Everything in this country has been beautiful so far, but the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo was truly something special.
The Insider’s Florence: Savor Florence food tour ended late in the afternoon last Saturday, leaving us an open evening to explore the city on our own. It was the perfect opportunity to climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo.
Piazzale Michelangelo is about a 30-minute trek uphill from the city center, depending on how fast you want to go. The views make the hike so incredibly worth it though, and the walk up is quite beautiful too.
My friends and I timed our hike so that we reached the top in time for a special experience. Each night, monks of the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte sing a Mass in Gregorian chant. We’d heard that it was beautiful, and that it was something we should try to do at least once while we were here in Italy. We were about to find out how true those statements were.
We made our way through the giant main church to a sub-level set slightly below the nave. It was dimly lit and felt very ritualistic, to be honest. That shouldn’t have been a surprise given that all church services are technically rituals, but it was still interesting to see it in this different light. I’d never considered my home church services to be rituals, just a normal part of Sunday mornings. Seeing somebody else’s “normal” introduced me to a new perspective.
We stayed through Mass and then for a few extra minutes after to explore the church and take in the experience.
After taking one last look from the back of the church, we stepped outside into a scene of a different kind of beauty. The whole city lay ahead of us – and since we were on a mostly northern facing hill, we could see it all. The Bell Tower, Palazzo Vecchio, and of course, Santa Maria del Fiore – the whole city in its Renaissance-looking glory.
We weren’t the only ones enjoying the views either. Several couples had picked that spot to take their wedding photos. Talk about the most romantic city in the world.
It was now nearing sunset, and we wanted to cross “sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo” off our Florence bucket lists. We headed down the hill (the church sits slightly above the Piazzale) to our desired vantage point and faced west.
I should note that I’m big fan of sunsets. I’ve always loved climbing up to someplace cool (usually a nearby mountain) to see them. Because of this, I’ve sought out a lot of sunsets in my life. This one from Piazzale Michelangelo was by far my favorite.
It started to get dark after the sun disappeared behind the hill. It was also just about dinner time. (And though it had taken a few hours – we’d finally worked up an appetite after our earlier food tour.) We made our way down from the piazzale and toward the city. Not before taking in the sparkling city at night, though.
We ended the night at a restaurant near the bottom of the hill. My pasta was delicious, of course. It was the perfect end to a perfect night.
Syracuse University Florence puts a big emphasis on students getting to know the city they’re living in. One of the ways they accomplish this is by offering a series of trips called “Insider’s Florence.” Last Saturday’s Insider’s Florence was particularly appealing – it was a food tour. We were told to bring our appetites and a sense of adventure, and to prepare to both taste and learn about some of the best Florence has to offer.
We started the day at a local pastry shop for a “typical” Italian breakfast. We learned that Italians generally choose sweets for their first meal of the day, and then we learned about the different types of pastries and how to order them in Italian. I chose a fruit and custard pastry (shown above). It was delicious!
Then, we made our way across the street to a coffee shop that takes particular pride in its coffee. We learned about the differences between Italian and American coffee (espresso, anyone?) and at which times of the day it’s appropriate to drink which types of coffee.
We learned that the cappuccino – a favorite among American students and visitors – is traditionally never taken after noontime. That’s because Italians suspect that warm milk is bad for your digestion after lunch. However, since it was still early, we were able to enjoy the foamy treat anyway. We even got to see how it was made!
Now properly caffeinated, it was time for us to head toward Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio Market. This market has been in operation since 1873 and is still a favorite among locals. I can see why! The wide variety of fruits and vegetables, homemade pastas and sauces, fish, meats, cheeses and other specialty products – almost all of which are made or grown in Italy – was mind-boggling.
Having worked up a bit of an appetite after walking around the market, it was time to learn about another Italian tradition – appertivo. Appertivo is a designated extended appetizer time, featuring special drinks and small snacks. It’s usually enjoyed before dinner time, but since the tour didn’t last through dinner, we had it before lunch instead.
A finished appertivo meant that it was time for lunch! We made our way toward the city’s center to a little restaurant serving up traditional Tuscan staples. Here, a healthy sense of adventure was almost more important than a healthy appetite.
Italian meals are generally served in multiple courses. Our first course featured a sampling of Tuscan meats.
Then came a sampling of traditional sides dishes.
Lastly, the main course.
After eating all that, we were left wondering how we could possibly fit anything else in our stomachs. But of course, there is *always* room for gelato.
Nothing like a sweet treat to end the tour with!
(They also gave us each one of those little cards that you get stamped every time you go to eventually get a free gelato. This might be dangerous.)
Last Friday, I visited a beautiful seaside town in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region: Ravenna. Its mosaics – many in the ancient Byzantine style, though some go back even further – are among the most famous in the world.
Our first stop was the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in the nearby town of Classe, just outside Ravenna. This 6th century mixture of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture sports a large, open nave with an incredibly detailed and colorful apse. It’s decorated with – you guessed it – mosaics. While we were there, we listened to a brief introduction to early Christianity, the Roman Empire (Ravenna was once its capital!) and the art of the mosaic.
Then, we made our way into historic Ravenna, where we split into smaller groups to explore a host of attractions. My group first stopped at the Neonian Orthodox Baptistery, the oldest structure in the city. It’s so old (think built-in-the-300s-old) that the ground has since risen 10 feet above where it was at the time of original construction. While our tour guide said that seeing it from 10 feet lower would have made it seem more impressive, I think the current viewpoint gave us the chance to see the details better.
There, we learned about the traditional eight-sided blueprint that most baptisteries followed back then, the time period that this one was constructed in, and the symbolism behind the scenes depicted on the ceiling.
In the middle, John the Baptist (usually depicted wearing a scruffy animal-fur cloth) is baptizing Jesus.
Throughout history, it was traditional for a newly-baptized Christian to go directly from the baptistery to the church to celebrate their welcome to Christianity. We followed the trail of these ancient believers and headed to the Basilica of San Vitale.
While both Sant’Apollinare in Classe and San Vitale were built around the same time (and sponsored largely by the same donor) San Vitale is far more grand. The interior is more round than rectangular and its supported by massive stone pillars. A specific type of red granite porphyry found only in Egypt and impossible to cut without a diamond saw decorates parts of the facade and interior. The central area is divided into levels, once used to separate the genders during worship. A beautiful fresco (painted in the 1700s) adorns the ceiling in the nave. However, the real reason we came was waiting for us up at the front.
Next we made our way to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The mosaics inside have been so well-preserved that they’ve barely been retouched at all. While the body of Galla Placidia (the daughter of a Roman emperor) is no longer inside the mausoleum, it is widely believed that the bodies of her family members are.
Last on our agenda was a stop at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. It’s seen its fair share of renovations in its 1500 years of existence, but what remains is still stunning.
We wrapped up the day with some delicious pasta and gelato and headed back to Florence. By the time we made it to the buses, we were happy to welcome the prospect of a two-hour nap time – it was such a full day! We learned so much, ate some great Italian food, and got to see some of the most beautiful art in the world. Ravenna is definitely one of Italy’s hidden gems.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place more beautiful or spiritual than Assisi. The small Umbrian town (population: just over 28,000 at the beginning of 2016) is nestled on a hilltop with some gorgeous views and is home to one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Catholic faith: the Basilica Papale di San Francesco d’Assisi.
On Saturday morning, I boarded a bus with around 40 other SUF students bound for Assisi. We drove through the Umbrian countryside, through the beautiful city of Perugia (known for its massive chocolate festival – stay tuned for that post later this semester!) until finally, we could see the Romanesque arches of the church perched on a hill in the distance.
We were given a few minutes to check out a little cafe for breakfast and coffee. (The bus left early in the morning, so most students slept on the way there.)
Then, it was time to head into the basilica. It was gorgeous. The paintings on the walls depict scenes from the life of Saint Francis (1181-1226), the co-patron saint of Italy, including his renunciation of a material way of life, founding and seeking papal approval for the Friars Minor, and receiving his stigmata. Saint Francis was canonized in 1228 just two years after his death, and the church that bears his name was consecrated in 1253. Photo-taking was not allowed inside the church, so I can’t show you the cavernous and beautifully-decorated interior, but trust me – it was worth the visit.
We left the main church and headed for the lower level, where lofty Gothic architecture gave way to a more sturdy Roman style. The ceilings were painted with more frescoes depicting scenes of both saints and Biblical stories, and the more we explored, the more chapels and all-but-hidden rooms we found. Our tour guide explained the meanings behind the most famous or important depictions (including a very large crucifixion scene) before giving us instructions for the rest of the day. We had the options to visit the tomb of Saint Francis himself, explore the city, and try some authentic Umbrian food.
Visiting the tomb was an incredible experience. The room was perfectly silent despite the rather large number of people in it. Visitors who had come on pilgrimages prayed by the tomb itself or in rows of pews facing it. It was rather dark, lit by a dim yellow-ish light and the candle offerings of visitors. My friends and I sat in the pews for a few minutes to take it all in. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen before.
We then wandered up toward the city’s central piazza and enjoyed warm panini for lunch. Nearby was an incredible Italian pastry shop, so of course, we just had to stop in for dessert. There were so many pastry options, it was impossible to pick just one! I had a tiramisu cannolo there and took a pistachio cream one home for later. We took the rest of the afternoon to walk Assisi’s cobblestoned streets, explore another church, and visit the childhood home of Saint Francis.
All in all – it was a wonderful day in Assisi. I’m incredibly thankful to have been able to go, and I recommend that anyone traveling Italy stop by, too. Great sights, great food, and a great experience.
My first all-school field trip with SU Florence was a day centered around the most recognizable icon of the city: il Duomo di Firenze.
We started the day with a visit to the Baptistery – an octagonal structure just west of the cathedral. Almost all Florentine baptisms up until the late 20th century took place in this building – including many of the most prominent artists behind the Renaissance, the Medici family, and, more recently, my host mother. I was most struck by the stunning mosaic artwork covering the ceiling. Flecks of tile and precious metals, expertly placed by Venetian artists to sparkle in dancing candlelight, depict scenes from the Bible.
Then, it was time to head next door to the cathedral. We passed through massive, ornate doors into the biggest church I’ve ever seen, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Fiore, as in the Italian word for “flower,” reflects some of the city’s earlier names. The building’s official construction began in 1296, and, after many long, complicated years of planning and building, ended in 1436. The structure’s cupola remains the largest brick dome in the world.
Thoroughly impressed, we made our way to the newly-opened Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Inside we found statues that were once in or on the cathedral, pieces of its original construction, artifacts once used in its religious services, and the original baptistery doors (once dubbed “the gates of paradise” by Michelangelo himself).
It was nearing lunchtime, so we hopped on a bus to the nearby town of Fiesole. Characteristic of old Etruscan settlements, Fiesole was built on a hill for defense. Such hill-top defense tactics are, of course, no longer necessary, but now the people of Fiesole can enjoy some great views. While there, we re-energized with lunch and gelato and were set free to explore the area.
The guided field trip ended in Fiesole, but our leaders let us know what we could still do with our Duomo tickets. One ticket is good for the museum, cathedral, baptistery, climbing the dome, climbing the bell tower, etc., so, wanting to make the most out of the rest of the day, my friends and I decided to climb both the dome and the bell tower. A grand total of 877 stairs one-way. The views and the experience were totally worth it though!
By then, having worked up some serious appetites, we headed toward the Mercato Centrale for dinner. What a cool place! It’s like a very diverse, very “hip” cafeteria, but with good Italian food. I’ll definitely be back!
Happy Thursday! Having just successfully completed my first academic week here in Firenze, I figured it was a good time to tell you about what I’ll be studying over the next few months.
All SUF students are required to study Italian during their semesters abroad, and each Italian course (plus its “Italian experience” add-on) counts for two classes’ worth of credits. This course will add to my previous two semesters of the language. Though I predict that it will be my most challenging course (it’s being taught in Italian!) I also think it will be enormously beneficial. After just one week, I’ve noticed improvements in my ability to speak with Italian strangers and my host family. It’s a small class – five students – so the learning process will be very personalized. And, there are lots of fun activities on the syllabus, including city visits, meetings with local artists, and meetings with Italian university students.
What better place is there to study classical mythology than in a city filled with references to it? Everywhere we look (whether in the US or here in Europe) there are references to classical mythology. Now, I’ll be able to understand them. I also feel that this class will be particularly interesting to me as a storyteller/writer. After all, myths are stories that have survived the test of thousands and thousands of years. The class will focus specifically on Greek mythology, and I intend to plan a weekend trip to Greece toward the end of the semester to see the places where these stories happened.
History of Witchcraft
Anyone who knows me at all knows how excited I am for this class. Folklore and magic? Questionable spirits? History, theories and art, with a little bit of theology on the side? Sign me up!
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!
Orientation, meeting my host family, touring the city and more.
Last Monday, I boarded a plane for the (almost) first time and set off for Italy. Hard to believe it’s already been a week!
We kicked off orientation at a hotel just outside Florence, where, after a much-needed shower, I got my first taste of Italian food. We spent that night and the next morning attending orientation meetings on topics like how to register for classes, personal safety tips, cultural information about living in Italy and more, until finally, it was time to board the bus to Florence.
First stop: Villa Rossa, the beautiful SU Florence campus. The inside of the building looks like something out of a museum and the outside is dotted with local vegetation that I still can’t believe is real. (Olive trees? Palm trees?? Am I in a travel advertisement?) Art lines the walls, the ceilings are painted so beautifully, and the library is full of so many books about the area and its history that I so wish I was going to have the time to read. Immediately upon our arrival (since this was, of course, the most anticipated information) we learned about our host families and when we would meet them.
Group after group went inside the school to meet the families, until finally, it was my turn. Our host mother and her 10-year-old son greeted my roommate and me in the Villa Rossa before ushering us out, where we met our host father outside by the car. We were all so excited!
Dinner that night was incredible. The Italians eat their dinner in multiple courses, so after a full plate of spaghetti, we were presented with an omelette, then assorted fruits, and an apple cake for dessert – all accompanied with wine and olive oil made from the grapes and olives that the family grows in their Tuscan garden.
The next day, the school held a meeting in a nearby theater to talk about the various Italian language and culture classes we’d all be taking. Since I’ve already taken two semesters of Italian, I’ll be taking ITA 201 (level three). There were a few other meetings that morning, but none of them applied to me, so my roommate and I took the extra time to head into the city and explore.
We met back up with the rest of the students for lunch at Edi House, a restaurant near the school. I still can’t believe how good the food is here! I tried eggplant for the first time (and I’m so glad I did!) and the mozzarella was so fresh. We spent the afternoon enjoying gelato at the school, meeting with our future professors, and taking our first guided tour of the city.
Friday brought us the surprisingly easy process of registering for classes. The hardest part was choosing which ones to take! I ultimately decided on History of Witchcraft, Classical Mythology and Italian 3.
Satisfied with our class selections, a few friends and I headed towards the city for some lunch near the Duomo.
That evening, my roommate and I shared another incredible dinner with my host family and an even more incredible experience afterwards. My host mother asked my roommate and I if we’d like to go for a drive, and of course we said yes. The city is stunning at night. We drove everywhere – she showed us sights we might never have found on our own. One of the most breathtaking was the view of the entire city from the top of the Piazzale Michelangelo. It was so beautiful I can hardly describe it.
I didn’t bring my camera on that little adventure (who knew we’d run into such breathtaking sights?) so I have the perfect excuse to go back. Not that I needed one – I plan to go back there as many times as possible no matter how many photos of it I end up with! The area is full of interesting museums and churches we can visit too.
We ended the night by going to our host brother’s favorite gelato place in the whole city. Talk about a notte perfetta!
This semester, I’ll be studying abroad at Syracuse University’s Florence center. I’m so excited for all of the opportunities, experiences and adventures ahead, and I can’t wait to share it all with you.
So far, the other students and I (around 250 of us in total) have been kept busy with orientation activities – choosing our classes, meeting our host families, getting our first glimpses (and tastes!) of the city – and I’ve taken some time to think about what I want to accomplish while I’m here. Here’s what I’ve come up with
1. Learn the language
Italian is such a beautiful language. To learn enough of it to speak with any of the locals is an absolute must for me. Thankfully, I’ll have lots of help. I’ll be studying it in school and will have lots of time to practice at home with my host family.
2. See all kinds of places
I’ve always been an enthusiastic local traveler, but this semester I’m looking for adventure all over Europe. London, Ireland, the Alps, Prague, Barcelona, Madrid – the possibilities are endless. That’s not even including all of the places here in Italy I hope to see! Venice, Verona, Rome, the ancient city of Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, Assisi; the list goes on and on.
3. Get comfortable with being wrong
This one’s a more personal goal. I’m a bit of a neurotic perfectionist and sometimes feel like that holds me back. I’ve refrained from doing certain things because I didn’t know how, and have kept quiet because I couldn’t think of the “perfect” thing to say. Now, I’m in a country where I don’t know the language nor how to navigate the city. I’ll be traveling to other countries where this “not knowing” will be even more extreme. I’ll go down the wrong street and order the wrong dish at restaurants. I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover.
4. Gain confidence and independence
At the end of this trip, I hope to be much more self-assured and self-reliant. I hope to have a greater understanding and appreciation for other cultures, and I hope to discover a new understanding of my own culture. I’ll develop my communication skills, make new friends and uncover new interests.