October 11, 12, 13, 14 2018 Our last days in Firenze

Thursday, October 11

After all we did in the last few days, it was good to stay home for a day and try to recuperate.  There were enough provisions in the apartment for dinner, breakfasts, and snacks, with half a bottle of wine as well.  It rained all day, so was a perfect time to simply hang out, do photos, and relax a bit with no agenda. 

We settled onto the terrace as the rain let up toward evening and enjoyed the last of our wine while we made phone calls home.  I talked to Mo and Deborah, and Deanna called her husband, Keith.  WiFi calling works well on my Galaxy S9 phone.  We haven’t turned the phones off of airplane mode even once on this trip, and yet still enjoy excellent quality “real” phone calls.  Such a treat. 

Friday, October 12

We enjoyed another good breakfast at home, with eggs with cream cheese and zucchini, our favorite potatoes sliced up and sautéed, and Nescafe, our daily home coffee fix. Worked diligently on photos for a time before embarking on a mid day walk.  We decided to go back toward the part of town we visited on our first day here to buy some groceries for the our couple of days, to exchange a few US dollars since we are out of euros, and get back home in time to prepare for an evening on the town.

We enjoyed the quick walk to the main street on this side of the river, toward the east where we went the first day here. Found the meat market/grocery combo just in time before it closed for afternoon siesta, had a gelato at the nice little place nearby, bought something that looked like pizza but was tastier than most, with tomatoes and zucchini, our standby foods while in Italy.

What was most fun about this particular walk was how lost I was.  Even with the GPS on the phone, I couldn’t get my bearings.  Somehow everything seemed to be in the wrong place and didn’t match up with my memories of our first day walking around in this area.  It was especially funny to both of us because I am the map maker with a great sense of direction and Deanna has no clue which way is north or south. Yet she knew exactly where we were and where to find the Carni! Made for some funny moments for the two of us.

Before coming to Italy, thanks again to Two to Travel friends Erin and Mui, I learned about The Three Tenors performing n the auditorium of Santo Stefano. In the heart of Florence, just steps from Ponte Vecchio, Santo Stefano al Ponte is a church built in 1100 that was deconsecrated and reopened to the public in 2015 as exhibition space. Deanna purchased tickets for us online several months ago.  At the time we decided that this might be a nice way to end our Italian visit and chose to see the show toward the end of our time in Italy.

The day was a bit chilly, and we planned to walk the mile or so along the river rather than taking a taxi.  After watching people walking around our neighborhood after dark for the last couple of weeks, we were no longer concerned about walking home when the show was over.

We were, however, a bit worried about the chill.  We both wore jammie bottoms under our skirts, and long sleeves under our dressy tops.  The night was absolutely perfect, with no rain to cause any problems, and a slight breeze to keep us comfortable in all those extra clothes.  It was a lovely walk, and we arrived a bit early, in time for an apertivo before the show at a little bar in the church piazza.

Deanna had purchased VIP seats, so we had a perfect view and great acoustics from our forward location in the church. We did know, of course, that the Three Tenors were not the original “Three Tenors”, but the music was wonderful.  Amazing music emerged from the the mouths of those three men, no microphones, all acoustic with the tall chamber of the church amplifying it perfectly. Just amazing.

Once again, the song “Time to Say Goodbye” brought tears to my eyes. I can’t believe that stupid song made me cry again. There is no reason whatsoever for it to affect me so, except the beautiful melody itself. I have no connection at all to the song, no memories generated from it or anything, but the melody is just so incredibly beautiful it always makes me teary. The three men sang in Italian, lots of songs we didn’t know, some opera, and some old favorite songs that were also famous in America made popular by Dean Martin. It was a delightful experience.

Friday night on the Ponte Vecchio.  I guess it is the same no matter where you go

Our walk home was wonderful, breezy and cool but not chilly.  We walked through the Ponte Vecchio with all the shops closed but still many people enjoying the river and the evening camaraderie.  There was a busker playing “Proud Mary” and then Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, and he was really really good! I guess the song choice indicates the audience of tourists. The walk home felt perfectly safe, with lots of people strolling and eating at the restaurants. We had no reason to worry at all about walking at night in this part of town at 1030 PM.

Saturday October 13

We were excited to visit the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.  The guidebooks all lauded the beautiful gardens as a wonderful respite from the city, and the Pitti Palace as a place filled with the over the top examples of the kind of luxury afforded by one of the wealthiest families in the world, the Medici. 

We saved this excursion for Saturday, hoping the rain would lighten up enough that we could enjoy the gardens.  The day dawned beautifully, and we once again walked the mile toward the Ponte Vecchio, then turning south toward Piazza Pitti.

The piazza was crowded and the lines were long.  There are several things to see that are part of the complex, and once we looked at all the options, we decided that there was no need to see one more fancy palace with lots of rich stuff.  Instead we opted for focusing on the gardens.

Here is an example of the flowery words that led us to this decision.

“More than a garden, more than just a “green lung” in Florence, the Boboli gardens are one of the greatest open-air museums in Florence that embraces another site of culture in Florence, the Pitti Palace. The park hosts centuries-old oak trees, sculptures, fountains and offers peaceful shelter from the warm Florentine sun in summer, the beautiful colors of the changing foliage in the fall and smells of blooming flowers in the spring. The Boboli gardens are a spectacular example of “green architecture” decorated with sculptures and the prototype which inspired many European Royal gardens, in particular, Versailles.”

Sadly, the reality left a lot to be desired.  The first hint of what was to follow were the Medici Fountains at the entrance to the gardens.  The sculptures were filthy, covered in dust, and bleeding black mold .  Cherubs floated in the dirty water inside the dingy grotto.  Ok then.
Walking through the gates and up the stairs beyond the entrance led us to more sculptures lining the paths, again covered with black mold and looking very old and unkept.  It was terribly disappointing.
We withheld judgment for a time, following the maps and trails, searching for fountains and sculptures and views.  There were a few charming spots, but most of the gardens consist of huge very old shrubs that are meticulously manicured.  Too bad whomever is in charge of the place didn’t attempt to clean it up a bit rather than just cut back all those shrubs.
There was no color, with fall leaves already gone and not a flower in sight. The lawns are not watered, and were brown and scrubby. I have seen many winter gardens that are incredibly charming and colorful, that are designed well and a delight to visit no matter how drab the weather.  This was not one of those places.  It was very claustrophobic, and we wandered the paths looking for something to lift our spirits to no avail.
At the upper end of the gardens we found a viewpoint, and the other attraction included in our ticket, the Porcelain Museum.  The view from the rose garden was the nicest part of the Boboli, and yet even there, there were no flowers and everything looked tired and not very well cared for.

Deanna found a few faded roses in the upper rose garden

We were a bit sad that our last adventure in the great city of Florence should be such a disappointment.  Maybe we were just tired, or maybe overloaded, who knows. We did know that after days and days of so much input, our tiredness seemed to accumulate a little bit more each day. After leaving the gardens, we ambled a bit through Pitti Piazza, checking out the booths selling tourist wares, and then ambled back past the Ponte Vecchio toward home.  Once again, the busy, noisy, and full restaurants we passed didn’t tempt us much and we enjoyed cooking a great supper of fresh cut pork, fresh tomatoes, and a great bottle of inexpensive wine.

Written on Sunday, October 14 our last day in Firenze:
(I didn’t edit this original text from my journal so you could get a sense for how we were feeling)

It is our last day in Firenze, tomorrow morning we will leave “A Birdseye View” and take a taxi to Santa Novella for the train to Naples. Neither of us is looking forward to tomorrow, and yet both of us are basically DONE. At one time or another this afternoon, one or the other of us said, “I want to be hooooommmmmme”. Deanna was looking at photos of her beautiful property in Northern Washington, a photo Keith sent today of gorgeous sunshine and the beautiful view over the river. Unlike me, she is not retired, and when she returns she will only get a short 3 days at the property in Lincoln, and then will have to get back out on the road in the big truck, crossing the country hauling jet engines all over the place so people like us can travel all over the place.

We are tired. We keep making excuses to each other on this, our last day, for not getting out of our jammies and at least going downstairs to view the lovely Sunday sunshine and watch people walking along the river. We stayed inside, worked on packing up our stuff, and ate simple breakfast.  We thought about going out to dinner, and instead cooked up the last of our pasta, garnishing it with the last of Sara’s tomato sauce, the last of our olives, and made another side of sliced tomatoes in olive oil and balsamic. Traditional Italian fare that has served us well.

We thought about walking up to Michelangelo Square for one last look at the city or going for an evening walk along the river for one last view, but decided again that we have done enough, we don’t need that one last view at all, we need instead to lie here in the almost comfortable sofa bed, look at photos and Facebook, play stupid Candy Crush and wait impatiently for it to get late enough to go to sleep.

Late in the afternoon a thunderstorm rolled over the city and we were glad we weren’t out walking somewhere. Neither of us slept well again last night, and the last few days have recorded at most 3 or 4 hours sleep on our watches. Ugh. Tonight will be the rare sleeping pill for both of us. When can we take it? When can we go to sleep??? We do have a good reason, since the next two days will be long and grueling.

On a happy note, however, the middle photo in this collage is the ceramic piece I returned to purchase on the way home from Boboli Gardens.  Shipped direct from Italy home, it arrived safe and sound.  The photo on the left is where Deanna found her keepsake ceramics in Siena, and the one on the right is where I found a sweet small watercolor in Siena as well.

10-10-2018 Day 16 The Uffizi

The Uffizi is the large building just to the right of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge

I knew a long time before we arrived in Italy that I wanted to see the Accademia Museum.  I also knew that I probably wanted to visit the Uffizi, but with so much to see in Florence I wasn’t at all sure that we might not suffer such museum fatigue that we wouldn’t get there.  I bought our Accademia tickets online several months before the trip, but saved the decision to visit the Uffizi until just a few days before we left for Siena. 

The timing seemed right.  I went online and booked a Skip-the-Line ticket and 3 hour tour with CAF Tours.  Skip-the-Line is imperative but I also thought that with such a big gallery and so much to see it would be smart to have a guided tour as well.  It was a smart choice.

The Uffizi is huge and could be incredibly overwhelming without a guide.  We booked an early tour and arrived at Door Number 1 looking for the person in the yellow vest.  There were about 20 people in our group, minus two who had mistakenly booked the tour for 2019 and had to step out of line.  An easy mistake, and glad I didn’t make that one.

If you really are an art buff, here is a link to the paintings of the Uffizi Gallery.  Real photos of the paintings, no people in front of them, with artists and dates and the proper names of the paintings.  Then again, if you simply like to read my version of visiting the Uffizi, continue onward.  You also have the option of wandering around in my SmugMug gallery to see many of the paintings and descriptions that I didn’t put in this blog.

My recent posts about our trip to Italy have been fairly wordy.  I think this time I might give myself a break (as well as my readers) and keep the words few and let the photos do most of the talking.

Located in the heart of Florence, adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, the palace which houses the Uffizi Gallery was built between 1560 and 1580 as a public administrative building (hence its name, uffizi which means offices in old Tuscan language).

This enclosed walkway that connects the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, to the Pitti Palace on the opposite side of the river was built by the Medici’s.  They needed a protected way to get from their offices to their homes without having to endure the street riffraff below.

In 1590, a part of the palace was converted into a private exhibition space, known as the galleria, in order to accommodate the large art collection of the House of Medici.  In 1769 it was transformed into a publicly-open museum. It is believed that the modern term gallery, used to identify a space where works of art are on display, originates from that of the Uffizi’s original galleria.

Follow me now into one of the greatest art galleries in the world.

The Return from Egypt 1540  Oil on Wood  by Agnolo Bronzino

Madonna of the Pomegranate 1487 Tempura on Wood by Sandro Botticelli

Annunciation  1472 Oil on Wood by Leonardo da Vinci

Coronation of the Virgin 1439 Tempura on Wood by Filippo Lippi

Madonna and Child with 2 Angels 1460 Tempura on Wood by Filippo Lippi

Madonna of the Magnificat 1483 Tempura on Wood by Sandro Botticelli

Primavera 1482 by Sandro Botticelli

Our guide explained the mythology behind each of the characters in this complex painting

Birth of Venus 1482 by Sandro Botticelli

Yes, that one.  This one was especially hard to photograph because as you can imagine, the room was filled to bursting with people trying to get photos of the well known painting.

Holy Family with Young St John the Baptist 1505 Tempura grassa on wood by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Yes, you are right.  We stood in front of this one for a very long time. Notice the strength in Mary’s arms, painted by the great sculptor. OF course, as he often did, Michelangelo included his own likeness in his art.

Venus of Urbino 1534 Oil on Canvas by Titian

Baccus 1597 Oil on Canvas by Carraveggio

Sacrifice of Isaac 1603 Oil on Canvas by Carraveggio

Raphael, Rubens, and countless others

Good Fortune 1617 oil on canvas by Gherardo della Notti

Are you exhausted yet?  We spent several hours in the Uffizi, trying to absorb the magnitude of great art there.  Standing in the very presence of great art, especially art that is imprinted on one’s brain from our collective consciousness is a bit overwhelming.  Of course you can’t touch anything, thanks to very loud infra red alarms that will screech very loudly if your hands get too close.  But you are close enough to touch the paintings, to look at the fine detail, to appreciate what it takes to make art like this.  An experience neither of us will forget.

It was a long day.  I actually have no idea what we did that evening, what we had for dinner, and I don’t remember the walk home.  However, I do remember this moment, when we reached our little street and I could see the door to our apartment.  It was a wonderful day and it was even more wonderful to know we had no plans for the following day except resting up a bit and reviewing and remembering the last few days of amazing experiences.


10-08-2018 Day 14 Two Days in Siena

When planning our trip to Italy, Deanna and I decided that rather than trying to see too much, we would focus on two completely different worlds.  The southern coast of Amalfi was full of mountains, ocean, picturesque towns tumbling like blocks down the limestone cliffs, and warm sunshine.

Tuscany is a place that calls to many people, helped out by movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “A Good Year”.  I wanted to see Tuscany, but I also wanted to see Florence.  Florence is not exactly in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, but it makes a great jumping off point, lying on the northern perimeter between the Tuscan hills and the landscapes of Umbria farther north.

We decided to stay in Florence but to use it as our jumping off point for possible tours into the Tuscan countryside.  Options were many, from expensive day trips using a private driver, overcrowded day trips on tour buses, overnight stays at “Agriturissimo’s”, local farms that usually include feeding cows and chickens and experiencing the Tuscan farm life. 

Once again, the Rick Steve’s Florence and Tuscany guide book came to the rescue.  We opted to spend a couple of days in Siena, a reasonable distance just 43 miles south of Florence using public transportation, the Sita bus from Florence to Siena.  Following Rick Steve’s advice, we booked a room at a small hotel, Albergo Tre Donzelle, just a couple of blocks from the famous Piazza del Campo. According to the guidebooks it is especially nice to spend a night in the city and enjoy it after the day trippers leave and the crowds thin out a bit.  Something impossible to do on a day trip.

On Monday morning we rose early and packed up our small cases for the overnight trip.  We opted to walk to the Santa Novella bus station which was about 1.5 miles from our apartment  rather than paying for a taxi. Leaving home on foot around 9 am gave us ample time to walk along the river and through town. We didn’t bother to attempt to get to the station at any particular time, knowing that the Siena buses ran every 45 minutes or so. 

Figuring out the bus station wasn’t too difficult. Finding the ticket line, we purchased round trip tickets for the Siena Rapida, rather than the local bus that would have several stops on the hour long route.  The Rapida left just as we finished purchasing our tickets, but that was OK since we were first in line for the next bus 45 minutes later.  In the mean time we returned to a little café that we had passed earlier and purchased a “stand-up” coffee and a pastry.  The morning was chilly and holding the hot coffee felt great.

Getting on the bus was as usual for Italian buses, fighting people even though we were first in line. Once we got on the bus with our hot coffees in hand, we settled into our roomy and comfy seats wondering where the cup holders might be.  Instead we found a sign, “No Food Or Drinks Allowed”. Hiding our cups under the seat, one of them tipped over and we hastily tried to hide the evil evidence.  UhOh.  No one seemed to notice and we didn’t get kicked off the bus.

The drive to Siena wasn’t as scenic as we had imagined, with the road down in a draw most of the way, surrounded by lots of shrubby trees and brush. It was surprising to me how much this part of Italy reminded me of brushy Sierra Nevada Foothills, or Arkansas hardwood forests, quite claustrophobic. Instead of the rolling golden hills I had imagined, the landscape was thick with scrub oaks and brush. Only rarely would we catch a glimpse of what I had envisioned as “Tuscany”. The highway was quick and modern, in good condition, and I could envision easily driving in this part of Italy.

Thick vegetation covers the Tuscan hills on the southern edge of Florence

When we arrived at the station in Siena we used the offline google maps again to get our bearings.  The bus station isn’t located in the main part of town, but the city center is within walking distance.

A side note: We took so many vertical shots in the town that I have decided to use some collages since vertical shots don’t work that well in the blog.  If you click on any of those shots, it will take you to the smug mug folder where the original photos are located.  Only if you are interested.

This Tuscan hill town will transport you back to the Middle Ages. Siena’s grand cathedral, built in the 1200s, has treasured artworks and marvelous marble floors. The Piazza del Campo, the main town square, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also home to the Palio, perhaps the most infamous horserace in the world. No hats or juleps at this race.  This is a medieval tradition involving bareback riders racing on cobblestones (so as you might imagine, it’s quite dangerous). Check out this video of the famous race!

As we headed toward town and our hotel, we passed the Siena Duomo. Italy is filled with gorgeous cathedrals and the Duomo is one of the best. This church is striped with white and black marble both inside and out, giving it a unique  and somewhat dramatic appearance.  Continuing on down the narrow and quite busy streets, we passed a little restaurant that looked quite charming but decided to find our hotel before stopping for lunch

The hotel was just another block away, easy to find, and check in was simple.  The proprietor was friendly and charming, and when we asked about a place to eat, he told about Taverna Di Cecco, the restaurant we had passed earlier.  He said Di Cecco was best for our Bistecca, a Tuscan treat we had decided to enjoy in Sienna rather than Florence.

While the hotel was charming, the room was small with a window that looked out to a tight courtyard surrounded by very tall walls.  The bed was as we have discovered in Italy, hard as a rock. Sigh. We unpacked and walked back to Di Cecco for a late lunch, thinking maybe we could spend the rest of the afternoon and evening walking off what we knew would be a huge meal.

With lovely service in the small but delightful restaurant, we had our best meal in Italy.  Our traditional Tuscan Porterhouse steak, 1 full kilo, cooked to perfection and seasoned with coarse salt and rosemary was the best steak I have had anywhere. We shared a half bottle of local chianti, and spent a long time sharing our steak.  The steak was served with no side dishes, but the chef did bring a plate of Italian bread soup for each of us as an appetizer.  Another treat, the bread soup is like Italian bread soaked in marinara sauce, quite delicious.

With Bistecca being such a “thing” in Florence and Tuscany, it isn’t necessarily easy to weed out the tourist restaurants claiming to have traditional Bistecca, and the real thing.  One of the factors in determining the real thing is that the meat must come from the famous right breed. The Chianina is an Italian breed of cattle, formerly a draught breed, but now raised for beef.  It is the largest and one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world and is known for its incredible flavor.

After our amazing lunch we walked back toward the main part of the city, exploring the nooks and crannies, and were suddenly caught in a huge rain storm.  Our umbrellas were safely back at the hotel, but we were just close enough to the Duomo that we managed to get tickets to get inside in time to escape the heaviest of the rain.

The Duomo was an incredible experience, with so much complexity and art. Like many churches in Italy, it took hundreds of years to build the cathedral. Work began in 1196 and over the next 200 years, additions were built and ornate facades were added. In 1339, another massive addition was planned, but the arrival of the Black Death in 1348 halted all further construction on the cathedral.

Once we entered, we were awed by the intricately designed interior with large, colorful mosaics.  It was probably our favorite cathedral that we visited during our time in Italy. We loved the most famous masterpiece of Duomo, the inlaid colored marble mosaics covering the entire floor of the church.

Sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.

Great art, including Michelangelo statues (above) and Bernini sculptures, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the wonderful marble pulpit in 1268.

It’s crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling with scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.

When we left the church the rain had diminished and we ambled back toward Il Campo and the square discovering what some say is Italy’s best medieval city experience. Narrow red brick lanes wander in every direction, lined with colorful flags and studded with iron rings for tethering horses. Those flags represent the city’s contrade (neighborhood associations), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio.

A bit of History: quoted from Rick Steves follows.

“Five hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.

Siena’s loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza — Il Campo. People hang out as if at the beach at this tilted shell-shaped “square” of red brick. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but Il Campo gathers around Siena’s city hall, symbol of rational government, and a tall municipal tower (open for climbers). If it’s true that a society builds its tallest towers to its greatest gods, then Siena worships secular effectiveness more than it trusts in God.

Nowadays, the city hall tends a museum collection of beautiful paintings (including a knockout work by hometown master Simone Martini). The 14th-century town council met here in the Sala della Pace (Room of Peace) under instructive frescoes reminding them of the effects of bad and good government: One fresco shows a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny; the other fresco depicts a utopian republic, blissfully at peace.”

We enjoyed the contrast between the Renaissance era of Florence and the Gothic style of Siena, especially the narrow winding lanes.  After a short power nap at our hotel, we decided to explore the square in the evening. The crowds had thinned, and we enjoyed sitting at a café for an aperitif.  I had my first classic Italian spritz, and Deanna chose Baileys, since the spritz was a bit too bitter for her taste. 

We people watched, and the waiter brought us delicious fried potato appetizers, free gratis with our cocktail.  After taking some photos of the beautiful fountain and a bit more wandering, we returned to our hotel for what was to be a very long night in our very hard bed.

The next morning we woke to a darkened room with little light even though it was after 8AM.  We went downstairs to have a coffee and a croissant on the square before getting tickets at 10 am to climb the tower of the Civic building.

The Torre del Mangia inside the Public Palace in Piazza del Campo is the most recognizable landmark in town. To reach the top of the tower you have to climb 400 steps, but the views of the town and surrounding countryside are simply terrific. 400 steps..very few people.  Early morning when the tower first opened at 10 was the perfect time to do the classic climb.

The climb was more dramatic than our previous climb of the Campanile in Florence.  The stairs in the tower were older, much more narrow, and the turns were much tighter.  We were incredibly happy that the foot traffic was light enough we didn’t have to pass too many people either going up or coming down.  I am pretty sure that this will be another memory of our trip to Italy that will stay imbedded in our minds for a very long time.

We had purchased the group ticket, which included seeing the civic museum, but after climbing the tower we had to make a decision.  We really wanted lunch.  For us at this moment it was more important than the museum, with the desire to have a dish of pici pasta more compelling than another museum.  The caveat was that we also wanted to get back to Florence before too late in the evening.

We had a hard time deciding where to eat.  By this time the square was horribly crowded, and settling into one of the few open tables at Il Palio, right on the square didn’t feel right. When no one came to attend to us, we simply decided to get up and walk the back lanes to our little restaurant Di Cecco.  When we had dined there on the previous day, there was a group of people on a “Eating in Tuscany” tour, with a fascinating guide that we enjoyed listening to as we ate. The group was served the classic Sienese pici pasta, but many of them asked if they could look at our Bistecca, as the guide explained our famous dish to them.  It was time for us to return to what was obviously a good restaurant to try pici. 

The pasta is a bit like spaghetti, but thicker, and of course denser with the al dente cooking that is so important for Italian pasta.  We had it with a porcini sauce, which we thought somehow was pork, but turned out to be mushrooms.  The lunch was delicious, and we enjoyed eating at the outdoor tables along the narrow street watching people amble by as we ate. Our simple glass of chianti was just 3 Euro each.

Before exploring the town, we had checked out of our hotel and left our bags in the safe keeping area.  We walked back to get our bags and headed out of town toward the bus station where we had arrived the previous day.  It took a bit of doing, but in the confusing square we found our bus number and time, and the area where we should plan to board.  Once again we managed to deal with the crazy Italian bus system and got on the right bus to Florence, Firenze Rapida.

Then a conundrum.  After all of this, we both needed a bathroom, and of course there is no such thing on the Sita buses.  The 90 minute ride was a bit of a challenge, and when we arrived back at the station in Florence Deanna and I both had our euro ready for the bus station washroom and managed to get there in time! Simple problems, and it was funny only later.

With our lightweight overnight luggage, which seemed a lot heavier than it had yesterday, we walked the mile and a half back to our apartment.  Both of us were happy to finally climb our 4 flights of stairs.  We knew that we wouldn’t want to go out again, so supper was another piece of take-away pizza purchased on our walk home.  It actually was a pretty good piece of pizza, or we were just tired and hungry which made it taste fabulous.  A great ending to a lovely two day adventure.

10-07-2018 Day 13 A Day with Michelangelo

Who knows why, after such a simple day that we enjoyed yesterday, but neither of us slept well last night.  We finally fell asleep around 2:30 AM and woke at 7, but even those few hours were restless.  We are both grateful for the sofa bed mattress, but still quite tired of being generally uncomfortable.

Sunday morning in Firenze is a wonder of bells, with the calls echoing all through the city and reverberating in all directions. It was a lovely way to begin our day, in spite of the lack of sleep.  Reading our trusty Rick Steve’s Florence guidebook, we decided that this Sunday would be a good day to visit some of the less popular sites in the main part of the city. 

Basilica de Santa Croce from the rear entrance near Scoula del Cuoio

Santa Croce was big on the list, not only for its beautiful facade, but for viewing the tomb of Michelangelo, which he designed for himself. Tucked away in Steve’s book was a little tidbit of information that turned out to be incredibly helpful.  Crossing the river once again, we took the back roads toward the Santa Croce, where we had seen the entrance to Casa Buonarotti, one time home of Michelangelo.

Facade of Santa Croce with sculpture of Dante to the left. The fancy tomb inside the church is merely a memorial and Dante isn’t actually buried here

The Basilica de Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross, is the principal Franciscan church in Florence.  There is a fee to enter this church, and from the main square, the lines are long even on a quiet day.  Just to the south of the church however, is a convent, and tucked away to the rear of the convent is the famous Scuola del Cuoio “School of Leather”.  Rick Steves suggested that one should visit the school, buy entry tickets to Santa Croce there, and enter the church through the back door from the school, no lines. 

Great advice!  Except the church wouldn’t be open until later in the day and we would have to return to the school to buy our tickets and enter.  No problem.  We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the school and reading about their world class leather training.  Even bought a few small leather pieces for presents for our kids and grandkids, and I found a purple wallet as soft as butter. 

Leaving the school, we walked a block or so to enter Casa Buonarotti.  Once again, there was an entry fee.  I never managed to track just how much we spent on entry fees in Florence to see all that we did, but it wasn’t a small amount. 

Although Michelangelo lived in this house as a young man, most of the art was added later by his descendant, Michelangelo the Younger, more than a century later.  We did see a pair of shoes and a walking stick that supposedly belonged to the great sculptor and several paintings of him.  The beautiful frescoes on the ceiling were completed in the 1600’s. 

Two special pieces made the visit worthwhile, both sculpted by Michelangelo when he was only 17 years old.

Madonna della Scala, Madonna of the Stairs reflects a  traditional form of sculpture for the time, with the influence of Donatello and the use “stiaccato” relief which allows a sculptor to create a recessed or relief sculpture carving only millimeters deep.  The illusion of greater depth is created by decreasing the thickness gradually from the foreground to the background.  It is more like a 2D image rather than a 3D sculpture. It stands in sharp contrast to the other relief carved by Michelangelo at Casa Buonarroti.

The Battle of the Centaurs

“The Battle of the Centaurs is a writhing mass of figures three-dimensionally carved into a marble block. The figures are layered in overlapping positions adding to the spatial depth of the work. We can see the artists interest in the massive bulk of the naked male form, a theme that would serve Michelangelo well in future commissions, including his work in the Sistine Chapel.”

Detail of ceiling in Casa Buonarroti

After visiting the leather school and Casa Buonarroti, we still had some time to kill before we could enter Santa Croce due to Sunday mass services being held there.  We decided to walk to the Bargello, a museum we had passed several times on our route to and from the Duomo Piazza.  The Bargello is a small museum, with a few hidden treasures and some obscure art that was nonetheless outstanding.

Michelangelo’s Bacchus is a highlight in this museum

Donatello’s David in bronze is much different than Michelangelo’s David

Dying Adonis by Vincenzo de Rossi was the one that caught our hearts.  Incredible.

We loved the majolica pottery

And the Della Robbia glazed pottery display was dramatic

The city was still fairly quiet as we emerged from the museum to head back toward Santa Croce.  But first we needed sustenance.  We found another little cafe for cappuccino and a pastry, and laughed together about the truly snotty waitress.  She was so harsh and somewhat rude that  it was actually funny.  I guess this happened to us less than we had expected during our Italian visit.

It was around 2 when we meandered back to the rear of the great church, smiling to each other as we looked at the long entry lines.  The shopkeepers smiled as they sold us our entry tickets, remembering that we had made some purchases earlier.  They are very friendly at the Scoula, and directed us to the entrance to the church where there wasn’t a single person in line.

Entering Santa Croce was just a bit overwhelming.  There are sixteen family chapels that compose a large part of the Santa Croce Basilica, considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. Well-to-do families typically had chapels built and decorated in their honor and dedicated to a favorite saint.

In addition the the chapels filled with art, and the beautiful crypts on the floors, it is the tombs that make Santa Croce so thrilling. The list of the famous artists and scientists of the Renaissance that are entombed in this basilica reads like a history of art and science.  Here lies Michelangelo, Michiavelli, Marconi, Galileo, and Rossini. 

We spent a long time wandering through the church, admiring the art and sculpture, until at last we came to the tomb of Michelangelo.  Silly me, somehow this place brought tears to my eyes.  I was looking up and another woman near me looked at me with tears in her eyes as well.  She only spoke Italian, but we laughed and smiled at each other and with hand gestures and eyes we acknowledged that this was somehow an incredible moment for each of us.  I have no idea why, not a clue.  But being here still got to me down deep.


Michelangelo, crazy man, wild artist, genius of sculpture, legendary personality.  It was good to see his work in person and to stand at his tomb and honor him.

We left the church and walked back across the river, reaching our little apartment by 4.  By this time the city was incredibly crowded, and the streets were shoulder to shoulder with tourists.  The big tour buses parked along the Arno River just across from where our apartment is located and we saw them lining up and filling with hordes of people returning from a day in the city center. 

Florence is truly wonderful if you know to get up early before the crowds, find the quiet neighborhoods, go out in the evening when the tour buses have departed.  Also, often short walk to another street will open up space where no one has ventured to go because it isn’t on the main tour walking route. Still, it is very important to get the heck out of downtown before 4pm!

Once again, no fancy dinner out for the two of us.  Are you surprised that Deanna cooked a great supper for us of pasta with veggies, tomatoes, zucchini, and some of Sara’s tomato sauce?  We enjoyed a glass of wine, a bit of chocolate for dessert, and hopefully we will be rested for the next big adventure.

Tomorrow we travel from Florence to the medieval town of Sienna, little over an hour south by bus and a world away from the Renaissance and back into the Middle Ages.  We have a hotel reservation and an idea of where to catch the bus.  Both of us are a bit excited about this one, so hopefully we can sleep tonight.

10-06-2018 Day 12 The Oltrarno, The Other Side of the Arno

After 12 days of almost perfect weather, we wakened this morning to gray skies and dripping rain.  The cool air and sound of the rain made for a wonderful night’s sleep for both of us.  Once again we had a nice home breakfast and worked on our photos, caught up on emails and conversations from people at home, and enjoyed just hanging out. 

This quiet time, and the opportunity to slow down a bit now and then is one advantage of spending two weeks in Florence.  We meet people who have 2 days, or maybe 3, and are rushing around trying to see everything.  I just cannot imagine doing that, and more than once Deanna and I congratulated ourselves on our stellar planning that allowed us enough time to explore with down times to actually absorb the wonders around us.

The Oltrarno, on the left bank of the Arno River, is a completely different side of Florence. Here local life flourishes, and with just a a bit of distance from the  crowded Ponte Vecchio, the old neighborhood is a lovely respite from the city and hordes of tourists. The Oltrarno area is now becoming more popular and well known, with new artisanal stores, galleries and eateries adding to the old neighborhood craftsman shops.

The neighborhood where our apartment was located, was technically in the Oltrarno, although we were about a mile from the main streets near the Ponte Vecchio.  By this time we were used to walking the streets on both sides of the river, and knew which way to go to find coffee and pastries to begin our explorations of the neighborhood.

The little heart on the lower right is our apartment.  The Ponte Vecchio bridge is about a mile to the left (west).  The Oltrarno neighborhood that we explored is the large red circled area on the lower left corner of the map.

Near the Ponte Vecchio, the streets are choked with tourists, traffic is crazy, and the shops are full of tourist junk.  Just a block or two in either direction yielded a completely different view.  We found the beautiful shop of hand woven textiles founded by the Busatti family in 1842.  Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun”, bought linens for her famous house in Tuscany right here in this shop.  I managed to treat myself to a pillow cover, (yes, the one in the photo) in a place where a full tablecloth would cost half a month’s income.  I did keep the business card and the name of my favorite weave and color.

We continued along the narrow streets and found ourselves in front of a magnificent jewelry store.  The artist was in residence, creating some of the most elegant and wild pieces I have ever seen anywhere.  He didn’t talk to us, but all around the store were photos of him at work and copies of magazine and newspapers from around the world touting his art. I didn’t see the “no photos” sign until we had already walked through most of the shop.

We were hungry and decided it was time for real pizza, with real wine, rather than something grabbed in a bakery.  The rain was coming down in earnest when we slipped in the the Tarocchi Cafe, with big wooden tables and images of the Tarot on the walls.  The pizza was again delicious, and the wine inexpensive and wonderful.  We even had dessert as we lingered.  Such a delight.

With the rain still coming down in fits and spurts, we continued walking up the hills toward the Pitti Palace and Pitti Square.  The shops lining the street in front of the square were more geared toward the tourist crowd so we didn’t linger.  We planned to save our explorations of Pitti Palace for later the following week, on a day when the rain would allow us to visit the beautiful Boboli Gardens that are included with the price of entering the famous Medici Palace. 

Taking our time, we ambled into several ceramic shops, where I ooh-ed and ahh-ed and gasped at the prices, and thought better of buying. I tucked the image of a special piece away in my mind, however, and knew that I might return before we left Florence.

As afternoon ambled toward evening and the rains increased, we decided it was time for a nice hot cappuccino.  With the rains, crowds were thinning a bit, and we found a seat beneath a canopy and decided once again paying to sit and drink was better than just buying a coffee and standing around in the rain to drink it.

We really loved wandering around the Oltrarno, and there were plenty of churches, museums, parks and workshops to explore. In addition to the historical treasures that we skipped on this day, the Oltrarno has another great advantage.  It is far enough from the busy center of Florence that you can find a calmer, more authentic area.  It is full of artisan studios making centuries-old traditions and crafts, many antique stores,and small, family-run restaurants.

We followed the Rick Steve’s Oltrarno walk directions for part of our afternoon, but wandered off on our own as well, discovering small treasures like this bit of street art in a back alley.

Our route home took us once again past the very crowded Ponte Vecchio where tourists were shoulder to shoulder vying for position to see the tiny crowded shops along the bridge.  Not something we were into much at all. 

I did stop in at the small Supermarket for a few supplies, and discovered to my chagrin at the check-out station that I was supposed to weigh and mark my own produce before getting in line.  Oops.  The cashier was full of disdain, but when I apologized profusely in Italian, she warmed up a bit.  I think it was the one time my little bit of Italian made a tiny difference.

We passed a couple of restaurants on the way back home, with folks in line for tables, and big plates of gorgeous pasta.  It was tempting, but the wait was not.  Once home to the cozy apartment we draped all our damp clothes over the rack and cooked a great supper. 

Hand cut pork chops from the Carni shop were complemented by delicious fresh green beans and some tiny steamed potatoes that came in a vacuum packed package.  We loved these little potatoes sliced and sautéed in olive oil. One item that wasn’t that great in Italy was lettuce, most that we purchased was tough and not that good.  Maybe the country is too warm to grow good lettuce, but it surely does grow great tomatoes. See that little bottle of Balsamic Vinegar on the table?  I managed to get that in my suitcase.  Pure rich gold.  I have never had balsamic like that before or since and when that bottle is gone who knows what I will do.

Tomorrow we will again trek into downtown Florence for what we think of as our “Michelangelo Day’.  Coming up, Casa Buonarotti, where Michelangelo lived, the Bargello Museum, with more of his sculptures, and Santa Croce, where Michelangelo is buried.