Monday, 25 June 2007

Festa di San Giovanni

San Giovanni (Saint John the Baptist) is the patron saint of Florence, so this saint's day is a big event in Florence. Unfortunately it isn't easy to find information about some of these traditional events so we managed to miss the procession to the Duomo in the morning. We certainly weren't going to miss the fireworks (Fuochi di San Giovanni) at night, however.

One of the great advantages of our new apartment is its view towards Piazzale Michelangelo, this was especially true last night because the fireworks are launched from Piazzale Michelangelo and we had the best seats in the house.

We poured ourselves a couple of glasses of Chianti Classico and watched the fireworks which went on for almost an hour. I had clamped my camera to the railing so I could casually click the shutter every now and then to capture the light show.

Afterwards we wandered around the city, which was packed after the fireworks show. It is just amazing how alive this city is; it is a rare night that you'd walk outside and find the streets empty of locals and tourists or absent of buskers. We will miss Florence.

Villa Medicea La Petraia

On Saturday we went to the Villa Medicea La Petraia, one of the Medici Villas we had earlier tried to visit but just missed its last entry time. The reason for the visit was both our earlier failure as well as, more critically, Linda's half-birthday (required due to her actual birthday's close proximity to that distracting event, Christmas).

After our successful entry into the grounds we were happy to bask in our success by sitting on a bench and eating another of the spectacular panini they make in Italy. (When ordering, we had to fight for the contents of our panini because when we asked for porchetta, pomodoro e mozzarella (spicy pork, tomato and ... mozzarella) the man making the sandwiches launched into an diatrabe about why porchetta and mozzarella did not belong together. In the end we had to settle for porchetta e pomodoro, solo. Grazie.)

We wandered into the Villa itself for a guided tour and Linda got trapped into being the designated attentive guidee when it was discovered she spoke the best Italian out of the four of us on the tour. The guide showed us most of the interior of the Villa, which had been redecorated by Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of united Italy. The Villa was primarily for the use of his moglie morganatica, Rosa Vercellana (aka La Bella Rosina, but make up your own mind about that).

Afterwards we tried our luck getting into the Villa di Castello which was only 1km away, but it wasn't open for unspecified reasons. After all this walking on a Tuscan summer day we were hot and thirsty, so were very pleased to find a little shop with iceblocks and cold water.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Basilica di San Miniato al Monte and Piazzale Michelangelo

On Thursday afternoon we caught the number 13 bus up the hill to Basilica di San Miniato al Monte and Piazzale Michelangelo, a short ride but a wise one given that the path is steep and we are lazy.

The bus dropped us off at the Basilica and we looked up at the 13th/14th century facade of the church that we can also see out of the window of our apartment. In the other direction was a spectacular view over the city.

The church was founded in the 11th century on the spot Saint Minius, an early Christian Martyr, is said to have walked to with his head after he was decapitated in the city. The church has an interesting mix of building styles, having been constructed in many phases over hundreds of years and serving a variety of purposes.

We were lucky enough to be there during a mass when the monks' chanting filled the church.

After this we wandered down to Piazzale Michelangelo, where there is a bronze copy of Michelangelo's David, to see the view over the city and wait for sunset. We bought ourselves a couple of Panini for a picnic and sat in the shade watching the little dramas of other people's lives play out while the sun went down.

Of course the view is spectacular and, given it takes several hours for the summer sun to set and the sky become dark, we took many (many) photos.

After sunset we wandered down the hill towards home (easier down than up!). We passed a couple of bars with music playing and stopped at one of them by the Arno River for a drink.

On our continued journey home we heard an orchestra playing and, when we went looking, found a live outdoor performance near Ponte Vecchio where the locals play soccer during the day. We stayed and watched for a while, leaning over the wall with a crowd of locals and tourists, before finally heading home feeling very happy with our lives here in Florence.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007


Over the last few weeks I've been making trips to and from Lausanne, which is a beautiful city in Switzerland on Lake Geneva. While there, on top of doing a little exploring, I've been interviewing with a Swiss Mobile company and I am very happy to say they have offered me a job, which I have accepted.

Of course it will be difficult to leave Italy; we have only fallen more in love with the country since we arrived. But moving to Switzerland will be the start of a whole new adventure and adventure is precisely the reason we came to Europe after all!

Officially I start on the 1st of August which lends a little urgency to our things-to-do list, and which now includes 'learn French'.

Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

We've been in Florence for about two and a half months now and starting to feel like we need to tick off a few things on our things-to-do list. Given the weather has been a bit variable lately we decided we would visit a couple of those things that were inside, namely the Duomo interior and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which is where most of the valuables and relics from the Duomo are now stored. We are leaving climbing the Cupola (dome) and the Campanile (bell tower) to a later date.

The variable weather

First some explanation. The word Duomo originates from the latin domus, for house, but has the church has the full name Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore which translates to "Cathedral of Saint Maria of the Flower". In this case obviously "Saint Maria" is Mary, and "the Flower" refers either to Christ or the city itself (Fiorentina), depending upon whom you ask. As for the name of the Museum, Opera refers to organisation set up to manage the "work" in constructing the Duomo, and later in managing the artworks removed from the Duomo during subsequent renovations. The letters OPA seen on the floor of the Duomo refer to the Opera and it is not an acronym (the P is of a sort you won't find it on your keyboard and is actually pronounced Per). Aren't words interesting!

The Duomo dome and Palazzo Vecchio tower

The Duomo itself is the most conspicuous landmark in all of Florence (although the Torre of Palazzo Vecchio is a contender). It is amazing, when walking the streets of Florence, just how frequently the dome of the Duomo looms over you as you turn a corner, which is often a relief if you are lost!

The famous facade was only completed in 1887, even though the Duomo itself was completed in 1496 (started in 1296). The facade has been ridiculed as being garish, but I find the intricate design quite fascinating. The dome has an epic story all for itself and I'll write more about that whenever we get around to climbing it.

Once inside the Duomo it actually just feels like a really big hall, in comparison to other churches we have visited such as the Duomo of Siena which is very richly decorated [there was another Opera for the Duomo in Siena]. The dome itself is impressively high, but doesn't seem amazingly big, perhaps because it is just so far away from ground level. In the end we didn't have a lot of time to spend within the Duomo since we entered only shortly before closing time, and anyway we had mostly come to see the Museum. So we moved on.

I think we must be approaching museum saturation point because, although we committed ourselves to an audio self-guide and dutifully read all the english explanations we could find, we both found it hard to get excited by the first few rooms of the museum. We pepped up, however, when we came across the Pietà by Michelangelo. This is an impressive sculpture intended for Michelangelo's own tomb but discarded by the artist when he became frustrated by the poor quality of the marble (which reputedly gave off sparks when struck). Michelangelo took out his frustrations on the sculpture by attacking it with a hammer, breaking one of the arms and leaving Christ short a leg. The sculpture was later repaired by one of Michelangelo's students and spent time in the Duomo before being moved to the museum. The face of the central character, Nicodemus, is that of Michelangelo.

Crucifixion of Christ and
Mary Magdalene by Donatello

The rest of the museum contains relics from the history of the Duomo construction, including examples of tools and models used for building the dome and facade.

Coming to the end of this post I feel like I've glossed over the full contents of the museum (possibly a reflection of our state of mind at the time), which actually make it more interesting than the interior of the duomo and well worth a visit. You can read more about the Museum here.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

What we've been reading in Italy

At some point I decided the key factor when buying books was their pages-per-euro ratio, so I was very happy with myself when I found some Penguin Popular Classics books for €3.60 each. I got Dubliners by James Joyce and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, only to find one reason they are so cheap is that these are kind of the B-grade books by these writers. Still at least now I can say I've read some James Joyce, and that I definitely preferred The Great Gatsby over F. Scott Fitzgeralds 'other works'.

This had to come to a stop at some point, and Linda finally put her foot down when I found a copy of War and Peace for only €10; a fantastic pages-per-euro ratio!

Anyway, I decided if I was in Italy I should try to learn about the country that was, for a time at least, my home. Therefore, it was on the advice of the Polish girl studying German in England and learning Italian at our school during her holiday break, that I bought The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. This is a very interesting read, covering corruption, the mafia, politics, bad TV, and soccer in Italy, and how they all seem to be inexorably linked. Linda didn't much like this book because it was a very cynical look at Italy, and the author basically admits as much, but I found it very interesting.

Next up was something a lot lighter, written by an American being dragged over to Italy by his wife to escape the pressures of the (apparently very stressful) world of TV script writing. The book, The Reluctant Tuscan by Phil Doran, is definitely amusing but I've got to say the writer may have burned many bridges in his little village-home by laying bare the details of some (actually quite nasty) plots on their behalf to secure their dream home. He changed the names, but I doubt the people in the village would have any trouble recognising the characters if they took the time to read the book.

Most recently I read La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini, an Italian who worked in the UK for many years as a journalist before returning to Italy. This book I really enjoyed, not only because it was a book about Italy actually written by an Italian, but also because he details the many ways in which Italy differs from outside expectations and interpretations. I also liked it because, although he seemed a little depressed by Italy's recent history, he sees so much potential and goodness in the Italian people and their way of life, which was pleasantly optimistic after Dark Heart of Italy.

Aside from this we have, of course, been reading guidebooks like the Lonely Planet Italy and Florence books, and The Rough Guide to Italy. Most recently we happened upon Rick Steves' Florence & Tuscany book which I had previously written off as American-centric rubbish but actually turns out to be a very good guide), if a little hand-holdish in places.

[Linda: Given what we have seen of some tourists so far (see the photo of the headphone-clad tour group that I shot outside the Uffizi one lunch time), they need as much hand-holding as they can get... ]

Lastly, at some point I bought a children's book for 8 year-olds, L'invasione delle Patate Giganti by David Baldacci (which I think is actually a translation of this), thinking maybe I could use it to improve my Italian, but it remains depressingly beyond my abilities.

So now I am out of books and am thinking of reading about Dante or more about the Medici. I guess it all depends on the pages-per-euro ratio!

Monday, 4 June 2007

Moving House

Today Linda and I moved house.
At first it seemed like a good idea - the new apartment is slightly larger, more centrally located, has air conditioning, and fantastic views over the town. However, when we started packing we realised just how much we have accumulated over the past couple of months. It creeps up on you; an extra cup here, a bread-knife there. When it all adds up we seem to have roughly doubled what we started with.
Anyway, after surviving the move (more or less) we are thoroughly enjoying the fantastic views and change of scene. From one side of the apartment we see Santa Croce and Piazza Michelangelo, from the other we can see Palazzo Vecchio.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Siena Part 3: Around Town

Our plan had been to get up early, but again we woke up late (they've been long days, we needed it) and checked out of our hotel. We were originally going to try and get to Montepulciano and Abbazia di San Galgano (a ruined 13th century abbey south-west of Siena). Noting the time, however, we scaled back our ambitions to only the abbey, but even that would turn out to be out of our reach despite a desperate bit of driving that got us tantalisingly close but without enough time to actually stop. We had to get the car back by midday or cop a fine so we returned to Siena disappointed.

After again negotiating the streets of Siena we dropped off our car and warned its new users (a friendly group of Americans) of its dodgy clutch and went on our way.

Wandering back to il Campo, at top of our list of things-to-do in Siena was to climb the tower of the Palazzo Comunale, the Torre del Mangia (so named after its original, apparently very hungry, bell-ringer, mangiaguadagni).

The Torre del Mangia was completed in 1297, is 102m high and has 503 steps, of which we enjoyed every single one.

These days the bell is operated automatically, so you get a nice fright when it suddenly goes off while you are leaning over the edge of the tower to get a view of the surrounding countryside.

I did one of those things all owners of SLR cameras must dread - I left it set to ISO800 after taking some photos inside the darkness of the tower interior, and didn't realise my mistake until making my way back down. Of course it probably hasn't made any real difference to the photos, but every now and then you do wonder why you don't just leave the thing on full-auto.

We had purchased a combined ticket which also allowed us to visit the Museo Civico. Luckily for you, the long suffering reader, they don't allow photography inside the museum. It certainly was a nice spot to visit, with many interesting frescoes including the famous Allegories of Good and Bad Government, which gave an amusingly extreme representation of their differing outcomes.

Next we visited the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta), which was originally started in 1196 but which had a number of aborted attempts at expanding it over the years. Most of these expansions were abandoned due to the lack of structural integrity of the Duomo, but the final nail in their coffin was the black plague in 1348, which wiped out a large portion of the Sienese population. Nevertheless the Duomo is a very impressive structure in black and white marble.

Inside there are a few famous works, but most famous is the floor, which I will ironically not show you any photos of. Most of the year the most valuable sections of floor are covered, so if you have a real interest in pavement art the time you want to visit the duomo is in August when they are uncovered.

Inside the duomo is the Libreria Piccolomini, which actually got our attention more than the duomo itself (because, you know, if you've seen one church you've seen them all). In the library, which was commissioned by Francesco Piccolmini (who was pope for all of 10 days), you can see frescos depicting the life of Francesco's uncle and his books, which were illustrated in amazing detail.

After all this it was pretty much time to go, so we checked our supplies of panforte and jumped on Rapido bus back to Florence, whereupon we immediately got stuck in a traffic jam on the Autostrada. We still had many things we wanted to see in Siena, which was fine since we will be back in July for il Palio!