University of Wisconsin–Madison

Christmas Vacation: Italy!

Beginning on December 19th, we had 2 1/2 weeks off for Christmas break. Unfortunately, it’s not as long of break as I’m used to in the states because our fall semester doesn’t end until the end of January. This, of course, means finals come after break as well… but we won’t get into that just yet: It’s vacation time!

I knew going home to the states for break wasn’t really an option for me, I wanted to travel Europe more (specifically Italy) during my time off!

Before I left for my holiday travels in Italy, I stayed in Madrid until the 23rd to perform in my choir’s holiday concert. Joining a choir here was one of the best decisions I’ve made- I enjoy it so much. Our choir had the incredible opportunity of performing in the famous Prado museum which is something I won’t soon forget. The Prado is one of the most famous art galleries in the world with works of art from artists like Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco. The museum is one of the world’s finest collections of European art (12th to 19th century) and considered to be the best single collection of Spanish art. It was so cool to be able to sing in an auditorium amongst such famous pieces.

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After the choir concert concluded, I packed my bags and got ready for my trip to Italy!

I was invited to spend Christmas with my friend Kate and her family in Florence. They rented an apartment located in the well-known Piazza della Signoria in the city center and were gracious enough to let me stay with them. This piazza (or plaza square) was also the former home of the famous “David” statue. Now a replica stands in it’s place, while the original is in a museum to be better protected from the elements.

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This was my first time to Italy and I couldn’t believe how charming it was! The streets were made with cobblestone and every street and store had a personality of it’s own. Decorations and lights lined the streets and it gave off such a friendly and welcoming vibe.

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As we walked and explored the city, I visited the famous Ponte Vecchio which was the only bridge that wasn’t destroyed in World War II. Today, it is lined with little shops and a great view of the Arno river.

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We also went Christmas shopping in little stores in preparation for Christmas the next day. In Florence, there is also a cool outdoor leather market where you can purchase leather goods (which Italy is well-known for) among other things. If you couldn’t see the all the different colorful leather, you could definitely smell it.

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On Christmas Eve, the lot of us took a walk down the street to the large duomo church to see a bit of the church mass. The outside of the duomo is breathtaking as it is made with three different types of marble which give it a unique coloring and design pattern. However, I was a bit disappointed in the interior decoration because it seemed a bit plain compared to the vibrant exterior.

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As the clock slowly changed from 11:59pm to 12:00am Christmas morning, there was a jubilant ringing of the church bells to signify the start of Christmas. We made our way back to the apartment and went to bed as visions of sugar-plums danced in our heads.

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Christmas morning started out wonderfully with a home-cooked breakfast followed by the exchanging of gifts (wrapped in tin-foil!)

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Being away from home for Christmas was different, but I was happy to be celebrating with a lovely and welcoming group of people. Nevertheless, my mom did manage to send me a few Christmas pictures of my cat so that made the day even better.

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For the majority of the day we stayed at home, knowing that everything was going to be closed, but we did walk around the city during the day into the evening looking at the lights and feeling the energy of the city.

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Christmas dinner, we all went to a nice restaurant and passed the rest of the evening enjoying each other’s company.

The 26th we all took a day trip out of the city to see what was recommended as one of the most beautiful cities in all of Tuscany: Siena. Our personal tour guide, Francesco, was suggested by a friend of a friend and he drove us the 2 hours to the city of Siena. He was full of information and incredibly helpful. The drive to Siena was beautiful. I liked that I was able to see a bit of the countryside with the rolling hills, Italian villas, and curving roads. The essence of Tuscany, if you will. Once we reached Siena, it did not disappoint and was exactly (if not more) beautiful than promised. It was as if the pictures I had seen and the images I had imagined had come to life right before my eyes. 

Our first stop in Siena was a small hilltop church on the outskirts of town. It was a nice change to see a smaller church rather than an extravagant cathedral. The church was completely silent as rays of light entered windows near the altar making the atmosphere feel almost surreal.

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Once we entered the city center, we went to see the duomo in Siena. Originally we were not planning on purchasing tickets to go inside, but after seeing images of the interior we quickly changed our minds.This duomo was completely unique in the amount of detail in it’s interior and it was breathtaking.The first thing upon entering that caught my eye was that every pillar had alternating sections of navy and white marble from the floor to the ceiling. There was no space in the duomo left without detail and it was wonderfully overwhelming.

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Afterward, we wandered through the charming streets until we reached the city’s main plaza. Here, we had the opportunity to climb a bell tower to see a view of the city as well as the Tuscan countryside.

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Of course, this was something I had to do. Climbing hundreds of stairs is a challenge in itself, but climbing hundreds of stairs in tiny stairwell built in medieval times should be an Olympic sport. At least the view at the top was worth every step.

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Not only was there an incredible view of the city of Siena, but a stunning view of the Tuscan countryside. I could spend hours upon hours at the top of the bell tower absorbing the beauty of Tuscany.

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However, after we captured our pictures and finally caught our breath from the walk up, it was time to descend the tower and get a bite to eat before we bid adieu to Siena.

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On our way back to Florence, we took a short detour to the town of San Gimignano. A hidden gem of the Tuscan countryside, our guide Francesco said it was a must see- and  he was right. This little town had tons of medieval character including a number of preserved tower houses. The old streets were magical covered in sparkling lights and lined with little shops and cafes.

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We ventured to a popular scenic overlook to take one last look at the Tuscan countryside and did so as the sun set behind the rolling hills: Truly a wonderful day trip spent outside of Florence exploring the best of Tuscany.

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Saturday was our last day in Florence. We got up early, packed our things, said goodbye to our beautiful apartment, ate breakfast, and headed off to Rome. Kate and her family were catching a flight out of Rome back to Madrid and I was going to Rome to visit a friend and explore the city. Commence phase 2 of Italy adventure: Rome!!

When I arrived in Rome, I was greeted by my friend, Eileen who lives and attends school there. After I dropped off my things at her apartment on the outskirts of the city center, we got some dinner and relaxed and caught up the rest of the day. Sunday, she showed me some of the main sights Rome has to offer. 

Our commute on the tram into the city center brings us right to Piazza Venezia. Here, the Altare della Patria resides which is a monument built in the honor of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of unified Italy. There is also a tomb of an unknown soldier from World War I.

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First stop was the Pantheon. We were able to go inside and admire the detail and Roman architecture.

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Of course, now it was time for gelato. Eileen took me to a famous gelatería, Della Palma, that offers over 150 different flavors which was overwhelming in the best way possible. I got 4 flavors. 🙂

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With gelato in hand impending sugar rush, we walked to Piazza Navona where the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of four rivers) is. The fountain represents the four major rivers of the four continents through which papal authority had spread: the Nile representing Africa, the Danube representing Europe, the Ganges representing Asia, and the Río de la Plata representing America.

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Eileen explained that a popular legend about the fountain is that the architect Bernini positioned the cowering Rio de la Plata River as if the sculpture was fearing the crumble of the church of Sant’Agnese by his rival architect Borromini. Who knows if the legend is true, but it’s funny to think it’s the result of a passive aggressive architect.

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Our next stop was a stroll through the neighborhood of Tratsevere. This area of Rome is filled with hip and trendy stores, pubs, and restaurants. However, it still maintains it’s character with narrow cobblestone streets and medieval buildings.

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In order to get to Tratsevere, we crossed the Tiber River which is very scenic and adds a nice natural element to the city.

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Continuing on my local-guided tour we checked out the ruins where the famous stabbing of Julius Cesar took place. Et tu, Brute???!!

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Today it’s also the home of a cat conservatory, where you can support, pet, and adopt cats. Cats and Roman ruins all in one place? Amazing.

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The Spanish Steps is another popular tourist stop in Rome. This famous stairway of 135 steps was built with bequeathed funds of 20,000 scudi (currency) that linked the Bourbon Spanish Embassy and the Trinitá dei Monti church that was under the patronage of the Bourbon kings of France. Luckily, after we climbed the 135 steps, we had a nice view of the Roman sky as the sun began to set. The perfect end to a great day.

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We visited one more piazza before we headed back where we were bombarded by salesmen constantly asking if we wanted to buy selfie stick. “Selfie? Selfie? Selfie?” echoes in my head to this day.

Monday I dedicated to taking a step back into Roman times with visits to the Colosseum along with the Roman Forum. Without a doubt, the Colosseum is the most popular tourist attraction and known piece of Roman architecture in the world. It’s enormous and incredible to see in person. Unfortunately, contrary to popular thought of my generation, this was not the actual location where the final scene in The Lizzie McGuire Movie was filmed. However, it is still the place where dreams are made of. 

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After thoroughly circling the ancient amphitheatre, I made the short walk across the street to the Roman forum. This huge space is filled with ruins from the heart of the ancient city that originally was used as a marketplace. It has been called the most celebrated meeting place in the world, and in all of history.

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Once again after exploring the ins and outs of the forum, I was able to find a spectacular view of Rome at the top of a hill in the ancient center.

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Tuesday I explored the city on foot taking in all the simple sights, sounds, and smells of Rome. Going to see the main tourist attractions is fun and important but equally as important as seeing some of the smaller things off the beaten path that reflect the culture.

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Later, I went to the unique Cappuccini church and crypt. The crypt is located under the church and is one of the most eerie and hauntingly artistic places I’ve ever been.

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Here, the bones of deceased friars are elaborately arranged on the walls in such an ornamental way that it is classified as a remarkable work of art. The remains of over 4,000 friars buried between the years 1500 and 1870 reside in this crypt and is where the Capuchins would come to pray and reflect each night before going to sleep. Out of respect for the sacred chapel, pictures were not allowed in the crypt, but here are a few snapshots I found with the help of google images:

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My last stop of the evening was the Trevi fountain. Sadly, it is currently under construction and without water. You are however, able to wait in line and walk on a platform that takes you right up to the fountain’s sculpture.

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A little pool of water was set aside in the forefront of the fountain where you could toss a coin and make a wish. The authenticity of the coin toss was a little iffy if you ask me (with the fountain being off and all) but I couldn’t resist the opportunity. When in Rome, as they say.

I got to spend my last day of 2014 in Rome with Eileen and a few of her friends. We all made dinner at the apartment and enjoyed each other’s company before a couple of us went to a club to ring in the New Year.

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I decided to kick off 2015 with a visit to the Vatican. When I was in 6th grade, I participated in a Geography competition at my school through National Geographic. I ended up winning the competition by knowing the smallest country in the world- Vatican City. Ever since then, I knew I had to visit. On my way to the Vatican, I took a stroll through a park located near the apartment I was staying at. It was a little off the beaten path, but it was lovely to walk around and had beautiful man-made with natural features.

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I arrived at the Vatican at dusk. St. Peter’s Square was abundant with people taking pictures, standing in line for the basilica and admiring the Christmas nativity in the center of the square. The basilica looked like a precious gem lit up during the evening and it was lovely to walk around the square at this hour.

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On Sunday I returned to the Vatican and waited in the incredibly long line in order to enter the basilica. The interior was just as I had imagined: profound with detail, scattered in beautiful art and priceless artifacts.

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I noticed a group of people gathering near the altar. This large section was currently closed off, but I made my way to the front to get a better look. Before I knew it, I was being let past the gates and I was in the first row of people about to experience a service in St. Peter’s Basilica. The service was obviously in Italian, but it was encompassed by beautiful music and hymnals. A girl’s choir from New York City had the honor of singing at this mass. I was very moved by the overall experience and feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity.

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At long last it was time to say goodbye to Italy and head back to Madrid and prepare for finals (waaahhh). I have so many great memories to take back with me; days filled with adventures, friends, and delicious food! Someday I hope to make it back to Italy because there is still so much left to see and do! Thank you to everyone who made this trip a success. It’s a Christmas vacation I’ll never forget!

~Bailey