Tag Archives: Religion

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.


The Church of Soccer

For most of the world, the soccer/football/calcio pitch is a sacred place. With its packed pews and ritualized chants, thousands of fans fantasize, fret, curse, and pray together as they watch their team play.

Soccer, or calcio as Italians call it, is by far the most popular sport in Italy. I can vividly remember the Italian national team taking home the World Cup in 2006, Italy’s fourth FIFA championship that made it only trail Brazil in World Cup wins (with 5).

Unsurprisingly, Italy’s strong history in the sport has been closely intertwined with religion in a fervently Catholic country. Beginning in the early 1920s, Church clergymen helped organize teams and leagues for young people to play in. Nowadays, many professional matches are held on Sundays so that it’s now a day of the week for both mass and soccer.

Eager to experience an Italian professional game myself, I bought tickets to the Fiorentina v. Inter game for last Saturday night. Armed with our newly purchased purple scarves, we showed up to the game, ready to be inducted into the world of Italian soccer.

IMG_3174We ended up sitting on Curva Ferrovia, in the lower section closest to the field. Our section was one of the closest to the plastic box for Inter’s fans, which made for some very entertaining exchanges between those around us and the Inter fans in the box, as each group yelled out insults and team chants.


The box for the opposing team's fans. They keep the sections next to them empty and patrolled by security. They're also not allowed to leave until everyone else leaves the stadium.

The box for the opposing team’s fans. They keep the sections next to them empty and patrolled by security. They’re also not allowed to leave until everyone else leaves the stadium.

Apparently, it’s a common thing to just set off fireworks and smoke bombs in the stands to show your support. No one seemed too shocked even though there was sparks and flames shot out aggressively into the seats nearby.


Fiorentina ended up losing 2-1, but the experience in itself was a lot of fun. Despite the 90 minutes of secondhand smoke (the man in front of me managed to chain-smoke his way through six cigarettes in the second half) and risk of catching on fire, where else can you watch grown men yell the dirtiest profanities at each other? Oh, all the new Italian words and phrases I learned!

I also spent some time last weekend at a real church as well. One of the special parts of Italy is that even your neighborhood church is a work of art.

La Chiesa dei Sette Santi Fondatori is just a short 5-minute walk from my apartment, across the street from the soccer stadium. Though the mass is entirely in Italian, they had a pamphlet that I could follow along with for that day’s readings and responses, so that at least I could stumble through the Nicean Creed and Our Father in Italian along with everyone else.

Once again, I picked up on some new words in Italian––when else would you learn adulterio but when that happens to be the topic for one of the readings that week?

Now I’ve just got to throw out these new words sometime during Italian class.

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.


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.


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 .


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


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.


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!


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.


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.


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


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


My scarf in progress



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:


Look at that fresco!


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


Or the buildings themselves:


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.


A Visit from St. Nicholas

Last Friday (Dec. 6) was St. Nicholas’s Day. In my family, we celebrate by putting our stockings out in front of the fireplace for St. Nick’s visit during the night. I always considered myself lucky that St. Nick visited my family not once, but twice, during December.

St. Nicholas himself came from present-day Demre, a town in southern Turkey about four hours east of Alanya. In the 4th century, he had a reputation for secret gift-giving, serving as a model for the Santa Claus we know and love today. During the Byzantine Empire, St. Nicholas was also one of the many bishops who answered Constantine’s request to appear at the First Council of Nicea, where he was one of those who signed the Nicean Creed.

And so, it was a pleasant surprise to visit a Christmas Market (Noel Pazarı) here in Alanya last Sunday. To all the naysayers who worry about the rising Islamism or intolerance in Turkey, I’d like them to take a look at the wonderful market that the town organizes every year near the harbor.


There was lots of food! Many of the local cultural associations in Alanya––from the Russians to the Lithuanians to the Germans to the Dutch––set up booths with their traditional sweets.

Amanda and I with our berliners!

You could buy all kinds of handmade crafts.


I found the Polish booth.

There was even a Christmas tree!


I also tried salep for the first time, a Turkish drink made from the flour of the tubers of orchids. It’s mixed with hot milk and sprinkled with cinnamon on top––so good!


Happy holidays!

On the Silk Road

We hit the road again this morning to travel to Cappadocia, the picturesque region of Central Anatolia. As we settled into the ride, I once again found myself curled up with Anna Karenina, amusing myself with the randomness of my iPod’s shuffle.


So flat!

Our journey followed the very same path that thousands of merchants once traveled along the Silk Road. Along the way, we stopped at the Sultanhan Karavansaray, which is the largest and grandest caravanserai of the Seljuks. Alaattin Keykubat built the caravanserai originally in 1229, where it once served as a lodging and trading post for merchants who traveled from all across the world to seek profit on the Silk Road. The caravanserai itself consists of two sections: a large open courtyard for summer and a huge indoor cavern for winter.

We then visited Hacıbektaş, a small town in the Nevşehir Province in Cappadocia. Notably, the town has a large Alevi population, members of a religious group that combines Anatolian folk Shi’ism with Sufi elements. In Turkey, they have faced a history of long oppression under the Sunni majority.

The town gets its name from Haci Bektasi Veli, a prominent Turkish-Muslim Sufi thinker who lived from 1248-1337. Similar in many ways to Rumi, his system of thought is based on tolerance, peace, love, and equality. His tomb is located near the center of town in his former monastery, which now serves as a museum and a site of pilgrimage for Alevi and Bektashi from throughout Turkey.

We also got to see a traditional dance of the Alevis.

The chair and table where Ataturk sat for tea when he came to visit the town, now on display in the town's cultural center

The chair and table where Ataturk sat for tea when he came to visit the town, now on display in the town’s cultural center.

The theater of the performance

The theater of the performance

As the sun was setting, we stopped in the pottery town of Avanos. The town sits near the banks of the Kızılırmak, the longest river in Turkey, whose red clay has been the raw material of pottery for centuries. We visited a local pottery shop, whose workshops had been steadily producing pottery pieces by the same family since 1843.


Looks almost straight out of the American Southwest.

By the time we drove into Ürgüp, it was dark. Only the bus’s headlights gave glimpses of the eerie rock monuments that define the landscape of Cappadocia. The rest would have to wait until the next day… by hot air balloon.

City of the Whirling Dervishes

After several weeks in Alanya, it was once again time to head out again for our study tour, a weeklong trip as a group where we’ll be traveling through central Anatolia to Ankara. Since the last week was packed with midterms and papers, the study tour couldn’t have come at a better time. By the end of the week, I couldn’t wait to hit the road again.

We left Alanya early on Saturday morning, driving inland to our first destination: Konya.

Konya is a city of around 1 million people, located about a five hours drive inland from Antalya. Konya was historically the capital of the Seljuks, who ruled Anatolia before the Ottomans. Most famously, it is the home of the tomb of Jalaleddin Rumi, the famous 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic.

Rumi was born in 1207 in present-day Afghanistan. As a child, his family moved extensively throughout the Middle East before finally settling in Konya at the invitation of the Sultan of the Seljuks. In Konya, he attracted a great following as an accomplished professor in religious sciences at the largest theological school in the city. After his death, his followers formed the Mevlevi Sufi order to follow his teachings.

Today, Rumi’s poetry has been translated into countless languages, preaching its message of compassion and love. One of his most famous poems is his Seven Advice:

In generosity and helping others
be like the river.

In compassion and grace
be like the sun.

In concealing others’ faults
be like the night.

In anger and fury
be like the dead.

In modesty and humilty
be like the soil.

In tolerance
be like the ocean.

Either you appear as you are or
be as you appear.

With these words in our minds, we first visited Rumi’s tomb and museum. (The Turks know him as Mevlana.) The courtyard was unbelievably crowded with all kinds of tourists and pilgrims squeezing into the rooms.

Our next stop was the Karatay Museum, an old 13th-century madrasa that today houses a collection of tiles from the Seljuk period.

Afterwards, it was time for a çay and kahve break on the citadel! The citadel is this giant artificial hill in Konya, reportedly built from a tax that required everyone in the city to bring a bag of dirt to the center of the city. Today, the largest roundabout in the world encircles the hill.

We peeked inside the Alaeddin Mosque, which sits at the top of the hill. The mosque is built in the Seljuk-style, with a large square building built out of red stone.

Then we were in for a special treat. We visited a Dervish House, where one of the dervishes walked us through their ceremony and explained the basic tenets of Mevlana’s philosophy. We got to make our own attempts at becoming Whirling Dervishes ourselves!

Luckily, I got tons of video footage of them spinning around and bumping around as they attempted their own version of the meditative dance.

And after dinner, we got to see it done by professionals at the free show on Saturdays at the Konya Cultural Center.

It was so mesmerizing! I have no idea how they don’t get dizzy.

We then settled into our hotel for the night, exhausted from the day of travel.

“What you seek is seeking you.” – Rumi

The world’s capital

If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.

Napoleon Bonaparte

I couldn’t help but think this as I wandered through the streets of Istanbul once again. The once expansive stretch of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires are hard to fathom, a fault I attribute to the failure of my Western education to properly acknowledge the importance of the great powers before the ascension of Western Europe. If we were to truly designate a city as the world’s historic melting pot, I’d doubt any other city would be such a serious contender as Istanbul.


And so, we awoke to a rainy and cold morning in Istanbul, and met our guide Selahattin for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet, as the Turks call it.

Afterwards, we drove to the Fener neighborhood in order to visit the site of the Ecumenical Patriachate.

Above the Partriachate, we drove to the top of the hill in order to get a spectacular view of the Bosphorus! Selahattin also showed us a portion of the old city walls, which you can still climb up on today.

We also toured the Chora Church, which was just as stunning as I remembered it.

Next, we stopped at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is by far my favorite mosque out of all the ones I’ve been to so far. Sultanahmet may have its exquisite tiles, but there’s something about the quiet and reverence of the Süleymaniye Mosque that truly makes it feel like a holy place.

We ate lunch at a restaurant that specialized in southeastern Turkish cuisine before stopping by the Spice Market to try and purchase some Turkish Delights for my little brother.

For the rest of the afternoon, it was time to spend some time of the Bosphorus to see the city from the water!

After an extremely long and packed day, we headed to a local restaurant in Sultanahmet for dinner. It turns out the restaurant was actually connected to a long series of caves––part of an old Byzantine palace.

We walked  for a bit around Sultanahmet, where everything is lit up in all kinds of beautiful colors at night. We even spotted a whirling dervish!

At last, it was time for some much needed rest. Tomorrow, on to Prague!

Three and four times happy

We’ve been to a number of museums this trip, but I have to say I judge the entertainment value of a museum by the creepiness of its mannequins.

Welcome to the collection of Izmir’s Ethnographic Museum:

Truth be told, I loved gazing at the old costumes, fabrics, and household items from the Ottoman era. But my goodness, these mannequins.


In the morning, our bus climbed up the hill to the outskirts of the city, where there sits an ancient castle known as Kedifekale, or literally the Velvet Castle in English. From the top of the hill, you can see down to the shoreline, as well as map out the area that was once enclosed in the ancient city walls.

The first defensive walls built at the site on Mount Pagos dates back to 306 BCE, under the leadership of Lysimachos, a successor of Alexander the Great. The move to this location from Old Smyrna comes from a legend—apparently, while Alexander the Great was resting after a hunt, he was awoken by goddesses who told him to transfer the city to the new spot. After this, the oracle was consulted, who responded:

Three and four times happy shall those men be hereafter, who shall dwell on Pagus beyond the sacred Meles.

And certainly, one can imagine how lovely it would be to live in Izmir. The city surrounds the water, with apartment buildings perched up on the hills overlooking the ocean.

We had some time to explore around the castle and climb up the crumbling walls.

Afterwards, we traveled back down the hill to visit a Jewish synagogue in one of the old neighborhoods of Izmir. The elderly sole caretaker talked about the responsibility he takes for the building and his community—as well as his worries over his dwindling congregation.

One of the most recognizable icons of Izmir is its clock tower (saat kulesi), which was built in 1901 to commemorate the anniversary of the sultan’s accession to the throne. The clock itself was a gift from Emperor Wilhelm II.


In many of the former Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire, you can find similar Ottoman-era clock towers.

Mara and I then got hopelessly lost in the maze of streets that make up Izmir’s Kemeralti Market. Nevertheless, we finally were able to get some directions and managed to reunite with the rest of the group.

We then toured Izmir’s Ethnographic Museum, which had a large collection of old clothing and personal items from bygone eras. Outside of the museum, they had stacks and stacks of broken columns and statues. (I guess that’s a problem when you have such a rich history, you don’t have places to store it all!)

In the afternoon, we headed back to the hotel for some free time. Lindsay and I decided to go explore the area around our hotel by foot, and we ended up on this gorgeous promenade down by the water.

I certainly think I could be three and four times happy here.

Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople


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.


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.


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!