Finding Home in Florence

This week has been a whirlwind of activities, museums, and even more amazing food. Here’s a quick (hopefully, as I tend to blabber on) recap of what we’ve done this week:

Monday:

We started our gloomy Monday morning on the steps of the Duomo, where we ventured inside to the BLANK BLANK BLANK, inside the Duomo itself. The inside of the church was not what one would expect based only on the outside as it has a Gothic style interior, lacking extravegant ceilings, decorations and artworks (except in the dome part itself and other spots) unlike the duomo of Siena.

From here we walked through the rain across the piazza to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo where some famous works by Michelangelo and Donatello find their home, as well as the real doors to the baptistry. This was one of my favorite museums thus far on the trip. Across from the display of the baptistry doors they had a video showing the restoration process of them. The amount of work it took to make the then grey, dirty art gold, shiny, and gorgeous again is phenomenal. Imagine the scene from Titanic where they recover the old drawings of Rose, but on a much larger, realistic, and intricate scale.

Tuesday:

As half of our plans were rained out on Monday, we started our day out at the Accademia to see the forever famous David (Michelangelo’s) and the other fantastic artwork held there. While I enjoyed the David, I have to say that I enjoyed Michelangelo’s later work more, as it held more emphasis on emotion than on perfection. As we went from gallery to gallery here, avoiding large tour groups from the Disney cruise line, I had to fight the strong urge to take pictures, as I wanted to capture every piece of art in all its glory. My favorite gallery here was the the music gallery, including all the Stratovarious strings. My inner orchestra dork squealed like ten year-old meeting Justin Beiber.

Next we made a trip to the Museum de Marco, a monastery home to a famous annunciation frescoe painting and Savonarola, the man responsible for the burning of great artworks during Michelangelo’s time.

Our last stop of the day was to Pizzale de Michaelangelo, which has the greatest view of the city from all of Florence. After snapping many pictures (shameless selfie/instagram time) we attended a Catholic mass in San Miniato al Monte, an absolutely beautiful church built in 1090.

Thankfully, our apartment was close to the Pizzale, so a quick walk down the hill and we were able to rest our weary feet from another long and amazing day!

Wednesday:

Starting at the Pitti Palace, we toured through its art galleries and rooms. It. Was. Massive. When I called my mom to tell her about it later that night I told her that I wanted to live there. So we should start saving up now. (But of course I was kidding. Or was I…) My favorite parts were the rooms that are still set up like how the rooms were when royalty lived. There was one particular room with royal blue and gold (GO ROYALS!) wallpaper that was absolutely gorgeous. Again I wish I could have taken pictures.

From here we went to the Biboli gardens and paid special attention to the grotto. I wish I had known exactly what this was used for, as it was amazing. The figures popping from the walls as though they had been underwater for years and now brought to the surface.

Thursday:

The day of the Brancacci Chapel. The outside of this church was far different from the inside, as it is very medieval and the inside was redone in the 1700′s after a fire. This so far has been my favorite church. The inside was beautifully decorated, with frescoes and ornate ceilings.

Thursday night we spent at the opera, Madame Butterfly in St. Mark’s church. Beforehand, myself and two of my wonderful roommates enjoyed some fresh pizza from a place down the road from our apartment and sangria to cool us down from the sweltering heat. This was the first opera I have been to (although I have been to a dozen musicals between living in Las Vegas and Charlotte and visiting New York) and I have to say that I really enjoyed, if for nothing but the music. The whole performance was in Italian, but they had a narrator explain the acts before they began, which made everything a whole lot easier.

Friday:

Last day before Rome! Today we enjoyed sleeping in a little bit before heading up to Fiesole to paint and see the Etruscan ruins. This was amazing. From the views of Florence to the ruins, it was the best day of the week. After a short hike (man, you’d think we’d be done with the hills and hiking after Cinque Terre and Siena, but I guess not!) we had the best view of all of Florence. Dr. Challons-Lipton brought some paints and paper for us to experiment with, and while others played with water colors I chose to sit in the shade and journal. I attempted to write a poem, but if you’ve ever met me, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of poetry. In fact, I once had a poem about my hatred of poetry published in the Signet. Maybe next time I sit down to write it will be something worthy of publishing in a blog for the world to see, but not today.

After a long day in the sun, it was nice to come back and cool off in our apartment. As my roommates and I scramble to pack for Rome (while really I’m procrastinating the packing process by blogging and reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, which is set in Florence and is AWESOME) I’m ready to see what another Italian city has to offer. Every one that I’ve been to so far has been charming and exciting in their own ways, I can’t wait to see the big sites in Rome.

Until then,

~Kat Schweitzer

Started from the bottom, now we’re in Cinque Terre

It has been CRAZY busy in Florence this week, between the incoming hoards of fellow tourists and our jam-packed touring schedule. As I kick up my tired feet from another long, but amazing day, I can finally reflect back on our first free weekend, which I spent in Cinque Terre with five of my fellow Florence adventures. Here’s how it went down:

We departed for the famous five towns early Friday afternoon from the Santa Maria de Novella train station. It was my first time on a train, and after hiking it from our apartment just down the hill from Piazzale de Michelangelo (more on that later) to the station, backs loaded with our weekend luggage in the heat (we would pick the HOTTEST day of our trip thus far to travel) I said a little prayer that our train would have air conditioning. But it’s Europe. And it didn’t. After a two hours of sweaty heat on a train from Florence to La Spezia, and from La Spezia to Riomaggiore, we tumbled out of the train car and raised our arms to the sweet, chilly sea air. The hills rolled up around us, cupping the city towards the water, rippling a perfect deep blue.

After checking into our hostel, which was at the very top of the hill, as far up as you can go, so high your knees screamed for mercy and your back wanting nothing more than to be rid of that horrid heavy backpack, we had dinner at a simply amazing restaurant a short walk from our rooms. We sat on the patio, overlooking the bell tower a church in the center piazza of the town and the beautiful blue water, starting our meal off with a bottle of their house white wine (made in Cinque Terre) and a cheese and jam plate with several different kinds of each. For the main course I ate spaghetti with fresh clams and a lemon-mint sauce. It was divine. Absolutely divine. For dessert I had a piece of lemon cake that wasn’t too sweet, but wasn’t too sour. Come to find out, lemons are a big part of food in Cinque Terre as they grow them in the hills. The cake was topped with powdered sugar and a balsamic sauce. I seriously wish I had eaten two pieces of it.

On Saturday we started our morning with a nice breakfast in the center of town, did a little touristy shopping, and stopped for pizza for lunch while a few of our group members hiked up and down the hills from town to town. I passed on the hiking, as I have done my fair share of hiking after 16 years of Girl Scouting, and a summer as a camp counselor.

We met up in the afternoon for a few hours on the beach in the town of Vernazza. In order to get to the rocky beach you have to walk through a small cave, that at first sight looks as though you shouldn’t walk through it. But on the other side you see the bright water, beach, tanners, and children running along the waves. With a light breeze, and the temperature not too high, it was the perfect afternoon in the sun.

After the beach we met for appertivo, where you purchase a drink and they give you appetizers. I had a traditional Italian drink that tasted like grapefruit juice. we had bread with their special tomato and pesto spreads, olives, and chips. After grabbing a slice of pizza, I trekked back to my room to pack and get ready for a day of traveling back to Florence.

After a weekend in the seaside mountains, it was nice to get back to the normality of Florence. After only spending a week here, it has already become our home.

~Kat Schweitzer

Holy Hill: Siena

Thursday we took a day trip to Siena, and it was well worth the trip! We traveled by bus through the countryside, the rolling green hills our backdrop to the day’s adventures. When we arrived at bus the station we were greeted by our walking tour guide where we were each given a little radio-like set with one earpiece so we could hear what the guide was saying, even if we were on opposite ends of the site. Having on headphone in made me want to play a little game called “Get Down Mr. President!” but I resisted. You’re welcome Siena visitors and natives.

During our 3 hour tour we did a walkthrough of the St. Dominic Basilica. This church sit on a hill opposite of the city’s Duomo. Much of the church was destroyed in a fire ages ago but has been restored. This is also home to the head of St. Catherine. Eerie sounding? Yes. Pictures allowed? No. Only a small part of me wishes I could have taken photos.

After a hike up the hill (and a long speech of ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can’ and several water breaks) we made it to the Duomo of Siena. All sides of the church on the outside were stunning. Tall, decorative structures pointing towards the heavens above. The inside was even more beautiful. The very decorative ceilings held up by quatrefoil shaped columns tower above you as you walk across the floors towards the center of the dome. The front area and altar are newer than the rest as it was restored after an earthquake. Soft church music hums in the background as you approach the library and admire the artwork and stained glass. I couldn’t help but repeat the words a classmate said a few days prior after seeing the Florence Duomo for the first time: “How does one look at this, and not believe in God?” The structure and the artwork are all so amazing, that you can’t help but to think it must have been constructed by gods of some kind.

From the Duomo we walked down to Piazza del Campo, where people laid on the brick ground either tanning or enjoying lunch. We took a tour of the Palazzo Pubblico which housed a great view of the piazza and Siena from the top floor of the main structure, also home to fresco paintings and restored artwork. Now a museum, we were able to get a glimpse of the living quarters for the figureheads of the city.

When our tour finished we took a nice lunch break for hitting the shopping areas of Siena. For a city of only 55,000, it is very rich in history, art, and culture. Despite the tall hills and crowds of tourists, I would definitely make another trip.

Eat. Walk. Repeat.

Our second day has been absolutely phenomenal! After a quick apartment orientation (it was very important that we didn’t burn down our beautiful apartment building when we cooked dinner tonight) we made a trip to the supermarket, which was surprisingly large and convientent for the things we needed. We purchased our essentials (having only a few squares left of toilet paper on the roll) and decided to prepare a nice pasta dish for dinner with penne and topped with an olive oil, spinach, and tomato type garnish. All the vegetables were fresh–certainly more flavorful and fresh than from home, and the cheese sprinkled in chunks on top tasted as though it had been made that morning. It was quick, easy, fresher than fresh, and absolutely fantastic when accompanied by the ridiculously cheap (3,50 euros) bottle of wine (Vino Frizzante, Bianco).

While the first meal we prepared ourselves was delicious, especially for our first try, it was nothing compared to the dinner we experienced last night. Accent threw us a welcome dinner at Ostaria Pizzeria dei “Cento Paveri” which was completed with a 5 course dinner: bread (unsalted, the Tuscan way) which we topped with a little fresh olive oil, a large plate of one inch wide flat noodles covered in a red wine beef like sauce (the antipasti course), thin crust pizza which had a light tasting tomato olive oil sauce and fresh cheese garnished with a thick leaf of basil in the center of the pie, a plate of various meats (chicken leg, ribs, and a skewer with pork, sausage, chicken) and roasted, thinly sliced potatoes, all cooked in olive oil and rosemary, and finally a dessert of coffee-flavored flan with a cookie crumble topping. The plates just kept coming, and coming, and coming, and coming and we just kept on eating and eating and eating. It was the perfect ending to our first day in Firenze.

After getting up for apartment inspections and making the trek back and forth to the supermarket, we walked around the Piazza de Republica, Piazza del Duomo and Piazza San Gianni. I purchased a beautiful aquamarine handmade Italian lace scarf (which thankfully spared my neck from sunburn) and snapped tons and tons of pictures on my camera, which I’m sure if it were a person, would have reported me for abuse as it was banged around and had its many buttons over-pressed trying to take perfectly angled shots of the great Duomo. I meant it with love, Canon Rebel, honest I did.

For lunch we stopped at a little pizza restuarant where I had a slice of thin crusted pizza without sauce, but topped with fresh mozzerella and tomatoes and a can of Coca- Cola Light, which while it looks just like our version of Diet Coke, it was exactly as the labeled described: Coke, but with a lighter taste.

From there we took a walking tour of the area, guided by Danielle, one of our wonderful Accent guides, and had orientation at the Accent center across the river near our apartment. Their center is an old 13th century building passed from nobel family to nobel family over the years.

Once our orientation was complete, we stopped for gelato on the way back to our apartment to cook dinner. I had a scoop of dark chocolate and a scoop hazelnut, and while it was the best ice cream I have ever tasted, it was hard to not let it drip down in dark chocolate streaks on my arm as we continued on our walk.

As today draws to a close, I’m excited to see what the city has to offer and to dive into the culture through cooking and tours as the week continues. Tomorrow we start early with a tour of the Uffizi. I’ve got my walking shoes ready, and my camera charged. Going to be another amazing day in Firenze!

~Kat Schweitzer

Alive, Awake, Alert, and Enthusiastic

After 16 or more hours of traveling we finally arrived early yesterday afternoon. Our second plane from Munich soared right over the Alps and Italian countryside, and those of us who planned to catch some Z’s decided to catch some absolutely amazing views instead. It wasn’t until we watched the villas surrounded by green and vineyards that we came to this notion: People live here. WE are going to live here. This was no longer a vacation and a touring experience, but a chance to completely immerse ourselves in a new culture.

This became more surreal as we reached our apartments. Our apartment sits towards the top of the hill with a beautiful balcony that opens up to the street and our neighbor’s yellow house with dark green shutters. We live in a traditional Tuscan apartment, with a tiled ceiling and floor. All the windows open wide, so as I sit typing at our kitchen table on this beautiful sunny morning,  the birds chirp and the vespas whiz by up the hill setting up the perfect tone for the day.

We’re about to set out for coffee and make a quick trip to the market, but later today we have orientation and a walking tour, starting at the Duomo.

Until then,

~Kat Schweitzer

Ready for Departure (Almost)

The day we’ve been counting down to for months is almost here. Other JBIP trips have already traveled and returned (my roommate was kind enough to bring me back a bottle of my favorite British soft drink, Tango and split some of her sweets with me). Sunday we depart for Italia, putting our safety in the capable hands of a Lufthansa pilot.

It’s only Tuesday, and I’ve determined that this is surely going to be the longest week of my 21 years of existence on this great earth. My suitcase is mostly packed, shoved under my bed to keep me from getting too excited, like keeping a puppy’s new bone locked in the pantry. I’ve charged my trusty Cannon Rebel T3 and cleared out all my pictures from my last excursion home to Vegas. I’ve made at least three copies too many of my passport after fighting with the copy machine in the library. I’ve called the phone company, the bank, and, of course, my mom. I’ve been holding the promise of Italian sweets and souvenirs over the children I nanny’s heads to keep their behavior in check for days, and it’s my last week to work before departure, scraping up the final bits of cash to spend on gelato, trinkets, and because it’s Italy, wine. I’m almost ready to leave. Only a few things left to throw in the suitcase (only to take out after deciding I really don’t need it, but it made me feel better to throw in anyway) and two or three things left to check off the to-do list. Five more days and we can say arrivederci to America and ciao to Italia! 

Here’s hoping for a safe, on-time departure to our Italian adventures!

-Kat Schweitzer

Florence

Our last day in Venice has come to an end. After three days in the city we are now traveling to Florence. We traveled by train instead of a bus. For many in our group the train ride was the first time for them. Jimmy Baker was one of the people in our group and I asked him how he was holding up about an hour into ride and he said he wasn’t half bad. The only thing that freaked him out a little bit was how fast everything was moving by. Once while I was on the train I was sitting next to a French woman. While she was on her computer I couldn’t help but notice the pictures she was uploading. It turned out she had just been to Louvre and showed me a bunch of photos including Deviancies Mona Lisa.

When we our train got into Florence we arrived out our hotel and it turned out we were early so we couldn’t check in. I didn’t mind because this gave us a chance to walk around the city and check everything out. As we walked around we ended up at the Piazza Republica and were able to see the replica of David, Hercules, and also many statues of the rape of the Sapian women. One member of our group, Liz, decided to wonder off on her own. Luckily I saw her as we began to walk away and grabbed her, but by the time I got her and turned around the group was gone! We ran into Dr. Neale and began to make our way back to the hotel. What we thought was going to be simple 5-minute walk back turned out to be about an hour of scrambling around trying to figure our way back! Good thing was Liz and Dr. Neale had great attitudes the whole time. A nice local helped us get back to the hotel and after that experience all three of us felt like we knew Florence in and out.

The next day we went to the Accademia to check out a bunch of artwork including the real David. This place was flat out mind blowing. Everything in the Gallery was absolutely amazing; including the David, Michelangelo’s unfinished statues, and many other works of art. Like some of the other places we have visited we were not allowed to take photos inside. Even though we couldn’t I’m glad I didn’t. This gallery isn’t something that you look at through a photo, but in person. You just can’t capture everything through a photo like you can through first hand experience.

Venice day 2

Tuesday was the first official day of being here in Italy and what a better way to start the trip off with a tour of the Doges Palace. We had met our tour guide by the hotel and she took us though every which way possible around the city on the way to the market. On the way I ran into a man with a guitar that was sitting in his booth   full of little things for people to buy. He was playing around with his guitar while having a cigarette in his mouth. I asked him if he could play for me and with out hesitation he took one more puff, set the cigarette down and began playing. People out here live a way of life that I’m just not used to seeing. You could walk up to a total stranger and they will help you if your in need of help, or in my case play a simple song if you ask them. Once I got done hanging out with the Italian John Lennon we walked up to a huge local market place that was full of anything you could ask for. There was fruit, vegetables, meats, and of course seafood. Framers markets in the United States have nothing on these places, the reason is a place like that has prices you cant beat and they are open every day of the week unlike one a week US farmers markets.

The Doges palace was a magnificent scene to walk upon. We came out of little ally way and BOOM! To the right was a huge square and was surrounded by buildings on all sides. Next the palace was the tallest tower in Venice. Let me tell you it was really really tall. The palace itself was something else all together. Each room was better then the last. Sadly for a lot of the tour we couldn’t take photos. Never the less it was just amazing to see in person. The ceilings were covered with biblical stories with all gold frames that had carving or patterns in them. The Palace was so large that they had a council meeting room as big a modern home, an armory loaded with old armor and weapons, and even a prison that was very dank.

After our tour we made the option to go the Murano. It’s an island that you get to in a 5-minute boat ride from the palace. Murano was a small quite island that makes some of the most beautiful glass artwork in the world. In fact we were able to see a glass blower make a horse and also a light fixture right in front of our eyes. Just the process itself was an art form.

Venice day 1

Day 1 of the trip started out by us, the group of about 24 kids, meeting up with our professors at Charlotte International airport. For me this is going to be the first time going out of the country. The same can go for many on this trip, in fact if I am not mistaken Emily Wong has never even been on an airplane!! When we had our layover in Munich Germany which by the way was the longest 8 and a half hours of my life

I had a chance to catch up with her and she told me she’s lovin it so that’s definitely a good thing. From Munich we took a quick plane flight to Venice. I’m going to be honestI was asleep almost the entire flight so I have no idea how long it actually was.

Once we landed we took a little walk to the water and from there took the coolest boat ride I’ve ever been on to the city of Venice. Its like the movies, you don’t actually hear the music playing but you can feel it. As we got closer the building got more visible, and next thing you know your engulfed in this beautiful, classic style, watery city of wonder. The hotel is about as off the beaten path as they come and I love it. No joke it’s off in an ally of another ally that leads to the main street. Away from it all, but just close enough. After some hang out time we took a tour of the Jewish ghetto in Venice. In that area are the tallest buildings in Venice; reason being is because after they realized the city was sinking nobody was allowed to build past a certain height. Later we decided to get a little dinner right on the water. For the life of me I cannot remember the name of the place, but I will never forget the owner. He was a man no larger than 5’6’’, he had gray hair coming out of his head and his ears, spoke broken English, and seemed to have not one problem in his life. For a first meal in Italy I would go nowhere else. By the time we got back to the hotel everybody was passed out, except me of course. I think not sleeping for what felt like 24 hours finally took hold on everybody and it was lights out before 8pm. Venice can wait, tomorrow we will be fully charged and ready to take on this magnificent city of water.

Venice

Our group has reached it’s final destination-Venice. The most surprising aspect about this island is the fact that there are no cars or vespas driving around. The city has very strict regulations and only allows transportation via waterways. Even ambulances are speedy motorboats! So far the past two days here have been quite different from the other cities we have visited. Every morning we take the water taxi to get to our destinations and stroll through narrow alleys to see things such as Doges’ Palace, beautiful churches, and the Guggenheim museum. My favorite part about Venice is how strongly the people here embrace art. Not only is there traditional painting & drawing, but also jewelry design, sculpture, and upscale fashion couture. It’s great! This avant garde city has been a wonderful, relaxing experience so far.
- Reilly Sowka