Friday, December 29, 2017

Travelling for the Holidays

So, this year my holidays are very different than usual. My exams for university are not until January, and we have a four-week winter break between classes and exams. My dad thought I should just come home, but I figured that I would never again have a month break in Europe and I should make the most of it!! So, I am draining my savings and doing a European holiday tour. I will try to stay updated on my blog and do maybe a week at a time, I’m not sure we’ll see!

This first post is my first ten days travelling. When we realized I would be on my own over here for Christmas, my parents decided to send Kylie over here for 10 days. It worked out perfectly, she flew in 2 days after my last class and we met in London!

My flatmates, Sarah and Kamara, and I all took the train to London on Saturday and had planned to explore London together as one last roomie adventure!! Kylie flew in Sunday morning and after I picked her up from the airport the 4 of us started our adventure. We spent 4 days in London, before Sarah went home, Kamara went on a European tour and Kylie and I moved on.

During our 4 day stint in London we saw what we could of this massive city and learned the ways of the tube (I’m convinced I saw just as much of the London underground that I saw of the city)! The tube/subway system is massive and very elaborate, also very packed on the weekend before Christmas. I have never been so close to that many people in my life!!

Kylie and I visited Windsor Castle, it is just on the edge of London and is the Queen’s favorite weekend retreat. Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle today. Queen Elizabeth still likes to host events here and can usually be found at the castle during her free weekends! Unfortunately, the queen must have been busy this weekend because we never saw her.
Windsor Castle

Pictures just don't do it justice, notice Big Ben covered in scaffolding

We explored the city hitting all the hotspots like Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, Big Ben (covered in scaffolding), and of course the London Eye. We planned to take a lap on the London Eye around sunset, which over here is about 3:30, hoping for a beautiful London sunset. We were not disappointed, the sky was painted vibrant orange and stretched across the London city scape with the Thames river running down in front. The sunset was an amazing and the view was only obstructed by the fact Big Ben was covered in scaffolding and unidentifiable. Big Ben, the famous clock tower, will be undergoing reconstruction for the next four years to repair the tower and the bell inside. Kylie was really disappointed, you would’ve thought she came all this way just to see Big Ben.

We also got to experience the magic of a London Christmas and spent way too much money at the Christmas Markets. London was decked to the nines in Christmas Lights, Christmas Trees and decorations adorning every street and every square. We spent an evening at London’s Winter Wonderland. Winter Wonderland took over Hyde Park and had more than I ever imagined. There were rides, everything from the carousel to death defying roller coasters. Kylie and I rode the carousel and called it good😊. There was also an outdoor ice rink, a concert hall set up, a hall for ice shows, restaurants and bars (including a carousel bar!!), an oktoberfest style beer tent with live music and about a hundred different little Christmas markets. Man, was Kylie hard to pull away from the markets, she was like a kid in a candy store and found something she wanted to buy at every place. I had to keep coming up with new reasons why we couldn’t buy something.

London was fun but obviously it is a big city with a ton of people. Kylie and I are more country girls and don’t thrive in the cities. We really loved our time, but we were ready to leave the crowds behind and head for the wilderness. We did just that as we headed to our next destination: Tromsø, Norway.

Tromsø is the north of the arctic circle (to put that into perspective, we are further north than the northern coast of Alaska) and is isolated in the very northern islands of Norway. We decided to come up here in hopes to catch a glimpse of the ever-elusive northern lights. While researching the northern lights, the city of Tromsø kept popping up as a good destination to see the lights. We got up at 4 am to fly out of London and we arrived in Tromsø, the afternoon of Thursday December 21st. We were scheduled to take the northern lights chasing expedition that evening. We layered up in our long johns and heavy winter coats. It wasn’t as cold as we thought it might be, it was probably around 20° F, but I hate the cold and I was freezing. We left our hostel around 7 pm that evening. It was blizzarding in Tromsø and there was no way we would see the sky from there, so we set out in the van searching for clear skies. We continuously got updates from our computer guy back at the hostel and we kept an eye on the skies ourselves. About 5 hours later we were at the border to Finland. After we drove through the mountains (in a blizzard!!! Kylie and I were afraid for our lives a time or two) we found clear skies in Finland. We set up camp and built a little fire. We roasted marshmallows and drank hot chocolate praying for the lights to make an appearance. After a little while we saw what appeared to be white wispy clouds in the sky, our guide, and his camera, informed us they were actually very faint aurora borealis. The camera can pick up the Aurora better than our eyes and to our eyes it was faint and white, but the camera showed the green beautiful lights in the sky. We waited for them to get stronger and they did get a bit stronger, just enough to see the green with our eyes. The weather had finally caught up to us and the clouds blocked our view. So while we did briefly see faint lights, it wasn’t enough to cross off our bucket list. We will try again one day. We piled back into the van for our trip back to the hostel. We got back to our hostel around 4 am in the morning- we had been up for 24 hrs. But no rest for the weary, we had to be up at 8 for our dog sledding adventure.

On Friday morning we boarded a bus to take us out into the Norwegian wilderness to a dog sled facility. We all bundled up in snow suits and boots to head off into the wilderness. After maybe a 2-minute tutorial of hold on tight, don’t let go, and this is the brake, they stuck us on our own sled. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that we would literally drive the sled our self and be in charge. I drove for the first hour and Kylie rode and then we switched for the second hour. Thankfully, it wasn’t complicated, and the dogs really knew what they were doing. The snow was so fresh, thick and fluffy that it was harder for the dogs, and they couldn’t go as fast. We had a dog team of 6 and were right behind the leader. I pretty much just had to stop the dogs, they did the rest on their own and followed the lead pack. We had to help them a little by pushing off and running and pushing up hills and pushing them through the deeper snow, so when driving it was a bit of a work out. These dogs love to run though, as soon as we would stop they would be barking and howling and trying to go. And they would get so excited when we let of the brake, these dogs are so active and high energy, they really are amazing dogs, they were extremely friendly too and played with us. It was really an amazing experience, we were in the middle of nowhere and all we could see was snow, trees, mountains and the other dog sleds, it was probably the highlight of my semester.

Tromsø is a little island in a fjord surrounded by mountains. We rode a cable car up to the summit of one of the mountains to get an incredible view of Norway. The mountains, snow and trees really made for a magical view. Since Tromsø is so far north, during the summer they experience the midnight sun, where it never gets dark, and in the winter, there is 24 hrs. of dark. When we first landed in Tromsø at 1 pm it was pitch dark outside just like the middle of the night. It kind of set us off kilter at first and was very different, I would have a hard time living here because I would never get motivation to get work done in the winter. We also landed in Tromsø on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, so the darkest it’s going to get and the furthest away from the sun we’ll ever be. For about an hour or maybe two it is almost like sunset, it is twilight and the horizon is painted orange, but the sun never rises. The last time the sun set was the middle of November, and it will not rise again until the end of January. Kind of crazy right?! On Saturday, we headed just a bit back down south to the capital city of Sweden, Stockholm.
Tromso is the city on the island behind us, this
is the lightest it ever got
The beautiful fjord around Tromso,
this was the sunrise and sunset at around 11 am

We are here in Stockholm for Christmas Eve, Christmas and the day after Christmas. We have had some trouble finding attractions that are open as well as restaurants that are open. But we have made the best of it and done everything we can. We visited a museum, took a city tour by boat and bus, and spent a day walking around the old town. We wandered upon the palace at just the right time, they were about to begin the changing of the guard ceremony. We missed this at Buckingham Palace in London and we were glad to see it in Stockholm.  We then went in the palace and got to explore it a bit.

Being in Europe over Christmas is a little weird, I don’t feel like I missed Christmas kinda because I don’t feel like Christmas happened, if you know what I mean. On Christmas day we did facetime home while they opened their presents, this year our family had very few presents to open we kind of all got one big thing. Kylie and I got this trip, Cole got a new computer. Mom was the only one to open a present and she got a Yeti Cooler and then my dad got the best Christmas present ever. I should background this a bit by saying that my dad had ponies growing up and has always talked about them a lot. For the past year or so he has been talking about wanting a pony for our front pasture, that he can pet and watch from his front porch chair. So, we decided that we were going to surprise my 63-year-old dad with a pony for Christmas. He had no idea that we had got him one, thanks to the amazing help of Adam Ulrich, and on Christmas morning he got his Pony! We were pretty excited.

So, after our Christmas adventure in Stockholm it was time for Kylie and I to head our separate ways. We went to the airport together and I got on an Airplane headed for Spain and Kylie headed home. It was nice to have a travel buddy and to see a familiar face again. I will be home in 21 days and will get to see everyone again!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The land of Pasta, Pizza, and Prosecco

This past weekend I made my way down to Venice, Italy. The inspiration for this weekend was to see Hadlee, who has spent the semester just outside of Venice.

I left Aber on the train at 12:30 Thursday afternoon. My flight was scheduled for 6:10 pm but was delayed due to technical difficulties, that’s the worst delay, I mean are they sure it’s fixed?  I had a connection in Frankfurt ,and in Birmingham they told me I would have plenty of time to make my connection. We got delayed on the tarmac and got an even later start, midflight they came over the intercom and told us that they had rescheduled flights for some passengers but the connection to Venice had a ‘good chance’ to make our flight! I had my doubts because by the time we landed my next flight was already boarding and I still had to wait in line to get off the plane and then we were shuffled onto a bus that took us to the terminal. There was a person waiting for us at the terminal with info about connections, she told me my second flight was delayed as well and I could make it if I hurried. I had to go through security again and go through customs and then a quick jog through the terminal I was the last one on the plane, phew I made it just in the nic of time.

Now I put on a brave face but, landing in Italy I was a little uneasy. After 2 delayed flight and a quick jaunt through one of the largest airports in Europe, I landed in a new place, where I didn’t speak the language, at midnight.  But new adventures and new places are what studying abroad is all about. If I never leave my comfort zone, I might as well have stayed in Indiana. You have to embrace the unknown and take life one step at a time!

Now if you know me, I like to fly by the seat of my pants and I hadn’t figured out how to get to my hostel. I was staying on the Island of Guidecca and the only way there was by ferry or water taxi, they said a water taxi would cost me about 100, so ferry it was. Since it was so late, there was no one around to help me figure out public transportation, using google maps I realized I needed to get a bus to the ferry terminal. I followed signs to the bus station and there was a bus sitting there and I figured that must be the one I want… luckily it was😊. It dropped me off at the ferry terminal and according to google maps, I was supposed to catch the night Ferry. There is literally only like 5 other people around and there all tourists as confused as me. I found a ticket machine and bought a 75-minute ticket. I went into the terminal to catch the ferry, after looking at the signs closer I realized I went on the wrong terminal and when I couldn’t find the way out, I climbed over the gate to get out. I finally got in the right terminal and on the ferry headed the right way. I had a 35-minute ride to my hostel and when I got there to check in it was about 1:45 am. They gave me a room and a bed and when I went up there, there was a girl in my bed, I went downstairs and got a new bed, there was someone in that bed, it was really late and I was exhausted and decided to just climb in an empty bed.

Standing in front of St. Mark's Basilica
On Friday I spent most of the day just wondering the alleys and bridges of Venice. I visited Piazza San Marco and Saint Mark’s Basilica. The basilica is a gorgeous church decorated on these beautiful, intricate mosaics that cover the dome ceilings, I couldn’t take pictures, nut I highly recommend that you google it! I wondered around and got lost and ate spaghetti for lunch. At around 6 pm I met Hadlee. She had an exam today and then came down to Venice, Hadlee is now finished with her program and flew home on Saturday. It is crazy to think that she is already home and I have 2 more months over here!! Don’t ask me how that worked out, because I couldn’t tell you. It was great to catch up with Hadlee and see a familiar face! We got dinner and gelato before she headed back to her hotel near the airport.

On Saturday, I visited the Islands of Murano, Burano and Torcelo. They are three islands just a 30-minute boat ride from Venice. Murano is famous for its glass, and we visited a glass master and he demonstrated glass blowing. I then headed over to Burano, famous for its lace making and colorful buildings. This is the most picturesque island with all the color and beautiful canals, I could have walked around here for hours. Lastly, I visited Torcelo, filled with history it is the first island settled by the Venetians and home to the oldest church in the area. After an afternoon island hopping I headed back to Piazza San Marco to go through Doge’s Palace. Fortunately, I got there just before last entry, unfortunately, I only had an hour to see it and was too late to get an audio guide. The museums and writing was all in Italian, so I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at most of the time and didn’t learn much about the place but it was still beautiful. I was exhausted after a long couple days and headed back to my hostel where I got dinner, and went to bed early.
Glass making

On Sunday, I took a day trip to Verona, the birthplace of Romeo and Juliet. Cole took a day trip here when he was in Venice and Hadlee highly recommended it. It was about an hour and half train ride from Venice to this romantic city. I explored a bit on foot and got some amazing pizza. Verona was crowded with tourists, they had a winter fair and a Christmas market happening, so the locals were out along with all the tourists. I took this cute little train around for a quick city tour to see as much as I could in the little time that I had. I then explored the main attractions further, including a castle, and Juliet’s balcony, before hopping back on the train to Venice. In Venice I took a leisurely ride on the back of the waterbus down the main canal stopping for some more Gelato (when in Italy, am I right?) and getting some amazing views of Venice at night. Venice is in the Prosecco region of Italy, they make the most amazing sparkling white wine. And while I’m usually not a wine fan, I had to indulge, and Italy may have turned me into a wine fan (Prosecco at least)!

On Monday it was time to go home, but I had time for one last walk through of Piazza San Marco and this time, I was there at high tide and the square was nearly completely flooded. Water flowed up through the drains and filled the main square. Now all the platforms in the square made sense, they made a walkway above the water, so people could still mill around without getting wet! I made my way back to the airport for a smooth journey home.

“Life is an adventure! Live it while you can. You can never have today again, tomorrow only comes once and yesterday is gone forever. Make your choice wisely, then live the adventure you create.”