Journey Across Northern Italy

Out of all the countries I’ve visited, Italy holds a special place in my heart. It was the first country I traveled to outside of my own, and the first time I experienced falling in love with a place rather than a person. The architecture, the people, the language, the food, everything about it fueled my wanderlust and left me wanting to come back for more.

The first time I got a taste of Italy was back in 2010 on a family holiday to Rome. Three years later, I jumped at the opportunity to go again, this time to the North of the country. One of my best friends got accepted in a fashion program in Florence last summer, and the minute she got the acceptance we were already planning my visit. The program would last a month, after which I’d join her in Florence and we’d travel the North of Italy together over the course of 10 days. Another friend of ours expressed interest in coming and we were more than happy to have an additional travel partner. Hence the 3 of us began to plan a journey that would cover 6 cities in 10 days during the month of August, 2013.

Creating a travel itinerary is one of my favorite things to do and I spent hours researching for good deals and things to see. We initially planned to rent a car and drive across the country but we were 20 years old at the time and you had to be 21 for car rental so we opted to use trains instead. We booked all of our train tickets in advance in addition to 3-person hotel rooms. Although our itinerary was planned for the summertime, I’m sure it can be applied to other seasons throughout the year. So to anyone who’s planning a trip to Italy, this is for you.

Day 1 – Florence

How to get there: Fly to Milano Malpensa Airport and take the Malpensa express bus to Milano Centrale station. From there, take a train to Firenze S.M Novella station (1 hr 40 mins).

Where to stay: I was lucky enough to be able to stay at my friend’s apartment but you can browse www.booking.com for great hotel deals.

Things to see:

  • Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore located in Piazza del Duomo (Make sure to climb to the top of the Duomo for some breathtaking views of the city).
  • The Ponte Vechio Bridge
  • The statue of David located in the Galleria dell’Accademia (a replica can be found in the piazza)
  • Gucci Museo (Gucci Museum)
  • Museo Salvator Ferragamo (Salavatore Ferragamo museum) – my favorite!

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Day 2: Pisa + Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

How to get there: Train from Firenze S.M Novella station to Pisa station (1 hour). After spending 2 or 3 hours in Pisa, take a train from Pisa station to Sarzana station and then from there to Riomaggiore (1.5 hours). At the end of the day, take a train from Riomaggiore to Spezia station and then back to Florence (1.5 hours).

Where to stay: Back in Florence.

Things to see:

  • Piazza dei Miracoli where you’ll find the Pisa Cathedral, Leaning Tower, Bapistry and Cemetary
  • Riomaggiore village (if you have time you can hike or take a boat to the other villages of the Cinque Terre)

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Day 3 – Day 5: Riccione

How to get there: Train from Firenze S.M Novella station to Bologna Centrale station (30 minutes). From there, take a train to Riccione (1 hr 20 mins).

Where to stay: Riccione Hotel Polo (3 stars). I have nothing but good things to stay about this place. It’s located within walking distance from the Riccione train station and beach. The service was excellent – super friendly and helpful, and the room was really cozy. The only remark I have is that the breakfast could have had more variety.

Things to see: Riccione is a charming Italian beach town not known to many tourists hence we spent a great deal of time mingling with the locals, relaxing at the beach and discovering the buzzing nightlife.

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Day 6 – Day 7: Venice

How to get there: Train from Riccione station to Bologna Centrale station (1.5 hours). Then take a train from Bologna Centrale to Venezia S. Lucia (2 hours).

Where to stay: Best Western Montecarlo hotel (3-stars). The location was super convenient, not far from the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco which was great for us since the only way to get around Venice is to walk or take a boat. For a 3-star hotel, the rooms were surprisingly big. The service and breakfast were great too.

Things to see:

  • Basilica di San Marco
  • Ponte dell’Accademia
  • Grand Canal
  • Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge)
  • Gallerie dell’Accademia (Accademia Gallery)
  • Murano island – famous for its glass making factories

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Day 8 – Day 10: Milan

How to get there: Train from Venezia S. Lucia to Bologna Centrale station (1 hr 20 mins). Then train from Bologna Centrale station to Milano Porta Garibaldi (1 hr 20 mins).

Where to stay: Atahotel Executive (4 stars). Located right across the street from the train station. Being a 4-star hotel, it was much more luxurious than the other 3-star hotels we stayed at. The only thing that bothered me was that we had to pay for Wi-Fi, something the 3-star hotels had offered for free.

Things to see:

  • Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral)
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
  • Quadrilatero della Moda (Shopping district)

Note: During August, the city is quiet and many shops close as locals depart for their summer holiday.

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Have you been to Italy or plan to go? Let me know in the comments!

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Summer in Sydney

IMG_0246Growing up in Sydney, Australia, I couldn’t wait for December to arrive because it would mark the start of summer. While people in the Northern Hemisphere were gearing up for winter, I was busy shopping for swimsuits and planning my summer days. Christmas was spent at the beach and pool parties were a standard way to ring in the new year.

As the summer season approaches Downunder, I find myself longing to be back in Sydney. The best time to be in this city is during the summer months as it’s located right on the water. Since I can’t be there myself, here are some must-do’s for anyone planning on visiting this fantastic city this summer:

– Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk: Besides the obvious health benefit, this 6km walk provides stunning views of Sydney’s coastline and surrounding beaches.

– Queen Victoria Building: Better known as the QVB, this architectural masterpiece is located in the central business district and is just as majestic as the sovereign whom it was named after. Lots of fancy shops and restaurants await you inside.

– Harbour Bridge Climb: I did this back in 2012 and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The view at the summit is breathtaking and the climb itself is super safe and easy. It can be done during the day, night, dusk, or dawn and is a great birthday gift or date idea. Check the website for more details: http://www.bridgeclimb.com/ . P.s: Sydney Tower is a great alternative, you can do the skywalk or dine at the buffet restaurant which spins to give you a full 360 degree view of the city.

– Taronga Zoo: A lovely day out for families or friends alike where you’ll get to see Australia’s most unique animals close up (Koala, Kangaroo, Platypus etc.) as well as witness live shows. The best way to get there is by ferry boat in my opinion as you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of Sydney Harbour.

– Sydney Opera House: While Paris has the Eiffel tower, Rome has the Colosseum, and New York has the liberty statue, Sydney has the iconic Opera House. If you’re unable to catch a show inside, I recommend going for drinks at the Opera Bar at night. You won’t be disappointed and cannot leave Sydney without catching a glimpse of this landmark up close.

– Harry’s Café de Wheels: You know that saying, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’? Australians love their meat pies and this place offers the most delicious pies in the city so head over there for a bite. It’s been visited by the likes of Nicole Kidman and other Australian celebrities.

– Bondi Beach: You can’t visit Sydney without spending at least a day at the beach and this is quite possibly the most famous beach in Australia. It’s almost always packed though so make sure to go early to get a good spot. If you’d prefer to go to a more quiet place head over to Wattamolla beach located in the Royal National Park, a secluded oasis of natural beauty.

– Rugby Game: Australians take their sports very seriously. Commonly referred to as ‘footy’, rugby is one of Australia’s most followed sports so be sure to check out any local matches as it’s a lot of fun.

– Pitt Street Mall: A great pedestrian shopping area located in the heart of the city.

– Darling Harbour: The best way to experience Sydney is a walk along the harbour. Some of Sydney’s most famous museums can be found here as well as the Sydney Sea-Life Aquarium, and it’s within walking distance from the Sydney Fish Market where you’ll find some of Australia’s tastiest seafood.

– The Grounds of Alexandria: If you’re a foodie head over here for breakfast or brunch in a beautiful garden setting.

– Royal Botanic Gardens: This is the perfect place for rest and relaxation. Have a picnic, read a book, or simply lay on the grass and take in the sights and the smell of fauna.

And so it begins…

It’s been a while since I’ve been on here, forgive me. I’ve been living under a rock the past two weeks trying to get through final exam period, and I can finally say that it’s over. Today marks the beginning of my summer break and I can’t tell you how good it felt waking up this morning knowing I won’t have to open a textbook or type out another essay.

Although technically the semester has ended, I’m going to be spending a lot of time at university this week preparing for the annual outdoors festival. I’m part of the decorations team and this year’s chosen theme is New York city so you can only imagine how creative we’re going to get. Stay tuned for a post next week!

In June I fly over to London for 8 days with my sister. I’ve always dreamt of going there and we’ve never travelled on our own so I’m really looking forward to being the ultimate tourist. Leave a comment if you know of any places I must see 🙂 I’m happy to take any suggestions.

Once I’m back from London I’ll no longer be a tourist but a tour guide because one of my best friends from Australia and my cousin along with his Italian wife are coming to Beirut. They’ve never been here before so I can’t wait to show them what Lebanon has to offer; one of my favorite things to do is show people my country through my eyes. Then after they’ve left I have to plan a surprise 21st birthday bash for one of my closest friends, and what remains of the summer I’ll hopefully spend doing an internship before I go back to university.

My summer in a nutshell. What do you guys have planned? Any of you travelling?

 

Carpe diem (n.)

I always get asked, “What’s the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?” and I always respond with a different answer, depending on who’s asking. But this story is too good not to be shared.

Considering I was the good girl growing up, most people are shocked to find out that I crashed a wedding one summer with my best friends. We had planned to do something crazy during the summer so when the opportunity presented itself, we took it.

We were staying at a beach resort up north for the weekend and had gone out for dinner only to come back and find an entire wedding party set up on the beach. As we watched the guests mingling from the balcony, one of my friends suggested we dress up, do our hair, and go to the wedding. At first we all thought she was crazy but eventually we warmed up to the idea (although I needed the most convincing). The only garments we had on us that seemed decent enough for a wedding were long Maxi beach dresses. After complementing the outfit with some accessories and makeup we were ready to go.

To my surprise, there was no security at the entrance of the reception so we gracefully walked across the pool and onto the beach. At that time the bride and groom had just cut the cake so we made ourselves comfortable at an empty table and waited to be served a piece. While I was eating the cake I was constantly looking around to see if anyone would notice us. But then it struck me that if we were unrecognizable to anyone they would assume we were from the other side of the family, and that’s the excuse we used when anyone would talk to us.

Having finished the cake it was time to hit the dancefloor. The DJ was playing the latest hits and we danced the night away with a bunch of random people. I’d never felt so rebellious in my life. The photographer even took a group photo of us! We made it on this couple’s wedding album and they will spend the rest of their life trying to figure out who we are and what we were doing at their wedding. All was good and well up until one of my friends saw someone she knew; at the same time the bride and groom had come back to the dance floor. We took that as our que to leave.

We spent the rest of the night laughing and drinking from a half-empty bottle of champagne that my friend took on our way out.

Till this day I cannot believe how we managed to pull it off, but I have no regrets. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

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Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

Since we were young we were taught to make the most of our time because “life is short” and “you only live once”. So when the time came for my friends and I to plan a vacation to Italy last summer we made sure we had everything covered: train schedules, hotel check-in/check-out times, duration of travel from one city to the other, every minute of every day was accounted for.We planned to spend our second day in a group of 5 villages known as the Cinque Terre. After waking up late in Florence, barely making the train, and stopping to take photos at Pisa along the way, we finally made it to Riomaggiore which was the first of the 5 villages. But we were behind schedule. Disappointed yet relieved to finally be there, we decided to stay in Riomaggiore for what was left of the day seeing as though it was late and we did not have time to see the other villages. Having walked around the village, gone for a swim and had a delicious Italian dinner it was time to head back to Florence.

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Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre

We had missed the train we originally planned to take back but the tickets we had were valid for 24 hours so we waited for another. At last, another train arrived and we were on our way back to Florence when suddenly the train stopped at a random station and all the passengers were told to get out. At this point in time we weren’t panicking because it wasn’t unusual to switch trains before arriving at the final destination. It was only until we checked the train schedule board and realized there were no more trains going back to Florence that night did it dawn on me how much time and effort had gone to waste planning this day since nothing went according to plan and we were now stuck in a strange town in a foreign country with barely any money, no spare clothes, and low battery on our phones. But then I asked myself, did it matter? You guessed it, the answer was no. What mattered was the genuine laughter that erupted the moment we looked at each other and realized what bad luck we had. Yes, we did not get to see all the villages of Cinque Terre. Yes, we should have checked when the last train was. And yes, we should have packed for emergencies. But were happy, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve retold this story. Believe me when I say the highlight of the entire trip was not Milan, Venice, or Florence, but in that random hotel in a random town between Cinque Terre and Florence.Being the organizational freak that I am, I learnt that sometimes it’s okay if things don’t go according to plan. It is those times when time itself seems irrelevant that you truly begin to appreciate life. Was it all that bad that we had missed the last train? I was in Italy with my best friends! Let the good times roll xx