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Italy

Romantic Venice

Venice

June 23, 2005
Gondola Rides & Tourists

We got up early yesterday and caught a $.33 flight to Bergamo, Italy on a discount airline. At the airport, I had a sandwich (panini actual) on ciabatta bread with mozzarella, tomatoes, and the famous Parma ham. The trip from here to Venice was long, but easy and the arrival was odd.

We approached the city on a narrow strip of land that was obviously man made and connected the main land to the city of Venice. I tried to see the city as we approached, but to no avail, seeing as how it was in front of us and I had little idea of my bearings. We got off the train, in what seemed to be an ordinary, but small train station and as soon as we went through the doors, an entirely new world opened up in front of us. Venice was more real than any picture; the city seemed to be alive.

We bought tickets for the "bus" and got on our boat headed for Santo Marco. This route, which took us down the Canal Grande was incredible. It was so picturesque and every building just ended in the water. The 15 minute trip went quickly, but once we arrived, I saw a new Venice, one of tourists staring at architecture and snapping pictures; a Venice I didn't enjoy as much. Piazza Santo Marco is beautiful, but attracts so many tourists, I feel that it lacks authenticity, although in reality this is far from the case. We found our way to our nearby hotel and checked in.

After walking around Piazza Santo Marco and grabbing a slice of pizza, I sought out a different Venice. My grandpa and I headed east until we ran out of land. This was the local Venice: graffiti, homeless, factories, a museum, children playing soccer in the street, and women just talking on a park bench. This was the romantic Venice, the real Venice. This was the city, it was the locals' city. I liked it much better than the Santo Marco region, although the architecture here paled in comparison to much of the tourist sights.

For dinner we ate at a local place, at which I had the meat ravioli, and tried some of the lasagna. Mine was great, but the lasagna was even better.

Today I headed to the tower on the Piazza to see the view from the tower with my grandpa. It was incredible and well worth the entrance fee. This gave me a view of Venice, every corner and it was beautiful. After this, we continued on our tourist regime and went to Santo Marco church, which was different from most churches I've been to.

After much debate and some more pizza, we did manage to go on a Gondola ride for 80 Euros... hence the debate. But it was worth the price for six people. It let us see the streets of the city and the quiet alleyways of the locals. Our gondolier was quite interesting and seemed to know everyone on every canal. At one point he stopped to answer his cell phone and told us his name is Casanova, then laughed. He showed us Marco Polo's house and told us that a Gondola is the same price as a BMW. There are only two master makers so there are only 2 to 4 gondolas made each year. Among the highlights of this trip was Rialto, a beautiful region, which again was swarmed by the tourist infestation, but from the water was perfect.

After the gondola ride, my dad and I decided to be locals so grabbed a cappuccino, which reminded me why I don't drink coffee. Then Brent and I decided to find the library that was in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." It took us some time, but we eventually found it and Brent so elegantly posed in front of it as Indy.

We then went to Frari Church and headed back to Santo Marco via the Rialto Bridge. At this point, we raced over to the other side of Santo Marco in order to buy a mask that Brent wanted, checked out the Bridge of Sighs, the Doge's Palace, and the Piazza to the hotel. During this time, Tyler was exhausted and turns out very dehydrated.

We made it back with a little extra time so I grabbed the best food yet (which is quite a compliment given the incredible food we've had the past day), a wrap with spicy salami, tomatoes, lettuce, mozzarella, and a thin layer of a great tomato sauce. I ate on the way over to another island to catch our boat to Piran, Slovenia.

Continue the above trip to: Slovenia

*    *    *

Rome

December 26, 2013
Eating, Site Seeing, and Eating Some More

When we all got into the airport we split up into two groups because taxis can only take four people and there were five of us. I went solo as I tried to navigate the public transportation system with some pointers from Marc and Marissa, who both live in Rome. Sadly, they didn't give me pointers on how to get a working credit or debit card. Despite telling my bank that I was going to be in Italy, both my credit card and debit card were denied and I was stuck paying huge fees at the cash exchange office... always try to bring some emergency cash with you when you travel... this wasn't the first time I've had to rely on emergency cash to survive.

As the cash exchange man was flirting with an attractive girl in front of me I stopped by the tourist information office to see if there was a quicker way to get to the apartment we were renting and I found one. This saved me some money and time as I got a train to the Trastevere train station instead of the main train terminal, then walked to the apartment. Despite the money delays, I arrived at about the same time the taxi passengers did.

Our apartment seemed nice, but we were too hungry to relax so headed out quickly to begin our over-eating splurge, which we plan on making for our entire stay in Italy. Marissa and Marc led us to a local restaurant with very low prices; as students I trust their opinions on being cheap and they didn't disappoint. Perhaps not the best food in Rome, it was cheap, tasty, quick, and well worth the money. So was the house wine, which cost only €8 for a liter (or litre). It was a non-descript red wine that was far from offensive, however my favorite part of the wine was that it wasn't on the alcohol menu, it was in the beverages section with the water, soda, tea, coffee, and other drinks. Perhaps the house wine isn't worthy of being listed among the nicer wines that actually have a label and come in something other than a liter-sized pitcher!

December 27, 2013

I've only been to Italy twice and haven't yet had a problem with transportation. From Milan to Venice the train seemed to run fine and even the train from the airport yesterday ran on time. However, the local buses helped the stereotype of tardiness, although most just didn't arrive. Many roads were shut down for the holidays as the people enjoy going for evening walks, an event called La Passeggiata that is common in Italy throughout the year. However, during this time more people are off work, are out walking, and streets shut down. This led to buses not running and us (today we only had four as we lost Marc to a trip around Europe) taking a couple different routes before getting to the far southeast side of the city: Appian Way and the Catacombs of St. Callistus.

We arrived to the catacombs just after lunch (the catacombs close down during lunch) and were one of the first tours. The climb to the catacombs was a bit like entering a crypt, however in a large tour group the visit seemed a bit like a museum. Plus, they have removed all of the bodies from the tour path so it seems to lose a bit of the aura imagined in my head prior to visiting. None-the-less, the tour was impressive and the history alone made the trip worthwhile. We visited a room that was the final resting place of a few popes and we saw some very early Christian artwork and symbolism.

Once the tour was finished and we made our way out of the giant rolling landscape back into Rome we headed straight to St. John in Lateran for lunch. Again we perhaps overate a bit, especially considering we got a couple starters, but we were hungry and it's Italy, so don't judge.

St. John in Lateran is actually the highest ranking church in Catholicism and is controlled by the Holy See and Vatican City, not Italy. This church is officially presided over by the pope, although he rarely gives mass at this basilica. More than just the building itself, St. John in Lateran was made even more impressive due to the fact that mass had begun just after we arrived. The massive basilica didn't mean the church shut down, but rather only meant that there was an area that was roped off for mass participants, while the rest of the archbasilica was open to visitors.

Sometimes when visiting churches, temples, or mosques it's easy to see the building simply as a work of art or a tourist site, however with mass taking place it helps you realize the true purpose of this church. The art, the decoration, and the incredible amount of time, effort, and money placed in this single building were only done for religion and without that there would be no church. As Marissa, the architecture student, said, it adds so much to the basilica to see it used for its original purpose.

The buses ran a bit more regularly after our visit... or we just figured out which ones weren't running, so our trip back to the apartment in Trastevere was much smoother than our fiasco to begin the day.

December 28, 2013

Oddly, the bus woes continued today. Gina, Cindy, and I headed to the Colosseum (Marissa stayed back since she was going later in the week) and again got stuck waiting for buses, then taking a bus whose route changed due to the closed streets. After a bus in the wrong direction and a subway trip we got in the long lines for tickets to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. While standing in line I came to the realization that one ticket grants entry to all three so it would likely be quicker to buy the ticket from one of the other sites first and bypass this line. However, the Colosseum was only going to get busier as the day moved on so in line we stood.

I'm not entirely sure why, but the Colosseum did little for me. The building was incredible, the size is massive, the underground chambers are impressive, and the fact that it's still standing made me stare in awe. Yet, it somehow lacked feel to me and I was far from being overcome with any sort of intangible feel that I've received so many times before. I'm not sure if it was the tourists or something else, but I walked away being incredibly impressed, yet at the same time content with my visit and ready to move on.

So we did move on, first to the outside of the building where I found myself much more intrigued by about five guys dressed as Roman soldiers trying to get any tourist to take their picture with them for a fee. I suppose at some time in history a Roman soldier was an intimidating sight, but these guys were anything but intimidating. The one was busy chain smoking and another was occupied with a conversation on his cell phone. The others just kind of hung out, leaning against the wall of the stairs. Business was slow for them, although some old man did get his picture taken pretending to stab one of the soldiers with his plastic sword. I was fixated on these "soldiers" for a few minutes, far from ancient Romans, but in so many ways they are modern day Romans... these men may actually be descendants of ancient Roman soldiers, yet their lifestyle, culture, and ease of life today is so different from then. Welcome to Rome, both past and present.

After relaxing on the steps for a bit we moved on to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. Unlike the Colosseum, this area is much more in ruins and many buildings are only now recognizable by their base and perhaps some old walls that are falling apart. This area made for a nice walk, with good views of Rome and St. Peter's Basilica across the river.

After a quick break at the apartment, just Cindy and I headed out for a bit. It was sort of nice having just the two of us. We were in no hurry, but did have a couple sites we (or I) wanted to hit, beginning with Campo di Fiori, which is a local market. The stalls were busy with customers and the stands were filled with oils, pastas, cooking utensils, and much more. Thus far, this was my highlight of the city in the sense that it felt real and local. Sure tourists were everywhere, but the feel seemed more authentic and it exuded the culture and lifestyle as time slowly melted away for the moment.

We slowly made our way around, then out of the square before reaching Campodoglio, which I've been told makes for some of the greatest people watching in all of Rome. It surely didn't disappoint, but Cindy and I had little energy to really enjoy the square so sat around for a bit before heading back to the apartment.

Cindy's parents arrived to Rome today so we headed out for dinner at a local restaurant. After stopping at a couple places that had no room, we found a relatively new place that had just opened a few weeks earlier. The food was good and no one was suffering too badly from jet lag so I would say dinner was a success.

December 29, 2013

Today everyone, our group was up to six, headed to the historic center of Rome where Marissa gave us a tour. The streets here are narrow and don't seem to have much order so having a good map or a tour guide is helpful. We began the day with mass, however when we entered it said a nearby church had an English mass so we walked down the street to find a priest from Minnesota giving the mass.

After mass, we walked to the end of the road to see the Pantheon, which was closed earlier in the day for mass, since the Pantheon is an active Catholic church. The building was busy when we arrived, but once inside the massive space seemed to open up and it felt quite empty. The building looks rather new compared to the Colosseum or the structures in the Roman Forum or Palatine Hill, however it's from about the same time period.

We continued to meander, well it felt like meandering, but I'm sure our tour guide knew where we were going, to Marissa's studio then on to Piazza Navona. When we arrived it began to slowly rain, but the square was still swamped with people as there were stands selling all sorts of items and people were walking in every direction. Due to the rain we spent little time here and instead quickly moved on to eating, of course.

Just as we got inside the rains started coming down even harder so we took our time eating. Unlike most of our meals, which have consisted of pastas or pizza (or gelato), today everyone seemed divided on foods as a couple of us got paninis. Once the rains slowed we headed out to continue our tour.

We made our way to the Trevi Fountain, which was much larger than I had imagined; it takes up the entire side of a rather large building. The area was swamped with hundreds of people trying to take pictures and make their way to the fountain to throw a coin in. Rumor is throwing a coin over your shoulder means you will one day return to Rome. We took part and pushed our way to the front of the fountain and each threw in our coin.

Our next stop was the Spanish Steps, but our stop was more of us slowing down than actually stopping. More interesting than the steps themselves was, in my opinion, the fountain at the bottom that had a ship appearing to be taking on water. Again the crowds were huge so we moved on quickly.

Our last true stop for the night was at Piazza del Popolo, which has an impressive viewpoint on its eastern end and a couple impressive churches lining the oval-shaped square. A couple of us took the trek up the hill to see most of Rome, including St. Peter's Basilica across the river and the historic center to the southwest. Back on the square itself we headed into Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo, which was among the most impressive churches we'd seen. There are two Caravaggio paintings in the church, frescos by Pinturicchio, a chapel designed by Raphael and completed by Bernini, and a chapel built to exercise the spirit of Nero, which was believed to have occupied a walnut tree in this area nearly 1,000 years ago. This small church was well worth the stop, but I think most of the people on Piazza Popolo missed it, many in favor of some guy playing guitar to Metallica.

We decided to end the night with our own La Passeggiata. However, seemingly everyone decided to partake in the La Passeggiata tonight and it seemed most of them were smoking. Being very sensitive to smoke, the walk seemed brutally long and could not have ended soon enough. I know the purpose of the walk is to relax, window shop, and socialize, but I was more fixated on avoiding smoke, which was much more challenging than I had imagined. By walk's end I convinced myself that my next trip will be to someplace other than Europe, which at times smells like one giant chimney, especially here and in parts of Eastern Europe.

Florence

December 30, 2013
Nudity & Gelato

There is a lot of nudity in Florence, well at least in statue form as I didn't actually see any naked people. Among the many nude statues is Michelangelo's David, which was our first stop in the city. Not having tickets, we had to wait in line for about 30-45 minutes prior to getting in.

The David statue is very impressive and quite enormous, but I found the room at the end of the hall filled with busts to be almost more intriguing... not more impressive, but definitely more intriguing. There is a massive room filled with head statues that is no accessible to the public, but visitors can peak their head in there to see the long hall of heads staring at the walls, or each other... actually I'm not exactly sure what they're looking at, maybe they are as mesmerized at the room as I was.

We then stopped for lunch and ate more pasta. I had something bad yesterday so stuck with a light lunch before we moved on to the Florence Cathedral, sometimes referred to as the Duomo, which is the Italian word for "dome." Immediately upon seeing the cathedral I was awe struck by the church. I love gothic architecture and it appeared gothic, but was covered with whites, pinks, and greens. Most gothic architecture is dark and dominating, but this cathedral was light and, well still quite intimidating. I've traveled a lot, but have never seen such a brightly colored gothic building so while I knew it was gothic, I couldn't help but ask Marissa what style the building was in. It was unlike any other building I've seen and I really liked it.

In addition to the impressive facade, the famous dome is just as, if not more impressive. While the cathedral is in the gothic style, the dome is considered the first Renaissance structure ever built, truly spanning this structure across styles. The bright reddish-orange dome stuck out, wedged between the blue sky and white building, yet forced you to look at it. We considered making the trek to the top of the bell tower or the dome itself, but after seeing the line we decided to move on.

We moved down to Piazza della Signoria, which is home to a sculpture garden and the Palazzo Vecchio, as well as being the original location for Michelangelo's David; today a replicate stands in front of the palace. This area is a nice place to relax and people watch, but again the lines to get up the tower in the Palazzo Vecchio were too long for us and our lack of energy. After quite some time people watching we moved on to Ponte Vecchio, or the "Old Bridge," which is today filled with gold shops and tourists.

Fortunately, most of our group was more motivated to find gelato than shop for jewelry so we moved on seeking out a gelato shop that has slightly brownish banana gelato (that means they use real bananas, not just flavoring and yellow dye). We found a few places that had gelato that met our standards, but we kept failing to stop until we had bypassed the major tourist intersections. Eventually we found that much coveted gelato and after even more searching found the train station for our trip back to Rome.

Continue the above trip to: Vatican City

Rome

December 31, 2013
Drunk Train!

After spending the day in Vatican City, we realized to catch our flight at 6:00 am on the 1st we had to leave tonight as all public transportation stops running at about 9:00 pm and there is no way to get to the airport in the morning at that early hour. Gina, Cindy, and I found a cheap hotel near the airport, quickly packed, then rushed to the train station to catch the last train of the night.

After waiting a bit for the train we got on what can only be described as the New Year's Eve Drunk Train. The entire train was filled with teenagers who had clearly each had more than a few drinks... in fact many were drinking beers on the train and a couple were smoking. There were no seats available and very little standing room, but this was the last train before our flight so we had no choice but to watch the show, the really bad, ever more intoxicated show that was difficult to see through the growing cloud of smoke.

Good bye to Rome and good bye to the drunkenness and cloud of smoke which is standard on every New Year's Eve Drunk Train.

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