Read about my trip to Florence, Italy where between my weekend travels throughout Europe, Italian language courses, fashion marketing internship and Tuscan wine tastings on the weekends, I'm not sure if I'll ever want to return to "The States"...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How to Study Abroad in Florence, Italy

It has been officially two weeks since I arrived back home in the good ol’ U.S. of A. and I am finally sitting down to write my final blog entry. Between unpacking, catching up on DVRed Friend’s reruns, doing a some yard work to pay off my debt to my parents and adjusting to the time zone with plenty of naps, I just simply have not found the time. Now that I have though, I have decided the best way to summarize what I have learned while studying abroad would be in a little How To guide written exclusively for my blog followers. Yes, all seven of them.

How To Study Abroad in Florence, Italy
By: Emily Wood

You MUST pack light. Before studying abroad, when it came to packing for anything from an overnight sleepover, to a weeklong vacation, I usually went by my Aunt Susan’s motto: “If you can close your suitcase on the first try, you probably didn’t pack enough stuff.” When packing for Italy though, I somehow managed to bring four months worth of belongings in one backpack, one weekender bag, and one large suitcase that could easily fit a small child as my brother demonstrated before I left. Most of my friends had two large suitcases so I was very impressed with myself. The backpack was essential for weekend trips. And by backpack, I mean school backpack, not one of those intense “I’m backpacking around Europe for the next few months” backpacks. I recommend bringing nothing more than that because you will probably be traveling for many hours to get to your final destination if you use a cheap flight such as RyanAir and you do not want to be lugging around your Vera Bradley weekender even though you think you will look much more stylish.

Even though I recommend packing as light as possible, do not make the same mistake I did by discarding some “essentials” from your final suitcase. For example, I chose to take out my favorite comfy sweatshirt and sweatpants combo. BIG mistake. You will want those on days when the weather is terrible and even though you are in a foreign country, all you want to do it curl up and relaxxxx.

Moral of the story: even though I am wearing the same outfit in many of my pictures (with strategically different colored scarves to mix it up) and also donated many of the items that didn’t quite last for four months after weekly (and in some extreme cases daily) use, it was worth it to not have to lug around giant suitcases everywhere I went.

Once you arrive to your respective destination, plan your trips early. One of the main attractions of studying abroad in Europe is the fact that it is easy to travel to many other cities as well. My recommendation on this though is to start planning your trips the moment you arrive in your city and receive your class/exam schedule. This is essential for getting the best travel deals as well as being able to meet up with friends from other cities. Amsterdam, one of the most popular study abroad travel destinations for college students, was the one city I regret not being able to visit the most. Unfortunately, when my roommate and I finally started looking around for ways to get there we were limited to only one weekend that would work and our travel options were between a $1,000 flight or a bus that stopped in four different cities and would get us to Amsterdam after only a mere 25 hours of traveling each way. Since we only had three days to devote to each trip this would mean that we would be traveling for 2 whole days and only actually in Amsterdam for one. Fail.

Besides the pre planning and weekend excursions to other European destinations, there are many things that you simply cannot go through an entire semester in Florence without doing. I have written my top ten favorite here for you.

Florence’s Top 10 Must-Do’s:

1. Eat Gelato. Everyday. Doesn’t matter where because they are all good, but a couple of my favorite places were Grom, CafĂ© Neri, Santa Trinata, and the place by the duomo with the ceramic pig in the window. The "pig place" as my roommates and I referred to it doubles as a bar at night so you can kill two birds with one stone. How economical.

2. Buy some leather goods at the Mercato Borgo San Lorenzo. We were lucky enough to live right on this street and this is where some of the best leather shopping in Florence takes place. Check out my leather jacket and purse for some first-hand purchases.

3. Dance the night away at Yab on a Monday. Even though Florence is a small city, it boasts its fair share of discoteche and Yab is my personal favorite. The clientele is a good mix of Americans and Italians which ensures a good time. Plus it is small so you can’t lose your friends for more than the five minutes it takes to make a lap of the dance floor to find them.

4. Jog along the Arno River, the river that runs through the center of Florence. My roommate and I used to just run as far as we could down the river either going right or left, before or after crossing it from our house. We got to see a lot of the city this way and enjoyed the beautiful views while getting in some exercise.

5. Take the bus to Fiesole, the town 10 minutes outside the city to hike around and see a stunning view of Florence. Or, if you are lucky enough to meet an Italian boyfriend, have him take you there on a date. I got this idea via Lorenzo when he swooned my roommate with this romantic gesture. Che romantico.

6. Go window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is Florence’s famous tourist attraction that crosses the River Arno and houses some of the finest gold jewelry in the entire world. Note that I said window shop though, unless you are ready to drop some serious dough. The bridge is over 1,000 years old and has survived numerous wars because even the opposing army understands how important the bridge is to Florentine culture.

7. Eat dinner at both the Golden View and Il Gato e La Volpe. AIFS students such as myself were lucky enough to be able to dine at Golden View five nights a week if we wanted with our meal tickets. Even though this restaurant is slightly touristy and Americanized (hence the English name) it has the best gnocchi pomodoro in all of Florence in my opinion. Also, the name of the restaurant doesn’t lie, especially if you are lucky enough to get seated at the window, therefore being right on the river with a perfect view of the Ponte Vecchio.

Il Gato e La Volpe (The Cat and the Wolf) is my other personal favorite. Go with a group of six or more and get the unlimited all you can eat all you can drink for 15 euro each. They will bring out an array of appetizers and pasta dishes as well as bichierre after bichierre of vino rosso or bianco, whichever you prefer. Also, their bread is to die for and they have the absolute best balsamic vinegar I have ever had in my life. In fact, if you do go, please bring a bottle of it home for me since I ran out of mine already. Thanks.

8. Visit the Galleria dell’Academia to see The David. Hands down the coolest, most breathtaking piece of art I have ever seen and I do not consider myself an art history buff in any way. In fact, go to The David as often as possible using your student museum pass…it’s free!

9. Climb the Duomo. Florence’s claim to fame, the Duomo is the 1,000 year old church in the center of the city and second largest only to the Vatican. Before you climb the 472 steps to the top through the claustrophobic hallways where over 50 languages are being spoken around you, take a lap around the outside of the building because even after passing the Duomo every day for four months, I still stopped and gawk at it every time.

10. The most important thing to do in Florence I my opinion is to hike up to Piazzale Michaelangelo with a bottle of wine and just sit there and enjoy the sunset while getting the best possible view of Florence. This encompasses Florentine culture in a nutshell and if you are lucky, you may even get to listen to the awesome live band that plays there on weekends or see a newly married couple stop to take pictures with the beautiful view.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Today is my first day back in the United States. I cannot believe how fast this semester flew by. In just four short months I have traveled to six different countries and 15 different cities all over Europe. Never again will I get a chance to experience this kind of “studying” aka extended vacation and I cannot thank my family enough for making this possible.

Here is a list of all the places I visited:
1. London, England
2. Florence, Italy
3. Sienna, Italy
4. Pisa, Italy
5. Rome, Italy
6. Villars, Switzerland
7. Venice, Italy
8. Paris, France
9. Madrid, Spain
10. Barcelona, Spain
11. Munich, Germany
12. Austria (if you count driving through it on our way back to Florence thanks to the Volcano)
13. Cinque Terre, Italy
14. Amalfi Coast, Italy (including Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Pompeii)

Living in Italy has opened me up to so many new experiences and made me realize how important it is to learn a second language. I took Spanish for eight years growing up but could barely speak a word of it. After only 6 months of studying Italian though, I can proudly say that I am able to communicate very slowly in basic sentences. I want to continue teaching myself Italian and hopefully I will be able to return to Italy one day and fluently converse with the locals.

Italy has also exposed me to many different types of food and drink that I did not enjoy before I arrived but now can call some of my favorite foods. The main items on this list include tomatoes, mozzarella, aperitivo (pre-dinner champagne) and red wine. Yum! On our last night in Italy, everyone was a mess. We were all trying to say goodbye to each other with tears pouring down our faces. Even though I consider myself a crier, for some reason I did not shed a single tear. I think I was kind of in shock and also believed that this was not the end for my time in Italy. The first tears did come however when I saw my family waiting for me at the airport. Sob fest.

The scariest part about all this is that I am now a SENIOR IN COLLEGE!! What?!?! I am off to Madison this summer to take full advantage of my last summer break EVER. In just one short year I will be a real college grad off to having a real job (keep your fingers crossed on that one) and living on my own. Welcome to the Real World.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cliff Jumping? I'm In!

Day 2 in Amalfi. We started the day bright and early and were greeted by sunny 75 degree weather. Perfection. We got to the black sand beaches of the town of Positano and it was absolutely gorgeous. After basking in the sun for a few hours, we headed out with the group for the highly anticipated cliff jumping excursion. About 100 students all headed out with the group to test the cliffs. The guide had us first climb up to the lower cliff which was about 10 feet high. Piece of cake right? Laura was being a little daredevil and I didn’t want her to show me up so I decided it would be a really good idea to show off my diving skills after years of acquired practice at Farmington. The line of people behind me was close to all 100 students so I attempted a front flip as gracefully as possible. Fail. Right as I came out of my tuck to enter the water in a perfect pencil, I lost control and continued to over rotate and managed to land in a perfect belly flop. The line of students simultaneously cried “Oooh, ouch” as I surfaced and immediately turned bright red. Smooth, Em.

After our guide thought we had gotten sufficient practice on the lower cliff, he led us up to the top one. We were barefoot and wearing nothing but our bathing suits while climbing between these huge cliffs. We got to the top of the 32 foot cliff and I decided just to stick with a pencil jump on this one. I successfully landed but many of my friends were not so lucky. Marissa still can’t sit right and Ally ended up having to go in an ambulance after having the wind knocked out of her. Laura also thought it would be a good idea to back dive off the boat without looking behind her and dove right on top of an innocent swimmer. The necks crunched against each other and she came up with a bloody nose. Che disastre.

Saturday night we hung out at the hostel with the rest of the crew for dinner and drinks. Their special that night was Mexican food and after dining on sub-par quesadillas in tacos with spicy marinara served as salsa and thick milk for sour cream, we all agreed that we can’t wait to go back to the states for “real” Mexican food. Tacos el Norte anyone?

Sunday morning we went to Pompeii to see the ancient ruines from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption 2,000 years ago. Looking at all the petrified bodies and the town that was dug up from ash was cool but I’m glad I opted out of paying for the guided tour since it was getting to be quite hot and I am all toured-out after four months in Europe. I need at least a six month recovery process before I ever step foot in a museum, ancient landmark, church or any other cultural tour again.

Overall, this was one of my favorite weekends in Europe. I know I say that after every trip but this was just the perfect final weekend to my semester abroad. Only two more blog entries left! Sono triste!!

T'was on the Isle of Capri that he found her...

We just had our last weekend in Italy. As I right this I am preparing for my flight home in less than 24 hours. Way too soon. Since it was our last weekend and we wanted to go out with a bang, my friends and I took a little trip down to the Amalfi Coast in the south of Italy to visit the beautiful towns of Sorrento, Capri, Positano and Pompeii. We went with a travel booking agency called Bus2Alps which was a very good decision because they showed us all the best things to do on each of these islands.

We started off on an eight hour bus ride that left from Florence at 7pm. It was this giant double decker bus which soon became terrifying as we were cruising along what looked like one way roads hugging the cliffs of Amalfi. We all had a rude awakening around 2am when the bus jerked us all awake. We later found out this was because we actually made contact with another car down this windy road. I felt really safe.

After settling into our gorgeous hostel that was more like a resort hotel, we got up early the next morning to head to the Isle of Capri. Laura, my friend from high school (and college) Danielle, and her friend Marie hopped on a boat with the rest of the group to tour the Blue Grotto which is a little cave on the water. We got in a tiny boat with our guide (who happened to be wearing a shirt from Illinois!) and paddled on over to the cave entrance. It was literally so tiny that we had to lie down in the boat to fit through it. Once we got in we turned around in the pitched black cave to see the water which was literally glowing bright blue. Check out the video below! Keep watching because even though it is black at parts that just means you are about to see something really cool.

After our Blue Grotto tour, we all hiked up to the Giardinia di Agosto to the top of Capri for an amazing view. We got our picture snapped at the top and will most likely be starring on the website soon so keep your eyes peeled for images of yours truly. After our hike to the top, we traveled back into the main area of town to do some shopping. Capri is known for its handcrafted, custom-made sandals, limoncello and coral jewelry. We got to sample the limoncello as well as the lemon flavored chocolates. They were delicious and were made from the lemons all over the island that were bigger than my head.

After a quick bite to eat, we headed down to the rocky beach. The day was gorgeous but the rocks were incredible painful to walk on especially after heating up in the sun. Marie and I went for a dip in the crystal clear water and decided to be adventurous and jump off the rocks about 20 yards out. Just a little warm up for the cliff jumping that was coming the next day.

After getting our fair share of sun, we headed back to the hostel to get ready for dinner. The bus2alps guides took us out to a local restaurant and I ordered the Frutti di Mare linguini or seafood pasta since it is known to be really fresh. They weren’t kidding. It tasted like I was eating a beach. After digesting my sand and salt water, the four of us dipped out a little early to check out the town nightlife. We stumbled upon this Karaoke bar that was empty except for the four of us, two Italian promoters, a couple sitting at a bar, and a lonely stripper pole in the middle of the dance floor. After showcasing my superb karaoke skills with a little Britney and Michael, the four of us just danced around to the funny American music the DJ was playing for us. Right as we were about to leave because we thought we had overstayed our welcome, a huge group of Italian families came in with their children ranging in age of 7 to 13. It reminded me of the Farmington Crew coming to crash the townie Wisconsin bars that we often do. These Italians were so much fun so we decided to stay a little longer and dance with them. They were begging us to dance with their children to get them out of their shell and dance on stage with the stripper pole. They also cheered on every adult who got up there to dance as well. See the video below of the 50 year old man who was extremely talented for some wild entertainment.

When we finally left to go be with the American students at the “English Bar” we didn’t have nearly as much fun. We started on the walk home because we didn’t want to pay for a cab which ended up being a pretty bad idea. Apparently southern Italian men are much more vocal about their feelings for women, especially American women. We had a running tally of the number of cat calls, car honks, and baci we received and I think the grand total was at 42 before we made it home an hour later. Time to go to bed for our big day at the beach tomorrow. As we like to say in Italy, “Basta, Basta, gross, gross, gross!”