Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A different way to travel

After Florence, Chelsea, Gerst, Nick, and Noah headed to the Cinque Terre, and I left them and went off on my own for awhile, to Venice, Salzburg, Berlin, and Vienna. Travelling alone has been fantastic (usually), I highly recommend that everyone try it sometime. At home, I'm not so fond of being by myself for long periods of time. But travelling alone has been a lot of fun. I love my friends, but its a completely different experience when you're not around people you know and not with a big group. I have met so many more people, from all over the world. You're forced to be more outgoing if you want company, but you have a lot more freedom with your plans. I also like that on my own, I can avoid looking like a tourist sometimes. The giant backpack and camera give it away sometimes of course, but I've found that in Austria and Germany, I can blend in fairly well on the street. Also people must think that I look like I know where I'm going, as I'm often asked for directions (being lost often enough myself, that's what I look for when I decide who to ask. People with maps, cameras or shorts are usually not on that list). Not being immediately identified as American all the time has let me practice my German more too. Its amazing how quickly your language skills can improve when you are constantly surrounded by it. After getting off of the train in Austria, it was a nice surprise to be able to understand the signs and people around me again!

Downside of travelling alone? You end up with a lot more awkward self photos

Thursday, June 16, 2011


We arrived in Florence just in time to catch the last bus to the hostel. Ostella Camerata is also outside of the city center, but only 1 bus ride away.

We arrived in the dark and if it wasn't for the other two girls we met on the bus who were also staying at Camerata, we would not have walked down the long dark road through the woods that is actually the correct road to take. The hostel is a very nice villa with fireplaces on the staircase, a painted dome in the lobby, gardens, and balconies in the bathroom. Its been nice staying a little outside of the cities, and cheaper. And this one has free breakfast (or calzones depending on who you ask).

Our first day in Firenze was a Monday, so most of the museums and such are closed. But the Duomo was open. The entire complex is actually eight buldings, but we decided to stand in the first line we saw. How lucky that this was the line for the cupola, so after more than 400 spiral stairs and narrow passage ways we got to walk along the inside edge of the dome to see the fresco (it reminded me of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, but with more fire).

Then after a few more narrow passages with two way traffic, we were on the roof. Florence has quite a few buildings that tower over the rest of the city (including the bell tower, which started another conversation about how far you could throw a frisbee - would it make it to the roof of the bell tower?).

On the way down, you walk along the level of the giant stained glass windows on the dome.
While searching for lunch a group of guys yelled Go Blue to us, so we said it back, but then realized none of us were wearing Michigan gear, so how did they know where we're from? Turns out one of them recognized Nick from a class. Michigan alums really are everywhere. After lunch we went shoe shopping. I can't afford all the Italian shoes I want, but they were so tempting and playing dress up was fun. 

We also went window shopping on Ponte Vecchio. Its the only brige that survived WWII bombings. At one time, it used to be all butchers shops, but one of the Medicis did not like that, so he ordered them all the be changed to gold or silversmith shops. Its really good window shopping.

We watched most of sunset from Pilazzo Michelangelo. I also haggled the price of a purse down to 25% of the original price. I had pretty much destroyed the one I brought to Europe by putting far too much stuff in it until it ripped. We had wine and made tomato mozzerella salads that evening (basically bruchetta without the bread).

The next day we went to the Uffizzi Gallery and saw notable renaissance art like Botticelli's Birth of Venus and La Primavera, and the first painting Da Vinci painted.  Supposedly there's some famous art in the Louvre and the British Museum, but idk, most of it seems to be in Italy. What I'll remember most about Florence is probably sitting by the river at sunset just past Ponte Vecchio and reading.

La dolce vita

Eating tiramisu next to the Grand Canal in Venice

When in Rome...

When in Rome...
Rome is my favorite city on this trip so far. It has a big city energy to it (similar to the reason I love New York so much), but it still has narrow cobbled streets like a smaller town.

I also love that everywhere you look there are magnificent old buildings or arches or obelisks or statues. The tourist sites are crowded and most of the day at the Vatican I felt like I was in someones way (or actually running into people, it happened often at the Pantheon), but walking only a few blocks away from the most famous sites leads you to even better treasures.

The ceiling of the map room in the Museo Vaticani was more impressive than the Sistine Chapel (which is still impressive itself) and I though the Basilica dei Ambrogio E Carlo was just a pretty as Saint Peters Basilica (but smaller).

Gerst has been teaching us all to speak Ab, which is fun, and sometimes useful when you don't want the person next to you to understand you.

Our first stop in Rome, other than train and metro stations, was the Collesseum. Upon exiting the metro, we succeeded in perpetuating the dumb American stereotype by loudly saying "Is that the Colleseum?" while pointing purposely in the wrong direction. Sorry for that.

I realized it has been a very long time since I studied Roman history and have forgotten a lot of it. Somewhere between learning about gladiators, staging lifts, decapitating ostriches, fires, earthquakes and Nero, we lost Matt and Andy. Walking in circles and waiting by the exits proved unsuccessful, so Noah, Chelsea, Gerst, Nick and I went to the Palpatine hill, Roman Forum (which is not a bell), and Campidolio.

Then we began the trek to the hostel. We couldn't find anywhere with room for 7 on the weekend, so we stayed in dorms at a campground, Tiber, outside the city center by Prima Porta. (Travelling with 7 people also means we stop for snacks every hour and by now the rest of the group has realized I'm the slowest eater). It takes a metro, train, and bus and roughly 40 minutes to get to the campground from the Colleseum. We put our Roma passes to good use, they were worth it for 2 free attractions and transportation for 3 days. We were glad to see that Matt and Andy found their way back after being separated and stuck without a map or directions. We were also glad that the campground has a restaurant with pasta, since we never really had lunch and were all grumpy from walking and lack of food. Food makes all travel problems better.

The next day we visited the Vatican. The street vendor selling tours was "very worried for us" that we would wait for 3 hours and then not learn anything. The line for the vatican museums took less than an hour and we rented audio tours instead. The audio tours were a great way to learn more about the art we saw, and they let you actually let you see things because you aren't in the middle of a big tour group (its difficult to escape if you get stuck in one). The Sistine Chapel was nice, but the map room (frescoed maps of Italy on the walls with scenes of people painted on the ceiling) or the Rafael rooms were probably my favorite.

I appreciate frescoes more than sculptures, I like that they tell a story and are more colorful. The architecture and ceilings of the museum buildings were as impressive as the art in them. That afternoon we went to St Peters Basilica, climbed the Spanish Steps and threw coins into the Trevi fountain. 

All of these areas were beautiful, but the massive crowds kind of spoiled them a little. We also wandered into a few other churches around the city, I am in awe of all the buildings. Its interesting that over time buildings and art became more and more complex and ornate, but then have become very stylistically simple again. The best part of all the churches in Italy has been the ceilings. I wish it was appropriate to lay on the floor, becuase thats the best view. I think the mumified remains of some of the popes and bishops that are kept in glass sarcofogi in the basilicas are a little odd, but now I've seen a guy who's been dead for 600 years.

The next morning we had breakfast on the train again (at least one of our meals each day is some combination of bread, salami, cheese, bananas, yogurt, and Nutella) and went to the Pantheon, a 2000 year old temple that is somehow not in ruins. That afternoon we walked to Villa Borghese, the large park in the center of Rome. The museum we wanted to visit was sold out for the day, so while the others went to the zoo, I walked around the park and ate gelato by the lake and found an exhibit about regional Italian culture outside of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and listened to a choir that was singing during their picnic in the park.

 Music on the streets never seems to be too far away here. We finished our stay in Rome with a delicious pasta dinner before catching the train to Florence.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saronic Islands and Athens

Saronic Islands and Athens

Sailing was awesome, I would love to come back to the islands on another trip.

Each day we would find breakfast in town, sail for a few hours, wait for the engine to break + be fixed sometime that day, go swimming and then explore a town each night (Aegina, Poros, Hydra, Ermione). Hydra was my favorite island (and also the most touristy).

We walked around the island through winding streets that all look like they should be on postcards. I bought a oil painting to decorate my new apartment. We walked to the church on top of the hill where I rang the bells. (The ropes were left where you could easily reach them, I took that as an open invitation). There are a significant number of cats on Hydra (Alex, our skipper, told us its because "Greece has lots of mouses") so we saw a few cat fights and many dogs chasing cats. On Porous we made friends with a dog (which we named Franklin Hercules) at dinner and she then waited at our boat for us to come back later that night.  We had a barbeque on Ermione, and playing frisbee on the beach of Aegina after taking the dingy to shore to get gyros was also a good time.

Back in Athens, we spent the evening near the coast and had one last night on the boat before returning to the Pagration hostel we stayed at a week ago (the guy who works at reception is from Royal Oak).

We had quite a bit of trouble finding a cab back from the marina, but at least cabs in Greece are really cheap. I was not especially impressed with Athens once we returned. It was big and dirty, and had a very different atmosphere from the islands. Our first day in Athens, we hiked to the top of Lykavittos hill for a view of the entire city.

 (The rest of that day was spent getting wrong directions from the bus stop to the hostel and accidentally finding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where I watched the changing of the guard)

This time we visited the Acropolis. Its interesting to imagine what Athens looked like originally, and a neat contrast to see the marble ruins with modern architecture in the background. 

It would have been nice to sail the boat for another week and arrive in Italy, but we had to settle for a plane to Rome instead.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011


June 5

Hello from Poros, Greece! After Lugano, I flew into Athens this week, where I met up with the rest of the group. We are currently sailing in the Saronic islands and they are beautiful.  Everyone on the islands have been especially friendly to us. We've had a little bad luck with the boat though. Yesterday as we left Aegina, the engine on the boat broke. There wasn't any wind that day, so we slowly drifted back towards port for several hours while waiting for Vardis to come from Athens to meet us and fix it.  In the meantime we swam in the Aegean sea. The water is clear enough to see all the way to the bottom! We also saw some dolphins in the morning. After some repairs, we set sail again and even found some wind. We're all learning how to crew the boat and I got to steer for a while.  Today we are in Poros, hopefully we make it to Hydra tonight!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lugano, Switzerland

June 1
Bonjourno from Lugano! Or hello. Or guten Tag. I can't figure out what language to speak here. On the positive side, that means I can communicate and read all the tourism signs because they are in 4 languages. I've had several successful German conversations here, but most of the time its a combination of Italian words, German, and English, since Italian is still the most commonly used language in this region.
Lugano is a charming little vacation town in a valley on the lake. My hostel is surrounded by palm trees and other tropical plants. Its very nice, there are several families staying here (one of the younger boys, maybe 3 or 4 came up to me several times yesterday and showed me his drawings. He didnt seem to mind too much that I had no idea what he was saying), and also a very large group of loud middle school girls. I'm glad I'm not 13 anymore. The weather however, has not been as nice, its a little cold and wet. Yesterday I explored some shops in Lugano and attemped to visit Cattedrale di San Lorenzo (which is mostly closed for renovations, but they put in windows so you can still see it as they work).
 I then decided to walk to Gandria, because I had read about it and the quaint trails along the coast through the city with no cars sounded nice. (Most people go by boat, few walk from Lugano). The walk through Castagnola was very pretty, as was the Sentiero di Gandria. Part of the trail is along the coastline (cliff), then you end up in parts of town with gorgeous houses, then you go through olive groves, then tunnels  (repeat all of those several times) and eventually many stories of stairs + hills to get back to the road at the top of the cliff.
I thought I was near the end of the trail when it started raining harder. I was only about halfway. It was pouring before I reached the road to catch a bus back to Lugano. After some food and a hot shower, I felt much better, and the hike was certainly worth it.

It was raining again this morning. I decided against the hike up the mountain, and so what does one do on a rainy day in Switzerland? Go to the chocolate factory of course! Lots of samples :)  Did you know the fruit on a cacao tree grows on the trunk, not the branches? At each stop in the factory, a sign explained what was happening at each station, and another listed all the technical details of the machine (make, model, year, capacity, how much power it draws). Just in case you're in the market to buy your own chocolate machinery.

It cleared up quite a bit in the afternoon, so I took the Funicolore to the top of Monte San Salvador. The view from the roof of the church was awesome, I could see all of Ticino.
 I found Lugano quite charming, even in the rain.
Now off to catch a flight to Greece!