Exploring Copenhagen and Brussels

In June I went to Copenhagen to cover the 2014 Euroscience Open Forum, where many of Europe’s foremost scientists get together to share their discoveries. I’d been to the Danish capital once before, in December 2009, to cover a major UN climate conference. The memories that stand out from that trip are navigating a giant and confusing convention center, trudging up seven floors to my rented room in improper footwear, twilight at 3:30 p.m., and lots of cold and snow.

So I have to say I liked Copenhagen better in summer, when it stays light until past 11. I stayed in a residential neighborhood just a short bus ride from downtown, and this time my conference was in the former grounds of the Carlsberg Brewery, which is a tourist attraction in its own right.  Carlsberg doesn’t brew that beer on site anymore, but they do have a microbrewery, which I visited one night (and tried their product, Jacobsen). I got some great NatGeo stories from the conference, including new findings on the mysterious bog mummies of Northern Europe, and had a little bit of free time to explore.

copenhagen bike tourFor instance I took a bike tour through the city, which stopped at some of the highlights like Nyhavn (a 17th-century port where the fairytale writer Hans Christian Anderson lived), the famous Little Mermaid statue, and the Christiansborg Palace, the “White House” of Denmark (see above).

The food didn’t disappoint, either—I had some fabulous fish, and the pastries… Let’s just say I would never eat breakfast at home if I lived in Denmark! Every coffee shop has this incredible array of baked goods, not the anemic and slightly stale offerings you get at our coffee chains. copenhagen coffee After my conference ended I flew to Brussels for the weekend, which I’d never visited during all my adventures in Western Europe. I happened to be there during one of the World Cup games, which had turned downtown into a fracas full of young people with the Belgian flag painted on their cheeks. Probably my favorite activity was wandering in all of the chocolate shops.

Belgium chocolate shop

Even if I was stuffed to the gills I couldn’t resist just wandering through the shops, breathing in the sweetness and admiring the wares. I bought more chocolate than was probably necessary (I found myself justifying the need for more every few hours), but it was worth it. I took another bike tour in Brussels, which took me out of downtown and to some of the other parts of the city, including the very business-like neighborhood where the EU does its business, and a famous place that sells French fries, or frites (verdict, a little too thick for me).

I also loved the Magritte Museum. I didn’t know much about the surrealist painter before I visited, but I was fascinated by his history—his mom drowned herself when he was young—and how that influenced how he looked at the world. Some of his paintings were so absurdist but welcoming at the same time, like you wouldn’t mind stepping into that odd world and leaving the current one, if only for a little while. I suppose that’s why he made his paintings—to escape the reality of the world where he had lost his mother. (See my complete album on Flickr here.)

Brussels at night

Now that I’ve been to Belgium, I’d like to visit more of Eastern Europe—Croatia, maybe—and Norway and Finland. There is always a trip to plan! In a few weeks I’m heading to Alaska to go on a National Geographic tour. Very much looking forward to that! I’ve been to Alaska before, for a journalism fellowship, but I went north of Fairbanks, to the Arctic. This time I’ll be flying into Fairbanks and then going south, to explore Denali, Anchorage, and Prince William Sound. I’m sure I’ll have many a story after that trip!

‘Til next time!

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Springtime in Rome and France

It’s clothes-stickingly humid in Washington, so no better time to remember some highlights of my (cool) spring trip to Europe.

Brian and I started out in Rome, where we had just four days to pack in the highlights: Coliseum, Forum, Vatican, Pantheon, and of course eating lots of yummy Italian delicacies.

The opening at the top of the Pantheon

The opening at the top of the Pantheon

I’m proud to say we covered most Roman-tourist ground, eating the obligatory pizza, pasta, wine, and probably the best gelato I’ve ever had (heavenly pistachio).

Roman gelato!

Roman gelato!

 

Roman pizza!

Roman pizza!

I particularly enjoyed touring the Coliseum—it’s so well preserved you can picture the gladiators, exotic animals, and all those spectators with their picnic lunches. A few fun facts: The word “arena” means sand in Latin, since the Romans would cover the wooden floor of the Coliseum with sand to soak up the ever-present blood. (I felt bad for the poor giraffes, tigers, bears and other critters sacrificed by the dozen.)

If you were a particularly skilled gladiator, you could be selected as the Emperor’s personal bodyguard. Also cool: Roman citizens were given free tickets to events at the Coliseum, which often served as a sort of PR stunts for emperors.

The Sistine Chapel was also worthy of its incredible reputation. We spent a lot of time resting our weary feet and studying “The Last Judgment.” My favorite section was where Michaelangelo had painted one of his critics with donkey ears and snakes covering his privates!

Spiral staircase at the Vatican

Spiral staircase at the Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

The weather was beautiful and we found Rome easy to get around—for about 30 Euros you can get a Roma Pass, which gives you total access to transportation like buses and metro as well as entrance to two museums without waiting. (Unfortunately it didn’t work at the Vatican Museums, where we waited at least an hour and half to get in.)

Next stop was Paris. I’ve never been in springtime, but alas the weather was pretty much chilly and rainy. Even so it’s hard to put a damper on the City of Light, and we enjoyed brisk visits to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Catacombs. We also roamed a good bit of the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay, the latter being the the repository for most of the Impressionist masters.

View from the Eiffel Tower

View from the Eiffel Tower

I was happy to see some Cezanne works painted from Aix-en-Provence, the city where I studied abroad. Speaking of Aix, I got to visit for a few hours on my last day (stopped there on a TGV train from Toulouse). I remembered my old apartment and haunts, and was surprised to discover that the walk to my university through the windy streets was nowhere near the uphill slog I remember! Maybe because that was before I really exercised.

Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence

At my old university in Aix

At my old university in Aix

Organic lavender in Aix

Organic lavender in Aix

We also spent some time in Toulouse in southwestern France and Marseille, the city where my Dad lived until he came to the States at the age of 8. He showed us the apartment where he lived and the beach where he went after school in the summer. (Going to the beach sounded like a much more awesome afterschool activity than playing Mario Bros, which is what I usually did!)  We only saw the touristy areas of Marseille, but I thought it was pretty, and the Mediterranean was gorgeous.

Marseille and the Med

Marseille and the Med

Enjoy the pictures!