Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fall Break Part 3: Prague Crawl*

We arrived in Prague after dark and took a train and a tram to get to our hostel, located in the very center of the city just a few minutes away from Prague Castle. After settling in, we headed out for a gourmet McDonald's dinner and a drink in the city. Upon setting foot on the bridge by our hostel, I had a revelation: Prague is Disney World.

If this doesn't remind you of Cinderella's Castle, you obviously haven't been to WDW 11 times like I have.
Prague, had it not been shrouded in a somber, smoky sheet of cloud, probably would have looked like this.
We arose early the next morning and trudged through the fog to get on a boat tour. The boat was comically slow, only passing by a few monuments on the river before docking again. I wouldn't say it was worth the money; all I did atop the boat was freeze my nose off.
  Thanks to the Guinness Factory, my head was covered.
The majority of our day was spent climbing to and exploring Prague Castle. It was spectacular - a series of dozens of fairytale buildings at the top point in Prague centered around an enormous Gothic cathedral. The inside was very ornate and was nothing like the churches of Rome. While Roman churches will still be my favorite, the cathedral at Prague Castle was still pretty impressive. I particularly enjoyed the rose windows, which let in the cloudy, natural light from outside and tinged it with bright, sunny hues.

The nave and apse of the cathedral

For lunch, we stopped at a place on the way down the hill. We were ushered in by a rather aggressive waitress and were served mediocre Czech goulash off a menu illustrated with pictures of the food and lacking prices. For my own safety and for the safety of others, I'd rather not get much farther into the $30 I spent on soup.
Baffled by our own stupidity, we returned to the hostel and slept for a few hours before returning to McDonald's for dinner, because, at that point, that was all we felt we could afford. Then, after dinner, we headed out to Prague's famous Pub Crawl, which, for reasons of privacy and decency, will not be recounted on this blog or anywhere else that can record it permanently.
Exhausted, we got up the next morning and visited the Old Town Square, which is characterized by its little food markets and beautiful architecture.
 We got snaaaaaaaaaacks!

Before taking a walking tour of the town, we went to a bakery for lunch, our first meal of the day. I ordered a goat cheese and tomato quiche... the best decision I made during my time in Prague.

 It was a slower day for us, though it seemed to end very quickly. Before we knew it, our walking tour was over and we were back in the hostel, resting up for dinner. No, we did not go to McDonald's for a third time. Instead we tried a restaurant right across the street from our hostel, where most of us ordered stuffed peppers in a thick, barbeque-colored sauce. Czech food, mind you, is not nearly up to par with Italian food. Our waitress practically begged us for a tip, and, though we know it isn't customary to tip waitresses in Europe, we decided to pool our extra change for a tip for her. All counted, it amounted to 29 Czech Crowns, which is, give or take, one Euro. We ran up the stairs (quite literally) before she could see it.
The next morning, we were en route to London, the final leg of our trip. Again, to be continued... 

*This blog post is also Writing Exercise 15 for CM316

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fall Break Part 2: I Amsterdam*

Nice to meet you, Sterdam. I am Christa.

In between beers, the Irish stewardesses slipped me a horse tranquilizer and dragged me onto the flight to Amsterdam. We touched down in Schiphol about an hour and a half later and were greeted by one of the most complex-looking languages I have ever seen. One of my fellow travelers bellowed the Dutch word for "airport security" at immigration, which prompted some unrelenting guffawing from the rest of the group and death stares from others in line.
We stayed in the mansion of hostels. It took up an entire floor of an apartment building and had two bedrooms, an en-suite bathroom, and a kitchen, which, to our delight, was fully stocked and free to utilize.
One of the bedrooms in the hostel
We had a pretty quiet first night, only heading out to a Spanish Tapas restaurant (because, as I understand, Dutch food is known to kill the taste buds and sting the nostrils) before taking a stroll around the city and getting a feel for its layout. 
The next morning began our adventures in Amsterdam. I'm not sure if it was the scenery, the ever-lingering scent of cannabis, or the fact that the weather was anything but overcast, but Amsterdam was, upon stepping out our door, my favorite city of them all. Goats and horses trotted about the park across from our hostel, commuters on bikes weaved in and out of automobile traffic, and the people on the streets (da da dee da dey) possessed a generally cheerful disposition. It was blissful.
The park by the Van Gogh Museum
We paid a visit to the Van Gogh Museum, but you all know my views on museums by now. I was more captivated by the boat tour that we had reserved in advance. It was a slow, peaceful tour along the river, interrupted only by the automated guide barking ferociously in guttural Dutch.
That night, we paid our first visit to the Red Light District, a must for Amsterdam tourists. The Red Light District is a sequence of alleyways stretching out for blocks and filled to bursting with prostitutes beckoning at passersby from behind glass doors. It's not nearly as scary as such a thing would be on the city streets of Philadelphia. In fact, I found it rather funny.
Our second day in Amsterdam consisted of sleeping in, moseying, and Anne Frank. We made our way over to the Anne Frank House throughout the course of the day and toured the museum. It was endlessly interesting and heartbreaking; it's really an experience to be had in solitude.
The next day, after lunch, we boarded our third flight en route to Prague. To be honest, I'm a bit disappointed that Amsterdam was only our second stop. I will definitely be returning in the near future.
Bye bye, Amsterdam. Ci vediamo. Or, as the Dutch would say, "we zein." I just Google translated that.

*This blog post is Writing Exercise #14 for CM316

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fall Break Part 1: 48 Hours in Dublin*

We stepped off our RyanAir flight in Dublin and walked right into the Guinness Factory, as I believe all Irish do upon setting foot in the country. It's basically a massive museum dedicated to beer, which I am not all that fond of, but I figured I'd try it out. All it really did was reaffirm that my body contains not a single drop of Irish blood. At the top level of the factory, we were given a pint of free Guinness to try.

I went back for seconds.
The next morning, we woke up around six to catch a bus for a tour of the Irish countryside. It was called the "P.S. I Love You" tour, since apparently some of the sites we saw were featured in said movie (and "Braveheart," but I've never seen that movie). Our tour guide was a stereotypical Irishman: bad teeth, road rage, and constantly talking about his drinking problem. It was probably an act, but he was charming anyway.
Our first stop was in a valley surrounded by two lakes and some church ruins. The path was a swamp, since it had been raining for the past 2000 or so years. We trekked up and down the path, taking in the nature and admiring the foliage like Senator Foley does in The Birdcage.

I was just so caught up in the Senator's... story.

After a bit of exploring, we greeted our tour guide back on the bus, who made a tasteless joke about his wife, clicked his heels together, and vomited shamrocks before stepping on the gas. It would've been nice to stay awake for the duration of our journey - to see the vast, rolling green hills of the Irish countryside - but we were so exhausted we ended up sleeping through a lot of it. When we awoke, the oversized leprechaun in the front seat was telling us to keep an eye out for Hillary Swank.

No dice!

Our next stop was Kilkenny, a town as quaint as Duloc (Duloc is, Duloc is, Duloc is the perfect place! I don't know where these obscure movie references are coming from today). It was as if God knew we wanted to enjoy Kilkenny the most; the sky cleared up and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.

You can't actually see the sun in this picture, but it was beautiful here.

What did we do in Kilkenny? We ate. We first headed to a pub and ordered meat pies - a trend for the entire trip. Then we ran over to the Kilkenny food festival and got some cupcakes. I didn't take a picture of it, but my caramel apple cider cupcake was ecstasy in a little wax wrapper.
Upon returning to Dublin, we collectively thought, Hey, I want to go out to an Irish pub tonight and get hit on by drunk old grey beards who just clocked out at the factory. The Guinness Factory, that is. And that we did. It was the creepy ending to a fun-filled 48 hours we had all hoped for. The next day, we boarded our Aer Lingus flight to Amsterdam, our second stop on our fall break trip. To be continued... 

*This blog post is Writing Exercise #13 for CM316

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on the Radio... in America*

As an employee at a radio station, one of the cultural nuances I've picked up on in Italy is the nature of their radio. This is one area that the United States has figured out, and Italy is a bit behind the curve. I can't really discern between stations, since they all play the same music. There's a random mixing of songs - both in English and Italian - that doesn't seem to have any sort of flow or continuity to it (and it doesn't help that Italian music is stuck in the 90's). And, most of all, I've noticed that Italy has little to no FCC.
I walked into a leather shop the other day with my father in search of a new notebook - the only souvenir that I can't leave without. As we were accosted by a saleswoman at the door, my ear tuned to the music above. It was American music, but I didn't know the song; I'd never heard it on the radio... and rightfully so. Soon after turning my attention to the daunting price tags, the man singing belted out one of the dirtiest expletives that I've ever heard in public.
I instantly stopped in my tracks. It wasn't the first time I had heard an FCC violation on an Italian radio station, but it was definitely the most offensive. I looked around the store to note that there were no fewer than three young children present, and no one else seemed to bat an eye. Do they just not understand the language? Is filthy language permitted on the radio in Italy so long as most people don't get it? Or is it just socially acceptable in Italy to proclaim vulgarities about genitalia over the radio waves? Since I work in American radio, I'm inclined to think that our methods are more correct; conducting a show back home in the "Italian way" would get any DJ fired on the spot.

*This blog post also serves as Writing Exercise #12 for CM316; there are four sentences within this post that contain "facts."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

From the Notepad: A Strange Day in Rome*

For today's entry, I'd like to start with a list of notes I took while out and about in Rome.
  • Metro strike in Rome today; have to find a way to get from Colosseum to Vatican... Google Maps says 52 minute walk
  • Watched a fat pigeon chase another pigeon away from some bread for 10 minutes
  • Oh jeez... 20 more pigeons just swooped in... he's lost control of this situation
  • There are police, firemen, and an ambulance surrounding the Colosseum but I don't know what's going on; people are still entering the Colosseum for tours
  • A woman is about to jump from the second story. This is not a joke.
  • Why do crowds gather to watch something like this? Is it like a show to them? There are people everywhere!
  • This is really insensitive
  • They're pulling her over the railing and people are clapping tentatively and dispersing. I can't help but feel that they're disappointed.
I don't really know what to think of this situation that I witnessed today. I've never really seen someone attempt to physically injure themselves in such a way. I had to walk down to the Colosseum to meet up with my class and head over to the Vatican somehow, since the Colosseum and Vatican are not close together and the metro was closed due to one of Rome's famous arbitrary transportation strikes.
Down the steps and across the street I went, turning up my nose to the illegal Middle-Eastern peddlers and clutching harder on my backpack while trying to find a place to wait. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a yellow roped off area and a fire truck. I didn't think much of it as a German couple sat down next to me, thanking me in Italian for scooting over.
Next to the fire truck was an ambulance. The fire truck extended its ladder to the second level of the Colosseum. What was happening? Had someone been hurt? Why were they still allowing people to enter and tour the monument?
Overwhelmed by uncertainty, I circled around to the other side of the Colosseum to survey the scene. Atop the second story I could see a woman in a brown fur coat rummaging through a purse. She looked incredibly small and panicked. I wanted to know why. Next to her stood a crowd of men in suits and firefighters all looking about apathetically. Some were on their cell phones.
The whole scene kind of confused me. Nothing seemed to have happened, yet next thing I knew they were pulling her over the railing to safety while the crowd of people - an enormous sea of tourists - clapped apprehensively. With each collective slap of hands, I could almost feel the disappointment at the lack of a show.
I just couldn't figure out what was happening today. There are so many reasons why this woman could have wanted to jump from the Colosseum (one of my friends mentioned "attention," though I'm disinclined to agree), but I had always thought of Italy as a relatively easygoing, happy country. The chaos of this event combined with the metro strike and several riots happening throughout Rome today could only point to one conclusion that I noted but didn't yet share: "Apocalypse?"
I know that conclusion is absolutely absurd, but on days like this, you have to wonder just how sane the world really is.

This entry is Writing Exercise #11 for CM316

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Firenze e Venezia

I figured I'd give another update on the eve of my Fall Break, lest I go away and fall behind by four countries. I know it's nearly November, but back in September I returned to Tuscany for a weekend in Florence (Firenze).

We started our tour through the little city at the Uffizi, which is basically a religious art museum. It was interesting and all, but there are only so many depictions of "Mary and Child" that my eyes can take. I just kind of roamed around thinking, "Why do all of these artists paint such an ugly Jesus?" and then I got hungry and wanted to leave. Museums aren't really my "thing." I'd rather explore the city streets, examine the buildings, eat, relax, and just kind of get a feel for how everything works there. After the Uffizi, there was no shortage of that.

We then headed to Piazza Santa Croce (which, if I'm not mistaken, is the piazza in which my favorite Italian teacher in high school once lived) to find the market and something to eat. One thing I love about Italian cities is that there are little to no high rises. When you're walking down a street, you can see straight down to the end and past the city into the mountains. Who know I'd like mountains so much?

Mountains at the end of a street in Florence. We don't have stuff like that in Philly.
The restaurant, for me, was rather lackluster. I made the mistake of going north of Rome and foolishly ordering carbonara, because I just can't seem to give up on it yet. It was very yellow and eggy, and they used bacon. Bacon, people. I didn't finish my meal.
After lunch, we headed back to the Duomo of Florence and proceeded inside. A lot of the people I was with found it to be somewhat disappointing, but, on the contrary, I absolutely loved it. For as extravagant and detailed as it is on the outside, the Duomo of Florence is very plain on the inside. It's large and full of tourists, but it's very quiet. By no means am I a religious person, but it just had a sense of reverence that the other churches I've visited simply don't possess. 
The outside of the Duomo
 The inside of the Duomo - as close as you can get to the altar
Then we headed to the market, which is famous for its cheap, good-quality leather... that I didn't buy. I'm sorry; 90 Euro isn't cheap for anything. And everything cheaper than that is ugly. I did, however, enjoy strolling about the market, being heckled by immigrant sellers and listening to everyone try to haggle. Also, there was a really cute dog outside one of the stores.

The cutest and saddest dog I have ever seen
Of course, we had to sample the nightlife in Florence. It took us awhile to exit the hostel, mainly because half of us had a new roommate - an Australian make-up artist. After everyone's make-up was done, we headed back to Piazza Santa Croce, bringing him with us. We found a little bar next to the basilica and set up camp there for the night. It was tiny and there were barely any people there, but it was a good time all the same.
We had a short day on Sunday, as we had to catch a train at 3 in the afternoon, but we made the most of it. We had heard of a point that you could climb to and view the entire city, so we headed there across the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is a great novelty, but it's really just a crowded bridge that you can't afford once you get on it. I prefer to see it from a distance. And then we did. We climbed an absurd amount of stairs (and I had a respiratory infection, mind you!) to the top point to see the view.

 The old walls of Florence

The Duomo from the top point
And then I left Tuscany for what could be the last time this year. I only cried for twenty minutes.
We didn't have much time for rest; the next weekend, we hopped on a faster, more expensive train up to Venice. Venice had a bit more character than Florence... but that was not always a good thing.
Our train pulled in at around 9 pm. Quick memory refresher: it's dark at 9 pm. New fun fact: it's even darker in Venice at 9 pm. Venice is a canal city, so there are no streets and very few street lights. It's also very confusing to walk around in. Needless to say, we got horribly lost and had to ask anybody and everybody for directions. Fortunately, but perhaps unfortunately, we found our hostel.
After a somewhat hostile encounter with reception, we were given the key to our room. We opened the door to find four mattresses, and that's about it. No sheets, no blankets, and sacks of fiber insulation that I think were meant to pass for pillows. We had to ask for our bedding, which turned out to be thin, white sheets that looked like they had just been freshly ripped from someone's curtain rod. We were unaware that we had to ask for blankets, so the first night was very cold.
What else is there to do in Venice besides explore and shop? Answer: not much. And that's just what we did. We walked around for about an hour until we found Piazza San Marco, which I'm not sure contained more people or pigeons. To my dismay, most of the architecture was covered by scaffolding, including one of the only things to see in Venice: The Bridge of Sighs.
Deeming the actual city of Venice too crowded and dirty, we bought water taxi tickets and headed over to the far more peaceful Murano, which, as many of you know, is famous for its glass blowing industry. 
  Sand outside a glass blowing factory. It's basically just glass.
We spent about five hours in Murano, sampling some of the region's famous seafood and shopping, shopping, shopping. To everyone who got a souvenir: you're welcome. Then we returned back to Venice for a nice, relaxing night at the hostel. There's really no other type of night to be had in Venice; the whole city basically closes down at 9 pm.
The next day we were up bright and early and ready for our gondola ride. One thing about Venice that is definitely worth the money (lots of money... be prepared) is the gondola ride, if for nothing else just to chat with your gondolier. Ours was named Georgio, but he called himself Georgio Clooney. Far from it, but he sure could pilot a long, skinny boat.
  The gondola ride - probably the most beautiful part of Venice
We explored a bit more after our ride, hitting up a little restaurant on our way to the train station and having one more delicious meal.
  This was "Chittarra" pasta with lamb. No, I didn't share.
Venice wrap-up: it wasn't my favorite. It's very, very crowded with tons of tourists; you may as well just visit Little Italy in Disney World. What was really disappointing about it was the lack of "everyday life." I didn't really get to see how people lived there, or maybe I did, but they just blended in with the rest of the tourists. Venice is also very dirty and is covered in graffiti. It's not your typical Italian city, so be prepared when visiting.
So, now we're all caught up. New updates are coming in the near future... Dublin, Amsterdam, Prague, and London: here I come! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Catching Up: Siena, Arezzo, Pienza, and Orvieto

In the last three weeks, I have visited seven Italian towns and cities. I'd like to present four of them now.


It seems odd to start with my favorite town, but I'm determined to tell this story as chronologically as possible so as to satisfy my self-diagnosed OCD habits. I was already very excited to come to Siena; I had done a project on a neighborhood in Siena in high school and, having learned so much about it, was itching to see it in person. Siena is a hill town of many neighborhoods, each with its own "mascot" (i.e. an eagle, a panther, a shell, a duck, etc.), and each with its own sense of neighborhood pride. Why? Well, Siena is the town in Italy in which the Palio, a huge horse race, takes place. You're going to want to click that link.
Siena delivered to me exactly what I had expected. We were given a guided tour by our professor of the main areas of Siena - the entrance to the town (uphill, representing the strenuous path to paradise), the main square (Piazza del Campo, where the Palio is run), and the duomo.
Piazza del Campo
Inside of the Duomo of Siena

It's strange; I spent no more than five hours walking around this little town, and I somehow feel the most connected to it than I have to any other. We didn't have our best food here (that's coming very soon), nor was it the most beautiful sight we saw. It just has character. As we left, I stopped in a little tourist shop and picked up a scarf of the neighborhood I researched: Pantera. I have a hard time spending money on myself, but this I felt was absolutely necessary.
  I'm a little Panther, short and stout
 Our next stop was Arezzo, another little hill town where we stayed for the weekend. After a quiet night there-- oh, wait, we didn't have a quiet night there. No, instead of going to bed and catching up on many hours of sleep, we ventured out into the town to find a little bar to fill with 37 Americans. I don't know whether the problem was that we couldn't find one or that "bar" in Italian means "café," but... we ended up at a café. That doesn't mean we didn't treat it like an American bar. It was a night that we will all remember (as will many passersby carrying video cameras), complete with loud music, colored lights, and table dancers. Yup, table dancers. In a café.
The next day, we got up early in the morning (some of us had to be dragged) to take a tour around Arezzo. We saw not one but four different churches, including the Duomo of Arezzo, where we actually attended mass. 
Candles for prayer in the Duomo

After mass and a meal of pizza topped with truffles, we got on another bus to traverse the hills of Tuscany and take us to our next destination: Castel del Trebbio, a small, tiny, miniscule 39 room castle situated on top of the hills that is well known for - you guessed it - its wine.
 This has more or less become my signature pose.
I was overwhelmed at this place. The scenery around the castle is indescribable, and the castle itself is beautiful. We received a history lesson from our tour guide about how the business came to be, which includes love on a train, not enough time, and a thank-you card in the form of a castle. Where's my castle? Hmm?
We then went down into the cellars of the castle, where they make the wine and olive oil.
 Barrels upon barrels of Chianti
And then - the culmination of the weekend - we got to taste the wine. We tried four wines: first, the standard white they make at the castle, then a Chianti Classico, followed by a Chianti Ruffino, and finished off with a sweet dessert wine in which you dip biscotti. I can't choose my favorite, but it's a two way tie between the Ruffino and the dessert wine.
What do you do after a wine tasting? Why, buy more wine, of course! We all cleaned out our bank accounts at the castle's gift shop (you're welcome, mom!) before sitting down to a delicious dinner of pasta, pheasant, and (surprise!) more wine.
The dinner was deceiving, though; little did I know that I would have to wait until the following Monday to have the best food I've had thus far. On Monday we left Arezzo to go to Pienza, a very, very small hill town known for one of my God: Pecorino Romano. That's right, in my house, we pray to the God of Pecorino Romano, and if there's no Pecorino Romano in the house, we go out and get Pecorino Romano, even at four in the morning. I'd never been partial to the hunks of Pecorino before, but I wish I had bought a wheel of it and a jar of honey to dip. You'll think I'm crazy until you try it.
Me, cheesing and cheesed in Pienza

Our final stop on the tour was in Umbria at a little town called Orvieto. I'm not quite sure for what Orvieto is known around the world, but I'll forever associate it with some of the best food and wine I've ever had. We were basically given free reign to walk around Orvieto on our own, and we spent most of this time eating lunch at a little restaurant that we happened upon. Amici, I have been searching for the perfect dish of homemade tortelloni stuffed with (surprise! I don't remember) and radishes since I got here (c'era un piccolo scherzo), and I finally found it in Orvieto.
 I know you're supposed to have red sauce with red wine, but whatever.
You had better believe I cleaned that plate. How could I not? Would you look at it??
So, amici, that was my weekend in Tuscany. Sorry, Sperlonga - I'll be honeymooning here instead.