I remember my first arrival in Venice. The boat was shaking and so were we. Although winters in Italy are usually a pleasant thing, La Serenissima (the most serene of all cities) is often piereced by cold currents which can cut to the bone.
I remeber everyone who had already been there had completely conflicting stories of what the city is like:
“Oh, it’s overrated. And the channels smell so bad”
“It is the best city in the world: never seen anything quite like the Carnival”
So which one was it? Well, for me it was love at first sight. It can be a bit claustrophobic if you get phased by large crowds but as soon as you take a random street in the opposite direction of Rialto and San Marco you will soon discover the real charm of the city. As an art history buff I don’t underestimate Venice’s most famous spots, but trust me: its real appeal is away from the crowds.
Grab a gelato and choose the smallest, emptiest street you can find. Getting lost in Venice is a travelling delight and trust me: sooner or later you will reach the central spots again.
It’s been a long (and not always easy) year, but upon looking back: all the though moments were worth it. And thankfully: there have been a lot of positive experiences together with friends and family to fill the year with some great vibes. Here are the best things about my Year in Travel:
The Inception of Redhead Explorer
I’ve been sharing photos and travel stories in other places for quite a while but this year I realized that the pleasure I get from travelling and the milleage across Bulgaria and abroad are big enough to have their own place under the (online) sun. There is still a looot of work left, but the blog has been my chief creative outlet and source of positive emotions this year.
All over Bulgaria
It will be hard to list all places we’ve seen, so I will just drop here my list of the Top 5 Bulgarian destinations for 2016: from the lakes of Dospat and Belmaken to the amazing Belogradchik Rocks.
First time in Italy together
Stef and I have travelled all over the place together, but we still had not visited Italy until this year, which is a shame because it is a country way too dear to my heart. We managed to visit Bologna, Florence, Rimini, Imola, Scarperia/Mugello, had one of the most memorable walks & talks ever in the Boboli gardens and had the best street food near one of my favourite museums the Uffizi. Stef visited the monument of one of his all time heroes Ayrton Senna and we saw Valentino Rossi on his trademark circuit Mugello.And we captured (a cliched) but truly beautiful full moon over Ponte Vechhio which felt like living in a painting or a postcard
Paragliding over Sopot
My mom was so thrilled to learn I was about to jump from a cliff with a paragliding instuctor…. After I forgot to call her for an hour after landing she was even more thrilled :)) (Read more)
Visiting Valencia again + best friends
Renting bikes for a trip to the beach, eating paella, trying the best Argentinian steaks and enjoying a Spanish version of La Dolce Vita together + 3 best friends= great experience
Wedding in the remote mountains
No words can describe this event, so I won’t even try :))
Visiting the Rila Monastery during the Summer School in Cognitive Science
It is so great to spend time with people who are not only fun and friendly but also incredibly smart and have all these obscure, geeky interests. I’ve seen the Monastery a zillion times but the company on this trip was a whole new story. I also discovered that somehow magically I can translate from Portuguese into English just by finding the similiraties between Portugues and Italian words!
Wonderful food, crystal clear water : Greece is always a summer delight. This year it also provided some extra thrills for us as a huge storm welcomed us on the highway on the way back and almost turned over the bike! I’ve never been through anything like this and I hope I will never experience it again. Chills and thrills all over
Meeting Isabella Shopova in person
I am a big fan of Isabella Shopova: a Bulgarian travel-blogger-turned-book-author who has spent years living in New Zealand and Australia. I have all her books and I just love her writing style: light, funny and in the same time: informing you in depth about the history and nature of the places she visits. In person she is exactly what she is like in her books: witty, intelligent, full of humor, self-irony and remarkable bravery. Lovely and inspiring woman, who presented her new book dedicated to a trip to the Bulgarian Antarctic Base!
When I grow up I would like to be like her 🙂 ❤
Did I mention her ultimate destination is Mars? Definitely my type of woman!
We are only a few weeks into the semester but it is starting to feel like I’ve been here for months. You know this feeling of time-wrapping when so many new things are happening that time seems to stretch like a happy lazy cat? Because it is dense with events, not because you are bored and the days are dragging…
So here we are with the other Erasmus students: taking our first Italian lessons and enjoying the beauty of the language and the unfortunate equivalents of its words in other languages. Like curva (curve, turn), which makes the entire Polish-Bulgarian section of the room go out of control when giving directions…
Anyway. We are like restless children, trapped in a room, while the playground is waiting for us outside…
Somebody passes an idea around: let’s go to Rome! Not tomorrow, not next week, not sometime…Now! Right after classes: run to catch the train, travel for a few hours (between 4 and 6 depending on the price of the ticket), arrive at the eternal city and explore it all night long! Crazy idea. Of course we are doing it.
The very very Blond Explorer times
Dance outside with Justynka…
Dance inside with Kaan… Just dance
The distance of 250km (between Macerata and Rome) should take about 3 hours by car and slightly more with the fastest trains, but even with the student discount it is more affordable to opt for a slower train. Anyway, we have tons of things to talk, joke and laugh about. And there is also some white wine and a special dance program with Michael Jackson impersonations by our very own Mr. Cengiz Kaan (yup, that’s his name! :)).
We arrive in Rome in the evening and it is true: you never visit the same city twice. The people with you, the mood their bring in, the improvisation born out of the interaction of a several teens and a few twenty-somethings show me the city in a completely new light compared to the last time I was here.
I remember it as a vast, endless place of curiosities, amazing architecture and sculptures and it doesn’t fail to make me fall in love with it again. Only this time it feels like it is much smaller: we literally walk around it all night and effortlessly manage to see many of its trademark places like:
If you have been throwing quick glances at that Erasmus exchange announcement at the university and been wondering: “Should I do that? Is it worth it? Should I leave the comfort of my life for a few months in a completely foreign environment and people? Would these classes even be recognized when I come back? Would I feel OK in a completely new and unknown environment?”…
I know exactly how you feel. In fact before leaving (I had my Erasmus a few years ago) I hesitated for quite a bit: I was in the middle of my Master’s degree, I already had a job , etc. You know, all these comfort zone strings which one usually gets attached to. Or attached by.
The truth is: the answer to all of the above questions about leaving is “Yes! You should give it a try!”. Yes, at some point you will be waaaay out of your comfort zone (and it is easy to go out of line, too, if you don’t have a steady head on your shoulders) but this is one of the best ways to:gain international experience among other interesting young people…learn a new language…meet wonderful new people (some of which might turn into really long-term friends)…get a refreshing crash course on culture shock…discover new sides of yourself...see a different educational system…pick up new habits and hobbies, explore new fields…and of course: have a lot of fun.
And if you are planning to study or live abroad in the future: Erasmus is an excellent Bootcamp to see how well you cope on your own, how quickly you adapt to a foreign culture and how well you can do on a more or less tight (scholarship) budget.
Some people will tell you Erasmus is all about drinking, partying and no studying at all. The truth is: Erasmus is what You make it. If you want to party, there are unlimited options for that, but your experience is limited to what you choose for yourself. In the end: your own interests, habits and character will ultimately determine the balance between fun, work, exploration, studying, rest, etc. And by all means: you will meet other people who share the same interests.
Reasons to choose Macerata:
If I can go back and choose another country for my Erasmus exchange I would pick…Italy. Again. As any country, sometimes it can also offer some infuriating things but overall Italy is the perfect place to spend your Erasmus exchange. I don’t need to advertise the amazing history, culture, food and language: they are trademark dreamy features of Italy which will be explored in detail in the Bella Italia series. When it comes to Erasmus, however, I can only share my impressions from the lovely Medieval town of Macerata in the Marche province:
1. A great travel starting point right next to Tuscany
Macerata is part of the beautiful Marche region, situated to the East of Tuscany and South of Emilia Romagna. It is like a well kept Italian secret: not overly famous outside of Italy but with an incredible charm, rich history and breathtaking sceneries.
Macerata is only a few hours away from low cost hubs of Ryanair like Ancona, Pescara, Perugia, etc. which offer easy and affordable opportunities for trips to other countries for a long weekend or for the winter holiday.
2. One of the oldest universities in the world!
Universita degli studi di Macerata was founded in 1290: preceded only by academic landmarks like the Universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. As one of the oldest universities in Italy and in the world, it has century old traditions with a strong emphasis on the humanities.
3. A great spot to practice “Trainjogging”
Our favourite sport with the Erasmus crew was running like crazy to catch our train to neighbouring cities on Saturday morning (known in Erasmus lingo as “trainjogging”). There is nothing more refreshing in the morning than running late and taking your phone out to call your friends…just to turn around the corner and see that they are also late and running like crazy to the train station in front…
Unless you are an extremely punctual person: after you spent some time in Italy with the locals (and with Spanish people) you will see how your punctuality starts to wane off, as your chillout-ness and dolce vita hunger for exploration skyrockets.
The Italian railway system is a great thing to have around when you are on student exchange: it is a fast and relatively cheap way to see both small and obscure little cities and big tourist landmarks across Italy (Read more in: A night trip to Rome).
4. Old city for young people
This area has been a Roman settlement since III century BC and there is a distinct charm to the small size and the old, medieval fortress layout of the city. Despite this, the streets, cafes and venues are full with young people: locals and residents of cities who came for their studies. And Erasmus students, of course.
Of course, everything in life depends on your own taste and preferences and if you are used to the buzz of big cities with millions of people, Macerata and its population of 43K might be too small and tedious. For me it wasn’t. I’ve had my fair share of noisy cities with 1M+ inhabitants so I was more than happy to spend time in a cosy, quiet Italian town.
Also despite its small size: there were several dance clubs, 1 rock bar, 1-2 venues for undeground music, several big parks for hanging out in the sun, nice bars offering aperitivo and for the nerds like me: many bookstores, several lovely large libraries, theatre/opera house, many art exhibitions, poetry reading events, etc. This is a much more vibrant cultural life than a city of similar size in Bulgaria can offer and frankly it was very refreshing to enjoy La dolce vita in such a relaxed, cosy and charming place.
5. The Erasmus family
I’ve talked to people who spent their Erasmus in bigger cities like Milan for example and their experience was completely different. Getting scattered across the big city dilutes the group, so to say.
Macerata, on the other hand, is quite small so you form something like a big Erasmus (extended) family and meet most of the other international students on a regular basis: in your classes, for parties and get-togethers, during casual walks on the street…literally all the time!
6. Meet all the Polish people!
If you haven’t been in touch with a lot of Polish people, please correct this mistake as soon as possible. Poles are some of the warmest, friendliest and most welcoming people around and apparently a lot of Polish universities have contracts with University of Macerata, because in terms of numbers they were perhaps the largest group after the Spaniards.
Poles always come with jokes, great (home made) food, a lot of positive energy and (if you are a fan of this drink) vodka in more flavours that you have ever imagined.
7. The local atmosphere and attitude to life
We all know the stereotypical Italian things: like the wild gestures during talking, the interest in beautiful women, the taste in everything beautiful, the emotionality, the fantastic food…But once you get to know the culture there is so much more. I was surprised to see how many unexpectedly common things we have with Italians and also how different are other aspects of life.
It’s a place of paradoxes: Very chill and nonchalant and in the same time very passionate and determined. Very hip and modern, but also in a sense very conservative and traditional. Very focused on superficial looks but also with deep interest in culture and intellectual endeavours. Very open to party lifestyle and also very homely, very devoted to family life and values. Very noisy and wild and then: very proper and well mannered…
Perhaps the perfect example to describe it were our downstairs neighbours who would be having loud screaming fights in the morning and then send each other with a kiss to work Ciao, Amore! 🙂
8. Enjoy la Dolce vita – the way you understand it
Italians know how to live a good life, enjoy their free time and have fun, but if you want to study or work hard: you have all the perfect conditions for it as well.
A typical day of mine in Macerata would start early at the lecture hall or at the library (my second semester was focused on individual research), then a light lunch/picknick outside with a friend, some more work and chores in the afternoon, aperitivo with a glass of wine and nice snacks, going to the theater/concert/movie club night/theme party until late in the evening (early in the morning) and then a few hours later: again at the library.
If you want it to be all party and fun- it can be. If you want it to be fun and work- it can be that as well. The place offers the perfect conditions to go either way: depending on your own preferences and needs.
9. Save money for travelling thanks to the affordable rent
Since it is a smaller city, rents can be quite affordable: especially if you team up with other Erasmus students or find locals to share an apartment with. I lived in a huge 5 bedroom apartment with 4 other people, 2 bathrooms, kitchen and several balconies in a nice new building and the rent for my room was equivalent to what I was paying for my old room in Sofia!
You also save money on visits to the gym! Macerata has one of those medieval layouts: with the center situated high up on a hill with hundreds of steps and many steep streets which can boost your cardio (and your desperation) to new cosmic levels.
There are good online listings for Macerata rentals, so book a room in advance or shortlist several places and take a look at them in person when you arrive | Tip: not all rooms are listed online so you can browse the city and look around for Affitasi signs (“for rent”).
My honest advice: sometimes landlords would change their mind in the last minute, so always have a plan B! Even if you have agreed upon renting a place, keep an eye on hostels and hotels (avoid Hotel Ricci, I heard people had issues with bed bugs there) and try to find a reliable person for contact there in case you need to find an alternative place to stay.
Even though my prospective landlord decided not to lend his apartment in the last minute and I had a rough start on arrival with the really unhelpful person who welcomed me as a replacement of another Erasmus buddy (I guess some people just volunteer because they want the credits, not because they are really organized and good at helping others), I found the best apartment just a day after that so I guess the best Erasmus advice is: Stay calm. Rely on yourself. Plan ahead and let nothing and no one discourage you 🙂
10. Learn Italian!
You know that expression about turning setbacks into comebacks? Well this is the best way to describe the language situation in Italy. I come from a place where more or less every second young person speaks decent to good English and it was a shock for me to realize that learning Italian isn’t just a cool option: it is an absolute must.
Without exaggeration: the only people I talked to in English were the other Erasmus students and the professors at the university. I even had to take an entire class of Ethics and economics only in Italian: it was offered as a course in English, but the other students said they prefer to have it in their native language. More than half of my roommates were Italian as well, so even at home I had to walk around with a dictionary and handle awkward conversations until I get my vocabulary straight.
Nevertheless, from a linguistic point of view it is perfect to be in such an environment and have a 24/7 exposure! One of the reasons why my German never got truly fluent is that German people are so good in English that whenever you forget a word you just switch to the language you know and it’s done.
In Italy you have to fight: you have to work your way through mastering some level of the language in order to have a meaningful conversation. It is hard and a bit frustrating in the beginning but the reward is worth it: speaking and understanding one of the most beautiful languages on Earth.
Macerata on the map
✓ Master programs usually offer the last semester free of lectures and focused on research, so doing your Erasmus in the third semester is a great option because if you enjoy it: you might as well stay for an additional term (on your own expenses)
✓ If you haven’t studied Italian before: don’t worry. There is a special language crash course for Erasmus students which is quite nice. However, be careful when choosing lectures: not everything listed as a course in English on the University of Macerata website ends up taught in English. On the other hand: professors are really nice and helpful and even if your classmates want to have the auditory course only in Italian: you can negotiate for homework assignments, exams and other things to be in English. If you have doubts: just sent an email to the professors of the courses you are interested in.
✓Prepare your own backup budget: your Erasmus scholarship will come almost as an reimbursement, not a real-time monthly payment. Sometimes it takes just a month, other times: you get it towards the very end of the semester. Depends on your home country and school but plan for that in advance.
✓Budgets are allocated annually and there might be great differences from year to year depending on how many people are going on exchange and your monthly money may vary greatly (there are lucky ones who get over 600EUR per month: a nice sum for a small town like Macerata)
✓Apartment rents in Italy usually start with 1 to 2 advance payments (most people on Erasmus had to leave them with the landlord, who claimed to be “covering extra costs”, so don’t get your hopes up for getting all the advance payment at the end of your stay). Also: most rents don’t include bollette (consumption of electricity, water, etc.), building cleaning fees, etc. Some rents include hot water and central heating but check with the landlord for details.
✓ Travel as much as you can to as many places as you can. Don’t make the mistake of forsaking travel plans because of getting homesick: your friends and family love you and will be there for you. Invite them to come visit you: they will be happy to see where you live, how you are coping, etc. Don’t underestimate the time you spend on Erasmus: everything is so intense that you feel like you have been there for much longer than a few months. So it is a great reality check to have a close friend or family member come and help you bridge your old life and your new current state.
✓Think hard and be very very honest with yourself if you are planning on doing long-distance. I saw countless relationships fall apart during Erasmus (and very few which remained strong) on both sides: those who were on exchange and those who were “waiting” for them. I am not going to sugarcoat it: only exceptionally devoted, stable, mature couples who truly know what they want survive this test. If you have any doubts about yours: be brutally honest and move on. You only have a few months with these wonderful new people that you are going to meet: it is better to dedicate all your (positive) energy to them instead of beating yourself up for not being somewhere else. Trust me on that.
If you have any questions about being on Erasmus, what it feels like to live in Macerata and study at its university: feel free to leave me a comment here or ask on Facebook.
Returning to Italy after several years away was a truly thrilling experience. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss a country until you go back there and all memories start rushing in. I had passed through Bologna dozens of times, but never roamed across the city so the trip felt both familiar and completely new.
So what should you know about .Bologna? It is the home of the oldest university in the world (founded in 1088) and apart from its long-term inhabitants, it also attracts a lot of students from all over Italy and Europe in a mixture of old and new, of tradition and novelty.
As any city in Italy: it offers a lot of beauty and charm to the casual visitor and if you are into history and culture: the Etruscan and Roman roots of Bologna, its medieval importance and the Dolce Vita charm definitely make it a place worth visiting. Although it is the 7th most populous city in Italy, its historical centre is compact and cosy and everything is within a walking distance. Here are some tips how to enjoy your stay there:
On May 1st, 1994 Ayrton Senna – one of the all time legends of Formula 1- tragically died on the Imola racing track in Italy. I was too young to remember when it happened, but my boyfriend (as men usually do) is really into sports and clearly recalls where he was and how he learned about it. He is a very big fan of Senna so on our trip to Bologna, Imola was part of the Must-see list.
The small Italian town, which hosts one of the most (in)famous racing tracks is just a 30 minute train ride away from Bologna Centrale (train tickets vary depending on the type of train and the most “busy hours” but tickets should be around 6 EUR in one direction).
The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari is about a 20min away from the train station across the bridge over river Santerno: a pleasant walk across the Imola city center and its outskirts filled with lovely Villas and cosy gardens.
There are many signs on the road which make it quite easy to find: you pretty much take Viale Andrea Costa from the train station and continue straight as the street merges into Via Appia, which takes you to the bridge across the river from where you can clearly see the park.
You cross a small underpass with beautiful graffitti drawings and from there you just follow the many signs and small maps showing the way to the Ayrton Senna monument. Some 10-15 minutes into the park there is a statue build close to the fatal turn where he lost his life.
It is a very emotional place: the whole area around the monument is covered with flowers, flags, t-shirts, photos, posters, hats, etc with the name and face of Senna and handwritten notes by his fans, saying he will stay forever in their hearts.
Coming back from Italy is always accompanied by a wave of nostalgia. It is hard to depart from its beauty and the unbearable lightness of being, which engulfs you: piazza after piazza, masterpiece after masterpiece.