Entry 12: November 25, 2012
This past week was my second to last week of this program in Italy. That’s such a sad sentence it’s hard to write. I love living in Sansepolcro and I feel that it’s cruel how close I’ve been getting to this town and its people now as I’m about to leave. At the stable I’m getting along well with the other riders now that we’ve about figured out our half Italian-half English communication. There are also a bunch of new horses that are all so beautiful it’s unbelievable, and with so much spirit I hate to miss seeing their training. If I didn’t know that the kittens were all going to have wonderful homes here in Italy I’d take them back with me; they’ll lie on their backs on a lap while getting their bellies scratched in the cutest manner possible. Their poor mama, though, looks a bit rough. Her tail got run over by a car recently, so now not only is she missing an eye due to the dog, she also has a stub of a tail, which is currently bald. It’s so sad looking you almost want to laugh. The poor girl seems to have taken it in stride, however, as such is the life of a barn cat.
On Tuesday afternoon, after I visited the stable and returned to the school for conversation class, Katie and I went to a local family’s house for dinner. This family lives in the suburbs outside the walls of the town with their son and three cats. The parents spoke great English and it was funny when they’d occasionally speak Spanish with their son; the mother comes from Venezuela, and has family spread all around Spain. In typical Italian fashion we started the meal with the antipasti of cheese, bread, prosciutto, and olives. Next we skipped the pasta and went straight to the chicken with veggies. This was good, but was surpassed by the dessert of homemade tiramisu. Of course we also followed dinner with an espresso and then out came the grappa. Grappa is a kind of grape brandy, essentially wine with an extremely high alcohol content. It’s a traditional thing for Italians to drink after a meal, along with espresso. It is also traditional for Italians to attempt to continuously refill glasses, a fact guests must be aware of before it happens. The dinner was a very nice experience, and meeting a new family and being a part of that family for a little while was fun.
Later in the week, on Thursday, we had a giant Thanksgiving dinner for all the students, teachers, host families, conversation class students, and service learning teachers. Early in the afternoon I went to the Servi, the convent-turned-hotel that our cook Margherita runs, to decorate the room where the dinner would be held. We hung streamers around columns, put ribbons and cutouts along the tables, and placed party favors at every spot. It was quite festive by the time we were done.
The dinner started at 7:30 with aperitifs and socializing. Almost everyone had arrived, and we all sat down at eight. I had invited Chiara, the owner of the stable, since my service learning teacher and host family couldn’t come. I sat with her, her mother, and a man who comes to our English conversation class and his son. Before we started eating, all we students stood up and Paisley gave a speech quite skillfully in Italian; everyone then made hand-turkeys and wrote what they were thankful for. The meal then started off with bread, polenta, and eggs with truffles; basically an Italian antipasti course. Next came cute individual cups of homemade soup. Then, the two giant turkeys were brought out from the kitchen to applause. These were the biggest turkeys I’ve ever seen, and apparently the Italians thought the same. After much picture taking and posing, the carving began and the mashed potatoes, green beans, and corn were brought out. It was delicious and tasted almost like home. Chiara, her eight-month-pregnant belly hitting the table, ate enough for two, and this being her second Thanksgiving dinner, had apparently been seriously looking forward to this meal. The dessert was the pumpkin pie, which we students made the night before, cream, and apple pie. The food was amazing and it was fun to talk with the Italians around me.
After everyone had finished eating, we students left and grabbed the flower bouquets we had bought earlier. We went back in the dining hall and Katie and Rose gave a speech thanking our service learning teachers, host families, Sara, Margherita and Dr. Webb, to whom we dgave the flowers. Then the conversation class students gave us ornaments to thank us for helping us with their English, and Sara and her kids also gave us lovely ornaments. It was such an emotional time and so sad to be saying an early goodbye.
One of the guys from the conversation class, Salvatore, invited us all to his house to play video games and have pizza, and we all went on Saturday night. He had told us that his house was near the Carabinieri station, but when we arrived we learned that it was actually attached to it. It turned out that his father is the captain and has to practically live in the station. Salvatore showed us around the station, telling us the history of the military police. We saw the tiny, depressing overnight jail cell, the room where all the calls come in, and the captain’s office. Then we were taken down to see the different types of cars. It was extremely educational. Afterwards we went up the stairs and into the family’s apartment. Salvatore’s mother, Anna, was extremely friendly and cute, and gave us all hand-made necklaces, a hobby that she has. We were given a tour of the house, and I saw Salvatore’s manga and video game collection, which was really cool to see in an Italian house, since I collect manga and anime also. He had one of my favorite book series, of which I of course read a bit to see the Italian. Then, back in the living room, the other girls all took turns playing Lets Dance, while I watched from the couch because I had a headache. It was then time to eat; dinner had somehow changed from pizza to a full Italian meal. We of course had antipasti of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and bread with various toppings. Next came astoundingly good pasta, follow by equally wonderful roast and potatoes. For dessert we had mixed flavors of gelato followed by the obligatory espresso and limoncello. It was such a delightful meal between the food and the family we were with that I wish we had time to visit them again.
In retrospect, it seems that this last week has been all about food and socialization. It’s been a good week, filled with many experiences of “la vita Italiana” to enforce what I’ve learned about the people and culture within this country. I’m so terribly sad to be leaving soon, but if this is the way my next week goes, I will have nothing to complain about on the topic of the end of my trip.
Entry 11: November 19, 2012
The final crunch has fully begun as we are into our final few weeks in Italy. Final essays have been given due dates and tests have been increasing. To relieve this stress, Heather and I went to Perugia to see the sights on the non-chocolate-festival-crowded streets. For me, it was almost a completely different city, with streets that felt almost deserted.
It was an interesting day to say the least. It started with the two of us going to the local café Chieli where we ran into a woman speaking English. When I asked her where she was from she told us her story: she is from New York, has an Italian husband, and a four year old son. They’ve lived in Anghiari for the last year, and her adorable son, who at the moment was eating a croissant bigger than his head, knows both English and Italian. Both Heather and I decided that she has our dream life. After talking with her we sat down to drink our cappuccinos, when I look at the purse on the seat beside me and noticed someone sitting inside it. It wasn’t a dog, as one would expect, but a little gray cat. Its owner explained, as I took a picture, that the cat was bound to become famous as the “bag cat”.
After breakfast we still had a little time until our train so we walked around and looked at shops. During this time we met an older Italian man who commenced to talk our ears off for forty minutes in speedy Italian. He was nice, but we only caught about a quarter of what he was saying. I guess this was progress, since I couldn’t have had a single clue what he was saying at the beginning of the semester.
Once we were on the train to Perugia, which actually turned out to be super new and modern, we all but passed out. We had a slight moment of confusion when the train ride ended at the stop before ours, but a young man who spoke English explained that we had to change trains to go all the way on to central Perugia. We talked to him and his girlfriend for the rest of the ride. He was born in Mexico, moved to LA and has now been in Italy for three years working and has just managed to buy his own apartment. He told us about life here as a foreigner and how things are done, which was very helpful since I’m slightly considering coming back here to live after graduation.
In Perugia neither of us had major things we had to see, so we simply wandered around, going into churches, checking out stores, and walking everywhere. It was a beautiful day, with a bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds, so we saw no harm in merely circling the outside walls of the town. By doing this we found fun trails through wooded areas, a giant public soccer/track field and accidently walked onto private property. I loved going into the Basilica Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, the church in the main square, to see the ornate stained glass and towering high ceilings. A new theme has shown itself in my travels: the finding of old European car shows. This one was bigger than the one in Rome, and had even more beautifully restored cars from the fifties and sixties.
Once it was time for us to start heading back towards the train station, we discovered roads that led to a beautiful view over the valley. Right at that moment the sun was setting and a fog had settled, creating the most stunning and romantic view I’ve seen in Italy. It was a feast for the eyes, all the colors of the sky and the designs of the clouds. It was the perfect end to our time in Perugia.
Entry 10: 13 November 2012
The final official travel weekend has now come and gone, leaving me with only two more weeks in Italy, a cold, and 1,000 extra pictures on my hard drive. I finally got to go on my trip to the southern coast and even though it was trying and stressful at times, there were still quiet moments to enjoy the scenery and culture of a new area of Italy.
All the fun started Wednesday night, when Kasey and I planned to get on a bus for Arezzo at seven. An hour of standing in the cold later, the bus showed up. Because of this delay we missed the first train and were forced to wait for the next one two hours later. To make the most of our idle time in Arezzo we made the outstanding decision to go to the sushi place down the road. Yes, we ate sushi for dinner in Italy. It may sound ridiculous, but I have missed sushi so much! I used to eat it almost every week back home and these past two months without it have been sad. It was a paradoxical experience; the interior was all black, white, and red, with elegant decorations. This restaurant reeked of irony; the Asian staff who spoke Italian, the Japanese names of the sushi explained in Italian, and watching local Italians use chopsticks felt so “un-Italian” we were laughing the entire time. Oh, and when the sushi came, it was as if heaven had come down and taken the form of fancy fried fish, waiting to melt in my mouth, there on the plate. Each bite sated the sushi-need that had been gnawing at my soul, and now all I need is to find a Mexican restaurant for tacos and I’ll never need to go back to America!
After finishing our meal, we returned to the station and got on our train to Rome. Around one am we arrived. Walking through the deserted train station, past all the homeless people camped out for the night, was a bit scary; luckily there were other people around us who had also gotten off the train. Also lucky for us, the hostel we stayed at was near the train station, so we didn’t have far to go to get to our beds and pass out.
On Thursday morning I showed Kasey around Rome. We took the packed early morning metro to the Colosseum, then walked up to the Monumento di Vittorio Emanuele II, and over to the cat sanctuary. Kasey is also a huge cat person, so it was a necessary stop on our mini-tour; I even got to play with one of the cats I met last time. She’s so nice I can’t understand how she hasn’t been adopted, poor girl. From here we made our way back in the direction of the Trevi Fountain, stopping in the Chiesa del Gesu, which turned out to be an astounding find, with all its marble columns, statues, and gold. The fountain wasn’t far from here, and I am extremely proud of myself for being able to get us around that morning while hardly using a map. After we saw the fountain we realized that it was time to go to the train station, so we ran to the subway, ran to our hostel, grabbed our bags, ran back to the train station, ran all the way to the other end to the farthest platform, and just as I pressed the button to open the door, it slowly began to pull out down the track. We missed it by one second. One. Measly. Second. Anyway, we then managed to go back through the station, find the tiny information booth, swap our tickets for a train leaving a bit later, and get on that train.
Once we were on the train we figured, “Hey, it has got to get better from here, right?” If pigs could fly, we may have had a chance for better luck. Such as is the state of biology, after sitting in the train for forty minutes waiting for it to leave and once it started the journey, we were left, two hours later, wondering when it would arrive in Napoli. This was when the conductor came to check our tickets; he looked at the new ones, seemed confused, so we give him the old ones and tried to explain with our little Italian that we missed the first train. After five minutes of pointing and miscommunication we figured out that we were on the wrong train, an inter-city instead of regional. I guess there was a silver lining in that we were at least going to the right city, and that he did punch our tickets, shake his head, and move on the next people. Another hour later we arrived in Napoli.
The train station of Napoli is gigantic, and connects three different rail lines, the main Italian lines we had been on, the city metro, and the Circumvesuviana line that starts in Napoli and runs along the bay through Pompeii, Herculaneum, and down to Sorrento. This third line is how we planned to continue our day, by going to Sorrento and checking into our hostel. Of course, this could not be. Upon arriving at the gates of the Circumvesuviana to buy tickets we saw that all the desks said closed. We found out that no trains were running, which, by this point, should have been expected. Our next plan of action was to wander around until we finally found a tourist information store and a nice guy who spoke English who told us that we would have to take a tram to the port to take a boat to get across the bay. He gave us a map, circled the points we needed to know, and pointed us in the direction of a store to buy tram tickets. It sounded easy enough, and once we bought our tickets we figured we had time to go eat, since the next boat wasn’t until five.
A previous visitor to the palazzo had suggested that we try Mimi’s restaurant, which was, as she said, right next to the tram stop outside the train station. A ten minute walk later, following the signs that pointed to the restaurant, we found a cute little family-owned restaurant on a back-street corner. The owners were closing down for the afternoon, but let us in anyway, and we ate plates of fantastic appetizer samples, fresh mozzarella cheese, and drank great wine. It was a wonderful break from the running around that had taken over our day.
Getting on a tram and riding to the last stop should be an easy thing. One would think. However, fifteen minutes later, upon exiting the tram we see no hint of a port. We wandered around a corner, still no port. We then went back to where the trams were parked while the drivers smoked to look for someone to ask for directions. Suddenly, we heard running, and we saw the girl who had been sitting across from us on the ride running up to us from around the corner. She asked us, in beautiful English, if we were lost, and told us to get back on the tram to the other direction; she even warned us to be careful of pick pockets. This was probably the nicest thing anyone had done for me in Italy, and I think we both wanted to hug her. Her advice got us to the port and eventually on a boat to Sorrento. I think it is people like her that the world needs more of, and she really inspired me to try and lend a hand out and help people, especially when in a situation as easy as giving directions.
When we arrived in the port of Sorrento we discovered that to get to the main part of town we had to climb stairs and walk along streets up the vertical cliff. Our hostel, the Ulisse Deluxe, was on the other end of town, and when we walked through the lobby we were amazed. Twenty eight euros a night for a four star hotel? Or that’s what it looked like, at least, with all the polished marble and hard wood in the lobby and the foam beds, satellite TV, air-jet bathtub, and automatic vertical shutters that only required the push of a button, in the room. This was like no other hostel we had stayed at before in Europe, and it was hard to leave at the end of the weekend, nice though the Palazzo Alberti is.
The next morning we were up, out, at a bar drinking macchiato and tea and eating pastries by nine. Then, as we were trying to figure out where the train station was, we remembered that we had forgotten to grab maps from the hostel. After asking some nice locals we found it, in the middle of the block we had been circling; we found the train sitting there waiting for us and took our seats. Forty minutes later the train was on its way to Pompeii.
When we arrived at Pompeii we set out to find a bus tour to get to the top of Mt. Vesuvius. We met up with two groups of British women who were also looking for transportation. A company that does scheduled bus tours also does on the spot tours when enough people are interested, so we didn’t have to wait three hours for the next bus. The ride to the post near the top of the volcano took 40 minutes and gave amazing starter views of the Bay of Naples and the surrounding mountains. From where we were dropped off there was about a half mile to walk to the summit. Sounds easy until you start to go up the 45 degree angle trail the entire way up. Both Kasey and I all but collapsed 3/4s of the way up, but managed to pull ourselves to the top. It was worth the effort, the view over all of the surrounding area was not to be missed. I could see the path of the currents in the water of the bay, Sorrento far down the coast, and the huge suburbs around Napoli. The crater wasn’t overly interesting, except for the small bits of steam rising here and there. Curiously, there was absolutely no wind and no noise on the summit except that made by the humans; strange how one can be standing on the peak of an active volcano and find it slightly peaceful. Walking down seemed like it would be easier, but I hadn’t taken into account the slippery rocks on the steep incline. I’m happy to say I didn’t fall down Mt. Vesuvius.
After visiting the volcano we thought we would go to one of the smaller historic sites, until we found ourselves still sitting in the train station two hours later. It would have been horrible if not for the friendly people we met waiting beside us: a Canadian woman, her Australian husband, and their adorable four year old son. Turned out they had been traveling the world for three months, would return to Canada for two weeks for Christmas, then continue to travel for the next nine months until their son started school. They go basically wherever they feel like or hear to be nice, don’t buy any souvenirs, and follow the warm weather so they can continue to wear the same set of clothes. I’m pretty sure their child is the luckiest ever. We also got to talk to one of the British ladies more and discovered that she was actually Australian but had lived and worked in London for nine years. It’s fascinating the types of people you meet when you talk to strangers.
By the time the train arrived we figured there wasn’t enough time to see any sites so instead decided to tour around our town. After dropping our things off at the hostel we walked around checking out all the cute tourist-trap souvenir stores and the expensive brand stores. We ate dinner in a sketchy restaurant with the hostess hovering beside our table and the waiter, with wedding band, hitting on Kasey the entire time. The food was ok but it was an uncomfortable experience overall.
On Saturday morning we were up an on a bus headed for the Amalfi Coast before ten. The first part of the ride provides stunning views of Sorrento, and as you reach the crest of the mountains you can see the water on both sides of the land. From there the ride becomes only slightly more dangerous as the bus hugs the cliff sides around blind curves next to a straight drop to the water below. Each time we would round a corner and discover a town cascading down a cliff side to the sea it would take our breath away. We got off on the last stop, Amalfi, after being amazed as the bus driver backed into a tiny space between two other buses, without touching either. Italian drivers, while suicidal and insane, obviously know their way around a car.
The town of Amalfi has a large, long waterfront split into beach and marina space. Its biggest landmark is a striped cathedral which has been turned into a museum. Much of the inside of the museum is new and recently renovated, though some spots are sadly in need of attention and restoration. Outside, around the corner, was a little café where Kasey and I had a delicious lunch while listening to the waiter and waitress argue loudly just inside the door. We were clearly in the south of Italy. The rest of the town was made up of small shops selling every shape and size bottle imaginable filled with limoncello, citrus soaps, and souvenirs. Through our wanderings we found the Paper Museum, filled with all the lovely hand-made paper. Being off season the town wasn’t overly busy, but from the number of people I did see I can only imagine the chaos borne of hordes of tourists during the summer.
On the other side of the cliff from Amalfi is Atrani, an even smaller cluster of white and pink buildings with a petite rocky beach. There really wasn’t much to see, but I loved walking through the small side streets that felt like secret back tunnels that only locals knew about. We didn’t spend much time here, since for some reason it simply didn’t feel as friendly or open as Amalfi had. Whenever we ran into locals their stares felt piercing and only slightly accusing, as if we had invaded their sacred tourist-free time.
Next, we got on the bus and rode back to the more tourist-friendly town of Positano. By this point the sun was beginning to set and the colors in the sky and reflecting on the water next to the dark cliff sides gave a jawdroppingly beautiful view. Once again, the main landmark here, as in Amalfi, was the cathedral, the tiled dome of which could be seen from almost everywhere in town. Positano is known for its shopping, mainly made up of women’s clothing stores; however, we did find an eclectic art/home goods store that made my wallet hurt. We walked on the beach as the last of the light left the sky before going to take the bus back to Sorrento for supper. Our dinner was incredible! We went to a restaurant we found on a back road with a bunch of outdoor seating and live music playing. It was a family run place; the three generations were obvious in the ages of the waiters. The beautiful piano was aided by singing made even more lovely by an older gentleman standing up and joining in. He was sweet, and came over and sang to us, then invited us to join his family. It was such a friendly gesture, but we were tired and ready to go back to the hostel. I think this was a truly “Italian” experience and I really treasure it.
On Sunday morning we were up, packed, check out of the hostel and in a café having breakfast before 9:30. We then once again played the waiting game for the next train, while I made friends with a dog named Toto in the meantime. Once the train arrived and started going to the other stops it quickly became crowded; it was entertaining when at one stop two men, one with an accordion and the other with a drum, hopped on and played music for the next two stops. Can’t say I’d seen that before anywhere, even in Italy.
For the day we decided to go to Pompeii, spend about as much time as we wanted seeing the sights, then work out trains and getting back to Sansepolcro afterwards. The city of Pompeii was very…strange. I’ve known about it all my life, but never had a true image of it in my head. I had always thought it was right on the side of Mt. Vesuvius, or maybe on its own little island, but definitely not in the middle of a modern city and miles away from the volcano. The walls and buildings didn’t look as if they had been buried for so long, although the rough, uneven stone walkways and streets did seem like something men would have made way back when, carelessly tossing rocks into the ground to make “paths”. The few actual bodies that we saw were gruesomely fascinating, their limbs twisted in horror and suffering, screaming faces showing just how quickly they met their demise; it would have been horrific if not for the unrealistic quality imposed by the crowd of tourists gawking and taking pictures of the corpses. These crowds, while obviously smaller than they could be, did fill the main streets, and between them and the metal and rope fences blocking off much of the ruins, the place had the air of a theme park, cleverly crafted to look like a historic set. I think much of the impact that these ruins would have was lost by this feeling, and I’m sad that you can’t even go to Pompeii anymore and actually feel the sense of desolation and terror this place should instill. The tourism and commercialism of modern Italy has taken control, pushing historic and educational values behind a greed for money. Not that I wish to rant on about how tourism has ruined the best of Italy’s offerings, but it is disappointing.
Somehow, after leaving Pompeii, we had a very short wait for the train to Napoli, but that’s where our traveling good fortune ended for the day. In Napoli we waited at least an hour for the next train to Rome. Once we arrived in Rome we discovered that we would be forced, unless we wanted to pay exorbitant amounts for earlier trains that the TrenItalia website had claimed to be cheaper, to wait three hours for the next train that would make a stop in Arezzo. To pass the time we ate lunch, checked the departing trains sign in paranoia, got coffee, checked the sign, read, checked the sign, went to get a snack at the McDonalds next door, checking the sign along the way, until finally our train was up. This wait felt like an eternity, as did the train ride. In total, that day we spent around six hours on trains and four or five hours waiting for those trains. Because we arrived in Arezzo so late we were forced to take a taxi back to the palazzo; this was an experience. I had only ever done the ride between Arezzo and Sansepolcro on a bus on back roads, so the taxi ride in the middle of the night, on the main highway was very exciting. It was even more exciting thanks to the rain and wet roads and our driver’s insistence on going over 60 mph at all times, typically staying around 70. Simple to say we made the trip in half the time of the bus ride; our driver was also very sweet and drove us right up to the back door so we wouldn’t have to walk in the rain.
In general, besides the numerous issues we had getting around, I really enjoyed my weekend. It was extremely interesting being in the south and comparing the people with those I’ve become used to in the north. Both Kasey and I noticed differences in the behaviors of people, the men especially; they would stare at you as you walk by, even more so than those in the north. In the north a guy might look at you, but in the south you can watch a guy’s head turn to watch you, and he may actually call out or say something. No guy in the north would say anything. We both found this phenomenon quite entertaining, and I slightly miss it now… for the comic relief, of course!
Entry 9: November 5, 2012
This past week has been a blur of classes, studying, tests, writing, and decorating; it has been so crammed full with activities that there was hardly a moment where any of us could sit down without having something to do in our hands.
One of the classes that added to this busyness was the Italian conversation class that recently started in the evenings. During this time the other girls and I meet with local high school students who come to the palazzo; we talk in Italian to them and they talk to us in English. For each class we are given a topic which we have to prepare something for, such as writing questions or finding an article. The class time is divided into half Italian and half English, for this topic to be discussed between a pair of students. So far we have discussed the Italian high schools and the students’ social lives; there was one other class, but I missed it due to my hospital visit. So far I have learned that students attend the high school for five years, with six half-days of class a week, and the students have to take difficult final exams to graduate. In the social life class I had a boy to talk to who was extremely similar to many of my old friends from high school; he watches Family Guy, The Simpsons, Futurama, and he listens to rock, techno, and metal. He even watches anime! It was a bit strange meeting an Italian version of a modern counter-culture American. These classes have been great for meeting local kids and learning more about modern Italian life.
Besides conversation class, all of my classes have been busy this week; I had two tests, a huge quiz, and three papers to write. On top of this, the palazzo had to be decorated for a Halloween party, and we had to make much of this by hand. In two days we turned the palazzo into a Halloween wonderland, aided by the kids in the conversation class, and at five p.m. sharp Halloween evening, despite the pouring rain outside, children in costumes started to arrive. We had set up different booths for the children to go to; I was in charge of the treat-bag coloring station at the door and keeping the Charlie Brown Halloween movie playing in the living room. There were also booths for bean bag toss, fishing for treats, face painting, coloring, and pasta jewelry making. Bowls of candy were spread around and in the dining room we had junk food and drinks. For two hours we had children running everywhere, getting hyped up on candy while the parents socialized with each other. Once everyone found their way out we started to clean and within almost no time all traces of the cause of the majority of our stress, and newly formed wrinkles, was gone.
Today, after a long and relaxing weekend of getting slightly caught up on work, those of us in the Art History class went up to Professor Banker’s house to pick olives. It has been raining for the past week, and it was an absolute downpour this morning, but by noon the sun had come out. I don’t think I will ever look at olive oil the same way again; it is so time consuming to pick all those olives off every branch! I was there for two hours and was able to finish two trees, the large-olive type, while the other girls who had the small olives to pick barely finished one tree each during that period. This has really given some perspective to what comes in those bottles in the super markets, although I’m sure large farms have some machine or way to make the process more efficient. Nevertheless, this was a fun excursion, and it felt truly Tuscan, especially during the bike ride there and back through the mountains.
I’m now looking forward to my trip later this week to the south of Italy. I had originally planned this trip for the last travel break, but that was cancelled due to my accident, so I’m excited that I’ll be able to do it this time. I will be going to Pompeii, Sorrento, and along the Amalfi Coast; it’ll be interesting to compare the southern beaches to the northern ones. I’m also planning on jumping in the sea, never mind the cold temperatures, I’m going swimming in the Mediterranean!
Entry 8: October 29, 2012
It’s been a busy, stressful, fun, and painful week. I spent four hours Tuesday evening in the local emergency room and still went to Rome for the weekend three days later.
It all started with Penelope. She’s a horse at the stable, and I was given her to ride on Tuesday because Etrudia was recovering from a 30km race she had won (yea!!!) the previous weekend. We were working in the ring, walking and trotting. She had been acting up a bit, occasionally breaking into a canter while we were trotting, but I could slow her down - until the one time we were walking and she suddenly broke into a gallop, hurtling us around the ring. I tried my best to get her attention but every time she seemed like she was slowing down and I had won she’d immediately speed right back up. When horses get to this level of out-of-control it’s all the rider can do to keep them from running straight into a fence, having to yank the horse into sharp turns in corners, while keeping balance. So, it’s basically barrel racing, just without the barrel, or control of the horse.
After about a minute Chiara, the trainer, and Mustafa, the caretaker, noticed what was going on and ran over, Mustafa running into the ring to try and catch Penelope. He quickly realized that this wouldn’t work, as he was forced to dive out of the way to keep from getting run over. Poor Chiara, her seven month pregnant belly holding her back, could only yell instructions from the side and watch as I fought for control.
We played this game of gallop-like-a-crazy-horse for about five minutes before I finally accepted my fate, allowing her to tear through the chord fence to the other field in an uncoordinated half-jump which sent me to the ground. I landed on my right back, hard, knocking the air out of my lungs. Chiara ran over to me and helped me up and to a bench by the barn while Mustafa grabbed the wild horse and calmed her down.
Before too long Chiara’s boyfriend, Marcello, arrived to take me to the hospital to get checked out. Their main concern was for the state of my kidneys, which were in the area of the worst looking injury. Luckily, the hospital was only a five minute drive away, and upon arrival I was quickly whisked into a wheel chair and taken to the desk to check in. I saw the doctor, was poked and prodded, got my blood taken, had alcohol scrubbed into my wounds, was sent for an ultrasound, sent for a second ultrasound, and had x-rays taken. I am extremely thankful that Marcello is a vet because his medical knowledge, and wonderful English skills, made the visit go exponentially smoother.
During this time Sara and Dr. Webb joined the party. Sara is our Italy Today teacher, and liaison to Italian culture, of sorts. Once she had been caught up by Marcello, he left to return to the stable, after having stayed with me for two or three hours. He had to go back to ensure Chiara that I was alive; she had been calling every 30 minutes to check on my status.
Eventually, after four hours, I received the good news that I had no internal injuries, but the doctors wanted me to come back the next day to see an orthopedist to check my clavicle. The next day I returned to the hospital, spent forty minutes waiting and ten with the doctor and learned that I was all good, bones and innards. My only injuries were large scrapes, parts very deep, on my lower back and upper shoulder, with the expected soreness and stiffness that accompanies any hard fall.
Now, when I am writing this, it has been about a week since that fall, and my skin injuries have improved amazingly fast. The only real problem I am having is the swelling under my lower back injury; there is a lump the size of a small orange that doesn’t want to go away very quickly. I’m also still sore all on the right side of my back, and bending down is a challenge; however, I’m grateful that nothing worse happened, and having been around horses for seven years, and broken bones before, I have a pretty good appreciation for that. And hey, not everyone who travels can say they’ve had a chance to experience such an important part of a culture - the medical system! All of the nurses and doctors I met were very nice and concerned for me, and, compared to an American emergency room, I was moved along pretty quickly. Also, it is extremely likely that I won’t have to pay anything for my visit; it seems the Italians are under the impression that if you’re in the emergency room you’re already having a bad enough day that you don’t need medical bills added onto that. Yes, I think I like this country. As an injury prone person, this is a policy I can make good use of.
This incident had one large problem of happening on the week of our long travel break. I had planned to go to Pompeii, Sorrento, and Amalfi, but that got cancelled. I rested for a few days, and by the time Friday came around I was feeling well enough to go somewhere, so I decided to go to Rome where Katie, Victoria, and Rose already were. I took an afternoon train, arrived in the evening, and began my search for a place to stay for the night. After asking at three hostels I found a hotel with a private room, so I dumped my stuff and went out to meet Rose and her friend Alex, who was visiting from London, for dinner. Rose said they were at a close restaurant. An hour later, in the rain, I find them, four miles away from the hotel. And of course, after dinner we had to walk all that way back, up a hill, in the pouring rain. It was an experiment in staying dry.
The next morning I was up and out of the hotel before nine. I started with the Colosseum, working my way around the arena and through the museum. It was incredible to be in this place that I’ve always heard about, that’s older than I can even imagine, and to explore it and see for myself how it is constructed.
From here I wandered around, going in whatever direction looked like it had something interesting. I walked up, past the Roman Forum, to the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II. This ginormous white building is covered in marble and bronze statues that are five times life size. Almost makes you think the Italians really liked their first king.
I then decided that I would go to the Pantheon, but without looking at a map I took a street that I thought went in the general direction I wanted. On this street I stopped and had pizza for lunch. I sat on a wall that surrounded an area of ruins, and just as I was half way through my first slice I was joined by an old black cat. I shared some of my cheese with it and then finished my pizza and followed it – turns out I was sitting next to a cat sanctuary! Down a small staircase is the headquarters of the Torre Argentina cat rescue, which maintains the cat colony. The facility had a room full of thirty cats that couldn’t be released in the sanctuary. Old cats, blind cats, neurologically damaged cats, and new cats being quarantined before release inhabited this room. I went in and played with them and overheard an employee telling other people about the cats they ship around Europe. People from northern Europe visit Rome, go to the sanctuary, fall in love with a cat, and either take it with them or have it sent to their country after they’ve returned. The rescue even has all the cats spayed and neutered, a concept I’ve noticed isn’t very popular among the Italians for house pets. I was very happy to find this place which took such good care of its lovely cats.
Once I finally tore myself away from the cats, I easily found my way to the Pantheon. It’s strange to think about the importance of the tombs housed in this building; there’s Raffaello, King Vittorio Emanuele II, Queen Margherita and King Humbert. These tombs are ornately decorated, and those of the royalty have guards standing in front of them. Besides the art and tombs I think I was most impressed by the ceiling with its opening letting in the fresh air and sunlight, a strange concept in a building that feels like a museum.
I then continued my unguided tour of Rome finding the ancient facade of the Tempio Adriano, the tiny hidden gem of the Church of Saints Bartholomew and Alexander, and the stunningly beautiful marble and gold coated interior of the Church of S. Ignazio di Loyola. I found the small Church of Santa Maria in Aquira, the busy Church of Santa Maria in Via, and the Church S. Claudio, with its small group of worshipers having a self-led mass. I then fought my way through the crowd to climb the Spanish Steps to reach the Church of SS. Trinita` dei Monti at the top of the hill. I then made my way along the ridge, taking a small tour of the gardens beside the Villa Medici, and somehow managed to get back down the hill to the Piazza del Popolo and the Church of S. Maria del Popolo.
After having walked all over the east side of Rome and visiting seven churches I was starting to get tired, so I decided I’d head back in the direction of the hotel and find a place for dinner on the way. This plan was slightly delayed when I ran into the hoard of people in front of the Trevi Fountain. The fountain is lovely at night with all the lights illuminating it, and the crowd makes for interesting people watching. My hunger took over quickly though, sending me on through the streets to eventually meet up with Katie and Victoria at a restaurant for dinner.
For my second night in Rome I decided to leave my first hotel and stay in a hostel that was half the price. After I checked in Rose and Alex came to join me for a drink in the hostel’s bar to celebrate my birthday, which had been Friday. While I was there I met an Irish man who works in Rome, a New Yorker who lived in Ireland for nine years and has an Irish accent, and a native Roman. It was in interesting night of varying accents and histories.
On that Saturday night we had the day light savings time change, a fact which two girls in my dorm room were unaware of, so their alarm went off at a bright and early six am, new time. Thanks to this I was up and back out in the city before eight. It quickly became obvious that Italians are not fond of early mornings, because the streets were deserted. I decided that my plan for the day would be to return to the Trevi Fountain, continue my tour around the city, and maybe go to the Roman Forum.
This morning I was feeling adventurous, or you could say lazy, so to save walking time I took the metero to the fountain. It was surprisingly easy to buy my ticket, and even though the train was crowded, it didn’t feel unsafe and I had no problems getting to my destination. This destination looked like a whole new place; there were only ten or so people in front of the fountain, which somehow made it look all the more beautiful. To casually stroll up to the edge of the Trevi Fountain is pretty nice, and allows for some amazing photos. Maybe my subconscious understood this tranquility, because when I was walking around afterwards I found myself at the Spanish Steps, which were also wonderfully deserted.
The walk around this part of town is extremely entertaining and tortuous because the streets are lined with stores of the biggest names in fashion, with their heartbreakingly high prices. Lucky for me, I don’t care about fashion, otherwise I would have cried for that one 3,000€ lace trim skirt that would have looked amazing on me. I quickly decided that it was time to find another part of town when I ran into a Ferrari California sitting in front of the Parliament building; I was beginning to feel slightly poor.
On the way towards the Roman Forum I walked into an old car show being held in the parking lot of a church across from the King’s monument. It was interesting to see the two old military FIATs they had, with military escort and all.
In the Roman Forum there are ruins from ancient civilizations such as temples, columns, and parts of houses. For a non-archeologist these things look like random broken pieces of marble, especially if you’ve been walking all weekend, then they really look ambiguous. Nevertheless, I enjoyed looking at these pieces of history for a little while until it was time to go get on my train.
So, to recap: horses, hospital, Rome, walking. I had a good weekend and was able to redeem my not-so-fun week. Now I need to go write another paper.
Journal 7: 22 October 2012
Last week Dr. Banker took us to Monterchi, a tiny town 15 minutes away from Sansepolcro, to see the “Madona del Parto” by Piero della Francesca. This fresco is one of the few pieces of Renaissance art that show Mary pregnant; as such, it has become common practice for pregnant women to pray to it for an easy pregnancy. This piece is housed in a ‘museum’ with four rooms: the entry-way/store, the room housing the fresco, a room playing a video about the life of Piero, and one with information on the history of the fresco and its preservation. The fresco is fairly small, the only surviving bit being the figures of Mary and the two angels who pull back the curtains of the tent which she stands in. The colors are understated and complementary, and after looking at intricately detailed Botticelli’s this simplicity came as a breath of fresh air.
The theme of the day on Saturday was chocolate. This was because five of us girls, Dr. Webb and John Rose went to the chocolate festival in Perugia. It took an hour and a half on the small, slow local train, stopping at every town between Sansepolcro and Perugia. When we finally arrived we took escalators to the top level of the hill where the old, main part of town was. These escalators led us through old Roman tunnels and caves with beautiful barrel vaults thirty feet high. The closer we got to the top the more people appeared until we arrived on the street to see the majority of the crowd.
The festival was a collection of booths spread along the main street and some side streets, selling more kinds of chocolate than I had thought possible. Chocolate mixed with every fruit, sheets that looked like chocolate pizzas, and chunks of chocolate bigger than my head. If I was diabetic, I probably would have died just smelling it all.
Before setting us loose John Rose and Dr. Webb took us to the tourist information spot to get maps, then they ran off, leaving us in this land of sugar. Victoria and I began wandering the streets, taking an inventory of the goods. After walking past almost every booth I started to notice that much of the chocolate was the same, it seems even chocolate festivals are losing their traditional, creative touch and becoming standardized.
Eventually we wanted a break from the crowds, so we went to the National Gallery of Umbria. This museum felt tiny compared to the never ending Uffizi in Florence, but Victoria and I did start to become slightly loopy by the end of it, bored by all the repeated scenes of biblical stories. To keep ourselves awake we acted out scenes from the paintings, me playing the dying Christ draped over Mary’s lap, played by a bench, and Victoria as the lamenting angel who curiously looks like she’s laughing. I’m sure whoever was watching the security cameras were extremely entertained for a good half hour by us.
After we left the museum we split up and I saw Raffaello’s fresco Trinity with Saints in the Capella di San Severo, which I happened to discover as I explored the town. It was very interesting since it is a giant fresco covering an entire wall, but even more so because the top half was done by Raffello while the bottom half was visibly different, having been painted by Raffello’s master, Perugino.
Continuing my exploration of Perugia I saw some ancient Etruscan walls and giant gateways. I followed this outside wall and then took whatever streets looked to have something interesting down them. Doing this I came upon the small Chiesa della Madonna della Luce e Chiesa di S. Luca, and further down the street I found myself in the courtyard beside the ginormous Chiesa di San Francesco al Prato. The cathedral was closed, but the smaller Oratorio di San Bernardino beside it was open. In here I found a room with high ceilings covered in gold. Also beside the cathedral is the Accademia of Perugia, an ancient art school which has a small museum. It had a large room full of plaster casts of sculptures, some of which I recognized from my museum visits in Florence. Beside this room was a hall with blessedly modern art; having been in museums and seeing hundreds of Jesuses and Marys, it was a relief to see the art of the 1800s and early 1900s that were not on religious topics.
Seeing as how I had gotten lost to find this museum, when it came time to head back towards the train station it took some logical reasoning to figure out how to get back; also known as follow-the-majority-of-the-people-and-assume-they’re-heading-for-the-chocolate reasoning. This plan worked marvelously, getting me back to the festival quickly. I must mention, on the walk back I went into the Chiesa di San Filippo Neri, an absolutely gorgeous cathedral covered in marble and gold. From the main city area I made my way down the hill in the general direction of the train station, exploring the typical Saturday market booths I passed.
During the train ride back I learned how similar Italy is to America. I watched 13 year olds buy drugs and teenagers of all ages run in and out of mid-section between the cars to smoke. Quite interestingly enough, the conductor didn’t come to check tickets until the second to last stop, when only a few people were still on the train, and the illegal goings-on had ended. The world’s sketchiest train ride finally ended, and I returned to the palazzo considerably more culturally aware.
Entry 6: October 16, 2012
This past weekend we had our first independent travel break. Rose and I took it as a chance to escape studying and relax by going to the Cinque Terre. One of Rose’s main goals was to go to here, so I let her take control and decide what we would do. We left Sansepolcro at 7 a.m. on Friday and arrived in Manarola by 1 p.m. She had chosen this town because it is one of the smallest of the five, and least crowded with tourists. As soon as we got off the train we started for the hostel; fifteen minutes and a half mile up a 45 degree angle hill we made finally made it, checked in, and dumped our bags in the room.
For Friday night we went to Riomaggiore. We decided to take the train, so we got on, it started to move, and 100 yards later we were in the town; an amazingly useful train! The part of town that the train station is in is located on the other side of the hill from the main area. To get there we walked up the street, all the way up the mountain, around the curve, and wandered our way down side streets to the harbor. The uphill part seemed to be a never-ending urban suburb, but as soon as we came around the bend we began to see those little brightly colored houses that make this area famous. The streets we took were small alleyways, with stairs so small I barely thought my size 9 foot would fit. Even Rose, with her little feet, ended up slipping and falling a bit, although the way she tells it “the stair crumbled under my feet”. Rounding corners we would occasionally come across a balcony of sorts right on the edge of the cliff looking over a small garden below and the ocean beyond. The afternoon sun over the water reflected in our eyes, and the haze blurred my distinction between water and sky.
After we finally wound our way down a couple hundred stairs and made it to the harbor, Rose immediately pointed out to the rock barrier and said that we must go out to the edge. We didn’t quite get to the very edge, but we climbed out far enough to be straight in front of the town, with 50 yards of water between. I hadn’t been, literally, rock climbing, in years. It was slow going at first, but I became more foot sure in my combat boots by the time we reached our goal. The risk of plummeting into the sea was forgotten once we basked in the full glory of the old part of Riomaggiore. The small, bright buildings climbed up the mountain side, and above the town grape vines lined the land. I very much enjoyed watching a local fisherman strip down to his underwear, jump into the water, and swim out to a boat. The view of an Italian harbor was then complete. We took our tourist pictures of the town, and then worked our way back over the rocks to explore the town.
In Riomaggiore there were not many “touristy” attractions, so we simply walked around, made friends with the local animals, and peeked in some shops. It was an extremely cute, quiet, and very nice town to slowly make our way through. We stopped at 5 p.m. or so for supper at La Lanterna. We were the only ones in the restaurant, so we took a table in front of a balcony overlooking the small piazza filled with parked fishing boats of every color pulled onto the pavement. I ate wonderful tomato sauce and fresh fish pasta, and decided immediately that the theme of the weekend would be to gorge myself on all the seafood possible.
Later in the evening we returned to Manarola, but not without difficulty. After having just stuffed our bellies we were forced to climb all the stairs we had earlier descended in order to get back to the train station. By about half way up the hill my legs were protesting so much I could barely lift them, yet Rose insisted “we’re almost there!”; and then we’d reach the landing, look up, and see yet more flights of stairs. I don’t think I will attempt to climb that many stairs so soon after eating ever again, it doesn’t seem beneficial to my health. Eventually we reached the top of the mountain, and just as I was beginning to rest Rose pulled out the train schedule and realized that the next train left in ten minutes, unless we wanted to wait around an hour, or, heaven forbid, walk back. Of course, we were going downhill, but this hill was steep, and it’s hard to balance and walk fast when you suddenly have a five pound food baby weighing you down in front. This great feat was accomplished, though, and we caught the train back to town, where we began to wander; we were quickly amazed at the lack of people on the streets. It couldn’t have been much after 8 p.m., but hardly any people passed us on the streets, and only a few restaurants were occupied. It was surprising to see a town that made Sansepolcro feel like bustling New York.
The next day we donned bikinis under our clothes and headed for the largest of the towns, Monterosso. Once again I found myself being dragged along on a run down a steep hill to catch a train. The train station was across the road from the beach, so as soon as we exited we were greeted by the sun shining off the most beautiful blue water I have ever seen. We found a restaurant on the beach, the Nuovo Eden Bar, where we ate croissants and drank cappuccinos and watched the clear waves on the gray rock beach. The restaurant had a large wrap-around deck with tables and umbrellas, so we were able to sit outside. I didn’t realize it until later, but there was very little breeze. On beaches in North Carolina you have to weigh everything down or it’ll be gone, but here, along the Ligurian Sea, almost no wind blew.
When we had finished eating we walked along the beach and saw a giant rock jutting out of the beach 40 or 50 feet into the sky. We vowed to climb it when we returned from exploring the main part of town.
The main area and harbor of Monterosso were located, once again, on the other side of a mountain; luckily, a tunnel cut through the rock so no climbing was required. I found this town, upon first glance, to look considerably more modern, even though it was an older area than that around the train station. The buildings were, of course, still beautiful, as was the local icon, the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista. This small church has a black and white striped outer façade, a theme continued on the columns inside. Besides the gorgeous architecture, there wasn’t much to see. Located in the same small piazza is the Oratory of the Dead, which is modeled similarly, and has an inside in considerable disrepair. Besides these two churches there was not much else, besides little shops and restaurants, so we returned to the beach.
Having only been on sand beaches before, I was not aware of the pain that would ensue when I removed my boots to walk on the beach. The rocks dug into the soles of my feet, and within probably 50 feet I had to stop and put my shoes back on. I just don’t understand how people could possibly walk normally on this torture trap called a beach. Even with shoes on, walking was difficult. When it came time to climb mount beach rock, however, the boots came in handy and allowed me to climb almost as if there were stairs. The view from the top was breathtaking. The water looked ridiculously blue and went straight to the rocky cliffs of the mountains; the entire beach could also be seen stretching between the cliffs. This was undoubtedly the best view from a rock that I’ve ever seen. No, I haven’t climbed many rocks, but of the ones I have climbed in the mountains of North Carolina, I can’t say I’ve ever been surrounded by beach and sea. Going down the rock was a bit more tedious, as it required balance to keep from lurching forward and tumbling down. When I got to the bottom I was forced to take off my shoes and walk barefoot to swim in the water, which turned out to be absolutely freezing cold. I stuck it out and eventually got used to the temperature and greatly enjoyed swimming in the clear sea.
Afterwards, I grabbed my stuff and, carefully, made my way to a group of large rocks on the edge of the beach to lie out to dry. It was nice finally to have time away from studying to bask in the warmth of the sun and not have to worry about what essays need writing or books read. Sadly, I eventually became hungry and was forced to go in search of food with Rose. We went through the main part of town checking prices at restaurants for a good while before we came to the conclusion that the place in which we had eaten breakfast had the cheapest food around and went there again. I ate another dish of fresh fish pasta and, of course, gelato for dessert.
To wrap up our time in Monterosso we saw “the Giant”, a huge man sculpted into a small cliff on the far edge of this part of beach. This man is huge, much larger than the David of the Accademia in Florence. He looks as if he is struggling to hold up the weight of rock that leans on his shoulders, and I can feel his pain after a week of hard studying.
On Saturday evening Rose and I went to dinner at La Scogliera, ate more fresh fish, and listened in on the conversation of the other tourists in the restaurant. During our day and a half at the Cinque Terre I had already noticed the uneven proportion between local Italians and English speaking tourists, or other tourists. It had already become a rarity to pass people on the street speaking Italian. It created a paradox of sorts: to be in Italy and feel as if I was in an Italy-themed amusement park in the States. I can’t complain too much, however, because we did make friends with some Australians, a Brit and a Frenchwoman, whom we had seen in the restaurant and later talked with in the bar across the street while listening to live local music. That evening I learned three things: Australians are extravagant; Italian men like you to grab their shirt, stick your face in their chest, and demand to know what their perfume is (as done by one of the Australians, to the amusement of the Italian); and that a harmonica can be played with enough soul to put any jazz band to shame.
On Sunday morning we were supposed to explore a bit more, and relax. Or so was the plan. This was ruined due to a strike that the workers of Trenitalia kindly held from 9 p.m. on Saturday until 9 p.m. on Sunday. We had known about it before leaving Sansepolcro, but we simply hadn’t grasped the level to which it would upset our plans. First thing on Sunday morning we woke to find that absolutely no local trains were running, and that our only option of leaving the Cinque Terre for La Spezia was to take a 50 euro taxi ride. We did this earlier than planned because Rose was worried about our being able to get on trains that would take us back towards Sansepolcro.
Ah, that good old warning of the horrendous driving of Italians comes to mind when I think back to that day. Our driver was very nice and friendly, and the road which he took went right on the edge of the coast and provided the most jaw dropping views; however, so did his speed. I converted the kilometers per hour to miles and discovered that on this tiny, twisty, cliff-side mountain road he was averaging 50-60 miles per hour, including on turns. Oh, the joy. It took about 25 minutes to get to La Spezia, and once we reached the town traffic the ride became even more fun. Our driver, in order to get around slow cars, passed two cars at one time, and upon arriving in the left lane, looking ahead of us I saw a car coming our way from much too close down the street. Somehow we swerved back into our lane in time to keep our lives, but I think I might have lost a few years off my life. This habit of passing cars no matter the situation is something I have observed quite often in Italy. Even bus drivers will do it. Cars will do it around mountain curves. On country roads. In city streets. Whenever they feel the person in front of them may add two minutes time to their car ride. One must wonder how there are not cars squished by the side of the road at all times.
I mustn’t complain too much, our driver got us to La Spezia train station in a timely and non-horribly priced way. I am, however, now allowed to complain about the utter confusion and disorganization on the part of Trenitalia. The strike was apparently in protest to the lack of pay raises and benefits, a plight I can understand as a worker. As a traveler, however, I have no sympathy for the lack of knowledge of those who were working in the information and ticket booths. It took three lines, and three employees to discover that no trains would take us directly to Florence, that we must go to Pisa and start again from there, and that we could either take the train leaving in five minutes, or wait for the next train which might or might not arrive in an hour.
Before I discuss the absurdity of this last sentence, I would like to explain the complete and utter insanity that is the act of waiting in a line in Italy. One must get in line and defend one’s position from those behind who will attempt to sneak in front by standing beside and then stepping up first. After thwarting this sneak attack from behind one may still be shocked to find an ambush waiting at the head of the line in the form of the Italian who has not queued, but instead waits to the side for the person to finish at the desk, then slips in as soon as that person steps away. This attack is unavoidable in almost every instance of waiting in lines, and is reason for constant vigilance… and for studying up on Italian cuss words.
In the station, the employees could never be sure if a train would arrive until the train was headed directly their way. This seems completely unreasonable to the annoyed traveler who has just fought the great World War Queue to receive this unhelpful information. Rose decided that it was too uncertain to wait and so exchanged our tickets for those for the current train, which we ran to, only to sit in for ten minutes before it eventually departed the station.
Upon arrival in Pisa we were greeted by yet another Battle for Information, which once again gave us disappointing news: the next train to Florence might arrive during the one o’clock hour, so check the boards then. By this point my frustration and hunger were through the roof so we went out and ate lunch, and upon return to the station found that a train would indeed be arriving at platform twelve at 1:45 for Firenze Santa Maria Novella. Gleefully, we found our way to our platform, grateful for this glimmer of hope. Come 1:40 I hear the ding of an announcement over the intercom: in Italian “The train from Pisa Centrale to Firenze Santa Maria Novella number XXXX departing at 1:45 has been changed to platform 11”. I didn’t wait for the English announcement, I turned and booked it to the stairs, into the mob of people, and over to the next platform. We then waited for ten minutes.
By some miracle, once the train arrived and we got on it and it started to move, we found that it was a direct line to Florence, and we arrived in a record 30 minutes. And then we traversed the crowded station to the boards, did some checking of the trains arriving and departing and comparing with the master list of trains, and found one that supposedly was running to Arezzo. Around this time Katie called us and we learned that the other five girls, who had gone to Venice, were already on a different train. We checked that it made our stop, saw that it left in five minutes, and ran to hop on (hope springs eternal). Walking through crowded car we found the girls, sat with them, and waited 25 minutes.
The rest of the trip home was as usual and I spent the afternoon looking over pictures and attempting to de-stress. And so, my tale of beautiful seas and painful rocks, delicious food, relaxation, and insanity comes to an end with me back in the palazzo, back to studying Italian and writing essays.
Entry 5: October 9, 2012
This last week has been a marathon of studying, with the only breaks and excursions outside the palazzo being trips to the stable, Pisa, and the local elementary school.
Last Friday I took the other girls out to the stable to go trail riding. The six of them got on their horses and stood in the ring, while Chiara, the trainer, explained, in pretty good English, the basics of riding. I came in after her explaining anything they didn’t understand. We then set off on the trails, with ever so lucky me on foot, running from one end of the group to the other, answering questions and making sure everyone was doing ok. I was also the designated photographer for the hike, a job I’m used to having, and gladly accepted.
The girls had varying levels of experience with horses; most hadn’t been on a horse in years. Nevertheless, they all did wonderfully and seemed to enjoy the trek through Toscana. They all understand why I go so much now, and some even want to go again and ride more. Maybe next time I’ll be on a horse too and won’t have to climb all those hills on foot.
On Saturday Katie, Rose and I went on a day trip to Pisa. We got on a 7:30 a.m. bus to Arezzo, a 9:00 train to Florence (which Katie almost didn’t make it on, due to the doors closing in her face. Luckily they opened when we commenced pressing every button visible beside the doors in panic!), and a 10:00 train to Pisa (which we had no problems getting on, merely finding seats once onboard). When we arrived in Pisa we consulted the map right in front of the train station, and started heading north. On the way we passed a tourist info station, thankfully, and were able to get maps for free. The walk to the tower would have probably taken 20 minutes if not for our coffee break that we took at a bar we passed. The streets we walked along to get to the tower were lined with buildings, with covered-arch walkways on both sides of the street. The buildings looked fairly recent, but they had such detailed architecture that they blended in with the few older ones scattered in-between. On the walk we passed small churches (one of which was styled after the front of the main Cathedrale, I later discovered) and the ruins of an ancient Roman bath house.
In Pisa, the train station is on the southern-most tip of the main part of town, below the Arno River. The tower and cathedral are in the northwest of town, so to reach this area one must simply walk straight out of the train station, continue to the river, find a bridge to cross, and continue straight. We did this until we came upon the Roman ruins, which were located next to the north wall of the city. From here we turned left, and after walking two minutes we were greeted by our first glimpse of the real-life-actually-leaning tower of Pisa. Yes, it really does lean, a fact I was shocked to see, even though I’ve known it my entire life. To see a building leaning at such an angle, right in front of oneself, really is shocking.
This awe was quickly replaced when Katie and I went to buy tickets to climb the tower and were shocked anew with the 15 euro price tag. We paid up anyway, it being the leaning tower of Pisa. Since our tour time was an hour later, we took our time doing the most touristy thing possible on a trip to Italy: we took pictures “holding up” the tower. It’s actually really difficult to get the angle of the arms and hands to line up perfectly with the tower, the majority of this aligning is left to the photographer, who must guide his or her model to the perfect pose (there is no guarantee that this pose will actually be up to snuff, however, once the picture is viewed full-size on a computer screen). After our pictures were taken we went and quickly grabbed a cheap and delicious lunch at a local restaurant, then Katie and I left Rose at the restaurant and rushed back to get in line.
The tower of Pisa is, essentially, a giant straw. It has no actual ceiling, merely walls that form a circle and rise 8 stories into the air. Between these two layers of wall are stairs to the top. Upon entering the tower a guide gave us a short history of the tower. He explained why the tower leaned (a fact Katie and I couldn’t quite remember and had been discussing a mere five minutes earlier): the ground underneath Pisa is very soft, and the tower is made of all marble, and after the 3rd or so story had been added the ground underneath gave way, tilting the tower. At this point the original architect, who is unknown, gave up and said the project was ruined. A century later, however, a new architect came along and drew up plans to continue the tower, which he did. The levels he added were angled in a way as to slightly straighten the remainder of the tower. And thus, the tower was completed, and still leans to this day, although slightly less so due to a project a few years ago which straightened it a whole .5%.
I climbed this tower a week after having climbed the Duomo of Florence. In comparison, this tower was a piece of cake. I hardly broke a sweat by the top, a thing I couldn’t have said half way up the Duomo. As I ascended the staircase the tilt of the building became ever more present, so between it and the slippery marble stairs, climbing took a little precaution. These dangers are worth the view of the Cathedral from the top of the tower. The magnificent building stands close, and the baptistery behind it, and both shine with white marble. To walk around the tower is just a bit scary; going around a downward-leaning circle feels that it could be the end of you with one wrong step. It is worth it, however, to be able to look down on the piazza and see the huge number of tourists who are standing around and taking the same cheesy picture I just took.
After the tower Katie and I joined back up with Rose and toured the Cathedral, the inside of which is just as impressive as the outside. The floor, walls, and columns were tiled in black and white marble, and the ceilings were intricately decorated with sculptures and carved and painted wood. The ceiling of the three domes shone with golden mosaics, and the walls were lined with marble sarcophagi and paintings. There was even a reliquary that contained a skull, which was only slightly creepy. The details and decorations were so interesting to me that I stayed for a half hour, while Rose and Katie left to catch an early train to go back to Sansepolcro.
Once I left the cathedral I started to wander my way back towards the train station, so that I would be near and not be rushing come time to leave. However, since I was in no hurry I detoured down roads that looked interesting, discovering beautiful churches and parks along the way. Once I got near the station I sat at a bar and watched people go by until it was time to leave. I then managed to successfully get myself back to Sansepolcro; score one for independence and self-sufficiency.
This Monday morning we students started the service learning part of the semester, with almost all of us going into a local school to talk to classes and help their English learning. I was put into 2nd and 3rd grade classes, where I talked to groups of 3 or 4 students at a time reviewing how they introduce themselves, their favorite colors and animals, and numbers. The children were all very nice and curious about me. The 3rd graders especially, who were more confident and knew a little better English, were very friendly. Tomorrow I go back to the school to work with 5th graders.
Also on Monday, some girls were watching the recent Dark Shadows movie, and I joined them. It was nice to watch something that wasn’t dubbed over with Italian for a change. A little Johnny Depp goes a long ways towards reenergizing a tired student.
Journal 4: October 2, 2012
Got Study, Will Travel. This was the motto of my last week in Italy. Our classes have gone full swing; I’ve had 5 tests, 5 papers, 2 full books to read, and countless Italian homework exercises online. It has been driven into my soul with nail and hammer that this is no mere vacation – there is a greater purpose in being in Italy. But, once I do get my work done I am able to go around and explore in places like Florence, where we went this past weekend.
We arrived in Florence around 3 and Dr. Webb and John Rose led us to the other side of town, winding us through the market, past the Duomo, over the Ponte Vecchio, past the Pitti Palace, and finally to our hotel. Once we put out stuff in our rooms we were free to explore. Rose, Katie, and I started to make our way back to the main part of town, wandering into churches we passed, back over the Ponte Vecchio, and through the Uffizi courtyard. We continued to wander and acquaint ourselves with the city until we decided it was time to head back and rest for Saturday.
Our day started at 7 a.m. on Saturday with an early breakfast, and then we were off to climb the Duomo. I have to say, that thing is higher than it looks. Within 5 minutes my legs felt that they were going to fall off, even though they are in pretty decent shape thanks to horseback riding. By the time we got to the top, I could barely stand. This extreme labor was worth it, however, for the amazing view of all of Florence and the surrounding mountains.
After 100s of pictures we wound our way back down the dome and found our way to the Accademia. Because we bought a Florence card we were put in the “Reservation” line, which only took 20 minutes. I couldn’t help but feel bad for the people at the end of the 2 hour long “No Reservation” line. Our wait, short though it was, was worth it to get inside and see all the stunning art, and who could forget David? I hadn’t realized the sculpture was so huge, but it towered a good 20 feet high.
From the Accademia we went back towards the Duomo and went to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. This museum houses the actual Doors of Paradise (the ones on the Bapistry in front of the Cathedral are replicas), pieces of previous facades of the Cathedral and Bapistry, and different plans for the doors.
After all of this museum seeing we were starving so we stopped for lunch on the way to the Pitti Palace, where I spent 4 hours of the afternoon. I toured the apartments, jewelry collection, clothing museum, a temporary collection on Native Americans, the Boboli gardens, and most of the modern art museum. This palace was astonishing! There was so much to see, I ended up staying there right up until the front doors were being locked.
On Sunday we started just as early as Saturday, gathered our stuff, and left it in the lobby to be picked up when it came time to leave Florence. We started our day at the Uffizi, spending 3 hours looking at masterpiece after masterpiece. The Botticelli room was my favorite area, not because of his well-known Birth of Venus or Primavera, but for his Madonna with 3 angels. The gold detailing in Mary and the angel’s hair and clothing was so detailed that I liked this painting more than his larger, more famous pieces.
Looking at all this art and being on our feet so long exhausted Rose, Katie and me, so as soon as we left the Uffizi we went to lunch at a restaurant right outside the museum exit. We ate a delicious lunch, and it was the cheapest meal of the weekend. After we were rejuvenated we toured the Palazzo Vecchio and climbed the tower. All I needed after this weekend of walking and standing was another tower to climb; I am a glutton for punishment. The views were, once again, worth the climb, giving a view of Florence that included the Duomo.
After the Palazzo Vecchio, I split off from Katie and Rose and wandered through Florence. I found my way to the Santa Maria del Carmine Basilica, where I saw the Brancacci cappella. The fresco was highly detailed and very effective at telling its story.
From the Basilica I went back to the hotel, gathered my stuff, and met Rose and Katie at the train station. Once we arrived in Arezzo we had an hour and a half to waste, so we went to the Marilyn bar to have snacks and look through our stuff we had bought.
I am now back in Sansepolcro, and a few days later my feet still hurt. Florence was beautiful, historic, educational, expensive, and exhausting. I can’t wait to go back some time and continue to explore the many museums, shops, churches, and streets I didn’t even see.
Entry 3: September 27, 2012
It has been a busy two weeks of studying, bus riding and hill climbing. We have gone to Spoleto, Anghiari and Arezzo; conquered huge chunks of reading material; written multiple papers and taken a few tests. Amidst all that I have still found time to go out horseback riding and enjoy the mountains beside the town.
Spoleto is a small, old hill town in the southern part of Umbria. Its Duomo is the most spectacular building I’ve seen since I’ve been here; the sheer detail of the architecture alone requires no further art to make the cathedral amazing, yet it has countless priceless works lining its walls and ceilings. We also went to the National Archeological Museum which gave access to an ancient Roman amphitheater and the tunnels underneath it, providing much childlike amusement for us “mature college students”. Other places in town we visited were an ancient Roman house turned modern art gallery, a small church beside the Duomo that housed a large collection of crucifixes, and the Rocca – a fortress built on the top of the hill. The day was long and exhausting, but very fun and educational.
Anghiari is another, smaller hill town the bus stops in on the way to Arezzo. We visited it in the morning before heading to Arezzo for the afternoon. The walled-in part of Anghiari is probably even smaller than Sansepolcro, and far hillier. Winding staircases, small alley-ways, and high buildings make place seem out of a fairytale picture book. When walking down an alley one is like to stumble upon a small garden of flowers and vegetables of all kinds. Upon inspection of a hole in a wall I discovered a well going down through the rocks maybe 150 yards. As per the rule of most Italian towns we visited small churches to see what artistic treasures hid within. I made friends with many local dogs and cats, so in my mind this was a morning well spent.
I will now be slightly jaded in my discussing our time in Arezzo. Keep in mind that I’ve been in the tiny little town of Sansepolcro now for almost a month, so to suddenly be in a city with public transit busses, suburbs made of apartment buildings, and a whole mess of people was quite…different. Now, the old part of town was lovely. It had the old stone buildings, gardens and the random church thrown in that I have become accustomed to. The churches we went to were beautiful, and the artwork we saw in them was breathtaking. I even managed to (quite inconspicuously) capture a picture of Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross in La Cappella Maggiore of San Francesco. The newer, urban areas, however, came as a sharp contrast to the quiet, charming, old town life I’ve become accustomed to. Every building had a clothing store on the first floor selling over-priced designer wear and people running in and out of doors from one store to the next. People seemed to spend less time sitting and socializing for need of going somewhere. This fast pace really shocked me at first, but as Arezzo is the Provincial capital it is to be expected. I will consider this as training for Rome in the art of traversing urban Italy.
Now that we are back in this slow little town of ours I look forward to my next time on the horse farm. During my first days here I told Professor Banker of my love for horses and she quite quickly got me in contact with a local stable owner, Chiara Rossi. Chiara allows me to come to her barn twice a week and jump on a horse and join whatever class is happening in the ring, or join the group on a trail ride through the mountains.
Last Thursday I even did both, riding two horses in a row! The horses are all lovely, the barn dog, LaMou (or something of the sort), is a giant ball of love fuzz, and the sweet cat and her four two-week-old babies are adorable. The scenery is not to be ignored either. I think everyone who comes to Tuscany should go on at least one trail ride through the countryside and see the views that dreams are made of. I certainly am.
I am now looking forward to our three day trip to Florence this weekend. I have not, as of yet, made an itinerary or day plans of any sort. I am not a procrastinator. I’ll keep saying that and keep enjoying my last-minute-thrown-together trips.
Entry 2: September 10, 2012
All good festivals must come to an end.
It’s been a busy week as the Palio wrapped up. There have been countless parades, never-ending flag throwing, enough costumes for two Disney parks, feasts, parties, and 2 Balestra competitions. The weekend before last saw what boils down to the Italian version of a Renaissance fair; booths showcasing various trades, goods, and skills from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance lined the main street. Being a girl I was obligated to, and did my duty, of buying jewelry – a necklace.
Wednesday the first competition was held to decide which of the town’s two teams would compete against our mortal rival Gubbio. This, like all the other events, was held in the main piazza where giant bleachers were set up. The archers would go in pairs stepping on the stage, positioning themselves, and shooting at a tiny target 200 or so yards away, and whoever was closest to center would get a point for his team. Thirty or so archers later, my side of town, the Porta Fiorentina team, won.
Friday a formal dinner was held in the town library. It featured traditional medieval foods, people in their festival attire, and is (supposedly) a really fun event and great meal. Or so I hear, since the 25 euro price tag dissuaded me from attending.
Saturday night was the sbandieratore showcase. All the town’s flag wavers came out en masse to show off their talents to the music of the drums and trumpets. They managed to keep this going for two very long hours. Afterwards we were invited to the party held for the flag throwers and their friends, family, and the townspeople. There was an amazing performance by belly dancers who absolutely entranced the young pre-teen age of the sbandieratore – you could almost see the drool running down their chins. Later fire dancers did a just as captivating, and far more dangerous, show.
Sunday afternoon was when these past few weeks of build-up finally came to a climax as Sansepolcro and Gubbio met each other on the battle field to fight for the honor of their towns – or you could say in the piazza to sit and shoot off some arrows. After much pomp and circumstance the archers finally took their places on the stage and shot off the first arrows. It took around 40 minutes to get through all 60 or so archers, going one after the other, with room on the stage for six at a time. Once the last arrow was shot the board was taken away to be judged to see which team had the lucky arrow closest to the center. While we waited there were performances by the sbandieratore (the same ones we had seen the night before). A good while later the drummers, trumpeters, and archers lined up and the winner was announced…….Gubbio won.
And on another bitter note, there are no more parades to wake us up early in the morning now that festivities are over! But that also means no more guys in tights walking outside our windows. Little sacrifices must be made.
Entry 1: September 5, 2012
I’m trying to add up the number of hours straight I’ve been awake…it’s not working out. From my best guess, it’s over 30 hours. Fun. Stuff.
So: 3 hours wait in RDU, 30 minute flight, 4 hour wait in Charlotte, 9 hour flight, super fast walk, skip, and a hop through customs in Rome, and a 3 hour bus ride have gotten me to Sansepolcro (oh, and I wasn’t kidding about the walk-skip-hop in customs…the man barely took time out of his conversation to stamp my visa and shoo me along…security these days is so strict).
As our welcome to the town, the ever so inconspicuous Dr. Webb paraded us down the main street, suitcases in tow, looking like hot messes, with every Italian eye within a half mile watching, showing us the way to our new home. We then dropped our bags and got ready for lunch (made up of grilled veggies, homemade pastries, fresh ricotta/spinach/beef lasagna, potatoes, and a turkey breast basted in brandy sauce). The food couldn’t have come any sooner, my stomach felt as if it was digesting itself from sheer emptiness.
After lunch we had an hour break to unpack (aka: dump stuff on bed, toss some in wardrobe, some in drawers, and some on bookshelf) before we got our grand tour of the Palazzo Alberti. Can I just say, this place is huge! The tour kept going on and on, down staircases, and winding through doorways.
According to our fearless leaders, the best way to get on Italian time is to stay up until a regular bed time. This meant staying awake… ha! Their strategy was to show us around town (the American parade continues!) and keep us moving. This we did, and the town we did see, and Italian friends we have already made. Four young (13-15 years old) girls whom Mr. John Rose had known from the English program at the local school got roped into sitting with us at an espresso-bar table. For the next half hour we all tried our best to communicate, they with their English and us with our Italian. Tried. Key phrase. Remember, at this point, we’d been up for a good 24 hours. We did our best.
Later, after more wandering, we had pizza for dinner. It was delicious, and the local cats that came to play made the meal all the more fun. Oh, I also ate a tomato (a hated food) - and liked it. Score one for Italian food. Afterwards, I had my first real Italian gelato. It was amazing, and cheap - be jealous.
So in conclusion: I survived the trip. I am in Italy. It is 11 p.m. here (5 p.m. in Raleigh) and the night life outside our windows is just getting started, kids included. Italians are quite different from Americans, a fact I am sure I will better come to understand by the end of the semester.