Taming Firenze: Croatia

“Split: Paradise city where the sea is blue and the girls are pretty”

The above quote was written on the wall of Hostel En Route, welcoming us to the beautiful coastal country.

Croatia was a refreshing taste of home. The familiar salty ocean air and the delicious taste of seafood brought me back to summers on the beach and on the bay. True, there was no Old Bay on our tables, but Croatian seafood does just well without the peppery, Chesapeake Bay staple.

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The first activity on our itinerary was a whitewater rafting trip down the Cetina River. The crystal clear water and the lush, emerald green forest offered us escape from the cobblestone and cement prison that is our Tuscan home.

We alternated between calm, peaceful waters and flowing, hissing rapids (I can’t exactly say “roaring rapids” because we were only beginners rafting through not-very-dangerous currents). Our guide, a member of Croatia’s National Rafting team, coached us through the staggering rocks and the low-hanging tree branches. As a team, we paddled our way through the beautiful forest toward a traditional Croatian dinner.

As we conquered our final bout of rapids, our guide urged us to lift our paddles and close our eyes. Reluctantly, we complied.

With my eyes closed, I waited for the rocky waters to bounce, bob and shake the yellow raft. The rapids cradled us – held us close and waltzed us quickly down the river. When the waters slowed again, we opened our eyes and breathed deep.

Not only did we whitewater raft in the most beautiful river in Croatia, but we whitewater rafted in the most beautiful river in Croatia with our eyes closed.

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Traditional Croatian trout dinner: before and after

The next day we embarked on a cruise to the island of Brač. The cruise, though a bit cold before the sun came out, was the best way to see Croatia. Hugging the coast, we saw the port fade in the distance, along with the mountains and the peach-pink houses stacked on top of each other.

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My second seafood meal of the weekend, served to me on the boat.

The boat brought us to the beautiful island of Brač, where we pretended it was summer and enjoyed the beach for a few hours.

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I didn’t get much time to explore Split itself, but on the way to the port and on the way to dinner, I managed to see a bit of the beautiful city.

I learned from my friend Nikki who went on the walking tour of Split that much of the city and its culture comes from Venice, thus explaining the Venetian-style architecture and narrow, winding streets. I also saw a bit of Diocletian’s Palace, a beautiful palace where parts of Game of Thrones were filmed.

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For dinner, we went to a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant that our student adviser, Andy, recommended to us.

This tiny restaurant with about four employees and 15 seats does not take reservations and does not have a closing time. People typically line up early and hope the kitchen doesn’t run out of food by the time they are seated.

Our group of six waited about 45 minutes to be seated. In that time, employees walked outside to cross about 4 entrees off their hand-written menu, signifying that they had run out of the ingredients for those meals for the day.

A woman sitting at a table behind us asked the cook which menu item he liked best. He replied with something along the lines of “Close your eyes and pick something because everything is good. Our food here is all fresh because we buy for the day and we close when we run out. You can’t go wrong here.”

And he was right. My sea bass dinner (the third fish of my weekend) was perhaps the best fish I have ever had in my life, which is saying something because I have been raised on good seafood.

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My third fish dinner: before and after

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On our third and final day, we bused to Krka Waterfalls, a national park about an hour away from Split, and spent a couple hours in the freezing water beneath the falls.

Once in the park, we walked about 20 minutes on a small foot-bridge above the clear water. We walked through the green forest, taking in our last bit of fresh air before boarding a bus and heading back to Florence.

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With all the beauty and familiarity of Croatia aside, I am reminded of our rafting guide’s instructions to close our eyes and let feel the rapids take over. This long and rocky semester has been a jolting mix of rough water and calm water, of murky water and clear water, of hot water and cold water. It has been an untamable mess of new experiences – both good and bad.

At the end of the day, the best advice I can receive is just to close my eyes and feel the dance of the world turning beneath my feet. If I listen now, I can hear the music softening. My time here is humming to a close, and all I can do now is let the water carry me home.

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Taming Firenze: Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg

This weekend I spent a day in Budapest, a day in Vienna, a day in Salzburg and a lot of time on a bus.

My first (and I wish I could say my last) bus trip through Europe brought me through three beautiful cities with rich histories. I learned that I prefer planes to buses, I don’t like group dinners and that in Budapest you do not have to be a good dancer to have a good time.

Budapest

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Budapest’s history is vast. A fairly small city just now finding itself after centuries of being the monkey in Eastern Europe’s complicated game of “monkey in the middle,” it is filled with character.

From the intricate architecture, the towering castles and the monuments whispering reminders of Hungary’s complicated past, it became easy to love this city.

Hungary is relatively new to the game of democracy – their democratic system is just under 30 years old – and they still have a lot of wounds to mend.

There were two memorials (more like two-and-a-half) that really struck me. The first was a monument essentially taking the blame of the Holocaust away from Hungary and placing it on Germany.

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This memorial shows a giant metal eagle, representing Germany, attacking a statue of the Archangel Gabriel, representing Hungary. It is meant to honor “all the victims” in the German occupation of Hungary.

Many members of the city believe that the depiction of Germany attacking Hungary is not the whole truth – that this monument is an attempt at covering up Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.

More interesting than this monument is the counter-protest set up before it.

 

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A large barbed wire fence stretches along the sidewalk across the street. Attached to it are pictures, letters and names. Below it are flowers, rocks and mementos of the past. It is a pop-up cemetery reminding the city of the people it sentenced to death.

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Another equally haunting memorial stands by the river: a long line of copper shoes scattered mere inches from the water.

This memorial recalls the brutal murders of the countless people (many of them Jewish) who were mercilessly shot into the river.

A fascist militia, the Arrow Cross, rounded up Jewish people in the dead of night, brought them to the river and forced them to remove their shoes before firing at them.

Our tour guide told us they still found human remains in the Danube river.

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But Budapest is not just a city of blood and carnage. It is a beautiful city investing in art and political reform. Its beautiful churches remain proud and stoic in the middle of its busy squares. Its rolling mountains found on the Pest side of the river keep careful watch over the Buda side. Its famous hot springs flow continuously, refreshing and purifying all who come to visit.

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I witnessed young men drinking beer and laughing with homeless men on the street. I witnessed a gay couple’s bachelor party on the dance floor of a bar. I witnessed a group of pre-schoolers holding hands and walking home in the rain.

I learned about a city with a complicated and tragic history. I witnessed a city with a vibrant and limitless future.

Our tour guide put it best when he told us this: “Our parliamentary system was put together in two weeks. Our democracy is 20 years old. What really takes time to change is this tiny, three-cubic center thing inside our skull. That can take generations.”

A man sits in a car on a rainy day in Budapest, Hungary.

Vienna

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I can say definitively that Vienna is the most beautiful city I have ever been to. With a soft, pastel color palette unifying each and every neighborhood, giant, palace-like architecture on every street, wide, open sidewalks free of litter and large, winding gardens green and blooming with life, no city could ever compare.

Walking through the city felt like walking through a cloud. The air was clear and fresh. The people were kind. The colors were soft and light. The whole city felt like cotton candy and feather pillows.

 

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On our walking tour we learned about Vienna’s bizarre and dramatic history. We learned about cocaine-addict and lesbian royalty, the strange alternate uses for horse drawn carriages and the secret symbols of sex carved into the facade of the Stephansplatz Cathedral.

The most enchanting part of Vienna, though, was our night at the Opera.

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For only four euro, I and a couple friends packed into the standing-room-only section of one of the most famous opera houses in the world. For one hour, we watched music come to life.

The orchestra gave breath to notes on a page, stringing them together into a masterpiece of melody and harmony. They worked like a music box, swinging violin arms in tandem with the conductor. Each instrument complemented the other. They spoke in unison, changing pitch and tempo with the ease of a tumbling waterfall.

The performers onstage were like Sirens. Luring us into their embrace, their voices rose and fell with all the power and all the softness of the sea. As they cast their melodic spell, we had no choice but to listen and to fall in love.

Vienna was a beautiful and inviting city. It gave us new friends, new opportunities and new air. I left with lungs full of breath – feeling light, feeling weightless.

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Salzburg

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When in Salzburg there’s only one thing to do: take a bus to the top of a mountain and yodel your heart out.

In other words, go on a “Sound of Music” tour.

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Even if you don’t like “Sound of Music,” (I’m judging you if you don’t) this four hour trip through the mountains takes you to breathtaking views of lakeside villages, quaint and colorful towns and even the headquarters of red bull.

As we wound our way up the mountains, we sang along to the scratchy CD that our tour guide carried around in her purse. We belted operatic melodies, we learned our do re mi’s and, of course, we yodeled – or tried to.

Along the way we also learned the history of the Von Trapp family and some secrets of the film.

We learned that two different houses were used as the front and the back of the Von Trapp house, the gazebo in “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” had to be built larger in an LA studio to accommodate the choreography and that the Von Trapp family never did escape through the mountains, but took a train to Switzerland instead.

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We also learned that Maria and The Captain never really did fall madly in love, but that the Von Trapp children played “cupid” and convinced the two to marry because they wanted her to be their new mother.

But that wouldn’t have made for a very good movie.

Our tour guide told us that Maria Von Trapp decided to join the convent as a way to thank God for the beauty of the mountains in Salzburg. It was said that after she travelled there from Vienna for the first time, she fell madly in love.

The mountain views of the crystal blue lakes and colorful houses dotting the dips of the valleys cannot be recreated by photos.

As our bus began to carry us on our journey home, the sun wove through the crests on the mountains. It shone bright, casting golden light on the tiny, snow-covered neighborhoods.

The world there was quiet. Life was small. Days were always peaceful. And everything was beautiful.

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Taming Firenze: Venezia

“To live in Venice, or even to visit it, means that you fall in  love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your own heart for anyone else.” – Peggy Guggenheim 

 

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To put it frankly – and to risk sounding cliche – Venice stole my heart.

In second grade I remember spending my library visits hoarding travel books from the “Culture” shelves and blockading myself with a wall of hardcover books featuring photos from the world beyond Homestead Wakefield Elementary School.

I remember my favorites, the books I would always return to when my wanderlust could not be quenched: Seoul, Tokyo, Paris and Venice.

Venice. My most favorite. The book my Librarian could never pry out of my pudgy seven-year-old fingers.

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Captivated by the long, slender men gliding across turquoise water, the brightly colored buildings mismatched in a hastily stitched quilt of neighborhoods, the alleys, the bridges, the boats, the beauty – all of it rippled through my mind like the crinkled waves of the lagoon.

My mind was made. I would go to Venice.

More than 10 years later, I finally got my wish.

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Beyond the churches, the Piazza San Marco, and the beautiful Gallerie Dell’Academia, I discovered a familiar modernity in the folds of the city. Unlike Florence, a city obsessed with Renaissance, Venice seemed to balance the old with the new. We spent most of our free time exploring contemporary art galleries featuring artists like Enzo Fiore, Julio Larraz, and Robert Indiana.

We got lost in the mesmerizing Peggy Guggenheim museum, understanding her own life through the lens of her art collection. I marveled at the incredible works of Jasper Johns, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray, Mark Rothko and so many more.

We also happened upon a photography gallery depicting the story of an African village uniting through the power of Yoga. The Venetian photographer shared with us his secret spots to find the best photos, and we immediately planned a second trip back to his beautiful city.

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We found ourselves exploring the night life (or lack thereof) and casually wandering into Harry’s Bar, the birthplace of the famous Bellini, in jeans and tennis shoes – severely underdressed compared to the suits and dresses of the beautiful Venetians around us. Embarrassed at first, the smiling bartender excused our attire and served us as if we belonged to the surrounding Italian elite.

The four of us agreed to share two of the famous – and expensive – cocktails, until an old man at the end of the bar offered to buy us two more. So, we all enjoyed authentic Bellini cocktails thanks to the courtesy of a man who wanted us to have a true Venetian experience.

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Realizing Harry’s Bar exceeded our price range, we made our way to the more familiar Hard Rock Cafe to hear Arsenals, a local Italian band, perform.

From the juxtaposition of old art and new, the Harry’s Bar elites and the Hard Rock Cafe middle class, the man powered gondolas and the motor powered taxi boats, we began to understand this city. We experienced the opposing ends of its cultural spectrum, realizing its cultural fluidity in contrast to Florence’s cultural structure. And as Peggy Guggenheim predicted we would, we fell in love.

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I may not have seen the Venice I saw in books, but what I saw will stay in my mind and in my heart forever.

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