Saturday, 16 May 2015

Italy - Florence Part Two: An Easter Celebration

I’ve always had this image in my head of Easter celebrations in Italian cities.  I picture some kind of communal parade through the stone streets, some of the participants carrying a large ornately decorated religious shrine that’s deposited on the steps of the great cathedral in town, which everyone in the community gathers around to celebrate this holy day.  The image of these processions has always held somewhat of a romantic appeal to me, if that’s the right word, because where I grew up in the US, we just didn’t have anything like this.  I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be part of such a powerful community gathering that’s all centered on a common religious faith.  Well, now I know because I’ve seen a great Easter morning celebration in Italy in person. 

Before I continue, I must make a disclaimer here – I was not part of the community during this Easter celebration in Florence.  I was there as a tourist, plain and simple.   So I cannot attest to the true spiritual and religious community feeling of this event, but I can tell you that the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is quite a grand event in Florence and was full of some surprises for us.
10:00 am Sunday morning – we made our way down to the Piazza del Duomo where the great Cathedral sits.  The Piazza was already overflowing with people and more continued to stream in from all directions.  There was no way we were going to get even close to the front of the Cathedral, so we found some steps a little ways away and off to the side to stand on and try to observe the activities as best we could.  We weren’t that worried about getting as close as possible because we knew that what we were there to see was tall, 30-feet tall to be exact.  We were there to witness a 500+ year old Easter tradition in Florence – the Explosion of the Cart.

The antique Cart (this is the same cart that’s been used for over 500 years) is paraded through the streets of Florence and brought to sit in front of the great Cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo.  

Our first surprise that morning would be the four beautiful white oxen decorated in fresh spring flowers and herbs that pulled the Cart.  The oxen are huge when standing next to them.  It's hard to believe they can be so docile and willing tolerate this crowd with flowers tied to their faces.

Soldiers, musicians and people dressed up in 15th century garb accompanied the procession. 

Inside the Duomo, Easter mass is taking place and the service was piped out through speakers for the thousands of people gathered in the Piazza to hear as well.  The energy is the crowd is electric, with groups of people erupting in cheers every now and again as a big TV camera boom that’s parked in front of the Cathedral swings overhead pointing in their direction.  That was surprise number two for us.  Am I at an Easter celebration or an NFL football game?  Oddly, the crowds feel the same in many respects this Sunday morning.  A couple of TV announcers have seats high above the heads of the standing crowd giving them a perfect view of the front of the Duomo and the Cart where the show is about to take place.   

We laugh when we see them.  Their body language, their clothing, the head phones they are wearing – is that Matt Lauer and Al Roker up there?  No, not really, but I got the feeling a lot of people tune in from home in Italy for this grand tradition, not unlike the Thanksgiving Macy’s Day parade in the states. 

At 11:00 am inside the Cathedral, the cardinal of Florence lights a fuse on a mechanical dove that is connected to the beautiful cart outside by a wire.  Once lit, this mechanical dove is somehow transported on this wire to the cart outside that is now rigged with fireworks and a 20 minute long pyrotechnics show ensues, and that was surprise number three.  It’s hard to believe such a wonderful fireworks display can come from this old cart, and in such close quarters, but it does.  It’s loud and bright, flames and sparks are flying everywhere.  I’m stunned that the crowd is allowed so close to this display, especially those dressed up in the 15th century costumes with huge feathers protruding from their hats.  Some of the crowd closest to the cart scurry to back up at times, but it’s hard for them to move much because of the huge crowd.  I’m glad now that we couldn’t get very close. 

Some of the fireworks shoot up high into the air, and a after a few minutes, a cloud of smoke fills the Piazza making it hard to see.  The display seems to go on and on, but finally we hear the last couple of pops and the show is over.  Our hair is speckled with ash.  The crowd begins to disperse, but we head against the tide because we want a closer look at this cart.  The sight of a fully clad fireman climbing a ladder to make sure all the flames are out is such a juxtaposition next to this very old cart that has been pulled through these streets for hundreds of years.  I know I’ve mentioned this a few times in these posts about Italy, but I’m still caught off guard whenever I see a sight like this.

A lot of the people in the crowd were heading home for Easter celebrations with their families.  That wasn’t an option for us obviously.  We spent our Easter Sunday walking the streets of Florence and exploring the Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens), a vast formal Tuscan garden dating back to the mid-16th century that just lovely to stroll through, even on a chilly day in Florence.  It is with photos from this lovely garden that I leave you today.  But check back tomorrow.  There is more of Florence to share. 


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Italy - Florence Part One, A Walk Through the City

Welcome to Florence, Italy, capital of the Tuscan region, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and home to masterpieces of art and architecture.  From the Piazzale Michelangelo, a small park overlooking the city, Florence at sunset looks like a masterpiece all by itself with majestic mountains rising in the background and the River Arno flowing through the middle.  

I think this is the best photo Eric has ever taken.  Stunning, isn't it!  

I am struggling this week to get the post on Florence done because, believe it or not, I am finding myself busy right now and these blog posts take time (busy is not a word that has been in my vocabulary much since moving to England).  And next week I will be even busier as we will be entertaining our first house guests from the States, so I've decided to share Florence with you in bits and pieces over the next few days - slowly, just the way a good glass of Italian wine should be enjoyed.    

Lest you think that Eric really couldn't have taken that unbelievable picture at the top, I have proof.  I was there, with my camera phone.  Notice the halo around Eric's head.  I think someone was looking out for him that evening.  Is that why his photo is so brilliant? 

It was raining the afternoon we arrived in Florence.  A taxi whisked us from the train station and through the narrow streets of the city, depositing us on the doorstep of the apartment we had rented for the next three nights.  We stood outside for 30, maybe 40 minutes, huddled together under a couple of umbrellas as the rain went from a mild steady stream to a heavy downpour.  We were waiting for a man named Riccardo, the bearer of the key that would let us into the dry, warm apartment.  He showed up with apologies for being late, but this is Italy and we weren't surprised or upset.  We were however very soggy and our luggage was downright soaked.  As we unpacked inside the small apartment, clothing from inside our suitcases was hung from every possible fixture to dry.  Not a great welcome to Florence, but soon the beauty of this city would penetrate the cold and the rain as it slowly revealed itself to us.

The nice thing about spring showers is that it also brings flowers.

And in Florence those vibrant flowers can show up in some unexpected places, bringing loads of color just where it's needed.

And in some places around the city, colorful flowers aren't required because the architecture is enough all by itself.

Florence is a large city, but as you walk the narrow streets it's hard to tell.  

There is an intimacy about the streets, each one feeling as if it's in its own little world.  But then you turn the corner and through the little sliver of an opening at the end of the block ahead, you spy the great Duomo of Florence, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, and it reminds you that this is indeed a large city, a great city.  

Narrow streets mean narrow cars.  Some are so tiny they look as if you need to wind them up before getting inside to go.  You may be hesitant to take this itty-bitty three wheeled toy of a car onto a major highway, but here in Florence it makes perfect sense.

Pay close attention if ever you are walking the streets of Florence because there is beauty and whimsy in the smallest of features here, like this ring I assume was used to tether horses back in the day. 

And the doors - the beautiful carved wooden doors with their larger than life knockers.

But some of what you see in Florence is not so whimsical.  In fact, it's rather dark and gruesome when you look closely.  

No matter the content, the statues we found throughout Florence were absolutely striking.

And there are statues everywhere in Florence, without a doubt the most famous of which is Michalengelo's David.  I will share the original with you in the next couple of days, but until then, this is one of two copies of David than can be found in Florence, and just one example of the plethora of impressive statues this city has to share.     

If you wander the streets of Florence long enough, eventually they will spit you out onto the banks of the River Arno and if you are lucky, it will be within sight of the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge.  

Walking across this bridge is like a scene from an old Renaissance movie.  You feel as if you've been transported back in time some 500, 600, or maybe 700 years when butchers occupied the shops that still line the sides.  Today those small shops are filled with merchants selling jewelry, art and souvenirs, but the bridge still retains a very medieval feel about it. 

There is much more of Florence to share with you, so check back tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.  But for now, I leave you back in the Piazzale Michelangelo, where Eric took the amazing photo at the top of the sun setting over Florence to the west.  And when we looked to the east that beautiful evening... 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Italy – The Tuscan Countryside

Driving through the Tuscan countryside…

I’m not sure there is much I can say about this that the pictures don’t show…

Except that it’s more picture perfect in person…

The mountains in the background are a surprise for me because I hadn’t realized there were mountains so close to Tuscany….

But for the most part, the landscape is exactly as I had expected it to be – and probably exactly as you’ve pictured it to be as well, if you’ve never been here.  A home sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by the family's vineyard and olive groves.  Yes, that really exists here.

But the towns that dot the region were a bit of a surprise to me as well.  Ancient walled cities sitting high up on the hills, sometimes you could see two or three in different directions at the same time.  This I was not expecting, but it makes perfect sense – walls for protection back when it was needed, and high on a hill you can see for miles and miles in any direction.  Spotting any approaching danger would have been easy from these hilltop towns. 

Now there are no worries about invaders (except for the odd tourist), and instead, these romantic Italian towns surrounded by vineyards and olive groves decorate the landscape, luring visitors to come closer to explore inside their stone walls. 

We rented a car on Friday and headed out of Siena and into the hills of Tuscany.  Pienza - this is the town we chose to explore first.   Pienza set the bar high - very, very high!

I am reluctant to say I have a favorite place in Italy, but the small town of Pienza – well, let’s just say it left a mark on my heart and if I ever find myself back in Tuscany, it is here that I will stay. 

Why did Pienza have such a powerful pull on me?  Maybe it was the setting.   

Sitting high on a hill, you can walk along the top of the outside wall with simply stunning views of the Val d’Orcia, the picturesque region of Tuscany that surrounds Pienza and is included on the list of UNESCO’s World Cultural Landscapes.  Even viewing it in person, it’s hard to believe such a place can exist.  It looks too perfect to be real. 

Or maybe it’s the enchanting narrow and winding stone streets of the little town.  You can’t get lost because the town is too small for that, so you just wander without a care.  It doesn’t take long to get from one end to the other, except that you stop every five feet to take a picture.   

Is this place for real?  Are there really people that are lucky enough to live here? 

Or maybe the attraction is the small postcard perfect shops selling cheeses, olive oil, wine and an array of other gourmet treats.   Look at this gorgeous display?  Are you kidding me?

We walked the little streets, ducking into this shop and then that.  We tasted olive oil and purchased a small can to take back to England with us.  We bought slices of delicious pizza and found a place to sit on the outside wall to eat while gazing out over the Tuscan landscape.  I bought a beautifully painted pasta bowl made right there in Siena and I don't even remember exactly what it looks like now as we had it sent right from the shop to Eric's parents house in Wisconsin (easier to get it back to the states that way).  What a fun surprise it will be when we travel home and see it again!

I could have stayed in this village for the entire day but there was more of Tuscany to see. Reluctantly, we headed back towards the car, but before we got there we were drawn off course by a little gravel road that headed out of town through an olive grove.  We followed it for awhile wanting to see what was around the next bend, and then the next, and the next after that.  There was a man out with his dog slowly walking the same road in front of us, in no hurry to get anywhere.  

He was clearly a local.  I wonder how many times a day he strolls up and down this path, painting a quintessential picture of the slow way of life here in Italy.  Finally, we forced ourselves to turn around and headed back to the car.

From Pienza we drove to another walled hilltop town called Montepulciano.  Now is that a fun name or what!  We all kept saying it over and over again as we headed there, giggling at ourselves as we let each syllable roll off the tongue in our best over-exaggerated imitation of an Italian accent.  Try it.  I'm serious - go ahead.  You'll see what I mean.  Isn't it fun to say?

Montepulciano, while similar is some respects to Pienza with narrow stone streets lined with shops selling all variety of wonderful Italian goodies, it was very different as well.  It's larger for one, and the streets are very hilly.  As you wind your way through them heading up, up and up towards the Piazza Grande, the square that sits at the top of the town, you have no idea if you are really heading in the right direction or how much farther there is to go.  This town has a very medieval feel to it, a lot like Siena does, only it seems more mysterious, maybe even a little dark.  

We kept trudging uphill until finally we came to the Piazza.  It's funny, because there is just something about the architecture in Montepulciano - while beautiful, it also has sort of a sinister feeling about it.  

The girls and I sat down on some stairs as Eric wandered around the piazza taking photos.  When he came back to join us, he said he had just overheard a girl telling her friends that this is the square where they shot scenes for the Twilight series movie New Moon.  Even though I hadn't realized it before then, I knew immediately which scenes they were.  It was through the streets of Montepulciano that Bella ran trying to reach Edward before he revealed himself in the sunlight, and it was this square she raced across trying to reach him in time.  Those of you who are Twilight fans will know what I am talking about.  While there is a town not far from here called Volterra and is the home of the Volturi in the books, it was Montepulciano that was used in the movie, and I'm not surprised.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Twilight books, they are about vampires.  

Sitting in the piazza in Montepulciano in person it was not hard to imagine dark mythical creatures lurking inside these buildings.   

We retraced our steps back down through the twisting and turning streets of the town, every now and then finding ourselves on the outer wall where we were greeted with a spectacular view of the Tuscan countryside.

While in Italy, the hardest decision we had to make each day was usually what to do for dinner.  Pretty rough, huh?  And we found that often, the best dinner option wasn't always a restaurant.  It was late in the afternoon as we made our way out of Montepulciano and we were all a bit hungry but we didn't feel like heading back to Siena just yet.  The sun would be setting soon and what a sight that would be to see here in Tuscany.  We had the perfect solution.  A picnic dinner back in Pienza where we could watch the sun slowly sinking in the sky over this beautiful landscape while enjoying some delicious local food and a glass of wine.  

We popped into a little grocery store and filled our basket with cheese, crackers, prosciutto, a couple of juicy and perfectly ripe Italian oranges, and a bottle of Italian wine.  For dessert, we found a cafe back in Pienza selling an assortment of sweet Italian treats.  We made our way back to a spot we had passed earlier while in Pienza where there was the perfect bench for us to spread out on.  

Is there a restaurant in the area with a better view than this?  I'm not sure there is.

Eric set up the tripod and started snapping photos.  

The girls drew pictures in the gravel and ran along the stone wall while we waited for the sun to set.  Some clouds had rolled in, but every now and then we would get a peak of the sun as it made it's descent.  What a perfect way to end our day in Tuscany. 

But wait - as we drove back towards Siena, Tuscany had one more surprise in store for us - the small hilltop towns at night with yellow lights twinkling in the windows and high up above, a full moon. Now that was the perfect end to a perfect day.  Thank you Tuscany!