Thursday, May 29, 2008

So this concludes the final entry of my Italian adventures, and I will be sad to leave when I do, but I am so fortunate for this opportunity. The last two weeks have really opened my eyes to the beauty of European culture and identity. Initially, I thought that traveling by myself would be difficult, and there were
definitely some challenges along the way, but it taught me a lot and I loved every minute of it. I have traveled with family and friends before, so this adventure helped me learn and appreciate things that I could only get from independent travel. I hope that someday I will be able to return to these cities and explore all the places that I didn’t get to visit!

La Dolce Vita

Siena is my favorite city I’ve visited so far. It reminded me of Florence, but not as big and a lot quieter. I stayed in the main area surrounding Piazza del Campo, the center of the city. I noticed right away that it was a very traditional town – the architecture is very medieval-like, and there are flags on just about every street.

Right when I arrived, I walked to the center of the city where the Palazzo Pubblico is located – probably one of the most amazing views I have seen in Italy: the half-moon shaped town square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes and the town hall. I didn’t make it to the bell-tower, but I went through the rest of the palace, which originally served as a palace for the government. The inside is completely adorned with beautiful colored frescoes, including Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government. It is so cool to see something I have studied over and over again in school, and it was a lot bigger than I thought it would be!

Later, I wandered through the winding streets and found my way to the Duomo, which was absolutely breathtaking – it was monumental, and I later learned that it was never completed because the plague hit Italy. The interior is covered with zebra-striped black and white marble walls and columns. Also, Nicola Pisano’s famous pulpit is located there, along with the Piccolomini Library.

I was woken up on Saturday morning completely terrified to a very loud noise out my window – apparently, the people of Siena were celebrating a major festival, which started at 9am with trumpets and drummers following a parade of flag-tossers dressed up in medieval attire. I walked around the city for the rest of the day, and I visited the church where Saint Catherine of Siena is preserved; literally – the saint’s head and finger are kept inside the chapel for visitors to see.

The hotel manager advised me to go to Piazza del Campo around 7pm to watch the announcing of the Palio runners racers. I had no idea what this was, but I gave it a shot. Later I did some research about the Palio, which is a horse race held twice a year since the medieval times. In Siena, there are seventeen Contrade (city wards), and runners and horses are dressed with the colors and arms of each Contrade for the actual race. Ten Contrade participate in each Palio, and are chosen according to a random drawing that dates back to the 1700s, and I happened to be in Siena for the selection of this year's Contrade!

Before I even got to Piazza del Campo, I could here thousands of people in the main circle – I feel like everyone who lived in Siena was there at that time. At just about 7, the sound of trumpets and drums grew louder and louder, as the troubadours and flag-tossers marched around the corner of Palazzo Pubblico and halted in a straight line in front the palace. At the grand finale, all the boys tossed their flags in the air (I was afraid I’d get hit!) I was amazed at how talented they were. Italians are so involved with their past and embrace the traditions of their ancestors, and I loved being able to witness an event like this. I mean seriously, when would I see Wake Forest frat boys marching around in green and red tights and medieval costumes representing their respective Contrade, tossing flags and playing trumpets, other than maybe a pledging activity?

After the flag-throwing, it was time to announce the runners. Suddenly, the windows of the palace opened and the trumpets sounded, and after a long wait of anticipation, the first flag was hung outside the window. Behind me to the left, the crowd let out an uproar of cheers and victory chants. The same process was repeated nine more times. At the end, groups from the winning Contrades were throwing their fists in the air and proudly singing victory songs. The process took all of fifteen minutes, but it was pretty exciting to be in the center of it. I love the fact that the city is so involved with its past and continues to celebrate its traditions.

Another reason why I liked Siena so much is that it was exactly what I think of as an Italian city: everything from the medieval architecture and narrow streets to the people and food. The only things that I had a problem with were the mimes – these absolutely terrify me! I avoided walking down Las Ramblas in Barcelona at all costs because of the mimes that stand on the corners completely still and whispering gibberish into your ear as you pass them. I seriously do not understand the point of painting yourself all gold and standing still on the street, waiting for passer-bys to drop a coin into your basket. They seriously creep me out. But other than that, Siena was the most interesting and unique city that I visited – I loved it!

So this concludes the final entry of my Italian adventures, and I will be SO sad to leave when I do. But I am so fortunate for this opportunity, which really opened my eyes to the beauty of European culture and identity. At first, I thought that traveling by myself would be difficult and scary, and there were definitely some challenges along the way, but it taught me a lot and I loved every minute of it. I have traveled with family and friends before, so this adventure helped me learn and appreciate things that I could only get from independent travel. I hope that someday I will be able to return to these cities and explore all the places that I didn’t get to visit!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

“The Little City of the Infinite Views”

Marcella made me a nice breakfast and a delicious latte before I had to say goodbye and walk to the bus station. Good thing the Autostazione was at the bottom of the hill – I’m sure it was a much more enjoyable trek than going uphill. I had to take a bus to Chiusi before getting on a train to Perugia. I loved riding through the hills of Tuscany – I felt like I was in Under the Tuscan Sun, just waiting to come across Bramasole. If I weren’t a broke college student, I would seriously consider moving here. But that is not the case, and I’m sure that real estate is way more that I could ever afford. C'est la vie.

I think that the bus driver didn’t know where we were going – at one stop, I’m petty sure he shouted over to another bus driver “How do we get to Chiusi?” in Italian. So far I have been lucky with transportation this trip, but I'm still keeping my fingers crossed. I got to the train station a bit early and waited outside rather than on the train to early to avoid accidentally getting on the wrong one and having it take off to a different city. Last semester, Katie and Caitlin and I had a 1am to 5am layover in Bologna. At about 4:30, we decided to get on our train to Florence a few minutes early rather than camping out in the station’s underground, dungeon-like passageways with homeless people. The train suddenly took off, and when we asked if we were on our way to Florence, the conductor replied “No, partiamo per Milano." We were seconds away from literally jumping off the train – Milan was the complete opposite direction and the whole reason why our plans got messed up in the first place!

I have been to Perugia once before – on our way to Rome over fall break last semester, we stayed there one night on Caitlin’s friend Tori, who was studying in Perugia. I was able to fit in all I wanted to do in just two days. On my bus from the train station to Piazza Italia, I sat with a very funny and loud group of Netherlanders – definitely an accent I have never heard before! They were traveling around Italy for six weeks and camping in the outskirts of major towns, which I think would be a very fun thing to do.

My hotel was on the upper part of the hill right around the corner from Piazza Novembre IV, where Fountain Maggiore and the Colleigo di Cambio are located. Yesterday, I decided to adventure over to the lower part of Perugia towards the outskirts of the town, where the University of Perugia and San Pietro are located. I am amazed at how everything shuts down between 1pm and 4pm – I wish I had known that before I walked all the way to that part of town! I was entertained though by a young Italian guy who tried to convince me that the only way I would learn and appreciate the language more would be if I “spent the night exploring Perugia with a guy who knows the city” – yeh right, I’ll pass. I walked around the gardens outside the university, which have a spectacular view of Umbria – sorry Reynolda Gardens, I think Perugia beats you!
I finally got to San Pietro, which is unbelievable – every square inch of the church is decorated by marble, gold, or a painting. The age of paintings underneath the ceiling clearly showed in their dark, faded appearance, but they were still very dramatic. My favorite part of the church was the choir, which was very bright as opposed to the rest of the church, and had paintings from one of my favorite artists of the Renaissance – Perugino.
Henry James once called Perugia “little city of the infinite views”; now I see why – every time I got lost (which was kind of frequent), I could never complain, because I would finally stumble across a wall overlooking the vast Umbrian landscape. Maybe it’s because I grew up near Chicago where the land is completely flat, but being able to see rolling hills and tiny hilltop towns for miles and miles evokes a sensation that I can't even describe. I remember last semester talking to my friends about not wanting to leave Europe – when would we ever get the chance to fly from country to country each weekend and explore a new landscapes and cultures?

On Friday, I went to San Severo – the actual church was closed off to visitors, but the chapel behind it was open, which houses the only remaining work of Raphael in the region – all the rest were carted off to France by Napoleon. Raphael had worked with artists such as Perugino and Pinturicchio while he lived in Perugia, and was commissioned for the San Severo painting.My friend Anna was is studying in Venice this summer, and she was able to visit Perugia for the weekend! It was so nice to finally hang out with a friend and hear about her time in Venice. We visited the National Gallery of Umbria, which in honor of Pinturicchio’s 550th birthday anniversary was currently exhibiting all of the surviving movable works of the artist. Literally starving after the museum, we searched for any restaurant that was open earlier that 8pm. Anna introduced me to the Italian tradition of drinking spritzers before dinner. I had a long trip to Siena the next day, so after watching Greek dubbed in Italian, I tried to catch a goodnight sleep. Siena’s my last city on my trip – I can’t believe how quickly it went by!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More Tuscany

So, I have officially entered wine country. Montepulciano is a bit larger than Pienza and equally rich in art and architecture, but it the fact that it is also famous for its two excellent wines – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano – is a mere coincidence (I swear!). The layout of the city is very confusing. Perhaps the steep winding roads, the lack of street signs, or the pouring rain contribute to that, but without a doubt there is a “Cantina” to be found on every street, offering a tour of the underground wine cellars with free samples of their best tasting vino at the end of the tour. The owners of the wine cellars are families that go back for decades.

I arrived later in the afternoon, and having no hotel to stay at I opted for a place I had read about in a guidebook – Montepulciano has many restauants that offer “Cameres” as well (places to sleep). Marcella, the owner of one ristoranto called Il Cittino, rented out rooms above her restaurant, and cooked the most amazing food for me. It was like having a host mother for a couple days, which was lovely.

The main reason I came to Montepulciano was to see San Biagio. The church is located on the outskirts of the town at the bottom the hill, and was an enjoyable walk now that the rain had stopped. I learned a little about its history before going there – it was originally a small, ancient chapel that contained a Madonna who performed miracles. Pilgrims from all over travelled to this destination. Then in the early 16th century, Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) was commissioned to transform it into a Renaissance church with the traditional greek-cross layout. The church still contains a painting from the 14th century of the Madonna and Child with Saint Francis. The outside has an amazing view of Tuscany and other hilltop towns.

I had a delightful cappuccino at Caffe Poliziano and spent the rest of the day walking around/getting extremely lost in the narrow streets. I’m sad to leave Tuscany so soon. I found a really good quote about Tuscany by Irving Stone:

“Tuscany is a state of grace. The countryside is so lovingly designed that the eye sweeps the mountains and valleys without stumbling over a single stone. The lilt of the rolling green hills, the upsurging cypresses, the terraces sculptured by generations that have handled the rocks with skillful tenderness, the fields geometrically juxtaposed as though drawn by a draftsman for beauty as well as productivity; the battlements of castles on the hills, their tall towers standing gray-blue and golden tan among the forest of trees, the air of such clarity that every sod of earth stands out in dazzling detail..."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

La Vita è Bella

I officially want to live in Tuscany. The little hilltop towns here are so quaint and adorable. I spent yesterday in Pienza, where the old Romeo and Juliet was filmed. It was the tiniest town I think I’ve ever been to – half the size of Kenilworth! Anyways, it has one main street, Corso II Rossellino, that stretches from a restaurant with an amazing view of the flowing Tuscan countryside to Piazza Dante Alighieri, next to a beautiful garden. I had to take a bus to Pienza, and for the first time in a while I found an American to chat with! This older woman was visiting Tuscany, and clearly had been there numerous times before. Her husband had recently and unexpectedly died, right after her mother had passed away, so she was searching for some peace in a place that they had travelled to while he was still alive. Talking to her made me realize while traveling alone can be such a wonderful experience. After I had arrived in Pienza, I must have run into her at least twice that day – shows you just how small of a city it is.

I stayed in a little B&B called Il Giardino Segreto (“The Secret Garden”), and my room looked out onto a beautiful little garden. It was right off the main street, which had about everything worth seeing in the town – the Duomo, Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Comunale, and the small church of San Francesco.

I took a tour of the Palazzo Piccolomini, which was built for the descendents of Pope Pius the II until the late 1900s. The guided tour of the palace taught me a lot about the town and the time period during which it was built. During his Papacy, Pius II had transformed this ancient city into his personal residence as an ideal Renaissance town, or a “utopian city.” The planning and construction was done primarily by the man after whom the main street is named. The palace itself is very well preserved and contains furnishings and decorations from the fifteenth century. It’s incredible to be able to walk through and see the home of such an important, influential family. Financially speaking, they must have been extremely well off – it was very richly decorated, with many expensive imports from countries like France and Morocco. The hallway that overlooked the Pope’s personal gardens and the Tuscan landscape had all sorts of weapons and family crests – it had been utilized for the practice of fencing! I felt kind of bad for the servants back then – the doors that led to the secret passages that they walked through were significantly smaller than the doors that the family members used. Also, they were required to taste any food/drink before it was served, for fear that it could be poisoned. I wonder how many fatalities there were.

Apparently Palazzo Piccolomini was the palace of the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet - I have to watch that movie again! I also took a lot of pictures of the tiny alleyways – hardly two people can fit, let alone a car! The way of life is much simpler there, aka absolutely NO internet – I’m in Montepulciano right now. I’ll update you on my visit to this town soon! Arrivederci!

Monday, May 19, 2008


I am obsessed with this city. Pretty much every other street in Ferrara has some historically significant structure or elaborate church. This morning, I went to Palazzo Schifanoia, which literally means “escape from boredom.” It was one of the many Este family banqueting houses. On the upper level is Cosimo Tura’s Salone dei Mesi (“Salone of the Months”), a hall with painted pagan representations of allegorical pageants with gods, humans, and animals. There are also personifications of the zodiac constellations for each month.

Later, I stumbled upon a church in the southern part of the city, Santa Maria in Vado. It was a smaller but very tall church with beautiful frescoes on the ceilings. To the right of the church was a shrine, with an upper level that had a glass window in front of an ancient vault, and was surrounded by lit candles. I had no idea at the time, but this church was famous for a miracle that occurred in 1171 at the celebration of Easter Mass – when the priest broke the bread, blood spurted out from it onto the vault ceiling. I went back yesterday, and sure enough, I could point out small red dots covering the vault.

I continued walking through the town, and came across the Monastero di S. Antonio in Polesine. This monastery had a beautiful garden outside (even in the rain) and was run by very sweet nuns. The ceilings and walls of the church were painted by Giotto – who would’ve thought!

Afterwards, on my way back to the center of town, I ducked into a tiny restaurant and had the most delicious spinach tortellini I have ever tasted. I think my diet of gelato and pasta has to change soon.

Ferrara is pretty small – it takes literally ten minutes to walk across half of town. I went to mass at the Duomo, which was pretty amazing – every square inch of the cathedral has some ornate decoration in gold or marble, and it is entirely lit by candles.

I’m still jet-lagged and didn’t get up till like noon yesterday – the reception guy at the hostel laughed at me when I left for the day. I went to Chiesa di S. Cristoforo alla Certosa, which is a giant church surrounded by cemeteries and giant tombs. It sounds scary, but it was actually kind of beautiful and very peaceful.

After stopping for a cappuccino, I headed back to the southern part of the city to visit Palazzina Marfisa d’Este, another Este family palace which was built for one of the daughters. This one was smaller but still richly furnished with oak tables and chairs and painted ceilings, and a beautiful garden outside.

The thing I like most about Ferrara is its strong tie to its past. This weekend, the city was celebrating Il Palio di Ferrara – I’m not exactly sure what that was, but there were parades each night from the street by my hostel to the palace, full of children and adults all dressed in medieval clothing, marching and dancing to trumpets. I have a little guide book that explains what the festival is, but its all in Italian – I’ll try to figure it out soon. But anyways, it reminded me of last semester when I went to Seville with my parents – the people of the Ferrara are so proud of their city, and any visitor gets a taste of the unique Italian culture and traditions that are present. I truly enjoy being here, not just exploring the castles and palaces and reading about their rich Renaissance history, but also putting away my map and getting lost in the quaint Italian streets and smiling as locals stop and talk to me while I just smile, completely clueless as to what they are saying.

I’m on my way to Pienza today. Of course, I have to take like three different trains and somehow find a bus from Siena to Pienza; hopefully everything will go well. Farewell Ferrara!

"Italy is a dream that keeps returning for the rest of your life." - Anna Akhmatove

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lost in Translation

The great thing about traveling alone is that you are able to do and see whatever you want, whenever you want. I left Florence this morning for Ferrara, which is in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. On the train there, I read a little bit about Ferrara – it has such a rich history of dukes and lords, medieval fortresses and Renaissance palaces. I was kind of thrown off when I arrived and stepped out of the train station – it felt like any suburban town of Chicago I might have driven through on my way to high school back in the day. My hostel was about a 15 minute walk from the station, during which I realized that (1) Ferrara is very small, (2) everyone has a bike in Ferrara, (3) everyone rides their bike in Ferrara at approximately 2 in the afternoon, and (4) no one speaks English. Although the definite language barrier could be difficult at first, I liked Ferrara already – it felt much more real to me though than the touristy towns I have already been to.

After checking in, I decided to walk to the center of town and visit Castello Estense, a huge brick castle surrounded by a moat and four towers. It originated as a single watchtower back in the medieval times, and was developed into a fortress under the rule of the Este family, the once-prominent rulers of the city. During the Renaissance, the fortress became a grand palace, richly furnished and decorated, but when the last Este died without a legit heir the remaining family members were ordered to abandon the palace and retreat to Modena and took all their furniture and paintings with them. Castello Estense was left under the control of the Papal States, and then later became state property, until it was turned into a museum as an important symbol of the city.

It was so interesting to read all about the political and domestic scandals that occurred within the walls of this giant monument – the tour brought us to the dungeons where numerous family members and friends were sentenced for years and even lifetimes for treason. The Este family was wealthy and powerful, they had many castles and estates all over the region. They also commissioned many famous artists and architects that at some point or another during the Palace’s expansion.

I had so much fun exploring the main piazza and its surrounding streets later this afternoon – I have to say Ferrara has an amazing shopping selection. I found my favorite European clothing store ZARA! Ahhh, it brought back memories of Barcelona. There are also a ton of jewelry boutiques. Somehow I wandered to the complete opposite end of the city from my hostel and had to make my way back, which wasn’t too long – Ferrara’s fairly small.

Later tonight, I went back to the city center. A religious Concerto was going on in the castle court, and people were dancing and singing. Right across the street, however, a tent had been set up for some kind of fiesta and was blasting disco music – I guess someone forgot to plan ahead. Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that Ferrara is a very close community, very rooted in tradition and proud of its cultural and artistic patronage. I’m SO glad that I decided to come here. I’ll keep you updated on the rest of my adventures here! Buona Notte!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Che Bella Firenze!

Ciao! I can't believe this is only my second day in Italy. After having I finished my cappuccino, I visited the Santa Croce, a beautiful church tucked away in the southeastern corner of Florence right by the River Arno. The church is thought to be founded by St. Francis, but what is so fascinating about it Santa Croce is that it contains hundreds of tombstones that are paved into the floor as well as huge monuments commemorating famous people such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Ghiberti. There is a monument dedicated to Dante, even though he is not actually buried there. Inside, there are small remnants of frescoes on the walls, and you can imagine what it must have looked like back when the church was covered with them. Also, Giotto’s frescoes cover the walls of the chapels, illustrating the lives of St. Francis, St. John the Evangelist, and St. John the Baptist.

I met up with Alexandra and her friends from school for paninis after their final, which were delicious – we ate them on the steps of San Spirito, one of Brunelleschi’s most famous Renaissance-style churches. My favorite church I went to however was the Brancacci chapel in the Santa Maria del Carmine. I think that it is often overlooked by tourists because there was hardly anyone there. It’s small, and the majority of it was closed off to visitors, but its main attraction is the series of frescoes by Masaccio and Masolini. The frescoes illustrate the life of Saint Peter. An interesting historical fact about this church – its patron, Felice Brancacci, was declared a rebel, so all portrayals of Brancacci and his family within the frescoes had to be destroyed. I love the frescoes surrounding the chapel and I think they are beautiful; I remember having studied Tribute Money in high school and college, and it is so cool to see the actual painting first hand.
Afterwards, Al and I walked through the Piazza della Signori, where a man had attracted a small crown with his beautiful guitar music - he was actually the same guy that Katie, Caitlin and I saw/bought CDs from last semester when we were in Florence in the same piazza! Next, we walked through Uffizi piazza and along the Ponte Vecchio and stopped inside a tiny jewelry shop to buy bracelets :) Still kind of jet-lagged, I had to take a nap before going out for a dinner and wine. I had the most delicious Italian pizza – I don’t understand how Italians stay so skinny with all the bread, olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette they eat!

Florence is incredible, I don’t want to leave! I’m still scared of the pigeons that crowd every piazza looking for food, but other than that the city is picturesque and pretty much what I would imagine it to have looked like centuries ago. I envy my friends who have been able to study here for a semester, and I definitely understand why it is so hard to leave. Even though I’m sad to leave, I can’t wait to continue my adventure! I leave for Ferrara in the morning…ciao!

Buon Giorno!

Buon Giorno! Yesterday was my first day in Italy – I arrived in Milan at 6:30am hardly having slept at all on the plane, but I was ready to go. Of course, the train from the airport to the city’s central station was not working, so I had to take a bus. But I met a guy who had just finished a semester studying architecture in Florence and had a lot of suggestions of what to see and do, and some helpful tips on dealing with Italian life, food, travel, and people.

At Milan Stazione Centrale, I had an immediate flashback to fall break last semester, when Katie, Caitlin and I were delayed there one night for a few hours and we had decided to pass time with a bottle of wine and Italian cookies. Although tempting this time, I decided to lock up my suitcase and walk around Milan for the day.

I went to the Duomo, which was absolutely breathtaking. Coming out of the subway and turning around to see the largest Gothic cathedral in the world is almost inexpressible. The interior was very dark and overwhelming. I had a conversation *in Italian* (how this worked, I don’t know) with a nice Italian lady who told me about the sundial inside the church and pointed out each zodiac sign. I found mine, which was very exciting! The cathedral had a beautiful crypt dedicated to San Carlo.

I got really lucky and was able to buy the only ticket left that day to see da Vinci’s Last Supper at Santa Maria della Grazie. This is by far the most famous painting of the moment where Christ reveals to his disciples that one of them will betray him. Dan Brown’s 2001 novel The Da Vinci Code stirred up a lot of debate on who is actually represented within the painting, but that is for the viewer to decide for himself. You have to go through a series of air-filtering rooms before you get inside the room. I never realized how big the painting is – it stretches across the entire wall! Apparently, the Allied bombings during the war destroyed the entire building except for this wall. It is currently undergoing a twenty-year restoration process. Unfortunately, the very large Italian guard woman made sure no one took out their cameras inside the room so I didn’t get to take a picture.

Later that afternoon to Firenze. Once again, I realized what a scam the Eurorail pass is – I still had to purchase a “discounted” ticket. I sat across from a really cool Italian man – he was a young professor at the University of Bologna, and he told me about his hometown of Assisi, convincing me that I have to make a day trip there while I’m in Perugia next week. We talked a little in French – I’m glad I still remember it!

I arrived at the Santa Maria Novella train stop in Florence, where Alexandra met me! Al lives with four other American kids, and their apartment is the epitome of a cute Italian pad with wooden roof beams and beautiful balconies with a view of the Duomo. Her roommate cooked us all a delicious Italian dinner of chicken and grilled vegetables, and I pretty much crashed after traveling for 36 hours without sleep.

I opened my eyes this morning to a charming view of the hills of Tuscany and the red Italian rooftops through green shutters. I still cannot believe that I am in Italy! Everything about it is so beautiful – the people, the lifestyle, the art, and the food. Right now, I am sitting across from a cute old man and his tiny dog, reading a newspaper (probably one on Berlusconi’s monopolies) at an Italian café sipping a cappuccino – Al and her roommates had a final this morning, so I’m waiting for Santa Croce to open – I’ll be back to write about it later! Arrivederci!