Travel

Our Great Italian Adventure: Part 1: Roaming in Roma

I went to Italy! I realize that I start almost all of my blog posts this way, exclaiming that I’ve been some where. But I don’t know how else to start these things! So I guess that excitedly saying the name of the place I’m going to tell you about will have to do. But yes, we went to Italy. We had two days off of school (we thought we had three but our coordinator told us wrong), so we took the week off and went to Italy for 9 days, leaving Friday night and coming back the following Sunday. We started in Rome, then took a train to Florence, and then to Venice. Then we flew from Venice to Barcelona on Saturday morning because that was the cheapest flight back to Spain, and then spent the night in Barcelona before heading back to Oviedo on a 10 hour train (where I wrote the majority of this). I went with my friends Catey and Shannon. The three of us went to Dublin together, and I have traveled with them separately as well. They are great travel buddies. Since planning what to do in a city is a lot of work, we divided the work between the three of us, so each of us planned what to do for one of the cities and then was in charge while we were there. This worked out perfectly because that meant that we each only had to worry about the itinerary in one of the cities, and the rest of the time we were just along for the ride. I planned Rome, because that was the place I was most excited about. Shannon planned Florence because she has visited all three cities and Florence was her favorite, and so Catey planned Venice. We worked together to pick a thing or two to see during our short time in Barcelona.

I’m going to split up posts between our different destinations, because otherwise the post would be entirely too long and overwhelming to read. Since it is practically the length of a book, I am posting it in chapters. This is pretty much a play-by-play of what we did. If youre looking for a more concise version, I’ll link to Shannon’s. But if you want to read my blog, you’re gonna have to read about what kind of gelato I had and what color purse I bought, because that’s the stuff I want to remember when I read this years from now! So bear with me.  Pictures for Rome: here

Our first stop was Rome, which like I said, I was in charge of planning. The title of this “chapter” is ironic, because we didn’t do much roaming. We had a lot to see and not much time to see it in, so we normally had a pretty clear idea of where we were going. However, we did have time to wander in the evenings, after the museums and monuments were closed. (Don’t worry, I didn’t rush Shannon and Catey across the city the entire weekend haha). On our way in, both our flights were a little delayed, but otherwise uneventful. We had late flights so we weren’t to the hostel until about 1am. (Yay, cheap international flights!) Our hostel was great. It was a converted convent, and we had a semi private room. It was just our three beds in the room, but the ceiling was super high, and the walls only rose to a normal height, leaving a large gap, so we had to be quiet. But considering we didn’t pay for a private room, it was very nice. We slept soundly.

The next morning, it was supposed to be raining so I planned for us to go to the Vatican Museums. Our tickets were for 10:30, and I heard the lines (even for ticket holders) get crazy by 11, so we got up and out the door. We ended up not having to wait at all to have our tickets scanned or to get through security, which was nice. The Vatican Museums were incredible. It is insane to be surrounded by that much art and history. I especially enjoyed seeing Rafael paintings in person. The vibrant colors seem to leap off of the canvas. And of course, the museum includes the Sistine Chapel, which was breathtaking. It was not at all how I imagined it would be. For some reason, I always imagined that the ceiling was a circular dome- I don’t know why. But it was really incredible. Every single inch of that room is filled with detail. It is also a really cool feeling to see an image you’ve seen a million times in popular culture in person. The museums were really crowded,even though we are in the “off” season, but we didn’t mind. After the museums, we needed some lunch. We went to a place I had looked up ahead of time, that served sandwiches, smoothies, and juices. It’s called Fa bio’s, if you’re interested. It was very tiny but we managed to grab some stools to rest our feet. The workers were super nice and accommodating, and recommended what was best, even taking my intolerance into consideration. I ended up having a delicious sandwich with a glass of fresh pressed carrot and orange juice with ginger ( it tasted like summer!). The healthy and affordable lunch fortified us for the rest of our day. Since the forecast had said it was going to rain all day, I planned for us to go to a second museum that we could get to by metro. (The metro in Rome is easy to use but very limited in where it goes. This was the only time we were able to use it during our stay.) It didn’t really rain, it was just overcast with the occasional sprinkle, but we stuck to out indoor plans. We arrived to the second museum , which was focused on ancient Roman statues and artifacts. The ticket also included access to another museum across the street, which had huge Roman baths. By this point, it was already completely dark, even though it was only about 5 oclock. Because Spain is in the wrong time zone geographically, we lost an hour of light going over to Italy, even though the hour didn’t change. It was a weird adjustment. Anyway, we wandered through this other museum, which was mostly empty. We came across a room that was showing a film about how the baths might have looked during their use. A couple was sitting in the first row, and the woman had a cat in her lap, that was happily accepting her petting. We thought “how weird is that!” We figured it was some sort of service animal, but thought it was pretty strange. We saw the couple in another part of the museum later, but didnt see the cat anywhere near them. The lady had a bag, but there was no way the cat was in it. Catey ran back to the movie room to see if the cat was there, but it was no where to be found. Pretty freaked out at this point, we joked that it must have been a ghost cat. An ancient Roman ghost cat. As we were getting ready to leave the museum about a half hour later, we were still joking about the cat, when I noticed something move in the corner of my eye. “Oh my gosh, there it is!” I exclaimed. Shannon, who had been standing right by the kitty without noticing it nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise. But the cat was very sweet, and no sooner than we had seen her, she was in our laps, purring and enjoying the attention we were giving her. She was clearly a well taken care of museum cat. She even knew how to work the automatic doors. We told the man working the exit how surprised we were to see a cat living here, and all he said was “Oh, yes. It is nice cat.” To be fair, his English was limited.

After that, we headed to another restaurant I had looked up, where I had an absolutely delicious marinara pizza, which paired perfectly with the house red wine. We felt like we were really in Italy. We headed back to the hostel fairly early and fell into bed.

Th next morning, I dragged Shannon and Catey to 9am mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Maybe dragged isnt the right word, because they were great sports about it. But we needed  to go to that mass so we had time to explore the Basilica and then get a good spot in the square to see the Angelus (more on that soon!).  I can’t describe St Peter’s Basilica. I really can’t. I have seen many cathedrals since I’ve come to Spain, most of them extremely impressive (others merely beautiful), but none of them compare at all to St Peters. Fittingly, it is the cathedral to end all cathedrals. The shining marble floor is complemented by soaring ceilings, and flanked by grandiose pillars and walls all completely covered in artwork. Gold, glass, marble, and paint cover every single square centimeter of the entire massive sanctuary. It is unimaginably huge. Mass at the high altar was incredible. The statutes behind the altar are gigantic. The priest and deacons sitting beneath them were dwarfed by the giant figures above them. The center of the wall behind the altar features a circular window filled with golden glass, the middle of which has the dove of the Holy Spirit. SO. BEAUTIFUL. It is a place I loved so much that I want everyone I love to see it. There was so much beautiful art there, the pinnacle of which, to me at least, is Michelangelo’s Pieta. I have long loved this image and this particular piece, so I was super excited to see it. The Pietá is one of the most moving images of the Passion of Christ, to me. It is displayed directly to the left when you come in the main doors and it took me by surprise. No picture in a textbook or online can convey the emotion that seeing this in person does. The delicacy and care with which it was carved (over 500 years ago ) is so apparent. So much emotion can be seen in Mary’s face, and Jesus’s face looks so real. Every bit and piece of the sculpture is just right. After mass, I went back to stare at it again ( I went back like 5 times before we left) and I was so moved. It felt exactly how I thought it would to stand in front of this incredible work. It was amazing. Eventually, I did have to rip myself away from it because, as I mentioned, we had to get a good spot for the Angelus. This is when the Pope gives a reflection and a blessing from the window of the Papal apartments. It happens every Sunday at noon, when the Pope is in town. Luckily, Pope Francis had just gotten back from his trip to Bangladesh when we were there. So we saw Pope Francis! We had great “seats” (stands?).  He was very tiny from his window, but there was a screen that showed his face and we could hear him loud and clear through the microphone. It was surreal! And I got blessed by the Pope! It was crazy. A group of Spaniards next to us started a chant of “Viva el Papa!… Viva!” as he was waving goodbye.( They also call him Paco, the nickname for Francisco, which I think is adorable. )

I couldn’t stop smiling ear to ear after we saw him. I couldn’t believe we actually saw him! Afterwards, we got lunch from a food truck and then took a bus over to the Pantheon. Well, we headed to a pharmacy to attempt to remedy Catey’s toes, which  and were being pinched by her shoes, and then we took a bus to near the Pantheon. We ended up going to a Basilica right near there first that was really gorgeous inside. Then Catey and Shannon split a canoli while I was drawn in by a leather handbag shop. I knew I wanted to buy a leather purse while I was here, and I found a gorgeous red/burgundy one in this shop that I just had to have. It was a little more than I wanted to spend, but Catey talked me into it and I have had no regrets. I love it. Eventually, we made it to the Pantheon, which was pretty cool. Its one of those things where it probably would’ve been cooler if we had seen it /before/ the Basilica instead of after. From there we went to the Trevi Fountain. Now that was impressive. It was really beautiful, if crowded. And then from there we went to the Spanish Steps. When we reached the top, the sun was setting, and the view was really nice. I hadn’t planned it out that way, but we got lucky. We decided to sit on the steps and eat a few crackers to tide us over until dinner. Unfortunately a guard came over to us and told us “ No eat!” So, beware if you go to Rome. “No eat” on the Spanish steps. Who knows what damage your cracker crumbs might do. At this point, Catey’s pharmacy remedy for her toes wasn’t working, so we found her some slipper-like boot things which were  much more comfortable. For dinner, we stopped in some place we hadn’t planned on because the waitress out front sold us on it. Other than the affordable menu of the day, I think what won us over was her telling us “You sit inside. Warm.” This wasn’t the best food we had in Italy, but it was decent and they played good music in the restaurant. And it was warm. On our way back to the hostel, we stopped at plaza to see a pretty fountain. There was a beautiful building there, and we could see people going in, so we decided to check it out. It was a beautiful little church, and there wad a concert happening! Two men and two women, all with amazing  and clearly profess voices, were singing beautiful classical songs, all about Mary. We only caught the last 10 minutes or so, but how awesome is that? It was such a nice way to end the night.

And before we knew it, it was our last day in Rome. We packed up and checked out in the morning, but left our luggage in the hostel so we could go to the Colosseum. On our way there, we passed the Italian National Monument which houses the Unknown Italian Soldier from WWI. It is a very eye catching building, so we went in and looked around. There’s a museum there too that we didn’t have time to see. Eventually we made it to our destination. We started with the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It was a beautiful sunny and chilly day. The Hill was really cool, and almost didn’t feel real. The ruins are scattered everywhere. We felt dumb because we couldn’t find the exit for a while, but we eventually figured it out and made it to the Colosseum. Again, I definitely recommend getting your tickets ahead of time. All we had to do was wait in a short line for security. The Colosseum was really impressive and we spent a while wandering around. I just saw Gladiator for the first time in History class in Oviedo, so I thought it was pretty cool.( I think I should probably watch it in English at some point though.) As we were leaving, we were dying of hunger, so we went to a pretty touristy place for lunch right near the Colosseum. If you can swing it, I would recommend waiting to eat until you’re farther away from this area, but we’re a group of girls with wacky blood sugar, so it was better for us to eat then. When you’re in areas like this, you will be constantly bothered by people trying to sell you overpriced tickets, selfie sticks, and crappy souvenirs. And in Rome specifically, chubby older men dressed as Gladiators will want you to pay to take pictures with them. No one takes no for an answer, but just keep repeating it firmly and keep right on walking. It worked for us. Now it was time for us to head back to the hostel to get our stuff. We needed to take a bus from the hostel to Termini station. Our next stop was Florence!  It would be about a 25 minute bus ride, and we left with enough time to have about 25 minutes when we got to the station to find our platform (we already had our tickets.) Everything had run pretty smoothly at this point, so it was about time for our luck to run out. The bus became absolutely packed after got on. And the traffic was horrible. It was only about 3:30/4ish on a Monday, so I don’t know why it was so busy. Maybe rush hour is different in Rome. I also think there might have been an accident that was causing back ups because we saw some police cars going the other way. Well, long story short, our bus took 25 minutes longer than estimated, and we ran to our platform and watched our train pull away as we got there. Perfect.We had to buy new tickets, which was another 20€. They were the same price as our first tickets, but they were on a much older train, and it was a three hour route, instead of the direct one hour route. And we had to wait a half hour for it to arrive at the station. To rub salt into the wound, it was delayed by 5 minutes. Why couldn’t our first train be delayed by even two minutes?? I was more upset about the lost time in Florence than the money, but luckily Shannon hadn’t concretely planned anything or bought tickets to anything that night. The train was old, and they turned the heat off half way through, and we got off one stop too early ( we just got on the next train), but we made it to Florence in one piece.
TO BE CONTINUED….

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Travel

Paraíso Natural

Asturias’s tagline is “Paraíso Natural,” or Natural Paradise, because despite its small size, it has both the mountains and the ocean. In the past few weeks, I have experienced just how beautiful Asturias really is. We are lucky to have weekend excursions organized for us by our program coordinator, so we don’t miss out on all of the gems the northernmost province of Spain has to offer. Two weeks ago, the day before my birthday, we went to Los Lagos en Los Picos de Europa and Covadonga. As I said in my last post, this was without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever seen. And just this past weekend, we visited Ribadesella, and not only did we 15,000-year-old cave paintings, we also went up to a cliff on the sea that is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. They each deserve their own post, but for now I am rolling them into one. Remember, all of my pictures are available on my flickr. You can access the individual albums for these two excursions here and here.

Los Lagos and Covadonga

On Sunday, September 17th, the six of us and our coordinator Ana, piled into a rented van to drive to Los Picos de Europa. This is the mountain range that separates Asturias from the rest of Spain. I knew they were going to be beautiful, but I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. We stopped on the way to see El Puente Romano, which is an ancient bridge.  (The sky looks washed out here, but it was just cloud coverage.) After about an hour of driving, we began our ascent up the mountain (in the van, thankfully). The driver started to look worried, and after about twenty minutes he pulled over to let the engine cool down before we continued up. We got out and walked around while we waited. This is what we saw: covadongareinavista.jpg

I was awestruck. The colors, the staggering heights, and the lack of buildings, as far as the eye can see. I had never seen anything like it in my life. After a few minutes of letting the van cool down, we continued our ascent to Los Lagos. I had already seen enough to make my day, but the lakes took it to a different level.

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I feel like I say this every time, but the pictures really do not do this justice. Standing here, I was surrounded by these gorgeous mountains on all sides, with two lakes. It felt like I was in another world, and like some sort of fictional creature was going to come around the bend. It literally took my breath away, and that was only partly because I was walking uphill in high altitude. Looking at the pictures, I hope you understand why I feel like this was the most beautiful place I have ever been, but you have to take my word for it. It was absolutely other worldly. I could have spent all day here. There was even snow on the mountain top!

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I didn’t touch this photo up at all. I love the textures and depth in it!

As we walked down to meet the van, we were greeted by a herd of goats! They were absolutely adorable. Here is a video of them. So cute! If you don’t hear from me, I have probably moved to the mountains to become a goat herder.

Like I said, my mind had already been totally blown by what I had seen. I actually said out loud that my brain was having a hard time comprehending what I was seeing. It did not feel real. But we were not done! We still had to visit Covadonga, which is an unassuming little pueblo which became famous about a century ago. La Virgen de Covadonga (so, Mother Mary) appeared there 99 years ago, and there is a shrine in the side of a cave there dedicated to her. There is also an absolutely staggering cathedral. This is all just down the mountain where Los Lagos is. We walked into the shrine, and tourists and pilgrims were participating in a rosary, led by a man with a microphone. Looking around the natural cave, feeling the warmth of the wall of votive candles, and reading the prayers hung on the walls, all while hearing the Hail Mary said over and over again in Spanish was rather emotional for me. I don’t know if a place can be extra reverent, but this one was. This is the view from inside the cave.

You can see the cathedral in that picture, and that’s where we were headed next. covadonga and me.jpgThis is one of my favorite pictures from my entire time in Spain so far (thanks for taking it, Catey!). I posted it on instagram with the caption ” i feel small.” And I really, really did. Dedication to Mother Mary always makes me emotional, but this cathedral was really something else. I have already seen so many amazing cathedrals, churches, and chapels since I’ve been here, but something about this church on this day really hit me. While the art and the architecture were beautiful, it’s not that they were significantly more beautiful than the other gorgeous churches here. It was just everything combined that made this cathedral strike me in a special way.  I knelt in front of the tabernacle in the cathedral and was overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s mountains and the lakes, and the conviction and faith of the people who built the cathedral and the shrine. I got teary eyed from trying to comprehend the amazing beauty I had seen, and from realizing how even though it was the best thing I had ever witnessed, it pales unimaginably against the true beauty of heaven. (Is anyone counting how many times I’ve said beauty/beautiful?) I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around how gorgeous things can be on earth, and I am simultaneously overwhelmed by the realization of how much more there is than this. That’s not a bad problem to have, I suppose! This is an ongoing spiritual theme with me since I’ve been here, and I’m sure I will make some sort of breakthrough with it before I’m home. I will try to write about it more coherently and cohesively at some point.

So, long story short, it was an amazing day. It was one of those days where you feel like a better person at the end of it- and it wasn’t even because of anything I did, but because of things I’d seen. People told me that when I went abroad I would see things that would change me, and I’m not sure I understood what they meant until today.

Ribadesella

Honestly, that felt like a good place to stop, but these two trips fit together thematically so I’m going to keep them in one post! Just this past weekend, we went to go see cave painting in Ribadesella. In the cave Tito Bustillo, the oldest cave paintings are over 30,000 years old. The oldest ones open to the public are a 15,000 years old. Again, my brain just can’t comprehend that. I has no way of visualizing that amount of time because I have nothing to compare it to. So, to imagine people living and painting in the dark cave you are walking around in an unfathomably long time ago is pretty cool. The 5-to-7-year-old Mary inside me, who wanted to be archaeologist, was freaking out a little. We had a great tour guide, who spoke very clear Spanish, and made it feel like she was telling a story. (Also, she’s our van driver’s wife! Asturias is very small.) The cave paintings were amazing, and included reindeer, which no longer live in Asturias, and a giant purple horse. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the cave, but they have some photos on Asturias’s tourism website. It was a very cool experience.

After lunch, we took a walk up to a cliff, where there is a chapel dedicated to La Virgen de La Guia, which the Virgin Mary dedicated to mariners. (Mary is everywhere here- one of my favorite things about Spain.) I didn’t take a picture of the chapel because I couldn’t get far enough back from it to take a decent one. It was also closed so we couldn’t go inside. But oh my goodness-this cliff was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. ribadesellapan.jpg(Here for more pictures.) Water, the Cantabrian Sea, surrounds the point on both sides. On my left, I could see the town of Ribadesella, and on my right there was nothing but ocean. You would think I would be used to seeing the water, considering I have lived in Florida my entire life,  but this was different. When you are higher up, the ocean seems to stretch even further into the distance, and from where we were it seemed to go on forever in every direction. I sat on the stone wall and watched with a sense of complete calm, and I was mesmerized by the water breaking over the sharp rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. I took a video to try and capture the ~vibe~ of this amazing place. I’m so happy I have it to look back at. The thick green grass, the persistent wind, the stark black cliffs, and the complete immensity and relentlessness of the ocean created such a peacefulness in me that I didn’t want to leave. There is a very particular feeling I get when I am completely relaxed, and it washed over me as soon as I stepped foot onto the point. It is one of the places I know I cannot see only once in my life.

 

As I said when talking about Covadonga, I felt small standing in front of the cathedral. I felt small standing among the giant mountains. I felt small looking at paintings created by people who lived 150 centuries ago. I felt small facing the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean in a way I had never done before. And I love feeling small. I love being reminded that there are things much greater and grander than me, and I am blessed to live in the same world as them, and to have the chance to witness them. I get the same feeling looking up at a very starry sky. It makes me feel insignificant and important all at once. If you have seen any great work of nature or man, I think you know what I mean. It would take a more talented writer than me to precisely define it. But to feel small is to know that the world is big, and that even the most evil and hateful people in the world are also small. And in times like these, that is a very comforting thought.