Vacances Part 7: Chamonix

After Florence we were northbound to France once more.  In the old days the Italian-French border had border stations at mountain-tops on roads that were summit passes. My dad told me a story of how once he was driving from Italy to Austria with a case full of wine in the trunk.  When he got to the border station, the customs officials looked in the trunk, and they saw that all of the corks of the bottles had popped, the wine frozen inside.  What ensued was a merry ski vacation I’m sure.  Anyway, such debacles no longer occur, as the summit roads have been replaced with tunnels that burrow straight through the mighty mountainsides.  Now, this traversal method has its own set of problems.  A few years ago there was a fire inside the tunnel we went through.  In order to prepare you for such a crisis, the Italian government has printed up some nifty pamphlets with graphics that supposedly tell you what to do in case of a fire.  I will be the first to say that the stick figures that dot the page, running every which way, some wearing triangular dresses, some not, some half the size of others, some trapped in what appears to be an 18-wheeler on fire, some brandishing fire extinguishers, some sprinting up stairs, do not provide the neat, easy-to-comprehend-to-speakers-of-any-language set of instructions that the author and distributors of the pamphlet think they do.  The tunnel is long, and I tried to keep my mind off of the millions of pounds of stony weight pressing down on the ceilings and walls by imagining Snow White dwarves mining out the tunnel with their little half-size pickaxes.  We made it through the tunnel, feeling more like we had escaped Italy than that we were regretfully departing it, which is closer to the truth.  By this point it was nearly time to stop for the night.  There was an amusing incident where my parents saw a sign for ‘Hotel de ville’ and said, “Oh great, a hotel!” and I got to smugly inform them that ‘Hotel’ can also mean ‘hall’ in French, and that they were looking to make a reservation for the night at the town hall.  The next day was one for the record books.  We took a cable car up from Chamonix, getting a taste of what is usually exclusively for the eyes and ears of mountaineers and extreme skiers.  Of course we got to share this experience with a Japanese tour group who had never seen snow before.  This was made apparent when they all started freaking out throwing it at each other when we exited the cable car station.  The summit was bitter cold, but the views were absolutely of a different planet.  There was one point on the ride up where the car went over a support pillar and then swung forward, knocking everyone over and making me think that I would never make it to 21, but the puny wire carried us through the blustery wind and snow to the top and back, no harm done.

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Here we are in lovely Chamonix-Mont Blanc!                         Me and my sweet skis. I’m really into plummeting down snowy cliffs now.

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Spectacular Snow                                                             One brave soul making the descent. I’d say he was crazy if I wasn’t so impressed

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Yes, I was as nervous and cold as I look                                                                                  Observer on the observation deck

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Asian tourists frolicking                                                                               Spotted: Cap’n Brown navigating the enthusiastic crowd

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Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: the power is there, The still and solemn power of many sights And many sounds, and much of life and death. In the long glare of day, the snows descend Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there, Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun, Or the sunbeams dart through them.”

– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mont Blanc


Vacances Part 6 Monteriggioni

My dad said that there are so many towers in Monteriggioni because one guy built one, and then all the wealthy neighbors had to build one, too. Well, after some online research I found this to be false. I did, however, learn that Monteriggioni’s towers are referenced by Dante in the Inferno.  So there’s that.  Anyway there are fourteen turrets rising from the wall that surrounds this tiny medieval city.  The day we were there, there was some sort of running race going on, which made our touring a bit different.  It was almost over by the time we got there, so we cheered on the stragglers who were huffing and puffing (in Italian) their way to the finish line.  There was a great little flea market where basically everyone was selling old stuff, which I love, so it was the perfect for me, although I didn’t end up buying anything.  That afternoon we stopped by the house of a friend of my parents who is a professor taking his sabbatical in his hometown, which is a village who’s name I don’t remember but we had an mamma mi-amazing lunch of spaghetti and every delicious Italian food and fresh mozzarella and oh my gosh my mouth is watering just remembering it.  Basically we fell in love with Tuscany and Mom and Dad were planning out how many Cyprus trees to plant along the driveway of their retirement villa.  Here are some pictures from Monteriggioni:

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Approach to Monteriggioni                                                                               Checking out the map

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View from the hilltop                                                                                                                            Inside the walls…

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Adorkable                                                                                                        The flea market is behind me

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Oh you know, random harpist. Casual.                                                 View

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Towers                                                                                                                                           Knight in shining armor

Vacances Part 5: Florence / Firenze + Trouble With Machines

In Florence no cars are allowed to drive into the city center. Instead, you drive around, balancing the directions given to you by your TomTomGPS and the signs directing you around and around rotaries towards parking lots outside the city. Your TomTom knows that you are in Europe because of satellites and techy things like that, so it’s put on a pretentious British accent and says things like “Please exit the roundabout at the third turning.” You decide to trust the technology, since it’s gotten you this far, but when TomTom tells you that “You have reached your destination,” and you are in the middle of the street in some random neighborhood with no parking lot in sight, you realize that the signs wouldn’t lie to you and that trusting something you bought at Best Buy that sounds like Edith from Downton Abbey over indicators created specifically to guide and help you avoid being ticketed or getting lost was a stupid idea and you are reminded, yet again, that you are a foreigner and that driving in a stick-shift vehicle isn’t as smooth a ride as an automatic, Idon’tcarewho’sdriving. Following that little life lesson, we caught a cab to our hotel and trudged up the stairs, exhausted from the drive and the parking lot drama.  After first of all verifying that our bathroom did indeed include a bide and second of all a short nap in our pleasant, spacious room, we ventured outside to find the Duomo, which Rick Steves told us is the greatest building in Florence.  Looking down at our free map, my dad said “Well it should be nearby, because our street borders this square that it’s’ in.” We put our navigation caps on and turned the corner, only to find that the Duomo was right there in front of us. Like, we could have seen it from our hotel room window if we were in the east-facing hallway. Having such a major and visible landmark double as our how-go-get-back-to-the-hotel landmark was very useful over the next four days. Using Rick Steves’ Italy as our Bible, we saw the best of Florence, including the Accademia where Michelangelo’s David is, the Pitti Palace, the Uffizi gallery, and the proximate Duomo whose bell tower we climbed that first night.  The food was wonderful, and the weather unpredictable, changing between rain to sun on an hourly basis. I bought a Real Leather Jacket, the Fits Me Correctly and Is The Right Shade Of Brown For My Skin And Hair Color (thanks Mom!) and went into a jewelry shop on the Ponte Vecchio. Dad got a new wallet at one of the many markets we wandered through, and Mom decided to buy the same pair of shoes six times and ended up not buying them the same number of times. I loved Florence. It was touristy, sure, but we saw a fair amount of the city and I found it quite beautiful. The art was fantastic, although Renaissance art is not my favorite, it was amazing to see some of the most important paintings in Western art. One of my favorite things we did was explore the gardens of the Pitti Palace, which are extensive. There is a grotto, and fountains, and paths through woods, and a random porcelain museum on top of a hill. It’s hard to believe, while walking through theses enormous parks, that all of that varied property was once one family’s backyard. It’s easy to understand why peasants became so bitter towards the nobility. It was great that we were able to stay for four days- there is no shorter span of time during which you could possibly see the best sights.  Enjoy some pics:

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The façade of the Duomo church                                                      Dad in front of the church

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Mom in the square                                                                                       The inside of the dome

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View from partway up the bell tower

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Me inside the bell tower                                                            Mom and me on top of the bell tower. That’s the Duomo in the background

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Dad taking pictures from the top of the bell tower                                      View

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Marble in the Cathedral museum                       Touching this hog at the Haymarket is luckey, hence all the other people also touching it

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Pitti gardens                                                                                                  Me in the gardens

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The Grotto                                                                                                      View of the Duomo, from the bell tower


“Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”

Vacances Part 4 Clooney and Como

The wonderful thing about traveling by car is the liberty it gives you.  We had no concrete plans for the night; we knew that we had to stop somewhere on the way to Florence since our hotel booking in Florence started the next night.  Glancing over the enormous map we had of Italy, we pinpointed Lake Como as our destination for the night.  We randomly pulled over and found an adorable hotel right on the shore of Lake Como. It’s the unexpected places you find that are the most special.  Now, the most important part of this adventure: we saw George Clooney’s house! We didn’t plan it, but there were a few indicators beforehand.  “I’m pretty sure George Clooney lives somewhere around here,” Mom said as we took a walk in the village. Then we passed a general store with faded posters of George hanging in the windows.  So we knew we were in the right town. Then, we came upon a dock that paralleled a small point with a big house and lots of trees planted around it.  “Now, if I were George Clooney, I would live in that house,” my dad said, pointing at the villa. We circled around to the road side, and the gated entrance to the driveway had signs posted on it saying, in English, “Video Surveillance in use,” so we were pretty sure that was the house. The lady behind the desk at the hotel confirmed our suspicion. So we saw it! Seeing as there was only one restaurant open in the village we were hoping that George would stroll in and join us for dinner, but unfortunately he did not make an appearance.  We enjoyed our fresh fish nevertheless, although I spent the better part of two hours picking the bones out.  Fresh fish is yummy but challenging. Our hotel room had an unbelievable view directly out onto the lake, with the mountains rising up from the opposite shore.  It also had a bide, truly showing that we were indeed in Italy.  One weird thing was the size of the beds.  We were expecting a double and a twin, but the twin was more of a cot and the double could have easily fit five people in it. Anyway, it was a lovely place to stop for the night, so lots of pics!

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Our hotel                                                                                                         Seeing the town

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So many cyclists! Guess Breaking Away was accurate : )

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Looking around

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George’s house!                                                                                            The gates

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No visitors allowed                                                                                       Looking back at the town

Vacances Part 3: Lucerne

So my parents and I set off in a rental car for a continental road trip. The car they requested was not available, so we ended up driving a flashy black BMW that looked like something Bruce Wayne would drive (we actually encountered some Japanese tourists taking pictures of the car while we were in Lucerne). Our first stop was Lucerne, Switzerland. At the border crossing into Switzerland I was disappointed to find that they do not stamp your passport, despite the fact that Switzerland is not a member of the European Union. We even asked at the customs station building: “Stempeln, bitter?” , but alack, we were left stampless. The reason that we went to Lucerne was to see the Lion of Lucerne, a monument carved by some ancestor of my dad and myself. The monument was created to honor the Swiss Guard soldiers who died defending the French Royal Family during the Revolution.  The soldiers were known for their loyalty and they proved it when they kept their positions against the mob outside the Tuileries Palace even after the King had ordered them to stand down. The monument consists of a wounded lion carved into the side of a cliff, overlooking a serene pond and garden. The lion, who has been stabbed in the back, represents the Swiss soldiers. Shorty after we arrived we overheard an English-speaking tour guide tell an amusing anecdote about the construction of the monument. Apparently the city of Lucerne had promised to pay for the construction of the monument. When construction went on too long, they reneged on the deal and refused to cough up the funds.  Dedicated to the project, Lukas Ahorn (my ancestor!) continued carving without pay, but, angered by the flakiness of the city officials, he made the outline of the cave that the lion rests in resemble a pig. This sly jab serves as a reminder as to who was really responsible for the execution of the project. Some alpenhorn players showed up, in their traditional garb. I had never heard or seen alpenhorn in real life before, and the effect of the sound echoing off the cliff was really cool. I got a Swiss Army knife (Victoria Knox- The Explorer) at one of the gift shops before we hit the road.

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The Lion of Lucerne                                                            Mom looking at the monument

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I’m related to him!                                                                                          Lion’s face. So sorrowful.

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Alpenhorn players!                                                                                       Design on the horn

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The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.
Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.”

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

Vacances Part 2

Arriving in Strasbourg was a bit of a relief. I love the fact that a French-speaking country can feel homey to me now. The main reason that I chose to come to Strasbourg was for a student conference that I was invited to through Haverford’s study-abroad office. It was for political science students studying abroad and European students studying political science. I arrived a few hours before I could check into my hostel, and I had my heavy bag with me so I plopped down on the banks of the Ill and read some of the reference materials that the conference people had sent me. Finally check-in time rolled around and I went and dropped my bags off at the hostel. Faced with a few more empty hours before the conference officially commenced, I grabbed my complimentary city map and set off to explore a bit. I found a market with clothing and food, cobble-stoned streets lined with great shopping opportunities, and the cathedral. Victor Hugo called Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg “a gigantic and delicate marvel”.  I totally see what he was saying there.  The first thing that strikes you about it is how massive it is. The square surrounding it isn’t exactly huge, so you are right up next to it when you first glance at it, and you have to look almost straight up to see the top of the spire.  When I first entered the square, I heard a woman singing and automatically assumed it was a nun since the song sounded like it was in Latin and vaguely church-y. Much to my surprise, it was a man singing that I saw when I rounded the corner of the huge church. He was a street performer accompanying himself on guitar, and singing alternating sections in bass and falsetto soprano. It was kind of eerie, but also very beautiful. Here’s a video I found of him:

Falsetto voice in front of Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg

Inside the cathedral has an enormous astronomical clock that looks like a giant cuckoo-clock. It rings every day at noon but I was never able to go see it in action. Still, very cool. I’m not exactly sure what an astronomical clock actually does, but a quick Wikipedia search has informed me that it is able to keep track of equinoxes and other astronomical events, as well as calculate the date of Easter. Right next to eh clock is what is called the Pillar of Angels. It’s basically one of the pillars connected to the high arches holding the ceiling up. This pillar is unique because it has angels carved into it, depicting the Last Judgment.  The architect of the cathedral had a sense of humor about the riskiness of having such an elaborate piece as the main support: he carved a jealous and skeptical rival architect leaning on a nearby railing, checking out his accomplishment.  Strasbourg isn’t exactly hopping, but it’s got a lot of great history and an interesting mix of French and German-ness.  I had initially wanted to study abroad there instead of Paris, but I am glad that I went with Paris in the end. Strasbourg is pretty small- I was only there for a long weekend and I saw most of the city. Probably the most fun thing was a boat tour. Strasbourg has a lot of canals, and there was a boat tour, kind of like a mini Bateaux Mouches (the Parisian tour boats). Not all of the canals are at the same level, so twice we had to go through a canal lock.  A canal lock works by entering an enclosed space between the two sections of canal, and either pumping water into the space or letting water out until it is even with the water level on the opposite side. Then the wall on the side lowers and you glide out. Sort of like an escalator for boats. I don’t think I explained that very well so here’s a diagram:

During the tour I learned a few gruesomely amusing stories about Strasbourg. For example, one of the bridges was where the townspeople would torture cheating wives and prostitutes, while the lady folk would sit and do needlework while they watched.  An architect of one of the churches was beaten because the spire on the church was shaped unusually. Twenty people were killed when a church on the banks of the river burned down, but only because a fat monk ended up getting stuck in the only way out due to his thick girth, blocking the exit. And these are just a few highlights from colorful commentary provided by my audioguide who was actually quite difficult to understand sometimes (although it was in English) because of his thick Irish accent (#studyabroadproblems). Strasbourg is important because it is where the EU Parliament buildings are. I was excited to tour them, since I’m a big nerd and my tour of the UN building in New York is still one of my favorite tourist experiences ever, so I was looking forward to repeating something like that. Unfortunately they don’t offer tours. Sad face. Anyway, they were very beautiful to look at, all glass and in interesting shapes. Strasbourg was chosen for the honor of hosting the Parliament because it represents a place with a blend of old and rich cultures, therefore a truly “European” city. At the conference we discussed the benefits and drawbacks of the Europeanization movement for European governments and citizens. For those who aren’t familiar, Europeanization refers to the shift toward a continent-wide government and sense of identity over a nationally-based government and sense of identity. In other words, is the European Union, which provides economic opportunities and a sense of unity among different European countries a good thing, or are countries losing their sovereignty and uniqueness? This is probably the main sociopolitical issue that Europeans face today, and one that Americans don’t really know much about. It was exciting that I got to discuss these issues with Europeans, in Strasbourg. Tuesday morning my parents rolled in and picked me up, to start the next part of my vacation adventure. Stay tuned!

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The Ill River                                                                                                                                                The cathedral

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Looking up at the cathedral                                                                           The street performer

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Even cathedrals get dusty                                                                   The astronomical clock                     Pillar of Angels

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My restaurant!

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We were looking for a centre that could both be convenient for all European nations and come to symbolize European unity. Strasbourg was a natural choice. This great city had been witness to such breed of human stupidity that attempted to settle its affairs through war, cruelty, and sheer destruction.”

-Ernest Bevin, the British Minister of Foreign Affairs

Vacances Part 1: Aachen

Also known as Aix-la-Chappelle, Aachen is famous for its cathedral that Charlemagne built and subsequently was buried in.  The trip got off to a rocky start- my train was delayed for over two hours because someone either jumped or was pushed off the train while it was it was in motion.  The police had to come on board and investigate, and although the train crew never told us what the findings were they did give us free dinner. My new friend Alex met me at the train station and cooked me dinner, very good-naturedly in view of the two-hour delay. Thursday I spent seeing everything Aachen has to offer, and, not to sound condescending, but a day is about all it takes.  I started with the cathedral, and, after purchasing a booklet with a printed walking tour, I saw the various Roman ruins, old medieval townhouses, town hall museum, and hot spring that make up the Aachen sights. The cathedral doors are famous first of all because they were the first bronze casting north of the Alps and because of the creepy legend about the cathedral’s construction.  The legend goes that when the funds for building the cathedral ran out, the Devil offered to pay for it, in exchange for the soul of the first person to enter the cathedral after it’s dedication. The townspeople agreed because they had hatched a plot to fool the Devil. After the dedication they chased a wolf into the doors and the Devil, eager for his soul in payment, took the wolf’s soul before realizing that it was not human. Once he saw that he had been cheated, in a rage he slammed the doors closed with such gusto that his thumb ripped off and got stuck inside the lion-head-shaped handles, where it rests to this day. When you reach inside the handles to this day you can feel his thumb in there. It was actually pretty unnerving- a bit like those haunted house things where you stuck your hand in a darkened box to feel “brains” that were actually just cold spaghetti. Aside from being the home of Satan’s thumb, the old town is very cute and full of cobblestoned squares with fountains at the centers.  Aachen is located very close to the spot where the borders of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands meet.  It is a border region, with the Belgian chocolate shops to prove it, but it also has a bit of French heritage in it as Charlemagne, who the city is most famous for, is both apart of German history, as the first Holy Roman Emperor, but also French history, as King of the Francs.  This French influence has disappeared there today. I have to say, having both English and French outranked by Dutch in translation order was amusing (who speaks Dutch, anyway?), strange (seriously, who?), and inconvenient (not me).  For dinner I had Himmel und Erde, an Aachen specialty.  It’s blutwurst, apples, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes.  I ordered it because it was the local specialty, but have to say that blutwurst is a bit rich for my taste. Thursday evening I went to see The Marriage of Figaro, the opera by Mozart, at the theater.  This was actually the reason I went to Aachen in the first place- to see this opera performed. I loved it- the opera is a great one and the singing was up to my non-existent standards.  Since I knew the story beforehand, having read the play by Beaumarchais, it was fine that the lyrics were in Italian and the subtitles in German, and in fact I think helped me concentrate on the music and performance more.  I left very early in the morning for my train to Strasbourg.  After getting off for a transfer prematurely and having to take a commuter rail a few stops and then catching the TGV a couple stops early in Cologne, I eventually got myself to my destination without delay or losing my luggage. A major accomplishment, I think!

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Fancy flower beds                                              Aachen is known for its  hot spring so it has a lot of fountains                  An adorable child

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So cute!                                                                                                                The Elisa Fountain (Elisenbrunnen) where the  hot spring is

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A cool bus stop I saw                                                                       The Aachen cathedral                                     Inside the cathedral

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The cathedral doors. The Devil’s thumb is in the one on the right.                               The cathedral seen from the side

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Arches left over from Roman times                              Statue of Charlemagne in Market Place     Haus Löwenstein, the oldest townhouse in Aachen

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Old townhouses on the Market Place                A walkway from the Town House. I love ultra-modern architecture mixed with ultra-old

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The Rathause (City Hall)