Sunday, November 5, 2017

Remembering a Trip through Charming Villages of Tuscany

We made a trip through Tuscany during December. We were lucky to see some cities already with Christmas decorations and without too many tourists. It was really cold! After a travel by car through Tuscany, passing through beautiful landscapes and enjoying wine and gastronomy, I tell you what to see in Tuscany. A drive through Tuscany had always been one of my dreams.

Going through its green landscapes, enjoying its gastronomy and its wines, learning about the history and architecture of cities such as Florence or Siena or getting lost in many of the beautiful villages of the interior was something that I had to do at some point.

It was time! I was going to live a week in Tuscany! The flight after a stopover at Zurich arrived in Florence at 7 pm. Our first stop, how could it be otherwise, was this wonderful city full of architecture, history, cuisine and cobblestone streets. There is a lot to see in Florence, and maybe the time we spent of two days was not enough, but at least we tried to make the most of it.

The first thing we did was to wait at the airport exit for the shuttle bus that took us to the car rental area. It is not in the airport itself, but 2 minutes by bus.

First of all, we decided to take a tour to see the whole architectural part of Florence and better understand the meaning of the great works it contains. We start our first day in Florence with a visit to the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore), which is 5 minutes from the hotel. The Piazza di San Giovanni, where the baptistery and the main facade of the cathedral are, was full of tourists. We had a good time taking photos and observing the east door of the "Puerta del Paraíso" baptistery, with panels where Ghiberti carved some bas-reliefs on the wood and later covered it with gold paper. The originals are in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.

We do not enter the Duomo. There are 414 steps of the Campanile (bell tower) to enjoy spectacular views of the center of Florence (6 euros). It is one of the most liked visits of the trip, although it is a bit hard to climb. There are more or less long stretches of very narrow staircase with people going up and down at the same time. To rest a little on both steps the tower has three levels to enjoy the view from intermediate heights.

Walking from Piazza di San Giovanni towards Ponte Vecchio, we pass through Piazza Della Republica, built on the old Jewish ghetto of Florence. There was an exhibition of cars from various eras, including one from Formula 1. We see a covered market, which reminded me a lot of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, wallets, leather jackets, handkerchiefs, etc.

Almost by chance, we came across the most famous bridge in Florence. It stands on three arches over the Arno River and is the oldest bridge in Europe. Since medieval times there has been the trading here. It is curious to cross it and see both sides of the shops, although I personally was a bit disappointed. The view of Ponte Vecchio from the nearest bridge is much prettier when it is already dark.

After crossing Ponte Vecchio we took a walk on the other side of the river, in the neighborhood of Oltrarno (on the other side of the Arno). We enter Santa Maria del Carmine, whose main attraction is the Brancacci chapel. I do not remember exactly what time we entered, but they immediately came to tell us that the church was closing and that we should go to the museum if we wanted. You can visit the Brancacci chapel and the convent from here, upon payment, which should be really interesting. As there was a line and we were a little hungry we decided to find a place to eat.

We cross the river again, this time through the Ponte Santa Trinita, enjoying the views of the buildings on both banks. We found a small and cozy restaurant with reasonable prices. In addition, the letter that was on the door said that they did not charge the service, which is common in all the restaurants we had visited.

After making us understand with an exaggeratedly friendly waiter, we each ordered a plate of pasta (10 euros, as stated on the menu) and a glass of wine. This was the last recommendation of the "attentive" waiter. When we told him that we were not going to ask for a bottle of wine, he suggested that we order only two glasses so that it would be cheaper for us.

We also ordered a quite standard dessert tiramisu and a coffee. There was no dessert menu so our friendly waiter told us what they had. When he brought the bill for 45 euros, we saw that we had been charged 7 euros for each glass of wine. Once past the anger, we head towards the Piazza de Pitti, again in Oltrarno, to visit the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli gardens.

Beware of the schedules! We recommend that they be the first thing you look at the ticket counter. We paid 10 euros for an entry with which you can visit the gardens, porcelain museum, costume galleria and Museo degli Argenti. We only had time to see the gardens, which close at 16.30 in winter. When we returned to the Palazzo to visit the museums told us that they were already closed, so it was a disappointment to visit.

Yes, the gardens are beautiful. We visited them with rain, but that meant there were almost no tourists. We started the tour through the amphitheater, where the first operas of the time were represented and where the stone was taken to build the Palazzo. Walking along the central promenade you can see a lot of classical statues until you reach L'Isoloto, a garden surrounded by a moat and statues. In the center, there is a fountain.

After visiting this part we climbed a zig-zag path to an esplanade with more statues and some very nice views of the city, but here a guard told us that they were already closing and we had to go back the way we had come.

Next to the Palazzo Pitti is this church, projected in the 15th century by Brunelleschi, whose facade is undecorated. In the interior, you can see (but not photograph, of course!) A multitude of Renaissance works of art in its 38 lateral altars.

The basilica is in the Piazza di Santo Spirito, which we could not enjoy very well for being under construction. However, there are several medieval palaces (the most important Palazzo Guadagni), a market and furniture restoration workshops.

The most beautiful thing in Florence, along with the Duomo, in my opinion. This site has been the center of the politics of the city since the 14th century, where citizens met when they were summoned to parliament or where Savonarola was burned at the stake. The history of the square goes back to prehistory. Right now there is a panel in the square (right next to the Chanel store) where they explain the Roman remains found, where they would be located and how the square would be at that time.

The most important buildings are the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia Della Signoria. In the same square, there is a fountain dedicated to Neptune that commemorates the Tuscan naval victories, a copy of Michelangelo's David and a statue of Hercules and Cacus.

Palazzo Vecchio continues to fulfill its role as the town hall. We visit the Cortile, where the fountain of the angel is, and to a courtyard full of columns that are next. The Cortile is also called Vasari's courtyard, all its walls are decorated with frescoes by Vasari. The Loggia della Signoria or Loggia dei Lanzi is a kind of open-air museum with numerous statues. At night, with the lighting in the loggia, it casts its shadow behind the rest of the statues.

After having a good time at the Piazza Della Signoria we returned to the hotel through the streets near the Duomo and had dinner in a kebap. After walking to the center and we looked for a trattoria for dinner with a very lively terrace. The truth is that the terraces were all full and the nightlife was exciting. We let ourselves be advised and we tried an antipasto tasting with local products such as bolognese mortadella, culatello (similar to Serrano ham), feline salami, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese accompanied by a Montepulciano wine, a great Tuscan wine.

After dinner, we went directly to the hotel to sleep. The day had been very long and we were very tired.

We get up early to take advantage of the last day. We were quick to wake up because the hotel ran out of hot water and we had to shower with cold water. We went for a walk to Piazza San Marco to see the church of the same name.

In the surroundings of San Marcos are the Giardino dei Semplici, the botanical garden of the University of Florence, and several buildings that belong to faculties or places related to the University (Palazzo di San Clemente, Palazzo di Gino Capponi). Leaving behind the University area we enter the Plaza della Santissima Annunziata, with the church of the same name, the Spedale degli Innocenti (former orphanage) and a couple of statues, one of them very beautiful (Fontane dei mostri marini).

The next stop was the Accademia Gallery. The most famous work is The David by Michelangelo. It is really impressive to see it up close with the expression of the face, the body turned and in tension. What impressed me more than I expected, was closely watching David. What definition of details! It was a wise move to take the tour and our guide knew not only to teach us what we were looking for, but also to do it in a fun way. In addition to this statue, there are many more works to see. The Rapture of Sabina, various paintings and sculptures and the Dipartimento degli strumenti musicali, a kind of Museum of musical instruments very interesting.

A 15-minute walk from the Gallery is Santa Croce, one of the most beautiful churches in Florence, in my opinion. This basilica is known for being the place where Stendhal in 1817 suffered the symptoms of vertigo, palpitations, confusion, etc., being called from that moment Stendhal Syndrome. In its interior (to which we did not go) are the tombs of Galileo, Miguel Ángel, Vasari, remains of Machiavelli and many altarpieces, frescoes, sculptures, etc. In Piazza Santa Croce there was a kind of German fair that we had to cross to get to the next point: Piazza Della Signoria.

As it was one of the places we liked the most in Florence, we returned during the day to see all the sculptures again.

Walking towards the north we enter the Church of Orsanmichele, in the middle of the commercial zone. It was built in 1337 as a grain market. Later it was converted into a church and used as a chapel by the most powerful guilds of artisans and merchants in Florence. On the ground floor of the building are the thirteenth-century arches that originally formed the market lodge.

The second floor was devoted to the trades, while the third housed one of the municipal granaries, maintained in case of famines or sieges. At the end of the 14th century, the guilds were ordered to commission statues of their patron saints to embellish the facade of the church. The interior is decorated with frescoes and a Gothic tabernacle. It is worth entering.

The next stop was the Duomo (3.50 euros). After being a while contemplating the front entrance I was deeply disappointed. Much emptier of works of art than any of the previous ones that we had visited, what struck me most were the ruins that were discovered not long ago in the basement: ruins of Roman houses, a pavement of early Christianity, ruins of the old cathedral of Santa Reparata and successive enlargements of that church. You can also access the dome and see the paintings very close.

Continuing north and leaving the Duomo behind, we reach San Lorenzo, surrounded by shops and restaurants for the tourist. On the outside, it is not too showy, and we do not go inside. In one of the cafes under the arcades of the square, we then had a cappuccino, which we thought was the most exquisite of all we had taken. After savoring their dishes and relaxing for a while, on the terrace we ordered some caffé espresso and caffé macchiato deliciously served and we set out to take a new tour of the city.

The last church we visited was Santa Maria Novella, near the station and the hotel. You have to cross a courtyard with sepulchers and enter the basilica (3.50 euros). At this point, we were already tired of churches, but it is worth going to see her for the amount of art works that are inside and that (surprise). You cannot photograph the fresco of La Trinidad, by Masaccio, the Tornabuoni Chapel, and the Gondi Chapel, which houses Brunelleschi's only wooden work, the famous Crucifix. Giorgio Vasari was the architect who carried out one of the reforms.

The rest of the time we had was dedicated to savoring the streets, to greasing the palate and preparing for what was coming. We dined at a restaurant-pizzeria in front of the hotel. Then we took a long walk through the center of the town, through its labyrinthine and cobbled streets that showed us it's medieval past. We noticed some buildings that showed the importance that the city had in the past. Its palaces, churches and cloisters and narrow streets that since the early eighteenth century was home to about a hundred people whose houses were grouped around the synagogue.

The next morning we left early for Siena and in less than an hour we were there. The landscape by road is spectacular deserving of endless photos. It runs through one of the most famous valleys of Italy, between gentle hills and wide meadows dotted with extensive oak groves. Here one of the most famous and renowned wines of this country is grown, the Chianti.

Yes, I have to admit that I could not wait and after entering the green meadows of Chianti, our first stop on the route by car in Tuscany was to taste wines. In the town of Panzano in Chianti, a very nice girl showed us the vineyard and explained everything about their wines and organic products. She gave us to taste the wines they have, as well as their cheese. In Chianti, we also saw other towns such as Panzano and Greve, all full of light and color that made us want to continue our trip.

Monteriggioni

At first sight, it is certain that I was impressed to see a medieval city completely walled and preserved in an excellent state. Upon entering, I expected a city where I would see people living and an almost medieval life in the 21st century. In return, I find it very prepared for travelers and there is a lack of the emotions that we seek. Although it is true that as a city if I take it as a monument as a whole it is impressive.



Siena

Entering Siena is exciting from the first moment. It transports us in time to its ancient and medieval past. For many, it is considered as the best preserved medieval city in Europe. The city has an Etruscan origin and as a Roman colony, it was founded at the time of Emperor Augustus. It is about the tenth and eleventh century when it managed to be the center of important commercial routes. From the 14th century onwards, its slow decline began, culminating in 1555 when the city had to surrender to the supremacy of Florence, under the control of the Medici.

Although it is small, given that the center is prohibited to road traffic, in theory, we had to take a long detour to get to the hotel. We arrived in Siena at night, and between checking in and leaving the bags in the room it was around 10pm. The Italians have a very strict dinner schedule! We entered more than 5 places just to hear that the restaurant was closed. As things got worse we went back to the hotel (whose restaurant was also closed) and they indicated a place that could be open. In fact, it was, the best pizza I've eaten so far!

We returned to the hotel, already in a better mood. There was not much atmosphere in Siena at night.

The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast on the way while we decided what to see. Siena, like Rome, is built on 7 hills, so the views from points of the city to places like the Duomo are really beautiful. From the hotel, the views were also beautiful of the wall, hills and typical landscapes of Tuscany. We see the same views from a nearby viewpoint, in Via Ettore Bastianini.

We start our walk from the hotel to Piazza del Campo. The square is fan-shaped and divided into nine sectors representing the Council of nine, responsible for the government during the medieval period. In the center of the square, there is a Fonte Gaia marble fountain, and several buildings such as the Palazzo Piccolomini or the Loggia della Mercanzia, where merchants and moneylenders did their business.

The most important building is the Palazzo Pubblico (still the seat of the Town Hall) which we entered only to visit the first patio, but which has many rooms with frescoes to visit. The palazzo bell tower is the second tallest tower in Italy. Siena is a surprising city, full of small cobblestone alleys that one does not know if they have an exit on the other side.

Then we continue the walk through the narrow streets to Piazza San Domenico to visit its Gothic church. Inside is the chapel of Santa Catalina, built to keep her head uncorrupted which is now guarded on the altar. More interesting than the interior of San Domenico, I found the view of the Duomo on top of a hill that we can see from this square. This was our next point in the tour. To get here we went down first from Piazza San Domenico to go back up the hill to Piazza del Duomo. So we could take a walk through an area we did not know and that gave us beautiful views of the hills of the city.

The Duomo of Siena seemed to me, together with that of Florence, the most spectacular church we saw on our trip. We had a good time contemplating the impressive Gothic façade of white and black stone. But in the end, we did not enter (we started arriving at a saturation point of churches and we still had Florence). Although we did not enter, they told us that it is worth visiting.

When you access the Piazza del Duomo from the access arch to the baptistery you can see to the left the lateral nave of the cathedral, which was incomplete because the plague ravaged the city. The views from the top of the door of what was to be a new cathedral are simply impressive (almost better than the Torre del Mangia I dare say). The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo is also in this square.

One day to see Siena is insufficient. We see the windows, the banners, and its narrow decorated streets give a festive and cheerful air. We ate at a restaurant in the center, a terrace surrounded by a fountain that cooled the Tuscan noon. We had fantastic food, and Aperitivo (a drink similar to vermouth) and for dessert, we ordered Panforte, a typical Siena sweet. The Panforte caught our attention in all the shop windows. Many residents consider Siena as the Italian capital of Panforte. Is said to contain 17 different ingredients, being the 17 contrades from within the walls. After savoring delicious caffés we said goodbye to Siena with the promise of an upcoming return.

After visiting the most important part of Siena (although it is best to take a walk through the streets that surround the Piazza del Campo and enjoy the views and the atmosphere) we made the check-out and went to Colle di Val d'Elsa.

Colle di Val d'Elsa

Before heading to San Gimignano from Siena, we made a short stop in Colle di Val d'Elsa. It was an unexpected destination that crossed the ascent towards the hill where the other town is. But if someone travel by car in places like Tuscany, it is to find towns like this. It is taken from another century and where it seems that tourism has not yet arrived. To be carried away by its streets, you just have to do that.

San Gimignano

Next, we get to San Gimignano. Seen from far away, it is impressive. A set of medieval towers rise up on the horizon like a contemporary metropolis, like the New York of the Middle Ages. It was getting dark, and the light between orange and blue gave a special charm to the profile of the Towers. It is a town that despite being overcome by tourists, knows how to preserve its authenticity by making you feel in another era.

San Gimignano is one of the most famous and most visited towns in the whole area. It has, of course, like all the others, that medieval air and all its buildings, walls and churches form a perfectly preserved set that gives an idea of that time. However, we found that it was full of shops of all kinds and that this was quite charming. It looked like a town prepared for tourists, lacking something authentic.

We parked the car in a parking lot outside the wall. We enter the historical part through the wall to travel Via San Giovanni to Piazza della Cisterna. It is one of the two main streets and, as I said before, it is full of shops with products of all kinds of jewelry, restaurants, gastronomy, prints, and paintings, etc. Most are typical products of the area.

The Piazza Della Cisterna takes its name from a well that is in the center and is surrounded by houses built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Next to it is the Piazza del Duomo with the Palazzo del Popolo (City Hall) which houses the Civic Museum in the upper galleries and the Torre Grossa from which you can see a spectacular panorama. We only entered the inner courtyard of the Palazzo and went up to the gallery above (without entering the museum) to have a view of the town from above.

In this square, there was a small market of typical products of the region, with soaps, food. Then we took a walk along Via San Matteo, the second main street of the town, and bought some pizza slices (5 euros two servings) to visit the town while we ate.

At night, before leaving and by chance to have the cherry on top, we enjoyed a concert in the main square while we had a lemon ice cream and white wine.

The last place we went before taking the car again was to Via Degli Innocenti to take a few pictures from a viewpoint. We had just enough time to visit the town, but you can also go to see the Museo della Tortura, La Rocca or Sant'Agostino. And we recommend stopping on the way, before or after arriving in San Gimignano, to take some pictures or just enjoy the view of the town in the distance, with its XII century towers in the middle of the Tuscan landscape.

Volterra

Volterra was one of the towns on our route by car through Tuscany that most excited us. Volterra is famous for its Etruscan and medieval past, and for its strategic location in the disputes over control between Florence and Siena. It is also famous for the vampiric saga of the novel Twilight, which supposedly takes place in Volterra. So this old city, walled on top of a hill, with labyrinthine streets and medieval airs, is full of excursions of young followers of the novel.

We would have stayed longer if we had known because of course, we had to fall in love with it. Its buildings, alleys, hills, the Roman amphitheater, the Etruscan ruins and its food (crostini and the wine).

Livorno

With Livorno we wanted to put the different note, stopping somewhere on the coast of Tuscany. Although it had curious corners like the promenade or the neighborhood of Venice, it reminded me a little of the abandoned Malaga before it began to renew itself and become the beautiful city that it is today.

Tower of Pisa

Near Livorno was our stop for that night in Pisa. This city surprised us positively because people told us that it only had the tower. It is a very pleasant city to walk through the streets, with churches and buildings that preserve their past . Also, it was here where we beat any ice cream we have ever tasted. The lemon and the coffee (I would travel to this city even if I only had this ice cream).

Lucca Square

From Pisa to Lucca it only took 20 minutes, but the contrast between the two cities is great. In Lucca, it was very cold, and we saw her at night (at this time of the year it was evening before 5 in the afternoon). The area seems uninhabited but once you enter you will be surprised by an almost medieval city full of charm. It must be one of the few cities in this area that still preserves the wall intact. We enter through Porta Elisa, and a few steps further on we cross Porta San Gervasio, from the old city wall, recently restored and with a very beautiful lighting at night. You can see where the old moat of this wall passed, now converted into a ditch (Via del Fosso).

We strolled through the streets of Lucca, full of shops and people possessed by the Christmas spirit of buying gifts, or what is the same, it was almost impossible to walk. The main streets were crowded. The central square is quite modern but interesting. Beware of the prices, they charge us 7 euros for two hot chocolates. In another sense, I keep a great gastronomic memory of Lucca.

I found a small supermarket that I went to buy water and some provision for when I went hungry. There I found a large cluster of light green grapes that I bought without thinking twice since the wines of that region have great fame and the grapes did not detract from it. I can only say that they have been the best grapes I have ever eaten in my life, juicy and delicious (nothing to do with the bland mediocrity we eat here on New Year's Eve).

The first place we went to see was the Guinigi Tower. It is a pity not to be able to enjoy its views with its trees at the top, but at night it is not worth climbing. We also walk through what in Roman times was the amphitheater, now an oval-shaped square surrounded by residential buildings. With the good weather, it has to be very nice to have a drink in one of the many terraces.

The rest of things we visited in Lucca were the Porta dei Borghi (north on Via Fillungo). San Frediano, with its Byzantine-style mosaic on the facade, brings my memories of Istanbul back. San Michele in Foro and the market that was next door was nothing great. Piazza Napoleone with several buildings house museums, theaters, etc.

The last place we went to is the Duomo, taking a detour to see a few more streets. It was the most beautiful place, in my opinion, that we visited in Lucca. The whole of the square, the cathedral, and the bell tower is a bit strange, probably because of all the reconstructions that it has seen, but very interesting. Especially the facade of the Duomo, with many different decorations. After taking a few pictures here, taking advantage of the fact that there was no one in the square and the night lighting, we returned to the car through Porta Elisa. After visiting the Puccini Museum in Lucca, we continued our route marked by the next stop.

Our route ended up back in Florence, where we arrived at night for the next day to take the plane back. It has been an impressive journey, full of good times, romanticism, gastronomic luxuries and excellent wines. A trip that will be remembered throughout life. It goes without saying that you cannot just visit, if you do not take the time to make a drive through Tuscany. At dusk, the landscapes of Tuscany have a special charm. They surround you with lighting, art, architecture, aromas, wines and being able to enjoy these moments quietly is priceless.