Vilnius wasn’t on my list, but it should be on yours.

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Vilnius wasn’t on my list, but it should be on yours.

At this point we’d been living in Europe for a year.  We’d done the usual countries, the expected cities, and seen the typical sights that one associates with Europe.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Eastern Europe is not to be missed, and the Baltic States should not be overlooked.  So, Lithuania was our next stop.  It was not a country I had ever planned on visiting, but I’d tasted most of Western Europe at this point so it was time to try the Baltics.  A few people asked us why we wanted to go there.  I’d simply respond, “Why not?”

One of the most convenient aspects of traveling to Lithuania was the currency exchange.  We found out quickly that we could get a lot for our money in this country which was refreshing since we’re used to traveling on strict budgets. Once we realized we could live like queens (only a slight exaggeration), we let loose on spending and tried to drink in as much of Lithuania as possible. We walked along Gedimino prospektas, the posh main street in Vilnius lined with restaurants and well-known shops, and ended at the Vilnius Cathedral. The clean white building situated next to the clock tower was the first cathedral I’d seen of its kind. The architecture in Vilnius is unique and in a league of its own. It’s simple but with sharp details that make it elegant. We stumbled upon church after church as we journeyed up and down Vilnius’s narrow, stone streets.  Many souvenirs were purchased on a street that has not changed since the foundation of Vilnius.  The buildings were in tones of warm colors and sandwiched together all housing small shops and restaurants.  I made my amber ring purchase, and we were both tempted by the hand knit sweater socks that kept begging us to buy them.  We passed Vilnius University, the oldest in Europe, on our way to the Uzupis neighborhood where we found beautiful graffiti and a brightly lit park as night was descending upon us.

After crossing a wooden bridge over the creek that led us to the park, we had a fun photo shoot with the memorial statues outside of St. Anne’s Church.  Since it was freezing, and we’d been walking the city for hours, it was time to immerse ourselves in some Lithuanian cuisine, and most importantly, beer.  After making use of the wifi at an English pub, we headed to Snekutis and didn’t hesitate to order way too much food.  Two pints of golden ale, a plate of smoked cheese, potato dumplings with meat, and two pancakes with cheese left us full and satisfied.  Not thinking we could handle any more food was our mindset until we found a mini tree cake, so of course we had to try it. Walking back to the center of town helped us digest the rich food we’d consumed so we stopped for more beers and witnessed some faithful Lithuanian football fans sing their national anthem in support of their team.  Wanting a change of atmosphere, we headed to La Boheme for a glass of red wine to end our day.  Just past the entryway of this cozy wine bar are mattresses to use as opposed to a table and chairs.  The restaurant was situated in an old building with stone interiors and was lit with candles.  A popular spot for locals, the wine bar was crowded but the atmosphere was cozy.  I always find it fascinating just sitting in a bar and sharing conversation while listening to the foreign languages being spoken around us.  I didn’t understand a word of what people were saying but being surrounded by languages other than English was the norm in my life. Our host for the weekend met us at La Boheme after we had finished our wine, and we headed north of the city to sleep for the night.

Trakai only being about an hour away from Vilnius made it a must-do day trip while we were in Lithuania.  We’d fallen for the pictures we’d seen of the castle online, so we had to experience it firsthand.  A quick train ride brought us to the tiny town on Lake Galve, and we made the cold walk from the station to the island castle.  Trakai is a simple little town with mostly houses and a few shops and restaurants.  A row of small houses colored yellow, red, green, and blue added to the town’s character and charm.  Of course the main attraction is the Castle at Trakai, the rustic orange, 15th century home to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  We crossed the long, wooden planked bridge and paid a small fee to go back to the Middle Ages and explore the castle’s rooms and courtyards.  Climbing steep staircases and dancing on drawbridges, we had a blast inside the castle walls.  We weren’t at all disappointed by the castle, but we were cold, so after walking in the steps of royalty and making friends with an old accordion player who played “America the Beautiful” for us, we lunched on warm, homemade soup and kibinai at a small restaurant owned by a Lithuanian couple.  The kibinai is a typical dumpling from Trakai, and it was perfection.

We finished our meal, bundled up and prepared ourselves to face the half hour walk in the cold back to the Trakai station.  Despite the weather, Lithuania was still a special place with lots of history, unique sights, and wonderful food.  Someday soon I’ll be back to see the rest of the Baltics, but I’m glad Lithuania made my list.

Dancing along the Danube

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Dancing along the Danube

Budapest has been dubbed the “Paris of Eastern Europe” and rightfully so.  Even though its overall layout reminded me of Prague, I did not feel as though I was in Eastern Europe aside from the Hungarian language I was seeing everywhere.  Budapest is a very pristine and beautiful city with unique characteristics and above all, rejuvenating thermal baths.

Since we literally had one day and one night in Budapest, we wasted no time in exploring the Hungarian capital.  The metros in Budapest were old fashioned and reminded me of something one might find in a Wes Anderson movie. The seats were cushioned like sofas and the interiors were dimly lit.  We emerged from the underground and walked along the illuminated streets to our hostel.  Since the city is famous for its ruin pubs, we checked into our hostel appropriately named Carpe Nocetum which means “seize the night,” and that’s exactly what we did.  We freshened up and headed straight to the largest ruin pub in Budapest, Szimpla Kert.  The ancient ruins have been transformed into a lively pub with two floors, several bars, and colorful lights.  A more relaxing and laid back atmosphere was to be found upstairs while the downstairs enabled the crowded, noisy, but fun bar environment.  Ruin pubs definitely make for an authentic experience.  How often can you party in a building that’s centuries old?  We met several interesting people and then headed to Instant, another ruin pub but with a club feel.  Instant had several floors and rooms all playing different music.  Catering to all tastes while still providing that authentic experience, Instant was a fun atmosphere.

The next morning we started on our way to check off our Budapest to-do list.  With ruin pubs under our belts, we headed down Andrassy Street towards St. Stephen’s Basilica, passing the Opera House on the way.  We had some fun in Budapest with the many bronze statues scattered throughout the city.  The men of Budapest became the game we played since all the statues were male, and we snapped a selfie with each one we found.  My favorite was the chubby soldier situated outside of St. Stephen’s.  We admired the basilica and headed quickly to the famous Chain Bridge.  A mix of old and new architecture, the bridge crosses the Danube which for some odd reason is my favorite river.  Maybe it’s the name or maybe it’s the fact that it’s the longest river in Europe, but I love the Danube.  Admiring the view of the castle atop the hill, we jumped and danced along the bridge making great use of the new GoPro.  The trek to the top rewarded us with trees boasting their fall colors and we took a moment to play with the leaves and harass a poor Hungarian guard at his post.  Incredible views were visible from all sides of the hill, and we took some daring photos on the walls of Fisherman’s Bastion.  The Gothic Hungarian Parliament building serves as the iconic image for Budapest and we made sure to capture all it’s glory and majesty in our minds and on our cameras.

We descended the hill and walked back across the bridge to the city center.  It was time for the final item on our Budapest list: the thermal baths.  Nestled past Heroes’s Square in the City Park, the Szechenyi Baths provide the indoor and outdoor thermal bath experience.  Since the sun had set and Budapest was now illuminated, Heroes’s Square was at its best with the glowing lights making the structures shine across the plaza.  The night was a dark shade of blue and the contrast of the sky with the square created a beautiful union.  Crossing the square, we entered the park and quickly came upon the Neo-Gothic building that houses the largest thermal bath complex in Europe. We changed into our suits and wandered aimlessly through the locker room before we finally felt the humidity of the indoor thermal pools.  We opted to venture outside into the cold and briskly walked across the concrete pool area to slowly descend into the warm waters filled with locals and tourists alike.  The outside temperature was an afterthought as we sat warm and content in the baths.  The steam from the water clouded the air.  Some men next to us played a game of chess on a board carved into the stone wall of the pool. Younger crowds chatted amongst themselves while children splashed around in the water as their parents chased them through the scattered people.  The thermal baths were calming and relaxing.  As a normal part of the Budapest lifestyle, the baths provide an escape from everyday life for the Hungarian people.

After about an hour of rejuvenation, we headed to the Oktogon Bistro, an all-you-can-eat buffet at an affordable price.  We sampled some rich Hungarian food and took full advantage of the all-you-can-eat concept.  Completely full yet satisfied, we checked out of our hostel and headed back toward the Danube to take in one last scene before heading to the airport.

Heroes’s Square gave a nice preview for the beauty of Budapest at night.  Seeing the Chain Bridge cloaked in glowing gold and the Budapest Castle as a lighted beacon atop the hill gave us a majestic nighttime view of this incredible city.  We walked to the middle of the bridge to appreciate the illuminated parliament building.  No photos could ever to that scene justice, and it added to the magic of Budapest.

We said goodbye to the Hungarian capital and headed to the airport where we would sleep and board a plane at 6:30am.  Budapest was one of those trips that allowed us to have some out-of-the-ordinary experiences which made the city even more special and memorable to us than any other.

Discovering Geneva’s Natural Beauty…and its Chocolate.

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Discovering Geneva’s Natural Beauty…and its Chocolate.

Known to the world as the neutral nation, Switzerland’s natural beauty captivates and inspires its residents and visitors.  When combining breathtaking views of Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva with a handful of Lindt chocolate, Geneva creates a picturesque experience that can leave you speechless.

Our weekend in Switzerland was quick but satisfying in more ways than one.  With a host turned friend who showed us the city and introduced us to classic Swiss dishes, we discovered Geneva quickly but thoroughly.  Following the stone pathways up and down through the city center, we happened upon spots that even our host hadn’t discovered. The serene park which holds the Reformation Wall made for a perfect autumn setting as the leaves were beginning their transitions from green to yellow and orange.  Before reaching Lake Geneva and the Jet d’Eau, we treated ourselves to some fine chocolates at Sweetzerland and made friends with the kind, elderly chocolate expert that was running the shop.  He thoroughly informed us of the many flavors to be tried in the sleek chocolaterie, and we walked away with smiles on our faces, already opening the truffles we had just purchased.  Eager to reach the blue waters of the lake, we paid a visit to St. Pierre Cathedral and the Maison Tavel, which provided us with historical information on Geneva.  It was also free which increased its appeal.

Before reaching the water’s edge, we seized the opportunity for GoPro selfies with the colorful L’horloge fleurie, or flower clock.  Shades of red, orange and yellow flowers created a clock face in the English Garden accurately representing the Swiss accomplishments in watchmaking.  After admiring the flowered masterpiece, we stared in awe at the brilliant Jet d’Eau whose water looked as though it was reaching the same heights as Mont Blanc in the background.  It’s difficult to describe natural settings since no words ever fully encapsulate the views I’ve been fortunate enough to see.  Although Geneva is a more international city, the lake, the fountain, and the mountains gave me the a good taste of Switzerland’s nature.

We walked along a bridge over the lake and indulged ourselves with some creamy, smooth ice cream before journeying to the Palais des Nations.  It’s front lawn lined with the flags of countries who are part of the UN and the fountain spectacle accompanied by the Broken Chair sculpture, makes the Palace of Nations is pretty inspiring.  Seeing the place where people unite to try and better our world was rewarding and fulfilling.  And capturing photos of the fountains rhythmically releasing their streams as the sun set gave the palace even more prestige.  The Broken Chair by Daniel Berset reminds those who visit of the essential ideals of peace.

Our trip to Geneva was made even more special by the fact that we were able to meet intelligent young women who study translation at the university. Rather than breaking the bank on a night out, we spent the night at our host’s apartment with her friends from school.  Some Swiss and some French, all of the girls were eager to get to know us and share conversation.  With some Swiss wine, Swiss chocolate, and Swiss cheese which was elegantly displayed in a bowl thanks to a Girolle cheese scraper which made the slices look like a bouquet of flowers, we shared some laughs with our new foreign friends.

The next day our host had something special planned for us.  We headed off the beaten path to a place that tourists have no familiarity.  We walked along the river through a forest and again embraced Geneva’s natural beauty.  The grand finale of or Geneva trip was to be found at great heights.  Our host led us up to a bridge that overlooked two rivers meeting.  One river was an electrifying blue while the other was brown and muddy.  Like oil and water, the rivers met but did not mix.  They created a beautiful picture despite being completely opposite in appearance.  This interesting combination was made even more enchanting by the Jet d’Eau and mountains that could be seen in the distance.  It was truly a special sight to see and a view to forever remember.

We ate our weight in chocolate and felt the cool breeze from the lake.  We admired the mountains and embraced the place where peace is priority.  Geneva is a breath of fresh air and a city not to be missed.

La Ville Rose

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La Ville Rose

Having only seen Paris, seizing the opportunity to experience another city in France was made even more essential by the fact that Megabus was selling round-trip tickets to Toulouse for a mere 10€.  Needless to say we were on board and ready to discover Toulouse.  Plus, how often can we say, “Oh we’re just going to France for the weekend”?

Known as La Ville Rose, or “The Pink City,” Toulouse showed us a contrast to Paris.  Its compact size and more rustic architecture encompasses a style that is truly French.  As we strolled through the city on our way to Cathedrale Saint-Etienne, the pink tones of the brick surrounded us with every step.  Some buildings were painted lighter colors such as blue or green and were complimented by brown shutters and doors.  One characteristic of Toulouse that I couldn’t get enough of were the balconies.  All iron, some black and some grey, every balcony boasted beautiful and elaborate designs that added to the charm of the city.  These balconies could be seen on the more modern structures especially in the posh Carmes area.  The more antique sections of Toulouse contained structures that were reminiscent of a small French village.  La Place du Capitole in the center of the city proudly displays the city’s capital building comprised of rose colored bricks with white stone borders outlining its windows and topping its roof with intricate ornamentation.  The iron lampposts that surround the plaza add to the elegance of the city’s main square.  It’s one of the more beautiful plazas I’ve seen in Europe and hard not to stop and stare at while passing through.

A priority of ours whilst being back in France was to be as French as possible by eating baguettes and cheese accompanied with bottles of red wine.  After passing through La Place du Capitole, touring the cathedral, and losing ourselves in Toulouse’s avenues, we popped into a store for a bottle of Bordeaux wine, cheese, and warm baguettes.  We followed a path to the river and along the Garonne with a view of Pont Neuf and Hotel deu Saint-Jacques on the opposite bank, we shared our French delicacies and basked in the sun, topping off our glasses until the Bordeaux was gone.  A snack so simple as bread and cheese is only really appreciated when visiting France.  Because if it’s not a French baguette with French cheese then it’s not as satisfying.  A man playing a French melody on the accordion only added to our French fantasy as we ascended the steps from the riverbank and made our way to another store to buy more wine.  A new bottle in hand, we headed further down the river to finish the refreshing rose we had decided to purchase.  After enjoying yet another bottle and baguette, we decided it was time to find a pub.  English and Irish pubs are always comforting no matter the city, and they never fail us.  Being given the happy hour prices before happy hour and a slice of a whoopie pie only made us love Toulouse even more.  We downed our pints and headed back to the river just in time for the sunset.  The beautiful hues of orange, pink, and yellow peaked through the grays and blues of the cloudy sky.  The reflection of the colorful display in the river made for an incredibly picturesque scene.

Night had fallen so it was time to experience Toulouse under darkness.  We stopped for macarons (always a must in France) on the way to our home for the weekend and shared yet more wine with our hosts on the rooftop terrace overlooking the city and its twinkling lights.  We made many new French friends during our night out.  Some attempted to teach us a few phrases but French did not get any easier even after all the wine we had  consumed. One young man tried so desperately to teach me a thing or two as his English wasn’t strong, but we all know the easiest French to speak doesn’t involve words, and we’ll leave it at that.

The sun greeted us warmly the next day and we went to explore the Musee des Augustins which is an art museum housed in an old convent.  I love when the museums add to the authentic experience of appreciating the artwork they hold.  This museum had a lovely garden and its brick exterior kept true to the city’s character.  I’m no art expert even after the countless art museums I’ve visited, but being able to personally see paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Toulouse was pretty special.  Since books are my passion, I made sure to purchase a copy of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery who was born in La Ville Rose.

We followed Rue de Metz to the river after the museum and walked along a tree-covered path overlooking the bank.  After some photos and one last look at Pont Neuf and the River Garonne, we headed back toward La Place du Captiole.  We lunched in the square then headed to the station, but not without first stopping to appreciate Canal du Midi with its tree-lined banks and boats docked along the sides of the canal.

Toulouse was a great getaway, and we left satisfied with the fact that we got to experience France once again.  We all lived a little French fairy tale in La Ville Rose.

Once Upon a Time at Oktoberfest

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Once Upon a Time at Oktoberfest

Once upon a time, there were three young women hailing from the Land of the Free who decided to venture to a faraway land known as Bavaria in the realm of Germany.  The Bavarian kingdom of Munich was known for its golden nectar that flowed endlessly from its barrels and was served in magnificent chalices.  To celebrate this longstanding tradition of enjoying the magical elixir in the company of friends and strangers, the people of this kingdom decided to establish a yearly festival for its citizens and eager travelers from distant lands who wanted nothing more than to be lost in the euphoria of the celebrations.  And so began, Oktoberfest.

Upon arriving in the foreign land, the girls decided to first explore the city whose festival enticed them to visit.  A short stroll through the enchanted forest known as the Englischer Garten allowed the trio to witness firsthand some commoners riskily surfing in the small river.  Concerned yet entranced by this spectacle, the girls continued their journey to the center of Munich.  They stopped to admire the Residenz Palace and photograph the lovely greenery of the Hofgarten.  Feeling eager to reach the main square, the girls followed the stone streets past buildings boasting Bavarian designs and architecture fitting to the fairy tale they were living.  They could see the pointed tower of the Marienplatz standing erect over the small buildings and taverns and followed that beacon to find crowds of people gazing at the magnificent structure.  After a few photographs, the girls were feeling parched and quite famished.  They decided to navigate their way to a place of legend. A place they’d only ever heard about from fellow travelers.  A place so well-known, that their homeland established an identical chain for all to have a taste of German traditions.  The girls dodged carriages, pushed past peasants, and wound their way through narrow streets until they found the beer hall with its famous name in golden letters mounted on its facade: Hofbräuhaus.

Waves of exhilaration rushed through each of them as they entered the glass doors and found themselves faced with hand-painted ceilings depicting whimsical scenes and wooden tables and benches full of people from lands both near and far all drinking the golden nectar in their mighty beer steins.  Men and women were dressed in Leiderhosen and Drindls, the traditional garments of the Oktoberfest.  The beer maidens walked up and down each aisle taking food and drink orders from the boisterous patrons.  Some maidens carried crates full of giant salted pretzels, one of which the girls shared to satisfy their hunger.  Beer in hand and a table secured, the girls embraced the lively atmosphere of the Hofbräuhaus and shared their table with a couple of Russians and some native Germans.  Despite not even being at the official grounds of the Oktoberfest, a multicultural experience was still to be had at the spectacular beer hall.  One drink turned into two, and two turned to three, and before the girls knew it, three had turned into four plus a dinner paid for by desperate Italians vying for their attention.  Completely oblivious to the fact that they had spent 6 hours in the beer hall, the clock had yet to strike midnight, but the girls were exhausted from their full day and decided to head to their lodgings for a proper night’s rest before partaking in the Oktoberfest.

Rising before the sun, the girls eager and excited, rushed to ready themselves for the spectacle of which they had been dreaming.  By 8 o’clock they found themselves facing an archway with the words, “Willkommen Zum Oktoberfest,” written boldly in blue inviting them to the grounds. Passing tent after tent with wide smiles plastered on their faces, the girls made their way to a tent with a familiar name.  The Hofbräuhaus tent offered the same atmosphere as the beer hall, but on a greater level.  The colossal tent housed thousands of people cheering, “Ein Prosit!” and having their fill of cold beer and doughy pretzels.  Crowds cheered for and encouraged brave individuals who dared to complete the task of finishing their liter of beer in one sitting and many were dancing on their benches singing chants.  It was here that the girls met some of their fellow countrymen who also couldn’t believe the atmosphere they were so fortunate to be a part of.  After a couple of hours, a beer, and two pretzels, the girls and their new friends made their way to a second tent known as Armbrustschützen.

Being later in the day, the patrons of this tent were far more rambunctious.  The girls and their new companions quickly ordered more refreshments and danced and yelled “Ein Prosit!” with travelers from Sweden, England, Italy, Mexico and countless other nations.  The euphoria of being in such a place gave the girls the spirit they needed to survive the Oktoberfest celebrations.  Stopping only briefly to indulge in roasted chicken and potato dumplings, the trio realized that time no longer existed.  In addition to time, they had lost track of the number of steins they’d conquered but continued to drink and make friends from foreign lands.

A table of some lucky Dutchmen had the honor of meeting the lovely girls.  They exchanged stories  of their lives and sang and danced to the songs of the band as they enjoyed one another’s company and gulped their Paulaner.  It was an experience that they wished could have lasted forever, but with day comes night, and their night was coming to an end.  The musical talents and the jubilant beer drinkers closed the evening singing in unison and finishing the last of their libations.  Sad to leave but happy for the experience, the girls said goodbye to Oktoberfest and the countless friends they’d shared their time with, embracing the fact that what they had just been a part of might be once in a lifetime.

As the girls walked home, they replayed the day in their heads, smiling at the many memories they would cherish for the rest of their lives.

They knew Oktoberfest in Munich would always be an adventure to remember.

A Small Spoonful of Little Luxembourg

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A Small Spoonful of Little Luxembourg

Luxembourg was never on my list of countries to see whilst in Europe, but after visiting Luxembourg City, it’s a destination I recommend to anyone looking for a place to escape the hustle and bustle of popular European cities.  There’s so much quintessential charm to appreciate in Luxembourg, and with people from all over the world occupying this small city, it’s one of the most unique in Europe.

We only had one day and one night in Luxembourg, but that gave us enough time to explore its history and appreciate its character. For its size, Luxembourg’s buildings and architecture make it a city that’s memorable.  There’s a blended mix of newer buildings reminiscent of what one would see in Paris, and it’s older structures such as the Grand Ducal Palace and the Cathedrale Notre-Dame.  I loved wandering through the streets of the city center and happening upon side streets lined with shops and homes all matching with their wrought iron balconies adorned with potted plants and flowers.  Luxembourg has a small-town charm, and I imagine the people there get to know one another on a more intimate level.  As one of the main attractions in Luxembourg, the Grand Ducal Palace is almost hidden past the Place d’Armes.  The home of the Duke is a beautiful structure and different than other palaces I’ve encountered during my travels.  However, one might argue that the best part of the palace is the Chocolate House directly across the way.

Established in the oldest house in Luxembourg, the Chocolate House, as you can probably guess, has some of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted. We indulged ourselves in some Bailey’s hot chocolate which was served to us with milk in a Chocolate House mug, and a block of chocolate on a wooden stick with two small tubes of Bailey’s Irish Cream for us to squeeze into our glass of chocolately heaven.  To top off the chocolate experience, we ordered an assortment of bonbons and a waffle drenched in melted milk chocolate. We probably could have sat in that small shop not only enjoying our tasty treats, but relaxing in its warm and cozy atmosphere.  It was very hard not to buy some desserts to take with us, but with Copenhagen as our next destination, we knew we’d be eating Danishes soon enough.

My favorite area of Luxembourg City is The Grund.  It’s located in a valley below the city center and surrounded by the old casemates that were part of a castle in early centuries.  Luxembourg was once a fortress, and the history is preserved in the Grund.  Walking through this area of Luxembourg felt like being on the set of a movie.  The Eglise de St. Jean-Baptiste is the dominant structure among the buildings in the Grund, and it’s surrounded by small restaurants, shops, and homes.  There’s a river that flows through the little town, and we followed the cobblestones over a bridge and into a cozy pub where we enjoyed some Luxembourgish and Belgian beers.

We ended our day by exploring the casemates and climbing the medieval walls to find the best views of the city and the Grund.  While looking out over Luxembourg, I felt very peaceful and serene.  Living there would be a quiet and relaxed life, but there would be so many opportunities to meet and live with people from all over the world.  For example, we stayed with an American guy and his Belgian girlfriend during our one night in town.  People move to Luxembourg for jobs, but I would definitely stay given the opportunity.  Life in a big city is always eventful, but there’s something special about the smaller cities that have so much character like little Luxembourg.

 

Milan: Are we still in Italy?

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Milan: Are we still in Italy?

You may have the universe if I may have Italy.

~Giuseppe Verdi

Milan being the final stop on our summer Italian excursion, I assumed it would be like the rest of Italy in the sense that walking through it’s streets would transport me back in time.  However, Milan is Italy’s modern city which fits its reputation as the fashion and business capital of the captivating country.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a stunning mall that houses the best Italian designer brands.  Walking through its incredible glass and gold interior, you can’t help but look up.  The ceiling’s windows let in light that reflects off of the marble and gold surfaces of the building, and mosaics adorn the spaces where the wall meets the ceiling.  The floor is covered in tiled designs, and it’s hard not to feel elegant and important walking through this mall that opens up into the Piazza del Duomo.

Milan’s Cathedral is an architectural wonder unlike any I’ve ever seen.  The white marble exterior has been chiseled into perfectly symmetrical Gothic designs.  The extravagance of this structure compliments Milan’s designer atmosphere and gives the city a staple attraction for all to admire.  By day, and especially by night when the Cathedral illuminates the piazza, the Duomo is a sight to be cherished.  We enjoyed our creamy gelato as we sat in the piazza and tried to take in every inch of the marble marvel.  The inside of the Duomo is just as stunning, with its stone walls and columns, Italian paintings, and delicate stained glass windows.  The windows were unique in that the grand apertures were comprised of hundreds of small pictures each depicting a scene or person from the Bible.  These cathedrals always amaze me, and there’s always a special aspect that makes each one stand out from the rest.

On the opposite side of Milan is the Castello Sforzesco.  We walked through its gates, past its courtyards, and admired the brick layout of the buildings.  What we found most appealing was the lovely park that spans the back of the castle and leads to the Arco della Pace.  We sat in the park taking in the last of the afternoon sun and enjoyed a few Peronis while admiring the arch and the castle to our right and left.  I’ve done more park sitting in Europe than I think I’ve ever done in my life, but it always gives me a moment to stop and reflect on where I am and what I’m doing.  I was in Milan, sipping Italian beer, in the presence of a castle.  Definitely not a typical day-to-day activity I get to partake in, which is why I embrace any opportunity to really enjoy these cities.

Our day in Milan was completed with a bottle of Italian wine and a hearty serving of pasta.  The sun had set so we headed back to the Piazza del Duomo to stand in the magnificence of the Cathedral.  The lights gave it a heavenly aura as it shone brightly among the darkened buildings that surround it.  I breathed it all in one last time and took as many mental pictures as possible of the spectacular sight.

A trip to Milan, and Italy in general, isn’t complete without a little Leonardo da Vinci.  The final stop on our Milan adventure was to stand in the presence of The Last Supper.  The revered fresco is painted on a wall inside the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent.  Since the painting has slowly begun to fade over the years, only a few people are allowed into its temperature controlled room at once and only for 15 minutes.  This alone was one of my top reasons for wanting to visit Milan, and I made sure not to miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity.  Our small group was shuffled into the convent and led to the room to marvel at one of da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces.  At first, 15 minutes sounded like plenty of time to stare at the fresco, but as our time winded down, I couldn’t help but want more.  For 15 minutes, I simply stood and looked up at the famous work.  The controversy that surrounds this painting is almost unparalleled and seeing it in person was incredible.  I was pleasantly surprised by how big it is since it spans the length of an entire wall.  There are some paintings which simply seeing a picture of them in a book will suffice, but The Last Supper can only be truly appreciated and understood in person.

The Last Supper was the perfect conclusion to the Italian trip.  Italy is easily one of my favorite countries, and I’m very fortunate that I was able to explore multiple regions of it while living in Europe.  I know I will return someday since owning a villa in Tuscany has become a new life priority, but until then I have the many photographs and unforgettable memories to recall my many adventures in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.