Tag Archives: Italy Oct. 2014


Wow, the dates on this blog have gotten really screwed up!  We were actually in Tuscany on October 1st.  From Florence, we took a tour of four Tuscan towns and one divine stop for a wine tasting.

Our first stop was Siena.  We only had a short time here, so we pretty much confined ourselves to the Cathedral.  But it was a really incredible Cathedral.


Street in Siena.



Here’s the outside of the Cathedral.  There were little spiky things sticking out all over and when I zoomed in, I realized they were statues of sitting dogs, complete with leashes.


Here’s the inside.  It was full of black and white marble.


The floors were spectacular and they told stories.


One of the side altars.



This is where the lector reads the readings.  It was beautifully carved.


The main altar.




This was a very pleasant surprise for me.  I love illuminated manuscripts so finding a room dedicated to them was a real thrill.  To find them in such a beautiful room was pure pleasure.  The first pictures one of the many illuminated manuscripts.  The next picture is the ceiling in the room.  The colors were spectacular.  The last picture shows the wall of the room with a couple of the manuscripts on display below.  It was a stunning room.


We stopped for a drink on the way out of town and this sign made me smile.  The Italians love sparkling water and this is the store owner’s way of saying this is the still water.



Our next stop was Monteriggionni, a very ancient medieval city.  It was kind of famous historically and its been in many paintings.  It’s also near Voltura, made famous by the Twilight books.



Some of the scenes from this very small town


It’s a walled city and here’s what they look like from the outside.


Our next stop was a wine tasting.  Now, those of you who know us know that we rarely drink.  This tasting included about 10 different wines.  Needless to say, it was a little overwhelming.


Here we are before we had just a little too much to drink.  : )  Ironically, after tasting all that wine, what did we buy?  We got the truffled olive oil which was TO DIE FOR!  Of course, the wine may have influenced our opinion.  I’ll let you know when we get home and try it again.



Our next stop was San Gimignano.  It’s also a medieval city, but it’s much larger and people actually live there today.  It was interesting to stroll around.  Luckily, the rain didn’t cause too many problems.

The first picture above is the entrance into the city through the city wall.  The second picture is a view of the street.



Here’s the city square and the well.


A view of the Tuscan hillside from the city walls.

Next stop:  Pisa!  What trip to Tuscany would be complete without a stop in Pisa?




It’s still leaning.  Although there was an effort made in the last few years to shore up the ground around it to stop it’s slow topple.  To everyone’s surprise, the work actually made it straighten a little!


The tower is actually the bell tower for this church.  We only had a short time and decided more food (after all that wine!) was more important than touring the church.


I really didn’t think I’d like Venice as much as I did.  I’m not a water or boat person, but the charm of this city is impossible to resist.  It started life as a group of about 118 islands that were close together.  As people fled the wars on the mainland (barbarians, Visigoths, Genghis Khan, etc.) each new group settled a new island.  The first thing they built was a church and the town square–called a campo which was really a field in the middle of their houses where the livestock hung out and the dead were buried.  Eventually, they started building bridges to hook the islands together, and finally, they built so many buildings on the islands, they began to look like buildings rising out of the water, rather than buildings sitting on small islands. So, that’s how the canal system developed; they were just the natural waterways between the little islands.  In the last 200 years, many have been filled in and more walkways were created.  Today, you can walk from island to island over the more than 400 bridges and on the walkways that surround the city.

I should also note that Venice is very different now than it was even several decades ago.  It is very expensive to live here so its population is decreasing.  It’s gone from about 200,000 in the middle of the last century to about 58,000 today. Every day 40,000 additional people commute to the city for work.  Each year they welcome 25 million visitors.  The city is completely dependent on tourism; there is no longer any industry or other business in the city.  It’s all tourism.  One of the tour guides referred to it as a city-museum, and that about what it is.  Some of the large buildings along the Grand Canal are empty and they are only maintained for appearances.  It’s kind of sad, really.  Even the glass making on Murano and the lace making on Burano are dying art forms.

Okay, enough of that.  What exists in Venice is spectacular and shouldn’t be missed.  Everyone should come here at least once in their lifetime, it is just so interesting.

We arrived at the train station, which is at the end of a 4 mile long bridge that connects Venice with the mainland.  From there, we took a water taxi to our hotel.  It required a trip along the entire length of the Grand Canal and it blew me away.



Here area  couple of pictures I took of the Grand Canal  from the Rialto Bridge.  It was just amazing.


This is the view out the front door of our hotel.


This area along the Canal has the widest sidewalks in front.  In some places, they’re only a couple feet wide!



Some of the scenes between the hotel and St. Mark’s Square.



And here we go!  St. Mark’s Square was only a couple minute walk from the hotel.  Our first visit was the afternoon we arrived and it was mobbed with people.  There are cruise ships dropping off thousands of people every day and that day, I swear they were all at St. Mark’s!


This is the view of the Doge’s Palace from the bridge in front.


We’re here!


We got up early the first full day to walk to the meeting point for our tour.  We discovered St. Mark’s Square is deserted in the morning.




Some of the things we saw along the way.  The Grand Canal is the main waterway throughout he city, but it is also riddled with little (and I mean tiny!  I don’t know how boats pass each other in some of them!).  In between he canals are hamster trail-like walkways.  They twist and turn and it is impossible not to get lost.  The guide book says there really isn’t an accurate map of Venice that’s economical enough for tourists.  Just go with the flow!

Also, I thought the “stop mafia” sign was interesting.


We found our way back to the Grand Canal.  The colorful boat in the foreground is a vaporatto–aka: a water bus.




While we were standing here, a boat docked that was loaded with boxes of vegetables.  We watched as the guy on the boat literally threw boxes of tomatoes and lettuce to the guy on the dock without losing even one in the water.


One of the side canals.  This one is pretty good sized.




Here are more of the smaller canals.  They vary greatly in size because they were as big as the space between islands.


This building was finished in the 14th or 15th century and today it is the hospital.


With all the parked boats, I don’t know how another one can pass through.


Here’s a picture showing how the buildings were made.  Wood pilings were driven into the bedrock very close together.  In the absence of oxygen, they didn’t rot.  Instead, they petrified and became a very strong foundation.  On top of the pilings are various waterproof layers and the building sits on top of all that.  I was surprised that they don’t need to be replaced regularly.  They are pretty permanent.


The covered bridge in the distance is the Bridge of Sighs, the bridge that lead from the Doge’s Palace (where a prisoner was sentenced) to the prison.  The bridge gave the condemned their last view of the Venice, thus the nickname, The Bridge of Sighs.


St. Mark’s Square is one of the lowest spots in Venice so it often floods.  Of course, the tides rise and fall daily, but they sometimes overtake the city.  As many as 50 times a year Venice floods.  When this happens, they put these low tables down to make raised walkways for people to pass.  The locals often just wear knee (and sometimes hip) boots when it floods.  The floods usually happen in winter.


We climbed to the balcony of the church to get a good view of St. Mark’s Square.  The crowds were much better today.





These are all views of St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.  I didn’t realize that Venice is one of the longest lasting Republics in history.  For hundreds of years (much longer than the US!) Venice was governed by a “congress” of about 2000 noblemen who elected the Doge (i.e. president) from among them.  They had incredible checks and balances in place at all levels of the government and it seems to have worked really well for them.






This is the Rialto Bridge, one of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal.  Did I mention that nothing with wheels is allowed in Venice?  The only exceptions are dolly’s (to move boxes) and a few kid’s toys, roller skates.


Bob : )


Here you can see how narrow some of the side canals can be.  As I said, I don’t know how boats, even skinny ones like the gondolas, could pass each other in such a narrow canal.


No judging!  After weeks of pizza and pasta, a whopper from Burger King sounded like the perfect lunch.  We got a king-sized meal and split it.  It was delicious. Although, the Coke had no ice.  Not sure what that was about.  : )

I do have to tell you about the cheeky pigeon.  We sat in the courtyard outside and we were surrounded by college-aged kids from all over the world.  At one point, a pigeon jumped onto the table next to me and the guy there shoo’ed it away very aggressively.  I think he startled it because it flew straight sideways into an Asian girl who shrieked and caused quite a seen.  I was still chuckling when the pigeon jumped onto our table and grabbed a fry.  It just stood there looking at me with that fry in its beak.  I didn’t want it to assault the poor Asian girl again, so I shoo’ed it gently but it just stood there mocking me.  So I swatted at it thinking it would jump out of the way.  It didn’t!  Instead, I smacked it in the chest and pushed it off the table and onto the floor!  I don’t think it cared at all, it was busy eating my fry.


More of the views from the Grand Canal.  I think this is one of my favorite pictures.




More of the Grand Canal


We also took a tour of the islands of Murano and Burano.  Here’s Bob on the boat out to the islands.



The Murano glass is really beautiful.  In the past, the different techniques were passed from father to son, but they are slowly dying out.  Only a fraction of the glass workshops from the past are still open.



This is Burano which is known for its lace. Again, the art of making lace is dying out because it can be made by machine so much faster.  It takes forever to make it by hand and I was staggered at the prices.  A small piece, about 8 inches in diameter, that was suitable for framing, took 7 people 7 months to finish.  They were charging 800 Euro which is roughly $1000.


This reminded me of growing up in South Dakota. It’s the volunteer ambulance, only it’s a boat.


This isn’t a great picture, but it shows something I found fascinating.  When there aren’t enough spots for all the boats to dock, the boats line up and hook themselves together.  To get on and off the furthest boat, you have to walk through all of them.  It was all new to me.


I can’t believe I didn’t take more pictures of the little alleys.  This is a large one.  Some of them require you to turn sideways when someone passes going the opposite direction.


This is one of the campos — or little fields.  There’s one on each island, or at least there used to be.  Some have been replaced with buildings.  There’s a cistern under each one that caught rain water and this is the well where people could draw fresh water out.


Here we are on the observation deck of the church on St. Mark’s Square.  It was a spectacular church, but no pictures were allowed.  The most amazing thing there were the life sized (or maybe slightly larger than life sized) bronze statues of four horses.  Scholars debate their age, some say 200 B.C, some say 200 A.D.  In either case, the statues are about 2000 years old.  They were incredibly beautiful and the details were perfect.


This is inside the Doge’s Palace.  It’s a very large building that was the seat of the government, as well as the home of the doge.  When a new doge was elected, he and his family were obligated to live here, sort of like the President and the White House.  It had some breath-taking rooms.


In some cases, the frames are more incredible than the paintings.  Since this is Venice, frescoes deteriorated within a few years.  So, they either had to make everything out of mosaics, or they had to paint it on canvas.  In these pictures, all the paintings are done with oils on canvas.


Now this is an interesting room.  It’s where the 2000 noblemen met and it’s the largest room in the world that doesn’t have columns to support it.  It’s about the size of half a standard soccer field and it was built in the 1500s.  Also, the painting on the far wall is the largest canvas painting in the world.  It’s about 25 meters wide.


Forget the hotel, this is the Museum California. At least they warned you before you got stuck inside!

Finally, I took many videos going up and down the Grand Canal and I put one of them on Youtube.  It’s only a minute or so and it ends with my favorite view on the Canal.  Enjoy!


Santa Croce and the Medici Chapels


Wow, what a day!  Today we spent the morning with Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo, just to name a few.  Really, truly.  We found all their tombs inside Santa Croce, another incredibly beautiful church in Florence.

After a break for lunch we also explored the Medici Chapels which were covered entirely in semi-precious materials such as jade, quartz, lapis, etc.  The workmanship was spectacular.  As always, pictures are the way to go!


Here’s the outside of Santa Croce.  It’s very similar to the Duomo, but not quite as elaborate.  However, unlike the Duomo, this church is breathtaking on the inside


This is a view from the back.  It’s quite large and contains many important works of art.  But the thing that impressed me the most is the fact it was literally paved with grave markers.  The entire church is an enormous graveyard.

When we were on the Amalfi Coast, we learned that Italians bury their dead within 24 hours and they don’t embalm them.  A couple years later, the body is exhumed and the bones are put in the family vault where generations of the same family can be found.  I think this church is the final resting place of the bones.


Here’s the main altar.  It was hard to get a good picture because the sun was shining brightly through the stained glass.  DSC01490

Just to the side of the altar were 10 alcoves, 5 on each side.  Each one was completely different.  You can see Bob here, surrounded by grave markers.


More of the grave markers.


And here we have Machiavelli’s final resting place.


And here’s Dante — the man who wrote the Divine Comedy.


And here’s Michelangelo.  He lived to be 89 years old, an unheard of age at the time he lived.  He died in Rome and wanted to be buried there, but his body was stolen in the night by several Florentines and he was buried here before anyone in Rome (namely, the Pope) could object.


This is Galileo Galilei.  I was surprised to find him here because I thought he was excommunicated for his scientific findings.



More of the grave markers.  They were literally everywhere. Take a look at the floors. Every tile is marked with who’s lying beneath.


I just liked this poor bored angel.  Although, her long-suffering lion also deserves some sympathy.

Next on our tour was the Pitti Palace, lunch, and San Lorenzos.  But the real show stopper was the Medici Chapels.  They were built in honor of the first several Medici’s who ruled Florence back in the day.  It was also meant to be the place where all the Medici’s would be buried.  To build the chapels, the Medici family sponsored a new kind of art.  They knew frescoes and paintings would eventually fade, so they had the entire inside of the chapels, including all the “paintings” made out of precious and semi-precious stone.  It was stunning. And HUGE!  The main chapel is absolutely enormous.


Here you can see the scale of this chapel compared to the people on the ground.  Enormous doesn’t begin to describe it.  Above what you can see here is another section of wall just as big, then there’s a beautifully done dome.  Everything you see is covered in perfectly fitting stone.





It was impossible to get a photo to do this room justice.  Also, half of it was covered by scaffolding because of restoration work.  Apparently, all that precious stone is held in place with nails and a large panel fell out of the ceiling in 1999.  Since then, renovations have been on-going.

Just in case it wasn’t clear before, the big tomb-like things are . . . tombs.  They hold the first two or three Medici’s that ruled Florence.  They were the good rulers.  The next several (the ones who built this chapel) were real tyrants and hated by the people.  Luckily, they got better after that.  : )



Each of these is close to 2 feet on its long side.  So they aren’t very big, but the colors and detail are stunning. They are made entire out of precisely cut gem stones. There is no grout, they stones fit perfectly together.


Here’s some close ups of the details.  Every color is a different precious or semi-precious stone that’s been cut to fit precisely with the stones around it.  If you ran your hand over the pattern, it is completely smooth. (Except for the last picture where the stones were purposely three dimensional.)  The workmanship is exquisite.  The benefit is the ornamentation will never fade and the chapel will never lose its splendor.

We saw so many other awesome things today, including more at Santa Croce and the Medici Chapels, but it’s just too much to share.  Plan a trip to Florence!  I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Top of the Duomo


Wow, what a trip!  Not only does the top of the Duomo offer an incredible view of Florence, it is also an architectural miracle and we were allowed to climb all over it!

The only way to describe this adventure is with pictures.  But, for perspective, here’s what we did.  Inside the church is a little door that leads to a staircase that climbs straight up.  Up 5 steps, turn, up 3 steps, turn, up 5 steps, turn . . . FOREVER!  It’s about 460 steps to the top; I think that’s the equivalent to a 20 story building.  At some point, the staircase turned into a spiral and when we reached the dome, it got pretty creative.  Keep in mind the stairs were built in about the 1400s when the church was built.

So, here we go!


Here’s the outside of the church.  It has a long part in front and the dome in the back.  Off to the right side in this picture is the tower, which is not attached to the church.   It’s hard to tell that since it is decorated exactly like the church on the outside.

By the way, that little, tiny part sticking up out of the dome — that’s our destination.  It’s called the lantern.


You enter the church through a side door and go through this door.  It’s the one that gives you access to the stairs.


The stairs are narrow and the ceiling is sometimes low.  They highly recommend you skip this if you’re claustrophobic or have a fear of heights.  Very good advice!



The first stop is the balcony, just below the large circular windows.  It gives you a much better view of the ceiling frescoes. Here area a couple of pictures.  The balcony goes all the way around the dome, but only half of it was open.  You had to go around to the other side to pick up the stairs that go up the side of the dome.

To give you an idea, if you look back at the picture of the outside of the church (the one above) you can see one of the round windows at the base of the dome. We were on a balcony just below those windows in the pictures above.


Ha, ha!  I little late for this sign : )  That’s 500 years of graffiti!


Thankfully, we had to stop often on the stairs, especially toward the top.  They pack quite a few people in, so it’s crowded.  Also, at the top, the stairs are shared by those going up and those going down.  Unfortunately, the stairs aren’t big enough to accommodate everyone so you have to find a side niche to stand in while the traffic going the other way passes.  It was quite a shuffle!DSC01407


As you can see, the stairs get tiny in places.  They’re also uneven, steep and they aren’t uniform.  Of course, the lighting is dim, so watch your step!  In the second picture, the one with the person in the red shorts, these stairs take you between the inner dome and the outer dome. You can see how the roof and the floor both curve in the picture.


While waiting for some downward-bound traffic to pass, we got shuttled into a little side area where I saw this room for the people who work up here.  It was tiny.  And God knows where that odd door on the right goes!



Finally!  We made it!  We are standing at the base of the lantern, which is the lynchpin that keeps the dome from collapsing.  In actuality, there are two domes.  The inside one pushes out against the outside dome which keeps it in place.  As I said, it’s an architectural miracle that I don’t completely understand.