A Lovely Week in Sicily

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I just returned from a fabulous week in Sicily with some dear friends of ours and their adorable little girl.  I am officially on summer break and I couldn’t think of a better way to kick it off than a week of sunshine, beaches, Mediterranean villages, great food, wine, and good friends.

For such a little island, Sicily has a LOT to offer – easily two weeks’ worth of sightseeing.  We didn’t get to see everything, but we saw a lot of great highlights.

Taormina and La Riviera dei Ciclopi

Our first stop was  the little beach town of Taormina.  Though it is very crowded and full of tourists, it’s not hard to understand way.  Idyllic cliffs dotted with colorful Mediterranean houses tower over turquoise water.  We browsed the cute boutiques, had an incredibly picturesque picnic, and indulged in some delicious canoli.20180616_161640.jpg

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From Taormina, we moved on to La Riviera dei Ciclopi (The Riviera of the Cyclopes) where we enjoyed the views of the strange rock formations, enjoyed some cheap beers on the marina, and listened to a local band festival.

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Mount Etna

On our second day, we decided to head up to hike Mount Etna, an active volcano.  It was a little rainy, but stunning nonetheless; however, we had not expected it to be so cold. We all showed up in our shorts and t-shirts only to be met with wintry temperatures.  Still, the views were spectacular.  It reminded me a lot of our honeymoon in Iceland!

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Siricusa

Siracusa (Syracuse) is a lovely coastal town surrounded by ridiculously blue water, white marble architecture, and loads of sunshine.

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I pretty much went from freezing to sunburnt in the matter of a day!

Cefalu

Cefalu was a lot like Siricusa, but with more laid back beach vibes.  There was a ton of public beach space and the view from the sea was magnificent surrounded by cute houses and big, green mountains.  Drinking cheap summer shandy while floating in the water didn’t hurt either.

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This past school year was incredibly rough.  I’m so grateful to have spent such a wonderful time with my husband and good friends and to have started summer on a much more positive note.  Italy is ridiculously good.

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A Quick Break in Kosovo

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We made the last-minute decision to head to Kosovo this weekend to celebrate my husband’s birthday.  The moment school let out on Friday, we threw together a couple of backpacks, booked a hotel, and we were on our way.

So, why Kosovo?  Several reasons, actually.  First of all, the tickets from Istanbul to Pristina were incredibly affordable and the flight times were perfect.  Secondly, everything we read about Pristina mentioned that the cafe scene there is top notch – a fact that this coffee nerd can now attest to.  We spent most of our time in the city trying to find the coolest cafes and testing out all the coffee.  The city’s specialty is an espresso machiatto latte – and my god they were delicious.  I’m not normally into milky coffee, but the quality of the milk and the ratio of milk to coffee made this drink an exception for me.

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Not only did all of the cafes serve incredible coffee – they were also incredibly quirky and charming!

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In addition to an amazing cafe scene, Pristina has an up-and-coming food scene as well.  I was really surprised by the quality of all of the food we ate there – especially considering that we didn’t do any research about the food at all; we pretty much just wandered into whichever restaurants seemed appealing in the moment and were not disappointed.

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The whole city has a funky, eclectic vibe that will probably only get cooler with time.  It’s kind of crazy to visit a country that is only 10 years old.  Pristina has updated their iconic Newborn sign to reflect Kosovo’s 10th anniversary as a country.

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Kosovo’s ever-changing face is evident in its confusing mix of architecture.  Old, abandoned churches stand next to newly-built mosques; modern cafes line the streets next to Communist-era structures that look like the backdrop of a creepy sci-fi movie.  It’s very weird – in a good way.

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Another quirky-cool highlight for us was the Museum of Broken Relationships.  We actually wandered into it by accident, but decided to check it out and it was 110% worth the 2 euros!  It was very unique and surprisingly moving.  If you’re planning to visit Pristina anytime soon, definitely check it out.

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We really loved our little getaway to Pristina!  I highly recommend it as a very cool and budget-friendly destination.  With only two weeks left of school, I am already getting pumped up for more adventures very soon.

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Seriously though…how crazy is this library?

 

A City Break in Berlin

20180421_200854.jpgWhat does one do with an unexpected three-day weekend?  Check Skyscanner for cheap getaways.  Unfortunately, my husband was stuck on duty for this one, but I was grateful to have a lovely weekend to myself to explore a new city.

20180422_193258.jpgThe weather was unbelievably perfect the whole time I was there.  My first evening was simply spent watching the sun set at Brandenburg Gate with a beer and some currywurst.  After all, I needed to fuel up for my walking tour the following day.

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The tour began at Brandenburg Gate, where we learned about the Prussian period of the city.  Shortly afterward, we moved forward in both time and distance at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The monument is made up of about 2,700 cement blocks, each made with different dimensions (perhaps intended to symbolize the unique beauty of each individual that was killed).  The monument is beautiful and interesting, but also very sobering.  Berlin does not have an uplifting history.

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I was also fascinated by Berlin’s Soviet history; though admittedly very dark, it was interesting to hear about how people managed to escape into West Berlin, how unceremoniously the wall came down, and how the divide impacted the city in terms of culture and architecture.  Honestly, I can’t recommend SANDEMAN’S tours enough.

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After my walking tour, I decided to explore a bit more of the city on my own.  I headed for the East Side Gallery, a strip of the former Berlin Wall that is covered in artwork, followed by a journey through the lively Kreuzberg neighborhood.

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Something that struck me about Berlin is how many green spaces can be found in the middle of the city.  There were picnics happening EVERYWHERE and it was amazing.  If I had had more time, I would have run to a supermarket and joined in on the fun.

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If I had to sum up Berlin in just a few words, I would call it a city in transition.  It has a varied and tumultuous history, though it is now one of the most progressive cities in the world.  It has changed very fast in a short amount of time.  I think my tour guide said it best when he said “Berlin is always in the process of becoming Berlin.”  It was a city unlike any other I’ve been to.  While it has a pretty dark past, it also has a very promising future.

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The Divided Capital of Nicosia

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On our second day in Cyprus, we decided to take a day trip to the capital, Nicosia, which is the capital of both the North and the South (although you have to go through a border crossing with your passport if you want to go between sides).

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We chose to stay on the North side and do the blue line walking tour, which is quite possibly the most interesting walking tour concept I have encountered in my travels so far. Basically, there is a blue line painted alongside the road throughout the whole city and following it will take you to all of the main sites and then back to the main gate.  I felt a bit like Dorothy following the yellow brick road.

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The path took us through historic neighborhoods, beautiful houses, church-turned-mosques (I’m such a sucker for architectural fusion), pazars, incredible street art, amazing hipster cafes, artisan shops, and ridiculously beautiful floral displays.  I could say more, but I think the photos speak for themselves.

Soaking Up the Sun in Girne (Kyrenia)

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It has been one hell of a winter, in every sense of the word.  We have had a lot of ups and downs these past few months, not all of which I am ready to share in this space.

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Spring Break was approaching, yet nothing felt like spring.  We were desperate for an escape, but even traveling can be stressful at times.  We were really at a loss this time around.

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At the last minute (literally the morning of the start to our break), we decided to fly to Northern Cyprus, an island country (that is generally not even recognized as a country) just south of Turkey.  We had heard good things about it from friends and the weather forecast showed nothing but sunshine, which was exactly what we needed.  We based ourselves out of the coastal town of Girne, also known as Kyrenia.

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North Cyprus is only a partially recognized state that is loosely affiliated with Turkey, and as such, I expected it to feel very familiar.  While Turkish is the predominant language of the region and there are similarities in the food, I was surprised by how much North Cyprus is not like Turkey.

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Really North Cyprus is like a younger, more relaxed, and more liberal version of Turkey.  English is much more widely spoken, the cities are much more international and diverse, casinos (which are illegal in Turkey) are pretty much everywhere, and alcohol is very cheap.  As I said, there are similarities, but North Cyprus is definitely its own thing.

IMG_3424.jpgWe didn’t make too many plans for our trip.  Instead, we opted to go with the flow and see what we felt like doing each day.  Our favorite thing to do in Girne was simply walk along the picturesque marina in the sunshine and then stop for a drink or two at one of the many seaside cafes.  We also indulged in a lot of good (yet reasonably priced) seafood; I was especially pleased by the abundance of delicious grilled jumbo shrimp.

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We also made it out to Bellapais, a small village up the mountain from Girne and home to Bellapais Abbey.  Unfortunately, the abbey was closed when we arrived, but we still managed to get a good look from outside of it.

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Since we booked everything so last minute, we didn’t bother to look into car rentals, although I wish we would have.  There are some amazing views along the coasts and through the mountains.  Just be aware that they drive on the left side of the road like in the U.K.

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Girne was a great starting point for our North Cyprus adventure, and if you ask me, April and May are the best times to visit.  The weather is beautiful (~80 degrees with cloudless skies), but the crowds are still relatively small, so you can have this little slice of paradise mostly to yourself.

A New Year in Bologna

IMG_2073.JPGFor the first time since we’ve moved abroad, we were both off on New Year’s and the weekend before, so we decided to get off campus and celebrate properly somewhere; the question was where.

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As usual, we let Skyscanner decide and the cheapest flights outside of Turkey were to Bologna.  The times were perfect and the price was right, but we wondered if perhaps we shouldn’t look elsewhere because we had already been to Italy twice before and there are so many places nearby we haven’t seen yet.

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But c’mon.  It’s Italy.

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The more we talked about it, the more I loved the idea of wandering through narrow streets, eating amazing food, and drinking good wine.  After all, since we had already done the whole tourist thing a couple of times, we figured there would be no pressure to check off a list of sights to see and places to go; we could simply sit back and enjoy la bella vita.

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So. Freaking. Good.

We rented an adorable apartment from Airbnb (If you haven’t tried it yet, you should!  You can get $23 off your first stay here.) and hung out like the locals for a few days.  Of course, we did some sightseeing, but we also balanced that with trips to the local cafes for cappuccino or aperitivo (wine and appetizers) or strolling through the streets and window shopping.  We even went to a local grocery store one night and bought all kinds of tasty ingredients to see if we could make our own delicious Italian dinner since our apartment had a kitchen – it was one of the highlights of the trip for me!

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Once New Year’s Eve rolled around, we were ready to go out and see the annual fire in Piazza Maggiore.  Yes, fire.  They spend the days leading up to New Year’s building a paper sculpture in the middle of the square, and at exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve, they light it on fire and everyone watches it burn.  It was incredibly strange and incredibly awesome all at the same time.

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Moral of the story:  Italy is always a good idea.

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The aftermath of a great party

2017

This year has ended on a really bitter note for me.  To be honest, I’m really ready for it to be over.  That being said, I don’t want to let the bad overshadow all the good that has come of this year.  Here is a look back at my 2017 in pictures:

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

Here’s to hoping for a brighter 2018.

 

À Bruxelles

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Our time in Brussels was short, but sweet.  I was immediately struck by the Christmas decorations, which were much more elaborate than any of the other cities we visited in Belgium.  Lights everywhere!  My favorite part was watching all of the shop owners stepping outside to decorate their windows.

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Since I was still feeling terrible and our time was limited, I had only one thing on my list: The Magritte Museum.

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I got really into Magritte’s art and the Surrealist movement in general when I was in college taking a French Lit course.  I love the playful juxtapositions and philosophical suggestions in his work.

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The exhibition was well worth the 2 Euro fee and I was surprised at how reasonably priced the gift shop was.  I left that museum with a noticeable spring in my step, in spite of my cold.

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We ended our last night in Brussels (and the last night of our trip) by strolling the streets looking at all the Christmas lights and hopping in and out of cafes, where my husband continued to sample Belgium beer and I tried to soothe my sore throat with hot tea.  I’m afraid I didn’t do Brussels much justice, but that just gives me a reason to go back.  Perhaps next time I’ll even bump into Stromae.

Ghent: Day to Night

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After leaving Bruges, I wasn’t sure if any other destination in Belgium could compare, but I was totally wrong.  Ghent turned out to be just as charming, if not more so in the sense that it was not nearly as touristy as Bruges.

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Ghent is a seriously overlooked city, full of life and personality.  Our adventure begin when we checked in to a cool little Airbnb in the red light district (yes, the red light district), smack dab in the middle of all the action.

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Ghent is by no means a bustling metropolis, but it had an energy to it that Bruges did not.  In fact, Ghent reminded me a lot of Moda, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul.  Every twist down an alley revealed a slew of delightfully hipster shops, quirky cafes, and plenty of pubs.

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My Thanksgiving dinner

IMG_1863.JPGGhent is also the self-proclaimed vegetarian capital of the world (again…self-proclaimed), so it was nice to have some tasty and healthy options around.  One cafe in particular – BARISTA- has forever captured my heart with it’s unbelievable homemade soups and awesome orange chai lattes.  It also didn’t hurt that they offered me a free sandwich one evening right before closing that turned out to be one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.

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We decided to focus on city walks during our time there since I was too sick and exhausted to manage much of anything else.  The coolest walk by far was the Illuminated Walk, suggested by the Ghent tourism board.  This walk is meant to be done at night and to showcase Ghent’s unique cityscape all lit up.

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Ghent was such a stunning place, both by day and night.  If you find yourself passing through Belgium, don’t miss out!

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Bruges: A Magical Gingerbread Village

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After a seemingly interminable term, the fall break finally came and we took off to Belgium to catch some fall foliage and binge on waffles and chocolate.  I had seen many a magical photo of Bruges before arriving, but the photos really don’t do it justice.

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As if the charming alleyways, canals, and bright red trees weren’t enough, the whole town was also preparing for the holiday season with lights and Christmas displays.  It was so refreshing to be surrounded by holiday spirit!

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Bruges is a fairly small town, but it’s bigger than it looks and there is certainly no shortage of things to do!  We signed up for a free walking tour through Legends of Bruges and were not disappointed.  It’s one thing to wander through a city, but it is so much more meaningful when you can learn about its history and culture.  We had also considered doing the foodie tour because it sounded awesome, but unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold while we were there and simply didn’t have the energy to do more than one tour.

20171121_123428 (2).jpgOf course, it wouldn’t be a proper trip without sampling some of the local cuisine.  We tasted chocolate in every city we visited in Belgium, but this particular shop was our favorite.

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We also did a little pub hopping to taste some of the many excellent beers Belgium has to offer.  My personal favorite was the cherry-flavored beer that they only serve around Christmas.

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Another highlight of Bruges was the Frietmuseum, a museum dedicated to the history of fries (but don’t call them French fries while you’re there!).  It was such a fun and interesting museum.

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I had hoped to accomplish a bit more in Bruges, including climbing the Belfry (Belfort) to get a better view of the city, but my illness really slowed me down.  Still, I managed to squeeze in one last canal tour before we left.

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In spite of feeling terrible for most of our time there, I really enjoyed Bruges – and I couldn’t imagine being there any other time of year.  The colorful leaves and Christmas lights definitely set the tone for the rest of our trip and made me feel excited for Christmas in a way that I haven’t since becoming an expat.

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