Tuesday, October 29, 2013

4 Countries, 10 Days and 1 American Girl in Europe: Fall Break 2013

Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona. A week long trip that only a group of sixty ambitious and adventure-hungry 20 something year olds could manage to accomplish.

Our trip began in Berlin, Germany. Sleeping overnight on the bus from Florence, the 14-hr ride wasn't enough to kill the excitement when we arrived that morning. We quickly got changed in the bathroom lobby of our hostel and rushed off to our walking tour of the city. We saw several of the highlights including museum island, Brabdenburg gate, and the Univeristy of Berlin. We also saw the hotel where Michael Jackson held one of his children over the balcony. Thought that was a fun random fact worth sharing!
Brabdenburg Gate

Hotel Adlon
Damage from the war
During the tour our guide pointed out several buildings which still had holes on their surface left from World War II. The tour ended at the Reichstag building, or the parliment building in Berlin. The building itself was built in 1894 but the Reichstag Dome was built just recently in 1999. We climbed to the top of the dome which provided a 360 degree view of the beautiful city!

Inside the Reichstag Dome
That night we went with a large group on a pub crawl throughout the city. We went to four different bars and ended at the biggest club in Berlin, Matirx. On our second day in Berlin we went to see the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall and check point Charlie. We also stopped at the Sony center and the Holocaust memorial. Berlin, Germany was such a humbling city due to all it's fascinating history.
Check Point Charlie
  On our last night there, we ate dinner at a small local restaurant called "Sophie Neck" it was so quaint and the food was delicious. We ended our stay in Berlin with the Festival of Lights. This takes place once a year in Berlin as the city sets up light displays on the surface of several popular buildings throughout the city. Such a perfect way to say goodbye to the beautiful Berlin!

Berlin Cathedral for Festival of Lights

Sunday morning we were off to Amsterdam! We arrived around 5:30, checked into our hostel and got ready for a night out. We ate at a highly recommended Irish pub which was very overpriced. First, we went to the popular bar/coffeeshop Bulldog before we headed out to the event "Encore". Our first night out in Amsterdam definitely exceeded my expectations!
On our second day we began with taking pictures on the "IAmAmstedam" sign, a huge tourist trap, and then headed to the Van Gogh museum. I'm usually hard to impress when it come to museums, but the amount of artwork that Van Gogh made throughout such a short period of time was amazing. Not to mention his works are beautiful. I went a little crazy in the gift shop afterwards! 


After eating one of the most delicious avacodo sandwiches I've ever had in my life for lunch, we were off to the Heineken museum. Here we got to see the brewery and how the beer is made, we went through a simulation ride of what it's like to be a Heineken bottle and then we got to taste the beer at its different stages of production! It was a very cool and very interactive museum. Later that night we walked through the red light district, an interesting experience to say the least. 

Tuesday morning we left for the Anne frank house/ museum. The most fascinating, yet very sad experience. I was amazed at how large their house was yet how small the portion of the house was where they were all forced to hide. We saw the secret bookcase that they hid behind, and even the pictures that Anne posted on her bedroom wall. It gave me goosebumps that we stood in the same exact house that they once stood and were able to walk freely around, in and outside of the house and all throughout Amsterdam while they were forced to hide in such a confined area. 
Secret Bookcase
Pictures on Anne Frank's bedroom wall

After the museum we went the carousel pancake house where I had the most amazing Belgium waffle with fresh fruit and whipped cream! After a bit more roaming around the beautiful and quaint  streets of Amsterdam we were off to Paris that afternoon. I definitely hope to get back to Amsterdam some day as it was my favorite city we went to! The people were so nice, the canals were so pretty, and the lifestyle was so simple. 

Wednesday morning we began our do-it-all-in-24-hrs super tourist day in Paris! We started at the Louvre around 8 am, went straight the Mona Lisa and then made our way to a few other works of art. It's impossible to see everything in the Louvre unless you have an entire day to do it, which we didn't, so we moved on to our next destination, Notre Dame. 

On our way we stopped at the pont de archeveche or the "lock bridge". I wasn't able to see this during my last visit to Pari so I was so glad we accidentally stubled upon it! After a visit to Notre Dame we made our way over to the the prettiest attraction of all! Wonder what that could be?!

We waited in line to climb the tower, and finally got to the top. The views of the city are amazing! It was so windy on the very top at certain points I could barely stand without holding onto something. After heading back down, starring at the beautiful tower for several minutes, and taking one too many pictures, we headed towards Sacré Coeur. We climbed up the 300 steps to the top of the basilica and snapped a few pictures of yet another beautiful view of Paris! 

Sacre Coeur

After all that our day was still just about half way through! Next, we went to the Arc de Triomphe, and climbed up those 284 steps to reach one of my favorite places in the world. As soon as we made it to the top step the clock struch 7o'clock and with perfect timing we saw the first hour of the sparkling Eifell tower! It only sparkles for a few minutes at the start of every hour so we quickly snapped our pictures and then enojyed the rest of the view. I could have stayed on the Arc all evening long just starring at the tower, the Champs Elysees, and the beautiful City of Lights!

For dinner we went to a small, local French restaurant where I had my favorite meal of the whole week. I had a steak fillet and au gratin potatoes with a glass of wine and chocolate mousse for desert! Finally, to end our day we went to the Trocadero platform to watch the eifell tower sparkle again with the group. The last stop of the day was the moulin rouge.

Steak and Au Gratin Potatoes

Yes, all in about 15 hrs we managed to visit the Louvre, the pont de archeveche, Notre Dame, climb the Eiffel tower, climb the steps up to Sacré Coeur, climb the Arc de Triomphe, watch the tower sparkle at night, and finally visit the moulin rouge. By the end of the day we had officially mastered the metro in Paris-- I needed several strong drinks and a new pair of feet. 

On our second day in Paris we began at the Palace of Versailles. Though it was my second time visiting, I was still so amazed at extraordinary size and architecture of the palace. My favorite room was Marie Antoinette's with her floral curtains and bed spread. The gardens are immaculate and so large-- it's breathtaking to see in person. 

Hall of Mirrors
After heading back to the city's center we went to visit the Musée de l'Orangerie. There we saw Monet's beautiful water Lillie's paintings. During our last hours in Paris we went to visit the Galeries Lafayette, the opera house, and the Montmarte area where we ate dinner at a very charming restaurant overlooking the street. Around 8pm we were off to Barcelona with our beds as the seats on the bus. 
As I'm writing this post, I'm just as tired as I reach Barcelona in terms of writing as I was in terms of travelling and I'm sure as you are reading. As warned by our tour guide, Paris would kick our asses, oh boy she was right! 
The first morning in Barcelona we began with a 4-hour bike tour around the city. We were able to see almost all of the main highlights of the city including the Sagrada Familia, the Arc de Triomphe, Port Olympic on the beach, the Cathedral, and the Park de la Ciutadella near the zoo. Our tour guide mentioned during the tour that for the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona the city actually imported sand from the Sahara desert and "rented" thousands of palm trees from Hawaii to hand-make the main beaches. While the bike tour was fascinating, it did however get a little difficult when we were riding on 4 lane very busy roads throughout the city, crashing into each other and managing the heat especially after a pitcher of sangria after our lunch break. 

La Sagrada Familia

Arc de Triomphe of Barcelona
The bike tour took up the majority of our day and definitely all of our energy. That next morning we woke up and went to Park Güell. This amazing park is on a very high hill overlooking Barcelona constructed by the very famous architect Gaudi. The border of a portion of the park or the "serpentine bench" is constructed of beautiful mosaic tiles.

After the park we walked around the center of the city, did some shopping and stumbled across thousands of Barca fans getting ready for the big game against Madrid that afternoon. That evening, our last night of fall break, we got ready for a big night out! We began in the bar of our hostel and then went to the stock exchange bar in Barcelona also known as the Dow Jones Bar. It's a very fun concept to watch the prices of the drinks and shots go up and down as the demand fluctuates just as it does in a real stock exchange. Every few minutes the market would "crash" and everyone would run up to the bar and get the lowest prices for the drinks! 

Dow Jones Bar

After we went to the four-floor club razz ma tazz. Barcelona is infamous for their nightlife- now I know why! The clubs don't close until 6am, we made it until 4! Just a few hours later we were back on the bus en route to Firenze driving through the very picturesque French countryside.

I don't think I'll ever be able to top such an amazing, exhausting, crazy, non-stop, vacation in my entire life! I've made memories that I'll cherish for a lifetime! 4 countries, 10 days, 10 nights, 50 hours of driving, and about 70,000 steps according to my speedometer. Fall break 2013 was certainly one that I'll never forget. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Last weekend I went on a trip with the school to Rome! We left Florence on Saturday morning and went straight to the Coliseum. Unfortunately, it rained pretty hard all morning and the coliseum was covered in scaffolding so it wasn't as beautiful as I had expected it to be.

The Roman Forum

After, we walked around the Roman Forum which was originally the central market in ancient Rome. It was amazing to see columns and such built in 7th century BC still standing in their original form! Following the Forum we took a bus to the Vatican City. Our tour guides said they haven't seen the line to get through the city walls as long as it was that day in centuries! We waited in line for over 2 1/2 hours just to get through. When we finally got through we walked through each of the Vatican Museums including: Raphael's Room, The Gallery of Maps (my favorite), and the Sistine Chapel until we finally reached St. Peter's Basilica.

The Gallery of Maps

While walking through each of these beautiful rooms, we were more worried about getting trampled over by all of the other tourists trying to squeeze their way through. I would love to go back one day when it's less crowded, if possible, and spend a little more time admiring each room. St. Peter's Basilica was a little more spacious considering it is, after all, the largest Catholic church in the world. It was stunning, both inside and outside.
Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Sunday morning we began our day at Piazza Navona, a beautiful center in Rome which includes the Palazzo Pamphilj and the well known Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi- both built in the 1650's.
Piazza Navona   

Our three hour walking tour included the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps! Of course at the Trevi Fountain we took the traditional "throw your coin into the fountain while making a wish" picture! Also, Piazza di Spagna, where the Spanish steps are located was a lot more beautiful than I had expected it to be!

 We ended the tour with the Trajan column and the Altare della Patria or "Il Vittoriano", which was my favorite building that I had seen in Rome! I don't know if it was the size, the white marble-like stone, or the chariots on top of the building which is why I was so drawn to it. Many Italians and also foreigners think the building is too large and pompous and glaringly white-- I was just stunned by it.
Altare della Patria
After the tour we took a bus to a restaurant located on the Appian Way for lunch. We had a delicious 4-course traditional Italian meal, one of the best I've had in Italy so far. After lunch we made our way to our last stop- the Catacombs. Although very eerie, the fact that 150,000 tombs were located beneath the ground which spread for 11 miles made the site very fascinating. We took a tour of a very small section of the grounds. The corridors, carved out of volcanic rock, we very dark and narrow-- definitely not suitable for anyone even slightly claustrophobic.

A painted tomb in the Catacombs
Overall, based on my very short 2-day trip to Rome I would most definitely love to go back! Compared to Florence, the "Renaissance City", everything in Rome was a lot more "grand" and the architecture is all Baroque style, as Rome is the city where Baroque began. Personally, I'm more attracted to the Baroque style in general, though I'm definitely glad I chose to study in Florence as it is smaller, more accessible and still very beautiful in its own way!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Life as a Florentine (so far)

Rather than sharing the highlights of my travels while abroad, I thought I'd take some time to share what life in Florence is like!

First- I could not be happier with the destination I chose to study abroad. Europe alone offers so many beautiful and unique places. I chose Italy because of my Italian heritage which I wanted to explore more of, but I'm so glad I chose the beautiful city of Firenze rather than another city in Italy. With that being said- during my research before I went abroad, people only tell you the "good" stuff. How beautiful the buildings are, how accesible everything is, the delicous food & wine, the leather markets etc. While this is all very true, when people ask me what it is really like to live here, I want to give them an honest answer. So, let me just be blunt for a minute to allow people to fully understand ALL of the aspects in which living in Florence entails. What previous travellers don't mention is the dog poop on the streets, the frequent smell of sewer, the creepy and very persistent men, and the mosquitoes that never die. And in our particular neighborhood 3 blocks north of the central market, every night as we fall asleep we're accompanied by the sound of a cat and dog howling and meowing at eachother. At first we thought it was a baby crying- it's terryfying to hear in person! Of course every city has its pros and cons. So let me finish by saying that in Florence, the pros definitely outweight the cons. 

The Duomo is particularly beautiful in the rain at 2AM

On Tuesdays I have class from 12:00-8:30pm, after being in class for so long my favorite part of the day is walking home through the city. Everyone is enjoying their dinner, the markets begin to close for the evening, yet the city is still so alive. My favorite time of day in Florence, however, is before 8am. Only a few early-riser elderly couples are up starting their day as tourists, taking pictures of the Duomo while the rest of the crowds are still sleeping. I also love to catch several of the market owners sweeping their steps and opening their stores at this time each morning. 

Piazza Repubblica in the morning
It's hard to imagine our time here is almost already half-way through as mid-terms are the week after next. I still have so much to learn about this city that I feel overwhelmed sometimes with the amount of time left here and the amount of things I still wish to do. Every day on my way to class I notice a new store and make a mental note to go there "one of these days". While Florence is a fairly small city it is absolutely big enough to explore a new area each day that you've never been to before. I should mention though for future travelers, out of the places that I've discovered so far the best gelato in my opinion is Bellamia, and the best panini place is Antica Sosta Degli Aldobrandini- both right near my school and provide discounts for students! 
Crema & Chocolate Gelato from Bellamia
The Diner is a great spot to satisfy those American Breakfast cravings!

This past Wednesday LdM hosted a 40th anniversary dinner at the Gardens of the beautiful Corsini Palace. When we arrived we were greeted with champagne and tickets for food vendors scattered around the garden. The venue was decorated with christmas lights and large white tents. The caterers were dressed in all white and wore straw hats. I was in awe the whole night about how amazingly perfect the party was planned. And that it was all FREE! Endless wine and champagne led to a fun night on the dance floor with the LdM staff after we stuffed our faces with some of the best food I've yet to eat in Italy! 

Overall, I think anyone who has the oppurtunity to study abroad would be crazy not to take it!  Of course it's a hard adjustment living in a foreign country and among several things I'm really missing my family, my car, Doritoes and the rest of my wardrobe- but I wouldn't change one detail of this experience so far for the world. I already can't wait to return to Italy one day with a larger bank account and memories from when I was 21 years old!