Final Thoughts

I’ve been home for over a week now and I still can’t wrap my head around how much these past four months have meant to me. There truly is no better time to travel than in college. With no permanent responsibilities or a full time job, there is more freedom at this point in my life than ever. I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to Europe and I’ve made memories to last a lifetime.

Meeting people from many different cultures is a unique, eye opening experience. Each person I met has their own stories and advice to share, which has added to my opinions and opened my mind to new ideas about the world. So, I will offer one piece of advice about traveling: be open to meeting new people, you never know what gains could come from those interactions.

With each new experience comes new lessons to be learned, and I wouldn’t trade a single memory I made abroad for anything; however, I wish I would have known:

How to bargain at the Florence leather markets – Confidence is key. It will also save you lots of money.

How to meet locals We met so many amazing people around the city by simply being friendly and adventuring outside of the touristy areas.

Souvenir shops close on Sundays – When traveling on the weekends, it’s easy to leave souvenir shopping until the last day, but don’t. We learned this tip quickly.

Trust your gut on the simplest of choices – If the price for transportation is too good to be true, it just might be.  If the restaurant looks sketchy, it probably is. And if the sellers around the touristy areas hand you a bracelet for ‘free’, its definitely not free and you probably ditch him.

Research before traveling Obviously you know where you’re going, and often times how you’re getting there, but it will save a world of stress to plan out the smaller scale activities (Stay, activities and points of interest, transportation to and from activities, and so on).

No duffles – Backpacks or rolling bags are the easiest for traveling, trust me.

Be aware of your surroundings – Tourists are easy targets and Americans are easy to pick out by our clothing and loud voices. If you’re aware of the people around you and your personal belongings, you shouldn’t run into any issues.

Pictures don’t do justice – Take time to look up and enjoy the view with your eyes. Mental pictures and memories of those you’re with are just as valuable.

Adjusting back to the United State’s culture:

It has taken me about a week to fully overcome my jet lag. It’s odd jumping back into normal American life after living abroad for several months. I’m more appreciative of what didn’t come easily in Italy (free water at restaurants, grocery selections, cars for easy transportation, streets without sellers walking up to tourists, etc.), but I’m already missing what we’re not used to in the US (everything in walking distance, amazing/natural food, gorgeous views around every corner, relaxed culture, and so on). I can confidently say studying abroad is one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I would highly recommend the opportunity to anyone considering traveling during college.

I want to thank you all for reading my blog and keeping up with my travels these past few months. I received many great compliments and feedback, which has meant a lot to me. I hope you gained something from my posts and enjoyed everything I had to share as much as I enjoyed reflecting on my journey.

Life at Lorenzo

Lorenzo de’ Medici (LdM) is a study abroad institution located in Florence, Italy. The school works closely with Iowa State University’s study abroad center.


Location:

LdM is located right in the center of historical Florence; however, I was surprised to find out the institute doesn’t have a central campus. All of the buildings with LdM classrooms, kitchens, the library, advisors offices, and so on are placed randomly amongst other shops and restaurants in Florence. The farthest buildings are no more than a twenty minute walk from each other, and I enjoyed being able to take in the beautiful streets of Florence by passing through the squares and one of the most popular tourist attractions, the Duomo, everyday.


Professors:

The majority of the professors at LdM are Italian. All speak fluent English and I never had troubles understanding them. Smaller class sizes allowed some professors to get to know the students and it was fun meeting and making friends from all over the United States. Most professors understand that we are students studying abroad, less for the class work and more for the experience, so the semester was definitely less stressful than a typical year at Iowa State.


Class Load:

15 credits worth of courses will all transfer back to Iowa State with no problem. An elementary Italian course is required and meets twice a week for an hour. Every other class is two and a half hours long, with a short break in the middle. Most of my classes were geared towards my major (marketing) and offered a unique perspective on the Italian and European culture. Throughout the semester at LdM, classes were fairly simple with few homework assignments. The last couple weeks were more work heavy, with papers and presentations leading up to finals.

Florence For Free

Florence holds rich history from the Italian Renaissance era, and all of the landmarks, churches and museums located around the city center are extremely popular for both locals and tourists. On the first Sunday of every month, Florence opens some of its spectacular museums for free admission. My roommates and I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of this.


Accademia GalleryGalleria dell ‘Accademia

One of the most well known pieces of art in Florence is the statue of David. Sculpted by Michelangelo in the 1500s, this statue now represents freedom and independence. David’s statue stands at the end of the museum’s hallway entrance and is one of my favorite pieces of art I’ve seen. David is a must see when visiting Florence!

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Michelangelo’s Statue of David
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Other artwork includes: More marble sculptures and golden panels like this one

Pitti Palace | Palazzo Pitti

This palace housed the grand dukes and the King of Italy back in the 17th century. Today, the layout of the palace remains as it was centuries ago and still holds some of the furniture, paintings, sculptures, and my favorite, the extravagant ceilings that belonged to the royal families. The palace has many different exhibits inside and out, and serves as a good break from the painting-filled museums around Florence.

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The White Room
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A glimpse at the intricate ceilings and chandeliers found throughout the palace
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Behind the palace: Boboli Gardens
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Giardino del Cavaliere – Filled with colorful flowers at the right time of the year

Uffizi Gallery | Galleria Uffizi

Arguably the most famous museum in Florence, the Uffizi Gallery houses hundreds of paintings and pieces of art from the Italian Renaissance. The building was constructed in a U shape, seen in the picture below. The long hallways are corridors that have smaller rooms branching off, which hold majority of the artwork. A private room separates Leonardo da Vinci’s work from the rest, which was my favorite exhibit in the gallery.

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Uffizi from the outside
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Inside Uffizi corridor
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Sculpture: Hercules and Nessus

Medici Chapel | Cappelle Medicee

This building serves as a remembrance of the Medici family (Royal family that ruled Florence until the 1700s).  Here, burials for members of the Medici family are displayed throughout the first floor, as well as various bones held in trophy-looking cases. The dome holds a tall, circular shaped room covered with designs from floor to ceiling. The Medici Chapel is one of the less well-known museums in Florence, but is worth a quick visit.

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Medici Chapel
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Inside the dome

 

Halfway Point

With eight weeks down and only seven more to go, I’ve reached the halfway point of my semester abroad. I am having the absolute time of my life exploring other countries and immersing myself in the Italian culture. I don’t want it to end!

The Italian way of living is much different than in the United States. At first, it was difficult to grasp the new behaviors and norms of Italy, but it has been ingrained into my daily life and I now feel like a local.

I’ve also been able to use some Italian language I learned from class, which the locals really appreciate. With only half a semester of Italian language, I am able to order most items from a menu, pick out food items from the grocery stores, tell the time and use numbers, and create simple sentences using verbs. My Italian class is made up of 10 students and we meet twice a week for an hour each time. The professors here are really great, they expect us to learn and want us to do well, but they also understand that we are here on study abroad and most of our time is dedicated to experiencing the Italian and European cultures. This makes for a somewhat less rigorous study schedule than at Iowa State, which is relieving.

When I’m not focused on the “study” part of studying abroad, I enjoy taking in all that Florence has to offer. Since Florence is such a touristic city, there are many different cultures coming through every day. This makes it difficult to pick out the Italian culture, but there are many spots in Florence to visit that only the locals go to. An example of this is the Biblioteca delle Oblate, which is a beautiful public library with indoor and outdoor seating and a great view. Places like this are always fun and interesting to visit.

During my time in Florence I have learned a lot. Here’s some of the most interesting things I’ve learned as well as what I still have yet to do:

Top 3 things I’ve learned:

  • Restaurants in Florence often will open around 7 p.m for tourists, but the locals typically eat dinner around 9-9:30 p.m.
  • When traveling, it is wise to plan transportation and activities ahead of time. This saves money and is less stressful during travels.
  • Cafes are a big part of the Italian culture. For a quick and cheap pick-me-up, locals take their drinks at the bar then move on with the day. Just know only tourists order cappuccinos after 11 a.m.

Top 3 things I would still like to do:

  • Meet more of the locals to gain a new perspective of living in Florence.
  • Since Florence is known for its architecture, I would like to visit many of the not-so-touristy churches and buildings.
  • Watch a sunset from the river or the Piazzale Michelangelo lookout point.

With these ideas in mind, I hope to cross them off my bucket list and make the most of the rest of my time here. Ciao for now!

Photo Journal

Florence, Italy | January 31 – February 08

 


Venice, Italy | February 11

 


Verona, Italy | February 12

 


Interlaken, Switzerland | February 16-19

 

Prague, Czech Republic | February 23-26

 

Fiesole, Italy | March 3

 

Florence, Italy | March 2-6

 

Paris, France | March 10-11

 

Naples, Italy and Capri, Italy| March 18-20

 

Florence, Italy | March 20-25

Ancient Fiesole

Fiesole, Italy – A small town located 30 minutes north of Florence is easy to travel to by bus. Lauren (one of my roommates) and I took a day trip to this quiet town to explore the hills of tuscany. Upon arrival, we stepped off the bus in the city’s square, which was smaller than any square in Florence. It seemed as though the town was deserted since the only people we saw were those getting off the bus with us. As we made our way along the windy main road, we found ourselves practically scaling the buildings as the sidewalks barely existed. We reached some amazing views of the hills and could see for miles since Fiesole lies at the very top of a (Tuscan) hill. Both sides of the city looked onto beautiful views; at one overlook, we were able to see the entire city of Florence.

A look at the city of Fiesole

 

One of the most popular sites in Fiesole is the Archeological Area. Within the area, there are a couple museums and ancient ruins including: thermal baths, temple remains, and an amphitheater.

Thermal Baths – Built in the 1st century BC, three of these thermal baths were created for the Romans to enjoy. The temperature of water varied among the three baths, and each one held a different purpose.

These arches served as the entrance into the Roman baths
The first was used as a cold water bath
From left to right, the ancient Romans built a pool with hot water (warmed by the hot air from the two ovens) and a lukewarm bath

 

Temple – Serving as both an etruscan temple (6th century BC) and a roman temple (4th century BC), some of these ancient ruins are still preserved today. Archeologists suspect the etruscan temple was destroyed and later built on top of to construct the roman temple. The staircase shown below led to a sacred room used for worship and other rooms served as storages as well as an altar room. The temple was likely destroyed by a fire in the 1st century BC.

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View from inside the temple area
The heart of the city is located right next to these ancient structures

Used until Longobards (the long beards) arrived at the end of the 6th century AD; the temple site was then turned into a burial ground. Many of these graves were discovered in the early 1900s and goods made of iron, glass, bronze and baked clay were found inside the burials.

Discovered in 1988, this tomb dates back to the beginning of the 7th century AD. “The man was lying on his back, with some personal objects near him: a knife, an iron belt in two fragments on his pelvis, an iron axe and a glass goblet.”

 

Roman Amphitheater – Used for orchestra and theatrical performances, this Roman Theatre was built between the 1st century BC and 1st century AD. Its ruins had been visible for many centuries and was eventually uncovered in the late 1800s. Seen in the picture below is an underground passage that led to a covered gallery (a total of four passages still remain intact on either side of the amphitheater). Although the passages don’t lead anywhere now, they are pretty neat structures to view.

Called a “vomitoria,” this passage serves as an entrance and exit to the amphitheater
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The amphitheater looks into a breathtaking view of the Tuscan hills

Travel Tips

Transportation around Florence is not all that necessary since everything is within a 15 minute walk, but occasionally it’s nice to leave the inner city center and experience the surrounding cities.

My first attempt at riding the city bus here in Florence: Called ATAF, each ticket only costs €1.20 and can take you as far as half an hour outside of the city. Being the adventurous tourists we are, Lauren (one of my roommates) and I bought two tickets with only an idea of where we wanted to end up. I quickly found out we should have researched how to use the bus system before arriving at one of the pick up locations. The train station area was chaotic and the ATAF bus drivers we ran across were not friendly. Luckily the tourist information booth was able to give us a map and answer all of our questions.

What I learned:

Research which bus lines will travel to the destination of interest before leaving for the bus pick up.

Purchase two bus tickets at any magazine stand, tobacco shop, or any store with “ATAF” stickers on the windows. Bus ticket to where? Nowhere, just a bus ticket… they don’t care where anyone is trying to get to. The tickets are cheaper than what the bus driver will charge, and the locals will appreciate it if the bus does not get held up by tourists trying to pay at the door.

When the bus arrives, act quickly and collectively. The locals waste no time getting on and off the bus and the bus drivers will not wait.

Use the front and back doors to enter the bus, and the middle doors to exit.

A ticket must be validated once on the bus. There is a machine that prints the time and date when a ticket is inserted. This is necessary if authorities check passengers for tickets; if one has a ticket but it’s not validated, he or she may be subject to a fine (often around 45-50 euro).

Lastly, tickets are only valid for 90 minutes. This means if taking a trip to anywhere that will last longer than this time frame, buy two tickets – one for the way there and one for the way back. It is possible to get off and onto different buses in the 90 minutes.

Two bus tickets – one validated and one not (notice the date and time stamp at the top)

The Visit Florence website is extremely helpful for information regarding the bus system and everything else related to visiting and getting around Florence.
Another easy way to get around Europe is by train. Typically more expensive than a city or coach bus, traveling by train will save a lot of time. At first I was intimidated by the train station, but it’s really very simple and is now my favorite way to travel from place to place.

Here’s how it works: First, purchase the train ticket online or at the station from the ticket windows or the machines. Arrive 10-20 minutes early at the train station so there are no complications. A screen displays all of the trains destinations with the time of arrival and which platform to find it at. In the Florence train station, the platforms are clearly labeled and set up in numerical order, which makes finding the correct platform very simple. Attendants stand at the front of the train checking tickets before getting on, and again once the train has departed the station.

Everything Leather

Firenze leather markets are a must see. Every day, the vendors wheel in their wooden display carts (which I would imagine is a tough task considering the size of them) and display all their items in an extremely organized, but compact fashion. Each cart fits snug to one another, making room for a countless number of vendors surrounding the San Lorenzo Market.

Tourists typically flock to the leather markets, however today was exceptionally chilly so there weren’t many crowds.

My roommate, Lauren, modeling belts at the leather market.

A typical display put away for the day. These carts are wheeled out of the streets for the night to a destination I am unaware of.

Each vendor sells basically the same items – and right across from each other, which makes for intense business. Whether the vendor specializes in leather bags, belts, jackets, or clothing such as scarves, hats, and Firenze shirts, similar items can be found throughout the market. This makes it easier to barter with different salesmen in order to get the best price. Although they sometimes help each other sell items and seem to be friends, which had us a bit confused.

Scarves of wool, cotton, and “cashmere” displayed on this stand. Tried to barter for these, but they weren’t budging today.

Purses galore. Each stand had an impressive amount of these colorful handbags – all so cute and inexpensive.

Shirts, jerseys, sweatshirts, and everything Firenze.

A blogger perfectly describes how bartering/bargaining for items should play out. A couple of these tips that stood out to me were: know what you’re looking for, shop in groups and assign each person a role, make an offer strategically and know when to walk away. My roommates and I are far from perfecting these suggestions, but we hope to up our bargaining game by the end of our semester abroad.


My Experience

Today, my five roommates and I woke up early and with a mission. Each of us looking to buy a leather bag, a couple of us wanted shoes, some needing scarves, and various other gift ideas. We set out around 10 a.m., which we soon found to be somewhat of a poor decision. Arriving at the leather market was immediately overwhelming. We had no idea where to start but dove in on one of the streets. Six American girls, walking through the empty streets of the market since it was just set up and we were most likely the first customers of the day. Almost every salesman stood in front of their display yelling anything and everything in attempt to get us to stop and look at their merchandise. For example, one salesman singled me out asking, “Don’t you remember me?” Every time we stared straight ahead pretending they didn’t exist – which was almost impossible. These guys are extremely good at their job, they would watch our eyes and trace our line of sight to the bag we were looking at, they then started to yell out prices and ask us to come take a closer look. All the tactics they used ultimately scared us away.

After strolling through the streets a few times, we gained the courage to go back in and approach the merchandise. I attempted to bargain for a few of the bags and get a feel for the prices being asked. Eventually, I came across a bag I really liked and managed to make a final purchase of €40 (symbol for the euro) for a purse originally marked at €90. Is it real leather? I don’t know, probably not. Was it the best deal? Maybe, maybe not. By 2 p.m. each one of us bought a leather bag, so all in all it was a successful day and good first experience in the leather market.


My purchase of the day!

Firenze At First Glance

Though I’ve only been here for a week, I have already learned so much about the city of Firenze (Florence). Between the shopping, weather, social norms, and food, the culture here is so much different from America. I’ve been enjoying every moment of it!

The apartment is in a great location; right next to the river, a close walk to the school buildings, and the streets surrounding my building are all (expensive) shopping stores – we live on the corner of Gucci. Inside, the apartment is fairly modern looking with tall ceilings, a glass staircase, and windows that look out onto the busy streets below. I think we lucked out with this study abroad housing assignment.

As I mentioned, shopping makes up a huge part of Florence. Stores of all kinds (clothing, food, luggage, liquor, hotels, even a store dedicated to rubber duckies) line the streets. My favorite places to walk through are the leather markets – here, you are able to barter with the salesmen for everything leather. I have yet to try this, but it’s definitely on my bucket list for the semester. Along with the shops, there’s also a fair amount of illegal street vendors. You’ll find these men with handmade cardboard stands, a blanket on the floor with their merchandise laid out, or walking around while carrying the items for sale. The funniest thing about these vendors is how they come out in the rain, attempting to sell a handful of umbrellas to all the tourists without them. These same vendors switch to selling selfie sticks when it stops raining.

The weather is much different than I’m used to. It rains a lot here but can change within the hour. Because of this, I’ve found it’s best to dress in layers and always bring either a rain coat or an umbrella. You would think the rain might stop some people from exploring the streets, but on any given day, regardless of the weather, the streets are filled with people.

Locals and tourists fill the streets during the day, all accompanied by their umbrellas and rain coats.

Much like the ever-changing weather, the drivers are also unpredictable. My first time seeing the city of Florence, I was watching from the back seat of a taxi, cringing every other second as we sped through the tiny streets. The drivers will get as close as a foot away from other drivers, mopeds, and pedestrians. Cars here are much smaller and quieter than back home, which makes it difficult to hear one coming up from behind. I don’t know if I’ll ever adjust to the Italian driving style, but the food is something I can get used to.

I came to Florence with high expectations for the Italian cuisine, and they have definitely been met. So far, I’ve tried the pasta, panini, pizza, gelato, crepes, and more. Italians eat dinner around 8 p.m. at the earliest, but restaurants and shops open earlier, specifically for us Americans. I have a growing list of restaurants I still need to hit, thanks to recommendations from friends and other travelers.

Cheers to free pitchers of wine for students.

All of the roommates out for lunch across the river.

Panini with pesto at Pino’s, one of my favorite lunch meals thus far!

Gusta Pizza compares to Punch Pizza back home. Contrary to this picture, there were many different types of pizza; we all just seemed to have a similar craving for margherita pizza.

Amazing displays at a local gelato shop… though I’ve been told to stay away from gelato that costs 6+ euros.

Our best find yet. La Carraia gelato has a shop right on the river, the prices are perfect, and each kind of gelato is so delicious, I might have to try them all!

Hopefully I will see some nicer weather in the next couple weeks, I would love to continue exploring this beautiful city. Until next time!