Our Second Week Based in "Cast F.no"
03.12.2008 10 °C
Anica, with an umbrella in Umbria, outside St. Francis' basilica in Assisi
Despite the rain, stronger than yesterday, we decided to take a car trip down to Orvieto, just to "do" something. Even in the fog and rain, we could see it was a beautiful drive. From our town, we just take the SS71 "straight" down into Umbria to get to Orvieto. On the way, we passed by Cortona yet again, with the fields of olive trees flashing their silver backs leaves like endless groves of tinsel. Poetic, eh? But much of the drive was interesting today for the road itself, with the climbs up and down valleys, and the countless twists. Keep me awake! Anica enjoyed herself more than ever, because she wasn't carsick (even without Gravol) and we didn't get lost.
Orvieto is a towering hilltop town. About 30 years ago, it suffered a severe landslide, and the Italian government set about to save the town. It's basically just ash stone. Now there's no heavy or non-local traffic up, and part of the fun for the visitor is taking the funicaular railroad up. That was fine in the rain, and so was the fact that the bus (same ticket) was waiting to take us to the Piazza Duomo.
Heavy rain then made it harder to enjoy the square. It's a beautiful little area, with a uniquely'facaded cathedral (Duomo), with striped sides. It looked like a zebra wearing a Carnivale head-dress. Well, not really. But the front was quite colourful.
Orvieto's colourful cathedral
The real attraction of the town, for us, was the Etruscan Underground tour. Orvieto has about 1,200 man-made caves, built starting in the 6th century BCE, and continuing to just before 1900 CE, when they banned any more. Many are now wine cellars. We got a tour of two large caves, built orginally by the Etruscans. It was amazing to look down a perfectly-dug rectangular well, 90 metres down, made 2,600 years ago. More than a dozen such wells existed, and enabled the Etruscans to withstand siege. The tour also took us through part of the medieval pigeonholes. There's a kilometre of them! The pigeons were raised to be food. Another siege survival tactic. Anica said, hey, I've had pigeon in Egypt! There was also a medieval olive press and mill, a WWII bomb shelter, and an underground quarry. We also liked the fact that it was dry, and 15 degrees inside the caves, whereas outside it was 5 degrees and raining heavily.
After lunch in Orvieto, we drove back and did a little grocery shopping before going home to dry off.
Miserable again. 3 days that could of been bright and shiny, 3 days that we could of gone to Florence/Firenze. We headed on the SSR71 to Orveito, in 3, 2, 4, 6 degree wheather! Even some snow! When we got to Orveato we found the parking lot for the Finncular up to the town. There's 1 difference! Plus, there tram was even faster! Especially on going down. I don't know why, but it seemed like a quarter less faster then a 6-9 age rollercoaster. We hopped on a bus going to the Duomo, which was across from the Etruscan Underground which after going in the (inside, construction - outside, pretty) Duomo. We went to the Etruscan Underground which wasen't as good as the Cattacombs. Went home, had dinner and tomorrow was...
Finally, we took the train and went to "Florence." Your know, Firenze. The weather was better today, so it was worth the wait. The most amazing thing about the day was that I once again (see Malacca blog entry) ran into a teacher I know. Elizabeth was there with her school tour group. It's March Break in Ontario. Still, an amazing coincidence: we were both coming out of the Duomo at the same time! I heard a voice say, "Oh my God, Rob!"
The Duomo here is magnificent, with its different coloured marble on the outside, like it's been painted. We did the 436 steps up to see the dome from the catwalk, then step outside for the 360 degree view of Florence.
The campinile in Firenze
Next we happened upon the Accademia and saw there was no lineup. This is not a huge gallery, but it does have Michelangelo's "David." That's enough! We sat on a bench right in front of it, with an unobstructed view, and marvelled. It was a real treat to see like this. Anica noticed how he seems to be swallowing nervously, and perhaps he's not as relaxed as the slingshot-over-the-shoulder pose indicates at first. She also said it's funny that David slew the giant Goliath and now it's David who's 17 feet tall!
We had a great lunch today, maybe the best meal out we've had in Italy. Just great anitipasti and pasta dishes. We also stocked up on books since Florence has several English-language bookshops. Jenn and I picked the biggest, thickest novels we could find so they'd last.
Late afternoon, we walked through Piazza Della Signoria, with its great sculptures and loggia, then past the street performers (and the Uffizi, that will have to wait for another trip to Florence) to the road that looked out over the Ponte Vecchia. Across the famous bridge, and, eventually, back to the train.
Buildings on the Ponte Vecchia
...Firenze. We got up at 6:30 am to get to the 7:51 train to Firenze. We got second class which looked to me like it was better than first class! We talked to a family of 3 who, like us, were going to Florence. Except, not sightseeing, taking there kid to the hospital (even though she was bouncing around). When we got to Firenze train station the 1st thing we did ws called: find a washroom. We headed towards the Duomo, watching it peaking in and out of tall and small buildings. When we got to the Duomo I gasped excitedtetly at the mixture of coluers and the dome. We walked inside and I noticed the mazelike marble floor and I played get to the end! We climbed the 463 steps to the dome where we got magnifacent views (again!) and we were coming out when Daddy met a teacher! Saw the real, no neat, amazing famous (again barenaked) David. Had lunch, crossed the bridge with shops, had a bottle of water at a hot internet place, got on a train, went home, had dinner, G.N.
Sometimes, life's little stresses catch up with you. At other times, I might give the impression that it's all sightseeing and skittles on this trip. Well, today was, if not the day from hell, at least the day from heck. Jenn's sick, although functioning. She's still on her feet, but she's clearly picked up some sort of bug. Our computer is sick, too. We're having trouble loading pictures, and with the back-up. So even plan B isn't working right now. That could be devastating in the long run, although if Jenn can get on-line, she'd probably find a way to fix it. The weather continues to be cold, dreary, and rainy. And everywhere we went today, our Mastercard was declined. So we spent about 20 minutes on the phone (costly!) verifying that our card was not running around Florence on Saturday without us. Life gets a lot worse, but for those that want a realistic account of long-term travel, there are days like this.
Remember the Mrs. Lincoln joke? As in, other than that, how did we like Siena today? We didn't see too much of it. Anica did enjoy several runs around the Campo, with its distinctive slope. And we didn't get lost. We had a decent meal, where I finally got to try a Tuscan sausage and white bean dish. Really, it's better than it might sound! But, basically, today was a write-off, and we scurried home out of the rain well before sunset.
Room to run in the distinctive sloped campo of Siena
For some reason, we all had a really good time today. Jenn was feeling a little better, for part of the day, so that was good. Everything went wrong today, but it was a fun mess. It was "Umbria" day today, which meant we headed south by car. The first stop was Perugia. We had a hard time finding parking, but soon we'd hit on the escalators. One of the definite attractions, I'd heard about this from my parents. Anica loved riding the escalators, which go from the lower town, at the base of the hill/cliff, to the upper town. On the way, you pass by Etruscan ruins discovered when they dug the escalators, then Medieval and Renaissance vaulted tunnels, closer to the surface. Anica took all sorts of pictures, and we went up and down every tunnel. When we got to the top, we admired the view, and after a brief debate, decided to move on. That was it for Perguia!
In Umbria, as in most of Italy, the food is part of the attraction, You must linger over lunch, and sample all the local cuisine you can. Driving into Assisi, we chose to eat at...McDonald's. Oh, the shame. Can I explain? It's not the first time in Italy, we've resorted to Mickey D's. It's like this: we're starving, but it's not yet lunch time, according to Italy. We're in the car, we need to pee. We see the golden arches. They have: free parking, a bathroom, seats, and we can afford it. Jenn calls it the path of least resistance.
Assisi. Wow! This must be the most beautiful, dramatic and memorable of all the Italian hilltop towns we've visited. The cathedral, of Saint Francis, naturally, juts way out the cliffside, with an impressive gleaming white colonnade. The monastery looms highest of all over everything else. The stone is luminous throughout the town. Rich but light colours, like gold and white, and sometimes even pink. It's a little touristy, with all the souvenir shops, but it's always been for tourists...they just used to be called pilgrims.
Approaching Assisi by car
We drove up and up, round and round, and parked as close as we could to the Basilica. It was so wet, and just then it started raining again. Jenn, especially with still not feeling well, was content to sit in the car. Anica and I set out to see what we could find. We ran into a group of tourists who also had no idea where they were in relation to the church. Then Anica directed all of us by finding the sign and the right path. One of the women said, "I don't know about you, but I'm just going to follow the little girl!" And it worked. There was the Basilica. Then came the heavy rain. Even hail. Did God not want us to visit? As if in answer, a lightning bolt hit the top of the church just as we were about to enter. Anica and I dashed through it, fearing our path back to the car, and maybe the road itself would soon be flooded. We took quick looks at the fresco of Saint Francis' life, and at his tomb.
By the time we made it back to the car, the skies were already clearing. We'd ventured out in the very stormiest 30 minutes of the day. In order to show Jenn the Basilica, we drove into the town, interpreting all the "no entro excepto" Italian street signs to mean "except wet tourists from Canada." Eventually, we got out of Assisi without being ticketed. Laughing all the way, ha ha ha...
Umbria, specifically Perugia, is famous for chocolate, and there's a chocolate factory you can tour "just outside" Perugia. We had the name of which exit to take, and that's it. Pushing our luck, we decided to find it. There's only four ways out of Perugia, and we'd just come from one of them, so how hard could it be? We found it, on the third try, of course. We'd go down the highway for a while, say "nope," turn around and try another direction.
When we finally got to the Perugina factory, they said we could join the final tour of the day, but it would be in Italian. Fine, we said. We had a great time, because the group was a grade 7 school field trip. We were the only other people there. I got talking with one of the teachers, who told me they were from Rimini, on the east coast of Italy. We saw the educational video, in Italian. We heard about the process, in Italian. We heard all about the making of the largest chocolate in the world, a 5000 kg Baci. We were laughing the whole time at becoming part of their field trip. The tour guide, who wore a white lab-coat, sometimes translated into English. It was one of those times, however, when we felt we understood Italian somehow.
Today we went to Perugia, and the rest. We went on a pretty big highway (1 down from the Autostrada) which took us to Perugia, Assis, and (sort of) S.Sisto. When we got to Perugia we parked in a place with 5 escalators! We loved them, and lucikly we enjoyed the veiw - and the escalators so we could go on lots. We finally got up and decided "Hmmm should we go to the choclate factory in S. Sisto?" "No." Ha-ha! That's why we went to Assisi and had a yummy lunch at Md-D. We went up to a Basilica and Mummy stayed in the car. Pouring rain! AND a lightning bolt hit the church! Um, is it safe? We went to S. Sisto where we jumped into a Italian teenage tour group! They had a gueniss world record size peice of choclate! 1000 hours to make and 5 hours to eat! We bought a box of 1 choclate bar, 1 pear choclate bar, a mix and choclate with nuts, cherry peices of choco. with liqer and a choc. bar. Went home, had dinner, G.N.!
Back to Fienze! We'd booked in advance for the Uffizi, with a 1:30 entrance time. In the morning we toured the Palazzo Vecchio, the "old palace" of the city's rulers. We liked Elenora's apartments, and the map room best. Anica amused herself by counting nude figures in each room. The record was 130, I think.
After lunch, the Uffizi, one of the world's great art galleries. We got Anica an "Art Smart" workbook, which she completed as we toured the gallery. We were there close to four hours! Exhausting for all of us, but lots of highlights. It's best-known for its Botticellis. "The Birth of Venus" and "Primavera" are there. I like Rembrandt's young and old self-portraits, Caravaggio's Medusa shield, Artemsia Gentilelishi's gruesome "Judith" painting, and the Duke and Duchess of Urbino diptych (his profile is famous!). Most of all, Jenn and I both loved Lippi's "Madonna with Child and two Angels." Serenely, supremely beautiful. The building wasn't as badly run or organized as I'd heard, although some of the lighting combined with plexiglass displays the art poorly. The octagonal Tribune room, though, representing the four elements, is itself memorable. Then there's the view of Ponte Vecchio from above. Great place! Tonight at dinner in Florence, I had "wild boar," indulging my love of oxymoronic food.
Looking down on the "old bridge" from the "old palace," Florence
A quiet day in Castiglion Fiorentino for us. Wouldn't you know it, it's 20 degrees and sunny out at noon. We are getting out and enjoying this town for one last day. Anica and I played on the mini soccer field (a game of kick it off the medieval wall), and I've had a rambling, scrambling walk all over town. Jenn prefers to just fling the shutters open and "enjoy" a day of repacking and organizing and not HAVING to go out unless she feels like it. So long "Cast. f'no." (actual road sign).
Medieval soccer, anyone? The "court" where we played in Castiglion Fiorentino