Tag Archives: Travel

Perché no?

Over the past several months, I’ve quickly adopted a new motto, a handy two-word Italian phrase that fits almost any situation.

“Should I get seconds on dessert?”

Perché no?

“Should we see if this door opens?”

Perché no?

“Should I go walk around the city instead of working on homework?”

Perché no?

Perché no literally translates to “why not,” but it’s become more than that. It’s the kind of attitude that I’ve adopt through the kind of adventures that come while living in a foreign country. In fact, Perché no is a pretty good way to describe how I ended up going to Sardinia in the first place.

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Back in January, Julia and I sat down and started to map out where we wanted to go during the semester. Venice was a must. Bologna and Arezzo were also added since they were close and convenient. by train. Rome was already scheduled as a group field trip for a weekend in March.

While we were planning, I played around with different options on Google Flight Search, a fairly new application that lets you select an airport and your dates then view how much it would cost to fly to different destinations on a map. And so, Cagliari emerged as the cheapest destination for our open weekend in March.

“Hey Julia, what do you say about going to Sardinia?” I asked.

Admittedly, I knew little about Sardinia or Cagliari when it showed up on my search results, but a round-trip plane ticket that cost 50 euros and a quick image search that turned up beaches and mountains quickly sold me on the idea. After all, perché no?

And so, it was the fate of perché no that led us to this beautiful Mediterranean Island for a quick beach getaway. We also got Dimitra, Staci, and Landon to join us, so we had a happy little group of 5 for the weekend.

Where in the world is Sardinia, anyways?

Sardinia––or Sardegna, as the Italians call it––is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily and just before Cyprus (where I had a wonderful trip last December). But unlike Sicily, Sardinia is far off the coast of Italy, making it even more isolated from the mainland. Sardinia is an autonomous region of Italy, yet Sardinians have managed to maintain their own distinct dialect and culture. Almost every great Mediterranean power has once controlled this small island: the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Genoese, Pisans, and Aragonese. In fact, Catalan is still widely spoken on the island and was once the official language until it was replaced by Spanish and later Italian in the mid-18th century.

Andiamo!

After a quick and easy flight from Pisa, we arrived in Cagliari around 1 p.m. on Friday, taking a taxi to our apartment for the weekend. I had found a place for the five of us to stay on Airbnb in the old part of town––far from the main tourist drag. The taxi driver’s reaction was priceless when we arrived at our place.

“Are you sure it’s this?” he asked in Italian.

He dropped us and our bags off at the address then drove away, likely laughing at the confused Americans he dropped off in the middle of a local neighborhood.

No worries, Mr. Taxi Driver. We picked up the keys from our host’s mother at a house down the street, then walked inside.

The apartment was way better than I expected, complete with a spiral staircase that led up to a roof-top terrace with a beautiful view.

Once we dropped off our backpacks, we headed out to explore the city. Sometimes, the best way to sightsee is simply to wander.

At one point, we came across a glass elevator that took you up to the top of the cliff above.

“Should we take it?”

Perché no!

For a brief amount of time, I was able to convince everyone else that this elevator was indeed the number-one tourist attraction in Cagliari on TripAdvisor, until I hurriedly assured them that I was joking.

But the top truly did have a beautiful view!

PC: Julia

PC: Julia

From the elevator, we headed down the street until we came to a large, palazzo-type building. The outside looked like any other type of government building, with EU and Italian flags on the outside. But there was an open door so––perché no––we went inside.

Turns out we had stumbled upon the Royal Palace. The eery part was that there was no one else in building––no other tourists, no security guards. It was like we had snuck in.

PC: Julia

PC: Julia

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We were mainly excited to take pictures on the fancy couches. (PC: Julia)

Nearby, we walked into a beautiful church, the Cathedral of Santa Maria.

The Castello District of Cagliari sits high above the city, with piazza after piazza with amazing views.

We slowly made our way down to the water. It was so good to be near the Mediterranean Sea again! Seeing it every day last semester from my living room window was one of my favorite things about Alanya.

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Hair buddies! (PC: Julia)

We walked up to Il santuario di Nostra Signora di Bonaria, located up on a hill overlooking the harbor.

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Then it was time to navigate back to the apartment! (Those who know me would be amused to know that people actually think I have a “good” sense of direction here––at home, I can barely drive anywhere without plugging it into the GPS.)

PC: Julia

PC: Julia

We had dinner at a lovely seafood restaurant, then headed back to the apartment to quickly fall asleep.

A “walk” to the beach

The next morning, we got pastries from the nearby pasticceria and brought them back to enjoy our breakfast on the terrace.

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Our main plan for the day was to seek out the beach. Cagliari’s main spot is Poetto Beach, a 5-mile long stretch of sand that Google Maps told us was about an hour walk away from our house. Sure, we could figure out how to take the bus there, but… perché no? We decided to walk.

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Our walk took us down to the harbor, and we figured that if we followed the coast, eventually we’d get to the beach… right? After all, I had a general idea of what direction to go for the beach.

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But soon the path along the harbor ended, so we had to head inland.

As we passed by a military base and an old abandoned cannery, I wasn’t so sure anymore about what direction we were going. But nevertheless, it was important to keep up appearances.

“Don’t worry guys, this abandoned cannery is actually the #3 attraction on TripAdvisor! Isn’t it cool?”

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Julia also played along. “Guys, isn’t this underpass awesome?!”

Except then we ended up on a bike path that seemed to be taking us further and further away from where we wanted to go.

Eventually, after we’d probably been walking for 90 minutes, we asked a runner for directions. You should have seen our faces when he told us that the beach was still around an hour away.

"All right, everyone show how excited they are to be on this bike path!"

“All right, everyone show how excited they are to be on this bike path!”

After following his directions, looking at several maps at bus stops, and walking on the side of the highway, we finally arrived at the beach after about two hours of walking.

It was beautiful.

IMG_8615And oh, we had earned it.

We ate lunch at a surprisingly cheap restaurant on the beach, then spent several hours tanning on the sand. It was a little too cold to go swimming, but we at least put our feet in so we could say that we went into the Mediterranean.

Afterwards, we walked to a gelateria that we had passed along the way. The unassuming establishment turned out to have the best gelato that I’ve had in Italy thus far––a flavor called Torta Paradiso that tasted faintly like key lime pie.

Staci and Dimitra went pack for a second scoop.

Afterwards, Julia and I wanted to check out another beach nearby, while the others took a taxi back to the apartment for a well-deserved nap. (Turns out the taxi only costed 10 euros… Oh well.)

It was probably best everyone headed back, because Julia and I managed to get lost once again. We debated just heading back, but decided to preserve. (Mainly for the sake of our pride over anything else.)

Eventually, we turned down a road that led us through the countryside, and finally, to Calamosca Beach.

It was so worth it.

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Afterwards, we ambitiously decided to walk all the way back. (Again, there was a slight matter of pride.)

An hour and a half later, we finally made it back to the apartment. At last!

We all ate dinner at a restaurant nearby, then watched The Lizzie McGuire Movie in honor of our trip to Rome next week.

Because, after all, why not?

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Have your gelato and eat it too

I spent a lot of time traveling as a group in Turkey––beginning with our 2-week orientation tour at the start––so it’s been strange that we haven’t really done any out-of-town trips as a group here in Italy yet. Traveling with a group can be hard; itineraries are often jam-packed and people can only stand on their feet for so long before they get tired. At the same time, there’s nothing like traveling to bring people closer together, like the time we had to walk for an hour to detour around a giant protest in Istanbul or the time we traveled for hours to make a 45-minute long meeting with a village women’s theater group. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations and go to places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone on your own. Over the past year, these experiences have taught me to learn to let go––something that doesn’t naturally come to someone who’s slightly Type A like me.

And so, the whole Villa le Balze crew piled in a bus early Saturday morning, made a pit stop to pick up someone who overslept, and headed off to Siena and San Gimignano for the day.

Siena

Siena is only about a 90-minute drive from Florence, but Sienese will fervently assure you of the differences that run between them and the Fiorentini. The rivalry between these two Tuscan cities runs deep, dating back to the 12th century. During the 13th century, multiple wars were waged as each fought for more influence in the region, though Siena ultimately fell under the power of Florence during the time of the Medicis.

Map of Siena by Matheus Merian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a whole group, we spent our Saturday under the guidance of my history professor, who travels back and forth every weekday from Siena to Florence for work. After a bus ride through the beautiful hills of Tuscany, we met Professor Brizio near the city walls.

PC: Will

Photo Credit: Will

The center of Siena sits on top of a hill, with the rest of the city fanned out below. Siena was actually one of the first cities to ban traffic in its center back in 1966, making for quiet and pedestrian-friendly streets that you can wander.

We first visited Siena’s Duomo, also known as Santa Maria Assunta. The white, intricately carved edifice rises dramatically from the square. It was originally intended to be built to a size larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though they ended up only constructing one branch of the planned cruciform shape.

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PC: Will

We also managed to snap a group picture, at last.

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PC: Will

We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, which has served as the seat of government in Siena since 1297.

The Palazzo Pubblico sits in the Piazza del Campo, the famous piazza in Siena where twice a year they hold the famous Palio di Siena on July 2 and August 16. The Palio is a crazy horse race held in the square where each of the 10 contrade or city wards enter a horse and jockey to win.

Before the race, the horses are taken into the church where they are blessed and have a chalice of wine held up to their lips. If the horse poops while in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.

We ate lunch in Siena at a charming––though overpriced––trattoria. The whole group of 19 went to the restaurant, but we ended up splitting the bill evenly. That means that athough many of us opted for the 7 euro pasta, we each had to pay 16 euros at the end––yikes!

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had.

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had. So good, in fact, that I almost finished it before I remembered to take a picture.

San Gimignano

After lunch, we got back on the bus to drive to San Gimignano, an absolutely beautiful medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. When we arrived, we were treated with this view:

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The entire town is surrounded by sturdy old walls. Medieval towers still stand watch over the city.

My only complaint about San Gimignano is that we didn’t get enough time! I could have spent a whole day wandering through its streets. Nevertheless, we had an itinerary to stick to.

The Church of San’Agostino may look unassuming from its exterior, but its interior was elaborately and beautiful decorated.

PC: Will

PC: Will

We also visited San Gimignano’s town hall, the Palazzo Communale.

PC: Will

PC: Will

Near the end of the tour, we were given a choice: gelato or climb the tower. San Gimignano is known for having some of the best gelato in Italy, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity for a view.

IMG_8362 We raced up the stairs, two at a time, to get to the top. And my goodness, it was worth it.

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We managed to race up and down fast enough––with plenty of photos at the top––to have time for gelato too.

Because sometimes, you can have it all.

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The Luck of the Irish

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Several years ago, my family traveled to southern Ireland for a vacation amidst the overcast skies of mid-February. But although February can be gloomy in the Emerald Isle, its countryside is anything but: dramatic, chiseled cliffs rising above the sea; shockingly green hills and valleys; and charming rural towns. Though getting my passport stamped at Shannon Airport was definitely one of the highlights, my favorite moment was tracking down the farm where my great-grandfather grew up near a town far outside of Dingle. My father stopped at a gas station to ask directions, where the baffled attendant’s surname was Galvin as well. She directed him to the house of her great-aunt nearby, where it was clarified that they were from a different branch of Galvins, though she remembered hearing of a Timothy Galvin who left for America and could direct us to the old farm.

And so, it was wonderful to return to Ireland once again, where everyone vaguely looks related to me and I look at home among my pale and freckly folk. Shawn and I arrived on Thursday evening on a quick RyanAir flight from Bristol, then took a bus to get to our Airbnb rental on the northern side of the river. Our stay in Dublin encompassed everything that is wonderful about Airbnb: our hosts were friendly and full of great recommendations, the cost was low, and the house was ideally located.

Day 1

We got up early the next morning for a walking tour of Dublin run through Sandeman’s, which offers a number of free (or tip-what-you-want-at-the-end) walking tours throughout Europe. Our tour guide, Brian, took us to a number of the major sights in the city center while regaling us with centuries of stories of foreign invasions, famous figures, and those pesky English.

After lunch, we stumbled upon St. Stephen’s Green.

We then jumped on one of those hop on, hop off tour buses to ride around the city. (Shawn especially enjoyed all of the bus driver’s horrible, horrible jokes.)

We got off the bus to partake in one of Dublin’s biggest tourist attractions: the Guinness Storehouse.

The whole set-up was pretty overwhelming, considering it’s like a Disneyland devoted entirely to beer. For example, at one point in the museum you go through this room that has different characters talking about Guinness makes the world a better place. I didn’t really buy it. I mean, okay, it’s just a beer company…

At the end of the tour, however, the Gravity Bar had fantastic views. I had my first pint of Guinness, and also got asked for my ID for alcohol for the very first time in my life, since I’ve been abroad for the past year and haven’t been back to the U.S. since I turned 21. (Although I still get asked for ID for R-rated movies and frequently get confused as the younger sister, so I’m surprised it doesn’t occur more often.)

Afterwards, we jumped on the bus again for its last run of the day, as the sun set.

Day 2

On Saturday, the first item on our itinerary was to visit the Kilmainham Gaol, which is one of the largest unoccupied jails in Europe. Since it was built in 1796, the jail has figured a role in some of the most heroic and tragic events of Ireland’s history, especially during the repeated attempts at independence.

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Our guide led us through the decaying, narrow hallways of the institution as he told us stories of the different inmates who once spent time in these cells.

We then spent the rest of the day walking around the city, jumping on the bus, and wandering through the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the Irish National Archaeological Museum.

We ate dinner at a restaurant near our house, then wandered by the Temple Bar area to get a taste of what Dublin was like at night. There were all kinds of live music acts, and we came across a fantastic band that was playing some Irish rock music.

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We were watching for a bit, when suddenly some people started dancing in the middle of the circle. Quickly, it turned into a dance-off between a teenage girl and an older man, like some crazy combination of Stomp the Yard meets Riverdance.  It was one of those surreal moments where you think to yourself, Am I really watching this?

Overall, it was the perfect ending to a lovely spring break. Shawn and I departed for our respective cities on the following morning, though I had to sit through a 4-hour layover at London Stansted before finally making it back to Italy.

On our way back home at the Dublin Airport.

On our way back home at the Dublin Airport.

It was fun to get a glimpse at what Shawn’s life is like this semester in Bristol, but as I walked home on Monday afternoon through the winding streets of Fiesole, I couldn’t help but think:

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It’s good to be back.

Pip pip, cheerio!

You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

That quote from Samuel Johnson is oft repeated about London, with its masses of people and never-ending pulse of life. Despite the characteristically gloomy weather of this grand city, you can’t help but feel yourself pulled into its energy, as you too push through the tunnels of Tube stations underground or jostle on its packed sidewalks.

But first, I owe a little explanation. A stubborn head cold put me out of commission of writing about my spring break until now, and there’s also been the scary realization that I’m over half-way through with my semester. Time is running out, so every moment is precious: to wander through the gardens, to visit that museum, to enjoy a leisurely dinner at home. It’s strange to think how quickly this semester has already gone by––and really, how fast this year has gone by.

And when you’re with the people you care about, it’s even more shocking how the minutes seem to whizz on by. For spring break, I jetted off to the British Isles. Though I’ve been to London and parts of southern Ireland before, this time it was to reunite with Shawn, who is studying abroad at the University of Bristol for the semester. I met Shawn in London for the weekend, then traveled to Bristol, Bath, and Dublin over the course the week. It was cold––and sometimes rainy––but I loved playing the role of tourist once again.

First stop, London!

I arrived in London on Friday afternoon, after an uneventful flight from Florence to Heathrow and a train to Paddington Station. I met up with Shawn at the McDonald’s––not because we were stereotypical Americans (or maybe we are), but because (pro tip) it’s the most reliable place for free WiFi at Paddington. On the first night, we waded through the rain to find our Airbnb host in Tooting before eating a wonderful dinner at The Laughing Gravy.

Over the next couple days, it was time to hit the museums! It’s not a trip to London unless you visit the British Museum, the gigantic building that houses all of the precious archaeological artifacts that the English looted from other countries. As such, when we weren’t taking pictures of ourselves mimicking statues, Shawn and I spent most of our time at the museum arguing whether the artifacts should be returned to their home countries or not.

We also spent an hour or so wandering through the halls of the Tate Modern, pondering the meaning of life (or why some things are considered art).

We also walked around the city itself, a worthy attraction all on its own. There are truly few other things like watching the light in St. James’ Park at sunset.

During the weekend, we also took the Tube everywhere. London has the wonderful privilege of having the most beautifully designed public transportation map I’ve ever seen––something we dutifully studied over the weekend whenever we’d have to make our long journey back to our home base at Tooting Broadway.

We also made sure to take advantage of the many food options in the city! Asian fusion, anyone?

Bristol: Writing on the Wall

On Sunday night, we took a late train to Bristol, where Shawn is living for the semester. Bristol is a large city in southwest England, with a population around 430,000. It’s also home to two universities: the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England.

The coolest thing about Bristol is its huge street art scene. There are a number of active street artists in Bristol, and the city is also the hometown of the famous street artist Banksy, who was made famous in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

It was Shawn’s reading week when I visited, so we spent lots of time in coffee shops as he worked on midterm essays.

There was lots of procrastinating involved.

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I enjoyed meeting his British university friends and seeing what his life is like in England. Luckily, the University of Bristol campus is beautiful!

Plus, the British have a way of saying things just so.

I especially found it entertaining how Brits greet their friends with a somewhat indifferent “You all right?” or “All right?” instead of the usual American “How are you?” While that’s a perfectly normal greeting in the U.K., I kept thinking that people thought there was something wrong with me. Nope.

Bath: The city, not the room

One day, we took a day trip from Bristol to the city of Bath, which is about an hour away by bus. It’s a beautiful city, full of gorgeous blocks of houses, a meandering river, and quaint neighborhoods.

And apparently bath stores...

And apparently bath stores…

Right off the bus, we found a beautiful, grassy park by the river.

Along with sightseeing, I played paparazzi for the week. I present The Many Faces of Shawn:

Of course, the main attraction in Bath is the site of its ancient Roman Baths.  The city was first established as Acquae Sulis around the 60s A.D. over a natural hot springs in the area. For centuries––and even today––visitors came to the city seeking out its special waters, throwing money and objects into the pools as an offering to the gods. In Georgian times, the spa garnered popularity once again as a resort town.

At the end of the museum, you could taste the water from the hot springs itself! (Though my expression can tell you how that water actually tasted.)

For several quid more, we purchased our ticket to the Roman Baths with an entry to the Fashion Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of historical and fashionable dress in the world. The museum started out with several exhibits on historical fashion from the Georgian Era, then ended with more contemporary collections. Each year, the museum selects an individual to chose the Dress of the Year, which is selected to reflect that year’s fashion trends.

My favorite part, however, was the dress-up section full of Georgian-era garb. Jane Austen, eat your heart out!

Step 1: The undergarments.

Step 1: The undergarments!

#georgianselfies

#georgianselfies

We also spent time wandering the city itself: churches, gardens, and boulevards, oh my!

Near the end of the day, we found a park with this fantastic bucket swing. A perfect way to end our day trip?

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I sure think so.

Next post: Spring Break, Part 2 – Exploring the city where everyone looks like they’re related to me… Dublin!

Lost in Venice

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Ah, Venice… The magical sinking city that seems to float on water, where residents still need boats to get around and where visitors unfailingly get lost in its winding maze of alleyways, bridges, and canals.

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Venice has always occupied a special place in my heart. In elementary school––and still today––one of my favorite books was The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, a story of two brothers who run away to Venice and are taken in by a group of street children who live in an abandoned theater. (That description may not do it complete justice, but Cornelia Funke is truly a master in children’s literature.)

Julia and I arrived in Venice on Friday afternoon by train at the Santa Lucia station, where one immediately walks out the doors of the station to see the Grand Canal.

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Beforehand, I had found out that the cheapest way for us to get a vaporetto pass was through a Rolling Venice card from the tourism office. Tip: If you’re under 29, you can purchase a Rolling Venice card for only 4€ to get huge discounts on many attractions in Venice, such as a 3-day vaporetto pass and half-price admissions at the major museums and attractions.

With our vaporetto pass in hand, we boarded the No. 2 vaporetto to take us to the island of Giudecca, where our hostel was located.

After dropping our bags off at the hostel, we took the vaporetto over to San Marco, which was only two stops away by boat.

It was already getting dark, so we wandered around a bit in the rain, winding through alleyways and climbing over bridges. For dinner, we stopped by a tiny restaurant that specialized in cichetteria, little small dishes you can combine to create a meal.

Once back at the hostel, we ordered some hot chocolate from the bar and sat down in the common area. Now, hot chocolate in Italy is completely different from what you experience stateside––instead of a watery mix of chocolate power and sometimes milk, Italian hot chocolate is like a melted chocolate bar: rich, smooth, and thick.

For my first hostel experience, Ostello Venezia was awesome. The building was recently remodeled in October, with a funky common area and cool furnishings.

In the hostel, they were setting up for a “Neon Party” that night, complete with guest DJ performances. Considering that I usually can barely stay up past 11, we were only there for the first hour or so, when there were only two guys swirling around on the dance floor by themselves, so I can’t speak much for the event. But the set-up looked impressive!

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By hanging out in the common area, we met a bunch of travelers from all over: Belgium, England, Scotland, and Canada, to name a few locales. Julia and I passed around a blow-up ball with a backpacker for a bit, then pulled up a bunch of chairs with a group to meet new people.

Fairly early, we headed back to the dorm room since we planned to head out early the next morning. While the atmosphere in the common area of the hostel was great, the vibe in our dorm room was very… strange. A woman had lost a pouch with a bunch of her cash in it, so she spent over three hours crying during the night and talking loudly to her friend and on the phone in Spanish. At first I felt bad––I couldn’t imagine if that happened to me––but by 1:00 a.m. and hour 2 of this, I was wishing she’d leave the room.

Despite all of that, I slept surprisingly well, armed with an eye mask and a pair of earplugs. My top bunk was even more comfortable than my bed back in Florence, and I awoke to discover that the window in the room had a fantastic view of Venice’s main island.

After accidentally terrifying a girl on my way to the bathroom (apparently, when I ask someone “Are you done with the shower?” in my pajamas and glasses it is scary enough to warrant a reaction straight out of a horror movie), we headed back to San Marco in the morning to begin our full day of sightseeing.

After a mesmerizing walk through the Basilica of San Marco––perhaps the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen––we bought tickets for the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge’s Palace.

Unfortunately, they don’t allow cameras on the tour, but it was completely worth the 14€ ticket price. Our tour guide enthusiastically led us through the parts of the palace not open to the general public––old prison cells, torture chambers, and archival rooms––while telling us stories from the past, such as how Casanova managed to escape from prison using a bible, plate of pasta, and a small shovel.

After the tour, we then had time to tour the grand public rooms of Venice, where the huge councils of nobles used to meet to govern the powerful republic. For centuries, Venice was governed by a kind of oligarchical democracy, where 2,000 noble men voted in the Grand Council––pretty impressive for a state that never had a formal written constitution. The Doge himself was elected from one of the leading Venetian families usually around the age of 80, then would serve in the position until his death. However, the position itself didn’t have much political power beginning in the 1200s, when the Rialto families controlled the government through various levels of Councils.

 

Afterwards, we got lunch at an amazing take-out pasta place named Alfredo’s then wandered around and got lost––which, truly, is the best way to spend your time in Venice.

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On a small side street, we found a beautiful bookstore, where books lay stacked in precariously leaning towers. I bought some postcards to send back home.

We jumped on a vaporetto to take a look at all the palazzos along the Grand Canal by water.

We pondered some modern art at the Guggenheim.

Then we managed to get so completely lost that a kind man asked if we needed help and pointed us in the direction of the old Jewish ghetto in Venice.

For dinner, we sought out a place where we could try the Venetian speciality of spaghetti al nero di seppia, dyed black by squid’s ink.

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Exhausted from a full day of walking, we finally made it back to the hostel for another round of hot chocolate and where we met a group of American students who were visiting Venice for the weekend. Then, we headed out early the next morning to make our train back home.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to kick off my birthday week. The Venice of reality was even more charming than the Venice of my dreams.

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I can’t wait to return some day.

Captured by Cameraphone

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From the days of the half-megapixel camera on my old middle school flip phone, cell phone cameras have come along way over the past several years. I’m constantly amazed that my iPhone can often capture a better photo than my Canon point-and-shoot can, without the fancy lens or mechanical zoom.

And so, over the past month or so, I’ve captured a good amount of photos using my phone. While I’m still using the indestructible Samsung phone that I bought in Turkey last semester––sans camera, a pain to text on, yet comes with a nifty Bejeweled knock-off––I tend to often have my iPhone on me as a portable way to connect to the internet or take photos on the go.

Here’s a selection from my January photo stream:

In the air

The tundra of Chicago on my layover from San Francisco to Frankfurt on the flight out.

The tundra of Chicago on my layover from San Francisco to Frankfurt on the flight out.

Apparently, this was enough snow in Chicago to delay transferring the aircraft from the hangar to the gate by two hours...

Apparently, this was enough snow in Chicago to delay transferring the aircraft from the hangar to the gate by two hours…

WHOOHOO! Look at this leg room! I think I could get used to this.

WHOOHOO! Look at this leg room! I think I could get used to this.

Chasing the sunrise.

Chasing the sunrise.

On my Lufthansa flight from Germany to Italy, the flight attendant handed me this. I guess I looked like I was/could speak Italian? (Score!)

On my Lufthansa flight from Germany to Italy, the flight attendant handed me this. I guess I looked like I was/could speak Italian? (Score!)

Now too shabby of a view: sunrise over the Alps.

Now too shabby of a view: sunrise over the Alps.

Strange chocolate/nougat dessert popsicle thing that Lufthansa gave me for dessert after breakfast.

Strange chocolate/nougat dessert popsicle thing that Lufthansa gave me for dessert after breakfast.

In Fiesole

The view from the lookout on my first day in Italy.

The view from the lookout on my first day in Italy.

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After every pranzo (lunch) during the week, we have espresso and dessert––my favorite part!

After every pranzo (lunch) during the week, we have espresso and dessert––my favorite part!

What my everyday walk to school from the bus stop looks like.

What my everyday walk to school from the bus stop looks like.

Sunset from the Villa. (I have a feeling this will be a theme this semester.)

Sunset from the Villa. (I have a feeling this will be a theme this semester.)

Not a bad view for a Monday morning.

Not a bad view for a Monday morning.

The best cappuccino I've had so far from my favorite bar in Fiesole, named Alcedo.

The best cappuccino I’ve had so far from my favorite bar in Fiesole, named Alcedo.

 

CAFFEINE.

SO GOOD.

The burning of the olive groves around this time of year make for some beautiful sunsets!

The burning of the olive groves around this time of year makes for some beautiful sunsets.

In Firenze

Poetry street art posted on some city walls.

Poetry street art posted on city walls.

During the first week, I tagged along with the Art History class on their field trip to the Bargello and Uffizi.

During the first week, I tagged along with the Art History class on their field trip to the Bargello and Uffizi.

Someone get her some clothes.

I think someone forgot to get dressed this morning.

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Awkward Medieval wooden statues.

Awkward Medieval wooden statue. (Almost as good as the many mannequins I photographed last semester in Turkey… maybe this should be my new theme.)

At home

Every morning, my host mother puts out a breakfast spread for us. We eat the traditional Italian way--with a light breakfast of tea, yogurt, cookies, or a pastry.

Every morning, my host mother puts out a breakfast spread for us. We eat the traditional Italian way–with a light breakfast of tea, yogurt, cookies, or a pastry.

Another view of the kitchen.

Another view of the kitchen.

The refrigerator and TV, which we usually have on in the background during dinner.

The refrigerator and TV, which we usually have on in the background during dinner.

Cabinet in the kitchen. So homey!

Cabinet in the kitchen. So homey!

Photos from when I first moved in... Here's my desk.

Photos from when I first moved in. Here’s my desk.

Surfboard on the wall. (So I can pretend that I'm a surfer even in Italy.)

Surfboard on the wall. (So I can pretend that I’m a surfer even in Italy.)

Some of the CD collection in my room. Iron Maiden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, etc.

Some of the CD collection in my room. Iron Maiden, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, etc.

My adopted dog for this semester! She's named Iside (EE-see-day), after the Egyptian goddess.

And lastly, my adopted dog for this semester! She’s named Iside (EE-see-day), after the Egyptian goddess.

Benvenuti a Firenze

I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I signed up for this. And I mean that in the best way possible––I never imagined that on this Tuesday morning* I would be sitting in an high backed leather chair in a 100-year-old library, sipping my tea with a view of Florence and the Villa gardens. I savor these moments because they are accompanied with the scary realization that I don’t know when else I will be treated this well again. After you spend days wandering around the winding streets of Florence, is it only downhill from there?

Philosophical waxing aside, it’s been a whirlwind couple of days as I’ve settled in, adjusted to the effects of jet lag, and began classes for the semester. I’ll write more on that later, but first it’s time to recap how I got here.

I left San Francisco on an early 6 o’clock flight to Chicago on Wednesday morning, before connecting to my transatlantic flight to Frankfurt. Luckily, despite the weather woes that plagued most of the United States, I managed to make both of my connections. My flight in Chicago was delayed two hours––a nerve-wracking experience when your connection is only two hours to begin with––but we managed to make up enough time in the air so that I was able to reach my gate in Frankfurt with time to spare.

I finally arrived in Florence early on Thursday morning, after watching the sunrise over the peaks of the Alps. When the plane broke through the cloud cover to land in Florence, I was captivated by the rolling green hills and farmland of the Tuscany countryside. So this is it, I thought to myself.

I collected my luggage and got a taxi to Fiesole by myself, as the two others who were supposed to have been on my flight had been delayed elsewhere. The taxi driver raced up the winding road to Fiesole, which lies on a hill above the city of Florence. He’d repeatedly accelerate madly to try to make a green light, then laugh and look in the rearview mirror to see my reaction. “Vroom, vroom,” he laughed at me, as we sped through a narrow one-way alley. I nervously laughed and gripped the side of the car.

Finally, we arrived at Villa le Balze itself, whose name literally means “Villa of the Cliffs” after the cliffs it is situated on.

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Street view of Villa le Balze

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After arriving, I met the Villa staff, processed some paperwork for my permit to stay in Italy, and got a tour around the grounds themselves. Exhausted, I then promptly fell asleep as I waited for the others to arrive.

Around lunch time, I met Taylor, who will also be doing a home stay this semester. (There are only three of us out of the group of 14.) After having some lunch, we decided to explore the gardens. Of course, my camera was in tow:

Afterwards, we decided to walk further up the hill towards Fiesole, where we heard there was a fantastic lookout. And indeed, there was:

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At dinner, we had our first group meal in the dining hall as everyone struggled to stay awake after days of travel.

For me, it’s strange to be embarking on this whole experience of study abroad once again––thrown into a whole new group of people after I had been so accustomed to other eight with whom I lived, studied, and traveled in Turkey. Once more, I’m living amidst unfamiliarity, with a group, a country, and a language that I don’t quite know. But at the same time, it’s exciting to embrace this change one more time.

Ciao!

* At the time I’m posting this, it’s currently Thursday evening. Unfortunately (and fortunately), it can be hard to find time to figure out how to upload all the photos to WordPress when one’s days are filled with class and afternoons are filled with exploring Florence by foot.

On the Road (Airway?) Again: Countdown to Firenze

It’s strange to be leaving again.

My huge purple suitcase is once again stuffed with a semester’s worth of stuff. I’ve got my system down at this point. In fact, I hardly unpacked at all during the two weeks that I’ve been home. It only took several hours this afternoon to throw everything back in, replacing the shorts and dresses that were my staples in Alanya with clothing more suited for the rain and cold of a Firenze spring.

With my bags all packed, I’m now utilizing every outlet in my room as I charge up all the electronics for the travel marathon that commences tomorrow at 3:30 a.m., which is when I need to leave my house in order to make my early morning flight out of San Francisco. From there, I’ll stop in Chicago and Frankfurt before finally touching down in Florence on Thursday morning. (That is, if everything goes to plan!)

Over these past couple weeks, I’ve been so busy savoring my time with family and friends that I haven’t really had much time to reflect on all the wonderful experiences I had in Turkey last semester. And so, as I’m preparing to leave for Italy, it’s not California that I’m starting to feel homesick about, but Alanya.

I unpacked my duffel bag this afternoon to find the picture frame that my Turkish host family gave to me at our last dinner in December. Next to it, I found the beautiful blue, loopy scarf that my host mother had knitted for me. I am incredibly thankful for the charming people and culture that welcomed me to Turkey––encouraging my attempts to make conversation with my broken Turkish, cooking endless amounts of food and sweets, and inviting me into their homes and businesses. I hope that my experience this semester amounts to even just half of that.

I’ll be actually living with a host family this semester––something that both excites and terrifies me at the same time. While last semester I went to my host family’s flat for dinners and hung out with my host sister in town, now I will be living, sleeping, and eating with my new Italian host family. I’m excited to explore and have time away from the Villa in this sense, since that physical separation between home and school was absent in Turkey, where we did everything in the same building. I cannot wait to have my own Italian family, but I’m nervous about the logistics of living in a stranger’s home.

That being said, I cannot wait to explore the city of Florence itself and to touch and feel its centuries of influence as one of the great cultural capitals of the world. I cannot wait to rome its streets, capture its words on paper and its beauty in photographs. I splurged on a couple of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides for Florence and Italy, and I’ve been pouring over the photographs and drawings. Though they take up several precious pounds in my suitcase, I hope to try out some of the self-guided walking tours for myself. And then, there’s some places that I’ve already bookmarked. I can’t wait to picture the Medicis at home in Fiesole, explore the bizarre taxidermied collection of the Museo Zoologico La Specola, or marvel at Renaissance art.

I’m truly thankful for the incredible opportunity that I have to continue my adventures abroad in Italy. I hope to build off my one semester of Italian to become somewhat conversational in this beautiful language. I hope to learn not only about what Italy meant in the past, but what it means today in global politics. But above all, I hope to have time to wander and savor the country and its people.

City of the Whirling Dervishes

After several weeks in Alanya, it was once again time to head out again for our study tour, a weeklong trip as a group where we’ll be traveling through central Anatolia to Ankara. Since the last week was packed with midterms and papers, the study tour couldn’t have come at a better time. By the end of the week, I couldn’t wait to hit the road again.

We left Alanya early on Saturday morning, driving inland to our first destination: Konya.

Konya is a city of around 1 million people, located about a five hours drive inland from Antalya. Konya was historically the capital of the Seljuks, who ruled Anatolia before the Ottomans. Most famously, it is the home of the tomb of Jalaleddin Rumi, the famous 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic.

Rumi was born in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan. As a child, his family moved extensively throughout the Middle East before finally settling in Konya at the invitation of the Sultan of the Seljuks. In Konya, he attracted a great following as an accomplished professor in religious sciences at the largest theological school in the city. After his death, his followers formed the Mevlevi Sufi order to follow his teachings.

Today, Rumi’s poetry has been translated into countless languages, preaching its message of compassion and love. One of his most famous poems is his Seven Advice:

In generosity and helping others
be like the river.

In compassion and grace
be like the sun.

In concealing others’ faults
be like the night.

In anger and fury
be like the dead.

In modesty and humilty
be like the soil.

In tolerance
be like the ocean.

Either you appear as you are or
be as you appear.

With these words in our minds, we first visited Rumi’s tomb and museum. (The Turks know him as Mevlana.) The courtyard was unbelievably crowded with all kinds of tourists and pilgrims squeezing into the rooms.

Our next stop was the Karatay Museum, an old 13th-century madrasa that today houses a collection of tiles from the Seljuk period.

Afterwards, it was time for a çay and kahve break on the citadel! The citadel is this giant artificial hill in Konya, reportedly built from a tax that required everyone in the city to bring a bag of dirt to the center of the city. Today, the largest roundabout in the world encircles the hill.

We peeked inside the Alaeddin Mosque, which sits at the top of the hill. The mosque is built in the Seljuk-style, with a large square building built out of red stone.

Then we were in for a special treat. We visited a Dervish House, where one of the dervishes walked us through their ceremony and explained the basic tenets of Mevlana’s philosophy. We got to make our own attempts at becoming Whirling Dervishes ourselves!

Luckily, I got tons of video footage of them spinning around and bumping around as they attempted their own version of the meditative dance.

And after dinner, we got to see it done by professionals at the free show on Saturdays at the Konya Cultural Center.

It was so mesmerizing! I have no idea how they don’t get dizzy.

We then settled into our hotel for the night, exhausted from the day of travel.

“What you seek is seeking you.” – Rumi

The Sound of Music

The hills are ALIVEEEE with the SOUND of MUUUUSIC!

I couldn’t help but replay the Sound of Music soundtrack in my head all day as we spent the day touring Vienna. Granted, Vienna may have been far from the idyllic estate of the Von Trapp family, but I think the breathtaking beauty of this Austrian city deserves only the best Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack to accompany its endless gardens, stately palaces, and towering churches.

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This morning, Alex and I arrived to the train station at the crack of dawn in Budapest—lugging our suitcases through the metro as many people were still coming back home from the night before. We had bought our tickets online several weeks prior through a very confusing Hungarian website—I ended up on the 7:10 train, while Alex ended up on the train the hour before at 6:05.

So, after Alex got on his train, I waited around an hour for my own—buying a chocolate croissant and a “cappuccino” that was really powder and hot water in a cup from the stand at the station.

Once on my train, I almost immediately fell asleep, only waking up periodically to hand my ticket to the conductor to be stamped. Soon enough, I arrived at the train station in Vienna, reunited with Alex, and headed on the metro to meet up with our Airbnb host for the weekend.

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We quickly set our bags down, and then headed out into the city. To make the most of our time here, we had planned our itinerary the night before—today, we planned to conquer most of the major sights in Stephanplatz and visit the Hofburg Palace, which served for many centuries as the palace of the Hapsburgs.

The clouds and rain of the afternoon did little to obstruct the beauty of the city. We couldn’t stop exclaiming at every corner our shock at how the palace grounds just kept stretching on and on—palace next to palace, garden next to garden. More than once, we wandered around a corner to find a new church, then peeking inside for a jawdropping glance at the soaring ceilings and lavishly decorated interiors.

Vienna, or Wien as it’s called in German, is the capital and largest city of Austria, with a population of over 1.75 million. (In fact, it’s the largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin.) For centuries, it has served as a major political, economic, and cultural center for Europe, as it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s a beautiful and vibrant city, often topping the charts of various quality of living indices. (For example, Vienna has one of the best public transportation systems that I’ve ever been on, with strikingly clean and modern stations all available for a simple 48-hour pass.)

At the Hofburg Palace, we purchased our tickets and began with a tour of the imperial silverware collection. We toured an exhibition on the life of Empress Elizabeth in the Sisi Museum, and finished with a tour through the apartments of the imperial family.

The Hofburg Palace has served as a documented seat of government since 1279, and was used the principal winter residence by the Hapsburgs. Over the years, more wings and buildings were added to form the mini city it is today. Today, in addition to the museum, the complex also houses the official residence of the president of Austria, as well as most of the offices of government ministries.

(Unfortunately, no photos were allowed past the Silverware Collection.)

Afterwards, we continued our stroll around Vienna.

We couldn’t get enough.

At one point, we wandered into the Votive Church, where there had live baroque organ music playing.

For dinner, we met up with Matt, who also arrived into Vienna in the evening by bus. Taking our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant, where the servers even dressed up in lederhosen and they served all types of wiener schnitzel.

Tomorrow, we’re getting up early for another round of palaces—the Schonbrunn Palace and Belevere Palace—then seeing how many other places we can fit in. Time to get some sleep!