Our second weekend in Italy, Emily, Nicole, Polly, Erica, Daniel and I went on our first solo trip out of the city.  By that time, I had realized there are no trees in the city center (except in Piazza Santo Spirito, which is a little out of the way), and this is kind of a big deal because I grew up in South Pasadena, where trees dominate the skyline, and go to school in Humboldt, which is famous for trees (and weed but we don’t talk about that).

Anyways, I got a text either the night before or early that morning from Emily saying they were going Arezzo and did Erica and I want to go?  We all packed lunch for ourselves–Erica and I had a ton of plums because we had gone to the fresh market after class that week and the lady whose produce we were looking at gave us a bunch of free plums even after we had bought like two bags of them.  So we stuck everything in our backpacks and walked to the bakery near Emily’s apartment that sells pastries for super cheap, and then walked to the train station to buy our tickets.  Stazione Santa Maria Novella was built in the Functionalist style in the 40s when the Fascist party was rising to power in Italy.  It’s all straight lines and block lettering, very austere looking.  At first it seemed intimidating and I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing, but I came to love that place.  I included it on my walks around the city, partly for people watching but also because of the shopping mall beneath the streets outside of the station.

It was here that I had my first experience with gypsies.  I saw these people everywhere, and occasionally they would come up to me with a cup and ask for change.  I always managed to say I didn’t have any change, but this woman ambushed me while I was counting my euro coins.  So I gave her twenty cents and turned back to the ticket machine.  She then pushed me and started rambling in Italian.  Emily and I both started yelling until she went away.  I didn’t even feel bad about it.  We conveniently learned how to say Fuck Off in Italian the next week.

When we got to Arezzo, we first walked to the visitor’s center around the corner from the train station.  We got a couple maps and started up the street to the old Roman amphitheater.  We couldn’t go inside but it was cool to look at.



Walking through the streets up the hill towards Piazza Agostino, I was struck by how un-touristy Arezzo was.  There were no gypsies, no street vendors crowding the streets, which were narrow and winding.  The quiet was broken only by the six of us talking about how magical it was.  We finally made it up the hill to Piazza Agostino, where we rested and took pictures.  I really wanted to lie down in the shade because it was so hot.  Or maybe sit in the fountain.



We walked further up the hill through Piazza Grande, to a park at the top of the hill where we ran around and had our lunch.  There were huge stone walls where a Medici fort used to be, and we sat on the walls with an amazing view of the Tuscan countryside.


We pretended to be gargoyles on the wall (a picture I’m sure I would not be permitted to share) and walked further to an area that had good climbing trees.  It was really nice to sit in the shade and drink water and listen to kids playing in the parkThe park was so nice, it was the most green I had seen since I’d come to Italy.  We climbed up on one of the low hanging branches and Daniel took a picture of us girls.

the tree

Then we walked over to Arezzo’s Duomo at the other end of the park that was closed, but had a simple Gothic façade and Latin carved into the doorframe.  It was hot there, really hot and unbearably humid, so we kept walking until we got to the top of the hill to San Domenico.

San Domenico

inside San Domenico

San Domenico, founded in 1215 and completed in the 14th century, is home to a Crucifix by the pre-Renaissance artist Cimabue.  From the outside the church looks like it was never actually finished, and maybe it wasn’t.  It is so beautiful on the inside though.  The walls have frescoes on them and there are arched windows with green and white marble stripes.  While most churches in Italy have arched ceilings, San Domenico has a wooden ceiling that is a little arched, but also has flat beams, which is pretty unique in churches.  It was so peaceful there.  We all sat in the second row of pews and looked up at Cimabue’s cross.  It’s times like this that you realize how old Europe is, and what a baby the US is in countryhood.  This piece was made in 1268, 224 years before Columbus had even reached the New World.  We’re babies, you guys.

Cimabue's Crucifix

After we left San Domenico, we walked down to Piazza Grande and looked for more food.  No one wanted to eat at one of the restaurants because of the coperto, the cover charge that is usually used at restaurants on unsuspecting tourists.  Of course the coperto is only €1,50, but we didn’t know that then.  The piazza was huge and empty, with shields displaying the emblem of various guilds in Arezzo.

Piazza Grande

I fell asleep on the steps of a well that was on the far side of the piazza while Emily and a couple other people walked up to a lookout point or something.  When they came back, we walked around the town more–we had gotten up pretty early so we were kind of tired.  Basilica di San Francesco was closed, but the doors were glass–what?–so we got to peek inside.  Then we found an amazing little market that sold a bunch of pasta stuff–sauces, dried pasta, onions.  It was like walking back in time.

On our way back to the train station we went to a little gelato shop that was unanimously agreed to be a tourist trap but good nonetheless.  We sat in the square in front of the train station, eating gelato, enjoying the last moments of our first trip outside Firenze on our own.


A Brief History of Places in Firenze

As I’m writing, I’ll be referencing a lot of places in Firenze that have beautiful, rich histories, and I don’t want to stop my narrative to explain the history of a place, so I would like to take the time to write about the places I spent a lot of time in or around in Firenze.

Il Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni), and Giotto’s Campanile

Construction on the Duomo began in 1296 and was not completed as we see it today until 1887.  Work on the first stone façade, the nave and the radiating apses was finished in the early 1400s and in 1420, work on Brunelleschi’s famous dome began.  It’s amazing that it was completed in only 16 years, given the engineering challenges they faced.  A commitment had been made to reject the Gothic flying buttresses that are seen on many churches in Europe, like the Notre Dame in Paris.  They wanted the dome to be freestanding with a thin outer shell supported by the inner dome.  Brunelleschi looked to the Pantheon in Rome for a solution.  The Pantheon is built with solid concrete, that is, it’s all one piece.  Although a wooden frame had held the dome for the Pantheon, the dome in Firenze was way to big to be supported by a wooden frame, plus there wasn’t enough timber in Tuscany to make a frame that large.  It was also suggested that they make a giant pile of dirt and build the dome around that, and then remove the dirt, but that was rejected.  Brunelleschi decided to follow the double-shell design and found a way to reduce spreading, or hoop stress, which I guess I stress on the base of the dome.  He created “ribs” for each corner of the octogonal dome, with each rib curving towards the center or top of the dome.  These ribs, which are visible, are supported by sixteen concealed ribs between the two layers of the dome.  The hidden ribs had slits in them, still evident today, to support platforms, thus eliminating the need for scaffolding.

The Duomo

They finally finished the final façade of the Duomo in 1887 in a Gothic design by Emilio de Fabris to echo the design on Giotto’s Campanile (built 1334-1359).  It’s said that the statue on the far left of the façade is Abraham Lincoln because Italy supported the Union during the Civil War, which had ended 20 years earlier.

The most impressive piece of art in the Duomo today are the Last Judgment frescoes by Vasari.  They seem to go forever and are painted in a way that makes it look like there are tiers of people looking down at you.  A lot of the art that used to be in the Duomo is now in the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore Museum.  They have a lot of cool artwork in there, including Donatello’s Magdalene, which is a wood-carved statue of Mary Magdalene.  The museum is filled with decorative pieces that used to be in the Duomo, but over time were rotated out.  I always wonder why they did that, because the Duomo seems kind of big and empty on the inside.  The last thing in the museum are the original doors of the Baptistry.

The doors of the Baptistery were created in a competition between the seven leading artists at the time, including Donatello and Brunelleschi.  Ghiberti’s design was chosen.  Both his and Brunelleschi’s designs are so different from Florentine Gothic art at the time that they are considered the first products of the Renaissance.  The doors are made with bronze panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

Palazzo Vecchio, the Vasari Corridor, and Palazzo Pitti

The Palazzo Vecchio, completed in 1322, still serves its original purpose as Firenze’s town hall.  It is well known for the replica of Michelangelo’s David in front on, next to the Loggia dei Lanzi.  This is all part of the area surrounding Pizza della Signoria, one of the most beautiful piazze in Firenze.

Palazzo Vecchio is famous for the frescoes in the Salone dei Cinquecento, or Hall of Five Hundred.  While the whole building is full of amazing artwork, the frescoes in the Hall of Five Hundred are known for the secret they hold.  Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were both commissioned to paint the frescoes in the Hall, but they were never completed.  Vasari, another master at frescoes, was asked to complete the frescoes.  He painted over Michelangelo and da Vinci’s frescoes.  Recently, however, there has been a lot of work to find what might be da Vinci’s lost fresco.  We know there is a fresco there because before Vasari painted over it, artists and students would come to the Palazzo Vecchio and draw copies of the fresco, the Battle of Anghiari.  Apparently, Vasari put a layer of bricks over the wall on the side da Vinci was working on, and left a three-foot gap over the area da Vinci had painted.  Recent excavations were made behind the fresco.  The workers had to be very careful not to damage the Vasari fresco, and drilled tiny holes for cameras to go through.  Unfortunately, the area they got permission to drill over isn’t even where they think the fresco is.  However, they did find a particular white paint that da Vinci was known for using.  Most Renaissance artists didn’t use white paint because it didn’t mix well in their pieces, but da Vinci was good at using it.  The team that talked to my art history class about the Battle of Anghiari and their excavations are still waiting to hear if they can try again.

Aside from mysterious frescoes, the palazzo has work by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, and Verrochio.  There is a beautiful room that I only remember as the jewel box.  It was a private room painted blue-green with paintings dominated by the colors blue and green, and held a lot of precious art.  There is also a room full of old maps, which are amazingly accurate for what they knew of the world.

On the third floor (I believe) is the entrance to the Vasari Corridor.  Cosimo I had Vasari design a passage for him because he didn’t want to walk among the people.  The Vasari Corridor stretches from Palazzo Vecchio to the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio, across the tops of houses in the Oltrarno, and ends in the Boboli Gardens behind Palazzo Pitti.

Here’s picture of the Corridor between Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi:

Vasari Corridor

The Palazzo Pitti was originally built for the banker Luca Pitti, but the building costs bankrupted the Pitti family, so the Medici bought the palazzo.  In 1550 it became the main Medici residence.  This is where the Costume Gallery and Galleria d’Arte Moderna are held today.  The palazzo is huge, and at least twice as big as the Pitti family had originally planned for it to be.

Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is one of my favorite places in Firenze.  There are performers and artists, but the best part is, the bridge is lined with jewelry shops.  It was built in 1345 and is the oldest bridge in Firenze.  All the shops were originally butcher shops, and the butchers would throw meat out the windows into the Arno River (they weren’t too concerned about the environment back then).  Cosimo I and the rest of the Medici family found this disgusting, and it did smell quite bad, so in 1593 Duke Ferdinand I ordered that all the butcher shops be turned into goldsmith or jewelry shops, and those shops still stand today.

Ponte Vecchio

Here is my favorite story ever–EVER–about Firenze.

In World War II, German soldiers were ordered to bomb all the bridges crossing the Arno in Firenze.  They set everything up, and when the time came, all the bridges were bombed.  Except the soldier who was supposed to blow up the Ponte Vecchio couldn’t do it.  He thought it was too beautiful to blow up.  So he saved it, and it’s the only medieval bridge that remains.

Piazza della Repubblica

Our school was in a building on the north side of Piazza della Repubblica.  The piazza was first a Roman forum, then the Mercato Vecchio (Old Market) until 1890.  Via Roma runs right by in to the east, between the piazza and Rinascente, the department store.  Via Roma is the original road that went to Rome.  I don’t know if you could still follow it all the way to Rome, but today it takes you through the Oltrarno to Porta Roma, the old city gates south of the city.  There is an 18th century statue of Abundance, from the days when the piazza was a market, and on the west side is a huge arch celebrating Firenze as the capital of Italy.  The inscription at the top says, “The ancient center of the city/restored from age-old squalor/to new life.”

the arch

Piazza della Repubblica always has something going on.  There are caricature artists, or chalk artists, or bands playing in the square.  A lot of people played “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli–like seriously, I was getting kind of sick of that song–but there was this one band that played their own stuff.


Behind them is the bookstore Edison, which sadly went out of business while I was there.  I think it’s becoming an Apple store, which no one was happy about.  It was a beautiful bookstore with a cafe and three floors of books.

CEA was located on the third floor above Gilli, the cafe I went to the first morning with Emily.  We had a little view of the Duomo from the corner classroom, a small library, an AMAZING vending machine where I got hot chocolate every morning, and some couches where I slept between classes when I was still jet-lagged.  There was a student lounge with bookshelves full of guidebooks, and usually I would sit there before class with my hot chocolate and read the 2011 Rick Steves’ Europe book for ideas of where to travel.


On September 2nd, CEA took all of us on our first field trip.  Although I am directionally challenged about the location of towns in Tuscany, my map is telling me that Lucca is northwest of Firenze, near Viareggio (Tuscany’s main beach town).  Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini and is best known for its defensive city walls dating from the Renaissance, some of the best preserved in Europe.


 The school rented bikes for all of us and let us ride around by the entrance to the town while we waited for everyone to get a bike.



 Once everyone had a bike, we were split into groups and assigned a guide.  We rode through the town first, through Piazza Napoleone to Piazza San Martino.  San Martino was built in the 11th century.  It has a level of arches at the entrance, and three more levels of arcades and statues above that in the Romanesque style.  The campanile (bell tower) is two different colors.  It was originally built in 1060 as a defensive tower, but in 1261, when it was joined to the cathedral, they added two more levels.



 Martina, one of CEA’s professors, tried to give us an art history lesson about the facade of the church, but it didn’t go too well.  For example, she pointed up at a horse statue on the church and said, “Who is that riding the horse?”  Someone said, “Jesus.”

I still don’t know who was riding the horse.

One cool thing about the cathedral was the Labyrinth of Sin just outside the door on one of the columns.  These were often carved just outside churches to remind churchgoers that the only way out of the maze was through Christ.


 After we left San Martino, we were led up onto the city walls.  It was really nice to ride around in the fresh air and out of the city.  There were beautiful views of Lucca, too, even though I had no idea where were were going.



 We got off the walls to see San Michele, another Romanesque cathedral.  The facade is beautiful, with a huge gold and blue Jesus on the front.


 The best thing about San Michele, though, was Santa Zita.  She was a little peasant girl that stole a bunch of bread for her family after curfew.  When she was stopped by the authorities, and they asked what was bundled in her skirt, she said she had flowers, even though she knew they were going to ask to see them.  But when they asked, and she unrolled the bundle in her skirt, all the bread had turned into flowers.

Santa Zita is a beautiful girl.  She’s aged really well.


We rode our bikes to Piazza del Mercato, which is famous for being an oval piazza, rather than square.  It’s round because it used to be the Roman amphitheater.


 We were allowed to walk around for about an hour.  Our group pretty much stayed together, and we found a mother cat and her kittens.  We wanted to go up to the top of Torre del Guinigi, but we didn’t have any money.  It’s supposed to be pretty cool though.  It’s a medieval tower with oak trees growing out of the top of it.


For lunch we got a three-course lunch at a restaurant.  The first course was pasta, second was a meat plate, but I got what can only be described as a carrot salad because I’m vegetarian.  For dessert we got two kinds of gelato.  One was some kind of custard flavor, and the other was lemon.  I sat with a girl named Casey who ended up being super cool and was my buddy in Venice later.  This is us on our way back to Firenze: