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My “Eat, Pray, Love” Getaway

17 May

DSCN2846 As I’ve said over and over in my blog, this semester has taught me a lot. Many of those things I had to learn the hard way. Including, one should never indulge in extra curricular activities the night before an early travel departure (royally screwed that up 3 times). This was one of those times I screwed up. Big time. The night before, I remember that I set a 5:45 am alarm for my 8:10 train ride to Cinque Terre.

7:23 am: Wake up startled, panicked, and flustered. I had planned to meet my travel partner, Anna, at the bus stop at 6:50 and I woke to a FaceBook message, “So.. Did you oversleep?” In full makeup from the night before, an empty stomach, and some nappy hair, I grabbed my backpack and ran out the door.

7:45: After running through Trastevere, heart beating out of my chest, I approached the empty bus stop. Not aware that it was an Italian holiday and the “H” bus (created by the Devil himself) probably wouldn’t show, I hopped in a cab with a nice American woman just hoping that Anna would have had the same idea as me and would be waiting at the station.

8:09: Throw myself onto the train heading towards Genoa with 1 minute to spare. God, I hope she’s somewhere on this train.

10:30: Get a call from Allison, “Anna didn’t make it on the train.” Stomach sinks.

12pm: Arrive in La Spezia like a lost child in the movies, where the whole world feels like it’s spinning around me. There’s no surprise that I waste an hour in the station dealing with debit/credit/ATM problems when trying to buy the train tickets to the coast. Money issues have defined my semester abroad. and many others’.

Riomaggiore  DSCN2726 Besides the colorful cliffside picture of Manarola that you see over and over when you search ‘Cinque Terre’, I really didn’t know what to expect of each of the 5 towns. The train popped out of a cave on the side of the cliff and rolled into the coastal station. DSCN2750 Each of the towns has its own signature tunnel connecting the station to the town and Rio’s is my favorite – floor to ceiling mosaic sea creature art. DSCN2739 Over in town, one narrow street holds in the smell of grilled seafood and pizza fresh out of the oven. I went to find my hostel, Affittacamere Patrizia, to explain that I’m alone to try to get the money back, but because it was less than 24 hours notice they couldn’t refund me. Instead, they felt bad for my pathetically lonesome self and upgraded me to a private suite – queen size bed, bathroom, and fridge. Ah! The silver lining! DSCN2710 Giovanni walked me back through town, up a set of steps, through an alley, and up to my room. It probably wasn’t the safest thing that he knew where I was staying.. alone.. and no one else did.. but I’m alive today to tell about it (don’t freak out Nani)! As you walk dance down the steps from where I stayed you hear the amplified voices of ABBA thanks to “Mamma Mia”, the snack shop selling fried seafood in paper cones. DSCN2716 Being starved and parched from the hectic morning, I went to Bar Centrale, which is pretty much the only recommended spot for a fun morning and night environment and free WIFI (like cocaine.. you crave it). I love the tight-knit communities of these tiny towns. As I stood at the bar with my cappuccino and the BEST chocolate cornetto I had ALL semester (and the size of my ass is proof that I had a lot), friendly family and friends of the baristas came in and out (some just to say “Buon Giorno”). As I rapidly slapped out an “I’m ALIVE!” email to my parents, the barista had me sit at a table with her cute little son and for one time only, her and I made fun (in Italian) of all the dumb Americans who came in. amore When reopened after WWII, the Via dell’Amore, or Lover’s pathway between Riomaggiore and Manarola, became a lover’s meeting point for young boys and girls from each town. Unfortunately, the path is closed more than it’s open due to landslides and was closed the weekend I was there… but I really have no business being on a LOVER’S PATH anyway. DSCN2759 DSCN2764_2 As I started Day 1 of my hiking adventure, I came across a single church above the town and I can’t really explain what happened next. I walked into the dimly lit and empty church and as I approached the alter I smelled something that couldn’t be easier to identify: Nonna. If you haven’t read my “Dear Nonna” post, it’s almost been a year since my Nonna passed and as it slowly creeps up on me, more and more things remind me of her. I couldn’t stop the tears running down my face. I was alone, until I smelled her.

Lit a candle for Nonna

A candle for Nonna

To ensure that I didn’t look like too big of a loser eating every meal alone at restaurants, I went to the deli across from my hostel to up lunch and breakfast food. For lunch, I walked up Il Castello di Riomaggiore and opened up my greasy focaccia, prosciutto, and salami sandwich. A little piece of me died inside when I came across the husband reading a story to his wife as they looked out at the sea. DSCN2779 DSCN2772 More Riomaggiore : DSCN2754 DSCN2719 DSCN2732 Manarola DSCN2831 This is the town that normally pops up when you search “Cinque Terre”.  It’s breathtaking. My favorite of the 5 towns! When I arrived, I went straight up to the tippy top of the cliff. I climbed through bushes, up makeshift steps, and brushed past what could have easily been poison ivy (luckily it wasn’t). DSCN2793 DSCN2797 DSCN2800 Somewhere over the rainbow… of houses is the most colorful cemetery I’ve ever seen. Apparently this is a temporary cemetery which is emptied after a generation or so into some sort of “bone yard”. From outside the cemetery is the picturesque view of Manarola. DSCN2829   As it started getting later and the sun began to set, I went out to the marina and (once again) thankfully my high school bouldering skills came to use as I climbed along the row of boulders that jutted out into the marina. I laid out a towel under the sun and looked up at Manarola. Women were hanging clothes out their windows, couples dangled their legs off the marina ledge, families sat out on their balconies for a little aperitivo, and 1 lone boat anchored in the water next to me. DSCN2876 DSCN2851 What I would do to sail out to sea for a while..

On my way back up to the train, I had many nostalgic moments. First I sat in the town square and watched three young boys kick around a soccer ball as their family watched from balconies overhead.

DSCN2874 DSCN2871   Second, I passed by a window in which a husband, wife, children, and nonna were sitting down for dinner. Brought back amazing memories of Sunday dinners in Nonna’s kitchen.. and more tears. Nothing could have made me more excited to go eat dinner alone.. Ha! lalamp Back in Riomaggiore, I took a quick shower and got dressed (don’t know who I was getting all pretty for), that was until I walked into the restaurant with 2 of the sexiest waiters. La Lampara was the cutest little restaurant with outdoor seating in what looks like a boat. The night kept getting better as a GORGEOUS couple was seated at the table next to me, we became friends.. if that’s what you call sharing olive oil and pepperoncini. Picture 18 I felt like Julia Roberts as I ordered my glass of wine with Linguine with breadcrumbs and swordfish and observed the fellow gavones (look it up) who were all observing the lonely girl in the corner.

The following morning at Bar Centrale, my handsome waiter from La Lampara came in, we said “buon giorno” and exchanged a seductive smile. I could definitely get used to mornings like that.

Corniglia DSCN2916 If you don’t have much time in Cinque Terre, this town can be missed. It’s the only town built above sea level and is quite the hike to reach. Too bad I didn’t have anyone to piggy back me up the cliff. DSCN2897 DSCN2904   From the top of the town you could hear music playing all the way down the steep cliff at the train tracks. When I reached the bottom to get back on the train, I passed the little man, posted up, playing the accordion. He smiled at me, I dropped a few coins in front of him, and snapped this pic. DSCN2920_2 Monterosso al Mare DSCN2925 This is the most northern town of Cinque Terre and known as the beach town. There was a really cool center and tons of restaurant options. I walked in a wine shop and was offered a full glass of Cinque Terre wine. By the end of the glass I was feeling loopy, and had to get out before I knocked over any displays. DSCN2941 It was supposed to thunderstorm today, but Italy didn’t fail me this time! The weather was perfect for laying on the beach all day. Little naked kids ran through the water and I was shooting death stares at the couple in front of me as they rolled around in the sand. Thank you, for reminding me what I’m missing. DSCN2944   Vernazza  DSCN2959 This is the one town I wish I had more time in. I was cutting it close for my train home to Rome, but needed to make a pit stop in what I heard was a couple peoples’ favorite town. Right off the train, Italian flags drapped all across the town. DSCN2952_2

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This was the only town where the train came directly through town. I practically ran through town to get a glimpse from the water. I remember hearing about the view from the castle and wanted to quickly find it. I ran up narrow steps following “Castel Doria” signs until I reached a little hut with a woman charging 1.50 Euro for the castle climb. Now I normally don’t pay for views, but it was cheap, I was in a hurry, and knew I wouldn’t be able to find a free view from this high. After I climbed the skinny stairwell to the top, I was yelled at in Italian for standing on the edge of the tower (working my pro photo skills). I nervously laughed and then was joined with the men who “yelled”. Looks like they were just joking, but it didn’t come through with the language barrier.

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Leave it to me to board the train, during rush hour, cutting it as close as I could to make my train back to Rome. With my train to Rome departing at 6:11, it was 6:10 and I was rolling into the La Spezia station, crammed into the corner. I’ve also learned, nothing will get done unless you open your mouth. Under my breath I muttered, “Well I hope I make my train.” Luckily for me, I was surrounded by a group of nice Americans who heard and helped me push my way off the train. I sped up and down tracks to find the Rome departure; jumped on and off trains “Vai a Roma?” I finally found the right train, plopped down in 1st class, and with 10 seconds to spare I was on my way home.

5 breathtaking towns, numerous stuffy train rides, 1 deliciously lonely dinner, and (hopefully) hundreds of less calories later, I was leaving Cinque Terre with the hope of one day returning: alone or not. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect trip to close my semester. The alone time gave me the opportunity to stop and really process everything that happened this semester, the good and the bad. I really recommend a solo trip at the end of your semester abroad. Make it the final goal on your Study Abroad Bucket List!

“We travel, initially to lose ourselves; And we travel, next, to find ourselves.”

Ciao!

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Costiera Amalfitana

7 May

This was the 1 trip that I knew I absolutely had to take, long before the semester even started. I didn’t imagine I’d be taking it with 3 dudes, but in any case the weekend had finally arrived! 😀

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We booked it with the company, Bus2Alps, and I would recommend ONLY booking this trip with them. We only did it because 1. It has been voted their #1 weekend trip and 2. Planning 3 towns plus an island in 3 days, is a little tricky. Scratch that, considering it was me and 3 men.. make that impossible.

The 4 hour bus ride from Rome to Sorrento turned into 6 hours. For some reason the highway was shutdown at 10 pm, so we detoured through downtown Napoli. It’s like driving through the Southside of Chicago with 70 white kids. To up the anti, the bus was too big to fit down 90% of the streets, so we had caravans of Italians stopping traffic and leading us out. It was comical; one Italian would lead us to a checkpoint and then pass us on to another who would continue, and so on until we got on an open highway. Surprise Surprise.. it’s Italy. On the brightside, it was a double decker and we sat on top in the front with a better view than the driver.

If I had to hear the Jew Yorks behind me complain one more time about how bad they wanted bagels and how they couldn’t believe they had to share a room with 12 people without their own bathroom.. I was going to throw them to the Neapolitan dogs.

Out of the 3 hostel options we stayed in Seven Hostel, closest to the port, the most recommended, and most importantly, the one Dom Mazzetti stayed in when he filmed this.

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Ughh, Friday we woke up at the butt crack of dawn. All 250 of us met down at the port where we took a ferry (biggest damn ferry I’ve ever seen) about a half hour to the island of Capri. Straight from the ferry we jumped into 15 person boats with cute little Italian drivers. We drove around the entire island on this tour. From the water looking up the side of the island it looks like the dense tropical forests of Jurassic Park. At one point I thought I heard the cellphone ringtone from the movie. On the edge of one cliff laid tons of spotted goats.. which makes sense considering Capri means “goat”.

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Boat Tour Highlights:

  • Grotta Azzurra: Dragging behind our tour boats was a string of even smaller 4 person boats that would take us into the cave of the Blue Grotto. Our driver’s name was Albo and he sang Italian songs to us as we ducked under the cave and into the highlighter turquoise pool of water. * Go late morning/early afternoon for the best color

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albo

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  • Farglioni/Love Tunnel: Picture the Dolce and Gabbana “Light Blue” commercial. Bam! I tried closing my eyes hoping that when I opened them I’d be sitting next to that sexy, ripped, Italian model, but to my disappointment, I was stuck with Kyle, Casey, and Kurt.

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Scooch and I in the Love Tunnel

Scooch and I in the Love Tunnel

  • Green and White Grotto: Unbelievably crystal clear water slapping against the bright orange coral attached to the cliffs

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  • The statue of the Scugnizzo: Little boy waving towards the sea and welcoming visitors to the island

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Back on land we trekked up to the Piazzetta of Capri Town, known as the Ritzy little square. We were only up here for a few minutes, but long enough to indulge in the greatest summer drink ever created: La Granita d’Arancia Rossa – freshly squeezed tart blood oranges in an slushie.

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Even further up the island is the beautifully quaint town of Anacapri. My 3 “boyfriends” and I grabbed lunch at Le Arcate, right by the cab stop. We were utterly disappointed with the 10 pieces of calamari for 13 Euro (sorry we’re spoiled in Rome by Zio Tony for dinner, wine, dessert, and lemoncello for 10 euro), but the Linguine alle vongole quickly made me forget about it. The Neapolitan dialect is so slang and different than in Rome, but the waiters immediately knew my family had to be Neapolitan because of the way I cut some of my words short, like they do – “va be'”!

Linguine alle Vongole

Linguine alle Vongole

The guys took the chairlift up to Mount Solare, but I don’t pay for views, especially when I know I can find better ones – which I did! Meanwhile I did some one stop shopping: I had custom fitted handmade leather sandals made for my sister and I, and tasted and bought limoncello (for when I get home and need a reminder that this semester was not a dream). So you can get tipsy while waiting for your sandals to be made.

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Limoncello tasting

Limoncello tasting

Continue along the street of shops filled with limoncello, perfume, soaps, and ceramics until you hit this coastal view:

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Instead of waiting around Anacapri and teasing myself with the shops, I met a group of North Carolina girls who were headed down to the beach. We took a Capri taxi, aka Malibu Barbie convertible, down the steep winding narrow roads to the marina. Our cab driver, Alessandro, blasted Michael Jackson for us, so there we were, hands in the air belting Dirty Diana at the top of our lungs with our amused Italian friend.

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The beach was a pebble beach which is actually more comfortable than you’d think, cause you can shift the pebbles easier to frame your body. I refused to get in the ice cold water and we laid there until it was time to ferry back to Sorrento.

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Our hostel had the perfect rooftop terrace that for some reason stayed empty. Not many people found out about it, which made it our secret pre-game getaway spot. DJ/Bartender Casey “Scooch” Marini took the reigns to divvy out some pre-dinner drinks to pair with our sunset view.

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We took the buses into town and I was unbelievably shocked to see how glitz and glam the downtown area is. It is your typical beach town with tons of patio bars and restaurants and lit up palm trees lining the street, but completely opposite from the plain and empty area we stayed in. Accompanied by some street musicians, we had our well-anticipated “bier e pizza” at Pizzeria Aurora. My pizza was topped with spicy soppressata, bringing me back to my kitchen at home and my dad’s homemade soppressata.photo%204-1

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The rest of the night was spent outside under the canopy of an awesome Spring Break style patio bar called English Inn, jamming out to oldies, aka 2000s Classics, and judging sloppy Americans in their natural habitat.

Day 2 we got a later start, which everyone needed, and took the buses down the coast to the colorfully picturesque, Positano. The bus swerved around the edge of the cliffs, so when you look out your window you’re looking down a steep drop into the Mediterranean. We parked in a lookout on one of the turns and had to walk.. all the way down to the beach. Little old Italian women were peering out their windows in confusion as the 250 passed by with excitement and anticipation.

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We must have walked down over 500 steps, enclosed on both sides with vibrant colored houses and shops, and the shimmering ocean in close proximity. We were welcomed at the bottom by $20 overpriced sunscreen, black sand beaches, and coronas, bloodies, and daiquiris pouring out of the beach bar. We were genius enough to bring our own refreshments and steal a blanket from the hostel to share as a towel. We posted up for a couple hours to soak in our first bit of sun of the semester.

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Before we headed out on the water, we walked into town for a giant panini and Peroni. The deli guy had a huge line of Americans ordering boring American sandwiches, so the minute I walked up and said “Focaccia con Prosciutto crudo…” he told me he’d make me the House Panini and man oh man, there’s nothing like fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil on a hot day at the beach.

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Mid-afternoon, a ferry took a big group of us on a “booze cruise” over to a secluded inlet.

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The minute they dropped us off, everyone ran to the cliff and starting climbing. The entire time I kept thinking, “Man, I’m not responsive enough to be scaling rocks.” But at least I was over the ocean. After seeing the softball sized bruise my roommate came home with on her leg from cliff jumping, I was a little hesitant, but I had to check it off my bucket list.

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The jump felt fine, but when I walked out of the water everyone was concerned, “Are you okay? Why are you bleeding?” Who the hell knows. I don’t know if I blacked out underwater, or if my adreneline numbed the pain, but when I came out my knees and toes were bleeding – 2 weeks later I still have scars to prove it, but it was so worth it! The rest of the afternoon I made fun of Casey’s brilliant idea to cool off his hot rum and coke in the ocean.. genius idea, terrible execution.

Back in town we walked through the narrow streets, so some of the guys could buy linen gifts. Kyle and I were on a mission to find that Positano view you see on all the postcards. We kept walking up random sets of staircases hoping they would give us the right angle until we finally found it!

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positano

Once again, back in Sorrento, we enjoyed the hostel’s happy hour and the incredible Amalfitana sunset before dinner. The hostel set up a buffet dinner for everyone, but everything looked like frozen food and that’s not how us world traveler’s roll. Instead, we took the hostel’s recommendation and walked down to the port to a restaurant/hotel called La Ripetta. My pasta con frutti di mare was ten times better than those plastic string beans and bouncy chicken breasts back at the hostel.

Din Din with my boys

Din Din and Duckface with my boys

After a walk back to the hostel, with vespas whipping around every dimly lit turn, we posted up in the bar. With a live DJ, Kyle didn’t waste much time hittin the dance floor. He was working with moves I didn’t even know were possible for a guy. It was hands down the most entertaining thing I saw all weekend. He was shakin’ it with a gay guy, giving a girl a lap dance, and completely making a fool of himself.. but I respected that..

Drop it drop it low

Drop it drop it low

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Casey started shaking up beer and spraying it all over Kyle.. he got a little carried away when he got on the table and poured it over my head. But we walked away that night with a generous round of applause for Kyle’s entertainment. The next morning at breakfast he had everyone, guests and the Italian waitstaff, shaking his hand as if he was the new Seven Hostel celeb.

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The trip wasn’t over quite yet. On our way towards Rome we made a pit stop in Pompeii. In AD79, a dark grey cloud of hot gas, ash, and rocks poured from Mt. Vesuvius down through Pompeii – killing and destroying everything in its path. The 300C degree gases instantly killed the people and the ash preserved their bodies.

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Mt. Vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius

The buried city is an incredibly large treasure and has been preserved in such great detail. With Mt. Vesuvius hovering over the city, we walked through ancient dug up houses, bars, restaurants with wood-burning pizza ovens, an old supermarket, and the whore-houses.

Pizza oven

Pizza oven

Thermal bathes

Thermal bathes

Can you please point me in the direction of the brothel?

Can you please point me in the direction of the brothel?

Brothel bed, looks comfy.

Brothel bed, looks comfy.

The hardest things to look at are the plaster casts of the people who were caught incredibly off guard, had no time to escape, and tried to protect themselves or unborn children with their own bodies.

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Pregnant woman protecting unborn child

Pregnant woman protecting unborn child

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*Definitely do a guided tour! My guide had been doing tours for 30 years, was extremely passionate, humorous, and just plain ol’ adorable. Otherwise, make sure you have a Rick Steve’s tour guide app or something like it because without guidance you honestly won’t know a bar from a bathroom*

When in Naples, what must you do? Not get pick pocketed and eat a pizza! Right down the street from the buried city was Pompeii Pizza. When there aren’t 250 hungry college students packed inside, or you want to venture further from Pompeii, I’m sure you won’t have to wait an hour and a half like we did, but in any case the pizza was well worth it! Mmm it was doughy and flavorful, and I would give anything for a slice right now!

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Although I blew through a lot more money than I planned to this trip, it was definitely one of my favorites and a must-do if you’re in Italy or even Europe for an extended period. Trips with my boys are never dull and once again, I’m so happy that I chose to take every weekend trip with a different set of people. It made my experiences more memorable and I learned a lot about what it takes to travel on your own.

It’s places like this that make me sad to be home in America. Don’t get me wrong, America’s great and all, but it will never compare to the beauty and history of Europe. I walk down my street at home and see nothing but newly constructed houses and parks, while back in Europe you walk a couple steps and hit ancient ruins. I left my heart in Europe and that’s where it belongs.

Catching up on a couple more posts, sorry!

Ciao (..Wow, I miss saying that)

Smells like.. Amsterdam

13 Apr

Cracked out on cold medicine and espresso, I threw a bunch of clothes into my duffel, combed out the dreads that had formed from laying in bed for the past 2 days, and was headed to Amsterdam. I’m pretty sure baldy (the quirky security guard at the front desk) gave me a confused eye twitch for swiping out a 3:30 AM with a fur vest on, hair and makeup all done, and a massive duffel over my shoulder. Still don’t understand why I packed the same amount for 2 days in Amsterdam as I did for a week in Spain. Some things I’ll never know..

On my walk to the cab I passed a couple of drunk men peeing against the International House of Women (an ex-convent). At that point my leisurely pace picked up to a speed walk. I’ve been pretty on edge after I witnessed my friend get socked in the face last weekend for absolutely no apparent reason.

When I got into the cab, I realized my driver was George Costanza. I thought my eyes were playing late-night tricks on me, until he started talking my ear off in rapid Italian. When in doubt, head nod and say, “Si.” One thing I love about Europe is their driving etiquette on the highway. When the car in front of you sees you quickly closing up on them they swiftly shift to their right lane. If that happened in the States it would take me half as long to get up to school, too bad I have to deal with the Cheese wedges of Wisconsin.

So, I may have overshot it this time. Okay, I overshot it by 45 minutes. But what was I doing in my lonesome apartment? ..besides obnoxiously laughing (and then coughing up a lung) at New Girl. So now I sit and wait for my plane. It’s 4:45. Nothing’s open and there’s no one here. Hopefully this is my flight. Me, myself, and I.

CAN’T WAIT TO SEE MY BIGGIE SMALLZ, ELISE, WAITING AT MY GATE WHEN I ARRIVE!

I hope. Or I’ll get a good story out of it.

Found her!! It only took us a few dropped phone calls and some sacrificial blisters from pacing through terminals. But thanks to my janky burner phone – we found each other! The two of us were the Walking Dead. With less than 2 hours of sleep in the past 24 hours, no makeup, and airplane hair, I’m surprised our hostel even let us in. We stayed at StayOkay, a chain in Amsterdam, but ours was right on the canal a couple blocks from the Red Light District and Dam Square.

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The minute we walked in, more like stumbled, a free city tour was leaving from the hostel. Now I normally don’t do the free tours when I travel because I never know what to expect, but our guide was a hilarious Alaskan native living in Amsterdam for the past 10 years and she covered everything I needed to know in 2 hours.

Tour Guide

Tour Guide

We started in the center of Amsterdam: Dam Square, named after the dam that was built on the river Amstel. Those Dutch are wickedly clever. AmsterDAM, OLD church, NEW church, doesn’t get more original than that..

Dam Square and Royal Palace

Dam Square and Royal Palace

Elise at the Royal Palace

Elise at the Royal Palace

Only one word describes the Red Light District: Bizarre. As a woman, I felt a little uncomfortable walking through alleys of prostitutes practically wearing a piece of string and rubbing their bodies against the glass doors. But come on, they’re respectable women.. they pay taxes like the rest of us and get health insurance. It seems like a pretty clutch career path to me. I asked Big Rich if I should sign a contract with the Madam and his response was, “Have fun, and no STDs.” New career path, here I come! It was crazy how many men we saw pacing up and down the alleys until they found a room that fit their desires. As we strolled through at night, with the canal glistening in the flashing red lights, men were trying to buy us! Come on perves, stick to the window shopping!

How about the selection of condoms right up the street!

How about the selection of condoms right up the street!

Up the street there’s the Old Church that completed a beautiful renovation thanks to the fisherman who paid the priests to forgive their sins after they fooled around with the Red Light ladies while away from their wives and families. Across the river, girls standing in the window front wearing just enough to cover what’s necessary flipped off people trying to sneak pictures. DO NOT try to photograph these whores. They’re feisty and I don’t think you want to end up in the canal.

Across the canal in Nieuwmarkt square stands the Waag, the old city gate. Rembrandt got his start here from painting a scene of a doctor examining one of the many bodies that came into the tower after they were publicly executed out front in the square.

The Waag

The Waag

Coffee shops

Coffee shops

There’s lots of night life around Nieuwmarkt Square from Bohemian bars to gay bars to coffee shops. We discovered this after walking in (and quickly out) of a bar the first night where we came face to face with the eccentric Queen Lashaunta and her crew of Jamaicans drooping with dreads. We did however find an unreal mexican restaurant, Los Pilones, for some of the best tacos and nachos I think I’ve ever had.

Amsterdam is an incredibly rich city. Most people just know it for its freedom, coffee shops, and prostitutes, but at one point Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and the leading financial center. Although you inhale whiffs of second hand smoke from every store you pass, you can tell by the way the Dutch people dress, eat, and carry themselves that this city is far from the trashy reputation it gets from tourists. Here is Amsterdam’s Dutch East India Trading Company (VOC) headquarters, now a university..

West India Trading Company

West India Trading Company

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Another thing I didn’t realize was so well-known in Amsterdam is the formaggio (err.. cheese). Our guide took us to the Reypenaer Tasting Room on the canal where they do wine and cheese tastings, but we just sampled aged goat cheese (my fave!) outside one of the smallest houses on the canals. I don’t even think one of my thighs would fit in this house, let alone an entire family!

Teeny tiny house on the canal

Teeny tiny house on the canal

We also found a little shop, Old Amsterdam, right in Dam Square where the little old man in the store front was cutting up samples from a huge block of their aged gouda cheese. Their cheese is out of this world. We scurried around like little pack rats sampling all different kinds (multiple samples of the incredibly tempting pesto infused gouda), but we checked out with a packet of their original precut gouda.

Turns out that the day we got there was the unveiling of the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’s most famous museum, after it’s 10 year $480 million renovation. Queen Beatrix, which call me stupid but I had no idea the Netherlands had a royal family, rolled out the orange carpet and reopened the museum with fireworks and class. We felt like VIP, but along with close to 30,000 visitors, we took advantage of the 1 day only free admission to see the famous work of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

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Rembrandt's famous "Night Watch"

Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch”

Van Gogh's self portrait

Van Gogh’s self portrait

Directly behind the Rijksmuseum is one of two of the city’s I Amsterdam signs. You can’t be a tourist in Amsterdam without a photo shoot in the letters! It’s practically a jungle gym, except I couldn’t even get my fatass onto the “a”!

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Biggie Smallz and Little!

Biggie Smallz and Little!

Right across the canal in front of the Rijksmuseum is an adorable square called Leidseplein which is entirely packed with outdoor patio seating, where we chugged a couple cappuccinos to keep us running on no sleep. Elise bought a beautiful canal painting from one of the many cool art vendors in the square.

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Earlier in the day when we passed by the Anne Frank House the line was hours long, winding down the street. By the time we came back, close to 6:30 at night, the wait was 20 minutes, very rare!

The insane Anne Frank House line

The insane Anne Frank House line

The Anne Frank House was never something I really planned on seeing when I came to Amsterdam just because I didn’t see the point in paying to walk through an empty house, but I’m so happy I did!! Just walking through the rooms, reading her diary quotes, and imagining her family’s life during that scary period was incredibly emotional and sent chills through my body.

“The sun is shining, the sky is deep blue, there’s a magnificent breeze, and I’m longing – really longing – for everything: conversation, freedom, friends, being alone.” – Anne

Quietly creeping through every room of her house, reading and watching clips of her story along the way, you feel like your in Anne’s shoes – playing this 2 year long game of Hide-n-Seek. You can easily imagine the Nazis searching the streets and housing nearby as young Anne and her family hid in silence, without moving, day in and day out.

“Not being able to go outside upsets me more than I can say, and I’m terrified our hiding place will be discovered and that we’ll be shot.” – Anne

Behind the secret bookcase passageway and into their attic hideout, the temperature clearly dropped and Anne’s reality became more apparent. Thinking about all of the fun I had at her age, freedom and fresh air I was surrounded with that she never had the chance to experience was really depressing. Her room was covered with pictures of movie stars and models, like any young girl at her age would have. She wanted a normal life. She had a normal life before the war. She had such a talent for writing at such a young age that her father’s idea to publish her diary was the most honorable gesture that could have been made on her behalf.

Definitely a must do experience! One of my favorites in Amsterdam!

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I always feel guilty for smiling after an experience like this

I always feel guilty for smiling after an experience like this

You know how they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans”? The same applies everywhere else you go. So in Amsterdam, you ride bikes! EVERYWHERE. We rented from Discount Bikes in an alley (across from a coffee shop) next to Dam Square. Bike riding genes run in my family as my dad is practically Lance Armstrong (or he thinks he is). Somehow I always end up traveling with problematic bike riders. In Italy a few years ago, I watched my cousin Elise slide backwards on her bike down a busy highway as angered drivers zoomed by screaming “Vaffanculo!” out their windows. In Barcelona, Allison peddled at snail speed because of a traumatic fall she once had. This time I was dealing with my Big, Elise, who hadn’t been on a bike in 7 years. Between cars, bikers, walkers, trams, and canals, lets just say this wasn’t a walk in the park. Fortunately 10 minutes into the ride we came across a Tulip Market on the canal. Due to the unusual chilly spring Europe has had this year, the tulip fields weren’t worth trekking out to because not much blooming had been done. But this long stretch of tulip vendors definitely got the job done.

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I can’t tell you if we broke a bigger sweat actually riding the bikes, or locking them up. Every time we tried, it was at least a 10 minute process because there was no way we were paying the 300 euro fine for a lost/stolen dinky bike. We decided to play Dutch for the day, so after buying our Amsterdam cheese and renting bikes, we headed to the park!

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On our way we made a stop at the supermarket down by Museumplein (where Rijksmuseum and I Amsterdam are) to fix up our picnic. We grabbed wine and orange soda to make our Tinto Verano (learned about in Spain), ciabatta bread and turkey to mix with our cheese, crackers and olive tapenade (cause we’re classy betches), and cherry turnovers (cause no meal is complete without dessert).

Picnic in Vondelpark

Picnic in Vondelpark

Vondelpark was everything you imagine when you think of Amsterdam. People everywhere scattered on blankets, drinking wine and champagne, and the smell of weed passed through with every gust of wind. A huge group of guys were barbecuing nearby which could not have made me more excited for summer and people walked around advertising summer music fests in the park. As far as the eye could see were bikes.
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As we left the park, we almost experienced a casualty. Turning off the bridge and onto a side street on the canal, Elise didn’t realize that we didn’t have the right of way to cross yet and before I had enough time to yell “Elise! STOP!” a small sedan collided with her. I saw HER life flash before my eyes. I pictured her flying straight up into the air and crashing down hard. Luckily for both of them, the driver stopped just in time – before yelling a combination of completely foul phrases at the poor shaken up girl.
That day, I almost lost my Big.
To this day, I’m still not sure which is the safer mode of transportation in Amsterdam: Walking or Biking. Try at your own risk.
Our final experience in Amsterdam was the Heineken Experience.
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We got discounted tickets through our hostel and took the last possible tour of the night. It’s a self guided tour, but you walk through every process of the production. First you’re introduced to the ingredients: water, barley, yeast, and the nastiest smelling Hops.
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Second, in the fermentation room you try Wort, the sweet (not so delish) pre-alcoholic mixture.
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Third, check out the bottling process and get your name printed on a bottle!
Fourth, have a mini beer and chill out in the ultimate man cave to watch some Superbowl commercials.
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Fifth, go lay down and check out Heineken commercials from throughout the years, test out your bartending skills, and head down to the main bar for 2 ice cold beers.
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To satisfy our buzz, we walked across the street to the famous Carousel Pancake House – restaurant actually built inside an old carousel. Pancakes are huge in Amsterdam, but they’re made more like crepes, and you’ll also see a lot of Belgian waffles. Like in every restaurant with an overwhelmingly long menu, I asked the waitress for her recommendations and she couldn’t have been more spot on! She brought me one with half canadian bacon (boy do I miss that) half cinnamon apples and powdered sugar.
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I always said, I need to go to Amsterdam this semester because it’s a city that I probably can’t justify going back to after college. But after experiencing what it has to offer, besides the coffee shops and whore houses, and noticing the number of families and elders that live there or just visit, I know I’ll be back one day. This beautiful city, as well as every other I’ve visited this semester, stole my heart. (Now I just need it back before my final 2 trips!)
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Until next time,
Ciao

If I am what I eat, call me Bocadillo de Jamon: Madrid

11 Apr

After a weekend of no sleep and beach parties in the Barcelona sun followed by a couple days of detoxing on the pristine Ibiza beaches, I couldn’t imagine how Madrid could get any better. Besides the little bump in the road when the airport ATM ate my debit card and absolutely no one could help me, Madrid quickly proved me wrong and stole my heart! Above all reasons to love this lively capital city is a wonderful man by the name of Chimo.

This is Chimo!

This is Chimo!

I have found that spending time with locals makes a travel experience 10 times more enjoyable and unforgettable. I was extremely lucky to be connected to Chimo because he is the cousin of my mom’s Marquette roommate’s husband. Chimo adopted the 4 of us girls for a couple days: Wined and dined us, but mostly wined as he tried and succeeded to get us pretty tipsy by midday. For our first meal in Madrid, Chimo took us out for an authentic Madrileno lunch. We first tried to meet him for our reservation at a restaurant in the city, but when we showed up the gates were up and it seemed closed down (Holy Week shenanigans..). Change of plans: Chimo arranged for us to meet at Casa Carola a bit outside the city, so we hopped in a cab and he met us there on his bike.. Harley that is. Yep, he’s a badass dad. Chimo took charge and ordered the table Cocido Madrileno, a traditional stew from Madrid. It was a rainy day in Madrid, so this hearty soup did the trick!

The base: stock and noodles

The base: stock and noodles

Beef, Chorizo, Pork Belly & Blood Sausage

Beef, Chorizo, Pork Belly & Blood Sausage

Chicken, Beef Bone Marrow & Jammon Iberico

Chicken, Beef Bone Marrow & Jammon Iberico

CHICKPEAS! Cabbage, potatoes, and carrots

CHICKPEAS! Cabbage, potatoes, and carrots

We went back for seconds.. or thirds.. fourths? I can’t remember. As much as I was paying attention to how delicious our meal was, Chimo’s stories were way too distracting! He definitely wins coolest father for life award! We heard of his wild experience running with the bulls and another event where he ran to the center of the arena and had to crack open a bottle of beer before the bull charged him, or else he couldn’t take the beer! What Europeans do for a drink, I tell ya! As if we weren’t stuffed enough at this point, out came dessert.

Flan

Flan

Arroz con leche

Arroz con leche

Torrijas - taste like french toast!

Torrijas – taste like french toast!

And the best for last! As if the wine during lunch didn’t already do the trick to the 4 detoxed girls, Chimo ordered 2 bottles of the Spanish version of grappa called Aguardiente and Orujo de hierbas. With the exception of Chimo because he’s a champ, the unanimous favorite was orujo de hierbas because it was sweeter and stung less. He had to practically shove it down Madison’s throat, but once it was down she kept coming back for more! “Arriba, Abajo, Al centro, Al dentro!” 

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"Do it, bitch" - Chimo

“Do it, bitch” – Chimo

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Now it was time to walk it all off! We got a tour of the city from the best, wisest, and funniest tour guide in town: CHIMO! We met back up in Puerta del Sol which is a sight in and of itself. This place is loaded with hooligans. You feel like you’re in an amusement park and it doesn’t feel safe. The costumes weren’t even good, they were cracked out versions of Spongebob, the Smurfs, Mario, and Spiderman with a beer belly.

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Before leaving the square we stopped to pop a squat on Spain’s “Km 0” point.

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Chimo took us past the Opera House to the enormous Palacio Real and Catedral de La Almudena.

Holy Week procession

Holy Week procession

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You can’t really escape the gypsies and hooligans in Europe. Gypsies with their squeaky toys and headless business men congregated in the other famous plaza in Madrid, Plaza Mayor. We soon discovered how fun it is to hang out here in the late hours of the night with our 1 euro bocadillos de jamon as Luke pets babies in their mom’s arms…

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To finish off the tour, Chimo walked us around El Mercado de San Miguel right outside Plaza Mayor. This semester abroad has made me a big fan of the public markets and that much more excited to come home to Milwaukee’s. The best paella we had in Spain was right here in the San Miguel market. We also had the churros with chocolate and drinking the leftover chocolate from the cup put us right over the edge! Chimo couldn’t leave us without feeding us some sort of alcohol, why not Vermouth! I’m not used to seeing something other than beer on tap, but the sweet Vermouth de Grifo was a nice fruity change.

Paella with squid ink

Paella with squid ink

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Jamon Iberico

Jamon Iberico

Vermouth de Grifo

Vermouth de Grifo

Our first night we met up with Luke and Brad who met us here from Seville. Right up the road from Puerta del Sol we discovered this unbeatable deal of a bucket of Heineken for 5 euro at Bulevart. We were sold! The big Spain v. France World Cup qualifying game was on, so it was fun to see the place riled up with sweaty B.O. smelling fans from both sides. Luke flooded the bathroom (adding to the stank) and we befriended a lonesome guy who we saw hanging out with drug dealers and prostitutes the next day. Oh the friends you make in Europe..

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Day 2 and Round 2 for Tapas con Chimo!! After buying a pair of handmade espadrille sandals from Casa de Hernanz right outside Plaza Mayor, we met Chimo a couple metro stops outside the city at La Repanocha de Tapas. The owner and cook is Chimo’s friend Quique and everything he made was melt-in-your-mouth outstanding!!

Quique and his ladies

Quique and his ladies

Some people don’t like tapas, or don’t understand them, but that’s because they’ve never had tapas like this before! The name derives from when people didn’t want bugs in their drinks so they would cover them with their plate of food, therefore “tapas” comes from the Spanish word “tapar” meaning “to cover”. Just like yesterday, we let Chimo take the reigns and the food never stopped coming.

Spanish omelette with tomatoes and onions

Spanish omelette with tomatoes and onions

Goat cheese salad

Goat cheese salad

Cecina - say it with the Spanish accent (Allison's fave!)

Cecina – say it with the Spanish accent (Allison’s fave!)

Bacalao with avocado

Bacalao with avocado

Blood sausage spring rolls

Blood sausage spring rolls

Tripe (Cow stomach)

Tripe (Cow stomach)

Entrecotte from the Esla Valley

Entrecotte from the Esla Valley

Tangerine and Mascarpone ice cream

Tangerine and Mascarpone ice cream

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

There’s no way anyone could possibly say they don’t like tapas after a meal like this one. We undoubtedly had enough food, but it was so delicious that I could have gone back in for seconds! Allison had to excuse herself from the table when the tripe came out, but everyone else dug in and devoured it, scraping the bottom with pieces of bread. Once again, no meal with Chimo is complete without the digestivos: Orujo blanco and Orujo de hierbas.

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Chimo left each of us with flash drives full of Spanish music, aka my new favorite playlist. None of us wanted to say goodbye. It felt like we had spent weeks with Chimo and it was all coming to an end. But not to worry because we all planned a Route 66 road trip together, so the good times will continue!

CHIMO, YOU DA MAN!

CHIMO, YOU DA MAN!

I won’t bore you guys with “museum talk”, but we spent the rest of the afternoon museum hopping from El Museo del Prado to La Reina Sofia. The Prado is one of the world’s largest museums, neck-in-neck with the Louvre. La Reina Sofia has wild modern art and is the kind of museum where you’ll find a massive crowd starring in deep focus at a blank white canvas on a wall.. WHAT DO YOU SEE THAT I DON’T?! As cheap college students we discovered the free entrance deals for the Prado 6pm-8pm and La Reina Sofia 7pm-9pm. A quick (free) walk through both is definitely worth it just to say you’ve gone!

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I was most surprised by how cheap Madrid is! If you’re smart, you could spend close to nothing and still have an unbelievable time! Which was very relieving as Allison took on the role as my Sugar Mama and paid for everything after my debit card dilemma. Besides Bulevart, we found a few other awesome dirt cheap places for food and drinks! One of the chicest looking is called Copas Rotas (right outside the walls of Plaza Mayor) and caught our eye with it’s unbeatable 1 Euro glasses of wine, beer, and tapas! The bartenders were gorgeous too.. you can even hear it in the sound of their voices as they call your name to come grab your tapas. I’d let them grab my tatas any day..

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Next may be our favorite and easiest to find: Museo de Jamon. It’s a chain all around the city. As Madrid’s ‘fast food’ stop, we ate here at least 1 dinner, 1 lunch, and a couple late-nights while we were there. A ‘cana’, small glass, of beer is 1 Euro and their addicting Bocadillos de Jamon are also 1 Euro. Literally it’s just crispy bread and a few pieces of their Iberian ham and just like that it’s mouthwatering, but Brad made sure to pick up some BBQ sauce to layer on and sweet baby Jesus that took it to a whole new level!

Got dat "secret" SAWCE

Got dat “secret” SAWCE

This last place was introduced to us on our last night by Chimo’s nephew Luis, his girlfriend Maria, and a group of their friends and is called 100 Montaditos. It’s also a chain and had a Panera-like feel except with cheap beer deals! For 2 Euros you get a pint of beer from the tap and a sandwich from a huge selection. From Jamon, to pollo asado, to tuna, to brie and patata, they had it all! Although I had a bocadillo de jamon stuffed in my purse for a snack on the walk home, I couldn’t pass up this steal! If you’re sick of beer, we had Tinto Verano (similar to sangria, but simpler). Ah, every sip brought be closer to sweet summertime!

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Luis

Luis

Maria

Maria

It was so good that Al, Brad, and I made sure we made it our last stop before the airport the next day. Nothing says Spring Break like a little flight pregame and some Bocadillos de Jamon!

If that doesn't scream happiness..

If that doesn’t scream happiness..

Last thing on the list for a Must-See in Madrid is Parque del Retiro. It reminds me a lot of Vila Borghese in Rome because they’re so huge and there’s so much to see and do. Right near the front there’s a giant pond where everyone rents out row boats, and you’ll always find those jackasses trying to capsize. On the other side of the pond, past the statue, are more beautiful gardens, gazebos, and we even came across some vicious peacocks. Not sure if their screams were mating calls or if they were planning an attack on us.

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Lesbianest..

Lesbianest..

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If this “foody” post doesn’t scream “I’m my father’s daughter” I don’t know what will. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Big Rich!

At the end of the week, the 4 of us unanimously agreed that we preferred Madrid to Barcelona, although was greatly influenced by the incredible time we had with our new friend Chimo! That said, we loved all 3 cities and could not have planned a more perfect week! Still can’t believe I just spent Spring Break in Spain.. This life I live is unreal. I don’t have many weekend trips left, but my exploration of Rome continues and is sadly coming to an end way too soon. BRB as I go ball my eyes out!

Until next time,
Ciao!

The Vacation from a Vacation from a Vacation: Ibiza

5 Apr

“What is this place like in the Summer? I just can’t even imagine.”  – Said every 10 minutes

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No one will understand the difference between Ibiza’s culture in the Summer and its off-season until they have experienced both first hand. Before you make any assumptions about our reasoning for a trip to Ibiza, I will have you know that we were fully aware that it’s a seasonal island and we weren’t expecting to get buck wild in skimpy bikinis in STD infested waters! Especially after no sleep in Barcelona, we were all ready to land in paradise and pass out on the beach for a couple days.

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I assumed that everyone knew what Ibiza was, but I was wrong, so I’ll explain. Ibiza is a small island off the east coast of Spain that is world renown for its INSANE nightlife, beach parties, and unreal DJ appearances. This clubber’s paradise was created by the hippies in the 60s and 70s when they settled for free love, the rave scene and a melting pot of drugs. That’s all most people picture when they think of Ibiza (Thanks to Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia) and it took my mini vacation to see it differently. People have their whole lives here. Towns like Ibiza Town on the southeast coast, where we stayed, reveal the glamorous side of life on Ibiza with its luxurious stores, restaurants, and hotels. Everyone’s walking around flaunting their designer clothes and their beautiful Mediterranean bods. As private school children in their uniforms clustered around the marina I tried to picture how this island is transformed into a giant beach party in the summer, but I couldn’t.

As you may have guessed from the conclusion of my Barcelona post, we were dead to the world when we rolled into Ibiza. We arrived on a Sunday which messed up our perspectives at the start because it felt like a ghost island. Everything was closed and no one was outside. On the drive into town we passed tons of “Closing Party” billboards still up from October. We stayed at Hostal Ibiza right on the marina. We had really nice private doubles and it was nice and quiet. From what I saw on their reservation book, most of their reservations don’t start rolling in until late April-early June. It was about 10 AM when we got settled and the 4 of us took a long (much needed) 4 hour cat nap.

First priority when we woke up: Food! We hadn’t eaten since those cheapy doughnuts from the “Paki-Mart” the night before. Right down the marina we found a doner kebob place which is typical European fast food where they shave the meat off the spit in front of you. I’d take doner kebobs over McDonalds anyday. We devoured those pitas in the sun and dangled our feet off the marina pier.

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After trying to savor every last drop of tzatziki, we went on a walk along the water searching for sand. The only person we came across along the way worth noting was a man in hiked up short shorts passed out (sunbathing) on a park bench. Still, we couldn’t imagine what a zoo this place probably is in the summertime. Finally we found Talamanca Beach which had that no worries-care free Caribbean beach feel. Smooth fine sand and calm crystal blue water with a couple of beach bars and restaurants and some competitive beach volleyball down the way. Finally, some human life!

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Day 2 in Ibiza we were fully energized and ready for some adventure! Surprisingly we all slept like logs (well I guess I should speak for myself.. and my snoring). I’m surprised because the hostel walls were paper thin and it sounded like the people in the rooms next to us were actually in our room. Lets just say we were very thankful that our neighbors weren’t a bunch of fearless lovers.

SO many more people were out today. It felt like a completely different town. Placa del Parque behind our hotel was packed with street musicians, shoppers, and patio bars. We sat on the ground underneath some palm trees to eat our breakfast: yogurt using the top as a spoon, apples, and crackers. Life of a broke college student. We spent the first half of our morning in Dalt Vila, which is the town within castle walls founded in the 600s BC just a short walk up the hill from Ibiza Town.

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The winding cobbled streets and white buildings with blue shutters and doors felt a little bit like a town you would find in Greece.

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The view from the lookout over the town was absolutely stunning..

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The winds were strong but that sun was HOT. We hiked along the coast, to the edge of the water, and through the castle walls to the tippy top of the hill.

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Once at the top the only sense of direction you have is up and down. As we shuffled back down the hill, guessing whether to go left or right at the forks, we came across the Walk of Fame outside Il Palacio Ibiza, hotel for the stars. With pictures of Marilyn and Charlie Chaplin, the wall was covered in cemented handprints and signatures of famous journalists, producers, and movie stars. This was the only name I recognized..

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The second half of our day was spent across the island in a town called Sant Antoni de Portmany. To picture how small the island really is, it was only a 25 minute bus ride from one side to the opposite side. On the bus ride over, some smelly man with dreads who looked like his clothes hadn’t been washed in years, sat next to us and played some sort of recorder type instrument the whole ride.. what did I say.. hippies. Then the bus made a huge sudden halt, probably to let a small pack of raccoons across.. common excuse, and the man in front of us dropped and shattered a huge glass bottle.. probably alcohol because come on, it’s Ibiza.

Sant Antoni is another huge clubbing town, but right now it feels deserted. We were the only people on the beach that afternoon. And I wouldn’t be kidding anyone if I said I got a shade tanner, but it was still the most relaxing afternoon we could have asked for.

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This town was a little sketchier than Ibiza Town and definitely not as glamorous, but the view of the sunset was beautiful enough for me. Cafe del Mar on the water is known to have the best view of the sunset in the summer, but knowing how closed down the island is we posted up just a hop, skip, and a jump away, on the rocks to watch the sun slowly go down over the fishing boats that were bringing in our dinner!

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We had the most incredible fish dinner at a tiny restaurant literally right on the corner of the port, down Carrer Madrid. The cook who spoke better English than the waitress came to our table to translate the menu and give his recommendations. ALWAYS take the cook’s recommendations. That’s what 3 of us did and couldn’t have been more satisfied. We had Bacalao, a salted cod that’s really popular in Spain (which we’re all obsessed with now) cooked like fish and chips with savory garlic potatoes cooked to perfection and a refreshing salad which we sadly don’t eat much of.

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It was SO GOOD that we felt the need to sneak past the bartender/waitress (who kept giving us the stink eye because we couldn’t speak or understand her language), into the kitchen to thank and compliment the smiley (and also pretty attractive) cook. When we looked down at the time we realized we only had 5 minutes to catch the bus back to Ibiza Town. In a panic we sprinted out of the restaurant, down the port, up a couple side streets, and with the bus in sight we headed full speed and approached it just as the doors were closing and it made that bus fart sound as it departs from a stop.

It was really nice and relaxing to get out of the hustle and bustle of a big city like Barcelona for a couple of days and to feel like there wasn’t as much worry about like being mugged or separated from the group, but that mini vacation only lasted a quick 2 days and then we were on our way to the next big city: Madrid!

No Wonder They Siesta: Barcelona

2 Apr

“Strut like you mean it, free your mind, it’s not enough just to dream it. Come on, Come on!” – Cheetah Girls

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Our Spring Break trip began just as any usually does: in pure chaos! and European chaos is much different than American chaos – communication barriers, unpredictable transportation, and lots of smelly and greasy people crammed into tight spaces. Allison, Madison, her friend Nikki, and I decided to do a Spain Spring Break – so you could pretty much just call us the Cheetah Girls! We started in Barcelona, then went to the island of Ibiza, then Madrid, and back to Rome for Easter. Our two goofball friends Brad and Luke were in Barca and Madrid with us (to get an idea of the type of guys they are check out my Prague post, total crackups).

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Allison & I on our balcony

Madison

Madison

Unlike American flights, RyanAir doesn’t expect you to be at the airport until right before your flight, so we timed it to be there just an hour before. Just our luck, not only did we take the bus during rush hour, but there was a car accident causing us to arrive 20 minutes before our plane took off. You never think you’ll to be that group of people sprinting through the airport and tripping over each other, but when you are it’s not as funny as it looks. Madison’s duffel permanently broke open after security and then I almost had to pay 50 Euro for my oversized carryon. That was a nightmare and a half to “shrink”. I almost started layering on all my clothes #RyanAirProbz

The flight was a breeze, just a quick hour and a half. To get to our hostel we had to take a train and then the metro. On the train there was a man walking up and down the cars playing amazing Spanish music. On board entertainment? I’ll take it! When we came out from underground and were surrounded by a big industrial city it felt like we were home in America! Barcelona’s a pretty genius city because to get to the metro they paint arrows and a “yellow brick road” on the streets and sidewalks because they know that people will be too belligerent to find it otherwise. Right outside the metro stop and the first real piece of Barca that we see is Antoni Gaudi’s colorfully aquatic themed Casa Batllo.

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Once again (thanks to our flawless trip planning skills) our hostel’s location couldn’t have been more perfect! We walked up from the metro and were smack dab at the tip of Las Ramblas, the most famous and lively strip in Barca. I couldn’t believe the amount of gorgeous Spanish men we had already seen and we hadn’t even been in the city for more than 20 minutes.. Jaw Droppers, 95% of them! Why didn’t I study here and pick up a spicy guapo Spanish man?

We stayed at St. Christopher’s Inn, the same company as my hostel in London, with the same Aussie packed Belushi’s bar and discounts. And if you’re really looking for some convincing.. it’s a block off Las Ramblas and right next to Starbucks and TopShop. Gameover. To get the night going we posted up at the bar for massive nachos and a bucket of Heinies.

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belushi

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We had a gorgeous bartender named Mo and let me tell you.. God definitely spent Mo time on that lucky man. Epitome of tall, dark, and handsome (with an accent, muscles, and tattoos).

Brad and Luke took the metro from there place to meet us at Belushi’s and when they got there they were unbelievably squirrelly! But that’s standard when you put the group of us together. Barca nightlife is unlike any I’ve ever experienced before. At around 1 I led the group to a club everyone had raved about. It was quite a hike and when we asked a couple Spaniards if we were heading in the right direction they told us we’d need to hop in a cab because it was too far. Those people must not understand how accustomed we have become to walking in Europe because we walked the 15 or so blocks and made it without a lousy cab ride! Lazy Americans my ass!

The club was called Sutton and we lucked out with free cover from a Facebook group I found. Sutton was outrageous, I felt like I was in Vegas. Everyone was dressed to the nines, “Vegas” show girls marched around, and bottles on bottles of Chandon were carried out on platters lit with sparklers. WE MISSED JBIEBS BY 1 WEEKEND!!

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The 6 of us danced on top of a platform in the middle of the dance floor all night long and left after we heard a few too many corny pick up lines.

Our 2nd day in Barcelona was spent wandering the city. A couple blocks down Las Ramblas we stumbled upon El Mercat de la Boqueria, the massive food market full of fresh fruits, tapas bars, and the freshest and largest fish market that I’ve ever seen, smack dab in the middle.

Las Ramblas

Las Ramblas

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I was on a hunt for grilled octopus, but instead I popped some scrumptious cod fritters in my mouth.

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Cod Fritters

Cod Fritters

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We aimlessly strolled through the winding streets surrounding Las Ramblas and came across the Barcelona Cathedral. After one lap inside we sat on the steps outside to take in the Barcelona street life: scattered groups of chatty hot Spaniards and musicians hanging out near trash cans.

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Next on the agenda: Bike ride through Barcelona. Along the way to the bike garage we dipped into Playa Real for a peek. It’s a gorgeous square surrounded by palm trees and patio seating and if I had more time (& money) I’d definitely grab dinner somewhere around it! Before our 2 hour ride, we grabbed lunch at Walk to Wok (recommended stir fry chain). The cooks were smokin’ hot Spaniards that were fun to chat with over some udon noodles, “Barcelona isn’t Spain,” one of them admitted.

DSCN1493_2 DSCN1494 All around the city are bike garages under the company, Budget Bikes. It was hands down the best way to see every part of the city. From the long stretch of beach…

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Only I would take on a bike in wedges..

Only I would take on a bike in wedges..

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Cruisin down the boardwalk

Cruisin down the boardwalk

to dodging people and cars through the chaotic city center, and past beautifully artistic monuments…

La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi

La Sagrada Familia by Gaudi

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Barcelona's Arc de Triomf

Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf

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Everywhere we wanted to stop were major pickpocket traps, so we clutched onto our bikes for a swift getaway. The brakes were a little faulty and because we were riding in the middle of the road with all the crazy European drivers, I almost crashed into the back of half a dozen cars. We met hot Alejandro back at the bike drop off (I’ll never get sick of the European cheek kisses), rewarded ourselves with a Dunkin Doughnut, and SIESTA-ED!!

That night we went down to the beach clubs – True Barca! We had to take the metro, which is a lifesaver in Spain, and it was packed with party people headed to the beach! Catwalk, Shoko, and Opium are the major hotspots that sit right on the beach. One of the club promoters pulled us past the line into Shoko where, once again, we danced on top of a huge platform in the middle of the dance floor until creepy men started sneaking up behind us.

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By the end of the night I was salsa dancing with a black man and Allison pulled me away from dancing with a Cannibal. Alright not really, but he was bleeding from the neck all over his white deep V. I don’t know how people party until the sun rises on the beach every day! Let’s just say Allison and I missed hostel breakfast the next morning.

Last day in Barcelona! The group split up, so Al and I headed North on the metro to Gaudi’s famous Park Guell. It’s in a less appealing part of the city with the longest escalator I’ve ever seen taking you from the main road all the way to the top of the hill.

DSCN1567The terrace of Park Guell is lined with a multicolored mosaic bench that serpentines all the way around with palm trees at its back and it overlooks all of Barcelona with the sea in the distance and La Sagrada Familia poking out in the middle.

DSCN1580_2DSCN1575DSCN1599 DSCN1597 DSCN1589Underneath the terrace were acrobatic and magic acts, jewelry vendors, and just some plain old circus freaks. Even in early Spring there were tons of people around the Park. I can’t imagine the hype in the heat of the summer.

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I just think it’s so cool that I learned all about Gaudi and his incredibly unique work in the 6 years that I took Spanish classes and I never sat in those classes imagining that one day I’d be standing in front of it.

After a quick stop into a bakery for a white chocolate covered elephant ear, we took the metro straight to the beach.

Spanish musicians on Public Transportation

Spanish musicians on Public Transportation

We took a walk to the end of the pier down at the marina and that’s when we noticed.. A MALL!! HALLELUJAH! I wanted to fall down and kiss the ground!

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I can’t remember the last time I saw a multistoried indoor mall. Barcelona has such glamorous, fresh, and vibrant fashion and the Maremagnum Mall definitely showcased that. I could have gotten a lot more credit card happy, but it was a test of my wise budgeting skills.. and I passed!

Back at the hostel we had our first taste of Sangria in Espana! Definitely adding that to our list of summer concoctions!

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Now here’s where our genius dumbest idea ever comes into play. We had to be at the airport at 5 AM the next morning to catch our flight to Ibiza, so Allison and I thought it’d make sense to pull an all nighter and have some fun with our fellow hostel guests!

We were off to a great start! We made friends with a huge group of semi-socially awkward French men in the lounge area, then went out to buy 50 cent doughnuts while being followed into the store by 2 scary black men, and then we made it back to the hostel bar where we befriended a German guy that looked like Calvin Harris and a hilarious Irish guy.

Calvin Harris?!

Calvin Harris?!

When I asked the Irish guy if he knew the love of my life, Colin Farrell (cause how could he not..) his response was, “Well futbol isn’t fun anymore cause we have 4 on 5 now that Colin Farrell left to make a 2 hour long video about a man stuck in a phonebooth.. WHO WANTS TO WATCH A PHONEBOOTH FOR 120 MINUTES!”

When the bar closed at 3, we went up to our spaceship bunk beds (coolest and comfiest beds on Earth) to take a “power nap”. Thank the Lord that Madison was sane enough to go to bed at a reasonable time because without her to wake us up at 4 AM we would have missed our flight. To make things better.. when she woke me up I was passed out upright in bed with my computer on my lap (probably typing this god awful post to all of you). I miraculously managed to not forget anything at the hostel (found my lock in the pocket of my leather jacket 3 days later) and passed out in a McDonald’s booth in the airport until I was scolded, “No dormir, no dormir!!!”

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Next stop: IBIZA!

Off the Grid & Under the Tuscan Sun: Montalcino, Siena, & Firenze

23 Mar

(Rewind to our stay at Il Poggione)

After stuffing my face with the most incredible meal I’ve ever devoured, Francesca dropped us off at the local bus stop so we could spend the day in Montalcino. Expecting a dinky city bus, we were surprised when a giant coach bus rolled up. Empty. Only Allison, me, and the smelly Indian bus driver with giant boils on his face.

Unlike the harvest season, Montalcino was extremely quiet when we got dropped off. We walked through a square that I remember being loud and packed with young locals drinking beer and Italian street musicians and singers covering American oldies. This time it was empty, but exactly what we wanted. We were drawn into a little cafe because of the huge windows in the back with a huge landscape view of the beautiful Tuscan town.

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We ordered Brunello (cause “when in Montalcino..”) and it was brought out by a delicious looking man and some delicious cheese.

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All we wanted to do this trip was wind down, have girl talk, and drink good wine – not that fake stuff we drink out of a box. So if that makes us sound like 50 year old women well then, so be it!

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We wandered the streets for a couple hours. Took a walk through the castle, made fools of ourselves in front of wine stores, and eventually (just as the sun was setting) stumbled upon a playground.

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We were brought back to our childhood, except instead of swinging in front of groups of kids picking their noses on the woodchips, we were swinging in front of vineyard covered hills. Oh and you know we teeter-tottered.

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Before the Bindocci’s met us in town for dinner we grabbed coffee from a cafe right in the square. I didn’t realize until I went home and looked at videos from my last trip to Montalcino that the bartender/barista I had been talking to for a while was the same one that had poured my beer 3 years ago.

Mr., Mrs., and Francesca took us out for a pizza dinner in Montalcino. I was really looking forward to it because pizza’s always better when go with locals and surprisingly, I don’t eat much pizza when I’m in Rome (although I should start taking advantage as I only have 1 month left). Mmmm we got a platter of fried vegetables (the fried potatoes were melt in your mouth!) and everyone got pizza except Allison who got a huge vegetable calzone (proud of my little one for stepping out of her margarita pizza comfort zone). Dinner was far less frustrating this time around because I could understand 90% of what they said to me in Italian and I was able to answer them in Italian (or try to). I felt really bad for Francesca always ends up being the bilingual translator. We ended dinner with some classic Italian digestivos because as Allison says, “A happy life starts with a happy colon.”… Some had Orzo, which is like a mix between coffee and tea, and the Mrs. and I had Grappa, try if you have a strong desire to severely burn your esophagus.

I can’t remember the last time I felt that full. Let’s just say it was a sprawl on the bed and unbutton your pants kind of night. Yet somehow we still had room to snack on our leftover cake.. nothing can stop us.

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After Al experimented with the shower and flooded the entire bathroom we decided to call it a night.

We started the next morning the way any smart person should: with some good ol’ MTV music videos. I feel like I don’t know what’s going on in the pop culture world sans my iPhone and TV. Like who is this Juicy J character? I thought that was a type of gum..? Anyway, Francesca came down the hill to pick us up again and this time we were off to Siena! It was raining that morning in Sant’Angelo (when is it not raining in Italy?) and we followed a group of hunched over old women onto another coach bus. The ride was only an hour, but within minutes the two of us were out cold. Mouths wide open and everything. When we got dropped off at Siena’s train station I thought Allison was going to kill a person because she had to go to the bathroom so bad. When she’s cold or has to go to the bathroom, don’t mess.

When we thought we knew which bus to get on to take us to the city center, we were wrong. We got on what we thought was the right bus, rode it for a good 30 minutes, got off, realized we went in the complete opposite direction, (laughed at our lives), waited for that bus to come back the other way, got on and rode it another 40 minutes into the city. It’s all a learning experience and at least we were just missing out on the rain.

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Siena is a beautiful city circled around a huge square, Piazza del Campo, famous for its annual horse race, Il Palio. The Friday that we were there not only was it International Women’s Day, but there was a weekend long chocolate festival going on in the square. Women + Chocolate.. there’s nothing more perfect.

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Il Torre del Mangia

Il Torre del Mangia

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This chocolate fest had every kind of chocolate you could imagine and we walked booth to booth shmoozing for as many samples as we could. We tried one that was 100% cacao and ughh the bitterness was like a suicide for our throats. But the chocolate covered fruit and “hot chocolate” were calling our names. I use the quotes because by hot chocolate they meant “a cup of straight up melted chocolate”. They even had chocolate iPhones.. tempting, but a girl needs her SnapChat.
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We grabbed lunch on the patio of Piazza del Campo under a heated tent. I ordered another unbelievable tagliatelle bolognese with a Chianti, famous in Tuscany. The waitor was some good eye candy, so we obviously stayed for a while.
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Another beautiful spot in Siena is the Duomo that doesn’t seem so big until you stand next to it and look like an ant in pictures. Speaking of ants.. I had some in my pants because I could not wait for dinner. Francesca had invited our friend Claudia who’s my age and studying in Siena and I had been dying to see her since we last saw each other as little 16 year olds who rode vespas and threw molotov cocktails in the Sant’Angelo streets.
Can you see me?

Can you see me?

We decided to switch up the menu for tonight and go with Indian cuisine at Namastey India! I really wasn’t experienced in that department, but as long as I don’t have a Ben Stiller “Along Came Polly” experience then I’m down to get exotic. Turns out everything was amazing and spicy-just how I like it! Pretty sure that by the end of the meal we were all sweating bullets. Our waiter brought over some awesome digestivos that were little candy that looked like Nerds but tasted like black licorice (I’m tellin you, these Italians take digestion pretty dang seriously).

Claudia and Francesca

Claudia and Francesca

I didn’t want to leave Claudia that night and after she showed us around her adorably Italian furnished apartment in Siena it was really sad to say goodbye again, especially since we only got to spend a couple hours together. Allison and I crashed on the car ride home. I tried to stay up as long as I could to keep Francesca from falling asleep at the wheel, but my eyes wouldn’t let me!
I couldn’t believe that the weekend in the Il Poggione farmhouse was already over. I’ll miss that view, that wine, that relaxation, and that family. Francesca drove Al and I out to a bus stop the next morning so we could grab the bus to Firenze.
Who knew shopping could be so frustrating for a woman? The Florence leather market is one of the most overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had. Not only do the rows of vendors never end, but every vendor has the same purses, the vendors are all obnoxious and clingy, and the bartering game is so stressful. I didn’t want to impulse buy, so I sat on my options all day and came back right before we left town as they were closing shop. I almost left (depressed) without an Italian leather purse because no one would accept my price, but I finally pissed off a vendor so much that he just sold me the bag to get rid of me. “She” is beautiful and “She” is my new baby.
Rocking my baby in Santa Maria Novella train station.

Rocking my baby in Santa Maria Novella train station.

Throughout the day we roughed it in the rain with our heavy backpacks breaking our backs as we tried to hit all the major spots. The only thing we didn’t do was the David because I for one have already seen it and also, why pay to see a naked statue? You know what to expect, you’ve seen all the pictures, so where’s the surprise?

The Duomo

The Duomo

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I still don't understand the size proportions he was going for here..

I still don’t understand the size proportions he was going for here..

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After we got our fix of naked men we walked down Ponte Vecchio, the cutest bridge to window shop on. If someone was to propose to me with an engagement ring from Ponte Vecchio it’d be a done deal!

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The classic reaction to the "Love Locks"

The classic reaction to the “Love Locks”

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

After shopping, walking, and gazing up at male statue genitals, we had worked up an appetite. We got lunch at El Gato e La Volpe which is pretty much Florence’s version of Rome’s “Tony’s” and if you study abroad in Europe then you know Tony’s. In both places the owner table hops and chats with all the patrons and you definitely get a lot for your money.

Tagliatelle with Truffle Cream Sauce

Tagliatelle with Truffle Cream Sauce

As the sun (which was barely even out) was beginning to set we wanted to make sure we made it up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. This is a must do/see across the river from the main attractions.

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Prepare yourself for quite a hike. The hill is pretty steep and the steps feel never ending, so by the time I reached the top with my backpack the size of a small child weighing me down, I was gasping for air. The view for the top is so worth it though! ADVICE: I’ve learned that it’s best not to pay for views FROM the famous monuments (like the Duomo), but to find a free view OF that monument.

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All the naked statues must have gotten Allison going because as I’m soaking up the gorgeous view, she comes up beside me and randomly proposes we moon Florence. Right then and there. What did we have to loose? We’ll never see these people again! YOFO (You Only Florence Once). Bet the city wasn’t expecting that kind of full moon that night!
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The face just says it all!

The face just says it all!

At least we went out with a BANG! Our Tuscan weekend had come to an end and we were sad to say goodbye, but excited to get back to Rome Sweet Rome. On the train home we befriended a couple of older men from Naples that spoke decent English and loved the States. One man revealed the entire history of his brother’s love life (all 4 wives) and then proceeded to try to convince me that Michael Jackson is still alive. Oh the people you meet on public transportation..

Until next time,
Ciao!