Archive for the 'Travel Tips' Category

View of the World

This is the third installation of my Easter break in Europe. Click for Part 1 and Part 2!


The easiest way to travel in Italy is, by far, the train system. trenitalia offers great [if a bit pricey, but still affordable] trains, both regional and high speed, between most of the major cities in Italy. I took the high speed trains when I was in Italy, taking about two hours to get from Venice to Florence, and another two hours from Florence to Rome. And seriously, those two hours go by fast. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of this, but I noted down in my trusty little notebook that at one point the train reached speeds of 214 km/h. After I wrote that down I watched the speed increase even higher!

How did I know the speed? Let me backtrack a little to describe where I am first. I boarded the train to Florence at the St. Lucia station in Venice [the only train station in Venice, as I was nicely told by the man at the hostel]. The train has a tapered nose on both ends. It is a dark silver color. Some of the trains have green stripes, others have red. I think the one I had was red. My seat was in the second class, coach 7, so I wasn’t expecting much [from previous experiences with second class and economy, etc.] but to my surprise, this train was lush! [A word my Welsh friend like to use meaning, very very very nice.]

Those were the seats I was given [actually just the one my stuff is on. That’s my Time bag!]. The chair in front of you had a little tray you could pull down and that tray was quite large. The seat also reclined, but the reclining occurred in its own space, as if the chair worked on a semicircle, so if you reclined your chair you didn’t get in the leg room of the person behind you! [You probably can’t really tell that from the picture] After I found my seat and took some picture, a couple came over and noticed that they weren’t next to each other. Though their numbers were indeed consecutive, whoever numbered our coach got mixed up because the numbering got a little screwed up in our section. They spoke English [American accents, actually] so I heard them lamenting about how they would just have to sit apart and I offered to switch seats so they could sit together. They accepted and so I switched. And then two friends came along with the same predicament, and asked if I could switch but since I had just switched seats, I declined. Once was enough for me. Plus, the seat they would have wanted me to switch to had no window. What’s the point of taking a train if you can’t look out the window?

Here is where the television screen comes in. In the aisle there were television screens attached to the ceiling that let us know where we were, how close we were to our destination via a small picture and a timeline, and the stops we were going to. It also switched between a few advertisements, a map of Italy which conveniently also showed the speed at which we were traveling, and it also showed the weather for all of Italy and more specifically, for the next destination. Handy.

So I arrived in Florence and had a bit of a rough time finding my hostel because the street I was supposed to walk straight on kept changing names [about four times] so I wasn’t quite sure I was on the right street half the time. But I found it, eventually. I stayed at PLUSflorence, and unless you are big on extra things during your travel, I wouldn’t stay here. Breakfast wasn’t included [so I bought some cookies and fruits from the supermarket down the street]. The rooms were super nice though, like a luxury hostel room. There was also a bar, a restaurant, a pool, and a sauna. There may or may not have been a gym. Extras. All I want when I got to hostels is a place to sleep and eat my food. But all in all, quite nice. They also offer some trips and excursions you could take, but they were pricey so I didn’t take them.

Florence was by far my favorite city on my trip. My fourth destination, and though Venice is a wonder in itself, Florence held cobblestone streets that wandered in a sensible direction and a place to get some of the best views I’ve ever seen. And a really incredibly cheap gelato place that I happened to find selling cheesecake! and tiramisu! flavors for 1 euro for a single scoop!! Trust me when I say I went there three times in 1 1/2 days of being in Florence.

The view from Giani’s Bell Tower

The first day I was there I decided to take advantage of the sunny weather [if you’ve read my other travel posts, you might be noticing a trend with the weather]. I saw the Duomo and climbed the Campanile, or the Bell Tower, as it is known in English. I got this tip from a girl I met in Venice and also from a wonderful traveling Italy website. There is no line, and it is cheaper. Plus when you get to the top [all 414 steps and 82.7 m!] you get breathtaking views, plus you can get the Duomo in your pictures. Very nice. Worth the 6 euros. Although for the claustrophobic, I wouldn’t recommend going to the highest point. There are about four stops before the summit, so I would stop around the third [or the fourth if there is a fourth, I don’t remember]. You’ll be able to tell when you’re about to hit the stairs going to the summit because you will literally not be able to go up the stairs if someone is going down. Hug the walls. The stairs get narrower and narrower the higher you get with each level. The views are totally worth it though, especially when it’s sunny out. You can see really far into the distance and plus you can see the thousands of people below.

After the Bell Tower I went across the river [found the gelato place first!] and then climbed up to Piazzale Michelangelo. This is a little outside of the city, but still within Florence. It is less touristy here [except for the area near Ponte Vecchio] so things are cheaper, generally, and less crowded. So I was surprised to see so many people at the P.le but afterwards I realized it was because most of the people there were teenagers on a Eurotrip. When they left it got much quieter.

You need a viewfinder to find things on top of the Bell Tower, or just look with the naked eye!

P.le Michelangelo View – Duomo and Bell Tower on the left

On the way to the Piazzale there is a garden and it was at this garden where I saw my first lemon trees. The trees were about five feet tall, rather small, but each of them held dangling bright yellow lemons! If life gives you lemon trees, take some pictures because you can only find this in the weirdest places.

I headed to Ponte Vecchio after this, took a side stop and saw a church on this side of the river, before going across the river on Ponte Vecchio. For those who don’t know, Ponte Vecchio is the only bridge that survived the bombing from the World War in Florence. It is clearly recognizable [unless you’ve never seen it before] and something hard to forget. It has windows on it. And looks like it is made up of tiny houses, but these are actually just the shops that line both sides of the bridge.

Afterwards I headed into the Uffizi Gallery and waited, and waited, and waited, until finally a half hour to forty five minutes later I managed to go in. I might have mentioned this in my languages post [click here!] but Italians do not usually give student discount. Which kind of sucked, because that meant I had to pay 11 euros to go inside the museum. Which was confusing. As hell. The Uffizi is a U-shape, or a rectangle without the top. When you enter you have to climb stairs to get to the first floor, but that’s not where the exhibit starts! Oh no. You need to climb to the second floor before you’re actually in the gallery. And then you hand the lady your ticket, she rips off the stub, and then you are greeted by statues. Tons and tons of statues. I thought this was a gallery with paintings! [Someone did actually say something similar to that behind me.] The Uffizi houses very old art, 16th and 17th century sculptures and paintings [Italian only] that the Medici family acquired in some way or other [read as: stolen. just kidding!] And then you finally get to the other side of the U and you see signs saying “Sortie” [exit] and you’re wondering “Wait, I’ve only seen one floor. How do I get to the other?” And then you wander around going up stairs and down stairs, before finally realizing that in order to get to the exit you need to go down the stairs which takes you to floor one, the second part of the gallery. Unless you take a detour to the foreign paintings [like I did. I enjoyed this part more], in which you need to go down to see the paintings, then back up and backtrack because that gallery doesn’t connect to the main gallery. The Uffizi is sorry for any inconvenience it has caused you because the lift doesn’t really work.

In case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t really enjoy the Uffizi. I was tired and hungry by the time I left there, but was excited to see the replica of David [statue] in the square outside. Then I headed back to the hostel and ate some snacks for dinner. I met a nice Hungarian guy [too nice, as it turned out] who happened to be in the same room as me. Since the other beds were taken, he was forced to bunk with me [which was a little awkward the next night when we were the only two people in our room, and we were still in the same bunk beds. Oh well.]

We had a nice chat and since we both had places we still wanted to explore, we traveled together the next day.

the Ponte Vecchio

We waited in line to go inside the Duomo basilica [which was free, but had a long line]. Having someone to talk to while waiting in line makes the waiting go by faster. It also helps to have lots of snacks to munch on. [Remember that red bag next to my Time bag in the train? It contained all my snacks! An assortment of Lindt chocolate easter eggs and Italian biscuits.] The day with the Hungarian guy [named Victor, but it’s actually Guozo in Hungarian] was mostly spent wandering around, but we did go to the Gallileo museum, which was quite interesting. It is right next to the Uffizi gallery and has lots of sciency things such as a HUGE globe thing [no pictures allowed] and the original desk of one of the Medici’s or a Prince with samples he took labeled in his own handwriting. Plus the old instruments they used to conduct electricity and vacuums and such. Plus a strange display of babies inside women’s uteruses but facing the wrong way. I didn’t really understand that one.

Perhaps the highlight of that day began with the Palazzo Vecchio, behind the Uffizi gallery and cheaper. The whole building has paintings on it. It belonged to the Medici, it was essentially the castle in which the Medici lived. The walls, and ceiling were covered in beautiful, breathtaking art, as well as the Medici symbol [five red balls which we later figured out were probably five little oranges/tangerines by the tangerine trees that were downstairs by the entrance.] We spent a good two hours in that place probably.

You pretty much went around with your head looking up the entire time, like the man in the picture.

And old table warped by age in the Palazzo

Afterwards we went back to the hostel, Victor went for a swim, and then we headed out to find someplace that we could eat spaghetti [you have to eat spaghetti when you’re in Italy, after all!] We found a local bar just down the street from our hostel with the cheapest spaghetti we’d seen [4,50 euros!]. Victor got spaghetti carbanara [or something] and I got spaghetti bolognese. Here are the before and after pictures to tell you how amazing it was.

an attractive picture of Victor with our spaghetti

It was amazing. My plate shows you how you should put your silver after you’re done eating. Don’t follow Victor’s example.

Victor also managed to eat two plates of the apperitif food that was on the table behind him, a combination of rice, potatoes, salad, pasta, and some other things. Apperitif in Italy is a meal deal in which you buy a drink and can eat as much of the offered food you would like [usually on a small table]. It can cost anywhere between 5 euros and 10 euros, but those are just the prices I saw. You might be able to find it for cheaper.

Then we bought some wine [or we did that before dinner, I don’t remember] and had the bar at the hostel open it for us because we didn’t have a wine opener, and we headed for the Ponte Vecchio. A city at night is different from a city during the day. It is definitely important to get a feel for both, but when traveling by yourself as a girl it isn’t safe sometimes.

Everything was lit up and the river was beautiful. The Ponte Vecchio had other people on it, drinking wine [you could tell from the very full rubbish bin full of wine bottles]. There were, of course, venders selling flowers. At one point Victor played some Norah Jones on his phone but then we headed back because I was getting tired and had a train to catch in the morning.

River Arno from the Ponte Vecchio at night

Goodbye Florence, I will miss you.

For anyone who wants to know where the gelato place is, it is on the street that leads to the bridge that leads to Piazzale Michelangelo. It is next door to a kebab shop, on the left hand side of the street if you are walking towards the river. It is small but has wonderful flavors, so keep your eye out!


No Habla Espanol

Perhaps the greatest challenge during my travels [no worries, I’m not done talking about my travels just yet! Interlude begin!] was the language barrier. At most hostels I could speak English with people, but aside from that, I know very very little Spanish, a little more French, and zero Italian. The only things I could say were the things I had written down before I went traveling [aside from my elementary/intermediate knowledge of French]. I didn’t really need to say much in Spanish or Italian, but here are some things I noticed about the languages.

In Italy, pretty much the moment you walk into a shop you say “Ciao” or “Buongiorno”. Then you say “Ciao” and “Arrivederci” when you leave. [Excuse my horrible spelling] Now, most people know ‘thank you’ in Italian is “grazie”, but most people probably assume it is pronounced /grat-zi/, but you know what happens when you assume! From listening to other Italian people say the word, /grat-zi/ is okay, but most people pronounce the word as /grat-zia/. Yes, the “e” at the end is pronounced! There’s a little bit of knowledge for you the next time you go to Italy.

In Barcelona, the main language spoken is Catalan, not Spanish. In most places you go to there will be a translation into Spanish. If you speak Spanish they will understand you [kind of] but they will realize that you do not belong to the region. That’s okay, though. A lot of people spoke English or enough to understand what you were trying to say. Hand motions help too. That’s another thing. In order to specify eating, if you don’t know how to say “eat” in Spanish, the motion is putting your fingers together and putting your hand by your lips. So your hand kind of looks like a bird’s beak and then it’s by your hand. Now you know how to motion that you are there to eat if you have no idea what the waiter is saying to you!

I spoke the barest amount of Spanish in Barcelona and most of the people understood what I was saying, so for anyone else who knows Spanish, you’ll be fine.

Since I am a student, you can mostly get student prices for museums. If they ask for ID, only European school IDs work. If they don’t, then good for you. Try to skip the ID portion by asking in Spanish for an “estudiante des billetes”, or if you’re like me and have choppy Spanish, I usually asked “estudiante ticket” and that worked out fine. In Italy, when you get to the ticket booth, specify the number and then the reduced ticket, so for one you would say “uno riduto”.  Usually they’ll have it written in Italian by the prices so if you forget the word, just take a quick look before you get there and then ask. Italian ticket offices are not very friendly. They get straight to the point, so if you specify it exactly then you should get through no problem. Although sometimes they only gave reduced to people part of the European Union, which sucked, but if you’re under 26 sometimes they’ll let you in!

Be polite!

The second part of this post has to do with the first night at my hostel in Venice. There were two Oriental girls in our dorm and they were telling us [in English] about some things they had encountered during their stay in Venice. Then after a little while they asked me where I was from. I am Chinese American, so most Asian people I have met since being abroad tend to ask me where I’m from [actually, most people ask me where I’m from]. I told them I’m from America and they kind of let it rest. To me it seemed like they were a little disappointed. And then they asked where my parents were from and I told them Taiwan and then they just kind of dropped the subject. Then they started talking to each other in Chinese. At this point I kind of felt like they were kind of disappointed to find out I wasn’t from an Asian country, so I asked them something in Chinese. The looks on their faces. They seemed really surprised that I knew Chinese! This was perhaps one of the things I’d been told before, but never actually experienced it in real life.

I’m not sure who, probably my mom, by someone told me before that Asians who meet other Asians that are from America are usually under the impression that these Asian Americans cannot speak an Asian language. I’m guessing that’s what these girls thought and thus they were surprised when I could speak Chinese. Previously, at my university here in England I have had other Chinese people come up to me and ask me in English if I can speak Chinese, then they’ll ask me to clarify something or ask me where something is. I guess because they didn’t know I was from America they assumed that since I’m Asian, I must speak an Asian language. Out of the possible choices, there is a high possibility that I speak the language they need.

I don’t know. I guess I was just surprised to actually have that happen to me. We had a nice conversation afterwards. Short, but it was nice talking in Chinese for a little while. My Chinese has gotten quite rusty being here.

Post on  Florence coming soon!

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