College Eurotrip Part 1 – Arrival, Southern France, and Italy

My first backdated post, on Spain, France, Italy, and Switzerland!

I went on this trip after graduating college in 2007. Three friends (all girls) went with me. That’s all the backstory you need. Now lets do this!

DAY 1 – LAX to Madrid with a layover in Chicago. We arrived in Madrid tired, jet lagged, and culture shocked, which was made worse because the city was going crazy! Crazy because the finals for Spain’s oldest soccer tournament, Copa del Rey, was being held in Madrid today.

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Plaza del Sol, center of downtown Madrid. Our hostel was located above the main square, right in the middle of everything. A great location in a beautiful place.

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Futbol fans cheering on their team, pregame. 

As the the day went on, we regained our senses and explored the city. But by game time the city turned dead, most likely because everyone was either at the stadium or watching the game at home. We watched the game at a tapas bar; we were the only ones there.

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The Royal Palace of Madrid, the largest palace (by floor area) in Europe. Unfortunately, the insides were not open when we visited.

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A human statue street performer. We saw a lot of these on our trip, but the ones in Madrid were the best

DAY 2 – We planned to take the evening train to Barcelona, so we spent the day exploring the parts of Madrid we missed yesterday. Parks, squares, beautiful architecture, and some food too (almost all ham, Spanish not my favorite cuisine).

Not realizing how our Eurail passes worked, we went to the train station an hour before the last train left for Barcelona. Here we discovered that Eurail passes guarantee boarding on low speed trains, but you still have to make reservations for high speed trains. And since Spain only had high speed trains, and their last train was completely booked, we were not able to board.

But we had to get to Barcelona: in Barcelona we were connecting with another train to Nice, and that train only left every couple days. To not make it would throw a wrench in our entire trip, not to mention it is already night time and we have no place to stay in Madrid.

We ended up renting a car and driving nine hours through the night (seven hours to Barcelona plus two hours getting out of Madrid, driving in Europe is crazy!); we arrived in Barcelona two hours before our train left for Nice.

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Briana driving to Barcelona. The car was a stick shift (almost all cars outside the US are) and she was the only one who knew how to drive one. This, combined with us not knowing what we were doing, also combined with us being one year too young to legally rent a car, made our rental agent very nervous when he gave us the keys. But all he said was “Please be careful.” He was a great guy, he saved out trip.

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Arrival time in Barcelona: 4:39AM.

DAY 3 – A travel day: the 7AM train from Barcelona, through the south of France, to Nice. One of the French lines was on strike, which resulted in us taking a longer route on low-speed trains with an extra layover. But we made it.

I should note that in Europe a full day on the train is still a great day because taking the train through Europe is amazing! The countrysides are so beautiful, some of the most beautiful places on the continent. But more on that later.

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Two clowns climbing through a low speed train in France. Where are they going? Why are they doing this? I have no idea, but it was hilarious. I also don’t know if this train was so crowded because of the strike or if that’s just how no-reservation low speed trains are.

We arrived in Nice at night, and while at the train station, we reserved our outgoing tickets for a couple days later. This strategy (reserving our outbound tickets when arriving at the city) worked well and we were never denied another train reservation on our trip. Also, because we had a Eurail pass, our reservation fees were discounted by ~95%, proving that the passes were in fact worth it.

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Nice at night. It is a beautiful city.

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The French Riviera, the Mediterranean coast.

DAY 4 – Nice is famous for its beaches and so that’s where we went. Based on recommendations from our hostel (the best hostel on our trip and one of the top ten hostels in Europe), we took the bus to Mala Beach, a smaller, ritzier beach in Cap d’Ail, just outside Nice.

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Mala Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in southern France. This beach is notable because it contains sand, not pebbles like Nice’s beaches.

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In France you can drink alcohol on the beach!

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Part of the Mala Beach coastal path, which starts at Cap d’Ail and ends at Monaco, two miles east. We didn’t walk the whole distance, but why didn’t we? I think we didn’t realize how close Monaco was.

We spent the day at Mala Beach, then headed back to our hostel, where we spent the night. Our hostel had amazing nightlife, we met people from all over the world, chatted and drank and had a great time.

DAY 5 – Today we went to Blue Beach (Nice’s main beach) and also the surrounding areas so we could check out the city.

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An amazing farmer’s market near the beach. And unlike farmer’s markets in the US, this market is open every day.

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View of the city from a hill just outside city-center. The beach is to the left.

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A Jewish cemetery on the hill. Europe has amazing cemeteries and this was the best one we visited on this trip.

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Blue Beach, filled with pebbles (called galets, very common at the beaches in Nice).

After finishing at Blue Beach, we went to the train station. Our next trip, to Rome, was a long one, so we opted for an overnight train to economize our time.

DAY 6 – Rome. Per recommendations, we only scheduled three days and two nights here. I’m glad we did. Rome is an amazing city but it was also exhausting. Every block contained the most amazing building we’d ever seen, which resulted in walking block after block as we walked by everything. There’s a reason they say “when in Rome, do as the Romans do;” if you do Rome like a tourist it will completely exhaust you.

Our first day, we wandered the city, from our hostel to the Pantheon (a 1900 year old Roman temple and one of the best preserved buildings from ancient Rome) to Castel Sant’Angelo (a 1900 year old mausoleum turned fortress turned castle turned museum). On our way, we saw:

  • Santa Maria Degli Angeli e Dei Martiri – a 450 year old church built inside a 1700 year old Roman bath
  • Piazza della Repubblica – a 100 year old plaza containing a fountain from ancient Rome
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore – a 1500 year old church
  • Palazzo del Quirinale – a 450 year old palace and current home of the Italian president
  • Sant’Ignazio – a 350 year old church
  • Santa Maria Sopra Minerva – a 550 year old church and the only original Gothic building still standing in Rome.
  • Sant’Agnese in Agone – a 350 year old church
  • Piazza Navona – a 500 year old plaza, one of Rome’s main urban spaces
  • Ponte Sant’Angelo – a 1900 year old bridge.

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Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Even though this church is wholly within Italy, it is owned by the Vatican, as are several other buildings in Rome.

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Inside Santa Maria Degli Angeli e Dei Martiri. The inside of this church was so big, it couldn’t be captured by camera. Pictured above is the organ, so you can imagine how big the rest of the chapel is.

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The Pantheon, one of the most famous buildings in the world. This building contains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, a record it has held for almost 2000 years. It currently serves as a Catholic church.

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Piazza Navona, overlooked by Sant’Agnese in Agone. Quieter and less hectic than the rest of our walk, this was one of our favorite places in the city.

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Ponte Sant’Angelo leading to Castel Sant’Angelo, the Tiber river in the foreground.

We’re not finished yet. After reaching Castel Sant’Angelo, we went to Rome’s main shopping district, passing the Palace of Justice (Rome’s grandest modern building and home to the Italian Supreme Court), San Rocco (a 350 year old church), and Saint Jerome of the Courts (a 400 year old church and the national church of the Croats in Rome). Afterward, we visited Piazza del Popolo, the former northern entrance to the city and home to a 3300 year old Egyptian Obelisk. The plaza is surrounded by three churches, two 350 years old and the third 500 years old.

From the plaza, we hopped on the bus back to our hostel. All told, we walked four miles.

For our evening activity, we went to Trevi fountain. The fountain itself was amazing, but the atmosphere not so much; it was super touristy, with tons of vendors and street performers, many of them not even authentic (one performer was dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Come on man! We’re in Rome, not NYC!). Because of this, and also because we were tired, we didn’t stay long.

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Trevi fountain, located at the terminus of Aqua Virgo, an ancient aqueduct that connected Rome to a water source eight miles outside the city. According to legend, the water source was discovered by a virgin girl, which made the water extra special.

DAY 7 – We wanted to visit the Vatican today, until we found out today was a Catholic holiday (an obscure holiday celebrated only in the Vatican) and the Vatican was closed. That meant the Colosseum today, and the Vatican tomorrow!

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The Colosseum, the largest amphitheater ever built, still standing (despite the work of earthquakes and stone-robbers) after almost 2000 years.

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Inside the Colosseum, the arena removed to reveal the underbelly below. Back in the day this stadium could seat up to 80,000 people.

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The Roman Forum, located next to the Colosseum. This was the original center of Roman life, with buildings as much as 2800 years old.

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Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot racing stadium. Unlike the Colosseum, not much is left.

For our nighttime activity, we wanted to take a party bus to the coast (not very “as the Romans do,” but so what? It sounded fun). Unfortunately, we got lost on our way to the pickup location (the Spanish Steps), not finding them until after the bus had left. So instead, we spent the night in Rome, at the steps, at a cafe, and along the Tiber. Much more “as the Romans do.”

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Stupid Spanish Steps and their being hard to find.

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St. Peter’s Basilica overlooking the Tiber.

DAY 8 – Vatican day. Yesterday the Vatican was closed and tomorrow it will be closed again (tomorrow is Sunday), which meant today the Vatican was packed. It took us three hours to get in and we had to do the whole museum (laid out as one long path, so you have no choice but to do it all) and still make it to our train before it departed. It was a crazy day, but the Vatican is amazing and so it was worth it!

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Part of the line to get into the Vatican Museum. It was like this for blocks.

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While waiting outside the Vatican, I ducked over to the grandest church in the world, the definitive work of Renaissance architecture: St. Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, the insides hadn’t opened yet (and when they did they were swamped), so I only got to see the outside.

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A corridor in the long hallway that is the Vatican Museum. Filled with art (mostly Renaissance art) collected by Popes over the years, the entire museum looks pretty much like this.

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The Vatican Museum just keeps on going, long after it gets repetitive and you are ready to leave. Then, right before the exit, you are hit with this. It is stunning. Everything it takes to get here is worth it.

After leaving the Vatican, we rushed back to our hostel, grabbed our things, then went to the train station and boarded our train. Next stop: Florence.

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Traveling through Tuscany. This picture does not do it justice.

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Ponte Vecchio over the Arno. Built in the mid 1300s (when shops on bridges was common), the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge not destroyed by the Nazis (allegedly due to an order from Hitler himself) before the allies captured Florence in WWII.

DAY 9 – We only had one full day in Florence (not enough, I know) so we made it count. Michelangelo’s David requires reservations months in advance, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is an hour drive away (and we don’t even have a car), so we stayed in town and explored the city. Here’s what we saw:

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The Duomo of Florence, another one of the grandest churches in Italy. Construction started in 1296 but wasn’t completed until 1436 because they couldn’t figure out how to do the dome (they assumed they’d figure it out by the time they got to that point in construction, but they were wrong). One of the definitive works of Gothic architecture, when Michelangelo (and others) designed St. Peter’s Basilica, their main goal was to outdo this church.

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Inside the Duomo. You can pay to go to the top of the dome, but we elected to save our go-to-the-top-and-view-the-city money for the Eiffel Tower.

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Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s original town hall. It is 700 years old, although the clock was replaced in 1667.

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Daytime on the Arno, with people tanning on the concrete slab in the middle of the picture. Really makes you appreciate the beach!

Come evening we headed back to our hostel (one of the best on our trip), where we drank and chatted and partied into the night. Fun times!

DAY 10 – Today we were on the train again, to Venice.

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One last look at Florence, from our deluxe-tent hostel atop a hill outside the city. We did not spend enough time here.

We arrived at our hostel on mainland Venice (the island, actually an archipelago consisting of 117 islands, was too expensive for us poor college kids). From here, visiting the island was an entire day trip, so today we decided to stay in, resting and planning to visit the island tomorrow.

DAY 11 – Venice. As anyone who’s been there can tell you, Venice is amazing, but the layout is also super-confusing and we got lost. Even so, we made it to some pretty amazing places.

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The Grand Canal, one of the main traffic corridors on the island.

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Rialto Bridge, the first and currently one of four bridges that span the Grand Canal. This bridge is over 400 years old.

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Gondolas. We didn’t ride in any (they are expensive) but we did take a water taxi to an island where we got to watch glass blowers work.

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St. Mark’s Basilica, almost 1000 years old and another one of the grandest churches in the world. Additionally, outside St. Mark’s Basilica is Piazza San Marcos, Venice’s main plaza, known for the thousands of pigeons that feed there.

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Venice from the water. This picture was taken from the water taxi we rode on.

After finishing at Venice, we headed back to our hostel, where we spent the night.

DAY 12 – Today we left Italy, our next destination being Geneva, Switzerland. But before we move on, some final thoughts on Italy:

Italy is insane! There’s so much to do, it’s unbelievable! Six days was a pathetically short time, even for only three cities. I do think we spent the right amount of time in Rome (that city was so exhausting, we loved it but we were excited to leave) and Venice, but at least one more day in Florence was needed. And then there’re all the places we didn’t visit: Milan, Cinque Terre, Pompeii, Siena, Turin, Sicily, the Amalfi coast, there is so much.

But there’s also the other side of Italy, the side that wasn’t so great. Italy, Rome in particular, was very touristy, a lot of it inauthentic and in your face (the Statue of Liberty? Mickey Mouse? Those aren’t Italian culture!). Vendors were super aggressive and not enjoyable to deal with (over and over they would block our path, pressuring us to buy whatever they were selling. They would even shove flowers into the girls’ hands, then demand money before the girls could give the flowers back). We saw several beggars using their deformed bodies to create sympathy when begging (one had knees that bent the wrong way, forcing him to have to awkwardly crawl wherever he went), all of which were very disturbing.

Additionally (I’m ranting here, consider it a heads up for anyone visiting Italy), we went to three restaurants (one in each city, and the ones in Rome and Florence were not in the touristy parts) and had bad experiences at each: in Rome the waiter kept delivering opened bottles of water we didn’t ask for to pad our bill, in Florence the waiter padded our bill with items that weren’t even part of our meal (we made him remove them), and in Venice the waitstaff was just plain rude. The restaurant food was mostly delicious, but with a couple exceptions the inexpensive food we had wasn’t very good (except for desserts, those were always good). And lastly, visiting Italy in June/July, it was really hot.

Basically (minus the heat), the Italians saw us as dollar signs, and they did everything they could to get money from us. It was not an enjoyable aspect of our visit and was very hard to escape.

All that being said, Italy was so amazing that, despite these issues, visiting was totally worth it and I can’t wait to go back!

Now, onto Part 2: Switzerland, France, and Spain!

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