Rome, Italy – Time Lapse

Finally finished my semester-long project putting together time lapse videos from around Rome. Only three days left abroad, so I probably won’t have any updates until I return home, but I plan on continuing this blog as a kind of survival guide/tips blog for students studying abroad. In the meantime, enjoy the sights of the Eternal City set the the sounds of John Butler.



Holy Week in Rome

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Two weeks ago was Holy Week for the entire Catholic world, and with Rome as the capital of that world, it came as no surprise that the week was met with much fanfare, as well as many people. Although I unfortunately missed Palm Sunday mass in Rome as I was traveling back from Cinque Terre, I was able to attend two very important events during “Settimana Santa”.

My godparents were in town during the week visiting their daughter who is also studying abroad here in Rome. I met up with them on Friday afternoon and later that night we attended the “Via Crucis”, the Stations of the Cross. The service was scheduled to start at 9:30, and we arrived around 7:00 to make sure we got a good spot, having no idea what to expect. When we got there, large crowds had already gathered around the gate waiting to get in. The service was being held in the area around the Colosseum, with the Pope leading it from atop the Palatine hill. The service takes place there in memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the Colosseum.

As we stood in line, we struggled to figure out what the situation would be like once we got inside. Everyone except for my godmother and her mother decided to stay in line, while the rest of them climbed another hill with a “better safe than sorry” outlook. The three of us who remained were determined to get a good spot. After a long wait in line, with many jeers from the crowd as “pass holders” pushed their way to the front and promptly denied entrance, and a manageable amount of pushing and shoving as they opened the gates, we made our way to a spot along the fence by which the procession would pass.

We waited inside for another hour and a half or so before the service started. Unfortunately, the Pope was not a part of the procession which led the cross up to the Palatine hill, but we still had a great spot to experience such an unforgettable event. We had all been unprepared for the cold weather that came with nightfall, but it was Good Friday, so we didn’t complain…too much.

Two days later was Easter Sunday, the most celebrated day in the liturgical calendar. We had all secured tickets for Easter mass at the Vatican, which was to be held outdoors in Piazza San Pietro. I had heard and read about the massive crowds that gathered for this mass, often spilling out into the street beyond the piazza which had a capacity of around 80,000 (no Beaver Stadium, but still a lot of people). I arrived at around 7:20 for the 10:15 mass, and my godparents and their family arrived shortly after.

At 7:20, there were already a few hundred people in line to get in. One of the things I dislike most about Italy is the lack of order in many things we take for granted in the U.S. One of these things is lines. While the crowd was somewhat orderly before the gates opened, as soon as the Carbinieri started to allow people through security, the group of Catholics dressed in their Sunday best turned into a mob. It wasn’t out of control, and no one got hurt (to my knowledge), but the stress, both physical and mental, of these crowd situations is definitely something I will not miss.

After about 20 minutes of being cattle herded, we made it though the gates and into the piazza. The seating area was still fairly empty, and we had a wide choice of options. The seating areas had been fenced off for what looked to be a processional area, so I asked a Swiss Guard if the Pope would be passing though the area we were in, and he said yes. So we got our seats along the railing and waited for the mass to start. Unfortunately, whether it was the language barrier, or perhaps an audible called by the Pope, there was no procession through the crowd as we had expected, and the clergy simply emerged from the main door of St. Peter’s out onto the stairs where the altar was set up.

The mass was introduced by a marching band who processed from around the colonnade through the piazza. Once mass began, there was a very respectful atmosphere throughout the piazza. I had expected some outbursts from a crowd of 80,000 people, but the mass was very enjoyable and was another unforgettable experience in Rome. The mass was said mostly in a mixture of Latin and Italian, but some parts were reserved for other languages. The second reading was said in English, and all of the petitions were read in various foreign languages. We were quite surprised to find that we would actually get to receive communion at mass, and were the first ones to do so from the priest who came to our area.

After the mass, the Pope retreated into St. Peter’s only to emerge from the recognizable window from which he addressed the crowds below, issuing the Urbis et Orbis, the annual blessing given by the Pope at Easter.

Getting back out of the piazza was harder than getting in, as the crowd who had arrived over a span of about 4 hours was now all leaving at once. We made it out in one piece, and made our way (slowly) out of the crowds and across the river to Piazza Navona for lunch.

Easter in Rome was something I was really excited about experiencing before I even got here, and it was definitely worth putting up with the crowds to take part in such awesome events.

Cinque Terre: 3.30-4.1

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Last weekend three classmates and I (the same group that went to Viterbo), traveled north to Cinque Terre. The name Cinque Terre translates to “five lands”, referring to the stretch of five towns along the Mediterranean coast.

We left on Friday afternoon after our mid-term reviews for studio. We took a 4 hour train ride from Roma Termini to La Spezia, the largest inland town close to Cinque Terre, and from there a short regional train which took us to our home base in the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare. We easily found our “bed & breakfast” (which included beds, but no breakfast), checked in, and left to explore Monterosso.

Monterosso is the northern most town in the Cinque Terre and according to internet reviews, was the most “resorty” town, complete with a long, fairly new, man made beach. As we made our way through the town, however, we noticed an abundance of construction. We had talked to some Italian students a few weeks earlier, and upon mentioning that we were planning to visit the Cinque Terre, they alerted us that it was now the “Quattro Terre”, as one of the towns had recently been destroyed by flooding. After awhile, we noticed a sign in a window, apologizing for the clean-up efforts taking place after major flooding had caused extensive damage in October of last year. The town seemed to be rebounding well, however, and being a place that relies on tourism to support its economy, was doing everything it could to show its resolve. We would find out later, however, that this town was not in the worst shape of them all.

We spent the afternoon wandering around Monterosso. The town is split by a large hill which juts out into the sea, and climbing it provided panoramic views of both the tourist, beach area, and the local, harbor area. We retreated to our tourist side, and spent some time sitting on the sand/gravel beach before heading out for dinner.

Our bed & breakfast owner’s sons ran a few restaurants in town and she told us that we could eat at any of them and get a discount. We found one, a small trattoria, uncrowded but welcoming, and decided to eat there. As the Cinque Terre sit on the coast, seafood is generally the house specialty, and I ordered penne al salmone, which is becoming one of my favorite pasta dishes in Italy.

The next morning we got up with the intention of doing some hiking along what is known as the Sentiero Azzurro, the Blue Trail, which connects the five towns along the coast. Our bed owner had told us that a few sections might be closed, but to check at the tourist office to be sure. After grabbing a coffee in the morning, I went down to the office to see what the deal was. The woman alerted me that all of the trail was closed except the short, paved section (read: not really a trail) between Riomaggiore and Manarola, known as the Via dell’Amore. This was disappointing, but there was nothing we could do about it…yet.

We bought an all day combined train and trail pass and rode down to Riomaggiore, the southernmost town. This town was the largest, with steep streets leading up from the small harbor into the town. We walked around for awhile, and having arrived early enough, we had beaten most of the crowds that we would encounter later. We found a large, stone beach, with large, flat rocks perfect for stacking. The stacks there were nice, but obviously as architecture students, we could do better. We spent an unnecessary amount of time putting rocks on top of each other, but hey, that’s what vacation is about, right?

After successfully putting a large number of rocks on top of each other, we went back to the town to find the Via dell’Amore. The trail was basically a wide sidewalk from Riomaggiore to Manarola, the next town up the coast, and while it provided some nice views of the town, it was not the kind of hiking we had planned on doing.

Manarola was a smaller town, but very photogenic, and a section of trail led up around the hill across from it, providing a nice vantage spot for photos. We grabbed some lunch in town; I got a slice of focaccia with pesto, another local specialty. After exploring the town for awhile, we jumped on the train and traveled two towns north to Vernazza.

From photos, Vernazza looked like one of the most picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre, however, when we arrived we were greeted with the unexpected. Until that point, we thought that Monterosso was the town that had been “wiped out” by the flooding, but what we saw in Vernazza was much, much worse. A large display of photos right at the exit from the train station told the story of the devastation that had hit the town last fall. Flash flooding had caused landslides to tear through the town, peaking above the top of the ground floor in many cases. There were very few businesses open in town, the beach had been filled in with a large field of dirt, debris, and garbage bags, and almost all of the ground floor buildings were completely gutted. It had been months since the disaster, but there was still a long road to recovery. The town showed great resolve, however, and there were multiple efforts around town to raise money to help them rebuild. We spent some time on the rocky coastline, and learned from other tourists that the trail from Vernazza back to Monterosso was indeed walkable, even though we were told it was closed. That was all the convincing we needed, so we took off back to our home base.

The trail went straight up the hill for awhile, but leveled off at the top, providing spectacular views of the coast. This was more along the lines of the type of trail we were looking for. Rocky, dirty, narrow, and wooded, the trail was a great way to end our day of exploring. It crossed a few streams, passed through a few vineyards, and eventually brought us back into Monterosso.

We decided to go back to the town of Manarola for dinner that night since our train passes were still valid. We had a seen a lot of restaurants earlier in the day and figured we would find something good. The restaurant was a little larger than the one we had eaten at the night before, but equally as good. I ordered bruschetta and pesto lasagne, and both were delicious. After waiting about an hour for the sparsely running trains, we made our way back to Monterosso.

The next morning we decided to visit the towns by boat, instead of train. There was a ferry that ran between all of the towns so we bought a roundtrip ticket for the day and, after walking the swaying gangplank onto the boat, we set off. Seeing the Cinque Terre from the sea was a really unique perspective and made it much easier to get a sense of the connection between them. Dan and I got off in Riomaggiore while Lily and Marissa decided to continue on to Porto Venere, a town not technically in the Cinque Terre, but similar in style.

Dan and I returned to the rock beach to explore around the large boulders at the far end. There was a small tower which may have served as a lifeguard stand at some point that I climbed, somewhat inconsequentially. There was a trail that was boarded up at the trail head, but looked accessible by climbing up the steep hillside that dropped down to the beach. After scrambling to the top, a bit more precariously than it looked, I made it to the trail which overlooked the beach area. The trail wound around the side of the hill, hugging the cliffside with a fairly sheer drop on the other side, and led to a lookout area which served as base for the Cinque Terre marine protection area. The trail continued around the hill and connected with the road that led back into the town. I met back up with Dan and we grabbed some lunch before returning to the beach.

The weather was warm and sunny, and I decided it would be my last chance to go for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea this semester. According to weather reports, the water temperature was hovering around 60 F, and I thought I was going to be in and out in a matter of seconds. I began walking out into the water across the large rocks, and when I got about knee deep, I could feel the wavs starting to knock me over. As to not embarrass myself by falling in front of the large number of beachgoers who were clearly waiting for me to come shivering out of the water, I jumped forward to avoid falling and began swimming freestyle out into the sea. The current was fairly strong and I got pulled out into the deep water fairly easily. The water was surprisingly refreshing and I was in no hurry to get out. I treaded water about 75 yards off shore, taking in the view of the surrounding cliffs. The locals probably thought I was crazy, but it was one of the most unique experiences of my time abroad. I fought the current back in and dried off before catching the ferry back to Monterosso.

We spent a few hours on the beach back in Monterosso before we had to catch our train to return home. There was a train strike that day, a fairly common occurrence in Italy as the railway workers have strike days built into their contracts, but fortunately we were able to make our connections back, and after a delicious Euro menu dinner at the McDonald’s in the La Spezia train station, we were on the train back to Rome.

We’re in the midst of Easter weekend here in Rome, and the city is packed. I’ll have an update after Easter mass at St. Peter’s, then off to Munich next weekend for my last trip of the semester!

Slideshow: Studio Project Mid-Term Review Drawings

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Spring Break: Week 2 – Pt. III (Barcelona)

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So after spending the first 3/4 of my break traveling around Italy, I took a trip outside of the country for the second time this semester (Interlaken, Switzerland being the first) to Barcelona, Spain. My flight arrived in Barcelona – El Prat at around 1:30 on Thursday afternoon. I took a shuttle to Placa Catalunya, one of the main Plazas along Las Ramblas, the main street through the city center, and walked a few blocks to my hostel. The hostel was recently renovated and located in an upscale building, very nice especially for the price. The owners gave me plenty of tips for getting around and places to see in Barcelona, and an hour or so after I had checked in at the hostel, I was on my way out the door with a map and a list of sites to see.

One of the most distinguishing features of Barcelona is the architecture of Antonio Gaudi. Influenced by neo-Gothic trends, his architecture reflects a unique style known as Catalan modernism. While his architecture isn’t something that I aspire to, it is very interesting to see first hand, especially after having studied it at Penn State. My first walk began with three major Gaudi works, the Casa Batllo, Casa Mila, and the Sagrada Familia. I only saw the two smaller houses from the outside as it seemed too late in the evening to make the most of the entrance fees, considering the lines formed outside of them, however I did go into Sagrada Familia. This church has been under construction since 1882, with a projected completion date of around 2026. The space inside is one of the most impressive you could ever enter, and the level of detail in the building is astounding. It was a space that you didn’t want to leave, and I probably spent over an hour inside, looking around and taking photos.

After I left the church I wandered slowly back to my hostel. Barcelona is much different from any of the Italian cities I have visited. The streets and sidewalks are incredibly wide, and the corners of all the blocks are chamfered, creating wide open intersections. This makes a much more enjoyable walking experience, however, it also makes things much farther apart.

I returned to my hostel and cooked dinner in the kitchen provided there. Since Barcelona isn’t exactly known as a city of exquisite cuisine, I didn’t feel too bad about not eating out for a few nights. After a long day of traveling, I got to bed early to get ready for the next day.

The next morning I got up and left with no real objective, just to explore the city. I walked down Las Ramblas, the main street that connects the waterfront area with the rest of the city. The street has a wide pedestrian area in the middle filled with restaurants, shops, and vendors of all kinds. It was very interesting to experience a culture outside of Italy at this scale. Most of the shops and restaurants very normal gift shops and cafes. but every once in awhile I would come across something odd, such as a small pet vendor, selling small birds, rodents, and who knows what else.

I finally made it down to the waterfront area, which has been fairly recently built up and redeveloped. Among the amenities included there is one of the largest aquariums in all of Europe. There are also an abundance of shops and cafes lining the boardwalk which surrounds the port areas filled with sailboats. There are many ins and outs of the harbor area, and navigating it is anything but direct. I finally made my way through the port out to the peninsula-like area of Barceloneta. A small, local neighborhood separates the ports from the direct access to the ocean and the main beaches of Barcelona.

I spent some time on the beach that afternoon, and although they weren’t the most picturesque beaches I’ve ever seen, it was nice to relax for awhile. After a large cloud of fog rolled in, I made my way back to the hostel for dinner.

The next day I visited two of the major parks in Barcelona: Montjuic, and Parc Guell. Montjuic is an expansive park covering an entire mountainside. At the base of the hill is Placa Espanya and Palau Nacional, part of the original facilities built there for the 1929 World’s Fair. A large portion of the hill is home to many of the Olympic facilities from the 1992 games in Barcelona. The complex was immense, and felt even more so because it was quite empty compared to the capacity for which it was designed. On the top of the hill is a 17th century fortress known as Castell de Monjuic. The castle provides outstanding panoramas of both the expansive city of Barcelona as well as the coastal area. The castle is accessible by a gondola that takes you up the steep part of the mountain, and there are a number of small park areas to visit on the way back down to the bottom.

After visiting this park, I met up with some students that were studying in Barcelona I had met the day before to visit Parc Guell. This park was designed by Antonio Gaudi, and was originally designed to be a community in it’s own right within Barcelona. The area is landscaped, but only a few structures were built, and it is now a formalized park on a steep hillside. This park also provides great views of the city looking towards the ocean, and was much more populated with locals and tourists alike. After visiting the park, we went to the Mercat de la Boqueria, a large indoor market with fresh seafood and produce of all types.

Later that evening we went back to Placa Espanya to see a fountain show that was set to music and colorfully lit. The shows lasted about 20 minutes each, and we saw parts of 3 separate ones. The range of music was widely varied from 90’s alternative to classical, and it made it pretty entertaining. After watching the fountain show, we walked over to an old bull fighting arena that had recently been converted to a shopping mal. The roof of the mall was accessible and provided more great views looking out over the city (although it was dark by this point). The renovation and repurposing of the building was really well done and was a successful reuse of the abandoned building. From there, we made our way back to Las Ramblas for dinner at a tapas restaurant. Tapas are a popular Spanish dinner option, and consist of multiple, small plates of various food like fried potatoes, calamari, and many others. It was nice to experience some of the local cuisine, and a good break from the never ending pasta back in Italy.

On Sunday, my final day of break, the city of Barcelona is basically closed. Most of the shops and restaurants are closed, and the town is relatively quiet. I had heard about a town called Sitges that I wanted to visit, and decided that Sunday would be a good day to do so. Sitges was about a half hour train ride from Barcelona, and I found out later that it is where many of the locals from Barcelona go on Sundays because it does not shut down like Barcelona. The town is a small, coastal town, with most of the main shops and restaurants lining the promenade that stretches the length of the picturesque beach. I spent the day exploring the town, taking photos, and relaxing on the beach. It was a good way to spend my final day of break.

That evening I met up with the students I had met there for dinner at a Mexican restaurant (I didn’t realize how much I missed burritos and chips with guacamole), before getting to bed early to prepare for my 6:00 am flight back to Rome the next morning. I had to catch a bus at 4:00 in the morning to the airport, but I made all my connections and landed in Rome just before 8:00 am.



Spring Break: Week 2 – Pt. II (Venice)

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After a busy few weeks back in Rome, I realized that I’ve gotten a little behind on these updates, so I’ll try and make up for lost time. When we last spoke, I had just left Florence for the City of Bridges. No, not Pittsburgh, but Venice, Italy.  Built on a series of lagoon islands, the city is connected primarily by waterways. Canals both large and small run throughout the city, making boating the most popular form of transportation.

After an uneventful train ride into Venice, I got on a water bus, or, “vaporetto” as they’re called, to get to my hostel. The hostel I was staying in was not on the main island of Venice, but it was only about 5-10 minutes by vaporetto to the main island. I arrived at my hostel and checked in at around 8:30 pm. The hostel was what I imagined most European hostels being like: large rooms filled with bunks, shared bathrooms, etc.

After unpacking, I made my way over to the main island to find something to eat. It was late on a Monday night and many restaurants were closed or empty, making them very inviting. The ONE place that was very crowded, however, was the Hard Rock Cafe, Venice. Now, I usually steer clear or tourist institutions like this, but the smell of burgers coupled with the Pearl Jam blaring from the speakers made it hard to resist. And so, on the fateful night, I had my first real burger in the two months I had been in Rome (one or two McDonald’s snacks excluded). My waitress was an older woman, but very friendly, and spoke enough English that she could sit down and ask about my travels. It was a little strange, but she probably just thought I was some loser who couldn’t find anyone to go to dinner with. The table had a bottle of Heinz Ketchup and I told her that it was made in my hometown. She got really excited and immediately asked if I wanted to keep the bottle (I didn’t), and she consequentially told every passing waiter or waitress the story of this foreign dignitary from the land of Heinz.

The next day I got up early and went to explore the city by daylight. The great thing about Venice is that, besides a handful of churches, there aren’t a lot of “monuments” or points of interests that you MUST see while you’re there. Venice is all about exploring and experiencing the city, and that was exactly what I planned to do. I had a scheduled tour later that morning of a Palace on the island, so I took the time before that to wander around and get lost in the maze of streets, bridges, and canals.

The tour I had was of the Palazzo Ducale. The Ducale was the head of Venice and the Palazzo was both his residence and meeting chambers for various political affairs. The tour I took led us though a section that is not open to general admission which showed the prison cells used to hold criminals against the state. Of those prisoners was included the infamous Casanova, and our tour guide spent a great deal of time explaining the story of his supposed escape from the prison. After the guided tour, we were free to explore the rest of the Palace on our own. Filled with enormous senate halls in the political wings, and grand parlors in the residential wing, the Palace was a clear sign of Venetian dignity.

After exploring the Palace, I visited St. Mark’s Basilica, immediately adjacent to the Palace. The Basilica was much different from most of the churches in Rome. It was very dimly lit, but had numerous gilded surfaces that reflected a golden glow throughout the church. The church also featured some very interesting mosaic patterns, both on the floor and ceiling.

That afternoon I continued wandering around the city, stopping into various churches as I came upon them. I crossed the Ponte Rialto, the most famous bridge in Venice which crosses the Grand Canal. The bridge is lined with shops on either side, and provides a great view of Venice along the canal. Nearby was a large fish market with freshly caught seafood of all shapes and sizes. The efficiency with which the Venetians have to work in their day-to-day lives due to the unique arrangement and structure of their city was very visible in the goings-on around the market.

After dinner in a small restaurant, I took the longer vaporetto route back to the hostel to take in some more of the city before I got some rest.

The next morning I decided to visit a few of the outlying lagoon islands, accessible by vaporetto. The first was Murano, and island community famous for its glass making trade. The island is filled with hand-made glass blowing shops, and while I was too early to catch a tour of any of them, I was able to peek into a few of the workshops and see the craft in progress. Venetians are very proud of their glass and take it very seriously. Up until recent times, glass blowers who were deemed talented enough were granted a parcel of land on the island of Murano with the agreement that they would stay there for their whole life, producing glass works of art.

The next island I visited was named Burano. The island is filled with vividly painted house, almost in a caricaturized version of the main island of Venice. It was very photogenic, and a nice, quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the main island.

The last island I visited was Lido, a name generally given to the oceanfront areas of Italian cities. The island is a long, narrow rectangle that basically serves as a break water for the main island. It is home to Venice’s only beaches, which, while sparsely populated, were quite nice, and filled with an assortment of seashells. After stopping for lunch on the beach in Lido, I returned to the main island on the Vaporetto.

I spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring more of the main island that I hadn’t seen yet, and around dusk, I set up my camera and laptop on the Rialto Bridge for what would become some of my favorite time-lapses I’ve taken so far (see below). I grabbed dinner and returned home to get some sleep before my departure for Barcelona in the morning.

The next morning, I checked out of my hostel around 7:00, and took the vaporetto to the main bus station. From there, my airline (Ryan Air), provided a shuttle to Venice Treviso airport, where I would be flying out of. I made all of my connections, and except for an hour delay on the tarmac before take-off, I made it to Barcelona in one piece, but more on that next time!


Spring Break: Week 2 – Pt. 1 (Florence)

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I made it back to Rome on Monday after two weeks of traveling. In case you missed it, here’s a recap of the first week, spent in Capri, Italy. Now for the next installment…

When we last spoke, I had hinted at some of the problems I ran into traveling from Capri to Florence, via Naples and Rome. It all started Saturday morning. We left our hotel in Capri to catch a 9:10 hydrofoil boat to Naples. When we arrived at the marina, however, we found out that the seas were too rough to run the hydrofoils, and that we would have to take a slow ferry to Sorrento, then take an hour long train ride around Mt. Vesuvius to Naples, where I had an 11:17 train to catch. The woman at the ticket office was very helpful in explaining the connections that needed to be made, and assured me that I would catch my train in time. We boarded the giant ferry and set off for Sorrento. The ferry left a few minutes late, but we didn’t pay much attention to that.

We arrived in Sorrento, found the buses that too us up to the town from the marina, then made our way to the train station. When we arrived, we found that we had missed the last train by 6 MINUTES! Perhaps we would be ok, though, these trains seemed to run rather frequently. However, for some odd reason, we had arrived during the one hour long period during the day where the trains do not run every 20 minutes. Go figure. Consigned to missing my train in Naples, we boarded the rickety train which took us around the Bay of Naples.

We arrived in Naples, and I parted ways with Lily as she was meeting her friend, Marissa, for their next week of travels. I was now officially traveling alone. I found the ticket office to purchase a new ticket (unfortunately my missed train was a non-refundable ticket). The trains were not running to Rome as frequently as I had hoped, but I thought I should still be able to make it in time. The train I was scheduled to take should have given me more than enough time to catch my connecting train in Rome (although I would not be able to stop at home to pick up clean clothes, etc.).

The train to Rome was delayed, narrowing my window of opportunity by a little over a half hour. A nervous, two-hour train ride later, I made it to Rome with about 15-20 minutes to find my next train. I realized that The train to Florence was a regional one and I did not know what final destination it would be listed under. I asked someone on the platform where I would catch the train to “Firenze” (the Italian name for Florence), and he directed me to a separate set of platforms that were about a 10 minute walk away. I hurried to this platform area to find only one train running, not to Florence. I’m not sure if the guy I asked was messing with me, or if something was lost in translation, but I made my way back to the main platform area in a hurry to try again. By the time I made it back, I had missed the train all together. Story of the day.

Unfortunately the only trains running to Florence within the next hour were the super posh, EuroStar trains, complete with wi-fi, a snack bar, and the most well upholstered seats I’ve ever seen in a public transportation vehicle. I was finally on my way to Florence, in luxury, at about 4:30 pm. I arrived in Florence around 6:00, and made the short walk from the train station to my hostel.

The hostel was nice, and almost had that kitchy bed & breakfast feel. Brightly painted walls, outrageous patterns on the bed sheets, and cutesy signs everywhere made it feel much less institutional than I thought it would. The common area had a great view of the Florence Duomo, as you’ll see in the photos. I spent the evening wandering the streets, and had dinner at a pizzeria close to the hostel. After such a long day, I needed a good night’s sleep to recover.

The next morning, I woke up fairly early to the sound of my roommates hastily packing. I think they slept in. I got some breakfast in a local cafe and hit the streets. I had some time to kill before my 8:30 reservation at the Galleria Uffizi, so I took the time to scope out places to visit later in the day.

I arrived at the Galleria Uffizi and skipped the long line that had already formed, thanks to the ticket I had purchased ahead of time (H/T Rick Steves). The Galleria Uffizi is an art galleria of works mostly collected by the Florentine family, Medici. The gallery houses works by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello) amongst many others. The building is quite large, and I may have missed a few rooms, but it was amazing to see so many works of art in one place.

After the Galleria Uffizi, I had more time to kill before my next reservation at the Galleria dell’Accademia. I decided to climb the campanile, or bell tower, of the Duomo, the largest, most famous church in Florence. The bell tower was 414 stairs to the top, but provided amazing panoramic views of Florence and Tuscany from the deck on top. After taking (too many) photos, I made the descent and headed for the Galleria dell’Academia.

The Galleria dell’Academia is a much smaller gallery, however, is extremely popular, as it houses the infamous statue of David by Michelangelo. I had planned on heading right to the statue when I arrived, but was distracted by signs for a musical instrument display. The exhibit was very impressive, displaying Medieval and Renaissance era musical instruments, including a number of priceless Stradivari violins. They also had the only interactive displays I had seen in either of the museums, showing the mechanical differences between piano and harpsichord operations.

After spending some time in this display I moved on to the main area of the gallery. I found out, as with most places like this, that photos were not allowed anywhere in the gallery. As I turned the corner and faced the David statue, however, I decided that I couldn’t leave without a photo of the famous piece. I decided it would be best to explore the rest of the gallery before attempting to take a photo, in case I got kicked out. The gallery, as I mentioned, was rather small, but included an interesting exhibit of panel paintings. As I made my way out, I stealthily set up my camera at my side to quickly take the shot, I stood about 1/4 back in the hallway which led to the statue, raised my totally conspicuous camera to my face, and snapped. I casually turned around and walked away, I hadn’t been seen! About 10 seconds later, I heard a roar of “NO PHOTO!!” as one of the guards scolded a tourist who clearly did not have the ninja photo skills that I did.

After getting lunch in a pizza place nearby (seeing a theme?) I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city. I visited the Ponte Vecchio, an old bridge lined with jewelers on both sides, and the inside of the Duomo. Walking around the city did not have the same local feel that Rome does. All of the streets were lined with large, high-end, chain stores like LaCoste, Gucci, and whatever else the kids are into these days. The market areas were interesting, however, it was hard to tell which vendors were legitimate (probably 2 or 3 of them), and which ones were selling stolen, knock-off goods (probably the hundreds of the rest of them).

Later in the afternoon, I went to Piazzale Michelangelo and San Miniato, both hilltop sites that provided more great views. I sat up there for sunset amongst the large crowds of people, locals and tourists alike, who had gathered to take it all in. I saw a group of students and noticed that one of them had a Penn State shirt on. I asked them if they were all from Penn State, and sure enough they were. Go figure. That evening I ment to a mediocre restaurant and had yet another pizza for dinner before returning to the hostel for a much needed rest.

The next morning I got another early start, heading first to the church of Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel. The church is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and is the burial location of many famous Italians such as Michelangelo and Galileo. While the main altar was covered in scaffolding for restoration, the interior was still very impressive. Attached to the basilica is the smaller, Pazzi Chapel, a highly regarded piece of Renaissance architecture, as well as a museum housing many works that had been displayed in the Basilica over the years and a display telling the story of the flood that had once caused major damages to the church.

After visiting the Basilica, I made my way again to the Duomo. Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Self, didn’t he already visit the Duomo? Let me go back a few paragraphs to re-read.” Alas! I had not explored the most impressive part, the dome of the Duomo (Duomo does not mean dome, FYI). The climb to the top of the dome was much more vigorous than that of the campanile. Never ending spiral staircases coupled with stairs curved to match the convexity of the outside of the dome. Although I passed many sweaty, out of breath tourists on the way up, the climb wasn’t that bad, and the view at the top was spectacular. After spending some time taking in the panorama of Florence, I retreated down the stairs to the bottom.

After lunch, I visited a few more churches (unfortunately inhibited by more “NO PHOTO” signs) and hung out and read in a piazza for awhile before retreating to the hostel to pack my stuff and get my 5:25 train to Venice. This time, the whole train situation went off without a hitch.

Overall, I was a bit let down by Florence. It often felt like walking through one big shopping mall, as it lacked the small, locally owned stores that fill most of Rome. It was good to see the architectural sites, and I am glad that I went, however, I could not see my self returning anytime soon. However, Venice was great, stay tuned until next time to read about it!