Italy, Study Abroad

Italy 2018

Studying abroad in Orvieto, Italy was one of the best experiences of my life so far! I really fell in love with the country and everything it has to offer, and it was pretty hard to contain that excitement. In the 5 weeks that I was there, I wrote 9 separate blog posts gushing about my adventures there. At the time, my blog was in a sort of limbo between being just a diary of what I was doing and suggestions for what others should do. Of those original nine posts, the five that are more personal and less well-organized have been compiled here. For all of my other Italy posts (both ones I wrote while there and ones I wrote after reflecting on the trip), check out the Italy archive here.

Benvenuto a Orvieto

May 27, 2018

It’s hard to believe I’ve already been in Italy for a week!  Between adjusting to the time difference, starting classes, and exploring this little town, the time is already  going by quickly!  I landed last Friday morning completely sleep-deprived, and by the time I reached my apartment for the month, I just sort of fell into bed for a few hours.  Fortunately though, I woke up in time for the group tour of important places in the city (school, supermarket, pharmacy…).  I was still a little tired and not sure of where I was going to meet the group.  I knew Orvieto’s cathedral was impressive, but on such a small hill, buildings tend to go up several stories, which means I couldn’t see the cathedral until I was right there. So, you can imagine my surprise when I turned a corner to see this:


Last Sunday was Pentecost, which in Orvieto is celebrated with La Palombella festival.  This is another draw for tourists to Orvieto both from Italy and around the world.  The main part of the festival takes place in front of the cathedral.  As visible in the above  picture, there is a structure in front of the main doors.  This is a baldachin (baldacchino in Italian), which is basically an elaborate canopy of sorts that goes over an altar or throne.  The one here is temporary and was moved following the Pentecost celebrations.  For the festival, a statue of Mary and the apostles was placed in the top portion of the baldachin, and on Sunday morning, a dove in a glass cage “floated” down a zip line into the same space at which point sparklers went off around the statue to symbolize the Holy Spirit.  It was really exciting to watch.  The whole day was taken up with celebrations and booths to buy flowers and such, but the day culminated in a  parade and crossbow contest in one of the main piazzas.  Everyone in the parade was dressed in medieval costume, and there were four teams in the crossbow competition to represent some of the ancient noble families of the region, who were also represented in the parade by people in costumes.  The whole event was just a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed it!

While here in Italy, I am taking two art history classes, and I’m really excited to get to see the works we’re learning about in the classes.  However, you can find really cool art and architecture all across Italy.  From the cathedrals to coats of arms painted on buildings, there’s a lot to see.  On Wednesday, we took a walking tour of Orvieto, and my group really got to see some of that art as we went to the Opera house, inside the cathedral, and through the Orvieto underground.  The Opera house was opened in 1866, and pictures really can’t do it justice.  From the intricate curtain that hangs over the stage to the dance of hours painted on the theater ceiling to the busts of composers in the stairwells, the whole building is simply incredible.  The cathedral also is impressive with artwork everywhere.  In the Chapel of the  Madonna di San Brizio, a 15th century addition, there are frescoes by Fra Angelico, who is studied in every Renaissance course, and Luca Signorelli, who is not as famous, but his work in the Orvieto cathedral is considered his masterpiece.  The underground of the city didn’t have quite so much artwork, but it did take us back even further in the city’s history to Etruscan times when people dug into the rock to create tombs.  Later, the underground was expanded for use as both cellars and olive oil presses.  In the 20th century, it was expanded even more to use as a bomb shelter in WWII, though in fact Orvieto was almost completely left alone thanks to a German general’s appreciation for the cathedral.

I think the weekend trip to Naples and Pompeii yields its own post, so that will be up in a  few more days.  So until next time, here are a few final pictures of this lovely little town.

Back in Time

May 29, 2018

One hundred years in Europe is a much shorter time than in the United States.  It’s been said a lot probably by anyone who’s ever been to Europe that there’s just so much history, but it really is true.  And what hit me this weekend with my trip to the south of Italy was the immense scale of that history.

Everyone knows Pompeii from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius way back in 79, but the thing is – people didn’t just abandon the site.  They built in the same places that were destroyed then such that now, the ruins of the old city are in the middle of the new one.  At the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Baroque architecture houses Greek and Roman statues just as it did when the building was constructed in 1777 as the “Royal Bourbon Museum.”  It houses such amazing works as the Tyrannicides and the Doryphoros of Polykleitos, which after studying them in history and art classes were pretty amazing to see.

I had an absolutely amazing time seeing some of these old places.  By far the most exciting part though was seeing a mosaic of Alexander the Great in the Naples museum.  It was originally part of a floor in Pompeii, but I didn’t know that I would actually be able to see it, which led to a very excited selfie in front of the mosaic.  After touring the museum on Friday, we spent the afternoon in the ruins of Pompeii, which, thanks to restorations and careful preservation, still very much resembles a city.  There’s a song I like about Pompeii that says, “If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”  And, it really does.  I could have spent several more hours exploring the city, but we hit the most important parts as a group (Villa of the Mysteries, House of the Faun, Amphitheater, etc.)

Saturday morning, we went first to a buffalo mozzarella factory where all the cheese is made with buffalo milk.  We stayed there for a few hours to have lunch and pet the buffalo before moving on to  Paestum (/ˈpɛs.təm/) which is home to three of the most well-preserved Greek temples in the world.  They’re also really old, dating to somewhere between 600-450 BC.  This is apparent in the structure since these temples have Doric columns rather than the more well-known Ionic or Corinthian ones.  The Doric columns are basically wider and closer together than the later ones as the architects were still discovering how thin and how spaced out they could make them.  Back in its day, the city of Paestum was part of Greater Greece before it was taken over by the Romans, which explains the Roman roads that were added.  In later years, the Temple of Athena was also used as a Christian church, and, as  a result, it is the best preserved temple in the world.  These temples are also massive!  You don’t realize in pictures how big they are, but standing in front of them, it’s pretty clear that these were massive building projects.

After a trip to the museum and some gelato, we retired to our hotel, which was only a five-minute walk from the beach, so naturally, everyone went to the beach to swim in the Mediterranean.  The dinner that night was also spectacular, and really  the  whole  day was fantastic.  Finally, on Sunday, we went to Caserta.  Today Caserta is the capital of the Province but way back when it was a residence for the Bourbon King of Naples.  The building is essentially the epitome of the Baroque and is also one of the largest palaces constructed during the 18th century.  Including the gardens, it is considered the largest royal residence in the entire world.  And the gardens are definitely the best part of it (despite the 1200 interior rooms).  The palace is dwarfed by the extent of its gardens, and it takes about an hour to walk out to the end.  Once you reach the end point though with its beautiful waterfalls, you’ve also reached the expansive English Gardens that probably deserve a day to explore on their own.  I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked, but it was a beautiful day and perfect for posing for a lot of pictures.

That’s it for now!  I’ll post again on Sunday!

Villas and Vias

June 4, 2018

Reading about Rome and Italy in a book is one thing, but it’s quite another to turn a corner and see the Colosseum. My second week in Italy has been absolutely amazing. Wednesday was a day trip to Tivoli, a small hill town home to two of Italy’s most amazing villas. The older one is Hadrian’s Villa, a massive complex half the size of Pompeii. In its own day it would have effectively been a city. The villa is a work of art in itself; even as a ruin it’s possible to see the splendor that this emperor lived in back before the marble and bronze were stripped from the bricks. Pools and green spaces still dot the complex, inter spaced with bath complexes and the remains of buildings.  Hadrian’s Villa is also incredibly important to the history of art. The Greeks preferred to work in bronze, almost all of which was melted down in the Middle Ages, but the Romans, inspired by the art, made marble copies to decorate their own landmarks. Many of these survived and those close to Rome provided examples for the Renaissance artists who would not have been able to travel to Greece. 

Hadrian’s Villa was also the prime inspiration for Villa d’Este, in the same city though constructed in the 17th century.  Ippolito d’Este had tried unsuccessfully to become a pope but ultimately decided to content himself with being Governor of Tivoli instead, using his family’s funds to construct what is essentially a palace.  His architect was inspired by Hadrian’s Villa and so built a similar sprawl of gardens in a more modern style, decorating them with statues taken from the older villa. Nowadays the statues in both are modern copies with the originals in museums, but a trip to Tivoli really isn’t complete without seeing at least one of these villas. Villa d’Este is especially spectacular in its 16th century recreation of Hadrian’s ruins, and it provides breathtaking views of Umbria and it’s own fountains that are true to the times in that the rig landowner destroyed buildings that were previously on this land in order to build the villa. The Renaissance produced beautiful things, but it’s patrons weren’t always the nicest people (cue funding churches and donating to the pope to atone for their sins).

As I write this, I’m on the train back from my weekend trip to the Eternal City: Rome. We took a bus with the school on Friday morning, but unless you’re Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, you really need more than one day to see this magnificent city. In fact, even in three days there were things we didn’t see like the Farnese Palace or Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy. But every bit of Rome is marked with some piece of history or art. As for Bernini, well, Pope Urban VIII said he was made for Rome and Rome for him. Even if you don’t know who Bernini is, you’re guaranteed to see his work at some point. From the Fountain of the Four Rivers to the baldacchino in St. Peter’s, this Baroque master is everywhere.

On Friday, however, we saw the ancient stuff, before moving forward in time on our own. Upon driving into Rome, it looks at first like any other city with assorted apartment complexes. The city seems distinguished only by the occasional embassy. But suddenly you see the Flavian Amphitheater (A.K.A The Colosseum) and it hits you that this is Rome! This is the city that dominated the world for hundreds of years and remains an influential metropolis for the country’s politics. This is the Eternal City, mentioned in books and glimpses in movies but unbelievable until it is seen.

Starting with the Capitoline museums we took Rome’s history all the way to the beginning with the famous statue of Lupa Capitolina and the infant twins Romulus and Remus. The facade and piazza of the museums were designed by Michelangelo, with the intent that the buildings would function as a city hall. You climb a high flight of stairs to crest one of Rome’s fabled seven hills and are welcomed into a marble piazza all centered around Marcus Aurelius. This of course is a copy as the original resides within the museum, but it is still impressive. This marvel statue is one of the few remaining from antiquity; because early Christians believed it to be a statue of Constantine, they let it stand though today it’s been properly identified. Walking through the museums you pass innumerable treasures – pottery and marble busts, even the remains of a colossal statue of Constantine. As you pass through these ancient wonders though, nothing quite beats the view of the Forum. Here you stand on a brick walkway with massive arches to look over what was once downtown Rome.

After lunch, we went to L’Archetto Pizzeria (above). It seems pointless to try and describe what it’s like to walk down the Via Sacra and gaze at massive arches and Julius Caesar’s deific memorial. There are three main arches in the forum and though each is magnificent, I love the engravings on the Arch of Titus which depicts the conquests of Rome. The sculpting here is a masterwork that shows just how well the ancients could ply marble. The figures are cut in close at the ends but come fully into the viewers space in the middle, and the image itself is of historical importance as it depicts the conquest of Jerusalem, represented by a menorah. The Arch of Constantine, while also lovely to see, provides a further step in the history of art. Here the figure have more similar features and are not nearly so three-dimensional. This was Roman denaturalization, the period in which the so-called Classical period began transitioning into the art we think of as medieval.

Above all of this though, there is the ancient palace on the Palatine Hill. Though one facade had been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of the majesty, it is for the most part in ruins, overlooking a weed-filled Circus Maxima. I loved walking through the ancient halls of this palace, knowing it was once covered in marble and precious metal, while today the underlying bricks crumble and anyone can walk through for a few euros. It’s like a comment on the passage of time, how even this magnificent empire fell, and yet it is still remembered. The ruins still stand and are still revered by those who visit the Eternal City. Perhaps the emperors would be disappointed, but for the rest of us, it seems more like a testament of the sorts of things humans are capable of – for better or for worse. In a more modern way, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican are the same – the triumph of an era, open to the public for 17 euros. But once you get a peak inside the Vatican, it’s worth every penny and, in my opinion, this masterwork of human skill is something everyone should see at least once. But more on that Wednesday.

The original post that followed this combined visiting the Vatican and visiting sites from Roman Holiday. I revised this and split it into two posts, so to read about the Vatican, go here, and to read about Roman Holiday, go here.

For a long post all about my weekend in Rome, go here.

Siena and the Sea

June 11, 2018

After two intense weeks of traveling around Italy, it’s nice to work on this post on a train taking me back to  Orvieto after a weekend at the beach.  Cinque Terre is home to five tiny cities of about 1000 inhabitants each.  The tourists crowd it in the summer, but it’s still a lovely little collection of colorful houses and blue waves.

Overlooking Vernazza

But I’m not there yet.  On Wednesday, the group took a day trip to Siena, a town that’s kind of a modern remnant of the Middle Ages.  In the main part of the city, the buildings were all built in the 13th or 14th century and have stayed in the same places since then – with renovations of course.  The town was originally divided into seventeen sections, which means seventeen churches, seventeen bureaucracies, and seventeen horses. Yes, horses.  Besides its cathedral, Siena is most famous for the 90 second race that takes place every July.  Each district participates, and a horse can win even if the rider is thrown.  While we didn’t get to see that, we did see Piazza del Campo where the race takes place just as it has for centuries.

The cathedral in Siena is  absolutely spectacular.   It was built  at  the  same time Florence was  building its cathedral, and the two cities were actually in competition for who could build the best one.  At one point, construction on Siena’s cathedral stopped because they realized the Florence one would be bigger and started making a different one.  All that was built of this was one arch of the façade.  Had the cathedral been built, it would have been a skyscraper, but in my  opinion, it’s almost better that they only built the one arch.  Now, Siena’s original cathedral has the spotlight, and one hundred tiny spiral stairs up the arch take you to the best view in the city.  Siena’s clocktower may be higher, but it’s also four hundred stairs to the top (they built the clocktower from the lowest point in the city).

The cathedral in Siena is a Gothic masterpiece, and, like much of the rest of the town, is kind  of like Medieval Europe with  modern tourists.  Although the outside is beautiful, the real wealth and fame of the cathedral come from its interior.  Siena has the luck of being close to a lot of marble.  While white marble is the most common, it’s actually yellow that is rarest and most expensive.  The floors of Siena’s cathedral feature marble tiles in white, green, red, and yellow that depict Biblical scenes.  These would have been used similarly to stained glass windows in illustrating the priest’s sermon, since almost all of the congregation would have been illiterate.  My favorite part of the cathedral though was inside a chapel.  Originally, a noble family who donated a lot of money to building the cathedral had this chapel for their private use, but now it’s used to house vellum choir books, under glass  of course.  I took some  pictures, but they really can’t  capture how cool these books were.  All of them were illuminated, and they were much  bigger than modern choir books since they would have been really expensive, and there was no way the church could afford one for each choir member.  So, all in all, Siena is pretty neat.

However, as much fun as I’ve been having, the long free weekend with minimal pre-planning was pretty nice.  Some people had pretty intense travel plans – 3 countries in 3 days, trips to Ireland or to Hungary.  While  those all sound pretty cool to me, I really didn’t want to deal with flights or big cities, so one of my roommates and I headed north to Cinque Terre.

We left early-ish on Friday morning (around 9) and took the first train to Florence along with a couple of guys who were going to Milan.  Early in the trip, I discovered that I hadn’t charged my kindle, so rather than digging the charger out o f my backpack, I listened to podcasts and watched the countryside go by.   Once in Florence, we split with the guys and  took our train to La Spezia, the biggest town before Cinque Terre.  Once we were settled into the airbnb (a cute little flat on the first floor of an apartment building), we chose one of the five towns at random and hopped on the next train.

Vernazza may have been a random choice, but it’s easily my favorite.  We arrived there around 5:30 and left at 10:30.  Naturally, our first stop was the water.  Vernazza isn’t known for its beach, but we weren’t dressed for the water anyway.  Instead, we walked out along the sidewalk to smell the salt and take some pictures – and I also got splashed by some very cold spray from the waves.  We wandered through some of the stores then hiked up a lot of stairs to this tower that overlooks the area.  It was great weather and a great view, and by the time  we came down, it was an acceptable time for dinner.   As this was considered out vacation, we treated ourselves to some seafood pasta: Shrimp ravioli for me, and for my roommate, spaghetti with mussels and clams.  Both were fantastic.  Finally, we went back to the bay to eat gelato and watch the sunset before returning to La  Spezia for the night.

Saturday was our main day in the region, and we made the most of our day pass that allowed us unlimited train rides between the towns.  We started with Riomaggiore for breakfast and hiking out over the rocks that this first city is known for.  Next was my second favorite – Manarola where I did some light shopping before we walked on a trail out to the cliff where we had lunch.  Next was Corniglia.  This one is probably the smallest and least visited.  We weren’t there very long because after climbing about two hundred steps up to  the city, it was mostly just restaurants. We skipped Vernazza since we’d already been there and went instead to Monterosso, which is the town known for its beach.  Since we’d already walked about five miles at this point, I changed into my swimsuit and fell asleep on the beach.  It had been overcast all morning, so the water was a little too cold for swimming.  When we eventually left,  we went back to Vernazza to kill some time before dinner in Riomaggiore.  For dessert, I didn’t have gelato  for once since they were advertising fish and chips.  I figured I probably wouldn’t get fresh fish and chips for a while so, topped with lemon, mayonnaise, and ketchup, I had a pretty nice dessert.  Back in La Spezia, my phone read a total of nine miles of walking,  so I slept pretty good.

Today is pretty much devoted to getting back to Orvieto and reading for class since we had no WiFi for the last two days, and I didn’t download the articles.  It was a little stressful getting onto the train since the first one was running it late.  We had to change trains in Pisa and arrived there at 12:30 with our next train scheduled to depart at 12:32.  By some miracle, we actually made it on just before the doors closed and got seats.  So, now that I no longer have the short layover to stress over, I intend to spend the rest of the train ride watching Tuscany go by outside the window.

Until next time ~

La Vita Bella

June 18, 2018

I was only in Florence for a day but it’s easily one of my favorite places in Italy if not the world – that I’ve been to at least.

Looking up at the dome

After spending Wednesday in Tarquinia, a little town on the coast, it was fun to go back to a bigger city. Tarquinia is known for its Etruscan tombs all of which have frescoes on the interior walls that are incredibly well-preserved, and it was cool to go to the beach for a few hours after seeing those.

Florence though was spectacular. It feels kind of like an expanded small town. When you’re walking down the streets, there’s still a small town feel that you don’t get in Rome or Naples even though Florence is still one of Italy’s biggest cities. This is largely because it has held onto its Medeival/Renaissance past and lacks the wide boulevards that Mussolini installed in Rome. Looking across Florence, you can still see the old tower houses and the loggia built for the cloth markets of the Medici and today functioning as leather markets for all the tourists who come to see Florentine leather. We started our tour walking along the River Arno before turning onto a side street where we walked by Santa Croce (Holy Cross) and then on to a Proto-Renaissance palace that is now a museum of what everyday life was like back then. Some of the rooms retain original wall paintings, and all have either original or replica furniture and artwork to give you an idea of the sort of luxury enjoyed by the rich families of Florence. The artwork is especially interesting as you can see the transition into the Renaissance. On the top floor is the kitchen – in case a fire started, this way only the top floor would burn. It’s filled with the sorts of tools that would have been used and even features a huge bellows for the fireplace.

For lunch, I went with some of my friends to a food market to look around but not finding anything we wanted, we ended up instead a trendy bar down the street. We didn’t actually know this before going in; they just seemed to have good prices and we were hungry. Outside was a little bookshop, so we stopped there before heading back for gelato and a stop by the tourist stands to buy souvenirs. I didn’t get any leather here, but just walking through the market smelled really good. Completely by accident, we came across Orsanmichele, a building once dedicated to the guilds of Florence that is home to one of Donatello’s most famous statues. Naturally I dragged my group around the back of the building to see it, though I had to explain what we were looking at.

We met back with the group in Piazza della Signoria, which is home to some really famous statues. Although they’re all priceless enough to be in museums, only three are copies and the rest are originals. Michelangelo’s real David is of course one that’s a copy, since city officials feared it would be damaged by pollution, but the copy is still striking enough to give you an idea of what it would have been like to enter this square – the center of political life- and see the man who symbolizes Florence. Other statues include Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women and his bronze of Cosimo de Medici. Figures like Perseus, Hercules, and Neptune make up the rest. Just like when the statues where commissioned, it’s like being in an outdoor museum.

The group then walked through the interior plaza of the Uffizi Museum to the river and the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) which is full of tourists and expensive jewelry stores. The bridge used to be where butchers sold their wares but with the rise of the Medici, some of the noble women complained about the smell. That’s why even today, only jewelry stores can operate on the bridge.

Finally, we walked to Florence’s most famous building, the cathedral – Mary of the Flowers. Florence is symbolized by lilies, so in the Italo-Byzantine façade, you can see both the red lilies of Florence and the white lilies of Mary. The baptistery in front of the cathedral is a few hundred years older than the rest of it, and is actually dedicated to John the Baptist.  It was built along with an older cathedral that was torn down for this one to be built in its place, though the famous dome built by Brunelleschi was constructed 43 years after the rest of the Church was finished.   We didn’t go in the church unfortunately because of the long line, but walking through Florence is absolutely amazing since many of it’s famous sites are all outside. On the way back to the bus, we saw Dante’s house, which was pretty cool too.  Florence really just feels like a bigger Siena with lots of little streets, nice people, and good food.  It’s a place I would love to visit again.

Until next time ~

Final blog posts written in Italy include

A Day in the Life: Orvieto Study Abroad

Italian Food: An Addiction

Top Five: Italy


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