Monday, July 18, 2016

Reykjavik: The World's Northernmost Capital City

Did you know that Reykjavik is farther north than any other world capital? Straddling the 64th parallel, it's barely outside the Arctic Circle. But if your idea of a perfect July day is 65˚F with sunshine until midnight, look no further!

Iceland has a complex history, which the Saga Museum does a wonderful job of presenting. In the late 800s, Norsemen discovered the island, settling in Reykjavik by the 870s. I'm not going to get into a history lesson, but the centuries that followed were marked by feuds, witch trials, the bubonic plague, and even the discovery of Vinland by Leif Eriksson.

But enough Icelandic history.

With the Icelandair Stopover program, Reykjavik is more relevant than ever (and no, this is not a paid advert). Anyone traversing the Atlantic Ocean via Icelandair has the option to do a "stopover" in Reykjavik for up to seven days, no extra charge. Honestly, I'm not sure if Iceland would even have been on my list without that program, but now that I've spent three days there, I want to go back again and again and again.

Is it expensive? Yes. My stay in an eight-person dorm at the Loft Hostel (which I highly recommend) cost around $60/night with breakfast. But that's the beauty of doing a stopover--I could spend just enough time to see some of Iceland's main sights without committing a week or two to an expensive destination. I plan on doing the stopover again in the future--there's so much more I want to see and do (like climb Eyjafjallajökull!), and it's much easier to break up the cost.

My time in Reykjavik consisted mostly of roaming the city, which is full of small museums, colorful homes, and street art. Of course, I had to visit the infamous Icelandic Phallological Museum, aka the penis museum. If you think it's erotic, well, it isn't. It's literally a bunch of mammal penises in glass jars, similar to a science museum. Gross, interesting, and educational at the same time. The best part is what inspired the founder to curate this collection. As a child, his weapon of self-defense was a bull's penis! Could you imagine?!

Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the food. I do not eat meat or fish, and I was hard pressed to find a restaurant serving Icelandic cuisine with vegetarian options. On the other hand, the beer is great! Just be careful during the summer when you're at the bar--one minute, it's 9:00 p.m., and the next minute it's midnight! I loved the midnight sun, but it definitely messed with my sense of time. ;)

Of course, I spent the majority of my time adventuring through Iceland's plethora of natural wonders. Stay tuned to learn about 1,000-year-old glaciers, Iceland's tallest waterfall, and puffins!

P.S. Never in my life have I seen so many man buns.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Tapestry That Told a Story in Bayeux

Have you ever heard of the Norman city of Bayeux? My guess is probably not, but no visit to Normandy should be complete without it.

What makes Bayeux different from your average small French town, though? That would be its famed tapestry, measuring at 229 feet long, 19 inches high, and nearly 800 pounds.

La Tapisserie de Bayeux, or the Bayeux Tapestry, recounts William the Conqueror's reign. The tapestry covers year 1064 through the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where William conquered England. The story is told entirely by the images on the tapestry. Fear not, though, as the museum admission includes an audioguide that gives you a detailed account.

Photos were not allowed in the museum, but here are some images to give you an idea:

Have any of you visited Bayeux? I want to give a special shoutout to Zoe of Paper Macaron, for it was her post about Bayeux that not only taught me about the city, but also inspired me to visit!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Caen, France: A Rainy History

Just over a year ago, a few of my friends and I decided to head to Normandy for a history-rich weekend away from our small towns in France. Visiting Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery was important to us, which made the city of Caen the obvious destination. This region is known for its abundance of rainy days, but we were lucky enough to score a tiny bit of sunshine that weekend.

Our only full day in Caen happened to fall on Easter (we had arrived Friday night, spent that Saturday at the WWII sites, and left on Monday), so we started the day at Easter Mass at the Abbey of St. Étienne (l'Église Saint-Étienne). L'Église Saint-Étienne is the final resting place of William the Conqueror, who rose from Duke of Normandy to King of England in 1066 following the Battle of Hastings. (You can learn more about him here.) Although I did not partake in the service (I'm Jewish), I loved being part of the celebration! For my practicing friends, this was an especially meaningful Easter Sunday. Something cool about Caen is that their Hôtel de Ville (city hall) is attached to this church, so we got to see two landmarks at once.

The sun shone briefly, and as the entire city (/entire country) had shut down for the holiday, we visited the Château de Caen for its open grounds. William the Conqueror built this fortress around 1060, and many of its original foundations are still there (in ruin-form, which you may see below)! Today, it also houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, a church, and the Musée de Normandie (which we visited the following day and LOVED!). While I do not have photos from the Normandy Museum, it was a fun and interactive way to learn about this city's (and this region's) historical importance. Plus, castles always offer the most stunning panoramic views! (After all, you need eyes on the entire city in order to keep out intruders.)

The Abbey of St. Étienne is also known as l'Abbaye aux hommes ("Men's Abbey"), but William the Conqueror made sure to have an Abbaye aux dames ("Women's Abbey"), as well. This former monastery now functions as a church and convent, and the grounds and architecture are beautiful!

Perhaps one of my favorite memories of Caen was making flower crowns amid some Romanesque ruins! I had never made one before, so Maria gave us a lesson. We weren't quite sure where we were or the origin of these ruins, so if any of you know the answer, comment below!

And what sort of girls' weekend would it be without alcohol? Let me rephrase that--what sort of visit to Caen would exclude calvados?! Calvados is an apple brandy that originates from Normandy, and man is it strong. Yes, it comes in a shot glass, but I highly advise that you do not take it like a shot! Rather, you sip it slowly and enjoy it after your meal, like how you would drink limoncello. As they say in France, Chin chin!

Monday, June 6, 2016

In Honor of D-Day: Strolling Along Omaha Beach

I meant to write this post one year ago, but when I missed the date, I found it only fitting to hold off until this year.

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Normandy landings, better known as the D-Day invasion of World War II. Rather than try to sum it up myself, here's the U.S. Army's version:
On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which, “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 Soldiers to begin the slow, hard slog across Europe, to defeat Adolf Hitler’s crack troops.
During my eight months in France, my friends and I knew that we could not pass up the opportunity to visit Omaha Beach and the Normandy American Cemetery. So one dreary weekend in April 2015, we packed up and headed to northern France to visit this historical landmark.

As soon as we passed through those gates, we were on American soil, just like that. From the first language being English to the water fountains scattered throughout the grounds (never to be found in France), it sure felt like the U.S., too. And as much as I adore France and feel secure there, I breathed a sigh of relief to be back "home."

After passing through security, we made our way through the museum. There were personal accounts, historical texts, audio and video clips, artifacts, and even interactive displays that took you through the events leading up to the famed invasion, as well as the details of what happened. I did not take any photographs in the museum, except for this quote that greeted you upon the exit.

We walked out, and there was Omaha Beach, staring us in the face.

We learned that Omaha was a actually code name for the beach, as were Sword, Gold, Utah, and Juno. Taking the winding trails down to the beach, it felt like a nature trail rather than a former war zone.

It was a hilly descent (and climb), even with the boardwalk in place--we couldn't fathom the idea of being in full Army uniform, maneuvering through the grasses and trees and marsh to get to the enemy, all while protecting ourselves and our comrades. But the beach itself was beautiful and calm, the total opposite of what you would expect a World War II battlefield to be.

After wandering along the rocky shores, we headed up to the cemetery. Nearly 10,000 Americans have been laid to rest here, most of whom died during the D-Day invasion. It felt like a smaller, cloudier version of Arlington Cemetery: religious gravestones perfectly lined up, with monuments and reflecting pools along the pathways. The cemetery also offered a wonderful view of the beach.

It was a sobering day in Normandy, but we were so thankful to have visited. God Bless America.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Blue Skies of Montpellier

Following my time in Toulouse, I took the train about two hours south to Montpellier, near the Spanish border. Unfortunately, it rained most of the days I was there, which literally put a damper on the outdoor activities I had planned on doing. I took advantage of the one sunny day I had there, though, and rather than kayaking I decided to explore the city in all of its sunny glory!