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A Tale of 3 Cities Pt. 2


Hope you haven’t been waiting on the edge of your seats too much! Here’s the continuation of the thriller in this 3-part adventure…

Getting on the train to Florence was somewhat of a struggle, as there was no room to stand at all! It was just a jumbled mess of bodies packed into the carriage. There was room enough to stand and swivel, but that was it. We stood there like sardines in a can for an hour, before the doors thankfully opened up and we spilled out of them faster than I can rattle off a half a dozen corny jokes. Making our way through the mob, we regrouped in the center of the station and began to set up a plan of action. Rosalind had bought us tickets for the Ufizzi Art Gallery (only the “premiere” Renaissance Art Gallery), so we needed to be there in the next half hour to make our time slot. When we burst out of the station, we were blinded by the brilliance of the sun that shone down on that cloudless day. Making our way through the crowded, narrow, streets, we struggled to make it in time as we beat back the swarms of people that stood in between us and Caravaggio’s masterpieces. When we did get there, the line seemed to stretch down through street after street. It would be at least forty-five minutes before we would even get inside, so several of us split off in search of food. I found a delicious pizza place that served heaven on a breaded triangle slathered in juicy tomato sauce. By the time we were done eating, the line was almost at the entrance. Hopping back into the queue, we began to make our way through the Uffizi.


As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not much of an art aficionado, so I may not have appreciated the frames that hung on those walls as much as I should have. What I found interesting was the history and the backstory behind each painting: what inspired the artist behind their work. Alas, I had no tour guide leading me, so I hopped from group to group and heard a bit about a painting before moving on to find a new group. Bits and pieces of AP Euro from 10th grade would come back to me at times. We spent a good bit of the class learning about art from different periods, so it was fascinating seeing some of the famous pieces in person. The museum itself was massive and every inch of it was decked out with artwork, sculptures, showrooms: you name it. Even the ceiling was a fresco of a glass-covered roof! My favorite exhibit was that on Leonardo da Vinci. It had some of his original pencil sketches on display.

While I zoomed through the entire gallery in an hour and a half (I look at art quickly, what can I say?), the others progressed more slowly and filtered out one by one around the two-hour mark. Lorenzo got so caught up in the artwork that he spent an extra half-hour enjoying it all. Once we were all back together, we made a new plan of action: head back to the hotel, unload our hefty bags, and head back out on the town. We would split up from Maggie and Glen, who were staying close by to us. Before we departed, we grabbed some dessert and I chowed down on a real canoli. Now, I’ve been eating canolis for a long, long, time, and - sad to say - this didn’t live up to my expectations. The crust was a bit too crunchy and the entire thing was short and compressed. The entrance to our hotel took some serious detective work in finding, but once there, it felt incredible to remove the sweat-soaked bags from off of our weary backs. After a half hour in this state of relaxation, we geared up and got ready for the next trek. Getting some advice from the check-in desk, our new mission would have us stopping by several Florentine landmarks on the way to our end goal: the Piazza Michelangelo. From here, he assured us, would be the best view of the city (and he didn’t lie!).


Meeting up with Glen and Maggie outside of a 500-year-old church, the first stop on our list had us walking through an open-air forum. Within fifty feet of it, the smell of leather was so overwhelming that it could almost knock you back. Its vendors sold everything and anything in leather. The most common products were wallets, jackets, purses, belts, and shoes. We perused the shelves, but there wasn’t much you could buy unless you didn’t mind selling a kidney. A five-minute walk from here, our next site was the star attraction of Florence: the Duomo. You could see the Duomo from almost anywhere in the city. It had an intimidating presence the closer you got, as the sheer magnitude of its massive dome seemed to block out the sky. Making our way through the crowds of people milling around its exterior, we stopped for pictures and a chance to take it all in. As one of Florence’s iconic sites, its well worth a visit. After fueling up with gelato, we began to make our way to the next site on our laundry list: the Golden Gate Bridge. Ok, no, that’s a lie. However, the bridge that we went to is still a magnificent feat of engineering. The Ponte Vecchio is a 3-story masterpiece that houses high-end shopkeepers fifty feet above a river. I guess retail space is so precious in Florence that, even on this narrow strip of land, they had to find a way to sell you more things.


On the other side, our adventure continued on. Now, we were within a twenty-minute walk of the Piazza and it was starting to get towards 6pm. We had heard that there would be fireworks at 10pm, so we wanted to be up on the Piazza around 9pm to get a good view. We headed over to the Palazzo Vecchio, a giant castle, and played around on its sloping concrete rampway. There was an adjoining park to it, but they were closing just as we walked up. Even with my smooth moves that I laid on ‘em, they still wouldn’t let me through (Maybe if I’d told them a pun, things would have gone differently…). Despite the setback, we decided that we were hungry enough to find somewhere to eat. Walking towards the Piazza Michelangelo, we found a smattering of restaurants nestled at the base of the hill that the Piazza is perched on top of. I had been looking forward to eating some true Italian pizza (and not just a single piece like earlier), so there was no doubt in our minds as we walked into a cozy place with the word “Pizza” scrawled across its entrance. We each got our own personal pizza and had a great time sharing among the different flavors before us. Our host was warm and funny, offering great suggestions on pizzas. When it came to dessert, I caved and ordered a dessert that was a delicious combination of a chocolate-filled funnel cake. As a struggling choco-holic, I feel an urge to eat chocolate whenever I can.


After this much-needed respite, we were ready to move on once again. Trudging up the hill, we were at the summit in ten minutes. As we made our way over to the Piazza, the crowds of people became thicker and standing room decreased dramatically. Unfortunately for us, the Piazza was closed for the fireworks! Standing at the edges of the police barriers were crowds of people waiting like us: they knew that this would be the best spot to watch from. However, with an hour and a half to go until 10pm, we got antsy and decided to try our luck somewhere away from the crowds. We saw it come into view as we backtracked away from the Piazza: a giant mansion with a clear view of the city, but guarded by thick, wrought-iron gates. We saw people up there, so we knew that there had to be a way to get in. Rosalind, Lorenzo, and I split off and took a circuitous route around the side of the mansion and through some woods. The trail took us past a WWI statue and the sounds of a concert drifted up to us through the trees. Within a couple minutes, we reached winding switchbacks lined with cars that led to the entrance of our mystery mansion. Going through its arched entrance, we found the Florentine skyline open up in front of us. There was a large, sandy square, with steps leading down to a cemetery and the same iron gate from before. The area was relatively uncrowded, so we knew we had a good find. We grabbed some seats on the steps and spent the next half hour watching the sun go down. Tonight, it gave us a brilliant display of orange, violet, and red that was eventually swallowed up by the clouds. I love watching sunsets because it signifies the end of another day of living: another day where anything is possible. Seeing it go down is a reminder of the preciousness of time and how important it is to be thankful for everything you have. It definitely helps keep me grounded.


Shortly after 10pm, the fireworks display began to beat back the darkness and light up the night sky. It was a long show (about 30 minutes) with many cool pyrotechnic tricks. Bright bursts of red, green, and white were intermittent reminders of Italy’s colors. The finale was a slow buildup in intensity and frequency of fireworks, until there were so many that it looked like permanent splotches of color were fixed to the night sky. When the show ended, it took some time for our eyes to adjust back to the darkness after the explosion of light. Following the crowds, we trekked back down the switchbacks and began the tiresome half-hour walk to our hotel. Before we got back, we couldn’t resist getting gelato at least once more for the day. Melon seemed to be the popular flavor among our group, although Jake was trying Tiramisu gelato at every stand to find the best one. By 11:30pm, we were finally back in our room for the night. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the middle of the next day’s planning. Apparently, I continued to be part of the conversation and decision-making, but I have no recollection of it.


When I did wake up at 6:30am (see, sleeping in again!), I took a quick jaunt around our neighborhood in search of breakfast and anything that might be of interest. During my walk, I came across a little church tucked away in a square. Its exterior was unassuming, but upon stepping inside, it opened up to beautiful frescoes and intricate architecture. It was the last thing I expected to see. When I entered, several nuns shot me dirty looks for wearing shorts, so I slid into a pew as fast as I could to blend in and remove their wrath from me. Just as I was getting ready to go and leave this holy place, my phone picked the worst time to inform me that I had received a text message. I guess I had forgotten to turn off my ringer (whoops). Now, those wrathful gazes swiveled back onto me like Sauron’s eye and I beat it out of there as fast as I could.


Returning to the hotel, I met up with Lorenzo and Rosalind for a continuation of the morning adventure. We spent an hour and a half walking around the narrow streets of the Northeast corner of Florence and seeing the city slowly come to life. Circling back to the Duomo, we arrived around 9:15am to stand in the line to get inside. Although it didn’t open until 10am, there were already thirty people in front of us. As one of the most famous churches in the world, the line can stretch so far that you might end up spending two hours or more waiting. Not far from us was a large open-air market, so Lorenzo was nice enough to hold our place in line while Rosalind and I went to check it out. Leather vendors were everywhere again, and inside the main building, tiny stalls sold all varieties of fresh produce. There were meats, spices, local vegetables, and our favorite, the dried fruit. Although we couldn’t stay long, we promised that we would return here to show Lorenzo. We arrived back at the Duomo right at 10am and hopped back in line, which began to steadily progress forwards. When we did get inside, I’ll admit that I was a bit underwhelmed. Most of the area was cordoned off and you couldn’t really see the church. The ceilings stretched to the Heavens, but even the cool factor from that wore off after a bit. Downstairs was an exhibit featuring the construction of the Duomo, but it required tickets in advance (of which we did not have). In short, the Duomo is somewhere you can go to say that you’ve been, but for a college student it may not be as spectacular as you think.

Leaving the Duomo, we still had two hours to kill before we needed to make our 1:15pm train. Like we promised Lorenzo, we headed back to the open-air market to check it out again. We spent some time haggling with vendors, tasting free samples, and getting lost in the stalls. He loved the place just as much as us. Then, as if the market wasn’t enough for us, we decided to break our banks at the worst possible place: a 1-euro store. Akin to a dollar general, we picked up lunch and souvenirs at dirt-cheap prices. We found a bench on a small side street and dove into our snacks while mopeds and carts trundled past in front of us. When we finished, we still had an hour to kill, so we made our way North of the station to a small park that was home to a fountain. It blew a refreshing mist onto us that quickly evaporated in the hot sun. This was one of those rare moments that I wished I could hit the fast forward button and skip ahead an hour. Normally, I feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done. Now, however, it seemed that there was an abundance of free time, which is something strange and foreign to me after these past 2 years at Georgia Tech. I should appreciate the fact that there were no obligations, deadlines, or places to be for that hour, but mostly I was just bored.

At long last, the time arrived and we met up with Smalls and Jake inside the train station. Maggie and Glenn were on a wine tour, so they would be joining us in Venice later that evening. The past few days had felt like a whirlwind of never-ending activity. I was especially excited for Venice: next to Paris, Venice was the city that I’d always dreamt about visiting. I’m not particularly sure why, but I was not a huge fan of Florence. It might have been the incredibly crowded streets that made me nervous about knocking over people (being the giant that I am). Maybe it was the sensory overload of how much history the city has. I could spend a week studying an individual street, but with only a day to fit it all in, it was like getting a single bite of a sampler platter rather than getting the full entrée. Or maybe it was the heavy emphasis on art, which I lack the sophistication to appreciate. Of my “Favorite Cities of Italy” list, Florence comes in 3rd. However, in just a few short hours, I would be in the city of my dreams: Venice.

Posted by oklempay 11:02 Archived in Italy Tagged italy florence fireworks duomo pizza piazza forum mansion gelato uffizi caravaggio ap_euro Comments (0)

A Tale of 3 Cities

Part 1


Well, long time no see! Apologies for posting this so late: this past week we had Monday thru Wednesday off from school, so we decided to take our weekly travel a tad further from base camp. We departed from Metz on Friday afternoon and rolled back into town on Wednesday evening. This time, our curiosity brought us to visit the homeland of my mustachioed, turtle-throwing, plumbing cousin: Mario! Like a pinball in a machine, we bounced around Northern Italy from Cinque Terre, to Florence, and finally to Venice. Our crew of seven made for an interesting cast. There were the von Matterhorn Brothers, Lorenzo and Jake, who were ready to do just about anything if you’d ask them to do it. Then there was Rosalind, who was always on top of things and kept everyone together. Coming up next was Smalls, who was the right-hand man of the von Matterhorns and whom hated hiking. Batting cleanup was the dynamic duo of Glenn and Maggie: you never knew what would happen next with them around. Before I delve in, I should tell you that this will be a 3-parter. With six days of travel to cover, I’d prefer not to write one giant essay. Instead, I’ll release two parts and leave the third as a cliff-hanger to begin again next season (just kidding)! There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started, shall we?

This blog wouldn’t be complete without a school update, however! In short, everything is still going well. Right before I left, I took a thermo quiz that I felt fairly confident about as I walked out. Thermo quizzes are ones where you end up working the entire fifty minutes given. Even as he called time, my pencil was still streaking across the page trying to double and triple-check my work. I should find out the grade next week, so hopefully it will go well for me.

Everyone left early on Friday afternoon to get into Paris, but I had a late class, so I ended up going alone and meeting them there. After class got out on Friday, I sat around in nervous anticipation for the weekend to come. I had two hours to kill, so I spent the time watching Netflix and cleaning out my fridge. I got so caught up in “How I Met Your Mother” that I almost missed my bus to the train station! I had to run like a madman across campus to make it to the bus stop in time, which got me to the station with ten minutes to spare. The train ride was short and quiet, with no breakdowns or cancellations to speak of. I’m beginning to learn that French trains are notorious for the frequency with which they have delays or are cancelled due to “strikes”. When I got into Paris, different groups were scattered throughout the city, so I decided to join Maggie and Rosalind down at the Eiffel Tower. It was about 8pm when I got into Paris, so I was able to get to the Tower just in time to see the sun’s rays scattering through its patchwork of metal, signifying the end of another day.

Around 9pm, the von Matterhorns, Smalls, and Glenn came rolling up to join us on the packed green pasture that the Tower presides over. Talking and taking it all in, we sat there and enjoyed the tranquility of the warm evening until 11:30pm. This was my first time with this group, so I spent some time getting to know a bit about each of them. Our accommodations for the evening would be in Glenn’s apartment, which was really more of a studio meant for one or two people at a max. Taking the metro to the flat, we rolled up around midnight and had to climb a mountain of stairs that eventually deposited us at our room for the night. If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice that there are seven of us in the group. With only one bed, four people had to squeeze onto its tiny frame. Meanwhile, two of us (myself included) slept on the floor and one slept curled up in a ball on the terrace outside. By the time any of us could actually fall asleep, it was almost 1am.

Sleep was intermittent and hard to reach with the cold drafts that kept floating in through the window (not to mention it was a hardwood floor!). However, we had to be up at 4:30am to make it to our airport shuttle, so it’s not like we would get much out of sleeping for three hours anyways. At precisely 4:30, the blaring alarms set by Rosalind and Smalls jolted us out of our stupor and signaled the beginning of the long day of travel we had ahead of us. Begrudgingly, we packed up our belongings and hit the road. Shuffling like a pack of zombies, we trudged the mile to the airport shuttle and got there in time to collapse in a heap at the busses’ entrance. By 5:30, we were seated in semi-comfortable chairs and on our way to Beauvais Airport, a regional airport North of Paris that specializes in budget flights for cheap people like us.


We arrived at Beauvais by 7am, which gave us plenty of time to hang around the airport until our 8:35am flight. There wasn’t a lot to see, however. In its entirety, it wasn’t much more than a security checkpoint, a few shops selling food, and two gates for airplanes. In our sleep-deprived state, none of us did much talking. Instead, we snagged a few empty seats and sat there with glazed-over expressions and arms wrapped around our bags. I was incredibly thankful when the airplane showed up, because it meant one step closer to our destination for the day: Cinque Terre. I gave up on attempting to sleep during the flight, which seemed determined to make you as uncomfortable as possible: My legs were perpetually jammed into the seat in front me of thanks to the non-existent legroom, attendants wouldn’t let you close the shades, and they would come down the aisle constantly trying to sell you useless magazine subscriptions. Despite these drawbacks, I made a new friend on the flight! The girl next to me had NASA stickers on her laptop. Being the ultimate space nerd, I started chatting with her and found out that she was from Colombia and working on her masters in mechanical engineering in France. More so, she had spent some time at JPL and is even interested in being an astronaut herself! She is a certified scuba diver and also intends on getting her pilot’s license. The last half hour of the ride flew by after that (haha, get it?).


After touching down, everyone on board was ecstatic to get out and stretch their legs. I’ve become a master at staying in one position for long periods of time with all this traveling, but even I need a break from it. Our plane deposited us at an airport an hour outside Milan, which required us to take yet another bus to get to the central train station. One more agonizing hour of remaining motionless and we would finally be in Milan! As the bus made its way to the city center, we passed through crowded streets packed with vendors. It made for an eclectic collection of open-air shops that created a maze to navigate. By the time we got off at the train station, we were feeling the pangs of hunger beginning to set in. Most of us hadn’t eaten since yesterday evening.

With only an hour to find a place to eat, we wasted a lot of time standing around in indecision. Finally, as if a sign from the Heavens, the Golden Arches descended down upon us and guided us to our decision. I’ll admit, I’m ashamed to have succumbed to the McDonald’s bug, but it tasted incredible after eating nothing but a croissant in the past 12 hours. After refueling our tanks, we got ready to begin the final part of our journey. The train from Milan would take us to Pisa, where we would hop on another train to get to Monterosso. As we made our way to Pisa, we came very close to missing our connecting train. Although we started out behind schedule, our conductor did a good job of getting us in on time. When we transferred at Pisa, we had a whole five minutes to find our train! Through the hot, sticky, humidity, we stumbled onto our train to Monterosso, which would mark the end of our long travel.

Now, a quick side note about Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, which is Italian for “Five Villages”, is a UNESCO world heritage site that is comprised of five unique towns perched on cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The northernmost village is Monterosso, where we would be coming into. In between each village are narrow trails cut through the rock. In the late 1800’s, through a marvelous feat of engineering, they were able to connect the five villages by train. This region is known for its white wine, fishing, lemons, rugged beaches, and breathtaking views. As I mentioned, each village has a unique personality that appeals to different people. The villages, as colorful as a box of crayons, are so small that you can walk through their entirety in half an hour. However, the amazing part is how the houses cling to the cliffside on ledges that are mind-bogglingly small. This region is best for more able travelers, ones who don’t mind getting a good hike in. The majority of your day will be spent getting a calf workout as you work your way up hill after hill. However, what some might deem “drawbacks”, were the exact reasons why we would be going to Cinque Terre.


On the way to Monterosso, we caught glimpses of the sea and the beaches that lay in wait. The last half hour before we arrived was spent in excited anticipation to finally get out of our sedentary positions. When the doors clanged open, we burst through the train station and down onto the beaches below. What greeted us was something straight out of a movie. A picturesque walkway formed a protective semi-circle around shimmering blue-green water. The beaches, filled to the brim with people, contained pure, white sand. Moving along the walkway, we made our way over to get our reward from the day’s long adventure: a hefty scoop of gelato. As we scarfed the cool treat down, we spent some time walking through Monterosso and over to a quieter beach. Within twenty minutes, we had stripped down to our bathing suits and were wading into the refreshing water. There were a series of rocks perched on a sandbar not far from shore, so Jake, Lorenzo, Maggie, and Glenn went to check them out and go cliff diving. Meanwhile, Smalls stayed behind to watch our stuff. After forty-five minutes, we met back up and walked through the miniature town. There were as many tourist shops as there were restaurants (and I even found one named after me!). We had some time to look around before we began the hike to Vernazza, which we expected to take us an hour and a half. Although only three kilometers long, the path wound its way up and down the steep cliffside. It got so tough that Maggie and Glenn almost turned back. However, we convinced them to keep going and were able to stick together. Every ten feet we would have to stop and take pictures, because the view was out of this world. The narrow ledge we followed plunged down to meet up with the sea, which crashed against the rocks below like thunderclaps. If there was one thing we were certainly wary of, it was making sure our footing was solid. Along the way, we passed by various groups of travelers and swapped stories with them. We met exchange students from China, couples from Australia, and even other GT students!




When Vernazza came into view, it did so dramatically. Walking around the edge of the cliff, it began to appear below us as if it were rising up out of the sea. With it in sight, we picked up our pace: our footsteps a bit quicker. We were ready to get some real dinner, and we were eager to try the fresh seafood. Making our way down the steep staircase, we emerged onto the main street of Vernazza and regrouped before a water fountain. At this point, our criteria for restaurants was if the “Open” sign was still hanging in the window. The restaurant adjacent to the water fountain ended up being our pick for the night. Serving traditional food that highlighted the region, it was exactly what we wanted. We chowed down on seafood platters mixed in with bowls of spaghetti and washed it all down with glass after glass of cold water. With full stomachs and the evening setting in, we made our way down to the crescent-shaped harbor that defines Vernazza. Boats of people came and went as we watched the sun go down behind the cliffs that loomed over us. We spent a half hour exploring the streets and hidden coves of the town before making our way back to the train stop that is nestled in the center. Although I said that we were done with travelling, I actually lied. We would have a short, twenty-minute ride over to our Airbnb for the evening, which was located in a town called La Spezia.



Getting in at 9:45pm, we split off from Maggie and Glenn, who had their own place for the night. Lucky for us, our hosts were nice enough to meet us at the train station. They gave us a ride from the station to their apartment, which normally would have been a forty-minute walk. As if that wasn’t enough, when we walked into the place that would be ours for the night, our draws dropped: it was a spacious apartment with three bedrooms complete with air conditioning, a fully-stocked kitchen, and even a terrace! It felt like a palace compared to the hardwood floor and cramped quarters from the night before. After some difficulty getting the hot water working, we spent the rest of the evening showering off the layer of grime and relaxing. Within minutes of laying down, I was fast asleep. Getting this at the end of the day was an amazing surprise after nearly sixteen hours of travel. It also made us sad that we would only get the chance to spend one night here in this mini-oasis.

The next morning, I helped myself to the croissants our host had got for us. Slathering the baked bun in Nutella, it was a delicious combination of chocolate and bread that made for a great start. While the others slept in, Rosalind and I went out for a walk through La Spezia to see what we could find. We went down along the waterfront and then through the old town, completing a two-mile loop that got our legs warmed up for the day. They were still pretty sore from the steep inclines that we made our way up yesterday. Around us, shops began to open their curtains and begin their day as well. We found a tasty, little, bakery with apple desserts that we munched on as we headed back to the apartment. At 10:00am, we rolled up to the train station and met up with Glenn and Maggie, whose host had given them a ride there. They had an equally awesome experience with their stay: their host keeping them up late with stories of fishing expeditions.

We were sad to leave Cinque Terre so soon, but Florence was next on the agenda. The beauty of the land around us and the friendliness of the locals made a great first impression. If I could go back and do it all again, I would stay in Cinque Terre longer. However, we were moving on to a new city and a new day! Who knew what would wait in store for us at the next stop? I guess you’ll have to wait and see what went on in Florence……

Posted by oklempay 05:46 Archived in Italy Tagged paris palace italy cinque_terre milan monterosso vernazza matterhorn pasta genoa airbnb la_spezia Comments (0)

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