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.

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!

My Italian Study Abroad Adventure: Part 3 of 5

Friday, June 4, 2004

This morning, we decided to hop back on the local train and go tour the ruins of ancient Pompeii. In the year 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the entire city. Everything happened so quickly that the city was almost perfectly preserved under layers of ash, turning Pompeii into a life-size time capsule.

Hanging out in Pompeii.
Hanging out in Pompeii.

Pompeii is already so large that it would have been impossible to see entirely in one afternoon, and more buildings are still being excavated. We just sort of wandered around, occasionally checking the map to see what we were looking at. We were able to view mosaics and frescoes that were still mostly intact — amazing considering that the city was once buried under lava and volcanic debris.

Pompeii Pompeii Pompeii Pompeii

There were a couple of preserved human bodies, and even a dog, both frozen into positions that looked as if they were trying to hide from the eruption.

Hey there, preserved dude.
Preserved dude.
Etruscans were pervs.
Etruscans were pervs.

Apparently phallic imagery is big in Pompeii. We found one memorable fresco of a man weighing his penis in a scale, and in a building that apparently used to be a brothel, there was even more penis art. I’m glad nobody asked for a postcard from Pompeii, because they all had pictures of penises.

After we finished in Pompeii, we returned to Sorrento for lunch. I had been wanting seafood this entire time, so I ordered spaghetti con polipetti locali — “spaghetti with local baby octopus.” It came out as a plate of noodles and tentacles with marinara sauce, and turned out to be very delicious. The server also said my Italian pronounciation was very good, so gold star for me. At least I know that I can read from a menu and not offend someone.

After our meal, we spent some time walking around Sorrento. It’s apparently famous for its enormous citrus trees. I think some of those lemons were the size of my head! Being situated on the cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Naples, our hostel’s property has a path that leads down to the “beach,” but it is really just a rocky outcropping that provides access to the water, if you want to jump in.

Beautiful but freezing!
Beautiful but freezing!

While waiting for the bus back to Santa Fortunata, we met up with the rest of our classmates. Apparently two girls who forgot their passports on Thursday ended up getting into Naples so late that that trains had stopped running, so they had to take a taxi to Sorrento, which cost over €100. I kept thinking it would have been cheaper to find a hotel and stay the night in Naples, then ride the train in the next morning. Of course, later on I heard some stories and realized why nobody wants to stay the night in Naples — it sounds kinda scary.

When we returned to the hostel, we noticed a sign by the office that was advertising a boat ride to Capri for €21 a person. We tried unsuccessfully to ask the man behind the counter whether or not it was a good value (he did not speak English as well as the night clerk), until he finally told us that the public ferry was only €19, but this tour would take us around the whole island. Sign me up!


Saturday, June 5, 2004

Departing from Sorrento.
Departing from Sorrento.

We woke early so we would have time to catch the boat to Capri at 8:30. When we arrived at the dining hall, someone asked to see our complimentary breakfast tickets, but we were never given any, so we had to run over to the front office to get them. We barely finished eating with time to sprint down to the beach and hop on the boat. We picked up a few more people at a local marina, and then set sail for Capri.

The water was a little choppy, and a lot of my childhood memories involve fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with my dad, where I was seasick the entire time. I was concerned about vomiting, but thankfully I didn’t. The ocean was such a vibrant, iridescent ultramarine color — something I had never seen before. The shallower areas were clear as crystal, and we could easily view all the way to the bottom.

Approaching the island.
Approaching the island.
White Grotto
White Grotto

The boat circled the island and took us past the Grotto Bianco (White Grotto), a small cave like a mouth opening up out of the the rocky cliffs. They took us around to the back side of the island, and we passed through a natural rock archway jutting up out of the water like the fin of an enormous fish. We docked at a public beach located near the city of Anacapri. We would be given the day to explore the island, and the boat would pick us up again at the end of the afternoon. The beach was mostly pebbles, unlike the smooth white sandy Panama City beaches I was used to. It was far too cold to swim, so I spent a while walking up and down the shore to pick up sea glass.

Where we spent most of the day.
Where we spent most of the day.

After an hour or two, we started getting hungry, so I went to find my flip-flops, but they were conspicuously absent from the spot I left them. I was bewildered until Shel spotted one of my shoes bobbing on the waves! She didn’t mind the cold water, so she managed to swim out and retrieve it. Unfortunately it seemed that the other castaway flip-flop was gone for good. While searching for my shoes, we were being observed the whole time — by a little old man we’d soon come to know as Giovanni. When Shel finally came out of the water, we saw him standing in front of a beachside restaurant. He was calling out and motioning for us to come over. We were still hungry, so we decided to accept the invitation. (Besides, where could I go with one shoe?) He spoke a lot of English, and immediately introduced himself and offered us the best seats, no service charge, “anything you want!” At some point I realized he was talking mostly to Shel, who was only wearing her swimsuit. As he ushered us over to a table, he made some random comments about how “Your mothers raised very good daughters!” (Whatever that means.)

At least the view was good!
At least the view was good!

After we ordered our food, he asked if anyone wanted a side salad, but we had been in Italy long enough to find out that sides usually cost extra. Giovanni exclaimed, “For you, no charge!” so Shel replied, “Okay sure, I’ll take a free salad.” He frowned at her and said, “I did not say that!” before walking away. By this time, Shel had dried off so she put her clothes back on. Giovanni ignored us for the remainder of our meal, refused to take my Visa card, and told us to leave a tip “in cash.” (Didn’t he promise no service charge?) I deduced that if we had all taken our shirts off, we might have gotten a free meal.

I decided that I could either go barefoot for the rest of the day (which is admittedly a pretty normal thing for me to do) or buy a new pair of shoes. Luckily we found a little shop near the beach that was selling flip-flops. The cashier thought it was funny when I came in barefoot and told them “what had happened was…”

So pretty, but so cold!
So pretty, but so cold!

After buying lunch and replacement shoes, I was left with no cash. We decided not to bother taking the bus into Anacapri and just hung around on the beach for the remainder of the afternoon. We ran into a few other girls from our group, and eventually we all decided to be brave and go swimming. The blue water was so seductive, even though it felt like being submerged in a bucket of ice. But, at least I crossed the Mediterranean Sea off my list of places to swim.

Enjoying our last few moments on Capri.
Enjoying our last few moments on Capri.
The Blue Grotto
The Blue Grotto

We spent the final few hours just avoiding a sunburn, until our boat came back and we began the return trip to Sorrento. As we circled back around the island, we stopped by the Grotta Verde (Green Grotto) which was basically just another archway where the light reflecting off the water made it appear to glow green. Our final stop was the Grotta Azurra (Blue Grotto) which is similar to the Green Grotto (only blue, obviously), and a very popular tourist attraction. If you want to, you could pay money to take a small rowboat into an even smaller cave. The tide was so high by this point that people were having to lay down in the boats in order to get into the grotto. To that I said no thanks.

Back in Sorrento, the other girls went to take showers while I decided to go find a bancomat. For some reason there was no ATM on the hostel property even though they only took cash payments. The hotel across the street didn’t have one, so I just started walking in hopes that I’d stumble across a bank. I had walked probably half a mile — and almost been run over by several trucks and a Vespa — when two men, whom I assumed were my age if not younger, pulled up next to me on a motorcycle. The conversation that followed went something like this: one asked me if I spoke English, I said yes. The other asked me if I was Canadian, and I said no, I’m from the US. For some reason this made them suddenly very excited, and one asked me if I wanted to go out with them later. By this point I was getting uncomfortable, so I said I was meeting a friend and excused myself. When I relayed this story to Dr. Comerford later, she told me that Canadian girls are considered prettier, but American girls are considered more promiscuous. Good to know…


Sunday, June 6, 2004

We woke up really early to catch the train back to Naples. For whatever reason, the train was delayed, so we missed our connecting train to Chiusi and had to wait for another. We arrived just in time to hop on the last bus to Montepulciano!

At dinner, we learned that Ronald Reagan died. Dr. Trendell also reminded us of the anniversary of D-Day, because without the people who fought and died in World War II, we might not even be able to visit Italy today. Speaking of dinner: have I mentioned that several girls have a crush on our server, Eliseo? He seems to be a typical Italian playboy. It’s really very funny. Our other server is Fabiola, who doesn’t know as much English as Eliseo, but is still as sweet as can be. I think at the end of the trip we are going to take up a collection so we can give them a gigantic tip, for putting up with 40+ hungry, cranky, tired Americans every night.

Our group having dinner.
Our group having dinner.

Monday, June 7, 2004

Photo via Wikipedia, since none of mine came out good.
Photo via Wikipedia, since none of mine looked good.

Today, sketchbook class hiked all the way down the mountain to see the cathedral of San Biagio. It’s one of Montepulciano’s “landmarks” but was not swarming with tourists. In fact, we were the only people there. Just like almost every other church we’ve seen throughout our trip, it had scaffolding all over one side because it was undergoing restorations.

Crociani Family wine shop.
Crociani Family wine shop.

Later in the evening our entire group had a wine tasting at the Crociani family vineyard. We were told a little bit about their history, then given a selection of four wines to sample. Well, it wasn’t really a sample, they just left an entire bottle at each table. The varieties of wine included three reds and one white. The first was a young red from 2002 called Rosso di Montepulciano, and had a robust flavor that I enjoyed very much. The second was Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, an aged red from 2001, followed by another Vino Nobile from 1999. Both were made from the same grapes, but each had a distinctly different taste. Vino Nobile is one of the 27 types of wine produced in Tuscany that have gained recognition as being best in the region. The last wine we were given was called Vin Santo, a dessert white made from grapes that were pressed after they began to ferment, then aged for 7 to 10 years. The bottle we were given was from 1993. However, I did not like this one as much because I found the flavor to be sickly-sweet. I only enjoyed it when I dipped biscotti into the wine.

Montepulciano

I soon realized that Italian wines appear to have a much higher alcohol content than those bottled in the States. I only had a couple of glasses, but my face felt flushed and I wanted to go take a nap! I don’t know if it was actually the wine or if my brain realized how tired I was. Waking up at 7am or earlier, day-long field trips, and weekends completely consumed by travel don’t leave a lot of time to relax. Lately I’ve been feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the things we’ve been doing. I also realized that we’re now about halfway through our trip, when I overheard a couple of people talking about how much they’re ready to go home. I haven’t quite reached that point yet, and I don’t know if I will. I love almost everything about being here, and the few little annoyances don’t really bother me too much. It’s really cool how much of the language I’ve picked up in such a short time.


Tuesday, June 8, 2004

Another field trip; today our sketchbook class went to Siena. As usual, a bunch of people showed up at the bus stop with hangovers. Ms. Murray told us that the ride to Siena was “a little rough,” so anyone who feels like they might get sick should probably sit up front. Basically the whole group sat up front. To make matters worse, we had the most aggressive bus driver — he would ride other cars’ bumpers and honk incessantly until they moved over, and he would speed around blind curves without slowing down, even as cars in the opposite lane were barreling toward us. And he was ranting in Italian the entire trip. The few people in the back of the bus kept yelling, which was funny, but I’m actually surprised nobody threw up. Or that we didn’t all die.

Photo via Wikipedia
Photo via Wikipedia

Siena is a quintessential Tuscan city; a lot like Montepulciano, only larger. The city is centered around the Piazza del Campo, and all the major roads converge there, so it seems pretty hard to get lost. Our first stop was the art supply store of course, which was quite small so we had to take turns going inside in groups of three. Fun art fact: the soil from Siena is the original source for the color burnt sienna. They were selling little jars of dirt that could be mixed with a binder (such as linseed oil or egg yolk) to create paint.

Our next stop was the Piazza. It’s divided into nine sections, reflected by patterns in the brickwork, representing the nine political districts of the city. There were quite a few people sunning themselves out in the Piazza. Some of us had lunch in the shade while waiting for the rest of our group to meet up.

Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo
Nope, not high at all...
Nope, not high at all…

Following lunch, we visited a Christian art museum, which did have a few interesting pieces but overall was in dire need of restoration. Afterward, we visited the duomo and baptistry, which were undergoing restoration at the time; the duomo’s museum presented yet another medieval Christian art collection. We were given the the opportunity to climb to the top of the clock tower for a great view, but the weather was balmy and there were over 400 stairs, so I can’t imagine why nobody wanted to. (Sarcasm.) Shel and I found a Leonardo Da Vinci museum hidden in an alleyway, and since students get a discount, we’re hoping to return to visit later on.

On the way back to the bus station, a couple of us bought linen scarves from a street vendor. Mine is a really pretty cranberry color. They seem to be a trendy item here, even in summer (I assume to keep the sun away, or to cover shoulders in church). I also keep seeing tote bags that all say “Pink Bag” on the side even though they come in colors other than pink. Occasionally I will see one that says “Pinko Bag.” I can only assume that the people who buy them don’t speak English, because I also saw one that said “Kevin Bag.” Maybe Kevin is a fashion designer or something.


Wednesday, June 9, 2004

I’m going to dedicate this entry to the wonderful world of Italian food!

1. “Breakfast” in Italy is a cappuccino. Since I don’t really drink coffee I’ve been eating croissants or yogurt with fruit instead. Occasionally you will see restaurants offering “American Breakfast” (bacon, eggs, etc.) on a separate tourist menu with stupid high prices.

2. Tuscans eat a lot of meat. I think we’re given beef for dinner at least three times a week, and they like their steak rare — bloody and practically still mooing, which is how I like it too! Most people in our group don’t seem to want it unless it’s cooked so long that it becomes impossible to tell that it was alive at some point. Italians aren’t known for their meat-free lifestyles, so the vegetarians in our group have started complaining because they’ve mostly been stuck eating tomato slices, eggplant parmesan, and cheese plates. There are some items on menus here that you probably wouldn’t see in the States, including horse and pigeon. Rabbit is also common. To my knowledge, we have not been served any of these… yet. I wouldn’t be opposed to trying any of them, but I can’t imagine that horse would taste very good.

3. A couple of nights ago at dinner, everyone requested salad. When Eliseo and Fabiola brought out the salad plates, most of my classmates just sort of stared blankly, until someone said, “Where’s the dressing?” Dr. Comerford leaned over and said, “No Italian dressing here, guys!” One girl’s jaw dropped and she exclaimed, “We have to eat dry salad?!” I pointed at the bottle of balsamic vinegar in my hand and said, “You’ve been putting this on your bread every night, but it can go on lettuce too.” It was hilarious, like nobody has ever made their own salad dressing before?

4. Pizza doesn’t always come with tomato sauce. Some versions have alfredo or pesto sauce. Some have no sauce at all. My favorite toppings are funghi (mushrooms) and carcofi (artichokes).

5. I’ve really grown fond of these hand-made fat spaghetti noodles called pici. I’ve been buying it in little bags from one of the produce markets on the Corso and it cooks in almost no time. I really like one that is flavored with tartufi (truffles).

6. For some reason, peanut butter is either expensive or unavailable here. Italians substitute Nutella, which apparently most people in my group had never heard of until we arrived. It is a chocolate-hazelnut spread and tastes good on almost anything.

7. Restaurants only offer bottled water. You usually have a choice between naturale (mineral water) and frizzante (sparkling water) — but don’t expect ice cubes. Also, don’t expect free refills… on anything, even water. I admit that I do miss being able to drink all the water I want, not to mention buy a Coca-Cola for less than five dollars. It’s funny that beer is cheaper than water and wine practically falls from the sky, but you have to sell your soul to get a Coke.

8. In addition to gelato, I’ve discovered panna cotta, a creamy custard usually drizzled with chocolate. I actually found some in prepackaged cups at the supermarket. Also, real tiramisù is soaked in alcohol.

9. Italians prefer their food to be made fresh, so preservatives aren’t very popular and they don’t appear to like food dyes very much either. Even McDonald’s is no exception. The food is better and even the ketchup tastes different. I think it’s the tomatoes, or maybe the absence of corn syrup. There are a couple of items on the menu that don’t exist in America, including a salad with salmon and shrimp, a “Crispy McBacon” sandwich, and a “Caribbean combo” (a pita bread sandwich with some kind of tropical dressing). The missing food dyes are really obvious in things like candies and sodas. Orange Fanta looks like Sprite, compared to the scary neon color it is back home.

10. Plastic bags and cling wrap don’t seem to exist here. It’s difficult to pack a lunch without them! Wrapping in brown paper is the best I’ve come up with so far.


Thursday, June 10, 2004

Another trip to Florence today, this time with the art history class. This makes visit #3 for Shel, Margie, and me. From there we will be heading north, to Venice (finally)!

Florence is so beautiful!
Florence is so beautiful!

Of all the cities I have visited so far, I think Florence has left the strongest impression on me. At first glance it is a crowded, chaotic place; absolutely saturated with museums and cathedrals to the point of absurdity. However, there is rhythm to the city that truly demonstrates its role as the birthplace of the Renaissance; the dirt and noise does not overshadow the beauty and history. Each time I leave I’m left with a feeling of nostalgia, almost like I’d been there before. Of course, Florence is also the chosen city of one of my favorite fictional characters — Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Michelangelo's David / photo via Wikipedia
Michelangelo’s David / photo via Wikipedia

Today we visited the Accademia, which was originally the first art school in Europe. Now it’s a museum that is well-known for housing Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Biblical hero David. (There is a copy outside in the Piazza della Signoria, but this is the real one, so no photos allowed.) “David” is 12 feet tall, standing on a pedestal under an arch at the end of a long hallway. His face is very lifelike, with a pensive expression as he stands poised and ready for battle. Several unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo also line the hallway preceding David. These sculptures include his second Pietà, which was the last piece he began before his death. This exhibit gave me the feeling of stepping into the artist’s studio and viewing his works in progress. Since I’m not a sculptor, it’s always amazing to me that someone can concieve a form and bring it out of a block of stone with nothing but a hand chisel.

The most sweaty ride ever.
The most sweaty ride ever.

Since we had seen the duomo and baptistry already, us three were excused from class to go back to the train station to wait for our ride to Venice. We’ve been walking around all day, so naturally we’re exhausted, and the weather had gradually warmed up to a sweltering 90 degrees (no, I don’t know what that is in Celcius and quite frankly I was too hot to care). By the time we boarded our train to Venice, we were practically drenched in sweat. As fate would have it, our train’s air conditioning was broken — I don’t know if it was just our car, or the whole train, but either way we roasted for the entire duration of the three hour ride. Yesterday I made another reservation for us, at a different hostel. This one was recommended by several people who went to Venice during the first week of class. Camping Fusina was located just outside of Venice, predictably in a town called Fusina. As we were waiting for a bus, a stranger approached us and asked us for the time, then used that as an opening to engage us in a conversation. When our bus pulled up, he got on with us and continued to talk, then finally he asked, “My English is like macaroni?” When I said I didn’t follow, he replied, “Americans like macaroni. So, my English must be like macaroni, yes?”

After walking around all day in the heat, riding in a hot train, and getting on a hot bus, we arrived at the hostel, checked into our room… and it was hot. By this time I was going to cry if I didn’t at least get a shower. Fortunately, Camping Fusina was much nicer than Santa Fortunata. We actually got our correct room this time, and it was okay, aside from the lack of air conditioning. It was clean and had real beds. I think this is about as close to actual camping as I ever want to be.

Hostel, sweet hostel.
Hostel, sweet hostel.