Last hurrah of 2015.

Confession: I recently discovered that adventure is my love language. All I really wanted for Christmas this year was another stamp in my passport. To pick up and venture out into the world with my husband and forge new paths and make awesome memories. Nothing makes me feel more alive than the thrill of exploring a new place. I was a little afraid to even entertain the idea of taking a trip (other than driving to Georgia to see family) because I didn’t want to be disappointed if it didn’t happen.

Fortunately, with my dad being an active airline employee with family flight privileges and my mom willing to babysit our furry toddler, we were able to make a last minute decision to visit London for a few days over Christmas break. We were unbelievably fortunate to have had great luck with our stand-by flights this time around, and were assigned seats on the very first non-stop flight we attempted out of Atlanta. We spent 3 full days in England, and though I worried a bit at how much we would miss out on in such a short trip, it ended up being absolutely perfect.

Because the trip was decided so late, hardly any planning went into it. We probably booked the last affordable Air BnB available in the city, which was a tiny 1 bedroom flat that hadn’t been cleaned since the last guests…But you get what you pay for! Thank goodness there were at least some clean sheets on hand. It was located in a great borough called Shoreditch with many wonderful eating/drinking/shopping options around with great access to all the must-see London sights.

Amazingly enough, if you’re okay with walking an upwards of 13 miles each day, you can basically see all of the city in 3 jam-packed days. I was so pleased with how much ground we covered, and everything about this city exceeded my expectations. We had incredible weather (50s and sunny during the day-which the locals assured me was unheard of) and the public transportation system could not have been easier to master. London was accessible and approachable and friendly and quaint and buzzing and essentially all good things about Europe bunched together. It was so magical at night, and I loved strolling down street after street lit up in twinkling Christmas lights like no American street has ever seen. Let me just tell you…Europe knows how to celebrate Christmas way better than we do.

We frolicked around Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland for hours on night, marveling at this Disneyland-scale festival complete with roller-coasters, a Bavarian Village, ice sculpture garden, and giant ice-skating rink. It was as if I had died and gone to heaven. Josh disagrees and thinks he died and went to another place, as the crowds and lights and sheer volume of holiday cheer was a bit overwhelming for him. He was such a good sport.

Prior to Winter Wonderland, we had been lost inside Harrods for hours. Again, totally overstimulating and not Josh’s favorite. These experiences probably would have been best experienced on different nights. Who knew everything in London was so over-the-top?? Either way, that day was one for the books in my opinion.

Hyde Park was beautiful during the day as well. So lush and vast and full of happy locals walking their pets and kids on scooters. I won’t mention the time we got kicked out of a playground for not having children with us, because that would just be embarrassing… (on an unrelated note, people with kids should spend some time at the Diana Memorial Playground if you’re in town)

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And of course, we saw the biggies…The London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, The Globe Theater, Tate Modern Museum, Centennial Bridge, Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace, and many many others. We rode on the top of an iconic red double-decker bus, ate the best Indian food of our lives, drank English breakfast tea with milk, and minded the gap on the London Tube.

This trip seemed so much longer than 3 days with all we were able to see, but there was still so much yet to be discovered. I wish we could have seen a show in one of the many historic theaters or coughed up $50/person for high tea at Harrods or ridden the London Eye. Turns out London is very very expensive. The museums are free, but they make up for it in steep admission fees everywhere else you go. I was happy this time to walk by everything and get a taste for what I want to prioritize splurging on next go-around.

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Thank you London for a jolly good time, and beautiful weather and ending 2015 on a good note. I know my days of spontaneous border crossings are limited as I look ahead to graduation and full-time employment, so I am extra extra grateful for opportunities like this. What an amazing adventure this year has been. Happy New Year!

 

Roma-The Vatican and beyond

Per Rick Steves’ advice, Josh and I temporarily suspended our protestantism and spent a day immersed in the glory that is Roman Catholicism. We reserved a ticket and a spot a few weeks in advance on a guided tour through the Vatican Museum, and wandered the halls of the historic grounds for hours. The tour was found from the Vatican website, and it allowed us to skip the insanely long line that had formed around the entire outer wall of the museum. All that planning really does pay off.

The tour was alright, but definitely worth the extra money spent to skip the line and have a few of the artifacts and significant artworks explained to us. Our tour ended in the Sistine Chapel where we ooed and awed over Michaelangelo’s interior-masterpiece.

From the Sistine, we went next door to St. Peter’s Basilica. If you’ve never been to St. Peter’s, I would suggest you go ahead and scratch a note onto the ole’ bucket list. I mean, this place completely blew us away. It took two jet lagged, sore-footed travelers and transformed us into children. We were giddy at the grandeur of that church. It is the richest, biggest, most visited church in the world, all built on top of what is said to be Saint Peter’s resting place. Like much of Europe, this destination exceeded our very high expectations.

 

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Hall full of hand painted maps in the Vatican museum

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Outside St. Peter’s Basilica

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The size of this place is unreal.

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Sun rays peaking through the dome in the Basilica

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The baldacchino, designed by artist Bernino is said to be the largest piece of bronze in the world. It sits directly above the tomb of Peter.

It is safe to say we enjoyed our time at the Vatican. I’m happy we didn’t miss that important piece of Rome. It was mind-boggling to discover how Christianity evolved into the widespread religion it is today, starting with Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion right here in Rome.

Some other places we visited in Rome that I haven’t mentioned include:

The Spanish Steps

Trevi Fountain

The Jewish Ghetto

A few incredible restaurants I will pass on if anyone requests it. Yelp was most helpful in this department.

Like I said previously, we could have spent many more days in Rome and still not seen all we wanted to see. We also wasted a few hours on Vatican day making a long trek to the airport to retrieve our bags (MIRACLE!!) which decided to show up. I loved this city and can’t wait to return one day. In my opinion, every human needs to visit Rome if they can. The history is just too important to miss.

Roma, you were magnificent.

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 Next stop…Florence!

Roma! Getting acquainted with Italy.

So, in case I forgot to mention it…We are in Europe. And it is amazing.

The last time I was on this continent I was 18 and it was snowing and I didn’t have any walking shoes with me. This time around, the trees are blossoming, I don’t need a ski coat, and I am completely enchanted. There really aren’t words for the magic that is Italy.

Our trip started with 3 nights in Rome. Unfortunately, our bags didn’t come into the picture until day 3. But now that I have access to clean underwear I can truly say without hesitation that Rome WAS everything I had hoped it would be.

Thanks to Rick Steves, we spent most of our time in Rome wandering on our own listening to audio tours of the Colosseum, Pantheon, and Roman Forum. We did the “Caesar Shuffle” on our first full day, and The Vatican on day 2. There was, of course, much walking, gelato eating, and phone calls to various airports to locate or luggage along the way.

Really two full days in Rome was not nearly enough. Especially when we spent so much of our time dealing with -get this- FOUR airports who were linked to our lost luggage. What a nightmare. The worst part about not having our bags was that our camera was in my checked luggage. Thank goodness for iPhones!

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Arche of Titus

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Ruins of the ancient Roman Forum

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Inside the Pantheon

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Piiazza Navone

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The Colosseum

 

I can certainly see why Rome is not everyone’s favorite place. It is overwhelming and can become a dizzying maze of poorly labeled public transit if you’re not on top of planning. I’m keeping a running list of little tips I wish I would have had when planning the trip. Here are a few of my top ones I’ll forever suggest to anyone visiting this amazing city.

1) Get on the Italian eating schedule ASAP. Like, don’t wait until you’re hungry to eat. Eat lunch at 1 or 2 pm, and dinner around 8. If you wait until your American tummy tells you to eat, NOTHING will be open. I mean nothing.

2) Buy a Roma Pass. Just do it. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble by having unlimited access to public transportation and getting to cut everyone in line at museums.

3) Stay near a metro OR close to all the action. We stayed way too far from everything for our own good. On the second day in Rome my pedometer registered a total of 11.5 miles of walking. That is painful, guys. When people say you’ll walk a lot in Europe they are NOT messin’ around.

4) Yelp is your friend. We found our only great meals in Rome through Yelp. The photos helped a lot.

5) Take Rome in stride. Love the beauty, appreciate the faster pace of everyday life, and just pretend you’re a Roman for the time being. Have an espresso standing at a bar, even if it tastes like drinking charcoal. Just have fun and laugh about how fun it is to be immersed in a completely different culture. We came to their country for good reason after all, so learn and grow and taste and smell and ENJOY!

I’ll keep listing tips as I think of them. It really is true that you can never be 100% prepared for what you’ll come across when traveling abroad. I have been planning this trip for months, but never could have predicted our luggage would get lost. You just never know. I’ll just take this as a chance to re-learn what it means to be flexible, and thank the good Lord that He reunited us with our stuff before I had a nervous breakdown.

Ciao!