SU Florence Immersion Weekend

SU Florence Immersion Weekend falls on the students’ first weekend in Italy. It’s designed to help students feel fully connected with the city in which they’ll spend the next few months.

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Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and il Duomo di Firene

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, 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.

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Il sasso di Dante – where the famed Italian poet sat each day watching the construction of the Duomo.
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Wheat chutes carved into the side of a building in Florence.
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Michelangelo carved a man’s face (rumored to be a debtor of his) into the stone at the Palazza Vecchio so that people would remember his face for years to come.
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The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is full of history.

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!

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Venetian-style ceilings.

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Old Italian cabinetry.

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Renaissance shoes for women with large skirts.

The museum closed just as we finished the last room, talk about good timing! We headed 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 something out of Romeo and Juliet. Classical musicians played violins and cellos in the Piazza 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.

View from the house's driveway
View from the house’s driveway

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 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.”

We didn't know what these were when we ate them, but turns out they're fresh prunes!
We didn’t know what these were when we ate them, but turns out they’re fresh prunes!
These olives will be ready for harvest in October. Then, they'll be used to make olive oil.
These olives will be ready for harvest in October. Then, they’ll be used to make olive oil.
Grapes! These ones are being saved for Nonna to make grape cake.
Grapes! These ones are being saved for Nonna to make grape cake.
There were roses everywhere!
There were roses everywhere!
Looks like they have hydrangea's in Italy, too.
Looks like they have hydrangea’s in Italy, too.

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.

Nonno (Italian for "grandfather") showed us where he and his family make their wine. The large barrel in the back is over 200 years old.
Nonno (Italian for “grandfather”) showed us where he and his family make their wine. The large barrel in the back is over 200 years old.
When the wine is almost finished, it goes in bottles like these.
When the wine is almost finished, it goes in bottles like these.
Nonno and nonna are cat sitting while their other daughter is on vacation, so we got to meet this little guy, too!
Nonno and nonna are cat sitting while their other daughter is on vacation, so we got to meet this little guy, too!
Picturesque stairs reflect the home's medieval history.
Picturesque stairs reflect the home’s medieval history.

After a wonderful lunch prepared by le nonno and la 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.

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The Tuscan hilltop town of Serravalle Pistoiese.
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Looks like a castle to me!
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Up close with the rocks used to build the castle.
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Watchmen would travel a corridor that led to each tower. Here is one of the doors that the corridor would have passed through.
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My roommate, Amelia, and me in the castle!
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This is where the traveler’s taxes would have been collected.

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.”

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The cable car that took us to the top of the hill.
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Up we go!
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Restaurants in the charming Montecatini Alto await the dinner rush.
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The streets of Montecatini Alto look like they originated in a fairy tale.
We got to hear the clock tower strike 5:00, just like the villagers have heard for so many years.
We got to hear the clock tower strike 5:00, just like the villagers have heard for so many years.
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One of the inns of Montecatini Alto.
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Breathtaking views of the Tuscan countryside.

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

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