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Scandinavia: The Cherry on Top of Europe

My (actual) final trip through the best continent during my favorite semester.

sunny 75 °F

Normally, sitting on a train for 6-8 hours would not be considered vacation. Here in Norway, though, this is what it’s famous for, and thus it’s a perfect opportunity for me to put fingers to keys. I know that last time I wrote, I said that it was my last trip studying abroad. Technically, I’m no longer studying, finals are over, and it’s vacation with my parents…okay, I lied: visiting Scandinavia is my official last trip from my amazing “study” abroad experience.

This past week, my parents and I have been traveling around the great countries of Scandinavia: first to Copenhagen (Denmark), next to Sweden, and finally to Norway. They had prefaced this already packed week with a visit to Salzburg and Munich. Both of these places my parents had never been (in fact, my mom hadn’t ever left the US or UK) and were eager to explore. I gather they had a great time, seeing the infamously beautiful Salzburg on a Sound of Music tour and following my footsteps in Munich and the Neuschwanstein castle. We met at the airport the Saturday morning after my last day of finals—which was a feat in itself—and flew DirtCheapButChargeForEverythingRyanAir to Copenhagen. This city, all but fully reclaimed from the water, was a whole new experience for all of us. Never had I seen a more bike-centric city (even more than Austin!), and one surprisingly void of green areas. Of course, making green where there once was blue is an arduous task, so we will forgive them. Our first night was well-spent at a very popular old port full of outdoor restaurants. The next day we spent biking from site to site and hit nearly everything we wanted to see, including the Little Mermaid and the Crown Jewels, in a long but slow peddle.

Monday morning we rented a silly little hybrid and drove 3 hours up the Swedish west coast to Gothenburg. Although much of the highway wasn’t quite on the sea, you still always felt close to it, and it would jut in every once in a while. In Gothenburg I got my fix of cars at the Volvo Museum, and we were essentially on our lonesome for the whole tour. The remainder of our evening foreshadowed what was to come for the next two days: beautiful sea-side views and tons of peaceful picture taking. The Gothenburg Archipelago was unlike anything I’d ever seen and seemed to go on for miles. The ferries danced in between sharp, jagged rocks and smooth hilly islands, and offered a quick getaway to the next destination. We spent most of the time walking around the idyllic car-less villages and soaking up the perfect weather. And to our dismay upon returning late in the date to our not very good hotel, it seems like someone came in our room and stole some money from my dad’s briefcase. Great.

Early the next morning (I mean early as in 5:30am) we got up to head north again to Oslo, capital of the western most country of Norway. We drove straight to our hotel only to find that its housecleaning staff were on strike, something happening with most of the hotels in the city. Fortunately we weren’t staying there until the next day, so it gave us some time to figure out what we were going to do. Instead we parked our car in the mall and hopped on a cross country train towards the second biggest city of Bergen. This coastal port city is a hub for tourists like us hoping to get the most of the beautiful mountains and fjords that is famous to Scandinavia. And boy did we get a lot out of it. Our cross country train went up and down over the mountains providing some of the most scenic views in the world for around 7 hours. That was literally what we did for most of the day, yet it was still packed. The next morning was by far my favorite, starting with a hugely scenic 5 hours boat cruise through the Sonjafjord. Apparently this is known as the King of Fjords, and the most beautiful and famous in the world. It was much wider and larger than I expected, and the width only got thin at the end. Even so, the huge ship was mostly empty and the views were more than breath-taking. To top it off was “Europe’s most scenic railway” (notice a pattern here) straight up past waterfalls and sharp drops of hundreds of meters. This famous train line took us through tunnels and under waterfalls and led back to the main line from Bergen, which we caught back for a late arrival in Oslo.

Oslo was a very multicultural city, old mixed with new, and plenty to see. We first stopped by the Nobel Peace Museum, which although extremely peaceful, was rather unimpressive for the price. Then in true Nordic fashion was the Viking Ship museum followed by the Kon-Tiki museum, with several exhibitions of the Norwegian explorer who sailed thousands of miles and 101 days on a log raft tied together with rope. Finally that evening after an extremely expensive dinner we attended a performance by the Oslo Philharmonic of Mozart and Brahms. Our time in Oslo was two much needed travel-less nights and one long day, followed by another day of travel back to my home base.

The final two days of our trip were spent where I was in Germany and gave me the opportunity to show my parents around Vallendar and Koblenz, and show them what I had actually been doing for the past 5 months of my life. It felt empowering to give this little tour to my mom, who hadn’t seen anything of where I was yet, because what I was describing was more than just another quaint city by the Rhine river; it was my home, a place that had become very special to me and had given me tremendous opportunity during my time in Europe. It was hard to walk through the halls and the streets and all the places where memories were made knowing it would be the last time. But this two day “staycation” for me was actually incredibly relaxing, and helped me unwind in a way. Instead of waking up one morning in Vallendar and then Texas the next, I was able to ease out of the semester and add some perspective on this entire experience.

The Rhineland area, if you can imagine this, is like an endless expanse of vast plateaus and flowing valleys carved through the countryside. One minute you can be driving straight up from the bottom of the river, through dense forest and winding roads, and the next be on top of flat plateaus and surrounded by everything and nothing for miles on end. Vallendar sits right at the base of one such valley, as does Koblenz, Neuwied, and all the major cities in the area. So while I was always within a stones throw of several different types of environments, it became clear that I hadn’t spent enough time simply exploring where I was in Vallendar and the Rhineland. In this sense, it was nice to take a break and spend my last weekend in Europe relaxing at a local resort tucked away up above the Rhine. We toured a local fortress (only took me 5 months to do so), walked around old town Koblenz, saw some of the area’s hidden gems, and ate really good food.

Although this post is a week late, my final post is forthcoming. I promise.

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Posted by jbolt 10:00 Archived in Norway Tagged bikes oslo fjords sweden koblenz copenhagen volvo philharmonic sonjafjord Comments (0)

We(talian)

Over the Alps and through the boot, to Italy we go.

sunny

After a friend's birthday weekend trip to Dusseldorf, Germany, we embarked on what I would consider the best trip yet. Of course, I say that about every trip I go on, but Italy is something special. I've always wanted to visit Italy ever since I can remember; I read a book when I was much younger about an orphan who lived in Venice. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to visit Venice this trip, but no worries. I will definitely be making the trip back. It was 5 of us friends and 5 amazing days.

My long Easter weekend through the boot of Europe started with a beautiful early morning flight over the Alps to Milan. If I was a pilot, this would be where I would want to fly all the time. Visiting the Alps in person was breathtaking--seeing them from above was even more stunning. All of a sudden there were these huge snow covered mountains below, almost like a white blanket had been ruffled up. Even though they felt so close that our wing might clip a particularly high one, the behemoths were transformed into a wrinkled sheet no larger than my airplane window. It was awesome to see the mountain range from a different perspective, and I could easily see where these little valley towns like Kitzbuhel, Austria fit into the landscape. Complete with a fly-over of Lake Como before landing, we spent about 5 hours walking around Milan and exploring what it had to offer before heading on to Tuscany. On this high speed train ride I realized just how small the world is--we met and talked to some recently graduated students who knew one of my good high school friends really well.

When arriving in Florence we walked directly to the hostel, only to find out that it didn't seem to exist. There was no huge welcome sign or friendly lighted name; only a number and a plaque, as we found out after calling the hostel owner. Apparently we were lucky not to have our reservation canceled--we had arrived after check-in and he had to come back by scooter to let us in. It ended up being a quaint and cozy small-scale operation which was right in the center of town. The town of Florence, speaking of which, was exactly what you might imagine an Italian city to be: tight streets, bustling crowds, fresh air, gelato. There was so much to do, from shopping in genuine Italian-leather markets, to climbing the duomo (basilica/church), to watching the sunset and riding bikes through the hills. It was perfect. Oh, and you can't forget the free wine for students at dinner.

Rome, too, was as cool as anything. We averaged about 13 miles a day walking, and saw pretty much everything you can see. The first day we knocked out just about the whole city, criss-crossing from famous-cool-old thing to old-cool-famous thing. We arrived around noon, had a small lunch, hit the Coliseum, site of the Circus Maximus, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Altare Della Patria, Spanish Steps (for the sunset, of course), and numerous churches and smaller things. There are literally so many historical things you get accustomed to seeing old buildings and taking them for granted. Day 1 in Rome complete. Day 2 we took a deeper dive into some things. Day 2 happened to be Easter Sunday, and we managed to squeeze into the Vatican City and attend the 10am mass with about 100,000 other people. I was not able to meet the Pope--maybe next time--but it was still an experience of a lifetime. For the afternoon and evening we reserved the Coliseum and Forum ruins, probably with the same 100,000 people. The Coliseum was huge and imposing, but the other ruins I think made a bigger impact on me. They are scattered over the entire city, with the most concentrated around the Forum and one of the 7 hills of the city. Circus Maximus (though only a portion "stands") supposedly held 250,000 people, which absolutely blows my mind. 2,000+ years of history stood before us in this open field of walkable ruin, and was bathed in a warm orange sunset that evening. Even after 2,000 years and being 99% crumbled, what they built is still impressive today. Day 3 was planned on being Pompeii and Naples, but the weather turned German and was rainy and gray all day. After a sub-par bus tour (don't take GLT tours), I appeased my classical roots and rode bikes on the Appian Way, a famous road that was depicted in a scene of Respighi's Pines of Rome (everyone should listen to this piece). It was used back in the Roman times and is still around today.

Wow this post was long, so I should end soon. I will remember this trip forever (just like I will every other trip here) for its beautiful history, pushy but kind people, warm weather, and good company. I learned that world is so much smaller than it seems, yet still so full of beauty.
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Posted by jbolt 12:05 Archived in Italy Tagged bikes the italy florence rome vatican coliseum milan alps forum boot easter Comments (0)

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