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Under the Tuscan Sun

In high school, I remember walking around Kingswood Lake and listening to the podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” Was I not happy? Not necessarily–I just had, and still have, a hard time figuring out what I want. What is a happy life–a fulfilling career, close family and friends, a lot of money?



Robert Waldinger, the psychiatrist that leads the world’s longest happiness project, says that human connections are surprisingly important. People who feel connected to others around them are healthier and live longer. And, at age 80, the two biggest regrets when people reflect back on their lives are spending too much time at the office, and not spending enough time with people who they care about.


My roommate Helen and I were in a dispute with classmates we subleased from last semester over some boxes we left. We met twice in the past weeks, and the whole process felt cold and transactional. The dispute was unpleasant, but it’s well-timed as impetus for Helen and I to resolve our own misunderstandings. Friendships are mercurial, subject to emotional fluxes, and their anti-transactional nature forces a lot of things to be left unsaid. I definitely find myself in denial of being annoyed by pitifully small things while also hoping others can magically read my mind and resolve them. Yet, small things add up and can quickly corrode even the strongest of connections.


Thankfully, over a cheap date of margherita pizza and no water, Helen and I talked about our perspectives and acknowledged each other’s feelings. Walking out of RossoPomodoro, I felt happy–we survived this rocky patch!


The next day, we departed Rome for Tuscany on a fieldtrip. We first arrived in Montepulciano, a quiet hilltop town surrounded by vineyards and lush green hills. Walking through cobbled stone streets flanked by artisanal wine shops and luxury real estate agencies marketing villas to English-speaking tourists, it is hard to imagine Montepulciano as a military strategic hold that was contested between Florence and Siena.


Walking into Piazza Grande.

By the 1500s, the Florentines had a stable hold over this town and their influence is clear in the town’s architecture. Most Italian towns have a church and a town hall, often in piazzas that serve as prominent civic spaces. In Montepulciano, you can find both Palazzo Communale and Cattadrale di Santa Maria Assunta sharing Piazza Grande. The Palazzo Communale was designed by Michelozzo, a Florentine who was the Medic family architect for nearly 40 years. The cathedral, often simply referred to as the “Duomo,” contains fragments of Bartolomeo Aragazzi’s tomb, also by Michelozzo. More recently, this piazza is known as the filming location for Twilight: New Moon, where Bella saved Edward’s life.


The most famous church around Montepulciano, however, is 15 minutes walk downhill from the town. San Bagio was designed by Florentine architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, and constructed from 1518-1540. It features a Renaissance Greek central cross plan, with a dome that inspired the original dome design for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Sangallo’s plan shows two flanking towers, but only one was built. As construction of churches took tens and even hundreds of years, it is very rare that the built structures resemble original plans in entirety. When we visited, a baptism had just ended. Albeit the grand arches and high dome, the space felt human as family members glowed with joy and rushed to take pictures with the newly baptized baby.



Pienza and Siena followed, although sights started to blend together. Italian history is a history of noble families. An aim of all noble Italian families was to have a member become pope, as the pope had access to immense wealth and can appoint others to coveted church titles. Pienza, a town 15 kilometers east of Montepulciano, is the creation of Pope Pius II. Born in Pienza to the exiled Piccolomini family of Siena, he commissioned Florentine architect Bernardo Rossolino when he became pope and transformed his birthplace into an ideal Renaissance town. From 1459-1464, Rossolino designed the Piccolomini family palace, town hall, a cathedral as well as the bishop's palace. As a token for the townspeople, the front façade of the Piccolomini palace features benches, or ”public amenity,” as Jeffery calls them.


What I remember the most is warmth. Warmth from the sun that prompted us to shed our winter jackets, but also warmth of a rekindled friendship. Happiness of sitting together with Helen at PROSIT for lunch, examining the menu, getting excited over eggplants and artichokes crostoni, promptly agreeing to order both and share. Memories that were kept at an arm’s length rush back as we split our open-faced sandwiches in half–our shared love for vegetables, family-style dining, a good laugh. As I bit into the soft roasted eggplants and thin but flavorful lombino cured pork on toasted farm bread, I savored the moment.



In Siena, the Cathedral Complex was closed due to a minor earthquake the week prior, so we spent the entire morning at Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala. Established around the 9th century, it was one of the earliest hospitals in Europe and remained functioning until the 20th century, becoming a museum only in 1995. In the Pilgrim’s Hall, murals depict the creation of the hospital as well as patient wards and other related charity events. It is interesting that the hospital was not only in charge of curing the sick, but also took care of orphans and gave food to the poor. My favorite of all were the painted vaults, which depicted saints and prophets on a starry night background.


Duomo di Pienza
Pilgrim's Hall

The hospital sits atop an Etruscan ruin, so the lower levels also host a modern archaeological museum designed by Guido Canali. The clay urns differ drastically from the ornate frescos above, but my friends and I enjoyed exploring the tunnel-like paths.


The rest of the day we spent lounging around the Piazza del Campo, an oval shaped public square home to the Palio, a biannual horse race between the 17 districts of Siena. Unlike the small towns of Montepulciano and Pienza, the town hall is in a different piazza than the church. Each features a tower, which appear at similar heights from afar but the civic tower, Torre del Mangia, is much taller as Piazza del Campo is at a lower elevation.


Lunch was ribollita, a Tuscan bean stew, and pappardelle with cinta ragu–a red wine based sauce featuring Sienese pork. Then after visiting Palazzo Pubblico, we got gelato before boarding our bus back to Rome. I fell sound asleep, the lingering taste of hazelnut and pistachio rendering the trip into a happy, sweet dream.


It was great to be home after two long days of walking, and to see that Thuan had recovered from her twisted ankle. This blog post is for her, as she could not join us in Tuscany.


Fun facts: Montepulciano is known for its red wine, vino nobile, and Pienza for its Pecorino cheese.

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6 Comments


Sherrye Ye
Sherrye Ye
Mar 26, 2023

It sure is ! pisticci in nyc has a great Montepulciano wine but I bet it isn’t the same as trying it from the source 😉 sun seems to be treating you well Desai, can’t wait for the next adventure

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calmboa
Mar 08, 2023

Is this under wordpress?

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Desai Wang
Desai Wang
Mar 08, 2023
Replying to

It's under Wix.

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calmboa
Mar 08, 2023

:)

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Thuan La
Thuan La
Feb 21, 2023

Love how you talked about your friendship with Helen! Hehe so glad you guys and thank you for writing a blog dedicated to me <3 read it with great honor!

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Fran Mao
Fran Mao
Feb 21, 2023

Happy to know you and your best friend are closed again. Yes friendship is the sunshine in our life, cherish and enjoy! Love you!

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Desai Wang

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