The Children of a South African Village

I traveled to the beautiful country of South Africa about 6 and a half years ago. Since the moment I departed the country to come back to America I have never been able to stop thinking of the time I spent there. The things and places I have seen will never escape my memory and I hope to be fortunate enough to take my family there one day, like my parents took me.

The differences between South Africa and America are endless. Cape Town and Cape of Good Hope were two of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen, however the poverty I witnessed will forever haunt me. Waking up before the sun for two weeks, I saw lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and monkeys etc. in their natural habitat. This was something my mind couldn’t even fathom, until day after day these animals kept reappearing right before my eyes. It was a weird concept to me, that the animals I grew up only seeing in movies like The Lion King actually existed and roamed free in South Africa. Of course I knew these animals ACTUALLY existed, but in the U.S. it’s not like we are accustomed to seeing elephants casually stroll down the streets of our neighborhoods.

However, the memory that sticks with me most, is of the children I spent time with in South Africa. I was a freshman in high school and currently teaching my first year of ski school at Waterville Valley Ski Resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Even at the young age of 14, I was clearly able to decipher the behavioral differences of children in the United States verses the children of a small South African village.

These children were babies, three or four years old, tops, coincidentally, the same age as the kids I was teaching how to ski in N.H. I was astonished to find that even though these two groups of children were the same age, they acted so differently. The South African children were so well-behaved and civilized, like tiny adults.

I remember being mind-blown by how they served themselves their own food at lunch-time and cleared their own plates from the table immediately, taking them to the sink to hand-wash and dry their bowls and plates. At the ski school I worked for in America, the children were served their food, made giant messes and somebody was always uncooperative during meals.

The children in the village did not have many toys, certainly nothing that lit-up or made sounds. I noticed  the less toys they had, the more they took care of what they did have, and the more joy their toys brought to them. I reflected back to how it was at the ski school. The American children had more toys than they could possibly play with in a day, they were rough with the toys, threw them around the playroom and fought over them constantly.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many “sharing” conversations I had, or how many times kids dumped giant boxes of figurines over just for the fun of making a mess.

The conditions of the South African village day-care were very poor. The outside where they played was a pit of rocky sand and I remember finding nails and dangerous objects within the sand. Nevertheless, the children were so happy and played as if they had the world’s largest jungle gym at their feet. I have never seen children be so gracious, kind and happy and I remember thinking that despite their living conditions they were truly the lucky ones to wear the smiles on their faces that they did each day.

At the end of the day I am an American and I love the the children of my country. However, when I saw babies that napped and played in card board boxes in South Africa that seemed genuinely happier, had less complaints, and rarely cried when they had almost nothing, I felt a greater appreciation for everything I had been given in my life. Those children will forever touch my heart.

 

Nirvana!

Zadar: The Mediterranean as it Once Was!

Nirvana!

Pure Nirvana

I ended up in Zadar purely by chance, and if anyone had asked me, before I went, if it was a place I would ever visit, the answer would have been no. I never even really had intentions of visiting Croatia, but when push came to shove it was the cheapest of three destinations chosen by friends and I. Therefore, we booked our flights on Ryan Air, and found a cozy looking hostel to call home.

Zadar is a small coastal city in Croatia, on the east side of the Adriatic Sea. Zagreb and Split are popular tourist destinations in Croatia, but if you want to take a step back in history while enjoying the sea, then Zadar is the place you should go. One can experience many different types of architecture in Zadar including Roman, medieval (Romanesque, Gothic), and Renaissance.

Places to Stay

Room at the Old Town Hostel

There are many places to stay in Zadar, but hostels are my preferred method while traveling through Europe. I stayed in the Old Town Hostel, which was a bit difficult to find in the narrow streets and alleys, but it was still a very welcoming spot. When we arrived we had to travel up a questionable staircase with rickety railings, and a long drop down. In the lobby, we had to wake up a girl sleeping on the couch to find out who to check in with. Turns out she was the front desk girl, and she had come to work straight from the previous nights events. May sound sketchy to some, but the Old Town is a very chill location and the employees are very helpful.

Food

Pizza is never hard to find in Zadar.

Pizza is never hard to find in Zadar.

There is no shortage of places to find great food. Most of the restaurants offer a variety of sea-foods and other dishes, so finding something to satisfy is no problem. Also, if you find yourself out late at night or looking for a cheap meal, there are many small pizza shops and stands scattered throughout the city. We had a couple of nice sit down meals, but for the most part we cooked in the hostel’s kitchen or ate street stand food. If you enjoy people watching, then one of the many outdoor cafes is a great place to relax and watch the bustling crowds. We ate our fancy final meal at Pet Bunara. The dishes were a little more on the expensive side, but it was well worth the price. Along with the pizzerias and cafes, there is a great market place near the grocery store to get fresh produce and other goods. You have to go in the morning though, because they shut down around mid-day.

Nightlife

There are many bars located on the peninsula of Zadar, but if you go mid-week as we did, there might not be many people out to enjoy the night with. The University of Zadar is also located out on the peninsula, so on a typical weekend there are many people out and about. Some of the better bars recommended to us were Arkada, Caffe Bar Hippy, Brazil, and Zara.

Attractions

Sea Organ

Sea Organ

There are many unique things to see in Zadar. There are many spectacular churches to visit, like St. Donatus’ Church. It is located not far from People’s Square and the Roman Forum, where one can walk through the ruins of the past. The Citadel is also a neat place to visit. Built in 1409, it remains the same to this day. There is even a super posh bar located within that has an underground section. There are four gates around the Citadel and the Land Gate was most stunning to me. Outside of the monuments of the past, Zadar also has some intriguing modern sights. One of the main attractions in this category is the Sea Organ. As the waves lap against the sea wall, air is pushed through metal tubes located under marble stairs and exit through holes that play the music of the sea. Right next to the Sea Organ is the Sun Salutation. The Sun Salutation is a circular panel of solar powered lights. At sunset the lights switch on and light up the waterfront. Unfortunately it wasn’t working when we were there, but it looks quite spectacular in pictures.

Excursion

If you want to travel outside of the city to enjoy other splendid sights, then there are many choices. The best of these are to go for a swim at a beach (if the water is warm enough), go kayaking through the many small islands along the coast, or you can take a trip to Plitvice Lakes. The lakes are located two hours away from Zadar in the mountains. The lakes are extremely clear and look green due to minerals and microbes. Also, there are many waterfalls at the park, and some are quite spectacular. For a nice hike through nature this is the place to go. It offers stunning views of the landscape, and adventurous trails that are sometimes closed due to the water level. That didn’t stop us from venturing out though. We ended up wading at times, and since it was March in the mountains of Croatia, this turned out to be a “chilling” experience. For more pictures check out the photo gallery at the bottom.

If you ever have the chance to travel to Croatia then it is something you should most definitely do. Zagreb and Split offer their own sources of beauty and nightlife, but Zadar holds its own. If flying there, you can take RyanAir, German Wings, and other cheap airlines to Zadar Airport located about 20 minutes outside of the city. Be prepared to exchange money though, because Croatia does not have the Euro. The conversion rate is a little over 5.50 Kuna per American Dollar, or 7.60 per Euro. They speak Croatian (Hrvatski), but most know how to speak English so no problem there. Zadar is a beautiful and wonderful place. I hope to return one day so I can spend more time there, and the decision to travel there was one that I will never regret. Check out the pictures below of my travels in Zadar and Plitvicé!

 

Exploring the Cinque Terre

Preparing to take off over seas exactly two weeks from today, I’ve found myself buried in research of the most exciting adventures to be had in Europe. I’ll be making my way from Amsterdam, over to Budapest, down Italy and around to Spain, but I’ve found some of the most intriguing attractions to be beyond the obvious. I am counting down the days until my arrival in the Cinque Terre, Italy.

Manorola. Photo by World in Focus (Flickr)

Manorola. Photo by World in Focus (Flickr)

The Cinque Terre are five towns along a section of northern Italy’s Mediterranean coastline with incredibly scenic mule trails connecting them. The trails range from fairly easy to challenging. Whether you’re an experienced hiker, or leisurely walker, there is a trail for you. While there are several free trekking paths, trail #2 is by far the most popular, making the admission fee acceptable for most tourists. This trail is miles long, leading from the northern town of Monterosso to the southern Riomaggiore. Check out this map for a closer look at the various paths. The Via dell’Amore, also known as Lover’s Lane, is a spacious, flat and smooth section of trail #2. “It’s famous for its kissing statue and tunnel covered in declarations of love,” according to Elena Ciprietti’s article on www.walksofitaly.com.

Via dell'Amore. Photo by Twice25 and Rinina25 (WikiCommons)

Via dell’Amore. Photo by Twice25 and Rinina25 (WikiCommons)

The path from Corniglia to Vernazza is more challenging. This path takes climbers to the highest point in the Cinque Terre and back down. Among olive groves, exotic flowers and plants you’ll find a stunning view worth the extra effort exerted to get there.

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Peak of the Cinque Terre. Photo from Elena Cipriette on walksofitaly.com

There are also several free challenging path options for more experienced hikers. Regardless of what path you take, you are guaranteed a beautiful view and it seems pretty difficult to actually get lost. This is great news to someone with a poor sense of direction such as myself! The Cinque Terre can be hiked in a day or leisurely spread out across a few days, giving visitors plenty of time to enjoy the towns and food they have to offer. For a personal look into the experience of bloggers who’ve hiked the paths visit Of Elephants and Castles blog or Italy Beyond the Obvious here.

Switzerland From Top to Bottom: A Day Above Zermatt

Nestled at the foot of Switzerland’s tallest peaks is the small mountain village of Zermatt, famous as a starting point for the adventurers and mountain climbers on their way to the iconic Matterhorn. Its appeal to hikers and skiiers alike has granted it special notice on the blogosphere, and while most focus on the infamous alpine skiing, there are some that take a look at the village in summer. Follow their advice and catch a train in summer (cars are banned) and village opens up to beautiful scenery, excellent hiking, and the added bonus of much smaller crowds than the rest of Europe. Whichever time of year you go, though, Zermatt is the perfect place for unique and unforgettable experiences, not the least of which is a day hike through the southern Swiss Alps under the shadow of the Matterhorn.

In Zermatt, I dedicated an entire day to hiking the Gornergrat ridge. A handy cograil takes you to the top of the mountain, though if you are made of the same steely stuff as the Swiss, you’re welcome to hike (or jog) your way up instead. Either way, panoramic views and St. Bernard rescue dogs (which do not, unfortunately, fit easily into suitcases) wait for you at the top.

Even in the heart of summer, the altitude makes sure a couple of feet of snow sticks around.

Once you’ve had your fill of the view (which is, admittedly, hard to do), it’s time to begin your descent. The cograil does offer a faster way down, but for the more adventurous traveler it’s hard to imagine a trip into Switzerland’s alps without any actual hiking involved.

Of course, there are a couple of things to consider: atop the peak of Gornergrat, over ten thousand feet in the air, keep in mind that there will be plenty of snow on the ground, even in the dog days of summer (we went in June, and the first part of our hike was through a good three feet of the stuff). Even more importantly, don’t forget your sunscreen unless you want to spend the rest of your trip roughly the same color as a lobster. Snow glare is an evil thing, and as much fun as peeling the underside of your chin sounds, it’s really not.

Past the snow, it’s an easy hike through some of the best scenery Switzerland has to offer.

As you begin your descent and drop below the high altitudes, it’s also important to remember that while you are not actually in Rohan (as that is, in fact, located in New Zealand), it is still more than acceptable to pretend that you are on the pursuit of an evil party of rampaging Uruk-hai.

Rest assured: rugged as it seems, it’s actually incredibly difficult to get lost up here.

About halfway down the mountain, there’s a convenient rest stop if you need to rest your legs, check the map, or use the facilities. Don’t worry about getting lost; there are plenty of signs, marked paths, and other hikers, joggers, and tourists to help point you in the right direction. Just follow the narrow dirt road, pass under the treeline through a forest worthy of Thoreau’s Waldeinsamkeit, and Zermatt will open up before your feet before you know it.

All photos by Rachel Alvord

Paleis Het Loo

Paleis Het Loo, located near Apeldoorn, “was the summer residence of the Royal Family of the Netherlands until 1975,” according to Trip Advisor.  The palace was first inhabited by King William III and Queen Mary II, and last inhabited by Queen Wilhelmina, states a Dutch travel blog and the official Palace website.

The palace grounds are huge, with multiple attractions to explore. Visitors can take the palace tour and walk through the current exhibit, or walk through the stables, or even venture onto the roof of the palace to get a better view of the gardens.

While visiting Paleis Het Loo I took a number of photographs to capture not only the palace itself, but the beautifully manicured gardens as well.

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Walking up to the palace.

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One of the palace’s crystal chandeliers.

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Dutch painters are known for their skilled artwork, I don’t know who this woman is, but she fascinated me while at the palace.

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Walking through the royal stables. I love patterns and found this one interesting.

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Queen Wilhelmina’s carriage.

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The Dutch flag from the roof of the palace.

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The manicured gardens consist of a variety of hedge gardens as seen from the ground.

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The manicured gardens consist of a variety of hedge gardens as seen from the roof.

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The details of one of the many fountains on the grounds.

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Within the gardens.

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Another artistic detail of the gardens.

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One of the most beautiful sculptural fountains on the outer side of the gardens.

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Far away view of this globe fountain centerpiece.

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Close-up view of this globe fountain centerpiece.

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The palace in the distance of the blooming garden.

Manhattan to Mainhattan: An American Introduction to Frankfurt am Main

Apartment buildings in Frankfurt am Main.

Apartment buildings in Frankfurt am Main.

Summer’s rolled around, bringing vacation time with it. Your passport arrived weeks ago, your suitcase is open and ready to be packed, and now there’s just one question remaining: where to go?

For the burgeoning traveler, Frankfurt am Main is the perfect location.

Located, as you might guess, on the Main River in the German state of Hesse, Frankfurt am Main is a modern city with lots of history. Rebuilt in modern styles after extensive bombing during World War II, Frankfurt is now famous for housing the most skyscrapers of any German city; further benefiting from American occupation and the new found isolation of post-war Berlin, the city quickly grew into a commercial metropolis that only narrowly lost to Bonn as capital of the BRD. Sixty years later, the resulting development of the city offers a blend of western modernity and European cultural history — the perfect mix for someone still testing the waters abroad.

Herzliche Willkommen

Haus der Jugend

When I visited Frankfurt, I stayed in the Haus der Jugend youth hostel, which is conveniently located for seeing much of what the city has to offer. For a quick introduction, however, there are two options for acquainting yourself with the city: the Main Tower, or via river tour. Personally, I found that it’s more than worth it to fork over a couple of euros to hitch the 200m ride up to the top of the tower; with beautiful panoramic views of the city and surrounding country, it’s easy to feel like you’re the Main Tower provides an amazing introductory experience that quite literally lays the city at your feet.

For those less comfortable with the height, however, it’s also possible to stay closer to the ground and cruise the city on a river tour. A warning, though: if you, like me, take this tour soon after arriving early in the morning, after a ten hour flight across the Atlantic, you do run the risk of the warm summer sun, tranquil river, and soothing scenery lulling you to sleep.

 

 

Something Old

Once you’ve gained a feel for the city, the city offers a full list of museums, restaurants and pubs to explore and relax in. Many of them are located close to the aforementioned Haus der Jugend, and the meticulously rebuilt old town (Altstadt) is a great place to get a bite to eat and try some of Frankfurt’s famed Apfelwein (I’ve heard a lot of people describe it as a love-it-or-hate-it drink, but to me, it just tasted like a somewhat sharp white wine. Römerberg Square is also a site of festivities, such as it was when I first visited Frankfurt, having arrived on the morning of Ascension Day. If you’re looking for some of that aforementioned culture shock, I can safely say there’s nothing quite like a couple of drunk Germans standing on tables giving celebratory speeches while you enjoy your first bite of authentic German beer and bockwurst.

Many of the buildings on the square have themselves been around since the early days of the city in the late eighth century, but just around the corner there stands another must-see of Frankfurt: the famed Kaiserdom, the Imperial cathedral in which Holy Roman Emperors were crowned for more than two hundred years.  Admission is free, and if you’re lucky, the cathedral might be hosting a choral concert for you to listen to as well. This church holds a special note of interest for me, as it was the first European cathedral I’d had the pleasure of visiting; it’s not the most magnificent of the churches Europe has to offer, but even so, you can forget what you learned from Hunchback of Notre Dame — seeing the sturdy Gothic architecture and listening to the echoing choir in person is something you can never quite appreciate without experiencing it for yourself.

The famous facade of the Römerberg Square in Frankfurt’s Altstadt.

Something New

In the modern world, Frankfurt has made a name for itself as a banking capital, and while it still pales alongside cities such as London (though not for lack of trying), it still has a strong economic presence. The twin towers of Deutsche Bank stand as an eternal reminder of this fact, as does a monument built to commemorate the introduction of the Euro in 2001. My group had the pleasure of being invited inside the DB towers for a lecture on banking, but as an Arts & Sciences major, I can assure you I remember very little of it.

The city itself is a constant reminder of modernity as well. With roughly thirty structures reaching heights of 100m or more (a massive feat in an of itself, given the swampy, unstable ground the city stands on), streets full of modern apartments, and a heavy emphasis on business and economics, Frankfurt am Main is far from being Germany’s busiest tourist trap. Even with all of that corporate mayhem, though, the city has plenty of its own kooky European quirks which have noted on the web by natives and tourists alike (Faces of the City, anyone?), but even so, when I finally left the city, I couldn’t help feeling a little homesick for it (not bad for someone who had been out of America for less than a week at that point).

A handful of the towers that make up Frankfurt's famous skyline.

A handful of the towers that make up Frankfurt’s famous skyline.

* all photos taken by Rachel Alvord

A Piece of Germany in South Korea

Korea mapIn anticipation of spending the next year teaching English in South Korea, I’ve started making a list of places to visit while I’m there. The most recent addition to my list is the German Village, a German-Korean community located on Namhae Island in South Gyeonsang Province.

Germans in South Korea, you say? While it’s true that most foreigners in South Korea hail from the U.S. and other parts of Asia and that most Korean expats live in China, the U.S., and Japan, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 South Koreans moved to West Germany in the 1960s and ‘70s to work as ‘Gastarbeiter’ (lit. ‘guest workers’) due to the economic devastation caused by the Korean War. Many of them ended up staying in Germany and starting families; as a result, Germany is now home to the second highest number of people of Korean heritage in Europe.

German Village - Namhaedo - South KoreaA little over a decade ago, South Korean authorities offered former guest workers who had lived in Germany at least 20 years an incentive to come back to Korea, offering them and their families land and subsidized German-style housing in an area Koreans call ‘Dogil Maeul’ (‘German Village’) on Namhae Island. The most seemingly reliable stats I could find on the Village come from a 2012 article run by Der Spiegel stating that there are 35 houses in the Village, although some informal sources I’ve seen put the number at anywhere between a dozen and 75 (there’s probably an accurate number listed somewhere on the Village’s website, but someone with better Korean than mine is going to have to get back to me on that). Some inhabitants live there full time, and some split their time between South Korea and Germany.

As Der Spiegel’s article points out, many of the Korean returnees no longer feel at home in their country after having been away for 30-40 years. Cho Sung-Hyung’s 2009 German-language documentary Endstation der Sehnsüchte follows three German-Korean couples who live in the Village and details these feelings of heimatslosigkeit. Below is a short excerpt from the film.

The German Village has become something of a tourist destination, attracting tens of thousands during the summers and at least ten thousand for Oktoberfest, according to Der Spiegel. I get the sense that it’s a lot like Missouri’s own Hermann, but without the wineries or good German drink—apparently beer in a can at the Village’s Cafe Bremen is about as close as you’re gonna get. On the other hand, you can’t beat the scenery, and f0r German- or Korean-speaking tourists, it seems like the residents would be fascinating to talk to. Apparently there’s an American village located on the island as well.

But in the words of Lavar Burton (Reading Rainbow, anyone?), don’t take my word for it. Check out pictures and reviews of people who have been to the German Village here, here, and here, and stay tuned for my next blog post on Koreans in Germany, featuring an interview with Suin Roberts of Indiana University.

 

Venice of the North

Fotor0424154820Saint Petersburg is located along the Gulf of Finland and is considered to be Russia’s most vibrant city. If you love food, culture, high art, and lavish architecture, then this beautiful city is for you.

Last summer I had an opportunity to study abroad in this relaxing city for over a month, and I must say it was love at first sight. The best time to see this whimsical city in action is during the White Nights (May-July.) During this season the daylight is celebrated nearly round- the -clock because the sun sets for only a few hours. The White Nights Festival has many ballet performances, operas, and The Scarlet Sails Celebration (Алые паруса.)

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The Red Room is a masterpiece by French artist Henri Matisse. This artwork is located at the Hermitage.

If you decide to visit, you must bring out your inner art critic and spend some time in the Hermitage and the Russian Museum.  This is your chance to see the world renowned art works by Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh and etc. The Hermitage gets extremely busy, so get there early so you do not have to wait in line for hours.

Quick Fact: Experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking on each art piece at the Hermitage, it would take nearly 11 years to do so.

Walking Down the Nevsky Prospect:

Nevsky Prospect is the main street of the city; many shops, cafes, restaurants and tourist sites are located here. If you only have a day to spend in the city, this is where you should spend your time. On this outrageously long street, there is the Kazan Cathedral, Church of Spilled Blood, Hermitage (Catherine’s Palace,) and more. If you are a literature buff, perhaps you should enjoy a meal at the Literaturnoe Kafe (Literature Café.) This is where Alexander Pushkin enjoyed his many meals and his last one before he died in a dual in 1837. As you take a stroll, you will come across pleasant street artists, beautiful canals and cool bridges. The vibe of this place is very diverse and laid back.

Side Note: If you are wanting more detailed information of the city life and what it has to offer, check out Life in Russia blog!

Food:

I love food and I was so excited to taste everything, so of course most of my money went towards delicious meals. If you are

Traditional Russian Donuts

Traditional Russian Donuts in Cafe Pyshechnaya.

looking to try out authentic Russian food for cheap, then Stolovaya (Cafeteria) is your place. This is where the locals go to enjoy many of their meals. There is more than one of these, so it should be easy to spot them. Bakeries are everywhere. My personal favorite is БУШЕ (Bushe.) This bakery is heaven. My  favorite is the smoked salmon sandwich with cream cheese. Yum! The bakery only has 30 minutes Wi-Fi limit; if you are trying to get some work done on your laptop, this place is not for you. On the bright side if you get your treat to go, then your price will be cheaper. Another bakery that you must try is the Cafe Pyshechnaya. This is the oldest cafe/cafeteria and serves the best pishki (Russian donuts.) This place is extremely busy and seating is very limited. Also, the Russian women servers are extremely intimidating and they expect you to know your order right away.  Be prepared! The Guardian writes a review on this cafe and they consider it to be top 10 hidden gems in St Petersburg.

Countryside Trips:

Taking some time off from the city is always nice and there a lot of palaces and parks that offer a relaxing afternoon. Here are some attractions that will revive you.

St Petersburg has much to offer and it does take significant amount of time to explore all the streets, museums, monuments, cathedrals and etc. The vibe of this city is addicting and if you are like me, you will want to come back as soon as possible.

Catalonia’s Treasured Peak

“Welcome to Montserrat– the closest place to heaven on Earth.”

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The view of Montserrat abbey and surrounding village from the bus station. The monastery and surrounding village has existed since 1025.

Nestled 30 miles west of Barcelona, Spain on a mountain that bears the same name, the monastery and shrine at Montserrat holds religious importance for the thousands of pilgrims and captures the imagination of the millions of visitors that come to the top of the mountain yearly to take in its breathtaking views and rare sights.

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The valley sitting 4,055 feet below the mountain peak. The mountain the monastery takes its name from was Spain’s first national park.

As the sight of the Black Madonna and a rumored location of the Holy Grail, the spiritual significance of this little mountaintop abbey is felt as soon as you step off the bus. Being one of the tallest peaks in Catalonia, and home to these historic artifacts lends Montserrat the nickname of “the closest place to heaven on Earth.” You can see a symbol of this nickname in the photo above with the stairway to heaven overlooking the valley.

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The monastery’s remote location made it a hiding ground for Spain’s intellectuals and youth during the rule of fascist dictator Francisco Franco.

In order to reach the Basilica where you can see the holy artifacts, visitors are required to maneuver through narrow alleyways that are characteristic of so many towns in Europe. However, the backdrop of mountain peaks makes for a trek that is not soon forgotten.  Vendors line the sides of the streets, selling their handmade products and the fruits of their labor. You can sense and appreciate the gifts and livelihood that Montserrat provides for the locals of the mountain villages.

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Four trees that sit in front of the entrance to the basilica and the Black Madonna. Planted centuries ago, the trees represent four key aspects of the Catholic faith.

Before entering the Basilica, four different trees that hold symbolic meaning for both the monastery and Christianity stand in view of visitors.  The palm stands for martyrdom, the cypress for eternal life, the olive for peace, and the laurel for victory.

While Barcelona may get the most attention in Catalonia, it is the tiny monastery and village of Montserrat that is the most poignant and enchanting. After a visit to that mountaintop, it is impossible not to take a little bit of heaven back down to Earth with you.

 

The Battle of the Two Soviet Resort Towns

The Caucasus region of Russia has long been celebrated for its beautiful landscapes, tall mountains, mild climates, and the power to renew the body and soul. Even Russian masterminds like Pushkin and Tolstoy wrote of its wonders and the region’s magical medicinal spring waters.

As for me, I was lucky enough to have grown up in this region.

For the sake of keeping this post short and sweet, I will only stick to reviewing two small towns within the Stavrapol’ region of the North Caucasus Region– Kislovodsk and Pyatigorsk.

  1. Kislovodsk

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    Landscape of Kislovodsk: lots of greenery and hills.

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To answer your question: yes, it is just as beautiful in real life as it looks here.

This beautiful resort town is named after the abundance of natural spring waters that the region produces. In fact, the town’s name literally translates to “sour water.” I know, I know, that doesn’t sound appetizing in the least bit. However, people swear by the stuff and do everything from drink it to bathe in it.

One of the town’s most beautiful attractions is definitely the resort park. The park is only accessible on foot and patrons are prohibited from driving their cars within the park itself.

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My godfather looking dapper in front of the Little Tea House.

Atop a tall hill within the park lies a hidden gem, a small restaurant called Chainii Domik. Translation: Little Tea House. The restaurant only has outside seating and has some of the most spectacular views of the park and the town itself. The wait staff is attentive but gives you your space and the food is absolutely spectacular. I recommend the shashlik, a popular Russian shish kabob that is grilled over an open fire. Yum!

When I visited this restaurant, we were lucky enough to be sat immediately. When we asked why there weren’t many people there, the waitress said that people are reluctant to hike up a steep hill for several miles only for a restaurant. Lucky for us, we got to actually drive through the park because my godfather knew the man guarding the park gates. If I could only describe the jealous (and confused) stares we got from the other park visitors as we drove our car straight on through the park.

You know you're in Russia when you can find exotic animals in the most random places, like outside of a nature sanctuary for example. All you have to do is pay the nice man 400 Rubles (about $11 USD) and you can take a souvenir photo.

You know you’re in Russia when you can find exotic animals in the most random places, like outside of a nature sanctuary for example. All you have to do is pay the nice man 400 Rubles (about $11 USD) and you can take a souvenir photo.

As for the rest of the town, it’s absolutely bustling with energy. There are a multitude of family-owned shops, little cafes like the Little Tea House, and Soviet-style resorts that Russians still stay in when they need a break from the hectic city life.

When I last visited this city at age 15, I told my family that if there was one town in Russia that I had to live in for the rest of my life, it would be Kislovodsk. The air is cleaner, the food is better, and the people seem nicer and more at ease. Visitors don’t call the place “city of the sun” for nothing. Of course, there is still the occasional gypsy beggar at the train station that will probably invade your personal space in order to attempt to get money from you, but you’re likely to find that anywhere in Russia.

2. Pyatigorsk

Pyatigorsk's famous grotto entrance.

Pyatigorsk’s famous grotto entrance.

This town gets its name from the five peaks of the Beshtau mountain range. In fact, the name literally translates to “5 mountains.” This town, also a resort town, has one of the oldest spas in Russia and has been renowned for it since 1803.

The grotto itself with a holy icon permanently watching over it.

The grotto itself with a holy icon permanently watching over it.

If there is one thing you have to see when visiting Pyatigorsk, it’s the grotto. This grotto is open to visitors but people are prohibited from touching the grotto’s infamous mineral waters. Legend has it that a famous Russian poet once became paralyzed as a result of an accident and could no longer walk. The poet moved to Pyatigorsk and was advised to daily engulf his body in the waters of the grotto as well as drink from it. Eventually, the poet was able to walk again like the accident never happened.

    One of my oldest friends, Ilya, and I at the entrance of the grotto.

One of my oldest friends, Ilya, and I at the entrance of the grotto.

This grotto is also atop a steep hill on Mount Mashuk that requires a pretty hefty hike. However, there are buses that can transport you there for very reasonable price. Also, there is a mineral water stream about half of a mile away from this grotto that the public can actually touch and bathe in if they wish to do so. Trust me, you’ll definitely want to. The waters are warm and make your skin feel completely refreshed afterward. As long as you’re not turned off by the middle-aged men in Speedos and fairly pungent smell of sulfur that comes from the water itself, you have nothing to worry about.

As for the town’s other attractions, it is very well known for its food scene. The dining is typically casual but the food itself is phenomenal and includes assortments of grilled meats and regional vegetables that have plenty of Armenian and Georgian flare.

Take a ski lift atop one of the city’s other mountains and you’ll find daredevil mountain bikers riding freely down the mountain and others simply skydiving off of it. I personally thought these people are crazy but I must admit, it looked fun.

If that’s not your scene, you can still find food trucks and souvenir shops on top of the mountain that are sure to please anyone.

Whether you’re coming to the region to visit one of its famous resorts or you’re just passing through, be sure to come to these little towns. In my opinion, this is where you see the true heart of Russia and all she has to offer.

Here are a few more pictures from my last trip to Russia in 2007:

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Waffles, Windmills, and Wonderful Sights: Bruges’ Historic City Center

Despite nearly a thousand years of history, beautifully preserved Gothic architecture  and a reputation as one of the most important and fabulously wealthy medieval cities of Europe, Bruges, Belgium is all but absent from American travel itineraries. Colin Farrell film aside, most Americans know absolutely nothing of Bruges.

Old Bruges, as seen from one of many canals. Credit: M & G Therin-Weise

Old Bruges, as seen from one of many canals. Credit: M & G Therin-Weise

One of several cities competing for the title Venice of the North in recognition of its beautiful canals, Bruges’ city center offers a wonderfully comprehensive view into the opulent Northern jewel of medieval trade. Although the entire old city center is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are several specific sites and sights I would like to recommend.

 

Old Marketplace in Bruges City Center Credit: Wolfgang Staudt

Old Marketplace in Bruges City Center Credit: Wolfgang Staudt

First and most easily accessible is the Markt, Bruges’ medieval marketplace, located roughly in the center of the old city. Any visitor standing on the Markt would find it impossible to miss the towering Belfry, Bruges’ most iconic landmark. Those interested in the view from the upper windows are welcome to climb the Belfry, for a fee, but that’s a lot of steps. A LOT of steps. Also present on the Markt are restaurants, which ring the square and offer tons of outdoor seating to enjoy the late sunsets. In the center of the square, horse-drawn carriages wait to trot you around the city, but on my visit to Bruges, I enjoyed saving the money wandering around on foot.

Side Street in Bruges' old city Credit: Wolfgang Staudt

Side Street in Bruges’ old city Credit: Wolfgang Staudt

A word about wandering: while I highly recommend that any visitor to Bruges take out some time and stroll the side-streets and alleys spidering out from the Markt, I would like to point out that the fantastic degree of upkeep and cleanliness means that most of the side-streets look nearly identical, with only minor architectural details on the connected houses to use as waypoints. As can be assumed, I often found myself hopelessly lost amongst the canals and brick facades, though this is only a problem if you’re on a tight schedule. Otherwise, getting yourself lost is a fantastic way to experience Bruges’ old town.

Basilica of the Holy Blood Credit: Jim Linwood

A second destination near the Markt is the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which contains a relic said to contain drops of the blood of Christ. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, the Basilica is architecturally beautiful, particularly the small chapel tucked up a dark set of stone stairs.

Canal Cruise through Bruges Credit: Linda Garrison

Canal Cruise through Bruges Credit: Linda Garrison

While much of Bruges can be seen on foot, one of the most highly recommended experiences to, um, experience while in town is a sightseeing cruise along the canals. Unlike the canals of Venice, which frankly smell pretty terrible, the canals of Bruges are clean and clear, with many lovingly cared-for gardens which can be seen only from the water. In most situations, I wouldn’t recommend paying for sightseeing, but Bruges is really a city best experienced at water level.

I'm telling you, try the waffles.

I’m telling you, try the waffles.

Try the waffles. Try some mussels, too- they’ll serve them in a big bucket. Try the beer, try another beer, and try as many more as you can, because delicious Belgian beer is obscenely expensive here in the States. Don’t try too many, though, because that just makes it easier to get lost. But that’s not always a bad thing.

 

Across Borders: A Parkour Generation

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Human motion need not be delimited by carefully-set sidewalks nor inhibited by obstacles. Leap over walls, swing from the rafters to get to your next destination via le method naturelle. The spectacle often leaves average pedestrians awestruck in the dust. Parkour enthusiasts, called traceurs, draw unique lines of approach to this sport of urban free-running and develop their philosophies from the spirit of it. The movements evoke practitioners’ primitive sides while the discipline places them vis-à-vis with moments of fear and truth about the psychological and physical limits. The conceptualization of parkour breaks down ideas of spatial and social confinement, which have restricted our harmony with our environment. As one enthusiast put it, “The idea that the only way to get to the second floor is from the inside of a building is preposterous.”

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The community’s consensus is that this adrenaline-pumped martial art was born in Lisses, France, where modern legends-in-the-making like Sébastien Foucan and Jérôme Ben Aoues expressed their free-flow style by jumping, flipping, scaling, leaping along their own paths with exceptionally acrobatic, and distinctly defiant, French flair since the 1990s. Here, skateboarding was not allowed and public playgrounds had rules against this type of play. They developed a sport that complemented surrounding architecture in creating alternate, and often impressive, routes of transit for the nonconformist traveler. The style quickly spread throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Americas. Parkour Generations America started in 2005 with a runabout rendezvous – here is their showreel: http://youtu.be/lD3_Fn0erPw

 

The most spectacular stunts are done among rooftops, but fundamentals should be learned at ground level. Today, online organizations like ParkourGenerations.com and Monkeyspirit.org seek to inspire young French traceurs by providing tips, tricks, and testimonials from those who have become proficient in the art of creative movement. The masters teach use of fundamental and natural motions, mental rehearsal, and hard work to become fluid in the art of manipulating your horizon, because after all, “the art of moving is about hard training.” Exercise regimes challenge cardiovascular systems, build core strength and improve muscular endurance. The essence is in the footwork, the hand placement, the unique flow of the individual in their route and how they assess obstacles. Uncontested sensei Sébastien Foucan explains that, in his experience, “practice is best done alone…to be focused in yourself. When you are alone you’re a little bit afraid and you need to find why and the solution.” And Monkeyspirit.org urges hopefuls in its introduction not to put the cart before the horse. “The flow comes from years of hard work. Even apes and monkeys practice all the day long during their childhood learning from their parents.”
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Groups like UrbanFreeFlow and Freemouv display skill at international competitions, most recently this July in the French Alps and in August in Wisconsin, USA. Their talents have also been displayed in such recent films as 007 James Bond: Casino Royale and Jump Britain. Foucan recently helped K-Swiss develop the Ariake, the first freerunning and parkour shoe. Nikon and GoPro have contests to sponsor amateurs in creating parkour videos for the web.

To date, the writer has personally adopted many movements of Animal Planet in conquest of free-running basics. Visualize me at 25, meditating at dawn and practicing throughout Missouri’s karst landscape during my frequent hiking trips. I still get the urge to climb to the top of the playground tower and every other imposing structure I come across. As a novice, I hurt my ankle while leaping between platforms last month and haven’t been as spry since. I should have been wary of encouraging instructions that included the phrase, “various opportunities to jump off the roof.”

 

Ultimately, parkour is for hard-chargers, fast runners, young kung fu masters, trapeze artists, and those kids who grew up having the most fun on the school playground. It continues to be rapidly embraced by a generation of unprecedented physicality and philosophy: a parkour generation.

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Across the borders on Motorcycle

Recently I’ve watched a video, called ‘what can you do with 40 000 RMB’ (6,278.15 US dollar). It talks about a newly married couple, a Chinese girl and a German boy who spent almost 4 months travelling by motorcycle from Shanghai to Hamburg, Germany. I can hardly imagine that someone would give up his job and spent almost all his money to travel in such a crazy way.

Of course, for most Chinese people this is totally crazy. But for Germans, it seems it’s kind of normal. When I was in China, I met an old lady from Germany who was giving a photograph show in our university. In her show, she presented the photo she has taken while crossing countries from Europe to Asia on her motorcycle.

Source:http://www.unterwegens.de

So I did a little research on motorcycle traveling of Germans. Then I found a website, Entdecke dein Abenteuer. This guy successfully travelled around the world with his motorcycle and he published a book about his trip. If anyone is interested in such a way of travelling, you can definitely find lots of useful information on his blog.

Source: http://www.motorcycle.com/

Every time I saw those people in leather jacket and leather pants driving Harleys on the highway, I thought they were so cool. Riding a motorcycle is absolutely a total different experience than driving a car. And it’s a good method to relieve stress. Someone even wrote an article about it Motorrad-Reisen als Therapie für gestresste Manager.

Although I think travelling by motorcycle is kind of cool, but there are still lots of problems. If it is raining, what can you do? Riding through the rain, would that be too cold? I do admire those people taking adventure in such an abnormal way. But for me, a person who always thinks too much, well, I’d rather take a train.

Mitfahrgelegenheit-rideshare an alternative way to travel

Source: http://www.amazon.com

… if you wanna travel to somewhere. But it’s too boring to drive all by yourself, so maybe you want to think about joining a carpool. The first time I got to know this alternative way of travelling was several years ago, when I watched the German movie “Im Juli“. I have never heard of or knew anything about this before; it was like a culture shock for me back then. Juli decided to travel without planing. She just waited on the roadside for the first car which stopped. The car’s destination is her destination of the trip. Is that romantic? I think so!

Source; http://stlouis.cbslocal.com/

Actually, Mizzou has also such a thing called ride share, I’ve read about this several times while reading Mizzou Info emails. But it seems it is not very popular here. According to my knowledge, this kind of travel experiences can be seen more often in European movies than in American movies. So I’m wondering if Americans are interested in this or not?  Then I did a little research on this, and I found this article How To: Ride Share With Strangers.

My German friend told me that she likes ride share / Mitfahrgelegenheit a lot. So I guess ride share is more popular in Germany than in the U.S.

But  I would never try to ride share with strangers or like Juli did in the film, waiting randomly for someone who can give her a ride. Of course, ride share with strangers is fun, romantic and cheap, because you’ll meet lots of different people. But I’m always worried about the safety problems, especially for a single woman who travels alone.