Monday, August 19, 2013

Florence: Day 2

I mentioned something in my first post on Florence that I need to expand upon a little to begin.  The SD card that stores the pictures on my camera died this weekend.  Getting the photos off after Florence: Day 1 was a little scary, so I made sure I had everything and then formatted the drive.  I took a couple practice shots and thought everything was good.  Not so.  I'm afraid at present, all my photos from the second day in and around Florence are gone.  I also don't have many phone shots for this time, since I had anticipated no WiFi access throughout and thus it made more sense to get the better photos on the actual camera.

What I now lack in photos, I will make up for in links and descriptions.  Apologies for the extra work on your part, loyal reader.

As mentioned previously, Day 2 was to be my "out of Florence" day.  I had booked a 12-hour tour with Walkabout Tours, and they were pretty good.  We started out in a large, mercifully air-conditioned bus at 8:30 AM.

Our first stop was the hilltop town of Siena.  Some of you may remember your crayon boxes as a small child, where there may have been a color named "burnt siena".  Guess where that comes from?  If you look at some of the photos in the Wiki link above, you'll see where the crayon got its name.

The main square in Siena is a seashell-shaped, and twice a year hosts the Palio horse race.  It just happened that the second time when it's held is August 16th, and we were visiting August 17th.  Our guide said it was a little quieter in the town because everyone had been out partying so hard the night before after the race was run.  It's a race with three laps around the main square (on a clay track they put down especially for it), but the prep lasts for months and the party lasts for days.  I think they're just looking for an excuse to party.

Our guide in Siena introduced a couple of concepts that echoed throughout the entire journey.  The first was that Italy, as a country, is relatively young, especially compared to the towns and city-states that comprise it.  It's much more likely that Italians think of themselves as from a town rather than as from Italy.  This is especially true in Siena, which appears to have a gigantic chip on its shoulder against Florence.  Even though our guide was very used to foreigners, you could tell she had a strong worldview.  At one point, she was lecturing a small boy being carried by his mom about how the boys in Siena walk 8 km per day to school, and grow up to be big and strong.  Yes, really.

Another concept seen throughout the tour is symbols of power.  Every time that a city changed hands, about every few centuries (unless your name is Medici), the new rulers built something to show off.  It could be a cathedral, a fortress, a plaza, statues, lots of stuff.  Most of it still survives, and that's one of the reasons Italy has some of the great plazas and churches. Another reason Tuscany in particular has so many churches is because they were bankers and kept trying to show how pious they were, despite the Vatican not approving of the use of interest.

After Siena, we went to a family-owned, organic farm and winery, where we had lunch.  90% of what we ate was made on the farm, and everything that make is organic.  Holy cow was that good.  Olive Garden will never be the same.  I do have a picture here, because I was just grabbing it quickly as we were being served:

Wine was free-flowing at the table, although it was all of the dry variety.

After the farm lunch, we went to the nearby town of San Gimignano.  This town is unique because many of the house-towers survive and make for a picturesque skyline.

The original Italian loyalty branched from the family, to the point where families in the same town were fighting each other.  (Montagues and Capulets, anyone?)  When families wanted to show off, they built a tower, which could also be used in defense if you picked a fight with the wrong family.  When a family was defeated and run out of town, their tower was destroyed.  Hence, many towers were destroyed.  In San Gimignano, they passed a law, though, that the family tower had to be shorter than the town bell tower.  Thus, this shifted the loyalty from showing off for the family to showing off for the town.  This is part of the reason their towers survive so well.

After San Gimignano, we went to Pisa, where you can guess what we saw.  I actually got to climb the leaning tower, which was a very fun experience.  The tower is the cathedral's bell tower and is hollow inside.  The staircase is along the outside edge, and climbing it is a fun inner-ear test.  First your going uphill really steep, then it almost feels like you're going downhill but you keep climbing.  Repeat seven stories up.  The tilt at the top is about 5 degrees, so you definitely notice it, but it's not like you feel as though you'll go sliding off.  There are fences just in case.

As I was standing there on top of the tower, I couldn't help but remember that this is the place where Galileo supposedly tossed bowling balls to the ground in an attempt to prove laws of gravity.  I was climbing the same stairs as Galileo!

The thing about Pisa's tower is that it's only one of three huge buildings of marble in a giant plaza.  The cathedral and baptistery are also gorgeous, done in the same style (not tilting) and absolutely shine in the sunlight.  The plaza is called the "Field of Miracles" because of its beauty.

Additionally, the tower in Pisa isn't the only building that leans, it's just the most famous.  Other buildings lean for the same reason the tower does: the unsteady soil.  The only difference is that people don't go to Pisa to see a block-shaped building leaning by 3 degrees; they go for the beautiful marble tower that makes people nervous to stand under it.

Overall, Florence was really fun.  The Florence card is a must if you plan on seeing more than 3-4 museums.  Tuscany is beautiful, and the food is amazing.  I'm glad I went, but I feel like I would have appreciated so much more with a better understanding of art history.  Then again, if I actually had such an understanding, I probably never would have made it out of the first museum!


Laurel Blough said...

I'm still sad about losing those pictures! But I'm glad you've still got one, if only one!

Also, I know what you mean about Olive Garden. Of course, I'm sure Italy still has better Italian food than Poland does, but I actually went to Olive Garden for lunch with Jess last weekend, and...yeah. It was still good, just real.

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