Siena and a Sunset Boat Tour

This weekend was filled to the brim with activities and travel– starting with a whirlwind tour through Italian art history at the Uffizi with Charlie, and bringing us to the medieval town of Lucca and through the five picturesque seaside towns known as “Cinque Terre” on Saturday. Sunday, then, was a perfect wind-down after an exciting and exhausting first week, with a leisurely trip to sunny Sienna and, for some of us, an idyllic sunset boat tour down Florence’s Arno River.

With a departure time of 10:30 for Siena, the day started later than most here in Florence, so many students and RA’s alike relished the opportunity to sleep in! We arrived in the ancient walled city around noon, welcomed by abundant, warm sunshine and, before we’d even reached the central piazza, the sound of approaching drums. Charlie quickly identified the sound and explained, as the thundering grew louder and louder, that this was fanfare for the upcoming “Palio,” a centuries-old horse race through the city in which each of the ten jockeys competes for the glory of his specific neighborhood of Siena. Soon the procession came into view, and we saw that these marchers, dressed in bright, puffy tunics of yellow, green, and blue, represented the “Contrada,”– or neighborhood– of Bruca, the caterpillar.

Once we had our bearings on the layout of the city, we all had long, leisurely lunches (ours at a delightful restaurant where the waiter thought we were French), and then several students met Charlie back at the Piazza to go visit Siena’s magnificent Romanesque-Gothic cathedral. He explained how the medieval builders had set out to build the largest cathedral in the world, but after building the transept (which would have been just the short “cross-piece” wing on the traditional crucifix-shaped layout), the construction stalled, and this part now makes up the nave, or the main body of the building. The cathedral is nonetheless awe-inspiring, from the exquisite details on the massive facade to the elaborate mosaics and paintings lining the floors and walls of the interior.

After dinner back at the Convitto, Assistant Director Catherine and I took nine students down to the Arno for an evening boat tour. We met our friendly Gondolier on the banks just between the Ponte Alle Grazie and the Uffizi galleries, he helped each passenger to their seat aboard the old wooden “Mosé,” and we shoved off westward. As he pushed our little boat down the river with a weathered wooden pole, he shared a wealth of historical and cultural knowledge that brought to life many of the buildings that we see on our everyday walks through town. The timing of the trip was perfect, with the setting sun casting each of the uniquely beautiful bridges in stark silhouette and bringing out the warm oranges, yellows, and reds in the old buildings lining the river.

Things got particularly exciting when we passed under the Ponte alla Carraia. A group of tourists on the bridge started waving frantically at us as we emerged, pointing at something floating ahead of us in the water. With the low sun turning the normally brown surface a blinding white, we could barely make it out, but they wanted us to pick it up for them. We managed to snag out of the water a baseball cap– nothing much special about it, but it seemed important to our friends on the bridge. When we returned to shore a kilometer or so down the river, they were waiting anxiously for us. Apparently the hat belonged to the young man in the group, and was a gift from his girlfriend, with whom he was visiting Florence. He was beaming with gratitude when we presented him with the rescued hat!