Busy Season

Working for a record label is quite strange. For one, the inner workings of a record label are not glamorous, despite everyone expecting them to be. I sit in a windowless office with plain walls that is very cold. If you had to guess from walking in off the street what I did upon inspection of my office, you'd probably think I was a poorly dressed accountant (creatives are allowed to come to work looking like  homeless bums, right?).

This is where I spend roughly half the year doing random things like fixing the printer, setting up free download pages, updating our newsletter server... all stuff that is super exciting. Then December hits. We go from 0 to 60 in 1 second flat. Inpop tells to me that we have 4 new releases coming out around roughly the same time - late spring/summer. I'll be doing the photography for some and full packaging and everything else for the rest of them.

In early December we immediately start work arranging the photoshoots. I'm working on finding locations for Jimmy Needham and after hours of driving around, googling and planning we spend an entire day doing nothing but taking photos (see my previous post for those!) It's fun, but exhausting. The next few weeks I spend editing and organizing those photos and then I start on album cover comps. We meet with Jimmy and his manager to discuss ideas, and after a few weeks I submit some comps. Weeks and weeks of revisions and scrapped comps later, we arrive on a final. Here is a peek at just some of the comps we went through to get the final: http://gallery.me.com/breezy421#100159 (don't distribute these, please!).

Amid all the Jimmy Needham chaos, we have the newsboys AND Article One photoshoots. Both in the first weeks of January. I did the Article One shoot with just me and the guys down by the river in downtown Nashville. It was probably the best photoshoot I've ever done because I've done so many shoots with these guys we're so comfortable with each other now that we knock it out of the park right away. It was super fast and simple and everyone was happy.

Here are some of those pics:


Article One

Then came the newsboys shoot. I got to assist a photographer I've long admired on this shoot - Mr. David Molnar. My main contribution was getting catering. When I brought it all back I realized that the dude at the burger joint didn't label any of the 16 different meals so everybody just started eating everybody else's food... we were way to hungry to care.

After that I began newsboys cover comps. First for the EP, then the full album. All the while doing Article One EP comps and packaging and Jimmy Needham comps. Oh not to mention a big load of freelance projects on the side, like this photoshoot for Alissa... she's an extremely talented artist that the one and only Paul Colman is working with & producing.

Alissa

All of February was a huge blur. I finished the newsboys EP and Article One EP packaging and I really liked how they turned out.

Article One EP

Then it was time to work on Superchick packaging. Which I did in one night. Over at Max & Shara's house. We started at 5pm. Ended at midnight. Max had already completed the cover which is 1/2 the battle. Early that week I think is when we finally settled on the final newsboys and Jimmy covers. I'm getting my time all screwed up but that's what happens when you don't really know what day it is to begin with because you go to bed at 4 or 5am every night and wake up the same day a few hours later. It also really throws you off to sleep for an hour on your lunch break which I do regularly. Ha. I love my life, I really do.


Jimmy Needham Shoot

Here are a few shots from a shoot I did with Jimmy for his upcoming album (which I'll also be doing the artwork for) back in December - Jimmy is such a funny guy and such a pleasure to work with. None of these shots were taken there, but we used Jeremy Cowart's studio for part of the shoot, which was pretty exciting. I love that guy, and he's pretty much my main inspiration as a photographer and I got to use his studio. Wow. The shots here were taken at Grimey's, a great little record store in Nashville... enjoy!


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Article One Photoshoot

Last year I had the privilege of shooting some promo shots for my friends Article One, and they needed some new ones done this year since they got a new band member and chose me again... I love repeat business!


Article One


Europe... on tour!

After only a few weeks back from my two week vacation around Europe the newsboys (one of the bands on the label I work for) decided to take me with them to the two festivals they were playing in Europe in August. So essentially I was going on tour to Europe with one of my favorite bands as their photographer... no biggie ;)

The two festivals were Flevo festival in Apeldoorn, Netherlands and Revo festival in Frankfurt, Germany. What’s amazing about that itinerary is that those were both places I hadn’t gone on my previous European jaunt!

The plane ride was as expected, but what was quite amusing and different about traveling with a band through an airport is all the extra luggage... or road cases rather... even with the stripped-down international set-up (the venue provides as much as possible in the way of equipment and crew) we still had 13 people and about 2 large road cases per person... so imagine a long train of people, a few of whom are rock stars, rolling a procession of those little airport carts chock full of road cases all the way through the airport. The baggage claim people seemed to see us coming, and got extra people to come assist in a speedy check-in. Baggage claim was uber stressful, since there are so many bags to account for.... but all of our bags made it.

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Just like with my travels around europe with the trafalgar tour group two months before, we were counting on total strangers, the local festival organizers, to arrange our transportation, hotel and food. Which is always a little strange. I hope to someday travel Europe on my own, but alas, I will just have to wait until I'm old enough to rent a car.

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We sat for a long time at the shuttle stop outside Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, waiting for the festival shuttle to come get us. We actually met up with another musician in one of the other bands playing the festival at the shuttle stop - Mojo of the Supertones - which was quite awesome since I was a huge Supertones fan back in the day.

After pilling into the shuttle, we were off on the hour long journey to the festival grounds and our hotel. We stopped on the way at a gas station to eat (another thing I had been accustomed to from my previous europe trip) In Europe, gas stations have much better food than in America. We all got sub sandwiches, and when I asked for mayo on mine, they looked at me very funny and didn't know what I was saying. Some nice person translated what mayo must be in Dutch, and then they handed me little packets of "frietsaus" which literally translated means "sauce for fries" which explains why when I started squeezing the sauce all over my sub a Dutch guy next to me laughed and said "that's not for sandwiches! That's for potato fries!" I quipped that he should try it sometime and he would love it.

Lunch in Holland

After we all payed to use the restrooms (my leftover Euros from my last trip came in handy) we were off again. Our driver was a delightful man named Pim who apparently had been the guys chauffeur the last time they went to Flevo a few years before. On the drive we passed a lot of pretty Dutch countryside, some windmills, and not much else. We finally arrived at the festival grounds, which were covered in tents and out in the middle of nowhere. We sorted out all the backstage passes, the schedule, and all that fun stuff, then went to the stage to do soundcheck. It was a long walk through a little wooded area to the main stage. I still remember that walk vividly because I had to make it 100 times.

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At soundcheck I grabbed a lot of fun pictures (I love soundcheck because it's more laid back then the show, so I tend to take even better shots since I'm not stressed) there were already some early birds there, so I took some pictures of the festival peeps too, and to my great surprise after putting them online a few weeks later, one of the people in my pictures emailed me to tell me it was her and that she was grateful I put the shot online for her to find. The power of the internet!

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Dutch Kids!

Flevo is the longest-running and one of the largest Christian music festivals in Europe, and it's easy to see why... apart from booking a lot of awesome bands, it's extremely well-organized and they take very good care of the artists. The people behind it are all extremely nice and genuine.

After soundcheck was done, it was time to check into the hotel. Surprise, surprise... the hotel was a Mercure, a kind of nicer holiday inn type deal in Europe. I had stayed in one in Paris a few months before. I had stolen a mechanical pencil. That pencil was still in my purse. Hahah. I roomed with Grace, which was quite fun. I prefer rooming with people to being alone... so much more fun on vacations! Our view out the window depressed me... I always hope for pretty views. Here we were, in Holland, and the view out my window was the front of the hotel. Boo. We were given a few hours to freshen up before heading out to Deventer, the nearby town. Steve (newsboys road manager) claimed that to break the cycle of jetlag, we needed to stay out until at least midnight Netherlands time to reset our internal clocks... which was about 7am Nashville time.  Oh boy.

We arrived at the main square in Deventer (pronounced Day-ven-tear) around 7pm. There wasn't much happening at the time, but some locals seemed to be setting up a giant projector screen and chairs in the square. We all grabbed some seats at a pub, ordered some drinks, and started to chill. I didn't feel like chilling out though... I was in Holland! So I got up and announced I was going for a walk. Nobody came with. I started up a street that looked as if it would lead to a giant steeple up the hill, which I could only assume was a gorgeous middle-aged church... and I was right! After a brisk couple minute walk up on the most beautiful cobblestone streets I had ever seen... I arrived at a timeless, perfect church. On my way back down the hill I took another street, praying it would end up back at the square... which it did to my delight. I told everyone about my short little adventure and how wonderful it was, and recruited Grace for another quick trip back up the hill. It was more fun with Grace... we took pictures of each other, and she claims she saw Peter Pan fly out of an open window. I sort-of believe her. If that was possible anywhere it was possible here. It was exactly like a Disney fairytale setting.

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After about an hour sitting at the little table of the cute little cafe, the square really started to fill up... and then belly dancers started to perform in front the projector they had set up. I kid you not. After that it finally became apparent to us what was going on (none of us knew Dutch so it was quite hard to determine, you see) when they began the movie Slumdog Millionaire (with Dutch subtitles) it finally clicked... this was some cultural Indian celebration of some sort... complete with belly dancing and the best Bollywood movie of all time! Funny thing is I didn't see s single Indian person there besides the belly dancers! The Dutch just love celebrating different cultures I guess.

The Gang

Mike & Ben

Jeff

A few of us decided that it wasn't the best way to spend our time in Holland watching in American film with Dutch subtitles, so Grace, Jojo, Ben and I went off on another adventure... this time to "the bridge in that one war movie". Someone had heard, from someone, that this town was famous for it's bridge because it was used in a war movie. We didn't figure it out there, but upon recent googling I've found this to indeed be true: the movie was "A Bridge Too Far", a movie I had yet to see.

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The walk was a very pretty one, past another beautiful church, a Russian nightclub, and down to the river... where the bridge was. We got there right at sunset, and climbed up to it... and noticed something very amusing about the stairs... they had smoothed and grooved bike track through the middle. Holland is of course known for it's abundance of bikes and bike enthusiasts. Atop the bridge we took lots of pictures and a wonderful video, that my stupid memory card 'corrupted' and I lost. I still have the beautiful scene etched in my memory thankfully.

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Me, Grace & Jojo

A Bridge Too Far

Ben in Holland

Grace shooting Ben...

After countless hours sitting and wondering around the square, mostly searching for my food (we ended up eating a lot of fries with mayo) it was time to catch a cab back to the hotel. We had arranged a midnight pick-up with the cab company. They were late. There was an ice cream shop across the way, and I suggested we all go get some yummy European gelato... I went alone. It turns out the temptation was too much to bear however, because after I was done paying, everyone had followed my stead and got in line for their gelato. We had just made it in time, too... they were closing. Whilst enjoying the delicious gelato, we sat in the moonlight bathed cobblestone square, shivering. It got very chilly at night.

Deventer by night

Gelato in Holland!

We slept very good that night... I don't even remember waking up in the morning or anything before getting to the festival around 10am the next morning. Why I had to be there, I couldn't figure out. The show didn't start until 9pm. There was another soundcheck, but I wasn't obligated to shoot it. My wild imagination and ADD began to kick-in hardcore, and I went up to the festival organizers and took a huge gamble: I asked if there was a way they could arrange a trip to Amsterdam for me. I was willing to pay the cab fare, no matter how expensive. To my surprise, not only were they totally cool with this, they were excited about it. They got Pim, our chauffeur from the day before, to find me a ride. A FREE ride. Along came David, one of the festival employees, who had nothing to do. They told me David could drive me in one of the "shuttles" (actually a cute little european car) to Amsterdam, give me a tour of the city, and return me to the venue. Doesn't get much better than that.

We made the hour journey north back up to Amsterdam, talking about everything from the weather, to religion, to politics, to the always popular topic between international visitors and locals: the differences between our countries. I never get tired of talking to Europeans about America, and vise-versa.

When you arrive in Amsterdam you pass (or perhaps drive over, depending which direction you come from) one of the coolest bridges I've ever seen in my life. I couldn't get a good photo of it sadly, but the bridge is called Enneüs Heermabrug, and it's amazing. I love cool bridges. You also pass a lot of very modern, fun architecture on the way into Amsterdam.

Nemo

dutch dude

We began our long walk through the city, just randomly crisscrossing the canals and wandering through markets and side streets... observing the locals, taking in the sights... my favorite thing to do! We eventually found Anne Frank's house, which we decided not to do, since it was an hour wait to get inside. It was good enough for me to see the outside. We then bought some fresh Dutch cookies at a little shop... the Dutch make some mighty awesome cookies. We stumbled into the infamous Red Light District for a bit... quite sad and disturbing. After we passed through we came into when I can only assume was one of the central squares of the city - since it was huge, with thousands of bikes parked in bike racks on the sides of the street.

Anne Frank House

Dutch Cookie Shop

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We wandered out of the square and down another, and there was some festival happening on a float in the canal, and the canal was packed with boats so densely you couldn't see the water... and if you wanted to you could easily just walk across hopping from boat to boat. It was quite similar to Venice in this regard... the canals were used as streets, more so than the streets themselves were. Sadly, it finally it came time to say goedag to Amsterdam and head back to the festival!

Little Girl

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me in Amsterdam!

walk on by

That night was spectacular, the 'boys and newworldson (the other band on our label playing there that night) were brilliant and Flevo fest had the best lighting set-up of any festival I had ever been too, which made my job as photographer at LOT easier. They also had a kick ass crowd... the Dutch can ROCK! There were about 15,000 people and almost every single one of them was on their feet rockin' out the whole show.

me in front of 15,000 people @ flevo

Holland ?'s newsboys

JUMP!

newsboys @ flevo

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The next morning we had to wake up bright and early for our drive to Frankfurt... or Grossostheim rather, a small town south of Frankfurt. Our ride was much better than the previous day. We had an entire double-decker (or double dutch as someone clever called it) coach. I sat up top with Grace, Jojo, Duncan, Ben and Mike... and some of the Bluetree guys, who shared the bus with us. Their Irish accents were highly amusing to listen to. Most people slept the whole drive... but I stayed awake, except for the 20 minutes in which we apparently passed a magnificent castle. Just my luck. We tried to decipher when we arrived in Germany... because there is no border station between the Netherlands and Germany... and we finally relized the name for exits had switched to "Ausfahrt" the Germany word for Exit.

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Großostheim, Germany

We arrived in the tiny, quiet town of Grossostheim around 3pm I'd say... and immediately I had nothing else on my mind but exploration... and everyone else wanted to sleep. The "green room" was quite tempting... it was on an outdoor patio with tents and lots of inviting sofas covered in white sheets. The catered food was a traditional German variety, despite the fact that the promoters of the festival were Americans. You'd think they'd prep American food... but no. I had a giant ball of something meaty, covered in shredded beets and gravy, with a potato pancake like thing on the side, with applesauce. It was interesting. The festival turn-out was quite poor, but this was to be expected since it's a fairly new festival, in a very small town.

The "Double Dutch" Bus

After eating I decided to set out and explore.. and Grace a Jojo came along. We made it to this great stone tower thing in the middle of town, with an ancient well across from it, and then a very strange old man started shouting out to us something in German, and Jojo and Grace got understandably freaked out and we walked back to the venue. My thirst to see more of the town was eating away at me whilst I was lounging on a sofa in the green room... gazing out over the track field that was beside the gym that was the venue. I couldn't take it anymore, got back up and started down the street into the town again by myself.

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German building

This time I made it all the way to the center, an adorable and perfect German square... complete with german style buildings and a cute little church. Smack dab in the middle, a perfect reward for my journey, was a Gelato stand. One banana, please! I said to the taken-aback small town Germans who obviously didn't get many tourists. I issued a quick and quiet "Danke" after I realized everyone was now starring at me. I sat and ate my gelato on the square with the locals, trying very hard to blend in. Maybe it was just that I was alone that was weird? Yes... that was it.

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Großostheim, Germany

After finishing I found a little holocaust memorial beside the church.

Holocaust Memorial

After returning to the venue, while we were still waiting for the show to begin, we heard that the lead singer of Bluetree was vying to sing the rap when newsboys played "Jesus Freak"... and I argued that I could also sing the rap, as I had it memorized. I sadly don't remember the exact turn the conversation took after that - only that it ended with my friend Laurie and I deciding we would sing the rap together, and that we were starting our own rap group... her name would be "Laurie Licious" and mine "Breezy Vicious"... yes, we were all very bored. In the end Bluetree lead singer won out, and he did in fact end up performing the rap during the show. We still had a little bit of time to kill before the show started, despite it seeming like had been there all day.... oh wait.... we had been there all day. Tour life isn't as glamous as one would think. Jody and I decided to play some ping pong. Well, let me rephrase that. I wouldn't stop begging somebody to play with me since I was bored out of my mind, and Jody probably offered to shut me up.

Jody & Laurie

It was finally time for the show to begin. It was a small crowd, not even 1/10th the size of Flevo Festival the night before... but just as fun. I love small shows just as much as big ones. Less exciting, but more personal. At Flevo I had missed the opening acts, since I had been running all over Amsterdam instead of sitting around the festival all day... so I decided to listen to Mojo w/ October Light... Mojo from the Supertone's new band. I was pleasantly surprised... no... that's an understatement... I was extremely excited to hear them play Supertones songs... something I'd never thought I'd get to witness again. The Supertones had long since broken up, to my dismay. But it was like that had never happened that night - rockin' out to the greatest ska music every written (in my humble opinion) here in Germany... with a bunch of Germans... who were standing there like trees. Only trees actually moved more.

Tait & Jody

newsboys

The show was awesome despite the smallness of the crowd... the Germans finally started moving a bit when the 'boys came on. On the way back to the hotel that night we drove past a magnificent castle lit up on a hilltop. We didn't arrive at the hotel until well after dark, however even in the pitch black you could tell we were up on a high hill, and had a spectacular view of the village and forrests beneath us. The hotel, to my delight, wasn't a commercial hotel... it seemed more like a family owned lodge. I only hoped I had a good view... and I wasn't disappointed at all. When I awoke in the morning I stepped out onto my private balcony, taking in the amazing sunrise over the hills. Then I was interrupted... by a phonecall from Jeff. "Hey Breezy - are you awake?" "Yes." "Ok... just checking... you gonna be down in a few minutes?" "Um... ya...." I lied. Sort of. I hadn't planned on being downstairs in a few minutes, but since he made it very clear that I should be for some reason (the airport shuttle wasn't supposed to leave for another 45 minutes... I thought I had woken up early...) I decided to throw my bag together, throw on some clothes and get downstairs. Good thing I did - turns out that somehow, despite double-checking, I had got the time wrong, and I was actually 10 minutes late. Thank God I had woken up "early"... hahah...

German Sunrise

The guys forgave me and we were off to Frankfurt International Airport. To go home. Not everyone, mind you... many were staying behind to take a train to Paris for a few days vacation. Jeff, Jeff, Duncan and Johnny O were all traveling home, like me. The ride down on the Autobahn to the airport was a sad one, despite a funny conversation about how Jeff and I thought the Autobahn was actually a certain road in particular, not the entire freeway system in Germany.

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Heading Home

After pushing all the carts of road cases through the airport and an uneventful check-in (this is not always the case, I've been told, since airport security, especially international, are sometimes not friendly to bands... they all hold their breath in anticipation for a problem) we were off on our way back home. It was a direct flight from Frankfurt to Atlanta, which I found a little strange. It seemed weird to me that was even possible. To travel directly between two places so incredibly different, and far from each other. That distance became even farther than I originally imagined, when to avoid bad weather in the Atlantic the plane was routed even further north - all the way over Iceland and Greenland. I had my head glued the the window, trying to spot the land masses. The flight was 13 hours. Apparently Duncan watched 5 movies in a row. Let that sink in. I watched 3, and that was too many for me. After what felt like an eternity, we landed safely in Atlanta... only to wait an hour more to board a puddle jumper to Nashville. We all ate at Houllihan's, except for Duncan... who had headed for a lounge to relax. The food was very noticably un-european, which made me sad.

Eating made things a little better temporarily - but when we landed in Nashville I was totally dead. 18 hours of non-stop travel had taken it's toll. After another 30 minutes I made it safe and sound to my house, after my second journey to Europe in only two months.


The Eternal City

Below is the continuation of my Europe trip blog. If you don’t start at the beginning, they don’t make much sense! Thanks for reading! :)

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Back on the bus we drove off the ferry, drove across the bridge, and started on our way to our final destination on the tour: Roma! Although the drive was quite long, it wasn’t as long as I expected it to be. We stopped at another Aggrip gas station/rest stop after Fritz woke everyone up... and we ate at Ciao again. Not amazing but not bad. Definitely fast food quality. Ally and I ate alone this time, and intensely planned what we were going to do in Rome from maps and brochures.

Outskirts of Rome

Upon arriving in the outskirts of Rome I woke Ally up and said “we’re in Rome! When in Rome! When in Rome!” I know, I’m so annoying. I’m not sorry. It is so fun to say “when in Rome” when you’re actually in Rome. You have no idea. Or maybe you do. Ally was pissed off and said “this isn’t Rome.” Right then we passed a car junkyard that Jelle proceeded to tell this joke about: “My friend always says that’s not a junkyard, but the woman’s parking lot” Ally fell back asleep. I don’t blame her. The outskirts of Rome aren’t very impressive. It’s hard to see the epicenter of Rome from the outskirts, there aren’t any skyscrapers or distinguishing tall landmarks like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Eye in London.

Upon arriving at our hotel, the Prime Area Hotel (what kind of name is that for a hotel?) which was very ironically named because it was nowhere near the “prime area” of Rome. More like the ghetto. The hotel itself was very nice, but it was in a very shady part of town that the cabbies couldn’t even find with detailed directions. Another lobby with beautiful mod white furniture and flat screen TVs... but no internet in the rooms. Just the lobby! When we got in the elevator to go up to our room, 208, we shared it with Mohammed's mom, who was so sweet but couldn’t speak English. It’s funny how easily humor transcends language boundaries though, because when I went to push the button for floor 2, I got very confused by the number pad the elevator had because it was vertical instead of horizontal, and the numbers were placed in a very odd way on the buttons with weird stripe designs all over them. It still couldn’t find the button for two, and finally Mohammed’s mom held up two fingers and started laughing at me, followed by Ally laughing and calling me an idiot and pressing 2 for me.

Hotel Room in Rome

When we got in our room we were pleasantly surprised how nice it was... marble tiled bathroom, huge leather floor to ceiling headboard on a beautiful, super comfy king sized bed with a flat screen TV. Even in what was a very nice hotel, the shower was so small I was banging my elbows on the walls again!

We didn’t stay in the hotel long before we had a bus call to do our included excursion of Rome.

Spanish Steps

First we got dropped off near the Spanish Steps, which I must admit I knew nothing about before the tour, despite them apparently being one of the most famous landmarks in Rome. They are quite beautiful and humongous... I was very thankful we only had to walk down them and not back up. At the base of the steps there was a mob of people sitting on them, and a cute fountain that people were filling up their water bottles in. All the fountains in Rome, big and small, have safe drinkable water flowing out of them.

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We followed the road past the Spanish Steps down a ways before coming across the magnificent Trevi Fountain. Much larger than I expected, it looks more like a huge swimming pool with fountains flowing into it than a fountain. Ally did the honors of throwing coins in the fountain, while I video taped. All around Rome we spotted recently married couples getting wedding portraits taken, but my favorite was here at the fountain... a gorgeous Italian couple were getting their portraits done by a very professional looking photographer, and along with many other tourists I snuck a few shots of them. Thankfully they didn’t seem to mind at all. What else can you expect getting your portraits done at one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions?

Italian Couple at the Trevi Fountain

Next up on the walking tour was Hadrian’s Temple, which looks so archaic and beat-up you wonder how on earth it survived so long. It’s pocket-marked all over not because of war or decay, but because over the years the metal serving as structural support between the stone and the stone itself had been removed to be re-used... the same reason the Colosseum is in ruins. Earthquakes and wars contributed slightly, but these structures would be in much better shape if not for neglect and recycling of their marble and metal. Hadrian’s Temple was remarkable to behold... simply knowing you are in the shadow of a building that’s been standing since the year 145 is incredible.

Temple of Hadrian

Next on the tour we walked through a restaurant and shop filled alleyway and came out into a huge square - Piazza della Rotonda, home of the Pantheon. I had to take a deep breath and just stand in awe for a few moments at this one. Having studied the Pantheon and it’s brilliant dome and oculus in Professor Zaho’s Art History class, I felt like I had stepped into my text book yet again. I wanted so badly to go inside and behold the marvelous oculus, alas it had just closed to visitors about a half hour before. Another thing to do next time!

Pantheon b&w

Moving swiftly along we passed through another alleyway filled with shops and restaurants... by this time knowing full well around every corner we would step into another fantastic square with something else to marvel at. The next one didn’t disappoint – it was Piazza Navona, home of the Four Rivers sculpture/fountain and the something Palace. Our local guide told us the history of the fountain, and how each of the four rivers and four men represented the 4 continents (back when they thought there were only four)... as she was speaking I walked all around the fountain taking pictures... then I scooped up some water from the fountain and splashed it on my face... quite refreshing and clean! Our guide then announced we were free for an hour to eat before the our bus call to take us back to the hotel.

Piazza Navona

To Ally’s delight just a stone’s throw away from the fountain was a restaurant on the square that she had wanted to eat at (she researched a few of the best restaurants in Rome before we came and it just so happened to be one of them) The place was called Tre Scalini and like all the other restaurants in Rome most of the seating was outside on the square, with a picturesque view of the fountain and the twilight sky sourrounding it.

Tre Scalini's Fettuccine Alfredo

Our waiter was absolutely adorable and very funny. I ordered the Fettucini Alfredo. It was the most delicious Fettucini Alfredo I’d had since the first and only other time I had it at an authentic Italian restaurant in ‘Italy’ at Epcot. It’s a shame that Olive Garden, Maccaroni Grill, Maggiano’s and all those other American Italian chains can’t get Fettucini Alfredo down. After having the first entree in Italy that lived up to (and exceeded) the hype of authentic Italian cuisine it was time to order desert... what else but some chocolate gelato? Around this time we realized that we had only 5 minutes until we had to be at our bus, yet we had just ordered our desert! Since we were in a very convenient location on the square it just so happened Jelle walked right past us on his way back to the bus... and we told him we weren’t going to make it and we’d find our way back. This made our desert much more enjoyable knowing we didn’t have to cram it down our throats. We took our precious time finishing up our first dinner in Rome, and by the time we were done night had set over the square in a lovely shade of cobalt blue. The fountains and shops were all illuminated and bathed the square in a lovely warm light...

Tre Scalini Dessert

We paid for our dinner and parted ways with our fantastic waiter and strolled through the artists and merchants throughout the square to a toy shop at the opposite end. It was like stepping into a weird, small FAO Schwartz. The shop had a spiral staircase to a second floor overflowing with stuffed animals... the bottom floor had a few life size knomes and horses you could sit on or pose to take pictures with... not to mention a lovely collection of toy cars, mostly Italian sports cars. We bought a few gifts for our brothers and then we were on our way.

The Pantheon at Dusk

Since we had missed the bus we decided to trace our steps back through the city and eventually catch a taxi back to the hotel. We passed by the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain and night, both of which have a completely different look lit up at night. We finally came up on a street corner with lots of cabs, but before grabbing one we decided to stop in a cute little gelateria Ally spotted. As if we hadn’t had enough gelato, Craig and Ally both ordered more. I was just too full. The gelateria was owned by a wonderful man named Valentino, who guaranteed us it would be the best gelato we had ever tasted. He was so passionate about his gelato and was such a delightful man... we stayed and talked to him a few minutes about where we were from and he showed us some awesome old pictures he had on the walls of his shop. Ally and Craig both agreed it was the best gelato ever.

Fontana di Trevi

THE MOST AMAZING GELATO IN THE WORLD.

Valentino

After Ally and Craig finished the gelato we finally got in a cab and headed back to the hotel, and upon turning a street corner a few minutes into the drive we saw something coming up in the distance we all started screaming like little girls about - the colosseum! Up until this point we still hadn’t driven past it or seen it, and here it was! We were about to drive right past it, and our nice cab driver drove nice and slow after realizing our excitement about seeing it. It’s partially lit up at night and is apparently still open, because they’re were crowds of people still gathered around it.

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Upon waking up the next morning we grabbed some food in the lobby and made our way to the bus for our final full day on the tour. Our first stop: the Vatican. Francesco gracefully took our huge bus through the winding crazy streets of Rome until we came to the fortified entrance to the tiny country, which doubled as the entrance to the Vatican museum. There was a humongous line to get in, but as usual, we skipped the lines and got right in with the tour. I almost felt bad for the people in line.

Entrance to the Vatican

After going through the metal detectors and all that fun stuff, we had entered our 6th country of the trip! Our local guide took us through corridor after corridor of ancient treasures, each hallway more ornate and glittering than the last - the walls and ceilings were just as or more impressive than the artifacts and art being displayed on them. Some of the highlights were the finest and best preserved middle ages tapestries, and ancient maps of Italy. After what seemed like a mile of walking through the museum, we came upon the Sistine Chapel. You walk through this relatively tiny door/ staircase and come into the ethereal space that’s covered in the greatest art ever produced. The room is abuzz with about 100 people all gapping and gawking at the art encompassing them, but since it’s a chapel the guards like to keep it quiet for prayer. So about once every 2 or 3 minutes all the guards would issue a loud SHHHHHHHhhhhhh... and the volume of the room would drop to a whisper, only to gradually rise back up again to conversation volume... and this cycle occurred about 10 times while I was in there.

Creation of Adam

Even though you weren’t technically allowed to take pictures or video, this didn’t really stop anyone. The guards were fairly strict if they caught you, but they were very outnumbered and it was still very easy to get pictures without them noticing. I simply kneeled down in the crowd of people so my camera would be invisible while I took dozens of photos and videos.

Eventually we had to leave, but it wasn’t too sad since the next stop was St. Peter’s Basilica. My brain was already on overload but it was pushed over the edge here. I took about 150 photos in the 10 minutes we were in there. The Pieta is housed inside, as well as almost all the pope’s tombs and countless works of art and beautiful things to stare at. You could spend a day in this building and still not see all of it. We took a tour all the way around the central alter, and as we were leaving a choir started to sing and a mass procession began down the aisle.

St. Peter's Basilica

Bernini's Baldacchino

Pieta

Next we made our way out to St. Peter’s Square. They were setting up for something and thousands of chairs were placed in front of St. Peter’s. We hung out for a while in front of the church, waiting for a few of our tour mates. We were then given some free time to get some food or roam about the Vatican & Rome... so we hopped across the border back into Italy, which was just across the street, and ate some pizza or something at a little cafe. Then we went in the Vatican gift shop and bought a rosary for my mom, which is then blessed by the pope and delivered to your hotel later that night.

Swiss Guard

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Then we headed off to the Colosseum! We parked well above it on a hill and got a nice view of it, and then had a fun little walk to get there. Upon arrival we got in very quickly, as usual, and took an elevator to the top to work our way down. Our local guide told us the history of the place... but I had long since zoned out and was meditating in the thoughts and emotions of this crazy building... where the first Christians had been thrown to the lions for sport. Where gladiators battled for freedom. Where mock naval battles had been staged by filling the arena with water. We slowly made our way down level by level, and plotted our upcoming free time with our tour friends.

Inside the Colosseum

Arch of Constantine Pseudo Tilt-Shift

Next we decided to head over to the ruins of ancient rome across the street. I grabbed some gelato along the way, which was delicious and refreshing in the very hot Roman sun. It was a long and sometimes steep climb to the top of the hill where the ruins were, but we made it... and surveyed the remains of the city that literally laid the foundation for modern city life as we know it.

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Some areas of the city were in such good shape, you could imagine ancient Romans still living there... it felt a little spooky, since these ruins are essentially an ancient ghost town. There are no guards, no people patrolling and no guides through it... and it was surprisingly deserted up there. I walked around the corners a few times by myself, wondering what I’d find...

Abandoned Roman Ruins

Circus Maximus

After a half hour or so in ancient Rome, we headed back down the hill, sweaty as can be, and had the option to go back to go back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner, but as usual, we didn’t take it. We decided to take the few hours we had off to try and find Vespas to rent. Emphasis on the word TRY. We ended up convincing our friends Chanel and Rob to come with and we trekked what seemed like miles through the city trying to hunt down a Vespa rental shop. When we finally found it, they wanted an obscene amount of money for 3 hours when we only wanted to rent the Vespas for one hour. We made the smart but unfortunate decision to not rent them, and went a few blocks down the street to a “Mackers” to drown our sorrows in Big Macs and fries. Yes, we ate at McDonald’s on our last day in Europe. And I don’t regret it at all. Finally we caught a cab back to the hotel (not surprisingly, our cab driver got lost trying to find it).

Colosseum at Sunset

We then returned to a restaurant on the other side of the Colosseum for our farewell dinner, with a view of the sun setting behind the massive ruins. Dinner was strange but delicious, a more traditional Italian meal that I had never had before. We spent a lot of quality time with our tour mates, and one of the Aussie families gave us all little Koala bears. We reflected on all the awesome things we had done in the trip, said our farewells and took pictures together, then boarded the bus and headed back to our hotel.

Tour group in Rome

The next morning was a very sad one. Only a few people were actually flying home from Rome that day, most everyone else was spending another day there or continuing on to other European destinations. We traveled to the airport with only Val, Pam, Jelle and Francesco.

At Fumiccino/ Leonardo Da Vinci Airport (the airport in Rome has two official names) Ally and I had some time to kill and Euros to spend, so I bought my only souvenir of the whole trip - a Ferrari pen - and Ally bought some cool stationary stuff and a tiny little pen (we like pens I guess?!) and then we waited, and waited, for our flight to London.

Upon arrival in back in London we got a killer view of the city from the air, and the sky was clear almost the whole flight so I also got a good view of the Alps as well, and pretty much our entire route that took two weeks by land I got the see again by air in just a few hours.

Flying into London

To save money on our flights Ally and I had to schedule our return flight to include a stay overnight at LaGuardia in NYC... little did we know that they don’t let you pass through security back into the terminal until just 3 hours before your flight, and our flight was 9 hours from then. We had planned to simply sleep on the floor at the gate, but this destroyed that plan and rendered us homeless in NYC for the night. Needless to say we had no other option than to find a hotel, so we waited in the hour long taxi line and stayed in one of LaGuardia’s “airport hotels” which was actually 15 minutes away in the ghetto of Queens. We checked into the hotel at 1:00am, and we found out we had to get the 5:00 shuttle back to the airport if we wanted to play it safe to catch our flights. The woman who checked us into the room checked us out 4 hours later with a puzzled look on her face.

After two weeks of travel, six new countries and lots of new stories and adventures under my belt, I made it safely back to Nashville (and Ally back to Orlando) at 9am, and was picked up by my coworker and driven straight to work. Good thing I love my job.


Venice, Italy

Below is the continuation of my Europe trip blog. If you don’t start at the beginning, they don’t make much sense! Thanks for reading! :)

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It seemed like it took forever to get to Venice. But we finally arrived sometime around 3pm. When you first get there it’s not at all what you would expect, because the mainland before you cross the bridge to the island is completely industrial and unattractive. It’s not until you’re across the bridge and on the main island that it starts looking like the breathtaking city it is.

After we crossed the bridge we walked a short distance to a water taxi dock, where we separated into groups of about 10 on the taxi boats that would take us though the grand canal to St. Mark’s Square.

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Ally and I shared a water taxi with Rob & Chanel, our Aussie friends, Steve & Lynn, our American friends, Val & Pam, our Canadian friends, and Jelle. That water taxi ride was one of my favorite things we did on the entire tour. We had a lot of fun talking and joking around and taking in the magic of the grand canal of Venice... every building, every bridge, every pole sticking out of the water with it’s colorful swirly painted design... the gondolas gliding past you, the salty wind whipping through your hair... I never wanted it to stop. Boating is one of my favorite activities as it is... and Venice is heaven for boaters.

Blue Doors

After our arrival at the dock we walked to the Doches Palace which is at the entrance to St. Mark’s Square. I said to Ally when we got there how it felt like were at Epcot... since the replica buildings in Epcot’s Italy are the Doches Palace and St. Mark’s Campanile (if you don’t know what Epcot is, it’s a theme park in Orlando where there are different “countries” situated around a lake that have replicas of famous landmarks, authentic food and even people from those countries working there) I always thought when walking through Epcot how ironic it would be seeing the REAL landmarks since I had seen such authentic replicas growing up thanks to the magic of Disney. Thankfully the feeling wore off quickly as even the best replicas can’t give off the wonder you feel standing in the shadow of the real gems of the old world.

Doches Palace

On a side-note, St. Mark’s Square is often flooded, but I was delighted to discover when we got there that it was totally dry. The water level was actually very low in the city the days we were there, and the square was bustling with people and pigeons.

St. Mark's Square, Venice

St. Mark's Basilica

At this point we were given some free time, so Ally and I started wandering around the Square and got lost wandering through the maze of shops that surround it. We eventually found our way back toward the Square and past the Gondola docks and Hard Rock Venice before meeting back up with Jelle and the gang for our Gondola ride.

Gondola Cove

Another one of my favorite activities on the tour, the gondola ride was everything it was cracked up to be. We got to share one with our Singaporean friends, and all of the rest of our tour peeps were either in front of us or behind us on other gondolas, as we snaked through the crazy smaller canals with a singer/accordion player in the gondola in front of us performing famous Italian love songs. Once we got out into the grand canal, the singer posed for my camera and I got one of my favorite pictures from our trip:

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The Streets of Venice

He then proceeded to sing Volare, which everyone sang along with and thoroughly enjoyed. I was lucky enough to grab a video of it, which I'll post later =)

After our amazing gondola ride, we headed back to the water taxis to be taken to our hotel on Lido Island, the outer barrier island of Venice. The water taxi ride was quite enjoyable and the views of the lagoon are wonderful... and I must say, if not for the vintage buildings on the shore, the lagoon was quite similar to the Intercoastal Waterway where I grew up in Clearwater. There were a few moments I felt like I was back home in Florida, cruising through the islands and channel markers.

Venetian Lagoon

When we arrived at Lido, trusty Francesco was waiting with our bus to bring us to the hotels. We first dropped off the Spotlight crew at their more expensive hotel, then drove to our hotel which we were dreading would be bad... but it ended up being my favorite on the tour. The Ca Del Moro Hotel was built in little buildings of about 20 rooms each, and the rooms were extremely modern and new with great furniture and a nice beach like atmosphere. The hotel had a pool and tennis courts and a nice restaurant which we ate at both nights. The only draw back was the “beach” –which I’ll get to later.

After freshening up a bit we all walked together to the restaurant, which we knew must be OK because Jelle was joining us. The place was extremely modern, like the rest of the hotel, which is sort of strange in Venice. It was expected in Switzerland but not Italy. The floors were a shiny white tile and all the furniture was white with colorful napkins and modern paintings on the walls. Our waiter didn’t speak english very well but was very nice. He was wearing a black graphic t-shirt and jeans and had a cast on one arm... I don’t know why I remember him so vividly, but maybe it was because he was our waiter both nights there.

Our first dish was a pasta, of course, and the main course was chicken something and vegetables. Pretty tasty but I wasn’t amazed. It wouldn’t be until Rome that I had Italian food worthy of the reputation. The food quality always made for extremely entertaining conversation with our tour friends. I won’t say who but a few people always got slightly drunk– we always got at least the first glass of wine included, which didn’t help. Conversations got quite entertaining by the end of meals. Favorite topics were our respective countries, culture, and of course, accents. It was good fun hearing the Aussies try and speak with an American accent and apparently hearing us speak with an Aussie accent was amusing as well. I told Craig that whenever he said he was “knackered” (which means tired in Aussie speak) with his thick accent it sounded like nekkid... which is of course slang for naked here in the states. Accents are a funny thing.

Some of the slang we learned on the tour and in our discussion at dinner in Venice are “Good on ya, mate!” which means good for you, Knackered, pronounced “neck-id” which means tired. Pissed means drunk... and when an Aussie says “it’s your shout” they aren’t telling you you’re cool, they’re telling you you’re paying for the next round of drinks. Oh and forget McDonald’s. It’s Mackers. “Heaps” is what they say in place of “lots” and most importantly, if you want to sound Australian, NEVER pronounce the “er” at the end of anything. The “er” sound becomes “ah”.

After dinner we all started back toward our hotel when we decided we should go to the beach instead. After all it was supposedly just a short walk. So we walked over to Jelle and Francesco’s table and Rob asked Jelle the quickest route to the beach... he gave us the directions and we were off!

A few mozzie bites and funny conversations later we found the “beach”... a ton of boulders and rocks and a nice retention wall that abutted the Adriatic sea. Everyone else was just like “ah, whatever, oh well...” but since Craig had a bit more to drink I think his ability to let it go had diminished and he decided when we walked back he would give Jelle a piece of his mind about this so called beach and the lack of any such thing.

We made our way back through the dark roads and sidewalks onto the hotel property where we found Jelle and Francesco still sitting by the pool bar. Craig storms up to Jelle and says “that’s not a beach mate! you said there was a beach! That was a heap of rocks!” Jelle says “ah I never said it was a nice beach, I just said it was a beach... you just climb over the rocks, ya?” then Chanel chimed in and said “climb over the rocks? are you crazy? You’d drown!” this conversation about whether or not you could actually call it a beach or not came to a close with the conclusion that if you walk down the shore a ways, you do eventually come to a real beach... on a side note, is there anything funnier than watching drunk people fight? No, I think not...

After having a few more laughs by the pool and being bitten alive by the mozzies we all went back to our rooms. Ally went back out to the lobby to get online (they only have internet for a fee in hotel lobbies throughout most of Europe) and I took a shower and then joined Ally in the lobby a bit later. She only had 20 minutes left of internet, so she gave it to me to use while she went back to the room.

After 20 minutes of facebooking and flickring and checking my email I packed up and went back to the room, knocked lightly... and there was no answer. So I knocked a little louder. No answer. I couldn’t knock any louder because I didn’t want to wake any of our tour peeps up... in any other hotel circumstance I would have said screw it and wouldn’t have cared about waking up the people in adjoining rooms, but since I knew these people and would have to face them the rest of the trip haven woken them up in the middle of the night, I feared knocking any louder. Starting to panic I ran around the other side of the room to the back porch outside (we were on the ground level thankfully) and since there was no door in the fence around the porch (stupid security thing I suppose) I had to jump a 5ft fence with a 3ft high bush around it in a skirt and flip-flops... knocked on the sliding glass door... no answer. Then I ran back to the lobby... closed. Dude locked it up right after I left. Went back the main room door and knocked for about 5 more minutes... at this point trying to decide the least embarrassing place for me to sleep that night... would it look like I passed out of drunkeness if I was found sleeping right outside my door? Should I find a place to sleep outside, hidden, and hope I woke up in time in the morning to get cleaned up?

Finally, Ally opens the door. I do not have a happy look on my face. She says “What? Why do you look like you wanna kill me?” I tell her what happened. Moral of the story... always, always get your own room key. Never share one. The other person might fall asleep and lock you out when the front desk is closed and render you homeless for the night. OK so this was a pretty rare sequence of events that caused this (what kind of hotel doesn’t have 24hr desk service?) but still.

The next morning we headed out bright and early on the water taxis to the main island for a glass blowing workshop. I have to admit I wasn’t all that excited about it, but I wasn’t excited about the perfumery either and that ended up being awesome. We had to walk through all kinds of crazy streets and across bridges over tiny canals to get to the place which was really fun. When you walk in you pass by this crazy huge green glass horse and a huge gift shop with all kinds of glass souvenirs. When you start the tour they take you up a staircase to a tiny little demonstration room where you sit around this huge furnace. In walked the most macho bad-ass looking italian man I had seen thus far, and I’m thinking he’s like the glass blowers body guard or something. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a scarier looking man. But then scary italian man picks up a long pole, puts it in the furnace and starts blowing a beautiful vase out of a glowing orange blob of glass at the end of the pole and in about 1 minute flat the finished piece is done. A perfect little vase with handles. That he then threw back in the fire. The guy narrating the whole thing said something like there are only a few master glass blowers in the world and it takes 20 years to perfect the craft, and that scary italian dude was one of the best and what he makes in these demonstrations is just for fun which is why he destroys them at the end.

Glass Blower

Then they herded us into the gift shop, just like rides at theme parks do. Only thing is at least rides at theme parks have gifts that are under $100. Not this place. They were trying to sell us a €2,000 glass tea set and etched glass tray... no thanks. The cheapest stuff we found Ally ended up buying... €15 Christmas ornaments... I guess on sale since it wasn’t Christmas.

After the glass blowing workshop we had some free time before our excursion through the lagoon to Burano. Ally and I walked around St. Mark’s Square a bit, crossed over one of the biggest bridges over the main canal, got some fresh strawberries in a cup and ate them while sitting on the bridge... then wandered back over to St. Mark’s Square and sat down and listened to a band playing lovely classical music at a cafe. We were tipped off by Jelle not to actually sit in the chairs in these cafe’s as they will charge you a €20 fee just for sitting down, claiming you’re paying for the entertainment. So we sat on the ground against the steps, which led to me falling asleep for a bit. It was quite nice falling asleep to the lovely music of Venice.

Grand Canal of Venice

Early Morning Venice

Our free time was running out so we made our way back to the water taxi dock, making sure to cross 4 bridges on the way as Jelle instructed. We got back with plenty of time to spare so we wandered a bit further to where we were told was a less touristy, more locals only part of Venice. We found a very peaceful square that felt far removed from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square. Just a couple locals wandering around, sitting on the benches and retrieving water out of the fountain in the center.

After relaxing in the square we found Jelle sitting at a little cafe by our water taxi and we joined him and a few of our Aussie friends, namely “uncle” Gary, and Jelle and I started talking about my camera, which he liked a lot. Many people do. He asked if I would show him how to use it later and if he could buy it off me, then took a few pictures with it. You’d think he’d see a lot of nice cameras being a tour director but I guess I have a pretty special one =)

At last it was time for us to head over to Burano for lunch. The small fisherman’s island of Burano is famous for it’s multicolored buildings. While all of Venice has multicolored buildings, none are quite as vibrant and unique as the ones you find on Burano. Not only is every house an extremely bright and unique color, but Jelle explained that each color actually represents the family. So if two houses are the same color, that means they are from the same family. Paint suppliers must make a killing on his island because I didn’t see a single house that didn’t have an extremely fresh and new coat of colorful paint.

Burano, Italy

The place we ate at in Burano was a seafood place (it was after all a fisherman’s island) but Ally and I don’t eat fish which posed a bit of a challenge. We had a lot of pasta and some chicken instead, which isn’t exactly my favorite, but hey, that’s the awesome part of traveling. You gotta eat what the locals eat and if you don’t like it - well, it’s still a great experience!

After wandering across the entire island (it wasn’t very big) and it’s canals, we dodged into a cool church to avoid the heat and relaxed and prayed a bit inside of it. Even on this tiny little island the church could have been called a mini-cathedral it was so ornate and beautiful.

After a while we moved outside and sat under the shade of a building talking to John and Susan, two more of our Aussie friends. They were continuing on to Malta after our tour, where John is originally from, and so we talked about Malta a lot and how Count of Monte Cristo was filmed there (one of Ally and I’s favorite movies) Susan was a lot of fun to talk to because she had an excellent Aussie sense of humor.

After our Burano cruise we boated back to St. Mark’s Square again to pick up anyone who hadn’t gone to Burano, and we passed a huge sailboat/yacht again that we had passed by earlier and wondered the price of. Jelle had actually asked around between the boat captains and they found out it was owned by a wealthy American businessman and the estimated cost was around €100 million which is about $150 million. For a boat.

The Maltese Falcon

I ended up googling the sailboat when I got home (I liked it a lot) and as it turns out, it’s the second largest sailing yacht in the world, and the most modern. It’s called the Maltese Falcon and it was built/owned by Tom Perkins (HP). The entire boat, including the sails, are operated by computer, and the sail system is a futuristic, breakthrough square rig.

After docking back at St. Mark’s Square we ended up picking up another Trafalgar tour group and another tour guide for our trip back to Lido Island, which was interesting. It’s funny seeing people who are technically on the same tour as you but who you haven’t been traveling with... you think wow.. those people are who I could have been traveling with instead of my group! And you start judging whether or not they look better or nicer than your group. We decided of course that our group was the best =) On our taxi ride Jelle snapped this picture of Ally and I in the Venetian Lagoon:

Ally & I

When we arrived at Lido Island we had a little bit of relaxation time before dinner, so many people went swimming but Ally and I decided to stay in the room and relax for an hour... I think the ONLY time on the trip we chose to do so! After we changed and wandered out to the restaurant... down past the tennis courts and playground... and found a seat at a table by a flatscreen TV that had the Italy vs. Brazil football game on, which was apparently a huge and important game (that Italy lost). We were joined by Chanel and Rob for the meal, and later Craig and Francesco joined our table to watch the game.

During lunch at Burano Jelle had asked me to bring my photo gear and laptop to dinner so we could talk photography after, so I finished up and joined Jelle at his table. He offered to buy my camera many times and wanted to know about Lightroom and my editing process since he travels so much and wants to take better pictures of all the amazing sights he sees. I am extremely jealous of his job I must say.

After our conversation Ally and I walked back to the lobby to get on the internet again (yes, we are addicted) and we were joined by Nikki, our Singaporean friend who was on the tour with her parents. Her mom was possibly the sweetest woman I’ve ever met in my entire life and at the end of the tour told Ally and I we needed to visit them in Singapore, an offer I would LOVE to take them up on one day. Nikki I think is 17 but very mature for her age, and we had a really fun conversation with her about Singapore and the differences in culture to America. One thing I found funny is she was shocked we can get our driver’s permit at 15 in America. It’s like 20 something in Singapore.

When we first got there we noticed a dude sitting on the corner of one of the super modern white sofas in the lobby of our hotel, on a mac, typing away. After a few minutes of talking with Nikki, he started chiming in on our conversation and before long we were talking up a storm with him. His name was John and he was actually from Manchester, England but was in Venice for something school related. I told him if I had to guess where he was from by his accent I’d say Scotland to which he started making fun of Scottish accents trying to prove how he didn’t sound Scottish at all. We had a really fun conversation ranging from everything to the cars he drives (American cars) to politics (which we surprisingly agreed on). Nikki and Ally and I all agreed later that he had an amazing accent. Way thicker than the accents we heard in London.

The next day Ally and I had to wake up super early for our ferry ride back to the main island, because this time we had to take the ferry that could hold the bus... and the locals lined up very early for this ferry, so we had to make sure we didn’t get bumped to the next one which wasn’t for another few hours. Since tours are booked extremely tight this would royally screw us over since we’d be stuck on an island for hours with nowhere to go, so Jelle was super careful we were all on time to the bus that morning. We had been OK waking up for the early calls up until this day... but we must have been so tired from the late night in the lobby talking to Nikki and John that we missed the wake-up call this morning. Thankfully our alarms did end up waking us up, but only with about 10 minutes to spare to get to the bus. Since we missed the bag call, Jelle actually came and knocked on our door which about gave me a heart attack, and even though we were already awake, Jelle made fun of us later saying he woke us up. That morning all I had for breakfast was one lousy croissant, and I dressed so hastily that I forgot how hot Rome was going to be and dressed in black jeans and a black t-shirt. Brilliant.

Well we ended up making it in plenty of time for the ferry, and since there was a waiting line for the bus we all just got off of it and walked around the dock for a bit before boarding. We caught up with Chanel and Rob with all they did the day before (they didn’t join us in Burano) and we had more funny conversations about accents... this time I did an Aussie accent for them and said G’day mate! They said it wasn’t bad!

The Gang

Aboard the ferry we stood in the front with the morning breeze of Venice blowing through our hair, the last time we would ride through the lagoon and the grand canal... at least for a long time anyway.

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Monte Carlo to Montecatini

Below is the continuation of my Europe trip blog. If you don’t start at the beginning, they don’t make much sense! Thanks for reading! :)

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The next morning we left the Busby hotel and headed off to Fragonard Perfumery which was just up the lower Corniche road on the way to Monaco. Driving past the glittering morning Cote d’Azur we stopped high atop a hill where the perfumery was located. Once inside we began our tour where they told us how natural perfume is made. At Fragonard they believe in all natural perfumes, but many on the market today are synthetic, and after the tour I could understand why. I bet you had no idea it takes 3 tons of rose petals to get an ounce of pure rose ‘essence’ or the concentration needed to make 1 bottle of perfume.

Fragonard Perfumery

I thought the tour would be somewhat boring since I’m not a huge perfume freak... but I had no idea how complicated it is to make a bottle of smelly liquid, and I gained a lot of respect for the industry. They also talked about the process of actually designing fragrances... something that I never even contemplated in the past is that my perfume was designed by someone who likely spent over a year in a lab perfecting the smell.

After the tour we shopped the factory store a bit and then headed off to Monaco. Driving into the principality—the term for a country governed by a prince—was the first indication we were in one of the wealthiest, albeit very small, nations in the world... you have to pay an entrance fee at the border. The drive in is a crazy one; down winding but beautiful roads combing through an extremely densely populated metropolitan mountainside where to live in someone’s closet your rent would be more than a house where I live. On our descent down toward the shoreline of the Cote d’Azur, where the Grimaldi Palace, our destination, was located, we passed the remains of the track for the Formula One race that had taken place a few weeks before, and the starting line of the 2009 Tour de France, which was happening the following week.

Tour De France

Upon arrival at the Grimaldi palace tour bus parking, you go down a ramp that parks you right at the base of the water (there is no beach)... it’s hard to explain, so a picture will have to do.

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You follow the escalators and elevators up to street level, on top of the cliff you parked in, and you still have a short walk to the Palace, past the church where the Royal family always has their weddings, and where Price Rainier and Princess Grace got married.

Saint Nicholas Cathedral, Monaco

While we were there I was unaware of this fact, but upon recent Google searching I discovered (cut me some slack for not knowing, I wasn’t alive then) that Princess Grace was the famous American actress Grace Kelly.

Then you arrive at the Palace, where the guards are probably the most interesting thing you’ll see... the view of the entire country from the palace walls is amazing.

Grimaldi Palace Guard

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Grimaldi Palace, Monaco

On our way back to the bus we stopped in a bunch of Ferrari shops, and then thanks to our friends Rob and Chanel we found a beautiful little hidden path along the cliff, overlooking a marina and the sea...

Monaco

After our stop in Monaco we headed back into France on our way toward Pisa & Tuscany. It was a very long drive through the foothills of the Alps. Jelle told us at the beginning of the drive “a great way to pass the time on this stretch of road is to count the tunnels we drive though, because there are over 150.” I honestly didn’t believe there could possibly be that many and thought he was being sarcastic, so I actually kept count until about the 60th tunnel when I started to fall asleep. (We weren’t even 1/2 way though the drive).

Mediterranean

For lunch we stopped near the industrial town of Genoa, Italy and had the first true Italian meal of our lives... I had penne pasta with a meat sauce, a salad with vinegar and olive oil dressing and a cake like dessert that I forget the name of that was delicious. I was so tired of french food that I ate it extremely fast and enthusiastically which greatly surprised Jelle who had sat next to me. He said when we sat down “you’re not going to finish all that are you?” I ate every last drop. He said to the people we were sitting with “I’ve never seen these girls eat like this... this is amazing no?” Ally and I really love our Italian food.

After a million more tunnels we finally reached the town of Pisa, famous only for its leaning tower, which is odd since there are many other leaning towers in Italy... for whatever reason tourists just love the tower of Pisa. It’s a long walk from the bus stop so we took little trains which still drop you off quite a ways from the church and its famous leaning bell tower.

We had to walk through many merchants and shops set up on the side of the sidewalks and roads leading to the tower. We ended up buying a lovely shirt for our little brother Brian of Bart Simpson farting while holding up the leaning tower.

The Leaning Tower

Once you get past the first section of shops and turn past a huge wall, for the first time you finally see the tower in the distance. Something interesting I knew of but never took much notice of before was that there is a huge gorgeous church in front of the tower, as the tower is actually the church’s bell tower. I was way more impressed with the church than the tower itself to be honest. Ally and I were too tired from walking in the 100 degree mid-day Italian summer heat to make it all the way to the tower itself, but we were perfectly content getting close enough to take the famous holding up the tower picture...

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It was actually much more difficult to get than I imagined since about 200 other people are trying to get the same shot all around you and keep getting in your way or asking you to take their picture for them.

Pisa

After Pisa we drove to our hotel in Montecatini, which was our only stop of the tour that was 1 night instead of 2. We were blessed again with a very nice room with a huge balcony, but the bathroom in this hotel was probably the worst of the tour. Let’s just say I’m skinny and I barely fit in the “shower” without bumping my elbows on the walls 100 times just trying to wash my hair. It was dinner time when we arrived at the hotel so we all just freshened up and went right back downstairs for dinner in the hotel.

Balcony in Montecatini

Upon arrival at dinner we could already see there might be a problem because Jelle wasn’t eating with us (we concluded up to this point that when he stayed at and ate at our hotel it was because it was pretty good, and when it wasn’t going to be good he stayed at and ate at the more expensive tour’s hotel) and everyone else at the hotel’s restaurant was about 90 years old.

The fixed menu was a penne pasta dish, veal & vegetables, and a sort-of cake for dessert. We had so much fun making fun of how awful it tasted that I didn’t even mind how bad it was in the end. It made for hilarious conversation with our friends from Singapore and Australia. We upset the poor waitresses terribly, because in Italy if you leave food on your plate it means you didn’t like it... and we left a lot. Afterwards Ally and a bunch of our friends went out on the town, but for the first and only time I decided to just chill in the hotel room and go to bed.

The next morning we headed off to the city of Florence. I found it quite interesting that when you approach Florence, much like Monaco, you have to stop at an office and pay a tax to enter the city. This time it was based on the emissions of your car... so the only way you get into the city free is if your car is electric, otherwise you pay on a scale of how bad your engine is.

On arrival into Florence we passed a very large modern building that Jelle apparently hated because he launched into an attack on how ugly the design was because they used both squares and circles in the design... which wasn’t particularly funny or interesting until Chanel chimed in from the back “I don’t think it’s ugly, it’s artistic... you have no taste!! Nobody cares what you think!” which, as usual, had Ally and I cracking up.

The drive wasn’t a very long one and in no time we had exited the bus and Jelle introduced us to our local guide for the walking tour of Florence. It was quite hot and she kept us in the shade almost the entire walk which was splendid. Our first stop was the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiori) a fabulous gothic cathedral designed by Brunelleschi and completed in 1463. I can’t tell you how amazing it is seeing buildings like the Duomo that I studied meticulously in Art History class in person. You just get this feeling like... oh my gosh, it’s actually real... how can something so amazing actually be here, still in pristine condition hundreds of years later?

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Our next stop on the walking tour was Piazza della Signoria, the square where the original statue of David used to stand, before they moved it to the Accademia to keep it safe from the weather. In its place they put the first “original” copy. According to our guide the first 7 copies of a work of art are allowed to be called the “original”, but after 7 they are only to be called copies. I’m explaining this because sadly Ally and I ran out of time (actually we just got too lazy and chose to eat instead) to see the “original original” David in the Accademia, and instead just settled for original #2 that is an exact and perfect copy still in the Piazza della Signoria.

Michelangelo's David

The square is full of wonderful sculptures and just behind David is a beautiful church that you can step into with an open air courtyard. While the square is quite busy and bustling with tourists, the church was almost empty and was a lovely relief at the moment. The most amazing thing about old European cities is that around every corner you can find a gorgeous church or sculpture or fountain. You don’t even have to look.

Quiet Courtyard

Next on our tour was the Basilica of Santa Croce, which surprised me more than any other stop on our tour because of how little I previously knew about it. When we stepped inside and our tour guide told us who was buried there my jaw dropped. The church is the final resting place of the master painter and sculptor Michelangelo, the scientist and astronomer Galileo, the father of modern science; and the philosopher, musician and poet Machiavelli... among many others.

Basilica of Santa Croce

Ally and I had planned to walk back to the Accademia at this point to see David but like I said we got lazy and sat at a restaurant and ate lunch with some of our Kiwi and Aussie friends instead... then we said arrivederci to Florence and headed on to Venice!

Tuscany


French Riviera

Below is the continuation of my Europe trip blog. If you don't start at the beginning, they don't make much sense! Thanks for reading :)

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The day started quite early with another crazy bus call... Ally and I only got one bite of a croissant this time and it was on the bus again! The drive was much like the others... mostly people sleeping with one funny thing happening here and there... and then “Fritz” started waking us up for our bathroom breaks. Fritz was a little plushy thing that when squeezed sang an annoying wake-up tune, and to make him even more annoying Jelle would put him up to the bus microphone. Many people plotted to steal and burn Fritz, but he survived until the end of our journey miraculously.

French Aqueducts

For lunch we stopped in the medieval fortified village of Sisteron. Beautiful town, but the food and bathrooms were the worst of anywhere else we stopped. The bathrooms were quite an experience... they were “self-cleaning” and looked like giant sub-zero refrigerators. When you walked in the toilet seat lowered for you and the room was dripping wet having obviously just been sprayed down like it was the inside of a car wash... it was a dimly lit cramped space and the door automatically locked behind you. To exit this terrifying place you had to simultaneously push a red button and open the heavy door at the same time, which there was no instructions for... so you felt like a caged lab rat trying to figure out how to escape.

Sisteron, France

After the terrifying experience with the restrooms we went across the street to grab a bite to eat. I had a “steak” sandwich which was actually two hamburger buns on a sub roll with some lettuce and cheese thrown on. It tasted like cardboard. We got to enjoy this meal with our wonderful Brazillian/American friends, Mel and Becky.

After lunch we climbed to the top of the chateaux on the hill, and got a lovely view of the rest of the town. Ally was quite perturbed with me insisting we climb to the top... but I know secretly she’s glad we did everything I forced her to do against her will :)

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It was back on the bus for 3 hours until we rolled into the famous seaside town of Cannes, home of the Cannes film festival. We got out at a beautiful marina, chock full of million euro yachts and sailboats.

Cannes Marina

Vespa in Cannes

We walked a little ways down the street to the building the festival is held in and then had some delicious Haagen-Dazs while returning to the bus. One of the nicest French people we met was the cute Haagen-Dazs employee that made our ice cream.

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Cannes Film Festival Sculpture

After our stop we drove along part of the Cote d’Azur in Cannes which is the only shoreline with sand and not pebbles... but it’s not natural. They import the sand in each year. To my relief we only spotted a couple scantly clad sunbathers our entire drive.

Where's Waldo?

Cannes

Upon arrival in Nice we drove along the Cote d’Azur yet again and I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to California and Florida. If you ignored the soaring mountains to the north and focused solely on the road and the beach, it felt like being back in the states. We even passed a McDonalds or two. In Nice we had a nice little family owned hotel with big old fashioned keys. The bathroom had a bidet, which the hotel maid so kindly set my toiletries in...ha... The one thing I can say about the room that I loved was we had a balcony. I have a thing for balconies.

After our arrival we went out and ate dinner right across the street from the beach at a restaurant that looked really nice; but again, the meat wasn’t very tasty. We had some kind of mashed corn puree however that was quite yummy, and then a good Crème brûlée!

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After dinner Ally and I went out with our new Aussie friends Rob, Chanel and Craig. First we stopped at a casino for the fun of it... but we were really just trying to find a bar and they didn’t have a good one, so we checked the second floor and there was a professional billiards tournament going on. We walked in the room and watched it for a bit but had to leave because we were afraid we’d be kicked out from laughing and being too loud because the room was completely silent. We proceeded to another casino where Ally, Craig and I all violated dress code in some way so they wouldn’t let us in. It was funny hearing the french person trying to explain in english to Ally why her “basketball shoes” were against dress code...

After that we gave up on casinos and just sat down at an outdoor bar. I ordered a Pina Colada that totally sucked and Craig and Rob ordered a scottish beer that tasted amazing. Ally ordered a drink that was bright blue and tasted like pure citron vodka and nothing else. Chanel took a sip of it and choked. The evening was full of fun and talk of the differences between Australia and the States... always a fun topic between people of different nationalities.

The next morning we were allowed to sleep in but we only slept until about 9:30 because we wanted to go for a quick dip in the Mediterranean sea... we found Craig and all walked there together from the hotel. I honestly don’t have much praise for the beach other than that the water is extremely clear and clean looking. The beach is covered in little pebbles that hurt your feet a lot, so I didn’t even take off my sandals when I walked into the water it hurt so bad. I was originally just going to go in up to my waist but got brave and swam out a few meters to where I couldn’t stand and longer... which wasn’t very far out at all. The water was FREEZING and quite salty. It was an incredible experience to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, but the beach where I grew up is “heaps” better, as the Australians would say.

After we got out we had to rush back to the hotel to prepare to go on one of our included excursions to the hilltop village of St. Paul de Vence. The drive there was spectacular and we stopped a few places to take pictures of the village from afar. If your an art freak like me you know that the village is what inspired many famous painters and poets through the years, and Marc Chagall actually lived there along with a handful of poets and actors. It’s easy to see why before you’re even inside the village... the entire area is breathtaking and you’ve got this picture perfect village just perched right atop this little hill.

St. Paul de Vence

You enter St. Paul de Vence through and archway in a wall... very castle like... and once you’re inside the streets aren’t even wide enough for small cars. All are footpaths except one outer perimeter road. You climb up at a slight incline through sprawling little cobblestone streets, where even the cobblestone is ornate and patterned. Little pet dogs roam the streets, and every once and a while you catch a glimpse down a side street of the view off the side of the hill, usually with laundry on clotheslines and vines with beautiful pink flowers slightly obstructing the view.

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At the other end of the village, at the very top of the hill, sits an observation area where you can overlook the valley below, overflowing with mansions and beautiful villas.

St. Paul de Vence

Jelle encouraged us to take a different path down then we took up, so we did and stumbled across an American diner, and being typical American tourists in a foreign country we ate there. Jelle told us we were in trouble if we ate McDonalds... he never said anything about ALL American food. So we ordered hot dogs and “chips” and admired the decor of the place... it was covered head-to-toe in portraits and memorabilia of Superman, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

XXL Burger...

After lunch we returned to the hotel, and having not much else to do we went out with our Aussie friends in search of free internet, which we knew we could find at Mackers (McDonalds in Aussie speak) which of course we were forbidden by Jelle to be in. But we HAD to have internet... so we took the chance. The McDonalds we found was right across the street from the beach, so while not a completely shocking and improbable, it was still quite a surprise that Jelle actually found us not even 15 minutes after we sat down. Typing away on facebook I hear Chanel say “oh my God!” and we look up to see Jelle knocking on the window looking in at us from the sidewalk shaking his head.

Jelle came in and asked what we were doing in McDonalds and we explained how innocent we were because we hadn’t even ordered any food, which we hadn’t. He said he was on the way to the beach to swim and left. Ally and I being our internet addicted selves stayed after our Aussie clan left, and we were there until Jelle was done at the beach and he came back and scared us in the window, shaking his head at us still being there.

We walked back to the hotel and headed out on our nighttime excursion to the Three Corniches road and dinner atop a mountain. The days are extremely long in Europe and the sun doesn’t even set until around 10, so we packed so much into each day it was INSANE. Every day actually felt like two or three days. The three Corniches road was one of my favorite things that we did. We stopped on the side of the road at a place that easily ranks in the top 5 most beautiful places I’ve ever beheld in my life... a perfect vista perched high up on the mountainside, the view of the French Riviera below with sailboats and cruise ships in the harbor and mansions dotting the coast and mountainside... the place is saturated with wealth and beauty and we were seeing it in perfect weather right at sunset.

My house

We ate at a place perched high atop the mountain off the Grand Corniche, the highest of the three roads. The view while eating dinner was magnificent, and dinner was pretty good... the potatoes and vegetables were amazing. We had authentic grappa included at the end which was quite the cultural experience, haha... slept well that night!

Sunset in Nice, France


Confoederatio Helvetica

On day 5 of our tour we departed Paris for Geneva very early and we were in the bus the majority of the day, driving through the burgundy hills and wine region of France.

Château On A Hilltop

Now, it’s quite tragic that I didn’t get a video of Jelle saying “burgundy hills” because it was the best thing he said the entire trip. The way he says it with his accent is simply incredible. That and “Rhone River.” Just try and say it to yourself in your best dutch accent with long, drawn out rolled r’s and you’ll have a good idea of how ridiculously awesome it was. We stopped in the middle of burgundy wine country in a town called Beaune. There is a really pretty building with a cool looking courtyard and roof there that we checked out, then we walked into the center of town and ate at a nice french sit down place and the menu was totally french so I just randomly picked a salad, which wasn’t a good idea. It was pretty weird. I think there was some kind of meat in it that I couldn’t identify.

Hospices de Beaune

Since I didn’t eat much we stopped in a pastry shop after, and while the French have a way to go with entrees but they definitely have their pastries down. I had something with fresh strawberries on it that was amazing.
Magasin Climatisé
Beaune was the first place we stopped that was really hot... about 32 degrees Celsius which is 90 Fahrenheit. (I finally learned to read Celsius while in Europe! Immersion is the best way to learn, hands down.)
Our next stop was Geneva! On the way Jelle was explaining the history of the country including something very interesting to the graphic designer in me... Switzerland’s original name was the Confoederatio Helvetica, which I’m going to assume is where the Swiss typeface Helvetica that all us designers use and love so much got it’s name from.
Upon our arrival we did a quick introduction to Geneva tour with Francesco and Jelle. First we drove past “Broken Chair”, a memorial sculpture for children killed by land mines left over from WWII. Then we stopped at the United Nations building and the Red Cross headquarters for about 20 minutes.

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The UN is a fairly impressive building, the Red Cross wasn’t much to look at. Sad it’s not the other way around. After that we drove to our hotel... it was about 6PM. We had planned to go out but our dinner was in an hour so we just chilled in the room instead. The hotel was one of the nicest on the tour, brand new and super modern (figures... the Swiss have such a great design sense).

Swiss Hotel Room

We then had included dinner in the hotel and ate with our Aussie friends Rob and Chanel and our Singaporean friend Nikki, who is quite funny and adorable and we learned was only like 17. She seemed a lot older. The meal was really good... salad with a lot of nice carrots and pork something with nice vegetables.

I don’t know why but some of my best memories from the tour are just some of the funny conversations we had with the people we met. Now up until this point on our trip I was convinced our driver, Francesco, didn’t speak English because I hadn’t seen him talking to anyone on the tour except the few that spoke Italian, so I just assumed he didn’t. At dinner Jelle and Francesco were sitting the next table over from us and since he was facing the sun, Francesco seemed to be having the same problem as me with the sun being in his eyes. The super modern stringy curtains covering the windows just weren’t cutting it. So I joked that we should pull our tables away from the windows and just push them together into one massive table. Francesco laughed and thought this was a good idea I guess because he stood up and started to push his table. I got up to push ours as well but nobody else was paying attention at this point and lost interest in the sun blinding me. Francesco and I just started laughing at one another and finally Jelle started laughing at us and said “what are you guys doing?!”

Thanks to Francesco and I’s funny exchange Jelle and Francesco started conversing with everyone at our table and after a few minutes, Jelle said to Ally and I “I have a question to ask you Americans... why is it you grab your knife, you cut something, and then you switch your knife with your fork to eat it? Why don’t you just eat like everybody else in the world and keep your knife in one hand and your fork in the other, ya?”
Now to finish this story I have to fill you in on another Jelle-ism I forgot to mention. Throughout the trip Jelle would always explain the downsides to each country we would visit (the strange or weird customs you would encounter; like no shower curtains or toilets that were in fact holes in the floor). Jelle would say to us “it’s not strange, it’s different... only different. You asked to be here. Do as the locals do!” So when Jelle was all done laughing at me and the way Americans switch their fork and knife around when cutting and eating, I shot back at him “Jelle! It’s not strange, it’s DIFFERENT!” Everyone laughed pretty hard at that one.
The next day we set out on another included tour in the morning. Our main stop was a park where the Reformation monument was located. On the way Jelle taught us about Geneva’s involvement in the reformation movement... very interesting to learn about. To this day Geneva is like 90% protestant. When we got to the monument it was unfortunately hidden by scaffolding and stuff because there had been a concert or something in the park the previous night, but it was still beautiful from what we could see. In the park there were a few life-sized chess boards, which was very exciting to Ally and I, the chess geeks that we are. So Ally went and stood next to a piece for a picture, and Jelle says “No, no no... that’s not how you do it... “ and he walks over and grabs the king and queen and he stands in place of the king and puts Ally in place of the queen and says “this is how you play... now we’re the king and queen”... hahah...

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We had some free time after that and Francesco dropped us off at the shopping district right near the Jet d'Eau, one of the world's largest fountains.

 

Jet d'Eau

We needed to ask Jelle what the best way to get to Montreux was so we hung around the bus after everyone else had walked away. Jelle told us the best way would be train, but I had my heart set on a cruise across the lake. Turns out the cruise ship wasn’t running at all at that time so we had to take the train. Somehow we managed to figure it out again despite everything being in French. We got on the train to Montreux and it was right on the shore of the lake the majority of the ride... which was an hour. We got off the train clueless as to where to find the Rochers de Naye train, which is where we were headed – to the peak of one of the highest mountains on the lake. To my amazement and relief the second we got off the train there was a huge ad for the Rochers de Naye train right across the track on the other platform. So we bought the ticket and quickly hoped on that train, a cog wheel train that was at a steep incline for most the journey up. It also made 10 other stops along the way to the peak, each one ridiculously scenic and breathtaking.

After another 50 minutes we were finally to the top.

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It wasn’t nearly as cold as I expected it to be, despite there being a dirty patch of snow just in front of us. It was a nice 75 degrees or so... with a cool breeze. We grabbed some lunch and ate outside overlooking the snow capped mountains in the distance... I remember telling Ally it was probably the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I felt like we were in a movie or a painting.

Swiss Alps

After lunch we grabbed a map and headed out on the trail that led to the very VERY top of the peak, still a little ways walk. On the way you pass fenced off habitats for marmots, which the Swiss apparently love because the marmots were advertised as the key highlight of the location, not the breathtaking views... which is what I would assume would draw more visitors. But what do I know. We caught a glimpse of a marmot sunbathing on a little marmot house and he looked dead. They really aren’t that cute either... they look like huge, fat squirrels.
Once you make it to the actual tip top of the peak the view of the lake and the surrounding villages and mountains is spectacular... you can see the town of Montreux, where the train departs from... and since the lake is shaped like a kidney bean you can’t even see all the way to the other side where Geneva is due to mountains blocking the view.

Rochers-de-Naye Panoramic

Behind you are the towering snow capped Swiss and Italian alps. It was an almost cloudless, perfect day and thus we could see all the way to Italy, and due to Google Earth I was able to determine which peak was Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps, which was visible, however barely due to the curvature of the earth and it being almost blocked by another very high peak that was closer in proximity.

Mont Blanc

There were dozens of parasailers and hang gliders out that day, sailing off and around the cliffs and peaks of the mountains... something I simply cannot imagine having the courage to do, but I decided right then that I must someday... they made it look so easy and fun.

The Point of No Return!

Another really cool thing about this mountain is they have these mongolian yurts you can stay in...

Mongolian Yurt

Ally and I stayed up there almost 2 hours, making a nice little short video at the top that you can see below. I must preface your viewing with an explanation of what you are about to see if you watch it... Ally bought these chocolate eggs as souvenirs in the gift shop there, and when I asked her to take a picture of me at the top of the mountain she set them on the ground... she was just about to pick them up when I realized they looked so funny sitting there because it was almost as if they had been hatched there by a bird... the patch of grass and dirt looked like a nest and everything. Another thing you must know is we had been surrounded by Aussies for the better part of the last week, thus the reason why we apparently forgot how to speak in American accents.

Right before we boarded the train back down, I threw a dirty snowball at Ally, who was wearing a tank top, so it hit her bare skin. EPIC WIN. Then I went to snap one more picture, and this little girl wandered into it and made it a million times better:

 

Over the Clouds

On our descent in the train I finally caught a glimpse of Chateau de Chillion, a castle I wanted to visit but we didn’t have time for. I just love how many beautiful sights there are in Europe... you can already be at the most breathtaking place you’ve ever been, and then as if that isn’t enough, you spot a centuries old castle on a lake shore!

 

Château de Chillon

After arriving back at our hotel after a failed attempt at finding a store that was open (stores close quite early in Europe!) we headed out to find some real Swiss fondue. Our hotel concierge researched the best one for us and printed out directions... we took a bus and walked the rest of the way, finally finding the hole in the wall restaurant. The menu was totally french, and there was only one employee who spoke english, and it was very little. He helped translate the menu for us as best he could... it was so adorable how hard he tried to explain what each item was. We ordered a classic cheese fondue, called Maki Maki or something of that nature, which only comes with bread to dip. We were worried it would be weird, but it ended up being amazing. They even scrape the burnt cheese off the bottom at the end and give it to you to munch on! Soooo yummy.
After our day of completely winging it and going off the beaten path we returned to our hotel, where we got a very good night’s sleep.