My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 4 of 5

Friday, June 11, 2004

Since there was no climate control in our room, we had to sleep with the windows open, so in the morning I had accumulated a collection of itchy bug bites. The humidity was intense and my hair was frizzy and damp. Thankfully we would not be spending another night at Camping Fusina, leaving directly from Venice to travel west to Milan. We checked out of the hostel, hopped a bus back to the train station, put our luggage in a locker, then embarked on another bus ride that would take us across the bridge to Venice. The city looks like it’s floating in the middle of the Adriatic Sea, but it’s actually built on small islands and wooden piers. If that seems like a strange decision, apparently it’s catching up with them, because the town is gradually sinking and the government has neither the ability nor the funds to save it. I can only imagine that in a few hundred years Venice might exist only in legend, like the story of Atlantis forever resting beneath the waves.

Canal Grande view from the Rialto Bridge.
Canal Grande view from the Rialto Bridge.

The bus dropped us off outside the city walls — Venice’s narrow streets make Montepulciano’s look like airport runways. Narrow alleyways that meander, turn, and dead-end suddenly, with small bridges being the only method of crossing canals by foot. This layout makes automobile travel impossible, so there are absolutely no cars in Venice, which certainly adds to the old-world charm. Gondolas are so much more romantic than buses. However, walking around was not as leisurely as I’d assumed it would be. I think it was mostly just the heat roasting my brain, but the road signs were not very clear (although that seems to be common — maybe Italians think big, legible signs are ugly), and our map was confusing. Every step I took gave me the constant feeling that the ground was about to disintegrate and I would tumble into the lovely black lagoon.

St. Mark's Square.
St. Mark’s Square.

We managed to find our way to St. Mark’s Square. Across the bay is the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, which has the appearance of emerging directly from the sea.

Looking out across the bay.
Looking out across the bay.
Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs

Our other famous landmark of the day was the Bridge of Sighs, named for being the bridge that condemned prisoners would cross on their way to execution. We chose not to pay the exorbitant prices for a gondola or water taxi ride, and continued walking to find some shade and a meal. All the food in Venice costs at least twice as much as anywhere else because everything has to be imported from the mainland. Water is expensive too, even though the city is sitting on it. After lunch, we went shopping. Venetian carnival masks and Murano glass items are popular souvenirs. There was certainly no shortage of delicate porcelain masks or whimsical glass confections. We wandered around until we found a shop where they actually demonstrate glass-blowing. We didn’t take the tour, but we did see an enormous Murano glass sculpture of a horse.

Venice Venice Venice

Venice is an absolutely amazing city, and I hope to return again someday!

After a sweaty day of exploring, I was not at all excited to be crammed into a bus again with other sweaty tourists. By some benevolent act of fate, our train to Milan had air conditioning! We turned it up as high as it would go. I had originally planned to visit Milan by myself, but Shel and Margie weren’t opposed to more traveling. For our one-night stay in Milan, we reserved a real hotel room! It had a 2-star rating, but the website had photos of the rooms and everything looked decent, especially compared to our previous accommodations. The room cost €100, but split three ways, it wasn’t so bad. When we arrived at the Hotel Demó, we discovered that pictures can be deceiving. The bathroom was a closet with the smallest toilet and sink I’ve seen, and a shower head jutting out from the wall. I think we were all just glad to have the bathroom in our room. The room also had french doors that opened up onto a little balcony, so at least we could get a breeze.

Lovely balcony view!
Lovely balcony view!

We turned in early, hoping to recharge for another day of walking around.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Around midnight, I woke up. I was sleeping with earplugs so the first thing I remember was hearing a faint tapping sound that escalated into banging. I thought it sounded like someone was knocking on our door, so I ignored it, assuming it was a drunk person and they would soon realize they had the wrong room. Instead, the banging grew even more urgent. I stumbled out of bed and slowly opened the door, prepared to receive an Italian apology by whomever was on the other side. Much to my surprise, the front desk clerk and another man both shoved me aside and barged into the room, shouting “Your room is on fire!” Shel and Margie were wide awake by this point. “Um… no it’s not?” was the only thing that I could manage to say. The unidentified man started laughing. The desk clerk rushed over to our balcony and flung open the doors. Sure enough, there was a roaring fire!

Dumbstruck, I stood there with my mouth hanging open as the two men grabbed Margie’s bottle of water and used it to douse the fire. The man I didn’t recognize spoke a little English, and the gist of it was that they tried to put out the fire from the adjacent balcony but couldn’t reach it with the extinguisher. The desk clerk glared daggers at us and said something about fumare (smoking). We said no, we don’t smoke and we were asleep this whole time! Somehow we managed to go back to sleep, and the next morning, we examined the aftermath… the window box that once contained flowers had melted into a pile of charred plastic.

So... that happened...
So… that happened…

The only conclusion that made any sense to us was that someone from one of the upper floors must have flicked a cigarette off their balcony, which landed on ours, and the dry heat caused the flowers to combust. However, we decided that we were going to tell Dr. Shealy that we received a message from god in the form of a burning bush. (Shel gets to be Moses.)

After we had our breakfast cappuccinos, we approached the desk to check out of our room. The woman behind the desk frowned at us and started ranting; the only word I could really catch (because she kept repeating it) was “fuego” (fire). When I shook my head, she frowned again and another hotel guest tried to translate. “She says your… vegetables caught on fire. You are not supposed to smoke in the room.” When we said we were asleep the entire time, people behind us started laughing. We ended up being charged €50 to replace the fire extinguisher. It bothered me, but we couldn’t really defend ourselves due to the language barrier, and it wasn’t worth arguing about or potentially getting police involved.

After this bizarre turn of events, we decided not to let it set the tone for our whole day. We checked our luggage at the train station then decided to take the bus to Piazza Duomo.

Milan's Il Duomo.
Milan’s Il Duomo.

Milan’s duomo is a magnificent gothic cathedral, with dozens of pointed alabaster spires extending towards the heavens. It’s probably one of my favorites I’ve seen so far! (And we have seen a lot of churches.) Margie was the only one dressed “modestly” enough to be allowed inside the church, but she could only take a peek inside because there were services going on.

Milan Milan

We walked around window-shopping in the galleria for a while, but pretty much everything was way out of my budget! Eventually we split up to do some shopping. I purchased a few things at H&M. People-watching was fun too. Italian women always seem put-together and classy, even on the hottest days.

Later we visited a chapel that contains Leonardo Da Vinci’s fresco of “The Last Supper.”

The Last Supper / photo via Wikipedia
The Last Supper / photo via Wikipedia

There were a few things that we did not get to see, including a contemporary art museum. We made it back to the train station to catch our ride just in time, only to be delayed an hour due to mechanical problems. We missed our ride in Chiusi so we ate bus station sandwiches while waiting for the next one. Shel made a drawing of a carrot and a head of lettuce on fire, with little speech bubbles that said “FUEGO!” We could not get over the “flaming vegetables” incident.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Today was fairly uneventful, but sometimes that’s a good change of pace. Shel and I went down the mountain to Margie’s apartment, which is located outside of the city walls in the newer section of town. Her apartment was built in the early 90’s (yes, 1990’s, not 1490’s). We spent the morning working on our sketchbooks.

Working hard, hardly working...
Working hard, hardly working…

After lunch, we went back to town and used the internet for a while. Afterwards, Shel and I took Margie back to show her our apartment. We were hanging out watching television, when suddenly we heard music coming from outside our window. We wandered down to the street to see what the commotion was about. We found Dr. Trendell, who explained that today Montepulciano was celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi. From what I’ve observed, Italians seem to have an interesting relationship with Catholicism. Younger generations are becoming more secular, but the church is still important to them because it has been the backbone of the community for so long. Sometimes these festivals seem less about Catholic doctrine and more about celebrating a big part of the national culture.

Monday, June 14, 2004

I can’t believe that we only have two weeks left! Time has been flying by so fast. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and I can only stare at the blank pages in my journal and wonder how on earth to possibly describe everything. I wish I could spend another month here, but I’m running out of money so I don’t think I could afford it even if I had the ability to stay. Although I probably never would have had the chance to come here if not for the study abroad program, I do admit that being herded around major cities and rushed through museums in large groups is probably not the best way to enjoy everything that Italy has to offer. Hopefully sometime in the future I can come back, but if not, I’m glad to be keeping this journal so I can remember everything. Spending five weeks here is an opportunity that not everyone has, so I’m grateful to be able to do it.

I’m also grateful to have friends around to travel with, because it seems like I don’t share a lot in common with most of the other students. Most of them are under 21, and since they can buy alcohol here they have made the trip into a 5-week pub crawl, so they spend most of the time complaining about their hangovers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Today’s field trip was to Pienza, located a few kilometers south of Montepulciano. The interesting thing about Pienza is that it was basically rebuilt entirely by Pope Pius II and his wealthy cousins, the Piccolomini family. The Pope wanted Pienza to be the “ideal” Renaissance town, so it was laid out entirely to his specifications. Pienza is considerably smaller than Montepulciano, and very quiet as if on permanent siesta. Pienza is known in the region for its production of pecorino cheese.

We stopped by a cathedral where we saw a few frescoes that had partially peeled away from the wall. There are two types of fresco: Buon fresco is a painting done on wet plaster, so the pigment actually becomes part of the wall. Fresco secco is done on dry plaster, so the paint is a layer sitting on top of the wall. This latter type of fresco is often removed from its original site and placed in museums for preservation. (An example of buon fresco would be the Sistene Chapel.)

Next, we visited the Piccolomini palace. Our tour guide spoke English, but her accent was so thick that I could only understand some of the things she said. We were given a tour of the whole palace, including a room where the Pope stayed during visits.

Nice view from the Pope's room!
Nice view from the Pope’s room!

Finally, we visited the Diocesian Museum, with yet another early Christian art collection. After a while, all those Virgin Marys start looking the same, and I think I have seen enough crucifixions to last a lifetime. There were also several robes and garments that belonged to Pope Pius II.

After lunch, we went back to the bus stop, to find out that we missed the bus. We waited for an hour, and when the next bus came, the driver said it wasn’t going to Montepulciano, so we waited some more. Finally the right bus came, but we could have walked back home in the time we spent waiting for it. At dinner we heard a story about Dr. Trendell accidentally leaving his camera on the counter in a store, and the owner actually tracked him down to return it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Not much going on today. Went to class, worked on sketchbooks, walked around a bit and ate lunch at the little restaurant near our apartment (the owner makes an utterly amazing lasagna). And I got mail!

Us “three amigos” are staying in Montepulciano this weekend. It will be nice to relax for a few days, but we’ll probably spend some time finishing up our sketch journals. We’re planning to spend next weekend in Rome since we will be going there for a field trip. Veronica (one of our art history classmates) is making the hotel reservations. I’m excited, but also a little sad because the trip to Rome will be our last adventure in Italy.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Today is our final trip to Florence; visit #4 for me, and I still can’t get enough! My classmates, on the other hand, seem like they’re sick of it.

First on the agenda today was a visit to the Bargello museum. Contained within are mostly sculptures, including Michelangelo’s “Bacchus”, a marble portrait of the Roman wine god with a playful satyr.

Bacchus / photo via Wikipedia
Bacchus / photo via Wikipedia

On the second floor was Donatello’s bronze statue of David. His approach in portraying the Biblical hero was different than Michelangelo’s; Donatello’s David is shown as younger, with softer features, representing strength in a more subtle way as his foot rests under the severed head of Goliath.

Donatello's David / photo via Wikipedia
Donatello’s David / photo via Wikipedia
Ghiberti's panel / photo via Wikipedia
Ghiberti’s panel / photo via Wikipedia

Also in this museum are two gilded bronze quatrefoil panels that were created as a competition to decorate the baptistry doors. Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were the two artists who wanted the privilege. The theme of the contest was the Biblical story of Isaac, and although Ghiberti won, both entries are hanging side-by-side in the museum. Ghiberti’s panel is more classical in style and features more drama, while Brunelleschi’s panel is somewhat violent and not as idealized.( Another factor that contributed to Ghiberti’s victory is that his panel is cast all in one solid piece of bronze, thus making it easier to reproduce, unlike Brunelleschi’s, which was cast in pieces and assembled.)

Our last stop for the day was the Giardini di Boboli (Boboli Gardens) and the Pitti Palace. Ms. Murray turned us loose to wander around the gardens, which reminded me of the hedge maze from Alice in Wonderland, with lots of hills.

Florence Florence Florence

It was a really hot, sunny day so we tried to keep in the shade as much as possible. The gardens were sprawling and included fountains and statues, including several sculptures of turtles, which were supposedly a Medici family symbol. We stumbled upon a small vineyard and encountered a lot of stray cats. Eventually we climbed high enough to reach a cliff side where we could see a lovely panoramic view of the Florentine skyline.

Arrivederci, Florence!
Arrivederci, Florence!

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