Friday, December 8, 2017

Thanksgiving in Copenhagen!

I was lucky enough to have my whole family come visit me in Copenhagen over Thanksgiving last month and, despite the very typical Danish weather, I had so much fun showing them around the city I've been calling home this semester. Click here to check out the video I made of our trip:

My Thanksgiving celebration actually started a few days before my family arrived, with a 'Friendsgiving' dinner at my apartment! Each of us contributed a dish (I was in charge of the mashed potatoes - they got rave reviews) and we all talked about our family Thanksgiving traditions from home. It was a delicious meal, probably the best we've made all together, and such a fun way to kick off the holiday before everyone left for the break.

the friendsgiving spread...makes me hungry just looking at it! 
(almost) all of Henrik Ibsens Vej enjoying our feast
I met my family at the airport early on Wednesday morning. Usually I'm the one being greeted at the airport - not the other way around - so it was fun to see what it feels like from the other side of the gate! It was too early to check-in to our Airbnb so we headed to Coffee Industry for a little breakfast. Of course, Copenhagen greeted the fam with beautiful rainy gray skies. After a quick bite to eat, we took the metro to Islands Brygge and got settled into the apartment. Mom, Dad, and I picked up a few essentials at the grocery store while everyone else took a quick power nap before heading out into the city to explore. 

The first stop was to the Round Tower to get a good overview of the city. Even though it was a little foggy, it was still really cool to get an idea of what Copenhagen looks like from above. And we even popped into the church that's attached to the tower which I hadn't been in before and it was absolutely beautiful! Next, we walked through the Christmas markets around Stroget, the main shopping street here in Cope, before heading to Nyhavn. We walked all the way down the Christmas market along the canal to see the iconic colorful houses but, after exploring a little more, everyone was pretty tired from the time change so we headed back to the Airbnb for an early night in.

gloomy city views
one of many Christmas markets in the city center 
they have some pretty majestic market decor around here
The next day, we headed back towards Nyhavn to take some pretty iconic family selfies and to test out the famous trampolines along the water. It was all fun and games until I got a little too ahead of myself and completely wiped out on the last trampoline - both my ego and hip bone got a little battered ;) Next, we headed across the bridge to one of my favorite places to eat in the city: Paper Island. Everyone got something different to try and we topped off the meal with crème brûlée donuts, a dessert I've been dying to try for the past few months. So good. And, as we were leaving lunch, the sun actually started to shine, which was a welcome change from the usual late-November gloom.

Nyhavn at Christmas!
the lovely parents :)
the first of many family selfies
these things are too much fun
After lunch we walked over to Christiania so I could show everyone the alternative hippie community side of the city. It's definitely unlike any other place I've ever seen before. I think this article sums it up pretty well if you want to learn more. We also walked by the tower at Church of Our Saviour, and checked out the interior which was stunning. The organ they have there is ginormous! Every church in Europe just exemplifies how old all of the cities are - some of the churches here date back to the 1400s which absolutely blows my mind.

the tower at Church of Our Saviour
We walked back towards the city center, for the much anticipated visit to Tivoli! This amusement park is located right in the middle of Copenhagen. It is the second oldest amusement park in the world, opening in 1843. and rumor has it that Walt Disney even based Disney World off of Tivoli. The park is known for going all out for the holidays, and the Christmas season that is currently going on is no exception. (Side Note: Since the Europeans don't celebrate Thanksgiving, they go straight into the Christmas season after Halloween. That means I've pretty much been seeing Christmas decorations everywhere since the beginning of November, and our family Thanksgiving celebration certainly had more of a holiday twist. But, with Christmas as my favorite holiday, I really can't complain!) I had only been to Tivoli once before, actually just a few days before I went with the fam, because my Danish class took a field trip there to see the Christmas Cabaret. But this time it was actually still light out so I got to see the whole park much better! We walked all around, through the Christmas market stores, and even rode one of the roller coasters! It's such a magical place, and definitely a must-see if you ever come to Copenhagen.

the entrance to Tivoli at Christmas
winter wonderland style
saw this giant Christmas tree and a full on photo shoot ensued
coming to a Christmas card near you
loved this shot
a whimsical oasis in the center of the city 
nighttime views like this are hard to beat
After Tivoli, we headed back to Paper Island to check out the Contemporary Art museum located right next to the food market. Since the whole Island complex is shutting down at the end of this year *sobs* they were having a farewell open house at the museum with free admission to all of the exhibits. We all got to try out the Virtual Reality headsets they have, which was equally weird and cool at the same time. But mostly weird. After our jam-packed day, we went back to the apartment for a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner! Not your average holiday meal, but no one was really up to making a huge feast. Besides, Thanksgiving is all about spending time with family anyway and we sure ticked that box!

Thanksgiving, the Copenhagen way
The next day began with a visit to Rosenberg Castle! I had been here earlier in the semester, but I had only walked around the castle grounds. This time, we actually took a tour of the castle and got to see the crown jewels! The inside of the castle itself had so many ornate decorations, fancy clocks, and obscure objects from back in the 1600s. One of the coolest rooms was off the side of the ballroom, and was where the royal family kept their china and glass collections locked away. To see the crown jewels, we walked down into a dungeon-esque area below the castle that's still guarded round-the-clock by the Danish military (reminded everyone of Tower of London). The collection was absolutely beautiful - and definitely gave me some inspiration for my Christmas list..kidding..sort of.

quite the desk!
the castle was filled with such beautiful artwork and furniture
the throne!
one of many insanely ornate crowns 
seems like they might have a few to spare!
Rosenberg in all its glory
For lunch we walked over to the Glass Market, another favorite of mine. This market definitely gives more Reading Terminal vibes than Paper Island, as it has actual market stands mixed in with restaurants. Meghan and I shared the seasonal risotto from Grød, a delicious parmesan pasta topped with kale and apples. It was pretty life changing actually - I'm pretty sure Meghan is still talking about how good it was. Afterwards, we went to tour the Carlsberg Brewery! While quite different than the Guinness experience, it was fun to learn more about how the brewery has been around practically as long as the city of Copenhagen has. Highlights included the stable full of Carlsberg horses, the bottle collection room, and the complimentary beer tasting, of course. Since I don't live too far from the brewery complex, we walked over to my apartment afterwards so everyone could see my home for the semester.

pro tip: you can trade your souvenir pin in for another beer  
over 22,000 unopened bottles of beer!
The next day, we decided to hop over to Sweden for a bit to check out the Christmas markets in Malmö. And also just because it's cool to say that you visited another country for the morning. The city is only about a 45 minute train ride away and it's very similar to Copenhagen, but maybe a little quainter in my opinion. It was decorated so nicely for Christmas, and even though the markets were a little disappointing, it was still fun to walk around and see something different for a change. We got muffins from a delicious bakery before walking over to the Malmö Castle. There was also a random Dutch windmill on the castle grounds that we got to explore. Four hours was just the right amount of time to explore the little city so around lunchtime we headed back to Cope. 

one of the main squares decked out for Christmas
more Christmas in Malmö 
definitely reminds me of Cope 
so many cute stores and boutiques! 
the Malmö Castle
not quite sure what this was doing in Sweden!
Next on our tourist bucket list was the iconic Little Mermaid statue on the harbor. This statue was gifted to the city by Carlsberg brewer, Carl Jacobsen, in 1913. It is based off of the Little Mermaid fairy tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. I feel like everyone has a big idea of what this statue is supposed to be, seeing as it is supposedly one of the major landmarks in Copenhagen, but it's actually quite small and a little (dare I say) disappointing. However, I feel like I would be a failure if I spent four months in this country without at least paying her a short visit. Afterwards, we ate our way back through the Kongens Nytorv Christmas market, trying everything from mini pancakes to traditional German sausages, before heading back to the Airbnb for the night.

there she is!
for such a little mermaid she does draw a pretty big crowd 
one of the nicest hotels in the city transforms into an Advent calendar at Christmas time 
delicious mini pancakes
On Sunday, we visited Maddie's host family for brunch! Heidi (Maddie's host mom) did not disappoint, serving up her delicious bread rolls, crepes, and traditional danish pastries. I'm definitely going to miss her delicious home cooked meals. After we ate, we walked up a big hill by their house and got a really good view of their entire neighborhood. It was so fun for everyone to meet and it ended up being a highlight of the trip for my whole family. The rest of the afternoon was spent finishing up some last minute shopping in the city center and cleaning and packing up the Airbnb. We found a traditional Danish restaurant for dinner and reminisced about the trip over frikadeller and flæskesteg. 

Denmark meets America
the whole gang :) definitely a peak of the trip
It was so nice to have my family here for a few days and play 'tour guide' for my staycation Thanksgiving break. While I'm sad to see this semester come to a close, I can't wait to see them (and all the rest of my family) in less than two weeks! The only thing standing between me and my final adventure - a week in London and Austria - is my Danish exam on Saturday. Wish me luck and let the countdown begin...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Adventures in Iceland

This past weekend I took my long-awaited trip to Iceland and *spoiler alert* it absolutely exceeded expectations. Hands down coolest place I've been in my life (so far!). Click here to watch the video I made of the trip:

Four of my friends from Villanova and I had literally been planning this trip for two months, so by the time classes ended on Thursday we were so excited and ready to begin our adventure! We had one goal in mind for the weekend and that was to see the Northern Lights. Kind of a funny story - as we flew into Reykjavik two of the girls got to see them from their plane window! They came off the plane talking about how crazy awesome it was (one of them even cried!) and were asking everyone else what we thought. Too bad the rest of us were in middle seats on the other side of the plane and we couldn't see them! It only made us even more determined to see them before the weekend was over.

We picked up our rental car from the airport and (after scraping about six inches of snow off of it) headed to our Airbnb. The next morning we walked outside to a beautiful winter wonderland - none of us had seen snow in a while! We headed into town to pick up some groceries and then went back to our apartment to make pancakes for breakfast. After re-bundling up we went back into the city to explore.

the view from outside our apartment
First stop was to Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest buildings in the country! We walked around inside the church for a while and then took the elevator to the lookout at the top. You could see all of Reykjavik from the observation deck and with the snow coming down it looked like we were inside a snow globe. After heading back down to ground level, we had a tiny snowball fight before checking out the shops in town. Reykjavik reminded me of what a ski town would look like - there were lots of cute boutiques and cafes in a rustic wintry style - it was so quaint and cute!

first of many group selfies
inside the church
view from the top!
we found a beautiful snowy path
One of my friends had found a lake about thirty minutes outside of the city so we decided to head over there next. It was amazing that after about twenty minutes in the car the landscape was so different. It went from city to mountains and fields of snow almost instantly! Just being in the car and seeing such dramatic scenery was one of my favorite parts about the trip. When we were about ten minutes away from the lake the paved roads turned into snow packed gravel and we got to the base of a huge hill with a icy windy road. Unsure that our little Toyota would make it up, we decided to wait it out at the bottom and see if any other cars were coming down. We flagged down a van that came down and asked the driver if he thought we would make it up the mountain. He first asked us if we had snow spikes on our tires (we didn't) then told us we would probably be ok if we "put the car in first gear and really slowly pressed the brake" (our car was automatic). We decided it was better to be safe than sorry and abandoned the idea of going to the lake all together. Instead we hopped out of the car and took a few pictures in the snowy field. Still such a cool sight!

snowy selfie
laughing at how cold we were
just a casual barren snow field 20 minutes outside the city
Then we drove back into the city for a late lunch and a little more shopping before heading back to the apartment to freshen up before dinner. We met up with some other DIS students at a Mexican restaurant (of course) for some delicious burritos and then it was time for the most anticipated event: our Northern Lights tour. My friend Rachel found a tour online that was a mini-bus of only sixteen people and it included hot chocolate and donuts so obviously it was a no-brainer. We were super worried all day that since it was cloudy and snowy we weren't going to see them but everyone had their fingers crossed for a good show! Our tour guide and driver was hilarious - he taught us the "elf dance" and accompanying chant that allegedly get the lights to appear. We drove to the middle of nowhere (literally no one knew where we were) and set off to hunt for the lights. For the first two hours we only saw faint lines in the sky. They would come up really clearly on a camera but you couldn't really see them with your eyes. It was bitter cold (pretty sure my toes were going to fall off at one point) and everyone was feeling a little disappointed that we weren't going to see the lights like you imagine them to be (super bright and dancing in the sky). We got back on the bus and were headed back towards the city when all of the sudden there they were. Our driver quickly pulled over onto the side of the road and we all ran out of the bus to watch. Its so hard to describe what it felt like and what it looked like - everyone was awestruck and just fixated on the show in the sky. The lights were actually dancing across the horizon and were lighting up in shades of green and pink. It was absolutely incredible and an experience I will never forget. Pictures don't do it justice, but thankfully I was able to get these from a photographer who was on the tour with us!

captured this one on my phone

We got back to our apartment around 1am and all immediately crashed into bed. We got up pretty early the next morning (even though the sun doesn't rise in Iceland until about 9:45 this time of year) and packed a bunch of snacks and sandwiches for our drive around the Golden Circle. This is a route that takes you through some of the most amazing sights in central Iceland, showing the highlights of different types of scenery the country has to offer. In our planning process for this trip we found this blog post which gave directions on where to go and what to see on this scenic drive. Having our own car really came in handy this day because we got to stop wherever we wanted for however long we wanted. 

Along the way, we made stops in Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur Geyser, Gullfoss Waterfall, Kerid Crater Lake, and Friðheimar (a random tomato greenhouse in the middle of no where). We saw a fissure between two tectonic plates, pet Icelandic horses, and skipped rocks across the icy water. Each stop was more stunning than the last and at times it felt like were on a different planet! One minute we were surrounded by huge snow covered mountains and the next minute we were driving through fields of lava rocks. It was crazy!! I think my favorite stop was the waterfall - there was a perfect rainbow right over the falls when we got there and the whole thing was just one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen. Apologies for the photo overload...

After about seven hours in the car we finally made it back to our apartment where we cooked pasta for dinner and watched 13 Going on 30. The next morning, we got up before the sun and drove to the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa that pretty much everyone who goes to Iceland visits. The water is about 90-100 degrees and full of minerals that are supposed to be really good for your skin. We got to do two different kinds of face masks and watch the sunrise while relaxing in the spa - it was a perfect way to unwind and end the weekend. We grabbed a bite to eat afterwards and then headed back to the airport to return our car and hop on our flight back to Copenhagen.

I know we only just barely scratched the surface of what Iceland has to offer. We all decided that you would need to spend at least two weeks there if you really wanted to see it all. I know I'll be back someday - maybe next time it will be a little warmer...summer vacation to Iceland anyone??