A Travellerspoint blog

Bruges, Belgium

While we were staying in Amsterdam, Christina and I took a quick day trip to Bruges, Belgium. It was about a 4 hour train ride past the rolling hills and windmills of the Netherlands. If anyone has seen the movie In Bruges, the will understand why we wanted to go there rather than Brussels. The small city is absolutely picturesque. It was like someone took the prettiest canal in Amsterdam and multiplied it. I liked it much more than Amsterdam. It was relaxed and people were very friendly.

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We walked from the train station to the center of town, past houses and buildings built over canals. We started our day at De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) Brewery, the only local brewery left in Bruges. Instead of being a warehouse-like building with many rooms next to each other, this brewery was built in a few different tall buildings with the rooms stacked on top of one another. The giant silver cylinders typical of a brewery sat on a few different roofs. We were able to hike up to the roof and view the city down below. Afterwards, we had a free tasting of their unfiltered Zot (Joker) beer, something that is only available on tap at the brewery. It was absolutely delicious.

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De Halve Maan Brewery

After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we made our way toward the main square, passing one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, from 1188. We didn’t get to see inside but the statue outside featured a woman with a snake wrapped around a cross. The main square, Markt, was bustling with tourists and people setting up Christmas decorations. The Belfort, a large belltower that was featured in the movie, rises as one of the tallest buildings in Bruges. In the next square over, Burg, we saw the gothic Town Hall, decorated with sculptures and paintings of former mayors. Next to Town Hall is the Basilica of Holy Blood. Supposedly they have a vial of Christ’s blood on display. Unfortunately, we arrived 10 minutes after the church had closed. I wasn’t too heartbroken of course.

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Christina at the Belfort

We continued to wander around the city without much of a schedule. Though the Christmas markets weren’t up yet, the shops were busy with people buying lace and wooden shoes, typical of Belgium. We did run into the famous Beer Wall, a literal wall of every kind of beer ever manufactured in Belgium, including the beer glass. There were over 780 bottles of beer on the wall, 780 bottles of beer. I wanted to take one down and pass it around, but I’m sure it would be flat.

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Beer Wall

After dinner, we of course stopped and got Belgian chocolate – how could that be missed? The truffles were delicious, but my favorite was the orange peel dipped in chocolate and anything marzipan of course. Stuffed, we headed back on to the train station and back to Amsterdam to finish out the weekend.

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I bought the entire store.

Bruges was just beautiful. It seemed like a really great place to live since it was not too crowded with tourists but it still had a life to it. I would love to go back for longer!

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Beautiful

Posted by srussell912 08:18 Comments (0)

Amsterdam, Holland

Tulips and Cheese

Amsterdam, Holland

Amsterdam is a Tea Party advocate’s hell. Which means that I loved the culture. Locals and tourists sported body art and colored dreads. Same sex couples mirrored heterosexual couples, holding hands and kissing in the streets. All races, genders, and ethnicities seemed equal and all were having a good time. We arrived Thursday night and ended up walking around the main square of the city, Dam Square. Rows of shops lined the narrow streets and vines and chandeliers of lights hung above. Dam Square was large and impressive. On one side was the Royal Palace, simply beautiful, and on the other side was the National Freedom Monument recognizing the victims of World War II. Lit up at night, it was ghostly and haunting. We then headed to the hotel to get some rest before the weekend started.

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National Freedom Monument

Friday morning Christina, Tyler and I got up early to tour the Anne Frank House. As a Jew, this was the main attraction I wanted to see in Amsterdam. The tour took us through each room in the apartment, through the secret passageway and into the annex where the Frank family and friends hid during the Holocaust. The rooms were empty, left how the Nazi’s left them, furniture and goods looted and thrown away. Otto Frank, the only survivor of the family, made models that showed exactly how each room had looked. While the apartment was small, it wasn’t as cramped as I had imagined when reading Anne Frank’s diary. Still, I cannot fathom staying in there for months. The most shocking part was Anne and Margot’s growth chart marked on a wall, something that my dad used to do when I was younger. That tore at my heart. Her diary was also on display, which was of course emotional. However, seeing Anne Frank’s house definitely completed something within me. I felt closer to my Jewish history because of it.

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Anne Frank House

Afterwards we made our way to the Homomonument, a memorial to the GLBT community that perished in the Holocaust. Three triangles representing past, present, and future, sat jutting into the river, decorated with rainbow flags and flowers. It was one of the most beautiful and unique monuments I have seen.

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Homomonument

We then met up with the rest of our group and decided we wanted to relax this trip, and not get sucked into touring from dawn until dusk. We wandered the winding streets and bridges over the canals. We stopped and ate waffles covered in fruit syrup and of course tried the ‘famous’ Amsterdam French fries. The fries came covered with your choice of mayo or cheese – I chose the latter of course, and it was delicious. It wasn’t your typical melted cheese, but a sharp cheddar-like cheese that made me crave more and more.

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Mmmm

Cheese is huge in Amsterdam, something I did not know about before the trip. There are cheese shops almost every block, and all of them give out slices for sampling, which we took advantage of. My favorites were the goat and sheep cheeses, as well as a red pesto cheese that went fabulously with their special Holland mustard. We even went to the Cheese Museum which showed us how cheese was made throughout the years.

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Sasha, Christina and I hanging with the cow

In the late afternoon we wandered upon a street performer. He had volunteers wrap him with saran wrap and then chains, locking them together. He meant to escape from the entire thing in a timely manner. While he got out of the chains easily enough, his trick failed when the saran wrap was too tight around his waist and ended up pulling down his pants. Though the trick failed, he shrugged it off and the audience had a good laugh.

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Oops

After dinner we wandered more and, unintentionally I promise, ended up in the Red Light District. Two streets on either side of a canal boasted about women and booze, and the red lights reflected in the water. Red neon signs, red string lights, even red street lamps shone through the streets. The crowds were mostly male, young and old. Without going into too much detail, many half naked women danced behind glass and beckoned the public into their respective strip club. It was certainly a sight, but we did not spend much time in the Red Light District before moving on.

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Red Light District

(Saturday, Christina and I took a train to Bruges, which you can read about in my next blog post!)

Sunday was a gorgeous, sunny day, perfect for more walking around the city. It also happened to be St. Nicholas’ Day, so the city was busy with locals and their children, dressing up and watching parades. We tried to avoid the big crowds and went straight to find the Letters. The Letters are just that – they are large, white, sculpted letters that say I AMSTERDAM, with the I and first AM painted red, reading I am Amsterdam. We took a ton of pictures there, with everyone posing with their favorite letter. Afterwards, we walked past the massive Heineken Brewery and stopped for lunch. We didn’t tour the brewery, but I’m sure the technology would be incredible.

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Tyler with his 't'

Lastly, before heading home, we went to the Blumenmarket, a floating flower market which is supposed to be spectacular in the spring and summer. Unfortunately, it being winter, there were not many flowers in bloom. Each stand was selling flower bulbs, mostly for tulips, which Amsterdam is famous for. Tulips are also my favorite flower, so I was excited to see the hundreds of different types of tulips one could buy. I also stopped in the Tulip Museum, which talked about the history of the tulip. After, we grabbed a quick dinner and headed to the airport to fly back to Prague.

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Blumenmarket

Amsterdam was certainly a relaxing weekend. I would love to go in the spring or summer and see the massive tulip gardens and famed flowers. It was a good trip, but I was happy to get back to Prague.

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Beautiful canal

Posted by srussell912 02:01 Comments (1)

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was easily my favorite city outside of Prague so far. It was also the coldest. It reminded me of a real-life Renaissance festival, complete with the costumes and food of Estonia’s medieval era. Most of the restaurants were lit by candlelight and the local shop owners wore traditional clothes and leather pointy elf-like shoes. The hot wine and food was fantastic – I ate boar, bear, and elk, as well as duck.

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Pointy shoes!

After a two hour ferry on what seemed like a cruise ship, we headed through a modern city and into the Old Town, where we spent the day. We wandered curvy cobblestoned streets past the 15th century Guildhall, and along the original town wall, complete with towers that overlooked the city. We also walked through a couple knit markets and old alleyways where locals were selling handmade sweaters, socks and gloves, most of which were decorated with snowflakes or reindeer. We made our way to Town Hall Square, the main square of Old Town.

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Hanging out in the wall

Here the Tallinn Town Hall sits, dating back to 1322. The building was long and thin, with many windows and drainage pipes sculpted like dragon heads. It is the only gothic style town hall in Northern Europe. Unfortunately inside tours are only available in the summer.

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Town Hall

Next door, we stopped by one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, first mentioned in 1422. The pharmacy was simple and housed not only a working pharmacy but a museum with objects that would have been found in earlier days. These included sun-dried dog feces, stallion hooves, and a pickled toad, as well as medical instruments and old scales. You could still purchase herbs and medicinal plants along with modern medicine.

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Pharmacy main counter

We walked by the famous Olaviste Church, built in 1250. Once it was considered the tallest building in Europe. Supposedly, the builder of the church, Olaf, fell to his death from the tower and upon hitting the ground, a snake and a toad crawled out of his mouth. I’m not sure what this means, and I’m not sure anyone else does. We then decided to take a break and attend an organ concert at the 13th century St. Nicholas’ Church. The concert was wonderful and seemed to truly show off the different styles and music produced by the organ.

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Olaviste Church

From there we walked up Toompea Hill where Toompea castle, the Estonian Royal Palace sits. The castle was relatively small but had great views of the city. The castle was built in 1219 on the location of a 10th century stronghold. Nowadays, the castle is home to the Estonian Parliament, so it was quite secure, with guards and blockades around the front entrance.

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Parliament

Across from parliament is the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in 1900. This was my first experience with Russian architecture, and I was quite impressed. The unique domes and swirling paint on the roofs were exactly how I imagine typical Russian buildings to be. The outside was ornately decorated with white, gold, brown, and black, and the inside was covered in gold statues, altars, and paintings. A priest was blessing a group of people, which made the experience even more unique.

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Little taste of Russia

Before heading back to the Main Square for a quick dinner before the ferry, we walked down the hill next to the Old Town wall and past the cannon tower, Kiek in de Kok, or ‘peep into the kitchen’. Supposedly the tower was so tall that the solders on top could look into the women cooking food in the town below. We continued to the Square of Freedom. This square is just outside of old town, in a modern part of the city with art deco buildings. In the middle of the square stands the white glass tower with a cross on it, the monument to the Estonian War of Independence. The tower was simple and beautiful. In one corner of the square, you can look below the ground through a glass panel that shows the original street, stairs, and foundation of Harju Gate, the strongest gate to the Old Town from the 15th century.

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Square of Freedom

Tallinn was relaxing, just wandering in and out of streets and enjoying the architecture. This city certainly had a great spirit to it. Everyone seemed to be having a lot of fun despite the bitter cold. I would certainly go back to explore more of Estonia.

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Our new Estonian friend

Posted by srussell912 23:30 Comments (1)

Helsinki

I never thought I would set foot in either Finland or Estonia. However, it turned out to be the best trip out of the Czech Republic so far. Heather, Katharine and I stayed in Helsinki and took a quick two hour boat trip to Tallinn for a day (see the next blog post). The cultures of each city were completely different from each other and Prague.

We flew into Helsinki and were graciously picked up by Heather’s friend from the Marines. On our way, we debated on whether the sun was rising or setting. We learned that since Finland is so far north the sun mostly sits on the horizon rather than high in the sky, giving the day about 5 hours of sunlight. We dropped our stuff off in the hotel and immediately went out to start our adventures. We walked to Kauppatori Market Square which was right on the bay. There we browsed a street market filled with furs, knit goods, and reindeer antler objects. We immediately bought gloves and hats to help us through the mid-20’s weather.

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Typical market stand

We then headed to Senate Square, surrounded by Helsinki University and Valtionneuvosto, the Council of State from 1822. At the top of the square is the huge white and green domed Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, built in 1830. The cathedral is lit with pale yellow lighting, matching the yellow buildings surrounding Senate Square. The cathedral is still used today, rising high above the center of the city.

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Heather, Katharine and I

Across from the cathedral we found the best meal of the day. The restaurant was designed like a historical Finnish lumberjack lodge and completed with costumed waitresses and folk-singing waiters. We each had a typical Finnish dish. Katharine had creamy elk soup, Heather had reindeer steak and roasted mashed potatoes, and I had fried vendace, about 15 finger-sized fish that you eat whole – heads, tails, everything. Though I felt bad eating them, they were delicious.

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Awesome meal of vendace

Stuffed full, we wandered around the city and up to Hakaniemi Market Hall, an indoor food and goods market that opened in 1914. The market was huge, with fresh fish, meat, chocolate, and pastries for sale in stands lining both sides of the small aisles. Though we were too full to eat anything, I would certainly do my shopping there any other day.

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Fresh salmon

After traveling all day and walking around, we wanted a relaxing night and decided to partake in an original Finnish tradition – the sauna. The sauna has been an integral part of Finnish culture since before written records were discovered. Proof lies in the numbers - there are about two million saunas in Finland compared to the population of about five million. While now the sauna is used for relaxation and social gatherings, it was originally also used for heath care, important meetings, and a place to give birth. We went to a public sauna called Kotiharju, expecting a normal American sauna. However, we were in for a huge culture shock. When we walked up to the building, we were greeted by about ten old fat men naked except for a towel. They were smoking and drinking, and seemed to be having a good time. We navigated our way in upstairs to the women’s sauna were we entered a locker room with women wrapped in towels. There were also tables in the room, and groups were eating what was essentially a picnic, drinking and talking. We felt somewhat out of place, but the women were really nice. We changed into our bathing suits and went through a door to a shower room. As soon as we walked in, we were immediately the center of attention, looking incredibly out of place with bathing suits on. The naked women all around us looked at us smiling and said, ‘you don’t need those!’. So immersing ourselves deeper into the culture, we stripped down and joined the women, young and old, in the sauna. The temperature is controlled by whoever is sitting at on the very top row, the hottest part of the sauna. They are allowed to add wood to the stove whenever they feel necessary. I stayed on the bottom row, as far from the heat as possible and I was still schvitzing more than I have in my life. Afterwards we took a cold shower, and decided against going in for a second time. However, we were completely relaxed by the end of the night. The sauna definitely a unique highlight of my cultural experiences abroad this semester that I ended up enjoying a lot more than I though I would.

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Outside the sauna

We had the majority of the day on Sunday to explore the rest of Helsinki. We started off in the morning by taking a ferry to a series of six bridged islands off the coast of Finland. The islands are home to the UNESCO heritage site Suomenlinna, a sea fortress built in 1748 that is now home to the Finnish Naval Academy. Though some buildings are in use, the oldest part of the fortress is completely open to the public to explore on their own. We looked at cannons and guns, a submarine, and explored the little dark hallways and rooms of the barracks. There, we also saw the oldest working dry dock in Europe, still in use today. I could have taken an entire day to explore all the islands and buildings, but time was against me. We made it back just in time to catch the ferry to the mainland, and grabbed lunch with a couple of Heather’s friends from the Marines.

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Near the King's Gate on Suomenlinna

Afterwards, we took a quick tram ride to Temppeliaukio, a 1969 Lutheran Church built into a giant rock. The circular architecture was really unique, and the wood and glass ceiling let the sunlight in. You could see where sticks of dynamite were drilled into the rocks to blow up and make the walls of the Church.

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Rock Church

One more tram stop and a walk through a park brought us to the Sibelius Monument, in recognition of Jean Sibelius, a famous Finnish composer. The monument was huge and silver, and looked like many organ pipes floating off the ground. When it is very windy, the pipes make music. Unfortunately there was only a slight breeze, but I could stick my head up a pipe and hear a very low tone. It was a creative and beautiful monument, and a great note to head to the airport on.

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Sibelius Monument

Helsinki was a great city and much more modern looking than Prague. The Finnish people were incredibly nice, always wanting to help out and point us in the right direction. It seemed like they really enjoyed tourists coming to their city, which was very welcoming.

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Helsinki from the Bay

Posted by srussell912 22:42 Comments (1)

Dresden with Max

My boyfriend, Max, came to visit me for a week in Prague. We decided to take a day trip up to Dresden, Germany on advice from my friend Katherine who studied there. Actually I think she said that if we didn’t go to Dresden, I would have to work hard to repair our friendship! With Dresden only a two hour bus ride from Prague, of course I said yes. Though the weather was rainy, the unique city made up for it.

Dresden is a great city to experience in a day. The tourist center is easily walkable, dotted with cafes and restaurants. At Katherine’s advice, we bought tickets in advance for Grunes Gewolbe, or the Green Vault. This (literal) vault is inside the Dresden Royal Palace and houses one of the biggest collections of historic royal treasures in the world. Only a certain amount of people are allowed in at a time for the self-guided tour through eight different rooms. Max and I expected some jewelry and maybe some paintings, but were shocked at how extensive this collection actually was. Unfortunately, pictures were strictly prohibited. Jewels, ivory, silver, gold, bronze, ostrich eggs and giant shells decorated all the rooms. There was even a drinking vessel made out of a rhinoceros horn. Max enjoyed a golden chicken made out of a huge shell the color of a pearl. There was some intricate, beautiful sculpture, chalice, or box everywhere you looked. Even the rooms themselves were painted ornately with mirrors and gold glittering from each wall. It was certainly the highlight of the trip.

Afterwards, we found a small microbrewery and had a delicious lunch of soft cheese, schnitzel, potatoes, and of course, beer. The cheese was rich and had different flavors, and the schnitzel was light and perfectly cooked. We were absolutely stuffed and happy.

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Yummers!

We then headed down the street to the Zwinger Palace, originally the location of a fortress in the 12th century. The current palace was built in the 1710. The main courtyard of the palace was spectacular. The palace buildings surrounded a huge garden, probably the size of a football field. Among the bushes there were a few fountains as well. I wish we could have seen it in the summer because I’m sure the gardens are beautiful. The roof of the palace was decorated with statues and green from oxidized bronze. We explored the many staircases that led to different levels of the palace, ornate with fountains and statues of babies and angels.

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In the Zwinger gardens

Next to Zwinger Palace is the Semper Oper, or Dresden opera house. Unfortunately we did not have time to take the tour inside, which I’m sure would have been amazing. The outside was decorated with statues of composers, and on top there was a giant statue of a god riding in a cart drawn by panthers. Semper Oper was originally built in 1841, but like the majority of Dresden, was destroyed in the Bombing of Dresden during World War II. It was rebuilt and opened in 1985 with the last piece that was played before the bombing.

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Semper Oper

After stopping for a chococinno, or hot chocolate with espresso, we went into two churches, the famous Frauenkirche and Hofkirche. The Lutheran Frauenkirche was completely destroyed in the bombing, turning the original building from 1743 into rubble. The rubble was kept until 1992, when it was rebuilt, opening in 2005. I think this was the prettiest church I have seen so far. The alter was ornate with white and gold around a giant organ, but the rest of the inside was simpler. There were four floors of pews and the white, powder blue, and pale pink walls gave it a relaxed, homey feeling. The Hofkirche is the Catholic Church which is not only designed with religious symbols, but symbols commemorating the victims of Hitler’s reign.

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Frauenkirche

Across from the Frauenkirche is the Furstenzug, the largest porcelain mural in the world. It is 334 feet long and 34 feet high and was completed in 1876. The 23,000 tiles have survived spectacularly. The gold, black and white mural depicts the rulers of Saxony from 1127 to 1904. The mural took up an entire short street, and was impossible to look at all at once. I liked seeing the change of clothes and weapons that was depicted over time on the mural.

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Imagine this but MUCH bigger

From there we walked on the Bruhls Terrace along the River Elbe. The views along the river were pretty, with large modern buildings as well as old buildings that looked like palaces. Unfortunately it was a pretty gray day, so we couldn't see too far. The walk on the terrace would be wonderful in the spring or summer with the trees along the river blooming and the sun shining off the buildings.

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Love on the River Elbe!

Lastly we took a tram to Pfund’s Dairy, supposedly the most beautiful milk shop in the world, something that I knew Max would enjoy. The tiles on the walls were white with blue stems, green leaves, and colorful flowers that looked like they had been hand painted. They have served milk, cheese, and ice cream since 1880. The cheese was fantastic, some sort of German-made goat cheese that went fantastically with hot wine and crackers. It helped us enjoy quite the romantic evening.

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Pfund's Dairy

One of my goals for the day was to eat a German pretzel, which I assumed would be available in every café in Dresden. However, for some reason pretzels were incredibly hard to find. After a long search, the only place we found them was at the main train station, perfect for us tourists. Though we were on the bus, technically I was still in Germany enjoying a last-minute pretzel.

Though it seems like we did a ton of sightseeing, the day trip was actually very easy and relaxing since everything was so close. I definitely recommend it, though it would have been great if Katherine could have been our tour guide!

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Also the walk signs have hats

Posted by srussell912 22:14 Comments (1)

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