Friday, 27 July 2007

Perugia

Yesterday we got back from 4 days in Umbria where we spent a couple of days in the capital of Perugia and the rest driving around the country and visiting a number of other towns in the region.

Perugia is a lovely town to walk around, with lots of medieval streets, Roman arches and Etruscan history. We visited the major sites, such as the archeological museum, Duomo, etc. but we were most interested by a spot barely mentioned in the guidebooks; the underground passageways within the walls of the old Papal fort, Rocca Paolina.

There is a museum within these passageways and you can learn about the history of the city and the fort. Like many towns in Italy, Umbria was ruled by powerful families and their history is a gripping story of affairs, murder and intrigue. When the Vatican took control of the city in the 1540s they basically built a fort over the houses of these families.

Initially the fort was built as protection from other towns, but a second stage of building showed it was clearly actually to protect the Vatican staff from the townspeople. Obviously the Perugians weren't too excited about being controlled by the church, and were only too happy to blow up the fort during the Italian unification (so enthusiastically, in fact, that a number of people were killed by flying debris).

Nowdays the Perugians realise the historical loss they inflicted upon themselves by destroying the fort, although it is easy to sympathise with the actions of the time. In any case, the underground passageways that remain are an interesting reminder of the city's violent past.

We also made a point of buying some Baci chocolates, which are made by Perugina in a factory near Perugia, and we discovered the Umbrian speciality of pecorino e miele (molten-hot Pecorino cheese and Honey). Linda was also very pleased to find the trattoria she visited the first time she came to Perugia and we had a delicious last meal in town.

All the photos are here.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Padova

After our last night in Verona we caught the train into Padua, which is home to the second oldest university in Italy (the oldest being in Bolognia). The big highlights of Padua are the Cappella degli Scrovegni, the Università degli Studi di Padova, and the Basilica di Sant Antonio (or il Santo).

To get into the Cappella degli Scrovegni you must book a timeslot on the internet at least a day in advance. Then you turn up before your allotted time, and are shuffled into an airlock room for 15 minutes while you watch a documentary and the air filtration system dries your clothes and removes any contaminents you may have brought in from the outside air. Then you get 15 minutes inside the chappel itself to admire the frescoes by Giotti before you are shuffled out again, prompted along by an electronic buzzer. I've got to say the frescoes were interesting, being something of a transition between Gothic and Renaissance styles, but possibly not worth all the song and dance required to see them (plus you weren't allowed to take photos which is always a big negative in my book).

The Chappel itself was built in 1303 by the Scrovegni family to atone for the sins of the patriarch, who was such a nasty character he was denied a Christian burial. Basically the chappel is the family's way to buy his way into heaven.

We then wandered around the town a bit and found we were lucky enough to be in town for graduation of some of the students at the University. In Italy, at the end of your degree, you present your thesis to the academics before being awarded your laurel, to chants of dottore! dottore! (they love grand titles in Italy). In Padua this is followed by a roasting by friends and family in the square outside the university, where the graduant reads out a poster pointing out their various physical and psychological flaws. Some of this seemed somewhat in breach of good taste but still it was fun to watch.

Also at the University we saw the room where Galileo taught lessons, and the first anatomy lecture theatre in Italy (a tiny, tiered, room that could hold 300 students). Again, no photos.

After the University we visited the Basilica of Sant Antonio (no photos, but I snuck a few!), which was actually quite an amazing experience. The church itself is spectacular, but Saint Anthony is something of a star in the Roman Catholic Church, making Padua a big destination for religious pilgrims. We were able to view some of the saintly relics, including his tongue and vocal chords (evidence of the power of his preaching), and then at his tomb we could see various pictures and letters from people who had been saved by saint. This included pictures of car wrecks survived, and the healed ill. There was a huge contingent of people praying to the Saint. Afterwards Linda bought a Sant Antonio cake at the bakery across the road. 

After our long, hot, day in Padua we caught a train (which was late) ran for a second train at Bolognia (which was even later) and ended up back in Florence after midnight totally exhausted and wishing for a swim in some nice cool water. We are looking forward to Cinque Terre!

All of the photos are here.

Verona

Linda and I have just returned from Verona, where we stayed for 3 days and then another day in Padua (Padova in Italy). We are only back in Florence for a day and then we head off to Perugia, and then another solitary day after we return from there we will be off to Cinque Terre. As a result this won't be my usual epic expos√© (no time!), but I'll try to get some photos up to keep everyone entertained. [in the end I didn't have time, so now this is being posted about a week after the event].

On our first night in Verona we went to see an Opera at the Arena, which is like a small-scale Colosseum (it holds 20,000 people, and is the third largest of all Roman amphitheatres) in the heart of Verona. We've been having incredibly hot days recently and the sun heated up the stone seats so much they kept your bottom warm all the way through to the midnight finish. The heat wasn't helped by the €5 water they were selling, which meant we were both hot and tired by the end of the night. It was excellent to have experienced it though, especially since we saw Aida, which is the signature performance of the Arena, and you can't beat the atmosphere, with opera affectionados calling out Bravissima! on the last note of an aria.

The next two days were spent wandering around Verona, which you could probably do in one day if pressed, but we had spend some time organising a whole lot of stuff relating to our impending move to Lausanne.

There are a lot of very nice churches in Verona, mostly made up of the local marble which is pinkish in colour and is also used for many of the pavements, which makes for somewhat perilous walking since it is quite slippery. There are so many churches, in fact, I think I've lost track of which is which in my photos.

We were also very impressed with the Teatro Romano, a ruined roman theatre on the other side of the river, which has a museum with roman artifacts, but also a great view over the city.

Aside from all this, we took some time to indulge in some romantic kitch by visiting the house of Giulietta (of Romeo e Giulietta) where they were putting on a dramatic recreation of that famous scene from the play. And of course Linda dragged me into lots of shops, which I was less objectionable to than normal because they generally had wonderful, cool, air conditioning.

You can see all the photos here.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Milano

On Wednesday I caught the train up to Milan to take my PMP exam (passed!). Obviously, having never been to Milan before, this was a great opportunity to see more of the city. I was especially curious as this would have been one of the most likely places we would have ended up, had I managed to find work in Italy.

Milan tends to get written off as a shopping Mecca and not much else. I think this is probably selling the city a bit short (no pun intended), although it is no Florence or Rome in terms of tourist appeal. Still, we certainly managed to keep ourselves entertained.

First stop was the towering, gothic-style, Duomo. Unlike the Renaissance-style Duomo in Florence, the Duomo in Milan is all white marble, spindly spires, and innumerable statues (actually I think someone has counted them but I can't be bothered looking it up).

Inside you get a good feel for the enormous size of the Duomo, which is built to hold 40,000 people. It is richly decorated, with amazing stained-glass windows and the gruesome statue to Saint Bartholemew, who was flayed to death and is portrayed with his own skin thrown over his shoulder (you can clearly make out his hair and toenails, gross!).

You can also climb onto the roof of the Duomo, which is very worth while because you can see all the statues up close and it's also kind of fun being on the roof of such a large, old, building. I'm sure it is well maintained, and concerns about falling through were unfounded.

Nearby the Duomo is the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II which is one of the world's oldest shopping arcades, and now contains the stores of many of the Italy's most exclusive brands including Prada and McDonalds. It is apparently good luck to spin on your heel on the balls of the bull depicting Milan on the pavement, and far be it for us to skip by such an important local tradition (I forced Linda to do it so I could take a photo).

We went for 'dinner' at a local bar where they served aperitivo, which is meant to be drinks with some free nibbles, but we called on our inner students and managed to eat (and drink) enough to be able to get by with only a gelato later in Piazza del Duomo.

Finally, we were fortunate enough to be in Milan in July, which is the peak sale period, so, while we dutifully made the trek out to the Quadrilatero della moda to get sneered at by the towering, black-power-suited, sales people in Dior and Armani, we actually ended up picking out some excellent bargains in the regular department stores. I bought two Valentino shirts, which are possibly the most expensive I've ever owned despite the 50% discount (I have since further justified my purchase by noticing the same shirts in the same department store in Florence are only reduced by 30%). Now I need only overcome my fear of actually wearing and washing them.

Villa Demidoff at Pratolino

Last Sunday (the 8th, it seems like a long time ago now) we went off to Villa Demidoff, which became one of the Medici Villas when the estate was purchased by Francesco I de' Medici in 1568, but was later sold to Prince Paolo Demidoff in 1872. The estate was eventually bought by the Florence Provincial Council in 1981 for public use and is currently being restored.

The most famous feature of the park is the Apennine Colossus, which was constructed around 1579. Otherwise the park is looking a bit the worse for wear but is still a very nice spot to wander around and certainly a nice cool break from the hot Tuscan summer days.

We were lucky enough to arrive on a day where a free 'spectacular' (two french girls on trapeze over a pond of water) was being shown on the lawns near the Colossus. This was actually very good and quite a crowd had turned out to see it. I have no idea how they knew about it as we knew nothing of it until we turned up.

After the show we tried to find a bus back home but discovered the final leg of our journey had been cut off by the late hour and we had a walk a couple of kilometres to the next bus stop. Fortunately we were accompanied by an American girl who adopted us along the way, and who had even less of an idea than we did (hadn't even heard of Villa Demidoff and found it by chance) but kept us entertained by telling us all about her qualifications as a sign language teacher for home-schooled children.

We finished off the evening with some excellent pizza, wine and dessert, once again feeling very satisfied with another successful day.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Siena Palio: Part 4

Okay well there was going to be a Part 4 but it is now starting to feel a little remote from the actual event so I guess I'll just kind of skim over our last day in Siena so I can move onto more recent events.

We woke up and left our room late (11am checkout!) and did our usual wander into il Campo where they were doing an excellent job of cleaning up after the race (I still can't believe they go through all of this twice a year).

We visited the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala to look at the famous frescos and got ourselves lost in the terrifying, labyrinthine, archeological museum beneath. Having managed to escape, we then bought ourselves some recuperative, delicious, panini to eat on the steps of the Duomo (and some panforte for later).

Then we headed into the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, which is very interesting, containing many artifacts from the Duomo, including the 14th century Maesta by Duccio di Buoninsegna, and allowing you to climb up onto one of the walls of the aborted expansion of the Duomo, from where you have an excellent view over Siena.

In summary of events:

Siena Palio

Monday, 9 July 2007

Siena Palio: Part 3

Finally, it is Palio race day!

Since we didn't have to return our car until 9:30 we thought we might as well sneak in the 9am trial race. Unknown to us this is called the 'bad' trial because the jockeys save the horses for the race that evening, so it wasn't the most exciting of races, but still fun to watch.

After returning our car we didn't get up to much because we too were 'saving ourselves' for the Palio.

In the afternoon before the race the horses are blessed in the chapel of each Contrada (If the horse craps in the church it is considered a good omen). We decided we would support the Civetta (Owl) contrada because that is the neighborhood in which we were staying, which seemed like as good as reason as any, and we watched as their horse was blessed and they set out on the subsequent parade.

Each Contrada puts together a procession made up of locals in period costume, drummers, flag wavers and, of course, the horse. They march to the Duomo and perform for the judges who award a prize for the best procession and flag waving display. It is all taken very seriously, although you wouldn't guess it from the funny wigs and costumes.

After watching a bit of this we headed down to il Campo to find ourselves a spot to sit and wait for the start of the race, which was still several hours off.

Before the race the procession wound its way into the square, including not only the Contrade but numerous other groups as well as the Palio itself (a silk banner painted by a 'famous artist') mounted on a wagon pulled by 6 giant white oxen.

Finally the track was clear of the procession, the Carabinieri led a dramatic charge around the track with swords drawn, explosions boomed around the square to ensure everyone was wide awake, and the slightly terrified horses (and jockeys) were led onto the track.

Then followed a number of rounds of the horses failing to line up properly, false starts and confusion before the starter finally declared the race ready to begin and the 10th horse charged from behind to start the race.

After this point it's a little difficult to say what happened. All we know is that at some time during the race three of the jockeys fell off (amid all the other insanity, the race is bareback (actually not much of an impediment as a horseless rider can win)), three laps were completed and explosions boomed around the square again to signal that the race was over. It turns out no-one else knew what happened either as there followed a protracted period of confusion as the victory was awarded first to one Contrada and then another. 

In the end it was the Contrada of the Oca (Goose) that was declared the winner (later, after watching the race replayed in an endless loop on Siena TV, we still had no idea what happened to our Owl). The winning Contrada marched around the square drumming and chanting late into the night and it was a very quiet Siena the next morning, clearly holding its head after a big night.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Siena Palio: Part 2

On Sunday morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to get to our favourite noleggio in Siena. Of course, being Sunday during a Palio, it was shut when we got there. Fortunately we didn't have to wait too long for someone to turn up and we left only 1/2 hour late, which was fine for us because it meant we could return the car at a sane hour the following day. So we scooted out of Siena (now old hands at navigating the outward journey) towards Abbazia di San Galgano.

Linda was very happy to find the fields of gira sole (sunflowers or, literally, 'sun turners') that she remembered from her first trip to Italy.

The 13th-century Abby is now just a ruined shell, but it is a very nice place to visit, being located in the middle of fields of vineyards and wheat and a cafe nearby for coffee and cake. These days the Abby is used to stage concerts in Summer.

Nearby is also a small church Cappella di Montesiepi built on the site an ex-soldier (San Galgano) lived as a hermit. Legend has it he drove his sword into a rock and this is located now under glass in the middle of the chapel. We had ourselves a little picnic and spent a very relaxing couple of hours exploring before deciding it was time to move on as we had a full day planned.

Next stop on our agenda was Pienza near Montepulciano. Unfortunately there is no direct route from Abbazia di San Galgano to Pienza and we ended up taking a very windy, but fortunately picturesque, route there. 

Pienza is a very pretty little town, almost to a fault. The town itself was largely rebuilt on the orders of ex-resident Pope Pius II as a utopian new town. As a result it is hailed for its great Renaissance architecture but has a bit of a model-village feel about it. The haste with which it was built is particularly evident in the Duomo where cracks started to appear before it was even finished, and the nave now droops quite noticeably towards the back of the church. The town never lived up to grand plans of Pope Pius and remains a quiet little town, but not so quiet that we didn't manage to find ourselves some panini with Pecorino, a regional speciality, and some gelato to cool us down!

Next stop Montepulciano! But before we get there, we couldn't skip San Biagio on its outskirts. This was the second largest church project in the 16th century after St Peters in Rome, although of course it is no-where near that church in actual size. It certainly is a peaceful place to visit, perhaps too peaceful as Linda overheard the priest outside complaining no-one comes for mass any more.

And at last we are in Montepulciano which, at 600m, is the highest of all the Tuscan hill-towns. Turning up on a Sunday afternoon meant it was a quiet visit, although we did manage to sneak into the Duomo (with no facade it is quite plain on the outside, but very nice (and cool!) inside) for a quick look before it closed. The roads of Montepulciano are also quite steep, so we took a lesurely stroll from one end of town to the other.

As the day was coming toward an end we bought ourselves a little pizza to eat while we waited for the sun to set. The position of Montepulciano ensured us a spectacular view.

After sunset we made our way home so as to be ready for a big day to follow (Palio day!). This time we managed to navigate our way into town without quite resorting to pushing our car off a cliff and calling a taxi. Indeed we successfully double-parked it right outside the noleggio ready to be returned the following morning.