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Buon Natale

Well it’s the 24th December here, and even though there’s no snow, it does feel like Christmas! Roberta (Patrick’s Mum) is making my new favourite biscotti in the kitchen (she’s teaching me so I can mass produce them at home!!!) and yesterday Patrick and I decorated the (real) Christmas tree! Tonight we’re going to a Christmas service at the local church, which will be a first for me.  In the meantime (have to wait until 12am for the service), here’s what’s been going on!

On Wednesday night we made pizza for dinner (YUM), and Patrick and I helped Roberta with the toppings (we made 3 – tuna and onion, proscuitto and mushroom, and gorganzola and olive paste). Katrin and Bruno came around for dinner and we tried different beers from Austria and Italy. It was really nice and I felt so at home with everyone laughing and joking. Bruno, Katrin and Patrick provided joint translations for me so that I was included in the conversation. I love the way that the family is the centre of life here, and that everything important seems to happen around the kitchen table.

Yesterday, after a failed attempt on Wednesday, we went to see the bell of Rovereto, which is the largest working bell in the world. It was made from the canons of World War One melted down in a wish for peace. The weather has been a bit uncooperative (it has rained every day since I arrived,), so you couldn’t see the town through the clouds, but Patrick assures me that it’s there!

We then went to meet Valentina at the Mart (Modern Art Museum) which seems to be famous across the country for its architecture. Valentina’s Dad is somehow involved with the gallery (Patrick jokes that he’s the boss) so we got in for free and saw a exhibition of sculpted, angular heads by an Italian artist who worked in Paris. I still find it hard to appreciate modern art, but it was good to look around before browsing in town a bit and going home for dinner.

After dinner, Patrick, Valentina and I went to the local pub for a drink and to play Jenga. Patrick is quite daring so he ended up toppling the tower the most times, but we had fun. I also tried Marzemino, a local grape variety, for the first time (it was quite nice, but a bit spirity). This morning after something of an ordeal at the post office (I don’t recommend posting parcels from Italy), we had bionde, a custard pastry, for breakfast. I also had the hot chocolate to end all hot chocolates – it was literally like drinking hot, thick chocolate mousse – perfetta!

Today, after lunch at Katrin’s house, Patrick drove us to Lake Garda, the biggest lake in Italy. Not a bad way to spend Christmas Eve! The Lake is surrounded by stunning mountains, and the view is just spectacular. I took sooooo many pictures! We even had 2 white swans come up close for their portrait shots!

I think that’s about it so far. I’m picking up bits and pieces of Italian, much to Patrick’s amusement. The bit of Spanish that I know is really useful, especially when it comes to numbers and adjectives, but I’m trying to learn some local phrases too. Anyway, to everyone at home, I hope that you have a Merry Christmas and lots of love from this part of the world! Buon Natale! xox

Now Mit Snow!

So I finally made it to Patrick’s in Italy! This past week has been so busy travelling with limited internet, so now I can post a bit about Austria.

From Zurich, it took us nearly 6 hours by train to Salzburg, but the view was incredble! We loved the Alps, all coated in snow looking like something out of a fairytale, so the journey wasn’t too much of a hardship. And Salzburg itself is simply lovely! We had light snow when we arrived, and the city was blanketed in white. On our first full day we visited the Residenceplatz state rooms, and went up to the fortress overlooking the city. It was -6 degrees and our cheeks were pink from the cold, but the view was worth it!

Our new joke is to try and speak ‘German’, which basically involves us saying ‘Jasmin/Sharon, now mit (insert random object here)’. E.g. Jasmin, now mit fortress! So we’re slowly learning! We also spent a lot of time at the Christmas markets there, where we heard carols and ate yummy food. Speaking of food, we found a great chain store called My Indigo which did delicious curries for 6 euros, so we ate there twice for dinner and once for lunch!

The next morning we checked out and went to the old city to see Mozart’s birthplace. Jasmin pretended to throw food at the seagulls and I got this shot – talk about teamwork! Definitely one of the best from the trip so far.

After seeing the Mozart house (and his original child-sized violin), we left for Vienna. Our train was unexpectedly delaye, so Jasmin organised new tickets for us and we eventually made it! Eva met us on the platform and we met Anna Maria for dinner at a local Chinese place (yum!). In the morning, Jasmin and I went to the Schonbrun Palace (another freezing cold day), and toured the rooms where Marie Therese had held court, and where Marie Antoinette had grown up. The gardens were stunning in the snow, but I have never been more cold in my life!!! We were exposed to the wind, but took photos bravely!

We met Eva and Anna Maria for lunch (Wiener schintzel!), and by the time we’s finished it was dark, so we wandered around the city. We were amazed when the snow started to fall – it was exactly as I’d imagined snow, in clumps of little snowflakes that you could see! It was so perfect that we forgot about how cold it was and just enjoyed the beauty of it.

We walked past the main cathedral in Stephensplatz, the Parliament and City Hall, where there was a huge Christmas market (which Jasmin and I went back to 2 days later).

The second day was pretty much spent shopping (after moving Jasmin to a new hotel because her flight was cancelled), and in te evening we went to see the Vienna Hofburg Orchestra perform pieces by Mozart and Straus. They were so cool, making jokes with the audience, and at the end, we couldn’t get the Waltz of the Blue Danube out of our heads!

Our last day was spent seeing the city sights by daylight, then having lunch which turned into dinner at Eva’s place with Karl (her boyfriend), Anna Maria and Suzanne (their friend who I’d actually met in Japan). We ate Kaiserschm… (I can’t actually remember the full name) and strudel (YUM),  then spend the night watching Chaser’s on YouTube!

In the morning Jasmin and I went to the airport and said goodbye – she flew to London and I went to Milan, where I caught 3 trains to reach Rovereto! From what I’v seen, this is a beautiful place! It was soooo lovely to see Patrick again after all these years, and to finally meet his family. I saw the historical centre of the city today (it was raining but not too cold), and spent this evening looking at Katrin and Bruno’s wedding photos with them. It’s getting late so I’l put up a couple more photos and write again later. Night!

L’Escalade!

Well, Jasmin and I are in Switzerland! I got to Geneva yesterday afternoon, checked in, and, you guessed it, went to the UN! It was so cool to actually visit the Palais de Nations, which was once home to the League of Nations. I took a tour and saw two amazing committee rooms (Human Rights Council and Disarmament committee), both with artwork by Spanish artists.

I met two German sisters on the tour, one who was doing an internship in the UN office for sport, and they told me that I was in time for Geneva’s biggest festival, which was happening this weekend. I had no idea it was on, so I think we were just incredibly lucky with the timing! More about that in a second.

I also visited the International Red Cross Museum while I was waiting for the UN tour (it’s just across the road). They have records of all the WW1 and 2 prisoners of war in huge cabinets, on index cards. It was a sober museum, but I learnt a lot. A highlight was seeing an original draft of the Geneva Convention, which was on display.

It was dark by the time I was done, so I waited to meet Jasmin (who was flying in from Manchester). We went out for dinner at a Swiss place and had roestis, which were cheesy, but tasty.

Today we planned our day around the festival, which commemorates the city being saved by a woman cooking vegetable soup late one night in 1602. She saw the Duke of Savoy’s army scaling (hence the festival name, L’Escalade) the city walls, and poured the hot soup over them (and then presumably alerted the army). Today’s celebrations were for the city’s victory over the invaders, which involved historical reenactments, musket and cannon fire displays, lots of people in costume and lots of horses. (The chocolate version of the woman’s pot with marzipan vegetables in it is a traditional festival food! We bought one each, but haven’t opened it yet! They look like this:)

But before we went to the festival (which started around 2), we visited a flea market and picked up what are now our week-long trip mascots, The Russians. We found a matryoshka doll of Gorbachev, which has Brezhnev, then Khruschov, Stalin, and finally a teeny tiny Lenin inside.

They have already had some adventures (Stalin tried to ”escalade” the Reformation Wall and Lenin was shot out of the jet d’eau), and will probably provide amusement for much of the next week.

Right, so we went down to the Lake, and saw the flower clock, and the jet d’eau, which normally only operates in summer, but which was on for the festival. We grabbed a quick lunch, then went back into the Old Town for some festival fun.

We began by following guys dressed in 17th century clothes holding muskets to the square in front of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, to see (and hear, boy could you hear it!) a live cannon and musket display.

We also saw a trumpet troupe perform in the Catherdral, and groups of drummers and flautists playing in the street. There were men on horseback prancing around and no matter where you walked in the Old Town, you could hear music and occassionally the sound of cannon fire! We drank spiced hot apple juice and ate apple tart, then watched a blacksmith’s display (making a sword and horseshoes). The whole atmosphere was amazing, with kids dressed up running around and Scout groups with their woggles playing games, people eating and laughing. I really really enjoyed the whole thing!

Once we’d seen pretty much everything, we headed back to the Lake, and saw the most spectacular sunset! It was like stepping into a watercolour painting, especially with the Alps all around.

We walked back to the hotel, relaxed for a bit, then went back out for dinner, as well as to check out the night lights on the lake. Tomorrow we’re off to Zurich, but might spend the morning looking around a bit more first. It has been a fantastic day, especially since we were so lucky in coming across the festival!

Foie Gras and Balconies

Well, I made it to Lyon after a couple of hectic days in Paris! The city is utterly amazing – there is beautiful architecture everywhere and, best of all, unlimited bread refills in restaurants! What more could a girl ask for? I’ll write as much as I can now but I am going to help Amandine and her Mum cook dinner so I might have to go before I finish.

Before I write about France, though, I have to be fair to England and say that I saw snow for the first time there! It was in the taxi up to Leeds Bradford Airport, and then again more heavily while I was at the airport. As an aside, LBA still makes passengers walk on the tarmac. Anyway, my flight was really smooth considering the heavy clouds over the Channel (which had me wondering why it is called the English Channel, not the French Channel?), and I found my way to the buses at Charles de Gaulle to get to Gare de Lyon, where Amandine met me. I had to wait nearly an hour for the bus, but I got there in time and it was just awesome to see her again!

We caught the Metro to Arts et Métiers, and met her friend Hugo, who very kindly lent us his apartment for the weekend. Thankfully it was close to the station, but the apartment was on the 6th storey of a building with no lift! That wasn’t fun with my suitcase, especially since we went into the wrong building the first time, and didn’t realise until we were half way up! Once we got there and settled in, we went for a walk in the surrounding area, past the Georges Pompediou (spelt wrong) Centre, aka crazy modern art building. We didn’t end up going in, but it was an awesome building.

We had dinner at a place nearby, and I had my first taste of foie gras! It was delicious, like paté but better, and the meal was scrumptious! I’m still sick, but it has become a bit better since I got to France, so I could taste more of the food than before!

One of the things that really struck me about Paris is the beauty of the residential buildings. I love the balcony railings and flower boxes hanging on them! They made up my first impression of the city from the bus.

Friday was a busy day – we visited Notre Dame and the Louvre, then went to the Champs-Elysees at night and soaked up the holiday atmosphere at the Christmas stalls. I was completely blown away by the Louvre – it’s HUGE! I mean, I knew it was big, but you don’t really appreciate how big until you’re standing there!

Ok, I think we’re going to start cooking, so I’ll try to write more later.

A Real Castle and the End of the World

Well, I’m back from my whirlwind trip to Wales! On Friday morning I set off to Manchester and Jasmin met me at the station for the beginning of our shopping odyssey. To kick things off, we had Boost at the station!!! Five hours later, I had 2 pairs of pyjamas, a new yellow coat, an aqua beret, a new scarf and a new wallet! We had a lot of fun exploring the shops, and grabbed dinner before meeting Owen.

We hopped on the first train to Crewe, then on another to Llandudno. We passed the time playing Monopoly Deal (it’s a lot of fun!). Owen’s Dad picked us up from the station and took us back to his house in Deganwy, where we dumped our stuff before going out again to see Harry Potter 7. The movie was quite good, although a lot of the scenes were different to how I imagined them in the novel. They sell sweet popcorn at the cinemas, so I tried a bit of that and had Baskin Robbins ice cream too!

Anyway, we took a quick drive to the near side of the river after the movie (around 1AM) to just get a sense of the quiet and beauty of the landscape, before going back and straight to sleep.

In the morning, Jasmin and I left at around 10, and Sel (Owen’s Dad) dropped us off half way to Conwy Castle. On Friday night Jasmin and Yvonne (Owen’s Mum) laughed at me because I was ridiculously excited to see a real castle! It was even better during the day up close!

We spent about an hour wandering around the castle, through the great hall and then up four of the six towers. The views were spectacular! From there, we walked past the smallest house in Great Britain along the riverfront, and then up along the castle walls. It was amazing – people have their gardens in the little alcoves of the wall. I can’t imagine growing up alongside a castle!

From there, Owen picked us up, and we drove for quite a while, picked up sandwiches from Ham Bone, and grabbed cakes from a local bakery (yum!). I wasn’t feeling too well (this cold just won’t go away), but I was fine once we got up the top of the mountain in the fresh air. Owen took us on a local’s tour, tramping through the scrub (or whatever the Welsh equivalent is) and the mud down to the most still, perfect lake I’ve ever seen. It was actually like a mirror, reflecting the cloudy sky.

Despite the mud and prickly bushes, the view and serenity was worth it. I even saw a wild holly bush! We then went for a drive over to the Orme, which is a large body of land sticking out into the ocean. The day was foggy, so looking off the edge was like looking out over the end of the world. It was very cold, but we saw it as the sun was setting, so it was quite beautiful.

To finish off such an amazing day, Yvonne made a delicious lasagne, and we had proper UK chips with it, which were amazing!!! I’m so glad I had the chance to see this little piece of Wales, and now I’ll definitely try to get back there one day to see some more.

I got back to Leeds last night, and spent today at the Royal Armouries with Christina (Will’s housemate from Ireland) and Junko, her Japanese friends. It was awesome to see such a huge collection of weaponry from the UK and around the world, including the world’s only almost-complete suit of elephant armour.We had a lot of fun wandering around all afternoon.

So that’s the news from here! I’m planning to go to the Christmas Market with Jasmin on Tuesday, and tomorrow Luke is taking me to the ruins of an abbey which are apparently quite beautiful. Then off to France on Thursday! Exciting!

Grey Coats and Charles the First (Part Two)

Right, back again. So after checking out the Palace and the statue in front of it, I walked down to see the changing of the horse guards, which was pretty cool. They all had their tassled hats and ceremonial swords, looking very smart and official!

The horse guard changed at 11, and at quarter past I dashed back up to the Palace to see the changing of the Palace guard, at 11:30. Of course, by then, there were thousands of tourists, so I saw very little of the ceremony. What did surprise me, though, was that the guards were wearing grey coats, not the bright red ones I thought that they did. Jasmin thought that it might be because of Rememberance Sunday. Does anyone know about this tradition?

Anyway, once the marching band had left, I picked up a sandwich and had lunch in St James’s Park, which was cold, but nice by the lake. I also saw my very first squirrel! They are surprisingly agile, and really very cute! From there, I headed over to Westminster Abbey, planning to tour the inside, but I was an hour too late (it closes early on Saturdays). Instead, I walked around the front, looking at all of the Rememberance poppies.

I then decided to go on a tour of the Houses of Parliament, and I’m glad that I did, since they only do tours on Saturdays. I got my ticket, then went through security into Westminster Hall, an 11th century building that was saved from both fire and bomb attacks to be the oldest part of the Parliament building. It has the most incredible wooden ceiling, and despite being a bit cold, holds real historical significance as the birthplace of the Westminster parliamentary system.

The tour guide was fantastic, and she told us of how Charles the First tried to arrest five members of Parliament for disagreeing with him, but that the Speaker helped them to escape and wouldn’t tell the King of their whereabouts, marking the beinging of Parliament asserting its rights. We saw the lavish House of Lords and the austere House of Commons, following the path that the Queen does when she performs the annual state opening of Parliament. I really enjoyed the tour and learnt a lot about British history.

Afterwards, I had an amazing scone with jam at the cafe before heading out towards the Thames to see the Lord Mayor of London’s fireworks show.

I met Jasmin and Owen at Monument and we took photos with the Tower Bridge before having dinner in Covent Garden. It was a tiring but really interesting day!

I’ve uploaded more photos from Saturday onto Facebook (see the link in Part One). Enjoy!

A Wet Lion and Secret Twins

Right, well I’ve finally found a computer where I can upload photos, so here comes a long entry! The last two days have been so amazing, and London is everything that I imagined it would be. The highlight so far has probably been seeing my friends again, especially Luke (one of my adopted brothers from Tokyo), who I haven’t seen in well over a year.

On Friday, we met up at Victoria station (near where I’m staying) at 12, and went for a rambling adventure to Covent Garden. It was the best thing ever to see him again, and we ended up having lunch at a quaint little pub called the Lamb and Flag after taking red phone box photos.

I had fish and chips with peas, and Luke had a ploughman’s lunch, and we both had a local ale with it. The food was quite good, and the pub had a nice atmosphere.

We spent ages just talking and catching up, before heading back out to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. It started raining as we left. We had a look at Nelson’s Column, then Luke decided that I HAD to sit on one of the gigantic lions at it’s base, because that’s what you do when you go to London. So, in probably one of the least graceful moments of my life, I was boosted up onto a slippery, dripping wet, giant lion’s bum.

Needless to say, my pants were completely soaked by the end of this, so we went into the National Gallery to see the art and to dry off. I really enjoyed the National Gallery – I saw two lily paintings by Monet, a couple of Rembrandts, and one of Van Gough’s sunflowers, although I preferred the painting of the crab that was next to it. Luke knows a lot about art, so we walked around commenting and observing. I think my favourite of what we saw (the gallery is huge so we didn’t see everything) was the British paintings by John Constable. After wandering around for ages, we had afternoon tea in the cafe, before going out into the rainy Trafalgar Square to meet Jasmin and Owen at 5.

Jasmin had got me a ticket to go with her and Owen to see Blood Borothers at the West End, a musical about twins who are separated at birth and end up dying on the same day, moments after they discover they are brothers. Before the show, we grabbed a hot chocolate (again, a matter of being inside to dry off), and caught up on months of news, before finding a place for dinner.

We found a great Thai place off Charring Cross Road, and I had a yummy tom yum soup. The musical was at the Phoenix Theatre, and it was just incredible! The woman who played Mrs Johnstone had the most amazing voice, and the whole production was just spectacular! I jumped out of my seat when the gun shots went off in Act Two, but to be fair, we were sitting right next to the speakers.

After the show, we started to walk back to the Tube station, but it wasn’t raining, so we ended up walking along the Thames, taking photos of the London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The city is so beautiful, especially at night.

We walked and walked, and ended up just walking back to Victoria station from Westminster, as it wasn’t too far. I got back to the hotel around midnight, so was pretty tired, but it was an amazing day!