Wednesday. September 14.
“Full Day Visit of Florence including Uffizi and Accademia.”
“Full Day Visit of Florence including Uffizi and Accademia.”
The hike to Corniglia had taken its toll on my legs. Maybe I should have taken the bus trip that was offered, but I just didn’t want to miss anything. I would have missed the views on the trail and seeing the eagle.
Patricia will be our first guide of the day. I’m glad to learn the tour will start with a bus ride.
The bus tour takes us through some of the same territory I covered on my first day in Florence. We go around the Roman Gate again and get another look at the Mint Tower. It has been restored. The Florin was the most stable, dependable currency used across Europe for many years. They were minted here. Then we crossed the Arno on the San Niccollo Bridge. On the Left Bank we went through the San Niccollo district.
Patricia gives us some fun facts during the bus ride: The Arno runs 240 kilometers, or 144 miles. Florence is in the middle of the Chianti region of winemaking. It’s the “home of Chianti.” “Vecchio” means old. The Ponte Vecchio is the “old bridge.”
We got another glimpse at “the English cemetery.” Wealthy British moved to Florence for the climate. Many of them were artists and writers. When they passed away their Protestantism caused a problem. They couldn’t be buried in a Catholic cemetery. “The English cemetery” was created. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried here.
The bus stops at Michelangelo Plaza, and I’m glad to get another chance at the view from here. On this stop I’ll get more time for this view of Florence. We’re parked near a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo was “The greatest artist of all time!”
Just like the villages of Cinque Terre, Florence has a color scheme. Painting and roof repairs are closely controlled. You can certainly see why from the piazza.
Patricia points out the sights of Florence. It’s laid out like a map below us. The church of Santa Croce was built from local sandstone. It has many famous tombs. Galileo is buried there among other giants of the Renaissance.
We see the church of St. John the Baptist. It’s a magnificent church that was built to honor the patron saint of Florence.
Patricia tells us a bit more of the history of Florence. It was the capital of the new, unified Italy from 1865 to 1871. The first capital was Turin. The Medici family ruled Florence for years. After them, the Lorraine family ruled.
“Pinocchio was a native of Florence.”
The Galeria de l’Accademia was built to house one piece of art. Michelangelo’s David. The original plan was that the Accademia would be a museum dedicated to the works of Michelangelo. Next door is the Accademia di Belle Arti. It’s an art school that now has no connection to the museum.
The Accademia is on a small street, and there is a long line waiting to get in. We’re led to the front of the line, but then there seems to be some kind of mixup. There’s some kind of problem with the tickets. We’re guided into our own small line.
An old woman works the lines outside. Her clothes are torn. She’s very persistent. I’ll admit I’m cynical. I’ve seen a zillion pan handlers in San Francisco. I’m not the only member of the group that suspects she owns a condo here. After a short, mysterious delay we enter the museum.
For most of its existence The David was displayed outdoors at the Plaza della Signoria. It deserved a prominent place where the people could see it. In 1873 it was moved indoors to get it out of the elements. A replica of the statue stands in the Plaza now.
We go through the Hall of Prisoners. Unfinished statues line the hall. These statues begun by Michelangelo were meant for the tomb of Julius II in Rome. The planned project proved to be just too grand. Money ran out and the statues were left in Florence.
The first galleries in the Accademia are paintings from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries. Most of them are Florentine paintings including works by Uccello, Botticelli and del Sarto. There are many Gothic paintings and Russian iconic paintings. The Russian paintings had been collected by Florence’s nobility. The galleries lead to a larger room.
Here is the centerpiece. It’s very exciting to see this iconic masterpiece. It’s larger than I expected. What makes it so great? There are the eyes. You can see the veins on his arms. It’s amazing how “real” it looks. The human form is captured in marble. It’s even more impressive than the copy at Caesar’s World in Las Vegas!
Patricia pointed out some odd things about The David. It’s not “correctly proportionate.” The hands are too big. There were tricks to evening out the weight of the enormous statue.
Patricia told us a revealing story about Michelangelo. A wealthy patron said that the nose of The David “wasn’t right.” Michelangelo hid some marble dust in his hands and climbed up to the face of his statue. He faked some chisel work on the proboscis. He made sure the patron saw the marble dust falling. Michelangelo climbed back down. The patron was pleased with the changes he had suggested.
We got a little free time and I doubled back to a part of the museum we hadn’t entered. The Museum of Musical Instruments displayed the history of music in Florence. There were Stradivarius violins displayed, and a model of a piano made by Cristofori in the early Eighteenth century. The first piano!
The tour included lunch and today most of the group followed our guide to the restaurant. It was Giannino’s again! Worked for me. I wound up at a table with a middle aged Indian couple from South Africa who were now living in London. After some polite chit chat they asked me what was going on with Trump. How could he even be nominated?
They had a different perspective. Both were furious over the Brexit election. “Idiots!” They noted that the results of the election were a surprise. They feared the Brexit decision would have an impact on their immigration status in the U.K. At the very least it would make travel more difficult. There were many things that anti-Euro voters hadn’t considered.
The second half of the day long tour would start at the Baptistery again. We met our second guide, Raffaelo. The group was larger than the morning tour. Raffaelo was Spanish speaking and explained that he would be giving the tour in two languages. At each stop he would talk in English and then repeat everything in Spanish for the Spanish speaking members of the tour. I suspected someone hadn’t shown up and they were combining two tours. It was a bit unfair to him.
Raffaello looked middle aged. His grizzled beard and mustache may have made him look older. He had a thick accent and it was a little hard to understand him at first. His humor and enthusiasm made up for the slight language barrier.
We start with a bus ride and another look at the town’s walls. Our driver is Giuseppe. The bus will go through parts of Florence that I’ve already ridden through, but I certainly didn’t mind seeing these sights again.
School has reopened today. We’ll see more traffic. Raffaello says that, “November is the best month to come to Florence.” We go through some of the more residential areas of the city. I’m on the top of the bus. There is some odd graffiti: “It’s Your World.” I also spot an establishment with a big sign: Jolly Cafe.
During the bus ride Raffaello talks about Florence. He makes sure that we know that there is no subway in Florence! “Passion Week is a big deal here!” He tells us about the Esplosione del Carro, the Explosion of the Cart. On Easter Sunday an antique cart loaded with fireworks is rolled in front of the Duomo. After mass the fireworks are set off. No one is sure when the tradition started.
The Festival of St. John the Baptist is held in June. During the feast day for the patron saint of Florence the “Calcio Storico” is played. It’s a combination of football and wrestling. It’s a very rough, violent game that had its beginning in Medieval times.
Florence became a center for fashion. The first fashion exhibitions were held by Pucci in 1951. Tourists shop the many boutiques of Florence to bring a little piece of Italy home with them.
We go over the San Niccollo Bridge and cross the Arno River again. We follow the same route up the hills. It’s another pleasant ride on the Via Michelangelo. We’re going back up to Fiesole!
Raffaelo talks about the history of Fiesole as we ride up the hill. It was a center of Etruscan culture. “Fiesole was destroyed four times.” First the Romans and then Florence fought the natives for the hill town.
We make a very short stop in the town, which is surprising. Some on the tour are disappointed that they won’t get a chance to walk around the hilltop town. “Aren’t we stopping?” “Ten minutes!”
Raffaelo points out that many of the trees along the route are cypress trees that came from Persia. There are also Mediterranean Pine. We pass the Galileo home and other villas. Raffaelo points out a villa that was bought by football star Battistucca.
We cross the Arno River again and stop by the Ponte Vecchio. Long ago this was outside Florence’s city limits. This is where butchers and tanners plied their trade. Waste was dumped in the river. It smelled horrible.
Raffaelo tells us this area was a dangerous place. It was then outside of the city limits. Thugs ran rampant and prostitution was winked at. Prostitutes were called “lost servants.”
The Medici family built their new headquarters in the district. They were offended by the horrid smells of the butchers and tanners. The powerful family had them driven off.
It’s a short walk to the Piazza della Signoria. The large square witnessed much of Florence’s history. The Bonfire of the Vanities happened here. Savonarola was burned at the stake in this Piazza.
We stop in front of the Basilica of Santo Croce. Raffaello talks about how St. Francis of Assisi rejected inherited wealth to found the Franciscans. Santo Croce is their church. It’s home to great art and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini. All of them are buried here.
From the front of Santo Croce Raffaelo points out the Peruzzi Palace. The buildings on the square formed a crude amphitheater for large crowds.
The Church Filipina was built on the site of a temple to Isis. This had been an Egyptian neighborhood during the early days of Florence’s history.
The Palazzio Vecchio was built for the ruling Signoria of Florence. Later the Medicis used it. It’s still the town hall of Florence. It’s architecture is more ornate and it’s topped by a bell tower. The Medici Lions stand guard.
Under the Loggia dei Lanzi are a group of statues of classical figures. Raffaelo says that some of the statues are subtle digs at politicians of the time.
A man in a suit approaches our group and says hi to Raffaello. They hug and have a quick, spirited discussion. After he leaves Raffaelo says, “He’s a MONSTER of History!” I should have found out who he was.
This was my seventh organized tour, and I had started to relax. I’d already seen incredible sights. There wasn’t the urgency of my first days in Europe, but I was psyched to go to the Uffizi. There was another delay getting into the museum. There was another problem with our tickets. The line for the general public wasn’t that long. I asked a guard, “What time do you close?” Six. It was almost three. After a short wait we get in.
Raffaello explained that Uffizi means offices in Italian. I listen to his introduction and then excused myself, “I have to get back to the hotel soon.” I got tired of the repeats in Spanish. Maybe I’m too impatient, but I wanted to wander the museum at my pace.
The Uffizi were the offices of the Medici family. They were built for business, but they were also meant to display the art masterpieces the family had acquired. It was calculated to impress visitors before business negotiations.
The Uffizi Gallery has two wings that wrap around a courtyard. The wings and courtyard were an influential architectural marvel when they were built.
We enter through the Uffizi Courtyard. There are statues of the giants of the Renaissance. Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, and more. Machiavelli. Lorenzo de Medici. Giotto. Donatello. Alberti. Petrarch. Boccaccio. Vespucci. Galileo. This is the All Star Team of the Renaissance.
The Uffizi has been recently renovated. The halls on the first floor are in red. We see the Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael. Another Raphael painting is a portrait of Leo X with two Cardinals. It’s a realistic portrait of the Pope who ruled the Church at the beginning of the Reformation.
Both Michelangelo and Raphael were called to Rome to work on the Pope’s projects, especially the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Rooms. We see Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac.
We climb four flights of an ornate stairway. The art is shown in chronological order starting with Medieval paintings from 1200 to 1400. Here is the work of Giotto, the first modern painter. It all started with Giotto. There are so many Madonnas. Are they all religious paintings?
There are large triptychs that have come from altars. The paintings and altarpieces have much gold leaf.
Now we’re getting somewhere. The Battle of San Romano by Uccello is a scene from the war between Florence and Siena. We enter a room full of the works of Fra Filippo Lippi, the teacher of Sandro Boticelli. Another standout is the Labors of Hercules by Antonio del Pollaiolo.
The Halls of the Uffizi have great art along the walls, and it has a unique view of Florence through the large windows of the loggia.
Some of the rooms upstairs are more crowded. Signs point to “The Botticelli Room.” We’re in the area that shows paintings from the Renaissance. About fifty people gather around the Allegory of Spring, and the Birth of Venus, the Nascita di Venere. People are snapping keepsake photos with their smart phones. It is great to see these historic paintings, but I found myself drifting to less crowded parts of the Uffizi.
Slander was painted after Botticelli followed Savonarola. Botticelli became a believer and burned some of his paintings. There was fear that the Renaissance was ending.
The Leonardo da Vinci room has the Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation.
The next room is dedicated to Michelangelo. The Doni Tondo (Holy Family) is the only painting by Michelangelo left in Florence. There is a Roman sculpture in the middle of the room: Sleeping Arianne.
There was a room of more recent, Northern Renaissance paintings. It was a bit surprising to see the stern portraits here in warm, sunny Italy. There were two by Lucas Cranach: Adam and Eve and Martin Luther.
The hallway on the fourth floor has a great view of the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. On this floor we find paintings from the High Renaissance. 1500-1550. Many of them are familiar, iconic paintings: Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino.
Like the Louvre and other “big” museums” there is a bit of sensory overload. The Uffizi has a terrace cafe with a great view of the medieval buildings of Florence, especially the nearby Palazzo Vecchio. I took a short break and then wandered back down the stairs. The Uffizi is called one of the greatest museums in the world. The building itself is a historic work of art. It’s a great setting for these masterpieces.
Thursday, September 15.
I was patting myself on the back. Things had gone smoothly, especially the tours. Today would be the Best of Tuscany Tour. I showed up at what I thought was the meeting place, the same bus stop where the tour had started yesterday. It was very close to my hotel and convenient. I checked in at the door of the bus. The guides checking people in looked at their clipboards and reacted immediately, “It’s another company!” They were sympathetic and pointed me to the right bus stop.
I knew exactly where the other company’s busses were. I had seen their stop at the train station. I hustled over and just made it. Later I realized what a shame it would have been to miss this tour!
Our guide today is Olivia. She’s a friendly, attractive young woman. She has a thick accent, but it’s not Italian. She explains that she is from Hungary. Many of the tour guides have the same story. They were successful and visited Europe. They fell in love with a city. They stayed in that city and became tour guides.
Our bus driver is Marco. We’re reminded by Olivia of how important a bus driver can be. He’ll earn his tip money today. We start by heading south. We’ll ride the bus for one and a half hours. That was sounding good to me.
It’s gray and overcast. Rain is expected later.
We swing around some of Florence and the Ponte Vecchio area. There are some large swans and ducks on the banks of the Arno. Florence has fourteen gates. We go through the San Frediano District and then the Roman Gate.
Olivia asks us, “Do you like bruschetta? Pecorino cheese?” We’re headed to where they were invented! The local white wine here is Vernacchio, and if you prefer red, we’ll be going through the part of Italy were Chianti originated. There is also Santo, a dessert wine.
A short distance outside of Florence we can see the “American Cemetery.” Forty four hundred American casualties of World War II are buried here. The cemetery is official United States soil. There are hills of white crosses. People still remember and appreciate their sacrifice.
Our first stop is Siena. The bus drops us off in a large public park. Tour busses are not allowed in the city. Only residents and cabs can drive in the city. It’s a short walk to Siena. We pass an amusement park for children. There’s a small roller coaster and other rides. Florence has one too. Little Kiddy-lands.
We pass a stone building. In the stone above a door is chiseled: “Casa di Mutilato.” What the heck is that? I never get to ask. We go through some modern city streets, and stop near the start of a hill. Olivia points out a big church on the hill across from us. It’s in the distance, but we can see St. Catherine of Siena church. It’s officially the Basilica San Domenico, but the locals call it the Basilica Cateriniana. Unfortunately we won’t be visiting it, but we will get another look at it later in the tour.
Siena was a hugely successful city. It was well situated for trade and visiting pilgrims. At one time it had a population of fifty thousand. Most of the architecture is Gothic.
We stop in the Piazza Salimbeni. Olivia introduces us to Alice who will be our guide in Siena. She was born in Siena and still lives here. She tells us about the history of Siena. Siena qualifies as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The legend is that the nephews of Romulus and Remus had to flee Rome. They were the founders of Siena. The story sounds suspiciously like the Roman legend. The nephews were saved and suckled by a she-wolf. One brother killed the other, just like in the story of Romulus and Remus.
Siena was a key stopping point on the Via Francigena. This was the main road between Rome, London and Spain. Siena was a rest stop for traders, merchants, pilgrims and crusaders.
Somewhere along the line they started keeping rich travelers valuables for safe keeping. Eventually they started lending money. At the time usury was a sin, but Siena had some kind of a loophole because they were a “secular city.”
There is a statue of Salusto Bandini, the founder of Siena. The buildings in the square were built in the Fourteenth century, but they were renovated about a hundred years ago. Behind the statue is the Palazzo Salimbeni. It’s the home to the Banca Monte dei Paschi, “The oldest bank in the world.”
To the left is the Banchi di Sopra. It’s not the original building from medieval times. Banchi di Sopra was tarnished a bit by the banking melt down, “That you Americans know about.”
The Thirteenth century was the Golden Era for Siena, but its success drew the interest of its powerful neighbor, Florence. Wars were fought. The rivalry between Florence and Siena was one of the most intense among the city states. Eventually Florence won. Alice mentions that some of the intensity from the rivalry remains.
After Florence won the Salimbeni fortress was confiscated. “The Salimbeni family was hunted from Siena.” The Palazzo was sold to the Monte dei Paschi in 1866. It was renovated then.
Alice points out small plaques that appear on buildings at every corner. There is an animal on each one. There are porcupines, wolves, eagles, geese, even a tortoise. Each plaque represents a contrada. Each contrada is a neighborhood in Florence. There are seventeen contrade. Once there were forty-seven of them! Each contrada has a mascot animal. One mascot is a group of trees. It represents the Forest contrada.
You can always tell what contrada you’re in by the plaques. There is much competition among the contrade. It reaches a peak with the Pallio horse race. There are other friendly competitions, but the contrada that wins the race has “bragging rights” for the year.
You’re always a member of the contrada that you were born in, even if you move to another contrada. If you move to another city or country, you’re still a member of the contrada that you were born in. Alice’s children were born in another contrada. They are members of that contrada for life. “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.” Or when you’re a porcupine, you’re a porcupine all the way! Alice points out the plaque on the next corner. She despises the contrada of the Wolf. They won last year’s Palio.
The Palazzo Tolomei is a Gothic family palace. The Tolomei family were a powerful, aristocratic family. The Palazzo was almost destroyed by Ghibelline mobs in 1267.
We’re on our way to the town square. It’s still early, but a few “living statues” are already on the street. They dress in total medieval costume. One of them is already posing. He stands motionless. There will be photo opportunities and tips later.
We walk to the main square, the Piazza del Campo, “The finest square in Italy.” It was mentioned by Dante in the Divine Comedy. There is a slight tilt to the square. The ground of the square is stone, but it’s oddly inviting. People are already spreading out blankets to sit in the square.
The Piazza del Campo is famed for the horse race, the Palio. It’s the highlight of the year in Siena. Alice wants us to imagine the square full of people. The Palio starts with a ceremony in the cathedral and a parade. The race is part of a religious event. The rivalry between the contrade is at its most intense for the Palio.
The Palio is held twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. Twenty thousand will watch the race. There are bleachers set up. Seats in the bleachers cost four hundred Euro. The best seats are in the buildings around the square. A balcony seat could cost one thousand Euro.
The square will be packed with people. Standing for all the ceremonies and the race can be an ordeal. It’s usually very hot and there are no bathrooms. Alice admits she’s never seen a Palio in person. “The best spot is on your couch in front of the television.”
I couldn’t resist asking Alice about gambling. It is a horse race. She said that the Palio was part of a religious ceremony, so gambling was discouraged. When bets are made, “They are made discretely.” The real reward is defeating the other contrade.
Across the square is the Palazzo Pubblico with its Torre del Mangia, the “Tower of the Eater.” It’s long and thin. When it was built it was one of the tallest towers in Italy. It’s still used as the town hall of Siena.
We get away from the square and go up one of the smaller streets. The streets are thin and wind up the hill. They are certainly not intended for cars.
We wouldn’t have time to tour the Basilica San Domenico, but we would get inside the Duomo di Siena, the Siena Cathedral. It’s also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. There’s been a church here since the 800s, but the site’s early history is murky at best. It was the site of a pagan temple to Minerva. The citizens of Siena gave thanks for their financial success by building this Gothic Cathedral.
The white marble of the facade is even whiter and brighter than the Duomo in Florence. There is green, black and red marble on the facade. It’s very colorful, especially for a place of worship. The Cathedral was built in the Thirteenth Century and holds great art masterpieces. Contributors include Bernini, Pisano, Pinturicchio and a young Michelangelo. It’s believed Raphael worked on some of the frescoes while he was still a student.
The interior is huge and striking. Large columns reach to the ceiling. They have a black and white marble stripe pattern. It looked more like the inside of a mosque. There are large stained glass windows. The amazing thing is that the whole Cathedral is made of marble. I didn’t think there was this much marble in the whole world!
Busts of 172 popes ring the interior. Most of the statues in and on the Cathedral are copies. The originals are stored in a nearby museum. There is a Gothic pulpit built by Pisano. The dome has a golden sun at its center.
Some of the best artwork are painted panels on the inlaid marble mosaic floor. The painted panels were transferred to the floor by a technique called graffito. Olivia guides us to the area. She tells us that we’re very lucky to see them. The panels on the floor are covered up for much of the year. Some of the originals have been moved to the nearby museum.
The first panel has the figure of Hermes Trismegistus. Then there are ten Sibyls, representing areas of the then known world. We see the symbol of Siena, the She-Wolf Suckling the Twins. The Wheel of Fortune, the Ruotta della Fortuna, has four Classical authors with quotes on the fickle nature of fate.
The Allegory of the Mount of Wisdom is another Pinturicchio work. The way to wisdom can be a rocky road. Earthly wealth must be discarded to reach the peaks of wisdom. Socrates is pictured.
The ceiling is covered with painted panels. Closer to the altar the mosaics all have an Old Testament theme. There is the gruesome Slaughter of the Innocents, and scenes from the lives of Moses and Elijah.
The Cathedral is huge, but Siena was so successful that there were plans to expand it. It would have been bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome! Work was begun, but Bubonic plague and political misfortune put a stop to the building. The unfinished facade still stands.
The Piccolomini altar has four sculptures done by a young Michelangelo in the early Sixteenth century. Next to the altar is the entrance to the Piccolomini Library. A line of tourists walk through a large room covered in frescoes. The walls display illuminated choir books.
The frescoes by Pinturicchio show scenes from the life of Enea Silvio Piccolomini. The native of Siena became Pope Pius II. We see him leaving Siena as a young man. He’s bound for adventure and achievement. Another fresco celebrates his rise from bishop to cardinal.
We walk around the outskirts of Siena. In the distance we could see the Gothic Basilica of San Domenico. We stop for another look. Building began in 1226. The Basilica holds the relics of the saint, including her head and thumb. It was damaged by fire and “military occupation.” It was enlarged over the years. St. Catherine of Siena is not only the patron saint of Italy, she’s also a patron saint of Europe. I had to think of the young women from the West Side in Chicago, including my sister, who went to St. Catherine of Siena High School.
Alice said that there were inconveniences to living in such an old city. Think of it. The streets and buildings were designed for life in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth century. Seven hundred years ago. It was hard to get anything in or out of the city. We stop at the Forest Apartments. If you live in an apartment on the hill, you have to make sure you have your supplies for the night. There were problems with putting electricity and other modern conveniences in. There are little parks to hang out at. People in the neighborhood develop a close community.
We enter a stone building that is a stable. The horse that will represent this contrada is kept here. The horse is closely guarded before the race. In the long history of the race there have been cases of horses being slipped sleeping pills. There has to be someone guarding the horse at all times!
We get back on the bus and we’re shown a short film on the Palio. We get a better idea of the excitement and pageantry around the wild horse race. The course is marked with stone pillars and concrete dividers. They look unforgiving. Sometimes when the horses round the turn they crash into the pillars. It looks chaotic. The riders are riding bareback. They do get thrown off. There have been riderless horses who have won the race!
The bus rides between stops certainly aren’t boring. We get great views of the Tuscan hill country. Most of my adventure so far has been pretty urban. The bus winds its way around Tuscan hills. Is this the “real” Italy? We will have a “special treat” before lunch.
The bus pulls into a farm. There is a light rain falling. Martha will take us on a short tour. We are led into a large industrial barn. Most of it looks like aluminum. Inside are white cows, the famous Chianina. They’re specially fed and treated. They are one of the oldest breeds of cattle in the world. Their meat is prized, the bistecca fiorentina.
We go across a dirt road that’s starting to get muddy. We enter a winery for a short tour. They produce and bottle Vernacchia, a white wine. There is a short ride to the Vecchio Maneggio Agriturisma. It’s a charming bed and breakfast with a large farmhouse for meals.
We have lunch and it’s fantastic. You can’t get any fresher than this. Italian women push food on us. Great bread. We have some local wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
One of our group is caught making a big mistake. The women kept bringing plates and asking us if we wanted more. A woman said no, and then she got a second helping from the next woman circulating the room. The first woman caught her immediately and scolded her for hesitating. “Oh, NOW you want more?!”
The Agriturisma is up in the hills. The sky clears up and we get some sun. There’s a swimming pool with a great view of the Tuscan countryside. It’s beyond idyllic. This area was once the floor of the Adriatic Sea. There are fossils in the white rocks along the paths.
It’s another one of those places that is hard to leave, but we get back on the bus. We can see the towers of San Gimignano in the distance. The town is another time capsule. Rich families in the Tuscan City states built stone towers for protection. When cities were defeated the victors usually insisted they be taken down. For some reason this didn’t happen at San Gimignano. At one time there were one hundred and forty towers. Seventy two of them are still standing. San Gimignano is up on a hill. There is only one road, so there’s only one entrance and exit to guard.
San Gimignano and Tuscany are famous for producing saffron. It may be the most valuable of spices. In the Nineteenth century French saffron flooded the market, but local saffron is being produced again.
San Gimignano is another medieval town which means: no cars! Our bus is directed to a busy parking lot. We walk up to the town. Storm clouds have been gathering. The sky is dark and it starts raining. We’ll have an hour to wander the town on our own. Everything is stone. The whole town is a huge castle rising out of the hillside.
There are many tourist shops and amenities. San Gimignano claims to have the best gelatto in Italy, and so, therefore, “The best ice cream in the world.” It is award winning. Olivia warns us not to be fooled. The shop on the left of the square has the “champion” ice cream of the world. The shop on the right has award winning gelatto, but it’s not the best! You can tell because the shop on the left always has a long line.
I passed the Museo de Torture. It’s an obvious tourist trap, but I have to admit I’m tempted. San Gimignano is especially blessed to have two torture museums!
Olivia had mentioned La Rocca, a park with a sweeping view. I decided to head for that. As I go up the hill there are less tourist shops.
I got the sensation that it wasn’t real, that the stone streets and walls were made of plastic. If you just scratched the surface it would turn out to be a huge Disneyland illusion. I had a billion dollar idea. Just replicate the whole town in plastic! Somewhere in the United States. It would look great in the Central Valley.
But no, this is real. This is stone. Another piece of reality was sinking in. It’s starting to rain harder. I make it to La Rocca and get to enjoy the view before it starts pouring.
I haven’t seen rain like this for years in California. I realize there’s no where to get out of the rain. The doorways are small. There are no awnings. Maybe people in medieval times had enough sense to stay indoors when it’s raining like this. I finally found an overhang where about ten tourists were huddled. I manage to keep my wallet dry, but I get soaked enough that I have to take off my tee shirt off and ring it out.
Back at the parking lot tour groups are trying to find their guides and busses. It takes a while to find my group. Everyone has a tale. We’re very glad to see our bus pull up with Marco behind the wheel. Olivia was right. A good bus driver is very valuable.
Leaving San Gimignano we go through the Turin area. The weather is clearing and we can see the storm hitting hillsides in the distance. Much of this area is still wild and forested. This is what most of Tuscany was like before civilization. It’s wet and a great place for mushrooms and truffles. This is the home of the best Porcini mushrooms. The area is famous for its sunflowers.
The next stop is Pisa. Pisa was another crucial stopping point for merchants, pilgrims and Crusaders. It’s near where the Arno enters the Tyrrhenian Sea. Pisa was two and a half miles from the coast, but easy navigation on the Arno made it an important port city for the Romans.
“Pisa suffered during World War II.” The strategic port that was bombed for forty five days. Most of the bombing came late in the war.
We get off the bus and walk a short distance to the Piazza dei Miracoli, “The Field of Miracles.” Officially it’s called the Piazza del Duomo. Most of the architecture on the Piazza is Romanesque. Pisan marble was used. The Field of Miracles is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The sun is out and shining on the marble buildings. It’s extra fresh after the rain. There is a long, open lawn with open green space between the four buildings. To the right is the rest of the city. We have an hour to wander. Then we will meet again near the Leaning Tower. It has to be the easiest meeting point to remember and find.
Building on the Pisa Cathedral began in 1063, almost a thousand years ago. It’s still hard to wrap my brain around that number. A thousand years. The Cathedral may be the best example of Pisan Romanesque architecture. It’s large, white and marble. Pisa was fantastically successful in trade and war. The Cathedral was built with some of the spoils of war. It was seriously damaged by a fire in the 1500s and renovated.
Inside is another treasure trove of art, the Quadroni. The cathedral was badly damaged by fire in 1595. Wealthy patrons made sure the top artists of the Renaissance contributed to the renovation.
Most of the cathedral is built from layered white and black marble. It looks Byzantine. Two large columns were brought here from a mosque in Palermo.
The cathedral is also slowly sinking in the damp, marshy ground of the Field of Miracles.
Next door is the Pisa Baptistery. Work on it began in 1152 and it wasn’t completed for over two hundred years. The Baptistery is smaller than the other buildings on the Field of Miracles, but the interior seems large. It’s not as ornate inside. There is a large baptismal font in the center and a pulpit. The pulpit was built by Nicola Pisano, the father of Giovanni, who built the pulpit in the Duomo. When the cathedral was renovated the Pisano pulpit was taken apart. It wasn’t reassembled until 1926!
The Baptistery has superb acoustics. The Baptistery visibly leans. It’s not as dramatic as seeing a tower lean, but it is leaning.
The nearby Campo Santo cemetery has “sacred soil” brought from Golgotha!
The most recognizable sight on the Field of Miracles is The Leaning Tower, the Campanile. Every young science student has heard the story about Galileo’s gravity experiment that was done here. Building on the tower started in the Twelfth Century. It took about two hundred years to complete. It’s nearly two hundred feet tall and fifty five feet wide. The lean was noticed during construction. It recently had a renovation that took ten years. The tower still leans, but it has been stabilized.
I had seen another leaning tower years ago. The tower in Siena was definitely older and grander than the Leaning Tower YMCA in Park Ridge, Illinois. It’s a strange sight in the suburbs of Chicago.
Pisa is a college town. There has been a law university in Pisa since the Eleventh century. It became the University of Pisa, which has included Galileo among its faculty. There are other major universities here. Just like a college town there was graffiti: NO NATO!
I wander a bit but don’t go too far from the Field of Miracles. I walk around The Knight’s Square, the Piazza dei Cavalieri. It was the political center of medieval Pisa. Later it was the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. Now it is a center of education.
People are spread out in the open spaces of the Field of Miracles. There are tourists here, but it isn’t as cramped or crowded as at other “must” sites. The Leaning Tower is ringed with people taking the photo shot of someone holding up the tottering tower. How many photos with this pose have been taken over the years? There must be a million of them out there.
The group gets together back at the Leaning Tower. We get a ride on a long tram vehicle like the ones they use at zoos in the U.S. The tram goes through some of the campus of the University of Pisa. It’s a college town atmosphere. Students are out in front of the dorms. They are barbecuing and playing frisbee. Many are just hanging out and reading. One guy sits on a picnic table strumming a guitar. A ping pong table is set up in front of a dormitory.
The tram enters an area with larger, more modern buildings. We can hear them before we see them. There’s a loud demonstration going on. People yell into megaphones. Some wave signs. Demonstrations are a frequent occurrence. “We don’t know what it is about.”
We pass the Santa Maria della Spina. It’s home for a piece of the crown of thorns from Christ’s Passion.
Pisa was six miles from the coast, but it was still a sea power. The city was connected to the sea by a tributary of the Arno, the Auser. Pisa was well known for ship building. Galleys were built here that were a hundred and fifty feet long. Merchants and later Crusaders hired Pisan boats.
There was a turn of fortune after the Pisan fleet was defeated by Genoa. The port was silted up by the victors and the Auser dried up. This was a disaster at the time, but like other unfortunate Tuscan towns it helped preserve the medieval architecture of the city.
There’s a lot more to Pisa than the Leaning Tower. I’m very glad I didn’t miss the bus for this tour!
My last night in Florence. It was a warm night. Almost perfect. I wandered back to the Duomo Piazza. My siblings had given me some funny money and encouraged me to splurge on my trip. I’d heard that the steak in Florence was not to be missed. The Bistecca alla Florentine came from the Chianina breed of cows I had seen in Tuscany. I found a restaurant with tables facing the Duomo. Buca San Giovanni. I settled in and ordered a “Beef Filet with Foie de Gras, Truffle and Madeira sauce.”
The marble of the Duomo and the Baptistery provided a great view. The steak was great. I went in to use the bathroom before continuing my travels. The restaurant had been the sacristy of the Baptistery. It was early and I was able to check out the photos of celebrities who had dined there. I was jolted to find a small photo of John F. Kennedy sitting in one of the booths of Buca San Giovanni! This must be the place!
It was a great night to visit the Piazza Santa Maria Novella again. A carnival was being set up. Booths were being put up in the square. They would be little plywood castles. It was too bad I’d miss the festival, but it was off to Venice.