Monday, May 9, 2011

Sarah Santos - Munich - April 22-24

When we arrived in Munich, I was taken aback. All the houses we passed for the first five minutes were brightly colored and none of them were very tall. The streets were immaculately clean without any traces of graffiti whatsoever. For the third largest city in Germany, Munich gave more of a small town, friendly vibe with its residents either riding bikes or taking their dogs for leisurely walks on such a warm Friday evening. Since we were only spending two nights here, our real day of exploring was Saturday morning which began with a walking tour of the city. Let me begin by saying this was the best walking tour I have enjoyed this entire trip. The tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and not only gave us information about the buildings and monuments, but gave us an extensive history of the city itself. Ossie, the tour guide, also gave us a real background about Munich and Bavarian culture. This was the first time I was left with an understanding of the actual citizens of a place instead of just their tourist attractions.

Munich is often referred to as the second capital of Germany and is the capital of the state of Bavaria. Bavaria is the most Catholic state in all of Germany and had sided with the French during the Thirty Years War. Ten years before was actually over, Munich’s duke erected a column with a gold Virgin Mary on top asking her to protect the city from the war, sickness, famine, and the heretics. These four things were symbolized by angels fighting a lion, a basilisk, a dragon, and a serpent. The column is in front of the city town hall and had Ossie pointed out, a monument such as this one says a lot about the people. I also learned that there are some tensions between Berliners and M√ľnchners. However, M√ľnchners are biased like every other people and like to say they live in a much better city than Berlin and that they are proud for maintaining their culture and traditions. They aren’t exactly wrong either; Munich was voted the best city to live both in 2008 and this year and the city enjoys an extremely low crime rate.

In my opinion, Munich is an adorable city that is just filled with history that you would never know unless you looked it up or if you had Ossie as your tour guide. My favorite place in the city is by far, the Englischer Garten. I was lucky enough to squeeze time into going there on both Saturday and early Easter morning. The park is a lot larger than Central Park in NYC; it is over 7km long. Locals can be seen exercising there or just simply sunbathing on one of its several lawns. The coolest area was the surfer’s wave. I kept thinking how much fun it would be to be able to surf on a river in the middle of a city.

All in all, there was just too much of Munich to be explored in such a small amount of time. It is currently on the top of my list of places I must go back to and if I am lucky enough, I will hopefully live in what is the loveliest city ever.

Sarah Clark - Venice - April 21

If someone asked you to describe Venice, Italy, your answer would probably include romance, gondolas, Venetian glass, and authentic Carnival masks. You might mention the Grand Canal or the Piazza San Marco. Maybe you would discuss whether the city is in fact, sinking, as many people claim. You would probably not discuss the tourist-glutted streets or the ever-lingering smell of high tide that pervades the city. Venice is one of the most well-known cities in the world. It is the backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters such as The Tourist, Tomb Raider, and The Italian Job. In these movies, the city is always as a hidden gem or an ancient wonder. In real life, the city is beautiful but overcrowded, and more touristy than authentic. It has become an expensive tourist town, where it is very difficult to actually find any locals. The areas of Venice that I appreciated the most were those that truly displayed Venetian workmanship and skill. It is for this reason that two of my favorite locations in Venice were the Carnival mask shop and the Murano Glass store.

Pretty early in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a mask shop, one among the many lining the small, windy streets. It turned out to be one of the coolest shops we saw all day. The shop's 'No Pictures' policy was abandoned by the owner once he realized we were all going to purchase multiple masks. Once we were allowed to take pictures, the shop turned into an hour-long photo shoot. If there is one way in which our group has bonded over the past eight weeks, it is over the fact that we all love taking hilarious posed pictures. The mask shop was no exception. Before long, we were wearing a variety of animal head masks, elaborate feather-covered masquerade-style masks, and long velvety capes. All of the masks were designed by the shop owner's uncle. Each one was unique, beautiful and intricate. Many of us who had not intended to purchase anything changed our minds after trying a few on and falling in love with them. A few of us joked that we plan on wearing our masks around the house as frequently as possible once we arrive back in the United States. After laughing and snapping photos for more almost an hour, we all purchased our masks and moved on down the road to a Murano glass shop.

Venice is known for Venetian glass, which is now mainly produced in the city of Murano. All of the stores along the streets contain glass pendants and jewelry, wine stoppers and silverware, claiming to be Murano glass. However, we learned very quickly that most of these products are not genuine Murano glass. Counterfeit Murano glass lacks a stamp of authenticity and a pamphlet describing the production process. Many shop owners prey on stereotypical 'ignorant tourists' to purchase regular glass under the assumption that it is authentic Murano. The shop we found at the end of a long touristy road was a genuine Murano glass manufacturer. The first room of the shop contained a huge horse, completely made of green Venetian glass. Inside, thousands of beautifully handcrafted pieces lined shelves and tabletops. It was easy to get lost in the shop, trying on jewelry and picking out souvenirs for our families and friends. The difference between real Murano glass and the counterfeit glass that lined the streets was clear in this shop. Each bead was a masterpiece here, and we all found ourselves awestruck by its beauty.

After the mask and the glass shops, we got to go on a gondola ride inside the city. This part of the day was a necessity. None of us wanted to visit Venice without going on a gondola. Our ride was brief, lasting around twenty minutes. Throughout our time on the gondola, we spent equal amounts of time taking pictures and pinching ourselves. Many of the stops on our trip have induced this pinching mechanism in us. We constantly stop, surrounded by beauty, and say to each other, 'I can't believe we are in Venice, on a gondola!' or "I can't believe we are taking cheesy pictures with the Leaning Tower of Pisa!' The gondola ride was peaceful and surreal. We took some time out of the trip to interview our gondola 'driver.' We discussed the conversion to the Euro and Venice's integration into the European Union. He said that the conversion to the Euro practically doubled the prices everywhere. He also told us that he was born in Venice but moved out because it has become strictly a tourist town that is simply too expensive to live in on a daily basis. Our gondola ride reminded me of an amusement park ride. We had to endure crowds and long lines to get on, and it was short, but exhilarating.

We spent all day in Venice. Before we got on the water taxi to go back, we grabbed some gelato, savoring each bite all the more because we knew it would be our last opportunity to eat Italian gelato. Venice was an interesting stop for us. It was super-touristy, but with a backdrop of ancient beauty. It was not one of the places, like Capri, that our group talks about wanting to live in or go back to at the first opportunity later in life. However, it was definitely an experience, and we had a great time all together.

Michael Dickerson - Ferry - April 20

Today was a sad day, mainly because it was our last day in Greece. We had to say farewell to a country that have given us so many good memories. We remember feta cheese, Greek salads, the Parthenon, and of course the amazingly sweet and nice stray dogs. But alas all good things must come to an end, so we had to drive to get on the ferry back to Italy. When we arrived in the port town we noticed a strange phenomenon. There were groups of young men lining the street. Linda quickly informed us that these men were trying to get on the ferry and to go to a better life in Italy. You could see the desperation in their eyes as they hid in bushes waiting to hitch a ride on a tractor-trailer going on the ferry. After what seemed an eternity of waiting we boarded our vessel. Our ferry was supposed to be about an 11-hour ride, but by some miraculous turn of events we were going to arrive early! Hello, Italy! Once again we are in the land of pizza, pasta and cheese. Life couldn’t be better.

Liz Weeden - Meteora - April 17-19

Our last few nights in Greece were spent in Meteora, an area with rock towers that stand out around the town of Kalambaka. Millions of years ago this area was under water, and the current weathered the rocks into smooth formations. Now that Meteora is no longer submerged, these rocks just stick up as if they are huge giants surrounding the small towns. As we drove around the rocks filled with old water caves and crevices, I imagined Meteora as a modern day, dried up Atlantis.

Eastern Orthodox monks were the first people to inhabit Meteora. At first the monks lived in the caves and fissures of the rock towers which provided them with a peaceful and beautiful place to worship. Later the monks built six separate monasteries on top of the largest of the rock formations. The only way to reach the monasteries is over bridges or using cable cars. Built almost seamlessly into the hard rock, they cling to the tops of the shaped mountains and it’s hard to comprehend how the monks originally built them.

The day we visited the biggest monastery, The Great Meteoron, the surrounding rock towers were wrapped in a blanket of mist, giving it a mysterious and yet already spiritual feeling. Inside there were various rooms of religious and Greek cultural history. The most religious rooms also have the most eery items. There is an entire room full of the skulls of the ancient monks. Near it is a room dedicated ot the saints. It is painted top to bottom with gruesome portrayals of various forms of saint murders. The pictures vividly show bloody images of stonings, decapitations, boiling, burning, crucifixions, and beatings. I’m a fairly religious person but it’s hard to feel strongly about religion when it’s gruesome past is the main focus.

But the monastery didn’t just hold religious memorabilia, but also had galleries and museum rooms of Greek history. The Gallery of Admirals had portraits of various Greek military, political, and intellectual individuals. Various writers, politicians, and military generals were presented. The most interesting was the lone female of the group, Laskarina Bouboulina. Admiral Bouboulina was a Greek heroine of the War of Independence in the early 1800s because she selflessly donated all of her property for the needs of the war. In a room full of men this woman clearly stood out.

The rest of our time in Meteora we spent learning about traditional Greek culture. The owner of the guest house we stayed in took us to a dinner where we were entertained by Greek dancers. Costumes and all they put on a great show. After dinner they welcomed us onto the stage where we all got to try our hand at Greek dancing. We all had left-feet syndrome. But it was a great bonding experience as we linked arms, trying to keep time with the live music.

The day we left, Linda, Tom and I were given the opportunity to be interviewed on a Greek radio station. Since I’ve missed my days with WRHU, I jumped at the chance. Thank goodness there was a translator because Greek is way over my head. We were questioned about the US and our trip so far, along with our opinion on the current economic troubles in Greece. The interview was both fun and enlightening for our last day in Greece.

Meteora was a great way to end our stay in Greece. It was full of the natural beauty and traditions of Greek life and culture. I may have left Greece for now, but I know that I’ll be returning in the future.

Tom DiBlasi - Athens - Acropolis - April 15, 16

On April 16th we went to the top of the Acropolis of Athens. The word acropolis means “city by the edge.” Although there are many acropolises in Greece, the Acropolis of Athens is the most well-known in the world. Historians have been able to find traces of civilization dating all the way back to the Neolithic Age, 7th millennium B.C. The Parthenon, one of the seven great wonders of the world, was built in the middle of the fifth century B.C. in the Golden Age of the Greek empire. The Parthenon was designed by Ictinus and Callicrates. The statue of Athena was built by Phidias. At the end of the century the Erechteion and the temple of Athena Nike were built. In the second century AD Herodes Atticus built a great theatre that is still currently used. The Parthenon and several other temples were converted into Christian churches in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century the Turks conquered Athens and turned the Parthenon into a mosque. While the Turks had control of Athens, they left gunpowder in the Parthenon. The gunpowder had exploded and took off the roof. The Parthenon is still currently roofless. The Greek government is in the midst of restoring the Parthenon, to keep alive the history it represents.

Allison Redman - Photos from Nafpaktos

Monday, May 2, 2011

TJ Samson - Olympia - April 13,14

Olympia was the site of the first Olympic games in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Since then, this small town has become a tourist haven for the games connoisseurs and Greek mythology enthusiasts. The main road is filled with tiny souvenir shops and restaurants all leading up to the ancient ruin site. This site holds the Temple of Zeus, where the Olympic torch is light, and the Great Chariot field. At the Chariot field we fashioned our own Olympic games. We had several relay races and it truly felt like we were in the Olympics. The fellow tourists were all surrounding the field cheering us on.