July 29, 2011

Photo Friday - Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle - Germany

The talk of next year's family vacation has switched from a cruise around the Mediterranean to spending about a week in Germany. Well twist my arm! I'm a smidge German and would love to explore my homeland. To prep for this trip-in-progress, I've taken to reading up on what's best to see and do in Germany. In my studies, I came across this castle, casually known as one of "Mad" King Ludwig's castles. Just take a look at that picture. Yeah, I have to go there. Like now. It was the inspiration for Disney's famous  Sleeping Beauty's Castle, so naturally it's magical. Neuschwanstein or bust!

July 25, 2011

Washington, DC and the Search for AC

This past weekend I ventured down to Washington, DC - our nation's lovely capital - to visit friends and family. Twas a short and incredibly hot trip, but fun nonetheless.

I flew in Friday evening, and the minute I stepped off the plane was slammed in the chest with the oppressive heat. Holy cow! We New Englanders are not built to deal with any temperature exceeding 85 degrees, and we start to get cranky far before that. Needless to say, the stifling humidity and 100+ temps were not to my liking. I threw myself onto the metro and reveled in the air conditioning before getting to Chinatown, where my friend, Nicole, met me. I had jokingly emailed her earlier to ensure she had AC in her apartment, which she assured me she did, but I guess fate thought it would be hilariously ironic to intervene, because a few minutes after we exchanged emails, the AC in her apartment shut down. Not news I was pleased to hear while sweating bullets. I'm still not sure how the AC could be working in the hallways but not in any of the apartments, but I'm no electrician. Anyway, I dropped my bags off, and we immediately turned around in search of an air conditioned restaurant for dinner. We walked back to the center of Chinatown where two of my college buddies were waiting, and together we decided on Matchbox for dinner. I probably would have been pleased with any place offering AC and a drink, but Matchbox was truly delicious. We ordered two pizzas, but it was really more like four since we mixed and matched flavors. We had one pie with meatballs and chicken, and another with meat galore and four cheese. You'd think half a pizza each would be too much food, but we polished those suckers off with no problem. Mmm good.

After dinner, we walked down to the Mall to listen to a little jazz music before deciding it felt less hot to keep moving. We moseyed among the Smithsonians for a bit, where I took these pictures. I also got some very exciting news, which will present itself in a blog post later this week. ;)

When we could bear it no longer, Nicole and I headed back to her apartment, where we rode the elevator up and down a little bit while we finished reading the AC update posted inside. Turns out a unique manufacturing part broke and couldn't be replaced until Tuesday. Not ok. We trudged inside and brainstormed ways to stay cool. We ended up dumbing the freezer's ice box into her bathtub and soaking our feet. Yes, we're classy broads. Still, it was quite effective. When the ice melted, we went up to the roof to dip our feet in the pool, but that wasn't nearly as successful. So back out we went in pursuit of ice cream (and more AC; you'll notice this is a popular theme). When we could put it off no longer, we returned to the apartment to go to bed, where we essentially just laid very still and hoped it didn't get any hotter.

Saturday dawned as hot as ever, and we headed to the Newseum. I'd never been but heard many wonderful things, and I can now confirm they're all true. Perhaps it's my PR mind and love of news and pop culture, but the Newseum is insanely awesome (and air conditioned). Lining the way to the entrance are cases with the day's front pages from newspapers from each state and several countries. I found New Hampshire's and caught up on what the news was back home (nothing too exciting, shocker). Inside, the museum houses exhibits featuring the Berlin Wall, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, Pulitzer Prize winning photographs, the role of the media in FBI cases, free press around the world, and a whole interactive floor where you can stand in front of a camera and act as a newscaster. We spent almost five hours in the museum and still didn't see every last thing. Given that news changes so quickly too, you could probably visit the museum every day and never see the same thing. If you're ever in DC, I highly recommend making a stop here.

Extreme bravery - or more likely momentary insanity - then struck us, and we decided to walk a few blocks down from the Newseum to see the Capitol up close. I suppose the views were worth it, but the walk was brutal. I just hoped that with all the sweating I was doing, hopefully I'd at least get some sun. I did, but barely. 

We stopped for some AC on our way back to the apartment, and then passed out on the tile floor with homemade ice packs for an hour before meeting up once again with my college pals for dinner. We dined at Capitol City Brewing Company, which was delicious if not simple American. With our food comas and probable heat stroke setting in, we returned to the apartment for chick flicks and another ice bath. We also discovered that the heat index for the day had been 121 degrees. How we survived, I do not know. 

On Sunday, we headed to the Eastern Market area to visit my cousin and her 3.5 lbs Chorkie (that's a Chihuahua and a Yorkie) named Paco, or Paquito since he's so tiny. She also had AC, so that's a plus. Paco performed tricks and gave us many kisses for about an hour and then we were off again. But not before capturing the standard "cousins" photo of course. (The little black thing between us is Paco.)

Nicole and I grabbed some Five Guys for lunch, and then I was off to the airport once again. In all my recent travels, I've never experienced the body scanner or even needed a pat-down; I was beginning to think the whole thing had been way overblown. Well DC set that record straight. Not only did I have to go through a scanner, I then had to be patted down. Why we even bother with the scanners if there's going to be a pat-down anyway, I know not, but the TSA didn't ask me when setting procedure. Anywho, I made it through security and onto the plane... where we sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half waiting for New York's Laguardia to lift a ground hold. As if Bostonians needed another reason to hate New York, oy. Also not sure how or why NYC weather would affect a DC to Boston flight, but again, nobody asked me. We eventually made it into the air and back home. All in all, a pretty successful trip. I wish it hadn't been so hot so we could have walked around more; half the fun of DC is taking in the monuments and gorgeous scenery, but I guess I'll just have to go back now. Shucks ;)

Tomorrow is another big day in Boston. But more about that later this week (cliffhanger!) :-)

July 22, 2011

Photo Friday - Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia (Passion Facade) - Barcelona, Spain

It's hella hot here. Like whoa. So when I was trying to choose a picture to share this week, I thought, "Where have I been that's really hot?" Barcelona fit the bill. Barcelona has also been on my mind a lot this week because my mother is talking about taking the family on a Mediterranean cruise next year. Color me excited! In the meantime, I'll continue to ponder the awesomeness of this church. Construction began in 1882 and isn't expected to be completed until 2026... and I'm willing to bet that will be pushed back. That's 144 years! Can you imagine? Gaudi (the architect) has long since passed, and many construction workers will never see their hard work reach completion. I can't begin to imagine where the motivation comes from to work on a project you know won't be completed in your lifetime. Insane. Also, as ornate as this facade is, this is just the side. Yup, the side, not the main entrance, not the head altar. Nope, just a side entrance. Have I said insane? This picture doesn't even begin to illustrate the massive size of Sagrada Familia either. If you're ever in Barcelona, don't miss this site (but then again, it's hard to miss. Ha!). 

July 15, 2011

Photo Friday - Big Ben

Big Ben at sunset (London, England)

As I'm sure  you are all aware - at least all of you not currently taking up residence under a rock - the last Harry Potter film was released today in the U.S. This marks the end of an era, and for many (like me), the end of childhood. Therefore, I am incapable of thinking of almost anything but Harry Potter this weekend. I found the movie highly emotional and am still trying to come to terms with the idea that no new book or movie will be forthcoming; there's no longer a "next one." So in order to at least nod to Harry Potter this week for Photo Friday, I chose a picture from London (obviously). London is one of my absolute favorite places in the entire world, and I love this picture of Big Ben standing strong and proud against a beautiful evening sunset. I can almost picture Harry and the gang flying off into the distance on their brooms (or maybe I'll just get my friend to Photoshop them in). *sigh* Mischief Managed. Cheers.

July 11, 2011

An Ode to Guidebooks

If there was but one thing you could have with you while traveling abroad, it would be a guidebook. Sure, money and your passport are important too. But does your passport have a map of all the metro stations? Does your money know the hours of operation of all the tourist spots in the city? Nope. They don't. And guess what, if your passport and money get lost or stolen, a guidebook will tell you what to do!

When I look back at all the traveling I did, I can't imagine how I ever would have gotten around without a guidebook. It's like imagining how people researched term papers without the Internet. Yeah it can be done, but why start a fire with sticks when you've got a match? When I told my cousin that I went abroad without first getting a guidebook, she instructed me to stay in my room while help was on the way. A week later two guidebooks arrived in the mail.

It's a good thing my cousin rushed me those guidebooks. It made me realize how utterly vital they are for smooth planning and traveling. Technically you could stop at tourist centers in each city you visit for information and maps about where to go, what to see, when sites open, etc., but again, why create work for yourself? Guidebooks allow you to look ahead before your trip so you can make a game plan, but they also help you to stay on your toes when you're hit with unexpected obstacles, such as sites closed for restoration or different holiday schedules.

My personal favorite guidebook is Rick Steves. Rick has practically become a member of the family, and you'll often hear us saying, "What would Rick do?" I even trained my friends to turn to Rick in their times of need. When it doubt, whip Rick out (I just made that up, but it's catchy, right? It's also true). He is the Bible of travel. My cousin may also have dedicated a photo album to him... might have happened.

Rick sets up each book with background history about the place you're visiting, important information -  such as the European equivalent of 911 (it's 112, by the way) - and some fast facts. Next, he covers lodging, transportation, and food. He then separates the city (or country) into sections so it's easy to plan your trip geographically and also in order of importance, ensuring you don't miss anything. Each section provides a map already labeled with the routes and sites you'll be visiting. Rick often writes his own walking tour too (some are even available as free podcasts on iTunes), so you won't need the audio guide at the site. And if the site doesn't have any sort of guidance, you can wow everyone with your superior knowledge of what the heck they're looking at. Best of all, Rick lets you in on all the tricks of travel, like the best way to beat crowds, how to avoid scams, and when sites offer a discount (hint: go after 3pm).

While we were abroad, we spent every night pouring over Rick's books to determine what metro lines we wanted, what stops we'd need, what times the sites open, the best times to go, etc. Having a plan made our next day out hassle free and easy-going. We also took Rick with us so we could refer to his maps while we walked and read his notes about the sites/monuments/artwork we were seeing. Carrying Rick around also allows you to bond with fellow tourists. If you see anyone else with Rick, you're automatically friends.

The one downside to Rick is that his target audience can skew towards a specific niche: adult Americans traveling to Europe. He writes almost exclusively for Americans, and his books are only available here in the States. They also only cover Europe, so if you're traveling to Brazil, Rick can't help you. If you are in Europe, though, Rick's your guy. If you're not American, you'd probably do best to find the Rick of your country, but certainly the information is valid for anyone - maps are maps, and facts are facts after all. Rick's also not heavy on hostels and fast food, so students might be a bit put off. I chose to just ignore his lodging suggestions and use the tourist site info, which is the most valuable part of any guidebook anyway.

But if you want a guidebook with a bit more broad appeal, Lonely Planet is also a fantastic resource. If you go with one of their guidebooks that includes more than just the cities you're visiting, though, I warn that you may feel overwhelmed. While Rick only focuses on popular destinations within a country, Lonely Planet includes everything... and I mean everything. It can feel like traveling with a phonebook at times. However, their pocket and city guides are much more focused and less cumbersome. Lonely Planet also has guidebooks for the entire planet (duh), not just Europe, so they're a solid choice when Rick can't help you. Rick and Lonely Planet are about the same in price, too, so it comes down to preference.

One last note: always make sure you're using an updated guidebook. You may not notice many changes between 2010 and 2011 editions, but I certainly wouldn't advise going abroad in 2011 with a guidebook from 2006. You're asking for trouble. Hours of operation may change, renovations could cause shifts in what exhibits are open to the public, and new construction projects may be completed, meaning there's more for you to see! Getting the most up-to-date guidebook available ensures getting the most bang for your buck.

Regardless of what you go with - lord knows there are many more choices than just these two - just be sure to have a guidebook with you. I'd even suggest downloading some travel or city apps onto your smartphone if you're traveling with one. I promise you'll never curse the extra space a guidebook takes in your bag. I also challenge any of you to come back with it in pristine condition. It's impossible. You'll refer to it too much. ;-)

July 8, 2011

Photo Friday - To Infinity, and Beyond!

Space shuttle Atlantis launches into orbit

Clearly not one of my own pictures. This week I thought it would be appropriate to use a professional photo from NASA in honor of the last shuttle launch, which coincidently went up this morning. Did you all watch live? I did. I'm not a huge space junky, but you can't help but get caught up in the power of a launch. Thinking about space always makes me feel so small. It's sad in a way that we won't be continuing to send manned missions up there, because I really feel there's more out there to do and explore. Plus, we all know I'm addicted to travel, and space travel totally counts.

July 4, 2011

Happy 4th of July!

Happy 4th of July, everyone! At least, Happy 4th of July to everyone who's American. ;-) This has always been one of my favorite holidays since it's filled with sunshine, fireworks, BBQs, family, baseball, and general good times (also, a little bit of important history). My family has made it a recent tradition to gather at my aunt's house for a big BBQ where my aunt - whose birthday is also the fourth - organizes games, contests, and prizes. She often hands out cheesy necklaces and headbands in red, white, and blue and occasionally even requests that we compete to wear the most patriotic outfit. There was also the year she had us all wear white, decked us out in red, white, and blue accessories, and then posed us for the traditional family photo. Last year we were simply handed flags, many of which were sent flying into the yard in pathetic attempts to get the dog, River, to look towards the camera. Observe.

Family Photo 2009                                Family Photo 2010

Yes, we're those people. But I love it! I love the cheese factor, and I don't remember anyone complaining about the epic water-balloon toss we had last year (I won, for the record). I wrap the day watching the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular (which I will forever call Pop Goes the Fourth because it's unbelievably catchy) and running out to my front yard to watch my crazy neighbor shoot off fireworks. This year I will also be tuning in for A Capitol Fourth, but that's just because my future husband Josh Groban is performing. Next year I shall return to boycotting their clear rip off of the Boston Pops show. The 1812 Overture? Really? Original.

But I digress. The 4th of July signifies a time to goof off and have fun. Adults get the day off from work, kids are out of school for the summer. Everyone gets to kick back and let loose. What could be better?

I know I'm not the only one to feel this way, either. Did you know that the 4th of July is actually the busiest travel holiday of the entire year in the good ole U.S. of A? That's right, bigger than Christmas and Thanksgiving. As previously stated, kids are out of school and offices are closed, so many families take the opportunity to vacation and travel. Last year, an estimated 39 million Americans took to the roads and skies to travel for the Fourth, and the average distance travelled was between 500 and 900 miles. That's a lot of travel! But who can resist good times with friends and family, fireworks, and more hot dogs than you could ever possibly need? Certainly not I. What are your big plans for the 4th, travel bugs? Any traditions? Regardless, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and revel in the fantastic Americana that sweeps the nation this holiday.

July 1, 2011

Photo Friday - Stonehenge

Sun beams shining down on Stonehenge

While I was traveling in London, my friend and I went on a day trip with Evan Evans Tours to various sites outside the city, including Bath, Salisbury, and of course, Stonehenge. We didn't stay long (about an hour) since it is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It's almost otherworldly to see nothing around you for miles, but then have this ancient display before you. I can't explain why Stonehenge was built or the feeling you get when you're there. I think the only way to get the full effect is to go there yourself, so if you're ever in/around London, definitely make a stop. This photo was the best I could do to capture the feeling, with the clouds and sun peaking through. I also enjoy how tiny the people look, which helps illustrate the incredible undertaking it must have been to drag these stones into position. Stonehenge is truly one of the ancient wonders of the world.