The hills of Tuscany beckon with beautiful vineyards on the slopes and medieval citadels Continue reading “Tuscany Highlights”
Cortona dates back to the Etruscans, who left traces of their civilizations. Just like it happened all around Italy, then came the Romans and so on and so forth.
A well-known street in Cortona is Via Janelli. It is famous for its medieval half-timbered houses from the 14th century. It is said that they are among the oldest private homes in continuous use in Italy. They stand out for their cantilevered first floor supported by wood beams. I kept thinking they’d collapse any minute but no, they held on like they had for centuries. It is only natural to wonder how much longer they’ll last.
Let’s find Via Janelli together. We set off after a good cup of Italian caffé under the shade of the Clock Tower and the 13th century town hall at Piazza della Repubblica. We take Via Roma to the left of the Palazzo Comunale (town hall) and walk as far as Viale delle Mure Etrusche, where we turn right.
It sounds easy but in fact it is not so. The winding streets surge upwards in a cruel slope. After all, Cortona sits on top of a hill. Not a straight or flat stretch of lane to be found. This made my progress rather difficult. And the fact that Via Janelli is a tiny lane that wasn’t even on my map.
But I made it, look!
Lucca is perfect for a day trip from Florence or Pisa. Puccini’s birthplace offers great places to stroll, history and culture. #Lucca #Tuscany #Italy
The city of Lucca is located in Northern Tuscany. Although it is surrounded by the lovely Tuscan hills, it is thankfully flat. This was good news for our feet. After traipsing and plodding our way through various hilltop towns in the area, we welcomed the relief of even ground.
We visited Lucca on Liberation Day, an Italian national holiday celebrated every year on April 25. The date commemorates the fall of Benito Mussolini’s socialist republic and the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945. It was interesting to be in Italy around that time, as the memory of World War II still pervades everyday life. Many historic monuments, buildings and villages sustained serious bomb damage and were restored. Invariably, a plaque points out that fact.
Since it was a holiday, many stores were closed. However, we managed to find a nice restaurant which seemed to be popular. Or maybe it was the fact that it was the only one open in the area. Anyway, we had a very pleasant lunch. I chose the seasonal dish of fave, fresh broad beans with pecorino cheese and olive oil.
Lucca is the birthplace of opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). His childhood home is a museum, Casa Museo di Giacomo Puccini (Corte San Lorenzo, 8). Among other objects on display is the piano on which Puccini was composing Turandot at the time of his passing.
Lucca became a Roma colony in 180 BC. The Romans left their print in, among other things, the grid layout of its streets, which makes it easier to find one’s way around. The Piazza del Mercato has an unusual elliptical shape for a piazza because there used to be an amphitheatre on this site.
I was able to indulge in my love of ancient cathedrals in Lucca as well. The Cattedrale di San Martino, Luca’s cathedral and seat of the Archbishopric of Lucca, was begun in the 11th century. The nave and transepts date from the 14th century and the portico was added in the 13the century. The façade has reliefs representing the Labours of the Month, the jobs carried out each season in the fields.
Lucca’s cathedral is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier who famously ripped his cloak in half and shared it with a beggar. St. Martin is also the patron saint of my city, Buenos Aires, and, interestingly, he died one November 8, my birthday.
Another interesting feature of the cathedral is the labyrinth carved on one of the pillars of the portico. The Latin inscription below translates as “This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne’s thread” and has clear pagan Greek mythological references. Labyrinths appear in many cultures and mean different things. Jorge Luis Borges, the renowned Argentinean writer, used labyrinths in his work. I find it interesting that, being thousands of miles away visiting an ancient monument, I am reminded of his work.
Lucca is a fortified town. The thick walls served to keep the enemy away; nowadays they protect il centro istorico from traffic and pollution. The current ramparts were built between 1504 and 1645 during the Renaissance. In the 19th century the ramparts were made into a public park. Nowadays, people walk, jog and cycle along the walls and have picnics under the shade of the trees. We came in through the Porta di San Gervasio, a leftover from the earlier medieval walls. The gate used to have a drawbridge over a canal. The towers are private residences now. What an interesting place to live. I wonder if they can hear the echoes of battles fought long ago.
Practical information about Lucca
How to get there
- By plane to Galileo Galilei Airport (Pisa) and then a half and hour’s drive to Lucca.
- By car from Pisa or Florence via the autostrada A11.
- By train from Pisa and Florence.
Lucca Cathedral and Museum (Complesso Museale e Archeologico della Cattedrale di Lucca), Piazza Antelminelli
Volterra. Velathri. Volaterrae.
The area has appealed to settlers since the Neolithic Age for its advantageous location on top of a hill and natural resources. The Etruscans founded the town of Velathri on this hill and fortified it in the 4th century BC. In the 3rd century BC, the Etruscans realized it was pointless to resist Roman invasion and surrendered. Thus, Velathri became Volaterrae. Centuries later, the Florentines invaded Volterra and ruled until the fall of the Florentine Republic in 1530. Volterra came under the control of the Medici and then of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
We visited this delightful hilltop medieval borgo during our European road trip. We drove from Montespertoli along the Via Volterrana Nord, slower than the highway but a lot more interesting. We parked the car outside the walls and entered the town through the Porta Fiorentina.
Palazzo dei Priori
This palazzo is a working town hall and was built in 1239. Like most Tuscan official buildings, the Palazzo dei Priori has glazed terracotta coats of arms of 15th and 16th century Florentine magistrates. There are various works of art throughout the building, like the fresco of the Crucifixion on a landing on the entrance stairway.
The top half of the bell tower had to be rebuilt after the 1846 earthquake, the rest is original. We climbed the extremely narrow metal staircase to the top and were rewarded with amazing views of red rooftops and green hills as far as they eye can see.
The Sala del Consiglio – Council Hall- on the second floor is medieval in origin but the decoration of its cross vaulted ceilings, frescos and canvas are from the Renaissance. There is an admission ticket to visit this room and photography is not allowed.
Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
The Romanesque duomo, or cathedral, is a heavy, squat building, not much to look at. It was built in 1120 on the site of an earlier church, also dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of the Cinquecento (16th century), the cathedral was enlarged and redecorated in the popular Renaissance style. The wonderful coffered ceiling is worth taking the time to admire. We sat on a pew to enjoy the church’s peace and quiet until a bunch of teenagers on a school outing shattered it. Take the rough with the smooth.
Outside the walls, or cinta medieval volterrana, lie the ruins of the Roman Theatre built in the 1st century BC by a local wealthy family. The best view is from the walls. We then came down for a more detailed exploration. I honestly don’t know if there are guided tours or paid admission. Since they were deserted, we just walked in. The signs are not very helpful; they don’t seem to coincide with what you’re looking at –unless you’re an archeologist. We were able to see the cavea (seating area), the semicircular orchestra and the scaenae fons (columns leading to the stage). The public baths behind the theatre date from the 4th century AD. The area was used as a rubbish tip in medieval times and all but disappeared.
In 1939, they started to build a football field without notifying the superintendent for archeological heritage and much damage was caused. A local archeologist started to excavate the site in 1950 after the hiatus caused by World War II. Money was tight so the workforce was made up of patients from the psychiatric hospital. It is not very PC these days but it was what they had then. It must very interesting to hear what the patients have been thought and said.
We visited Florence on a Sunday in April. We drove from our agriturismo in the countryside. Thankfully, traffic was rather scarce and we were able to navigate our way to a private parking garage. Our car, a vintage 1965 Alvis, attracted a lot of attention even from the parking attendant.
Our first stop was Santa Maria Novella church. It is a beautiful building, with its typically Tuscan façade clad in white and deep green marble. Unfortunately, the church opened to visitors at 1 pm and it was after 11 am. Mass was in progress and we weren’t allowed in. We strolled around the food market in the piazza.
Florence tip: Check and double check opening times of churches. They may not make sense to anyone except the Italians.
For something different to do, we visited the nearby Santa Maria pharmacy and perfumery (officina profumo-farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella) founded in 1612. The inside is very pretty and elegant. Although the place is about four centuries old, the beautiful display cabinets date from the 19th century. We were able to wander around, take photos and sample perfumes and eau de cologne. These are very fresh and light. However, inexpensive they are not.
Since I insisted on visiting a church, any church, I went into San Marco while my husband waited in the piazza book in hand. San Marco is not a remarkable church, except it has a dead body on display in a glass coffin. Actually, it is the mummified body of a saint dressed in robes and with a silver mask covering his face. I cannot, for the life of me, understand this obsession with displaying relics, especially full bodies. The museum next door has Fra Angelico’s famous The Annunciation. The museum closes every first, third and fifth Sunday on the month and this was on the third Sunday of April. Oh well.
Florence tip: Check and double check opening times of museums. They may not make sense to anyone except the Italians.
The quintessentially Florentine Pontevecchio turned out to be a disappointment for me, in a way. They view of the bridge from afar evokes the hustle and bustle of Renaissance traders. However, the bridge is narrow and lined with jewellery shops. Fair enough, that’s traditional. But the constant stream of tourists trying to get across, take photos, and browse the shop windows makes for an uncomfortable experience. I’m not criticizing visitors, I did all that after all but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it very much.
Florence tip: just go with it.
The cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori is awe-inspiring. The inlaid green and white and pink marble creates a beautiful effect, as well as the sculptures and sundry architectural features. However, I found it less exciting inside.
Florence tip: Don’t miss Lorenzo Ghiberti’s intricately sculpted Baptistery doors. These are reproductions, the originals are carefully stored in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
I must admit we skipped the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Academia. The thought of fighting the crowds did not appeal to us at all. Call me a philistine if you will. But we did not leave Florence without seeing Michelangelo’s David. There is a reproduction in the Piazza della Signoria, its original location a few centuries ago. There are other original Renaissance sculptures in the Piazza. The bars and cafes around the piazza are a perfect place to sit down and people watch and chat over an espresso.
Florence tip: Una tazza of strong Italian caffè is a great restorative any time of day.
Florence is an amazing city with so much to see and do that a whole lifetime seems barely enough. Seeing world famous works of art in the cradle of the Renaissance is a quasi-religious experience, somewhat marred by throngs of visitors. It’s the price we have to pay.
Visit Certaldo, a charming medieval fortified town set on top of a hill in Tuscany, and home of poet Giovanni Boccaccio. #Tuscany #Cetaldo #Italy #travel
During one of our drives around Tuscany, we spotted a medieval fortified town (borgo medioevale in Italian) on top of a distant hill. We immediately decided to have a look. The name of that village was Certaldo and was touted as the hometown of Renaissance poet and humanist Giovanni Boccaccio. The author of the Decameron (b. 1313- d.1375) spent his life between Certaldo and Florence.
Our GPS was broken at the time so we had to rely on street signs to find our way up the hill. We had previously found out that Italian street signs are not totally reliable, if at all.
We drove in circles around the town of Certaldo Basso (Lower Certaldo, an uninspiring modern town) until we were about to give up. At the last minute, we saw an inconspicuous sign that pointed towards Certaldo Alto (Higher Certaldo.) The village was giving us a last chance.
We followed the arrow, which led us along a narrow country road that curved uphill among small farms and vineyards to the borgo medioevale. We left the car at the municipal parcheggio (parking lot) outside the walls and crossed the arch into the town.
My husband decided he’d done enough sightseeing for the day and settled in the mild spring sunshine to read and wait for me to do my thing. I went straight to the Casa Boccaccio museum.
The museum is located in the house where Giovanni Boccaccio lived at various times. It sustained heavy damage after a bombing during World War II and was faithfully restored since.
The museum is also the headquarters of the National Giovanni Boccaccio Society and houses a library dedicated exclusively to the poet’s life and work. Other than that, a fresco and some medieval shoes that Boccaccio may or may not have worn, the museum is devoid of original or even interesting objects.
The view from the top of the tower, however, is magnificent. The 360-degree view of Certaldo and the surrounding Tuscan countryside is well worth the 3 euro admission and the steep climb up and down.
A medieval church with a surprise
Later, once my legs stopped cramping, I wandered up the street. A few dozen yards from where Boccaccio lived is his final resting place, the church of St. Jacopo and St. Filippo. The chunky, solid building dates back to the 12 and 13 centuries and is rather dark inside.
I pushed the creaky wood door open and adjusted to the semi-darkness and eerie silence. Although there was nobody else, I felt I wasn’t alone. I turned my head to my right and saw her. The sight made my hair stand on end: the Blessed Giulia lying in the crystal coffin, still wearing her 14th-century nun habit, her empty sockets staring back. Just then the door creaked shut. I yelped and leaped to the door, yanked it open and went out into the sunlit street.
I cursed the Italian custom of displaying saints’ skeletons or relics inside churches. Whatever for? At least, give me fair warning.
A delicious chocolate gelato worked wonders to steady my frazzled nerves.
Certaldo is located in the Val d’Elsa in Tuscany (Italy) about an hour’s drive south of Florence. It is accessible by train as well as it’s on the Florence-Empoli-Siena line.
Things to do in Certaldo
Visit the Boccaccio museum.
Be spooked at the church of St. Jacopo and St. Filippo. Also, find the tomb marker for Boccaccio.
Find the Palazzo Pretorio at the intersection of Via Boccaccio and Via del Rivellino. The palace dates from the late 110s and now houses an art museum. Don’t miss the coats of arms, many of which were made by the della Robbia family.
Visit the church of San Tommaso e Prospero, built in the 1300s. It has a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli and Giusto D’Andrea. It’s located at the end of via Rivellini.
Visit the Museum of Sacred Art.
Travel forward in time to the Renaissance at the Palazzo Stiozzi Ridolfi and its two towers overlooking Costa Alberti.
Time your trip in time for the Mercantia Festival, an international street art and theatre festival.
Walk around, enjoy the medieval atmosphere, admire the sweeping views of the countryside. It’s even more pleasant if you do it with a gelato in your hand, just sayin’!
Things to do in Siena in one afternoon. Get lost in this beautiful city and find your treasures. #Siena #Italy #travel #traveltips
Are you looking for things to do in Siena in one afternoon? Here’s what we did:
The brightly coloured prints lure me into the shop. The handmade postcards, cards and scrolls hark back to a past era. The artisan kindly allows me to have a peek in his studio, where I see how he works. He carries on the age-old tradition of illumination, which originated in medieval monasteries where monks copied and illustrated books by hand. I buy a few cards to keep as mementos.
Walking along narrow winding streets, we finally manage to find the Duomo –cathedral-, not an easy feat when following unreliable street signs.
I look at the lines at the ticket kiosks. Is there a time of the year when there are not any crowds in Italy, I wonder? Four euros grant us access to the cathedral only, not including the museums. Fine by me, my brain is unable to absorb any more information and visual stimuli.
The interior of the cathedral is awesome in the true sense of the word. The black and white columns seem to soar towards heaven. Actually, it’s the ceiling and a magnificent one at that.
The mosaic floor deserves special attention too: scenes of the Bible, allegories and the like are represented using the graffito technique and marble intarsia (inlaid pieces of marble that make a figure). Many mosaics are covered for most of the year and a few are on display, cordoned off to prevent wear.
Unlike the floor, we are worn out already with looking up at the ceilings, the works of art on the walls and the mosaics on the floor. We stop for lunch at the Taverna del Capitano (Via del Capitano 6/8). It’s housed in an ancient building and its stone vaulted ceilings, however pretty, do nothing to dampen the din. The pasta was very good, though.
The backdrop of many a film scene, the Piazza del Campo is where the annual Palio is held, in July and in August. It is a horse race and festival that dates back to at least the 13th century. Each jockey represents one of the seventeen contrade (districts). We saw a small group of young men practicing their flag-throwing skills in the street. They seem to be very serious about the festival.
There are quite a few people at the Piazza del Campo snapping pictures, eating ice-cream, even napping on the cobbled semicircular piazza. The piazza is surrounded by elegant buildings which saw their prime before the Black Death descended upon the city.
I wonder what the city’s elders would think if they saw tourists strewn about the place. Would these inert bodies remind them of the times of the plague? Who knows. The city’s elders are long gone but their legacy is still here for us to enjoy.