Sunday, November 16, 2008

Under the Tuscan Sun

Sorry for the delay in blog updates. Unfortunately, I am still without a functioning laptop and am too nervous to take it anywhere here in Italy to get fixed.
My latest adventure was to Tuscany with 60 other students in my program. The pictures are more beautiful then I could ever explain or put into words (plus I am sick and just took some advil pm..haha) so I will just tell you the towns we went to and then share some pictures. We stayed in the beautiful town of Siena and also traveled to Montalcino (famous for red wine, specifically brunello and chianti classico) where we saw a beautiful castle, attended mass and saw the blessing of the tractors and enjoyed local cuisine! We also went to the town of Pienza bulit by Pope Pius II who was born there and adorned the town with very handsome buildings. In addition we had the opportunity to visit the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, one of the most beautiful Romanesque churches in Italy and also, where I took all the amazing Tuscany landscape photos. We were even able to witness one of their seven times a day of pray. The final town we visited was Arezzo where La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful with Roberto Benigni) was filmed. There we had a private tour inside the Basilica of San Francesco. We were able to see frescoes painted in 1452 and while we have seen many fresco paintings on our different trips, with this one we had a guide who explained everything so it made it that much more interesting.

You might not be able to see it but that is a 4,700 euro bottle of wine!! YIKES!

Abbey and landscape:


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Weekend in Paris...ain't no thang

I feel like I am constantly living in a dream. Tomorrow I will wake up and none of this will have been real. I still can't get over how easy it is to just up and leave for Rome or Paris for the weekend. And once I actually get to these cities I still have to pinch myself multiple times to even slightly be convinced that I am not in a fairytale world.

Now begins the adventure in Parigi (Paris):
My friend Tera and I, in order to save some money, booked our flight to Paris with the well-known airline amongst poor exchange students called Ryanair. However, with every opportunity there is always a sacrifice that must be made. In this case we sacrificed sleep.

Friday, October 24th, 2008
At 2:00 A.M. Friday morning I woke up to shower and pack for Paris. And by pack, I mean I threw a change of clothes and my toothbrush into my book bag and headed out the door. Then at 3:00 A.M. Tera and I took a Taxi from our dorm to Milan Central Station where we got on a bus departing at 4:00 A.M. to take us to Bergamo airport (about an hour away). We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our 6:30 A.M. flight to Beauvais Airport (an hour and a half outside of central Paris). When we landed at Beauvais the sunrise was just starting to peek up over the horizon and it was a beautiful sight. We had to walk from our plane outside to get inside the airport and we were both quite shocked with change in temperature from when we left Milano. IT WAS COLD!!! Neither one of us had packed more than a light sweater and we were already wearing those. But we braved the cold for the time being and boarded yet another bus into Paris. Keep in mind on each new form of transportation we would find our seats, put in our ipods, and pass out trying to store up as much energy as possible. But just before passing out on this final stretch we looked out the window of the bus to see a huge, beautiful rainbow! Welcome to Paris!

We arrived in Paris around 11 and headed straight to the Louvre where first we got some breakfast. Tera ordered her first crepe filled with bananas and nutella (chocolate hazelnut creme thing for those who don't know). Mmmmm. Then we headed inside the Louvre where we ventured through France, Asia, Greece, Egypt, and ended at the Mona Lisa. The Louvre is a massive museum with sooo many rooms and really confusing maps. We saw about all we could see having been up for 10 hours already. Then we went outside where we took pictures of the famous glass pyramid and again realized how freezing we were gonna be if we didn't purchase some more clothes. That's when we decided to go shopping and I ended up buying a new coat and scarf and Tera bought a hat and scarf.

With our body temperatures back up to normal we headed to the Notre Dame. We ended up spending a lot of time in this magnificent cathedral mostly because it was so beautiful but also because when we went back outside it had started to rain. mawww. We re-entered the cathedral and just relaxed inside for over an hour. Possibly taking a wee bit of a nap, but I think for both of us, it was a perfect opportunity to just reflect on our amazing experiences since we've been abroad. I really wanted to go up in the bell tower but unfortunately, we missed the cutoff time for the line.
Once the rain had ceased and we had somehow found the energy to stand up, we left Notre Dame to go see the Eiffel Tower. We had about 2 hours before we were supposed to meet Kristen (my good friend and roommate for the last two years and soon to be future roommate back at IU in the spring who is studying abroad in Rennes, France). The sight of the Eiffel Tower blew me away! It was just getting dark so they had it all lit up. It is currently blue and has the stars because France is hosting the European Union and it will be this way for the next 6 months. I'd always seen pictures and read about the beauty of the architecture of this tower but until I saw it for myself I never truly appreciated it. I just kept saying, "It is so big!" And of course its size made it very difficult to get a majority of it in a picture. But Tera and I managed to entertain ourselves by having a little photo shoot and trying several different angles, etc. I feel in love with the Eiffel Tower.

Then it was finally time to be reunited with my roomie (ahhh a little piece of "home")!! We met each other under the Arc de Triomphe which was an area buzzing with traffic and people. Thanks to Kristen having a family friend living in Paris, for the rest of the trip I was spoiled rotten. Kristen's grandmother has a friend named Claude who was kind enough to let us stay at her home for two nights. But first we met up with her son Laurent and his wife who took us out to a very expensive dinner. I had a delicious filet mignon which was the 2nd cheapest thing on the menu. Then we went back to Laurent's apartment, which was on the top floor of a building across the street from the Eiffel Tower!!!!, to have some coca-cola light and chat for awhile. We got to go out on his balcony and gaze a little longer at the fantastico blue tower! Then we walked a few streets over and went to Claude's apartment (just around the corner from the Arc de Triomphe). Claude is the president of a company and is obviously very successful as her home was very classy and filled with famous pieces of artwork. We had our own separate "apartment" that was connected to hers and since Tera and I had been up now for 22 hours we went straight to bed.

Saturday, October 25th, 2008
The next morning, Tera left to meet up with a friend of hers also studying in France and Kristen and I linked arms and hit the streets of Paris! Of course, we first headed back to see my new love (the Eiffel Tower) where we had plans to go to the very top. However, between the enormous line and the fog that loomed over much of Paris for most of the day we decided it wouldn't be worth it to wait and pay and end up not being able to really see anything once we got up there. Instead, we went to the Musee D'Orsay. This museum was installed in the former Orsay railway station, built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. So the building itself could be seen as the first "work of art" in the Musee d'Orsay, which displays collections of art from the period 1848 to 1914. Afterwords, we went to a small cafe and each ordered a galette (a buckwheat crepe) filled with ham, cheese, and egg. At one point during our meal Kristen looked up at me and smiled and said, "Just in case you forgot... we are at a cafe IN PARIS!" La mia vita è un sogno! (My life is a dream!) Following lunch, we walked to where Moulin Rouge is and stayed just long enough to take a picture. Nearby, we walked up a bazillion stairs to see the stunning Sacré-Coeur basilica of Paris. The sun peeked out for a little bit while we were there and we sat on the stairs where a huge crowd had formed to hear a man who was playing his guitar and singing American songs. Then we went too.....STARBUCKS!!! :D where I got a java chip frappuccino to hold me over for the next two months.

We met back up with Tera and headed back the apartment for a little nap before my favorite part of the whole trip began. Claude (our host) was born, raised, and obvs still lives in Paris, so she was really really excited about getting to show us around the city of lights that night! First, she took us out to dinner at a Chinese/Thai restaurant which although wasn't very French, it was still very yummy. Then she told us to bundle up because she was going to take us driving in her Porsche convertible and show us all the sites!!! ahhh! It was sooo amazing! I couldn't stop smiling the whole time. We drove around and Claude was our tour guide who told us about everything we were passing by. She ended the tour by parking near the Eiffel Tower and we waited until 11pm when the tower is illuminated with sparkling white lights. A perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Roma, non basta una vita

The title means, "Rome, a lifetime is not enough." Luckily, my travelmates and I had a three day weekend for our travels in Rome and while we didn't get to see EVERYTHING, we did manage to see everything that we personally wanted to see and had carefully planned out. We had AMAZING weather the entire weekend as you will see from the beautiful blue skies in the pictures.

It all began earlier on Friday morning. We met at the central train station in Milan and boarded our 8am train to Roma. While on the train, we attempted to call our hostel because the website had told us to give an estimated time of arrival on our check in date. But everytime we dialed the number a recording just kept telling us the number did not exist. We had heard many horror stories of hostels, including but not limited to, people who never actually found the hostel they had booked. However, the rational side of me kept the irrational side from freaking out and I said calmly to Tera and Maya (my travel buddies), "We can't do anything about this right now, so we will just have to stay calm, get to Rome, follow the directions for finding the hostel and go from there." They looked up at me with terrified yet trusting expressions and nodded their heads in agreement.

Our train arrived in Roma in the early afternoon. We quickly got some lunch at the station, bought "Roma Passes" (which covered transportation, entrance to two museums and discounts on all other museums), took deep breaths, and then pulled out the directions for our hostel. However, before leaving the metro station, Tera decided she had to use the bathroom before we started our adventure. The only bathroom available looked like an elevator door (see picture) and only opened after inserting 50 cent euro into a coin slot. As she stepped inside the door closed behind her and Maya and I heard a lady's voice recording come on. Apparently, it talked to Tera the entire time she went to the bathroom and told her how much time she had remaining. So creepy!
Well turns out the directions to our hostel were perfect and it did in fact exist. However, when we arrived they told us that they had overbooked and would have to send us across the street to another hostel (a very common occurance). Luckily, the hostel across the street was decent enough: friendly staff, other friendly student guests, safe enough to leave our stuff there during the day, clean...enough and it provided breakfast. Plus it was only metro stop away from the train station in one direction and the Colosseum in the other direction.
We didn't waste any time starting our rigrious touring schedule and jumped on the metro to go straight to the Colosseum. Thanks to our Roma Passes we didnt have to wait in the massive line and got to head directly inside. We spent awhile exploring and taking pictures. It's hard to pick just a few to put on here.

From the Colosseum we had a great view of the Arco di Costantino:The largest and the best preserved of Rome's triumphal arches was erected in AD 315 to celebrate the victory of emperor Constantine over Maxentius. Just a few steps away was the Colle Palatino and Foro Romano...basically a bunch of Roman ruins, gardens and the house of Augustus. We spent a lot of time roaming around this area as it was so interesting to think this enourmous land and ruins area had once been someone's home. And the scenic view from up on this hill was mesmerizing.

Next stop: the famous Trevi Fountain! After we managed to push our way through the mass of tourist gathered around this epic water pool, we made our way to the front where we all threw in our coins to gurantee our return to Rome. And then, being exhausted from the traveling, exploring, and heat of the sun we decided to find a gelateria. We ventured a little ways away from the crowds and found a quiet gelateria called Valentino's. The owner was a kind, older Italian man who made us amazing gelato milkshakes and seemed to thoroughly enjoy our company. He spoke very good english (which seems to be essential for good business in such a high tourism spot as Rome) and he asked us to come back. We tried to go back and see him on Sunday but unfortunately, he wasn't there. We finished the evening with a trip to the Pantheon and the beautiful Piazza Navona.
Saturday morning we woke up early and headed start to Vatican City where we visited St. Peters Basilica (and saw Michelangelo's Pieta) and the Sistine Chapel. When walked out of St. Peter's Basicilca we saw a sign pointing one direction that said Sistine Chapel. So we headed that way but didn't really see any signs after the first. We kept walking in what we assumed was the right direction and stumbled upon a line of people. None of us were sure what the line was for but we hoped it wasn't for the Sistine Chapel because it just kept going and going and going AND going. We walked along the line of people and figured out that they were in line for the Musei Vaticani.....which as we were walking I read in my guide book (thanks for letting me borrow it Grandma!) was where the Sistine Chapel was located. At this point, the last thing we wanted to do was turn around and join the end of what seemed to be the never ending line so we just kept following it forward. Eventually we realized we were only a block away from the beginning of the line and there was suddenly caution tape acting as a rope to narrow the far from 'single file' line. We all looked at each other and tried to decide what we should do. Then all of a sudden I yelled, "Come on!" and ducked under the tape motioning for them to follow me. They hesitated for a second then jumped in after me. We joined the line 'Italian style!' Thanks to the fast moving pace at this point in the line and the large tourist group that also decided to cut at that exact moment, we managed to sneak in unnoticed. A tour guide just in front of me started yelling for a police man standing nearby to come over and started screaming in Italian about this tour group (pointing to all the people behind us and totally overlooking our "innocent" little faces....wooosh). He said he was just there to control the car traffic and said he couldn't do anything then got back to his job. Ok, I realize what we did was not right at all but.... we only waited 10 mins instead of probably the 3 hours we would have waited to get inside the Musei Vaticani. Once inside we went through room after room after room of beautiful art until we finally reached the Sistine Chapel! Which was of course, so amazing. And I might have snapped a few illegal pictures....maybe....
Next, we went to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major), founded in the 4th century, is one of the five great ancient basilicas of Rome. And ended our day at the Spanish steps...which I might have enjoyed more if I could have actually seen the steps versus them being covered with locals and tourists alike.

That night we ate at a Ristorante Cinese (Chinese Restaurant) and enjoyed the famous Roman Tartufo, an ice cream dessert usually covered in a hard shell of chocolate.
Our last day in Rome we ventured off the beaten path a little to the Catacombs, where early Christians buried their dead. We visited the largest of the three open to the public, San Sebastiano, named for the saint who was buried there and burrows underground on four levels. A creepy, yet very interesting adventure.

We spent our last remaining hours enjoying paninos in a park with a view of the colosseum and then one last adventure to the gelateria and Trevi Fountain before boarding our train to head back to Milano. Overall, Rome was a beautiful, historical, and tourist filled city. I loved the adventure and seeing all the famous sites I'd always dreamed to see, but after being there I was glad I had made the decision to study in Milano. The massive amounts of tourists in Rome would drive me crazy!!