December 20 8:00pm
The (almost) end of our first full day in Italy, and we’re all feeling much better about it after a good night’s sleep and a day spent on foot and public transportation (the car stayed in the garage!) Our hotel is lovely and we decided to spend another night here so that we could drive to Florence tomorrow in the light of day, arriving in the daylight and having the best possible chance of finding a hotel while we are still calm.
As a result, we spent the day touring in Milan. We took the tram to the Duomo first. A late Gothic building, this one bears very little resemblance to the Gothic churches we saw in France. It is wider, and covered with statues and pinnacles. Even the interior is quite different, and very lovely. I am glad we took the time to visit it and didn’t just escape from Milan after the horror of last night. The piazza in front of the Duomo has been changed since I saw it last (20 some years ago) and now all the criss-crossing tram tracks are gone, and there is a beautiful open pedestrian area from which to admire the cathedral and people watch.
It is warmer here in Milan, at just about freezing, so we were able to comfortably walk the streets. We walked from the Duomo to a galleried shopping area, from there toward the church where The Last Supper is, stopping en route to get a pizza for lunch. We arrived at the Santa Maria delle Grazie just about 3 o’clock when everything seems to reopen after lunch. Though we arrived without a reservation, and were fortunate (don’t know whether it is the time of year or the “events of September 11th”) to get in to see it, I wouldn’t recommend that course of action to anyone who really wants to see it. Only 25 people are allowed into the room at a time, and at 15 minute intervals, all through 4 or 5 timed, glass doorways! It is easy enough to make a reservation – just call the number in your guide book beforehand. You can even call from the US if you know what day you want to see it.
Should you see it? Definitely. We rented the audio guide and found it excellent. I was able to explain the highlights to the children (who hate the audio guides) easily, because the text was so compelling and interesting. The painting has been restored since I saw it the first time (about 27 years ago) and seeing it in the company of very few people is a big improvement, too, because you have the opportunity to walk around the room and see it from different distances. It isn’t something that takes more than 15 minutes, so in that respect the children liked it, too – The shorter things always rate higher with them than long things.
From the church we walked to the Castelo Sforzesco, a huge medieval castle right in the center of Milan. We didn’t visit inside, which houses the municipal art museums, but we did walk around the grounds. Oscie made friends with a very outgoing and friendly kitty, who walked from person to person, giving and getting affection!
After the castle, we headed back to our hotel, making the decision along the way to try to spend another night as our tram didn’t get us there until after 5. The kids settled down in their room, but Gerry and I went out to get a SIM card for the telephone, (accomplished) and to do some Christmas shopping (which we also accomplished!).
In the morning, we’ll head for Florence, a drive that should take us, we think, 3-4 hours.
December 28 7:30pm
We celebrated Christmas by attending a mass at Church near by, where the priests take care of Albanian boys who have illegally entered Italy. We toasted the arrival of the Christ child with a sip of Champagne brought from France and then hustled off to bed. Christmas morning we had panetonne with our caffe, and exchanged gifts with our cousins. We had a pranzo di Natale (Christmas lunch) at a restaurant nearby, which took up the entire afternoon in true Italian fashion! Just like at home, we ate too much to be interested in dinner, and all went to bed early. Guess what? The day after Christmas is also a holiday in Italy, so everything was still closed on the 26th.
A week has passed since I last brought you up to date on the happenings of the Euro-Year crew, but perhaps you were busy celebrating the holidays also and don’t begrudge me my long silence.
Florence has been great. We are here, all settled into our convent for the duration (until January 2). It is a wonderful place! In charge is Suor Costantina, ably assisted during our stay by her sister, Matilda. Our beds are very comfortable, and at night we huddle under layers of thick wool blankets, because the heat goes off at 11! Every morning we are greeted with a cheery smile and pots of hot coffee and milk to accompany fresh bread with jam and Nutella. Understand for a moment that this scene is exactly the same one that marked my first trip to Italy as a student on her junior year abroad. Then the convent was in Rome, and there was a bevy of nuns who cooked and waited on us (boys first and foremost, of course!). Even our bathroom is almost identical – the hand-held shower and the cold stone floor.
My sister, Martha, and her family are with us here so we had a family Christmas after all. We have been sightseeing, of course without overdoing it, which is the modus operandi when traveling with young people. All our young people seem pretty content to be together, and will go to a museum when forced to as long as some of the other young people are forced to suffer through it, too!
So what have we done? Forgive me if this is not in any rational order…
We visited the Uffizzi. We weren’t thrilled with the experience, but then again we didn’t plan strategically! We bought our tickets in the afternoon of Christmas Eve for the morning of the day after Christmas. There was no one there when we bought the tickets, but we didn’t think to get tickets for the afternoon. As it turned out, we and all the other tourists were there the morning of the day after Christmas. Definitely nothing like what you would have in the summer, but just be prepared and buy your tickets for the afternoon, when the tour groups are elsewhere.
With so many people in the museum it is a little difficult to really study and contemplate the paintings. If you are going to the museum for that, buy a book. If you go just to say you’ve been there, you won’t really care whether you can see the pictures or not. And believe it or not, Gerry Jr. ran into someone he knows from Red Arrow Camp.
To keep the kids occupied in the Uffizzi, Martha and I picked a painting for each of them to find, hopefully one that would have some interest to them personally. They each got a piece of paper with a riddle on it and were let loose. Despite some grumbling I think they enjoyed looking for their painting, and I noticed that as one child found his or hers, that child would help another. So in the end, each child saw at least two or three paintings!
Besides the Uffizzi, we have visited the Pitti Palace museums. I need to go back because I didn’t see the part I wanted to see (one painting in particular). Being an art museum, the kids won’t go and Gerry Sr. went today, so I don’t know when and with whom I will get there, but…I did see the Costume Museum (but it changes its exhibit every 6 months, so whatever I might describe would not be what you would see…but it really wasn’t worth the fee) and the Ducal Treasures. There were many very interesting pieces in the Argenti, but there were a lot of the same things. Fortunately, no crowds, so you can study the pieces if you see something that really catches your eye. The kids are all fascinated by the reliquaries, and I don’t mean the holder! We saw a saint’s hand in Pisa yesterday so now they study each reliquary to see the bones inside.
Gerry Sr. went off to see the Palatine Gallery and the Royal Apartments and said his visit was quite satisfactory. Both of us saw some very fascinating wall and ceiling painting in the rooms we visited, though perhaps his was more grand, being billed as the royal apartments. The rooms we saw were salon and receiving rooms on the first floor, which had genial decoration including fascinating trompe l’oiel architectural details like arches and columns, even a figure on a staircase. In the upstairs rooms, I saw beautiful wood inlay floors and plaster sculptured ceilings.
I mentioned that we have been to Pisa, and in fact we had a beautiful sunny day for our trip over there. The drive was just over an hour and we spent about 5 hours in the “Campo dei Miracoli” visiting the two museums, the baptistery, the Duomo, the Monumental Cemetery, and eating lunch. The Leaning Tower has reopened for climbing but the numbers allowed up are restricted to groups of 35 every 15 minutes. They had six tickets left for the very last trip up of the day, but at 11 in the morning we didn’t think we’d still be there by 4:30 (we were). Some of the kids were disappointed, but I have to say that for me, just seeing the tower appear as I walked around corners was a thrill and a surprise each and every time.
Other than the saint’s reliquaried hand, the most interesting museum object was a series of reproductions of the frescoes from the walls of the Monumental Cemetery. They no longer exist in the “plaster” as they were nearly destroyed by bombs in WWII, but the reproductions show each scene as it would have been, considerably reduced. The most fascinating of these was the Final Judgment and Hell, which was subject to such studious consideration as I have never seen in either of my children, nor my sister in hers, I am sure. It does so happen, that that exact scene is one of the very few they have recovered and you can actually see it in its actual size, meaning that the figures are close to life size.
Pisa was a good day trip and well-worth the drive.
Beyond this we have walked around Florence a lot, just taking in the Christmas shoppers and the other tourists. We have, of course, seen the Duomo and the Baptistery of Florence, the Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, the Badia, and Orsanmichele to name just a few. We have another 5 days in which to see more, so by the time I head to Rome I will not be able to say I haven’t seen enough of Florence. Imagine, we still have to go see Michelangelo’s real David (not the copy).
In the next few days we expect our friends the Imberts, from Puerto Rico, to join us here to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and we want to leave some things to see with them.
January 6 2:00pm
Once again, I am writing to catch up. I was remiss over the Christmas holidays, enjoying my time with family and friends and neglecting my journal. Hopefully this variation on the format is a welcome change from the daily narrative.
Where to start?
On the 29th, Martha and I left everyone else at the convent doing the laundry. Can you believe they actually preferred laundry to visiting churches and art museums? We had a great day, all by ourselves. Our first stop was Santa Maria Novella and its cloisters. The church is decorated in the green and white marble that I associate with Florence. Though the facade doesn’t thrill me overmuch, I really like the interior. It is a quantum change from the Gothic cathedrals of France. The church is fairly simple: The cream colored walls and the green and white zebra-like stripes of the vault combine to create a tranquility that is very inviting. Plus there is a fantastically beautiful Giotto Crucifix hanging over the nave near the beginning of the transept.
The thing to see in the cloister is a series of Paolo Uccello frescos – but they’re so damaged it is hard to see them.
We also visited San Lorenzo and the Medici Tombs. The reason to see the Medici tombs is, of course, the statuary by Michelangelo. Despite the required traipse through the crypt and the unbelievably gaudy (Napoleon must have gotten his inspiration from these!) funerary chapel of the Medici, entering the New Sacristy where the statues of Dawn and Dusk, and Day and Night, and a Madonna and Child sit silently is worth the trip to Florence by itself. It is hard to imagine feeling unmoved by these figures (though I am certain my children would disagree!).
That same evening, our friends the Imberts arrived and our group was complete. Of course, it was back to central Florence on numerous occasions to show them the sites we had already seen. We dragged them from place to place unceremoniously, but gave them a break to see the Duomo inside and out. At this point, time was running out for the shoppers in our group, so we began to splinter into shopping and non-shopping factions.
As a result, we got to see an interesting museum about the History of Science. The museum’s collection begins about 1000 AD and goes up to the 1800s. It is a collection of scientific instruments used for all kinds of fields of study, and a large portion of them used by Galileo. I left the museum with the distinct impression that the early 1600s was an incredible time to be alive and interested in any science! The number of discoveries made during that period is staggering and must have turned the educated world almost upside down! We were fortunate enough to ask one of the guards in the museum if she could demonstrate how some of the instruments and machines worked. How true it is that you can understand so much better when you can see them in action.
We also got to the Accademia to see the paintings and the David – the real one, very impressive and well displayed in a niche in the museum. You also get a chance to see the “Slaves” or “Prisoners” that Michelangelo began for Julius II’s tomb. The museum had a special exhibit going on the musical instruments of the Medici’s time and the highlight of all those was a copper basin filled with water. The guard demonstrated: You wet your hands and rub the handles of the pot. The resonance sets up a hullabaloo in the water and it begins to jump up and out of the basin in an amazing fashion. Seemed simple enough, but none of our group was actually able to make that happen, though we did get some wonderful sounds and a few rapid ripples!
Our time in Florence was mostly spent eating, and we ate copiously. We divided our evenings between two local places near the convent: La Caponcina and Osvaldo’s. Both had good food, but the service was definitely handsomer at Osvaldo’s. We also found a pizzeria or two to make an occasional change. Lunches, however, were pretty much a “find a good place” endeavor and we were rarely disappointed (though Pisa was a noteworthy exception).
Our final day in Florence, New Year’s Day was our second sunny day (though again quite cold!) and we took the opportunity to drive up the Oltrarno hill to the Piazzolo di Michelangelo and take pictures of the view. We walked from there to the church of San Miniato al Monte, which was the unanimous choice for “favorite church in Florence” among the adults of our group. (I am not sure the children would have participated in any such designation.)
Though the Imberts headed off to Pisa at that point, we and the Thermansens went to Fiesole. We saw nothing there except the main square and the view, because (naturally) our first item of business was to eat. Believe it or not, we ate outside at an outdoor cafe. Remember it is just about freezing, but with the sun on our faces, we just pretended we were at some ski slope, and enjoyed the beauty of the late afternoon and early dusk.
Our group broke up the following morning, the Thermansens leaving at 7:00 am to fly back to the States, while we and the Imberts packed our cars and drove to Rome.
From here you can pick up my narrative in the Rome Journal.