Tuesday, June 26, 2012

EUROTOUR pt. III: Italy, Austria, and Germany

Thus begins the final chapter of EUROTOUR -- one of the best experiences of my life, and an opportunity that I would recommend to all future exchange students who come to Finland and Estonia. Spending a little over two weeks traveling across Europe with 86 exchange students is immensely fun, and something that should not be missed!

After spending a few days in the sun of Venice and Lido de Jesolo, it was time to move northward, back through the Alps. We stopped and stayed for the night in Bellamonte, Italy, where we did a short hike in the Dolomites... If you remember my blog post from a few weeks ago, in which I proclaimed my love for mountains, you'll understand why I have so many pictures from this hike... So be warned!

Unfortunately the rest of me got cut off in this picture... I was actually making the typical mountaineering pose: hands on the backpack straps, one foot on a rock, and a look of complete awesomeness in the face.

The perfect Alpine shack.

Although we only walked up a service road during our "hike", and didn't actually go "off the beaten path", the journey was still tiring... Especially after a week and a half of sitting sedentary on a bus!

The next day we continued on our way and crossed into one of the last countries on the tour: Austria.

Ever since spending a few weeks in Salzburg a few years ago, I have wanted to return to Austria. And although we only had a few hours to spend in Innsbruck, it was nice to visit again. In high school I took German for nearly four years, so it was also nice to be able to understand signs and menus again after being in France, Italy, and the like, where I understood nothing!
Since we had only a few hours in Innsbruck, we only had time to have lunch (where I once again had pizza), get ice cream, and relax in a nice park. It was time well spent with friends, though!

Finally, we said goodbye to Austria and made the final push north towards our last country: Germany.

In Germany we stopped for an early dinner in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which is a town apparently known for its skiing. We ate schnitzel at a traditional Bavarian restaurant and watched traditional Bavarian dancing before moving northward once again to Nuremberg, where we stayed the night.
In the morning we went to the Documentation Center of the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, located in the well-known Congress Hall. The experience was especially chilling after watching Schindler's List on the bus the previous afternoon. Nonetheless it was an interesting museum, on par with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

The fancy Bavarian restaurant we ate at in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

After that, we headed to Berlin, our final stop. That night we had a special ceremony in which we passed the gifts our Oldies (exchange students from the previous year) had given us in Lapland on to the Newbies (exchange students who are half way through their year). It was an emotional time, as it was the night before most of us had to say goodbye to each other for good. All in all it was a nice night, and we (the current Oldies) ended by singing to the Newbies, and passing on the tradition.

The next day we had a bus tour of Berlin, stopping at major tourist points like the Brandenburger Gate and remnants of the Berlin Wall. We also had some time, albeit too little, to explore parts of Berlin before heading to the airport, and back to Finland (and subsequently, Estonia, for some of us...).

The Brandenburger Gate.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

And finally, the Berlin Wall.

As we arrived in the Helsinki airport that night, the amazing EUROTOUR of 2012 ended, and the goodbyes began.

In conclusion, it was an unbelievable trip filled with great experiences, made even better by the people who took part in it (especially our bus driver, Juhani). I had an amazing and unforgettable time... There could be no better way to end an exchange year! Thanks for reading!

Oh yeah, almost forgot... Many people have traditions that they try to accomplish in every country on EUROTOUR. Some people eat an ice cream in every country, others get pictures taken of themselves jumping in front of monuments. My original intention was to have a hot chocolate in every country and then rate them at the end, but I completely forgot about it... So instead, I just bought a souvenir patch from each place (minus Sweden).

Patches from eight out of nine countries on Eurotour (plus two from St. Petersburg).

In other news, I officially have a week left in Estonia.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

EUROTOUR pt. II: France, Monaco, and Italy

Before going further into EUROTOUR stuff, just a word about Jaanipäev (Midsummer):

Yesterday, the 23rd of June, was Jaanipäev, which is the Estonian midsummer celebration. The tradition is to gather with friends and family, then barbeque, sauna, and make a big bonfire. It is similar to the 4th of July in the US, but without the fireworks. Unfortunately, it rained all day yesterday, which sort of put a damper on the celebrations. Nonetheless, bonfires were made and lit, but it turns out that wet wood doesn't burn so well... So instead of a bonfire, we got the Smoke Monster from LOST.

Now with free smoke inhalation!

Aside from this small mishap, Jaanipäev was a nice day. There were patriotic songs playing on the radio and folk dances on TV... It was like Estonia's third Independence Day.

But now, on to the second half of EUROTOUR!

So after our long, yet scenic, drive through the French Alps, we stopped for lunch in Sisteron. Sisteron is a small town in southern France, with an old citadel perched on a high hill. It was a really cool place, because it was our first introduction to southern France -- i.e., hot weather and blue skies!

Citadel on the left, mountain on the right. Not bad.

One of the numerous back alleys of Sisteron.

After lunch we moved on to Nice, which was, for me, very strange. The scenery was really different from what I'm used to... There were palm trees and cacti all over the place, the water was a light blue, and outside it was actually hot! We had the opportunity to spend some time at the beach in Nice, but I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I decided to just relax on the beach and save the swimming for Italy.

Soon, we moved on to our next country...

I can see why a lot of rich people live in Monaco and southern France. The climate and scenery is unbelievable... Monaco was especially cool because you could see the whole country just by standing in one place!

Lovely water, contrasted with a lovely seagull.

The famous Monte Carlo Casino.

Watchers of F1 may recognize part of the roads in this picture as some of the famous track in Monaco!

In Monaco we also visited the famous Monte Carlo Casino, which was naturally surrounded by fancy/expensive cars and finely dressed people... so we left as quickly as possible and drove to our next country: Italy.

Genova was the first stop on our Italian tour, but only for the night. Nonetheless, some of us decided to take a walk at night to the nice old town center... but, after seeing five prostitutes and a group of angry Italian men in under 20 minutes, we decided to just call it a night and head back to the hotel.

The next day we headed to Verona, where we saw the famous Romeo & Juliet balcony, ate pizzas, shopped, and luckily, did not encounter any prostitutes.

Venice was our next major destination, so we drove to Lido de Jesolo, where we stayed for three days to enjoy the beach and sun. On the first day we took a ferry to Venice, and in Venice we had a gondola ride, ate more pizza, and wandered around the backstreets. To Venice I only brought my small point and shoot... which apparently has a smudge on its lens... so the photos aren't exactly that great!

The day after Venice we were given a free beach day to spend in Lido de Jesolo. We sunbathed, swam, and played frisbee all day until nighttime, when I went with some friends to get delicious, tiramisu-flavored gelato... which we then ate on the beach. So I guess it's safe to say we spent the whole day on the beach!
Also, after spending a year up north in Estonia and Finland, the sun burn sets in pretty quickly. A lot of us found that out the hard way!

To keep this post at a reasonable length, I'll have to stop here. Look for the rest of Italy, Austria, and Germany in the next chapter of... EUROTOUR!