La Bella Vita

Written by Valerie

Not long ago, I came back from Milan, Italy. I came to Georgia Tech-Europe with a friend that I made at the beginning of my freshman year back in Atlanta. I may have mentioned her before, but we have nearly gone on all of our weekend trips together. The trip to Milan was no different but this time we went with three new friends. Switching it up and going on trips with different people from the program can be very fun and provide a different experience. 

Thankfully we flew out of the airport in Luxembourg, which is closer than any airport in Paris and ten times less high maintenance than flying out of France. Our flight was delayed by an hour, which was a little unfortunate because we were only spending part of Friday and all of Saturday in Milan since we were flying back at six in the morning on Sunday. Another unfortunate fact is that I have a pretty bad fear of flying. I know what you are thinking; studying abroad is probably one of the worst things to do for someone who does not like to fly. I was pretty nervous during the build-up to boarding and through the initial parts of the flight. I kept reminding myself that it was going to be a short flight of about an hour and fifteen minutes. 

There was a point in the flight where all of that fear escaped my body and mind. I lifted my head from looking down at my phone which was distracting me from my surroundings and turned my head to the right. Through the tiny airplane window, I saw the most astonishing view. We were flying right over the Swiss Alps. I had never seen snow-capped mountains like that in my life. 

Seeing them from that angle made the experience a million times more impactful. It felt like we were so close to them. It was unreal. I probably spent about twenty minutes trying to capture the essence of what I was seeing with my eyes so I could replicate it in a photo. Now every time I view that photo, I can relive that riveting experience once more. Since I was in the middle seat, I am sure I made the poor man sitting to my right very uncomfortable as I was trying to get a good photo of the window next to him, but it had to be done. 

Once we landed, we rushed to the hostel to change and headed out to explore the town. Our trip to Italy was a perfect blend of picturesque mountain-side scenery in Lake Como and the stylish yet regal feeling of Milan, one of the fashion capitals of the world. The unbelievable views combined with pasta and gelato made my trip to Italy one of my favorites. 

Places In Europe That Felt Like Portals to New Universes

Written by Swati

I am fully in the thrall of finals, but I wanted to get a quick light hearted post up about some of the highlights of my travels. This is a highly condensed list, but they’re the ones that’ll hold the brightest lights in my heart.

  1. Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland

If there’s anything you’ve learned about me the past few months, it’s that I r e a d. And when I have the time and mental energy for it, I write. Going to the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh was a particularly special experience for me because it felt like I had stepped back into time, and walked alongside some of Scotland’s most notable writers. Literary giants like Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Jekyll and Hyde, Sir Walter Scott, author of Waverley, and Robert Burns, a Scottish poet. Each of them had a floor dedicated to their lives and work, and personally, I connected the most to Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a sickly child, but learned the importance of travel and widening your perspective from a young age. Much of his life’s memorabilia centered around a love of travel and desire to see more and experience more. Edinburgh as a whole is a beautiful literary city paying homage to Sir Walter Scott through their train station and the Scott monument. And I’ve never found a place that settled so quickly into my bones.

  1. Venezia, Italy

When I was a child, my mom would say the only way to keep me put in a single place was a body of water. I was a pretty tireless child, switching hobbies like changing outfits and belting songs on my bed that could be heard from a floor away. The only magic that kept my attention long enough to stay still was moving water. And Venice was pure magic. I wrote in a previous blog post that Venice must be God’s favorite place. I still feel that way, the whole city feels like a dream sequence. I went the day after Carnival ended, so I got the added effect of empty cobblestone streets and uncrowded ferries. Bonus points go to the two nearby islands, Murano and Burano, chock full of colorful houses and beautiful craftsmanship in the form of molten glass and lace. 

  1. The First Floor of the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris

I’m not sure if I gave Paris the real love it deserved this semester. My weekend there was very fragmented and in the hustle-bustle of group travel, I didn’t have a chance to sit and enjoy the atmosphere as much as I would’ve liked. Paris is an acquired taste, but the Shakespeare and Company bookstore saved the trip. Everything about the store is the living heart of a writer. The shopkeepers are very strict with photography and demand respect, but I burned every moment into my brain. Gentle piano strokes dance in through the doorway of the first floor. I felt myself at every age. 7 and digging through the “big-kid shelves” at my local libraries, 12 and leafing through ‘A Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemingway, 17 and cozying up in a corner with my journal in hand, 21 and gingerly tracing the antique typewriter in the side room. If there’s anywhere in Paris that’s pure magic it’s the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. 

  1. Menaggio, Lake Como, Italy

This might be cheating because 2 separate cities in Italy are on the list, but what can I say? It’s a country worth making movies about. Every inch has its charm. But Menaggio was a quiet lakeside town, tucked away north of Lake Como. The people have the brightest smiles and shopkeepers tuck sprigs of lavender in the corners of windows and spritz perfume by the entrances. In Menaggio I skipped rocks, collected seashells, went perfume shopping, and skipped through the streets with a gelato in hand. Menaggio is summer “city-fied.” If there’s one feeling I hope everyone feels, it’s complete and total peace and contentment the way I felt it in Menaggio. I also ran into a group of teachers on a reunion for their study abroad a few years prior who encouraged me to adventure far and wide. It’s the only way the heart stays young and the soul grows old. 

  1. Interlaken, Switzerland

I stand by my judgment that Switzerland is a fake country. The water is fake, the Alps are fake, the cheese is fake, the chocolate is fake, everything about it feels straight out of a simulation. Straight dream life, too perfect to be real. But Interlaken is a treasure. Look up and see the Alps, look down and see the emerald water of Lake Thun. The flowers are otherworldly, the water is diamonds on ice, the trees silk leaves, the pages of books coated in gold, the whole country effervesces. 

Special Mention: London, United Kingdom

You know I had to do it. The different entities within the United Kingdom have just stolen my heart whole, but London is in a league of its own. Scotland, Wales, and England each have their own unique charm, but something about London will stay with me for the rest of my life. The city felt like something I’ve always known, somewhere I’ve always been ready to be, I sent messages back to friends telling them I’d finally found somewhere I’d never leave. Not many loved London the way I did, but that’s the beauty of travel, you run into the things you need the very most right when you need them and you find the things you never knew you were looking for.

Where to Rest My Eyes

Written by Swati

March 25th 2023

With UNESCO World Heritage sites on every street corner and historic memorabilia in every city, it’s difficult to give everything the attention and care it deserves. Parts of Europe have developed history and culture over centuries, some over thousands of years in the case of empires, with preserved artifacts marking some of humanity’s most groundbreaking accomplishments. Especially in cities in France, Italy, and Germany, dozens of museums populate towns, and I found myself struggling knowing where to put my eyes. Behold: the black door. This black door found in the room next to Michelangelo’s David caught my eyes in Florence. After about a half hour sat in a corner analyzing the realistic curves and features of David, Googling what he means and why people travel across seas and over mountains to see him, I found myself wandering over to the next room: half in awe, half in mental exhaustion. I stumbled upon the door. It was in the least ostentatious corner in the museum that gave me reprise from the lifelike marble and classical instruments throughout the museum. I found myself wondering what secrets lie beyond. Is it an uncovered exhibition? A storage of old masterpieces? More likely than not it’s a room filled with dusty chairs and stanchions to guide lines of people, but the possibility of something exciting kept me there for a moment longer. 

Guides and walking tours are great wells of knowledge in new cities, and they have information that many cannot amass during their first visit to new places, but it can often get exhausting trying to follow the routes and stay interested in old fun facts and historical tidbits. Don’t get me wrong, the right tour guides and the right instructors can interest you in just about anything, but we all tire of the same things at some point.

In order to break up the monotony, I signed up for a chocolate making class on a whim after talking to a pair of girls on Spring Break in my Bruges hostel. After a few days of admiring architecture, I started to wonder just what else there is to do in new cities any more. Of course there are the local delights: food, desserts, tourist attractions, but after nearly three months of walking up and down streets, you tire a bit. In my head, one thing never gets old: books and waterways. I find water the most relaxing part of nature, and I think the best when I watch waves lap over each other, but to break up the routine I wanted some new experiences that are specific to a place. The chocolate making class ended up being the most exciting part of my Belgian excursion this past weekend. Two and a half hours of sneaking bites of hardened chocolate and swoops of ganache, I was in heaven. I was in a class of fifteen, including a couple from London and about a dozen Americans studying abroad in different parts of Europe. Our instructor was the perfect amount of informative, encouraging, and hilarious, which encouraged me to sign up for more experiential days on my upcoming trips! I hope you’re looking forward to hearing about the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland and paragliding in Switzerland soon. 

I realize now that we are hitting the point of exhaustion. Somewhere along the way, streets blur together and the beauty and excitement of seeing new places wanes. It’s not that travel isn’t the most liberating and exciting thing in the world, it’s that the real world checks back in upon our weekly arrivals in Metz and sooner than later homework turns to exams turn into projects that were assigned weeks in advance. It’s later than I thought, with only 6 weekends left. I thought I would tire of the nearly full-time travel sooner. It must be the spring blooms, welcoming in the sunshine, putting on a parade for her. With the strikes and travel delays, we’re wearing out in transit, and there can be too much of a good thing. Sundays that used to be spent wandering cities, expecting to take the last train back, have turned into getting to the train station first thing in the morning and crossing my fingers that all legs of my journey still exist. But hardships wither in the face of comfort. And updating friends on the wild transit schemes and making it back safely are more things I can look forward to.

A Slice of Home (Haha! Get It? Laugh, It’s Funny.)

Written by Swati

March 3rd, 2023

What does it mean to find a piece of home everywhere you go? To me it’s following the heart, doing what feels right, chasing impulses with wild abandon, whether it means I spend the day staring at water or wander the streets of a new city and strike up small talk with shop owners and seat neighbors on trains. It means leaving a piece of your soul in every city, just hoping you’ll have a chance to come back to find it one day. 

This week I was infinitely lucky to plan part of my spring break to spend time with a good friend of mine from high school, Shelby! She traveled to Europe a few times in high school and her love of adventure and interest in politics and culture always inspired me to reach further out of my comfort zone to see what else I could learn. She was often the first of my friends to catch on to international trends, music, and TV shows, and her openness to the unknown still continues today. When I found out she’d be in Florence studying abroad for the semester, I knew we had to plan to spend some time together. 

After a particularly life-changing train ride to Florence from Venice, I trudged down the cobblestone streets with a backpack too full for my own two feet, and settled into an apartment turned into a homestay for guests. Shelby and I settled on meeting for dinner and strolled the streets of Florence before finding a restaurant. It was in her eyes and in her presence that I could truly feel how much I had changed. Gone were the days crying over points lost on exams, fitting in meetings at the crack of dawn and between lunch and class, signing myself up for leadership of any club I could get my hands on. I could finally live. I could finally breathe. I could finally understand life is all about balance.

When I went to visit Seattle last summer, it was my first time truly traveling and learning what was beyond the world that I knew. It was the first time I’d stood on a pier and thought to myself: if this is life, I must be living it. Staring out at the water I felt limitless. Ever since then I’ve chased that feeling. And I’ve found it hidden in narrow alleyways in Venice, in smiling strangers turned to friends in Glasgow, between pages at the Writer’s Museum in Edinburgh, in collecting seashells by the shore at Como Lago, and in front of my own two feet. 

Wandering Florence with Shelby and speaking fondly of our days in high school I was once again hit with the sudden realization of how much we had both grown up. How suddenly we make decisions like tidal waves in our lives that seem like ripples at the time. How easily we can find ourselves thousands of miles away from where we met, meeting again as the same but somehow fundamentally different. How three years as young adults helped solidify our senses of self and knowing that which we truly desire, even if it changes every day. 

And how sometimes pieces of home are sharing pizza with a familiar face, hearing recognizable laughter, and easy-flowing conversation. Sometimes we don’t need to go search for pieces of home in bookstores and museums in new cities. They just as easily come to find us. 

Lately I’ve been thinking about people. How people make a city. How I won’t quite remember the restaurants or exhibits I visited but I’ll always remember people and the conversations and memories that I’ve made with them. Everywhere I go I find myself staring at busy streets wondering what goes in people’s minds, what they worry about, what takes over their conversations, where they’re headed. 

And I wish I could meet fateful strangers every day, Scottish philosophers that ease the weight of the world, Korean families owning seaside restaurants, college students abroad on weekend getaways. But then I remember that not everything can matter and not everything can break and make the world whole because it would be like highlighting the entire planet. But it’s the highlights that color a memory, and it’s the feelings that make those memories last. And home can be found in people, not in places.

La Dolce Vita

Written by Swati

February 23rd, 20223

Life in Italy is slow, every moment is sweet. La dolce vita, the aforementioned dolce far niente. The trains and buses are often a few minutes late (oop) but once you get used to it, there’s a mindset that sets in. Nothing matters as much as we think it does. Not in a fatalistic way, just nothing is all that permanent or life altering. Small cracks break open gorgeous geodes. 

After 3 days of walking along lakeshores and skipping rocks, watching the ripples fade away, I hopped on the train to Venice. Something that comes up often during my adventures in Italy is the importance of family. Family vacations, family owned shops, family recipes, I decide if I ever have children I’d absolutely have to take them to Italy at least once. There is a safety and comfort in the haze of sunny afternoons and plazas with just a few shops. Sunny days, pasta with an ocean view, molten gelato running down my fingers as I run to the bus stop, youth frozen in a frame. 

In the words of Zack and Cody, this must be the sweet life. Lazy days spent by the water, ferries gently rippling through robins egg blue water in Venice, children giggling in the background. Life is a cone of gelato, sweetness dribbling off the ends. Never have I felt so lucky to be alive as I do amongst the movie set that is northern Italy. Motor boats rip through the water in Burano, a fishing village off of Venice, glass beads clink in Murano, another village nearby Venice known for molten glass. Seagulls soar through the air. I’ve learned to love mornings in Italy, young couples dot sidewalks, sat in outdoor cafes, cappuccinos on hand. Older couples stroll along the walking path, greet me with a gentle “buon giorno” when I break out of my daze, a wistful look in my eyes. I decide Venice must be one of God’s favorite places on Earth. It has wedged a place in my heart. Foggy mornings spent walking along the water feel straight out of a dream sequence. As I walk down streets filled with rainbow houses I’m hit with the same two thoughts, “people get to live like this?” and “how lucky am I to be alive right now, in this moment?” It’s been a long running joke that I’d sit and stare at water for hours if I could as a kid, and as an adult there have been several days over the past week that I’ve done just that. All this time I thought Europe was magic, a potion that cured me of my daily illness. Every day felt like the same one on loop for my first two years at Tech. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more out there. And I couldn’t have been more right. There is so much more, but there is also the same pieces of life that can be found in our own backyards. I’ve set my sights on the dolce vita. While I’d love to spend a year or two working in Europe post graduation, I want to implement some European normalities into my daily life. Eating mindfully, being present in every moment, walking more, living a bit slower. There are always a few dead giveaways of foreigners in Europe. They walk a little too fast for their own good, smile at strangers, eat while they walk, and talk loudly just to name a few. Not that any of these are bad things, they’re just in such stark contrast to the European backdrop. Live and let live is an important observation I’ve noticed lately. Shop owners are a bit friendlier in more touristy areas, probably in response to the customer service lifestyle of tourists, but many shop owners barely look up when guests enter and continue on their way. There’s something so comforting about being given the space to exist at your own rhythm. Others unpack shipments, pull carts along the sidewalk, and debone fish for morning markets. Existence is so sweet, how foolish of me to think otherwise for so long.

Fall Break Part 2: Rome

Written by Lillian

November 10th, 2022

For the second half of Spring Break, my friend and I took a train up to Rome from Naples! 

On the first day, we decided to hit some of Rome’s iconic historical sites; the first being the Colosseum. The Colosseum was used to host gladiator battles for the entertainment of the Roman citizens and the Emperor. At least once, the colosseum was used to host a naval battle which involved filling the entire arena with water from the Roman aqueducts. Then, prop ships would be floated on the water to simulate mock sea battles!  

To me, the most impressive thing about the Colosseum was the size: the entire stadium can host more than 50,000 people, and the arena was built in 72 AD, almost 2,000 years ago. The fact that this huge stadium is still standing with excellent structural integrity is a testament to Roman engineering. 

Next, we went to the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill across the street. The forum was used as the central meeting area in Rome, and Capitoline Hill was used as the center of religious and political power. The Hill has multiple temples dedicated to the Roman Gods such as the Temple of Jupiter, the god of the sky and thunder; the Temple of Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth; and the Temple of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. 

Finally, we went to Pantheon, a former Roman temple and Catholic Church. The Pantheon has influenced a lot of modern day political and academic buildings such as the U.S. Capitol, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia. 

Left: Roman forum. Right: the Pantheon.

The next day, we hit the Trevi Fountain late at night which was super crowded. Just in the small plaza that held the fountain, there were at least a couple hundred people all squeezing to try and get a picture of the fountain. The late time that we got to the fountain did not dissuade any of its visitors. When we finally got to the front of the line, we tossed our coins— backs to the water, right hand over the left shoulder— into the fountain to make our wish. While iconic, we agreed that the crowds and wait time made the fountain not worth the visit. Because it was so crowded and stressful, we couldn’t even admire the architecture and marble sculptures. There are dozens of other fountains, monuments, and buildings that are just as gorgeous for half the crowds. However, the upside to the fountain is that all coins tossed into the fountain are donated to the Caritas Charity which funds international emergency relief programs, poverty and homelessness programs, and other programs. Every year, over $1.5 million is donated from the fountain! 

We also walked to the Vatican City which is thirty minutes from the Colosseum and the Forum. The Vatican City is the world’s smallest independent nation-state and is run by the Catholic Church. The state is also home to St. Peter’s Basilica: the largest church in the world at 15,160 square meters. The entire church is built in marble and ornately decorated in gold. It was gorgeous and impressive. 

Left: St. Peter’s Basilica from St. Angelo’s Castle. Right: the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica.

In order to fuel all the walking around we did in Rome, we feasted on pasta and pizza for every meal. I tried all of the iconic Roman pastas including Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe. However, my favorite dish was the all’amatriciana. This dish consists of a tomato sauce base with bacon, pepper, and pecorino cheese. Another cool food fun fact: street Roman pizza is completely different from Napoleon pizza! They are made on large rectangular pans and your server cuts off rectangular pieces from the pie. These pieces are weighed, reheated in an oven, and served. You then pay for the weight of the pizza you selected! The pizza crust in general is a lot thicker and fluffier— almost like your pizza toppings are on a slice of toasted focaccia bread.

Stacciatella gelato, all’amatriciana pasta, buffalo mozzarella cheese and prosciutto, and Roman style pan pizza. Everything was super delicious!

Walking around Rome, you are surrounded by some of the most amazing architecture and engineering marvels. All of the buildings and monuments are so well preserved. The biggest issue that I found with Rome was that it was very touristy. Almost every shop that we walked around sold the same Roman Colosseum trinkets, gelato, and Roman dishes. However, it is very easy to stray from the busy streets into the quieter neighborhoods and admire the roman essence of architecture.

Fall Break Part One: Naples 

Written by Lillian

November 8th, 2022

For Fall break, I decided to head south like so many of my fellow Yellow Jackets–I went to Italy! The first half of my break was spent exploring Naples and the Sorrento Peninsula. 

On the first day, we headed to Sorrento from our AirBnb in Castellammare di Stabia. We walked to the Bagni Regina Giovanna, a secluded natural swimming hole near ruins of a Roman villa. Surrounded on three sides by limestone cliffs and a final side featuring a natural archway out to the sea, the cove was gorgeous. After swimming in the clear water, we headed back into the town of Sorrento to browse through the streets (and eat gelato). 

The gorgeous views of Sorrento. 

The next day at 9am, we hopped on a bus to Bomerano and began our five mile hike on the Path of the Gods. This trail follows the gorgeous Amalfi coastline, featuring an endless sea to our left and soaring, craggily cliffs to our right. We passed over small colorful oceanside towns beneath us and boats speeding along the Mediterranean. At the end of the trail, we made our way down the dozens of flights of stairs to the coast. Our calves were burning; it felt like the stairs would never end. 

The Path of the Gods hiking trail– absolutely breathtaking. 

After our long hike, we finally arrived in Positano which was built on terraces in the mountains right by the Sea. We stopped for pizza and headed down to the beach for a quick swim. Even though it was early November and late afternoon was starting to set in, people crammed into the remaining portions of the beach that the sun could reach and swam in the cold, refreshing water. In an effort to avoid some of the crowds, we walked a bit down the coast to Fornillo Beach. After swimming for a bit, we attempted to catch a ferry to Sorrento, but by the time we got to the harbor, the last of the boats for the day had already departed. Instead, we joined three other stranded travelers on a dizzying and rather dangerous taxi ride to Sorrento.  

Postcard worthy views of Positano at the end of the Path of the Gods. 

On our last day in Naples, we explored the ruins of Pompei— a roman settlement that was buried in thick layers of ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Fun fact: the volcanic ash did a great job of preserving the entire town and can give us a glimpse of Roman culture frozen in time. To me, the most surprising thing about Pompei is how large the settlement was. It’s also crazy how the suburbs of Naples are just built around Pompei; the archaeological excavation site is surrounded on all four sides by modern buildings, homes, and downtown Pompei. I would have thought that it would be located somewhere desolate— not in the middle of a bustling city! 

From left to right: the Teatro Grande (a horseshoe shaped Roman Theatre), one of the houses featuring many frescos preserved on the walls, Foro di Pompei (the Roman forum or the center of the city) with Mount Vesuvius behind the Temple of Jupiter. 

Aftwards, we were able to hike up Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano on mainland Europe. The volcano is considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of the dense population that surrounds the base of the volcano and its high eruption rate. To get to the start of the hike, we took a 3€ bus ride to the ticket gates and then hiked another thirty minutes to the rim. If you want to hike to the top of Vesuvius, make sure to pre-book your entrance tickets online a couple days prior! 

The crater of Mount Vesuvius.  

Overall, it was nice to have a more relaxing time exploring all the facets of the Italian coast compared to the busyness of the three day weekends. Instead of quickly trying to hit the highlights, I explored some of the smaller port towns and spent more time relaxing. My biggest tip would be to always carry some emergency cash with you when traveling. The taxi cab from Positano to Sorrento would only accept cash payments and without that cab, we would have been stranded without a way to get back to our AirBnb.  

P.S. it would not be a trip to the Campaigna region in Italy without mentioning the food. Pizza was consumed in almost every meal, and I had a lot of fun choosing between the unique toppings they offered.  

Pizza was said to be invented in Naples! Shown here is a wide selection of pizza and pasta that I ate while in Italy. Top left going clockwise: a simple Margarita pizza, a pizza with walnut cream and fior di latte cheese, Spaghetti alle vongole a clam and mussels pasta, and a pizza with pumpkin sauce, prosciutto, and cheese. 

A Weekend in Northern Italy

Written by Lillian

October 3, 2022

When I was younger, my mom took my sister and me on a trip to Italy to explore our Catholic heritage. One of the cities on our itineraries was Venice, Italy, the city of canals. However, our experience was anything but pleasant: we got most of our entire travel savings pick-pocketed on the Rialto Bridge! And so Venice was definitely not my favorite city after that incident. Now that I am a little older and wiser, I decided to revisit the city. My travel group woke up bright and early to catch the train to Luxembourg to board a plane to Venice on Friday morning. When we got into the city, we took the water taxi to travel to the island. 

After disembarking, I was on the hunt for tiramisu. Tiramisu is my all-time favorite dessert, so I was looking for the real deal, and fun fact, tiramisu was said to be invented about 20 miles from Venice in the city of Treviso! It was a lot easier than I expected as literally every restaurant was selling some. We zig-zagged around the labyrinth of thin alleys and large squares that filled the island. In Venice, the canals take precedent: the alleys funnel pedestrians across the few bridges that cross the canals. We decided to go sight-seeing in St. Mark’s Plaza as it started drizzling. Since the plaza is below sea level, elevated walkways were set up to allow pedestrians to avoid walking in a few centimeter-deep puddles. There were a couple of orchestras playing for local cafés that filled the square with classical music. That paired with the dozens of umbrellas, the misty haze, and peacefully empty plaza made for such a cinematic aesthetic: it felt like I was in a romance movie waiting for a cloaked figure to emerge from the heavy fog to sweep me off my feet.  

The canals of Venice from one of the bridges.  

It was pouring by the time we got back to our hostel, but we still needed to find dinner. We ended up walking around mainland Venice in search of pizza with sit down service. After finding our fourth location and when our shoes were completely soaked through, we finally stopped at a place that had whole personal pizzas for €6. I tried this interesting combination of kebab, lettuce, and tomatoes on a margarita pizza. 

The next day, we headed back out to the island. We stopped at a café for cappuccinos and pastries. After dining for a little bit, we headed to ride in a pair of gondolas. The gondola service in Venice is set at a standard price based on the time of day— €80 for daytime and €100 for nighttime— for a maximum of five people per every 30 minutes. The gondoliers are required to wear the iconic black, blue, or red stripes to denote that they are part of this service; all other gondoliers are private and may cost differently. We floated down the Grand Canal as our gondolier explained the sites and history of Venice. He also told us that he has served as a gondolier for the past 26 years! The biggest stand out were the rising water levels because of the rain. There was not a lot of height to go under the bridges, and oftentimes the water would spill over the pathways and plaza from the canals showing the impact of rising sea levels on the small canal city.  

We learned from our gondalier that the city of Venice is actually very green although you cannot see it when walking through the alleys. Most of the gardens are private for use only by the residential blocks. 

After our ride, we went sunset searching on the Western portion of the island. The sunset was gorgeous: the buildings were splashed with the orange glow of the sun as the sun slowly retreated below the horizon. Once the sun disappeared completely, the city changed: the alleyways became quiet and dark, only being lit by a handful of streetlights. The canals that were once a bustle of activity carried singular gondolas that slowly and calmly drifted through the water. We stopped for pizza at Birraria La Corte which was recommended by our gondolier— we even saw him dining there at dinner time. 

The next day, we trained to Milan for a quick layover as we headed back to Metz. I will admit, Milan was way different than what I was expecting. The city was becoming very modern with tons of construction happening around every corner to build large skyscrapers and office buildings. One of the only relics of its historic and medieval past is a castle at its heart where wild cats roam around in the dry moats. At the Sforzesco Castle there was a farmers’ market funded by the agricultural society. There were booths of farmers selling their cheeses, olive oils, and tomato sauces. Even better, the entire museum and festival was free! Afterwards, we got some gelato (I got tiramisu gelato of course), and it was some of the best that I have had in Europe! 

From the top left going clockwise: a mochaccino and croissant, tiramisu gelato in Milan, the real-deal Italian tiramisu, a wide selection of gelato flavors at a vendor ranging from Stracciatella (milk with chocolate shavings) to Nocciola (hazelnut), Pizza Capriccioso (prosciutto-mushroom-artichoke) from Birraria La Corte, and spaghetti carbonara. 

Overall, Venice surprised me. After getting pickpocketed there when I was younger, I always dismissed the city. The small pieces that I remember from my childhood were always looked down on with contempt. During this trip, I really focused on paying attention to my belongings and my surroundings: which were gorgeous! I did not remember Venice being so pretty and navigating through the maze of winding streets was an adventure as I stumbled upon empty narrow alleyways and ducked through some of the low entryways. When night fell on the city, the streetlights cast a romantic glow on the colorful worn buildings and made the canals shimmer.  

City Hopping on Lake Como (25 Trains and Counting…) 

Thursday, March 31, 2022 | Written by Claire

The day began with cancelled trains and booked out trains across the board as we approached the Metz Ville station. The original journey took us from Metz Ville to Chiasso where we would catch the last bus across the Swiss Italian border at 11:30 PM to our hotel. Strangely, all the TGVs heading to Nice and Marseille were completely booked for the weekend and right before we had to leave for our train to Italy, a truck driver got stuck on the rails on the Strasbourg line and shut down the entire area for several days. It was a mess!

However, thanks to the help of the SNCF app, we were able to find another route out of South France that routed through Nancy and some smaller stations such as St. Die and ended in St. Louis. There, we booked it to a train headed to Basel only for it to stop halfway at a random station called Mulhouse, making us miss our next 3 connecting trains, but after hopping onto the next train, we finally made it to Basel for a quick 20-minute connection, an expensive bite of food from the local Migros. Our next stop: Zurich. Not more than 5 minutes after slumping down into the cushioned seat of the nice Swiss Train, I got a text notification that I had a 50 euro surcharge from my Free Mobile phone plan. Turns out, Free charges you one euro per one MB (emphasis on Megabyte) of data you use abroad, which was JUST what I needed. A quick pro tip, Switzerland isn’t in the EU, so make sure you turn off your data before passing through the country. It was a hefty charge for a careless mistake. The train ride from Zurich was more of a miracle; it made up a decent amount of time for being late, and thankfully we were able to get into Chiasso with 20 minutes to spare. A bit past 11, we walked, and cartwheeled, across the border and into Italy. 

Over the next few days, we were hoping to ferry hop the water-front cities across Lake Como, but of course-there was a strike. Ferries were operating at unreliable hours, so we decided to just suck it up and take the hour-long train journey to Bergamo. 

As the sun rose high in the sky, I was delighted to feel the warm rays bathed across my face and the fresh breeze. It was a definite change up from the weather in Metz, where it was perpetually grey and gloomy seven days a week. The city itself was beautiful. The town was lined with colorful houses of pastel orange, yellow, and red. The small little alleyways of the quaint Italian town seemed to emerge from stone, stacked upon each other creating small winding trails on the cliffs above the water, which shimmered a beautiful crystal-turquoise color as small private boats settled on the surface, rocking peacefully back and forth. Although the trees were still on their early spring phase, the leaf-less branches created intricate shapes and patterns that weaved higher in the sky, a natural masterpiece.

Other than Bergamo, Bellagio and Varenna are the other two must-sees in the area. We happened to stumble upon a giant garden in Varenna that stretched for miles along the waterfront. It had an array of flowers, trees, and small bushes, creating a myriad of purple, red, and orange that contrasted the bright green forestry. The white columns and marble coated buildings gave the entire garden a Venetian look, comparable to the marble statues in Rome and Florence. Other than the scenery itself, luxury cars decked out in silver lined the streets, perfectly blending into color scheme. 

Finally, in Bellagio, we hopped off the ferry right on time to catch the glorious sunset, a ball of bright red that dipped below the horizon. As the sun disappeared, the cold started to set in, coupled with the strong winds that ripped our hair back and forth. As we took a look at the time, we would be right on time to catch the last bus back to the train station in Varenna, which would bring us back to the hotel. We stood in the dark corner of the bus station, waiting as the time ticked past its scheduled arrival. As the moon continued to rise higher into the sky, the bus finally showed up, only to be packed to the BRIM with passengers huddled like sardines on board. There was no room to spare. The driver, however, didn’t even stop; instead, we took one look at our shivering selves at the bus station, shrugged, and sped away. Our hearts sank. There was no way back. We stood there in silence for a minute pondering on what to do, but not too far from the dock, we saw a ferry pulling up to the station. It seemed to be running on schedule despite the strike. At once, we bolted on board only to find twenty other people trying to get to the same train station to catch the next train that would supposedly leave 5 minutes after the ferry arrives. 

As the boat sped across the water, the workers seemed to be in no rush docking the boat. The exit ramp was not even close to the dock, but all of us were on our feet, ready to sprint. The next few moments seemed to be a movie. It was as if the ferry became a starting line, and as soon as the ramp touched the ground, everyone ran. Flying out of the boat, over bike racks, and across the town, everyone ran to the train station together, wheezing and laughing with those who once strangers were now bonded over our mutual rush to the train station. 

A First Taste of Italy

Join Kaitlyn on her first taste of Italy as she tours her way from pizza shop to pizza shop, and of course, she’d be remiss if she didn’t stop for gelato along the way. Read all about her journey around the pants shaped Lake Como in her latest blog!

Thursday, March 25, 2021 | Written by Kaitlyn

Italy: the home of pizza, the perfecter of pasta, and the gelato capital of the world. It’s easy to say that it’s the perfect weekend getaway for any food fanatic — ideal for my group and me!

It was apparent we were in Italy from the moment we stepped out into the lakeside town of Como, Italy. Blooming cherry blossom trees dotted the sides of roads filled with drivers zipping around on their Vespas. Every block we walked by was home to one gelato shop at a minimum.

an image of an adorable small puppy
The happiest dogs live in Italy!

While the name of the movie may be All Dogs go to Heaven, based on my observation heaven for dogs must be Como. There were so many dogs, and every single one of them looked like the happiest pup in the world — one friendly puppy was practically jumping all over us to receive pets.

Lake Como is situated on the border of Switzerland and Italy. My friends and I likened the shape of the lake to a pair of pants; while traveling along the lake we would use this analogy. It was silly, but extremely helpful! For example, the city of Como was on the “left foot” of the lake.  After a couple hours sightseeing, we boarded a ferry (the lake is so large that the main way of transportation between the towns is by boat!) to travel up the pants leg to Varenna, our home base for the weekend.

We disembarked the ferry right at sunset, and what a sunset it was! It was a real treat for us, as our ability to view sunsets in Metz have been restricted by a curfew. We quickly learned that the town of Varenna was tiny; it is home to a grand total of 800 residents! But what it lacked in population made up for in charm. We ordered some takeaway pizza from a restaurant in the main square and while we waited, considered our options for how to get to our Airbnb. 

The amazing view from the balcony of our Airbnb.

The house we picked was actually in an even smaller town, Perledo, which sits prettily on top of a hill. It’s only accessible through hiking up a steep trail of staircases, or through a road that has a hairpin turn every few meters. Our exhausted bodies gave a resounding “no” to the first option, so we hitched a ride in a taxi. It’s difficult to tell if that was the right decision in the end, because the taxi ride was simply chaotic. Trying to communicate to the driver that only knew Italian where to drop us off as she whipped around the hairpin turns at lightning speed was **shivers** quite the harrowing experience. We made it to our destination in one piece, though, and our home for the weekend was incredible. The villa we stayed in was complete with private gardens and balconies that highlighted a completely unparalleled lake view.

The traumatizing taxi ride was worth it for this.


Authentic Italian pizza deserves all the hype it gets.

Exhausted from our eventful day, we tucked into our authentic Italian (!!) pizza and called it a night.


The next day we caught another ferry to the town of Bellagio. Of course, we couldn’t visit another Italian town without trying their gelato. Trust me when I say, Italian pistachio gelato just hits differently.  We continued to roam the small streets and talk to locals. 

We returned to Varenna a few hours later with a fun idea in our heads. One of my group’s absolute necessities is watching the Rick Steves video about our destination, so we thought it would be fitting to try our best to recreate certain scenes from the Varenna video. I’ve gotta say, I think we did a pretty decent job. I think Rick Steves would be proud of our attempt. 

You really have to look hard to find the difference between these two photos!

We wrapped up our last night in Varenna simply relaxing and enjoying our surroundings. It was a wonderfully peaceful evening on the lake, and the perfect ending to my first taste of Italy.