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??

Adventures in the Netherlands

After my weekend in Paris, I took a train with Jess and Bobbi to Maastricht, where they are studying this semester! We got in pretty late on Sunday night so we just unpacked and went to bed when we got there.

On Monday, we headed to the grocery store first thing in the morning to stock up on food for the week (pretty exciting stuff, I know!). After we cooked breakfast, Jess and I headed into town and she gave me a little tour of the city. Maastricht has two main squares surrounded by a ton of cute shops and restaurants. It was so cute and quaint and I could definitely tell why she loves it so much! We stopped into an old church that had been converted into a book store and coffee shop for a little snack before Jess had to head to class.

this bookstore/cafe was so unique!
a sunny day in the city, featuring my tour guide!
The university Jess and Bobbi go to operates on a quarter system so they were starting a whole new set of classes that week. I hung out in one of the school buildings and got some work done while they had their lectures. It just so happened that Villanova course registration for the Spring was going on while I was on my break so it was nice to have some down time to plan out my schedule (and I also edited my video from Paris!). When they got out of class, we headed back into town in pursuit of Halloween costumes! The university was hosting a Day of the Dead party that night so we got big flower crowns and masks for the occasion. And, after much deliberation, we decided on a rocker chick theme for our actual Halloween costumes, after being inspired by Rolling Stones tee shirts we found at H&M. Post-shopping we got delicious Belgian waffles at Pinky's, a waffle chain that you can find on almost every street in Maastricht (or so it seemed).

the food tour of Europe continues...
The next day was pretty much the same, but after class we watched It to get in the Halloween spirit. None of us particularly like scary movies so I'm not sure why we thought that was a great idea!! One of the university housing buildings set up a haunted house that night which was even more terrifying after seeing the movie just a few hours before. Wednesday was spent recovering from our Halloween festivities and exploring the other side of Maastricht, across the canal, where there are some nicer shops and restaurants. We got bagels at Jess' favorite bagel place followed by macarons for dessert.

unfortunately the stores on this side of the river were a bit out of our price range
After Jess and her friend Rachael got out of class on Thursday, we headed straight to the train station and hopped on a train to Amsterdam! Our Airbnb was a cute little family apartment located on the second floor of a building with some killer stairs - I swear they were almost vertical. We settled in and ordered burritos for dinner (I will literally take any chance for Mexican food I can get).

On Friday morning, Ashlee arrived and we headed to the city center for a breakfast of traditional Dutch pancakes. I had an epiphany moment during the meal when I realized that one of my favorite restaurants in London, My Old Dutch, served the same kind of crepe-like pancakes. Kind of makes sense when the word 'Dutch' is in the name but I never put two and two together. Afterwards, we walked around the canals for a while and popped into a few shops. That afternoon we went to the Museumplein, the park where all of the art museums - and the iconic I Amsterdam sign - are located. We had seen an ad for the Moco museum while we were walking around and decided to take a look. They had a super cool Banksy exhibit featuring some original work from the street artist and it was super cool!

I went for the banana nutella
the canals are so pretty!!!
I loved how different Banksy's artwork was from all the traditional art we saw in Paris
some words to live by
Amsterdam sign round one
Afterwards, we tried to go to a famous avocado restaurant that went viral on Facebook over the summer but the wait was way too long so we got dumplings instead - and Ashlee got to learn how to use chopsticks :) Next stop was the tulip market, a huge street full of tulip bulbs and flowers for sale. We thought there wouldn't be any flowers since it's not really tulip season, but surprisingly there were a few! And the entire ceiling was covered in hanging dried flowers which was beautiful - and they smelled amazing.

flowers as far as the eye could see
That evening Jess and I had booked tickets for the Anne Frank House. We were a little early for our time slot so we got to walk around the canals at night for a little bit which was so pretty. The actual tour consisted of an audio guide that read excerpts from Anne's diary and told the story of her life leading up to, during, and after her time living in the annex. We got to see the actual rooms her and her family lived in which was so surreal. The nazis took all the furniture when they raided the annex and the apartment is exactly how they left it. Anne and her sister's heights were marked on the wall and the actual magazine clippings they used to decorate the walls were still there. The mood throughout the whole exhibit was so somber. We talked for a while afterwards about how unbelievable it is that people were just going about their daily lives while this family lived for two years in hiding fearing for their lives. Definitely a heavy experience but I'm glad I got to experience that piece of history.

canals by night
Afterwards, Bobbi arrived from Maastricht and we met back up at the apartment for dinner. That night we took a walk through the Red Light District. It was a bizarre and slightly sad experience that left us feeling a little grimy. When in Amsterdam, I suppose!

The next morning we got a delicious brunch at The Corner Bakery before heading back to the Museumplein. We had planned on going to the Van Gogh museum, but unfortunately did not book tickets ahead of time. The wait was going to be two hours so we decided against it (but now I have a reason to go back!). We walked around the city some more before deciding to take a canal tour. It was really cool to see the city from water level and learn more about its history! That night we had a girls night in and got wine and a ton of snacks and talked about our week together. It was crazy to think that I had only met most of the girls I was with just a few days before. We're already planning a reunion in New York City this summer :)

a little fruit to balance out our all-pastry diet
Amsterdam sign round two - love this crew!!
Bright and early on Sunday morning, I said my sad goodbyes and headed to the airport to catch my flight back to Copenhagen. I couldn't have asked for a better week and I'm so happy I got to explore two new cities with my best friends. I couldn't be luckier.

Click here if you want to watch the video from my adventures in the Netherlands:

Monday, November 13, 2017

Adventures in Paris

Two weeks after my long study tour I had 9 days off to travel anywhere I wanted. I started off my free travel week by reuniting with my best friends in Paris and it was nothing short of magical! If you've been following along since the start of this blog you know that I visited Paris back in 2016 when I was studying abroad in London (click here for a little #tbt action). I loved my trip to Paris the first time around so I was super excited to go back to the city and see and do some things I hadn't done the first time around.

Maddie and I arrived in the city on Friday afternoon and headed straight to our rental apartment to meet our best friend from home, Jess, her friend from school Ashlee, and friend from her study abroad program Bobbi. We hadn't seen Jess since we all left home back in August so it was a happy reunion (and a few tears may or may not have been shed). After getting freshened up we headed straight to the Eiffel Tower! Bobbi and I had both been to Paris before but none of the other girls had, so seeing their reaction to such an iconic monument was so sweet. We took some photos in front of the tower before gathering some picnic supplies and eating dinner on the lawn in front of the tower. We stuck around to see the light show twice and even witnessed a couple get engaged!! I honestly don't think watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night could ever get old. After packing up our picnic, we finished the night with some crepes before heading back to the apartment.

the view from our apartment - so Parisian

it doesn't get better than this!!
the weekend crew
dinner of champions
my ideal picnic location
my mom said this belongs in the shanny alumni magazine ;)
We started out the next morning with croissants and a visit to the Arc de Triomphe. I had seen this monument the first time around but this time we actually climbed to the top! This actually ended up being one of my favorite parts of the trip - the view was absolutely beautiful and we got up before it got too crowded. The arch is situated in the center of a traffic circle where there's basically no rules, there's no lines in the pavement and everyone just gives each other room to merge in. It was crazy to see the cars and tour buses and even a few brave bikers zipping around without incident. After coming back down, we headed to the Ladurée on Champs-Élysées for macarons. To continue on our French food tour, we followed up dessert with croque-monsieurs for lunch. 

the best part about Paris is seeing the Eiffel Tower in the skyline almost everywhere you go
pretty sure they made this traffic median for the perfect photo op...
shoutout to Jess for playing photographer all weekend!!
we may or may not have eaten all of our macarons before the day was over
After lunch, Jess, Ashlee, and Maddie headed to the Louvre (spoiler alert: they thought the Mona Lisa was a let down) and Bobbi and I made our way over to the Musee L'Orangerie. This museum houses Monet's famous water lily paintings. These paintings span across two huge rooms and were so stunning to see in person. They way the museum is set up makes it feel like you're immersed in the paintings. I'm so glad we got to see it! We all met up at the D'Orsay afterwards to see Degas' ballerina paintings and Van Gogh's self portrait along with the iconic D'Orsay clock. The best part about all of this is that we got into the museums for free using our residence cards, since EU citizens under 26 get free admission (#studyabroadperks). After the museums, we walked along the love lock bridge, which had been moved to a new location since the last time I'd been there. 

I couldn't get over the sheer size of these paintings
the detail was incredible
one of my favorite museums in Paris!
Next stop was up to Montmartre, a huge hill and the location of Sacré-Cœur, The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. To get up to the top of the hill we had to climb so many steps (we ended up walking over 23,000 steps that day). We brought another picnic dinner and watched the sun set over the city. Everything was glowing pink and orange and it was so so beautiful. Coming back down the mountain was certainly easier than coming up! 

sunset over Paris
The next day, we grabbed breakfast at a cute cafe (croissants, of course) before heading to Angelina for their world famous hot chocolate. We had 'second breakfast' in the Tuileries Garden before heading to do some shopping at Galeries Lafayette. This huge department store was already all decorated for Christmas!! There was a huge Christmas tree set up in the middle of the store which seemed a little pre-mature but we were all super excited to see it. After a little retail therapy which I surprisingly did not purchase anything at :) we went to Palais Royal. This palace houses an outdoor art installation of black and white striped pillars. There were some daredevils attempting some interesting stunts on the taller pillars but we stuck to the ones closer to the ground for a few pictures. 

'tis (almost) the season
loved this shot!
We ended the weekend with baguette sandwiches before all parting ways back to our respective host countries (except I headed back to Maastricht with Jess and Bobbi). It was a weekend jam-packed with good food, lots of walking, and too many "I can't believe we're here together" best friend moments. Cheers to a wonderful weekend in the city of love with my loves! 

P.S. You can check out the video I made of our trip here: