Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Poking around Pisa, home of the world's most famous screw-up!

We were up early and on the train to Pisa by 8AM. The Tuscan countryside outside the train window was classic, rolling hills covered with vineyards and small farmhouses.

At one point the train crossed the beautiful Arno river.

Meredith was resting up for another day of lots of walking.

We arrived in Pisa a little after 9 and stopped at a little cafe near the station for some pastry and coffee (by now our standard morning fare). We started walking towards the Cathedral and tower and were surprised at how far it was from the station and how large a city Pisa was. It was another brutally hot day. The locals had been saying that this was a significant heat wave for Italy with temperatures in the mid to high 80's every day...actually since they use the celsius scale they kept referring to the high 30's which really threw me off! Regardless of how the temperature was measured, it was HOT!

After about a 15 minute walk we reached the Campo dei Miracoli ("Field of Miracles"). It was just like something out of a postcard.

Yup, it's a leaner alright!

We did our prerequisite "holding up the tower" photo shoot...

...and then set off to explore the buildings in the area. The tower often upstages the Cathedral and the Baptistry but they are very beautiful in their own right.

The side of the cathedral

The Baptistry

It really is a pretty surreal site to see that huge tower leaning so precariously. It has recently been shored up to allow people to go up in the tower but is still in danger of toppling over since the angle of leaning increases slightly every year. People were paying to go up to the top...just hope nobody with any vertigo issues was headed up could get a little ugly as they rolled over the edge and plunged to the ground below.

The front of the Cathedral. The crowds were many Japanese tour groups, in particular. They were all lined up to pay six euros to get into the Cathedral. I was more than a little turned off by the blatant commercialism of the whole place. There was a price to do EVERYTHING there, including using the bathroom!!

A closer look at the Baptistry shows how much intricate detail went into its construction. It is the largest Baptistry in Italy.

The Cathedral doors were particularly ornate, depicting scenes from the life of Christ in bronze.

It was impressive looking up the front of the Cathedral and admiring the workmanship that went into creating the impressive facade.

The Dome at the head of the Camposanto (cemetery) adjacent to the Cathedral. It is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century.

The Apse area at the back of the Cathedral

Funny thing...from the back it leans in the other direction!

Cute little gargoyles on the tower... they look like Gollum from Lord of the Rings

The details on the tower were exquisite.

The entrance to the tower. If you pre-arranged a ticket you could go in and climb the narrow,winding, (and sloping!) stairway to the top. The day we were there there were large groups of Japanese tourists waiting to climb. They were absolutely fascinated by the tower!

Another small, exquisite detail. It really is a shame that so much of the beauty and the obvious enormous effort to create the buildings on the "Field of Miracles" is upstaged by the fact that they didn't bother to provide a secure foundation for the tower. In the end, the lasting impression left by the work of so many skilled artisans who spent their lives creating a masterpiece is that of the one guy who botched his job in the first place.

After visiting the many souvenir booths, as well as some beautiful permanent shops along the edge of the area, we decided it was time to head back into town for some lunch and the train ride back to Florence. We decided to take a different route back and see some of the city. We passed some very quaint piazzas and buildings, typical of the type of architecture we had seen throughout that area of Italy.

Now here's where things started to go horribly wrong. We were walking for quite a while and not seeming to be getting any closer to the center of the city. On our way out we had gone over a bridge that spanned a river and as much as we walked, we weren't coming close to any bridge, nor were we seeing a river. It was early afternoon, I had sweated off all of the sunblock I had applied earlier and the sun was frying me like an egg on a hot griddle. The small amount of water left in my water bottle was the temperature of bathwater. I was hot, thirsty, hungry, cranky and in need of a bathroom... in short, not a lot of fun to be with. Poor Meredith was trying to figure out the fastest way to get us relief. She stopped at a little store to ask directions and the owner told her (in Italian) that we were so far away from where we need to go that we should take a bus. She wisely opted not to convey that translation to me. Instead, she simply said, "Let's go this way." and we forged on. Eventually we started to see signs for "Stazione" meaning that the train station was at least in that general direction. We walked on and on and eventually began to see some indications that we were reaching the city center, lifting our spirits somewhat. We decided to look for a place to get a simple salad for our lunch, nothing heavy or complicated. We began stopping into restaurants and delis in our search. It was now after 2:30 and the lunch crowd had been and gone. That meant no salads for us. I was not pleased. Meredith was wishing she was someplace else, far, far away from the crabby old bitch who was inhabiting her mother's body.

The Italian interpretation of customer service is very odd. Since the lunch hour had passed, the waiters and deli clerks basically felt as if they were "off duty" and, as we walked through the door, we were completely ignored. As it happened in place after place, I began to wonder if in fact we had entered some paisano twilight zone and become totally invisible. We trudged on towards the train station, remembering that there was a food court in the station. We finally found the station and the food court and, blessedly, a public rest room. That detail was taken care of so now we were left with our search for a salad and something cold to drink.

The food court held two major restaurants, a pizza place with no option for salads and (shudder) a McDonald's with its generic "chef's salad," extremely overpriced at six euros (about EIGHT dollars!) We reluctantly got in line at the McDonald's counter behind three vacant-headed Italian teenage girls who were being waited on by another teenage girl who seemed to have two speeds: slow and stop. We glanced over her shoulder to see that there were only two salads left in the cooler and, as hungry as we were, they actually looked appealing. The minutes ticked by. The counter zombie floated in a trance filling the girls' items, coming back to double check the orders at least twice between each trip. And then the unthinkable happened. Ten minutes into the wait, another clerk dashed over to the cooler and grabbed those last two salads, leaving a gaping void in their place. That was it... AGAIN, no salads for us. Meredith and I looked at each other and then simultaneously looked over to the pizza place. Without a word we headed over there and each bought a slice and a bottle of water. It would have to do. In a strange way I was actually relieved not to have to do business with Mickey D's. Besides the blatant price-gouging that was taking place, it just seemed wrong to be in Italy, the land of such culinary masterpieces as risotto, prosciutto, gnocchi, and gelato and resorting to eating at a McDonald's, something I won't even do when I am home in the U.S. anymore. Maybe that brain-dead counter girl did me a favor after all!

We ate our pizza, admittedly marginal at best, and then waited for the train back to Florence, our adventure in Pisa finally over with only a wicked bad sunburn and a pounding headache as residual damage. Even my frayed temper had repaired itself, although Meredith was giving me wide berth as we walked back from the train station, just in case I had another melt-down. We got back to Florence around four in the afternoon, and headed back to the guesthouse for a nap before dinner. We both slept like babies for two hours, feeling much better when we woke up.

Next post: Our last evening in Florence and a pre-departure climb to the top of the bell tower in the morning.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

If it's Thursday, this must be Florence...

On May 24th we caught an early train from Rome to Florence. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy the Italian train system? We rode in a four seat area with a delightful couple and their very active little boy (about two years old, I would guess). They were most apologetic for his energy, as much as we indicated how much we enjoyed watching him. The trip was about 90 minutes and went by quickly. Meredith slept most of the way while I knitted.

When we arrived in Florence we went to the hotel, another guesthouse as it turned out. It was further than we estimated and VERY hot so we were pretty wilted when we arrived. The manager of the guesthouse, a nice young man named Marco, met us and told us that the previous night's guests in our room had let the shower overflow and left the room uninhabitable until a plumber could be brought in to fix the situation. He made a point of telling us that the guests had been French...and with no small amount of disdain in his voice. I had a momentary panic attack as I envisioned us going door-to-door with all of our luggage appealing for a roof over our heads. My daydream of this doomsday scenario was thankfully interrupted when Marco explained that he had made arrangements with another guesthouse in the same building to take us for the same two days at the same price. I wanted to kiss him! (He was also very cute!) He took us upstairs and introduced us to another young man named Lorenzo who was the manager of a suite of rooms two stories above the one we had booked. Lorenzo was very nice and explained that he just needed to clean the room and that it would be ready for us in about an hour. We dropped off our luggage and left to find something to eat. Phew! Crisis averted!!!

After we ate we headed off to the Accademia di Belle Arti, the art gallery which houses Michelangelo's David, as well as a number of other Renaissance era sculptures, paintings and drawings. Once again, we were glad to have pre-booked our admission tickets, since there was a long line outside the small museum and we were able to bypass that wait and walk in at the time we had selected. We were even allowed to go in a little early, which was nice since the inside of the museum was much cooler than the hot street.

As soon as we went inside, got our tickets and headed down the hall I saw him. He was MAGNIFICENT!

...all 17 feet of him! He occupies a rounded atrium in the center of the building and commands an amazing presence. Technically, there are no photographs allowed and there are guards watching for violators but Meredith was able to squeeze off a couple of shots before she got the "evil eye" by a particularly menacing looking woman who shouted "NO PHOTOGRAPHS." As with the Sistine Chapel, I fully understand the logic of banning flash photography but the ban on non-flash photos is purely an attempt to bring more euros into the giftshop coffers. I bought my grossly overpriced souvenirs, as well as two admission tickets so I feel no guilt about the private photos.

The detail on David is amazing. He was originally commissioned to be placed on one of the buttresses of the Florence Cathedral, as part of a twelve statue Old Testament series, similar to the statues on the Milan Duomo. The original artist, a student of Donatello, began the work in 1464 and abandoned it for reasons unknown. The block of marble remained in the cathedral work yard for 25 years until Michelangelo convinced the authorities that he wanted to take on the project in 1501. He was only 26 years old and untested as an artist. He worked on the project for three years. Upon its completion, it was placed in an outdoor gallery called the Loggia Dei Lanzi. It was deemed too valuable and too beautiful to be relegated to a spire above the cathedral (and only two other statues had been completed in the set). It remained on the plaza, exposed to the elements until 1873 when it was moved indoors to the Accademia and a replica put in its place.

At its unveiling, the statue was wildly popular with the Florence people because of its theme of the little guy defeating the more powerful enemy. It came to symbolise the Florentine Republic, an independent city state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states. This interpretation was also encouraged by the original setting of the sculpture outside the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of civic government in Florence.

Having sprained my ankle severely in February, I was particularly impressed with how lifelike David's ankles were.

Throughout the sculpture every muscle, tendon, vein and bone is perfect. I now understand why marble was the medium of choice for statues. Its texture fools the eye into thinking you are looking at human skin, complete with the shadow of blood vessels that appear to flow just below its surface.

And then there is that wonderful tush!...

When we were kids, my brother, sisters and I used to point out people who had "pinchable fannies" (ok, we were a little twisted, but that's another post...) David would soar right to the top of that list.

He has been criticized for being a little "lacking" in the private parts. Hey, give the guy a break...he is about to do battle with a giant! It is understandable if he is a little "shriveled" in the face of mortal danger. The locals seem to be particularly sensitive to this issue, as if he is an affront to the manhood of every red-blooded italian. Get over it, people! He's still gorgeous!

The Accademia houses a number of other important artworks in addition to the David, although the big boy tends to overshadow everything else. There are some unfinished Michelangelo sculptures and a Pieta which has been attributed to him but may in fact be the work of one of his students. There are also some Renaissance paintings by other Italian artists, including Botticelli, the original plaster for the sculpture "Rape of the Sabine Women" by Giambologna and a collection of Russian icons from collections by Italian Grand Dukes. It is a small museum, easily covered in less than an hour but with a very large gift shop containing some beautiful items. Meredith and I lingered there for quite a while and stocked up on some gifts and souvenirs for ourselves.

We left and walked towards the center of the city where the Cathedral (Duomo) is located, a common setup for most of the old Italian cities. Florence's Cathedral is the third largest Cathedral in the world.

What isn't common about Florence is the design of the cathedral. The outside is covered with pink, green and white marble, making it very distinct.

The front of the Duomo

It also has a very high belltower (more about that in a later post...yes, I DID climb all 414 steps to the top!) and an unusual dome designed by Bruneschelli and an engineering marvel of its time. It was the largest dome in the world at its completion and remained so until Michelangelo designed St. Peter's Dome in Rome.

Our next stop was the Uffizi Gallery. This much larger gallery is housed in the Palazzo degli Uffizi, built in 1560 as offices for the Florentine Magistrates. (The word Ufizzi means office) The adjacent Palazzo Vecchio, historically the Palace of the Medicis, has been incorporated into the museum, making the Uffizi one of the largest and most important art museums in the world.

The Tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, recently made famous by the movie "Hannibal" when Hannibal Lecter recreates a medieval murder in the tower. A large portion of the movie was filmed in Florence. If it hadn't given me such nightmares the first time I saw it, I might consider renting it to watch it again and see the Florence scenes.

The Uffizi Gallery was very crowded the day we were there, filled with large tour groups filing in and out of the small rooms and making it difficult to see much of the exhibits. We quickly began to suffer from a condition called "artis classicus overloadus." Its chief symptoms were eyes glazing over, an urge to throttle the next person who stepped between us and the artwork we were admiring, and responses like, "Oh, that's just some vase by some italian guy." I did manage a few moments of silent admiration of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus"

and "Primavera"

as well as some beautiful paintings by El Greco, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Photos were out of the question because of the very low light to preserve the paintings and the massive numbers of people who kept getting in the way. They also had plainclothes security people mingling in the crowd spotting cameras and giving stern warnings.

By about three in the afternoon we had hit the wall. We were ready to go back to the guesthouse and take a nap. The heat was becoming oppressive and we knew the ceiling fan and the cool breeze through the fourth story window would feel REALLY good.

The inside stairwell of our guesthouse building

Meredith unlocking the door to the suite where our room was located.

Our room... simple but very comfortable with a cute little bathroom.

The view across the room from the doorway.

The building across the street

The street below to the right from our window. The dome that is visible over the rooftops is part of the Cappelle Medici, a museum devoted to the Medici reign in Florence.

This row of scooters parked outside our building will be an important element in a drama (or comedy, depending on your point of view)that unfolds later that first night.

After our refreshing nap, we were hungry so we went for a walk to find a relaxing place for dinner. We found a cafe with tables on a pretty plaza and an interesting menu. It was still very warm but it was turning into a delightful evening. As we waited for our dinner, a older German couple was seated right next to us. The man lit a cigarette and proceeded to blow smoke in our direction. It was unbearable. Since it was an outdoor restaurant he was not prohibited from smoking. The waitress clearly saw that we were uncomfortable but did nothing. This couple was ordering quite a bit of alcohol and more expensive meals than we were so she obviously chose to accommodate them rather than us. Moving our table was not an option since there were no empty ones available at that point. We ate our dinner quickly and left, more than a little annoyed at man's rudeness. Since tipping is not a common practice or an expectation in Italian restaurants we had no way of expressing our displeasure other than confrontation, something I chose not to do. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time that we experienced a meal spoiled by inconsiderate smokers.

We were getting up early to take the train to Pisa the next morning so we went to bed early. Around 11:30 we heard a very loud crash outside our window, followed by a lot of shouting. We opened the shutters to investigate and saw that a Florence Police Car had run over the row of scooters parked below our window and then crashed into the side of the building. It was a crazy scene. The policeman who had been driving was holding his head, running around the car and yelling. A second policeman, the front seat passenger, had the rear doors open and was reaching inside. A young woman was lying on the sidewalk, probably a pedestrian who had been hit by one of the struck scooters and a large crowd was gathering. Soon we saw the second policeman pull a handcuffed prisoner out of the back seat. He was handcuffed in the front, instead of behind his back as most prisoners are, and, apparently, he had been able to use something to slash the driver, causing him to lose control of the car. He also had a very sizable gash in his head which was bleeding profusely. He was very combative so the policeman forced him down on the ground and left him there. The driver then got back in the car and moved it away from the building, running over some of the scooters a second time. About this time we heard sirens and three more police cars and an ambulance arrived. The situation seemed to be pure chaos. They all began searching in, under and around the police car for something, perhaps the weapon the prisoner had used. The ambulance attendants began working on the girl who had a large gash in her leg. The decided to put her on a backboard to transport her into the ambulance and nearly dropped her in the process. The crowd was getting larger and more vocal and we noticed quite a few other people leaning out of windows as we were. The police started yelling at everyone to just go home but most of the crowd just moved a few feet down the street and then inched their way back up to the area of main activity. The whole thing looked like a Keystone Kops movie... so much running around, yelling and wild energy. Finally, after about 45 minutes, they took the girl away in the first ambulance, a second ambulance arrived for the prisoner who, by now, had left quite a pool of blood on the sidewalk and everyone left. What remained was quite a mess... scooters and parts of scooters scattered all over the sidewalk and a pool of blood. No one seemed to be left to clean up the mess. However, when we came downstairs the next morning at around 7, there was no sign of any of the previous night's events... no scooters, no blood, a pristine scene. We never did find out what happened but it was quite a lot of excitement on a quiet Florence sidestreet.

Next post: Pisa and an evening by the Arno River in Florence.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rome Day 2 Continued... It's called the Eternal City because you can never see it all!

We continued through the Vatican Museum, astounded by the size and awestruck by the sheer volume of art we were seeing. Some of these items were just mind-boggling in their size:

Hercules of the Theater of Pompey. It would be hard to miss this guy on the street.

River God Tiber

Bust of Hellenistic-Egyptian God Serapis. The Vase on the Head is a nice touch. Maybe he was a real party animal and that was how he wanted to be remembered since lampshades hadn't been invented yet.

Constantina's Sarcophagus

We moved into the next area, the Etruscan Museum. The Etruscans were an ancient civilization that pre-dated the Romans and were anthropologically unique. Their language was completely distinct and recent DNA studies of their remains show them to have little in common with modern Romans. One theory has them migrating to the northwestern area of Italy from central Asia. Their artifacts date back as far as the ninth century BC. They were eventually conquered by the Romans and their culture assimilated into the culture of Rome. The Gregorian Etruscan Museum at the Vatican Museum has an extensive display of tools, jewelry, household items and artwork. They were especially sophisticated in the use of metals.

That's a VERY big flower pot!

Ancient chariot, 550-540 BC,laminated and melted bronze, on modern wooden reconstruction

This was considered a SWEET ride in its time. I'm guessing that some poor slave was given the job of pushing it around... and on the cobblestone roads of the time that had to be a tough job.

There's a LOT of gold in this breastplate. The good news: it's a beautiful piece of jewelry. The bad news: it's heavy enough to choke you to death. But you would be a GORGEOUS corpse!

Now THIS is more like it! You can wear this jewelry without having to go to a chiropractor afterwards.

Pretty spooky looking soup pot!

The ceilings were worthy of a museum totally devoted to them alone. I had such a crick in my neck from walking around staring straight up.

Ancient maps...

And even incredibly crafted doors...

And then we hit the motherlode, the place I had been most excited to see... the Sistine Chapel. As expected there was a long line to get in but I was willing to wait. And it was worth it. It was larger than I expected, darkened to protect the fragile artwork and there were museum staff members circulating in the large crowd shushing them... it is a sacred place and yelling to your buddies across the room just isn't appropriate. Also, photography in any form is strictly forbidden. Flash photography damages the paintings over time and other photography impacts the sale of postcards and other souvenirs. The flash ban I totally agree for the other ban...well, let's just say the Vatican isn't in danger of declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy anytime in the next few millenia, judging from the brisk sale of souvenirs going on so I'm not as convinced of the validity of that one. Meredith was wearing a baseball cap and took it off in reverence to the setting, but it also made a convenient place to inconspicuously get off a couple of shots straight up. The first couple were blurry since it was hard to keep the camera steady for the long time that the low light required. We found a seat on a bench along the side of the chapel and she had better luck there. Here are her results:

We were there for about a half hour... I could have stayed much longer just trying to take in the complexity of that amazing place. It truly is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. But there were many others waiting to get in so we left. We walked back down the long hallway where Meredith took a picture of me to prove I had been there :-)

and then we descended the beautiful spiral stairway to the exit to the Museum.

It had been a wonderful morning, full of such an amazing array of gorgeous items and reminders of ancient times... but now we were hungry! As we turned the corner of the museum we noticed quite a bit of commotion in St. Peter's Square. Someone told us that since it was Wednesday, the Pope was having his weekly open air audience in the square so we figured we would take a peek.

And there he was!

They had large screens around the square so the thousands and thousands of people in attendance could see him.

The Swiss Guard were on duty for crowd control.

Because the Pope was delivering his audience, the main Basilica was closed to the public. We decided to go get something to eat and come back later to see it. We also figured it would be easier to find a place nearby before the crowds began pouring out of the square, hot, thirsty and hungry. We were so right! We found a small outdoor restaurant a block away and ordered our lunch. Just after it arrived, the masses began pouring down the street in amazing numbers. We even saw bridal couples dressed in full wedding regalia... I assume they were there to get a special Papal blessing. It was a madhouse. Sadly, we also saw young children coming table to table begging for money. They were very insistent, refusing to leave until the waiter finally shooed them away. We saw that phenomenon in nearly every city we visited and even on the trains. They had various strategies. Some would put a flower on your lap and if you even as much as touched it, insist that you pay for it. Others just stood over you chanting their woeful request, hoping you would give them something just to get rid of them. It was very sad.

After lunch we returned to St. Peter's Square, hoping to get into the Basilica. Unfortunately, many of the people who had attended the audience had the same idea and the line was horrendously long. It moved slowly due to the security measures that each person has to pass through to enter the Basilica so we decided against standing in the hot sun. We did get another picture of the Swiss Guards and some pictures of St. Peter's Square, including its beautiful fountain.

We'll just HAVE to come back to get in a visit to St. Peter's!

We then headed out of St. Peter's Square and walked down toward the Tiber River. There was a lovely shaded walkway along the river, giving us some relief from the relentless sun. We crossed the river on this ancient bridge...

and wandered along until we found the Spanish Steps, a site that Meredith had been anxious to see. It was VERY hot, yet the crowds were still heavy.

Like so many of the historical sites and monuments we had seen throughout Italy, there was a major renovation going on. It is so nice to see that these sites are valued enough to be kept up. However, there never seems to be anyone actually working on them when we go by so I wonder how energetic the process really is!

We continued wandering the area, coming across this impressive monument.

and eventually reaching our goal, the Trevi Fountain. It too was crowded. People were tossing coins over their shoulder into the fountain, an act that is supposed to guarantee that you return to Rome. It is a gorgeous fountain and we took our turn with the coin toss, jockeying for a position next to the edge to ensure success.

We were exhausted and it had been a long day with a lot of heat and sun so we did the true Mediterranean afternoon thing... we went back to the hotel and took a nap! It felt SO good. Later, in the cool of the evening, we strolled past the park where the multicultural festival was still going on, found a little restaurant with outdoor tables and enjoyed our last dinner in Rome. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the festival for a little while and then headed back to pack for an early departure the next morning for two days in Florence.

Arrivederci Roma... I will come back someday, I promise!