Friday, May 6, 2011

Italy Day 1: Pisa and Florence Outdoor Exploration

Sunday, May 1

We had arrived in Pisa on Saturday night, April 30, and stayed at a wonderful "hotel" outside the Pisa airport.  It turned out to be an Italian couple's home.  We walked into their reception room, in this case, their kitchen, to get our key and pay.  The couple was extremely accommodating, especially given our late night arrival. 

We got up the next morning having to catch a bus to Florence.  But, we wanted to see the Leaning Tower and take our cliche picture.  We jumped in a cab, toured the "Field of Miracles" and returned back to the airport for our next connection.  We arrived at the perfect time to the otherwise tourist-mobbed site.  There was not a cloud in the sky, and the green grass of the Field of Miracles was striking.  We started with a photoshoot of the Leaning Tower and continued around the campus, reading about its history and architectural elements.  The layout would be almost identical to the corresponding domed cathedral in Florence.  There was a (1) bell tower (Leaning Tower), (2) Duomo (domed cathedral), and (3) separate domed Baptistery.  Pisa is the first town as you enter the expansive Arno River from the Mediterranean.  Thus, during the Renaissance, the powerful port financed the construction of this beautiful set of religious buildings.  As we discovered, all the structures are leaning a bit due to the marshy grass they sit on.  The Leaning Tower had begun with a heavy foundation, which challenged a series of architects in balancing the top.  It leans five degrees today, sturdy as ever after an extensive renovation in the past several years.

As we left Pisa, we made our way down the Arno River to Florence, admiring along the way the great Tuscan countryside.  I was blown away by its overall appearance: rich green evergreen-looking trees.  Before long we had arrived in a city that reminded us of Sevilla.  Florence thrives as a modern city with a historic center with plenty of locals sharing their streets with tourists.  In no way did it feel like the tourist amusement park of Venice.  After checking into our hotel, we devoted the whole day to exploring the streets.  We had miraculously planned all of our museum visits for Monday when it would rain.  Lucky.  We caught a Tuscan sandwich lunch at a phenomenal hole-in-the-wall before beginning.

The following is the list of sites along the way:
1.  The Duomo: We could not help but to admire the heart of Florence first.  The Duomo was begun during the Renaissance, modeled after the extraordinary domed Pantheon in Rome, completed during ancient Roman times.  The cathedral stood uncompleted for 300 years.  In the 1800's, the Italian unification inspired the speedy completion of the structure.  The resulting lavish adornment of the facade is breathtaking to many who see it.  To the Italians, it is tacky, as if mass-produced in a factory.  Like in Pisa, the Duomo is accompanied by a bell tower (the Campanile) and a Baptistery.  We admired the exteriors of both.  Unlike the Duomo, the Campanile is known as the most beautiful bell tower in Europe. It features four statues by Donatello.  The Baptistery features one of the most famous doors. Ghiberti sculpted ten religious panels on the bronze door, having won the commission in a contest.  The man he defeated would instead focus his energies on designing the Duomo (fate).  Seeing the three-hour-wait line for entry into the Duomo, we decided to skip it.  After all, we had heard that the church had been stripped on all of its contents after the 1966 flood.  If only the other tourists knew. 

2.  San Lorenzo Leather Market - Nicole and Clara were eager to explore the famous leather market of Florence.  After some haggling, they left with a few accessories and wallets for gifts. 

3.  Medici-Riccardi Palace - We stumbled upon the first home to the most powerful Florence family near the leather market.  We entered to find a sculpture courtyard and garden where Michelangelo spent time studying the classics.  The Medici family had made their riches in the textiles and banking businesses.  They ruled Renaissance Florence with a stiff hand, but they also financed much of the art that fueled the period.  Recognizing the talent of the 13-year-old Michelangelo, they adopted him and supported his rise as leader of the Renaissance artists. The highlight was seeing the Medici private chapel inside, a tiny room room of frescoes.  We also enjoyed the Riccardi family's Versailles-like additions to the home, including a Medici-ascending-to-heaven giant fresco. 

4.  Maria Santa Novella Church - This church, indicative of the overall style of Renaissance Florence churches was not what I was expecting.  It seemed to have a lego-like facade with its many geometric shapes and alternating color patterns.  Inside we enjoyed a fresco of Dante's Inferno (three tiers, heaven, purgatory, and hell) and the first "3-D painting" (a illusion of a chapel painted on the wall). 

5.  Ponte Vecchio - Needing an energy boost we headed to the Arno river for gelato, before our next leg of sites.  The local favorite nearby gave us a taste of the real deal, the best I have ever had.  I chose wild berry, seeing that it had actually been made from pureed wild berries.  The Ponte Vecchio bridge is a covered bridge that the Medici family used to connect their government building to their palatial estate.  What had been a fish market on the bridge became a gold and silver market (that still exists today) thanks to the "fishy smell"-sensitive Medici children. 

6.  Pitti Palace - This palatial estate of the Medici is in the similar style of the aforementioned Medici-Riccardi Palace.  An austere stone exterior deceives you.  We did not enter, but instead admired it and continued to the nearby Santo Spirito church with its strange blank facade. 

At this point, it was time for a sit-down Italian dinner.  The girls had chosen a Rick Steves-recommendation that featured traditional Tuscan fare.  Everyone left the restaurant happy, having eaten well for a good price.  Clara was head-over-heels with the place because of its exceptional house red wine.  I enjoyed my traditional Tuscan antipasti salad of white beans and soppressata (a type of cured Italian ham), but was underwhelmed with the pasta.  But, it did not matter given the great company and relaxing environment. 

7.  After dinner we soaked in the night scene at the Palazzo Vecchio, the government center of the Medici family.  Next to it is the loggia, a public forum turned sculpture gallery.  I was blown away; I have never been so interested in sculpture.  The quality here was something special. 

We returned to our hotel to find no one at the reception.  That meant no towels for us the next morning.  Glad we did not have an emergency beyond that.  I don't know how we would have reached someone.  The most puzzling hotel experience I have had in Europe.  No problem, we would leave the next day.

To see pictures of this day, click "Italy Day 1 - Pisa and Florence (5-1)" at

No comments:

Post a Comment