Friday, 24 January 2014

Tuscany gem

I thought I'm done but I couldn't really sign off on Tuscany without mentioning our accommodation during that amazing week.  Thanks to a referral from a friend, we stayed at a 14th century villa which used to be part of a country residence.  This is a real gem.  

The Castello di Pastine sits on an estate atop a ridge that gave us some of the most amazing views of the country side near Barberino Val D'Elsa.  One magical morning, the towers of San Gimignano emerged from the fog that had rolled in overnight.   You can see that incredible view below.  It was like fairyland.

The living area of our villa - the dining room used to be the bread baking oven!
The lovely terrace outside from where we could see San Gimignano

 Our villa had its own entrance gate and was located in the lower part of the estate but within a short walking distance of the main complex - a group of renovated apartments around the main courtyard.  One of our party stayed in one of the second floor apartments that had its own private terrace - almost the size of the apartment.  They also had a professional kitchen, as you can see. This was where we had the professional chef Giuseppina of the Cucina Giuseppina cook for us. She also gave us a cooking lesson before dinner. What a treat! 

This terrace is higher than the one in front of our villa and is shared by the group of apartments in the upper compound.  Gorgeous views from here too.

The swimming pool area - each apartment has its own area around the pool

Nice view from the hot tub

Well-kept grounds

Gorgeous sunsets!
I'd come back any time.  Thanks, Nancy!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Florence - Two more on the last day

It poured on our last day in Florence, so we spent a whole morning at the Bargello, the oldest public building in Florence.  This used to be a palace for the chief magistrate in the 13th century, then it housed the police chief in the 16th century and was a prison - executions used to take place in the yard. Now it's an art museum, and a good one, well worth the time. It housed important works by Michelangelo, Donatello and Giambologna - all very enjoyable.

The courtyard of the Bargello with a well in the centre

Bacchus and a faun - one of my personal favourites

Gemito's Fisherboy - quite out of place here surrounded by Greek gods...but interesting nevertheless

and I don't know what to make of this...

This one's in the outdoor arcade - can't be anything too important, although I could be wrong

What an amazing dress!

Walking in the rain can be pretty tiring, we went home for a late lunch and a nap - that's the wonderful thing about living right in town.   We made it to the Santa Croce Cathedral just before the last entry. 
We took the shot below from the Bardini Gardens the day before - see how huge the church is.  It is supposed to be the largest Franciscan church in the world and the interior is relatively austere as was typical of Franciscan churches.

The 19th century marble facade was the work of Jewish architect Niccolo Matas who managed, interestingly enough, to work a prominent Star  of David into the facade!


A dramatic John the Baptist at the Baptismal font

The tree of life inside the refectory

The beautiful inner cloister built by Brunelleschi

A leather school is housed inside what used to be the dormitory for the monks - goods made are in the adjacent leather shop 

the 19th century clock tower and the outer cloisters

Good night and good bye to Florence...

It took me 3 months to finish blogging about this 3 week trip!  Next stop:  South-east Asia...

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Florence - Pitti Palace and the Ponte Vecchio

The Pitti Palace is huge, as you can see below - we could have spent a whole day in here.  No pictures allowed in most rooms and it was really tough to abstain as some of the exhibits were really stunning, especially the ivory exhibit.  The carvings were so exquisite I was dying to capture some of them - alas the guards were vigilant.  

Love the colours and patterns on this piece of embroidery

 A most exquisite pearl pendant

 An elegant art deco pin

What a stunning dress!  One of many in the Costume Gallery

Square in front of the Pitti Palace - great place to hang out 

The Pitti Palace is only a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio on the south side of the Arno.  It is quite interesting though while there were hordes of tourists on the bridge and on the north side of the river, they didn't seem to go much farther than the Ponte Vecchio.  I suspect many came just to walk back and forth on the bridge - obviously some shopped but most just gawked.   The jewelry price on the bridge seemed quite reasonable but the other tourist goods in the shops close to the bridge were much more expensive.  I noticed panna forte and porcini selling for double the price we paid in Siena.

The bridge, however, is very picturesque, rain or shine, day or night...

Monday, 20 January 2014

Florence - Gardens

The first (and only) sunny day we had in Florence, we went out to the Boboli Gardens next to the Pitti Palace.  It's an impressive 16th century formal garden laid out on the hills beside the Palace.  Full of sculptures and fountains and various gardens, it is more like an outdoor museum.  There was apparently no natural water source nearby and water had to be delivered from the Arno down below - a lot of engineering required for what was then a private garden.  We spent a good part of the day in the garden and the neighbouring Bardini Gardens (on the same ticket).  The Bardini is smaller but similarly filled with sculptures.  I prefer the Bardini - it's more intimate and seems to have more character.

View of the Boboli Gardens amphitheatre from the Pitti Palace

The Neptune Fountain - the sculpture was originally carved for a chariot 

The panoramic view of Florence from the top of the garden

The Bardini Gardens is adjacent to the Boboli affording many panoramic views of Florence

I like this bronze by sculptor Giobbe, 1934

The Bardini has a more intimate setting for its sculptures and fountains

We enjoyed this panoramic view of the city lunching on a terrace in the Bardini - you can see the Santa Croce Cathedral to the right.

We walked back to the Barboli after lunch and saw some more statues - some of them with strange poses.
A renaissance sculpture with a tai chi pose?  The ironical explanation is that this is an allergorical statue of Modesty, defending her virtue in a self-defense pose while losing half her clothing...hilarious!

Beautiful sculptures inside the grotto Venus behind Paris and Helen - the grotto only allowed entry at fixed times in the morning and afternoon.  We missed both times and couldn't get in, but got this long shot of the Bathing Venus through the grotto opening.


Some interesting symbolism attached to this status of the Court Dwarf Morgante sitting on the turtle that's supposed to be Cosimo the Medici.  Cosimo's motto - festina lente (more haste less speed0, hence the turtle

View from the garden outside the Porcelain Museum

A Meissen basket inside the museum

First time I'd seen a horse chestnut - there were plenty in the garden

Oceanus pouring water into the gigantic granite basin that represented the ocean.

End of a long day  

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Florence - the Oltrano neighbourhood

Our second visit to Florence, we decided to stay away from the busy area around the Piazza del Signoria on the north bank of the river and instead stayed in the Oltrarno - the other side of the Arno.  It was a good decision.  The streets were quieter and the shops quaint and eclectic.  We got to see more of local life and felt comfortable enough to stay out at night and walk after dinner.

We stayed in a second floor apartment in this renovated building from 1800 on Via Mazetta, just around the corner from the San Spirito Church and Piazza.  We loved the neighbourhood - full of artisanal shops making everything from hats to shoes, antiques, and more.  What a change from the north side of the river, which was full of designer stores.

I would call this a one of a kind store...
and this, a high end antique store

Looking down Via Mazetta - the Piazza San Spirito is just around the corner

The local church - bells ringing to call the locals to mass

I was surprised to see this store selling old maps and prints

Basilica San Spirito - I will not easily forget the beautiful Michelangelo sculpture of Christ on the crucifix - done when he was only seventeen and staying at the convent of San Spirito.  It was unusual because it was naked but in keeping with the Gospels.  But most unusual and memorable was the serenity in the expression on Christ's face.

A deconsecrated church turned into an art gallery

Handmade shoe shop

His and hers wedding clothes
and after that, the kiddie store...

There was a tailor working in this his and hers everyday wear store...

People actually live here - nice courtyard behind this gate

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Market day in Tavarnelle

Tavarnelle is about 15 minutes north from Pastine where we stayed and is the last stop before the highway.  The first day we arrived, we bought our groceries in the Coop in Tavarnelle right after we got off the highway.   It's a town that we drove through many times during the week but which we never really stopped at to look.  We happened upon market day the day we were going to Greve in Chianti for lunch. 

Having been to only two Tuscan town markets, I've found them to be quite different from the ones in Provence that I visited.  They seemed to cater mainly to locals with clothing and shoes that looked like they were cheap imports rather than local made.  And many locals shopped in the markets, which, as in Provence, rotate throughout the week among the various towns.  Most of the merchandise were sold from trucks fitted to open up as stores.

Take a look at the photos below and compare them with the ones I took of markets in Provence:"Everyday is market day".  They are quite different in atmosphere and colour.

But we bought some really fresh fish, octopus and squid for dinner!

The barricaded street is usually the first indication there is a street market going on

Hello Kitty in Tuscany

Fresh vegetable plants - this is what I mean about these being for locals rather than tourists

Cheap clothing 

Wicker for the locals



Lovely flowers

Catching up with the neighbours

Cheese from refrigerated trucks

Fish from refrigerated trucks!  And they were very fresh.  We waited for our number to be called as we watched him slice up the last piece of fish that we had our eyes on.  Still, when our turn came, we realize there were other fish in the fridge behind.

We had one of these for dinner...
"Polpo" (Octopus)

Nice baskets - but I'm curious why these are not coloured
The Tavernelle market was an interesting experience.  It is much smaller than the street market we visited the following day in Colle Val d'Elsa (see previous post) although they are quite similar.
This marks the end of my posts on the Tuscany countryside.  On to the big city next...

Friday, 10 January 2014

Getting lost in Colle Val d'Elsa

The only reason we visited Colle Val d'Elsa was because we wanted to try the two stars Michelin restaurant Arnolfo - and for a good part of the hour before the designated time, we thought we would never find the restaurant!

We spent the morning in the newer section of town attracted by the large street market. An hour before the appointed time, we started to head to Arnolfo's.  We managed to drive around in circles because the GPS kept directing us to cut through the streets barricaded by the market.  Other than crashing through the barriers, we couldn't figure out how to get to our destination.  I almost destroyed our rental car when I drove over a median (thank goodness it was a one way street) and for a half hour after that, was waiting for the engine to drop out of the car - good thing the Germans made cars specially built for this kind of driver. 

No one in the Coop market have heard of the street Arnolfo was on - it was a little surreal, when you consider that it was just in the old town with the same name. We finally decided to drive out of the town and just use holistic navigation.  We saw an older town up a steep incline outside of the new town and decided to try our luck there.  Believe it or not, our instincts were right!    We found the restaurant easily on the main street, had a great lunch and even saw a part of the old town before we head home on our last day in the Tuscan countryside.  For photos of Arnolfo and the delicious lunch, please go to Foodsparks.

Market day and all the men stood around - one wondered what they were chatting about, if at all


Food is more interesting

The old town is within view of the new town, incredible that people didn't seem to know the name of the main street in the old town...

The nice path up to the old town where there was very little parking

In the space of four hours - the length of our lunch, the farmer had almost finished ploughing his field of sunflowers across the ravine from Arnolfo 

This must be the first time that I saw a traffic light inside an old town

Nice shop front

A grocery store

An interesting contemporary art gallery

By the time we finished lunch, it was 5 o'clock - the streets were deserted.  Colle Val d'Elsa is actually quite big.   I think we only visited a small section of the town.  But it was our last day, we were all a little worn out and almost looking forward to leaving even though we had a great time.  

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Radda in Chianti

What I love about Radda in Chianti is how quiet and peaceful it was when we visited in late afternoon. It is a hilltown, sitting high above the surrounding countryside with its vineyards and olive trees.  When we stood outside the city walls, we saw the essence of Chianti laid out before us.  It was enchanting.

The medieval town, inhabited since the 9th century, has its city walls and its nature intact.  It seemed unspoilt by tourism, with very few shops and the locals still hang out in the main piazza.  

At the top of the hill

Chianti at your feet...

Quiet streets 

Church of San Niccolo in the main square

Local children playing in front of the medieval fountain

The 15th century Palazzo del Podesta, house of the Florentine governor has a facade with coats of arms

An art gallery in a medieval cellar - what a great backdrop for an exhibit

Medieval bell tower 

A walk along the city wall - you can see the surrounding countryside from the top of the wall and also outside the walls

More Chianti! 

And for the first time in a week, we got home in time to watch the sunset!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Greve in Chianti

We left the Chianti towns till the last because they were closest to where we stayed and also have less historical landmarks to visit so we could do several in a day - or so we thought.  Greve in Chianti was our first stop but on the way there, we came across market day in Tavarnelle - an opportunity we couldn't miss.  I'll blog about the Tuscany markets in another post.

On the map, Greve in Chianti was only 25 km away and even if we were to go at 50 km an hour, it should theoretically only take us half an hour to get there.  Google suggested 45 minutes but in reality it must have taken us at least twice as long - and I could not explain it.  It's true these were country roads, narrow and windy and you took your life in your hands every time you turned a blind corner - but they were not impossible.  Bottomline we arrived for a very late lunch.

Our destination was the renowned historical butcher shop Antica Macelleria Falorni reputedly the oldest in Tuscany and still run by members of the same family since 1729.  The shop was awesome - one couldn't help but gawk at all the prosciutto hanging from the ceiling - and the many varieties offered.  Lunch turned out to be a picnic.  Read about this interesting experience on Foodsparks.

Greve itself was pretty, with the butcher shop the main focus of the town square and a church at the end of the square but we didn't see too much else in between.

Never seen so much ham in my life!

An amazing variety of meat - note for shoppers - don't even think about buying prosciutto to take home if you live in North America.  One member of our group got hers confiscated by U.S. customers - many euros down the drain...

The self-dispensing wine-tasting machine
The arcade outside Falorni's

Nice shops selling local merchandise - and a florist

The church at the end of the square

This sculpture outside the Chianti Classico building was very much an object of tourist gawking

The town square Piazza Giacomo Matteotti with its fine statue of explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, from the family of the same name that produced the Chianti Classico wine

Friday, 27 December 2013

Michelangelo's Marble

On the way to Cinque Terre, our driver pointed out the Carrara Marble Mountains with the precious white marble that had been used for some of the most remarkable buildings since Ancient Rome, including the Pantheon, and by sculptors like Michelangelo (for his sculpture of David). They are still in production after centuries of quarrying.  

We were told to note the colour of the mountains in the morning and the difference when we return in late afternoon with the sun shining at an angle on the mountains - the white marble was clearly visible from the highway.  If we had more time, it would be worth a trip up to the mountains to see the quarry where Michelangelo had actually quarried marble for his statues.  For an interesting article and photos on his quarry at Pietrasanta, visit Marc Levoy's project.

Marble mountains in the late afternoon with the marble clearly visible from the highway
Marble blocks from the quarry lined up for shipment

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Cinque Terre - Vernazza

From Manarola, we took the train to Vernazza, experiencing the crush of crowds from the cruise ships both on the train and on the narrow streets of the village, which was probably one of the larger villages in Cinque Terre. Vernazza, with settlement dating back to the beginning of the 11th century, actually had more than its 13th century church - there was the Castello Doria which gave a panoramic view of the area after a steep climb of many steps and then there was a beach reached via a tunnel.

We also had lunch in Vernazza and tried the local specialty, fish baked in salt.  (Visit Foodsparks for more details.)  It is undeniably very pretty and photogenic...

This looks like a film set!

With great seafood

Main street

Multi-coloured tomato plant - wish I could take it home!

The 13th century Church of Santa Maria d'Antiochia

Many windy streets - this was on the way to the Castello Doria 

View from the Castello Doria - have your euros ready for the climb, they charge you to go in after you've climbed many steps - very few people would say no after all that work!   And you want to see the view...

More steps take you up to the top of the 15th century lookout tower 

The terraced fields for grapes and olives are everywhere in Cinque Terre - in Vernazza, the indigenous wine vernaccia 

A surprise at the other end of the tunnel - the beach! 

Looking back from the other side 

Nice village!   Just be prepared for the crowds...

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Cinque Terre - Manarola

Our driver dropped us off at the top of the hill in Manarola and we strolled through a residential area down to the waterfront.  I always enjoyed seeing how the locals lived.

Here's a nice Tuscan cat secure in its own territory...

A whimsical bridge that led just to the one house - it did make me wonder who lived there...

Another bridge that looked quite old connecting another house to the main path over a pretty stream...

An interesting nativity scene...
Then we hit the town...
The main drag

Cinque Terre has a local wine and also limoncello, both in abundance in this tourist store...

The farmhouse store selling local produce

Church of San Lorenzo dating from the 14th century

Boats are parked like cars...well, cars are not allowed

You can see the waterfront trail from here - lovers' locks on the railing...Via dell'Amore?

The rugged waterfront - love the rocky shore!

Amazing how the houses stacked up!

And it had probably looked like that since the 14th century...

Waiting for the train to the next village...
Next stop: Vernazza

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Attack on Cinque Terre

We did what was for us an unusual thing on this trip - a one day tour of three villages (out of the five) in Cinque Terre, on the rugged west coast of Italy.  This is the equivalent of a guerilla style attack - we went in, hit the strategic places and leave.  Incredibly, we visited the three villages in the space of six hours, including lunch.  This was done with the help of two expert drivers and their vans - we got dropped off in one town, took the train between the towns and got picked up at the last stop.  This saved the pain of driving and looking for parking in the crowded towns - an impossible task.  We had a taste of each place but by no means got the true flavour.  

Unfortunately, it seemed that boat loads of cruise ship tourists did the same thing every day. No wonder there are protests and moves to ban large cruise ships - it must have a negative impact on the towns.  We felt it even when we didn't live there.  The huge crowds turned the small streets of these once attractive coastal havens into busy thoroughfares and whatever ambiance there was had disappeared.  One of the overnight visitors in the village said the only reprieve was early morning and at night.  I suppose in the day time, going on the hiking trails could possibly be a way of avoiding the crowds.  But I would certainly think twice before visiting again, lovely as the villages were. 

A bird's eye view of the first town going north from La Spezia, quaint Riomaggiore, dating from the 13th century

Zooming in you can see many of the houses with their balconies and rooftop terraces - they looked like they were stacked on top of one another on the rocks.

The waterfront was a short walk down a windy roadway, shared by pedestrians and boats

The gelataria was the most popular store along the waterfront

Taking a break on the coastal path to admire the scenery and each other...

If I have to guess the name of the trail, it would be Via dell'Amore...;-)

The long tunnel to the train station, decorated with mosaics, made for a terrific acoustic chamber for musicians

This was the train that took people back and forth between the villages 

Next stop: Manarola

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Etruscan hill town of Volterra

For me, the most exciting part of Volterra was getting there.  From San Gimignano, it was a windy zigzag road that made me wish I was driving a BMW.  But both my passengers were asleep and I was able to enjoy the sporty road without them gasping at every turn.  It was quite fun so that by the time we got to Volterra at the top of the hill, it was almost anti-climactical.  

It was mid-afternoon and threatening rain so there were no huge crowds.  We didn't have time to visit all the places in the guide book and had to make strategic choices, dampened further by a thunderstorm which brought torrential rain.  The cathedral was more appreciated for its shelter than its content.  We definitely would have appreciated this important Etruscan town a lot more had we devoted a day to it instead of tagging it at the tail end of a visit to San Gimignano.

But the Etruscan Museum did stand out for its unusual collection of hundreds of funerary urns, which though not as aesthetically pleasing as its collection of Etruscan gold jewelry and sculptures, was quite unique.

One of several ancient city gates in Volterra

The Palazzo dei Priori, built in the 13th century, is the oldest municipal building in Tuscany

The Duomo that sheltered us during the storm

Inside the cathedral with its green and white marble - built in the 13th century after the original was destroyed by an earthquake in the 12th century

The octagonal 13th century Baptistery of San Giovanni across the courtyard was originally a Roman temple dedicated to Sun worship

I like the relaxed pose of this John the Baptist sculpture on the baptismal font - by Giovanni Antonio Cybei

The streets of Volterra

Alabaster is the local stone - beautiful creations in shops throughout the town, including an alabaster museum which I would have liked to visit 

Inside the Museo Guarnacci - the Etruscan Museum

"Urna degli sposi" This is the most unusual of all the urns in the whole museum - the only one with a couple depicted.  The couple was presented as attending a banquet, apparently a social function that Etruscan women were allowed to participate in., while the Romans and Greeks found this egalitarianism unsavoury.  For more on this museum...
Exquisite gold jewelry from etruscan tombs

"Ombra della sera" (Shadow of the evening) - a key piece in the museum,  reminds one of modern art with the deliberate elongation of the body

I love these elegant figurines

The 13th century etruscan wall

The Roman amphitheatre 

View of the surrounding countryside

Sunday, 15 December 2013

San Gimignano - that unpronounceable tower town

We arrived in this famous hill town on a rainy Monday morning and immediately found that we had to switch into urban battle mode - fighting to enter a parking lot, fighting to keep my parking ticket and fighting for a parking spot!  Are we really in Tuscany?

Although we had been warned about parking in San Gimignano by Rick Steves, we thought we had left things like faulty parking entrance gates and raging drivers behind in the city.  But no, cars were trying to enter the small parking lot from three directions through two small gates, one of which was not working very well.  An obviously stressed out female tried to grab the parking ticket from the driver in front of me because she had entered without taking a ticket from the intermittently malfunctioning ticket machine.  When that was unsuccessful, she tried to grab mine.  While I was able to defend myself it still left a slightly sour taste in my mouth.  What a beginning to what was supposed to be a peaceful Tuscan visit!

However, all went well after we entered the city gates  - no cars allowed.  We just had to battle the rain which was intermittent.  It was a bit of a downer but  it made the sunny part more precious.  It was a particularly gratifying moment when the sun suddenly came out at the end of our climb up the 218 steps of the Bell Tower.  Lo and behold - 360 degrees of Tuscan countryside spread out below us bathed in warm sunshine.  What a view!  It made us forget all the slippery cobblestones we had to wade through in the rain.

Panoramic view of the surrounding countryside from the Bell Tower. 

You can see from this angle the long narrow shape of the town

Beautiful gallery atop the courtyard
The Palazzo del Popolo and its Bell Tower

This 3 ton bell was the main bell in the tower since it was cast in the 14th century by a Florentine.  It was shattered into three pieces during the Second World War but wasn't taken down until 1952.  It was finally restored and placed under the loggia in 2010.

High-rises in the medieval town!  Apparently there are only 17 surviving towers from the original 72 towers, which were constructed as symbols of wealth and power -
surprise, surprise!

The Piazza della Cisterna with its beautiful stone well

We ate lunch in this small restaurant near the gates - good homestyle cooking

Yummy looking cookies

The Gelateria Dondoli claimed to be "GelatoWorld Champion" - recommended by Giuseppina (of the cooking school) - the mango and chocolate I tried was definitely superior to what I had in Florence.  Worth the lineup.

This looked like a good deal!
Che un paesaggio perfetto!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

An Unusual Cathedral - the Duomo in Siena

The Duomo, the Cathedral in Siena is so unusual that it deserves a separate post of its own.  I walked in and didn't know where to start - every inch of the cathedral was covered with something special that would make you want to stop and look, admire it, wonder at it, or gape in awe.  It almost overwhelmed the senses - but it made for a memorable visit.

What you see when you walked in - stunning!

When you looked down - every inch of the floor was decorated with marble mosaics (this is the She-wolf of Siena with the emblems of the confederate cities from the 14th century)

When you looked up - the hexagonal dome with Bernini's gilded lantern

When you look back towards the entrance, you see the stained glass of the Last Supper in the intricate facade

One of the inlaid marble floors almost looked modern

The ornate Carrara marble pulpit sculpted by Nicola Pisana in the 13th century

St. John the Baptist Chapel with the bronze statue of St. John sculpted by Donatello

Detail in the baptismal font - Adam & Eve and the apple

Inside the magnificent Piccolomini library (part of the Cathedral) with its stunning frescoes in the ceiling and the three graces in the centre of the chamber

One of the many gorgeous illuminated manuscripts around the room

Looking back towards the entrance

The facade of the cathedral - apparently the bottom half was romanesque and the top half which was added later was gothic - notice how the pinnacles in the top half are not continuations of the columns at the bottom - unusual architecturally and structurally questionable, yet it has remained standing since the 13th century.

Mosaics in the facade

The mix of pink and white marble in the facade together with the intricate Sienese workmanship made this one of the most impressive structures in Siena - the bronze door was a modern addition just after the Second World War, but it blended right in.

The steep hike from the Baptistry to the Cathedral

The elaborate baptistry with its beautiful  bronzes

Donatello bronze at a corner
Bell-tower of black and white marble
Also worth a visit is the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo attached to the Cathedral.   What I found most interesting was the original drafts for the mosaic floor in the Cathedral.  They were so massive and overwhelming in the Cathedral it was good to see them in perspective as part of a floor plan.

A truly unique cathedral!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Siena - splendid in rain or shine

It was pouring the Sunday we visited Siena, but I was impressed by how photogenic it was even in the rain. The city had a splendour that stemmed from its long history dating back to Etruscan times.   I was struck by the beauty of its architecture, particularly when I emerged from one of the many side streets that fed into the famous Piazza del Campo.  I let out a gasp of astonishment, awed by its magnificence, undiminished by the rain.  It was the perfectly proportioned beauty of great architecture that took everyone's breath away.  And regardless of the rain, everyone was snapping away...

Our first view of the old town - in the rain

Basilica of San Domenico which housed the relics of St. Catherine of Siena - her severed head was in the altar while her preserved right thumb was in a case not too far away, positively medieval!

The roads into the old town centre -

The main square - Piazza del Campo, one of the most attractive squares in Europe, renowned for its architectural integrity built at the height of Siena's medieval splendour in the early half of the 14th century.  The Palazzo Publico is the focal point of the square with the bell tower (Torre del Mangia) built to be taller than the one in Florence, Siena's rival at the time.  The square is the site of the famous Palio horse races, held twice a year around its edges.

View of the square from the side of the Palazzo Publico - the buildings around the square curved inwards giving the square its shell-shaped structure.  

 the Palazzo Publico with its superbly proportioned courtyard is the home of the Museo Civico - wish we had the time to go into this important Art Museum...

The Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) on one side of the square, built in the early 15th century as the endpoint of the system of conduits bringing water into the city centre.
In more than one Italian city, we saw specialty shops for each category of clothing, one for ties, one for shirts, hats...

Lots of ups and downs - it's a hilltown afterall

I have never seen so many colours and varieties in pasta, or in espresso machines!

We just stumbled into this gorgeous hall - turned out this is the Academia dei Rozzi, supposedly Italy's oldest academy founded in 1531.

Signs of the Palio - a shop selling Palio photos and souvenirs and flags on the streets with Palio flags, one for each of the ten city wards.

The town's emblem, the wolf suckling the twins Remus and Romulus were everywhere - legend had it that Siena was founded by Seinus, son of Remus...

The splendid view of the Cathedral with its Duomo and tower after the rain

Next post:  The Cathedral in Siena

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Venice from a different angle

It was not our first trip to Venice and so I was glad to see it from a different angle - from the deck of the Azamara Quest which must be at least ten stories above ground.  We had a great view over the red roofs of the city and was able to see the buildings and bridges from a distance.  The boat left Venice in late afternoon - the view was heart-stoppingly spectacular with the sun on the red roofs.  

When we returned from our 7 days on the Adriatic, we had to take a water taxi to the train station.  That ride was the most fun, speeding under bridges and going through the narrow streets of Venice.  Nothing like a gondola ride, of course, but at ten o'clock in the morning with a boat load of luggage, it was the right speed...

The reporters were there because of the street protests against the cruise ships.  I'm sure I appeared on Italian TV...

This is the dock from where we boarded

It looks like there is another leaning tower in Italy other than Pisa's

NO GRANDI NAVI - The protest against the "big boats" - in fact our departure was delayed because protesters were blocking the harbour.  I would have joined the protesters were I not on board...and I wasn't being cheeky

Look at the crowds in San Marco Square and in front of the Doge's Palace

Our water taxi ride to the train station

The public water bus

The square in front of the train station - long lineups for the water bus 

The high-speed train that took us to Florence for 19 euros

Friday, 15 November 2013

Ravenna, the town

We've looked at the stunning mosaics in Ravenna and its multitude of serious historical churches - but there's a lot more to the town.  It's a very clean and charming Italian town - very walkable and even better on a bike as there seems to be plenty around and very few cars.   I hope to have captured some of this charm in the snapshots below:

Charming people, quaint shops

Street market of artisanal crafts

Piazza del Popolo, the main square with live art

Live action!  Just married couple in the 18th century town hall 

Same couple with their stylish bridal transportation
The bridal procession

A merry-go-round in the middle of town

This is afterall the town of mosaics

Bicycle envy...

The  Biblioteca Casa Oriani in Ravenna - where else would you see a library with such elegant cloisters!  We just happened upon it on the way to Dante's tomb.
I admire such determined people - they just would not surrender Dante's bones to Florence! Bravo!   Read more about the intriguing fight over the poet's bones here...
Dante's tomb - more likely the Memorial

This looked more like the tomb
 Charming restaurants...


Elegance!  Whether they were sweeping the streets or riding a bike!

The very green entrance to the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist

What's not to love about Ravenna!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Stunning Mosaics in Ravenna

Ravenna was our last port of call before Venice and it has the richest cultural heritage of the five ports on our cruise. There was an abundance of Byzantine churches and stunning mosaics - thanks to Ravenna's position at one point as the capital of the Western Roman Empire.  I can only provide a snapshot of what we saw in the seven hours or so that we were in town - we couldn't get to all the places we wanted to see but at least we got a taste.

First encounter with the byzantine mosaics was in the Arian Baptistry.  The splendid mosaic in the dome showed the baptism of Christ.  I find it interesting to learn that in the Arian concept, the Son of God did not always exist but was created by God the Father.  This was obviously considered heresy by the Catholic Church and most of the other Christian denominations.  Arianism did not survive beyond the 8th century.  This Arian Baptistry was built early in the 6th century.

Baptism of Christ mosaic in the dome 

The Arian Baptistry above, beside the Santo Spirito Church, was on the way to the Basilica of San Vitale below, the must-see destination in Ravenna.  The Basilica, from the 6th century, has the most dazzling array of mosaics and is considered to be very important in Byzantine art as the only major church from the period of the Emperor Justinian to survive mostly in tact.

The Basilica was said to be modelled on the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople and indeed, looked very much like it from what I can see on Google.  The Basilica plan was made up of two remarkable concentric octagons, and has a combination of Roman and Byzantine elements, 
making it very different from other churches in Ravenna.

Like everyone else, I was awe-struck when I walked in the unassuming side door and saw the magnificent interior

The eight pillars that support the dome were encased in gorgeous marble

The vault paintings were done in the 18th century but it was the mosaics in the apse and choir that are the most impressive.  Interestingly enough, the upper gallery was called the matroneum - meant for married women. 

Beautifully decorated stucco beneath the arches

The stunning semi-dome in the apse depicting a beardless Christ

The lunettes (half-moon) all around were decorated with scenes from the Old Testament

The extremely fine work in the vault depicting the Paschal Lamb and angels

The floor mosaics are no less impressive

We could have spent hours in the Basilica admiring the mosaics and the marble - but we had to move on...
We literally stumbled into the Museo Arcivescovile (Archiepiscopal Museum) not realizing what was in it.  It was included on our Basilica ticket but we were short on time so was on the verge of bypassing it.  But  when I saw stairs like these, I figured there would be some good stuff inside - and I was right!  

What you see below is the mosaic inside the little chapel that is in the museum among other exquisite finds on several floors. 

Even more astonishing was the carved ivory throne chair - the Throne of Maximian, from the 6th century, made for the Archbishop of Ravenna (possibly in Constantinople), and apparently a gift from the Emperor Justinian.   What a find!

Just next door to the Museum is the most ancient monument remaining in Ravenna - the octagonal Orthodox Baptistry (as distinguished from the Arian one above), built in the 4th century, converted from a Roman bath.

Another baptism of Christ mosaic - it's interesting to compare it to the one in the Arian Baptistry, built 50 years later.
Linked to the Baptistry is the Cathedral built in the 18th century over the ancient cathedral which was built in he 5th century.  

The most interesting item for me was the unusual Greek marble pulpit from the 6th century - it was surmised that this may have been reconstructed from the lids of two sarcophaguses.

From the cathedral, we headed across town to the Basilica of St. Apollinare Nuovo with the intention of dropping by the tomb of Dante on the way.  We missed it somehow when we got disoriented coming out of the cathedral and ended up having to double back after visiting the Basilica.  The St. Apollinare Nuovo Basilica, originally built by the Arians in the early 6th century, was reconsecrated as a Catholic church later.  

I love the bell tower with its mullioned windows built at the beginning of the 11th century.   

Mosaics down both sides of the church - on one side the procession of 22 virgin martyrs preceded by the three magis offering gifts to baby Jesus seated on the Virgin Mary's lap;  on the opposite side, 2 martyrs approaching Christ enthroned - quite a magnificent display!

After all those awesome mosaics, it was a relief to find ourselves in the very plain but beautiful Basilica of St. John the Evangelist on the edge of town.  We wouldn't have visited if we were not early for our bus and so wandered in just to wile away the minutes as it was directly in front of the bus stop.  This reminded us of the wondrous nature of serendipitous discovery - the importance of allowing time for precisely this sort of exploration in any itinerary.  

Basilica of St. John the Evangelist

This is the most ancient church in Ravenna, built in the early part of the 5th century.  It was rich with splendid mosaics when it was built but had since been destroyed by war.  There were some remnants of the mosaics.

Remnants of ancient mosaics
Next post:  Ravenna, the town

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