Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Venice, Verona and Italian Easter Fun!

I apologise in advance because this is probably going to be the longest post I've written so far. Partly because it's been a month since my last post, but mostly because there's so much to talk about. The highlights of the past month have definitely been my day trips and spending Easter Sunday eating lunch with an Italian family, so that's what I'm going to write about. Enjoy!

I've really grown into life in Bologna now. I know the city reasonably well and have been spending my time outside of university in parks, cafés and wandering the streets of the city. Last month, I decided it was the right time to go and see some of the rest of Italy, so on Friday 13th March my friend Jeri and I hopped on a train and went to the city of gondolas and canals: Venice.

Piazza San Marco

We arrived in the late morning and as soon as we left the station I was amazed by the city’s beauty. Domed roofs, pretty bridges and gorgeous canals leading to the beautiful blue-green sea. It was just as I had imagined it. We started by walking from the station to Piazza San Marco, Venice’s famous main square. I think we chose a good time to go, as the weather was gorgeous and sunny, but not so hot that the city smelt (as it is known to do at times), and not too crowded with tourists. The Basilica San Marco in Piazza San Marco is stunning. The architecture is beautiful and the inside is just as lovely. We explored the inside of the Basilica before heading into the labyrinth of side streets around the square to find a restaurant where we could have lunch. We found a cute place to eat close to the piazza, and I enjoyed a delicious seafood pasta. The ingredients were fresh, with a wonderful array of prawns, mussels, clams, octopus and white fish with a tomato-based sauce. 

View of Piazza San Marco from the Campanile
After eating, we paid 8€ to take a lift up to the top of the Campanile, the bell tower of the basilica, from which we were treated with gorgeous views of the piazza, the city and the sea from all sides. I think it was one of my favourite things from the whole trip. Next we went to the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), formally the residence of the Doge of Venice, now a museum, full to bursting with institutional chambers covered head to toe in paintings, including the longest canvas painting in the world: Il Paradiso, based on the work of Dante. Whilst in the Palazzo Ducale, we also explored the Old Prison, known as Piombi as the cells were built under a lead roof, and the new cells, to get to which we had to cross the famous Ponte dei Sospire (Bridge of Sighs). The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge’s name, given by Lord Byron in the 19th century, comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. Cassanova was one of those imprisoned in the cells, some time in the 1750s. 

Palazzo Ducale
On leaving the museum we took a stroll along the water front and looked at the souvenir stands. I decided to buy a shot glass to add to my ever-growing collection that my sister started for me a few years ago. We then walked back to the train station, stopping on the way to buy pane del doge, a sort of over-sized cookie made from flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and honey, topped with almonds with little pieces of dried figs and other fruit folded through. We sat on the steps of the station eating them and enjoying the sunset over the buildings, bridges and water, watching the gondolas go by. It was a perfect end to an amazing and unforgettable day! 

Bridge of Sighs

In Verona with Vera
After weeks of classes, the Easter break couldn't come soon enough. It was the perfect time to recharge and reorganise before the business end of term starts. I have to admit that I was concerned in the lead up to Easter, as I had made the difficult decision to stay in Bologna rather than to go home to spend the weekend with family and friends and was worried it was going to be lonely and miserable. Thankfully it was not! I'm blessed to have a very good Italian friend of mine, Vera, who I met at UCL, living in Bologna, and her family were kind enough to invite me to share lunch with them on Easter Sunday. Obviously I couldn't turn down the opportunity to experience Easter with an Italian family, and I was excited to meet my friend's family for the first time.

I received a wonderfully warm welcome from everyone (her parents, two sisters, brother, aunty and her sister's boyfriend), before we sat down to lunch. We started with various cheeses and salami, followed by ravioli with spinach and ricotta and tagliatelle with ragù. Then followed a meat cutlet with pasticcio, and finally dessert and coffee. It was so much food, but it was absolutely delicious and so nice to experience an Italian Easter lunch. It was a fantastic experience that I’ll never forget, and I'm so grateful to them for inviting me into their home for their family Easter! I spent the afternoon enjoying the glorious sunshine in a park, before going to meet some of my fellow UCL students to watch a film and have a relaxing evening together. It was definitely up there in my top three Easters, maybe even stealing the top spot!

My latest day trip came on 6th April, Easter Monday or Pasquetta in Italian, when Vera and I decided to go to Verona. It's only an hour and a half away from Bologna on the regional train, and the tickets are reasonably priced so it's well worth it. On arrival, we headed straight to Piazza Bra and then paid 7.50€ to go into the Arena, an old Roman venue, built in AD 30 to stage the ludi - public games - which is now used for concerts, theatre and opera. It was another day of gorgeous weather, so we sat there in the sunshine for a while, admiring the amazing ancient structure. 

Piazza Erbe
Next we walked to Piazza delle Erbe, the oldest square in Verona and once the town's forum during the period of the Roman Empire, to look at the fountain of the Madonna Verona, the Torre dei Lamberti, Palazzo Maffei, and the beautiful frescoes on the façade of the Case Mazzanti, before finding a place to have lunch on a small side street. I had some delicious tagliatelle with prawns in a tomato sauce. Another option on the menu was a typical dish from the region of Veneto (which Verona is a part of); gnocchi with a ragù made from tomato and ‘musso’, which is the Italian for donkey. If I return to the region in the future I’ll have to remember to try it because it looked really good! 

Casa di Giulietta - For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo
After lunch we went inside ‘Juliet’s house’, a building that the city has named in honour of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the story is fiction, but it’s a nice little tourist attraction and we were able to go onto the famous balcony. Next we went into the Duomo, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Matricolare. The outside is lovely but the inside is stunning, not over-decorated as some Catholic cathedrals can be. We sat in there for a few moments and Vera showed me the Catholic book of prayer and songs, which was really interesting to compare to the traditional Anglican books. We went to the river to look at the view of the old castle up on a hill before walking back to the station to catch the train back to Bologna. 

Duomo of Verona
The rest of my time has been that of a normal university student really. Other than classes, I've been enjoying the evening atmosphere of Bologna, trying plenty of tasty food and trying to talk myself into doing some studying. With the weather heating up and the sun appearing more often than not now it's been the perfect weather for getting out and exploring the city and I've been treating myself to the occasional gelato. It's my mission to find the best stracciatella flavour in the city, so I'll keep you posted on my findings!

Monday, 2 March 2015

La Vita Bolognese

It seems like only yesterday that I was packing my bags and leaving Lyon to set off on the next stage of my year abroad adventure. In reality it was five weeks ago, and after a blink-and-you-missed-it fortnight in Nottingham I arrived in my new Italian home for the next five months: Bologna, the city of porticoes and towers!

I had mixed feelings about leaving Lyon. As you all know, I love the city so much. I’ve now lived there twice, I feel completely at home and comfortable when I’m there, it’s B-E-A-U-tiful all year and I’ve made some fantastic friends who I hope will still be in my life for many years to come. On the other hand, I was looking forward to discovering a new city and experiencing a new university in Italy. I’ve now been in Bologna for three weeks, and they have flown by. In this post, I hope to update you on my experiences of settling into a new country, city, university and language, and show you what I’ve been discovering in my new home.

Le due torre
I count myself as being very lucky that I already have good Italian friend from here in Bologna, who I met while she was studying economics at UCL. As well as helping me to settle very quickly through already knowing one of the locals, she was also able to help me out back at the end of 2014 when I was looking for a place to live here. I’m so grateful that she was able to come and view the apartment I’m now living in back in November/December time, and so when I arrived in Bologna I already had my room secured and waiting for me. It’s one of four bedrooms in the apartment, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. I’m living with Amira, Esther and Eva, three Spanish girls who are all lovely and who helped me to settle in very quickly. The building I’m living in is on a street in between Via Zamboni and Filippo Re, two of the main streets for the Università degli studi di Bologna, and so I’m able to walk out of my door and be in my classes in mere minutes. It’s really handy, and is in a good position in the city for me to get to the places I need to be by foot. Bologna is quite a small city, and so most places are only about a twenty-minute walk away. It has a completely different feel to it, but as a university city it has a great student atmosphere.

Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca
Classes have started at the university, but there are some that don’t start until the beginning of March or even April, so at the moment I’m still in the process of deciding which courses to take. It’s looking like I’ll be taking a French language class to keep that ticking over, a political and economic geography class which has proved to be quite interesting so far, and then one of either Contemporary Italian Literature or a History of Art in Europe class which doesn’t start until the middle of March. Courses in Bologna are worth more credits than those in France or England, so I only have to take three here as opposed to the nine I did in Lyon!

Church of San Petronio, Piazza Maggiore
There are lots of nice little cafés and bars dotted about where we often go for a coffee between classes, and the quality of the pizza you can buy here is undoubtedly, but not unexpectedly, so much better here than at home. I admit I’ve given in to temptation and bought myself a hot slice for lunch once or twice, but at about 1.20-1.60€ a slice I don’t really care! I’ve also had some great pasta made for me by Italian friends of my flatmates, as well as learning some amazing recipes for myself to take home with me. I’m looking forward to being able to show off my new skills. I went out with a group of UCL students also here on exchange for  our first taste of aperitivo, which is a drink of choice and an array of light-bites served buffet-style in a bar for about 8€ in the early evening. The food is great and it’s a lovely, relaxed atmosphere. No one rushes you, and you don’t feel pressured to leave your table as soon as you’ve finished. We also went out for one UCL student’s birthday and we had dinner at an Osteria. Of course, being in Bologna I had to have the ragù, which is what we call Bolognese. I admit it’s not my favourite Italian dish in the world, but it was definitely the best plate of Bolognese that I’ve ever tasted so far. I've also experienced "late-night bakery". It's run by an old lady and her son, who open their kitchens at midnight to serve freshly baked and deliciously warm pizza and pastries to people who fancy a late-night snack in the early hours of the morning. It's cheap, it's friendly (although you go to a service entrance or a hole in the wall so it does feel a little like a dodgy deal), and the food tastes great so if you're out and about in the early hours after having visited a bar with friends, it's a great stop-off on the way home. This is a dangerously tasty country to be living in!!!

Neptune's fountain
Last weekend my friend from home (and youth leader at my church back in Stapleford), Beth, came to visit. Having only been in Bologna for two weeks at that stage, I hadn’t had the opportunity to fully explore the city or check out its attractions, so it was nice to be a tourist, rather than a student for the weekend. First up was a climb of the city’s Torre degli Asinelli. It was a lovely day with plenty of sunshine, so when we got to the top we were spoiled by a beautiful clear view of the city and the surrounding hills. It was breath taking and I think it was the first moment I actually appreciated the true beauty of Bologna, beside the porticoes and covered walkways. Next, we went around the church of Santo Stefano and then the church of Santo Petronio in Piazza Maggiore, before going to see Neptune’s fountain. After lunch we walked up into the hills to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Instead of taking the faster walk through the covered arcade (the longest in the world), we decided that as it was such a nice day, we would take the two-hour scenic route up a windy road. It was well-worth it as we were rewarded with stunning views of the hills and rural landscape around Bologna. The views from top were also fantastic, and the inside of the sanctuary was absolutely gorgeous despite the renovation work going on. We took the arcade route on the way back down which isn’t as picturesque, but gets you back to the city faster. That night UCL friends came round for drinks to christen my new home, though I was on diet coke because I’ve given up alcohol for lent – in a great wine-making nation…I know, what was I thinking?!?!

Church of San Stefano
Overall, I’d say my transition into life in Bologna has been pretty swift, with no real struggle or stress. I’ve settled into life at the university here, I’ve been making friends and tasting great food. I’m looking forward to discovering more of what the city has to offer and can’t wait to travel and explore more of Italy. I left Lyon behind, a city that will always have a very special place in my heart, but now it’s time for a new adventure…and maybe my heart has a little room left in it for Bologna to fill!!!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Let There Be Light, Travel and Glühwein!

It’s been too long since my last post, and I’ve been home for Christmas and New Year and come back to Lyon and still not actually had the time to sit down in front of my computer and write my latest update. I imagine I’ve already seen some of you back home over the holidays and filled you in on some of it, but if not, or if you want to see my pictures, please read on. I’m going to be talking about my experiences just before the Christmas break, and some of those that I’ve had since coming back.
Hôtel de Ville

The days surrounding 8
th December are a very special time of year in the Lyon calendar. Every year, thousands of people flock to the city from all over the country to visit and celebrate the famous Fête des Lumières (festival of lights), drink vin chaud (mulled wine), and take in all of the amazing illuminations. Four four nights between about 6pm and 1am, you can wander the streets of Lyon, and all over the city, there is something to experience, from flying kites, to fireworks, to massive projections, and there are candles lighting up the windows of many of the houses in the city. The sheer scale and creativity of the event is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

My favourite display

Now for a little history to explain why all of this happens. In 1852 a statue of the Virgin Mary was built on a hill overlooking the city of Lyon, next to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière.
 The inauguration of the statue and the planned celebration was pushed back from 8th September to 8th December, because the statue hadn’t been completed due to the flooding of the River Saône. Many Catholics in the city suggested lighting up the windows of their homes, as was the tradition for other events of importance, such as royal celebrations and military victories. On the morning of the 8th December, Lyon experienced quite a bad storm and the master of ceremonies decided to cancel the celebrations. However the storm eventually passed and the people of Lyon started to spontaneously light up their windows and take to the streets of Lyon, lighting candles and flares to illuminate the new statue whilst singing, and shouting "Vive Marie!" throughout the night. Every year, this has been repeated until it evolved into the massive festival that it is today. Pretty cool really!

Parc de la Tête d'Or

I went out to view the illuminations with friends on three out of the four nights. We started with a night time bike ride along the bank of the Rhône, before ending at le Parc de la Tête d’Or. There were some interesting looking kites and some really pretty illuminations on the lake in the middle of the park. We also headed to Vieux Lyon to watch the projections on the face of Cathedral Saint Jean which were quite special. The next day we wandered the streets of Lyon, watching the various projections, including those at Place Bellecour, Hôtel de Ville and Lyon’s opera house. My personal favourite that night was a combined projection and light show that explored space and the planets of our solar system. On the last night of the festival we climbed to the top of Fourvière hill to watch the closing night fireworks from the front of the Basilica. It was on this night that we also ran into the procession of people climbing the hill, singing songs and carrying candles, before attending an open air mass on the steps of the Basilica. It was a truly magical weekend, and one that I’ll certainly never forget!!!
With my friend, Molly

La belle ville de Lyon

I managed a weekend trip to Germany on the train the weekend before I returned to England for the break. I travelled to Cologne to visit Simone, my old German exchange partner who I hadn’t see in around seven or eight years. It made me realise how quickly time has passed since I was at school! It was lovely to see her after so long, and I enjoyed exploring the weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market), a very interesting Pop Art gallery, and drinking glühwein and feuerzangenbowle, which is essentially glühwein but with rum added for an extra kick. Before I knew it though, I was on the train back to Lyon, ready for my next adventure.

Christmas market in front of Strasbourg Cathedral

On Tuesday 16th December, I went to Strasbourg for the day with my Australian friend Marie-Laure (hi Marie-Laure…you got another mention!). I had been wanting to experience it since I got off the train in Lyon back on August 23rd and so naturally I was “super excited”! We got there just before the Christmas markets opened for the day so we treated ourselves to breakfast before heading out. Strasbourg is so pretty, and unlike anywhere else I’ve seen so far in France; the German influence is plain to see in all the Alsatian architecture, cuisine and accents! We wandered around the many markets spread across the city, bought Christmas presents, went in the Cathedral, ate flammeküche/tarte flambée and drank hot chocolate and hot spiced apple juice. Despite the early start, the late-night return and the very chilly weather, the day was absolutely divine and completely lived up to my anticipation and expectation!
With my travel buddy, Marie-Laure!
Strasbourg. How pretty is this!

I spent just over two weeks back in Nottingham for a very chilled out and peaceful Christmas and New Year with family and friends before returning to Lyon on 5th January. I have, as of Friday, finished all of my exams and handed in all of my essays here at Université Lyon 3, and now have just two weeks left before I travel to Italy for my second semester in Bologna. I’m excited to start the next stage of my adventure, but at the same time I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Lyon for the second time in my life. I truly love this city and all those who I’ve made friends with here. So two more weeks here in Lyon to spend time with now not-so-new but very good friends, and I’ve already started to make the most of it with joint lunches, dinners and film nights, coffees and shopping, as well as trips to various bars, and an evening of watching Lyon beat Toulouse 3-0 and go top of Ligue 1 this weekend! This week hasn’t been without it’s sad moments. The tragic events of the Charlie Hebdo shootings sent a shock wave across France and truly broke my heart. Nevertheless, the solidarity and compassion I have seen at the very peaceful candle-lit vigil (attended by around 10-15,000) and silent protest march (attended by 250,000) in Lyon have united the city and the country (regardless what people's stances are on the attack and aftermath in general), and despite the heightened security and police presence, there has been a very calm and nonthreatening atmosphere in the city.