Friday, December 18, 2009

The BEST and the WORST...

So, now that I am done with my incredible semester abroad, I though I might look back on the last 4 months and pick out the "best" and "worst" moments. Enjoy.

Best Natural Landmark: Rock of Gibraltar, UK- Can't beat the views and, of course, the monkeys!
Honorary mention: Mt. Teide, Canary Islands, Spain

Best Duram Kebap: Barcelona, Spain- Maybe it was because it was the first of many kebaps to be had, but we never did find another to match up to "Istanbul" quality.

Best Meal: Thanksgiving dinner at Tori's host-stay. Gloria and Josu, I can't thank you enough. That was more than anything I could have expected.

Worst Food: Blood sausage- Enough said.

Best Shower: Medium Hotel, Valencia, Spain- Thanks to Tori's parents, we stayed high class this weekend. The shower was almost the highlight of the trip.

Worst Shower: My host family's, everyday. Can't wait to get home and actually have water pressure and consistently warm water.

Best "Where the hell am I?" moment: Madrid, Spain-Waking up on Ben's hotel room floor after an unforgettable (at least the parts I remember) night at Kapital

Worst "Where the hell am I?" moment: Tangier, Morocco- Walking around aimlessly in the Medina made me feel like I had a target on my back. Definitely the most uncomfortable I felt the whole semester.

Best Hostel: B&B Maison, Florence, Italy- Incredible staff, free dinner, 50 cent breakfast and the coolest people staying there. Even had one of the guys visit us from Valencia. This was the hostel experience I had been hoping for.

Worst Hostel: O'Callaghan's, London, England- Couldn't have started off our semester at a more disgusting place. Bed was awful, showers disgusting and spiders crawling out from the floorboards. Luckily, we didn't have another experience like this one.

Best Pillow: San Sebastian Hostel- This may seem strange, but they are hard to come by. The sleep in San Sebastian was by far the best, thanks to the pillow.

Best Purchase: My poncho or "drug rug", for sure. You may have seen it in some pictures. Totally California, thanks Mike and Charlie.

Worst Purchase: Cell Phone SIM Card- Made this purchase in the States, even. Definitely should have waited until I got here.
Honorary Mention: Vatican Museums Ticket

Most Random trip: Ghent, Brugges, Brussels; Belgium- Bought the ticket on a whim cuz it was €25, but had one of the coolest experiences of the semester. Plus, enough chocolates for a month.

Best Ancient Landmark: Roman Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain- Tough to pick this over the Coliseum, but I couldn't get over how cool this thing was.
Honorary Mentions: Coliseum, Roman Forum

Best Church: St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy- I feel like it would be blasphemous to say anything else.
Honorary Mention: Sagrada Familia

Best Castle: Gravensteen, Ghent, Belgium- This was the kind of castle I have pictured since I was little.

Best Metro: Madrid, Spain- Hands down the best. Most lines, most trains, cheapest ticket.

Worst Metro: Brussels, Belgium- You know it's bad when we didn't pay for a single ticket.

Best View: French Alps, Chamonix, France- These were some of the coolest, most jagged mountains I have ever seen, despite being off-season.
Honorary Mentions: Parc Guelle, Barcelona, Spain; San Sebastian, Spain

Best Beach: Tangier, Morocco- We had an endless stretch of beach with blue water to ourselves. What more can you ask for.

Best "College" City: Barcelona, Spain- Hang out on the beach all day, hit up Chupitos at night.

Best "Let's Just Take it Easy" City: San Sebastian, Spain- Such a quaint town. No better place to take a stroll

Worst City: Geneva, Switzerland: Weather sucked. Really expensive. Absolutely nothing to do. Good thing it was only for a night.

Best Country: Spain- Hands down the best. I may be a little bias in my opinion, but this country has it all; mountains, beaches, hiking, skiing.

Best "I probably shouldn't have done that" moment: Chamonix, France- Stepping off the ladders after climbing down into the glacier with everyone alive was a huge relief.

Worst "I probably shouldn't have done that" moment: Getting too drunk at Kapital, having to leave early, thus wasting my €15.

These are some of the most memorable moments from my semester. I wouldn't have changed anything about my experience. It was the greatest 4 months of my life!


... to Christie O'Rourke, Carly Deline, Becky Gundy, and every other Spring Semester study abroad-er. First and foremost, I am gonna miss you guys like crazy next semester. I hope you have fun in your programs (that's ridiculous, I KNOW you will). You guys better keep in touch and I expect a post card or two from your travels. BUT, before you all go, I thought I would give a little heads up on what to expect, what to do, and what NOT to do.

- If you can't live without peanut butter, go to CostCo and buy some industrial-sized jars. This may sound ridiculous, but, trust me, it will be worth it

- Don't waste all your money on alcohol. You can still go out and have an awesome time. Plus, you can get drunk in the States.

- When you do drink, don't get completely, black-out drunk. You still need to make it home and you are in a foreign country.

- Use Skype. It's amazing. Make your parents get an account and you can talk for free. Saves a ton of money.

- Walk, walk, walk. If your in a new city, don't waste money on public transport if you don't have to. Also, there have been plenty of times where we stumble across something that we wouldn't have seen on a Metro or bus.

- If you have a huge, globally-recognized trip you are planning (like Oktoberfest) book it NOW! Stuff runs out quickly, so if you want to have St. Patrick's Day in Dublin, get on your shit!

- With that said, try to plan your trips in advance, but you don't want to book too much stuff, so that you limit who you travel with. It's very easy to book a flight/hostel the week of, even the day before.

- Get in good with your host family from the beginning (maybe even take an ice-breaker gift). Especially for Carly and Becky, they can help you with the language and you will be able to learn it a lot quicker if you get a lot of practice at home. Also, they will be much more willing to help you with stuff around the city--don't be afraid to ask!

- If your traveling for the weekend, DON"T check a bag! I hope this can go without saying, but it wastes time when you get there, you get screwed on charges and there's no sense in risking losing it.

- When you travel, ALWAYS bring at least one article of warm clothing. We went to the beach in the Canary Islands, and I was freezing on the top of Mt. Teide. So, you never know when you need something warm.

- PROTECT YOUR STUFF! Always be aware of people around you and make sure you have your stuff at all times. I have heard countless stories of people being pick-pocketed (Knock on wood), so just don't be stupid.

- Take advantage of supermarkets. Buying food anywhere else is going to be way more expensive (even your school's cafeteria, if you have one). Buy food for the week, pack lunches and don't waste money on expensive meals. That said, have at least one cultural meal while traveling. You may never have the opportunity again for some authentic Italian pasta, or real French crepes.

- Don't let class keep you from traveling. You will find a way to make up the work. If not, then your teacher sucks, anyways.

- Check airline sites ( is awesome, Ryanair too) for cheap rates all the time to anywhere. Tori and I got round trip tickets to Belgium for €25 and it turned out to be one of the best trips.

- Be willing to try new things (obviously, right). But my roommate didn't leave the room or try new food for the whole semester and he had the crappiest time. The culture IS going to be different. But different isn't bad.

- Pack travel-sized, soap, shampoo, etc. bottles so that you can take them with you for weekend traveling. Hostels don't provide this stuff. They do provide linen, though, so leave that at home.

- You ARE going to spend a lot of money. Just realize that now.

- DON'T buy the ISIC card, unless you look up the discounts to use beforehand. Tori and I bought it and it didn't get us enough discounts to pay for itself. Your passport with Student Visa usually does the trick, anyway.

- ALWAYS ask for student discounts. They can save you a lot. For example, Tori and I paid full price at the Vatican (€14) and learned from Ben the student rate was €6.

- Make copies of your important documents (credit/debit cards, passport, visa, etc.), front and back. Just in case you are pick-pocketed, you will have proof its your stuff. Also, it's better to carry a copy of your passport on you, rather than your actual passport.

- Take a lot of pictures. You may not want to be "that person", but get over it. The pictures will be what you look back on the rest of your lives.

- Finally, NEVER forget the experience you are having. If you're having a bad day, realize you are in Europe, traveling the world. NOTHING can get cooler than that.

I hope you guys have an incredible time and that you take advantage of every day. Trust me, it goes way too fast!

Dave Rep In Madrid

The last weekend.... unbelievable. Despite this being the last weekend before leaving, this was only my third full weekend in Madrid. Let's just say we took advantage of it. This weekend had an extra twist, though, because Tori and I had a friend come visit from Valencia. The best part is that we didn't even meet him until the weekend before, in our Florence hostel. That's what traveling is all about.
Anyway, Dave Replogle (I write your full name, so that maybe one day you get bored, google yourself, and stumble upon this blog, hahaha) got into Madrid Friday evening around 5 p.m. Since Tori's and my talk about Madrid convinced Dave to come, we had some expectations to fulfill. Before going out to dinner, Dave, Tori, Andrew (my roommate) and myself headed out to Retiro Park for some botellón. From here, we walked to Sol (city center) admiring the incredible amounts of Christmas lights around the city. I have to say, Madrid tops all other cities in Christmas decorations. After a little dinner, we had a big night ahead of us.
We started our night out around 11 by all meeting at a local bar, El Tigre. This place is ALWAYS packed because of their huge mojito + tapas combo for €6. Tough to beat. After we all managed to finish our drinks, we were at the "I'm-drunk-enough-to-dance" phase. (Some of us were well beyond that stage, right, Andrew?) So, we headed to Kapital, the previously mentioned, incredibly massive, outrageously fun night club. Despite splitting up throughout the night (some of us wondered off, others took a nap), Dave, Tori, Andrew and I managed to meet back up around 5:30 A.M. We ended up catching the metro at 6 for some much needed rest.
Once Dave and I mustered up the courage to get out of bed (around 3 p.m.), we walked the other half of Madrid, checking out the only real site the city has to offer, the Royal Palace. We grabbed some lunch, strolled the city until dinner. After dinner, Tori, Dave and I went out to a local bar called Chapandoaz, or The Cave Bar. As you might have guessed, this bar looks like a cave with drinks being poured from the stalagmites. The three of us downed a couple of their specialties, "Leche de Pantera" and talked over drinks for a couple hours. Highlight of the night: Tori dares Dave to take one of the beers just sitting on the bar. Dave accepts dare and "stealthily" snags a beer. Dave proceeds to take a drink, but spits the beer out on the ground. I think Dave is being ridiculous, and proceed to take the beer from Dave and take a drink. It's disgusting. Tastes like detergent. Come to find out, the bar sets out beer bottles with perfume in it for fools like us. Hahahahaha. Anyway, by 2 a.m., we had grown tired of the American 90's playlist and decided to head back home.
Sunday, we hit up El Rastro (our massive flea market) for some last minute Christmas shopping. We all managed to find some stuff and by 2 p.m., we had gotten sick of shopping. After getting home, Dave headed to the bus station to catch a ride back to Valencia. Hopefully, he had a good enough time with Tori and I for the trip to be worth it. All I know, is that his coming was WAY better than studying for finals!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

There's No Place Like ROME

The last day in our last city was one of the coolest of the semester. We got up early again and started our day where we ended it the night before, at the world famous Coliseum. Despite Ben's pessimism, all of us went inside to check out the ruins. And of course, Ben was wrong because it was freakin' sweet. It's unbelievable to think this stadium was built about 2000 years ago. If fully constructed, it could have easily been used today, seating nearly 50,000 people. Did you know, in addition to holding gladiatorial contests, the middle could be flooded in order to host naval battles as well? Pretty incredible. Also, it was just cool to be in the place that you have seen so many pictures of.
After the Coliseum, we walked across the street to the site of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. These ruins were what I was expecting from Rome. Seeing all of the remnants of ancient buildings (including the site of Caesar's assassination, "Et tu, Brute?") put into perspective the historical importance of Rome. For centuries, this site was the center of the world. The cave within Palatine Hill is said to have been where Romulus and Remus where found by the mother wolf. From Palatine Hill, we could see the remnants of Circus Maximus (the chariot-racing stadium). This whole experience pushed itself into the top 5 coolest things I have done.
After the Roman Forum, Tori, Haley and I continued along the Tiber to Castel St. Angelo. This site was of significance to Tori and me because of Angels & Demons (Dan Brown has clearly had an impact on me, hahaha). For those of you who don't remember (and this isn't a spoiler), this is the lair of the Hassassin. Anyway, a little history: It was originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian around 130 AD, but was turned into a military fortress. Later, the popes used it as a refuge from the siege of Charles V. More importantly, the top offered an awesome view of the city and St. Peter's Basilica.
After the Castel, we met back up with Ben and Alyssa and headed to the Spanish Steps for a little meeting with Benedict. Who's Benedict, you ask. The freakin' POPE! (Benedict XVI, actually) Apparently, every Immaculate Conception the pope places a wreath at the base of the Statue of Mary and gives a speech to the crowd. (Thanks to a devout Catholic, we got the tip the day before) By the beginning of the ceremony, we had wriggled our way to the PERFECT spot. The Pope Mobile stopped about 20 ft. from us! (By the way, Benedict, Batman ain't got nothin' on you!) We were so close, we could see the wrinkles on his face, the whites of his eyes and even his ruby red slippers. (I wonder if he can pull off the same trick as Dorothy?) Anyway, we couldn't understand the speech at all, but being that close to the Pope was a once in a lifetime experience.
From here, we walked by the Pantheon once more, but to our dismay it was closed. Instead, we treated ourselves to an awesome dinner for the last time on our travels. We drank some wine, ate some pasta and reminisced over the coolest 4 months of our lives. It couldn't have been a better way to wrap up our traveling. After dinner, we headed back to the hostel for a couple more drinks in order to prolong the night as long as possible. Early in the morning, Tori, Haley and I boarded a RyanAir flight for the last time...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Just ROME-ing Around

Due to our late train from Florence, we arrived in Rome late Sunday night and checked into our hostel around 1 am. To maximize our 2 days in Rome, we got up early and managed to be out the door after breakfast by 10 am. For the sake of length, I am only going to mention the big sites we saw because the amount of history in Rome is incredible. We started Monday morning at the Spanish steps- so named because the Spanish Embassy is at the base. At the bottom of the steps is a fountain by Bernini's father, "Fountain of the Old Boat". Rumor has it, this fountain contains the freshest water in all of Rome. At the top of the steps stands an Egyptian obelisk in front of the Holy Trinity Church. The views of the city from here were stunning
After visiting Plaza di Spagna, we walked down the street to Piazza del Popolo, one of the largest squares in Rome. The Plaza is centered around an Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome in 10 B.C. by Augustus. Another main attraction of the plaza is the twin churches on the south end. These dissect the "Trident" of streets that enter the plaza. After exploring around Plaza del Popolo, Haley, Tori and I headed to Vatican City along the Tiber River.
Since the Vatican was closed on Tuesday, we had to endure the hour and a half long line if we wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museums were interesting, but the hoards of tourist groups took away from the experience. The main attraction, the Sistine Chapel, was actually not my favorite. The Chapel was not what I expected- much smaller and decked out in paintings from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The "Creation of Man" was also much smaller than I thought. My favorite painting, though, was "School of Athens" by Raphael. I like it because Raphael painted the most famous artists into his work, including Da Vinci, Bramante and even himself. In fact, he included Michaelangelo after he witnessed the unveiling of the "Creation of Man".
After working our way out of the Sistine Chapel, we met up with Ben and Alyssa in St. Peter's Square. We took a quick look through St. Peter's Basilica, which was hands-down the most amazing church I have been in this entire semester. The outside was stunning, but the inside was even more incredible. Nearly every wall was covered in gold-trimmed artwork. The dome was massive, the tip being nearly 450 feet from the ground. If we hadn't been extremely tired from walking for about 7 hours, I would have taken much more time in the Basilica.
After the Basilica, the 5 of us grabbed dinner at an Italian trattoria. From here, we walked to Piazza Navona, where Bernini's "Fountain of the Four Rivers" is located. (Some of you may recognize it from Angels & Demons). After checking out this plaza, we walked down the street to the Pantheon. Despite being built nearly 2000 years ago, the Pantheon still has one of the largest domes in the world. It was pretty cool to be in the presence of this ancient building. From the Pantheon, we headed to Trevi Fountain, where we spent time sipping wine and winding down from a stressful day. After this we strolled through the Roman streets, catching sites along the way to our hostel. For one day in Rome, we covered a lot of ground, but the next day was still a full itinerary....


After the train fiasco in Venice, we got to Florence a little later than desired, but checked into our hostel around 4 pm. There, we met up with Fried (my friend from home, if you still haven't caught on) and his friend from his program, Alyssa. With a list of sights recommended by my big sis (Thanks, Em!), we decided to head to Piazza Michaelangelo for a view of the sunset over Florence. We got to the top of the hill just in time to see the beautiful colors of the sunset. The 5 of us were in no rush to leave this beautiful scenery, so we grabbed a bottle of wine to enjoy and chatted whilst looking over Firenze (that's "Florence" in Italian).
Once darkness starting creeping over the city, we decided to head back down towards the city center. For dinner, we ate a free meal at our hostel with about 10 other college students staying there. It was an awesome experience. The B&B Maison was the most fun hostel due to this fact. While eating soup, we mingled and made friends with the other backpackers. After dinner, we all hit up Florence's night life together. It was the true hostel, travelers' experience I had been looking for all semester. Everyone meshed really well- one of the kids we met, Dave, is even coming to Madrid this weekend b/c Tori and I convinced him to.
The next morning, it took me a little while to get out of bed due to the amount of fun I had the night before. Fortunately, I got over my 3 hour bout of the flu, and met up with the gang at the Duomo. This cathedral was one of the coolest throughout Europe. The building was huge and the outside was elaborate. What set this church apart from the rest, though, was the green and white facade and the massive dome. The dome is actually the largest brick dome in the world, containing over 4 million bricks!
After taking in this church, we all grabbed some pizza for lunch-what else, right? From lunch, we headed to the Accademia where the statue David is kept. For once, I understood why this statue is so important. Seeing it up close and personal was impressive. The statue itself stands 17 ft and carved out of one block of marble. All I can say is "Props, Michaelangelo, props". After checking out the rest of the gallery, we met up with one of Haley's friends, Roy, for the remainder of the evening. With him, we checked out Ponte Vecchio, the only Florentine bridge that survived WWII that now is the site of many gold vendors. From here, Roy took us to an amazing gelateria for our last taste of Florence. After ice cream, we picked up our bags from the hostel, and headed to the train station for the last time....

Staying Afloat in VENICE!

Due to rescheduling and delays (Vueling is THE worst airline I have flown the entire semester), Tori, Haley, and I didn't get to the heart of Venice until about 3 p.m. This may have been a blessing in disguise, however. We stepped off the bus and it was a torrential downpour. (As if the city on canals needs any more water... I think the original words to "Ironic" were "It's like rain, on your trip to Venice) We managed to find the water taxi that took us to the stop closest to our hotel. This would have been a cool experience had we been able to see out the windows. I guess to make up for the crappy weather, we totally lucked out with our hotel. It was the nicest room I have stayed in this semester. Plus, with our college-student mentality and cunning intuition, we each only paid €17, including breakfast. What a bargain!
After checking in, we didn't want the weather to stop us from seeing the coolest city in the world. The three of us geared up like we were battling a hurricane, and set off to Saint Mark's Square. Despite the rain, Saint Mark's Cathedral was still a beautiful sight. We took a few photos, but were cold and wet. We found warmth (and food) in this stereotypical Italian ristorante. As expected, we all ordered pasta dishes and alcohol to lift our spirits. This dinner definitely fulfilled expectations. My penne pasta with spicy sauce was incredible, as was the girls' penne with pesto and gnocchi bolognese. After dinner, we couldn't handle the rain anymore and turned in for the night.
The next morning, we were planning on leaving for Florence around 9:30 am, so the three of us got up at 6:45 in hopes of seeing a dry Venice. After a quick, but delicious, breakfast, we stepped outside to a beautiful morning (Thank God!) We put our backpacks and game faces on and saw as many of the 118 islands of Venice as possible. We headed to Saint Mark's again for the authentic experience (trying our best to not take a picture at every canal) and were not let down. The bay near the cathedral was glistening and we could actually see the surrounding islands. After snapping some quick pictures, we headed to Rialto (the Venetian market on a bridge) but found it closed. This was probably for the better considering we had little time to catch our train. Thanks to well-labeled signs, we booked it through Venice and made it to the train station on time. Unfortunately, the train we wanted to catch to Florence was sold out. After one of the most stressful 20 minutes of my life, we were able to buy tickets for Florence through Bologna around 11 am. The three of us took advantage of this time to see more of Venice and appreciate its grandeur. After some Italian gelatto, we caught our train and left Venice in our wake.....