Firenze

Ciao friends!

Florence, the heart of the Renaissance, is my favorite Italian city. Situated in beautiful Tuscany and the Chianti region, what’s not to love? Allegedly they invented gelato as well! Florence is less chaotic than Rome, making it a nice reprieve. It is also a very walkable city, meaning no more sardine bus rides. Our first stop in Florence was this amazing market, the Mercato Centrale, filled with fresh produce, meats, cheeses, etc. on the lower floor and delicious food stalls on the upper floor. We had an amazing lunch of pizzas, pastas, salad, and, of course, wine! Hashtag gluttony. If I could go to this market every week I would be in heaven. Following, we walked off some of our calories just exploring the city and its many outdoor shopping markets and piazzas. Florence is apparently the city of leather and purses, wallets, jackets, and belts are everywhere. Everyone is selling them at a “special price, just for you!” One gentleman even told us that he’d sell it to us for a “100% student discount” and another “free for you because I’m young, single, and cook well!” Too funny. Artists also line the streets of Florence, selling beautiful watercolors that they paint right in front of you! We made one artist very happy by depleting quite a bit of her stock… Our city walk also took us to the Duomo, the very large, very gothic church in the heart of Florence. The outside is this amazing combination of pink and green marble, but the inside is so barren. It’s an odd contrast. Our second day in Florence, I finally dragged my compatriots to a museum! We went the the Galleria d’Accademia to see the famous Michaelangelo sculpture, David. This particular sculpture had been contracted to two other artists prior who lacked the conviction to actually make much progress. That’s where my main man, Michaelangelo, stepped in to save the day and carve the giant hunk of marble into the giant statue of David. For any unaware, this is the David from the biblical David and Goliath story. The statue took 2 years to complete and 4 days to move from its location inside the Duomo (where it was carved) and required knocking down part of a wall to get it out to its original location in a piazza outside the famous Uffizi gallery. Vandalism caused the statue to be transferred inside the Accademia (people suck) and a copy is now visible outside. It is quite an impressive work to behold. The Accademia also holds several unfinished sculptures by Michaelangelo and it was so neat to see the chisel marks on the works in progress compared to the smoothness of the finished marble, which can look just like fabric… Amazing! We learned a little about the process of making marble sculptures using plaster models, which was pretty interesting. I felt quite untalented.

Our sightseeing also took us to a famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, which is a pedestrian bridge lined with shops. Formerly, butcher shops lined the bridge and would discard their excess into the river. Now fancy jewelry stores line the bridge. We also hiked up a not insignificant hill to get a fantastic view of the city from Piazza Michaelangelo. We passed an unusual site on the way up – a cat sanctuary, complete with white fluffy cats and tiny cat houses. Weird. The views were breathtaking and we hit the top at that magic hour near dusk when everything is bathed in a lovely golden light.

Our last day in Florence we spent on a wine tour, which took us out of the city and into the countryside of Tuscany. It was just the four of us and our wonderful guide, an American expat named Todd. I’m a little jealous of his life. He met and married a woman from Florence, moved there after grad school, became a sommelier, and now gives wine tours. How cool!?! We had a wonderful time learning about and tasting some amazing Chianti wines native to the region. The countryside is beyond beautiful and I’d definitely like to spend more time there someday. Todd also gave us a mini history lesson on the Florentine Renaissance and the ruling family at the time, the Medici family. History is brutal! Plots of assassination (inside the Duomo at that!), Pope’s conspiring to take power, and of course a fair amount of bribery. Crazy times. Later that day I went on a solo (and slightly buzzed) mission to the Uffizi gallery to see some of the famous Botticelli paintings, among others. Sadly it was a bit of a rushed visit as it was near closing time. Every time I visit a museum or important religious site, I’m amazed at people who blatantly disregard the large no photo signs. You can’t exactly misinterpret the black camera logo with a giant red X through it…

I miss Florence already! On to France!

Ciao!

Roma

After our one day in Venice, we hopped a train to Rome. Let me tell you something about buying train tickets… We all have global Eurail train passes, which means that we can ride many trains for free. Some trains require advanced reservations for seats or an extra fee, so we’ve spent a good deal of time waiting around to buy tickets. Its always a cluster. You take a number, stand around (literally for years) and wait your turn, then try to communicate what you need to people who often don’t speak a shared language with you. Talk about challenging! We did this in both Venice and Rome, and I am so glad we are done buying train tickets. I am also glad that we are done with Italian train stations at this point… They are BUSY and rather dirty. OK, so, we arrived in Rome with vague directions to our Air BnB that involved getting on a public bus. This bus gets pretty packed with people and we are trying not to kill anyone with our backpacks, fall over, or miss our stop. Success on three counts… Goose and I had separated from Frank and Louie (to get the aforementioned train tickets) and I unfortunately directed us off at the wrong stop. Apparently our bus only runs once in a flipping blue moon, so we spent a while chilling in a little piazza wondering if we were stranded. We made it eventually, however, and discovered that our apartment was SWEET with a lovely rooftop terrace. Even from the bus we started to see the famous Roman landmarks like the Colosseum. Its crazy to be casually surrounded by so much history! This basically sums up my experience with Rome: it is a busy, dirty city with crowded public transit (think sardines), but happens to contain the most amazing sights inside it that it makes everything else worthwhile. We stayed in Rome for 3 days and saw the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and many other amazing sights! I can’t describe the feeling of standing amongst ruins that are 2+ millennia old. So cool. I have photos of all of these that you can see on Facebook, or just wait til I can finally upload from my fancy camera. Pictures do more justice to these things than words. Something interesting I learned in Rome was that the Colosseum and other ancient ruins used to be covered in marble. Imagine something so huge and gleaming white! Apparently the marble was pillaged to use in building during the dark ages. I also learned that it took 45,000 slaves 4 years to build the Colosseum and that only 2% of the gladiators survived their fights either with animaas orneach other. Brutal.

On one of our first couple days there we stumbled upon a festival in the Circus Maximus, which is essentially an old race track where chariot races were held while the Emperor watched from his palace balcony nearby on Palatine Hill. We learned that the festival was in celebration of Rome’s birthday, the 21st of April. I’ll have to look up the actual story… Anyway, there was music, choreographed dancing, and a bunch of dudes in gladiator and chariot racer costumes from what I assumed were different periods of history. It was a pretty cool thing to randomly find!

On our 3rd day in Rome, we took a guided tour of the Vatican. If you’re ever going to the Vatican, that is the way to do it. For one, the lines to get in are outrageous and for two, it is a vast place (9 miles of museum galleries)! It was super crowded inside, so the guides all have extendable metal sticks with a flag or something on the end so that you can follow them through the sea of people. You get very used to pushing, shoving, and stepping on other peoples feet while trying to move through the crowds. The Vatican has, allegedly, the 2nd “most important” collection of artworks following the Louvre. I was most amazed by the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. As I’m sure you all know, Michaelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel with a series of frescoes on the ceiling and walls. The fresco style is the painting onto wet plsaster and is apparently quite challenging, making the chapel even more impressive. Painting the chapel took around 4 years if I recall correctly. Unlike many other painters, Michaelangelo did not play well with others and didn’t work with students, meaning he did all the work himself. Allegedly he lived inside the chapel for periods of time, even sleeping on the scaflfold where he worked. He let no one see his works in process, however the sneaky other painter Raphael apparently took a premature peak and was so impressed he paid homage to Michaelangelo in one of his works at the time.The ceiling panels of the chapel depict the creation, one wall depicts stories of Christ from the new testament, another wall depicts stories from the old testament, and a third depicts the rapture. Michaelangelo seems to have been a bit of a snarky individual and painted one of the Pope’s associates (who opposed some of Michaelangelo’s work) as a demon in the rapture scene. The pope was like, well what do you want me to do? I want to meet Michaelangelo… Seems like an interesting dude. When you visit the Sistine Chapel, there is no photography, and the guards are constantly calling for silence. You shuffle to a space along one of the walls and hope no one runs over you while you gaze upward in awe. The Vatican is also home to St. Peters basilica. This basilica is massive. Its the size of a small town. It has a central nave with many chapels off to both sides, where masses, funerals, or weddings can be held. Imagine getting married there… Lining the basilica are massive statues of the saints and intricate mosaic copies of the original artwork. The basilica boasts the tallest Dome in the city, which you can climb for some amazing views of Rome and St Peter’s Square. Climbing the dome is challenging, but worth it. The stairs are narrow and lean in sideways towards the dome. Honestly it made me a little dizzy.  Below the basilica are the grottos, or tombs, of St. Peter himself and many other Popes. A small section is open to guests, but I imagine the catacombs below the basilica are vast and I reallllly wanted to see the rest. Basically I wanted to feel like Indiana Jones or something…

After our morning at the Vatican, we hopped an ever crowded bus out to a road called the Ancient Appian Way. This was one of the first “highways” ever built and connected Rome with Naples (I think it was Naples…). Now it is a pretty stone roadway, still used by cars, lined with miscellaneous ancient ruins. Two of Rome’s most famous catacombs are along this road, but unfortunately we didn’t get to visit them as they closed earlier in the day. I was pretty disappointed, I’m really into the whole catacomb deal for some morbid reason. We ended that day with a stroll around the Trastevere neighborhood, a cuter and less touristy area of Rome, complete with a few glasses of wine at a little wine bar. The bars in Rome do an interesting thing… Their “happy hours” consist of a few drink specials but also a buffet,

. Not a crusty, possibly salmonella infected buffet, but a legit array of sandwiches, veggies, cheese, etc. You pay a little more for your drink and then can eat all you want for “free”. It is a nice snack before the late dinner typical of Italy.

Our last day in Rome was kind of a series of failed sightseeing attempts. We did successfully see the Pantheon, a formerly pagan church kidnapped and converted by the Christians around 102AD. The Trevi fountain was next on our list but is actually under construction right now, bummer. Last was the Spanish Steps, which were covered in people and I’m honestly still not quite sure of their significance. We gave up on touristing and went shopping instead. I got a dress, it was nice… None of my pants or shorts really fit anymore, but I guess that’s what you get when you “vacation ” for 2 months! I don’t regret any of the croissants (pistachio or almond are my favorites), gelato (pistachio again, or maybe ricotta and fig), pasta, gnocchi, or wine! Bring it on obesity!

I’m probably forgetting a bunch of stuff. Rome was jam packed with activities and experiences! On to Florence for the next installment of Ray Away.

Ciao Bella!

Which reminds me, people yell at you here… Especially Louie (Ashley) and myself, we think because the blonde hair is weird. They say Ciao Bella! and get literally right in your face. Not cool, bro. Another group of people entirely also love to get in your face: the people selling selfie sticks… “Selfie, selfie, one euro, one euro, discount price, selfie, selfie!” They’re everywhere! Others sell scarves, camera/phone chargers, water, whatever. They’re all quite forceful. Sometimes the police chase them away, particularly from the Vatican, which is simultaneously sad and hilarious. End tangent.

Venezia

We have left the clean, organized, efficient, and oddly American country of Germany for the busy, chaotic, and somewhat dirty place that is Italy. Our Italian adventure begins in Venice, the sinking island. What can I say about Venice… Well, for one it was a whirlwind of a visit as we spent only really a half day in the city. Venice is like an old, decaying maze that happens to be filled with people. It does actually smell rather funny. The streets are canals and crosswalks are bridges. Any street that isn’t a canal is a sidewalk sized alley lined with shops. Every winding alley has a similar arrangement of stores selling Murano glass, masquerade masks, gelato, souvenirs, and some high end retail as well. They all started to blend together. Murano glass is a type of hand blown glass made in Venice (I think) and is made into jewelery, vases, bowls, animal figures. Its quite pretty and the intricacy of some of the pieces is amazing.

One of our first stops was for gelato, and even several days later I still think it was the best gelato I’ve had… Some sort of ricotta and fig flavor and pistachio! We wandered into the city along random routes while taking in the sights, finally making our way to St. Mark’s Square. St Mark’s Square is home to sights including St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace (former ruling palace of Venice). We toured the basilica, which is lined with beautiful mosaics and shining gold. At least, it would be if they turned the lights on… I assume the darkness is to preserve the artwork, but it makes it difficult to appreciate! We were unwilling to spring for tickets into the other sights, but I’m sure they’re fab as well. What we did spring for, however, was a gondola ride. It was awesome. Our guide was a native of Venice and truly loved his city. We were rowed through a part of the Grand Canal as well as some smaller canals without even sidewalks liming them. Everyone in Venice has some sort of boat parked in the canal outside their home. No one can live on the first floors anymore due to flooding. From the canals you can see wet and rotting doors that are now partially submerged. I read that the city is undertaking a project to help contain the rising water levels, but it isn’t complete yet.

After the gondola ride,we stumbled into a small restaurant for some wine and dinner. I skeptically ordered a gnocchi with crab dish and was rewarded by some of the tastiest gnocchi ever. Why don’t I eat gnocchi more at home?? We happened to be seated next to an American couple at dinner who were just the sweetest people. They had decided to use their retirement years for travel and were so impressrd that four young women were trailblazing through Europe. It was too cute. Anyway, the Italians eat dinner typically much later than Americans, so we never have a problem getting a table at our normal dinner time. Full Italian meals have several courses… Antipasti (appetizer), Primi (first course – typically a small serving of pasta), Secondi (second course – typically a meat or fish), and coffee or dessert. Of course different wines can be paired with each! They can last a few hours.

It was dark by the time we were done eating. Venice is either really romantic or creepy at night depending on which alleyway you happen to be walking in. Next time I’d like to take a night time gondola ride (and check out some of the museums)! 

Salzburg

Guten morgen friends!

I’m yet again writing from a train, this time from Salzburg to Venice, a 7 hour trip. We spent a brief but wonderful day in Salzburg yesterday, you may have seen photo evidence on Facebook or Instagram if you’re a social media aficionado. I do apologize for the lack of photos on the blog, I have difficulties transferring from phone or camera to this tablet I use for writing posts. Salzburg is a beautiful, old city set against a backdrop of green fields and snowy mountains. All of the buildings here appear historic but well maintained. Our apartment was gorgeous, I’d totally live there, with two full bedrooms, a real kitchen, and a balcony! It was only a 10 minute walk from both the train station and the old part of the city, appropriately known as Old Town. We arrived early afternoon, dropped our backpacks, and headed downtown. Frank’s travel book led us on a walk through the historic area and to an amazing little cafe. I won’t lie and say we are now any wiser as to the history of Salzburg or Austria in general, but we did learn that Salzburg was Mozart’s birthplace and home for his first 25 years. There are Mozart themed everything there, from chocolates to puppets to rubber ducks. Unfortunately our short time here didn’t allow for much museum touring, but you can tour Mozart’s birthplace if you so desire. Our lunchtime cafe stop was at Zirkelwirt, a lovely little spot with outdoor seating just off Mozartplaz (Mozart square). We had the most delicious salads, dumplings of many varieties, goulash, and Radler of course. I ordered a plate of Austrian Mystery Dumplings and still have no idea what sort of meats I ate, but they were tasty! The salads were to die for after our vegetable deprived time in Germany (too many brats & kraut). Our city walk then took us up to the fortress, Hohensalzburg. Frank accidentally took us on another steep uphill climb, forgoing the funicular ride up. Its OK though, we are all feeling a little thicker these days and shouldn’t turn down exercise! Apparently this structure is the oldest fortified castle in Europe? Either way it had amazing views of the city and surrounding mountains. We ended our day strolling through the many narrow, winding city streets filled with fancy shops (I think there is $$$ here, based on the shops and well dressed businessmen/women) and finally sitting along the riverbank drinking more Radler like true Austrians. Lovely end to a lovely day. 

München

Hello friends, family, and anyone else randomly reading this…

As I informed you last time, I’ve left the continent of Africa for Europe to continue my grand adventure. After arriving in Munich following a full 24 hour travel time, running through the Abu Dhabi airport, and a long wait in the passport control line, I have never been more glad to sit down for a beer with friends. When I say beer, I mean a full 1 litre stein of Russ’n (Weiss beer + lemonade) at THE München Hofbrauhaus with my lovely companions, Frank, Goose, and Louie (https://frankgooselouie.wordpress.com) as they are known here in the EU. In fact, much of our brief stay in Munich was spent taking in the beer culture, and the beer itself of course. Our endeavors took us to the Chinese beer garden within the expansive English Gardens and to Augustiner beer garden. Here beers are often paired with bretzels, or giant pretzels. No cheese sauce needed. As a lover of Weiss beer and anything made from bread, I’m in heaven. The English Gardens were fascinating. Imagine the largest park you’ve ever seen filled with likely thousands of people drinking, playing Frisbee, running, walking their dogs. It looked like a concert was about to take place even on a random Wednesday evening. I could have spent hours there. Any beer garden here is massive compared to any I’ve ever seen at home. Tables crowd next to each other, strangers sit together, and everyone cheers for the soccer match on the big screen TV. Drinking good beer outside is the best. We were graced with lovely weather for it too. But, enough about beer.

We took a day trip out of the city to Neuschwanstein castle. Built in the 1880’s for the “Mad King Ludwig,” it was actually never completed before his untimely death under suspicious circumstances. It is relatively modern with running water, but built with such opulence as to model from the castles of old. King Ludwig had eclectic tastes and had features like a cave from an opera set built into the castle. It was quite the uphill hike to the castle, but worth it for the views of the surrounding mountains. I pledge to getting in shape once i return home. This being winded walking uphill is a bunch of ****. A viewing bridge allows a fantastic view of the entire castle and surrounding land. Apparently this castle is the inspiration for the famous Cinderella Disney castle. Today we are taking the train to Salzburg for another brief city tour. We got a late start after my companions took a much needed trip to the post office to send home souvenirs.

On a side note, Germans are very good at speaking English. I feel quite undereducated that I only speak one language. On a side side note, the public transit here is amazing and biking is huge. I love those features in a city! Its a nice change from having to drive everywhere in Cape Town.

Ciao darlings,

Ray

Weekend adventures #4: I love elephants & goodbye Cape Town

Hello again friends!

This post is coming to you from a train in Munich, but will be about my last week in Cape Town. The last week was a blur. We had a short work week due to the Easter Holiday and taking Friday off for a trip down the Garden Route. Ending my medical school career abroad was a surreal experience and I’m not quite sure that it has set in yet… Overall I enjoyed my time at Victoria Hospital. I know that I learned a ton and gained experiences I wouldn’t have in the states. I also got to know some amazing medical students and physicians. It was sad to say goodbye! Talking about the weekend will be more fun though so let’s do that. We left early Friday morning for the Garden Route, a route along South Africa’s east coast that takes you through lush countryside and offers many exciting attractions. Our first stop was the Congo Caves where we went on the “adventure tour.” This involved crouching, climbing, and army crawling through tunnels and was spectacular fun! The rock formations were crazy large and beautiful. After the caves we stopped at an ostrich farm where some of us were able to ride an ostrich (for about 30 seconds)! Apparently they are quite fast runners and have a very lengthy lifespan. Their eggs are huge! Talk about a big omelette. We stayed in a nice hotel on the beach, had a yummy dinner and cocktails. Have I mentioned bow cheap wine and cocktails are there? Dangerous. Saturday was a full day including a zip line canopy tour, visiting an elephant rescue park, stopping by the worlds highest bunch jump, and a sunset cruise (unfortunately foggy). I love elephants. Really and truly if I could have one I would. We were able to feed them, pet them, and get a ton of photos. It was amazing. The bungy bridge was crazy high. 710 ft I believe. I seriously considered it but no one was willing to join so my outage faded. Sunday took us to a private game reserve for a drive through the wilderness looking for animals. We saw lions, zebra, springboks, rhinos, elephants, and some far away giraffes! My fellow CFHI students surprised me at lunch with a congratulations cake for finishing med school! It was so sweet. Then it was time for the 5 hour drive home and for me to pack up. I discovered that my backpack holds much less than I thought so I may be touring Europe in the buff. Don’t expect photo evidence.

Weekend Adventures Part 3: A Journey to the Tip of the World… AND PENGUINS

Easter is a BIG holiday here. So big, in fact, that we were given a 4 day weekend with which to explore. By we, I mean myself and the 4 new CFHI students who joined me last week. We are now an eclectic group of me, the lone med student, two PA students from New York, and two pre-clinical students from Oregon. For our first adventure together, we took the scenic route down the coast to Cape Point – the southwestern most point of Africa. It is a beautiful national park with the Atlantic Ocean on one side of the peninsula and False Bay on the other. It boasts a very old lighthouse that was previously used to help guide ships around its treacherous rocky point. I wish I had means to upload my photos along with these posts – words are not doing justice to the feeling of looking out over the ocean and knowing that the only thing out there is Antarctica for goodness sakes. Our drive back up the  coast took us through some quaint coastal towns that I’d love to vacation in someday. It also took us to Boulder Beach, a sanctuary for African Penguins. Seeing penguins waddling about on sandy beaches didn’t really fit my idea that they only live on icebergs, but they were super cute nonetheless! It was fun to see them swim and ride the waves onto the beach. They almost look like ducks when they’re in the water. On Saturday the ladies among our group spent a leisurely day touring wineries in the winelands outside of Cape Town. Apparently there is a rich history of wine making in this country, all of which I’ve promptly forgotten. South Africa is famous for its Pinotage grape/wine, which is quite tasty I’d like to add. I’ll be on the lookout for SA wines once I’m back in the states… Back to adventuring on Sunday, however, with a hike up Lion’s Head, a mountain with great views of the famous Table Mountain. I’ve decided that they have different definitions of ‘easy hike’ here than I’m used to. Either that or I’m ridiculously out of shape these days! Rock scrambling isn’t as easy as it used to be… To round off the weekend, we took a trip to the historic Robben Island, which houses the prison where Nelson Mandela and many other political and criminal prisoners were held during the apartheid era. I do wish there had been a bit more history taught on the tour. I suppose I’ll have to break out the biography when I get home and do a bit of self-study. I prefer spoon fed knowledge! The boat ride was beautiful across the bay, complete with a sunset view on the trip home. It would be nice to be a tourist here with ample time to peruse the many sights and neighborhoods throughout the city. We’ve already come to the point of crossroads between “I want to go back there” and “we have all these other things to see!”

Although our weekend adventures were fabulous, I did miss the annual Easter celebration with my family. I hope you all had fun! Someone PLEASE buy me some Reese’s Eggs… apparently they don’t exist here.

Ciao for now,

Ray