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"...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Five Lands

Yesterday I went on our much anticipated field with our school to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre literally translates to Five Lands and is a group of islands on the Italian Riveria that are a popular hiking spot for tourists. We took a bus to Cinque Terre at 8am on Saturday morning and arrived just outside the first town of La Spezia. After a quick stop to McDonalds for all 50 American students in our group (fat), we hopped on the train to get to the first hiking trail. Our goal was to hike between each of the five lands by the end of the day. Each path was between an hour and two hours hike and got harder as you went on. The first path was called “Via dell’amore” or path of love and had hearts carved in the rocks everywhere and a really cool graffiti wall where couples mark their love for each other.

Once we got to the second land we all got to try Cinque Terre’s famous faccacia bread. Delicious. We continued on our hike for a couple more hours as the trail got exceedingly more slippery and steep because it had rained the night before and continued to lightly sprinkle during our hike. I was grateful for the clouds though because it made the hike much more enjoyable since we still had a beautiful view but didn’t have to be dripping with sweat the whole time.

Once we got the fourth land though, it was like God wanted us to take a break because it all of a sudden changed to 70 and sunny. We sat down at a restaurant overlooking the gorgeous beach in front of us and got some tropical cocktails to sip on. When we finished, we went to go lay out by the water in our hiking clothes which were not very conducive to soaking up the rays. The water was crystal clear but quite chilly when we stuck our feet in. However, there was an old couple that was snorkeling and they inspired us to go join them. Unfortunately we didn’t have our bathing suits with us so we went over to the one of the little vendors to see what we could purchase to create a make shift swim suit. Our best option ended up being these little black shorts and our sports bras. We figured when in Europe that no one would really mind since in most places women don’t even bother with the top half of their bikinis.

Decked out in our new “swim suits” we plunged into the water. It was even colder than we thought. The whole beach stopped to stare as these three American girls were screaming while attempting to tread and stay afloat in the freezing water. After a few minutes though, when we finally got used to it, the water actually felt amazing. It was really salty so I just lied on my back with my arms over my head and floated there for awhile, relishing in the fact that I was currently relaxing in the Mediterranean Sea.

We never made it to the fifth land because we were enjoying ourselves so much at the fourth. This day trip however, has gotten me super pumped to go to Amalfi Coast next weekend which is in the South of Italy. We are ending our trip with a bang by spending our last weekend enjoying some of the most beautiful and historic towns in Italy including Capri and Pompeii. Then it’s off to the United States! Ahh!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Miffln in Munich

Mifflin is the annual block party that happens in Madison every spring. Since all of us who are abroad were very upset we were missing it this year, we decided to make up for by heading to Munich, Germany for their annual spring “block party”: Frulingfest.

Before I came to Europe, I never thought I would end up traveling to Germany. I didn’t know a single person who had chosen to study abroad there so I figured the appeal was as high as the countries we visited over spring break. Once everyone started raving about this Springfest though, Spinks and I booked some cheap RyanAir flights to go and got a hostel with our Florence roommates. When Thursday night rolled around, we went to the Florence train station. By Thursday night I technically mean Friday morning at 3:30am. After an hour long bus to Pisa and a two hour wait in the Pisa airport with every other student who was traveling that weekend, we caught our 7:00am flight to Memmingham. Memmingham was listed as “Munich West” on Ryanair’s website. My favorite review on that sight (which I of course didn’t see until after we had booked our tickets) was, “Yes, Memmingham is west of Munich, but then again so is Paris and the United States.” Wonderful.

Once we landed, the airport shut down immediately due to the Iceland volcanic ash. Thank god we got the last flight out because we had an absolutely amazing time. We weren’t quite sure if we were going to make it home because of this damn Volcano but we figured we wouldn’t be all that upset if we were stuck at the festival for a couple of extra days…

After the two hour bus ride (which brings us to a grand total of 8 hours of traveling) we checked into our hostel and headed out for the free tour of the city they offered. Our tour guide took us around to all the main touristy spots in Munich, which pretty much all have something to do with World War II, and afterwards dropped us off at the famous Hofbrauhaus so we could enjoy our first German beer. She taught us that the Hofbrauhaus used to not have bathrooms so men would just relieve themselves into the troughs running through the floor after downing several pints of beer. Thankfully modern day technology allowed them to have bathrooms installed.

We met up with our friends from school for the second weekend in a row and after a beer (or 3 if you consider the size of the glasses) we went to the festival. Once we got to the entrance, all I could do was stand there in awe. As Spinks put it, it was an amusement park for adults. It was literally a carnival on steroids and with beer tents thrown in there between every few rides. The first thing we went to was a merry go round that had a bar in the center of it. Then we went on a ride that spun you and flung you in every direction, then to a beer garden tent to see some friends and then we got “meter long weinerschnitzels.” In the midst of all this enjoyment, Spinks and I realized we technically hadn’t checked into our hostel yet since check in wasn’t until after we had left for our tour and we didn’t know what time the front desk was open until. We dashed over to the metro and successfully arrived back at our hostel only to have them laugh at us for running back because there wasn’t anything more we needed to do to check in and the front desk was open 24 hours. Is anyone really surprised we made this mistake? No…. So we dashed back to the festival so we wouldn’t miss out on another minute of fun and stayed there for a couple more hours with all the other Wisconsin kids that were there (close to 50…crazy, I know).

The next morning we got up early to go the concentration camp near Munich in Dachau. This was an experience I will never forget. We rented ear pieces to do the audio tour which explained all the buildings to us and even had memoirs from actual survivors of the camp. It was an extremely somber experience and everyone was pretty quiet the whole time we were there but it was definitely worth the visit. We saw everything from the barracks they slept in, to the barbed wire fences, and even the gas chambers and ovens. It was an incredibly meaningful experience and I would recommend if you ever have the chance to visit one, please do. Pictured below is the infamous "Work will set you free" sign.

After the concentration camp, we headed back to the festival. Sarah, Laura and I were sat a table in a beer garden with these three men in their forties from Russia. Only one of them spoke English but not very well so the easiest way for us to communicate with them was actually for me to speak to him in Italian since he lived in Venice for a few years and we would both translate for our respective group of friends. One of the men even bought me a hat which I refused to take off for the rest of the trip. I’m probably even going to wear it on the plane home because I don’t want to ruin the feather by putting it in my suitcase.

Saturday we found out that our flight was cancelled due to this lovely volcano so we scrambled to buy bus tickets for this company that made a boat load of money off all the stranded students by hiring extra coach busses to drive us all home. Even though I was a little disgruntled over the money we had to pay for the ticket, it was nice because we got to have an extra half day in Munich since our original flight was supposed to leave at 7am from “Munich West” thanks once again to Ryanair. My roommates and I took this opportunity to go to the English gardens where they have a man made river for surfers. Yes, surfers. I took a video of these surfers below because it was actually really cool to watch.

We went back to the festival for one more weinerschnietzel and beer before we left for our 8 hour bus ride back to Florence. Another positive about the bus ride was that I got to drive through Austria, so I can add another country to my places visited while abroad. Never mind that it was only to the gas station…

Overall, Munich was one of my favorite weekends in Europe. I definitely want to come for Oktoberfest one year because supposedly it is about 20 times the size of Springfest. This year is the 200 year anniversary of Oktoberfest so I’m sure it is going to pretty wild if anyone is interested. And if you are, please save some room for me in your carry on bag. Thanks.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spring Break 2010 Part III: BarTHelona

Our final destination for Spring Break 2010 was Barcelona. Even though we were slightly disheveled after the mix up in the Madrid Airport, we safely arrived at the apartment our fellow DGs from Wisconsin, Molly, Rachel and Laura. They were ready to greet us with a cool beverage as soon as we arrived and we got dressed quickly because we only had one night with most of our friends in Barcelona because they were all leaving to do their own traveling the next day. We went to a bar called Chuppitos to start the night off which is basically a bar full of hundreds of different kinds of shots you can take. I think their motto should be “when in doubt, light it on fire” because that’s pretty much what they did with all of them. There was also a highly inappropriate shot entitled, “The Monica Lewinsky” but I won’t go into detail about that one.

Thursday morning we got up early to have Molly show us some of the famous sights of Barcelona. She took us to La Boqueria which was a huge outdoor market where they are had the freshest fruit, vegetables, fish and basically anything else you could want from all different vendors. We treated ourselves to smoothies for one euro which were quite delicious. We also got to see some street performers on the way there and Spinks and I got a picture with a really funny but slightly terrifying gargoyle man (see picture).

Friday morning we went to a tapas restaurant for brunch to try some local Spanish cuisine. The restaurant had a bunch of different crustinis or mini sandwiches that you picked up with toothpicks and at the end of your meal you were just charged by how many toothpicks were left on your plate. Each tapa had so many different fresh flavors of cheese, fish and vegetables and I felt like I was back at the Icon in Madison (but better-sorry guys). After lunch we had to move apartments because Molly was leaving for Venice for the weekend so Laura and I went to stay with my friend from high school, Mike. Mike’s roommate also had friends coming to visit him so Laura and I felt like we were living in a frat house for the weekend since there were about 8 boys there in total.

Since Mike was still recovering from his strep throat, Laura and I decided to do some more sight seeing on our own. We went to Park Guell and Sagrada Familia which is the famous church that is taking centuries to finish. The park is designed by the famous Spanish architecht, Gaudi who is known for his incredibly innovative and modern designs. We decided we were sick of sightseeing and had seen most of the famous sights in Barcelona already so we made a pact to spend the next two days we were there just lying at the beach. Best decision Ever.

Saturday we went to the beach with some of Mike’s roommates (since Mike was still “sick” aka being a big loser…) and had a great day just relaxing in the sun. It was Barcelona’s first really warm weekend so the beach was absolutely packed. They were a ton of vendors wandering through the beach towels selling everything from coconut slices to fake sun glasses. I would say I’m ashamed to admit that Laura and I each bought five euro massages from the Asian ladies who were pestering everyone with their endless questions of “Massaje? Massaje?”, but it actually ended up being one of the best five euros I’ve spent this trip. A massage while basking in the sun? How much more relaxing can you get?

Saturday night we went to what is probably the coolest club I have ever seen. It’s called Razzmatazz and is 5 stories high with different rooms on each floor that each have their own music playing to go with their theme. There were endless winding staircases that took you outside to get to the different rooms and it basically summed up true Barcelona Clubbing at its finest. Mike had a miraculous recover and was able to make it out that night and I am proud to say that we were able to watch the Barcelona sunrise after we got off the metro on our way home from Razzmatazz.

Sunday we just went back to the beach for the day so we could at least come home with a little color. We spent the whole day there but grudgingly left around 5pm to catch our flight. After yet another easy commute home, we arrived in Florence around 2:30 in the morning. Thanks Ryanair. Can’t wait to take you to Munich in a couple of hours as I write this. I will be leaving my apartment at 2:55am and not actually arriving in Munich until noon at the earliest. However, I’ve heard a little rumor about some volcano erupting in Iceland causing over 3,000 flights to be cancelled so I’m hoping we aren’t going to be one of those lucky flights. First all these earthquakes and now this? I’m telling you, this 2012 stuff is really starting to creep me out….

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring Break 2010 Part II: Real Madrid

By the time Tuesday rolled around, Laura and I were beyond ready to head to our next destination. We had heard some great things about Madrid and were excited to experience it for ourselves. We got there around 9pm so just took a cab to our hostel instead of dealing with the late night metro since Madrid supposedly has some of the best pick pocketers in the world and we were laden with travel bags.

We were dropped off at the address I told the driver but didn’t see signs for the hostel anywhere so we wandered around Puerta del Sol (one of the more famous squares in Madrid) in search of a neon sign like the one at our Paris hostel. We finally realized that we actually were at the right place but this hostel was just so small compared to our other one that its only sign was a name plate on the buzzer of what looked like an apartment building. Laura and I headed upstairs from some desperately needed showers and then took off in search of some of Spain’s famous paella for dinner. If you are keeping track, you’ve realized its probably getting close to 11pm by this time. Apparently it is completely normal in Spain to eat dinner at that time after taking a late afternoon siesta so we had no trouble finding a place. After stumbling over my efforts to speak Spanish and not Italian, I ordered Paella de Mariscos (seafood) and a daiquiri, even though daiquiris are actually from Cuba and not Spain. We were exhausted after traveling so unfortunately didn’t get to experience Madrid’s famous seven story club, Kapital, but we figured we would get more than our fair share of clubbing in once we got to Barcelona.

Wednesday morning we woke up early to hit the tourist spots since we only had one day in Madrid. The first thing we headed too was a famous church called . The weather was beautiful so we ditched our rain coats and boots from Paris to t-shirts and flip flops and my mood was instantly lifted. The first thing I said on our walk there though was, “Wow, I’m sure it is going to be sooo different from the thousands of other churches we’ve seen across Europe” but ended up eating my sarcastic comment once we walked inside because it was beautiful. The stained glass windows were like nothing I had ever seen before. After that we walked to the Palacio Real (royal palace) where there was some kind of flag ceremony going on which was cool to see and then we headed to Madrid’s huge Parque de Retiro which literally almost made me move to Madrid. First Laura and I sat down at this outdoor restaurant to enjoy more Spanish specialties: Spanish tortilla sandwiches and sangria. So good.

We decided to walk through the park and for some reason I just continued to fall in love with this city. People were jogging in the beautiful weather (something you NEVER see in Florence) and paddle boating through the pond in the center. After another half mile of walking, we came across what at first glanced looked like a playground but then we realized it was a work out park. They had bars randomly placed all over that you could do pull ups on or stretch and everyone just looked so happy in the warm weather. After attempting to do a couple of pull ups after being motivated by the athletic bodies around me (key word there being “attempting”), Laura and I decided to just relax in the warm weather. We laid down on the grass to soak up some sun and people watch for an hour or so and I finally felt like I was truly on “Spring Break.”

Unfortunately our trip to Madrid was very short. We left early to get to the airport on time for our next flight and once we went through security, decided to settle into our chairs and just wait for the plane. I was absorbed in my book and Laura was snoozing when all of a sudden we realized our flight was supposed to leave in the next 15 minutes and they hadn’t called us to board yet. We jumped out of our seats and sprinted to the desk only to see that the sign had a different destination listed even though we were sitting right at the gate our boarding pass and the check in guy told us to go to. We started running around to find the board that lists all the gates and flights and saw that our flight was only three gates over. We also saw that our flight was pulling away from said gate at this time and all we could do was just stand there with our mouths hanging open in defeat.

We sprinted to the Vueling airline desk at the other end of the airport and while panting from running and sweating from carrying my overstuffed backpack we quickly explained to her what had happened. She showed absolutely no sympathy and simply told us we needed to purchase a brand new ticket. We said fine since our original ticket was only 20 euro so we figured it would be the same price. Not so much. Buying a ticket the day of brought us to a grand total of 130 euro each. Here come the water works. I then did what any young women would do in my situation. I called my Mommy. The women behind the desk is sitting there watching me blubbering on the phone to my mother and offers an overnight train ticket for 60 euro as our only other option. Um, thanks, but I’d rather not wait in a train station in the middle of Spain at midnight looking like the vulnerable American student that I am. We finally forked over our credit cards for the next flight which was leaving in an hour.

We walked up to security to go through for the second time around when we realized we were both starving. We saw a McDonald’s right before security but wanted to ask if there was another one once you got through since we weren’t about to risk missing another flight. I even tried asking in Spanish but the first security guide couldn’t understand what we were asking so he called for backup, who called for another backup, and before we knew it we had five different airport security team members trying to help translate our question. When one woman finally figured out that we were simply asking where the McDonald’s was she burst out laughing and said something in rapid Spanish to her coworkers. Roughly translated, I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “these fat Americans are concerned that there isn’t a McDonalds on the other side.” Between that and the minor incident where we missed our flight and sprinted several times back and forth trying to find who to talk to about it, I think it’s safe to say we failed to go unnoticed in the Madrid airport. Time to get out of here and go to Barcelona I think.

Spring Break 2010 Part I: Oui, oui, Paris!

Armed with nothing but my trusty old high school backpack, Laura and I left our apartment at noon on Friday, April 2nd for our ten day spring break excursion. The two of us traveling around Europe was disastrous to say the least. Shall we begin:

We arrived at the train station and bought our tickets at the machine. While waiting for our train to arrive, I decided to venture over to the tabaccheria where I could purchase credit for my phone since I would need to contact the people that we were meeting up with over the next ten days. The lady at the tabacchi gave me credit for the wrong service and then wouldn’t let me exchange it once I realized her mistake. This, unfortunately, was the first of many mishaps to occur during this eventful vacation. 20 euro down the drain. Once I forked over more money to get the correct credit service for my phone, we booked it to our train. It was literally closing its doors as we arrived but hadn’t moved yet so we pounded on the doors to have it open only to have some Italian man just shrug his shoulders at us as they pulled away. Thanks buddy.

We successfully caught the next train to Pisa, boarded our plane to Beauvais, hopped on the shuttle to Paris, and caught the metro to the hostel and arrived a mere 9 hours after we left our apartment in Florence. Biggest thing I learned from this trip: pay for the more expensive flight. It’s worth it, plus you probably are going to pay just as much with the extra transportation to get to your actual destination.

Our hostel in Paris was really nice. It was pretty much like a hotel except you were roomed with strangers. One stranger in our room consisted of a 60 year old man who I got to wake up to changing the next morning. Seriously buddy, there is a Holiday Inn right next door. Pay the extra 10 euro to be with people your own age. At least we didn’t have the little rugrats running around in their DisneyLand Paris gear as roomies. Again, Holiday Inn right next door people.

Once we settled in, we met up with our friends Monica and Anne for dinner. Our friend, Elysia, who is studying in Paris, recommended this all you can eat and drink fondue restaurant. We got there and after being directed to literally climb over the table to sit down, were served baby bottles of wine. We’re talking actual baby bottles with the rubber nipples on top . It was gross and weird and not at all appetizing. We then got cheese fondue, but by cheese I mean oil and butter with a little bit of cheese melted in. Yum. Needless to say we didn’t take advantage of the unlimited food because we got our fill after two bites of the oil. At dinner we happened to be sitting next to one of my friends who is studying in Florence too so we all decided to hit up the Paris nightlife together. After multiple expensive cab rides and multiple club rejections we decided just to go home. Apparently the clubs in Paris are exclusive to the six foot tall hundred pound models we saw flocking into the club as the bouncer told us they were full. Ouch.

Day two in Paris was the best day by far. I forced Laura to sign up for a Fat Tires Bike Tour with me so we could see all the sights in Paris in one quick sweep. The tour met right at the Eiffel Tower so we snapped a couple of pictures and then got to bike around Paris where we saw Notre Dame, The Egyptian Obelisk, The Louvre and the square where Marie Antoinette was beheaded and her head paraded around on a stick. There was one minor setback where it literally started to downpour on us in the middle but we were rewarded with a gorgeous rainbow afterwards to make up for it. The tour guide was an American guy from Colorado who wanted to be fluent in a second language so he just travelled over to Paris and started a life there for himself. He was witty and really smart so the tour was fun and Spinks was glad I made her go. If only I could get her to sign up for the one in Munich next weekend now too…

Since we saw pretty much everything there was to see in Paris on the bike tour, that probably should have been our cue to leave for our next destination. Unfortunately our flight wasn’t for another two days so we decided to try and actually go inside the Louvre. Unfortunately this happened to be Easter Sunday, and the first Sunday of the month which means a) the Louvre is free the first Sunday of the month, and that b) it is the only thing open in Paris on this particular holiday. We saw the front of the line and figured it might not be too bad if we just waited since we didn’t have anything else to do. Wrong. Once we finally found the end of the line about 20 minutes later, we realized we would probably be standing there for about six hours before going in. Sorry, Da Vinci, but after hearing that the Mona Lisa is only about 2x2 feet, I was not about to wait that long of a line to see it.

We tried going to about three more sites that day and all ended up being closed because of the holiday. That night we hung out at the bar in our hostel and met some really cool people that either were staying there or worked at the bar downstairs. We made plans with a boy from Indiana to go the Palace of Versailles the next day which was absolutely gorgeous. The Palace was about 100 acres and every inch of it was beautiful manicured and covered in ornate statues and ponds. No wonder the Parisians didn’t like King Louis after spending their hard working tax dollars on that kind of home.

We went out that night to the bars (our first successful attempt at actually going out in Paris) and met a 45 year old Irish man who I bonded with because both of our ex-boyfriends were from Palatine, Illinois. Small World. We had a wildly good time that night and realized it was our first time really meeting a large group of people while studying abroad who weren’t fellow American students. Even though our last night in Paris was fun, our last day was not so great. It was Tuesday morning and we bought the same ticket we had been buying the last three days for the metro to go see the Moulin Rouge building. Apparently though, that ticket was only good for weekends and holidays. This confused us because we had used in on Monday but apparently Easter is a 48 hour celebration in Paris. Of course there was no one on the outside of the gates to help us but as soon as we went through, about eight rent a cops ambushed us and charged us 50 euro each for buying a “false ticket.” We tried to explain that we had no idea and were not intentionally stealing metro passes but the lady said, “It’s not my fault you don’t speak French,” in a perfect English accent mind you, but when we asked her to explain which ticket to buy to us she said she doesn’t speak English. She also had no problem telling us she needed to swipe our credit cards for the fine. Then it hit me, this is what people are talking about when the say the French hate Americans. Glad we got to experience the typical French hospitality.

We grudgingly paid the fine and then stomped around Paris for the rest of the day. The icing on the cake was probably getting lost on our last time going back to the hostel so I finally gave in to looking like a tourist and opened my map. As soon as I did though, the wind blew it into the street and as I tried to save it I almost got decapitated by the cars speeding towards me. Now that was our cue to leave.

For a quick recap, if you ever decide to go to Paris, take the Fat Tire Bike Tour and spend no more than 24 hours in that city. Save the money for another destination. Any other destination. Luckily we still had more places to visit.