How I fell in love with Florence

The Ponte Ponte Vecchio looked like a post card.
The Ponte Vecchio looked like a post card.

Sevilla, Spain will always fill the biggest space in my heart. But Florence came close to giving Sevilla a run for its money. Our time there was pitifully short, giving us only a taste of what the amazing city has to offer. But what a we did taste was so good, I think everyone on the tour will be going back for seconds. (Hehehe excuse my cheesey metaphor).

We had another long drive from our campsite in Antes to Florence. The coach drove along the coast, allowing up to glimpse the amazing views Riviera as we made our way into Italy. We made a rest stop not long after entering the country, during which I bought my first slice of Italian pizza. Oh my gosh it was so good. Even for a rest stop.

Then, we continued onward to our campsite in Florence. It was perched up on a hill with an amazing view of the city through a heap of branches. We had some time to set up camp and eat dinner, but soon we headed back out to the city. One thing our tour guide was skilled at doing was downplaying the amazingness of the places we went on the trip. She told us we’d be spending some time that night at a karaoke bar in Florence. But what she didn’t say was that it was one of the most extravagant karaoke bars any of us would go to, or that they had 20 euro pitchers of cocktails, or that the place turned into a nightclub at night.

Soon enough the night got a bit crazy. I think my favorite part was getting up on stage and shamelessly singing “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele to a crowd of tourists and Italians who I will hopefully never see again in my life. We stayed up into the late hours of the night (well, the early hours of the morning) and eventually caught cabs back to the campsite, though not before stopping for some late-night pizza.

The next morning came too soon and we sluggishly ate breakfast and got ready to go back into the city. I was feeling a little out of it after the long night we’d had, but I powered through as we embarked on a guided walking tour with a local Florentine guide. The city was bright and beautiful. We walked by the Duomo and other major buildings, stopping by the location from where the statue of David was removed.

The Duomo was so big, it was actully hard to see all of it from the ground.
The Duomo was so big, it was actually hard to see all of it from the ground.

The Ponte Vecchio was just as beautiful as it was in pictures. The impressive bridge looks like a city on its own from the distance, and feels like a market on the interior. Though I was feeling sickly, I was still frustrated with the speed at which we went through the bridge. I had no time to stop and really take in what I was seeing because I was too worried about trying to keep up with the group and hear what the tour guide was saying. I will definitely need to go back to Florence to experience this amazing city again.

The tour dropped up off in the center of town, then we had a few hours to explore on our own. I broke off with a couple of friends and headed to a pizzeria (surprise, surprise) for lunch. I had an amazing white pizza, though I had to custom order it because the waiter seemed to think the idea of a sauce-less pizza was crazy. I washed it down with a cup of coffee, and then we paid our tab and went back to exploring.

We did not get far because right next to the pizzeria was a street market that stretched for at least a kilometer and broke off into a few side streets. We spent nearly our entire day there, grazing through the fake leather bags, statue of David magnets, glass earrings and Italian shoes. Every little stand sold practically identical items, yet we went stand to stand, expecting to find new treasures along the way.

Ah, the fake leather smells...
Ah, the fake leather smells…

After a few hours, I managed to get some souvenir shopping done and my friends found some great buys, and we made our way back to the meeting spot where we were to catch up with the rest of the group. Along the way, we stopped for all of our very first gelatos. And let me just say, MMMMMMmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Holy crap it was so good. I had a small cup of pistachio-flavored gelato, and though it was essentially the same thing as ice cream, something about eating it in Italy made it exponentially better than ice cream. In fact, I had to stop for another scoop before we hopped back on the coach. Totally worth it.

It doesn't get much better than pistachio gelato.
It doesn’t get much better than pistachio gelato.

Our free time in the city over, we went back to the campsite with the group to freshen up for our formal group photo. We hopped back on the coach and drove to Piazzale Michelangelo, a small plaza atop a hill overlooking Firenze. With everyone all dolled up and the breathtaking view behind us, we captured a beautiful Contiki group photo (which cost 11 euros, of course) to remember each other and our great time in Florence.

Here's one of me and the Florentine skyline!
Here’s one of me and the Florentine skyline!

Afterward, those of us who has signed up and paid for an optional Tuscan dinner at a fancy Florentine restaurant headed out to get out meal. While the others enjoyed their additional free time, we feasted on bottomless bruschetta, lasagna and salad. Our meal of course was accompanied with authentic Tuscan wine. The food was absolutely amazing, and I could have kept eating the lasagna forever, but I had to save space for the best part — dessert. We were all served fresh, gourmet tiramisu, deliciously coffee-tasting and overflowing with creme. To wash it all down, we were served shots of limoncello, a strong but sweet lemon liquor that apparently helps the body digest. It was possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. Thinking about it makes my mouth water.

This lasagna was made without tomato sauce!
This lasagna was made without tomato sauce!

I had signed up and paid to go to a night club with the rest of the group after dinner, but I was still recovering from the karaoke night and decided that I wasn’t ready for a round 2. So I said goodbye to my friends after dinner and headed back to the campsite for a night of much needed rest.

I’ll say again that our time in Florence was too short. The city was small, but I know there is so much more to it that I didn’t get to see in the few hours we were there that day. The yellow and brown buildings call to me to come back someday, and I know that I surely will. I truly loved Florence and cannot wait to reunite with it.

Euro Trip Summer 2014 1468
How can you walk away from this?!

 

London, Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Dublin, Zurich: The ultimate itinerary for my trip to Europe

Euro Trip 2014 MapIs this real life? Am I seriously heading to Europe in less than one week? I’m so excited, I can’t even see straight, and I really hope I haven’t scared away any strangers as I randomly gaze off into the distance as I daydream about the trip. I’ve been planning to go back to Europe since the day I stepped foot back in the U.S. last summer after returning from Spain. I just can’t believe it’s now one week away.

I’m finally taking the time to jot down the entire itinerary of my 24-day trip through 11 cities in six countries. Primarily, I’m making the list for personal reference, but I hope my friends and family can use it track where I am along the adventure. And of course, I hope anyone reading this will be inspired to plan a fast-paced Euro trip of their own. I’m sure it will be the experience of a lifetime.

June 10th – Washington, to New York, to London

I live in D.C., but my flight to London leaves from JFK airport in New York City. So I’ll be using Megabus to get to New York (have I written my ode to Megabus yet? I’m practically married to the company at this point), where I’ll then have four hours to make it to the airport and get myself through customs. This will be my first time flying internationally alone and I’m, like, crazy nervous. But I’m so excited for this trip that I know I’ll combat my nerves with thoughts of beautiful England, enchanting Ireland, feisty Spain, alluring Italy, majestic France, intriguing Monaco… wait, what was I talking about again?

June 11th – London Calling

I’ll arrive around 10 a.m. where my lovely, lovely travel pal Sarah will pick me up from Heathrow airport and help me get acquainted to the city. She and I will be staying with her aunt in Wimbledon, and Sarah will have arrived a few days before I do, so she’ll be ready to hit the town as soon as I get there.  Sarah’s been to London more times than I have fingers, so she’ll be my personal tour guide and take me around the London bridge, Big Ben, the London Eye, Abbey road, Platform 9  and 3/4, etc. She and her aunt are being so awesome about letting me stay with them and showing me around, and I can’t say enough how much I appreciate it.

June 12th – Explore London

Sarah and I will do more sightseeing and souvenir shopping early in the day. We bought tickets to Once, the musical, and will have to make our way over to the theater midday. Afterward, there will be time do more exploring after the show before we retire early to get a good start the next day for Dublin.

June 13th – Off to Ireland!

For more details, see my post: How we’re seeing Dublin in 38 hours (we might just be crazy)

Rising early, Sarah and I will take a train to the coast of England and then ride a ferry across the water to Dublin Port. The 8-hour journey will take up most of our day, but we’ll arrive with just enough time to hang out in Temple Bar and take a nighttime sigh-seeing tour of Dublin.

14th – Irish Overload

This will be an incredibly fast-paced day, with a morning 3-hour walking tour and then back-to-back visits to the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery. At night, we’ll go out like true Irish lassies and hit up a bar crawl with our fellow hostel visitors.

June 15th – Back to London for a Bit

A ferry and a train will take Sarah and I back to London, and spend the rest of the day relaxing and recovering. Sarah will be preparing to head back to the States, and I’ll get ready to start my Contiki tour the next day. But we must get one last scone together before we part.

June 16th – Head to the hotel in London to start my Contiki tour

I’ll have to check in to the hotel by 2 p.m. and then spend the evening getting ready for the tour. There will be orientation for the trip where I will meet the tour manager, chef and my fellow travelers. The checked-in travelers have a chance to go out to dinner, but we can’t get cray cray since we have to get up early the next day to head to Paris.

June 17th – Depart London for Paris

Off to Paris! We’ll begin our voyage on a ferry to France, where we’ll pass the White Cliffs of Dover. Then we’ll hop on the Contiki coach bus and travel through World War I battlefields in the Valley of the Somme to Paris.

Once we arrive at our campsite, we get to set up camp – which I’m super excited about because apparently, we’re sleeping in pairs in these cute little blue tents. I’m sure tight quarters will force us to become very close with our fellow travelers – literally. Once we have set up camp, our bus will leave for the Tour of Illuminations, which will take us around the beautiful, lamp-lit streets of Paris, passing the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Champs-Élysées.

June 18th – 19th  Explore Paris

The city of love will bring us plenty of sightseeeing to do over these two days: Left Bank, Notre Dame Cathedral, Louvre and more. I know the enchanting smell of French baguettes will draw me in and I’m so looking forward to chowing down on some French cuisine. Plus, shopping!! I know everything will be way expensive, but I will do my best to find a few Parisian gems to ring back to the states. Our tour also includes a trip to Versailles, France’s most well-known château, where we will explore the impressive exterior of the extravagant palace. I’ll have to make sure I bring extra memories for my camera!

On the last night in Paris, we get to experience a Parisian night out, starting with an optional dinner in an atmospheric restaurant and authentic cabaret experience, complete with can-can girls and champagne. I’m so ready to live the high life.

June 20th – Depart Paris and drive through Bordeaux

Surely tired from the previous night’s festivities, we’ll pack up our campsites and head through Loire Valley, traveling past rolling vineyards and chateaus. On our way to Spain, we’ll stop in Bordeaux and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed St. Emilion, with its fortified medieval city.

June 21st – Biarritz and Pamplona

Leaving Bordeaux and heading south, the bus will stop at the beach resort of Biarritz, known for some of the best beaches and surf in Europe. Since I’m not a huge sun-bathing person, I’ll probably spend most of my time in Biarritz hitting up the coastal shops and boutiques. Apparently, Biarritz has great beach fashion and locally made linens and regional produce like hams and salamis.

Leaving Biarritz, we cross the border to Spain and spend the evening in Pamplona, the city know for the Running of the Bulls. Pamplona has an awesome Gothic cathedral that I’m sure I’ll obsess over, and amazing Basque restaurants that serve traditional foods like barbecued lamb, fresh trout and red peppers.

June 22nd – Off to Barcelona!!!

Lately, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with Barcelona. Already suffering from an obsession with Spanish language and culture, I can only image how I’ll soak in the incredible, vibrant colors and beachy vibe of one of Spain’s best-known cities.

So on the way to Barcelona from Pamplona, the bus will head through the Baroque city of Zaragoza, set on the banks of the Rio Ebro. We’ll stop for lunch and engorge in Spanish tapas, and get a chance to check out another amazing Spanish cathedral. Once we arrive in Barcelona and set up camp, we depart for the city just in time to hit up Montjuic, a hilltop with full vistas of the city and location of the 1992 Olympic Games complex. Then we will check out the Sagrada Família!!!! I can’t wait!

Later, we get to enjoy a night out in Barcelona, which I’m sure will be one we won’t want to tell the kids.

June 23rd – Explore Barcelona

After a morning walking tour of the city, we’ll have free time to visit shops on Plaça de Catalunya, La Rambla, Parc Güell, or hang out on the beach. That night, there will be a family dinner and optional Flamenco show, then we head out for a night out in Barcelona – part two.

June 24th – Off to the French Riviera

The rugged coast line of the stunning Côte d’Azur will capture our attention as we roll along on the coach bus, stopping for lunch in Arles.  The beautiful city of Cannes will great us as we roll along the Riviera on our way to Antibes.

June 25th – Explore the French Riviera and Monaco 

On this sunny Wednesday, we’ll stop at the Fragonard perfumery, the home of the French perfume industry. We’ll have some free time to explore the area and try some French wine and, at night, get to explore Monaco and maybe even blow some cash at the Monte Carlo casino.

June 26th – Off to Florence

Leaving France, the tour crosses over the border to Italy. First stop: the Leaning Tower of Pizza (hehehe had to do it 🙂 ). We next drive to our campsite, have a family dinner, take a tour along the river and unwind with a glass of Tuscan wine.

June 27th – Explore Florence 

We’ll hit the museum and the city centre, take a guided tour through crowded streets, and watch a demonstration of Florentine leather making. At night, we’ll have an optional group dinner  (an authentic Tuscan feast, which there’s no way I’m missing), and then head out to experience Florentine nightlife.

June 28th – Head to our last stop: Rome!

Traveling through Tuscany, we’ll leave Florence and head to Rome where we’ll set up our last campsite on the tour.  A coach tour if the city will guide us through the Colosseum and Piazza Venezia, where we’ll then then step off the bus to see the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. With our free time later, we get to check out the Trevi Fountain or see the Spanish Steps. And at some point, obvi, we’ll  be stopping for pizza and gelato.

June 29th —  When in Rome…

In the morning, a tour guide will take us through the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Then, of course, the tour leads to the Colosseum and Roman Forum.

Free time later in the day will give us a chance to explore the city, eat more pizza, go shopping, and, knowing me, take lots of pictures. I just really want to know what it means to “do as the Romans do.” Ha.

Then, it’s our last night out! I know that I’ll have made some awesome friends during this crazy Euro adventure, and the group will want to go out with a bang. And if that predication is wrong, I’ll just go out by myself. Whatevs.

June 30th – Ciao for now Rome!

On this day, everyone packs up and rolls out. The tour ends midday Monday and we’re all on our own to transport ourselves back home. But Europe won’t be able to get rid of me that quickly. I’ll have a few more days before I head back to the States.

July 1st – 2nd – ?????

Still not quite sure what I’ll be doing these two days before heading back to London. My friend Rachel, who is studying abroad in France, and I planned to meet up in Switzerland, but that might not be possible anymore. So I will probably just be spontaneous and pick up a one-way ticket to some place I’ll want to explore before heading back to the Heathrow airport the night of the June 2.

July 3rd – GOODBYE EUROPE

Oh, parting is such sweet sorrow. I fly out from London that morning, expecting to be back in Washington, D.C. later that evening. With the next day being July 4th (U.S. Independence Day), I can’t think of any better way to feel welcomed back to my home country than with firework, hot dogs, and everything stars and stripes.

Gracias, Merci, Grazie