The Siena Cathedral

Well people, it has taken me so long to write up our trip to Italy that some of you think that either we’ve gone back or we never left. We are, in fact, home. At least for now. As far as these seemingly endless blogs are concerned, we are at about the halfway point of our Italian adventures. If you find the pace tedious, (as does the author) my advice would be to wait a year and read the whole thing at once. Good luck!–MS

On our first full day in Siena we headed for the Siena Cathedral. By the time we got there, a line had already formed and ticket sales were brisk. These were not tour tickets, they were just to get into the place. Groups of, say, 50 were let in at fifteen minute intervals.

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Of course, as we waited at the entrance, it’s not like there was nothing to see:

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At last it was our turn. And, just like so many cathedral visits before, from the first step inside, our minds were immediately blown:

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The entire cathedral inside and out is made up of alternating layers of white and black (or dark green) marble, symbolizing Siena’s color scheme.

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1100’s with much of the artwork being added in the following two centuries. What incredible engineering!

There’s no point in me yammering on. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

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The pulpit:

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This is the view looking back toward the entrance:

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As if the place needed more art, in the 1200’s they started to lay mosaics into the floor:

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Then, of course, there is the regular artwork. This is Michelangelo’s Saint Paul:

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And, just as you being to recover your senses, you join a line to get into what looks like a side room. Turns out it leads to the Piccolomini Library:

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The principle purpose of this room is to house rare medieval choir books. Feel free to sing along:

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At last it was time to head out the door:

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We spent one last evening in the piazza, then it was time to head to wine country!

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What an incredibly beautiful city!

Siena

Well, we wound our way our of the hills of San Gimignano and eventually found a four-lane divided highway with a sign pointing south to Siena. Siena is also a walled city, but this one is huge, home to 55,000 people. And, there are only eight places you can get in, called “Portas”. To get to our B&B, which was inside the walls, we had to find Porta Romana, on the south side. Once again the Google blue dot was a little tardy when it came to suggesting an exit and we were soon well past Siena before we figured that out. So, in a few miles we found a way to get back and the exit that looked promising. Sure enough, there was a sign for Porta Romano, which led us to a matrix of interconnecting highways, that once again had us heading south. But this time, it was only a two-lane road so turning around was quicker and easier. On our third try we spotted a tower that a sign confirmed was Porta Roma.

Here is the layout of Siena. The green area is the part that is inside the walls:

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This is where we stayed. The blue X marks the spot:

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Here is Porta Romana:

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Our B&B is called Palazzo Bulgarini, located on Via Pantaneto. When we booked it, months before, the manager said to be sure to let her know the license number of our car so she could notify the police. Well, of course, I didn’t have that number at the time of booking, so on our way out of  San Gimignano I called her first to tell her we were running late, and also to give her the number. Mastery of the English language, however was not her strong suit, but after repeated attempts I discerned this bit of info: Once we got through the Porta Romana we only had to continue straight in and look for number 93. She would call the police and give them my plate number. Then, we would have a half hour to unload, turn around, and get the hell out. After 30 minutes, a ticket and/or towing might be in my future.

So, in through the tower we went. Just as she described, we saw door after door with descending numbers until, at last, we were in front of number 93:

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We rang the bell, the buzzer buzzed and in we went with our bags. In and up:

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Until a door opened onto a rather compact hallway:

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We were a little winded, having dragged our stuff up here, but realizing time was of the essence I was ready to head back down at a moment’s notice. The manager gave us a warm welcome and began checking us in. One of the first things she asked for was my license number. I told I had already given her that info on the phone. Clearly she had not called the police, which substantially increased my interest in getting back to the car. I asked her where I could park. She said to continue in the direction I had come until I came to a street on the left. Turn there and take another quick left. That would put me on the street heading back out of town. Once I got out the gate there was plenty of parking around. We finished the paperwork, Dianne started moving the bags into the room, and I beat feet back to the car.

Her directions were perfect and soon I found myself headed through the Porta and out into the civilized world. Not far from the gate, to my surprise, was a parking place with a number on it. I pulled in. But already my mind started working. Surely this could not be a free space. What was that number for? I looked around. No machine.No sign. I got out and looked at the cars behind me. They seemed to have some kind of sticker that might be a parking sticker. I didn’t like the look of things. I pulled out and kept moving.

Soon I was at an intersection, no parking space in sight. I turned left and ran parallel to the wall. Soon I was driving downhill past Porta Pispini. Not good. A few blocks from there, however, the street widened and became a road. And, not far down that road I found a bunch of cars parked along the side and one free space. I took it.

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Once again, I looked at the other cars. No stickers, no nothing. I decided this was the place I would make my stand. Then I began the roughly mile and  a half uphill climb back to our room. At least it was scenic.

After an extended period of time, I made it to our room. I was eager to tell the manager exactly what I had done and to hear her say, “Good parking place”. But, by the time I got back, in the fine Italian B&B tradition, she was long gone.

I will say this, though, the room was nice:

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And the view out the window was quite pleasant:

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Once I regained my composure, we decided it was time to do a little exploring. We headed down Via Pantaneto. After only a few blocks we found ourselves in a huge piazza called Il Campo, the heart of the city:

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The Piazza del Campo is simply breathtaking, just like stepping back into Medieval times.

The first order of business was to get a little dinner, and, as you can see by the awnings, there is no shortage of places from which to choose. We settled on one nearby:

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The lady in black, with the menu, is the head of sales. You encounter about 15 of them as you stroll around Il Campo. They are happy to invite you in. I won’t go into a meal by meal account of this place, but I would draw your attention to this little delight:

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It is simply melon with a shaving of prosciutto. The two together make for a salty/sweet explosion of flavor. A little mozzarella smooths things out nicely. When we got back from Italy we served up many a helping of this over the summer. Can’t wait for melons to come back!

But, I digress. The Piazza del Campo was laid out in the fourteenth century and, in 1348 it was paved with these:

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From the center, nine lines of marble radiate across the piazza signifying the families in charge at the time. .

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Relations between families in Siena were not so contentious as they were in San Gimignano, so nobody felt the need to build defensive towers. Instead, they chose to compete in a much classier way: The Palio de Siena.

OK, so here is how the piazza looked at the time of our visit:

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Now picture it slightly more populated:

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Every July 2nd and August 16th, people from all over the area and all over the world come to Siena for the Palio, which is a ten-horse race that has been run in this piazza since 1633. In Siena there are 17 Contrades, or city wards. Not surprisingly, given the history of Europe, they are bitter rivals. But, rather than kill each other, long the custom elsewhere, they settle their grievances with this horse race. Because the piazza is limited in size, they only race 10 horses, so they have developed a system for which contrades get to race at any particular Pialo. The race is run for three laps around the piazza, which takes about 90 seconds. It begins with the dropping of a rope:

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For this race, the city, at considerable expense, hauls in tons of special dirt to place around the perimeter of the piazza. The riders ride bareback and the only thing they carry with them is small whip, which serves two purposes: 1) to move their horse along, but more importantly, 2) to whip the hell out of opposing jockeys and their horses, too. This is not intended to be a friendly race and there are plenty of euros being exchanged behind the scenes with race officials to get an advantage in position of whatever.

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Because some of the turns are sharp and because the jockeys are wailing hell out of each other, it is not uncommon for a rider to be ejected from his mount. And some have been seriously injured. Horses have been injured as well, so recently padding, as you see on the left below, has been added to soften the blow. As you might imagine, animal rights people take a very dim view of these proceedings.

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Interestingly, some horses have won the race without their rider attached, which is allowed.

We were not altogether sorry to have missed this event, given our lack of fondness for big crowds. After a very nice dinner we continued our stroll through the streets. Next, we’ll show you what we saw.

Toolin’ Around Tuscany

After returning to our room from our day in Cinque Terre, we were pleased to find that, true to her word, our laundry was waiting for us, clean and neatly folded or hung on hangers. The next morning, when it was time to settle up, the young lady who ran the place would not take payment for her mother’s work. OK. So, we left a tip that far exceeded what a laundromat would have cost, sneaked down the stairs, and we were out.

Thankfully, our car had no tickets waiting for us. We hopped in and made our way out of La Spezia. It was one of those places where, when you leave, you hope to return to some day.

Our next destination was the medieval city of Siena. Typically it would be about a 3 hour trip, if you knew where you were and what you were doing. Unfortunately, we often didn’t know either of these things for most of the trip. Accordingly, it took substantially longer. Here is our route as it may, or may not have been: The red line is to San Gimignano. The blue is from there to Siena.

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At some point in the planning process for this trip I happened to see a Rick Steves video which talked up the romantic qualities of some of the historic Tuscan hill towns. Of these, the one that stood out above all others was the village of San Gimignano (pronounced gym-in-NYAN-o). What made it appealing is that many of the old towers associated with the powerful families of the area, were still visible. It looked like a beautiful place for a stroll, overlooking the Tuscan hillside. So, off we went.

Well, here is what I do know: We took the right exit off SS67 which heads back to Florence. But not long after taking said exit we found ourselves at various intersections that Google Maps had a hard time keeping up with. And, at many of these, decisions had to be made quickly. The net effect was, that we were generally headed in the right direction, South, but certain villages did not appear when they were supposed to. So, when a rare sign came up that would take us to a village we could find on Google, we followed the sign which soon had us winding our way down numerous dirt roads through a large provincial park.

Since we had plenty of time and since it was one beautiful pastoral scene after another we were perfectly happy to be where we were and spent some time slowly enjoying the countryside. Along the way we encountered hikers, bikers (of the bicycle persuasion) and various other outdoor types. Clearly many people were enjoying the first days of Spring. What we did not encounter in our journey was either gas stations or bathrooms. Just when the need for both was no longer amusing, we found a town. And, as it turned out, San Gimignano was not all that far away. Here is a look at some the countryside:

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Now, those of you who have been over the good ol’ USA will recognize from your travels scenery that is just as beautiful. What sets Tuscany apart is the charming and picturesque Italian villas dotting the countryside, with the white stucco and the red-tiled roofs where the grounds are meticulously maintained and where peace and tranquility reign. And, of course, there is the wine.

Well, we continued happily along, once again on a secondary road, and then we came around a corner and there it was, off in the distance: San Gimignano

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Not too hard on the eyes

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San Gimignano has been occupied in one form or another since Roman days. In boom times there were as many as sixty towers like those you see here. Now there are only a dozen. For around a thousand years San Gimignano was a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and it long flourished as a trade center as well. But, it is a walled city and here was a big problem with walled cities in those times: The Black Death. By the end of  1348 over half the city’s population was dead or dying. San Gimignano never recovered.

In time the town leaders gave themselves over to Florence for governance. To be accepted they were required to tear down their towers, which most did. But, Florence had other issues to deal with and San Gimignano was never developed. Instead, all but abandoned,  it remained in its medieval state until the 19th century when scholars began to realized what a treasure it was. Now, it is given over to the tourist trade.

We arrived there around noon and the first thing we discovered was that the place was packed with tourists. Parking lots are arranged in tiers going up the face of the hill to the outer walls of the city. The first tier, closest to the walls, was full. So was the second. And, the third, no wait, some guy is pulling out. He went out, we went in.

It was quite a hike getting up that hill. But, it was also pretty scenic:

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As we looked out over the countryside, we couldn’t help but note that the sky was getting quite dark. And, the frequent thunder was another clue that there could be problems. We had rain gear in the car, but were in no mood to hike back down to get it. And, my meteorological savvy told me the storm was moving away.

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We continued to the wall:

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Thankfully, there is an elevator that takes you up to this level. From there it is a quick hike to the city, where the first order of business was lunch.

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By this point in our travels we had become fond of meat and cheese plates for lunch. They are flavorful and light, except for the bazillion calories served with each dish.

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We had just finished the last bite when the rains hit:

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They started out light at first and we were able to pass by some nice shops:

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Olive wood is all the rage in the tourist world, as are ceramics.

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But the time for window shopping soon passed:

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Without the benefit of so much as an umbrella, we made a mad dash for one of the piazzas:

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We, and about fifty other tourists were able to find shelter in the alcove below:

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Not only was it pouring, it had turned quite cold. And, while we enjoyed the beautiful view, after about a half hour of this we were ready to abandon ship. One item of note: in the picture below, above the pointy hood of the lady in pink you will see a stone structure with steps on the piazza. It is a cistern. At one time, all the rain water from the roofs of the towers was collected here and provided drinking water for the whole town for a thousand years. See, I did learn something. Two things, actually. I also learned that I do, indeed, have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

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Clearly this was not going to be the occasion for a romantic stroll through the towered city. When the rain let up we made a mad dash for the car. By the time we made it we were plenty damp, but not soaked.

To get out of San Gimignano, the parking tiers all empty out onto a two-lane road. There is a gate at the end of each lane where you pay to exit. I had both credit card and euros in hand, but as we approached the gate I noticed that a woman a few cars ahead, who was actually at the gate, suddenly opened her door and made a mad dash down the parking lot. She returned in a few minutes, fed the machine, the gate opened and off she went. Of course, my comment to Dianne was something to the effect of, what kind of dumbass would approach a gate, with cars backed up to Rome, and not have any change with her?

After what seemed like an eternity it was finally my turn. I approached the machine, rolled down my window, and quickly observed two things: there was not place to put money and there was no place to put a credit card. There was a little slot, so i tried to jamb my credit car into it, but I discerned  from the get-go that this was not going to work. I was absolutely baffled. And, there was no way to back up; no way to turn off.

Suddenly someone came to my window, probably the person behind me. She said, in very broken English, something to the effect of, “Buy ticket”. “Where!!!” She pointed down the parking lot from which my predecessor had made her panicked run. I was off like a shot. And, I must confess to the use of certain colorful language that required no translation whatsoever. Soon I found a bank of machines, slammed in some euro, and grabbed the ticket. Usain Bolt himself would have applauded. In a twinkling I was back in the car, the ticket was consumed by the monster and the gate opened up. Once again the question came to mind: Why did I rent a car?

 

The Bay of Poets

My apologies to all my Italian readers. My little side trip to Cuba and other adventures have, no doubt, broken the spell. So, pour yourself a glass of Chianti Classico and think Italian thoughts. When last we visited Italy, we had gotten our rental car, managed to drive through Florence without getting killed, visited Pisa where I manged to drive straight through the pedestrian piazza, failed to get back onto the Autostrade and instead found ourselves in Carraara, the marble capital of the world. Eventually we arrived at our actual destination, La Spezia, the gateway to Cinque Terre.

La Spezia is a city larger than Canton, OH and it is nestled inside a very beautiful bay on the Italian Riviera.The reason we stayed there is that it is not a tourist town primarily and because it gave us a place to keep the car while we explored Cinque Terre. We’ll get into that stuff later, but since I know there are numerous English majors and/or enthusiasts who sometimes look at this blog I thought I would share with you a story that I sure never heard as an English major at BGSU.

The bay of La Spezia is called the Bay of Poets because it was a popular getaway for the likes, of Dante and Petrarch, then later, Lord Byron, and not least, Percy Byshee Shelley.

 Picture from some travel site.

Not least, because for a time Shelley had a place just up the bay a little bit, in the town of Lerici. One day in 1856 Shelly sailed off with a couple other guys in his new sailboat to meet with a collaborator on one of his projects. On the way back a storm came up and  the boat was swamped and sank. Shelly, age 29, and his two shipmates all drowned.

A day or so later, Shelly’s body washed up on the beach near Viareggio. The sanitary custom of time required on-the-spot cremation.

Painting by Louis Edouard Fournier

So, a ceremony was hurriedly put together. In attendance were Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt, Shelly’s close friends. There are varying accounts of how this happened, but they all lead to the same outcome: Shelly’s heart did not burn. Trelawney fished it out with a stick, wrapped it in a silk handkerchief, and gave it to Shelly’s wife, Mary, the future author of Frankenstein. It is said she kept it in her desk drawer and, years later,  it was buried with the remains of their son.

Sorry to open with this grisly little tale, but it just goes to show that a tourist can happen by here 160 years later, look out over the bay and have no idea of the things that went on.

We arrived in La Spezia with only a general plan on visiting Cinque Terre. Turns out, this is a pretty big city so it took some driving around to get the lay of the land.

Some street scenes:

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Eventually we found the train station, but had much more difficulty finding a place to park. After driving up and down the hills we were able to locate a spot in front of a coffee house, so we stopped in and got our bearings using our phones. We had some time kill before our B&B would be expecting us, so we decided to walk down to the train station, just to plan for the next day.

To get to the train station you enter below and climb stairs to get the the actual entrance:

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A nice station

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Cinque Terre, interpreted literally, is the “Five Lands”, which they no doubt were when they were built hundreds of years ago. But now they are five villages, one more picturesque than the other. The train connects them all, but many people come here for the hiking. Cinque Terre is actually a national park. Hiking, however, was not on our agenda.

We had originally planned to stop in and buy a day pass for tomorrow. But, the guy at the window told us that the first village, Riomaggiore, was only ten minutes away and the train would be leaving soon. Well, why not? So, we jumped on the train and had a very pleasant afternoon there.

In the next post I’ll show you Riomaggiore, along with the other four villages, but instead we’ll keep it in La Spezia for now. By the time we returned our room was ready.

As it turned out, our room was located in a building that might have been a bank or an old hotel. Lots of marble inside. There were steel gates at the entrance. But we rang the bell and were soon greeted by a pleasant young lady, who helped us up the considerable stairs.

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All the climbing led us to a very nice room, one of about four or five on that floor. The lady of the house showed us around and gave us our set of keys. The only slight inconvenience was that our bathroom was down the hall and around the corner. It was not shared by the other guests, so that was good.

The first order of business in La Spezia was to find a laundromat. But, when we asked for a recommendation, our host said that her mother would do it. What? How much would she charge?. “She LOVES to do laundry.”, we were told. She will not charge. Well, we could hardly pass up that deal. So, later that night we treated her mama to a heaping pile of duds.

We then asked if she could recommend any nearby restaurants. She said, absolutely. There is a place called Trattoria Nuova Spezia about a fifteen minute walk away. She made reservations for us for 8:30 and gave us simple directions for finding the place.

Last order of  business, where to park the car. She told us that there is a city lot, about five blocks away. She said be sure to pay the meter and get a time-stamped ticket to put on the dash. Otherwise, we could look forward to paying a huge fine. So, soon I was out the door and retrieving the car from its temporary location. I had no problem finding the lot, but when I stuck some euros in the ticket machine, they came spilling right back out. After several attempts at this I started looking for another machine. I found one come distance away. Same problem. I started looking on the cars and many had tickets, but some did not. I pictured myself throwing myself on the mercy of the traffic court, telling them in English that I had really tried to buy a ticket, but their stupid machines didn’t work. I then pictured myself getting twenty years to life. I searched for yet another machine.

I finally found one, across the street from the parking lot. I prayerfully slammed in my euros for the maximum amount of time. It worked! Out came the ticket. I raced back across the street and carefully placed my ticket for maximum visibility. In the meantime, a lady behind me had observed my success and quickly slammed her euros into the same machine. Out they came. Clearly, the city had performed zero maintenance on these things for some long time. I doubted that they even bothered to check the tickets.

When I got back to our room I was about to raise that question with our hostess, but Dianne advised me she was gone for the day. And so began our first experience with what would be a recurring issue: the absentee host at our B&B’s. Apparently the custom now is, check ’em in and get the hell out. We had an emergency contact number. That was it.

It was now time for dinner, so we headed up the street. I had already gotten a preview of the neighborhood in my walk back from the parking lot. We headed down Via Amendola. It was clean, and there wee people around, but you see graffiti, even though it is everywhere in Europe, and you think gangs. If there are any, we didn’t see them, and we always felt safe.

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When we arrived at the front entrance we pulled on the door and it didn’t open. Another couple was standing nearby and one of them said, “It’s locked!”. Well, that seemed odd. “There are people in there, but they haven’t opened the doors yet,” they told us. So, glad to hear a little English we talked to them for a while. But, no luck on getting in. Finally I peered once more into the window on the door. A waiter happened to be walking by. I knocked. He looked at my haggard, starving face and opened the door right away. “Come in!” he said in English. As it turned out, the door opened to the inside, not outside, so it was open all this time. Once again. I can’t overstate the importance of making a good first impression. Apparently the fire codes in Italy are a little lax.

We told the people at the desk that we had reservations made by our hostess, who they indicated that they knew. We were promptly seated at a nice little table for two. In just a few minutes our waiter arrived. He welcomed us and asked where we were from. When we said America his eyes opened wide. “America!”, he said, “I LOVE America!” He went on to talk about all the things he loved about our country, but it seems he had never been there. From that point on, our names were “America”. He started us off with a small pitcher of house wine, which was excellent, then he came back to take our order. We picked a couple items  from the menu and then he said. “You don’t want that. You want THIS!” he pointed to several options. “THIS is excellent!” Well, his recommendations did sound good, so we went with the program.

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Our waiter, Luciano. That was not our meal. This is from the La Nuova Spezia Facebook page.

Well, in Italy you go through several courses and while, previously, we only picked a couple, here, we went full out. This is a small sampling:

Antipasta, with real anchovy.

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The creature on the left is a lobster.

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Fried seafood with more anchovies and a few tiny octopi in there as well. They were tasty, but, although I had the opportunity for more elsewhere in Italy, this was enough. Anchovies are more like smelt. Very yummy.

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Luciano took our picture before we exploded:

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Well, that was some dinner! While we were sampling away, a large family of about twelve occupied a big round table close by. They all knew the staff and were in an out of the kitchen. Dianne had a clear view into the kitchen, or as clear as you could get through clouds of steam. Carts, with four or five dishes each, were continuously streaming out. Empty carts were streaming in.

Since La Spezia is not principally  a tourist town, a restaurant like this is the real deal. Everybody knows everybody. The energy and noise level are high and the whole experience is an event. Luciano frequently returned and when he came to take our dessert order we said we were too stuffed. But, Luciano would have none of it. Just like the old Monty Python “One thin mint” routine, he offered us dessert on the house. OK. We shared a tiramisu:

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Fabulous! Then Luciano came back with a limoncello, the lemon flavored liqueur and an orange liqueur as well. “On the house!”, he said. We had originally planned to have dinner the next night in one of the five villages, but this place was so good and so fun and so reasonably priced, we made reservations for the next night. When we showed up, the hostess looked at the reservation book, turned it toward me, and asked, “Is this you?” Luciano had written “Captain America.”

Leaving Florence

I forget exactly how it happened, but many years ago I learned this trick: Extend the fingers of your right hand. Then bend down your index finger so that from above it looks like half your index finger is missing. Then bend the thumb on your left hand and place the back of your thumb joint against the bent index finger of your right hand. Cover the space where they come together with the index finger of your left hand. then slide the bent thumb of your left hand along the middle finger of your right hand. The effect is that it looks like you are pulling off half of the index finger of your right hand.

I was blessed, if that’s the word, to have fingers and thumbs of the same width, so I can play this trick to absolute perfection. I first started by amusing our kids with it. I would, say, be slicing something with a big knife in the kitchen, then I would let out a loud yell. The kids would look up and I’d tell them that I just cut off my finger. Then I would pull half of it off using the above trick. What fun! Over the years I would do this for the benefit of our kids, their cousins, their friends, and, later, our grand kids. Endless hours of entertainment! Often kids who had seen it would ask to see it again the next time they came because they simply couldn’t believe it was possible!. To this day it still gets lots of laughs.

Our hotel in Florence is located across the river from the city center on the edge of a residential area consisting of apartments and mid-size homes. And, while Florence is home to many fine, upscale restaurants we were never sure enough of our schedule to make reservations at any of them. A couple times we made it back to the hotel just in time for their Manager’s Reception, an event like no other. To begin with, wine and beer were free with no limits on quantity. Then, on top of that, they put out tray after tray of tasty snacks.

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The Reception was held in this nice little garden.

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After spending time here the idea of a big dinner was not all that appealing. So we asked at the desk if there were any, say, pizza places or small restaurants nearby. Turns out there were several. We settled on a place called La Piperna.

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This is a classic neighborhood restaurant where everybody knows everybody, but when the occasional tourist stops in, they are greeted by friendly staff with English that is plenty good enough. Dianne got a pizza,

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And I got a pasta dish with, yes, real, genuine anchovies!

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Well, at La Piperna, the tables are fairly close together and the waitress seated us at one near a family of three which included a little girl, probably five of six years old. The girl was a little antsy and from time to time she would get up on her knees and turn around on her chair and look the place over. Unfortunately, about all there was to look as was Dianne and me. Her mother would tell her the Italian equivalent, I suppose, of “Turn around and sit down!”, which she would do, but then soon she would be back up again looking around.

It didn’t take long for her to catch my eye and I would smile at her and she would smile back. Then her mother would tell her to sit down again. We repeated this cycle a few times. Pretty soon she was back up looking at me. I thought to myself, I bet she would enjoy my famous finger trick!

So, up goes my hand, and off goes my finger. Well, that little girls eyes grew as big as saucers and all of a sudden, she starts to cry! Loudly! Now, my eyes are as big as saucers. I won’t say this is the first time I have ever gotten that reaction, but it doesn’t happen often. Thankfully the girl’s father saw the whole thing and understood that this was an attempt at humor and I was not trying to traumatize the kid. So he said something to her which must have been, “It’s only a trick.”

That did not exactly calm her down. Then the waitress shows up at their table with a cake. Turns out they were there celebrating the mother’s birthday. Which was now not much of a celebration with the kid wailing away. I was mortified. Thankfully, when the girl saw the cake, my abuse was quickly forgotten. Eventually the mother gave me a half-hearted smile so I was reasonably confident I would not have to call the US embassy to seek shelter. I was, however, glad to settle up and get the hell out of there.

That will probably be my last finger trick on foreign soil.

On our last day in Florence we agreed that if we saw any more art our heads might explode. Instead, we turned our attention to the sciences with a visit to the Galileo Museum. This museum, of course, is dedicated to the man himself, but also contains an extraordinary collection of scientific instruments now centuries old.

At the entrance is a bust of Galileo,

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Clearly, this is no shrinking violet.

While Galileo is credited with a number of inventions and his use of scientific method, he is best remembered for his work in astronomy and his discovery of the phases of Venus and of four of the moons of Jupiter. Where he ran into trouble was with the publication of his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. In this work he offered astronomical and observational support to the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. In the course of this presentation he appeared to attack the Pope, who took a very dim view of this theory. He was tried by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and his book was banned. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

In the museum you will find some of his early telescopes

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Then later improvements

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And even later improvements.

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Among other scientific items on display, not having to do with Galileo, are these:

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These models apparently were used to train the physicians of the day. There is another far more graphic set which I’ll keep in the vault.

One of the first things you see when you come into the museum is this incredible machine:

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This is the Armillary Sphere of Antonio Santucci. What you cannot see in this picture is, at the very center is a globe of the Earth. All these gears, when set in motion, replicate the orbit of the planets and the sun around the earth. This was built before elliptical orbits were discovered also. It no longer works.

When Galileo died, he requested to be buried in the cathedral of Santa Croce. However, because he was still considered a heretic, the best he could get was to be stuck off in some side room. By 1737 the Church had to recognize that Galileo was right all along and so, that year he was re-buried in the main cathedral as he had requested and a statue was placed there in his honor. During the re-burial, three fingers and a tooth were removed from the body as relics. Not inappropriately, his middle finger is on display at the museum:

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Now, for eternity, he is able to send one last message to his detractors.

Well, people, we could do on and on about Florence and we only saw a fraction of it in 3 days. But at last, it was time to leave. Which meant, it was also time to get behind the wheel and actually drive in the crazy country.

Our next destination was the Mediterranean coast, which meant that we would have to go through town on this side of the river and pick up their equivalent of an interstate. I will leave you with just a small sampling of what that was like:

The Art of Florence (At Least Some of It)

There is so much fine art in Florence that even if you lived here you probably wouldn’t see it all. And, while there is art in this blog, this is not an art blog. So, while we have hundreds of photos of works by the masters, there is no way to do them justice without spending the next year or so on nothing but art. Since this info is already readily available on the internet, you can easily call up just about every painting and sculpture in the city, if you want. Good luck.

So, what we will do instead is to give you sample of some of the works that, even weeks after returning to the US, continue to leave an impression on us and no doubt always will. You’ve already seen the David and his friends. Now we’ll head down the street to the Ufizzi Gallery, one of the largest in the world.

Once again, we took the advice of Rick Steves and hired a guide. So instead of waiting in this line

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we got right in! Not only that, but she actually slowed us down and explained stuff that we otherwise would have blown on by. Money well spent indeed!

First of all, this place is HUGE. Not as big as the Louvre, but close enough. And, even the ceilings are works of art.

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So we go into one of the first rooms, and here is this lovely couple:

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Allow me to introduce you to Frederico II do Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza.

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It doesn’t take long before you begin to notice that something ab0ut these people is a little odd. Take Frederico, for example:

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Sure, the hat’s a little funny, but mostly it’s hard to ignore that schnoz. Our guide, who seemed to have a little flair for the dramatic in her own right, told us that, in his younger days, Frederico was a valiant soldier. He was leading his troops into battle against some other city state, when he took a blow to the right side of his face that not only removed a good portion of it, but also his right eye as well. In spite of these VERY severe injuries, he found that he could still function and he wanted to go back into battle. Problem was, he couldn’t see anything coming at him from his right. To fix that he called in the company surgeon and had him remove enough of his nose that he could see past it with his left eye. And back into battle he went.

Now that is one fine story, and it appears that it is mostly true. Only the timing is slightly off. Frederico, as it turns out, lost the right side of his face, eye included, in a jousting tournament. Later, contemplating going into battle, and being constantly annoyed by that obstructive proboscis, he brought in the surgeon. As it turns out, he was a very successful warrior and leader and later became the Duke of Urbino

Along the way, he married the beautiful Battista Sforza

Picture credit Wikipedia

Two things you will notice about Battista. First, she has quite the high forehead. Apparently women with high foreheads were considered to be more intelligent and desirable, so it was the custom to pluck away a few rows to boost the perceived IQ.

In addition, she has quite the hairdo and is dressed to the nines with pearls and so on. But the second most striking thing about her is that she is so pale. The reason for this is that, at the time this painting was made, she had already been dead for two years. Sadly, she died at age 25, having just given birth to her seventh child.

Frederico was crushed by her loss. He carried these paintings, bound in an ornate gilded folder,  with him wherever he went. He never remarried and lived out his life as a highly regarded statesman.

Below is a painting that might otherwise be unremarkable compared to the others in this place, except that it is the only known panel painting attributed to Michelangelo. The principle characters are Joseph, Mary and St. John and the  naked people in the background apparently symbolized humanity before the Law as given to Moses.

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Now here’s one you’ve seen before, Sandro Boticelli’s Birth of Venus:

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So the basic story line is goddesses are born in the sea foam. Then the winds blow them ashore

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and the nymphs arise from the ground to welcome them home

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But the real story of this painting and several others is Venus herself.Simonetta Cattaneo was born into a noble family in the Genoa area. When she was fifteen (or maybe sixteen) she married a nobleman named Marco Vespucci. They promptly moved to Florence. It took no time whatsoever for Simonetta Vespucci to catch the eye of every lecherous gentleman in the city. This included the Medici. At the time Lorenzo and his brother, Guiliano Medici, were jointly ruling the city. When Lorenzo was busy with affairs of state,  Guiliano apparently was interested in affairs of another type. In addition, every painter and poet in town were similarly smitten. Maybe none more so than Sandro Botticelli. Here is another of his masterpieces, La Primavera:

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Does the lady in the middle look familiar?

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She shows up in other Botticelli works also as well as the works of other painters. Simonetta Vespucci was the “it” girl of the renaissance. But, at age 22, she contracted tuberculosis and died. It is said that thousands accompanied her coffin to the Church of Ognissanti. There is no evidence that she ever had so much as an affair. Botticelli finished The Birth of Venus nine years later. He requested that when he died, that he be interred at Simonetta’s feet. Thirty-four years later, he was.

So here is another tale told by our guide. This painting is called Baptism of Christ and is attributed to the “workshop” of Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was apparently primarily a sculptor, but he maintained a school of promising young artists and when a painting would be commissioned he would have his students do most of the work.

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One of those students was Leonardo di Vinci, who painted the angel on the left. He used a brush with a single hair to paint the hair on the angel.

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The guide said that the envious Verrachio painted the angel on the right and then, in awe of Leonardo, put away his brushes and never painted again. Good story.

OK people, that is just a few of the bazillion paintings in the Ufizzi, but now you know why we won’t be doing more. As the great Rod Stewart once said,”Every Picture Tells a Story”. I would certainly suggest you go on line and see the rest.

Like just about every Italian city, art is everywhere. This is the Palazzo Veccio, home to the Medici Palace. If you look to the far right you will see a statue by the doorway. That is where The David originally stood. An imposter stands there now.

As you can see, a number of other statues are there as well.

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And then there is this:

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Now that is one big-ass golden turtle! Now he might look fine in an American city, but here? On the same square where Savanarola and his followers were burned to death for heresy? Let’s just say, he seemed a little out of place. Even Hercules had to look away.

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Well, we’re going to do one more museum, then we must move on to other topics. Our next stop:

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Picture Credit Wikipedia

The Bargello, built in 1255 was once a barracks and a jail. Now it is an outstanding art museum. Let’s take a look:

Talk about tipsy! This is Michelangelo’s Bacchus, an early masterpiece.

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I hate when those crazy satyrs show up.

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If ever the colors in the marble made the piece, this is it.

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But once again, where is the joy in the creator? This Daniele da Volterra‘s bust of Michelangelo.

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Here is Michelangelo’s Brutus. No regrets. He killed a tyrant.

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Then, in very stark contrast to the one we saw earlier, this is Donatello’s David.

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And now Verrocchio’s David:

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You can choose between the three, but before you do, the best one may be in Rome, as you will see.

Here is a work by various artist who contributed from 1387 to 1483.

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Picture Credit Wikipedia

The incredible detail is beyond words to describe.

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Yes, we could on and on, but we will close with one final work by Donatello, Santa Maria Maddalena Penitente. Mary Magdalene, at one time a beautiful harlot, became a follower of Jesus. After the crucifixion she went off to live in a cave as a penitent. Now thirty years later, the toll has been taken, but the prayers continue.

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There is nothing else to say.

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.