CLARK! And my Clarkies. It's been almost a month now that I have been traveling alone and while I really haven't been alone that much couchsurfing and meeting people at hostels and tourist spots, the idea of being in one place with my friends sounds quite appealing (although, I'm not ready to go home yet!). I have learned so much about myself, what I look for traveling (I would take an incredible view or a hike up a mountain any day over a museum), learning to be patient with non-English speakers (this will get even more challenging in Asia), and being truly open-minded to everyone I meet and casting judgments aside. Anyways, I left you in my last entry in Venice!
My first real day in Venice I took the bus in since I was staying in mainland Venice (Mestre) since it was MUCH cheaper. I was fortunate enough to be given a pass to ride the vaporetto or water buses all day too. As soon as I arrived I hopped on a boat to see Venice from the water. After quite some time wandering and getting lost which is very easy to do, I decided to take a boat to the island of Lido where there is a beach and the water is a little cleaner since it was SCORCHING hot. From Lido I returned and walked through the old Jewish Ghetto where Jewish merchants from around the world flourished and built their apartments up very high with synagogues on top. I even ran into the family that adopted me from the Cinque Terre there. After hours, of admiring the beautiful buildings, canals, and finding piazzas less packed with tourists, I returned exhausted to find I'd be sharing my room with 2 Dutch girls. The Dutch are everywhere and always so wonderful.
The next day, I woke up refreshed and headed back to Venice for the Rialto Mercato which happens every morning and is filled with tons of produce and all the Mediterranean seafood you can imagine. Then crossing the lovely Rialto bridge I went to San Marco Square which is massive and includes the Doge's Palace, the Duomo, the Campanile tower, many pigeons, and a view of the water of course. I took a lift up to the top of the Campanile for amazing views of Venice and its islands then went into the Doge's Palace where I met a couple of girls and walked around with them (the palace had fantastic artwork and the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners crossed from the courtroom over a canal to the prison cells), and finally the Basilica where I met a family from Worcester! After a little more time taking in Venice, I headed to Bologna. Overall Venice was not at all what I expected though. It was much larger, had many non-touristy areas, and simply unike anything I have ever seen before. So glad I could see it before it sinks! (Venetians need to take a few lessons from the Dutch on water management.)
Once in Bologna I met my couchsurfing host who gave me a tour of the city and went to dinner (Bologna is known for its particularly good food although my host told me most of it was meat). Although it was very challenging to communicate with my host, I loved Bologna! Two-thirds of the population are students (about 100,000 of them!) and the student atmosphere is very palpable with so much life and music all around even though it is exam time for most Italian students. Bologna is also known as the city of arches with most streets lined with them. It was a short trip, before heading to Florence, but I highly recommend it even though most guide books hardly mention the city.
In Florence, I climbed the hill to Piazza Michelangelo which has fantastic views of the city to go to my hostel/campsite next to the Piazza. I had a tent with a bed and light all to myself for three nights. I strolled through the city by night and crossed the beautiful and historic Ponte Vecchio (bridge) over the River Arno. The next day I went to the Uffizi Gallery and spent my time with 2 girls from Arizona appreciating the Medici's impressive art collection and statues (especially The Birth of Venice). Afterwards, I went to the San Lorenzo Market then took a train to a small Tuscan city, Certaldo. There, Fabrizio from couchsurfing picked me up and we drove through the Tuscan countryside to San Gigmiano another medeival Tuscan city where he gave me a private tour full of spectacular views within the ancient city walls. Plus, we stopped for award winning gelato. Then we headed back to his home city Certaldo to see its less touristy historic center on a hill. He was so knowledgable about the area and full of so many stories I couldn't believe I wasn't paying for it! That night back at the hostel I spent hours getting to know other travelers from Atlanta, Canada, and Scotland.
The next day, I had a slow start, but took a tour with my new Scottish friends, Emma and Jen to taste wine, olive oil, pecorino cheese, and balsamic vinegar (plus bread, but that was pretty crusty) in the Chianti area. We stopped at a castle, but skipped our last tasting which was outside during pouring rain (it was pretty impressive that I went 2 and half weeks in Italy without rain though). Once we were back in Florence we had an awful time trying to get back to our hostel since the piazza next to it was shooting off fireworks. Every time we tried a new path up, it felt with every police officer was being deliberately unhelpful. We finally made it though and enjoyed another delicious dinner.
This morning I caught a bus to Siena and was greeted by my Argentinian host, Santiago, and a Minnesotan also staying with him, Nicole. We walked around the city, stopped byt the Duomo which is incredibly stunning, got pizza, gelato, and my favorite espresso (marrochino which has chocolate and milk in it) at all the best places. While, I still have more of Siena to see tonight, I think it is definitely underrated. Florence may have all the big sights like palaces, gardens, and museums. But the city of Siena itself is more medeival and simply prettier. It used to be an equal rival of Florence as a major trading city, but 2/3 of the population was wiped out during the Plague and during that time it was invaded by Florence.
Tomorrow after hitting the market in Siena, I make my way to Rome to meet my boyfriend Thomas for one last week in Italy before Asia!! Ciao for now!