Saturday, October 18, 2014

#AdventureswithKaren: Episode Europe

For the past few weeks I've been criss crossing all over Europe, staying in different cities for a few days at a time. Before this I'd only been to the United Kingdom and France, so I was excited to explore new European countries. 

Because of the brevity of my visits there isn't too much to say about most of the cities. I'll share a few anecdotes here and there, but this post will be mainly photos. Enjoy! 

Brussels, Belgium:
Brussels was celebrating "Car Free Sundays" when I was in town, so the streets were bustling with life. I felt a very strong sense of community while I was roaming around:

Enjoying a Belgian Waffle by the Manequin Pis

Suited up with Montana

St. Michel Cathedral

Amsterdam, Holland:
Amsterdam has quite a few idiosyncrasies including the strong biking culture, the infamous "coffee" shops, and the beautiful cityscape. But perhaps the most unique, and in my opinion grotesque, part about this city is the Red Light District. I barely made it 5 minutes in the area before hopping back on my bike and leaving. Note to self: The Red Light District is not a place where a woman feels empowered. 

Picturesque canal

Alchemist Garden - A raw/vegan restaurant

My club sandwich

Meditating in Vondelpark

Oslo, Norway:
Without a doubt, Oslo is one of the most expensive cities I've visited so far. Sloan, Montana, and I visited a health foods cafe, and my ginger latte cost me a whopping 8USD. Also noteworthy is Frogner Park, home to an interesting collection of phallic and suggestive statues:


Interesting statues at Frognerpark

Stockholm, Sweden:

Inside the Royal Swedish Opera House

Beautiful architecture in Gamla Stan (Old Stockholm)

Visiting Anthony during his rehearsals with the Royal Swedish Ballet

Hamburg, Germany:

Couldn't get enough of Planten Un Blumen Park

Prague, Czech Republic:

Lennon Wall

View of the Charles Bridge

Views from the Prague Castle

Cologne, Germany:

Locks of Love in Cologne

Berlin, Germany:

East Side Gallery in Berlin

Holocaust Memorial


More to come on my European adventures! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

#AdventureswithKaren: Episode Athens

When I think of Greece I think of the scenes in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" when Alexis Bledel's character spends the summer at her grandparent's residence. The ocean glistens majestically blue against the neatly stacked, glowing white villas.

So what a surprise it was to arrive in Athens to what seemed like a normal city. No white homes. No blue ocean. No picturesque charm.

But I soon realized that I was mistaking Athens for Santorini, and that Athens is beautiful for an entirely different reason. Seamlessly integrated into the modern neighborhoods of Athens are breathtaking structures that were built thousands of years ago. Guided around by our newly adopted Greek Uncle, Spiros, our group adventure began at The Acropolis (Tourist tip: A flash of my Bruin ID got me tickets to all 6 tourist sites for only 6 euros, compared to the 12 euros paid by non-students):
The Erechtheion at The Acropolis

Next, Spiros took us to have lunch at a restaurant by the water where all the fish eaters in the group got their first pick of the daily catch. I enjoyed some perfectly grilled vegetables paired with fresh pita bread:

Our last two stops that day were the Athens flea market and the Temple of Zeus:

The Temple of Zeus

Before we departed Athens a few days later we convinced Uncle Spiros to be our tour guide again. We made our way about an hour outside of the city of Athens to Ancient Corinth. Before reaching the historic site we made a pit stop to have authentic greek yogurt, and to my surprise, to bungee jump in the Corinth Canal:

The three brave jumpers

Post-jump high
And while my first bungee jumping experience was the most memorable event of the day, the views of Greece we had at the top of Ancient Corinth were unforgettable:

Like in so many of the cities before this, I felt like I could've spent more time in Greece. It's as if I've been given a large sample platter of appetizers from around the world, each bite just big enough for me to get a taste but not big enough for me to really understand the unique flavors. And while I would in any other circumstance prefer longer stays in each city, at least this way I can suss out which places I enjoy and which places aren't worth a revisit.

Up next, I begin to tackle other parts of Europe!

Monday, October 6, 2014

#AdventureswithKaren: Episode Istanbul

Most of the slots on my list of destinations to travel to are occupied by European or Southeast Asian cities. But after visiting Istanbul, Turkey I understand why it is currently one of the top tourist destinations. 

While I stayed in the modern part of town near Taksim Square, the funucular (or tram) into the historical area was cheap and convenient. The first stop I made was to Sultanahmet Square where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Basilica Cistern are. Each site showed a kind of grandiose beauty and attention to detail that isn't as common anymore in modern day architecture: 

Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Basilica Cistern
Medusa head in the Basilica Cistern
Next up was the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, and the shopaholic in me was expecting to have a culturally charged experience that would stimulate all five of my senses. Unfortunately, I was severely disappointed. Though each place did have a hint of local charm, nearly all the stalls sold the same souvenirs and same flavors of turkish delight. They seemed to cater only to the overwhelming mass of tourists that inundated the markets: 

But that wasn't the most unsavory part. For thirty minutes I heard a nonstop chorus of, "Hey! Excuse me, where you from?" and "What you want? What you need?". I was even slightly offended when I was asked if I was "from Gangnam style?" and when someone said to me loudly, "Konichiwa!". Perhaps it was because I was a woman wandering around by myself in a place where males are socially dominant. Or perhaps it was because there is little racial diversity in Istanbul, and they were surprised to see an Asian person. Whatever the reason, the extra (and slightly aggressive) attention I received was off-putting and I couldn't wait to leave.

Luckily, the bustling streets of Istanbul were filled with a wider variety of stores with less assertive salespeople. I even found a little produce stand selling giant figs (my favorites!): 

My next day in Istanbul was more restorative than it was active. After a day of cruising around the Bosphorus Sea, my friend Montana and I checked out Cemberlitas Hamami, a traditional Turkish bath house.  We got traditional Turkish scrub downs and aromatherapy massages. The women who washed and massaged us had very playful "tough love" kind of attitudes. It was very different from the high class and posh massage experiences we have in the states: 

Yacht-ing with China, Victor, Montana, and Tamina

Enjoying the view with Montana and Sarah

On my last day in Istanbul I took a stroll through Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans during their time of power. The mosaics were beautiful and the views even more breathtaking:

Istanbul is a great example of how a city preserves its rich history without allowing modern infrastructure to overtake and overwhelm it. Granted, the area I stayed in was saturated with luxury brands like Ritz Carlton and high end shopping like Chanel. But the historic district had few displays of western influences (excluding the Burger Kings). I've never been in a place as culturally foreign as Istanbul (remember, I'm Taiwanese so Asia wasn't a big shock), and I really appreciated the challenge of navigating the city for a few days. 

Will the next destination be more or less culturally familiar? I've never been to Greece before, so I guess I'll soon find out!