Under the Tuscan sun

3/31/12

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”

— Giuseppe Verdi 

Studying in Italy makes it so easy to travel throughout Europe. Going from country to country in Europe is like going from state to state in the U.S. With all of the international traveling I’ve been doing — from Switzerland to Poland to Greece — I sometimes forget about all the beauty I have yet to see here in my “home” country, and that just because I know Florence doesn’t mean I know Italy.

Some friends and I decided to spend the Saturday after spring break getting to know our home region — Tuscany.

We booked a day of horseback riding and wine tasting through a company called Fun in Tuscany. The package included an authentic, Tuscan lunch and transportation through the countryside. Simply riding around in that van was one of the best parts of my day.

We met our guides near the train station early in the morning, and drove about 30 minutes to the Chianti region. Chianti is in the heart of Tuscany, where some of Italy’s most famous wines are produced. There, we spent about two hours on horseback, riding through vineyards, woods and olive groves.

My horse’s name was Bruth (pretty, I know), and I was pretty nervous to get on her back. I knew that I’d ridden a horse before, but I couldn’t remember when, and it very well could have been 10 years ago. I’d ridden a donkey just a week ago in Greece, but a man was guiding the donkey with a rope. This time, I had total control.

One guide on horseback led a caravan of about 15 of us; the other guides helped us gear up and waited back at the horse farm. They taught us some moves to guide the horses, and just before they sent us on our merry way, one of the guys told me Bruth is the youngest and doesn’t always like to listen. As if I wasn’t nervous enough!

Bruth gave me some trouble, but nothing that was too much to handle. The worst part of the ride was the anticipation that she might run off. The rest was pretty perfect.

Next, we went to the 13th century castle of Monteriggioni for some Tuscan wine tasting. We tried about six different bottles of wine, each of which were different flavors, qualities, etc. Everyone seemed to think each flavor was incredibly unique and exquisite, but I didn’t notice much difference. I guess I need to start drinking more expensive wines…

One of our guides and his son

Inside the walls of Monteriggioni

After a few glasses, we were all ready for lunch. I don’t know the name of the place, and I didn’t take any pictures of the food, but it was the BEST meal I’ve had in Italy. Even the bread was amazing. While we ate, our guides (three men) told us (a table of 15 girls) jokes about stereotypical men in America, Italy and throughout Europe. Most of the jokes aren’t blog-appropriate, but I was in tears I was laughing so hard. The Tuscan countryside was amazing — as were the horses, wine and food — but the people and the laughter were what really made that day so memorable.

View from the restaurant

It was Michelle’s birthday, so they surprised her with a cake.

After lunch, we had some time to play around the area. I jumped on a trampoline (with Kate and Michelle) for the first time in probably 10 years. Then, we hopped in the van to head back to Florence.

It sounds silly, but that van ride was one of the highlights of the day. Our guide was blasting American hip hop music and flying down and around the country roads — brake checking and swerving to “make us dance,” and racing the guides in the second van. I was laughing and dancing on the outside, but I was also having a quiet moment on the inside — taking in the magnificent landscape.

This photo doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.

As we neared the train station, our guide pointed to a fair that his son always begs to visit. “You girls want to go?” he asked, jokingly.

“Yeah!” we all chimed.

“Really? Okay!”

He turned around, pulled into the lot, and we topped off an already amazing day with an impromptu trip to the fair. Our guide even paid for us to play some games.

Italian rides are much more reckless (but way more fun) than American rides. On this spinning ride, partners would hold on to each other’s seats and kick them up to try to grab this flag (above). Whoever pulls down the flag first wins a prize.

Our guide and Michelle

I never know how to end these posts… I think this photo from the van does the trick:

My big fat Greek vacation, part II

Wait, first read part one!

Monday, March 19: Welcome to paradise

After a rough departure from Athens, I was worried that events from the past 12 hours would taint my time in Santorini — the one place I’d wanted to see more than anywhere else. In the metro, airport and shuttle bus to the plane I was trying so hard to think myself into a better mood — and getting so frustrated that it wasn’t working. Then, I stepped off the bus and saw our plane.

It was a little, white ATR-42 (seats 42 people) with big, blue propellors in front of the wings. The moment I saw it, every ounce of bad in my system was replaced with excitement. I LOVE flying — especially take-off and landing — and I take a little bit of sadistic pleasure in messing with those who don’t. For instance, our flight was only 20 minutes, so the plane stayed very low in the sky and looked like it might dip or land in the water. I may have pointed this out several times to Lydia, who gets nervous flying. Oh well, she survived. Caitlin, on the other hand, was so nervous she started crying when we landed. (So of course on our three flights home to Florence, we all teased Caitlin each time we landed. Unfortunately, the next time we tease her, we’ll be heading to the States…)

Though brief, the flight was amazing. The water was so clear you could see the currents and all the plants beneath the surface. The flight attendants even managed to serve us snacks, candy and two rounds of drinks.

After we landed (along the beach!) and claimed our bags, an old man named Vangelis — the Mr. of the couple who owns our hostel — picked us up and drove us to our home for the next five days. For €8 per night, the hostel and the view were BEAUTIFUL.

“Wait. Is this where we’re staying?” I asked the group when Vangelis pulled into the parking lot. (I hadn’t been very involved in planning the trip; I just hopped on board.)

“Yeah!” A few girls chimed.

“Wait. REALLY?!” I honestly couldn’t believe it. Looking around, I felt like I should be on my honeymoon. But it was even better than a honeymoon because I was with my best friends.

Villa Manos, our hostel

View from our room

Vangelis led us to the main lobby where we were greeted by his wife, Poppy, who is probably the sweetest, most angelic woman I’ve ever met. She seemed thrilled to have a group of six girls, and showed us to our room. Almost immediately upon seeing the view, we dropped our bags, hopped in our bikinis and sat by the pool.

Later that evening, we explored Fira — the big town (relatively speaking) in the center of the island, just north of our hostel. We stocked up on groceries, enjoyed a feast of tuna sandwiches and Twixes and hit the hay early.

Tuesday, March 20: Black sand beach, deserted streets and a home-cooked meal

Early Tuesday morning, we caught the bus to the black sand beach of Kamari, about a few miles south east of our hostel. The bus man who collected money was very rude and we were very flustered (typical tourists), but luckily we got on and off at the right places.

It was a bit more like a black rock beach, but pretty nonetheless!

Kate and I

After spending a lazy afternoon in the sun (and getting completely fried), we decided to search for some lunch. It took some wandering, but we finally found an open restaurant — though empty except for us — and ordered a bunch of cheap, delicious gyros. Then, we headed back to the beach.

The streets were totally deserted. A local at the bus stop later explained that — despite the beautiful weather — it was still the island’s winter season, and tourists don’t typically arrive until mid May.

Made this masterpiece on the beach 🙂

As the sun began to set, I realized our friend at the bus stop was right about winter season after all. As soon as that sun faded, it was freezing. We decided to wait 30 minutes for the next bus rather than walk, and I wrapped my scarf around my legs and wore Lydia’s big army jacket to stay warm. Just as I was joking about looking like a bum, this ratty, smelly, but adorable dog strolled up to me on the curb. He was so dirty but so sweet, and I was the only one who would love him. We made a cute, bum pair.

After taking the right bus but missing the right stop, walking home and barely making it inside our room long enough to warm up, Poppy invited us to the main lobby. As soon as she saw us, she said she “had an offer for us.” We were a little confused by her wording, but we did as she wished. Turned out, her offer was a home-cooked dinner! She made us four dishes of beans and pasta with meat and cheese sauce. It was so yummy, free and thoughtful.

There wasn’t any night life within walking distance, so we had another early night in. Kate and I were the only ones who didn’t bring our laptops, so while everyone Facebooked and blogged, we cuddled, pigged-out on more Twixes and watched the thriller/ horror movie Hannibal on her iPod (because it takes place in our home — Florence!).

Wednesday, March 21: Four-wheeling, off-roading and cliff climbing

Monday and Tuesday were pretty lazy days. Come Wednesday, I was ready to kick it up.

Unfortunately, so was the wind.

Some of the girls staying above us had draped their damp clothes over their balcony to dry, and as Kate and I were sitting poolside waiting for our roommates to get ready, the wind sent bikinis and underwear flying across the parking lot and into the street. We planned to rent Vespas and ATVs for the day, which would double the wind, so we geared up in our jeans and leather jackets. Plus, we wanted to look as bad-ass as possible cruising around the island.

Poppy called the ATV guy, who picked us up at our hostel and drove us to his shop. I wanted a four-wheeler because I was afraid I’d crash a Vespa, and we later learned motorbikes require their own licenses, anyways. We ended up renting three ATVs between the six of us, for two days. Kate and I shared the red one (and the fastest one!), and I let her drive first because I’d never even driven a golf cart. After we signed some papers, ATV guy slapped helmets on our heads, pointed us to the gas station and sent us on our merry way.

After filling our tanks (gas is just as expensive overseas), our first stop was back to Kamari and the black sand beach. A Greek woman Bethany met on the plane told her about a nearby chocolate shop that sells chocolates filled with the famous Vinsanto Santorini sweet wine. When we hit the area and realized we didn’t know the name of the shop or have any way of finding it, we turned around and headed to Pyrgos, a tiny town in the middle-south region of the island.

The road to Pyrgos was stunning. The entire island used to be part of a volcano, so it’s largely hilly and rocky, and Pyrgos sits on top of one of the hills. For the first time in my life, I totally understood why people want and love motorcycles. As we sped up the hill, twisting round and round the winding road, the wind was rushing on my face and through my hair, and I felt so free. It sounds cliché, but the feeling of flying through the open air is so liberating. Kate was still driving, so I could turn in my seat, try to snap photos and gaze across the island below.

In Pyrgos, where the hill began to plateau, we happened upon a restaurant called Mythos. It was the only open restaurant around, and it turned out to be another one of the places the woman from the plane had recommended.

She recommended it for the traditional Greek tomato balls:

I didn’t care for the balls, but I enjoyed yet another chicken gyro (I was on a budget). I also tried fried feta cheese (yummy), a Kalamata olive (disgusting) and Turkish delight — these weird, gelatin-like cubes topped with cinnamon (not delicious, but not terrible).

Everywhere we went, gyros were so big, delicious and CHEAP! I never paid more than €2.20, and I pay about €6 for a cheap meal in Florence. Also, attention American readers: it’s pronounced yur-oh, not jahy-roh. The mispronunciations throughout the week were a pet peeve of mine.

Our waiter brought us this Turkish delight as dessert for free. I find the name a little ironic because most Greeks hate Turks.

After lunch, we swapped drivers and headed toward the southwest tip of the island to find the red sand beach. As a first-time driver and the leader of the pack, I decided it would be a good idea to turn onto a tiny, steep-downhill gravel road that looked like some sort of shortcut. It was a fun, bumpy ride — until it became a bit too bumpy and I started to lose control. As soon as I was able to twist into a stop, we hopped off the bike to turn it around and yelled up at the other girls not to follow. Kate insisted that she drive back up the path; I happily agreed.

Once we got back to the main road, we paused for some photos…

Me

…and continued on.

We never figured out where to turn for the red sand beach. The only sign we recognized pointed us down the gravel path we refused to drive — which was too long to walk — so we continued all the way to the southwest tip of the island.

As we were parking our ATVs, we ran into a Canadian couple we met in Athens. They had spent all day walking and found the red sand beach, but they said to forget the beach for now and keep walking out to the tip because the view was “to die for.”

They were right:

Needless to say, we spent the rest of the afternoon rock climbing.

View across the entire island

One of many things I’ve learned about myself while studying abroad: I LOVE climbing things. I love ascending, descending and never knowing if I’m about to slip and smash my huge camera (which I’m always prepared to throw my own body under), but I especially love the views. I’m even okay with wind — which normally drives me crazy — at the top of rocks. It just feels right.

I did, however, get nervous a few times because we were pretty spread out, surrounded by drop-offs several hundred feet above water. At one point, we couldn’t see Kate for a few minutes, so Lydia and Bethany began calling her name. The more times she didn’t answer, the more panicked they sounded. I figured she was fine because I thought we’d hear a scream or something if she fell. After some more tries, Bethany turned to me and said, “Jess, you call her.”

“Kate?” I called, quieter than the panicked yells before.

“Yeah!” she replied instantly. Everyone laughed.

“Of course she answers you,” Bethany said.

It’s a best friend thing. 😉

It was getting late in the afternoon, and we decided to try to find the red sand beach one more time before dusk. We made a couple circles, and even stopped to ask for directions from an old Greek man on the side of the road. He didn’t speak any English, so we had to communicate using hand gestures. We still didn’t find it, so we shrugged it off and raced all the way home. Kate and I won, of course.

(We later learned we had basically found the beach, we just needed to round one more corner.)

That night, we met up with fellow CCI girls Erika, Yelena and Kelsey, who were stopping on the island through Bus2Alps — the student tour company I used for my trip to Interlaken, Switzerland.

No night life = a fun evening of drinks and catching up, crammed into our tiny hostel room.

Thursday, March 22: Donkey ride, blue roofs and an unexpected friend

I heard about donkey riding in Fira from Lydia, and I was instantly in. I mean, who wouldn’t want to say they’ve ridden a donkey in Greece?

At the time, however, we didn’t know the path was down the cliff that Fira sits on. We also didn’t know the rides weren’t supposed to be recreational — they were meant to transport people who didn’t want to do the 30-minute hike to or from the sea port.

After driving to Fira, parking our ATVs and searching through the town’s white plaster alleyways, we arrived at the top of the donkey trail. Here, the donkey men told us a roundtrip ride would be triple the cost of a downhill ride. Of course, we picked the downhill ride, even though Lydia was advised never to do so because the stones on the path are slippery, and the donkeys can fall.

Long story short: We survived sans falling donkeys, but I was terrified for most of the ride. I hadn’t ridden an animal in years, and I forgot how bouncy they are! Plus, those men were hastily pulling the roped donkeys down the slippery slope, while free ones trotted by. It seemed like chaos. Once again, I was prepared to throw my body under my camera if my donkey went down.

As the ride drew on and I began to pay more attention to my camera and less to the scene it was documenting, I felt myself trusting the donkey more and more. My muscles relaxed and I bounced with the rhythm of the animal; I’m surprised the photos turned out at all.

I was laughing and enjoying myself by the end, but I felt a little guilty because I felt like I might have supported something wrong. The donkeys were exhausted and thirsty, and it seemed as if they were poorly cared for.

Next came the real misery: hiking back up.

Thirty minutes up stairs doesn’t seem terrible, but the steps were so short and wide that it was impossible to get a good rhythm, and the path wove up in a way so that you couldn’t see how long it was or where it ended — you could only see the 20-m stretch in front of you. It was the never-ending staircase from hell. Kate and I were so hot we stripped down to our bikinis, not caring if anyone shouted things at us. We’re used to it wearing sweaters in Italy, anyways.

Lydia learned she’s allergic to donkeys (like she is to most other animals), and she took twice as long to make it up the hill. I thought she might pass out or suffer from some sort of shock when she reached us, but she got herself together, and we all recovered over lunch. This time, I broke my gyro streak and ordered chicken and potatoes in a lemon sauce. I know, I know — not very Greek, but it was SO good. For dessert, our waitress brought us free shots of Ouzo — the infamous Greek liquor that tastes like black licorice, bubble gum and other weird things that you’d think would taste okay but tastes so, so bad. We slyly poured ours out.

Fira

Fira

After lunch, we picked up our ATVs and met Erika, Yelena and Kelsey in the center of Fira. The three girls rented their own ATVs that morning, so we all stopped for gas, then formed a caravan of nine girls on five ATVs to go spend the rest of the day in Oia — a bigger town northwest of Fira with some of the island’s most famous views.

On the way, we stopped for some photo shoots.

The gang

Instead of Hell’s Angels, we called ourselves the Santorini Saints. Everyone stared when we cruised by; it was pretty fun. During these rides, we all felt like bad-ass biker chicks. In reality, we probably looked like Mario Kart characters.

Thirty minutes of breezy, island cruising later, we arrived in Oia — which was everything I imagined and more. Oia is the town with the famous images of bright, white houses and shiny, blue roofs, and it was one of the settings for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — the book (then movie) that planted dreams of Greece in the mind of a much younger me.

It was so surreal to see places I recognized and had already grown to love from Google Images.

Arriving in Oia

The town was so beautiful and colorful. We spent most of the afternoon exploring and browsing in shops, asking the locals for the best spot to watch the sun set. Consensus seemed to be at a long balcony where pieces of an old castle remain.

We found the balcony…

…and a new friend…

…but we still had more than an hour to kill before sunset, so Kate and I split from the group to do some more exploring. The one thing I really wanted to do was find the vantage point for the classic Santorini photo of the hillside with the two white-wall, blue-dome buildings, so I could recreate the image. We set off to find the spot, but slowed down as sunset drew near because Bus2Alps rolled in with a tour group of about 150 American study abroad students. From the brief eavesdropping I did while pushing through crowds in the narrow, hillside alleyways, I totally understood why our professors in Kent urge us to be good ambassadors. It makes me sad that many people’s impressions of Americans are the stereotypes that those students embodied.

Anyways, after some pushing, shopping and pausing to play with puppies (they’re everywhere in Greece), we found the spot:

Oia, Santorini, Greece

We wandered a bit more, and made it back to the castle in time for sunset.

Kate

Me

The sunset was pretty, but a bit anticlimactic. I was expecting something much more magical because of all the hype, but I think the crowd of college kids might have killed the mood a little. As soon as we snapped a few photos, we hurried to a restaurant we had noticed earlier in the day. I accidentally ordered a dish I didn’t like, and the waiter never brought us our wine — but we ate on a beautiful deck on the hillside over the sea, and the waiter did bring us free brownies for dessert. We were also joined by our dog friend from the castle, who I named Maximus. We figured Maximus belonged to the waiter (who was also the owner) of the restaurant. The waiter and his wife seemed annoyed that the dog was sleeping under our table, but they never kicked him out.

After dinner, we walked to the edge of town to find our ATVs and head home. The first thing I noticed was the stars. I thought I’d seen stars in rural Ohio, but I’ve never seen ANYTHING like Santorini stars. It must be the whole small-island-in-the-middle-of-the-sea thing because I could see everything, even an arm of the Milky Way. I teared up it was so beautiful; I had missed stars so much. In Florence, you can only ever see Venus and the moon.

As we packed our trunks and geared up for the ride, we noticed a dog barking at each car and motorcycle that passed. Soon, the dog began chasing everything that passed, getting dangerously close to the vehicles. It was making Kate and I nervous, so we called after him. Sure enough, the dog was Maximus! He trotted over when we called, but ran right after the next car that drove by.

When everyone was ready to go, we patted Maximus goodbye and lined up in our caravan — Lydia took the lead and Kate and I took the rear. We took off, and Maximus immediately ran with us. From the back, Kate and I saw his little white butt racing right beside Lydia’s ATV. We pointed and laughed for a while, and then I leaned back, took a deep breath of cool air and watched the stars swirl around me. That simple moment — riding through the night and the stars — was one of the highlights of my trip.

After a few minutes I emerged from my starry dreamscape, and Maximus was still running. He kept running, and running — for five… then 10… then 15 minutes…

We were driving at about 30 mph, and Lydia kept honking and flashing her lights around the bends. I was amazed by that dog’s endurance, but it was scary because he was running along Lydia’s left side in the middle of the road. I was just waiting to see that cute, white butt get smashed.

Eventually, Maximus began to slow. He was running beside the second ATV, then the third, then fourth, then right in front of Kate and me. I yelled at Kate to slow down; I didn’t want to leave Maximus alone so far from home. She slowed a little, then suddenly, Maximus stopped. He turned and looked at us, knowing we would stop for him. We slowed to a halt in the middle of the road, and Maximus stood, panting heavily, in the glow of our headlights. He looked up at us with the most human face I’ve ever seen on a dog. His eyes said, “Please, please wait for me. I’m trying so hard.” We all looked at each other for a moment, and then Maximus went to lie in the grass on the side of the road.

“What do we do?” I asked Kate.

“I don’t know how to get home,” she said. “We have to catch up to the other girls.”

With that, she took off. Maximus jumped up and ran behind us, but this time he was too slow. I screamed at Kate to stop, but she insisted she couldn’t, and I watched Maximus disappear into blackness. The stars seemed a little dimmer after that.

Kate and I caught up with our caravan and made it home. It was then that we realized Maximus had been following and protecting us all night. We tried to tell ourselves we did the right thing — Maximus needed to turn around, we were leading him farther and farther from home — but we were pretty solemn the rest of the night. I think we both kept hoping we’d hear barking outside our door…

Friday, March 23: Boat ride, volcano and hot springs

Early Friday morning, Kate and I swapped ATVs with Lydia so she could take the fast one to try to find the red sand beach before we had to return the vehicles. We had booked a boat tour for the day and had to catch our boat at the old port around 11 a.m. — the same time our ATVs were due. The hike down to the port is supposed to take about 30 minutes from Fira, so we figured we’d be safe if we left our hostel around 10 a.m.

Kate and I left just after 10, and made it more than halfway to the ATV shop. In the middle of the intersection on our last turn, we ran out of gas. We freaked out, hopped off the ATV, turned it around and pushed it about a mile to the nearest gas station — in the opposite direction we needed to be. I thought the whole thing was kind of funny but Kate was pissed, so we sped to the shop, returned our gear and raced down those wretched, endless donkey stairs to the old port.

We made out boat!

First stop: the volcano.

Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic explosion that destroyed the earliest settlements, on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. So, what they call the “volcano” is the original peak.

The volcano’s crater

After an hour of hiking and posing for “king-of-the-world” photos, we got back on the boat and headed to the hot springs.

With the hot springs came the option of jumping in, but you have to swim about 20 meters in the icy sea to get to the springs. Of course, there was no point in even going if we were just going to look at the water, so we had to jump in. Out of about 30 people on the boat, the only ones who jumped were five of us girls, a middle-aged Asian man and an American couple who had to be in their 50s or 60s. The water was so, so miserable, and the springs weren’t even that warm — but I’m so happy I did it. Everyone on the boat was leaning over the edge taking photos of how crazy we were.

The Aegean Sea is one of the saltiest in the world, so I was brushing off clumps of salt for the rest of the day.

Back in Fira, we rode a cable car back up the hill (refusing to do the stairs or the donkeys ever again), and spent the rest of the day shopping. I impulsively bought a couple of quirky rings, had the most amazing Greek frozen yogurt and the best chicken gyro yet.

We spent most of the evening washing off salt and mud from the hot springs and packing for our early flight. At the last minute, we realized we had yet to try baklava — a traditional Ottoman pastry — so Poppy ordered some and had it delivered to our room. I’m not a big honey person, so I wasn’t a huge fan at first. Once I got over the fact that dessert doesn’t always have to have chocolate in it, the baklava grew on me. It was actually pretty good.

Saturday, March 24: Airport games and good bye

I woke up Saturday the sorest I’ve ever been. Ever.

A few groans later, I realized everyone was in the same pain. Sitting and standing was almost unbearable, and I let out a moan each time. It was kind of funny, but I was confused because I thought we had hiked equal amounts each day — and I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been sore until this day. It must have been the perfect combination of the race down the donkey stairs, hike up the volcano and swim in the icy sea.

We flew out of Santorini early in the morning on that tiny propellor plane I loved so much. It was even cuter because the entire airport only had one gate and three employees. A woman ran the front baggage counter while a man checked the bags; then, when everyone was done, the same man ran security while the same woman checked boarding passes by the gate. A third woman ran the concession counter.

In Athens, we had a five-hour layover. Even though the airport had a big mall, we couldn’t shop because we were stuck with our huge bags (it was too early to check them). We decided to wait outside in the sun, and for whatever reason, I starting playing “Simon Says.” To my surprise, everyone (except Caitlin) played along. That turned into an hour-long fest of “make everyone look as foolish as possible” with unconventional Simon Says rules, which turned into charades which turned into karaoke. We looked completely ridiculous and everyone was staring, but it was one of the best times I’ve had — just sitting (and singing and dancing) outside the Athens airport.

Eventually we checked our bags and caught our flight. We had another layover in Switzerland, which brought back lovely memories of Interlaken, but we had terrible turbulence and a rough landing on our last flight. I was pretty nervous that I had cursed our group because I bought a bracelet made with volcanic rock, and apparently it’s terrible luck to take rock from the volcano. Of course, I learned this after I bought the bracelet. Oh well. We made it home in one piece. Plus, I figured if the plane was going down, there was nothing I could do. Might as well enjoy the ride.

My big fat Greek vacation

Dear Reader,

If you thought you’d scroll through this post in a hurry, close this window and don’t return until you’re putting off a paper or have other serious time to kill. I was one of two in my group who didn’t bring my laptop on spring break, so I have nine days worth of pretty cool stories to tell.

Here goes!

Friday, March 16: Long-time-coming plane

I’d had my spring break booked since early February, but I’d been dreaming of Greece since I was in middle school — right around the time that the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” movie was released. It’s cheesy, I know, but what 14-year-old girl wouldn’t want to play among red and gold cliffs, spotted with pastel houses that overlook a clear, blue sea?

Granted, that part didn’t come until Monday, but my anticipation during Friday’s flight was sky-high (pun intended). I was a little worried Greece wouldn’t meet my six-year build up of expectations.

Lydia, Bethany, Amy and I flew out of Florence early Friday morning. For some reason, Lydia and I thought we’d be clever and share a suitcase, even though our airlines allowed one free checked bag per person. We still don’t know what we were thinking. Our free bag ended up costing us €60 for being 12 pounds overweight, and it was terrible to lug everywhere we went — especially down the six flights of stairs in our apartment building. Lydia was pretty frustrated, but I laughed at how dumb we were and shrugged it off. As of late, my motto has been, “It could have been worse.”

I’m also in pretty great circumstances to be able to ignore little road bumps.

After two wonderful flights with Lufthansa (a European airline I highly recommend), the gang landed in Athens. We took the subway into the city and found Athens Studios, our hostel, with some help from an old Greek man who spotted our confusion from down the street.

Kate and Caitlin were waiting for us in an apartment-style room that the six of us had to ourselves. It was nice, except the toilet kept breaking and there was no holder for the showerhead, which I solved by crouching under the lower faucet. It was a good glute workout, and I think I invented a few yoga poses.

Anyways, we dumped our bags, had dinner at the Fish Café downstairs (best fish burger EVER) and relaxed for the rest of the night.

Saturday, March 17: Ancient ruins, sex-starved tour guides and St. Patrick

We spent most of Saturday on a walking tour of the city.

We saw:

  • Arch of Hadrian, 131 AD
  • Temple of Zeus, begun around 520 BC, finished around 120 AD
  • Statue of Lord Byron (who fought for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire), around 1850
  • Dozens of cute, stray dogs
  • Old olympic stadium, 566 BC, renovated in 1869
  • National Garden
  • Old olympic headquarters, 1870s
  • Orange trees
  • Old Palace/ current Parliament building, 1836
  • Changing of the guards
  • Tomb of the unknown soldier
  • Lots of churches
  • More orange trees
  • Ruins of Hadrian’s library, 132 AD
  • Roman agora (ancient marketplace), around 500 BC
  • Gypsies
  • Hill of Ares, used as court by Council of Elders around 400 BC
  • Theatre of Herodes Atticus, 161 AD

Temple of Zeus

Construction began around 520 BC during the rule of the Athenian tyrants, who envisioned building the greatest temple in the ancient world, but it was not completed until the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD some 640 years later. It was renowned as the largest temple in Greece for about 100 years until it was pillaged and burned in an invasion.

The Panathinaiko, or old olympic stadium

The Panathenaic Stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It was reconstructed from the remains of the ancient Greet stadium, and it’s the only stadium in the world built entirely of white marble.

Zappeion exhibition center/ 1896 Olympic headquarters

I still can’t tell types of columns apart…

Orange trees were everywhere! Kate and I struggled to snatch the perfect orange, and just as we caught up to the group, our guide was explaining why not to eat them. “You can if you want, but they’re VERY sour,” he said. “Athenians don’t eat them.”  Well, we already had our orange in hand, so we had to try it. Everyone turned and watched us for the verdict. It basically tasted like grapefruit — very sour, but not nearly as unbearable as our guide made it sound.

Changing of the guards outside Parliament

The guards rotate shifts and do this fun little march every hour. The big pom-poms on their shoes are decorative here, but in battle they hid vertical blades as last-resort weapons.

Little posers

Hadrian’s library, 132 AD

Roman agora (ancient marketplace), 500 BC

Areopagus/ “Hill of Ares”

The Areopagus rock is often called the Hill of Ares because the Greek god of war is believed to have been the first tried at Aereopagus Hill. Ares was put on trial for killing the son of Poseidon, who had attacked and violated his sister. During classical times, the hill was actually used as a court, usually for murder trials.

The hill is then often associated with St. Paul, who in 52 AD supposedly preached the Christian message to the Athenians from atop the rock.

View of Athens Acropolis from the Areopagus

To conclude the tour, our guide led us to the foot of the Acropolis where he gave us one last history briefing. He didn’t take us up the hill because there was an additional fee to climb, but he suggested we return the next day because Sundays are free. About halfway through his spiel, an old, disheveled-looking woman approached our group and started yelling at him. After a minute of tense conversation, she left. A few of us thought she was a gypsy or beggar — who are pretty commonplace in Athens as well as Florence — but our guide later explained that she was a certified tour guide. Apparently the profession is one of a few that are closed to people like him — who haven’t gone to a certain kind of trade school. But to our guide, who already had three degrees and was qualified to teach, returning to a high-school-like trade school was laughable. He got away with it by saying he was a teacher and we were his students, and he told us not to worry — she was just a cranky, sex-starved old lady. We laughed about that most of the walk home.

That night, I returned to the Fish Café for some more fish (this time fish and chips, and learned that “chips” means french fries). We ran into James, an English man we met during our tour, and decided to hit the bars for St. Patty’s Day with him and Claud, a fellow American who was traveling Greece alone for 20 days. I think we spent more time wandering the streets than in the bars, but we found some jig-worthy Irish music and discovered beer that I actually liked!

Sunday, March 18: Peak of Athens, singing and dancing

We experienced the peak of Athens in more than one way. First, literally.

We climbed the Acropolis hill, or so-called “Sacred Rock” of Athens, which is the most important site of the city and holds some of the most recognizable monuments in the world. Remains date back to the stone ages (around 10,000 BC), and monuments have been built, destroyed, rebuilt and rededicated from 500 BC to 1890 AD.

The Parthenon, 450 BC

The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, who the people of Athens considered their virgin patron. Its construction began in 447 BC, when the Athenian Empire was at the height of its power, and it was completed about 10 years later. The Parthenon itself replaced an older temple of Athena that was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 480 BC.

The current Parthenon is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece and Athenian democracy, and is one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. The Greek Ministry of Culture is now carrying out a program of selective restoration and reconstruction to ensure the stability of the partially ruined structure.

The Erechtheion, 420 BC

Ruins of the Old Temple of Athena, 570 BC, destroyed in 480 BC

Old surrounded by new

After the Acropolis, we stopped for slushies and returned to Areopagus to escape the crowds, relax and soak up the sun. Soon after, we realized we needed to book it if we wanted to get to the rest of our sites (most close at 3 p.m. on Sundays).

Temple of Hephaestus, 450 BC

We made it to the Temple of Hephaestus. According to mythology, Zeus made Hephaestus create women to punish men for discovering fire. The temple became the church of St. George after Athenians converted to Christianity in 700 AD.

We dawdled at the temple too long to make it back to the Temple of Zeus and the old Olympic Stadium (we wanted to go inside both), so we went to the market place to find gyros and fresh fruit instead.

The second peak was metaphorical and completely unexpected.

After a few hours of wandering and shopping, the gang was planning to stop for groceries and cook in our hostel to save some money. That didn’t make sense to me because it was our last night in Athens; it seemed smarter to wait and get groceries for our five days in Santorini. Plus, we had only eaten at the Fish Café and gyro stands. I talked everyone into finding a cute, traditional restaurant.

When we started searching, the streets were dead. I still don’t know if it was because of the home soccer game, or because 8 p.m. was too early for dinner. It was probably a combination of the two. Anyways, as we approached a small, half-tented, half-indoor restaurant, the doorman called to us to come in. “Live music!” he said. “I give you discount!” We were sold.

I ordered traditional Greek moussaka and wine, and enjoyed both to the soundtrack of two old men singing in Greek and plucking their acoustic guitars. The music was beautiful, and every time we looked at them, they smiled.

The band

Moussaka

“We should get up and dance,” I said as soon as I finished eating — to which everyone responded with blank stares. Annoyed, I egged them on. Our table was practically on the dance floor, and the restaurant was nearly empty. Plus, we were in Athens, GREECE! Listening to live music! I couldn’t think of one reason why we shouldn’t already be dancing.

Somehow, our waiter heard me from across the floor. Almost as soon as the word “dance” left my mouth, he was bowed by my side with his hand outstretched, waiting for mine. I was instantly embarrassed and nervous and wanted to take it all back, but of course at that point, my friends were all eagerly egging me on.

Of course, I danced, or at least tried. The waiter showed me traditional Greek steps, and I awkwardly bounced by his side. A few minutes into making a fool of myself (but having fun doing it), I got my friends to join us. Eventually, we got it down.

That dance was just the beginning. Once we returned to our seats, the band cranked up the volume and started playing tunes we recognized, like “House of the Rising Sun”. They peer-pressured me into joining them on stage and singing “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” by the Beatles, and we all danced to “Twist and Shout”. The waiter even called out the kitchen boy to lift us on chairs and dance for us. A few hours and an “Opa!” or 20 later, we ended with one last traditional dance. That night has gone down as one of the best in my life. It was like a scene from a movie, and such a wonderful, cultural experience that we so easily could have missed.

Right to left: Kate, Caitlin, Amy, me, Bethany, Lydia

We left the restaurant elated, and skipped around to see the city at night. I’ll never forget the feelings I had staring at the old Olympic Stadium through its gate: feelings of complete bliss and amazement at life.

Unfortunately, that was followed by one of the worst moments of my life after Kate and I split from the group to climb Areopagus one last time. I won’t discuss it on here, but I want to mention it because I learned such a valuable lesson in safety, but maybe even more importantly, in attitude. Sadly, I’ve learned to be a lot less trusting, but as I wrote above, almost everything in life “could have been worse.” More than ever before, I try to focus on the positives in every situation. I’m safe, healthy and happy, and again, I’m in great circumstances to brush away the bad.

The next morning, God or the cosmos or whoever tested me when I somehow caught my foot in my camera strap and sling-shotted it across cement pavement. As I watched my $1,500 camera crash and bounce across the ground, I almost had a mental breakdown. It came up with some dents, scratches and a broken battery door, but it still functions.

“It could have been worse; it could have been broken; you’re in Greece; it could have been worse.”

I silently repeated these words on the metro ride to the airport as emotions from the past 12 hours rushed back. By the time we arrived, I was ready to get out of Athens and escape to the magical island of Santorini. As soon as I saw our tiny propeller plane, every ounce of bad was replaced with excitement and joy.

———

I’ve decided to split spring break into two posts because I have to go be a grown-up and fill out some pretty extensive job applications for Fall semester. Then I’m off to IRELAND to celebrate my 21st birthday!

Lots of updates coming next week, permitting the weather isn’t too beautiful.

UPDATE: Check out the rest of my spring break in part two!

Home away from home

Today, my parents are safely home in Columbus, Ohio, after spending a week with me in my new home.

When they left, they thanked me for giving them the “best gift they’ve ever received.” Of course, I’m pretty proud of this gift (and I’m not sure how I’ll ever top it), but it almost felt wrong to say “you’re welcome” because this trip was my way of thanking them for so many of the best gifts they’ve given me.

When I first began researching study abroad programs, I had the idea to bring my parents along for part of the ride. I knew they wanted to travel — especially to visit me overseas — but they were putting their dreams on hold to give my brother and me everything they could. They had sent Adam and me to a combined four different countries before we each turned 18, and they had only been out of the States once — to the Bahamas for their honeymoon almost 27 years ago. Adam and I wanted to send our parents somewhere for their 25th anniversary, but we didn’t have much of our own money at the time. So when I decided to study abroad in Florence, we started saving our pennies and kept quiet for more than a year. We revealed the big surprise on Christmas, and it was a family moment I’ll never forget. Dad was excited, Mom was sobbing in utter disbelief, and Adam and I were so happy to be able to give back and thank them for, well, everything.

Anyways, we had an amazing week. I wish Adam could have joined us, but he’s done Italy, so I don’t feel TOO terrible. 😉

White family minus one, at the top of the Duomo

Day 2

My roommate Kate and I set up a little Italian bistro in our apartment, complete with Pandora’s “Mambo Italiano” radio. We cooked pancetta, and Mom said it was better than Day 1’s dinner at Il Gatto e La Volpe (a real Italian restaurant)!

We didn’t have time to make tiramisu, but we were pretty excited about our Jenga tower of cookies.

Day 3

Playing tour guide was fun because I finally got to do some of the major touristy things I hadn’t done yet. My mom and I are standing in the courtyard of the Basilica of Santa Croce in the photo above. (We’re pointing to little daisies we picked.) Santa Croce is less than 100 feet from my apartment, and I still hadn’t been inside. It holds the graves of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli and Rossini.

Dad wanted to stop for coffee every other hour. Wasn’t surprised.

Day 3

I also finally climbed the Duomo! I think I was the only one left in our group who hadn’t done it, but I wanted to wait for my parents so I wouldn’t have to pay the fee twice. The Duomo of Florence is one of the largest churches/domes in the world, and historians still can’t figure out how it was built. It has been the biggest mystery in Florence for hundreds of years, and it remains one of the biggest unsolved architecture mysteries in the world.

I thought the winding stairs and narrow passageways were fun, and not nearly as difficult and uncomfortable as everyone hyped them to be. Toward the end, you even get to climb between the inner and outer domes (pictured above). Mom and Dad, however, seemed to think it was quite a trek. But the treks are always well worth the views:

Home sweet home

Day 3, bistecca alla Fiorentina

Fun fact: Every city in Italy has a famous dish. Florence has huge cuts of very rare, expensive steak. I prefer my steak cooked medium to medium-well, but I figured I had to try it Florence’s way. It wasn’t bad!

We ordered the dish at a small restaurant outside the city center that one of my teachers recommended, and the staff spoke almost no English. I made these two try some Italian.

Day 4

I spent the morning rafting down the Arno with some friends while Mom and Dad toured the Uffizi Gallery. Afterwards, we ran into each other on the street (what are the odds?), and went to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. In person, it really is breathtaking.

Then we stopped for coffee (of course), gelato, and rested our feet on the banks of the river.

Day 4, Gusta Pizza

 I’d never had it, but I’d heard amazing things about Gusta Pizza near that spot on the river. We planned for an early dinner, but the restaurant closed for a four-hour siesta about 30 minutes before we arrived. I decided it was worth the wait (and my parents hadn’t tried Italian pizza yet), so we wandered around the area to kill time. We popped in and by a few small churches, but I mostly just led us in circles over and over because I don’t know that side of town very well. We were all VERY ready to sit and chow down by the time 7 p.m. rolled around.

On Saturday, we took a day trip to Assisi. If my parents were in Italy, they needed to get a taste of the countryside. And I knew my dad would appreciate the historical landmarks of Saint Francis. (It was my second time in the town; to read about my first, click here: https://followjesswhite.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/past-city-limits/.)

Day 5, Assisi

I think the sky is bluer in Italy.

It’s hard to tell in this picture, but it was SO windy. We were afraid to stand at the top of this tower at Rocca Maggiore fortress because we honestly thought we might blow away. The wind made it kind of miserable, but also kind of fun. Attitude is everything!

After all our adventures in Florence, Assisi and their following trip to Rome, I’d say my parents got a pretty good picture of Italy. It means so much that they shared some of this with me and got a taste of my life here.

More than anything, I hope traveling changed their lives the way it’s changing mine.

Beautiful fashion, men and seashores

I have a serious case of pre-spring-break-itis, BUT my Macbook came back to life, so I should probably catch up on this thing in case I lose her again.

I’m still not sure what happened. First, the screen died; then, the computer did. I freaked out for about 10 days, tried to suppress the stress while my parents were here and figured out the bus/train schedule to get to the closest Apple store. I wasn’t too concerned about the laptop itself, but I was crushed that I might lose every photo I’ve taken over here. (Moral: Don’t leave your external hard drive 4,500 miles away!) The day I planned to take it to the store in I Gigli, Lydia told me to try turning it on one last time. I said no, I’d already tried every day for a week, and she shouldn’t get my hopes up. Well, we all know what happened next. I pressed the power button, whispered “please, please, please” with all the optimism I could manage, and sure enough, it started chugging away — whirling and working its little laptop butt off to turn on. It was kinky and slow for a day, and the trackpad didn’t work for a few days, but now it’s totally fine. My parents brought me my external hard drive, so I backed it up immediately. I’m hoping it just needed a really long nap.

Meanwhile, I took day-cations to Milan and Cinque Terre.

Friday in Milan was one of our three CCI class field trips. We went with Fabio and Francesca (two of our professors) and Marzio Fatucchi (an Italian newspaper journalist who visited our class). After taking a subway into the city center, Marzio took us to breakfast — the standard Italian quick gulp of caffé — and gave us a tour of Corriere della Sera, which is like the New York Times of Italy. I was struck by the quality of journalism, especially the displays of photojournalism. Another professor, who is also a local broadcast journalist, has made comments about American journalism being better than Italian journalism, so I had low expectations. I was happy to be wrong.

I even spoke to Fabio, Francesca and Marzio about internship possibilities. Two problems: my Italian is mediocre at best, and paid internships don’t exist in Italy. I want so badly to stay through the summer, and I was even getting into the process (I received an offer from an English paper in Florence and found a family to live with), but I would have to take out a loan to afford another three months, and that seems too irresponsible when I have a paid offer in the States. Part of me wants to say, “screw it; you only live once,” but another part of me is poor. I’m beginning to make those grown-up decisions and sacrifices based on money, and it kind of breaks my heart because I’m such an advocate for forgetting the paycheck and doing what makes you happy. I guess I’ll just have to come back. I know so many people say that and never do, but I also know I really will. Best case scenario: my job will fund my travels. 🙂

After Corriere della Sera, we visited Libreria Feltrinelli, which is like the Barnes & Noble of Italy. A woman from corporate lectured us for about an hour. She had the best intentions, but she was so, so boring. We were all itching to escape and return to shopping in the fashion capital of Italy, but by the time she was finished, we had to hurry to catch our train.

We were able to shop and sight-see during our lunch break between the two visits, but I wish we had more time! I tried on some beautiful outfits at a few local stores, and then felt silly for not going to play in Gucci or Prada. I also saw dozens of the most beautiful and well-dressed men I’ve ever seen in my life. I might return with Kate and her parents the Sunday after my birthday, but I’m scared I’ll blow the rest of my money. Somehow I managed to spend less than €20 while I was there.

Duomo di Milano (notice the H&M ad on the side)

City center shopping

Editors’ meeting room of Corriere della Sera

Famous front pages

I was bummed that Milan was such a quick trip, but I guess it was a blessing in disguise because I spent Saturday in the most stunning Italian cities yet: Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre means five lands. It’s an area on the coastline west of Florence, made up of five tiny towns connected by foot paths and two-minute train rides. Unfortunately, all but one foot paths were closed because of damage from October mudslides. Fortunately, that one was the famous and scenic Via dell’Amore, or Walk of Love.

I must have a thing for rocks because I got the same giddy, “this can’t be real” feelings I had in Interlaken. I was happy to be with Erika (for the first trip since Interlaken) because, like me, she wanted to break rules, hop a few fences and climb as many rocks as possible. Yelena is afraid of heights, so she snapped photos from the sidelines.

We walked, climbed and admired thousands of notes and trinkets left by lovers. We saw beautiful beaches and breathtaking cliffs spotted with pink, yellow and green homes. It was a pure, simple and happy day. The sun was even warm enough for me to take off my jacket for the first time.

Along Via dell’Amore

There were thousands of “locks of love” and other trinkets left by lovers along the length of the path.

Of course, we had to stop here for a glass of wine.

Sweet raisin wine of Cinque Terre (this tiny glass cost €8… because they can)

We signed our names on a “graffiti wall” along the path. It was more like a graffiti cave, and there were thousands of drawings and names. I took pictures of every “Jessica” I saw (which ended up being a dozen) as well as funny phrases and names of my friends. I even found a “Jessica W,” which was in a heart with “Chris M.” Foreshadowing…?

Here, I was having another one of those “wow” moments. The more I travel, the more normal it becomes. Tickets, train rides, hostels and itineraries become part of a routine, and sometimes I lose sight of where I am — and how amazing it is that I’m here. I love having moments that snap me out of it — or into it, really. Although all of this has become normal in a way, I still can’t quite grasp the reality of it all. I have new moments of disbelief but gratefulness with each new place.

I always wonder if the people who live in these places feel the same way.

Playing hostess

Life is funny.

Last night, on the steps of the cathedral in Florence, I ran into this guy:

Marc was my neighbor and best friend in kindergarden. We dated briefly in high school, broke up, and helped each other get through following break ups. We’ve had a long and unpredictable friendship, but I never could have imagined reuniting on the other side of the world.

Of course, our meeting was planned, but it was like a scene from the movies nonetheless.

Playing tour guide was pretty fun but also pretty weird because time has passed so quickly. I feel like I just got here, so I was excited and proud when I realized how much I was actually able to show him, and how he trusted me as a “local.” I get to show off all week because right after Marc left, my parents flew in!

Last Christmas, my brother and I decided to send my parents to Italy to thank them for all the places they’ve sent us. I am SO excited that they get to share this experience with me. Life in Florence is changing me, and it means so much to me that they will get a taste of it.

I’m also excited to do all of the touristy things I haven’t done yet. Living in the city gives me such a different perspective, and I actually haven’t been in some of the biggest churches and museums yet. Can’t wait to share those things with Mom and Dad!

Good night, sweet Macbook

I think the Italian plug adapter got the best of my laptop because the screen is totally dead. I’m praying to the Apple gods that the insides aren’t fried.

The closest Apple store is almost an hour away by train, so for now, my Macbook is at rest in my closet.

I thought being phone-less would be hard, but I’ve managed that for two months without much complaint. Being laptop-less is so much harder! Everyone is always on his or her laptop, iPod or iPad. I’m hoping this is a blessing in disguise that will force me to get out and play more. So far it’s just stressing me out.

Anyways, unreliable computer access and my busy schedule (prepping for midterms, parents’ visit and spring break) are delaying a few blog updates. I’ll try to catch up this week, but unfortunately I can’t post pictures until my laptop is fixed.

Here’s hoping!