Saturday, January 12, 2013

Winter Break!

Wow, I have a LOT to catch up on!  I am going to try to keep everything as brief as possible, otherwise this will get way too long.  Well, on Christmas Eve I set out on a fifteen day trip!  My adventure started in Italy, then moved on to Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and back to Austria.  Here's a summary of my trip...

The wonderful family I spent Christmas with!
St. Catherine's Monastery 
As I said, the trip started in Italy.  I went to go stay with some old family friends.  This was I family I was very close with when I was little, but then they moved to Europe and I haven't seen them ever since!  Although it has been fifteen years, it wasn't weird seeing them at all!  I had a great time celebrating the christmas festivities with them.  On Christmas Eve, I went out with Dan and Chanti (the two children who are about my age) into Varese (a city about 45 minutes north of Milan, near the Swiss boarder) to spend the night in a cafe with their friends.  Apparently in Italy, Christmas Eve is a night you spend with friends and Christmas day is for the family.  With that being said, I woke up on Christmas morning and went to mass with Antonella (the mother) and then we came back to a giant Christmas day lunch.  It was seven courses long and each one was delicious but I was stuffed by the end.  Later that night, Dan and Antonella showed me a few sights around Lago Maggiore (the lake they live near) including an incredibly old and well preserved monastery called St. Catherines which is built right into the side of the lake!  The next day we had another long lunch to celebrate St. Stefano's day and then Antonella drove me to Milan for the day.  We spent a few hours in Milan before I had to catch my train to Austria.  It was a fantastic trip and I couldn't have imagined a better way to spend my Christmas this year.

I took a night train from Milan and arrived in Salzburg around 7am.  I met Amanda (a fellow American that I met through my program in Spain) at our hostel there.  This was a bit strange because it was my second time in Salzburg; I had been there six years earlier with my high school band.  I definitely had a sense of déjá vu being there again, but it was great! Over the day and a half we were there, we visited a lot of things: the mozart museum, the Hoehnsalzburg castle, St. Peter's cemetery, St. Peter's catacombs, the Mirabelle gardens, and more!  But, I have to say my favorite part about being in Salzburg was just walking around the picturesque city, soaking in the atmosphere,  and sampling the local cuisine.  We had plenty of sausages and pretzels as well as a nice meal of beef soup, wiener-schnitzel, potato salad and Austrian beer.

Bled, Slovenia
Our next stop was Slovenia.  We stayed in the capital of the country called Ljubljana (pronouced Lu-bli-yana). We were lucky to be visiting this time of the year in Slovenia because between Christmas and New Years is Slovenia's independence day.  So, while we were there, there was a HUGE festival going on!  Along the river of the city in the centre there were tons of booths selling everything from traditional Slovenian cuisine (a lot of meat), mulled wine, homemade candy and more.  In addition to that, there was live music around every corner!  Some of it was traditional and some a little more modern.  Amanda had a great night wandering throughout the festival and enjoying the Slovenian's hospitality and friendly nature.  Although not every Slovenian speaks perfect English, they are always willing to try and to make you as happy as possible.  In addition to seeing the capital, we took a day trip to Bled, a city about an hour outside of Ljubljana.  Bled is the home to a gorgeous lake, surrounded by the Alps, with an island in the middle with a beautiful church.  The views were breathtaking, and I would recommend Bled to anyone passing through Slovenia!
The main square in Zagreb, Croatia for NYE!

Plitvice National Park
Our next stop was Croatia!  The first city we went to was Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.  We had a great time in Zagreb!  We met a group of fantastic people at our hostel from all over the world (South Africa, Australia, Canada, U.K., Italy, France, etc.).  On New Years Eve, all of us went out for a nice (yet extremely cheap) meal, and then we headed into the main square where there was a HUGE concert going on and tons of people!  When midnight struck, there were fireworks everywhere!  Definitely a New Years Eve to remember. Also, while we were in Zagreb, we took a day trip to Plitvice National Park.  This park was STUNNING!  It is home to turquoise green lakes and waterfalls around every corner.  The pathways throughout the park get you right up next to the water!  It was really incredible and the pictures don't do the place justice.

Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia
After a few days in Zagreb we headed down the coast of Croatia to a city called Split.  I didn't really know what to expect from Split, but it as absolutely incredible!  Possibly, my favorite place of the whole trip.  Split it a very unique city that reminds me of Italy in a lot of ways, but it still maintains that eastern-european flare.  The coolest thing in Split is called Diocletian's Palace. It's a palace that dates back to the 4th century, has been built on for hundreds of years, and is still used as the centre of city life today!  It's incredible to see this amazingly well-preserved fortress filled with shops, places to lives, restaurants, bars, cafes, and markets!  Although it is still used today, it maintains it's ancient architecture and medieval charm.  Amanda and I enjoyed some great food in Split as well!  We treated ourself to an Italian lunch (I had gorgonzola gnocci with dried plums) and traditional Bosnian food called cevapi (minced meat inside a bread pocket with roasted peppers and onions).  Although we were only in Split for about a day and a half, it was definitely worth the stop.  I hope to get back to Croatia in the summer to I can see the amazing beaches I keep hearing about!

Outside the Schonbrunn Palace
Our last stop was Vienna, Austria.  Vienna is a town that's full of culture, yet also has a very metropolitan feel (it is a city of nearly two million people after all).  Most of what Vienna has to offer is the amazing opera scene and tons of museums, and being the poor travelers that we are, we couldn't afford to see everything.  We did manage to do some fun activities in Vienna including visiting the Naschtmark (Vienna's main food market) and got to sample everything from dried hibiscus flower to stuffed pepperoncinis, went to Sunday morning mass with the notorious Vienna's Boys Choir accompanied by a full orchestra, and visited the Schonbrunn Palace (the summer home of the Hapsburgs).  It was a great last stop.

All in all the trip was phenomenal! I always love seeing new parts of the world and seeing what their culture is like.  However, I must admit after fifteen days straight of traveling (and in countries that I didn't know the language) I was extremely happy to get back to a country with a familiar language and a familiar bed :)

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