Alumni Campus Abroad: Tuscany 2014


From September 10-18, 2014, Duke alumni, family, and friends will travel on one of our many Alumni Campus Abroad programs to Tuscany. We offer several ACA programs annually, which feature stays in only one or two hotels, and educational components to enrich your experience in these beautiful destinations. This program is led by S. Clay Adams, Associate Dean of Students at Duke University.

Through this journal, you can accompany them on this week-long journey in the heart of one of Europe’s most loved destinations – Tuscany, Italy.


Days 1-2

An Uber taxi ride, three flights, several layovers, 17 hours of travel — and we’re finally here. Twelve travelers, including guests from the University of Arizona Alumni Association, arrived on time to the Tuscan town Colle di Val d’Elsa, or “Hill of Elsa Valley.”

Upon arrival we immediately began to get to know the town that will become our home for the next week via a walking tour and then checked into the Palazzo San Lorenzo, a four-star hotel that once was a hospital in the 17th century. Located within the walls of the “colle alta,” or the upper part of the town, the Palazzo San Lorenzo looks out onto a landscape of medieval buildings preserved in time — stone walls, turrets and a city gate that the residents here still use. Inside the Palazzo San Lorenzo, the artwork of original paintings and sculptures makes the hotel feel as if it is a museum.

Following the walking tour of Colle di Val d’Elsa, our group gathered in the Palazzo San Lorenzo’s outside courtyard for Prosecco and appetizers. Our guide for the week, Nadia, and I welcomed the group. And, in higher education fashion, we participated in an icebreaker connected to our wine. It set the tone for the week, with participants talking with candor about their connections with Duke. I was amazed how open the travellers were with one another and touched by their words. Even our friends from Arizona shared connections with Duke and bonds began to form across collegiate lines. We have decided that since it is not March yet, we can all be friends!

Day 2 finished with an amazing four-course dinner of zucchini flan, pasta, vegetable soup, salmon and dessert. We truly experienced a treat for dinner and paired the amazing meal with Chianti and Pinot Noir.

Evviva (Cheers)!

Day 3

Penzani Cheese Farm & FactoryDay 3 was our first full day in Tuscany!

Our first stop was Pinzani Cheese Farm and Factory, an impressive operation outside of Colle di Val d'Elsa that specializes in making pecorino cheeses, or hard Italian cheeses made from sheep’s milk.

Julia Pinzani, the daughter of fourth-generation cheese makers, serves as one of the current partners for all Pinzani operations. She led us through the factory, showing us the process of cheese-making from the arrival and culturing of sheep’s milk and all the way to shaping and aging the resulting cheese.

After the tour we were treated to a cheese, jam and wine tasting. It was certainly an educational experience. We learned about cheese textures, the aging processes and pricing structures. There are many factors that play into the taste of pecorino cheeses, including the humidity levels as the cheese ages and what types of grasses the sheep eats.

Later in the evening we received a lecture on the art of the Renaissance by a local art history professor. Master artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Sanzio all came to prominence from different backgrounds during a time in which art and sculpture was a trade commodity in Italy. Additionally, and not surprisingly, they each have their signature trademarks — from Leonardo’s blending of colors and light to Michelangelo’s ability to capture the human experience to Raphael’s focus on melancholy frames.

Following the lecture, the group walked to dinner at a pizzeria that overlooked Colle di Val d’Elsa. Picturesque views and traditional Italian cooking were on the menu for the night. Clearly, one thing we have learned to embrace is that “kilos” will be packed onto the frame of each of us!

(photo: Penzani Cheese Farm & Factory)

Day 4

Siena skyline (Duomo and bell tower in the background)

On Day 4 we visited the home of the former capital of Tuscany and Italy, Siena.

Siena originally was settled during the time of the ancient civilization known as the Etruscans (800-400 BC). However, a unique statue that visitors encounter throughout Siena tells a different story: The statue is of a she-wolf nurturing two brothers, Romulus and Remus. The legend goes that Siena was named after Remus’ two sons Senius and Aschius, while Rome was named after Romulus.

Breaking the tour into three parts could best summarize our day in Siena. First, we visited the Basilica of San Domenico, a 13th-century church that is famous for holding several of relics of the medieval mystic Saint Catherine (1347-1380). As a child Catherine, who was the youngest of 25 children, began having visions of Christ and went on to found a Dominican order of nuns that devoted themselves to caring for people living on the streets and in the Siena hospitals. Catherine’s life was one of service to others and her visions influenced political figures, policy and even the Pope. In the late 13th century she convinced the Pope to move the capital back to Rome.

Siena is broken into 17 districts, each represented by an animal with unique crests and flags that are still flown today. The most respected and largest the home district of Catherine, known as the Goose District.

After leaving the Basilica of San Domenico, we walked through several Siena districts via narrow streets with an 8-10 percent pitch. The corridors were tight and dark with walls dating to the 12th century raising eight stories high.

We stopped at the Duomo di Siena, or Siena Cathedral, a gorgeous building that dominates the city skyline. The bell tower for the cathedral and Siena’s city hall are juxtaposed in the skyline to intentionally communicate both harmony and power. Inside the cathedral, we explored wonders such as the Piccolomini Library, a library holding frescoes and illuminated music books; the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, which features a 15-century baptismal font and a bronze statue by Donatello of St. John the Baptist; and of course the magnificent nave and dome.

Finally, we had free time in Siena, which sent our travel group all over the city for lunch, shopping and sightseeing. Amazingly, everyone in the group gets along and enjoys spending time together. I believe Coach K said it best: “At the end of the game, I don’t want any of my players looking for someone to hug!” Thankfully, not a single person ever has to look for a friend to share a meal or to explore the city.

Cincin! (Cheers!)

(photo: Siena skyline (Duomo and bell tower in the background))

Day 5

Tuscany 2014Day 5 began with what has become our traditional breakfast at the Palazzo San Lorenzo — local fresh breads, cheeses, prosciutto, fruits, and strong Italian coffee. Today’s focus was on the history, culture and beauty of Florence. During our motor coach ride into the city, our guide Nadia shared the history of the Medici family, a prominent banking and merchant family that rose to power in the 13th century. Their love of the arts shaped Florence into the foundation of the Renaissance. Their power and influence in the region cannot be understated. Four popes rose from their family (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leon XI).

When we arrived in Florence we met our local guide, Marilena, who shepherded us along the city streets and guided us to several famous art museums. We visited the Galleria dell’Accademia or the “Gallery of the Academy of Florence,” the art museum home to Michelangelo' famous David sculpture. We also visited the Uffizi Gallery, a building that originally was intended for office space for Florentine magistrates. The Medici family housed a great deal of their art in the building, meaning “offices” in Italian, and today it is one of the most famous museums in Europe. We also strolled along the Piazza della Signoria, a popular square in Florence where people gather, and were treated to the changing of the guard. This ceremony is done several times a day by members of the community who wear period Renaissance outfits and call the visitors of the Piazza to attention with the fanfare of music and marching.

The juxtaposition of Florence’s large, impressive main cathedral, called the “Duomo,” and the small, understated Church of Dante could not be more stark. Literally, separated by just a few 100 meters, the Duomo was built to house up to 30,000 people during the height of Florence’s influence, while Dante’s chapel holds only about 30! The Duomo is open and filled with light and soaring architecture. Dante’s chapel is small, dimly-lit and features humble wooden planks. Both were a treat to explore.

During our free time we experienced a true highlight of the trip. While I was walking past a coffee shop, four Duke travel companions called out to me from inside. They were sitting with James Noetzel, a Duke junior from Texas double-majoring in economics and art history and studying abroad this semester with the Duke in Florence program with 29 other Duke juniors. Thanks for making time to chat with group, James! He was certainly a hit!

Today we also learned that Duke Football routed Kansas 42-3 at Wallace Wade Stadium. I bring this up because it made me think about the travellers’ continued connection to Duke even though they are so far away from North Carolina. It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on many of the cross-cultural connections they share with Italians.

I can sum up these connections in four categories — faith, family, future and football.

First, the influence of religion and faith is crucial in understanding the history of this region, and it continues to be an important part of the Italian culture today.

Second, family is extremely important within the social structure of Italian life. Part of this is based on the lack of mobility within some communities.

Intergenerational families often live together in most city homes. But being close to family also is a value that brings life and energy to communities.

Third, the future is something Florentines hold as important, but they view the future always in the context of their historical roots. Much pride for and acknowledgement of their forefathers is ever present, and why not? Michelangelo has a bridge in his honor and today is thought of as one of the sons of their city.

Oh, and finally there is football (or futbol). We all seem to appreciate it, even though we engage in slightly different versions of the sport!

Dinner was hosted back in the “Colle” at the Palazzo San Lorenzo complete with another four courses, wine, and coffee. Oh, how wonderful the food continues to be in Tuscany! And then, just as we were wrapping up dinner around 9 p.m. fireworks began outside of the local chapel in the upper part of town, lighting up the night sky above the lower valley.

Today was magical. Salute!

(photo: Florence and the David)

Day 6

Tuscany 2014Today we visited San Gimignano, a medieval town in Siena, Tuscany. The town, known as the “Town of Fine Towers,” is home to 14 stone towers dating to the 14th century that, for the most part, remain unaltered. This town is one of the few remaining Tuscan towns that maintains most of its original castle gates, walls and towers — a sign of wealth in the medieval period. Often these features of a city were the first to be destroyed when the city came under siege. However, San Gimignano was located slightly away from waterways, so most invaders bypassed the town in route to more important military campaigns and spared San Gimignano from destruction.

Upon arrival we were amazed at the difference between San Gimignano and Florence. Florence is large and bustling with tourists. San Gimignano is small, less populated and easy to traverse. It was the first time in three days that we didn’t have to pull out a map!

We also saw the two most important historical sites in the town that were once the political and religious seats of power. The Palazzo Communale, the seat of San Gimingano’s chief magistrate during the Middle Ages, and the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta. Both have been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their historical significance and beauty.

Finally, we encountered one of the most delicious locations in town — a four-time world-winning gelato shop with more than 40 flavors.

After we departed San Gimignano, we set off to cooking school at the restaurant Il Fondaccio dai Dottori at Castellina in Chianti. Chef Mirsoa set up a demonstration kitchen for our group beneath an outdoor canopy. We had sweeping views of the Chianti wine vineyards and olive groves. Many of our members tried their hats at making gnocchi, guinea fowl and sbriciolata, a crumbled berry pie. The best line came from a Duke alumnus who shared that he wished the food was this good back in the day when he picked up food from the Dope Shop on East Campus!

After leaving the restaurant, we traveled a few kilometers to the town of Castellina, where we met with the owner of a gelato stand. He explained the difference between homemade, handmade, and manufactured ice creams. We were happy to have our third dessert of the day.

Our evening rounded out with an educational focus on the current lives of Italians. We listened to a panel discussion on healthcare, politics and education by members of the Colle di Val d’Elsa community. Dinner, of course, was wonderful and our menu included pasta, tomato gazpacho, sea bass, braised beef and tiramisu.

If you are counting, that's four desserts in one day!

(photos: [top] Dinner at the hotel - in picture Raymond (Jay) Squires & Whit Broome; [bottom left] Gnocchi with Vegetables & Guinea Fowl with white wine and olives; [bottom right] cooking class at Il Fondaccio dai Dottori (Castellina in Chianti))

Tuscany 2014     Tuscany 2014

Day 7

Tuscany 2014

Day 7 began with a trip to Massa Marittima, a small, quiet town in southern Tuscany. Massa Marittima has a fascinating history. It's location was on trade routes starting at least from the time of the Etruscans (For more on the Etruscans, see Day 4).

During our walking tour we encountered a great surprise — a grassy knoll on the outskirts of town that looks down on the island of Elba. For all of you European history buffs, you might remember Elba as the location of Napoleon’s 300-day exile following The Treaty of Fontainebleau (1814) that ended the late French emperor’s rule.

Following the tour of Massa Marittima, we traveled to San Galgano Abbey at Motesiepi, a Cistercian abbey named in honor of a 12-century nobleman-turned-monastic named Galgano Guidotti. Inside the abbey’s chapel is what Italians claim as the original “Sword in the Stone.” As the hagiography goes, Saint Galgano saw a vision of the Archangel Michael, renounced his life of luxury and plunged his sword into a rock to create an altar where he could pray.

We finished Day 7 with an educational program on the history of Tuscany.

All in all, a full and wonderful day!

(photo: Massa Marittima (Elba is in the distant background))

Day 8

Tuscany 2014

Our final day in Tuscany was bittersweet but full. We visited both a crystal factory in Colle di Val d'Elsa and the nearby Castello di Monsanto winery.

Tuscany 2014The Colle crystal factory serves as both a family business showroom and as a manufacturing plant. Highlights included a live demonstration of crystal-making and explanations of the handcrafting process. Italian crystal is an industry that is strictly governed by European Union standards and requires specific materials and chemical composition. For example, for a glass product to be called crystal, it must contain at least 24 percent lead oxide.

Next we visited nearby Castello di Monsanto, a family winery begun by Aldo Bianchi, a native of San Gimignano-native (See Day 6 for more on San Gimignano), in the 1960s. Tuscany is known for its high quality Chianti wines, and the Monsanto wines certainly did not disappoint. Since 1962 the Bianchi family has stored vintage wines at the “castle” (their family home). Originally the cellars underneath the castle were hand-dug by three men, one being Aldo. Today the wine cellars have been renovated using modern practices but remain massive.

Tuscany 2014An interesting side note: For each Bianchi grandchild born, the winery makes a unique vintage wine and stores it in the cellar until the grandchild turns 25, at which point he or she receives a very special birthday gift. Of course, no visit to a winery is complete without a tasting and the Monsanto Chianti and Chardonnay were wonderful.

Our last day in Tuscany concluded with a closing dinner in the lower part of “the Colle” (See Day 1 for more on Colle di Val d'Elsa’s geography) in a historic mill that was built in the 11th century and later was turned into a restaurant. The stone floor of the restaurant had cutouts that allowed us to see the rushing water of the Elsa River directly below our dinner tables.

Prior to dinner our tour director Nadia and I met to determine if all of the travellers met the requirements of graduating from the Alumni Campus Abroad in Tuscany program. Collectively, we passed with flying colors; individually, we all had our strengths. As the Master of Graduation Ceremonies, I was given the opportunity to provide a reflective recap of the program and award graduation certificates. (It also was the perfect time to have fun with my travel friends by giving out “Senior Superlatives.”)

Alla Salute!

(photos: [top] At the Castello Monsanto Winery sampling Chianti and Chardonnay; [left] Carol Fisher, Duke alum, at the ColleVelcia Masteri del cristallo dal 1960; [right] Additional tour of the property and history of the Bianchi family wine making operations.)

Day 9

Sadly, the morning that no one was looking forward to finally arrived. We said our goodbyes early, and the travelers boarded our motor coach to the airport based on flight times. Thankfully, I was in the second group, leaving at 7:00 a.m. The first group departed at 3:45 a.m.!

Most participants were routed from Florence through Frankfurt with continuing passage through Washington, D.C. About eight of us were on the same flight, which made for continued fun all the way home. As I thought about the travelers’ reflections and conversations, it was clear that the group looks forward to reuniting at a Duke event later this year.

Tuscany was truly amazing, and I appreciated the culture and the Italian people I encountered along the way. As Duke alumni Whit Broom ’62 and Carol Fisher ‘63 shared, “We go on these alumni trips because of the incredibly intelligent and enjoyable people we meet.” After experiencing a Duke Alumni Association trip firsthand, I would concur!

Cheers, y’all!


1-2 Arrive Florence and transfer to Colle di Val d’Elsa and the Palazzo San Lorenzo Hotel. 
3 San Gimignano,  Castellina and Castello di Monsanto
Educational Focus: Colle di Val d’Elsa and Environs
4 Florence
5 Siena
Educational Focus: Renaissance Art
6 Colle di Val d’Elsa
Educational Focus: A Contemporary View of Italy
Cultural Event: Tuscan Cuisine
7 San Galgano / Massa Marittima
8 Casole d’Elsa
Local Flavor: Pecorino Cheese
9 Farewell, return to the U.S.