Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Churros and chocolate: a vacation from vacation in Espagne

After running around Italy at hyper speed and spending way too much money on tourist attractions and gelato, we decided to take it easy in Spain, and treat it like a real vacation. Staying in Sevilla made this task a piece of cake.

Bre and I took a luxurious Ryanair flight from Rome to Sevilla Sunday afternoon. We had heard of the horrors of Ryanair and their strict rules about carry on baggage, but by wearing excessive layers of clothing and sitting on our backpacks for half an hour, we successfully made it through the baggage check without having to pay an extra fee. (In reality, our friends had exaggerated a little. Ryanair's carry on baggage size restriction isn't any smaller than the other airlines. They just don't allow for much creative interpretation of their rules and charge hefty fees for disobeying.)

When we touched down in Sevilla, in the south of Spain, we were greeted by sunshine, a warm breeze, and the sweet scent of oranges. I've never smelled a city so delicious. Sevilla is full of parks, orange trees, and everything green, a welcome sight after the cement landscape of Rome and treeless Venice. Walking to our hostel, we saw the street train rolling at a slow pace through the center of downtown, and I loved the sound of its bell. For some reason it reminded me of a port city with a foghorn muffled by morning fog.

Although Sevilla isn't on the sea, it's on a beautiful river which used to be a main trading port. The river scene rivaled the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with a lot less tourists. Less tourists was a common theme in Sevilla, and I felt like I could finally breathe again. During our time there we decided not to spend more money on museums, and found the free attractions, such as la Plaza de Espana, where the planet Naboo from Star Wars Episode One was filmed. Also, although Sevilla's cathedral charges an entry fee, we mistakenly walked inside before it opened and got a quick peek for free. Impressive, even with the lights off. Bre's friend from Wisconsin, and my friend Gayle from Michigan are both studying in Sevilla this semester, so they took turns showing us the sights of the city and explaining the Spanish lifestyle.

From what I can tell, the Spanish lifestyle is pretty laid back, maybe more so than the French. They have a nice long break in the middle of the day, and don't eat until 9 or 10 at night. When making food at our hostel, we attempted to be "Spanish" and eat later, but could only hold out until 8 PM. But at least we tried, right? We allowed ourselves one dinner out, too, and went to a tasty tapas place with Bre's friend. It was delicious, and super cheap. We tried four different tapas and two glasses of "tinto de verano" (Sevilla's take on sangria) all for under 6 euro. Throughout our stay, we remarked repeatedly that it was uber cheap compared to Aix and Italy. I would go back just to eat cheap, delicious tapas.

We also went to a bar with flamenco, which was very touristy, but interesting as well. Sadly, I was exhausted and could hardly stay awake during the performance, but I enjoyed what I saw when my eyes were open. I loved the Spanish culture and how bright and colorful it was. I'm determined to learn Spanish now, so I can visit places like Sevilla and not feel like an idiot.

Sevilla was one of my favorite cities, and like Venice, I was reluctant to leave it. But we had to go on to our last stop: Barcelona. Many people have told me that Barcelona is their favorite city in Europe, and it's very hip and "the place to be," so I had pretty high expectations for it. However, I had low expectations for its pickpockets, and after hearing numerous horror stories, was prepared for the worst, and never let go of my purse in the city. (Luckily, neither of us lost anything.)

As a city, I'll admit that Barcelona is pretty cool. The crazy, colorful Gaudi architecture can be found everywhere, and I especially liked his designs in Park Guell. We also saw the Sagrada Familia, the architect's unfinished cathedral, and it was different from any cathedral I've seen so far. We didn't go inside though, figuring it would be better to pay the 10 euro fee when it's actually finished. (But since it's been in construction for 130 years, it probably won't be finished in my lifetime.) Gaudi's designs would randomly pop up as we walked down the street, and we'd have to stop and take a second look at the curvy architecture. It reminded me of something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, almost edible.

In addition to the more modern art, Barcelona has a beautiful Gothic quarter, with an old cathedral. This, we also chose not to pay to enter, and admired it from the outside. The Barri Gothic reminded me a little of Aix, and made me a wee bit homesick, I'll admit. Because as much as I liked the marvels of Barcelona, it is still a huge city, and I was pretty tired of all things urban at that point.

While the combination of old and new in Barcelona is cool, my favorite part was the beach. Two of my friends from Michigan who are studying in Madrid met us in Barcelona for Friday and Saturday, so we all trekked to the beach Saturday afternoon after grabbing some delicious fruit and sandwiches from the market. When we arrived, the weather was sunny and warm, a little nippy for sunbathing, but we stripped down to our bathing suits in defiance anyway. There were lots of other people doing the same thing, and we had the delightful opportunity to see a completely nude man on a bicycle ride by not once, but twice! But apart from the biker and an old woman liberating herself by going topless, the beach was pretty clothed in general. Despite the hawkers who walked by us literally every thirty seconds trying to sell everything from massages, tattoos, "sexy donuts" and "sexy beer," we enjoyed the sun and sea for an hour before it turned cloudy and cold. The weather in general wasn't great in Barcelona, but we made the best of it. Seeing the water put me at ease and reminded me of home, and I can't wait to go swimming when I get back to Michigan.

Saturday night we went out to a restaurant, which I like to call the Spanish equivalent of Big Boy. I'm not a fan of Big Boy, but I am a fan of this restaurant, because we got to try delicious paella for a cheap price. Bre and I split the Spanish dish of rice and seafood, and I had some difficulty making myself eat the crustaceans. I've never had to pull the legs and head off of my food before I ate it, and if I hadn't been helped along by a glass of sangria and a tourists resolve to try everything, I may not have been able to eat it. I made some comical faces in the process, but it was tasty enough to make me forget my initial disgust.

Craving a milkshake after dinner (since I have an uncontrollable sweet tooth) we stopped into Burger King, since they're everywhere in Barcelona. Normally I would have sampled something more traditional for dessert, but at 1 in the morning, the usual places weren't open. So we sat in BK slurping our "BK Fusion" (no milkshakes there) and watching people come into the restaurant until around 3 AM. I hear Barcelona is known for its night life, but as usual we were too tired to actually sample it, and I was quite content to catch up on the year's events with my Michigan friends and enjoy the night sights of Barcelona sans clubbing.

Sunday morning Bre and I rose at 7 AM to catch our train, arrived at the train station to learn that there was no train to France (thank you, French strikes), and were herded to a bus instead. Luckily, the bus ride was only a few hours, and we got to our connection in Montpellier at the same time as the train would have. And then we discovered that our train from Montpellier to Marseille no longer existed. So we walked around the beautiful French town for a few hours and napped in a garden before finally catching a train back to Marseille in the evening. Apparently it was the only train back to Marseille, because it was packed with irritated, exhausted travelers, and we had to sit on the floor for part of our journey. The French train strikes coupled with the Icelandic volcano have virtually stopped European travel, especially in France. I consider myself lucky because I have friends who are stuck in the States, stuck in Brussels, stuck in Morocco, and stuck all over Europe. I've never been happier to be back in Aix, studying for finals and suntanning in the park, able once again to eavesdrop on the conversations of people around me. (In a non creepy way, of course.)

If the air clears and travel improves, my mom will be visiting Aix next week, so hopefully I'll be able to show her around the beautiful place I finally call home.

Monday, April 19, 2010

When in Rome...

Everyone told me that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t see it in one day either, so we set aside five days to explore the great city. We were reluctant to leave Venice Wednesday morning, but had to move on to our next city, so we boarded the train again (yes!) and headed south.

In my travels, I often imagine cities as they were at their peak, and get a nasty shock when I realize that today they are just modern cities with hints of their long history. This happened in Rome. As our train pulled in to the station, looking at the graffiti on the buildings, I realized that Rome is, after all, a city, with lots of people, lots of cars, and noise. Fortunately, this city has a lot of other things to offer.

After checking into our hostel, we walked down to the Coliseum, took some pictures from the outside, and tried to find our way to the nearest McDonald’s, where we were told there would be a free tour. Seeing so many McDonald’s was also a shock. Aix doesn’t have McDonald’s, or Burger King, or Starbucks. It seems to be one of the only European cities that has successfully kept these fat food joints out. I vowed not to eat McDonald’s in Europe, and have so far kept my promise, although I may have to try it sometime because I hear the meat is of a better quality here. But anyway, we met a tour group at the golden arches and received a very detailed tour of Roman architecture and art history. The Romans liked to steal columns from the Egyptians, so these towering pillars dot the city, always topped by some sort of Christian symbol, which makes for an interesting mix. Although I complained about Rome’s “cityness,” its architecture is really beautiful, and the buildings come in lots of pink and yellow colors, as well as traditional grey.

Our knowledgeable tour guide took us to the popular tourist spots, such as the Spanish Steps (crammed with too many tourists) and the Trevi Fountain (also crammed with too many tourists.) Legend has it that if you throw one coin in the Fountain, you’ll come back to Rome some day. Throw two, and you’ll fall in love there. Throw three, and you’ll get married there. Throw your blood in the fountain, and you’ll have all three and good luck for life… This last one I made up, actually, because just as we were posing for pictures next to the massive fountain, jostling for a good position, I got a bloody nose. Although I would like to say that it was because of a fight with another tourist to get close to the fountain, I have no idea why it happened, but it makes for a good story.

Wednesday night Bre and I met up with some of my friends from Aix who were also in Rome, and we went out for some pasta. (Real Italian lasagna is so much better than anything I have tasted in the States, and I don’t think I could duplicate it if I tried.) After dinner, Bre and I walked around the monuments, hoping to find them less busy at 9PM, but no luck. We walked up to the top of the Spanish steps and watched some German school group singing campfire songs, and met some interesting people from California. Around midnight we went back to the Trevi Fountain and finally got to get close enough to touch the water. And then they closed it for cleaning.

Thursday we got up early and took the metro to the Vatican. While waiting in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, we got a good look at another Egyptian column topped with a cross, and the podium where the Pope addresses the public. (We missed the Pope himself.) After the guards checked to make sure our clothing was acceptable (no sandals or bare shoulders) we entered St. Peter’s. I could go on and on about this church, because it was truly magnificent. I never understood how large it is, but it is the largest Catholic church in the world (although a church in Africa supposedly claims otherwise). We wandered its cavernous rooms for over an hour, and my neck hurt from looking up at the ceiling so much.

We also took a tour of the Vatican Museum, but made the mistake of paying a hefty price for a horrible tour guide. She didn’t tell us anything new and never explained the paintings we were looking at, and by the end of the tour Bre and I were going to demand a refund. But then we reached the Sistine Chapel and forgot our frustration. Like everything else important in Rome and the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel was packed with people. No longer really a chapel and more just a piece of art, the room was humid and buzzing with low chatting, although the guards yelled “No Talking!” every few minutes. I also got a sore neck from looking up at this ceiling, and it was awesome to finally see Michelangelo’s great work in person. There is so much detail in the artwork, and all on the ceiling. I can’t imagine how hard it was for him to do it, but he did.

I would have stayed at the Vatican Museum longer, but it was closing, so we headed back to our hostel and had free (yes!) pasta for dinner. The next day (Friday) we toured the Coliseum and the Roman Forum. By this time, I was exhausted and a little sick of looking at old things and contemplating their significance, but it was a nice day and good to sit on the steps of a temple and nap. (oops!). It was also cool to see where Julius Caesar was burned, and made me want to read some Shakespeare. (Et tu, Brute?) After that Bre obliged me by going to the sight of a scene from “Roman Holiday” where Audrey Hepburn sticks her hand in La Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth). Big surprise, there was a line to take your picture with it, and a small fee, so I just took a quick picture through the gate.

Friday night we went out with some British friends we’d made in the hostel. I’m delighted to learn that pasties (my favorite yooper food) are everywhere in England (since they came from Cornwall) and you can buy them at the grocery store basically anywhere. If I make it to the UK, I will surely find some. We had so much fun Friday night that on Saturday we decided to take it easy and found a gorgeous park, where we took a long nap in the sunshine. The rest of Rome was similarly lazy, and we were ready to move on to Spain.

To me, Italy, and especially Florence, was very similar to Southern France, and I didn't find many extreme cultural difference like I did in Greece. The few real Italians we encountered seemed more expressive and loud than the French, but like I said, most of the people we saw were tourists, and the real Italia remains a mystery to me.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Venice: a living museum

Phew, I’m tired. I could probably pass out right now if I let myself, but I have a lot to catch up on after two weeks of vacation, so I’ll just jot a few things down before I hibernate for a few days and regain my energy. Five cities is a lot to handle in two weeks, especially for a country bumpkin like me. So where was I…Italy?

The Easter celebrations in Florence were spectacular, but the city itself didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped. Venice, on the other hand, is another story.

Monday morning (April 6) I got a real treat in the form of my very first train ride. The journey from Florence to Venice was a luxurious roll through the Italian countryside, and I’ve vowed to ask Obama for more trains in the States as soon as I get home, because train travel is a hundred times more convenient than the hassles of plane security and less stressful than driving. And the seats are pretty comfy too.

Immediately after getting off the train in Venice, I was impressed. With the Grand Canal in front of us, Bre and I paused for a moment to take in the scene. Throngs of tourists rushed by us trying to find the most direct way to their hotels (which is an impossible feat in Venice). Because it was a cloudy day, there weren’t as many boats out, but the ferries and cargo vessels still steamed by the sinking canal-side palaces. Gondoliers in striped shirts and straw hats paddled tourists down the canal, and everywhere stood people taking pictures. All of this we saw from the steps of the train station.

After catching our breath we took out our handy dandy itinerary and tried to decipher the directions to our hostel. In Venice, there are no streets, rues, avenues, boulevards, or highways. Just calles and fondamentas, little pathways along the canals and in between buildings. This new lingo coupled with a lack of proper signage and lack of Italian knowledge made our quest for the hostel rather challenging. But eventually we arrived at the door of “A Venice Museum.” We’d read some interesting reviews about this hostel, mostly that the living conditions were pretty subpar, but it was a ton of fun, so we figured this would be our “true” hostel experience on the trip, more social than convenient. This risk paid off, because the hostel ended up being my favorite, and we met some amazing people there. It’s situated in an old building on the Canal, and we were told that Michelangelo once lived in one of its rooms, hence the “Museum” name. Parts of it certainly looked like a museum, with gilded mirrors, a large main hall, and Venetian painting designs on our room’s ceiling. Aside from the fact that we had to pay for our sheets and there was one bathroom (with no shower curtain) for about twenty girls, it was a great place to stay. The staff were pretty casual and made us pizza one night and pasta the next for dinner and served free sangria. The whole hostel ate together at one table, and we got to know each other pretty well. We met a French Canadian girl who had been on the same bus as us to Florence, and who is also studying in Aix. Because she speaks French better than English, we conversed in French during dinner, and it was a great feeling to finally be the person who speaks a second language better than someone else. We also met a lot of Canadians, and at one point I’m pretty sure Canadians surrounded me and we got into an interesting discussion on socialized health care. Of course, there was also a group of Americans there, who ended up staying in the same hostel as us in Rome. Everyone was traveling to similar places, and although we were from different countries, we all had similar stories and lack of funds, and got along pretty well. I digress a little, but hostels can make or break an experience, and I wouldn’t have had half as much fun if I hadn’t met such interesting people during my travels.

Our first day in Venice, after checking in to the hostel, we took the ferry down the Grand Canal, and while listening to Rick Steve’s commentary (via a shard iPod), learned about the glory and doom of Venetian life. The city is rich with a history of …riches. Once the richest city in the world and a crossroads between Turkey and Italy, its huge palaces along the Canal have unique and extremely ornate architecture and decoration, with both Italian and Byzantine influences. Putzing down the Canal, we also learned and witnessed how these beautiful buildings are slowly sinking into the water, and due to flooding; most of the first floors are vacant. The decaying grandeur of Venice was haunting, and made it all the more beautiful.

The ferry let us off at St. Mark’s Square, which was packed with tourists. We toured St. Mark’s Basilica because it was free, and well worth the wait in line. I have never seen a church decorated with so much gold mosaic, and it was cool to learn that St. Mark is buried beneath the church. It’s also interesting to note that the floor of the church was buckling in rolling waves because of the sinking foundation of the building. I try not to think of what will happen when this beautiful building succumbs to the sea. After the Basilica, we walked around for a while and window shopped in the stores selling Venetian Carnival masks and Murano glass, but soon tired of the press of tourists, and returned to the hostel for dinner.

After dinner, a bunch of us went out to what looked like the only bar in the town (I guess Venice doesn’t have much night life.) Unimpressed with the scene, Bre, myself, and another girl decided to explore the city some more and take a look at St. Mark’s Square sans tourists. In my opinion, midnight is the best time to view the Square, because we could stand in the middle (do a few cartwheels) and look at St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and the other buildings without being jostled by a thousand other people with cameras. We lay down in the middle of the square for a few minutes and then realized it was cold, so headed back to the hostel. Getting back was a challenge, because the streets make no sense, but we made it eventually.

The second day in Venice, Bre and I got up early to beat the line at the Doge’s Palace. In Venice’s heyday, the Doge was the top dog, and important enough to have his own secret entrance to the Basilica and a beautiful palace. In reality, though, his life sounded a bit dull. He didn’t have real legislative or judicial power, or any kind of official power, and was only allowed to leave Venice for two days at a time, with permission of the Council. Nevertheless, his palace is impressive. After a while, walking through room after room of gilded ceilings and magnificent paintings got to be overwhelming, and I couldn’t imagine anyone actually living and working there. But everything in Venice is over the top, so I guess at one time it seemed normal.

In the Doge’s Palace tour, we got to walk through the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” so named by poets because it supposedly afforded prisoners crossing from the jail to the courthouse one last look at the water before they were put on trial and probably sentenced to death. It was a beautiful day, and I couldn’t help sighing myself as I looked down at the canal below, wondering when the endless tour of fascinating but overwhelming historical chambers would end. (Note: the Bridge of Sighs may sound romantic, but to our luck, it is currently undergoing renovation, and most of it is covered with scaffolding on the outside. Better yet, the scaffolding is covered in an advertisement. Nothing like a historical landmark sharing space with a “Bulgari” ad.)

To take advantage of the sunny day, we took a ferry to nearby Murano Island, the island of glassblowers. This island had simpler, brighter buildings, still with a Venetian style, and considerably less tourists. We sat by the water resting and listening to a bad accordion player and then found some studios where we watched some glassblowers at work.

The rest of Tuesday we got lost in Venice trying to find the Jewish ghetto and a place to fill up our plastic water bottles with wine (for less than a euro!). When we left for Rome the next morning, it was with reluctant feet and a wish to come back some day before the great city disappears. Before it sinks in the sea, it will more likely become a huge museum. As Rick Steves explained, the city now only has about 60,000 inhabitants, and 1000 leave each year. A town built of bridges, steps, and boats, isn’t a great place to raise kids and make a living, apparently. (It is, however, a great place for celebrities. Rumor has it that Angelina Jolie & Co. were staying in the palace across the canal from our hostel, and Johnny Depp was supposedly roaming the island doing a film shoot. Sadly, we saw neither, but I took some pictures of the Branjolina Palace just in case.)

So it took a lot to explain my trip to Venice, but I truly loved this city. The gondolas may only be ridden by tourists at exorbitant prices and the city’s real inhabitants may be disappearing with its buildings, but it is still a beautiful place rich in history, and like no other place I’ve been.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ciao Bella: Easter in Florence

To avoid an extremely long and much too summarized version of my spring break in Italy and Spain, Im getting ahead of the game and writing right now, in my hostel, before I rack up too many stories to retell in this space.

So right now Im in sunny Florence, Italy...actually its pouring rain. And freeeezing. I left France Thursday night with only one pair of jeans and some skirts, thinking that the slightly more Southern location of Italy and Spain would make it warmer than Aix..wrong. But despite the colder than expected weather, I have enjoyed my time in Florence.

My friend Bre and I boarded the overnight bus from Aix to Florence last thursday night at 10:30 PM and began our first real "backpacking Europe" trip. (When I say backpacking, I mean backpacking. Due to our two Ryanair flights, we each only brought a bookbag for our two week vacation, trying to avoid a baggage fee. It remains to be seen if this was a good idea.) The busride was long and I got about two hours of sleep total, and we arrived in Florence around 8:30 Am Friday morning. After dropping our luggage off at our hotel we stopped into a pastry shop to try out some Italian words "bonjourno" e "ciao" and eat some breakfast, then went on a free tour of the city with our hostel. Our guide showed us around the city famous for its Renaissance art, and pointed out the unavoidable presence of the famous Medici family and their contributions to the city. We walked by the Duomo, a giant cathedral with an elaborate facade of green, pink, and white marble, and stepped inside to see its less elaborate interior. Due to the Easter preparations, the alter area was closed off so we couldnt get a great view of the "Judgement Day" paintings on the dome, but I took a few pictures. Climbing to the top of Brunelleschi's myseteriously ginormous dome was also not allowed this weekend, so we climbed the 400 some steps to the top of Giotto's tower (next to the Duomo) to get a great view of the city.

Friday we wandered around the city some more, ate delicious gelato, and avoided the massive crowds of tourists. (I've been here three days and I still can't find a native of Florence. Apparently they flee the city on this most busiest of tourist weekends.)

Saturday morning we got up bright and early and caught the city waking up. We were free to stroll down the middle of the street uninterupted by cars, or more importantly, tourists, and got a whole new view of the Duomo and various statues littering the city. After being denied a student price (Florence doesn't have student prices for anything) we explored the famous Uffizi gallery and gazed at famous Renaissance works of Michaelangelo and Boticelli while thinking intellectual and deep thoughts. Rembering my days of feverishly memorizing Renaissance paintings in world history, I was glad to be able to know enough about "The Birth of Venus" and the various Madonnas to do more than just look at them.

Saturday was a slightly warm and sunny day, and had great weather for strolling across the Ponte Vecchio (packed with tourists gawking at gold merchants) and watch the greenish-brown Arno River slide by. We also entered numerous churches with fantastic artwork and tombs of people somehow related to the Medici's, but once we ran into churches that started charging for entry, we started looking for other forms of amusement. (I just can't make myself pay to go into a church. No matter how many tourists there are, it's still God's house.) In front of one of the churches that charged admittance, we found three Italian guys playing music in the square, and stood and watched them for a while. We found these same three guys later on in another square, too. They seem to be pretty popular with the tourists.

To break away from churches, we also walked through the giant food market and sampled some traditional Florence cuisine, a panino lampredotto. After paying only three euros for this tasty dish, we stood in line and watched as a weathered Italian man sliced and diced up steaming tripe and slapped it on panini bread. Paired with some curiously strong hot sauce, this sandwich of cow's stomach is surprisingly good.

After a beautiful day Saturday, I was disappointed to wake up this morning to a cold, grey day. But despite the weather, I put on a pretty dress for Easter and headed to church. Once we got to the church, we found a large section of the plaza around the Duomo sectioned off. Hearing drums in the distance, we wandered down the street and came upon a traditional Florentine sight. Men dressed in Renaissance costumes were running around in circles throwing flags up in the air and banging drums. It was awesome. They were much better than my high school color guard, and even the young ones never dropped their flags.

At this ceremony I met up with my friend Danielle, a friend from Michigan who is studying in Florence for the semester. Together we walked back to the Duomo and staked out a spot close to the barricade to await what we heard was going to be a parade. After about an hour of waiting, a procession of more people dressed in costume marched toward the cathedral, behind them a giant, three-story cart pulled by two huge white oxen. Then a procession of priests came out of the Baptistry building across from the Cathedral and entered the church, from which came flying a white dove, which lit a fireworks display on the cart. (The dove was actually mechanical and traveled along a wire). The spark set off a chain reaction of fireworks, bangs, and smoke which lasted for about ten minutes, covering the plaza in red, white and purple smoke (the colors of Florence.) For Easter morning, it was quite the impressive display, and the Easter Bunny might want to step up his game.
Once the fireworks fizzled out, we pushed and squeezed our way through the throng of tourists snapping pictures and made our way inside the church to catch Mass. By the time we got inside, the huge cathedral had been filled and Mass had already started, but we stood for the remaining hour and listened to Easter Mass in Italian, looking up at the paintings in the dome.

It was surreal to be here on Easter, a day that I have celebrated in exactly the same way since birth. Although I missed my family a lot and am still craving honey ham and cheesey potatoes, being in Florence for this important day was unforgettable. Tomorrow we head to Venice for two days, and hopefully the weather will get a little warmer. (Otherwise I might have to start layering my clothes in unflattering ways).

Happy Easter!