Orvieto, Italia

July 28, 2012

Our last full day in Italy, the bus took us from Assisi to Orvieto for a few hour stop for some exploring and lunch before landing in Rome for a final dinner and goodbye. Today was also the hottest day reaching up into the high 90s with a sun that baked you alive if you lingered from the shade too long.

All of the old Tuscany and Umbria cities are situated on hills, easier to defend. Orvieto takes that to an extreme. It is on the top of a hill so high and so steep we were required to take a funicular,  or cable car, to the top. And from that funicular, a bus to take us even high to the Piazza del Duomo where the gorgeous gothic cathedral and San Brizio Chapel stand for all those daring enough to try the steep climb.

From the cathedral we made our way through the city to a restaurant for a lunch of wild boar and carbonara pasta. Absolutely delicious! Being a bit worn out from the traveling and the heat, we took our time wandering the back streets of Orvieto, exploring the more residential areas. Jasmine plants grew 9 feet tall, wrapping themselves around gutters and clinging to the stone of buildings.

Our last dinner in Rome was one of the best. Delicious food with incredible music and endless wine. Arrivederci!

Assisi, Italia

July 27, 2012

From Ravenna we drove through Umbria to the hilltop town of Assisi, well known for Saint Francis of Assisi, St. Clare’s Church and St. Francis’ Basilica. The bus left us as the base of the walled city and we made our way up the steep streets, past the basilica, to our hotel, a nunnery turned inn with rooms designed for a life of poverty. However, no complaints as the hotel was perfectly situated in the center of the city with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

After a few minutes to freshen, we met up with a local guide who took us to the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. The basilica is actually two churches, a lower and an upper with a crypt in the very bowels of the basilica. The lower church is darker, with a lower ribbed ceiling covered in frescoes while the upper church has a high ceiling, more frescoes and an exorbitant amount of natural light.

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Basilica of St. Francis – Lower church via Wikipedia

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Basilica of St. Francis – Upper church via Wikipedia

We followed our guide through the streets of the historic city to St. Clare’s Church. Along the way shops selling St. Francis wares, blessed items, Pinocchio dolls, and jewelry caught my eye. The streets were crowded with tourists, nuns and monks, and pilgrims.

Arriving at the Church of St. Clare, the church was quite lovely, but the miracle of this building is the crypt which is home to the body of Saint Clare. She was apparently found untouched by decay. They encased her in wood and wax and placed her on display. Until I see her body and touch her flesh, the miracle is complete bogus in my eyes, but interesting nonetheless.

We headed back to the hotel for a delicious meal for our tour group. More fantastic pasta dishes! After dinner my family and a few other people from our tour made our way up to the rooftop terrace of our hotel for some spectacular views and delicious wine. We remained until the sky grew dark and sleep drew us to our beds.

Ravenna, Italia

July 27, 2012

Today our journey took us along the Adriatic sea to the town of Ravenna to see the 6th century Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Classe. Ravenna is also where Dante is buried. Sadly, our stop was too brief to make it to his tomb.

The drive to Ravenna (and later in the afternoon to Assisi) took us through the spectacular countryside of Umbria. A region similar to Tuscany, Umbria, is an incredibly green landscape filled with rolling hills, sunflower fields, and vineyards.

There was time enough for a quick cappuccino before getting back in the bus. Destination: Assisi.

Island of Burano – Venezia, Italia

July 26, 2012

The second day in Venice, we took a ferry out to the pretty island of Burano where the local men are fishermen and the ladies make lace. The ferry ride out to the island lasted roughly an hour and offered beautiful views of some of the 118 islands that make up Venice.

Stepping off the ferry, I was enchanted to see a small town of canals, modest, pastel colored home and many shops selling locally made products. We made our way to a restaurant for a 4 course meal of local fish dishes. It was delicious and the wine kept pouring!

Bellies full of scrumptious food, we strolled the sunny main street of Burano. This street consisted of a narrow canal with walking paths on both sides, occasional bridges connecting the two.

We kept to the shade as the day was sweltering, following little side roads leading back to residential areas, captivated by the pretty colors of every home.

After a few hours of exploration, it was back to the ferry.

Venezia, Italia

July 25-26, 2012

We left Verona and headed to Venezia. We ditched the bus on the mainland and packed into taxi boats that sped a long the waterways and Grand Canal to our hotel, Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal.

After a quick freshen up in the hotel, we joined some of our tour for a gondola ride through the Grand Canal and some smaller water ways, serenade included.

I call it Pigeon with Flower

After the gondola ride, we made our way through the streets of Venice to Piazza San Marco. Standing on the stone of the piazza, it was as if we stepped into a film. It was surreal. The pigeons, the crowds, the noise, all part of something greater.

We diverted away from the crowds and wandered along narrow side streets lined with shops selling masks and glass jewelry, crossing bridges onto neighboring islands. We explored the endless maze of streets until the hunger overpowered us. Noticing a cute little Italian restaurant near the hotel, we meandered our way back only to find a few members from our tour dining there.

Famous Harry’s Bar where Hemingway sipped his Bellinis


Day two in Venice began with a breakfast of cappuccino and croissant on a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal.

Our group was then set up with a local guide who walked us through St. Mark’s Square to the Doge’s Palace. The Doge was merely a figurehead of Venice, subject to the authority of members of the Senate. The Doge was voted into position, a position holding little power, and served for life. The politics of old Venezia are quite fascinating. I won’t go into much more detail, but I highly recommend looking it up.

Our guide took us through the rooms of the Doge’s Palace beginning with the waiting room for visiting dignitaries. Gorgeous high ceilings and artwork are on display to show off the wealth of Venice as its visiting dignitaries often had to wait days for an audience with the Doge. We continued on to where the Doge met with visitors, never alone, but always with 6 supervisors from the Senate. Then on to the Senate chambers themselves before visiting the judicial chambers.

We soon crossed over the Bridge of Sighs into the prison. These cells were where they kept regular prisoners. Political prisoners were kept in a separate jail above the judicial chambers. Often time prisoners escaped by bribing the guards.

Back over the Bridge of Sighs, we walked to the largest room in Europe known as the Sala del Maggiore Consiglio, or the Chamber of the Great Counsel. Tintoretto’s painting Paradise sits above the Doge’s throne and lining the top of the walls are portraits of all the Doges.

This was a slot for whistle-blowers to drop of letters accusing others of not paying taxes, or other crimes. The letters had to be signed and if the accuser was wrong, they would be punished.

View from the Doge’s Palace

Walking across the Bridge of Sighs looking out towards the Grand Canal

The Bridge of Sighs – While it has turned into something quite romantic, the bridge’s name originated from the sighs of prisoners as they enjoyed their last view of freedom before being brought to the square to hang for their crimes.

Scala dei Giganti – Sculptures of Mars and Neptune at the top of the stairs, the lion with wings is the symbol for St. Mark

From the Doge’s Palace we went to the Byzantine Basilica in St. Mark’s Square. A rainbow of mosaics, the cathedral was a stunning collection of Byzantine art and design. Sadly no photographs. We then made our way to a glass blowing demonstration. In roughly 90 seconds, an expert glass blower (10+ years experience) created a stunning Ferrari horse with the skill, precision, and ease of someone who has created hundreds. With tongs, he stretch, twirled, and pinched the glass, shaping the legs, mane, tail and face.

Incredible.

That afternoon we took a ferry out to the island of Burano. Photos and details of that excursion will be in my next post.

Our last night in Venice, we wandered even deeper into the city, exploring the hidden nooks and crannies until our feet grew sore. My Father and older brother made their way back to the hotel, but for my younger brother and I, the sense of adventure had yet to leave us.

We strolled along the Grand Canal, so far that it lead us to private homes with large yachts docked out front. We continued until the people grew scarce and the sky dark before working our way back to the hotel for the evening.

Graffiti on a side alley off the Grand Canal

It seems customary when in Venice to stand in the center of St. Mark’s Square and feed the pigeons. It is actually illegal to feed them. They have become a bit bold and adventurous. On our walk back we witnessed a very young girl hold out her arms and immediately get covered in pigeons. Despite my natural distaste for the birds after living in New York City, I dared to step along side her and hold out my arms. Within seconds the birds were sitting on my hands and forearms looking for food. A man selling roses strolled over and, despite my strong “NO,” dumped a pile of corn into each of my hands bringing more birds. Having no money on me, I refused to pay the man. He left quite annoyed. The pigeon pictured here landed on me about 5 minutes after the corn was gone and the other pigeons left. I took a long, hot shower after this adventure.

Verona, Italia

July 25, 2012

Shakespeare chose this Italian city as the setting for his play Romeo and Juliet. We stopped here for lunch on the way to Venice. The first site off the bus was the grand Arena where the world famous operas are performed.

The city was alive with action. Tourists strolling back and forth through the streets admiring the designer shop windows and crowding into cafes and gelaterias. We pushed our way through the crowds towards the small courtyard presided over by Juliet’s balcony. The area hummed with the voices of those seeking photographs on top of the balcony and men and women alike pushing to grab hold of Juliet’s breast.

Gum stuck to the wall near Juliet’s Balcony with love notes written on them

Juliet’s Balcony

Molon.de – The bronze statue of Juliet. It is said that touching her right breast will bring a new lover.

After admiring the balcony and groping Juliet, we headed through the streets of Verona to a market. The market sold mainly tourist items depicting Romeo and Juliet, but a few stands sold fresh fruit as well as cups of delicious watermelon, berries, pineapple and coconut. We enjoyed a cup of fruit while wandering around the gorgeous city.

We enjoyed a quick lunch of salad and pasta at a self-service cafe before meeting up with our tour and heading back like little sheep into the large and comfortable Globus bus. Next stop, Venice.

Firenze, Italia

July 24-25, 2012

Filled with delicious Chianti from the Castle Verrazzano, we made our way to the Hotel Albani in Florence. Arriving in the evening, drunk on wine and sleepy on food, we contented ourselves with a brief walk to the basilica and a stop for some delicious cappuccino.

We began the next day with a walking tour with local guide Andrea. Not hiding his contempt for tourists and modern art, he guided us through crowds of people to the Academy of Fine Arts where the David is displayed in all its glory. Using all the technical  language of an art historian and art lover, he described in great detail the emotions and technique of Michelangelo as he carved the multiple unfinished works called the Slaves, forever enslaved within their block of white marble. Michelangelo specially picked out each piece of marble he worked with and believed that the sculpture was trapped within the block and he was merely God’s hand removing the excess marble from the figure.

The David swept away all breath and thought. Standing below the 17ft statue of the naked biblical David, portrayed not as a shepherd boy but as a strong young man with his sling over his shoulder, he imposed a sense of ancient glory and embodied strength and perfection. The David was initially designed to be in the niche of a church; therefore the sculpture has larger than normal head, hands and feet. It is an optical illusion to make the statue appear balanced when placed in its intended location, the niche.

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The David – Wikipedia

Andrea then took us to the Piazza del Duomo to view Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Gate of Paradise.

Beautiful carved doors of the side entrance to the Duomo

Front facade of duomo

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Santa_Maria_del_Fiore.jpg

Duomo – Wikipedia

Gates of Paradise by Ghiberti – The gates are the North doors to the Baptistry. The original work has been removed and stored for preservation and what you see today is a mere cast of the original work. The 10 panels of the doors depict the Story of Joseph.

Firenze’s coat of arms, the Florentine Lily

We then walked through the narrow streets of leather shops and cafes to the Piazza della Signoria.

Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio – This is a replica of the David done by hand, not cast.

Loggia dei Lanzi

Loggia dei Lanzi – Rape of The Sabine Women by Giambologna (Correct translation is actually the Abduction of The Sabine Women and Giambologna did not name his work, but someone else did after he died)

Loggia Dei Lanzi – Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa

Piazza della Signoria – The Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati

Piazza della Signoria – The Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati

Piazza della Signoria – The “bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I” by Giambologna

After our walking tour with Andrea, we headed through the streets to Misuri for a demonstration in leather treating, making and design and a display of local gold. The jewelry shop brought out a beautiful display of pieces, gold with brightly colored stones, twisted and braided chains of gold, rings, a necklace made with an ancient Caesar coin, and more. I was most impressed with the diamond cut gold. It sparkled like diamonds and they designed necklaces and bracelets using yellow, white, rose and even black gold. Stunning!

The leather was incredible! Silky soft and of spectacular quality. The sales associate brought out a few seasonal pieces and selected some of our tour to model, myself among them. We had an opportunity to wrap ourselves in the gorgeous pieces and strut around while others massaged the leather and admired the fit.

While I fell in love with a beautiful brown leather jacket, the store did not have my size, even though they offered me a custom made jacket for the same price. Instead I opted for a purse I loved just as much.

Gorgeous leather bag, gold details hand stamped with 24 carat gold, inside done in red leather, and my initials stamped in 24 carat gold

Lunch – Vegetable soup and Tuscan bread. I was a bit disappointed with the bread in Italy. I expected bread similar to french bread, but we were mainly served Tuscan bread which is baked without salt and lacks any and all flavor. It was also served cold and sometimes tasted almost stale.

We ate a quick lunch at a local cafe before meeting up with Andrea again for a personal tour of the Uffizi Gallery. Sadly no photos could be taken inside, but Andrea walked us through the corridors to the most famous works of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael and others. My art history lessons came rushing back to me as I recognized the paintings studied years ago. Andrea weaved a beautiful tale for each painting and sculpture, explaining the symbolism, the people in the paintings, and the premise.

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Wikipedia – Birth of Venus by Botticelli – Seeing this painting in real life and up close was surreal. This had always been a favorite of mine. The colors appeared softer and more muted than I anticipated, giving the painting a smooth and demure look.

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Wikipedia – The Venus of Urbino by Titian – I seem to prefer the paintings involving naked women… This painting was commissioned as a wedding present for a young bride of 13. It is supposed to represent how a bride/wife should look, calm and sensual. The little dog on the bed is a symbol of fidelity.

After the gallery we headed back to the hotel to freshen up and prepare for a Tuscan dinner out in the countryside.

We drove about 30 minutes outside of Firenze to a small villa and winery to enjoy a delicious meal of local specialties. The meal began with a buffet appetizer including grilled vegetables, meats and cheeses. I loaded my plate with a little bit of everything, enjoying some eggplant and mozzarella the most. We continued with two pasta dishes and then a selection of grilled meats. One of which I’m pretty sure was wild boar, but I never confirmed with anyone. Regardless, it was delicious.

The highlight of the meal was brought out before the food. As we walked onto the property we were greeted by the owner, Saraceni, who gave a welcoming speech as glasses of blue wine were being handed out. Yes, blue wine! A delicious bubbly wine, light and crisp with a hint of sweet fruit. It was the star of the evening. You can order it through the link provided here.

Drunk on way too much red, white and blue wine, delicious food, and charming people, we headed back into Firenze. I tagged along with a few people from our tour to wander the streets of Firenze to find the house the Jersey Shore cast stayed at. As our leader was a human map, we found it without too much trouble, stopping at a bar for some wine along the way and some strawberry daiquiris after the fact.

Duff beer does exist!

Castello di Verrazzano, Italia

July 23, 2012

After leaving San Gimignano, we made a stop at Castello di Verrazzano for a tour, wine tasting, and a light dinner.

The drive up to the castle was a narrow dirt path meandering on the edge of steep cliffs falling down to rolling field of grapes lines with olive trees.

Our group strolled through the winery, the guide describing how they make their famous Chianti wine (which is exclusively from Tuscany) from a blend of grapes and taking us into the bowels of the castle where the wine is aged in barrels of varying size and material based on the type of wine. Before heading to our meal, we were granted more spectacular views on a terrace and shown where the balsamic vinegar ages.

The meal consisted of lots of wine! My favorite part of course. Beginning with a white, then the Chianti Classico before getting a chance to taste their Chianti Reserve. All of which were phenomenal. The meal was simple, a pasta dish, meats, and a salad. The conclusion of the meal brought a special treat. A sherry type wine that was sweet and spicy. Biscotti was served to dip into the wine. I am a lover of sherry, but I found this wine a bit too sweet. A couple from Australia summed it up perfectly, cough syrup.

Beautiful castle, delicious wine. With a healthy buzz, we got back on the bus and headed into Firenze.

San Gimignano, Italia

July 23, 2012

After Siena, we made a brief stop in San Gimignano. This small medieval town is located on top of a hill with stunning views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. The city is walled and the outskirts comprised mainly of vineyards and olive groves. Another picturesque Tuscan town.

Our brief stop in San Gimignano did not offer time enough for a meal, but after strolling through the main street we stopped at Gelateria di Piazza for some award winning gelato. Across the square, competition nearly fooled us with another gelato place with signs outside stating best gelato in the world. A long line of people fooled waited outside.

penandfork.com

Penandfork.com

Siena, Italia

July 23, 2012

Arriving at Siena mid morning allowed us only a few hours to stroll through the streets and shops of this charming, hilly city. Certainly not enough time to cover all the scenic views, piazzas and little local shops.

Narrow streets leading into the heart of the city

Tourist shop – the flags sold are the flags that represent each district of Siena

Storefront of a meat and cheese shop

Our guide took us through the narrow city streets to the Piazza del Campo where concerts often take place as well as an annual horse race. This race takes place every summer in July and August and is a competition between the districts of Siena. The locals take it very seriously. The piazza is covered in sand and the horses race around ten times, the winner earning honor for their district. It is a very dangerous race run bareback and around tight, slippery turns.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Boston.com

From the piazza we strolled through a few more narrow streets to find ourselves facing the stunning Cathedral of Siena. The facade is spectacular with incredible detail depicting the gospels as well as the legend of Romulus and Remus. It is said one of the brothers traveled to the Tuscany region and founded Siena.

Cathedral of Siena

Cathedral of Siena – She wolf with Romulus and Remus

The line into the Cathedral of Siena was devastatingly long so we chose to spend the limited amount of time in Siena strolling the streets and grabbing a bite of lunch. Our walk took us through the medieval town back to the Piazza del Campo, stopping at a few outlooks over the city along the way. From the piazza we weaved through more back roads passing unique shops before stopping for a quick lunch at a self-serve restaurant. We then enjoyed a delicious bit of gelato (I ordered two flavors in Italian that I could barely pronounce and had no idea what they were, but they were delicious).