TOSCANA: Road trip through Tuscany

on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This post is going to have to be brief because I have to wake up in a little more than 4 hours for my trip to Paris. I will upload pictures and a longer post later.

However, you should be excited because I had an amazing trip. This past weekend a group of 10 of us rented 2 cars and drove down to Tuscany for 3 nights and 4 days. It was absolutely incredible and we all had a lot of fun. The first night we stayed in the heart of Florence near the Duomo, but the other 2 nights we stayed in 2 different cabins in the rolling hills of Tuscany with no other cabins or stores within a 15 minute drive. It was easily the most peaceful experience I have had so far in Italy and it was a perfect way to start my spring break! Some of the highlights were eating the best gelato I have ever had (by far), playing soccer, going to the top of the tower in Siena, going to a vineyard for a wine tasting, and getting to know a great group of people even better.

I am going to be in Paris from tomorrow until the 6th of April and then Madrid until the 9th. Once I am back in Milan I have to study for my midterm on the 14th but then I am going to Palermo that evening until the 17th. Needless to say, I am very lucky have the opportunity to travel to such beautiful places. Waking up in Milan everyday reminds me of how lucky and blessed I am.


Houston, We Have A Problem (Again)

on Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Well, my internet decided to stop working again. What that means is that this post will be short and picture-less. The good news is that this past weekend I didn’t travel anywhere so I didn’t really take any pictures.

The big news for me this week was that Health Care Reform in the US was passed. I know some people are not happy about this, but I really think this was a monumental step for America and I couldn’t be more proud.

This past week has been fun-filled for me. My brother was home from college for his spring break so I was able to talk to and see him on Skype all week which was great. Also, I went shopping and got new shoes, sunglasses, and socks, so that was fun! I got a coupon at the store for 50% off my next purchase so I might go back tomorrow and buy some running shoes, but we’ll see what happens. After one of my classes I stayed late to talk to my professor and the only other students who stayed to talk to him were Italian. Since I can physically pass as an Italian he spoke to all of us in Italian and I was really surprised by what he told us. He said that we should basically forget how to speak Italian and only speak English (except maybe at home) because English is the language which will help advance our careers. It made me feel fortunate to be American (and Colombian) but I also felt sad that the professor was telling these students that they should forget their native language. I think a language is a very important part of a culture and I wonder what everyone else was thinking when he said that.

Last Thursday I went to the club called “The Club” (original, right?) and had a fun evening. My friend Oscar’s girlfriend was in town from Lyon, France (she’s there studying French for a few weeks) so it was nice meeting her. On Saturday we all went out to a club called Just Cavalli and I really liked the place. It was my first time there and it was very nice- there were a couple Ferraris and a lot of Porsches parked outside. As you can imagine, the only downside was that it was very expensive to get into.

The rest of the weekend I just relaxed and enjoyed the warmer weather! I had a presentation today for one of my classes so I worked on the PowerPoint slides for that too. I almost forgot to mention that during the week I also planned what I am going to do for my 3 week spring break! This Friday I am going on a 5 day road-trip to Tuscany with some friends. We are renting cars and driving down and have a few wine tastings and other things planned so I am really excited. I especially can’t wait to go to Florence for the 1st time- everyone says it’s gorgeous. The day after I get back from Tuscany I am going to Paris for 6 days and am staying with my mom’s best childhood friend. I am going alone, so it should be interesting to see if I can entertain myself, but I have a feeling that the time will fly by with all of the museums and things to see. A couple of my friends are actually from Paris so I am going to try to meet up with them while I am there too so that would be fun! After Paris I am heading straight to Madrid to visit my cousin. I have always wanted to go to Spain so I am also super excited for that. After a few days in Madrid I am heading back to Milan to study for a midterm exam which I have on the 14th of April, but that same day I am heading to Palermo, which is on the island of Sicily, with a few friends to relax and enjoy the last few days of break. Overall, I am looking forward to traveling but I need to start saving my money because these trips are going to be very expensive! I might not get a chance to blog while I am traveling over the next couple of weeks, but I promise to take tons of pictures for you guys and tell you all about it.

Tomorrow night I am heading to an Aperitivo with some friends and then we are going out to dance and I am really looking forward to it. I hope that you are all having a fantastic week.

Peace and Love,

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod

Location:Via Gian Carlo Castelbarco,Milan,Italy

God Bless All of You (Post #15)

on Thursday, March 18, 2010

I am having a wonderful week. I have not been nearly as productive as I need to be with all of my school work but I have met some really interesting people. I have already spoken to a few of you about the gentleman I met at the airport who kind of opened my eyes as to what the meaning of life really is. I always welcome speaking to anyone, especially those who provide me with motivation or clarity to lead a more fulfilling life.

I saw this video today, please share it with your friends and help spread the word about how much we need healthcare reform!

This 2nd video is a song which you will hopefully recognize from the 90s- instant classic. Who knew the artist was Swedish?

Rome 2

on Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Our 2nd full day in Rome was just as fun and hectic as the first but another thing they had in common was the terrible weather! After our breakfast was brought to our room and we were done eating, we headed to the Metro (subway) station to go see the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Right before we got out of the Metro station I told Lilian "I hope the Colosseum won't be hard to find", and we were both caught off guard because it is literally the first and only thing you see when you get out. It is like the size of a professional soccer stadium so it was an incredible and surprising sight.

Once we crossed the street and found our way into the Colosseum we had to wait in line to buy our tickets. Each ticket was like 15EUROS and then we paid an additional 4.50EUROS for the audio-guide because of the great experience we had with them at the Vatican. The system they had in place for distributing the audio-guides was absolutely horrendous and I think a 5 year old could probably organize something more efficiently. The "tour" began on the 2nd level of the arena and once we were inside it was really hard to believe that such a large structure was built so long ago. I wonder if the Roman's would have guessed that these buildings would still be standing after thousands of years! The floor of the Colosseum is no longer there besides a small section that was restored to better depict what it used to be like, so you can see directly down into the tunnels that housed the warriors, wild animals, and machinery. Hearing the stories of the epic battles that took place in the Colosseum made me want to watch the movie Gladiator again. In fact, Francisco, you should watch The Gladiator and Angels and Demons before coming to visit (or better yet, bring them with you so we can watch them together). After we made our way back down to the bottom of the arena and finished the tour it took forever to return the audio-guides due to their terribly inefficient system and then we couldn't figure out how to leave! We weren't the only ones lost so they really need to run the whole place more efficiently! Overall it was amazing to see and be in the Colosseum though.

After the Arena, we crossed the street and headed to the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum is basically the center of the ancient Roman Civilization and you can still see some of the ruins and structures standing. The area is very large and we spent at least a couple of hours walking around the complex and seeing everything. At this point it started to rain but we both fortunately had our umbrellas! It was also funny because while we were walking around I heard someone say my name and I turned around and saw a couple of my friends from Milan who were also in Rome that weekend. I didn't know they were going to be there so it was a huge coincidence and we shared a good laugh.

After we left the Forum we were hungry so we started walking back toward the Vatican and other parts of the city we hadn't been to before. However, after walking for 10 minutes we began to recognize things we saw on our first night when we were searching for things to eat. The historical and touristy parts of Rome are all very concentrated and you can probably walk from the Vatican to the Colosseum in like 45 minutes (on our map that's like across the city), it would probably take longer to walk across St. Cloud, Minnesota. Wanting to see something new we crossed the Tiber River and walked along it all the way back to the Vatican which was really scenic. I could probably spend an entire day walking through an old city and not mind if I don't see any "attractions" because seeing all of the old streets and houses is very peaceful and fun.

After we walked around half of the city I decided to buy a watch to replace the one I am going to return. I decided to buy it with a metal band because it is more versatile and I can wear it with anything. It was a bit more expensive, but I think it was a good investment. Worst case scenario, I can always resell it right?

That afternoon we got back to the room and I took a 2 hour nap before finally meeting Maria and her boyfriend for dinner. Maria was the daughter of our next door neighbors when we lived in Colombia and they moved to Italy when we moved to the US but her parents were always best friends with my parents. I couldn't remember her from when I was little but I definitely remember her parents. When we finally met her she took us to an aperitivo and it was a lot of fun to hear her tell stories about my parents and Grandfather. She remembers my Grandfather really well because he moved into our apartment in Bogot√° after we moved to the US. Sharing stories with her was a lot of fun and after we ate they showed us around the city (most of which we had walked already) and it was one of the most fun nights I have had in Italy. When Francisco comes to visit we will definitely need to go to her house so we can see her parents! The last time they saw us we were seven so they'll be super excited to see us again!

Overall, our trip to Rome was incredible and I cannot wait to go back and visit again this semester! The highlight of the trip would definitely be seeing the Sistine Chapel and seeing Maria again. My spring break is coming up so I need to start planning my trips! I am thinking of going to Madrid and Paris so I will keep you updated. This week is super busy for me school-wise so wish me luck with everything!

Cool picture of a candle I took!

Lilian's Visit + Rome 1

Wow!! This past week literally flew by. I don't know where to start. To begin, I am starting to feel better. I can't remember whether I blogged about it but I've had a pretty serious cold since last Thursday. Finally, after a week and a half of taking medicine I am starting to feel better, which is great news.

The really big news for me though, is that my friend Lilian came to visit me during Penn's spring break for an entire week. Saturday night I went out and stayed out much later than I intended too (4AM) but the next morning I was up at 8 so that I could be at the airport in time to pick Lilian up after her flight. I was able to get to the airport without any problems and finally seeing her was great. We then headed to the train to head into the center of Milan and then to my apt. Unfortunately when we got on the subway in the center of the city, it was so packed that I had to use her big suitcase (she packed almost as much as I did for 6 months for her 1 week visit) to push people in so that we could fit. I was relieved when we got out of the subway so that we could breathe again and thought the worst of it was over, until Lilian realized that her wallet wasn't in her purse. Yes, she literally got pick-pocketed within 15 minutes of arriving in Milan!!!!

We knew there was no use worrying about it because there was no way her wallet would ever be found but this was definitely not the best way to start a vacation. Later that day I took Lilian to see the Duomo in Milan, along with the big castle near the center of the city and Via Monte Napoleone so that she could get a sense of the importance of fashion in Milano. I ended up buying a light jacket for the spring and a watch with a brown band. Unfortunately, when I got home I realized that the ticking of the watch's seconds hand is super loud so now I need to return the watch. I normally would not mind but I can literally hear the watch while it is by my side. We also drank an espresso so that she could taste an authentic one, and as you can see from the picture below, she thought it was a little bitter! For dinner I took Lilian to a pizzeria near my apartment so that she could have her first real Italian pizza and we both thought it was delicious.

The following day I had class all day but I only went in the morning so Lilian wouldn't have to be alone for as long. After I got home from class we went to the grocery store and bought food because Lilian wanted to cook a special meal. She decided on making steaks and I tried to pay attention to the recipe because it was delicious!!  The next day Lilian came to classes with me and it was funny because in class I answered a question and got a free loaf of bread from Princi, one of the best bakeries in Milan. As soon as we got home we tried the bread and it was certainly as good as was promised. In between classes we came home to find my french roommate almost having a nervous breakdown because we had not washed the floors in nearly 3 weeks and the shower was broken so I spent a couple hours vacuuming everything and scrubbing the floors and even some walls in my room, the kitchen, foyer, and kitchen. Later in the day, our landlord had our shower fixed and it ended up being 100x better than before it broke. It wasn't the most exciting 3 hours of my life but it's always good to do some spring cleaning and someone has to help keep the American-French relations peaceful. That evening, Lilian outdid herself in the kitchen again with the chicken she made and after a pleasant meal we planned our trip to Roma!

 Fortunately, my Italian roommate, Federica, was home and was able to call the bed and breakfast in Rome to make the reservation and make sure the place seemed legitimate. After everything was booked we all sat and shared stories until like 3am over a bottle of white wine. The wine and spirits here in Italy are incredibly inexpensive compared to the US, so having a glass of wine for dinner is about as common as eating pasta here.

On Wednesday, I had to go to class to take a quiz before we could leave to Rome and it was shocking. I had heard that cheating was common practice in Italian classrooms but I never imagined it could be THAT bad. I was wrong. Students were literally talking aloud to eachother and even shouting to friends across the room. I finished as quickly as possible and left because there were like 7 people trying to copy my answers. The professor kept pretending to be upset but she never actually did anything to stop everyone an it was a really dissapointing experience. There is a chance that I did the worst in the class since everyone else cheated but I don't care because I can atleast think for myself.

After my quiz Lilian and I ran to the train station to depart for Rome. Unfortunately when we got there we found out our train had been cancelled due to the weather (it was snowing) so we left 2 hours later than we wanted. I think I brought the bad weather to Italy with me but I don't mind bringing bad weather wherever I go because I think I also bring a lot of humor and laughter with me too! The train itself was delayed once we got on it so we didn't get into Rome until 9 at night. The man sitting next to me was from Rome and I talked to him for most of the 2nd half of the trip. At first I didn't want to bother him because he was like 50 years old and looked tired but then he looked bored so I figured my attempts to speak Italian would at least be entertaining for him. We ended up speaking about our love for soccer and I told him about the trips I have taken and I also learned more Italian so it was great. Those kinds of things are what makes traveling fun. 

I was VERY excited for this trip for a few reasons:

1. I have always wanted to visit the Vatican and see the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica.

2. I was going to be able to meet Maria, my childhood neighbor and playmate from when I lived in Colombia, who now lives in Rome.

3. Reading 'Angels and Deamons' made me want to see the city and all of its beautiful fountains and churches.

4. The Colloseum.

5. It's ROME!!!

After we checked into the bed & breakfast and got settled in we picked up a map from the lobby and headed out to find something to eat. I was hoping to find an aperitivo where we could watch the Milan/ Manchester champions league soccer match but we didn't have luck and it didn't seem like too great of a game anyway. We walked around for like 45 mins and it didn't take long to realize how beautiful the city was or how great of a location we were staying in. Our B&B was literally like a 10 minute walk from the Vatican. We decided to eat at a pizzeria and then walked back to get some much needed rest.

Look at the beautiful view of St. Peter's Basilica that we saw!

The next morning we got up at 6:45am because breakfast was brought up to our room at 7:30am since we had 8am reservations at the Musei Vaticani (Vatican Museums). The walk to the museum only took 15 mins since it's toward the back of the Vatican but once we got there we just walked right past all of the lines since we had reservations. Once we got in we also got an audioguide for €7 which I had heard was well worth it. I would definitely recommend it because it makes everything more interesting if you know the history behind it. The inside of the museum was absolutely beautiful and before it was a museum, the Pope used some of the rooms for his offices and even dining areas. Some of the rooms had frescoes painted by Michelangelo so you can imagine what a sight it was. During the tour they definitely saved the best for last. The last room we entered was the Sistine Chapel, which is the Pope's chapel. This is the place where all of the cardinals are locked-in while they vote for the new pope and it is so beautiful that it makes all of the treasures in the museum look like household objects. There are simply no words to describe the Chapel, especially the ceiling which was all painted by Michelangelo. I had heard so much about the chapel that when I first walked in I was almost underwhelmed but the more time I spent admiring the art and history, the more I began to feel overwhelmed with its beauty and importance. As far as art is concerned, there is NOTHING that I have ever seen or heard of that can compare- Not even DaVinci's Last Supper or any of the Monet's, Van Gogh's, or Picasso's I have seen in museums. I could have spent all day admiring it and when I finally left the chapel I basically has goosebumps. Photography is prohibited but I was able to sneak in a couple pictures (everyone was trying to).

After the museums we went to St. Peter's Basilica and Square and their size was very impressive. I bet close to a million people could fit in the square. There were a super long line to get into the Basilica but it moved quickly and it was well worth the sights that awaited us. The Basilica is HUGE (the biggest in the world) but the large square outside makes it appear smaller than it is. Once you are inside though, you really get a feel for its sheer size but it is even more beautiful than it is big. It is a strange feeling to walk on the same floor that so many Popes and even Saints have walked on and it is something that every Christian should experience. Being in the Vatican really made me proud to be Catholic and I made sure to pray while in the Basilica, which was built on top of St. Peter's tomb. After walking aroun the interior we went down into the tombs of the popes and it was really sad especially when we got to Pope John Paul II's tomb. There were at least a dozen people kneeling in front of it praying on the ground and some were even crying. It was a really moving scene.

After we left the tombs we went to the top of the cupolla or the top of the dome of the church. It was pretty tiring and it took a long time to climb up all of the steps but the views from the top were gorgeous. It was quite cloudy but we could still see really far and we could even see the colloseum in the distance! After climbing to the top we left the Vatican an explored more of the city.

Some of the beautiful things we saw As we walked around were:

The Fontana de Trevi

The "Spanish Steps"

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was really cool because of how old it was. Inside are the graves of Italy's first 2 kings and Raphael, the great artist. I don't know much about the Fontana da Trevi but it is beautiful and everyone was throwing coins in for good luck so I did the same!

We headed in and went to bed early that night because we were so tired and had another long day of sightseeing ahead of us.


on Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Following the wonderful trip to Bergamo, I was excited when my roommate invited me to Bologna the next day. She ended up wanting to go later in the day with two guys from the US, but I still wanted to go earlier in the morning so that I could spend more time in the city and see more things. On Saturday morning I met my roommates friends at the train station at 7am and our trip began. I had met the two guys before and they are both really nice and fun people so I was excited. Their names are Bruno and Fernando and they are from Chile and Brazil respectively. Between the three of us we represented South America pretty well! Since Fernando speaks Portuguese and Bruno speaks Spanish, they find it easier to communicate in Italian so the 3 of us spoke Italian the ENTIRE day! It was funny because we could have probably gotten by speaking English, Spanish, or Portuguese but the 3 of us from S.America spoke in our 3rd language!

We took a 3-hour train because it was considerably less expensive (12.50Euros vs. 90Euros) but we were all so tired from getting up at 5:30AM that we just slept and rested on the train and the ride went by really quickly. When we arrived in Bologna the weather was absolutely amazing. It was easily the most beautiful day I have seen here in Italy. I don't think I saw a single cloud in the sky the entire day. Unfortunately some of my pictures turned out too bright from the sun, but I would trade nice weather for bright pictures any day. 

Once in Bologna, we were all pretty hungry and Bruno and Fernando wanted to head straight to McDonald's so we each got a couple cheeseburgers and left to explore the beautiful city. We headed to the historic district and it was really nice. The church in the center was HUGE! Definitely not as big as the Duomo da Milano but  probably bigger than the others I have seen so far. In the square near the middle of the city (apparently all old cities have a square in the middle) there was a big statue that everyone was sitting around and enjoying the warm sun so we did the same for a while. Then we walked around and saw the other building and headed to a really tall tower which you could go to the top of. Next to the tall tower that we went to the top of, there is a  smaller tower and these two towers are the symbol of the city. Here is link to the towers so you can read about them! Inside the tower there are stairs that lead to the top and it took us like 15 minutes to make it to the top! I can't remember the last time I climbed so many steps at one time. Once we got to the top, it was worth it because the views were spectacular! All of the buildings are brick and have a similar look so it was just beautiful to see them all from above, especially on such a nice day. 

After the tower we continued on our trek and met up with my roommate and her friends. After that we were ready for lunch so we found a small restuarant to eat a bowl of the famous pasta with Bolognese (meat) sauce. After the pasta I had in Siena, I would say this was the 2nd best I have eaten here and I wish I could have eaten like 5 more servings. After the wonderful lunch we went and got gelato which was also delicious. I got 3 different servings and was surprised when the chocolate gelato was actually dark chocolate, which I hadn't tried in years. It was great! I had a really nice day with Bruno and Fernando and really enjoyed speaking Italian with them- I hope I get the chance to travel with them again!

After a long day of walking around and exploring the city and its many churches it was nice to sit back down in the train and rest for the 3 hour ride home. Once we got into Milano the guys wanted to go back to McDonald's (I was almost in disbelief) so we ate dinner and then I came back home. That evening I ended up going to Johan's place because he had a bunch of people over and then over to Emelie and Jarina's (2 really nice girls from Sweden) place because one of the guys we were with couldn't get into the club we tried to go to because the bouncer wanted to feel special. 

Overall, I had a wonderful day and the perfect weather will make my memory of Bologna that much better!!

Bergamo & Old Fashion!


Last week was more busy for me, but fortunately, I still managed to go out a couple of times! On Tuesday night, my neighbors were throwing a party and they invited me, so I went to try and meet some new people. To my surprise, I was basically the only person who spoke English (besides me neighbor) so it was one of my first real opportunities to talk to people my age in Italian. I found that my Italian is pretty decent but I can really only speak in the present tense so they probably think I talk like a little kid whose trying to learn to speak. I was there for like 3 hours and barely spoke English though so it was awesome to be understood in Italian! I met some really cool people and I will have to give them a call so we can hang out and I can practice speaking more. It's interesting that the Italian college parties and the American ones are so similar even though the two places are so far from each other. I was expecting everyone to be dancing like crazy but we were all just talking and listening to music.

The next evening I went to Old Fashion with Oscar and had a fantastic time. We got there early for an Aperitivo (the only one I have seen at a club) because it was supposed to be Mexican food, but we basically ended up eating chicken nuggets which was really disappointing. The rest of the night I just danced a lot and met some new people so it was great.

On Thursday, I just stayed in to rest (since I had gone out the previous 2 nights) and because on Friday I went to Bergamo with the guys from Scandinavia. For dinner on Thursday, one of my roommate's friends came over and we ordered pizza for dinner. I made the mistake of ordering a pizza with french fries on it but I learned my lesson because it wasn't very appetizing! I wish I would've taken a picture of the group in Bergamo because there were about 8 or 9 of them and then me (I don't exactly look Swedish).

Bergamo is a small city roughly 40 minutes NW of Milan by train so it was perfect for a short day trip. The city was pretty small and I think it has roughly 100,000 residents. The best part was that the train ride was only 4.50 (unfortunately, as you will find out later, the ride home was MUCH more expensive). Once we got to the city at 11am we all went to McDonald's for breakfast and then walked around downtown Bergamo. One thing that I learned this weekend was that Europeans LOVE McDonald's when they are traveling because it was so cheap. I literally went to McDonald's 5 times in 2 days and it would have probably been more had I not refused to eat there for dinner! Needless to say, I will try to eat there as little as possible while I am in Europe!

The really cool thing about Bergamo is that there is a lower city and an upper section of the city which is in the hills. The top part of the city was used as protect the residents from invaders and basically had a wall around it to keep people out. Fortunately we took a Gondola-on-a-track so we didn't have to climb up! The upper part of the city was much older than the lower section and also much more beautiful. I am guessing that part of the city was built first, because this is where their Duomo and other big churches were.

We also saw a fortress/castle-like structure which was really cool. Unfortunately the weather was terrible (rain/snow) so the views from the hill of the lower city were not as great as they could have been, but it was still beautiful. It was crazy how fast the weather changed though because when we first got to the top of the hill we sat at an outdoor cafe to drink a cold beer and by the time we finished it was raining! While we were sitting outside the pigeons attacked the left over food on the tables next to us and it was pretty entertaining to watch the waiter try to swat them away.

I would say that Bergamo was not as beautiful as the other cities I have been to here in Italy, but being so close to Milan I would definitely go again because it was still really nice and old (especially the upper city). On the ride home we forgot to stamp the time on our train tickets and we had to pay a 50EURO fine- which is something I won't ever forget to do again!!!!

Until next time, Arrivederci!