Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Headed East

Getting out of Florence the next morning proved difficult:  an accident on the motorway had traffic backed up halfway to the city center.  But eventually we escaped the Tuscan capital and headed East towards Bologna.

My first goal was to see the oldest continually operating university.  Their original building is now the public library, with several of the halls left as they were in the Middle Ages.  Nice to see that professors got their own shields.  There's a tradition I could see reviving!
This is also where the Anatomical Theatre was located, where physicians used to dissect cadavers under the watchful eyes of the clergy, who made sure nothing inappropriate went on.

Next stop in Bologna was the Basilica of Saint Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order.  This is a gorgeous building, as befits the final resting place of the saint.  Unfortunately, the traffic in Florence meant an abbreviated stop in Bologna, so it was back to the bus.

The next stop was Padua, which has a delightful central park surrounded by a canal that is the second largest square in Europe.  Passing through this area, "the group" headed toward the Basilica of Saint Anthony, yet another popular pilgrimage destination.  The monument over the tomb of the saint inside was magnificent.  What differentiates this place from others I saw was the number of domes, six if I remember correctly.  But what I found most interesting was the statue of the saint in a side courtyard.  Visitors visitors must have been shaking hands with Saint Anthony for luck or blessings.
Leaving Bologna, we headed for the hotel outside Venice.  That night, after dinner, we took a boat to the main square, Piazza San Marco.  Finally, a name I can get into!  Since it was high tide, and Venice is slowly sinking into the sea, the north end of the square was covered with water.  Wading time!

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The fact that the Italian cities were their own states for so long makes them great places to visit. Each one tried to outdo the others in grandeur, art, and all around magnificence.

Florence, of course, has a few aces up its sleeve. The first is Michelangelo's David, which stood outside in a public square for centuries before being moving indoors for its protection. The statue was everything I believed it to be: a dominating presence that seems so fluid, so lifelike, that it is hard to imagine that this is solid marble. This was another museum where pictures were not allowed, which in this case was kind of nice, since it meant that everyone was actually looking at the statue rather than trying to get pictures of friends and family with it in the background.

The second ace is the Duomo of Florence, with every inch of the exterior covered by carvings and mosaics. The fabulous bell tower is a separate building, as is the baptistery built later (that's the striped building you can just see a bit of on the left). But for true height, you have to climb to the top of the central Dome, which affords a 360 degree view of the city below.

The third (and last) stop in Florence that I had time for was Basilica di Santa Croce. Here some of the most illustrious inhabitants of Florence are interred. Galileo, Marconi, Machiavelli, and of course Michelangelo are just part of the tombs that line the walls.

For the remainder of the afternoon, the tour headed to Pisa, and the famous Piazza di Miracoli--the Square of Miracles. Like the Florence Duomo, this really consists of three separate buildings, the main Cathedral, the Bapistery, and the bell tower constructed later. Of course, the bell tower was the ill fated one of the three, whose gradual sinking into the soil gave rise to one of Italy's greatest landmarks: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After touring the Cathedral and Basilica, I went over to try to get the standard picture every tourist is required to take. Fortunately, I had met a pair of Australian women on the tour, May and Carol, and they were able to help me out.  (The keen eyed among you will note the distinctive outline of my Lonely Planet Italian phrasebook in my left pocket.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Heading north

Leaving Rome in a little car is a trick, leaving it with a 60 person bus is just amazing.  But our driver successfully navigated the vehicle our tour guide nicknamed "The Monster" through five hotel pickups and then we were on our way. 

First stop was the town of Assisi, home to St. Francis, or should I say San Francesco.  In 1228, two years after the death of the saint, the new order decided to build a Basilica in Assisi.  This was the first major religious building I saw in Italy, and it was far from the last.

Assisi itself is set upon the side of a hill, which makes the town proper a series of switchbacks aligned with the old Roman walls.  On one end is the Basilica, with wonderful views over the valley below.  Inside there are frescoes which mark a shift in subject:  instead of purely religious figures, they show the common people instead.  It has multiple levels, the original, the crypt below where the saints body is entombed, and a more airy upper level built later.  Like many Italian holy buildings, photos were not permitted inside.  A quick stop for lunch and then we were on our way.

The next stop was Siena, set in the middle of Tuscany.  Once a major crossroads, the buildings constructed during the Renaissance heyday are wonderful.  The centerpiece is The Duomo.  Every major city in Italy has a Duomo, which was the most important church in the city.
 Every place I visited seemed to have a unique feature:  in the case of the Siena Duomo it was the wonderful floor tilings.  This is where being part of a tour is unfortunate, I wish that I had more time to explore the museums in the historic center, or climb the tower in the Piazza del Campo.  Next time!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Roam if you want to

Rome!  The Eternal City!  Like most tourists arriving somewhere for the first time, I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel, and gawked at the scenery.  The main road to the center of Rome goes right past old Roman walls, churches, and even the Colosseum in all its magnificent ruined glory.  That's what I came to see!

So even though my plane was late and I did not get to my hotel until about 5:00, I immediately headed out to see some sights.  Despite it being a Sunday, shops were still open (including the little tourist info booth) and sightseers were thronging around.  I walked down about half a mile to where the main archaeological attractions were.  You can get a great view of the old Roman buildings from the top of the hill, too bad it was getting too late to do the close up tour.  Still, it really was great just walking around soaking up history.  Tomorrow my Italian tour would begin!