Italian Adventures

Wow, I can’t believe it’s Halloween today! It definitely doesn’t feel like it. I think it may be because we’ve been having pretty summer-like weather (up until last Friday), so I’ve been blissfully pretending it’s June, and now it’s very cold so I’m convinced it’s already December. I’m not quite sure where fall went. We’re going to have a potluck and small Halloween party tonight, though, so that’ll have to be my little slice of autumn.

It’s been a pretty eventful last week and a half. The weather was gorgeous last weekend, so we went to Viareggio, a beach about an hour away from Prato. I couldn’t get over the fact that I was sitting on a beach – in shorts! – in late October. It was blissful.

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The beach was really quiet, which was nice – I’m assuming because it’s low season for tourism. We made sandcastles and slept in the sun like five-year-olds.

Our field trip last week was to Lucca, which is in Tuscany. I really liked it actually – one of my favourite things was the city wall, which encircles the old part of the town. It’s this wide stone wall that you can walk or bike along, and on the sunny day that we had it was really nice to just take a stroll. I didn’t quite realize how much I missed trees and greenery until I saw the park and unconsciously breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sight of leaves.

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We explored the city for a while afterwards. To be honest, it looked like a lot of the other Tuscan Italian cities I’ve visited – lots of little windy streets. On a side note, we also found a candy stall, which made us extremely happy. They don’t seem to have candy in Italy, but I’m not complaining because they more than make up for it with other things. (I am also majorly freaking out because today is the last day for gelato. WHAT BLASPHEMY IS THIS.)

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We also went to see an opera performance in the evening, which was very cool. Puccini, a famous opera composer, is from Lucca, so it was a collection of some of his music. I’m always very impressed with opera singers. I feel like they would be very good at raising the alarm in an emergency.

The next day we went to Pisa, where we saw the leaning tower of Pisa (of course). It’s actually way more leany (I’m making that a word) than it looks in the pictures – you can’t quite capture the way it actually looks like it’s going to fall on you. Most of the pictures are on another girl’s camera though so I anxiously await my silly tourist pictures of trying to push the tower over. I also saw the cathedral, baptistry and cemetery, all of which were very interesting.

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It was a nightmare coming home from Pisa, though. First, the trains were delayed, so we waited for almost two hours at the train station. When the train finally came, there was a huge crowd of people bustling and jostling to get on, and when we finally got on and sat down we realized that one of my friends was missing her purse. We saw a man outside the train with it and ran off the train to go retrieve it, but he wouldn’t give it to us. Turns out he was the police and saw some girls steal it, so we missed our train and ended up having to go sit in the police station for a few hours to cool our heels and give a statement. It was extremely confusing at the time because only one of the police officers spoke English and we couldn’t understand why we were standing in the pouring rain waiting for him to give it back. They were very nice to us, though, and we eventually managed to get home (about eight hours after we left Pisa…) It was awful, but now I can say I’ve been in an Italian police station. Not something I want to repeat, though.

The weather’s changed for the colder (much colder), so I’m hoping it doesn’t rain for our field trip to Siena tomorrow. Crossing my fingers!

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Assisi

As much as I fell asleep reading about Saint Francis of Assisi and his neverending pontification about God, I have to admit I really loved his hometown. Assisi is this beautiful place located in Umbria, perched on top of a mountain (or it felt like that, anyway) with a consistent gorgeous view and cute little winding streets. The view was almost overwhelming – everytime you looked around, you’d see the huge green mountains or catch a glimpse of the towns below. It didn’t hurt that it was a sunny day, perfect for exploring.

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Getting up was a bit rough, as we had to be on the bus by seven in the morning, but I think most of us just passed out on the way there. It’s a few hours from Prato to Assisi, so we got there at around 9:30 and were greeted by a cold foggy morning. Luckily, our first stop was inside the Basilica of Santa Maria.

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This was a huge church – just the angel on the top was the height of three or four people. I thought the coolest thing about it was the fact that it housed another, smaller church inside of it. This church belonged to Saint Francis, and it was tiny compared to Santa Maria, but richly decorated with art. We also saw the chapel where he died. It’s amazing the amount of work they put into preserving all of these things.

After that, we headed up to the medieval part of town, where we saw the Basilica of Saint Francis.

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We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but it was very impressive. Frescoes everywhere, some of them better kept than others, but all of them beautiful. We also got to see the tomb of Saint Francis. I felt a little sacrilegious because I kept on looking at it and wondering what would happen if the lid suddenly lifted.

We had a break for lunch, and after some delicious pasta (I swear pasta and pizza are going to be forever ruined for me at home) some of us hiked up to a castle sitting on top of the town. The view was spectacular – so worth the climb.

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The second half of our day was mostly concerned with Saint Clare, who was the first woman to follow Saint Francis. We saw her church and place where she lived, which just happened to be on the bottom of a giant hill. We were so glad to see our bus when we had to trek back up.

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Overall, it was a really busy day, but I liked Assisi a lot. I thought it was beautiful. I also finally figured out why my camera was taking really low resolution pictures – I had somehow managed to put it onto some kind of web format mode, where it was lowering the resolution of everything. I’m pretty sad that a good third of my pictures aren’t that nice for printing, but at least I fixed it! I was so happy to sleep in this morning though, and I’m looking forward to a nice lazy day of running errands and doing homework.

Prato 101

Well, I’m finally all nice and settled down in my new home in Prato, Italy!

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I’ve been here for about five days now. I spent my last day in Vienna exploring the Schonbrunn, which was pretty cool – the gardens were very extensive and I felt like I could have spent hours wandering through them (and getting slightly lost. After a while, trees and bushes all start to look the same…)

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I did have a slightly unsettling moment while there – I was still very sick, and so I had to take a lot of breaks to wheeze quietly to myself. There was a large hill to climb in order to get to the Gloriette, a small palace-type building with a view of Vienna, and so I paused about two-thirds of the way up to take a breather. I sat down on a bench with my sunglasses on to look at the view. It was very pretty, though I was rather ruining the quiet spot by coughing my lungs up, and so I tried to just take a moment and enjoy it. Next thing I know, I look at my watch and it’s been half an hour. Apparently I passed out…on a park bench. The height of class, I know.

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I also found some pretty cool building art. Maybe I can transplant them to San Francisco…

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Friday I left for Florence, and got to meet up with some of my field school group. I didn’t get too much of a chance to see Florence, though it’s only half an hour away from Prato so I will definitely go back. We did hike the Duomo though – 464 steps of claustrophobic stairs straight up. It never seemed to end, but the view at the top was totally worth it.

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Saturday I went to Prato, and I’ve been here ever since! It’s actually a much larger city than I originally thought, but we are living within the city centre, which means it’s more manageable in terms of navigation. (Though I’ve definitely gotten lost a few times). It has been such a relief, though, to get out of tourist-land. It feels much more like authentic Italy here.

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I’ve had some classes now, both for literature and for Italian, and we’re starting to get into the groove of things. The apartment I’m staying in is super cute and very European, and we’ve already been cooking up a storm. The food here is absolutely amazing – best gelato and salami I’ve ever had in my life. Tomorrow we go on our first field trip to Assisi, which has an awful early morning start but looks to be an exciting day. It’s just been really nice to have a home base to return to, and to not be living out of my backpack. So far so good – wish me luck in getting up at 5:30!

My new second-favourite city

(Vancouver being the first, because it rocks).

However, the position of my second-favourite city has now been filled by Vienna, which I firmly believe is a place of magic. Everywhere I look there is another incredible building or sculpture that looks like it belongs in a postcard. I’m not kidding. EVERYWHERE. It is magic, I tell you.

I’ve been pretty busy here – I spent yesterday morning at the Belvedere, where I was more mesmerized by the rooms of the palace than the art that it was housing. I’m pretty efficient when it comes to art – I look, I enjoy, I move on. I don’t exactly linger. Hey, I’m into literature, not art.

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I spent most of the rest of the day just wandering through the streets, completely mesmerized by everything. I love old buildings, and Vienna is just brimming over with them. I visited the Museums Quarter, the market that has a German name that I can’t remember, part of the Hofsburg, and Parliament, among a few.

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Today I went to the Natural History Museum, which was pretty cool – the building was amazing, and worth visiting even if just for that alone.

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(I’m actually fluent in Moose. We had a good conversation).

I went back to the Hofsburg and actually went inside this time – the State Hall with the library was breathtaking. I was practically drooling at the proximity of so many books. The imperial apartments were pretty cool too. Not as grandiose as some other palaces I’ve been in – I still think Versailles takes the cake for crazy I-had-too-much-money-and-time.

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My last stop was Stephensplace, to check out the cathedral. It was pretty impressive, though I don’t think it managed to beat the ones in Prague.

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I am so exhausted right now though – this cold is still here and not budging. It’s making it a bit rough because I’m out and about all day, so I’m not really giving myself much time to rest. On the other hand, though, tomorrow is my last day of serious sightseeing before I head down to Italy, so I’ll have to make it through one more day and I can relax a bit more.

Cathedrals, castles, and more cathedrals

Accomplishment of the day: navigating successfully between two countries and not getting lost, while battling a severe chest cold and lugging my life in a backpack. I would call that a win. (Well, not the chest cold, maybe). I’m sitting comfortably in my hostel in Vienna, completely exhausted because of my shortage of white blood cells.

I spent my third and final day in Prague entirely by myself. Does it sound lonely? Maybe, but in fact it was wonderful. I think I was probably too cranky from my cold to play nice with others, and this way I got to see exactly what I wanted to. So far, the only thing that I kind of dislike about flying solo is eating alone in restaurants. For some reason, I always feel like the waiters are judging me, and I never know if it’s rude to be constantly people-watching. Other than that, it’s been amazing just having my own space and doing things on my own time.

I think I saw a grand total of three and a half cathedrals, a basilica and a castle yesterday. (Half a cathedral because I missed the opening time for Our Lady Before Tyn and had to content myself with staring through the doors).

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This one was my favourite – Saint Nicholas, I believe. I happened upon it entirely by chance, but it is one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever seen (and trust me, I have seen a lot of cathedrals for someone who isn’t religious).

It was raining in the morning, but luckily for me that meant that Charles Bridge was way more tourist-free and I didn’t have to elbow my way through masses of people.

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Charles Bridge was cool because it had all of these statues along the side of it. They were super intense, as always.

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I also climbed the Astronomical Clock Tower and got a beautiful view of the city. It was breathtaking. (Literally, I kept on getting elbowed by other people and getting the wind knocked out of me).

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Overall, I really liked Prague. It was full of history and it was definitely a very beautiful city. One of my favourite things was the architecture – everything was just wonderfully preserved and you could see three different eras in one street. What more could you ask for?

Waking up in Prague

Well, I’m here! DobrĂ½ den, Prague!

I’ve been in Prague for two days now. I arrived on Thursday night, completely exhausted from my travels, and basically fell straight into bed. I’m staying in a cute little hostel called the Hostel Downtown, which is located in the middle of everything – so far I’ve been walking everywhere and it’s been great. (Well, not so great maybe…I’ll explain in a moment).

First impressions of Prague: this is a city that is bursting at the seams with history, which makes me a happy happy camper. Yesterday I did two tours, one of the city and one of Prague Castle:

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The tour of the city was free, which was great (especially I’m watching this trip drain my bank account away). I got to visit a lot of the major sights of the city, including the Astronomical Clock Tower, Old Town Square, St James Cathedral, Our Lady Before Tyn Cathedral, the Jewish area, Wenceslas Square…in all honesty I actually forget everywhere we visited, but our tour guide was really helpful in telling us about the history of the city. I’ve probably already forgotten half of it but it was a really nice way to get oriented.

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I ate lunch at Old Town Square, where I had the best – and hugest – piece of ham I have ever had in my entire life. I ate like a third of it.

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The second tour I did was of Prague Castle. I was actually expecting more out of this castle – it looks huge when you see it from the city but when you get up closer you realize that a lot of it is actually just the grounds, which includes things like a monastery and buildings for the servants.

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Saint Vitus Cathedral was also really impressive. I love cathedrals – I look up and think about how the heck people managed to figure out how to build a building tall enough for a ten story building.

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I think I would’ve gotten lost without a tour guide, though, and just wandered around in circles. A lot of the streets looked the same. My favourite part was the view of the city!

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Today I went to Karlstejn castle, which is a 40-minute train ride outside of Prague. It’s a bit of a trek to get from the train station to the castle, which is perched on top of a hill, but along the way there’s all these cute little restaurants and stores and such to keep you amused. The castle itself was pretty cool – I did a tour where I got to see some of the chapels inside. The chapel where they held the Crown Jewels was pretty impressive. Lots of pictures of old dudes on the walls, looking very dignified and staring down their noses at you.

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Sightseeing has been fun, but I’m really exhausted today. I think jet lag is catching up with me, and all day I was yawning and trying to keep my eyes open. On top of that, I woke up this morning with a cold. Possibly the best timing ever. I’m going to take some medicine tonight and pass out and pray to the god who takes care of rocking-your-travel-plans that it goes away. The other thing that’s been cramping my style a bit is my foot. I was extremely clever and slipped when getting out of the shower on Friday morning, resulting in a foot with a huge bruise on it that protests loudly when I walk. I’ve given it a stern talking-to about this getting better business, but so far it’s ignoring me. I’m doing more walking tomorrow, but at least if it’s not better by then I have Monday to recover, as I’ll be sitting on a train to Vienna.

So far so good though – I’ve only been lost once, I’ve already seen two castles and eaten the best potato pancake of my life. Nom. Can’t wait to check out more cathedrals tomorrow and get my geek on. Goodnight!

“Packing” is “Panicking”, abbreviated.

Ah, packing. Possibly the worst part of travelling ever.

I’m a pretty awful packer. I put it off, I pack too much, I leave my clothes in the suitcase for forever because I don’t want to unpack … I love travelling, but I would pay a lot of money to be able to just wave a magic wand around my bedroom and magically place everything I need neatly into a bag. To make matters worse, whereas normally I at least have two huge suitcases to shove all of my things in, I’ve been trying to fit two and a half months worth of stuff into one backpack already half-filled with textbooks. It’s not a pretty picture.

I’m supposed to fit this and more on my back? Ha. Ha. Ha …

I’ve decided to go with a travelling backpack rather than a suitcase because it seems easier to avoid dragging wheels along the cobbly unpaved roads of Europe, but I have to admit it’s pretty entertaining when I put it on. I literally look like a turtle. A turtle with lots of straps and zippers. I’m what the cool turtles wish they could be.

I’ve definitely been avoiding putting the last things in and trying to hoist it back onto my back, though. (I fear that I will tip over). The big day is tomorrow! It’s crazy but true. I was telling a friend last night that I can’t believe I’m going again, as I feel like I just got home. It’s kind of hard in some ways, as I feel really nomadic, but I am so excited to be returning to Europe. Castles! Churches! Art I don’t understand! Languages I understand even less! It’s going to be awesome.

My last few days have been full of crazy essay-writing (that I’m avoiding doing right now), seeing people, and eating all the Asian food I won’t get in Italy.

Dim sum, I will miss you. Not enough to stop me from going, though.