Monday, May 9, 2011

Sarah Santos - Munich - April 22-24

When we arrived in Munich, I was taken aback. All the houses we passed for the first five minutes were brightly colored and none of them were very tall. The streets were immaculately clean without any traces of graffiti whatsoever. For the third largest city in Germany, Munich gave more of a small town, friendly vibe with its residents either riding bikes or taking their dogs for leisurely walks on such a warm Friday evening. Since we were only spending two nights here, our real day of exploring was Saturday morning which began with a walking tour of the city. Let me begin by saying this was the best walking tour I have enjoyed this entire trip. The tour guide was extremely knowledgeable and not only gave us information about the buildings and monuments, but gave us an extensive history of the city itself. Ossie, the tour guide, also gave us a real background about Munich and Bavarian culture. This was the first time I was left with an understanding of the actual citizens of a place instead of just their tourist attractions.

Munich is often referred to as the second capital of Germany and is the capital of the state of Bavaria. Bavaria is the most Catholic state in all of Germany and had sided with the French during the Thirty Years War. Ten years before was actually over, Munich’s duke erected a column with a gold Virgin Mary on top asking her to protect the city from the war, sickness, famine, and the heretics. These four things were symbolized by angels fighting a lion, a basilisk, a dragon, and a serpent. The column is in front of the city town hall and had Ossie pointed out, a monument such as this one says a lot about the people. I also learned that there are some tensions between Berliners and M√ľnchners. However, M√ľnchners are biased like every other people and like to say they live in a much better city than Berlin and that they are proud for maintaining their culture and traditions. They aren’t exactly wrong either; Munich was voted the best city to live both in 2008 and this year and the city enjoys an extremely low crime rate.

In my opinion, Munich is an adorable city that is just filled with history that you would never know unless you looked it up or if you had Ossie as your tour guide. My favorite place in the city is by far, the Englischer Garten. I was lucky enough to squeeze time into going there on both Saturday and early Easter morning. The park is a lot larger than Central Park in NYC; it is over 7km long. Locals can be seen exercising there or just simply sunbathing on one of its several lawns. The coolest area was the surfer’s wave. I kept thinking how much fun it would be to be able to surf on a river in the middle of a city.

All in all, there was just too much of Munich to be explored in such a small amount of time. It is currently on the top of my list of places I must go back to and if I am lucky enough, I will hopefully live in what is the loveliest city ever.

Sarah Clark - Venice - April 21

If someone asked you to describe Venice, Italy, your answer would probably include romance, gondolas, Venetian glass, and authentic Carnival masks. You might mention the Grand Canal or the Piazza San Marco. Maybe you would discuss whether the city is in fact, sinking, as many people claim. You would probably not discuss the tourist-glutted streets or the ever-lingering smell of high tide that pervades the city. Venice is one of the most well-known cities in the world. It is the backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters such as The Tourist, Tomb Raider, and The Italian Job. In these movies, the city is always as a hidden gem or an ancient wonder. In real life, the city is beautiful but overcrowded, and more touristy than authentic. It has become an expensive tourist town, where it is very difficult to actually find any locals. The areas of Venice that I appreciated the most were those that truly displayed Venetian workmanship and skill. It is for this reason that two of my favorite locations in Venice were the Carnival mask shop and the Murano Glass store.

Pretty early in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a mask shop, one among the many lining the small, windy streets. It turned out to be one of the coolest shops we saw all day. The shop's 'No Pictures' policy was abandoned by the owner once he realized we were all going to purchase multiple masks. Once we were allowed to take pictures, the shop turned into an hour-long photo shoot. If there is one way in which our group has bonded over the past eight weeks, it is over the fact that we all love taking hilarious posed pictures. The mask shop was no exception. Before long, we were wearing a variety of animal head masks, elaborate feather-covered masquerade-style masks, and long velvety capes. All of the masks were designed by the shop owner's uncle. Each one was unique, beautiful and intricate. Many of us who had not intended to purchase anything changed our minds after trying a few on and falling in love with them. A few of us joked that we plan on wearing our masks around the house as frequently as possible once we arrive back in the United States. After laughing and snapping photos for more almost an hour, we all purchased our masks and moved on down the road to a Murano glass shop.

Venice is known for Venetian glass, which is now mainly produced in the city of Murano. All of the stores along the streets contain glass pendants and jewelry, wine stoppers and silverware, claiming to be Murano glass. However, we learned very quickly that most of these products are not genuine Murano glass. Counterfeit Murano glass lacks a stamp of authenticity and a pamphlet describing the production process. Many shop owners prey on stereotypical 'ignorant tourists' to purchase regular glass under the assumption that it is authentic Murano. The shop we found at the end of a long touristy road was a genuine Murano glass manufacturer. The first room of the shop contained a huge horse, completely made of green Venetian glass. Inside, thousands of beautifully handcrafted pieces lined shelves and tabletops. It was easy to get lost in the shop, trying on jewelry and picking out souvenirs for our families and friends. The difference between real Murano glass and the counterfeit glass that lined the streets was clear in this shop. Each bead was a masterpiece here, and we all found ourselves awestruck by its beauty.

After the mask and the glass shops, we got to go on a gondola ride inside the city. This part of the day was a necessity. None of us wanted to visit Venice without going on a gondola. Our ride was brief, lasting around twenty minutes. Throughout our time on the gondola, we spent equal amounts of time taking pictures and pinching ourselves. Many of the stops on our trip have induced this pinching mechanism in us. We constantly stop, surrounded by beauty, and say to each other, 'I can't believe we are in Venice, on a gondola!' or "I can't believe we are taking cheesy pictures with the Leaning Tower of Pisa!' The gondola ride was peaceful and surreal. We took some time out of the trip to interview our gondola 'driver.' We discussed the conversion to the Euro and Venice's integration into the European Union. He said that the conversion to the Euro practically doubled the prices everywhere. He also told us that he was born in Venice but moved out because it has become strictly a tourist town that is simply too expensive to live in on a daily basis. Our gondola ride reminded me of an amusement park ride. We had to endure crowds and long lines to get on, and it was short, but exhilarating.

We spent all day in Venice. Before we got on the water taxi to go back, we grabbed some gelato, savoring each bite all the more because we knew it would be our last opportunity to eat Italian gelato. Venice was an interesting stop for us. It was super-touristy, but with a backdrop of ancient beauty. It was not one of the places, like Capri, that our group talks about wanting to live in or go back to at the first opportunity later in life. However, it was definitely an experience, and we had a great time all together.

Michael Dickerson - Ferry - April 20

Today was a sad day, mainly because it was our last day in Greece. We had to say farewell to a country that have given us so many good memories. We remember feta cheese, Greek salads, the Parthenon, and of course the amazingly sweet and nice stray dogs. But alas all good things must come to an end, so we had to drive to get on the ferry back to Italy. When we arrived in the port town we noticed a strange phenomenon. There were groups of young men lining the street. Linda quickly informed us that these men were trying to get on the ferry and to go to a better life in Italy. You could see the desperation in their eyes as they hid in bushes waiting to hitch a ride on a tractor-trailer going on the ferry. After what seemed an eternity of waiting we boarded our vessel. Our ferry was supposed to be about an 11-hour ride, but by some miraculous turn of events we were going to arrive early! Hello, Italy! Once again we are in the land of pizza, pasta and cheese. Life couldn’t be better.

Liz Weeden - Meteora - April 17-19

Our last few nights in Greece were spent in Meteora, an area with rock towers that stand out around the town of Kalambaka. Millions of years ago this area was under water, and the current weathered the rocks into smooth formations. Now that Meteora is no longer submerged, these rocks just stick up as if they are huge giants surrounding the small towns. As we drove around the rocks filled with old water caves and crevices, I imagined Meteora as a modern day, dried up Atlantis.

Eastern Orthodox monks were the first people to inhabit Meteora. At first the monks lived in the caves and fissures of the rock towers which provided them with a peaceful and beautiful place to worship. Later the monks built six separate monasteries on top of the largest of the rock formations. The only way to reach the monasteries is over bridges or using cable cars. Built almost seamlessly into the hard rock, they cling to the tops of the shaped mountains and it’s hard to comprehend how the monks originally built them.

The day we visited the biggest monastery, The Great Meteoron, the surrounding rock towers were wrapped in a blanket of mist, giving it a mysterious and yet already spiritual feeling. Inside there were various rooms of religious and Greek cultural history. The most religious rooms also have the most eery items. There is an entire room full of the skulls of the ancient monks. Near it is a room dedicated ot the saints. It is painted top to bottom with gruesome portrayals of various forms of saint murders. The pictures vividly show bloody images of stonings, decapitations, boiling, burning, crucifixions, and beatings. I’m a fairly religious person but it’s hard to feel strongly about religion when it’s gruesome past is the main focus.

But the monastery didn’t just hold religious memorabilia, but also had galleries and museum rooms of Greek history. The Gallery of Admirals had portraits of various Greek military, political, and intellectual individuals. Various writers, politicians, and military generals were presented. The most interesting was the lone female of the group, Laskarina Bouboulina. Admiral Bouboulina was a Greek heroine of the War of Independence in the early 1800s because she selflessly donated all of her property for the needs of the war. In a room full of men this woman clearly stood out.

The rest of our time in Meteora we spent learning about traditional Greek culture. The owner of the guest house we stayed in took us to a dinner where we were entertained by Greek dancers. Costumes and all they put on a great show. After dinner they welcomed us onto the stage where we all got to try our hand at Greek dancing. We all had left-feet syndrome. But it was a great bonding experience as we linked arms, trying to keep time with the live music.

The day we left, Linda, Tom and I were given the opportunity to be interviewed on a Greek radio station. Since I’ve missed my days with WRHU, I jumped at the chance. Thank goodness there was a translator because Greek is way over my head. We were questioned about the US and our trip so far, along with our opinion on the current economic troubles in Greece. The interview was both fun and enlightening for our last day in Greece.

Meteora was a great way to end our stay in Greece. It was full of the natural beauty and traditions of Greek life and culture. I may have left Greece for now, but I know that I’ll be returning in the future.

Tom DiBlasi - Athens - Acropolis - April 15, 16

On April 16th we went to the top of the Acropolis of Athens. The word acropolis means “city by the edge.” Although there are many acropolises in Greece, the Acropolis of Athens is the most well-known in the world. Historians have been able to find traces of civilization dating all the way back to the Neolithic Age, 7th millennium B.C. The Parthenon, one of the seven great wonders of the world, was built in the middle of the fifth century B.C. in the Golden Age of the Greek empire. The Parthenon was designed by Ictinus and Callicrates. The statue of Athena was built by Phidias. At the end of the century the Erechteion and the temple of Athena Nike were built. In the second century AD Herodes Atticus built a great theatre that is still currently used. The Parthenon and several other temples were converted into Christian churches in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century the Turks conquered Athens and turned the Parthenon into a mosque. While the Turks had control of Athens, they left gunpowder in the Parthenon. The gunpowder had exploded and took off the roof. The Parthenon is still currently roofless. The Greek government is in the midst of restoring the Parthenon, to keep alive the history it represents.

Allison Redman - Photos from Nafpaktos

Monday, May 2, 2011

TJ Samson - Olympia - April 13,14

Olympia was the site of the first Olympic games in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Since then, this small town has become a tourist haven for the games connoisseurs and Greek mythology enthusiasts. The main road is filled with tiny souvenir shops and restaurants all leading up to the ancient ruin site. This site holds the Temple of Zeus, where the Olympic torch is light, and the Great Chariot field. At the Chariot field we fashioned our own Olympic games. We had several relay races and it truly felt like we were in the Olympics. The fellow tourists were all surrounding the field cheering us on.

Allison Redman - Nafpaktos - April 11, 12

On the northern coast of the Corinthian gulf sits the town of Nafpaktos. The large port town lines the shore with shops, cafes and restaurants; creating a welcoming environment for the visitors. We were lucky enough to explore during our warmly greeted study breaks for midterms. Once we finished our exams, we saw the major attraction of the area, the Venetian Castle of Nafpaktos that overlooks town and the port.

The castle is one of the most preserved castles in Greece. It’s fortification clings to the mountain as it stood throughout history. It was built during ancient times, followed by the Venetians during the Middle Ages until the Turks took over during the 15th century. The five-wall fort is constructed on different levels of the mountain for maximum security. Two of them were built down toward the sea. This provided not only a base for conquerors, but a safe haven for the town’s people who would file into the fort for protection during war.

For us today, it provided a beautiful view of the town we had resided in for two nights. We were surrounded by wild flowers after a day of gray dreary weather and rain. It was our place to explore. People were on every level of the fort, as if preparing for battle. We were the soldiers and the town’s people who wanted to protect our momentary home and our community. After seven weeks of unbelievable experiences and close quarters, we have become a small community, one that we must protect. We are the fort, we are the fight, and we are the beauty for that moment. Perhaps we felt one and a sense of peace there in our momentary place, but we filed in our vans, our true fort and our home on the road.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Liz Weeden - Gelato throughout Italy

There are various types of research associated with studying abroad, and none surpass the importance of food research. It’s an art form and takes someone with cultured taste to be able to critique the best of the best foreign meals. That being said, the European Odyssey group was given the burden of taste-testing gelato throughout its home in Italy. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it. We slaved away, walking from gelateria to gelateria in search of the best gelato. There were many taste-testing spoon casualties all for the sake of satisfying the all-powerful sweet tooth. From the Cinque Terre to Florence, to Rome and finally Sorrento…no gelato was safe. Some of us stuck to the same gelato formula, hardly veering off into new flavors. Others got a bit adventurous, and one of our peers, Sarah Santos, became Gelato MVP by tasting a total of 16 flavors.

What is the difference between gelato and ice cream you may ask? We pondered the same question. Well in Rome we got our answer. At Teatro Gelateria, one of the owners told us the process of making gelato. Although it was hard to concentrate with all of the flavors staring at us from behind the sloped glass cooler, we found out some of the major differences between the icy treats. Gelato comes from the Italian word gelare, which means “to freeze” and is made of milk, sugar and other flavors (much like its sister, ice cream). There is however a water-based, generally fruit-flavored gelato which originated in Southern Italy and is commonly known as sorbetto. Gelato is often much fresher than ice cream, both in processing and in ingredients. Gelato is usually made with fresh fruit, right from the daily market. We learned that a flavor is natural and authentic if it has coloring that is natural to the actual ingredient the gelato is flavored after. For instance, banana gelato shouldn’t be colored bright yellow because the actual fruit is more of an off-white hue. Gelato made with dairy is much denser than ice cream, which makes it a heavier as well as more flavorful taste.

One of my favorite gelaterias was in Florence. Each night we would walk down our street to the same place, Gelateria Antica, which made fresh, homemade gelato. It was run by two of the nicest Italian men who gave us unlimited tastes and would talk to us and take pictures with us the entire time we were there. They had some normal, run-of-the-mill gelatos like Nutella (a delicious classic), After Eight (Mint Chocolate), Pure Chocolate, Vanilla, Stracciatella (Vanilla with Chocolate Flakes), and Coconut. But they also had unique flavors like “Manga” (Green Tea), Cheese and Pear, Tiramisu, and Ambrosia (Sweet Cream/Honey). It’s really hard to choose a favorite gelateria, but that one came close to the top.

Gelato was no match for the European Odyssey team.

Alexi Knock - Capri, Italy - April 7

On a sunny Thursday, the group decided to venture from Sorrento to the island of Capri. While waiting for the ferry to the famous island, we started a beach volleyball game on the warm sand. Although there wasn’t a net, we were able to have a great game while Italian sun-bathers cheered us on. After the short ferry ride across the Tyrrhenian Sea, we arrived on the beautiful island. Instead of following the crowd and taking the public boat, we negotiated with two sailors in order to get a private tour on their boats. They took us around to the Blue Grotto and Green Grotto, where we were able to explore the caves and even jump into the sea. Each limestone sea stack jutting out from the water was unique and seemed to hold shapes of animals, people, and objects. The sun hit the sea in a way that gave it a beautiful glisten that complimented the surrounding rocks. We passed multi-million dollar villas on the mountains that only celebrities and CEOs could afford. We spent two hours jumping in and out of the boats, lying in the sun, and talking with the tour guides about the European Union and how it affects their lives in Italy. Our day in Capri was one of the most relaxing, pleasant, and painstakingly beautiful days we’ve had on the trip so far, and I hope to one day return to that perfect island.

Kirsten White - Sorrento, Italy - April 6-9

Sorrento is a small, beautiful coastal city on the Mediterranean Sea in southwest Italy. The city is situated on a cliff with narrow, windy roads traversing back and forth until reaching the teal water and smooth pebbles at the shore. A main street on the top of the cliff, lined with pharmacies, shops, restaurants, and hotels, remains busy throughout the day and long into the night. In fact, this is so much the case that the street is entirely shut down starting around five at night, so that families, teenagers, tourists, and even pets can wander through in order to stop for a drink or meal somewhere before continuing on their way. We have the opportunity to stay at a deluxe hostel, a bit farther away from the main street, but nearer to the ocean, which was great. The restaurants near the water serve an excellent variety of pastas, meat, and seafood, so we were able to dine as the Italians do: enjoy three courses over a couple hours while engaging in playful conversations and soaking up the pleasure of good company. Thanks to Linda, Tim, and Hofstra’s network in Sorrento, we were able to conduct classes at the nearby language center called Sorrento Lingue. This institution is designed to compliment traditional high school or university education by providing local Italian students with foreign language classes or providing international students with Italian classes. The teachers and administrators were personable and were pleased when we asked them questions regarding the school, Sorrento, and even the European Union. Moreover, we were able to speak to some of the students there; comparing tests, educational systems, and general lifestyles. I was so excited to discover they all drove motorbikes! Our experience in Sorrento revealed pieces of Italy which we had not yet seen outside of a big metropolitan city. Speaking for myself as well as others, I can attest to the importance of this variety.

Amber Sass - Pompeii, Italy - April 6

In 79AD Mount Vesuvius erupted and incased the whole city of Pompeii. It wasn’t until 1599 that anyone saw it again. Archeologists excavated the whole town and found people and animals perfectly preserved in clay modes. When we found the bodies they didn’t looked surreal. They looked like statues that a sculptor had made. It was creepy in a very cool way. We also walked down to the amphitheater. We walked in to the bottom and had to look up at all the seats. There were people in the seats and it was very intimidating. I couldn’t imagine being there during 70AD and having to walk into a packed arena. The houses were all so interesting and differently set up. One house had a well in the center of it. The way they lived is so different than modern times, it is hard to imagine how they lived in the set ups of some of the houses. Seeing the ruined walls with their original paint colors is as haunting as walking down the semi preserved streets with Mount Vesuvius looming in the distance. I could only imagine the terror and chaos that ensued when it erupted.

TJ Samson - Rome, Italy. April 3-5 - Rosary Blessing

When we visited Vatican City, we ventured to St. Peter’s Basilica. I bought a golden rosary for my grandmother earlier in the day and brought it to the Basilica to get blessed by a deacon. We waited in line for a while and it was finally our turn. We went up to the confessional and met with the deacon on duty. He only spoke Italian and Latin so it was somewhat difficult, but he understood what I wanted. He said a prayer in Latin and blessed the rosary. It was an extremely spiritual and religions experience and I think my grandmother will enjoy the rosary fully.

Michael Dickerson - Rome, Italy. April 3-5 - Vatican City

(Photos by Liz Weeden)

I was raised a Catholic, but I’m a special kind of Catholic. I’m what you call a holiday Catholic. I go to mass on Christmas and Easter. Nevertheless I was extremely excited to go to Vatican City. The Vatican is just oozing with history; the treasures in there cannot be matched. As we drove up to the Vatican Museums we noticed that there were no lines! NO LINES AT ALL!

We perched the vans and then everyone jumped out like we were in the army on a mission. We stormed into the museum and then the day just got better. After we got our tickets I found out that the Vatican, out of the goodness of their heart, was going to give me a wheelchair. HALLELUJAH! It seemed as if the Vatican was trying to make all my dreams come true. I was able to see most of the Vatican while being pushed in a wheelchair; I got to enjoy the beauty in the comfort of my own wheelchair. Each room seemed to have more and more priceless art. As we neared the Sistine Chapel the hallways became thinner, building the suspense. Finally we entered the chapel, and it lived up to all the hype. How Michelangelo managed to paint all that is just amazing. The ceiling showed the books of Genesis. The cool thing about it was that the angels almost looked like they were painted in 3-D. They looked like they were actually jumping out of the ceiling. On the far wall was Michelangelo’s depiction of The Last Judgment - a cool fact about Michelangelo was that he depicted a cardinal that he didn’t like as the devil.

The only thing wrong with the Sistine Chapel were the professional shushers. There were actually guards at the chapel whose only job was to shush. Now I don’t want to be rude, but if your job is to be a shusher then at some point in your life you did something wrong. But hey I guess if you work in the Vatican you almost have to be guaranteed a spot in heaven, or at least on the waiting list.

After leaving the museums Amber, Hannah and I walked over to Saint Peters Basilica. Once we arrived we saw, much to our displeasure that there were lines! How could this happen? But I had one more ace up my sleeve, my fractured foot. After talking to some nice guards, we were able to bypass every person in line. Upon entering the Basilica I just stopped dead in my tracks. It was the most beautiful, grand, amazing church I have ever seen. How anyone could even conceive to build this is beyond my wildest dreams. The high ceilings were able to let in just enough light to let you know that you were in a sacred place of worship.

The Vatican is a once in a lifetime experience. Whether a Christian or not, The Vatican is a worthwhile experience for everyone, especially history and art enthusiasts.

Sarah Santos - Rome, Italy. April 3-5 - Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Piazza di Popolo.

Although Rome was not built in a day, a day was all we had to explore the city. While in the eternal city, there are certain places you just have to visit. First for us was the extremely well known Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). During the day the fountain is very easy to find - just follow the crowds of people and souvenir shops marking the way there. Once we got to the fountain, I was slightly overwhelmed by the crowds in front of it. This had been the most people I had seen in a single, concentrated area since Paris. I preferred seeing the fountain the night before. It had been relatively empty and just amazing. At night, the Trevi Fountain is subtly lit and has a perfect romantic atmosphere. As is custom, we all threw coins in the fountain and made our wishes. Some wished for a swift return to Rome, others for love, and the rest only they themselves knew. Another stop on our whirlwind Roman holiday was the Scalinata di Spagna, more easily recognized as the Spanish Steps. The Steps are a great place to sit and recover, chat with friends, or meet with a loved one. For me, the Steps were a prime location to just sit and watch the hustle and bustle of the streets below in Rome. For a good amount of the time we were there, it wasn’t crowded or packed with tourists, which helped make the experience more authentic. The Spanish Steps had been designed by an Italian, paid for by the French, named for the Spanish, and formerly occupied by the British. It is also the current home of that omnipresent American fast-food chain: McDonald’s. On the Steps themselves, vendors are constantly wandering around selling roses. Then there was the closer of our day, the Piazza di Popolo, or the “people’s square.” At the center of the square, it is impossible to miss the 3200-year-old Obelisk of the Pharaoh Ramses that Augustus brought back with him from Egypt in 10AD. The obelisk is highly impressive and at its base there are steps and surrounding it there are four fountains with lions squirting out water. The square itself was massive and I couldn’t even imagine how it must be packed with rallies. While we sat there, a group of people passed that were dressed as zombies. One of them came up and handed me a flyer with the date of the next rally when we would no longer be in Rome. This square used to get heavily crowded as well when it was used as the location for the burning of the heretics. This square has quite a colorful history to it. The whole day was quite an adventure. I hope that I too will be granted a swift return to Rome as there is still so much left to experience.

Tom DiBlasi - Rome, Italy. April 3-5 - Coliseum and Roman Forum

(photos by Liz Weeden)

On April 4 we went to see the Roman Forum and Coliseum. After all, you cannot go to Italy without seeing these two unique sites. The Roman Forum is currently left in ruins. However, it used to be the site of the ancient Roman government buildings. It was the center of Roman public life for centuries. Elections, public speeches, gladiator matches, and criminal trials all took place here. There were also statues and monuments to honor men of that time. The Coliseum is the largest coliseum ever built in Roman history and is considered one of the greatest works of art and engineering in Roman history. It was built between 72 AD and 80AD under Emperor Vespasian. The Coliseum is able to hold 50,000 people and was used for many things. Gladiator contests, mock sea battles, executions, and animal hunts were some of the things held there. It stopped being used for entertainment in the early medieval era. The poorer people were able to get into the Coliseum for free, because the rich had paid for them. While we were there, some of us reenacted the gladiator battles of the past. It was truly amazing to think about all of the history that was in the Roman Forum and how hard it must have been to build the Coliseum in Ancient Rome.

Sarah Clark - Florence, Italy. March 31-April 2 - Ponte Vecchio

Florence is a city filled with awe-inspiring architecture, scrumptious gelato and handmade leather goods. Because we stayed in Florence for three days, we had the opportunity to go on not one, but two different guided walking tours of the city. On these tours, we saw so much of Florence that by the end of our stay, we knew our way around the city. One of the stops on the walking tour was the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Ponte Vecchio, which literally translates to "Old Bridge," is a Medieval bridge over the Arno River. Along the bridge are tons of little stores, mainly jewelers, art dealers, and souvenir shops. The segmental bridge has an interesting history. It was built and rebuilt multiple times. It first appeared in document in 996. It was destroyed in a flood in 1117 and rebuilt but then swept away again in 1333. The bridge that stands today was completed in 1345. Even though we only got to spend a few minutes on the bridge, it was a cool place to experience and a fun place to shop for souvenirs.

Sarah Santos - Florence, Italy. March 31-April 2 - Duomo

Once you are in the historical center of Florence, the famous dome of the Duomo can be seen from several different streets and there are signs everywhere directing you toward it. I didn’t have to wander very far from our hostel to get my initial glimpse of this great symbol of Firenze (Florence in Italian). The first thing I noticed as I got nearer was the colors; the Duomo was decorated in green, red, and white. I had never seen a colorful church before. Also, I quickly discovered that the Duomo consists of three buildings: the baptistery, bell tower, and cathedral. Renaissance sculptor and engineer Brunelleschi’s dome is atop the cathedral--Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The cathedral, dome, and bell tower are absolutely beautiful in a way that is very different from the other Gothic buildings I’ve seen thus far. Some people even say that the dome looks like speckled ice cream because of all the colors. The next day, I learned from the tour guide that the three colors are to represent the Roman Catholic Church’s virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The guide also spent a lot of time telling us the history of the dome. It is the largest self-supporting brick dome in the world. What makes it especially impressive was the engineering of the dome. The cathedral’s construction had begun in the late 13th century but was not structurally completed until 1436. The construction took this long because until Brunelleschi, it seemed impossible to build a dome of its size without the use of scaffolding or buttresses. This particular dome was both the first and last to be built in this style. Brunelleschi was able to construct it by building a smaller dome to support the larger outer dome. Michelangelo’s David was originally supposed to stand on top, but they couldn’t manage to move it from the square in front up to the dome. From the very top of the dome are reportedly the best views of the entire city. Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure because I went on a Saturday and it closed early since the cathedral needed to be prepared for Sunday mass. The cathedral itself is also the final resting place for several prominent Florentines including Brunelleschi and Michelangelo. As if this all wasn’t beauty enough for a morning, the baptistery has three doors. The most notable of these doors is the East Door that Michelangelo named the “Gates of Paradise”. On the door, in gold, are depicted scenes of the David and Goliath story. To the Florentines, this story is very important to them as it emphasizes the importance of the mind. The next time I am in Florence, the Duomo will again be on my list and I can’t wait to check and see if the top of the dome really does has the best views of the city.

Nadir Kahn - Florence, Italy, March 31-April 2- San Lorenzo Market

On our second day in Florence, we strolled over to the famous tourist site: the San Lorenzo Market. At first, we thought that the stands were going to be filled with tacky touristic merchandise that was made anywhere but Italy, but we were wrong for the most part. Many of the stands featured authentic Italian leather goods and Italian carnival masks, alongside the usual touristy t-shirts that say “I Love Italy” and the abundance of magnets and key chains. Even though the market is open all week long, we were still able to bargain down prices during the markets’ daily close. On our tour of Florence, we passed by the notable Porcellino (Little Pig) Market which is located on the south side of the market. The market features the wild boar fountain, which was created in 1612 by Pietro Taccas. Legend states that if you rub the pig statue’s snout, it means that you will return to Florence.

Amber Sass - Pisa, Italy - March 31

(photo by Liz Weeden)

As we made our way from La Spezia to Florence, we did a drive-by beauty stop of Pisa. We drove around the town trying to make our way to the famous leaning tower. We pulled up to it and all ran immediately to find the best spot to take pictures of us holding up the tower. Everyone took turns getting on top of a stump to take the picture. From certain angles, the tower did not look like it was leaning, but from others it looked as if it was about to fall over. The tower itself was exactly the same as it looks in pictures. The photographs do it justice; this is probably the only structure that this is true for.

TJ Samson - Cinque Terre, Italy - March 29-30

(Photos by Liz Weeden)

Today we hiked the Cinque Terre (Five Villages) in Italy. The Cinque Terre is noted for its beauty. Over centuries, people have carefully built these villages on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. The entire hilled landscape was terraced and used for housing as well as crops for grapes and olives. The traditional sea route for hiking was closed off, so a group of us took the alternative path. This path was much more difficult and went up and down the terraces. It was the best view of the whole entire area as well as an excellent work out. From the top you can see the entire sparkling coast line of the area in contrasts with the rough terrain it engulfs.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Alexi Knock - Geneve, Switzerland - March 27-28 (photos by Alexi Knock)

After staying the night in Anemasse, France, we piled into the vans and took a surprisingly short drive to Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva is home to the Human Rights headquarters of the United Nations, so it was literally the perfect place to learn more for our human rights course. Upon arriving in the city, I noticed right away that most of the people were dressed in business attire. This was because the majority of them are involved in the UN; and for the day, so were we. Our first stop was the UN Human Rights Commission, where a guest speaker spoke to us about his duties with the UN. We learned that the UN is divided into several different departments and is constantly striving for peace and cooperation amongst countries. After the UN Human Rights Commission meeting, we visited the United Nations office of Geneva. Surprisingly, the building was beautiful and had artifacts and paintings donated from all over the world. Because of this, the building itself was a symbol of the unity of the countries. One of the most spectacular parts of the building was the ceiling of the famous Room XX. It was painted by Miquel Barcelo in 2008 and created to look like the interior of a cave. Visiting the buildings of the UN in Geneva was extremely inspiring and strengthened my hope that maybe one day the Declaration of Human Rights will be followed by every country in all situations.

Kirsten White - Carcassonne, France - March 25-26 (photo by Liz Weeden)

Carcassonne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest existing walled city in the southwest region of France, about one hour from the bustling university city of Toulouse. The medieval city contains narrow cobblestone streets lined with small pastry shops, souvenir stores, and traditional cafes. The giant stone wall on the outside containing a drawbridge originally served as a massive form of defense. Now, the bridge allows for patrons to wander the city by day and residential vehicles to roam back inside by night. In addition to the outside wall, another one stands on the inside, creating a circular blockade which further guards the city. Restored in 1853 through the campaign undertaken by Viollet-le-Duc, Carcassonne’s streets, buildings, walls, and gothic cathedral remain a notable example of a pre-Roman period settlement. As we trekked around the city, I couldn’t help but imagine the Catholic residents defending their fortress through arrow defense as intruders emerged from the surrounding hillside land. The old world architecture juxtaposed with modern day trinket souvenirs and ice cream dispensers proved an interesting experience.

Tom DiBlasi - Barcelona, Spain - March 23 - 24 (photos by Liz Weeden)

On March 22nd and 23rd we stayed in Barcelona, Spain. While there, we visited the famous Sagrada Familia and the Park Guell. Both of these sites were created by the architect Antoni Gaudi. These works of arts have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Sagrada Familia is a Roman Catholic Church that is not comparable to any other church in the world. It was recently consecrated a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI. Gaudi made the structure Gothic and curvilinear but added a combination of Art Nouveau, arches, and columns. The construction of the church began in 1882 and is due to be completed by 2026, the 100-year anniversary of Gaudi’s death. This beautiful work is taking a long time to build because of several interruptions. One of the most devastating events was the Sagrada Familia’s struggle with reliance on private donations. Another unfortunate turn of events was the Spanish Civil War. The Civil War had put construction on hold until 1950. The Park Guell is named after Count Eusebi Guell, after it was an unsuccessful housing site. The park was built between 1900 and 1914. There were two houses built within the park, by Francesco Berenguer. The two houses were occupied by Guell and Gaudi, respectively. The park was built to allow for people to relax and find peace. The terrace above the park provides a great view of the park. Both of these works are unique and similar in design. Gaudi’s work is very distinctive with his creative design.

Michael Dickerson - Monserrat, Spain - March 23

So far on this outstanding Odyssey I have seen so much beauty that it is almost overwhelming. Yet there are still places that are able to take your breath away. We were on our way to Barcelona, but were making a quick stop at a place called Montserrat. About thirty minutes into the van ride a towering unmistakable mountain chain loomed in the distance. The rocks shot up into the sky in a jagged pattern, almost appearing that they were placed there. It is hard to describe my initial judgment when I first saw Montserrat, but it can be largely summed up in a picture of my face with my mouth hanging agape. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life, it was truly unique. As we climbed away up the windy path the power of the mountain grew and grew. Everything about this moment was just simply perfect, even to the R.E.M song “Losing my Religion” in the background. That is especially fitting because Montserrat is one of the supposed locations of the Holy Grail, which is a fitting place for it because there isn’t anyway anyone could find in this behemoth of a mountain. As we got closer in became increasingly more apparent that it would be difficult to find a place to start, but luckily for us I have a secret weapon up my sleeve. This weapon is pity and my fractured foot is my ammunition. After convincing the guard that we needed to go farther because of my foot we arrived at the highest point that the vans could reach. While Montserrat was brimming to the top with natural beauty, the village was slightly disappointing. Dozens of touristy shops lined the streets; it appears that the long arm of capitalism can reach even the hardest to reach places. Montserrat is a natural wonder, but in the world we live in today nothing is safe from the need to make a quick buck. Two hundred years ago Montserrat was a destination for pilgrims and wayward travelers, now it has almost been reduced to another tourist stop along the road. Regardless of what is may have become now Montserrat is a wonder that exceeds words and gives you a glimpse of a more innocent time in the world.

Amber Sass - Seville, Spain - March 17,18

After four beauty filled days in Portugal we made our way back into southern Spain. This time to Seville. Spain is known for bull fighting, tapas, and flamenco dancing. Unfortunately bull fighting was out of season so we couldn’t go, but tapas and flamenco dancing were in full swing. Tapas are small plates of food. You usually will order three-four plates to be satisfied. After eating a few plates of tapas the flamenco dancers came out. They were dressed in their traditional outfits. The women were in dresses with ruffles along the bottom edge. Flamenco is a mix between salsa and tap dancing. The two women went separately. The first one to go was very passionate and every muscle from her fingers to her toes was tense and very controlled with every movement. The second woman was also very passionate, but she did more tap dancing than stomping. After the two women had their solos they did a routine together. After they finished four younger people, three girls and one guy, went up to the stage and did their own routine. They were dressed in street clothes and it seemed to be an improved routine. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to ask them if they worked there or if they were just locals that go to see the show a lot. The flamenco show was extremely moving and I am so happy that we were able to see this part of Spanish culture.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Liz Weeden - March 17, 18

Seville, Spain You know it’s bad when the professors ask ME to help them park the vans. I didn’t have to drive them, but I came along in the passenger seat as we attempted to find somewhere in the city of Seville to place our homes-on-wheels. The area around our hostel had tons of construction and the group had to jump out and run to the gated sidewalk, hoisting our heavy suitcases along the way. Then it was me and Michael with Linda and Tim respectively, passengers in the constant puzzle of parking. An hour later we found two spots in a parking miracle. The first night in Seville our hostel gave a tapas tour which ended in a flamenco show. The tapas were fun and delicious; we ordered multiple little snacks as we sat in a square where tons of young Spanish people chilled out before the night’s escapades. The flamenco show was fabulous as well. We even got seats right next to the stage. I learned that flamenco dancing is insane. It starts out with just a guitar player and singer who play and sing straight from their souls. Then the dancing begins, and let me tell you, it was fantastic. Flamenco is very dramatic with loud stomping and clapping in unison, all to the beat of the music. Each dancer literally feels the music throughout their body, heart, and soul. It’s completely captivating. The next day we took a walking tour of Seville guided by a girl who had grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She had moved to Seville on a whim the year before and gave a great tour. Just a few of the things we learned: *Seville holds the tomb of Christopher Columbus – at least 10% of his bones. Woo! *The Moors started building the original city wall but the Catholics finished it and you can see the difference in building style from the Moor’s large blocks to the Catholic’s small red bricks. *There are many orange and lemon trees throughout Spain. The trees used to be used as markers; orange trees were planted outside mosques while lemon trees were planted outside of cathedrals. *The original symbol of Spain was the bunny rabbit. They have since changed their symbol to a mighty lion. Seville is beautiful and it helped that the weather was amazingly warm and sunny while we were there. In my opinion, Seville was one of the best stops so far.

Thomas DiBlasi - March 21, 22

Terragona, Spain

On March 21 and 22, a dozen of us spent time exploring the historical city of Tarragona, Spain. Tarragona is filled with fascinating ancient history. It used to be called Tarracco when it was ruled by the Roman Empire. The town is secluded from the neighboring towns due to walls that were built in the second century. Some of the major historical landmarks that we encountered include the Amphitheatre, Roman Circus, Provincial Forum, National Archaeological Museum, the remnants of the King’s castle, and the remains of the Church of Our Lady of the Miracle. The site that intrigued me most was the Roman Circus. Here, the people would enjoy horse-drawn chariot races. Tarragona’s circus is one of the most preserved circuses in the West. Most of the circus is still under nineteenth century buildings. While the Roman Circus held my attention the most, there is so much history there that every one of us had a different favorite.

Alexi Knock - March 19, 20

Alicante, Spain Upon arriving in Alicante, the group thought it would be a mere industrial city. Around the bend, however, is where the magnificence dwelled. We spent a sunny afternoon browsing the street market and lunching outside. The beach bordering the city was lined with quaint restaurants, chocolate shops, and boutiques. While walking along a boardwalk that led down to the Mediterranean, I couldn’t help but think about what was happening right across the sea. We were dipping our toes in the same water where a war is being fought. European and American ships were using the Mediterranean in order to invade Libya and plan potential air strikes on the country. While we were eating lunch, American soldiers were fighting alongside the Allies. While we were touching the calm water, waves were being created by missiles just miles away. I was humbled by the events so much greater than myself being carried out within a seemingly short distance. It was almost difficult to appreciate the beauty around us knowing that others were in danger at that exact moment. Needless to say, I was extremely grateful to be on the Alicante side of the pond.

Allison Redman - Grenada

On the way to our next destination, Alicante, Spain, we made a beauty stop in the city, Granada. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this area has become a historical point known for it’s unique combination of Moorish influence and Christian Renaissance.

Granada was the last Moorish capital of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors crossed the straight of Gibraltar in 711 A.D. By the 9th century Granada rose to a civilization of importance. The dynasty had twenty kings ending with King Boabdil when he was forced to surrender Granada to the Spanish Reconquista, fronted by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, in 1492. In his flight he looked back and his mother said, “Thou dost week like a woman for thou couldst not defend as a man.”

He looked back towards the beautiful Alhambra, a fortress palace of the royalty and court built during the thirteenth century. This royal palace shows the transition of power and culture that documents history through architecture.

We had an hour to explore the grounds. We bought tickets and sped to the palace. It was stunning with its intricate mosaic walls and beautiful arches and engraved floral doors connected inside with the outside gardens. Fountains flowed sparking in the center of the courtyards. The water flowed throughout the rooms making the palace fluid and breathtaking sit throughout the winding palace capturing a connection with nature and time. The Nasrid Palaces is a complex of palaces from different kings so it shows the transition from not only the Moors to Christian, but from each king itself. Every room and every courtyard is different. It shows the intricacies of the Moorish culture, showing the appeal of a natural paradise.