Tag Archives: Churches

Have your gelato and eat it too

I spent a lot of time traveling as a group in Turkey––beginning with our 2-week orientation tour at the start––so it’s been strange that we haven’t really done any out-of-town trips as a group here in Italy yet. Traveling with a group can be hard; itineraries are often jam-packed and people can only stand on their feet for so long before they get tired. At the same time, there’s nothing like traveling to bring people closer together, like the time we had to walk for an hour to detour around a giant protest in Istanbul or the time we traveled for hours to make a 45-minute long meeting with a village women’s theater group. I think it’s good to be put in uncomfortable situations and go to places that you wouldn’t otherwise have gone on your own. Over the past year, these experiences have taught me to learn to let go––something that doesn’t naturally come to someone who’s slightly Type A like me.

And so, the whole Villa le Balze crew piled in a bus early Saturday morning, made a pit stop to pick up someone who overslept, and headed off to Siena and San Gimignano for the day.

Siena

Siena is only about a 90-minute drive from Florence, but Sienese will fervently assure you of the differences that run between them and the Fiorentini. The rivalry between these two Tuscan cities runs deep, dating back to the 12th century. During the 13th century, multiple wars were waged as each fought for more influence in the region, though Siena ultimately fell under the power of Florence during the time of the Medicis.

Map of Siena by Matheus Merian (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a whole group, we spent our Saturday under the guidance of my history professor, who travels back and forth every weekday from Siena to Florence for work. After a bus ride through the beautiful hills of Tuscany, we met Professor Brizio near the city walls.

PC: Will

Photo Credit: Will

The center of Siena sits on top of a hill, with the rest of the city fanned out below. Siena was actually one of the first cities to ban traffic in its center back in 1966, making for quiet and pedestrian-friendly streets that you can wander.

We first visited Siena’s Duomo, also known as Santa Maria Assunta. The white, intricately carved edifice rises dramatically from the square. It was originally intended to be built to a size larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though they ended up only constructing one branch of the planned cruciform shape.

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PC: Will

We also managed to snap a group picture, at last.

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PC: Will

We also visited the Palazzo Pubblico, which has served as the seat of government in Siena since 1297.

The Palazzo Pubblico sits in the Piazza del Campo, the famous piazza in Siena where twice a year they hold the famous Palio di Siena on July 2 and August 16. The Palio is a crazy horse race held in the square where each of the 10 contrade or city wards enter a horse and jockey to win.

Before the race, the horses are taken into the church where they are blessed and have a chalice of wine held up to their lips. If the horse poops while in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.

We ate lunch in Siena at a charming––though overpriced––trattoria. The whole group of 19 went to the restaurant, but we ended up splitting the bill evenly. That means that athough many of us opted for the 7 euro pasta, we each had to pay 16 euros at the end––yikes!

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had.

Price complaints aside, however, this tiramisu may have been the best tiramisu I have ever had. So good, in fact, that I almost finished it before I remembered to take a picture.

San Gimignano

After lunch, we got back on the bus to drive to San Gimignano, an absolutely beautiful medieval walled hill town in Tuscany. When we arrived, we were treated with this view:

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The entire town is surrounded by sturdy old walls. Medieval towers still stand watch over the city.

My only complaint about San Gimignano is that we didn’t get enough time! I could have spent a whole day wandering through its streets. Nevertheless, we had an itinerary to stick to.

The Church of San’Agostino may look unassuming from its exterior, but its interior was elaborately and beautiful decorated.

PC: Will

PC: Will

We also visited San Gimignano’s town hall, the Palazzo Communale.

PC: Will

PC: Will

Near the end of the tour, we were given a choice: gelato or climb the tower. San Gimignano is known for having some of the best gelato in Italy, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity for a view.

IMG_8362 We raced up the stairs, two at a time, to get to the top. And my goodness, it was worth it.

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We managed to race up and down fast enough––with plenty of photos at the top––to have time for gelato too.

Because sometimes, you can have it all.

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“Life is Beautiful” in Arezzo

 

Buongiorno, principessa!

In 1999, Life is Beautiful won big at the Oscars, taking home the awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Music, and Best Foreign Language Film. In addition, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Film Editing at that year’s awards. Indeed, Life is Beautiful, or La vita è bella as it’s called in Italian, is a masterful film, combining comedy and tragedy to follow the story of a Jewish man who uses humor to have a wonderful romance, yet must use that same quality to protect his son during the Holocaust.

The beginning part of the movie is set in Arezzo, a town in Eastern Tuscany that often gets overshadowed by its more famous tourist destinations in the region. However, at one time, it was one of the wealthiest cities in Tuscany, producing gold jewelry for shops all over Europe. Today, it’s well-known for the gigantic, sprawling antiques market, when over 500 vendors set up shop in the city for the first weekend of each month.

What kind of place is this? It’s beautiful: Pigeons fly, women all from the sky! I’m moving here!

Several weeks ago, the owner/artist of a recycled furniture shop recommended that Arezzo has the best market around, so we added it to our list of day trips for the semester. The night before, Julia, Liz, and I watched Life is Beautiful to prepare, before catching a train the next morning to the town along with Staci. And, needless to say, la vita è veramente bella when you get to spend in wandering alleys in a new town.

We wandered the streets, ducked into churches, browsed the hundreds of tents, and ate at a wonderful trattoria for lunch. What more could you want?

After an afternoon of walking around, we caught the train back to Florence and ate dinner in the city.

La vita è bella, no?

That’s Bologna

Last Saturday, we decided to take the train to Bologna for the day, the largest city of the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. Filled with good food, beautiful churches, and a vibrant population, it made the setting for an absolutely perfect day of exploring. But why visit Bologna, you may ask?

It’s got the oldest university in the Europe.

Established in 1088, L’Università di Bologna is one of the oldest universities in the world. Even today, Bologna itself feels like one huge college town, with various faculties dispersed throughout the city. At night, the piazzas and streets were packed with all kinds of young people meeting up with friends. But this also means that you can easily stumble upon old public libraries, still serving as study spots centuries later.

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A public library off Piazza Maggiore that we found at the beginning of our day.

From 1563 to 1803, the first official home of the university was the Archginnasio, which now contains the main city library. Its hallways are covered with the over 7,000 coats of arms of former students.

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The Archginnasio also houses the beautiful Anatomical Theatre, built in 1637 to house some of the first cadaver dissections. Butchers used to come to the lectures to help cut up the corpses.

The university also means that Bologna has traditionally been one of the most liberal cities in Italy, with strong history of political activism. In fact, as we walked around, we came across a protest in front of the Justice Building .

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And, of course, street artists have their own political message to make.

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It’s the best city to walk around in the rain.

Luckily, we arrived in Bologna on a stunningly clear day. But if it were to rain, we would have been set. Porticos cover almost every sidewalk in Bologna, and the wide walkways contrast with the narrow sidewalks I must squeeze through in Florence.

It’s a gastronomic capital.

Bologna, and the larger region of Emilia-Romagna, is the birthplace of lasagna, tortellini, parma ham, parmesan, tagliatelle, basaltic vinegar, and––of course––bolognese sauce. The rich and hearty dishes that Americans often associate with Italian cuisine are native to this region, and the two restaurants we visited didn’t disappoint. For lunch, I had some handmade torteloni; for dinner, I went with the classic tagliatelle alla bolognese. (Regarding restaurants, I highly recommend Tre Santi and Quadradimezzo.)

It’s cheap to visit.

By train, Bologna is only an hour away from Florence, and our round-trip tickets cost us less than 20 euros. Once there, we visited churches, wandered streets, and visited public buildings, which meant we paid only a nominal amount in entrance fees.

The main squares were filled with all kinds of street musicians––and music is the best kind of public good there is!

Getting lost is an adventure within itself.

We had a list of places we wanted to see, but we also left some time to wander through the streets, explore alleyways, and then try to figure out we were on a map. But this enabled us to discover things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

The best views are from up high.

Bologna’s skyline is dominated by two tours––Torre degli Asinelli and Torre Garisenda––which are among the few survivors of the original 200 that once towered over the city. The story goes that two rival families competed to build the highest tower, with construction beginning in the 12th century.

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Today, you can climb the Torre Asinelli, which at 318 ft (97 m) is the fourth highest tower in Italy after those in Cremona, Siena, and Venice. We climbed over 500 steps of this narrow, slightly leaning tower to get to the very top––and oh, that view!

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When you don’t know the history, it’s sometimes just as fun to invent it.

I tore out pages from my guidebook to bring along, but often we would we wonder about the stories behind other  buildings or statues that we came across.

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Take the above statue. When you don’t have access to Wikipedia, sometimes you have to do with your own storytelling, like about the time when Thomas Jefferson visited Bologna and subsequently scandalized the public by writing risqué romance novels. Later, the city decided to commemorate the visit by building a statue in his honor. (After all, he kind of looks like TJ, doesn’t he?)

Of course, even the guidebook can’t always help you. According to my guidebook, the Abbazia di Santo Stefano contains a basin with Lombard inscriptions from the 8th century. However, we weren’t quite sure what basin contained the inscriptions, so we took pictures with both.

There’s art everywhere.

Speaking of which, churches contain some of the great treasures of Italian art. Where else can you ponder the works of Renaissance greats for free?

San Petronio is gigantic, touring above the main square. But my favorite church was San Domenico, a grand airy church begun in 1221 to house the body of St. Dominic after his death. The inlaid wood panels in choir area were spectacular, each portraying a different scene from the bible in mesmerizing detail.

The Sanctuary of Maria della Vita contained some stunning terra-cotta statues of the Compianto sul Cristo Morto.

Anywhere is great with the right people.

Overall, I had a wonderful day exploring Bologna––ducking into courtyards and savoring every bite of my pasta. But the truth is, what really matters is finding the right people with whom to explore.

Next Saturday, it’s off to Arezzo to tour its famous antique market. But that’s more for next time!

They say a picture’s worth 1,000 words…

I finally uploaded a slew of photos from my camera on this rainy Friday morning. So, what better way to catch up then to show it through pictures?

For example, I found all the photos I took with paint-covered fingers when we decorated scarves for our City of Florence class.

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Landon, me, Janhvi, and Julia B. in the art studio

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Demonstrating the different techniques we can use to apply the stencils to the fabric

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My scarf in progress

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The finished product!

I also found some snapshots of the different places we’ve found while exploring Florence, such as this church we stumbled upon during a walk:

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Look at that fresco!

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Or the amazing graffiti you’ll find on walls throughout the city:

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Or the buildings themselves:

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Or the time we spent a whole day at museums. Our first stop was the Museo delle Piedre Dure, where they showcase the traditional Florentine art form of creating elaborate designs by inlaying different kinds of semi-precious stone:

We also went to the Museo di San Marco, where you can peek into the former cells of monks:

And lastly, I was reminded that there’s no better view of Florence than from Piazzale Michelangelo.

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The Sound of Music

The hills are ALIVEEEE with the SOUND of MUUUUSIC!

I couldn’t help but replay the Sound of Music soundtrack in my head all day as we spent the day touring Vienna. Granted, Vienna may have been far from the idyllic estate of the Von Trapp family, but I think the breathtaking beauty of this Austrian city deserves only the best Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack to accompany its endless gardens, stately palaces, and towering churches.

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This morning, Alex and I arrived to the train station at the crack of dawn in Budapest—lugging our suitcases through the metro as many people were still coming back home from the night before. We had bought our tickets online several weeks prior through a very confusing Hungarian website—I ended up on the 7:10 train, while Alex ended up on the train the hour before at 6:05.

So, after Alex got on his train, I waited around an hour for my own—buying a chocolate croissant and a “cappuccino” that was really powder and hot water in a cup from the stand at the station.

Once on my train, I almost immediately fell asleep, only waking up periodically to hand my ticket to the conductor to be stamped. Soon enough, I arrived at the train station in Vienna, reunited with Alex, and headed on the metro to meet up with our Airbnb host for the weekend.

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We quickly set our bags down, and then headed out into the city. To make the most of our time here, we had planned our itinerary the night before—today, we planned to conquer most of the major sights in Stephanplatz and visit the Hofburg Palace, which served for many centuries as the palace of the Hapsburgs.

The clouds and rain of the afternoon did little to obstruct the beauty of the city. We couldn’t stop exclaiming at every corner our shock at how the palace grounds just kept stretching on and on—palace next to palace, garden next to garden. More than once, we wandered around a corner to find a new church, then peeking inside for a jawdropping glance at the soaring ceilings and lavishly decorated interiors.

Vienna, or Wien as it’s called in German, is the capital and largest city of Austria, with a population of over 1.75 million. (In fact, it’s the largest German-speaking city in the world after Berlin.) For centuries, it has served as a major political, economic, and cultural center for Europe, as it was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s a beautiful and vibrant city, often topping the charts of various quality of living indices. (For example, Vienna has one of the best public transportation systems that I’ve ever been on, with strikingly clean and modern stations all available for a simple 48-hour pass.)

At the Hofburg Palace, we purchased our tickets and began with a tour of the imperial silverware collection. We toured an exhibition on the life of Empress Elizabeth in the Sisi Museum, and finished with a tour through the apartments of the imperial family.

The Hofburg Palace has served as a documented seat of government since 1279, and was used the principal winter residence by the Hapsburgs. Over the years, more wings and buildings were added to form the mini city it is today. Today, in addition to the museum, the complex also houses the official residence of the president of Austria, as well as most of the offices of government ministries.

(Unfortunately, no photos were allowed past the Silverware Collection.)

Afterwards, we continued our stroll around Vienna.

We couldn’t get enough.

At one point, we wandered into the Votive Church, where there had live baroque organ music playing.

For dinner, we met up with Matt, who also arrived into Vienna in the evening by bus. Taking our host’s recommendation, we had dinner at a traditional Austrian restaurant, where the servers even dressed up in lederhosen and they served all types of wiener schnitzel.

Tomorrow, we’re getting up early for another round of palaces—the Schonbrunn Palace and Belevere Palace—then seeing how many other places we can fit in. Time to get some sleep!

What’s all the Praha-ha

We met up with Pavel again in the morning, for our second half of the walking tour around Prague. To begin, we took the metro and tram across the river to Lesser Town to visit the magnificent complex of the Prague Castle.

The Prague Castle sits on a hill overlooking the river, where it has served as the seat of the Kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman Emperors, and the presidents of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. It holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square meters.

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The castle dates back to the 9th century, where the first walled building was the Church of the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the 10th century, the rulers began work on the Basilica of St. Vitus, a gigantic gothic church that remained under construction for centuries until it was finally finished some 600 years later. Look at those stained glass windows!

We also toured some rooms inside the castle itself––from the grand coronation room to the offices for the government scribes.

My mom’s favorite part was this row of little houses built into the castle walls––complete with a collection of torture devices (yikes!).

Afterwards, we walked around Lesser Town and visited the Lennon Wall.

Beginning in the 1980s, people began to cover the wall with all kinds of Beatles-inspired graffiti and song lyrics. Under the communist regime, the wall served as a source of irritation. Young Czechs began writing grievances on the wall. Multiple times the wall was painted over, only to be covered again with flowers and lyrics by the next night.

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After the tour with Pavel, we had lunch as we decided what to do for the rest of the afternoon. First stop: the Communist museum!

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The Communist Museum of Prague had a somewhat creepy collection of old artifacts and mannequins, depicting life in Prague during the Communist era. When we had asked Pavel what life was like before the fall of the Communists, he always told us the same thing: “Gray. Everything was gray.” It was fascinating to contrast the photos of drab, ramshackle streets with the beautiful facades of Prague today.

My favorite part of the video was an old documentary that depicted the protests that erupted in Wencelas Square in 1989. Crowds numbering thousands, strong-willed protesters, police brutality… yet all of this underscored by the remarkable success of the subsequent regime change, all with no violence or lives lost.

We also visited the Spanish Synagogue, with its arched ceilings covered with tiny, intricate geometric designs. The synagogue also had a remarkable collection of Jewish artifacts from all over Central Europe. When the Nazis gained control of the synagogue, they had kept a staff working at the museum charged with the task to create three private exhibitions to document many of the Jewish artifacts seized from the territories under Nazi control. All of the museum staff was eventually sent to Auschwitz.

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We had dinner at an Italian restaurant near Old Square, and we then went to the top of the clock tower after dinner to have a view of the city at night.

What a sight!

Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople

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For centuries, Istanbul has been a thriving cosmopolitan city. Its location spanning East and West allowed it to attract all sorts of people from different nationalities, backgrounds, and faiths. Famously, the Ottoman Empire welcomed the Jewish people after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Larger numbers of Christians, mainly of Armenian and Greek backgrounds, also made their home in the diverse city. With this in mind, we began today with a question posed by one of our professors:

Today, what is diversity on the ground in Istanbul?

This can be a delicate subject in Turkey. In 1923, around 15% of the population of Istanbul was non-Muslims. Today, it’s more around 1%. While the population of Istanbul was also much smaller in 1923, there was also a huge shift in population after that time period.

And so, with diversity as our lens, we began our morning with a walking tour of the Fener and Balat Neighborhoods of Istanbul, where many of the Jews and Christians traditionally lived.

First, we visited the Church of St. George (Kathedrikós Naós tou Agíou Geōrgíou in Greek or Aya Yorgi in Turkish), which is the principal Greek Orthodox cathedral. Since roughly 1600, it has also been the seat of the senior patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.

While the outside was fairly plain, the inside of the church was lavishly decorated—covered in gold and beautiful icons.

We then had time to walk through the neighborhoods.

Slowly, we made our way up the hill to the Chora Church, a beautiful old Byzantine church.

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The interior of the museum is completely covered with elaborate mosaics and frescoes. Interestingly, the church contains many depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as the annunciation of Saint Anne, Mary’s early life, and other stories that focus on her as an individual.

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Afterwards, we took the bus to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. We got there right after Friday noon prayer was getting out, so it was incredibly busy.

The mosque was built in 1458 as the first mosque built by the Ottoman Turks after the conquest of Constantinople. The mosque is right next to the place where Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the standard bearer of Muhammad, is supposedly buried in 670. As such, today the mosque also serves as a very important pilgrimage site for Muslims, particularly those from North Africa.

We shuffled with the crowd to peek inside the mosque as well as see the shrine. It was the first mosque we’ve visited that wasn’t a huge tourist destination, and it was interesting to actually experience the mosque with the worshippers.

Tonight is our last night in Istanbul, so we’re planning to go out and explore as much as much as we can before we leave tomorrow morning. Then, it’s on to Iznik and Bursa!