Italy


We boarded a train from Brussels to Bruges on Monday morning (November 24).  Mondays are very bad days for sightseeing in most European countries because most museums and historical sites close.  So we decided to spend that Monday in the quiet town of Bruges, about an hour outside of Brussels.  The whole town is very medieval-feeling, but with some modern twists (like an expensive shopping district).  It was really nice to get out of the big city and go to a quieter, smaller town.  And since not much was open, we just spent our time wandering and enjoying the atmosphere of the city. We went to see the main square, with the famous bell tower (one of the focal points of the movie In Bruges) and a row of charming buildings, one of which we stopped in for some coffee.
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Nearby, there was one attraction still open- the church.  The Basilica of the Holy Blood houses a famous relic.  Visitors from all over the world come to touch a sacred vial that contains a piece of cloth with Jesus’s blood on it.

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The picture didn’t turn out very well since it’s very dim in the church, but that’s me up there with the priest, touching the vial.  It was an interesting experience, even though it’s not proven that it’s the blood of Christ on the cloth.

Our tourist map showed us a brewery in town that did daily tours, so we decided to go check that out, especially since Belgium is pretty well known for beer.  That was really fun, they took us through the whole process and ended the tour on top of the building where we got a great view of the whole town below.

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Bruges was a nice city to see and hang around in for a day.  The buildings were all in a beautiful medieval Gothic style, with picturesque canals winding through parts of the city.  And, of course, there was some great shopping!

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We got really lucky and found a 10 euro flight directly from Bologna to Brussels, so that became our first stop on November break.  It was so nice to fly directly out of Bologna.  Usually, we have to take the bus to the Bologna train station, take a train to Milan, take a bus from the Milan train station to the airport, and then get on a plane.  That way, getting to the airport takes about four hours (sometimes more).  But getting to the Bologna airport requires just one bus, and only takes 20 minutes!  So we arrived in Brussels in the evening, checking in to our hostel sometime around 8pm.  Of course, we were so excited to be there we dropped our bags and went to go see the city.  Our hostel was located in a quiet part of town (it looked like the financial district or something) and as we kept walking we got worried because nothing appeared to be open.  Plus it was very cold outside.  Suddenly we rounded a corner and saw a huge neon sign that said “GAUFRES” (waffles in French) and got super excited.  We had been talking about eating Belgium waffles for almost a month, ever since we decided to go to Brussels, so we of course made a beeline for that cafe.  We later discovered that it had been a bit of a tourist trap because it was quite expensive and the waffles were not that good- we paid 5 euros while you can get one twice as good for 2 euros on the street.  We realized our mistake later, but more than made up for it by eating plenty of really delicious waffles from the street vendors.

The next morning, Catherine and I took it easy and didn’t get up until around 10am.  (Katy and Jenna had woken up at 7am to leave the hostel by 8am so they could sightsee- but I was on vacation and not about to get up that early.)  We ambled through the city and stumbled upon a really cool market where they were selling a lot of used clothing and furniture.  Catherine and I both bought cheap gloves because we were already freezing cold!  Then, because we’re dorks, we went to go see the European Union buildings.  Unfortunately, there’s really not much to see because you can’t go inside or anything.  It’s literally just looking at buildings, but it was cool since we’ve been studying the EU this semester and it’s headquarted in Brussels.

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As planned, we then went to meet the other girls for lunch.  We had chosen the most famous monument in Brussels as our meeting point- the Manneken-Pis statue.

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After being outside all morning, we had to find a place to sit down inside and eat lunch. We sat down at pretty much the first place we found, and it turned out to be really good and reasonably priced.  So we were able to regroup and figure out what our next destination would be.  We decided to check out Grand Platz, since the guidebooks touted it as the most beautiful plaza in Europe.  And it was fairly impressive, with beautifully ornate buildings all around.

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Nearby to the plaza we found another market, where Catherine and I were able to find hats!  We fit right in with the Belgians…..

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Now with our new gloves and hats we were significantly warmer.  We trooped across the city again to the Musees Royaux dex Beaux-Arts, or the really big art museum.  it was the best art museum I’ve ever been to, and I actually had fun walking around and seeing all of the paintings (which is pretty rare for me in art museums).  While we were inside, the snow had really picked up and we walked out to see everything covered in snow, with it still coming down pretty heavily.

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It was so pretty, we went to a nearby park and just enjoyed the evening and the snow for awhile (at least until our feet started getting wet).  It was a really nice way to end our stay in Brussels.

So Katy and I decided a few weekends into October that we needed to take a trip somewhere in Italy.  This was on Wednesday, and that Friday morning we hopped a train north to the beautiful lakes district.  We decided on Lake Como, because it is one of the only lakes that has a hostel.  The whole area is very ritzy- a lot of wealthy people from Milan vacation there and famous people (like George Clooney!) own villas on the lakes as well.

We arrived by train to the town of Como and headed instantly to go see the lake.  It was the perfect getaway because when we went, it was still pretty hot weather in Bologna (in the upper 80s) but on the lakes it was cool, crisp fall weather already.  Actually, in Como we were only about 20 miles from the Swiss border- Katy wanted to walk there, I suggested that we go another time.  The lake view from Como is pretty, but nothing too impressive.

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We spent a bit of time in Como, since all of the tourist destinations are there (a cathedral and a museum dedicated to Alessandro Volta, inventor of the battery, who was born there).  Then we hopped a bus to the town of Menaggio, where our hostel was located.  The bus ride was so beautiful, the road winds right around the lake so you get great views of the water with the mountains (which I think are actually part of the pre-Alps).

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That’s a picture of the hostel that we stayed in.  It was basically right on the water, with its own little private beach right across the road (below is a picture of me there).  Menaggio was a really tiny town, but it was nice and relaxing to be there and just chill out by the water.  Definitely a nice break from Bologna, where you never see any nature at all.

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So because the purpose of this trip was to get out and see some nature, we woke up early on Saturday and headed out on the first ferry to the town of Bellagio.   That was probably my favorite town, we walked all around it and up to the point where the three parts of the lake meet up (the lake is shaped like an upside-down Y and Bellagio is right where it all comes together).

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So from Bellagio, we embarked on a 2-hour hike around the peninsula there.  We saw a villa (but only from the outside) and had our picnic lunch that we had brought with us.

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Then we headed back into town and caught the ferry again to the town of Lenno.   This was the hike we had actually planned to do, up the side of the mountain to the Santuario Madonna del Soccorso.  It was really cool because on the way up there were 14 chapels that had life-size depictions from the life of Mary and Jesus in them.  You couldn’t go inside of them, but you just peeked in the windows.  I really enjoyed it, it was definitely different than anything I’ve seen or done before.  And it was a much harder walk than we thought it would be- really steep and long.  But the view was beautiful when we finally got up there.
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This is us about halfway into the hike.  If you look just above our heads at the tall tower-shaped thing on the side of the hill, that’s the church that we’re walking to.

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Here’s a map of the path up to the church, with all of the little chapels along the way labeled.

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And here we are, finally at the top.  Afterwards, we walked back down into the town and then headed off to hike over to Villa Balbionello, which is beautifully situated on a tiny peninsula.  They have filmed a lot of movies in the gardens there, I think they are some of the most beautiful in the world.  This particular spot might be recognizable to those who have seen the wedding scene at the end of the third Star Wars movie:

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In total, we walked over 12 miles that day.  Needless to say, we were so tired when we finally made it back to the hostel that we just passed out even though it was like 8pm.  On Sunday, we got up and just took the ferry all the way from Menaggio back to Como.  It was a nice recap to sail down the lake past the towns we had seen.  The lake is so beautiful, I’m definitely glad that we chose to go there.

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