Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Arno River and the Bridges of Florence

When in Florence, it's hard to miss the Arno River.

This magnificent river flows from Mount Falterona (in the Apennines mountains), down through Florence, Empoli, and finally Pisa, where it deposits into the sea.

Several bridges span the Arno in Florence, all of which can be crossed a piedi (on foot) and all but the Ponte Vecchio permit cars to cross. From east to west, the bridges in order are:  Ponte alle Grazie, Ponte Vecchio, Ponte a Santa Trinita', Ponte Carraia, and Ponte Amerigo Vespucci.

Ponte alle Grazie

Originally built in 1227, it was rebuilt in 1345 and over the next two years had buildings attached, much like the Ponte Vecchio.  These buildings were removed in 1876 when a railway track was installed.  In 1944, German troops, retreating out of Florence, destroyed all but one of the bridges crossing the Arno, including the Ponte alle Grazie.  The current version of the bridge was completed in 1953 and is much more modern in design than the previous bridges.

Ponte Vecchio

The most famous bridge of Florence, the Ponte Vecchio (translation: "Old Bridge") is what is pictured on many postcards and travel brochures.  This bridge, in its current form, has been spanning the Arno since 1345 and is the only bridge in Florence that wasn't destroyed by the German Army in World War II.  For more on this bridge, please see my blog post from last November: here.

Ponte a Santa Trinita'

There has been a bridge at this location since at least 1252.  Originally built from wood, flood waters knocked that one down and a second bridge was built, but this version was also destroyed by a flood in 1333.  It was rebuilt once again, this time designed by Taddeo Gaddi (designer of the Ponte Vecchio) who used stone in the construction.  However, once again, it was destroyed by a flood in 1557.  Again, it was rebuilt.  Bartolomeo Ammanati designed it using stones from a local quarry.  Ammanati's version was finished in 1569 and 39 years later, four statues were added to the ends of the bridge in celebration of Cosimo II de Medici's wedding.

Unfortunately, this bridge was destroyed as well in 1944.  This time, it was not flood waters to blame, but war.  Once again, the bridge was rebuilt in the same location.  Thanks to Bernard Berenson, an American art historian living in Florence at the time, donations were gathered to rebuild it using the original materials.  This current version of the bridge is what stands today and is the world's oldest elliptic arch bridge.

Ponte alla Carraia

Originally built from wood in 1218 by the architect Lapo, the Ponte alla Carraia was destroyed by flood in 1274.  It was rebuilt with stone and wood, but this version of the bridge was also destroyed...this time not by flood waters, but by the weight of spectators, several of which died, in 1304 as they gathered to watch a show on the river.  It was rebuilt after the flood of 1333 (the first of the bridges of Florence to be rebuilt at that time), but was destroyed once again in 1557.  The next version of the bridge was designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati (designer of the Santa Trinita' Bridge), who was commissioned by Cosimo I de Medici.  The current version of the bridge was finished in 1948, after Ammanati's bridge was destroyed by German troops in 1944.

Ponte Amerigo Vespucci

Ponte Amerigo Vespucci in the distance
This bridge was originally built in 1949 with materials from the other bridges of Florence which were destroyed in 1944.  The current version of the bridge was built in 1957 after a competition was held for a new design.  What stands today is a very modern looking bridge, compared to the other bridges of Florence.  It has three spans and is supported by two piers.  With very clean lines and modern design, it resembles a ribbon stretched from one shore to the other.

To the west, the Parco delle Cascine runs along the Arno.  There, you can stroll along the Viale Abramo Lincoln and the Viale Giorgio Washington, which follow along the shoreline.

West of the Piazzale Kennedy in the Parco delle Cascine, you can find a pescaia, or "low dam", in the Arno, regulating the flow of the river.  (Note: there is another pescaia further upstream, betwee the Ponte Amerigo Vespucci and the Ponte Carraia.)

As you walk along the Viale, ending at the Piazzaletto dell'Indiano, you will see the Ponte all'Indiano, the first earth-anchored, cable-stayed bridge in the world, which was completed in 1978.  The bridge has two levels:  a level for pedestrians below and a level for cars above.

The Arno, itself, is a beautiful thing, yet it can also be quite temperamental.  There have been many floods over the centuries - the most recent being in 1966, which killed around 100 people and destroyed many priceless works of art after the river rose to above 6.7 meters (more than 22 feet) in less than 24 hours.

Simone pointing to a sign indicating the crest of the Arno on 4 November 1966

Since the flood of 1966, several engineering developments have taken place, such as the construction of the Bilancino Dam along the River Sieve, which is a major tributary to the Arno River.  With these projects, it is hoped that the devastating floods which happened in the past will be avoided in the future.

When visiting Florence, take some time to stroll along the Arno.  Take plenty of photos and be on the lookout for birds and wildlife who make the Arno their home.  It's a beautiful river that is well worth your time!

A Florentine Beaver at home on the Arno!

Saturday, June 16, 2012


If you're looking for a nice little side trip when you're visiting Florence, head out on the A11 (Autostrada Firenze-Mare) and in about 25-30 minutes, you'll find yourself in Prato.

Piazza Duomo - Prato

Prato's main industry, for centuries, has been textiles.  And where better to learn about that part of history than the Museo del Tessuto...the Textile Museum!  4 euros will get you a ticket in to see all sorts of examples of textiles, materials, tools an machinery that have been used throughout the ages.  (Note: photography in the museum is not allowed)

One building that you can't help but notice in Prato is the Castello dell'Imperatore.

Casetello dell'Imperatore (photo credit: Simone Cinotti)
Construction on this castle began around 1248 by Imperatore Federico II di Svevia as a way to keep the trade route from Germany under military control.  The castle is square with towers on the corners and in the centers of each wall.  The center of the castle, which used to house several buildings, is today completely empty.  They are currently renovating part of the castle and we were not permitted to enter it when we visited on a very rainy December morning, but we did get to take some pictures while standing in the doorway.

The interior of the castle (photo credit: Simone Cinotti)
An outside view of one of the towers

Directly across from the castle is Santa Maria delle Carceri, a basillica that was built in the 1480's.  Legend has it that a child saw a painting of the Madonna and Child come to life on the wall of the carceri (local jail), so it was decided to build a basilica at that place.  Lorenzo de Medici hired the architect, Giuliano da Sangallo, to design the church, which he did.  He took his inspiration from the Pazzi Chapel in Florence (designed by the famous Filippo Brunelleschi), and the final building favors that chapel quite a bit.

Santa Maria delle Carceri

About four blocks north west of Santa Maria delle Carceri is the Duomo di Prato, the Cathedral of St. Stephan.  There are documents supporting the fact that the church has been there since the late 10th century, but there is speculation that the church may very well have been there for some time before then.  The current church structure was built in the 12th century

Duomo di Prato (photo credit: Simone Cinotti)
Inside the church are beautiful frescoes by Filippo Lippi and Fra Diamante.  There are a few side chapels, one of which, the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo, houses a famous relic: a belt which, according to legend, was given by the Virgin Mary to Saint Thomas.

Interior of the Duomo

Exterior and the pulpit by Donatello (photo credit: Simone Cinotti)

Walk two blocks to the south of the Duomo and you will find yourself in the Piazza del Comune.  The Fontana del Bacchino is there...

Fontana del Bacchino (photo credit: Simone Cinotti) is the Palazzo Pretorio, built in the late 13th, early 14th century, which used to be the City Hall.

Palazzo Pretorio (photo credit: Simone Cinotti)

Much like in Florence, the streets of Prato (especially in the historic city center) are lined with many small shops.  If you get the chance, stop by Antonio Mattei, which has been in existence at Via Ricasoli 22 since 1858, baking delicious treats, such as cantucci (a biscotto/cookie) or, my personal favorite, a torta mantovana (a cake with almonds and pinoli).

(photo credit: Simone Cinotti)

On your way in or out of Prato, take a moment and take a look at the city walls.  They've been protecting the city since the 1170's!

(photo credit: Simone Cinotti)
I would suggest spending a good part of a day in Prato, if not a whole day.  There is plenty to see and do.  If you enjoy art, there is a lot of it in and around the city, and surprisingly a lot of it is modern.  Of course, there are plenty of historical places to see as well, along with shopping and great places to eat.  If you are in the area and have some time, stop on by.  You won't be disappointed!

(A special thank you to Simone Cinotti, who took many of the photos of Prato after my camera battery died while we were visiting!)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Crostini di Funghi

I hope that you like mushrooms.

It has been awhile since I posted a recipe, so I thought I'd share my recipe for Crostini di Funghi.  I made it for my Tuscan and he couldn't get enough of it!

You start with some mushrooms.  I used baby bellas here, but when I'm in Italy, I use whatever I can find at the market.  (Porcini are to die for, if you can find them!)

Remove the stems and chop them up into medium sized pieces.

Put them in a baking pan (I used a roasting pan here) lined with foil, then drizzle with a good olive oil.  Pop it into an oven that has been preheated to 450°F/230°C and roast them for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, grab some fresh sage leaves.

Stack them...

...roll them up tightly and then slice thinly.

You'll end up with tiny little ribbons of sage, which fancy chef-folks call "chiffonade".

When the mushrooms are done, transfer them to a bowl with their juices.

Add the sage.

Take a couple cloves of garlic and chop them up very fine.

Add the garlic and season with some salt and pepper.

Do you have a loaf of Pane Toscano on hand?  If so, this is the perfect bread for crostini.  If not, use a rustic, country style bread, cut it into slices and then toast them.

Spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the warm toasts, drizzle with more olive oil and enjoy!

Here's the recipe in a more "formal" format:

Crostini di Funghi

1 pound (500g) mushrooms, stems removed
approximately 1/2 cup olive oil
4 fresh sage leaves, cut into a chiffonade
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Tuscan bread, sliced and toasted

Preheat oven to 450°F/230°C.  Chop the mushrooms into medium-sized pieces and place in a baking pan lined with aluminium foil.  Drizzle with about 1/2 of the olive oil (approximately 1/4 cup) and roast for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven and transfer to a bowl along with their juices.  While the mushrooms are cooling, cut the sage leaves into a chiffonade.  Add the sage and chopped garlic to the mushrooms and mix.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Spoon over toasts and drizzle with olive oil.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Parco Puccini

First, a couple things I would like to say before starting this post:
  1. I want to take a moment and mention that the people of the Emilia-Romagna province are in my thoughts and prayers as they attempt to recover from the earthquakes that have shaken their homes over the past week.  If you would like to help with relief efforts, please consider donating to the Red Cross.
  2. (My apologies for the lapse of blog posts.  I just realized that I hadn't posted anything since the 21st of April!  I have an excuse!  I have been busy writing a guidebook and a dining guide to Florence.  I hope to have it available sometime before the end of the year.  Stay tuned for that and more exciting news in the future months!
Ok, now on with the blog...

Villa Puccini is located northwest of the town of Pistoia, which is located approximately 40 kilometers northwest of Florence.  The villa was built in the 1700's for the physician Tomasso Puccini.  Later, in the early part of the 1800's (sometime between 1821 and 1845), his son, Niccolo' Puccini, built a park surrounding the villa and extending to the back of the property.  The park, in it's heyday, covered 123 hectacres and included statues of important intellectuals (Michelangelo, Dante, etc) as well as a few buildings,  most of which no longer exist.

When you arrive at the park, there is a small parking lot across from the church, Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria, where you can park for free.  

Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria

You will walk through an area that is dotted with several olive trees before you reach the entrance gate to the park.  

Olive trees...always fascinate me!

Once you enter through the gate, you will walk up the paved entryway toward the villa, which is lined with tall pine trees.  If you look toward the right, you will be treated with a beautiful view of the mountainous landscape of this area of Tuscany.  

Following the trail through the park, you will pass through many tall plain trees as you head toward the man-made lake.

The lake is fairly big and has a little island in the middle of it.  On the island is the remnants of the Temple of Pythagoras, which Niccolo' Puccini had built as a nod to the ancient Greeks. 

As we walked around the lake on a beautiful December day, I wondered about that island.  I imagined that a century or two ago, the Puccini family would perhaps take a small boat out to the lake for a picnic.  I'm not sure if that happened, but it was fun to imagine what it would have been like for them, considering this park was their backyard!

Temple of Pythagoras

Of course, along with water, inevitably you will find ducks!  There were a lot of ducks and geese milling about the park.  Some were quite interesting looking and fairly friendly.  Others, most notably the geese, weren't so fond of us walking around their territory.

All around the lake is a walking trail.  There were several people out running while we were strolling around the park.  It seems to be a nice place for the locals to get out and exercise.  Along the trail, every so often, you will come across a bench.  One we found had our initials written on it, so we took advantage of the photo op!

S loves A!

Villa Puccini is a lovely place to spend some time strolling and enjoying the outdoors.  You will want to allow at least 30-40 minutes to visit the park, which is completely free to roam.  Bring your camera and snap some pictures.  The park is a nice getaway from the downtown area of Pistoia and will take you about a 10 minute drive if you are coming from the center of town.