Tour of Italy: Our Last Day

Our first stop on the last day of our Tour of Italy was at the Florence American Cemetery Memorial.  This is one of two American Cemeteries in Italy. The other is near Rome. 

Rome was liberated on June 5, 1944.  The Allies operated throughout Italy until all remaining German forces surrendered on May 2, 1945.

Italy donated the land for this cemetery but it is maintained and operated by the United States. It has an American caretaker.

There are 4402 memorials made from exquisite marble.

The names of 1409 persons missing in action are inscribed on these tablets. 

Our next stop was a treasure among the hill towns of Tuscany, San Gimignano.   High perches were important for security.

The town of San Gimignano was on the trade route in and out of Rome, to their benefit.

  When Rome fell, chaos ensued, and cities and towns around the region fortified. 

They operated as separate city states.

San Gimignano’s walls were placed in the 13th century.

This well in the center of town operated for more than 1000 years.

Our tour guide called San Gimignano the Manhattan of the past.  There were once 60 towers, now only eight towers remain. 

In the past people placed planks between buildings to move from one to the other.

In 1348, the plague decimated the town’s population by two-thirds. 

Florence, the regional bully,  took over and directed trade routes away from San Gimignano. 

The isolation was devastating to the economy then but has left San Gimignano less changed for tourism now. 

We had one last piece of “take away” Margherita Pizza and one more gelato from the best rated gelato shop in Tuscany – or maybe the world!

In the past San Gimignano had traded in leather and saffron and this shop offered a saffron flavored gelato.

We opted for our typical flavor choices instead!  

The rest of the day was spent traveling to Rome and settling into our hotel for our last night in Italy. We had flights out the next day.

We had a farewell dinner and ate a delicious risotto – another meal I should have been ordering all along!

Our British Airlines flight out of Rome the next morning was delayed so we “missed” our flight out of London.   While still in the air we learned we’d been re-booked on an American Airlines flight from London to Phoenix for the next day.

After landing in London we were given vouchers for transportation, hotel, meals at the hotel etc.  We were impressed and not annoyed – things happen especially with travel in the (mostly) post COVID world.   

Our impression changed when, after getting settled in our room, our phones started notifying us to board our British Airways flight to Phoenix.  Someone or something hadn’t taken into consideration that the plane we were supposed to take leaving London was also delayed.  We could have made it easily.

But done was done.  We had opted not to retrieve our luggage in London so had almost nothing.  It was cold and drizzly and we weren’t dressed to go out for Fish and Chips at a local pub.  We’d do that differently next time! Just buy a jacket and go!

However it had happened, we had a very pleasant premium economy flight from London straight into Phoenix the next day.  

Our combined trip of the Holland America Transatlantic Cruise and the Trafalgar Tour of Italy was terrific. After being gone for five weeks, it was good to be home.

Next post: The epilogue – our summary thoughts about our trip and details that didn’t make it in anywhere else.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Tour of Italy: Florence – Covid Tests and David

There were two significant events on our minds as we arrived in Florence. Seeing Michelangelo’s David and taking the Covid test required for travel back into the US. In May 2022, testing positive meant quarantine in Florence. 

Our hotel room in Florence was the worst we had occupied in all of Italy.  It was very small and very gray.  It had a queen bed, TV and one chair.  Despite being new, or newly renovated, there were no electrical or USB outlets on either side of the bed.  There was one electrical outlet behind the TV and one in the bathroom.  Forget the CPAP, just having outlets to charge our phones, watch, camera and iPad was problematic. The idea of being stuck THERE for ten days was awful.

All 27 of us lined up for our Covid tests – Euros only,  exact change preferred.  Those of us with Euros helped those who had never exchanged currency.   The doctor was apparently annoyed at having to come to us because he inserted the swabs through the nasal cavity all the way to our brains.  We survived the medical assault and celebrated when we all passed!  I think our tour guide Fabrizio celebrated most because he was the one who would have had to arrange for our quarantine.

Now on to David… actually several Davids! The first David we saw was a replica at a park above Florence.  

The second David was a replica placed where the original sculpture stood (outside) for 360 years.   

The statue on the right is Hercules and Cacus.  The rich and powerful Medici family that ruled Florence from the 13th through 17th centuries used Hercules as a symbol of courage and strength.  Four popes came from their line.

The Medici family used art as currency and displayed their vast collection.  They were famous for patronage – paying commissions so artists could focus solely on their art.  The Medici family had a huge impact on the Italian Renaissance.  

We saw the real David in the Galleria Accademia.  David was commissioned not by the Medici family but by the Opera del Duomo.  David was to be part of the sculpture collection in the Florence Cathedral.

The block of marble Michelangelo was given for David had been rejected by two other sculptors as being of poor quality. Begun in 1501, Michelangelo took three years to create David, finishing when he was 26 years old.

When completed David was too heavy to go in the intended place along the roofline in the cathedral. He is 17 meters tall with oversized hands and feet because people were to have viewed him from below.

David’s left arm was broken a riot while it was still outside. It was later repaired.

His right shoulder is pitted from an acid wash used to clean the statue during the 18th century.

David’s left big toe was damaged by a person with a hammer in 1991.

At age 500, David was restored in 2003.  This time restorers took 18 months to remove dirt using only distilled water.  

We saw another Pieta but there is not full agreement on whether this was created by Michelangelo. The Galleria claims it is so in its signage.  We were told this Pieta was found in 1940 at a small church in Italy.

We saw the famous Michelangelo Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  A second verified Michelangelo Pieta is in another Florence location and a third is in Milan.  This would be his fourth if correctly attributed.

While visiting the Galleria Accademia we saw many sculptures each with a story of its own.

Most artists began with plaster casts such as these women.  Careful observation shows measurement marks in preparation for sculpting in marble. Michelangelo did not use casts – he went straight to the marble in creating his works.

We saw so many sculptures all over Florence – inside and outside and everywhere between.  It became a bit overwhelming!

Churches on our Tour of Italy also became a bit overwhelming.  There were larger and fancier churches in Florence but we ended our day at the more modest Santa Croce Church.

Basilica de Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross) was begun in 1294 and consecrated in 1440.  It is the largest Franciscan church in the world.  The front facade was added later when Florence gained great importance. The architect was Jewish and included the Star of David.

This church was interesting to us, not because of interior beauty or opulence …

…although there was a bit of that… but because of the historical figures entombed there.

Guglielmo Marconi was an Italian inventor and electrical engineer, known for inventing the wireless telegraph system and early radio. 

Galileo Galilei was an Italian astronomer, physicist and engineer. You know – Galileo!

Nicolavs Machiavelli – writer of “The Prince” and the owner of the Tuscany villa we enjoyed the night before. 

Gioachino Rossini was an Italian composer who gained fame for his 39 operas, chamber music, piano pieces, and sacred music. 

Enrico Fermi was an Italian physicist and creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor.

And of course, Michelangelo is here – but he wasn’t always.  On questionable terms with the Medici family, Michelangelo lived his last thirty years in Rome.  He died and was buried there.  The current leader of the Medici family conspired with Michelangelo’s nephew to steal Michelangelo’s body and return him to Florence. 

Santa Croce has evolved into a tomb of national glory with over 15,000 places of rest.  There were many other elaborate tombs but I have highlighted those whose names were familiar to us.

When reviewing Florence pictures (six months later) for writing this blog, I was surprised to see this meal picture but I remember it well.  We ate at a little sidewalk restaurant very near Santa Croce. Randy, as always, had pizza and I had a delicious carbonara.  I should have been ordering carbonara all along!

Next up: Our last full day in Italy!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Tour of Italy: Pisa and Villa Machiavelli

Pisa was an important port on the Mediterranean in the 12th century. Construction on a bell tower began in 1173.  

Unfortunately, the land was marshy and the tower started leaning after the third floor was added.  We were told the architect ran away.

The bell tower sat abandoned for almost 200 years until it was completed in 1372.

As it was constructed the builders tried to modify dimensions to keep the tilt from getting worse.

In1990 people around the world gathered and performed surgical fixes on the tower, improving its tilt from 5.5 degrees to less than 4.

In the year 2000, engineers tried to reinforce the Leaning Tower of Pisa with ground support. 

On the grounds are a church, the bell tower and a baptistry.  

After exploring Pisa, we were given the opportunity to have lunch on our own.  By this time I was getting tired of pizza – no matter how good it was.  (Randy never did get tired of pizza.)  

On our own, we couldn’t be shamed for trying the Italian version of McDonalds.  We saw them everywhere – all over Italy!   We thought it would be interesting to compare what they have versus what we know.  Randy had a regular Big Mac and fries.  I had an Italian burger and fries.  Both were fine but we regretted our decision even while we were eating.  When in Italy, don’t eat at McDonalds!

With our visit to Pisa complete, we continued our travel through the Tuscany region of Italy.  Tuscany is named for the Etruscans, the people group who inhabited this area before the Romans.   The Etruscans were contemporaries of the ancient Greeks. Many Etruscan tombs remain in the region. Some are decorated with frescoes allowing people to learn about their civilization. 

We traveled to Villa Machiavelli for a tour, wine tasting and dinner.  Our experience began with a glass of their very own Bluemond Blue Bubbly!

The Villa was the home of Italian political philosopher and writer Niccolo Machiavelli.  He served as a diplomat for the principality of Florence in the early 1500s. 

He fell out of favor with the powerful Medeici family, was abused, and eventually exiled to his Villa.   

In an attempt to regain political favor, Machiavelli wrote his most famous work, The Prince, at this desk.  The effort failed to win over the Medici family but the writing has historic longevity.

Wine has been grown on these lands for over 500 years.  One of the primary grape varieties grown in Tuscany is sangiovese.  I hadn’t been fond of red wine prior to this trip but wine from sangiovese grapes is my new favorite. 

These are a few of the winery’s barrels. Wine is typically aged two to four years.

Chianti is one example of wine made in this area from sangiovese grapes.

We were able to try a variety of Villa Machiavelli wines under the Saraceni label.

Following our villa tour we had one of the most delicious dinners we had in Italy – while in one of the most scenic locations!

The truffle ravioli was among the best things I ate on our whole tour of Italy!  For those that might not know, truffles are mushrooms that grow underground.  Maybe the rich soil makes truffles better than mushrooms, about which I am generally ambivalent.

Although it may sound silly to those of you not on the bus with us, we had a joyous return back to our hotel and I want it written down for our memories.   Our tour guide Fabrizio started playing American songs over the bus speaker and we were all singing along – even doing arm motions with YMCA – a song I usually dislike!

Our bus driver Tonino (on the left pictured with Fabrizio) was getting into the groove turning the interior lights on and off with the music and even driving around a remote traffic circle twice for fun.  (His family owns the bus so he wasn’t putting his job at risk.)  It is a fun memory of a special night as we approached the end of our Tour of Italy.

Next up:  Florence!

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Tour of Italy: Lake Como

Our next destination was famous Lake Como.  It is a lovely lake surrounded by elegant villas and green mountains.

We were reminded repeatedly that George Clooney and his family live on Lake Como but we did not see them.  We took a lake tour assuming we would see at least one of their three villas but we did not.  That seemed odd given the hype.

We were told that the first home Clooney purchased, Villa Oleander built in 1720, is beyond this point. He then bought the adjoining Villa Margherita and later a third villa on the lake. 

We did see many other elegant villas around the lake.  Some remain special family residences while others are now rental venues, municipal buildings or hotels.   

Each has its own history, including its origin and the variety of nobles, businessmen and celebrities that have been proprietors over the last 300-400 years.

Villa Del Grumello is one of the oldest villas on Lake Como with origins in the 15th century.  It began as a rustic two story house known as Castellazzo.  It has undergone major restorations several times over the centuries.

Villa Erba was built in the 19th century. It is now a premiere wedding and events site on Lake Como.  It was a filming location for the movie Ocean’s Twelve.

Villa Fontanelle was built in the 19th century by Lord Charles Currie.  He couldn’t find a villa to buy, so had one built.  The villa was in a state of abandonment when purchased by Gianni Versace in 1977.  He restored the home and the gardens.  Many current celebrities were regular visitors at Villa Fontanelle until it was purchased by a Russian oligarch in 2008.

There are many villas and fancy houses around the lake.  These are a mere sampling.

Returning to the town of Como, we could see the Tempio Voltiano.  It was built in 1927 to honor Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the electrical battery. The museum inside holds scientific instruments and that first electric battery.

There is a statue of Alessandro Volta in a piazza named in his honor in Como. Volta was born in Como in 1745 and died there in 1827. His name is also the inspiration behind the standard unit of electric potential – the volt.

Next stop on our adventure: Pisa!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Tour of Italy: Lake Maggiore and the Smallest Shower

Lake Maggiore is in Italy’s Lake District, ever so close to Switzerland.  At one point we were ten minutes away from the border and regretting that we hadn’t known enough to ask if a visit was possible. The tour was the Best of Italy and we weren’t thinking Switzerland.

Being close to the alps protects the Lake District from the cold north winds and allows for a very comfortable microclimate.

When we checked into our Stresa hotel on Lake Maggiore, we found an elegant, spacious room with two balconies.  

When we looked in the toilet (they don’t call them restrooms in Italy) we found a large space with a sink, toilet, bidet AND the smallest shower we’ve ever seen.   Even RV showers are larger than this one. Interesting, but we were off for a boat ride on Lake Maggiore!

Our hotel is behind us as we head for Isola Bella, the island beautiful.

Isola Bella was named after Isabella Borromeo, the wife of Vitaliano Borromeo VI. In 1632 he began transforming the island from fishing huts to a beautiful island.  Design and construction on the island continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1948, the northern facade and pier were built and that is where we arrived.

We walked through the palace and learned about the family, visitors and contents.  Members of the Borromeo family still live on the island in September and October each year so there were areas that were closed to the public.

The ceiling represents the family theme of humility. 

This harpsichord is from 1692.

Napoleon and Josephine arrived and slept here on their uninvited overnight visit.

This is one of the first sets of encyclopedia in the world.  It is in French.

This engraved wooden saddle is from the 15th century. It is one of twenty that remain in the world.

There were several marionette theaters to entertain guests of the past. 

Tapestry artists used animals to represent biblical stories.  Each tapestry took ten years to weave.

The grotto, on the lower level, was so unique and interesting!  We were told someone in Dubai created a replica.

There were several rooms to explore.

The walls and ceilings were made from shells and stones.

Outside the palace there are world famous baroque gardens.

The gardens are built on a series of terraces.

Among the many statues and fountains, the Teatro Massimo is dominant. Notice the unicorn on top – it is a family symbol.

White peacocks walk the grounds.  

Occasionally they offer the perfect picture opportunity…

Alas, this last photograph is not mine but I appreciate the unknown person who posted it for others to enjoy.

Later we gathered again for a boat ride to another nearby island.  This is our tour director Fabrizio. 

Our tour featured a couple host family dinners. The family we visited on Lake Maggiore had a small restaurant that was closed to other guests for the evening.

We had a wonderful dinner and took the opportunity to get a group picture.  We had been together about a week and felt very comfortable. It was a nice evening.

So back to that teeny shower….

When Randy was going to shower he could barely get in. He just started laughing!  I went to see what was happening and then we were both laughing! 

Obviously these photos are staged but the real thing was hilarious.  Don’t drop the soap, Randy!

Next stop: Lake Como!

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Tour of Italy: Milano

Milano (Milan) is the second largest city in Italy and its business mecca. It is said that for every church in Rome there is a bank in Milan. The city is also an international fashion center.   

The community that became Milano began 300 years BC and, by the 4th century AD, was a primary city in the Roman Empire.  Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 while in Milano.

Construction on the Milano Duomo (cathedral) began in 1386 and was completed almost six centuries later.  

It is the fourth largest cathedral in Europe with a standing capacity of 40,000. Notice the mosaic floor. This view is looking towards the central altar from just inside the main entrance.

 It was once the home cathedral of the largest segment of eastern Christians.   

In 1565 the Milan Duomo joined with the Roman Catholic Church.  There have been ten services each Sunday ever since.

This statue on the right depicts the Apostle Bartholomew who was skinned alive for spreading Christianity in Armenia.

Built of marble in an overdone gothic style, it is believed there are more statues in this building than any other in the world. There are 3400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures.

The Milano Duomo also contains the most works of stained glass anywhere, some from the 1300s. 

Over the centuries, the glass artists used different techniques.

One hundred and forty-four stained glass windows depict scenes from the New and Old Testaments.

Despite the passage of time, and World Wars, five original works remain complete. Some windows were removed during times of war to protect them. Different sources say they were removed to the basement and/or to an island.

Light coming through the stained glass is evident on one of the 52 pillars. This view is from the main altar looking back toward the entrance.

There are side chapels and memorials along the lengths of both sides.

Cardinal Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster, served as Cardinal of the Milan Duomo and fought to save Jews and the city during World War II. At his death he was served by a young pall-bearer who became pope. Pope John Paul II beatified Cardinal Schuster in 1996.

Outside the Duomo, in the large piazza, is a statue of Victor Emmanuel II – the first king of the united Italy.  In 1850 there was a collection of colonies and small states. Those became a united country in 1870.

Built to honor the king, and to celebrate unification, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is Italy’s oldest active shopping gallery. It opened in 1877 and is a major landmark in Milan. The galleria was the first building in Milan to use electricity.  (If it looks familiar, we saw something similar in Naples.)

The central area has works that represent the continents.  

Corridors branch out from the central area.

We walked through the galleria to arrive at another Milan icon – The LaScala Opera House.

MILAN, ITALY – NOVEMBER 05: A general view of Teatro Alla Scala on November 05, 2020 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

The Teatro alla Scala is the world’s most famous opera house.  It opened in 1878 and all famous opera singers have performed there.  

The theatre has seating capacity for 2300 guests and the acoustics amplify seven times. Performances have utilized 65000 costumes!  

We were able to enter the theater boxes but employees were working on staging the lights for an upcoming performance. As a result, we had a disappointing darkened view.

Our tour guide redirected us in hopes of a better view later. She had all of us acting out Milano history. 

It was a very good time, but we never did get a better view inside.

We visited the on site LaScala Museum.  The theatre was bombed during World War II and repaired in just 30 months. 

If we are ever in Milan again, I’d love to attend a show at Teatro alla Scala.  I might not understand a word but it would be a feast for the senses.

Speaking of additional things to do on another trip to Milan….It is possible to walk on the roof of the Duomo.  That wasn’t offered on our tour but we’ll know it for next time.

We’ll also learned that Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper is in Milan but we didn’t see it either.  Leonardo lived in Milano from 1482 to 1499, fleeing when the French invaded. This 1872 monument shows the artist with four of his disciple artists.

There are always reasons to go back!

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Tour of Italy: Verona and Juliet’s Balcony

This is the hotel room we woke up in on the day we were leaving for Verona.  It is fairly typical of what our rooms in older hotels looked like.  They were generally good size with old style furniture.  This one had power and USB outlets on just one side of the bed – which was pretty typical when they were even available.  We had taken along some 10 foot USB cords and were glad we had them.

This is just one of the many, sometimes laughable, shower configurations we experienced.  Obviously there was an attempt at a shower screen but the bathroom ended up soaking wet!  There was a floor drain so they were prepared.

When we arrived at the bus that morning we found we had the best seats right behind the driver.  The tour company had a process of assigning rotating passenger seats for fairness.  We had the best seats once on our twelve day tour – this was our day! We enjoyed our ride and arrived in Verona.

Verona was once a Roman City. The “Porta Leoni” gate was a main access route into Verona.  Built in the first century BC, the gate was renovated in the first century AD.  The remains of the gate had been known and were partially visible.  The gate became more visible during renovations in 1958-59.

From 1974-1981 additional renovations nearby revealed part of the old city under the current road.

We walked down the road, and above the Roman city, to the Piazza delle Erbe. We saw the fountain and browsed the vendor tents.

We saw ravioli (tortellini?) for sale as this region of Italy is famous for filled pastas.

When we saw the fruit vendor we stopped and immediately bought fresh fruit cups – selecting those with our favorite fruits.  We had been enjoying good food in Italy but were offered very few fresh vegetables (usually only eggplant) and almost no fresh fruit.  (I know tomatoes are technically a fruit, and they were everywhere, but they are not fruit salad fruit.)

Eating our treat was more of a priority than walking to the Verona Arena or seeing another grand basilica! We were getting a bit churched out by this time.

As a result we just walked around and explored the area near the piazza.  This restaurant set up is very typical of what we saw in Italy.  We didn’t eat here but did so at several restaurants that looked very similar.

Nearby, a twelfth century castle, with a pink marble staircase, surrounds another piazza, the site of the old market. 

By the 14th century, Verona was a city of art and culture.  Verona’s most famous literary (fictional) inhabitants were Romeo and Juliet.  

Like almost every other tourist we stopped to see Juliet’s balcony – only there isn’t really a balcony in Shakespeare’s play.   Nevertheless, we saw it and were glad for it.   

You can pay extra to go inside the 13th century house and stand on Juliet’s balcony but we did not.

Another thing we did not do was rub Juliet’s breast on the 1969 statue by Nereo Costantini.  Doing so is thought to bring good luck. 

The city capitalizes on the literary association and why would they not?  Our tour guide was a bit cynical saying “Two teenagers think they are in love and people die.”

And on that cheery note – I end.  Next time – Milano!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Tour of Italy: Venice and Burano

Our first views of Venice were entering the city on the Grand Canal. 

Venice is composed of 119 islands and has over 400 bridges and 150 canals.

We were intrigued by the architecture in this 1600 year old city. 

Venice has a wealthy history as the first inhabitants were refugee Roman citizens escaping the “barbarians” in what is now northern Italy.  

Venice had many castles and homes for rich residents. The old buildings were never torn down, just refurbished for other uses.  Former palaces have been subdivided, or repurposed for government offices, hospitals and schools.

The residents used millions of petrified logs placed in the marsh, then wooden pillars, bricks and stone to make their city.  None of the buildings are very tall and only the facades are marble or decorative.

The rich and poor lived together and cared about each other.  Government officials were elected for life but did not hold much power.

Between the years of 1789-1797 only the United States and Venice had an elected president.  The tenants of the Venice government are evident in the US constitution. 

Unfortunately, Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797.

Now days, Venice has a declining population, but increasing tourists.  Of course one of the iconic tourist activities is the gondola ride. This boat holds some of our tour mates.

Our gondolier was Alessandro and it was very pleasant being taken through the narrow canals and told about Venice and its history.

He explained about the architecture and window shapes and identified those that were Roman, Arab or Byzantine.

Alessandro told us that to be a gondolier you must be born in Venice. You must also own your own boat which can cost 15000 Euros new.   (Although currently about par, a Euro has typically valued more than the US dollar.)

Canals and buildings are sometimes curved because they follow the shape of the original islands.

At one time, each original island had its own church, meaning there were 100 churches for 50,000 people

The Church of San Zaccaria holds the remains of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.  An adjacent building was for the nuns from wealthy families.  Only the oldest daughters were allowed a dowry and marriage. The others went to the convent. 

At another church we saw the “wheel of shame.”  Illegitimate babies, or those a family couldn’t afford to raise, would be placed in an opening in the stone wheel which was turned to give the baby to the nuns.

The nuns helped the city in other ways too.  They collected water and provided it to the people twice a day.

Piazza San Marco is the city’s main public square, home to the St. Mark’s Basilica, government buildings and restaurants.

Basilica de San Marco (St. Mark’s) was named after Mark, one of the leading apostles after Jesus’ death.  He wrote the gospel of Mark.  It is believed that Mark once preached in the Venice lagoon area.

In 828, Mark’s remains were stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants. They were trying to protect the remains from the Muslims as they took over Christian churches.  The remains were brought to Venice and the Basilica of St. Marks was built to honor and protect them.

The remains were so well protected that they were lost for a time during basilica renovations.  It is considered divine intervention that they were found in a pillar in the year 1094. 

Possession of the remains of St. Mark had a powerful impact on the people of Venice and has benefited the area diplomatically and politically.

There are 8000 square meters (85,000 square feet) of mosaic art that was completed over eight centuries.  

There were 22 tons of 22 and 24 carat gold used in the mosaics, some of which depict scenes from the bible.

There are reminders of the Eastern Orthodox faith, even though St. Mark’s is a Catholic church. 

There are floor mosaics that are also symbolic.

Outside of St. Mark’s is the reminder that this city is built on a series of natural and man made islands.  The pumps were running to disperse water from the basilica grounds.

This was a center of activity for tourists.  Boats came and left, gondoliers went in and out. There were shops and restaurants all around. 

We went out into the lagoon to the islands near Venice.  We went past this building placed on its own island as it once held a hospital for those with the plague.  The building was bombed during WWI.

The Mose Project has been in the works for decades.  It uses a series of 78 gates to protect Venice and other islands in the lagoon from excessively high Adriatic tides.  Although not yet complete, it was utilized four times last year.

We visited the island of Murano and visited shops specializing in glassblowing and leather works.  These specialties have been important to the area for centuries as descendant generations learned the craft.  The continuity of the traditions are at risk as the younger generations aren’t choosing to learn and stay. Apparently, Murano Glass is a famous thing – you may know it, but we did not. They made amazing things and several people on our tour purchased items to be shipped home.

Our favorite lagoon island was the colorful Burano.  

In fact, of all the places we went in Italy, the place we chose to bring home art from was Burano.

The leaning building behind us is Burano’s Bell Tower. Built in the seventeenth century, it inclines 1.83 meters due to settling land beneath it.

If only Pisa was next, but it isn’t. Next we see Verona and Juliet’s balcony.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Tour of Italy: Assisi and Saint Francis

On the journey to Assisi, our tour guide pointed out the Abbey of Montecassino on a nearby hill.  It was a Benedictine monastery when the Germans took it over during WW2.  The US made a calculated decision to bomb the location – but the Germans were gone.  Montecassino was rebuilt after the war by the United States.

When we arrived at Assisi, we learned the city is thought to have originated around 1,000 BC.  It eventually covered three square miles and had eight gates. Medieval Assisi was densely populated.

In 1182, Francis of Assisi was born to a wealthy family.  Assisi went to war with Perugia in 1202 and Francis joined the military seeking glory. He was taken prisoner and jailed for a year until his father paid the ransom.

That experience helped to transform Francis’ life. Another experience was feeling compassion for and hugging a man with leprosy. Francis was further changed when he visited the crumbling chapel of San Damiano. He heard God say, “Francis go and build my church which you can see is falling down.”   Francis physically repaired the chapel and later helped to rebuild people’s faith in God and the church.

Francis denounced all his worldly possessions and lived simply.  His mission was to love and help people.  This fresco shows him giving his fancy clothes to his father.

Francis was never a priest.  He was a simple friar who often preferred the solitude of nature.  Yet, he was also a reformer, challenging the wealthy and powerful, both in the community and the church.  

Frances founded three religious orders that still exist today.  He created two of the most sacred Christian devotions, staging the first Christmas Nativity in 1223 and creating an interpretation of the Stations of the Cross.

After a life of piety and helping others, Francis died in 1226.  The church made him a Saint just two years after his death.  That was exceptionally fast.  Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, ecology and the co-patron saint of Italy.

Building began on the Basilica of Saint Francis in 1228, just two years after Francis’ death. The first stone was placed by Pope Gregory IX the day after the canonization of Francis. The church sought to build a place to protect the saint’s remains.

In 1296, Giotto de Bondone was invited to paint the story of Saint Francis of Assisi in the basilica. He is considered to be the first painter in the history of Western art to show human emotions, and to place figures in realistic surroundings. 

The art in the basilica is a classroom of the lives of Jesus and Saint Francis.

The basiilca is really two churches, one built on top of the other.

The lower church is Romanesque in style and is decorated with frescos of the life of Jesus.  The colors are very vibrant having undergone cleaning.

Below the lower church is a small chapel holding the remains of Saint Francis, just as the pope intended almost 1000 years ago.

The upper basilica is 800 years old and was the first gothic style church in Italy.  Giotto painted 28 scenes of the life of Francis.  The photographs of Francis above are from the upper church.

Taking photographs was not allowed inside the basilica. Those shown above are photographs I took during a Rick Steve’s television program.

An earthquake damaged the basilica in 1997 and it was closed for two years while repairs were done.  There were 80,000 puzzle pieces of frescos to put together.  The repaired frescos are only 55 percent complete as many pieces were too small or destroyed to powder.

The Basilica of Saint Francis has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It is one of the most important sites on a Christian pilgrimage in Italy. 

This is a view of the surrounding region. It is a lovely place.

The Peace Prayer of Saint Francis begins with:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy. 

While the sentiments expressed could certainly be associated with Saint. Francis of Assisi, the prayer was not in his writings and didn’t appear until 1912.

The current pope symbolized his commitment to the poor in choosing the name Francis.

Next blog post – Venice!!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Tour of Italy: Sorrento and the Isle of Capri

Our hotel in Sorrento was family owned.  The mother had recently passed but her sons were keeping the hotel and restaurant business going.  There were rooms facing the sea and some facing the olive groves.  

We learned that olives are harvested in September and are best if they are allowed to ripen and fall naturally.  Some farmers shake their trees to speed up the harvest.  In Italy, only the first squeeze, called extra virgin, is considered worthy.

We visited a family farm where the goal is to grow crops to feed the animals to produce milk to make mozzarella, by hand, every single day.  

We enjoyed a farm fresh dinner that included pizza made with fresh mozzarella.

Sorrento lemons are grown to produce another product sold in abundance – limoncello. 

We have enjoyed limoncello for years (and have even made our own) so we were excited to try authentic limoncello in Italy!

What we found was that authentic Italian limoncello was stronger, almost harsher, compared to what we enjoy. However, there was a limoncello cream version that we liked very much.

Sorrento’s economy is tourism based.  Tourism started here in the late 1800s when the British Grand Tour became popular.  Sorrento was, and is, a great location for visiting the Amalfi coast, Pompeii and the Isle of Capri.

We too visited the Isle of Capri!  This statue welcomes visitors arriving by sea.

We came to Capri on a boat similar to this large one. These are port views.

Capri is six square miles, mostly mountainous.  The population of 13,000 live in a small area.  Capri gets water and power from the mainland using infrastructure under the sea.

We rode the funicular, built from 1904-1907, from sea level up to part of the city that overlooks the sea. 

The goal is to keep the isle authentic, thus no new buildings have been erected since the 1950s.  Improvements and changes can be made inside but the outside must stay the same.

The woman who owned La Parisienne clothing store invented what we know as capri pants after watching the fishermen bringing in their catch at the port.  We were told that the first famous person to wear capri pants was Jacqueline Kennedy after seeing them in 1962.

The Santo Stefano church is from the seventeenth century and is dedicated to Saint Stephen.  In the Book of Acts, Stephen was one of seven deacons appointed by the apostles to care for the poor.  He was the first Christian martyr. 

During WWII, Eisenhower and Churchill met in a peach colored house in the distance.

Because of its location and beauty, the Roman Emperor Tiberius ruled from Capri for eleven years.  He sent smoke signals to Rome from the top of the mountains.  Tiberius had twelve villas on the island.

Caesar Augustus also had a villa and called Capri the “sweet place of doing nothing.”  The commemorative Gardens of Augusta are named in his honor.

In the gardens we were above a former monastery, that was once used as a prison, that is now a high school.

Another building repurposed over time was a sanatarium that is now one of the main hotels on the island. 

Even dogs can find a good drink on Capri!

One of the most famous things to see on Capri is the Blue Grotto, a dark cavern where the sea shines electric blue. It is so lovely that Tiberius had one of his villas built above it.  Alas, we chose to see more of Capri from land and sea rather than focusing on just that one site.

After our land tour and wanderings on the island we took a boat tour around the east side.

This is the Arco Natural, a natural arch of limestone.

The inlet waters were very clear!

This was another boat doing our same tour.

We saw a glimpses of the little blue grotto. We’d love to return someday and see the big one!

Capri was one of Randy’s two favorite places on this trip. He agrees with Caesar Augustus that living here would be great since it is the “sweet place of doing nothing.” Sounds about right!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments