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 1: Warsaw, Poland)

Growing up, I had always dreamed of visiting Europe. Specifically in the late spring/early summer, probably the south of France, wind in my hair, having an enlightening moment while looking off into the sunset. So, when I booked my first trip to Europe for the end of November, I knew my initial vision of Europe was a bit off.
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The idea of spending over eight hours traveling to a destination for one week kind of blew my mind. I’m not the best with flights because I am unable to fall asleep on any moving vehicle without drugging myself; especially a plane seated next to some rando who is a bit pushy about the middle arm rest. Nonetheless, in order to get to Europe, I had to suck it up, buttercup and ZzzQuil it up.
I had decided to visit my dear friend, Margaux in Warsaw over the week of Thanksgiving.  I had decided that during the eleven day trip, three of those days would be spent in Prague, Czech Republic because Margaux would be working and I wanted to experience as much as possible.

THE ARRIVAL

When I got to Warsaw, I noticed the smog, fog, rain, and clouds. But, it felt very familiar. It was cold. The kind of cold that chills your bones. The kind of cold where your toes, fingers, and nose are completely numb to the touch. It didn’t matter. I was in Europe, solo, visiting a friend, traveling the world, and living out one of my dreams.
I became a complete tourist the second I got there. I hadn’t looked up how to say anything in Polish (or Czech for that matter), I had no idea where I was, I wasn’t sure what to start with, and once I saw the city, I wasn’t sure if there was enough for me to see in five days. Thank the stars for Margaux. She spoke an alarming amount of Polish, she took control of my schedule for the five days – even when she was at work, and I had plenty to see… I’m forever grateful.
Naturally, the first night we did was go out to a nightclub and celebrate my arrival. Clubs in Poland are different. There aren’t bars like in the states, so the nightclub is king. Very techno-y, very slicked back hair, button down shiny shirt, tight jeans-esq., if you’re picking up what I’m throwing down… not necessarily my scene but a ton of fun. We danced all night, then in true American fashion, housed some McDonald’s at 4am.
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THE HISTORY

In the midst of the hangovers and rush of excitement, I was able to experience so much of what Warsaw represents. Let me first say, the people are lovely (and extremely patient!). The architecture is straight out of a history book. The environment, despite the cold climate, is very warm and welcoming. I see why Margaux has chosen to live there.
Margaux made sure to bring me to Warsaw’s Old Town and The Warsaw Rising Museum.
Warsaw’s Old Town is absolutely adorable, but at the same time, scary with the history of what Warsaw has gone through since WWII. We walked around Old Town Market, but because of the weather, there weren’t many vendors up and running. We did see the Mermaid of Warsaw fountain in the middle of the square, which is when I started to realize that the mermaid was the coat of arms for Warsaw (to be honestly, it doesn’t make sense to me. Warsaw has a few rivers, but they aren’t on a large body of water. Poland, to the north lies against the Baltic Sea. MAYBE if it was the Polish Mermaid, I’d be on board. Who knows, I’m probably over thinking this). We also took a stop over to see the Presidential Palace which was probably the most well kept and pampered piece of property in Warsaw.
Then there was The Warsaw Rising Museum. Growing up in the United States, you obviously learn about WWII. But, what we don’t really learn is how it affected other countries and to what extent. We don’t realize that some countries, like Poland, were destroyed to a point where you wonder if it’s even worth rebuilding. What this museum shows is that it is worth rebuilding and fighting for your independence. The museum guides you through the stages of the Rising and holds Germany and their allies accountable for the damage that has been done to Poland. Still to this day, when you walk around Warsaw, on one side of the street, there are brand new buildings, across the way, it looks like a war took place – because it had. This place is a must see and a reality check on what actually happens in the world.
Another prevalent driver throughout Poland is religion. 87.2% of Polish people are Roman Catholic, and you can tell by the architecture and vast number of churches throughout the city (and I’m assuming country). Though I am not a religious person, you cannot help but admire these churches. I think the statues, paintings, and overall environment of these structures could convert some people to believers because it feels real for everyone who lives there. Religion runs the majority of their lives and a lot of their government. I had the pleasure of peeping into a few of the churches, and trust me when I tell you, you will see some of the most beautiful works of art hidden among the pews.

THE FOOD

When I say Margaux and I threw down in the restaurants, do not take this lightly.  I didn’t think it was possible to eat as many perogies as I had during that week. There are so many flavor options! Potato, cabbage, cheese, pork and cheese, potato and spinach, duck and cranberry, cheese and olives – I could go on for days. Basically take any two delicious items and shove it into a pasta shell and you can get it in Warsaw. You can imagine how happy I was with every meal. We also ate a good amount of Bigos and my new favorite, kopytka!
I did make one huge mistake with food in Poland. APPARENTLY, a coffee in Poland means an espresso. I ordered a large coffee, and after I drank half of it, I had realized what I had done. NO ONE WARNED ME (I don’t want to hear a word about how I should’ve researched more before going on this trip) and I was up for many many hours, I wouldn’t shut up – worse than usual – and I thought Margaux was going to murder me. We got through it, but mixing that at the wrong hour with jet lag – I will never make a mistake like that again.
I also found that for breakfast, the Polish eat what I consider a lunchtime sandwich. I didn’t hate it. There are bakeries everywhere and they put turkey or ham in the breakfast roll (without egg – maybe that’s why I found it to be odd). The breads were delicious. We also at one point grabbed some fresh made soy milk ice cream which was very delicious and COLD! Yes, we had ice cream in November in Poland – I have no idea what we were thinking other than the fact that every time we hang out, we must have ice cream!
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My favorite part of the trip was the day I got back from Prague: Thanksgiving. We went to an “Americans Living in Warsaw” dinner at a local hotel and it was exactly what I needed for my first Thanksgiving away from home. The people, all from different parts of the United States, had their own interesting stories of what brought them to Warsaw, and of course, what keeps them there. Some found love, mostly others found money, and a few found their dream. It was such an eye opening experience. To see so many different people have one place in common, and a thousand different stories that brought them there.
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The moral of the story, Warsaw is pretty amazing. I really want to go back, but most likely in the warmer months. If you’re looking for an affordable Eastern European trip, I highly recommend Warsaw. And it’s only an hour flight to Prague, Budapest, Vienna, and Berlin.
Plan your trip to take on Warsaw – you won’t regret it!