Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Good-Bye Milan

Well two months have passed and it's time to say good-bye to Milan.

Good-Bye to:

my favorite deli

the beautiful black chow who sleeps at the entrance to the flower shop

high-fashion shops just a short walk away

dinner picnics

walking for nearly a hour and spending $20 to do two loads of laundry

remnants of the old city wall

a church on almost every block

old city gates


shopping at our local store

Sforsa Castle

museums - lots of museums

Mothers and daughters strolling through town arm in arm

and all of those wonderful sculptural features on the buildings!

We'll miss you, we love you!

Monday, October 29, 2012



We took the train to Florence, rented a car there, and prepared to drive to Siena.   I was delighted to see that we were given an adorable little black Fiat at the rental agency.  We had our detailed National Geographic map of Tuscany, a map from the rental company, and very detailed turn-by-turn Google maps and instructions.  We decided there was no need for a GPS navigator (and by the way they charge you 500 Euro if it's stolen).  Unfortunately, we discovered that leaving Florence is hard to do - very hard to do!

We headed out and missed our second turn.  Since it was a one-way street, retracing our steps wasn't so easy, but we were fortunate and after just a few blocks were able to get back on the right street.  At this point George said, "We should have rented a navigator."  We headed across the Arno, then went through a round-about and couldn't decide if we had taken the correct exit.  We turned around, did the round-about again and took a different exit.  After a few blocks we realized we were lost.  Our maps didn't cover this part of Florence.  So we stopped at a gas station, where no one spoke English, and headed in the direction they pointed.  We found an auto strada, but the signs all said it lead to Piza.  We wandered around a little more and stopped at a second gas station.  Again, no one spoke English, but a guy reassured us the auto strada was "that way" so we headed out again.  This time we got on the auto strada even though the signs didn't look like we were going the right way.  Sure enough we were headed back across the Arno and into the main part of Florence.  We exited and somehow managed to re-enter the auto strada going back where we came from.  Again, the signs leading right said Piza so I told George we should keep to the left.  Guess what, by keeping to the left we exited the auto strada and found ourselves once again on city streets.

It had been nearly an hour since we left the car rental agency.  I started to cry.  George reassured me that it would be all right.  We stopped at a third gas station.  I decided to not even get out of the car.  George came back with more sketchy directions and at that point he realized his wallet was not in his pocket!  He had taken it out and put it on the car seat in order to pay a toll - if we ever got on a section of the auto strada that had a toll booth.  Now his wallet wasn't there.  We frantically searched all over the floor, between the seats, in the back of the car.  Just as we were about to totally melt down, I found it wedged down next to my seat!

We pulled ourselves together and headed back toward where everyone said the auto strada was.  We started to get on - heard a honk - and a giant semi-truck nearly ran us down!  Seriously, we had run out of entry lane and this truck went zooming past and it seemed like it missed us by inches.

But hey, we were still alive, the car wasn't even scratched so we kept on going and lo and behold this time we were headed in the right direction - only three gas stations, a lost wallet, tears, a near fatal collision with a semi truck, and an hour and a half later we were on our way to Siena!

During the Middle Ages Siena was a powerful city-state that rivaled Florence, Venice, and Genoa.  When the Black Death hit the city in 1348 two-thirds of the population died.  Siena never recovered and eventually was conquered by Florence. It resulted in a centuries-long downturn.  There was no money for redevelopment of the city center - which means its medieval buildings stayed pretty much the same.  Today it is listed on Uneso's World Heritage list as the living embodiment of a medieval city.

We pored over the directions for entering Siena and even found free parking, quite by accident.  Things were lookin' up!  And here George is in Il Campo, the heart of the city.  We sat down at a nice little cafe right on the campo and enjoyed our usual lunch of pizza.

Il Campo is shaped like an amphitheater.  This is the spot where the historic Palio horse race is run every summer.

This is the Fonte Gaia - or Fountain of Joy which marks the square's high point.  This is where the people of Siena got their water.  I love the way the pigeons tip their beaks into the stream flowing from the wolf's mouth to get their drink!

Across the square from our cafe is the city hall with its 330-foot tower.  The museum in the city hall has wonderful frescoes including a stunning Maesta (Mary enthroned) by Simone Martini done in 1315 and Effects of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Next we strolled through the old city streets to the cathedral area.  

Beside the cathedral is the Duomo Museum.  It contains the cathedral's art.  The original Duccio stained glass rose window is on display.  It was made in 1288. Until recently it was located above and behind the Duomo's altar, but now we can get a real close-up at this window.  

Upstairs is Duccio's Maesta, done in 1311.  The panels were once part of the Duomo's main altarpiece.  This is really a major piece of art, but none of the pictures I've seen of it begin to do it justice. The museum had thoughtfully provided seating in front of the exhibit so we could sit down, relax, and enjoy the beauty.

After the museum, I took a few minutes to pop into the Duomo.  I had seen pictures of the wonderful striped interior, but didn't realize that there were many wonderful marble inlaid pavement panels throughtout the church.

Here is a picture of the interior of the dome:

We left Siena in plenty of time to get to our agritourismo well before sunset.  We didn't want to count round-abouts, and drive down little graveled roads in the dark.  We stayed at Fatoria Voltrona. There seem to be many of these farmhouse holiday places in Tuscany and they really are a lovely place to spend a couple of nights.  

This is the view from our window

This is the front of our building.  In the foreground is the little terrace area where they served us the most wonderful four-course dinners two nights in a row - panzanella (bread and tomato salad), pasta, roast chicken, and tiramisu.  George and I just had one order and split the whole thing and left the table stuffed each night.  Oh, and dinner also included a 3/4 liter bottle of the chianti this farm produces.  It was lovely!

The resident cats!

The next day we drove to Volterra - a lovely hill town that is known for its alabaster. More than 2000 years years ago this town was an important Etruscan city.

Here is George at the Etruscan arch - Volterra's most famous sight.  It was built in the fourth century BC.  In June of 1944 the Nazis were planning to blow up the arch to hinder the Allied advance.  The townspeople ripped up the paving stones and blocked the archway to convince the commander that there was no need to blow up the arch.

Here is one of the little restaurants on a quiet side street.  Notice how they have used wooden platforms to even out the hilly street and create a little outdoor place to eat.

Here is George eagerly anticipating his pizza - and celebrating the fact that we actually found a parking spot for the car on market day!

After some enjoyable shopping for alabaster, we headed home to Fattoria Voltrona.  We were home in time for a nice walk through the countryside before dinner.

You can tell George likes Tuscany!

The surrounding vineyards

George near the olive grove

The neighboring village with the setting sun shining on its buildings.

The next morning we got up early, took a few final pictures of the sun coming up over the hills and left for Florence and then home again to Milan.  What a wonderful weekend!

Thursday, October 25, 2012


The Ponte Vecchio and other bridges crossing the Arno
Florence!  Started as a Roman colony in 59 BC, by the thirteenth century Florence was a powerful city with wool and textile trading and a powerful banking business. The Medici family, who became bankers to the Pope, held the power in Florence for three centuries beginning with Cosimo de' Medici.  The Medici family were powerful patrons of the arts who turned Florence into Italy's cultural capital.  Today, Florence has the best Renaissance art in Europe.

Take a look at the Ponte Vecchio above.  It was built in 1345 and has always been lined with shops. Originally they were butcher shops that used the Arno River below to dispose of their waste. In 1565 the Medici family built the red-tile topped corridor over the bridge from their palace across the river to their offices on this side which now is the Uffizi - Italy's greatest art gallery. This walkway was lined with Medici portraits and provided a private and comfortable walkway for the Medicis to get  to work.  After it was built the butcher shops left and the gold and silversmiths moved onto the bridge - and they are still there today.

We arrived in Florence at about 9 in the morning and hurried to the Uffizi.  We had tried to reserve advance tickets, but were unsuccessful.  When we arrrived at the Uffizi we saw - lines, loooong lines.

We found out that the museum was opening about two hours late because of a meeting discussing a possible strike.

  So we waited.....

and waited.......

and waited.....

For three hours - and finally we staggered into the museum!  And just as our group was allowed entry, a couple of women who had not been waiting in line tried to sneak in with the rest of us.  Needless to say, a large group of us started  yelling at them and they moved back.

I have to say, the wait was worth it - the art was breathtaking!  I almost cried when we went into the rooms with the Gothic altar pieces - amazing.  There was an entire room of Botticelli's including The Birth of Venus. There were works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, and Michelangelo.  It was an incredible experience!

We had a nice lunch at the restaurant on top of the Uffizi and I was able to take these pictures of Florence landmarks:

The Palazzo Vecchio - town hall

A peek at the Brunelleschi's famous dome on the Duomo 

Giotto's bell tower

 After lunch we wandered out of the Uffizi and into the Piazza della Signoria.  This is where the Palazzo Vecchio is located.  Michelangelo's David was originally going to be placed on top of the Duomo, but later it was decided to place it here in this Piazza.  It stood here until 1873 when it was removed to the Academia.  Today this copy stands where the original stood.

      In the Loggia dei Lanzi located in this same Piazza we saw Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women.

 And this statue by Cellini of Perseus holding the head of Medusa

Here are Bob and George standing in front of the Neptune fountain.

Next we walked over to the Duomo - Florence's most famous symbol.  The Duomo was built before they knew how to make the dome.  There was a hole in the roof awaiting the technology to built a dome to span the space.  Brunelleschi responded to a call by the city to reward anyone who could find a way to build the dome - and here is the result - the first Renaissance dome.  There are actually two large domes - an inner dome and an outer dome.  

The pink, white, and green marble facade of the Duomo was added in the 19th century.  

Compared to the very busy exterior of the church, the interior actually seems quite plain.

And here is the interior of the dome.  The fresco is of the Last Judgment by Vasari.

After touring the Duomo, we took at look at the baptistery.

There are three sets of doors leading into the baptistry, but the most famous are the gilded doors done by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Michelangelo called them the "Gates of Paradise."  The doors on the baptistery are copies, and the actual doors are in the Duomo Museum.  They have only recently been put back on display after a restoration and we were delighted to see them!

Joseph sold into slavery

Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden

 Next to the Duomo is the bell tower designed by Giotto.

Finally, we visited the Duomo Museum.  It is a treasure house filled with items that were once in the Duomo.

Model of the dome

Donatello's Mary Magdalene

A della Robbia terra cotta

And this wonderful choir loft by Luca della Robbia

Finally, there is this unfinished pieta by Michangelo.  It was done very late in his life and it is thought that he carved it for his own tomb.  The figure at the back is widely believed to be a self-portrait.  Michangelo was not happy with the work and smashed off Christ's arm.  His students rescued it and replaced the arm.

Our day in Florence came to an end before we had time to see Michangelo's David at the Academia, but George and I were able to spend part of another day in Florence on our way back from Tuscan hill towns and did get in to see David.  Amazing!

We also spent time in a very old garden in an attempt to escape the Florence crowds.

Done in 1545 - we think maybe they haven't had much time to weed it since!

My souvenir from the garden was about 20 mosquito bites - ouch!