The Grand Journey – Touring Tuscany

My cruise posts aren’t over yet. Editing photos and writing up these posts is time consuming and I’ve been too busy to keep up.

So we’re going way back to Sunday, Nov. 17 and our stop in Livorno, Italy. The most popular excursions from this port go to Florence. We really wrestled with our decision on this one but chose to go to Tuscany. As I thought about it, I was only really considering Florence because I felt an obligation to go since other people said I should. I may give in to that in real life but not on vacation.

san gimignano in the distance

Our tour started in the medieval town of San Gimignano or St. Jimmy-John’s if you’re asking Mr. McB. It is that collection of distant towers in the photo above.

tuscitywallSan Gimignano’s trade came from wine, cloth, and saffron. During the middle ages, there were 10,000-12,000 residents; there are 1,400 now.

San Gimignano is known for its tower houses. In its heyday, there were more than 70 within the city walls. These were constructed with one room stacked on top of another. Workshops were located on the ground floor and living areas were on the the floors above. The levels were connected by moveable ladders instead of stairs for security purposes. The kitchen was located on the highest floor making it easier to escape in case of fire.

tustower1As with modern skyscrapers, the height of your tower was a direct indication of the size of your bank account. The highest tower was said to be about 50 meters or 164 feet tall.

tustwintowersWhen the Palazzo Comunale, or town hall, was constructed, there was a rule stating that no tower could be taller than the town’s tower. Officials removed parts of some structures to ensure that the rule was obeyed. The powerful Salvucci family got inventive and decided to create twin towers. Neither tower was taller than the town hall, yet their combined height would dwarf the municipal building.

tustower2San Gimignano was a popular stop for pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena between Canterbury, England and Rome. The city was very prosperous between 1199 and 1353 but then it fell to the Florentines. In a show of power, they destroyed many of the towers and only 14 remain today.

The town is more than just towers though. It is full of many lovely sites including the quaint Piazza della Cisterna. The well is made of travertine. It was originally installed in 1273 and enlarged in 1346. Guccio dei Malavolti, the craftsman who enlarged the well, left his insignia on the side. See the ladder in the picture below?

tuswhellSan Gimignano is also the site of the Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta.
This duomo is rather modest from the outside but we heard the inside is very striking and features black-and-white marble arches and vaults. There are also a number of impressive frescoes. It was Sunday, so we could not go in. We could see the procession of tractors and other farm implements that were going to be part of the harvest blessing at the church.

tustractorThis was shot as we walked into town.

tustractorblessingThis one was in front of the church. It was nice to get a glimpse into the traditions of this little town.

While the paintings inside the church were off-limits, we were able to see some frescoes in the courtyard of the Palazzo Comunale.

tusmural2Painted in 1507 by Giovanni Sodoma, this is St. Ives Administering Justice. On the right side, the rich folks are trying to offer bribes but virtuous St. Ives has barred the door. He is interested in handing out real justice not being a puppet of the powerful.

tusmural1This is another mural in the courtyard. This one was painted in 1370. You can see San Gimignano in the hands of the figure on the left side.

We also did a little shopping. Our niece asked us to bring back a jewelry box. This seemed like a simple request but we were disappointed with the choices up to that point. Thankfully, San Gimignano came through for us in a big way and we found the perfect box. It was made from Carrara marble from a nearby mountain. It was a very elegant (and heavy) piece.

tusdoorwayBuilding in San Gimignano

gate in san gimignanoAnother shot of the gate

tuswarmemorialThis is a memorial to soldiers from WWI.

We were soon back on the bus. On our way to Siena, the driver stopped to allow us to take some landscape photos and check out some of the olive trees that were almost ready for harvest.

tusvineyardtusolivetuscanySiena is yet another medieval town. Today, the city is known for its horse race called the Palio. While the Palio’s roots stretch back to the 6th century, some will recognize it as the horse race in Quantum of Solace.

tuscsquareThis is the Piazza del Campo where the race takes place twice each year. The spectators are in the middle and the horses race around the on the black stones.

tuscbalconyThe buildings in the square also have little balconies that are very popular during the race.

The race is an opportunity for Siena’s various districts known as Contrade to compete for civic pride. The city has 17 Contrade that are represented by animals or other natural symbols. These are difficult to miss as you walk around the city.

tuspalhorseThis is found on a building in the Contrada of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram). Traditionally, the inhabitants of this neighborhood were tailors.

tusctwocontradaThis is the intersection of Aquila (eagle, one of the four noble Contrade) and Selva

            We saw the goose, the symbol of the Oca Contrada, everywhere.

tuscgooseflag
tuscgoosecontradaThis is another noble Contrada. It was also one of the two Contrade that won a Palio in 2013. As winners, they are eligible to hang and burn the celebratory lights you’ll see below.

tuscgooselamp The residents of Selva just celebrated their big feast so they were also allowed to hang their celebratory lanterns though only for a few days. If you look carefully, you can see the differences between the lamps. The ones below are decorated as branches with leaves. Selva is the forest so this is very logical.

tuscfeastlampsVisit http://www.ocaioloextramoenia.it/Palio/contrade.htm for more on the Contrade. Click “English” beside each link for translations.

Siena is also known for its duomo built between 1215 and 1263. Much of the decorative facade was added later. The mosaics came in the 19th century.

tuscsienacathedraltusccath2tuscsienacathcloseThe marble church is a fantastic representation of Italian Gothic style. It is almost too much to take in at once. There are so many decorative elements. I’ve seen it before and it was just as stunning the second time around. I wish we could have gone inside to see the black-and-white pillars and ornate decorations. As it was, there was still more of the church to see from the outside.

tuscathedralsideThis is the cathedral’s bell tower or campanile. It was added in the early 1300’s and matches the rest of the church very well. The black-and-white color combination is popular in the city and is said to represent the horses of its legendary co-founders Senius and Aschius.

As majestic and large as the church is today, there were plans to make the duomo larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Due to missteps in the construction followed quickly by the Black Plaque, the expansion never occurred. Visitors can still see some of the remnants of the attempt.

tuscwalltuscbuckleIf you look closely, you will see that the top part of the column juts out a bit and there is some buckling due to the weight of the roof.

Our tour of the city also included a stop to see San Domenico, a church devoted to Saint Catherine. Our guide said that the color of the church is the inspiration for the “Burnt Sienna” Crayola crayon.

tuscstcatherineCatherine is credited for bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon, France. One of 22 children, she lived a very interesting life. You can read more here and here. Her skull is displayed in a reliquary inside the church. While I feel sad about missing the interior of the other churches we visited that day, missing the skull didn’t bother me.

Walking away from austerity and vows of poverty, we made our way to Palazzo Tantucci which is held by Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world.

tuscoldesbankThis is just one of the three palazzi belonging to the bank.tuscbankdoorIt’s a bit more elegant than my local branch of BB&T, that’s for sure.

We had a little bit of time to wander around on our own before it was time to meet back up in the Piazza del Campo.

tuscsinstreetI spotted these fuzzy Christmas decorations,
tuscchristmasthis statue,
tuscsculptureand this one.
tuscmamaShe looks forlorn. Can you blame her with all those kids and all that bird poop?

We made it back to the square just as the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. It was still overcast but there is no rain obscuring my photo of the town hall or Palazzo Pubblico. Visitors can go to the top of the tower but we didn’t make it during our visit. It’s a reason to go back, right?

tusstowertuscfountainIt took eight years for workers to bring water to Piazza del Campo. This accomplishment was celebrated with the creation of the Fonte Gaia which is loosely translated to mean joyful fountain. The figures were created by Jacopo della Quercia.

tuscsienatuscmichaelMr. McB and I pondered the day in our own way.

tuscangelasitting My grandfather was a brick mason. He loved looking at the way things were constructed and could often tell you about the weather and other conditions when the work was done. I thought of him many times during our visit to the Colosseum and our time in Tuscany. There are so many bricks. He would love to see all of this architecture. Some how just sitting there and literally soaking up the heat from the bricks, I felt close to him.

It was a great day in Tuscany. Next time we’ll do Florence, Pisa, or maybe both.

 

Grand Journey – A Tale of Two Duomos

palsunriseAfter a short night of cruising, we arrived in Palermo. As you can see from the photo above, we were greeted with a glorious sunrise.

I took an excursion that visited the duomos of Palermo and Monreale while Mr. McB chose to explore the city on his own.

There was a general strike in Palermo and our tour guide was very keen to get us on the bus, to the cathedral in Palermo, and on our way before the inevitable traffic jams clogged up the route to Monreale. She was also very annoyed when people were looking out the windows at the teenagers who were gathering in the streets since she felt that we couldn’t look at them and listen to her at the same time. At one point she told us that she would not speak again until all eyes were on her. I understand that her job isn’t easy but I don’t think any of us deserved to be treated like children. She presented a lot of information but didn’t seem to be terribly personable. She said we were the last tour of the season so maybe her frustration was caused by fatigue and the inconvenience caused by the strike.

On the way to the church, we passed the quattro canti or four corners. This monument features statues representing a season, king of Sicily, and former patron saint of Palermo. There are 12 statues in total. Below you’ll see winter, King Philip III, and St. Agatha. You’ll also see the tiniest delivery truck which is ideal for navigating little Sicilian streets and alleys.

palquattroOur driver had to do some creative motoring just to get to the duomo. We parked around the corner and were greeted by the two corner towers that are part of the church. The towers were built in the 14th and 15th centuries but given a facelift in the late 1700’s.

pal_towersAround the corner, we spotted the church itself. This large cathedral was built in 1184 on the site of a former mosque which was built on the site of a former basilica. Like the towers, the church had a number of renovations and is a mix of architectural styles.

palcathedralThe Duomo of Palermo has a boat parked in the front yard.

palboatThe ship of salvation is used as part of the parade held on Saint Rosalia’s feast day. In life, Rosalia was a beautiful aristocrat who refused a marriage proposal, became a hermit, and devoted her life to serving God. She died in a cave at Mount Pellegrino. Centuries later when the plaque hit Palermo, a soap maker visited Mount Pellegrino, found Rosalia’s remains and had a vision that she would bring an end to the plaque if he would return her remains to Palermo for a proper burial. After some initial resistance, the church agreed. Following the funeral procession and burial, the spread of the plaque ceased. After saving Palermo, Rosalia replaced those four saints that grace the quattro canti as the city’s patron.

palrosaliaRosalia’s remains are housed inside the cathedral in the silver urn. Before the guide told us what was inside, I thought this looked like a massive chaffing dish. Clearly, I’m an American protestant.

The inside of the cathedral of Palermo is very lovely and ornate. The guide discussed some of what we were seeing but everything was hurried a little because we needed to get on the road and she thought that Palermo’s cathedral was rubbish compared to what we would see in Monreale.

pal_insidecathThe painting on the ceiling represents the ascension of the Virgin Mary.

pal_jesusHere’s another shot of the same scene that showcases the royal throne.

pal_cathedralI wish I knew what this blue thing was but again, our guide wasn’t really helpful when it came to talking about things in this church. I tried research this but cannot find an answer. If you know, please leave me a comment.

pal_primemeridanThese zodiac signs are part of the church’s heliometer. There is a tiny hole in the ceiling that allows the sun’s ray to illuminate the appropriate sign at noon. It may seem like an odd thing to see in a church but the purpose was to standardize the measure of time and dates. This was especially important when calculating the dates of Lent and Easter.

palpriestThis tomb belongs to Father Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi. Father Puglisi ministered in Brancaccio, a rough area of Palermo and was an outspoken opponent of the mafia. In response to his opposition, two powerful mafia bosses ordered a hit on the priest who was gunned down outside his church in 1993. The 56-year-old became a martyr of the Catholic church and was beatified in May 2013. More than 50,000 people attended the ceremony.

This is one part of the cathedral where our guide took more time to talk. She spoke of the good works of this man and the tragedy of his death. On my last visit to Sicily, I took the “Godfather” tour and saw the very romanticized side of the Mafia mystique. This was a stark reminder of what the mob really is.

After walking back to the bus, we started the trip to Monreale located on the slope of Monte Caputo. After reaching the parking area, we walked up the steps to reach the cathedral. There is a taxi option for those who cannot navigate the steps. The cabs cost roughly $5 and can take up to five people.

After ascending the steps, we saw the cathedral from the outside. Our guide was very quick to tell us that we should not judge the church by its exterior.

pal_onetowerThe tower on the left was struck by lightening and has not been restored.

The Muslims took control of Palermo in 831. During this time they built a mosque on the site of the duomo (see above) and banished the Bishop. After reclaiming Palermo about 240 years later, William II thought it would be a good idea to build a church to show how thankful the Normans were to be delivered from occupation. Monreale’s duomo began in 1174 and according to our guide took 17 years to complete. Other sources state that the church was finished in 1182 or 1185. The important take away is that the construction work went very quickly because the church was built by a collaborative of Islamic, Byzantine, and Norman craftsmen. Each group brought their own touch to the church resulting in a very unique blend of architectural styles.

palmoncathoutsideWe gathered under the portico where the guide tried to prepare us for what we were going to see inside the duomo. The church features 68,000 square feet of mosaics featuring more than 400 kilos of gold.

palmonlargeSince most church goers could not read, these mosaics were their Bible. Above the arches, you can see the story of the creation and Noah’s arc.

palmon2More arc scenes

palmonceiling The ceiling in a section of the church closer to the main altar.

pal_monbottomMosques do not include human imagery and do not depict Allah in human form. You can see the contribution of the Islamic artisans in the image above. There are geometric shapes and a row of stylized palm trees which represent paradise.

palmon

New testament stories and Islamic palm trees

palmontallpalmoncandlesThe altar

palmonorganThe duomo’s organ

palmonchristChrist Pantocrator or ruler of all
This is church’s focal point.
Christ’s nose is one meter long.
His head and bust are roughly 25′ tall.
The distance between his hands, better seen below, is 46′.

palmonaltarMonreale was truly amazing. I’ve seen lovely mosaics before but they were nothing like what I saw in this church. The fusion of the styles and the sheer number of scenes was very striking. I admit to a little sensory overload just trying to take it all in. I was able to pick out most of the Bible stories. Some of the other scenes are symbolic and relate more to Catholic saints or the Norman kings.

We were given about 45 minutes to explore Monreale one our own. We were there on a Friday which seemed to be a pretty busy market day.

palmonstreetI ran across this small church, very different from the duomo, with its doors open and altar lit.

palmonotherchurchI continued to follow the winding streets and take in the little village.

palmonbldgpalmon_cityscapeBefore heading back to the bus, I followed the guide’s advice and stopped in at Panifico in the square across from the duomo and picked up a bag of almond cookies that would sustain us during our big Roman adventure the next day.

Before writing about Rome, I still need to cover the rest of the day in Palermo. Look for another post in the days to come.