Alumni Group Arrives in Assisi

Howard Hewitt, Assisi, Italy – The alumni travel group has changed locations and started the third leg of a two week stay in Italy. After a quick walk this morning through the Siena weekly market, we boarded a travel coach and enjoyed a two-hour bus ride through Tuscany to Perugia then up to Assisi.

Assisi, of course, is mostly known for Saint Francis of Assisi and the center of Professor Bill Cook’s lifelong scholarship. We arrived in bight Tuscan sunshine amidst a cool beeze and bright skies. A quick walk from our bus to the hotel was enough to get some feel for city. We checked into our hotel and grabbed a bite of lunch before it was off to the church.

It’s actually two churches one built upon another. We spent a good deal of time in the lower church studying the many frescos depicting the life and times of Francis.

One of the most moving moments was going below the chruch the tomb of Sain Francis.

After a brief tour of the old Roman ruins, below grounds, at the center of the city we took a break before dinner.

Dinner was fabulous with local umbria wines, ravioli with truffle, penne pasta with veal, roasted guinea fowl, and panocatta for desert. The group was in high spirits giving their scribe a big send off.

The group was back to the church today and will spend Friday and part of Saturday in Assisi. They will coach to Florence Friday and return to the US Thursday.

I’m finishing this post in the Rome airport about an hour before takeoff for New York and then Indianapolis. A few of the young guys on the trip promise to send some photos and a few blog updates to finish out the trip.



Enjoyable Day in Countryside

Howard Hewitt, Montalcino, Italy – After four straight days in the city, our travel group was ready to get out and see Tuscany.

Tuesday morning we headed for the Montalcino region by tour bus, a little more than an hour drive.

See photos from Wednesday’s activities here.

Our first stop was at the ancient, 12th-century Monastery of Sant’ Antimo about 10km outside Montalcino. The monastery dates back hundreds of years, fell into disrespair then brought back to live about 20 years ago.

We heard four monks sing the traditional Latin Gregorian Chant Mass at 9 a.m. There aren’t many places left in the world where you can witness such a moving and unique experience – regardless of your religious beliefs. It was moving, beautiful, and interesting.

The church itself has such a unique history as shared by Professor Bill Cook. It’s physical beauty is in its simplicity, history, and some art dating back 1,000 years.

We then headed to the famed walled city of Montalcino. We walked the charming village, briefly visited its museum, then headed to the Montalcino Castle.

At the Castle, we enjoyed a Tuscan wine tasting. The group learned about two Rosso Montalcino wines and two of the big-tasting Brunello wines – the best of Tuscany.

Lunch was a fabulous picnic of Italian meats, cheese, desserts, and even a bit more Brunello. It was fascinating to see most of the group talk about the day. Eating great prosciutto, Brunello wine, Wabash men and wives and some staff soaked in the stunning views and comraderie.

Then we headed to the Castle and climbed up to the walls to enjoy the panoramic views. A few brave souls even climed up one of the towers for an even better look.

Our day ended in the charming and small village of Pienza.The perfectly maintained Renaissance town was a great spot for some group shots, buying cheese and olive oil, and and afternoon cup of coffee.

Wednesday morning we’ll visit the Siena weekly market then head to Assisi for the next leg of the trip.

I’ll blog Wednesday but then be on my way home Thursday in time for Big Bash. We hope to get a couple of updates next week as the group explores Florence.

Cuisine A Highlight of Alumni Travel

Howard Hewitt, Siena, Italy – Anyone who has ever traveled beyond our boarders knows half the fun of visiting foreign countries is exploring food and restaurants.

Of course, Italy is known for it’s food. Here is an example – last night’s incredible dinner menu at one of Siena’s better Ristorantes – La Taverna di San Giuseppe.

Appetizer:Salted tart with tomatoes perfumed with pesto, Tuscan prosciutto aged 20 months, spinach and truffle triangle.

First plate: Risotto with Chianti Classico, pork sausage and grana cheese, Home made pasta with chicken sauce and saffron.

Second plate: Wild boar cooked in milk, roasted potatoes and onions.

Dessert: Chocolate Tart with vanilla cream.

Today we’re again off for a big change of pace. We’re off to a 12th-century Monastery, including a Latin Gregorian chant mass; visit the classic hill town of Montalcino, museum and with a picnic at the castle, then visit the Renaissance town of Pienza.


Cooking School a Hit with Alums

Howard Hewitt, Siena, Italy – After two full days of art, museums, and cathedrals, it’s fair to say the Wabash traveling group of alums, faculty, and staff were ready for a change of pace.

Steve Baker and Stan Vogel show how a Wabash man rolls pasta!

This morning most all of the the group spent four hours at the Scuola di Cucina di Lella Cooking School. Lella Cesari Ciampoli started the school 12 years ago – Siena’s first. Today her popular sessions are rated among the 100 best in Italy.

For 45 euro, members watch, learn — and certainly participate — before enjoying the creations for lunch.

Today’s menu was Pappa col Pommodoro, or traditional Tuscan Bread Soup; Pici with mushrooms and sausage (think really thick spaghetti); Arista di Cinta Senese in Porchetta Con patatine Arrosta (or roasted pork); and Cantuccini bisquits dipped in Vin Santo dessert wine.

The group had a ball. But the photos and video do a better job describing it.

See a photo album from Monday’s cooking school here.

Video Before Palio Announcement

This whole “Contrada” neighborhood system in Siena is fascinating, though a bit hard to explain through short blog posts.

They have flags, colors to represent their neighborhood and even marching units – all steeped in old, old traditions.

Our Wabash alumni group really enjoyed a small taste of the atmosphere when the drawing for this year’s race occured Sunday night. Only 10 horses run the Palio and there are 17 Contradas. There are all sorts of rules governing the Palio but it’s incredible how very serious these folks are about their horse race and neighbors.

Here is a short hand-held video of the Campo moments before the ceremony began. There are more photos in the blog post below.

Sunday: Art, Cathedral, & Tradition

Drummers and flag bearers from Contrada Drago march into the Piazza for a Baptism ceremony.

Howard W. Hewitt, Siena, Italy – Our Sunday in Siena with Wabash alumni, retired faculty, and staff revolves around one of the world’s great cathedrals and this charming city’s unique traditions.

Dudley and Judy Burgess listen to Cook talk about an altar painting in the Siena Museum.

We spent the morning in the the Pinacoteca art museum looking at how art was used in the church to teach lessons. We moved on to the recently discovered crypt of the Cathedral and will be back there Sunday afternoon and Monday.

See photos from Sunday here. Album No. 2

The Contrada flag bearer came in all ages. When the large group arrived in the Piazza they did a full routine with their drummers.

Before breaking for three hours at mid-day, we witnessed Contrada del Drago’s baptism ceremony. A contrada is one of 17 Siena neighborhoods and they take this all quite seriously. Drago is celebrating its festival with colorful parade through town and a non-secular baptism

Sunday afternoon was spent in Siena’s spectacular cathedral. We toured the Baptistry afterwards and then headed to the Campo..

We joined with probably 15,000-20,000 locals in the Campo for final drawings to see which Contrada’s horses will be allowed to race in this summer’s famous Palio horse race. It really was qutie an experience with pomp and ceremony.

The drawing takes place in the famed City Hall. Trumpeters announce each dramatic decision. then a flag is unfurled out a window to determine a neighborhoods fate and participation in the race.

Thousands cheer for their neighborhood’s good fortune or for their “enemy” neighborhood’s exclusion. And, it’s all quite passionate.

Monday will be a something different. Most of the group will start its day at an Italian cooking school.

Video of the Piazza del Campo

Howard Hewitt, Siena, Italy – In many of these posts I’ve mentioned the Piazza del Campo. It really one of those things you have to experience if you ever get to Italy.

It’s where the famous twice-a-year horse-race, Palio di Siena, is held around the edges of the piazza. I pulled out the small video camera around 8:30 p.m. Saturday night and shot there 360-degree look.

Our small group returned to the Campo about 11:30 and it was really hopping.

New Insight to Religious Art in Italy

Howard Hewitt, Siena, Italy – One of the things that happens on an alumni travel trip is gaining insights no causal traveler will ever get from a tour guide.

Our Saturday began with a trip to the church of Santa Maria dei Servi. The church not only provides a spectacular view of Siena but is Professor Bill Cook’s favorite starting spot to teach visitors how to understand the incredible Renaissance art they will see for the remainder of the trip. (See photos from day two here.)

Having done one previous trip with Bill Cook and Wabash students, it’s fascinating to listen to the alums marvel at Bill’s detailed knowledge and perspective. Or as one put it,, “He gives these marvelous detailed explanations and it never gets boring. It’s fascinating.”

Saturday dinner was on our own. The travel "staff" dined together. It's common at these small restaurants for pasta to be on display at the entrance.

The first half of our day wrapped up at Siena’s city hall – one of the best preserved in the world, Cook would argue. The city hall is best known for it’s large tower than can be seen from miles around in the Tuscan countryside. But to historians and art lovers it’s best known for its preserved art work inside. The many murals tell the story of the church and civic growth in Siena. The expamples of good versus bad government frescos and paintings are unmatched anywhere in the world.

Our two afternoon stops were at another church and the city’s historic hospital. Neither sites allow photography – a request we honor while many tourists clearly do not.

But I have posted additional photos from the day in the photo album linked above.

First Day Ends With Italian Feast

Cook talks about the Baptistry in the Siena Cathedral during an early evening walk around the city

Howard W. Hewitt, Siena, Italy – The Wabash alumni travel group arrived here late Friday afternoon after an extended trip from Crawfordsville. Alums joined the group at Chicago’s O’Hare and New York’s JFK Airport.

Unfortunately, the JFK departure was the biggest setback of an otherwise great day. After boarded an prepared for departure, the plane remained on the tarmac for two-hours and 45-minutes before take off.

Otherwise, the day couldn’t have been better. We arrived in Siena after a two-hour drive from Pisa and settled into Hotel Excelsior located just outside the old city center.

We started our feast with antipasta

Professor Bill Cook led the 20-plus group on a walking tour of Siena pointing out major sites, shopping areas, and restaurants for our time here which ends Wednesday morning.

The only formal activitiy for the day was an incredible welcome dinner at one of Cook’s favorite local restaurants. (See photos from day one).

A walk back through the city capped the day.