Archive | September 2012

Lake Como & Switzerland

This past weekend I went on a trip with my university to Lake Como and Switzerland. Both are considered high-end vacation spots and boast mere beauty.  The Alps painted the background of every picture throughout the entire trip. Also, one of the things that impressed me most about this trip were the variations of colors in the water, so bare with me as I discuss it.

Lake Como is the host of many vacation homes of famous people, including George Clooney.  The length of Lake Como is 146 km, the third largest lake in Italy, and  is surrounded by shops and houses.  There are beautiful villas with Italian gardens, which exhibit symmetry and beautiful fountains and statues in order to impress guests.  And they do. We only had enough time to sit down for lunch in the main part of Lake Como, but at least we got to face the lake and the boats sitting on it.

Lake Como

We then took a ten minute ferry ride to Bellagio.  Lake Como is shaped like the letter “Y,” and the Bellagio sits at the tip of the peninsula separating the lake’s two southern arms.  It is nicknamed “the pearl of Lake Como.”  There is a village of small shops filled with jewelry, fine china, house goods, and food that are painted yellow or pink with green shutters.  They seemed to have been painted bright colors to go with the euphoria one feels on the island.  At the end of the island there is an overlook that offers a stunning view of the lake and the land surrounding it.  The water is a deep blue-green, with dark shades of teal throughout.  It always seems to be glistening with the sun’s reflection and movement.


After about two hours we went back on the ferry and onto a bus that took us all the way up to St. Moritz, Switzerland.  We made one scenic stop along the way.  It was at sunset and we were able to take pictures of sun’s reflection on a lake.  Again with the Alps in the background, it was so serene.  The water was a deep, bold blue with pink and green reflections from the hills and sun.

lake in Switzerland

We stayed at St. Moritz overnight and then went on a walking tour the next morning. St. Moritz is considered a village (because of its small population) and its main, and only, industry is tourism.  They don’t want factories that can interfere with the land’s natural beauty.  Therefore, the village really caters to the tourists.  There were many kiosks and souvenir shops that were open, even though it was a Sunday (in small, European places they still close on Sundays).  The mayor of the town also had their symbol, the sun, trademarked for tourism.  Their emblem is the sun because, usually, 322 days of the year it is sunny in St. Moritz.  This coincides with the cheerful disposition of its inhabitants.  The Swiss are very welcoming and proud of their surroundings, they want to share it with everyone.

St. Moritz

We stopped at a restaurant/cafe during the tour called Hauser.  There I bought homemade Swiss chocolate; mine had hazelnuts in it. And it was almost finished by the time I got back home that night.  Our guide pointed out many sites to us, such as a tower with a clock that was painted a blue to match the sky, the first “Palace” hotel, and the “Chesa Veglia.”  “Chesa Veglia” translates to old house; he explained to us how farmers used to keep their cows in the basement of the house because of the heavy snow falls and the heat radiating from them would help warm the house.

Old House

After the tour we took a train for three hours back into Italy.  The Ferrovia retica, la linea del Bernina. (Thankfully, they spoke Italian in the part of Switzerland we were in).  The ride offered many beautiful sites of the hills, small villages, and rivers running from the Alps.  Unfortunately I was really struggling staying awake.  The color of the rivers though was a piercing ice blue that I did not know could exist without chemicals or being digitally enhanced.  It might be this color because of the glaciers of the Alps.

As we progressed further down the line, at Lago di Poschiavo, the water color was more similar to that of Lake Como. It was darker, with deep shades of teal.

Lago di Poschiavo

We finally arrived in Tirano, Italy.  It was a small town that I normally would have loved to have explored, but I instead opted to get food before we got on the bus for another six hours.

As for the Italian words of the post- lago is lake, since we were constantly surrounded by beautiful lakes and bodies of water, and l’autobus is bus (since I spent so much time on one this weekend).


Siena, Italy

On Friday, my friends and I decided to look into booking trains for that night to go to Vienna and then come back home Sunday morning. Unfortunately, because of last minute planning, we were unable to find tickets back to Florence at an appropriate time.  Thinking of a possible day trip in Italy that we could do, I thought of Siena. Siena rhymes with Vienna, so that will do, right?

Siena is a small town in Tuscany, about an hour and half away from Florence.  It is a historic town with many beautiful sites that attract thousands of tourists each year.  It is very well known for the Palio, a horse race, that is held twice a year. Unfortunately, neither are during the fall semester. But my professor said that it is an amazing experience and if one gets the opportunity to go they should definitely take it.

There is not as much to do in Siena as there is to see, but what there is to see is breathtaking. (I will include a lot of photos in this post, don’t worry).

There were many buildings to see, such as St. Catherine’s, the black and white Duomo, and the giant chess board. I was told the chess set was a main attraction.  I still don’t understand its purpose. Is it just to look at, or can we actually play?

Giant Chess Set

Siena Duomo


Il Campo, which is the main piazza, is shaped like a semi-circle with shops surrounding it and the Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia as the main attraction. There is also a beautiful fountain in the Campo with detailed carvings.

Il Campo

As we were determining what to do first, a loud boom went off (my friend thought it was a gun shot) and confetti exploded by the doors of the Palazzo Pubblico as a newly wed couple walked out with rice being thrown at them. Actually, it was more of a pelting. It seemed like they were getting overwhelmed by the amount in their eyes.  But, following them was a woman dressed in a jester’s outfit; I really hope it was a themed wedding.

We entered the Torre del Mangia and decided to walk up the 300 steps to the top of the tower to what promised to be an amazing view. The entrance fee was only eight euro, and I would definitely say worth it.

Torre del Mangia/Palazzo Pubblico

The beginning of the path was worrisome; closed stone hallways with short doorways.  It eventually opens up more and we were able to see bits of outside on the way up, which is comforting to those with claustrophobic tendencies.  Eventually we reached the top of the tower, but wait- there’s more stairs leading up past the bells.  The reward for making it all the way up was the magnificent sight.  We were able to see all of Siena, and past it, the rural green hills and lands of Tuscany.  It was picturesque.

300 steps later

Il Campo from above

view from top of stairs

tight staircase

We ate lunch outside at a typical Italian restaurant.  Had some of the famous, delicious Tuscan white wine.  I also tried a sauce with wild boar meat in it. It was good, but I just kept on thinking of Pumba from The Lion King.

After lunch, we came across a Torture Museum, which linked us back to the medieval history of Siena.  Many of the items can be seen in the “Saw” movies.  I never realized how many instruments were created to use for torture. The images provided were grotesque; it is difficult to handle the fact that people were treated that way.  It is even more difficult to realize that many of the methods are still used today in different countries.  It is all very interesting, to say the least.

Ceiling of Torture Museum

I wasn’t feeling well that day (and no one had much of an appetite of the museum), so we decided to skip the wineries and just lay out with the other sunbathers on stones of  Il Campo.  It was a beautiful day and laying there allowed us to soak in our surroundings, our company, and the history of Siena.

Relaxing at il Campo

La storica is history, an important aspect of all of Italy.

Difficulties of an Abroad Student (or just me)

Instead of offering an Italian word or phrase for this post, I’m going to use a German one. It’s called Schadenfreude. Or, taking pleasure in the pain and misfortune of others.  If you need further explanation, check out the Avenue Q song dedicated to the phrase.

Anyway, I’m describing this phrase to you because I’m hoping that by sharing my misfortunes so far in Italy, I can make others laugh or teach them something new about the culture, or me.

This post was originally going to be titled, Nicole vs. the kitchen.  I’m not very good in the kitchen, I can eat, but that’s about it.  But other things have occurred outside of the kitchen that are worthwhile retelling.  But let’s go in chronological order, which, indeed, begins in the kitchen.

In many Italian kitchens, there is a glass stove top that is used as decoration or counter space.  I have never seen one before, was not instructed on how to use it, unlike the other students, and did not learn about the purpose until too late.

The first meal I attempted to make was a simple bowl of pasta, which basically only requires a pot of bowling water.  I place the pot on the glass and increase the temperature on the gas stove before I walk away into a different room. Ten seconds later, I hear a large crash and see glass pieces flying out of the kitchen. I run back into the kitchen to see glass coating the entire tile floor and counter along with shards around the stove.

Like this:

yep, that’s glass.

I was mortified. None of my roommates knew either that the glass top was removable. We were just glad I had walked out of the room, because otherwise my third day in Florence would have been spent in the ER.

My next incident was also in the kitchen.  Nothing as huge as exploding the stove, but more emotionally traumatizing. While putting my jar of Nutella away in the cabinet, I dropped it and pieces of the plastic exploded everywhere. I was devastated, for it’s my go-to snack. Any fan of Nutella would understand.

Another difficulty I have been facing is navigating the streets of Florence, they are much different than the city streets of Manhattan. While walking to my first last week, I got horribly lost. I got so turned around, I had no idea which way was North.  As the minutes passed, I became increasingly more panicked.  I was going to be late to class and the area I was walking into did not seem as safe as the central part of Florence.  I finally asked a friendly Italian woman where I was and she pointed to it on my map- I had walked a half hour in the wrong direction.

By this time, class had already begun and I had no idea how to direct myself back.  Looking for taxi numbers in my orientation book, I decided to call the only number I had- the LdM (my school) emergency number.  The amazing woman who answered the phone put my adviser on.  She stayed attached to the phone while she talked me step by step to my class.  I wound up being a half hour late, but I was so grateful of my adviser and that I actually made it.

My fourth event has to do with traveling in Italy, as mentioned in my previous post.  In order to get home from Cinque Terre, we had to take the train from La Spezia to Pisa, and then get a connecting train from there to Florence.  We had already been through a long day, the three of us had less than an hour sleep the night before and then our train there was at seven in the morning and our train back was supposed to be at 9:30 at night.  Usually TrenItalia is very good with their lines, but that night our train was delayed for an hour. By the time we had reached Pisa, our connecting train was gone (along with the workers at the station).  We then find out that at least the company will be shuttling us back to Florence.  We missed the first cab, and the second one came a half hour later.  Just waiting around was brutal though.  Hanging out at a train station around midnight is not the safest thing, especially in an unfamiliar town with strangers waiting beside you.  It took a great deal of effort not to fall asleep while waiting.

At least I fell asleep on the car ride back (well, I had to at least shut my eyes-I was afraid to watch the Italian driving.)

My friends are curious to see what kind of other shenanigans I’m about to encounter.  They’re betting on another kitchen catastrophe.

Cinque Terre

Weekend update- parte due.

Yesterday, Saturday, my two friends and I took a train up to La Cinque Terre to spend the day there.  Cinque Terre (“Five Hills”)  consists of five villages on the coast of the Ligurian Sea; Monterosso al MareVernazzaCornigliaManarola, and Riomaggiore. We went to the first four, and they were absolutely amazing.

Monterosso beach

Each village has its own, unique charm.  To get to each village, there is a regional train that goes up and down the coast.  The first one we went to was Monterosso.  Monterosso is mainly a beach with only a few shops.  The beach was small and crowded, but we fell in love with the water right away.  The water was blue and clear, unlike the muddy green at home.  It was at the perfect temperature, it was like we were floating in a bath.

On the beach, it was easy to distinguish who was Italian and who was not (Speedo’s anyone?). Regardless, everyone was relaxing and enjoying the beautiful weather.  Finally, we were happy about the unusually hot summer that Italy has been experiencing.

The next stop on our trip was Vernazza. Vernazza is more of a town than Monterosso and has a small port.  The small, brightly colored shops are lined along the hill, with the doors open, welcoming the tourists to inspect their products.  At the bottom of the hill, by the port, are three or four restaurants overlooking the water.  The restaurant we chose had large, colorful umbrellas, where we happily sought cover from the sun.  We sat next to an older American couple; the wife was reading from her tour book aloud to her husband, which enlightened us with some information on the town.


While waiting for the next train, we got gelato at a gelatteria named “Gelato, amore mio,” or gelato my love. A title that I can definitely agree with.

Our third stop was Corniglia.  Instead of going into town on our right, we decided to be adventurous and go to the left, to a pebble beach near the train station.  Getting down there was a huge process. There’s a path that follows the tracks, but then leads to multiple flights of stairs to get down to the coast. At one point, when facing a left or downstairs, we decided to go down.  We get to the coast and it’s aligned with huge boulders.  We then see the pebble beach we were looking for in front of us, with stairs leading to it from where we should have made a left as opposed to go down.

Instead of turning around, we decided it would be a good idea to climb all the rocks to get to it. As we progressed further, the rocks became more slippy and further spread apart.  With waves crashing on the rocks, our balance became even more off.  We finally decided that it was a terrible idea and to turn around and take the proper path to the pebble beach.

At the actual pebble beach, and the word pebble was an understatement, smooth round rocks coated the fifteen foot coast.  We had to carefully crawl into the water and sit down on a rock, because, even off the coast, there were only rocks along the floor-no sand.  Our lack of balance made things a little difficult, but the view was unbelievable.  We would have loved to sit there the entire day if we could, watching the water roll over the rocks and the sail boats in the distances.

Corniglia pebble beach

Alas, we had more places to visit. Our next place was Manarola.  Manarola was also on a hill, with small businesses and homes aligning the streets.  At the top of the hill there were signs with poetry (in Italian and English) of the Cinque Terre and its wine.  There is also an overlook, where there is an magnificent view of the sea and port. There, we went right down to the coast where there was a cove, something like a natural pool. We swam in the water, climbed the rocks surrounding it, and watched the school of fish that stayed close to the rocks.

I absolutely loved climbing the rocks.  I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so the higher we climbed, the more exciting it was.  I could not jump off the highest point, for fear I may not clear the rocks below it, but we jumped in at various locations along the way.  During the jumps, I was filled with so many emotions for the moment.  There’s the excitement, the hint of pride for gaining the courage to do so, the terror that there is no turning back, and the appreciation of the view surrounding me.  I just wanted to freeze frame it and never let go.

Manarola cliff

I was finally convinced to get out of the water and leave the cove.  We were unsure of the time our train was leaving for home so we had to get to the main station (La Spezia) soon.  We had difficulties actually getting home though, which will be explained in my next post roughly titled Difficulties Abroad.

La Festa Democratica

My first weekend update, parte uno:

Within the past couple of weeks, while running, I came across something that seemed similar to a fair; it was a street filled with vendors and restaurants.  When I was there though, all the places were just opening up so I could not get a proper read on what was happening.  This past Friday, I decided to convince my friends to join me to this fair, which I learned was called La Festa Democratica.  It is supposed to be a celebration of the political party, but while there it did not seem like the main focus.  We actually forgot it even was about politics until a woman handed us stickers explaining it.

For something that we had such little information about, we had had such an amazing time doing it.  There were restaurants lined up with tables on the side, a few carnival games, rides (which we were too big for apparently), and sangria stands everywhere.  There was even a kickboxing ring that encouraged the guests to put on gloves and try it out.  The guy in charge of the kickboxing tried convincing me to join in. I know some kickboxing, so I was really tempted to, but I’ve never actually gone against another person, so I was afraid to test that out in front of everyone.

On the streets, there were even a few stages set up for dancing; some live and some with a DJ.  The live performers were so involved with all the people dancing, joining them while singing.  We had an amazing time submerging ourselves with the locals and dancing to the Italian (and some Spanish) music that they played.  I also realized that Italians dance much better than Americans, even the younger kids.  While we make crazy, jerky movements (or is that just me?), they actually feel the rhythm of the music and can move their hips with it.

festival stage

There weren’t many tourists at La Festa, which was a nice surprise from typical Florence. It was finally a chance to see Italians get together and celebrate with food and dancing.

La Festa Democratica is open for a few more weeks, so if you are in Italy and reading this- definitely check it out.