To future Learning Tuscany students–Stephanie, July 2, 2015

Fellow Longhorn and future Learning Tuscany student,

You may be reading this and be one of two kinds of people: a) you are interested in LT and you are getting ahead on your research or b) you have been accepted to LT and you discovered our blog. Either way, welcome! I hope this provides to be helpful in this time of contemplation and/or excitement. Rest assured, you are going to embark on the most wonderful adventures through the LT program all with the help of dear (Indi)Ann Johns and other faculty that join you. However, they are not the only resources you get – along with ISOS (trust me, you’ll understand that soon) – but fellow students like myself are some of the best resources as well; there are some pieces of advice I would like to share with you.

  1. Try the honey flavored cheese (pecorino al miele), even if you might not like cheese. Go on a hike to Mt Mammi, even if you might not hike the most. Try the cheese flavored gelato, even if you think it sounds weird. (Yes, it exists, but only sometimes.) Try new things. I have found that some of my most cherished memories from this trip are during times that I took a chance.
  2. Go outside. As much as you can! Let’s get real, how many times will life offer the beautiful Tuscan countryside to you? Don’t be afraid to go sketch atop the Arches, or grab a cappuccino and do some homework at Bar Maro. Not only are you surrounded by an incredible place, but you are also going to encounter some of the most charming locals here in Casti.
  3. Put your phone down. Yes, I said it. That treacherous oh-so addictive and controlling 2” x 4” piece of metal and plastic. I know just reading those words will make you cringe, but in time you will understand. I am guilty of having my phone with me at all times, but after the first few days here in Casti and Santi, there is just so much more to experience than what facebook and twitter updates have to offer.
  4. Make the most out of your time here with your peers. During my time here in Casti, I have gotten to know the most genuine, talented, intelligent and compassionate group of people. The people you meet on this program will definitely make your trip so much more of an experience. From the small moments, like going out to CoCo Palm after dinner, and to the bigger moments, like planning weekend trips to Venice or Cinque Terre, you get to opportunity to make memories that will last a lifetime with such incredible people.

I think one of your best resources is getting to know what this experience is like through the eyes of students, so I hope my small list – and our blog – finds you well. If you ever find yourself wondering about this or that, don’t be afraid to talk to Ann! She is an expert at all things Learning Tuscany; from what to do when there is a train strike, to the best gelato spots in Arezzo and more. She is just amazing over all. Rest assured, you will have an amazing time in the Learning Tuscany program.

Buon viaggio e auguri,


Stephanie blog

Wine Tasting–Sam, June 29, 2015

First off I just want to thank everyone for the loveliest 21st birthday ever. I’m writing this at the end of the program so I’m a little nostalgic, and it feels like it happened weeks ago, (this last week was intense y’all) but really. It was such a lovely experience, and I can’t wait to get together in Austin with the same people in an entirely different setting, and learn what everyone did and see what has changed.

We were gearing up for all our final projects, and for the end of the program, but the wine tasting came at the perfect time. The weather was great, we had become so comfortable with each other, and I think it was a perfect compromise between a “field trip” and leisure (thank you Ann). And it just so happened to land on my birthday? Fabulous. We went on a tour of a vineyard and learned a little about the process of wine production, and how the vineyard differed from most others. It was very informative, but more than that, it was beautiful. The sincere interest the owner had in creating a product that was in tune with the sensitivities of the natural world was such a pleasure to here. I love knowing where my food comes from, and I feel like it really expresses a difference in attitudes towards food. Seeing the soil from which your drink and food grows adds so much complexity and relevancy to what you take in to your body. We pass by olive oil groves every day, and buy fruit and cheese and meat from markets and little grocers. It’s so much fun, and I’ll miss it so much. It’s something I will reflect on often.

The wine tasting itself was so fun. We walked back from our tour to the front building, turned a corner, and then this magical, picturesque scene unfolded. I hadn’t even considered eating outside, but wow. The tables were set up under the shade in a green yard surrounded by trees, hammocks (which we eventually made our way to) swaying in the distance. We sat down and began being served food and wine.

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I even ate the tomatoes.

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Every one seemed to have a great time. Our  conversations flowed naturally, we all got a little excited every time a new course appeared, or our empty glasses were filled with a new wine. The cold water was also very popular. And, of course, there were toasts all around.

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That  pasta! It takes a lot, after the food we have been eating on a regular basis, to wow me, but wow me this did.

After, we all strolled (or ran) over to the benches and hammocks, or laid down in the clover and grass, enjoying sun and shade. Eventually, we meandered back up the hill, but not before purchasing wine, olive oil and honey.


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Hopefully these will make it through the flight back okay; I’d better not lose this bag. It’s carrying precious cargo.

Le Celle–Cassie, June 23, 2015

When we first got on the bus to Cortona I joked about how I was going to spontaneously buy myself a Tuscan villa and live happily ever after just like the movie/book Under the Tuscan Sun.

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Arriving in Cortona

Once in Cortona we walked along the road to Le Celle (“the cells”) for forty minutes enjoying the cool air and spectacular views.

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On our way to Le Celle.

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The views.

It was a perfect day. Ann had showed us pictures of the hermitage the day before, but the sight of the place was still breathtaking as we turned the corner and entered underneath the arch.

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Finally here!

Nestled into the steep hill, buildings were stacked one on top of the other.

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Steep paths zigzagged down the hill and across a small bridge.

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View from the bridge

It was the most peaceful and beautiful place I’d encountered since we arrived in Italy.  We had about an hour to wander around and sketch.  The buildings were largely inaccessible since it was a functioning hermitage of the Franciscans.  We were, however, allowed to see the cell of Francis himself, and enter a small chapel that was adjacent.  The place was reminiscent of a fairy-tale.  I think all of us were enchanted by the space, and we each explored at our own pace. The scenery was just as beautiful as the rest of Tuscany if not more so.  Once making it down the hill and after crossing the bridge there was this wonderful little logia where a lot of us sat down and sketched the winding paths.

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People sitting and sketching!

If you followed the hallway after the logia you were led up into a courtyard where the entrance to the functional chapel.  There were some posters advertising various feast days where it appeared the place was opened up to the public in celebration.  It showed a crowd of people in the courtyard and it was hard to imagine that many people in such a serene space. After the courtyard there was a path which led up into the woods and continued on into a trail.  Another path led down along a supporting wall which had another picturesque bridge.

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Quite a few of us sat on the walls of the bridge and had a view of the hermitage from the bottom of the hill. There were so many things to sketch that I think all of us created some beautiful art. Eventually though we had to leave.  It was definitely the most peaceful and beautiful place I had seen so far during our program.  Although the various Duomos and churches we had seen were spectacular, the simple hermitage captured my heart.  After leaving I later joked that I was going to become a hermit and live at Le Celle instead of buying myself a Tuscan villa.  I think I could live happily ever after at Le Celle.

A Study in Minimalism–Emma, July 1, 2015

As my time here in Italy comes to a close, I look back to see what I am truly taking away from this trip. Friendships, olive oil, knowledge of Renaissance art, and two messy sketchbooks come to mind first, but I am also taking with me a greater sense of value, freedom, and materialism stemming from my current study of minimalism.

While moving my three car loads worth of stuff from my apartment in Austin to my home in The Woodlands for the summer, I became disgusted with the amount of belongings I have. It took a small army to carry all of my things from the cars up to my room, and after hogging the laundry room for three days doing my laundry, I was fed up with my life of excess, and in the spirit of mutiny declared I was going to pack for my six weeks in Italy in a carry on. 

I successfully crammed everything into my tiny blue suitcase; shocking, I know. 

It didn’t take long to realize A.) this was going to be more difficult than I thought and B.) not everyone had come to the same conclusions I did when packing. In the picture below you can see the difference between my sweet roommate Anna’s suitcase and mine tiny blue one. Though not having as many clothes to choose from can be really hard some days, I have loved the creativity that comes from finding the thirty six different outfit combinations, the struggle to not buy more clothes, and the simplicity that comes from knowing exactly what outfit you will wake up and wear tomorrow.


The more I research minimalism the more I find it is a lifestyle meant for trial and error. It does not look the same for everyone; I had to find what this new cultural trend looked like specifically for me. The Minimalists, two business men turned inspirational authors, define minimalism as “a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives.” 

My journey with minimalism started with packing for Learning Tuscany,  but has become a thought provoking look at value. What do I find valuable? What makes something valuable? By what do people judge to be valuable in or on me, and by what do I judge to be valuable in or on others? Do I judge the value of someone by the inherent value of their exterior?

These questions, among others, have lead me to the conclusion that finding a sustainable minimalistic lifestyle brings a unique freedom in our everyday lives. There is freedom in looking at something it it’s truest form without the clutter so prevalent in our overly stimulated world. I am so excited to go back to Austin with this new insight into the freedom that can come from living with minimalism. 

The Special Cat–Kayla, June 28, 2015


It was a day like any other. I was on my way back from a lovely lunch at Roggi’s, when suddenly I saw her. Her shaggy fur stood up in awkward tufts on her scrawny little body. A flee ridden carpet of orange, black and white. She immediately came to greet me by rubbing herself against my leg affectionately.  I was surprised by her friendliness, seeing as most of the cats here couldn’t care less about our existence.

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But as I pet her I knew she was a winner amongst her kind, and that she was special. Many students from years past have encountered this cat, and in there naivety, thought that because she was so old and so skinny, she would not live to see the next summer. But year after year she proves them wrong. This cat is strong. This cat will live on. The power of love will forever keep her alive.

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