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Sicily/Tuscany Part 2: Florence, Pisa and Siena

SmarterTravel

Author: Carolyn Boyle (More Trip Reviews by Carolyn Boyle)
Date of Trip: May 2014

This is the second part of a two-part review describing our experiences with an 8-night “Crossroads of Sicily” package tour followed by a 7-night independent tour of Tuscany. The first part of this review is at www.independenttraveler.com/trip-reviews/sicily-tuscany-part-1-crossroads-of-sicily-package-tour

CITIES VISITED (Part 2)

Florence, Chianti Wine Region, Greve, Pisa, Siena

ABOUT US

John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our early sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times. On this trip, we were joined by our college friends, Robert and Mary (also New Orleans natives), who live in Virginia. John and I had visited Florence and Pisa on a shore excursion during a cruise in 1998; this would be Robert’s and Mary’s first visit to Tuscany.

We have traveled extensively worldwide and enjoy both land tours and cruises; often our trips combine the two. On cruises, we prefer DIY port tours, private tours with other CruiseCritic.com roll call members or shared public tours. We favor nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.

RESOURCES

Those of you who are not familiar with the dining experience in Italy and/or do not speak much Italian may find the information on the following web sites helpful.

Restaurants in Italy: Complete Guide to Etiquette, Ordering, and Tipping
www.fodors.com/news/story_3483.html

Italian Language Lessons: Going Out for Dinner
www.slowtrav.com/italy/language/lessons/restaurants.htm

Budget Travel: Italy Menu Decoder
btsrv.budgettravel.com/bt-srv/misc/0812_ItalyDecoder/italy_menu_decoder.pdf

Although there are myriad sources available that provide insight into the history, art and architecture of Florence, John and I found the following particularly helpful in preparing for our trip:

Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance
www.imdb.com/title/tt0392433/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Engineering an Empire: Da Vinci’s World (Season 1, Episode 12)
www.imdb.com/title/tt0878371/?ref_=ttep_ep1

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, by Ross King
www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00DUVKOUW/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis, by Robert M. Edsel
www.amazon.com/Saving-Italy-Rescue-Nations-Treasures-ebook/dp/B00AN86JYU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1410806969&sr=1-1&keywords=saving+italy

Art & Architecture Florence, by Rolf C. Wirtz
www.amazon.com/Art-Architecture-Florence-RolfC-Wirtz/dp/3848003228/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

REVIEW OF THE TRIP (Part 2)

SUNDAY 05/04/14 Catania – Florence

We took an early afternoon Alitalia flight from CAT-FCO. John had made these flight arrangements separately from those to/from the USA. By buying the flights online through the Italian Alitalia web site (www.alitalia.com/it_en/), he was able to save 75% on the cost of the tickets.

We arrived at FCO around 3:30 p.m., collected our luggage and headed to the railway station. We had planned to take the Leonardo Express (14 EUR pp) to Roma Termini, followed by one of the Le Frecce (Arrow) trains to Firenze SM Novella (43 EUR pp). However, we did not make train reservations in advance (which is much less expensive) because we did not trust the Alitalia flight to arrive on time. An excellent resource for information on taking trains in Italy is www.seat61.com/Italy-trains.htm.

At the railway station, we were not able to buy tickets at the ticket machines even though we used a credit card with a chip and PIN. (We later learned that the cards without a chip were more likely to work in the machines.) Fortunately, there was no line for the human ticket agents. The agent spoke excellent English and informed us that all the Le Frecce trains leaving in the next few hours were sold out. He suggested a cheaper alternative: 2nd-class, reserved seat tickets on an InterCity train, which would arrive earlier than the next available fast train and save us almost 10 EUR pp.

When taking trains in Italy, it is important to know when the ticket must be validated in the small yellow or green machines at the entrance to every platform. Tickets for trains that require a reserved seat for a specific train departure and date do not need to be validated; all other tickets must be validated or the passenger faces an expensive, on-the-spot fine (up to 100 EUR pp). There is a warning about the need to validate printed (in English) on both sides of the ticket; there is also a note (in English) that the ticket expires six hours after validation. If you should forget to validate, find the conductor before he/she comes around to check the tickets and he/she will validate it. For our trip to Florence, the Leonardo Express tickets had to be validated whereas the Intercity tickets did not.

The Leonardo Express runs every half-hour and takes 32 minutes to get to Roma Termini. We had about an hour before the Intercity train to Florence left, so we got some undistinguished fast-food pizza in the station for dinner. On the Intercity train, the 2nd-class cars were divided into 6-seat compartments; there were shelves above our heads for our luggage. When we boarded, there were a woman and child already sitting in our seats; we had to ask them to leave. The final two seats were taken by a Croatian man and his young son, who were touring Italy together. We finally arrived in Florence at about 9:00 p. m.

We stayed at the Residence La Contessina (www.residencelacontessinaflorence.com) for six nights. This small hotel was ideally located for us: it is less than a five minute walk from the east side of the Florence train station and less than ten minutes from the front door of the Duomo. This is a family-run operation and they take good care of their facility and their guests. We had reserved a 4-person studio apartment (238 EUR/night) with a small kitchen (25 EUR/stay, if stove used) and eating area. There was a double bed in the loft and a double sofa bed in the living area; the sofa bed was already made up for us when we arrived. Our room was spotless (the shower was a little small but not an issue). They provided wine glasses and extra pillows on request. The breakfast was wonderful and included meat, fresh fruit and a changing variety of Italian pastries. There were cold water, beers and soft drinks available for purchase in the lobby. The front desk even gave us two restaurant recommendations for places that were not on the usual tourist maps – both were outstanding. We were the only non-Italian speakers in both places! We got excellent value for our money at Residence La Contessina. [Note that Florence has a hotel tax of 3 EUR/night pp, which must be paid in cash at the end of your stay.]

Before turning in for the night, John, Mary and I (Robert was still not feeling 100%) walked over to the Duomo, Piazza della Signoria and Ponte Vecchio for a few photos of those landmarks without hordes of tourists.

MONDAY 05/05/14 Florence – Chianti Wine Region – Greve – Florence

After an excellent breakfast, we walked to the Piazza Adua, right around the corner from the hotel, where we were to meet Sergio Ceccherini for a private tour (125 EUR pp) of the Chianti wine region. We had reviewed many options for a wine tour and selected the Tuscan Boutique Winery Tour (www.scenicwinetoursintuscany.com/tuscanboutiquewinerytour/index.htm) because of Sergio’s reviews and the chance to go to a really small winery. What an outstanding choice! First, Sergio is a true professional and very knowledgeable about Tuscany and wines in general. He does not give a steady stream of random information but provides the necessary details to help your enjoyment of the tour. His English is impeccable and delivered with an unexpected English accent.

Sergio took us to several spots for photo opportunities in the gorgeous Tuscany countryside, such as at the Tignanello vineyard of Antinori and Castello di Gabbiano. He then delivered us to the pretty small town of Greve (www.chianti.com/greve-in-chianti) for a brief walkabout on our own. Greve’s triangular central piazza features a statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered Hudson Bay. An arcade runs along the front of most of the buildings around piazza; the buildings house shops and restaurants. John and I particularly enjoyed Antica Macelleria Falorni, a butcher shop in operation since 1729, where dangling hams cover the ceiling and cheese wheels ripen in the cellar. Mary found a shop with beautiful hand-painted ceramics; both of us ended up buying small dishes as mementos of our visit. John and I climbed up one of the narrow streets to the Museum of Sacred Art; we had hoped to get a photo from the museum’s terrace but it was closed. We climbed a little higher and got some nice views.

We drove out of Greve on the same street that John and I had climbed earlier and passed by the small medieval village of Monterfioralle just above the town. We then proceeded to the Altiero Winery (www.altieroinchianti.it), where we were greeted by Paolo Baldini and his wife, Samuela. Paolo gave us an extensive tour of his tiny winery and his vineyards. Samuela then served us a fabulous lunch using fresh local ingredients along with Paolo’s outstanding wines. We started with a platter of salami, prosciutto and local cheeses, followed by bruschetta with cannellini beans and cavolo nero (Tuscan black cabbage). We also had a delicious pasta dish and braised pork as the meat course. This is a marvelous tiny gem of a winery in Tuscany.

After Sergio poured us back into his van, we proceeded to Fattoria Casaloste (www.casaloste.com) for a nice tasting. Along the way, we caught a view of Villa Vignamaggio across the valley. The Villa stars as a Sicilian villa in Kenneth Branagh’s version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”; they make pretty good wine there too but it was not on the agenda for today.

We finally made it back to Florence thoroughly happy. There are lots of Tuscan wine tours available and they are all probably very nice. Sergio stood above the rest for us! He answered email questions within a day and usually within hours (he does need to drive his van at times!). And this tour stood above others because of its boutique character; highly recommended!

After Samuela’s delightful and filling lunch, we decided that all we needed for dinner tonight was some of the exceptional wine that we bought today.

TUESDAY 05/06/14 Florence

Because this was Robert and Mary’s first visit to Florence, we decided to begin our visit with a guided walking tour of the major sights. We booked ArtViva’s “Florence in Two Glorious Days – Including Exclusive-Entry Vasari Corridor Tour” package (www.italy.artviva.com/package/12/Florence_Renaissance_original_best_walking_tours_italy_tuscany_Uffizi_Michelangelo_David_Vasari_Corridor). This package consists of four tours at a discounted price of 139 EUR pp; the tours can be taken over either two or three days. ArtViva uses a microphone system so that each person wears an earpiece and can easily hear the guides. A huge advantage is that they reserve timed-entry tickets so that their small tours (we never had more than 15 people) can skip the horrible lines at venues.

On the way to the walking tour meeting point, we stopped in briefly at the Mercato Centrale (www.mercatocentrale.it/en/). This market has just about any food item you could want: fresh seafood, fresh meat of all kinds, a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, cheeses, salami, olives, wine, etc. We decided to come back tomorrow morning to assemble a picnic supper for tomorrow night.

We met our tour guide, Laura, outside the ArtViva office near the Piazza della Repubblica. Throughout the walk Laura told us about the history of Florence and pointed out interesting buildings and architectural features as we crisscrossed the historical center. In the 11th and 12th centuries, rich and powerful Florentine families built towers that served as both fortresses and homes; the higher the tower, the more important the family. In the 13th century, a law was passed to curtail the fighting among families by forcing all towers to be the same height. Many of those tower houses still remain, integrated into other buildings.

Our first stop was in the Piazza della Repubblica. This large square was once the Roman forum and later became a ghetto. The square and surrounding buildings were completely razed in the late 19th century, destroying many medieval churches, towers and palaces. At one side of the square is a large arch with an inscription that translates as, “The ancient center of the city / restored from age-old squalor / to new life.” In the center of the square is a column topped with a statue of Abbondanza, the Roman goddess of abundance and prosperity. The square also boasts a small pretty carousel that is over 100 years old.

From here we continued to the Orsanmichele church (www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=orsanmichele) while Laura pointed out more medieval towers and palaces along the way. A family crest embellishes the facade of many of these buildings. We saw the Medici crest of (usually) six red balls on a gold shield frequently, no surprise given the prominence of that family in Florentine history. Orsanmichele was originally a warehouse and market for grain. Later the ground floor was converted into a church and each of the city’s merchant guilds sponsored a statue of that guild’s patron saint. These statues were executed by famous artists, such as Ghiberti and Donatello, and were placed in niches around the outside of the church. Nowadays, most of the statues are only replicas; some of the originals and other works are on display in the museum on the upper levels (only open on Monday). The main attraction in the interior is an elaborately carved marble Gothic altar; the altarpiece is a “Madonna and Child” painted by one of Giotto’s students.

Next we went to the Piazza della Signoria, where Laura talked about the statues (most replicas) in front of the Palazzo Vecchio and in the Loggia dei Lanzi. Laura explained the political significance of Michelangelo’s “David” and Donatello’s “Judith and Holofernes” as models of civic virtue.

We then walked past the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo. Markets have taken place here since the early 14th century; silks and precious stones and metals have given way to t-shirts, purses and souvenirs. We also passed the Palazzo Davanzati (Museo dell’Antica Casa Forentina). This palace was formed by building a new facade across three tower houses; it is topped with an interesting loggia instead of the typical battlements or cornice. We made a brief stop at the Palazzo Strozzi to admire its beautiful inner courtyard.

As we approached the next stop, we saw the “Column of Justice” in the Piazza di Santa Trinita. This granite column from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome was a gift from the Pope in the 16th century; it is topped with a bronze statue of Justice. Behind the column is the Palazzo Spini-Ferroni (Ferragamo store and museum); two other palaces and the Santa Trinita church surround the square. The highlight of the church is the Cappella Sassetti, where the walls are covered with a cycle of frescoes by Ghirlandaio illustrating the “Life of St. Francis.” An interesting feature of these frescoes is that the background for those events is 15th-century Florence.

From the church, we walked to the Ponte Vecchio, where we could view the Vasari Corridor from the outside and look down the Arno River to the Ponte Santa Trínita. We stopped briefly at the Torre della Pagliazza, which was built atop ancient Roman baths and is now part of a hotel with a small museum. This tower house is the only cylindrical one in Florence and was purportedly owned by Filippo Brunelleschi, who built the dome of the cathedral. The name means “Straw Tower” and refers to the time when it served as a women’s prison and to the inmates’ straw beds. Nearby was the Torre dei Ricci-Donati. This area of the city was noted for the bloody feuds between the Black and White factions of the Guelph political party in the Middle Ages.

Finally we ended up in Piazza Duomo, the heart of Florence, home to the Baptistry (with its famous bronze doors by Andrea Pisano and Ghiberti), Giotto’s Campanile, the Duomo (with Brunelleschi’s incredible dome) and the Opera Museum. Unfortunately, the Baptistry and parts of the Duomo were swathed in scaffolding as repairs are being made in anticipation of a visit by Pope Francis in 2015. Nevertheless, there was plenty of opportunity to admire the extravagant red-white-green marble exterior of the Duomo. After discussing the monuments in the square, Laura walked us through the Duomo, pointing out some of the more important artwork. The tour ended under Brunelleschi’s enormous dome with Vasari and Zuccari’s fresco of “The Last Judgment.” Laura’s stories and details about Florence and its art and architecture made this an excellent tour and a wonderful introduction to the treasures of Florence. After the tour, we went back to the hotel (stopping for some gelato) to rest a bit before our tours of the Uffizi Gallery and the Vasari Corridor.

That afternoon we launched into the Uffizi (www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=uffizi) tour with Corinna. She was amazingly knowledgeable about the fantastic art there. Although it is impossible to see everything in this vast museum in only a couple of hours, Corinna made sure we saw the iconic masterpieces (Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera,” Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” Michelangelo’s “The Holy Family (Tondo Doni)”) and much, much more. This tour was both visually overwhelming and physically exhausting.

Our group for the Uffizi tour was quite small because it also included a tour of the Vasari Corridor. This very limited tour exits from the crowds of the Uffizi into the private passageway of the Medici, which leads from the Uffizi, above the Ponte Vecchio, to the Pitti Palace. We even had our own museum guard tagging along! Corinna showed us the many portraits along these walls. The tour exited the corridor at the Boboli Gardens. Although the gardens are not included in the tour, we did get to see the entrance to the Grotta del Boutalenti and the Fontana del Baccho; the tour ended in the Piazza Pitti. Corinna was so enthusiastic, our tour ran way over time – not a problem!

John and I were determined that we would not leave Florence without trying its famous “Bistecca alla Fiorentina.” Our hotel suggested Trattoria La Gratella (www.trattorialagratella.com) and we thanked them heartily afterward. This little restaurant was off the beaten tourist path and had typical Tuscan cuisine. “Bistecca alla Fiorentina” is traditionally cooked rare; at La Gratella, it is served on a brazier, so you can let it cook longer, if you must. The steak (for two) is gigantic and it was outstanding. Their house wine was not a Chianti by any means but was definitely serviceable. Our server even gave us a sample before we committed to it.

WEDNESDAY 05/07/14 Florence

We had this morning and most of the afternoon free. The first order of business was to secure provisions for supper from the Mercato Centrale: salamis, cheeses, bread, olives and wine.

After depositing our purchases at the hotel, we were off to explore Florence on our own. This requires some advance planning because many of the museums and churches have unusual opening times. For example, our first target, the Museum of San Marco (4 EUR pp, cash only; www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=sanmarco), closes before 2 o’clock on weekdays. The museum is housed in a 15th-century Dominican monastery and contains the world’s most important collection of Fra Angelico’s altarpieces and painted panels. At the beginning of the Renaissance, this artist-monk also decorated the monastery’s cells with frescoes of the life of Jesus. Two of the cells are worthy of note in themselves: one reserved for Cosimo il Vecchio de’Medici, the monastery’s patron, and another used by the radical reformer, Savonarola. Fra Angelico’s celebrated “Annunciation” is at the top of the stairs leading to the dormitory section. This was one of the few venues where the guards actually enforced the posted signs forbidding photographs; a member of the school group ahead of us was vigorously chastised for attempting to take a selfie with the “Annunciation.” We exited the museum through the former library, which displays fragments of sculpture and architecture from buildings that were demolished during the construction of the Piazza della Repubblica. In the midst of all the incredible art of Florence, we considered Fra Angelico’s works here to be among the most impressive.

Not far from the San Marco Museum is the Basilica di San Lorenzo complex. First we visited the Museum of the Medici Chapels (www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/index.php?m=cappellemedicee), which houses Medici family tombs (8 EUR pp). The Cappella dei Principi (the mausoleum of the Medici grand dukes) is a garish riot of polychrome marble, gold and inlay work made from precious stones (pietra dura) (must be seen to be believed!). The older and more sedate Sagrestia Nuova was designed by Michelangelo as a mausoleum for other members of the Medici family, including Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo’s tomb features Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child,” while his famous groupings “Dawn and Dusk” and “Day and Night” adorn other tombs. Unfortunately, many of the other sculptures envisioned by Michelangelo for this space were never executed.

Next, we visited the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Medici family’s parish church (7 EUR pp, includes church and library). A staircase in a vestibule near the main door leads to the Biblioteca Laurenziana. Both the vestibule and the reading room were designed by Michelangelo to house the Medici’s manuscript collection; some of those volumes were on exhibit. The church itself was designed by Brunelleschi and his Sagrestia Vecchia contains the sarcophagus of Cosimo il Vecchio’s parents. Cosimo himself is buried in front of the high altar, commemorated by a simple plaque inscribed “PATER PATRIE.” Other important objects in the church include two bronze pulpits by Donatello that were his last works.

Robert and Mary are not as fond of climbing things as John and I are. They went off to explore on their own while we headed to the Complex of Santa Maria del Fiore (www.museumflorence.com). Although entrance to the Duomo is free, a combination ticket (10 EUR pp) is needed for the other monuments. It is important to note that this ticket cannot be purchased at the entrance to the dome climb. Our first stop was the Opera Museum, where we bought our tickets. The museum contains many works that have been removed from other parts of the complex over the centuries. Unfortunately, the museum was beginning renovations when we visited and was only partially open (it is currently completely closed and will reopen in 2015). However, we were able to see two true masterpieces: Michelangelo’s “Florentine Pieta” and Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise.”

Next we joined the long queue starting at the Porta della Mandorla on the north side of the Duomo to wait (about 45 minutes) for our turn to climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome. When the Duomo was built, it was the largest church in Europe (it’s still the 3rd largest in the world). The choir and high altar remained open to the elements for decades until Brunelleschi devised a way to overcome the mechanical and engineering difficulties of spanning such a huge expanse. Brunelleschi was very secretive, so even today his building techniques are not completely understood. About half-way up the climb, we emerged on a balcony at the base of the inner dome that gave us close-up views of Vasari/Zuccari’s fresco. As we continued up the narrow stairs (over 400 altogether) between the halves of the dome’s double-shell, we could see the herringbone brickwork and wooden tension rings that contribute to its stability. Finally, we emerged at the base of the lantern atop the dome for spectacular panoramic views over Florence and the surrounding area. As we climbed down, we passed a model of one of the cranes that Brunelleschi invented to lift materials to the workers on the dome.

Back in the Duomo, we looked for the bust of Brunelleschi, which is near the stairs down into the Cripta di Santa Reparata, but that area was not accessible. The church of Santa Reparata was the original cathedral of Florence; it was mostly destroyed when the current edifice was built. The crypt contains fragments of the church’s mosaic floors, medieval tombstones, Brunelleschi’s tomb and (possibly) the tombs of two popes.

The next monument we toured was the Baptistry, which is much older than the Duomo. We were lucky to have seen its exterior on our previous visit to Florence because of the scaffolding that obscured its white and green marble exterior today. The building is octagonal and its ceiling is formed by eight wedges, not a dome. The ceiling is covered with gilded Byzantine-style mosaics depicting the Last Judgment and scenes from the Old and New Testaments; the large central mosaic portrays Christ as the judge of the world. There are a number of tombs in the Baptistry, most notably that of the Anti-Pope John XXIII with sculptures by Donatello and Michelozzo. When we visited, there was also an exhibit of sculptures by Donatello that are usually housed in the Opera Museum.

Visiting the Crypt and Baptistry gave us a chance to rest up a little; it was now time to tackle the 414 steps of the Campanile di Giotto. Reaching the top gave us more dramatic views of Florence and an appreciation of where we had stood atop the dome. After this, we went back to La Contessina for a rest. Along the way we stopped to pick up some beer and Coke from the Sapori & Dintorni Conad grocery at 6/7 Largo Fratelli Alinari, across from the train station and not far from the hotel.

Later, we met Robert and Mary for our final tour with ArtViva. Our guide, Klaas, provided commentary on the art and history of Florence during the walk to the Accademia (www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=accademia). Although the main reason to visit this museum is to see the big guy in Florence, Michelangelo’s “David,” we first were shown other masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s “Prisoners.” Klaas carefully built up to the moment when we turned the corner and saw Michelangelo’s incredible masterpiece. We were very pleased with this tour package from ArtViva. Even though all of the tours ran longer than advertised, there was never any pressure to hurry and meet a timetable. All our guides were great at what they do; they share their enthusiasm and knowledge. So this is what art history majors get to do for a living!

To save time tomorrow morning, we stopped at the train station after the Accademia tour to purchase tickets for our trip to Pisa. Note that each person needs to buy two 7.9 EUR one-way tickets (total 15.8 EUR pp) for a round-trip; these are most easily purchased (with cash) at the Tabacchi across from the main ticket booths. Then we returned to the hotel to enjoy the delicacies that we had purchased this morning at the Mercato Centrale.

THURSDAY 05/08/14  Florence – Pisa – Florence

After breakfast, we caught the train from Firenze SM Novella to Pisa Centrale; the trains run about every half-hour and make the trip in 60-75 minutes. Although we were careful to validate the ticket before boarding the train, a group of young people had not validated theirs. They had quite a lively discussion with the conductor when she came around checking tickets and were extremely lucky that she let them off with a warning instead of a hefty fine.

Although there is a bus that runs from Pisa Centrale to the Piazza del Duomo (AKA Field of Miracles), it is only about a mile to walk and there are signs pointing the way. We proceeded along Viale Gramsci to the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuale, where we stopped at the Tourist Office to pick up a map (www.pisaunicaterra.it//images.independenttraveler.com/allegati/mappa_pisa_turistica_fr.pdf). This map has two suggested walking tours; we took parts of the yellow tour.

We continued around the piazza to the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate. The church’s back facade features the mural “Tuttomondo” by Keith Haring, one of his last works before dying of AIDS in 1990. From there, we cut through the Piazza San Antonio to Via Franceso Crispi and from there to the Arno River. After we crossed the river, we turned right and walked along the river to Via Santa Maria, which leads to the Field of Miracles. The Piazza del Duomo is a lovely expanse of green grass (mostly off-limits) puctuated by the Duomo, the Baptistry and the Campanile (Leaning Tower). Surrounding the piazza are the two museums (Museo delle Sinopie and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo), the Camposanto (cemetery), part of the old city walls, a hospital and some other buildings.

When John and I visited Pisa in 1998, the Leaning Tower was being stabilized and could not be climbed. Advance reservations to climb the Tower (18 EUR pp) are highly recommended and can be made online (www.opapisa.it/en/home-page.html) from 12-20 days ahead. The Duomo is free and a combo ticket for all of the other four mounuments in the piazza is 9 EUR pp. I bought all the tickets for our group as early as possible; I was emailed one ticket for four people for the monuments and a separate ticket for two people to climb the Tower. The tickets have a bar code and are scanned at the entrance to each monument.

There was still a lot of time before John and I were scheduled to climb the Tower, so we visited the Museo delle Sinopie. The Camposanto walls were once covered with frescoes dating to the early Renaissance. In painting a fresco, the artist would first make a series of sketches directly on the wall where the fresco was to be. Then he would plaster an area that could be painted in one day and fill in the colors following the visibile lines of the sketch. These sketches are called “synopie” after the red pigment that was used for the drawings. When the cemetery was bombed by the Allies during World War II, its wooden roof caught fire. The lead panels in the roof melted and ran down over the frescoes, destroying most of them. While trying to conserve the surviving frescoes, workers discovered the sinopie underneath. The museum displays these sinopie, along with copies of the engravings made of the finished frescoes in the 19th century.

Next we visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which contains the etchings of the Camposanto frescoes that were made by Carlo Lasinio when he restored the frescoes in the early 19th century. This museum also houses artwork that previously resided in or on the Duomo or the Baptistry. The Duomo’s last remaining original bronze door (made by Bonanno Pisano, who also created the door for the Duomo in Monreale) is also displayed here. The two-story loggia around the museum’s courtyard gives a somewhat disquieting perspective of the Leaning Tower, with the Tower leaning toward the viewer.

Pisa’s Baptistry is the largest in Italy; most of its decorative elements by Giovanni Pisano are now kept in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The pulpit in the Baptistry was carved by Giovanni’s father, Nicola; this was the first in a series of four famous pulpits that they carved in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The huge carved and inlaid baptismal font dates from the 13th century; a 20th-century statue of St. John stands in the middle of the font. There is an open corridor around the upper level; we climbed up there for some great views of the Duomo and down into the baptistery.

While all Catholic cemeteries are blessed “holy fields”, the Camposanto in Pisa is actually filled with dirt from Mount Calvary in Jerusalem, brought back by an archbishop from the Crusades. A central grassy area is surrounded by an arcaded corridor. The floor of the corridor is covered with tombs and there are a few Roman sarcophagi here and there. The walls of the corridor were once covered by the frescoes whose sinopie are displayed in the Museo delle Sinopie. Efforts to restore the frescoes have been underway since the end of World War II but most of those that were damaged are only a pale shadow of their former glory. There is, however, an exhibit of some frescoes that made it through the fire relatively unscathed. Perhaps the most famous of these is the “Triumph of Death,” the inspiration for Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz.” We had not toured the Camposanto during our 1998 visit to Pisa because we thought it was just a cemetery. However, after touring the Museo delle Sinopie and seeing the etchings of the frescoes in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the Camposanto became a highlight of today’s visit.

The main highlight for John and me was the chance to climb the nearly 300 steps up the Leaning Tower. Although cameras, movie-cameras and video-cameras are allowed on the climb, any other bags, purses or containers are prohibited and must be left at the bag check (I left my bag with Mary). This rule is vigorously enforced and we saw several people pulled out of line and sent to check their belongings. Also, the visits are strictly limited to 30 minutes; allowing 15 minutes to climb up and down only gives you 15 minutes to enjoy the view at the top. Despite the expense and short duration of the visit, this an awsome experience. After a short orientation to the tower, we headed up the well-worn marble steps of the spiral staircase inside the Tower. At the 7th level, just below the bells, you can exit the staircase and walk around the outside of the Tower for some outstanding views. We could feel the slant in the Tower as we climbed the stairs; it was even more pronounced (and a bit unnerving) at this level. The views are even better from the 8th level, which houses the bell chamber. It is even possible to climb up a little higher to the very top, which of course we did. Far too soon it was time for us to climb back down and rejoin Robert and Mary on the ground.

The last sight for us to see on the Piazza del Duomo was the Duomo itself. The multicolored marble facade of cathedral is in the “Pisan Romanesque” style; above the three bronze entrance doors are four rows of open arcades with delicate columns and Moorish-inspired arches. Much of the cathedral was replaced after a fire in 1595. The new main doors were cast by students of Giambologna; the central door shows scenes from the passion of Christ. The beautiful coffer ceiling also dates from after the fire; it prominently features the Medici family crest. The only remaining original door is the “Door of San Ranieri” cast by Bonnano Pisano, which is now in the Museo dell’Opera; it was replaced by a copy in 2008. Other artworks that survived the fire are the 13th-century mosaic of Christ Pancrator in the apse above the main altar and the last of the magnificent pulpits carved by Giovanni Pisano. Hanging low near the pulpit is a large bronze lamp, whose movement supposedly inspired Galileo’s law of the pendulum. This particular lamp postdates Galileo’s law, but presumably there was another lamp there previously. A side chapel in the cathedral is dedicated to St. Ranieri, the patron saint of Pisa; his remains are displayed in a glass coffin above the altar.

There is more to Pisa than simply the Field of Miracles. We followed the yellow route to the Piazza Cavalieri, possibly the site of the forum in Roman times. Buildings surrounding the piazza include the Palazzo dei Cavalieri (remodeled by Vasari in1562), the baroque Santo Stefano and the clock tower of the Palazzo dell’Orologio. When he was accused of treason, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, his sons and grandsons were locked up in this tower to starve to death. This incident has been the basis of works by Dante, Chaucer, Shelley and Rodin (among others).

We continued strolling along the Via Borgo Stretto, Pisa’s arcaded shopping street. Along the way, we saw the Chiesa San Michele in Borgo, built over an ancient temple dedicated to Mars. Finally, we reached the Arno River and Piazza Garibaldi, home to La Bottega del Gelato (www.labottegadelgelato.it), reputedly Pisa’s best gelato shop. Of course, we had to try some; however, I thought all the gelato we had in Italy was excellent.

The Lungarni in Pisa are the streets along the Arno River, which are are lined with majestic grand ducal buildings, Romanesque and Gothic style churches and Medieval and Renaissance fortifications. We crossed the bridge to the south bank to reach the Logge di Banchi, which was once a cloth market. Next to the logge is the Palazzo Gambacorti (now a museum). We walked downstream along the Lungarno Gambacorti, passing the Palazzo Blu, also a museum. On the other side of the river, we could see other palazzi, such as the Palazzo alla Giornata (which houses offices of the University of Pisa) and the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale (formerly a summer residence of the Medici family). Further along is a small Gothic church, Santa Maria della Spina, built by Giovanni and Nino Pisano to house a thorn (spina) from Christ’s crown of thorns.

We returned to Florence at about 3:30 p.m., which would give us plenty of time to visit the Santa Maria Novella complex. First we stopped at the SITA bus station across from the train station at Via Santa Caterina da Siena 17r to buy tickets for our trip to Sienna tomorrow. The station is actually inside a courtyard, so it is not particularly obvious; look for the big red “SITA” signs. Just like the train tickets, each person needs to buy two 7.8 EUR one-way tickets (total 15.6 EUR pp) for a round-trip; we bought the tickets at the ticket counter. There is a lot of traffic on the streets around Piazza della Stazione and crossing them is not easy. Be careful to use the crosswalks or the pedestrian underpass, which branches to the various streets.

After buying the tickets, we took the underpass and followed the signs to Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The 5 EUR pp (cash only) admission fee grants entrance to the entire Santa Maria Novella complex (www.chiesasantamarianovella.it/en/visiting): both the Basilica and the municipally-owned Museum of Santa Maria Novella. Entrance to the complex is through the old cemetery (Avelli Cloister) and through a side door of the Basilica. In the center of the nave, slightly to the right of the entrance, hangs Giotto’s famous “Crucifix”; nearby is the pulpit (designed by Brunelleschi) from which Galileo was first denounced for heresy. Opposite the door is Masaccio’s “Trinita”, historically important because it was the first painting ever to use the laws of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi.

The large chapel containing the main altar and the smaller chapels flanking it on both sides contain major works of art and gorgeous stained glass windows. The main altar stands in the Tornabuoni Chapel; Ghirlandaio and his apprentices covered it with frescoes of scenes (set in Florence) from the lives of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. The Filippo Strozzi Chapel was painted by Filippino Lippi with frescoes of scenes from the lives of the St. Philip and St. John the Baptist. The Gondi chapel contains Brunelleschi’s wooden “Crucifix.” When he saw the crucifix that Donatello had created for Santa Croce, Brunelleschi supposedly told him, “I’ll show you how Christ is supposed to look,” and carved this statue.

From the Basilica we went into the Green Cloister in the Museum section. The name “Green Cloister” refers to the green tones of frescoes with scenes from the Old Testament, painted by Paolo Uccello (among others). Other chapels and cloisters surround the Green Cloister. The chapter house, now known as the “Spanish Chapel” is entirely covered with a complex cycle of frescoes that tells an allegory of the triumph of the Church over heresy, such as (presumably) “the earth orbits the sun.”

We took the underpass from the Piazza Santa Maria Novella and somehow managed to emerge at Largo Fratelli Alinari. We stopped at the grocery to buy more bread and wine to eat for supper with the rest of our olives, cheese and salami.

FRIDAY 05/09/14 Florence — Siena — Florence

Usually it is easier to travel between Italian cities using the trains rather than the buses. When traveling from Florence to Siena, however, it makes more sense to take the bus: Siena’s bus station is right in town (in Piazza Gramsci on Via Tozzi), whereas the Siena train station is about two miles away and down in the valley. The fast 131R rapide/express bus takes 75 minutes; the slow 131O ordinarie/diretta/accelerate bus takes 95 minutes (www.tiemmespa.it/index.php/Viaggia-con-noi/Orari-e-linee/Siena/Extraurbano). We planned to take a rapide bus from Firenze Autostazione to Siena Via Tozzi that would arrive in Siena at about 10:00 a. m., just when all the attractions would be opening. Note that the bus tickets must be validated on the bus or in the boxes at the bus bays. We validated ours at the boxes, which turned out to be a wise move. Our bus was late and when it arrived, there was a mad rush for seats through both the front and middle doors. There was no way we could have validated the tickets on the bus, although no one checked the tickets either on the way to or back from Siena. Another hint is to pay attention to where you exit the bus in Piazza Gramsci so that you know where to wait for the return bus to Florence; there are a lot of bus stops in the piazza and it is not entirely clear which bus stops where.

Siena (www.planetware.com/tourist-attractions-/siena-i-to-si.htm) is built on three ridge lines. Not much climbing is needed if you remain on the three main streets (Via Banchi di Sopra, Via Banchi di Sotto and Via di Citta), which converge at the Loggia della Mercanzia. But what’s the fun in that? The city center is almost entirely pedestrianized and it is marvelous just to stroll through the medieval streets, with many arches overhead connecting the buildings. For some suggestions on where to wander, see this brochure: allegati.comune.siena.it:8080/Allegati/1441/siena_golosa_en.pdf

Today we intended enjoy the ambiance of Siena and not frantically try to see everything. We walked from the bus station to Piazza Matteotti, then to Piazza Saltembeni. From there we walked along Via Banchi di Sopra toward the Campo. At Piazza Tolomei, there is column topped with the symbol of the city: a she-wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Legend holds that Siena was founded by Remus’ son, Senius.

After a while, we reached the Loggia della Mercanzia, once the meeting place of Siena’s merchants and money lenders. The pillars supporting the arches have richly decorated capitals and feature statues of saints. Alongside the loggia is one of the alleys that lead down into the magnificent Piazza del Campo (Il Campo). The fan-shaped Campo is the site of a famous horse race, the Palio di Siena. At the top of the fan is an ornate, rectangular fountain (just a copy), the Fonte Gaia. White marble lines radiate from the base of the fan to divide the brick pavement into nine sections, which represent the Council of Nine, Siena’s medieval ruling body. Also at the base of the fan is the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall and home to the Museo Civico, and the Torre del Mangia.

From the Campo, we wandered over to the 12th-century Ponte di Diacceto on Via di Diacceto; there are good views of the Basilica of San Domenico from the bridge. Next we ambled over to the Piazza del Duomo and bought our combo tickets (12 EUR pp) for the entire Duomo complex (www.operaduomo.siena.it/eng/opa_si_pass.htm).

The Duomo and campanile are very distinctive because of their black-and-white banding. The facade of the Duomo is decorated with polychrome marble; the bottom half is covered with intricate carvings by Giovanni Pisano and his apprentices, while the upper half has more carvings and Venetian mosaics. Inside the cathedral is another pulpit by Nicola Pisano, carved with the assistance of Giovanni. On this trip we saw three of the four pulpits carved by the famous father-son sculptors (the fourth is in Pistoia).

Even the floor of the Duomo is a work of art: it is a mosaic of nearly 60 etched and inlaid marble panels. The scenes include the Sienese wolf (surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac), Greek sibyls and allegories of virtues, events from the Old and New Testaments, political events and philosophers (e.g., Hermes Trismegistus and Socrates). I was surprised that we were able to see so many of the panels; I had expected the nearly all would be covered to protect them from wear.

The Piccolomini Library, in the left-hand aisle of the cathedral, was built to house the library of Pope Pius II (a member of the Piccolomini family). The frescoes covering the walls depict important events from his life; they were painted by Pinturicchio and his pupils, who also painted the ceiling frescoes. Just outside the library’s entrance is the Piccolomini Altar; some of the statues in its niches were sculpted by a young Michelangelo

On the right-hand side is the Cappella Chigi, designed by Bernini to house the “Madonna del Voto.” Two of the statues in the chapel (“St. Jerome” and “St. Mary Magdalene”) are by Bernini; the other two are by his pupils. Bernini did the organ outside the chapel as well.

In the crypt underneath the cathedral are the remains of an earlier Romanesque church. The frescoes there have only been on display since 2004.

The prize of the Duomo’s baptistery is the hexagonal baptismal font. Its gilded brass panels were cast by the foremost Sienese and Florentine sculptors, including Ghiberti and Donatello.

In 1339 Siena decided to proclaim its importance by creating a huge “New Duomo”, using the existing Duomo as merely the transept of the new cathedral. The city started building the new nave but completed only the walls of one aisle and part of the new facade before the outbreak of the Black Death permanently halted the project. That uncompleted aisle is now the Museo dell’Opera. Like other museums of this type, it contains statues removed from the exterior of the Duomo and artworks that were formerly displayed inside the Duomo but replaced when tastes changed. Highlights of the ground floor include Giovanni Pisano’s worn statues from the facade (with elongated necks that ensured the faces were visible from the ground) and Duccio di Buoninsegna’s stained glass window that once stood high in the cathedral’s apse. Upper floors include works by Bernini and Donatello.

Beyond question the most important work of art in the museum is Duccio’s masterpiece, the “Maesta” altarpiece. This is the largest altarpiece ever painted and has suffered some attrition over the centuries: eight of the panels are in foreign museums and one is lost, as were 12 angels that once adorned the pinnacles. The theme of the “Maesta”, the Virgin Mary in Majesty enthroned and surrounded by saints, was a favorite for later Sienese artists. This piece is exhibited in a special room and has been separated so that visitors can view both sides. Another interesting work in this room is a triptych by Pietro Lorenzetti, “Birth of the Virgin.” Traditional triptychs are composed of three independent scenes, whereas Lorenzetti spread one scene over all three panels.

The museum also provides access to a narrow spiral staircase (only about 130 steps) that leads up to the Panorama del Facciatone. This walkway is atop the abandoned facade of the “New Duomo” and has fantastic panoramic views of the Duomo, the Torre del Mangia and the rooftops of Siena.

After a long morning of sightseeing, we had a leisurely lunch at a restaurant John had read about in the “Wine Advocate.” Casato Enoristorante (www.casato-siena.it/index-en.php) is just off the famous Campo but was not clogged with tourists. Lunch was fabulous! It made us sorry we couldn’t be around for supper to try the tasting menu! The four of us started by sharing a huge bruschetta that was delicious. John ordered risotto with oysters and spumante but they were out of oysters. Instead (after his approval) they substituted risotto with ricci (sea urchin). This was a sublime dish. John concentrated so much on his dish that he can’t even remember what I had (it was “Pici con Cinghiale” – a thick, hand-rolled Sienese pasta with wild boar sauce). For dessert, we had a selection of small servings from the dessert menu. This is a lovely place and the wine list is outstanding. We felt the menu prices were not excessively high and, considering the quality of the food, were an actual bargain. Highly recommended!

After that fantastic lunch, we meandered through the streets and up stairways, eventually ending up at the Basilica Cateriniana de San Domenico. Of main interest here is the Cappella di Santa Caterina, where the saint’s head is enshrined in a gilt reliquary; the chapel is frescoed with scenes from her life. The church also contains the only genuine portrait of St. Catherine, painted by a friend and contemporary; that portrait is displayed in the raised chapel on the right as you enter the church.

Of course there are many wine stores in Siena; we stopped at the Cantina del Brunello (www.cantinadelbrunello.com) to pick up a few bottles. There are also many pastry shops with traditional pastries like ricciarelli (soft almond cookies) and panforte (a type of dense fruitcake). Somehow we managed to resist buying any of those. We made our way back to the bus station and returned to Florence in the early evening. The bus unexpectedly stopped at the train station, so we got off there and saved ourselves a bit of walking. After our fantastic lunch, wine with the remains of our bread, cheese, olives and salami were all we needed for supper.

There are so many other interesting things to see and do in Siena that I was sorry we could only devote one day to the city on this trip. I hope we will have the opportunity to visit again someday for a longer visit.

SATURDAY 05/10/14 Florence – Fiumicino

Alas, today would be our last day in Florence. We checked out of our room and left our luggage with the hotel. Then we were off to the Bargello National Museum (www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=bargello). Tickets are usually 4 EUR pp but today they were 7 EUR pp because of a special exhibition of the works of Baccio Bandinelli, a contemporary of Michelangelo and considered by some to be his equal. Notwithstanding, his “Hercules and Cacus” (in the Piazza della Signoria) is often ridiculed and, even to a non-artist, displays a poor understanding of male musculature.

However, the real attraction of this museum is the large number of works by Donatello. Foremost among these is his “David.” Other notable works are the originals of his “Marzocco” (formerly outside the Palazzo Vecchio) and “St. George” (formerly in a niche on the outside of Orsanmichele).

Also of great interest are the only two surviving entries from the 1401 competition to create the second set of bronze doors for the Baptistery: Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s. Some versions of this contest claim that Ghiberti won outright, others that they tied and were supposed to create the doors jointly (which Brunelleschi refused to do). Whatever the truth, Ghiberti eventually went on to create those doors and a third set (the “Gates of Paradise”) for the Baptistry; Brunelleschi went on to build the Duomo’s magnificent dome.

Robert and Mary had visited the Galileo Museum (www.museogalileo.it/en/index.html) on Wednesday and recommended it, so John and I went there today. It was a bit disconcerting that the two young ladies at the ticket counter did not seem to believe that we needed to pay the adult admission (9 EUR pp) instead of the reduced admission for those over 65 (5.5 EUR pp); maybe we shouldn’t be so honest. Anyway, this museum is not devoted exclusively to Galileo; it also houses the scientific collections of the Medici family and the House of Lorraine. Those collections include mathematical, nautical, astronomical, meteorological and surveying instruments, globes, armillary spheres, timepieces, and myriad other measuring devices. Of special interest are the only surviving instruments designed and built by Galileo himself, including two original telescopes and the objective lens of the telescope with which he discovered Jupiter’s moons. Two of Galileo’s fingers are displayed in glass cases. For two science geeks like us, this museum was a very enjoyable experience.

We rejoined Robert and Mary at the appointed time for lunch at another restaurant recommended by the hotel: Osteria Cipolla Rossa (www.osteriacipollarossa.com). Although it was located on a main pedestrian street, it was not crowded with tourists. The food was very good and I would easily recommend it to anyone seeking authentic Tuscan food.

After an unhurried lunch, we returned to the hotel to relax on the terrace at the hotel until it was time to collect our luggage and walk over to the train station for our late afternoon train to FCO Airport. Because we knew well ahead of time when we wanted to leave Florence, I was able to book Super Economy 2nd-class tickets on the Frecciargento to Roma Termini for only 19 EUR pp. We finally decided to try a credit card without a chip in the ticket machines, so we were able to buy the tickets for the Leonardo Express before we left Florence.

The Frecciargento arrived late and we ended up at Roma Termini about a half-hour late. Nevertheless, we were able to catch an earlier-than-expected Leonardo Express to the airport. Our BnB near the airport provides tranfers to and from the airport, so we walked from the train station to the bus bays and waited for our pre-arranged pick-up time.

Sadly, our stay at the Villa Rosita (www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g656615-d1787331-Reviews-Villa_Rosita-Fiumicino_Province_of_Rome_Lazio.html) was brief because this is a fantastic BnB (only three rooms). We had booked two double rooms through Agoda.com for $108.28 per night, breakfast and airport transfers included. The owner, Frederico, met us at the airport at the agreed upon time and drove us 10 minutes to his place. It was so late and we were so tired that we didn’t have a chance to sample the nearby pizza restaurant that other reviewers have written about. We loved his spacious and clean rooms and nice comfortable beds. The shower had really good water pressure. The light of day showed that Villa Rosita is a really pretty place and we would have loved to have stayed there longer. Perhaps next time in Rome we’ll take time to visit the nearby Ostia Antica with the Villa Rosita as a resting place.

SUNDAY 05/11/14 FCO – JFK – RIC

Frederico provided a very nice breakfast (with cappuccino of course) the next morning and then drove us back to the airport. For some reason, Alitalia split up our party again and changed the side aisle seats John and I had reserved to ones in the center section. The flight was quite full but we made it to JFK in one piece, which is all that really matters. We are resigned to the fact that our airport and flight experiences will be the low points of our trips.

JFK is JFK, hardly the best introduction to the USA for international visitors. The walk from the International Terminal to the Delta Terminal for the flight home is short but not very pedestrian-friendly. After we got there and made it through the security lines, we discovered that the terminal did not have any air conditioning; that made the long wait for our flight to Richmond hot and generally unpleasant. We were hoping to have a decent meal while we waited, but the choices were pretty limited; we settled for wrap sandwiches. Finally, our flight to RIC was called and off we went.

We spent the night at Robert and Mary’s house before driving back to North Carolina the next day. It is a lot of fun to travel with friends and we wish we could coordinate more trips like this together.

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