Sunday, July 1, 2012

One last stop...San Gimignano

On our last day in Tuscany, we debated between staying around the house and having a leisurely day or driving to the town of San Gimignano. We all agreed you can't go to Florence and not see the beautiful town of San Gimignano, so we hoped in the car and drove south. San Gimignano lies halfway between Florence and Siena, in the heart of the Etruscan landscape. We took a wrong turn, so it took us an hour longer than it should've to get there, but we eventually made it, and we're oh so glad we did. On the way there we passed by a field of large sunflowers so we pulled over to take pictures in the field, starting a trend with others who did the same. We had gone to San Donato, right on the outskirts of San Gimignano, with our food and wine class for the wine tasting a little over a week ago, but Marco recommended visiting San Gimignano on our own if we were able. Although Italy is known for their red wine, especially with the large Chianti region, Italy's best white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano comes from this very place. It is also famous for its medieval architecture, especially the tall towers which can be seen from far away.
torture museum

The first thing we did in San Gimignano was buy tickets to go in both of the turture museums, which I was hesitant about, but they were very interesting and graphic to see and imagine how terrible it must've been back in the day. We shopped in a few of the many shops that lined the main street, getting last minute gifts for family members. We went into a delicatessen where the shop owner sliced wild boar and pecorino cheese for our sandwiches. We got a bottle of local San Gimignano Chianti Classico and went to a panoramic view landing where we ate our sandwiches and drank our wine sitting on a bench. It was the epitome of European and even more, Italian, and how their lifestyle is so simple, yet beautiful. After lunch, we went to a gelato shop that won the gelato world cup a few years back (a Rick Steves recommendation). I had a delicious combination with a scoop of saffron gelato and a scoop of pistachio. We headed back to start packing, said our bittersweet goodbyes to Firenze, and took a train that evening to Rome, where we spent the night before our flight to Charlotte the next morning.
The Cistern


Saturday, June 30, 2012

San Casciano in Val di Pesa

Corsini Palace
Planning to take the first train to from Ancona to Bologna and then switch trains to go to Firenze, we thought maybe for once, we would have no problems traveling today. Well, that would just not follow our pattern, so of course the only train in the whole station that is delayed is the one we need to take. Since it was delayed 20 minutes, we couldn't make our next train to Firenze, and had to switch our tickets, making us now an hour behind schedule. Arriving in Firenze, we walked past our old street, reminiscing on the past 5 weeks we lived there, and stopping in our favorite pizza place, Birrificio Artigianale Mostodolce, splitting beer, salad, and pizza, saying ciao to the pizza guy. We went and got our luggage we had left at our friends apartment, where I struggled to pack everything in my two suitcases, knowing that I would go overweight if I didn't ship some of these gifts I bought. In addition to shipping a package, I also bought a large suitcase to replace the broken carry-on I had. Carly's uncle picked us up at the Firenze S.M.N train station and drove us to his beautiful home in San Casciano in Val di Pesa. On the way to their house we stopped at Fattoria Le Corti, the Corsini grand villa where they produce wine and olive oil. We filled up an old bottle with their local wine that is made from the grapes grown on the very land where her aunt and uncle live in the heart of the Chianti Classico region in Tuscany! The Corsini family goes all the way back to the 1100s where they came to become a royal Florentine family who owns land from Florence to Rome. The house that Carly's aunt and uncle now live on used to be the barn where the farm animals' manure used to be kept, with the actual barn holding the animals was the house next door. It has taken them more than seven years to rebuild their house according to strict Tuscany regulations, and it still isn't even approved as a house yet.
After walking around the beautiful countryside and learning about the history of the Corsini land, we washed up and got ready for dinner. We went to Castello di Gabbiano where a quaint Tuscan restaurant is situated on the patio of the castle. We had the castle's own chianti classico, which can be bought at any local grocery store in America (see picture of the bottle). We were each forced to order an appetizer, salad, and entree; her aunt and uncle treated us to the Italian way of enjoying a meal.
Saturday we had a wonderful breakfast at their home overlooking the Tuscan countryside before heading to a neat antique shop down the hill where I got a little wooden wine box with mini Chianti Classico bottles inside. We headed into the town of San Casciano in Val di Pesa and shopped a little before they all closed at 1 for siesta. I got some Florentine stationary and a handmade Italian apron for all the cooking I'll be doing back home! We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the salt water pool, sipping Chianti made from the very vines at our fingertips, and admiring the beauty of our surroundings.
St. Bartholomew

That evening we went into the quaint town of Barberino Val d'Elsa to one of the best pizza places in all of Tuscany! Carly and I split an eggplant, prosciutto pizza and a spinach, ricotta one; my two favorite combinations. After dinner we got to go into the Church of Saint Bartholomew where we saw his open casket and the beautiful chapel. We weren't looking forward to going to bed that night because we knew that when we woke up the next morning, it would be our last day here.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Dubrovnik, Croatia

'The Pearl of the Adriatic'

After the worst bus ride of our lives, we miraculously made it to Dubrovnik around 10 pm. We asked a police officer who asked a local apartment owner how to get to our street, and we found bus #8, getting on with no idea of when we were supposed to get off, with no one on the bus speaking English. We took our best guess and got off at one of last stops when someone on the bus pointed at this one as well as the last two. We walked in both directions until we miraculously found the street where our apartment was supposed to be, and walked around in the dark trying to find the right building. We walked down many steps, finding number 18, with the door wide open, no lights on inside, and heavy metal music blaring from one story up. After standing in the dark for a few minutes, refusing to walk in the black doors, the man turned down his music and asked us if the lady who was renting us the room knew we were there. Dumfounded, we look at each other realizing we probably should've given her a heads up with what time we'd be arriving, but had no idea of knowing when this would be. He called her for us and let us in the building, assuring us she was on her way. Realizing how dangerous this was, we were so relieved to see her shadow coming down the stairs ten minutes later. She admitted she was afraid we were no shows, but nicely showed us into the Yellow Room, giving us the keys and welcoming us. With the help of my mother, we emailed the ferry company to see if we could move our ferry back one day, since we wasted a whole day of traveling. If it couldn't get changed, we would only get to spend the morning in Dubrovnik and then would have to get right back on a bus to catch our scheduled ferry, traveling longer than we'd actually be there. Past the point of starving and tired, we went right to bed, enjoying the air conditioning after a long day of travel.

We went towards old town the next morning for breakfast, where we got to use their phone to get confirmation that our ferry was moved back a day! Immediately we emailed the lady who rented us the apartment and she told us she had an available loft in the heart of old town that was free for that night. She drove us there and it was even better than the one from the night before. It was above a souvenir shop on a street in old town with a cute old Croatian owner who didn't speak much English, but always called us "lady, lady"! We walked around the walled city, gift shopping at cute stores on the quaint, downhill streets, grabbing lunch, and heading to the beach for a quick swim. We stopped in St. Blaise church to say a prayer for Boogie and thanking G.G. and Great Grandpa for sending me to Croatia. It was such a blessing to be able to see such a beautiful place where my family comes from. Mom treated Carly and I to a seafood restaurant on the marina, recommended to us by the lady we rented our apartment from. We ordered seafood risotto and mussels, which each came in the full skillet they were cooked in, with the juices, that I ended up wearing on my white jeans and silk top. Since it was still light out when we finished dinner, we headed back to the apartment to clean up, and ended up just being boring and going to bed early so we could get up in the morning and get everything done.

We got up early Thursday morning starving, and sitting down at the first place we saw, had an insanely overpriced breakfast (there's those tricky Croatian prices again) in the beautiful Stradun. We then climbed the city walls of the old town, where we got beautiful pictures of Dubrovnik and could see why it was called the Pearl of the Adriatic. We fit in some last minute shopping before catching the city bus to the main bus station, but somehow missed our stop to get off, so had to wait for the bus to go all the way back around, causing us to miss our bus to Split. Angry that we were having travel troubles once again, we caught the next bus to Split, worried that we wouldn't make it to the ferry booth in time to redeem our tickets. Five hours later, we arrived in Split, sprinted off the bus, and were sent back and forth a few times to the wrong place, but finally got our tickets and boarded. We had an awful dinner on the ferry, but were so hungry and tired we didn't care. The best part of the night was watching the Eurocup semi-finals on board with all old folks, mostly Italian, who were hilarious to watch get excited about the game, and then freak out every time the cable went out.

The Tuscan sun awaits us after a quick stop in Firenze for one last pizza at our favorite place. We are so very excited, but at the same time very sad that our trip is now coming to an end.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hvar, Croatia

The Palace (our hotel)
We have arrived at last! Arriving in Split, Croatia early on Sunday morning, we exchanged euro for kuna, got our ferry tickets from Split to Hvar, and had a quick brunch overlooking the water. A few hours later, we arrived in Hvar, the absolute most beautiful place in the world. Walking into an information center next to the harbor, we asked where our hotel, The Palace is, and they said we're staring right at it, to the left of the loggia and clock tower of Rector's Palace. We thought they must not have understood us, but in fact, they were right. It was such a beautiful hotel built in Venetian Renaissance style, in the center of town, with the marina in front of us and St. Stephen's Square, the largest piazza in Dalmatia, slightly to the left. It was at the bottom of the hill, protected by the Spanish Fort and once favored by Elisabeth, Empress to Franz Joseph, during the 1800s. From our bedroom window we could see the Spanish Fortress and had orange trees at our fingertips. We spent the next two days trying to figure out how we could manage to stay longer, pushing back our ferry and hotel in Dubrovnik. Skyping my mother from the hotel restaurant area, I told her I could picture my wedding someday on Hvar, with the guests staying at this very hotel.
Hvar Town with Spanish Fortress at the top
We put our suits on and headed out to the beach, stopping for a wonderful lunch at Hotel Adriana on the way, splitting lobster bisque and seafood risotto. Heading to the beach, trying to decide between the numerous areas to lay out and swim, we ended up at Hula Hula, a beach bar with lounge chairs, live music, and many young adults like ourselves. A nice couple who was leaving gave us their chair receipts and in celebration of our arrival, we ordered two mojitos. We had no idea until it was too late that they were $20 mojitos, so luckily the waiter let us just give him all the kuna we had, saying not to worry about the difference. We learned our lesson early on about the tricky prices in Croatia, and how to quickly convert kuna to both dollars and euros. We worried about the sea urchins in the water since signs were everywhere, so we found a pebble beach to swim in at the end of the day. That evening, we tried to eat at this sports pub that was playing the eurocup game, but it was already full so we went to a great seafood restaurant next door overlooking the harbor. After dinner, we headed to a local bar, where we caught the end of the game that was into penalty kicks, so it was a very intense game, and when England lost, the bar quickly cleared out. 
Stiniva Beach
Carpe Diem Beach
green cave
The next day we found a company who was offering a private 6 hour boat cruise to wherever we wanted to go. We chose to see the blue cave, and the island of Vis, where we swam in the green cave, Stiniva Beach, and had lunch in the small village of Rukavac. Here we saw a mother and her two sons who spoke English and Croatian father. Ironically, we found out she is from Charlotte, and they live a street over from Carly one month out of the year, and spend the rest of their time in Croatia, where her husband is from. On the way back, we stopped at some of the small islands near Hvar, where our driver, a local Croatian, explained the history of the islands, showing us the beautiful beaches of  Palmizana, Mlini, and Carpe Diem. It was the best money we spent for an amazing day on the water that felt like a dream. Hvar is such beautiful delicacy, known as the sunniest and longest island on the Adriatic Sea, and not very touristy, I hope that it always stays so preserved. A funny fact we learned is that if there are more than four hours of rain in a day, hotels give you a reduction on your stay, and if it snows, you get to stay for free!
with our boat driver
St. Francis monastery
Upon returning to our hotel, the concierge informed us that the ferry from Hvar to Dubrovnik only runs on Tuesday and Saturday. Well we had planned on leaving Tuesday, so that sounded great until she told us that it was at 8:40 am. We had planned terribly and saved all the sightseeing for Tuesday of course, as well as the gifts we needed to still get. That evening, we went out to dinner at a restaurant that our favorite shop owner recommended, called 4 Palme, where I got incredibly fresh sea bass that I had been craving since we were on the water. We sat and enjoyed watching the activity around us as enormous yachts lined the harbor. After dinner we explored the south side, passing by the prestigious Carpe Diem bar (where Prince Harry fell in the pool while dancing a few years back), and walking by all the stations of the cross leading up to the St. Francis monastery. We saw the doors of the monastery open, so walked in to have a peak!

In a room of the convent

We knew that we couldn't leave Hvar without seeing a few of these, so got up early Tuesday morning and at 7 am went out to be productive. Well, nothing opened until 9 or 10. Exploring our next option, there was a ferry from Hvar up to Split, then we would have to take a 5 hour bus ride down to Dubrovnik, completely backtracking. We agreed that we had to do it so that we could get the Agava lace from the convent, see the Spanjola, the Spanish Fortress, and shop the markets for our last minute gifts and a few more pouches of lavender. Hvar's Benedictine convent is the only site for this Aloe-based lace that the nuns spend all of their time making, which UNESCO characterizes as part of Croatia's "intangible cultural heritage" in an obvious attempt at saving lace. Earlier that morning, we followed the sound of nuns singing, and came across the Agava convent, where we spoke with a nun standing out front about acquiring some of their lace. She says one moment, and we assumed she was heading inside to sneak me some lace, so we got our camera ready for this epic moment, but all she was doing was bringing out someone who spoke English. She told us to come back in a few hours when they opened with our knees and shoulders covered up. We later got to go inside and see a few rooms of the convent and sign the guestbook for my mother. Our next stop was Spanjola, the Spanish Fortress, where we climbed many steps up the mountain to get the best view of Hvar, it was breathtaking.
on the Spanish Fortress
Well, of course when we went to get our tickets, hours ahead of time, the ferry was sold out. Our luck was just not good for traveling obviously. We almost cancelled going to Dubrovnik at all, but then found our third and last resort option to get there. We had to take a bus from Hvar to Stari Grad, wait an hour, then take a ferry from Stari Grad up to Split, where we caught the last bus of the day going from Split down to Dubrovnik. We had no time to eat a real meal, so got their version of fast food, which was probably the worst meal I had abroad. The ferry to get to split was moving so painfully slow, I could've swam faster than that, and couldn't even imagine if we had missed the last bus down to Dubrovnik that evening. The bus ride was so incredibly long, and windy, I have never been so carsick and hungry at the same time. We also hid our suitcases under our feet so that we didn't have to pay to put them under. It was quite an experience, and we wasted our whole day traveling, when it should've only been a quick direct ferry. I guess this is one of the downfalls of Croatia not being very touristy. 
Lady I bought some lace from


Sunday, June 24, 2012

From One Home Country to the Next

Sunset on the ferrry
Today we had to move out of our apartment in Firenze, Thursday was our last day of class and finals, and it all feels like just yesterday we were arriving in Rome to meet each other for the first time. I can't believe that the long awaited and long planned study abroad trip is already here and over. We got so lucky with our API group, we all became really close and got to spend time with such wonderful individuals. For those that are staying for next session also, it was bittersweet because they were nervous that those coming next session wouldn't be as fun as all of us. 
Sunrise approaching Croatia
This morning was hectic and stressful trying to pack up our apartment in Firenze to move out. Not realizing how many gifts I accumulated this past month and unable to find the shipping center, I had to frantically buy another suitcase to put the gifts in, where they still all didn't fit. We left our main suitcases at our friends apartment, who is studying in Firenze for 12 weeks this summer, so that we didn't have to travel with them to Croatia. We took a train to Ancona, with a quick train switch in Bologna. We met some backpackers from Maryland on the train to Ancona who were going on our same ferry that evening to Croatia. After a long journey trying to figure out where pick up our tickets, we got a quick pizza and bottle of wine for the ferry and boarded. We got tricked into thinking we couldn't bring alcohol on board, but the captain was just giving us a hard time and said he wouldn't tell anyone. After checking into our private cabin, we ran up to the deck at sunset to snap a few great pictures and saw our friends that we met earlier on the train. We ran into the captain again, while buying our tax-free Kindle chocolate bars, who kindly invited us to visit him on the top deck for a late-night cocktail with some friends. The next morning I woke up for sunrise on the ferry and went to the top deck, it was magical. I got great pictures and just took in all of the beauty around me, seeing my homeland of Croatia for the first time. As the first one in the family to return since Augusta Bujan left in 1910 for her arranged marriage in America, this was so very special to me.