Uphill in Rome

The magic of Rome is that you can just round a corner and see the Coliseum or St. Peter’s or some other iconic image. I’m always amazed to fins myself in a situation like that.

Last fall as I was telling the multi-part story of our trip to Italy, life and “the holidays” got in the way, so here is my post about returning to Rome. I hope you enjoy it! (You can read about our earlier stops in Tuscany here and Florence here.)

Rome was our last stop in Italy. As with Florence, it was not our first visit. Last year we toured the Vatican Museums, the Borghese Gallery, and the Forum. It was fun going back with some of the tourist pressure off.

We took the highspeed  train from Florence to Rome and checked into the Residenza di Ripetta, where we stayed last year. We love this hotel; it’s elegant yet comfortable and ideally situated between Rome’s Piazza di Popolo and the Spanish Steps. It’s just a few short blocks from the Via Corso, perfect for enjoying the daily passeggiata before stopping for dinner in one of the small, local restaurants in the neighborhood.

Checking off another Papal Basilica

There are four Papal major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s in the Vatican; St. John Lateran, which predates St. Peter’s and which we visited last year; St. Paul Outside the Walls; and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. We had seen St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, so we decided to visit at least one more and Santa Maria Maggiore looked like it was within walking distance of our hotel.

In reality, the church was really only kind of in “walking distance.”

Rome is built on seven hills. What I have been trying to figure out, for two visits now, is why no matter where we are in Rome, we are always walking uphill. AND, if you are going downhill, you are probably navigating ancient, steep, stone stairs. It’s a puzzle.

 

We came upon Santa Maria di Maggiore from behind and there was no signage. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. Then we walked around to the front and found the entrance and the requisite security screening.

Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the fifth century and served as the temporary Palace of the Popes after the the Avignon Papacy. Knowing this history I expected it to occupy a distinguished setting, but actually it just appears in an old Roman neighborhood, surrounded by cobblestones that set it apart from the surrounding street. Because Santa Maria Maggiore is a papal basilica, it is used by the Pope, especially on certain holy days.

Michelangelo’s Moses, intended to be part of a larger  monument to Pope Julius II, remains in this basilica as part of the Pope’s tomb.

From here we walked (mostly uphill and then up a remarkable set of stairs) to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli), built in the fifth century to house the relic of chains believed to have bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This minor basilica is home to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, a massive work.

Taking a museum break

Rome is a lot more than churches.

Capitoline Museums on Capitoline Hill (another hill!) house an amazing assortment of secular art and artifacts that reflect Rome’s history. Once two palaces facing a piazza, the site was redesigned by Michelangelo in 1536. We loved seeing this side of Rome, especially after our previous “day of churches.” But for me, the real star of the day was the view of the Forum and other ruins from Capitoline Hill as we walked out of the buildings.

 

Looking down on the Forum from the top of Capitoline Hill. We toured the Forum last year, but seeing it from above made me appreciate the extent and sophistication of the ancient site even more. It’s much more extensive than our tour. Perhaps a reason to go back.
These ruins across from the Capitoline Museums, including the Forum of Augustus and Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Forum, are currently fenced off but appear to be even more sophisticated in design.

The Vatican’s Mosaic Workshop

On our last day in Rome we went to the Vatican for a tour of St. Peter’s and the mosaic studios. (And you thought we were done with churches!) We had toured the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, ending with St. Peter’s, last year. But that tour happened to fall on a national holiday and coincided with a special Papal audience. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other visitors the entire time.

This year we were hoping for a better experience and, boy, did we get it.

Steve found a tour that included the Vatican Mosaic Studio online with Viator. We joined just one other couple and our very knowlegeable guide early that morning. Contrary to the tour’s description, the guide started our tour in the Mosaic Studio so we would better appreciate the art we would see in the basilica. He knew what he was doing; the studio director took over and led the four of us into what I can only describe as a true atelier or studio, this one devoted to the preservation of the precious (and priceless) Vatican mosaics as well as the creation of newly commissioned pieces.

The studio is discretely located in one of the buildings in the Vatican complex. We began in a room that for all practical purposes was part conference room with a center table for display and part gallery, with a variety of mosaic pieces arrayed around the periphery. Sadly, photos were not allowed. The pieces are ancient and modern, sacred and secular. I assumed that the studio’s purpose was to maintain and/or repair the hundreds of square meters of mosaics in the Vatican. While this is true, the studio also produces new works that the Pope often presents as gifts to distinguished visitors and accepts private commissions from around the world. For example, once we stepped beyond this small gallery into the actual workspace, we saw one artist working on mosaic reproduction of a Monet painting.

In order to perfectly repair the Vatican mosaics the space also accommodates a mosaic library of the stones and colors used in all its artworks. These archives are stunning in both their simplicity and their extent. We were also allowed into another work space housing a small kiln where artists can fire the exact color necessary to complete a new work. There is no part of the mosaic process that is not painstakingly created and/or cared for. And of course, care is evident in every piece the studio creates. I’m not an artist, but I do like to understand the process behind art and this was a remarkable lesson.

The guide was, of course, so right to show us the studio first, because when he took us into St. Peter’s the stunning mosaic art there came alive. St. Peter’s Basilica is Christendom’s largest church; its size and decoration are breath-taking and, as our guide pointed out to us, purposely so. It would be impossible for even a “casual believer” to not be moved by St. Peter’s.

 

Michelangelo’s Pieta. It leaves me speechless.

One of the options on this tour was a climb to the top of St. Peter’s Dome. I’m sure the view is stunning, but that’s not my kind of climb (or Steve’s either). So, the other couple left with another guide for that tour and we had a private tour of St. Peter’s. One of life’s better travel surprises.

Sure there were hundreds of others in the the basilica (in fact a group of seminarians was being ordained at the very front), but it felt like it was just us and our guide. Our guide walked us through several pieces, explaining the meaning and symbolism in each mosaic. We also visited the crypt to see where previous popes are buried. I must admit that although we are not catholic, it was amazing to see names recent and historic on tomb after tomb. (Many of the earliest tombs were destroyed long ago.)

We both think our guide made all of this come alive for us. He was more than just knowledgeable, perhaps trained for a religious vocation in an earlier career?  As we were leaving St. Peter’s he pointed out one final mosaic in the portico which purports to tell visitors there is more work to do for God as they leave the physical confines of St. Peter’s.

One of the mosaics as visitors leaves St. Peter’s, illustrating the work to be done beyond the basilica on behalf of the church.

We took this tour on our last day in Rome (our last day in Italy in fact), and we were overwhelmed with all we had seen. We stopped for a coffee then walked through some markets and found our way to Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch, before winding our way to the Spanish Steps and eventually back to our hotel. Here are some photos from that day.

Near the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo was initially built as a tomb for the emperor. Since no one could be buried within the city walls, Emperor Hadrian used this commanding space just outside the walls. Later it was used as a prison and as a last refuge in times of danger.

 

The Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona by Bernini demonstrates the four corners of the world using four river gods gathered around an Egyptian obelisk, a symbol especially favored by the Romans. This square, really an oval that was once athletic grounds, has played a role in Roman life since ancient times.

After three weeks in Italy, we were ready to head for home. But now, three months later, I could easily go back. It seems as if there are always new layers of Italy to peel back and examine, new museums, churches, vineyards and towns. I’m not tired of it yet!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New year, new project

In the spirit of New Years resolutions, but with a limited commitment,  I’ve embarked on an Instagram project I came up with to 1) challenge myself in the New Year and 2) promote more IG activity (you can follow me here). My goal is to post a photo daily that corresponds to a letter of the alphabet, as in A is for artwork, B is for books, C is for crosswords, and so on.

This is not going to save the planet or change the course of history. I just want to see if I can do it and what photos I’ll come up with. And it has been a lot of fun. Here are a few of the photos I’ve posted so far:

 

After I had decided on my alphabet challenge, Sue Grafton died. I’ve been a loyal reader of her alphabet mysteries (beginning with A is for Alibi published in 1982) since I discovered them, although I think I may have missed a few in the middle. In fact I just finished Y is for Yesterday a few months ago. Sadly, it is her latest and her last. Sue Grafton’s final illness kept her from work on the last book in the series. (As I understand it, per her request, another writer will not take over the last book, which would have been Z is for Zero.)

Her heroine, Kinsey Millhone, is a twice-divorced private detective in California. Grafton introduced her this way: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

How can you not keep reading after that?

An orphan raised by her no-nonsense aunt, Kinsey is frugal, fiercely independent, prefers peanut butter and pickle sandwiches to more laborious kitchen exploits, and is famously street smart. Millhone lives alone and works alone, but Grafton developed a colorful cast of friends, neighbors and associates to fill out her world, and they followed along — with evolving roles and personalities courtesy of Grafton — from book to book

I used to seek out her books when I needed a break from other, perhaps more serious reading. They had a formula, but I loved it. I like Kinsey and I admire her integrity. Now I feel as though I’ve lost a friend.

I still love “The Crown.”

Like so many people, I ended the holiday season with a cold and for a few days really just wanted to languish under a quilt on the couch. And while I was “languishing,” I started re-watching season 2 of “The Crown” on Netflix. I was so excited to see it when it was initially released I just pretty much whizzed through it, so it was fun to go back and really pay attention.

I fell in love with the first season last year, and the second season is just as delightful. (In fact, it’s turning me into a bit of a royal junkie!) Yes, it stretches the truth, twists history in some places, and I wonder what the Windsors really think of it. But I love the quality of the production, the Queen’s fierce determination to do right by her job, the way she handles those pesky prime ministers, the brush with history. Not to mention that Prince Philip is a bit of a handful and Princess Margaret — well, what can one say, right?

The scenery is stunning, and it seems no expense was spared. If you want to know more about how the production team recreated Buckingham, Windsor and Balmoral, Joni Webb of Cote de Texas did a fabulous job of researching the actual houses and even furniture they did use here.

And if you are also a royal junkie, please note that the second season of “Victoria” starts next week!

Belated New Years wishes to you and yours. I sincerely hope 2018 is a happy, healthy year, filled with wonder and laughter and exceeds your expectations!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you next time!

 

A Christmas story for 2017

A dear friend gave me this adorable mini tree, which I love. If you look closely at the antique glass beads, you see bits of candle wax, left from days of lighting trees with candles.

Every Christmas, I think, has its own story. Some happy, some downright funny, some even occasionally sad. This year, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that you have time for one more holiday story. I couldn’t tell this sooner, because it took until now to unfold.

Christmas 2017 flew by in a rush of excited little boys, lots of legos, snow flakes, champagne corks, and last minute cookies. After the “dust had settled” as my dad would say, and I got over my Christmas cold, disposed of the paper and boxes, and the returns had (mostly) been taken care of, I was thinking about the blessings of the last year, and what I might blog about, when a lightbulb went off in my head.

As has become the custom, my husband, my daughter and I traveled from Chicago to Ohio to spend the holiday with my son, his wife and our grandsons aged 4 and “almost” 7. Jack & Ben’s excitement is palpable and exhausting. It’s also magical. (Has Santa left yet? Where do you think his sleigh is right now? China? Antarctica? Do you think Santa would like a star cookie or a snowman? How many carrots for his reindeer?)

After an early start and a longer than average drive, we pulled into their Ohio driveway. First one and then two boys were bouncing in the window (I love this welcome). By the time we got in the door my daughter-in-law was sweeping up a broken ornament, the casualty of that exuberant welcome.

Since Columbus is my daughter-in-law’s home, we’re also joined on Christmas by her mother (otherwise known as Grandma B), her sister and brother-in-law, her Aunt Rosie and cousin Joe. There are at least three or four conversations going on, along with the beeping, honking or hum of some vehicle Santa has left under the tree. There are more presents to open, toys to show off, toasts to be made and news share. We’ve added extra chairs to the table and the little boys will eat at their own table. Now, this is Christmas.

(I’m just setting the stage here, but the lightbulb is about to click.)

Although I have no siblings, I grew up celebrating Christmas surrounded by an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends who were family. I miss that. I love, and am so glad, that we have been embraced by Jen’s family. Though I think all of us — in Chicago and Columbus — would find it strange to celebrate any other way, I know not every family does.

In this, we are blessed.

I have to admit that my first few Christmases in Columbus were a challenge. I missed opening packages under our tree. I missed being the hostess. I missed having my family at my table. But then I realized I was just missing the past — my parents, my grandparents and my aunt & uncle. I had lost the last of them before we adopted this new tradition which I now realize we are so lucky to have. This is the shape our family has taken.

I hope your holiday story included time with family and/or friends-who-are-family, on Christmas or another day, because there are no rules in these holiday stories.

Thanks for stopping by to read my Christmas story. I’ll see you in the New Year!

Three things for this week in this season

There’s so much going on this season, and when things get a little crazy, I get really indecisive. (Seriously, as in should I wear boots or shoes to the store? Cook pork chops or pasta for dinner? Everything gets to be an issue.) It’s not surprising that I couldn’t decide what to write about this week, so here are my top 3 topics: traveling wineglasses, necessary conversations, and a new book.

The traveling wineglasses came out of their boxes last weekend (you may remember last year’s post about them here) to welcome friends to our holiday open house. I hate to hang numbers on things, but this has been our holiday tradition for more than four decades. Once in a while I get a little weary of this whole thing (as in, should I really be having yet another party?) but then someone says, “We always look forward to this…” And the truth is, we do too.

Since we have had so much “practice” at this party, Steve and I have developed a routine for getting it together and we have simplified, simplified, and simplified some more. It is, after all, about getting together with friends. For the last few years I have been serving prosecco along with the customary wine and beer. I did it at first as an ice breaker. But now I think, on a Sunday afternoon, it’s what people enjoy drinking. (Back in the day we served eggnog and then for a while it was spiced wine. Talk about an evolution!) Bubbles are much more fun!)

I have learned to keep the menu simple, so I can enjoy the party. This year it was really just meat & cheese trays, some veggies & dip and Steve’s burgundy meatballs. It’s pretty easy to “dress up” the trays with fancy olives, some fruit, even little cornichons or nuts. The meatballs are the “hearty” snack and definitely made ahead. We re-heat them on the stove, then pop them into a chafing dish for the afternoon. I made two batches of cookies and bought some and, voila! we had a sweet tray.

Although we have an artificial tree, I love fresh greens. I bought three big bundles to use inside and out with seeded eucalyptus and red winterberries. They pretty much arranged themselves. Next year I may try working fresh greens into some of my artificial greenery.

And that was the extent of my party planning.

We live in interesting times.

A few weeks ago I impressed myself by getting our tree dressed early. (Step 1 in my party plan. Get it done so all the boxes are cleared away.)  The next day I was up in time to see a news message on my iPad announcing that Matt Lauer had been fired for inappropriate workplace behavior. Now Al Franken has been pushed out of the Senate, and Roy Moore came this close to winning a Senate seat.

The good news is that the women who helped launch the conversation are on the cover of Time magazine. Well done!

On the one hand, I am both uncomfortable and tired of hearing various recitations of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the women who have come forward have shown remarkable courage. This is a singular moment in time and a conversation we need to have. We need to listen to their stories and keep listening. Sons and brothers and husbands and co-workers need to learn that this is not acceptable behavior. Girls and women should never settle for anything less than a safe work place. I can’t wait to see where this conversation takes us.

On a more positive note…

Earlier this week we heard former Vice President Joe Biden speak during the Chicago stop on his American Promise Tour. What a wonderful and refreshing evening! He sat onstage at the Chicago Theater with Leslie Odom, Jr. and talked about the purpose behind his book, Promise Me, Dad (which was handed out to everyone in the audience), his career as a public servant, the commitment he made early on to always, always put his family first, his role in the Obama administration, and more.

The audience was packed and remarkably diverse in every way. We all hung on to every word, laughing at his stories, bursting into spontaneous applause at his observations of American history and politics, and shedding a few tears as he described his son’s battle with brain cancer. My daughter looked around the packed house at the Chicago Theater and summed it up perfectly: “This makes you wonder what could have been if history had played out a little differently.”

So now you know what I’ve been up to and why I still need to finish shopping, tackle holiday cards, and maybe do a little wrapping. But, in truth, the Biden book is calling my name. And it’s so nice to sit by the tree.

Wishing you the warmth of family & friends, as well as the peace of the season as we head into the holidays!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

 

From pumpkins to Christmas Curtains

My non-orange pumpkin patch.

How elaborate is your “fall decorating?”

When my son was 3 he asked if we could do some Halloween “decoration-ing” like his friend Brian’s mother did. So, we bought a few of those colorful pumpkin/black cat/witch cutouts to hang in the windows and a smiling skeleton (because you wouldn’t want to scare the 3-year-old) to hang on the font door. Done!

After a few years, we upped the ante, using a bale of straw as a seat for a scarecrow and “artfully” propping cornstalks in a few places. That was outside. I began to collect a variety of over-size dried gourds for inside. Then I traded the bale of straw and scarecrow for my own pumpkin patch, adding several of them to the landscape in early October.

Now we have morphed into pumpkins inside and out, especially decorative if they are not orange but rather green or white. (I even have a large pink one this year!) And we go to great lengths to get them to last until, hopefully, Thanksgiving. And I do fuss over a fruit and/or vegetable and/or floral centerpiece here and there. But I don’t make  point of adding seasonal throws to the furniture or even own fall pillows for the sofa. I don’t even have a single potted mum this year.

One “real” pumpkin with my ceramic ones from a Kentucky artisan.

Is this some sort of rebellion on my part? I am after all the person with files — electronic and paper — on her favorite rooms and decorators. (Thanks to Pinterest I can efficiently call up gallery walls, tabletop vignettes and mantels.) And I can spend hours rearranging books, collectables, and whatever on a shelf.

The Christmas Curtains

I was mentally making fun of all this when I remembered my grandmother’s seasonal change of curtains. Sometime in early November, she would start plotting the hanging of the Christmas Curtains. (And I say “plotting,” because the change of curtains required the assistance of my mother and/or my uncle to accomplish. My grandparents lived in an old, shot-gun cottage in Chicago, with high ceilings and tall, narrow windows. Grandma no longer did ladders, but it was fine with her if someone else did.)

The Christmas curtains I remember were sturdy barkcloth with red poinsettias and deep green leaves on a white ground. (And in truth, if my adult self had seen them on their way out, I would have rescued them and found a way to use them at my own house!) First, the living room and dining room windows and woodwork needed to be washed and/or polished before hanging the curtains, because who would hang nice, clean curtains on a window that could be dirty? (Thus making it even more of a project.)

Because these were Christmas Curtains, the process had to be repeated in January to hang the Winter Curtains. Then in the Spring, came the Easter Curtains. And, I think, there were separate Summer Curtains, though she may have eventually given them up. This was Julia’s salute to the seasons, so perhaps I come by this seasonal urge genetically.

No images of Christmas curtains, but here are my Grandmother and Grandfather with a Christmas tree in 1943 or 1944. This is a favorite photo. I love those smiles. War-time holidays were melancholy, but these two always made the most of every holiday.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her curtains. To us it may seem an odd choice. If she knew how infrequently I wash or otherwise freshen up the few curtains I do have and how many of my windows are frankly unadorned, she would be wagging her finger at me. But in my grandmother’s day curtains were one of the few ways she could indulge in a little decorative pizzazz. And she liked that.

So I’m thinking that though she would have found my alternatively-colored pumpkins a little odd, she would have liked the idea of a pumpkin patch and maybe even a scarecrow.

My pumpkins will stay outside at least until the squirrels devour them. The gourds will remain in place inside until Thanksgiving weekend, when ready or not my husband will start bringing up Christmas boxes. And we’ll probably eat turkey leftovers on the Spode Christmas Tree plates.

What about you, are you holding off on Christmas until after Thanksgiving?

Thanks so much for stopping by! See you soon.

Florence 2.0: Meeting the Medicis

Florentine rooftops from our room at the Pierre Hotel.

What do you do after all that fun in Tuscan hilltowns? We took a deep breath, braved the tourists, and headed to the historic heart of it all — Florence.

We waited a long time to finally get to Florence. Then we simply fell in love with the city. Steve and I both love London and Paris, but Florence is special. It’s compact and walkable (like Paris), has a seemingly endless supply of history and museums (like London), and it has what I think of as art and attitude.

The art is everywhere. The attitude is a little tougher to define, but I think it’s the total of the food and wine, shopping and sophistication, and most of all the history that ekes out of every corner. Now I can also say it’s even better the second time.

Our first visit to Florence was packed; there was so much to see. We planned differently this time, so we could wander more. In fact, the first afternoon, we did just that. After checking in at the Pierre Hotel we took a walk, found lunch, window-shopped our way to San Marco and back. We returned to the hotel and discovered they had delivered a bottle of prosecco and some snacks as a “welcome back” since we had also stayed there last year. This would be fun!

Getting serious about the Medicis

Florence was, first, a well-established medieval city, until it became the birthplace of the Renaissance and the credit for this goes largely to the Medici family. It’s impossible to spend any time in Florence without running into (and trying to understand) the financial and political power of the Medicis. Starting early in the 15th Century and lasting into the 17th century, the family enjoyed both political power (without holding office) and cultural influence.

The family’s wealth originated with its successful textile trade, which lead to the Medici Bank, the most successful in 15th Century Europe. With money comes power. The Medici’s support of the arts and subsequent impact on the Renaissance is unrivaled, starting with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1419. Cosimo the Elder (another early Medici) commissioned works by Donatello and Fra Angelico. Most significantly Michelangelo accepted commissions from a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was also a patron to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years.

The interior of San Lorenzo is known for its Renaissance architecture, including the integration of the pillars, arches and entablatures and the use of dark stone.

The Medici impact on the church and royal houses in Europe was equally significant. The family produced three Popes of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) and Pope Leo XI (1605) as well as two Queens of France, Catherine de Medici (1547-1559) and Marie de Medici (1600-1610). In 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. In 1569, the duchy was elevated to a grand duchy and the Medici family ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1737

So much for name dropping.

The Medici family, and its money, were behind many of the ionic structures in Florence, and we visited a number of them with a guide from Context Tours who took us through the San Marco Convent and Museum, the Medici Palazzo, Baslica di San Lorenzo, Medici Chapels, and the New Sacristy (designed by Michelangelo).

(Context Tours are perfect for independent travelers. Guides, or docents as Context calls them, have with MAs, Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees in their subject matter, tours are limited to 5 or 6 people. We were the only ones on this tour. We have also used them in Rome and Paris.)

Here is one of the individual cells, with its beautiful fresco.
The convent library. Can you imagine working in this space?

The convent was one of our first stops. After a brief period of upheaval during which the convent (which was really a monastery for branches of the order of Benedictine monks) deteriorated, Cosimo di Medici the Elder commissioned architect Michelozzo to rebuild it. The result is an elegant but spare, Renaissance structure. Like other monasteries, the convent features two cloisters, a chapter house, etc. The friars’ cells are each decorated with a single fresco, many by Fra Angelico in collaboration with other artists. Cells are walled off but topped by a single trussed roof, and the entire structure is finished in white-washed plaster. It’s easy to see how the residents could pray and meditate in this atmosphere.

The convent was home to painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola (of the infamous bonfire of the vanities). Cosimo de’ Medici also had a cell in the convent, adjacent to those of the friars, for use as his personal retreat.

The Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 when it was still outside the city walls. Later it became the parish church of the Medici family, as well as the burial place for the family’s principal members. The current basilica is actually the “new” building, completed in 1449 (financed by the Medici family), well after Brunelleschi died in 1446.

The tomb of Giuliano di Lorenzo di Medici in the New Sacristy was decorated with this statue by Michelangelo featuring Giuliano and Night and Day. It is a companion to the tomb of Lorenzo do Piero di Medici and Dawn and Dusk.

The Old Sacristy was designed by Brunelleschi and is the oldest part of the present church. It is also the only part completed (in 1440) in Brunelleschi’s lifetime. The Old Sacristy contains the tombs of several Medici family members.

The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo. Work began on it in 1520. The artist also designed the Medici family tombs to be included, but did not supervise the completion of the project. This is a far more elaborate structure. I was especially struck by drawings by Michelangelo, discovered in 1976, on the walls of a concealed corridor under the New Sacristy!

Michelangelo’s drawings, discovered in a hidden corridor. A bad photo and hard to see because the drawings are behind glass, but I am totally fascinated by the fact that they are Michelangelo’s sketches. They seem inherently more personal than all the other works of his that I have seen.

The Medici Chapel, designed by the family working with the architects, and begun in the early 17th Century, reflects a very different aesthetic, featuring elaborate marble mosaics in a domed octagonal space. The octagonal shape is distinctive on the Florentine landscape. Family remains were actually interred in a crypt below the chapel.

After these heady lessons in Medici history, art and architecture, we thought we needed something more light-hearted, so Steve signed us up for a tour of the hidden stairways and spaces at the Palazzo Vecchio. (We did this the next day. Two tours in one day would have been way too much to wrap our heads around!) Most often known as Florence’s city hall, the palazzo was, for awhile, also a Medici Palace. But that’s another history chapter.

Heading up one of the “hidden” stairways. Probably not a great tour with claustrophobics.

The tour begins with an introduction to the Florentine Guilds, or Priori, who ruled the city. In 1342 the existing building was enlarged to resemble a fortress, including the addition of secret stairways allowing guild members to come and go in the night. The tour guide escorted our small group up and down some of these stairways, which, of course, included passing in and out of a number of secret doors. We had toured the building before, so this look at its “inner workings” was especially fun.

 

 

My husband and I loved the idea of these hidden doors. If you have read Dan Brown’s Inferno, or seen the Tom Hanks movie, you undoubtedly recall the crazy chase thru the Palazzo Vecchio. Remember the scene above the ceiling of the Hall of 500? After climbing dozens of narrow stairs, we were up in a corner of it. The space was more cramped than it appeared in the movie, but still very cool to see how the Renaissance building was assembled. Alternating rafters support the roof above and/or hold the ceiling below. What genius Renaissance architects displayed!

 

 

Whew! This is not all that we saw or did in Florence, but it gives you a good idea of how we spent our second visit in as many years. We enjoyed the fact that the city was somewhat familiar, we stayed in the same hotel (because we really love it!) and even ate at a restaurant we enjoyed last year. We also found some great new places. We ate lunch one day at the bustling the Central Market and I spent an afternoon at the Bargello. We spent a morning at the Pitti Palace (more Medicis) and found time to explore the tiny streets of the Oltarno.  I think this second visit allowed us to “peel back another layer” on all there is to see in Florence.

What about you? Are there destinations you would happily return to? What about places you could happily say, “been there, done that” and move on? I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

We went to Tuscany!

Tuscany really does look like this. This is the view from the terrace at Borgo Argenina.

Last month we took a terrific, three-week trip  to Italy. And, yes, this was somewhat self-indulgent since we had been here just  fifteen months before, but the stars lined up and the opportunity was there, so we went.

Our first trip was pretty straightforward: Rome, Florence and Pisa. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) This time our itinerary included Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, a four-night respite in Florence, a train to Lucca for a few days and, finally, another train to Rome before flying home. Our plan was to see a number of new sites and revisit Florence and Rome since they have so much to offer. Was this a lot to cover in three weeks? Probably.

It’s also too much for a single blog post.

I have been trying all week to write about it, but it just sounds like one of those long, boring slide shows your neighbor used to present about their 1964 trip to the Grand Canyon. I cannot do that to you. But I do want to share some fun bits and pieces, in separate posts. Consider this the first installment!

This is part of the remaining fortifications in Orvieto. Although it is actually in Umbria rather than Tuscany, Orvieto was on the road between Rome and Florence making it geographically and historicqlly important.

The heart of our trip was a stay in a rural B&B in Tuscany to explore the nearby hilltowns by car. Most Tuscan destinations are built on steep hilltops, the better to protect them from invading forces centuries ago. Part of the charm today is that they remain secluded, off the Autostrada, reachable by winding two-lane roads and/or a funicular. Tourist traffic is not allowed (and frankly, driving their tiny, twisting roads would be more than a little hazardous).

 

This was originally a stable on the first floor with living space above.

In Tuscany, we stayed at Borgo Argenina, a tiny hamlet of stone farm buildings dating to 998 and restored twenty years ago by owner/host Elena Nappa as a B&B. This was really an amazing destination itself, a little quirky, decidedly friendly, and a remarkable change from tourist-clogged sites.

Directions to Borgo Argenina instruct travelers to turn off the paved road onto the gravel one. Calling this gravel stretch a road requires a leap of faith. It’s a single lane, rutted and rocky, that passes first through some  trees and brush and then vineyards.   Eventually, the road dips down, then climbs up to the cluster of stone buildings that is Borgo Argenina.

Looking back down to the gravel driveway.

The vistas are stunning (Elena knew what she was doing when she found it) and her hospitality is all you could ask for. Her welcome includes a history of the property, an introduction to the area, and an invitation to join a cooking class tomorrow night. Since we are checking in at the same time as a mother and adult son (from Pennsylvania and California, respectively) and just after a couple from Connecticut, Elena has made reservations for the six of us to eat that night in town at Locanda Del Tartufaio, known locally as Giorgio’s. Elena assures us it is easy to find since it will be the only place in town with lights on at that hour.

And so our adventure begins.

Steve and I settled into a two-room suite on the second floor of the original stable. The rooms feature massive ceiling beams, stone walls and 15th Century hardware on the doors. The plumbing is modern and the bed is comfortable.

Giorgio’s is everything Elena promised. Giorgio is owner and chef. He is also a truffle hunter and his menu will feature those delicacies (a bit of a challenge for a few members of the group who are not truffle enthusiasts). We are the first to arrive and, briefly, the only restaurant guests. It’s a little weird since Giorgio speaks no English, though he does have a server who, though far from fluent, is able to communicate with us. Soon, our fellow travelers arrive, as well as other diners. (All the tables will be full before the evening is over.)

 

Georgio only serves one menu per night, so there was no need to ponder choices. We just applauded them as they arrived: a selection of bruschetta and cheeses, many of them topped with delicately chopped truffles, a primo course of white lasagna made with homemade pasta and topped with truffles, a secondi of roast beef and roast pork topped by chopped truffles and herbs and served with fresh, roasted vegetables. We finished with a delicate cake topped by whipped cream and fresh fruit. (No truffles!) All of this was accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of wine and conversation. Three-plus hours passed in a flash!

This is looking outside the walls of Assisi.

The next day Steve & I drove to Assisi, one of the destinations on our Tuscany list. It was farther away than we realized, but a fairly direct route on the Autostrada.

First, Assisi struck me as pristine. Other Tuscan towns had similar hilltop locations and were essentially all stone, but none of them were as bright and white in Frances Mayes’ famous Tuscan sun. Assisi is not only the birthplace of St. Francis; it is also the birthplace of St. Clare, founder of the Poor Sisters, later the Order of Poor Clares. Despite the crush of tourists we experienced elsewhere, Assisi was surprisingly quiet. I don’t know if we should attribute that to visiting on Sunday or if it is simply the temper of the town.

The cathedral honoring St. Francis.

The cathedral is stunningly simple, inside and out, honoring the beliefs of St. Francis. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Although I would have been happy to wander the lanes of Assisi for a few more hours, we really had to head back to the B&B for our cooking lesson with Elena and the rest of her guests.

Pasta making is messy but fun (kind of like Play Doh for adults) and like so much of cooking, I think it’s a technique that really requires practice.

Elena began her class by walking all eleven of her “students” out to her garden to harvest some herbs, taste some grapes and talk a little more about creating the garden out of the rubble that was there when she acquired the property. Once we were back in her kitchen, she set us to work, washing and trimming basil for pesto, stringing beans, and browning chicken. The real treat of course was learning to make fresh pasta, mixing flour and eggs by hand on her wooden pasta board, then kneading the dough before letting it rest under a damp towel.

As we cooked we shared our travels, drank wine, and took turns with the actual pasta-making. Here’s the finished meal, below, just before serving it around the massive farm table in Elena’s kitchen. It was as fun and festive as Giorgio’s, perhaps more so since there were more of us.

The finished meal, before we sat down to enjoy it.
Sitting rooms at the Borgo Argenina show off the original arched brick ceilings. Elena spent seven years renovating the property.

During our 2016 trip to Florence we took a day-trip that included a drive through the Clay Hills,  a tour of the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and lunch and wine-tasting in Tuscany. It was a perfect blend of history and culture. So we contacted Roberto Becchi of Tours by Roberto again. (Roberto is a guide recommended by Rick Steves; you may have seen him on one of Rick’s shows on Italy.) Roberto is passionate about history, Italian winemaking, and Siena’s superiority over Florence. (We also found Borgo Argenina via Roberto’s website.) He is fun, knows the best winemakers and the tiniest towns. His tours are limited to eight travelers. A day with Roberto is a personal tutorial rather than a tour.

Montepulciano’s Palazzo Communale is strikingly similar to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

We started out in Montepulciano, with a short walk thru some of the town’s oldest streets. Although the earliest settlement here dates to Etruscan times, the town was essentially Medieval, then given a Renaissance facelift as evidenced by the more elegant facades added to the medieval structures. (Renovation is hardly a new concept!) Montepulciano was both an ally and a possession of Florence. (Before we checked into Borgo Argenina, we spent one night just outside Montepulciano. We had a delicious dinner at Restaurante Al Quattro Venti on the same square, right.)

 

This well in the Piazza Grande (home to the Palazzo Cumunale and Duomo) was fed by by rainwater from nearby palazzos. It’s topped by the Medici coat of arms flanked by lions (representing Florence) and smaller griffins (Montepulciano). And that is very much the history of Montepulciano. In the background is the former court house.
The Sanctuary of San Biaggio outside Montepulciano’s walls was a model for St. Peter’s in Vatican City.
The interior courtyard of a palazzo that is now a B&B. Those lovely arches and pillars are duplicated on a second story, above.

 

The vaults and barrels in the De Ricci cellers are legendary.

Montepulciano is home to the famous Nobile wines, made by individual vintners according to the parameters established by a consortium. While we were in town we visited the centuries-old caves (and tasted the wines) of the De’Ricci winery. The six-story building, whose oldest caves date to the Etruscans, is supported by a huge network of vaults and arches. This construction and the size of the barrels were all astonishing. Roberto pointed out this  is Renaissance construction on top of Medieval buildngs.

Next we traveled to the Tornesi winery in Montalcino. Tornesi has been in the same family since 1865. In 1967 Gino Tornesi registered his vines as Brunello, becoming one of the first members of that consortium as a producer. His son Maurizio started the production and business side in 1993 with his first Rosso di Montalcino and his first Brunello di Montalcino. Maurizio showed us around, his daughter led the tasting and we met his mother! This is truly a family business, and I was struck once again by the hard work and commitment to a quality product that the best wineries embody. Wineries are so much fun for us to visit, but some much work and commitment for the growers and winemakers.

Tornesi vineyards.

 

Tuscany takes time. It’s easy to start with a list of hilltowns, plot them on a map, and start driving. But if you rush thru the towns too fast, you run the risk of missing the essence of the Tuscan way of life and the people. We had several other towns on our “list” — San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pienza to name just a few,  but along the way, we tossed them aside in favor of enjoying where we were at the time.  For example, we skipped San Gimignano last year and wanted to get there this time, but then we turned the wrong way and ended up in Rada. It’s tiny and scenic and there were just a handful of other tourists there. We loved exploring its cobbled streets, window shopping, and had a wonderful lunch. In addition to the usual leather and cashmere shops, Rada is home to a handful of artisans whose galleries show and sell one-of-a-kind ceramics, sculptures and even clothing.

We left Tuscany assuming we will return to see more another time, which is pretty much our travel philosophy. After Tuscany, we made stops in Florence and Rome. (Look for future blog posts on those destinations.) We had visited both before, but really thought there was much more to see and we were so right! There’s a lot to be said for returning to a destination when you are even just a little familiar with it. 

Tanks for stopping by! See you next time.