Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
The great American poet Walt Whitman must have surely been inspired by AEGEE when writing these timeless words. For our light-hearted members, the world is really before them, leading them wherever they choose. This time the open road took us to Florence for a cultural exchange with our fellow antenna, AEGEE-Firenze.
Getting lost in Venice
Our first destination was Venice where we decided to stay for two days prior to reaching our main destination, Florence. After a slight moment of anxiety we had experienced because of certain confusion with train tickets, we finally greeted the city of hauntingly beautiful canals and floating gondolas with a ciao (by the way, did you know that this greeting comes from the Venetian dialect with the literal meaning of I am your slave?).
A glimpse into our adventures in Venice, the city which bewitched us with its narrow streets, vibrant markets and glimmering canals
The time spent in this gorgeous corner of the earth went by almost with the blink of an eye, yet was full of so much discovery and excitement. In those two days, we assiduously explored many of the hidden corners of Venice, encountering its innumerable bridges, canals and narrow streets with persistent dead ends. At times, it all felt like being in a royal labyrinth, in which the exit always seems to be just around the next corner but it never is – instead you meet with another dead end, the latter being either a wall or a canal. At moments such as these, we felt like true Gothic heroines surrounded by the dark, the windows of the buildings looking at us with their ominous hollow eyes just as narrow as the streets themselves. But fortunately ours is not a tale of terror but of joy, so such explorations were always full of fun moments and laughter, each dead end igniting a more adventurous spirit inside of us that left no room for frustration. Having additionally caught a glimpse of the famous Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, gondoliers, Venetian masks, bright-coloured vegetable markets, and so much more, it was time to move on to our next destination – Florence.
Discovering the secrets of Florence
On the morning of 18 November, we embarked on a journey to Florence, taking an almost four-hour bus ride from Venice to Florence. Having reached our destination, we were welcomed by a warm gust of wind unimaginable on the Estonian soil in November. The atmosphere around us was truly magical, the light enchantingly playing with colour contrasts and the air almost dancing with glorious joy – an aura very unique to Italy. In this charming autumnal evening atmosphere, we had our first meal in Florence – curiously huge richly-filled sandwiches that would do for several meals. Later on, after exploring the city and settling at the place of our welcoming Italian hosts, we had an European Night (an AEGEE international event where the typical food of each country is served). We had the opportunity to try various Italian specialties such as pizza, different types of meat, limoncello, and more; the Italians could taste, among other things, the Estonian black bread, Kalev chocolate and Vana Tallinn liqueur. If you ever have to introduce Estonian treats to foreigners, we definitely recommend our potato waffles and white chocolate with blueberries – these were real hits! Throughout the night, we also had the chance to discuss various matters, one of the most interesting of which was the difference between nations. To give you an example, it turned out that Estonians and Italians sense colours rather differently. There was a little experiment concerning the amount of blonde people among AEGEE-Tartu members. The results were the following: for the Estonians, there were barely two blonde people while for some Italians the number could be as much as five out of six!
Huge Florentine sandwiches that would merit the title of a giant
The next morning, we were welcomed by a fusion of Italian-Estonian breakfast, including the true Estonian black bread as well as Italian sweets. It was a perfect prelude to the city tour of Florence that was to follow. Our guide, a fellow member of AEGEE-Firenze, led us through the city with admirable diligence, showing us different notable places accompanied by really interesting facts that enabled us to discover the secrets of Florence.
For instance, did you know…
- … the decorations of the Duomo are unfinished? Baccio d’Agnolo started a project back in the 1500s, according to which there should have been a balcony surrounding the dome in its entirety. However, after one panel was finished, Michelangelo was not too pleased with it, stating that “it looks like a cricket cage”. After such outright criticism, the initial design was abandoned.
- … there are little wine windows (buchette del vino) spread around the city of Florence? They date back to the 16th century when people could simply knock on the little wooden shutters and ask their bottles to be filled with wine through this window.
- On the square in front of the church named Santa Croce, four teams from different parts of the city come together to play a rather brutal form of football (a combination of soccer, rugby and wrestling)? It originates from the 16th century and is still played today. In order to recreate the historical air of the game, nowadays the square is specifically covered in dirt, and the players wear historical costumes.
- … the river Arno has risen dangerously high a number of times, covering everything in mud?
Fortunately, during our stay the Arno could keep itself calm and collected without turning ferocious. We were affected, however, by the rain that kept pouring down incessantly. While it would have been a tremendous drawback at any other time, the day was full of so much excitement that we defied it without problems. In addition to a most interesting tour, we got to treat ourselves with various Italian specialties – pizza, cannoli, cassata, gelato, etc. A small recommendation: the pistachio flavour in an Italian gelateria is to die for.
Our crew enjoying Florence in all its glory – its lovely people, exceptional food, magnificent architecture and art made it an experience of a lifetime
The following day was yet another one packed with exciting events. The first half of the day was spent in the Uffizi Gallery, a place of some of the most marvellous masterpieces ever created: Caravaggio’s “Medusa”, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation” and, perhaps most importantly, Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. After that, there was a really thrilling event organised by AEGEE-Firenze: City Quest. For that, we had to create mixed groups that included both the Italians and Estonians – this was a great opportunity to get to know more amazing people. Together we had to find different sights in Florence, with which we had to take a selfie. Finding as well as capturing them, however, required quite some creativity. The head of Berta, for example, was built in the highest parts of a building. Imagine fitting four people and a figure hidden somewhere in a high wall into one selfie! But this is precisely what made this event so entertaining. Right after that there was a presentation on Italy and its characteristics. Among other intriguing facts, we were taught typical linguistic expressions in Italian, different hand gestures (a whole sign language, especially when presented by a Sicilian) and which sauce goes with which pasta (a real science on its own!). One of the most important lessons that we learned was that if, as a foreigner, for some food-related mistakes you might be forgiven, then for putting pineapple on pizza you would be banished for life – it is a true crime in the eyes of the Italians!
Now that the official part of the cultural exchange was over, we had free time to explore Florence and its surroundings on our own. One of our definite goals was to hike in the mountains. Although for us, the Estonians, the Big Egg Mountain is a source of national pride as the highest peak in all the Baltic states, in Italy 318 metres simply does not count as a mountain, whatever way you look at it. Even the Fiesole region which was recommended to us is not so greatly mountainous for Italians who take the Alps as their standard. For us, however, if you can already discern the shape of a mountain (which you can’t do in Estonia), then it is a mountain indeed, or at least a great hill. This was most certainly possible in Fiesole where the view was breathtaking: the clouds hung low, scudding across the sky in a seeming rivalry with the sun, both trying to pierce the souls of the evergreen hills that reached up to meet them halfway in restless anticipation. We, too, were pierced by the beauty of it all, the little cobblestone streets and mysterious narrow stairs between pastel-coloured houses taking us further higher to admire the awe-inspiring scenery of Renaissance-styled villas and ancient hilltops. Later on, when we took one of the recommended hiking roads leading directly into the soul of the hills covered in beautiful harmless greenery, we found ourselves in the middle of a fairytale-like forest, an enchanted place where you would expect to find magical creatures such as fairies and giants – very similar to the Estonian forest atmosphere. What was certainly different from Estonia, however, was the incessant rise and fall of the hilly landscape that is not even comparable to the ups and downs of the Southern Estonia region. After such a hike, going to a university building up the Lossi street certainly doesn’t seem so challenging any longer! However, the effort was well worth it since hiking and having a little picnic in such magical surroundings is something that can never be forgotten.
Such were the breathtaking surroundings of Fiesole that charmed us completely with its scenery
On our way back to the wintry Estonia
On our way back home, our hearts are filled with sadness but also undeniable gratefulness and warmth for all the lovely memories and experiences gained during this trip. Wandering on the narrow streets of Venice, exploring the secrets of Florence with locals, admiring the breathtaking view of the mountains, discussions and laughs with the loveliest people – all of these memories flood back to our mind like a hurricane, one which destructs your earlier sense of self and replaces it with a flood of new memories that form the foundation of a reformed self. Looking back at everything I feel safe to say that the members of AEGEE are one of the best people you’ll ever meet and travel with – their ever-present positivity and adventurousness is not easily rivalled by anyone else. The same can be said about the international events – the experiences you gain there are truly special.
Article composed by: Carmen Treu