Transition to Germany

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With a heavy heart we packed our bags, said goodbye to our friends, and headed out of Paris.

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On the way out we made sure to stop by our favorite bakery and pick up a pile of delicious pastries for ourselves and the friends we would be meeting in Germany. Some of Natalie’s close friends from college were staying in Berlin and let us stay with them!

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On the way to the station we saw even more fantastic architecture! We hadn’t had a chance to wander up this way before – it was less quaintly Parisian and more industrial, closer to a concrete, business-type city. The people were still stylishly dressed, of course.

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At the East Station we saw an outdoor exhibit on some of the world’s strangest buildings.

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Bonus points for looking like a space colony. Many of these were in Japan, yet another mark for the mutual admiration that the two countries seem to have for each other. It’s such a big cultural exchange that Mariage Frères, a fantastic French tea company has a Japanese division – the only country in Asia that merits a full Mariage Frères store.

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After a bit of figuring out where our train was at the station, we got on and peacefully rode through the French countryside onward to Germany and Berlin. Along the way we had to change trains, and about fifteen minutes after we did, we realized that something had not made it with us in the transfer. Our bag full of delightful French pastries was spiriting away from us on another train! Natalie’s leggings were also in the bag, but those were replaceable. After a vain attempt to recover the bag by calling the train company, we let the treats go and continued on to Berlin. A quick walk through the residential neighborhood of Moabit, which borders the station and is surrounded by rivers, we arrived with the rest of our belongings to a warm welcome at our friends’ apartment.

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Sights and friends in Paris

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One of the best things about Paris (for me) is that a few of my good friends from college happen to live there. We were extremely lucky to stay at their apartment right in the heart of the city, and to have them with us as guides to the city.

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There are of course the monuments we found on our own, and the city is well equipped to handle english speaking tourists. There’s no issue getting around to see all the famous sights, but it’s really for the hidden shortcuts and small alleys that you need a local with you.

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None of these are hidden or secret, though I’m sure there are those as well. For the most part, all the interesting things are right on display, you just have to know where to look. Given how many tiny shops – cheese, pastry, antique, meat, tea, everything – and how many sculptures, beautiful buildings, and above all cafes there are, a friend who has a few favorite spots is extremely helpful.

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Dinner is the other important topic. In college we gathered for “family dinner” nights, and it was a blast to do it again. Despite being in the middle of a move, my friends hosted us for a wine and food filled evening, ending in a short and happy walk back to the apartment.

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On a different night we went out and wandered into a late-night cafe/restaurant. On order were salmon pancakes – a savory shortstack in true American French fusion cuisine.

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Outside of the monuments, Paris is still a living breathing city. It’s far from perfect, and is constantly under construction.

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There’s delicious, perfectly decorated food around every corner. There really does seem to be a pastry shop on nearly every street, often more.

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Giant sculptures dot the city, and in many places they act as playgrounds, especially for tourists, but also for locals.

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Other works of art are much less interactive but no less grand.

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We’re not sure if these dancers were filming a commercial, doing a photoshoot, or putting on a show. Either way, it was one of the many interesting things going on in Paris, on a weekday at that!

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Street-long indoor galleries dot the city. Some are famous and have tours going through them, some are out of the way and filled with unknown treasures. In one of the heavily trafficked ones, a wine shop window filled our eyes with these massive wine bottles. I’ve seen comically oversized champagne bottles for events before, but I’ve never seen so many at once, and given the price tag these are no joke.

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That same gallery, and many like it, have indoor cafes! They’re cozy and in inclement weather a delightful way to spend an hour or three. While we were visiting it never really got cold or wet outside for too long, so we never saw too many people at them.

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There’s all sorts of surprises around the city. In a somewhat lonely corner near a very popular Eiffel tower vista point, we found a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

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There’s lots to see and do, the city is beautiful, and the food is great. I was thrilled to see my old friends again, and with any luck we’ll have another chance to meet in Paris! Thank you Chloé, Antoine, and Axel, for being such wonderful hosts!

 

Grenoble

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We really enjoyed visiting Grenoble. It’s a great mix of industrial, college, tourist, and residential. There’s a bustling downtown shopping area, a massive visitors’ center with maps and advice for hiking and skiing. It’s close to a trio of mountains and has a fairly extensive public transit system, but is also small enough that crossing the city is a half hour affair on foot.

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Its streets hold tiny cafes, repair shops, board game stores, and lots and lots of street art. Almost every area had at least something on the walls, usually fairly pointed at politics or the human condition, but often just plain colorful and weird.

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The city itself is clean with wide streets and beautiful walks.  Much of it is entirely pedestrian, night or day.

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There’s also a delicious array of food. We’re not sure if it’s particularly varied for a town this size because of the college scene, or if this is normal in France, but we were able to find cheap, delicious food at all hours. A Turkish kebab and pita shop filled us right up one night, when the fancy but apparently affordable french cuisine restaurant was booked full. Since there are so many people out and about, the smaller places tend to fill up. France continues the Italian custom of eating and talking for hours.

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Another great place we went to was a pasta shop on the main drag. A definite french twist on the Italian staple, we tried a variety of their sauces – the bolete and almond was our favorite!

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Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely pastry shop. Not only were the desserts and drinks amazing, the staff was also super friendly. When it became clear we spoke barely a word of French they were happy to chat in English, and even let us practice our pronunciation! French coffee is not as good as the Italian, but they more than make up for it with their tea and pastries.

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The people around town were genial. This gentleman waved me down to come help him carry his cart down from the truck. Smiles and waves later, I figured out he was a knife sharpener. We could have really used that, but by the time I ran back with out little kitchen knife, he was gone into town.

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We’re not sure if most French cities are as nice as Grenoble, but we really want to go back. It was just the right size to explore, and full of friendly people. There were lots of trails around town, and the food was always good and often affordable. We couldn’t find a hostel, but the hotels we saw were neat and not overly priced. It was a great first stop in our journey through France.

Verona

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Like many other Italian cities, Verona’s architecture is fantastic. The historic center sits in the middle of a peninsula, where ancient cathedrals, churches, and even a Roman coliseum sit side by side with old residences converted to shops, restaurants, and markets. It’s also a very popular tourist spot – close to Austria and Switzerland, it gets a large number of visitors from both countries and the rest of Europe, especially young school and college groups. In the most popular spots it can feel a bit crowded, but for the most part it’s

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The famed sight in this city is supposed to be Juliet’s Balcony. It might have some literary interest, but overall it wasn’t worth the stop. It can be very crowded, the building is not particularly interesting.

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On one of the walls, people leave tokens of affection. Bandaids seem to be the thing to put up. There’s a little shop that sells pink themed everything, and while we were there a couple went through a proposal up on the balcony as the crowd watched.

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The house of Romeo is also in Verona, and is much, much less popular.

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Nearby Romeo’s house is a real gem of architecture and sculpture – the Scaliger Tombs. Once a ruling family, now a mausoleum. The style is gothic and stands out with its pinnacles and spikes among the straight lines of the rest of the city.

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The arena in the south of the city is still used for holding events. On the rainy day we visited, it was closed except for a fairly pricy tour. For me the real beauty is from the outside, how the arches have held up over the centuries.

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We also got a peek into the repairs going on inside!

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All around the peninsula are bridges connecting it to the mainland. We crossed on the north east side, only to find a traveling piano player playing from the middle of the bridge.

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The restaurants and houses crowd the water’s edge on the old-city side of the bridge.

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Across the other side there’s more room to expand. A wide street runs along the river, bordering the many churches.

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The bridge itself is of lovely old Roman construction – unfortunately not original. The Ponte Pietra was destroyed during WWII and later rebuilt.

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We tried climbing up into the hills, but wound up lost in a series of small alleys.

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We crossed back across to the old town, passing one of the many churches in the city. This one is Cathedral Duomo, one of the largest in the city.

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Our last stop was the castle on the southern edge of the old town. The Castelvecchio is part castle, part bridge, and all medieval. The name means, literally, old castle, and it was built by the same family that’s entombed in the gothic tombs – the Scaligers.

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There’s no shortage of beautiful buildings in Verona. It’s easy to imagine it was an inspiration to painters of old, and it remains a great subject for sketching today. A day is well spent walking around and marveling at the construction. There’s even more to see, inside the various museums and churches in the city. Done with the city, we headed home by train. Between the frequent local buses and the rapid trains, Italy’s transportation system served us amazingly well once again.

Venice, Scenes of Everyday Life

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It’s easy to imagine Venice as some sort of Renaissance wonderland. From many of the pictures people take and the art done of the city, it’s very easy to miss that this is as much a vibrant commercial and residential city as it is a a beautiful historic site. In paintings hanging in the museum, the merchants, sailors, craftsmen, and tradesman filling the canvas are, to our modern eyes, part of the decor of the time. They were in fact vital to the growth of the city, just as they are vital to its life today.

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The canals are the life blood of the city. Everything comes in by boat, and travels to the correct destination via increasingly small canals. During the day it’s mostly moving people and tourists around, but in the morning it’s moving everything else.

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Until about noon, you can find these market boats pulled up along the canal, usually near clusters of restaurants or grocery stores. They stock the local vendors and it looked like they were doing brisk business. Cramped quarters leads to minimal storage space, so everyone gets a daily shipment of most food goods.

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There are some dry markets that sell to normal customers who walk through the stall lined aisles. These markets are, unsurprisingly, also supplied by boat.

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One of the semi-enclosed areas near the water is reserved for an incredibly pungent fish market. The stone tiles around there are treacherous.

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In addition to keeping everyone supplied with food and other wares, someone has to maintain the city itself. A lot of buildings rely on piers and supports that are jammed in the water. Building new ones or replacing old ones is a pretty delicate affair that the tradesman handle with ease. I know I’d fall into the water if I tried walking the planks the way they do.

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The effort it takes to keep such a city in good repair is incredible. We were utterly fascinated by the way boats were customized for their particular jobs. Just like construction crews on land, these long, wide, and flat boats carried cranes. Unlike land based cranes, these swing low and are relatively light weight, and the crane boats carry their own building supplies with them.

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For moving boxed cargo, there are very similar flat boats that run around dropping off boxes, which are shuttled to their destination by a runner with a dolly. The early morning bustle is full of people taking things to and fro, getting ready for the day.

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It’s not just on land – the early morning fog falls on a seemingly endless stream of boats zipping up and down the canals.

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One of the major things that (probably) no one thinks about when they think of Venice is hauling out the trash. We sure didn’t, so when we saw these garbage boats roaming around in the morning hours, we were amazed. They’re a lot like the crane boats, but their cranes have only one job – to lift and empty the garbage carts.

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The carts are slim and on wheels. Workers run them along alleys and across plazas to the various businesses and residences, collecting trash. When the cart is full, they run back and drop it off at the boat, which lifts the cart and through a door in the bottom, empties it. In part because they don’t have a lot of time to cover the island, and because their carrying capacity is relatively small, garbage day is every day. Like the fresh food, the fresh garbage needs to be carted regularly – there’s no place for storage like there is on the mainland.

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It’s not just on the water that the city gets repaired. These workers are installing phone and internet cables – it’s very cool to see Venice wiring up for the future.

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Venetian Architecture (and also boats)

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The look of Venice is fairly unique. Not too many places in the world can boast canals paired with Renaissance architecture. It’s a good fit, and wonderful for taking pictures and drawing. A fun fact we learned : most of the people drawing at any given time are not art students from one of the nearby colleges, but are tourists. It’s pretty fun to join them too!

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While there are plenty of famous scenes and views all around the city, we strayed a bit from the travelled path and took pictures of mostly anything that caught our eye.

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There was no shortage of interesting views, even just out our hotel window.

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I personally love the semi-planned stacking of buildings that look like they’ve grown from the water, huddle together in a very visually pleasing arrangement.

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It’s hard to ignore the boat-lined tunnel canals – the only way to get to a lot of these doors and boats is to have someone else drop you off.  There are many, many doors, that lead to a tiny dock and boat, or worse, drop straight out into the water. The best are private bridges – smaller versions of the canal-spanning bridges that lead to a single door.

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Between the crowded living spaces spring up massive cathedrals. It’s an odd contrast.

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One of the amazing and frustrating things about Venice is the constant haze. It comes from being warm and on the water, and it makes for some exciting and terrible photo conditions. During colder parts of the year the atmosphere is probably clearer and the photos come out crisper.

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We really enjoyed getting lost and seeing the smaller details of the city. It’s easy to miss in light of the surrounding grandeur.

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Walking is really the best thing to do. Every bridge, canal, and tiny alley offers a new and unexpected view.

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Sometimes the alleys are extremely small. This one, we think, was meant for people. Notice the streetlamp in the center. Definitely not for the claustrophobic.

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There are big life goals and small life goals. After we decided to come to Italy, and specifically Venice, I knew I had to recreate the View of the Grand Canal and the Dogana, by Bernando Bellotto. It’s one of the few paintings I know by name, and since seeing it at the Getty have wanted to see this view in person.

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Of course, since we were here in person, there was no doubt we’d eventually see the Dogana up close. It’s fantastic in its size and detail.

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Each one of the statues lining its parapet is a work of art unto itself, and the structure as a whole is breathtaking, especially in the low setting sun when its lines and minute details are thrown into sharp relief.

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Next stop, Venice!

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Venice is a beautiful and fascinating place. I’ve always wanted to visit, Natalie not so much. It turns out that it’s got a little bit of everything, good and bad. Its beautiful, winding alleys interspersed with canals and bridges and spires are inspiring. The measures taken to keep buildings from falling and the island from sinking are a testament to human ingenuity and stubbornness. Its attitude towards tourists and the costs (and sometimes smells) of living on the island are saddening. In my view visiting Venice is worth it for two things – the history and architecture, and the marvel of engineering that keeps the city alive. Most of the tourist traps should be rightfully avoided, and it’s best to stay away from popular areas at peak hours.

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There are basically two ways to see Venice. The cheaper and arguably more lively route is to stay on the mainland at one of several campsites or large hostel-like buildings, and bus in in the morning. The other way, significantly more expensive, but better for seeing Venice the way we wanted to, is to stay on the island itself. It’s not cheap, but for a very short stay, the value of waking up before dawn and walking the empty streets is worth the extra fee.

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We took the bus out of Sant’Agata, then on to the next bus to Rimini, and finally on to the train north to Venice. Midway through the trip our train stopped and a bunch of announcements came on in Italian. We did not understand them. The train stayed in the station and eventually people started shuffling off. A conductor came by and told us, in slightly broken English, that the train would not be moving again soon, and we should go on to a different track to catch the replacement. We’ve been through worse transportation adventures, but the feeling of an impromptu change of plans in a language we don’t understand is always exciting.

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There is the last station on the mainland, and then the open water. The train tracks cross over a narrow bridge, on either side the Venetian Lagoon. Technically, the mainland just before the crossing is also part of the district of Venice, but what everyone thinks of when they hear the name is found across this bridge.

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Right out the gate, Venice does not disappoint. The church of San Simeon is literally the first thing most people see when they leave the station. It’s gorgeous and only a taste of what’s to come.

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There are a few ways to get to the inner islands – all of them are connected by bridges, with a bus ferry, or with ferry taxis. The ‘bus’ is actually fairly expensive, and the distances are short. With so much to see the natural choice is to walk everywhere. If we were here for a week or more, maybe the bus ferries would have been a more appealing option.

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In the fading hours of the day we made our way to the hotel. Despite the day’s journey and the weight of the packs, we still lingered and turned in all directions staring at the city around us. In short order we were introduced to both the magnificent Italian architecture, the tightly clustered houses and apartments, and the occasional but persistent vendors of tourist things.

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We also found that the city of Venice has an attitude, and the people are not shy expressing themselves on the walls. This was probably the largest demonstration we saw, but there are plenty of smaller ones scattered alone or in clusters around the city. The topics range from banning tourists to saving the planet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change is often on the minds of those living here.

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Night fell and we left our hotel in search of food. To set expectations, hotels in Venice are not very similar to most people’s idea of a hotel. Unless you pay a lot of money, it will resemble something of a walk-up, 2 to 3 stories of three or four rooms on each floor with a shared bathroom. Much like a hostel in any other part of the world. Similarly, the food is not reasonably priced. This is entirely expected in an extremely popular and difficult to supply city, but it’s good to be aware.

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Luckily for us, right near our hotel was a Bigoi. This is a small, almost fast-food version of pasta, where you pick your noodles, sauce, and meat, and they make it fresh for you. It costs about 5 euros and each bowl is enough for a person. Not the best in terms of nutrition, but they taste great and they’re cheap! There are also small grocery stores available, but they still run fairly expensive, and they do tend to run out of key ingredients at night, especially bread. We relied pretty heavily on Bigoi and the snacks we brought with us while we were in Venice.

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Also pastries. We didn’t eat a lot of fancy food in Venice but we did make room in the budget for coffee and pastries in the morning. The coffee is still very affordable – 1.20 Euro. The pastries can be a little expensive but are still around a few euro each. This one is called a sfogliatelle. It’s small, packed with cream and syrup, and somehow amazingly crunchy and flaky. It’s fantastic and we found the one we liked best was in the pastry shop Pasticceria Toletta. The lady working the counter in the morning is super nice, and their pastries and coffee are fantastic.

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Next time – Venetian architecture!