I kicked over the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Yesterday I visited the ever-so-famous Leaning Tower of Pisa...and kicked it over.

RAWR. Anyway, it was a fun trip. One of the most hilarious sights was looking at the line of people holding funny poses with their hands up in what looks like the middle of nowhere in order to capture the oh-so-desired cheesy tourist photos. (Of course, I was one of them too — but I’m pretty sure I’m the only badass who kicked down the tower :P)

Apparently, the lower leans about 5 meters. It originally started shifting mostly due to natural causes, because it was constructed without a basement. Apparently it stopped continuing to shift at some point though. I stood on the side that it didn’t lean down on to be safe, as I promised my Grandpa I would ๐Ÿ™‚

There are other amazing monuments in the "Field of Miracles" where the Leaning Tower exists -- the Duomo (cathedral) and a huge Baptistery.

But let's face it...Pisa is primarily visited with one purpose in mind: take really fun photos with the tower! ๐Ÿ˜€

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Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Verona?!

Verona, Italy

The city

Welcome to Verona, the romantic city of Romeo and Juliette

"Shakespeare Street"

Verona is one of the most historical cities in Europe

Gazebo in the center of the Historic District

A beautiful loggia

“Juliette’s House”

"Casa di Giulietta"

We're in Letters to Juliet! ๐Ÿ˜€

Apparently, it is a tradition of good luck to rub the breast of Giulietta's statue...as this young boy is so ecstatically embracing.

"Locks of Love"

The balcony, which was attached to the house in the 1900s to match the tale ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

โค

The amphitheater

You can see the ruined amphitheater in the background here...

It was a quick trip back in time sitting on the theater stairs

BACI!

A hike through the Alps

Garda Lake: The village

Before heading into the mountains for a hike in the Alps, we visited Garda Lake--a quaint, old village with a beautiful view of the Apennines.

It wasn't the ideal sunny weather we had been hoping for, but I actually think the stormy atmosphere created a breathtaking eeriness to the views.

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Garda Lake: The castle

The entrance to the village began with this awesome castle ๐Ÿ˜€

It felt a little surreal...

Garda Lake: An amazing view of the Alps

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We'd be hiking through those mountains in just the next day! ๐Ÿ˜€

The Alps: A hike through the Apennines Mountains

The rolling misty clouds that surrounded us looked absolutely incredible...

The cold and rain couldn't stop us from appreciating what an awesome experience this was ๐Ÿ™‚

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The Alps: The waterfall

Woohooooo!

The Alps: The church I was obsessed with

I was absolutely obsessed with this church from the 1000s that sat atop a hill... (Scarlet Monastery, any World of Warcraft fans?)

We walked up to get a closer look...And it only got creepier and creepier.

A cemetery wrapped around the outside of the church

The stone walls of the interior were covered in frescoes and Latin phrases

This is possibly the scariest photograph I've ever taken in my life.

The longest walk [down one street] ever.

Today we finally have that gloriously beautiful sunshine that’s we’ve been missing for weeks. The umbrella guys turned back into flower guys, and all peace is restored.

So, I’ve been spending every minute of my day outside that I can. While I briefly wait for my laptop to charge back up so that I can do work in the piazza, I thought I’d share a quick story about today.

The San Lorenzo leather markets take up a few streets lined with vendors selling their leather goods, scarves, trinkets and all sorts of souvenirs at their booths. Usually these streets are so congested with tourists and other pedestrians that it’s easy to duck into the crowd at any time. I often do this method when I don’t feel like dealing with the stares and comments from many of the Italian male vendors lining the streets.

Credit: sjdoesitaly.wordpress.com

Well, the sunshine put me in a great mood today. When I turned the corner and entered the first street of the market, I immediately got a friendly “Ciao.” So I politely smiled and said back, “Ciao.” A few steps later, the next vendor greeted me, “Buon giorno!” Well, I just said hi to that last guy so it’d be rude to just ignore this one, I thought. “Buon giorno,” I replied. A few steps later and again, I get a “ciao.” Then a “hi” from another. Followed by a “ciao, bella” from the next. And as I am automatically responding to each of these individual vendors as I walk through, I suddenly understand why this felt so weird and abnormal: I was basically the only person walking down the street. Where the hell is the giant crowd? It definitely was awkward enough to implement the duck-into-crowd-and-disappear strategy.

I must’ve turned down the least popular street at an odd moment of little pedestrian activity. At this point I was only maybe halfway through the street. Shit, I’m gonna have to say hi back to every damn person now. “Ciao, bella!” “Ciao.” “Buon giorno!” “Buon giorno…” “He-llooooo” “Hi.” “Aaaah, bella” [shakes head and blushes]. I think they noticed my enthusiasm dwindle as I progressed further on. By time I got to the end of the street, I was laughing, and even some of the vendors were laughing because they saw how absolutely ridiculous this whole episode was. It was the longest walk down one street ever, and the most hilarious one too.

Siena & The Mazzei Winery

Last weekend when my family was visiting, we took a day trip to Siena -- a little under a two-hour train ride from Florence.

Specifically, we ventured into the beautiful Tuscan area on the outskirts of the city of Siena -- by Castellina di Chianti -- to attend a wine tasting & tour of the Mazzei winery. It took a few transportation setbacks between being told to take the wrong buses and not having buses show up, but we made it!

After a lovely wine-tasting (Zisola is possibly my new favorite red wine), our guide Vittoro led us through the enchanting little village of the winery.

I was so happy that my mom could see the picturesque countryside of Italy that we always sigh over in chickflicks ๐Ÿ™‚

There were barrels and barrels of vino stored away in the rustic cellars... The Mazzei winery is still family-run from the original family line that started the business in 1435!

This is the "library." (Now that's my kind of library!) Vittoro was telling us how part of his job is to test these wines. "It is good job" he remarked in a tone as if we needed convincing.

Even the gloomy weather couldn't take away from the village's quaint beauty.

Bonjour, Paris & Versailles! (Spring Break: Part IV)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

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Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

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Paris felt very similar to NYC between the way it's laid out, the way the people spend their time, and the Westernization. The Eiffel Tower was certainly the main attraction for us. We spent very much of our day lounging on the green beneath it.

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rawr

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At sunset, we went up to this building where people congregate outside to watch the sun set over the city. The atmosphere was like a giant, relaxed party for the community. People brought their wine and baguettes, guitars, soccer balls, etc. It was like sitting among a bunch of friends you've never met.

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Although the sky was hazy, the view was quite nice. Check out the guy showing off his tricks with a soccer ball while he climbs up that lamp post!

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At night, we walked around the area of our hostel in search for a good, chill bar. Along the way, some French guys asked for a cigarette. While we couldn't provide their request, they were kind enough to provide us with a suggestion of a great bar near our hostel. There, we befriended a large group of Parisians. I had been warned before going to Paris that the French are not friendly to Americans at all. However, I found them to be very welcoming and friendly--whether it was a shopkeeper, restaurant waiter, random woman walking her dog, guys we were talking with at the bar, or people sitting next to us in a restaurant who helped us translate the menu. Most young Parisians speak English very well, too. So, this was all a nice surprise that added warmth to our experience in Paris.

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And of course, we saw the Eiffel Tower do its sparkle (happens every hour). It's hard to appreciate just through a picture, but the sparkling lights were very over-the-top.

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Versailles

We spent almost an entire day visiting the great palace of Versailles, which was absolutely incredible.

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"CARTWHEELS IN EVERY COUNTRY!"

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Every room of the building was unbelievably lavish. Here, we're standing in the Hall of Mirrors. I wanted to put on a ball gown and dance away to piano music!

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The outside was decorated with elaborate gardens that I've only ever seen in movies.

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...Impressive backyard.

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You could literally spend hours walking through the kilometers of roaming space behind the palace. Many people rent bicycles so that they can actually explore it all. We ventured out by foot though.

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It was like I was in a Jane Austen novel. All of a sudden, I was Elizabeth Bennet, rendezvousing through the simple, quaint woods beyond the extravagant palace.

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"Oh, Mr. Darcy! Come meet me at the gazebo!"

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Here, we enter the idyllic estate of Marie-Antoinette's cottage.

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It was almost surreal to be back in time like this...

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Well, that concludes my Spring Break series. Since then, I’ve also visited Fiesole, and will be visiting Siena tomorrow. I am very excited because my family is visiting me in Florence this weekend for Easter and my 21st birthday! Unfortunately, the weather is not ideal for this–it’s raining for the first time since I moved to Florence in January! But, hopefully it’ll clear up, and we’ll nonetheless have a great time. I’m excited to share this experience with my family, and to watch them relive my first reactions to the overwhelming buildings and atmosphere in Florence that I’ve grown accustomed to by this point. So, ciao for now!

Hey, Amsterdam! (Spring Break: Part III)

Spring Break in Northern Europe

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Hello from Amsterdam! ...The city that really did live up to its reputation!

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The city

The city of Amsterdam is a mix of many different cultural influences. The streets are full of diverse kinds of shops and restaurants, from Chinese food to McDonalds. The streets and buildings themselves are lovely.

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Amsterdam is full of beautiful canals. Legend has it that the water is full of bikes thrown into the canals by intoxicated Dutch.

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Between the canals and the old architecture maintained by the houses and buildings, the city as a whole kind of felt like a fairytale city.

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And of course, you can't describe Amsterdam without mentioning the bikes! Bicycles seem to be the main mode of transportation in the city. Around 5:00 was what I call "bike rush hour," when hundreds of bikes would be flocking the streets. I couldn't help notice that all the bikers seemed quite jolly, too ๐Ÿ™‚

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As I've mentioned in some past posts, "Follow the music" has become a golden rule when visiting cities--always leading to good things. This time, the music lead us to this funky fellow playing some odd instrument in a canal.

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Fun fact which has nothing to do with this photo!: Dutch men are on average the tallest men of any nation! They are also beautiful and healthy, from my own observational research--maybe from all that bike riding?

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Alright, I'm just going to point this out despite any judgment I may receive because I KNOW I am not the only one who noticed this... But the street bars appeared like so, and with the nation's "XXX" symbol on it. Even our tour guide couldn't resist pointing out the uncanny resemblance to something regarding Amsterdam's reputation for sex, and challenged whether the "XXX" symbol is just a coincidence. HOW CURIOUS. On that note...

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The Red Light District

We've all heard about the Red Light District... Where prostitution is legal and embraced. Our tour guide explained the rational behind it -- that the Dutch are very pragmatic, business-driven people. This is a successful business, and it's operated in a safe and regulated way which gives more power to the female prostitutes. For example, pimping is not allowed. And if anyone tries to take a photo of these girls working their windows, they will come out and smash your camera or throw a bucket of pee on you. The more I learned about the business angle of the Red Light District from the female perspective, I almost started to feel ok with it.--that is, until my friends and I visited it at night...

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Our hostel was actually located right on the border of the Red Light District. When we turned a street, there was a church and this unique monument in the ground. There were also naked girls in the windows. ("Why a church?" you might ask. Quite a paradox, it seems. Well, the church does not operate with prostitutes--just the surrounding area. But back in the day, sailors who had been trapped at sea without women for many months would land in Amsterdam and want a woman very badly. So, the church saw a business opportunity here--let the men do that with the service of the Red Light District girls, but then have them attend church to repent their sins and pay for it. Apparently, the church would even allow them to pay in advance for however many sins they were probably about to commit with a prostitute that night and maybe even next morning too! So, that's why there's a church in the heart of the Red Light District!) Anyway, as interesting and perhaps even convincing it is to hear about and read about the pragmatism and positivity behind the Red Light District, experiencing it--particularly at night--is completely different. Walking through these streets lined with almost-naked young (and old) girls knocking on their windows and posing for the swarms of guys walking by....its dehumanization suddenly sinks in when you're actually there. These girls showcase themselves like animals in a petting zoo. I couldn't really look them in the eye because I didn't know how they really felt and I couldn't handle the chance of detecting it. I also wondered if they hated seeing females walking through, since we're less likely to be customers and more likely to just be curious onlookers. I didn't see a sex show, like many people my age do while in Amsterdam, because I honestly have no desire or curiosity to explore that. My quick but eye-opening (no pun intended) walk through the RLD was more than enough of an experience.

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Coffee shops / Drug use

(Credit: AmsterdamNightLife.net) Another infamous aspect of Amsterdam is the drug use, mainly with Marijuana. To be clear, pot is not legal in Amsterdam. However, the streets are full of coffee shops, where adults can enter to purchase, smoke or consume weed as they please. It is SO blatant, because "coffee shop" (as opposed to "cafe" or whatnot) is so clearly understood as a place to get high. But, there is a greater policy of not being an idiot about it: if you do it in the privacy of your own home or a coffee shop, and you are not harming anyone, then they let it fly. It's unbelievable, but something the world could maybe use more of. And it all comes back to that Dutch mentality of pragmatism that I mentioned before. They want to encourage prosperous businesses like this--or at least not interfere with them if they are doing no harm.

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Pancakes

On a much more innocent note, Amsterdam has some mighty delicious pancakes.

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Cheers!

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Van Gogh Museum

We visited the Van Gogh Museum, which was absolutely wonderful. If you appreciate art and are in the city, go there for sure.

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The Anne Frank Museum

There is this church in the city which plays the most hauntingly eerie music you could imagine. We heard it from afar, and didn't realize until we approached it that it was right next to the Anne Frank Museum. This is the church that she references in her diary.

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(Credit: ParanormalKnowledge.com) Visiting the Anne Frank Museum is another must-do while in Amsterdam. It guides you through the actual house that Anne Frank and her family stayed in while hiding. The experience is beautifully laid out, first informing you about the house, then immersing you in not only the context of the house but the stories behind their stay, and then the entire experience is capped with the family's continued experiences at the concentration camps. It's a very powerful and emotional experience that's definitely worth taking a break from the fun and carefree activities of Amsterdam.

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The Heineken Experience

Contrary to the Anne Frank Museum, the Heineken Experience is a hella fun museum experience for anyone who appreciates a good brew.

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Oh hai

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First, you experience the history behind Heineken, and then you're guided through the brewing experience!

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After the old photographs, artifacts and replications of old machinery, you're taken through very modern rooms. They're full of unique, interactive experiences using some really cool technology and visual effects.

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And for the finale, you are served a lovely Extra Cold Heineken! ๐Ÿ˜€

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Amsterdam...Certainly the most unique city I've experienced.