Wednesday, we arrived in the beating heart of Italy’s culture and history, the capital city of Rome. We checked into our hotel nearby the train station and journeyed to the site of the ancient Roman empire. Our first stop was the eternal symbol of the city, the Roman Colosseum. The ancient amphitheater dates back to 70AD and is a still a marvel of architecture and design. Three levels adorn the building, which once held spectators who would sit according to the Roman's strict cast system. They would take in gladiator fights, often recreating famous Roman and Greek battles. The contestants where criminals, POWs and Christians. A cross stands in the Colosseum today to honor those who died for their faith. The present condition of the Colosseum is not perfect by any means, but it's wear and tear lends credence to its age and the history that was made there. Pillars still stand which once held up bleachers. The wooden staging that once covered the entire floor had been peeled back to revel the under croft of prison cells the Warriors were kept in. From the balconies you can see the glorious Arch of Constantine, which was built in 300AD to honor the emperor's military victories. We left feeling like we had just taken in something special. And indeed, we did. The Colosseum is one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
Next was the Roman Forum, which was once the heart of the Roman Republic's economy, politics and social scene. All that's left today are decaying foundations and marble columns, but you can easily imagine what the Senate's voting chambers looked like, and what wonders the temple of Mars and Venus once held. The strolled over to the Palatino, which housed the Roman emperors for generations after the republic fell.
Afterwards we took a walking tour of some of the important landmarks in the city. We continued on to the Trevi fountain, perhaps the most beautiful and famous in the world. Having appeared iconically in a number of movies, the Trevi Fountain is one of the few things that not only lives up to the hype, but exceeds it. Lit up for the evening viewers, the fountain depicted Neptune, the god of the oceans. We made sure to partake in the ritual of throwing a coin over our shoulders to ensure that we will return to Rome someday.
Our final activity on Wednesday night was a stroll through Piazza Navona, one famous for street artists, outdoor dining, music drafting through the night air, flowers blooming out of window boxes and a sense of romance in the air. Dominating the piazza was a massive marble fountain called the Fountain of Four Rivers by Italian sculpting master Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Students split into smaller groups and got all sorts of pasta, pizza and desserts.
Thursday morning we headed to the Vatican to explore the deeply spiritual epicenter of the Catholic Church. It was just a short subway ride from our hotel and we began a long day in St. Peter's Square. First we went to the Vatican Museums, where we explored some amazing artifacts and artwork collected by the church over the years. First were the sculpture rooms with statues dating back to the Greek Empire. The amazing Apollo statue educated many artist's depictions of Jesus during in the Renaissance. Next were the map and the tapestry rooms with detailed ceilings and huge prices of art adorning the walls. Lastly we went into the Sistine Chapel which is where they elect the new pope, and where council meetings take place to make important decisions for the future of the Catholic Church. The ceiling is the focal point obviously, with Michelangelo's story of Genesis, and the panel with God and Adam touching fingers. On the far wall was the Last Judgement, another famous work of Michelangelo's. We left the museums and headed to St. Peter's Square.
To finish the tour of the Vatican we went into St. Peter's Basilica and walked in Christianity's most legendary church. It is so large and filled with epic treasures, such as Leonardo's Pieta (Jesus dead in Mary's arms). The alter is a huge bronze piece called Baldachin, who's metal was repurposed from the original doors to the Pantheon. Tombs of popes and Christian martyrs were everywhere. The building was filled with history and spirituality, making it a pilgrimage to some, and an interesting anthropological study for others.
Next we walked by Castel Sant'Angelo, an ancient fortress for the defense of the Vatican. It's bridge is adorned by saints, framing the building in an inspiring way. The walk continued as students paused for last minute shopping and gelato. We arrived at the Pantheon at last, and took in the nearly 2,000 year old temple to Roman mythology, which had been retrofitted hundreds of years ago into a Christian church. The oculus in the roof was impressive, as was the tomb of the famed Renaissance painter Rafael. We had one last church on the itinerary, the church of St. Ignasio which was beautiful. The ceilings had a baroque feeling with grand paintings of heaven and hell. We were accidentally present for the beginning of Holy Thursday mass, which we lingered for for a few minutes to listen to the organ and the choir before making our way to the exit.
Next we wandered into the Jewish quarter, to see the historic neighborhood. It had a warmth to it, but also a sense that a loss had occurred, as golden cobble stones marked the addresses of residents who had been swept up in the rounding of Jews during the Holocaust. Powerful and haunting, it also demonstrated resilience in that the neighborhood kept it's cultural history in spite of tragic history. Lastly we wandered the streets of Travestere, a legendary restaurant and culture neighborhood for our last supper in Italy.
Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible. It has been incredible experience for our students, and is Mrs. G and I's favorite part of our job. The past two weeks have been full of sights, sounds and laughs. It is an experience that will continue to pay dividends for years to come. I'm so happy that each and every student here was part of it. Thanks for reading.
On Monday afternoon we traveled South to the lovely Renaissance city of Florence. We took a direct route to our hotel to drop our bags before heading out to explore the city. The first stop was Mercato Centrale, an atrium with a wide variety of Italian foods in booths similar to a food court. Students bought an assortment of pasta, pizza, gelato and cannoli. With full bellies we wandered through the leather market towards our next destination, the Cathedral of Santa Marie dei Fiore (otherwise known as the Duomo).
The Florence Duomo is one of the largest churches in the world. It is a marvel of architecture dating back to the 1500s. The white marble facade is bright and beautiful, accented by green and salmon colored marble. It is gigantic and wonderful to behold. We tasked ourselves with climbing adjacent bell tower and all of its 414 steps. The winding staircase was dark and had a medieval feeling to it. Once on top we could see for miles. The zoning in old town Florence calls for similar faded red roofs, and they looked so interesting all together stretching out in all directions. We could see Florence's churches, palaces and all the way out into the Tuscan countryside. It's not something any of them will forget anytime soon.
Upon returning to ground level, we all got gelato and headed back to the hotel. Students had free time to explore and shop. As the sun was going down we reunited at the Duomo and had dinner as a group. We opted for outdoor dining, and a meal of pasta and paninis. The imposing church lit up at night, together with the distant sound of a street performer playing the saxophone made it feel like a truly European experience.
After dinner we hiked across town to the Palazzo Vecchio home to the Medici family who were the wealthiest in Italy during the 15th and 16th century. The piazza surrounding the palace had a series of marble fountains, and an open-air sculpture gallery with legendary figures from the Roman empire, as well as some from Roman mythology and the Bible. Next we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, a famous Renaissance bridge famous for its fashionable jewelry shops (also it’s also the only Florence bridge to survive WWII). After the bridge we trekked up to Piazza Michelangelo to get a different perspective of the city all lit up at night. Groups of people were playing the guitar, others having a picnic, others happily chatting away in Italian. Perhaps my favorite memory was watching the whole group laughing and singing and talking away together on the steps of the piazza. 13 students have truly bonded through this mutual experience.
On Tuesday we continued our stay in Florence by seeing some of the city's impressive art collections. We made our way to the Gallery of Accademia, which houses the original statue of David, sculpted by Michelangelo himself. The gallery's main attraction was our first stop. This masterpiece is worth taking a long and hard look due to its technique and its inspiration for future artists. The hands and feet (often the hardest for artists) were flawless. His muscles redefined what masculinity and the human form was for the Renaissance generation. The rest of the gallery had unfinished Leonardo marble sculptures, and many ornate church paintings that were very interesting.
We desired the pace of Tuesday to be leisurely so that students had a chance to recharge their batteries and have some unstructured time. I find that as amazing as museum and landmarks are (and Italy’s are legendary), that some of the best memories of traveling wind up being times where you can wander the streets of a city, taking in shops, sights, sounds, and culinary. Several students stopped to watch street performers, and to scope out local art. We allowed students to explore and to find souvenirs before meeting back up and walking to Palazzo Pitti to see the beautiful Boboli Gardens. Taking advantage of the best weather of the trip, we strolled through the gardens and snapped pictures of flowers in bloom, and fountains amongst intricately shaped hedges. Once the gardens closed, we allowed students to split off into smaller groups to grab dinner and call it a night.
Wednesday morning, we went about the challenging task of repacking all of our things (with lots of new added weight) and took a train to Rome. Special thanks to Grace, Sarah and Sam for helping to plan such a special experience in Florence. You girls did a great job.
On Sunday night we had a celebration of the exchange program we’ve built over the course of the past 12 months. Our Italian exchange partners threw us a going away party in a venue hall rented from a local church. With Licenzo DJing, there was food, music, and lots of laughter recalling the stories from the September and April exchanges. Many of the Italians parents stuck around to spend time with us, which was much appreciated. Mrs. G and I had a chance to thank them personally for taking such great care of our WMHS students. Towards the end, a big gelato cake came out and was prompted devoured. We headed our separate ways for the last time, to pack and spending quality time with our hosts.
On Monday morning we met at Montebelluna train station for the final time, and said goodbye to our exchange partners. The parting was bittersweet, an acknowledgement that we had shared a meaningful experience, but that we would also miss each other dearly. Students were making plans to see one another in the future, and I sincerely hope that they see those plans through. We waved goodbye and headed South to Florence.
On Saturday we headed to Asolo, a small town in the Grapa Hills with a commanding view over the landscape. When contriving this program, we hoped to balance out a metropolis like Venice with small towns like Asolo in an effort to give students a better understanding of what Italy is all about. The town has ancient roots, with ruins dating back to the Roman Empire. It's cathedral with an important piece of Renaissance art (The Assumption of Mary) dates back to the 13th century. The fortresses dotting the landscape is a reminder of the defensive necessity of the town to the Venetians at the height of their political and economic power. Most of all, it was a relaxed morning, with good friends and a charming view. What else could you ask for?
Today we headed to Venice to explore a world renown city. We arrived into the station after an hour train and were immediately awed by the large Grand Canal that stretched out in many directions. There were no cars, only boats and gondolas. We started off down the side of the canal towards our destination, San Marco's Square. The pace was leisurely as we allowed breaks for shopping, and snacks. The shops were full of art, Mardi Gras masks, and jewelry.
We paused at the Rialto Bridge for lunch, lazily watching the boats travel down the expanses of the Grand Canal. Splitting up into three groups, we boarded gondolas and had a charming and quintessential ride through the smaller canals of Venice. Windows were adorned by flower boxes bursting with color, adding to the atmosphere of the old city.
When we made it to San Marco Square we were awed by the gigantic Byzantine inspired Cathedral. The inside had gold leaf frescoes soon the entire ceiling, depicting the deeds of saints and martyrs. Next to the cathedral was a huge watch tower and an astronomy clock tower. We took the lift to the top of the Campanile, an ancient tower with a dominating view over Venice. Lastly we took a speed run through the Doge's Palace, seeing the seat of government and power during the Venetian glory days. The opulence and power were a sight to behold. In San Marco Square, with people buzzing all over, pigeons eating bread out of your hands, music filling the air, and legendary buildings all around, it made us all feel part of something special.
Special thanks to Anthony, Carter and Aidan for helping us to plan such an epic day. You information as our guides made us laugh and understand what we were seeing and experiencing much better.
Today we headed to the romantic city of Verona, the city that inspired Shakespeare to author Romeo and Juliet about two star-crossed lovers. It was appropriate then, the city had a romantic appeal with its colorful houses, wrought iron balconies and flower boxes adorning every window. It was a wet day, but it had a good pace and rhythm to it. One does not hustle through Verona. You would miss the immersive quality of the architecture and charm of people watching in such a vibrant city.
The first landmark on the itinerary was the Verona Arena, a cousin of the Colosseum in Rome. Though less famous than it's Roman counterpart, it is older and better preserved by comparison. It was so interesting to see the stone cut bleachers of old, retrofitted with modern seats and staging for the upcoming summer concert series.
Next up was Piazza Erbe, which was filled with interesting shops and restaurants with sprawling outdoor dining. In the center was an outdoor market filled with Verona keepsakes, with all prices negotiable. We took a lift to the top of the Torre Dei Lamberti (Tower of Verona). The view of the city from above was incredible, packed with reddish brown shingled rooftops. The historic center of the city has zoning laws that force even new buildings to fit in with the design and the roofing of the aesthetic. After a bit of free time to sample food and go shopping, we went to the Juliette House, once owned by the Capuello family in Verona, whose family is said to have inspired the Capulets of Shakespearean legend. The stone balcony and the charming square make for a scene right out of the movies.
Next we made our way to the Adige River and sought out Castle Vecchio. It's brick ramparts were imposing, and would have made an impressive defense of the bridge in older times. The Ponte Scaligero was a brick and mortar bridge with a rising arch in the middle and segmented brick ramparts, giving it a thematic feel when paired with the Castle rising above it. We spent time enjoying the view of the city from the river and posing for pictures before moving on to grab gelato and our train back to Montebelluna.
Special thanks to Brianna, Jenny and Bridget for helping to plan a special day in Verona for our group. Great job ladies!
We started today with an early train to Padua, a famous university town and sister city to Boston. We strolled along the banks of the Brenta River, taking in the city until we found our boat launch. From there we boarded and set out on a long and casual day on the river.
Our river cruise stopped first at Villa Pisani, the Versailles of Venetian palaces. The Doge (Executive of the Republic) constructed this opulent summer getaway in 1774. We strolled the gardens, which inspired gasps with a reflection pool, a wisteria promenade and a hedge maze. Turns out that all you have to do to find the center of the maze was stay close to Bridget Glendye. The palace itself was fitting for a ruler to host wealthy and important guests. It's original frescoes played with perspective, making it appear three dimensional despite being a flat wall.
We visited two additional villas, Villa Widmer and Villa Foscari. Both were owned by wealthy Ventian families, and have changed hands over centuries until they became protected historic landmarks in the modern age. While neither could compare to the size and grandeur of Pisani, they each had charming characteristics that made them charming and unique.
At last we left the Brenta and flowed out into the lagoon of Venice. On our approach the excitement was palpable in the air. Baroque churches, sentry towers, and a floatilla of boats awaited our arrival as our ship drew close. Today the students got a taste of Venice, knowing we will have a full day there on Friday. Our stroll along the Grand Canal took us past San Marco Square and the imposing Basilica that dominates the piazza. Students made mental notes of interesting shops with Murano glass, vendors with street art and trattorias with the smell of pizza wafting through the air, with the intention of spending more time there later this week. The whirlwind stopped briefly as we climbed to the observation deck on the 5th story of a department store. The view over the city was spectacular, providing a 360 degree look at the sprawl of history and culture that makes Venice a legendary world city. Our day ended with a train back to Montebelluna, filled with tired but contented students
On the second day of our program we headed North to the Eastern Italian Alps, known more commonly as the Dolomites. Despite the overcast and sporadically rainy weather, we saw and experienced quite a bit in just a few hours. We met this morning by the Montebelluna Duomo and took out chartered bus first to Fiera di Primiero. The town was a charming mountain village, with alpine feel and aesthetic. The style of houses with their pastel colored and wooden shutters reminded me of exchange trips in past years to Switzerland. We stopped for a coffee and a bit of window shopping and moved on after about an hour.
Next we headed to the mountains for a 30 minute hike. The gradient was steep at first, with trees dotting the landscape that were so tall they made your neck crane. Afterwards the terrain leveled out and we walked through a meadow in the shadows of the Dolomites. Although the cloud obscured a clear view of the craggy peaks, the mist that clung to the mountains had a magical quality of its own. We happily snapped pictures together until we strolled up to this rustic mountain lodge for lunch.
The restaurant was called Malga Canali, and had an old world feel from the decor. Alpine decorations (cow bells, farming tools, and old cooking utensils) adorned the walls. The hearth served a dual purpose, to cook our food and to give the room a comfortable warmth. We were served traditional Italian food from the Trentino region (sausage, polenta, warm grilled cheese, rosemary potato wedges, strudel and coffee). Despite being heavy with good food, we trekked back to the bus and headed to the town of Feltre.
Lastly we headed to the historic town of Feltre to observe its historic Venetian roots and to have a gelato. Laced with the town's history was the damage done to it in the 19th century by Napoleon of France, who tried to compel loyalty by carving out any mention of Venice. It had a medieval charm to it. We headed home after a long day to rest and relax. Tomorrow we are off to our cruise on the Brenta River!
On our first day of the program, we spent time getting to know our new home base in Montebelluna. The day began at their school, Liceo Veronese. We attended a lesson in their classroom, learning about the cities that we will visit on this trip, and some of history and culture associated with it. Next, we took a tour of their school. In some ways it was very familiar, with science labs and gym class (they were playing ultimate frisbee!). In other ways it was quite foreign, with architecture class, and coffee machines all over.
Next we went on a walking tour of Montebelluna, the town of our host families. On our tour we stopped at the church, Santa Marie in Colle, and learned about the history of the 13th century building. The church overlooked the city, with an amazing view of the surrounding town, mountains and landscape.
Lastly, we went to the MEVE, a newly opened museum that details WWI and its aftermath in Italy. The museum displayed many artifacts from the Great War, but also had many interactive exhibits that explained the start of the conflict, the battles and fighting, the scarring of the landscape as a result of trench warfare, the propaganda effort and the damaging psychological impact. It was comprehensive and impressive, especially since our students had a chance to see a war that they were familiar with from a different perspective.