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    Heading Home | Match #5 | Days in Milan | Match #4 | First Night in Milan | Lake Como | Match #3 | Bergamo | Match #2 | Separate Adventures | Match #1 | Bologna | Venice | Travel Day


    Flying over the Alps.
     
    Arrivederci Italia

    The past week in Italy has been an absolute blast, but sadly it's time to go home. Our travel day began at 6:15 a.m. in Milan, which is 11:15 p.m. back home, and the bus did not arrive at Huff Hall until 10 p.m.--that's a 23 hour day! When we got to the Milan airport, we found out that we were actually too early to check in (that's a new one!) but eventually we got on the plane to Copenhagen. As we flew out we soared over the Alps and Lake Como and saw some incredible views from the plane (I was fortunate enough to score another window seat and snapped some pics!). This time our layover in Copenhagen was only about two hours, so we all got lunch, then the whole team headed to the gate and went to sleep on the floor/chairs until it was time to board. As the rest of the passengers turned the corner into the gate area, they were stunned to see such a tall group of girls all lined up on the floor sleeping!

    After roughly a 9 hour flight, we arrived in Chicago, where this time we thankfully got all of our luggage (lost two bags on the way). Those who were coming back to Champaign on the bus got a nice welcome to America treat with a visit to Portillo's before the last leg of the trip back to C-U.

    All in all it was a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime trip that we will never forget!


    The Illini with the Italian National Team.
     
    Match #5 - Italian National Team

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    In the final match of the trip, the Illini took on the Italian National Team at their training facility in Milan. Italy looked sharp early, attacking holes in the Illini defense, to claim the first set. After taking a 21-16 lead in set two, the Illini pulled off a great comeback served out by Liz McMahon to push ahead 22-21. However, Italy forced back in front to take the second, 26-24. The third set was neck-and-neck, when another strong service run put Illinois ahead, 17-14. Italy did not trail for long, coming back to tie the score at 17, and then powering through to claim set three, 25-21.

     

     

     


    The Galleria Vittorio Emanueli II.
     
    Daytime in Milan

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    Yesterday and today we had practice in the morning and a match at night and got to explore Milan on our own in between. The primary thing to do was shop! Walking distance from our hotel was a small shopping mall, where members of the Fighting Illini visited stores such as H&M and Accessorize and our tour guide also recommended a specific store that specialized in extra-long pants--just what a volleyball player needs.

    Much of the group also took the tram back to Piazza del Duomo to check out the designer shops and go inside the Duomo, which had been closed the first night. The architecture inside the Duomo was unique. It featured incredibly high ceilings with columns and several arch ways. The walls were full of tall columns of stained glass windows, but the did not let much sunlight through, so it was very dark.

    Next to the Duomo was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a high-end shopping area. It looked like it was outdoors, but was actually under a glass ceiling and had beautiful marble floors. You walked underneath a gigantic archway to get in and inside were all the designer stores, like Louis Vitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci and Prada. While everything there was out of our price range, it was still fun to window shop.

    When we explored the castle on the first night we saw signs for a Gelato Festival, so we HAD to check that out today. For 12 euro, you got a pass for five tastings and a gelato cocktail (kinda like a milkshake), and it was 100% worth it. There were a whole bunch of stands, and each one had one featured flavor, all of which were completely unique. We started with Brazilian coffee and lime, then moved on to a ricotta-based flavor with pistachios and chocolate. Next we tried egg yolk, which ended up being similar to French vanilla, then tasted one that featured pears, cinnamon, cloves and juniper berries. Finally we ended with salted caramel, which featured rare pink salt from the Himalayas. After our five tastings, we votes for our favorite, which was the salted caramel, and they gave us a free ticket for another one! When we went back for our second sample, the chef was there so we got to meet her and take a picture with her. The festival also had a cooking show area where they showed you how to make gelato, and an open truck where you could watch the chefs making it. For all the gelato we ate on the trip, the festival was definitely an excellent choice!


    Maddie Mayers and Alexis Viliunas stuff a key block.
     
    Match #4 - Italian Junior National Team

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    The Fighting Illini headed to Centro Pavesi, the Italian National Team training facility, to take on the Italian Junior National Team. Illinois looked incredibly strong against Italy, cruising to a 3-0 victory over the solid national squad. Italy hung with the Orange and Blue throughout the match, but Illinois unquestionably dominated to gain a nice level of confidence before facing the senior national team tomorrow.

     

     

     


    Lex, Courtney, Liz, EJ and Julia by the Duomo.
     
    Our First Evening in Milan

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    After spending the afternoon, we drove to our final stop of the trip, Milan. We checked in to the hotel, then were given transit passes. In addition to buses and a metro (subway) system, the city has a system of cable car/tram/trains that run throughout the city. We boarded the tram outside our hotel and took it straight to the Piazza del Duomo, home of the central cathedral (Duomo), tons of high-end shopping and more. Once we arrived, we were all free to do our own thing and find our own way back on the tram at the end of the night.

    There was tons to around Piazza del Duomo, starting with the Duomo. Getting there in the evening meant we couldn't go inside at the time, but just the sight of it was unbelievable. It was white marble with some pink tones and had what seemed like hundreds of pointed spires on top. We met a local Italian man who told us that because of the type of marble, at sunset when the sun shines down on the Duomo at a certain angle, the Duomo glows a pretty pink hue.

    When we got to the piazza, we noticed that they were setting up for a concert. We asked around and after a few tries found out that it was a band from Leeds, England, that wasn't very popular in Italy but was in England. Another group of people told us they were some kind of indie rock and it would be a free concert that night. So, we all decided to wander around the area and get dinner, then come back later to check out the show.

    Many of us wandered down one big street towards Castello Sforzesco, a gigantic castle. There was a large fountain outside, where we sat down to relax for a little while. Being a major tourist area, we were bombarded by obnoxious street venders, making it less enjoyable to hang out there. We didn't have that problem much anywhere else on the trip, but when we went to sit by the fountain, we were constantly interrupted by men shoving roses in our faces trying to force us to buy them. At one point we saw a couple trying to take a picture together, and the vender kept pushing flowers at them and ruining the photo. So, one of us went over and asked if they'd like us to take the picture for them, and after he continued to do it, we finally were able to get him to leave and give them some peace. However, besides those interruptions, we were able to enjoy the scene.

    After our break at the fountain, we were able to go inside the castle and look around. It was very large and had several different areas you could explore. The castle had a moat at one point, but there is currently no water in it; in fact there was actually a car parked in the moat!

    Once we were finished touring the castle, we headed back up the street we came down to find a spot for dinner. Everyone went to different places, but our group found a place that upon asking to be seated, we discovered seemed to specialize in seafood. We ordered WAY too much food, because everything sounded so good, but the main thing we got was this incredible seafood pasta pot to share. We saw it come to the table next to us and were so enthralled as the waiter served it to them we asked him what it was and just had to get it. They steamed the seafood and pasta inside a pot with dough across the top (think chicken pot pie). When it came to the table, the waiter cut open the top to reveal the pasta inside. He put the dough on the plate, then served the contents over the dough, so once we finished, we could eat the dough with all the flavors from the dish. It had all kinds of seafood, including mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp and a gigantic prawn in the shell that was somewhere between the size of a crawfish and a small lobster.

    After dinner, we headed back to the Duomo to check out the concert. The square was packed with people, but it was still easy enough to find our way into the crowd. The weather was perfect and the way the concert lights lit up the Duomo was just so unique. The band was actually really good. We didn't know any of the songs, except for a few covers, but they were all songs that sounded like ones we could know, making it very enjoyable. After a break, we think a second band went on (we were off to the side and couldn't see the band members, but the genre changed), so we're not sure which was the band that everyone came to see. The second set was more uptempo, still kind of rock, but also had some techno and closer to rap singing. The people around us got way into it and were dancing up a storm. Everyone nearby was really friendly and we made a bunch of friends in the crowd; some were local and others were from other parts of Europe, either living in Milan or had come in specifically for the concert. It was a great event and an awesome introduction to Milan.


    Lex, Courtney, EJ, Jocelynn and KP take a boat ride on Lake Como.
     
    An Afternoon on Lake Como

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    This morning we boarded the bus in Bergamo and drove to Lake Como--one of the most beautiful places you could ever visit. It is a large lake surrounded by mountains and dotted with houses and cute little towns. One group of us took an hour-long boat tour where we got to see further parts of the lake than if we had just walked around the edge. It was cold and windy out on the center of the lake, but nice and warm in the sun. Courtney had looked up where all the different celebrities' lake houses were, and was trying to find them all in the side of the mountains. She knew for sure where George Clooney's house was and was so excited to drive by it--and then the boat turned around just before we got there.

    Meanwhile, the other half of the players watched a pontoon plane land on the lake, which they were convinced was George Clooney's plane.

    While some of us were out on the lake, another group decided to go up to the top of one of the hills along the coast. Like Bergamo, there was a large funicolare which you could take up to the top so you could look down over the lake and see the view. While up at the top, the group found a light house and climbed up to the top for an even greater view.

    In addition to the beautiful views, everyone treated themselves to some fantastic local food around the lake, and explored the town of Como which was centered around another gorgeous church. However, as the group went inside, many of the girls were turned away because they were wearing shorts to enjoy the sunshine by the lake.


    Liz McMahon goes for the kill vs. Bergamo.
     
    Match #3 - Bergamo

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    After a lovely afternoon in Bergamo, the Illini played their third match in three days, this time against a Bergamo club team. This team was younger than the previous team, with the majority of the players being between the ages of 16 and 19. Despite their youth, the squad was very talented, especially on defense. Their weakness, however, came on serve receive, as they struggling to defend against the Illini's strong serving technique, leading to many Illinois aces.

    The Illini took a significant lead early in the first set, helped in part by a long serving run by Ali Stark, but the resilient Bergamo squad pulled out a comeback, winning the set, 26-24. The Orange and Blue grew stronger as the match went on, winning a close second set, then earning a 25-13 win in set three. Bergamo fought back in the fourth to force a tiebreaker, where the Illini dominated, winning the fifth set, 15-7, to take the match by a score of 3-2.


    Citta Alta, Bergamo.
     
    The New and Old Cities of Bergamo

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    The Illini in Italy crew boarded a bus first thing in the morning and drove two and a half hours to the smaller city of Bergamo, near Milan. Bergamo has two parts to it, the new and the old, or in Italian, Citta Alta and Citta Bassa, which mean high and low. The hotel was in the new part of the city, Citta Bassa, which was fairly urban with several banks, stores and restaurants. After checking in, the Illini walked several blocks to the funicolare, a cable car on a track, that took them up the steep mountain and into the beautiful old part of the city, the Citta Alta. On the way up, you could catch beautiful views of the surrounding area, which is set into the mountains. On top of the hill, was a small town full of gorgeous old buildings and narrow cobblestone paths. It did not take much wandering to discover all kinds of decorative buildings, such as churches. As we walked around, it seemed like every time we turned a corner we were blown away by the next beautiful sight. It was a truly unique and beautiful place.

     


    The painting on the wall inside the gym.
     
    A Rematch with a Better Outcome

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    After everyone returned for their small group adventures, the Illini played their second match of the trip. Illinois faced the same Bologna club team as the night before, but this time they gained a handful of players, many of whom added size to the Bologna squad. Despite the challenge, the Illini had gotten the rust off, and showed tremendous improvement after the first match. The Orange and Blue narrowly dropped the first set, but then stormed back to win the final three to capture their first international victory, 3-1.

     

     

     


    Kathryn, JBo, Anna and Jocelynn in Ferrara.
     
    Going Our Separate Ways

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    Today, the Illini were given a new challenge: the team was split into three groups, each of which went to a different nearby city. Everyone had to figure out how to get there, research what was important to see there, then report back to the group at night on their adventure. Jocelynn, Anna JBo and KP went to Ferrara; Liz, Maddie, Ali and Lex went to Parma; and Julia, Courtney and Morganne visited Modena. Meanwhile, the staff split up into two groups, half of which stayed in Bologna for the day, while a group of seven saw the sights in Florence.

    In Ferrara, the Illini visited a castle and found themselves wandering through the small corridors of the dungeon. Parma is the historic home of parmesan cheese, and despite some trouble finding a store that was open between lunch and dinner, the Illini were finally able to find themselves some samples. The Modena group took a trip to the Ferrari museum. The Florence crew saw as many of the sights as they could in a few hours, including the gorgeous duomo (cathedral), the public replica of the David statue, and the beautiful Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge over the central river to survive the world wars.


    The team warms up outside.
     
    The First Match

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    After two solid days of touring, the Illini played their first volleyball match of the trip. It took place in a sports complex, and prior to getting on the court, the team actually warmed up outside in the parking lot and on a nearby track. The Illini took on the local B1/B2 team in Bologna, who did not match Illinois in size, but was scrappy and strong on defense.

    It took the Illini some time to get back into the swing of things after not having trained at all in a few days and the Orange and Blue also took a little while to adjust to the different style of play. However, despite the slow start, the Illini came out firing in the third set, winning it easily by a score of 25-15. Illinois continued to look hot in the start of set four, but a run by Bologna turned it into a nail-biter. It was neck-and-neck for the remainder of the set, and although the Illini reached set points first, 24-23, Bologna pulled out the four-set victory, 27-25.


    Jo Bangert and Dan Conners at the top of the Torre Asinelli.
     
    What a Bunch of Bologna

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    Following dinner in Venice, the team was given its first challenge: find their way back to the hotel, then make it to Bologna on their own in the morning. Originally, the only stipulation was that they could not take the 10:55 train--because the coaches would be taking that one--but as it turned out, that was really the best time to go, so they were able to go then after all.

    Everyone made it to Bologna safely, and after checking into the hotel all were free to explore the unique city. A large group of student-athletes found themselves in a big shopping area and enjoyed the stores, especially one called Zara, where they "bought a few things, maybe a few more than we should have," said Alexis Viliunas. The Illini also enjoyed gelato--a few times--and plenty of good ole' Italian pizza.

    Meanwhile, the staff all went on their own adventures. Dan Conners, Jo Bangert and Marla Glasser all climbed the Torre Asinelli, a 97.2 meter tower featuring 498 very narrow steps. According to Marla: We weren't sure if we were actually going to go up the tower; we saw some beautiful China in the window which Jo, who collects teacups, was interested in trying to buy, so we went inside to look for the store, and the next thing we knew, we were climbing a spiral staircase. By the time we realized where we were going, we already felt as though we had come too far to go back, so up the tower we went! The steps soon changed from a standard spiral to small and rickety stairs that wound around the edges of the square tower. Early on, there was scaffolding in the middle, but as we climbed higher, the center was gone and the stairs got narrower and steeper. The higher we got, the more nerve-wracking it got. Every time we reached another landing we had hoped it would be the top, but there was always another set of stairs above that one. We met several nice folks on our way up, including a British family who was having similar second thoughts on their way up. But we all powered through, and once we made it to the roof, we knew it was worth it, because the view was spectacular. You could the entire city, the layout of the streets, the roof-top decks on nearby houses, gorgeous vineyards in the distance and more.

    While those three were ascending the tower, Assistant Coach Jayme Gergen had an adventure of her own: For anyone who has travelled you may agree that one of the best parts of exploring is wandering and getting lost on purpose. One valuable lesson that I have learned in the past is that being lost is not a big deal... After tallying my fourth plate of Caprese for the trip, I was walking back from lunch to the hotel and I actually got lost by accident. It was great. I saw two Palaces, the Basilica di Santo Domenico, and the original gates of Bologna along with pieces of the wall that used to surround it. It was a beautiful day and the piazzas were full of people. I have never seen so many Vespa's in one place. It is important to note when travelling in Italy to mind the crosswalk signals. Only walk when you see a green signal. Italian pedestrians do not jaywalk for obvious reasons. Pedestrians should also look twice for vespas, bicycles and buses. Another lesson I have learned in the past is that maps are helpful. Always grab one from the hotel so when you get lost (on purpose or by accident...) you can figure out the places that you bump into on your adventure, and of course find your way back.


    The team in Piazza San Marco, Venice.
     
    Ciao Venezia!

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    Today we spent our first full day in Italy! The morning began with a delicious continental breakfast at the hotel, featuring scrambled eggs, meats, cheeses, yogurt, chocolate croissants and more. From there, we walked to the train station and took the train over to main part of Venice. Upon arrival, our tour guide gave us the basic lowdown of the area, then gave us two hours to explore and find our way to Piazza San Marco on the opposite side of the city. We had a general idea of where we needed to go, but spent the morning wandering the narrow corridors of Venice, enjoying the beautiful buildings, shops and canals. Along the way, some of us bought nice leather purses and other souvenirs, and enjoyed the glassware, masquerade masks and nice clothing in the stores along the way.

    Despite having a general direction in mind, Venice's narrow corridors resemble a maze and made it difficult to get our bearings. Nevertheless, we all made it to Piazza San Marco with plenty of time to spare, giving us a chance to take in the sights. Unlike the rest of the city, which consists of tall buildings, canals, and small walkways, Piazza San Marco is a gigantic open space, surrounded by a beautiful church, large buildings, and an open waterfront.

    The plaza also featured a large mass of pigeons, which many of the people around us seemed to enjoy. It looked exciting, so many of our teammates joined in on the fun. Some people brought food with them, but all you really needed to do was extend your arms out horizontally and the pigeons would fly up and land on you. Some of the Illini were better than others at attracting the local birds, and of course some would get nervous at the sight of the bird coming too close (despite being in the mix in hopes of snagging one), but overall, it was a fun experience for all.

    After we all met up as a group, we were all dismissed once again to explore the city for the rest of the afternoon until meeting for dinner. Well all broke up into smaller groups and went on our own adventures, many of which included our first tastes of Italian pizza and gelato--which as you may have guessed were delicious. After more time exploring and shopping, most of us found nice places to sit down and relax, including a great spot out on the dock by the Grand Canal. In the evening, we enjoyed a delicious dinner outside at Barraria on the Campo di Polo, where we had Italian meats, pizzas and a unique type of noodle, bigoli, which was like thicker but hollow spaghetti (and fantastic!). We were then all free to explore some more before finding our way back to the train station and the hotel. All in all, we could not have asked for a better first day en Italia!!


    The team has landed in Venice!
     
    We Made It!

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    It was a long journey, but we have finally arrived in Italy! We left Champaign by bus at 4 p.m. on Friday and headed to O'Hare airport. We had plenty of time to spare after security, before finally boarding our flight at 10:05 p.m. We flew through the night and arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, around 1 p.m. local time...which was 6 a.m. back in Illinois.

    We had a four hour layover in Copenhagen, and I will say, if you have to be stuck in an airport, that's a great one to kill some time in. The terminal was gigantic and full of stores to check out, including tons of high-class designers for window shopping.

    After a few hours in Denmark, it was time to board our flight to Venice. I was fortunate enough to land a window seat and was psyched about the views I would get. However, the lack of sleep on the redeye knocked me out before we got in the air and when I woke up and looked out the window, I discovered we had already made it above the clouds.

    Determined not to let the same thing happen on the way down, I forced myself to stay awake on our descent and what a delight that was. After dipping below the first layer of clouds, I was able to catch a glimpse of the tops of some snow-capped mountains. As we descended further through the final cloud layer, it was as though someone had swiftly drawn back a curtain revealing the beautiful Italian countryside. It was green as far as the eye could see with clusters of buildings dotting the landscape. It was utterly gorgeous!

    After collecting our baggage, we met our tour guide and took the bus to our hotel. We checked out our rooms, then headed to dinner for our first authentic Italian meal. We quickly encountered our first brush with being in Italy--tonight was the Champion League Finals (soccer championship match) and practically the entire town was shut down, including most of the restaurants, because everyone wanted to watch the game. However, we were still fortunate enough to find a great spot for our first dinner, where we were served Penne Pomodoro followed by chicken and potatoes. Everything was delicious; what a great start to our trip!

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