Thursday, November 13, 2014

City of Water

With a dreadful looking forecast Aaron and I decided to make the last minute decision to book a day trip to Venice. Seems like a bad idea, but we lucked out with just a bit of rain but it cleared up beautifully as the day went on! We booked this trip through the same group we’ve been on other trips with, FlorenceForFun, because it included transportation, a glass blowing demonstration, transport by water taxi, as well as a discounted gondola ride.

The bus ride took around 3-4 hours, in which I took my routine nap. It was misting rain when we arrived and took a train from the outskirts into Venice. After the quick ride our large group dispersed into three water taxi’s, which took us to the main tourist area near St. Mark’s square. We missed the main over flow of the canals but there were still areas that were un-walkable. For this reason there are “cat walks” which are makeshift risers that you can walk above the water. Another solution many people use are plastic over the shoe boots (quite the fashion statement).

Keeping dry with plastic boots!
Tourists on the "cat walks" 
Even in the rain, the buildings, boats, and canals captured the beauty of Venice. The streets were packed with crowds of people but once we escaped the main areas it instantly became quiet and empty. We wove through the never-ending alleys and ended up at the glass blowing studio. Welcomed by beautiful glass sculptures and glass sets I could only worry I would knock something over! I’ve seen videos about glass blowing in the past, but nothing compares to seeing the maestro’s work in the flesh. He first created a vase, seamlessly, within seconds and then, my favorite, the horse sculpture. The effortlessness and beauty of the glass blowing was absolutely incredible.
We had a bit of free time afterwards to grab some lunch, and we settled on a menu with a set “tourist” menu, which I picked a vegetable soup, grilled salmon, and French fries. It was a really good deal, because Venice prices are sky high. I had heard about the Bellini cocktail and decided to try it, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Turns out, I love Bellini’s. I am a fan of bubbly drinks and the mix of Prosecco and white peach juice was a perfect match with my dish.

My delicious Bellini - on the go!
Quickly after we had our ride on the Gondola, which was an unreal experience. How can you go to Venice without riding on a Gondola? We circled around the large canal and then glided under bridges and a more quaint area. Some of the Gondoliers would sing or chat, but ours was all business. It was a relaxing end to the day before we had to catch the train and bus home.

Aaron and I on the Gondola :)
I wish we had more time to explore Venice, but I am so happy we decided to go on a whim. Venice has always been in the back of my mind as somewhere I wanted to visit, but I never imagined how beautiful it would really be. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

La Dolce Vita

Living in Florence has been quite the sweet life. There are endless things I love about living in Italy, the food, culture, shopping, museums and all. I’ve tried my best to embrace the lifestyle by shopping at markets for fresh food, taking walks around town, enjoying typical Tuscan cuisine, and attending calico matches to cheer on Fiorntina (the Florence soccer team).
Exterior of Santo Spirito Church
I live in the neighborhood of Santo Spirito, which has a nice square flanked by the Santo Spirito church dating back to the 15th century. While it may seem plain on the exterior, the inside is beautifully done with endless paintings and sculptures. It also houses the main attraction - a crucifix by Michelangelo. The square is constantly filled with locals and students during the mornings while the market is in action. At night it turns into a large get together with all of the bars and cafĂ©’s surrounding the piazza. I love living in this area because there are locals and small shops that make it seem more authentic and homey. It’s comforting to know that right outside my door I can find anything I need or spend an evening enjoying a delicious meal or glass of wine.

Santo Spirito Market
I am yet to find a restaurant I do not like. There is a restaurant down the street from me called Osteria Santo Spirito that is right on the corner of the square and it is always packed. They usually require a reservation but once in a while you can squeeze your way in. There is a large outdoor patio which originally caught my attention, but the inside seating is almost always available so I’ve only sat inside. They have so many traditional Italian items and I’ve grown to love Ribollita. I cannot say enough about this soup. Ribollita is a typical Tuscan vegetable soup originally made in poor families because of the simple and the addition of stale bread. Stale bread? Yes! The bread is used to thicken the soup and I can tell you it is amazing. This restaurant offers large and small portions of their dishes and the small is enough to fill you up for only 5 Euro! Maybe I am partial because it reminds me of a soup my mom makes that we call, “Betty Soup”, so it’s a nice reminder of home.

Tuscan Ribollita Photo Credit
Although classes do take up a good portion of my day, I have Fridays and the rest of the weekend to explore the city. My parents also came in a few weeks ago and I finally fulfilled my tourist experience. We went to all of the main sites and museums including the Uffizi and Accademia Galleries. The crowds are pretty overwhelming but it is so rewarding to see these pieces in the flesh I’ve studied in Art History classes over the years.
            Now for the shopping. There are leather shops galore, which is very dangerous for me. I am the type of shopper who has my eye on something for a long time and weighs out the options. This was the instance with my hand made leather sandals. There was a shop on the way to the main leather market that had a pair of leather sandals hanging on their wall for a good month. They were tan with a thick strap across the top and around the back and they were so simple and perfect. After a month of passing by I finally stopped in the store to try them on, and they were exactly what I wanted. They were a little more than I wanted to pay (40 Euros) but I decided for the quality of the leather and the fact they were hand made in Florence, they were worth it. Plus, I bargained for a purse I bought previously, so I had a little extra to spend ;). Florence has a variety of shops from vintage and high end to markets and discount retailers, so everyone can find something they love.
            Not only is the clothes shopping fantastic, but I also love grocery shopping. It was quite intimidating at first since everything was in Italian! But I’ve grown to love shopping at the grocery store because it forces me to learn new words and phrases. Plus the food is very fresh and I feel like a true Italian buying fresh bread and produce to prepare a nice dinner.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

EuroChocolate Festival

As a chocolate lover, how could I say no? The EuroChocolate Festival is held in Perugia, Umbria, one region away from Tuscany and attracts Italian natives as well as tourists from all over the world. It’s an annual event that features chocolate vendors, sculpture, and all sorts of chocolate making gadgets. Through a student travel agency we booked the trip and also had a perk of a chocolate tasting card.

ChocoCard pre-use
Perugia is an Etruscan town that stretches across a beautiful hilltop. It used to be an Etruscan city and now houses two large universities. I enjoyed the difference in architecture and style from Florence. The lighter stones and large arches brought me back in time as well as the Perugian emblem of the griffin adorned across the city. Chocolate is one of the main exports in Perugia, therefore making it the ideal place to host the festival.

One of my dark chocolate samples
The streets were swarmed with chocolate stands and I took full advantage of my free tasting card. I grabbed my map and camera and was on my way. All of the samples were delicious, even hot chocolate and chocolate liquor tastings were included. One stand had intricate chocolate sculptures and molds in the shapes of tools, shoes, cell phones, and electronics.
There were other tents serving all types of panini's, fries, and dishes. I couldn't resist the smell of one stand which had sausage sandwiches split with veggies or onion. I'm so glad I gave into temptation because it was well worth the warm sandwich on a chilly day. Plus it allowed time to sit and enjoy the view.
The group we went with allowed for a lot of free time, so after we got our samples we decided to explore the town and do some shopping. I opted for a mug with the town symbol of the griffin and titled EuroChocolate. I also found a vintage style postcard from the fest (which I have been collecting while traveling).

The view was just as incredible as the chocolate!
It is so important to get out of the city and take advantage of day trips like this. It adds so much more to your experience and allows you to take a break from studying. I've tried to plan at least one fun event into my week or weekend whether it be inside or outside Florence.