Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Florentine Family

When I began my study abroad journey over three months ago, I never could have imagined how much I would do, how many places I would see, and most importantly the quality of friendships that I would build here. Back then, I was unbelievably nervous about leaving my family, friends, and university where I felt extremely comfortable and happy; but it was an inexplicable and undeniable urge to go out into the world and travel that led me to decide to study abroad. It has turned out to be the best decision that I ever made.

Stepping across the threshold of my Florentine apartment for the first time in January was the beginning of an incredible adventure. Upon walking into my new home, I met seven unique and wonderful women, who I have been lucky enough to live with and share in this adventure together. Some of my best memories have been with these girls in our apartment in Florence and also traveling around Europe with them. From taking a trip to celebrate Carnivale in the seaside town of Viareggio, to hosting an art gallery show in our apartment and our famous potluck aperitivos, my roommates and I have shared unforgettable experiences. And that was just the beginning. Through traveling, classes, and other friends, I was able to meet a variety of people from all across the world and build what are sure to be long-lasting friendships.

As I am preparing to leave Florence and begin my journey to backpack across Europe for the next month, I am saddened at the thought of leaving my friends, or more accurately, my new family. However, I can only be sad for a short time because then I begin to think of how blessed I am to know them and have them in my life. I look forward to us all going our own ways and watching my new family blossom and continue to grow and achieve great things. Though we will be apart, we will always share what we had here in Florence and reuniting will be a highly anticipated event. It gives me comfort to know that I can always look back and remember the best times of my life and the people I shared them with. Here are just a few!
One of the first nights in our apartment
Meeting my roommate

Exploring Florence at the top of Piazza Michelangelo
Meeting the neighbors 
Celebrating Carnivale in Viareggio, Italy
Learning about Grappa in Bassano del Grappa

Aperitivo at Ganzo with the roommates 
More friends and more aperitivo

Hanging out at the "urban beach" AKA Palazzo Pitti

Hosting aperitivo at our apartment
Relaxing in Versailles
Eating gelato from De Neri

Ready to take the train to Rome 
Building forts in our living room
Neon mask photo shoot - recreating the last supper. By Lynn Golan

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Notte Bianca

Every year on April 30th, Florence celebrates the night before Labor Day by hosting a city-wide party from 6 pm to 6 am. Notte Bianca, which literally means the white night, is a sleepless night for all of Florence. The businesses, including the bars, restaurants, gelato shops and stores stay open until the early hours of the morning. Even the museums stay open until midnight for those who would like to explore them for free. The piazzas are filled with crowds of people who have gathered to listen to the different themed music in each square.

Luckily for me, last night was Notte Bianca, and I was able to experience on of the best nights in Florence. Walking home from class around 8 pm, the music was already beginning and people were out and about. By the time my roommates and I ventured out on Notte Bianca, the piazzas were so crowded that we could barely walk through them. The music was lively and people of all ages were dancing in the streets and enjoying the atmosphere. We walked from piazza to piazza and made our way to the bridge near the Ponte Vecchio. We sat on the bridge and watched as people released giant white lanterns from the bridges. The filled the night sky and looked like brilliant stars. Then we walked to Pitti Palace where we were shocked to see a wildlife movie being projected onto the side of the famous palace that was once home to the Medici family. We sat and watched until we couldn't stay awake any longer. After a long night, we headed home while the rest of Florence continued to party on.

Crowded streets near Piazza Signoria 

White lanterns being released from all the bridges

Animal World being projected onto the Pitti Palace

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Amalfi Coast: Capri, Positano, and Pompeii

I spent one of my last weekends before school comes to an end in an Italian paradise! The cities on the coast near Naples, Italy are tucked into the cliffs that overlook the stunning coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea. My roommate Kay and I traveled with the student travel organization, Bus2Alps. We started our journey in Sorrento, where we then took a ferry to the island of Capri. After a boat cruise around the island, in which we explored some of the famous grottos, Kay and I walked through the different small towns of Capri. We even took a chairlift up to the highest peak. When we got to the top, we were shocked to see that we were actually in a cloud and had no view at all. What a crazy experience!

The Port of Sorrento

Kay and I in Capri

The chairlift 

Inside the cloud on the mountain

The next day Kay and I went with Bus2Alps to the seaside town of Positano. After a twisting and turning bus ride, we got off at the top of the large cliff and descended what must have been hundreds of steps to the city below. The houses of the city are stacked up on top of each other up the side of the cliffs, which makes for a beautiful and unique sight. We spent the day relaxing on the famous black sand beaches of Positano and wandering through the sloped streets which were full of great shopping.

Relaxing at the beach in Positano
The last day of the trip to the Amalfi Coast was spent in the ancient Roman city of ruins, Pompeii. The weather was beautiful, and we got to explore the city that was once buried 20 ft under the ground after Mount Vesuvius erupted. So much was so perfectly preserved that it was like entering a time machine when I walked through the city gates. We saw the forum, the central piazza, the brothel, the public bathes, and a wealthy person's villa. The most incredible part was seeing the molds of people from Pompeii who are forever shown in the way that they died. The molds were made from the pockets of air that were found underground where the peoples' bodies used to lie. It was incredibly moving and surreal to see. 

Pompeii with Mt. Vesuvius in the clouds behind

Plaster cast of Pompeii person

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day Trip To Venice

Last weekend, I went to Venice for a day trip with my roommates Chrissy and Kay. We took a night train into the ancient city, which is comprised of 118 small islands all linked by an endless maze of canals and bridges. We spent the morning wandering through the the winding passages and found our way to St. Mark's Square. The piazza was beautiful in the early morning with the foggy sea air hanging over the crowded square. We walked across the famous Rialto Bridge which spans the Grand Canal, and got a peek at the Bridge of Sighs.

Gondolas of Venice

Kay and I on the Grand Canal

St. Mark's Square
In the afternoon, we went on a four hour boat excursion to the islands of Murano, Torcello, and Burano. In Murano, we watched a glass blowing demonstration. The master glass blower made a glass horse in less than 3 minutes. I was mesmerized by the whole thing! In Torcello, we entered into an overgrown island full of picturesque canals and vineyards. The final island, Burano, is a fishing village where all the houses are painted different bright colors. In fact, for a resident of Burano to paint their house, they must seek approval for the shade of paint that they choose! We wandered around the town admiring the souvenirs and lace products which they are famous for in Burano. Then we hopped back on the tour boat and headed back to Venice.

Heating up the glass during the demonstration in Murano

The glass blowing master making his horse

My reaction to the glass blowing show

Walking the peaceful paths in Torcello

The colorful houses of Burano

After a full day of exploring one of Italy's gems, we headed back on a late night train to Florence.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Buona Pasqua: Easter In Italy

My first Easter that I've ever spent away from home was one of the most exciting. Fortunately, I was even able to be with my parents and cousin for the morning. In Florence, there is a famous folk tradition called "Scoppio del Carro" which translates to mean "The Explosion of the Cart." Every Easter Sunday, a antique cart is pulled into Piazza del Duomo by elaborately decorated white oxen. The oxen are unhooked from the cart (then taken a safe distance away), and the cart is lit with the holy fire that originates from the First Crusade. The cart explodes into a complex fireworks show that lasts almost 20 minutes!

My family and I braved the cold, rainy weather and stood with the crowd of thousands of Florentines and visitors to see the spectacle. The crowd was thrilled by the show despite the rain. I was in awe of the pyrotechnics and amount of planning that most have gone into sequencing the fireworks show. After an unforgettable Easter morning, my parents left to catch their flight back home.
The Cart in front of the Duomo 
The oxen who pulled the Exploding Cart into the piazza

My cousin, Katie, and I took a train to Pisa, Italy on Easter afternoon. We walked to the Campo dei Miracoli where we saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was truly a sight to behold. We took the most touristy pictures that we could think of. As we were doing this, a huge thunderstorm suddenly rolled in. Katie and I took out our umbrellas and started taking even more pictures. We were some of the only people left in front of the famous tower. The storm passed and we walked through Pisa and enjoyed a delicious Easter dinner of what else but pasta!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

My Family In Tuscany!

Last Sunday night, my parents arrived in Florence for their one-week long visit. After sharing our first Italian meal together and of course some gelato, they settled in to their lovely Bed & Breakfast, which is conveniently located across the street from my apartment. On Monday, my cousin, Katie, who is currently studying abroad in Portugal, joined us to see Florence. We all strolled together through the leather market and ate another delicious Italian dinner at my new favorite restaurant - Trattoria Za-Za.

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent exploring Florence with my family, while balancing classes and schoolwork. We visited the Duomo, reveled in the beauty of San Maria Novella, enjoyed the history and art in Santa Croce, and made our way through the countless rooms of renaissance art in the Uffizzi. Each night was filled with magnificent meals and even more delectable sweet treats. One night we climbed up to Piazza Michelangelo to enjoy the beautiful views of the entire city of Florence.
My parents and I at Piazza Michelangelo

On Thursday, we boarded a regional train and traveled to the small Tuscan town of Lucca. Lucca is a medieval, walled city, and today, the residents and visitors of Lucca enjoy strolling or biking along the wall. We stayed in a lovely hotel and enjoyed shopping in the little shops, climbing the ancient tower - which had living trees at the top, and biking along the wall. The town was so beautiful with it's blooming trees, grassy parks, and rolling hills in the background. I loved every minute of our time spent in Lucca.
Train to Lucca

Climbing the tower in Lucca

Biking on the wall in Lucca

Now we've returned to Florence and my parents leave for the U.S. tomorrow afternoon, but not after a traditional Florentine Easter celebration!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring Break Of A Lifetime: The Northern Loop

As soon as my last midterm exam was finished, my friends and I packed up our bags, trekked to the San Maria Novella train station, and hopped on a bus to begin our 10-day, 2,800-mile long adventure across 7 countries to visit 4 major cities: Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. The trip is organized through a student travel agency, Bus2Alps, which provides the transportation, hostel/hotel accommodations, and a great crew of guides to help the students make the most of their spring break.

I must admit that before arriving in the Czech Republic, I had no idea what Prague would be like. I was blown away when we arrived early Friday morning, and I saw the stunning architecture and beautiful weather. We were anxious to see the city and got to do so on our New Europe free tour. We learned about the history of Prague while we explored New Town Square and discovered Old Town Square where we saw the Astronomical Clock and many beautiful churches. The tour took us to the Jewish Quarter and afterward, some friends and I visited the Jewish Cemetery and Jewish Museum where we saw the artwork done by Jewish children in the concentration camps of the Czech Republic.

The next day, the Bus2Alps crew took us to the Charles Bridge which is full of venders and artists. Once we had reached the other side, we were only a short distance from the Lennon Wall. After taking what seemed like hundreds of pictures in front of the beautiful mural, my friends and I ventured up to the Prague Castle where we learned about the world's largest medieval castle. We spent our last night in Prague enjoying a traditional Czech meal in a local beer hall.

Old Town Square

The Jewish Cemetery

My friend Jason and I at the Lennon Wall

The Prague Castle

BERLIN                                                                                             Sunday morning we jumped back on the bus and I was excited to be finally traveling to Germany. After taking four years of German in high school, I was thrilled to be in Berlin where I can speak a little of the language and love the culture. As soon as I arrived, some friends and I hopped on the subway and went to visit the East Side Gallery, which is the largest standing portion of the Berlin Wall. 

The next morning,  we took a walking tour of the city starting at the Brandenberg Gate, saw the German Parliament- the Reichstag, remains of the Berlin Wall, the site of Hitler’s former bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, and finished by Museum Island. Afterward, I proceeded to join another tour that explored Berlin's modern street art scene. I was blown away by the magnitude and quality of the art that is integrated throughout the city. Before leaving Berlin, I enjoyed a lovely traditional dinner at the Georgbrau House.

Me in front of the East Side Gallery

Some friends and I on the NewBerlin walking tour 
Street art on the Alternative Tour
More great street art

Early Tuesday morning, I woke up to see the sunrise over the canals of Amsterdam as the bus rolled in to the picturesque city. In a city were there are more bikes than people and more canals than venice, Amsterdam is a sight to behold. On the walking tour, we learned about the history and unique laws that Amsterdam has. Because Amsterdam was built on swamp land, the buildings are slowly sinking which makes for a whimsical cityscape. My friends and I visited the Anne Frank Museum, where we learned about Anne's hardships and toured the secret annex where she hid with her family. It was a moving experience that I will never forget. I finished my first day in Amsterdam by enjoying delicious strawberry pancakes at one of the many pancake houses. 

My second day in Amsterdam was spent exploring the rest of the city. A friend and I rented a peddle bike and navigated the maze of canals for an hour. Once back on land, we went to the Van Gogh Museum and climbed on the IAMSTERDAM sign. A waffle dinner was the perfect way to end my trip in Amsterdam.

The beautiful streets of Amsterdam

The entrance to the Anne Frank House

Me excited to get on a peddle bike

Me in front of the IAMSTERDAM sign

My delicious banana waffles

Thursday evening the Bus2Alps group arrived in our final city of the Northern Loop - Paris. I enjoyed my first french meal and then walked around the city. The next morning, I joined the walking tour, which started at Notre Dome and took us down the Seine River. We crossed the Locks Bridge, walked through the courtyard of the Louvre Museum, and strolled through the gardens near the Arc de Triomphe. After the tour, I went directly to the Louvre and saw some of the greatest works of art in the world. Later that evening, some friends and I walked to the Eiffel Tower and had a picnic of baguettes and brie. On the top of every hour, the tower sparkles in a dazzling light show.

My last day of spring break was spent in Versailles, France. We explored the famous palace of Louis XV and Louis XVI. The Hall of Mirrors was breathtaking, but the weather was beautiful so we were anxious to get out to explore that sprawling gardens. We spent the afternoon relaxing by the Grand Canal and hiking through the paths. After returning to Paris, my friends and I climbed the Eiffel Tower before getting on the bus to return back to Florence.

Notre Dome

In the courtyard of the Louvre

Having fun with the Eiffel Tower at night

Friends and I in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles

In the gardens of Versailles

Last night in Paris - at the Eiffel Tower

I am still in shock and awe of the places I saw in just 10 days. I cannot wait to travel across Europe more!