Travels in Europe

Travels around Europe from my year living in London in 2012

Skiing the Alps in Austria

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I had the opportunity in December to ski the Alps. This has been on my bucket list for a while and I wanted to take the chance to do it before moving back home. My Dad came over for a week before Christmas and we decided to hit up Austria for a little snow adventure!

In the interest of time, we decided to skip Vienna and flew into Salzburg instead. Salzburg is located right on the Austrian-German border and is surrounded by mountains. It was made famous by The Sound of Music, which was set and filmed there. It’s also the birthplace of Mozart and has some of the most delicious chocolates, which are called Mozartkrugel. In the spirit of Christmas, we spent most of our time exploring the Christmas Markets. I liked London’s Christmas Markets, but Austria’s Christmas Markets were just incredible! Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by tasty treats, homemade ornaments, candles, chocolates, and jewelry. We tried out a few traditional foods and stocked up on chocolates.

Salzburg Christmas Market

Salzburg Christmas Market

From Salzburg, we took the train to Ischgl, which is the ski resort where we spent the majority of the trip. Ischgl is unlike any ski resort I have ever been to (which really isn’t that many actually). In order to get there, you have to drive right into the Alps for about an hour. The ski town lies in the valley and in order to get to the slopes, you have to take a gondola up into the mountains. From there, there’s 43 lifts and 240km worth of ski trails going up and down the surrounding peaks. We discovered that the peaks of the mountain range actually form the Austrian-Swiss border and that when we were skiing down one side it was the Austrian Alps, while the other side was the Swiss Alps. It was amazing!

Skiing Ischgl

Skiing Ischgl

The first day we skied, it was pretty overcast and snowed a lot, but the second day was sunny with blue skies and unveiled a completely new world to us. On cloudless days, you can see the peaks of the Alps for miles around! It is an incredible view and completely took our breath away when we reached the top of the lift. I felt that no matter where we skied we were guaranteed to have an amazing view. We skied for three full days; even though my legs were really sore at the end, I loved every minute of it and I’m so glad I had the opportunity. Surprisingly, I also found the skiing really affordable, the daily lift pass is actually cheaper than a lift pass at White Hills back home.

View of the Alps

View of the Alps

We finished off the trip by stopping into Innsbruck. I visited Innsbruck briefly when I was in high school, but it’s quite a different scene in the winter. Innsbruck is very scenic with the mountains surrounding it, but I found it really cold and didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Salzburg. It’s definitely a colourful city though and there’s always lots of history to learn about! I think I would love to go back to Austria in the summer sometime to do some hiking and to experience the beautiful mountains and lakes in a different way.

Maria

Exploring Innsbruck

Exploring Innsbruck

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Categories: A Year in London, Travels in Europe | 1 Comment

My Weekend in Holland: Canals, bicycles, and lots of Dutch treats!

I just got back from my second mini-vacation this semester. This time I went to the Netherlands to visit Helena; we visited a different town every day and I absolutely loved them all! Helena lives in Leiden, which is a half hour train ride outside of Amsterdam. The town is about the same size as St. John’s, but the city centre is filled with canals, cobblestone roads, windmills, and lots of bicycles! On my first three days we visited Haarlem, Amsterdam, and Utrecht, and on my last day I did some exploring in Leiden.

One of the first things I noticed about the Netherlands was how European everything feels. This might seem like a bit of a weird comment since I’ve been living in London and traveling around Europe for most of this year, but all the cities I visited felt so old and untouched by the rest of the world. According to Helena, Amsterdam is one of the largest cities that was unaffected by WWII. While London’s key buildings were saved during the blitz, much of the rest of the city was flattened. A lot has been restored, but you can definitely tell that London is a newer, more modern, city. While several towns in the Netherlands were bombed during the war, most of them escaped any large scale damage, leaving the cobblestone, buildings, bridges, and canals all intact. I think this is what created such a different atmosphere for me.

Canals in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a very different city. We started the day off with a 3 hour tour of the city that started in the main square in Amsterdam, Dam Square, and took us through the red light district and the canal network to the royal palace, old church, and Anne Frank House. There’s definitely two sides to Amsterdam – it was interesting to learn about some of Holland’s more liberal policies regarding marijuana and prostitution and how legalizing both of them has resulted in less occurrences of hard drug abuse, pimping, and sexual trafficking. However, my interest in visiting Amsterdam was to see the rest of the city and we didn’t spend much time in the red light district.

My favourite part of Amsterdam was easily the Anne Frank Huis (house). I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was 10 and I’ve always been fascinated with WWII history, so this was the number one thing I wanted to visit. The house has been transformed into a museum, but the secret annex where Anne lived for two years has been left empty. After walking up two flights of stairs, you go through the secret bookshelf which is the entrance to two floors and several hidden rooms at the back. All the furniture was photographed as it existed when Anne lived there, but it has all been removed in the rooms now. I was surprised by both how large and how small the annex was. I knew it was two floors, and I expected it to be small as it was secret, but it’s a little bit hard to believe that 8 people lived there for 2 years! During their stay, Anne pasted several posters to the walls and her parents marked the height of her and her sister on the wall; these things still remain in the house, but everything else is gone. After a fun day in the city, it was a bit of a reminder of the darker history of the country.

Obligatory photo with the ‘I amsterdam’ sign

The rest of my time was devoted to exploring Haarlem, Utrecht, and Leiden. I’m so glad we didn’t spend all of our time in Amsterdam, because I absolutely loved visiting the smaller towns! Leiden and Utrecht were my favourite. It was easy to walk around the smaller cities and the canals give the towns such a nice feeling. We spent our time walking along the canals, shopping, and eating Dutch treats. We particularly liked oliebol (although I also tried bitterballen), which is a large piece of fried dough sprinkled in icing sugar (so basically a larger, round, touton). We also had a huge laugh on our way back from Utrecht, one of the train stations was closed, so we had to temporarily take a bus – to make up for this minor inconvenience, we were provided with free treats! The transportation staff was waiting for us with soft drink, stropwaffles, chocolate, and candy!

We went out with a few of Helena’s friends for live music on Friday night and had a truly Dutch experience. I’ve never seen more bicycles in my life than what I saw in the Netherlands. Everyone rides bikes there and you constantly have to watch out you don’t get run over by one. Since Helena only had once bike though, we had to cycle to the bar ‘Dutch’ style! This means I sat side saddle on the back rack of Helena’s bike and she cycled both of us! She was a bit wobbly at first and I was a bit nervous and kept jumping off, but we eventually got the hang of it and had a great laugh learning!

We’re truly Dutch now!

Overall, I had a fantastic trip to the Netherlands! I wasn’t really sure what to expect since it’s such a small country, but I was pleasantly surprised. Only 2.5 weeks left in London now! I’ve realized that I haven’t seen any new musicals since I’ve been back, so I need to cram a bunch into the next few weeks. This coming weekend, my childhood will be realized when I visit Harry Potter Warner Bros Studios! So tune in next week as I’ll likely be writing a special HP blog 😛

Home in 25 days, gotta make the most of the last few weeks!

Love Maria

Chillin’ with the windmill in Haarlem!

Categories: A Year in London, Travels in Europe | 1 Comment

Exploring Edinburgh

This past weekend, I met up with three of my friends from MUN in Edinburgh for a mini-break! Lisa and I travelled up from London, Helena flew in from Amsterdam, and Erin took the bus from Aberdeen. I loved exploring Edinburgh with these girls and we had a great time!

We kicked off the trip with a 3 hour walking tour around Edinburgh so that we could figure out what we wanted to see in the next few days. Our tour guide, Izzy, was incredible and spiced up what might have been a boring history lesson into an afternoon of hilarity! Lisa and I kept bursting out laughing at her references to “Ninja Scots”, who climbed the castle walls several centuries ago, and “Disco Dolly”, the first cloned sheep who now resides in the Museum of Scotland.

Izzy took us to St. Giles Cathedral and told us all about the gruesome public punishments that took place in the square. She took us to Edinburgh Castle and George Heriot’s School, which are thought to be inspirations for Hogwarts. She took us to the graveyard where Greyfriar’s Bobby is buried, the little dog who sat waiting on his owner’s grave for 14 years. And finally, she took us to Princes Street Gardens, which is now a beautiful garden, but was once used for sewage drainage and was known as the ‘Lake of poo’. It was definitely one of the funniest historical walking tours I’ve been on and I thoroughly enjoyed it!

View of Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Garden

After the tour, Izzy managed to rope us into buying tickets for the nightly ghost tour and brought us to a pub where we could get a traditional Scottish meal. This means that I finally tried haggis, something I’ve managed to avoid up until now. Haggis is made of sheep’s liver, heart, and lungs, and is cooked in the sheep’s stomach. I was anticipating something really nasty, but if you don’t think too much about what you’re eating, it’s pretty good! Lisa had a quarter chicken stuffed with haggis, which was particularly tasty, and Helena kept it pretty tame with fish and chips.

Erin met up with us in the evening and we headed off on the ghost tour. Surprisingly, the ghost tour was pretty creepy! Our guide told us several old ghost tales, mixed with modern day stories about a real-life Scottish vampire. The tour ended in a mausoleum; by this point, Erin had definitely had enough of hanging out in graveyards, so we headed out to our favourite late night pub, the Bank Bar.

Stirling Castle (photo credit Lisa Burke)

On Saturday, we took a day trip out to Sterling Castle and Loch Lomond. We drove through the Scottish Lowlands to Stirling Castle, which is situated high atop a hill, looking out over the fields. It was still pretty early when we arrived and the fog had not quite lifted over the hills, so we had a great view from the castle! Looking out you can see a tower memorial for the great William Wallace. We stopped in a small village, Aberfoyle, for lunch and then we entered the Scottish Highlands and came to Loch Lomond.

By the time we arrived at Loch Lomond, we were all pretty giddy from our large lunch, so we missed the turnoff for the viewpoint on our way around the Loch. We found the end of the trail on our way back, so we walked up to the viewpoint, only to go in the wrong direction on the way back down! We ended up in the middle of the woods and after going halfway down (and realizing there was quite a steep slope between us and the bottom) it was too slippery to go back up, so we had to slip and slide our way down to the bottom! Lisa made sure to capture every moment for us though!

Loch Lomond (photo credit Lisa Burke)

On Sunday, we decided to make up for everything we’d eaten over the past few days by hiking to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano just outside of the city centre. For some reason we didn’t think it would be a very strenuous walk, so we didn’t really dress properly and we were all huffing and puffing by the time we reached the top! We frequently stopped to rest and ended up spending 10 minutes judging all the other people walking up, who were at least in worst shape then us. We didn’t realize we were doing this at first and had a bit of a laugh when we realized how ridiculous we were.

It was a pretty steep climb up, but the view at the top was totally worth it! You get a 360 view of the city and you can see all the way out to the ocean, which isn’t visible from the city centre. It was also the perfect day for a hike! It was pretty warm out, so we finished the hike with a little picnic outside a café (mostly because we were too cheap to pay the extra pound or two that it costs to eat in the café).

The top of Arthur’s Seat

Erin and Lisa left around suppertime on Sunday, but we made one last stop at the National Gallery before we parted ways. We figured it would be good to get a little bit of culture, but we ended up just challenging each other to see who could find the most ridiculous painting in the Gallery! Art lovers, beware. Helena and I finished off the day by gorging ourselves on pasta, pizza, and dessert at a restaurant near our hostel.

On our last day, we decided to check out the National Museum of Scotland and do a bit of shopping. The museum reminded me of the Natural History Museum in London. They have all kinds of great exhibits on Scotland, along with an animal exhibit and one on different cultures. We made sure that we got a picture with ‘Disco Dolly’, the museum’s famous resident! We finished off the trip with a bit of shopping and lunch at The Elephant House.

Having a moment with “Disco Dolly”

The Elephant House is a small café in the city centre that has become famous for being ‘the birthplace of Harry Potter’. Apparently JK Rowling used to write in the café when she lived in Edinburgh and first started writing Harry Potter. It has a fantastic view of Edinburgh Castle, which is one of the reasons it’s suspected that it might have been one of her inspirations for Hogwarts.

Surprisingly though, our favourite part of the café was the washroom. All of the walls have been covered over the years with messages to JK Rowling from all her Harry Potter fans! We must have spent a half an hour reading all the “thank-you’s” and Harry Potter quotes that people had left over the years. It made us incredibly happy to both leave our own messages to JK Rowling, thanking her for making our childhoods wonderful and for giving us such a magical world to grow up with!

Lunch at The Elephant House

In conclusion, it really was a wonderful trip and was made so much more wonderful by the amazing girls I got to experience it with! Scotland is very beautiful and I would definitely like to go back some day and explore more of the country. For now, I’m looking forward to the first weekend in November, when Helena comes to visit us in London and we get to do it all over again!

Love Maria
Categories: A Year in London, Travels in Europe | 3 Comments

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