Month: October 2012

When I Missed the Days of Regular Showering

“Now backpacking,” the random girl I met on the train begins, “…it’s all about the layers.” With a smile and a wink, the girl with the grown-out highlights and greasy roots lifts up her jacket only to find a dingy sweater, and then a long sleeved shirt that has a couple holes that look suspiciously like bite marks, and then another shirt that may or may not have been found on the ground. Although I’ll admit, a lot of backpacking has to do with layers, it also has a lot to do with being really dirty and hanging out with people who have a good chance of being serial killers.

After my first year of college when I was 18, my good friend Fiona called me up one day and asked, “Hey, would you want to backpack across Europe with me?” It’s probably a good thing that at this point in time, I wasn’t thinking very clearly, because I said yes. I had never been on a plane alone, never been to Europe, hell, I had never even been camping. I think that this can be categorized with jumping in with both feet. Even still, though, I stuffed my clothes in an old backpack my grandma gave to me and Fiona and I ventured off to London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Rome, and Paris.

I remember before I left that I was complaining to my mother that I was sick of getting clean, getting dressed, and putting makeup on every day. AHA. I was lucky if I got a shower in every day when I was roaming abroad. Even though I am a big fan of yoga pants and lame t-shirts, I have never taken showers for granted since.

But I digress. Being backpacking is not like studying abroad, not in the least. As much as I love being abroad and having the chance to explore Italy, to live in beautiful Florence and walk by the Duomo each and every day, studying abroad is a pretty commercialized and is basically glorified tourism with a lot more drinking. If you haven’t noticed, sorority girls are all about going abroad (aka being international sluts) and mostly everything is planned out for you, from the study abroad student trips to the classes held all in English to your advisor being up your ass every ten minutes. In a way, this is nice. This is safe and it is stable. But it is not backpacking.

When someone tells me they studied abroad, my thoughts may wander to, Lucky for you that Daddy’s car sales have been good this year. But when someone tells me they backpacked, I know that they slept in a lot of dirty hostels. I know that they were lost most of the time, they washed their clothes in the sink, and they may have picked places to visit by picking up a map, closing their eyes, and pointing a finger. I know that instead of figuring out what the best drink specials were in their city of residence, they’re probably pretty good at falling asleep on cue in bus stations and don’t mind getting a little dirty.

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We Have Come for the Chocolate.

Yet another reason why I believe that Italy was made for me– the Perugia Chocolate Festival is a real, in-the-flesh, once-a-year occurrence.

Ever since I heard about this mystical being, I made it my quest to get there. On my list of “must-see” places that I keep, alongside Transylvania and Oxford University, is the annual Eurochocolate of Perugia, located in Umbria, where this gourmet chocolate is famous. So when the last two weeks in October came around that the Festival fell on and my grandma Sissel and my cousin Kristin happened to be visiting me in Florence, I literally begged them to come (not that it takes much begging to get people to come with you to eat chocolate all day long).

A two-and-a-half hour train ride will get you from Florence in Tuscany to Perugia in Umbria, often with a transfer in Terantola-Cortona (because for some reason, Umbria is lacking in a lot of public transportation). This doesn’t sound like too much. But when you’re hungry for chocolate and you’re sitting on a dirty bus, it kind of is.

When we first got to Perugia, I was feeling a little sorry for my friends who have studied abroad there, because the ground near the train station isn’t very pretty (but then again, when is it near public transportation). However, after taking a bus to Piazza Italia, where the Festival takes place, the views get some better.

Unfortunately, the sites that I read about the Festival didn’t lie when they said it was a bit commercialized. There really aren’t any free samples so it’s not like the free-for-all I was imagining, and it’s more or less just a ton of booths with overpriced goodies lying about. REALLY overpriced. We walked up and down the streets the Festival resides on (doesn’t take more than an hour, really) and then decided what we wanted and went back and got it. One chocolate splurge while you’re in Perugia is worth the seven or eight euros, even though I wouldn’t have minded a Triple Chocolate Meltdown from Applebee’s, either.

However, one thing that is cool about this Festival is that even if you can’t afford to buy it all, you can see all the mouthwatering things they can make with chocolate, all of the huge bars of it swarming with bees, stuffed with hazelnut and coconut in a variety of colors. And there’s also the grandiose displays– the classic Chocolate cars, the giant Lindt dancing bears and the boxes of Baci chocolate that are as big as my house.

Unfortunately, this too sticks out to me as extra touristy– why not give the little family shops a try, a chance to make something really cool for us all to see? This is what Italy is about– kicking the big bullies out and keeping the quaint and quality-ridden shops in. This is why you won’t see too many chain restaurants or other chain companies roaming around Italy. Instead of boo-hooing your way about the cliche tourism that is Eurochocolate, though, eat your chocolate bar, shut up, and then get back on the train.

Sunday Strolls in the San Lorenzo Market

Similar to every other girl on the entire planet, I love to shop. I enjoy my time spent at any random mall with a cheap Icee in my hands and a credit card in my bag, happy to be among strangers who I don’t have to even make eye contact with. Maybe this is what makes what I like about shopping a little different than what other people do– I like that I can aimlessly browse shelves with really no solid motives at all and no one will pester me. This is also why I am the guru of online shopping– I like to find things cheaply and easily, pay with a card with a beach scene on it, and then go about my day– all within five minutes.

This is why I wasn’t really excited today to go to the San Lorenzo marketplace in Florence outside of the San Lorenzo church to actually find specific things- Christmas gifts! Usually, this important task is reserved for my best friend eBay.com, where I can grab a ton of crap at once, have it gift wrapped and shipped to my house, and then I don’t have to worry about it until December 25.

Like anything else in Italy, though, shopping is not an independent activity. And you know what? This is nice. This is refreshing. I am used to some sulky teenager snapping her gum and trolling Facebook while swiping my card from behind the counter for some mass-produced piece of junk I found on the sale rack. In the San Lorenzo market, vendors will tell you how they handmade their little journals and which ones are their favorite. They will tell you that the guy selling them down the street is kind of a douschebag. They will whisper their deals in your ear and tell you not to tell anyone else, and they will tell you that you have beautiful eyes and they will be able to guess every place you have ever lived based on the way you walk and the way you talk.

Is this quietly stalking through the mall on a Sunday afternoon? No, no it is not. But this is something better– this is making friends with students like you who study Interior Design, who will tell you the best bars to go to and beg you to come back tomorrow, and will remember your name when you do. This is Italy, where unlike in the United States, the people outnumber the credit cards.

Krka National Park

It is our final day in Croatia. We pack up our stuff skip the shitty hostel breakfast of stale coffee and cold bread and get on the bus, where we go to Krka National Park, which is about two hours north of Split so it’s on our way back to Italy anyway.

Krka National Park is actually kind of overwhelming. Our bus teeters on the edge of cliffs overlooking a jungle, in which a small wooden path weaves in and out around the various waterfalls that make the place famous. We stop to look at all of them, taking pictures of the little fish darting around the clear green-blue waters, pieces of the jungle trees blowing back and forth.

The biggest and most famous part of Krka National Park are the big waterfalls that are at the summit of the entire park. They are huge, thundering waterfalls that fall in and out of one another in the freezing water that look like someone strung them together like a piece of blue jewelry. After making sad faces, we strip and slowly walk into the freezing water to take cheesy pictures before attempting to swim towards them, a nearly impossible feat with such roaring water coming towards us.

This is not a vacation. This is not the Bahamas, Bermuda, a cruise to Florida. This is a whole new animal.

The Renaissance Theory of Love

I have a confession to make. I am in love. He is a big, strong, strapping lad with lean muscles and a twinkle in his eye. He also happens to be around 511 years old.

One of the things in Florence that I have made my way over to see- twice- is my biffle the David, made by Michelangelo around 1501. Back then, Florence had this huge, yet sort of thinnish piece of marble they were trying to get sculpted into something to be a symbol of freedom and strength for Florence. But all the artists said, “That piece of marble? Puh-lease.”

Well not Michelangelo. He said let’s GOLO and he sculpted David, of the story David and Goliath, although according to him, he only set David free from the marble itself. Michelangelo said that he didn’t really sculpt anything. Instead, he said that his job as an artist was to set the image free that wants to be freed. Originally, the statue stood outside the Palazzo Vecchio (which was kind of like the town hall, where the Medici family worked) in Piazza della Signora, but somewhere along the way, someone figured out that keeping a priceless statue outside probably wasn’t the best plan.

So nowadays, David sits in his nude glory inside the Accademia, where you will literally stand in a line for at least two hours unless you make a reservation. But when you finally get inside, if you turn immediately left… there he is. Right there. Boom. Down the hallway of the Michelangelo room, past the Pietas and a few of Michelangelo’s paintings, is my beautiful man.

I seriously love the David. Fiercely independent and self-assured, nobody messes with him, not even a giant. He doesn’t even care that all he has is a slingshot and seems to have left his tight-whities at home. This is totally okay with him. David wasn’t scared at all when he fought Goliath, even though he was a skinny 17-year-old, because he had God on his side. He says, “Do you know who I am? No seriously, do you?”

And it is in this way that David showcases Florence. Florence is the same way– it doesn’t need anyone else, it doesn’t care if you think it’s old or sort of dirty or smells kind of like garbage sometimes. It says, “Umm, I am really ancient and beautiful and you can like me or not, but I am still going to be my awesome self.” And now that is the real spirit of the Renaissance.

 

The Cheapest Thing I Could Find

So since I have gotten to Italy, everyone has been telling me that I just have to go Lucca, a small city that is only a half an hour from Pisa and thus, pretty close to Florence. Everyone says that it is a classic Italian town that hasn’t been destroyed by tourists yet, and sits on top of a hill, almost like a plateaued town, with a wall built around it that is great for wandering about.

According to Rick, there is a bus to Lucca from the outside wall of Pisa, right behind the Field of Miracles. Actually, it is a miracle that I found this 3.50 euro bus at all, which just happened to be cruising by as we left the Field of Miracles on a Friday afternoon.

Anyway, we got on good ol Vai Bus and took the half an hour journey before arriving in Lucca and then disembarking and beginning to see the city, courtesy of the Rick Steves map. Unfortunately, Rick was a little drunk when he made this map, because all it did was get my boyfriend and I hopelessly lost in a town that is as small as it is precious. This gave us a good chance to spot some of the sights, of course I had no idea what any of them were because I also had no idea where we were.

We miraculously found a station for renting bikes about an hour before it closed, so we happily forked over three euros a person to get on the rickety bikes and cruise along the Ramparts, which is the wall that lines the city, as the sun went down. What a great view of the Tuscan countryside, all from… bike! Hanging out on the Ramparts, surrounded by trees and dogs and grass, made me feel right at home all over again.

Classic Florence

I am very lucky. As some of my roommates gloom about in homesickness, I feel like I am home. This is because somehow, I have persuaded an army of people to come and visit me in Florence.

This is good for two reasons. One, I get to see the people that I care about and I’m not totally alone as I wander about Europe. And two, it forces me to stop messing around and go see actually Florence stuff!

When you’re studying here, you live here. This is home. And just like any other home, you start to take it for granted. Have I been to the Uffizi Gallery? Uh, no. Have I been inside the Duomo Cathedral? Um…no. Have I have Florentine steak? Nope. Have I eaten a ton of gelato? YES! Yes I have.

But anyway, my point that I was getting at is that when people visit you, you are forced to actually do something during the week besides sit on your ass. You are forced to do the same cool stuff that tourists do, even though even the word “tourist” fights the word “cool.”

So when my boyfriend visited me last week (Grandma comes this week!) one of the first things that we did was trek up to Piazza Michelangelo, a pleasant little square, as Rick Steves informed me, that boasts one of the best views of the city. Unfortunately for him and myself, I was feeling it a little bit after some wine at lunch and I literally took us an hour in the opposite direction of this famous square across the Arno. And “an hour” is being gratuitous to me.

Quick and easy hike, Rick? Um, I think not. Seriously this is a goddamn JOURNEY. I thought I was in shape. I was sadly mistaken. I was sweating just looking at the pile of steps that led up the Square that is adorned with a fake David and tons of tourist shops. When we finally got there, I wanted to stay for hours just to make it worth it, but there isnt really much to do besides take a couple of pictures, listen to some music, eat some gelato, and watch the occasional wedding. Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Another thing that I dragged my boyfriend into doing is climbing the Duomo, the beautiful landmark that chills right outside my window. I figured it was about time I climbed the 463 steps, being that I live there and all and I love it like its my parents. So we paid the eight euros, stood in the line that- take note here- clears out by the afternoon, and began the trek up the ancient and tiny steps that circle the Duomo.

Once in a while throughout your steps, you have the chance to glance out the little windows, which tease you with their ascending views as you climb Florence. Whenever you start to feel a little tired, you see the encouraging messages people have scratched all over the walls, like…

Keep going. The view is seriously worth it. 

And then when you finally get to the top… you’re there. This is way better than lame Piazza Michelangelo, because you’re getting a 360 degree view of this fantastic countryside and the Tuscan hills that surround it. Yet another reason why the Duomo is seriously awesome.

The Wine Country

Florence is a beautiful place. It is bustling with Renaissance architecture, ancient museums, yellows and greens and grays. Siena, however, which is really only a short drive down the road (about an hour and a half, which is nothing compared to the 12 hour bus rides I’m used to) is not like this. I’m actually not totally sure why everyone told me that Siena has always been in competition with Florence.

Unlike Florence, Siena doesn’t really look very Renaissance-esque (but then again I’m not entirely sure what this would look like, besides having Florence as an example). Siena is a city of the Medieval, a place that looks like it would be best friends with Edinburgh, Scotland.

 

Siena is a little place, however, and there doesn’t seem to be a ton to see. Our Bus2Alps tour guide, Tiernan, took us to the city center, Piazza del Campo, which literally looks like a big stone field. This is also the site of where Il Palio takes place. After roaming up one of the city’s many hills (it overlooks the Tuscan countryside) we find the Duomo, which looks remarkably similar to my Duomo in Florence, although a little smaller. Apparently, this Duomo was on its way up to being bigger and better than mine, but then the Black Death came around and people had a lot better things to do than build ginormous churches.

After this short little tour of Siena, Bus2Alps took us to our next destination– a local winery called Tenuta Torciano. When I see all the pretty horses roaming about in their fields alongside the squares and squares of grapes, I know that we have come to the right place. We are led inside to a little house where a man who speaks very little English literally serves us eight glasses of wine each. And this isn’t the three euro wine that I find at the cheap grocery store down the street. I can taste the alcohol in this wine. But I’ll be damned if I have to spit it out before the next glass is served– I chug that wine down along with our meal of oily bread, salad, some kind of potato dish, lasagna, and biscotti.

The drunker we all get, the better friends we are. I make best friends with every person sitting within a five foot radius and I start to actually wonder if I’m going to vom on the bus and why I can’t see anything and it’s 1:00 pm. After we stumble out of the winery and the Italian man tries to sell us wine, we all wander the grounds for a little bit, running in and out of willow trees and playing with the geese and ducks that hang around in the sunshine.

We all shuffle back on the bus and I’m still not sobering up. What a surprise. Our bus tries to crawl up the hills, but it seems we have a lack of oil, so Tiernan, our guide, and the owner of Bus2Alps have us come outside and we begin to walk to San Gimignano. If I was sober, I may or may not be frustrated by this. But instead, I am PSYCHED, as everyone else seems to be. We run up and down the ninety degree roads and take pictures, our sobriety coming back in the sunshine. It is a beautiful day for a bus to break down, let me tell you that.

Finally we get to San Gimignano, which is another medieval city similar to Siena. We climb up some more hills to get to the wine museum/castle and we take dopey pictures as the Bus2Alps crew buys us more wine from the museum, which we sip overlooking the countryside.

Back down at the main square, we eat gelato, which is supposedly the best in the world (I think Florence’s is better). As we eat our gelato next to the fountain in the center, it begins to pour and pour and pour. I wonder if anyone even noticed.

Yes, This is Pandora.

So even though we all literally want to die because the pub crawl robbed us of whatever energy we had left and those hostel beds are seriously awesome, we get up at a nice ripe time anyhow to go on an island hopping tour of the islands lining Croatia. Not a bad way to start the day. The second we climb onto the little ferry and take some places on the roof to listen to some music and gander at the sea, boat staff are coming up to us and pouring shots. Please God, NO. No shots. Seriously. It’s 8:00 am.

It’s pretty relaxing to cruise down the Dalmatian Coast, which boasts crystal-clear blue waters and nice views of the marina that hugs Split as well as the never-ending line of white marble buildings that look like they were once fit for a king but now host little restaurants that line the sea. We listen to music once our heads stop thumping and after some time of chilling in the boat, we get to our first island, Solta.

Unlike basically every other place I have ever been to, Solta, or really Croatia in general, hasn’t been sabotaged by tourists quite yet. Croatians are excited to see us as they ask us if we are from California (well jeez, I wish) and a couple of the Croatians hang out up to their knees in the ocean with naked babies and pretty dogs that hang around. It’s a pretty empty island, so we mostly just buy some food and floaties for when we go to the beach later.

Back on our boat, the staff serves us lunch, in which I once again get a whole fish. Unfortunately, I think someone nabbed this one out of the nearest fishbowl and it’s really kind of nasty. Whatevs. Throw it into the ocean, that’s where it came from anyway. They give us wine too, and let me tell you I am no wine connoisseur, but this is the nastiest wine I have ever had. I’m a senior in college and I can’t even chug this stuff down.

Then, we climb back to our perch on the top of the boat and blow up our floaties. Mine has little orange fish all over it and was clearly made for a toddler. Awesome. We boat to the next island, Brac, which is a lot bigger than Solta but is still totally devoid of any tourists whatsoever.

After getting off the boat, we start the hike to the Golden Horn, a beach that is famous for looking like a triangle with trees in the center. We wade around in the freezing cold water a little bit, and then I actually pass out on the beach, which is the best slumber of my life. This beach isn’t littered with tourists and isnt cliched like Mexico or other tourist destinations. It’s hidden from the world and seems delicately pressed into the side of the land, surrounded by trees and filled with deep blue water that looks good enough to drink.

That night, we don’t go to one of the surrounding towns of Split like some of the other students do, but we stay in Split to see the Diocletian Palace by nightfall, which is the most complete Roman ruin in the world. The town is literally built around these ruins and it actually looks a lot like a castle. Wonder why no one booked this place for us to stay.

After seeing the Palace and wandering, we do some more exploring of Split and hike up the mountains a little bit to find a nice place to eat. Thank God for me, the dollar kicks the Croatian kuna’s sorry ass, with $100 being equal to about 575 kuna. We eat at a restaurant that I would usually count on my grandparents to take me, and my entire seafood-pasta dish with a house red wine comes to about nine euro. Why did no one tell me to study abroad here?

Is This Pandora?

Okay. So think for a second. What do you know about Croatia?

Yeah, that’s what I figured. Me neither. And this is precisely the reason why I booked a four-day trip there with Bus2Alps, starting out with a how-could-you-say-no 10 hour bus ride. This actually sounds a lot worse than it is. In reality, I find it pretty nice to show up at the train station in my pajamas, squeeze myself into a bus seat, pop some NiteQuil, and wake up to the sun rising in another country. Doesn’t sound too bad now, does it?

A tour guide from Bus2Alps that we have traveled with before, Tiernan, told us that Croatia looks like Pandora. I was a little skeptical, because come on now, what kind of place looks like Pandora? We’re not in damn Australia over here, we’re in Europe. However, once my NiteQuil wore off in the morning and I scrubbed the pillow face lines off of me, I could see pretty clearly that she was right.

Driving into Split, the city we were staying in (and one of the major cities of Croatia) it was neat to see the towering apartment buildings that look more like little pods more than anything else, their soft edges seemingly swaying with the breeze. I’ve been to beaches before, people. I have been to a lot of beaches. But when that beautiful beach is next to a city made of white marble with tan-skinned Amazon people who speak a language that sounds as unfamiliar as German or Norwegian? Uhh yeah. We’re not in the Bahamas.

After we check into our hostel, Goli & Bosi (“Naked and Barefoot” in Croatian), we run upstairs to explore a little bit, a pretty impressive feat considered we just slept on a bus (again). The entire place is highlighter yellow. And I mean EVERYTHING is highlighter yellow. Definitely a nice way to wake up in the morning. All of the room numbers are written on the floor, along with the entire history of the world. Every floor corresponds to a century. Walking into our room, we see that the seven beds have been packed into the walls, looking like little private pods packed into the tiny room.

Soon after, we shuffle out to go to our tour of the Cetina River VIA WHITE WATER RAPIDS. I’m not much of a rafter (I don’t really like dirt… or cold…) but if there’s a place to white water raft, this seems like the place to do it. Plus it’s hot as hell outside. Good deal.

We are all given wetsuits and boots, which seem unnecessary at the time given that it’s literally like 90 degrees outside. After shimmying into them, it’s hard to refrain from taking Power Ranger pictures. Our tour guide, a big hefty Croatian man named Stefan with beautiful blue eyes, tells us in his cool and collected English how to paddle and basically not die. After we prove that we are a worthy team, he invites us to take a jump into the water.

Umm literally the coldest water of my life. Five seconds in and we are begging Stefan to let us back into the raft. This wetsuit has done nothing for me except for maybe make me colder. Stefan shows us how to pull ourselves into the raft, but of course, no one can do it, so he holds out his arms for us to grab onto to pull us in. It is at this point that the Big Crazy Croatian comes out.

ONE, TWO, THREE, OPAAAAAA! he yells as he literally throws us into the boat.

Paddling down the river, it’s clear that these rapids aren’t really as intense as I was hoping, but Stefan steers us well and tells us of his days as a professional rafter (didn’t know this existed) and how his Croatian team went to the world trials. He tells us how he loves to surf and bike, and looking at the guy, that was pretty obvious anyhow.

About halfway down the Cetina River, we stop at some cliffs and Stefan invites us to jump off of them. I hate to say it, but I stayed in that damn boat. Jumping from a cliff into water that’s colder than an ice bath? No thanks, pretty sure I already have hypothermia anyhow.

We boat past a little farm with horses that literally just run wild, with only bells around their neck for their owners to find them. Stefan says that they always come home anyway- who wants to sit out in the rain? It’s nice to see the natural streams and the Croatian countryside and mountains, which look remarkably similar to the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre.

At the end of our leg of the river, we stop at an old mill alongside the water to have dinner. I ordered the seafood… which is a whole fish. Not a fish filet. A fish. With eyes and bones and a face. I have to cut this off with my eyes closed just so I can eat it, and even still, I am picking out bones the entire time and possibly choking a little bit. None of this seems to matter though when you are literally eating the best meal of your life. People make grossed out faces when my fish is served, but I really don’t care, because it is seriously awesome.

That night, we sign up for a pub crawl throughout Split. At the first pub, there is open bar, in which our bartenders gladly make us strong drinks of cheap vodka and soda, because hell, I am getting my 20 euros worth. My favorite part of this isn’t actually being in the bars (however of course this is great too), but really, it’s wandering Split, a city of marble, with a drink in my hand as we clamor through tiny alleyways and rosebushes.