Category Archives: Travel

May Week in Cambridge

May Week is a University of Cambridge tradition—a week of mad revelry that happens, as you definitely would not expect, in June. The highlights of the week are May Balls, elaborate and elegant all-night parties hosted by the colleges. Larger colleges throw balls every year, but the smaller colleges take turns. This year, my alma mater (Corpus Christi College) hosted. Additionally, two white tie balls were held. (Most are black tie.) Since neither of those things happened last year when I was a student at Cambridge, I had to return this year to take part! My week involved very little sleep but lots of alcohol and lots of fun.

I arrived in England on Monday afternoon to the news that a friend had an extra formal hall ticket at Christ’s College that evening. So I dashed to the college, luggage in tow (thank goodness for porters!), and arrived just in time for sherry, good food, half a bottle of wine, and port. Since I don’t drink much in Munich, that was quite the boozy start to my week. In other words, it was good training for what was to come! After a day of meeting up with friends who still live in Cambridge, the real partying started Tuesday night with the St. John’s College May Ball. All sorts of rumors circulate about this party: Time once ranked it the seventh-best party in the world. They keep a reserve fund to buy extra fireworks at the last minute so they can be sure to top Trinity College’s display. I have no clue whether either of those rumors is true, but it was certainly a perfectly elegant evening. We went from bumper cars to swing boats and from pop-rock to beautifully sung opera. I was well-fed with crepes, cheeses, scones, macarons, and pizza. Particular highlights included the fireworks display and the tea bar.

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Lani in Weimar

Leipzig and Weimar mark part one of my Goethe pilgimage. (Wetzlar is soon to follow.) My friend Sarah (an American in Cambridge last year like me, and an American in Berlin at the moment) met me in Leipzig and was kind enough to indulge my author-themed itinerary. We spent a relaxed couple of days visiting Goethe-themed sights, with the occasional other author or composer thrown in.

Goethe in Leipzig

Leipzig has a positive mania for claiming famous figures as its own. And because Leipzig is a university town, it has a long list of Germans its can lay at least partial claim to: Leibniz, Lessing, Nietzsche, Angela Merkel, Schumann, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Bach, and, of course, Goethe. Despite the fact that Goethe only spent three years at university there and actually failed his exams, he’s well-commemorated. There’s a large, very shiny statue of him in a central square. But the best Goethe-related site in town is Auerbachs Keller. It’s the second-oldest restaurant in the city, dating back to the early 1400s. It was Goethe’s favorite wine bar during his student days, when it was already decorated with paintings from the story of Faust. He set a scene in his Faust I in the bar. Mephisto brings Faust here, impresses students with some magic involving an endless supply of wine, and rides off (with Faust) on a wine cask. Auerbachs Keller embraces its celebrity, with statues outside depicting scenes from Goethe’s play, Faust-themed paintings on all the walls, and a horribly cheesy wine cask with Mephisto and Faust dummies riding it.

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Tallinn, Estonia

Why Estonia? Helsinki or Oslo would have been a more typical end to my Nordic tour. But when I chatted with some Fulbrighters based in Finland, they recommended Tallinn as a cheaper and prettier destination. And I think it was a good choice.

Tallinn is an impressive city. Estonia has only been independent for 24 years, but it feels more like a Nordic country than an Eastern bloc country. The infrastructure is fabulous. There is free Wi-Fi almost everywhere, a secure and high-tech system that lets citizens do everything from voting to taxes to starting businesses online, and extensive public transit (which is free for city residents, though not for tourists). It’s not quite as inexpensive as, say, Budapest, but the prices still come as a relief after Stockholm and Copenhagen. Also, amusingly, Estonia’s president is rather infamous for starting Twitter wars with other countries. Just a fun fact.

Old Town

Tallinn has one of the best-preserved medieval old towns in the world. It’s very small and cute, with lots of churches in various styles, a still-operating pharmacy dating back to at least 1422, and a mostly-intact wall. (Apparently, Estonia entered the wall in some sort of “additional wonders of the word” competition. It lost to the Great Wall of China. But that’s pretty stiff competition.) I took a free walking tour with a hilariously wry guide who told us lots of silly stories. For instance: one of the oldest churches was partially destroyed by Soviet bombs. When Estonia joined the USSR, they asked for money and permission to rebuild the church. Their proposal was repeatedly rejected, until they offered to make the space a museum of atheism. (What goes inside a museum of atheism? Who knows? The museum never actually happened.)

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Sightseeing in Stockholm

Any city was going to be a let-down after Copenhagen. Stockholm isn’t quite as perfect: food costs more, the transit system is worse, and even the weather didn’t hold up as well for my visit. Also, no Kierkegaard. All of that notwithstanding, it was a really fun place to be a tourist for a day! Everything I did—touring the City Hall, visiting the Vasa Museum, touring Old Town, and attending the opera—was absolutely worth my time and money.

City Hall

Lots of cities have impressive city halls, but Stockholm really stands out for the variety of architecural styles and decorative techniques used. It’s also fun to tour because of the Nobel Prize tie-in. Although the prizes themselves are given out in Stockholm’s concert hall, the banquet, ball, and reception are held here. Did you know that university students in Stockholm can enter a lottery to purchase a ticket to the banquet!? I knew I picked the wrong place to study.

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Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!

(First things first: If you don’t know what the title is referring to, go watch the excellent Danny Kaye movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. This post will still be here when you finish.)

I’m in love. I’ve never felt as strong an urge to stay and live in a city as I did in Copenhagen. I can’t quite explain why. The beautiful green spaces? The good infrastructure? The fish-based cuisine? The lingering traces of Kierkegaard’s presence? I know it gets awfully cold in the winter, and I probably wouldn’t like that, but on this trip it seemed like the perfect city.

Authors, philosophers, and other famous people

Have I mentioned on this blog how much I love Kierkegaard? I know it’s one of those totally unoriginal teenage obsessions, but I can’t help it! So of course tracking down Kierkegaard-related sites was a priority during my time in Copenhagen. I didn’t go quite as far as this author, but I made sure to see his grave, his statue, and the exhibit about him in the Museum of Copenhagen. The latter was small but really cool—it organized paraphernalia from his life into different categories of love. These were paired with relevant quotes from his works (of course, Works of Love and his notes played a large part) and with objects and stories submitted by current Copenhageners. The Regine Olsen episode of Kierkegaard’s life is fascinating, so I loved how much emphasis it got. The city’s other famous author, Hans Christian Andersen, is in the same cemetery. One of his stories is also commemorated in the city’s most famous attraction (supposedly the most disappointing attraction in Europe), the harbor statue of the Little Mermaid.

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Happy birthday, Hamburg harbor!

My train to Hamburg was packed. Not just in the sense of “it sucks that you can’t find a seat for this six-hour, early-morning journey,” but in the sense of “no one can get to the bathrooms and also we’re not sure we can take on any more passengers, because the standing room is all taken.” We can partially blame this on the Deutsche Bahn strikes (fewer trains than usual were running), but apparently it’s mostly because I was heading to Hamburg just in time for one of their biggest events of the year: the Hafengeburtstag. That’s literally the “harbor birthday,” and ships from all over the world come to parade, race, and mingle. Of course, there’s also lots of fireworks and street food. (I ate plenty of herring—both raw and pickled—and Schmalzkuchen—fried balls of dough with powdered sugar.) So I threw most of my other plans for the weekend away and helped Hamburg celebrate its harbor’s birthday in style!

The other main tourist attraction I managed to get to was Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway. It’s impressive for its sheer size, and it also does a good job of conveying the overall differences in terrain and architecture between the represented regions (Switzerland, Austria, Hamburg, the fictional German town of Knuffingen, Bavaria, Middle Germany, America, and Scandanavia). It has an airport, concert halls, soccer stadiums, a space shuttle, UFOs, ships, and lots and lots of trains. There are also some fun Easter eggs in the tiny figures—everything from an elephant pulling a steamroller to a man bungee jumping from construction equipment.

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Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam

The last leg of my journey: Holland. This is a refrain I keep repeating, but I wish I’d had more time! Two days each in two cities was not nearly enough. I didn’t get to explore the Dutch countryside, or even see all the museums I wanted to see in the cities. I guess I’ll just have to return someday…

The Hague

The Hague seems to be a hugely popular destination for Dutch tourists and a relatively ignored one for international tourists. On one hand, this is a shame, because it means tours of most attractions are only offered in Dutch (with significantly shorter written or audio-guided English summaries). But it means the locals don’t roll their eyes at foreign tourists, so that’s nice! There are a lot of museums in The Hague, and I drove myself a bit crazy trying to get to all the major ones. I failed—in fact, I missed the city’s two biggest sights: the Mauritshuis Museum (home of “Girl with a pearl earring”) and the Peace Palace. But I saw a lot anyway. I arrived in the afternoon on Saturday in time to take a tour of the Hall of Knights, the ceremonial hall where the King delivers his speech from the throne on budget day. The room is impressive without being flashy. Its ceiling is made as an inverted boat, and the walls are lined with handwoven tapestries celebrating The Netherlands’ provinces. Little imps sit on the wooden rafters—a relic of the days when it was a courtroom, and the imps carried defendents’ and witnesses’ words to St. Peter, who would recall their truthfulness (or lack thereof) when he judged them for admission to heaven. In the center of the room is the still-used gold-and-velvet throne.

I started Sunday with Escher in the Palace, a museum I found doubly attractive because it’s the only palace open to the public (and it contains some of the original furnishings and details about the royal family’s life) and because it hosts a permanent exhibition of artwork by Escher. I’ve seen Escher exhibits before, but this one had more of an emphasis on his earlier landscapes and nature drawings, which I found interesting. (You could already see how he was playing with repetition and perspective, but it was subtle.) There was also a kitschy top floor with optical illusions and photo opportunities inspired by Escher prints. Continue reading Holland: The Hague and Amsterdam