So as promised, I shall fill you all in on my exciting weekend. My friends Sam, Kristen and I decided that instead of going to Venice with the majority of our group, we would go to the island of Elba. Mainy, this was because we were tired of so many trip and were looking forward to relaxing on the beach. Also, just getting to Venice would take at least 5 hours and 45 Euro per train ride. So, we opted instead to go to an island most famous for housing the exiled Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (who later escaped for reasons unknown since you would have to be absolutely nuts to leave Elba for Paris). In order to get to Elba, we had to make 3 transfers, take a bus, a boat, and a taxi. But it was definitely worth it to get to Elba and it added to our self-confidence since all three of us are normally very directionally challenged. We left Siena around 8ish and arrived on teh island around 2pm. So yes, it took 6 hours which we were not expecting but still it took the Venice group about 9 hours to finally reach their destination. So when we finally set foot on land, we decided that instead of navigating the bus system, ( I should probably add here that all of us are beginner Italian students and out of the three of us, I had the best Italian which is really not much) we would take a taxi which we figured would be the best option. That turned out to be wrong unfortunately. Our cab driver turned out to not be familiar with our hotel and ended up taking us to Hotel Mare instead of Hotel Belmare. But we soon got back on track and to our hotel so we forgave the driver for his exorbitant rate and lack of knowledge about this very small island. Our hotel room was very small but conveniently located next to a small beach and a port with a lot of really cute restaurants. As soon as we put our stuff in the room, we got ourselves ready for the beach! For me, this meant applying plenty of lotion and falling asleep on the beach. My Italian-American counterparts however, just fell asleep in the sun and woke up with a nice bronze to take back to school. I also woke up with some nice tan lines but they were fringed with red, not a nice brown shade. Eh, story of my life. We all had a good laugh about my pain (I was the only one who wasn’t laughing) and pack up our stuff around 6 to go back and take a shower at the hotel before dinner. We watched a little MTV Italia where they followed a young soccer team much in the same way that American MTV once followed a highschool football team. Then we went to dinner at a small restaurant on the beach near our hotel. We had some major problems communicating with our waiter who seemed to assume that whatever the first one of us ordered, the rest of us would also want. Stranero. But, eventually we got our food and it was delicious! One of the most interesting things to me, about Elba was that there was a very strong German influence. Most of the menus had not only Italian but also German and then sometimes English and French. There were a few boats in the port flying German flags and we encountered at least 4 German families/couples while dining. Very interesting since Elba is not particularly close to Germany; it is really only about an hour off the coast of Tuscany so it is definitely closer to Italy than any other European country. However, since I know absolutely no German, this was little help to me in communicating with any locals. We made our way though, and I personally think we did pretty well since we made it to the island and back without any major hitches. But anyway, we were really tired so we went to bed early like old ladies but absolutely loved it. In the morning after a very Italian breakfast (lots of sweets) we headed to a gorgeous beach near the port from where we were leaving. It was absolutely gorgeous. The water at Elba is perfectly clear. And I mean absolutely clear. I will attach a picture below that I took standing in the water and you can see straight through to the bottom and a jellyfish (medusa) swimming by. There weren’t many meduse in the water which was good because they had long tentacles that scared me, but still you had to be on the watch for them. So all day, we just stayed on the beach (me absolutely covered in suntan lotion that I had just bought and applying every half an hour) and read, listened to music, and generally relaxed. It was exactly what I needed. Just so beautiful and perfect that we all decided that of all the places we had seen in Italy, Elba was definitely the one we wished we had more time in. I hope that maybe my family will want to vacation in Italy sometime and I can show them all the amazing places I have seen, beginning with Siena but making at least a 3 day stay in Elba. We were only able to stay until 6 so that we could make it back to Siena at a reasonable time. The highlight of our trip back was the family we adopted of a group of young chinese who were a bit lost. We saw them on Elba and then we happened to all be going back to Siena, so we helped them figure out the ticket machine (which is temperamental at best) and which stops to take since we were now traveling veterans. It was really funny because they didn’t speak any English but one of them spoke some Italian. But we spoke only and little Italian and no Chinese. It was quite comical especially when we had to use a phone translator to communicate with each other. We all made it back to Siena safe and sound around 9 or 10 because one of our trains was late. Oh! and I had my first kinder egg! Everyone had been gushing about them so I had to buy one. It was quite fun and I really wish they weren’t illegal in the states. But, when I got back to Siena I was exhausted and happy to go to bed.
So sorry for again neglecting this blog, but my time here is hectic and tiring. So this post will just serve to let you all know that I am alive and well and still enjoying my time here. Tonight was a very interesting night for me because I had dinner with my host family and some of their friends. I was surrounded by a flurry of Italian but thankfully, there was an australian woman there who was able to translate for me. She told me that she had been a student in Italy but ended up staying I think after she met her husband, or she stayed and then met her husband. I’m not sure. But she is probably the fourth person I met who has much of the same story. Someone who comes to Italy just intending to study for a period and then ends up falling in love with the country and then decides to stay. After my time here, I don’t find these stories surprising at all. Italy is absolutely magical and if you have a strong passion for it, then I can absolutely see the draw in staying here indefinitely. But, no need to worry mom and dad, I have no plans of settling down here in Italy. While I absolutely LOVE my time here, I have to admit that I just don’t have a passion for Italian that many of my counterparts have. I have more of an interest in Spanish or French than I do Italian, so the draw is not as strong for me. But I know that leaving this beautiful country will be incredibly difficult. Oh, well, I will cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now, it is time for bed, but tomorrow I shall update about my awesome trip to the island of Elba! With pictures!!
This entire weekend has been basically non stop traveling for me. Friday was Firenze (Florence) which was pretty nice. It was good to just hang out with my friends and do a little shopping and eating. And we went to the Uffizi which is a museum formerly owned by the Medici family that is now and art museum holding such great works as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (which I saw!!!) and is pretty much just over all impressing. The museum was unfortunately crowded though, and that made the trip a tad less nice for me but still, I got to see a great artwork so I know better than to complain. Then in typical fashion, it began to rain. I don’t think it has really gone a day here without raining which is apparently really weird to all the Italians I talk to. They absolutely hate it and I get the feeling they blame us for bringing the bad weather somehow. But anyway, since it was raining and thundering and lightning, we took cover in a gelato shop and pretty much just jumped between shops trying to stay out of the rain and look around. So, that was pretty much how we spent our day. Everyone told me it was impossible to see Florence in a day so we just tried to see what we could and get back since we had to get up early for another trip the next day. When we got back to Siena, we all went out to dinner (which was absolutely the highlight of my day and so much fun) and then all got together at our favorite bar to hang out before going home and packing.
So, the next day was the really nice day. I had to be at Fontebranda at 8:30 in the morning which is very very difficult for me to do (ask anyone who knows me well and they will tell you war stories of attempting to wake me up/make me do things in the morning. Not a recommended endeavor). But, I made it on time and then we were off to the beach! The van ride was a lot of fun as we all just joked around with Mike one of the employees at SIS who is American and pretty much just lives the most awesome life ever. We finally got the beach and I was sooo excited I had to really restrain myself from running the whole way to the sand. It was so pretty there. There was a nice island in the distance and everything just looked so perfect. It was a great experience just to sit on the beach and look at the faraway island and realize that I was on a beach on the Tuscan coast. Mind boggling. The sand was oddly dark, like almost black. I will need to ask my brother why this was, I am sure he will know or will at least immediately look it up and tell me. So, we all set our stuff up and lotioned up (yes mom I did put on sunscreen!) and then my friend Kristen and I went to go feel the water. It was super cold! I figured that it would just get warmer as the day progressed (it didn’t). The water though was soooo so clear! I couldn’t believe how clear it was. You could see the sand on the bottom of the sand bar move as the waves came in and moved out. There weren’t any sea creatures though and only a few shells on the bottom but I still could probably stand there all day just looking in the water. While the water didn’t get any warmer, the sand absolutely did. I guess since the sand was so dark it absorbed the sun so that it was so hot it was actually impossible to stand on it without shoes. I don’t know exactly how to accurately describe the temperature except to offer the mental image of everyone in our group (even the men) screaming and running towards the water every time we got up. It was so painful. I wish I could go back to that day or at least have had more time. It was so peaceful and relaxing to sit there and read or sleep as most people in our group did. There were also a lot of cool seashells and people brought back handfuls from their walks. However the day had to end and so we packed up a few hours later to head to our next activity. The next activity was going to a park called “Il giardino dei tarocchi” or The Tarot Garden in English. The park is the work of artist Niki di Saint Phalle who was a French-American woman from a very wealthy family in the States. So the very basic history of the park is that Niki had a family in the states but ended up completely abandoning her husband and daughters to instead pursue her art. She had a few mental diseases that she found were helped by her artwork. So, she created a ginormous park with some very original works inside. Most of the artwork is made from ceramic and mirrors and while I am not exactly a major fan of this style of art, it was still very impressive to behold. We had a sort of tour guide to show us around the park but since Niki di Saint Phalle did not want structured tours to be a part of her park, we were not officially on a tour so it was very relaxed. I will include some photos below for your viewing pleasure. After the park, we went to our hotel to shower and get ready for dinner. The hotel was very cute and I roomed with my friend Christina which was fun especially since she doesn’t snore. We all had dinner together as a group in the city (Citta di massa marittima), which was really good! We had some meat, and some bread salad type thing, and pannecotta (that is an estimation of the spelling) and by the end, I was very happy. After, we all went to a bar nearby to listen to some live music and just hand out for a little. Christina and I were super tired though and left with a few other people to go back and sleep.
Finally to today’s activities! This morning we woke up and had breakfast at the hotel. I was so happy to finally have a semi American breakfast again. And by semi American, I mean not cookies. Everyone but me seems to really enjoy having cookies for breakfast but I would prefer a bagel or some oatmeal. So this morning I pretty much just ate everything I could and was pretty content with myself. Then, we went into the town to have a very quick tour and learn some cool things and then head to the van for beach number 2! However, in typical fashion, it again started to rain even though everyone said it was going to be a beautiful weekend on the coast. All lies. It rained almost the entire time. We waited in the car for awhile for it to stop and then walked down to the town area to hypothetically have a beach day. Never happened. Instead, we looked super out of place in our bathing suits and coverups carrying towels and shivering in the cold. But the market was at least very cool and the pizza we had for lunch was very good. But I was (and still am) upset that we didn’t get another beach day so that I could try and get the color (which is right now very red) evened out on me. Yeah I burned prettyy badly yesterday but I am used to it so I am not too upset. After the “beach” we got back in the van and left for our final activity of the day, seeing L’Abbazia di San Galgano. The story of San Galgano is that it was originally made as a stop for pilgrims doing the Way of St. James. The San Galgano was constructed by a man from a very rich Italian family who recently reformed from nefarious activities and decided to build a monastery. Unfortunately, the monastery never really got business and was eventually neglected until a fire in 1786 and the deconsecration of the church in 1789. Today, the church is an impressive ruin and is incredibly beautiful. It is a large open space with an impressive outside facade that is not collapsed or really very damaged besides age. It was very pretty and reminded me a lot of the Rock of Cashel in Ireland. Since it was (still) raining, the inside of the church was just a tad muddy and gross so we didn’t choose to stay too long. After the church, we got back in the vans and headed to Siena! I was quite tired and must have looked like an unhappy cat who was just forced to take a bath when I walked into the apartment. After my shower and some great tea my momma gave me, I felt much better albeit a little exhausted. It has been very eventful these past few days but I am happy that I have seen so much in such a short time!
Sorry for the hiatus but once again I have been super busy. So, following the exhausting trip to Pisa/Lucca on Saturday, came my first experience with a Palio event! Steph and I went to Piaza del Campo to see the lottery for the Palio. Of the 17 contrade, only 10 compete in either the July or August races. So I think that for those contrade who weren’t chosen for the July race last year automatically get into the race this year. So when we got to the Palio, there were already 7 flags hanging on the Palazzo Publico. Then before the lottery started, the Giraffa contrada came in and paraded around the piazza with their flags and dressed in the traditional costumes Palio costumes. I think giraffa got to do this because it just happened to be their weekend to celebrate their contrada or something. I don’t know. Anyway, after the giraffa parade, there was some trumpeting and other fanfare and the first winner was revealed to the crowd! When the contrada flag was placed outside the Palazzo Pubblico, I got to really experience what Palio excitement really is. The people from the contrada that was chosen absolutely SWARMED forward and were jumping up and down and shouting and singing their contrada song. It was pandemonium. This happened 3 more times. The piazza was absolutely packed for the lottery and so after a flag was revealed, a section of the block of humanity on the piazza would just suddenly separate from the pack and rush forward. It was really cool to see. We were also lucky enough that we accidentally placed ourselves within one of the sections that was picked and got to be int he middle of the excitement. We were also thankfully not trampled since the contrada group that was surrounding us was too far back to move forward so they contented themselves with shouting and jumping. There was some taunting and rival singing between contrada groups but no real fights or anything. Apparently, a few years ago, some contrade disgraced themselves by fighting each other or something like that, and were banned from the Palio for I think 2 years. So, the conflicts between groups stay rather tame. The entire raffle event took all of maybe 15 minutes at most with maybe 8 minutes of actual celebrating and picking and such. So, a very short event but so exciting that it was the highlight of my day.
Oh boy has it been an exhausting 2 days! So, yesterday some of the girls and I went to both Pisa and Lucca by train. We left at around 9 in the morning, had the obligatory pizza in Pisa, and then went to see the famous leaning tower. It was absolutely crazy to see the tower from far away just casually among the rest of the city landscape (see picture below). You see it so many times in pictures but seeing it in person is entirely different. The church the tower belongs to is absolutely beautiful. I really wanted to go inside but you had to have a ticket and they were very expensive. We were warned before hand that a trip to Pisa was going to be short and focused almost entirely on the tower. There were a lot of shops in Pisa and it looked like place where you could definitely have a pleasant day milling around, but it definitely wasn’t a place where I would want to stay for an extended period of time. After a few hours of lunch and tower, we decided to make a quick stop in Lucca since it was apparently beautiful. That turned out to be exactly what Lucca was; perfect. Lucca is what I think most Americans would picture when thinking about small Italian towns. Absolutely gorgeous. And the gelato there is apparently famous and for good reason! We could unfortunately only stay in Lucca for a half an hour in order to make it back to Siena in time for dinner so we wrenched ourselves away from the Italian version of Pleasantville and got back to the train station. This is really just a brief overview of my trip because I have a lot of homework. But it was a ton of fun and I am so happy that I got to go