Sunday, October 26, 2014

Snapshots of Berlin

I was strolling through the center of Berlin the other day when I passed a man wearing nothing but underwear and a horse head. He was leisurely playing guitar in front of the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall. Now usually this would signal a red flag in my brain and raise lots of questions about this man's sanity. But in Berlin, I didn't even think twice about Mr. Underwear-Horse-Head, who my boyfriend hilariously called "the Naked Cowboy's lost steed." Berlin is a strange, strange city. But I absolutely love it. 

My semester abroad is filled to the brim with traveling. I've been to Prague, France, London (post to come soon!), and countless cities in Germany. I'm going to Copenhagen, Budapest, and maybe Austria. Traveling is one of my passions and I'm so happy to see the world, but I realize I can't lose sight of the amazing city I'm living in. 

Between travels during my mid-semester break, I was alone in Berlin for a few days, since all of my friends here were scattered across Europe. I took the time to delve deep into Berlin, exploring the mandatory tourist attractions I have yet to visit and getting a real feel for life in the German capital. My adventures reaffirmed how much I adore this city. 

In an effort to share my love, here are some pictures of the city I've been calling home for two months now. 

Many reminders of Berlin's rich history are displayed around the city today as tourist attractions. One such attraction is Checkpoint Charlie, the old crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin.

Berlin is full of famous monuments, like the Brandenburg Gate.

The horse-underwear-man I mentioned above. The strangeness of Berlin is oddly refreshing.

Berlin has an amazing nightlife, with no shortage of pubs, clubs, and bars. Here, my friends and I are relaxing at the House of 100 Beers (Haus der 100 Biere). 

Although the Berlin skyline isn't as famous as that of New York City, I still find it beautiful.

The Ampelmann is the iconic pedestrian traffic light symbol in Berlin, originating from East Germany. The Ampelmann is rounder and cuter than normal pedestrian light symbols.

Berlin doesn't have a shortage of beautiful buildings, like the amazing Berlin Cathedral.

Berlin is full of art and culture. My friends and I saw  an opera called Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which was better than expected and surprisingly modern.

Even though I've been in Berlin for two months, I still get surprised by the city every day. After seeing the opera, my friends and I stumbled upon the Festival of Lights in the middle of the city. Seeing the Brandenburg Gate, an old and iconic monument, lit up with lasers was a truly amazing contrast between modern life and the past.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Snails and Frog Legs? Only in France!

What's better than eating a fresh baguette for breakfast? Doing it in France! 

My friend Sarah and I took a short trip to Strasbourg, France, during the first few days of our mid-semester break. I've been to France once before, when my dad and I drove into the countryside for dinner during our European vacation three years ago. But since I only ventured a few miles into France, and since I didn't see much besides flat land, I wanted to visit again while abroad. Lucky for me, Sarah was just as enthusiastic about visiting the land of baguettes and berets. Obviously we had our eye on Paris, but the City of Love was just too far (and too expensive!) for a quick trip. We decided instead on Strasbourg, a cute town close to the German border that houses the European 

On Thursday night, Sarah and I took a 7-hour train ride from Berlin to Strasbourg. Of course we got lost trying to find our hotel. At midnight. In a foreign country. In the rain. I even had to use some of my very limited, very precious iPhone data to access my maps. The whole experience was more funny than annoying though, especially since Strasbourg was surprisingly safe and pretty even in the middle of the night. 

Sarah and I were determined to eat nothing but French food during our trip, so the next morning we ventured to a cute cafe for croissants and cappuccinos. I'm a huge croissant fan, and the ones we bought at the cafe were seriously the best I've ever had. Think flaky on the outside and moist on the inside... my mouth is watering just thinking about it! 

We spent the rest of the morning exploring Le Petite France, a collection of adorable old houses lining a river. The striped buildings and cobblestone streets looked characteristically German, which makes sense considering Strasbourg's close proximity to the German border. The many bridges crossing the river were prime spots for taking pictures, so Sarah and I got some pretty impressive shots. 

After we were charmed to the brim by La Petite France, we wandered down the winding streets of Strasbourg to the other attractions, popping into countless cute shops and bakeries along the way. Every single bakery offered us free macarons, so naturally we loaded our bellies with sugar and sweets at 10 a.m.. Who can ever pass up free French macarons?! For lunch, we sat in an outdoor cafe and ordered escargot and French onion soup. Not surprisingly, the meal was amazing. I've come to the conclusion that French food can't be anything but delicious.

Next on the itinerary was the beautiful Gothic-style Strasbourg Cathedral. We paid a couple of Euros to climb 330 stairs to a platform at the top of the cathedral. Although we were winded and tired after the climb, we still enjoyed the expansive view of Strasbourg below us. The cathedral's spire used to be the tallest structure in the world until 1874... so I guess, out of context, I can say I climbed the world's tallest building!

As an afternoon treat, Sarah and I got delicious Nutella crepes, which were far more dough-y than any crepe I've eaten in America. We also visited the "Oeuvre Notre-Dame" museum for medieval and Renaissance art and walked around the streets until our feet hurt.

For dinner, we scoured the menu of every restaurant until we found one that seemed "French" enough. I got a three-course meal with a baguettes, a cheese plate, "mixed grill" (duck and chicken), and creme brûlée for 20 Euro, which really isn't bad for France! The creme brûlée was delicious, but it wasn't crunchy on top like the creme brûlée in America. Sarah got frog legs, since "eating frog legs in France" has been on her bucket list since she was nine. The legs certainly looked disgusting, but they actually tasted like chicken covered in butter and garlic. Yum! We finished with dinner at 8:30 p.m., and since nothing else was open in the quiet city, we enjoyed a glass of local wine from an outdoor cafe. I still feel very grown-up whenever I order wine at a restaurant!

The next morning, we went to yet another cafe and ordered a "typical French breakfast" of baguettes with butter and jam, coffee, and orange juice. I can't explain it, but the bread in France is truly better than bread in America. French people know the importance of a crunchy bread crust! Although I could have bread and coffee every day, I didn't like how the French breakfast lacked protein. I tend to get a little hangry without protein in the morning! 

A little more than 30 hours after arriving in France, Sarah and I headed back to the train station for our return journey. Unfortunately, the Deutsche Bahn (German rail system) was on strike and our train was cancelled. We had to take a later train that was way too crowded. Nonetheless, we made it back to Berlin before midnight. Sarah and I were only in France for one full day, but I had lots of fun. I'm glad we decided on Strasbourg instead of Paris. I feel like I'll end up visiting Paris in the future, but I doubt I'll have the opportunity to visit Strasbourg again. One of my goals while studying abroad is to see things that I wouldn't normally have the chance to see, and I think Strasbourg fits under that category!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Prague: A Modern Medieval City

Now it's time to talk about the second destination of my week-long excursion with my study abroad program: Prague, Czech Republic! If you want to read the first half of my trip to Nuremberg, Germany, you can find the post here.

I've never been to Eastern Europe before, so I was excited to visit the Czech Republic. For years, I've heard that Prague is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, full of original medieval buildings that weren't destroyed in the world wars. The popular tourist destination definitely didn't disappoint.

My study abroad program took a five-hour train ride into Prague after spending four days in Nuremberg. The bits of the Czech Republic that I saw out of the train window looked exactly like how I pictured Eastern Europe. Cute little houses in need of maintenance were stacked together in tiny, broken-down towns set against vast fields and a few mountain ranges. The site was entirely different than what I've seen of Germany in Central Europe, but still pretty nonetheless. When we arrived in Prague, we had to lug our suitcases uphill for 30 minutes to our hotel, since the study abroad coordinators thought that squeezing 75 kids with luggage onto public transportation wasn't the smartest idea. My first glimpse of Prague, therefore, was seen with a sore back and sweaty forehead.

After we dropped off our bags in the beautiful, palace-like hotel, my friends and I got to explore Prague without the burden of suitcases. I couldn't stop my jaw from dropping – the city was even more beautiful that I'd imagined. Perfectly preserved medieval buildings lined the crooked cobblestone sidewalks. Architecture from the Gothic,  Renaissance, Baroque, Communist and even Cubist periods was sprinkled throughout the old city as well, leading to a stunning mixture of Europe's historical past. My favorite site was the Prague Castle, which was perched on a mountain across the river separating the "old" part of Prague to relatively "newer" part (which is still hundreds of years old).

That night, we went to a traditional Czech restaurant to test out the food. Apparently Czech cuisine consists of meat, cheese, and bread, which I'm definitely not opposed too. I ordered a typical Czech dish of beef goulash with bread dumplings and a beer. I also learned that the most popular Czech street food is a fried cheese sandwich, which is basically a large mozzarella stick covered with sauces and stuck between two pieces of bread. I can't stress how amazing (and fattening!) this sandwich is for a cheese-lover like myself.

Since the Czech Republic doesn't use Euros, we had to exchange our currency for the Czech Koruna (crowns). The exchange rate is insane – 100 koruna is the equivalent of around 3.50 Euros, or around $4.50 in U.S. dollars. I turned in 105 Euros and got 2,900 Koruna in return. I felt like I won the lottery carrying around the Koruna bills in my wallet!

The next day, my study abroad program had a guided tour of the city center. I found the tour extremely interesting since the guide gave meaning to all of the pretty buildings, making me appreciate the city even more. We saw cathedrals and houses from the 1300s and 1400s, which blew my mind. Even the oldest buildings in America aren't that old. Part of the tour centered on Prague's historic Jewish quarter, where we saw beautiful synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

My favorite site was the medieval astrological clock which dates back to 1410. The clock has three time-telling parts: an astronomical dial which tells the position of the sun and the moon, a calendar dial showing the month, and a dial showing the time. Every hour, figures of the Apostles emerge from the clock. (Info from here)

My friends and I paid a few Euro to go to the top of clock tower in the Old Town City Hall, and I'm so glad we did. The views of the city were vast and absolutely stunning. As we were gazing at the ancient buildings, we suddenly heard screaming and chanting below us. Startled, we looked down to see a few hundred sports fans screaming and chanting through the center of Prague with police escorts. The situation seemed very ironic – I was seeing modern-day sports fans marching between buildings dating back a few hundred years. I guess that's the glory of Europe.

My study abroad group also toured the ancient Prague Castle, which has ties to Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. The Thirty Years War actually started in this castle, when a group of Protestants threw three Catholics out of a castle window. As the story goes, the men survived by falling into a pile of manure (one of the random facts that I remember from AP European History). Today, the Prague Castle is the home of the president of the Czech Republic. Since the Prague Castle is mounted on a hill, the views of the city are amazing! I couldn't stop snapping photos of the scenery. The church on the castle grounds was also amazing.

My favorite part of the castle was probably Golden Lane, a collection of 11 tiny houses in the Prague Castle vicinity. Artists and alchemists used to live in the beautiful but cramped buildings.

During our stay, my friends and I made sure to walk the Charles Bridge. Built in the 1300s, the bridge is a huge tourist attraction because of its unique history and the Baroque-style statues that stare down at you from the bridge's edge. Even though the bridge was so crowded that I felt overwhelmed walking across it, I enjoyed the bridge because the statues looked pretty framed against the river and the Prague skyline.


For our last night in Prague, my study abroad program booked a jazz boat down the Moldau river for all 75 students. We drank wine and ate nachos while cruising down the river, with the beautiful medieval city of Prague as our backdrop. Studying abroad is  obviously tough work!

On Saturday, we hopped on a train back to Berlin. I absolutely loved Prague, but I don't think I'll be returning anytime soon. Four days was plenty of time to see the main sites and get a feel for the city. Also,  I don't think there is much to do besides marvel at medieval buildings, shop, or scope out the best views of the cityscape. A word of advice if you visit Prague: watch out for pickpockets. Apparently theft is extremely common in all of the major tourist areas, like the Charles Bridge or Astrological Clock. My friend saw men pretending to take selfies on their phones, but they were actually using the front-facing camera to see if anyone standing behind them was an easy pickpocketing target. Scary stuff!

Overall, I couldn't imagine a better visit to Prague, and I couldn't be happier to check visiting the Czech Republic off my bucket list! (And if you read this entire post, thank you for sticking with me! I know this was a long one.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nuremberg: The Heart of Germany


I'm back from my week-long excursion to Nuremberg, Germany and Prague, Czech Republic with my study abroad program! Both cities were absolutely gorgeous and charming in their own ways, and I'm extremely grateful for the chance to travel the world. In an effort to keep the blabbing about my trip to a minimum, I'll split the information into two posts: this one will focus on Nuremberg, and my next one will be about Prague. Let's get started!

Nuremberg is a small city in Bavaria (southern Germany) with lots of history and traditional German culture. The city itself was founded in the year 1050 and has ties to the Holy Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and European trading in medieval times. All of the beautiful medieval buildings were well-preserved until World War II, when Allied bombing destroyed 90% of the city, according to my lovely city tour guide. However, the city was rebuilt to look like it did before the bombings. Hitler and the Nazis also started to build their massive rally grounds in Nuremberg, and the Nuremberg Trials (where the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union punished the Nazis for their war crimes) were also held in the city in 1945-46.

After the five-hour train ride from Berlin to Nuremberg, my friends and I spent the day exploring the city. Remember when I went to Oktoberfest in Munich and gushed about the stereotypically German pretzels, beer, Liederhosen, cobblestone paths, and bratwurst? Nuremberg has the same type of feel, but in a smaller city setting. Pubs and breweries serving traditional German food can be found on practically every street, and food vendors sell traditional Nürnberger Bratwurst (basically American breakfast sausages) and pretzels. I splurged on a Nutella pretzel, and I've been craving the unbelievably delicious sweet-and-salty combo ever since. Small shops with gingerbread, beer mugs, and homemade trinkets are also sprinkled around the town. 

The "Altstadt," or the old historic center of the city, is surrounded by a wall which separates it from the residential areas. The main area of the Altstadt is a cobblestone town square surrounded by beautiful architecture and lively people.

We happened to be in Nuremberg during the Altstadtfest (old city festival) so the square was filled with tents that sold German food, gifts, trinkets, and clothes. My friends and I spent a nice chunk of time walking through the markets during our four days in Nuremberg. I bought some delicious dried fruit, a birthday present for my sister, and way too much German street food. I tried Flammkuchen (like flatbread pizza, but crispier), Nürnberger sandwiches, cheese-stuffed olives, gingerbread, and toasted nuts. Let me just say that German food is amazing!

While my friends are I were exploring during our first day, we visited the Nuremberg Castle. Although the castle isn't as grand as the one I saw in Potsdam, the gardens and scenery were just as amazing. We didn't go inside, but the view of the city from the yard was worth the uphill trek to the castle.


For dinner that first night, we went to a traditional German restaurant in the basement of a building, which is apparently a pretty popular restaurant location in Germany. The scenery and food were both incredible! I got Kaesespaetzle, which is basically Germany's version of mac-n-cheese that tastes one-million times better than the stuff you buy in America. Think super creamy with a slight onion taste – YUM!

The next few days in Nuremberg were a mix of events organized by my study abroad program and free time to explore the city on our own. We went to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds and the courtroom of the Nuremberg trials. Both places were exciting and strange to see in person. I'm always amazed at Germany's vast history... I can see medieval buildings and Nazi buildings in the same small town. My group also visited the Germanisches Nationalmuseum and had an interesting guided tour of the Altstadt.

(This very spot is where Hitler addressed the German people during the Nazi Party rallies)

Since Nuremberg is a smaller city with 500,000 residents, night life isn't as prominent as in Berlin. Nevertheless, my friends and I went to a club one night for a birthday. I'm still planning to write a post about the night life scene in Berlin, but you should know that I'm not the biggest fan of clubbing and would much rather go to a bar. The club in Nuremberg was still pretty fun, even though we pretended we were fluent in German to get past the tough bouncer (lucky for me, I know a good amount of German and could answer his questions easily!). The DJ played popular American music and the dance scene was energetic. We had a round of tequila shots, and the bartender served the shots with cinnamon and orange instead of salt and lime! I've never even heard of the mix before, but the shots were surprisingly tasty.

On our last night in Nuremberg, my friends and I went to the Altstadtfest for some street food and caught the beginning of a live music act. Instead of a guitar solo, the artist played an accordion solo! Only in Germany. We managed to get lost while wondering around and came across Nuremberg's version of Oktoberfest. I can't believe we were in Nuremberg for three days before and missed this humongous festival! Just like at Oktoberfest, temporary tents serving beer and German food were built in an open field. Stands sold everything from Flammkuchen to potato chips to crepes . However, unlike Oktoberfest in Munich, the fest at Nuremberg was more compact, well-lit, and surrounded by trees, which made it more beautiful and a better environment to take in the German culture. My friends and I sat at a long outside table and ordered beer and food. I got Schweinhaxe (pig knuckles), which I promise taste way better than they sound!

Nuremberg might have taken Munich's place as my favorite German city. I'm a sucker for traditional German culture! Since the city is so small, I felt like four days was more than enough time to see the major sites. I can definitely see myself living in a city like Nuremberg in the future. In the meantime, I'm sure I'll be back to visit again!