Almost two weeks ago (yes, I am way behind on posting!) I went with our Italian conversation class on their field trip to Assisi. I have always wanted to go there and since all the other classes were out on field trips that day I was able to tag along. Assisi is famous for being the home of St. Francis, and it is easy to see why he was such a lover of nature and God's creations - it is a stunningly beautiful town. Set high in the hills it is full of winding streets, beautiful stone buildings, and many churches. The most famous of course, is San Francesco, a huge basilica church where St. Francis is buried. His tomb is in a small chapel underneath the main church and it was the perfect place to sit and do some quiet reflection. I loved Assisi and will definitely go back again someday!

On our way back to Siena we made two stops: one at the Perugina chocolate factory and one at Lake Trasimeno. At the factory we watched a video about the chocolate making process and had a tour of their museum- they also gave us lots of free chocolate which was amazing and awful at the same time since it tastes so good but also ruins my diet! The lake was lovely and serene, and Trasimeno is famous for its hand-painted porcelain, so I did some fun window-shopping. All in all, it was a great day!

The gate through which we entered Assisi.

A view of the fortress on the hill above the town. The sky was so blue that day!

A view from one of the walls - the whole town was one amazing view after another!

Another thing to love about Assisi - Roman ruins! Assisi was a Roman city and this is the facade of the temple of Minerva, which is, of course, now a Catholic church.

This is the facade of Santa Chiara, the church dedicated to St. Francis's friend and follower, St. Clare. She established a female monastic order to parallel the Franciscans, called the Poor Clares.

A typical street in Assisi.

The church of San Francesco. Construction began on this church in 1228!

Proof that I was there!

Courtyard inside the church grounds.

The view from below.

Entering the Perugina chocolate factory. They are the distributors of Nestle chocolate in Italy and they make their own chocolate as well.

They are most famous for tiny little chocolates called "Baci" or kisses. They are made of chocolate with pieces of hazelnut and a whole hazelnut on top. This is a replica of a giant Baci that they made for the town of Perugia.

Beautiful Lake Trasimeno.

More Palio, August 2010

Here are a few more pictures from the Palio; these photos were all taken near the Duomo both before and after the race. Some come from the procession before and others from the celebration at the Duomo after. I wasn't able to get many good shots because of the crowds (and being smashed up against a wall during the procession) but hopefully you at least get an idea of the atmosphere.

The Civetta (owl) drummer boy.

The Bruco flag with the Duomo in the background. Each contrada parades to the Duomo and does flag tricks in the piazza before the actual procession begins.

The is the archbishop's palace next the the Duomo; if you look closely you can see him watching the procession from his window.

Chiocciola (snail) flagbearers.

Men from the Selva (woods) contrada; they won the Palio in July this year.

A representative of the Nicchio (seashell) contrada.

Giraffa (you can figure this one out) flag bearers - love this shade of red!

The Onda (wave- although they use a fish as their symbol) contrada. Notice the trident he is holding?

A group of young boys from Tartuca outside the Duomo after the race. Everyone was beginning to gather, waiting for the procession to come back up from the Campo.

There were a lot of smiles, tears, and hugs going around!

This little guy was so excited - he kept waving his flag like crazy!

The procession from the campo as it finally reached the Duomo - you can see the actual Palio in the shot, a banner dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The Palio!

This past Monday was the Palio of Siena, a horse race held twice a year in celebration of the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Siena. The August Palio is held in connection with the August 15th Feast of the Assumption and is generally viewed as the more important of the two Palios. I have been here for the Palio several times, but this time was different because my friend Aleesa from Toronto was here visiting, so I was able to experience it with her. Siena was the last stop on her European backpacking adventure before heading to Genoa to settle down, and I am so glad that she was able to fit it into her schedule. I really enjoyed showing her around the city and attending various Palio events with her. The Palio is a unique experience and is always intense, but this year I think it is safe to say that we witnessed an especially intense Palio.
Let me explain . . .

Out of the 17 contradas in Siena only 10 run in each Palio. (There is a rotation process set up that I haven't even attempted to try and understand!) Out of the 17 contradas there are also only 4 that have green in their colors. It is very rare for all 4 of the "green" contradas to run in a Palio together, so whenever this happens the race is referred to as a Palio of the Quattro Verde. There is a superstition attached to the Quattro Verde Palio; I was told by several locals that whenever the four green run together strange things, sometimes bad things, happen. Unfortunately, they were right. First, the horse of the Giraffa contrada was injured the day before the race, so they had to pull out. Then, at the celebratory dinner of the Civetta contrada the night before the race, a man was tragically killed when a large piece of stone fell from the balcony he was sitting under and hit him on the head. Finally, right before the race, when the flag bearers were performing their usual flag throwing routine, a strong gust of wind picked up the Civetta flag and blew it into the crowd in the piazza where the heavy handle came down on a girl's head. They had to postpone the race while the paramedics took her (unconscious) out of the crowd and an ambulance came to pick her up. Oddly enough, both the man who died and the injured girl were visitors, and both were from France. In the conversations I had about these events with locals they all blamed on the fact that is was a Quattro Verde Palio.

In addition to all of this, the race itself was more intense than usual because one of the strongest rivalries was running. Every contrada has an enemy but it seems like some rivalries are worse than others, including Valdimonte and Nicchio. When the horses were assigned, Valdimontne received the best horse - the horse that won the Palio in July. Once their enemy received the best horse Nicchio's only goal became preventing Valdimontone from winning. They went so far as to give their jockey, widely considered to be the best since he has won the Palio several times, to the contrada with the second-best horse, Tartuca. Then, Nicchio hired another jockey who did his best to unsettle the Valdimontone horse while they were all lining up before the race, and he did such a good job that a fight almost broke out between them before the race, and one did break out afterward. One lap into the race, Tartuca and Civetta (oddly enough the winners of the July and August Palios last year) were the only two with a chance to win, and even though Civetta almost caught Tartuca at the end, Tartuca won. So, in the end, Nicchio's gesture of giving Tartuca the best jockey paid off - they kept Valdimontone from winning.

Where was I in the middle of all of this? Well, Aleesa and I attended the trial race Sunday night, and then on Monday morning we went to San Domenico and watched the Drago contrada bring their horse to the church to be blessed. In the afternoon we went to the Duomo and watched the parade, which, I have to say, would have been far more enjoyable if we hadn't been squished up against the wall by the crowd! Then, instead of braving the massive horde of people in the Campo, we watched the race on television from the saftey of a cafe near the Duomo. When the race was over we went back to the Duomo to watch the winning contrada come and give thanks. It was a long, exhausting day, but it was also a lot of fun. Here are a few pictures from before the trial run Sunday evening; I'll try and upload some of the parade in the next few days! You can go here to see some pictures of the actual race:

A shot of the Palazzo Pubblico and the crowd - sorry for the shadows but it couldn't be helped!

More views of the crowd, and this is just a trial race. See why I don't want to be in the middle for the real thing?

Some lucky souls get to watch from balconies and windows.

These little boys were right in front of us and they were so cute that it was hard to be upset even if they were blocking our view!

The traditional cavalry charge before the race - they are quite a sight to see, charging around the Campo with their swords drawn. I would never want to witness a real cavalry charge in battle!

Views of Siena

I took my camera out with me yesterday as I ran some errands, thinking that it would be fun to show you some of the things I see here every day. Here are the results of my outing!

The Duomo of Siena - I love the classic Tuscan use of pink and green marble.

Another shot of the facade.

Going up the street to the Duomo - you can see the spires just peeking over the top of the buildings at the end of the street.

This is the facade of the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala, the hospital I am writing my dissertation on. It is directly across from the front of the Duomo and takes its name (St. Mary of the Steps) from the face that it faces the cathedral's stairs.

These are the stairs at the back of the Duomo, leading to the baptistery. They filmed a scene for the movie Letters to Juliet here.

A street in the Selva (the woods) contrada. They won the Palio in July so they are in full celebration mode! This is a good example of what many streets in Siena look like; narrow, winding, and dark!

This is a shot at the top of the street where I live, Via Mattioli.

A view from a park at the top of my street.

Another view from the park - isn't it beautiful? I love this city!

My New Best Friend

I can't believe that it has been so long since I posted; the time has gone very quickly, probably because I have been busy . . . very busy. I moved from Siena to Florence last Wednesday, the study abroad students arrived on Friday, and it has been craziness ever since. I feel like I have a good group of students in my residence and other than some noise issues (which are totally normal) things are going pretty well. I would be more descriptive but I probably only have about ten minutes before someone else knocks on my door and I am also very tired. Accordingly, I just wanted to share this with you. This is my new best friend:

my bed.

You might think I'm just being funny, but I'm not. I seriously love this bed. The bed and I haven't been able to spend much time together during the past five days but the time we do have is always the best part of my day! I hope that in the coming weeks we can spend even more time together- four hours a night is just not enough! We got up to six and a half last night, so things are looking up!

In all seriousness though, I feel like (despite my lack of sleep) the program is off to a good start. It will just take another week or so for the students to truly adjust and get into a regular schedule, and then (fingers crossed) it will be smooth sailing! And when that happens hopefully my new best friend and I will be able to spend more time together so that I will have the energy to do a proper blog post.

Not much to tell . . .

I know, it sounds really lame that I am in Italy and there is not much to tell but I promise that it's the honest truth. I have spent most of my this past week in the archives and the Biblioteca Nazionale doing research, and the weather has been so hot that all I have wanted to do at the end of every day is take a cold shower and go to bed. (I managed to give myself a cold by doing this and spent yesterday in bed trying to recover; I feel better today!) Besides my research I have managed to do a few fun things: on Saturday I went to a graduation party for Elisabetta's friend Maria Giulia, who just received her PhD. The best part was that it was a surprise party, and Elisabetta, her friend Giacomo, and I took Maria Giulia out to give her husband time to prep the party and have the other guests arrive. We went out for a drink (diet soda for me!) and then we went back to the house to, as Maria Giulia thought, pick up her husband. Elisabetta pretended to call him and ask if he wanted to come down or if we should come up, and then reported that we needed to go up. So up we went and it was great because Maria Giulia had no idea what was happening and she was genuinely surprised. She is a very sweet, graceful, and demure person and her face was just beaming when we reached the of of the stairs and everyone shouted "Surprise!" The party itself was really nice; there was great food and I met some wonderful people, so it was a Saturday evening well spent. Other than the party, the only non-research oriented thing I did this past week was go to the Accademia gallery and see Michaelangelo's David. They won't let you take pictures so here is a shot of me with a postcard I bought:

As you can see I tried, and failed, to match his serious, determined expression. The David is a magnificent sculpture so it is definitely worth the trip to the gallery to see it; it is also worth it to stand to the side and watch the faces of people as they come down the hallway and see it. There are looks of amazement, wonder, huge smiles, excitement, and the list could go on. It's a great place to people-watch!

So that's the update for now . . . I only have a few days left in Florence since I go to Siena on Wednesday, and there is a lot I need to try and finish before then. Wish me luck!

The Surreal Life

This past week I developed a habit that I thought I left behind when I started kindergarten: afternoon naps. The combination of staring at sixteenth century documents for hours at time with intense humidity and heat is surprisingly exhausting. I find myself coming home for lunch with the desire to collapse on my bed outweighing the desire to eat. Accordingly, I have been sleeping for an hour or so every afternoon before eating and heading back to the archives, and it feels great. No wonder the siesta was invented! In any case, following my new tradition I took a nap after returning home from church today and was surprised to be awoken from sleep by the sound of church bells. Still groggy, my first thought was that Elisabetta must be watching the television, but the bells didn't sound close enough for that, so then I thought it must be one of the neighbors. Then, as the bells sounded one last time and stopped I remembered something: I am in Florence, Italy, and they have real church bells here, LOTS of them! Duh! It is funny that Italy, and Tuscany in particular, is so familiar to me now that every once in awhile I forget where I am and I have to be reminded. And in those moments my life feels very surreal; who would have thought that the little girl with the blond pigtails who spent her summers climbing cherry trees in Orem, Utah, and her summers as a teenager life-guarding and teaching children to swim at the Fircrest Pool in Tacoma, Washington would one day be spending her summers in Italy? I feel extremely blessed and grateful for all the opportunities I've had over the past four or five years, and all the adventures I've had, good and bad together. Thank you church bells, for the reminder!

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I am currently working on PhD in History at the University of Toronto, but I often travel to Siena, Italy to do research for my dissertation.