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Making a Splash in Cologne, Germany

Our decision to visit Cologne, Germany, went something like this:

“There’s a really cheap flight to Cologne.”

“What’s in Cologne?”

“They have a chocolate museum.”

“Sold.”

Up until that point, my friends and I knew of Cologne only as a men’s fragrance, but when the guidebook promises a “Willy Wonka-esque” chocolate fountain,  you heed the call.

We left our home base in Padua, Italy, with visions of candy bars dancing in our heads.  Nine hours of missed bus and train connections later, we arrived starving, exhausted, and about ready to punch a sugar plum fairy.

Emerging from the train station, the ominous shadow of the Kölner Dom immediately enveloped us.  Cologne’s towering cathedral broods over the city, justly earning its title as the largest gothic church in Northern Europe.  Beholding the dark behemoth against the bright blue autumn sky, we couldn’t help but be impressed…and slightly less disgruntled.

The Dom towers over the city of Cologne

From the imposing square of the Dom, Cologne breaks off into smaller cobblestone streets with modern stores that perhaps aim to counter the church’s heavy dose of history (it dates back to 1248!).  Ambling through the city on the way to our hostel, we came across another prevalent feature of Cologne’s landscape: street art.

A graphic series of poster-sized photographs depicted the lives and deaths of struggling drug addicts.  A huge wooden sculpture of rainbow-colored, nesting squares let us climb inside for a picture-framed view of the city.  We were amused, but not appeased, still grumbling over our traveler’s misfortune and regrettably empty stomachs.

Colorful 3-D street art

And then we saw it.  In the middle of a small, tree-lined square, it was unassuming but irresistible.  A man-made puddle, no more than 20 feet wide, with a turquoise plastic cube at its center for one to perch upon.  Along its edges were at least a dozen pairs of white rain boots, beckoning to be worn.

Without hesitation, we threw off our shoes and grabbed a pair of galoshes.  Never mind the dozens of questionable feet that had occupied them before us–we had some splashing to attend to.  For nearly a half-hour we waded around in the Kölsch puddle–almost two feet at its deepest point–laughing and taking pictures and forgetting all about our rough journey there.  It was as if Cologne had anticipated our unhappiness upon arriving, and it knew just the cure.

Kölsch puddle!

Even after our puddle jumping had concluded, Cologne continued to intrigue and delight us.  We ate bratwurst alongside mustachioed old men in a traditional beer garden and danced recklessly to German Top 40 songs at a student nightclub.  Along the banks of the Rhine river, we explored Cologne’s Old Town and finally tasted milk chocolate from the Lindt Museum‘s golden fountains.  We stuffed ourselves with pretzels and potato pancakes and washed them down with the signature Kölsch brew.

When we stepped into that puddle, Cologne had christened us, allowing us brief access to its finest secrets.  A city rife with history, Cologne honors its roots, but somehow manages to stay young at heart.  Both the young and the old gather at the same outdoor restaurants to eat, talk, and listen to a street band honk traditional tunes while the beer flows until the drinker sets the coaster atop her glass.

Cologne is often forgotten alongside the more popular German cities of Berlin and Munich–but it doesn’t mind.  Cologne will wait for you.  When you arrive, you might find–just as we did–that it’s all too easy to dip your toes in…

Fellow puddle jumpers test the waters.


Your trusty boots await!

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Monthly Musing: Small Talk

There’s just something about a great view.  City skylines, mountain valleys, the deep blue expanse of ocean thousands of feet below the airplane window.  Views are often earned–after a long climb up narrow staircases or rocky hills–and sometimes surprises.  No matter how we arrive at them nor the scenery that awaits, the feeling is always the same: that removed quiet.  Lost in our thoughts, in the beauty and the vastness of it all, it is always quiet.

And despite how many people are around us, or however many have witnessed the same sight before us, we always feel that it is ours alone.

“I have to show you my view,” we tell friends. “One day, I’ll take you,” we say, as if we are its sole keeper, and it is only ours to share.

A great view is the traveler’s gift and his curse.  We travel to seek out the world, to absorb it, to conquer it.  A great view shows us everything and nothing at the same time.  It deludes us.  “Now I’ve seen it all,” we think, when deep down we know that though we’ve seen scope, we will never be able to see every detail.

We often gasp at the sights our eyes behold.  But are we really stricken by the beauty?  Or is this intake of breath just our minds remembering that we are small?  Just one tiny object occupying space, silly enough to think that this entire view could ever be only ours.

We try to claim things as our own in hopes that we’ll leave our mark on the world.  Travelers are especially guilty of this.  We take pictures, buy mementos, write articles, just to ensure that others know where we’ve been.  But there’s a reason why the picture of a view never turns out quite as good, why it’s beautiful, but no longer awe-inspiring.  A great view refuses to be contained.

And this is how it should be.  We can never fully comprehend a great view and we should never try.  When we are stuck in the real world, tirelessly working to forge a name for ourselves, a great view brings us back down to Earth by presenting us with a glimpse of its wonders.  One look and we realize that sometimes, it’s better to let go and lose ourselves in the “big-ness” of it all…

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An Ode to Paris

Today marks the one year anniversary of my first visit to Paris.  There’s something about Paris that stays with you–my memories are still so vivid it seems more like one week ago, not one year.  Sipping champagne at an open-air bar, strolling along the Seine, breaking a fresh baguette under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower–each moment held a certain magic that can only be found in the City of Light.  The following are a few of my favorite shots I took along the way.  Although the champagne is long gone and the magic now faded, these photographs remind me that I’ll always have Paris…

Pond reflections at the Luxembourg Gardens

Striking a pose while the Capitol Building looms in the background

Morning sunlight strikes the Seine

Approaching the Louvre

Sacre-Coeur Basilica sparkles white from the top of Montmartre

The Eiffel Tower overlooks city side streets


Bonsoir!

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One Hour in Valletta, Malta

A country’s capital city is usually an urban metropolis bustling with frenzied energy.  Not so in Valletta.  The authors of Let’s Go Europe claim you can explore Malta‘s capital in only an hour–and they’re right.  Sandstone buildings line quiet, narrow streets that lead downhill to the sea.  Old haberdasheries and family silversmiths snuggle in with modern stores on the island where Italian, Arabic, and American influences combine to make the perfect escape.  In Valletta, the views are breathtaking, the people friendly, and the traditions strong.  So take just an hour to meander.  You’re sure to feel right at home.

 

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Tea, Anyone? A Boston Harbor Photo Essay

Fan Pier continues to be a great respite for those longing to escape the chaos of everyday city life.  When the weather is nice, you can relax at a picnic table and gaze upon both sea and skyline.  Walk from the New England Aquarium along Rowes Wharf and Atlantic Avenue past the Boston Harbor Hotel, and then cross over the Evelyn Moakley Bridge to see for yourself!  The Charles River may take the credit in most Boston postcards, but there’s just nothing like the ocean…


A view of the skyline from the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse.

Things are looking up! Crossing the Evelyn Moakley Bridge.

View looking out into the harbor.


Boat docks near the Boston Harbor Hotel.

Dilapidated shack on the water.

Seagull knows it’s the place to be.

In between buildings on Atlantic Ave.

Photos taken by yours truly!

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A Light Touch

A street musician in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, Italy.

Dorsoduro is a great area for those wanting to get lost without straying too far from San Marco.  On an early weekend morning, it’s easy to avoid the tourist rush and instead mingle with the locals as they purchase fish from street stands and sip their morning caffè.  Visit the Guggenheim Museum or snap panoramas of Piazza San Marco and Giudecca from Punta della Dogana.

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Monthly Musing: Gone with the Wind

One thing never fails with any trip you take: it goes by in a flash.  Finally your departure day arrives, the anticipation that has slowly been building at last released when you touch down at your destination.  But then WHOOSH!  In a whirlwind of sightseeing, trekking, or relaxing, you find yourself back at the airport, dazed with post-vacation content, one week in the future.

Unless you take an extended trip that really allows you to immerse yourself in the place you visit, vacations undeniably pass too quickly.  Four years ago, my family and I traveled to Greece–a dream trip finally realized.  Although we returned to the States ten days later with a little more color, bearing souvenirs and a memory card full of pictures, the most frequent question we ask when reminiscing about our trip is, “Were we really there?”

My mom attributes the fleeting nature of a long-awaited trip to an inescapable dilemma:

“You’re worried you’ll never be able to visit the place again, so you cram in as much as possible, and before you know it, the trip is over.”

Of course, hers is the logical, practical explanation, but I like to think there’s something more behind it.  We travelers know that in five days, two weeks, even a month, you can never truly grasp the essence of a place–no matter how inclusive the tour package.  Perhaps trips pass so quickly not because they wish to be forgotten, but because they want to ensure that we’ll return.

We visit a place, but we hardly ever come to know it, like a great first date without any follow-up.  You meet in a flurry of senses and emotions, only to disappear from each other’s lives shortly after.  My mom, ever the realist, assumes the likelihood of visiting the same place twice is slim when there are so many others you long to see. And yes, this will often be true.

After most worthwhile trips, there are always some regrets–a hike you wish you’d taken, a painting viewed, a wine tasted–for which time, ever unforgiving, did not allow.  But perhaps you are never meant to see or remember it all. Because with each aspect you fail to discover, there is promise.  Promise that your yearning to fill the gaps will grow over time, will always be at the back of your mind, will maybe–one day–grow just strong enough to ignore the other destinations on your list and urge you back.




This post is the first in a monthly series, Monthly Musing, in which I share some of my travel reflections.

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I Can See My House From Here!

I’ll admit it: when it comes to travel, I’m a snob. No, I don’t expect 4-star hotels, exquisite cuisine, or everyone to speak English in the foreign country I’m visiting. I do, however, scoff at the glorified reality that is the “tourist attraction.” One mention of the term, and I immediately picture myself squished between people with visors and fanny packs, waiting in a five hour line to hand over piles of money just so I can glimpse the world’s largest beer can. Although sights like the Great Wall and Machu Picchu are admittedly breathtaking, they only represent one aspect of cultures that are immensely complex. Are they important? Yes. But where’s the travel? When you’re visiting a place that most of the world could recognize and hundreds of thousands of people have seen before, where’s the excitement?

So of course it makes little sense how on a recent trip to New York City, my friends and I wound up at the Empire State Building. It gets worse. I was the one who suggested it. Yes, at 11:00 at night, we found ourselves still awake in the City that Never Sleeps, wondering what to do. Suddenly, I was struck by an idea too strong too ignore. And as much as I resist becoming a “tourist,” I am a sucker for a great view. You know New York too well for this, the Travel Girl part of me whispered. Real New Yorkers don’t go to the Empire State Building. But myself didn’t listen to me, and before I knew it, there I was at 11:30 pm striding into that famous lobby.

As we walked to get our tickets, part of me was groaning at the prospect of standing in line for hours on end so late at night. But to my surprise, there were no such lines to be found. We breezed through the ticket booths, practically galloped down the hallway past the maze of velvet ropes, and sauntered right up to the elevators. In less than five minutes, we arrived at the 86th floor.

The view was more than incredible (and well worth my $18). It was as if someone had shifted the night sky and placed it below us, thousands of lights stretching out across the distance. The dark had made all seem quiet; everyone spoke in whispers and huddled close to fight the nighttime chill. As I marveled at my surroundings, it suddenly made sense. Although we were all aware that millions of people had stood in our places before, on that night, it felt as though we were sharing something secret only to us. Was I suddenly alert to all the mysteries of New York City? No. Not even close. But looking out over the expanse of the city, I felt as though I had glimpsed its essence.

Plenty of people travel to a place, snap some photos to show their friends, and return home without ever appreciating what they have actually seen. I now realize that my aversion to the notion of tourist attractions arose from this fact alone. I didn’t want to seem ignorant. But for a lot of travelers, this just isn’t true. There’s a reason why people walk the Great Wall, why they climb the steps of Machu Picchu, why these destinations are even famous at all. They’re magical. They speak to the history of a place and its people, aging signs of the power of human accomplishment, inspiration, and influence. Nothing but experience will allow you to understand a culture, but for those who appreciate them, tourist attractions can offer a sneak-peak. I didn’t see the magic before. Now I do. To Americans, the Empire State Building may not seem as wondrous as the Parthenon. But it’s New York’s Parthenon, and I can proudly say I’ve been to the top.

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