Friday, April 26, 2013


Yesterday was a national holiday in Italy.  It was Liberation Day, celebrating the end of Nazi control over Italy.  I thought there might be some special celebratory events in Florence, but there really wasn't much going on, so I decided to take another trip into the rolling Tuscan hills.  I could do this every day!  

The destination was Chianti country, and, according to the tour billing, we were going to take a walk through the vineyards, have a typical Tuscan lunch, and then enjoy a medieval festival in the little town of Panzano.  The advertisement for the tour said "you need to be able to walk".  Well, I can do that, so off on the tour I went.

We arrived in the main piazza of the small town of Panzano and had a coffee before setting off on the hiking part of this tour.  I had some reservations about whether I should do this hike, because I could see now that it would require going up and down the slopes of the Tuscan hills.  Our tour guide, Giacomo (English translation is James) suggested that I walk with them for part of the way and turn back when I felt uncomfortable going further.  That sounded like a sensible plan, so I set out with our small group of only 8 people, 5 of whom were under 25.  Well, the beginning was all downhill.  At the point I should have turned around, I reasoned that going up the hill at the end of the hike couldn't be much worse than returning up the slope we just descended into the valley.

So I trooped along with the group, and I was really enjoy the walk through the beautiful country with vineyards and olives orchards rolling around us. 

There were lots of wild flowers, and an occasional red poppy brightened the bouquet.  

Here's another loner by an old grave.  They popped up all along the way, always just one lone flower.

The leaves on the grapes vines were just beginning to show.  This vine must be ancient.

We also passed by a number of these tabernacles, and it wouldn't be long before I had good reason to pray when I came upon one.

We passed through a beautiful stand of cypress trees.  They smelled really good.

I was doing fine when we stopped in this olive orchard for a short rest.  This is our tour guide Giacomo.  He was one of the most laid back Italians I've ever met, with a real  "Don't worry.  Be happy" attitude.  He does these tours only on weekends and holidays.  He said his weekday job is real estate and that his family had invested in a number of properties.  He must be doing okay, because he has traveled extensively and for long periods (like three months in Australia recently).  

After a short rest, off we went for the uphill portion of this hike.  I could continue with a whining account of my upward trek, but I know you'd just get out those little violins and be thinking, tongue in cheek,  "Oh poor Colleen, she had to walk up a hill in this beautiful Tuscan countryside.  What a pity!"  Okay, I don't get a pity party, and I did make it up the hill without passing out from exhaustion.  But this confirmed for me that I'm definitely not a hiker.  I can walk long distances on flat ground, but put steps or hills in front of me, and I'm a definite wimp.  All the way up, I was thinking about that tour advertisement that said simply "you must be able to walk".  Harumph!

I told the rest of the group to go ahead and let me go up the hill at my own pace.  By the time I made it to our destination at the top, this church, I was dripping with sweat.  That was a 2-1/2 hour hike, and the last hour was all uphill!

After gulping down about a half gallon of water from a water hose by the church, I sat down to recover trauma I inflicted on my aging body.  As I was trying to recover my positive feelings about the view in front of me, I saw this old woman, probably in her early 80's walking up the hill, and I just couldn't whine any more.  She probably did this every day and she slowly, but steadily, reached the top of the incline and continued on her way into the church.  

On our walk back into town, there were a few more inclines, but slighter.  We passed this contraption on the side of the road.  It was once used to press oil from olives.

By now, we were all famished, and our lunch destination was the house of a noble Tuscan family who owned vineyards and olive orchards in the valley we just traversed and produced a number of different wines, as well as olive oil.  

We first had a tour of the centuries old wine cellar.  This is our host Lorenzo, who is carrying on the tradition of this family who have produced wine for seven generations.  I've been on a number of wine tours, so there was really nothing new that I learned here.  The only difference, I think, is that Italians make grappa from the grape skins.  I don't know what American vintners do with that refuse.

We had lunch at a huge table in what I think was the dining room of this old house.  This is the old fireplace that was right beside us.  When I went upstairs to use the bathroom, I passed by walls completely covered in family portraits.  You could tell by the dress of the men in the older ones that this was a noble family.  I thought it was a shame that this noble young man, Lorenzo, was reduced to serving a pasta lunch to a bunch of tourists and selling his products to us.  I bought some olive oil--it's the best I've tasted in a long time.

The medieval festival parade marched by Lorenzo's house just as we were leaving.  They were going uphill, and I didn't follow them.  Instead, the only other member of the tour group who was over 50 and I went downhill into the main piazza and checked out the wares of the many vendors who were showing their crafts.  

The paraders came back down the hill, having swelled in numbers by townfolk dressed in medieval finery.  

A prince with his lady friends.

There was a mock hanging planned and the executioner was in a cart pulled by these huge white oxen.  

This harnessed buffoon played around on the edge of this balcony, pretending to jump, and finally did.  

We were treated to some this sword fight.

And this flag twirler.  

Then the procession went back up the hill, without me, although I thought about hitching a ride with one of these gallant knights.

In the middle of the piazza, there's a huge wine bottle, a fitting sculpture for a town that makes its living producing some of Tuscany's best chianti.

I saw this building with three flags flying.  The one in the back is the U.S. flag, the middle is Italy's, and maybe the one at the front is the flag of the province or the town.  I was just surprised to see the American flag, but then I remember the holiday and the U.S. role in freeing Italy from the Nazis.

We caught our bus back to Florence at 6:45 p.m.  By the time I walked back to my apartment, I was one tired puppy.  Even though I drank some of that delicious wine, I slept like a babe for 9 hours straight.  

Tomorrow, I leave beautiful Tuscany to explore the neighboring province of Umbria.  I hope I love it as much.


San Gimignano is a small walled medieval town in Tuscany known as “The Town of Fine Towers”, and I have to agree.  The town, with its tower houses and hilltop setting makes a pretty unforgettable skyline.

I took a bus here, on my own, for 14 euros versus around 45 euros for the cheapest tour.  The bus dropped us at this entrance to the town.  

The main street is lined with shops selling beautiful Tuscan wares.  

This torture museum just didn’t seem to fit the setting.  (And no, I didn’t pay good euros to see the methods used to torture people in the Middle Ages.)

There was an interesting display of contemporary sculpture in an art gallery.  These wire sculptures were really fine.

I wandered around town for an hour or so just taking in the beauty of the Romanesque and Gothic architecture and tasting some wonderful gelato from a world award winning gelateria in the main piazza.  You don’t often see raspberry with rosemary as a flavor selection.  

This town is incredibly well preserved.  The Italians have a real reverence for the past.

The photo ops here are endless.

There were arches all around the town and some were decorated with frescoes.

I took a tour through the Palazzo Comunale, where I saw frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries.  I think about half of them were of Madonna and Child.  

I could have climbed the 200 plus steps of the tower above the Palazzo, but it took me all of about 5 seconds to decide that I really wasn’t up for it (pun intended).  

Since I was already on a hilltop, I was satisfied with the views I had from the second floor balcony.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and frankly, I wasn’t in the mood to see the inside of yet another church.  So after a lunch of pici (a Tuscan pasta that’s like fat spaghetti) in a delicious sauce of garlic, olive oil, and pecorino, I wandered down a gravel road into the countryside.  There, I sat in the high grass of the roadside bank and called my mother, who I knew would love to be sitting beside me enjoying the incredible beauty of these rolling Tuscan hills.  

This was my view of the town, Mom, while we were talking.  

And the surrounding countryside.  I love being in the Tuscan hills.  I can understand how France Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame fell in love with these beautiful scapes.

If you’ve seen Tea with Mussolini, this is the town where American and English expatriate women saved the frescoes in the Duomo from being destroyed by the retreating Germans.  

Una bella giornata!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


You'd probably be feeling old, too, if you served the City of Florence for as long and faithfully as this building has since it was completed in 1302.  The palace has had many roles:  the historical seat of government of Florence in the Middle Ages, a Medici palace in the mid-16th century, the administrative center of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and later the same role when Florence was the capital of Italy, and and finally the town hall of the commune of Florence.  It became known as the "old palace" when the Medicis moved their headquarters to the Pitti Palace.

Now its role is just to show off all its history.  

It's an impressively large building with a fairly plain exterior.

But as soon as you enter the interior, you begin to see the sumptuousness of the interior. 

After visiting a small museum, this is the first room I entered.  Pretty impressive, eh?  It's a great hall that seats about 500.  The frescoes lining the walls on the left and right are all battle scenes.  There's a great deal of statuary standing below those frescoes.

Including this little piece by Michelangelo, Genius of Victory.

I proceeded to tour the rooms on the first floor, all of which are dedicated to one of the famous Medicis, and they're all appropriately frescoed to reflect their personalities and events in their lives.  This lunette depicts Lorenzo Medici at the center, of course.

And this is Leo X receiving his Papal crown.

The frescoes all in these rooms are amazing, and I could share many photos of them, but seeing these rooms in their entirety is really an unforgettable experience.  Getting the sense of "the whole" personality of these Medicis is what's memorable.

I can't remember where this fresco was.  It's about the life of Furius, a Roman solider and statesman.

Above these rooms on the first floor are the "Apartments of the Elements".  These rooms are similarly frescoed, with the honorees being the gods above.  The intention of the design was to have the Medicis, the powerful rulers of the earth, on the level below the gods who, of course, favored them by bestowing power and riches to the family.

There are several notable works of art in this palace, another of which is a statue by Donatello, Judith and Holofernes.

And this one by Andrea del Verrocchio, Putto with Dolphin.

One of the most interesting room is kept for last.   The Map Room has a wonderful collection of globes and 57 maps painted on leather, showing the world as it was known in 1563.

There is so much more to this palace than I've shown here.  I could share photo after photo of beautiful frescoes and art works housed in this place.  But I can only whet your appetite; there are lots of photos on the internet if you want to see more!

Sunday, April 21, 2013


Some places are just too beautiful for words.  Cinque Terre, in the region of Liguria, is one of those places.  I'm sure some of you have been there and will agree that these 5 villages, tucked into the cliffs of the Mediterranean Sea, are downright charming.

I took a tour that went to four of the "five lands"--one of the five is not on the sea.  It's at the top of a rocky tor, and you have to climb 300 steps to get to it.  I was really happy to skip that one.

I have over 70 pictures of the villages we visited, but a few are sufficient to show the beauty and charm of these gems by the sea.  The villages were originally fishing villages, and the homes were painted in different bright colors to help the fishermen find their way home.

The day I was there it was raining, so the colors were less vibrant, but I doubt that they ever looked quite as vibrant as this photo I borrowed from the internet. I think someone touched it up a little.  But before time weathered the bright paint, I imagine the town might have looked closer to this from the sea.

The green hills around the villages are terraced, and the villagers once grew enough grapes, olives and other crops to be fairly self-sustaining.  But farming these terraces is grueling work; and since the towns became more accessible by road and train, tourism has sustained the economy of this area.  There were extensive landslides in 2011, which caused a great deal of damage to this area, and the deterioration of these terraces is blamed for the severity of the damage.

The tour was supposed to include a boat trip from one of the towns to another, but the sea was storming a bit, so we didn't get a chance to enjoy the view of the coast from the water.  But we certainly enjoyed the wonderful seascapes from fairly dry ground.  The forecast that I checked promised a sunny day, but it rained all morning and part of the afternoon.

The vendor that sold these rain slickers and umbrellas must have made a fortune on this day.  This is my new friend Bernadette, who I met in language school.  We look like we're decorated for Christmas.  Bernadette is a Palestinian woman from Israel.  She is a teacher, and her husband is a nurse, and besides that, they run a restaurant in a hotel in their village.

It seems like I'm always climbing up and down steps, and today was no exception.  In all four of the villages we visited, I climbed steps to get to the points where I could take some of these beautiful photos.

Like this one, for instance.

Bernadette and I met a lovely family from Mexico--a mother and her two daughters who were traveling around Spain and Italy together.  The mother and daughter in the foreground are both named Almarosa.  The younger Almarosa is an endodontist.  Liliana on the far right is working on a Master's Degree in Political Science in Madrid.  They were lovely women, and we enjoyed being in their company.

This is a fresco that was by one of the train stations.

And this mosaic was at the center of the main piazza in one of the town.

There aren't any more words, just beauty.