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Florence-Siena-Pisa-Venice


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July 1994

For our 20th wedding anniversary, Lynn and I took a bus tour and visited five cities in Italy; Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Venice. We left on Thursday evening (June 30) from the local military base in Stuttgart, and rode to a transfer point where we met up with a number of other busses. The way they do it is quite clever; busses travel around a certain area of Germany, collecting people who have signed up for any of the bus tours scheduled to leave that day. Then all the busses drive to a central transfer point, where everyone gets off the busses and they tell you which bus is for which trip, then you climb aboard the bus for your specific tour, and you're off! The transfer point is up by Frankfurt (Mannheim), so if you're from Stuttgart and you're heading north on a tour, its great; part of your ride is spent getting to the transfer point, and the rest of your ride is the tour itself. Unfortunately, we were heading south on this trip, so we rode 1½ hours north, then had to retrace our steps back 1½ hours south just to get to "square one!"

 

The first night of the tour was spent on the bus getting to where you're going. Trying to sleep on a full bus is even worse than trying to sleep on an airplane, but this tour was not full at all, so we all got at least two seats each to stretch out in. That made it a bit easier, but sleeping on a bus is not easy under any conditions!

Florence - Galleria de Academia - Michelangelo's David
Florence - Ponte Vecchio


Around 6:00 AM the next day, we stopped at a roadside rest area along the Italian highway about an hour from Florence, and the women on the bus got their first culture shock, Italian-style! The women's toilet was a 6 inch deep porcelain shower basin (like a shower stall without the walls), with two raised islands in the middle, each treaded and in the shape of a foot. The object of the game was to stand with one foot on each island, hike up or pull down whatever you were wearing, squat, and...... just do it! An experience, to say the least, especially when everyone was still sleepy from the bus ride all night.

From there we drove another hour or so, and stopped at a real rest area for some Italian style fast-food breakfast. The Italians don't trust each other very much I guess, so their fast-food setup is a bit cumbersome. First you have to elbow and push your way through the crowd to the front counter, so you can squint inside the counter and see what they have in the way of pastries and/or sandwiches. Each type of pastry or sandwich has a name on a card in front of it, and you must remember the name (in Italian, of course) of that pastry you want. Now you fight your way to the front of the cashier line, tell her (in Italian, of course) what you want and how many, and pay for it. She gives you a little register receipt, which you take with you and fight your way back to the front counter, where you hand over your receipt proving you paid for the pastry, and the lady behind the counter hands over the pastry. If you ordered and paid for coffee too (not coffee, espresso or cappuccino), that's a different line and you do it again. After that experience, cafeteria lines with a cashier at the end seem like a very clever invention!

From breakfast, we drove into Florence, starting with a stop at the Piazza Michelangelo, which sits up on a hill overlooking the entire city below. It's quite a spectacular view, and when we look at the videos we took from the piazza on the very first morning, we see things in the pictures that we didn't recognize at the time, but we do now. Also in the middle of the piazza, which is more like a big parking lot with a great view on the far side, is a reproduction in bronze of the statue by Michelangelo, David.

From the Piazza Michelangelo we drove down into the city to the Galleria de Academia, the small museum where the original marble statue of Michelangelo's David is kept. Michelangelo's 18-ft marble statue was commissioned in 1501 by the authorities of the Cathedral of Florence at the beginning of the Renaissance period which was a period of rebirth and renewal for the city. Michelangelo wanted to express this youthful vigor and simultaneous strength, so he chose the biblical figure of David, at the moment just before his victory over the evil giant Goliath. The figure of David rests back on one foot, with the slingshot poised and resting over his shoulder. Michelango wanted to express youth and strength at the same time, which was usually considered mutually exclusive qualities, so he played with proportions a bit, and he carved the body of a young boy, but with oversized hands and feet. The effect is remarkable. Carving the statue was a formidable task, because Michelangelo had to work with a marble block that had been damaged during the 1460s. When completed in 1504, David, believed to be the first free-standing statue mounted on a plinth since classical times, was regarded as a symbol of Florentine civic virtue.

There was little else in the Galleria de Academia of world renown except the David, so our tour guide gave us fifteen minutes in the museum before gathering us together for a walk to the Cathedral of Florence, with the Baptistery and Bell Tower. Churches built in this era (13th century) had their three main segments (church, baptistery, and bell tower) built as separate buildings. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa (which we visited later in the trip) is the bell tower of a similar three-building set. The Cathedral of Florence was just about finished with an exterior cleaning, so we got to see most of the exterior marble in pristine shape, but we also saw a small segment that had not been cleaned yet, and it was filthy!

The east door of the Baptistery is the famous Door of Paradise (named by Michelangelo himself). It was sculpted out of bronze by Lorenzo Ghiberti between 1425 and 1452, with the help of his two sons. It is one of the first piece of Renaissance art that makes use of the concept of perspective to give a three-dimensional appearance.

From the cathedral we walked through the streets of Florence to the Guild Chapel, named for the guild of Goldsmiths who financed its construction and had their meeting hall on the 2nd floor. While most of the tour group was visiting this chapel, I scooted in to a store we passed on the way, because I recognized something. The store was an American Footlocker store, and inside was none other than Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics, signing autographs! I chatted for a few minutes and got his autograph before scooting back to catch up with the tour outside the Guild Chapel.

From there we walked to the Piazza della Signoria. This is the town center, and in older times was where the David statue was, until a fight in the upper floors of the city hall erupted into a chair-throwing brawl, and one chair sailed out a window, hit the statue of David and broke off his left arm. After repairs, it was remounted in its present resting place in the Galleria de Academia museum. When we visited the Piazza, they were setting up for a symphonic concert that night, so the sound check of the P.A. system drowned out our tour guide. They were playing opera music and it filled the entire square!

From the Piazza della Signoria we walked to the Basilica de Santa Croce, which was our perpetual meeting place for the rest of the tour's duration in Florence. The Basilica de Santa Croce has the distinction of having four tombs of great renown in it. When you first enter the Basilica, it seems almost plain compared to some of the other churches in Florence and other places we visited, but to the right of the entrance is the tomb of Michelangelo, and along the left side are the cenotaph (a tomb waiting for the body, which is buried in Ravenna) of Dante (the author- The Inferno), and the tombs of Leonardo da Vinci (scientist, sculptor, painter and inventor), and Galileo Galilei (astronomer and scientist). A very impressive group of dead people, to be sure.

Our organized tour of Florence ended here, and the tour guide gave us two hours or so to get some lunch, do some shopping, and meet back at the Basilica for the bus ride to the hotel. We chose to eat lunch in a cafe by the Basilica's square, and then we browsed through some of the leather and gold shops in the area.

That afternoon, after checking into the hotel and getting a refreshing shower, we headed off for the first of two side tours, to Siena. Siena (ancient name was Saena Julia), is the capital of Siena Province, in the Tuscany Region. Siena is a tourist center and a market for the wine and marble produced in the area. Terra (or raw) sienna, used as a pigment in paints, is produced in the vicinity. We visited the Cathedral of Siena, originally intended to be bigger and grander than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The cathedral (11th-14th century) is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy. The Gothic style municipal palace, begun in 1288 and finished in 1309, contains numerous paintings by Sienese artists. The black plague of the 1400's, though, derailed those plans for such a grandiose church, and all that was completed was a small portion of what was planned. We also visited the Church of San Dominico, which houses the embalmed head of St. Catherine (the girls would have thought that was gross).

The city of Siena is also famous for The Palio, a festival held twice a year which has as its focus a horse race, held in the town piazza or square. Each of the districts in the town, or contrada, sponsor a horse and rider in the race. The ceremony is steeped in tradition, and the race is quite dangerous because of the confined area in which it is held. It's sort of a national spectacle for Italy, with Italian TV broadcasting the entire race. The first of the two races is held on July 2nd (to commemorate the Miracle of the Madonna of Provenzano), and coincidentally we were touring the city the day before. We saw many festival preparations, and more than a few Contrada banquets being set up in town squares all over the city. The piazza was a beehive of activity, with clay put down on the cobblestones for the track, and grandstand seats being erected right across store and restaurant front doors. We decided not to try and find dinner in Siena (all the restaurants were closed to participate in the celebrations), so we headed for the nearby town of San Gimignano for dinner.

San Gimignano is a small walled town about 19 miles from Siena. It looks striking from a distance because of the many high towers that have survived through the ages. The town has had almost no new construction since the 13th century, so it has been preserved pretty much intact, and because of this, movie crews often use the town when a medieval setting is required. We didn't spend much time in San Gimignano, we just walked through the town looking for a restaurant that could accommodate the 16 people in our tour group. We picked one at random, which turned out to have a lovely terrace and garden out back overlooking the village, and we had a fine meal.

The next day (Saturday), we headed off for a tour of Pisa, home of the famous leaning tower. It took a while to get to Pisa, maybe an hour or so. Once we arrived, we headed for the Piazza dei Miracoli; the Plaza of Miracles. It is easy to understand why it is so named. As you walk through the gate to the walled city center (as so many European cities are), you are struck by a shocking difference between this piazza and most others in Europe; it's green! Like other church complexes built in the 12th-14th century the Cathedral of Pisa has three buildings; the cathedral itself, the baptistery, and the bell-tower. It is the famous bell-tower that makes Pisa a landmark, but all three buildings are set in an open field of clipped green grass, something that you seldom see in walled cities. Because space inside the wall (and therefore protected from invaders) was at a premium, town planners had never let so much space be used for open spaces; except in Pisa. It is a striking visage.

Aside from the three exquisite marble buildings, Pisa itself is quite a grungy town, with more street vendors per square yard than in any other tourist trap in Italy (or so it seems). The tower was begun in 1173, and almost immediately (by the time the 2nd of the 8 stories was complete) began to lean. It was completed in 1350, and during its construction the builders tried to compensate for the lean by building the tower in the shape of a banana. A recent discovery of the foundation of a very ancient village under the north side of the tower (discovered using sonar soundings of the ground) explains why the north side of the tower has remained relatively stable while the south side has sunk almost 3/4's of a meter. It continues to sink to this day, and the lean increases by about a millimeter each year. Three years ago they closed the tower to tourists, so now all you can do is look at the structure from a safe distance. They are trying different things to try and stop the lean, like piling tons of lead bars on the north side to try to balance it off, and they are considering using sonic waves to break up the ancient foundation under the ground and let the north side sink at the same rate as the south.

We were surprised to find out that there are actually 27 leaning towers in Italy, but Pisa's tower is the most famous because it is the most ornate. Most bell towers are straight sided cylindrical buildings that are topped with a bell, but Pisa's tower has an elaborate Renaissance arch facade all around the plain inner tower. It was one of the first in Italy to embellish the outside of the tower, and that, combined with the spectacular lean, makes it so famous.

Siena - Table on a Hill
Pisa - The Famous Leaning Tower


From Pisa we headed back to Florence to rendezvous with a second tour group and get some new people. Three tours shared two busses, and the mistake for us (as if we had a choice!) was in accepting the other tour bus and letting our fine new bus go off with the other group to Rome. The bus we got was a double-decker, and it had no air conditioning, which in the blazing summer sun of Italy (well over 100 degrees) was an oven. We suffered from the heat for the rest of the trip, and it dampened an otherwise wonderful vacation.

That evening, we went south of Florence into the Chianti region to a villa in the mountains that has been remade into a wonderful Tuscan restaurant. Tuscany (or in Italian, Toscana), is a region in west central Italy with an area of around 9,000 sq. miles. It is bounded by the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas to the west and the regions of Emilia-Romagna to the north, the Marche and Umbria to the east, and Rome to the south. In spite of an often hilly or mountainous terrain with extensive mineral deposits (notably Carrara marble, which Michelangelo used for many of his sculptures, including the David), Tuscany produces a wide array of agricultural products--grain, olives, tobacco, grapes (made into Chianti wine of course), and livestock. Tourists like us often come to see the region's striking countryside and medieval and Renaissance towns and cities. Successively ruled by Etruscans, Romans (4th century BC-6th century AD), Lombards (6th-8th centuries), and Franks (8th-12th centuries), Tuscany began in the 11th century to break up into numerous free communes. During the 14th century through the 16th century, however, Florence progressively brought the region's city-states under its domination, and in 1569 the MEDICI rulers of Florence were created grand dukes of Tuscany. In 1737 the grand duchy passed to the house of Habsburg-Lorraine, in whose possession it remained (except for a period of French rule, 1799-1814) until joining united Italy in 1860

There we sat in the garden of a Florentine villa high in the Tuscan hills (where it was mercifully cool, by the way - a reason why all the rich Florentines built villas on the tops of hills), and were treated to a spectacular six-course meal (first course was a real Italian anti pasto, which is a buffet of about 40 different cold seafood and vegetable dishes; second course was two kinds of pasta; third course was an assortment of grilled meats, beef and veal and pork and chicken; fourth course was vegetables; fifth course was fruit; sixth course was dessert), and during the meal we had roving musicians walking among the tables and serenading us as we ate. It was a highlight (one of many) of the trip.

Tuscan Banquet in Chianti Region

On Sunday, we headed off around 9:00 AM for Venice. Venice (or in Italian, Venezia), is the capital of Venezia province and of the Veneto region in northeastern Italy. It lies on the Gulf of Venice at the north end of the Adriatic Sea. The area around Venice was inhabited in ancient times by the Veneti, an hence the city’s name. According to tradition, the city was founded in 452 AD, when the inhabitants of Aquileia, Padua, and other northern Italian cities took refuge on the islands of the lagoon from the Teutonic tribes that invaded Italy during the 5th century.

The bus ride to Venice took about three hours from Florence, and it was a miserable trip. This new bus (new to us, not a new bus) had a husband-wife team as drivers, and the wife was one of the nastiest, grumpiest people we have met over here in Europe. She started in yelling at us the previous day about feet on the seats and other picayune things, so much so that she got into a shouting match with 3-4 guests within 10 minutes of our arrival on the bus. The tour guide took her aside and really read her the riot act in German, but I could understand what he was saying, and it wasn't nice. After that, she kept her mouth shut for the most part, but she was even more of a grump.

These two insisted that the air conditioning was working, even though the husband was driving with his window open (she wouldn't let us open the one other window or the tiny skylights on top of the bus because it would "confuse the air conditioning"), he was sweating buckets, and the wife had to towel him off occasionally. It was outrageous. Anyway, our trip through the midsection of Italy to Venice was hot and miserable.

We arrived at the dock on the mainland for the water shuttle ride to the Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark's Square). From there we began a guided tour of the city, but it was blazing hot in the Venetian sun, and we had had no relief from the heat of the bus, so our heat endurance was about zero. We excused ourselves from the guided tour, and made arrangements to meet the group back at the Piazza San Marco later in the day.

Venice is situated on 120 islands formed by 177 canals in the lagoon between the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers, at the northern extremity of the Adriatic Sea. Because of its site and commercial fame, the city is known as the Queen of the Adriatic. The islands on which the city is built are connected by about 400 bridges. Many narrow, winding lanes and streets penetrate the city, but the easiest and most common method of transportation is by gondola.

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city buildings and monuments, from Byzantine to Renaissance styles, show great artistic achievement. The center part of the city is Saint Mark's Square, which our tour group used as a central meeting point for the day. At the eastern end are Saint Mark's Cathedral and the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale), the two most important and imposing structures in Venice. The Doge was like the "emperor" of Venice, and ruled like a feudal king, with the exception that when the Doge died, another one was elected from the secondary "mayors," rather than a family member inheriting the position. Behind the Doge's Palace is the famous Bridge of Sighs, which connects the palace with public prisons and was the route by which prisoners were taken to and from the judgment hall.

We kept to the shade as we left our tour, and headed for the Doge's Palace, which we hoped would be cooler because of all the marble used in the construction. We were half right. It was cooler than being on the street, but not all that cool. We toured the palace and the prison, and enjoyed seeing all the beautiful Byzantine and Renaissance frescos painted on the walls and ceilings. In a way it was similar to the opulent castles of Mad Ludwig back in Germany, but there was a sophisticated elegance to these that was not quite as garish. I guess the Doges were practicing the art of wealth display long before the Germans!

We also walked around the city via the hundreds of foot bridges, visited the most famous of the many bridges spanning the Grand Canal, the Ponte Rialto (built in 1588), which is lined with a double row of shops where we bought Lynn a beautiful Venetian leather pocketbook (Happy Anniversary, Lynn), and thoroughly enjoyed this city on water where there are no cars, mopeds, or even bicycles, only people walking, and gondolas floating. We loved it!

That evening, we reconnected with our tour group for a gondola ride through the canals! We had five gondolas reserved, and one of them had an accordion player and a singer, so we were serenaded as we floated through the canals and under the bridges for about 45 minutes. It was great! I had my video camera with us (actually, the video camera was all we had; we forgot the regular camera on the bus in our haste to catch the water shuttle), and I filmed a good portion of the tour.

From the gondolas, we headed for a restaurant down one of the millions of tiny alleys in the city, and the group had a nice meal in a place that had a hint of air conditioning. Usually I drink wine when I'm in Italy because the wine is so good, cheap, and plentiful, but it was so hot that day I stuck with cold beer! After our dinner, we headed back to the dock at Piazza San Marco for the water shuttle back to our bus on the mainland, and the short ride to our hotel for a well-deserved night's rest. A lot of the people on the tour (including the tour guide) stayed up all night in the hotel lounge, but we old fogies were tired so we hit the sack as soon as we got to the room.

The next day, Monday, our actual 20th anniversary, was totally consumed by The Bus Ride From Hell, or rather, The Bus Ride In Hell! We drove for about 14 hours, with only three stops (one for pottery in a northern Italian town that I forget the name of, one for lunch at a roadside rest area in Italy, and one for dinner at another roadside rest area in Switzerland), in the hot bus. About two hours into the ride the nasty lady finally admitted that the air conditioning was not working, so she said we could open the skylights on top (we already had opened them long ago). Lynn and I bought bottled water and used some for drinking, but most was used with a face cloth, dousing ourselves, and trying not to overheat. We convinced a lot of the other folks to do the same, but if we hadn't, I am convinced we would have had a number of cases of heat-stroke on the bus. It was that bad. The outside temperature in the blazing sun was over 100 (I know because there are digital thermometers on highway signs in Italy, and they were registering 40 Celsius, which is 104 Fahrenheit), and the temperature on the top deck of the bus was well over that; stifling.

We drove from Venice over to Lugano on the Italian-Swiss border, through the Alps mostly via tunnels (including the longest motorway tunnel in the world - 17 km or over 10 miles), up to Basel, into Germany along the Rhine, and up to Mannheim for the bus transfer to Stuttgart. While we waited at the transfer point, the U.S. Military base nearby set off their 4th of July Fireworks display, so we got to see some fireworks for the 4th! We got home around 1:30 in the morning. Between the long ride and the sauna-like conditions on the bus, I wasn't able to make it in to work the next day, so I took an extra day of vacation to recover from my vacation!

 

 

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