A Travellerspoint blog

Day 27

Siena - Montepulciano

semi-overcast -17 °C
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Early start for a very long day. For once, a tour that didn't involve a big bus - there were 4 of us (tourists) in a mini van; so much more comfortable.

It took about an hour and a half to get to Siena, which was cloaked in dense fog. We joined up with a second van load of tourists where the view is usually amazing, across the Siena countryside!
The nuns didn't seem to mind

The streets were pretty misty, which made things a little spooky.


The tour leader, Gustavo, recommended that we take a look inside the Siena Cathedral, which is Romanesque rather than Renaissance for a change.


It still has the striped marble facade, but there are parts of the complex that have never been completed. Inside, though, the cathedral is pretty full on! I won't say I like it, because I thought it was over the top in a big way!


Apparently, the floors are famous - and they are certainly ornate, with inlaid marble panels depicting different scenes


The cupola in the roof is pretty though


And there's a "library", which is beautifully painted, and I loved the ceiling (yes, I've become obsessed with ceilings!)


Siena is where the famous Palio horse race happens every year, once in July and once in August. It's held between the 17 regions of Siena township, and is held in the Piazza del Campo - the town square. They ship in dirt and lay it 15cm deep around the circuit, and the jockeys ride bare back, wearing their region colours.


As you can see, the fog had started to lift a bit by the time we left Siena. We headed then towards Montalcino, and our first wine tasting at Abbadia Ardenza winery, which is a short distance from the town.

We were treated to a little old man who gave us the talk about his family's history in winemaking - and he took quite a shine to a couple of the women in the other group - an old ratbag! We started with a rose, which was only OK, and then 3 red wines of varying vintage. One - Rosso di Montalcino - was pretty nice, and one - a cheap table wine - was not! The third one was a Brunello, a famous wine around here. It was a bit heavy for me, but one of the guys really liked it.

The sun had come out by the time we came back outside, so we could finally get an idea of the landscape around the area


We then headed up to the pretty hilltop town of Montalcino. What a change from the busy towns I'd been to so far! It was practically empty, so easy to get snaps without people in them.


There's a fort at one end of the town, and the word was that this was the place to get the best views across the countryside - and it was fantastic!

Inside the fort

Just stunning!

Next was the small village - yes, on a hilltop - of Pienza. Now, THIS was a religious experience as far as I'm concerned. The views from Pienza are nothing short of breathtaking, and what you see here is but a fraction of what I took.

See what I mean? Breathtaking!!

It is also the prettiest little town I've seen - people have plants outside their doors, and growing around their windows. And it's clean!

Bellissima Pienza

Next up was Montepulciano, famous for its Nobile wine, and a second wine tasting experience. Time for one last look at the view:


It was getting a bit late by this stage, so we walked straight to the Cantina Crociani for our tasting.

Outside the Cantina
The cellar

We had 3 more reds to taste, all of which were better than their equivalents at the first place. The Nobile was pretty nice! She took us back upstairs and gave us a taste of their Vin Santo, which was the best I've had so far - I could taste the caramel aftertaste for ages afterwards. So I bought a bottle.

By this time it was dark, so we walked together to the other end of town and boarded the vans to head back to Florence. Another hour and a half or so, and they dropped us back. As luck would have it, we came via the road beside the Arno, across from Santa Croce, so I had them drop me there. This meant I got a great view of the Ponte Vecchio, all lit up and reflected in the water - just to top off the day!


Posted by judesbucketlist 23:51 Archived in Italy Tagged landscapes churches italy wine tuscany montepulciano montalcino pienza Comments (1)

Day 26

sunny 18 °C
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Today was the day to finally make it inside Palazzo Vecchio, which sits on the edge of Piazza Signoria with its multitude of restaurants and statues. The palace was used by the Medici family before they moved away from the rabble into the Pitti Palace across the other side of the Arno. The Palazzo is now a museum for works of art and religion, and is one of Florence's foremost museums - not only because of the items it holds, but because of the building itself.


And its interiors:


It's yet another place where you have to remember to look up. The ceilings are all different, and either elaborately moulded or painted - or both. Here are (quite) a few:


You may recall that outside the Palazzo Vecchio is this sculpture by Jeff Koons, a modern-day sculptor.

He's also lucky / respected enough to have a piece inside (to great controversy), which combines his signature coloured stainless steel with very white plaster. It's called 'Gazing Ball (Barberini Faun)', and it's a combination of a plaster cast of a well-known sculpture from Greco-Roman times, with the addition of a 'gazing ball' on one knee. As you can see, it's slightly pornographic, but as this is the view I got when I walked through the door into this room, I figured you should also see it in all its naked, er, glory!

I did really like the - there's only one way to say this... blue ball!

Here's a couple of other angles


It's easy to get annoyed with being 'followed' by a large group of Chinese tourists on a tour when you're in a museum or gallery. They tend to be really rude & push past - and get in the way of photos. Plus the constant talking of their tour guide really ruins the artistic mood. It seems that no matter how fast or slow you go, you always cross paths with them.

Also in the Palazzo Vecchio is a gallery with paintings and maps from Florence's old days. It's fantastic to see an installation that isn't based in religion for a change, and I did enjoy figuring out where everything was on this map!


These massive keys were from the old gates in the city wall, when it was intact. The guards had to unlock them every morning and lock them every night to keep out who-knows-who.

I've decided to give the last two Italian language lessons a miss. The change in teacher this week has made a huge difference to the enjoyability of the classes - she speaks way too quickly and very loudly, which makes it hard to follow her, or concentrate on the information. Since it's only two more lessons, I don't feel I'm missing much, because I've learned the most important grammar at this stage, so it's just vocabulary and practice now, really. A few of my classmates have given up for the same reason!

I'm going to make good use of the time though. Tomorrow I'm off on a tour to Siena, Paenza, Montalcino and Montepulciano - for wine, cheese and vistas - and some more architecture and churches, no doubt! Should be a lovely day.

Posted by judesbucketlist 19:56 Archived in Italy Tagged art paintings italy florence sculpture palazzo_vecchio jeff_koons ceilings Comments (0)

Days 23-25

sunny 18 °C
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Yes, it's three days' worth, but mostly photos!


Not much planned for this day since Saturday was such a big day at Lucca and Pisa. I decided to take a walk to the east this time, along the Arno and came across these gorgeous beasts on the way:

Believe it or not, there's kind of a beach up river where it looks like they've shipped some sand. Not sure why!

The wall along the river's edge is lined with Africans selling fake designer bags. Don't know why they've chosen there particularly, as there aren't many people walking that way, away from the Ponte Vecchio and Florence's main drag. Perhaps the cops leave them alone down there.

There's a green belt up river too, which looks great from a distance

But not so great up close!
Don't think I'd be keen to be hanging around there at night.

Walking back as the sun was lower made for a nice view:

There are quite few hotels overlooking the Arno up that way, they'll be pretty expensive, though not as much as more central hotels. The Ritz sure ain't what it used to be though!


With less than 2 weeks to go before I leave, I've decided to make a concerted effort to check out the places and sights I haven't caught up on to date.

A few people have told me to go the central market - Mercato Centrale - and have lunch, so this was a good opportunity. It's not far from the school so I went straight after the lesson. Outside there are a huge number of barrow stalls, selling bags, jackets, scarves, belts and so on. Inside, there's every conceivable food stall - butchers, bakers (didn't see a candlestick maker!), fruit & veges, pasta, dried beans, olive oil, and more!

Outside Mercato Centrale building


Upstairs is a very big "food hall" with some top notch cooking - it's themed so there's a pasta place, pizza, cheese specialist, meats, etc. I had a pasta dish which was pretty good.

Last time I was here, 4 years ago, I went into the Duomo Cathedral so I didn't want to bother queuing for that again. However, I never went into the baptistery - the Battisteria di San Giovanni - right next to the cathedral, or the museum - Museo dell'Opera. So that was my mission for Monday 2nd.

Before I went in, I had read about a marble circle on the piazza next to the Duomo. It's the spot where the gold ball from the top of the dome landed after it was hit by lightning in 1600 and rolled down the roof. And here it is (a tough shot to get both the ball on the roof and the spot on the ground, with cars parked in the way!).


The museum contains items - mostly sculptural - removed from the baptistery and the cathedral for safekeeping or which have been replaced by other pieces. It's a very modern, clean facility, with the pieces set out aesthetically and very particularly. I found it pretty soulless, but they've treated the pieces with respect, with numerous salons and rooms arranged throughout the building (where Michelangelo and Brunelleschi both worked at some point). Here's a smattering of photos from the museum:


This is Michelangelo's final Pieta, which he sculpted in his 70s. He became angry with the faults in the marble and smashed it up - a sculpture student put it back together and completed it some years later, after his death.

This Silver Altar is a real show-stopper, in its own glass case on a stage in a room with special lighting. It's truly gorgeous, and had numerous contributors between 1367-1483.

There's a "model room" where they demonstrate how the dome of the Duomo was constructed, including showing a video (which I didn't stay for)

On the top floor, is a terrace with a more close-up view of the dome than I've had so far:
Again, it would be wonderful if it was cleaned!

I mentioned the other day that they have finally removed the scaffolding from the Baptistery, and it's much cleaner than the cathedral because the Pope's coming on Tuesday. Inside, the building is a riot of mosaics - both on the floor and the ceiling!

This is what you're greeted with when you walk in the door

Then you look up...

And across...

And around...

At some point, you do manage to lift your chin off the floor, but it is awe-inspiring, when you realise that ceiling is covered in mosaic tiles, not painted! The walls are just striped marble from the outside, which would normally be pretty amazing in itself, but it pales in comparison to the ceiling, believe me!



I've been seeing the advertising all over the city for Bellezza Divina (Divine Beauty), an art exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, including a Van Gogh from the Vatican Museum.

Atrium, Palazzo Strozzi

Here are a few pieces from the exhibition:

Adolfo Wildt, Mary Gives Birth to 3 Christian Children

Maurice Denis, Annunciation at Fiesole - I took this because I was standing pretty much in that spot when I went to Fiesole!

Crucifixion, Primo Conti - to the left is a Picasso, also of the crucifixion. I went to take a photo of it, but one of the staff stopped me as it's the one piece in the entire exhibition that you're not allowed to photograph. So I took this one, then cropped it and here it is:

Haha! Showed them didn't I?

Van Gogh, Pieta

Is it just me, or does this view out the Palazzo Strozzi windows look like a Minion is standing there? Teehee!

Afterwards, I just wandered some more (I'm getting good at that!).

Another gorgeous entrance

Wheel-jacked, and it's not even West Auckland! Shows that locking your bike frame to a post may not be the solution to thievery!!

Remember Michele's shop from a few days back - or was it a couple of weeks ago? This is what it looks like when it's closed. So he does bring almost everything in and out each day! It still looks great with the garlic hanging over the door, I reckon.

Posted by judesbucketlist 20:59 Archived in Italy Tagged art paintings italy florence tuscany baptistry duomo_museum Comments (1)

Day 22

Damned lies & a big surprise

sunny 18 °C
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"Go to Lucca," they said. "It's quaint & peaceful," they said. Does THIS look either quaint or peaceful to you?


BOLLOCKS, it does!! They lied through their teeth - at least for today!

But, to be fair, there are only 3 days a year when Lucca turns into Crazy Central - and I chose THAT weekend to go! It's Europe's Comicon, and is the second biggest in the world, behind the US. Yeah, I can hear you laughing from here!

You know me, though - sow's ear=silk purse (sometimes, at least). Although I was disappointed and quite a few people on the tour were rightfully angry that the tour company didn't tell anyone, or have anything on their website about it, I figured I was getting a very different look at Lucca. And you can't argue with that!

These guys look familiar!

This gave me a giggle

There were a LOT of people with guns there!

A slightly less busy street

We were taken on a tour with a local guide, who wasn't able to show us a lot of the usual sights because of the crowds. Lucca usually has 20,000 people within its walls - today there were at least 100,000, so you can understand the difficulty! People in costume were simply walking all around the town and posing for photos for their 5 minutes of Facebook fame. It was quite entertaining actually.

We did get to see some of the sights, even though we had to fight our way through.

Church of St Michael / San Michele

Two of Lucca's remaining towers. There used to be more than 100!

Lots of people at street level, so we look up!

Lucca is surrounded by a wall, that's in one piece, and no part of it has ever been destroyed, unlike many of the walled towns in Italy.
You can walk or ride (or even drive) all the way around it, but usually it's a lot less crowded than it was today!

I was hoping it wasn't as crowded as the streets, and it wasn't. but there were still plenty of weirdoes up there!

The view from up there was pretty good though:

After Lucca, we really needed a peaceful break. Our tour leader promised us that Pisa would be much better. I wasn't very hopeful that Pisa would be terribly interesting or worth going to - my main reason for going on this tour was to see Lucca, which hadn't gone terribly well. Again, I was wrong - and how wrong! Take a look at this first view as we walked through the gates at Pisa:

Simply WOW!

It was gorgeous in the sun, shining and bright - Leaning Tower, Cathedral and Baptistery all together. The gorgeous green grass and blue sky really made the buildings stand out. The walls with their battlements were pretty amazing too:

What a show Pisa put on for us!

And here's the famous tower, of course:

The base of the Tower - shows just how much of a lean it's on

There's a piece of modern sculpture behind the tower, which is pretty cool

And the juxtaposition of the modern with the old tower is great

Of course, I was forced by my so-called friends & loved ones to take a selfie "holding up" the tower, so here it is

One of the funniest things is watching all the people posing for their "holding up the tower" pics. It's like a kind of crazy slow tai chi!

And a final pin up of the trio - with the sunset colouring them a pretty peach

All in all, an interesting and surprising day. I'd still like to see Lucca as it usually is, but that's not to be on this trip obviously.

To top everything off, I managed to catch the last 10 minutes of the Rugby World Cup final at an Irish pub near the Duomo. A nice finish to the day!

Posted by judesbucketlist 15:19 Archived in Italy Tagged italy pisa lucca tuscany leaning_tower euro_comicon Comments (6)

Days 17-19

rain 17 °C
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Since my classes have moved to the afternoons, I'm finding it hard to get moving in the morning - time to set the alarm again, I think! This is my excuse for not having done much to write about!

Yesterday I decided to take a look at the synagogue, as a departure from the Christian architecture that dominates Florence. It sure stands out in the vista of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo - it's the one with the green-domed roof

They don't let you in with a bag or camera, so I decided to wait till another day. When I do go in, they don't allow any photos at all, so I won't be able to show you anything that you can't find on the internet. But it's pretty, so here it is from the outside:


For some reason, there were some armed guards right by the fence too, but no idea what they were there for

On the way to the Sinagogue (Italian spelling), I came across a flea market of second hand goods
I found a treasure-trove of old postcards and records (yes, LPs and singles!) - bought some postcards but didn't want to try to deal with records in my luggage!

Near the market is a flower seller, which looked really pretty in the dowdy neighbourhood

You're probably wondering how the Italian classes are doing. Although the grammar is really hard, and full of exceptions, especially when conjugating verbs, it's getting easier to understand when the teacher speaks and to have a bit of a conversation. I know my tenses and conjugations are all over the place, but the main point right now is to be understood so I guess I'm getting there - though far, far away from being fluent!

It has been raining a lot today, so I thought it would be nice to show you what a wet evening in Florence looks like (my camera isn't top of the range, so night shots leave a little to be desired, sorry), so here goes:


In the next couple of days I want to climb up to the top of the Duomo dome in the morning, It's supposed to be fine on Friday, so will aim for then. On Saturday, I'm planning to go to Lucca and Pisa so should have some good stuff for you then.

Posted by judesbucketlist 19:12 Archived in Italy Tagged raining italy florence tuscany synagogue Comments (1)

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