Tag Archives: Museum

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 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.



PC: Will

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


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:


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.





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.


Sign me up for the Sultan’s harem


Passing through the entrance today at the Topkapı Palace, I smiled my simple merhaba and teşekkürler to the employee managing the gate. “Wow!” he responded. “You speak such good Turkish! I’m very impressed.”

I was pretty surprised at the response to the basic two words of Turkish that I’ve got down so far—I mean, all I said was “hello” and “thank you.” It made me wonder—do other tourists neglect to even learn a basic “hello” and “thank you” in Turkish to communicate when they visit?

We’ve gotten similar responses elsewhere whenever we try to say the few words that we know. I’m constantly frustrated that I don’t know how to say more, partly because very many Turks do not speak English but mainly because it prevents me from truly experiencing this country. Yet the sincere appreciation for our attempts so far has only further encouraged me to learn as much as I can.


Today began with a visit to what our guide referred to as the “Mini Ayasofya,” or the Küçuk Ayasofya Parklari, a mosque nearby its larger version, but quieter and older. Unlike the Ayasofya, it still operates as a mosque to this day.

We then had to chance to explore the beautiful Topkapı Palace, which was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856). The palace grounds are beautiful, and we stumbled through room after room absolutely covered with intricate tiled designs and ornate architecture.

My favorite part was being able to wander through the various rooms of the harem, imagining how they might have looked like several centuries ago.

After lunch, we then passed by Istanbul University as we walked to the Sulemaniye Mosque. School was about to start, and the walkway was filled with various student organizations and private dormitories tabling to the new students.


The Sulemaniye Mosque possessed a quiet magnificence of its own that in my opinion surpassed the Blue Mosque, with breathtaking geometric designs and its soaring domed ceiling.

We then took our little bus to the Jewish Museum, tucked away in the Pera district, because it had been closed when we had tried to go there earlier. The museum itself was tucked away in this little alleyway, and we practically had to climb through a construction site to get to its entrance.

The museum was small, but it offered a look at the lives of a particularly overlooked segment of Turks. It focused primarily on the Ottoman Empire’s acceptance of the Jews after their forced migration out of Spain. Interestingly, it did not include much information about the current state of Jews in the Turkish Republic.

Lastly, we visited the Istanbul Modern, which gave a much different interpretation of contemporary Turkish life. The collection was mesmerizing—some pieces were intriguing, while others were simply bizarre.


My favorite pieces were all of the different videos they had––one showed four women talking side by side about their lives with wigs, another showed the artist trying to shout a question over the roar of jet planes, and another showed a woman slowly taking off some 50 scarves she had on her head.

Puzzling. But such is modern art, no?

Eat your food… or it will chase you in your dreams!

With our first full day in Istanbul, it was time to learn a bit of survival Turkish. Turkish is a difficult language, where each sentence seems like a never-ending word with its endless suffixes attached to each word and a tendency to elide vowels. Nevertheless, we began to practice the basics: merhaba for “hello” and teşekkür ederim for “thank you.”

Georgetown takes on Istanbul

Georgetown takes on Istanbul

After breakfast, our group headed out into the city for our first full day of sightseeing. First, we took the underground metro to Pera, which is the part of Istanbul where most of the Jews and Christians lived in the city. The streets in Pera where lined with beautiful apartments and rooftop gardens.

We visited the Pera Müzesi (Pera Museum), a contemporary, privately-owned museum that opened in 2005 and offered a fascinating comparison between modern and traditional Turkish art. One of my favorite parts of the museum was an exhibit called “Direniyorsan senin olsun” (It’s yours if you resist), which followed the recent protests in Taksim Square. Lines of photographs taken from the protests where mounted on wire, and you had to duck around the photographs to walk through the exhibit.


Exhibit for "Direniyorsan senin olsun"

Exhibit for “Direniyorsan senin olsun”

The museum also had an extensive exhibit about the relationship between ambassadors and Ottoman art. It was a two-way exchange––Ottoman painters like Osman Hamdi studied in Europe and brought back Western-influenced techniques, while foreign ambassadors commissioned artists to help bring the Ottoman Empire to Europeans back home.

Osman Hamdi's famous painting "The Turtle Trainer"

Osman Hamdi’s famous painting “The Turtle Trainer”

After the museum, we walked along Istiklal Avenue, one of the major pedestrian walkways in Istanbul. The street is excellent for people-watching and completely lined with all types of stores.

I was surprised at how many brands I recognized from back home: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Gap, Nike, Zara, and even a Shake Shack! We had lunch at a restaurant along the street, and we were able to pick from the buffet what we’d like to eat.

The food was delicious, but most of us were unable to finish our plates, probably due to lingering jet lag. Our residence director, Nese, told us what Turkish mothers tell them when they don’t finish their food: “Eat your food or it will cry and chase you in your dreams!” Hopefully the nightmares stay away!

After lunch, we walked over to Galata, a neighborhood in Istanbul that traditionally was settled by the Genoese. We were able to climb to the top of Galata Tower, which was built in 1358 as part of the neighborhood’s walls. The tower stands over 70 meters tall, and there’s a precarious ledge you can go on to see a complete 360-degree view of Istanbul.

After the tower, we ended up back on Istiklal Avenue, where we then visited St. Anthony’s Church, a Catholic Church that is run by Italian priests.

We were also able to try Turkish ice cream for the first time. Turkish ice cream is stored in these metal cylinders which keep it extremely cold—the consistency is more of ice than of soft serve. It’s then served with this huge metal stick that the man uses to chip off pieces of ice cream for a cone.


The ice cream vendor we visited kept messing with us––he kept moving the stick around so Alex couldn’t get the ice cream!


Lastly, we visited Taksim Square and Gezi Park, the site of the recent protests that were in the news in May through July. Taksim Square itself is really just a plot of pavement near a busy intersection, and Gezi Park is a medium-sized park with trees and grass where lots of young people were hanging out.

In Taksim Square, the police presence was visible but quiet; at the time we were there, there weren’t any protests going on. In fact, it was hard to put the scenes from the photographs we saw at the museum to the bustling, unremarkable intersection that we saw.

After sitting and resting for a bit in Gezi Park, we took the metro back to textile district and headed back to the hotel.

Overall, I love my first impressions of Istanbul. It’s a fascinating city—the call to prayer echoes over women in hijabs and minidresses alike, just as they do over ornate old European-style apartment buildings and shiny skyscrapers. It’s an interesting cities of juxtapositions—of the east and the west, of old and new—and it’s exciting to see it all in action.