Italy 2009, Hilltowns

We picked up our car in Florence and headed out to one of our favorite Italian hilltowns: Pienza. We thought we’d missed our exit off the A-1, then it turned out we didn’t. No, wait. Are you sure? What does that sign mean? You mean the little yellow bumps? That’s a rest stop. Are you sure? I don’t know, try this exit. But it doesn’t say Pienza. But it says Montepulciano. We have to aim there first. Oh, right. Here we go.

The town hall or something in Montepulciano, where we stopped for lunch. We had bruschetta pomodoro (below), and…

Tuscan beans with tomato, and…

Gnocchi with olives and tomatoes and zucchini, or corgette, as they call it around here. There is olive oil drizzled on just about everything here. It’s like the Elixir of Life, I’m convinced.

In every hilltown there are a series of piazzas, or squares. Most have the Duomo, or similar, the town hall, and for the tourists and the local economy: gift shops. Amazingly, we only see one. In Cortona, where we were yesterday afternoon, they had quite a few more, and today we head to Volterra. I’ve already clued Dave in to the fact that I hope to do some more souvenir shopping. Maybe.

Right at the base of Montepulicano is this sweet little church, San Biagio, designed by Sangallo and is a perfectly proportioned circle within a square.

This is one of our favorite little roadside scenes, midway between Pienza and Montalcino.

We were on our way to St. Antimo, an abbey nearby, to hear Vespers, sung (prayed) in Gregorian Chant. It was simple, tonal, the silences in between the prayers causing us to listen more intently. And it was only 20 minutes long–a perfectly compact church service.

St. Antimo, exterior.

Elizabeth, in Cortona with her hat.

Dave, carrying around the tote bag, free from his conference (a real deal and perfect for us on this trip).

Breakfast in Piccolo La Valle, Pienza.

We stopped at a Coop store outside Cortona to pick up lunch. This lemon-peach cookie is what a Twinkie wants to be when it grows up: tender, flavorful sponge cake with a creamy filling and crunchy sugar crystals on the outside.

Hilltowns are filled with narrow passageways, rich color and sometimes, steps.


This group of trees is on a main highway. I tried to photograph it, but we had to go back and forth three times to get it right. I kept getting things like signs…

…in the way. But success!

Dave and Elizabeth, outstanding in their fields.

The view from our balcony this morning, our last day here. We’ve enjoyed this trip and will return home tomorrow, at least our bodies will. Because of jetlag, look for our brains to return sometime Sunday.

Arrivederci!


Italy 2009, Day Four

We’re ready for another walk this morning, so we head over to San Lorenzo to see it before all the carts in the mercado arrive (hopefully). Not quite quick enough. This one looks marooned.

The buildings opposite cast shadows on its rough exterior. Found out why the exterior design by Michelangelo, four years in the making, was never added. They ran out of money. Being from California, I can relate.

Dave’s with me and the little man who opens up the church to cool it down for the day, has several doors open. This series of signs indicates what’s what, especially the small sign to the right: the exterior lighting provided by the Florence Lion’s Club–Borgelle chapter.

This morning, in the quiet and the calm, I obtain a good photo of my favorite painting. That’s not to say that aren’t more worthy paintings in the church. I like Joseph about to place his hand on his son’s head, the fact that they are working together in the workshop, the foreshadowing of the cross.

As a parent I don’t know what will happen to my children, don’t know all of their crosses they will bear, but I like to imagine my hand on their head, and saying what I can only imagine Joseph is saying to his son. For every child it is different, but must include something along the order of wishing to carry their cross for a few lengths while they rest up for the difficult journey ahead. Joseph could no more carry that cross for Jesus than I can carry mine for my children. I only hope that there are workshop moments, where they remember the touch of my hand, laid aside their head.

Back for breakfast, shower and Dave and I make a couple of stops on the way to his conference. First up? Santa Maria Novella. There are some lovely things in here, but of course, no photos. Come to Florence and see for yourself, especially the series of frescoes behind the altar and the cross by Giotto, hanging midway down the nave. Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, a fresco along the left side of the nave is a prime example of his new views on perspective, something he figured out intuitively and would be expanded upon by other Renaissance greats.

We head to Mercato Centrale, a large warehouse-style building, and on the way see a lovely tableau of wild animals advertising a butcher (below).

We buy a belt for Dave at the markets and I tell him about Museum of San Marco, so we hike/head over there, but it’s closed on the 2nd and 4th Mondays. Okey, dokey. I’d checked for regular Monday closings, but just not the other kind of Monday closings.

So, into Santissima Annunziatta again. The priest is saying mass, so we tiptoe to the back to wait by the confessional booths.

Here’s a photo of the bridal bouquets lined up on the altar, a tradition I mentioned in another post. (I took this after the mass was over). I said good-bye to Dave as headed back to Science. I realized that I was going to miss seeing the interior of Santo Spirito AGAIN (missed it last time I was in Florence), so map in hand, tennies on my feet, I booked it across Florence.

Satellite difficulties, Carousel Plaza Repubblica

The guide-lady met breathless me at the door. I held up one hand. “Cinque minuto?” I asked. She nodded. I was in. The church’s interior is similar to San Lorenzo, designed by Brunelleschi again, with its classical gray columns against the white plasterwork. I bought a postcard, looked around, and it was time to go.

It’s a plain-looking church outside, with just the bones of its design to recommend it. Last time I was here was when I was working on my honors thesis as an undergraduate; the project would combine poetry and photography in a handmade book (of which I still have two copies). I took tons of black and white photos of this church and spent hours in the darkroom dodging and burning the old fashioned way, with paper, hand, cardstock, whatever I could find to bring up the crisp contrasting angles of this design.This church is an old friend.

Double Windows Santo Spirito, Florence

Lunchtime brings with it all kinds of choices as a tourist. Do you go the easy route and find a nice restaurant and sit down and have break? Sometimes. Today I investigated those possibilities, but was drawn to this little place, catty-corner from the church. It’s run by this nice woman–love her pizza clock!

Bruschetta Pomodoro.
This was food from the gods, I’m convinced. Paired with a Schweppes lemon soda, I was in heaven. After lunch I hightailed it back in to ask her how it was made, after telling her it was amazin
g! Chopped tomato, olive oil, salt, oregano, fresh bread–toasted, some basil leaves for garnish. For this to work, each ingredient has to do its part: the tomatoes have to taste like tomatoes, the olive oil has to be of high quality and so on. This is why Americans go dotty for European food–it’s the taste! The grand total of this bill was 2.50 euros for the bruschetta (bruss-ketta) and 2 for the drink. But the taste was divine.

I was intrigued by this store, selling seeds, herbs, ingredients, hats, cooking tools. I could buy something Florentine here, I think. I try on hat after hat, the lady helping me. I finally choose one and only later realize it’s very much like my mother’s favorite straw hat. Of course, I don’t look like her in it, because I have a lovely round-round-round face, but I smiled when I thought about it. And yes, it is MADE IN FLORENCE!!

Next up, Brancacci Chapel. I was supposed to have reservations for this. I don’t, I confess to the man behind the window. No problem, he says. There’s a movie I could watch, but I have Rick Steve’s guidebook and feel confident enough with that, so I tell him I’ll watch it afterwards. He points across the cloisters to where they’ll take my money, and after all that, I head up the stairs into a darkened church interior. To my left is the chapel.

Massacio’s frescoes quiet the soul, with their depiction of scenes from the Bible. This one of Adam and Eve in their grief as they are expelled from the garden, is simple, yet I think reflects their agony.

My favorite though is on the left wall, and is The Tribute Money. Not only do I like the subject matter, but the way it’s portrayed is intriguing, with the main scene in the middle and subsequent scenes in that timeline on the left and on the right. Head to the link, as my photos don’t do it justice.

Oltrarno Gate, Florence, Italy August 2009

This is the site of another outstanding experience in history: its where Elizabeth finally purchased her real live leather purse from Italy. (And Christine, it’s yellow-gold!) I’ve mentioned–no, moaned–to Dave that for all the times we’ve been to Italy, I’ve never gotten a real live leather purse. Oh, I bought one in Venice last trip, which I firmly believe was made in China even though it says MADE IN ITALY on the front. It looks like all the other ones in the markets.

But this one is supple, beautiful leather with a cool handle. Another life milestone achieved. When I stopped at another shop, she saw my bag from Roberts and said, “Roberts have nice fabric.” I agree, even though I think she meant leather.

Santa Felicita Church is the next-to-last official stop of the day, where outside is this little car. Inside, Pontormo’s Descent from the Cross hangs in a teensy little alcove to the right of the front door. One euro will illuminate it for a long time.

Pontormo was one of the Mannerists and his wierd combinations of colors and supple skewed limbs are a hallmark of that style. I love this painting too, having seen it the first time after taking two Art History classes at RCC, my local community college from a 70-year old woman who had no degree in art, but instead had a passion for it, which she communicated aptly to me. I wrote lists of things to see while in Florence that year, and this was one we had studied in class.

But seeing slides of it in a darkened classroom can’t prepare you for how the painting looks in real life. It’s stunner, which still moves me.

Last stop: Santa Croce. I come upon it from an angle.

They let you take photos in here–just no flash, which I think is a more reasonable approach. This is Michelangelo’s tomb. The common belief is that he would have hated it, tricked up as it is. He was more about simplicity, I think.
I wish now that I would have taken photos of Galileo’s tomb, since today is the 400th anniversay of the invention of the telescope. (Thanks, Google.)

See the open window? That’s air conditioning, Santa Croce-style.

The light from the stained glass window casts colorful rays across this fresco of Mary heading to the church.

Cloister views above and below.

Beyond tired, with every part of me sore and achy and very very hot, I don’t even have enough energy to walk up to get a granita, THAT’s how tired I am. It’s five
o’clock, but I’ve done everything on my list, including getting a purse. I can now leave Florence happy, right after tonight when I hope to convince Dave to get me one more granita.

Dinner? We do a re-run at the restaurant near Santa Croce (don’t worry, I took a break for a while).

To get there, we cut through Plaza della Signoria, with its Palazzo Veccchio building, all aglow in the evening sun (this is what we were waiting for last night, but we were off by a day for the Florence Glow-Show).

This cop car made its way down the pedestrian street, pulled over and the two policement went into the Gelato Shop. I guess they don’t do donuts here.

Two Davids. But mine’s the real one (the other is a replica of what’s in the Accademia).

First course for me: melon and proscuitto.

For Dave it was a salad of peccorino cheese, walnuts and pears atop a mound of greens.

He had a pasta dish with Tuscan sausage and black truffle. Love the perky little rosemary twig for garnish.

I had what he chose last night: homemade orecchiette pasta, tossed with arugula, basil, tomato and topped with fresh grated ricotta cheese. Yes, it was the texture of mozzerella, and delicious.

On the way home, we stopped at the latest, most trendy, gelato store: GROM, and ate our teensy servings on the steps of the Duomo. And yes, we found the energy to walk up and buy a granita: strawberry and almond.

We shared, happily.

Italy 2009, Day Two

We began the hot Florence day in the early morning, beating out the nine gazillion other tourists down to the Duomo and Baptistry. I think I counted five other people, besides the garbarge and street cleaner trucks out there in the plaza.
Duomo front door.

Directly across from the Duomo is the baptistry with its door of bronze (that are golden). Michelangelo was so impressed with the designs that he called these the Gates of Heaven. The reliefs are vivid and interesting, as in this panel, where Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

Standing beside the Duomo is a capanille called “Giotto’s Tower,” although I’m sure that’s the slang name.

The street carts are heading out to ambush the tourists. I read somewhere that most of the goods available in the markets are from South America, designed in Italy, and sold by foreigners. I began to despair of ever finding a suitable souvenir as one of my requirements is that I be reasonably sure that it was made somewhere in Italy.

Street cleaner.

Plaza della Signoria where the crenelated upper walls denote the Palazzo Vecchio.
Ponte Vecchio bridge. I like how the backsides of the shops are pushed out, held by struts over the water.
Luccheti d’amore.
These locks, lovers locks as they are known, testify to the love between two star-crossed, hormonally driven teenagers who against the regulations of Florence (and chancing a 50 euro fine) lock these onto the monument to Benuto Cellini then toss the keys into the river, kind of like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.
Back to the Plaza della Signoria and the statue The Rape of the Sabine, one of my favorite statues because of the twisting, turning sinuous shapes and the ability of the sculptor to portray compressed flesh, which must be very difficult to do in marble.


Back to the hotel, and breakfast!

I head past a traditional open air market on the way to my cooking class.

I guess it’s like color in the blanks, if you go over the same spot every day, your art washed clean in the morning by the street sweepers.

Cups of fresh fruit share the gelato cases.

And here are my classmates at the in Tavola cooking school (which means on the table). Two energetic cooks actually got seventeen of us to turn out a lunch of two kinds of homemade ravioli and fresh orecchiette pasta.

The first 1o or so were torture to make, but about the time I had shaped 50 of them, I was doing better.

My turn at the pasta machine. Chad, I will reveal all my secrets to you on Elizabeth’s Kitchen when I get home, even how to get it to go through the #6 setting with ease.

The orecchiette, with fresh tomato sauce.

Ravioli #1, with an eggplant-ricotta filling (which was good).

Ravioli #2, which we shaped into little bundles–it was stuffed with potato (not my favorite).

And we had Panna Cotta for dessert, and yes we made that too. Recipes to follow.

le="text-align:center;">Rachel, originally from United Kingdom, is currently living in Florence, but hails from Tucson Arizona, where she had lived for 20 years; she’s returning there next month. Small world. Her mother sat at our table along with a woman from Great Britain and we had an invigorating discussion on health care.

Finally made it into San Lorenzo cathedral, and I was rewarded with this sublime ordering of architectural elements. Delicious.

And one of my favorite paintings, St. Joseph with Jesus. I like how the board they are working on in Joseph’s shop extends upward into the light and shadows as a portent of the cross. It was painted in 1966, and seems to be one of the few contemporary art works in these churches.
So my entry ticket was good for the treasury too, but no photos. I had to sneak this one. I know it’s blurry, but you try and focus and turn off the flash and turn off the sound while the Photo Police are lurking in the next room. This reliquary has flourishes, silver lillies, scrolls, cherubs, leaves, garlands, a crown and rubber band to hold in the locket on the little guy’s chest.

I just had to show you the rubber band. I know now why San Lorenzo charges for entry–apparently like all the other churches, but maybe not enough. A rubber band. That’s the kind of home repairs we do around our house sometimes too. It endears this whoever to me, the person who chose a rubber band as their fixit-tool of choice.

We met up with some colleagues and former post-docs of Dave’s and all went to dinner at ZaZa, where we had a three soup sampler of Tuscan favorites, and a dish of mushroom fettucini. Too bad I forgot to take photos, but we were hungry.

It’s on the plaza near the Mercato Centrale, so the eating is outdoorsy, and every once in a while we (thankfully) had a breeze. This shot is the series of tables next to us, with fun colored lights.

The gang. All in white (well Dave’s shirt is a light plaid, but it photographed white).
Night!

Italy 2009, Day One

Flying from LAX to SFO to Frankfurt to Florence–whoops! The pilot came on the intercom and said “blahblahblah Bologna blahblahblah Diversion blahblahblah Busses.”

From the excited voice of the Italian lady behind me, I was to assume this was NOT a good thing. We were diverted to Bologna (The pilot told me “We couldn’t land because the wind was coming from the wrong direction.” A scientist, traveling to Dave’s conference later told me “He couldn’t land because this was a code share with Dolomiti. Welcome to Italy.”) and after milling around for an hour another voice came on the intercom and said “Blahblahblah busses primero blahblahblah taxi stand.”

Here we are milling around Bologna. Notice on the left the black tube on that lady’s back? That’s how I knew that group were scientists, traveling with their poster tube to ICEM, the conference Dave’s at. I was really happy to see them. You can depend on scientists. I shared a cab with one and the cranky cab driver: “Notta two fares! One fare!” Oh yeah–well I’m not hopping around Florence alone at 10 o’clock at night, after being in the fascinating Bologna airport, the hour-long bus ride over the Appennine Mountains–or under them in a succession of tunnels–in a giant bus gliding within inches of large square trucks while coming down a mountain.

Well, I made it. I kept thinking. I spent hours on hold and talking to AT&T so I could use my phone in Italy and then I couldn’t figure it out? I ended up borrowing a phone from the guy beside me (paid him 2 euros) to call and leave a message at the hotel. Wild.

This is the view out our bedroom window. We have a winner in this hotel, not only for its location (2 blocks from the Duomo) and its view…

. . .but also for its breakfasts on a terrace with the view below.

Breakfast. Rolls, fresh–check. Fruit–check. Egg dish thing–check. Bacon/sausage thing–check. Blood orange juice–check. Pastry–check. Yummy–check! The other menu item that was amazing was a very soft cheese, displayed like a opaque white firm jello mold with sculpted sides. It was cheese-like but sweet.

I walked Dave to his Congresso place where the ICEM conference was being held, and on the way back saw lots of bikes, some chained to the window grates.

Love the colors here.
Curious, I head down to the Duomo, in the heat. By the way, did I mention that Cairo, Egypt was 100 degrees yesterday? So was Florence. I was also looking for hair spray, because after all my lists and planning and packing–I forgot the hair spray. Lacque, is what I think it’s called and the first two shops by the Duomo wanted 10 euro for a small bottle. Yeah, right. That’s about 15 bucks, American money. Finally found some later for about 2 euro.

Looks good. I’m wondering how many of these cups of gelato I can eat and not keel over from a heart attack. We’ll see.

Guys waiting to sell original artwork to unsuspecting tourists. This year’s crop of pictures are large, and all include draped nudes, a la Hugh Hefner. Whatever happened to Italian scenery?

I feel your pain. She has held up that piece of the wall for centuries now. I’m reminded of the front of the church in Orvieto, but Orvieto’s cathedral has more golds and reds. The Duomo is in greens, pinks and white. Someday I’ll have to post those 2007 pictures from that other Italy trip. Yep, some day.

Walked past this on my way to find an ATM, the other necessity for tourists. There’s always a moment of panic when you insert your card: will you get it back, or will the machine eat it? Or will they treat it as a cash advance and start charging you big bucks? I talked to the lady at the Tourist Information Center and she said it’s called an International Transfer, or something like that, and gave me the name of three banks. Only she said DON’T go to one of them. She’s thorough. I obeyed and got some money.

Since I’ve stood in lines for the David and for the Uffizi before, I decided to skip those and look at some lesser known places. This was a former convent: Cenacolo de Sant’Appollonia and one wall has Castagno’s Last Supper. There’s a lot of Last Suppers around Italy.

Exit doorway for the Accademia. Love the roundrel over the door coupled with the grotesque mask-like painting inside.
This is from the interior of the church of the Santissima Annunziata, from 1444. Newlyweds bring their wedding bouquets here to ensure a happy marriage. There were a few around the other side.
Lunch, from a mercado consisted of fresh foccacia bread with mortadella. I bought tomatoes and let
tuce on the side to add, along with a gala apple and a bottle of the Medici’s finest water. I ate in the plaza just outside the church, a pleasant way to spend a few minutes on some shady steps.

Then over to the San Marco museum to see the Fra Angelico frescos. He was a monk here, and considered painting to be a form of prayer. That observation from Rick Steve’s guidebook, made me think about the concentration it takes for the creative arts. Fra Angelico made his prayerful painting a main part of his life. Coming up the stairs to the monk’s cell, the famous The Annunciation greets you. It is amazing–so much better in person. This was worth the whole trip to Florence, even if I never see another thing. I swayed back and forth, just like the guidebook said, to see the angel’s wings sparkle from the glitter mixed into the fresco. Oh my. The depiction below is from the web, because I was trying to adhere to their no photo rule, but it was okay to take pictures of the outside.

This was the Medici’s cell where they prayed. It felt sort of outside–what can I say? They had signs everywhere announcing that the upstairs (where all the monk’s cells were) would close at 1:40 and the whole San Marco museum would close at 1:50. So while I’m standing in the gift shop, buying my postcards at 1:20 p.m. the saleslady starts draping everything with her red tablecloths. Okey dokey. The tourist next to me mutters under her breath, “Welcome to Italy.” I selected mine quickly and beat my way out of there.
From the sublime to the giftshop.

The massive lines for the Duomo had disappeared, so I went in and did my tourist thing. It’s basically a big empty church, with tons of tourists, including the American girl (why is it always Americans?) trying to argue her way out of wearing a “poncho” made out of that cheapy recycled stuff. It’s posted EVERYWHERE that there are no bare shoulders in churches, and she was trying to convince the guard that this wasn’t really a church. Just put the poncho on, sweetheart.

Duomo, outside. It’s real name is the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori.

The Baptisty.

Duomo, front. Did I mention the crowds? Oh, there’s some crowds here, but I was feeling pretty good then, because I’d had a granita: basically a highly flavored icy thing, that is slushy and you eat it with a spoon. I had peach mingled with lemon. Their lemon is very tart, but it was really refreshing up against the sweet peach. I avoided having a gelato with this, but I wasn’t disappointed at all–it was just perfect for this very hot day in Florence.

After a break, I decided to go and see the church behind us, San Lorenzo. It’s an interesting church, somewhat noble in character, but surrounded but TONS of carts selling genuine made in Florence Indian scarves, belts, earrings, pashmina, sunglasses (I’ll bet you didn’t know Florence had a sunglass factory too!) and all other worldly goods, but all handmade right here in Florence.I think Dave would really be styling with some checkerboard belts.

I kept thinking of the time when Christ cleared the moneychangers and others from the temple. Not that these guys are in the temple, but it just crossed my mind. I’ll bet the people in the church would love to have a fraction of the day’s receipts to spiff the inside of San Lorenzo–but it would be an uneasy partnership at best.

The front of the church. Apparently there was a design by Michelangelo, but obviously it never was added.

We went out to dinner with one of Dave’s former post-docs, Drew, and his fiancee, Lisa.

Dave and I shared a mixed salad first, then he had rigatoni, and I, the gnocchi verdi (below).


Then we split the swordfish with potatoes. After dinner, we all walked over to the Duomo area, joining in the other one billion strolling Florentines and tourists. It’s still hot, but we’re tired, so pass up their offer for some gelato and head back to the hotel.