Monday, December 5, 2011

Sono qui!

I am now here in Italia! Finalmente!

I left Ohio Friday afternoon, and things were fine...until I got to Chicago. I hate Chicago.

In Dayton, they only printed my boarding pass for the Chicago leg, so I had to get my next 2 printed in Chicago. When I got off of the plane, I went to United's information desk...they sent me to see Lufthansa, in a totally different terminal.

So I walked. The entire length of the airport.

Got to Lufthansa and...they sent me to a completely different terminal.

Went through a tunnel, which was decorated like Studio 54 and Sherwin-Williams had a baby. There were funky disco type lights on the ceiling and the walls were lit up...but they looked like giant paint samples. I didn't get the whole "look", but pressed on until I got to the escalator & where I needed to be. Waited another hour or two before someone arrived at the desk. Got my boarding pass...and found out that I had a center seat. Damn. I hate that. It could have been worse least this seat was one of 3 in a row by the windows and not smack in the middle of the plane with 3 people on either side.

Got on the plane & waited...and waited...and waited.

Finally, the captain spoke up and said those dreaded words, "we're sorry folks..."


Apparently there was an electrical problem & they needed to get it fixed. So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I heard a rumor that we weren't going to be taking off until 10pm. BOOOOO! NOOOO!

Luckily it was only a rumor.

We took off 2.5 hours after we were supposed to.

Couldn't really sleep, so I watched movies for most of the flight. I think I might have slept 2 hours, if that.

We got to Frankfurt and it seemed that I had an hour to get to my gate. WEEEEEEE! I think I will be able to make it!

Then I saw the line to passport control.


Maybe not.

Finally got through passport control and headed to security. Not too many folks in line ahead of me and 2 lanes open! This could be good! I might make it!

Then they closed one of the lanes.

And I got behind Mr. & Mrs. Slow-as-molasses-in-January.


I set off the alarm when I went through. Didn't surprise me. It did the last time I was there. I got the sweep and pat down. This time the lady police officer was not so scary.

Ran up the escalator to my gate! I had 5 minutes! one was there.

At all.



Ran to another gate and asked the lady at the desk. She punched in my information & told me that they had re-booked me onto the very next flight to Florence.

In 4 hours.



And a few other colorful words.

I sent Simone a text message telling him of my delay & asking him to contact the owner of the apartment that we were renting to tell her of the delay. Found my gate & waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Time. Stood. Still.

And there was a little kid, probably close to 2 years old who continued to misbehave and I wanted to spank him and his parents.

I was a little grumpy.

Finally, it was boarding time. WAHOO!

Got onto the plane & into my WINDOW SEAT (yeah!) But it was raining...and so I couldn't see a thing. Not that I would be able to see anything anyway, because it was completely dark by then. It was extremely boring. I had brought a book to read...but finished it in Frankfurt. So I dozed off & on until we finally started our decent to Florence.

When we broke through the clouds and I saw the lights of the surrounding area...I finally felt excited. And happy. And relieved.

As we came in for the landing, it felt like I was finally home. I ran off the plane and LUCKILY my bag was one of the first to be returned (thank you, Lord)! Grabbed my bag, walked past the police officers and exited to the public area.

Finally, I was "home" with Simone.


(more later...maybe. Sorry for lack of photos, but...there was really nothing to snap on the way!)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Palazzo Vecchio

Another grand landmark of Florence is the Palazzo Vecchio (translation: old palace).  It sits in the Piazza della Signoria and is easily identified by it's tall clock tower.

I could easily write several posts about this old palace, and could fill a book with the amount of photos that we took within its walls.  (It is one of the few places where you are actually permitted to take photos!)  The palace itself is a square building that was begun in 1299.  The Medici Family moved there in 1540, and today, it houses the office of the Mayor of Florence and the City Council, as well as a museum.

As you enter the palace, you will find yourself in an enclosed courtyard that has several fountains and sculptures.  The ticket office is there, as it the gift shop.  Once you get your ticket, you'll enter into the Salone dei Cinquecento, a HUGE room that was commissioned by Savonarola in 1494 to be used as a seat of the Consiglio Maggiore, which consisted of 500 members. 

Salone dei Cinquecento
The Salone is definitely impressive.  Giorgio Vascari painted the huge frescoes on the walls depicting military victories over Pisa and Sienna, as well as the ceiling tiles, which represent important episodes in the life of Cosimo I.  There are many sculptures in the Salone by Bartolommeo Bandinelli, as well as a few by Vincenzo de'Rossi and one by Michelangelo called "Genius of Victory".

Climb the impressive staircase to the second floor and you'll be rewarded to dozens upon dozens of rooms, each exquisitely decorated, that will cause your jaw to drop in sheer amazement.  There is so much to see in each room!  As you walk through a doorway, your eyes will immediately be drawn up to the amazingly decorated ceilings.  I was afraid that our necks would be sore after spending so much time looking upward!

One of the many impressive ceilings in Palazzo Vecchio
But it's not just the ceilings...look down and you might be treated with something like this:

Of course, in between the ceiling and the floor are the walls, many of which are covered with frescoes or framed paintings by some of the most famous artists, such as Botticelli, Bronzino, and DaVinci. 

Walk through the Sala dell'Udienza (Hall of Justice) and pass through the large inlaid wooden doors carved by Del Francione (depicting Dante on one door and Petrach on the other), you will enter  the "Hall of Lilies".  This room has a wall covered with frescoes painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1482.  The ceiling is decorated with gold fleur-de-lys on a blue background, carved by brothers Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano.

The Hall of Lilies
Also in this room is a rather large statue, "Judith and Holofernes", which was sculpted by Donatello.
Judith and Holofernes
Walk through another doorway and you'll find yourself in the Stanza del Guardaroba.  This room is where the Grand Dukes kept some of their precious belongings.  The walls are lined with cabinets, with doors decorated with maps of various places around the world.  These maps were painted by a Dominican monk by the name of Fra Ignazio Danti and Stefano Buonsignori.  Dominating the center of the room is a large globe, "mappa mundi". 
"Mappa Mundi" in the Stanza del Guardaroba
Of course this is only a small taste of the palace (I didn't even touch on the few chapels that are there).  You really must see it for yourself.  Tickets are 6 euro, but if you are a family of 4 (2 adults & 2 children), you can buy a family ticket for 14 euro.  Set aside a few hours to tour the palace.  It will take awhile to get through all of the rooms, and you will definitely want to linger in some.  Museum opens at 9, so it would be a nice thing to do in the morning and then you can stop somewhere for lunch nearby, as there are a lot of little restaurants, bars and trattorias around the Piazza della Signoria (as well as a few yummy gelaterie!)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Giardino di Boboli

The Boboli Gardens are located behind Pitti Palace.  This beautiful ginormous garden was basically the backyard of the Medici Family.  It's good to be the king grand duke!

View of Pitti Palace from Boboli
The gardens were created in the mid-16th century for Eleonora di Toledo, who was the wife of Cosimo I de' Medici.  They were enlarged a century later and remain today a respectable 11 acres.

Main walkway through the gardens
More of an outdoor museum, Boboli is filled with sculptures, fountains and a huge variety of plants.  A large section of the gardens is wooded, with trails that you can explore (sometimes with complete privacy).

One of the more "private" trails
At the far end of the gardens is a pool with an isolotto where a fountain sculpture of Neptune, created by Stoldo Lorenzi, resides.  It was here, on a bench near the pool, that we stopped and ate yogurt that Simone had packed for us as a morning snack.  It is a lovely view and very peaceful.

Neptune's fountain
One can, and should, take hours to wander around these gorgeous gardens.  There is something to see at every turn.  For example, we walked along a fairly secluded path and found ourselves next to an odd little fountain (see below).

I know, it doesn't seem odd from this picture, but...

...the water ran all the way down the hill in the groove on the wall!

 On the grounds, there is a small building used as a museum, which displays the various plates, dishes and other table service that the Grand Dukes used in the palace over the centuries.  To get to this little museum, you climb steps to an elevated garden area (see below).

Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside.

As you walk back down toward Pitti Palace, you will see another pool of water with another statue of Neptune.  It was here that we stopped, like so many others, and took a rest on the vast grassy area.  We spread out Simone's jacket, stretched out in the sun, and took a little nap.  I know it sounds crazy to folks in the US, but there, it seems, everyone does it...and no one bothers you or steals your stuff!  (I wouldn't suggest doing this in a public park, however.  Boboli is controlled.)

The view I woke up to after my nap
After you pass by this area, you'll enter the amphitheater.  It is surrounded by statues, and in the center, there is a large obelisk from Egypt that had been brought to Rome in 30 BC (it was transported to Pitti in 1790).  Something that I thought was really cool about the obelisk was that it sits atop 4 turtles!

See the little turtles?
As you round the corner of Pitti Palace, you'll come across the Grotta di Buontalenti.  This interesting grotto contains sculpture and frescos. 

Buontalenti's Grotto
There is so much to see at Boboli.  If you visit Florence, be sure to take several hours to meander through the gardens.  A ticket will cost you 6 euro,  but you will be granted access to the Boboli Garden, Bardini Garden, the Silver Museum, the Porcelain Museum and the Gallery of Costume.  Quite the bargain!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Ponte Vecchio

The Arno River flows through the city of Florence, so there are several bridges that you may cross while you are there.  However, the most famous bridge is the Ponte Vecchio (translation:  Old Bridge).

It is an "old bridge", indeed!  The bridge that you see today has been in place since 1345, after the bridge that was there had been swept away in a flood.  Actually, there had been several bridges there over the centuries, all of which were swept away  by flood waters. 

The bridge is known for the many shops built onto the sides of the bridge.

Above the shops, you can see the Vasari Corridor, which was built in 1565 upon orders from Cosimo I de Medici to connect Palazzo Vecchio with Palazzo Pitti.  This corridor allowed the Grand Duke, his family, and staff to travel from one palace to the other without having to walk among the townspeople.

The Vasari Corridor, seen above the shops

When the bridge first opened, the shops on the bridge were filled with butchers.  Unfortunately for the butchers, in 1593, the Grand Duke prohibited them from occupying the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, due to the fact that his royal nose was offended by the smells as he traveled from one of his palaces to the other.  After the butchers left, the goldsmiths took their place and remain there to this day.

Gold filled jewelry shops lining the ponte

Walking across the bridge, you will probably notice that the presence of the gold merchants gives the bridge an interesting brilliance.  The large windows displaying their wares give off a warm golden glow as the light reflects off of all of the gold.

In the center of the bridge, on the eastern side, there is an opening between shops that houses a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, noted goldsmith and artist from the 16th century.  Oftentimes, you can find a street musician performing in front of the bust, as you can see in the picture above.  The singer that we happened upon, like most street performers in Florence, was quite good!  He was a bit more high-tech than most we saw, though, with his sound system hooked up to a car battery!

If you happen to peer over the side of the bridge, near the bust of Cellini, you will probably notice a lot of padlocks that were placed there by lovers.  Look closely and you'll notice that the locks have initials or names written on them.  Tradition dictates that attaching a lock to the bridge and tossing the key into the river will ensure that the couple have an eternal bond.  Nice for the lovers, but not so great for the bridge keepers!  This tradition is a fairly new one and caused trouble for the city, having to remove thousands of padlocks on a routine basis.  Padlocks are still found on the bridge, but not as many as before, thanks in part to the hefty 50 euro fine that is handed out if you're caught placing a lock on the bridge.

Padlocks attached to the bridge by daring lovers

The Ponte Vecchio is another site in Florence that's a must-see.  It's definitely unique, and if you happen to have a wad of cash that you'd like to trade for some jewelry, then by all means, this is the bridge for you!  The bridge is free to walk across, though, so buy a gelato, enjoy the stroll, the views from the bridge, and do a little window shopping if you don't have money to burn.  Looking is free, after all!

The top of the Duomo, peeking over the top of buildings,
as seen while crossing the Ponte Vecchio.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

San Miniato al Monte

San Miniato al Monte is one of my favorite churches in Tuscany.  It sits perched on top of one of the highest points in Florence and when standing in front of the church, the view of the city below is spectacular!

The view from the courtyard in front of the church, looking down upon Florence
We arrived at San Miniato in the early evening, parking about a half kilometer or so from the church on a lovely tree lined street.

Free parking, just a short walk away!
There are a lot of steps leading up to the church from the street below.  Good exercise.  At least that's what I kept telling myself as I huffed and puffed my way to the top!

The steps lead up to a little courtyard in front of the church and monastery.  The monastery is the building to the right of the church as you are looking at it, and it is run by a small Benedictine community of monks, known as the Olivetans.  The monks produce herbal teas, honey and liqueurs that they sell in a shop nearby the church to raise money.  When we were there, we arrived during their evening prayer.  To walk into the church and hear the chanting was really awesome.

Inside and out, the church is magnificent.  Construction began on the building way back in 1013!  That is one old church!  The ceiling in the nave is wooden, as you can see in the photo above, and sections of it are painted.  There is very little light in the church.  When we were there, in the early evening, the sunlight was streaming in from the open doors and the few windows of the building. 

 The beautiful mosaic of Christ and San Minato above the main altar glows when the light hits it.  It is stunning.

There is only one tomb within the walls of the church.  The Cappella del Cardinale del Portogallo can be found to the left of the name.  It was built in 1473 and Cardinal James of Lusitania is buried there.

The tomb of Cardinal James of Lusitania

There are more graves around the churchyard, though...and there are some famous Florentines buried there.  Carlo Collodi, who created the story of Pinocchio is there, as is the painter Pietro Annigoni and physicist Bruno Benedetto Rossi.

The exterior of the church is in the typical white and green marble that is common on many of the basilicas in the area.  The interior walls are decorated with frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict and were painted by Spinello Aretino in 1387.

An interesting story about this church - in 1530, during the siege of Florence, Michelangelo had the front part of the church wrapped in mattresses to protect it from enemy fire.  He also had the walls built up around the church as further protection from the siege.

Visiting the church is free, so really, if you're in Florence, you have no excuse not to visit!  I love it because it is so peaceful there.  We sat on a bench out in front of the church, near the cemetery for quite some time and enjoyed the beautiful view of Florence.  It's well worth the climb up the steps!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!

Well, in the US, anyway.  When I'm in Italy & am about to take my first lick of a spoonful of gelato, I am completely silent...because there are no words.  This creamy concoction is heaven on earth.  It's a religious experience.  No screaming for gelato.  But after that first taste...the happy dance can commence! 

A gelateria just down the street from the Piazza della Signoria
Gelaterie are all over Italy.  Italians love their gelato.  After one taste of it, you'll understand completely!

Gelato is basically ice cream, but it has lower butterfat than the ice cream that we are used to consuming in the US.  It's lighter in that respect, but it's incredibly dense, creamy and has so much flavor, you'll want to dig a hole in one of the giant mounds of gelato displayed at the gelaterie and take up residence.

Mountains of gelato!  (Note the displayed waffle covered in Nutella...YUM!)
The biggest problem with gelato is picking out a flavor.  Walking into a gelateria can be overwhelming when you gaze upon the mountains of different flavors of gelato displayed in their cases.   One of the most popular, Bacio (which translated, means "kiss") is a Nutella type flavor of Hazelnut & chocolate.  Coffee, tiramisu, nocciola (hazelnut), pistacchio, stracciatella (like chocolate chip ice cream, only better), torroncino (nougat), zabaione, lampone (raspberry), fragole (strawberry), limone (lemon), fico (fig), pesca (peach), mandorla ( almond)...and the list goes on & on.

Then you'll have another decision to make.  A cup or a cone?  Depending on the gelateria, cones might be made in-house, or they could be bought from a manufacturer.  Either way, they're delicious.  But sometimes, it's easier (and you'll save yourself a few calories) to get a cup.  Both are served with a little plastic spoon.

My first gelato in Italy.  Tiramisu.  Pardon the out of focus photo...I wasn't exactly concentrating on my photography skills at the time!

Italians LOVE their gelato.  They love it so much that sometimes they have it for breakfast!  True story!  You will find gelaterie are open in the mornings, sometimes as early as 7:30am!  Some will serve a brioche roll, split open and filled with gelato.  That's breakfast, my friend!

Depending on the shop, you may find other treats being sold alongside gelato and sorbetto.  Walking down the street you may smell a fabulous scent wafting from a gelateria as you pass by.  What is that?  Ah!  It's a fresh crepe filled with Nutella!  It smells and tastes absolutely ah-mazing.  Is it a little cold out?  Step into a gelateria and order a  cioccolatea calda.  Italy's version of hot chocolate will make your eyes roll back in your skull.  It's not the watery hot chocolate we have here in the's thick.  SUPER thick.  Like hot pudding thick.  On a cold day, it will definitely hit the spot.  Other treats to be found are cannoli and waffles...and sometimes pastries, but normally, if you want a pastry, visit a pasticceria (pastry shop) and you won't be disappointed.'s something everyone MUST try once...or twice...or fifteen times while in Italy!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Battistero di San Giovanni

Ok, so you know the what is that round building in front of the church?  It's the Battistero di San Giovanni...the Baptistry of St. John the Baptist....and technically, it's not "round", it's octagonal. 

 The Baptistry was built between 1059 and 1128, making it one of the oldest structures in the city of Florence.  It was the place that, up until the end of the 1800s, all Catholic Florentines were baptized, including Dante and the the Medici family.

Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the Baptistry are the doors.  There are three sets of bronze doors, all with relief sculptures.  The south doors were crafted by Andrea Pisano and depict scenes from the life of St. John the baptist.  The east and north doors were crafted by Lorenzo Ghiberti.  The north doors depict scenes from the life of Christ.  The east doors depict scenes from the old testament and were dubbed by Michelangelo as the "Gates of Paradise".  The "Gates of Paradise" that are on the Baptistry are a copy, not the originals.  The original doors are located in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo - the museum that houses artwork and other artifacts from the Duomo - which is located in a building behind the church in the Piazza. 

A few panels of the "Gates of Paradise"
We visited the Baptistry after we toured the Duomo, so when we got ready to walk through the doors, I was expecting another rather boring interior.  Oh, how wrong I was!  Upon walking into the Baptistry, my eyes were immediately drawn up to the ceiling, which is covered in a brilliantly gilded mosaic depicting the Last Judgment, scenes from the Book of Genesis, scenes from the lives of St. Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ, and St. John the Baptist.

The Baptistry also contains the tomb of Antipope John XXIII, which was crafted by Donatello and Michelozzo Michelozzi.

Is it the Pope?  Nope!  It's the Antipope!

It will cost you 4 euro for a ticket to enter the Baptistry, but it's well worth it.  We spent close to an hour in the small building, spending a lot of time just sitting in front of the altar and looking up at the ceiling.  It's something that you really have to see with your own eyes to appreciate.  When the sunlight enters the little windows at the top of the building and it hits the gilded mosaic, it gives the whole room a very warm glow.

The Baptism of Christ - sculptures located above the Gates of Paradise
The exterior is free to peruse...and there's a lot to peruse!  Take your time looking at the incredible panels on the doors and the craftsmanship of the building itself.  Then, think about how long that this building has been around and how it's still in excellent condition.  It's rather impressive when you think about it!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo)

When thinking of what to write about in my first post about sites in Florence, it was a no-brainer.  The "Duomo"...formally known as La Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  This gorgeous church dominates the Florentine skyline.  No other building is permitted to be taller than the Duomo (the dome) by law.

The Duomo, as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

It is impressive.

The front of the Basilica with Giotto's Campanile (the belltower at the right)
As you walk through Florence, you will get used to the narrow streets and large buildings on either side.  When you reach the Piazza del opens up and suddenly you will be face to face with this immense church in front of you.  When I first saw it up close, I was speechless.  It is SO BIG.  When you get past the sheer size of this church, you will start to notice the intricate detail on the exterior.  Not only is it huge, it is breathtakingly beautiful.

The building of this church was started in 1296 and finally completed in 1436 when Filippo Brunelleschi completed his famous dome.  That's 140 years of construction...and that was just the structure!  The incredibly detailed decoration of the exterior wasn't completely done until 1887!  Are you keeping track?  That makes it a total 591 years of work!  When you see the extreme detail,  you can appreciate the time it took!  The church is a work of art, inside and out.

Detail next to one of the main doors

The exterior is in white, green and red marble.  Three ginormous bronze doors are detailed with scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  If you look up, in the center, underneath the gorgeous rose window, you will see a statue of the Madonna with Child, surrounded on either side by the 12 Apostles in their own niche.

Once  you walk through the doors, the interior might leave you scratching your head.  The exterior is filled with incredible detail...but it leaves the interior seeming rather bland.  You won't find the extreme decoration inside the church.  The simplicity of the soaring gothic interior has it's own beauty, but it's much more subtle than the exterior

Looking toward the main altar
 The main altar is located underneath the dome.  Looking up, you can see the beautiful fresco started by Giorgio Vasari in 1568 and finished in 1579 by Federico Zuccari. 

You can get an even better view of the dome if you decide to cough up 8 euros for a ticket to climb the 463 steps to the top.  The views from the top of the dome are I've heard.  We didn't do it when we visited.  To pay 8 euro to climb 463 stairs, when I already had climbed hundreds of stairs in the various palaces and museums that we visited, did not sound appealing to me at the time!

The bell tower that is located right next to the basilica was designed and constructed by Giotto di Bondone.  Started in 1334, it wasn't completed until well after Giotto's death (1337)  in 1359.  Andrea Pisano worked on it for awhile, until the year of the Black death in 1348.  When construction continued, it was under the guidance of Francesco Talenti, who finished the tower's top 3 levels.

You can climb the tower too, if you would like to pay 6 euro to climb it's 414 steps.  I didn't, but again, I have heard that the view from the top is amazing.  Maybe if you are staying close by, it would seem like a good idea, but with all the walking we had done, the thought of climbing so many steps wasn't very appealing.

When in Florence, a visit to the Duomo is a must.  I think it's the law.  At least it should be.  The church itself is free to get in.  You can pay for the pleasure of the climb to the top of the dome, or the climb to the top of the bell tower, if you so desire.  You can also pay to see the crypt underneath the church, which has both graves of bishops as well as Brunelleschi (the designer of the dome), and the archaeological site of Santa Reparata, a 7th century church that the present church was built over top...and you can pay to visit the Battistero di S. Giovanni, which is the round building located in front of the church.  (We visited both the crypt and the baptistry.  Those will be covered in future posts.)