December 29, 2013 – Going Home

It has probably taken me a month to write about the trip home because it was so horrible…

We have a lot of legs to our trip home. First we are going from Rome to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Houston, and finally Houston to San Francisco. The first leg goes smoothly.

Our trip to Houston is delayed. Then it is routed in a great arc trying to avoid weather over the northeast U.S. It is very, very long. Deplaning, we are hoping that we might still make our connection. Houston has a giant airport. The walk from the plane to immigration must be a mile. We hobble along as fast as we can. United has promised us that we have enough time to get through immigration and on our way because there are few international flights. Tonight, though, there are others. The line for U.S. citizens is very long. There are only three agents. While standing in line, we miss our flight. United has been kind enough to go ahead and book us on a later flight supposedly leaving at 9:30 PM. We crawl through the line. By the time we get through immigration, it is 9 PM. We still have to collect our luggage and go through customs. After getting our bags, we recheck them and then have to go through security again. At 9:15 we send Sarah ahead running to tell them we are on our way.

Sarah meets us half way to the gate to tell us that the plane is delayed until 11:40 PM. We have spent a lot of time sitting around today. We have been traveling almost a day’s worth at this point and we still have 4 hours to SFO. The United employees tell us that even though we have Business/First seats that we will have to sit in coach. Finally we get on the packed plane. Babies are crying and people are coughing for the next 4 hours. We arrive at SFO around 2:00 AM. By the time we collect our car, drop Sarah off, and make it home it is 4:00 AM. I swear I am never going anywhere again.

Of course, here it is now the end of January. Memories fade. Yesterday I said to John, “Gosh, it seems like we’ve been home forever! We need a trip!” But maybe a road trip this time.

What we did a lot of on the way home…

December 28, 2013 – Rome

Last day of sightseeing is upon us. We get up early wanting to beat the crowds at St. Peter’s. Arriving shortly before 9 AM, the lines are much shorter and we are inside quickly. We spend an excellent hour or so looking at all the interesting sculptures and tombs. By the time we leave the line is at least four times as long as when we arrived.

After successfully finding an ATM so that we can use taxis today, we walk to Castel Sant’Angelo. Built between 132 and 139 AD, The Mausoleum of Hadrian, usually known as Castel Sant’Angelo, is a towering, hulking, cylindrical building. It was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The building was later used by popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum. It is also another site in the video game, Assassin’s Creed, and Sarah is eager to explore. There are way too many slippery steps here and I spend most of my time waiting for everyone to finish looking around. It’s fun, though, to watch the Roman crowd who are taking advantage of the good weather this Saturday.


Needless to say, we are all pretty tired out by the time we’ve finished with St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo. Lucky thing, it’s lunch time! We find a groty place not too far away. Things are not looking too clean here but we are too polite to get up and walk away. The answer to “How’s your lunch?” is “It’s food and I am sitting down.”

Our last stop for the day is the Pantheon. The Pantheon commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome, and was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD. This building is astounding. It has the largest brick free standing dome in the world. Since it was converted into a church, the Pantheon was not gutted or torn down the way most ancient temples in Rome were. It is a marvel to stand in this almost 2000 year old enormous building and look up at the beautiful coffered ceiling towards the oculus.
The Pantheon

The Pantheon


Coffered ceiling and oculus of the Pantheon

Coffered ceiling and oculus of the Pantheon


We catch a taxi (finally) back to the hotel, pick up our luggage and make our way to Rome airport for one more night before we leave. After a totally awful dinner, we pack up and we will be on our way home tomorrow.

December 27, 2013 – Rome

Sarah said that we shouldn’t make this trip longer than three weeks. Here on our three weeks +1 day we are starting to break down. John and I are aching and Sarah may have broken a toe this morning. But the sightseeing must go on!

We bid farewell to our apartments on Via Spada and catch the train for Rome. Sarah is very keen on seeing Rome and we are less so.

Only one of our rooms is ready when we arrive at our hotel near the train station. We stow our luggage in Sarah’s room and have lunch in the hotel restaurant. Then we are off! We buy an all day ticket to the Metro. First stop, Colliseo. There are a lot of people on the train. They are mostly Italian. What? Are they going to visit their historic sites? We have run into almost no visitors everywhere we’ve gone. I guess because they all decided to visit Rome.

The Coliseum is packed and the line is very long. The last time we were here, we could walk around the historic sites. Now it is all fenced off and there is a ticket into everything. We decide to walk around the outside of the Coliseum and then up the Palantine Hill. There are vendors pushing souvenir drek in our faces.


Our next visit is to the church of St. Peter in a Chains. There is a sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo here, a group of interesting frescoes and St. Peter’s actual chains.

We are pretty tired now and Sarah is limping because of her toe. We head back to the hotel. Since we are taking the Metro there is a lot of walking and stair climbing. We are all pretty sore by the time we arrive back at the hotel.

The hotel has a happy hour and we could use some happy. We have drinks, snacks and a light meal in the lounge and retire early.

December 26, 2013 – St. Stephen’s Day – Florence

St. Stephen’s Day is kind of a quasi-holiday in Italy. As far as I can tell the main activity of the day is eating a pannettone type of sweet that is dome-shaped and has raisins or almonds or chocolate bits on top. The sticking out raisins etc. on top of the dome-shaped bread commemorates St. Stephen’s martyrdom by being stoned. In art, St. Stephen is usually shown with rocks on top of his head.

Unfortunately when Sarah goes down to our bakery next door to pick up our St. Stephen’s bread for breakfast, they are closed for St. Stephen’s Day. Sigh.

Today’s sightseeing main event is the Medici Chapels and San Lorenzo Cathedral. (No pictures allowed)The first San Lorenzo was built in the 300’s, rebuilt in the 1100’s and it’s interior was redone in the 1500’s. It is the first cathedral of Florence and also the home church to the Medici.

Unfinished front of San Lorenzo

Unfinished front of San Lorenzo


San Lorenzo complex

San Lorenzo complex

The Medicis were quite full of themselves and wanted a lasting monument to their wonderfulness. All the big name art and architecture players were involved. Michelangelo won the bid for the exterior but like many of his projects, it was never completed. He also did a lot of the sculptures in their mausoleum.

Lorenzo Medici's tomb with three Michelangelo sculptures (Figures of Dawn and Dusk and idealized Lorenzo)

Lorenzo Medici’s tomb with three Michelangelo sculptures (Figures of Dawn and Dusk and idealized Lorenzo)

Guiliano Medici's tomb with Michelangelo's Night and Day plus idealized Giuliano

Guiliano Medici’s tomb with Michelangelo’s Night and Day plus idealized Giuliano


Tourist note – The audio tour in the Medici Chapels is incredibly pompous and so filled with architectural jargon that we couldn’t figure out what they were talking about.

Our visit to San Lorenzo takes up the entire morning and afterwards we head back to the apartment to finish up yesterday’s lasagna and to start packing. My suitcase seems less full. Either I am getting better at packing or I am forgetting something.

For our final dinner in Florence we decide to go to Il Caminetto, a restaurant that we’ve been to on previous trips. Our dinner did not turn out so well. Perhaps we were less discerning ten years ago or the food has gone downhill.


We finish up with vin santo and cookies which we all enjoy.

A final walk by the Duomo and we say goodbye to Florence.

Goodbye, Florence! I hope we can make it back someday

Goodbye, Florence! I hope we can make it back someday

December 25, 2013 – Christmas in Florence

Merry Christmas!

It is our first Christmas in Florence. Well, maybe our second. A long time ago (1998?) we went on a family trip and I think we woke up Christmas morning in Florence and then took the train to Rome. But today’s Christmas was a little more traditional.

We’ve been accumulating our favorite Christmas foods since last week. Bagels are not so easy to find in Florence where their taste in bread seems to be stale and saltless. But we find them and we have our usual Christmas breakfast of bagels and lox with cream cheese, onions, and capers. Our only deviation is that John picked up Madagascar peppercorns instead of capers. It turns out that they are really tasty and add some extra spiciness.

Bagels and lox, beer and prosecco

Bagels and lox, beer and prosecco

We have a pretty lazy day. We read our books and hang around the apartment. Sarah goes out for a walk. There is some napping. Sarah makes a lasagna for our Christmas dinner. It is delicious! The Italian cheeses have a creamier texture and more vibrant flavor.

Real Italian lasagna made by Sarah

Real Italian lasagna made by Sarah

Tomorrow is our last full day in Florence before heading to Rome and home.

December 24, 2013 – Florence

Happy Christmas Eve! Usually on Christmas Eve we have a family gathering with lots of hors d’oeuvres and the grandkids, their parents and us exchanging gifts. Since we are not at home and Jon and his family are not with us, our Christmas Eve is the same but different.

John and I decide to opt out of sightseeing today. The pace has been pretty intense since we got to Italy and we figure two days in a row of down time will help for the final push through Rome. Sarah, though, has other ideas. And that’s fine.

She starts her day with a hike up Giotto’s Campanile. The views of Florence are wonderful there.

View of the Duomo from the Campanile

View of the Duomo from the Campanile


View of the Baptistry from the Campanile

View of the Baptistry from the Campanile

This is followed up with a trip to San Marco where Fra Angelico did his fresco work. No pictures allowed.

After lunch she has a trip to the Baptistry and another hike up into the dome of the cathedral. In comparison, John did a little shopping and we read books.

View of the Campanile from the top of the Duomo

View of the Campanile from the top of the Duomo


Ceiling of the Baptistry

Ceiling of the Baptistry


Late in the afternoon, Sarah and I go to the leather market and end our day on the Piazza della Republica having a cup of tea. Very civilized.
Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea

We fix our munchies and have a lovely Christmas Eve toasting and reminiscing about our trip.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE! (munchies include crostini de fegato, pizza sticks, biscotti, and salami and cheese mini-sandwiches)

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE! (munchies include crostini de fegato, pizza sticks, biscotti, and salami and cheese mini-sandwiches)

December 23, 2013 – Day trip to Siena

Monday is always a tricky day in Italy. Most museums are closed. Some churches are open abbreviated hours. So when we see that the Pinacoteca Nazionale, the Duomo and the City Hall in Siena are open at least part of Monday, it seemes a good time to go. Added to this bounty, the rain is supposed to hold off in Siena until Tuesday.

The train to Siena runs every hour at ten after. We catch the 8:10am and are in Siena before 10am. It is a pretty rickety old train not like the sleek ultra-speedy one we took to Rome last week. But it gets the job done. We catch a taxi to the Pinacoteca Nazionale.

There are many artworks at this museum that we enjoy – a lot from the 13th and 14th century. As in many other things, Siena was competing with Florence for the best “fill-in-the-blank” and art was one of them. Here are a few favorites.

It’s already after noon and on our way to the cathedral we see restaurant Numero Unico and it’s open. Much like the museums, restaurants also tend to be closed on Mondays. It’s pretty contemporary which is unusual and it’s menu is less traditional which is also unusual. My lunch is well-ordered and is delicious. The best of all three of us. (Go, me!)

After lunch we look at the beautiful Duomo from the outside since the cathedrals here have decided to now have a combo ticket letting you see about five different things for a lot more money. We just want to see the inside of the church but are not willing to pay $50 to do so.

The Duomo in Siena

The Duomo in Siena

Our last stop is at Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. The Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) was constructed in 1297 and its original purpose was to house the republican government. The palace is covered with frescoes. The most famous in the meeting room for the government is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government. It was unusual for the time since it did not deal with religious themes. Justice is on one wall depicted by a woman with other virtues around her. The effect of Good Government is on one side wall with happy prosperous people in a city and verdant fields in the country side. The other side, Bad Government, shows an evil devil like creature devouring citizens, a crumbling city and war.

Palazza Pubblico

Palazza Pubblico



We catch the train back to Florence having thoroughly enjoyed our outing in Siena. We do a little shopping for our Christmas dinner, buy some sandwiches for later from the bar next door and spend a quiet evening.

December 22, 2014 – Florence

Today we get up early so we can beat the crowds at the Uffizi. On reflection it might have been better if we had gone later. There is no line for general admission but there are a ton of tour groups. The trouble with tour groups is that they move like a large scrum from painting to painting blocking the view for everyone else. It is annoying but not fatal.

The tour groups begin to form outside the Uffizi

The tour groups begin to form outside the Uffizi

Of course there are no photos allowed here. We did not even sneak one this time. Important works here include Madonnas from the 13th-14th centuries by Giotto, Cimabue and Duccio and a lot of other early Renaissance painters. What a lot of people come to see are the Botticellis. There’s also a couple of paintings by Da Vinci and one by Michelangelo. Three hours are about my limit for art galleries. As we are leaving we discover that there is a whole new section downstairs for later Renaissance works. We give this a quick look through.

For Italians lunch on Sunday is the main meal of the day so we will make it our main meal as well. We find a trattoria that looks good and settle in. Our next sightseeing objective is Santa Croce and it does not open until 2PM so we can enjoy our lunch/dinner for the next hour and a half. The food is good although not cosmic.

Santa Croce is a BIG church. Many important people are buried here. We see the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Rossini to name a few. There’s also a lot of early Renaissance art.

John and I are tired out and we leave Sarah around 3 PM to finish up at Santa Croce and see whatever else she likes. We walk through the Christmas market and back to the apartment. Sarah comes home later full of all the things that we’ve missed – perhaps some other trip with better knees, I’ll see it all.

December 21, 2013 – Florence

Since yesterday was a slow sightseeing day, we have to make up for lost time. I have made up a schedule of what’s open on what day and what times they are open. Paper in hand, we are ready to hit the streets.

First up, the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio in the Ognissanti Church (All Saints.) This is the church we tried to get into this past Wednesday only to find it closed. This morning it is open! We make a contribution to restoring the church’s works and are ushered in by a pleasant lady behind the desk. We are, of course, alone in the chapel where the work is.

Ghirlandaio's Last Supper

Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper


In 1480 when this fresco was made, Leonardo da Vinci would be familiar with Ghirlandaio’s work and probably set off to make a more dynamic work when he painted his Last Supper in Milan. It’s true that the figures are more static but the painting is full of symbolism that would have been instantly recognizable to 15th century Catholics.

Our next stop is at Santo Spirito. We have been trying to get into this church for almost 20 years. The church was closed for much of this period due to problems in the scruffy San Frediano district. But today it is open! We spend some time examining all their paintings and sculptures. They have works that span the time from the 15th to the 20th century including a copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta and a crucifix by Michelangelo. There are no pictures allowed but Sarah manages one of the Pieta.

Santo Spirito

Santo Spirito


Copy of Michangelo's Pieta in Santo Spirito (original in St.Peter's)

Copy of Michangelo’s Pieta in Santo Spirito (original in St.Peter’s)

After this we look at their museum. It is mostly filled with fragments of columns and statues but has an interesting fresco covering one wall.

14th century crucifixion and a fragment of the Last Supper in the Santo Spirito museum

14th century crucifixion and a fragment of the Last Supper in the Santo Spirito museum


Two of the apostles at the Last Supper surviving from this 1380 fresco

Two of the apostles at the Last Supper surviving from this 1380 fresco

We walk along the streets of San Frediano with its many workshops. While Sarah and I duck into a cafe for cappucini, John goes in search of Mama’s Bakery for our Christmas bagels. Sarah insists that we take a “selfie” out on the square.

Marionette workshop with creepy headless puppets waiting to be rehabilitated

Marionette workshop with creepy headless puppets waiting to be rehabilitated


Selfie of Sarah and Mom

Selfie of Sarah and Mom


John's back with our Christmas bagels!

John’s back with our Christmas bagels!

Time for lunch! Our go-to place in the Santo Spirito piazza is Osteria Santo Spirito. I first ate here in 1995 while on a spouse’s tour of a Florence while John worked. We always have their rigatoni with ricotta salata.

After lunch we tackle the Pitti Palace. Sarah makes a fine tour guide for me as we go from room to room examining all the paintings and identifying saints. Our new favorite painting at the Pitti Palace? Raphael’s Madonna dell’Impannata. Jesus looks so happy here and it almost looks like Saint Catherine might be tickling him. At least I prefer to think that’s what she is doing rather than pointing to where he will be stuck with a lance during the Passion.

It’s getting late and time to head back to the apartment after a long day sightseeing. But there is still enough light to take a few photos on the Ponte Vecchio.

Dinner tonight is at 5 Amici. Although it is a humble trattoria, the food is very good and the waiter actually wants to serve us! We have a good time and head back to our apartments.


Florence is decorated for Christmas!

Florence is decorated for Christmas!

December 20, 2013 – Florence

This morning we get a slow start but we are finally up and out by 10:45. Since most things here are primarily open in the morning we have to be better about getting up and ready.

Our main event today is going to the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David. Along the way we pass through the Duomo square. Photo opportunity! The Duomo begun in 1296 and completed in 1436 has the largest brick dome ever constructed, a real engineering marvel of its day.

 Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze


Included in the Piazza del Duomo are Giottl’s Campanile and the Baptistry.
Florence Baptistry, an octagonal building begun in 1059

Florence Baptistry, an octagonal building begun in 1059


We spend a little time in the square enjoying the beauty of these buildings. They all look a little grimier since we were here last. I think the cleaning process is much like the Golden Gate Bridge’s painting schedule – when you complete the painting (cleaning), you start all over again.
Sarah and John in front of the Baptistry's Doors of Paradise

Sarah and John in front of the Baptistry’s Doors of Paradise


Sarah  and the large Christmas tree in the square

Sarah and the large Christmas tree in the square


We spend the next several hours at the Accademia. Once more there is no line to get in. Unfortunately no photos are allowed, not even with no flash. I can only imagine that this rule is because if you have your own pictures you won’t buy anything from the gift shop. The big draw here is Michelangelo’s David. It is truly monumental and awe-inspiring every time I have seen it. Also there are the “prisoners” which are unfinished sculptures which look like the figures are trying to emerge from the marble. Sarah and I really enjoy the vast collection of early Renaissance altarpieces and paintings displayed here.
Replica of David in the Piazza Signorelli

Replica of David in the Piazza Signorelli


At this point it is going on 2 PM and time for lunch. We stop at Ristorante Accademia in San Marco square. Because the restaurant is near the Accademia everything is 2 euros more than elsewhere. Food pictures –

So lunch is really good.

At this point John and I are pretty worn out. My knee continues to be a big problem and is swollen from all the walking about in Rome yesterday. We head back to the apartment after buying some groceries. Sarah plans to visit the Duomo complex and also San Marco. Unforunately San Marco is only open in the morning and the Duomo is now selling only a combo ticket for a bunch of attractions and she is unsure whether she should go ahead and do everything alone. So not a totally successful afternoon. Once again we are too full from lunch to have anything more than a sandwich and go to bed.

December 19, 2013 – Day trip to Rome

We’ve decided that the best way to beat the crowds at the Vatican Museums is to go there on a weekday, not during Christmas week. So although we will be in Rome at the end of our trip we’ve decided to take the train down for the day and see the museums. We were well rewarded.

We had to get up very early for our train ride to Rome

We had to get up very early for our train ride to Rome

After a thrilling taxi ride to the Vatican Museums, we arrive to find that there is no line to buy tickets. There are some Americans here and some school groups and, of course, the omnipresent Japenese tour groups, but otherwise it’s pretty empty for the Vatican Museums (yay!) First we take a look around the garden in the middle of the museums. There’s a giant pinecone here. Cast in 1 A.D!

Giant pinecome

Giant pinecome


St. Peter's dome as seen from the Vatican Museums

St. Peter’s dome as seen from the Vatican Museums


Our first destination is the pinacoteca. We enjoy the fact that they have a large collection of 13th and 14th century paintings. We spend quite a while looking at the collection until we realize that we need to get a move on if we are going to see Papal Apartments and the Sistine Chapel and then get over to take a look at St. Peter’s.
St. Onofrio with his long hair and leaves

St. Onofrio with his long hair and leaves


There is no easy way to reach the Papal Apartments and the Sistine Chapel. You have to go up and down a ton of stairs and through endless gift buying opportunities. If you had a lot of time some of this stuff would be quite interesting. I enjoy the hall of maps.

Finally we reach the Papal apartments painted by Raphael and his workshop. Here are a few of my favorites –
The angel waking St. Peter to lead him out of jail

The angel waking St. Peter to lead him out of jail


The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament

The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament


My favorite - The School of Athens

My favorite – The School of Athens

Here's a likeness of Dante in the previous painting

Here’s a likeness of Dante in the previous painting


We eat in the Papal Cafeteria and get extra helpings of eggplant parmesan from the nice lady behind the counter. Ladies like John. Then we are off to St. Peter’s. It’s a long walk around the outside of the museums to the church. There are no shortcuts. We asked.

We get there and, oh no, this is where all the people are. The line to get in is gigantic. We post John in line and Sarah and I take a few pictures.


We don’t think we will have enough time to get into the church and then find a taxi and get to our train. So we decide to leave without seeing St. Peter’s. We’ve all been there before so it is not quite the calamity it seems.

After another even more exciting taxi ride, we are back at the train station. Now we have time to kill. There are few seats so we settle into a bar/cafe and make a beer take a long, long time. Finally it is “All aboard!” or however they say that in Italian and we are zipping through the Italian countryside at 150 mph. We eat some sandwiches at home because we are way too exhausted to contemplate going out.

Sarah pours her been very slowly

Sarah pours her been very slowly

December 18, 2013 – Florence

First day in Florence! After a really bad night’s sleep due to drunken louts shouting out in the street below, we meet to decide today’s itinerary. It so nice to be able to sit in the living room, feet up, drinking a cup of tea and having a piece of toast for breakfast. I should have taken a picture of it but I didn’t.

First we decide to go to see Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper, then we will go to the Basilica de Santo Spirito and maybe the duomo before lunch. We look on the internet to check opening times. Uh oh, Santo Spirito is closed on Wednesdays. We head out with our abbreviated plan. We get to the church where Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper is displayed. Sign says closed on Wednesdays. Grr…Quick change in plans. We look briefly in the church and then head off to the Santa Maria del Carmine, home to the Brancacci Chapel, across the river.

After watching a video about the Brancacci Chapel and various artists who painted the frescoes, we are ready to see the real thing. We each get iPads with a wonderful description and videos of the various parts of the chapel. Below is a picture of why it is great to travel during the winter.

We are alone in the Brancacci Chapel!

We are alone in the Brancacci Chapel!

The walls tell the story of St. Peter.

Masaccio has painted a self-portrait and Filippino Lippi had painted in both himself and his teacher Sandro Boticelli.

We trek back to the apartments picking up some sandwiches along the way. Ah, a brief respite from the chilly temperatures, noisy motorbikes, and endless lunches.

Since we need to go to the train station to buy our tickets to go to Rome tomorrow, we decide to visit the Church of Santa Maria Novella as part of the trip. The Santa Maria Novella was started in the mid-13th century (about 1246), and was finished about 1360. This is really a must-see church with its frescoes by Ghirlandaio and his apprentice, Michelangelo, the gound breaking Holy Trinity by Masaccio and the fabulous Spanish chapel decorated from 1365 to 1367 by Andrea di Bonaiuto. Unfortunately no pictures allowed except for the one I sneaked in of the main altar.

After this we buy our train tickets and wend our way back to the apartment buying dinner supplies along the way. Our home cooked meal is a nice relaxing way to end a busy day.

Our dinner supplies

Our dinner supplies

December 17, 2013 – Monteriggioni and San Gimignano

Leaving Assisi, we decide to make a couple of side trips on the way to Florence. Originally we thought maybe we could cram in Siena, Monteriggioni and San Gimignano and still get to Florence at the appointed time to meet our greeters at the apartments. But we realize that there is no way all that is possible so we set aside Siena for a train trip from Florence and make our way to Monteriggioni.

Monteriggioni is a medieval walled town, located on a natural hill, built by the Sienese in 1214-1219 as a front line in their wars against Florence. It is a picturesque little place but more importantly it is the home base of a character from Assassin’s Creed, a video game that Sarah plays which takes place in various historical locations and times around the world. While John and I settle back with cappuccini and cookies at an outdoor cafe, Sarah runs about photographing significant sights.


After our visit to Monteriggioni we travel on to San Gimignano. San Gimignano is famous for its towers. Due to a conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, the families built tower houses of increasing height. Towards the end of the Medieval period they were 72 towers up to 230 feet tall. There are about 12 remaining.

There’s plenty to see but first, lunch! We find an open restaurant, Osteria del Carcere, and settle into a much longer lunch than anticipated. Although there is no pasta on the menu, we have no trouble finding yummy things to eat for lunch. Everything is made while you wait so that’s why it took a little longer than anticpated.

After lunch we only have about half an hour to sightsee. Sarah goes off on her own and John and I visit the Duomo. Inside are frescoes of the Sienese school of the fourteenth century. There is a free audio tour. We only get about half way through when it is time to meet Sarah and head on to Florence. This is a place I’d like to return to and finish admiring the frescoes.

We need to return the car to the Florence airport, call our greeters, catch a taxi, and arrive at our apartment by 5 PM. We manage all this and meet the lovely and gracious Miki and Franco who explain all about our apartments. I booked these places through ItalyPerfect and as it turns out we have part of a floor of a palazzo all to ourselves. Our section of the building is locked off from the rest of it and we have a large entrance hall with our two apartments across the hall from each other. We will be here for 10 days.


Can we possible eat more? Yes, we can. We go downstairs to a trattoria near to the apartment. It is bustling with local people who look askance at us. Sorry, just Americanos traveling at the non-tourist time of year.

Exhausted we look forward to our first night in our new home.

December 16, 2013 – Assisi

Today had its ups and downs mainly because there are no level streets in Assisi. You are either walking uphill or downhill, steeply up or downhill. There is no question that we are really going to feel this tomorrow.

We start out on the lower level of the Basilica San Francesco. Built in the 13th century, it is adorned with frescoes of its namesake, St. Francis, who lived and worked in Assisi. The audio tours are not available because it is not the high season for tourists. We are happy that there are few tourists but wish we could have the audio tour. Some pay audio phones are stationed in the church and they relate the story of the frescoes in the lower church. There are also some chapels that are painted by Giotto.

Approach to the lower basilica of San Francesco

Approach to the lower basilica of San Francesco


Upper basilica

Upper basilica


The artworks in the upper basilica are a little later and Giotto is doing the bulk of the frescoes but there is one notable one by Cimabue. John makes lists of questions we need to find answers to later in the day when we have access to the internet. Both Sarah and I feel frustrated not being able to lay our hands on the information that we need immediately. Why is St. Francis in a red chariot? Inquiring minds want to know. We go outside and see an elaborate manger scene with lifesize models. Later I find out that in 1221 St. Francis was the first one to ever stage a manger scene.
Manger scene from the upper basilica of San Francesco

Manger scene from the upper basilica of San Francesco


While we are walking UP the street to our next church, San Stefano, we happen across an art museum. John asks the ticket taker what is inside. Medieval art, he says. We are all into that. So we spend an enjoyable 45 minutes looking around in this little museum. We see a painting of St.Julian killing his parents. What? Something else to look up later. Then we come across a little Oratorio (Oratorio Pellegrini) worth ten minutes of our time. Finally we finish our slog UP to San Stefano.

The church of San Stefano is a single aisle bare little church built at the end of the 12th century. It is said that the bells of San Stefano ran spontaneously when St. Francis died.

John  and Sarah entering San Stefano

John and Sarah entering San Stefano


Sarah photographing the apse of San Stefano

Sarah photographing the apse of San Stefano


We pass by the Chiesa Santa Maria Minerva. This church has the exterior of the Roman temple celebrating Minerva that it was.
St. Maria Minerva

St. Maria Minerva


By now it is lunchtime. We try to decide whether to go have lunch or climb the really steep hill up to St. Ruffino first. Lunch wins! John has read of this restaurant, Trattoria degli Umbri. It is supposed to be good. It does not disappoint.

After lunch we climb the steep hill to San Ruffino. Uh oh, closed until 2:30. We take some pictures outside. John and I know that we won’t climb up here again. (Sarah does take the hike again later in the afternoon and gets to see the inside of the church. She wants to see the museum but she gets there at 4:10 and the museum closes at 4:30 and they won’t let anyone in after 4. No exceptions!)
San Ruffino

San Ruffino

The fort above Assisi as seen from the Cathedral of San Ruffino

The fort above Assisi as seen from the Cathedral of San Ruffino

A lion in front of San Ruffino eating a person

A lion in front of San Ruffino eating a person


It’s all downhill from here. Steeply downhill. We next visit the Church of St. Clare, founder of a group of nuns and devotee to St. Francis. It is a heavy Romanesque church with thick flying buttresses.

John goes off to move our car and Sarah and I continue on to the Church of Mary Maggiore.
There’s no one inside except us not even anyone to tell us not to take pictures.

The streets are so steep. Our last church is at the bottom of a hill. Our information says it is not to be missed. So we struggle down to the Church of St. Peter. What a bust! There is really nothing to be seen inside.

Later we have dinner at Ristorante da Cecco. It is enjoyable but we are tired and there is only one more hill to climb to get to bed.

December 15, 2013 – Perugia and Assisi

We leave Ravenna under a blanket of fog which clears as we drive inland. We’ve decided to make an extra stop in Perugia. High on a hilltop, the city is a swarm of tiny streets up to the main city square. John negotiates the driving well and we find a sort of parking space – definitely not legal but okay in Italy.

Main square in Perugia

Main square in Perugia

We find the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria not too far away and spend an enjoyable 1 1/2 hours viewing their extensive collection of early Renaissance art. They have the most 13th century paintings we have seen anywhere. And there are, of course, many paintings by the city’s namesake, Perugino. Perugino paints with expressionless faces. Sad that Christ has died? No expression. Angry about the crucifixion? No expression. Apparently he wanted the viewer to express their own emotions while contemplating his paintings.

Perugino Coronation

Perugino Coronation

After a quick stop for a slice of pizza, we are on our way to Assisi. We arrive around 3:45 but it is 5:15 before we are in our hotel. First we try to find the hotel to drop off our luggage before parking the car down in the car park. John and Sarah both search in opposite directions on foot but no luck. Then we drive and park at the wrong parking area, take the elevator to the wrong floor and have to walk dragging our luggage across Assisi and mostly down hills.

Perugia pizza man

Perugia pizza man


Approaching Assisi

Approaching Assisi

Our room (on the third floor, no elevator) is cell-like which seems apt. We Skype with Jon and family and I am so happy to see them. Nathan and Sam are excited about Christmas. Nathan says he expects he will get about 400 Lego kits. Sam shows us his figure that he got today from their Lego Advent calendar.

Sarah takes a walk in the quiet streets of Assisi and then we meet for dinner. Unusually, it was mostly successful. Tomorrow we visit the double basilica of San Francesco. Can’t wait!

John and Sarah discuss Renaissance art

John and Sarah discuss Renaissance art


December 14, 2013 – Ravenna

Ravenna is home to eight World a Heritage Sites and we plan on going to at least six today. It is surprising given the quality of these early Christian churches and baptistries that Ravenna is not more of a tourist Mecca. All of our visits are within easy walking distance of our hotel and most within the pedestrian zone. All have fabulous mosaics.

Sarah and John looking fierce inside the old city walls of Ravenna

Sarah and John looking fierce inside the old city walls of Ravenna

Our first stop and probably the best is the 6th century St. Vitale’s Basilica. The whole altar area is ablaze in a sparkling gold background for the figures portrayed. The largest mosaic is of Christ between two angels with the then current Bishop handing over the Basilica to Christ and St. Vitale (or Vitus) receiving a crown on the left. There are also mosaics of the apostles and stories from the Old Testament plus mosaics of Emperor Justinian and his wife. Surprisingly there are no mosaics of Mary and no crucifixions. Just beside the basilica is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia who died in 450. It too is covered in mosaics. (click on the photos for a larger version)

Next we see the Arian Baptistry built at the end of the 5th century. This tiny building with its plain walls wows you when you look up at the ceiling. Christ encircled by his apostles is being baptized while a personification of the Jordan a River with little crab legs sticking out of his head looks on. The Arian movement within early Christianity was practiced in Ravenna during this period. It emphasized Christ’s humanity rather than his divinity and put him on a lesser level than God the father. It was ruled a heresy in 325 and the baptistry was turned over to orthodoxy in the 6th century.

Our last stop before lunch is at the 6th century St. Apollonaire Nuovo. Here a line of virgins and the three wise men head toward Mary and the baby Jesus with gifts. On the opposite wall a line of apostles and martyrs bring gifts to an adult Jesus. There are also small vignettes of Christ’s life. Sarah and I try to identify the saints but there are few distinguishing features. The church is practically empty. Sightseeing in the winter is the best!

We have lunch at a small osteria. I, as usual, order badly. John and Sarah know never to order what I do. Their lunches turn out much better.

We have two sites left before we can collapse back at the hotel. John and I have about five hours of sightseeing in us before we need a rest. So now we visit the Neonian or Orthodox Baptistry. Built at the end of the 4th century partly on an old Roman bath, it is the oldest structure in Ravenna. Much like the Arian Baptistry, it is an octagonal building with a mosaic of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist while the Jordan River looks on. The scene is encircled by the Apostles.


There are no pictures allowed in the Museum where the Chapel of St. Andrew is. It shows a warrior Jesus.

John and I head back to the hotel. Sarah continues on to visit Dante’s tomb and do a little window shopping. We meet for dinner at the Ristorante Cappello. Once again I order badly. Sigh.

December 13, 2013 – Venice to Ravenna

Today we spend most of the day getting from Venice to Ravenna. It shouldn’t have taken so long but we managed to make a series of errors followed by not being able to find our hotel.

Sarah seems a bit better and we are looking forward to seeing a new city. Venice is covered once again in an icy fog and the trip on the vaporetto is pretty chilly. We pick up the car and are off. We decide to take the autostrada due to the heavy fog. The coast road which we’ve driven on once before would be too dangerous without unobstructed views. But our GPS does not want us to take the longer route. So we turn him off and go by memory of the Google map we’ve seen this morning. We cannot find our map of Italy which turns out being in my purse. (my bad)

Leaving foggy Venice

Leaving foggy Venice

All goes smoothly until Bologna and then we take a road marked Ravenna. It is a slow two lane road winding through little towns, much more interesting now that the fog has dissipated but much slower. We stop for some fast food lunch and get to Ravenna around 3 PM.

Problem is, we cannot find the hotel. The GPS is pointing into the pedestrian zone where we cannot drive. We ask for directions twice. Finally we park the car and get out and walk. Once inside the pedestrian zone we find it right away. John parks the car in their lot and we head up to our rooms. Up is the operative word. The rooms start at the end of a long staircase on the second floor and ours is up another long staircase. I was careful to book places with elevators. I guess I must have made a mistake. So I hobble up all these stairs and we have a cute two room suite under the eaves.

Sitting room

Sitting room


Bedroom (John can only access half this room due to the low ceilings)

Bedroom (John can only access half this room due to the low ceilings)


We were in Ravenna 10 years ago when we first made this trip with Sarah. John and Sarah remember this great restaurant where they had pigeon and fried baby eels (with little eyes, I remember that!) They are much more adventurous eaters than I. We find the restaurant but they are closed due to an event. That’s two days in a row that we’ve gone to places closed for a special event. They point us up the street to another restaurant called Melarancia. I order white wine with a dish that calls for red wine. Obviously I am some sort of philistine. I think maybe I should explain how I can’t drink red wine because of a histamine allergy but who cares, I’ll never see this set of waiters again. So I eat my undercooked fetuccine with its salty meat sauce and wash it down with an inappropriate white wine. John and Sarah fare better. It is time for this day to end.
John on the street in Ravenna

John on the street in Ravenna


December 12, 2013 – Venice

Today is starting badly. Shortly after we get up, but thankfully after John is out of the shower, the hotel’s water cuts off. Nothing, no hot or cold. Then we knock on Sarah’s door to see if she has water. She has no water, too, but she does have a cold. It turns out the pump has broken but can be quickly fixed. Unfortunately there is no quick fix for Sarah’s cold.

Over breakfast we discuss today’s plans. We have seen the bulk of what we want to see and today are just planning on catching a few bits that we’ve missed. Sarah opts to stay in bed to try to catch up on sleep and work on getting better.

John and I venture out. Wow, is it cold! Below freezing! Our wimpy California selves are having a hard time with it.

A Venetian with his boat of vegetables serving customers in the freezing cold

A Venetian with his boat of vegetables serving customers in the freezing cold

Our first stop is at the Church of Saint Pantaleone. (The 3rd century St. Pantaleone was an esteemed doctor to the Emperor Maximian. He became convinced that faith healing was more useful than medicine and helped set back medicine in Europe until the 16th century.) In the church there is a masterpiece by Vivarini of the Virgin’s coronation. All the saints are there and they are all carrying their attribute. We spend an enjoyable 15 minutes or so identifying as many as possible.

Church of Saint Pantaleon

Church of Saint Pantaleon

I really want to take a picture but the sign says “no camera.” I ask John to blow his nose while I take a picture so the attendant won’t hear the camera. I back up out of view. I bring the painting into focus. A voice says sternly, “No foto!” I am busted by a closed circuit camera! But not thrown out of the church.

The Coronation of the Virgin Mary (Photo taken from the internet!)

The Coronation of the Virgin Mary (Photo taken from the internet!)

Somewhat abashed, we leave for our next stop, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a civic confraternity of ordinary citizens. It is brimming with Tintorettos. Walls, ceilings, altarpieces, he has painted at least 30 monumental works here. Tintoretto’s signature play of light and dark is readily apparent. We rent the audio tour. We are wowed. From there we move into the Church of Saint Rocco.

John in front of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

John in front of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco

St. Rocco (or Roch or Rochus) is venerated as a healer. He healed people of the plague. Venetians prayed to him to end their great plague outbreak of 1629-31. He is shown in paintings pointing to a plague spot on his leg. I offer up a silent plea for my knee. There are more Tintorettos in here.

It is past 1 PM and time to look for some lunch. We settle on a place that has an offering for 12 euros, a bargain. We decide on spaghetti alla vongole and calamari with salad. It is pretty tasty.

On our way to lunch we walk through a pleasant square

On our way to lunch we walk through a pleasant square


We cross the Grand Canal near the train station

We cross the Grand Canal near the train station


Lunch! We've decided that spaghetti alla vongole is our go-to dish. It's always good.

Lunch! We’ve decided that spaghetti alla vongole is our go-to dish. It’s always good.

Fortified, we walk to our last church of the day, Madonna Del’Orto (Madonna of the Garden.) Tintoretto’s tomb is here. It’s been a Tintoretto saturated day. But we are tired and really far away from the hotel.

Mary in front Madonna del' Orto

Mary in front Madonna del’ Orto

We catch the water bus back to our hotel. Sarah still has a cold. We decide just to get a sandwich at the corner tavern and some takeaway for Sarah. We are greeted like regulars. The proprietor is so sorry but there is a party tonight. No service. We ask if we can get something to go. Of course! But he is so sorry that he makes us a prosecco and compari cocktail with a big olive in it and some little appetizers for while we are waiting. John and he talk. (Somehow most places we go, John is able to understand the language and speak enough of it with the correct accent that people actually think he’s Italian or French or German. It’s amazing and annoying at the same time.) After throwing a few more free goodies in our bag, we all wish each other Buone Natale and we hustle back through the cold fog with our dinner.

Picnic in our room!

Picnic in our room!

December 11, 2013 – Venice

We meet for breakfast around 9AM and find out that Sarah has hardly slept at all. So much for my confident prediction that we are over jet lag. The fact that there is a dead gnat floating on the milk pitcher and some mold on the bread only darkens the mood. I try to rein in my usual cheerful morning chatter to try not to get on everyone’s nerves.

We have a big day planned today – a visit to the Accademia art museum followed by visits to three large churches. I am excited to go to the museum. It houses a lot of early Renaissance works. Everyone perks up as we enter the first room. It is aglow with paintings set in their usual gold backgrounds from the 13th and 14th centuries. Some are very static with bold black outlining and vacant expressions others show the first glimmers of molded forms and expressive faces.

View from our hotel towards the Accademia bridge

View from our hotel towards the Accademia bridge

Sarah and Mom in front of the Accademia

Sarah and Mom in front of the Accademia

John gets the audio tour. Sarah and I scurry from one painting to the next with our sheets of Saints and their attributes. Is that St. Dominic? There’s St. John the Baptist in his hair shirt and Mary Magdalene with her long golden hair and jar of ointment! Time goes by quickly and we are not done by lunch time. After a consultation with the staff, they sign our tickets and tell us to come back after lunch.

Static, expressionless figures

Static, expressionless figures


St. Peter with more volume and expression

St. Peter with more volume and expression

Lunch!


We continue after lunch but my knee is a problem again. I am hobbling up and down the steps of the museum even using my walking stick. John and Sarah go on to the churches of San Paolo and the Frari with its marvelous Bellini Madonna but I return to the hotel for more ice and elevation. I have to get the swelling down. They have a wonderful time together which makes me happy.
Sarah in front of the church of San Paolo

Sarah in front of the church of San Paolo


John's purloined picture of the Bellini altarpiece in the Frari

John’s purloined picture of the Bellini altarpiece in the Frari

We meet for a glass of wine. Sarah opts out of dinner because her lack of sleep last night and all the activities of the day have caught up with her. John and I split a sandwich and call it a night.

December 10, 2013 – Venice

We are still trying to get our internal clocks regulated. I am up at 4 AM, Sarah at 2AM. John seems to be doing better. After breakfast Sarah leaves for another look around, I finish up my blog and we all meet at San Stefano at 9:45.

We buy the Chorus Pass which allows access to 16 churches chock full of art. Seeing paintings in a museum is great but seeing them in the spaces where they were intended to be is even better. The sun is shining brightly today which lights up the dim interiors of the churches for better viewing. Each church has an explanation and a schematic of the works. Sarah acts as our tour guide. First church, San Stefano.

Church of San Stefano

Church of San Stefano


Tintoretto's Last Supper in San Stefano

Tintoretto’s Last Supper in San Stefano

One of the odd things that Sarah and I have done is amass a large data base of Saints and their attributes. There are almost always visual clues for who is who in the paintings. St. Lucy has her eyes on a plate, St. Sebastian is shot with arrows, etc. it is fun to go around identifying the various figures. Well, at least it is fun to us.

St. Catherine can be identified by the wheel at her feet. She was martyred on a wheel.

St. Catherine can be identified by the wheel at her feet. She was martyred on a wheel.

In addition to San Stefano, we visit San Maurizio, Santa Maria del Giglio, Santa Maria Formosa, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Santa Maria dei Miracoli and also stop in at St. Mark’s Basilica. The Basilica San Marco is decorated in mosaics with a gold background. Everything in this church is beautiful from the marble patterned floor to the mosaic ceilings. There is so much to see! Saints, bible stories, sculptures! It goes on and on. It is very dim, though, and some stuff is hard to see. Our friendly innkeeper tells us later that a private after hours tour can be arranged with the church illuminated. We will look into that.

St. Mark's Square

St. Mark’s Square


Restoration is ongoing at Basilica San Marco

Restoration is ongoing at Basilica San Marco


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Mosaic telling the story of the Garden of Eden

Mosaic telling the story of the Garden of Eden

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Sarah photographing in the floor

Sarah photographing in the floor

By three o’clock I m worn out. My knee is not happy with climbing up and down all the bridges. I need to get it elevated and iced. John and I catch the water bus back to the hotel from the Rialto bridge. Sarah spends the rest of the afternoon wandering around and visiting other churches.

We have drinks at a nearby bar (except for Jonathan, we are a family that enjoys a bar) and take in the local color. Dinner is at a nearby restaurant. Sarah has a plate of trofie with shrimp and John and I have salads and radicchio/pumpkin risotto. Tonight we have managed to stay awake until 10pm! (I am writing this at 6:30 AM so we are doing better with jet lag!)

Sarah has a plate of trofie and shrimp

Sarah has a plate of trofie and shrimp


John and I have risotto. We are still a happy family.

John and I have risotto. We are still a happy family.