Maria Carla Robaina: Grand Tour 2019

The Colosseum


       The Grand Tour is a journey throughout Italy at the end of one’s college education. Traditionally, wealthy men embarked on this trip but as the times change, so have the demographics of the Grand Tour participants. As a recent college graduate myself, it is a rite of passage for me to be able to travel Italy and expand my knowledge of its history, culture, religion, art, architecture, and how it has influenced the world even to the present day. This is exactly what we did. We went on a journey that was enlightening, adventurous, and made amazing friends that we will forever be tied to for having had so many shared experiences. The Grand Tour is provocative! As we explore artistic movements, politics, and religion through time, we are inclined to think about the big questions and ideas in life, as well as explore how we feel about who we are, and our stance on some of today’s big issues and ideas. In the present, I retrace my steps, and explore the impact that each of the cities had on me. 

Roma: Ancient vs. Modern

If you ask anyone what they know about Italy, I am positive that the answer will include some information about Rome, and it’s really no surprise since all roads lead to Rome, don’t they? But even within Roma there are so many distinct worlds that are forced to coexist on the crammed streets of the city. Roma perfectly juxtaposes the old with the new. Just sit around Porta Maggiore for a little while and appreciate how well this ancient Roman structure melts into the pedestrians and car-filled background. It is truly astounding! But of course some of the most exciting structures are the monumental buildings such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon, both of which reflect aspects of ancient Rome that still prevail even today. 

The Pantheon

       When it comes to the Pantheon, I can’t help but feel emotional tears build up in my eyes. It is majestic, graceful, eccentric, and all the qualities that a showstopper of a building should be. Knowing its history makes it all the more meaningful especially in today’s world where we wage wars based on principle and a dissonance of beliefs. The emperor Hadrian, being a worldly and knowledgeable man, aimed to create a sort of common ground for all Romans to share in worship. All religions were welcome, and none judged. At the end of the day, whether you prayed to a Roman god or a Christian one, you were still Roman, and this nationalistic idea prevailed above all. Now, this sounds very progressive, and at least in this sense ancient Rome was more progressive than even us today, but one thing that has somehow remained constant across cultures is the political motives that precede major decisions. The people of Roma were divided by religion, and this meant that as a nation, Roma was weaker. Therefore, Hadrian needed to do something that would unify them and ensure their vote for him. Building a ground where all were welcome to express their faith liberates people, and makes them love the provider of such freedoms, namely the emperor himself. 

The Colosseum

In regards to the Colosseum the story is very similar. While it was built for the people, to provide an escape from routine, there is no denying that whether intentional or not, it also served to deviate attention away from problems. There really is nothing more effective to keep people happy than to give them a breath of fresh air to forget about the pollution that surrounds them. And of course, what can be more entertaining than watching people fight for their lives, and stare as the sand soaks up the dead’s blood? The idea behind this feeds off of the darkest parts of our human condition. It is raw, but not pure, and those are two different things. It says a lot about humanity, and our lack of humanity. This form of diversion reminds me of social media’s role on the world as we know it. No, we are not watching people get murdered for fun, or at all for that matter I should hope, but if you think about it, they both let us escape our mediocre existence and live vicariously through someone else’s for a second. The Romans didn’t want to get killed on the arena, but they sure venerated the valiant gladiators who fought in them. And so, I wonder: did the Romans get the same rush from watching gladiators fight as we do when we stalk our favorite celebrity, watch their interviews, or even see them be “active” on social media? If you think about it, gladiators were the celebrities of ancient Rome. 

Pizzeria in Trastevere

       The newer side of Roma is the perfect platform for young adults to hang out, have some fun, and enjoy good food and music. Yes, I’m referring to Trastevere! 

       Ancient Romans showcased their darkest side in broad daylight, in front of thousands, and were not ashamed of it. Today, it’s a little different, and this can be seen in the party neighborhood of Trastevere. During the day, it’s full of life with streets that are flooded with restaurants and amazing food. At night, it metamorphoses into a club and party area. But even during the dark hours I witnessed a sharp transition when going into and out of a pub or bar/club, many of which were underground, such as “On the Rox”, and had small entrances that didn’t allow anyone to take a look inside. On the surface, a more family oriented space, with plenty restaurants, live music, and even children running around playing at night. The underground was a little different. Reckless drinking, uninhibited dancing, and the ultimate idea of good old college fun. I do not exaggerate when I say that behaviors changed as we moved up and down the stairs, which acted as a frontier separating two worlds. How the times have changed right? 

Piazza in Testaccio
Street artist in Testaccio

       Testaccio is another neighborhood that is frequented by college students, and it features plenty parks and open spaces to hang out with friends, and even study with a scenic view of the Roman sunset. 

Firenze: Architecture and Art

Since Firenze was my favorite city to visit, I’ve decided to explore my favorite topics for this small part of Italy. Firenze is without a doubt, the epitome of the renaissance, and this is evident in its architecture and artwork. What can I say? I’m a renaissance girl at heart. However, other personal favorites include gothic, and romanesque. Fortunately, Firenze has it all.

Basilica of Santa Croce

For a city whose trademark is the renaissance, a single gothic building stands out from the crowd: the Basilica of Santa Croce. All white, with its pointy triangle rooftops and decorations, it is the classical example of Italian gothic architecture. The Baptistery of San Giovanni is Florentine Romanesque in nature, which is very similar to gothic. The interior of the baptistery is purely gothic however. The ceiling is filled with religious imagery in accordance with the gothic era such as a judging and punishing Christ, as well as a three-headed creature in charge of punishing sinners after they die. These images were supposed to inspire fear, and keep believers from sinning as they were exposed to them their entire lives whenever they visited the baptistery. On the other hand, Brunelleschi’s dome is a great example of how the renaissance shaped architecture and art. With this movement came the emphasis on symmetry and balance, both of which are seen in the dome’s construction, and especially visible in the eight panels that shape it. The dome’s interior is similar to that of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, but instead of having a strong, fear-inspiring Christ, it portrays a more benevolent Christ, one that is in agreement with the renaissance ideas of Christianity. 

Baptistery of San Giovanni and Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Brunelleschi’s Dome

Cinque Terre: Food & Soul

Cinque Terre provides a much needed mental break after exploring all that ancient Rome and the renaissance have contributed to the world. As the name suggests, Cinque Terre (Five Lands) consists of five small towns that are connected by five big things: the ocean, hiking trails, train tracks, culture, and food. 

In the Kitchen:

       Speaking of food, Cinque Terre has many specialties including white wine, which is made from locally grown grapes, seafood, which is caught by local fishermen and enhanced by lemons, and of course there’s pesto! Some of the most delicious meals I had in Italy involved pesto. Who could forget that delicious pesto lasagna we were served one night during our stay in the Sanctuary of Soviore? That day will forever be remembered as “Pesto day” for me, and here’s why: As I explored the town of Riomaggiore, I knew that I wanted to try some pesto pasta that day. I encountered a pizzeria that had pesto pizza, and right in front I came across a street sign leading up to a tiny family owned restaurant that was hidden from the main street by houses and other businesses. So, what was interesting about this place? They offered classes on how to make tiramisu, gnocchi, and even pesto while the costumers ate. I was definitely intrigued, and asked to be taught how to make pesto while savoring a delicious pesto pasta. This was one of the best experiences I had in Cinque Terre because it taught me how much work, dedication, and love these small town people put into food making. The way the chef explained each step of the process, and the “pinch of salt and love” that he insisted we added made me see how proud they are of their culinary traditions. This is a completely new concept for me. First of all, the restaurant consisted of the front part of a house, and with just a few tables, it could only sit about 15-18 people max (and that’s really pushing it) which to me made it feel more homey and cozy. The close interaction we had with the chef, and his commitment to providing every costumer with the best, most unique experience possible, made me reflect on how we see cooking in other, more urban parts of Italy, and of course in America. 

Pesto pizza in Riomaggiore
Pesto pasta from Osteria Maité Restaurant in Riomaggiore
Osteria Maité Restaurant in Riomaggiore
Osteria Maité Restaurant’s Cooking class options

In this small town of Riomaggiore, the emphasis is not only on food eating but on having the full culinary experience of making food, and making it an enjoyable way to pass down knowledge. In our rushed, modernized everyday lives, we often see cooking as a chore rather than a fun activity to nourish and fuel our bodies, and our loved ones. The rise of fast food has made us deviate even further from this concept in America, and it has contributed to an increase in health problems such as cardiovascular diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about a third of the American population consumes fast food on the regular (1). These statistics are alarming when we take into account that Italy, even with all the carb intake that Italians have, is one of the healthiest countries in the world. The reality is that when we use locally grown products we’re not only engaging in more sustainable food consumption, but we are also consuming healthier foods. As an aspiring physician, this is of utmost importance to me, especially if I wish to help develop a healthier community.


View from the top of the mountain during the Cinque Terre hike

       Up in the cloud-covered Monteroso mountains stands the Sanctuary of Soviore. Peaceful, modest, detached, and undisturbed by socialization. A hidden gem that rose above the corrupted world, and the birth place of the most beautiful sunset these eyes have ever witnessed. This space provides the perfect escape from our tumultuous lives, and the opportunity to sit back and reflect on it. The limited internet access and the scenery make the necessary transition forceful. Similarly, the traditional Cinque Terre hike pushes all the boundaries. Not only do we have extra time to reflect on our human existence, and take in all the accumulated knowledge, but we also gain new insights into who we are, and what we are here for. Through sweat, tears, and high doses of physical pain, we all kept going. You have to really dig deep within you to keep moving past the preconceived limitations of your physical being, even when the pain wants to take over. As I dug, I found the strength I needed, and encountered unexpected and unprecedented emotions. In the words of T. S. Eliot: “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go”. I never thought I could go the distance, but I was motivated beyond limits, and this feeling overshadowed all the other ones, and at times clouded my judgment. However, I made it. And the satisfaction of being able to say that is definitely worth it. I felt unstoppable, and more prepared than I’ve ever been in my entire life to begin this new chapter in my life. As I prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and later on Medical School, I know that all I have to do is keep pushing the same way we all did in the darkest hours of the hike. If I could get through that, I can get through anything with the knowledge that motivation is the key to success. I WANTED to finish the hike. It was more of a pride/personal goal than anything else. And so I DID. The Cinque Terre hike turned out to be more spiritual than I thought, as I discovered what I’m capable of doing when I really want to, and I intend to implement this new-found wisdom in my future endeavors. Reaching the top of each mountain, and getting to enjoy the views was reward enough. Being up there was enlightening as I felt both small, and larger than life. Just as the flowers bloom in a small patch on the mountain top, I bloomed into a more confident version of myself. And this flower is ready to take on the world. 

Mountain flowers in the Cinque Terre hiking trail


At the end of the Grand Tour, Venezia provides a seamless transition from the calmness of Cinque Terre to the chaos of our everyday lives back in America. It is a hectic and eclectic city in and of its own but we are still in a foreign country, and away from the many responsibilities that await back home. So, in a sense, Venezia is lukewarm, not hot and relaxing water like Cinque Terre, but a nice buffer before we are hit with an ice cold shower. 

Sophia- the poesy of beauty, 2019 by Mercedes & Franziska Welte-NONOS (Austria)

     Venezia is also incredibly progressive, and innovative from its birth. Its very creation was revolutionary, and Venetians take pride in their uniqueness, and adaptive nature. As a city that has historically focused on trade and gaining economic power, this meant that to Venetians business is business, and as long as there is something to be gained, it does not really matter who their partner in trade is. As a result, in order to advance the economy, the city became infamously acceptant of foreign religions, cultures, and even sexual orientations, providing a sort of oasis that sheltered them from outside judgement. This idea was reformist, and help Venezia rise to power. After staying in the heart of Venezia, it was refreshing to see that their reformer identity is still intact. Starting with the Taiwan in Venice 2019 Biennale Exhibition, Venezia proves to be a modern art hub. This exhibition fuses technology with art to create videos with powerful messages regarding current issues such as homosexuality and body image. Even in the fish tail region of Castello, detached from the tourist-filled San Marco, one can find art exhibitions that target present day concerns and challenge archaic views of the female body and its beauty, making it a power move for the feminism movement. What’s more important: they’re completely free. Walking around in Castello I found parks that not only showcased the beautiful greenery of Venezia but also these incredibly feminist artworks. One of them, which is being displayed in the Giardini della Marinaressa is Sophia- Poesy of Beauty by Mercedes & Franziska Welte (2). This sculpture is meant to portray women as powerful beings (hence the fiery red color of the dress) all the while creating this notion of “beauty” that is meant to be challenged, and a depiction of the modern day ideals that are so enforced by social media (hence the glossy, and in my personal opinion “photoshopped” look of the statue). The image becomes even more critical when we look at the statue’s face, or rather, the lack thereof, which provides insightful commentary on the banality of today’s models of beauty, and their lack of identity. The fact that two women are spreading this message only adds to the artwork’s intensity. I guess the only complain I have is the lack of attention that is paid to this exhibit since it is located in a residential area that not many tourists venture into. I would love for it to have more exposure, and I wonder why it isn’t portrayed in a more transited part of Venezia?  

Works Cited: 

  1. Fryar, C. D., Hughes, J. P., Herrick, K. A., & Ahluwalia, N. (2018). Fast food consumption among adults in the United States, 2013–2016
  2. Lilian. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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