After you have visited all the highlights of Italy, Assisi is a place to go and spend at least one overnight. It is serene and beautiful in the evening when the hordes of tourists/pilgrims have left. But it is pretty busy even first thing in the morning. But before everyone arrives we get to enjoy breakfast with a beautiful view.
We walk over to the Basilica and rent the audio tour. This is a must for anyone viewing the enormous complex. There is an upper church and a lower church and there are frescoes on almost every surface. The audio tour explains it all. St. Francis was revered in the church and treated almost as the second coming of Jesus. The frescoes show his entire life and his sainthood. We spend about an hour and a half looking at all the frescoes and listening to the commentary. There are no pictures allowed. (Not even sneaky pictures!) As we exit I take a picture of the upper church.
From here we walk uphill (this town seems to be completely uphill!) to the art museum. It has a lot of great old frescoes and paintings. Here are a few of our favorites.
Lunchtime! Our favorite restaurant is not open!!! We have just walked up a lot of vertical feet!! However, we find a nearby restaurant that has a lovely terrace overlooking the piazza. We have a tasty lunch consisting of salads and a pasta.
Since we are trying to waste some time because Sarah is going to San Ruffino’s and it is still an hour away from opening, we have some dessert.
John and I head back to the hotel for an afternoon of doing nothing. We need a little rest. We pass by some interesting stores and some beautiful quiet lanes.
Later on we meet for drinks and an hors d’oeuvres type of dinner.
One more beautiful nighttime picture of the Basilica of St. Francis-
Leaving Arezzo among many kisses from the front desk, we head to Cortona. John and I were here many years ago after reading “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The parking lots seem very busy and we have to park fairly far away from the town. And then we have to walk up, and up, and up. We actually have to stop a couple of times because it is so steep. Finally we are at the top and in the piazza.
From one of the overlooks we see the Lake Trasimeno. It is quite large and John informs Sarah and me that Hannibal (of the elephants) won a battle here against the Romans in the Punic Wars. Hmm, I’ve heard of Hannibal and I know he battled Romans and I know there were Punic Wars. The End. Sarah suggests that the elephants helped by sucking out the water from the lake with their trunks. I opine that maybe Moses could have used them at the Red Sea. Sometimes John just knows too much stuff that no one else knows. He could be totally bullsh%#ting us and we wouldn’t know.
There are many people taking in the view, locals, tourists, and even an artist!
First we stop at the Church of San Domenico which was begun in the 1300’s and completed in 1438. It has a lovely Coronation Altarpiece done by Lorenzo di Niccolo in 1402 for a church in Florence and was commissioned by the Medici. The saints pictured are Laurence, Sylvester, Mark, Scholastica, and Dominic.
After this we walk over to the Museo Diocesano and Sarah poses at the overlook with the fancy cemetery of Cortona in the background.
In the museum we are not allowed to take pictures. We are following the rules but other people are not! So I take surreptitious photo of Fra Bartolomeo’s beautiful Annunciation. I need to figure out how to cancel the clicky noise on my iPhone when it takes a picture.
Lunchtime! Today we eat at Nessun Dorma which John tells me is a Puccini aria but truly he could tell me anything and I wouldn’t know. We all order salads and then some brown foods for our main courses.
On the way out of Cortona we stop at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio (or the church of Saint Mary given in thanks by the lime makers.) John and I tried to find this church in a previous trip and are very excited to be able to get a look inside. However, even though the front door is open, the inside doors are locked. Oh, blimey!
Now it is on to Assisi. Assisi is such an ethereal looking city that we have to pull off the road on the approach just to take a couple of pictures.
The people at the hotel try to upsell us on a suite that overlooks the fabulous Basilica of San Francesco and we say okay. The view is wonderful even though the hotel is less so.
Later on we go out for drinks. Apparently most of the pilgrims here are teetotalers so we are by ourselves on the beautiful terrace of the Hotel Giotto. We enjoy a glass of wine and the interesting points of view from our server, Mido, a Lebanese emigre who is studying in Perugia to become a pharmacist.
Lastly we head to a restaurant that we’ve been to before, Il Frantoio. Unfortunately soon after we arrive a large tour group of Americans arrive. They are really loud and we ask to change our table so that we can at least hear each other. Their meal consists of spaghetti with tomato sauce, a piece of pork, and strawberries with lemon sugar. It’s totally not Umbrian. Anyway we have some tasty primi and secondi.
Back in the room, I take a photo of the Basilica at night.
And then we fight with the Internet. Finally the front desk gives us their proprietary password and if I sit within 50 feet of the front desk, it works (slowly.)
This will be a short entry due to the terrible Internet at the hotel. I have managed to transfer a few pictures from my phone to my iPad and will attempt to write a post from here. Doing it on a computer keyboard is so much easier!
Our main goal here is to see Piero Della Francesca’s fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. We arrive at the church of San Francesco and get in immediately and although they tell us we can only stay for half an hour no one shooes us out. We are in the church for an hour enjoying the PDF frescoes as well as other early ones.
After this we stop in to see the Cathedral San Donato. It is at the top of a really steep hill and we are totally winded before we see that now we have to climb all these stairs! My Fitbit registered that by the end of the day I had gone up 37 flights of stairs – a new record! Inside there is a beautiful marble altar, some early paintings and a fresco of a saint. He obviously has been through something horrible but we don’t know who it is.
Next we visited the Museum of Medieval and Contemporary Art. Of course we are only interested in art prior to the 17th century. So right off the bat I do something naughty. There is this stone which is inscribed with two peacocks from the 10th century. Ooh, the 900’s, I need to touch this! So I just very lightly touch it with my index finger. Another old thing I have touched! And did not get caught! Sarah and John are of course appalled.
There’s also a great Madonna and Child painted in 1262 by Margarito di Arezzo. (And no, I didn’t touch it!) Margarito has signed his work! There are very few signed pieces from the 13th century.
A couple of days ago we went to the Piero della Francesca (PDF) exhibition in Forli. Roberto Lounghi claimed in his 19th century book that PDF was a founding father of Renaissance painting and probably he was. But here are three Madonna della Misericordia painted before his. The first one here is especially reminiscent of PDF’s painting.
Time for lunch! We eat at a fairly fancy place at the Piazza Grande. Sarah has the prettiest dish, tortellini and fresh peas.
After a brief siesta we are back to sightseeing. Arezzo is home to Guido Monaco or Guido d’Arezzo, the father of modern musical notation.
Lastly we visit the Basilica of San Domenico. We stopped here earlier but there was a funeral going on so we thought they probably wouldn’t want us in there oohing and aahing over the old art. There’s a lot of great old frescoes here as well as a Cimabue crucifix.
After our big lunch we decide to just have some Tuscan appetizers in a street cafe.
Looks like Mary and Sarah have had enough picture taking for today!
So far we have been very fortunate with the weather. We had a little rain on the drive from the airport to Viterbo and that’s it. Today is payback day. Luckily we are prepared for rain and it does not keep us from pursuing our agenda.
We are now in St. Francis and Piero della Francesca (PDF) territory. Our first stop today is at the LaVerna Sanctuary where St. Francis received his stigmata. It is a long and twisty drive up to the mountaintop through the rain and fog. And golly, is it cold when we get out of the car!
John and I came here years ago and we were almost the only people visiting. It was lovely and serene. This Monday after Easter is anything but. There are hordes of people and busloads of kids turning this serene place into a St. Francis World theme park.
Needless to say the visit here is not the serene encounter we are hoping for. We visit the sanctuary of the stigmata where there is a della Robbia ceramic sculpture.
After this we venture outside where one can go to the Sasso Spicco, an overhanging rock where legend has it that St. Francis sought refuge from the devil.
I do not join Sarah and John down the slippery stairs. I figure there is no reason to tempt fate (or the devil!) Instead I remain in the courtyard where I can take some misty pictures.
After our visit to LaVerna we head down the mountain to Sansepulcro, home of PDF. It is pouring rain! We walk around a bit through the bedraggled market and find a place for some sandwiches for lunch.
Our next tour stop is the Cathedral of San Giovanni Evangellista. Here we see a fine Perugino ariot with expressionless faces and we also enjoy a 14th century altarpiece.
Our last stop is at the Civic Museum. A few of their PDF pieces have been loaned out to the exhibition we saw in Forli. It seems that Piero della Francesca is big business around here attracting tourists. We see what is left.
We also see a PDF fresco that is being restored.
There are also some interesting fresco fragments from a deconsecrated 14th century church.
Tonight’s dinner consists of stopping into a beer pub and having some crostini.
I feel kind of sad that we are not in Montecatini Terme today. Marco from Hotel Puccini has promised us such a grand time with the smashing of the giant chocolate Easter egg and the special surprise inside. But, alas, we are in Forli now without our friends at Hotel Puccini.
However, we have exciting things to do. The main reason that we have come to Forli is to see the Piero della Francesca exhibition, “Exploring a Legend.” Who, you might say? It seems that after Piero made his masterpieces he fell into the netherworld of great Renaissance artists. He was not discovered again until the 19th century. Over the next few days we are planning on seeing a great many of his masterpieces. But, back to the exhibition.
The idea behind this exhibition is to show how Piero della Francesca (PDF) influenced painters for hundreds of years. I mean, seriously, everyone from Giovanni Bellini to Edward Hopper. There was this guy, Roberto Longhi, who wrote a book connecting almost everyone who ever painted to PDF.
There are actually very few paintings by PDF in the exhibition. Mostly it is a comparison to other peoples’ art. We walk through the exhibition wondering if we will ever see any thing by PDF. Aha! Finally a room with some of PDF’s masterpieces. And at least one reasonable comparison.
Then the narrative skews back to comparison of light, or color, or the static-ness of the figures, or the fact that there is a landscape through a window. I am afraid that my art appreciation is not quite subtle enough!
The final comparison is to Edward Hopper. Here the our guide admits that any connection is just tenuous and it is not even clear that Edward Hopper knew about PDF. The fact that PDF had static light imbued figures does not compare with the isolation felt in Hopper’s paintings IMHO.
We break for lunch to discuss our impressions of the exhibition. We are afraid that we will not be able to find anywhere open on Easter. But it is no problem. We order some homey, Forli food at the Petit Arquesbuse. In addition to a salad we have…
After lunch we go back to the picture gallery at the San Domenico Museums where we have just seen the PDF exhibition. We enjoy looking at our usual fare of 13th, 14th, and 15th century paintings and sculptures.
Dinner tonight is a sandwich and some snacks in the lounge of the hotel. As usual we are on the early side and almost no one joins us.
Before we put Montecatini Terme behind us, I have to say one more thing about our hotel, The Puccini. The staff there, all of them, were the nicest, most hospitable people we have ever met. They made us feel special and I think we all parted feeling like friends. So, big hugs to Elena, Steffi, Rosa, and Marco.
Then we get on the road to Forli. Although it is on the other side of Italy, it is only about a two hour ride. After checking in at our hotel we ride downtown to see if we can get tickets for the Piero Della Francesca exhibit on Easter. We find out that the exhibition will be running on Sunday and that we can get our tickets tomorrow.
We spend a little while walking around the old part of the city and checking out various churches. Unfortunately most of the churches have been totally redecorated and have obliterated all of their early frescoes and statuary. Too bad.
Tonight for dinner we go to a local restaurant that is highly rated. At first the hostess says, sorry, no reservation, no table. We turn away saying we’ll find somewhere else to go. What? Fast eating Americans who order and pay for more than they can possibly eat? The staff seems to have a change of heart and someone comes running after us as we enter the parking lot. Apparently they have found a table for us. Hmmm…
I think I am getting tired of heavy food. We order a plate of bruschette, then some pasta for a primo and then I have vegetables and John has rabbit for our main entrees. The portions are enormous and I leave over half of everything. It makes me feel guilty. Starting tomorrow I have to order only exactly what I want and not feel pressured into ordering too much.
Although the staff here at the hotel have warned us that we probably won’t like Prato, we go anyway. We find it delightful. Since it is Good Friday there are a lot of religious goings-on so we have to carefully plan our itinerary so as to be respectful. Our first stop is at the Museum of the Cathedral since a service is being held in the church.
And now that the mass is over, we take a look inside the duomo dedicated to St. Stephen.
Leaving the duomo, we stop at the Church of San Francesco where we see this amazing painting from 1235. Painted by Berlinghiere, it is the first depiction of St. Francis completed only nine years after his death.
We stop at one more church but unfortunately they have redecorated and there is nothing left from the early days of the church. It’s time for lunch. We decide on a small place that we’ve seen in our walk around the city, Il Barrique. The lunch, except for the wonderful crostini di fegato (chicken liver on toast), is meh.
After lunch we head back to the hotel for a little siesta while most of the sites we want to see are closed as well. We head out again around 3 PM to the nearby town of Pescia where we see…
We are too full to eat dinner so John picks up a sandwich and chips for us to share. Sarah decides to skip dinner entirely.
We are visiting many smaller towns in Italy on this trip. It seems like you can pull off the road almost anywhere and walk into the cathedral or main church and find something amazing. Today we are going to Pistoia which is halfway between Florence and Lucca.
Pistoia was a centre of Gallic, Ligurian and Etruscan settlements before becoming a Romancolony in the 6th century BC. Pistoia’s golden age began in 1177 when it became a free commune. During these years it was an important political center, erecting city walls and several public and religious buildings.
After being carefully watched by an elderly gentleman while we park the car, we are informed that it is not necessary to pay any parking fees (or at least that is what we hoped we understood.) We decide that he must be the unofficial car watcher for his block and wonder if upon our return we should pay him instead.
Our first stop is at the Basilica of the Madonna dell’Umilita so named because its most prized possession is a Madonna with the Christ child sitting on the floor. All artwork in this format are known as the Madonna of humility pictures because she has humbled herself by sitting on the floor (or a pillow on the floor.)
After stopping for some delicious coffees along the street (we drink coffee whenever we need to use a restroom somewhere), we head to the duomo dedicated to Saint Zeno with its Baptistry across the piazza. All the church workers are scurrying about getting the church cleaned up and decorated for Easter. There are not many tourists which is a blessing.
After wandering through the produce market we settle on a place for lunch called La Botte Gaia. It turns out to be an excellent find because although our three dishes look like brown glop they are all excellent.
After lunch we pay a visit to the Museo Civico where there are few “watchers” and we can really get up close to the various paintings and sculptures.
Dinner tonight is back to the Donchisciotte for full price pizza this time. John and I get the pizza “verace” style which is still thin crust but with puffy edges. Sarah opts for thin crust all the way. I don’t know if this style has a name or not. In any case it is delicious and reminds me of the pizza of my youth on the Jersey shore.
Today we try to tailor our sightseeing and activities to our birthday girl. By the end of the day we had walked about seven miles and seen a lot!
Lucca is a very approachable walled city. It is easy to navigate on foot and we see many churches and a museum. Since I ran out of steam last night and did not get around to writing this post, the narrative today will be on the pictures.
Today is an example of what happens when I don’t carefully plan things out.
We leave Siena around 10AM bound for San Miniato. San Miniato is named for the first martyr of Florence. After becoming a Christian hermit in the Florence area in 250 A.D., he was arrested by the Roman emporer who demanded that he make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Miniato refused and was then put through numerous torments –he was thrown into a furnace, was stoned, and was thrown to a wild animal at an amphitheater. He was unharmed. Finally, he was beheaded but his legend states that he picked up his own head.
There are quite a few of these head carrying martyrs known as cephalophores. Here’s a song by They Might Be Giants about cephalophores, “You Probably Get That A Lot.”
But I digress. Our plan is to go to San Miniato visit the cathedral and especially the museum attached. There are a lot of really excellent art objects in it.
We get to San Miniato. I figure, small place, we’ll see the cathedral easily. But, no. First it is on the top of a hill and you cannot park in town. You must park outside the town and walk up. We reach what appears to be a town square but there is no cathedral.
We stop in a church. It is not the church we are looking for. We walk down hill and up hill. We stop in another church. Wrong church again. We walk really uphill and then up a bunch of stairs. Finally we are at the right church. But all the good stuff that we have come to see has been removed to the museum. We find the museum only to find out that it is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s Tuesday. Sigh.
There’s a big tower on the top of this hill that we’ve climbed. It’s called the Frederick II tower. Frederick II was the Holy Roman Emperor and came from Swabia, the southwest area of today’s Germany. The tower was built between 1217 and 1223. Unfortunately the Germans blew it up in WWII but it was rebuilt in 1958. John and I have no desire to climb the rest of the hill or the 400 steps inside but Sarah is eager to take a look.
Next we decide to have lunch in a palazzo that has been turned into a hotel. It is near the Tower and is supposed to have interesting frescoes. It is closed for renovations. Can anything go right today?!
We walk almost all the way back to the car before we find a place that is open for lunch. We are the only patrons. I guess Tuesday is not a day for eating lunch out in San Miniato. We are handed a piece of paper with four choices that you can have with either rice or penne. It’s nothing fancy but we are hungry from all our hill climbing.
After lunch we head to our next hotel in Montecatini Terme. We will be here for four nights while we tour several small surrounding towns.
We spend some time doing a little hand laundry and then go out to find our new drinks and snacks place. As we sit in an empty lounge we figure out that Montecatinis have happy hour later or not at all. We decide that pizza will be dinner tonight. Our friend at the desk hooks us up with a Tuesday special in what she says is the best pizza in town. $1 for a pizza! What a deal!