I had never been on a flight for more than 6hrs, never seen the ocean from 3,000 feet above, and never stepped foot outside of North America until our plane touched down in London a few weeks ago. Jordan and I had a direct overnight flight, so after a few quick stretches we were awake and ready for the three weeks of adventure on our horizon. I wish I could have bottled our excitement: jet lag felt like a fallacy and Heathrow Airport felt like one giant dance floor.
After going through customs, we soon found the rest of our travel crew waiting at a cafe around the corner. There were 8 of us total. Jordan and I flew in from SF, Chris from LA, Bob and Kaylie from Maryland, and Alex, Kira, and Taylor from Rochester.
We hit up 7 cities in 20 days, staying in each place at least two nights. It was a lot of travel, but worth it to get a little taste of everything. What else do you do when you haven't been anywhere but want to go everywhere?
We had virtually none of our trip planned outside of where we were staying and a few must-see sights, so we were fortunate that Stew, an old friend of Chris’s, lives in England and offered to meet up and show us around the city. Stew spared us a lot of navigational headaches and told us what was worth seeing and what wasn't. It was nice to be able to turn off my brain and GPS and just enjoy.
England's pretty cool. I like America better.
- Stew, our British friend
Stew took us on a 12-mile trek through the city, bouncing between London's most notable places in one day since the next day threatened excessive rain. We stopped by Buckingham Palace to say "Hi" to the Queen and her guards, buzzed by Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, and ventured through Trafalgar Square, all before taking a much needed break in Hyde Park. I think my favorite activity of the day was riding the London Eye, a massive ferris wheel overlooking the River Thames and the rest of the city.
Fish & chips, steak & ale pies, and bangers & mash were all staples throughout our stay. (Do all English meal titles have an “&” in their name?) Everyone indulged in the beer at each pub too. In what seemed unique to England, most of the beer was light and came from non-pressurized casks, so it had no carbonation and was ridiculously smooth. The pubs were a main focus of our time in London, they all had amazing decor and hidden stairways to cellar bathrooms, and many of them were older than our country.
Probably the best part of London was walking around in it. It was impressive to just look around, look up.
Unlike the other places we would visit on this trip, London didn’t have any particularly distinct architectural style — which, in a way, seemed like a style in itself. One row of buildings could have a dozen different aesthetics and materials; skyscrapers among Georgian-style apartments, 18th century churches next to a Starbucks. I was drawn to the multi-colored bricks and big doorways, and found the back alleys to be some of the coolest streets to walk down.
London treated us well (though the waiters didn't always) and we were sad to say goodbye to Stew, our insta-friend, but the time had come to move on to our next country. Leaving destination number one was a weird feeling for me. I was excited for what was ahead, but sad that a part of the trip was already behind us. It was a realization of how quickly each place would come and go leaving us with only snapshots of our time there, and how surely the upcoming weeks would fly by as well.
When planning the Ireland portion of the trip, we struggled to decide on which region to explore. Everything was so beautiful that any option seemed like the right choice. We decided to venture around the North-East coast for a few days before heading south to Dublin.
We rented two cars and bravely took on the round-abouts and narrow shoulders from the opposite side of the road. Shout outs to Alex, driver number one and fearless leader, and to Taylor, driver number two and new pro at left-handed stick-shifting — thank you for staying calm and not killing us ;)
We had a short drive from the airport in Belfast to where we were staying in Ballycastle, but decided to take our time on the coastal route and stopped frequently to take scenic pictures, visit an ice cream truck, and dip our feet in the ocean.
Our AirBnb was less than a mile from the coast and downtown Ballycastle, but it felt worlds away from everything. Alone it sat in the middle of fields and cows. It was such a drastic, but welcomed shift from the bustle of London’s streets.
Unaware of how North we actually were, we were all shocked to discover just how late the sun went down. We took a mini hike at golden hour to discover the world beyond the pastures outside our window, and watched a perfect sun disappear over the Atlantic just before 11pm.
"Beauty beyond words... Is this real life?"
Every picture I have from this night is stunning; its hard to pick out my favorites. The colors of the land and sky play together so perfectly in the images and everything is beautifully lit. They manage to capture the quietness of the village during sunset; even the cows were standing still.
The next morning, we decided to visit the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge: a rickety rope-bridge that swings roughly 100ft above water and rocks and links mainland Ballycastle to a tiny green island. Its original purpose was to give fishermen access to the wild salmon that swam between the lands to spawn.
We followed a half-mile winding path filled with scenic vantage points out to the rope bridge. Walking on it was less scary than I imagined, though the middle wobbled quite a bit and the stairway leading down to the bridge made my legs shaky. Once we crossed, we were rewarded with coastal views in one direction and the sight of the never-ending ocean in the other.
Our days in Northern Ireland were spent exploring. We took tips from locals and found tucked-away caves and rocky shores, and discovered castles, old and new. Many of the spots we visited were prior filming locations for Game of Thrones. Even a parking lot (or as the Irish say "car park") we drove into was used as a battle ground in the show.
We ventured into town from time to time to buy groceries or eat lunch. We even swung by a local whiskey distillery for a few free samples. Each of the towns we visited were all quaint and quiet, and everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful beyond our expectations.
As impressive as everything in Northern Ireland had been, the sunset at Giant's Causeway on our last night takes the cake. Thanks again to local recommendations, we snuck out to Giant's Causeway after it had already closed and avoided the tourists that were there during the day. Aside from a few professional photographers and their tripods, we were the only ones there.
What is Giant's Causeway you ask? The internet says it's a "geological wonder" of more than 40,000 basalt columns that formed as result of a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, while legend says it's the remains of a footpath to Scotland made by dueling giants. The supposed end of the causeway still exists on the Scottish coast across the sea where identical basalt columns help to validate the legend.
Neither explanation made any sense to me: How does a volcanic eruption create polygonal columns? Why would a giant use such tiny stepping stones to cross the ocean? I had a much easier time accepting it as one of Mother Nature's miracles. Some things are better off unexplained.
The time had come for us to head south and inward to Ireland's capital, Dublin. It was a big shift to be back in an urban environment again, and to cram into a eight-bed hostel room after comfortably sprawling out in our two-story AirBnb up North.
Another Guinness, please.
We toured the Guinness Storehouse – less of a brewery tour and more of a modern interactive museum experience. We learned how to properly taste and pour our own pints and ate lunch at Arthur Guinness's restaurant afterwords.
Dublin streets varied between new and urban, and old and elegant. I was definitely a fan of the older buildings and any bits of nature to remind me of greener pastures up north.
Leaving Ireland meant that we had already been gone for over a week and had covered half of the countries we were going to visit. I'm glad we went to London and Ireland first; they're similar to the States enough that they weren't intimidating, but different enough in culture to ease me into international travel. I was anxious to see what a non-English speaking country would be like.
While in Ireland, we all went through Stew withdrawal and decided we needed to get him to Amsterdam with us. So we did just that, and he met us at our AirBnb a few hours after we got in.
This AirBnb was the one we were most excited about upon booking, and it didn't disappoint. The landlord owned a second hand shop and used his eye for interesting antiques to redecorate and renovate an old warehouse, complete with floating bunk beds, watering can shower heads, and sailboat sail curtains.
"Yup. I could live here."
The warehouse also came with old bikes that they suggested we use to explore the city like locals. Initially, I wasn't excited about riding a rickety roadster around an unfamiliar place, but it turned out to be the best way of getting around.
Conveniently, Amsterdam doesn't have hills (something I completely forget is possible, living in SF) and cyclists have the right of way in any situation, over pedestrians and cars. There's also clearly marked bike lines on every major road, as well as public bike racks on every corner. Traffic lights were minimal, so everyone just looked both ways before crossing intersections. It was all very easy, almost seemed too easy. Like, why don't we all just do this?
The bikes let us cover a lot of ground so we were able to bounce around. We split up; some of us went to the Van Gough Museum, while others toured the Heineken Brewery. We also saw the Anne Frank house, though we didn't actually go in because the line was long and the fear of potential claustrophobia was real. At night we walked through De Wallen, the famous Red-Light District, where we were surprised to see there were actual red lights. For obvious reasons, we don't have pictures of these museums or De Wallen, though we did see a guy attempt to take a picture of one of the prostitutes and within seconds a body guard was threatening to throw him into the canal.
Speaking of canals, people might come to Amsterdam for the history, the recreational drug use, or the stroopwafels, but I have to believe it's the ambiance of the canals that makes them stay. Or maybe they stay for the stroopwafels? One of the two.
We were lucky enough to snag last-minute seats on an open-air boat, and spent the next 90 minutes viewing Amsterdam from a duck's perspective. Biking was great, but I couldn't let my eyes wander far from the road in front of me. The canal boat was a nice contrast. I enjoyed being able to sit back in a comfy seat and really look at the scenery around me. There were a lot of boats on the water; most of them locals out for a ride on a beautiful day. I liked seeing that. It reminded me of home.
It was hard to capture in photos, but the houses in Amsterdam were incredibly crooked (some would be offset from their neighbor by a foot or two at the top). Our tour guide told us that any side-to-side crookedness is commonly due to poor foundations, but the forward lean is actually done on purpose.
Because so many of the houses are tall and skinny, their stairwells are impossible to transport furniture on, so builders attached a large hook at the top of the house to make a pulley system to raise and lower large items. The forward lean is to avoid any collision between the piece of furniture and the windows on its way up.
It's hard to leave such a beautiful place. Until we meet again Amsterdam...
Of all the cities we would visit on this trip, Amsterdam surprised me the most. I'm not sure what I expected it to be like – probably intimidating, like most cities are when you're unfamiliar — but it felt considerably more relaxed than any other city I've ever been in. I was allured by it's daytime charm, and nighttime romance. It seemed to never sleep. Nearly everyone we encountered was friendly and spoke plenty of English, the food options were multi-cultural and delicious, and the transport methods were cheap and easy to follow. It seemed like they had a lot of things figured out.
Our desire to be in Italy was the reason we planned a trip to Europe in the first place, and we had finally made it there. We would hit up four Italian cities in our final 9 days — starting with Venice.
I didn't know much about Italy other than the stereotypes (pasta, wine, & fashion) and what I'd seen in "Letters to Juliet" (romance & men named Lorenzo) and "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" (romance & Vespas). I decided to stay unknowing and didn't Google anything about the cities before visiting — since Alex & Kira planned this portion — and I think that was the best thing I could've done. If you're ever in a position where you can safely travel around a new place without knowing much about it, I highly recommend you do it — everything will be new & unexpected.
For starters, I didn't expect to have to take a water bus from the airport. I knew Venice was made up of islands, but it never even occurred to me that we'd get around by boat. I also thought that this would be my first time on the Mediterranean Sea, but soon found out we weren't on the Mediterranean at all. Geography Lesson: Venice sits just behind the knee-pit of the thigh-high stiletto boot that is Italy. The bay-like body of water that sits between it, Croatia, and Bosnia, is the Adriatic Sea, an off-shoot of the Mediterranean. See what I mean? Every little thing turned into an ah-ha moment.
I'm only a good photographer when I'm in Italy — everything just already looks good, I don't need to have an 'eye' for it.
The canals were unreal to me, so picturesque. The multi-colored houses, rustic bronze lanterns, flower boxes outside the windows, clotheslines hanging over water. Ugh! Yes. Please.
I was instantly reminded of a pastel drawing I had done as a freshman. It was a recreation of Manet's "The Grand Canal (Blue Venice)." On our first night, I looked up when the painting was originally created 1875. Everything looked exactly like the painting still, over 140 years later. Knowing this made me appreciate Venice that much more. To compare, in 1875 SF was a drastically different place than it is today. Golden Gate park was just being constructed from old sand dunes, and the Bridge hadn't even been thought of yet. It's virtually unrecognizable in photos. The fact that Venice has maintained one aesthetic for so many years just blew my mind.
There aren't roads in Venice, only canals and cobblestone walk ways. You travel around either by foot or boat, and a series of quaint bridges connect the 100+ islands in the area. I lost track of how many we walked over as we headed straight for the central square, Piazza San Marco. The piazza contained Basilica di San Marco (St Mark's Basilica), Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace), and the Campanilie bell tower, as well as tons of shopping, restaurants, and men who kept trying to get us to feed pigeons — no grazie.
Doge's palace is now a museum, so we were able to go in and escape the rain for a bit. I've never seen anything quite like it in my life. My neck hurt from looking up at the ceilings after a few minutes, I can't fathom how anyone could actually paint such a thing.
Another small win for me in the piazza was finding an Audemars Piguet boutique nestled amongst other stores I couldn't dream of affording. I've been working on the AP account for a while now at work, and seeing some of the $80,000 watches in the window was pretty cool. I wasn't able to fulfill my dream of pretending to be a rich techie and browse around the store though, the door was blocked with a body guard who just shook his head when I tried to go in.
I keep falling in love every time I turn the corner.
The rain was a little annoying throughout the day, but it made the nighttime sparkle. The water seemed to melt the colors together and any light became a star burst. I love these pictures I shot as we walked home in the evening, they look just like oil paintings. No wonder Manet found so much inspiration here.
We left Venice and hopped on a train to Cinque Terre, a Mediterranean (finally!) coastal region of hillside villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. We made it to four of the "Five Lands," missing only Vernazza.
The four lands we visited had varying landscapes to offer. Monterosso had sandy beaches and an East Coast boardwalk vibe, while Corniglia sat high above sea level amongst terrace gardens and vast vineyards. But, we seemed to be drawn to the rocky coastlines of Riomaggiore and Manarola the most.
The rocks in Manarola were so big that they often formed flat platforms for sun bathing, or mini cliffs for diving. They trapped sea water into calm lagoons which made sweet swimming spots that Jordan and Chris just couldn't pass up.
We found ourselves in Riomaggiore both nights that we were in Cinque Terre. We sat on the rocks, had drinks, and watched the sun go down over the horizon. It felt like the best way to end any day.
Our final destination was Florence, south and inland from Cinque Terre. We had to take two trains to get there. Conveniently, our connection was in Pisa, so we took a short bus ride to see the Leaning Tower.
Alright... where's the pizza?
On our train ride from Pisa to Florence we had prime seats to view the Tuscan landscape. We saw everything from mountains to plains, vineyards to farms. The trains were a great way to see things and relax at the same time. I was a big fan, and will definitely rely on them more on future trips to Europe.
Florence looked like the Italian city I had pictured in my head: cobblestone streets, hustle & bustle, luxurious shopping centers, and cafés on every corner. I soon found out that it was the birthplace of the Renaissance and saw how much was preserved through its buildings and monuments. We stayed right in the city, footsteps away from Palazzo Vecchio (town hall) and the Piazza della Signoria that features a replica of Michelangelo's "David."
The best-known site of Florence is a domed cathedral known as The Duomo. I'm not sure what was more impressive, the inside or the outside. The dome is made entirely of brick (the largest one ever built) and the sides are faced with pink, green, and white marble slabs. I had never seen anything like it - the colors were so unexpected up close, but the contrast allowed you to see the detail from miles away.
We decided to climb to the top of the bell tower just outside the Duomo to get a good look at the rest of Florence. Alex and Kira tried to prepare us for the hike up there since they had both done it before. An ordinary set of nearly 500 steps would be tiring, but these stairs were in 90% darkness and only about 2 feet wide. We had to maneuver around people moving in the opposite direction, often getting way too close for comfort. At the top though, we all agreed the stairs were worth it for the view of the city. So worth it, that we climbed another 400+ stairs up to the top of the Duomo the next day.
Inside, the Duomo is first and foremost, a church. A huge church. The dome sits above the main alter and we were able to climb up into it. We walked around the inner circle practically inside the ceiling fresco, face to face with angels and demons, plebeians and gods.
Florence had a few prominent art museums, but we didn't make it inside any of them. Fortunately there were several imposing statues throughout the city for us to get our art fill. Most of the central squares had at least one recognizable, larger-than-life statue for us to gawk at.
Overall, we found Florence to be very chill. We did a lot of shopping (haggling) at street markets, drank a lot of espresso, and ate more pasta than we normally would in three months back home. I never got sick of it, and still craved pasta for lunch and dinner. The seafood and meat were top-notch as well. Alex had one steak larger than his face, and happily ate it like a champ. It's safe to say we never walked away from a meal dissatisfied.
YOLO, I'm ordering the lobster!
I made it a personal goal to eat gelato every day in Italy, and I'm happy to report that I succeeded with flying colors. Often, I had it twice in a day (one time twice in a half hour) because there were just too many flavors to try. Don't ask what my favorite was — I had to switch it up every time.
Somehow three weeks had passed and it was our last night in Europe: our last night together. Alex and Kira saved the best spot for last. We spent the evening atop the Piazzale Michelangelo with panoramic views, and watched the sun set on Florence and our trip as a whole.
Believe it or not, these photos won't even come close to doing it justice.
Terrible sunset tonight, just awful.
And the next morning we scattered. Alex and Kira moved on to Sienna where Kira had to work for the next few weeks. Chris, Bob, and Kaylie got cheaper flights out of Rome so they trained down South and spent the afternoon taking pictures of the Colosseum and making wishes in the Trevi Fountain. Jordan and I left directly from Florence and were back in SF before we knew it.
What an adventure, but jeeez I'm exhausted... Let's do this again soon, but not that soon.
Throughout the following week, Jordan collected clips and put together an amazing tribute video. I'm so happy we have it to. Photos are great, but they're posed. This is raw. No filter necessary.
That's all folks!