Adventures in the UK

My last hurrah of the semester was a trip to the UK. My trip included London and three different cities in Scotland. I stayed in each country for about three days and four nights, and was lucky enough to have friends to stay with in both places.

I stayed with Tara and Katherine in London. They are both in my sorority and were studying abroad in London for the semester. Katherine was actually only there for one of the nights I was there, so she let me take her bedroom while she was gone. Because I haven’t had a room to myself this entire semester, it felt as if I was staying in a luxury hotel. I even got my own bathroom!

My first full day there, Friday, I went to the Harry Potter Studio Tour, which is just outside of London. For any of you who know me well, you know that this was an absolute dream come true. My Harry Potter love knows no bounds. I’ve also always been a bit of a nerd with discovering behind-the-scenes secrets about movies, and the making of movies really fascinates me. So basically this tour was two of my absolute favorite things in life wrapped into one amazing experience.

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Outside the Harry Potter Studios!

The tour was almost completely self-guided, starting out by walking into the Great Hall. It was set up exactly how they used it when filming. The only thing missing was the magical star-lit ceiling, which they explained had to be added in with special effects (of course I knew that must have been the case, but even so, it is crazy how different it looks without the ceiling). The rest of the tour consisted in walking up to different sets like the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s Office, Hagrid’s Hut and The Burrow, all of which were decorated exactly as they had been in the movies, complete with dummies of each character positioned as if they were performing a scene.

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At the entrance to Dumbledore’s office

One of my favorite parts was an un-exceptional looking cork board, that when I went closer was covered in photos of different animals. They were all of the “animal actors” that had been used in the movies, from Crookshanks (Hermione’s cat) to Hedwig (Harry’s owl) to all of the different dogs that had played Fang (Hagrid’s dog). Each animal had a notecard with a description of their personality, which films they had been featured in, and funny facts about them. There was also a TV with a video (videos were playing next to a lot of the sets), explaining the process of training the animals. It’s crazy to think about how much time and effort must have gone in just to get Hedwig to fly and land on Harry’s shoulder.

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The animal actors

On Saturday morning, Tara took me to Portebello Market which is located in Notting Hill, where a lot of famous people have lived, and where a lot of movies take place. The market was huge, complete with everything from clothes to ceramics to every type of food imaginable. We ended up eating kebabs, and delicious pastries for dessert.

After the market I headed to my walking tour. My tour guide was Australian, but moved to London a few years ago and loves giving tours. He was eager to point out all of the Australian things in the city like the Australia House, which coincidentally was used as Gringotts Bank in the Harry Potter movies.

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Australia House aka Gringotts Bank

The rest of the tour covered a lot of the oldest parts of London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. The tour guide was very knowledgeable about all of the history behind each sight, and I definitely feel like I learned a lot about the city. On Staurday Tara took me to all of the major places that I hadn’t seen on my tour, including London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and St. James Park. One of the the things I liked best about London was that although it is a huge city and has that big city feel, it is also very beautiful, with plenty of parks and antique architecture.

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Tower Bridge
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London Eye

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to see a musical while I was there. I really wanted to see Once, but I guess that just gives me an excuse to go back to London some day! Monday morning I headed out fairly early to the airport to catch a flight to Edinburgh, followed by a few hours on a train to get to Aberdeen, where Rowan goes to school. Even just from looking out of the window of the train, I was taken by how beautiful and green Scotland is, and couldn’t wait to explore.

Rowan met me at the train station, and we headed to her apartment for a little while before going to meet some of her friends at a restaurant for dinner. It was great to finally meet her friends. She had told me so many stories about them that I already felt like I knew them all! The next day Rowan had class, so I decided to explore a bit on my own. I went to the Botanical Gardens, which were gorgeous! People gave me some strange looks for taking so many pictures, but I didn’t even care.

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Botanical Gardens

After walking around the gardens for a bit and enjoying the sunny weather (which would soon disappear), I headed to St. Machar’s Cathedral. At this point I have lost track of the number of cathedrals I have seen while traveling, but it’s a lot. I still enjoy visiting them though, because I feel like I should appreciate them before I head back to the United States.

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St. Machar’s Cathedral

That night Rowan’s friends came over to her apartment for “Mexican Food Night.” Because we are both missing the taste of Mexican food, and because  her friends weren’t really familiar with Mexican food as they are not from the U.S., we decided it would be fun to cook some food to educate them on how delicious it is, and to satisfy our cravings. We made chicken enchiladas and tortilla soup, which turned out great! And when I say we, I really mean Rowan, she deserves all the credit for cooking. It was definitely nice to taste my favorite cuisine after months of living without it.

Wednesday we began exploring. We took a train to Edinburgh for the day, which was a really cool city. We began our day at a coffee shop to eat a bit of lunch and drink some coffee. The cafe had a very Austin-y feel, so we both felt very at home there. We then headed up to the castle, but ended up just taking pictures as far as we could go without paying, since you had to pay an arm and a leg to go inside. We then stumbled upon a kilt factory, which led to many laughs. There was a little photography station set up where you could pay to dress up in an ancient Scottish costume and get your pictures taken. Though we were extremely tempted to experience it, we settled for just looking at all of the pictures they had displayed, which were priceless.

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Me and Rowan at the Edinburgh Castle
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Some of the classy photos

We ended the day at the Scottish National Gallery, the national art museum, which includes Scottish and international art from the beginning of the Renaissance up to the start of the 20th century. After the gallery we had a little bit of extra time before our train back to Aberdeen, so we actually went bad to the same coffee shop for “Luxury Hot Chocolate” and a piece of cake. And yes, it was just as delicious as it sounds. 

The next day, Thursday, was when the real adventure happened. We took a short train ride to Stonehaven, a tiny town whose two big claims to fame are the castle and deep fried mars bars. They also have a great ice cream shop, which we went to. You can either get ice cream with or without “the toppings.” Instead of choosing one or two toppings, they put a whole bunch of things on your ice cream if you ask for the toppings, including marshmallows, a piece of waffle cone, and assorted hard candies. It was amazing to say the least.

We then made the long hike up to the castle, which starts out completely up hill but gets easier as you go. We again wimped out and decided not to pay to go all the way inside, because we figured the inside basically looks the same as the outside. After looking around a bit, we decided to take an adventure and walk down to the beach area. We found a few caves, and at one point we paved our own path down the mountainside, to get down to the water, later seeing that there was a clear path that we had missed. I only slipped and fell three times, which sadly is pretty good for me. Anyone who saw us probably laughed. We must have looked pretty ridiculous galavanting through the Scottish countryside.

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Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven
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One of the caves we found

Unfortunately Friday rolled around too soon, and I had to begin my journey back to Spain in the early afternoon. I went back the way I came, which was longer because I had to go back to Edinburgh by train, fly to London, then fly to Seville. By the time I arrived back in Seville I was exhausted, but I would do it all over again if I got the chance. I absolutely loved London and Aberdeen/Edinburgh/Stonehaven. London was the perfect blend of historical and fun, and Scotland was just as I had imagined it would be, from the beautiful green countryside to the kilt factory.

Although I am sad that my travels have come to an end, I am glad I ended my semester there. It was a great end to a wonderful semester filled with travel adventures. This is normally when I preview where I will be heading next for my next blog post, so it is really weird to not have another trip! I can’t believe I only have one week left in Spain. The semester really did fly by! I will probably write a wrap-up blog filled with feelings and stuff at some point this week, so keep your eyes pealed for that. But right now I need to study for finals, so I don’t have time for emotions.

Thanks for reading my blog, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about my experience as much as I enjoyed living it! And for those of you considering studying abroad: do it! It will be challenging at times, but completely worth it.

Bye for now,

Shelly

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Spring Break ’14: A Week in Italy

¡Hola amigos! Happy belated Easter! Though I may have been slightly jealous when the rest of you were on Spring Break a month ago, this past week definitely made all of the waiting worthwhile. In Spain, and most of the rest of Europe, they don’t really have a “Spring Break” like we do in the U.S. Instead, they have Easter Break, which falls, you guessed it, around Easter time. As I mentioned in my last post, I got a week off from class for our break, and Rowan and I decided to spend it together in Italy! We went to Venice for 4 days, and Florence for 4 days.

Venice was really cool and unlike any other city I’ve been to before. The city is on a group of islands, separated by canals and linked by a bunch of bridges. The streets are all really narrow because there are no cars on the island, and all of the streets kind of look the same (narrow, going along a canal with a bridge) so navigating around the city proved to be a difficult task. For example, it took us an extremely long time to get to our hostel because the map we had was tiny and the street we were supposed to turn on looked more like a sketchy alleyway to us (we actually called it “The Sketchy Alleyway” for the rest of our time there).

We decided to explore on our own for a while on Sunday, before we went on a walking tour. We stumbled across Teatro La Fenice, one of the most famous opera houses in Italy and all of Europe. We got to walk through the theatre and see all of the different rooms, and got free audio guides to hear about all of the history behind each room. We also got lucky enough to watch a few minutes of a rehearsal that was going on onstage. We think it was La Boheme. I wish I could have taken pictures or videos of the rehearsal, but that wasn’t allowed. But it was really cool to watch since I have never been to the opera before. 

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Teatro La Fenice

Later we went on our walking tour of the city, which was really nice because we got to hear a lot of things about the history of the city, including facts about how it is slowly sinking. The second part of our tour was on a boat, which was really fun, but apparently did not satisfy our urge to ride boats. We were really determined to go on a gondola ride down the canal, but when we asked for the price it was 80 euros per ride, which seemed way too expensive for just one ride. So we decided to try to get a group of people to go with us so we could all split the amount and it would be cheaper. This didn’t end up working out unfortunately, but we watched a lot of gondola rides and even got our picture taken by a random man who was going by on the boat, so I think we basically got the full experience.

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The gondola ride we should have been on

We spent our second full day there exploring some of the nearby islands. The first is called Burano, and is a really cute little town with canals like Venice. What makes it special is that all of the houses and buildings are painted really colorfully. It has become a bit touristy, and I couldn’t help wondering what the locals think of all of these people walking by and taking pictures of their brightly painted houses, which to them must just seem normal. Next we went to Torcello, which was even tinier, and only really had one church that we went inside, and a few cafes. We stopped at one cafe to have crepes, which were delicious. We then made our way back to Venice, which proved to be more difficult than it should have been because we got on the wrong water bus and had to get off and wait for the right one to take us back.

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The island of Burano

Venice was a lot of fun, and when it was time to leave on Tuesday we definitely felt that we could have stayed and seen more even though the city is fairly small. One of the highlights was definitely our hostel owner, Amran, who shared a bunch of funny stories with us about Venice and people who have stayed in the hostel, and let us sit and talk to him for hours! When two guys from New York started giving us a hard time and making fun of Texas, Amran agreed that he would rather visit Texas than New York, which kind of made our night. We were obviously not alone in our appreciation for Amran, because behind his desk the entire wall was filled with thank you notes written by people who had stayed in the hostel. We decided to make ours have a Texas theme, and poke a little fun at the New York boys.

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My thank you sign
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Rowan’s thank you sign

Tuesday afternoon we got on a train and headed to Florence, where we would stay until Friday night. The couple sitting next to us on the train were pretty friendly, and Rowan and I both agreed the husband was definitely not quite ready to leave behind his youth. He talked about his trip to Amsterdam with a bit too much enthusiasm, right before showing us pictures of his two young children.

Florence was definitely an easier city to navigate in comparison to Venice. There are a couple of big landmarks that, if you can find them, you can pretty much find anything. The first night we just wandered a bit and ended up stumbling upon a lot of the famous sights including the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Crocce. But we waited until the next day to explore them more.

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In front of Santa Maria Novella

We had a list of things we wanted to do and see in Florence, and I think we did a pretty good job accomplishing all of them. We woke up bright and early Wednesday morning to go to the Uffizi Gallery, which is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world, and one of the top tourist attractions in the city. It took us hours to go through the whole thing, and it was definitely worth it. It has a huge collection of Renaissance art, including a lot of sculptures. Me and Rowan’s favorite part was laughing at all of the bizarre faces of the babies in paintings. Next time you go to a museum, pay special attention to the fact that all babies during the Renaissance period have the faces of adults. They don’t look like baby faces at all. It’s quite strange.

After the gallery we met up with our designated tour guide, Nathan, who I met in Barcelona and basically forced into being our tour guide for the week. He was nice enough to show us around and put up with listening to our incessant gossiping about people and places he didn’t know. First he took us to go inside the Basilica of Santa Crocce, the main church and another big tourist attraction in the city. The church happens to be the burial place of many well-known Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Dante. It was really beautiful inside, with a lot of stained glass windows and really detailed wall paintings. We went back inside Thursday night, because all of the churches were free at night as part of Semana Santa (Holy Week) before Easter.

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Santa Crocce
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Galileo’s tomb
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Michaelangelo’s tomb

We also visited the Bobili Gardens, a big park with a lot of Roman sculptures, and Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the Arno River, which was built back in Roman times. It is the oldest bridge in Florence, and one of the top tourist attractions. In Medieval times, Ponte Vecchio was a top place for jewelry shopping, and today the bridge is still lined with shops selling gold and jewelry as well as tourist souvenirs. We also went to Piazza Michelangelo which is on top of a hill and has an amazing view of the entire city, as well as a very pretty rose garden. 

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Me and Rowan at Ponte Vecchio

And of course I have to mention the food we ate, since this was a week in Italy and all. Rowan and I stumbled upon a couple of little cafes, one with really good pasta, and the other with salads. We were both really craving a salad, which I know sounds stupid since we were in the land of pasta, pizza, gelato, and other carb-stuffed things. But the salads we had were amazing! Nathan also took us to two different sandwich shops, which were both delicious, as well as a gelato place that serves organic flavors such as kiwi, pistachio, cinnamon and even a wine flavor. We also went to Secret Bakery, a bakery that really is secret unless you know where to find it. It is in a random alleyway, in a tiny room that I definitely would never have noticed on my own. They bake the pastries fresh, and they were delicious!

Overall my Spring Break was a week I will never forget. Italy was such a fun country to visit, and I feel like I actually learned a lot about the history from the tour in Venice (be proud mom and dad!) From the food, to the art, to the beautiful landmarks, I would definitely recommend both Venice and Florence. I hope I can go back someday and maybe explore Rome and other parts of Italy as well!

This Thursday I am traveling again, on my last trip before I return home. The semester has really flown by! I will be going to London for the weekend, then heading to Aberdeen, Scotland to visit Rowan! (Hopefully she didn’t get sick of me during our week together..)

Ciao for now,

Shelly