Love me some Tuscany!! As highly requested on my Instagram story survey a few weeks ago, many of y’all wanted to hear my experiences studying abroad. I have been lucky enough to study abroad in 3 different cities in 3 different countries: Sansepolcro, Italy (a small town in Tuscany), London, England, United Kingdom, and San Ignacio, Belize (a town in the rainforest region of Belize). Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing my experiences studying abroad in each country, along with some advice that is specific to each place. It is important to note that each of these study abroad programs were done through my school – Meredith College. Today, I will be beginning my sharing of my study abroad experiences by sharing my study abroad experience in the small Italian town of Sansepolcro located in the dreamy region of Tuscany.
The Benefit of Sansepolcro
When most people picture study abroad, they picture college students living in a massive city, such as Florence, Milan, or Rome. The majority of study abroad programs in Italy are, in fact, held in these major cities. Unlike Florence, Milan, and Rome, Sansepolcro is a tiny Italian town located in the hill country of Tuscany. There is not even a train station in the town – the nearest one is an hour away in Arezzo. What Sansepolcro does have that Florence, Milan, and Rome do not have is drop dead gorgeous lush hill country that goes for miles and miles on end along with locals that are extremely friendly. Sansepolcro’s small town charm could not be bought or even found in either Florence, Milan, or Rome.
The special thing about Sansepolcro is Meredith College’s relationship with the town. For decades now, Meredith College has sent their students to study abroad in Sansepolcro on study abroad programs through the school along with trips for alumni. Like myself, Meredith College fell in love with Sansepolcro due to its down to earth and authentic charm, which Italy’s major cities lack. The locals in Sansepolcro and Meredith College students, faculty, staff, and alumni have established a close-knit bond that has lasted throughout the years. This bond is so strong that Meredith College purchased a Palazzo (like an apartment) above a pizza place in the town that its students and faculty live at when they study abroad. Before me, many of my Meredith sisters have lived in Meredith’s Palazzo in Sansepolcro and many more will after me. I have found Meredith’s Palazzo in Sansepolcro to be such a special asset to studying abroad in Italy, as not many students can say that they lived in a small town in Tuscany that their school has maintained such strong connections with.
Living in Meredith’s Palazzo was an experience like no other. The bedrooms were most definitely authentic to the Italian lifestyle – simplistic and beautiful. Not many Italians and Europeans for that matter have their own closets – they have wardrobes instead. Laundry in Italy is only washed and hung to dry. In Italy, the Italians eat lunch as their biggest meal like dinner is in the United States. At Meredith’s Palazzo, we were lucky enough to have a lovely chef named Margarita to cook us our lunch each day. Each day, Margarita made something completely different yet still very Italian and authentic to the Tuscan region. Every single one of Margarita’s meals was AMAZING, and I wish I could enjoy one of her extraordinary creations as I write this!! The Meredith Palazzo lifestyle allowed me to live the life of a Sansepolcro resident, which truly allowed me to experience living in a different country as if I were a local there. You know what they say: when in Sansepolcro!
Courses I Took
One of the most important things about studying abroad is that you are there to STUDY. Meredith’s Office of International Programs staff member Liz ALWAYS emphasizes how study abroad is NOT a trip or vacation as you are there to study. Liz’s emphasis on study abroad as a time to study and learn and grow as an individual in a brand-new culture is extremely important to myself as well. Study abroad is a time for nothing other than self growth while having an educational experience in a brand-new country and culture. Personally, I find this very important to remember. While study abroad is exciting and may feel like a trip/vacation, it is anything BUT that.
While in Sansepolcro, I took three different courses: Arts and Artifacts (a class on the history of Sansepolcro and Italy), Nonverbal Communication, and Yoga. Each of these courses was unique in its own way and provided me with different facets of knowledge that I take with me to this day. Both Arts and Artifacts and Nonverbal Communication were taught by Meredith professors who lived with us at the Palazzo. I definitely saw both of my professors studying abroad with me as my Italy mom’s! Meanwhile, my Yoga instructor was a local to Tuscany who has a popular yoga blog in Italy. I found the value of having classes taught both by Meredith professors and a Tuscan local to be priceless.
In my Arts and Artifacts course, I got to learn about Sansepolcro and Italy while write about what I saw. One distinct thing about the Arts and Artifacts course is that it is taught on every one of Meredith’s study abroad programs with it being unique to each country that it’s taught in. I took this course in both England and Belize as well. In this course, students get to learn about the part of the world that they are studying abroad in while getting to see the places/sights that they are learning about. In Sansepolcro, I learned about the town of drop dead gorgeous medieval Angihari right before I visited it. The same went for the sculpture of David at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, the origin of Murano glass on the island of Murano, and the Duomo di Siena in Siena, Italy. At the same time, I also got to use class time to plan out my independent travel breaks with my classmates. Through it all, the Arts and Artifacts course was an extremely helpful course in getting to know the place that I was studying abroad in and help me to better understand the culture of Sansepolcro as well as the differing regional cultures in Italy as a whole.
My Nonverbal Communication course was one that was extremely valuable to me. My professor Dr. Ross is extremely passionate about communication and especially nonverbal communication, which truly showed throughout the course. Dr. Ross worked really hard to promote our self growth as students not only academically through learning and living in Sansepolcro, but also as strong young women. Each class day was something new and different, as Dr. Ross strived to discuss her own personal experiences with nonverbal communication in the United States and connecting them to Italian life and culture. For example, each student had an assigned partner that they had to do an activity with that was out of their comfort zone – mine was to strike a conversation with a total stranger on the streets and see how they reacted. We, then, each had to work with our partners to describe and reflect on our own experiences through that social interaction and pick up on their nonverbal cues as to how they compared to the United States. Each class day, a new pair shared their communication experiences with the class, and we built off one another in class discussion. My experience talking to a total stranger in Sansepolcro really helped me to get out of my shell with talking to people who may have not have spoken much English, and it, more importantly, helped me to learn more about Italian life and culture as well as myself. At the same time, Dr. Ross had each of us take the Myers-Briggs test (I’m an ESFJ – I think!) along with another personality test, which we wrote about in class as we grew and learned as young women throughout our time in Sansepolcro. I found Dr. Ross’s course to be one of the most valuable in my entire college experience, as it is one of the few that had emphasis on self growth which I find to be such a blessing. Not only does Dr. Ross care about her students academically, but she also cares about their personal self growth and she especially did when we studied abroad with her, and I cannot thank her enough for it!
Taking Yoga in Sansepolcro with an Italian yoga instructor was such a cool experience! Each class period, my instructor spent some time talking about the history and origins of yoga. I found my instructor’s lectures on yoga to be extremely valuable, even though I was trying to stay awake sometimes during them LOL! We also got to do some yoga exercises, which was extremely fun and relaxing! There are not many yoga classes where one gets to learn about the history of yoga AND actually do yoga. It truly was the best of both worlds!!
Life in Sansepolcro
When in doubt, life like a local! Each day that I was in Sansepolcro, I spent about 4 hours in the morning in class, an hour for lunch, and the afternoons varied. Every afternoon began with an hour before any other academic-related activity would occur. In Italy, the Italians have usually 1.5-2 hours for a lunch break where many of them take naps or do other activities after eating their actual lunch. Being the avid napper that I am, I took naps! After my lunch and nap break, I would either attend another class for 2-4 hours or have the afternoon off to explore the town, get some gelato, or do homework. Sansepolcro is a small yet charming town with much to explore!
As for dinner, I would usually have a small snack of cheese, tomatoes, crostini’s, and prosciutto. My classmates and I were taught how to navigate an Italian grocery store on our first full day in Sansepolcro, which was SUCH A BLESSING. When I’ve traveled abroad with my mother, we went to a grocery store in Athens, Greece which I really enjoyed. One of the things that I really value about most European countries is that their groceries are a lot more fresh than in the United States, as they’re usually locally sourced. As odd as it may sound, you really truly get to learn SO MUCH about a place and its culture from its grocery stores. Grocery stores tell a TON about its people and culture from simply what they eat and shop for. I really enjoyed getting to shop at Sansepolcro’s local grocery stores, as they taught me a lot about what the locals seek for and value in their groceries.
Sansepolcro is notable for its works of art. It is home to artist Piero della Francesco whose works are featured in the Museo Civico Sansepolcro. In fact, during World War II, Sansepolcro was saved from being bombed due to it being the home of some of della Francesco’s masterpieces. While in Sansepolcro, my classmates and I got to see some of his works of art at the Museo Civico Sansepolcro. Knowing Sansepolcro’s historical significance during World War 11 and even before then was SO neat and such a bittersweet experience. The Italian people have been through so much historically and go through a lot today, and to know that sweet Sansepolcro was saved due to della Francesco’s pieces being kept there was really heartwarming.
Besides living in and loving life in Sansepolcro, I also got to explore nearby towns and cities in Tuscany. The excursions that I went on included: a day in the nearby Tuscan towns of Anghiari and Arezzo, an afternoon at the Il Fugetto olive oil farm in Anghiari, a day in Florence, a day in Siena, and a hike to Montecast. Each of these excursions allowed me a learn A TON about Tuscan life, culture, and history.
Anghiari is a magical medieval town that is conveniently located about 10 minutes via bus from Sansepolcro. Upon pulling up to Anghiari for the first time after taking the bus over, my classmates and I were immediately in awe with what a dream this town truly is – it looks like it comes out of a Disney movie!!! The town is suited on a hill and it contains several streets that are filled with something new and beautiful everywhere you turn. Anghiari remains one of my favorite towns to this day, and I really hope that I can go back when it is safe to!
Arezzo is a much bigger town that both Sansepolcro and Anghiari. It is located about an hour away from each via bus. While some didn’t necessarily enjoy the long and hot bus ride from Arezzo to Anghiari, I really enjoyed it as the views of Tuscany were truly breathtaking as I looked out the window. I used my time on the bus to clear my head and enjoy the stunning Tuscan scenery that I so truly rarely get to see. I’m SO glad I took those moments to my advantage, too! The town of Arezzo, on the other hand, is home to the train station that my classmates and I would utilize on our independent travels. Besides its home to the train station, Arezzo had a ton to offer! It was home to some stunning cathedrals, museums, and everything in between. The streets of Arezzo, like Anghiari had something so great to offer everywhere you turned. Unlike major Italian cities and some Tuscan towns, there were not as many tourists in Arezzo which made it such a cool and authentic gem to visit.
The Il Fugetto olive oil farm was an experience that I will NEVER forget! While there, my classmates and I were greeted by one of the owners of the farm. She took us on a tour of it where we got to see where all of the olives to make olive oil grew. I also got to take in ALL of the stunningly gorgeous Tuscan views and enjoy some of the region’s fauna – including the farm’s super friendly dogs! At the same time, we learned about the difference between extra virgin and regular olive oil as well as how to determine whether or not a bottle of extra virgin olive oil is actually extra virgin (hint – MOST ARE NOT!!!!). The owner was also kind enough to let us make our own pizza dough and bake ourselves mini pizza’s as well as prepare us one of the best meals I have ever had in my life – complete with a cheese board and wine!
Florence is definitely the main hub of Tuscany. Moreover, Florence is a main city hub in all of Italy and a notable city in our world today. My classmates and I spent a day there where we went on a group tour of the Galleria dell’Accademia home of the Sculpture of David. Besides that, I went to the Galileo museum and walked the city’s many markets while taking in many of the city’s sights to see. In fact, I loved Florence SO much that two of my classmates and I chose to come back during one of our independent travel breaks to explore more of it.
Fun fact number 1: my step-sister is actually named Siena after the notable Tuscan town that I got to visit. Fun fact number 2: my step-father proposed to my mother in Siena in the main square. That being said, getting to visit Siena on a group excursion was most definitely an amazing opportunity! My classmates and I started off the day by visiting the Duomo di Siena – a cathedral in the town that took centuries to fund and build. The artwork and construction throughout the cathedral was extremely intricate and you can tell that the artisans who helped design it put in a ton of time, thought, and energy. Besides visiting the Duomo di Siena, I strolled around the town, visited museums, and got to get a sneak peek at the 2018 Palio di Siena in the main square where my mother and step father got engaged. The Palio di Siena is the town’s annual horse race, where native families have competed against one another for centuries. When I arrived at the main square, the bleachers were packed, so my group and I ended up watching a bit of the Palio from underneath the bleachers, which was still SUCH A COOL experience!!! Through it all, Siena is truly an Italian wonderland. Let’s just say that Siena was even more stunning in person than in the pictures!
Although I was not much of a hiker two years ago, the hike to Montecast was totally worth it! Montecast is a monastery that is located on top of a Tuscan hill outside of Sansepolcro’s downtown. It has been there for centuries. Even though the hike felt extremely painful at times walking up the hillside on what felt like a never-ending trail, it was TOTALLY worth it all when we got to the top to the monastery that had been there for years. Montecast was such a cool experience, even though it felt painful at times just to get there and back!
Most Meredith College study abroad programs allow for independent travel breaks. On these independent travel breaks, students can travel to different cities and even countries (depending on the program) on their own. Personally, I saw independent travel breaks as a way for me to become more strong and independent as I navigate a brand-new place. While in Sansepolcro, I got to visit Florence and Lucca on my first travel break, Venice, Verona, and the islands of Burano and Murano on my second travel break, and Rome and The Vatican on my final travel break (this one was with my faculty and all my classmates but it was mostly independent). While I will not get into my travel breaks very much in this post (I feel that they are each better served in their own post as I have SO much to say about each), I will say that each of these experiences was extremely neat, fun, and rewarding!
Getting to study abroad in Tuscany was truly a dream come true. Many people dream of visiting Tuscany and getting to do so myself was such a dream. While I am extremely lucky that I was able to even go to Tuscany, I know that so many have not. That being said, I want to utilize my study abroad experiences in Italy and beyond to share with and empower others to go out and see the world while also learning about it. Wherever this world may take us, being able to learn about the various cultures and history that different places have to offer is extremely valuable. Not only does getting to travel somewhere brand-new help us to expand our minds, but it also helps us to grow into the strong and independent people that we are meant to be.