Tuscany – May, 2011

Posted: May 17, 2011 in Uncategorized
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12 May 2011

We left Rome around mid morning and caught the fast train to Florence. The train journey was quite comfortable and we got to Florence just after noon. I had organized a rental car for our stay in Tuscany and we were soon on our way to our hotel in the heartland of Tuscany. Needless to say, there were some challenges with GPS initially and my mistake in selecting the “Short route” option instead of the “Fast route” one resulted in the drive taking an hour more than was actually needed. However, we passed through some great countryside and the views were just stunning. The Tuscan countryside is full of green, rolling hills. In due course of time, we arrived at our hotel. The hotel turned out to be a medieval monastery building, which has now been converted. We were a bit tired that day with the train journey and the longish drive and so decided to take it easy and just spent time around the hotel.

13 May 2011

We set out for Pisa in the morning and yet again, I took the scenic route and so it was a fairly longish drive to Pisa. The views were quite breath-taking but I could not take any photos as the roads were quite narrow and I felt content with just soaking the ambience in. One point I noticed was that many of the hill tops had a lonely house or fort or some structure of that nature. May be these were houses of landlords or forts of chieftains. In any case, it was quite an interesting sight.

We arrived at Pisa round noon and went to see the Leaning Tower. It is in a complex with a cathedral, which houses the body of a saint. The first view as you glimpse the tower through the arched entrance to the complex is quite stunning. I had seen many pictures of the Leaning Tower before but somehow, the sight caught me by surprise. May be it was the brilliant white structure set on a wonderfully green lawn at its best on a nice day; I don’t know what. I tried to capture the sight in my camera but I was not able to do justice.

The cathedral and the tower are both in white stone and marble and the detail on the structure is amazing. The tower was planned as an independent bell tower for the cathedral and work stared in 1173. The soil in Pisa is not very stable and the design did not adequately compensated for that fact as the foundation was only three metres deep. As a result, the tower started to sink soon after construction started and it tilted to one side. Work was abandoned after construction reached three floors. The tower stayed in that condition for about seventy five years. After that, architects added four more floors on top of the three floors and tried to compensate for the tilt by building the floors to be shorter on the downward leaning side, with the result that the tower became curved. There was repair work done on the tower between 1990 and 2001 and that corrected the tilt from 5.5 degrees to 4 degrees. Authorities believe that the tower is safe for another 300 years. On the tall side, the tower has a height of approximately 57 feet and it reduces by about a metre on the short side.

We went to the cathedral first. The patron saint of Pisa, St. Ranieri, is buried here as well as Henry VII and Pope Gregory VIII. I also read that there are also some relics like the remains of three saints (Abibo, Gamaliel and Nicodemus) and a vase used in the Feast of Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. We did not see these relics as we were in a bit of a hurry, as we had booked a slot to go up the tower.

Visitors are let into the tower in batches and one felt the angle as soon as one entered the ground floor – you have to be conscious about not going to one side. The climb is rather steep and stairs got narrower and narrower as one went up; at some places there were not even enough space to pass another person. There is no lift and I could not but wonder what the situation would be if one were to break or sprain a leg at the top. There are some interesting views from the top (especially of the cathedral) and once can also see the huge bells installed on top, the largest of which weighs more than 3,000 kg – getting that up must have been an effort. Pisa is the birthplace of Galileo and he used to conduct many experiments on gravity by dropping objects from the top of the tower, as the tilt allows a free fall. As I was climbing the stairs, I was wondering how many times Galileo would have gone up those very steps; I guess he would have been physically fit!

In the compound, there is a pillar with the statue of a she-wolf suckling two young children. This is the legend behind the founding of Rome. It is said that twin children were born to a priestess, through a relationship with Mars. In those days, priestesses were supposed to be virgins and so the king ordered that the children be killed to erase all evidence and they were abandoned in a forest (or set adrift according to some versions). They were found by a she-wolf who took care of them. These twins, Romulus and Remus, killed the king when they grew up and later had a fall-out amongst themselves and that ended with Romulus killing Remus. Romulus brought together some tribal settlements and founded the kingdom of Rome (Roma) in 753 BC and became the first king. I was intrigued to see this statue that related to the founding of Rome in this faraway city of Pisa; all the more so when you consider that all these city states were constantly warring with each other before the founding of modern day Italy.

Next stop on the way back was the very picturesque and old town of San Gimignano.  This town has a population of about 8,000 people today and has its origin as an Etruscan village. Etruscans were the ancient tribe that dominated most parts of Italy and were quite a force in 8th century BC. The town derives its name from a bishop who supposedly saved it from Attila the Hun. The most interesting aspect of this small town is the presence of many towers that look like skyscrapers from afar. Most of those were built in the 13th century by rich families in a garish demonstration of their wealth. The town itself has many narrow, delightful streets that lead into a wonderful square with a well in the centre. We spent some time there drinking coffee on the square and wandering through many nice shops that seemed to have quite fascinating collections of porcelain.

14 May 2011

We set off for Florence in the morning. I was a bit apprehensive of driving in Florence as I had read about the no entry zones for visitors’ cars. The GPS was not very helpful as we got to the city centre and I soon found myself in some narrow streets and hit the dreaded no entry area as well. However, there was a very helpful policeman there who directed me to some parking. Our plan was to visit the Duomo and the Uffizi. According to the Lonely Planet, the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence is among the “Big Three” in Italy, the other two being the Colosseum and the Leaning Tower.

The Duomo is quite imposing and the work is very detailed indeed. The effort that has gone into the sculptures, frescoes, door panels etc. is quite amazing. However, I felt that the guidebook was overrating the Duomo as I felt that the one in Milan is more impressive. It may well have been the sensory overload that we had been subjected to in the days just gone by! The walls of the Duomo are done in pink, white and green marble and do present a nice view.

There is a very tall bell tower right next to the Duomo and you can climb on to the top, if you are willing to put in the effort of going up 414 steep steps. Of course, you soon forget the effort of the climb as you get to the beautiful views at the top.

We spent some time walking around the square and then proceeded to the Uffizi Museum, where we had made a reservation. The Uffizi was first built to house various administrative offices (Uffizi means office in Italian) but was later converted to hold the private collection of the wealthy Medici family. The last member of the Medici family bequeathed the collection to the city of Florence in 1743, under the condition that the collection would stay in the city of Florence. There are more than 1500 items in this gallery, which occupies about 50 rooms. The focus here is on the Tuscan masters and personally I found that the museum is a bit overrated, possibly because I was expecting something on the lines of Louvre or the National Museum in London. The works are arranged in chronological order to reflect the evolution of various movements like Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Neoclassicism etc. Needless to say, we did not spend the four hours in Uffizi that the guidebook had suggested.

As we stepped out, we ran right into a parade of old cars and Ferraris; they were part of a 1000 mile race. This was possibly the highpoint for Bharath and we stood there for twenty minutes or so, watching those gorgeous cars roll by.

We had been driving on the very same highway the day before and had noticed a small town called Monteriggioni and decided to drop in there on the way back; especially as we could not see this in the guidebook or the GPS. It turned out to be a very beautiful village with the mandatory square and three or four small alleys; with a wall running all around it. It was possibly the house of a large landlord and there is a church and a boutique hotel there now. The square had a nice café and we spent some time there. There was a wedding going on in the church and so there were a fair number of visitors in the place. We sat around for some time, taking in the fantastic views. I found myself sitting next to an old man and I tried to communicate with him but sign language could help me only in understanding that he lived there. I wonder how it would be to spend your days in a place like that, where time seems to stand still.

15 May 2011

Tuscany is very well known for its wines as it is home to the very famous Chianti Classico. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a wet day and that put paid to a lot of our plans. Our first stop was Chianti in Greve and that turned out to a very nice and small town. It was a bit cold and wet but the market around the square seemed to be doing well. There were many interesting things for sale in the square including some very old suitcases, telephones etc. I also found an old man making baskets out of some sort of grass or bamboo. He was happy enough to pose for a photo. While walking around the shops in the square, I noticed some graffiti asking for Tibet to be liberated. Some agonizing soul must have scribbled that in a moment of deep frustration.

Next stop was the famous city of Siena. This is a fantastic walled city with fabulous buildings, streets with old world charm and a great square. The cathedral is also very beautiful. Unfortunately, it was quite wet and so we could not really see the city.

I had read of a wine called Brunello and wanted to look it up and that meant a visit to a town called Montalcino. The rain had hardened by then and we drove through a raging storm to Montalcino. The drive was worth it as I got to taste the 2004 vintage Brunello in the shop and that turned out to be excellent; even I could appreciate the difference in quality between the 2004 and 2005 vintage.

Comments
  1. Delpha Tone says:

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