Monday, February 29, 2016

Panthers and Unicorns and Snails, Oh My!

These two are the cutest!

Nothing is better or makes me feel more centered than visiting with my family, and luckily for me, my parents have been able to visit every February since I arrived. 

I was incredibly excited for this visit, in part because they'd be staying with me in the city! During their past visits I was living in Opera, which, though a quaint little town to live in, was not very much fun for visitors. It also took about 40-60 minutes on both a tram and a bus to get to the city center (though only about 15  minutes in a car-- if only I had one!), which meant that there was a long trek to get to the train station even before getting on the train for all of their day trips! I loved being able to show off Milan a little more, and to give my parents a more convenient base to explore from. 

On our first weekend together we took the train to Siena. 

The Tower of Eats (Torre del Mangia)
Despite the late hour of our arrival (we didn't get in until the afternoon), and the fact that most shops were closed all weekend, I completely loved the city. 

The more time I spend in Europe, the more history fascinates me. Medieval architecture has the power to transport you back in time, giving you the smallest glimpse into what it may have been to live hundreds of years ago. Siena maintains a Gothic feel, with it's street-plan dating back to the15th century. Towards the center of the city is the Piazza del Campo, with the Torre del Mangia as it's focal point. My Italian is by no means stellar, but I'm pretty sure that translates to "Tower of Eats." That's my kind of tower! 

It was fascinating trying to remember what all of the Roman numerals on each building stood for; the tower dates back to the early 1300s, but it was super funny to see buildings and fountains with dates in the 1980s. I love thinking that someday a future-family would float by with their jetpacks and consider what life might be like way back when in 1982! I wish the photo showed this better, but a particularly striking feature of the the plaza was how it was sloped. It was established as a marketplace even before the tower was built (sometime before the 1200s), but wasn't paved until the 1300s. The entire plaza slopes downwards towards a point right in front of the tower and the Palazzo Pubblico, which made it a little nerve-wracking to walk in on the rainy, slippery weather. 

Siena's beautiful Duomo! While the facade reminded me of Milan's Duomo, the striped marble was more like Genoa's. Please feel free to refer to me is Ted Mosby, architecture snoot. 

A boy playing with Barberi
For a while, all of the incredible Medieval cities I saw reminded me of the movie Ever After, but lately it's been Romeo and Juliet (the one with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, not Leo and Claire). Siena was the epitome of this not only due to the city's layout, but also the history of rival clans. Though it is a small city, it is divided into 17 districts. Historically, each district was home to those of a specific occupation. For example, tanners lived in the snail district (Chiocciola), while while bankers lived in the dragon district (Drago).  

Originally there were many more, as well as a military association, but over the years the number of districts dwindled down, and they became more about patriotism and traditions than military. Each district (or contrada) has it's own flag, patron saint, motto, symbol, and animal. Important life events and festivals are celebrated within each district, and they still come together to compete at the Palio di Siena, a biannual horse race held in the Piazza del Campo. You can find the symbols all over the city; the different animals are proudly featured on fountains and statues, as well as souvenirs with each district's symbol. There was a statue I liked that I didn't realize until later was about the Palio and the districts: Barberi. One of the first games children from Siena play is with a bag of small wooden balls called barber. Each of the 17 balls is painted with colors and symbols to represent each district, and children race create courses to race them through like the horses race through the Palio. In this way, they come to recognize each of the contrade.  

Lupa (She-Wolf)
"Et urbis et senarum signum et decus"
"The arms of Rome, the honor of Siena"
Leocorno (Unicorn)
"Humberti regio gratia"
"A kingdom by the grace of Umberto"

Pantera (Panther)
"Il mio slancio ogni ostacolo abbatte. La pantera ruggì e il popolo si scosse."
"My momentum breaks down every obstacle. The panther roared and the people stirred."

I mentioned that most shops were closed for some reason...

(Off season? Carnivale? Weekend? Who knows!), but I can't close this post without mentioning one of the cutest souvenir shops I've ever been in. Though chock-full of tokens to remember Siena by, it can hardly be called a souvenir shop, but instead an art shop. As my parents and I happily looked through the store's lovely offerings, the sweet man who stood behind the counter told us that everything in the shop was made by him, his wife, and his son- truly a family business. 

I left with two beautiful blue espresso cups and saucers to use with my fabulous new espresso machine! I'm going to be SO Italian by the time I leave!

Each is decorated with a different contrada's
symbols and colors
Ceramiche S. Caterina- if you're ever in Siena,
 you've gotta go!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Night at the Billionaire's Club (and other experiences in Sardinia)

I've never been one to lay around on a beach. Growing up with summers at Lake Wallkill, going to the beach meant building intense sand neighborhoods and sand factories (yes, factories), swim races, trying to gather the courage to dive off the high diving board, and swimming to the raft where we'd play human bowling before the lifeguards yelled to stop. It never, ever meant laying out. Ever. I thought it seemed like the most boring way to spend a day, but was proved wrong this summer in Sardinia. 

Sardinia (Sardegna in Italian) is a large island in the Mediterranean Sea. Odaliz and I flew into Olbia to meet Ali and Laura, and spent the night in the tiny town before renting a car and driving south to Villasimius. Yes, I drove in Italy! It wasn't even that scary! Our hotel was lovely, with a pool and live music each night, as well as a private beach. 

We spent few incredibly relaxing days,  and then drove back north to Porto Cervo. After finding pictures online of Zac Efron, Rhianna, and Heidi Klum hanging out in the sunny city, we were a little surprised to find... no one. Apparently we were there about a month and a half before the crowds arrived, which makes sense. August is the holiday month in Italy, and we were there in June. Regardless, it was incredible.

We booked ourselves a boat tour for one of our days in town. 

The only other boat tour I've been on was in Santorini, and this was a very different experience. On one hand, it wasn't nearly as luxurious. In Greece, we were laid out on the dock of a gorgeous yacht with plenty of places to relax both inside and outside, and served a delicious multi-course meal as we sailed around the islands. In Sardinia the experience was much more about the stops we made than the boat itself. The lower level of the boat reminded me of an elementary school cafeteria, with long tables and rows of chairs. Upstairs was similar, but with the added bonus of sunshine and views. For a while we were followed by a flock of seagulls (ha), lured by the dummies who kept on feeding them. One woman gave me a dirty look when I gasped as her husband smacked one of the birds he was luring with his sandwich, but then the bird pooped on her and all was well. Karma :)

Attack of the birds!

The boat stopped at a number of towns and beaches, giving us a chance to explore nearby islands. 

My favorite stops were Spargi, Santa Maria, and Maddalena. Spargi was like a little nook of heaven wedged in between giant rocks with white sand and turquoise water. In Santa Maria, another beach, the water was much colder, but striped turquoise and navy blue. Boats and yachts were anchored close enough for us to swim to. Both beaches had such incredible natural, unmarred beauty. This is because the Maddalena Archipelago is protected from industry as a National Park. 

La Maddalena is the main island of the archipelago, and was a fun to walk around for an hour. 

It was busier than where we were staying in Porto Cervo, and reminded me of Bellagio. One of my favorite stops was an incredible shop filled with beautiful shell jewelry and decorations. It was amazing; everything was iridescent and stunning. Unfortunately, they did not allow pictures, which makes sense- it preserves the specialness and uniqueness of the place!

We spent most days alternating between relaxing on the beach and wandering little shops. Sardinia is known for many gorgeous products, including coral, cork, rugs, and jewelry. The jewelry pattern I found myself drawn to was a woven filigree pattern with a small coral stone in the center. They're modeled after baskets and a symbol for longevity and prosperity. I also was completely in love with the gorgeous weavings around the city. The weaving tradition in Sardinia is strong, and passed down from generation to generation. The patterns of the rugs and pillowcases at our hotel were incredible; I ended up finding the most wonderful blue rug for my kitchen. A few months later at Rho Fiera in Milan, I found Sardinian pillow cases and bought two white ones- I love feathering my international little nest!

A post about Porto Cervo cannot go without comment on the nightlife. 

I've already mentioned that my friends and I came across lots of celebrity pictures while researching Porto Cervo. While most are of the rich and beautiful sailing around on their yachts, many were also at an exclusive club called "The Billionaire's Club." Press coverage of the club included accounts of Jay Z and Beyonce partying there, along with Paris Hilton, Anne Hathaway, Leonardo DiCaprio, etc. We even read about Bruce Willis being kicked out for not taking a picture with the owner's (Flavio Briatore) girlfriend! So that said, chances of us getting in there were slim. You pretty much needed to be a supermodel, heiress, or a Russian billionaire. Anyways, we got in... We were gobbling up some delicious burgers in town, and our waiter mentioned he knew one of the bouncers. The bouncer put us on his list, and in we went! It was crazy! By far the best part was people watching. There was this roped off area full of people that I can only describe as peacocks: beautiful and eager to show off. They were dressed in all designer clothes, skintight dresses or jumpsuits for the women, suits for the men, with perfect hair and makeup. A number of times throughout the night, a parade of waitresses would part the crowd, carrying sparklers and hundreds of bottles of Dom Peringon with glowing green labels into the roped off section. The people were drinking it like it was water- straight out of the bottle, and seriously, hundreds of bottles of it. Needless to say, we were on the outside of the ropes, as we were neither models nor heiresses. Still, it was fascinating to see how the other side parties!

On our last night, we went somewhere I liked much better- Phi Beach! 

On our first night in Porto Cervo, another waiter mentioned to us that it was the best place in town, but we didn't make it until our last night. He had said that it was a casual place to have a drink, which I guess it was compared to  the Billionaire's Club. Honestly though, it was anything but casual. The whole lounge was outside, starting with a woman who waved us down the path, asking if we wanted to test drive some fancy car that night. There was loud music, a big outdoor bar, movies playing on the side of a building in time to the music, and best of all, an incredible pink sunset. It was set up right along the water, and I will never forget the awe I felt being surrounded by such beauty and positive energy. 

Sardinia has left it's mark on my soul, as well as my skin; the sun there is intensely hot, and I made the mistake of putting on sunscreen one day while sitting down. DONT DO THAT! You will miss a giant part of yourself while sitting, and, like me, still have a bathing suit line etched into your skin months later. I guess that's just another souvenir though!