Category Archives: Travel and Touristing

Days 11, 12, and 13

Saturday, 7:49 pm

Allora: went to three towns, walked *a lot,* got an itty-bitty sunburn, witnessed much churchery, and have now returned home after 12 hours out and about.

Like pretty much everyone else, I am both tired and extremely ready for dinner.

But first:

Day 11, Thursday

  • Went to Florence’s Museo Archeologico (i.e. the archaeological museum), and the same archaeologist who showed us around Fiesole narrated a walk through the museum.  It was pretty cool, but only figuratively, because otherwise it was omg hot in there.  And stuffy, and we spent rather a lot of time going over a lot of details in a lot of display cases.  All of us, I think, had good intentions for paying attention and learning more about the pre-Renaissance history of Florence and Italy, but after 2 hours, pretty sure everyone was feeling…fatigued, I guess.  Idk, it was just physically draining, and speaking for myself I know that our tour guide didn’t get nearly as much of my undivided attention as I would have liked her to have.  So, if I can find the time, definitely going back.  (Added temptation: this heavily Etruscan/Roman artifact museum also has a weirdly high number of Egyptian antiquities, always welcome.  I guess I had known that there was a lot of interaction between the Italians and the Egyptians [because otherwise Caesar and Cleopatra wouldn’t have happened], but for some reason still considered them entirely separate worlds.  Surprise score : )
  • Thursday on the whole was a long day, but at the end of it I got the best dinner I’ve had here so far.  Simple spaghetti, then chicken + a side of greens, then a spectacular fruit tart, and every bite a torture to my very soul as I compare it to the cafeteria food I’ll be getting back to in 3 months.  Come January 5, the air shall be rent with lamentations.  But oh well.

Day 12, Friday

  • Big thing for this day was that I lost my old roommate and got a new one.  But I want to skim the details on that when I talk (finally) about the homestay, so all that’s important for right now is that it happened.

Day 13 (Today), Saturday

  • Oh boy.  Today was the day of the three-town trip, and it was a bit of a doozy and it felt like one.
  • First off, up early to catch the early bus to meet at the train station by 8:00, and then we stumbled on to a private bus and were driven out to the small town of Monteriggioni.  Monteriggioni is special because it’s still got its old medieval walls intact.  Thing is, most towns used to have big city walls (on account of it is a proud Italian tradition to have hardcore inter-city feuds), but most of these walls were unfortunately either destroyed or purposefully dismantled over the last 500 years in an attempt to modernize.
  • But Monteriggioni was just too little to care about looking gauche — and so, in the spirit of those people who still sport 80’s hair, it continues to rock its outer ramparts.  The town as it currently exists is a tiny sort of place (way smaller than Grand Mound, for those of you to whom that means anything), but it looks pretty much just like it did centuries ago.  So that’s fantastic, and then you add in that the weather was perfect and that it’s up on the tippy-top of a hill out in the middle of Tuscany with a beautiful outlook, and it was overall just a really great start to the day.


  • Also, I think most of us were really happy to leave Florence and get out into the Tuscan countryside for a while.  It’s still wonderful in the city, but we’ve been running non-stop for two weeks now, and the excursion out to fresh air and wide open spaces was precisely what was needed to erase any stress and make everything better.  (And oh!  They’ve got hills here!  My Iowan self wants to call them mountains, but they’re hills, and either way very beautiful to look at <3)
  • We got to stay in Monteriggioni and enjoy the view for only about 15 minutes or so, and then it was back on the bus to continue south to Siena.

…which I will tell you about tomorrow, because it is now dinnertime to be followed immediately by a much-needed early bedtime.

Best of weekends to you all : )

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Posted by on September 10, 2011 in Classes, Food, History, Travel and Touristing


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Day 10: The Reboot

Hey look, it’s Friday.

Fast-paced couple of days, and I want to hit the highlights of each of them, but it’s going to have to be a little brief — getting up at 5:30 so that we can get to the train station so we can get on a bus to Monteriggioni and then a bus to Sienna and then a bus to Greve in Chianti.  Dang.

So tonight, just that missed Wednesday: Fiesole and the Festa della Rificolona.


So if I ever needed to find my ideal retirement home / politically necessitated hideaway, this is probably it.  It’s an ancient Etruscan (as in pre-Roman) town that sits WAAAAY up on a hill overlooking Florence — and actually, if you remember the view from the San Miniato Cathedral, think of this place as being higher up and directly on the opposite side of the city.  Oh, and with a way better view.  I’ll try to show why by taking a couple pictures when I go back up, but I’m not sure pictures (or at least any pictures I take) can really capture it; it just seems far more sweeping, and includes a steeper look down onto a more pristine area dotted with villas.  The whole class was just staring out the side window as we wound our way up and up and up the hill — it’s gorgeous and serene and completely wonderful.

The town itself is still a town, and while it’s decidedly not part of Florence, a Florence city bus actually makes routine runs up the hill because it’s so incredibly close.  To a certain extent, Fiesole seems like Florence’s best-kept secret; it’s a beautiful little town with its own history, and with easy access to everything Florence has, but it’s got a cozier atmosphere and cleaner air and cooler temperatures and, again, that amazing view.  And, and! it’s so quiet, so not-overrun-by-tourists!  (Hypocrisy?  Where?)

When we went up, we were there for the Etruscan museum, which sits right next to the ruins of both an Etruscan settlement and the later Roman one that overtook it.  So what this means is that we were there for rocks.


An actual archaeologist showed us around and narrated in very brave English, and while the class stuff would take too long to make interesting, do you see the two sets of stairs in that right-hand pic?  There are two because when the Romans came into the area, they basically just built their temple right overtop of the Etruscan one; they thought the conquering of a culture just as important as any military victory, so whenever they came across a new people, they made everyone into ”Romans,’ and in this case that meant nomming right over the Etruscan place of worship without even bothering to clear out the old debris.

Again, it would take too long to make this as interesting as it could be, but when looking at these particular ruins, all I could think of was those fossils they find of gigantic prehistoric fish with other complete skeletons still in the stomach — and while this is not a funny comparison, I must have been pretty out of it because it made me giggle kind of a lot.


Not related to the educational stuff, but the Wednesday we went to Fiesole it was also the birthday of one of the girls in the group (Willi, whose blog is linked), so our professors gathered us together at the end of the trip and brought us little icy-cold cream-filled puff pastries to celebrate.  I just want it stated for the record that these were arguably the best things I have had on this trip so far; they’re called bigne, and these were from a Fiesolan pasticceria called Alcedo’s that Kate (one of the program coordinators who’s actually lived in both Fiesole and Florence) says is the best place in the entire region.

The number 7 bus that goes to Fiesole runs right by my street and only takes about 20 minutes to get there.  Yeah, I’m going back.

Festa della Rificolona (the festival of the lantern)

So this is essentially a children’s carnival.  You can read about the history online if you want, but basically it’s an excuse for kids to come out late at night with pretty little lanterns* and have TONS of candy.  Which, hey, I totally support : )


There was also music and dancing up on the stage, and prizes were handed out for the best home-made lantern.  But there were also plenty of store-bought ones, which I know because Disney would not otherwise allow Lightning McQueen’s face on tissue paper.**

The Festa della Rificolona is actually associated with a religious holiday (which Italy has many of and takes very seriously, being so Catholic), and there were other parts of the celebration that I would have really loved to see — there was a component down on the river, with lanterns on boats, and there was an organ concert in the Baptistery, and the Cathedral’s outer walkways were opened to the public for free.  But alas, attending any of these would have taken me away from dinner AND gotten me down to 3 hours of sleep.  I could maybe have handled one of those…but then again, dinner is sacred and sleep is divine, so maybe not.  Eh, I still got to see something pretty and ~extremely~ cute and this makes me happy.

Aaaand yep that’s it for tonight.  Hopefully back in tomorrow evening to keep up the new additions, and in the meantime hope everything’s going well for everybody.  Also, if you’ve emailed me and I haven’t written back, it’s coming very soon, so please don’t hate me yet.


*The lanterns used actual candles, so some of them would in fact suddenly go up in flames.  But that was kind of cool and the kids thought so too, so no harm done.

**Also spotted: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Spongebob, Hello Kitty, Spiderman, etc., because apparently even obscure city-specific harvest festivals have gone commercial.


(Day 6) A tower! That leans!

Saturday, 11:00 pm

I’ve got tomorrow off (for real this time, because we’ve gotten several afternoons ‘off’ that we couldn’t actually use for anything), and what I’d like to do is furiously backpedal and cover some details about the homestay situation and classes.  Because I appear to have just hopped over those, and they are possibly kind of important.

But for now, Pisa.

Actually, wait a second.  Before anything is said about the city itself, it is good to know that I have probably been biased by the following:

  • We were all a little/lot sleep deprived.  5:45 is only 15 minutes earlier than I usually get up, but I still spent the whole morning feeling like my brain was floating along 2 feet behind my skull, and I was not the only one.  As a group, definitely not in a seize-the-day mood.
  • The train we took from Florence to Pisa was soooo ssslllloooooowwww.  Stop-start-stop-start-draaaag.  And it was also only kinda-sorta air conditioned, which is a big deal because
  • It was painfully hot out today.  It’s been mid-to-upper 90s the whole time we’ve been in Florence, and humid to boot, but today was more torturous than usual; both Florence and Pisa straddle the Arno river (and thus extra humidity for both places), but Pisa is so much smaller that you can feel the mugginess absolutely everywhere.  And there was no shade, and we were on a walking tour, and…yeah, it just got nasty.  Also, we passed a group of people on the sidewalk who were all attending to a girl who’d actually fainted from the heat, so this is an Officially Hot Day, okay?

So Pisa.  Overall impression is that it’s kind of dirty and…well, the word coming to mind is ‘decrepit,’ or maybe ‘decaying,’ but perhaps we’ll be kind and say it’s just a little run-down?

What we know for a fact is that Pisa got hit hard by the bombing in WWII.  This does not explain to me why so many other towns recovered and Pisa…didn’t, but in any case there is some excuse for the general crumbly quality of all the buildings.  Hm.

Well, anyway, even if most of the city is kind of dead-ish, this is indeed made up for by the city’s central square, the Piazza del Duomo of which the Leaning Tower is a part.  The piazza actually contains four buildings that are all super-important: there’s the Pisa Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Campo Santo, and the bell tower (aka that crooked thing).  Back in the day, the idea was that one started life by getting baptised in the baptistery, spent their life with the cathedral, and then ended life by getting buried in the Campo Santo (“the holy field,” as in an indoor cemetery) — so as a class, those three were the things we were there to see.

Which means (*insert sad face*) that I did not get any touristy pictures of the leaning tower.  I got a couple as we passed —


— but like I said, we were there for other things.  Like doors.  And pulpits.  And floors with skellingtons* in them.

All of which makes me suspicious that they think I’m here to learn ; )


…But seriously, though, if anybody ever gets the opportunity, go listen to a demonstration of the acoustics in the Pisan Baptistery.  It’s a round building that was actually designed to give a perfect triple echo (which I stress only because I can’t get my head around it), and a guy comes out every so often to sing; just one voice, and it magnifies and harmonizes until the space overhead is ringing with it.  I know that as an American 20-something I’m not supposed to be easily impressed, but…yeah, that was kind of impressive.

Switching topics, guess what this is?

For starters, it’s actually not something we went to see as a group; since this Pisa trip was the last mandatory outing for the weekend, most students packed up and left immediately for overnight stays in beach towns, and only myself and one other student (Ellie) remained to take the train back to Florence with our two professors (Jodie and Katy).  While we were making the loop around to the station, Katy suggested that we all take a moment to stop by the white building straight ahead on the left, the building that is actually two medieval towers which were later joined together with that strip of concrete that drops into an arch.  It’s the left tower that’s important; somewhere in there, around the year 1289, a man named Ugolino was imprisoned with 2 sons and 2 grandsons for treason agains the city of Pisa.  It’s not entirely clear what happened after that, but either the lot of them were soon left to starve or Ugolino himself was decapitated (and don’t ask me how those two things are at all confusable, because I have no idea).

Anyway, my professor wanted to see it because Ugolino gets mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which she’s teaching an entire class on this semester.  I’m interested in it moreso because — well, just look at that place.  It looks like nothing.  It looks like any old half-heartedly prettied-up government office building where some poor clerk is stuck doing paperwork 10 hours a day.  (And actually, who knows, maybe some poor clerk is.)

Appearances/deceiving/etc., I guess; history is apparently messy and happens everywhere.


ALSO, although this has nothing to do with anything, the class stopped to get coffee in some Pisan cafe and got blessed with a random Blues Brothers sighting:


+10 to that cafe, definitely…but they got any white bread?


Alright, well, tomorrow I guess.  And I will also just nonchalantly remind you in passing that anyone is free to send me emails and facebook spammage and such.  Just sayin.’



*Skellingtons = I miss Hot Fuzz  T_T


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(Day 4) Andiamo

Thursday, 10:00 pm

Going with the ever-popular ‘dump pics and run’ today, as I’ve get a test tomorrow morning and I need to study.  However, for anyone whose life I have just devastated, I also happen to know that I have tomorrow afternoon off, so just a couple hours more and then I can start spouting off at the metaphorical mouth.  Which I want very badly to do, and actually I pre-apologize for the spoutiness as well.

What we’ve got right now is not one but TWO pictures, whoa boy.  In the first, we’re looking out from the steps of the medieval church of San Miniato, which stands on a hill just outside of Florence proper.  Today was actually my first time going over to the Oltrano (the far side of the Arno river, aka the kinda-outside-Florence part where San Miniato is), and the entire area is really hilly and gives you a great view from everywhere — so we climbed those steps, turned around, and there was the city laid out under us.  The second picture is a zoomed-in look at the heart of Florence, including the famous Duomo (that cathedral with the largest of the visible domes); the Linguaviva school where we have classes is actually just a couple blocks away from that monster.


*sigh* ❤

I think part of the reason I like Florence so much is that it’s the first place I’ve been where it’s actually easy to keep a map in my head — I can usually be relied upon to get very firmly/constantly/instantly lost, so this not getting lost is kind of a revelation.  But I guess it was almost inevitable; the city’s got so many unique things so crammed together that you’ve always got a landmark to use, plus every street and piazza is labeled…gah, it’s just so very logical that it makes me want to stand up and happy dance.

Like so: (*|o/ \o/ ~o/* tadaaaa.)

Now I’m going to slap myself on the wrist and go study, so…tomorrow.  ❤

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Posted by on September 1, 2011 in The City, Travel and Touristing


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(Almost) Day One

I have now had my first full day in Florence.  Managed to find my way around,* buy food, exercise my smattering of the Italian (“where’s the park,” ‘cuz I’m a badass and that’s the sort of question I ask), and I even avoided setting my laptop on fire,** so overall I’d say it was a pretty big success.  Got to walk all over the place, found the aforementioned park right next to a whopping huge medieval fortress (which is Not Open to the public, the guard was most emphatic about that), and basically just spent all day walking around and window shopping and meeting other ACM students.  In the evening all 30-ish students congregated and met the professors, and we were then taken out for dinner at a wonderful restaurant followed by gelato at an equally wonderful gelateria.  The food was great, the people were (are) great, the nighttime walk through the city was great, and everything so far has just been fantastic.

At this point, it still feels like being on vacation.  Which is fine, but also kind of annoying, because the fun of a semester-long stay is supposedly that you get to stop experiencing the fringes of a culture and get to wade in a little deeper, pushing past the tourist experience and becoming more like a resident.  I know it’s going to take time (and maybe the real irritation is just having to live out of a suitcase), but bottom line is that I can’t wait to get classes going and to meet my roommate and my host family and start doing this up proper.

In the meantime, just going to sit back and appreciate that Florence still feels like such a natural fit.  I was here for one day two years ago and developed an instant crush, so I already knew that I *liked* the place, but there’s a very big difference between passing through a town (“good heavens this is pretty”) and actually setting up to live there for a while (“god almighty why does everything suck”), so I was a little skeptical that the feeling could actually last.  For the moment, though, most delighted to be able to say that this place still feels very much like a second home (maybe a third if we’re counting college), and that I’m pretty much all set to spend the first couple weeks walking around and grinning like an idiot at everything.  So at the very least it is now a two-day fluke.

I feel like I haven’t really said any of the important things yet, but it’s getting late and we have to get up to start our Italian language course in the morning (\o/), so I guess we’ll call it a night there.  Oh, but because there were actually a ton of people asking about comparisons between restaurants before I left, here’s what an Italian McDonald’s looks like:


First off, shut up, we went there because we were starving and it was really close and really cheap.  Second, it was so fancy!  You can’t see the lovely little lounge areas (innocent Italians eating deserve better than me and my camera), but that’s the inside of the McCafe in the second picture, and that low display window to the right is full of really excellent-looking pastries; Jessica and I both ended up ordering a plain water (acqua naturale and not acqua fizzante, the distinction is dangerous) and cream-filled croissants, and homg horror but I actually found a McDonald’s product delicious.  Ah well : )

We start establishing schedules this week, so I’ll know pretty soon whether blogging close to every night is going to be an actually practicable thing.  In the meantime, a big “love you” to all the people I wish were here with me, and be back when I can.  Buonanotte ❤


* Knopf Map Guide, tell your friends.

**The whole voltage conversion thing between the U.S. and Europe is something I didn’t want to have to deal with, so I just ended up bringing my laptop (which swore itself to be dual voltage) and a cheap little outlet  converter to make it fit the Italian three-prong plug-in.  During the planning stages, this seemed like a solid set-up; iPod and camera should run through my laptop, travel alarm clock runs on batteries, I’ll buy a travel hair dryer if I feel like it, and nothing else needs power at all.  BUT, since it does make me incredibly dependent on my laptop not dying (not that I wouldn’t have been anyway), I got a little twitchy over the idea that I might get everything hooked up only to have that crucial computer explode in my face and fall into agonized death throes; this did not happen, and all stress is now gone from my life.


In Transit

Short version: We made it and everything’s going as swimmingly as can be expected.

Long version (which is long):

Had a series of misadventures, boring as imaginably possible.

Set out yesterday (Friday) morning at 6:45 AM to pick up Tyler from his apartment, an hour and a half away.  Drove the hour and a half back.  Switched over to my aunt and uncle’s vehicle and drove the 3 hours to Chicago. Entered O’Hare Terminal 5 for international departures* — two hours too early, because apparently Swiss Air won’t process anyone before 4:00.  The four of us adjourned to the food court, and I found a banana nut muffin and swooned over it with loving attention.  And then we sat there for two hours.

Sensing the theme yet?

Quarter to four, we finally get going.  Met up with Jessica in the line for web check-ins (super convenient to do web check-in the night before, so you’ve got your seat picked and your boarding pass printed), and got processed in for a flight direct to Florence with a layover in Zurich.  Two spiffy new boarding passes printed, and
my single checked bag under the weight limit, hallelujah.

Btw, if at all possible, make yourself stick to the lone 50-lb piece of checked luggage, the one carry-on, and the lightly-packed purse.  Once you’ve brought your luggage over (and keep in mind that you do have to pay for any second checked piece), you’re the one who has to cart it around, and I ended up being grateful again and again that I’d gone with the cheaper option that allowed consideration of my weak little arms.  Plus, I honestly don’t need that much, and I figure it’s a healthy thing to pare your life back down to essentials every once in a while.

Check in leads to the security line, blah blah no big deal.  Then back to the waiting game in the Swiss gate, where I got in one last round of text message conversations on my now-worthless U.S. phone and managed not to cry at all (even though, mid everyone-being-so-nice, it came close at one point).  Met another very nice student who would be travelling with us to Zurich and then heading north to Berlin while we went south to Firenze — happy trails, Amanda : )

*sigh,* board plane. Sit on plane. Sit on plane for an hour.  Sit on plane for another 7 hours.  Get no sleep because of cramped upright position and slight motion sickness and squalling babies.  Meet back up with Jessica and Tyler, who slept just fine on the seats in front of me.  *sleepy facepalm*

Navigate new terminal where everything is in German and finally figure out that one must travel straight to the transfer zone via shuttle-thing.  Another round of security.  More waiting around.  Get on bus.  Get off bus and board plane. Start getting wildly sick.  Become relieved that the plane is about to land in Florence, only to hear that it is now “impossible” to land there because of severely high winds.  Get rerouted to Bologna.  Collect baggage and sit around for an hour in Bologna airport waiting for the airline-arranged bus to show up.  Board bus, still not entirely ‘with it’ on account of motion sickness + sleep deprivation. Find it still impossible to sleep on the hour and a half drive back to Florence.  Finally make it back without throwing up only to still have to face a taxi ride.

Stagger out of last moving vehicle and into rather dark and rickety hotel, where Jessica has reserved us a room.  Get up to room (it has a balcony!**) only to discover that the air conditioning barely works.  But oh well.
It provides a shower and a toilet and an internet connection (down on the second floor only, but still), and at this point that’s enough to make me giddily affectionate.  So I am.

Out to dinner at an Italian pizza place.  Collapse back in room.  Experiment with fine motor control while semi-conscious and slipping.

How’d I do?


*Maynard Drive, turn left at Zemcke, turn left again at Bessie Coleman and then follow it back to Terminal 5.  We had tried to find it before, and the automated navigation got us as far as “the airport” before calling it good
and abandoning us.  I now present these directions to you in the name of solidarity against the machine.

**No grand sweeping Florentine vistas yet, but this is the view out our side balcony, just as the sun was coming up this morning (which would have been about midnight central time).  Had a bell tonging off in the distance, doves nearby, a light breeze, and warm sunlight — all in all, not a half-bad way to start the day : )