SU Florence Immersion Weekend falls on the students’ first weekend in Italy. It’s designed to help students feel fully connected with the city they’ll spend the next few months in.
I began my Saturday with a scavenger hunt around the city of Florence. Participants met at the city library and followed clues to uncover some of the lesser-known stories about the city’s history, like the meanings behind certain features of the Duomo and locations of special artifacts. We walked through outdoor markets, explored piazzas filled with marble statues and visited the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. We visited one of Florence’s artists – a paper marbler – and watched how that ancient Renaissance style of painting was done. The game concluded with a walk across the Ponte Vecchio and some fun stories about the origin of the best gelato in Florence (which I conducted my own research on shortly after). All in all, definitely a worthwhile experience.
That afternoon, a friend and I stumbled upon the Stefano Bardini Museum – the impressive and extensive collection of a 19th century art collector. Bardini collected and traded antiques and art ranging from the 14th century ’til his death in 1922. The museum was full of sculptures, tapestries, ancient armor, paintings and cabinetry that reflected each time period. I would tell you which was my favorite, but I honestly can’t pick!
The museum closed just as we finished the last room – talk about good timing! We went home to eat dinner and freshen up – after all, it was the perfect night for exploring. We met back up at around 10:00 (dinner begins at 8 here, and can last quite a while) with a few more friends.
Florence might just be the most romantic city in the world. The cobblestone streets were lit up by sparkling lantern-like lights. It looked like a scene out of Romeo and Juliet. Classical musicians played violins and cellos in the Piazza del Duomo and a vendor walked around the selling roses. Couples strolled by hand-in-hand, crowds laughed happily, and artists stood by, painting the scene. It was truly beautiful.
My friends and I ended the night enjoying a glass of wine next to a live band overlooking the Arno River.
The next day was even more incredible. To ensure that students really get to know their host families (and vice-versa), the first Sunday is designated as a family day. Host families have the opportunity to take their students wherever they want – and ours took my roommate, Amelia, and me to the beautiful Tuscan countryside.
Our host family owns a home out there, and has for five generations. When I asked how old the house itself was, our host mother told us that it once served as the last stop on a medieval toll road. In other words, that house alone is many, many times the age of America.
The garden is full of plants that grow well in the dry, hot Tuscan climate. We saw lots of olive trees, a few grape vines (those have already been harvested for the year), some tomato plants, pumpkins, and some cabbage. My host mother picked some mysterious fruit called “susine” off a nearby treat and told us to try them. They were really good! After some time, we finally figured out that “susine” translates to “prune.”
While there, we met our host mother’s parents, who told us stories of Italy in WWII and about our host family throughout the years. We listened to some of their favorite music – Mozart and Italian opera – and got a personal tour of where they make their wine.
After a wonderful lunch prepared by Nonno and Nonna themselves (featuring some adventurous new foods, too) our host mother took us for an unforgettable trip.
The first stop was the nearby Tuscan hilltop town of Serravalle Pistoiese, a small town with about 10,000 residents and buildings dating back a thousand years. In the medieval era, travelers would stop at the gate and pay a tax before entering. We got to see the remains of what looked like a castle. Whether or not that’s what it was, I’ve yet to figure out. To me, though, it will be a castle.
Thoroughly awestruck, we got back in the car and headed west toward another village, Montecatini Alto. The area is famous for its natural thermal springs (in the neighboring Montecatini Terme), but we had different plans. We hopped on a cable car and ascended the hill to a city that looked like it came straight out of “Romeo and Juliet.”
It was truly a wonderful weekend and I’m so happy to have experienced it. Looking forward to whatever the next weekend holds!
Gelato count: 9