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Italy 2012: Katherine Fickle

Before I go more in depth about the details of this trip, I must first state that this study abroad trip has been an eye-opening experience as it has enriched our minds with the very roots of architecture, pushed us to venture beyond our typical comforts, and fostered a curiosity for knowledge and the world itself.  Just as our trip started with ancient Rome, progressed forward into Gothic and Byzantine eras, and ended with the ancient Greek temples of Paestum, my blog will similarly begin where it ends.

So first, for my final reflections:

Final Reflections

There is so much that I will miss about Italy.  I will miss the ever-presence of beautiful structures— whether monuments or simple storefronts— where everything is sketch-worthy.  I will miss the deep sense of history with endless outlets for scholarly exploration, and I will miss the people— our friendly interactions with patient locals, the close friendships that quickly formed within the group, and the excitement of having every day be an adventure.

I already know that I have benefited greatly from this trip.  I have learned so much about ancient architecture, and I have enormous respect for the amount of inquiry and thinking that has led the field of architectural engineering to where it is today.  I know that the knowledge of these ancient structures will stay with me far longer than if I had simply taken this course while sitting in a classroom at UNO.  Furthermore, I have been able to uniquely view and experience these buildings at a level of scale and detail that cannot be captured by slides alone.

I have also benefited from an improved sense of direction and boosted street-smarts when it comes to international travel.  But, more importantly, I have been exposed to new ways of thinking and living, prodding me to question the way things are and see other possibilities.  This is essential to do as an engineer, and in the words of Galileo, “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”  It is only through questioning and experiencing that we can grow as individuals and discover things for ourselves.

Throughout this trip, our interactions with kind-hearted native Italians have erased the boundaries of an “us” versus “them” mentality, opening our minds and hearts to a sense of international understanding and empathy.  This list of benefits goes on and on, and I am sure there are many more I simply have not realized yet.

This trip would not have been possible if not for the extensive efforts of Dr. Erdogmus, who I can tell has whole-heartedly planned this trip with hours of prep-work and an unimaginable amount of paperwork.  Our group strongly appreciates her willingness to go above and beyond in order to plan a phenomenally efficient, information dense, cost-effective, and experience-filled trip for us.  I am extremely grateful for the efforts and personal guidance of both Dr. Erdogmus and our teaching assistant, Ariel, who made this trip so much more than a simple sight-seeing tour.  I am also grateful for the Durham School funding and scholarships which made my experience possible.  This study abroad opportunity was one of the reasons I chose to attend UNO and PKI in the first place, and I can only hope that this trip will continue in the future.

Needless to say, this trip was an adventure and the highlight of my year that has attracted me to the idea of returning to Europe next summer to continue to explore and sketch with newfound confidence.  For me, this trip does not end here, and all I can say is thank you.


(Map of our travels, starting in Rome. Gray lines denote day trips.)

Day 0: May 9 (Initial Observations, Rome)

After weeks of planning and days of practicing efficient packing (I can pack like a guy), I am very excited to finally be traveling to Italy.  I cannot wait to have my view of the world turned upside down, to experience new things, and to get my first stamp in my passport.

The flight from Omaha to Charlotte, NC to Rome was not as painful as expected, and a flight attendant even thought I was a native Italian.  I flew with Rae Doyle, Nathan Ritta, and Nathan Huebner— all of whom seem like excellent travel buddies.

Even from the window of the shuttle from the airport to our hotel, I can tell that I will greatly enjoy Rome.  The four of us are arriving a day early before the program starts, which means we will have more time to explore and recover from jet lag before the rest of the group arrives.

I can already detect that many aspects of urban culture and urban development are different in Rome when compared with major cities in the U.S.  All of the buildings are aged and worn, slightly unkept yet preserved.  There is no new construction, only renovation.  Italians seem to let things be, to let plants grow without taming or reshaping them, and to let nature take its course.  Italians do not seem to prioritize “newness” the way Americans do.

Italians also exemplify a raw sense of confidence— not outright defiance, but a desire to do things as it pleases them.  On the plane ride to Rome, it was easy to distinguish the Americans from the natives.  The natives on the flight stood up to turn around and converse with those around them—even when the seatbelt sign was on, as they would not let mediocre rules stand in their way of a desire to socialize.

Italian drivers are equally confident.  Our shuttle driver drove punchily and anxiously, exerting his dominance on the roadway as he maneuvered along narrow roads line with parked cars and motor scooters, driving with only inches to spare.  Italians do not treat red lights as mandatory, and motor scooters weave in and out of traffic by driving between lanes.  Even tourists must adopt this sense of confidence, walking tall with intent across crosswalks to avoid being run over.  So, I have realized that many Italians have a strong sense of self— whether it be with personality, style of dress, or driving— which makes life much more interesting than blind obedience.

Despite their aggressive driving and anxiousness to park anywhere, the Italians we have talked with thus far have been surprisingly helpful, genuinely curious, and willing to slow down to chat with us.  After all, Rome is not just a tourist site.  People truly live, breathe, eat, work, walk, and raise their families here, and they have managed to create their own small town network within this big city.

After getting settled into our hotel room, the four of us started to explore the area, driven both by hunger for lunch and a hunger to see the hidden mysteries of piazzas, market places, fountains, churches, and monuments that seem to appear out of nowhere.  The oddly angled alleyways taunt us with options.  It is certainly an adjustment from the gridded streets of Omaha, and I am sure we got lost at least five times in the two block radius from our hotel.

There was certainly plenty to see on that first day.  Just the sheer size and age of buildings are overwhelming, as even simple storefronts and apartment facades seem to exude a sense of history, engrained so deeply that even the chipping of paint cannot take it away.

We managed to find our way to the Pantheon, just a few blocks away from the hotel.  It is open to the public with plenty of locals and visitors talking, reading, writing, sketching, and eating gelato at the base of the Pantheon’s columns and in the surrounding piazza.  The Pantheon, with its curved, worn brick walls, does not look like textbooks photos when approached from behind.  Nevertheless, it is massive with a breath-taking marble interior filled with statues, paintings, and Corinthian columns.  Nate Ritta and I found ourselves repeatedly asking “Could you imagine…?” while viewing the massive dome with an oculus at its center.

(Side view of Pantheon)

(sketch of column inside Pantheon)

We also explored random basilicas and churches, with the size and beauty of their interiors being impossible to determine by looking at the outside alone.  So, although the Pantheon was the highlight of our afternoon, there were many breath-taking moments of stepping into churches and being swallowed whole by soaring Gothic vaults.

We also made it to the Victor Emmanuel Monument— a powerful looking and very white monument that celebrates the unification of Italy.  We climbed to the top and took a moment to lean against the balcony and gaze upon the surrounding plaza and skyline, even glimpsing the Coliseum from afar.

Needless to say, after more than four hours of walking and no more than ten minutes of sleeping on the plane, I slept extremely well that night.  Our first day in Rome was certainly a successful and memorable one.


Day 1: May 10 (Exploring Rome)

Being here, in Rome, has not quite sunk in yet.  The four of us went on a long walk during the day since we had plenty of time until check-in.  We made a huge loop from the Pantheon to the Spanish Steps, through the downtown shopping district, and ended north of Termini Station.  We had lunch at the Campo de Fiori marketplace which had tents full of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and spices.  After searching all over Rome, we also found a grocery store ironically just a few minutes from the hotel.

As we met the rest of the group in the comfort of the air-conditioned hotel, we enjoyed chatting as we exchanged stories of the day’s adventures.  Fortunately, everyone flew in safely.  Then, we had our first dinner out with the entire group, and we savored our first gelato of the trip.

After dinner, eight of us did the “Rick Steves recommended” night walk to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, both of which were beautifully lit up at night and were filled with groups of people from all over the world, sitting and enjoying the view.  I did toss ten centesimo (cents) into the Trevi over my shoulder to wish for a return to Rome, and I enjoyed the views from the top of the Spanish Steps with its disappearing lines of lit up boulevards.  We roamed and explored, appreciating how much the city seems to come alive at night.


Day 2: May 11 (Coliseum, etc., Rome)

The first full day of the program started early with the added excitement of having a full itinerary of ancient Roman ruins and monuments.  We saw Trajan’s Column which stands impressively tall with intricate carvings while on our way to the Coliseum.  The Coliseum is a feat of Roman engineering with rings of arches and columns of the three main orders.  It is amazing to think that the entire structure was made with limestone, masonry, and bronze clamps with no mortar used at all.  Almost 2,000 years after it was originally built, two of the main entrance arches still stand without any rehabilitation.  I enjoyed walking throughout the structure and appreciated the beauty of jagged rubble and missing bricks along with the famous slant of the Coliseum due to an earthquake years ago.  The stage was removed to reveal a hypogemia of curving passageways below which were used for the behind-the-scenes transportation of gladiators and wild animals during the show.  I do wish we could have toured this area down below.

(interior of Coliseum)

Following the Coliseum, we saw the Arch of Constantine, built in celebration of Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milan Bridge.  The monument consists of recycled elements of past structures— either due to the lack of time or due to the lack of trained artisans.  This arch is also seen as a symbol of Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as well.

We had a picnic of prosciutto, mozzarella, and olives on the hills of Palatine where Rome was founded by Remus and Romulus.  The ruins of the ancient palace still remain and some areas have been turned into gardens.

Following Palatine, we viewed the reconstructed remains of the Forum which was used for business, a public meeting space, and had temples that exalted emperors and the gods.  The reconstructed lone columns surely cannot compare to the original structures, yet they are certainly impressive nonetheless.  We also went into the Museo Capitolini which houses statues saved from the rubble of the Forum and has a terrace with breathtaking views overlooking the Forum and the rest of the city.

During my free time, as others took naps, I took my novel and read at the base of a column of the Pantheon.  A string quartet played in the piazza, and I enjoyed the breezy, perfect weather of the late afternoon.

I still cannot believe how amazing Rome is.  There is beauty in every detail: every piece of cracked marble in the Pantheon floor, the chipping paint of old buildings, the uneven and crooked cobblestone, and the variety of iron balconies.  I can see that Rome must be an architect’s dream for sketching with hidden details that can only be appreciated by slowing down.  I am so grateful to be here on this trip with this amazing opportunity to learn and explore.


Day 3: May 12 (Vatican City, Rome)

Today we visited St. Peters Basilica and visited the Vatican Museum which I felt I could have easily spent weeks in.

St. Peters is extremely impressive with an overwhelmingly detailed Baroque-style interior.  The dome was designed by Michelangelo in keeping with Bramante’s original intentions for the structure.  The interior is covered with mosaics and tiles so small that it looks glossy like an oil painting.  There are so many intricate details that it is difficult to take it all in.  The basilica is the largest in the world based on the number of people it can seat (approximately 60,000), and a 927 ton bronze canopy by Bernini covers the altar.  There are not enough words to describe the thousands of hours of work that went into designing the ornament of this structure.

(St. Peters Basilica, Vatican)

(Inside of St. Peters looking toward altar)

(Inside of St. Peters looking towards entrance)

The Vatican Museum was equally overwhelming with a massive collection that surpasses any art museum I have previously visited.  Even the structure of the museum was impressive as I found myself looking up at the ceiling as much as I looked at the artwork.  Many famous paintings can be found in this museum including Raphael’s 4 Rooms which includes his famous School of Athens painting.  The School of Athens represents the rise of science and reason during the Renaissance along with its inclusion of many scholars and famous figures of the time.

Finally, after many exhibits of anticipation, we reached the Sistine Chapel which has every inch covered in paint save the floor.  I cannot believe the ceiling was completed in only four years, mostly by Michelangelo himself.  So much skill went into his paintings with an amazing level of detail and depth on the curved ceiling surface.  To spin in circles while looking at the ceiling is almost dizzying.  The room itself was crowded and already humid in order to preserve the frescoes, but I wanted nothing more than to climb a ladder or scaffolding— to get closer to the artwork or at least lie on the floor and stare up at the ceiling.  The Sistine Chapel certainly surpassed my initial expectations.

Following the Vatican Museum, we got an amazing view of the dome from the top of the nearby Castel St. Angelo (Hadrian’s tomb), and we could see the snaking wall that serves as a secret passageway and escape route from the Vatican to Castel St. Angelo.  I wish we could have seen the areas of Hadrian’s tomb previously used as a prison, but the views of the city from the top were nevertheless impressive.

After finishing our planned daily excursion, a group of us spent a few hours playing Pitch (a card game) while enjoying each other’s company.  We had the most delicious dinner a few streets away from the Trevi fountain with the best shrimp pasta and pesto.

I still cannot believe how much we have done in a few short days in Rome as it feels like I have already been here at least a week.


Day 4: May 13 (Pantheon, etc., Rome)

Today’s itinerary listed seeing the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps.  Although I had already seen all or most of these places on previous excursions, it was still interesting to return and learn more about the history behind these areas, allowing me to see these places with fresh eyes.

The Pantheon still remains to be my favorite.  It is one of the few buildings to be fully functional since it was built (or rather, rebuilt, following a fire in 80 A.D.).  It was built in a Greek style with Corinthian columns and a pediment that previously depicted the Battle of Titus before it was removed.  With a 142 foot diameter, it was the largest dome in the world until the 1400s and has the largest oculus.  Its building technique was lost for centuries, and the walls of the dome taper toward the top with aesthetically-pleasing coffered (recessed) panels to reduce the weight of the dome towards the top.  Until the street level was raised, it was also previously above the level of the street with stairs leading up to the building, which would have made it appear even more massive.

(Recessed panels and oculus of Pantheon’s dome)

Following the Pantheon, we visited piazzas such as Campo de Fiori with its daily market and Piazza Navona.  We also glimpsed the Trevi Fountain which was built in the 1600s to celebrate the reopening of a major aqueduct.  It was interesting to see the Spanish Steps during the day as they seemed even whiter and more majestic that at night.

The highlight of my day, however, was the visit to the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in the Piazza del Popolo.  It was both inspiring and intriguing to see displays of his sketches and recreations of his many innovative inventions.  It was the perfect museum for our group of engineering students.

Then, after our planned activities commenced, a large group of us planned our free day in Rome with hopes to see the dome and crypts in St. Peters Basilica along with a possible visit to some catacombs in the area.


Day 5: May 14 (Vatican City, Rome)

In the morning we had an early and highly competitive scavenger hunt which required us to use our knowledge and sense of direction to take photos of the places that the clues led to.  My group consisted of Jen, Nate R., Keith, and I, and we quickly learned that running on cobblestones is not the most pleasant feeling.  However, it was fun and helped us to realize how much we have truly learned over the course of the last four days.

We went to Campo de Fiori to grab lunch with fresh cherry tomatoes and peaches which we brought with us to wait in line at St. Peters.  The line did not take as long as we expected, and we easily passed the time by playing cards.  We climbed the 500+ steps to the top and maneuvered through stairways as the walls dramatically sloped inwards toward the center of the dome.  There were amazing views from the rooftop terrace where giant statues stood even taller than we had expected.  The inside of the dome was beautiful and we could see the interior mosaics close up and look down at the altar far below.  The view from the top was also breathtaking and one of my favorite views of the trip.

(On the roof of of St. Peters)

(Interior of St. Peters dome)

(close-up of mosaics on inside of dome)

(The group at the top of St. Peters dome)

After purchasing a few rosaries from the gift shop on the roof of the basilica, we went inside St. Peters once again, and it was like seeing it for the first time.  We had more time to pick out details in the ornament, and while we were there, some missionaries processed down the center aisle while singing, and their voices echoed to fill the basilica.  The crypt beneath St. Peters was closed which was unfortunate since it was my favorite part of Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.  Instead, Jen and Andrew and I went to a creepy museum in the basement of a church with skulls and bones arranged and displayed as architectural ornament adorning the walls.  Shiver.  I must admit, however, that the ornament was delicate and beautiful looking if you squinted and forgot they were bones.  But, at least we had a pleasant walk to the church.


Day 6: May 15 (University Visit, Rome)

The main portion of our day was spent in the engineering building at Spienza Universita di Roma to attend lectures by professors and graduate students.  I did not realize that research teams formed with collaboration between students and professors across the globe which is an amazing feat in terms of communication alone.  Their network of connections ranged from Caltech in the U.S. to Rome to China and everywhere in between.

The graduate students and professors gave presentations on topics such as fire safety engineering and thermal buckling, wind turbines with piezoelectric material that generates energy through vibration, and the modeling of steel connections.  I did find the presentation on DInSAR technology to be particularly interesting since it uses GPS technology to determine whether it is safe to enter a building, and it tracks the velocity and standard deviation of displacements due to foundation settlements.  I felt that this aspect of the presentation was extremely applicable to our studies in Italy.  It is not enough to simply build the newest high-tech structure; existing structures must be preserved and maintained in order to save their historical and cultural significance.

The tour of the facilities was eye-opening as well, and I am even more grateful of the PKI facilities now.  In their classes in Rome, students struggle to find seats in class on test days, they often have to wait to find space to work in the library, and it is more difficult to find a quiet place to study.  Furthermore, the college buildings were spread across the city due to a lack of room, making the ten minute shuttle ride from PKI to main campus seem insignificant in comparison.

I also enjoyed the university visit since I may be taking a course abroad next summer, and it is great to see what options there are before making a final decision.

After the lectures, university tours, and a (fortunately) uneventful metro ride, a group of us finally found an amazing supermarket and enjoyed tomatoes and olives before having a late dinner.  Then, on our last night in Rome, we returned to our favorite restaurant of the trip— L’archetto— by the Trevi Fountain after all of us had had recurring dreams about shrimp pasta and chocolate mousse.  We made one last trip to see the Coliseum lit up at night before saying goodbye to Rome.


Day 7: May 16 (Florence)

Today marks the first day in the enticing new city of Florence after our first train ride from Termini Station in Rome.  I am sure I am one of the few who can say that the walk from the train station in Florence to our hotel was enjoyable since I had an easy walk with my 22 pound travel backpack and no suitcase to drag over curbs and cobblestones.  And, I will still get to room with Jen, Ariel, and Rae, who I have greatly enjoyed spending time with.  Based on what I have seen of Florence, I do like this city.  It seems less hectic than Rome with the same beautifully aged architecture.  Unfortunately, Florence is also more touristy which surprised me.

After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we headed to the Galileo Museum to learn about his studies of astronomy, pendulum motion, and kinematics.  We also got a chance to view exhibits on the inner workings of clocks and rotating miniature models of the solar system.  I was impressed by the Medici collection of cartography tools, especially after gaining a new appreciation for geography
from reading Maphead (an amazing nonfiction book) last semester.  I was also impressed by the variety of scientific instruments such as barometers which were so intricate, delicate, and precise as well as beautiful and perfectly kept.  I cannot imagine the skill it must have taken to make everything from blown glass during the 17th century without modern technology— not to mention have it calibrated and perfectly functioning.  This was certainly one of my favorite museums so far.

We also visited the Santa Maria del Fiore, and I gave my presentation about the construction of the structure while standing on top of Brunelleschi’s dome and looking out over all of Florence.  It was sad to see so much graffiti on the marble lantern and stairway on the way up, but there was an amazing view of a sea of red terracotta rooftops with hazy mountains in the distance.  It was also interesting to see the mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles for this building since it was constructed over the course of two centuries.  Mostly, I was just glad to see it after reading so much about the building’s dome.  Although we did not go inside it today, we also saw the campanile (bell tower) and Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors on the baptistery.

(Florence’s Duomo)

(My sketch of Brunelleschi’s dome, viewed from the roof patio of our hotel)

After finishing the day’s itinerary, I had dinner out with friends, and we walked around piazzas while listening to some very talented street musicians.

I do like Florence because it is more ordered and easier to navigate, but Florence still feels strange and unfamiliar after Rome was starting to feel like home.


Day 8: May 17 (Florence)

Today’s excursion led us past the picturesque Ponte Veccio— a bridge lined with goldsmith shops that jut out over the river— and then uphill to Piazza Michelangelo which overlooks all of Florence and the surrounding hillsides.

We visited three churches: Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and San Lorenzo.  I enjoyed staring at the ceiling to look at Gothic vaults and to look for the Italian style of hidden buttressing.  I also enjoyed the toned-down Dominican style which is less overwhelming than Baroque, making it easier to distinguish the structure itself with less ornament to obscure the ribbed supports.  Although the original brick façades may have been a little too modest for my taste, the interiors were much more to my liking than Baroque styles.  The churches also offered us the opportunity to view precious relics and the famous tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, the Medicis, and Donatello.

Dinner consisted of a delicious picnic on the rooftop of the hotel followed by a walk/jog to the Piazza Michelangelo to watch the sun slowly set behind the mountains.

We returned from our walk to watch a documentary on the Medici’s rise to power in Florence, which had a major focus on the building of Brunelleschi’s dome.  While watching the video on the hotel roof, we could view the same dome just a few blocks away as it was illuminated by spotlights against the night sky.

I am starting to love Florence, and I cannot believe that tomorrow we will be halfway done with our trip.


Day 9: May 18 (Florence)

Today’s agenda consisted of three major Florentine museums, and I would not be surprised if I still see streams of Renaissance art painted on the inside of my eyelids as I go to sleep tonight.

The Museo del Bargello featured exhibits on ceramics, coats of arms, intricate ivory carvings, and Donatello’s Bronze David.  The Academia Museum featured Michelangelo’s David— weighing six tons and standing tall at a height of seven feet of marble— in addition to other unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo.

The Uffizi Museum, however, was my favorite with its wide collection of Renaissance paintings.  I appreciated having the worksheet to fill out, as it forced me to really analyze and enjoy the details of Botticelli’s La Primavera and the Birth of Venus.  I felt as if I could have kept sitting in front of these two paintings for hours as they both seemed so dense with mythological references and historical symbolism.  I still cannot believe that I am seeing these famous pieces of art right in front of me.  I had first learned about the two David sculptures and the two Botticelli paintings during a European history course just a few years ago, and it is refreshing to finally see the originals right before my eyes while knowing their significance for the progression of the Renaissance art movement.

In between museum visits, Rae, Jen, and I had our own siesta with a picnic on the steps of the San Lorenzo church followed by a walk around the museum.  Every aspect of being in Italy has been enjoyable: both the educational experience and the enjoyable downtime to immerse myself in the Italian lifestyle.

(Picnicing on the steps of San Lorenzo, eating olives and cherry tomatoes)


Day 10: May 19 (Cinque Terre)

On our free day in Florence, I accompanied Dr. Erdogmus, Ariel, and several others on a day trip from Florence to Cinque Terre which is along the northwest coast of Italy and somewhat close to Genoa.  Our trip took an entire day— from 8 in the morning to nearly midnight involving two train rides and a hike between the five colorful villages nestled in the hills of the rocky coast.  The trip was surprisingly inexpensive and well worth it.  Although the trip started with a cover of clouds and a light rain, the sun appeared by the time our group hiked high into the cliffs, allowing us to see the deep blue seawater as it sparkled far below.  A few of us climbed rocks along the coast and explored alternate paths with every chance we got.  Although the hike was not too strenuous, I am grateful that we took the ferry between a few of the cities as it certainly gave an amazing panoramic view of the coastline.  Every aspect of the location was too beautiful for words.  I am so glad to have gone, as I know I would have regretted it had I chosen otherwise.

 (Andrew and I at Cinque Terre on the rocks)

(One of the five towns, Cinque Terre)

(Cinque Terre)

(Nate R. and I, Cinque Terre) 

 (View from near the top of our hike)


Day 11: May 20 (Milan)

After arriving back at the Florence hotel late last night from Cinque Terre, I had a sleepy train ride to Milan only to be greeted by the slightly gray, dreary, and rainy urban center.  I am grateful though, that it rained in Milan rather than in Rome, since most of our activities in Milan will be indoors anyway.  Our hostel is a little farther from the city center than the other hotels, but we do have the benefit of large common rooms for our group to congregate in during free time.

(Train time)

We visited the Duomo di Milano which is a gorgeous, towering, marble French Gothic cathedral that was constructed over the course of 600 years.  It has white marble spires that could seemingly pierce through the clouds, and it is the largest cathedral in Italy and fourth largest in the world.  We climbed to the top and walked through flying buttresses before looking out onto the surrounding city and nearby Galleria from the rooftop.

(Milan’s Duomo)

(Milan Galleria)

(Milan is beautiful, even in the rain)

The interior was even more overwhelming than I expected, and it would not have surprised me to see rain clouds trapped and hovering below the ceiling raised at such an impressive height.  It was like walking through a forest of marble with a canopy too large to distinguish its details.

After seeing the Duomo and marveling at its endless spires, we visited the nearby Milano Galleria— the first glass and steel structure to have a dome— which is filled with high-end stores and other offerings.

We quickly walked to the Castello Sforzesco— a huge Romanesque castle— before going to the Ambrosiana Museum gallery (my personal favorite for the day).  The museum featured a large-scale sketch by Raphael for his famous School of Athens painting, panel drawings from da Vinci’s Last Supper, and the Ritratto di Musico— also by Leonardo da Vinci and one of the few paintings he completed.  Most intriguing, however, were the rows of original da Vinci sketches of his flight machines, each encased in layers upon layers of glass.  The level of detail in his sketches was phenomenal, and I could not believe those sketches were displayed right in front of me.

The museum itself was amazing as well with beautiful curving staircases and perfectly arranged spotlights that made the oil paintings appear to glimmer and glow.

After visiting the museum, we went to the supermarket and had a picnic before we returned to the hostel to plan tomorrow’s day trip to Venice.


Day 12: May 21 (Venice)

This morning, a group of sixteen of us took the metro and train to Venice, and we were already dreading the expected rainy chill.  It is amazing how much the weather can affect my perception of a city, but I still enjoyed Venice, even in the rain.

The canals were wider than I expected, and the streets are like a maze of winding, narrow alleyways with the occasional dead-end, arched bridge, and tunnel passageway at half-height.  The city was emptier than I expected, but I realize that most of the locals no longer live there due to the impracticalities of higher living costs and the raised prices of apartments.

We managed to find our way to St. Marks Square without backtracking since we were too frugal to fork over the money for a water shuttle, let alone a gondola.  St. Marks Square was scenic— even in the rain.  I wish I had braved the line to see the inside of the basilica with its shifting and undulating flooring, but we did get a chance to look inside glass shops, and we caught a glimpse of the Doge’s Palace.  And now, just to journal, nap, and finish reading a recommended novel about Italy on the slow train back to Milan.  Except for the wet socks, this is the good life.

(Rae and I dancing in the rain in the middle of St. Marks Square)

(Venice canal)


Day 13: May 22 (Milan)

Today we went to the Museo Nazionale after having a free morning of relaxing.  The Museo Nazionale is a science museum that features fascinating displays on da Vinci’s sketches and anatomical studies along with exhibits on modern developments such as telecommunications and optic fibers, the science of proper packaging, and an intricate model of Milan’s Duomo.  I enjoyed the fact that most exhibits demonstrated the evolution of technology through time, making it easier to recognize the major advances and appreciate all of the work that has lead technology to where it stands today.  The museum was certainly enlightening.

Today, Milan did not seem as dreary as I initially thought.  Without the rain, Milan was enjoyable, and it was fun to walk around and appreciate the city after being treated to some of the best all-natural gelato by Dr. Erdogmus.  Tomorrow, we leave for Ravenna on a bus in the morning.


Day 14: May 23 (Ravenna)

Our first day on the shuttle bus involved a leisurely drive to Ravenna, a quaint town that is perfect for walking with most of the major streets blocked from vehicle access.  Ravenna seems like a miniature Florence with a surprising amount of shopping.  The hotel itself is adorable as well, like an upscale Bed and Breakfast with glossy hardwood floors and a grand staircase.  Ariel and I feel spoiled with a large bathroom and a patio leading out onto the hotel’s private garden and green space.

While in Ravenna, we visited the actual tomb of Dante, the poet of the Divine Comedy who spent time in Ravenna after facing exile.

We also visited two basilicas: Sant ‘Appolinare Nuova and the Basilica di San Vitale, each of which exemplified aspects of Byzantine-style architecture.  The Sant ‘Appolinare Nuova is Byzantine through its use of gold-tiled mosaics that line the long Roman-style walls of the basilica plan.  It was interesting to see how one of the side walls bowed due to improper support from the side barrel vault and due to the weight of the ceiling.  The mosaics, fortunately, were still in place since they have a greater range to move compared to an easily cracking fresco.

The Basilica di San Vitale had similar gold-tinted tile in its swirling floor patterns and stayed true to the Byzantine style with its octagonal floor plan.

Following the basilica visits, Rae, Jen, and I explored Ravenna while window shopping and wandering through piazzas.

Every city so far has grown on me with its own unique portrayal of Italian culture.


Day 15: May 24 (Pisa, San Gimignano)

Our visit to Pisa was different than I expected in many respects.  As the shuttle bus parked, we were swarmed with street vendors and the sidewalks were lined with the repetitive tents of street vendors as well.  Aside from this and the sea of tourists, the structures themselves were awe-inspiring.  The campanile leaned more than I expected at a four degree slant and a 3.9 meter displacement.  The tower seemed to earn its miraculous praises for which the piazza was named.  I was extremely excited to climb the campanile, as I have become very fond of climbing anything in order to get a better view.  The climb to the top was slightly disorienting as the tower itself seemed to shift back and forth due to the spiraling nature of the stairs.  The view from the top was phenomenal as the tourists below faded into mere specks.  The difference in height due to the tilt was also prominent at the top, and I am grateful that recent commissions stabilized the tower to make our climb possible.

(Leaning tower of Pisa)

My other favorite from the Pisa site was the Gothic-style baptistery with its cone-shaped dome that produced fantastic echoes.  A man associated with the duomo shushed the crowd to demonstrate the clarity of the echo.  He sang notes and harmonized with his own echoes to produce chords that filled the room like that of an organ.

After Pisa, we had a relaxing drive through areas as picturesque as the California wine country as we made our way through Tuscany to San Gimignano.  The beautiful, rolling countryside was completely empty except for lush vegetation, farmland, and speckles of small towns.  I wanted nothing more than to climb a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  The town of San Gimignano has winding, hilly streets and maintains its medieval style after it prospered around the 13th century.

We had a delicious group dinner of risotto and ravioli in the hotel restaurant, and a group of us enjoyed exploring the town after sunset.  We walked around the outer walls of the town and stopped at some castle ruins to sit and spook eachother with scary stories.


Day 16: May 25 (San Gimignano, Paestum)

Ariel and I, finding ourselves with a few spare hours in the morning, decided to explore the outskirts of San Gimignano, pausing occasionally to capture the beauty of the countryside.  We window shopped and found my favorite store of the entire trip.  With a slighty understated façade, the journal shop could have been easily missed, but it was filled with stacks upon stacks of leather-bound journals, fancy ink pens, and embossed stationary so beautiful I would be hesitant to use it.

Once our group collected, we hiked to the top of the only public medieval tower in the town to look out on the amazing view.  The climb was followed by a tour of a torture museum, which was disturbing and nauseating.  I suppose it is important to learn about the many aspects of history: both good and bad.  It would be wrong to only admire the preserved beauties of Italy while ignoring the sad and gruesome aspects of Italian history.

Then came the six hour drive to Paestum with anticipation mounting as we awaited a late dinner at our hotel.  We are staying at an agriturismo where nearly 70% of the food served is grown on site.  Dinner did not disappoint.  We were served multiple courses containing their famous buffalo mozzarella for which they are well known.


Day 17: May 26 (Pompeii, Paestum)

After a breakfast of freshly prepared cantaloupe and almond biscotti at the agriturismo, we were off to explore the excavated ruins of Pompeii.  The site was at least a hundred times larger than expected, and I felt I could actually get lost there.  Excavations of the city began during the 18th century and still continue today.  Before the volcanic eruption, a major earthquake devastated Pompeii, so some structures were restored and others were yet to be repaired.  Then, in 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius erupted, blanketing the city in ash and preserving the remains of ancient Roman life.

We viewed the city’s Forum, basilica, temples, and market streets along with a recently excavated bathhouse.  When viewing the temples, I found it amazing how much archeologists have been able to deduce about the original appearance of these buildings, as the renderings based on their conclusions are eye-opening to the impressive nature of these ancient structures.  Statues and pottery also remained along with two preserved bodies shown on display, likely killed by the approximated 253 degree Celcius heat before being preserved in ash.  Additionally, I wish I could have seen what the site looked like before it was modified for (and affected by) tourists.

The Paestum Greek temples were also eye-opening as they demonstrated the influential link between Greek and Roman styles.  The three temples were constructed around 450-550 B.C. after the civilization was founded in the 8th century B.C. by Greeks settling in what is now Italy.  The temple of Athena has the first known mixture of Doric and Ionic columns, and the columns are thicker at the base with a more dramatic tapering.  It was interesting to learn that Greek temples typically have an even number of columns in the front so that the central statue can be seen directly down the middle aisle.  The interior columns are also typically smaller with more flutes (edges) for a visual effect and to conserve materials.

Paestum was the perfect way to end the trip since it brought our studies of Roman architecture full circle.

After Paestum, we had one last dinner at the agriturismo with an impromptu group meeting to reflect on our favorite moments of the trip.  It brought us all a sense of closure, and I have not laughed so much in months.  I am glad that our group bonded so well, as it certainly made a difference and improved our travel experiences.


Day 18: May 27 (Rome)

As much as I am excited to go home, I know that I will miss Italy and everyone I have traveled with.  With my flight leaving tomorrow, I have one more day to breathe in Rome.  Tomorrow I return to a slightly lackluster suburbia where any scholarly exploration likely involves a trip to the library or the Internet rather than a step outside the hotel door.

It still feels surreal to be here, and the magic has not yet faded.  After a night of goodbye hugs to friends, it finally sinks in that tomorrow I will leave this place.

So, goodbye Italy.  Until next time.


(Part of the group on top of Brunelleschi’s Dome)



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