Montepertusso on the Amalfi Coast of Italy

Montepertusso on the Amalfi Coast of Italy
Montepertusso on the Amalfi Coast of Italy

Sunday, November 4, 2018

10-04-2018 Day 10 The Accademia, “The David”, and Visiting the Baptistry

Florence weather on this day: clear and sunny, with a high of 81 Degrees F/27.2 C

One of the great thrills of visiting Europe for many people is seeing Michelangelo’s David in the (stone) flesh at the Accademia Gallery of Florence. I knew it was going to be a thrill for me.  Michelangelo in my opinion is the greatest sculptor that ever lived, and there have been some great ones. 

There are several “David’s” in Florence, and some might choose to skip the crowded gallery and simply view the copy that is placed in the square where the original once stood.  Not me.  Several months before our trip I contacted the Accademia directly online and purchased our “skip the line” tickets for a day early in our visit to Florence.  I decided that since this particular gallery is small enough to be manageable we could do it without a guided tour.  Instead, we used Rick Steve’s Accademia Gallery Tour in the Florence and Tuscany book that was our little bible while visiting the city.

A view of our apartment from the bridge, with Piazza Michelangelo in the upper background

Our entry time was at 10, and the Accademia is about 45 minutes to an hour walking time from the apartment.  We left early enough to walk slowly enjoying the uncrowded streets. We arrived in time to enjoy a cappuccino and a croissant at a nearby cafe before our designated entry. Deanna and I both came to love those morning stops for capuccinno.

Early morning walk through Florence to the Accademia

The main stars of the show at the Accademia are Michelangelo’s David and his sculptures later named “The Prisoners”. There are several exhibits in the museum in addition to these that are lovely but not completely overwhelming.  Visiting all the magnificent museums full of art and all the overpowering architecture in a city like Florence can be a bit much at times.  There is even a syndrome named for this.  It is called Stendahl Syndrome, and can be caused by seeing too much art in Italy. According to Wikipedia, “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

I know that after a few days, in addition to the vertigo, I started getting a neckache from looking up all the time, always up.  There is a lot of tall stuff to look at in Florence.

This morning visit to the Accademia was perfect for us.  I didn’t waste a lot of time initially looking at anything else, heading with single minded purpose to the room containing Michelangelo’s David.  It is probably his most famous sculpture, of many, and not even my favorite.  I love the Pieta that is in the Vatican most of all, but seeing his work in person, for real  and up close is incomparable.

Michelangelo was only 26 when he was commissioned to carve a large scale work for the Duomo.  This particular block of marble had been rejected by other sculptors as too tall, too flawed, and too shallow to be valuable.  Much has been written about whether the sculpture depicts David before or after the kill of the Giant, of the purpose behind the huge outsized left hand, about the changing expression on his face as the statue is viewed from different directions.

We stayed in the David room for quite some time, viewing from many angles, taking our turn up close to get photos.  I was so excited about seeing it and didn’t mind in the least that the gallery was crowded with people, all vying for their position in front of the David.  Some were being silly taking selfies, others posing for photos as I was, and others sitting on the benches along the sidelines contemplating the statue. 

After getting our fill of David, and finally leaving that part of the museum, we returned to the gallery we had passed through previously unseen with our eyes only for David.  In this gallery were the unfinished figures of Michelangelo’s Prisoners. Michelangelo believed that as a sculptor he merely revealed the figures that God had already embedded in the marble.  The figures are in various states of completion appearing to simply emerge from the stone as Michelangelo envisioned.

In the same gallery was another later, unfinished Pieta by Michelangelo and a bronze bust of Michelangelo himself, depicting a craggy, wrinkled old man at the age of 89, with the famous broken nose.

On the second floor are the Florentine Paintings, with altarpieces showing saints and Madonnas.  These paintings are from the last part of the Middle Ages, the time after the Great Plague almost destroyed Florence, yet before the Renaissance hit in full force.

As we finished our tour, I wandered back into the nave where The David stood, and tried to imprint on my mind the actuality of seeing this great piece of art up close, in real life.

Emerging into the early afternoon sunlight, we were a short 15 minute walk from the Duomo.  We had planned to spend the next day (Friday)  climbing the Duomo stairs and viewing the interior of the great cathedral.  With a bit of energy left to spend we decided to visit the smaller and older Baptistry this afternoon to simplify tomorrow’s explorations. 

The Baptistry is the smaller octagonal building to the left of the Duomo across the crowded piazza

The Baptistry is Florence’s oldest building, built 1,000 years ago.  It is the soul heart of the Florentines, more so than the Duomo itself which is close by. The difference in the crowds by late afternoon was dramatic. The piazza was teeming with people lining up to see the sights, eating in the cafes, and strolling the square. 

The interior of the great church is rich with ceiling mosaics made of Venetian glass, added to the church in the late 1200’s.  The Last Judgment on the ceiling shows a glimpse of the medieval worldview where life was a preparation for the afterlife. Some of the scenes look like the hells of Dante with demons and monsters.  Dante himself was baptized in the waters in this church.

After leaving the Baptistry we braved the ever growing crowds and stopped at a few shops along the route.  We discovered one of the most amazing arts to be found in Florence.  The images below are created from inlaid colored natural stone.  The smallest start at 350 EU, for a piece about 3x4 inches, and the larger pieces were many thousands of dollars.  I decided against putting out half a years worth of income for the one I loved most but so enjoyed looking at the artistry up close.

Our meandering route led us almost by accident to the Piazza dell Repubblica, which has a long and incredible history.  The statue of Neptune was in a state of disrepair, and as is the case with many displays of outdoor art in Florence was draped in tarps with photos depicting what we would be seeing if it weren’t all covered up.

By this time, in this part of the city, the crowds were truly horrific and we were beginning to show some wear and tear on our bodies as well as our psyches.

Wandering aimlessly to Piazza della Signoria we discovered the fake David (a truly awful rendition of the real thing) adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, the palatial Town Hall of the Medici.

We spent a bit of time in the Palazzio Vecchio courtyard in the free zone, and skipped the paid tour of the interior.  This was the original home of the Medici’s before they decided that it was too “dated” and moved their residences to the brand new Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno River.

We were both getting very tired and hungry. Wandering in the general direction of the river, we found another take away bakery with fresh, hot pizza slices.  We later decided these were the best pizzas we tasted during our entire time in Italy, but we could never find that little bakery again.

After devouring our pizza, we had another gelato before following the main road along the river back home to the apartment. After napping a bit we settled in the warm sun on the terrace, made some calls to home and tried to decide it if was time to hike up to the Piazza Michelangelo for a traditional sunset view.

Although this gorgeous and quite famous piazza is just blocks from our apartment, the roads leading there are winding and steep, including many steps and stairs and more switchbacks.  I am ashamed to admit that even though we talked about it several times, this evening was our only visit to the famous square overlooking the city.

As with most everything else we had experienced on this day, the square was very crowded.  There is a small cafe but all the chairs were filled, and the open spaces along the walls were filled with people and cameras getting ready to shoot the famous view of the city at sunset.

I am doing this just for fun, and as much for Deanna and for me as anyone else, but if you want to, check out the google map street view of the Piazza.  You can walk all around and see it as we did with LOTS of people waiting for sunset and the view. There is another fake David in the center of the square, a somewhat newer addition to the city of Florence, only created in 1869.

We looked at the bright early evening skies, not a cloud in sight for interest, looked at each other and said, “Nah, Tired, Home”.  It truly was a gorgeous, expansive view of the great city that would no doubt be magnificent on a day with some clouds for interest, or on a day when we would be willing to wait another hour and fight the crowds for a photo. 

We had a perfectly lovely view of the quiet evening sunset from our very own terrace where our dinner consisted of an entire container of fresh green olives, tomatoes, and the last of our yogurts.  Those olives are addictive, and every time we would run out of them we had to buy more.  My goodness, I can taste them right now but have no clue where in the world I would ever find them here at home.  Maybe some things are best saved in the memories of visiting Italy.

Photos from our visit to the Accademia are here

Photos from our visit to the Baptistry and Piazza Michelangelo are here

10-03-2018 Day 9 The Wonder that is Florence

High Temperature on this day, 78 Degrees F/25.5 C sunny and clear

When I started planning this trip I immediately bought some guidebooks.  There is a ton of information on the internet but I wanted hard copy to peruse on cold winter nights.  I had Rick Steve’s Florence and Tuscany, and Lonely Planet Florence.  I read and read, studied maps, walked around the city using google street view, and tore out the hard copy map. 

Isabella had said, “Always look for the Duomo, it will keep you oriented”.  What she didn’t say is that the huge dome of the Duomo is not visible when you are wandering the narrow canyons that are the streets of Florence.  As Deanna and I must have said a thousand times, “Thank goodness for Google Offline Maps!”.  I have no idea how one would navigate Florence with only a paper map.

We dressed comfortably for the warm day ahead, making sure that we also had appropriate leg and shoulder coverings for the churches.  The only way to begin to understand Florence is to head first for the piazza of the  Duomo, formally known as the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore.  Our apartment on the east side of the Arno River is about half an hour’s walk from the Duomo, and on that first morning we chose to walk the west side of the Arno River toward the Ponte Vecchio.

Built in 966 very close to the original Roman crossing, the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge”, was the only bridge across the Arno in Florence until 1218. The current bridge was rebuilt after a flood in 1345. During World War II it was the only bridge across the Arno that the fleeing Germans did not destroy. Instead they blocked access by demolishing the medieval buildings on each side. On  November 4, 1966, a devastating flood destroyed much of downtown Florence but the bridge miraculously withstood the floods.

There have been shops on Ponte Vecchio since the 13th century. Initially, there were all types of shops, including butchers, fishmongers and, tanners, with the associated rank smells. Understanding the history of the Medici’s is central to understanding Florence and the Renaissance.  Their wealth and power during the 15th century was unprecedented.  They decided that the smell wasn’t acceptable and in the  mid 1500’s, Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers be allowed to have their shops on the bridge in order to improve the wellbeing of everyone, including that of the Medici as they walked over the bridge between their offices at the Uffizi buildings and their home at Pitti Palace on the opposite side of the Arno River.

We followed the walk to the right. the Uffizi Gallery is the tall grayish building beyond the Galileo Gallery

The bridge looked interesting in the morning sunlight with rowers from the local elite rowing club on the water.  We were glad to be walking rather than driving as traffic was crazy all around us.  Even walking was a bit of a challenge on the narrow footpath along the river with crowds lining up and couples stopping to take photos of the famous bridge.

We didn’t realize that we were in front of the famous Uffizi Gallery when the foot traffic got really thick, and we had to thread our way through the crowds to try to get past the entry lines. On that first morning, we didn’t know much.  It is fun to look back on that first  wandering walk and compare it to how much we learned of the city in the ten days or so that followed.  It was a bit intimidating, but not really too much as we continued to wander in the general direction of the Duomo.

I thought you might like an overview of the city as you read.  Our apartment in on the lower far right corner

We turned at a side street just past the bridge, and there was the gorgeous red dome of the famous Duomo, gleaming in the morning light.  The cathedral is huge, and the complex includes not only the main cathedral, but the bell tower, “Campanille” and the Baptistry.  Our plan for this first day included no formal tours, with the idea that we would wander, get to know the place a bit from the outside before venturing inside any of the famous cathedrals and galleries that we planned to visit.

An aerial view from Google of the Piazza Duomo, the Baptistry to the left, the Campanille so the south of the Cathedral, The Dome on the right, and our little Duomo Caffe along the Piazza

That plan worked out fairly well.  We had read that the only way to begin to deal with the huge crowds of tourists was to begin the day early, and we were in time to get tickets to climb the bell tower without having to wait terribly long in the lines.  Even at that early hour, around 10:30, the lines for entry into the Duomo itself were all the way around the block and would be at least a 2 hour wait.  Lucky for us, not many folks were excited about climbing the stairs of the bell tower.  It is the tourist thing to do to climb the Duomo, but the guidebooks suggested that climbing the bell tower actually provided better views and the line was often much shorter.  The guidebook was right!

We did have to stand in line at the Duomo Museum building, around the square some distance to get tickets for the bell tower.  At that time we also got  an entry time to climb the Duomo, with the first time available being the following Friday night. 

Hurrying back to the bell tower line we discovered that in just the few minutes it took to get our tickets, the line had grown quite a bit.  Still, the wait was tolerable.  The ticket taker looked askance at my walking stick and my white hair and made sure that I knew the bell tower was 414 steps to the top.

Giotto was a painter and architect from Florence during the late middle ages.  He was the main architect for the graceful "Giotto's Campanile" as the bell tower of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is called in Italian.  The tower is a beautiful example of Florentine gothic architecture of the fourteenth century.

As we began to explore the beautiful churches and museums of Florence, the evolution from the Dark Ages and the Gothic period to the brilliant realism of the Renaissance in art and architecture was evident everywhere.  This was the heart of Florence, the reason is it such a magical place to experience the leap that mankind made during the Renaissance.

Deanna and I didn’t notice the diamond shaped sculptures here until AFTER we saw the real ones in the museum.

Giotto began the construction of the bell tower in 1334, and it was completed after his death in 1359.  The bell tower is 269 feet/82 meters high and requires climbing all 414 steps to reach the top. The climb up the tower isn’t terribly difficult and there are three open middle floors where you can rest and enjoy the view.The steps are rather narrow and it is the only way up and down, so you need to share it with people going in both directions. Everyone is quite polite, with bodies grazing each other in the narrow space, and lots of laughter.

The view from the top was thrilling, with red tiles roofs far below us in all directions, the narrow winding streets of Florence looking like a huge maze. We had a gorgeous bird’s eye view of Brunelleschi’s Dome, (more about that in another post).

Going down was easier on the legs and lungs but harder on the knees and balance.  Once again, in the narrow stairways on the crooked steps, I relied on Deanna’s shoulder in front of me for balance.  Worked great.

When we reached the piazza it was time for some refreshments.  The outdoor seating at Caffe Duomo, right on the piazza near the Museum was sheltered from the bright sun and looked very inviting.

Lunch was not inexpensive, but so delicious.  Italian salami, cheeses, more fabulous tomatoes, and panini bread that was done to perfection, crispy but tender.  As always, the question about water, sparkling or still? No such thing as tap water in a glass in most Italian eating establishments.Topped off with a cappuccino as we watched the crazy crowds milling about it was a delightful treat.

The tickets we had purchased earlier at the Duomo Museum included the Bell Tower, the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Crypt, and the Duomo Museum.  There were many reasons to visit this museum, but I had an agenda:  it was time to view my first Michelangelo sculpture.

However an even more important reason to visit this beautiful newly remodeled museum is that almost all the original sculpture from the facade of the Bell Tower and the Duomo is here.  In order to protect the priceless art from vandalism and the weather, copies have been made for display in their original locations and the actual pieces are inside the museum.

While I was searching around on Google attempting to locate the Caffe Duomo as I was writing this blog, I suddenly found myself right inside the museum with a 360 view.  Google is now doing interior spaces of some of these great world treasures.  Before you continue with my story, check out the link here. Deanna, this means you too!  You will be amazed!

The figure on the left is Donatello’s St John the Evangelist originally on the exterior of the Duomo

The interior of the museum is a newly recreated facade of the original cathedral with the sculptures in place as they once were on the exterior of the church.  The display of sculpture by so many artists was thrilling, with familiar and unfamiliar names from old art history classes.

Viewing the original Ghiberti Baptistry doors is so much better than seeing the copy from the street at the Baptistry. According to some, the Renaissance officially began in 1401 with a citywide competition to build new doors for the Baptistry.  Lorenzo Ghiberti won the job and built the first set of doors for the north entrance.  He was later commissioned to create another set of doors for the east entrance, facing the Duomo.  These bronze “Gates of Paradise” revolutionized the way Renaissance people viewed and depicted the world around them.

The aging Michelangelo’s later Pieta, with the face of Nicodemus a self portrait

In room toward the back of the building, showcased in a way to honor the artist, is the Pieta by Michelangelo.  This is his later Pieta, unlike the one in the Vatican which is so famous.  I was close enough to touch the marble, but of course I wouldn’t think of it. If you reach your hands toward any of the art loud alarms will go off triggered by the lasers that protect the pieces. 

A work of art that isn’t exactly beautiful but is so compelling is the wood carving of Mary Magdalene by Donatello. Donatello as a sculptor preceded Michelangelo and was at times a mentor to the younger sculptor.  Between 1415 and 1435 Donatello and his pupils completed eight life-sized marble prophets for niches in the Campanile of the Cathedral, and we viewed these original sculptures in the Museum. This wood carving was a complete departure of style and material for Donatello, and shocked the people of Florence.  The carving was completed during the later years of Donatello’s life and reflected the intense depression he experienced at that time.

This image is “The Weaver” by Andrea Pisano from the south side of the Campanile

This image is “Orpheus, the Musician” by Luca Della Robbia from the north side of the Campanile

Another display that we thoroughly enjoyed were the diamond-shaped, blue glazed panels that once decorated the Campanile, seven per side. The original design may have been Giotto, but his successor, Andrea Pisano and his assistants completed most of the panels.

The gallery for Brunelleschi’s Dome contains the architect’s models and his death mask in addition to details about the construction of the brick dome that was the precursor to the dome at St Peter’s in the Vatican.

We spent more than 2 hours in the museum.  A happy circumstance was the lack of crowding.  We did have to wait about half an hour in line to enter, but once inside the crowds were fairly well dispersed and not terribly intrusive.

I took a LOT of photos, and my museum interior skills definitely need some honing.  I will include some of them but if you want to see more here is a link to the rest of the photos for this day.

We were darn tired by late afternoon after our first day seeing just the beginning of what Florence has to offer.  Following our offline maps once again, we found a different route home, behind the Santa Croce Cathedral, and crossing the Arno River and the second bridge east from the Ponte Vecchio.  It was a  good route and we used it often in the coming days.

Once again we cooked a great dinner with some of our stash from the fabulous COOP grocery, with fresh veggies, tomatoes and zucchini of course, a salad with lettuce that was the least exciting thing we ate in Italy, and a great little steak to top it off.

We knew the next day would be another big one, and we fell into the almost decent mattress on the sofa bed with grateful hearts.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

10-02-2018 Day 8 First Day in Florence

Cloudy, a bit rainy, and 58F 14.4C

View toward Michelangelo Piazza from the apartment bedroom window

Neither of us slept well last night.  Perhaps Deanna may have slept better if I hadn’t been so restless, since we shared the queen sized bed in the bedroom.  There is also a sofa bed in the living area, but we decided to skip making that one up  since it takes up most of the space, and we had no problem sleeping together.

The problem with that plan is that the bed, much like our bed in Montepertuso, is very hard. In addition to being hard it is also lumpy, and sags a bit.  I can’t believe how attached we both are to our comfy beds.  Is this how Europeans sleep? 

I got up in the middle of the night and tried to sleep on the sofa, (at least here we HAVE a sofa) but that didn’t work for long either.  Hips and knees are arguing in a serious way.  I have a feeling it is the damp and cool weather rather than all the hiking we have been doing, because I was much better back on the sunny coast of Amalfi!

Rainy morning view from the kitchen window

We have already decided that this will be a catch-up day, so the rain is quite delightful.  No need to rush out and explore, and our main outing for the day will be a walk to the market. 

Breakfast was simple, with NesCafe conveniently left in the cupboard,  some of our lovely breads from Sara, and the last of our yogurts that we brought with us.  We can drink the water here in the apartment and are quite happy that we don’t have to be buying and hauling bottled water every day as we did in Montepertuso.  No clue if that was necessary or not as we never thought to ask Sara.  We bought a lot of big bottles of water while we were there. We saw locals filling water bottles at the square  in Montepertuso from a water vending machine so I am fairly certain we did the right thing.

This apartment has a lot of charm, with delightful art from the owner’s world travels in Africa.  I should mention that while Isabella speaks excellent Italian, she is actually Canadian and speaks perfect English.  Her home is outside the city on a small farm and she has lived in Italy for 18 years.  She was kind enough to leave us a lovely bottle of olive oil from her home orchard.  The apartment has two fat and fluffy down comforters, plenty of pots and pans, a microwave, and even a small washer which is currently taking care of a week’s worth of hiking clothes.

Isabella tried to give us a good overview of how to live in the apartment when we arrived.  The most complex instruction was concerning the heat and air conditioning.  It has a very strange system controller that is on the wall over the stairs, requiring a long lean over the railing and a flashlight to see the tiny settings which are in Italian of course.  So far we haven’t been successful getting the heat to operate, but hopefully that will be attended to before it gets cold again next weekend.  Tomorrow is supposed to be much warmer with no rain for a few more days. I did just receive a WhatsApp note from Isabella saying that in the city of Florence it is not legal to turn on the heat before November 1.  Ok then! Back to the jackets, socks, and comforters!

The bathroom in our little apartment is well appointed, with nice fixtures, excellent plumbing, and a window that opens for fresh air.  We had seen the photos on the Air BnB website, but they really don’t do justice to the small space.  It is very very small, so tiny that turning around in the space is not really possible.  The other laughable thing is that you have to step over the bidet to get the to toilet. 

We sat at the table this morning for breakfast, on hard little chairs with a thin cushion, and came up with a great idea.  We moved the extra cushions from the other chairs and now sit on 2 or 3, just right for computer work.  Are Americans really this soft??  I guess so, at least we are.  I want my cush!

The very best surprise for this morning, however, was our decision to open up the sofa bed and see how it worked.  Out popped the most lovely memory foam mattress, and we looked at each other and almost cried we were so happy.  Ahhhh.  We WILL be sleeping on the sofa bed, and are incredibly grateful that the next two weeks in Florence won’t be marred by aching hips from a hard bed.

We looked at each other and at the gray skies outside, the wet terrace through the window, and said, “Time for a nap!!”  I think it was about 9 AM.  Yes, this is a day of rest and recuperation, with the most difficult tasks being napping, processing photos, and actually writing for the blog. 

By midafternoon with rested bodies and minds it was time to brave the streets of our neighborhood and make an attempt to find the market. Although Isabella said that the market was just down the street, we had no clue how to find it.  It was still a bit cool and rainy and we donned our jackets, made sure that Google Maps had downloaded the proper maps for the area, and set off on the hunt.

Even with google maps for imagery the directions for walking don’t work when offline.  We wandered off in what seemed like the proper direction before we finally arrived on a street that had some shops.  The Carni (meat market) was closed, but down the street was a small pharmacy where they told us that the Carni would open in November.  The young woman in that shop told us to go to the COOP.   We managed to find the shopping center where the COOP was located on Google Maps.  After a couple of miles we at last entered into a huge supermarket and spent a long time looking at fabulous food and filling our carry bags with groceries for the coming week.

It was a long walk back to the apartment with those heavy bags.  We had to stop for sustenance at very nice little gelato shop where we were allowed to sit with our treat at the empty table without an extra charge.  While tasty, the gelato was nothing like the amazing treat we had in Positano. 

A bit farther along on the same road we found a bakery with take away pizza slices and bought two for our supper that evening.  We found Italian pizza to be much like any other, always different, some fabulous and some so-so. These first slices of pizza in Firenze were a veggie mix that was truly yummy.

Continuing along the road we passed the Carni once again and it was wide open! It had only been closed until 3pm, in the Italian tradition of closing in the afternoon for a long lunch.  Most shops are closed between 12 or 1 and 3 or 4 at least.  We also discovered that we had simply made the wrong turn when leaving the big intersection and in the future wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the COOP for groceries.

Just for fun, check out this Google map street view image of the intersection to understand why we were a bit confused on that first day in the big city. Just trying to get some groceries had turned into a major undertaking.

the main intersection near our apartment

Tomorrow will be a big day, as we begin to explore the magnificent history of the city center of Firenze.