Cinque Terre

Bono-giorno!

Last summer, I spent hours upon hours pinning posts and researching where to go and what to do during my semester abroad.  One particular place that kept popping up was Cinque Terre, and for good reason.  After seeing countless pictures of this beautiful place, I knew it was a key destination of my travels.  Yesterday, for an early birthday treat, I finally took the time to see this wonderland.

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Only 2 hours northwest of Florence, situated along the coast, you find Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands.”   The 5 villages that make up this area are: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  Unaccessible to cars, the only ways to get to and from the villages are hiking paths, boats, or a train-line that connects the five lands.  The rugged, steep terrain has terraces built into the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  The actual villages are built into the sides of the cliffs, constructed with vibrant colors.  The beautiful buildings and homes are picture perfect as they accent the green rolling hills and brilliantly blue water.

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We made it to 4/5 towns, and each was more beautiful than the last.  Cinque Terre is unique in so many ways, and I couldn’t be happier to have checked this place off my list.  The views, the colors, the terrain, the water, the FOOD.  Boy, did I eat well here.  Everyone please make a trip to this unique and wonderful place if you find yourselves exploring Italy.

It’s impossible to capture the true beauty of this magical place.  It’s only after a visit than you can understand how beautiful and unique these coastal towns are.  The image of the cascading cliffs with brightly colored buildings built over top each other, overlooking the sea, will be instilled on my memory forever.

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Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie

 

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What in Croatian?!

Bono-giorno!

Another indescribable weekend in Europe filled with great food, great friends, and even better views.  Like Budapest, the trip to Split, Croatia was booked through Bus2Alps (a company that plans trips for students studying abroad and provides transportation, lodging and optional activities).  The 12 hour journey faced a few set-backs and quickly turned into 16 hours of being cramped on a bus with the person in front of me in my lap with her seat reclined all the way (sigh).  2 hours of sitting at a rest stop off the highway because the bus needed a piece replaced… 1.5 hours sitting at border control between Slovenia and Croatia because a girl forgot her passport back in Rome… Finally, we arrive in Split at 12 pm Friday afternoon.

What the locals considered a “cloudy” day was to me a perfect spring day – 65 and sunny.  The weather made for a beautiful walking tour through the historic part of the city.  Split is filled with beauty: Dicletian’s Palace, stray cats roaming the streets, crumbling stone architecture, quaint stores, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, fish markets, coffee stands, and of course, a beautiful view of the Adriatic Sea.

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Dicletian’s Palace had a familiar feel to it, as it should.  To my fellow Game of Thrones fans: The Children (Season 4 Episode 10) – Daenerys locks up her dragons in the catacombs.  This was filmed under Dicletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia.  Yes, I had a huge fan-girl moment. Look familiar?

Our tour guide said he feels proud that such a well-renowned show was filmed in his home town.  He recalled relaxing over morning coffee when he saw Daenerys and crew running back and forth from one filming location to another.  Ugh.

After a pleasant day exploring the city, laying on the beach, and indulging in delicious Dalmatian delicacies, a good nights sleep was well needed to prepare for a long day on the Adriatic Sea.

Saturday, we found ourselves on a boat departing from Split to the Island of Brač.  With Bus2Alps, we rented the boat for just ourselves, ate lunch, and hung out in the sun for hours.  It was a great opportunity to make friends with people studying abroad in different cities.

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The weather couldn’t have been more perfect (well, I guess I wouldn’t have complained if it was warmer).  Sunny and 70 degrees, not a cloud in the sky.  Not ideal for getting my tan on, but it still felt amazing .  The Adriatic Sea is the most beautiful water I’ve seen so far.  Each body of water I see gets more beautiful than the last.  Absolutely crystal clear, blue and green hues, a little nippy, but refreshing after basking in the sun.  This was a day I’ll never forget.

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After a relaxing 2 days filled with the beach, we departed Split early Sunday morning and made a stop at Krka National Park.  This was easily one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.  It was rejuvenating to take a break from all the cities I’ve been to.  My lungs swelled with fresh air as we took a ferry ride across a lake and to the park.  The water was so incredibly smooth and still – the only movement on the water, besides the plethora of swans, were the ripples we made as we glided across the smooth, glass-like surface.

After departing the boat and reaching land again, I took a deep breath, slowly inhaling the fresh air my body has been missing.  Surrounded by the greenest foliage I’ve ever seen, we made our way up a path that brought us to a gorgeous waterfall.

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While largest at this point, this was just the end of the waterfall system. As I strolled further into the park, the smaller waterfalls and tributaries gushing into the system had me in awe.  Mother Nature at her finest – absolute serenity.  I tried to visualize the park untouched by man, without the bridges passing over, or the wooden planked paths hovering over the streams.  Imagine strolling through the forest hundreds of years ago and stumbling upon this wonder.  I took time to myself, wandering aimlessly, photographing twisted trees, floating ducks, stone cottages, and of course, the roaring water.  I have never felt so at peace.

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Croatia – I will never forget the unbelievable moments I spent with you.  A relaxing weekend away from the hustle and bustle is exactly what I needed, and exactly what I received.  Thank you.

Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie

I Amsterdam

Bono-giorno!

A bus, a train to Rome, a train to the airport, a flight, another train.  After leaving my apartment at 1:15 pm Thursday, I finally found myself in Amsterdam at midnight.  It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t easy.  But as a key destination of my travels, I did what I had to do, and boy, was it worth it.

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With my bag packed on my back, I strolled by canals lit up by street lights and surrounded by the row homes I’ve seen in so many pictures.  All of a sudden, we turn a corner.  Hoards of people, clouds of smoke, red lights mounted to buildings.  So, it’s called the Red Light District for a reason.  Do I regret staying in a hostel in the Red Light District?  Yes, probably.  But it provided for an “authentic” experience.  Besides sleeping here, I didn’t find myself spending free time in this neighborhood.  It was depressing; walking along the streets seeing women, young and old, dancing in windows in promiscuous outfits, calling to by-passers to come inside and spend time with them.  Some forced against their will, others doing what they need to do to send money back to family in their home countries.  Prostitution may be the oldest profession in the world, but it made me realize how lucky I am to be educated and on my way to a 9-5 job. Spoiler alert: there is so much more to this city than the famous Red Light District.

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Our first full-day we found ourselves doing touristy things.  The I Amsterdam sign, the Fault in Our Stars bench, a market with delicious Dutch treats, a canal tour.  This is the cutest city to walk miles in.  Despite the clouds and rain… the architecture, canals, boats, bridges, bikes, flowers, and all the other small, perfect details of this beautiful city made walking all over well-worth it.  Cyclists buzzed around everywhere we went – watch out for the bike lanes, they’ll mow you down.  There are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are people, and they (not sure whose job this is…) pull between 12-15,000 bikes out of the canals every year.  Who is pushing these bikes into the water?!?!

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Amsterdam was at the top of my list for places I needed to visit.  One of the main reasons was to visit a friend.  For those of you who do not know Joyce, she is the sweetest and kindest girl.  I was so lucky to have this incredible person brought into my life through pure chance.  Randomly assigned to be my roommate last semester, Joyce was studying abroad in Pittsburgh, but she calls the Netherlands home.  After living with her for nearly 4 months, I wanted to visit her country more than ever.  Hearing about her culture, seeing pictures, eating delicious Dutch treats: I knew this place was meant for me.  Luckily, I was able to spend the whole weekend with her and saw so much of the city outside of the touristy things.  Thank you, Joyce!  Next time I come to the Netherlands, I’m coming to see your city, too.

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Saturday morning, Joyce and I went for breakfast at the trendiest brunch place I’ve ever been: Coffee & Coconuts.  Away from touristy neighborhoods and filled with locals, I would 100% recommend making the trip here if you find yourself in Amsterdam.  Delicious and healthy food, comfy couches, and a clean, modern environment.  This was one of my favorite parts of the weekend.

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After a hearty meal, the rain began.  So for a suitable, rainy day, we went to the Van Gogh museum.  Van Gogh’s art is as beautiful as it is intense.  As I traveled through his life’s work floor by floor, I recognized the development of his skills as an artist.  He has such a unique style, and not only from other artists. He has various techniques that look so different, some pieces as if it was another artist’s work.

As I strolled through the streets of Jordaan on our way to a huge, open-indoor market for dinner, I really had the chance to take in the aesthetics of this beautiful, colorful city.  I could wander along the cobblestoned canals all day.  Even though every block looked exactly the same to me, this didn’t prevent me from finding charm in every new alley I strolled down.  And just when I thought they couldn’t be more beautiful, seeing the water lit up at night from the street lights made the view even more mesmerizing.

The culture, the view, the bikes, the FOOD.  Amsterdam was amazing.  The Netherlands is not a country I will check off my list and say, “once and done.”  Without seeing Dutch wooden clogs, windmills, or fields of tulips, I can’t quite say I have seen it all, but one day I will.

Please drool over the delicacies I indulged in this weekend:

AmsterDAM, I miss you already.  Thanks for an amazing weekend.

Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie

aBUDAful weekend

Bono-giorno! and #hellohungary

CAUTION: this post was written at the beginning of February as I patiently waited for a camera cord to be delivered to import pictures from a different camera.

A quick synopsis of getting yelled at by an angry Hungarian security guard for posing on this trendy #hellohungary sign: dsc01105dsc01106
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So, I found myself in Budapest, Hungary this weekend.  It was an abrupt trip – I only booked it 2 days prior to departure after getting a 25% discount with Bus2Alps (an awesome travel company that plans trips all over Europe – it provides a stressless trip with transportation, lodging, breakfast, tours, and activities planned for you).  Thursday night we departed via bus (precisely a 12 hour ride – yikes).

Friday morning I found myself in a foreign-ass country (literally, Hungarian is the craziest language – our tour guide told us that often in sci-fi movies, aliens or other creatures speak Hungarian because no one understands what they’re saying except for 10 million Hungarians).  We posted up in Wombats City Hostel for the weekend.  It was a perfect location right in the Jewish Quarter and in walking distance to shops, bars and food.  Most importantly, it was very clean, and it had a super trendy first floor with a bar and hang out areas.  Would definitely recommend this hostel to anyone traveling to Budapest!  It has many awards from TripAdvisor.

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Our tour took us through the Jewish Quarter where our tour guide gave us a brief overlook of Hungary’s depressing history.  On the losing side of both world wars, always under the control of an empire or another country, losing territory, economic depressions, etc.  It was sad to hear the struggle Hungarians have faced for hundreds of years.  Hungary only joined the European Union in 2004, but their economy still isn’t strong enough to be on the Euro currency.  The Hungarian forint itself was an adventure – $1 is 290.01 Ft.  I felt like a millionaire carrying 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 bills.

Anyway, after a pleasant stroll through the sloshy streets of Budapest with my soaked sneakers, my two roommates and I parted ways from the large Bus2Alps group and divided into a smaller group with a Bus2Alps guide (s/o Molly) for an AMAZING adventure through the multi-level cave labyrinth under residential Budapest.  Fully equipped with a jumpsuit, helmet and headlamp, we set off for un unforgettable experience.

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We approached a big, concrete door with Hungarian graffiti all over it.  Our tour guide wrenched the door open and I strolled in first, not knowing what I was getting myself into. We navigated through the low ceiling and flat ground, on both feet, and I thought, “oh wow, this is nothing.” Then our tour guide led us to the longest ladder I ever laid my eyes on.  I held on for dear life as I climbed down into the pits of earth.  Once on the ground, I realized that THIS was what caving was: tight spaces, jutting rocks everywhere, dust, gaping holes in the ground.  It was an underground maze – one wrong turn and who knows where you would end up.

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I slid, crawled, climbed, fell, wiggled, jumped, scaled walls, and slammed my head into low ceilings (s/o to that helmet).  Our professional caving tour guide was extremely knowledgeable about the caves and caving in general, and funny, too!  He lifted us (physically and figuratively) through tough parts when we needed that extra push.

This was an unforgettable experience.  Even after thinking I was going to slip and die on several occasions, I left with a smile on my face and dust up my nose.  The best moment from this excursion was when we sat in an alcove of the cave, all lights off in the pitch black.  In unison, we sang “Hallelujah.”  The acoustics gave me goosebumps; it was one of the most beautiful moments I ever experienced; I wished I could relive it.

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Later that night, we went to the 3rd most famous bar in the world.  And for good reason. Szimpla Kert is the biggest pub I’ve ever been in, and by far the coolest.  Converted from old ruins, it’s decorated with mismatched items like chairs dangling from the ceiling, mermaids made of recycled material on bathroom doors, creepy characters, mirrors, lamps and tables, outside patios and movie screens.  There was a bar in almost every room of the huge 2-story building.  It made for a great night out filled with encounters with people from all over the world curious about the American culture.

The next morning, we want to the famous Budapest thermal baths.  The naturally hot water, like an outdoor hot tub, felt amazing against the cold air.  Steam bounced in my face as hot met cold.  I have never been so relaxed in my life.  Despite the creepy men lingering around, I’ve never felt so comfortable being in a bathing suit outside in the dead of winter.  Everyone needs to put this on their bucket-list.

After the baths, we explored shops and markets in the city, and ended the brilliant weekend with a dinner cruise on the Danube River.  With a live orchestra and a delicious buffet of traditional Hungarian food, it was a classy, well-spent evening, and a great wrap up to an amazing trip.

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Before booking my trip spontaneously 2 days before leaving, I knew nothing about Budapest.  This was one of the best trips I’ve had yet, filled with new experiences and new friends.  Thanks for the memories, Eastern Europe.

Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie

Spring Break Part 3: Barcelona

Bono-giorno!

“Barcelona, I still long to hold her once more…”

^OK, these lyrics have never been more accurate.

Barcelona was everything I imagined it would be.  Let’s just say, this long weekend took a few years off my life.

This city is beautiful: beaches, palm trees, sunsets, history, cathedrals, art, mosaic, and architecture.  But apart from the city itself, the company was the best part.  After being away from Pittsburgh friends, a reunion was much needed.  We picked up right where we left off, but in a new country on a new continent.  We came from Florence, London, Seville, Madrid, and Pittsburgh.  If I do say so myself, we threw @Frank the best 21st birthday you could ever imagine – who needs horns from Peter’s in South Oakland when you can rage in Barcelona until 5 am?

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The days consisted of sightseeing.  We explored beautiful parks, famous buildings and cathedrals.  Barcelona was so much bigger than I expected; after traveling for a week already, my legs were near giving up.  But the breathtaking sights made up for the sweat and tears I pushed through to see it all in a few short days.

In order to survive through the days, I ate well.  If there’s one thing I’ll miss most about Spain, besides the memories made with friends, it’s TAPAS.  Tapas were made for me.  Why have one thing to eat when you can have a taste of everything?  Croquettes, I will miss you dearly.  Every dinner Frank and I went out for consisted of some delicious assortment of tapas – even when we tried to get entrees for his birthday, we accidentally ended up at a restaurant with only tapas.  We weren’t mad.

Side note: it’s true what you hear about Brunch and Cake.  If you find yourself in Barcelona, please take the time to wait in line for this delicious brunch.  It’s just as tasty as it is beautiful.  Healthy has never been so satisfying.

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Brunch and Cake by the sea

After experiencing Barcelona night life firsthand, it was a pleasant change of pace to sit down for a Barcelona vs. Celta Vigo soccer game on Saturday night.  Getting to a soccer game was on my list of things to do in Europe; it was exciting to see arguably the best team in the world dominate 5-0.  I’ve always loved watching soccer, but it’s even more exciting to watch in a stadium filled with thousands of people surrounded by your friends.

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And to end this beautiful spring break, after the soccer game, a few of us headed to the beach where we laid under the stars and reminisced for hours.  There is nothing like laying on the beach with best friends, good music, and the waves crashing around you.  I couldn’t have asked for a better, more relaxing way to finish a hectic 10 days of travel, fun, and excitement.

Barcelona, I hope to return one day.  But there’s tough competition to beat with the weekend I already experienced.

Thank you France, Portugal and Spain, new and old friends, for providing me with memories that will last a lifetime.  There is no better way I possibly could’ve spent my time off from school (yes – I go to school… I promise to write about my classes and experiences in Florence soon).

Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie

 

Spring Break Part 2: Portugal

Bono-giorno!

Portugal: Lisbon

After departing the beautiful French Riviera, I navigated alone (and successfully) to Lisbon.  I’m not sure what my expectations were for this trip.  I didn’t know much about the city, but I heard how colorful and beautiful the buildings were.  One of my favorite parts of traveling to all these new cities is seeing the culturally unique architecture.

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My first day in Lisbon was spent on my own since my travel companions had a later flight.  With no data left, it was nice to wander around off the grid.  I kept close attention to my surroundings to navigate back to the hostel later on.   I learned quickly that’s it’s true what they say: the buildings here are so beautiful and colorful.  Had it been sunny in the couple days we were there, I know the rich colors would’ve screamed out to me even louder than they already did.

If I had to compare Lisbon to another city, I would say it’s like a European San Francisco.  Maybe that’s because of the cable cars chugging up the hilly streets, the mild weather, or perhaps because of the fog that rolled in off the bay.  But it too was like no other place in so many ways.  One of the most beautiful parts of the city was the colorful tiles placed piece by piece on the buildings.  Some crumbling, some in tip-top shape.  Yellows, blues, greens, purples, pinks; no pattern was the same.  It is something I will remember vividly.

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But the color expands beyond the architecture.  Art is everywhere here. From graffiti on walls to stacking stones at the beach.  Every corner I turned, I found myself whipping out my camera to document more street art.

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Portugal: Sintra

Less than an hour by train from Lisbon is the magical town of Sintra.  I never heard of this place until several people commented on my Facebook post saying I needed to go here.  This is the best advice I ever took.

Sintra is a real-life fairytale.  I still long for more time in this beautiful town.  Anyone who knows me should be aware of my obsession with Disney and fairytales; I finally lived it, but far too briefly.  I was awestruck by the view as we zigzagged up the mountain to the Pena Palace; something in my bones told me this place was made for me.  The winding roads were nauseating as the bus driver whipped around the corners, but the view out my window was worth it.  The woods were a deep, rich green; huge, towering boulders were covered in moss; there were ivy vines crawling up the trees and wrapping around old, stone walls.  I would not have been surprised if I saw fairies and sprites buzzing around.

Once off the bus, we walked up a path through gardens that led us to Pena Palace.  I’ve never been to Disney before (???? K), but I don’t think they could ever replicate the fairytale I experienced as I stood before the towering, vibrantly colored Palace.  This palace was easily the most colorful building I have ever seen in my life, and it would be extremely hard to outdo.  The yellow, red, purple, and blue colors were so vibrant, it looked fake.  Boy, did it photograph well, too.

The palace overlooked magical gardens and the ocean in the distance.  This town was somewhere I belonged; I hope to return one day to witness the other parts of Sintra I didn’t get to explore.

Thanks for the memories, Portugal.

Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie

 

Spring Break Part 1: the French Riviera

Bono-giorno!

French Riviera: Nice

After a long night of traveling, I woke up on the train Friday morning to the most beautiful coastline I’ve ever seen.  Out the window to my left, there were beautiful, cascading mountains – some snow-peaked – in the distance.  Out the window on my right, the Mediterranean Sea summoned me with its surrounding palm trees, beaches, and the bluest water I have ever seen.  Or so I thought.  Stop after stop on the train, I became more and more anxious to see what lay ahead.  Finally, we reached France.

I hopped off the train and found myself in the cleanest city I have ever been in.  In a short walk, we arrived at our hostel, Villa Saint Exupery Beach.  This was a great hostel to stay at if you’re looking into Nice – it’s clean, super close to the beach and the rest of downtown, and the staff was very helpful.

After getting ourselves together, we quickly scurried down to the beach.  Now this was the truly the bluest water I have ever seen.  The crystal clear water was calling my name; 10 degrees warmer and I would have thrown myself in head first.  The front section of the water was so tropical with its vibrant, bright shade of blue.  Beyond that, the water was a deeper blue.  The beach was unique on its own.  I remember my mom referring to the beaches in Nice as the “killer beaches” from her trip backpacking across Europe when she graduated college.  Finally, I can put this into perspective.  Rather than traditional sand, the beach was construed of beautiful, smooth, grey stones.  It was a nice change of pace not to have sand in every crevice when walking and sitting down.  But I can’t imagine it being too comfortable to sprawl out on and catch some rays in the summer (however, I’m willing to test this hypothesis).

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The coast of this city is so picturesque, but my camera simply couldn’t do it justice.  The palm trees, bubbles being blown by street artists, people roller-blading, the beach, the crepes: it was perfect in every way possible.  The vibrant blues and rich greens from my surroundings will be memories I will never forget.  This was a relaxing portion of the trip; we enjoyed the scenery, explored, and took a million pictures (pics or it didn’t happen). Nice is a fairytale, and I hope to return one day when I can ball out as a professional.

After a relaxing and aesthetically pleasing two days of exploring and taking in the scenery, we ended Saturday by attending Nice’s Carnival.  As we stood in the crowded, closed streets surrounded by bleachers filled with excited spectators, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  With all that has been going on in the world today, I had a moment of fear being at such a crowded holiday event.  But my worry was quickly put to rest as we went through extensive security checks before entering the outdoor arena.

We had no idea what Nice’s Carnival was in comparison to Venice’s Carnival.  It didn’t help that everything announced was in French.  But all of a sudden, giant floats with dancers and various themes started cutting through the crowds: it was a float parade.  Confetti shot from cannons in the bleachers; little kids ran around blowing confetti into people (and their faces) as part of tradition.  Beyond the parade, a beautiful, lit-up ferris wheel towered.  The floats were incredible and must’ve taken months to construct.

Not only were they fun to watch, but it was an opportunity for political messages to be expressed. For one particular float, a camera crew made its way through the crowd documenting spectators’ reactions.  The laughing stock of the world: Donald Trump.  The audience laughed as dancing bombs and cannons approached, followed by a huge Trump with his signature dumb-founded look on his face.  Proceeding this float, the Statue of Liberty stood tall with her torch lit, and the world on fire.  And guess who was holding the world on its back, saving it from destruction?   China.  It was sad and embarrassing to see, but I couldn’t help but give a nervous laugh.

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French Riviera: Monaco

For only 3 euro and a 15 minute train ride, we found ourselves in the 2nd smallest country in the world (often mistaken for being a city in France).  1/3 of the residents in Monaco are millionaires, and it has the highest GDP per capita in the world.  I have never seen so many Bentleys, Lamborghinis, or Ferraris in my life.  In front of the Monte-Carlo Casino looked like a car show; some cars even displaying “please do not touch” signs in the windshield.  That’s when you know.

Monaco was even cleaner, and not surprisingly, fancier and more expensive than Nice.  Sparkling under the sun in the harbor sat yacht after yacht, one bigger than the next.  I can’t help but wander what the insurance is like on these fancy boats.  Especially the ones with a car and another boat parked on it.

After taking a foot ferry across the yacht yard to the other side of Monte-Carlo, we walked up to a beautiful panoramic view that overlooked the city, ocean, and boats.  It was breathtaking.  On this side, we wandered through beautiful gardens, a charming town, and the Prince’s Palace.

Watch out, French Riviera – one day I will return.

Ciao for now!

Xxx,

Natalie