Our final field trip of the Spring semester took place earlier this month. We took a three-day tour of several places in Tuscany. The main difference between this trip and the previous ones was that, this time, planning students spend most of the time doing specifically planning-related activities (i.e. separated from the architecture and art students). We therefore had much more opportunity to learn about the urban development and planning of the cities we visited. I really liked this structure as we all got to learn what we really wanted to learn.
Our first stop was Montepulciano, a very small town on a hill. While the architecture and art students were studying the churches, planning students had a chance to take the bus to tour around the nearby hilly areas and examine the landscape. We learned that Tuscany, as a one of the 20 regions of Italy, spends a lot of money on protecting its natural landscape. I must say I was very impressed by the scenic views in Tuscany that cannot be found elsewhere in Italy. Not only did we come across farms that grow olives and other vegetables, but we even passed by the Pope’s summer house! Without surprise, the landscape architecture students were especially happy to be there (it is their area of expertise!) and took many pictures.
Next, we headed to another small town, Pienza, which is also located on a high hill. The city center was a very pleasant place to walk around. I especially liked the shops, which are all traditional Italian-style: there were no upscale brand stores like Gucci nor international restaurants like McDonald’s. What we found though were only Italian restaurants, bars, wine stores and art stores. After lunch, we spent about an hour walking around town, looking for good souvenirs. We heard that wine in Pienza is good and so I and many other Cornell students bought some wine for our families (but now we are worrying about how to carry them back!). After shopping we went to a small bar to have a relaxing afternoon tea- I had a hot tea and chocolate cake, some others got gelato. In a small Italian town, relaxing and enjoying food and drinks at a small bar is probably one of the best ways to pass the time, and I am glad that we had the little free time to do so. Before we left town, we went to a small palace called Palazzo Piccolomini. Although we could only go to a small part of the palace, it was good to see the way of life of the royal people in the past. Yet, what appealed to me the most was the garden right next to the Palazzo. It provided spectacular views into the distant landscape of the Val d’Orcia. Overlooking the wide piece of green land, I right away understood why Tuscany is so famous for its landscape.
As the evening approached, we arrived in Siena, the historical center that is tinged with medieval mood. Our first impressions of the city came from the fan-shaped Piazza Del Campo. All the planners instantly fell in love with this public space, which is regarded as very effective and user-friendly. After eating pici with deer sauce (which was very delicious yet small) for dinner, we went back to our gorgeous hotel.
The next day, again, the Planning Department had its own program. Our first stop was to visit the Drago, one of the 17 contrades (Note: A contrade is a district or a ward within an Italian city) in Siena. We were shown the champion flags the Drago had won in the Palio (the famous horse racing in Siena) over the past 300 years. Looking at the historic winning photos and flags, I could imagine how important the Palio is to them. In lunch time, a lunch-presentation was arranged for us. During the lunch, we were shown a documentary about the Palio, and we were all amazed by how the tiny Piazza Del Campo could accommodate large crowds during this special event every year (our guide told us that it could hold 60,000 people!). The climax of the lunch was probably the showing of the latest James Bond movie- The Quantum of Solace. Having watched this movie last year, I did not remember the very first part of the movie actually took place in Siena. Our speaker, who was a consultant for the movie, vividly explained how James Bond ran around the city (e.g. on the roof tops of houses, on the buses, on the top of a church). He also pointed out which scenes were “real” and which were “fake”. Amazed by his expertise in the production of the movie, we truly enjoyed this part of the presentation.
Following the Palio presentation, another speaker spoke about urban planning in Siena, with a focus on its future developments on the peripheral areas. After the brief introduction, we took the bus and went to several new development areas. As students of urban planning, we found this especially useful as we got to see the new socially mixed neighborhoods and learned about how the residents lived. In the evening, all planners had dinner together in a small room of an Italian restaurant with our friendly field assistant Carlotta. The food was so great that I actually had three full courses (pasta, pork steak and vegetable soup!).
The next morning, my parents from Hong Kong called me and I was shocked to know that a devastating earthquake had occurred at 3am (when I was sleeping). Many of us did not feel the earthquake, yet some wer woken up by the tectonic movement (one of them thought that the shaking was caused by a party upstairs!). Dismayed by this tragic incident, my mood was sank that morning. As we approached Florence, I finally felt better at the sight of the gorgeous historical center. The planners were fortunate to be given free time to explore the city on our own. As such, we slowly toured around the city and went up to Piazza Michelangelo, where we could overlook the city’s spectacular skyline. Since there were also a lot of tourists on that day, unfortunately we were not able to climb up to the top of the Duomo nor see the David statue. Nonetheless, I think merely walking around the city and “absorbing” the sense of art, culture and history is probably satisfying enough.
Overall, this field trip was a relatively relaxing one with more planning-oriented activities and free time. We were especially glad that both of our awesome Planning Studio professors, Prof. Greg Smith and Prof. Gilda Berruti, and Carlotta were able to join us this time. After this relaxing and fruitful trip, we all had to come back to reality and resume our work. Realizing we just have one more month in Rome, I think I really have to cherish my time here and get the most out of it.