passing through prague

The last city on the European leg of our journey was Prague. At this point we were starting to get weary of the winter weather in Europe and were looking forward to the warmth of southeastern Asia. And the lack of sleep was catching up to us. So we decided to take it easy, and just hit some of the main sites in Prague that were close by, spending most of our time at the old town square and Prague Castle.

waiting for the clock to chime

No trip to Prague would be complete without watching the Astronomic clock strike. Even though I’d seen it before it was still sorta mysterious and magical to watch it again.

view of the old town square from the clock tower

We decided to pick up a Prague card, which included a trip to the top of the clock tower. The view of the old town square is nice, especially since it was decked out for Christmas. It had a Christmas market similar to the ones in Vienna.

the charles bridge from our boat

We probably didn’t get our money’s worth on the Prague card, since we didn’t visit any museums and we didn’t ride the subway very much. But we did get to ride a boat underneath the Charles Bridge, which we probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.

spires

One of the things I love most about Prague is the architecture. There’s a ton of old buildings and towers with beautiful spires.

changing of the guard

Much of our sightseeing time in Prague was spent at the Prague Castle complex. We arrived just before the daily changing of the guard. I had staked out a spot outside of the gates to watch and take photos of the ceremonial changing.

musicians for the changing of the guard

But then I later found that it was actually more interesting to watch from inside the gates. Inside of the gates you can watch the band playing in the windows, and you can watch the officers performing their inspection of the soldiers.

waiting for the symphony concert

Inside of Lobkowicz Palace there’s a daily classical concert. The ensemble and performers apparently changes daily. We had a piano, flute, and violin perform a lot of classical pieces, some of which I recognized even with my extremely limited knowledge of classical music. I wasn’t sure on etiquette during these sorts of things so I didn’t take a picture during the performance, but in hindsight I wish I had since they were so talented.

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Even though it seemed like we didn’t spend too much time in the castle, we stayed until it started to get dark. During the golden hour the lights came on at St Vitus cathedral, and the tree in front of the cathedral was lit up as well, making for a much better nicer photo than the one I took earlier in the afternoon.

old town at night

By the time we reached the front of the castle it was getting pretty dark. The lights were starting to come on throughout the old town. Prague is a beautiful city, and the old town is even more beautiful at night.

The city of Prague holds a special place in my heart. Prague is the first city I had ever visited in Europe, and the similarly titled “Passage to Prague” is my first trip journal on this blog for an international destination. The train ride from Prague to Vienna during that trip was my first time riding the rails through Europe, and it was also my first experience traveling solo.

It’s been almost two years since that trip, and I’ve seen a little more of Europe since then. And it’s amazing to see how far I’ve come as a traveler– back then Prague and Vienna were the destinations, this time around Vienna and Prague were just stepping stones in a much longer journey. But even though I’ve become somewhat of a more seasoned traveler, it’s nice to see that places like Prague still have a bit of magic left in them.

vienna revisited

After spending a couple of days in Venice we hopped on a night train to Vienna. The sleeper bunks were all booked, so we ended up in second class seats for the eleven hour ride. It ended up being okay though, because we ended up in a train car that had separate little rooms for the second class seats, and we ended up being the only people in our room, with an entire row of seats for each of us, at least until we started to get close to Vienna.

As we reached the city outskirts the train began to fill up with people commuting to work. When we arrived at the train station in Vienna we hopped onto the crowded subway to get us to our AirBnb rental. The rental was owned by a nice Indian lady who worked as an IT consultant for the World Bank. It was pretty basic accommodations, and it smelled like curry, but it was fairly cheap and conveniently located near a subway station.

schnitzel

During our long train ride to Vienna I had messaged an Austrian friend who was from Vienna about where to get a good Wiener Schnitzel. I knew he wasn’t in town, since he was working on his PhD in the US. But his wife Eun-Young was in Vienna, so we met with her for schnitzels at Figlmüller, the famous restaurant in Vienna that’s been serving schnitzels for more than a century. The schnitzels there were huge and super filling, but surprisingly their mixed salad was pretty awesome too. I don’t think I’ve ever raved about a salad, but honestly I liked it so much I’d consider flying back for it.

vienna city center from the base of the alps. too bad it was kinda overcast.

Eun-Young showed us around town for a bit– she took us up to a coffee shop at the base of the Alps. There would’ve been a nice view of the city from there, except that it was pretty overcast that day.

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She also took us to some sites that are missed by most tourists. There’s an interesting horizontal clock that I missed last time I was in Vienna. She also took us to Vienna University, which had many famous alumni including Erwin Schrodinger whose famous wave equation I’m sure I learned about in physics class in college but now I have utterly no clue what the equation means.

the christmas market at city hall

We went to the Christmas market at Rathaus park. The park was packed with people looking at all the decorations and the booths filled with ornaments and foods.

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My favorite part of the Christmas market was the Weihnachtspunsch (Christmas punch) which was warm and fairly heavy with the alcohol, which made it go down even warmer and lifted the spirits. It was nice to walk around with a mug of the stuff admiring all the decorations.

more lights and more crowds in the shopping district

December seems like a great time to visit Vienna. Not only the Christmas markets, but the entire town seemed like it was decked out in Christmas lights and decorations. And even pretty late at night there were tons of people out. That’s another thing that I love about Vienna, it’s probably one of the safest cities in the world to be out at night.

christmas market at schonbrunn

We visited Schonbrunn palace. There was a Christmas market there too, though by now we were kinda done with the Christmas market thing. The tour of the palace was nice, the palace retained most of its original furnishings, so you were able to see what life was like inside the palace.

belveder gardensYou can’t see it in this picture, but Belvedere palace had a Christmas market too. (They’re basically everywhere.) But we weren’t there for the market, we were there to tour the art exhibits.

So this was actually my second time in Vienna, and even though I’ve been here twice now, I can honestly say I wouldn’t mind returning again. By now I’ve seen most of the palaces and museums in the city, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of the Christmas markets. So I guess there’s not much more to see from a tourist perspective, except maybe visit the famous symphony. But there’s something about Vienna (and Austria as a whole) that seems inviting and comforting to me. I think out of all the places I’ve been to in Europe so far, it would be the place that I could most see myself living.

venice

Out of the cities that we were visiting in Europe, Venice is the one that I was most looking forward to. It was also the city that I was most worried about our accommodations. We had rented a small apartment on AirBnb, but we didn’t have an address to the apartment. Our train arrived late at night, and we were supposed to meet on a bridge to get our keys to the apartment. Sounds pretty sketchy, right? To make things even more interesting, our host was actually unable, so we were supposed to meet the host’s friend on the bridge, but we didn’t actually have their contact information.

the area near our apartment in venice is desserted at night.

When we arrived near the bridge we found the area eerily deserted. I was actually quite surprised, because I thought Venice would be overrun with tourists. I took a picture from the bridge I thought we were supposed to meet at. It turned out that there were actually two bridges pretty close to each other, and we weren’t exactly sure which one we were supposed to meet at. Thankfully as we walked between the bridges we met our host’s friend.

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In the morning we got a better look at our apartment– it was actually a pretty charming little place. The back of the apartment actually opened directly into a canal. The neighborhood had few tourists, there seemed to be a fair number of students who lived in the neighborhood, which made sense because there was a college nearby.

gondolas

My first impression of Venice is that it’s a very beautiful city, and out of all the cities I’ve been to I’d have to say it has the most unique character. It has the same sort of old world character that most of the places I’ve been to Europe has, but it’s unique because everything centers on water.

UPS deliveries by boat

Even UPS delivers by boat in Venice.

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The gondolas are the famous way of traveling around the city, but we ended up not riding any. We traveled mostly on foot, though we rode the vaporettos (the ferry system) a fair amount too.

san marco square

Like most cities in Europe there’s a big public square. In Venice it’s San Marco Square.

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The square is famous for its pigeons, but they’re trying to crack down on tourists feeding pigeons. There are signs that say “Please don’t feed the pigeons,” but these Asian tourists apparently didn’t pay attention to them.

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The touristy areas are filled with little shops and various carts selling Venetian masks and various trinkets from Burano and Murano, the islands north of Venice.

ferry at murano island, which is known for its glass work

We spent a day taking the ferry to Murano and Burano. The island of Murano has various glass art displays throughout the island, including this one of ducks.

glass blowing

Murano is known for its glass artisans, they produce a lot of glassware using the technique of glass blowing. They’re also known for glass sculpture, which is used to produce statues and other artwork. We saw a quick demonstration of both techniques.

glass symphony orchestra

Throughout Murano (and throughout Venice as well) there are many shops that have miniature glass sculptures for sale. There’s everything from animals to inanimate objects like boats to even full orchestras made of glass.

burano, venice's colorful cousin

From Murano we took a ferry to Burano, which is Venice’s colorful sister island to the north. Unfortunately it was raining when we arrived, so the colors of the houses weren’t as vibrant as usual.

burano is known for its lace

Whereas Murano is known for its glass, Burano is famous for its lace. There were many lace shops on the island.

lace master at work

This lace shop even had a granny creating new pieces of lace. It seems like a time consuming process, which explains why everything was so expensive.

fish soup. good seafood in Burano.

Supposedly seafood’s pretty good on Burano, which makes sense because it’s an island. We had fish soup at one of the trattorias on the island. Maybe it was because I was cold and wet, but the soup really hit the spot. Well actually it was really good, probably among the best seafood soups I’ve ever had.

I was really looking forward to visiting Venice, and it didn’t disappoint. It definitely has its own character that’s very different from anyplace else I’ve visited. And it was nice visiting Murano and Burano, which had their own unique character as well. That being said, I don’t know if I’d ever come back to Venice– it’s one of those places to visit once, just to cross it off a bucket list. There’s not too much there that I’d need to see again.

mad tired in milan

The first international stop of our round the world trip was Milan. In truth I wasn’t really looking forward to Milan. There were other people who got our crazy flight deal that had to fly into Milan as well, but they decided they would skip touring the city and flew out the same day. Tim and I decided that we wouldn’t spend the night in Milan, but since our flight arrived early in the morning and our train would be leaving late in the evening, we had the entire day to explore the city. I’d been to Milan before, and I felt like I had already seen all there is to see there, so I thought I would be just seeing the same stuff over again.

they take christmas seriously here in milan

The main attraction in Milan is the Duomo, the big cathedral in the center of town. Like most big squares in most big Western cities during this part of the year it had a big Christmas tree, although this one was just getting setup.

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Even though I’ve seen the Duomo before, I was actually kinda looking forward to seeing it again because of a chance encounter at the airport in New York. We were sitting at the gate waiting for our flight to board when we saw two kids playing pretty rough. Tim, I guess because he has nephews and nieces that are pretty young, tried to scold the kid. The little girl stopped beating up on her brother, but then started hitting Tim and me. We were wondering where the parents were, when an older gentleman came over and told us to please be patient with the little girl, since she was being adopted from a rough orphanage in Serbia. We ended up talking with the nice old man for a bit, and found that he was originally from Milan, where we were headed. He said to look out for two things that are easily overlooked at the Duomo, one is the statue of Saint Bartholomew, the other was the calendar on the floor.

The statue was pretty easy to find based on his description. It was pretty unique looking because you could see Saint Bartholomew’s muscle definition pretty clearly, that’s because he was skinned alive and wears his skin draped over his shoulders. We walked all over the church looking for the calendar, eventually finding it near the entrance. It’s easily overlooked, and almost everybody walks right past it without noticing it. The calendar consists of a line with the zodiac symbols embedded along it. Apparently at noon each day a beam of light shines through the ceiling and a circle of light appears on the calendar. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it because we arrived after noon, and there was probably too much ambient light to see it anyways, since the door was open.

park in milan. forgot the name. nice foliage.

We went to Castello Sforzesco and took some pictures of the castle. I think we exited at a different side than I had last time, because I saw these park grounds for the first time. There were nice colors in the trees even though it’s pretty much the end of autumn.

santa maria della grazie. home of da vinci's last supper. it was closed.

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazia is the home of Leonardo’s famous Last Supper painting, which I missed out on last time I was in Milan because I didn’t buy tickets in advance. Alas I would miss out again because the church is closed on Mondays.

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There’s a small church near the Duomo that has walls decorated in bones. I missed this last time I was in Milan. It’s a bit morbid, but this picture kinda describes how I was feeling at that point of the trip. I felt pretty dead, since I wasn’t able to sleep much during our overnight flight from New York. I’m pretty bad at travel math, but Tim calculated that we would be up for 30 straight hours. I really wanted to take a nap here, since it was pretty quiet, but Tim had something against sleeping near the remains of so many dead people. So yeah. I was feeling pretty dead at this point, but there was a light up ahead, our train ride to Venice was just a few hours ahead. And after that there would be much rejoicing. Okay maybe not so much rejoicing, but there would be awesomeness after that train ride. It’s kind of like the picture– there’s death, but there’s a light at the end of that tunnel, then the heavens afterward…

aperitivo in milan.

The last time I was in Milan I discovered the aperitivo, which is basically the Milanese version of happy hour. I thought the whole concept of the aperitivo was pretty awesome– you buy a drink and they give you free food, unlike an American happy hour where the food is just discounted. So we walked around the area between the Duomo and the train station looking for a place that had aperitivos. After a while we couldn’t find one and sat down at a random deli feeling utterly defeated. We each ordered a slice of pizza or something, and ate dejectedly. At 6 o’clock a waiter came and brought over an aperitivo menu– so apparently we weren’t defeated, we were just early. So we each ordered a drink, and they brought over the aperitivos, which consisted of various breads and deli meats and olives. That’s something I need to keep in mind in case I ever find myself in Milan again– aperitivo starts at 6 (which is kinda confusing because that’s usually when happy hours usually end where I’m from…)

After our little semi happy hour (it’s hard to be truly happy when you’re utterly exhausted) we had a train ride to Venice. So it seems like a day in Milan was plenty more time than needed. I guess I’m being a bit harsh in my judgment of Milan– it’s not a bad city at all, there’s just not to much to see from a tourist’s perspective.

rome

From Milan I took the night train to Rome. I shared a two bunk room with three strangers, one German traveling solo (at least I think he was speaking German) and two Japanese guys. It wasn’t the most comfortable accommodations– the bed was pretty hard and narrow and the ride was bumpy and noisy, but with earplugs and an eye mask I was able to get some sleep. I woke up to the conductor tapping my shoulder. I probably would’ve slept through my stop if it wasn’t for him.

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Probably the most famous site in Rome is the Colosseum. It was amazing finally getting to see it in person.

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The Colosseum ticket included entrance to the Palatine hill and the Roman forum. I spent hours wandering around the ancient Roman ruins here.

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The Trevi fountain. It’s amazing. I don’t think there’s any way to take a picture that does this any justice. It just needs to be seen in person.

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The fountain was quite popular. This is supposed to be the low season in Rome, I’d hate to see what it’s like during the peak season.

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The Pantheon. Another crowded tourist site.

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On Saturday I went to the Vatican city. Despite the rain a crowd had gathered to hear the Pope speak. Apparently he was ordaining a new set of cardinals. Unfortunately that meant I couldn’t enter St Peter’s Basilica until after he was done.

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So from there I went to the Vatican museums. There were many incredible rooms, including the Sistine chapel. No photos were allowed in there, and the Swiss guard was pretty vigilant in stopping any would be photographers. The Rafael rooms were almost as amazing as the Sistine Chapel. Here photos were allowed.

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After the ordination ceremony was over Saint Peter’s square began to clear out (and thankfully the weather began to clear too), so I stood in the incredibly long line to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica.

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According to Wikipedia this is the tallest dome in the world. This is more subjective, but I’d say it’s probably one of the most beautiful in the world too.

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The view from the top of the dome is amazing.

When I look back at the last couple of weeks, I’m amazed at how far I’ve traveled. I’ve stayed in nine different cities in seven different countries. (Actually it’s ten cities in eight countries if you count the Vatican as a separate country– which I guess it technically is). I’ve traveled thousands of miles by train (thank goodness for high speed rail). I’ve seen many amazing sights and spent way too much money on food. It’s been an awesome journey and with this final stop in Rome it’s coming to an end. In some ways this trip has been too long– I miss the comforts of home and I miss friends and family. But in some ways it’s been too short– the more I travel the more I realize that there is so much more out there to see and experience.

milan

My train arrived in Milan late in the evening, around 10pm. I had booked a room from a couple on AirBnb. I was a bit worried that I was disturbing them arriving so late at night, but it turned out that it was the wife’s birthday, and they had gone out for dinner, and so the timing worked out pretty well. And I later found out that people tend to sleep late in Italy anyways, so arriving late was not a problem.

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My walk from the train station to the couple’s house made me a bit nervous. It was late at night, and it didn’t seem like I was walking through the nicest neighborhood. But I made it safely to their home without any problems. They were a very nice couple, taking a lot of time to get me situated and telling me about all the things to see in Milan and how to get there by subway.

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The most famous site in Milan is probably the Duomo, which is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. It was raining when I arrived, but that didn’t stop me from eating gelato.

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The view from the roof of the Duomo is quite impressive. There are dozens if not hundreds of spires with a statue of a saint on top of each. From the top of the Duomo you can see into downtown Milan.

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Another view of downtown from the top of the Duomo. Apparently Milan is the main financial center of Italy.

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Milan is also one of the fashion centers of the world, and apparently it was fashion week during the time I was there. There were various supermodel looking types walking around among the tourists, and there were various red carpets setup for the models to strut their stuff on.

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Next to the Duomo is a huge shopping center. Apparently Santa shops here in the off season. There were protesters hanging from the ceiling, protesting the Versace company’s environmental record. I guess the fire department was called in to figure out how to get the protesters down.

milan2Castello Sforezsco was recommended by my AirBnb host. The architecture of the castle is pretty cool.

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The castle houses several museums, most of them hold exhibitions from the middle ages. There are amazing tapestries and statues from that era, and the ceilings in most of the rooms are pretty amazing. One of the ceilings was being restored when I visited, apparently it was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci himself.

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There’s a fair amount of Da Vinci stuff in Milan, the most famous of which is his Last Supper painting. Unfortunately you need to reserve a ticket several months in advance to see it, or you need to pay an exorbitant amount of money to a private guide. That makes it tough for cheap people like me who are terrible at planning ahead. There were several other Da Vinci exhibits around town, one of which was a viewing of parts of his Codex Atlanticus. This was very cool, definitely one of the highlights of Milan for me.

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Another highlight of Milan was the Aperitivo, which is basically the Italian version of happy hour. It’s pretty awesome, you buy a drink and then you can pig out at the buffet. The drinks were pretty stiff, so at most I could handle two, so for a maximum of ten euros you can be quite happy and full.

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Near the place where I found my favorite happy hour spot (I went there twice in two days) there are some ruins from ancient Roman times.

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On my last day in Milan I went and did some stuff that was a little more off the beaten path. Since I didn’t have enough time to make it out to Venice on this trip, and so I’d be missing out on the famous canals, I decided to check out Milan’s canal district. The canals were in pretty bad shape, not much water and the shops were mostly run down. But I found a place that had pretty good and cheap pizza (which I guess isn’t actually that hard to find in Italy) so I was happy. I also checked out some of the local markets. These were setup on the street, and the vendors basically set up shop out of their vans. It was pretty amazing what could be sold out of these vans, because some people were even selling fresh meat and fish.

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This post started with a night shot, so I figure it would make sense to finish with a night shot. From my first impression of Milan, I didn’t really have very high expectations of my time in Milan. But I actually really enjoyed my time in this city, and I definitely wouldn’t mind returning someday.

short time in zurich

From Paris I took the TGV high speed train to Zurich. I didn’t really have anything in particular I wanted to see in Zurich per se, it just happened to be a good place to stop on my way towards Rome because both the French and Italian train lines connected in Zurich.

zurichThe Paris Gare De l’Est train station was huge, and incredibly crowded. I was tired of being on my feet, but couldn’t find a place to sit. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long to board. I was lucky enough to be riding first class on this trip (it was only 5 extra euros), so my seat was extra comfy and my trip came with a decent meal. After a couple of cups of wine I was quite relaxed.

I arrived in Zurich late at night, and checked into my hotel room at the Zurich Marriott. Zurich is shockingly expensive. The hotel room would’ve cost me $400, but luckily I had enough Marriott points to book the room using points. Since the hotel was pretty close to the train station, I left my bags with the hotel while I explored Zurich for half a day. The first thing I discovered is that food is also shockingly expensive. Even a meal at McDonalds is like the equivalent of $15.

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Another thing that I noticed pretty quickly is that the Swiss are quite proud of their timekeeping heritage. There was a clock tower visible almost everywhere I went. In fact at one point I could see three clock towers at once.

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I walked from the train station to the shore of Lake Zurich. I was hoping to get a picture of the Swiss Alps over the lake, but it was a bit cloudy and hazy so you could barely make out the famous mountain range in the distance.

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Even here on the shore of the lake there’s a clock.

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There were a ton of watch stores, so I went window shopping. On the left are various watches that I can’t afford: Omega, Rolex, Girard Perregaux, Piaget, there was even a Patek Philippe store. Tissot I could sorta afford, so I actually went into their store and looked around. Tissot makes a series of watches called T-Touch, which have a touch sensor on them. I was curious to see how they worked, so I asked a salesperson to demo it for me. Now I kinda want a T-Touch Expert watch, which has an altimeter, thermometer, and compass all controlled by touch. I’d get one, except they’re like a thousand bucks. A Casio Pathfinder has all those features except the touch control for closer to two hundred.

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The Beyer Chronometrie store had a clock museum in its basement. They had a number of interesting clocks, especially this amazing gravity powered clock.

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Other than the watch stuff there wasn’t all that much stuff that was interesting to me in Zurich. From most foreign cities I visit I buy a souvenir shot glass that has pictures of the towns’ famous tourist attractions. Zurich’s shot glass had this church on it, which to be honest wasn’t all that spectacular.

A little more than half a day in Zurich was plenty of time for me to see all that I wanted to see in town. If I had more time I’d probably venture out of the city into the mountains somewhere, but unfortunately I needed to fly home soon, so I took an evening train from Zurich to Milan.

paris museums

While in Paris I bought a museum pass that was good for four days. I ended up visiting a couple of museums each day, except for one day which I dedicated to the Louvre.

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The museum pass is kind of expensive, but it allows you to bypass the entrance lines. For me the price was worth it, just to bypass the line to get into the Louvre.

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The pass pays for your entrance fee, but you still need to pay extra if you want the audioguide. I normally don’t buy these sorts of things, but the Louvre’s audioguide is cool in that it uses a Nintendo 3DS. It has the normal features of an audioguide, such as audio commentary on artwork, but it has some very cool additional features like an interactive map, and proximity based commentary that a normal guide doesn’t have. Also it has suggested itineraries for you to visit the museum’s most famous pieces.paris-museums2The Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa are probably the most famous ladies in the Louvre. They were quite popular. It’s kinda sad that there are signs warning you to be wary of pickpockets.

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My favorite painting at the Louvre was the ‘Wedding Feast at Cana.’ It’s in the same room as the Mona Lisa, directly facing her. One of the interesting things about the Mona Lisa is that her eyes seem to follow you around the room. Jesus sits in the middle of the wedding feast painting, and his eyes also seem to follow you around the room. It’s like he’s ignoring the wedding party around him and peering directly into your soul… it’s sorta creepy actually…

Aside from the Louvre there were a couple of other very famous museums that did not disappoint. The Musee de l’Orangerie and Musee de Orsay were incredible. They didn’t allow pictures, and for once I didn’t try to sneak in any. They’re definitely worth a visit if you’re in Paris.

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The architectural museum is one that I probably wouldn’t have visited if I didn’t have the museum pass. It was pretty interesting though. They had scale models of many of the world’s famous cathedrals, with detailed descriptions of how they were built. They also had pieces that were taken from churches and cathedrals that show the intricate details that were carved into the stone and masonry.

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The museum pass also allowed entrance to some of the famous non-museum sites in Paris, such as the Arc De Triomph. The arch of the Arc De Triomph had amazing details carved into it as well.

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Another museum that I probably wouldn’t have visited if I didn’t have the pass was the Asian Art Museum. I did a quick walk through it, and was surprised that they had a few pieces of Korean pottery and furniture.

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The last museum I visited was the Cluny Museum, which is the museum of the middle ages. One of the highlights of this visit was the museum itself, which was actually built in the middle ages. The arches that held up the ceiling were amazing.

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The most famous artwork in the Cluny is probably the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries. There are six tapestries, one for each of the five senses, plus this sixth one labeled ‘Mon Seul Desir’ or ‘My Soul Desire.’

By the end of my time in Paris I was pretty tired and sore from walking through museums almost non stop. But I can say without hesitation that the time and money spent there was definitely worth it.

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Paris is a city that I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time. And so I decided that since I’m already in Europe, I figured that I should at least spend a few days in Paris, seeing the many famous sights and visiting the world famous museums that I’ve heard so much about. And so that is how I found myself alone on Valentine’s Day, supposedly the most romantic day of the year, in Paris, supposedly one of the most romantic cities in the world.

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My first stop in Paris was the Champs-Elysees. I arrived here first, because, well it was closest to the apartment I was staying at.

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The apartment (actually it was more like a tiny studio) was located in the Montmarte district of Paris. I chose it partly because it was cheap and partly because it was conveniently located not too far away from a subway station and near a grocery store, but mostly because the AirBnb host looked kinda cute. And she was cute, and quite friendly too, with a very cute French accent. Too bad she was heading out of town, spending the weekend with her boyfriend in the Netherlands. Ah well. As they say in French, ‘c’est la vie.’ That’s life. Now back to my story of exploring Paris solo.

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At the far end of the Champs-Elysee is the Arc de Triomph. It’s a lot larger in person than I thought it would be. It towers above you when you stand underneath it. When I was underneath it they had some sort of flag ceremony going on, and one of the guys holding the flags sorta looked like Bill Murray to me.

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The Eiffel Tower also was a lot bigger in person than I imagined it to be. From across the river it didn’t seem that big, but when I got closer to it I realized how massive it was.

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The Notre Dame Cathedral, on the other hand, was a bit smaller than I had imagined. I mean it’s a big cathedral, but it wasn’t the huge looming presence that I had imagined, perhaps because it’s not on top of a hill like some of the other large cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe.

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The view from the top of the cathedral was amazing. Even though the cathedral is not situated on top of a hill, the cathedral’s towers are quite high, and there’s a commanding view from the top. I think this was my favorite view of Paris, because from here you could see the Eiffel tower and a lot of the city’s beautiful old architecture.

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Paris is famous for museums, and of course I visited a good number of them. During my walks to various museums I ended up walking through many parks. This park (which unfortunately I can’t remember the name of) was one of my favorites. It felt surreal walking through this park, it felt like something out of a fantasy movie with unicorns and satyrs.

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The park near the Luxembourg Palace was another nice one, though less surreal feeling, probably because of the huge crowds.

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The catacombs underneath Paris was another place that left me with a surreal feeling. Well actually, maybe it was less a surreal feeling and more a creepy feeling.

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I know Paris is one of the culinary capitals of the world, but since I was traveling alone I didn’t eat at any nice bistros. I did try to eat stuff with French in the name, like French Onion soup or French Bread, and even had what we would call French Fries (it came with my order of beef tartare.) But for the most part I just ate sandwiches (with French bread) from a chain called Paul. There was a Paul store everywhere in Paris, even inside the Louvre. (Speaking of the Louvre, you probably noticed it’s conspicuously absent from this post. I’ll probably do a separate post for all the museums I visited in Paris.)

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Paris is known as one of the world’s most romantic cities, and despite flying solo though it, I rather enjoyed myself. Perhaps if I’m here again I’ll do the romantic things like stick a lock on the Lover’s Bridge and throw away the key, but for now I have the memories of a great time in a beautiful city.

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From Brussels Jack, Anna and Alexia flew back to California. My flight back home would be out of Rome, but not for almost another dozen days. I hadn’t planned my route to Rome, but I wanted to visit at least Paris and Zurich. Before heading out to Paris though, I decided on a whim to visit the city of Cologne in Germany. It ended up being a convenient side trip. It’s not too far away from Brussels, and it’s on the Thalys high speed rail system, which linked up Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, and Paris.

koln4I arrived at the Cologne train station completely famished. Almost immediately I spotted a hot dog stand, this one specialized in Currywurst. They take a sausage and slice it up and pour curry over it, and serve it with a piece of bread. I’ve never had curry and sausage before, but it was actually quite tasty.

kolnFrom the station you can see the Cologne Cathedral, which is apparently the most visited landmark in Germany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince it was raining, I decided to head to my hotel first so I could drop off my bags. I stayed at der Lowenbrau, a hotel and restaurant, although in my opinion it wasn’t that great as either. The main reason why I stayed there were convenience (it was a short walk to the train station) and price.

koln1My room was very tiny, and the bathroom was a separate room down the hallway, the size of a closet. In fact when I sat on the toilet my feet were in the shower. But it was cheap and comfortable enough.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe food at the restaurant downstairs was pretty decent. I ordered a schweinshaxe, which was a huge hunk of meat on bone, washed down with a huge glass of kolsch, the local beer in Cologne.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfterwards I sort of just wandered around town. My hotel was near the river. Cologne is apparently a very bike friendly town– despite the rain I saw tons of people biking.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Romisch-Germainisches Museum was located close to the cathedral. I stopped there for a while to get out of the rain.

koln2My favorite part of this museum was the various floor mosaics.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince it was raining most of the day I ended up buying a subway pass and spent a lot of the day wandering around on the subway and light rail system. I took the subway to the town gate and stopped briefly for a picture.

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Then I wandered around the shopping district. They had some nice camera stores, with a decent amount of used Pentax lenses, which are somewhat hard to find back home. At the camera store I saw a picture of the Cologne Cathedral with a bridge from the river, so I decided that I wanted to try to take that same picture.

IMGP5673But by the time it got dark, I started to get lazy, and so I decided I didn’t wanna cross the river. So instead I took a picture of the Cathedral with the Modern art museum in the foreground. It’s not as cool a picture, but I like it because it reminds me why I like Europe in general. It’s a mix of the old (construction of the Cathedral began in the 1200’s) with the new (the Cologne cathedral is near the very modern looking train station and modern art museum).