Reading Week: Backpacking Across Great Britain

[Not to be confused with that time I toured the British Isles. This time I stuck to the mainland].
(Note: if you want a full explanation of the terminology, watch this great little video: http://youtu.be/rNu8XDBSn10)

reading week

Here in the UK, we have a nifty little thing called Reading Week. This week falls in the middle of term and is a week completely free of classes! Yeah, we have essays to write or exams to study for…but it’s a week with NO CLASS! Since we arrived in Wales, our program director basically sold this week to us as “Travelling Week,” so I’d been brainstorming for weeks about where to go. With just a week or two to go until Reading Week, it seemed like everyone else had their plans finalized, their tickets and lodging booked, but I was still clueless.

Pretty soon it seemed like almost everyone in my program would be spending at least part of reading week in Italy, so like a proper hipster, I decided I would NOT be going to Italy…and pretty soon I decided I wouldn’t even be leaving the UK. After all, I had been living in this country for over 2 months and still hadn’t even been to Scotland. I had to explore some more of the UK while I was right here and everything was just a short (or not so short, ya know…haha) train ride away. So after lots and lots of crunching numbers, checking train timetables, checking hostel availability, and all kinds of other madness (getting a trip together–even if it’s just a week of travelling around–is hard work, I tell ya!), I finally had a solid plan: I would take the train to London, and spend a few hours there before taking the bus to Canterbury (this plan was loads cheaper than taking the train straight to Canterbury). I’d have Monday in C-bury, then Tuesday I’d take the train up to Edinburgh, Thursday I’d take the the train over to Glasgow, Friday night I’d take the bus to Inverness, and all of Sunday would be one long MegaBus trip home (well..to Manchester where I’d get on yet another train to take me home to Bangor!). With tickets booked and printed and hostel accommodation guaranteed, I was ready for an adventure!

Oh yeah. And did I mention that I decided to do this all solo?

London: I’m Baaaack!

My first stop was London for a few hours! After I got off the train, I topped up my Oyster card like a seasoned pro and was off to check out a few things I missed last time I was in the big city.

First stop? The British Library! I’m a huge fan of libraries. This semester has basically been one big library world tour. But actually.
While at the Lib, I got to check out the amazing archives (where I couldn’t take any pictures, unfortunately). Here I got to see some amazing works such as one of Jane Austen’s notebooks, early Shakespearean manuscripts, one of Tyndale’s early New Testaments, Beethoven’s tuning fork, and the seal from the Magna Carta as well as an early copy of the document. Basically I was majorly geeking out the whole time.

Another highlight was a short stop at the British Museum. Basically I felt like I was in Night at the Museum as I explored this amazing, huge museum filled to the BRIM with incredible, iconic history.

On another “exciting” note, I “got” to pay to use the bathroom for the first time at the train station. So there’s always that. And this would not be the last time I had to pay to use the bathroom on this trip. The British can be cruel.

A few blissful hours in London

A few blissful hours in London

On to Canterbury

I pulled into the Canterbury bus station at 10:30 Sunday night. Finding by hostel at night, in the dark was an…adventure… But eventually I did find it and got settled into the wonderful little hostel that would be my home for the next two nights.

I was up early the next morning to explore this city of roundabouts and underpasses (more navigation challenges…errr…adventures(!) for Ellie…yay!).

A few highlights were:
-A stroll through the lovely Dane John Gardens and a climb up the Dane John Mound which gave me a wonderful view from the top of Canterbury!
-My proper Chaucer pilgrimage! When I booked my bus from London to Canterbury, I didn’t realize I was following the same route of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” So I ended up joining up with my “fellow travelers” at the Canterbury Tales Experience before (finally) completing my journey to the grand Canterbury Cathedral! I spent a few hours exploring the huge, ornate cathedral full of history.
-Canterbury has an absolutely lovely high street filled with all kinds of little pubs and shops. I also found a marvelous little book store called Chaucer’s Book Shop (as it turned out, this would also be a week of exploring adorable little book stores…) where I spent a lot of time admiring the huge collection of books both old and new.

C-bury Highlights

C-bury Highlights

A final highlight at the hostel was CAKE NIGHT my last night there! So fun. :)

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Photo from the Kipps Hostel Canterbury fb page

Edinburgh: Finally Up to Scotland!

I had a great time in Canterbury, but Tuesday morning I was reading to move on–and up to Scotland! Finally, I would be travelling up to the land of bagpipes and kilts (and yes, I did see BOTH during my 5 days in Scotland!). I made my way over to the train station and hopped on a train that took me back to London where I had to change to another train at King’s Cross Station. As I was waiting for my platform number to be called, I was hoping, hoping, hoping it would be platform 9…but alas, it was platform 2 (only 7 3/4 platforms away from Hogwarts!!). Yet little did I know that there were MANY more Harry Potter references to come in Edinburgh.

So I boarded my train and hunkered down for the 6 1/2 hour train ride. However, any hesitancy I had about the long train ride was quickly put aside as I saw the landscape transform as we traveled up the east coast. My anticipation grew as I started to see more trees decked out in their brilliant autumn colors. Soon I was loading up “Celtic Woman” tracks on my ipod and getting super excited. I was probably grinning like a goon too…. haha

Once I got to Edinburgh and finally found my hostel (again, a bit of a struggle…sensing a theme? :P), it was about 4pm, and here in the UK EVERYTHING closes at 5, so I ran to whatever was closest to my hostel–in this case the fab little National Museum of Scotland! I booked it through the museum to catch the highlights including…Dolly the cloned sheep! Whoohoo!

Dolly!

Dolly!

The next morning though, I was up early and off to explore the city. I started the day off right with a trip to The Elephant House (birthplace of Harry Potter!) for a gingerbread latte. Since it was bright and early, the place was free of tourists and just occupied by a few locals.
Plus a trip into the bathroom showed that HP fans are crazy (and by that I mean crazy AWESOME! :D). Every inch of the bathroom walls were covered in pictures, signatures, and comments!

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I also got to admire the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. However, I unfortunately didn’t get to tour the inside because…well, train tickets are expensive… (this was also my reasoning for basically not eating the whole week, sooooooo that happened…. haha).

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After exploring for a few more hours, it was back to the hostel for a FREE tour at 11am with the hostel. I got to meet some New Zealanders and explore a bit more of the city. First stop was Greyfriar’s Cemetery which is apparently super creepy, but is also chock full of more HP references: from the school that inspired Hogwarts resting just outside its gate, to a grave for a McGonagall, and a grave for Thomas Ridell (but thankfully, HP took care of Voldemort once and for all, so he couldn’t return this time :P), and just for one more HP reference…we also later got to see the inspiration for the Chamber of Secrets and the Grassmarket–the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Needless to say, I was geeking out once again.

Another place we got to see on this tour was Calton Hill, a high point (literally!) in Edinburgh. Here you can find the Scottish National Monument (basically an incomplete Parthenon), a few other monuments, and just a great view of the city.

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My hostel receptionist/tour guide recommended checking out Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, so I decided to head there after lunch. However, it took me a little longer than I expected to get there…

One of the downsides to traveling solo is that weird people suddenly think they can start talking to you. I had some…interesting conversations with…interesting people…multiple times on this trip. Not gonna lie, sometimes I was just thinking “Why are you talking to me…” in my head.

So I was walking down the Royal Mile to head to Holyrood Park, when I’m stopped by this fundamentalist from Texas. In Scotland. Yeah. He talked to me for longer than I would have liked with less personal space than what I would have liked, but one of his main points he told me was that I needed to learn Greek and Hebrew. Because if I learned Greek and Hebrew I would be an academic. And if I’m an academic, then people can’t argue with me. Their arguments just… they just don’t work. Because I’m an academic. Yeah. So that was what I learned that day.

But anyway, after this little pit-stop, I was back on my way to Holyrood Park. Once there I started the climb to Arthur’s Seat! I climbed up, up, and up, until I finally reached the top…and almost blew right off! It was so windy up there, but the view was incredible and so worth it!

Arthur's Seat!

Arthur’s Seat!

The next morning, I sadly said goodbye as I boarded the train to Glasgow, clutching my Costa Christmas coffee. ;)

Over to Glasgow We Go

And by ‘we,’ I mean ‘I.’ Still rockin’ it solo.

Glasgow was….not my favorite city I visited.
Edinburgh was so old and felt so historic…from all of the brick buildings, the cobblestone paths, and the secret passageways/alleys (okay, they weren’t really that secret). Glasgow was more…industrial. It seemed dirtier and just not as…historic. It also probably didn’t help that I arrived not having any idea what I was going to do or see there (finishing my essay the night/morning before I left took a little bit more of a priority over searching my planned destinations on TripAdvisor). Also, I got lost a LOT in Glasgow…

Basically, the theme of this entire trip was: Ellie is lost.
The theme of Glasgow was: Ellie is lost. Ellie is not sure if she should be walking down this moderately sketchy street, but the street she is looking for might just be a little further ahead. Ellie really doesn’t think the street she is looking for is this way. Ellie is going to turn around and walk back through this moderately sketchy area.

Since I didn’t have a list of places to visit ready when I arrived in Glasgow, I decided to plan my time around the Glasgow Museums flyer I found; I would make my way from one museum to another, exploring whatever I found along the way.

I will hand it to Glasgow for having some pretty rockin’ museums. Highlights were The People’s Palace (a museum focusing on the history of Glasgow and its ‘Glaswegians’), St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art, The Gallery of Modern Art, and The Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (my FAVORITE. They did an absolutely fantastic job of blending the art gallery and museum, with each floor being split between the two, and the art and museum parts relating to and commenting on each other).

Glasgow's Museums

Glasgow’s Museums

Another cool site was the Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis…one of the “explorations along the way.”

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My FAVORITE part about Glasgow, though, was the buzzing Christmas spirit that was already alive and well! When I arrived, lights were already strung across the streets and the Christmas market was being set up (and opened the next day!). I also found out as I explored that first night, that there was a big Christmas-lights-switch-on event going on! While I couldn’t get tickets for it, I joined my fellow commoners outside the barricade and sipped my hot apple cider while watching the splendid fireworks show.
And then Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” came on, and everything was right in the world again. Christmas bliss.
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So the Christmas spirit in Glasgow was nice…but come Friday night, I was ready to move on.

And Up to the Highlands: Inverness

Inverness was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

It didn’t start so beautifully, however. I got into my hostel around 11pm (this one was an easier find since it was literally a few yards away from the bus station…), and I was ready to settle in for the night.
But this was when we had the attack of the super snorer. I was in a 10-bed room, pretty comfy beds, all ready for a nice sleep. And then I woke up at about 3 in the morning to someone snoring. So loud. Nonstop. For hours. I have never heard anyone snore with such intensity or variety in my entire life (and yes, I did come up with that line as I lay awake in the middle of the night. What else was I supposed to do? :P).

So sleep wasn’t extremely plentiful that night, but I was still up bright and early to explore! I started the morning off with a walk along the gorgeous Lake Ness and onto the Ness Islands…and then crossed back over Ness Bridge (seeing a theme here?). The scenery was so pretty, especially with the fall colors so bright and brilliant.

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But I couldn’t come all this way without seeing Loch Ness, so I headed over to the Inverness tourism office to find the best way to get there. The guy working there told me to take a bus to Urquart Castle and then walk down to the lake from there.

So I hopped on the bus, not quite sure what I was doing, but definitely excited for some Loch Ness action. And then I got off the bus at my stop. In the middle of nowhere. Well, the castle was there. But other than that, the middle of nowhere. Eventually I found a path and started a hike, not quite sure where I was going, but with lots of scenic stops along the way (with Loch Ness itself as the backdrop for all of my selfies)…and eventually made it the 2 1/2 miles or so to the village of Drumnadrochit where I stopped off at the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre for some Nessy info fun (really I was just desperate for a break from walking and it wasn’t that expensive soooo why not!). Basically at the beginning of the little tour, they get you absolutely convinced that Nessy is real…just to shatter that new belief throughout the rest of the center.

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But then I was off on the long hike back to my bus stop. The whole time I walked along Loch Ness I kept my eyes pealed for Nessy. I figured if she WAS real, I had to see here while I was there! haha…And I *might* have seen her….you be the judge of this photo! ;)

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I couldn’t resist making my own little Nessy hoax photo. ;)

But anyway…the next morning it was time to head home on a tortuously long MegaBus ride…I was sad to see my travels come to an end, but I was also exhausted and ready to get home to my own space, comfy bed, and not-moldy shower. What a week it was!

Reading Week in Numbers:

  • 8 days
  • 5 cities
  • 4 hostels
  • Approx. 1,552 miles traveled
  • 13 hours and 49 minutes on train
  • 15 hours on bus
  • 30 minutes (approx) on tube
  • That’s almost 30 hours of travel, people!
  • Hours spent walking: too many to count
  • Number of times I got lost: also too many to count :P
  • 1 form of currency (thank goodness!)
  • 500 pictures taken
  • Memories made and experience gained: priceless :)
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Ich Liebe Deutschland

I love Germany.

Germany is a country I have wanted to visit most of my life, so when the opportunity arose for me to go to Germany two different times this semester, I jumped at the chance. If you know me, you probably know that I’ve long dreamed of seeing Germany. Whenever we did those little ice breaker games and the question came up: “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” I always said Germany, with my reason being some mix between my heritage, the history, and–most importantly–the number of people I know who live there.

So when I had my Easyjet boarding passes printed off and was on the train to the Manchester airport early one October morning, I knew I was in for a bucket-list-checking-off, memory-making trip of a lifetime!

Munich:

My first taste of Germany was the city of Munich. Munich is probably the city in Germany I’ve wanted to visit for the longest amount of time because that’s where Ines is from! So when I found out in July that she was getting married…and her wedding would be in October…in Munich…I was beyond excited. (Sidenote: It’s actually really amazing how everything fell into place. I had to go through some hard stuff with changing plans, transferring colleges, and changing plans again…but if I hadn’t, I would have been in America this semester and wouldn’t have gotten to go to Ines and Nicola’s wedding.)
So I woke up early, hopped on the train to Manchester Airport, grapped a cup of jo (Pumpkin Spice Latte! Finally!!), and–after a bit of a delay–boarded my flight.

Once I arrived in Munich, Ines was giving me chocolate almost right away (she knows me WAY too well..haha. Also: Kinder Country bars are the bombbbb.), and I got to finally meet her family, who I have been hearing about for years from Ines and my Grandma!

The next afternoon, the wedding festivities began! Overall, the wedding festivities were such a fun, multicultural experience! First was the civil ceremony which included most of the German and Sardinians decked out in traditional dress. Even though I didn’t understand the Italian-Germany ceremony, this was when the important papers were signed, and I could already start to get a sense of the….differences…between the Italian and German cultures. :)

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Next we drove past the Oktoberfest grounds (the celebration having ended just days before) and to the huge beer hall for the toast (No worries, mom, I stuck to another class Bavarian drink–apple juice and club soda! :) Yumm!). I also got my first taste of the Bavarial pretzel, or Brezeln. All I can say is YUMMM!! :) Crispy and salty on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside, these are the greatest! Nothing like the pretzels you’d find in a bag or even the giant pretzels you buy at the fair. The toast was a great time of celebration, and I learned that Italians sure know how to celebrate! Laughter echoed through the giant hall as the Sardinians sang song after song, even attracting some onlookers with their iPhones and cameras at one point. After the toast, it was off to bed to rest up for the big celebration tomorrow!

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HOWEVER, when I got back to my hotel room, I got the pleasant surprise of finding out that Inga (who studied abroad at MLC my junior year) was studying in Munich! So early the next morning, I hestitantly hopped on the U-Bahn, hoping I was on the right train with the right kind of ticket (#langugagebarriers), and got myself down to Marienplatz to meet up with her. Over the next few hours, we walked through the English Gardens, a couple cathedrals, saw some of the main sights, and just caught up on LIFE of the past 3 1/2 years…and I also got to introduce Inga to the wonderful drink known as the Pumpkin Spice Latte. :) Standing by a red brick bridge, under trees with orange and gold leaves, while drinking a PSL? Yes, it finally felt like autumn.

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Then it was back on the U-Bahn to go get ready for the wedding! We went to the beautiful cathedral for the lovely service in Italian and German with singing in English from a gospel choir. After lots of hugs, pictures, and blowing bubbles, we were then off to the reception at a fabulous lakeside hotel. The venue was absolutely gorgeous, and the food was probably the best I’ve had in my life! It was also such a great party! In proper Italian-style, the meal lasted for a few hours and was a fun time of conversation and meeting new people. I even got to meet a couple from England who traveled and taught English for five years–basically I want to be them. :) Then it was time to DANCE! This went on for hours and hours and was such a blast–too much of an experience to be able to capture in words.

The beautiful bride and me!

The beautiful bride and me!

The next day (Sunday) was too be my last in Munich, so after a nice sleep-in, I got to spend the afternoon with the Hansons and Ines & Nicola walking around the city center. We got to see some great sites like the Theatinerkirche, the spectacular city hall, Hofbrauhaus, try some traditional Bavarian food, and just enjoy each others company and conversation. Then it was off to the airport for me and back to Wales.

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I had SUCH a fab time in Munich. The city was so beautiful–from the brilliant fall colors to the huge, historic buildings. Also, visiting it felt like such a piece of home. I had always wanted to visit Ines, especially since she has come to visit us so many times in Minnesota, and I also got to spend a lot of time with the Hansons who are also from Mountain Lake–I got to catch up on the latest ML news, and just have that connection to home for a few days.

Berlin:

After a few more weeks of class and field trips around Wales, I was headed back to Germany–this time to Potsdam and Berlin to see Nicki and Leona! I was so beyond excited to be reunited with these two as almost all of my great memories of senior year include them! I was also excited to be back in Germany once again, ready to practice the few German phrases I had added to my vocabulary, and ready to eat some more of that great Milka chocolate! :)

I arrived in Berlin late Thursday morning and with the help of Leona’s text messages and the Travel Info receptionist at the airport, I hopped on a train to Potsdam (once again, hoping/praying I was on the right train and that I had changed at the right place…haha). But soon I was reunited with Leona and got to go to her house and meet her family (again, people I had heard a lot about and even seen on skype!). We spent a lot of time just eating chocolate and ice cream and catching up…but it was also Halloween, so we needed to celebrate! Leona had been sewing herself a pumpkin costume the last few weeks, so we quickly pulled a costume together for me as well, did some crazy face paint, and then walked around the city and went trick or treating! This was so much fun, plus I got to try lots of new German candy :) and learn a few new German phrases. IMG_6273edit After getting all tuckered out from trekking around Potsdam, we came back to eat our candy and watch Pride & Prejudice. Typical. In just a few short hours we basically summed up senior year: chocolate, ice cream, eating cereal with big spoons, and watching Pride & Prejudice. Basically the best. :)

The next afternoon we took the train to the city center to Berlin…well, Leona got off a few stops earlier to say goodbye to a friend, and I continued on! After exploring a little bit on my own and finding the Brandenburg Gates, I got a call from Nicki that she was on her way to meet up with me! I was so excited to see her again, and we spent the next few hours wandering around, seeing the sites, and–once again–just catching up on life!

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The next afternoon Leona and I met up with Nicki once again for some SHOPPING on the main shopping street in Berlin! We hung out there for a few hours, but then Leona was off to say goodbye to another friend, and Nicki and I headed on over to the mall closer to her house–one a little more in our style (and budget) range. :)
But before our shopping continued there, we first had to stop for an EIS (ice cream) break, of course…and finally, after YEARS of waiting (see my “I Scream, You Scream, the WORLD Screams for Ice Cream” speech senior year about ice cream around the world), I got to try SPAGHETTI EIS!!!!!

Nicki and I sat down at a table at the adorable little Eis Cafe in the mall and opened up the grand menu filled with all kinds of crazy, elaborate eis creations (although, I unfortunately had left my memory card back at Leona’s, so I have no pictures of it…)

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Mhhhhmm

Look at that excitement!

Look at that excitement!

For those of you who don’t know, Spaghetti Eis is a brilliant German creation. Basically it’s ice cream made to look like spaghetti, complete with vanilla ice cream “noodles,” strawberry “spaghetti sauce,” and white chocolate “parmesan cheese” dusting the top! Plus, stick in a cookie just for a little extra glam. And it tasted SO GREAT! Bucket list–check!! :)
(And yes, I was outrageously excited in this moment…just ask Nicki! haha)

After some more shoppinngggg along with getting to try the amazing “Currywurst” (another delicious German food creation….anybody else sensing a theme here?), Leona was back and we were ready for a fun night all together followed by a slumber party at Nicki’s (with more Pride & Prejudice, of course!).

Always up to our old shenanigans...

Always up to our old shenanigans…

Sunday afternoon (we..err..might have stayed up a *little* late and consequently slept in a *little* while :P), it was back to Potsdam for Leona and me. I also had the conclusion to my lesson in the beast known as the Berlin public transportation system. It’s great for getting around, but boy, is it complicated! Where as in Munich, I just had to deal with the U-Bahn, but here we were zipping around from train to U-Bahn to S-Bahn, to bus to tram. Thankfully though, I almost always had Leona and her nifty smartphone app with me telling exactly where to go.

Back in Potsdam, Leona and I decided to do a “biking tour” of the city! We got to see some sights like her beautiful church and its grounds as well as a great view from the top of the city!

Potsdam by ni

Potsdam by night

We closed out the night with some Harry Potter (just to bring things full circle), and then in the morning, I was back on a train to the airport…sad to say goodbye to Germany again…and probably for longer this time.

Future Home?

Overall, I really loved Germany so much and so enjoyed my time there. I loved the people, the places, the language, the culture, the food, even the climate! :) Basically, I’m moving to Germany the first chance I get. Now I just have to learn German and find a nice German boy… ;)