Friday, July 22, 2011

Exploring Florence

My favorite Italian city, after Rome, has to be Florence. This place is pure Renaissance and one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited. Nine years ago when I was here, circumstances beyond my control (pouring rain, long lines, limited time) crushed my plan (and a little bit of my soul) of visiting David, so I was ecstatic to finally see him on this trip. In fact, the night before we visited the Galleria dell'Accademia, I cried a little bit in my bed thinking about finally being able to see him in the flesh, so to speak...

We started our trip back in time to Renaissance Florence by visiting Santa Croce, begun in 1294. On the outside, this is a pretty unassuming building in Florence, as beautiful as its marble facade is (above). But inside, it's pretty much the Westminster Abbey of Italy and home to the tombs of some of Italy's most famous men--Machiavelli, Dante, Galileo, and Michelangelo, to name a few. The church also has beautiful frescoes by Giotto, who is often called the father of modern painting--his use of perspective was ahead of its time, he combined portraiture and landscape in totally new ways, and he was one of the first artists to use blue to color the sky. Giotto's pictorial decoration aimed to instruct the poor/illiterate on redemption and the lives of the saints. There are also beautiful stained glass windows and altarpieces inside the church.

Central nave of Santa Croce...

...with its beautiful Gothic arches.

This is Michelangelo's tomb, designed by Vasari in 1570. No big deal. The bust is a portrait of Michelangelo and the three sculptural figures sitting around the tomb represent Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, since Michelangelo did it all.

Inscription on the tomb.

These are two frescoes by Giotto, the Apparition of St. Francis and the Death of St. Francis. It's hard to capture the solemn intensity of these frescoes, but they were so beautiful and moving.

Hayley and I spent a lot of time in this square, just hanging out and watching people. One of the things I enjoyed about Florence was that although it was full of people and gearing up for a big holiday in honor of the city's patron saint (St. John), it never seemed uncomfortably crowded, intimidating, rushed, or overwhelming. In Venice and Rome, personal space was often nonexistent and an elbow might have been jabbed into a rib cage here or there as we fought our way through churches or museums. But Florence encourages relaxing and wandering. There are only a few main squares and they're all close to each other, so meandering around the compact city is easy.

Anyway, this square is called Piazza della Signoria. There are statues all over the square commemorating the city's history. The statue above is the Fontana di Nettuno, a fountain of Neptune surrounded by water nymphs.

This is Cellini's Perseus and Medusa.

Don't get too excited just yet...this is a copy of David. But this is where the real David originally stood until 1873.

Our first night in Florence, we had a delicious pizza dinner. (Oh, and that's Diet Coke, in case you're wondering.) Our second night? McDonald's!

This is me trying not to have an excitement-induced seizure in front of the Uffizi, the most amazing museum in Italy. The paintings here are unbelievable and so, so famous--Titian's Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio's Bacchus, and of course, Boticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, just to name a few. I had the best time here.

This is the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, built in 1345. It crosses the Arno River and is lined with shops. Most of them sell gold jewelry.

I felt like I was in medieval times on this bridge with its flags. It was so cute.

Ponte Vecchio. (Gosh, I love shutters.)

This is the marble facade of the front entrance to the Duomo. The exterior of the Duomo reminds me of the facade of It's a Small World at Disneyland. I don't know if that's tragic of kind of funny.

The orange-tiled dome of the Duomo is the symbol of Florence, and the city's tallest building. It was designed by Brunelleschi.

In front of the Duomo.

From left to right is the Baptistry, the Duomo, and the Campanile (bell tower), designed by Giotto in 1334.

Just some cool, giant, awesome looking doors on the side of the Duomo.

These are the famous east doors of the Baptistry. Why are they famous? I'm so glad you asked...

Andrea Pisano had made a pair of bronze doors for the Baptistry in 1300-1330, but in 1401 sculptors were invited to compete in making a second pair of doors. This was pretty much the first public competition in the history of art! And the winner was...Lorenzo Ghiberti! An impressed Michelangelo called them the Gates of Paradise. The perspective and detail used in each panel is incredible. Each square tells an Old Testament story. The doors were given a place of honor on the Baptistry--they face the cathedral.

For lunch--insalata capresa, my absolute favorite. Squisito!

After lunch we headed to the Galleria dell'Accademia, founded in 1563, to visit David. David is a colossal statue (17 feet tall!) and was commissioned by the city for Piazza della Signoria, but he was moved here in 1873 for safekeeping. There are other important art collections at the Accademia, but no ones cares because they're too busy looking at David.

I'm not going to say much about him because he's getting his own post,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Best Meal I Had In Italy

The picturesque Tuscan countryside--a patchwork of pretty fields, crops, sunflowers, and vineyards--provided a gorgeous backdrop as we drove from Venice to Florence. We stopped at a vineyard here called Fattoria il Poggio for an unforgettable lunch. Aside from producing wine, they also grow olives and make their own olive oil, which is pretty much its own food group in Tuscany, and used to cook and flavor almost everything. Seriously, I'm pretty sure if you asked for butter in Tuscany, you'd be slapped.

Okay, first off...can we just talk about how much more delicious and refreshing Coca-Cola is in every country besides the United States? I never drink Coke in America, but when it showed up on a meal table in Italy, it felt like Christmas morning. Factors that contribute to this phenomenon not making sense include: Coke is super expensive. Coke is served without ice and often at room temperature. Coke does not come with free refills. Really, I should hate Coke in other countries. But...there's something about the sweet familiarity of it that just made it the greatest thing ever in Italy.

Here starts the beginning of our meal, with--what else?--pasta! We ate pasta nearly every day on our trip, but this dish really stood out. The noodles were handmade into thin little sheets. I've never really seen pasta shaped like this before, and it just melted in my mouth. I got the vegetarian sauce, which was a simple, light tomato sauce.

Then we got to sample lots of yummy Tuscan foods--fresh bread (we also had bread grilled to a perfect crunch in olive oil), aromatic vinegar and olive oil that's made on the farm, smooth Pecorino cheese, flavorful sun-dried tomatoes, and kalamata olives (pits intact).

Next was the most delicious bruschetta ever, artichokes, and chunks of amazing parmesan cheese. Did I mention that I was full after the pasta?

To finish our meal, we had crunchy little almond biscuits (biscotti), which are traditionally dipped in Vin Santo, a dessert wine. I definitely shoved a handful in my purse and nibbled on them in Florence.

I was so full after our meal, I just wanted to lay down and unbutton my jeans. But we took a little tour of the vineyard and farm, saw the wine cellars, and got to see the machines where the olive oil is made. Here's part of the vineyard.

I love the simplicity of Italian food. The elements are so pure, simple, and fresh, and just a few combined ingredients--a beautiful tomato, fresh olive oil--can create a perfectly flavored meal. Nothing too weird, spicy, or assaulting to the senses...just purely delicious.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liquers in one go. --Truman Capote

Ah, Venice...what a unique, beautiful, magical city. Scattered across 117 islands, Venice is the world's only pedestrian city, and a very pleasant one to get lost in. This is the Campanile, or bell tower. I went to the top of it nine years ago when I first visited Venice!

Venice has been a wealthy city for centuries, growing rich from trade between northern Europe and the Near East. In 828 the city garnered more prestige when it acquired the relics of St. Mark from Alexandria. St. Mark's basilica was built as a chapel attached to the palace of the Doges, the elected leaders of the Venetian republic. (Doge means duke in Venetian.)

This is the Doges' Palace, or Palazzo Ducale. It's a girl's dream--a pink palace! The beautiful building is made of pink Veronese marble and looks so light and airy as the bulk of the structure sits on a framework of delicate, lacy arcades built of white Istrian stone.

In Piazza San Marco with the Palazzo Ducale and basilica behind me. It's early in the morning and I was already melting in the sweltering humidity. Guess that's what I get for wearing jeans in Italy in June...idiot.

The palace was begun in the 1340s, mainly to provide a meeting place for the elected assembly of the republic.

Sweating is so not cute.

I love this picture. I am looking out into the central courtyard of the palace and St. Mark's. You can see how it's attached to the palace.

Here we are in the dungeons. Since the 16th Century, the palace has been attached to the prison, linked by the famous Bridge of Sighs. Named by Lord Byron in the 19th Century, the bridge is where prisoners would sigh as they were led from the interrogation rooms to their prison cells. Casanova was the most famous prisoner here.

This is a view from the bridge over the Rio di Palazzo...the last sight of Venice that many convicts ever saw...

The Giants' Staircase at Palazzo Ducale, topped by statues of Mars and Neptune, symbols of Venice's power.

Front of St. Mark's Basilica, or Basilica di San Marco. Until 1807 this was the doge's private chapel. Ridiculous.

Standing in Piazza San Marco, heading to hop on a gondola.

So, gondolas. Some call them a pricey tourist trap; I call them a non-negotiable. There is nothing like a gondola ride to see some amazing views of beautifully secluded canals and to get away from the noisy crowds in the main square to experience the openness and tranquility of the city.

By 900 years of tradition, gondoliers must be male and Venetian-born. Here's ours...his name was Johnny. I'm just going to say it--we definitely got the cutest gondolier in Venice.

In 1562 decree was made that all gondolas must be painted black. Keep it classy, Venice...

Santa Maria della Salute, at the mouth of the Grand Canal. This Baroque church was built to celebrate Venice's deliverance from the plague epidemic of 1630. Salute means health and salvation. And how cute is that gondolier?!

Santa Maria della Salute.

View from our gondola in the Grand Canal. Is this real life? How adorable is Venice?!

The pigeons of Venice. Never in my life have I ever craved so much attention from pigeons. Venetian pigeons are just so cute and magical. It's so easy to forget how dirty they are and that they poop a lot. You just want to feed them and befriend them and like, hug them.

This is the interior of St. Mark's. These are NO FOTO pictures, so of course they're terrible and don't do the place any justice. Not that any photograph really could. I have been in few other churches/cathedrals that have a more deeply spiritual atmosphere. With its dim lighting and mysterious spaces, this place invites you in to wonder and worship. Almost the entire interior of the basilica--the domes, walls, and floor--is covered with gleaming gold mosaics of figures of saints. The whole place just dazzles with a golden glory.

St. Mark's tomb. When I saw this, I knew I had to do some research because I just couldn't believe I saw Mark's tomb! Mark, as in The Gospel of. Here's the scoop--the building of St. Mark's is actually the third to stand on the site. The first one enshrined the body of Mark in the 9th Century, but it was destroyed by a fire in 976. But apparently the body reappeared when the new church was consecrated in 1094 and the remains are housed here. Hmm...alright!

Hayley and me on a bridge over the Grand Canal.

After St. Mark's and a delicious pizza lunch, we wandered all over the crooked alleyways of the city and found ourselves lost in all of its nooks and crannies looking for this thing--the Rialto Bridge, one of Venice's most famous sights (and really, not that hard to find). Completed in 1591, the Rialto was the only means of crossing the Grand Canal until 1854.

It felt like we had meandered for hours. The heat and humidity might have multiplied the time; Venice was by far the hottest city of our trip. After a jam-packed day of walking, water taxis, and gondolas, we were ready to head to Florence...