My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 2 of 5

Friday, May 28, 2004

Munching Italian McDonald's, waiting for a bus.
Munching Italian McDonald’s, waiting for a bus.
Shel, Margie, and I woke up early and bought intercity bus tickets (“biglietto” in Italian) to Florence. All by ourselves! There are different routes and times for weekdays, weekends, and “festival days” (holidays), but I think I finally have the bus schedule figured out. While waiting for the bus, we met a nice Canadian couple who are also staying in town, so we talked with them for a while. In Florence we decided not to use our Eurorail passes for such a short trip, so we purchased a group ticket to Pisa. The train ride was about 45 minutes, and when we arrived we were instructed to get on Bus #3 for the Leaning Tower.

The Leaning Tower, along with the baptistry and duomo (which are not leaning), stand together in the Piazza di Miracoli (Miracle Square). These are pretty much the only attractions that anyone really comes to see in Pisa, so it was very crowded.

Piazza di Miracoli
Piazza di Miracoli

The Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower
The Leaning Tower pretty much looks just like every photograph I’ve ever seen, but I was pretty excited to finally see the familiar structure in person. We decided not to bother buying tickets to get inside the buildings, even though it would have been fun to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower — which, by the way, has been stabilized and straightened a bit over the years. The reason it leans is because the soil underneath is not strong enough to support the building’s foundation. Apparently it was quite a feat of engineering to keep the tower from completely falling over!

After we finished looking around, we assumed that if we got back onto Bus 3, it would return to the train station. Well, we got there… eventually. What we didn’t know was that Bus 3 would end up leaving Pisa altogether (seriously, there was a sign that said “Pisa” with a big slash through it) and cruising around the countryside for half an hour. I think we just barely made it in time to catch our train back to Florence. When we got back onto the bus for Montepulciano, we met up with our Canadian friends again! As we arrived at dinner, we discovered that a couple of people were already back from Venice. From what I heard, they had a horrible time because nobody bothered to check the weather (it was raining) and a few people didn’t even bother to make hotel reservations. I definitely want to visit Venice, but it seemed like everyone was so eager to start exploring that they didn’t think through their plans completely.


Saturday, May 29, 2004

We were walking around town as usual this afternoon, and stumbled upon a film crew! A few of us sat and watched a camera mounted on a long crane swing back and forth across a section of rooftops. Dr. Shealy described what he knew of the basic plot of the movie and said they are filming in small towns all over Tuscany. The remainder of the day was uneventful; we mostly just avoided the rain by staying indoors and working on our sketch journals. We set up a few still lifes with fruit we had purchased that week.

Strawberries

Fortunately, since the weather has been warming up, the poppy fields have started blooming. They are sprouting up everywhere, growing all along the hillsides. They have quickly become one of my favorite flowers because of their amazing vermilion color. Ms. Murray says that before we leave, they will be overshadowed by enormous sunflowers.

Poppies

We’ve gotten into the habit of putting on Italian MTV for background noise while we do schoolwork. Our television only picks up a couple of channels, and MTV is the best of what we have to choose from. Sometimes they will air a program in English with Italian subtitles, but mostly they play a lot of music videos from the States. We’ve also been exposed to some catchy Italian pop music too.


Sunday, May 30, 2004

Some things I’ve learned in Italy so far:

1. Just attempt to speak Italian, even completely butchering the pronounciation or sounding like a cave man and most people will just be delighted that you didn’t walk up to them and start babbling in English.

2. Womanizing appears to be the Italian national pastime. Men don’t notice me 99% of the time, so it’s strangely flattering to suddenly be considered “exotic” or something. A lot of it really is just innocent flirting, but sometimes it can border on sexual harassment since there is a stereotype that American women come to Italy to have an affair. If you possess breasts, you might find that random men twice your age want to buy you wine, flowers, and small Tuscan villas.

3. How to use the metric system, read a 24-hour clock, and tell temperatures in Celcius.

4. Italians take a mid-day siesta, so a lot of businesses are usually closed from 13-15:00 (1-3pm), and sometimes even until 16:00. I think Americans could benefit a great deal from daily “nap” time.

5. Italians smoke like volcanoes. “No smoking” signs appear to be just there for decoration.

6. I’m glad I don’t have to drive here. Often there are no marked lanes on the roads. Motorcycles can go wherever they want, including the sidewalks and between lanes of cars. Red lights and stop signs appear to be just suggestions? And don’t expect anyone to stop or slow down for you just because you’re walking across the road, or even on the sidewalk (where motorcycles like to go). Also, Italian road signs appear to be just clusters of arrows pointing in random directions. Gas might seem cheap at 90 eurocents a liter, until doing the math: that comes out to almost $5 a gallon. (Curse you, metric system!)


Monday, May 31, 2004

Today was fun! After class, Dr. Shealy led a small group of us into a wine cellar belonging to Cantina Redi, one of the local vineyards. We descended a spiral stone staircase into a hollowed-out portion of the mountainside. We were told that when the soil oxidizes it becomes an almost concrete hardness, creating natural underground rooms. Inside the cellar were stacks of giant oak and cedar barrels, each carrying hundreds of liters of wine. The entire cavern had the pungent aroma of fermenting grapes. This cellar was constructed during the Renaissance, but has only been used for storing wine since the 1940’s. When we finished our tour of the cellar, we climbed another set of stairs and exited through a sliding glass door that brought us into the Redi wine shop. Dr. Shealy spoke to the woman behind the counter and she set up a free sample of about six different local wines, including five reds (vini rossi) and a white (vino bianco). I don’t know enough about wine to really comment on the flavors, other than simply say that I liked them! I think the white was my favorite. Unfortunately, we consumed just enough that we giggled the whole way back to our apartment! There is no real drinking age in Italy, but public drunkenness is frowned upon and considered quite tacky.

Wine


Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Today our sketchbook class visited the Tuscan capital city of Florence. Ms. Murray almost put us on the wrong bus, but she finally listened to the three of us who actually took the bus to Florence last week. We ran into our Canadian friends again at the bus depot. They mentioned that they were going to the Uffizi Gallery, but didn’t have reservations. Since that’s where we were heading too, Ms. Murray said she would try to pull some strings so they could get in with our group. Without a reservation, the wait could be anywhere from one to six hours, because it is such a popular attraction. When we reached Florence, we walked through an underground tunnel, which led across the street to our first stop: the church of Santa Maria Novella.

Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella
The art majors from VSU were excited because nearly every square inch of this building was sandblasted into our brains in previous classes (if you’ve had Dr. Davis, you know what I mean). I finally appreciated all the art history tests I crammed for because now the information was actually useful; not just words and pictures in books, but actual, tangible objects. The non-art majors and everyone else just kind of stood around looking bored. Ms. Murray talked about Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, and the gilded altarpiece by Giotto. We were also told that the placement of the interior columns creates an illusion, making the cathedral appear longer than it actually is. Black and white alternating stripes seem to be a recurring design motif in cathedrals from this time period.

From here we dashed across town to the Uffizi Gallery. We had reservations for a specific time, and Ms. Murray didn’t want them to give our space away because we were late. We were told it was easier and quicker to navigate the city by foot rather than bus, which didn’t make a lot of people happy. I love walking around because you get to see a lot more that way!

Uffizi Gallery
Uffizi Gallery
“Uffizi” translates to “offices,” because the building was used by the Florentine government before it became a museum. Outside the building are marble statues of many famous people, including Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Galileo, Donatello, Machiavelli, and Giotto, among many others. Our Canadian friends were able to get into the museum with us, thanks to Ms. Murray’s powers of persuasion. (I think she told them that she forgot two students who needed tickets. Every once in a while it’s okay to play the “oops, I’m a stupid American” card.) The Uffizi has several floors, each with interconnecting rooms in the center and a main hallway along the perimeter. In most contemporary galleries, paintings are hung in a single-file horizontal line, but here the walls are literally stacked floor to ceiling with paintings, where it seemed as though they were trying to cram in as much art as possible. The result is such a visual cacophony that it’s hard to even figure out where to begin enjoying pieces individually. One of the non-art majors in our group wondered why Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” was so graphic, so I told her the story of how Artemisia was raped, and painted her attacker’s face onto the severed head of Holofernes. Thanks, art history classes!

Judith and Holofernes / photo via Wikipedia
Judith and Holofernes / photo via Wikipedia

Eventually a few of us went off to explore on our own. A room near the entrance was full of pencil sketches by Da Vinci and Michelangelo. In one of the larger rooms were the famous works of Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. Among them included “Pallas and the Centaur” and the famous “Birth of Venus.”

Birth of Venus / photo via Wikipedia
Birth of Venus / photo via Wikipedia

Botticelli’s art has such wonderful movement and elegance, it’s awesome to see these paintings in person. The colors are still incredibly vivid even after so many centuries. “La Primavera” is another of my favorite Botticelli paintings, portraying the Roman goddess Venus surrounded by other deities and playful woodland spirits in her sacred garden on the island of Cyprus.

La Primavera / photo via Wikipedia
La Primavera / photo via Wikipedia

Annoying tour groups would congregate directly in front of the Botticelli paintings, keeping the rest of us from getting a clear view, so we explored and found a few lesser-known Botticelli works, and some by Raphael, Michelangelo, and El Greco.

The Laocoön
The Laocoön
At the end of a hallway, we found a copy of The Laocoön. This piece is a Hellenistic sculpture portraying a scene from Homer’s “Odyssey” in which the soothsayer Laocoön and his three sons are killed by Poseidon’s serpent after Laocoön warns the Trojans against “Greeks bearing gifts.” The original is actually somewhere in the Vatican museum, though I didn’t get to see it. After we were finished at the Uffizi, we met up in the Piazza della Signoria, which is home of the “Rape of the Sabine Women” statue, the Neptune fountain, and a copy of Michelangelo’s “David.” I didn’t feel like battling the crowds to see a copy when we’d be seeing the real thing later this month.

Piazza della Signoria, now featuring even more tourists!
Piazza della Signoria, now featuring even more tourists!

We walked to the Ponte Vecchio, which is a famous bridge across the Arno River (and it’s flanked entirely with jewelry kiosks).

Arno River Arno River

From the Ponte Vecchio, we walked back in the direction of the bus station, stopping by Piazza Duomo to visit the church of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry of San Lorenzo. The cathedral was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, and inside the church is the tomb of Brunelleschi himself. It is capped by a slightly conical dome almost 140 feet in diameter. At the very top is a lantern, which admits light into the interior of the church. After the dome was completed, a decree was issued to ensure that no other structure would be built higher than the church. The result is a dramatic and easily recognizable skyline belonging to Florence alone.

Church of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Church of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Baptistry doors.
Baptistry doors.
The baptistry is on the side of the plaza opposite the duomo. It is known for its famous bronze doors, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Panels on the doors portray scenes from Bible stories, including the life of Jesus and the four evangelists. The panels are all three-dimensional relief sculptures, and very detailed for their size! At some point we realized that a few people were missing, so Ms. Murray went back into the church to find them, while the rest of us waited outside. We might as well have been wearing neon signs advertising our fat pockets, because almost immediately we were approached by women holding infants and shaking cups in our faces (their way of asking for donations). When we shooed them away, they were replaced by men who kept trying to sell us knockoff designer sunglasses. It got to the point where we would walk away from them, and they would collectively pick up and move over to keep bothering us. I accidentally made eye contact with one of them, and he would not get out of my face until I physically walked away. Despite the crowds, aggressive grifters, and the occasional bad smells, Florence is one of my favorite places so far.


Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Happy Italian Independence Day! Fun fact: Did you know that Italy has 16 different political parties? I often wish that United States had more choices, since neither of our two accurately represent me.

Almost every afternoon between classes, a few of us will eat lunch sitting on steps of a church near our apartment, but today we got kicked off by a gigantic group of tourists. Even though we are technically tourists here as well, we have started thinking of Montepulciano as “our” town because it seems like we have been living here for so long. I’m sure I’ll be homesick when I return to my actual home. I’m actually glad to have a break from the American news media, but it feels so strange to be out of the loop. I wasn’t even aware that President Bush was visiting Rome until almost every building in Montepulciano was displaying a very specific flag, a rainbow pattern emblazoned with the word PACE. Dr. Comerford explained that the word means “peace” and the flags are being flown to show President Bush that they are protesting the war in Iraq. While Americans seem to be split in half over the war, the overwhelming majority of Italians seem to be adamantly against it. I don’t think a lot of Americans really care about what happens to the rest of the world, or what the rest of the world thinks. I feel very fortunate to be traveling abroad, in hopes that it will help expand my horizons beyond what happens within United States borders.

Peace


Thursday, June 3, 2004

Today we visited the Etruscan museum and Christian catacombs in Chiusi, located a short distance from Montepulciano near the border of Umbria. It turns out there is more in Chiusi than just a train station! Shel, Margie, and I were among the students who would be leaving for the weekend, so we had our bags all packed — and they were heavy. We innocently assumed that we would be able to check our luggage at the station like everyone else did last week, so Shel and I decided to cram all our clothes into one suitcase. As luck would have it, the lockers at the train station were broken, so we were told that we would have to carry the overstuffed bag around with us the entire day. Thankfully, the people who ran the catacomb tours offered to watch our bags while we were visiting.

Death march!
Death march!
We hopped on a bus that drove us around for a while until Ms. Murray finally instructed us to get off. We ended up about a mile from where we actually wanted to be. We trudged up and down the hilly terrain, which provided a lovely passing view of the countryside, punctuated by everyone with a hangover saying they were going to die. The temperature was rather mild so walking actually wasn’t so horrible for those of us who got a good night’s sleep. When we arrived at our destination, we realized that our bus actually passed by here earlier in the route, but Ms. Murray didn’t realize it was our stop.

To reach the catacombs, we were led down into a thicket, where we were greeted by a large brick entryway in the hillside. Our guide only spoke Italian, and since Dr. Comerford is the only one of us who is fluent, she provided the translation. The guide explained that the tombs were constructed in the 4th century and hidden away due to the persecution of Christians at that time. Monks in the 1500’s unearthed the tombs when they were breaking ground for a basilica (which no longer stands), and put up the entryway and gate that still remains today.

Entrance to the catacombs.
Entrance to the catacombs.

Walking through the catacombs.
Walking through the catacombs.
The interior of the tombs was basically a series of cave tunnels; very dark and humid, lit only by halogen lamps placed every few meters. Baby stalactites hung from the ceiling like little fangs. Because of the humidity, there were mosquitoes everywhere, and they were enormous. At first they didn’t bother me, but when the ceiling dropped and they started flying into my face, it was pretty gross.

Writing on the catacomb walls.
Writing on the catacomb walls.
The guide led us to an area where along the walls were dozens of hollowed out indentations where bodies would have been placed. Some of them were child-sized, and many even had bone fragments remaining in the graves and words carved in the walls. She led us to one particular burial site where, according to history, an unnamed person was laid to rest and since at the time it was considered disrespectful to leave a grave unmarked, someone had written “God knows his name” (in Latin) into the wall.

After lunch, our next stop was the Etruscan museum. The artifacts were similar to those we saw in Orvieto. This museum contained a wider array of pieces, including ceramic vases painted with intricate designs and marble sarcophagi covered in delicate sculptural relief. I’m constantly amazed by how well-preserved these objects are, considering how ancient and fragile they must be.

In the museum.
In the museum.

Waiting for the train to Sorrento.
Waiting for the train to Sorrento.
A group of us were heading south to the Campania coast, to visit Sorrento for the weekend. From there we would be visiting the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri. We didn’t have any definite travel plans, but Ms. Murray said both places are easily accessible from Sorrento. Our train ride from Chiusi to Naples was almost four hours, and in Naples we had to catch the local ‘Circumvesuviana’ train to reach Sorrento.

Sunset in Naples.
Sunset in Naples.
We arrived in Sorrento around 21:00. By this time it was dark and pouring rain. We were all soaked and tired. After what seemed an eternity, some buses pulled up, and by some stroke of luck we encountered a British couple and they directed us to the right one — the very last bus of the night.

A few of us were staying at a hostel called Campogaio Santa Fortunata. When we got off the bus, the first thing I saw were tents. I thought, “I’m so glad we’re not staying in a tent!” because yesterday I had reserved a cabin for the three of us. We approached the desk, and fortunately the guy working the desk spoke English (and as it turned out, he also spoke Italian, German, and something that sounded like Swedish). Our luck took another wrong turn when the clerk could not find our cabin reservation. He said something about how normally when this happens, he gives people a “present” (upgrade) but tonight he “ran out of presents.” He said there was a single cabin and a double cabin available, if we didn’t mind being split up. He gave us the keys to our cabins and told us where to find them. We found one with no problem, but we could not find the other — keep in mind that it is dark, still raining, and we are hungry and really tired. We went back to the desk and he looked a little suprised. “Of course it’s there. You must not have looked in the right place.” So we went back to look for a second time. When we returned to him again, he suggested that we go have dinner before the dining hall closes, while he goes to make sure the cabin didn’t wash away, I guess. When we were finished with dinner, he admitted that he couldn’t find the cabin either (I think it got sucked into a black hole) so he said he would give us one caravan instead of two cabins. That seemed fine to us, we weren’t picky as long as there was a place to sleep. When we found the caravan, it turned out to be a small aluminum camping trailer with a flimsy plywood door. We barely had enough room to move around without hitting our heads on the ceiling (even though none of us are tall by any means), and our beds were two wooden platforms with sheets of foam laid on top. The “four-person caravan” only had two beds so Shel and I finally decided we’d share. The window over Margie’s bed was broken and had been hastily taped back together. We had to take the sheets off our beds and create makeshift curtains for the windows so we could change clothes. All this time, my inner monologue kept repeating, “At least it’s not a tent.”

It was hilarious.
It was hilarious.

After taking a hike to the bathroom I was happy to find the showers were at least hot, but I had to use my own towel and the bathrooms didn’t include toilet paper. Now I realized why youth hostels are so cheap. Don’t expect much for €12 a night. All we really needed was a place to sleep and shower, and that is pretty much all we got.

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