My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 5 of 5

Friday, June 18, 2004

Today I slept in (for the first time in a while!) and spent the afternoon at Caffé Poliziano. It’s conveniently located down the street a short distance from Trattoria di Cagnano, so it’s on my way to/from dinner. In the evenings we usually bring our journals so we can catch up on writing. The atmosphere in the cafe is quite conducive to writing, and the art deco interior makes me think of someplace Ernest Hemingway would conceive his next novel.

Working on our journals.
Working on our journals.

Spending time at the cafe, I’ve been trying some new drinks beyond just wine. Dr. Shealy introduced me to limoncello (lemon liqueur, obviously) and strega (means “witch” in Italian, and tastes like licorice). Grappa on the other hand, is not that great.


Saturday, June 19, 2004

Waiting for the bus (and eating convenience store gelato.)
Waiting for the bus (and eating convenience store gelato.)
Today Shel and I grabbed Margie and we jumped on a bus to the little town of Chianciano, a couple of kilometers away. We always pass through there on our way to catch trains in Chiusi, so we figured it would be a fun place to explore and a nice way to spend the afternoon. Since it’s hard to shop on empty stomachs, we decided to have lunch first. Unfortunately for us, we finished eating around 13:00 and had completely forgotten that small town businesses usually close for an afternoon siesta. In Montepulciano, mostly everything stays open for the tourists, but apparently the residents of Chianciano don’t get many visitors, because we walked up and down several streets and could not find a single place that was open. Or a single person at all. It looked like there had been a mass exodus, with not even a stray dog around. After lots of pointless window shopping and taking random photos, we pretty much agreed that there was no point in hanging around for another two hours until everything opened again. We sat in the shade by the bus stop and eventually caught a ride back home.

At dinner we learned that a huge fiasco had emerged. Several people had gone to the beach for the day but only two of them caught the last return bus. Everyone else was left stranded, and they kept calling Dr. Shealy in a panic. Ms. Murray just shrugged and said, “They were building sandcastles when we left to go catch the bus.” There was nothing anyone could do. I did feel sort of bad because apparently none of them brought their passports so they could not get a hotel room for the night, and one of the girls had to return early because of sunstroke.


Sunday, June 20, 2004

It’s hard to believe that tomorrow we’ll have been here for a whole month! My brain is not ready to go home, but my wallet definitely is. I have just enough money left for the trip to Rome. With conversion rates and high prices, my spending money didn’t go as far as I had hoped it would. I didn’t really do anything of importance today — just messed around town for a while and worked on my journal with Italian MTV in the background.

View from the kitchen window.
View from the kitchen window.

Monday, June 21, 2004

At our last group meeting this afternoon, we went to the Piazza to take a picture.

Group photo.
Group photo.

Dr. Shealy said we’ve been one of the best groups to come on this trip in a long time, and that he has had fewer problems with us than with any group he can remember. Since our trip’s budget has been used wisely, there is extra left over, so we’re going to get a special treat — a fancy dinner on Wednesday night! We’re even going out of town! It will be nice to finally wear the one nice dress I brought that has been sitting in the back of the closet this whole time.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Today is field trip day, but nobody wanted to go. We were scheduled to return to Siena, but since our sketchbook class has been there once already, they tried to convince Ms. Murray to let us skip the field trip so we could have extra time to work on our journals. It turned out that probably half the class hasn’t even started sketching, and tomorrow we’re supposed to turn in the finished journals for a final exam. After Dr. Shealy explained that class trips are required, they tried to convince him to let us go to Chianciano for a “field trip” to the public pool. He had to put his foot down on that one. Back to Siena we go!

While on the bus, our classmates convinced Ms. Murray to let them leave early to work on their journals, but then I overheard them talking about going to lay out by the pool instead. Because half the class was in a hurry to go back and fry in the sun, they kept trying to rush us through the field trip. I finally had to walk away because I couldn’t listen to them complain anymore.

We went inside Siena’s duomo, which was modeled after the cathedral in Orvieto. The adjoining baptistry contained bronze relief sculptures by Donatello and Ghiberti. Both were financed by the Piccolomini family, so the cathedral has a private library where they stored family books.

Not a bad view from here!
Not a bad view from here!

When the tour was over, the entire group immediately disappeared to catch the bus home. It ended up being Shel, Ms. Murray, and myself as the only people staying for the rest of the field trip. Ms. Murray liked the idea of seeing the Da Vinci Museum; since it had a student entry fee, Dr. Shealy could reimburse our ticket costs. The museum was kind of a little hole-in-the-wall with a small but impressive collection of interactive machines built from Leonardo’s original designs. There were reproductions of his concepts that included a bicycle, parachute, hang glider, catapult, and early ancestors of the helicopter and submarine. Da Vinci truly was centuries ahead of his time! Many of the models were fully functional and invited the viewer to touch and experience how they worked.


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

It seems that we have a celebrity in town! This afternoon, Michael J. Fox was spotted roaming around Montepulciano with his family. A few girls got his autograph. I could have been standing next to him and not even realized it!

Ready to go to dinner!
Ready to go to dinner!
After class, everybody got all dressed up for dinner. Instead of a bus, we’d be going in rented vans, but there were not enough vehicles to shuttle all 50 of us at once, so we had to go in groups of however many could clown-car inside at once. We were chauffeured a short distance to a village called Acquaviva, to a restaurant that I sadly forgot the name of. We were seated outside on a patio under a cluster of umbrellas.

Dinner time!
Dinner time!

We munched on bread sticks while everyone was seated, and then the servers brought out more bread, and water. Our antipasti (appetizer) was plates of artfully arranged regional meats and cheeses. Our primi (first) course was quiche florentine. By this point I was already getting full, but the food kept coming… another basket of bread for each table while we waited. The second course was roasted chicken breasts and zucchini slices. I ate as much as I could, but it felt like I was about to explode. Finally, it was time for the dolci (dessert), a spongy layer cake topped with whipped cream. To finish off the meal, we each got a cup of espresso. I’d never tried it before but found it too strong and bitter. A bunch of people evidently felt the same, so one of our more extroverted classmates started walking around and drinking all the discarded coffees. By the time the vans arrived to begin shuttling students back to Montepulciano, he was physically bouncing off walls. It was hilarious.

We stopped to watch the sun set before going home.
We stopped to watch the sun set before going home.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Our final class field trip took us to the Italian capital city of Rome. Just like for our trip to Vatican City, we had to be on the bus at 6:45 to arrive in Chiusi for the 8am train. When we got to Rome, Ms. Murray let people check their luggage (I didn’t need to this time because I only brought one change of clothes and the bare necessities) then purchased 24-hour bus and metro passes for everyone and ushered us down to the subway platform. The only subways I had ever been in before this were the kind that serve sandwiches. One of our group mates had her wallet stolen in Rome last week, so I decided to be extra wary of strangers getting too close to me on the train. Much to my discomfort, people would continue cramming themselves into the subway car until there wasn’t any breathing room. When the train lurched forward, I didn’t grab the handle tightly enough and fell into the lap of some random Italian businessman. (I’ve said the phrase “mi scusi” [pardon me] more times than I can count.)

The Colosseum.
The Colosseum.

Everything in Rome really is exactly as grand and majestic as it is portrayed in films. Pristine concrete structures next to decaying marble archways, ancient columns surrounded by multi-story buildings, a streamlined urban setting intertwined with relics from over 2000 years ago. The historic Rome and the modern Rome mesh to create a city unlike any other. With over 3 million inhabitants, it’s one of the largest cities in Italy, yet at the same time, it feels surprisingly intimate.

Colosseum interior.
Colosseum interior.
Our first stop for today the Colosseum. Although now it’s just a shell of its original self, it’s still an amazing sight to behold. It’s considered one of the finest examples of human civilization, even though it was an arena where displays of violence were performed as public entertainment. The idea of celebrity gladiators acting out a battle like modern-day “WWE” is much more appealing, regardless of historical accuracy. It’s not hard to visualize dramatic fight scenes as you stand inside the arena. This weathered monument to Rome’s glorious past sits like an island, surrounded by a swirling moat of traffic. It creates a unique juxtaposition of modern and classical; a scene that is distinctly Roman.

We gathered by the Arch of Constantine after exploring the Colosseum. From there we walked to the Palatine Hills and the Roman Forum.

Arch of Constantine.
Arch of Constantine

The Palatine Hills are the legendary home of Romulus, “founder” of Rome and son of the war god Mars. The Forum was ancient Rome’s civic center.

Rome Rome Rome

Our group split up so we could enjoy the area at our leisure. In the Palatine Hills, one can find lush foliage amid crumbling bricks and shattered marble, while in the Forum were the remains of the Temple to Saturn, where undoubtedly many Roman Saturnalia festivals took place, thousands of years before their traditions merged with Christmas. It’s interesting to walk through these ruins and try to imagine how they looked in times long past. It’s also incredible that these structures, although in ruins, still survived the turmoil that Rome has faced since the days of Ceasar. It reminds me of Pompeii, that feeling like you’ve stepped back into another millennium. A walk through the Arch of Septimus Severus completed our visit to the Forum and Palatine. We stopped to rest in the shade and wait for the rest of the class.

Next, we hopped back on the metro and rode a few more stops to the Piazza di Spagna. Built by the French but named for the Spanish embassy, a large white marble staircase (known as the “spanish steps”) ascends to the church of Trinità dei Monti.

Spanish Steps
Spanish Steps

Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
We proceeded from there to the famous Trevi Fountain. Cascades of water seem to magically appear around marble sculptures of tritons (sea spirits) blowing conch shells to announce the arrival of Neptune, who rides forth on a chariot pulled by wild sea horses. The base of the fountain creates a serene blue lagoon. It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Rome. There is a legend that if you toss coins into the fountain, it ensures another visit to Rome someday. I had always wanted to throw coins in the fountain ever since I was a kid!

This concluded our class field trip, so Ms. Murray set us free to explore the city or return to the train station if we weren’t spending the night. Shel, Margie, Veronica, and I would be among those staying, and since Veronica had reserved a room for the four of us at a bed & breakfast by the Trevi Fountain, Ms. Murray suggested that we all meet up to have dinner later that evening. However, when we checked in at Three Coins B&B, we were told that our bathroom had leaking pipes that were causing problems for the hotel that owned the floors underneath. I swear we are cursed when it comes to hotels. They had another room booked for us at no extra charge, but it was in a different hotel on the other side of town. Management was even kind enough to pay for our taxi ride, so I couldn’t really complain. (Not to mention it was my first ride in a taxi!)

Our new room was at Hotel Hollywood, which turned out to be a lovely place (with air conditioning!) and we saved about €10 a piece. We dropped off our belongings and decided to go have a snack. Margie and Veronica wanted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, and since I had never been to one, I thought it might be a fun change of pace from Italian food. It was just like being back in the States! Margie was excited to order a Pepsi with ice, since Italian restaurants only had warm Coke. The servers all spoke English and the menu was in English too, but the food was very overpriced.

Snacking at Hard Rock Cafe.
Snacking at Hard Rock Cafe.

From there we were going to walk back to the Trevi Fountain to meet Ms. Murray. We thought we knew where we were going, but apparently we didn’t. Even the map didn’t help; we had to stop and ask directions several times. While exploring we located the Piazza Barberini, known for the fountain of Triton sitting in the center of a traffic roundabout.

Piazza Barberini
Piazza Barberini

Trevi Fountain by moonlight.
Trevi Fountain by moonlight.
With some luck, we finally made it back to the fountain. Ms. Murray suggested we get dessert at one of her favorite sweet shops, but we walked all the way out to the ancient gates of Rome and could not find it. By now the sun had set and many places were closing. We finally found a little place in an alleyway that was still open. After dessert, we split up and the four of us started walking back toward the fountain, since one of the major tourist attractions is at night when the fountain is all aglow with lights, and the reflections of the water cast rippling, undulating shadows across the faces of Neptune and the tritons. It’s so pretty, no wonder some tourists attempted to go swimming! A policeman had to fish them out.

Tired and sweaty, the four of us decided to catch a bus back to our hotel rather than walk.


Friday, June 25, 2004

After breakfast, Shel and I split up from Margie and Veronica. Margie had to return back to Montepulciano and Veronica wanted to go to the zoo, while Shel and I wanted to see some of the other Roman sights. Since our 24-hour bus/metro passes had expired, and we were broke, we decided to continue our excursion on foot. We made our way back to the Trevi Fountain (which didn’t seem like such a long walk anymore), and from there we found our way to the Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon.

The Pantheon.
The Pantheon.

The Pantheon has an interesting history: it was originally built in 27 BCE by Marcus Agrippa (son-in-law of Augustus, the first Roman emperor), intended as a temple for Roman deities. Many centuries later, it was consecrated as a Christian church. The domed roof is a perfect half-sphere, and bigger than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s constructed of graduated concrete rings with descending levels of density toward the top. At the apex of the dome is a circular opening called an oculus, which allows sunlight to illuminate the interior of the building. Inside the Pantheon are tombs of several Italian kings, plus the tomb of Raphael Sanzio. Yes, the Raphael. (Not the turtle.)

Spotted while walking around, this store describes everything in Rome!
Spotted while walking around, this store describes everything in Rome!
After the Pantheon, Shel said there were a few more landmarks that she wanted to see, so we kept on walking. We eventually reached the Piazza Campidoglio (also called the Capitoline Hill), which was the religious and political center of ancient Rome. In the 1500’s, it was re-designed by Michelangelo. A long staircase leads up to the piazza where a bronze statue of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius stands in the center.

Piazza Campidoglio.
Stairs ascending to the Piazza Campidoglio.

Flanking the sides of the piazza are a museum, the Palazzo Senatorio (old senate building), and the Palazzo dei Conservatori (old city government building). The Piazza Campidoglio overlooks the Roman Forum and Palatine Hills, providing a lovely panoramic view of the ruins.

View from the Piazza Campidoglio.
View from the piazza.

Finally it was time to make our way back to the train station. Rome may not have been built in a day, but in two days we were at least able to see a lot — mostly through getting lost. There is still so much that I did not get to see, so I hope the Trevi Fountain superstition is true! The “Eternal City” has definitely landed a spot near the top of my list of favorite places.


Saturday, June 26, 2004

The morning was spent packing and cleaning the apartment. I took a few final photos and napped for a couple of hours during the afternoon, because we’d be leaving for the airport at midnight to catch a departing flight from Rome at 7:00am.

At dinner, Pino (the chef) made us a big cake with "Ciao!" written in icing.
At dinner, Pino (the chef) made us a big cake with “Ciao!” written in icing.

Dr. Shealy said they’ve never made a cake for any of the other groups before. Eliseo gave everyone postcards with handwritten messages.

After dinner, we stopped for one last limoncello.
After dinner, we stopped for one last limoncello.

It’s been too rainy for the sunflowers to bloom until this week. I never got any good pictures of them.


Sunday, June 27, 2004

Promptly at midnight, everyone from our apartment pulled their suitcases out to the curb to wait for our shuttle to the bus station. I almost started crying when I realized I wouldn’t get to walk back up the hill again! As we settled down for the bus ride to Rome, some of the residents came by to bid us farewell. Eliseo was there, shouting “buon viaggio!” and waving as the bus pulled away.

We arrived at the airport around 3am, so the place was deathly quiet. The flight to Germany was uneventful. We slept some more. The flight back to Atlanta was nine and a half hours. I napped again, but after breakfast I couldn’t go back to sleep so I watched the in-flight movies. During the final hour of the flight, they brought us lunch… Pasta. Everyone groaned. When the plane finally touched down, everyone in our group let out a cheer and started applauding. The other passengers looked at us like we were crazy.

Amid all the chaos, I was only able to say goodbye to Shel and Margie before I picked up my bags and met my mom for the ride back to Valdosta.

A few afterthoughts… Margie made this statement about halfway through the trip, and now I agree: had there been cameras following our group around, we could have easily become the next season of MTV’s “The Real World.” Although the three of us were basically hermits compared to most people, we still encountered all the elements of a reality show: rumors, fights, romantic turmoil, family tragedies, travel disasters, mental breakdowns, hangovers, and the inevitable problems that arise when a bunch of strangers have to share a living space. Despite the drama, I highly recommend studying abroad. It’s an enlightening, eye-opening experience, and it’s a lot of fun too — but you’re also going there to further your education. If you don’t want to learn something, don’t study abroad, just go on vacation instead. The summer program gave me just enough time to explore the country and immerse myself in the culture, but not enough time to get too homesick. Italy is a wonderful country. The people are nice, the weather is generally pleasant, the food is amazing, and the culture is charming. There is still so much that I was not able to see for whatever reason (time and money being the main two) so I would love to go back. I will be forever grateful to the residents of Montepulciano for welcoming 40 American college students into their town and treating us like honorary Italians.

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