Italy II

After I finished my exams at the end of May, I started on a 23 day, 4 country tour that I had been planning for a month or more. My first stop was Pisa, mostly because of the cheap flight in. My hostel directions were pretty poor, directing me toward unmarked roads and not specifying exactly which direction to turn at each intersection, but I didn’t mind hiking through this city, which was larger than I expected. Since I was only there for a single night, I checked in, dumped my big backpack, and set off toward the tower.

I think I started on one side of the city center and walked to the other for the tower, and it was probably a 20-30 minute hike at a slow pace. There was plenty of gelato to be had at 2 Euros per scoop. I was surprised at the number of other artifacts and sites in the city on the way to the tower, including a very long, high, and old wall that I never got the back-story on. I don’t need to elaborate much on the tower, except that it is expensive to go up into and my greatest entertainment came from watching all of the other tourists do their pose to get the tower pushing picture.

I did get a great dinner of pizza, wine, and dessert for 6.50 on a street that was directly east (I think) of the tower and could see the tower leaning from my outdoor table- the highlight of my evening. I crashed early so that I could get on the train to the Cinque Terre region as early as possible in the morning.

Cinque Terre

The first thing worth mentioning about the Cinque Terre is that it is no longer the hidden gem of the Italian coast that I and many people I know thought that it was. Of course, if the place is widely known among exchange students in Holland, I should have expected that. My first stop was at Manarola, which is the northernmost village of the 5 cities that make up this region. The hiking between the village is the “must-do” activity in the area, so that was the itinerary that I planned to follow. All of the cities are along the rocky coast and terraces with some areas to get down to the water in each city. The hiking was nice, but it wasn’t hiking in the same sense of my Switzerland experience. The entire distance was, according to many sites I looked at, hikable in 5 hours. However, one section of the trail that was marked as 30 minutes or something was closed, and the detour trail was about 2 hours or something. All in all, it would have made a long single day of hiking, or in my case, 2 easy ones.

As far as how strenuous the hike was, I read many accounts that rated it differently. I didn’t find the hike particularly difficult- the trails were pretty well beaten down and had steps carved into it rather than pure incline. Of course, there was some elevation change, so that will always get your heart beating. On the shorter hikes, there are more people who are just out on leisure, so it can get crowded on a narrow path.

The hostel I stayed in first was in Corniglia, then I moved to Riomaggiore after one night, as planned. The Riomaggiore hostel was more like a tiny flat that a man had bought and equipped with bunks. I actually really liked that he just gave me the key to an apartment and then disappeared, leaving me to do as I pleased. The place was called “Cinque Terre Holidays” if you happen to be going there. It was 25 euros per night for me, but the location couldn’t have been better, there were only 4 beds, and a kitchen and shower for maybe 6 or 8 people to share.
Cinque Terre region is beautiful, but there isn’t much to do there besides the hiking and the views. I would give the place 2 days if you want to do the hiking and get traveling on, or 3 days if you really want to take it easy. There aren’t any great beaches there for laying around, and the things can be a little pricey because of the secluded location of the towns.


My entire trip to Florence was built around its history and museums. I’m a fan of the Renaissance era and the Medici, so after I took the 3 hour train ride or so from Pisa, I bought a 72 hour pass for all of the museums and ended up doing 9 or 10 over that time. If you are interested in that time period, I can highly recommend Florence.

The city itself was quite large and very beautiful and historic, but not quite as nice to walk around as Rome. For some reason, there were large dumpsters on the streetside that left a stench in the air. Also, Florence was very hot when I was there, I would guess the upper 80s at the beginning of June. In fact, it was a little bit like Kentucky- hot, humid, with frequent thunderstorms in the afternoon. It was the perfect place to learn the Mediterranean art of the afternoon siesta.

The Statue of David, unlike many famous art works I’ve seen, was actually worth the entrance fee. I think it stands between 16 and 17 feet high, so it is incredibly imposing. Add to that the fine detail of the work and it was my favorite work of the city. Florence is worth a visit if you like the Renaissance and art, but overall it doesn’t quite match Rome.

I had a cheap flight to Berlin out of Milan, so I stayed one night in the city and had maybe 10 waking hours there. That was about all that I needed. The Duomo is a very large church and the Golden Rectangle is a very expensive shopping district. It is a much more modern place than some of the other Italian cities and not bad for a layover night, but nothing too special for me. A caveat for anyone traveling from Milan Malpensa- it was a 1.5 hour bus ride from the city to the airport for me, so plan accordingly.

Copenhagen, Denmark

For me, Copenhagen was that random trip that everyone talks about. I had a 5 day break from school and was debating London or Stockholm when a Greek friend told me about her plans to go to Denmark. 100 euro tickets, cheap hostel, I was in. Denmark is one of those places you never hear about, but it ended up being one of my favorite trips. I invited another American guy, and so it was 2 Greeks and 2 Americans for Easter weekend in Copenhagen. Once we arrived, we found out why our tickets were probably so cheap- Copenhagen is shut down for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday. So, even though it has the longest shopping street in Europe (or something like that), it was no use to us. The city was anything but crowded, the weather was great, and we were a good travel group, so we had a great time.

Tivoli amusement park, which supposedly inspired a young Walt Disney on a trip there, is located in Copenhagen and easy to visit. There is also a distinct section of the town called Christiania, which is known for its hippie population and generally relaxed policies. The Danish are called snobby or snooty by some people, but I think their culture is just more reserved than some others to the south. Everyone that we encountered spoke flawless English, even though some told me that they rarely practice it.

On 3 nights, we went out for drinks around town and each time we were welcomed by locals to join them at their already crowded tables. Many of them told us that after a drink or two, the Danish lose much inhibition and love to meet new people. They were definitely neck and neck with the Irish for pub and bar friendliness.

I think Copenhagen was pretty expensive. It was difficult for me to tell because they use the Kroner, which converts to the Euro at about 7.25 to 1 or something. Then, converting Euro to USD at 1.45, it got pretty tricky to figure out.

The most advertised attraction of Copenhagen is probably The Little Mermaid statue, but it is not too old (20th century I think), not very big (slightly bigger than life size), and the sculpture itself isn’t all that impressive. Many of the locals I talked with joked with me about their main attraction, but it gave us a walk through a park one afternoon.

We found ourselves with plenty of time in Copenhagen with 5 days there, so we would sometimes just buy a grocery store beer and head to a park to hang out in the 70 degree sun. The Danes are in the running for the most beautiful people in Europe by some accounts, so lounging on the grass with a beer and watching people and hot air balloons go by filled our afternoons.

Although there weren’t many key sights in Copenhagen, it was a beautiful and fun city just to hang out in in good company. We enjoyed the people, the food ( I had at least 5 Danish danish), the weather and the city. Northern Europe is underrated in my opinion, and this trip inspired me to go to Stockholm for sure later in the year.

Interlaken, Switzerland

Being in the International Business Management Studies Program (IBMS) put me in classes with probably 10% of the exchange students- the rest are in the European Studies program. This gave me a long weekend break at the end of March that many of my companions didn’t have. Since my general travel strategy was to follow the action, I decided to try to catch the end of the ski season in the Swiss Alps alone for a few days. After some research, Interlaken, Switzerland became my destination. It has some of the higher peaks in the Alps (or at least the area) where I hoped to catch some snow. Again, I was plagued with naysayers who told me how expensive Switzerland is and so on, but I booked my flight anyway.

It was exciting to be traveling alone, since I heard it was a totally different experience. I landed in Basel in the north and took a long train ride south towards Interlaken. It’s name is pretty explanatory. This little town of 5,000 is nestled between two lakes with some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen. On the other two sides of the town lie mountains- still snowcapped, to my liking. I didn’t really know what to do in this place, but I had packed my outdoor gear and so I started inquiring at the hostel about hiking and skiing. The first afternoon, I bought some water and chocolate at the super market and headed up an old logging road for an hour or more. I will admit that the groceries were expensive, but a little difficult to compare to Holland because of the Swiss Franc exchanging closer to the dollar.

I learned that in Switzerland, you rent your skis, poles, and boots in the town and then haul them up the mountain with you. You can’t purchase anything on the mountain, not even the lift pass. Even though I was in the German-speaking part of the country (the Swiss don’t have their own language), everyone I spoke with at the hostel, tourist office, and ski shop had great English skills. That evening, I rented my gear and lift pass for the Matterhorn Mountain and got some rest so I could get up early to ski while the snow was still good.

The train ride up through the glacier-cut valley to the mountain was really spectacular. The valley, called Lauterbrunnen, is probably a quarter mile across at some parts and lined by cliffs hundreds of feet high on the sides. In the valley itself, though, there is green grass, waterfalls coming off the cliffs to form little brooks, and picturesque Swiss chalets lining the narrow asphalt road.

My plan for the next day was to hike in the Lautrebrunnen Valley that had so impressed me the day before. Without much idea of what kind of trails it offered, I bought a light lunch outside the Lauterbrunnen train station and set off walking, hoping to find something nice. A small sign led me through someone’s backyard and up the beginning of a path crisscrossing a mountainside. The trail had no name, no length, and no destination, but it said “experienced hikers only”. To make a long story short, my hike turned into about a 6 hour trek during which I encountered only 2 people, a couple of lone houses, a waterfall, and some of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. By the time I made it back down the mountain to the train station, I was really tired but hugely satisfied with my day. I ended the day with a fondue pot, which I learned has Swiss origin. It is about what it seems- melted cheese and bread for somewhere around 24 Euro. Terribly expensive for what you got, but when in Switzerland…

The next day, I had a later flight out from Basel, so I had a half day or so to hike around. I flirted with the idea of kayaking or canoeing on the lakes, which was reasonably cheap, but decided the water was a bit too cold and my time a bit short to bother. I walked around the town, picked up some fine Swiss chocolates, and then waited for my long train ride back out. If any readers are outdoor adventure fans, I can’t recommend any place I know of more than Interlaken. They have skiing (in the Alps!), glacier hiking, and snowshoe hikes in the winter, and skydiving, hanggliding, bungy jumping, canoeing, kayaking, and a strange sport called zorbing in the warmer seasons. Yes, the place is expensive, but it has got it all.

Travelling alone was a different experience, but one I was really glad to have. For this particular trip, it would have been really difficult for me to find someone on exchange who was up for the kind of experience I knew I wanted: sleeping early, getting up early, and going outdoors nonstop for 3 days straight. Sure, I wouldn’t have minded some company for mealtimes and a beer after a long day, but I was really glad that I didn’t let my want for company keep me from this great trip.


St.Patrick’s Day in Dublin was the goal. Unfortunately, it was the goal of lots of other people from around the world, and they planned it out better than I did. There were no hostels in the city that had vacancy for the 3 nights of the weekend, and the ones that had partial vacancy were priced high, even three weeks before the event. After a failed couchsurfing attempt, I posted to “The Hague 2011 Exchange” facebook page to see if anyone else was trying the same thing, and I found that two American girls had already booked a hotel room and would let me crash on the couch (not really crash, I had to pay my third) for the 2 nights they were going to be there. Since I had waited so long to book everything though, I ended up paying 50 euros more for my plane ticket, so that was a mistake that I won’t make again.

As it turned out, our hotel was really something like 7 miles outside of the Dublin center and a little hike from the nearest bus stop. Since Dublin busses only take exact change and the fares are strange (2.40, 2.65, etc.), it ended up being a big and expensive hassle to be that far away and riding the bus back and forth maybe twice a day, not to mention the time spent each way. This is where I learned that, all other things equal, location is the most important factor for me in hostel picking.

The first night we were there was actually St.Patrick’s, so we changed and went immediately to town, arriving around 9. The next hours were spent in the Temple Bar area, which was packed with people, green, decorations, and beer glasses. It was a blast. Dublin really enjoys its major holiday as one big family. It was a comfortable place to be because we could speak the same language to anyone. At the end of the night, we had to take a cab home because the busses weren’t running. The bad location bit us again .

The next day, I saw most of the standard sights of Dublin- Trinity College, the shopping areas, etc. My favorite things by far were the full Irish Breakfast (great after a night of Guinness) and St. Michun’s Church, which I found out about on a youtube video. The place isn’t touristic at all, so you don’t have to pay to check it out. The main attraction is in the cellars, which have the right humidity and temperature to have preserved some mummies all the way back from the Crusades. The most surprising thing was that they will let you go right in among the coffins and touch them! There is a soldier mummy who, if you touch his index finger, will supposedly pass on good luck to you. That off-the-path stop was my favorite.

Fish and chips, a Guinness at Dublin’s oldest pub, and a pub crawl that night basically finished up our time in Dublin. Some Irish guys on the pub crawl were telling us that because Ireland hasn’t had much immigration over the centuries, the culture is still pretty homogenous and that’s why it has the feeling of being a big family. All of the people we met were great and the attitude (at least for that weekend) was that everyone should have a good time. Definitely a holiday worth celebrating at its source.

The next day we had an afternoon flight, so I took a train to a little coastal city called Malahide to see Ireland in a little different light. There are small beaches lining a harbor that is filled with small colorful sailboats. I hung out for a while on the beach even though it was much too cool for sunbathing or swimming.

Back to the airport and on the plane home. The short time we were there, the late booking, and the high cost of partying and entertainment added up quickly to cost me over 200 euros per day, counting the flights and accommodation, but it was a worthwhile splurge.
Dublin was great for me because it was just a really relaxed atmosphere, we could talk with anybody, order familiar food and have a great idea of where to have fun in the city. Although it is a big place, the central area was easy to navigate on foot and all of the main sites of the city can be seen in 2 or 3 days at a leisurely pace.


At the end of February my Dad came to visit me. We spent about 4 or 5 days in the Netherlands and then headed down to Italy for 6 days. First we flew to Rome for 4 days, then the majority of a day on a train to Venice, where we spent one night and flew out at the end of the following day.

In Rome, we saw all of the classic sights including the Coliseum, Palantine Hill, the Vatican, St. Peter’s, and the Pantheon. There isn’t much that I can add to the literature on those places, so I won’t try. We also gorged ourselves on pizza (sold by weight), tiramisu, cannolis and pasta, washed down with chianti or espresso, depending on time of day.

I must say that, so far, Italy has been the country that has most fulfilled the image of Europe placed in my mind from years and years of media. The people talking with their hands flying through the air, relaxing with a glass of wine at any time of day, and drinking their espresso standing up are all perfectly true stereotypes of Italy. The pizza and pasta were fantastic and the entire city is littered with beautiful monuments, statues, and buildings older than our country. If I had to recommend a single city for the classic European experience, I would recommend Rome.

Venice is, well, Venice. We spent only about 24 hours there and that was actually enough for me. The main attraction is the city itself, with no cars, narrow winding alleys, and footbridges every block. Although we visited St. Mark’s Square and the Accademia, my favorite thing to do was just to wander around, pausing every hour or two for a snack, pastry, or drink in the small shops. Cicchetti is a local kind of sampler dish that consists of small open-faced sandwiches with various toppings- I would definitely recommend hunting some down.

A note: Neither Rome nor Venice was as hard on my wallet as many people had made me think it would be. In Rome, we had a delicious 3 course meal at a budget restaurant for 10 euro, and 1 euro gets you 75 minutes of public transportation on any of the city’s busses. In Venice, Dad and I had a large plate of various cicchetti and champagne for something around 10 euros apiece. It was more affordable than the Netherlands!

Travel time

I want to add a tip that took me a while to really learn how to manage. Traveling takes time. A 4 hour train trip, plus finding your way to the start station and from the end station, can easily become 6 hours. Add to that packing up, then getting a map and getting oriented, and settling in at your new destination, plus finding a meal to keep yourself alive, and you have 7 or 8 hours. Most of my 5 day trips became 4 or 4.5 days of actual city time, so that can be a disadvantage of a weekend hop down to Greece or trying to plan a really efficient trip in a particular city.

Safety and Security Abroad

I think one of the major reasons people don’t study abroad, aside from money, is the fear of lacking safety and security while abroad.  You have to keep in mind that while you don’t know the laws or the land, most places you will think of going are safe.  After all, people live there too, so foreign countries can’t be all danger and doom.

Unless you count Hostel, which most of us don’t.

I can’t speak of other countries, but I felt very safe at all times while in Europe.  European culture is very similar to American culture and if you just use common sense, you won’t get into too much trouble.  Europeans are generally favorable toward Americans (except for the French, but they don’t like anybody).  You’ll be warned not to wear labeled clothing from America… that’s pretty useless.  Everything sold in European stores has some type of English or romanticized image of California emblazoned across the chest, so you’ll be fine.

Feel free to ask the tourist desk folks which parts of town to avoid.  They’ll chuckle but will happily cross out the areas you don’t want to travel to.  Guys, keep your wallet in the front pocket.  Girls, keep one hand on the purse at all times.  Buy an under-clothing fanny pack at your local travel store for ten bucks.  Carry plastic, but not too much.  Learn the emergency number… it’s not 911 anymore.  Don’t get too drunk alone (hey, that’s the sign of a problem anyway).

We heard several friend-of-a-friend stories.  I bet they’re mostly legend, but I’ll list a few here:

·         If you wear a purse, make sure it has a wire in the strap.  Word is, thieves will cut it right off your arm otherwise.

·         Ignore children, especially large groups of them.

·         If some woman tries to hand you her {purse, wallet, shopping bag, number, baby}, put your hands in your pocket and let her drop it.

·         Never take photos with both hands, always keep one on the valuables.

We’d all hope this goes without saying, but don’t try to outsmart the street gamblers playing that “which cup is the ball under” game.  Within two minutes, we saw three people lose fifty euro each.  Ouch.

And for the love of God (no, seriously), don’t mess with the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.  Their uniforms may be puffier than a bag of marshmallows, but they will take you down in no time.  I don’t speak from experience.

We had a group of over thirty students travelling through more than seven countries for a total of thirteen days each and nobody had issues.  Be smart and you shouldn’t either.

I Made It!

It’s finally here! The time I’ve been waiting for all semester, came just over a week ago, when I landed at London Heathrow airport, for an experience I hope to never forget.  For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Deep Aggarwal, and I’m a senior here at The University of Louisville.  This summer, I’m studying at The London School of Economics for six weeks, taking International Trade and Monetary Policy, and The Economics of European Integration.  Last week, I travelled through some of the sights in London, and took a little detour to Paris as well.  It was absolutely gorgeous.  It was an interesting experience, however, getting through Paris without knowing very much French.  Coincidentally, however, most of the street vendors, selling water bottles and trinkets happened to be Indian, so we found our way around by talking to them in Punjabi…the key to international travel is being resourceful. You have to take advantage of what you DO know, instead of harping on what you DON’T.  This week was my first week of classes, and it’s been great. While I’ve only had two days of class so far, I can tell already why LSE is so well respected.  My professors know what they’re talking about, and are able to explain complex material in an understandable fashion.  With class, however, means plenty of homework and I’ll be back on here to tell you more in the days to come!