Thursday, October 30, 2008

A group of nearly 40 Institute students braved a damp and rainy evening for the chance to see rival teams ACF Fiorentina and F.C. Internazionale Milano (Inter) go head to head on the Fiorentina’s home turf at the Campo di Marte stadium. Despite the relatively unexciting outcome of the game, which resulted in a 0-0 tie, the students greatly enjoyed themselves. The evening turned into an improv Italian class as the students sought to decipher the various chants and Fiorentina fight songs; by the end of the evening we had gotten the hang of “Alèèè, forza viola alè, forza viola alè!!” (“Alè, go viola alè, go viola alè!”), and to their delight they had significantly improved their knowledge of Italian curse words, which were shot relentlessly at the opposing team’s fans. The game was an excellent opportunity for the students to partake in an activity that is at the heart of Italian culture and to witness first hand a national passion for soccer which is akin to the United State’s excitement for football and baseball. After a full two months in Florence, the pride and excitement that the students have developed for their adoptive “home” city shone through as they cheered on the Viola team; let’s hope that the second half of the semester proves to be as memorable as the first.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Students Climb to the Top of the Duomo

Summer is drawing to an end here in Florence, but Fall put off its arrival for a couple more days and provided a group of 7 Palazzo Rucellai students and staff with the perfect evening to brave the 463 steps that lead to the top of Florence’s Duomo. The “cupola del duomo” is the city’s best known landmark, and it may be seen looming over the red-shingled roofs of the more modest palazzos from nearly every corner of Florence. For those who feel up to the task of climbing the steps, their efforts do not go uncompensated; from the peak of the massive dome the viewer is rewarded with a 360° sprawling panorama of the city that lies at the Duomo’s feet.

After a brief wait at the entrance we began our ascent, pausing occasionally in the designated areas to catch our breath and take in the view from above of the cathedral’s interior. After about 15 minutes and a bit of vertigo, we made it to the top. The evening air was warm, a slight breeze was blowing and the sun was setting in a perfectly clear sky – needless to say, we were not disappointed by what we saw! We circled the terrace several times and had fun spotting our apartments, the school and the various sites of the city. After several photos we braced ourselves for the descent (which went decidedly more quickly then the climb) and arrived safely at ground level. Straining our necks to look up at the structure we had just scaled, we took a moment to marvel at the stunning achievements of this city, which we are learning to call “home.”

Chianti Excursion to Castello del Trebbio

Florence, large though it may be, is unlike many American cities in that much of the surrounding area has not been paved over or turned into golf courses. After a short bus ride from the center of town the environment changed drastically, transforming into photogenic Tuscany we have all seen in advertisements and movies. Here, however, the media polish would have detracted from the charm of the real thing. With frighteningly narrow walled roads, unexpected vistas, and precipitous inclinations, Tuscany makes for an exciting bus ride.

We arrived at the Pazzi castle, an ancient fortress perched high on a ridge amidst a massive estate. The history of the castle is convoluted, as anything would be after 1000 years, but most importantly, the Pazzi family is known for their failed coup against the Medici clan, the rulers of Florence during the Renaissance. The Medici prevailed, destroyed the family and took this castle. Today’s owners have preserved the castle for tourists while still inhabiting a section of it. The 800 acre estate is maintained as a vineyard, producing authentic Chianti wines (our guide explained the significance of this through a subtle combination of sales pitch and geography lesson).

Two parts of our tour stand out:
The first was the descent into the wine cellars, a wonderfully cool and dark place to contrast the oppressive heat and glaring sun outside. The musty smell of fermentation pervades the vaulted rooms, an odor somewhere between rotting fruit and actual wine. Massive oak barrels lined the walls, tempting our thirsts, but that would come later. For now, we were content to wander amidst the implements of this ancient industry, many trying to record the space in photographs, but it is doubtful that anything can capture the eerie, dimly illuminated spectacle of reeking chemical vats hidden below a stone citadel, these being fortune enough to justify the fortification.

Then, after the dungeons, we did what most prisoners do after some time in the gulag: stuff our faces with whatever edible substances we find. Fortunately, in this case, the food was delicious, and it was supplemented by the very wine fermenting somewhere beneath our feet. During lunch the 90 year old groundskeeper shuffled about the tables offering to refill our glasses with wine that was noticeably better than anything I can personally afford to buy. The real draw of the event was not any one part, however, but the authenticity of the whole, eating in the dining room of a castle drinking wine made on the premises, eating food soaked in olive oil also produced at the castle, with employees who had personal connections to the place. This sort of wholesomeness was noticeably more comfortable than the thousands of poor imitations we have all been exposed to in themed restaurants, shops, and their ilk for much of our lives.

When we had eaten our fill and drunk our allotment, we walked the grounds for a while, admiring the scenery and the little charismatic details of historic Tuscan architecture. Wandering through the vineyards was nice, particularly due to the fact that many of the vines still had grapes on them, which looked too enticing to be allowed to remain in place. So, this was our dessert. Soon after, everyone was feeling lethargic, (I blame the wine) and after picking up a few personal bottles in the shop, we piled back onto the bus. While I lament the brevity of our visit, I admit that during those few hours we were exposed to the best things Chianti has to offer, and that our laid-back pace through the day was both appropriate to and a product of the slow moving, quality producing environment that so distinguishes this part of the Tuscan countryside.
Submitted by Rob Kane, student. Fall 2008

Chianti Excursion to Villa Vignamaggio

The stunning Villa Vignamaggio, located in the heart of the famed Chianti region and rumoured to have once been the home of Lisa Gherardini (the woman depicted in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa) served as the backdrop for the first school-wide trip of the semester. A mere hour long bus ride from Florence took the students deep into the rolling greenery and sprawling vineyards that are characteristic of this region. With the start of the grape harvest only two weeks away, the students were rewarded with a glimpse of Chianti during its peak season.

The day began with a tour of the Villa grounds and gardens. Our friendly host Sandro briefly explained the rich history of the site, which dates back to the 14th century at which time the main house of the Villa was built as a residence for the Gherardini family. The estate has expanded over the centuries and currently occupies 140 acres of land; today Vignamaggio functions as an upscale Agriturismo Hotel and a medium-sized producer of wine. Sandro then led us to the wine fermentation area and the storage cellars, where he explained the basic steps that transform a grape into a glass of Chianti Classico.

After our tour we sat down to a simple tasting of two red wines – a rich Chianti Classico from Tuscany and a lighter Shiraz from Puglia. The wine served as the perfect accompaniment to our lunch, which featured a selection of typical Tuscan dishes: bruschetta with mixed toppings, pappa al pomodoro (a Tuscan bread, tomato and basil soup) and a cold pasta salad with vegetables. An afternoon stroll through the Villa’s vineyards helped us work off a bit of our lunch and provided us with ample photo-ops before we boarded the bus to return to Florence. All in all - a perfect start to what will surely prove to be a memorable semester!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Secrets of Italian Cuisine – Sept. 27 & Oct. 4, 2006

Everyone who has traveled to Italy marvels about the cuisine: the time-worn recipes, the obsession with freshness, and the culture and emotion that surround an Italian meal. Last Wednesday a group of us experienced “cucina italiana” from an insider’s perspective. We picked, prepared, and proudly ate our own creations at a celebrated osteria, or eatery, in the center of Florence. Our group met after classes and walked to the Oltrarno, the eclectic district on the other side of the Arno River that houses countless traditional artisan workshops, and family-run trattorie. It was only 5:30, and we were in for a first-class, multiple-hour cooking workshop with Chef Daniela of Osteria Bene Vobis. Daniela is a Florentine woman who owns and operates this tiny restaurant on Via de’Serragli. The restaurant has only 15 tables, and holds no more than 50 people at capacity. The main room is long and narrow, similar to a wine cellar, and it is adorned with pyramids of wine and photos of historic Florence on the walls. Daniela welcomed us into her kitchen, which held no more than five of us at a time. Her old-world kitchen was reminiscent of an Italian grandmother’s kitchen when she’s cooking a celebratory meal for an extended family. But Chef Daniela didn’t waste a moment to chitchat; she immediately put us to work. Some of the group started chopping carrots, celery and zucchini for a vegetable sauce that would be used for homemade pasta. While working, Daniela stressed the importance of the order in which a good chef plans her meal. Those dishes that are time-consuming should be done first, so that each course is served in a relaxed traditional Italian sequence; the pasta or soup, then second course, and finally, dessert. Following her advice, two of us then began to assemble the eggplant parmagiana that would become our second course, while a couple others started mixing the ingredients to make a typical cake; torta all’ananas (pineapple cake). While stirring, chopping and chatting continued, Daniela shared some of her expertise on Italian cuisine; how to choose the right ingredients, using the fruits and vegetables that are “in season” and which sauces compliment each pasta form. We moved into the dining room to start to work on our masterpiece, homemade pasta. On the evening’s menu was tagliatelle from “scratch’. This pasta is long and flat, similar to fettuccine, but thicker. A group mixed the ingredients, while the rest of us waited impatiently to roll the pasta dough and cut it into long slices. We prepared it with the rolling pin, using the traditional rolling method, and also passed it through a strange contraption attached to the table, the modern pasta maker. The pasta maker made the process faster, but you still had to be quite skilled to crank the handle while passing the dough through, and catching it on the way out of the maker. Everyone had their opportunity to try and master the pasta machine, and by the end we were all rather proficient. I looked at the clock and it was already seven, however, the labor-intensive pasta-making was finished. We were finally ready to cook it and start our feast. The table was re-set and all ten of us were ready to taste our hard labor. As we waited impatiently for the pasta to boil, we had a few minutes to gossip about of the cuisine of the region and trade other secrets of good eating we’d learned in Italy; the differences in olive oil, where to find the best cheeses, and now the best technique to roll homemade pasta. In the end, the plates were served by Daniela in traditional order, the tagliatelle first, next parmagiana, and don’t forget, the torta. We laughed at each other’s cooking stories and contributions, while savoring our success. As we were eating I realized that this is the true gift from experiencing “cucina italiana’; an evening with good friends, fascinating conversation and a healthy homemade meal.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Calcetto - Sept 20, 2006

Last Wednesday a group of adventurous students met at Piazzale Michaelangelo to catch soccer fever, “Italian style,” by playing a mini-tournament of Calcetto. Calcetto is Italy’s version of indoor soccer, except for a few fantastic distinctions; first, there are no walls surrounding the pint-sized playing field, only a net covering the space to keep the ball from becoming lost, and secondly, you can compete any time of day or night, because the field is outdoor, fueled by powerful stadium lights. For our competition we planned to meet early in the evening and take advantage of the cool twilight temperatures. The dark Florentine night would be a perfect backdrop for the final game under the lights. The location was amazing; a group of soccer fields directly behind the legendary Piazzale where David stands overlooking the city. Our miniature pitch mirrored a full-size soccer field with goalposts, sidelines, and even a penalty area, but this field only hosted 10 players, not the usual 22; 5 for each team. We were able to produce three strong teams from Palazzo Rucellai. To make it a genuine tournament experience, the school also invited some local Italian friends to join in the fun. With the addition of the Italians, our mini-tournament was complete. Since most of the world watched the World Cup this summer, the Italy-US rivalry would be an opportunity for us Americans to show the Italian players that we know how to play soccer too! The predominance of American representation could give us a chance to win over the world-renowned and world-champion Italians.
When the tournament began, we started with two playing fields, and four full teams. We decided that after two consecutive goals by any single squad, the winning squad would rotate to the other field, and play the winner of the other match. This allowed everyone to play and get into the spirit and scoring potential of this game. I quickly realized that calcetto was much faster than full-field soccer in the USA. Easy scoring opportunities motivated us to run like crazy all over the pitch. There was no dominant team and our rules gave an extra impetus to score. We soon realized that every player had more than their share of exercise because no substitution was available on the sidelines. It was actually a treat when you were called upon to play goalie, because it was your chance to get a little bit of rest. At one point during the game, I thought that my legs were running on their own. To be a strong player in this game, one has to have quick feet and a lot of energy. The games produced two lost balls, more goals than we could count, and the dominant squads emerged. The teams who advanced to the final were of course, one Palazzo Rucellai team, and the other was inevitably the Italian team. By this time it was dark outside and the stage was set; the final match under the lights. The Italians even wore the World-Cup Italy jerseys; this was probably an attempt to shake the confidence of us Americans. The final game was a battle until the finish. Both sides played well, but the win went to the Italians. I don’t know if it was the home-field advantage, or if their shirts fueled a bit of nostalgia, but it was a fun, well-played match. In fact, after the game we all exchanged numbers so we could get together and meet again for a friendly re-match. It was a truly Italian experience, an evening to remember, and one that my aching legs will be sure to remind me of the rest of the week.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hike to the top of the Duomo – Sept. 13, 2006

Last Wednesday September 13th I was one of a lucky group of PR students who climbed over 400 backbreaking steps to see the awe-inspiring view from Florence’s grandest church, the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore. Our group met up at Palazzo Rucellai and made our way through both the shopping crowds of central Florence to arrive at the entrance door that leads to “the climb”. We all hoped that our planning included ample time to make the journey to the top of the dome before sunset. But I still don’t think we were really prepared for what lay ahead of us. The expedition felt like it took about an hour, but in reality it took us only 15 humidity-filled, leg-aching minutes to reach the apex. Those in “forma”, made it to the top in less than 10 minutes, but even the slowest in our group arrived with enough time to witness an unforgettable sight. When we reached the viewing area, the sun was just starting to lower. The exquisite reddish-hued sky quite seamlessly blended into the tops of thousands of coral rooftops, where you could barely make out the end of one roof and the beginning of the next. It was an amazing site which helped me appreciate all the history, culture, and art that this city has witnessed in its lifetime. Before the sun fully set, we tested each other on our newly learned navigation skills of our home away from home; we found it a challenge to locate our apartments amongst the countless identical rooftops of central Florence. Because the day’s sunshine made for the clearest of evenings, we were able to locate by sight most of the well-known sites of the city; the towers of Palazzo Vecchio, the Arno River with its many bridges, and the towering David in Piazzale Michelangelo. We were even able to pick out our own school building, Palazzo Rucellai. The circular lookout allowed us to have a remarkable 360 degree “bird’s eye” view of Florence and we were positioned directly in the heart of the city. Countless photos were taken before everyone headed down the stairs, but pictures could never do this view justice. Quite easily we strolled down the countless steps, but it was probably the energy from the view that pushed us down so easily. This was the perfect way to end a busy day of classes. Those of us who were brave (and strong) enough to “do the steps” of the Duomo, had not only the best view of the city but a picture in our minds that will stay with us for years to come.

Day in Chianti - Sept 8, 2006

The Palazzo Rucellai student body had a chance to relax and get to know one another while taking in the sunshine of “Chianti Country” on a day trip the first Friday of classes. To kick-off this semester’s cultural activities, all of the students, along with some brave staff members, were invited to spend the day together among Tuscany’s olive trees and vineyards and discover the nature so close to Florence.
Our day started in the morning with a bus ride from Florence’s train station, destination SOUTH, to the renowned wine region just outside the city. Amazingly, good weather and bright sunshine followed us during our drive and throughout the day. While a group of us headed off to historic “Castello del Trebbio,” where all the wine is made on the premises from the vineyards located on the property, the other half traveled to the “Villa” La Pieve to do an extensive tour and wine-sampling from its vineyard selection.
My group headed to the Castello for the day. We were invited to have a complete tour of the castle built in the 1100’s by the Pazzi family. As a guide led us through the Castello, I couldn’t help thinking about the history and secrets that its walls held. The most spectacular room was a dungeon on the lower level of the property. After wandering through the Castello, and escaping from the dungeon, we were invited to take a leisurely walk around the estate. When we took our first steps out the door we were immediately welcomed by rows upon rows of vineyards. The vines seemed to be ripe for the harvest, but after trying a sour grape, I decided to leave the picking to the experts. It was hard to believe these were the same grapes that are used to make the legendary Chianti we had tasted. Our walk gave everyone a chance to meet new people and discuss plans, classes and the professors that awaited us for the upcoming semester. Breathing in the fresh air of the countryside while walking amongst the vineyards and olive trees is something one reads about in books, and nothing could have prepared me for the experience. The walk was a perfect opportunity to see the Florentine landscape from a side not reachable in the business of the city, and in that moment I understood why writers so often compose passages about the legendary beauty of Tuscany’s countryside. Lunchtime snuck up on all of us and soon arrived to the lunch table the most important Florentine staples; pappa al pomodoro, pecorino cheese, and prosciutto ham, with flasks of Chianti to wash it down. Some students decided to buy some of the classic Tuscan items that we sampled at lunch, such as the olive oil, cheeses and wine. Surely these would be great reminders of the special day in the months to come. In traditional Italian fashion, ample time was spent at the table to talking about the day and the semester to come. Even though our day in the countryside was soon over, everyone was able to appreciate the beautiful scenery surrounding their new home, as well as the make some new friends in the process.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Welcome to the New Blog Site!!!!

Come share your photos and stories from your Florence experience!
Send your submissions directly to , who will post them on the blog site, so your friends, family and other students can read about your experiences and adventures right on the web.