Europe Continued...

So many countries, so little time...... Since it's almost time to crown the next Miss Teen International, I suppose I need to speed things up a bit. I'm going to post one photo from each of the additional countries that I visited this year with some brief information. I regret not being able to elaborate more given the fact that I had such memorable experiences in each country, however, for the sake of time I'll keep it to a minimum.

First up is Lisbon, Portugal. I'm standing in front of the Commerce Square, which is the main square in the city, in this photo.

Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and it also happens to be both the largest and richest city. As you can see from this photo, the climate is absolutely fabulous. In fact, Lisbon has a very mild and pleasant climate, and they have sunshine all throughout the year! I think it's true what they say about sunshine- it must make you happier because everyone we met was soooo friendly! While there I got the chance to spend time lounging on the most spectacular white sand beach, ate lunch in a delectable little open air cafe along the Tagus River, and I even got to do some shopping at Casa das Velas do Loreto which was great fun!!!

In this photograph, I am standing in front of the infamous Eiffel Tower in Paris, France! I had such a fabulous time here.

As you can see, there was a vintage carousel near the Eiffel tower and it was playing the cutest French music as it went round and round! The vibe was so French it made me smile. After visiting the tower we headed to the Louvre- I just had to see a certain little lady and her legendary smile......the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, of course! I was surprised to see that this famous work of art is not very large. In fact, the painting is actually quite small. It is very beautiful, however, and it was interesting to witness how Da Vinci's painting technique made her eyes appear to follow yours no matter where you moved in the room. Wow!

After taking in the sights here, it was time to move on to the Paris Opera House. This has to be the most beautiful building in the entire world. Andrew Lloyd Weber created a famous musical based on this opera house- it was none other than the Phantom of the Opera! This was a great place to visit and is a must see if you're ever in Paris!

Then, last but not least, I had to visit the prestigious Avenue des Champs-Elysees. Okay girls, if you only remember one thing that I've told you about Paris, remember that this is the spot for the best shopping in the entire world! You name it, you can get it here- that's why it is considered one of the most famous streets on the planet! Rent goes as high as $1.5 million dollars per year for every 1,100 square feet of space making the Champs-Elysees the most expensive strip of real estate in all of Europe! And if the world class shopping weren't enough, there are to die for French cafes and bistros lining the streets, as well as French pastry and chocolate shops that are like none I've ever had before! It's like heaven on earth- really!

Once you walk all the way down the chestnut tree lined Champs-Elysees, you run into one of the most famous monuments in all of Paris- The Arc de Triomphe. This monument stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, was commissioned to be built by Napolean, and is located on the right bank of the Seine River. It is the second largest triumphal arch in the world- so large in fact, that a small plane was actually flown through it when the French were celebrating the ending of World War I! Believe it or not, this daredevil flight was even captured on film! I took an early evening boat cruise along the River Seine and the view of the Arc de Triomphe was great! I highly recommend taking one of these cruise because it's a great way to gain a different perspective on the city. One of my favorite things about taking this water cruise was seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up with hundreds of tiny white twinkle lights just after dusk. It was stunning!

Now its time to shift gears because I'm taking you from the busy city center of Paris to the chic and sophisticated Cannes, France on the French Riviera! Cannes is one of the best known cities on the French coast and is always busy with visitors coming to enjoy its beautiful beaches, luxurious shopping, or attend the legendary annual Cannes Film Festival. It was an amazing experience to stroll down La Croisette (the main avenue that runs along the waterfront). The street was lined with the most elegant palm trees and to my right there was ocean for as far as one could see. As we made our way down this picturesque street we kept finding one little gem after the other. We discovered pristine beaches, al fresco cafes, fabulous boutiques, and restaurants with unparalleled ocean views. At one point we looked across the water and could see the Ile Sainte- Marguerite which is the small French island where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. It's hard to believe that it took this poor man eleven years to leave this teenie tiny wooded island! Despite the fact that this man's identity was never proven, his memory still lives on and his cell can still be visited at the Musee de la Mer (Museum of the Sea). I didn't have time to actually visit St. Marguerite Island but I did get a really nice view of it!

Next stop is the lost city of Pompeii, Italy. For those of you who may not know, Pompeii is a small town in between Rome and Naples and it was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (a volcano) in 79 AD. This city and its inhabitants was lost for almost 1,600 years before it was accidentally rediscovered. Excavations have been going on for decades to unearth this long lost city and while a great deal has been uncovered there is still much to be salvaged. I was amazed as I walked through the cobblestone streets and literally stood in the deep creases that were once created by chariot wheels almost 2,000 years ago!

It was unbelievable to see how sophisticated the Romans were long before there was electricity, running water, or equipment to move and build these amazing buildings! There are still beautiful fresco paintings in many of the houses depicting the faces of the people who once lived there and scenes of their daily life. Archaeologists have even used a very special plaster technique to resurrect the dead. They dug down into the petrified ash and filled the hollow spaces with plaster. These empty spaces down deep in the volcanic ash ended up being bodies in the exact position during their precise moment of death. I stood in awe as I viewed a very detailed cast of a small woman, several months pregnant, covering her face as she took her last breath. There was even a dog that had been chained on the day of the eruption. His plaster cast clearly shows him writhing on his back and you can vividly see the collar around his neck. It was so sad, and yet, I couldn't help but feel that this tragic loss of life was not in vain. Scientists and researchers have learned so much about the Roman Empire from studying their plaster casted bodies, town, tools, paintings, homes, stores, amphitheaters, and their forums. I'll never forget standing on one of the two thousand year old streets in Pompeii, with a piece of pumice stone in my hand (volcanic rock with lots of holes in it so it's super light weight), staring at this elaborate city, with Mt. Vesuvius looming in the background. Today, Mt. Vesuvius is missing its top (since the volcano exploded). I could easily see why they decided to build their city right there at its base- they thought it was just a peaceful mountain. How could they have known? For me, this visit was like bringing history alive, right off the pages of my history book!

This is me standing in front of the renowned bronze water fountain located in the heart of Genoa, Italy, at the Piazza De Ferrari. This town has quite a bit to offer and my time here was really relaxing and enjoyable. Visiting the Genoa Cathedral was well worth the trip just to see the beautiful Baroque fresco paintings, life like sculptures, art work, and stained glass windows.

I also got a chance to sample the traditional Genoa dish of pasta with pesto. Genoa is best known for its fabulously fresh pesto. For those who are unfamiliar, pesto is a sauce that is often mixed in with fresh pasta, and is made from combining fresh basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil. It was really, really yummy!

Now its time to rock it out at the next stop.....the Rock of Gibraltar at the southernmost tip of Spain! Most people don't realize that the rock is actually British territory but it is nowhere near the United Kingdom. The rock of Gibraltar lies at the very tip of Southern Spain and is a hop, skip, and a boat ride across the straight of Gibraltar (ocean) to northern Africa! I was thrilled to stand next to this massive monolith and look across the ocean to see Africa on the horizon!

Now, here's the fun part...there are monkeys EVERYWHERE! They are called Barbary apes, also known as the rock apes. They are tail-less monkeys and they are the only free roaming monkeys in all of Europe! They were originally from northern Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Marrakesh) and most believe that they were brought over by the British for pets or possibly for food (yuck!). The monkeys made this rock their home and they are one of the coolest things about the entire spot! I actually got to sit right next to one monkey and feed him peanuts! He was so cute but was also pretty big which made me a little bit afraid. There were tiny little baby monkeys all over the place, too! They were absolutely adorable!!! This was a really fun place to stop for the day.

Okay, now take a walk through the bible with me! I'm taking you to Ephesus, Turkey..... In case you didn't know, I know that I sure didn't, Ephesus has the largest collection of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean and only about 15% of it has been excavated. In this photo I'm standing in front of the Library of Celsus which was built in 125 AD and it used to hold 12,000 scrolls- that's some library for those days!

Ephesus is famous throughout the world for its Temple of Artemis which is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is also known as being an important center for early Christianity. Apostle Paul is said to have lived and done mission work right here. He reportedly got into an argument with artists whose livelihood depended on selling the statuettes of Artemis in the Temple and was thrown in jail. He went on to write Acts 19:23-41, the letter 1 Corinthians from Ephesus, and also the Epistle to Ephesisans while he was in prison in Rome. It is also believed that John, one of the main apostles, may have even written the Gospel of John right here from Ephesus! I was even more amazed to learn that the house of the Virgin Mary was only about 4-5 miles from where I stood. Many believe that this was the last home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Wow! It was really moving to be standing on the same soil, looking at the remains of the same buildings, and breathing in the same air as folks from the bible. At that very moment, all of the teachings that I'd heard for so many years while attending Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, came to life! It was the best history lesson ever and I loved it!

Where does one go if they want to enjoy vast mountains ranges, expansive oceanviews, the largest amount of Gothic architecture, avant-garde dining, and non-stop night life? You guessed it, none other than the capital of Catolonia, Barcelona, Spain! In this photo I am standing in front of the infamous Sagrada Familia church built by Antoni Gaudi which was indescribable! This church is considered Gaudi's masterpeice and he spent the last fifteen years of his life working to finish it. Unfortunately, he did not finish it. However, he did complete a large portion of it. It has been under construction since 1882 and and should be completed by the year 2026. In the meantime, an area inside the church is finishing with plans to open it for public worship by September 2010 and Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to consecrate the church on November 7 of this year during his visit to Santiago de Compostela!

The most distinctive part of this church are its tall, intricately carved spindle shaped spires. There are a total of eighteen tall spires that exist and each one represents the Twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the tallest spire represents Jesus Christ. There are also three unbelievable carved facades on the outside of this church. The first one, and the only one fully completed by Gaudi himself, if the Nativity Facade. This stone carved section on the outside of the church was dedicated to the birth of Jesus and is absolutely breathtaking to see in person. People are permitted to go inside the church to see the nave, museum, and crypt. It is even possible to go up into the towers by elevator which is fun to do! I enjoyed seeing the inside of the church, but to be honest, it was the exterior of this church that interested me the most. I could have just stood for hours looking at this masterpiece from every angle- it's impossible to take in all the detail!

We made some time to shop in the city and I got a great deal on a watch which made me happy! We then stopped to eat at the Rain Forest Cafe which was delicious. We checked out Casa Mila which is another Gaudi work of art as well as Parque Guell which is a beautiful garden complex also built by Gaudi. If you're ever in Barcelona, make sure you check out all of his works because they are the most bizarre, creative, and unique in all the world.

Dubrovnik, Croatia was a delightful surprise! The brilliant white marble of the city’s white walls contrasts the sapphire blue ocean waters of the Adriatic Sea. I enjoyed spending time at the beach here- Croatia has some of the best beaches in the world! I was amazed as I explored the uneven medieval streets and browsed through a market full of local artists and craftsmen. We ran into a quirky old pirate and his 8 various parrots. We gave him 2 euro and he tossed the beautiful, brightly colored exotic birds onto our shoulders for a few fun photos! If you look closely, you'll see that the red Macaw parrot had his eye on my headband, or rather his BEAK on my headband! He Luckily for me, he was kind and gave it back to me!

While in Croatia, I also got a chance to a walk through the Dominican Monastery which is famous for it’s vast collection of Renaissance art. Croatia is an absolutely beautiful country and I would visit again in a second!

Here I am in front of the imposing structure of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece! The Acropolis is the most poignant symbol of ancient Greece. I literally felt like my history lessons were coming to life as stood beneath this ancient masterpiece. In the wonderful country of Greece I also visited Rhodes, Corfu, Mykonos and Santorini. They were all beautiful and possessed unique qualities that made them all standout individually. In Rhodes I explored the medieval streets of this fortress walled city and in Corfu I enjoyed a variety of Asian art in the Palace of St. Michael and St. George. Mykonos stood out due to it’s iconic white washed buildings and crystal blue waters. I really enjoyed seeing the famous Mykonos Windmills, which were once used to fullfill the need of refining and compacting grain. One of my favorite experiences was walking on the black sand beach in Santorini. This beach was set against the vast volcanic mountains and was a true thing of beauty.

Dublin, Ireland is rich with history and overflowing with culture! The Dublin Castle is located directly in the heart of the city! On a tour of the city I learned that the name “Dublin” comes from the Gaelic words that mean “Black Pool” because of the dark and muddy springs found in the area. I visited the area known as Temple Bar and this is where the band U2 got their start as starving artists! It was really cool to see Irish musicians gathered in this area playing acoustic guitar and singing for the passersby. Later on my trip to Dublin, I had the opportunity to cross the famous Ha’Penny bridge and shop on Grafton Street which was lots of fun. Ireland is a beautiful country filled with friendly people. It was hard to say goodbye to Dublin- this is one country that I plan to visit again!

While the city of Edinburgh, Scotland was absolutely stunning, it was also absolutely freezing cold during the time that I was there! I may not have been prepared for the chilly climate, but I still greatly appreciated all of the enchanting culture that Scotland had to offer! I toured Edinburgh Castle which dominates the landscape as it sits high above the city and dates back to the 12th century!

The castle sits atop an enormous volcanic crag at the end of the Royal Mile. At a local Scottish cafe, I had the chance to sample some traditional Scottish delicacies called Drop Scones, which are basically Scottish pancakes! They were absolutely delicious! The scenery here was also really interesting because there was a man playing the bagpipe and wearing a kilt right outside the door. And yes, there were lots of men walking the streets and wearing the traditional Scottish kilts! It was definitely a different sight than we see in America!

Now I'd like to take a moment to share a little bit about the next country that I visited. It is a tiny, less known country, called Slovakia.

I visited the capital which is called Bratislava. There are about 450,000 people who live here and it is the countries largest city. It is located on the banks of the Danube River and is bordered by Hungary and Austria and is a delightful place to see. While there I took some time to visit the Grassalkovich Palace which like our White House. This is where the President of Slovakia resides and rules from. I also visited the Bratislava Castle which sits high atop the highest hill in Bratislava.

It has a spectacular view of the the most famous landmark which is the Novy Most Bridge.

At the top of this bridge is a fine dining restaurant which has the most fantastic views of the Danube River and the city! Amazing!

The last country that I'd like to include in this blog is Vienna, Austria. I visited Vienna to speak at a conference about educational reform and dyslexia. I stayed at the Marriott Hotel in the heart of the city which was in the perfect location.....just outside the tram stop!

This made traveling throughout the city a breeze. Vienna is soooo clean that you could almost eat off the streets- seriously! It is so beautiful, well maintained, and sophisticated. One of the favorite things that I did while here was go to the Volksprater fun fair. This is the oldest amusement park in the world and it was soooo much fun!

There is the neatest old ferris wheel that I loved riding.

There were tons of games to play, great rides to enjoy, and they even had pony rides! I'm a little bit too old and big to ride the ponies which was a bummer but I did get to pet them! I bought authentic Austrian made snow globes to bring back as souvenirs and was surprised to learn that these were the only "authentic" and "made in Austria" items in the city.

I wish I could have spent more time going into detail about all of these travels, but, as you can see, there just simply isn't enough time. If anyone ever wants any tips or advice when planning a trip to any of these spots please don't hesitate to get in touch with me. If you've got the travel bug, like me, we'll have lots and lots to talk about. Again, none of these opportunities would have been possible without the International family and my title as Miss Teen International. Thanks again Mary and Mel for making all of this possible. I've had the experiences of a lifetime!!!

All my love,

Jessica Byington


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