Monday, April 23, 2012

the beginning and the end: athens [spring break part 1 of 3]

So many olives, everywhere.
Last week was the CEA spring break, which meant I was headed to Greece. I was joined by one of my roommates, Sami, from Wisconsin, early Friday morning as we headed to Charles de Gaulle airport for what was about to be one hell of a week. I'm splitting my posts about Greece into three parts; first, because it makes it easier for me; second, because I can include more pictures; and third, because I don't want to make you guys scroll through endless paragraphs detailing the ins and outs of my trip. My eyes get tired looking at a computer screen too long too, and I want to give you guys a break.

Sami & I spent our first and last day in Athens. We were so excited when we first flew into Athens--we were finally in Greece, the only conversation topic in the apartment for weeks. After a long metro ride from the airport we surfaced in Monastiraki Square, in central Athens. Immediately we could tell we were not going to like the city too much: it was dirty, crowded and loud. Horns honked, men yelled, small children gathered around us asking for money, and the sidewalks were covered with dirt, trash, and other unidentifiable substances. After a long and confusing walk we arrived at our hostel, freshened up, and went searching for food.

Prosciutto, mozzerella and pesto sandwich at Rooster

The restaurant we found, Rooster, served us delicious bruschetta and sandwiches. Despite non-smoking signs on every table, the typical Europeans surrounding us filled the room with the stench of tobacco and nicotine. After noticing a somewhat unique crowd we realized that Rooster was, in fact, a gay bar. Eh, c'est la vie! After another rest and freshening up at the hostel, we walked around the surrounding city blocks in search of food for the next day's boat ride, some iced tea, and dinner. We ate some lamb gyros in Monastiraki, ducked into Starbucks for a break from the dirt, and made our way toward Brettos.

Brettos is a 100+ year old bar in a somewhat cuter part of the city (then again, it was night, so maybe the darkness masked the grime). They distill their own brandy in the bar, and the walls are covered with every flavor liqueur imaginable. The place had a very cool vibe, so we pulled up a stool and ordered the Greek classic: ouzo. I have to say, ouzo is pretty gross. It tastes like black licorice and is very strong. We drank what we could of it, and then ordered a glass of wine. A delicious Peloponnese Syrah is exactly what I needed to wash the flavor out.

The next morning we left our hostel early, bid farewell to our Chinese roommate and hopped on a Blue Star Ferries boat to Santorini. Fast forward to the next Friday...

After a long ferry ride from Mykonos we arrived back in Athens. Our economy tickets allowed us a seat outside on the deck or inside around one of the cafes or restaurants. We chose the deck, because of the beautiful weather, but we did hit some grey patches where the forceful winds blew salty sea spray all over me and everything I owned. I hid my nose in My Life in France by Julia Child and dreamed of being back in Paris...

The Acropolis

Upon our return to Athens we found some dinner, a place for a good drink and then rested up for the following day. After checking out of our hostel, we made the trek up to the Acropolis. In my opinion, this is the only reason to go to Athens. After just two full days in the city, I found very few redeeming qualities about it, unless one is interested in Greek history. As someone who repeatedly fell asleep on her freshman year history book (hey, I love history, but the Greeks and Romans were a little too far from my mind's grasp), I looked at the ancient structures, was impressed by the plethora of pristine marble, took some photos, and made my way back to the airport, and thus back to Paris. It feels so fabulous to be back.

Later today I'll update again with a post on Santorini and Mykonos islands, where the true Greek beauty is!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

under the spanish sun

Puerta del Sol

This past weekend was Easter weekend. Easter has always been an important day for me, as a Christian, but I celebrated a little differently this year. Instead of Sunday morning service at Gold Creek (or watching online from a dorm room in Pullman) I visited Madrid. I will admit this is not the most conventional way to spend the holiday, and while I felt bad about missing church, I knew that I had to take advantage of the 3-day weekend that the French have for Easter weekend. After all, aside from praising the Lord, one must take advantage of the opportunities He has given us as well.

Well, this isn't a religious post, it is a travel post, so let's get into it. We flew in early Friday morning and found our way through the city's very clean metro to meet our friend at her hotel. We then found a hostel, checked in, and set out to explore the city. As it was my 21st birthday on Friday and my friend was starving, we stopped in a small restaurant where she got herself a late lunch and ordered a bottle of wine for the four of us to enjoy. It was a delicious Spanish merlot, and such a treat. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Puerta del Sol, a large square that marks the center of Madrid, as well as the center of Spain. On our way back to the hostel we caught a glimpse of the Easter parade, but the streets were very crowded and the parade was slow, so we kept walking

Saturday morning we got ourselves a large delicious breakfast of thick-cut toast, fried eggs, bacon (unfortunately European bacon is just sliced, fried ham, and I am still craving the American sort) and fries (the Europeans love their french fries!). After a hot cup of black tea I was ready to hit the city. Unfortunately it was chilly, so we tried to keep inside. We spent the early part of the afternoon at Museo Thyssen, in a temporary Chagall exhibit. As a fan of Chagall's very unique and colorful work, it was a treat to see such a large collection for just a few euros to escape from the rain. After, we spent time in souvenir shops, eating some Spanish pastries and shopping. Everything was much less expensive in Madrid, especially compared to Paris, making eating and shopping a much less stressful experience. That night we went to a popular tapas bar, El Tigre, for dinner. Tapas were originally a Madrid bartender invention to keep flies out of drinks, and developed into an essential part of the city's culture. At a tapas bar with any order of a drink, it comes with food, the tapas. Depending on where you go, this is anything from small finger sandwiches, to raciones, the full-meal sized portions. With our order we got a large plate of patatas bravas and two plates of a bruschetta-like dish of sliced bread with thick slices of ham and melted cheese over them. The potatoes were one of the most delicious things I've ever had!

Sunday we slept in, as we had a late night the day before. We checked out of our hostel at noon, and got a traditional Spanish lunch at a restaurant near the center of the city. The weather was incredible: bright sun, clear skies and warm temperatures. Because food was so cheap, we decided to treat ourselves a bit: a friend and I split a plate of paella (Spanish rice, usually with shrimp, but ours had clams, chicken and peas) and another plate of fried calamari. We strolled through the streets toward Puerta del Sol, grabbed ice cream cones and soaked up some sun by a fountain watching the street performers. The square was full of people dressed up in character costumes: Spongebob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, and at least 4 Mickey Mouses. There was also a man painted all in silver dressed as Jesus: cross, sheep, crown of thorns, the whole thing. After a few laughs a few of us bought postcards and took the metro to the beautiful Parque del Retiro, a large park with a pond, fountains, lots of trees and grass and a beautiful glass building called the Palacio de Cristal. We spent the rest of the evening resting up for a long night at the airport. Our flight was too early to take the metro to the airport so we hung out overnight, tired and delirious from being so tired. We finally made it back to Paris at noon on Monday.

I will be posting soon with a few more updates: some cool places in Paris & my spring break travel plans! Click here for a few photos from Madrid! Adios amigos :)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

when katie comes to town, we live like queens

Hall of Mirrors in the Chateau de Versailles

This weekend Katie visited me to kick off her spring break. She is currently studying in Milan, and this was her first time in Paris! We had a wonderful time hitting up the usual sites: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower at night, the Louvre Museum, Shakespeare & Co., Pompidou Center and the Tuilleries. It was a whirlwind tour, but she loved the city.

The highlight of the weekend, however, was visiting Versailles. This is a place that has been the top of my "To Visit" list for over a year, since I first saw the film Marie Antoinette. I remember watching the movie with such amazement that such a beautiful place and lavish lifestyle could exist, wondering how it had taken me so long to watch the film. This film was part of what inspired me to come to Paris to study. While I had already decided to take French as my language in school and was already interested in French culture and history, I was determined to see this place for myself after seeing the film. Seeing the chateau, gardens, and Marie Antoinette's Hamlet was an incredible experience, and a reminder of why I came here to begin with.

I wish I could tell you all every detail of my visit, however that would be dull for you, and time-consuming for me. Instead, I will leave it at this: Versailles was better than I had anticipated, and easily tied with Cinque Terre, Italy and Gimmelwald, Switzerland as the best place I've ever been. It was absolutely beautiful and I cannot wait to go back again in May and spend even more time there (I didn't even get to see all the gardens!)

Katie and I ended our weekend with some American flair: cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Cafe. Guys, I'm talking cheddar cheese and bacon and the perfect french fries and milkshake. It was positively American, albeit overpriced, and left us completely satisfied as far as our State-side cravings were concerned. Afterward we went to a popular cafe on Rue Oberkampf, which is near my apartment, so Katie could buy me an early birthday drink: a mojito, of course. It was one of the best I've had, but maybe that's because someone else paid for it.

The weekend was fabulous, and I feel so blessed that I have a friend in Europe that I've been able to see twice. My friends from my program have families visiting, and since mine can't, its nice to have someone from home. I don't know how I'd get through the semester without a familiar, smiling face, that knows me so well.

Katie and I on the steps of the Chateau de Versailles

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

a day at the opera

Each Thursday morning, my professor for my History of Paris: An Architectural Perspective course, takes us to a different site in Paris for lecture. Moving chronologically throughout the semester, she uses the buildings and evolving architectural styles throughout Paris to teach us the fascinating, and often complicated, history of this city. One of the reasons I love this class is that I get to cross sites in Paris off my list without any extra effort or time: a free, guided tour built right into class time, what could be better?

This past Thursday this class helped me discover my favorite building in Paris: the Opéra Garnier. Also known as the Palais Garnier (Garnier Palace), it is named for its architect, Charles Garnier, who built the structure in two parts from 1861 to 1875. It is famous for many reasons, one of them being that the famous Phantom of the Opera is set in the building. The architecture at the time of its construction, was unlike anything that had been in Paris before: colored marble on the outside contrasted with the white-only facades of other structures in the city and elaborate designs throughout stood out against the simplicity of the apartment houses surrounding it.

The inside auditorium is much smaller than most European opera houses, however the stage remains the largest in Europe. This theater was built originally for the emperor of the Second Empire, Napolean III, who died before its completion. At the time, the opera house's primary purpose was for the upper classes to show themselves, rather than for theater performances. Of course, performances still occurred frequently, and the large road leading up to the building, as well as two major stores, Printemps and Galeries Lafeyettes, aided the rich in preparing to show themselves at this exclusive building. One could not simply enter the opera house: a person must have a good deal of money and social standing just to get in the building. A side rehearsal stage, which could be closed off, was used for men to choose mistresses from a group of performers, and until the queen of Spain showed up and entered on her own, women were not allowed inside without a male escort.

Today, the building remains one of the most elaborate and, in my opinion, beautiful buildings in Paris. I am lucky that my class took me there, as a guided tour costs a few euros. Currently, my Flickr is under a little rearranging (I'm only allowed 200 photos without upgrading to a Pro account, so I need to delete some which takes some time), but for those of you who are Facebook friends with me, you can see the rest of my photos in my Paris album.