Friday, July 1, 2011

Farewell, Firenze

On the morning of May 26, Josh and I arrived back in Florence on our overnight train from Munich. We were there really early. Like 6. Our hotel wouldn't even be open for us to check in until 8:30. So we took our time walking across town to the hotel, though we were exhausted and loaded down with accumulated luggage. We stopped for pastries for breakfast (since that's really the only option). Then we waited on the stairs inside the hotel building until someone came to open up the door to the tiny "lobby." We checked in, paid, and left our things there. There was still someone in our room and it still needed cleaned, so we headed back out into town.

The first thing we did was go to climb the Duomo, something I hadn't yet done all semester. I'm really glad we did! And since we were some of the first people there in the morning, we didn't have to wait in line! There were a lot of steps, but it was totally worth it. Here are some pictures I took from on top of the dome.

Repubblica, the Bell Tower, etc.
Santa Croce
San Lorenzo
Then we went to the market(s). The leather market and the food market. I bought some totally necessary olive oil to bring home from the Mercato Centrale. (My bags didn't weigh enough already. Ha.) While we were there, Josh got a roast beef sandwich. (He was too much of a wimp to try the tripe or lampredotto.)

Mid-morning, we went to the train station to meet Shanita. That's my brother's girlfriend, and she was meeting us in Florence to spend a couple days during her trip to Hungary with her grandpa.

Once she got off the train, we took her through town. We went back to the market and I was disappointed to find that the bread ladies did not have any mozzarella and tomato focaccia sandwiches that day. I settled for a piece of their pizza, and wasn't too impressed.

We went back to the hotel around noon, I think, to move our things into our room. I took a shower because I hadn't showered since. . . Rothenburg. I know that's gross. TMI. Sorry.

When we were ready to go, the three of us went out to explore. We walked around and showed Shanita most of the main sights in town.

Arno and Ponte Vecchio
We went to Gusta for dinner and actually ate our pizzas inside this time, instead of at the Pitti Palace.

After being plan-less all day, we decided we would actually do things the next day.

My final day in Florence, we went to the Accademia museum to see David, the Uffizi to see the Botticelli paintings, and Trattoria Mario's to get the famous bistecca Florentina steak.

I used to think of myself as a "well-done" kind of gal.


This steak was definitely red inside. And I definitely didn't care. It tasted AMAZING. It was sinful. Normally when I eat my meat, it doesn't seem anywhere near alive. But it's also normally cooked straight through. I think it was worth the guilt, and the price. Poor cow.

We shopped and walked and museumed all day. We got gelato. We had Gusta for dinner. (Seriously. Best pizza in the world. Please go there.)

I said goodbye to my home of four months, the city I had grown to love. I said goodbye to la dolce vita, the Italian accents, the squished-together buildings, the Arno, the Duomo, my old apartment, authentic pizza, gelato, the market, street vendors, festivals, Renaissance art, cathedrals, crowded streets, trains, wine, Euros, the metric system, designer stores, being the outsider, tourists, Jersey Shore, and everything good and bad about Italy.

And then I went to bed at 9. My alarm was set for 2:45. At 3:30 I was sitting in our taxi, airport-bound for what ended up being a very long trip home.

Flying Over the Alps
I just checked the prices of airline tickets to go back.

It'll probably be a while. :(

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Guten Tag

Our last night in Switzerland was over, and it was time to head to Germany. We caught a morning train and spent several hours riding from Interlaken to Fussen. I think it took a total of four trains to get there. It pretty much took most of the day.

This trip wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for a couple of mishaps. The first was a mean train station worker; the next, a delayed train. The delay caused us to miss our connecting train, and we had to wait for another. While waiting, we decided to eat lunch.

Never. . .

Ever. . .


Order a hamburger from a train station in the middle of nowhere, Germany, which comes frozen in a package and gets microwaved before it's handed to you without a napkin.

I don't care how hungry you are. Don't do it.

The bottom bun will be crunchy. The whole thing will be 1000 degrees, with a couple of cold spots. It will not taste anything like a hamburger. (Looks can be deceiving.) It will have some sort of nasty sauce on it, a sad attempt at ketchup with a sweet aftertaste. The sauce will find its way across every square inch of your hands. You will have no choice but to wipe said hands on your tall socks (Josh) or just whimper with a sad face and try to wipe them on a stray piece of paper, followed by a good dollop of hand sanitizer.

Not fun.

Probably our worst experience in Germany.

Luckily, it got better after that.

We got to Fussen in the afternoon. Maybe around 2? I can't remember. We walked to our hostel and then we waited for the owner to get there so we could pay and find our room. He didn't come for a while, so we called him. He told us which room was ours, and that we could take our key. We dropped our stuff in the room (a 6-bed mixed dorm with only 2 other people there) and then headed back out.

We walked back to the train station where we caught a bus which took us to the castles. Mad King Ludwig's castles: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau.

Josh in front of Neuschwanstein
Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to tour both castles, so we just toured the cooler one, Neuschwanstein. (The one that inspired the Disney castle.) It had been cloudy all afternoon, and it started pouring while we were waiting for our turn at the castle.

The inside of the castle is awesome, even though it was never completed. The rooms are huge. There are secret passageways inside. (Well, at least one.) There is even a man-made cave in one of the rooms. Seriously. It looks like you're walking through a real cave.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside, so I encourage you to click the Wikipedia link above and read more about Neuschwanstein and look at the pictures. Amazing.

After we were done with our castle tour, we headed back into town. We walked to a place recommended by Rick Steves. Obviously. For my first German dinner, I had sausages with sour kraut and roasted potatoes. And something called a radler. It's beer mixed with lemon soda.

First real German Meal!

Stuffed and tired, we went back to the hostel for the night. We met a really cool guy from Australia and someone from Ukraine.

The next morning, we got up and went to the train station. We had another multiple-train day ahead of us. This time, we were going to Rothenburg.

I want to live in Rothenburg.

The first thing we did was get off the train and walk into the town. We found the street with our Pension. We knocked on the door. An old lady met us and led us upstairs to our room. It was really cute, and the bed had the most comfortable big blanket on it. When (one day) I go back to Rothenburg, I am staying there again. She gave us our key and told us what time breakfast was the next morning.

We dropped our things and headed out to the town. Since we didn't think we'd have time to go to both the Christmas Museum and the Medieval Torture Museum, and because the town was so small, we split up. I went to explore the history of my favorite holiday. Josh went to be tortured. (Not really.)

This was a good plan, because after touring the Christmas museum (which was AWESOME), I spent over an hour shopping for Christmas ornaments. Josh would have been bored out of his mind. We met up later and we wandered around the town. We each got one of these balls. It's a Rothenburg specialty, and tastes like a crunchy funnel cake. They weren't very good, and they were messy. At least they look pretty!

Prettier than they Taste
As we were discussing which direction led back to the main square, a middle-aged man asked us where we were from. Apparently, he used to work in Branson, and currently lives in Tennessee. He actually works for the FAA. (Dad works for the FAA.) He and his co-workers had been working there and staying in Rothenburg for over a month. He walked us down the street and showed us a place to eat that he said was really great.

On that man's recommendation, I ordered the schnitzel with fried potatoes for dinner. It also came with a salad. So delicious. I couldn't eat it all, though, so I gave Josh the other half of my schnitzel.

After dinner, we went back to the pension to drop off the things I had accumulated from all the Christmas stores. Then we went back to the main square by 8 to see the night watchman.

The night watchman gives an awesome tour telling the story of Rothenburg. It is the one thing you must do in Rothenburg. Josh and I were obsessed with it. We bought the DVD (which ended up being a disappointment) and a brochure, bookmark, and postcard of the night watchman. We got our picture taken with him.

Josh, Night Watchman, Me

After the night watchman tour, we did a bit more exploring of the town before going to bed.

And more Rothenburg
The next morning, we got up early. We walked the wall that goes around the town.

Medieval Wall
We got back to the Pension in time for breakfast: cheese, meat, rolls with butter and jam, coffee, orange juice, cereal, granola bars. . .

Then we went to look inside St. James's Church. It's actually a Lutheran church, and it has an incredible wood carving inside.

Amazing Wood Carving
Close Up
Then we went to a little shop that gives a discount to holders of Rick Steves' Germany book, and we bought Vince a pocket watch. It's the kind that you have to wind every day, and you can see the gears inside, so we thought it was really cool.

Next stop was the Rothenburg museum. It has some town history and some dungeons downstairs.

We had finished with Rothenburg. We went back and got our things from the Pension, and we walked to the train station. Next stop: Munich

Munich's New Town Hall
Munich is a large city. It reminded me of Milan in that aspect, but it was a lot more fun than Milan. I didn't like the buildings very much, though, but the beer scene was pretty fun. ;)

Our Munich hostel was really close to the train station. We got there in the afternoon and checked in, dropped off our things, and headed into the main part of the city.

We stopped at an outdoor eating area for a giant (like, bigger than my head) pretzel and a beer. It was really crowded so we had to sit with some old German men who ignored us. We didn't have any real plans for the day, and we didn't really feel like going to any museums or anything, so we made our way to the Hofbrauhaus. The Hofbrauhaus is the most famous beer hall in the world.

We sat in the outdoor seating area, and we each ordered a liter (!!!) of beer. I'm not a beer person. But this was one thing I was determined to do while in Germany. I also ordered a plate of wurst and potato salad to help wash down the beer.

Josh and I had a great time. We made silly videos with his camera and we observed the other people around. We were there for quite a while. And I finished my beer.

After :)
After finally leaving the Hofbrauhaus, we walked across town to the English Garden, a huge park. Josh ordered another beer, and I think I had a soda.

Then we started to walk back to our hostel. We had a map, but neither of us knew where we were. (The English Garden was really far from the train station.) We made it about halfway back. It started to rain, and we caught a taxi to take us the rest of the way. Once back, I collapsed on my bed immediately. I don't know what Josh did the rest of the night.

The next morning, we had McDonalds breakfast. We got metro tickets for the day, and we took the metro to the town of Dachau. There, we took a bus to the concentration camp.

The Entry Gate
We went inside, and we went through the museum. The museum is really extensive, really interesting, and hard to go through. They show a documentary inside, too, so we watched that.

After the museum, we walked down the length of the camp. It is huge. I definitely didn't expect it to be so enormous.

Looking out over where the barracks used to be
We looked inside the reconstructed barracks. We went into the crematorium and the gas chambers.

There's a really heavy feeling when you're there. It's not easy to walk around knowing what happened there and that it wasn't really that long ago that it happened.

Never Again
We were there as long as we could stand to be, and then we went back to the main part of Munich. We went to get a late lunch. I ordered a grilled pork chop with a baked potato with tzatziki, and it was one of the best meals I had in Europe. I got a soda to go with that, too. (No more beer for a long time!)

We spent the afternoon at the Munich City museum. It was pretty cool and gave us something to do besides beer halls. Josh wanted to go back to the Hofbrauhaus to hear the band play, but first I made him go with me to a restaurant on Marienplatz for some warm apple strudel with vanilla sauce. Not ice cream, sauce. It was like a cross between vanilla pudding and melted vanilla ice cream. Yummy. (I can't believe I was too excited to take a picture of it.)

I found a really awesome jewelry store on the way to the Hofbrauhaus, and I knew I'd be there for a while. I sent Josh ahead of me, shopped, and met him at the beer hall a while later. They have really cool sodas in Germany. I tried one that is orange soda mixed with coke. Not bad!

We left there and went back to the hostel. We got our things and then we went to the train station where we boarded our overnight train back to Florence.

Our car had 6 beds: 3 on each side, and Josh and I were on the third level. I love overnight trains! I definitely didn't sleep well, but it was really cool having a moving bed. It was fun going to sleep (or trying to) in Munich and waking up in Florence!

And that's when we left Germany. It had been a wonderful four days, and I look forward to someday going back.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


As I mentioned in my last post, the hostel we stayed at in Interlaken, Switzerland, rocked. In fact, pretty much every aspect of Switzerland rocked. Here are some reasons why:

1. They have the prettiest money ever.

2. Per capita, the Swiss consume 27.28 pounds of chocolate products each year. (I probably consumed half that during my 3 days there, but whatever.)

3. They make really bad a** pocketknives.

It's hard to see because it was behind glass.
Price tag: 1200 francs
4. . . .and watches.

5. They have 4 official languages! (German was the language where we were.)

6. Their unemployment rate is very low, and their standard of living is very high.

7. The Alps. Need I say more?

Josh and I arrived in Interlaken at night. The next morning (officially Day 1 of Switzerland), we spent several hours pocketknife shopping. In Interlaken, there are tons of pocketknife and watch stores. Being the thoughtful siblings that we are, we decided that instead of us each spending a lot of money on a pocketknife we didn't really need, we'd combine our money and buy a really cool one for Vince. We walked up and down the main street, browsing pocketknives and exploring the town. That morning, a watch caught my eye; a watch that I never knew I needed, until then. I decided to think about it.

EVERYTHING is expensive in Switzerland. Though the exchange rate is better than the Euro, it takes a lot of Swiss Francs to buy just about anything. We went to the grocery store and got picnic supplies for lunch, and then we decided we needed to do something besides stare at those little red knife contraptions for the rest of the afternoon. We took a train to the town of Thun. There, we wandered through town, to the castle.

Picture Taken from inside the Castle
We spent the afternoon exploring the castle and the little museum inside. After that, we found a photo-op we just couldn't pass up.

It's hard to see, but I'm the knight and Josh is the short dude.
Thun was an adorable town. Everywhere we went in the Berner Oberland (the region we were in the whole time we were in Switzerland) was clean and beautiful.

Oh, and the castle was cool, too.

Josh, Inside one of the Towers of the Castle
Side View of the Castle
Cat on a Wall near the Castle!
On the way back to Interlaken, we grabbed some spaghetti pasta, tomato sauce, and frozen broccoli for dinner. Cheapest thing we could think of, since together we had spent 76 francs that day just on transportation plus the castle admission.

When we got back to our hostel, we made dinner in the kitchen there. Then we tried to make a plan for the next two days in the country, and we used our cute little hostel "tokens" on some internet time.

Day 2 in Switzerland, we followed a plan. We took a train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. At Lauterbrunnen, we caught a bus to a station where we took a lift up to Gimmelwald. Gimmelwald is the cutest town. Ever. (Well. . . until I tell you about Rothenburg in the next post.)

Gimmelwald is a tiny mountainy village.

Building. Fence. Mountains.
I think about 130 people live there. I would have guessed fewer. They do have a schoolhouse. It has one room and a handful of students. One Sunday a month, a pastor comes to Gimmelwald and a church service is held in the schoolhouse.

There are some farm animals. And there's a tiny shop that sells cheese.

This isn't the cheese shop.
It's a place where they keep the cheese for aging.
It's on stilts so the mice don't get to it.
Josh, on a street in Gimmelwald
(See Alps behind him)
Side note: We were really impressed with how the Swiss stack their firewood so neatly. We took a bunch of pictures of it.

Pretty Wood Pile
Barn with Wood Stacked in It
Another Barn. More Wood.
We hung out in Gimmelwald until we saw everything, which didn't take long. Then we hiked over to the town of Murren. (Well, we walked there on a paved path. I guess that's technically not "hiking.") Murren was cool, but when we got there, I was a little hungry. Josh was starving. Have you ever been around Josh when he's starving? Not fun.

The problem was that we were stuck in a tiny town up in the Alps where the grocery store had just closed for the afternoon, and all the restaurants were pricey.

And this is when I had the freaking most expensive Chinese meal of my life. I had sweet and sour chicken. I forgot what Josh got. Mine was really good! But I think we spent over 50 US dollars on something that would have been 10 here. Oh well.

After stuffing ourselves, (at that price, we had to finish everything) we did some more legit hiking. We were going to take a funicular to a different town, but it was closed that week for maintenance. Instead, we were going to take a path up to another tiny town and then hike back down to Gimmelwald from there. These paths were not exactly paths, though. They were terribly marked. We didn't have a good map, and we got lost and never made it to that other town. (Josh is horrible with directions. You can quote me on that.)

View from Halfway up the Mountain
We ended up wandering through the woods, where I had to take a bathroom break right onto the ground. (Embarrassing. It was an emergency. No one saw me. . . Whew.) The woods we were in belonged to someone, I think. We had to go through a couple of gates, but we were going in the general direction of Gimmelwald, we thought. Eventually, we made it to a clearing which led down to that same paved path we had taken earlier.

We headed back to Gimmelwald. We bought some Alpine cheese and some summer sausage from a nice lady there. We wanted to hike over to a narrow swinging bridge that looked dangerous, but it was closed until summer. So we took the lift back down, took the bus back to Lauterbrunnen station, explored the town of Lauterbrunnen, bought more groceries at the store there, and took the train back to Interlaken. We made spaghetti and broccoli again for dinner. Then we spent the evening pocketknife shopping. And. . .

I bought the watch.

I was so excited about it! The rest of the trip, I timed everything we did. I kept spouting out what time it was, or how much time we had until our next train arrived or left, or how long we had been doing things, like pocketknife shopping.

Me and my Watch!
We went back to the hostel that night, and we called Vince to tell him about our adventures. (But not about his future knife)

Day 3, our last full day in Switzerland, we spent the morning wandering around the town. It's confusing, because there are two different train stations in Interlaken, about a 10 minute walk from each other. Which means there are two different bus stations. And we couldn't really figure out where we needed to be in order to get to a certain cave we wanted to go to.

Instead, we went to a campground near one of the lakes. We inquired about renting kayaks for half a day. We had our 60 francs out to pay the guy, when he remembered that it happened to be National Swiss Camping Day, and to celebrate, everything at the campground was free. We got free kayaks. Awesome!


We kayaked for a couple of hours, I think. Maybe less. Then we stopped for lunch. (Alpine cheese, sausage from the cheese lady, and crackers.) We headed back and dropped off our kayaks. We were also invited back there that night for some food and a play.

As we left the campground, which is close to one of the train stations, we walked over some train tracks. We had the brilliant idea to smash a Swiss coin. This is how the conversation went:

Me: Hey, let's smash a Swiss coin on the tracks!
Josh: Okay! (Puts a 10 cent coin down. Then the red and white things that block the road from the tracks start going down, because a train's coming.)
Me: I hope it doesn't make the train crash.
Josh: Yeah. Coins have been known to cause derailments.
Me: Are you serious?! (Start to feel really bad)
Josh: I don't know. . . It might.
Me: Well. . . it's too late now. Let's get out of the way. (We walk really fast and un-suspicious-like across the bridge in case the train gets derailed.) I bet they have sensers on the train that can tell if there is debris on the tracks, though.
Josh: Yeah, it will probably just stop if there's something in the way.
Me: I don't want to go to a Swiss jail! I hope they don't fingerprint the coin! Oh wait, you touched it. Not me. (The train is coming, but it's squeaky. Josh thinks they're hitting the breaks.)
Josh: Oh my gosh. . .
Me: (holding my breath and feeling really guilty)
. . .
. . .
. . .
(The train goes right over the coin. No problem.)
Josh and Me: Sighs of relief

Once that was over, we felt like criminals escaping from the police. I'll never smash a coin again.

We picked up our shamefully-gotten coin (which didn't even smash that much), and we walked to the station where we would catch the bus to the cave. Along the way, I tried some Swiss ice cream. (Verdict? Good, not great. And at 5 francs a scoop, try to resist.)

The bus ride to the cave would have been fine, except for the mean driver.

The cave was cool, though. We had to walk up a really big hill with a waterfall going down it. The path was wind-y and pretty, and there were some big wooden gnomes, which I would normally hate, but they look like they belong in Switzerland.

Gnome. Me.
We had a cave tour which lasted about an hour or an hour and a half. The cave was huge! We bussed back to Interlaken, got some surprisingly good Swiss beer, and sat on the picnic tables at the campground. Pretty soon there was food, and then a play. The play was a 1-girl act. She was speaking in German the whole time, so we didn't know what was going on, but it looked funny!

Unfortunately, the food they had at the campground (chips and little kebabs of mozzarella and cherry tomatoes) didn't fill me up. Shamefully. . . I had McDonalds again. Mmm.

We went back to the hostel later. Being a student, I got a 10 percent discount on the Swiss pocketknives sold at the hostel. Josh and I bought Vince's pocketknife there.
Swiss Champ

Then we called Mom for a while. And we called Grandma and Grandpa. That was when our phone card got totally used up, and we went to bed.

The next morning, we said goodbye to beautiful, green, clean, Switzerland.

We said hello to the castles, night watchmen, and beer gardens of Germany.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Milan and the Last Supper

We left Venice on Wednesday, May 18 on a train bound for Milan. I was excited because I hadn't been to Milan yet! We (as usual) got to the train station with loads of time to wait, but it was better than cutting it close and missing our reserved train.

We munched on pastries while we waited, and then we enjoyed a nice train ride to Milan, the second largest city in Italy.

It's definitely a city-city.

From the train station, we took the metro to the Duomo. Milan's Duomo is amazing. It is the fourth largest cathedral in the world!

This is Josh in front of it with some birds.

What's the story with the pigeons?

We were standing there taking pictures of the cathedral. A guy walked up and grabbed Josh's hand and shoved some seeds into it. All of a sudden, the birds attacked (the food). The guy started telling me to take pictures, so I did. Then, after the birds had eaten everything and flown off, the guy asked Josh for 3 euro. Uh, that's like 5 dollars. We were walking off, and the guy kept following us. So Josh gave him all the change he had in his pocket which amounted to a grand total of 60 cents, I believe.

Anyway, after that we explored the square we were in and the buildings around it. We went inside the cathedral which was really pretty and really big, but not as cool as the outside would lead you to believe.

After that, we took the metro to another stop where we walked to the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano. It's just a giant cemetery with really pretty tombs.

We walked around there for a while and then we went to go find the Last Supper.

Da Vinci's Last Supper painting is on a wall inside the dining hall of the monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie.

Santa Maria della Grazie
We had reservations made by my awesome mother. (Don't ask what the phone bill was when I made her call that place from home to get us spots to see it. . . ) We made sure we got there plenty early, since this was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing that everyone should try to see in Italy. (Reserve months in advance.)

Last Supper
This painting is everywhere. I've seen countless prints of it all over the place. Everyone knows this painting.

But when you see it in person, it's totally different. When you walk into that room, it takes your breath away.

It's really deteriorated, but it's been restored. You can see the places the paint has chipped away. You can see how the painting actually looks like a continuation of the room it is in. You can picture Da Vinci in that room painting it years and years ago, not knowing that it would be one of the most famous images of all time.

And another cool thing: During WWII, the building was bombed, but that wall remained intact. It could have easily been demolished.

That was definitely the highlight of Milan.

We didn't have much else to do there, so we went back to the train station and ate crappy (yet somehow good enough for me to get two giant slices) train station pizza. We got back on the train for a few hours, and we ended up in Interlaken, Switzerland, around 10pm. It had been a long day!

We checked in to our hostel. It happened to be the highest-rated hostel in Switzerland, and we weren't disappointed. It was very clean, very organized, and had the friendliest staff I've ever met. It was wonderful. We stayed there for 4 nights (3 full days), and we loved our time in Switzerland. However, that is another blog post. Prepare yourself to hear about what might be my favorite country. . .