Monday, April 30, 2012

Post 15: A weekend in Bilbao

For the first time in over a month, I spent a weekend in Bilbao.  It was a nice change of pace to sleep in and enjoy a city that has come to be my home away from home.

La Ría in Bilbao
It was an especially fun weekend to be in Bilbao because the soccer team, Athletic, beat Sporting on Thursday night and clinched their spot to qualify for the Europa League final.  This was especially exciting because it's the first time that Athletic has ever accomplished this.  To say that people were excited after Thursday's win does not do their celebrations justice.  In Bilbao, the Athletic is so much more than just a soccer team.  Athletic flags are literally everywhere.  I would argue that there is not a street in Bilbao that does not have a red and white striped flag or some other representation of support for the Athletic.  It's almost impossible to find anyone in Bilbao who doesn't support and love the team.  To celebrate the victory, I went to an Erasmus party on Thursday.  Almost everyone was decked out in Athletic gear and the night was constantly interrupted by chants for the Athletic.  If Chicago were more like Bilbao, I would be taunted and possibly exiled for being a Packers fan instead of a Bears fan, despite the fact that the Packers are a superior team.

I also did something that I don't do often enough in Bilbao this weekend.  I acted like a tourist.  I went on a boat tour of la Ría, the river that runs through Bilbao.  I had been told countless times before that Bilbao has come a long way in the past fifteen years, but didn't fully grasp how far the city has truly  come until I went on the boat tour.

The rest of the weekend was spent relaxing, shopping, and enjoying time with friends.  The semester is coming to an end, but there is still plenty of schoolwork left to do.  I still have four essays and four finals before I leave in two and a half weeks.  I still have plenty more fun to have though too.  Tomorrow I will be visiting a local vineyard and I will be traveling to Portugal next weekend.

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Post 14: A weekend in Paris

Shakespeare and Company bookstore
Most people would decide after two straight weeks of traveling and living out of a backpack that it is time to take a break for awhile and stay in one place.  I, on the other hand, decided to go to Paris.  In all honesty, I didn't really think I would like Paris.  I went in with low expectations and left with a newfound love of the wonderful city.

The stereotype of basque people (the people from the area in which I study) is that the people are very cold.  Whether it's a result of this stereotype or just good luck in terms of which people I met, I thought that the people of Paris were very friendly, despite what most people say about them.  

One of the Louvre's ceilings
We arrived in the early afternoon on Friday and were immediately ready to explore.  We started off at the Arc de Triomphe, which was located just a few blocks from our hotel.  The arc was impressive, but the view of Paris from the top is the true reason to go there.  

After the Arc de Triomphe, we leisurely explored one of the main streets in Paris and made our way to the Fontaine Saint-Michel.  As a graduate of St. Michael's School, the fountain was especially exciting for me. 
Sainte Chapelle
Later on in the day, I spotted the Shakespeare and Company bookstore.  After seeing it, I quickly told my friend Maggie that we need to go inside.  We went in and both fell in love with it.  We loved it so much that we came back the next day.  Nerdy?  Yes, but if you have any love of books, you'd understand.  The place honestly feels magical.  We were also invited to register to vote in the U.S. while there.  It would have been cool to say that I registered to vote in Paris, but I opted to just wait until I get back to the U.S.

Notre Dame
On Saturday, we started off the day at the Louvre.  We knew we didn't want too spend the whole day there, so we went in with a game plan.  We wanted to see the following: Aphrodite, The Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa.  After getting lost for a little bit, we eventually found all three pieces of art.  It was cool to see, but my favorite part of the museum was the ceilings.  I realize how ridiculous this might seem, but the ceilings were remarkable.  I find that this is true in most monuments and museums in Europe.

After the Louvre, we visited the Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame.  Both churches were beautiful, as expected, but I found the Sainte Chapelle to be absolutely astounding.  Upon entering, I think it's impossible not to utter, "Wow."  The stained glass that lines the walls and the colors that decorate the ceilings are simply beautiful.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling at night
Later on in the day, we climbed our way up the Eiffel Tower and watched the sunset and then ate crepes while we were waiting for the tower to start sparkling.  The Eiffel Tower sparkles every hour on the hour for five minutes after dark.  Watching it sparkle, I couldn't help but feel giddy in the way that I do when I am in Disney World.  It's beautiful and enchanting.

On Sunday, we relaxed in the Jardin du Luxembourg before heading to the airport to come back to Bilbao.  The trip was definitely a success and left me with a desire to return back to the wonderful city of Paris.

The semester is winding down and I'm beginning to freak out a little bit about the fact that I will be home in three and a half weeks.  I'll just need to make the most of the time I have left!

Until next time... ¡Adios!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Post 13: England, Ireland, Germany, and Italy

Westminster Abbey in London, England
I just returned back from my two week Spring Break.  I went to four countries (technically six) since I've last posted and therefore have A LOT to write about.

The first stop of my trip was London, England.  To be honest, the thing that I was most looking forward to in London was the fact that the city has Chipotle.  No other Chipotles exist in Europe and I've been craving some spicy food.  While I did eventually get my Chipotle (it was disappointing in comparison to Chipotle in the U.S.), I really enjoyed learning about all of the history in London.  Going through Westminster Abbey with a guide was especially fascinating; the drama that has taken place between the royals throughout Britain's history is truly entertaining.  Even though I didn't watch the royal wedding and don't follow the royals, I have to admit it was pretty cool to see where such a huge global event took place.

The Cliffs of Moher in Claire, Ireland
I also checked out the Tower of London, a fortress that has been used for various purposes throughout its history.  Apparently, they used to have a bunch of exotic animals such as lions in the Tower of London.  People would visit the lions and bring their cats and dogs from home to feed the lions.  There are no longer lions housed there and this tradition obviously does not continue anymore, but I was still relieved by the fact that my dog, Harry, is safely at home in Illinois.

Kensington Palace just opened to the public at the end of March, so I figured I should check it out.  To be honest, it was pretty disappointing.  I did see some of Princess Diana's dresses and other interesting artifacts, but there was an odd mix between modern and traditional that never quite settled with me.
Berger Street (Berger Strasse)
in Frankfurt, Germany

In London, I also stopped by the Buckingham Palace to admire it from the outside of its gates.  Interestingly enough, I saw "The Bachelorette" being filmed here.  I won't give too many details because I know some people are huge fans of the show, but it just proved to me that the whole show is fake.

My next stop was Ireland.  Maggie, my travel buddy for the trip, has family in Limerick and we were fortunate enough to stay with them for a couple of nights.  We kissed the Blarney Stone, admired the Cliffs of Moher, and, by the end of our visit, I felt like I had become part of their family.  It was a real treat to get to know all of them.  The first night with them, we enjoyed a great Chinese dinner.  Despite what many Americans think, the Irish do not eat corn beef and cabbage every meal.  We enjoyed some Guinness and learned how to distinguish between a good glass of Guinness and a bad one.  On our second night there, we had an amazing dinner and listened to some of Maggie's relatives play their instruments and sing.  To call this family musically gifted would be a major understatement.  The strong love that ties this family together was impossible not to notice when watching them sing and play together.  It's amazing to see the way that music can connect people.

After we parted ways, Maggie and I moved on to Dublin.  People aren't lying when they tell you that if you want to see Ireland, don't go to Dublin.  While it is a great city, it is nothing like the rest of the country and you will miss out on the amazing landscape of Ireland if you choose to just stay in Dublin. Touring through Dublin, I learned a lot about the great sense of humor of the Irish.  For example, the Natural History Museum is referred to by locals as "The Dead Zoo" because there is a large taxidermy (stuffed animals) section in the museum.

The designer stores in Milan, Italy
After Ireland, we made our way over to Frankfurt, Germany.  We arrived on Good Friday and left early on Easter Monday, so we weren't sure if we were going to be able to do much there.  The trip definitely exceeded our expectations.  One of the things that impressed me most about Frankfurt was the amount of green park space that the city had.  It was pretty cool to be walking along a bunch of skyscrapers and then stop in a beautiful and well-landscaped park.

Maggie and I had one slight difficulty in Germany.  People refused to accept that we don't speak German.  We can both pass as German, so people would come up to us and speak in German.  We would let them know that we don't speak German, so the people would speak to us in English; however, after they said a few things in English, they would switch back to German.  We still didn't speak German after they switched languages, but it was kind of nice to not stick out for a change.

While in Germany, we made a day trip to Heidelberg and just explored the city.  We saw the outside of the beautiful castle there and admired the beautiful scenery of the city.  It was a short trip, but definitely a good one.

One of the many bridges in Venice, Italy
On Easter Sunday, Maggie and I paddle boated our way through the botanical gardens in Frankfurt.  It definitely was not your typical Easter, but I did find a way to at least eat some variation of ham.  For lunch, I had barbecue ribs.  Easter wouldn't be Easter without dessert, so we treated ourselves to a piece of chocolate cake from Starbucks at night.

Our only real bump in the trip was when we were trying to get from Frankfurt to Milan.  Because of some communication difficulties, we were given directions to the wrong airport.  Luckily, we found this out before we went to the airport; however, the airport we needed to get to was two hours away from where we were and we would therefore be late for our flight.  It was 4:00 am in Germany when this was all happening and 9:00 pm in the U.S., so I was able to send a quick message to my mom for help because we had no computer access to even look up other travel options.  For the first and only time, the major time difference worked to our advantage.  My mom confirmed our thought that a train would be our cheapest option and I was reminded that, even though I am getting older, my mom is always there for me and willing to help.  As a result of our train ride, we traveled through Switzerland and were even on land there for nine whole minutes!  I'm not sure if that counts as me visiting another country though...

The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
We finally got to Milan and toured the city.  I would like to share some advice to anyone who might be considering a trip to Italy... Don't go to Milan.  One more time, do NOT go to Milan.  Unless you have a ton of money to spend on designer clothes, you will most likely be disappointed by the city.  On the other hand, our next stop, Venice, was absolutely amazing.

Venice is truly a city of water.  The city is built around the large canal and the many rivers that flow out of it.  Cars are nowhere to be found.  Instead, boats provide all transportation.  Mail, furniture, and almost everything else you can think of is transported by boat.  The water is a beautiful blue and everything about the city is breathtaking.  As you might be able to tell by now, I loved Venice.

Making a wish at the Trevi
Fountain in Rome, Italy
Venice is a city that you can enjoy by just walking down the streets.  The architecture is impressive.  The people are incredibly friendly and the food is delicious.  While in Venice, we went to the island of Murano to check out the handmade glass artwork there.  It's pretty amazing to see what people can create.  I have a lot of respect for artists.  As much as I might try, I lack the artistic touch.  I've learned to craft, but I'm still hoping to find my artistic talent some day.

After Venice, it was time to move onto Rome.  Upon arriving in Rome, we immediately went in search of the Trevi Fountain.  Through finding the fountain, my Hilary Duff obsession finally came full circle.  I hope everyone immediately realized that the previous sentence is a joke.  I actually didn't know that the fountain is the location of her wish in "The Lizzie McGuire Movie."

In front of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican
We also checked out the Colosseum in Rome.  It was pretty cool to see, but definitely weird to think of how many people died there in brutal ways.  After the Colosseum, we went to another country, the Vatican City.  Yes, it is a country.  It even has its own passport (only about 600 people have one).  I enjoyed the Vatican far more than I had anticipated.  Shockingly enough, it didn't feel like a religious place at all.  The artwork in the Vatican Museum was amazing.  It's a pretty incredible experience to see the original pieces of art.  It was also fascinating to learn about all of the symbolism and stories behind each piece of art.

The Sistine Chapel was incredible, as expected.  Unfortunately, you aren't allowed to take pictures in it.  The reason for this is not what you would expect.  You can't take pictures in the Sistine Chapel because Canon has a copyright on it.  I don't think this is really helping the Catholic Church's efforts to prove that it isn't corrupt...

All of my belongings for the trip
St. Peter's Basilica was also amazing.  Every little detail of the church is beautiful and it all flows perfectly together.  When we were leaving St. Peter's Basilica, we actually got to see the changing of the Vatican's guards.  The guards are all part of the Swiss Army.  They all know five languages, are all Swiss (not a huge surprise if they're part of the Swiss Army), all take a vow of chastity (which is supposedly not enforced now), and all dress like jesters.

After Rome and Vatican City, it was time to get back to Bilbao.  It was nice to get back and not have to live out of a backpack anymore (I never checked any bags on the trip).  My days here are numbered; I return back to the U.S. in 31 days.  While I am definitely excited to see friends and family, I know I'm really going to miss this amazing time in my life.  It will also be nice to be able to do something about my shrinking bank account.  Luckily, I still have some time left.

Until next time... ¡Adios!