Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Paris, Amsterdam, and the final days of Florence!

The last few days here in Italy are flying by and I’ve been taking in as much of the city as I can before heading back home. Today, for the first time, I went to the Academia and saw the original David. I had seen the replica in Piazza della Signoria, but seeing the original in person was even more impressive and I’m so glad I got to before leaving. Finals are almost over and visiting the Christmas fair in Piazza Santa Croce was the perfect break from studying this afternoon. It’s gotten cold out recently, so I made a few stops to get some hot mulled wine and a delicious wurstel with craut while walking through the different international tents. It was bustling with tourists and locals eating, enjoying the beautiful Christmas decorations, and checking out the tents selling ornaments, food, winter gear, and music. Florence’s chilly weather has been nothing compared to the temperatures earlier this week during my trip to Paris and Amsterdam. Originally our flight was canceled because of all the snow they were getting, so we just hopped on an overnight train and woke up the next morning surrounded by a snow covered Paris. It was absolutely beautiful and we spent all of our time walking around and seeing the sights. Our first day there we walked from L’Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre, stopping along the way for delicious fresh crepes with sugar. Incredible! We spent hours wandering around the halls of the Louvre looking at the art and exploring Napoleon’s apartments which were ridiculously extravagant. It was awesome getting to see the Mona Lisa, beautiful statues like ‘Cupid and Psyche’ and the ‘Winged Victory’, and of course the huge glass pyramids above and below ground. That night we made our own Christmas feast back at the apartment before walking to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up at night.

On the second day of our trip we took a trip up to Holland to visit Amsterdam and it was so much fun. I didn’t realize there were so many canals throughout the city, and the Christmas lights, bridges, water, and architecture made it a really nice place to explore. Once we had our bearings we headed over to the Anne Frank house and it was an unforgettable experience being in the house, seeing the original wallpaper decorated with pictures Margot Frank had glued up, and walking through the rooms they hid in. Afterwards we went across town to de some exploring and see what the Red Light district was all about—quite an experience! Unfortunately our stay in Amsterdam went by way too quickly, but we still had one last day in Paris before flying back to our finals.

We started out our last day in Paris with a workout, and climbed to the top of the hill to see Sacre Coeur, a beautiful church with an amazing view of the city. Then I was off to see Notre-Dame! It’s interesting how different the architecture was in Paris compared to that of Florence, and I loved getting to see Notre-Dame up close and discover the huge stained glass windows inside. Before it got dark, Christina and I went back to the Eiffel Tower and began the climb—it kicked my butt but the views were definitely worth it. Once we got to the second floor (about 600 steps and 1 waffle with sugar later) we got to take a nice elevator ride up to the top, and just as we stepped outside the entire tower started sparkling, which it does for the first 5 minutes of every hour. The view from that high up of Paris at night was absolutely incredible, and the city was lit up beautifully. We stayed on top of the Eiffel Tower for a while and by the time we got back to the apartment it was dinnertime! For our last dinner there we all went to the Latin Quarter to a little restaurant with excellent food. I got escargot, which I love, and delicious duck fillet with potatoes—so good! Tonight after filling up on great Italian pizza—I really am trying to eat as much as possible before leaving Florence—I started the daunting task of packing. Much progress has been made, but without a doubt my bags are overweight and bursting at the seams. I seem to be a modern day Santa Clause, flying home for Christmas with my huge red suitcase full of presents for everyone. Some advice for anyone planning on studying abroad: pack light because you’ll certainly have accumulated a lot by the time you leave. Now that there are only 3 days left here in Florence this whole experience seems to have gone by so fast. I’m definitely looking forward to being back with family, but I know I’ll be missing Florence and its people, culture, and food in no time. Studying abroad is absolutely the best thing I could have done and I’m so lucky to have made such amazing friends throughout this semester!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Marrakech, Morocco!

To take a break from the cold these past few days, Christina, Andrea and I took a trip to the city of Marrakech in Morocco, Africa. Everything seemed so different, colorful, and at times very overwhelming, but always exciting. It took a while but as soon as we got our bearings we jumped right in and began exploring. Three full days was definitely not long enough but we packed in as much as we could, first hitting the main square, the market, and then getting out of town to go hiking.

The main square in Marrakech is absolutely chaotic. Hundreds of stores with beautiful colors hanging around their entrances circle the center square which is full of carts selling freshly squeezed orange juice and nuts, fruit, women doing henna, monkeys, snakes, donkeys, scooters, bikes, and thousands of locals and tourists. First things first: we stopped for lunch. There were so many places to choose from, we ended up eating at this amazing restaurant right on the edge of the square. We sat in the sun up on the terrace that overlooked everything below and had a great view of the mosque. We ordered vegetarian couscous, roasted chicken with olives, and tajine lamb with apples all for less than 200 dirhams (~ 20 euro) and it was incredible. After lunch we journeyed into the square to get henna tattoos and that was quite an experience. As soon as you look interested in something you’re attacked from all directions with offers and prices and in this case they had their henna pens out and were drawing designs on our arms before we realized what was even happening. Negotiating a price afterwards was another experience altogether, everything is marked up about 90% and you have to do some serious bargaining.

With our freshly inked arms we headed into the market to do some shopping. Everywhere you look there is something new and interesting to see: beautiful scarves, daggers, colorful pillows and blankets, rugs, delicious smelling spices, and intricate metal and glass lamps. Once we had adjusted to the scenery and smells it was so much fun walking through and looking at everything, talking and bargaining with the locals. Luckily we’ve had some practice in the Mercato San Lorenzo in Florence, otherwise we would have been entirely overwhelmed. After the market we headed back into the square to get some fresh orange juice from the vendors. It was without a doubt the best orange juice I’ve ever had and we went back several times throughout our stay for more.

Our second day in Morocco was spent traveling to the valley town of Ourika (and stopping along the way to pet camels), where we hiked up the mountain to see a huge beautiful waterfall. In fact, it was more mountain climbing than hiking, and converse and jeans were not the most appropriate attire, but it was well worth it. All along the trail were clusters of small houses and shops selling handmade pottery and carved stones, and even restaurants set up right on the mountain. Considering the climb I have no idea how they were able to get everything that far up. Back in Ourika we ate lunch right on the river and then back to Marrakech for dinner in the square! It felt like we were nonstop eating delicious food, and that’s the best kind of trip. By the time we got back to Marrakech, the square had transformed from a huge open area to a maze of tents selling all sorts of foods: snails, soups, fish, tajine, couscous, and skewers of grilled meat were only some of the things we passed. Eventually we decided on fried fish and chips, and were given delicious bread and salsa at this one stand that everyone seemed to be enjoying. I can’t wait to get home and try to recreate all the dishes I’ve tasted while abroad! While walking around and taking pictures, we tried these amazing cookies being sold by little kids, and couldn’t help but go back for more before calling it a night.

On our last day in Marrakech we took a walk down the road to the huge mosque and spent some time walking around it and admiring the architecture. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed in, but the grounds and outside were beautiful and we hung out there for a while before going back for more Moroccan food and market shopping. Walking back to the hotel that night we learned about spices, herbs, and natural soaps, talked to some of the locals, and I now have a facebook friend in Morocco to keep in touch with! 6 a.m. and our taxi to the airport came way too quickly, and we were on our way back to Florence. Only 2 more days now and then… Paris! More posts and pictures soon!