Wanderlust 2017: Tuscan Leather Smelling Like a Brick

Yes, once again, more Drake lyrics. I can’t be tamed…

After leaving Rome, I was ready for a smaller city, and Florence, Italy was the perfect solution. We had three days slated to be in Florence and I was going to take full advantage of this city. I had heard a lot about Florence because a lot of people I studied with at Marist College spent a semester abroad there, but I had no idea it would a place where I wish I had done the same.

THE CITY

Busy, busy, busy, but beautiful. When I say busy, I in no way am comparing it to Rome. It felt busy because there was always something going on. There were always people looking around at the beautiful architecture, statues, painting, small streets, and shops. The city buzzed at all hours.

And it was hot. Luckily, there are enough shaded areas, but when in the direct sunlight, you start to feel the burn.

My favorite part of the city was definitely Piazza della Signoria. There, you can find the Loggia dei Lanzi where a replica of Michaelangelo’s David, a statue of Perseus and the Head of Medusa, and many other mythical and historical figures are displayed. When you walk down the Uffizi Gallery towards the river, there are statues of the most important philosophical, mathematical, social, and governmental figures to have made an impact on Italy.

And the river! Oh my. Talk about a beautiful view. We walked over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, which was the only bridge to not be destroyed during World War II. When you look down upon the Arno River and the quay, you see a couple restaurants that have been built in to the hills along the river, with outdoor areas where people were enjoying life.

This city is where you start to see the true relaxed European culture that’s mentioned when people return from a trip abroad. It’s quite inspiring, if I do say so. We as American are constantly on the go, driven by money and status, and we so often forget that life is so much more than climbing the financial ladder. This is definitely one of my favorite parts of this trip – people don’t take themselves too seriously (for the most part).

THE FOOD

As previously mentioned in my post about Rome, I went hard in the paint eating pasta, pasta, pasta! I tried a carbonara that was perfectly al dente and out of this world – I’m day dreaming about it now.

My favorite place to get my grub on was the Mercato Centrale food and goods market. On my “Treat Yo’ Self” night, I enjoyed a nice glass of wine, a big ole steak, and a tiramisu that was out of this world. I’m a huge Delmonico’s tiramisu fan and it put it to shame (so much so that I texted my mother about how we had been living a lie).

Finally, the pizza was delicious. Their personal pizzas were basically the size of the average eight-cut from the US, sans NYC. I tried a few different kinds, but mainly with proscuitto as a topper. Cured meat is EVERYWHERE in Italy, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

THE HOSTEL

We stayed at the Plus Florence CB Hostel. The place had a pool, bar, rooftop, restaurant, laundry, and good sized rooms. Since the inception of our trip, this was the best place we had stayed. This place was so great that I plan on using Plus hostels on my future European Adventures.

After three days in Florence, I was sad to leave, but also extremely excited to continue our trek to Northern Italy. If you have a chance to see Florence, go for it; splurge! The city is wonderful and you’ll love the culture. Caio!

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Wanderlust 2017: Make Me a Hercules

A decision I made once I decided I was going to quit my job, move, and go back to school was before I became a broke college “kid” again, I was going to go on an adventure. Originally, I wanted to drive around North America and potentially parts of South America for a few months to a year, depending on how the trip went. Then, while visiting my dear friend Riley up near Boston in February, an ad popped up on her Facebook for the EF College Break travel agency. She sent me the link and we joked about me going on an “Ultimate Europe” trip which spanned the course of 35 days with group of random people ranging from 18-28 years old. Two days later, I put a deposit on the trip and never looked back. Four months later, I took a flight to Athens from New York City.

THE ARRIVAL

The flight takes about nine hours. November 2016, when I flew to Warsaw, I had a layover in Zurich, which broke up the eight hour flight into a five and a half hour flight, then a two and a half hour flight. My flight to Athens was an over night direct service on Delta with solid meal choices, as comfortable of seats as possible for coach, and a decent amount of leg room (keep in mind, I’m 5’10” and leg room can get tight on flights).

As we landed in Athens, I met up with the group of people with whom I would be spending the entire trip. Everyone was exhausted, I was in a very weird mood, and the combination can be hard meeting 29 other people for the first time. I think the only thing that saved us from grumpiness was the fact that we were in Greece.

THE SITES AND HISTORY

As you know (hopefully), Greece is rich with history that is still apart of every day life in Athens. The city is relatively touristy, but it’s to be expected when you have structures such as the Parthenon, Acropolis, Olympic Stadium, as well as dozens of other historical locations.

The first day, we did a walking tour of the main areas in Athens where you could buy knick knacks and food. The area was swarming with street vendors chasing you around to buy bracelets and other useless goods. The first thing Mayra, our tour director warned us of was the fact that you could easily be pick pocketed if you’re not careful. I think this instilled a lot of fear into the others who are on vacation with me, but living in NYC for six and a half years, you tend to be a little more comfortable in busy areas and don’t necessarily dwell on the idea of being robbed. However, safety is important and gypsies are everywhere.

On day two, we woke up bright and early and headed straight for the Acropolis. When I say this was one of the most amazing things I have seen, I’m not exaggerating. From the Acropolis, you can see the Parthenon, Dionysus Theater, Athena’s Structure, and a breathtaking view of Greece — from the Mediterranean to the mountains.

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We also went to the Acropolis Museum, where hundreds of historical artifacts and works of art can be found that date back to the inception of the founding of Greece. Some of the made-up names of the structures did crack me up. When you have a head of an artifact and one small piece of their body, how can you possible name it “Young Warrior Who Rode a Horse”? WHERE IS THE HORSE? HE’S NOT EVEN PRESENT! As you can imagine, I found the need to read the name out loud of most structures to simply entertain myself. Soon enough, the couple of people I had visited the museum with was soon questioning the names of each statue. Needless to day, it was a great bonding experience.

After the Acropolis, Parthenon, and Acropolis Museum, we decided to go for a stroll through a beautiful park to see the Panathenaic Stadium. This is where the first ever Olympics were held in 776 BC. The structure is massive and extremely fun to look at. You start to imagine olympians running in their full armour, barefoot running laps around the stadium and competing to be the first ever Olympian.

At the end of day two, we all took a hike up a hill to watch the sunset over Athens. Talk about a perfect ending to a perfect day. Nay, talk about the perfecting ending to our last full day in Athens.

The next day, we took a ferry to Paros to continue “Greeking out”.

THE FOOD

The first night, we had an orientation dinner at a gorgeous restaurant overseeing the Parthenon. I cannot exaggerate how important it is to have at least one nice meal when in Athens. Greek food is one of my favorite cuisines — I’m pretty sure it’s what kept in in Astoria, Queens for the five and a half years I lived there. Feta, tomatoes, olives, kebab, gyro, tzatziki, octopus, and the list goes on. Everything was fresh. Everything was cooked to perfection. Everything made me extremely happy. And the food I’m talking about wasn’t only at the nice restaurants, it was also in the small little hole in the walls you find on the side streets, the more generic locations, and the bakeries!

Speaking of the bakeries, if you have a chance to get a ham and cheese pastry for breakfast, do it. It’s very European, it’s very messy, but at the same time, very satisfying.

The final thing I will say that I loved about Athens is that the wine is always flowing. There is a different perspective on life there. You work and you work hard, but you also enjoy life. You don’t spend a ton of money on your home or material possessions. You spend money on food and drink that brings people together. Everywhere, people are happy, deep in conversation, sipping wine, indulging in their meal, and happy. Coming from NYC you very rarely see this type of relaxed lifestyle and happiness.

I was so happy with the food that I texted my mother and told her I was no longer on a traveling adventure to see new things, but I was simply on a food tour. She found it to be hilarious, but I wasn’t kidding at all.

THE DEPARTURE

We ended up extending our trip in Paros, which got us back to Athens very late the night before our flight from Athens to Rome. It was very sad. I felt at home in Greece — I really do think has a lot to do with my tenure in Astoria. I know Athens is a place I will be visiting again. I will probably spend more time in the islands or out in the country side, but a stop in the busy city of Athens is a must!

My First Euro Trip (Part 2: Prague, Czech Republic)

Sitting on my flight to Athens, I can’t help but feel as if I need to close out my last European trip before I start the next one. As I mentioned in my last post, in addition to going to Warsaw over Thanksgiving, I also did a quick two-day stop in Prague. My favorite part about this trip is that I truly did this independently – from the booking everything and seeking out information, to traveling solo – and it’s a trip not only will I always remember, but one where I grew a lot as a person.

To set the scene, I decided to take a painfully early flight from Warsaw Chopin Airport to Václav Havel Airport Prague. You may be asking me what made me choose Prague? Well, honestly, I was looking for a cheap flight and city where I could see beautiful architecture, greenery, and eat great food – I’m relatively easy to please and Prague seemed right up my alley.

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THE HOSTEL

Upon arriving in Prague, I immediately checked into my hostel, Sir Toby’s in Praha 7. I didn’t spend much time here, but the time I spent was very pleasant. The staff were extremely helpful and gave me some “inside” advice on seeing some sites that tend to be off the beaten path.

The hostel had a bar area that was more than welcoming. Everyone spending time there were sociable, but not overbearing or overwhelming. The server was a lot of fun to talk to because she had a ton of stories about her travels and moving around Europe. I think talking to someone like that can be an eye opener that we are not meant to stay in once place our whole lives.

THE CITY

After checking into the hostel, I took the trolley to walk through New Town to see what lay on the outskirts of the famous Old Town. As you walk into the area, you notice that the architecture is gorgeous; colorful with incredible designs. The trees grow in all shapes and sizes, yet they fit into area’s uniqueness.

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When you walk up to the city circle, the Astronomical Clock draws your immediate attention. The gold clock on the immaculate structure is intimidating; to see to the top, you have to look up so high, you feel as if you’re looking at a New York City skyscraper.

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Once you get over how gorgeous the clock tower is, you start to notice the other architecture around you. You notice that every store and restaurant front is different. You notice that you are somehow in this maze.

Upon realizing there is much more than the circle, you start to follow the maze. Now, we’re not talking a corn maze, but simply size streets with back roads with more side streets and structures that are built to lead you to other parts of the city. It’s quite beautiful. You feel lost, but safe at the same time.

THE FOOD AND BOOZE

It’s pretty safe to say, I ate my fair share of food in Prague. I, of course, had to go for the schnitzel on a couple occasions because, well, when in Rome (or Prague). I also enjoyed some borscht. Like I said, when in Rome.

But, my favorite “discovery” was mulled wine. For those of you who do not know what this it (I had never tried or really heard of it), mulled wine is warm wine with cinnamon, anise, and orange peel. You can sweeten it like coffee or tea with sugar, if you like – I prefer it with one brown sugar packet. This discover lead to quite the hangover, but it was worth it.

There are also a ton of great home brews in Prague, which end up being around $1.34 per pint. Please don’t ask me which ones I tried, I tried as many as I could to ensure I experienced “all” that Prague had to offer.

THE CHARLES BRIDGE

My favorite part of the trip, hands down, was waking up extremely (unnecessarily?) early and walking across the Charles Bridge. As you walk across, there are statues of biblical figures and tales; including all the saints and Jesus Christ. I easily took over one hundred pictures on this bridge, because not only is the architecture amazing, but it overlooks the Vltava River and the towns that exist up and down the river. These towns have houses and buildings in pastel colors that are extremely vibrant, even on the gloomiest of days. This is where I fell in love with Prague.

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Finally, when you get to the Praha 1 side of the bridge, there are picturesque locks with notes carved or painted on them attached to the fence. I couldn’t help but walk along and read as many of the locks as my attention span could hold – for the record, I lasted way longer reading through the locks than I thought I would because they were all so interesting and uniquely beautiful.

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THE ST. VITUS CATHEDRAL

I took 30 minutes to venture into the St. Vitus Cathedral, and it was worth every penny. According to the pamphlet, St. Vitus Cathedral is the most important and largest temple in Prague because coronation of the King and Queen occur there. The Cathedral is also the burial location of several patron saints, sovereigns, noblemen, and archbishops.

Let me start out by saying that I am not religious, in fact, I don’t believe in religion, but this Gothic cathedral could make you believe. There were so many amazing paintings, statues, and carvings that felt so real. You could feel the presence of every story being told in each art instillation, almost as if each structure were alive.

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THE CEMETERIES

One of the recommendations that the hostel host suggested for a quiet long stroll was the Vysehrad Cemetery in Praha 2. It was a very cool and gloomy day, but once again, that didn’t take away from the beauty you find in Prague. The cemetery was more of a garden with headstones and shrines to certain families. All I could think of while there was that this must be a part of The Secret Garden’s movie set. I also thought how cool it would be to be buried in such an impressive place.

The nice thing about the cemetery is that it was surrounded by more gardens inside a park, so I took a nice hike along the Vltava River.

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THE AMERICANS IN PRAGUE

On my last night, I met an American at The Fat Cat bar in Praha 1. We decided to keep hanging out and we went on a bar crawl (pretty sure it was the first bar crawl I had attended since college), where there were a ton other Americans, as well as Australians. I never expected to meet anyone in Prague, and even less likely would I think that it would be an American. After doing some research, I found that a lot of college students study abroad in Prague for its rich history and the inexpensive cost it takes to live there, compared to the United States. I would recommend anyone looking for an “off the beaten path” country in which to study abroad, I would highly recommend Prague.

Additionally, almost everyone I met/approached/spoke to in Prague spoke English. There was one woman who was walking her dog at the ass crack of dawn, who I approached asking for directions to the trolley. She was the ONLY person who didn’t speak English. Let me be clear about something – I did not expect anyone to speak English; I thought I would have to use Google Translate to communicate the entire time. But, it was so comforting to know that there were people who could understand me if I needed help.

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THE DEPARTURE

I can honestly say, I’ve never taken a flight as hungover as I was when I left Prague to head back to Warsaw. I was completely in love with the city. I couldn’t wait to go back. The image of the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge while staring at the amazing architecture will never leave my memory.

For me, one of the best parts about my second European Adventure, which I just embarked on, is that I will be going back to Prague. I love the idea that I will already have a little piece of this city with me. I love that, for the first time, I will not be completely lost in Europe.

Until the middle of the month, when I can see you again, here’s to you, Prague, thank you for the amazing memories.

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