France. Italy. Switzerland. Germany. Czech Republic.
Five countries, two weeks, one camera. Countless memories.
I'm not even sure where to begin to describe and recount this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, but it seems most fitting to start with my travel companion, Allison:
I love telling the story about how this adventure / travel buddy match came about. Allison and I went to college together, and were friends, but hadn't kept in touch much at all since graduation. We reconnected at a wedding earlier this year, and discovered that we were both scheming about going to Europe around the same time and were hoping to find a travel companion. A couple of Skype conversations later (Allison lives in the Dominican Republic), and we had an epic European adventure in the works!
Allison was an amazing travel buddy (in addition to a stellar friend). Our preferences and pace were very similar and made traveling so pleasant. I loved our frequent runs, gluten free foodie finds, and thought-provoking conversations.
Now onto the pictures:
Since this trip was for pleasure, and not for work, I never forced myself to keep my camera in hand or take pictures of everything we saw and did. I only pulled out my camera when what I was seeing was actually inspiring me to shoot. There were moments when I chose to just be present and still, and not document what I was seeing. So, this blog certainly has some "holes" in regards to what all we saw and did, but overall it captures the essence of the adventure.
A big must-see on the itinerary for Allison was Versailles - the iconic seat of Parisian royalty. Our first full day in Paris was mostly spent roaming the vast halls and gardens, soaking in all of the history and extravagant beauty. I was especially enamored by how symmetrical everything was - I love symmetry in photographs, and had a fun time documenting the experience in a more creative, unusual way.
Throughout most of our trip, a big challenge for me photographically was how crowded it was everywhere - so many tourists! You might notice that some of my photos embrace that reality, but the majority of the time I found myself looking for creative ways to simplify the frame, and eliminate the crowds of people cluttering the scene. It all depended on the kind of "mood" I wanted to create in the photo - chaotic and energetic, or calm and serene.
We had three full days in Paris, and made the most of every one. Our second day consisted of seeing the more "typical" Paris sights, including the Eiffel Tower. I tend to steer clear of high-tourist areas when I travel, but there are some things you simply must see (especially in Paris).
The Eiffel tower was actually quite inspiring to me, not as much in appearance or structure, but because of what it represents. I was struck by how deeply the French culture values art and beauty. The country's history and culture is steeped in breathtaking beauty and groundbreaking advancements in art. As an artist, this deeply moved my soul, and I was quite surprised at how much I identified and enjoyed the culture. Paris was definitely my favorite city that we visited during the trip.
Our third day in Paris was a little chilly and damp, but I liked the rainy mood - the overcoats and umbrellas against an overcast sky seemed fitting for such an elegant and grey-toned city. We went to the Louvre, but the wait to get in was over three hours, so we decided to be content with seeing the exterior. Instead, we walked down to Musée d'Orsay, a smaller but still significant art museum. We waited in line for an hour, and it was definitely worth the wait. I'm an artist at heart, and grew up studying a lot of art history. My favorite style and era of art is the Impressionist era, and there happened to be a whole gallery devoted to the Impressionists on display. I got to see some of my favorite paintings by Monet, as well as quite a few others that I recognized from my art class days. It stirred my heart in a way that I didn't expect, and I savored that time in the gallery, soaking up the artistic genius that had inspired and influenced the way I create my own art today. I especially loved the sculpture by Degas titled "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years." She stood so gracefully, in the midst of the bustling gallery, and seemed to radiate a tangible presence of peace and calm.
It had been quite a few years since I had visited an art gallery, and I was somewhat taken aback by how the smartphone has changed the way humans interact with art (or just life in general). I noticed how many guests were moving through the gallery rather quickly, using their phones to snap pictures of a piece, and placard next the piece, then moving on to the next one. It made me sad to see people so disconnected with the experience, hardly even pausing to soak in the beauty of the real-life painting before their eyes. It challenged me to be more thoughtful about how I was approaching not just my experience in the art gallery, but the entire trip: to be slow to "snap," and eager to simply sit in a moment... to be present and connected with the real-life experience. This is a constant challenge for me, since taking pictures is such a huge part of my life. But as a professional photographer, I also feel a certain weight of responsibility to set a positive example of how we can utilize this amazing modern technology without letting it consume us. Photography is an amazing gift, but can never replace the miracle of being alive and present in real time and space. Memories are so vital to the human experience, but I often wonder if our incessant picture-taking actually inhibits us from being able to actually remember. By engaging all of our senses and making mental observations about what we are seeing and feeling in a moment, I would imagine that we can catalogue a memory in such a way that is more wholly experiential than a picture could ever invoke.
After Paris, we headed south to Bordeaux, which is French wine country. My friend Caroline (also a talented photographer) lives about 45 minutes outside of the city, so we spent some time exploring Bordeaux before heading out into the countryside. We visited some gorgeous Chateaus and vineyards, and it was a refreshing change of pace after the chaos of Paris. I loved wandering through the vineyards and gardens, breathing in the beauty of what the earth can be when it is cultivated well.
I'm so grateful for Caroline and her family's hospitality - it was such a treat to stay with them and enjoy an authentic french meal in their home. In my opinion, the best way to travel is to utilize whatever personal connections you have, and go where you know people... staying in a home and exploring a new place from a local's perspective is such a rich experience.
I studied abroad in Florence about five years ago, and it was actually the first place I traveled to outside of the United States. It was really sweet and nostalgic to go back, and reflect on who I was at the time and how my perspective of the wold and other cultures has grown over the years. Plus, it was so fun to get to show Allison around, since it was her first time there! We hit up all the must-see spots and ate lots of gelato. I didn't take as many photos that day... although I'm not quite certain why, I would guess that it was because nothing was really "new." Even thought it had been quite a few years, and my photography has drastically improved since then, I just didn't feel the need to take pictures of the things I was seeing.
It was a full day, but yet restful. We took out time and enjoyed some relaxing moments in the Boboli Gardens, just laying in the grass and chatting. We also took a few portraits of each other while we were in the gardens - Allison has a great eye for photography, and it was fun to get in front of the camera for a minute!
Florence is oh-so-dreamy, and I'm so glad I got to go back and relive my study abroad experience and reflect on all the ways I have grown and changed since then, as well as make new memories.
Switzerland was by far my favorite place we went in Europe, and it's definitely because there were mountains. I'm not really a city girl, and so a few days away from the city and in the midst of the majesty of Switzerland was just what my soul needed. We stayed at a hostel in a little town called Iseltwald, which was a few miles away from Interlaken. It was so peaceful and quiet, and happened to have a killer viewpoint for sunsets, as well as a friendly (or maybe not-so-friendly) swan.
SWITZERLAND: THE HARDERGRAT
So, admittedly, one of my main motivators for going to Switzerland (or Europe in general) was this ridgeline trail called the Hardergrat trail. I discovered it on Instagram quite some time ago, and after doing a little research, I set my heart on attempting the hike. There were a lot of variables and things outside of our control, like the weather, so I had to hold it loosely, knowing that there was a chance we wouldn't get to hike it at all. Thankfully, the weather cooperated perfectly on the day we planned to hike, and we had clear, sunny skies and (mostly) bearable temperatures.
The 12-mile trail follows a knife-edge of a ridgeline that overlooks the blue waters of the lake below. In order to have a chance at completing the full length in time to catch a train down at the other end, an early start is required. And by early I mean 3:30am. It was dark, and cold, and we hiked straight up for several miles to get to the ridge line. By the time we had reached the beginning of the ascent to the first jagged peak (one of many), the sun was about to break above the horizon over the Swiss Alps.
There really are no words to describe what it was like to witness a sunrise from a ridge that was parallel to the snow-covered Swiss Alps, after having hiked uphill in the dark for four hours. It was painfully beautiful and magical and like nothing I had ever witnessed. Some friendly ibex were grazing along the path as the sun made its appearance, which only added to the mysterious wonder of the moment. I'm out of words to describe it... just look.
Sadly, we didn't make it to the end of the 12-mile stretch. It turned out that some early snow had made the trail nice and muddy, which was quite dangerous considering how steep and dangerous most of the trail is, even under dry conditions. Plus, it was physically and mentally far more challenging than we could have ever imagined, and we felt it was safest to bail at about 8 miles in, and take a side trail off of the ridge. We hiked about 15 miles in total that day, and it was rarely flat (usually insanely steep). It was the hardest, and yet also the most incredible thing I've ever done, and a day I will never forget. I feel unqualified to have seen the beauty and majesty that I beheld that day... I felt like an imposter, or like a sinner stepping onto holy ground. It was so pure and wild and free up there. I've honestly never felt more alive.
We bookended our hike day with two rest days, which was one of the best decisions we made on our trip. When you only have so many days to explore and see all the things, there's a great temptation to keep pushing and make every moment "count." But something I've learned is that often it's the moments when we stop and rest that actually matter the most. Those two days of rest - cuddled up in the lodge, cooking, journaling, catching up with family and friends back home... they were so crucial to our overall sense of wellbeing, especially considering the intensity of the hike, both mentally and physically. It gave us time to process all that we had seen and done so far, and create mental real estate to continue to absorb new sights and experiences going forward.
Oh, and there was another killer sunset, and a rainbow.
Of all the places one could go in Germany, Kandern probably isn't what first comes to mind... but that is the beauty of planning your itinerary around who you know! Allison has some friends that live in Kandern, so we made a stop to visit them, and got a taste for life in in the Black Forest (a large forested region of Germany that Kandern sits in). I didn't take a ton of pictures during this part of the trip, and just enjoyed the time to rest and soak in the scenery of rural Germany. But I did get to explore the forest a little while we waited at a bus stop (yes, there are bus stops in the middle of the forest there). I love using my camera as a tool to explore, and get close and embrace the beauty of nature.
We came across some horses during a walk, and they were curious and friendly (and loved our rice cakes). I've always loved horses and found them to be the most beautiful and majestic creatures, and so fun to photograph.
CZECH REPUBLIC: PRAGUE
Our final stop on our tour of Europe was Prague. Allison's mother is currently working at a school in Prague, and visiting her was the main reason that Allison decided to go to Europe in the first place.
Prague was in some ways similar to Paris, and was incredibly beautiful. But it was also quite different, especially considering all of the relatively recent historical events that have impacted the city and its culture. To me, it had a darker undertone, like it was still hurting from the wounds of its past.
We made the most of our time, and visited many of the iconic landmarks around the city. Allison's mom was a phenomenal tour guide, and I feel like I truly learned a good bit about the history of the city and what makes it unique.
I think one of the best parts about this trip, and what makes it stand out from many other big international trips I've gone on in the past, was that I entered into the experience with very few expectations. I was open to receive whatever crossed my path; whether it be delightful surprises or unexpected travel pains. I think this really is the secret to any adventure - or life for that matter. Remaining in a posture of openness and peace, prepared for both the best and worst, but expecting neither. Living in that posture makes the hard times more bearable and valuable, and the good times more miraculous and joyful. I still pinch myself when I think back on this adventure, and all of the beautiful moments and lessons it held. I felt deeply refreshed and inspired... and so, so grateful.