the Burgundian countryside. That night, back in Beaune (and still sweaty and somewhat bedraggled by this point), we had a delicious meal of Boeuf Bourguignon, regional wine, cheese and exquisite dessert.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Pretty Laura the Chef at a great dinner in Beaune!

By the end of the day, when we removed our Chucks (not our Guccis!), we were exhausted: physically and emotionally. But I think it is safe to say that it was my all-time favorite day of this last fling in France.

Boeuf Boeurginon

To learn about Pugligny-Montrachet, click here… and then get a corkscrew and a wine glass! Chin! (Cheers!)

To see the surrounding area of Dijon and a map of the route we took biking, click here.

Remember to check out Laura the Chef’s blog! It boasts a great new post about our Ice Cream Overload in Nice from a few days ago!

[I have 24 hours left in the country and only a few more blog posts before I say farewell. Stay tuned for the final installments!]

“Deo Juvante” Monaco Sunday, Jun 6 2010 

I hope you packed your Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino and Marc Jacobs, because we’re off to Monaco, a tiny principality of France and the world’s second smallest country! Here, appearance is everything. The rich foreigners strut down the street and the Ferraris are more like red streaks dashing down winding roads, dodging gawking tourists. The high rise condos shoot into the crystal-clear sky and the water sparkles in the sunshine. Giant yachts glide, phantom-like, through the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

The serene Mediterranean Sea, as seen from overlooking one of the old city walls, near the Museum of Ocean Sciences

Mmmm! Ferrari! Outrageously expensive, brand-new sports cars run around Monaco like Chevy 4x4s in North Dakota.

Monaco is less than a mile square although it hosts a population of 33,000. Monaco’s population is unique in the fact that its natives are of the minority. The majority is made up of French, followed by excessively wealthy foreigners who flee to Monaco to enjoy its lack of income tax. The government gets its due when it comes to real estate taxation and employer’s taxes. Almost half of the income from the people goes to the state, and the city reflects the income nicely. All buildings are perfectly kept. No graffiti is seen, no cigarette butts litter the ground, and everyone seems keenly aware of the beauty of their surroundings and strives to keep it beautiful.

Highrise Skyline of Monaco

The country has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297 when Francesco Grimaldi, disguised as a monk, captured Monaco and became its ruler. Monaco is currently ruled by sovereign Prince Albert II, Europe’s “Most Eligible Bachelor!” The castle, modest yet beautiful, is perched on a jutting-out of land, overlooking the beautiful Côte d’Azur.

The beautiful Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco

Prince Albert II’s mother was the famous American actress Grace Kelly who was tragically killed when her sports car careened off of one of Monaco’s cliffs. Princess Grace was married and buried at the same beautiful byzantine cathedral, right in the castle of Monaco’s walls.

We wandered around, aware of the lack of beggars and litter. It was other-worldly how clean, sparkly and expensive the country was. We got sleepier and sleepier in the sunshine that continued to warm our shoulders (and according to Miss Vein, “cook us”) as we walked up and down the terraced streets of Monte-Carlo (the city in the country of Monaco).

We wandered to the world-famous Monte-Carlo Casino, the place that gives Monaco its nickname “The European Las Vegas.” The interior and the exterior of the casino were as grand and obscenely rich as everyone who travels and lives in Monaco. Gilded, vaulted domes, floor to ceiling mirrors and plush, velvet curtains hung on every wall. I wondered if the Louvre had changed cities and planted itself in Monaco instead of in Paris.

Monte-Carlo Casino!

Laura the Chef, who had never gambled before, decided that she had 5 extra euros that needed to be spent and fed them to a slot machine. 25 minutes later, the three of us walked out of Monte-Carlo, Laura bearing the winnings of the day, a whole 5.60 euros. Sixty centimes (cents) wasn’t getting us any closer to a Ferrari or even some posh Gucci shoes, but at least our luck followed us to Monaco that day!

Me, overlooking the beautiful Côte d’Azur, Monaco.

That night, officially exhausted, we hopped back on a bus headed for Nice and our amazing hotel. We bid Monaco farewell, promising a speedy (and fashionable!) return, and were rocked two and fro, gently, as the bus wound along the twisty roads of the Côte d’Azur.

To learn more about the beautiful Principality of Monaco, click here, and click on the English option!

Look at Laura the Chef’s latest picture post about the nicest, sweetest things in France!

To see the extent of the Côte d’Azur region in France, click here.

Saying Bonjour et Au Revoir Tuesday, May 25 2010 

This part of the trip is always about what little things need to be completed last-minute so that the experience of studying overseas finishes with such a smooth ride that you almost don’t recognize its finale. I seem to have accumulated an enormous list telling me what last-minute things I need to do before I leave Caen. Who do I need to visit? What words of encouragement do I need to speak? How in God’s green earth am I going to fit everything in my suitcase??!?

Within the last week, I have been saying goodbye to people here who I know I may not see for the rest of my life. It’s a difficult situation because I deeply love my friends in France and have been blessed excessively by their presence in my life these past 4 months.

When my friend Martha asked me to play violin last week at the Feast of the Pentecost Mass and consequently her confirmation service, I couldn’t think of another way to be a bigger blessing. I met Martha the very first Sunday in Caen at Eglise St. Pierre. Molly looked at me like I had lost the last remaining marble when I told her that I was going to thank the pretty violinist for playing in church. I had no idea what to say to Martha! I stumbled through bad French while she looked on at me, amused, and then asked in a perfect American accent, “Are you American?” My jaw must have hit the floor because she laughed and we instantly became friends. She introduced Molly and I to the “other girl from Minnesota,” Mary Elise Holmgren. Mary Elise, in turn, introduced us to many people from the Aumonerie, the Catholic student organization that has been the source for so many wonderful conversations and friendships.

My sister, Marthe, whose friendship has shrunk the world by a whole ocean.

"The other Minnesota girl," Mary Elise, who helped Molly and I make so many irreplaceable friends.

Friends at the Aumonerie house during a BBQ

Since that time, I have made friends with people from all over the world, on every continent and from every financial, educational and even emotional status! I have laughed with, cried with and been angry with people. With my friends, I have giggled until my stomach muscles begged for respite, been introspective and frightened out of my mind. During this journey, when all else failed, we held hands and prayed. It has not been an easy time, but one that with faith and friends is far from impossible. I grieve to say goodbye to my wonderful friends from my classes, but know that they’ll always be close to my heart.

Preston Leslie and me at a cello recital in Abbaye Aux Dames.

Mary Elise, Molly and the birthday boy, Louis Guillotte

Me, François Cogez and Molly in the garden at the Aumonerie house

Today, I welcome one of two Americans friends to France for the last 14 days of staying in this beautiful country, rich with culture and sights to see. Laura Vein [“Laura the Chef”] is currently making her way north to Caen to see me while I struggle through the last little hoops of my education at the Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie. While I pass my exams, she’ll be soaking in the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of Caen… and then, it’s off to more exciting adventures when Laura Trude arrives on Sunday. We will be traveling from Paris to Nice, Nice to Monaco, Monaco back to Nice, and then Nice to Dijon. From Dijon we return to Paris and catch our respective flights. There will be many pictures, stacks of stories and many adventures.

Stick around while we wrap up this journey as friends!

The Funny Things We Say Monday, May 3 2010 

The Quote Book of this oddessy has grown! When you factor in jet lag, culture shock, late nights, early mornings, French men, hunger and lack thereof, you will find that we said some pretty funny things. Enjoy!

At the Minneapolis Airport, predeparture: “So you don’t have any livestock? Small farm animals? Nothing like that? No? Good. You look like a Chicken Smuggler. That’s why I asked.”–TSA agent to Kelli

Upon arriving in France, at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris: “We’re going to have to ask you to remain in your seats as we switch ports. It looks as though we’re parked in the wrong spot.”–Our pilot

“Don’t your intestines have enough length to, like, wrap around the earth, like, four times?”–Kelsey Baumann

“My left boob was just compromised by a deaf Frenchman!!!”–You know who you are

Upon being critical of the French cultural kisses: “Lingering bises tend to be sort of like Magellan circumnavigating the globe.”–Thomas Carlson

On finding shoes that will fit big feet in a country where big feet don’t appear to exist: “GERMANS. Now THOSE are some big women!”–Kelsey Baumann

On warding off bride gifts from other foreigners: “At least you haven’t gotten a goat yet.”–Danielle Beyer, to Kelli

On the topic of the goodness of Kebab meat: “It’s meat with garlic shoved in it. How could that NOT be good?”–Kelli Bren

On the potency of a certain kind of beer named Elephant: “Elephants. They’ll get ya every time.”–Kelsey Baumann

Upon realizing she’d begun a collection of pet-named creepers: “Now I gotta watch out for KFC AND Goats?!”–Kelli

When we realized we were getting sick of eating the same thing over and over: “EAT THE ______ RAVIOLI!!!”–You know who you are

On the taste of French milk: “Whoo, boy! This milk…. man! It’s like sucking on a cow’s nipple!”–Kelsey Baumann

In reference to the pet name we coined for pining French men: “Shoot that chien!”–Kelli

In honor of Thomas’ Magellan quote and after a series of cultural kisses: “You just got Magellan’d!”–Molly DesRoches to Kelli

While walking into the Trouville casino: “I feel like I’m walking into hell…”–Kelli

Franglais (French-English) fun with Desperate, pining French men: “Roti that Pigeon!” and “Pose that Lapin!” (Literally translated, “Rotisserie-bake the pigeon, “Stand him up!”)

In Lisieux at the childhood home of Saint Therese: “C’est le cheveux de St. Therese! C’est le vrai cheveux de St. Therese!”–Wrinkly Little Nun

On being ill: “My throat feels like I swallowed a cat.”–Danielle Beyer

On our dress-up day in Oral Communication Class: “Well! This will be the second time I’ve cross-dressed…”–Preston Leslie

While at the D-Day Beaches: “Okay, so what were the 4 countries that helped liberate France in World War II? USA, Great Britain, Canada and…?”–Danielle Beyer
“The Germans? No, wait, that’s not right.”–Laura Fugelburg

“I’m so hungry I could eat my own hand… but I don’t know where it’s been.”–Danielle Beyer

On an inappropriately short skirt on a woman in a bookstore: “And we’re back! On a ladder! Man, that’s so awkward. Do people not look in the mirror? They’re called full-length mirrors. Use them.”–Kelli

“There is a giant head statue in Paris. So clearly, I had to pick its nose.”–Danielle Beyer

In Salzburg, Austria, on board our tour bus: “You look like a grown up Gretel [from The Sound of Music]!”–Peter, our tour guide to Kelli

On the French strikes that cause so many problems with travel: “SNCF, wrecking lives one train ride at a time.”–Molly DesRoches

“Let me reflechier on that for a second.”–Molly DesRoches, Franglais Fluent

“I oublied that.”–Molly DesRoches

“My milkshake bringeth more menfolk to the yard. Verily, ’tis better than thine.”–Molly DesRoches

“That makes my heart happy!”–Kelli

“I don’t need sweets because I’m with you!”–You know who you are

On calling home at Easter, my cousin’s big news: “Grandma told me I’d make a good stripper.”

“Everything on you sparkles!”–Thomas Carlson

On not understanding anything in class: “Comprende.”–Anne

“I just got kamakazi kissed!! The nerve!”–Kelli

[rancorous laughter] “It’s my personal joke: You said ‘Merci Beau Cul’ when you meant merci beaucoup.”–Nordahl’s Father to Kelli at Chateau des Ravalet (Depending on how you pronounce “beaucoup,” it could sound like you’re saying “Thanks, nice tush!”)

Beautiful Cherbourg (Part II) Sunday, Apr 25 2010 

I slept soundly and greeted the sweet sunshine that poured into Petra and Nordahl’s lovely flat in the center of Cherbourg. The sky was nearly cloudless and I could tell it was going to be an absolutely fantastic afternoon.

Petra and I enjoyed cup after cup of yummy coffee and toast with rhubarb jam and laughed about silly things like girls usually do. Cultures are wonderful in this way: you can travel the world and the little things you take particular delight in follow you around and manifest themselves in different ways. The joyfulness of sharing a cup of coffee (or three!) with my Czech friend was simply irreplaceable.

We left the flat and went on another tour of Cherbourg, this time to see what we could see of the sea from the Montagne du Roule (say that ten times fast). We walked along the Avenue de Paris to another beautiful park, full of exotic birds and not so exotic birds (giant chickens and geese), and I looked up to the beautiful blue sky to see the Fort du Roule, where the Germans, while they occupied Cherbourg, entrenched and offered fierce resistance before surrendering to the Allies and Free French.

Petra and me, on top of the Montagne du Roule. It was a little bit windy!

The Montagne du Roule itself is noteworthy because the mountain hosts intertwining tunnels dug entirely by man-power of a prisoner held in the mountain for two years. There is a war museum in the fort perched on the side of the mountain, too. It was opened in June 1954, just nine years after V-E Day.

Looking out on the Montagne du Roule. You can see the fort tucked on the right side of the mountain.

The following pictures are what we saw when we got to the top of the mountain! I hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I enjoyed the experience. The wind whipped our hair around and kissed our cheeks while the warm sun brushed our cheeks with a little bit of red. Boats drifted lazily in and out of the harbour, and I felt that if I had a picnique, I could stay up on the mountain for a very long afternoon.

One View from the mountain...

Second view from the mountain top

Petra's photography! Me, hopping down from our perch high above the ocean.

If you want to learn more about the Fort du Roule, click here

But if you really want to see beautiful countryside, immaculate parks and oceanfront, there is no choice but to visit Cherbourg for yourself. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

April in Paris Monday, Apr 19 2010 

My Spring Break Travels ended up in Paris, the Gem of the West. Staying in Paris was a quick stop-over from a long train ride from Salzburg. I saw so much and so little at the same time, because the city of Paris is not something you can just see for one day and say that you’ve seen the city. You might not be able to see the city in a whole lifetime!

The river Seine and the walls of the canal, protected by UNESCO.

Paris was founded by a tribe of Gaulish people called the Parisii in about the year 250 BC, although archeological finds have seen evidence of inhabitation from as early as the 4th millennium BC. The Parisii settled the land known today by the world as the “Île de la Cité,” a little island in the middle of the Seine River in Paris. All was well in the world until the Romans invaded. And then the Vikings invaded, and then the rest of the world invaded (almost including Attila the Hun, who swung just south of the city, thanks, it is said, to Saint Genevive, Patron Saint of Paris!).

Today, there are no Turkish invaders, no Attilas, and the closet thing to a Viking invader was me, a 3rd generation Norwegian-American who can barely scrape together a sentence in the Norwegian language. Paris today is a vast city of art, culture, tourism, haute couture and history. Its streets ramble in all directions and getting lost is a serious concern. Such a cultural melange was never seen! Chinese, American, Spanish, Italian, French, Irish, English, Saudi Arabian… it’s not crazy to be surrounded by people with entirely different backgrounds and all be interested in the same city.

Lovers from all over the world flock to Paris. They bring locks to fasten to this bridge and then they throw the key into the Seine to symbolize lasting love. Aww.

So many famous sights are within a stone’s throw from each other: Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine was set up for many years as a grisly reminder of the 1,300 deaths from the French Revolution), Arc de la Defense, La Louvre (which houses over 33,000 pieces of art!), Les Jardins de Tuilieries, L’Orangerie Museum, L’Arc du Triomphe, and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel seem to point in a straight line. They point directly down the Champs-Elysees and cut a line through the heart of Paris.

The Famous Pyramid Entrance to the Louvre by American Architect, I. M. Pei, thought to be "the most controversial artwork in Paris" because of the mass dislike voiced by the Parisians. It lines up perfectly with L'Arc du Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde!

Place de la Concorde, the Obelisk which replaced the Guillotine from the French Revolution that stood here for many years to remind the people of the grisly revolt.

It’s possible, of course, to write a BOOK on Paris with such famous and historic landmarks, let alone cover it in one fell swoop with a blog post, but I will try to convey the visit I had with the famous city just a few days ago.

After so many days of rain and clouds in the other locations we visited over Spring Break, it was a delightfully blue sky that greeted me and Molly when we opened the curtains to our youth hostel. We stayed at an “all women’s” hostel which had a shocking amount of man-like women roaming around (in other words, it wasn’t an “all-women” hostel as we had expected!). Nonetheless, we left bright and early to take in Paris before our train left for Caen that night.

Me, next to the Notre Dame de Paris!

Jardin de Tuileries, the gardens that replaced the Palais de Tuileries when it was burned down in a revolt. It's beautiful, and the Parisians enjoy lounging around the pools, soaking in the sunshine. In the distance, you can see L'Arc du Triomphe and the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.

We took advantage of the Free Walking Tour provided by Sandman’s (check them out here!) and managed to see so many beautiful things in only 3.5 hours that I felt compelled to circle them on my map in order not to forget where we had been. Paris is enormous! Its people are in a hurry, just like any big city, and I was glad that it was spring and not summer because Paris certainly WOULD sizzle!

Probably my favorite activity of the whole day was partaking in mass at the Notre Dame de Paris. It was utterly awesome to be in such a famous cathedral. People were shockingly quiet throughout the service, and I was pleased. Molly and I moved on to find a sumptuous lunch before catching our tour. We saw the Louvre (but only from the outside!), the Tuilieries gardens, L’Arc de Defense (France’s department of defense), countless statues, bridges, landmarks and avenues. When we finished our tour at the Grand Palais and Petit Palais (both false names as neither were palaces but constructed for the World’s Fair in 1900), I was EXHAUSTED!

This is where we ended our Free Tour with Sandman's. The Petit Palais is not a palace nor is it petite. It is, however, very beautiful with its gilded doors! It's used today as a museum and conference hall.

The last stop of the day was at Montmarte, “Hill of the martyrs” where Saint Denis, the 1st bishop of Paris, was decapitated for his beliefs. It now is home to the very famous Basilique du Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre. It was built between the years of 1875 and 1914 and consecrated in 1919. From the basilica, you could see a sweeping vista of the city, a beautiful sight.

When I crawled on to the train at Gare de Saint-Lazare, Paris, I had walked about 15 miles and was utterly spent. I couldn’t quite remember a time when I was so tired! Our train was blessedly speedy and comfortable (and NOT delayed due to ash and volcanic eruptions!!!), and with our Carrefour Market suppers, Molly and I were happy as clams.

Montmartre, the "Hill of the Martyrs" with the beautiful Basilisque du Sacre-Coeur

My little dorm room had never looked so inviting or comfortable as it did that night. I crawled into bed, thanking God for His protection throughout my travels. It was a delicious, inspiring, beautiful week, one that I’d gladly repeat.

Click here to see Paris and the famous landmarks on a map!

Click here to see more of the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur in all its beauty.

Panoramic Panoramas Saturday, Apr 17 2010 

I could tell you for a million years how beautiful Salzburg, Austria is, but it’s one of those places that you simply must visit for yourself in order to truly appreciate its full glory. The Alps wrap the city in what seems like tangible beauty: beauty you can almost touch aside from the fact that the mountains loom 3,000 meters (9842 feet!) above your head. The hills are very dark luscious green.

In spite of the stubborn clouds that refused to be blown away overnight, I hopped on a bus for the famous Sound of Music Bus Tour. We tooled around Salzburg while the tour guide relayed interesting and little-known trivia from the movie and the lives of the real family Von Trapp. When the tour guide switched off his microphone and turned on the soundtrack to the famous musical, I couldn’t help singing my face off with the rest of the Americans and gaping at the mountains, still impressive although they remained largely obscured by clouds. We took curve after curve, braving wind and rain and passing high-altitude snowpack still lingering in the ravines. When we stopped at the town of Mondsee (Moon Lake), we were able to stretch our legs, eat warm apple struzel with vanilla sauce and tour the church where the beautiful wedding scene in The Sound of Music was filmed.

I did not take this picture. This is what the area WOULD have looked like if the clouds would have taken off. Someday I'll return and see it like this.

Mondsee, the way I should have seen it...

Lovely lovely lovely. It's so peaceful and lovely in the countryside!

The church was breathtaking. Statue after gilded statue packed the church full of glittering gold and loveliness. The altar was simply over-the-top glorious. It is just as stunning in real life as when Maria walks down the aisle toward the Captain in the movie. The ceiling looks like the top of a iced cake. Its white with pink detailing criss-crossed, curlicued and arched and then “dripped” down the walls in perfectly straight columns.

Inside the Cathedral of Mondsee where the wedding scene from the Sound of Music was filmed. See the pink "Icing" dripping down the sides of the church in columns?

The apple struzel, I believe, deserves its own paragraph. Molly fairly laughed at me when I became reverent over my own “crisp apple struzel” in a restaurant where a little old lady prepares your food and you can look over the church, its courtyard and the hills. I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect to top off the Panoramic Sound of Music tour, and silently tried to remember every single detail about the struzel. It was warm and soft, the top powder-sugared and on either side of the dessert was ladled creamy, cloves-y, vanilla sauce. The apples were just cooked enough to be soft, but not mushy like the French apple pastries, and they  gave a little pop when you bit into them. I scooped every. Single. Last. Bite. And then Molly asked me if I was going to cry.

Crisp Apple Struzel with Vanilla Sauce... be jealous of me.

Mondsee, the lake that gives the town its name, is crystal-clear and icy, aqua blue. It is frigid cold because its water comes from the glaciers housed in the mountains far above. As the ice melts, it runs down the rocky cliffs and tumbles down in waterfalls. Over distance, the waterfalls become rivers and the rivers are the source to most of Austria’s beautiful lakes. I assume that when the sun comes out, it dances and sparkles on the water invitingly, but don’t take a swim unless you want to become almost as blue (with cold!) as the water!

I swear I will return to Austria someday when it is not cloudy. It is too beautiful to only visit once. The sky is bluer, the people are blonder (a rarity in France!!!) and it is very much like a little taste of home.

Kelsey, Danielle, Laura, Molly and me on top of the world at Wolfgangsee, Austria

Usually I give you a link to click on at this point, but I do not have a link for the entire Sound of Music movie. If you have not seen it, drop whatever you are doing at this very instant and watch it. It is good for your soul.

For the (condensed) history of the real Von Trapp family, click here. Theirs is a fascinating story, and one that beats the musical version in its drama. You can also read first-hand about Maria, Georg and their turbulent true-life musical. Maria herself wrote it! Click here for the book.

Modes of Transportation Friday, Apr 16 2010 

It would seem that this Spring Break has acquired a Bad Travel Sprite. To start off the saga, we missed our flight to Prague. Our train was completely disregarded by France’s SNCF workers. When we tried to get to the airport on the second day, we were derailed (har har) again because of the same strike, only this time, in Paris and on the RER (the fast trains that run through the city)!

The Travel Sprite got lost somewhere in Paris because when we arrived in Prague, our shuttle waited for us, timing perfect and the ease of which made us all rejoice. The next day, however, the Travel Sprite reappeared, and I misread our tram map. We got off on the wrong stop and had to navigate.

Now I will impart the story of why and how I came to be inexplicably on a bus headed toward Linz, Austria as stated at the beginning of the last entry. At the time I was writing the previous narrative, I was somewhere in the Czech countryside on a bus. I firmly believed I ought to be on a train, traveling straight to Salzburg, Austria. Instead, when we arrived at our train, two nanoseconds from boarding it, we were stopped by official train workers and told that we were going to be taking an “autobus.” What! Why did we buy train tickets to get on a Czech bus? Where does it say “bus” on our TRAIN TICKETS??!

I asked 3 or 4 different people and got the same response. “Ne, ne! Autobus for you! Ano!  Dobry!” (Translation: “Even though you bought a ticket to ride a train, You are not going to take one. You will be taking a bus for 6 hours into countryside you do not know where people speak a language you do not understand all while others look to you for answers.”) I know about 10 words of Czech, all of which were spoken to me with much head-nodding and pantomime. No doubt about it! We weren’t supposed to be on a train–we were supposed to be on a bus. Why the platform at the train station said “SALZBURG” on it and why other people weren’t visibly losing their minds over the thought of taking a bus to the middle of nowhere was beyond me. But the happy-looking woman and the seasoned-looking driver didn’t look confused. I reasoned that they were educated individuals who spoke significantly more Czech than me and walked on to the bus with much fear and trembling.

Watching the Czech countryside race by my bus window... Where were we going?

SIX HOURS LATER, we got off the bus in Linz, Austria and got ON to our train in Linz destined for Salzburg. Somewhere along the trip via bus, we crossed the Austrian border, stopped numerous times for toilet breaks and turn-arounds, gazed lovingly on the beautiful rolling hills of the eastern Czech countryside and wondered where on earth we could possibly be. I, meanwhile, sat as close to the front of the bus as possible and kept tabs on the highway we were taking (E55) just in case the driver took momentary leave of his senses. When we finally made it on to the train, had our tickets examined and deemed acceptable, I finally relaxed.

Another 4 hours later, I sat in a comfortable hostel in Salzburg, Austria while the raindrops stubbornly refused to stop dropping from the sky and the setting of the Sound of Music movie shrouded the city in fame. Around the corner, I knew Mozart’s birthplace, museum and artifacts were housed. And I knew that for the time being, the Travel Sprite would have to remain in slumber.

Click here to see the hostel I crashed at. It’s pretty sweet and featured as one of the world’s best hostels.

The Golden City Wednesday, Apr 14 2010 

I am inexplicably in a bus traveling toward Linz, Austria. The sky is getting darker and darker and I am left to think about the last 2 days as well as why I am on a bus instead of a train.

I spent a beautiful two days in Prague, capital of Czech Republic with my friends. It was my 4th journey to Prague, and every time I visit the “Paris of the East” it seems to get nearer and dearer to my heart. When I landed in the plane, it was almost like I was coming home. We were warmly greeted by a kind driver who brought us to our hostel. Sir Toby’s Youth Hostel immediately won our love because of its giant fluffy pillows, warm comforters and exceptionally nice desk workers. In spite of the rain, we ventured out to a wonderful restaurant and ate traditional and delightfully cheap Czech food and then hurried back to attend a wine and cheese party at Sir Toby’s. We met a lot of interesting world travelers and shared many laughs over the Czech “stinky cheese.”

This is Sir Toby's, the Greatest Hostel in Prague.

Culture shock manifested itself with the switching of currency (it’s stressful doing division in your head all day for money purposes!) and the people-to-people customs (a startling lack of KISSING in Czech Republic as opposed to France!). I was struck again at my complete and utter lack of language skills. I have, in comparison with my Czech langauge abilities, perfect French.

It’s easy to forget that communism ruled over this country only 20 years ago. In Prague, one is surrounded by the glittering beauty of a city that works tirelessly to obliterate any trace of the deep scars imparted by communism. The rambling, majestic castle stands beyond the swiftly-flowing Vlatava River over which the Charles Bridge and all 31 of its famous statues seem to preside.

Me, on the Charles Bridge, ignoring the fact that I was getting more and more soaked with rain. Prague is beautiful, even in the rain and when you have wet feet!

Big Square by night in Prague.

One of my favorite little things about Czech Republic is the existence of terracotta rooftops and the warm glow that the color seems to give the city as you look over it from the Petrin Observation Tower (which is why Prague is oftentimes referred to as the “Paris of the East”). In spite of the unwelcome rain that thinned out the usual crowds of people, I soaked in the distinct beauty that one can only find in Prague by night.

Prague, splendid view from the Petrin Observation Tower

The City of Terracotta rooftops. The reason it was called the Golden City comes from the practice of putting the city's extensive gold reserves on the rooftops, safe from thieves.

The people you meet in the shops, at the hostels or waiting your table seem to be bred for niceness, as though its part of their very core to be kind and generous. Yet at the same time, as my friend Molly observed, there is a distinct feel to the city and its people. The Czech people have suffered under persecution from destructive government regimes for many decades, and it’s as though they are very anxious and happy to show others what their city is truly like (warm and welcoming!) instead of the stigma that might still linger from the days of communism and a closed-off country’s inhospitality.

Prague Castle by night. The lights of the castle are reflected in the Vlatava River.

If any country in Central-Eastern Europe can make you fall in love, it’s Prague. Come visit! Stay for awhile and soak in the kindness, the atmosphere and the beauty of a country that is worth a second look. The story of how I came to be on a bus instead of a train will be saved for the next installment of my adventure in Czech Republic.

Me, Molly and Laura spending time in the castle gardens with breathtaking views of the Vlatava River and the city.

To learn about the Petrin Observation Tower, click here.

To learn a little Czech History and how far this country has come in the last century, click here.

To see where I stayed and where you can find Sir Toby’s, click here. You won’t be disappointed!!! This is the BEST HOSTEL!