The Duomo

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When you walk down the streets of cities in Italy you are often hemmed in by buildings two or three stories high on either side. That, in part, is why it is so easy to get lost. You have no landmarks and no horizon. Imagine your surprise, then, when you come around a corner and find this:

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This is the Florence Cathedral, the centerpiece of which is the Duomo.It takes a while to walk around it. Here are some of the details:

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Pictures do not do this place justice.

Well, as we strolled around we saw that there were several lines formed. As we later learned, some of the lines were to tour the inside of the Cathedral. One line was to climb to the top of the Duomo, a total of 636 steps. I did some quick mental math. Last year, when we were in Costa Rica we climbed down to, and back up from, the falls at La Fortuna, a total, I seemed to recall, of 730 steps (actually it was 550 plus or minus). Some of those steps were barely steps at all and, although it damn near killed us and we took beaucoup breaks, we made it due, in large part, to the patience of our guide. So, I reasoned, certainly I could handle this!

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See that little cupola on top? That’s where you come out.

So, I bought my ticket and stood in the very long line. Dianne declined and said she would prefer to see the inside of the Cathedral. She encouraged me to call her on the cell phone once I got up there so she could be assured I hadn’t had The Big One on the way up.

Well, the line moved right along. They were letting in about 20 people at a time, and this is where things started to go south. Rather than letting me be the last person in the group now entering, the ticket taker decided to make be the first person in the next group which was made up of a bunch of hard-bodied millennials. When the gate opened it was like being in a 5K.

At first, we climbed a few sets of modest stairs that led led us up into the Cathedral. We were moving at a pace that was less than ideal for photos, but here are a couple taken from that level:

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So far, I was holding my own. Then we went into a very narrow entrance. Immediately it was much darker, much cooler, and only single file with not so much as an alcove to tuck your weary carcass into. Oh, and did I mention, it was also much steeper.

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I was good for a while, but it did not take long before I was sucking wind and starting to get a bit wobbly. The prospect of having The Big One was no longer just amusing hyperbole. Then, thankfully, there was a shift in the staircase, no doubt to accommodate the shape of the dome. At the point of the shift was a place to pull off and catch a breather. The rest of my group bounded on by, but they were feeling it too. Our starting pace had slowed dramatically.

Once my heart rate slowed down to a more reasonable 700 beats per minute, I started off again. With each opportunity I stopped. At one point some guy with a gray beard stopped next to me and in broken English asked something to the effect of “What the hell are you doing up here? Man, you’ve got to slow down. That’s the key” I didn’t really need that advice, but I was encouraged, not by what he said, but by the fact that a guy with a gray beard had made it this far.

In time, I made it, but not without a pretty good case of the heebie-jeebies. Here is the entrance and exit:

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After I finally got up there I took a moment to collect myself and was good from that point on.

There isn’t a whole lot of room up there and you have to work around the crowds. Here is the principle route:

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Naturally the first thing I did was take a peek over the edge:

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Then, a much broader vista, starting with the Basilica of Santa Croce:

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The church of San Lorenzo:

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A glimpse of Tuscany:

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The campanile, which you can also climb. You can, I’m not:

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What a beautiful city!

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Well, the trip back down was much better, but by no means easy. Arriving at the ground floor is much like making it into port after a storm on the lake. You don’t actually want to kiss the ground, but you are glad to bounce up and down on it a few times.

Here are some pictures of the inside taken by Dianne:

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What an incredible creation.

The David

We had already decided that our first full day in Florence was going to be Art Day. The two prime stops for this purpose are the Galleria dell Accademia which houses Michaelangelo’s David and the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the great art museums in the world. the Accademia is fairly small and easy to navigate, so we bought tickets online for the morning. The Uffizi, though, is huge, so for that one we arranged a tour for the afternoon.

So, off we went from our hotel to the 23 bus which stops right around the corner and then winds its way through the heart of Florence. After a very scenic ride we were soon deposited in front of the Accademia. After they take your tickets you just follow the arrows, or the crowd, if you prefer. Soon you end up in a large room at the center of which is a plaster reproduction of Giambologns’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Since you’ll see the original in a later post, we’ll move on.

So, you leave this room and enter the Hall of the Captives. You enter at one end and at the other is this guy:

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But not so fast, my friends. As you head for the David you can’t help but notice some other statues, or blocks of marble along the walls. These are the Captives. Michelangelo was once hired to create statues for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Well, it wasn’t long till the Pope became a little strapped for funds. First he reduced the scale of the project, then later he dropped it altogether. Michelangelo went on to work on other projects and these guys were never finished. They were found after his death and eventually made their way back to Florence.

So, we have figures trying to make their way out of the marble, but now forever captive. Let me introduce you!

The Atlas

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The Bearded Slave

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The Young Slave

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The Awakening Slave

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In addition to being eerie, the value of the Captives is to show how Michelangelo worked. Most sculptors, apparently, work from a plaster models and match points on the model to points on the marble. Michelangelo, however, worked free-hand with no model. Somehow he knew where to stop taking out big chunks and what to leave in to make veins, tendons, and so on. The whole process is a mystery to me. So, let’s take a look at a finished product:

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Not only is he perfectly sculpted, he stands fourteen feet tall. You can look at picture after picture of this guy, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

When he was first commissioned by the Vestry Board, the idea was that he would be one of a series of statues hoisted up into niches of the  Florence Cathedral. You may recall the story of how Michelangelo was given a marble block to work with that had been previously rejected by other sculptors as too imperfect. Michelangelo, though, saw the potential. He was only 24 years old when he began the project. Working in seclusion for several years, at long last one January day in 1504 he invited he invited the Vestry board in to see the finished product. You can only imagine how they must have felt when they saw it for the first time.

Immediately they realized that they couldn’t just stick this guy up on a niche. Instead they commissioned a panel, which included Leonardo Di Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangalloand along with 27 other prominent Florentines. Eventually they decided to place it outdoors in the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. It took 40 men four days to move it from  Michelangelo’s workshop to the new location. There it remained from 1504 to 1893, when somebody finally realized that the weather was doing some real damage. It was then moved to the Accademia.and restored.

Rick Steves says when you look in the eyes of David you see the face of the Renaissance man:

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And there is discussion about his large right hand.

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Talk about fine work! David’s sling is cardboard thin. After the statue was moved to its permanent home, Michelangelo came back and did some finish work on it. One thing he did was to gild the sling. He also added a gilded crown, all of which was lost over time.

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What else is there to say?

Most of the rest of the Accademia is a collection of plaster models of other works of art:

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At the other end of the Hall of Captives is this, a bust of Michelangelo:

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This bust was the work of Daniele Ricciarelli, who was a friend and student of the sculptor. Michelangelo lived to the age of 88 and obviously this is in his later years. You will see other works depicting Michelangelo in future posts, always with the same sad expression.

Ricciarell, by the way, became famous in his own right as the painter who covered up the genitals of the figures in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel at the request of one of the more conservative Popes. He painted a tasteful selection of breeches and loin cloths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firenze!

When our train pulled out of Venice we asked ourselves what could possibly compare to this fabulous city? Two hours later we found out.

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The skyline of Florence is dominated to three massive structures:

The Basilica Santa Croce:

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The Duomo:

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And, the the Palazzo Vecchio, former palace of the Medici:

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And, snaking its way through the city is the Arno river:

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Spanning that river, near the heart of Florence is the famous Ponte Vecchio and its many shops:

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Yet another feast for the eyes! Speaking of which, Florence, of course, is also home to some of the greatest art ever created. Later we’ll take a look at some of it.

In addition to all of the above, Florence is also the gateway to the region of Tuscany. So, picture this, as I did many times: You spend a wonderful day looking at art and other stuff. Then, you hop in your car, head off into the Tuscan hills, pull up in front of a beautiful vineyard where you sample fine wines with your sweetie while gazing at the villa-dotted horizon. Well, to make that dream come true one thing in that picture was clearly missing: the car to hop into.

So, for the week we would be in Tuscany we decided to rent a car. Most of the car rental places in Florence are near the train station, which would normally be a good thing. However, comment after comment after comment on Trip Advisor and other places suggested two problems: 1) That area is reputed to be the craziest of all crazy places in a city that you have to be crazy to drive in, and, 2) if you find yourself somehow missing turns (my specialty) and all of a sudden driving the streets of the historic center, your fine will be several times the purchase price of The David.

For those two reasons we decided to rent with Hertz, which has an office on the other side of the Arno, far from the madding crowd. Another important consideration was that our hotel was on the other side of the Arno as well. We called a cab at the train station and soon we were off to meet our rental! It took only a few blocks to realize we had made a good choice. This was a driving experience like no other. Clearly, in Florence (and elsewhere in Italy we later discovered), you want a cab driver who is 1) aggressive and 2) has no fear of death. In no time we pulled up at the Hertz office. With shaky hands I tipped heavily.

Hertz did indeed have our rental. Only one problem. We had requested (no, demanded) a GPS and they didn’t have a car that had one. Well, I was beyond disappointed, but before I could launch into my customary string of profane words, gestures, and deeds, the clerk said, “But wait! I have something better!”  What that turned out to be was a portable WiFi that we could plug into the lighter and then we could navigate with our cell phones. Well, after much discussion, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments,  and considering our bleak options, we decided to go for it. So armed with Google Maps and hand-puppet directions from the Hertz staff we were off for the Hotel David.

Thankfully, this was indeed a quieter part of town, but there was still plenty of traffic. And, as we anticipated from previous experience, street names changed about every other block. That said, only once did we find ourselves driving out into the Tuscan countryside instead of where our hotel was supposed to be. About an hour into what should have been a twenty minute trip we found ourselves to really, truly and actually be on Viale Michelangiolo, the location of our hotel.

Well, said viale winds through a pretty large part of the west bank of the Arno. We made the trip from one end to the other umpteen times in heavy traffic and could not find our hotel. We finally called the place and the clerk was very helpful, spoke excellent English, but could not describe any landmarks in our recent experience. Finally he said he would go out the side of the street and wave! While that was a very heroic gesture, if we were on the wrong end of the viale we couldn’t have seen him if he had grown to the size of Godzilla. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Of course, by the time we saw it I had already driven past, but in no time, we were safely parked in the Hotel David parking lot, where parking is free. I handed the keys to the valet and did not touch them again for three days. Here is what we had been looking for all along. How could we have missed that sign?:

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Arrivederci Venezia

Venice began its existence as a hideout for people following the collapse of the Western Roman empire. Barbarians would come down from the north and those who occupied nearby villages would head out to the islands to escape. Then the barbarians would leave and the islanders would go back to their homes. This went on for a while, then Atilla the Hun shows up. Unlike his lightweight predecessors, Attila was all business. He burned every village and everything else in sight. However, even he didn’t feel like slogging out to the islands.

This time the islanders were fed up. Rather than going back to the mainland and re-building for the umpteenth time, they decided to stay. Only problem was, the islands were mostly marshes and the people quickly got tired of sinking into the mud every time they tried to go someplace. Then, somebody hit on the idea of driving stakes into the muck for people to walk on. Brilliant!

Many of these people were fishermen so they knew that the best, most water resistant boats were made of alder wo0d. Soon they were sending barge after barge across the Adriatic to bring back alder logs. They would then trim them to roughly fifteen feet in length and start driving them in. After they finished this they would build wooden (later stone) platforms on top and build buildings. When one of the large churches was built in the 1600’s it was recorded that it took 1,106,657 wooden stakes and two years and two months of pile driving just to build the base. Along the way, the Venetians managed to wipe out the forests of Croatia and Slovenia.

I am telling this story only because today, much of Venice is still supported by those very same stakes, now hundreds of years old. Apparently, the muck does not allow wood-eating creatures to survive.  Problem is, muck is still muck and little by little Venice is sinking. Not much. Maybe a millimeter per year. But over time it still adds up. Is that the biggest problem Venice faces? Not hardly. What is the biggest problem? Guess.

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Typically Venice floods about a hundred times a year, usually from October through winter. This phenomena is called the acqua alta and is generally more of a nuisance than anything more serious. If you decided to go to Venice then, you might encounter this:

Acqua Alta, St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

Photo from Rick Steves

or this:

Photo from Rick Steves.

It has long been understood that Venice is a city living on borrowed time. But given the current climate it is not hard to imagine that time is running out. I suggest you move this city to the top of your wish list. Now, to change the subject.

After going through my bazillion photos I realized that I had left out of few from Saint Mark’s basilica, actually some details you see in the picture above,

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If you are considering marble counter tops, what better place to look at samples?

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The replica horses:

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I really can’t get enough of this place.

Often we would be late getting back to the hotel and just as often we would fail to make reservations at any restaurant. Fortunately the hotel staff would bail us out by contacting their friends to let us in. This generally led to evening strolls through the neighborhood. There are always people out, though, so safety is not a concern.

Although this street looks a little foreboding, there were lots of people behind us when I took this.

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It led us to this place:

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If you order meat for your pizza, sandwich or salad, they cut it fresh!

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The big thing in Venice is Murano glass, which, not surprisingly, I’d never heard of. Murano is an island near Venice and tourists flock there like pigeons in a peanut factory. While we did not have time to join them, plenty of glass was available in the city proper. Here is the result of Dianne’s very deliberate and well-done shopping,

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Plenty of room for these in the carry-ons!

Earlier I had mentioned the Correr Museum, which is on the opposite end of Piazza San Marco from the basilica. Here a few highlights;

This is the Doges library, all the books being leather bound.

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A very fine coin collection. Each Doge, apparently, felt the need to have their reign memorialized on coins. Some obviously preferred gold.

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Later in Venetian history the city became famous for the Masked Ball. Young upper-crust gentlemen would descend on the city each year from other city states with the idea of engaging in a little hanky-panky with young ladies of the area. Some of these ladies apparently were troubled by matters of stature. Well, problem solved!

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And so, people, it was time to say goodbye to Venice. We were trapped like all the other tourists, but we were enchanted as well. We would gladly return. One last look out the room of our hotel,

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before we made a mad dash for the front desk so they could call us a guy to move our now heavier bags across that bridge. Soon he shows up, possibly a member of the WHHS Class of ’56.

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But, not only did he take all this stuff across the bridge, he took us to a secret entrance to the train station which led directly to the trains! Well worth the 20 euro!

We were sittin; at the railway station, had a ticket for our destination.Florence!

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But this pretty well sums up our feeling about Venice:

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The Rialto Bridge

If you’re in Venice and you long to see the faces of your fellow tourists, well typically all you have to do is turn around,  if there aren’t already several hundred in front of you. But if you want to see even more of them, head for the Rialto bridge.

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(This is not my picture, since apparently it is the one thing in this town I didn’t photograph. Credit goes to Wikimedia)

The bridge in its current form dates to 1591 and was designed, even then, to include shops on either side. They are well occupied to this day. So, ready for a leisurely stroll through the shops? Well, so is most of the civilized world.

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If you can’t find enough shops on the bridge…

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there are plenty more on the other side.

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And, there are more on virtually every side street.

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So, what is it we think we need? How about some hand-made shoes?

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What! You say you don’t have gloves to match the shoes? Mama mia!

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Perhaps some nice baubles to complete the look.

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Going retro?

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Want to enhance the decor?

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Ready to bring the old man in line with your new fashion sense?

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Wait! Don’t have time to dock the gondola for a little shopping? Problem solved!

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Now, let’s pick up  a little something for the maid!

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Well, all this shopping can wear a body out. Time to hit the gelato stand!

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Then, it’s time to hit the sauce!

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Now a quick bite for those on the go!

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And, perhaps, a little dessert!

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One thing about shopping, it should make you happy!

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Next, we will take one last look and Venice, then we’re off to Florence!

 

 

 

 

The Gondolier

Perhaps, when you think of romance, you conjure up a vision of you and your sweetie on a classic gold-trimmed gondola  slowly winding through the narrow canals of Venice, while your gondolier, in his best tenor, passionately, tearfully, renders his best “O Solo Mio”. Well, you must have seen it in a movie, because in the real Venice, things are strictly business.

There are 425 gondolas scattered throughout Venice. Did we count them? No need. Gondoliers are part of a guild (like a union) and the guild only allows 425 licenses. The guild also controls the cost of the trip, although some bargaining is possible. If you want to know the cost, you can, of course, look it up on the internet. Or, you can just ask the gondolier.

As we noted in earlier posts, there were a number of gondolas moored right outside our hotel. But, the Grand Canal is much like an interstate, with lots of cargo traffic and, of course, the vaporettos all over the place. Hardly very romantic.

Since Dianne and I had spent so much time on the Piazza San Marco and since the idea of riding under the Bridge of Sighs actually did seem romantic, we decided to ship out of there. To refresh you memory, here is the layout:

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The red tent in the distance, between the columns, is the headquarters. When you go there you will see many gondoliers, in their striped shirts, standing around shooting the breeze. If you approach them, they will be sure to ignore you. Eventually you will discover that one of them is sitting on a chair. He is the next on call. When you approach him he will be friendlier and will give you the price for his services. If you want about a 20 minute spin around the block, long enough to say you did it and take some selfies, it will cost about 80 euro. If you want to actually wind through the canals for about 45 minutes, then 120 euro would be just right. If you want to go all the way across town to the Grand Canal, an hour plus trip, then figure on 200 plus. By the way, gondoliers don’t sing. If you want to hear “O Solo Mio” the guy who will sing it to you costs an extra 120 euro plus. He’ll ride in the front of the boat.

Having already been warned by Rick Steves, we had budgeted for the middle option. Soon we were on our way!

First the cover comes off…

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Seats are arranged…

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The passengers are seated…

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And we head into the canals.

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I will say one thing about the gondolas: They are absolutely beautiful and actually works of art! Some of them should be in museums.

Well, be began our journey going under the Ponte della Paglia, the main north-south tourist route. Then under the Bridge of Sighs. The gondolier told us if you kiss under the bridge it is supposed to bring good luck. So…

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This is certainly not the only bridge we would find on our journey.

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What we should have expected, and did not, was traffic jams.

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No collisions, but not particularly romantic either.

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Eventually the worst of the traffic cleared and things began to quiet down

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It is truly beautiful going down these canals. It is an incredible city. Our gondolier, who pointed out a few sights along the way, was mostly quiet. All of a sudden he starts speaking in Italian. My first thought was, surely he doesn’t think we understand the language? Turns out he was talking on his cell phone! That’s him in the background.

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Well, the conversation didn’t last long, but it was hardly a magical moment. Then he was back to business. Along the way we passed some beautiful boats:

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This one was docked outside a church.

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Some sights along the way:

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You get a sense that it would not take much to flood the whole town, which does happen from time to time:

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In addition to all the gondolas, we also make room for cargo boats:

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Now, if these pictures didn’t quite take you there, here is a video of the last six minutes of our cruise where things got a little crazy again. There were many quieter moments as well:

Soon we were back to the piazza:

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So, if you are looking for a storybook romantic experience, this is probably not it. The gondola is where the magical Venice and the tourist-trap Venice come to meet.  Is it worth it? Absolutely. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. We might start from a different location. Maybe Tripadvisor has some suggestions. But all things considered, there is no better way to see one of the great cities of the world.

Next, we’ll go on a little shopping spree! Well, at least we’ll look in the windows.

 

 

 

 

The Bridge of Sighs

Faced with power struggles inside Venice and threats from invaders outside, you can forgive a Doge for being a little paranoid. Accordingly they were not bashful about disposing of anyone who was, or was rumored to be, interested in taking over.

Originally, the palace dungeons and torture chambers were housed in the basement. But, due to overflow crowds down there a new, connecting building was created to give prisoners more room to stretch, or be stretched, depending on the nature of their crime. To connect the buildings a bridge was built with two lanes of traffic, one inbound and the other outbound. It is not hard to imagine which was more heavily traveled. This is the bridge:

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A close-up:

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This became known as the Bridge of Sighs because prisoners would look out the window at their last breath of fresh air and last glimpse of sunlight, possibly ever, and sigh. Or, so the story goes.

This, minus the gondola, was their view:

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As it so happens, we encountered a young prisoner sighing on that very bridge. Although she was told a thousand times not to mess with politics the message never got through. Now she must pay the price.

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After crossing the bridge, things take a downhill turn:

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Early on, you get the idea that the government plans for you to stay a while:

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Here is our prisoner searching for a cell that meets her requirements for comfort and the proper amenities:

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Yes! Perfect!

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Nicely appointed and lots of companionship for those lonesome hours:

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Fortunately she likes her mattress extra firm! So do her roomies!

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Even better, the cell next door is occupied by a community of artists!

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Let’s see what works they left that have survived the ages:

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Hard to imagine what they must have been thinking about.

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There are a lot of recurring themes, no doubt after hours of artistic discussion.

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At least, if you were a prisoner in Venice, you found comfort knowing you weren’t alone:

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Next, we’ll take you for a ride on one of those gondolas and we’ll see what’s down the canal!