Monday, March 15, 2010

Under the Umbrian Sun

Wow it’s been a while! Sorry about that, lots of work to do. But that also leads to lots to catch you up on.

For my 21st birthday, after a night out on the town, four of us girls left for Viterbo, Italy, which is famous for its natural hot sulfur springs. It’s a very cute, medieval town, with winding roads and a few nice piazzas. The springs themselves are out in the middle of nowhere—a field on the side of the road, with lots of half-naked Italians. Let me clarify: there are 3 types of springs, one that tourists pay 20 euro to go to, one that residents pay to be members of, and one free one. Four college students on a budget? We go to the free one. Anyway, we’re sitting on the side of the road with these Italians and they’re very intrigued with the four American girls who have just crashed the party. They all head to the springs weekly (maybe even daily) and they all know each other. We stuck out like a sore thumb, but for the most part they were welcoming and offered to take pictures for us. Did I mention they were SULFUR springs?? Yeah, for the rest of the day, I walked around smelling like rotten eggs. They were very hot and relaxing tough. Like sitting in a natural hot tub for 2 hours. We rode home feeling very relaxed and rested.


The next weekend, my friend Liz and I traveled to Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis and St. Claire, which is about 2 hours away from Roma by train. The scenery is exquisite; each little hill town is prettier than the last. This is Umbria, the only of Italy’s states that is landlocked, and called the “Green Heart of Italy.”

It’s known for its sausage and truffles. Assisi was GORGEOUS, up on a hill of course, surrounding the Basilica of St. Francis, which houses his remains. It’s a very pretty church, but like I’ve said, all of the churches (except for a few key ones) are all blending together in my memory.
We had beautiful weather and enjoyed walking up through the narrow streets to get to the castle at the top. After an amazing lunch of pasta with sausage in a truffle cream sauce (easily one of my best meals ever) we hiked to the top and saw the entire town below us. The streets are at such an angle that many have stairs and a kind of “sidewalk” on the sides just large enough for car tires. You have to be a master driver to have a car here. It was a really fun day trip with both a plan (seeing the Basilica and Castle) and a bit of wandering.



Then Mom and Dad showed up, which clearly deserves its own post!! Coming soon, after a bit of midterm studying!! ☺

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Let them Eat Cake!

Hi again!! So where were we?? oh yes, Paris.

Saturday morning we got up early (or as early as we could drag ourselves out of bed) and headed to Versailles. After a half hour train ride, we walked up through the gilded front gates and past the line (thanks to our museum passes) and picked up our audio tour headsets. One thing's for sure: when they built this "chateau," it was go big or go home. Everything is covered in gold leaf. From the gate to the banisters and crown moulding. The first floor is the art section, where you see the former residents of the palace sculpted and painted by the masters of the time. It was also a brief history lesson so we could understand who lived here when we visited the rest of the castle. The audio tour was great--we could punch in the number at each signpost, or, if we didn't care what it was, we could skip it and keep walking. Easy to use and very informational! Next, we went upstairs and through the apartments of the Kings and Queens. Although 4 (5?) sets of monarchs lived there, obviously most things center on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. We saw their bedchambers, receiving rooms, and the Hall of Mirrors, easily the best part of the tour. Huge chandeliers and floor to ceiling mirrors line the hallway, with amazing views of the perfectly manicured gardens on the other side. It was opulent and grand, although a little over the top. No wonder the bourgeoisie was getting a bit peeved... We didn't get out to the grounds, we were a bit pressed for time and it was VERY cold and windy. Not a fun time to explore a garden. But we hopped back on the uber-easy Paris metro and made our way back to Notre Dame for the second time.


I had hoped to get up in the towers this afternoon, but alas, that was not to be. Like the previous day, the line for the trip to the top snaked around the building, and at the end there was a sign closing it for the afternoon. Bummer. No swinging on bells like Quasi.

Our next stop was Musee l'Orangerie which had more impressionist paintings, along with Monet's huge waterlilies. They had 2 rooms to themselves and curved around the walls. The space was white and pristine, and was a perfect canvas for the amazing pieces. The museum also had an exhibit with paintings of children--most of them, the children of the painters. The same boy was painted by both Pablo Picasso and Mrs. Picasso (who, turns out, was also a painter) with an old interview with the child: he liked his mom's rendering of him better! Very cute, and very fun to see all of the children pictures put together.

A quick dinner and a bit of shopping later, we were on our way to the Tour Eiffel and Arc de Triomphe at dusk. The Eiffel Tour was breathtaking once we got off the metro--everyone was clearly heading to the same spot--and we started snapping pictures. SO much better close up than across Jersey. And then it started glittering. I don't know how often it does that, so I might never see it again, but it was AMAZING. Sparkling! Glittering! Dazzling! I made sure to get lots of pictures. Including one, taken by a very sweet frenchman, who framed the three of us girls perfectly--but neglected the huge, glittering Eiffel Tower behind us. End result: three girls against a brick wall and the faint glow of the Tower in the corner. Epic failure.


We walked from there to the Arc de Triomph (which, strangely, is very complicated. one would think it would be a pretty straight shot...) and finally got a good picture of us! The Arc, as you know, is in the middle of the world's most famous traffic circle, and running across it is taking your life in your hands. But wow, it's pretty!! From there, we strolled down Ave Champs-Elysses among the rich and famous, and tourists just like us. It was beautiful and very alive at that time at night.

The next morning, we went though the Catacombs, which can be accurately described by the phrase "lots of bones." Kind of cool, VERY CREEPY. They tell you not to go down if you have a "nervous disposition" or claustrophobia, and that's very true. The bones are neatly placed in rows on either side of you, but there is nothing between them and you. You could touch one if you wanted! Ick. The coolest part was realizing you were so far down, you're under the metro system and the sewers. 6 million Parisians (including, they think, Marie Antoinette) were buried there. The only time i got rained on the whole trip was a drip from the ceiling of the catacombs. Right on the face. EWWW!! Chilling and gross.

Our trip in Paris was at an end. After one last Starbucks stop, we boarded the bus back to Beauvais and the plane back to Roma. All in all, a wonderful, memorable weekend!!! I had so much fun and saw SO much!! Can't wait for my trip back!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The City of Light

I left Roma at 7am from the city's second airport, Ciampino, with my friends Maria and Lucy, and boarded the 2 hour flight to Paris-Beauvais. The "Paris" part of that name is a misnomer--Beauvais is a tiny airport in a tiny town about an hour away from Pairs, which we reached by bus. My first glimpse of the city was the tip top of the Eiffel Tower--over a landscape that could have been New Jersey. The bus didn't take the most scenic route. Railroad tracks and industrial odds-and-ends littered the landscape. Lucy was the unfortunate soul sitting next to me at the time and received an elbow to the arm accompanied by "Lucy! The Eiffel Tower!" Needless to say, we would be getting some much better views later on.

Our depot was a metro station, where we boarded and made our way to Hotel de'Hollande, our home for the next 3 days. A 10 minute walk from the opera and 15 from the Louvre, it was perfectly located. We took that 15 minute walk and ended up going through a grand arch towards the glass pyramids and the largest museum in the world.


The Louvre is overwhelming--you could spend a week there. Once in side the pyramid entrance, though, Lucy paid me back for the elbow by clenching my arm: "That man has STARBUCKS!" she nearly yelled. And sure enough, a tourist passing by was holding a full cup of the java goodness. Cue 3 girls running through the Louvre towards the Starbucks placed serendipitously inside. How nice it was to get a coffee bigger than your thumb! (Italians are big fans of their tiny shots of espresso.) After our first of many caffeine stops, we wandered to the info desk to buy our Paris Museum Pass (which, for one flat fee, got us into all of the Paris museum, bypassing any lines, and had a few extra perks) and decided to leave the Louvre for later and headed to Musee d'Orsay.

D'Orsay is a cherry-picked collection of French impressionists and sculptors, hounsed in the old train station that was the inspiration for Grand Central. The relationship is evident and the space is gorgeous--a beautiful building to hold the master's works. We saw the self portrait of Van Gogh, Degas' ballerinas, and Monet's waterlillies. We spent about 2 hours wandering the galleries and admiring the great work--it was one of my favorite parts of the trip.


From d'Orsay, we made our way to the Isle de la Cite to my personal highlight of the trip, Notre Dame. When I rounded a corner and set my sights on the Cathedral, my eyes got misty and every dream I'd ever had about this city came rushing back. It was the, "Oh my god, I'm in Paris" moment, which hit me about 4 hours late, but better late than never. Notre Dame is as gorgeous in its simplicity as the Vatican is amazing in its opulence. Two completely different buildings, two very powerful spaces. Notre Dame is long and feels tall--the flying buttresses do their job holding the walls up--and the rose windows create a feeling of infinite space. It doesn't need gold-leaf and paint on every surface; the splendor of the architecture is more than enough. The tourists shuffle around the outside reverently, barely stepping into the actual nave except for the errant picture-taker. The building truly is massive--and unlike the Vatican, it doesn't try to hide it. The ceilings soar and the windows tower over you. And I got to hear the bells ring. Quasimodo? Are you up there?? It took 200 years to build the Cathedral, and seeing it now was well worth the wait.


From Notre Dame we headed back to the Louvre, which we saved because it's open till 10 on Friday nights. We got a bit turned around at first and ended up in the Islamic art wing, which was clearly not where we were going to find the Mona Lisa. Going back to the entrance and down another wing, clearly labeled signs pointed us the way of every tourist in the joint. Why we hadn't just followed the crowd, I don't know. Seeing her in person is a bit of a letdown. I'm glad I did it, but do me a favor and Google image the Mona Lisa right now. Go ahead. I'll wait..................That first image is 100x better than what you see when pushing to the front among the 63,000 other people that came to see her. And, she's the size of a postage stamp. Of course, you have to go, and say you went, but everyone knows what she looks like. Good job Leonardo, give yourself a pat on the back. Mona Lisa. Check.


Dinner was a nice little French cafe near Hotel D'Ville, which is roughly across from Notre Dame on the Louvre side of the Seine. I was boring and ordered a French style club sandwich, which ended up having some delicious french sauce on it somewhat like mayo but decidedly different. Really good. Lucy and Maria had the very Parisian Croque Monsier, which I vowed to try the next night.

We were exhausted and made it back to the hotel to fall into bed and set our alarm for the next morning and Versailles. I went to bed dreaming of Marie Antoinette and cake!!

Monday, February 22, 2010

So...What'd you do this weekend??

Hi!! Well, Paris was fabulous. Everything I imagined and more. I really want to give you the whole story and don't want to rush it, so I'm going to take some more time to write it.

I know Mom sent most of you my 3rd grade postcard to my teacher telling her that I was in Paris at a church called Notre Dame. Well, here's what I did on Friday afternoon:


Lots more coming soon!! :)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Switzerland part 2

Greetings!

So when we left off, I had skied down Jungfrau mountain on my way back to Interlaken. Our next stop was a Chocolate Show at Schuh (pronounced Shoe) Chocolates. We were met by a Master Swiss Chocolatier who introduced us to the fine art of chocolate and gave us a few free samples. And when I say a few, I mean enough to ruin your dinner and outweigh you. He was very generous, and realizing he had a captive audience of college girls, capitalized on making us happy. And happy we were. Milk, dark, and super-dark (there was a name for this, but i don't remember) chocolates passed around the room and then he brought out the truffles. Oh, the truffles. They were filled with everything from caramel to mocha to pistachio, and they were to die for. We loved every minute of it!! This is me, our teacher, and Santa.

Next, we needed some American food after a long day on the slopes. Interlaken is the proud home of a Hooters, so we went there for some chicken wings and burgers. We watched the Olympics with the rowdy Swiss, who, not surprisingly, are very good at winter sports.

The next day, we woke up and had a few hours before leaving the Alps, so we went back to Schuh for their world famous hot chocolate. It was served as steaming milk in a glass, with melted chocolate waiting in the bottom to be stirred. BEST. HOT. CHOCOLATE. EVER. And that's saying something, seeing as this was my 4th of the trip. Amazing, but we only expected the best from Schuh.

The ride home was long, but through the Swiss and Italian countryside so we had lots to look at. I got some pictures out the bus windows as we drove out of town. All in all, it was a somewhat unexpectedly amazing weekend. I met a lot of new people, ate my weight in chocolate, and got to see the Alps, which are quite a sight to see.


This weekend, I'm checking one of my life-long dreams off the list: Paris. I honestly cannot tell you how excited I am to be going. My earliest dreams of where I wanted to travel only included one place-- Paris. Mom's trip memories and Julia's study of French in Chicago only fueled that fire. And now I FINALLY get to go. In 5th grade I did a research project on Notre Dame Cathedral. On Friday, I get to see it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Land of Skiing and Chocolate

Switzerland! The most beautiful place you never knew you wanted to go. Seriously, the mountains surrounding Interlaken are phenomenal to look at--and, I learned, most of them are covered in snow year-round.

We left Roma at 8pm on Thursday for our 12 hour drive to the Alps. I was lucky enough to get a window seat and leaned against it to fall asleep only to wake up in Interlaken at 6:30 am. We watched the sun rise over the tiny tourist trap and moved our luggage into Balmer's Hostel, the oldest in Switzerland and one of the best in the world. We got free breakfast (two slices of bread with a side of a roll. we were all a bit confused--carb overload for the slopes??) and headed to town. My first order of the day was hot chocolate. What's more Swiss than Swiss Miss?? But what I got was a bit better. A beautifully presented foamy, milky hot chocolate with a truffle on the side. I now knew why the swiss are such happy people--chocolate!! We walked around the town for a bit longer, browsed the souvenir shops and cuckoo-clock stores and returned to Balmer's to get ready for night sledding.

Night sledding is just like it sounds--you're on a sled, by yourself, going down a mountain without any lights, led by the beacon on the back of the person in front of you. Let me repeat: NO LIGHTS!! We were hurtling down the mountain and all that was guiding me was the red light blinking on the back of the person in front of me. My eyes eventually adjusted and I could make out trees and the edge of the run, but very little separated me from the snow and going over the cliff. The sled run lasted about an hour to get down the mountain, and it was so hard to steer that we were all sore the next day!!

But the next day we made it up bright and early for another carbo-load breakfast and a day on the mountain. I rented my boots and skis and after a bus and 2 trains, we were on a train to the top of Jungfrau peak. The train ride is about 25 minutes from the base to the top of the peak, and this functions not only as a train, but also a chairlift between the longer runs. The first thing you notice at the top of the mountain is the beauty of the mountain range. We had bright blue, clear skies, and the sun was reflecting off the snow. I started on the "Beginner Run" that looked like a sheer cliff. The skiing was amazing. The run I took most of the day was leisurely enough to enjoy the scenery but tough enough to keep me interested. It went through a couple of Alpine towns and past houses of people that must just ski to work. The sights were incredible and I only fell once! The last run of the day, I pulled out all the stops and skied as fast as I could the entire time. I just bombed down the mountain and loved every minute of it!!!

Here are some pics I took while on the mountain and around town. Tomorrow, the Chocolate Show!!!



Monday, February 15, 2010

SWITZERLAND!!

Hello Everyone!!

I just got back from an amazing trip to Interlaken in the Alps, which is a breathtaking place. Imagine the quintessential Alpine village and you've got Interlaken, complete with ski chalets and cuckoo-clocks. I have a bit of a busy day and will write up a full report later tonight after class, but I at least wanted to show you this: I took this video while skiing (sorry, ski patrol) down Jungfrau mountain outside Interlaken. I know the beauty of the Alps can't be captured in pictures, but hopefully a video can give them a bit more life.

Until later tonight!! video