Wednesday, October 11, 2017

San Jimmy G

Before visiting San Gimignano, what I knew about the town was basically: looks nice, on a hill, lots of towers. After visiting, I can say: looks nice, on a hill, lots of towers, lots of tourists, great cathedral. After doing a little research right this second, I can add: it's been a World Heritage Site since 1990, it used to have 72 towers at its height, but now only has 14. Same reason as Bologna, wealthy families competing to have the best and highest towers until eventually the city council put a stop to it. But why was this small town wealthy and important enough to support 72 rich, tower-crazed families?

The town was named after St Geminianus of Modena, who persuaded followers of Attila the Hun to spare the city's castle from destruction in 450 AD. It became a stopping point on the pilgrimage to Rome and on agricultural trade, particularly in saffron and wine. Its growth was halted by the Black Death, which killed about half its population, and it came under Florentine domination and subsequently declined. This, similar to the changing financial fortunes of Bruges, helped to preserve it in time as a charming medieval town and therefore a tourist honeypot.

On the busy main street

I noted on my itinerary that the Duomo (it's actually the "Collegiate Church", for the record) had "pretty frescoes", but I don't think I had seen any pictures of the interior before our visit. It is stunning, and would be enough to warrant a visit even without the medieval streets and towers. The 14th century frescoes are divided into tales from the New and Old Testaments, recounting key bible stories to illiterate churchgoers. We got an audioguide with our ticket which, albeit narrated by a very boring and longwinded man, had a lot of good details which really helped to focus and take in all the different scenes.

Grumpy because I had to wear a cape of shame to cover up my sinful shoulders

Worth the shame cape

Job's house collapses in an earthquake - in the Bible it was caused by "a mighty wind", but apparently earthquakes struck more of a chord in this region

The Last Judgement

The New Testament frescoes

Old Testament frescoes with animals and the creation of Eve

More trouble for poor old Job
Post-duomo, we had a fairly dry and disappointing porchetta sandwich (the Italians do many culinary things well, but I still maintain that when it comes to baking - sweet and savoury - the French clearly have the edge) and then walked up to the Rocca di Montestaffoli to get some views of the city, passing a Dante on the way (dressed like the poet and reciting the Inferno in Italian from memory - or at least that's what he purported to be doing, could have been reading a soup recipe for all I know)

While we snapped some pretty photos in this part of the city, I knew I'd seen photos online that showed the whole skyline from a distance. I thought maybe we'd have to drive far out of the city to get a good perspective, but after a bit of googling, I discovered you could walk out of the south gate and on to the Via Vecchia per Poggibonsi and get the shot from there. That meant a little bit of an uphill climb on the way back, but luckily there was a gelato stop just inside the city walls.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Florentine fancies

On our second day in Florence, we continued the theme of visiting slightly less-known attractions with a trip to the Palazzo Vecchio. In fact, the Palazzo Vecchio is so obscure (to me, at least), that I now realise I named all my photos from the visit as being taken at the Pitti Palace, which I visited on my 2009 trip. I'm probably just underinformed, but I don't remember hearing about the Palazzo Vecchio at all before planning this trip, which is crazy, because plop it down almost anywhere else in the world and it would be a star attraction.

It's not exactly flying under the radar location-wise either. It's right there next to the Uffizi, with the (replica) statue of David plonked in front of it. I suppose it just gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbours, including the bridge with which it shares its name.

Even if you don't go inside, while you're in the neighbourhood you should peep into the beautiful entrance courtyard for free.

We got up bright and early to be there when it opened and avoid ticket queues. We got the "everything" ticket, including climbing the tower and visiting the archaeological dig below the palace. Unless you're a huge fan of old rocks, you can skip the archaeological part. It wasn't very visually impressive and although they called it a "guided tour", turns out the "guide" was an app that they expected you to download in an Italian basement.

Next, continuing our reverse visit strategy to beat the crowds, it was up the tower for a lovely view of Florence. Make sure you get some pics from the battlements further down, because at the top you unfortunately can't see all that much due to walls and guardrails. Made me miss my Bologna tower!

You get a wonderful view of the Duomo from up there

View of Santa Croce

That box ticked off, we made our way top-down through the palace. It was built in the late 13th/early 14th century and extensively modelled for the Medicis by Vasari, to reflect a new use as official residence and seat of government (as opposed to the actual home of the Medicis). The palace boasts a massive great hall, the Salone dei Cinquecento, various state rooms, chapels, and a series of rooms each dedicated to a different member of the Medici family. Most of the decorating budget seems to have gone on the ceilings. Almost every room has a different and very elaborate ceiling - I left with a crick in my neck!


Ghirlandaio annunciation

Chapel decorated by Bronzino

View of the great hall
Ceiling in the great hall

In the hall of maps

I thought the patriotic lion might be English, but I think he turned out to be Florentine somehow

Beautiful open-air terrace. Imagine having your morning coffee here!
We wandered over to the other side of the Arno for lunch and gelato, and then the afternoon was spent at the Bargello. This was not originally on my list of things to see, but we walked past and decided it looked pretty cool from the glimpses you could get from outside, and pretty empty. I'm not such a huge fan of sculpture, to be honest, but it was in a nice building and worth a look. Plus there was also some decorative arts - ivory carvings, ceramics, goldsmithery etc., which were more to my taste.
Jules models for his armour

This was cool - there was long a story that Giotto depicted Dante in a fresco at the Bargello. It was turned into a prison and the walls whitewashed and the fresco lost, only rediscovered in the 19th century. It seems these days there is some debate over whether it is an actual Giotto fresco or just by his workshop. But if it is Dante (in red, above the kneeling man in the foreground), it's the oldest known portrait of him.
Exquisite ivory carvings showing knights attacking the castle of Love. I think Jules dreads seeing ivories, because I never miss the opportunity to have a moan about how the stupid royals want to destroy them all

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Michelangelo's Bacchus


Our final cultural activity in Florence was a trip to the opera. This was actually my birthday present, only about 10 months late. We took a taxi since the opera's in a new building quite a long way from the centre of town. We left plenty of time since they don't admit anyone after the doors close, and it's lucky we did, since only a few minutes into our journey our cabbie suddenly pulled to the side of the road... flat tire. As we waited for another taxi to turn up, I felt as though we were in the Amazing Race or something (is it me, or do they have an unusual amount of car trouble?), but even allowing for crawling rush hour traffic we managed to turn up on time. The opera was Puccini's La Bohême which, to be honest, wasn't my favourite thing ever. I'm no opera buff, but I think I figured out I prefer the big, bombastic style operas (I've seen Aida, The Marriage of Figaro and Rigoletto in the past, and enjoyed them). This was a little too quotidien for me (*spoilers* the deathbed scene aside) and the plot didn't really seem to hang together - there's a random group of children who turn up to sing a song and then disappear again, and someone does a whole aria about his coat. But, you know, still good to get a bit of extra Italian culture.

All fancy for the opera