Sunday, January 19, 2014

Winter Break: Italian Alps, the City of Lights, Beer Capital and Good Company

It's been a long time since my last update, but there are many reasons why. The in the last 3-4 weeks, I've been traveling around western Europe and hosting a friend. It's been exhausting, but in the best sort of way. There's so much to catch up on so I will do my best to cover everything without going into too much detail. No one wants to read a 1,000+ word blog post ;)
My winter break trip started in the same place it did last year, Italy! Once again, I was invited by my former neighbors in the US to stay with them for Christmas.  I'm so lucky to have a home-away-from-home for the holidays in Europe as holidays can be a lonely time if there's no one to spend it with. Anyway, I stayed in Italy for four days and ate lots of good food and spent a lot of time on the couch relaxing.  My time on the couch was the result of being sick with a nasty cold and the bad weather, it rained nearly the whole time I was there, just like last year.  Luckily, on the last day of my stay the clouds party literally and figuratively because I finally got better and the sun came out! The family I stayed with live on Lago Maggiore, a giant lake that straddles the Swiss-Italian border. Although I know that the Alps are close to the lake, I've never been able to see them because of the fog and low-hanging clouds. That all changed on my last day. Daniel (my best friend as a little kid) took me to his special place, which was only a 15 minute walk through the woods near his house. On the way, he also pointed out the ruins of the Roman wall that used the be the northen border of the Roman empire. Nearly 2,000 years old and right in their backyard, HOW COOL IS THAT? Finally, we hopped over a fence then, I knew I had arrived at the special spot. It is a small cliff that hangs about 150 feet over Lago Maggiore. To my left stretched the lake father than I could see and to my right, the snow-capped Italian Alps. My mother would have probably had a heart attack if she saw where I was standing. Falling off this cliff would surely mean my death but being that high above the lake with that beautiful of a sight gave me the adrenaline rush that I so often crave! We spent about a half hour at the special spot but then we went back to the house as we had much more to do before I departed that night. We took a ferry across the late form Angera to Arona, two small picturesque Italian lake-side towns. We walked around and had a coffee but then it was time for me to go. I said my goodbyes and was driven to the airport to head off to Paris. It was a great stay and I loved every minute, but with my newly healthy body, I was ready for some adventure in France!
Daniel's "Special Spot"

I arrived in Paris at nearly midnight. I took one of the last trains into the centre where I met my friend Chris who I haven't seen in a few years! Backstory: 3 years ago when I was traveling in Peru with my friend Caroline, we meet these three nice Aussie boys from Melbourne. We got along so well, that we ended up traveling together for about 5 days. We've always stayed in touch, and about a year ago Tim (one of the aussies) said he, Chris (another aussie) and some friends were planning on doing a Euro trip the following year and were hoping to see me! So we chose Paris as our New Years Eve destination and have been planning on reuniting ever since! It was great to see them again after all those years (although I did see Chris two years ago when we visited Minnesota for a weekend during a family trip in the US). The first night Chris and I got a drink and then we crashed. The following day I was reunited with Tim and introduced to the rest of the group: Tim's girlfiend Justine, James (a childhood friend of Chris), and James' girlfriend Nikki. They let me stayed in the apartment they had rented the second night, and we spent the day exploring Paris a bit. The next day, my friend Ashley arrived! Backstory: Ashley is a friend of mine from Eden Prairie (hometown) and she spontaneously decided to visit me about a month prior! It was an exciting surprise. Anyway, Ashley and I checked into our hostel (St. Christopher's Inn Canal, Paris. I'd highly recommended it to any young budget traveler) and then did some exploring of our own. Throughout the next few days Ashley and I (and sometimes the aussies joined us) hit all the main tourist sights including Versailles, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, etc.  We spent a special New Years Eve night at the aussies apartment. We had a delicious dinner and shared some drinks. Then we went to the famous lock-bridge and watched the Eiffel Tower light up at midnight! There were tons of people on the bridge hooting and celebrating and sharing champagne.  It was a New Years I'll never forget.

Ashley and I parted ways with the aussies the days after New Years day as they were going to Amsterdam and us to Belgium. It was sad but Ashley and I were excited to see Belgium. After a 6 hour bus ride and one hour train we arrived in Brugge! Now I'm going to be honest, I knew nothing about Brugge (sometimes spelt Bruges) before getting there except for EVERYONE that's been there says it beautiful and raves about it. Also, there's a fairly well known thriller movie called "In Bruges" that was filmed there a few years back.  So I had no idea what to expect from Brugge, but I was not disappointed.  Brugge is one of the most picturesque cities I've ever been to. I found out during our walking tour that it's one of the best preserved medieval cities in all of Europe. The houses reminded me of gingerbread houses or something from a fairytale. Beyond the colorful, beautiful buildings there is a river that forms many canals which wind throughout the small city. Between the cobble stone streets, winding roads, foot bridges, and stunning architecture, Brugge is insanely beautiful. But there's much more to Brugge than it's beauty. The people are friendly and there's many tasty things to eat and drink. Everyone knows Belgium is known for four things: beer, fries, chocolate and waffles. Although tasty, it wasn't the best for my health.  My favorite of all was the beer. Over the past few years, due to my brother's experimentation with brewing his own beer, I've really become interested in craft beer and beer in general. The beer in Spain is pretty ordinary, so being in the beer capital of the world was a little slice of heaven for me! The first night we were there, we did a beer tasting at our hostel, the best decision of the whole trip. Not only did we sample and learn about many Belgian beers, but we also met a ton of great people that were staying out our hostel.  We met a group of three siblings from Australia who were traveling together, two guys from Cali, a chinese guy among others. This group of us immediately clicked and we ended up spending the next two days together trying the local beers and exploring Brugge. Some of the cool things I did/saw in Brugge included getting to see the supposed "blood of Jesus Christ", going to a French Fry museum where I learned more info than I'd ever need to know about fries, and seeing all the famous buildings and towers. Honestly, the best part was the beer and the company though.

After 2.5 days in Brugge, we said goodbye to most of our friends (a few hostelmates were traveling in the same direction as us) and headed on to Brussels. Now, I don't want to badmouth Brussels, but everyone we had met that visited Brussels before Brugge said Brussels was nothing special. So we weren't too excited for Brussels, thinking it would just be a dull European capital city. But, we were pleasantly surprised. In our two days in Brussels we took a wonderful walking tour which showed us the main sights of the city, including the famous peeing baby statue! We also happened upon a GIANT Christmas market which was buzzing with locals and travelers alike and lit with bright lights. The market was like so many others that I've seen with stands selling everything from mulled wine, to local food and handmade goods! This Christmas market also included tons of places to try Belgian beer, carnival rides and a skating rink. It quickly topped the list of every Christmas market I've ever been to. Another highlight of Brussels including visiting the infamous "Delirium" which is a bar that has a selection of 2,004 beers! Although choosing what beer to drink was a bit overwhelming, the experience was unforgettable. Imagine a bar with three levels, multiple bars on every level selling different beers, and hundreds of people from all over the world there for one common passion, BEER! They had everything from a cherry flavored beer to a beer with 14% alcohol to Budweiser (God, WHY?!). Also, in Brussels we continued to munch on fries and dipped them in many different sauces.  At fry stands they don't have just ketchup, mustard and mayo... but a wide range of dipping sauces with pickle sauce, andalouse sauce, and spicy curry sauce always making the list. We also tried a more traditional Belgian waffle which instead of being topped with "touristy toppings" like ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce, was simply topped with powdered sugar. The last thing I have to mention is Grand Place, Brussels' main plaza. On our walking tour they said some people consider it to be the most beautiful plaza in all of Europe and after seeing it, I have to agree. The buildings are all so beautiful and the plaza has very few signs of modern influences (big neon signs, McDonalds, etc.).  What made this better is that both nights we were there, they'd have a music and light show every 15 minutes or so. They coordinated lights of every color against buildings with music, and it was quite the sight to see.  After two days in Brussels, I can honestly stay that it IS worth a stop, don't just pass over it like many people may tell you to. But the bigger mistake would be skipping Brugge, because it is one of the most unique, interesting and picturesque cities I've ever seen.
Grand Place mid light show!
Well, there's a lot more to Ashley and I's adventure, but it includes 9 days of activities in Madrid. So, I'm going to save that for my next blog entry. Until then, hasta luego.

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