A week in Tuscany

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
Trip End May 13, 2009

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Monday, May 5, 2008

With the spate of books about Tuscany in the last 10 years or so you could be forgiven for thinking that no other part of Italy existed, or that most things Italian are Tuscan - even a suntan studio in Melbourne called Tuscan Tan (?). Tuscany is only one of over 20 regions of Italy and most Italians would be surprised to hear that it has such pre-eminence in non-Italian people's minds compared to other regions.
Having got that off my chest this entry is about my short tour around Tuscany. I set off in my car with Yvonne, my friend from Melbourne. We are headed for Florence and rather than taking the autostrada, which would get us there in 2 hours, I take a back road that snakes through the mountains and forests, past scores of small towns and we eventually arrive at our hotel in front of the Palazzo Pitti in the evening. The countryside is beautifully lush and green and there is a massive contrast with the stone of Florence. I manage to park virtually in front of the hotel and even though I'm parked illegally for 3 days the car doesn't get towed away and I don't even get a fine.
It's 30 years since I've been to Florence so I'm curious to see it again. Even though I have now travelled extensively in other countries and seen much beautiful art, architecture, etc I still am surprised at the sheer quantity in Italy. I read in an English magazine that according to UNESCO around 60% of the world's most important pieces of art are in Italy and nearly half of these are in Florence. Even allowing for significant exaggeration this is a massive amount and art fatigue sets in when you try and see it in too short a time. We only have 3 days, so get into it and visit the Pitti and the adjoining Boboli gardens, the Duomo, Baptistery, Piazza della Signoria (which contains among other things a beautiful fountain of Neptune, a bronze plaque in the ground where Savonarola was burnt - he was a monk who railed against what he saw as the corruption and decadence of the nobles and ruled the city for a while until everybody got sick of his excessive zeal, copy of statue of David, Palazzo Vecchio), Palazzo Strozzi, Uffizzi, Basilica di Santa Croce, etc.
It's hard to imagine how much influence one medium size city has had on the world but Florence was at the centre of the outpouring of the Rinascimento (sorry to go on about this but why are a number of Italian things known by their French names in English, eg Renaissance), that effectively introduced the ideas and activities of much of the modern world as we know it, after nearly 1000 years of not incredibly much happening, at least in the sphere of arts, mathematics, engineering, construction, etc.
The paintings and sculptures in the various palazzos are just mind-boggling in their beauty - when you see the real sculpture of David by Michelangelo close up it is so much better than you can imagine, so smooth and tactile, and the unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo are even more astounding, as the sculpted figure is literally emerging from the block of marble.
We continued on to Siena, where they boast that their local dialect is actually Italian, ie the subtext is they speak the best Italian in Italy. Siena has a marvelous piazza - it's an irregular oval shape that slopes down to the Signoria (seat of government) and twice a year they hold a wild horse race called the Palio around it in which the 15 odd contradas (suburbs or quarters of the city for want of a better word, similar to barrios in Spanish) compete - it's a virtually no-holds barred race.
We then head for the coast, going through picturesque mountain towns such as San Gimignano and Volterra, which now only have small remnants of the massive numbers of towers they once had (San Gimignano had over 100 towers of which only a handful are still existing). We spend about half a day there and drink the crisp Vernaccia di San Gimignano white wine and tour a museum where they ground spices for pharmaceutical and cosmetic purposes.
We arrive at the coast just south of Livorno (how on earth did it get called Leghorn in English?) and it's wonderful to again see the craggy coastline and the blue-green Mediterranean as we work our way up and slightly inland to Lucca, where we stay for a couple of days.
One of the days we go to Pisa, which is only about 20kms away. Everybody has seen pictures of the leaning tower of Pisa, but it's still a surprise when you see this beautiful marble tower tilted at such an alarming angle. Most churches in Italy, together with associated bell-towers, baptisteries, etc are built around piazzas in the middle of the town or city. The unique thing about Pisa is that a whole complex of sacred buildings is built on a campo, a huge field of green grass on the edge of the walled city, known as the Piazza dei Miracoli (Miracles) - there is the Cathedral, Baptistery, Bell Tower, and the Cemetery, a beautiful 4-sided cloister (until the late Roman Age a river ran nearby and a river port was only a few hundred metres away so the site was actually near the centre of the city). The beautiful white marble buildings set against the bright green earth and the brilliant blue sky are an amazing sight and have enthralled many famous writers and artists, and it has the effect of making you want to lie down and absorb it all (and go to sleep in the sunshine, which we did like many others :). After the nap we climbed the belltower - when you enter you initially tend to lose your balance but once you start climbing you quickly get used to the lean and have a magnificent view from the top.
Lucca itself is a lovely small city surrounded by walls - but obviously only some people appreciate it - we meet a couple of ladies from Cairns who tell us in their nasally accents (I am not implying that all people from Cairns have nasally accents, although I have heard more than 1 or 2 when I've been there :)that they didn't think much of it, and therefore all they did was to go shopping. In actual fact there are lots of lovely and interesting buildings and the old Roman amphitheatre has been transformed into apartments around a large piazza, probably in medieval times.
Our short tour of Tuscany is over and we are now headed for a few days in the Cinqueterre, which I'm not sure if it's classified as being in Tuscany or Liguria.

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