Thursday 25 September 2008

And Here's to the Last of Our Backpacking Adventure

As we went to bed at 4AM and it was the last day of our adventure, we treated ourselves to sleeping in until 11:30AM. Right away, we went to the most visited attraction in Milan, the Duomo.

One can easily see why the Duomo is the fourth largest cathedral in the world! With its Gothic and neo-gothic style of architecture, the cathedral stands roughly forty-five meters high with windows that are almost seventy feet wide. It is a must-see for anybody in Milan!

The Milan Cathedral a.k.a. the Duomo

Just another photoshoot in Piazza Del Duomo. Notice the H&M fashion in the background AND foreground!

We naturally stumbled upon a few outdoor artworks as Milan is known for its many ourdoor exhibits! The "Beyond the Earth" exhibition celebrated the Italian Space Agency (ISA) and 2009 as International Year of Astronomy. The over 100 images of space were gorgeous!

“Oltre la Terra” Exhibition!

We then headed off to Castello Sforzesco, a castle that houses several museums and galleries. With its reconstruction, one cannot even tell that the castle was severely damaged by the allied bombardment of Milan during World War II.

Castello Sforzesco

Being in the fashion capital of the world, we simply did what we did best: shopping! Being young, backpacking college students; however, we went to Milan's fitting H&M where I bought a beautiful silk scarf (for 7euros of course!)

Milan shopping spree

Nightime came and we went to Monte Napoleone to explore the expensive stores and ran into yet another protest. At the Victor Emanuel Galleria, we listened to live classical music outside and I found my first love: Swarvski crystal!

Swarvski's new collection: The Gang of Dogs. So cute, yet still sophisticated!

We had a delicious dinner (pennette with salmon and spaghetti with clams) at Trattoria La Baita by Central Station. The meal was quite a sentimental one as we all went to a state of nostalgia looking back on the past two weeks. How did it past by so quickly?

We decided this is how I would look if I were a cartoon. Dead on!

Early that morning, a pleasant phone call from back home welcomed me with a "Rise and shine" at 8AM. Backpacking Europe will forever remain one of the most amazing adventures, but nothing can ever beat a phone call from home.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Running through the Waters of Venice

The first thing we hit was the train station to figure out if we could make Oktoberfest. The plan:

9/26/08: 10AM Arrive HEC, 2:30PM Leave for Oktoberfest, 9PM Arrive Munich
9/27/08: 2:30PM Leave Oktoberfest, 4PM Arrive Stratgurt, 11PM Leave Stratgurt
9/28/08: 6AM Arrive Paris

Haha, oh, our crazy plans!

Upon reaching the Duomo, we stumbled upon the sign below:

Sign at the entrance of the Duomo. I hate walking.

Needless to say, we were exhausted once we reached the top, but the pictures were priceless! The UNESCO World Heritage Site remains the largest brick dome ever constructed and the church's size is surpassed only in width by Rome's Pantheon.

On top of the world at the top of the Duomo

Apparently, another hostel guest complained that Julia slept in "her" assigned bed; and thus, the manager kept Julia's luggage until she paid 15euros. Meanwhile, Lillie tried to figure out Oktoberfest tickets during which I checked out which platform we needed for our upcoming train. Luckily, we all met up just in time to catch the train - stressful!

Tip: Make train reservations from Florence to Venice. It will be worth the piece of mind on this usually full trip!

Venice is a quite a unique town as it is a city built on water! With its canals and villas, the city is as aesthetically beautiful as it is culturally beautiful.

Standing upon the Bridge of Sighs

A beautiful wedding couple in the middle of St. Mark's Square

While the others went inside St. Mark's Basilica, one of the best churches exemplifying Byzantine architecture, I made my way next door to Palazzo Ducale a.k.a. Doge's Palace. It was here that Casanova escaped from jail! Not too interested in the actual living quarters of the various dodges and due to the fact that the others would be waiting for me, I ran through over 30+ rooms in thirty minutes just to see my prisons! Good fun!

Tip: Really try to plan your trip to take the Secret Itineraries Tour of Palazzo Ducale. The tour allows one to see the secret part of the prison unavailable to the general public!

The prisons of Doge's Palace. You go, Casanova!

We then of course, headed off to a traditional gondola ride. Yes, it's a tourist trap, but yes, everyone must do it at least once! Ours decided to have a little fun by slanting the gondola whenever anyone stood up and pointed out Casanova's private offices by yelling out "sex machine!" Oh, geez.

Tip: Most gondoliers will charge 80euros for a whole boat. Negotiation will depend on the number in one's party, but one can easily negotiate down to 20euros per person.

On the gondola - classic!

On the way to the Rialto Market, the smell of deliciousness caught up to us! We were drawn into Pasticceria Marchini to try their conolos! Now that's good marketing!

At the Rialto Market, one can buy anything from dolls to magnets to Venetian masks of course!

Tip: The genuine Venetian masks will have an official stamp on the back. Otherwise, it's a knockoff!

Venetian masks abound this city - beautiful!

Venice is another quaint town like Pisa - I could really live here for a bit! We took the 6:52PM train from Venice to arrive in Milan at 10PM. We stayed with Lillie's Italian friends, Fabio and Humberto who cooked us home-made pasta! Sweet!

That night, we went clubbing at Old Fashion and just danced the night away. And yes, the Italian men were aggressive that night! Thus, it was nice to have two boys that acted as our protectors/fake boyfriends.

Clubbing with the boys in Old Fashion

Great day in Florence, Venice, and Milan! Here's to the Eurorail pass as we could use our tickets all day for free!

Tuesday 23 September 2008


We had a 6:30AM wakeup call as we wanted to get to the Accademia as early as possible to see Michelangelo Buonarotti's "David." We got there at 7:30AM to a line of a dozen people and got in right at 8AM.

The first entrance was to the House of Colossus, but we went straight to David to avoid the crowd. Now, I've seen the greatest artworks in the world up close and personal, such as the "Mona Lisa" and "Starry, Starry Night," and each time, I have been highly disappointed for a variety of reasons. However, once I turned the corner, David was absolutely GORGEOUS!

Standing seventeen feet high, the Renaissance marble statue by Michaelangelo Bonaratti powerfully peered over any individual in its presence. The Biblical David stands in thinking pose before his arduous fight with Goliath. David is truly a magnificent piece of work - simply breathtaking!

David...this picture doesn't even come close to doing him justice!

Other works, such as Milano's gruesome works and student works were interesting as well. Although we felt terribly tired, we were quite happy to have gotten there so early and be blown away in aweness of David!

The Bell Tower of Florence at sunrise

Off we went to the Uffizi Gallery to a sight of various lines; however, the normal line without reservations was a two-hour wait! At the moment of finding out this news during our already limited time in Florence, a large Asian tour group was let through the line. Thus, I looked at Julia and simply said, "Wanna go?" We walked in through security and off to the Uffizi Gallery we went!

Tip: Make reservations for the museums in Florence as you will have a substantially shorter wait! Be prepared to wake up early as well.

We spent a good hour and a half exploring scultures on the top floor. With its collection of Primitive and Renaissance paintings, the Uffizi holds works from Raphael to da Vinci. This is a must-see for any visitor to Florence. A definite highlight is also the beautiful view of the Arno River!

View of the city from the Uffize Gallery

Julia and I then grabbed gelato from Festival - it was so creamy!

Tip: For tourists, the best gelato place is Festival. For locals, it is arguably Vivoli. However, all gelato in Italy is arguably delicious! Make sure to ask for samples to satisfy your curious tastebuds!

We took a small stop to Casa di Dante in which the building's three floors describe Dante Alighieri's life. Note to self: read Dante's Inferno! We then headed off to Pitti Palace to see the Pitti Gallery of the modern palace. Although not as many Raphael's as I would have prefered, it was still good.

Note: Four museums in a day is exhausting! And I personally recommend the Number 2 ticket of the Pitti Palace as you can then see the gardens and the special exhibitions.

We enjoyed some delicious pizza magarita beore a bit of shopping at the flea markets. Since my sunglasses broke in Pitti Palace, I bargained for 5euros for new ones. By mistake, I also tried on a 340euro leather jacket! At least we know Florence is known for its leather!

After taking a thirteen euro bus, we arrived at Piazza Michaelangelo right at sunset. Of course, we held another photoshoot!

Piazza Michaelangelo at sunset

Tip: Make sure to take care when others ask "Can you take a picture for us?" This means watch your fingers and please frame appropriately as this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment (i.e. how would you want the picture taken?)! See my point below.

Results of giving another tourist my camera...after setting it up exactly how I wanted it to be framed. Sigh...

We went back to the hotel and planned out the rest of the trip. I was still so sick, so it was great that we were actually in bed by 10PM for the first time while backpacking! We will wake up early again for the Duomo tomorrow!

Monday 22 September 2008

Leaning at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Julia and I took the train from Firenze S.M. Novella to Pisa Centrale. Apparently, we missed the 10:27AM train (as we could not figure out which one was going to Pisa). Back at the ticket machine, it noted the next trains to Pisa were leaving at 10:37AM and 10:57AM; however, Pisa wasn't listed on the board. BUT, both the trains ended at Empoli, so we figured Pisa must be on the way!

Tip: Pisa is usually not listed as an arrival on most train station boards. Sometimes, it will be in smaller font or perhaps not even listed at all. Look for times on the ticket machines and then look for the trains that depart with the same ending city!

At Pisa Centrale, there were directions leading straight to the Tower. Of course, we did a photoshoot with dozens of "look-at-me-I'm-holding-up-The-Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa" shots.

Classic "I'm-Struggling-to-Hold-Up-The-Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa" picture!

Due to a poorly laid foundation, the Tower began leaning in 1178. The design was flawed from the beginning as plans were to originally have just a three-meter base in poor soil. In 1272, construction began again to "level out" the Tower. Unfortunately, by building floors with one wall taller than the others, the Tower began to lean the other way! After removing about seventy tons in 2008, the Leaning Tower of Pisa should be stabalized for the next 200 years with its almost four degrees tilt.

Everybody doing the same shot classic shot! Haha...

Ironically, my favorite cathedral could be the less know Cathedral of Pisa next door. With stain-glass windows and marble in the middle, the palace of worship has a bit of everything. All can really enjoy the Pisan-Romanesque style of architecture.

Inside the Cathedral of Pisa - gorgeous!

Julia and I walked to Piazza Dei Cavalier and saw the local university. Apparently, we found our way into Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale for free as we were mistaken for EU students under seventeen. Hmmph.

The Gallery is an example of a stately home in Geneva. The National Museum displays numerous tapestries, paintings, and coats of arms belonging to the Medici, the Lorraine and the Savoia families.

Inside the National Museum

I actually could live and/or study in Pisa. It's a quaint town that presents so much more than the Leaning Tower. This small community in its simplicity provides a feeling of realness and locality for anybody that strolls its streets. Humbling!

After our adventures, we met Lillie back in Florence for dinner at Osteria Dell Agnolo. I ate the entire pennette con pollo and broccolli which was ridiculously delicious! The girls had housewine and the traditional limoncello after-dinner shot to cleanse the throat, but I was still SO sick! Great day in Pisa, let's explore Florence tomorrow!

Julia loving her limoncello dessert shot

Sunday 21 September 2008

Arrivederci, Roma!

For the first time during our backpacking adventure, we slept in until 11AM! Woot!

After waking up with bruises and recapping, we made the boys breakfast in bed and cleaned their apartment as a thank you for letting us crash (and as an apology for making them go out so much!). We went shopping by Campo de Fiore (where I helped convince Julia to buy a ridiculously expensive purse) and down Via del Corso. This street is quite interesting as there will lie century-old shops next to megastores.

After debating if Adriano should buy new jeans or not (they made him look quite metrosexual), we decided he had to due to the fact that they were only 19euros!

We made our way back home where for the millionth time, we ran into the Monument of Victor Emmanuel! Over 200 feet high, the monument pays tribute to the first king of a unified Italy.

Victor Emmanuel - next up on my return to Roma!

We also stopped by the location of Julius Caesar's assassination, the infamous spot of his last words, "Et tu, Brutus?" Although one would think this would have become some sort of historical monument, it now serves as a cat sanctuary. Go figure.

The space where Julius Caesar was stabbed. It is now a cat sanctuary. Hmm...

Back at the apartment, we had a miniphotoshoot before the boys graciously helped us with our bags back to the train station at Termini.

Photoshoot with Adriano's new jeans!

After eating at Mr. Panino, it was now off to Florence!

Saturday 20 September 2008

All that is the Vatican and More!

We woke up this morning at 9AM while the boys rested fast asleep! Before joining our tour of the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, Julia and I lit some candles at the church of Saint Maria Degli Angelic Dei Martiri (whew!) It's sometimes these little simple events that I love.

Julia lighting up a candle and saying a little prayer

We joined the tour and walked over the Bridge of Angels to St. Angelo's Palace (also more locally known as Castel Sant'Angelo). The Bridge of Angels was originally called Ponte Aelius as it was named after Emperor Hadrian's second name (aha! Full circle to Greece!). The Bridge was constructed in 136AD to connect the city of Rome with St. Angelo's Palace. According to our guide, St. Angelo's boyfriend tried to break up with him, but they ended up taking a vacation together, and eventually he committed suicide. Depressing.

Our guide was quite hilarious throughout the tour; she walked us into an alley and stated, "Now this is the point where you all get robbed...just kidding!" Haha.

The Vatican Museums are as beautiful as one imagines. Again, our tour guide pointed out two look-a-like statues to us: one of Bill Clinton and one of Dr. Spock. Oh, geez. Look to the right and you'll eventually see them!

The Vatican, a place everyone should visit in their lifetime

The Vatican Museums actually are comprised from one big block of marble from just 500 years ago. Displaying works collected over centuries by the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican greets over four million visitors each year.

Tip: Make sure you take a tour of the Vatican! I usually can't stand paying for these things, but there's so much history that it's worth it!

One of the many gorgeous ceilings of the Vatican Museums

Then came the Sistine Chapel...absolutely...breathtaking....indescribable. It's amazing that this was painted by only one man. Genius!

Although one is not allowed to take pictures, the image permanently stays in the mind. The 12,000 square feet ceiling portrays Soloman's Temple and the Creation of Adam amongst other religious figures with so much detail and vivid imagery. This ceiling is argubly Michaelangelo's finest work in painting. And to think, his strengths were originally in sculpting!

At the top of the cupola of St. Peter's, the view is magnificent! Be warned though, it's quite winder and the staircase leading up to it is a never-ending twisted path!

View from the top of St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica is the largest church in the world holding over 60,000 people. If one wishes, one can go below the Basilica to find the tombs of popes past. Very powerful if one is religious.

I finally picked up some good medicine for my throat as we headed to the metro to the Trevi Fountain. At arrival, we could barely even see the grandiose fountain because of all the tourists! Unlike our previous venture to the fountain at 3AM, there were realistically hundreds of people here in the daytime.

Trevi Fountain the the daytime...crowded!

Standing eighty-five feet high and sixty-five feet wide, the Fountain gets thrown approximately 3,000 euros daily. The money is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's needy.

Oh, young love...after taking this picture, I was hit in the shoulder by a horse's snout

Naturally, we then walked up the nearby Spanish Steps. These 138 steps are supposedly apart of the longest and widest staircase in all of Europe (Widest, I would agree; however, the ten minutes it takes to climb these are definitely MUCH quicker than steps as of the Duomo in Florence - see future blog posts). At the top, Julia and I bought artwork from a local artist.

Julia happily making her way up the Spanish Steps
No posing...all real

My new painting!

Right at the Colosseo metro stop, just as beautiful in the daytime!

Before heading back to the boys' place, we stopped to get a quick panini. Although it said 5euros, they tried to charge me 7euros. We walked away and they threatened to call the "policia." For not wanting to buy something I never touched? Right!

We sat with the boys while they ate about five courses of Chinese (man, can boys scarf down food!). At this point, I left my medicine at home; with a shot voice, I was able to communicate through Julia and our "friendship connection."

We took the bus to Termini back to The Yellow Bar where they earlier held a "male batenders dress like girls and vice-versa" theme. I definitely tried to jump piggyback onto James, but he immediately dropped me! With the two of us on the ground, the others definitely had their laugh for the night. At The Yellow Bar, we all tried the infamous "Chuck-Norris-Roundhouse-Kick-to-the-Face" drinks! Haha, oh, Chuck Norris!

The boys before our night out!

Doing pull ups on the lamppost...five seconds before James (right) drops me piggyback-style

We soon gathered at Campo de' Fiori, a piazza that is now a popular hangout by foreigners (mostly young Americans) and college students. James was lost and the group headed home early, so Guy and I walked around and ended up at Scholar's Irish Pub.

We had some Stracietella gelato and headed home passing many historical sites such as Trojan's Column. Back at the apartment, we tried picking up Julia thinking she was a heavy sleeper; she's definitely not! Just another night in Europe!

Friday 19 September 2008

Imperial Ruins and the Colosseum

Julia and I first started the morning watching a protest for workers' rights.

A protest to start the day!

We took pictures of Imperial Ruins and of course, needed to take a picture with a fellow Trojan; we were quite proud of ourselves as we bargained him down to 1euro from 5euro. The Imperial Ruins, more commonly known as the Imperial Fora, consist of monumental public squares (fora) constructed between 46 BC and 113 AD. Next door lies the Roman Forum, a larger and more popular tourist attraction.
Fight on!

The Roman Forum is an ancient complex of temples, arches, and basilicas. It was the central area in which Rome developed as it served as an economical, ceremonial, and political site. A simple wander around the site takes a good 1.5-2 hours.

Roman Forum view from Palestine Hill

Luck on our side, it began POURING rain as I felt so ridiculously sick! We spent some time under the Arch of Tito before we visited Augustus's House. The latter holds a special place in history as a single fragment of painted plaster led to the discovery of a series of exquisite frescoes. The frescoes were later commissioned by Rome's first emperor.

In jail at Augustus's House

We took pictures at Palentine Hill, where emperors and aristocracy lived in ancient Rome. Giving up on our toughness, we decided to give in and buy ourselves umbrellas! After a good lasagna lunch, we headed off to the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum. On October 28, 312, the Arch was built to commemorate Constantine I's victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. One of the most remarkable sites in Rome is of course, the Colosseum! The largest ampitheater in Rome, it can hold 50,000 spectators and is a spectacle that is not to be missed (you probably couldn't even if you tried!)

The Colosseum of Rome. It's like I'm back home!

We walked to The Pantheon despite my sickness and the pouring rain. Unfortunately, Roman streets are unfriendly in general, meaning that you will get lost, streets will not be on maps, and you will get frustrated! Moreover, drivers are crazy and street simply do not make sense; a street will have one name on one side and another name on the other side; streets will curve as well and obviously this can easily frustrate one!

The Pantheon was originally built as a temple to the gods of Ancient Rome. It is the best preserved of all buildings and on rainy days, water falls from the top!

After jumping back on the bus to Alec's, a random guy let us in the apartment to which we learned that he was the fifth roommate. Small world moment: although we were in Rome, it turns out that he graduated my high school one year later! Crazy!

After drying (since water sipped through my umbrella's cloth) and eating a delicious meal at L'Archetto di Cavour, Julia and I convinced all five roommates to come out with us that night. I talked to the boys about going to Testaccio, but they got confused and took us to Terraccio. It was all good as we went to the Coyote Club.

At the Coyote Bar

We danced, danced, danced all night and all of a sudden, everyone left Guy and me! We left Terestaccio looking for the main street to which Guy said he which he actually didn't know the way. Long story short, we tried going from the river to the university to the fresh market to Terraccio to the Colesseum...and we never made it. Finally catching a taxi, we got home at 4:30AM.
The clubbing crew!

And then Zach stumbled in at 5:30AM. Haha, told you one easily gets lost in Rome!

Thursday 18 September 2008

Rome By Night

From Ancona, we took the bus over to Rome. From the tip of a friend, we stayed at The Yellow Hostel, near the main train station of Termini. With a close-knit community feel, there was a lounge and The Yellow Bar next door.

We met up with Julia's good friend, Alex Strafford, who unlike us, had already started his study abroad program in Rome. We exited the station of Colosseo, where we were presented with the indescribable and awe-inspiring view of the Coliseum!

The Colosseum in all of its glory! What a nice surprise!

Originally the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Coliseum was completed in 80AD under Titus. As the Coliseum was utilized for gladiator contests and public spectacles, it is estimated that approximately half a million people and over one million wild animals died in the Coliseum games.

After meeting with Alec's roommates and convincing them to come out with us the next night, we had confirmed a place for the rest of our Rome trip! (Thank goodness because the hostel was sold out for the next few nights!) We had our late dinner at Birra Morretti and had pasta of course! Alec then took us on a wonderful tour of the city.

Tip: Rome is a must-see city by night! Preferably post mid-night when the streets are less crowded, one falls in love!

At the Trevi Fountain, we had the monument to ourselves as there were no people (it was about 2:30AMish). Finally completed in 1762, the fountain's horses symbolize fluctuating moods of the sea as the God of the Sea, Neptune, lies as the central figure.

The Fontana di Trevi. We shall return to Rome one day!

Tip: Legend has it that if you throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome one day! Proper position is to throw a coin over your shoulder with your back to the fountain. See above.

We then headed to the Pantheon (with an "n", not Parthenon) which was incredibly massive. Originally built as a temple to worship all the Ancient Roman gods, the term is now generally utilized for monuments where aristocratic dead lay. Currently, the Pantheon is still used as a church and the dome allows rain to fall through inside.

The massive Pantheon

After becoming a bit lost (it's Rome afterall), we headed off to Campo de Fiori, a popular bar spot for young people, typically Americans. On the way there, Alec began to get "humped on the leg" by some intoxicated local. It was quite funny. At the bus stop back home, the local showed up...and "humped" Alec's leg again. Alec pushed him away and somehow, both boys went flying! We got back at 3:30AM - this was supposedly our "relaxing" night. Haha, it was a nice sleep at the hostel nonetheless!