Monday, October 27, 2008

Italian Vacation. To Roma e Firenze we go!

Just got back the other day from our week-long trip to Italy and it was, well...fabulous. It is too hard to talk about all at once, so I will take it day by day. It's a bit of a blur so hopefully I won't mix up the days!

Day 1

It was a long day to get there because we flew out of Helsinki so we had to make the journey on the train from Tampere and then catch our flight. Our flight was a bit late so we didn't get into Roma until 11:30, when of course we were supposed to meet Craig at 10:30. So, with our bags in tow we took the metro to Craig's stop and eventually found his apartment and knocked down his door. :) We dropped off our things and he took us on a wonderful midnight tour of pretty much all the big sights north of ancient Rome. Everything was lit up beautifully and it was fun to have Craig give us his tidbits of history as we walked. We ended up at Giolliti's Gelato and made it in just before they closed at 1 am. Craig says it's the best and it was quite delicious. Just the beginning of our process of becoming gelato officianados. We finally made it back to our hostel at 3 am and boy was I tired.

Midnight tour: St. Peter's Basilica

Day 2

We made our way back over to Craig's side of town to hit the Vatican Museum, but sadly it turned out to be mysteriously closed. So after some delicious gelato served by an old man in an adorably classic red vest and matching ice cream hat, we went to St. Peter's Basilica and I have to say it's probably the most beautiful church I have ever been inside. Every inch is decorated or sculpted or gilded in some elaborate fashion. The square outside is also quite a sight. The columns that surround it are massive in scale and it is a beautiful place to just sit and relax and people watch.

After giving our feet a moment to rest we headed over to this building, the name of which I cannot recall. Anyway, it is near the stagnant river and Craig had told us that it had some of the most beautiful views if you climbed to the top. So we did, just at dusk, and it was lovely.

View from the top of the building overlooking the river.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

The square at St. Peter's Basilica

First stop on our gelato tour. :)

Day 3

Our hostel, The Yellow, had some brochures for walking tours of the city with mother-tongue english speakers, as they were called. So we decided to do one of those. Beforehand, of course, we had to get some gelato at Termini before hopping on the metro. We met the tour near Circo Massimo and we had a great guide, Chris from Idaho, who was an expert on all the history of ancient Rome. Luckily he was also humorous and didn't take himself too seriously so it was a fun tour. We saw Circo Massimo, the Mouth of Truth (really just an old sewer cover, woo hoo!), the Jewish Ghetto, where Julius Caesar was killed (it is now an official cat sanctuary, and yes, the cats have papers), the Pantheon, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum from afar.

We stopped in the middle to have lunch at an adorable local hole in the wall near the Pantheon. I had a delicious pizza and we sat and chatted for a bit as a group. There was also an adorable Italian woman who runs the place who kept saying "Mange! Mange!" when Meg couldn't finish her pizza. I wanted to take her home.

That night we ate at Mama Angela's Trattoria across the street from our hostel. I had spaghetti carbonara, my favorite, and it was delicious. We also sat next to a really cute older couple from Vienna who were nice to chat with. I felt like such a grown up, sitting there drinking wine at a nice restaurant and chatting with a random old couple. Haha.

Gelato at Termini before our little walking tour. Delish!

At the Pantheon!

Palatine Hill and Circo Massimo.

The Colosseum from afar.

Day 4

We decided to head back to the Roman Forum and the Colisseum to actually buy tickets and do the whole deal. We bought tickets at the Roman Forum and did that first so we wouldn't have to wait in line at the Colosseum (thank you, Rick Steeves) and both were amazing! The Roman Forums were really neat to just walk around in and imagine what it must have been like back then. We eventually made it to the Colisseum and it's really just hard to explain how cool it is to be there in person. We learned from our tour guide that back in the Gladiator days, the government would put on shows in the Colisseum for basically 2/3 of the year, for free. It's pretty crazy to think that battles and shows would be taking place there almost daily. Also, it's HUGE. Hard to explain unless you are there, I think.

We made a quick stop at the Trevi Fountain, which was sadly riddled with construction people and yellow construction hats. We had some lunch near there and for the second half of the day we went back to the Vatican Museum and actually made it in this time. Probably overall my favorite museum that we saw in Italy. They have rooms and rooms of gorgeous white marble sculptures. The Bernini ones were especially beautiful. They had rooms and rooms with busts lining the walls an inch apart from each other. It was pretty amazing to see them all together and examine each and every one. The draping and the realism is incredible in person. Let's just say I thoroughly enjoyed our little walk through.

When we were done we met up with Craig and did a little grocery shopping with him, which was really fun. They have tiny little grocery stores that are really fun to look around in. We helped him buy some ingredients and some wine to have for dinner. Now that I think of it, this was probably before we went to the Vatican. Oh well. Nonetheless, we ended up at Craig's place for a delicious dinner of spaghetti with cream and prosciutto, and of course, a nice helping of Parmiggiano Reggiano. Yum. Sadly the Soccer game was not on TV so we hung out with his roommates and spent the evening chatting.

At the Roman Forum, among the ruins!

The Colosseum. Whoa

It's huge. HUGE.

In the Vatican Museum. Sculptures galore.

My Favorite one.

Craig making us delicious dinner on his pull out ironing board. :)

Day 5

Our final day in Rome. We went to the Villa Borghese and it was majestically beautiful. It is this massive park that would probably take at least 2 hours to fully walk through. It has big gorgeous trees and ponds with ducks and fish and sculptures and pathways and it's really beautiful. It's also fun because it's not so touristy. It's a little bit more out of the way and there are locals running or taking their children to the pond or walking their dogs. It's fun to know that the real italian people come up there to enjoy it just as much as tourists do.

We went to the Galleria de Borghese also, but I don't really remember anything too special about it. Lots of renaissance paintings, etc. We saw a lot of those.

After a quick run to a local pizza shop (the real kind where they chop up your pizza and weight it) to get some delicious pizza and soda, we went over to Via Corso (one of the main shopping drags) and looked around and eventually found Zara! Yay. After doing a little damage there we eventually made it back to Termini to catch our train to Florence. We made it to florence in the evening and made the long (well, not that long, but it seemed long) trek to the hostel with our backpacks and other bags. The hostel turned out to be really really nice and we ended up just having dinner in their little restaurant and hitting the sheets.

At the Villa Borghese gardens!


The Galleria de Borghese.

Mmmm pizza.

Day 6

First day in Firenze! We were trying to make our way over to the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Museum near the river, but first we got distracted by the bustling and winding market that filled the streets. They have cashmere scarves (4 euros!!!!) and leather bags and keychains, adorable embroidered aprons, and all the typical tourist gear, too. We bought a couple scarves and eventually made our way to the river and walked along it until we hit the Ponte Vecchio bridge. The walk was lovely, even though it was a bit cloudy out. Florence has a completely different energy than Rome does, and I noticed it right away. Florence is mellow and artsy and feels like the people there are not in a rush like in Rome. There are fewer modern distractions there and it seems very self sufficient and content to stay a little behind the times.

The Ponte Vecchio was bustling with activity and is lined with high-end jewelry shops that were fun to look at. We went to the Uffizi and made a reservation for later so we could skip the line. In the meantime we had some lunch in the nearby square. Then we went to the Santa Croce church nearby. It's a beautiful old church and you can definitely see the medieval influences in the architecture and design. We managed to also swing by the local flea market, even though it was siesta so not all the shops were open. There was some fun stuff there and if I lived there I definitely would have bought many things!

We made it back to the Uffizi just in time and made our way through. I was somewhat dissappointed, considering the 14 euro price tag, but the two famous Boticellis mostly made up for it. We saw both "The Birth of Venus" and "Spring," which is one of my favorites. They were incredibly beautiful to see in person and much bigger than I imagined. We were so exhausted after the Museum that we just went back to the hostel to hang out. Passed by the market on the way back. Bought more scarves. I think by then all of our walking around Rome was catching up with my feet. I literally felt like I might fall over most of the time because my feet might just decide they had had enough. Luckily the hostel had good food and wine that would put me to sleep for a good night of rest.

The church of Santa Croce.

In the Piazza by the Uffizi Gallery.

The Ponte Vecchio on the river.

Busy on the Ponte Vecchio.

Adorable. Piazza Independenza.

Day 7

Last day in Firenze! We went to the Accedemia in the morning to see the David and what can I say? Wow. I had no idea it was so massive. This seems to be a theme for Italy. It was pretty spectacular when you turn the first corner of the museum and there he is, in all his glory. Everything else in the museum seemed pretty boring after that. No offense, renaissance paintings.

I got some overpriced but delicious pasta at a cafeteria style place and then we headed off to the church of Santa Maria del Fiore! This is where the famous Duomo is. We go inside the church and it is quite pretty but sort of similar to the Santa Croce church. So i of course decide to make the trek up the 463 steps to the famous Duomo. Meg doesn't want to go because it costs 6 euros so she goes to sit and write a postcard while I go in. It's definitely an exhausting climb up and I am amused by the sign that says "This trip is not recommended for people with heart disease." By the time we get to the top, I fully understand. Before you hit the top you can get out right below the massive frescoed inside of the dome and walk around the perimeter. Up a few more steps and what is basically a stone ladder and you emerge to one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. A photo does not do it justice in the slightest. It was busy but you could tell that everone was really enjoying the moment of seeing the view. I sat on a bench and relaxed for a while to rest and take in the view.

I eventually made it back down, although I have to say I got a bit dizzy from the endless winding staircase. We went back to the market and found a few more things to bring home. I got a couple really nice leather little purses that were made in Florence, so they will be a nice reminder. I was really sad to leave Firenze so soon. I kind of felt at home there. The mood there was so nice and I could definitely see myself living there and really enjoying it. Florence was kind of how I always imagined Italy to be, in the best way possible.

At the church of Santa Maria del Fiore!

Inside of the Duomo.

View of the Piazza from the Duomo.

The wonderful view!

We made it back to Roma by evening and dropped our stuff off at the hostel before heading over to see Craig one last time. He made us another delicious dinner (this time of pasta with cheese and hot dogs! yum.) and we hung out for a while and decompressed a bit. We decided that a late-night donut run was in order and Craig new of a great place that had really cheap, delicious donuts. We made our way over there and it was a lovely little treat. We decided that since it was our last night in Italy, we should also get some gelato before heading back. So, we did. And my my was it delicious. I went all out and got a nice big cone. We sat outside for a while with Craig and his friend Phil and had a nice long conversation. I was definitely sad to leave Rome, too. But...real life awaits. :)


End of the story. We made it back to Finland in one piece after another long day of traveling. I loved seeing Italy and it was full of seeing even more amazing things. The people were extremely friendly and kind and it was a wonderful experience. I can't wait to go back someday. I will be looking forward to it.

So long for now.
Or as the italians would say...ciao!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Time flies.

It feels like we just got back from Morocco, but in exactly one week we will be heading off to Rome and Florence! I have never been to Italy so I am really excited, and Craig will be there to hopefully show us around so I am excited to catch up with him. I am betting that we will get a fun perspective from him. :)

Nothing too exciting has been going on here. Going to class. Keeping up with good ole American politics, etc. I gave my powerpoint presentation on Friday in my Women's Studies class about the roles of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the current election. It was uh...interesting to compare the two. 

I have to say that though both parties in this election have stooped to misleading ads and hard punches, but the McCain campaign is getting dirtier by the day. Out of desperation and lack of any substance relating to the economy, they have definitely latched on to the 'kitchen sink' strategy. It is repulsive that people at McCain rallies in the last week have been caught yelling "terrorist!" and "kill him!" about Obama. What's worse, however, is the fact that McCain and Palin have both chosen to completely ignore these disgusting remarks made by there supporters. I understand that people will say what they want, but McCain and Palin need to use what decency they have left and say "You know what, no. That is not okay to call him that." Instead they are letting their crowds run rampant with the anger of an impending loss. I find it truly despicable. 

Anywho, enough on that. For now, that is. Two more classes and a few brief assignments this week and I will be done with half of the semester! This is a little scary because I don't really feel like I have done a whole lot of school work, but let's just hope it all works out in the end. :)

Ciao for now!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Morocco Marathon, etc.

We are finally back from Morocco and it was definitely a crazy trip. I don't think we could have chosen a place that is any more different from Finland. It was really nice to get away and see something new, but the trip did have some stressful moments. The bustle of life in Marrakesh really is a thing to behold. A little recap, if you will.

Day 1

We arrived early in the morning Marrakesh time after spending a full 12 hours in the Frankfurt Hahn airport (NOT fun). Let's just say we were jealous of the people in sleeping bags on the hard floor because we had...nothing. We managed to make it to the hostel, which normally doesn't mean much, but let me tell you, this place is hidden. After winding through narrow streets overflowing with people, cars, donkey carts, horses, bikes and countless mopeds, we managed to find the quiet backstreet that led to the hostel. Luckily the hostel was very very nice and seemed to have friendly staff. 

Grant made it that evening and it was great to see him. We all went out to the square that night and had dinner at one of the crazy food stalls. You don't really have much of a chance to choose which one because the servers are relentless and will drag you right in off the street. Luckily, it seems all the food is mostly the same. For about 4 bucks a person we got delicious couscous with vegetables, bread with sauce, and delectable fresh-squeezed orange juice. Not a bad deal and a fun atmosphere to boot. 

Our lovely little hostel with its open-air courtyard in the middle. 
The Jamaa el Fna (square) at night, lit up by the food stalls. 

The crowded walk back towards the hostel past vendors and various modes of transport. 

Day 2

We woke to a pleasant breakfast of bread, jam and more delicious orange juice. We might a nice guy, Rob, from Australia/the U.S. who was friendly and chatty. We decide that we have had enough hassling from the street vendors for a while and that we would like to get out and see some sights. The helpful front-desk guy gives us a map and tells us all the good sights to see. We walked to the Koutoubia mosque, but unfortunately non-muslims aren't allowed in any of the mosques in Morocco. 

We probably spent a good two hours walking around the city trying to make our way to the sights (with a map and everything). Problem is, there are so many little winding streets in the city that probably 95% of them are not on the map. This makes navigating a bit difficult. After deciding we are definitely not getting anywhere, we find an old man with a horse-drawn carriage and decide to have him take us to our first stop. After all, it had started to rain. 

We finally made it to the Palais de Badii, which was actually just a little square with some rug markets and shops and restaurants. Tired from our navigation troubles, we head to the upstairs restaurant with a terrace overlooking the square. Our meal was a bit pricey (relatively speaking, and due to our touristy pick), but delicious and rejuvenating. We attempted to find another sight after lunch, but ended up just making our way back to the square and eventually the hostel. 

For dinner we hit up the food stalls again and discovered some delicious ice cream (two scoops in a waffle cone for 2 bucks!) before shopping around a bit. We wander around the square and glance at the belly dancers and musicians, all hoping for your extra change if you stare a second too long. 

Near the Koutoubia mosque. 
Amazing pottery in the streets.
Getting lost. 
Dinner in the square. 

Day 3

We thought taking taxis might be a good idea to get to the major sights we wanted to see, considering how cheap they are. This made for a much more satisfying day of sight-seeing. First stop, Palais de Bahia, which is actually an old palace. The whole thing is a work of art in itself. Every ceiling and floor is as ornately decorated as the walls and doors. The hand-laid mosaic tile is breathtaking and the colors of the entire palace are gorgeous. We see probably eight different cats lounging in the sunshine on the grounds. I want to take all of them home. 

We took another taxi up to Les Jardins Majorelles. There is a large garden and a bright cerulean blue house that was owned (and I presume designed) by the late Yves Saint Laurent. His memorial is there also (I believe he died in January) and I have to say that it would be a beautiful place to be remembered. There are exotic plants and various forms of cacti surrounding brightly colored pots and a lovely fountain and lily-pad covered pond. 

After wandering around for a bit, we eat a delicious (to be expected) and pricey (also to be expected) lunch at the attached cafe. I think we may have been the only non-French people in the gardens. I wonder if it is a big deal to them to visit the memorial. A lovely place and a highlight of the trip for me. 

We eat dinner at one of the more touristy terrace restaurants that overlooks the Jamaa el Fna. The view is stunning, but it is nice to be out of the action for a bit. The food is delicious and the waiter is friendly and dressed for a Sinatra movie. Unfortunately, Meg and I both got sick and things went a bit downhill from there. I won't go into detail, but we headed back early for a round of 20 questions and an early bedtime. 

At the Palais de Bahia.
Look at that tile!
Les Jardins Majorelles.
The colors!
Our delicious meal of penne pasta, my croque monsieur, and our ginger/mint smoothies.
More colors. 
The food stalls and fruit stands in the square at night. 
Courtesy of the view from our touristy restaurant. 

Day 4

Nothing exciting to report as we decided to take it easy so our stomachs could recover from the night before. Grant left and we were sad to see him go. Also jealous that he is now back in Portland for a few days, lucky!

We stayed in the hostel most of the day and read all of the english (and some of the french) magazines that were lying around. We managed to venture out for an early dinner on one of the slightly quieter streets off of the square. We were early to bed and early to rise. 

Days 5 and 6

Bright and early we headed out for our two-day desert tour to the Zagora desert and over the high Atlas Mountains. We hop in our less than comfortable 4x4 with three German girls and our friendly driver Mohammed. Turns out we had about 7 hours of driving ahead of us. Driving along very high, very windy, very scary roads. Luckily, we discovered very quickly that Mohammed was an expert driver and we had nothing to worry about. We stopped at several cafes along the way, a nice restaurant for lunch (while Mohammed napped), a famous and very cool Kasbah, and many spots simply for taking photos (much to my delight). The views were simply incredible. 

Once we arrived in Zagora, we met up with a boy (maybe 14 or 15) who was in charge of our five camels. We rode the camels for about two hours into the desert to our traditional Berbere camp. The camel ride was fun, but rather uncomfortable. Once we got settled in our tent, we were served what our host called "whiskey berbere," but what was really just delicious and sweet mint tea. We had a supper of chicken tagine with potatoes and vegetables. Later, I headed out to the dunes outside our tent for a little music jam session with the Berbere guys who were hosting other foreigners. The music they played, with only drums and singing, was wonderful and you could literally see the milky way above us. I have never seen that many stars in my life. The moment was pretty spectacular. 

We woke to a breakfast that neither Meg or I could make ourselves eat (warning sign of our future troubles) and a bit of sand on our faces. We rode our camels a much shorter distance (thank goodness) to meet up with Mohammed for the drive back. Same deal that day, lots of driving and lots of different stops. By this time our stomachs weren't doing so well and we didn't eat lunch or dinner. 

By the time we got back to Marrakesh, all we wanted to do was shower and hit the sheets. We did so immediately.

Driving over the Atlas Mountains. 
Rock the Kasbah.
We learned to tie our scarves like the berbere for our sunset camel ride. 
Crazy roads. 
Our lovely camels. Very strange animals. 

Our berbere camp.
The Dunes.
The desert. 

Day 7

Stayed in hostel all day and only ate pringles and digestive cookies. Not good. 

Day 8

Left bright and early for our flight and felt like I was going to have a heart attack because I was so weak from lack of food. We were both cranky and did not have a very good day. Finally arrived in Germany that night and were supremely glad that we had made a hotel reservation near the airport. Went to the very cute little hotel and got settled in and watched a few hours of CNN and BBC, (first time actually watching television in over a month). Went down for a dinner of soup and caprese salad to get our stomachs back on track. We returned to the room for hours of switching between TV and our books. We both begrudgingly bought Chasing Harry Winston (author of devil wears prada) at the airport for 10 euros. Probably a worthwhile investment in the end. 

We were anxiously waiting for the VP debate (and hopefully for some entertaining gaffes to occur) at 1 am only to discover that the debate wasn't actually on until 3 am. Luckily neither of us were very tired so we napped for a couple hours and woke in time to catch the debate live. I'm really glad we got to see it live and was extremely impressed with Joe Biden's performance. 

General gist of my reaction:

-Wow, Biden really knows his stuff and is on top of his game. Answers everything pretty directly and in great detail. 
-Sarah Palin looks like a robot who is nervously spewing campaign lines that were fed to her and memorized.
-No entertaining gaffes and Sarah Palin did 'better than expected.' Doesn't say much considering people were just happy she could put sentences together, unlike last week with Katie Couric.
-Palin kept referring to Alaska and saying things like 'well up there in Alaska' in her horrifying accent. Not a good idea because it just kept reminding me that that is naturally where she belongs, not in an offensive way.
-Man, Joe Biden seems to have background and facts and a plan for everything. Amazing.
-Palin, worst closing statement ever. Something about being old and having to tell our kids that back in the day men and women were free? Whaaat?

Basically, it seems that Joe Biden has a complete grasp of all of the complex issues and can give specifics about what the problem actually is and how we should fix it. Sarah Palin did a good job of not messing up, but she clearly does not have any grasp of the depth of complex issues. I think even a good Republican could see this. If I were a Republican I would feel seriously betrayed that McCain picked someone as unqualified as her purely for attention. No matter what party you are from, the prospect of her becoming VP or president is downright scary.

Anywho, Day 9 we had a lovely breakfast at the hotel, hung out at the airport for a few more hours and eventually made in back to Tampere in one piece. Have spent the weekend recovering, reorganizing, cleaning and resting. I go back to class tomorrow so hopefully it won't be too much of a shock for my four hour (yes, four) women's studies seminar. 

Should be interesting to see what our US Elections professor has to say about the debate on Wednesday. 

If any of you got to the end of this post, you must certainly be my dear friend, so I miss you all! 

Next stop, Italia!