Merry Christmas to all especially to family who are celebrating at home. Thank you to Auntie Leigh, Gram, and Gramps who have made this trip possible for Ryan and Jon by giving Alex and Sam a special Christmas at home.
This morning in lieu of our usual Christmas breakfast we are enjoying the sweetness of pastries and a traditional panettone. We have a unique way of warming the pastries – a radiator with a built in warming oven. It works great!
We have mimosas and beer with our panettone and pastries. The panettone is so delicious, sweet and yeasty. Sarah promises to make one for next Christmas!
While Sarah works on the lasagna and John and I loll about Ryan and Jon take a walk through the quiet streets of Florence and enjoy the architecture.
In the early afternoon we all meet to go visit the beautiful Santa Maria Novella church full of early Renaissance frescoes. It is a favorite of mine.
Founded in the first half of the thirteenth century Santa Maria Novella has so many marvelous works of art to see –
After our visit to Santa Maria Novella it is time for Christmas dinner. Sarah bakes the lasagna and we all enjoy it a lot!
Ryan and Jon have fallen into a pattern of going downstairs to the cafe each morning to have a pastry and cappuccino. Jon says it is the best cappuccino he has ever had. I am happy that they are having such a good time.
Sarah and I are looking for bagels and other items for Christmas breakfast and dinner at the Pam grocery store. Once she has all her lasagna ingredients we have to make an executive decision about breakfast. We decide to buy a panettone from the bakery downstairs. It turns out to be much more expensive than the ones in the grocery store but we are hoping for a much better quality one. While we are at the bakery we also pick out a bunch of pastries. This is definitely a far cry from bagels and lox.
Jon and Ryan go to the Duomo and visit the Opera del Duomo which contains older works that are no longer adorning the church or items that were on the outside and have been brought in to keep them from getting damaged from the elements.
John heads out to find more goodies for our Christmas Eve celebration. He is a regular at the Salumeria where he buys so much chopped liver that we will have an unopened container to give to Mikki and France when we leave.
We gather at lunchtime and Jon says he wants to go back to la Bussola for more pizza. No one puts up any arguments,
Everyone orders pizza but I am afraid if I eat pizza I will be too full to enjoy tonight’s hors d’oeuvres. So I order linguini vongole, a favorite of mine.
Sarah makes the lasagna in the afternoon and I help (watch mostly) and take various taste tests. Later she and I go out for tea at a restaurant in the Piazza della Republican and take some pictures of the decorations and store displays.
Later over wine and hors d’oeuvres we sing traditional Christmas carols and then everyone is off to bed.
Today we are going to have my birthday celebration and I am really looking forward to it. I have made reservations at Il Pennello. We will meet there at 1 PM.
Jon and Ryan scurry off to the Accademia to see the David and the other earlier works in the morning.
Sarah and John spend time this morning trying to find bagels for Christmas breakfast. The website says that Mama’s Bakery is open but when they get there they find it is closed until January 7. Bummer. They go to the the Mercato Centrale and the Conrad but these stores do not carry bagels. We will have to come up with Plan B.
Back to the birthday celebrations…
We go to Il Pennello for our 1 PM dinner. We are eating early in the day because it is Sunday and the restaurants will be closing for dinner.
I get to sit between Jon and Sarah while John and Ryan sit across from us. We all order wine.
Everyone has brought me birthday cards! I love it! It is possible that I reminded everyone to put cards in their suitcases.
We order a wide variety of things to eat.
This was my best birthday ever!!!
After lunch Ryan and Jon head off for the Galileo Museum, the Baptistry, and climb the campanile. They have so much energy!
John, Sarah, and I head for the Accademia. Here are some things we enjoy-
At this point John and Sarah go upstairs to do more appreciating and I take a seat behind the statue of David appreciating his butt and watching other appreciators. They are gone a looong time. When they finally reappear I have been texting them for quite a while. Unfortunately, the texts never reached them.
Since we are all quite full from our big lunch we just pick over our salami, chopped liver, cheese, and chips for dinner.
I have been up half the night worrying about Ryan and Jon. Will their flights go smoothly? Will they make their connection okay? Will they figure out getting train tickets? Are the trains to Florence sold out? Although Jon has been texting me all the way and things seem fine, I will not calm down until I see them. John and Sarah go to the train station to meet them. I stand at the window watching for them until I realize that I don’t know which street they will come down. Finally I hear the elevator. Yay, they are here!!
They look at their rooms. They seem okay with them. I think they find all the nooks and crannies absurd but enchanting. We decide to go out to lunch as soon as they are settled in.
We head off to La Busola, our preferred pizza place, for lunch. It is such fun having everyone here. We order our own personal pizzas and beers all around!
Afterward we take a walk by the Duomo. Florence is really bustling with people! I thought it would be fairly empty this time of year. Maybe too many people took my advice to come in the off-season!
Ryan and Jon decide to explore the surrounding area while the rest of us have some food shopping to do. We meet back later for hors d’oeuvres and wine. It will be our dinner since we are still pretty full from lunch. I am so happy that Sarah, Ryan, and Jon are here to help me celebrate my birthday and Christmas!!!
Today we pack ourselves up and head to Florence with a side trip to Fiesole. It is a chilly, misty day and we are hoping to dodge the bad weather when it is time to do some sightseeing. We are also on a schedule to return the rental car at Florence airport and arrive at our apartment to meet the greeter at 5 PM. So many moving parts!
Fiesole is on a hill just outside Florence. If it were not for the rain and fog we should be able to see Florence from an overlook. We drive all over Fiesole looking for a parking space to no avail. Our crap rental car is straining to deal with the steep inclines. John is getting annoyed and frustrated. Finally some ways down the hill he finds a quasi-space and parks. Now we must walk up a lot of steps in the cold rain.
I am very slow on the steps and by the time we reach our goal, St. Romulus Cathedral, I am also annoyed, frustrated and wet! Happy times! And when we go inside the church this is what we see.
The church is almost entirely unlit and then the whole front area is blocked off. We cannot see what I suppose is a beautiful early altarpiece of Bicci di Lorenzo. This is about the best picture I could find on the internet.
There are a few other odds and ends.
We leave the church in a fouler mood than when we went in. I suggest we take a look at a small church that I had read about. It is only across the square. It turns out to be locked up.
We decide to give up and go find some lunch. The first place we look at has a bunch of treacherous, slippery stairs. We then head back to a cafe that John had seen on our walk around the square. We are taken aback when we are given the menus.
Huh. So we turn the menu over and read it back to front. It seems that they have a lampredotto risotto. John is eager to give this a try. I figure, it couldn’t be worse than yesterday’s slime so I order it too! Oh, don’t know what lampredotto is? It is a tripe-like meat made from a cow’s fourth stomach. And it is delicious!! However before we have the lampredotto risotto we start with bruschette with cavulo nero (black cabbage.)
We have a wonderful discussion with the cook about how she seasons the lampredotto. It turns out that it has nutmeg and cinnamon in it. We will never have such a dish at home and I am glad that I tried it.
After lunch with nothing left to do we head to Florence airport to return the rental car. The traffic is horrendous and it is difficult to figure out where we are supposed to go. We fuel the car up and manage to make the correct turn to get us to the rental return. We are so glad to be rid of the car.
We call our greeter and hop in a taxi to take us into the old city part of Florence. We meet Miki and Franco whose apartments we are renting. After being chastised for being early and having every aspect of the apartments explained to us, we are on our own in Florence.
Since this is the third time staying here we know where everything is and what stores are nearby. John hurries out to buy some chopped liver and bread for our dinner of hors d’oeuvres tonight.
Tomorrow Ryan and Jon arrive. I am nervous about their needing to catch trains and get to Florence. Everyone assures me that they will be fine. (And they did great!)
I feel better today so I rejoin the rest of our little group for a trip to Prato and possibly Pistoia. Prato is a walled city so parking is pretty impossible. We drive around and around in and out of the old city. Finally after another full parking lot we find a space on the street. We wonder if we are parking in an allowed space. (Later in the day…Yes! Our car is still there when we return and there is no ticket on it!)
People are scurrying about buying their Christmas presents and there is something going on in Duomo Piazza. We never do figure out what. The Prato Cathedral is unusual in that it has an outdoor pulpit hanging off an outside corner of the church.
We decide to take a look at the Museum of the Cathedral first. It closes at 1PM while the church is open all day. After paying our ticket fee it seems that we have a personal Italian watcher to make sure we do not touch anything. He asks us in Italian whether we speak Italian and John says, a little. This is a mistake. Now he wants to talk to us continually about paintings that we are really not interested in. Plus he is talking so fast that we cannot fathom his Italian.
In the vaults underneath the cathedral where the museum resides there are several interesting mid to late 14th century frescoes.
In the next room we see the original sculptured pulpit from the outside of the church. Donatello and his students executed the low-relief panels which were brought inside in the 1960’s to keep them from being further weather damaged. Although a priest might be preaching gloom and doom the little figures on the pulpit are happily dancing about.
Our watcher keeps wanting to steer us into 17th century paintings and we keep trying to be polite. We are more interested in earlier art.
One item which is very important to the Prato Cathedral is the so-called “girdle of Thomas” handed down to the Apostle Thomas from the Virgin Mary. There is a marble box, casket dedicated to the belt.
Here are a couple of other outstanding works from the Museum of the Cathedral.
Done with the museum we bid our watcher arrevederci and head up to the church. It is one of the most ancient churches in the city, built in the Romanesque style, and was already in existence in the 10th century. Although modified over time there are still a great many early frescoes.
One of the first things I see is a lovely Annunciation fresco by Agnolo Gaddi, an artist who worked in the 14th century and 15th centuries.
There are several chapels isurrounding the main altar with frescoes explaining the stories of various martyrs. This is a rather blood-thirsty array. With the exception of St. Stephen who was killed by stoning, all the other saints have had their heads cut off.
The next chapel is dedicated to St. Margaret who, it is said, was swallowed by a dragon but was spit out unharmed. Also she refused to give up her Christian faith and miraculously survived many tortures before being beheaded. In the same chapel is the story of St. James the Greater who was beheaded by a sword.
Luckily the beheadings have not dampened our appetites and we leave the church in search of lunch. John’s roommate from MIT, Barry, has suggested a place we might find a good lunch in Prato, Baghino. I see that it has gotten 5 stars on Google. We did not have a 5 star lunch. In fact my dish was THE WORST of the entire trip. It all started off well enough with some delicous hush puppy type breads.
Sarah had some vin santo with cookies and shared the cookies with us but there was no saving this lunch!
After my horrid lunch we go to the Palazzo Praetorio Museum which was opened in 2013 in a building built in the 14th and 15th century that served as the City Hall for Prato. I am still feeling not so good and am really tired. I know we went here because I have some pictures of beautiful altarpieces but I really do not remember it much.
As tired as we are from all the walking, viewing, and eating awful food, we decide not to try to do Pistoia today. That will have to wait for another trip. We are departing Lucca in the morning to head to Florence with a side trip to Fiesole. No one is hungry for dinner. We spend our time packing in the evening.
I have a bad cold and rather than push myself I take a day off to lounge about in bed. In my history of traveling there was an unfortunate incident of getting a cold on a cruise and that turning into pneumonia so I am extra careful these days.
John and Sarah go out sightseeing though. John brings me back some pictures as well as cold medicine and lunch. He and Sarah spend the morning at Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi. The museum only lets people in at proscribed times in order to control the crowds and accompany the tourists. Today John and Sarah are the sole tourists and no one accompanies them. If I had gone we would definitely have been accompanied because three’s a crowd!
At this point Sarah and John look for a grocery to buy the medicine but cold medicine is not sold in groceries only in pharmacies where you have to have a big conversation with the pharmacist about your symptoms and then he picks out what he thinks is best. I imagine that John and Sarah did their best with limited medical Italian and hand gestures.
In their wanderings they pass the Conservatorio Boccherini, the music institute here in Lucca. There is a statue of Luigi Boccherini, the famous Luccan cellist and composer of the 18th century so of course Sarah needs her picture taken beside it.
They stop back at our room, drop off the meds, and proceed out again to have lunch at da Nonna Clara, a restaurant I have checked out on Yelp.
On the way back they pick me up a salami and cheese sandwich and a focaccia with sausage and cheese. They want to make sure I am happy. Now we have enough food for dinner!
Later they go out to visit the Basilica of San Frediano, named for an Irish bishop of Lucca who built the church in the first half of the 6th century. It was later enlarged and modified in the 12th century.
Of interest is “the fresco of the Transportation of the Volto Santo from the port of Luni to Lucca by the Blessed Giovanni, bishop of Lucca.” Wikipedia This is the same tale told by the painting at the Museum Guinigi this morning!
We meet downstairs at the hotel later and share the rest of my lunch. We make plans to visit Pistoia and Prato tomorrow. Hopefully Sarah and I will be on the mend from our colds by then!
Amazingly we have never been to Pisa. For years we have heard, “Don’t go to Pisa. there is nothing there but the Leaning Tower.” Wrong. Not only is there the Leaning Tower but also a great Cathedral, Baptistry, and a fabulous museum. (Especially if you are into 13th and 14th century art.)
After assuring each other that we would not take silly pictures of ourselves with the Tower that is exactly what we do. It is such fun!
So you totally do not feel like a fool doing this because everyone else is doing it too! And even though it is really difficult to capture in pictures how leaning the Tower is, it is really leaning. Amazingly so.
The Tower has been leaning ever since it was completed in 1372. And they have kept trying to fix it ever since. It has an inadequate foundation in ground that is too soft on one side to support its weight. Through efforts in th 1990’s the tilt has been reduced from 5.5 degrees to about 4 degrees and the building has been stabilized. You can buy a ticket for 18Euro to climb to the top. We choose not to. Instead we buy the much cheaper ticket to see the Cathedral, Baptistry, and Camposanto.
We start our touring at the Cathedral. It is a beautiful building inside and out.
As we begin our exploration of the church we are struck by how few people are inside. Outside there are hundreds or more taking their silly selfies but in here maybe twenty? Good for us!
Over the altar is a mosaic of Christ Enthroned between the Virgin and St. John completed in 1320. The style is not quite as Byzantine as the mosaics in Monreale or Cefalu on Sicily. Sarah and I think it is nice that Jesus has a tummy in this mosaic.
There is also an early 14th century pulpit by Giovanni Pisano depicting episodes in the life of Christ.
To the left of the altar there is a Madonna and Child painting from the 1200’s attributed to Berlinghieri.
Next we visit the Baptistry which is beautiful and ornate on the outside and rather austere inside. Most of the Baptistries are dedicated to St. John “the Baptist”, duh. The building was started in 1152 and completed in 1363. The shape of the building is reminiscent of a Pope’s hat.
Inside, as I said, it is pretty devoid of decoration. The baptismal font and statue are from 1246 and the pulpit completed in 1260. There are tombs in the floor. The chamber is said to be acoustically perfect. The info on it says that visitors go in and sing every day. Since there are just the three of us in here, there is no singing. Too bad Jonathan is not with us for this part of the trip, he could have beat boxed!
Lastly we visit the Camposanto Monumentale or Monumental Cemetary. It is walled in and said to have been built with a shipload of soil from Calvary. There are tombs in the pavement and various Roman artifacts. There is also an enormous fresco titled the Triumph of Death by Buffalmacco, 14th century.
We have finished our visit to the Piazza dei Miracoli and drive over to the National Museum of St. Matthew. But first we must find some lunch! We walk around assuming we will find a restaurant. They are pretty few and far between. The first one we try is full. Finally we find a pizzeria and spaghetteria called La Tombola, which is an Italian game similar to Bingo.
Finding a good restaurant is often just a game of chance. We have happened upon a pizzeria which makes an odd form of pizza. I look up afterwards to see if there is a special type of Pisan pizza. There is not.
After our strange pizza lunch we head over to the museum. Heading up to the second floor to our area of interest, we are gobsmacked by the extent of 13th and 14th century art. Usually there is like one thing from the 1200’s in a museum. Here there are rooms dedicated to the first half and second half of the 13th century. There is a whole room of crucifixes from the 1100 and 1200s. We should have come here first! Now we are tired and have only until 3:15PM on our parking ticket.
Here are only a few of the awesome works –
It has been a big day for us and once again none of us wants to eat dinner. John and I catch up on news on CNN International and BBC World. Tomorrow we should be almost over jet lag ( I hope)!
The rain has stopped by 10 AM and we are ready to head out to begin our exploration of Lucca. The first church we mean to visit is Santa Maria Forisportam. Although the church is inside the walls now forisportam means that it was originally built outside the original walls of the city. But we are not off to a good start as the church is closed. It has some interesting figures on its Romanesque facade and I wish I could find out more.
This unusual Madonna, from what I can glean from the internet, is called a Byzantine Madonna and is heavily influenced by the Greek tradition. The head covering is different from how we traditionally see the Madonna.
Moving along we head toward the cathedral piazza and buy tickets to visit the complex. The front of the cathedral is awash in columns, statuary, and bas-reliefs. There is also a rather outsized bell tower.
St. Martin’s Cathedral in Lucca
In the picture above there are many differently designed columns. According to traditional lore there was a contest to see who could make the most beautiful column. Instead of naming a winner they just kept all the different columns and used them on the front of the Church!
Here are some of the early/famous works in the cathedral –
After spending time in the cathedral we make our way to the museum of the cathedral where we see illuminated choir books, various paintings and even two sculptures of John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Sculpted heads in earlier (l.) and later styles
From here we make our way to the Baptistry, originally built in the 4th century and added onto and renovated somewhat over the centuries. It’s Roman origins can be seen in excavations within the Church. It is an enormous space with various pieces of interest.
After stopping for a quick cup of coffee to perk ourselves up we head to the Church of St. Michael in the Forum. This church is first mentioned in 795 as having been built over the old Roman forum.
It is now close to 2 PM and we are all dragging. We make our way over to the oval site of the old Roman amphitheater hoping to find some lunch but we run into the usual tourist trap restaurants.
We decide to head back towards the hotel in hopes of finding a local restaurant. Along the way we pass the famous Guinigi Tower with trees on top. The last time we were here Sarah climbed to the top. She is older and wiser this trip.
We are back to the hotel when John points out a small restaurant, Antica Drogheria, which he tells me he and I have eaten in before. I have no memory of it but that is typical. We gratefully sit down, take the mandatory beer pictures, watch the table of Asian tourists next to us dig into the enormous bistecca Fiorentinas, and try some Luccan favorites.
At this point John and I are in an achy sightseeing stupor and stumble back to our room. I fall dead asleep. Sarah takes a walk back to the amphitheater to check out some stores. We meet downstairs later for a few snacks and all agree that no one wants dinner. I manage to stay awake until almost 9 PM working on the beginning of this post and finish it when I wake up at 4AM.
Today is mostly a driving day. We are traveling from Orvieto to Lucca. I am looking around for something to do along the way when I find Museo de Masaccio in the town of Reggello. It is about an hour and a half away and only about 20 minutes off the A-1. Yelp says it has restaurants so we should be set for lunch as well.
Masaccio is an artist whose work we will see in our upcoming trip to Florence. Masaccio, Masolino, and ultimately Filippino Lippi painted the amazing Brancacci Chapel frescoes just across the Arno from where we will be staying. Although he died at 28 he had a big impact on early Renaissance art. He was one of the first to use linear perspective and fashioned his figures using chiaroscuro making them more realistic. He helped to move painting away from the International Gothic style with its stylized figures set in gold backgrounds with elaborate ornamentation.
One of his earliest known works is the St. Juvenal Altarpiece which I came across while looking into St. Juvenal (whose church we went to in Orvieto and ran into the funeral.) He painted it when he was 22. It resides in the Museum of Masaccio in Reggello which is close to his hometown.
The museum is small but along with the altarpiece there are a few other “by the school of” works that are interesting.
A group of young people come in while we are there and turn on a video detailing the restoration of the altarpiece. They even set it to English for us. For some reason or other the curmudgeonly guy at the front desk only went so far as to turn on the lights for us.
After we are done at the museum we walk over to the Restaurant Masaccio. Sunday is a big day for families to eat lunch out and we are lucky to snag a table without a reservation. At around 12:45 it is pretty much empty but by 1PM it is packed with large family groups eating oceans of seafood.
Sarah and I order strezzopreti with zucchini flowers and shrimp and John has creamy risotto scampi. Although our dishes are good, John’s is worth swooning over. Sarah and I are filled with risotto envy. It appears to be very creamy risotto made in a lobster stock with a large prawn on top.
After lunch we finish the trip to Lucca and check into our hotel. We meet for free snacks around 6 PM and decide we would rather go to sleep than eat any dinner. I am asleep by 8 PM.