No hurry • No worry
Italia! We arrived in Pisa today under a glorious Tuscan sun. We checked in to the Hotel di Stefano (appropriately enough!), a nice, quiet establishment in the heart of Pisa. Then, a stroll to orient ourselves. Less than five minutes later, we rounded a corner and the Leaning Tower hove into view quite unexpectedly. Despite having seen numerous pictures and photos over the years and knowing about it since we were young, actually seeing it is quite startling!
Dinner at Il Vesuvio, which is about ten metres from our hotel, just across the "street" (very narrow - accommodating motor vehicles, pedestrians and laundry). A wonderful meal - pizza, vino della casa, dessert and caffe italiano. All of this in a vibrant atmosphere, with great service and only 19 Euros.
As usual, breakfast was warm Tuscan bread with assorted jams and/or butter accompanied by cappuccino and orange juice. Today, we mostly wandered about Pisa, which is a delightful small city (about 90,000 people).
Not far from our hotel (actually, nothing is very far!) is the Piazza dei Cavalieri. Then, our first museum - Navi Antiche di Pisa (Ancient Ships of Pisa). Pisa was once a powerful maritime power and was on the coast (which is now several kilometres away). Only four years ago, they discovered a number of ships dating back over 2000 years. There have been hundreds of items recovered, including many amphorae and lamps.
The weather was not perfect today, so at one point we sheltered from a morning shower in part of an ancient citadel located on the Arno River.
Dinner at Il Vesuvio again tonight - eccellente!
Nice morning, rain in the early afternoon, sunny in the late afternoon, beautiful evening.
Our morning meandering took us to several piazzas in Pisa, including the Piazza Garibaldi. If you look closely to the lower right of the picture, there are some tables through the arched opening. We had a small brunch there. The view of the piazza is nearly the same (except from a lower angle) as the Pisa webcam that we have been watching for the last couple of months. You can also see the actual webcam, because we found it and took a picture of it!
Many of the streets inside the walls of the old city (about half of which are still standing) are quite narrow, as you can see here. We also took two more tours in the Campo dei Miracoli, including one after dinner where we tried to get a night shot.
And, our final dinner at Il Vesuvio - we will miss it!
Today was mostly a travel and orientation day, as we left the Pisa Centrale train station and headed to Firenze (Florence). It was a very pleasant trip (although Italian trains do not necessarily run on time!). Once in Firenze we caught a bus for a short ride through centro storico (historical centre) on the way to our room at the fabulous Residenza Johlea I.
Our room is not exactly as you see it here (this is not our photograph), as they remodelled slightly. It's current configuration is actually nicer! The Residenze Johlea is not actually a hotel, but a residence. It is a huge suite of apartments (there are six of them) on floor three (which is actually the fourth floor) of a lovely 19th century building.
The Residenza is located in a quiet area just north of centro storico, with all the required amenties (various caffès for our morning cappuccino, enoteca, frutta e verdura, etc.) close by. And, we are just a few minutes walk from the famous Duomo (cathedral), whose huge cupola (dome) was designed by Brunelleschi. This was the first Renaissance dome and the model for many others that were built later. The following is the view from our rooftop terrace. It's not a great photograph (we didn't take it!), but we hope to have some other photos in the next few days. This is one of the main reasons we wanted to come to Firenze.
After checking in, we took an orientation stroll around our neighbourhood and later had a very nice dinner at the Trattoria da Tito, which is just steps from our doorway.
Our first full day in Firenze was beautiful. The focal point was the Duomo, which we got to see up close and personal. We took dozens of photos (including one of the Baptistery) and climbed the Campanile (bell tower). There are a few places to stop on the way to the top (82 metres; 414 steps!) and the views all along the way are stunning. In particular, at the top there is a magnificent view of Brunelleschi's dome.
For lunch today, we picked up a couple of very tasty sandwiches and washed them down with a glass of Chianti on the rooftop terrace of our hotel. In addition to the Duomo, the roof provides a great view of the hills north of the city. After siesta, we strolled down to the Galleria dell'Accademia which is not far from our hotel. Apparently there can be waits of up to two hours on busy days, but we were lucky and didn't have to wait at all. Michelangelo's David is an amazing sculpture - having no crowds to contend with we were able to spend as much time as we wanted to studying it in detail. No photos allowed :-(
We wandered around the Duomo a bit more until it was time for dinner which we had at a pizzeria - good, but not quite as good as at Il Vesuvio in Pisa.
There's nothing quite like walking out your front door in the morning, rounding the corner, stepping in to a caffè/bar (there are usually a couple to choose from), and ordering due cappuccini. Our local favourite in Firenze is Caffè Cavour. Very civilized! Bella Italia!
Another beautiful day in Firenze took us strolling to the Piazza della Signoria (city government). This is a gorgeous square that is our favourite here. One side is dominated by the Palazzo Vecchio. At the bottom of that photo you can see numerous statues, including Cosimo I (Medici family) and a copy of the famous David.
Another side consists mainly of the Loggia della Signoria. The Loggia is basically an outdoor (well sheltered) museum with numerous sculptures, both those from the ancient Romans (restored) and originals from the Renaissance. A sampling:
Then, we crossed the Arno on the famous Ponte Vecchio. This bridge, dating from 1345, was the only one left standing during World War II. We eventually made it back to our rooftop terrace for some lunch.
Later, we toured the Museo Archeologico, which has a huge collection of Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts. Included are many Estruscan funeral urns, dating back over 3000 years. (We weren't supposed to take pictures, but didn't know that until after we had taken several).
Today was devoted to Galleria Degli Uffizi. According to UNESCO, 60% of the greatest art of the Western world is in Italy and half of that is in Firenze. We spent nearly four hours there and could easily go back for more.
Photography is not permitted, but Virtual Uffizi has almost the entire catalogue online and we've captured a few of our favourites. These do not even begin to do justice to the astounding quality of the work. Even good art books, with excellent photography, cannot substitute for actually seeing them. Nonetheless, here are a few examples in roughly chronological order, by artist:
And, some of our favourites - Lippi, Allori, Signorelli, Perugino - aren't even represented above! All in all, an incredible place.
We then had a very late lunch under a beautiful Tuscan sky on our rooftop terrace. Much later, we enjoyed an excellent pizza at Cellini's, in the Mercato Centrale.
Today we toured inside the Duomo, which we have explored from the outside several times. It was raining, so we weren't the only people who were looking for some indoor touring. The line seemed quite long and we wondered how everyone was going to fit ... that is, until we entered. It is a huge structure, really only appreciated from inside. According to our Michelin Green Guide, it is one of the largest buildings in the Christian world - on par with St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London and Notre Dame in Paris.
It is rather plain in style with the exception of the inside of the dome itself which is covered with amazing frescoes. We spent a lot of time looking up.
The Duomo was built to replace the Romanesque church of Santa Reparata which wasn't considered grand enough for the city that Firenze had become. They have done some excavations below the present cathedral and have found not only the crypt of Santa Reparata but the remains of a paleo-Christian basilica from the 5th or 6th century. Many sections of mosaic flooring are still visible. Brunelleschi's tomb can also be seen on the lower level.
Lunch was later than usual and had to be eaten indoors due to the rain - however, at this hotel that is not a great hardship as there is a large common living room with skylights just below the roof.
Our last full day in Firenze found us touring the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace) which is an amazing building with an incredible history. It was originally built to house the city government and in fact the mayor's offices are still there. In between, it served as a residence for various members of the Medici family. There was actually some sort of public hearing going on in the Hall of the Five Hundred while we were there! Most of the great artwork is actually on the walls and the ceilings and the floors of each room.
We then shopped for road maps, as tomorrow begins a new adventure - driving in Italy! We have planned what we hope is a leisurely trip to Perugia, where we will see Suzanne Woods (and some other things, of course).
And, last night we had another great dinner at our favourite restaurant in Firenze - Trattorìa da Tito. We had three evenings there and will miss it.
We picked up our car (a lovely little Nissan Micra) this morning and successfully navigated Firenze traffic back to the Residenze Johlea I. We then found a typical Italian parking space (i.e., stopped the car in such a manner that other vehicles and pedestrians could get by!), loaded the car and left for the Italian countryside.
It was a perfect day for driving and the hills of Tuscany are as beautiful as advertised. We stopped for lunch by the road on the outskirts of Cortona. This is the area that Frances Mayes wrote about in her popular work Under the Tuscan Sun. There were some great views from our impromptu lunch spot.
Then, on to Perugia, where we met Suzanne. We had not seen her for nearly five months, so we had a great reunion. Unlike Pisa and Firenze, Perugia is a hill town, so getting around (on foot) means a lot of up and down. And, these hills are steep!
Assisi is a very lovely town and today was the last day of Calendimaggio, a mediaeval spring festival held each year at this time. Two town teams (Parte di Sopra - the high town and Parte di Sotto - the low town) compete against each other in various ways - archery, flag tossing, choir-singing, etc. There is a great pageant with many people (we figure between 500 and 1000!) in costume. It is truly a family affair with people of all ages participating. The music was beautiful and there were many interesting things to see, particularly in the back streetswhich served as staging areas for the main event. (There were also some amusing things ...)
Suzanne packed us a great picnic lunch which we ate in beautiful surroundings - overlooking Umbrian countryside and being overlooked by various remnants of old Assisi town walls.
Assisi is probably best known for San Francesco (St. Francis) and of course there is a huge basilica devoted to him. The lower church contains his tomb. The upper church contains many beautiful frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto, some of which were damaged in an earthquake in 1997. Outside the basilica is a lovely walk past a rose garden, overlooking even more beautiful Umbrian countryside.
The hills of Umbria provided the backdrop for today's circuitous drive to Orvieto and back. Southeast of Perugia (our current HQ), Orvieto is physically situated on a volcanic plug. We don't have a good picture of the whole place, but you can get some sense of that from this picture, which shows the sheer volcanic cliff on the left.
Of course, there is the local Duomo, which is particularly well known for its façade. Orvieto is an especially lovely town (definitely worth a return visit), with some spectacular views (these pictures certainly don't do it justice) of the surrounding countryside.
A very nice dinner tonight (with the exception of the unimaginative Perugian bread) in our hotel (they have an excellent restaurant), where we have another great room/suite. We've been very fortunate with our accomodations thus far.
And, speaking of food, contrast this mobile food stand with our Canadian chip trucks. Yes, that is a whole roast pig (porchetta) that you see! It is a common sight in these parts.
We didn't leave Perugia today. Laundry in the morning; then after a slow climb to centro storico (did we mention that it is hilly here?), we met Suzanne after her morning classes. She attends the Italian University for Foreigners, which she travels to every day through this ancient Etruscan/Roman arch.
While we had been in centro storico (did we mention that it is hilly here?) a couple of times for dinner, Suzanne gave us a more extensive tour today. Perugia is another lovely hill town (one of the largest), including old Roman aqueducts. The centrepiece is Piazza IV Novembre, which you may have seen on this webcam. And, here's Steve in front of the Fontana Maggiore, built in 1278 CE.
On a very clear day (it was a little hazy today), you can easily see Assisi on the other side of the valley. And, we eventually left (after some wonderful gelato) through the Porta Santa Susannah, which, of course, required a photo of Susan and Suzanne. Great pizza tonight at a little ristorante-pizzeria (La Nuit) we discovered near the hotel.
Today we went on another day trip out of Perugia with Suzanne playing hooky from school. First we went to Gubbio which is YAVAHT - Yet Another Very Attractive Hill Town. Somehow it seemed even prettier than the others, probably because it was such a gorgeous day - sunny and clear and about 25º.
Tomorrow is May 15, when Gubbio holds the annual Festa dei Ceri, which the Michelin Green Guide translates as Candle Race. The ceri are strange wooden poles each topped with the statue of a saint which are raced through the streets from the centro storico to a basilica which is way up a hill. You might be able to spot some of the red flags that mark the higher portions of the route. Here are some of the lower roads (if they can be called that) which are raced up: view 1 - view 2 - view 3. Gubbio also has the remains of a Roman amphitheatre near which we ate a picnic lunch.
After Gubbio we drove a small hilltop village called Montone which we wanted to see because it contains a small apartment that can be rented weekly which we think we might like to come back to at some point. It's a lovely spot with views in all directions as it seems to be at the very top of the hill that it is on. We think we might go for it!
We liked dinner so much at La Nuit last night that we went back again! And, tonight was our last night in Perugia, and therefore with Suzanne. It's been a wonderful visit and we're sorry it's been so short. But she will be back in Canada in about seven weeks.
Today begins our last week in Italy - we've been here two weeks already! This was a travel/orientation day, as we drove from Perugia to Posta di Chianti, a "country hotel" just on the southern edge of Chianti country and about 20 km east of Siena. It's an old mill (molino) that's been expanded and converted to a hotel/restaurant with 16 rooms. This picture was taken from the back; the rooms are in the newer addition (yellow) on the left.
Again, we drove through some lovely country, passing by Agello, another small hill town, and Lago Trasimeno (which is much bigger than it looks in the photo). We also have travelled back to Tuscany from Umbria. On this particular route, the transition is marked by the Torre Beccati Questo e Beccati Quello, two very old towers (the taller one in Umbria) that recall the rivalry between the two provinces. The towers are just east of Chiusi, another pretty hill town where we stopped for a while and had a late morning capuccino at the Caffè Venezia.
The Senese Chianti hills are lovely. Today was devoted to hanging around and getting to know the area. The nearest town is Castelnuovo Berardenga, which is about six km from our hotel. It's quite small, but has all the basic amenities, including a small shop where we can buy English newspapers. It's on a small piazza (this view is from where we had our morning cappuccini).
We took an extensive driving tour that included many hillside estates surrounded by olive groves and vineyards. It's a beautiful area. Our drive took us near Siena, which we plan to visit tomorrow.
After dinner last night at the restaurant in our hotel, tonight we decided to walk down the road to Il Bivacco, which is a short ten minute stroll, where we had a nice pizza. While every dinner hasn't been superb, we have yet to have a bad meal here!
Another gorgeous day under the Tuscan sun. We spent most of the day in Siena, which is probably most famous for two things: the colour (burnt Sienna) and the Palio delle Contrade. The Palio is a banner awarded to the winner of a horse race, in yet another festival (common in Italian cities and towns - see our Assisi entry). The horse race is very short and takes place in the Piazza del Campo, which is a truly remarkable space. The festival takes place later in the summer.
One side of the Piazza del Campo is dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico, which we toured. Photos were not allowed, but the visit was certainly worthwhile, especially for the Sala della Pace (Peace Room). Three walls of this large room are basically a single painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti called Effects of Good and Bad Government. It is very interesting from a number of perspectives (visual, political, historical).
There is also a very famous Duomo in Siena, which we also spent some time in. It was quite impressive inside, as you might be able to tell from this photo. All in all, Siena is was most enjoyable. And, after spending a lot of time going up and down hills, we needed a gelato to help us home! Later, we had an excellect dinner at Il Bivacco.
Much like Thursday, we leisurely toured around the area. Today, we ventured south of Siena into the Crete (clay or chalk) countryside. Different from the Senese hill country, but in some ways more scenic. Some of the vistas are incredible, which our pictures don't begin to do justice.
We made three "major" stops today: Monte Oliveto Maggiore (an abbey); the small town of Montalcino (famous for Brunello wine and a medieval fort); and the battlefield monument at Monteaperti (where the Sienese defeated Florence in 1260). And, beautiful fields of poppies everywhere we go.
More Chianti countryside touring today but with a purpose. We drove to Castellina in Chianti to meet with Andrée and Aldo. Andrée is a friend of our niece Amber - they've known each other since Grade 4. She met her husband Aldo when she came to Italy for a year while at college. Her friend Jennifer arrived in Firenze yesterday for a holiday and we met the three of them in Castellina for lunch - very pleasant.
On our way back we saw even more of Il Chianti - did we mention that you can see Siena in the distance from just about everywhere? (Well, this one's a bit hazy, but we could see it - honest! We got up close and personal with some olive trees at the Castello di Brolio. The Ricasoli family has been living in the castle since the 11th century. Guess what they do?
Our trip is nearly over, and this was our last full day in the Siena region. Once again, we clambered into our wonderful Nissan (park it anywhere) Micra and set off to the west and southwest of Siena. Our first stop was San Gimignano (another hill town), famous for its towers. San Gimignano is swarming with tourists, but worth the visit. There are some great views of the surrounding countryside from the fortezza.
Then, on to a wonderful spot that was not swarming with tourists, but also definitely worth a visit - the Abbazia di San Galgano. This abbey was built in the 13th century by Cistercian monks, and then abandoned about 200 years later. It's quite interesting to tour inside the roofless ruin, after being inside numerous other churches and cathedrals that are still being used. And here's Steve, relaxing at the altar.
Finally, our last dinner at Il Bivacco, yet another of the great restaurants that abound here. Unfortunately, our favourite pizzerria in Pisa is closed on Tuesdays, so we don't know where we eat tomorrow!
Today was our last full day in Italy. We drove from our hotel near Siena to Pisa and checked in to the Hotel di Stefano which is where we stayed when we first came. We dropped off our rental car and then wandered around a bit.
Dinner tonight was at La Clessidra, which might mean hourglass (there were several scattered about the room). It was very good although we were disappointed not to be able to eat at Il Vesuvio again. And, finally, we walked down to the Arno on a clear, warm evening and had a final gelato watching the moon reflecting off the river. Arrivederci Italia!
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