Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Leaving Italy

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan


Our final night in Florence was a hoot. We opted to go out for the pub crawl again since, hey, we had a blast the first time. It just got better! There were about 45 people out. Our crawl guide Matt made sure that I was around when they ordered hot wings at the Red Garter, since he knew how badly I've been craving them. Long story short, the night involved a TON of walking. I was prettymuch crippled by the next morning... My feet were seriously swollen to about double size, you couldn't make out any bones in them, and they were in excruciating pain...

The last few days in Milan with my friends were grand. We took it easy once we got there as we were all in various stages of being sick. One day we went out to see some Milan sights like the duomo (the second largest cathedral in the world, after St. Peters at the Vatican, and the largest gothic cathedral in the world), and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (a 19th century glass-domed mall). We had a great lunch at the Obika Mozzarella Bar on top of the Rinascente department store beside the duomo, and got to do a tasting of three different mozzarellas (the smoked one won). In the evenings we went out to the navigli (canals) district and had apertivo (where you pay about 10 euros and get a drink and all-you-can-eat hors d'oeuvres). Milan is weird in August... it really is like a post-apocalyptic ghost town... there are no people and everything is closed, but the navigli district was hopping at night and it was especially great for people watching. On our second night there, our new French aerospace engineering friends joined us and we walked the city til the early morn.

Yesterday we took the train from Milan to Rome. Stacey and Tamara went out for one last walk around Rome while I stayed in and attempted (unsuccessfully) to sleep off my sickness. We had dinner near Trastavere, ordered too much, gave our leftovers to a very grateful homeless man, and then called it an early night.

Today I flew back direct from Rome to Toronto. The plane was daycare central, but the screaming kids didn't bother me as much as my own congestion. Fortunately I had some good movies to distract me from my misery (I highly recommend Never Let Me Go, but don't watch it on a plane if you don't want strangers to see you crying...).

Now I am home. I'm so dazed that it hasn't totally hit me yet, but I know that I am absolutely 100% not ready to be back here. It's going to be so so hard adjusting back to "real life"... Although I am psyched to see all my friends and get incredible wings tomorrow! Wish me luck... (And thanks for reading my blog this summer!)

Pub crawl on our last night in Florence

Matt and I enjoying wings at the Red Garter

Wings! Yay!

Bomba... the grenade-shaped energy drink that makes your jaw ache and your teeth sting

Outside the Duomo in Milan

Navigli area of Milan
Back in Canada, reunited with my puppy who apparently isn't a puppy anymore...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friends in Italy... Part Three

Pizza from O'Vesuvio

Very tired. This will be brief.

PIzza the other night was awesome. Outdoor club was closed for the season, which was devastating, so we went to an indoor place called Space instead. Had lots of fun.... but not as much as we could have. One of my Pisa friends, Mike, came down to join us which was nice.

Yesterday we took the train to Siena and strolled around the beautiful city, making frequent stops in stores. I bought a fantastic sweater (see picture below. We had really good gourmet gelato from a place called Grom. We relaxed with a drink on the patio of the Irish pub, and all of a sudden I heard my name and turned around to see my friend and ex-student Stephanie. She's in Siena with the U of T study abroad program.

We got back to Florence, and Stacey opted to stay in for the night to get some much-needed rest. I thumb my nose at sleep. Tamara and I went out. We joined a pub crawl because one of the crawl guides, Matt, had given us a flyer the day before and we figured it sounded actually pretty good. For 18 euros we got an hour of open bar, a free shot at 4 bars afterwards, and entrance to Space. We had an absolute blast and met some cool people, including a group of aerospace engineering students from France. One of them is from Avignon. We had a long conversation about the bridge. Apparently it's underwhelming and in need of repair.

Things got dramatic when one of the French guys found out that a friend from home had committed suicide. There was lots of crying and consoling. We felt terrible for him, but I also felt bad for Matt as it was his first time being in charge of the crawl on his own, and this was quite a disastrous thing to have to deal with. I helped convince the french guys that their friend needed to go home and sleep. Once that downer was rectified, the night continued and we had an awesome time. Also, I've mentioned how I have run into my Turkish friend, Emre, on two separate occasions in Florence. Guess who tapped me on the shoulder last night...

Today the girls and I had a hardcore shopping day. It was successful. Got a gorgeous studded tuscan buffalo-leather collar for my dog, an awesome multi-functional schoolbag/laptop-tote for myself, and some cool clothes too. The second suitcase I bought the other day is pretty full...

Need 20 minute nap before we head out now for another night on the town. Tomorrow we catch the train at 8:30am for Milan (we couldn't go to Venice for the day as planned since the trains were sold out. It's probably for the best...).


Stacey's karaoke skills on the bottom floor of Space (they keep the microphones turned off... a genius idea)

In the Campo of Siena

Pub Crawlin' with our new French friends

My turkish friend who pops up everywhere

My new bag, can also be made into a briefcase, messenger and a backpack

My new bag, can also be made into a tote, messenger and a backpack

New sweater from Siena

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Friends in Italy... Part Two

We're having the best time ever!!!

Yesterday we met up with Heather and Jenelle in Florence and went out first to Santa Maria Novella church (Stacey, Tamara and I waited outside since we weren't dressed appropriately). Then we grabbed a yummy little sandwich downtown and did some more sightseeing. We ended our afternoon with some wine drinking on a patio at Piazza Santo Spirito and then we grabbed a cab up to San Miniato al Monte, an 11th century basilica up on the hill overlooking Florence. We got there as the monks were chanting, which was a really beautiful experience. I have some video, but the internet here is terrible and it would take too long to post.

Afterwards we grabbed dinner at my favourite restaurant Za Za and stuffed ourselves silly, and then headed to the fortezza to browse the stalls and enjoy some delicious shisha. A fairly tame night...

This morning we woke up for the FANTASTIC breakfast at our hotel (best scrambled eggs and hot chocolate I've ever had), and then headed off for our adventurous day of horseback riding and wine tasting in the Chianti region. The tour company picked us up at the train station in Florence, and then drove us out to the countryside, making two stops for scenic picture-taking. We arrived at the ranch and got suited up. The horses were all really sweet. Mine was named Acadia. Tamara's was named Bruta (not to be confused with the Italian word "Brutta" which means ugly). The ride was gorgeous (we've been having perfect weather by the way) but now we all have very sore bums. After the ride, we were given some white wine, and then driven out to a nearby hilltop village where we got a great lunch at a tuscan restaurant.... we had crostini, cheese, prosciutto, mini gnocchi with meat ragu, and spaghetti with tomato sauce. Dessert was panna cotta (meh) with chocolate sauce (incredible). We also had more wine, and then went to a wine shop across the square for more tastings. After all of that, our fabulous guide drove us back to Florence. I was talking to a few of the guides and half-jokingly asked if there would be a chance I could get a job with them in a year's time when I'm done school. They said absolutely, and they'd be happy to help me.

Now we're getting ready for pizza and a night at my favourite outdoor club. Enjoy the pictures below!

Stacey, Jenelle, Heather and Tamara in front of the Duomo

Heather, Stacey and I in front of San Minato al Monte

Grabbing a drink while waiting for our table at Za Za

Stacey and I at the fortezza

Piazzale Michelangelo before horseback riding

Stacey on her horse

Me and Acadia

Horseback riding

Lunch after horseback riding

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Friends in Italy... Part One


So my two friends arrived this weekend... Tamara on Saturday from Toronto, and Stacey on Sunday from Miami... and we're having a blast! It's one thing to be in Italy enjoying myself and meeting new people, but its something else entirely getting to share it with people from home...

On Saturday night after Tamara arrived at the Rome airport, we had dinner and drinks near the pantheon. It was "happy hour", which meant that cocktails went from being "ridiculously expensive" to "moderately expensive". Later on that night, we attempted to find one of Rome's infamous Pub Crawls. Wandering aimlessly around the city center, a girl suddenly came up to us and said "you look like you're looking for the pub crawl!". Wild... so we joined the group of Brits and Canadians (a bunch from Brampton... small world!) and had a great time.

I went to the airport early the next morning to meet Stacey who is in Europe for the first time ever! I'm honored to be her first-time tour guide. Once we got back and checked into our hotel with Tamara, we went out for a rigorous day of Roman sight-seeing, including the colosseum, the pantheon, the trevi fountain, and the spanish steps. By evening we were aching and exhausted, and quite happy to go to dinner at the restaurant I'd read good reviews of and made reservations at. The restaurant was called the Taverna dei Fori Imperiali. It ended up being fantastic (Stacey's gnocchi with black truffle and veal ragu being the hit of the night) and the restaurant had pictures on the walls of celebrities who had eaten there, like Al Pacino and Woody Allen. After dinner we stopped by a great wine shop near the Trevi Fountain, where the friendly staff forced samples on us... truffle spread, cheese, olive oil, liqueurs, wine... we ended up buying a bottle of white to enjoy by the Trevi Fountain.

Yesterday morning We caught the train from Rome to Florence, and then tried to find our hotel. I get a little disoriented in the area north of the station, so I had to stop and ask to make sure we were headed in the right direction. I stopped at one little shop where the man responded to my question "which way is Via Guido Monaco?" (asked politely in Italian) with an abrupt "beh?" multiple times. I finally gave up with him and ran to a hotel nearby to ask, while Stacey and Tamara waiting by the abrupt man's shop. Apparently he came outside to tell them that he wouldn't help me because I "wasn't nice". I didn't realize my direction requests were rude...

We found the hotel, and it's really fantastic, especially considering the great price we got our room for. Once we settled in, we set out for some lunch. I planned on taking the girls to the truffled sandwich place I discovered last month, only to discover that it's CLOSED for the holidays! It closed three days ago! Devastating. So we ended up grabbing a bite on the scenic rooftop terrace of the Rinascente. Then we wandered around, through the leather market by the Porcellino, where Stacey bought a fabulous leather bag. I'm tempted to get my own, in a different colour... it's about time I had a grown-up bag to carry my laptop and stuff in. I have a few days to mull it over though. Then we wandered over ponte vecchio, and then headed to Vivoli, my gelato place, which was... CLOSED FOR HOLIDAYS AS OF YESTERDAY! COULD MY LIFE GET ANY WORSE? Ok I'm being dramatic. But still. So upsetting. I feel like I let the girls down. Today I'm going to find another good gelato place that I went to before...

Then we made our way back to the hotel, via the station where we did a bit of shopping. Stopped by the Conad supermarket and picked up some 1 euro cartons of wine. For dinner we went to a restaurant on the other side of the Arno that I'd read good reviews of, called Quattro Leoni. Despite cranky service (they wouldn't bring us olive oil for our bread if we didn't pay, and they brought Stacey's main at the same time as our appetizers) the food was really good! Tamara and Stacey were big fans of my pappa al pomodoro (traditional Tuscan tomato and bread stew). After dinner, we stopped by a trendy-looking little gelateria nearby where Stacey had great mint gelato made with fresh mint. Then we took our cartons of 1 euro wine to the bridge and enjoyed the view and the company for a few hours.

Today at noon, an old friend from elementary/highschool, Heather, and her friend from university, Jenelle, arrive in Florence as a part of their current eurotrip. Should be fun!


Extraordinary repairs...?

View from Piazza Venezia

Enjoying some evening wine by the Trevi Fountain

Scary doll!

One-euro wine in Florence

Sten, a well-known Roman graffiti artist

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ustica and Scuba Diving

Super proud of myself for wriggling into that wetsuit

Yet another exhausting day here in Sicily! I must be crazy for planning such a busy vacation for myself!

I woke up at the crack of dawn (6:30), got dressed, wolfed down breakfast, and then went down to the harbour to buy a ticket for the hydrofoil to Ustica Island (about a 90 minute journey). I got my ticket and set out to where the boats were, but I wasn't sure exactly where to go so I asked two old men that were walking the same direction. They said they were headed to the same boat, so just follow them (how convenient). We got to talking, and it turned out they were filmmakers doing a documentary on Ustica Island, and they've made documentaries on a number of other islands in the area. Upon talking further, I found out that one of them is also an author, and he gave me a copy of his book that he had on him! The title is Quando Parlano le Nuvole (When the Clouds Speak). I read the back and the first few pages. It seems like a very nice book contemplating the serenity of life... A lovely souvenir.

[Side note: The other day when I was at the Contemporary Art Museum with Carolina and Giulia, we went into the giftshop/bookshop afterwards. I said to Carolina "I can't allow myself to buy any books! There's just no space in my suitcase!" and no sooner were the words out of my mouth, than my eyes swept across a fantastic book about Italian street art I had never seen before. I'm fairly confident that I own most of the books that exist about graffiti and street art, so seeing something brand new was thrilling, and of course, I had to have it. It's called Street Art Diary by Marta Gargiulo. Between that and the book I received from Massimo Romano this morning, my packing situation just got a whole lot worse. At least they aren't too big...]

Anyways, the ride to Ustica was uneventful. When we arrived, I found the stairs up to the town (there is only one... population of about 1300 people. 90% of the island's inhabitants live in the town). The town is adorable, with one big main square with shops and restaurants and a church (of course) and then tons of little side streets. These side streets are an absolute joy to wander, because most of the buildings have beautiful murals painted on the sides! It's really fantastic. I've included a bunch of pictures of these murals below (and this is just a small sampling of the murals that exist in this tiny town).

I also wandered a little bit out of the town to an adjacent peak of the volcanic island and got some more nice pictures.

Already tired by noon, I went back into town for lunch. I had asked several locals where the best restaurant is for lunch. They all pointed me to the same place. It's an absolute shame I don't like seafood, because I'm pretty sure it would have blown my mind here. But alas... To start I had a sheep's milk cheese lightly breaded and fried. It was ok, but a bit too rubbery. My main course was very good. I had Spaghetti with Ustica-style pesto (olive oil, basil, garlic, tomato, and almonds). It had a wonderful fresh tomato taste, but with none of the goopy fresh tomato chunks I despise. Very nice.

I took a long time at lunch because I was reading my book (and because apparently it's standard procedure in Sicily to wait at least an hour for your bill after finishing your meal...) so when I was done, I headed back down to the harbour for my scuba diving adventure. I was both excited and nervous... I've only scuba dived once or twice before, about 6 years ago in Samoa. Plus there was the added worry of the language barrier which could create problems with the exchange of such important information as how to breathe underwater.

It all went fantastically though. My scuba instructor was Jean-Claude, a swiss man. Between the two of us and our knowledge of english, french, and italian, we communicated just fine. Also on the boat were about 8 other experienced divers who were doing their own dives. Once we reached the dive site, the other divers took off, and Jean-Claude and I began our lesson (beginning with the tedious process of me wriggling into a wetsuit, very heavy weight belt, and even more heavy heavy heavy equipment. We quickly got in the water and got underwater. Besides the pressure in my head (to be expected) and a killer foot cramp, everything went smoothly. It was so beautiful, and it was great to remember how much I love scuba diving... it's so serene and quiet under the water. We saw tons of fish. Big fish. Small fish. Jellyfish. I wished I had been more successful beforehand in finding an underwater case for my camera. Oh well... Next time...

After everyone finished diving, we enjoyed beers on the roof of the boat, and then headed back to harbour where I promptly caught the last hydrofoil returning to Palermo.

After showering off all the salt water, it was after 9pm, and I hadn't eaten dinner. I decided I'd just have a gelato dinner. I went to the shop nearby and asked for the fantastic biscottino (cookies and cream) gelato I had the other night. To my dismay, there wasn't a single molecule of cookie in it. I teetered on a fine line between rage and devastation, and then figured that was probably a valid sign that I'm legitimately exhausted. So after this post is done I am off to sleep. Tomorrow I get to sleep in and check out of my hotel at noon. Then I'll have a leisurely lunch, after which I have scheduled a much-needed pedicure (my feet are downright scary right now... occupational hazard). Then at 6:30 I hop on another 13 hour night train back to Rome where I will be greeting two of my good friends who arrive this weekend, Stacey and Tamara... Keep checking in for tales of our travels in Rome, Florence, Siena, Venice, and Milan!





I just loved this dilapidated wall








Main square of Ustica Town

View of Ustica Town from a peak I walked to on the island

Church of Ustica Town

The harbour


Cool rock formation I saw from the diving boat on the way to the dive site 
All ready to dive!