Day 11: Exploring Riva San Vitale & Water Problem Discussion (6/13/2017)

By Hangyu Shi (Arthur)

We got up very early in the morning in Venice, having to say goodbye to our dear Todd and his cute son. We’ll miss them. To get to our next destination, Riva San Vitale, we had to spend the whole morning catching several boats and trains in a hurry on our way to Milano to change trains for Riva. The train passed by Vicenza and many lovely villages. Finally, we arrive in Riva San Vitale shortly after noon. As soon as we entered Switzerland, the geographical landscape changed. Continuous high mountains appeared in the background, which was incredibly sublime. Riva San Vitale is a small municipality built at the foot of mountains with only several thousand residents. It has a fantastic natural landscape with the combination of mountains, lake, and vegetation. The small lake is a glacial lake generated after the last Ice Age, which doesn’t freeze in winter. It’s also a good place for swimming and jogging.



Riva San Vitale, Switzerland


Our dorm was in the Villa Maderni, which is owned by Virginia Tech as its Steger Center for International Scholarship. Actually, the villa is about 250 years old. It is an interesting historical house built in the 18th century with additions in the 20th century. The modern portion of the house was added by VT in 2014, which adopted glass as the main building material; the stages of the Villa stood together peacefully, reflecting the change of time.

After checking in, we had a walking tour in the village of Riva San Vitale. We were shown the typical house here with Italian style loggia and façade facing south in order to regulate the temperature and save energy. There was also a famous Baptistery near the villa, which is not only the oldest church here but also the most ancient stonework Christian monument in Switzerland. It was also said to be the coolest place in Riva San Vitale. Another story shared was that a mummy who used to be a local hermit and died in 1217 is displayed in the local parish church. This year is the 800 anniversary of his death and townspeople will hold a big celebration to commemorate him.

After dinner, it was time for academic discussion. We each talked about water problems in our home communities. It was a really good chance to learn from each other. On one hand, the water problems in our home communities are incredibly diverse, covering water scarcity, water infrastructure, climate change, point runoff, water quality, built environment and so on. On the other hand, we could always find communities similar to ours. This was a good start, as next we would visit Laghetto di Muzzano as well as Lugano and begin to work on the group assignment.

Last but not least, during the day, I also found that many of us are talented in playing musical instruments such as guitar and piano after we noticed that instruments were available in the Villa. What’s more, I found the music score for Debussy’s Clair De Lune, which was one of my favorite piano compositions. Before going to bed, I played its first two pages, for the next pages were too hard for me. But anyway, it was a good way to end this fantastic day.



The Sustainable Europe band?


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Day 10: The Venice Lagoon (6/12/2017)

By Lily Miller

Today, the focus of our studies was the water systems of Venice, Italy. We started the day at Venice International University where Francesca Zennaro talked to us about both the natural and human history of the Venice lagoon. She discussed the ecological diversity of the lagoon. It is a relatively new geological feature, formed by an ice age about 6,000 years ago. The lagoon features freshwater marshes inland, salt marshes in the north, and a full ecological spectrum on the barrier islands. She explained that Venice itself began as an archipelago of islands that was gradually filled in to the point where only canals remained separating land masses. In order to build upon the muddy ground, Venetians developed an ingenious engineering system of using long wooden beams as foundations. These beams reach seven meters down to the hard ‘caranto’ layer.

Francesca told us that over time, as engineering systems advanced, it was possible for the Venetians to change the landscape of the lagoon even further. We learned that the natural ecological progression for a lagoon is for it to fill with sediment. However, because the Venetians wanted a protected port, they redirected rivers to avoid sediment deposits. Unfortunately, over time this led to an overcorrection, and today the Venice Lagoon is moving towards becoming an all-marine ecosystem. This, combined with sea level rise, groundwater removal, and the decomposition of organic material in the mud, is leading to the sinking of Venice. This is considered by many to be the primary issue facing Venice today.

One of the solutions to the sinking of Venice is the MOSE system, which we got to tour in the afternoon in-person. We went on a boat tour to see one of the inlets where the MOSE system is being implemented. Although the majority of the system is underwater, we did get to see some of the infrastructure used for the construction and operation of the structures. Hollow iron boxes form a barrier that can be emptied of water and filled with air to lift off the sea floor and seal the lagoon off from rising waters in the Adriatic during very high tides that threaten Venice.



MOSE project infrastructure

After the tour of the MOSE system, we explored an island that was once used as a quarantine site. The concept and word quarantine come from the Venetian dialect, as they were pioneers in using this practice during the black plague. We also used this stop to get a closer look at the ecological systems of the salt marsh.




Salt marsh in the Venice Lagoon




Francesca Zennaro showing us features of the salt marshes


We also made a brief stop at Burano, a colorful fishermen’s village on another lagoon island famous for lace making and its bakeries. On our ride home, we passed Murano, an island known worldwide for its glassmaking. We also passed the arsenal, which was the heart of Shipbuilding in Venice, and is still operational today.



Colorful homes on the island of Burano in the Venice Lagoon




MOSE project infrastructure in the Arsenale


In the evening for our final night in Venice, we had a group dinner of Italian tapas called “cicchetti”. The meal included a lot of the foods Venice is famous for, including seafood lasagna, shrimp spaghetti, and calamari. After dinner, Todd showed us some of his favorite “hidden gems” of Venice, including Marco Polo’s house. We talked about the urban fabric of the city, and how quickly with just a few turns one can move from very public to very private spaces. We finished the evening with gelato and a visit to St. Mark’s Square, which was beautiful when lit up at night. The day was altogether adventurous, educational, and a great introduction to our upcoming water module.



Enjoying a typical Venetian dinner at All’Arco


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Day 9: Exploring Venice after a night on the train (6/11/2017)

By Kendra Chow

Last night we were excited to board a night train and this morning we were very eager to get off of it. Startled by police banging at 4 AM requesting passports, I was initially confused as to why they did not wait long enough for us to produce our passports for them. After our discussions about the current refugee crisis, it was clear that the reason the police left after flashing lights into each bunk was to look for migrants. Between of the police wake up call and difficulty sleeping, I think we were all ready to move on. Unfortunately, some people in the group did not receive a breakfast because supplies had run out; yet others had been given more than they needed. Ironically, the uneaten food was thrown away by an employee while others were left hungry, which was quite relevant to Courtney’s “Food Waste” policy paper.


Our ‘couchette’ on the train

Venice is located on the eastern coast of northern Italy and unlike our recent bus, subway and tram experiences in Ostrava and Budapest, Venetians travel by canals rather than roads. In fact, I only saw a few cars near the train station when we arrived. After obtaining tickets, we took a water taxi to San Zaccaria. On the way we noticed an art installation of white hands reaching up to touch the side of the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel. The piece is titled “Titled Support” and is by Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn is a part of Venice Biennale 2017. It is intended to be a visual statement of how climate change and rising sea levels are impacting the sinking city. I personally love the installation and thought it was appropriate timing to see it on display now after our visit to the Regional Environmental Center in Hungary where we discussed changes in flooding due to climate change.


Lorenzo Quinn’s “Titled Support” speaks to the challenges posed by climate change

Next, we took a boat to Isola San Servolo, an island ten minutes away. The island once housed a convent and a psychiatric hospital, but today it is the home of Venice International University, a conference and cultural center, and a museum about San Servolo’s past.


San Servolo Island, home of Venice International University

After settling in our rooms, we had a free afternoon to explore Venice. Some of the people in the program spent their day exploring the city through gondolas, visiting the Dodges Palace, and one even got to visit family from a neighboring town. My roommate, Kendra H., and I decided to visit San Marco Square, the Rialto bridge, and the Museo di Storia Naturale. However, we were a little disappointed and disturbed to realize the museum was almost entirely rooms of taxidermy. We much preferred all of the miniature Murano glass animals we passed in shops along the way.

We were amazed to move from tourist packed squares and streets into alleys that lead to completely empty courtyards. In the previous cobblestone covered cities and towns we’ve visited I’ve thought to myself how these older places must be very difficult for those traveling with crutches or wheelchairs. Moving from bridge to bridge in Venice seemed to be even less considerate of disabled people as I only noticed one ramp at a much steeper slope than the building code standards would require in the United States. This trend is a result of the urban form; the many islands and canals that make up Venice limit mobility almost exclusively to walking over canals on bridges or by boat.

Feeling tired of wandering after six miles of scenic Venetian streets, Kendra and I finished our evening with a pasta dinner at Stephano’s. When we arrived at the restaurant we were handed “to-go” menus and had to request to sit down to order and eat dinner. We were informed that the menu prices would increase if we decided to stay, showing that it is much more common in Venice for people to order foods and drinks to go than it is in the United States. We then returned to the San Zaccaria water bus stop satisfied with postcards and of course gelato in hand ready to return to San Servolo for the night.


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Day 8: Exploring Vienna (6/10/2017)

By Calvin Tran

We took a train from Budapest to Vienna today. When we got to Vienna, We dropped off our luggage and bags into lockers in the Vienna train station, and then departed on our separate ways for the afternoon. As we walked out of the station, there was a stark contrast between the “new town” and “old town”. One side was filled with modern architecture, reminiscent of New York City, with giant cranes looming over the landscape. The other was the more classical side, with genuine Viennese decor surrounding the area.

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Construction around the new, very modern, main train station in Vienna

All throughout the city, there were public bikes that could be rented, with designated bike lanes too. Vienna seems to have very good bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

The first thing we passed by was the Belvedere Palace. Though we didn’t pay to go inside it, we observed the front and back. It was a very royal setting which reminded us of Versailles.


Kate walking through the gardens of the Belvedere Palace

After lunch at La Moritz Huth, we took a short walk to one of the local parks. It was very quiet, and surprisingly there were not many tourists out and about. People were laying out on the grass, feeding the ducks and fish in the man-made pond, and there was a local accordion player too. There were also public water fountains, which looked very ornate and provided cold drinking water. The urban green space seemed to be a great addition for both locals and tourists to unwind.

Our group decided to split after that to explore more of Vienna. Some of us paid a visit to the Leopold Museum. We spent the rest of our time learning about the art and history of Vienna in the museum. Afterward, we met back with everyone at a local restaurant for dinner, where I enjoyed a Viennese schnitzel. When dinner concluded, we headed back to the train station, grabbed our luggage, and boarded the overnight train to Venice. Though we were only in Vienna for less than a full day, it was incredible to be able to experience the city and its rich history, even if for just a moment.

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Day 7: Exploring Budapest (6/9/2017)

By Colleen Sloan

Today was a free day in Budapest, although, most of us ended up staying together anyway for the majority of the day. The day was comprised of a walking tour, lunch on our own, a trip to the famous Budapest baths, and then dinner and the remainder of our night on our own.

As mentioned, we started our day with a walking tour led by Todd, which included seeing the Dohány Street Synagogue, near our hotel. This included a public art space in the back of the synagogue of a tree with Hebrew inscriptions and every leaf represented a Hungarian Jewish life that was lost in the Holocaust. We also saw the national museum and a large library as well as learning about other buildings along the way. We took a small break to check out the large market near the edge of the Danube which had everything ranging from food to small Hungarian dolls. The market allows for good accessibility to food for all people by foot in order to increase equality, an aspect of sustainability. We ended the pre-lunch walking tour with a trip to the Parliament where Todd told us the history of the design Competition of this building and the fighting that took place in this square in 1956.


Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, the 3rd largest synagogue in the world


The Hungarian Parliament

After breaking off for lunch, we met back up in Deak Ter (square) and continued our walking tour, stopping at the Octagon Square and opera house before reaching the baths. One sustainable aspect of our walking tours, in general, was the large pedestrian ways that are protected from cars. Many busy streets have underground crossings, which allow people to cross without entering vehicle traffic. The easily accessible tram and metro lines are also excellent in Budapest.


Budapest streetscape

The baths were a great experience and we all were ready for a swim, or even a dip in the ice bath, after such a long walk. The large outdoor baths tend to be the main attraction with one of them including a small whirl type pool that we had a blast swimming in. The history and architecture, with its Roman-style statues and bright yellow exterior, makes this place a must see attraction in Budapest. The grounds of the baths themselves also include a small pond and a lot of green space which adds to the aesthetic and mitigates against the urban heat island effect in a dense urban area.


The Széchenyi Thermal Baths in Budapest

All in all, it was a jam-packed day of exploring the Budapest urban form and a great way to conclude our travels in this city. The main takeaway from this day is the level of walkability, public transportation and public plazas that it offers to make getting from site to site sustainable and truly a city for people rather than cars.

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Day 6: Regional Environmental Center + refugee crisis (6/8/2017)

By Kristen Hornbaker

Breakfast was a quick grab and go as we left our apartments to catch a suburban train. I still managed to buy these adorable mini donuts that were needed to start my long day.
Our first full day in Budapest was very interesting.

We started the day at the Regional Environmental Center (REC). Professor Schenk used to work at the REC when he lived in Hungary. The first speaker was Gabor Heves. He discussed smart cities (quality living environments, good governance, people, energy, mobility, and environment), Heves explained the importance of changing the transportation systems to better the economy and environment. He provided many case examples, including evidence that adding lanes to roads doesn’t help traffic and that instead, we should close off main streets to only pedestrians and public transit. Although a lot of planning is involved, the flow of traffic will run more smoothly, and walking will be promoted. Hungary has a long term plan to make their transportation more sustainable. One of the goals is to increase walking from 2% to 10%.

Heves also showed us the REC’s showcase state-of-the-art conference center, which is energy neutral and includes a lot of other sustainability features.


On the roof of the REC’s sustainable conference center, below the solar panels, with Gabor Heves

The second speaker at the REC, Jovanka Ignjatovic, spoke about water policy. I found it very interesting that the REC works on difficult issues not only in their own region, but also in areas with acute water challenges like Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. Tensions are high in areas like the border regions of Jordan, so getting to the water sources to test is difficult.

We then had lunch in this cute little village. Our meals were really filling but delicious. Although the apple strudel in Ostrava is still my favorite. After we finished our meals we got to look around the market and shop at little boutiques.


Lunch in the beautiful town of Szentendre, Hungary

Our afternoon lecture was the most interesting to me. Professor Frank Zsigo spoke to us about the political problems Hungary is facing, specifically around the refugee crisis. I’m a political science major, so this topic was an example of problems I would love to work with and fix after I graduate. The Hungarian government is only allowing five refugees in a day, which is ridiculous given how many migrants are seeking refuge. It is even more so since Hungary has many jobs to fill because so many Hungarians work elsewhere. This lecture was frustrating because there is just no simple answer that everyone agrees with. Right now the social spectrum of Hungary is not sustainable, and the sad part is I think Hungary is moving in the wrong direction.


Discussing the refugee chrisis and other issues with Frank Zsigo

Dinner was at a restaurant named Stex, and I loved that we got to sit outside where we could enjoy the view of the city. The food in Europe is amazing and always seems so fresh.

The night ended with a celebration for the other Kristen’s birthday! It was very neat to see how a once abandoned complex is now a brightly lit place to eat, shop, and go out. A bunch of us enjoyed the night life in Budapest!

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Day 5: On the road… (6/7/2017)

By Joshua Gritz

Today was our last day in Ostrava, and first in Budapest.

In the morning at our hotel, we presented papers that we wrote before the trip comparing European and American sustainability policies at different levels of government. Our papers looked at the environmental, social, and economic tenets of sustainability, with topics ranging from GMOs to green space to immigration. It was interesting being able to not only hear about people’s research but to engage in conversation after each presentation.

We then departed from Ostrava and traveled by train to Budapest. Europe has an incredible inter-country transit system that makes it very easy to get from place to place, especially among the big cities.

Because most of the day took place on the long train ride to Budapest, I decided to create a vlog to document the experience of a train ride and talk to some of my peers. I love making videos and I thought it would be a unique way to share my thoughts on the day. Enjoy!

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Please view the vlog posting on YouTube


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