Small town, city feel

My last stop on my travels before heading back to Italy to pick up my luggage and bid goodbye to friends was Riga, Latvia. It was the last of the Baltic countries for me to visit and my trip was very timely, coming in between a visit to Riga by Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. As a result, talk of politics was definitely on people’s thoughts, if not in the bar conversation. Riga was extremely interesting as a city because of its city feel. Despite the fact that it is comparable to Tallinn and Vilnius in terms of size (at least for the old town area), Riga felt much more like a cosmopolitan city than the other two, which seemed quieter, older. The first day I met the same organized free tours that I had done in Vilnius at the church below for a behind-the-scenes look at Riga.

IMG_2524Our tour guide was amusing, but not as knowledgeable, in my opinion, as the one I had had in Vilnius. Still, everyone is different, so despite the rain I stuck it out and gave him a chance.

The architecture in Riga is one thing that really differentiates the city. The building below is jokingly referred to as “Stalin’s Cupcake.”

IMG_2526Statues are a big thing in Riga, more so than most cities. The one below is of the former mayor of Riga. The dog? Not his. The sculptor’s.

IMG_2530There’s another major statue in Riga, one of an author. One thing that I really love about Europe is that there is so much support for the arts. When was the last time you saw a statue in the US of a famous American author? Or saw a ballet other than Swan Lake or the Nutcracker? I was able to see locally choreographed pieces because the state commits money to support the arts.

IMG_2594This particular statue is out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. You’re supposed to rub the noses of all the animals for good luck. This is easier than it seems. If you’re short, bring a friend to help.

IMG_2614The ballet that I went to see was at the opera house. It’s just outside old town. Or maybe technically inside, depending on how they define old town. It’s really beautiful inside.

IMG_2531The second day I spent in Riga I went on a different walking tour that I’m not sure is just due to Riga being the capitol of culture this year or if it runs all the time. It’s called the Riga Culture tour and mainly focuses on architecture– specifically art nouveau, which Riga is known for. If they opt to continue the tours you should definitely check them out– the art nouveau district is pretty well known but our guide was really knowledgeable and it was really interesting to hear the stories behind the buildings as opposed to reading them from a guidebook. In addition, we got to go inside some buildings, an advantage of having a guide.

The three brothers are three houses that sit next to one another. They are built in different styles but their history ties them together.

IMG_2569

IMG_2571

Pardon the lighting– it was cloudy/ rainy both days in Latvia and so sometimes finding the balance between the color of the buildings and that of the sky was tricky. But in general, enjoy seeing some of the photos of amazing Latvia architecture! If you have time, read up some on art nouveau in Riga… it’s been too long for me to talk about it cohesively but it was very interesting.

IMG_2590

IMG_2555

IMG_2544

IMG_2597

IMG_2599

IMG_2604

Did you know that Riga has a piece of the Berlin wall? It’s a bit off the beaten track, but worth a stop by for the history there. The other pieces are from the barricades built in 1991 after Latvia declared independence.

IMG_2607

The writing reads:

The Berlin Wall separated us,
The wall unites us.
Let us love one another,
And pray to God for our enemy.
In a time where the certainty of the Baltics could almost be called into question, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit these three amazing countries. Each has a unique story to tell and is so relevant to our world today. We can’t forget with everything going on in the Middle East that events in the Ukraine and the Baltics are still happening. Media attention diverts, but these issues all affect our world today. Be knowledgeable. And see it for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Disneyland of Europe

I started traveling around the Baltics in Lithuania. Because the Baltic states are so small and close together, it’s common (if not universal) to find people traveling through one to be traveling through all three. So everyone you meet is either on their way to another Baltic state and/ or coming from one… and they are a wealth of travel information about the cities. When I told people that I was heading to Tallinn next, everyone described it in exactly the same way: Oh, it’s the Disneyland of Europe! Everyone had a different opinion about which city was better, but I was already intrigued. Disney? That’s a high standard to live up to, and an interesting comparison for a city. Still, fresh off Segovia I had high hopes.

I took the overnight bus from Vilnius to Tallinn. Most people go direct between the Baltic countries (i.e. either straight up or down) but the flights were more limiting for me and so I opted for Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, instead of a more direct path. Ryanair doesn’t fly every single day of the week from every city so depending on where you are coming from and going to it can make a big difference on your travel path. Anyway, my bus got in at the crack of dawn (AKA 6 AM) and Estonia was still sleepy… and confusing. I had a heck of a time trying to find the proper bus to get to my hostel because the trams weren’t running for one reason or another and no one in the bus station spoke English. But I finally made it into the old town and I could immediately tell what people were talking about!

IMG_2440Um, yes, hello, it is straight out of Walt Disney. I’m not sure if Walt Disney ever traveled this far but it’s definitely eerily similar.

Since I arrived so early I took a few minutes to freshen up and do some research at the hostel since I knew I’d only be spending one day in the city proper (more on what I did on day two next week), and then I headed out to wander. Tallinn is very tiny as well and I practically had the city to myself as I wandered.

IMG_2359For this reason I highly recommend getting an early start while in the Baltics. It’s becoming a big party scene for young Europeans (I’ve never seen hostels explicitly state that bachelor and bachelorette parties are unwelcome before) but because mostly they sleep in after partying late into the night the early morning can be the best time to see the city. I hiked up the hill to get a view of the city, and nearly had the view to myself. I definitely recommend the sugared nuts–the smell is intoxicating and they make a nice snack while you survey the city.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The red rooftops, the church steeples… the harbor. It’s all visible when you get above the city. From this vantage point you can clearly see the cruise ships that dock in the harbor as well. Both longer cruises on major cruise lines as well as ferries to nearby port cities such as Helsinki depart out of the harbor and while you would never notice it from old town, when you get above the city it is suddenly so obviously close that you wonder how you can miss it.

At the top of the hill there are some other interesting landmarks, including the Russian Orthodox church that has inspired many mixed feelings among Estonians because of the history of the country (see last week’s post for more info or just look into simple Baltic state/ USSR history). Still, the church is very beautiful and worth a stop. Coming down the hill or going up, depending on the path you take, you pass some interesting architecture that has deep city history.

IMG_2400You also pass this pretty sweet bakery which was still pretty empty as it was early, but definitely worth a stop. I opted for a cherry pastry and a sausage roll.

IMG_2402

 

Another major stop as I was exploring Tallinn was the Hotel Viru, where the Soviets kept a radio transmission station secretly enclosed on the top floor of the hotel and since it was a hotel dedicated to foreigners and visiting former Estonians who had left the county they also used a variety of high-tech devices to spy on the guests. I’d highly recommend it. They have several tours a day, typically conducted in a few different languages, so I recommend stopping by the front desk to ask about times first thing in the morning so you can ensure that you are able to catch a tour– you can’t visit alone. I’ve heard mixed reviews depending on the guide but I really found it very interesting. The views from the top are pretty sweet, too!

IMG_2422

Tallinn was a really pretty city, much more the glamour as opposed to the harshness of history that seemed so much more prevalent in Vilnius. It was really interesting to compare and contrast the two. I heard a lot of people say that Tallinn was their least favorite of the Baltic cities, because it felt so much like a tourist destination and had that “Disney” feel. I really enjoyed the time I spent there, though, and the rest of the time I spent in Estonia. The only way to really know? See it for yourself… and go soon, before this tiny corner of the world really hits the big tourist boom.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Forty-five percent

Forty five percent of the population of Vilnius, Lithuania was Jewish prior to the start of World War II.

And now? Less than five percent.

The city of Lithuania, as modern and beautiful as it is now, can only be seen through the lens of history. The differences are staggering, and bring the horrors of the Holocaust right up to your face, even for those of us born afterwards, who never experienced it or the isolation of the Cold War that came after. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about the Baltic states, or rather it just doesn’t occur to us to think of them at all; they are small, they are far removed, they have little impact on us. With current events involving Russia, however, the Baltics are just as significant now as they ever were and as world citizens we should be more knowledgeable about these small but significant states. Lithuania was an extremely interesting jumping off point because while the three states were affected in similar ways by the Holocaust, the Russian occupation, and Soviet work camps, Vilnius was by far the most impacted by the Holocaust and it is a very significant part of their history because it greatly altered the look of the city today. I took the free walking tour of Vilnius… these tours are offered in all the major Baltic cities and are hit or miss depending on your guide, but for me in Vilnius it was an invaluable look at the history of the city through walking through the different neighborhoods. Below you can see the last remaining synagogue in Vilnius. There used to be 105.

IMG_2290

 

Vilnius first had a Jewish ghetto before most of the Jews were sent to concentration camps and killed. The city is beautiful, with wide streets and old buildings, but a glimpse at the city’s history shows that it is still wrapped up in the past.

IMG_2293There’s much more to Vilnius than it’s history, though we’ll return to that later. For example, did you know that the city has an entire district that has established its own constitution? They used to have their own army as well– but with less than 15 people in the ranks, they eventually disbanded. Below you can see the sign as you walk into the area of the city. It’s just over the river from old town, and it has some silly rules– artists and such created the area more for fun than anything else, it seems.

IMG_2295For example, take a look at the constitution. It’s written in many different languages, but includes such rights as “everyone has the right to be a dog.”

IMG_2298

IMG_2299

The angel stands guard over the area. There is a fountain beneath her, and rumor has it (AKA our guide told us) that originally on the anniversary of the founding (April 1) the fountain would run with beer. Thanks to the economic downturn, that’s no longer the case.

IMG_2297Vilnius has an astonishing number of churches. In the top of the arch below you can just make out a tiny chapel– it’s a place of pilgrimage for many Lithuanians and even Europeans, though personally I don’t know enough about it to know/ remember why.

IMG_2350

Interestingly I learned that the USSR was quite atheist (I had no idea) and one of the churches in Vilnius was actually used as a museum of atheism or something of the sort during the occupation. Next to the church below, at the statue, marks the point where a line of people holding hands stretching the length of the Baltic states from Vilnius to Talinn. Known as the Baltic Way, or the Freedom Chain, began. The peaceful protest occurred in 1989 and was designed to both advocate for independence as well as show the unity of the Baltic states. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that these states were a part of the USSR, a fact that they are very conscious of in today’s world given current events. For some, the last Russian troops left just over 20 years ago, and many can still remember it.

IMG_2300

IMG_2301

Vilnius is a pretty small city… very walkable and pretty flat, unless you climb the hill to overlook the city. There’s a cable car, too, but climbing is free– just make sure you are wearing decent shoes so you don’t slip! It’s very doable and the path is paved but it’s still steep. The views of the city from the top are really great.

IMG_2334 To the left of the city you can see the hill of three crosses. It’s a little more confusing on how to get to it, and appears to be much more of a hike than going up where we did.

IMG_2345

Sometimes it’s easy to forget when you are in a city how much of a country can be wilderness. Not so here! The trees are really prevalent around Vilnius. Below you can see the tower, atop the hill we climbed.

IMG_2331

It’s just as easy to forget when wandering old town that there is a busy area just across the river that is bustling with commerce and life. The new area of the city might not be as historically interesting, but it’s an important part of the present and future for Vilnius. IMG_2327As an introduction to the Baltics Vilnius exceeded all expectations and I wished I had had more time to explore this gem of a city and country. Many people asked me how I ended up traveling around the Baltics, and the simple answer was that I had wanted to explore somewhere new, and had always been interested in the history of the area. It is less touristed than western Europe, but becoming more known and touristed and I wanted to see it before the big tourism boom hit. Truthfully, though, I knew very little about the Baltic states before going and had looked forward to learning much more. From wandering through the exhibits at the Museum of Genocide Victims to listening to a Lithuanian guide share the history of her city, it was so easy to be transported back in time to experience the city. For Lithuania, the past, their history and establishment, is so much more recent than it is for us. For an American, as I can only truthfully speak to my own experience, it is easy to take our history, independence and rights and freedoms for granted. For many Lithuanians, they remember a time when they were not so lucky.

Tradition

So first things first– my apologies that this is going out a day late! I started a new job last week and with the holiday I somehow just did not get around to writing in time for Tuesday. So Wednesday surprise! We’ll be back to our new posting schedule next week. I’ll let you in on a little secret: in Italy because of the time change I was posting at 7 PM so if I ran out of time the week before I had plenty of time that day or even evening. Not so here.

Anyway, recently I planned while traveling to return to Brussels. I wanted to add a French-speaking destination to my itinerary and I just lucked out and ended up in the city right when their annual flower carpet festival was going on. I had traveled to Brussels previously, but only briefly, for about 24 hours and so I figured I would hit the museums and walk around. The flower carpet was a total bonus and a complete coincidence. The flower carpet is composed of petals, created every other year in August and stays up only for a couple of days. You can see the volunteers as they scoop the petals out of the boxes and arrange them on the ground. I’m not sure how they get the petals to not fly away–originally I thought they used whole plants but it’s just the petals, stored in big boxes and arranged the day before the festival officially begins.

IMG_2230

IMG_2226

IMG_2228

IMG_2230

The design changes every festival; this year’s design was created to commemorate the anniversary of Turkish immigration to Belgium and so the flower carpet was designed like a traditional Turkish carpet. You can go up to the balcony of the Hotel de Ville which… I do recommend, but keep in mind that it’s pretty packed out. In my experience, it wasn’t the coolest experience because they are constantly yelling at you to keep moving. You have a decent view on the ground, but for 5 euros it’s worth heading up to the balcony to get a better view of the pattern they create. Here’s a BIG HINT for you: prebook your ticket online IN ADVANCE. Once the festival begins you can’t buy online and will have to wait in the massive line, whereas if you have a ticket you bought you can skip most of the line. So it’s definitely worth the effort to prebook. Below you can see that they have also incorporated the flower theme into the wreaths that are decorating the building.

IMG_2242

You can definitely see the theme in the carpet, both at ground-level and above.

IMG_2253

IMG_2263

The photo above’s from about the mid-point of the balcony.

IMG_2266

IMG_2278

I don’t know that I would recommend a specific trip solely for the purpose of visiting the flower carpet but if you are already in the area I would recommend stopping by! Brussels is the kind of city that you can see in a day or a week or a month, depending on the kind of traveler you are, but my experience this time is a good reminder to always check for what’s going on locally… you never know what you might run into!

Daytrip: Segovia

It’s so simple to day trip from where we live, but do we ever think about doing it when we are on vacation?

When a friend heard I was heading to Madrid, she insisted I check out Segovia. Turns out Segovia is only just over an hour away from Madrid on the bus, so the friend that I am visiting and I took the bus down on Saturday to check out the town. She’s been several times before, but to be honest I had never really considered day trips outside Madrid. There are other major Spanish cities that I would like to visit, but I didn’t know much of anything about what was close by. Segovia is up on a hill, though not an overly large one, so it has a nice view of the farming land and mountains nearby but isn’t too painful to walk up.

Segovia view

 

Segovia has an old Roman aqueduct smack in the middle of town, among other notable sights. You can observe the aqueduct from the ground… it definitely makes you feel very tiny compared to its notable height! Such an interesting piece of history in Spain… and appropriate, given that I flew here from Italy.

IMG_2109You can also walk up the side of the aqueduct via the stairs, giving you a great view of both the aqueduct and the valley and mountains beyond.

IMG_2119

It was even nicer to be in Segovia because it was about 10 degrees cooler than it has been here in Madrid. It’s a sweatbox in Madrid right now… mid to upper 90s and super sunny. I have this nice tan line on my feet from my flats, but that’s beside the point. Point being, you should check out this town, and not just for the bit of Italian history here. The church is also quite impressive, both inside and out.

Segovia church

The church is very gothically inspired and is a short walk between the aqueduct and the castle. It’s very Gothic and the artwork inside is really impressive. Not too expensive either at only three euros. Continuing on, the really notable piece of Segovia (other than the food, which is really renowned in Spain, and also expensive) is the castle. Known for supposedly inspiring Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, the castle in Segovia still is host to events from time to time. The last time my friend came, they couldn’t enter because there was a knighting occurring. Yes, Spain still has monarchs. And castles. Don’t forget that in Cinderella the Duke calls out “Señorita!” when she is fleeing!

Cinderella castle Segovia

I have to say, I buy it. The blue-looking roof, the towers… definitely looks Cinderella-esque to me. You can tour the castle, which mainly holds the armory but also a quite impressive throne room and some interesting decor and design. Guided tours and audio guides are on offer, but the display signs are pretty good and the castle is actually quite small (relatively speaking) on the inside, so in my opinion it isn’t necessary. You can also climb the tower, for an additional fee if you feel the need to be that much higher. It being the middle of August, the surrounding countryside is pretty dead, but it’s still pretty impressive to be outside the city and see more of the country of Spain.

IMG_2135

 

The day was really relaxing and it was nice to be outside the city and with the amazing weather we were able to sit outside in the shade and really enjoy ourselves. I highly recommend Segovia for anyone looking to get outside the city when visiting Madrid! I’ll share a bit more later about what I did in the city itself, but I couldn’t resist sharing this tiny charming piece of Spain this week.

 

I think my favorite part of the castle was the wishing well. I don’t know if it technically IS a wishing well, but it definitely was a very charming and royal sight. If you’re close to Madrid, this view alone is worth the visit.

IMG_2145

“A dream is a wish your heart makes when you’re fast asleep. In dreams you will lose your heartaches. Whatever you wish for, you keep. Have faith in your dreams, and someday, your rainbow will come smiling through. No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

Buona Pasqua (Happy Easter)

Hello friends! I hope you had a happy holiday weekend with friends and family, regardless of what religion you follow or choose not to. In Italy, the vast majority of the population is Catholic and Easter is a big. deal. A lot of stores and restaurants were actually open on Easter when I was out and about, but for many Italians (aka not the tourists frequenting said stores and restaurants) the weekend is a good time to catch up with family in particular. Easter is celebrated on Sunday, naturally, and many Italians attend mass, and then on Easter Monday, Pasquetta in Italian, most families head out of town (if they are not gone already) to spend some time together in the countryside.

The night before Easter there was a procession to the Duomo and the priest lit the Easter “candle.” More like a giant ball of fire. Perhaps it was an intricately shaped candle, but we couldn’t tell from up above. But OMG the view!

IMG_1011

 

Ironically, what Florence is known for best at Easter isn’t even a Catholic tradition; rather it’s just a long-standing one, but a big one nonetheless. A friend of mine hosted a brunch and I spent the night before at her apartment helping her get ready. She totally lucked out… her apartment has views of the Duomo from the windows and was thus PERFECT for watching the festivities!

The Scoppio del Carro is annually celebrated in Florence on Easter Sunday and translated into English means “explosion of the cart.” The story goes that once upon a time (in old Florentine history), in 1622 to be exact, the cart was built. Pazzino, a young Florentine, took part in the first crusade of the Holy Land. Being the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem, he was rewarded with three flints from the Holy Sepulchre. At 10 AM a priest uses the flints to light an Easter candle, which they use to light coals, which are transported in the cart to the Duomo. They are taken inside the church but the cart stays outside and the coals are used to light something like a rocket that shoots back outside the church to set off the fireworks in the cart.

Below you can see where the men in traditional historical costume have accompanied the cart to the center in front of the Duomo.

IMG_1021

Despite the sunlight, it was pretty spectacular! Quite the show and what a way to start Easter Sunday! It was hard to get good photos, but such an amazing experience. I did capture this sweet video that will give you a pretty good idea of what was going on.

It was so, so cool to be able to view everything from a bird’s-eye view and avoid the crowds below! So many people leave Florence for the holiday (as did I the last time), but I’m so glad I opted to stay this time around.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Suburbanite

Most of you probably wouldn’t have cause to know this, but when I got back from visiting my family in the US I moved to the outskirts of the Florence city center, drastically impacting my overall commuting time. If you look at a map of Florence, you’ll note a couple of important things.

The first is that most of the general tourist maps are really limited in the area that they cover, centering on not just the city center zone but the immediate center of the city where most of the tourist attractions, main churches, etc are located. The second major thing is that Florence is divided by a river. Whaaat? Yep, though it doesn’t really divide the city equally. The main city center is at the top and the Oltrarno is the area once you cross over the river, the Arno (mind-blowing, right?). You’ll note that there aren’t a ton of touristy things to do across the river, but there are many fewer tourists, Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens within are a hidden gem, and there are tons of places to go out. Win-win-win.

Note also that the main railway station the top left hand corner barely makes it into this map. Below is a more realistic portrayal of Florence, if slightly more overwhelming:

Now this map might seem massive, but keep in mind that most tourists stay primarily within the confines of the above map, not this one; this one is just to give you a better idea of how the city is laid out. Florence is pretty small (really!) and the main touristy area can be traversed on foot easily within half an hour (though during high season you might want to tack on a couple extra minutes to fight through the crowds). One major thing that you can see in this map is the “viales,” the major streets that run around Florence, unlike the tiny streets that weave through the heart of the city. You can also notably see the train stations and tracks, which is particularly important for yours truly. In the left hand corner you can see the main train station, Santa Maria Novella, as well as the Fortezza de Basso, where events are now held. Go north ten minutes and you’ll find the family I babysit for.

In the righthand corner you can see more train tracks, beyond which lies a big green patch. See that? Leading directly to that street is a footbridge that goes over the train tracks that I basically walk over every. single. day. Closer to the train tracks is a smaller stadium, where this past weekend they were holding track meets (that’s all I can assume, from the frequent sound of the gunshot and then cheering). Past that, still in the green and labeled on the map is the major stadium of Florence where the Fiorentina, the soccer team, plays. I live pretty much directly opposite the smaller stadium, so before the trees had leaves I could actually see inside it, but while I can see the lights and hear the announcements and cheering from the Fiorentina games I can’t actually see that stadium from my window/ balcony. Here’s my view:

Campo de Marte Florence

So the view above is what I can see looking straight out my tall doors that open on to my balcony. Behind the trees is the smaller stadium with the mountains in the distance and in front is what we in the US would term a bus barn.

Campo de Marte Fiorentina stadium

If you look to the left from my window, this is the view: you can clearly see the big bright lights that are lit up when the Fiorentina play in the big stadium.

Campo de Marte florence train station

 

It’s more difficult to see with the trees in full bloom, but to the right you can see the train station and the footbridge. It’s funny because when I first moved in I never noticed the trains but now I hear them all the time.

My dad specifically requested this post once I had lived here for a bit, so I’ll try to explain what it’s like to live out here. A lot of young Florentines live out here because it is cheaper than living directly in the city center. Technically I live just outside the city center, but my address is still in Florence. It takes me about half an hour to walk to the Duomo and to school, depending on what direction I take while walking. It takes me about 45 minutes to walk to the family’s house where I babysit. A lot of people ask why I don’t catch the bus more often; it’s something I have considered, but even though the fare is only 1,20 euros, that adds up over time and I really don’t have a huge budget for transportation when my feet work just fine. Also, when you count in waiting time, sometimes it actually isn’t faster to get the bus, and I’d rather be in motion than standing around waiting. Also, bus strikes? Happened multiple times since I’ve moved out here.

Campo de Marte is generally a quiet neighborhood, which is definitely a major plus over living in the city center. I lived over a bar before, paying double the rent on a shared room (now I have a single) arranged through student housing, which generally tends to be more expensive. The bar would have a good crowd until late in the night, and was particularly rowdy during the summer when it was warm enough to sit outside (though Florentines will sit outside when it’s freezing, a concept I don’t understand). I specifically remember one time being woken up at three o’clock in the morning to “Barbie World.” Not an experience I’d care to repeat.

However, the quiet is definitely broken when the Fiorentina play at home, which thankfully isn’t too often. I’ve had to walk home twice when the games get out, which basically consists of feeling like a sardine and getting elbowed and stomped on because I’m going majorly against the flow of traffic.

Generally speaking, though, while Campo de Marte is technically a neighborhood of Florence it definitely feels like the suburbs. It’s quiet, generally, and I don’t always see a ton of people around. There is a dog park near the footbridge, and running paths, so I suppose if that’s your thing it can be nice. There is a grocery store around the corner from my apartment but it is tiny, so I typically shop in the city center and carry it with me when I’m on my way home. There are a couple of major stores and coffee shops, but all my friends live in the city center, so that’s much more likely where I am to be found. Walking has just become part of my routine, and thankfully it’s rare where I have a day where I really don’t want to walk the distance; it’s just a part of my life.

Still, were I to continue living in Florence I’d personally prefer to be closer to the action. It’s much easier to just grab a coffee with a friend or run a quick errand when it doesn’t involve a half-an-hour commute. In many ways it reminds me of living back in Plano, my hometown, and commuting into Dallas for an event. Half an hour and you’re there, but it’s more convenient if you are closer. Housing in Florence can be hard to find, and if you are looking to move here, start early! It might seem crazy to look a few months in advance, but finding an apartment, a good one with decent landlords, which I am lucky to have, can be tough. If you want any more advice in that area, feel free to contact me.

Is there something you’d like to see on the blog? Drop me a comment and I’ll consider it!

Florence for Foodies

Florence might be best known for its international art scene, primarily focused on the massive collections of Renaissance works housed in the city, but it’s the food that can universally connect with every single Florentine and tourist alike. Restaurants abound, but knowing where to go to try the specialties can be a little trickier, so today I’m going to share a walk through Florence with you, hitting some of the main foodie spots. I have this huge advantage in that I’m currently taking a food-centric course, but you can totally benefit from my experience and check some of these places whenever you make it to the Renaissance hub of Italy.

If you’re starting from the Duomo, check out Eataly first, an upscale market that reminds me of Dean & Deluca in the states. And, in fact, Eataly has several locations, including at least one in the States. It’s an interesting mix of market and quick-service food, and it’s opening in Florence has been hotly debated by the locals, who wonder if it will take away from more “authentic” restaurants. Secretly, though, I think a lot of them have been checking it out alongside the tourists; the place is always packed, especially at lunchtime.

italy, food, market

Generally speaking I think that the prices just really depend on what you are shopping for. For example, jarred peaches are majorly pricey, but spreads and jams range from reasonable to pricey. I’m personally planning to stop by for olive spread before I head back on my next trip to the States.

italy, market, eataly

If you DO happen to live near an Eataly location outside Italy, I imagine it’s a great place to source more Italian ingredients. In Florence, next up head slightly away from the center down Via San Gallo to where it intersects with Via Guelfa, where you will find Vecchio Forno, location of the best focaccia you will ever put in your mouth. Period. It’s squishy on the inside and practically dripping with olive oil and has the perfect proportion of salt. YUM. They have an awesome selection of baked goods and pizzas as well, though their paninis aren’t my favorite pick.

For paninis, everyone in Florence has their favorite spot and mine is Antico Noe. Not only do they have turkey (which I have noticed becoming more common in specialty panini shops, though four years ago when I lived here it was hard to come by), but they are overrun by locals. Not a ton of seating, so go on your way somewhere or plan to grab a perch outside somewhere. My favorite is a make-your-own of turkey, pecorino and what they call olive paste although they have a ton of pre made options that look amazing. I think it runs about 4,50 euros which isn’t bad for a panini (they typically range 3,50-5).

Walk around for a bit, check out a museum, burn some calories and when you are feeling peckish head to Procacci, a small shop on Via Tournabuoni that has been there for ages and is where you can sample something expensive for cheap: truffles. The shop offers small sandwiches filled with truffle butter in their sandwich selection and they are the perfect size for snacking along with a glass of prosecco; this is a place I am definitely planning to take visiting friends to.

italy, truffle butter, butter

You can buy a variety of products to take home there, though regrettably they do not sell the truffle butter. Fun story: Procacci was bought however many years ago and the sellers (original owners) wanted an insane additional amount of money for the original truffle sandwich recipe. The buyers laughed in their faces, and recreated it.

specialty food, truffles, jam

The interior is small but there is room to sit if they are not busy and it’s a nice escape from the busy tourist-packed streets of the city. I’m a big fan of their creative display.

chandelier, decorative

Finish up your day with something sweet, depending on the season. Is it still winter? Head to Rivoire, hands down the best-known, if not the best, hot chocolate in Florence. Italy is known for its incredibly thick hot chocolate that can even be eaten with a spoon. Definitely pop for the whipped cream; it’s a good contrast.

whipped cream

Is it summer? Or are you just in Italy briefly? Then you have to grab gelato, Italy’s national treasure. For the favorite of Florence (and the cheapest– bonus!) head to Gelateria alla Carraia, which has two locations, one near Santa Croce and the original location, across the Arno, two bridges down from the Ponte Vecchio. The original location has more flavors, of which I have sampled the chocolate mousse, some cookie concoction that I can’t remember the exact name of, pistachio & white chocolate, pear (with actual chunks of pear) and their signature flavor which has chocolate and cream and other things. It’s one euro for a one-flavor cone and a size that might go for 3 or 3,50 in the center can be had for 2 euros. Definitely a good bargain, though it’s hard to find “bad” gelato in the city!

Good food is all over Florence, but these are some of my favorites– be sure to let me know if I missed one of yours!

Daytrip: San Marino

So last weekend I was lucky enough to not only stuff myself with chocolate, but also to visit a beautiful hilltop village called San Marino, which just so happens to also be its own country. It was this little badge of honor that drew me to San Marino, as well as the fact that it’s supposedly near the ocean. Well, I can bust that little rumor right here. It might be near the ocean, but it’s nowhere close to it. However, it is still beautiful… and still its own country!

Taking on a second daytrip in one weekend was a little much, having been to the chocolate festival the day before and I’ll be sure to keep that in mind for the future! The exhausting thing about day trips is the travel, and and San Marino is several hours (about three, three and a half) away from Florence by bus. Actually, it’s quite close to Rimini, which as you’ll recall I was there a few weeks ago, but just didn’t have the time with being at a conference to go over and explore the way I would really want to. So I signed up for an AEGEE (foreign student association) day trip that was a bargain and included transport and optional tours.

The tours were a big help for someone who hadn’t been to San Marino before, but the old town is really relatively small and easily maneuvered. There are other regions of the small state, but we stuck mainly to the old town since we had a limited amount of time to explore. The morning was dedicated to exploring the towers, old medieval ones that stood guard for the country at one time or another. What they neglected to tell us, however, is that the most direct route to the towers from the bus parking lot is through the woods. And up. And up. And so here we have little old me, in a dress and flats, literally TREKKING through the woods in order to reach the towers. Yes… and here we have one of those travel moments that is amusing in hindsight. Below is the view of the first tower we reached (and boy, were we glad when we got there).

Tower of San Marino

The view from the top was quite impressive!

View from hilltop san marino

If you squint and look towards the middle of the photo, you can see the strip of blue that is the ocean.

IMG_0430

There are three towers along the edge of the area and this is the AMAZING view of the third one. It reminds me of the Great Wall of China!

IMG_0429

Seriously, best picture of the day! The towers are free to visit, but rumor has it that you have to pay a fee to go inside.

Aside from the towers (and possibly even including them) San Marino is a pretty average (yet beautiful!) hilltop town. I’m really glad I dedicated the time to exploring it… and don’t feel at all guilty that I sat outside for lunch for two hours enjoying the great view! Ultimately there are just as beautiful hill towns here in Tuscany, if San Marino is out of your reach. For those wanting to explore it, the most direct way is to get a train to RImini Centrale and then to take the bus outside the station into San Marino. It’s worth a trip–if you can do it affordably! But hey, if you’re lucky you can walk away with this baby and bragging rights of having visited the fifth smallest republic in the world:

tourist, stamp, passport, san marino, italy,

Chocolate Around Every Corner: Eurochocolate 2013

Saturday a friend and I headed for one of the most sacred chocolate-lovers’ events in Europe… Eurochocolate. The festival is held annually for all chocolate lovers and we hopped on a 2.5 hour train ride, destination: Perugia, to partake. When we arrived in Perugia, there wasn’t really any signage as to where the chocolate festival would be taking place, so we headed for old town– on foot. Now there is a chocolate festival train as well as a bus system but we (optimistically) decided to save the few euro and use our own form of transport– our feet. Forty-five minutes later of uphill climbing, we might have been regretting that decision a little bit! But the amount of walking we did definitely paid off throughout the day as we were able to gobble down lots of tasty treats and not feel like we were going to be ill.

We started with traditional Italian hot chocolate, for just over one euro. Real Italian hot chocolate is more similar to pudding than American hot chocolate– it’s very thick! But tasty, mmm.

IMG_0385

We walked around to get the lay of the land before sampling anything else and spotted these sweet chocolate wrenches:

IMG_0381

We ate and we ate and we ate and ate and ate… Well, I’ll just let the photos do the talking!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Everything was SO delicious! The sambuca hot chocolate had been recommended to us and was very tasty, and we just had to try everything… even the chocolate beer, which was really just like weak beer and not much like chocolate at all. The least favorite of all the things we had during the day. I really enjoyed the lemon vodka chocolates… nice kick and so refreshing! Perugia itself was lovely, the views from the hill were true Tuscan panoramics. We had such a nice time just strolling around the village and even getting to explore the subterranean tunnels that a prior pope had constructed where some of the booths had set up shop.

IMG_0406

By the end of the day we were ready for some crowd-free spaces, so we headed back to the train station. The festival was so impressive- it was massive! Every time we thought we had seen the entire festival we turned a corner and there were more white tents beckoning us to try something new!.There were a few repeating booths with the same merchandise but overall a ton of unique products were available to try. We headed back on the train and were both glad to return to Florence, but we did bring home a few tasty treats as reminders for the week ahead!