A Travellerspoint blog


A short visit to Normandy

overcast 9 °C
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We got here in morning and our friend Quentin came to pick us up at the train station. We took off immediately and went to Giverny, a small town not that far from Rouen, not that far from Paris, where Monet spent most of his life and where his house and garden have now been turned into a museum. Luckily the rain held off for a few hours, for the first time in what feels like a year, and we got to enjoy the gardens and town. If you've seen Monet's work, it's no surprise that his gardens are unbelievable. The water garden was of course the inspiration for his most famous pieces, and it's stunning. Unfortunately there were no water-lilies in bloom, but it was still really something to see. It's definitely worth a visit, and although I think it's easiest to reach by car there are tons of shuttles from surrounding cities to the gardens. We left when it started to rain, which I'm told is a lifestyle in Normandy, not a weather condition.

That evening Quentin's (volunteer) theatre group had a rehearsal and kindly let us sit in. They're putting on the play “Why torture is wrong and the people who love them” (in English) in about a month, and so far it's hilarious. I wish we could come back to see the show.

The next day we met Quentin in town and he took the day to show us around the city. We're lucky to have such awesome friends. We saw the cathedral there, which was the subject of over 30 of Monet's paintings. There's a special impressionist exhibit on at the fine arts museum which we went to, and we also went into the museum in the clock tower in Rouen. We spent the day walking around the city and got an awesome tour from Quentin, who grew up here.

There's a market downtown now in the place where Joan of Arc was burned alive and a really nice, new church in the same square. It doesn't look like a church at all, but it's quite nice on the inside. The windows are huge stained glass ones which they saved at the beginning of the war, from a church which was destroyed in the bombardment of the city. I thought that it was really beautiful for a more modern church.

Our last day in Normandy we were going to go to the coast, to Étretat and Dieppe, but we had some car troubles and ended up staying in Rouen for the afternoon. It turned out to be a great day anyway. Rouen is a great city. That night we headed back to Paris on the last train of the day and met up with Thibault once again. We originally had plans to visit a friend in Poitiers for the last few days of our trip, but it turns out he had to stay in North America longer than expected and won't be there. A few more days in Paris doesn't sound so bad, though.

Posted by kmclean 16:04 Archived in France Tagged france monet rouen Comments (0)


An extra long weekend in France.

rain 9 °C
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After getting off to a good start in second semester we set off on our next trip, this time to France. One of the best parts about living among Catholics in southern Germany is all the holidays. Second semester started on April 15th and the first holiday was right around the corner on May 1st. May 9th was also a holiday and next week May 30th everything is also shut down. And if you think that might be enough time off for one month, you would be wrong. May 16th-24th is also holiday (that's right, the whole week). That adds up to 8 days off in May, no questions. Add that to our class-free Fridays – not necessarily by choice, but because virtually no courses are offered on Fridays; smart professors – and we end up having quite a bit of time on our hands. Needless to say, with a week off we started thinking about new destinations and we still hadn't been to Paris, so France it was.

We left last Friday morning and got to Paris in just over three and a half hours, from downtown Freiburg to downtown Paris. If you haven't studied the map lately, Freiburg and Paris are almost 600km apart! The slowest part of the journey is getting to Strasbourg, and then the TGV (“train à grand vitesse”) takes you from Strasbourg to Paris in just over 2 hours... 2 hours for over 500 km. Amazing. It takes over 3 hours to get to the airport and through security! Anyway, if you can't tell, I'm extremely impressed by the transportation in Europe. In August (unfortunately about 2 weeks after we leave!) they're opening a direct TGV line from Freiburg to Paris. Freiburg to Paris in 3 hours and I can barely find a way to get to New Minas for groceries. It's unfortunate that North America is regressing so severely in what little public transit it has while the rest of the world is looking for new cities to connect. I can only hope that someday someone comes to power who's had to rely on their own two feet and the public transit to get around.

Anyway, we made it to Paris and started wandering around. Walking around new cities with my backpack trying to find hostels and apartments seems to be the story of my life lately. We finally got in touch with our friend who so generously put us up in Paris and then went out for the evening. He studies Norwegian at the Sorbonne and that night the Nordic studies department had invited him to a talk on Kierkegaard at the Danish house on the Champs Elysées, so we tagged along. Afterwards we went out for a chinese buffet since it was past “supper time”, which is unfortunately very strict in France. If you're not hungry at meal time, you don't eat! Restaurants are open for lunch and supper, but not in between and not before or after. It's definitely a change from the perpetual snacking eating culture of Spain! That's one country I can't wait to visit again. The only food stands open after “supper time” in France are Algerian or Chinese, but at least it's always delicious. The next day we smartened up and went out for supper at 7:30, although that's apparently also a little early, since the place filled up around 8:30. It can always be a little tricky figuring out how and when to eat in a new place.

That day we were at the Musée d'Orsay which must have one of the most amazing art collections in the world. It's full of impressionist and post-impressionist work, my favourite. The next day we went to the Musée de l'Orangerie, where eight of Monet's water lilly murals are. They're breathtaking. There are also quite a few other really amazing pieces in the basement of the museum. As a bonus, museums and galleries in France are free for EU-resident students under 26 – that includes these museums, and even the Louvre, so we're taking in as much as we can, while we still can. We still haven't visited the Louvre yet but we're coming back here in a couple of days after a visit to Normandy, so we'll make sure to go in then.

Between museum visits we walked around the city quite a bit to see the other sites. Of course the Eiffel tower and the Arc de Triomph, even though it's been raining here the entire time! We've also visited the grand Mosque and the very cute café in the back of it, where they serve (extremely) sugared mint tea... reminiscent of our recent trip to Morocco. Thibault also took us to an old Tunisian patisserie for some delicious desserts. We stopped by the Sorbonne and rubbed Montagne's golden toe for some luck in academia, which we'll probably need to get back to reality in the fall. As a side note, the statue kind of looks like my uncle Russ, who also recently appeared in a Rembrandt painting in Amsterdam. Apparently he's a very generic-model-looking kind of guy.

We walked to Montmartre and up and down what must be the most hedonistic street in the world. We stopped by the Sacre Coeur and Thibault took us to a kind of artists district where some of the most beautiful (and expensive!) street art I've ever seen was for sale. Somehow paying 300 Euros for a painting off the street just doesn't seem right, though. I guess you have to be pretty confident to try to sell your art in Paris. In that part of town we also stopped by the Lapin Agile, the oldest cabaret in France. We spent another afternoon walking around and saw the ruins of the Bastille. It must be the most anticlimactic monument to an epic revolution in the world. All that's left is basically a few stones in the middle of a kid's park which are completely over grown with grass and trees. I can't decide if it's better to just let the ruins rot away with the rest of everything that old or if they should be preserved and monument-ified. Is it better to glorify the French Revolution and the way they did it, or just know that it happened and move on? Probably the latter. On our last evening in Paris Thibault took us to the outskirts of the city to see the Château de Vincennes. It's a massive castle just sitting on the edge of the city like it's no big deal. I guess there are just too many epic sites in Paris, only in this city could such a massive castle get so little attention.

Between the amazing art, delicious food, and catching up on our sleep, Paris has been absolutely amazing. There's enough to keep someone busy here for about a lifetime, but at least we have a few more days later this week. For now we're off to Rouen to meet up with another friend from Acadia and see a bit of Normandy for the first time.

Posted by kmclean 06:37 Archived in France Tagged food paris france Comments (0)


Another visit with family in another great city.

overcast 4 °C
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We got off a couple of stops early on the overnight train we had already booked to Freiburg to meet Russ and Sheila in Heidelberg. We met them at their hotel for a yummy German breakfast and then went out to see the city. We spent the next couple of days seeing the city and surroundings with them, and now we’re finally on our way back to Freiburg.

On our first day in the city after breakfast we went to the Heidelberg castle. It was badly damaged in a French invasion quite a long time ago, and they’ve left it that way. I think one reason was at the time there just wasn’t a lot of money for the rebuilding, but after some time the half-destroyed castle became a sort of symbol of the city, and now they actually do work to preserve it in its exact current state, which I find kind of odd. Either repair it or don’t, but it seems odd to make an effort to keep it in its current sort of half-done state. I think it has a lot to do with famous paintings of the city showing the castle this way. Either way, it was really something to see and we got a great tour of the interior from a rather funny German guide.

That evening we went to a concert at the university, which is the oldest in Germany, and got to see the Old University Hall, which was really great. Freiburg is also a beautiful and very, very old university, but the original buildings aren’t in use for classes anymore. All the buildings where we have classes are new, modern lecture halls, so you don’t really feel like you’re at a university over 500 years old.

On our second day we went for a little hike around the forest surrounding the city and made it to some really amazing ruins. For one, there was an amphitheatre on the top of the hill which was built by the Nazis in 1935 using slave labour, and was opened for propaganda presentations. Beyond this amphitheatre were ruins of a 9th century monastery, which has been abandoned since the 16th century, apparently because a roof-collapse killed the last three remaining monks. Surrounding this entire mountain were ruins of a wall which was built by the Celts in the 4th century! It was just so fascinating to see all these layers of completely unrelated history piled on top of one another, as if they had no idea at the time what they were building, and where. All this in a little academic city not in any particularly useful location.

We got rained on pretty severely on our hike down the mountain that day, and it rained again the next day. It worked out alright anyway, and we went to a “Packaging Museum”. I know, maybe doesn’t sound that interesting, but on the inside it was really cool. They had all kinds of factory equipment used for packaging different things and labels of all sorts of German brands over the years. One particularly interesting piece was a special edition tin of cigarettes made for the titanic, which a survivor carried out with them. There are three known left in the world. The museum turned out to be great and the man working there gave us a great tour; I would definitely recommend the packaging museum, as uninteresting as it may sound.

We had one last meal with Russ and Sheila before getting onto our train back to Freiburg. It’s never fun saying goodbye, but it just makes me look forward to the next time I’ll see everyone – hopefully in the summer. This was the final stop on our semester break trip and now we’re going back to Freiburg for a while. Classes start full swing on Monday, so hopefully this semester my classes will all work out. I wish we could keep travelling; there are so many more places I would love to see, but at the same time I’m excited to get settled somewhere for a little while at least and get back to school. There are quite a few holidays this semester since Baden-Württemberg gets both the Protestant and Catholic holidays, being one of the only “mixed” states, so we’ll be doing a few shorter trips later on, but for now I guess it’s time to get on our last train for a while.

Posted by kmclean 15:50 Archived in Germany Tagged germany heidelberg Comments (0)


There's not enough time in the world to see all this city has.

sunny 8 °C
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This was our second time in this amazing city, and I still want to come back again! We were here in October with our group of Canadians after the “immersion” part of the year in Freiburg and got to see quite a few of the museums and sites, but I don’t think there’s enough time in one’s life to really appreciate all that Berlin has. This time around we went to the Dali exhibit and the Checkpoint Charlie museum, and took a couple of walking tours of the city to see some sides of it we hadn’t yet.

The Dali exhibit was great, and definitely worth seeing if you’re into that type of art. It’s permanent in Berlin right in Potsdamer Platz, so also convenient. Afterward we went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, which was amazing. It should be called the “GDR escape museum”, but I guess the name suits it. Inside they have tons of things people used to escape the GDR, including cars rigged in different ways to make space and prevent sagging, all kinds of make-shift ziplines, and even a kayak a guy actually used to get out through the Ostsee. They also have a make-shift scuba tank built by someone who obviously knew what they were doing, since all diving gear was banned in the GDR to prevent people from escaping by sea. It’s insane what some people went through to get out. What’s more insane is how much worse it was in most countries, and how long it lasted. At least the East-Germans had somewhere to go; usually they’d be welcomed with citizenship, accommodations, and cash in West-Germany. It’s hard to believe what some people had to put up with.

The next day we did a walking tour through “alternative” Berlin, which was kind of just a street art tour, but it was really interesting. It came with a lot of history, and a lot of explaining about why Berlin is the way it is today. Now it’s a top notch place to live and you’d be lucky to afford a decent apartment near the centre, but after the war it was quite a hole. For one it had been almost completely destroyed, and every building was at least damaged, and second of all Germany split up. This meant difficulties reconstructing the city and a lot of check points. West Germany always worked hard to keep Berlin, though, since they never accepted that Germany would be divided for ever, and were not about to lose their capital. Anyway, during the division of Germany Berlin wasn’t such an attractive place to be, so the government provided incentives for people to live there like low or no taxes, living subsidies, and waiving the military service requirement. Of course mostly artists and students are attracted to this kind of lifestyle and Berlin evolved into one of the most alternative cities in the world. After the wall fell half the city, and the country, was full of buildings owned by a state that no longer existed, so the hippies moved over there and Berlin is now one of the coolest cities in the world.Unfortunately the epitome of this alternative spirit of Berlin -- Tacheles -- is under serious threat of being shut down now, and the entire district surrounding it of being turned into a high class apartment block with expensive cafés and high-end art galleries. Here's hoping!

There are artist squats and make-shift galleries everywhere, although unfortunately with all the money coming into Berlin it is becoming quite “gentrified” and losing its edge. You can still find some really great street art and of course the East Side gallery, which is unfortunately slowly being torn apart to let massive buildings and apartment complexes through, but hopefully they find some way to stop it.

We had a great time in Berlin seeing this other side of it and learning more and more. There are still things there I’d love to see and do, and hopefully we’ll be back again someday. This was going to be our last stop on the trip, but it turns out my uncle and aunt Russ and Sheila are going to be in Heidelberg over the next few days, so we’re headed there next before we get back to Freiburg for a while.

Posted by kmclean 15:22 Archived in Germany Tagged germany berlin tacheles Comments (0)


Last stop in Poland. An amazing adventure.

snow -4 °C
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We made it to Kraków in the evening. We checked-in, had some supper, then got some rest to make sure we were ready to explore the city the next day. On our first day in the city we did walking tours of the old city and then the Jewish district, and ended at Schindler’s factory, which has been converted into a museum about the Nazi occupation in Kraków.

We skipped the day trip to Auschwitz this time around and just spent our time in the city. Between having seen so many memorials everywhere in Europe to concentration camps, former torture prisons, and massacred humans, and living in Germany, we just decided it would be too much for right now. We’ve visited the Dachau concentration camp memorial site and also seen the horrors of a later regime in the former Stasi prison in East Berlin. We also saw the house of terror in Budapest where the former Hungarian fascist party headquarters were, as well as the communist party headquarters during the communist times. Seeing the actual place on this earth where actual, innocent people were literally tortured to death turns out to be a lot heavier than I was expecting. Our trip to Dachau was moving, and I think it’s so important and great that these places are now being run as memorial sites, but it can just get to be too much. I can’t imagine the strength of the survivors of this kind of hell that helps them share their stories and revisit the very sites where they spent the most terrible years any human could ever imagine living.

In Freiburg, like many other German cities, they have the golden stones in the sidewalk in front of houses where Jews used to live and were evicted from. There are five of these stones in front of the house next to our building, and we walk over countless others every day on our way to school. On the main university campus there is also a memorial to the old synagogue which was destroyed during the November pogroms in 1938, and there’s a bronze jacket hanging over the bridge we walk across every day commemorating the place where the Jews were rounded up and deported to Gurs. Many of these people faced their final fate at Auschwitz. There just seems something so wrong about walking in front of the house where someone used to live every day as a regular citizen, and then the next day going to visit the actual place where they were systematically murdered.

Anyway, I think these memorial sites are extremely important and I will definitely be back someday to visit the Auschwitz memorial, but knowing we have to go back and live in Germany, this time around the timing and circumstances just aren’t right.

We did take a walking tour of the old town and then of the Jewish districts and former ghetto. Both were really great -- the tour guides in Poland are excellent. The old city is beautiful; they converted the land where the old city wall used to be into a garden that loops around the entire old part. It's really nice.

One of the largest Jewish communities in Europe before the war was in Kraków with over 60,000 members and today there are about 150 left. The community is as alive as ever, but so small compared to before the war. The Jewish district is still really cool and has a lot going on, with tons of bars, pubs, concert halls, and music festivals hosted there. After our tour we went to Schindler’s factory which has been converted into a museum on the occupation of Kraków.

Over our next couple of days in the city we spent some time at museums, cafés, and cafeterias, basically just bumming around and enjoying our little taste of winter for the year. Next up is Berlin, which I can’t wait to see. We were there with the group of Canadians in Freiburg this year in October, but it’s just such a massive city with so much going on we’ve been set on going back ever since.

Posted by kmclean 11:10 Archived in Poland Tagged winter poland krakow Comments (0)

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