Monthly Archives: September 2011

Welcome to Salamanca, Spain!

Salamanca, the place I will be living in for the next few months. That’s right, living – not visiting, but living.

I must admit that it has been a little strange after all of our travels to finally have a place to call home. It has been nice to unpack our backpacks, eat home cooked meals, and have time to sleep and wander by myself. However, living here means that I have to come to terms with the things that make me uncomfortable, and create relationships with the people I meet, because I won’t be moving on in a day or two.

Going into studying abroad in Spain, I didn’t expect the Spanish component to be that big a deal. I’ve taken Spanish for years in school, and always figured that I’d be able to stumble my way through most conversations. While I can understand all the ISA directors and my teachers, who have been trained to speak slowly using elementary phrases, the public population of Salamanca is a different matter. People speak quite quickly, and often use phrases or words that I don’t know. It doesn’t particularly hinder my day-to-day life, just makes integrating myself with the locals (as well as not sticking out as an American) quite difficult.

On a more positive note, Salamanca is a beautiful city. In the center of town is a giant plaza, called the “Plaza Mayor” where everyone in the city gathers at all hours of the day. It’s an awesome place to meet up with friends, people watch, observe the local students, and revel in the beauty of the city. So far, I haven’t had any trouble walking – everything is pretty close to everything, but the streets are quite narrow and confusing. I’ve learned to carry my map with me at all times so that I can wander freely. The University of Salamanca is spread throughout the city, but all of my classes are in one building. There are many cathedrals and old school buildings that have a distinctive sort of architecture(I believe it’s called the plata style) in which there are intricately carved shapes and images all over the buildings.

As I referenced several days ago in a post, I am staying in a residencia. Before arriving, I had no idea as to what to expect. Here is how I would describe it: a cross between a dorm, sorority house, and boarding house. There are 15 to 20 students who live here (a few Americans, an Italian, a Swede, and about 10 Spaniards).  We all eat together for lunch and dinner in a little dining room type area downstairs, and there is a young woman who also lives here and is in charge of the residencia. It has been more of a challenge to meet the other students living here than I anticipated, the Spaniards speak quickly and I have trouble holding my end of the conversation up. We occasionally will have a short conversation with the other American students, but mostly just eat our meals in silence. It makes me thankful that I am here with Riley and have the ability to meet up with the kids from ISA when I want social interaction.  The residencia itself is quite nice. Riley and I share a bathroom with 2 or 3 other students (3 rooms are grouped around a bathroom), and we have our own very large and new room. (In fact, the room has large empty areas that we won’t be buying furniture to fill – does anyone have any ideas as to what to fill that space with instead? Remember, we’re only here for 3 months and will have to leave it behind, so cheap and easy would be ideal.)

Anywho… I will post about classes tomorrow after my schedule is finalized, but wanted everyone to see and read a little bit about my life here so far!


…and the journey continues…

Hello everyone!

I want to apologize for not posting quite as regularly as I had been hoping to – it is a lot harder to sit down and write a blog post than I had anticipated.  Obviously, there is about a week of travels (Rothenburg OBT, Munich, Barcelona) that I have yet to write about. As I am now in Salamanca two days ago, I would like to go ahead and start blogging about life and classes here. I will get caught up on the travels when I have free time the next few weeks, but don’t want you to miss out on my experiences here in the meantime. I will post the pictures from Germany and Spain as soon as I label them, so feel free to browse them ahead of the actual accompanying posts, and get ready for posts about the awesome place I now call home.






Just because the destination and train number are wrong doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get on …

On Tuesday night, we headed to the train station in Florence to take the overnight train to Germany. We arrived a while before the train was due to arrive, so we sat on a platform bench and waited. About 20 minutes before our train was due to arrive, we looked to see if the platform number had been posted. It wasn’t – the only train leaving at 21:52 was a train to “Wien”. Of course, by this point information was already closed for the evening, so there wasn’t anyone around we could ask. We finally went up to one of the police officers, pointed at our ticket, and asked if it was the same as Wien. He nodded, so we headed over to that platform, slightly freaking out.

There, a group of people was surrounding the conductor asking the same thing as us. Apparently, the last 3 cars would be disconnected somewhere in Austria overnight and head to Munich, while the rest of the train would continue onto Wien. There was no need to make a note of this on the sign though, apparently… typical Italian transportation 🙂

In our overnight compartment, we had an American family – a couple in their 20’s, and (we think it was his) mom and dad. We managed to obtain the top bunks (the very best as they have the most room and aren’t in the way at all) even though we had been assigned to the middle bunks (oh, sure, we wouldn’t mind the top bunks *too* much, that way you can have the bottom and middle together). Since the train didn’t leave till almost 10pm and arrived about 6:30am, we didn’t talk much at all with them, but did learn that the young couple was from Denver. Small world.

In Germany, our train arrived about 30 minutes early. We then went over to the information desk, attempting to obtain some sort of idea as to how to get to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where we’d decided to spend the day and night.  The man asked when we wanted to leave, and then printed off a schedule that included every stop we would make (down to the minute) and the platforms we would arrive at and where we would need to change trains … typical German transportation  🙂

3 Davids, 2 Botticellis and a Duomo

I feel the need to warn you, my loyal readers, that of all the cities we’ve visited Florence is the one I have enjoyed the least. I was quite surprised by this as I know several people who have traveled or studied abroad there and loved it. Perhaps if I were to return it would be different.

We arrived in Florence before lunch, and checked in at our hotel. The hotel (not hostel, that means no sharing outlets, listening to people snore, or having to pack and get dressed in the dark!) was a cheaper sort owned by a grandfatherly old man. The experience, while having its upsides, was a little more solitary and definitely made me glad that I will be living in a residencia (instead of a homestay) in Salamanca.

My options for housing during the semester were a homestay (living with a host family), or a residencia (similar to a dorm). Many people recommended the homestay option, but I had several concerns about living with a family sight unseen. I also realized that joining a family, and in part becoming “one of them” – living with them, interacting on a daily basis, eating, etc. would make me very uncomfortable. These people never would be my real family, and unless the space is entirely “mine” in some sort of fashion, I am not particularly comfortable. In the hotel, I felt as though I was impeding upon the old man’s house, and felt bad leaving the room, making much noise, or being there in general. While this wasn’t a terrible hardship for three days, it would have added unneeded stress if it was for the entire semester.

The first afternoon we visited Piazza di Duomo (the large Cathedral/Duomo,Baptistry and Bell Tower in the center of town) as it was Monday and everything else was closed. The outside of the building was cool, the inside was … not as ornate as the many other cathedrals in Rome to which we’d recently been. The climb up to the top of the cathedral dome (the cupola, I believe it is offically called) was really cool. The dome is made with and inside dome and an outside dome (read about it here), and to climb to the top, you climb in-between the two. It makes for a steep, slightly scary, quite aerobic climb, but the view was definitely worth it. One note of interest – unlike in the US, where I can imagine there would be many warnings for those with heart problems, asthma, pregnant, etc. there was no sort of warning, and we were quite surprised by the intensity of the climb as we conquered it.

On Tuesday, we saw the David at the Academia. Several things I had read speculated that wait in line and ticket price were not worth seeing the original, as there were two good copies elsewhere in the city for free. I disagree. The original had a unique feeling of massiveness, intensity, and beauty that I didn’t experience with any of the copies. It was probably my favorite thing we did in Florence.

On Wednesday, we went to the Uffizi Gallery. They are constantly at the top of most to-do lists for Florence, but I must admit that I was underwhelmed. We had decided to reserve tickets the day before (the line can be 3 or 4 hours long), and the man gave them to us for a significantly reduced price as we were “kind-of” EU citizens (so many people are stumped by the 6 month visa and whether or not it qualifies us for EU citizen prices). The galleries themselves were fairly stifling, the air conditioning seemed to be on, but on “very low”, and there was no airflow in-between the rooms. The other part, I must admit, is that I am not a huge Italian art fan – I much prefer other time periods, and there were so many religious altarpieces and paintings that they all ran together. The Botticellis cool, and I am glad to have seen them, but it isn’t a museum to which I would necessarily feel the need to return (unlike, say, the Louvre).

Other sites in Florence from which we partook: Santa Croce, a large church where many famous Italians are buried or have monuments. It was cool, but not a whole lot different from the many other basilicas we’ve visited over the trip. Ponte Vecchio (a very old and famous bridge). This was definitely the “nicer” area of Florence, and we enjoyed walking around the river as it was very picturesque. The bridge was very cool, very crowded, and very expensive (the shops on it are all gold jewelry shops). The leather markets – all of the leather goods were beautiful, if only I had an extra 500 euro or so with which to buy a nice coat and purse! Many piazzas, we saw both of the David copies in Piazza de Michelangelo and Piazza della Signoria. We also spent quite a bit of time in Florence “wandering around” – the city was much smaller than I had realized, and while some of the buildings were cool, it wasn’t nearly as picturesque as many of the smaller towns we’ve visited, and there was lots of graffiti and trash all over.

The importance of little yellow machines, or traveling the Italian countryside by train

We had two days before we were due to arrive in Florence, and wanted to explore the Italian countryside a little bit. At one point, we had intended to visit: Siena, Pisa, Lucca, and the Cinque Terre, but quickly determined that while the regional train system is quite expansive, we wouldn’t really have any time in any of the towns – we would instead spend our days on the trains and at the stations transfering. We decided to go to Lucca, where we had reservations at a hostel for two nights, and stop in Pisa on our way. Lucca is a picturesque little walled town (read a little more about it here).

Taking the bus from our hostel in Rome to the train station went off without a hitch, there wasn’t hardly any traffic and we arrived quite early. While waiting in the station, Riley noticed that on the backs of our tickets, it said they had to be validated. We weren’t exactly sure how to do that, so we got in the customer assistance line to try and figure it out, where we waited, and waited, and waited (for almost an hour). There was only one lady working the desk, and it was moving very slowly. It was frustrating because we had one simple question, but couldn’t get it answered. However, we did manage to ask her (there was an incident involving two old Italian men cutting the line that slowed us down even further) and she told us we had to stick our ticket in the yellow machine by the platform. By that time, our train was leaving in five minutes, and the platform was at the other end of the station – we ran with our backpacks (not a pleasant experience) and luckily made it (with seconds to spare). There weren’t many seats left, so we got separated, but luckily, the train emptied out fairly quickly with various people going to the beach and stuff, so we could sit together and spread out a little bit for most of the ride.

In Pisa, we got off and took a bus to the tower. It does really lean – more than I expected. We didn’t go up inside, because there weren’t tickets left until much later in the afternoon and we figured the coolest part was just looking at it. It was really hot out but the whole piazza area was really pretty and the tower was was definitely worth the visit. The train to Lucca was relatively painless.

In Lucca, we realized that the hostel hadn’t provided instructions or a map in regards to their location. We ended up just wandering around inside the walls asking (many) people for instructions how to get there. Almost all of them spoke little to no English, and would explain in Italian how to get there, so we would head in the right direction and then ask someone else. I was really glad that it was Lucca and not a bigger city though, because it was somewhat managable to wander around and definitely safe.

When we arrived at the hostel, it was a super funky place – like an old hotel or convent, that seemed very empty and had large empty rooms with dim lighting. They just gave us our key, without any explanaiton of pretty much anything, but a girl in our room was nearby and showed us where to go and where everything was. She and a friend were from Austria (they’re our age and students there, fall the semseter doesn’t start until October 1st ) and talked to us for a while, and then invited us to go to dinner with them. On the way, we watched preformance in one of the piazzas because that weekend Lucca was having a renaissance fair. Dinner with the girls was fun – they kept appologizing for their english, which seemed fine to both of us. We chatted about various things, and at one point they told us that they “don’t wait in lines – it’s easier just to walk up to the front and pretend you’ve waited”. We also discussed some fashion (they think it’s weird that American movie stars get photographed wearing tshirts and sweats) and stuff like that. The food was pretty good, and reasonably priced, and it was nice to chat with them.

The next morning, we slept in and spent the morning walking around Lucca. We climbed up the clock tower in the middle of town (lots of steps!) and were able to see Lucca spread out around us, which was neat. I think it’s a really cool place – there aren’t very many cars allowed in the historic district, and there are streets that are only 3 or 4 feet wide. In the afternoon, we went to a gelato place the girls had recommended – it was fabulous. The gelato we’d had before was kinda like ice cream, but this was much richer and creamier and very cheap too. After gelato, we rented some bikes and rode around on the wall. It was way fun, and helped us to stay cool. The wall and surrounding green area is really very pretty.

For dinner we went to a place by the wall (we tried to watch the sunset, which didn’t really work, but was still pretty) that wasn’t very good at all, but oh well. Afterwards, we went back to the gelato place because it was sooo good. It was nice being in Lucca because it seemed really safe, and at night there were always people out and around, so we could stay out later.

Something Blue?

Our hostel in Rome offered laundry service, so since pretty much all of our clothes were dirty, we decided to take advantage of the service. We had planned on giving them one large mixed load, but they suggested we divide our laundry into darks and lights, so we added a few items we though might bleed and were going to hand wash. When we got our clothes back in the morning, it became apparent that they had all been done together, and all the white stuff is now slightly blueish. It made me really mad and upset for a few minutes – I just wanted to go home where I can more easily control things. I’ve calmed down though, and am trying to look at it as a growing experience – I can’t control everything, and need to do my best to roll with the punches. Plus, I now know never to let a hostel do my laundry 🙂

We left for our 11:15 tour of the Vatican at about 10 (it was within walking distance, and the buses we’d found out can be a bit unreliable). We got there early and were able to skip the huge, several hour line which was awesome, and meant we could go … shopping in the gift shop! I was really glad that we had taken a tour, because the Vatican museums are a little crazy. There’s kinda just a lot of random stuff, and it would’ve been really easy to get super bogged down looking at everything. The museum was completely packed with people – wall to wall, and we essentially moved with the tide of the crowd. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer. Our tour guide was a cute and sassy Italian woman.

The Sistine Chapel was really cool, but I was really disappointed that you couldn’t take pictures, especially since they were allowed in the rest of the museum. It has to do with a copyright issue (read more about it here), which is just odd and frustrating to me. I also thought it was interesting that you were supposed to be silent, but of course most people aren’t, so the volume would reach a low roar before the guards shushed everyone again. It’s amazing to think that Michelangelo painted the whole thing by himself in only four years.

We also got to go into St. Peter’s Basilica with the tour, which I thought was pretty awesome. I think it’s amazing that the paintings are all made with mosaics (when the frescoes started to crack, the pope decided to replace them with mosaics) – in most of them, you can’t tell at all. I also really enjoyed all the Bernini sculptures that i’d learned about in art history class.

For dinner we walked over to the area we got pizza the first afternoon. We had a good dinner, and got dessert too (tiramisu = so yummy) – tipping/asking for the check was still weird though. Sigh. We were in a part of town called Travestere, which seemed like the place to be, which was cool. It would’ve been better to have eaten there the evening before though so that we could have explored a bit more, as we still had to pack and were leaving for Pisa/Lucca/Florence early the next morning.

A walk around Roma

For our first full day in Rome, we decided to make our way through the most well know piazzas, fountains and various other attractions. We left the hostel in the morning so that we would be mostly done before it got too hot in the afternoon. The receptionist had suggested we take the bus to the Barberini piazza, and then work our way back towards the hostel, ending with Piazza Navona.

Taking the bus was, once again, quite the experience – we honestly probably could’ve walked faster. The first 116 bus that we took only went one stop before the line ended. We walked to the next stop, which was the beginning of the 116 line, just in time for the driver to get off the bus sitting there. He dissapeared for five or ten minutes, came back out and compared ipod playlists with another driver, and then finally got on the bus. The 116 bus is a little electric bus, so it’s about ½ as long as the other busses and goes on a route through less major streets. It was a little terrifying wizzing through the cobblestones, just barely missing parked cars, motorcyles and tourists. But definitely an experience!

After getting off the bus, we walked a little ways to Piazza Barberini, which has the Triton Fountain. The fountain was pretty, and there was a fountain across the street we filled our water bottles in. I love all the free “water fountains” in Rome – the water tastes delicious, is always cold, and hits the spot. Next was the Spanish Steps, which I found rather underwhelming. I guess I was expecting something a little bit more exciting or different. The church above the steps was pretty, and the view was cool, but other than that there wasn’t a lot to them.

The Trevi Fountain is just a few minutes walk, so we continued on to it. It looked a little smaller than what it looks like in the movies, but was still really cool. We entered off to the side, and could only really see a little bit of the fountain and the hoards of people. Once we walked around in front, and down in front, it was a lot bigger. While we were there, I kept thinking of the Lizzie McGuire Movie – I suppose that’s the first time I heard about/saw the Trevi Fountain. We took lots of pictures (and yes, I did throw a coin in) and then got some yummy gelato.

The hostel receptionist had told us that there was a black stone path we could take from the Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon. We found it pretty easily (easier than I had been expecting to) and indeed, it lead us pretty much straight there. There were a couple of cute shops that we were able to go into on the way, most had cheap souvenirs and stuff like that, but there was a cute wooden carving shop. I loved the Pantheon. Honestly, part of the reason I enjoyed it so much might have been because I didn’t really know anything about it/have any expectations. One of my favorite parts of the Pantheon was the fact that there is a hole in the top of the dome that provides light for the entire room. I also really that the exterior is rough and ancient looking, but it was ornate and colorful on the inside. And (again) the dome was really cool! I also had no idea Rafael’s tomb was inside, so that was interesting.

After the Pantheon, we headed to Piazza Navona. By this time, it was starting to get a little hot. We didn’t spend very long at the Piazza, but did go inside a really cute little bookstore. On our way back to the hostel (about a 20 minute walk) we stopped and got some calzoni (calzones). They were a lot different than I was expecting, lots more bread and less sauce, and had some sort of a mystery meat, but were okay. Back at the hostel, I was planning on updating the blog and stuff but ended up taking a nap instead.

Later in the afternoon, we went to Castel Sant’Angelo. I had read about it and it sounded cool, and was on our Roma Pass (we had only used one of the two free attractions). I’m not sure what my opinion of it was. It was interesting, and had some really beautiful frescos. The art was strangely arranged though, and it was in serious need of some maps/signs/explanations. I felt like you just wandered around looking at stuff and going “that’s cool”. This is something that i’ve noticed is a definite trend here in Europe, but especially in Italy. I suppose its a reason to have a tour guide take you everywhere.

When we got back, we decided to have dinner at the restaurant at the hostel. Bad idea. We were the only ones there, there wasn’t all that much food, and it was really strange – it was as if they didn’t expect us to actually want to eat there and when we showed up they weren’t ready. All throughout the night, the “hostess” was walking around talking to the cook in the kitchen, and was never around when people poked their heads in and stared at us. It also took forever to get our check after we’d finished eating (a common phenomenon in Italy, i’ve found).

Also, all of the photos from Rome should be posted on the link, so feel free to check them out. You’ll also be able to see more photos from Paris, and maybe even a sneak peak at what we’ve been seeing the past few days!