Return to the Motherland, Italy

I had very high expectations for writing about Italy in this blog considering it is my favorite country in the whole world; however, Milan put a large damper on the beginning of our trip.

If you ever travel to Milan on a budget, I highly suggest you DO NOT stay at the Queen Hostel. We had the worst experience with this hostel. It was so bad that I’m pretty sure I will continue to have PTSD for the remainder of my two months abroad. The first strike came on our first day in the hostel. We asked the maid who was cleaning our room why she wasn’t taking the blankets off the bed. Her response was “We only clean the blankets once a month, it’s too much work.” Strike two, came later that day when we returned from an outing to  find our dorm door wide open and my locker jammed with all of my credit cards misplaced and 100 euro missing from my wallet. The final strike was when we found a bedbug on the last night in our hostel bed which led to a cascade of events; most of which I couldn’t imagine if I were looking to create fictional drama!

  • When we reported the incident, we were asked if we wanted to switch to a different room which we declined (and thank God we did because spoiler alert, we met a group of girls staying two doors down from us who had the same exact issue a night after us).
  • Picture this – four American girls  walking around Milan between the hours of 1am  and 3am in pajamas with our beloved belongings strapped to our body looking for a hotel/hostel vacancy (spoiler alert again, this involved going to 15 different hotels before finding a vacancy at the Ritz of Milan).
  • The Ritz of Milan refused to let all four of us stay in one room so we were charged 430 euro (around 450 dollars) for the 8 hours we spent in this hotel, mind you at least 5 of those hours were spent in the hallway with a flashlight searching in every crack and crevice for signs of bed bugs.
  • The next day involved spending 10 hours in a laundromat boiling our clothes to provide some peace of mind.
  • Once we returned back to the hostel to check out, we were told that the manager was not there (She was supposed to be there to meet us).  Bianca spent a good 20 minutes on the phone with her pleading our case and begging for a reimbursement we were told we would receive. Result – we got NADA!!

As you can imagine, we had a very rough 48 hours in Milan, This happy story ends with a five page essay (introduction, body and conclusion) sent to HostelWorld and the owner of Queen Hostel detailing our last day in Milan with an attached spreadsheet involving all of our charges caused by the incident that totaled to $1,000. When you have two communications graduates writing this type of email,  you can imagine the passive/aggressive language Queen Hostel was fielding. If anyone is interested in seeing these emails, Bianca and I would be more than happy to forward our prized possession over to you.

Even though we had the horrific experience with Queen Hostel, I do have two recommendations from Milan. First, eat at Gino Sorbillo, it is the BEST and definitely the biggest pizza I have ever eaten. As one who studied abroad in Italy, PIZZA is a big deal people. If you choose to eat here, you will most likely have a wait, but it is absolutely worth it. Lastly, go to the Duomo, it’s beautiful! If you have enough time/money, definitely climb the Duomo and Cathedral. The views are amazing online. Unfortunately, the day we were there it was closed.

Now, for my favorite place — FLORENCE!

Two years ago I studied abroad in Florence and fell in love with this beautiful place.  While I was abroad, I remember speaking with an American girl who ended up making it her home. She said, “Once you come to Florence, it’s impossible to never come back,” and she was so right. No other city will ever trump Florence in my mind or my heart, I love absolutely everything about that quaint little city and I would move there in a heartbeat given the opportunity.

I’m going to do this part of the blog a little differently considering I have SO many suggestions for Florence. My four section review includes: food, sightseeing, nightlife and accommodations.

Food

Mama Napoli: Amazing pizza and relatively inexpensive too! You can get a margherita pizza for around 6 euro. This was one of our favorite spots when we studied abroad. We went there at least twice a week for three months.

La Carraia: BEST gelato ever and super cheap. The most inexpensive cone is 1 euro. I was lucky enough to live directly across the river from La Carraia and I definitely took advantage of the proximity. Unfortunately it showed on my waistline!

Mercato Centrale: I love this market and all the food is so fresh. You can find any typical Italian food there that you would ever want. The market is split into two floors, the bottom floor is all different vendors with fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, cheese, wine, olives, etc. My personal favorite is the dried fruit section, they have a massive selection and they’re AMAZING!

Soul Kitchen: If you don’t know what aperitivo is than I am so, so sorry. Aperitivo is basically a buffet style pre-dinner meal where you pay for a drink (between 8-10 euro) and can make as many trips as you want to get food. Soul Kitchen is a new favorite of mine, that I was introduced to by my study abroad ambassador, Rachel. The food they serve for aperitivo was super good and they have all the typical Italian drinks to choose from. Aperitivo acted as a life saver for me on both trips, Italians treat it as an appetizer to dinner while us Americans treat it as a cheap dinner because we can’t afford both. Who doesn’t love free food?

All’antico Vinaio: The best panino place in Florence. The line is always outrageous but it moves very quickly and you absolutely can’t miss this place on your trip to Florence. Paninos are around 5 euro and the artichoke sauce is to die for.

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Pino’s: Pino’s is another panini shop that has a much different taste than All’antico Vinaio but still fabulous. I personally prefer Pino’s to All’antico. The paninos are 5 euro and again, anything you order will be amazing, especially if you get the pesto sauce.

Ditta Artigianale: Ditta Artigianale is somewhat of a hidden gem to me. It’s a gin and coffee bar that serves tapas. The gin and tonic is unlike any you will ever drink. There are all different kinds and they are HUGE. I definitely recommend stopping in here for a drink, whether it is gin or coffee — they are both fantastic!

Ara: Calling all cannoli lovers! Ugh, I have dreams about Ara’s cannolis. They are dipped in pistachios and filled with ricotta right in front of you, so you know it’s fresh. The cannolis are 3 euro a piece and guaranteed to be the best you will have in your lifetime.

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The Corner: Formerly known as Moyo, The Corner is my favorite coffee bar in Florence. I frequented this bar daily when I used to work abroad considering it was right around the corner from my office. Definitely stop in here for any espresso drink, their pastries are pretty good and will satisfy your sweet tooth.

I have a different take on Florence not only because I studied there but because I appreciate abnormal things about the city. I would say one of the main reasons people travel to Florence is for it’s history. I am not very big on museums and history, however, I do appreciate the visual, live modern art scene that Florence has to offer, as well as, their infrastructure.

When I studied abroad I also completed a two month internship with a very reputable event planning agency, ONCE Events. We worked with top designers, newspapers and famous Italian personnel. I was given the opportunity to attend all of their events during my time abroad and got to see a more modern take on the city than most others.. Among my favorite was the Giuseppe Penone Prospettiva Vegetale exhibit at Fort Belvedere and the Boboli Gardens. I have attached pictures below to give a better representation of my so called “modern art take on Florence.” That said, my sightseeing recommendations are very different than most because of my specific likes and dislikes. Obviously if you’re really into history, Florence has many museums and tour opportunities around the city. Insider tip: Every first Sunday of the month all museums and churches are free to enter. The lines are always super long so I suggest picking two or three of interest and spend a day waiting out the line.

Sightseeing

Pizzale Michelangelo: The view from the top of Piazzale Michelangelo is exactly where I fell in love with Florence. I could and have spent hours in this Pizzale overlooking beautiful Florence. It is a hike, but it is absolutely worth it for the view. I definitely recommend going for the sunset. Get there early because it is always packed.

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Duomo, Cathedral and Baptistry: Seeing the Duomo and Cathedral are a given when you go to Florence. I used to walk by them every single day and I have yet to get used to seeing their beauty. If you have the time and money to climb them I definitely recommend doing so. The views from the top are amazing, but getting there can be a little claustrophobic. The Baptistry was a new sight for me to see this time around. It was under construction two years ago when I was in Florence and honestly threw me for a loop when I walked through the square our first day back. I’ve seen pictures of the inside and definitely recommend going inside if you can.

Piazza della Repubblica: What other city has a carousel sitting in the middle of a Piazza? I can honestly say I’ve never ridden on the carousel but it’s a beautiful sight to see — I mean just look at it…

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Palazzo Vecchio/ Piazza della Signora: Palazzo Vecchio is home to the Bell Tower, which is another great spot to climb and get an birdseye view of the city. Surrounding the Bell Tower is the copy of Michelangelo’s David and the Fountain of Neptune in Piazza della Signora. 

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Ponte Vecchio: The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge filled with all types of jewelry stores. I absolutely cannot afford anything along the Ponte Vecchio but you better believe I can window shop for days. Future husband, if you’re out there, this is the place to shop for my wedding ring 😉

Sante Croce: Sante Croce is a church a little far away from the city center that usually has musicians playing in the square. We spent most of our time here drinking wine on the church steps for a more chill atmosphere. When I studied abroad they had international food festivals randomly on the weekends. If you are lucky enough to stumble upon the same, you should eat your heart out!

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Santa Maria Novella: Santa Maria Novella is an underrated part of Florence, but I find it especially beautiful. It is a church near the train station that has a little garden and sitting area in front that’s really nice for killing time in Florence.

Fort Belvedere and the Boboli Gardens: Fort Belvedere and the Boboli Gardens are definitely a hike from the city center, but if you are able to afford the entry fee you should definitely spend a day here. When I worked for ONCE, they used to host exhibits for Italian artists and anyone was able to walk through the exhibits. If you’re lucky enough to be in Florence during one of these exhibits, GO.

Nightlife

YAB: Although Florence is filled with international students, YAB is an Italian bar/club to take you away from the Americanized nightlife. Bottle service at the club is very cheap and your entry fee includes a free drink. There is also a photographer that goes around each night and takes pictures of the club scene which is always super fun to look at a few days later.

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-The Box: The Box is my favorite spot to drink wine. It is a super chill spot in Florence. I absolutely love the main bartender here. He uses all fresh ingredients for drinks and loves to “surprise” you with special drinks.

Lion’s Fountain: Lion’s Fountain is a very American bar, but again is a more chill spot in Florence. The ceiling is filled with all different universities and colleges tee shirts from the US of students who have visited this bar. On Monday’s they accept US dollars for alcohol which is nice if you don’t feel like getting ripped off at a currency exchange.

Red GarterThis is the most American bar in Florence and the main hangout spot for all study abroad students coming from the US. Red Garter gets a lot of hate from locals but I honestly really enjoy the bar itself. It has a really cool atmosphere and plays my kind of techno/dance music.

Colle Bereto: Colle Bereto is the happenin spot in Florence, most people come here for apperitivo and end up staying all night. They have a glass enclosed outside seating area and then a bar inside making a really modern atmosphere. The crowd here is usually more relaxed. It’s not a dance type bar, more of a drink and talk spot, but still very fun.

Slowly: Slowly is another hidden gem for me. I’ve only been here a few times but it is definitely my type of bar. It’s a perfect mix between chill and dance scene which is right up my alley. The bartenders here are awesome, and they really enjoy making special drinks based on your likes and dislikes.

Accommodation

Plus Florence Hostel: Plus Florence is about a 10 minute walk from the city center, but it is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It’s big enough to be a hotel and in terms of cleanliness this hostel is off the charts. Traveling through Florence on a budget deserves a stay in this wonderful hostel.

Grand Hotel Minerva: I’ve never stayed in this hotel before, but I have found my way in multiple times for the rooftop view. The hotel is located next to Santa Maria Novella and has the best view of Florence, in my opinion. If you are able to afford staying here during your trip, I definitely recommend splurging for the view.

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Having only three days in Florence was absolutely not enough time for me. I wish I would’ve booked at least a month there, for old times sake, but I guess the Amalfi Coast comes as a close second in terms of Italian beauty.

We spent one night in an airbnb in Praiano with the sickest view. After a long day of traveling it was so nice to have a place to call our own. We wined and dined ourselves with typical Italian meats, cheeses and of course gnocchi while we enjoyed the beautiful sunset. If you travel to the Amalfi Coast from one of the main cities, I recommend taking the bus instead of trains. Since, Amalfi is on the coast, riding a train all the way to your specific island is not gonna happen. You’re going to have to transfer between at least two different trains and then three different buses once you get to the coast. It’s the fastest way to Amalfi and the least stressful.

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All of the islands in Amalfi are beautiful, but Positano will always be my favorite. Most people travel to Positano for their black sand beach and I cannot blame them, but the little town has so much more to offer. We stayed at Pensione Maria Luisa and it was exactly what I look for in a hotel — cheap and fabulous. The view was stunning and the staff were so nice and accommodating. We ended up having two days in Positano and thank goodness, as the first day poured rain. We had lunch at the best pizza place, Sacaren d’Oro in Positano. Of course I ordered mussels instead. The food isn’t too crazy expensive and all the pizzas looked amazing, so you really can’t go wrong with any food order.

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Our last day on the coast was spent enjoying the black sand beach. It’s full of little boutiques and markets, but obviously the main attraction never disappoints. The view of the coast line is on my top five list of favorite views in all of Europe. Thus far. I love how colorful Italy’s coast is, the contrast of color from the black sand to the red, orange and yellow houses makes for a perfect picture.

Unfortunately our time on the coast was shorter than we wanted as we had to ferry to Rome in order to connect to our Croatia flight. Motion sickness is definitely a very big thing for me in Amalfi, more so than anywhere else as the Mediterranean is pretty rough. They do however, sell an equivalent to Dramamine in the pharmacies which is such a life saver. After an hour ferry ride and a three hour train ride into Rome, we finally made it.

In Rome we stayed at the Yellow Hostel for one night. I wish we would’ve had more time at the Yellow. We walked in after our long day of traveling and were immediately upgraded to a private suite. It felt as though the gates of Heaven were opening at the reception desk.

Rome pleasantly surprised me. I have heard horrible things about Rome over the years involving gypsies, petty theft and other dangerous encounters.I didn’t experience one while I was there. I’ll admit I was a little skittish when we started walking around the city, but the military and police presence everywhere made me feel extremely safe, more so than I have probably anywhere else we’ve been. We only had about eight hours to spare in Rome and chose to spend our time seeing the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain and of course the inside of Don Nino, the proclaimed best gelato place in Italy.

I hope I am able to return to Rome one day in the future. I feel as though our time there was too short and there is still much to see. A tip I will probably reiterate multiple times during my journey is never take advice from other people. You have to experience things for yourself and be your own judge of a city. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, thus everyone will feel a different way about the city they are visiting. Had I listened to everyone who has visited Rome and their horror stories, I most likely would’ve never traveled there myself, but I’m so happy I did.

While I was not ready to leave Italy,I was ready to visit Croatia. Until next time Italy, Ciao bella. 

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