Monday, September 6, 2010

Ha det bra, Norge

The title "ha det bra, Norge" means "goodbye, Norge" because this is my last blog post! My separation from Norway was certainly said and I still am missing it! But before we get all sappy I'll tell you about the wonderful trip I took with my parents.

After dropping my stuff at the hotel we headed to Vigeland park (where I had already been three times) for a rainy visit and lots of acrobatic pictures. Although slightly awkward, it is also great fun to climb on the sculptures of naked people all around the park.

Next we met up with some Norwegian friends who had bought my dad's book and used his website--I had eaten lunch with them the week before, all in Norwegian! Anyway, we took a walk around Sognsvann (lake) with them, then visited Holmenkollen again (the ski jump), and had a wonderful meal of elk, potatoes, and berries--very scandinavian!

The next day we were off for a beautiful flight to Bergen. I took plenty of pictures from the plane--the fjords are so beautiful, of course. We had lunch at the Bergen fish market, which was great to see, and then wandered around. Bryggen, the old, wooden dock-front area of Bergen (UNESCO heritage site) is amazing! There are lots of twisty wooden alleys and old stone halls... my type of place. Lots of tourists, too. We visited the Hanseatic Museum, which was in an old bryggen house, with wonderful historic rooms. My favorite part was the beds--they were in boxed-off parts of the wall. Cozy!

We also saw Rozencrantz Tower and Håkon's Hall--more beautiful stone medieval buildings. We heard an organ concert in an old church, and had two wonderful dinners during our two days there (one included reindeer and whale meat!).

The next day we took a train, a car, and a few ferries to get to Lofthus, the town where we believe my great-great-grandfather was born. The town was cute and tiny--right on the edge of the steep sides of the fjord. We visited the little church and church-yard, and though we didn't find any graves of relatives, it was wonderful. We stayed in Kinsarvik, another tiny town right down the fjord from Lofthus that used to be a port for viking ships. Cool!

After some more beautiful ferry rides on the fjords we arrived in Aurland, where we stayed in a tiny cabin on the fjord (literally--if you fell out the window you would land in the water). We enjoyed exploring the little town and admiring the fjord out the window. We even got to see a rainstorm pass through and obscure the fjord wall opposite us! It was beautiful.

Our next stop was the Flåm railway, said to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world (or something like that). It was raining in Flåm, but then it cleared up for the ride, which was certainly camera-worthy--lots of beautiful mountains, streams, waterfalls, lakes, houses, and even glaciers! We all got out of the train at one point to admire a huge waterfall, and were treated to a cheesy yet fun show by a "huldra"--a Norwegian version of a siren--dancing in the waterfall, complete with sound effects.

We arrived after an hour in Myrdal, where we waited for another train to take us back to Oslo. That ride was just as beautiful as the Flåm ride, and it was fun to get back to Oslo (though sad to leave the west coast!). While back in Oslo for a few days, my mom and I took a trip to Kongsberg, where my great-great-grandmother was born. We did some research at the archives, trying to decipher unreadable church books (did they really think people could read that handwriting?), then took a bus to Hedenstad Kirke (church), where my great-great-grandmother Helvina was baptized. The church was in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by hills and pastures--a beautiful view. The inside was simple, but there was a beautiful design painted on the ceiling, and it was just wonderful to be there. We tried to search for my great-great-great-grandfather's grave, but had trouble finding anything older than the 1900s. I ended up using my sparse norwegian to speak with the church's groundkeeper (who didn't speak english--a rarity in Norway), who explained that they had taken out the old gravestones to make room for the new ones. Very unfortunate for those of us looking to trace our roots, but that's ok. We know he was buried somewhere there, along with my great-great-great uncle, who had worked in the Kongsberg silver mines--our next stop--for 50 years.

At the silver mines we were given earplugs and led to a tiny car on a tiny train. We sat cramped in the car and traveled more than 2 kilometers into the mine, our earplugs blocking out the noise of the metal car jarring across the tracks. As we traveled down it got colder and colder, and I began to feel sorry for the miners who had to put up with the mines in the winter (there were many other reasons to feel sorry for them, I discovered). We took a tour of the mines, up and down and through just a tiny section of the whole mine--the largest in Norway. It was amazing to imagine the miners working there for hours at a time, in almost complete darkness, squeezing through tiny holes and climbing up and down rickety wooden ladders. Thousands of men worked there, and it must have been miserable--in winter they wouldn't have seen sunlight at all. So although it was very interesting, I was happy to get out of the mines and into the sun and warmth.

We took a train back to Oslo, and had a wonderful final dinner at Aker Brygge, and "hip and trendy" dockside area. We had a view of beautiful evening light on Akershus fortress--a wonderful way to end our trip. My parents left in the morning and I hung around the hotel room for a while, watching the rain and starting to miss Norway already. My flight was in the afternoon, so I took the train to the airport, flew to Reykjavik and then Boston. It was bittersweet being home. Jeg savner Norge! (I miss Norway).

So, thus concludes another one of Lydia's adventures. Many more to come, I hope! Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Thunderstorm + Ruined Monastery (and some other happenings)

Hi again! Shall we hop on a train to Brumunddal, Norway? Brumunddal is a small town near Lillehammer, which is famous for hosting the winter olympics in 1994. While visiting my friend there we took a stroll through Hamar, the biggest town in the area. It was fun and much nicer weather than when I was there the last time, in November! We spent the rest of the weekend hanging at my friend's house, taking walks, and catching up (I hadn't seen her in a year and a half). I also got to practice my norwegian with her parents, who were not as comfortable with english. It was a lovely weekend, and of course too short.

The next week I had fun going out for sushi and a movie with my summer school friends, and on Friday enjoyed a wonderful "International Cultural Evening." Every summer the summer school organizes an evening where students put on performances, make food, and run stands about their countries. I made chocolate chip cookie bars (I couldn't find any chocolate chips in the stores, though, so I used M&M-type-candies) and enjoyed trying food from all over the world. During the show I performed the "thriller dance" with a group of Americans, then had fun watching the other acts--there were a lot of dances, some in beautiful traditional costumes, and some singing.

That weekend my friends and I headed up to Holmenkollen, a huge ski jump on a hill in Oslo. It's Norway's top tourist destination and impressed me much more than I was expecting! We got to take an elevator to the top of the jump,a dn rode a "ski simulator" which I'm sure felt much different than the real thing, but was still entertaining. Afterwards we hiked all the way down from Holmenkollen to Sognsvann, a lake near campus. Despite the rain, it was a beautiful hike and I filled up on berries! Sweet, juicy, tiny wild strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries (the strawberries were smaller than the raspberries!)

Later that weekend I took a trip by myself to the Oslo folk museum, which was similar to Skansen in Stockholm--lots of historic buildings had been moved there, including a magnificent wooden stave church. I also got to see some great folk dancing, to the tune of a nickelharpa (awesome instrument) this time. I took a nice stroll through Oslo afterwards, and realized that despite its small population, there is a lot of wonderful Oslo to see.

Then came my last week of classes! It was quite sad, because I had made many good friends, and I really enjoyed going to class every day. I think I learned a bit too! I took my exam at the end of the week (quite easy) and celebrated the end of school with the arrival of my parents and a trip with my friends to an island in Oslo harbor. That was a magical experience, because we ended up taking cover in a ruined monastery during a wonderfully dramatic thunderstorm. Ruins and thunderstorms may be two of my favorite things. Hot chocolate afterwards complemented the afternoon perfectly.

That night we had the summer school going away party, with speeches, photos, cake, and dancing. It was lots of fun, but so sad to say goodbye to my friends and the University of Oslo. After a little bit of sleep, I packed up my things, said my goodbyes, and took the metro with my parents to their hotel. There began another adventure.....

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Classy clubs, rafting, and Sweden


Because I spent so long in Oslo (and didn't keep a journal while I was there), I will skip around a bit as I am writing this. I may also forget some things, make some things up, and generally just go out of order. I'll try to keep somewhat chronological by looking at the photos I took during my stay. Enjoy!

During the beginning of my stay in Oslo I had two other experiences worth noting. The first was a visit to Oslo's royal palace, which is humble, but beautiful. Norway never had a tradition of building castles and palaces, so Oslo's is relatively small and new (meaning from the 1800s). Still, there were some very beautiful rooms, and it was cooler than some other palaces I've seen because it is still used! The Norwegian king has a bigger role than expected; he meets in a certain room with his ministers every friday; the prince steps in if the king is not there. We also saw beautiful guest rooms that are given to foreign dignitaries--all except one American, who we were told refused to stay there because there was no air conditioning. Silly.

My other experience was a taste of Oslo night life... during my stay there I went to a few clubs and discos, including a very entertaining karaoke club. One night I went with a few other ISS students to a club on the top floor of a building in central Oslo, and my goodness was it exclusive! I was wearing jeans and a tank top because I hadn't been planning to go out, but this place could certainly be called a "pretty people party." We were only allowed in because one of the ISS students knew a girl who was singing there that night. There were so many classy, fashionable norwegians there, and they were all drinking red bull mixed with wine. Classy? Who knows. But it was certainly an experience.

My third weekend in Oslo I got to go hiking and rafting! It was so much fun. We took a bus to Jotunheimen (a zone in Norway--"home of the giants") and hiked up Bitihorn, a pretty steep mountain with snowbanks and gorgeous views. There was even a fence on the mountain to keep out (or in) reindeer, though we didn't see any reindeer. After our hike we hopped back on the bus and drove to Sjoa, where we stayed at Sjoa rafting camp for the night. It was great--lots of wood cabins with grass growing on the roof and a wonderful meal cooked over a giant wood stove. The next day we went rafting, which was lots of fun. We all got wet suits and helmets and got in big yellow rafts with a guide who taught us how to paddle and what to do if we fell out. I did so once, during a particularly rough bit of rapids! It was lots of fun, and not too cold. We rafted again after lunch, then took a long bus ride back, arriving just in time to see the end of the world cup.

My next great adventure was the next weekend--we had a long weekend, so I went to Stockholm! I took a six-hour-long train ride and almost melted. It was super hot! I blamed it on the swedish trains. I arrived in Stockholm and went to my hostel with a tiny room with a tiny window that didn't open, no ventilation, and no air conditioning. That was more than uncomfortable.

Besides being hot, Stockholm was beautiful. I loved gamla stan--the old city--with lots of narrow, cobbled streets and cute buildings. I got a tour of the palace, which was much bigger than Oslo's palace and beautiful, and also saw the history museum and the middle ages museum. I did a lot of my normal wandering, and at one point ended up running into a royal military parade, with a live band. I followed the parade until they arrived at the palace, where they gave a free concert outside in the courtyard and did a lot of marching around. It was great. I also stumbled upon the "Stockholm Green Festival" and a salvation army meeting, did some shopping (it seemed cheap, compared to Oslo!), went to an Irish pub with bad (non-irish) music, and got hit on by some italians. On Saturday morning I headed to gamla stan again in the morning (around 9--after my iced coffee and cinnamon bun) and was surprised to find it empty! There were hardly any tourists, even. I took some handstand pictures in the streets, then trekked to Skansen, which is Stockholm's outdoor museum. There were some great historical buildings, animals from Sweden and the rest of the world, and the a fun folk dance performance in which I got to dance a bit. After along time wandering around Skansen, I decided I had had enough of historical buildings, and walked back to my hostel after a quick 7-11 dinner by the water, watching a storm come in. It was fun hearing and seeing Swedish--I could understand a little bit spoken, and read a little bit more.

The next day I jumped on another train to Oslo (luckily not too hot this time) and said farewell to Stockholm--it had been a great weekend. That week I continued with classes (already halfway through!) and with my exploration of Oslo--I saw a public library, which wasn't very interesting, but it was fun walking around downtown.

The next weekend I took another train--this time to Brumunddal (1.5 hours north of Oslo), to visit a good friend there. That's coming up in the next post. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Becoming Scandinavian

Hi again!

It was fun to arrive back in Copenhagen--I got there around 10:30 at night and it was still so light out! I took the train back into Malmö, then headed back to Copenhagen the next morning to meet up with a friend from college who was doing a summer program there. It was so fun--and funny--to meet up with her on the other side of the world. We had smørbrød (bread topped with pickled fish, in my case) and chatted, then wandered around a bit. I headed to the train station to take the train to Helsingør, up the coast of Denmark. Helsingør is a cute little town, but what makes it famous is "Hamlet's castle." Apparently, Shakespeare took his inspiration for Elsinore from Helsingør. The castle is on a peninsula jutting into the water--across the sea is Sweden--and it is beautiful. I explored the part under the castle, which was made up of lots of dark, dank cellars where people stored supplies or hid during raids. That even freaked me out, and I'm not scared of much.

After visiting the castle I took a short ferry over to Sweden, then took the train down to Lund, a beautiful little university down near Malmö. I admired the half-timbered houses and ivy-covered brick university buildings, thinking about study abroad (what would my major need to be for me to study abroad in Sweden?) and getting lost. After only a short while I hopped back on the train and returned to Malmö, because it was already past dinner time. I spent the evening with family friends, then took a train to Oslo the next day!

My departure to Oslo was on June 25th, the official midsummer celebration in Sweden. I was sorry to miss the festivities, but it was fun to see girls on the train wearing flowers in their hair, and the views out the window were beautiful.

When I arrived in Oslo I began by not finding the metro station for a while, then paying 4 dollars for a metro ticket when I finally found it, taking it a few stops, and dragging my bags through the rain all across the University of Oslo campus, then discovering that I had passed the dorms a while before. A slightly frustrating arrival, but I was still excited to be there. I found my room and met my roommate (from Minnesota!), and after a bit of unpacking and a meal of fish and boiled potatoes, walked around the area with some fellow summer school students.

During our first official day we took a bus tour of Oslo: we visited the Viking Ship museum (amazing!), drove through the center of town and saw the new Oslo opera house, which is an amazing modern building. Sunday I spent the day waiting in line to officially register, and then I started class on Monday. My class had about 24 students in it, of all ages and from all over the world. It was so much fun to meet my classmates and learn about where they were from. My teacher was also great--a very entertaining norwegian guy who also managed to teach us a lot, and who spoke mostly in norwegian.

After our first day of class we had the official summer school opening ceremony at Oslo City Hall, which was amazing! We all dressed up, and the vice mayor of Oslo spoke, along with the director of ISS and an alumna of the first ISS in 1947. There was also a performance by a band from the University of Oslo, and afterwards we had fancy hors d'oeuvres and champagne and met the American ambassador to Norway. All in all awesome! Then we missed our bus back, so some friends and I stayed at a bar near city hall for a while, then took the T-bane (metro) back.

So thus began my norwegian adventures! I had class every weekday from 10:15-1:00, then had lunch and either hung around in the afternoon, explored Oslo, or attended "Norwegian Life and Society" lectures. In the first week I watched the USA-Ghana world cup match in a park in Majorstuen, the zone near my campus, and went to the Oslo Ice Bar. As you may have guessed, that is a bar made out of ice! The walls, tables, bar, chairs, and glasses were all ice, and we were given big poncho-like parkas to wear. Definitely a crazy experience.

I spent my first weekend in Oslo visiting the islands in Oslo harbor and swimming in the not-too-cold ocean, then celebrating the Fourth of July, American-Norwegian style! There was a celebration in Vigeland park (Norway's most famous statue park), attended by lots of American x-pats, with food, stalls selling souvenirs, and entertainment ("Independence Idol"). I got some norsk jordbær (norwegian strawberries--delicious) and wandered around in my red, white and blue, happy to be able to celebrate my first Fourth of July outside the US in good American fashion.

ISS organized some fun events for us--one was "norwegian cultural evening," where we saw some great folk music and dance performances, and some traditional Sami "yoik" (singing). Afterwards, we had traditional norwegian sausage and cornstarch porridge which was surprisingly delicious. We also had a fun evening of folk dance instruction and spent some nice afternoons at Sognsvann, the beautiful lake right down the metro line from campus.

Next time: white-water rafting, Stockholm, and more fun in Oslo!!

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Back to Santiago de Compostela (or S-d-C, as I like to call it). On our full day there we went to see the cathedral (surprise, surprise), and all the museums it includes. It is quite a fantastic piece of architecture, and the museums and the cloister were interesting. The cathedral was full of people--there was a line out the door at one part, and services were going on. There were also confessionals scattered around inside where people could confess in an array of languages. We tried to find a way to get to the roof (guided tour only, it turns out), but ended up just wandering around the huge cathedral. We stopped for lunch at a place nearby and got traditional spanish empanada and flan, then did as the spaniards do and took a siesta! We both decided we could get used to daily siestas.

In the afternoon I wandered back to the cathedral and went to the door that had previously had a huge line leading to it. There was no line then, so I wandered in, right as it was about to close. I saw from the signs that it was the way to the crypt, which I had been wanting to visit! I walked up some stairs and came upon a priest who asked me a question (I forget what) so I responded "no se" (I don't know). My answer must have sounded portuguese, though, because the priest then switched to portuguese and we went on to talk about iberian languages. "Are you a pilgrim?" he asked. I told him I was just a tourist, but tried to look less touristy (I refrained from pulling out my camera). A security guard was standing by, looking impatient and waiting to end our conversation so he could close up the crypt. "Ok," said the priest, "now go and hug the statue of Santiago (Saint James), go thank God and pray." I thought "Maybe this isn't the time to tell him I'm not religious" so I marched up to the gold statue covered in jewels that overlooked the whole church and gave it a quick squeeze. The security guard then signaled that they were about to close, so I hurried through the crypt, which I believe houses the relics of Saint James, but I couldn't really figure out where (it wasn't very crypt-like). I rushed outside again, happy and amused to have discovered what it is like to be a pilgrim in Santiago de Compostela. I love the places wandering and curiosity can take me.

Jackie and I had dinner at an Italian place that night, and struck up a conversation with some Irish people at the table across from us. It turns out they had come (by boat) from the same province where my relatives live! It's fun finding connections like that. That evening we headed to a pub with traditional Galician music (similar to Irish and Scottish--bagpipes, even!), which was so much fun. We came out from the cramped stone cellar reeking of cigarette smoke, but it was worth it.

Early the next morning we hopped on a bus to Salamanca, again passing through the beautiful Galician countryside. After a brief siesta in Salamanca we headed to the Plaza Mayor, a big square surrounded by archways that makes Salamanca famous. The plaza was gorgeous and bustling with tourists and locals. We walked around the archways, eating some spectacular ice cream and window shopping. We wandered from there down the street to the old and new cathedrals, which were beautiful, like the rest of the city. Many of the buildings in Salamanca are ornately-carved sandstone, and many have signs written on the stone in red ink in a beautiful old-fashioned script. We passed by many university buildings (another thing that puts Salamanca on the map). After a quick dinner we returned to our hotel to watch a bit of spanish TV and go to bed. By this time we had discovered that castilian spanish is much harder to understand than many dialects of south american spanish that we had studied. Getting out of galician-speaking areas made it a bit easier, but was still no piece of cake.

Our spirits were revived the next day when we stumbled upon Marcos, a peruvian guy selling scarves and jewelry on the street. I could understand his spanish almost perfectly, and he was certainly a talker! He asked us where we were from and what we were doing in Spain, then told us about his life in Salamanca and all the other friends he had made. Finally we bought some souvenirs and tore ourselves away from the conversation (it was fun, but it had been 40 minutes already...). We visited the inside of the cathedral, which was gorgeous, then after a brief siesta, decided to try to find a part of the university we could tour. Though the guidebook instructions were pretty clear, none of the buildings it mentioned seemed tour-able. The clerks in the university store didn't even seem to know! So we gave up and just admired the outside of some university buildings. We spent a beautiful evening in the still-bustling Plaza Mayor, then headed to Madrid the next morning!

After small-town S-d-C and Salamanca, Madrid certainly felt huge. We wandered a bit on the first evening, but decided not to stray too far from our hostel. The next day we slept in, then wandered through the streets near our hostel, stopping to buy some spanish books (mine was €2 and awfully written, but still fun). We saw the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, two big squares, then had another siesta. In the evening we walked by the Prado (museum) and past many fancy hotels in that area, stopping for a quick bite at a restaurant that was too expensive for our budgets. The next morning we had tortilla española (like an omelette) for breakfast and then followed a walking tour in my guidebook that took us back to the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor, but also gave us some good info about the sights around Madrid. We ended up at the palace, where we took a tour. It was huge and gorgeous--maybe the prettiest palace I've seen.

That evening while Jackie took a siesta I wandered to the Retiro park, which used to be the park of the royal family but is now just a wonderful place for Madrileños to hang out, take a walk, or paddle around in the pond there. I enjoyed people-watching for a while, then met Jackie and walked to the Plaza Mayor for dinner. It was a touristy restaurant, to be sure, but a wonderful location to admire the beautiful plaza and watch people and street performers in the square. After dinner we wandered to an area that my guidebook had praised as a wonderful place for nightlife, but not much was happening. We also explored another square that was much less exciting than my guidebook had made it out to be. Though we didn't find much of interest, it was still fun to wander around the streets of Madrid at night.

The next morning we had our regular breakfast of chocolate and pastries, then headed to the airport. First, a quick note on Spanish hot chocolate--it is delicious. So thick and rich that it seems like someone just melted chocolate bars into a cup. It became our morning staple, and was sorely missed when we flew back to Portugal, where the idea of delicious hot chocolate doesn't seem to have taken hold.

We hung around Madrid airport for longer than we'd hoped because a luggage cart crashed into our first plane and made it un-flyable, but finally we arrived in Lisbon and headed back to my host family's house for dinner. The next morning we finally got to Careca (best croissants in the world), and then took a taxi to the airport, where Jackie flew home and I headed back to Copenhagen!

Scandinavia, part two is coming soon :)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lisbon, Porto, and our "pilgrimage" to S-d-C

Back to Portugal...

So my friends' first full day was certainly full... and fun. In the morning we headed to Restelo to go to my favorite pastry shop for breakfast, but unfortunately it was closed! (on Thursdays). We settled for another pastry shop down the street, which was fine, but not as good as Careca, of course. After lunch we went to Belem (again) and finally got to see the Tower of Belem, which is always such a treat. It was windy and full of tourists, as usual, but of course lots of fun. Afterwards we unfortunately had to drop Becky off at the airport so she could catch a flight to Morocco, but then Jackie and I continued our touristy fun. We went to the center of Lisbon, where we explored the Praça do Comércio and had lunch in a little café during an absolute downpour (the downpour decided our lunch location). When the rain eased up a bit we took the tram up the hill to the castle--another must-see in Lisbon. I don't think I'll ever get tired of exploring castles. We walked down through Alfama (the old part of Lisbon), which was all decorated for the Festa de Santo António (big festival in June in Lisbon), and saw the Cathedral of Lisbon--including a beautiful ruined cloister that I never knew existed! That was a treat for me. We had lanche (traditional portuguese afternoon snack) in a café in Alfama, then headed home for a late (even on portuguese time!) dinner.

The next day we had breakfast with my friend Marisa, then walked around central Lisbon again, exploring Baixa, Rossio, and the Avenida da Liberdade. We met two of my portuguese friends later and walked around Bairro Alto to a beautiful garden and overlook, then had pastries with them in a very very slow service café. After finally paying a bill we shouldn't have had to pay (heh) we headed home on the train, taking time to admire the cute stray dogs and cats by the Cruz Quebrada train station. We had dinner with some of my host sisters' friends, then had a nice long sleep and a lazy saturday morning. When we finally managed to lug ourselves out of bed we went to Pão Pão Queijo Queijo, a great sandwich shop in Belém (best falafel ever!) and then visited the Palácio da Ajuda, a palace near my old high school that proved quite tricky to find. It was nice to see, but nothing compared to the palace we visited later in Madrid.

That afternoon we took the train to Cascais, and Jackie finally got to see a portuguese beach! It was pretty late, so it didn't feel very beach-like, but it was still quite pretty. I had forgotten how picturesque Cascais can be. We strolled through some tourist shops, then had dinner at a British pub (why not) that was mostly full of tourists. The best part of the evening was what was on the screen at the pub: US vs. UK world cup game. We were surrounded by brits and some americans, who of course got very into the game.

Dessert was at Santini, a "famous" ice cream place with delicious ice cream--all the portuguese rave about it. We decided to skip the big Santo António festival because it was pretty late, so we just went back to my host family's house to get ready to take the train to Porto.

Our ride to Porto was uneventful, though when we got there we had to drag our suitcases up one of Porto's many cobblestoned hills to find our hostel (I had forgotten how hilly Porto is!). The hostel was nice, though, and the hill provided for a wonderful view of the city. After a quick rest-up there we had dinner at a little informal, very portuguese café down the hill, then called it an early night.

Our full day in Porto made me realize what a great city it is. I had been there once before, but only for a few days, and it was great to get to visit it again. We saw a beautiful old bookshop that I had remembered from my last trip and had lunch by the water after hopping on a wonderful boat cruise down the river. In the afternoon we did some more wandering, got some pastries for lanche (of course!), and discovered a shopping street full of shoe stores and jewelry stores that begged us to go in. After a full day on our feet we decided to have dinner early--around 6:30--but the waitress at the café we chose had a difficult time understanding the idea of dinner at 6:30 (normal portuguese dinner time is 9). We finally got some sort of food and called it a night.

The next day we were off to Santiago de Compostela! We took a 4-hour bus ride north and ended up changing time-zones, even though we hardly traveled east or west. The Galician countryside was so beautiful, and reminded me a bit of Ireland (that wasn't the only thing that reminded me of Ireland... see my next post). When we got there, I was surprised to see that most of the signs and information was in the galician language, which seems closer to portuguese than spanish (though neither of us could figure out which cues to follow in terms of pronunciation). We got to our tiny room on the fourth floor of the hostel, dropped our bags, and then walked to the center of the town (not too far--it's pretty small!). The town was beautiful, but the most exciting part was of course seeing the cathedral! We feasted our eyes on the famous landmark, then wandered through the old archways and alleys, enjoying watching the pilgrims, tourists, and street performers. We had dinner at a bar (watched Brazil beat North Korea) and then had a good night's sleep in our tiny room.

More on Spain to come! I hope you're enjoying reading, even though my blog posts are so much after-the-fact!

Monday, August 2, 2010

I Love Portuguese Ducklings

Hi again! Shall we go back to Lisbon?

On Sunday afternoon I went to Belém to meet my friend Mariana for a picnic in the gardens there. It was wonderful to see her, spend an afternoon catching up, and wandering around beautiful Belém. I had walked from my host family's house to Belém and after a nice afternoon, walked back (about an hour each way--keeps transportation prices down!).
For dinner my host family and I went to Alfama, the old, moorish part of Lisbon. The next Saturday was the festival of Santo António, one of the biggest festivals in Lisbon, so Alfama was full of people, music, decorations and stands selling sardines, beer and ginja (portuguese cherry liqueur). We had sardines at a cute little restaurant across from a church (in a residential area--during the festivals the people who live in Alfama just give up their front stoops to the celebration). It was a lot of fun and very, very portuguese.
I spent a relaxing Monday afternoon at the Tropical Garden in Lisbon (also in Belém--one of my favorite areas), admiring tropical plants and cute families strolling around. At one point I found a cute little stream full of ten ducklings and spent the next 45 minutes staring at them and taking videos of them. I was absolutely in love.
That evening I met up again with Mariana and another friend, Inês, and went with them to their latin dances class. It was great to spend time with them, and I got a free dance class on top of that! After dance I went back to my host family's house for dinner with my host grandparents, which was fun--always nice to reconnect with the rest of the family.
The next day I reconnected with the other side of the family--I had lunch at my host grandfather's house. It was just like old times; I used to go to his house at least a few times a week for lunch, and each time various aunts and uncles and cousins would come and eat with us. After lunch I headed into Lisbon to Santa Apolónia train station to check about train tickets, which involved a lot of walking around construction zones, but it was fine. Afterwards I had some time to explore Lisbon, so I decided to check out the "University City" part of town and the national library. That was a sort of funny afternoon, because there's really not much to see. The library is nice enough, but I looked quite creepy walking around upstairs to areas where there were just offices or random exhibits that I didn't have much interest in. The rest of the university area was mostly big blocky buildings and busy streets.
The next day was much more exciting--my friends Jackie and Becky arrived! I met them at the airport, then after lunch and a quick rest at my host family's house we walked around Belém (again!) where we saw the Jerónimos Monastery (absolutely beautiful manueline architecture, and it houses the tombs of Vasco de Gama and Luís de Camões) and had a snack. We missed out on the Tower of Belém because it closed early, but nearby we stumbled upon a funny TV program that was being filmed outside in the gardens. It was quite hard to tell what was going on, but it was still fun to see.
That evening we got a beautiful view of Lisbon at a miradouro (viewpoint) and went back to my host family's house for dinner and an early-to-bed for my jetlagged friends (who thus far had done an amazing job with the jetlag!).

Well I do have much more to write but I figure it has been so long since I posted that even this little bit is good enough. I'll try to get caught up to Oslo, but you may just have to wait until I'm back in the states to hear about my norwegian adventures. Sorry!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Canals, more trains, and back to Lisboa

Hello again!

Amsterdam, as I said, was beautiful (when the sun came out!). I arrived at the central train station, got a bite to eat, and wandered around until I found the public library (which was open, unlike that of Hamburg). A quick google search later, and I was on my way further down the dock to a hotelboat, where I could spend the night for not much more than the cost of a hostel. It was so cute! I had my own room to myself, so I dropped my stuff, picked up a map from the "captain," and headed out to explore Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is full of canals, which I loved, and wished I had a boat to explore them with! I wandered into the red light district (this is around noon), which is notable mainly because it is the center of town. I saw mainly cafés and shoe stores, and decided that a visit in the day time was plenty. I stopped at a cute café for lunch and had a sort of croquette in a bun (I believe it's a specialty of Amsterdam), then continued wandering around the canals, watching out for bikes, which are much more plentiful than cars and a bit of a danger to the unwary pedestrian. I headed back to my boat (hehe) for a quick rest, which turned into a nap (oops), then headed out again, stopping at a grocery store for dinner (when one has been eating sandwiches every day, it's nice to get a yoghurt for variety). It was still quite light out, so I was surprised to discover that it was already 8 o'clock! I speed-walked to the other end of town to see the Anne Frank house, which unfortunately closed 5 minutes before I arrived. It was a shame, because that was the only real "sight" I wanted to see. I had taken a peek at some cathedrals and churches but figured I'd seen enough religious buildings, and I didn't want to pay the expensive entrance fees.

So my wanderings took me on a winding path through cute squares and around canals back to my boat, where I had a nice night's sleep and then got up early to catch a train to Belgium. Thus began my adventures involving train reservations....
I had gone to the Amsterdam train station the day before to ask about train reservations, since I was using a rail pass to get around. I was told I didn't need a reservation to get to Brussels, so the next day I hopped on an early trian to Brussels, in spite of the intercom message "This train requires a seat reservation. " Well, that train was going through Brussels to Paris, so I was kicked off at Schipol (Amsterdam airport) and from there caught a different, slower, (non-French) train to Brussels. At the ticket office in Brussels I learned that all the seat reservations for Eurail pass holders were taken, so I could either buy a normal ticket or get to Lisbon some other way--my plan was to take the trains from Amsterdam to Lisbon.

Luckily, I have a friend who lives near Brussels, so I met up with her (as we had planned) and ended up buying a plane ticket to Lisbon for the next morning and staying the night at her house (not as planned). So besides the money lost on my rail pass, which was certainly annoying, everything worked out as planned and I had a lovely day in Brussels and Halle, picknicking in front the cathedral, wandering around the Grand Place, and enjoying speaking a bit of French. The next day I took the 5:50 AM train to the airport and caught a flight to Lisbon!

In Lisbon my host mom picked me up at the airport and took my back to my host family's house after stopping at my favorite café for a croissant. It was fun to be back and great to speak portuguese again (which fortunately came back to me pretty quickly). That afternoon I spent resting, grocery shopping with my host mom, and reminiscing about my time in Portugal.

Meanwhile, I've already spent a week in Oslo and I'm excited to begin writing about it! But first: Iberia!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Happy Birthday Utrecht! (+ lovely Bremen)

Hello again! I'm now settled in my dorm at the University of Oslo. I'll spend the next couple days writing in installments about my adventures the past few weeks, then I'll be caught up and continue writing about Norway as my adventures here progress.

After I left Hamburg I hopped on a train to Bremen, where I spent a couple hours in the afternoon and wanted to spend more. Bremen is lovely! It's full of beautiful old buildings like the City Hall and old churches. I has rostbratwurst for lunch (sausage in a roll), and then wandered around town, exploring, as usual. I went into a nice church at one point and noticed that it seemed to have strange background noise. The noise changed at one point, and sounded like an organ, but without a tune. I went into one of the ancient crypts and discovered that someone was tuning the organ! That was entertaining. I also explored the schnoor, the old part of Bremen that has some extremely cute 400-year-old houses, narrow alleys, and delicious ice cream.

I wouldn't have minded staying in Bremen for another day, but I decided to stick to my (rough sketch) schedule and hop on a train to Amsterdam. When I arrived at the station in Amsterdam it was overcast and pretty dreary, so I took a spontaneous decision to skip Amsterdam for the day and head to Utrecht, about a half-hour train ride away. Utrecht was also overcast, and I wandered around for a while before finally finding an OK hostel, all the while wishing I knew some Dutch. I was placed in a 14-bed room with 5 guy roommates, but the hostel had wifi (none in Germany whatsoever), so it was fine (and I switched to a smaller room the next night).

Utrecht the next day was warm, sunny, and beautiful (I now understand how much the weather effects my perception of a place...). It's a cute university town/city with a lot of history, and as luck would have it, I was there on its 888th birthday! I got into museums free and got to watch people gathering in a square listening to someone important speaking Dutch. After hot chocolate and a croissant I wandered around the canals, narrowly getting run over by bikers (a common theme in that area of the world... more bikes than cars). I saw a church and a museum called the "Utrecht Archives," that was certainly not like any other archives I've heard of. It actually seemed like a few modern-art exhibits scattered around with a bit of history. But it was free, so I can't complain.

After having turkish food for lunch (another common activity) I climbed up Utrecht's beautiful church tower (the tallest in the Netherlands), which has more than 400 steps. The tower is separated from the rest of the church because the connecting section collapsed in 1674, and they haven't bothered to rebuild it yet. As usual, I took a handstand picture at one of the lookout points. Later that afternoon I had ice cream at one of the many stands around town, and was surprised to receive exactly two scoop-sized scoops. Anyone who has ordered ice cream in America will realize how strange that seems.

The next day I took off to Amsterdam, where this time it was sunny and welcoming. In the next few posts I'll take you through my travels in Amsterdam, an impromptu night in Brussels, two weeks in Spain and Portugal, a quick stop back in Denmark and Sweden, and finally my arrive in Oslo.

For now, ha det bra! (That's bye in Norwegian).

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Marzipan, Turkish Food and Starbucks (Lübeck and Hamburg)

Hello again! This time from Lisbon. It's wonderful to be back, but before I go raving about Lisbon, I'll write about how I got here.

The morning of my departure to Germany I took the train to Copenhagen and bought a Eurail pass, which gives me 10 days of rail travel in the span of two months. Pretty awesome, though we'll see later that it does have setbacks. Anyway, from Copenhagen I boarded a train bound for Lübeck. That was very entertaining, because the train went on a ferry to get to Germany! We were on the ferry for about 45 minutes and could get off the train and hang out on the boat. I arrived in the afternoon in Lübeck, Germany, which is a beautiful town. It's full of beautiful, 500-or-more-year-old churches and houses and, of course, Germans. It was pretty exciting to get to use a bit of my German (I checked into the hostel all in German!) but also tiring since I really don't know much German.

While in Lübeck I did what I do best: wander. That has become my #1 way of visiting places and I really enjoy it. I had dinner at "Tony's Pizza"--very German, right? I actually ate a lot of non-german food while in Germany (especially turkish, there's turkish food all over the place). The next day I saw two churches, two museums, and Lübeck's famous Holstentor gate. It rained, unfortunately, so I went into a cafe and read some H.P. Lovecraft that I had downloaded to my iPod (very handy when one doesn't want to bring books on trips!). I also ate some of the marzipan that Lübeck is famous for.

The next morning I hopped on a train to Hamburg (all these trains were paid for with my rail pass). I got to Hamburg with no map or idea of the city, so I procured a map at the tourist office and wandered around looking for a dry place to read it, because it was raining again. The public library was right next to the train station which I thought was fantastically lucky, until I discovered it was closed. I wandered around the library building, which contained other offices, hoping to find a dry space with a table and chair. This is where I looked super sketchy, by hopping into an elevator with someone going up to an office, randomly pressing the button for floor 3, and discovering that floor three was barren except for blocks of cement and construction materials.

So, lugging my suitcase, I left the library building and walked into the center of Hamburg, where I found a place with dry tables and chairs--Starbucks (oh, how American of me!). At Starbucks, I ran into a classmate from college! Such a coincidence. We sat and chatted a while, and she helped me figure out my Hamburg map. I ended up finding a decent hostel and then commenced my wandering again. I climbed a huge church tower (St. Michael's) and saw the crypt of the church, which had an odd exhibit about copper. Walking towards the center of Hamburg, I came upon the ruins of St. Nikolas church, which is now a war memorial and has a beautiful gothic tower. I ended up walking the whole day, who knows how many miles, all over Hamburg. I found a neighborhood full of portuguese restaurants and was relieved to be able to speak a language that I know better than German! I had a lovely Portuguese dinner, then walked around Hamburg until around 10:00, when, of course, it was still light out.

The next day was spent mostly on trains--it took 5 to get from Hamburg to Utrecht. But... at the moment I'm quite sleepy and it is almost 1 AM, so I think I'll write about the rest of Germany and the Netherlands later. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Summer 2010 Starts in Scandinavia

...and the summer 2010 European adventures begin.

I'm in the Netherlands! Utrecht, specifically. But I'll start from the beginning.

I flew over with Icelandair, which gave me beautiful views but no food. After a brief stop in Iceland I flew to Copenhagen (all the while looking for Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano, but I didn't see it). Some family friends picked me up at the airport and took me across the bridge to Malmo, Sweden where I stayed with them for three days. It was so much fun to experience Denmark and Sweden at the same time, and really nice to stay in a house with friends while I got over jetlag.

The first night I slept a hearty 14.5 hours, then went to see Malmo, which is beautiful! Nice cobbled streets, squares with cafes all around, and lots of bikes! (My gosh I have been overwhelmed by bikes this trip!). I saw the castle/fort, which is now a museum, as well as the train station and some of the cute squares. Then I headed to the workplace of my family friends in Malmo, a daycare center. The kids were so cute, but not sure what to make of me! It was fun to just watch them play and listen to all that Swedish.

The next two days were spent in Copenhagen, around which I must have walked 10 miles a day! The first day I saw Rosenborg castle, which has some of the most beautiful decorations, artwork and treasures I have seen. I had falafel for lunch and wandered for the rest of the evening, then took the train back to Malmo for the night. The next day I did even more wandering, this time in the rain! I had seen rain was predicted so I just trudged through it in teh morning and did a self-guided Copenhagen walk from a guidebook. It was centered around the Stroget, the main pedestrian street in Copenhagen, which I loved. I also saw the University (and tried to look like a student since they don't seem to welcome tourists), and the Radhus (city hall), which was a strange experience. The Radhus is open to tourists and they do give guided tours, but you can also just wander around. So that's just what I did, and I passed all these people dressed in suits, carrying papers, working in offices, and speaking Danish. I felt like such a trespasser! I had already started planning some great mystery movie with thieves dressed as tourists wandering around the Copenhagen city hall.

In addition I walked through Nyhavn, which is the place on all the guidebooks (besides the Little Mermaid). It's a row of cute, colorful buildings along a canal. (Do an image search for Copenhagen and I'm sure it'll come up). I walked all the way to Amalienborg palace, which is gorgeous (I didn't go inside, though), and could have walked to see the Little Mermaid, except she's currently at the world expo in China, so it wouldn't have been worth it to walk all that way. Besides, my feet were sore!

That afternoon the sun miraculously came out, but I went to the national museum (should have switched my schedules!). I also wandered around another palace--Christiansborg--and ended my afternoon with a visit to the Copenhagen library to look up train schedules. The library is a black, modern glass building shaped liked a diamond.

Back to Malmo for the night, and the next morning I was off to Germany! But I think I've written enough for now. Coming up next: Germany and the Netherlands, including marzipan, train rides, coincidences, and more bikes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Egypt 3: In which it rains and I wish I had a million dollars

Hello again!

I keep telling myself to update quickly, or else I'll forget everything that happened during the trip! (I'm getting old....). So, here is (hopefully) my final entry on Egypt. More travels in the future will mean more entries to look forward to :)

Sometime during our morning in Luxor we saw an alabaster factory, of which there were many. Alabaster is very popular in that area of Egypt; I ended up getting some beautiful alabaster candle holders (in Cairo, though). We saw a quick demonstration on creating alabaster jars and pots from a chunk of the raw stone--it involves chipping away, then burying the hunk of rock in the ground so it doesn't break while the middle is bored out. The man demonstrating also showed us the difference between real alabaster (and other stones) and fakes which are (according to him) quite popular in the tourist markets.

Getting back to the boat was always fun, because we had towel animals to surprise us in our cabin! We had a very creative housekeeping guy, who knew how to make elephants, monkeys, babies, swans, boats, and crocodiles out of towels. It was great! He often showed up to see our reaction to his handiwork, too.

The next morning involved a trip to Karnak temple, which is connected to Luxor temple by the aforementioned Sphinx Avenue. Karnak was huge, with a lot of parts added on by various pharaohs who felt the need to claim the temple as theirs. Silly pharaohs. We had a full hour to wander around, and ended up seeing some parts of the temple that weren't mobbed by tourists. Very cool.

Here's one random note about Egypt: they use pop-tops on their cans. Pop-tops are the old fashioned way of opening a soda can; pull up a tab and a hole in the top pops off! This means that there are little tabs all over the place, which is why America got ride of pop tops a while ago (and sold their equipment to Egypt...). I thought it was great fun.

After Kom Ombo it was time for some tourism work, since my dad is making a website on Egypt ( This means going to see some of the nicest hotels and boats in Luxor! We first saw the Winter Palace, which made me wish for a million dollars. It was built to house European ex-pats or those who would come down to Egypt for the winter, and still retains a lot of the charm of that time. Many of the rooms looked like they came out of some fancy English palace a couple hundred years ago, and some areas allow only formal dress. My my. Made me want to get all dressed up and act like a millionaire.
Next we saw another millionaire's boat--a dahabiya, which is a sort of house boat that people can rent to take down the Nile. This one had a capacity of 14 people but carried even more crew and was equipped with a lounge, a kitchen, 5 cabins, 2 suites, and a hot tub. According to the owner, its maiden voyage was taken by Robert de Niro.
Our next stop was another nice ship, this one a cruise ship like our own, but a bit fancier. They served us welcome mocktails (welcome drinks are a wonderful Egyptian custom--we often got orange or hibiscus juice) and took us on a tour around the beautiful boat. Like our boat, it looked similar to the rest of the myriad cruise ships on the Nile.

Next we took a lovely caleche tour around Luxor. Luxor has a lot of signs of ex-pats--Irish bars, English food, German hotels, etc. but we were taken off the beaten path and got to see some of the real Egyptian Luxor. We passed through a market full of stalls and shops selling food, clothes, toys, and household supplies. Our driver even stopped to buy shoes! The market was fascinating because it's so different from how Americans shop. I really appreciated being able to see a side of a culture that works differently from ours, and an economy not as rich as that of America (though who knows, these days...). I tried to take photos but most came out fuzzy since I was in a (moderately) rapidly-moving horse carriage!
Our final stop was a traditional Egyptian café. My mom and I had tea with mint and our guide, Ashraf, got coffee and a shisha. We were the only women and the only foreigners in the café which was comfortable and cool and full of Egyptian guys smoking shisha. My mom tried it but I decided to skip. Even a snazzy water pipe can't persuade me to smoke.

That afternoon my mom and I went out for some more touristic research, while my dad stayed at the hotel with a case of food poisoning. We drove about an hour from Luxor, through beautiful fields of sugarcane, bananas, wheat, and other crops, and through a very underdeveloped village (whose contrasts with American life left a profound impact on me) to an oasis resort, which, again, made me wish for a million dollars. It was very different from the Winter Palace but equally luxurious: all the buildings were built in traditional Nubian-ish style and decorated with islamic motifs and woodcarvings. The place was full of plants, which made it seem even more like an oasis, and begged me to stay a week and forget about the rest of the world. The deluxe suite we saw even had a small hamam! I promised the owner I'd stay there on my honeymoon (about that million dollars.....).

That night my mom and I had a nice drink and a Lebanese dinner in our hotel, complete with a dance performance, which looked to be a traditional-modern fusion. The next morning we headed back to Cairo! On our way to our hotel in the center of the city we saw long lines of soldiers standing along the street, facing away from us. They were preparing for the arrival of the president (Mubarak), who lives in Heliopolis, which is along the way from the airport--though I liked to think it was all for us. :)

After an impossibly long lunch (waiting, not eating) at our hotel we spent the afternoon resting up and getting re-accustomed to hearing car horns 24/7. We had dinner in the mall across the street from our hotel, which was quite interesting because it was full of Egyptians and pretty lacking in tourists. Many of the stores were similar--fake brand names and such, with a couple galabia stores and a bunch selling millions of shoes. The top floor had a movie theater.
Then an early night, because our next day was busy!

In the morning we met our guide, Ahmad, and headed off to see the Mohammed Ali Mosque in the Citadel (AKA the alabaster mosque, because much of it is made of alabaster!). It was beautiful, but is no longer active and was quite full of tourists. We got some cool views of the city from the citadel, and could see pyramids, satellite dishes, and smog!

Next we saw the Egyptian museum, which is where archeologists dump everything they find in Egypt. Well, not everything, but a lot of it (they're planning on building a newer, better Egyptian museum near the pyramids). We saw a lot of the beautiful treasures that were found in King Tut's tomb, along with twenty or so mummies, including some of the ones we had been hearing about, including a few Ramses and Hatshepsut. I probably could have spent half a year in the museum and not seen it all.

Next, for a visit to Khan el Khalili, Cairo's bazaar. We had lunch at a wonderful restaurant called Naguib Mafouz, after the famous writer. Then strolled around looking at jewelry, scarves, textiles, and all of the other millions of things that are sold there. If we wanted to buy something, we called on Ahmad to bargain for us, since natives always get lower prices.

Then a super long drive back to the hotel, since the traffic was crazy! Our driver (also named Ashraf, like our former guide), was amazing and quite patient.

The next morning we got up early to go to the pyramids! We had to get there early because they only sell about 150 tickets in the morning to enter the pyramid. After a brief look-around outside, we went into the great pyramid. At first the passage was wide and high, but soon it got smaller, and we had to be bent over double to climb. As we went in further it became harder to breathe, and even I felt a bit claustrophobic (the fact that it was chock full of other tourists didn't help with the amount of oxygen in the air). Climbing up played with my perceptions; at some points being at an angle felt like being vertical. When we finally got to the burial chamber, it was not spectacular (though a lot easier to breathe in). There was a broken sarcophagus, an air-monitoring thing and a security camera. I did a handstand in the burial chamber, but photos were unfortunately not allowed. On the way out, rather than climbing down, I just slid down the railings.

Next we got to take some pictures at a great lookout a bit away from the pyramids, and then took camel rides! Riding a camel was lots of fun, and I decided that a camel would make a great birthday present for me, hint hint. :)

Then we saw a museum about the Solar Boat (which is not actually the correct name), a big boat that was found buried next to one of the pyramids, supposedly having been used to transport the pharaoh from the East side of the Nile to the West.

Next we got to go down into a smaller pyramid--this was for a queen. The way down was equally steep and tight, but much shorter. I found it quite amusing to see a Red Bull can on my way down...
In the burial chamber we were allowed to take pictures, so I got a good one of a handstand inside a pyramid (I hope the pharaohs + queens don't mind). As we still hadn't gotten enough of the pyramids, we then took a walk around the medium-sized pyramid, and discovered where young Egyptian couples hang out (behind the pyramid of Khafra). Then a short van-ride to the sphinx, which is (believe it or not) smaller than I expected. We took the tereotypical "sphinx in front of the pyramid of Khafra" picture, then headed to a beautiful nearby hotel for lunch. During lunch, it started raining! Rain is very rare in Egypt; our guide says it come about twice a year. On the way back to Cairo (which was accumulating puddles because it has no drainage system), we taught our driver how to use the defrost setting.
We had two more stops before officially heading home: memphis, which holds a huge statue of Ramses II (who else?) and a bunch of other Egyptian artifacts, including a mini sphinx. We also went to see the step pyramid of Sakkara, one of the oldest pyramids (built before the great pyramids at Giza, which are the ones everyone knows about). After a quick tour in the rain (I went barefoot and got my feet muddy) we took another long, slow trip back to our hotel in Cairo traffic; luckily it was fun to look around at Cairo life (in the rain!).

Our final day was spent visiting coptic (old) Cairo, but first we saw some beautiful mosques. One Mosque was built in the 13th century, and the other was from the 18th century, but they looked similar. Seeing these mosques reaffirmed my love for Islamic art, which I find much nicer than the thousands of pictures of saints and religious figures that Christianity has produced. Since Islam forbids the depiction of living beings, a lot of the art is made up of beautiful geometric designs. Some of the tombs we saw were made up of and surrounded by beautiful stone like the alabaster we had been seeing all over.

Old Cairo, where the copts (christians) settled, is about twenty feet lower than the rest of Cairo, since it's so old. We saw two beautiful churches, one of which was built above an old roman fortress. Coptic churches have/had services in the coptic language, which has its own script! It was quite cool. We also saw a synagogue, so we had a very multi-religious day. We visited the coptic museum, which holds an (unexpectedly) vast array of coptic art and artifacts. Who would guess, from a country that is predominantly islamic?

Finally, we saw an old palace that was built by the family of Mohammed Ali, before the revolution in 1952 (Fun (or not so fun fact): Egypt is now ruled by Egyptians, but before 1952 it had not been ruled by Egyptians since the time of the pharaohs!). It mostly held impressive weaponry and silver from the time of Mohammed Ali and his family (he was Ottoman).

Then lunch at a restaurant "straight out of Casablanca/Bogie" as my parents said. We had lentil soup (my favorite!) and wonderful mezze (including köfte and liver!). For a main course I had chicken and rice with molokhia. Molokhia is a type of green plant found in Egypt that is chopped up and put in a soup-like mixture. It turned out to be very slimy! But I enjoyed it.

We took a quick rest at the hotel, then the tour rep and his adorable kids took us to dinner at the Four Seasons. The food was delicious but we ate little since we'd had lunch at a traditional Egyptian lunchtime--around 4:30! Dinner time in the summer, according to Ahmad, could be around midnight. Wow!

Well, there's not much more to say. We woke up relatively early the next morning to get the airport and take our flight from Cairo to JFK. We flew over the Nile delta, the Greek islands, the Balkans, the Alps, Paris, London, and Ireland! It was really cool, and I got some really great views. It was certainly pretty sad to land in the US again and get re-accustomed to the snow.

Egypt was wonderful. Many of the Egyptians we met said "come back soon!" which I thoroughly plan to do.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Egypt 2: In which we discover that Nubians are green

Ok, Nubians aren't actually green. But I'll explain that later.

I'm back in the states now after a wonderful trip to Egypt. Seeing snow is quite strange and a little depressing. But that's ok, I have lots of sunny memories.

Back to the trip.... The Nile cruise was wonderful. After lunch on the boat and an afternoon of sailing, we stopped at Kom Ombo temple around sunset. Kom Ombo was similar to Philae (many of the temples we saw follow a similar formula, with pylons in the front followed by hipostyle halls (with big columns) and a holy of holies, where only the high priest and king were allowed). Kom Ombo is a little different because it is dedicated to two gods: Sobek (the crocodile god!) and Horus. Out in front of the temple was a group playing Nubian music, which was quite cool.

Our next stop (the next day) was the temple at Edfu, which is located a little way away from the shore. Because of this, we got there in a horse-drawn caleche, which is not an unpopular form of travel in Egypt (though mostly for tourists... donkey carts are more common among the Egyptians). We arrived at Edfu for sunrise (a lot of our days started out quite early to beat the heat and the crowds). It was quite impressive, with a lot of rooms and hallways (many years after the temple was built, Alexander the Great came and built his own holy of holies within the old one...). It even had it's own resident cat! Cute.

Then back to the boat to continue on our way. I spent a lot of time just watching the shore pass by either from our room or from the lovely top deck. At some point during the trip we passed through a set of locks, and many of the passengers went up to the top deck to watch. On either side of the boat there were vendors trying to sell souvenirs and kids asking for baksheesh (tip). Some of the crew had to prevent the vendors from getting on the boat and trying to sell us things.

That evening we arrived in Luxor and visited the (aptly named) Luxor temple. This one was full of statues of pharaohs, mostly Ramses II, of course. Leading from Luxor temple to Karnak temple (another temple in the city of Luxor) is Sphinx Avenue, a 2.7 km road lined by sphinxes on either side. It was really cool, but is as of yet unfinished. Excavators may run into some difficulties, though, since the avenue goes through/under a church and other buildings.

That night on the ship we had a show, with Egyptian music (two drummers and a keyboard set to sound like traditional instruments, hehe). The first performer was a guy who did a dervish-like dance, with two huge skirts and tambourine-like drums (no bells). While spinning, he made shapes out of the four drums, not unlike juggling. He also did some fancy moves with the skirts. It was quite cool, and (if I had the power) I was ready to recruit him for Cirque du Soleil.
The next performer was a belly dancer in a very tacky costume, but who danced quite well. I was happy to see that a lot of the moves she performed were similar to what I had learned in my belly dance class in Portugal. Our guide proposed that I get up and dance, but, being myself, I was too shy.

At this point we were permanently docked in Luxor, but still stayed on the boat for one more night. The unfortunate thing about being docked is everyone else is too! We were in the middle of a "stack" of about six cruise ships, so our views were sadly quite diminished. To get to the shore, we had to climb through a bunch of other boats!

The next morning was another early morning--on our agenda was the valley of the kings and Hatshepsut's temple! Very exciting. The geology of the Valley of the Kings is gorgeous, especially in the early morning light, but unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed. We visited three tombs which were all very beautifully decorated on the walls with heiroglyphs and paintings, many of which looked like they had been painted much more recently than 4000 years ago. Next we got to see King Tut's tombs, which was not as interesting as the other ones because it was smaller and had fewer wall paintings. None of the treasure found there is there anymore, so it's pretty empty, except for 1 thing: Tut's mummy! It turns out he was actually quite a short guy (he was only 18 or 19, after all).

Next we visited Hatshepsut's temple, on the other side of the mountain from the valley of the kings. Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh (the only one, I believe), so all the staues of her make her look like a man. The temple was quite impressive in itself, but is also famous because it was the sight of a 1995 terrorist attack on tourists. Guards were posted on the hillsides around the temple for protection.

Most tourist sites, hotels, and cruise ships in Egypt have more security than in the US. Almost everywhere we went had a metal detector, and some places had bag x-rays. In the airports there were two or three security checkpoints. The thing is, most of the security check was just the guards profiling us, since most people made the metal detectors beep. If you looked ok, they let you through. It was kind of silly, but I suppose the guards are experienced in telling the difference between tourists and terrorists.

This day was a busy day. Next stop was Habu temple, another temple similar to all the others we'd seen, but almost empty (very nice!). This one holds a giant statue of Ramses II, that was toppled in an earthquake a couple millennia ago and is now lying in a very undignified jumble of broken pieces. After Habu we saw an ancient village built for the workers who built and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. They themselves had their own small tombs which were exquisitely decorated like those of the kings; in my opinion, the paintings were even more beautiful (take that, pharaohs! The workers probably saved their best work for themselves!). A guide inside the tiny, hot tomb told us that the people painted with green skin (which I had been seeing in other tomb paintings) actually represented the Nubians. Funny that the Egyptians painted what was supposed to be dark brown skin green, but who knows what they were thinking. I've looked it up and found that Osiris was often painted green because he was god of vegetation, so I'm not sure what to believe, but I suppose the main point is that there were green people in the tomb paintings. Probably aliens, I'd guess. :)

Next was a stop to see two giant statues called the Colossi of Memnon, because the Greeks thought the two statues depicted their hero, Agamemnon. Beats me why. They're actually statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III.

I have to go now, but will be posting Egypt part 3 ASAP. To look forward to: Karnak temple, fancy hotels, towel animals, pyramids, camels, rain, and Cairo traffic!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Egypt 1: In which we learn how to tip and discover that Ramses II was quite narcissistic

Salaam from Egypt!

After half a year of working and beginning my college career I am back out in the world ( but will start college again in a week). It was great to take a long plane ride again :).

On that note, our trip to Egypt started out with a 10-hour plane ride on Egypt Air from JFK. We arrived in Cairo in the morning, were picked up by a tour representative (our whole trip has been with a tour company--more on that later) and experienced Cairo traffic. My goodness. I could write a whole post about Cairo traffic--it's crazy! The roads are always packed, and there is a constant symphony of car horns. Stop lights and signs are optional, along with lines on the road. And somehow no one hits anyone else! (so far... though it seems every car is kind of scraped up). I am entirely impressed; I know I don't have the reflexes that these Egyptian drivers have.

Anyway, after a nap we went out to dinner at Felfela, a cute and not-too-touristy restaurant walking distance from our hotel (which is right by the Nile and the Egyptian Museum), where I had traditional Egyptian foul (beans). To get there, we had to navigate Cairo traffic, which is entirely different from Minnesota. As I said, stop lights are often optional and crosswalks are few (at least where we are), but somehow we arrived at the restaurant unscathed--the drivers have good reflexes. Crossing the street is quite a dance.

Then an early night, because we woke up at 3 to take a care to the airport for our 5 AM flight to Abu Simbel, which is not irregular. The desert/Nile scenery from the plane was gorgeous--apparently the area above Abu Simbel is sometimes called Egypt's moonscape. We arrived early enough to beat the heat and some of the crowds (though lots of tourists took the same flight we did). Abu Simbel, on the shore of Lake Nasser, is home to two gigantic temples built into the side of a mountain. The largest was built by and for Ramses II, the pharaoh who seems to show up most in Egyptian history (King Tut, despite popular opinion, actually didn't do much of importance except have a tomb that was tricky to find); four huge statues of the pharaoh dominate the front of the temple. The smaller temple was built for his favorite wife, Nefertari (he had many wives--no one knows exactly how many).
A couple cool facts about the temples: 1) at two different times during the year (it used to be October 20 and February 20 or so...) the sunlight will shine directly in the doorway of the temple so that it lights up the last room deep inside. I love how those ancient architects knew so much about the astronomy and math. 2) After the Aswan dam was built, lake Nasser grew until it threatened to flood the temples. So the temples were moved 65 m up and 200 m back from the lake and put into a newly constructed mountain. The sunshine lines up at different dates now, but other than that the temples are like they would have been in the old setting.

After a quick morning visit to Abu Simbel we flew back to Aswan, where we met our tour representative and were taken to our hotel on Elephantine island, in the middle of the Nile. Ironically, the hotel is called Mövenpick and is run by the Swiss :). After a brief rest and lunch we took a ride on the Nile in a Felucca--a traditional Egyptian sailboat. It was beautiful and very relaxing--we didn't move much because there was little wind--and I even took a nap on the boat.

That evening we headed to the Temple at Philae (which, like Abu Simbel, was also moved block by block because of Nile flooding. This one was built by the Greeks, though, and is on an island--we got there in a boat with a driver who looked to be about 10) for the sound and light show, a very popular tourist activity in Egypt. Different parts of the temple were lit up while various speakers played out voices of the gods and goddesses talking about the temple. On our way back to the hotel we stopped by the souk--the market in Aswan. It was filled with stalls selling clothing, shoes, spices, souvenirs--anythinga tourist or a local might want. Some parts were more touristy, which meant more hassle. Egyptian vendors are very vocal, which takes some time to get used to. As we walked down the street, it was impossible to avoid vendors coming up to us, trying to sell us things, inviting us to their shops... even using lines such as "You marry me your daughter, I give you my shop" or "How many camels for your daughter, madame?" Marriage proposals, lovely! Never serious, though; just a way to attract tourists. We also heard "We have everything--whatever you need--I don't know what you need, but we have it!" My favorite was when men would yell "No hassle here! No hassle!" when really, what they were doing was hassling. It is a totally different way of selling; sometimes I longed for the peace and quiet of a store where you are left alone. On the other hand, I've enjoyed discovering the Egyptian culture first hand. I ended up buying a nice shirt in a galabiya shop--galabiyas are traditional Egyptian robes. My parents insisted that I try to bargain--bargaining is also part of the buying/selling culture here. I discovered that I have no natural proclivity to bargaining and really don't enjoy it, but I managed to get the price down a bit. I'll work on it.

The next morning we met our guide, Ashraf, and saw the Aswan High Dam, a huge dam constructed from 1960-1970 to control flow of the Nile (this was the dam that caused some of the temples we saw to be at risk for flooding). The structure was quite impressive, and full of tour busses, of course, like any other site. We then headed back to Philae, to get a look at it in the day time. The temples along the Nile (we've seen quite a few), like Philae, are beautiful, and some of them are quite well preserved, even the painted parts that weren't exposed to the elements. Our guide, Ashraf, told us about some of the stories depicted on the walls (Philae is dedicated to Isis and Hathor, two goddesses). After Philae we headed to a granite quarry from the time of the pharaohs to see the unfinished obelisk. This obelisk, which would have been the largest in the world, had begun to be carved out of the granite when a crack formed, and the workers were forced to give it up. I'm almost glad they did, because I could hardly imagine the amount of work that would go into transporting the obelisk and putting it into place when it was completed.

Our next stop in Aswan was the Nubian Museum, a lovely museum showcasing ancient Egyptian artifacts with a focus on Nubia. Nubia is the area encompassing southern Egypt and northern Sudan, and is characterized by darker-skinned people than those in Cairo. The Nubians also have a distinct history, gastronomy, and musical tradition. The museum was beautiful: much of it was made out of the same type of granite from the pharaonic quarry.

After saying farewell to Aswan, we headed to our cruise boat that would take us to Luxor. There are around 300 boats like ours on the Nile--cruising down the Nile is a very popular activity for tourists. Tourism in Egypt is different from many of the other places I've visited: organized tours are the way to go. Because 95% of Egypt is desert, it's good to be in the hands of someone who knows their way around, and renting a car would not be the way to go. Egypt is also less developed than most of the other places I've visited, and tour companies are good at finding hotels and restaurants that are comfortable and safe for tourists. It also helps a lot since none of us speak Arabic. And I'm extremely thankful for the van drivers, since I know I couldn't navigate this traffic!

Speaking of van drivers, one thing that this trip has illuminated for me is the art of tipping. Egypt is a tipping culture, and having people drive us and take our bags means that we're tipping a lot! There are often attendants in bathrooms who need a tip, and many people will try to help us to get a tip. Sometimes this means helping us with our bags, giving us directions, or explaining something in a temple. It's almost overwhelming like in the souk, and we've only started to learn how to tip. The Egyptians use pounds and piasters (cents), and at around 5.45 pounds to the dollar, it takes some calculating. In general, everything in Egypt is quite cheap, but tourists are expected to tip quite a lot.

Anyway, back to the boat. Ours was the Monaco, and was like a mini Caribbean cruise ship: basically, a floating hotel. It has a restaurant, a pool on the top deck, a lounge, a small work-out room, a gift shop, and a lot of comfortable cabins. We had a beautiful view out of the picture window in our cabin, but the best view was from the top deck. Watching the Nile pass by was breathtaking; I could have stayed on that boat for a month. We saw a lot of donkeys, mud huts, and agriculture; scenes that have not changed much in the past 4000 years. In some areas, the desert came right up to the banks of the Nile, but there were always palm trees along the shoreline.

I have so much more to write about, but I think this is enough for now. In the next post I'll talk about our cruise and our visit in Luxor. Right now We're back in Cairo having a relaxing afternoon, and will start our tour of the city tomorrow.

Thanks for reading, I will update again soon!