Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Italy Part II: Easter in Florence

Saturday 19 April
Today we were up and said goodbye to the awkward, but nice kitchen guy.

We took a taxi to the train station (1/2 of the price of our taxi here-Grr). We arrived a bit early and so stood around for about 45 minutes before they announced from which platform our train would be departing.

After that, it was easy enough. TVs on the platform showed where each carriage was on the train. We had a relatively cheap seat in business class (was cheaper by some promotion than economy). I was surprised that ALL our bags…even the big ones…went in the racks above the seats.

The ride was only about an hour and a half. It was comfortable with the exception of the kid who found it necessary to kick my seat for the duration of the journey. We got a free drink, but I chose coffee over champagne. Boring!!

We arrived to Florence in the rain, but were able to find our B&B hotel easily thanks to clear directions from the owner as to how to walk there from the train station.

The hotel is in an old building…again like an apartment with separate bedrooms. Our room is big with a built in bathroom. We have full use of the kitchen and a little balcony. It’s quite comfortable and cozy.

We set out into the chilly rain to see Florence. We started at the street market just outside our hotel. It was busy with people mostly selling leather goods. I’ve never seen so much leather in my life!! We continued into a large building that houses a yummy farmer’s market FULL of food.

We walked along the Basilica San Lorenzo and across the piazza. We saw the AMAZING Duomo and tower, which are icons of Florence. The detail in the tiles of the building is just…superb.

We strolled the streets and got delicious (and cheap!) panini (credit on plural form: Danny). It’s very crowded here too, though it’s a slower, more quaint feel than Rome. The streets are mostly cobblestone and there are more pedestrians than cars.

We headed out towards the river and it really started to pour rain, so we went into the nearest dingy café and got a hot chocolate-which was cold- and a cappuccino. We went to pay and were SHOCKED at our 14 euro bill for bad coffee and bad service :-/

COLD Chocolate :-/
We wandered more and saw the Piazza della Signoria with all its statues-including a copy of THE David. The actual statue was displayed in this square until 1873 when it was moved to a museum up the street.

I was freezing, so we made our way back to the hotel, stopping at a grocery store on the way-much less processed food than America :-/

We warmed up in the room a bit and put on warmer clothes to head to the Galleria dell’ Accademia to see the REAL Michelangelo’s David.

There was a bit of a line, but we were in within thirty minutes. The Gallery held many renaissance paintings-all religious in nature, of course. We rounded the corner…and there was David.

I have heard that this statue is amazing, but it nearly took my breath away. It. Was. Awesome.-in the truest sense of that word. I was speechless and actually gasped upon seeing it. We walked down the corridor towards the statue and joined the throngs of people staring up at the incredible detail. The muscles are so clearly defined…the veins in the arms and legs so true to life. And it was carved out of ONE piece of marble. It’s amazing.

The statue is well lit with natural light. We all slowly circled it in silence and admiration. There really is just something that draws you to it. It was truly hard to look away. If you ever find yourself in Florence…this is one thing TRULY worth the time and money.

Unfortunately no pictures allowed :-/

From David, we wandered into a room full of busts-many of the Bonaparte family. It was interesting to see these types of portraits, which were quite popular at one time.

We made our way out of the museum and across another square to a bar recommended to us by Veronica, who owns our B&B.

The bar had a 10 euro all-you-can-eat buffet that comes with a glass of wine. The place was kind of dead (apparently 7pm is too early for dinner?), but the food was DELICIOUS-especially for cheap bar food. We loaded up our plates twice and enjoyed the red wine.

We walked back through the streets at twilight while they were breaking down the market. Outside of the super expensive coffee…it was a great day :D

Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday)
Veronica told us that Easter is celebrated here by a party in the square, so we headed there soon after waking.

The square was the main square outside the Duomo. We knew when we were close, because it was PACKED. After a point, we honestly couldn’t even walk anymore. The crowd was so tightly packed together. Preston estimated that there were about 20k people in attendance(I have no ability to make guesses like this. I'd say 100k!!). We got as close to the center of the square as we could-leaning on a police car like a rock in a stream.

From where we stood, we could see just the top of an ornate cart. Church bells started ringing a beautiful song. Apparently (we didn’t actually see this part), a fake dove on a wire flew from the Duomo into the cart and set it afire. Fireworks burst from the bottom of the cart to the top for about ten minutes amongst the continued ringing of the church bells. It was VERY loud. The children in front of me covered their ears!! I didn’t blame them. However,  it was really quite beautiful and exciting.

We stood for awhile afterwards against our ‘rock’ in the rushing torrent of people exiting the square.

We got a quick cappuccino at McDonald’s (surprisingly tasty and NOT fourteen euro) and watched thousands of people walk by. We headed back to the hotel for better shoes and set off for the Piazza Michelangelo-set on a hill across the river with beautiful views of the city.

On the way, we stopped for pizza at a place frequented by the cast of Jersey Shore. Ha! It was excellent pizza, though our waitress was a bit spastic.

We walked through more beautiful piazzas and across the river. The day was sunny and warm.

We headed up the hill and steps (not too steep or long) to arrive at the Piazza Michelangelo. 

The view was glorious. We took pictures and sat on the steps amongst all the other people until a layer of clouds blew in.

The bronze statue of David

Back down the hill we walked and rewarded ourselves with gelato for our efforts. Unfortunately, it was the most average gelato we’ve had, but we walked around enjoying the other side of the river all the same. It was a charming, old world neighborhood. Much of the wall that used to encircle the city of Florence remains in this area. It's very medieval.

We went through this secret garden :D

We crossed the famous jewelry bridge-lined with shops. We learned later that this bridge once housed butcher shops. Apparently the smell of rotting meat was so horrific, that a member of the Medici family-tired of the smell on his walk to work-had it changed.

The Medici family was, at a time, rumored to be the wealthiest family in Europe with interests mainly in banking and politics. Their influence shaped Florence and much of Italy.

Preston and I strolled through the streets some more…amazed at the crowds.

For a break from the craziness, we returned to the hotel and sipped tea on the porch and read.

Since we had passed a few Laundromats during our walks around…we decided to do some laundry (we always have laundry!!). It took us FOREVER to find one when we went looking.

Finally, we did find a Laundromat. After being there a few minutes, an old man came in and pushed our stuff aside and took my seat. He was very friendly, but spoke no English and was wearing NO pants…only a sheet with a belt!!

He somehow (with only aggressive hand gestures) MADE Preston help him pull up his socks. When his clothes were dry(I guess he'd spilled something on his pants?), this old man also INSISTED that Preston dress him!! Haha!! It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. At one point, the man started yelling, “NO!! NO!!” because Preston hadn’t cuffed his jeans. Oh my gosh. The whole thing was hysterical. I guess older Italians just demand/expect this kind of respect :P

 We dropped our clothes back at the hotel and had dinner at a nearby candlelit trattoria. I had delectable lasagna. It was a very good Easter.

Monday 21 April
Today we went on a tour of Tuscany. We had a quick breakfast at our place and then stopped at McDonald’s for a quick cappuccino before boarding the coach.

The tour we found is called “Walkabout Tuscany” and was rather expensive, but this was worth the splurge.

We got a small history of Florence and drove by the impressive and ancient city gates.

The countryside was gorgeous. We passed a huge monastery up on a hill that only houses ten monks.

I don’t know what it is about those coach buses, but they just rock you to sleep. It’s nearly impossible to stay awake on one for any extended amount of time.

We arrived in Siena quite sleepy. The coach parked outside the city. We were met by a local guide (though the tour guide traveling with us was wonderful) and walked into the city.

Before long, we were in the old part of the city. The buildings were very high and the streets were very narrow.  It felt medieval. It was just splendid. We strolled through the streets. Siena is known for banking and was quite wealthy in its heyday. The buildings are mostly in a gothic style. There were round iron loops along all the building’s walls to tie up one’s horse :D

We continued down through the streets before bursting out into the impressive ‘square’, which is really more a circle.  This is the site of Siena’s famous and annual horse race-Il Palio.

Siena is divided into 17 contrade (or districts). These contrade are like one’s family. Each contrade has their own stores, piazzas, churches, etc. Once born into a contrade…you are loyal for life. If you move, if you marry to another contrade, if you have children in another contrade…the one in which you were born is still your own.

Of the seventeen contrade, ten are chosen to participate in this Il Palio, which occurs two times a year in July and August.

Il Palio is serious business in Siena. Horses are chosen by a lottery to insure that all is fair. The track goes along the perimeter (which is layered with clay for the race) of the main square (circle) and is small and dangerous with sharp turns. There are many accidents during this race :-/ Contrades work together in alliances for a win. The planning takes all year and the only prize is a banner and the glory of holding it.

We walked across the square.

Sidenote: ALL of Italy that we’ve seen has random spigots in squares of constantly flowing drinking water. People just go up to the spigot and place their water bottles underneath. This system remains from the Romans and their aqueducts. Incredible.

Up to the cathedral we climbed through the narrow streets. 

These were added to stabalize against earthquakes

Designation of the contrade lines

The cathedral was, again, ornate and beautiful.

The most interesting part of the inside was the differences between the frescoes in the main room, which had been exposed to candle smoke and the frescoes in a side room, which had not. The color and purity of those never near a lit candle were astonishing in difference to the grimy frescoes that had resided over candle smoke for hundreds of years.

Inside the main chapel

Protected in the outside wing
We left the cathedral and had a really quick latte back in the main square before walking out again to return to the coach.

We watched a video on the craziness of the Il Palio on our way further into Tuscany and the vineyard where we would have lunch.

Arriving at the vineyard, we got a very short tour of their wine making process, their olive trees, and saw some of the cows they butcher for meat. This vineyard is almost entirely self sufficient and is 100% organic.

As an interesting tidbit-we were told that they plant artichokes (and something else that I can’t recall) with the vines to alert the growers to a fungus, which can destroy the vineyard. Apparently artichokes are more susceptible than the grapes to this fungus, so the artichokes can act as an early warning sign. Fascinating!!

We had a lovely lunch of food all made at the vineyard-bread, oil, pasta ragu (meat sauce here in Italy), cured meats and cheeses, and biscotti. We also got generous tastings (bottles and bottles per table) of four different wines produced at this vineyard. We had a chianti (Tuscany is chianti region, afterall), a merlot, a white wine, and a sweet dessert wine that was more like a liqueur.

At our table was an older Australian couple from Torquay!! We relived our time there around Preston’s birthday. We were also joined by three Americans from Illinois. Small world :D

From lunch, we went to San Gimignano-a tiny walled city with towers perched on a hilltop.

Again, we parked outside and walked in. San Gimignano was like stepping back in history. Like Siena, the city was entirely pedestrian with high, stone walls and buildings. And again, it was so entirely medieval. We sat in a square and had drinks while taking it all in. I was completely enchanted with this place!!

After San Gimignano, we had an almost two hour ride to Pisa during which I succumbed to the napping power of the coach bus.

We arrived in Pisa in a rainstorm. We all loaded into a little trolley that drove us to the town center. Upon first glimpse of the tower…I actually laughed out loud. To hear about this famous leaning tower is one thing, but to see it in person is quite another. 


The lean of this tower is SO ridiculous, I think it impossible not to laugh. We took our obligatory pictures…pretending to push the tower over/hold it up.

I don't think my photographer really got what I was going for here ;)

We ducked into a little café and got a small pizza to escape the rain. Luckily, it started to clear just as we were leaving.

The sun set on our beautiful ride through the countryside back to Florence. After days spent in ancient history, it was funny to get on the freeway and see things like Ikea!!

We arrived back in Florence and grabbed some quick paninis before heading to bed with “Game of Thrones” :P

Tomorrow we are off to Venice!!

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