Archive | November 2012

Paris & London

Last weekend, my friends and I thought it was a good idea to squeeze Paris and London into one weekend. Yes, we got to hit all the main sites, but we didn’t get to wander and because of travel issues (of course) our time in London was cut short.

We began our trip when we arrived in Paris late Thursday night.  Since everything was closed at that point, and we were vehemently opposed to eating McDonald’s, we settled for some good ole kebabs.  I know it’s not French, but the kebabs stands are more popular in Europe than in America, so that made us feel a little better.

I woke everyone up in my hostel early Friday morning by continuously singing/shouting that we were in Paris and that it was time to get up. No one was too happy with me, but it got them moving.  We left the hostel and got lost in the rain, of course, looking for the metro station.  We finally reached the metro and while we were at the information desk, my friend’s iPhone got stolen.  Between that and the rain, everyone’s spirits were dampened (look at that pun!), but I was determined to keep moving so we could see everything.

The first monument that we saw was the Arc de Triumphe, which is actually a monument for fallen soldiers.  In the center of the Arc is a large French flag, which blows majestically in the wind.  I imagine the monument to be very patriotic and moving for the French.

Arc de Triumphe

We then walked down the Champs-Elysees, one of Paris’ most famous streets for shoppers.  We found a French cafe along the way where we got lunch.  The street was decorated for the holidays, with sparkling white lights on the buildings and trees, white wire globes with shiny blue balls, and fake snow.  It was a winter wonderland.

We then crossed the bridge to the Eiffel Tower.  We decided to be ambitious and climb up it, as opposed to taking the lift up.  We deemed it “the workout to last us the rest of the semester.”  Along the way up, the stairs were numbered and there were signs that explained its architecture and gave background to its purpose.  They displayed the other possible designs the creators were considering for the 1889 World Fair. On what they call the first level (or the first breathing stop), there is a restaurant and souvenir shop.  Sitting in the restaurant was a groom and his bride.  I wish I asked them their story, I wonder if they got married on the tower or just in the city of Paris.

There’s a bar at the top of the tower.  When we finally reached it, we each got a celebratory flute of champagne.  Being able to say that you had champagne in Paris is impressive enough for me, but adding at the top of the Eiffel Tower as well, makes it even cooler.

View from the top

By the time we got down from the Eiffel Tower it was already getting dark.  At a certain time each night, the Eiffel Tower lights up.  The Eiffel Tower was literally glistening.  I think it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

We made our way to Notre Dame.  It was pitch black when we saw it, I would have thought that there would have been lights illuminating it.  But the darkness gave the cathedral a very gothic look.  The architecture was amazing.  I was really interested in the gargoyles though, mainly because of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.  We wandered the streets around there which were full of pubs and shops.  It had a nice nightlife going.  We stopped at one place and got crepes,  mine had Nutella and bananas.

We then took the metro to the Louvre.  Although we did not go into it, just seeing the outside was beautiful.  The pyramid in the courtyard is stunning, especially at night- it glows.  I think Paris in general is amazing at night.

As a result of a last minute decision, Saturday morning we went to Disneyland, Paris.  The happiest place on Earth, but in Europe.  I don’t think it can get any happier than that.  The park was decorated for the holidays as well, which put us in great spirits.  I felt like a little kid again when the Christmas parade went by and we were dancing along and taking pictures of our favorite characters on floats.  We were only able to get on three rides, but they were all very different than their American counterparts.  I guess safety standards are a tad different in Europe.

Disney Christmas

We then had to rush to the airport to hop on our plane to London.  We spent the night in Piccadilly Circus, London’s Time Square.  Off the main circle are streets filled with clothing and souvenir stores.  There were big, bright signs advertising various products.  I saw one sign with the Union Jack and the Beatles saying “Let it Be.” I don’t even know if it was advertising anything, but it was so British!

London was decorated for Christmas as well.  On one of the main streets off of Piccadilly there were arches, each with a day of Christmas, from the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

That night we went to a steak house.  I had mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and bbq chicken.  It was the most American thing I’ve had in a while.  And it was great being to ask for things in English, and then getting a responses in English as well.

The next day, we planned on doing a hop on, hop off bus tour.  We started with it, got off in one place to switch to a different bus, and then it didn’t come. We wound up wasting two hours.  We were able to rush along though.  We saw Parliament, Big Ben, London Tower, and the Tower Bridge, all the main buildings we wanted to see.  The only thing that I didn’t get to do was take a picture at Abbey Road. And shop.  Oh well, I guess that just means I need to go back there.

Big Ben, Parliament

Tower Bridge

London was such a beautiful city, maybe because it reminds me the most of Manhattan.  But the buildings are prettier and some much older.  I was sad to find out that most of Old London, where the Tower is, was destroyed during World War II.  In Italy, I get to see so many ruins and old buildings, that I forget that with how much has been preserved there is even more that have actually been destroyed in war.

Although the trip was a tad rushed, I am so happy that I got to see both of these cities, two of the most famous in the world.   I understand why now, both have a unique feel that links them back to their history as well as the modern era.

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Forza Viola- Fiorentina Soccer Game

A typical stereotype of Italians is their passionate natures; they’re lovers, fighters, activists, and communicators.  Although I don’t like to condone stereotypes, passion does seem pretty common here. And soccer is certainly not an exception to these passionate actions.

Today I went to a Florence soccer game- Fiorentina vs. Atalanta.  My Italian school, LdM, organized 5 euro tickets for its students.

Everyone wears purple to the game, the Fiorentine color, with clothes of their crest, the fleur-de-lis (or giglio in Italian).  Outside of the stadium, if you went unprepared, there are plenty of opportunities to buy clothes, scarves, hats and flags supporting the team from vendors.

Inside the stadium is the sea of purple. Fans wave their hats, flags, and scarves with excitement and passion for their team. The opposing team is seated in a corner, barricaded by plexi-glass walls, for when the games get very intense and competitive.

At the start of the game, the announcer introduced each member, first of the opposing team, then of the Fiorentine team. I first realized how important soccer was to the fans during the announcements; the announcer would say the number of the player, the first name, and then everyone in the stands would chant the last name.  I felt like we were the only ones who didn’t know the lineup!

There were also a lot of chants and songs that the fans would sing (we would just clap along). Forza Viola, one of the cheers, basically means “Go Purple!”  Their theme song is “Inno Fiorentina,” or the Florentine Anthem.

Whenever a goal was scored by Fiorentina, their anthem was played along with cheers and jeering to the other team.  Purple smoke would go off in the crowds. People would jump up and down, waving their flags and scarves. A lot of people, though, would turn to the opponent’s fan corner (which is why I understand them being blocked off) and make crude gestures and mock them.

I think my friends and I were most amused by a sister and brother, around ten and eight years old, flipping off the other team’s fans whenever their parents weren’t looking. I didn’t even think the finger had significance in Italy. Not that I think their parents would have minded too much either way (they were clearly very spirited as well).

Despite not understanding most of the cheers and battling the cold, we had an amazing time at the game.  Everyone was generally very happy and friendly (most likely because Fiorentina won 4-1).  I noticed a bunch of Fiorentines trying to start conversations with Americans.  I think that since each city is so involved and passionate about their soccer team, it creates a camaraderie. In America, we have our huge football, baseball and hockey fans, but this is somehow different.  I think it is more personal for them.  It is not an experience to miss though.  You don’t need to be a soccer fan, you just need to be a Fiorentina fan.

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Fall Break, Part 2: Istanbul, Turkey

After Crete, the four of us flew to Istanbul. Fun fact- you have to buy a visa at the airport in order to enter the city, who knew?

Going to Istanbul was kind of a scary idea to me.  It’s in a Middle East country, has a different currency (Liras, not Euros), a language that I know nothing of, and is one of the largest cities in the world.  Although it is a more modern city, the culture is still very different from the United States and Italy.  Some differences that we notices are women are much more modestly dressed, there are a bunch of markets, selling objects on the street is a father and son business, cats are everywhere, and Istanbul’s kebabs are the equivalent to Manhattan’s hot dogs and burgers.

The first place we went to though when we arrived in Istanbul was the Dolmabahce Palace.  The Palace was created in the mid-1800’s.  The design includes various elements, such as  Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical, as well as its classic Ottoman architecture.  Each room is ornately decorated with fine paintings, detailed tiles, rich colors, and grand, crystal chandeliers. Even the green gardens were beautiful with its fountains and arches looking out into the water. It was the home to six sultans. This is when I first realized how pretty of a city Istanbul is.

Palace

Palace grounds

I had a very pleasant and unique experience with a Turkish woman in a Water Closet (bathroom) near a market.  The public toilets were located down a flight of stairs and they were charging 1 lira for its use (this is common in Europe).  I didn’t need to use the restroom, I just needed a place to put leggings on under my dress in order to cover my knees for various religious locations.

As I was struggling on the staircase, trying to put on the leggings while trying not to fall or lift up my dress to the public, the older woman working the bathroom grabbed my arm and pulled me down the stairs.  She set in the bathroom doorway and waved me on to continue my outfit change. When my guy friend peeked down to make sure I was okay, she gave him a dirty look and blocked me from him. And she didn’t try to charge me.

It was such a simple yet nice gesture.  I think that she saw that I was trying to cover myself in order to be respectful and she appreciated that.  She just wanted to help me out.  It was nice being looked over.

The reason I put these leggings on was because the first place we went to, a sultan burial room, I had to put a long skirt over my dress that was supplied.  The place also supplied head scarfs for us to cover our head (just the women of course).  We had a lot of difficulties; one friend got it right while the other looked like a pirate and I looked like Snoop Dog.  The security guards were amused by our struggles.

The Grand Bazaar was unfortunately closed for holiday (Republic Day).  But we got our shopping done at a different market. There were rows of shops with spices, candies, and tea.  I bought apple tea because of a recommendation from a friend.  There were also shops with jewelry, scarves, and beautifully detailed  glass lamps.

Afterwards, we went to the Blue Mosque.  The Blue Mosque was large, but even taller than I imagined.  It was so beautiful, the detail was simply astounding with its rings of blue and gold.  As the large amount of tourists were walking around with their heads lifted towards the ceiling or looking through a camera, there were people in a roped off section, on their knees, praying.  Such a marvelous place to seek solace.

Blue Mosque

We then went to Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya), which  is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum.  It is much darker than the Blue Mosque, which was light and full of spirit.  This reminded me of many of the cathedral I have seen.  It is very grand with its high ceilings and large chandeliers.  The light came only from the dozens of small windows circling the exterior.  Hagia Sophia is two stories; on the first floor are the religious ceremonial pieces and on the second floor were frescoes from its history.

Hagia Sophia

Before we left the next day, we stopped at a cafe chain type of place called Bambi’s.  We asked if they knew English, the waiter responded yes and it quickly became clear that was the extent of his English.  When we were having trouble deciphering the menu, the waiter ran up the hill to the piazza, where another Bambi’s was located, and ran back, handing us an English menu. It was very comical.  Although they got all of our meals wrong I will always appreciate the fact that he was willing to run and get us a menu.

Istanbul as a city is so unique; it is increasing becoming more modern, yet it has all of these grand places that mark it with its history and continue to connect them to their culture.  I keep on repeating myself, but everything was so beautiful.  Istanbul is also located on the water, which also helps with its aesthetics.  I really enjoyed getting a non-European experience and I would love to go back there.

Istanbul

Fall break, Part 1: Crete, Greece

My school in Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, gives us a week off in mid-October for our fall break (take note American universities). So for my break, three of my friends and I decided to do eight days- five in Crete and then three in Istanbul.

Crete is an island of Greece, south of its mainland.  There are different cities in Crete, we spent the first two nights in Chania and the next three nights in Heraklion (it was only supposed to be two, I’ll get back to that later).

In Chania, we stayed at Niriis Hotel.  Our receptionist, and owner of the hotel, George, was a major help to us.  The first night we arrived he laid out a map in front of us, showed us nearby restaurants, where to go in Chania, and how to get there.  We would have been hopelessly lost without George.

For our first full day in Chania, we rented a car and drove two hours south to Elafonisi beach.  I refused to drive (for everyone’s sake), but my friend Alyssa stepped up to the position. The drive itself was an experience; it was somewhat terrifying yet exhilarating.  There are no real rules when driving in Greece, drivers go into the shoulder or onto the opposite lane in order to pass the car in front of them (we were the car being passed).  We were able to see a lot more of Chania though than we expected because of the car ride. We drove through small villages and along the hills and were able to see great sights. We stopped twice along the way there, once at an outlook in mountains and the second at a monastery in a cave, which we were able to climb through.

Outlook in Chania

Cave Monastery

The moment we arrived at Elafonisi beach my jaw dropped.  The beach stretches out into the lagoon, which stretches even further.  We were able to wade in the crystal blue water, the deepest it went was to our hips.  Parts of the beach had light pink sand- there were signs that discouraged  visitors from taking it.

Elafonisi

Elafonisi

It was windy there, but overall the sun was out and the weather held out for us, considering it was supposed to rain.

The next day, we walked around the town.  It was small with shops lined up and down the streets- our favorite.  It is also by a port, which was really nice.  The water level was almost at the same level as the sidewalk.

Chania

After a couple of hours, we took a bus ride to Heraklion, where we stayed at the hotel Prince of Lilies.

For our first full day in Heraklion we went to the Palace of Knossos, an architectural site that everyone raves about. We, on the other hand, were a bit skeptical about it.

The Palace of Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, it was the ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization.  I always find ruins interesting, the fact that these pieces withstand centuries of life and contain so much history is impressive.  The Palace is also very large and had multiple levels to explore.

Palace of Knossos

But what confused us was how much they actually know (or don’t know) about it.  The main archaeologist during the original excavation was Arthur Evans.  I don’t know if it was just the translation, but the information plaques throughout the ruins kind of  made us doubt Evans’ credibility.  There were a lot of phrases such as, “According to Evans” or “Evans believed.”  A lot even said that Evans originally thought something, but then someone else found out something else regarding the matter. There didn’t seem to be a lot of facts.

Regardless, we enjoyed walking around.  And outside of the center there was a street with even more shops (yay)!   We discovered that the Evil Eye is a popular symbol in the Mediterranean.  It’s a symbol of good luck, it wards off the evil.  They were everywhere we went, shops, taxi cabs, restaurants, etc. One of my friends has an obsession with them, so she was in her glory.

My favorite item that I bought from Knossos was a statue of Minerva with an owl on her shoulder.  She is the goddess of wisdom. Minerva is also used by my sorority (shout out to KKG) as our symbolic goddess, so it is sentimental to me.

We were supposed to leave Heraklion the next day for Santorini.  Santorini is the island that most people picture when they think of Greece; hills with small white houses and blue roofs.  We were going to take a ferry there and then the day after, take a flight from Santorini to Istanbul.  Greece had different plans for us.

When I went abroad, I knew that it was going to be different from the United States, especially New York.  People in NY work constantly and businesses are always running. I don’t know if this is an indicator of the Greek spirit (or more so, the Greek economy), but they decided to cancel the ferry. Because of the little bit of rain they were having.

Yes, I understand it’s off season for them, but I don’t understand how they could completely cancel the mode of transportation. And there was no other possible way to get to Santorini. So, we had to book a whole new flight from Heraklion to Istanbul and we stayed at Heraklion an extra night.

As bummed as were, we tried to make the most of it.  We explored the city of Heraklion and befriended a cab driver that told us everywhere to go and places with good food (stuffed burger with feta- best lunch ever).  We went to a small archaeological museum and saw the Phaistos Disc in person.  The Cretans are very proud of it, the disc is on all types of jewelry and pottery.

Phaistos Disc

Morozini Fountatin, Heraklion

And, of course, we did more shopping. (The one guy on the trip with us LOVED it).

I really enjoyed Crete, every person we encountered was friendly.  We also had amazing food there, cheesy bread became a staple item of each day there.  It was clear how the economy was affecting everyone, though. They really struggle during the off season.  The small villages were pretty desolate.  In every store and restaurant we went to, the workers were appreciative of us being there. A major way the restaurants show their appreciation though is Raki.

For three nights in a row, when all we wanted was to get our check and go back to the hotel, our waitress would bring out some type of dessert, typically a fried dough with honey on it, and a bottle of Raki.  Raki is an extremely strong liquor. The first night the Raki was in a water bottle, so we were very confused when the waitress was smiling and putting shot glasses in front of us.  In order to mask the taste, we pour honey from our dessert into the liquor.

By the fourth night, when the hotel workers offered us some, we politely declined and ran away. No more Raki for us.

 

Side note, we also enjoyed all of the stray animals there.  We ran into the middle of the street in order to save a confused kitten and befriended the many dogs near our hotels. Greek for stray dog is skilos- and that’s about the extent of my Greek speaking abilities, although I do know my letters thanks to sorority life.

Look for Fall Break, Part 2: Istanbul, coming soon!