Hello, It’s Me

I’m back! …Well I’ve been back for a while, but back to writing that is.

It has been 10 months since I’ve done any writing that isn’t work related, and frankly, that is 10 months too long. So, with a new year comes a new resolution (one of many) to write as frequently as possible this year…and beyond, of course. Since I believe that accountability is a huge factor in keeping a resolution, you’ve heard it here first. And although not everything I write will be documented on this blog for the world to see, and believe me, I am doing you a favor, my hope is that the more people who know about this goal of mine, the more I will be likely to stick to it. Or else I will fall back into my routine of watching endless episodes of who knows what on Netflix while I make excuses on why watching hours of television at a time is acceptable. So if you noticed I haven’t posted in a while, feel free to call me out on it…because chances are I am trying to convince myself on why binge watching every season of Law & Order: SVU is “Okay.”

So here goes nothing. I guess I should pick up where I left off…and there is a lot to catch up on.

After Traveling Cara

This blog was originally created to document my lone backpacking trip across Europe during the winter/spring of last year. And although this blog is titled Traveling Cara, it won’t all be about traveling…but I hope a portion of it will be! If you want to get deep and philosophical, I guess the title could still apply in that I am continuing to learn and grow as a person, and in a sense traveling through life? Ok that is a bit of a stretch, but the truth is I’ve already paid for this domain and I still have a year left on the license, so Traveling Cara it is.

After returning from Europe, the most common questions I was asked was “What did you learn from the experience?,” “What would you do differently if you did it again?” and “What now?” With a year to think this over, here are my answers.

What I learned:

It is okay to take rest days. I was averaging 8-12 miles of walking every day, sometimes more, and I realized that I needed to give myself some time to rest every once and a while. So every four or five days, I would make a point to have a not-so-busy itinerary and just take it easy. Miraculously, I managed to stay healthy and illness-free for the duration of the trip.

I will never travel without a fanny pack again. Traveling place to place and living with multiple people in a hostel at once, I never trusted anyone. It made me extremely nervous carrying my passport, cash and debit card around so I had them with me at all times in my handy dandy fanny pack. I even slept with it on. It was extremely thin and easy to hide under clothes, so I felt as if it were pretty well hidden. It comforted me knowing that I knew where my important documents were at all times because I did eventually want to go home, and without cash or a passport it would have made been quite difficult. So take that, pick pockets! Pick pocketers? Not sure.

Do a lot of research when choosing a hostel…and sometimes that won’t even help. Let’s just say I had some interesting experiences living in hostels and although it was a cheap option for lodging, I don’t miss it. Take advantage of hostel websites such as hostelworld.com to read reviews on hostels before booking.

What would I do differently if I did it again?

Remember my debit card pin number. You heard me. To this day, I can still not believe this happened and it turned out to be the most difficult experience of the whole trip. From the beginning, my main method of funding for my trip was going to be my debit card so that I could get a little cash at a time at ATM machines, because I didn’t feel comfortable carrying too much money at once. But remember that whole Target scam that happened and people’s credit cards and bank accounts were compromised? I, a frequent Target shopper, was one of those people. So, not too long before going on the trip, I had to get a new debit card and subsequently a new pin number that I was not as familiar with. Maybe it was the jet lag after the long flight, but the day I landed in Ireland, it was like the pin number was erased from my memory, and still to this day I can not remember what it was. It was a burden…but an even bigger burden on my mom who had to send me money transfers through my account back at home. Soooo, that was fun. It is comical looking back at it, but it was definitely a debacle and I even had to sleep in an airport one night because of my mistake, so I think I have learned my lesson. NEVER. AGAIN.

Now what?

After returning from Europe, I got a job in Fort Worth as a marketing content coordinator. So I made the move and although it was hard leaving The Woodlands, I was ready to start a new chapter in Fort Worth, and as an added bonus, I now live close to both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and lots of cousins. I am surrounded by family…and that’s just how I like it. I love my job and all of the wonderful people I have met here, and after a crazy, whirlwind of a year, I can’t help but think that I am right where I belong.

P.S. My manager and I won a lip sync contest back in October, so I was pretty happy about that. I think it is safe to say that I am at the right place.

This year I hope to continue to learn and grow in my new position here in Fort Worth, while also working towards personal resolutions and goals such as starting yoga (breathe Cara, breathe), training for my third marathon, and most importantly, continuing to write – because that’s what I love to do. So, these blog posts will be filled with be my random ramblings and thoughts. Here goes nothing…You’ve been warned.

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Feelin’ the Bern: The Final Destination

When my mom and I landed back in Zürich, it hit me that I had just three days left of my trip. I had been in Europe for 50 days and counting, and I couldn’t believe that it was about to come to an end. The only negative side of this adventure was that it made me want to visit more places and see more of what Europe had to offer. Knowing that I would be flying back to Houston soon, I was happy to get back home, but there was part of me that felt like there was still so much to see and do. But the good news was that I still had three days to get some last minute exploring in, so right when my mom and I got to Zürich, we took a train straight to Bern, a city just an hour away. I had heard from many other travelers during my trip that Bern was a must-see when in Switzerland, a city known for its medieval city center formed in the shape of a horseshoe around the River Aare. We arrived to Bern late Tuesday night, and we had to be back in Zürich to catch our flights to Houston on Thursday morning. It was going to be a quick trip, but we were more than ready to make the best out of what little time we had.

Before I continue, I have to brag on my mom. The daring Little Nugget decided that she wanted to try out a hostel for the night while we were in Bern. Hostels are like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get. It could be really nice, or it could be just awful, and I had experienced both while on this trip. As much as I was sick of hostels by that point, I was glad that she was willing to try it out. It was actually one of the nicest (and most expensive) hostels I had stayed at, so I think we were both pleasantly surprised. Once we arrived, we planned out the next day so we could make the best out of our time, and then we got a good night’s sleep. It came to our surprise the next morning when we looked out the window and the whole city was covered in a thin layer of snow. It was a breathtaking sight, and after putting multiple layers of clothing on, we made our way to the city center. We walked along the river, amazed at the beautiful sights and unique buildings.

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See that McDonald’s to the left? Turns out a Big Mac in Switzerland costs about $11…

Our first task of the day was to visit the Albert Einstein Museum, a component of the Bern Historical Museum. Albert and I share a birthday (pi day) and since it was just two days prior, I felt like it was something to go see, and I am so glad we did. The exhibit was very interesting and told all about his life from childhood up to his death. The German-born genius and Nobel Prize winner lived in Bern for three years and was where he developed the Theory of Relativity.

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The Bern Historical Museum

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The entrance to the Einstein Museum was covered in mirrors.

After a full morning of learning all about Einstein and trying to comprehend how he figured out that crazy physics stuff, we went to a local restaurant where I had one of the best meals I have ever eaten…and I am not exaggerating. In my previous post, I had mentioned that while in Zürich, my mom and I ordered Rösti, a classic Swiss dish consisting of a skillet filled with hash browns topped with cheese and a fried egg. It was so good that while we were in Bern we ordered another one, but this time it had macaroni and cheese with bacon crumbles on top. Yes, you heard me. A giant hash brown with mac & cheese. What more do you need? It was glorious and I am pretty sure it consisted of a whole day’s worth of calories, but it was worth it.

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Mac & Cheese Rösti with bacon crumbles

After lunch, we made our way to the edge of the city to see the Paul Klee Museum. Klee was a Swiss-German abstract artist whose paintings often reflected his humor and childlike perspective. Mom was familiar with several of his artworks, so that was our next stop of the day. When we arrived, even the building itself was a piece of art. The structure was complete with steel and glass that created three large curves. We stood there in amazement while we took picture after picture…and we hadn’t even been inside yet. The building housed the largest collection of Klee’s paintings. I think mom was just happy that she got to go to another museum!

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A sculpture in front of the Paul Klee Museum

With a few hours left of daylight, we decided to take the Gurtenbahn, a funicular railway, to the top of Gurten mountain. The summit provided some fantastic views overlooking Bern. As we walked around, mom noticed a giant lookout tower in the distance, so of course we had to go see what it was. We climbed up the many flight of stairs to the top, allowing for even better views of the city. It was freezing cold but completely worth it. As I looked out at the sprawling Swiss landscape, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far I had come since January 26. Eight countries and 27 destinations later, it was my last full day in Europe before I went back home to Texas. I also couldn’t believe that my mom was standing right next to me in Switzerland, and I was beyond grateful that she was by my side.

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She made it to the top of the tower!

It was almost time to catch the train back to Zürich, but before we did, we of course had to stop at a chocolate shop. After all, it’s what Switzerland is known for. I guess you could say it was a “sweet” way to end our trip to Bern. When we made it back to Zürich, a city we had already visited before going to Rome, we stayed at a hotel near the airport since we both had to catch early flights the next morning.

Mom and I each had to fly back alone, but we were set to arrive in Houston within an hour of each other. One part of me wanted so badly to stay. There was still so much I wanted to see and do, and I loved the freedom I had of being able to go somewhere on a whim. At the same time, I missed home: I missed my family, my friends, and most importantly, my cat. I also really, really, really missed Chick-Fil-A…a spicy chicken sandwich with waffle fries was calling my name. So for the last time, I packed up my backpack, and the Little Nugget and I made our way to the airport. Her flight left first, with mine following an hour later. As the plane took off, I looked out the window at the clear sky as I reminisced about all the memories I had made over the past two months. It was refreshing and cathartic to do it alone, and if I could do it all over again…I would in a heartbeat. Before I knew it, I was back in Houston. It was hot and muggy just as I had remembered it, but it was home. And oh how nice it was to be home.

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Homeward bound

When In Rome

After being in Lucerne for three days, I was sad to leave such a beautiful city, yet excited to arrive at my next destination, Zürich, where I would meet up with my mom. She met me in Switzerland so that she could join me on the trip for the final week I would be in Europe, and I couldn’t have been more excited. The plan was that she was going to meet me in Switzerland, and then we were going to fly over to Rome for five days. We were then going to fly back to Switzerland  where we would explore the country a little longer before we would make our way back to Houston. The other exciting part was that while in Rome, we would meet up with my cousin Sadie, a teacher, who decided to come see the Eternal City during her spring break. So, it just so happened that on my final week across Europe, I got to have two of my favorite people in the world by my side, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. After nearly two months of traveling alone, it was nice to be around people that I could be silly around and laugh with…and that is all we did for the five glorious days that we were together in Rome. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I had to get to Zürich so that I could meet the Little Nugget, a nickname I gave my mom a long time ago since I tower six inches above her. I arrived to the city the night before she was set to land, because she was originally supposed to arrive early the next morning. However, due to her first flight being delayed by several hours, she was unable to make her connecting flight. So, she got rerouted, and in turn, didn’t arrive to Zürich until late that afternoon. By the time I finally got to see her and embrace her in a great bear hug, she had been on planes and in airports for nearly 24 hours. The poor thing was exhausted, but she still put on a smile as we walked around the city and caught up on two months worth of talking.

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She made it!

Just like that, Traveling Cara had turned into Traveling Cara & Cheryl, and everything was right with the world. Talking a mile a minute, we toured Zürich for the rest of the day and indulged in a Swiss favorite, Rösti, that is basically a giant hash brown in a skillet topped with cheese and a fried egg. Delicious? You bet. Shortly after, we went back to the hotel because Mom had some serious jet lag, and the Little Nugget was out by 9.

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Swiss Rösti

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The next day, we hopped on a plane to Rome: one of the destinations I had very much been looking forward to. Ever since I had seen Gladiator, I was fascinated and in awe of the city…and Russell Crowe. I think my mom was even more excited than I was. Being both an artist and art teacher, she was thrilled to get to finally see some of the world’s most well-known landmarks and art, including one of the items on the very top of her list: the Sistine Chapel. When we landed in the airport, we met up with Sadie. Just one year apart from each other, I guess you could say we’ve been best friends our whole lives, so I was thrilled to finally see her. It was like a mini family reunion in an Italian airport.

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Since Sadie had already been to Rome twice before, she was a professional and knew what she was doing, so she got us the perfect apartment to stay in while we were there. It was spacious and smack-dab in the middle of the city. We were in the perfect location for all of the major sights we wanted to see.

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Although Sadie and mom had some major jet lag, we had just a few hours of the day left so we decided to go on a night walk to see some of Rome’s main attractions: Campo de’Fiori, Piazza Novona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. NOTE: The night walk was recommended by Rick Steves, an European travel guru. My mom brought his Rome travel book along with her, and it was actually very useful. He has books on all of the major European cities, as well as a website complete with all of the information you could ever need. The guy even has his own television show. So if you ever go to Europe, at least check out his site. You can thank me later. Any who, the walk was absolutely beautiful and the Roman landmarks sparkled at night. It seemed to make the city even more magical, if that is even possible. Wide-eyed and amazed, we ended the night with some gelato, something that would become quite common throughout the rest of our trip.

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Camp de’Fiori

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Piazza Navona

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The Pantheon

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The Pantheon dome

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Sadie making a wish at the Trevi Fountain

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The Trevi Fountain

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Gelato with a view

The next morning, mom and I woke up bright and early so that we could beat the crowds at the Colosseum. Since Sadie had already been, she did her own thing and met up with us later that day. The Colosseum was one of the main things I wanted to see. I was fascinated about the whole premise behind the giant arena. Luckily, we went on a weekday right when it opened, so we were able to skip the lines and walk straight in. The oval amphitheater was massive, and having been completed in 80 AD, I was amazed at how much the structure was still in tact. In its prime, the Colosseum could hold up to 80,000 spectators. I could just imagine everyone piling in, both royals and peasants alike, to see the most popular (though very gory, violent and twisted), sporting event in Rome. Citizens would watch and cheer as other human beings fought for survival in the arena. Humans fought humans, wild animals fought humans, and animals fought animals…to the death. Although disturbing, there was so much history in that amphitheater.

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Right across the way from the Colosseum was the Roman Forum, the next thing on our agenda. The Forum is a rectangular plaza covered in ruins—what used to be the center of the ancient Roman city. It was magnificent, and once again, it was hard to believe that some structures were still standing after all of this time. Ruin after ruin, we weaved in and out of the Forum, as we saw various basilicas, monuments, and structures from the Roman empire. I would also like to note that it was absolutely gorgeous outside and made it even more enjoyable. The sun was out, and I didn’t have to wear my purple Michelin Man jacket, so I would say it was a successful day. When we met up with Sadie, we walked around the city and once again, ate gelato. Surprise!

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The next day was more focused on the arts and museums. It was recommended that we go see the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, so that was our first destination of the day. The palace was home to a large art collection that dates back to the 16th century. It was complete with several galleries featuring beautiful pieces of art, as well as a family chapel, large and intricate tapestries, and a peaceful courtyard adorned with blooming orange trees. It was a one-of-a-kind experience and we were there for the most of the morning and into the early afternoon. Afterwards, we took a quick lunch break to refuel and grabbed some pizza by the slice, and then the three stooge-ettes were back at it again. Our next stop was the National Roman Museum, which was good, but compared to the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, it couldn’t compete. The museum had a lot of statues and busts of different people throughout the Roman empire, and there was a whole floor dedicated to just tapestries that was absolutely amazing.

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After knocking out two museums, we all walked over to Castel Sant’Angelo. The giant cylinder that towers over the city has been used as a mausoleum, castle and a fortress over the years. The most stunning feature about the structure was the view overlooking the city. The Roman skyline was spectacular, and you could see St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. It was one of those moments where I couldn’t look away, and I never wanted to leave the Eternal City.

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Our next stop was Villa Borghese Gardens, one of the largest public parks in Rome. It reminded me of Central Park in a way, complete with a carousel, a café, street entertainers, and towering trees along the shaded pathways. The sun was starting to set, making for a beautiful view. I couldn’t help myself and stopped at a dessert shop while we were there and ate a super tiny and adorable cannoli.

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Her “Jackie O” look

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Day three was all about Vatican City. Once again, we woke up bright and early to beat the crowds, with an agenda to see the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. In order to get to the Sistine Chapel, we had to weave through the museums. It was packed, but definitely well worth it as we saw an immense art collection accrued by the Popes over many centuries. And then, there we were: face to face with the Sistine Chapel. Pictures were not allowed, but my goodness it was breathtaking and exceeded all of my expectations. Being an artist, I think my mom was in awe the whole time we were there, with her head pointed straight up at the ceiling that was painted by Michelangelo. I’m not going to speak on her behalf, but I think that was one of her favorite moments while in Rome. After staring in amazement at the intricately painted frescos in the chapel, the next stop of the day was St. Peter’s Basilica. By this point, I had seen many churches and cathedrals over the past weeks, with each being beautiful in its own right. St. Peter’s, however, took the cake. The Italian church displayed beautiful Renaissance architecture and amazing artworks. One of the largest churches in the world, it is no wonder why so many people from all across the world make the pilgrimage to the Catholic church each year. St. Peter’s Square was just as amazing, complete with an obelisk, massive columns and marvelous fountains, all overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. We had spent nearly a full day at Vatican City, and it was well worth it, too.

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St. Peter’s Basilica (photo taken by Sadie)

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…she took this one, too

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St. Peter’s Square at night

Mom, Sadie, and I walked back to the apartment after a long and adventurous day. I think we were all still in amazement at what we had witnessed. We stopped by the local market to grab some fresh bread, mozzarella, and wine, where Sadie had the brilliant idea to make some appetizers before dinner. We opened the apartment windows as we could hear the bustling crowds on the streets below us, and we talked, laughed, ate, and laughed some more. It was our last full day in Rome, and we were going to take full advantage of it. Just like that old saying goes, “It’s not where you are, but who you are with.” Although, where we were was pretty amazing, but it was even better that I was surrounded by my two best friends. I was finally with people who understood me and my weird, sarcastic humor. So, there we were on our last night in Rome. For one final time, we walked around the city as the sun started to set. We ended the night at an Italian restaurant, that in my opinion, was the best meal I had eaten during our time in Rome.

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The next morning was the last day that my mom and I would be in Rome. We had to fly back to Switzerland where we would be there for the next two days, and then we would make our way back to Houston. Sadie decided to stay a few more days in Italy, and the time had come where we had to say our goodbyes…but not before one last adventure. The day before, Sadie and I had wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the dome at St. Peter’s, but it had closed right before we got there. So we crawled out of bed at the break of dawn so that we could get to the top. As we climbed up the steps of the dome, the stairs got smaller and smaller as we got close. It definitely wasn’t made for tall people, but Sadie and I (both right under 6 feet), were bound and determined. We finally made it. The weather was perfect, the view was spectacular, I was slightly out of breath, and my legs were feeling nice and toned. The city’s skyline seemed to go on for miles, and it was the perfect way to say farewell to the Eternal City.

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The view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica

Just like that, it was time to leave. Out of all the cities I had visited on this trip, Rome quickly made it to my list of favorites. We were able to accomplish a lot during the time we were there, but there is still so much I would like to see and do, as well as visit other parts of Italy. You can bet that I will go back someday, but for now, Arrivederci, Roma.

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A city with a view

When I walked out of the train station and onto the streets of Lucerne, Switzerland, I was immediately greeted by the majestic Swiss Alps that surrounded the city. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and the mountains were reflecting onto Lake Lucerne as a multitude of swans glided across the water. It was a sight better than I could have even imagined and made for a great first impression of the country best known for its chocolate, watches and cheese. Although one of my final stops, I had been looking forward to going to Switzerland since I had originally planned out this trip. I had always seen pictures of the gorgeous landscapes paired with the snowcapped mountain ranges, and for someone who lives in an area that is flat for miles, I was beyond excited to see what all Switzerland had to offer. I guess you could say I saved the best country for last, because once I arrived, I didn’t want to leave.

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Swanzerland

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My first stop in Switzerland was Lucerne, a city situated on the lake shore complete with Renaissance-style wooden bridges, views of Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi, and the smell of confectionery treats filling the air from the many chocolate shops. When I arrived I still had a few hours of daytime, so I walked over to Old Town where my first stop was a visit to Old Chapel Bridge. Built in 1333, it is the oldest covered bridge in Europe complete with an octagonal water tower. I also got to see some remnants of the city walls that are still standing after being built hundreds of years ago. I was one happy camper and couldn’t wait to spend the next two days in the city.

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Old Chapel Bridge

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Lucerne City Walls

 

A few weeks back, I had met some other backpackers who had just visited Lucerne, and they recommended I invest in the Tell-Pass: a two-day ticket that gives you unlimited travel on the city’s trains, buses, ferries, and cable cars. I knew that if I planned out my trip just right, I would be able to see all of the main attractions of Lucerne and put the pass to good use, so I went for it. Aside from eating my weight in fish & chips back in Ireland and Scotland, this was one of my better decisions on this trip, and I highly recommend investing in the Tell-Pass if you ever find yourself in Lucerne.

For the next two days, I was a girl on a mission. The first item on my checklist was to go to the top of Mount Pilatus, a mountain overlooking Lucerne with a summit of approximately 6,981 feet. I first took the tram to the outskirts of town, then made a short walk over to the Dragon Ride, an aerial cable car that goes up to the summit. I made it to the top and was relieved to be on solid ground. I walked around at the summit, but due to the thick snow and cold winds I didn’t stay outside for long, but instead sat at a café as I looked out onto the Swiss landscape. Note: Another way to get to the top of the mountain is by taking the world’s steepest cogwheel train. Unfortunately, the train is closed during the winter and I was very upset by this…OK I was actually quite relieved.

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A view from the cable car

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After a few hours at the top of Mount Pilatus, I made my way back to town so that I could catch a ferry that toured Lake Lucerne. This would become my favorite thing to do during my stay in the city, and I still can’t get over all of God’s beauty I witnessed on that three-hour boat ride. The calming waters of the lake made for a peaceful ride, and the Swiss flag blew in the wind as the ferry glided along through the mountains. I caught myself with my mouth wide open in amazement a couple of times. Never in my life had I seen such beautiful scenery, and I was trying to let it all soak in. Still in awe of what I had witnessed after stepping off the ferry, I decided to take another ferry the very next morning that went to other parts of the lake. By this point of the trip, I guess you could say it was also an excuse for me not to have to walk around and explore. Why walk when a ferry can take you around town?

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I spent the rest of my time in Lucerne walking around Old Town, weaving in and out of various streets trying to soak in the Swiss culture. I also came across the Lion Monument, a rock relief honoring the Swiss guards who were killed in the French Revolution. The monument was carved from a giant rock slab that sat on the edge of a pond. It was a beautiful, yet somber memorial, and the surrounding area was completely quiet as visitors all stood still and silent as they gazed at the lion.

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Old Town

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The Lion Monument

On this trip, I have constantly found my self amazed at every place I’ve visited. Each city or town brings something completely different and unique to the table. As soon as I think it can’t get any better, it does–and Lucerne proved that once again. Having wanting to visit Switzerland for such a long time, it felt like a dream now that I was finally there. The views were almost unreal. The only negative thing about Switzerland that I can even think of is how expensive everything is there. I mean, I spent nearly 8 francs on a tiny jar of peanut butter, and if you want to eat at a restaurant, be prepared to spend at least 25 francs per person. But hey, if that’s the only negative, I’ll take it.

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Although my time in Lucerne had come to an end, I still had a few more days in Switzerland. I made my way to Zürich where I awaited the arrival of my mini-me, mama Pilgrim. I was on the final week of my trip, and I was going to have a travel buddy for the last seven days. Excited? I think yes.

P.S. My expensive jar of peanut butter (which I had labeled with my name) was stolen the very next day, and I am still bitter about it.

Aggies in Heidelberg

After nearly two weeks in Austria, my next stop was Heidelberg, Germany. I was excited about this leg of the trip particularly because I got to meet up with Rebekah, a friend from college who is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree at the University of Mannheim. Rebekah suggested we meet in Heidelberg for the day to catch up and explore the city, and I have to say, it was so nice to see a familiar face abroad.

Situated on the Neckar River, Heidelberg is located in southwest Germany and is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities. The city also hosts various events and festivals throughout the year, including the world famous Christmas market. I found the city quite adorable and unique unlike any place I have visited so far, and I knew right away that I was going to enjoy my stay.

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After meeting Rebekah at the tram stop, she started to give me a tour of the city. Originally from Germany, Rebekah is fluent in the language and had already been to Heidelberg a couple of times so she was basically my tour guide and translator since the only German I know is “danke” and “gesundheit,” and that didn’t get me very far. As we started walking around, she was quick to inform me that Heidelberg is well known for its Christmas market that takes place in five separate locations throughout the city. There was even a year-round Christmas store that sold every ornament and decoration you could possibly imagine. It was wonderful, and I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful Heidelberg would be during Christmastime. The town was already unique in its own right, with various shops and bakeries that lined the streets. From a store full of gummy bears and a chocolate shop complete with giant chocolate bunnies, to a bakery that only sold pretzel breads and croissants, I was extremely happy to be in the town of Heidelberg, and I also had a sugar rush for most of the time I was there.

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In Germany, TJ Maxx is known as TK Maxx. Weird, right?

One of the first things we did while in the city was walk up to Heidelberg Castle which was no easy feat as it was situated on top of a very steep hill. The castle’s silhouette could be seen from many parts of the town, and added to Heidelberg’s character. The famous German ruin was demolished hundreds of years ago, and although it has only been partially rebuilt, the structure was still magnificent and had an excellent view of Heidelberg. Once home to residents such as Frederick V and Elizabeth Charlotte, it was fascinating to walk around the ruins and picture what the castle used to look like. We walked around the gardens, stepped out on to the edge of the hill as we overlooked over the city, and saw a water fountain of Neptune that caused many tourists to mimic the pose…can you blame them? It’s not like you see a fountain like that very often.

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Neptune acting all casual on a rock with his water jug.

While at the castle, Rebekah was explaining to me that it was also home to the world’s largest wine barrel, so naturally, I was very excited to see it. We walked in and right in front of us was a huge barrel. We were impressed, so we took some pictures and moved on. That was until we realized that although it was a large barrel, it wasn’t the largest. As we walked into the next room, we were face to face with the REAL world’s largest barrel and oh my goodness. It took up the whole room. We were both amazed and couldn’t help but think how much wine it could store. What a party that would be!

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The first giant barrel we saw.

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The actual world’s largest barrel

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You can see it to scale with the random person standing in front of it. Talk about a party.

After exploring the castle and trying to figure out how many grapes it took to fill the gigantic wine barrel, we made our way back to town for lunch. Rebekah recommended we try a specific restaurant where we both ordered a Döner, a Turkish kebab complete with sliced meat, lettuce, tomato, and a yogurt sauce that is all stuffed into a pita pocket. It was very good…so good in fact that I never even had the chance to take a picture of it because I ate it that fast. Oops. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

To work off our meat extravaganza we had just indulged in, we hiked up the Philosophers Path (Philosophenweg). Apparently it was named by philosophers and professors of Heidelberg University who often walked the path. The trail led us up a steep set of steps as we made our way up the hill, only to be greeted by a panoramic view of Heidelberg and the Neckar River. It was a beautiful sight and there was even a cherry blossom beginning to bloom, a sign that spring is near. It was quiet and peaceful, and it was a fantastic way to see Heidelberg as a whole, with the majestic castle jutting out into the skyline.

 

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A view overlooking Heidelberg, with the castle in the left corner.

As we got back to town, we stopped at a café for coffee and dessert where I was for some reason compelled to get a gigantic ice cream sundae. I don’t regret the decision at all. It had been a few years since Rebekah and I had seen each other, so it was nice to talk and catch up.

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The end of the day was nearing, and Rebekah made her way to the tram stop so that she could get back to Mannheim. After traveling solo for six weeks, it was so nice to see someone that I recognized, and it was even nicer to be reunited with a fellow Aggie. Not only is Rebekah in the process of completing her senior thesis this semester, but she is also getting married this summer (YAY!) so she has been busy wedding planning as well. The fact that she took time out of her busy schedule to show a Texan around Heidelberg meant a lot, so thank you, Rebekah.

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My trip to Germany was short, but it sure was eventful. It was my sixth country to visit on this trip, with just two more to go. Whether I liked it or not, my two-month adventure was nearing the end, giving me all the more reason to do and see as much as I could in the next couple of weeks. The next stop? Switzerland.

NOTE: I arrived home safely this past weekend! However, I am a little behind on my blog posts (slacker, I know). I will continue to write about each place I visited, it will just be a bit delayed.

Also, I have been reunited with my cat so that is pretty great.

 

Skiing the slopes of Innsbruck

While on this trip, I knew at some point that I wanted to go skiing. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know where, but I figured since I was going to be in parts of Europe that are well-known for their slopes, I knew I should take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Innsbruck, Austria was just a few hours away from my previous destination, Salzburg, and it is a city surrounded by many ski resorts. In fact, Innsbruck has been a host of the Winter Olympics…twice. So I made my way to the winter sports hub, excited that I would get to ski the mountains of Austria.

I arrived in Innsbruck on a dreary evening, full of fog and rain–prohibiting me to see much of the city the first night I was there. The next morning, I anxiously opened the curtains in my room to see what the weather was like. Overnight it had snowed–hard. The ground was covered in a layer of white powder. To my surprise, I stepped out of the hostel and was greeted by a 360-degree view of snowcapped mountains, something I had been unable to see the previous evening. It was amazing, and I was thrilled that the weather had turned for the better. For my first full day in Innsbruck I toured the town. It was a bustling area full of tourists, skiers, and locals. The city was fabulous and the snowfall made it even more majestic.

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Innsbruck’s most popular landmark: Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof). It was built in the 1500s to represent the day Emperor Maximilian married his wife.

I then ventured over to Schloss Ambras, located on a hill overlooking Innsbruck. The Renaissance palace was the residence of Archduke Ferdinand II who happened to be quite the art collector. He built a museum on the premises specifically to store his famous collections. Because of this, the castle is the oldest museum in the world. With everything from full-length portraits to scientific items and armouries, it was filled with a wide variety of collections. My absolute favorite thing about the castle, however, was the inner courtyard. The space was covered with original frescoes, made to look as though they were three-dimensional. I was amazed as to how much detail went into decorating the walls.

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A view of Innsbruck from Schloss Ambras

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The inner courtyard

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The next day, it was finally time to ski. It had been about five years since I’d last been skiing, so I had no idea how it was going to go. Would my long, flimsy legs even know what to do when on a pair of wood planks? Who knows. When I was younger, my family and I would go skiing nearly every year. It is one of my dad’s favorite hobbies so I think he was hoping that we would like the sport as much as he did. And I did…at first. As a kid I was very daring. When I went skiing, I would dart through the slopes, trying to go as fast as I could. At the time I was not afraid of heights, so instead of doing strategic maneuvers down the mountain and zig-zagging back and forth like you are supposed to, I would just zoom down the slope in one vertical line. But now it’s a whole different story. I am a bit more cautious compared to my younger years, but I figured that if I could ski in elementary school, I could for sure do it now, right? Last famous words.

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Fearless Cara in her prime. Can you tell it was the 90s?

I decided to give it a shot at the Kühtai ski resort, about 45 minutes from Innsbruck. I was excited to finally put my ski pants to use after lugging them around in my pack for five weeks. I woke up bright and early that morning, rented some skis, hopped on the shuttle and made my way to the slopes. Sitting behind me were three guys from New Hampshire who were avid skiers. They were talking about all the fancy jumps and tricks they could do, and I was just hoping I would be able to get my skis on the right feet. After a long bus ride through the winding mountains, it was so nice to finally arrive in Kühtai and breathe fresh air.

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I decided that before I take on the larger slopes, I better see how much my body remembers the sport, so I took the lift up to the kiddy hill: the one they use to teach beginners. It was on this very ski lift–the first one I had been on in years–that I was somehow put in charge of a child. Let me explain. I got in line for the ski lift right behind a ski school class, complete with two instructors and around 10 kids. Each child had to ride the lift with an adult, so I was asked if I would let one ride with me. I obliged and they sent a kid my way who looked to be six or seven…and he only spoke French. Long story short, he was scared to get on the lift and scared to get off, and he didn’t understand a word I was saying so trying to talk him through it didn’t help with the situation. The employees had to stop the lift twice because of us. Needless to say I was never asked to oversee a kid on the ski lift for the rest of the day.

After getting my bearings straight on the beginner slope and not having to watch over any novice skiers other than myself, I was feeling pretty confident and decided to try one of more difficulty (only by a little). I got on the lift and suddenly heard “Texas!” The New Hampshire trio had hopped on the lift right behind me. Once arriving to the top of the slope, I casually waited so that they could get ahead of me so I wouldn’t get in their way. They sped down the mountain as I started slowly zig-zagging back and forth. It was awful. I had terrible form, I couldn’t keep my skis parallel, and everyone was probably wondering what a giraffe was doing on skis. Halfway down the slope, I once again heard, “Texas!” The three guys were already back on the lift to do the route again. That’s how slow I was, people. Finally, by the end of the run, I slowly started getting the hang of things. Although I still had an awkward form, it was slightly improving. A man on the slopes even stopped to give me pointers which helped surprisingly well. After each route I did, the better I became, and I was starting to enjoy myself. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and a heavy bout of snow from the previous night made for fresh powder on the slopes. I am nowhere near to being a good skier, but I didn’t care. Every time I got off the lift I was just looking forward to skiing through the Alps of Austria. The views were incredible, and the air was so clean and fresh. I didn’t fall once, but to be fair, I don’t think I ever skied fast enough to have the chance to fall. Let’s just say I am not the next Lindsey Vonn.

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I was greeted by this smiling cappuccino at the top of the mountain so that was pretty great.

After a full day of skiing, I got on the shuttle bus and headed back to town. Once again, the New Hampshire guys were telling me all about their awesome tricks and I was just like, “I didn’t fall!” It was a fun experience, and I still cannot get over how beautiful it was to ski in Innsbruck. After having been in Austria for a week and a half, it allowed me to see a whole other side of the country I had yet to witness.

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Once I arrived back to town, I slowly made the two mile walk back to my hostel. I felt proud and accomplished after an eventful day, although one day of skiing was all I needed. Exhausted, I fell asleep right when my head hit the pillow. I had another early wake up call ahead so that I could make my way to the next country on my itinerary: Germany.

The hills are alive in Salzburg

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NOTE: There will be several references to The Sound of Music in this post. You have been warned.

I arrived in Salzburg on a very snowy afternoon and knew right away I was going to like the quaint city. Shops and restaurants were lined along the river, with the Austrian Alps making an appearance in the background. I stayed at the YOHO International Youth Hostel, and it only added to my overall experience in Salzburg. With just a short walk from city center, the hostel was small and quiet, filled with friendly receptionists and other backpackers passing through. They also played The Sound of Music in the lobby every single night, so that in itself was wonderful. In fact, I liked Salzburg so much that I ended up extending my stay for another day (one of the benefits of not having every part of this trip planned out).

Aside from its picturesque landscape, Salzburg is home to many historical landmarks including Hohensalzburg Castle, Mirabell Palace, and Mozart’s birthplace. I walked around Old Town, wide-eyed and amazed at all there was to see. There was even a walking trail that was parallel to the Salzach River allowing for spectacular views and a peaceful stroll in the heart of the city.

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One of the things I have been looking forward to was The Sound of Music tour. Yes, you heard me. I have been a fan of the movie ever since I was a kid, probably because my mom loved the film so much and watched it frequently. Still to this day, whenever we have a movie night, the classic musical is on our short list, along with Big and 13 Going On 30. So naturally, I was very giddy to have been in the place where most of the film was shot and couldn’t pass up the chance to see some of the familiar locations that were in the movie. There were seven other people on the tour, along with our hilarious tour guide who cracked jokes for the whole four hours. He was his own biggest fan as he would start laughing hysterically after every joke he told. He was very entertaining and also very well versed on The Sound of Music history and trivia. He did admit to us, however, that he had never even seen the movie before getting a job as a tour guide. In Austria and Germany, the movie is not as well known.

The tour first started in the heart of Salzburg, as our guide pointed out the hotels where the cast and crew stayed. A fun fact I learned was that the cast and crew originally intended to stay in Salzburg for six weeks to shoot the movie, but it ended up taking nearly twice as long. The reason? Christopher Plummer would often be at the hotel bar until the early hours of the morning, so there were some days when he was unable to play the strict and proper Captain Von Trapp. The guide went on to show us Nonnberg Abbey, the place where the nuns were trying to figure out how you solve a problem like Maria, as well the Frohnburg Palace, used for the front of the Von Trapp villa. We also got to see various landscapes where the opening scenes of the movie were filmed…right before Maria belted her lungs out on top of a hill. You go girl.

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The Frohnburg Palace (somewhat hidden by trees)

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We then ventured outside of Salzburg to the countryside and made a stop at Schloss Leopoldskron. It was at this location that the scenes showing the back of the Von Trapp villa were shot. One of the more familiar scenes is when Maria and the children fall out of the boat and into the lake. Our tour guide explained that the scene actually had to be shot twice because Julie Andrews fell out of the boat the wrong way during the first take. So, after falling into freezing cold water, the cast had to be dried off just so that they could do it all over again. Although we couldn’t venture right up to the palace, we were able to see it from across the lake. I absolutely loved it and was secretly wishing I could have been one of the Von Trapp kids wearing a green curtain romper singing in a boat with Julie Andrews.

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Schloss Leopoldskron

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Can I be the eighth Von Trapp child please?

We continued on to see the pavilion where Liesl and Rolfe sang “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” Although those scenes was filmed at a Los Angeles studio, the pavilion was given to Salzburg after the movie was made as a “thank you” gift. Not too far from where the pavilion was located was also the path where Maria got off the bus with her luggage as she sang “I Have Confidence.”

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“I have confidence in confidence alone!”

For our last stop, we drove through the winding roads as we got higher up into the mountains. It was a beautiful drive and what made it even better was that the movie’s soundtrack was playing in the background. From “Favorite Things” and “Maria,” to “Do-Re-Mi” and “The Lonely Goatherd,” everyone in the car was singing along as we made our way to Mondsee, Austria (except for one guy who slept most of the time…I don’t think he really wanted to be there). About 30 minutes east of Salzburg, Mondsee is a small town that is home to the Collegiate Church of Saint Michael (Mondsee Abbey), the church where Captain Von Trapp and Maria got married in the movie. However, in real life, they were actually married in Nonnberg Abbey. I found the outside of the church to be quite adorable. It was a pale yellow color that had two towers at the front of the building. The inside was just as spectacular as it was in the movie. The 15th century Gothic interior was complete with a geometric ceiling, and extraordinary and ornate statues along the aisles. It did seem smaller in reality than it did on the movie screen, but it was still impressive nonetheless and I couldn’t help but sing “Maria” in my head while I was there.

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Mondsee Abbey

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The town of Mondsee

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Before the tour officially came to an end, the guide drove us back to Salzburg, parked the van, and then walked us over to the Mirabell Palace, the very place where Maria and the kids danced around The Pegasus Fountain. It was also where the famous steps are located–the ones you see during the performance of “Do-Re-Mi.” Although partially closed off by a gate, I hopped on the steps that I could, with the song playing over and over in my head. The tour made me love The Sound of Music even more if that’s even possible. I was a full-on tourist during those four hours, with my mouth agape in amazement the whole time.

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The Pegasus Fountain at Mirabell Palace

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The Pegasus Fountain with the famous steps in the background

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The steps! “Doe, a deer, a female deer…”

While I was in Salzburg, I met another traveler, Kritzia, who also happened to be from Houston. She had lived in Brenham as well, and coincidentally enough, went to high school with my best friend. Small world, right? It was nice to have another Texan to talk to. For the next two days we were in the city, we decided to go visit surrounding towns and villages. Our first destination of choice was Hallstatt. It took a bus, train, and a ferry to get there, but luckily Kritzia knew what she was doing so I just followed along…I have never been good at figuring out public transportation.

Hallstatt was unlike any other place I have ever visited. The village has a population of less than 1,000 and is best known for its salt production. It looks out onto the Hallstätter See, where the waters are still and the mountains can be seen from every which way. The town was absolutely stunning.

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The first thing we did was walk up a steep trail that led us to an overlook of the village. It was an arduous walk, but definitely worth it. We were even greeted by a long, narrow waterfall along the way. When we had made it to the top, snow covered the ground and there was a lookout point that jutted out over the town, making for an incredible sight. The sky was clear, the air was crisp, and I stood still as I looked out onto Hallstatt and the lake, where the mountains reflected perfectly onto the smooth waters.

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The tiny village was so quiet, yet full of character. Since it was winter, a lot of restaurants and attractions were closed, but for a place like Hallstatt, it didn’t matter. The village in itself made it worth the trip. The houses and buildings were all situated on a hill, with one narrow, winding road taking you from one side of town to the other. I would say hands down that Hallstatt is one of the most interesting and adorable places I have ever visited.

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The next day we decided to take a day trip over to Königssee, a lake in the German state of Barvaria right next to the Austrian border. Once again, I let Kritzia take the lead because I can’t read bus timetables to save my life, so I just followed along. Königssee (Meaning “King’s Lake” in English) is said to be the cleanest lake in Germany. There was a boat taking visitors to St. Bartholomä, another area of the lake with serene views and hiking trails. For the duration of the 30 minute boat ride, one of the captains was telling stories of the lake–at least I think so–because it was all in German. He was funny though because there would be random bouts of laughter heard throughout the boat. I just smiled and nodded, pretending to know what was going on. After hearing all about the lake’s history and not understanding any of it, we got off the boat and started walking down one of the hiking trails. The trail started taking us through dead trees and brush–nothing too exciting. But then, as we slowly increased in elevation, snow started to appear. The white powder gradually blanketed the ground until we were completely surrounded by the snow. It was like a winter wonderland.  What started as an ordinary hike turned into a beautiful winter scene that could have come straight out of a movie.

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Königssee

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St. Bartholomä

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An attempt at making snowmen…

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With a few hours of daylight left, we ventured over to Berchtesgaden, a nearby municipality, after exploring Königssee. We hiked up some steep trails to reach the top of the town, and once again, we were greeted with spectacular scenery.

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Visiting Salzburg and surrounding towns has definitely been one of the highlights on this trip. Not only did I get to relive one of my favorite movies of all time, I also got to explore remote areas of Austria, with each place taking my breath away in its own right.

While in Salzburg, I had been on this adventure for exactly one month. I couldn’t believe how fast time has flown. I looked back in amazement at all of the places I have been able to visit so far. In a way, I related my journey to that of Maria Von Trapp’s: someone who was so ready to break out of her normal routine, and with confidence in herself, was able to do so. Once she believed in herself, nobody could tell Maria otherwise. Because after all, you can’t catch a cloud and pin it down, and you can’t hold a moonbeam in your hand.

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream, Follow every rainbow, ‘Til you find your dream.

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P.S. My mom gets to Switzerland in less than a week, and just a few days later we meet my cousin in Rome! Just a little excited about that…so let the countdown begin!

So long, farewell, Auf Weidersehen, goodbye…OK I promise I’m done now.

 

Visiting Vienna

My next stop was Vienna, Austria. I have to admit, I had not done much research on the city and wasn’t even sure what all there was to see. However, I figured it would be worth the visit. I knew I eventually needed to make my way down to Salzburg, so I just decided I would make a stop in Vienna along the way. Austria’s largest city and capital, Vienna is home to nearly a third of the country’s population. Because it was once the home of Sigmund Freud, it is also known as “The City of Dreams.”

Vienna was beautiful, however, aside from a few main sights and monuments, there wasn’t much that sparked my interest. There were definitely some highlights during my stay, and it was an experience nonetheless. And besides, that is exactly why I came on this trip: to visit a range of countries, cities and towns while delving into their cultures, scenery, and everything that makes them unique. So, I made the most out of my visit.

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During my first day, I walked out of my hostel and right in front of me was a giant food market. It was glorious. The Naschmarkt dates back to the 16th century and is nearly a mile in length. The whole street was lined with many different vendors who were selling spices, fruits, vegetables, and a variety of Austrian cuisine. This was definitely one of the highlights of my time in Vienna because, well, I love food. After walking through the whole market, I stocked up on groceries that I would need for the next few days and also had tried enough samples to fill me up for lunch.

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I then continued on to the city center. It was a very nice area, lined with upscale shops and restaurants. Right in the middle of it all was St. Stephen’s Cathedral standing tall and proud above the other buildings. Having seen many cathedrals throughout this trip, they never cease to amaze me. Each one has its own style and St. Stephen’s was complete with both Gothic and Romanesque architectural influences. Everyone in close proximity to the church, including me, was marveling over its beauty. There were even horse drawn carriages by the side of the cathedral with coachmen dressed in 16th century clothing. It was if I had gone back in time to the days of the Holy Roman Emperor.

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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Without a plan, I continued to walk past the city center and saw some other parts of Vienna. I was surprised at how many parks they had, all complete with with tall trees and wide open spaces. I then saw a huge tower sticking straight out of Vienna’s landscape. It wasn’t the prettiest structure, but I was curious as to what it was so I started heading towards it. It was a lot farther than it looked. Four miles later, I could finally see that I was almost there. It was just across the Danube River, and as I was walking over the bridge to reach it, I could see rolling hills in the distance. It was a gorgeous view and made the walk completely worth it. At that point, I didn’t even care about the tower, but rather the scenery that was right before my eyes. It was nice to be away from the city for a little while.

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It turns out that the Danube Tower, also known as the Vienna Donauturm, is the tallest structure in Austria, reaching a height of 827 feet. The tower acts as a radio transmitter and also has a lookout point and restaurant at the very top. However, since I didn’t want to spend 30+ euros for a meal and a view, I stayed on the ground.

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The Danube Tower

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When I arrived back to my hostel, two of my roommates had just returned from the Schönbrunn Palace, owned by the royal family of Austria, the Hapsburgs. They told me that it would be worth the trip to go, so the next morning I ventured over to the city’s most popular attraction. I will have to say that this was my absolute favorite thing I did in Vienna, and would go again if I ever get the chance. Unfortunately I could not take pictures of the interior, but my goodness, it was fascinating to see. The Baroque palace used to be a summer residence for Vienna’s monarchs and has 1,441 rooms. Built in the 1500s, it was remodeled during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa. The admission included an audio guide that led me through 40 of the rooms. It was like HGTV on steroids. Each room had its own theme and style. Some had elaborate paintings on the ceilings, and others were lined with gold trim complete with elegant chandeliers. Not one room was the same and each had a different purpose. The audio tour also talked about the royal family, focusing on Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife, Maria Theresa. Empress Maria Theresa was the only female ruler of the Hapsburg family. She had 16 children, one of which would later become the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. The family history was very interesting, combined with the marvelous interior of the palace. I was there for nearly two hours, weaving in and out of different rooms and dining halls. It was a great way to end my stay in Vienna, as I headed back to the hostel for one last night–this was hard after just being at the Schönbrunn Palace.

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Vienna was great, but compared to the other places I have visited on this trip, it wasn’t my favorite. Getting to see the palace was definitely a highlight though, and I don’t regret visiting the Austrian city. However, I was ready and excited to get to Salzburg, something I’ve been looking forward to for this whole trip…mainly because I wanted to reenact as many scenes as possible from The Sound of Music and sing “The Hills Are Alive” at the top of my lungs. And you can bet I did just that.

 

With all your heart, you must trust the Lord and not your own judgement. Always let him lead you, and he will clear the road for you to follow. Proverbs 3:5-6

 

I dream of crêpes

No really, I had a dream about crêpes. So naturally, although not on my original itinerary, I changed my plans so that I could go to Paris. With not even 30 minutes of my arrival, I already had a crêpe in my hand as I gazed up at the Eiffel Tower. Although a last minute decision, I was thrilled to be back in the City of Lights, having been once before 11 years ago.

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This was the first destination on this trip in which English wasn’t the first language. Luckily for me, a majority of the locals I encountered could speak English. Phew! After being in hostels for days on end, I splurged a little and decided to stay at a low-cost hotel. I have come to learn that this is OK to do every once and a while, and is the reason I have been able to stay sane on this trip. It gives me a chance to regroup, get some much-needed sleep, and not be crammed in a room with 8 or more people. I ended up staying in Paris for two days, and it brought back so much nostalgia from the first time I was there.

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Back in 2005, my mom and I took a girl’s trip to Paris and had a blast. We saw many museums, Versailles, Claude Monet’s Garden, the Arc de Triompe, and much more. We also happened to be there during the Tour de France and saw Lance Armstrong cycle through the finish line…although he would later be stripped of all of his titles. It was such a memorable vacation and at 13 years old, it was my first time in Europe and was an experience to remember. I remember parts of the trip better than others, but do remember that in the week we were there, we were always on the go, trying to see as much of the city as we could. Something I also remember very well was me not being very fond of the French food. I LOVE it now, but back then I was a bit more of a picky eater and it seemed like everything I ordered had goat cheese on it, something I used to stick my nose up at. I also had braces so the foods I did like to eat, mainly baguettes, I couldn’t because they were too hard for the metal I had glued to my mouth. Because of this, as much as I hate to admit it, most of the food I ate in Paris was from McDonalds. So not only were there some specific things I wanted to do when I got back to Paris, but I also wanted to actually get to enjoy the French cuisine now that my tastebuds have matured and I no longer have a metal mouth.

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Awkward, teenage Cara in Paris and looking a little bitter because she couldn’t eat a baguette.

The temperature was in the mid-50s with a little humidity, reminding me of the weather back in Houston. Although overcast and cloudy, it was a nice change from the dry, cold and damp weather I’ve been used to. Another plus was that with it being offseason for tourists, the streets of Paris were never very crowded. It was quiet and peaceful as I roamed the city.

The first thing I did, after getting a crêpe of course, was go and sit down in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was just as amazing as I had remembered it.

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I then ventured over to the Arc de Triompe, a monument that honors those who fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It seemed like everywhere I turned there was either a monument, statue, museum or ornate cathedral to gaze at. I went on to see Moulin Rouge, Opéra Garnier, the Liberty Flame, Place Vendôme, and the Palais de Louvre. I had been in the Louvre before and got to see the Mona Lisa back in 2005. I also passed out in front of the painting, but that’s another story. Moving on.

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Arc de Triompe

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Moulin Rouge

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Opéra Garnier

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The Liberty Flame

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Napoleon statue at Place Vendôme

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The Louvre Museum

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For my last night in Paris, I walked along the canal as the city lights reflected onto the water. The Eiffel Tower sparkled in the background, making for the most picturesque view. For dinner, I decided to try different local bakeries and cuisine. I also had a weak moment when I passed a pastry shop and saw a tree made of macaroons. York, England was the only time I had ever had one, and so of course I had to go on and grab another one of the tiny desserts. OK and I grabbed an eclair too, another French pastry I had never tried before. It was all delicious, and I think I made up for not being able to eat any of the French cuisine the first time I was in Paris. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

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Not sure what this was called, but it was absolutely delicious.

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Carbs, carbs, and more carbs

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Behold, the macaroon tree

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On my final day, I had a few hours before I had to catch a plane to my next destination: Austria! With the time I had, I decided to go visit Notre-Dame, a cathedral I’ve seen before, but never been in. Just the exterior of the building alone is amazing, but the inside blew me away. Complete with intricate stained glass windows and statues, the cathedral was as quiet as it could be, as everyone was in awe at what they were seeing. It was a humbling and wonderful experience, both physically and spiritually, as I stood in one of the most well-known churches in the world.

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After Notre-Dame, I just walked around without a map or any idea of where to go. I turned down random side streets and alleyways, trying to explore every area of Paris. It seemed as if I were constantly finding new ways to love the city even more.

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Once again, Paris didn’t disappoint. I am so glad I was able to make a stop in the City of Lights to see all of its beautiful sights…and to fulfill my dream of eating a crêpe. Until next time, Paris, au revoir.

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In louvre with Paris

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it.’ Isaiah 30:21

A Wicked time in London

Alas, I made it to London–a city known for its art, fashion and landmarks. As a kid, I always dreamed of one day visiting the majestic city after watching The Parent Trap, a movie that I still love to this day. There is one scene in particular where Hallie, pretending to be Annie, arrives in London to visit her mom. She gets in a cab and stares out the window in amazement as shots of various famous landmarks appear on the screen, with the song “There She Goes” playing in the background. From the first time I saw the movie, this very scene shaped my views and perspective of London, and  I’ve been longing to go ever since. I had finally arrived and it was everything I expected it to be and more. It was a fun-filled and busy few days, and I saw as much of the city as I possibly could.

For the three days I was there, I knew that there was so much to do and see, so I made a detailed itinerary. From the very moment I arrived, it seemed as if I were always on the go, heading towards my next item on the checklist. It kept me structured and motivated to get through everything. Aside from completing all I wanted to see, I had another goal: to walk everywhere I went. I didn’t want to use the bus or “the tube.” I felt as if walking would allow me to see more of London, and it did.

During my first day in London, I arrived in the afternoon with a few hours to spare before it got dark. Although it was lightly raining, I headed on foot towards Picadilly Circus, a junction that links directly to multiple theatres and the shopping district, complete with flashing neon signs plastered to buildings. As the sun started to set, Picadilly Circus looked like a mini replica of Times Square. Lights were flashing from every which direction, Broadway shows were about to begin, and the streets were filled with shoppers and tourists. It was a completely different experience compared to any other place I’ve visited on this trip so far. As I was making my way through the circus, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get a ticket for the following night to see Wicked. I have always been a fan of Broadway plays and have been fortunate enough to see a few in NYC, but I’ve never had the chance to see “the untold story of the witches of Oz.” I was filled with excitement and anticipation to see the award-winning musical and in awe of the fact that I would get to see it in London. Shortly after getting my hands on the golden ticket, I followed the yellow brick road all the way back to my hostel.

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The next morning I woke up bright and early and was ready to get the show on the road by 8am. I knew there was so much to see, so I wasted no time at all. My to-do list for the day was jam packed with monuments located all over London. I scheduled my day based on the locations of the sites so that I would be able to make the most out of my time. My goal was that by 6pm, I was to have seen the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, the Shard, Shakespeare’s Globe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Palace, Buckingham Palace, Green Park, and the Marble Arch. I then had one hour to make it over to the theatre to see Wicked. And guess what? I did it. I saw everything that I wanted to see and so much more. Since I walked everywhere, I felt as if I got to see a fairly large portion of the city. From the fancy shopping districts and the busy streets lined with red telephone booths to the markets and narrow alleyways, I saw many different sides of London, and I was fascinated by it all. It was one of the most eventful days I’ve had on this trip, and I loved it. Every single place I visited was different and unique from the next. Although it had rained the first night I was there, I was once again graced with beautiful weather and sunshine for the rest of my stay, making for a very enjoyable trip.

Tower of London

Contrary from its name, the Tower of London is a castle that resides on the bank of River Thames, officially known as Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London. It was named after the White Tower, the castle’s keep. Aside from being a royal residence, The Tower has also been an armoury, a records office, and a treasury.

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Tower Bridge

Not too far from the Tower of London stood the Tower Bridge in all its glory. London’s clear sky with a few bulky clouds was the perfect backdrop for the structure. I was enthralled by the suspension bridge. It was beautiful–something I don’t say about a bridge very often. It had two massive towers at each end as it spanned across River Thames. I decided to pay the entry fee to walk up it and see the view from the top, something was well worth the money in my opinion. I climbed the many flights of stairs to get up the first tower which was a workout in itself. I finally made it to the top and looked out onto London’s cityscape. It was a gorgeous view, and unlike the other experiences I’ve had with heights and steep drops on this trip, I was enclosed by glass walls (sigh of relief). At the top of the bridge there was also an area that had a glass floor, allowing me to look straight down onto the river. Whether looking up at the sky, onto River Thames or down below, the Tower Bridge provided picturesque views and made for one of my favorite stops of the day.

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Looking out onto London from the Tower Bridge.

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The glass floor looking down below!

The Shard

The tallest building in London, the Shard was completed in 2012.

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Shakespeare’s Globe

A modern reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. The original was built by Shakespeare’s playing company in the 1500s.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Trafalgar Square

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Big Ben

Big Ben is the name for the clock at the end of Palace of Westminster. Fun fact: For most of my childhood, I had Big Ben confused with Big Bend National Park in west Texas. Just a minor mixup…

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Westminster Abbey

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Palace of Westminster

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Buckingham Palace

One of my last stops of the day was the one and only Buckingham Palace, the rsidence of Queen Elizabeth II. I couldn’t even begin to imagine living in something that large. Just as I was, many other tourists were standing at the gates looking up at the palace in awe. I was also secretly hoping that Prince Harry would swing by and say hello, but no such luck.

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One of the guards at Buckingham Palace. I could have used one of those hats on that chilly day.

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The fountain at Buckingham Palace

Green Park

Green Park is one of the Royal Parks of London and is located right next to Buckingham Palace. After hours of weaving through the crowds on the city streets, it was a nice change in scenery to stroll through the park.

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Marble Arch

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Moments after this picture was taken, a pigeon ran right into my shoulder. Maybe it confused me with a street pole or something. I will never know, but it scared the living day lights out of me.

At last, I had seen every thing I had wanted to see on my list for that day, and not once did I get “turned around.” I felt accomplished, proud, and oddly enough, full of energy. I was an hour ahead of schedule thanks to my super long legs and lengthy walking stride, so I decided to make one extra stop through London’s Chinatown as the sky started to darken.

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Then, it was finally time. I made my way over to the Apollo Victoria Theatre to see Wicked. I was excited about the musical, but I was also thrilled about the fact that I would finally be able to sit down. It was the perfect way to end the day, and Wicked exceeded my expectations. Both the production and cast were amazing, as the musical told the story of the witches of Oz before Dorothy and Todo came into the mix. I was so glad I went, as it only added to my London experience. After the performance, I slowly dragged my feet back to the hostel and plopped into bed. I had walked 15 miles that day. I was exhausted, but I also had a huge smile on my face because in just 12 hours, I had grown to love London.

The next morning I was not so quick to wake up. Although this was partially due to all of the walking I did the previous day, it was also because my room at the hostel was located right above the bar that blared music until 3am, so that was wonderful. When I finally got moving around, I focused the day on visiting the parks of London while taking in the scenery. Instead of walking to specific things to go do and see, I just wandered around the city for most of the day, going to different places that sparked my interest.

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Trying to mimic the statue above?

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At the end of my stay I felt as if I had done a crash course of London. I finally got to see the city that The Parent Trap had introduced me to when I was just a little kid (the term “little” used loosely).

Out of everything I did, I would have to stay that the top three highlights of my stay were walking across the Tower Bridge, visiting Buckingham Palace, and witnessing the fabulous musical production of Wicked. My least favorite moment was getting hit by a pigeon, but I guess the pigeon had it worse.

It was time for my English journey to come to an end. Before I left, I stopped at a quaint cafe in one of the city’s many parks and looked out at the beautiful scenery full of trees and fountains, taking in every moment I could before making my way to Paris.

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For he will command his angels concerning you to guard in all your ways. Psalm 91:11