Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Siena, San Gimignano and My Experience so far...

Hi everyone! 

With my favorite sculpture at the Chianti
Sculpture Park.  (Photo credit: Liz Salois)
Sorry for being so bad about updating my blog.  The internet is really slow where I am, so I’ve been using most of the internet I can get for talking to family members and uploading photos, or waiting for everything to load.  According to some of our group leaders, Italy just got wi-fi last year, so the broadband service is not as good as any of us are used to in the United States.  When too many of us use the wi-fi here at the Hotel Athena (where we are staying in Siena), it is really slow and people who are trying to get on at the same time are not able to.  It will probably be the same way in Florence too, so it’s just something we will all have to get used to. 


I’m in Italy, and it is amazing!  I am currently spending some time in Siena (two weeks to be exact) as sort of an orientation.  I have been participating in an intensive Italian class, where I’ve been in class for four hours per day Monday through Friday.  When they say it’s intensive, they definitely mean it too.  I have never spoken Italian before or taken an Italian class for that matter, as all my language skills consist of four years of high school Spanish.  (Spanish is close enough, right?)  Anyways, I was surprised when my teacher, who thought my class knew more Italian than we actually did, started conducting the class completely in Italian.  It didn’t take her long to notice that we all needed some translations, but even after the first week, the majority of the class is taught in Italian.  I like it because it helps me hear the accent, and I’m able to understand a lot of what she says by the hand motions or mannerisms she uses while she speaks.  The language barrier has definitely been the hardest thing so far, but even that has not been too bad because I was ready for it.  Most of the people I’ve encountered in Siena either speak English or can play charades enough that you can eventually understand each other.  I’ve learned enough Italian to be able to carry on a basic conversation with an Italian person.  I still have one week left in my intensive, and then I’ll be taking a final, which involves both listening and writing.  During the rest of the semester in Florence, I’ll also be taking a 1-credit Basic Spoken Italian course.

The best thing about Siena has definitely been the food.  Everything is fresh and seems really healthy.  My skin actually feels better because of all the olive oil I’ve been consuming.  I’ve been eating a lot of pasta dishes so far, but on our first day in Siena, we had a special four-course dinner that was conducted through the program.  We had the dinner in an old wine cellar in Siena.  It consisted of an antipasti dish, a pasta dish, a  meat dish and dessert.  The entire meal was absolutely delicious!! The antipasti dish was a cheese and mushroom souffle with a cream sauce.  Then we had ravioli with a tomato sauce for our second plate.  Our third plate was a roast with polenta on the side.  Our fourth plate was a puff pastry with custard and apple filling, and it was served with a sparkling pear wine.  I learned that the pairing of wine with a dish is very important to Italians as it often makes the food taste better.  The entire meal was served with red wine.  I think we spent at least 3 1/2 hours in that wine cellar eating, getting to know the people at our table and enjoying our first night in Italy.  

Some things I’ve learned about Italian cuisine include the price of wine, the attitude of Italians toward meal times and the portion sizes.  Wine is actually cheaper than water on most menus in Italy.  One restaurant we went to actually would not serve my friend tap water, saying the restaurant did not have a permit to do so.  One of our program guides said that was just an excuse to get the customer, who was obviously American, to pay for the water.  He said that it is actually considered rude to ask for tap water here.  Also, restaurants in Italy, like in many places of Europe, have the customer ask for the check instead of in America where it is brought to the table.  Many Europeans view this as rude and really value meal times, with the attitude that meal times should be drawn out and are meant as a time to relax and socialize.  Many shops in Siena also shut down from about 1-3 p.m. every day because this is supposed to be a time to relax, almost like a siesta in Spain.  Portion sizes are definitely much smaller than in America, but they are comfortably filling. I do not feel stuffed from the portion sizes like I would in America.  In many restaurants, customers either are not allowed to or do not need to take out a doggie bag.  Through my program, I receive a certain number of meal vouchers to pay for food each week, so I’ve been able to discover many wonderful restaurants in Siena that way and really taste typical Sienese dishes and learn about the food culture in Italy.  

I recently tried gelato for the first time.  I’m really glad I waited until I got to Italy to try it because many of my friends have been telling me that it tastes WAY better here than in the U.S.  Gelato is healthier than ice cream, but not by much as it still has a lot of sugar.  However, I have a feeling I’m going to become a bit of a gelato connoisseur while in Italy.  As my new friend Katherine has been saying, there’s always room for gelato.  My favorite kind so far has been between coffee and hazelnut.  I tried my first fruit-flavored gelato today (banana) too, and it was delicious! I definitely like gelato better than ice cream, and the weather has been nice enough that I’ve been able to eat it while strolling outside without really getting cold!  

One of the oddest things about Siena is that it is often difficult to tell the difference between a road and a pedestrian walk-way.  Siena is a medieval city (it still has its fortress walls around it) so many of the “roads” are cobblestone and look like sidewalks.  There are not very many sidewalks here though, so many people just treat the road as a walk-way and walk in the middle of the road! Everyone moves when a car or motorcycle comes by, but it is never urgent for the pedestrians to move.  Many of the roads are very thin too, so there are many one-way streets in Siena.  I keep joking that I’ll be lucky to get out of here without getting hit by a car.  I’ve heard Florence is worse though, so we’ll see if that’s true.

Walking down the cobblestone roads of Siena.

During this week, I’ve done many orientation activities.  They are not completely included in the program, so I’ve had to pay a small fee for each (with some being refundable to give incentive to show up).  They have been completely worth it though.  My first was an art history tour around Siena.  It mostly consisted of churches and statues, but it was fascinating.  I learned a lot about the history of Siena and about why it is a fortress.  Siena was built as a fortress when Italy was not yet Italy and all of the places in Italy today were city states.  The walls were built for protection, and the most important (and thus beautiful) building, the Duomo, was built at the highest point of the city.  At this point, Siena was also at war with Florence.  Siena also has 17 contradas, or sections, inside of its walls.  These 17 contradas are like families and compete in the palio, a horse race, which happens twice per year in the Piazza del Campo.  Each contrada has its own church and city center and is represented by a specific animal.  We were able to visit the chapel of one of the contradas and see where the horse was blessed before the palio.  Only ten horses compete at a time in the palio, so whoever doesn’t compete in the palio beforehand automatically gets a spot in the next race.  The rest of the places are filled by drawing straws.  My Italian teacher, who is married to a Sienese man but is from northern Italy herself, said she has been invited to join her husband’s contrada.  However, she decided not to because the contrada, and the palio, are things that the Sienese people believe in with their hearts, and she does not have that feeling.  She said her husband actually goes out the night before the palio to fist-fight the enemy contrada of his own contrada.  This is a tradition before the palio, and she said Sienese people are crazy when it comes to the palio and their heritage within the contradas.  On this tour, we also saw the relics (a head and a finger) of St. Catherine, which were kept within one of the churches of Siena.  St. Catherine is the patron saint of Siena and is important mostly because she brought the papacy back from France to Rome, the only time in history where it was not located in Italy.  She also had visions and the stigmata, both considered miracles or signs in Christian history. 
The Duomo in Siena, Santa Maria Assunta.  In the Middle Ages, this was the most important building in Siena, so it was built on the highest point of the city. 
The Basilica of San Domenico, from a distance, where St. Catherine of Siena's relics are held. 
Me in front of a beautiful view of Siena.

The inside of the chapel of the Wave (Onda) Contrada. This is where the horses are blessed before the Palio.

Close-up of the display on the altar.

Contrada flag.

Piazza del Campo, where the Palio takes place each year, at night.

I’ve also participated in a wine tasting, a cooking class, a field trip to a sculpture park outside Siena and a field trip to San Gimignano.  I loved San Gimignano because it, like Siena, also had an interesting history.  It is referred to as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages because in its prime it had 70 towers built within its fortress walls.  It now only has 14 towers still standing.  The people who had a tower built for them had some sort of power in San Gimignano, and were often rich merchants.  When their power went away, the top of their tower was chopped off (thus, the lack of towers now).  We were able to climb to the top of the tallest tower still in existence (over 200 steps) and see a beautiful view of the Italian countryside.  San Gimignano was beautiful and small, but very interesting to visit.  

Our table at the wine tasting. 

New friends, Meg and Kate (from left) and fellow St. Mike's student and friend Liz Salois.   

The saddest, and one of the most interesting sculptures we saw, called "Faith and Illusion."

I thought I was being original, and then found out this same pose was done by someone else, and the picture was on the packet with the description of this trip.  Oops! 

My favorite sculpture at the Chianti Sculpture Park, for obvious reasons.  

Liz making homemade pasta at the cooking class.

The soup, as seen from the mirror above the cook.  It was positioned this way so the entire class could see what the cook was doing.  
People from my program rolling pasta.

The assistant to the chef draining the pasta.  The entire class was taught in Italian.

The finished tiramisu! Yum! 
Classmates waving from the top of the tower we climbed in San Gimignano.

A few of the 14 towers still standing in San Gimignano.  In the Middle Ages, there were up to 70 towers standing at once.

View of San Gimignano from the top of the tower.

View of the Italian countryside.  It looks like a patchwork quilt! 

Me at the top of the tower! (Photo credit: Liz Salois)

New friends at the top of the fortress within the city! From left, Briana, me, Katherine, Liz, and Caitlin. 

I apologize for the long entry and will try to be better about updating my blog in the future so posts will not be this long.  This is only a brief description of what has been happening in the past week and a half.  Much of it has been adjustment, and we are still not settled as we are still living in a hotel out of our suitcases.  I’m looking forward to getting settled in Florence next weekend, but have definitely loved every second of Siena so far! 

If you have any questions about study abroad or my experiences, or even a question about being a student at SMC, please feel free to email me (emurray@mail.smcvt.edu), tweet me (LittleLizzie33) or ask me a question on Formspring (lizmurray3).  


1 comment:

  1. Wonderful! Wow, taking tours and classes seemed to be pretty beneficial for you! So many amazing sites and wonderful history lessons!