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!

IMG_3719-1.jpg
Michelangelo’s Statue of David
IMG_3729.jpg
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.

IMG_4968.jpg
The White Room
IMG_4985.jpg
A glimpse at the intricate ceilings and chandeliers found throughout the palace
IMG_5017
Behind the palace: Boboli Gardens
IMG_5038.jpg
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.

IMG_5405-1.jpg
Uffizi from the outside
IMG_5048-1.jpg
Inside Uffizi corridor
IMG_5043.jpg
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.

IMG_8249.jpg
Medici Chapel
IMG_8236.jpg
Inside the dome

 

Photo Journal Pt.2

Spring Break: March 26 – April 2

Berlin, Germany | March 26-28

Ireland | March 29-30

Amsterdam, Netherlands | March 31-April 1

Brussels, Belgium | April 2

Valencia, Spain | April 6-10

Split, Croatia | April 14-17

Florence, Italy | April 20-28

Sorrento, Italy | April 29-May 1

Rome, Italy | May 6

Spring Break

Feeling adventuresome, my roommate Lauren and I put together a full schedule for our week off from classes. With plans to travel to four different countries, we began our busy journey in Berlin.


Berlin, Germany

A city full of rich history from the time Hitler came to power. We downloaded Rick Steve’s Berlin City Walk audio tour and learned so much about the city. The tour took us a few hours but was highly informative and I would recommend it to anyone traveling in Berlin.

The Brandenburg gate was originally built to separate west and east Berlin. It has now become a symbol of unity and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Berlin.

IMG_6169.JPG
Visiting the Brandenburg Gate

The tour led us through many historical sites in Berlin, a powerful one was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews. Numerous cement blocks that seemed to go on forever reminded us of a maze. Our audio tour had us imagine the cement blocks as if they were tombstones filled with bodies. The atmosphere was quiet and eerie as we walked through the maze of blocks.

IMG_6205.JPG
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

One of the most interesting places we went was the Berlin memorial wall. The original wall, which separated the east from the west, is still partly preserved. In the middle of the memorial was a wall of faces of those who died attempting to cross the wall. Being in the very spot where the wall once stood and the amount of history that once surrounded it set off an indescribable feeling.

Berlin Wall memorial

Ireland

Our first stop in Ireland was a huge landmark in a small town on the western coast. On the cloudy day, the green Cliffs of Moher appeared brighter than ever. One of my favorite trips from my travels thus far.

Cliffs of Moher

In Dublin, the Guinness Storehouse proved to be a fun stop for a rainy day. This self guided tour taught us about the ingredients in Guinness, how it’s made, and how to properly taste and pour the perfect pint of Guinness. We ended at the gravity bar, which was solely made up of glass windows that overlooked the entire city of Dublin.

Guinness Storehouse tour

Gogarty’s bar, on Dublin’s famous Temple bar street, was one of our favorite night life experiences of Dublin. This traditional Irish Pub has a touristy flare; live musicians play Irish music as tourists fill the bar with beer, singing and dancing.

Gogarty’s Irish pub on Temple Bar street

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Being the (1940s) history fanatic I am, our first stop had to be the Anne Frank house. I booked our tickets a couple months out and for good reason, the lines to get into the museum grew increasingly long throughout the weekend. I was able to tour the secret annex the Frank family hid in for two years during the time of the Holocaust. The audio tour led us through the house to the bookshelf that was once used as a hidden door. We continued up the steep stairs into the annex and explored the many rooms. An extremely eye opening experience and easily the coolest museum I’ve ever been in.

Anne Frank house – Narrow building, fourth from the left.

Seeing the locals traveling around by bike inspired us to rent bikes for the weekend. We hesitantly started on our own. The locals are crazy bikers and move extremely quickly in all directions along the confusing bike paths. We eventually got the hang of it and biked throughout the canals, into Vondelpark, through the museum square and outside the main city area. The next day we took a bike tour and learned all about Amsterdam’s history. It was a pretty cool way to see the city!

Traveling as the locals do

Brussels, Belgium

No trip to Belgium is complete without picking up some chocolate. Mary’s is hands down some of the best chocolate I’ve had.

Delicious Belgium chocolate

Belgium waffles!! Our sole purpose for visiting this country. Of course, the chocolate, fries, and beer weren’t a terrible addition to this quick stop.

Belgium waffles

Although not the most relaxing spring break I’ve been on, it’s easily one of my favorites. I checked many places off my bucket list from this week abroad.

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

Eiffel In Louvre

Ooh la la! A trip to Paris was at the top of my list of places to visit while traveling Europe, and for good reason. Paris has so much to offer, from its many extraordinary landmarks to the unique cuisine, I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience this magnificent city.

A couple of my roommates and I stayed at The Generator hostel. The building was a little ways outside of the city center, but located right next to the tram station and was easy and cheap to get around Paris. Once we arrived in the city, our first sighting was the Arc de Triomphe. Honestly, I had no idea what this arc was or why it was so special. I later found out it is one of the most famous landmarks in Paris and has a unique story tied to it. In short, this arc was ordered by French Emperor, Napoleon in 1806 to honor the French army. After the army had conquered most of Europe and took a victory in Austerlitz, Napoleon declared, “You will return home through arcs of triumph.”

Arc de Triomphe

 

As my roommates and I walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (main street in Paris), we stumbled upon the first ever Laduree bakery. World famous for their amazing macarons, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some (even if the line was out the door). There are so many flavors and most all of them are delicious. I picked out a chocolate hazelnut and a coconut with lime and both flavors were to die for. Other flavors my roommates raved about: pistachio and salted caramel. I think it’s safe to say we all highly recommend trying a macaron from Laduree.

Macarons at Laduree Paris
The original Laduree, one of the world’s best-known bakeries (specializing in macarons)

 

Our next stop, the Louvre. We were in luck because Friday’s after 6 p.m., the museum has free entrance to persons under 26 years of age. Inside the museum, it looked as though we had entered a mall. Escalators and staircases lead in every direction. Underground walkways connected the pyramid structure to the buildings surrounding it, which is where the museum galleries exist. After roaming around the main areas of the museum (and getting slightly lost in one of the wings) we made our way to the Mona Lisa painting. Displayed on it’s own wall deep into one of the exhibits, the painting was much smaller than I imagined. About 30 in. by 20 in., everyone crowded around the famous portrait, which made it difficult to take a good look, and a decent picture.

The Louvre – It’s more difficult to take this basic picture than one would think
Entrance to the museum
Attempting (and failing) the Mona Lisa smile

 

Around dinner time, we all followed a friend’s recommendation to a local French restaurant. I felt a little adventurous and decided to try the escargot, a typical appetizer in France. Escargot is simply a cooked land snail. It tastes pretty salty and has a tough, gelatinous texture that was most likely doused in butter, garlic, and whatever the green sauce (shown in the picture below) is. I surprised, not only my family, but also myself because I actually enjoyed it. I recommend giving them a try!

Escargot – the green substance is the part that is eaten

 

We lucked out with a gorgeous day on Saturday as well. The first place we visited was the Palace of Versailles. To our disappointment, the line to the entrance was insanely long so no one felt like waiting to enter the palace. We later found out that even though the line looked like it would have taken hours, it actually moved pretty quickly – so if this situation ever arises, it’s good to know the wait is worth it. Instead, we walked around back to view the Gardens of Versailles and were impressed with what we saw. The gardens existed a farther distance than my eyes could see, beautiful grassy designs surrounded the various pools of water. Realizing it’s only the beginning of spring, I could only imagine how gorgeous the gardens look with everything in bloom.

Palace of Versailles
Garden of Versailles
The largest garden I’ve ever seen

 

In disbelief we hadn’t been to the Eiffel tower yet, I was antsy to get there. We made a stop right before the main area of the tower to get crepes, which was a mistake. Although they were good, we were told later that crepes sold at the stands surrounding the tower are amazing. We walked around the base of the Eiffel and across the bridge to a building known as the Trocadero. From there, we had incredible views of the Eiffel tower and took the majority of our pictures. Exhausted from our constant travels, we decided to buy champagne and some snacks and relax on the Champ de Mars (a public green space located in front of the Eiffel tower). This was debatably my favorite part of the trip. I was extremely content relaxing in the sun, attempting to fathom the fact that I was in Paris, sitting in front of the Eiffel tower and drinking champagne. Once the sun went down, we had dinner at a close by restaurant, then went back to watch the the tower sparkle. Once it gets dark enough, the tower sparkles every hour on the hour, for five minutes. It is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen and is completely mesmerizing to watch. If I ever get the chance to visit Paris again, I would take the elevator up to the top of the tower at night as I’ve heard it is an incredible experience.

The Eiffel Tower, beautiful from all angles
Pictures from the Trocadero building
Some of the roommates posing in front of the Eiffel tower. No, we did not plan to wear our jean jackets.
Champagne beneath the Eiffel Tower
Eiffel tower lit up at night

I only wish I had more time to experience everything Paris has to offer. I hope one day I will be able to return to explore more of this beautiful city.

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.

Czech It

When I booked a trip to Prague, I had no expectations for the weekend. Aside from the infamous John Lennon wall, I knew nothing about the city and what it would have in store for me. Friends and blogs highly recommended a trip to this city, so my roommates and I decided to take the advice.

Prague’s colorful streets and beautiful architecture displayed on each building is nothing to look past. Every street we turned onto offered a new array of buildings, which made the city one of the more unique places I’ve been to so far. Not only does Prague contain a pleasurable aesthetic, many of these buildings are extremely old and rich in history. A local tour guide named Chris took us on a two-hour expedition around the city. He was extremely knowledgeable about everything to do with Prague, starting from hundreds of years ago up until today’s time. I was able to jot down some key pieces of Prague’s history as well as a few medieval stories I found to be quite interesting.

img_4544

One of many colorful streets in Prague

Interesting piece of history: German forces in 1939 surround the Old Town Square – some buildings remain still intact. The tall castle looking building shown in both photos is called the Church of Our Lady before Týn.

IMG_4536.JPG

The famous Astronomical Clock tower is a huge tourist point. Every hour, the tiny doors on either side of the sitting statue open up and apostle figures rotate around inside the tower.

IMG_4532.JPG

The clocks themselves – on top is the astronomical dial and the calendar dial is below. According to Chris (our tour guide), legend says the Prague Councillors loved clock master Hanus’ clocks so much, they didn’t want him to make the clocks for any other city. So, the Councillors burned his eyes until he went blind and cut off his tongue so he couldn’t tell anyone how to build one. He rebelled by jumping to his death, down the clock work. This destroyed the clocks and for decades and for a while, no one was able to fix them.

IMG_4547.JPG

Pinkas Synagogue, a holocaust memorial site. After being closed to the public after Soviet invasion of Prague, the museum was reconstructed and reopened in 1995. The Old Jewish Cemetery sits just behind this building. On the tour, I learned this cemetery was built in twelve different layers since land in Prague was scarce. Because of this, the cemetery is a few meters higher than the streets and is said to hold 12,000 tombstones.

Our next stop was a self-guided tour of the Czech Beer Museum. In the exhibit, there were many rooms filled with information on ingredients found in beer and how it’s produced and packaged. Multiple displays of hundreds of beer bottles and caps lined the rooms. In the center of one of these rooms is a table with eight various flavors of beer seeds for tasting. I tried three kinds and most of them tasted awful to me – extremely dry and bitter. After exploring the museum, we headed into the pub area where a man filled beer glasses with the first (out of four) kinds of beer. One of the darker beers had a slight caramel flavor, but I was only able to contently finish the first. Although I’m not much of a beer drinker, I enjoyed this experience and it was fun to sit down with my roommates for an hour or so and relax.

IMG_4566.JPG

One of the many displays found in the beer museum

IMG_4753-1.JPG

It’s no secret who the beer drinkers in this picture are… and aren’t

The Prague Castle was an amazing sight to see, with free entrance as a bonus. Once past the gate, there is a short walkway that leads into a huge open square. One of the first buildings people can enter is the Church Of Our Lady Before Týn. We were able to view the west end of the church and it was absolutely incredible. Intricate stain glass was built on each panel of the surrounding walls as well as the front and back of the church.

IMG_4712.JPG

Church Of Our Lady Before Týn inside view

St. Vitus Cathedral church provided stunning views from all angles

St. George’s Basilica at Prague Castle

IMG_4687.JPG

One of many entrances to the Prague Castle sits high above the city. This picture is taken right outside the castle, showing a breathtaking view of Prague.

Of course one can’t visit Prague without making a trip to the John Lennon memorial wall. The trek to the wall and our experience there was nothing but a tourist trap. Most tourists in Prague flock to the well-known landmarks, which made traveling from place to place quite difficult. We reached the John Lennon wall and it was filled with inspirational quotes, lyrics, names, and symbols related to Lennon from tourists throughout the years. A local guitarist played Beatles music as tourists came and went, creating a friendly and inviting atmosphere.

The entire wall – not as big as I had imagined, but a unique landmark to see in person.

The roommates and I enjoying the nice weather

 

Lastly, but surely not least: The Trdelnik. My roommates and I referred to them as “turtlenecks” during the weekend for lack of a better pronunciation. For no more than 120 Kč (koruna – Czech’s currency), these heavenly sweets are a great purchase. 1 Czech koruna = 0.039 USD, which means a trdelnik can go for anywhere between $2.34 – $4.68. Trdelnik’s are served as a cone with ice cream, whipped cream and strawberries, etc. or a cylinder-shape with cream, Nutella, chocolate, etc. filled on the inside. The dough is wrapped around a stick to be shaped and cooked golden-brown, and is covered in sugar, nuts, and various candy toppings. Finally, the spread or topping is added and it is served warm. A melt in your mouth dessert.
IMG_4513.JPG

The process of making these sugary treats

The trdelnik in one of many forms. Although I wouldn’t choose ice cream as a filler again, it sure was just as delicious as it looks.