The three-week Easter break at Plymouth University presented me with the incredible opportunity to do some consistent traveling. First was London, then came Paris, and after a short few days to relax back in Plymouth, I embarked upon a ten-day journey to Italy and Germany. On my list: Rome, Florence, Venice, and Munich.
With my carry-on and my backpack heavy with clothes, toiletries, and my itineraries, I took the train to London to meet up with Cori, who was arriving on a bus from Cardiff. We took a shuttle bus to London Stansted Airport, where we caught our flight to Rome Ciampino Airport. Our adventure had begun.
We stayed at a hostel called Hostella Female Only, located only a few minutes from Rome’s Termini Station. The hostel was quiet, safe, and relaxed, with only three people to a room. After unloading our luggage, we followed a recommendation given to us by a man on the street and ate at La Famiglia, a reasonably-priced and traditional Italian restaurant. After a delicious salad and a wonderful basket of vegetable-stuffed rolls, I enjoyed a plate of homemade gnocchi in a rich four-cheese sauce. I was amazed at the flavor and quality of my food.
Because we only had one full day in Rome to explore, we got busy sightseeing early the next morning.
After a leisurely walk through town, we arrived at the Colosseum. Completed by the Romans in 80 AD, under Emperor Vespasian, the Colosseum housed 55,000 spectators, eager to watch the bloody gladiator fights and wild animal attacks that took place within it. The building was unbelievably massive and impressive. It has been preserved incredibly well for thousands of years of exposure to the elements. The stage floor has since disintegrated, revealing the maze of rooms underground that held the fighters, the animals, and the supplies.
A quick walk from the Colosseum brought us to the gates of the Roman Forum. The Forum was an open area where the Romans would socialize, shop, make business negotiations, and even attend school. The edges of the Forum were lined with temples, basilicas, shops, and all varieties of ornate buildings. The Forum included the ruins of both Emperor Augustus’s palace and Julius Caesar’s palace, mixed in with the beautiful blooms of the lush green landscape. It was like walking in the world’s most historical park.
After our tour of the Forum, we grabbed lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant away from the well-trodden path of the tourists. I had a chicken Caesar salad. We treated ourselves to our first cups of Italian gelato at the gelateria next door.
A walk along the river and over a bridge led us to Europe’s largest open-air market.
We arrived right as the vendors were beginning to pack up. There were tables of handbags, jewelry, secondhand clothing, shoes, hats, scarves… Everywhere we walked, the vendors were trying to haggle with us. Being someone who prefers to shop alone to begin with, it was a little intimidating feeling the pressure coming from each booth.
We snaked back through the Roman streets and ended up at the Pantheon. While it was extremely crowded and a bit overwhelming, this was probably my favorite stop of the day, because the Pantheon is just so incredibly iconic to me. The Pantheon was built in 27 BC by Emperor Augustus’s close friend, Marcus Agrippa. It burnt down, and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in 118 AD. It is the most well-preserved building in Rome. Originally built as a temple for the Roman pagan gods, it was reclaimed as a Catholic church in 608 AD. The Pantheon is famous for its incredible dome, which is completely one-of-a-kind and renowned for its remarkable unreinforced construction. The oculus of the dome remains open to this day; when it rains, the water pours inside the building, runs down the slightly slanted floor tiles, and is carried away by the original Roman drainpipes underneath.
After leaving the Pantheon, I stopped and bought a bag inside an original Italian leather shop. The shop’s owner was sitting at a desk making the bags, and it impressed me so much that I HAD to buy one. 😉 It’s a beautiful bag and will last forever; best of all, it will always remind me of the beauty of Italy. Cori and I faced bitter disappointment when we arrived at the legendary Trevi Fountain, just to find that it was closed for renovation! We decided that the solution is simple: We must return to Rome to see it again. 🙂 Our walk back to the hostel was colored by the ripe oranges hanging from the multitude of orange trees lining the Roman streets.
For dinner, we followed up on a recommendation from our hostel receptionist. It was extremely expensive, because European restaurants charge for things that we Americans assume are free: water, bread, and service. I ordered the pumpkin and sage ravioli, and Cori and I split a bottle of the house white wine. Paying for dinner was definitely a bit easier since we were tipsy… It also helped mask the realization that we were still hungry. NEVER FEAR- the most popular gelato shop in Rome was only a few buildings away! After a long wait in line, we indulged in a cup of creamy homemade gelato and a warm Nutella crepe apiece.
The next morning, we made our way to Termini Station, where we caught a high-speed train to Florence, or Firenze, as the Italians say. When we arrived at Santa Maria Novella Station, we were hit with a heat wave! The weather was absolutely gorgeous in Florence, and as we walked through the streets with our luggage to find our hostel, I found myself in awe of Florence’s quintessential Italian charm.
Checking into our hostel was quite an experience. We stayed at The Queen’s, and while the location was incredible (right in the middle of EVERYTHING, and a two-minute walk to the Duomo!), the place was just.. SKETCHY, to say the least. To get to our bedroom, which had four beds, we had to walk through another bedroom. We were instructed to keep all of the connecting doors open at all times. When I sat down on my bed, the mattress fell through. It was held onto the bed frame by loose 2x4s, which had fallen through the frame and left the bed a death trap. I cautiously fixed the boards and the mattress, and then noticed that all of my sheets and blankets felt- and looked- dirty. Fortunately, the good thing about a crappy hostel is that you aren’t likely to be spending very much time inside of it!
We changed into some lighter clothes and grabbed an outdoor table at Little David, a restaurant with an extensive pizza menu. After an appetizer of fresh bruschetta, my pizza arrived. It was a traditional Etruscan recipe that consisted of an olive oil base, multiple cheeses, honey, and walnuts. It was HEAVENLY! After a gelato stop and an afternoon of walking around, we ducked into the quaint and quiet Leonardo da Vinci museum. The museum consisted of drawings and explanations of Leonardo’s greatest inventions, which were all built and recreated in life-size wood form. This made for an incredible visiting experience, because it allowed us to see what each contraption really looked like, how it worked, and why it was useful. This is obvious, but the man was an absolute genius in a multitude of fields.
After surviving the first night in the hostel without contracting bed bugs or falling through the bed frame again, we grabbed a croissant and waited in line at the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, also known as the Duomo. Being abroad has afforded me the opportunity of touring a variety of breathtaking cathedrals and churches. This one, however, was the cathedral with the most ornate exterior I have ever seen. It was gorgeous on so many levels, and my pictures simply do not do it any justice. It was free to tour the inside of the building, and we ooh’ed and ahh’ed at the gorgeous paintings on the ceiling of the dome.
A walk through some of Florence’s quieter streets brought us to the Casa Buonarroti, the house that belonged to the sculptor Michelangelo and his family.
After taking a few pictures of it, we walked another short distance and ended up at the Basilica of Santa Croce.
After paying a small entrance fee to this equally impressive church, we were able to enter and see the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Dante Alighieri (of Inferno fame). Umm.. can you talk about being starstruck?!?!
After crossing over the Ponte Vecchio bridge, we stumbled across a shoebox of a sandwich shop, where we bought a take-away lunch. I chose a combination of Tuscan salami, mature pecorino cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes sandwiched between fresh focaccia bread. Cori had a vegetarian sandwich that sported fresh pesto, salad leaves, a special kind of cheese, and grilled eggplant.
We took our packed lunches and took the long climb up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where one can overlook all of Florence. We sat on some stairs and took our time relishing the incredible flavors of our sandwiches, enjoying the view of a Florentine hill covered with grapevines and a snaking Roman wall.
This meal was by far my favorite in Florence- not only was it the cheapest, but it was the most genuine. Once we finished eating, we took lots of pictures of the panoramic view from the Piazzale and soaked in some of the warm sunlight.
After a quick rest at the top of the hill, we sauntered back to the city to wait in line at the Uffizi Art Gallery. After an hour, however, the line hadn’t moved an inch, and we decided to try our luck at the Galleria dell’Accademia instead. We bought our tickets and spent a good hour and a half marveling over the incredible Florentine art. The best piece? Michelangelo’s “David” in all of its pristine glory. Because my background is not in art, it takes something really beautiful or unique to catch my eye… I spent a good fifteen minutes sitting underneath of David and noting every minuscule detail, down to the perfectly-sculpted hand veins.
Dinner that evening was pesto and pine nut fusilli pasta at L’Opera Caffè. Bedtime followed shortly after, because while our time in Florence was coming to a close, our time in Venice was awaiting us.
After a beautiful and scenic train ride through the Italian countryside, we arrived at Venezia Mestre Station. The station was located off of the island of Venice, as was our hostel, so we got to see a quiet area frequented mostly by locals. The trees were blooming, and dandelion fuzz covered the whole of the sidewalks. Once we checked into our hostel, Hotel Belvedere, we used the free WiFi to book a gondola ride for the afternoon and to decide upon a lunch joint.
We took the bus into Venice, and when we got off of it, were were instantly whisked into “canal culture.” Venice is an absolute maze built upon an intricately-woven system of rivers, canals, and waterways.
Because so much of the city is water, the buildings are barely feet apart from one another. We had a lot of fun trying to navigate through it all with our map. We stopped for lunch at a very basic deli, and we ate our sandwiches on the dock of a nearby canal. An authentic gelateria with rave reviews from locals was next on our list. The owner, Carlo, makes his gelato daily. Instead of having the creamy texture of some of the gelato we had tasted, this had a texture very similar to Chik-fil-a ice cream (that’s probably a terrible comparison, but I think Chik-fil-a ice cream is delicious, so it’s meant to be a good one).
We twisted and turned every which way and wound up in front of the Royal Gardens, near St. Mark’s Square, where our gondola tour guide was supposed to meet us. We had some time to kill, so we did some people-watching inside of the gardens, observing as couples, school groups, and locals strolled past. Finally, our tour guide arrived, and we embarked upon a thirty-minute gondola ride throughout some of Venice’s smallest canals. The gondoliers all wear stripes and hats, and many of them sing as they propel the narrow boats through the narrower waterways. We shared a boat with an older couple from Manchester, and it was nice to share some of our experiences and stories with them. The thirty minutes was over in the blink of an eye, and we were back on land before we could even say “Bravo!”
A tour of St. Mark’s Basilica followed. The church is a stunning example of the some of the finest Byzantine architecture in the world. While the exterior is admirable, the interior is absolutely mind-blowing; golden mosaics cover over 8,000 meters of the building’s ceilings. These mosaics intricately depict Biblical scenes and, where the light hits them, give the entire church a gilded shimmer.
Because Venice is a water city, its public transportation mainly consists of a series of boat ‘buses.’ We hopped aboard one and explored a small island across the waterway, coming back to the main island to search for dinner. We chose a small cafe-type restaurant that was serving aperitifs, a drink and appetizer special that’s extremely popular in the early evening in most Italian cities. For five Euros, we were given a glass of “spritz” apiece (similar to sangria; wine with oranges and olives), a bowl of potato chips, some crostini topped with carpaccio (thinly-sliced raw ham) and cheese, and some mini tuna sandwiches. Everything was delicious, and for our actual meals, we chose some yummy sandwiches behind the deli counter. Dessert was gelato and a crepe, of course, from a place down the street. We returned to our hostel to prepare for the next day.
We spent the following day exploring two islands a short boat ride from Venice: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its original glass-blowing artists, many of whom live and work on the island. Burano, on the other hand, is known for its lace makers.
Murano was a pretty quiet and residential island. We toured many glass shops, where we laid eyes on some of the most gorgeous creations imaginable (an intricate colored-glass floral chandelier, anyone?). Lunch was a pizza topped with grilled veggies before we caught the ferry boat to Burano.
Burano captured my heart the moment I set foot onto the island. Every building is painted a different bright color, making the streets look like one gorgeous, chaotic fiesta. Pinks, purples, greens, blues, oranges, reds, yellows… My mood was instantly boosted just looking around!
Burano’s “city center” was filled with adorable restaurants, cafes, patisseries, gelaterias, souvenir shops, and, of course, LACE SHOPS. Each lace shop was covered wall-to-wall with ornate lace tablecloths, clothing, doilies, curtains…. Many sported the actual lace-makers sitting on stools, carefully sewing the beautiful designs for visitors to see. We grabbed some desserts at a small patisserie shop and ate them with our legs dangling over the water on the island’s edge.
When we returned to the island of Venice, we were saddened that our time in Italy was coming to a close (or so we thought…..KEEP READING!). We grabbed a quick sandwich for dinner, our “last” cup of gelato for dessert, and made our way back to the hostel. When we began packing our bags to leave for our early flight the next morning, however, we realized something… Our flight was a day later than we expected! We had booked the wrong flight!! A slight freak-out and a few Bellinis later, we chatted with our hostel receptionist, who booked us in for another night. We canceled the reservation for our first night in Munich, and then we pondered upon where we could go the next day!
We decided to take a day trip to Verona, a city an hour away from Venice. Famous for being the setting of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the city has an authentic Italian charm and some incredible Roman ruins. We spent our day there visiting many of the sites listed on our tourist map.They included a Roman arena eerily similar in architecture to the Colosseum, a Roman amphitheater, some gorgeous piazzas, and a beautiful bridge.
We visited the Casa de Giulietta (Juliet’s house), where we saw the famous balcony from which Juliet pined for Romeo.
The tomb of Juliet was located in a nearby church, and we visited that, as well.
For dinner, we wandered into the city center, where a huge outdoor market was set up! There were vendors selling cheese, meats of all kinds, olives, wine, beer, risotto, gnocchi, desserts and cannolis…
I had a bowl of seafood paella and a fresh pork sandwich. We ate our dinner underneath a tent where an Italian school band was giving a spring concert. It was the perfect way to end an unexpected day trip.
We caught our train back to Venice and began to pack up (again) for our trip to Munich.
4:45 came way too early the next morning as we arose for our traveling. We quickly dressed and headed out into the chilly morning air. We went to the bus stop at the train station and bought a ticket for the airport shuttle bus. After about half an hour of waiting, the only buses that had come were two shuttle buses to the other airport in Venice. We were running out of time to get where we needed to go. Annoyed, we ran to the taxi rank and got a taxi to drive us the twenty minutes to the airport. We had to pay him 35 Euros, which wiped us both clean of our cash, but if study abroad has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you have to be prepared for an alternative solution. We checked in for our 6:50 flight and boarded the plane.
The flight only lasted an hour, and we landed at Munich International Airport. I was amazed at how clean and advanced the terminal was; instead of an information desk, they had information podiums, where one could activate a webcam feature and chat with an airport staff member via camera. The airport also had a spacious shower area for travelers to “freshen up” after their flights.
We took the city’s train/metro service into the city center, where we changed lines and took the route to lead us to our hostel. While we waited for the metro, we bought breakfast; I bought an apple pastry that was OUT OF THIS WORLD.
We had booked a night at Jugendherberge München-Park, located near the Munich Zoo. After an early check-in around 9, we dropped off our luggage, used the WiFi to figure out more public transportation, and we embarked upon a trip to Dachau Concentration Camp.
I have always been fascinated by World War II history, including the Holocaust. I have read many memoirs and firsthand accounts of the terrors of the Nazi Party, and so it has always been an interest of mine to visit a concentration camp and see everything for myself. When we arrived at Dachau, I was overcome with instantaneous goosebumps. They were partly from the cold wind that was blowing and partly from the heavy emotion hanging thick in the air. We entered through the gates where the prisoners were first brought into the camp.
I noticed immediately the large number of guard towers built amongst the layers of thick razor wire lining the rectangular camp. Dachau was the first concentration camp, and it became a “model” for all of the others; it was also in use the longest. We toured the inside of the camp’s prison; the cells were not big enough to lay down inside of, and yet prisoners were kept there (in the dark) for up to eight months at a time.
We walked through some of the barracks (meant to hold 4,000 prisoners but accommodated 33,000), the onsite museum, and then, at the end, the crematorium.
There was a succession of rooms we passed through; the first was a room where the prisoners were held and told they were going to take showers; the second was the room where they undressed; the third room was the “shower” room, or the gas chamber; the next was the room where all of the corpses were piled; and the last was the room with the four crematory ovens.
Standing there in silence and looking at those ovens is a moment I will never forget. The inhumane, terrifying, and excruciating torture and slaughter that took place at Dachau is literally unfathomable to me. The sky was blue and the birds were chirping, and it felt completely wrong. It was also bone-chilling to realize how close by real civilization was; houses were literally only a stone’s throw from the camp’s walls. Leaving Dachau, I did not have much to say; instead, I was more content quietly contemplating the entire experience.
Because we only had an afternoon left in Munich, we grabbed some lunch (I had bratwurst!) and headed into the city center.
We took a walk to the Englischer Garten, which was absolutely beautiful. A river ran through the middle of the park as families and individuals biked, picnicked, ran, and enjoyed the sunny weather.
We heard some music and followed it to the center of the park, where we found the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower) and biergarten. A biergarten is an open air facility where drinks and food are bought and enjoyed at picnic tables by large groups of people. We grabbed half a liter of beer apiece and split a huge pretzel, enjoying the music being played by the band in the top of the Turm. This was my favorite moment in Munich; it felt joyous, connective, and quintessentially German.
On our walk back to the center of the city, we passed by a bridge where surfers ride the churning river waters underneath. We stopped and watched them surf, amazed at how incredible they were, before continuing about our afternoon.
After a bit of souvenir shopping (I bought two German beer mugs, one for me and my mom) and browsing of the Viktualienmarkt (farmer’s market), we popped into a German restaurant for a traditional Bavarian dinner.
I chose the roast suckling pig with dumplings and cole slaw, which was recommended by the waiter. It was tender, juicy, and a unique combination of flavors.
Because we were exhausted from our day of traveling and walking, we headed back to the hostel soon after dinner (which, by the way, had a PIZZA vending machine. Like… What). I was able to FaceTime with some of my family and catch up with some friends, as well as converse with a fellow American staying in the same room (she was from D.C. and was studying in Germany!).
In the morning, we caught a two-hour shuttle bus to Allgäu Airport, where we ate a light breakfast and boarded our Ryanair flight back to London Stansted. We did not realize that the airport was so far from Munich until the night before; it was actually in a town called Memmingen. Our flight was around an hour and a half. When we arrived at the London airport, we both had a very nasty encounter with the UK Border Control staff. I could complain about their lack of professionalism and unnecessary harassment for hours, but I’ll spare you the reading. We made it back into the UK, and that’s all that matters.
After all of that traveling, we still had a six hour bus ride back to Plymouth. It dragged on, but when we finally stepped out of the bus at Bretonside Bus Station, I think we both heaved a giant sigh of relief. I did not realize how exhausting traveling can be; day after day of walking, sightseeing, and constant to/fro can really wear you down.
Our trip was absolutely life-changing. This whole study abroad experience has been, but there’s something particularly testing about tackling Europe with just one other person. We battled getting lost, communication and language boundaries, messed-up flight itineraries, sketchy hostels, and lots of pushy vendors and beggars. We gained weight from all of the fresh pasta and from having dessert multiple times a day. We got tired with one another, we got frustrated at times, and we made compromises. We saw so many beautiful places in such a short amount of time. We got tipsy, we cried at Border Control, we got cursed by a gypsy woman… We made memories that we will never, ever forget. I returned to Plymouth relieved to have peace and relaxation, but also with a renewed sense of love and appreciation for the world around me. The Earth has so much to offer us and to teach us, and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to answer that call. I truly believe that if everyone had the ability to travel, the human race would be filled with many more generous, kind-hearted, and open-minded souls.
For now, it’s back to the gym and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches… And, I almost forgot…Schoolwork. 🙂