La Bella Vita in Rome

IMG_5368Italy has a way of pulling us back over and over again.  When we saw cheap tickets to Rome for New Year’s, we didn’t even hesitate.

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This happened in spite of the fact that many people I know do not care for Rome, for one reason or another.  I’m glad I went anyway because my husband and I had a great time admiring the grandiose architecture, eating delicious food, and strolling the narrow cobblestone alleys that were still decorated for Christmas.

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We stayed in a lovely guesthouse right in the center of the city from which were able to walk to every major site on our itinerary.  We didn’t book the trip far enough in advance to get tickets to the Colosseum or the Vatican, but to be honest, I don’t think it would have been pleasant cramming our way through the crowds.  Instead, we chose to enjoy those landmarks from a distance.

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One of the highlights for us was stopping at a cafe after walking through the old city and sipping on glasses of Prosecco while we listened to a Reggae band busking with a very hip older gentleman as their backup dancer.

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Another highlight was climbing up the Spanish Steps just in time to watch the sun set over the Roman skyline.  The weather was seriously gorgeous.

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My favorite travel companion.

I am so glad we got to experience one last taste of a European Christmas (and of Italy!).  This time next year, we will be spending our winter holiday in the States for the first time in five years!

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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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An Appointment in…Tirana

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Both my husband and I have been a bit hermit-like lately, preferring to spend our weekends playing video games in our pajamas over adventures in the city.  This is probably a symptom of our travel-heavy summer and the usual adjustment that comes with a new school year.  Still, we both caught a case of the travel bug this week after a particularly tiring series of after-school events and duties, so we scoured the internet for travel deals and settled on Albania.

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We knew next to nothing about Albania before we landed in Tirana, which, in this case, only enhanced my experience.  I was instantly surprised by the kindness of the locals, the beauty of the city, and the unique blend of Ottoman, Italian, and communist influence.

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We got up first thing in the morning, ready to hit the ground running since we only had two days to experience the city.  Our first stop was Skanderbeg Square, a large plaza in the middle of the city.  The lack of crowds and grey skies made it seem all the more imposing.

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It was a bit chillier in Tirana than we had expected, so we found ourselves making frequent stops for cappuccino, which much to our elation was some of the best we’d ever had.  The cafe culture there alone is worth the visit.

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In addition to great coffee and cool architecture, Tirana is also home to a thriving contemporary art scene.  It seems like you can’t turn the corner without seeing some kind of sculpture, art gallery, or street art.  This piece I am standing on – the cloud – was a personal favorite.

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The vibrant and youthful atmosphere of the city is likely a reaction to Albania’s dark past.   In the 20th century alone, the country went from being a police state at the turn of the century, to a fascist state under the Nazis, to a communist state after WWII.  During the 40-year reign of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the country suffered from widespread oppression and isolationism.  The monument above, known as the Pyramid of Tirana, was commissioned by the daughter of Enver Hoxha as a monument to his legacy.  Ironically, it still serves that purpose, though his legacy is not one that is remembered fondly.

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View of Tirana from a bunker

Another of the city’s bizarre communist remnants are the preserved bunkers, built by Hoxha to protect the country from potential invasions – which never came to pass.  One of the bunkers has been converted into an art and history museum known as Bunk’Art, which takes visitors through the murky tunnels (both literally and figuratively) of Albania’s communist history.  Among some of the exhibits are the names of people killed in concentration camps, methods of torture used against citizens who opposed the government, and examples of how families were bugged by the police state.  The thing that blows my mind the most is that Albania was only freed from this oppression in 1990, the year before I was born.

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It is perhaps because of its dark past and decades of isolation that Albania is so seldom visited, though tourism is gradually increasing.  At the moment, it is a bit of a hidden gem, but I suspect in the next ten years, it will become a hot spot in Europe, much like Croatia.  I’m grateful to have seen it when I did.

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I was totally blown away by Tirana and Albania in general.  The breathtaking view of the mountains below while I was flying away made leaving even more difficult than it already was.  It is another of many places that I know I must revisit.  I only had time for Tirana on this trip, but next time, I’d love to visit places like Berat or the Albanian Riviera to take in more of the country’s natural beauty.

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**As a side note, the title of this post comes from a song that has been stuck in my head all week.  Coincidentally, the song was recommended to me by a student after assigning the class to read the folk tale to which the song alludes…so there is a bit of a double allusion going on here.  Anyway, I feel like the song perfectly matches the atmosphere of Tirana…haunting and beautiful.**

Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge

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After several days of rain and grey skies, there was finally a sunny day in the forecast.  It was time for the crowning jewel of Slovenia:  Lake Bled.

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For some crazy reason, we left Ljubljana without having coffee, so we had to stop for a caffeine break before exploring the lake.  It didn’t look very big from a distance, but one we got closer, we realized what a walk it really was.

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It was big, beautiful, and impossibly blue for a lake.  The adorable island with the church in the middle was just the icing on the cake.

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After a nice, long stroll and picnic around Lake Bled, we decided to head to nearby Vintgar Gorge.  Unfortunately, we missed the last afternoon shuttle to the entrance, so we had to walk there; however, once we got a good look at the scenery en route, we didn’t feel so bad about it.

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After what felt like forever, we finally reached the entrance to the gorge.  It was much cooler there, which was nice after such a long walk.  The gorge itself was breathtaking, with mint green water rushing beneath the wooden path.

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I would love to share more photos from Vintgar; however, I stupidly forgot to check if all of the photos uploaded before I left for the States and the SD card with these photos is still in Turkey, so this will have to suffice for now.

For such a tiny country, Slovenia is teeming with natural wonders to explore.  In fact, my husband and I loved it so much that we are already planning a return trip…ideally in autumn so we can see everything surrounded by colorful trees.  There are also some sights that we didn’t have time for this trip, such as Lake Bohinj, that we’d love to go back and see.

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Thanks for being beautiful, Slovenia.  Until next time.

Ljubljana: My New Favorite City

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Full disclosure:  I knew practically nothing about Slovenia before I flew there last week. All I knew is that Ljubljana (pronounced loo-blee-ana) was one of the cheapest destinations on Skyscanner for the dates we were looking to travel for our end-of-the-year/anniversary trip.  That was good enough for us.  I never would have expected this tiny city in a tiny country that still seems fairly undiscovered for this part of Europe to leave such a mark on my heart.

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There is something so genuine about Ljubljana.  Unlike much of Europe, it hasn’t sold its entire soul to the tourism industry.  It has nothing to prove, and because of that, Ljubljana is a city that is unapologetically itself.  Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the imposing skyline or massive crowds of cities like Prague, Ljubljana is an incredible, enchanting city.  It truly felt like something of a magical secret.

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Ljubljana seems to be in a stage of renaissance, with an incredible contemporary art and music scene.  You can’t walk five steps without running into some kind of street performer, though not the usual fare.  In our short time there, we ran into break dancers, magicians, bongo drummers, and opera singers, in addition to more traditional bands. Amazing street art lines just about every corner of the city, but especially in the little artsy neighborhood of Metelkova.

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We ended up basing ourselves out of Ljubljana the whole time we were in Slovenia simply because we loved it so much.  It gave us time to figure out all of the best places to eat,  hang out, and take walks at sunset.

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I wish I could find the right way to describe how laid back and charming Ljubljana is. The whole time I was there, I felt so at home…so much so that I probably could have moved in right then and there.  I’m really surprised it hasn’t become overrun with tourists!

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Until next time, Ljubljana!

26 and A Weekend on the Rhine

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So, I turned 26 last week.  I guess time just really flies as you get older because it feels like I just turned 22 last year.

Fun fact:  I am exactly 15 days older than my husband, which means I get to tout my extra wisdom for a couple of weeks every year.  It also means that we normally try to do something extra fun together to celebrate.

This year, we decided to spend the weekend in Switzerland and France because who doesn’t love croissants and chocolate!  I also scored a sweet birthday discount from Pegasus and I never turn down a cheap flight.

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It just so happened that last Friday was a holiday in Turkey, so we had an extra day to explore!  We landed in Basel, Switzerland Friday morning and hit the streets right away. Even though the forecast had shown three days of rain, we completely lucked out and had nothing but dry, sunny weather!  We had the best time walking through the city and admiring the architecture.

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Now that I’m 26, my sense of humor is vastly more sophisticated.

We also couldn’t help but notice all of the playful sculptures and parks all over the city. We may or may not have spent a lot of time on playground equipment.

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Of course, we couldn’t leave without sampling tons of Swiss chocolate, but I ate it all before the thought of taking a photo of it even crossed my mind.  Just take my word for it…or go check it out for yourself!

The next morning, we got up bright and early to catch the train to Colmar, France -an adorable little village that has been on my radar for a few years.  I also had the good fortune of experiencing my first “cougar” moment, when my husband was able to buy a youth ticket and I had to pay full price for the regular “adult” ticket.  I guess this makes up for taunting him with all of my brand new freedoms on both my 18th and 21st birthdays.

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Although it’s only 45 minutes away from the Swiss border, Colmar is distinctly French. My heart leapt at the sight of all the colorful buildings and pâtisseries and at the sound of French being spoken all around me.  Though I studied French through part of high school and all of university, I’ve rarely had the chance to use it since graduating and moving to Turkey.  It made me so happy to jump back into that world.

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Seriously though, how stunning is this place!?  Each twist and turn of an alley led to even more beautiful, colorful houses.  I was in heaven, eating my weight in croissants and sipping on Alsatian wine.  I loved each and every second of our time there and felt so sad when it was time to leave.  I have such great love for all things Francophone and it is still a dream of mine to live in France someday.

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Lovely little nod to Magritte

Even though we only had three days, it was a pretty damn incredible three days.  26 is feeling alright so far!

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Pretty please take me back?