Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ciao ciao!


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Last week, I took my first ever real (by real I mean more than 5-day) vacation since I've become a slave to The Man in the working world. I'd never been to Europe before, so a few months ago I'd jumped at the chance when my boyfriend's friend's girlfriend ('s dog's neighbor's kidney's aunt's best friend) invited us to join her in Italy and Ireland for a 10-day European-countries-that-begin-with-I extravaganza. 

First stop: Venice (2.5 days). General impressions: woah, everything is beautiful and slightly run down. Obviously a beautiful city to get around by foot (and even more beautiful by boat!)...it was a pleasure to explore the streets, get lost in the alleys and cross the hundreds of bridges - some grand, others tiny - that connected all the islands making up the city. The city was also quite touristy, which I'd been expecting (though we did manage to haggle the obligatory gondola ride from 100 euro to 80 euro... I guess that counts for something?)


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After Venice was a day spent divided between Maranello, where our friend got a surprise birthday present - a 20 minute Ferrari test drive! - Milan, where we drove around in some craaaaaazy ass traffic, and the airport. A lot of European flights are extremely inexpensive compared to domestic US flights, but the fines for too-large baggage are enormous in order to compensate for the low ticket prices, which was tricky to circumvent but we managed to foil the system anyway. We landed in Rome late that evening and collapsed into bed, exhausted.

Trying to see Rome in two days was a bit like trying to eat a Chipotle burrito with a straw. Rome was seriously, in my professional opinion, out of control. Walking down the street yielded so many sights, from ancient ruins to posh restaurants and hotels to freshly roasted chestnut street vendors (sadly, the chestnuts were not as good as they smelled. TRICKSY HOBBITSES!). We basically grabbed a map of the city and tried to bypass as many sites as possible within the time we had. We were pretty efficient at it too, with the exception of two incidents: one in which we wandered around the Domus Aurea ruins for about an hour in a stupid haze of lost confusion, another in which we started walking in the completely wrong direction after getting diverted by a set of ruins filled with adorable stray cats (we dubbed it "cat city"). We ended that night by grabbing a bottle of wine and tipsily weaving our way back through the city - not shabby, eh?

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Although I loved seeing and hearing about the famous historic staples of the city, like the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, I still think what I'll remember most of Rome is the spontaneity of walking around her streets and finding beautiful architecture in the least expected places. That, and all the horrible parking all over the city. 

We flew an airline called Ryanair from Rome to Dublin. It's a low-cost airline and in an effort to save every penny possible, Ryanair actually speeds up their planes instead of slowing them down during landing to maximize fuel efficiency. We hit the tarmac and literally bounced. When the stewardess announced that 90% of Ryanair planes landed on time, I was surprised that her sentence didn't end after "landed."

Temperature-wise Italy had been a hot and pleasant affair, with sunny skies and no precipitation whatsoever. Ireland was quite the opposite. Rain, wind, clouds, fog, terribleness... we were lucky to catch a few rays of sunshine during the few times a day when grey clouds would break overhead.

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In Ireland we spent day approximately one day in Dublin, Galoway, and Cork each, and then back in Dublin again. My favorite part was definitely in Galoway, when we visited the relatively remote Aran Islands, famous for their wool sweaters. Everywhere we went, we'd see acres and acres of green grass, hand-built walls of grey stone, farm animals, and the occasional local, many of whom spoke the traditional Irish (Gaelic) instead of English. Our tour guide was an old man with a thick accent who spoke extremely slowly and deliberately such that the entire tour started sounding like a poem. "This church was built in 300 A.D. Yeeessss, threeeee hundredddd affftteerrr deaaattthhhh."

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Everything in Ireland reminded me of either Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones (I need to spend more time outside). Perhaps why that's why we have so many talented European fantasy authors - they don't have to look far beyond their back yard to see fantastic and beautiful landscapes. Another thing I found marvelous about this tiny yet beautiful country was its hospitable, kind people. Completely stranger were absurdly nice to us everywhere we went:

- a bus driver calling another bus driver to let him know that a directionally-confused girl was looking for his bus and that she'd already paid on his by accident
- a friend of our friend driving us around the countryside for two whole days, answering our n00bish questions about his country and taking us out for dinner & drinks
- a cab driver who stopped in the middle of the street to give us directions - and we hadn't even asked
- a hotel concierge that "took the liberty" and "hoped we didn't mind" that he'd made us lunch...again, without being asked, when lunch was not included, and after he'd spent 20 minutes giving us directions to the airport

Ireland, on the whole, felt like a cleaner, greener, and peaceful version of the American countryside. The only things I didn't love about the country were its weather and its food. Fish and chips, beef and guinness stew, full irish breakfasts (complete with black pudding, made of pigs' blood! Oink oink)... these things are good once in a while, but for three meals a day, noooooo thank you.

Overall, it was a beautiful and busy vacation, one I know I'll never forget. Having seen a bit of Europe, I'm eager to return and explore more of it, especially France, Spain and Germany. Ciao ciao!

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