Thanksgiving Week: Rome & Florence


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It was really fun having my mom fly in a stay with me over Thanksgiving week.  I got to show her all around Rome and then we took a little trip up to Florence.

Straight off the plane (after a train ride, a bus ride, and dropping off her suitcase), we were off to grab some coffees and see the town.  These coffees are called marocchinos – to make them they put fudge in the bottom of the glass, pour espresso over and then top with milk foam and cocoa.. simply delicious.


We took the elevator up to the top of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument (pictured behind us) so we could get a better look at Rome.


I didn’t realize how well I knew this city until we were up there and I was pointing out all the famous sites (and not so famous ones)..

We then climbed up a lot (I mean a lot) of stairs up to see Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven).  The exterior doesn’t look like much, but the interior was beautiful, complete with a gold ceiling and dozens of glass chandeliers.

When it turned dark, we walked over to the Trevi Fountain, which I believe best viewed at night.


As a class, we took a little architecture field trip to see Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum, and mom came along.

The Parco della Musica houses three music halls, each in these beetle-like structures.





The connections under the beetle shell are pretty nice.  I can’t say I love the buildings, but I can appreciate them from an architectural perspective.. haha.

MAXXI, or National Museum of Art in the 21st Century, was design by Zaha Hadid and took 10 years to construct, only opening in 2010.



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I’m not sure how much mom enjoying being an architecture student for a day, but I enjoyed having her tag along 🙂

On Wednesday, I took mom to see the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.  I was happy to go back when there was much nicer weather.. it was rainy when I went.



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The Colosseum will never get less-impressive.

On Thursday morning (Thanksgiving Day), we had an early-morning tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s.


It also happened to be the day that they were going to set up the Christmas tree.

The Vatican Museum was really amazing.  I wish we had had more time to look at everything, but we would had been there all day..

And I can’t get enough of these tiled floors!!


We also spent some time in the Sistine Chapel to take in Michelangelo’s masterpiece ceiling, but unfortunately, no photos are allowed.

We went into St. Peter’s again. I just can’t get past how large this building is.. it’s unreal.

Right after our tour of the Vatican, we hopped on a 2-hour train north to Florence for a few days.

Florence (Firenze in Italian) is the capital of Tuscany, a region in central Italy.  In the Middle Ages, it was the the center of European trade, which made it an excellent location for the birth of the Renaissance.  The powerful Medici family from Florence were huge patrons of the arts, which brought a lot of big Renaissance artists to the city, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli.  It is still one of the wealthiest cities in Italy and has been called one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

We were greeted from the train station with Christmas Lights!  Christmas season is officially upon us!



Architecturally, Florence is known for its Duomo (“cathedral”) which is home to the largest brick masonry dome in the world, designed by Brunelleschi.


You can actually climb stairs up within the dome, which we wanted to do, but the tickets were sold out.. Bummer. But we did get to go into the church.


The interior is relatively plain except for the beautifully painted dome.


After leaving the church, we ventured down to Piazza della Signoria where Palazzo Vecchio is located, as well as the Neptune Fountain and the original location of Michaelangelo’s David (the original is now in another museum in Florence).



We’re feeling the same way, Mr. Lion, about David’s lack of clothing.. haha

The Palazzo Vecchio (“old palace” in Italian) is now the town hall of Florence.  It changed names many times, but was given the name of Palazzo Vecchio when the Medici family moved to another palace across the river.

The palace has an excellent art collection, and so we bought tickets to the museum.


We first toured some Roman amphitheater ruins that they have recently found underneath the palace.  It figures.. I think it would be a bigger surprise NOT to find ruins while digging anywhere in Italy, haha!

Photos from the courtyard (#1 in above diagram)



This is the Great Hall (#9)


Italy knows how to decorate their ceilings.. they need to provide chaise lounges so you can look up and admire them without falling down!






After touring all the rooms, we climbed up the tour to see a better view of the city and the Duomo!



I spy David from a hole in the floor up above.


And there’s the Duomo.. So beautiful.


Florence is really a beautiful city! I’d love to return and stay a while more.


And I’ve really loved having my mom here in Italy.  It’s fun to share with her what I’ve been learning and seeing since being abroad.

Up next: My final days in Rome and traveling back to the States!







Southern Italy: Puglia

After getting back from our trip to Naples area, Audrey and I were itching to be on the move again.  What can I say, I love riding the train.

We were in Rome, going to classes and working hard for four days and then we were off again, this time to the Puglia (poo-lia) region of Italy, AKA the heel of the boot.


Puglia is one of Italy’s best kept secrets, which is exactly why I wanted to go there.  I shared the Rick Steves quote about southern Italy getting more Italian as you go further south.  The good news is that I loved the Naples region and so I was ready to plunge further into southern Italy.

Puglia was first colonized by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC so it is a very culturally rich area (as if the rest of Italy isn’t.. hah).  It’s known for being very agricultural.  In fact, it produces 40% of the country’s olive oil.  It is also known for having beautiful beaches, which we sadly didn’t have the chance to visit this time around.

Bloggers often call it Italy’s best kept secret and so I knew we had to go.

After a 6 hour train ride through Italy, we first arrived in Ostuni, the White City.



As I often say in school, “I like my clothes black, and my buildings white.” So there is a city that is completely white.. a dream.

Ostuni is said to have been settled since the Stone Age, but todays city is very clearly a medieval city, situated on a hill with a wall surrounding it.


I sent few pictures to my mom, and she sent a message back, “A white city! Oh it’s so clean! I love it!” Yes mom! Exactly!


Oh, and the cacti.  Oh I’m a sucker for the cacti.


We had such a nice relaxing day exploring the white alleyways, and we even had time for a little sketching/painting.


I also need to mention the beautiful hole-in-the-wall Airbnb we stayed in.  Not only was our host as lovely as could be, but her place was absolutely adorable and well-designed (which I don’t say lightly).  I wish I had better photos of it.



She actually lives further out in the country with her family and owns about 100 olive trees.  She gave us some of the olive oil she made, which we happily paired with some local focaccia bread and very, very fresh mozzarella.  (Apparently there are mozzarella snobs in these parts, but that’s a topic for another day)


I love seeing the white houses dotting the hillsides outside of the city as well.  The town has really got their color scheme down.

Anyway, Ostuni was everything I could have ever wanted and more, and I was a little sad to leave.

The next morning, our wonderful host drove us to the train station and we were off to Alberobello to see the famous Trulli.


This is a photo of one of these Trulli dwellings that we saw on the train.

Trulli are a type of building that is specific to the region of Puglia.  They were originally constructed as temporary structures in farm fields as storage shelters.  They had an abundance of stone, and the cone shape allowed them to stack the stones in such a way so that they did not need mortar, thus they were able to disassemble and reassemble as needed.  At some point, they started joining up multiple Trulli and living in the shelters as well.  There is also the idea that because these shelters belonged to poor field workers, when taxes needed to be paid on dwellings, the people could disassemble them until tax season was over to avoid paying taxes on them.


Note: this is a photo of a poster I saw

The region of Puglia is famous for this specific typology, and we were excited to see the little houses.  Alberobello has the largest concentration of them, and they were named in the 90s as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The trulli in the town of Alberobello are obviously better taken care of than the ones we saw in the fields, many with new roofs and freshly painted walls.  This area attracts a lot of tourists throughout the summer.







Here you can see a cute little cut-away model of how the cones are constructed, with a double layer of stacked stone and rubble in the middle.


I “trulli” love them. Not sorry about that pun.

And still, the cacti.. 🙂 And the tiny Italian trucks.. love.

After Alberobello, we were off to Lecce for the night, a city further south on the heel peninsula.


Lecce is the second largest city in the Puglia region, after the capital of Bari.  It was first a Greek city, and then became a very important city for the Romans as it was en route to a Roman port city on the coast.  The city has a large abundance of limestone, which is clear upon walking around the cream-colored city.


It is often called “Florence of the south” because of its many Baroque-era churches.


This is a Roman amphitheater built in the 2nd Century that was partially uncovered in 1901 when it was discovered by construction workers.  Half of it is still buried because on top of it sits important Baroque-era buildings.


This is the main cathedral square, an exquisite Baroque church.



Another beautiful Baroque church.

We also visited the city’s castle, which also happened to have a Andy Warhol exhibit.


Same, Andy, same.

We had more fun looking at the architecture than anything else.  I mean, look at this ceiling.


And then back to Rome.. We had such a nice few days just the two of us, but it was time to return to the city and get some of our work done.  We only have about 3 weeks left of school! Time is flying.




Southern Italy: Amalfi, Pompeii, Naples, Capri

Our class spent the last week in Southern Italy, hopping around to different cities. Southern Italy, thought to start south of Rome, is much different than Northern Italy.  It’s more agricultural than the north and much less wealthy.

Here’s a nice quote from my favorite, Rick Steves, “If you like Italy as far south as Rome, go further south. It gets better. If Italy is getting on your nerves by the time you get to Rome, think twice about going further. Italy intensifies as you plunge deeper.


Southern Italy, Naples especially, is much crazier than Rome, in a good, but very crazy way.  It feels much more “Italian” which only makes sense when you’re here.

Southern Italy is known, also, for its ancient Greek cities.  We stopped at Paestum before settling in Amalfi for a few nights.  The city was abandoned in the early Middle Ages and no one bothered it until the 18th Century, when the world started getting excited about ruins again.


The old city has three Greek temples, which are surprisingly intact considering their original construction between 600-400 BC.



After Paestum, we took a very long, winding road to the Amalfi Coast.  I am so glad I don’t get car-sick, and I’m not afraid of heights..



The Amalfi Coast is a stretch of land on a peninsula that is known for its many towns nestled on a steep, rocky coastline.  It’s an absolutely beautiful area, which is why there are many resorts here as well.  There are a lot of towns here, but we stayed in Amalfi (the town, not the area), the least resort-y of them.


We stayed in a delightful little Bed & Breakfast run by the same family for over 50 years.  My room looked out onto the water, and in the morning they brought breakfast out to the terrace.


We took the bus up to Ravello, another little town up further on the cliff, to look at some of the Villas.

The first was Villa Rufolo, with beautiful gardens and beautiful floor tiles.


The second was Villa Cimbrone.

We got a kick out of this sign we found along the way.



Afterward, we decided to walk back down to Amalfi, which involved and hour of descending stairs, but the views were worth it.



Finally we came around the corner and saw Amalfi. Almost home!


After we left Amalfi, we stopped in Pompeii before heading to Naples for the night.


Pompeii is one of those places I’ve heard of since I was a small child and never thought I’d have the opportunity to visit.  It’s crazy.  An ghost-town that they are still uncovering from the Mount Vesuvius explosion 2000 years ago.





In Naples we went to a huge archeology museum, where they have a model of the city.  It’s pretty incredible.


Naples, as I mentioned before, is crazy, and I kind of love it.  Mopeds and people flying everywhere.

And they have crazy good food, especially seafood.


After Naples, we took a ferry to the island of Capri, just off the coast of Naples and Amalfi, and it was a dream.


Capri is a mountainous island with beautiful clear, turquoise water, and a lot of stairs.



We took a boat tour around the island to see some of the grottos (actually we took 2 boat tours.. we like boat tours.)




We climbed many many stairs up to a villa ruin.




We also took a trip to one of the swimming holes – I say swimming hole because it’s not really a beach.  It’s a concrete ramp into the water.  The water wasn’t to cold so I swam for a bit.



Not pictured: my phone sliding 20 feet toward the sea and stopping 1 foot before falling into the water.. That was a close one. I thought it was a gonner.

We had so much fun in Capri that we were pretty sad to leave to head back to Rome.

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Rome: Week 3

Audrey and I have really enjoyed exploring Rome by night

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Saint Peter’s Basilica on the Tiber

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A peek at the Pantheon through the locked door


The Trevi Fountain is so beautiful at night.  Designed, again, by Bernini.

Speaking of Bernini, Audrey and I took a little trip to a church so see his Ecstasy of Saint Teresa sculpture.


We also saw Borromini’s (Bernini’s rival) Church of the Four Fountains, which is a dream as an architecture student.


Here is Tiber Island, which has been around since ancient Rome.  It houses one of the oldest continuously-operated hospitals in the world.


We also visited one of the Da Vinci Museums, to see some of his inventions.  He was a pretty neat guy.


Also, I need to add that we’ve been really busy with classes as well.  We had a watercolor pin-up last week, and we’ve been in studio as well with a lot of work involved.


And here is a rainbow I saw in the middle of a studio review from the UW Rome Center.


Our studio project is located in Testaccio in the old slaughterhouse, that has since been abandoned as a slaughterhouse, but a university, museum, and some other uses have moved it.  But still some of the site is sitting vacant.





The highlight of the week was traveling north one hour to Orvieto.

Audrey and I got up really early to catch the train.  I missed riding the train so much!

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Orvieto is a medieval hill town that sits up on a hill peak surrounded by a wall.


When we got there, we were engulfed in dreamy fog. Oh I love the fog.



Here is the Duomo, the city’s cathedral.



The city is famous for it’s underground Etruscan tunnels, which they used in the Middle Ages for various business, such as making wine and olive oil.  The city apparently sits on 1,200 tunnels like these but we only went into two.


Around lunchtime, the fog cleared off and we could see the surrounding valleys.




I could have wandered the streets of Orvieto for days.

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It took some convincing, but we decided to climb down the 250 steps to the bottom of St. Patrick’s Well.  We were happy to climb down, but we were worried about climbing back up.


It was worth the climb though.



We’re off to Southern Italy to see the Amalfi Coast, Naples, and Capri for the next week!


Vienna, Austria (Pt. 2)

I’ve been trying and trying to get this last Pre-Italy post out for days.  As many of you know, I’ve now been in Italy for almost a week, traveling from Venice to Verona & Vicenza, but the WiFi in Italy has been spotty at best, and so here I am with the last installment of the “Road to Rome” series.

The second day in Austria, we woke up and we were off to visit the Habsburg Summer Residence, Schönbrunn Palace.  Schönbrunn is the most frequently visited palace by tourists, and we could see why upon our arrival.  The palace is beautiful, and the grounds are out of this world.

Pro Tip: Because we bought a combined Palace ticket at the Imperial Palace, we got to bypass the crowds and get into the Palace much quicker.



Schönbrunn (“Beautiful Spring”) was originally built in 1740 as a hunting palace, outside of the city of Vienna.  The palace was a gift to Empress Maria Theresa as a wedding gift.  (Pretty nice gift, I’d say..)

Side Note: Maria Theresa was the only female leader of the Habsburg family.  She had 13 children, 11 of which were girls and they all had the first name “Marie”.  Her youngest daughter was Marie Antionette.

Any way, we had a great time touring the castle.  It’s really beautifully decorated inside, but I unfortunately couldn’t get any photos.

After touring the inside, we picked up some sandwiches and headed to the “backyard” for some exploring.


This image was taken from the back porch of the palace.  Can you imagine this being your view everyday? The structure in the background is called the “Gloriette” (French for “little room”) and it was more or less built to be an object to look at from the Palace.


This is the more formal “French” part of the garden, and in the following pictures we explored some of the wild “English” part of the garden.




After we finished enjoying the garden, we headed over to another of the Habsburg Palaces, the Belvedere.  The palace complex consists of Upper Belvedere, Lower Belvedere, and the gardens in between the two.  Lower Belvedere was first constructed in 1697, and Upper Belvedere was constructed in 1717.

It has since been converted into an art museum, which we visited as well.  It’s much smaller than the other two palaces, but it is my favorite of the Vienna Palaces.


Upper Belvedere


Lower Belvedere



We even saw “The Most Famous Kiss in the World” but of course No Photography was allowed, and security was very high.



I did sneak some photos of the lobby – love the white and black 🙂


We love you Belvedere! And your Eiskaffees!


After a nice slower day in Vienna, we prepared for our last train ride to Venice to meet up with our professors and classmates and start our school program.

Here’s the log we kept of all the trains we took.  We bought an 8-day Eurail pass that we could use to hop on and off the train, and it worked so perfectly!  I could not recommend getting a Eurail pass enough!


Hopefully soon, I’ll have a Venice & Northern Italy update.  If you want the live-action, real-time shots, you should consider following me on Snapchat! Until then, arrivederci!

Vienna, Austria (Pt. 1)

By the time we made it to our Vienna Airbnb for the night from Salzburg, we had walked a whopping 10.5 miles.
We were excited that we were going to be in Vienna for 3 nights and have 2 entire days of exploring the city.  We haven’t spent that long in any of the cities we’ve been in yet, and so for our last city on our Alps by Train excursion, we were so excited to spend 2 days in Vienna.
Vienna is the capital of Austria and was formerly the capital of the Habsburg Empire for several centuries, as the seat to the Holy Roman Empire and then to the Austrian Empire before its fall in 1918.  Needless to say, Vienna has long been a cultural and economic center for Europe.
Our first morning in Vienna, in search of breakfast and coffee, we set out for the Stephansplatz, the center of town and the location of the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
We have been very much enjoying all of our coffee and meals outdoors in the squares.  I don’t think we’ve eaten a meal indoors since we’ve been abroad.
(I like the way they put photographs of the exterior on the boards where they are restoring the facade.)
St. Stephen’s Cathedral was built in the mid 1300s.  Standing at 446 feet tall, St. Stephen’s south tower is one of the tallest in Europe.  I guess until 1955, a watchman occupied the tower at all times to spot fires within the city.
Its beautiful roof has become a well recognized image of the city.
After we looked around the interior, we paid to go up in the tower (we took the lift this time).
Upon returning to the ground, we wandered over to the Hofburg Imperial Palace.
This is was the Habsburg family’s normal, everyday palace in the city center.  We toured the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Hofburg Silver Collection.
We learned a lot about Empress Elizabeth “Sisi”, married to the last Emperor of the Austrian Empire, Emporer Karl Josef.  Due to her beauty and recluse, she was highly liked by the Austrians, and when she was tragically assassinated in 1898, she was immortalized.  Many artists all over the country made sculptures and paintings of her.  And to this day, she is a mystery.
After our tour, we naturally had to go to the Empress’ favorite bakery, Demel, and pick up something to eat.
We wandered for a bit over to the Museum Quarter and found a nice park and a greenhouse.
Audrey has been talking about going to the Secessionist Building (“The Golden Cabbage” as she calls it) since the formation of this trip and alas the time had come.  It is pretty cool.
We found a wonderful pub in the park and finally had ourselves an Eiskaffee.  People, America is doing Iced Coffee wrong.  We need to start putting ice cream in our coffee!  And oh the whipped cream! So much better than in the States!  I mean look at how beautiful this is!  And I had only been talking about getting one since Heidelberg, so it was time.
My life has been changed.
Last stop on Day 1 in Vienna was Karlskirche (or St. Charles Church).
We slipped in while they were holding Night Mass, and stayed a little bit, but unfortunately it was in German so we had a hard time following.
Vienna (Pt 2) is coming soon, feat. two more of the Habsburg Palaces.

Salzburg, Austria

From Munich, we took the train to Vienna and stopped in Salzburg on the way.

In preparation for our trip to Salzburg, we watched a bit of Sound of Music, which is set in Salzburg, Austria.  It took us 3 nights to watch the entire 3-hour movie because we kept falling asleep 🙂
Our first destination in Salzburg was the Mirabell Garden where Maria and the children sing Do Re Mi.
Remember this scene?
The garden is still quite beautiful.

You can just barely see it, but the Hohensalzburg Castle sits up on the hill in the background.  The castle was built around in the 1000s, and thoughout the years became one of the largest in Europe.  Maria’s Abbey that appears in the movie sits up near the castle.
In search of something for lunch, we found the river and started walking toward the center of town.
Unbeknownst to us, we stumbled upon Salzburg’s Fall Festival, which was a delight.
We got some bratwursts and sauerkraut at a little street place (which are in my opinion, the best places to eat).
We then picked up some Cannolis, and we were off to find Maria’s Abbey.
After some wrong turns & dead ends, we found the hill that leads up to the Abbey.
The climb was difficult, but the views out to the city and the Alps were pretty spectacular (a common theme in this trip..)


The Benedictine Convent on Nonnberg is the Abbey they used for outside shots in the movie (the interior was created in Hollywood.)


We couldn’t get all the way up to the Hohensalzburg Castle, but we got pretty close.
Some other interesting facts about The Sound of Music Movie (from Rick Steves
  • “Edelweiss” is not a cherished Austrian folk tune or national anthem. Like all the “Austrian” music in The Sound of Music, it was composed for Broadway by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was the last composition that the famed team wrote together, as Hammerstein died in 1960 — nine months after the musical opened.
  • The Sound of Music implies that Maria was devoutly religious throughout her life, but Maria’s foster parents raised her as a socialist and atheist. Maria discovered her religious calling while studying to be a teacher. After completing school, she joined the convent not as a nun, but as a novitiate (that is, she hadn’t taken her vows yet).
  • Maria’s position was not as governess to all the children, as portrayed in the musical, but specifically as governess and teacher for the Captain’s second-oldest daughter, also called Maria, who was bedridden with rheumatic fever.
  • The Captain didn’t run a tight domestic ship. In fact, his seven children were as unruly as most. But he did use a whistle to call them — each kid was trained to respond to a certain pitch.
  • Though the Von Trapp family did have seven children, the show changed all their names and even their genders. As an adult, Rupert, the eldest child, responded to the often-asked question, “Which one are you?” with a simple, “I’m Liesl!” Maria and the Captain later had three more children together.
  • The family didn’t escape by hiking to Switzerland (which is a five-hour drive away). Rather, they pretended to go on one of their frequent mountain hikes. With only the possessions in their backpacks, they “hiked” all the way to the train station (it was at the edge of their estate) and took a train to Italy. The movie scene showing them climbing into Switzerland was actually filmed near Berchtesgaden, Germany…home to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and certainly not a smart place to flee to.
  • The actual Von Trapp family house exists…but it’s not the one in the film. The mansion in the movie is actually two different buildings, one used for the front, the other for the back. The interiors were all filmed on Hollywood sets.
  • For the film, Boris Levin designed a reproduction of Nonnberg Abbey courtyard so faithful to the original (down to its cobblestones and stained-glass windows) that many still believe the cloister scenes were really shot at the abbey. And no matter what you hear in Salzburg, the graveyard scene (in which the Von Trapps hide from the Nazis) was also filmed on the Fox lot.
  • In 1956, a German film producer offered Maria $10,000 for the rights to her book. She asked for royalties, too, and a share of the profits. The agent explained that German law forbids film companies from paying royalties to foreigners (Maria had by then become a US citizen). She agreed to the contract and unknowingly signed away all film rights to her story. Only a few weeks later, he offered to pay immediately if she would accept $9,000 in cash. Because it was more money than the family had seen in all of their years of singing, she accepted the deal. Later, she discovered the agent had swindled them — no such law existed.  Rodgers, Hammerstein, and other producers gave the Von Trapps a percentage of the royalties, even though they weren’t required to — but it was a fraction of what they otherwise would have earned. But Maria wasn’t bitter. She said, “The great good the film and the play are doing to individual lives is far beyond money.”
We walked all the way back to the train station, and we were happy to sit on the train for 2 1/2 hours to Vienna.  
Sometime, I’ll have to go back and take the full Sound of Music tour.. Until next time Salzburg!  A post about Vienna is coming soon 🙂