Saturday, June 18, 2011


Well, I think we can safely say Venice is the most beautiful city in the world. It’s the water. The colour is the canal is a beautiful blue-green and sets off the rotting old palazzo’s wonderfully. We started our exploration of Venice with a self-guided Rick Steve’s tour on the slow boat. The family cameras clicked endlessly as every second seemed photo worthy. Our heads were on swivels, our eyes and mouths wide open in awe of this man-made dream world.

You’ve heard about the roads of water before but it is difficult to truly appreciate this wonder until you are here. There are no cars. There are no motocycles. There aren’t even any bicycles that we’ve seen. People are either on foot or are on the ater. It is magical. Some of it almost seems Disney-esque – a huge compliment to Disney but not so much to Venice.

We learned that the population of Venice is shrinking by 1000 people each year. Planners are afraid the city will soon become one giant museum. In talking to our hosts, they said the cost of living in the city is prohibitive. A small residence costs almost one million dollars and that is before the costs of renovation. Maintenance is also pricey as flooding is frequent. New construction is out of the question and maintaining the posh old buildings in such a damp climate is a challenge. Then there is the challenge of living in a city with no motorized vehicles on land and over 400 bridges. Getting your daily needs in and out is more effort. Buying in the city is more costly. All of these factors are contributing to drive citizens onto the mainland.

We visited Saint Mark’s Basilica on Saint Mark’s Square. Our favourite story there was about the dedication of the building. First of all, they built the place with “found” materials. They “found” marble and columns throughout the Mediterranean and hauled them on back to construct Saint Marks. The result is a unique looking building combining a quilt-like variety of colours and patterns and styles. The domes and mosaics look Byzantine, the columns look Greek and the arched top of the façade is sort of French-Gothic. Very multi-cultural.

They decorated the interior with more treasures they “found” in Constantinople. One of the Venetian crusades was sacking Constantinople, another Christian city. There must have been some confusion about who one sacks for the glory of God. At any rate, the whole place was built to house the bones of Saint Mark, one of the authors of the Bible. They had “rescued” his bones from being sacked by the un-Christian masses invading Egypt. Unfortunately, by the time the basilica was finished they couldn’t remember where they had put his bones. I would have loved to have seen THAT whole scenario play out. It runs like an Abbott and Costello routine in my head. Cleverly, the priest had everyone pray and sure enough, the priest had a vision of where the bones were. Well, thank goodness, eh? Another embarrassing “memory lapse” moment averted.

Our favourite part of being in Venice was just wandering the lanes. You never knew when you would round a corner onto some little picturesque sight. Gondolas were everywhere and flower boxes decorate the narrower canals in places making beautiful little scenes. We didn’t take a gondola ride because they were out of our price range but we did take lots of pictures of them. There used to be thousands and thousands of gondolas but today there are only around 500. It sure seems like more when you are wandering. They are all black because of a law passed back in the day that tried to prevent families from using identifying colours “gang style” on their gondolas. Inter-family fighting was commonplace in Italy during the Renaissance.

Small Town Italy

Scrofiano was well situated for visiting lots of the small towns in Tuscany. We were about 20 minutes from Siena and no more than an hour from most other places. We spent many of our days driving to little towns to see the sights.

One day we visited a town called, Arezzo on the recommendation of our host. It is where he and his family live and he told us they were having a huge antiques market so off we went. The antiques market was enough to make you drool! I have never wanted to buy furniture so much. The town was a perfect setting, of course but the reams of quality furniture and household stuff was exciting. Some of the furniture was just drop-dead gorgeous. Tom and I just couldn’t figure out how to get it home.

Another day we visited the town of Civita. This town was built on a bute and there is a footbridge you cross to get to it. It is very cool. The town fills the entire bute. The Etruscans were the first to build there and you can still see their caves and tunnels under the town. The Etruscans were the people here BEFORE the ancient Romans. When they built, the town was still connected to the mainland by a stretch of land but over time that wore away and so they built a footbridge. We met Maria, the only resident still living who was born and raised in Civita. Imagine living your whole life in such a small town!

Orvieto was a neat place. It had a well built by a Pope who was trying to protect the city in case of siege. It worked because the city was never attacked. Lucca, the place we cycled the walls was like that too. The citizens spent one third of their income for one hundred years building the wall to protect themselves and they were never attacked. I guess you like to think you weren’t attacked because of your great fortification, not that you completely wasted your time and money because no one wanted anything in your crummy little town anyway. Orvieto also had a huge cathedral with an eye-catching exterior. The cathedral seemed all out of proportion to the size of the town. That whole Pope thing again. It really benefited a town to have a Pope take interest in your town.

We visited an interesting number of small towns beginning with the letter “M” and serving delicious wines. Fortunately, all gave samples. Wine is serious business in Italy. We visited a wholesale wine outlet where the bottles amounted to all of about $2. The wine was fair but not excellent. However, the gasoline tanks used to meter out the wine were fascinating! Montipulciano had the best samples, we thought, so we bought a bottle there from the Contucci family. Members of this family have lived in that palazzo since the 11th century! Imagine having the same family home for over 1000 years! I saw the Count on his way out but he didn’t look scary at all. Apparently, Montipulciano is where “Twilight” was filmed.

If you’ve read or followed the vampire series, the town in the novel is “Volterra” and we visited that place too. This town had a definite dark medieval feel and they hadn’t even done a whole lot to promote the vampire thing. They promote instead their Etruscan wall into the city. The wall is over 2000 years old and survived the war because of the desperation of the town. They pulled up the road to prevent the Nazi’s from blowing it up near the end of the war. We managed to walk through the whole town unmolested and while we saw several very well dressed people, they all seemed to be enjoying the sun. No one had an unhealthy skin tone and no one appeared overly interested in my neck. All in all, a nice town.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


There are a lot of saints in the Catholic Church. Not many of them have their own town, though. I was interested to visit Assisi to see-see what all the hype was about. I may not know a lot of saints but even I have heard of Saint Francis. I kind of expected a cave but that was not what we saw.

Assisi is the birthplace of Saint Francis. He is best known for starting the order of Franciscan monks. There are numerous monasteries throughout Europe with Franciscan monks still around. Francesco Bernardone was a guy I can admire. A lot of the saints back in the day seemed to gain sainthood by committing suicide in a variety of painful and gruesome ways. Some were granted sainthood because their relatives were so distraught they paid the church to canonize their lost child. While I can sympathize with the pain, I have difficulty with the whole “buy your way into heaven” stuff. Francesco actually lived a pretty worthy life.

Until he was about 16 he was your regular, popular, wealthy boy-about-town. This was back in the early 1200’s and there was a lot of warring between neighbouring cities/villages. Everyone was trying to gain a better foothold and felt the best way to do it was to slaughter thy neighbour. Francesco went dutifully out to fight his neighbour and was captured and imprisoned for the next year. This had a profound impact on him as you can well imagine. He was a changed man on his return, spent some time contemplating on the whole structure of society/church/man relationship and eventually had a vision; what we might call an “epiphany”. He stripped naked in front of the townspeople and denounced his wealth, family and all material goods, proclaiming himself a devotee of God alone.

Now you have to admire a guy who can strip naked in front of a whole group without any background music at all…I think we can assume he had none. This whole naked thing was not something that was very common at the time since the church had denounced the human form as little better than worm-like. Ever since the whole Garden of Eden debacle, people were to have felt shame at their knowledge of the body. At no time was this felt more severely than during the Middle Ages. So, Francesco was a pretty wild guy. After his grand announcement, he grabbed a robe and a rope and left to wander the countryside living off the kindness of others.

He was a genuinely nice guy, though and this newfound idealism caused many young disillusioned men to seek him out. Together, they embraced the lifestyle Christ had lived, using humour and creativity to spread the Word. The Word they spread was not about giving till it hurt, either. Francis believed that men and beasts should live in harmony, supporting each other and working together rather than tearing each other down. Everyone deserved an equal amount of respect in his view. His “troubadours” were credited with inventing the first Crèche scene in order to teach the poor people about the birth of Christ. Rick called the Franciscan Monks “God’s Jugglers” as they used various forms of entertainment to spread God’s word. Francis worked in a humble church near Assisi and refused material wealth all his days. His methods were extremely popular and enduring. Even today, the religious leaders of the world meet in Assisi for their summits.

I am pretty sure if Francis was alive today he would be appalled at the state of his hometown. It is a tourist mecca with Francis crosses, statues, crèches and so-on raising money for the townspeople. The humble church he worked in has been swallowed whole by a huge monstrosity of a cathedral dedicated to his name. In Assisi itself, the Basilica of St. Francis towers over the town. St Francis was buried on the “Hill of the Damned” with outcasts of society. Since then, it has been renamed the “Hill of Paradise”. Amazing what a simple word can do. The church was quick to capitalize on the popularity of Saint Francis and these huge monuments reflect the values of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages more than Saint Francis. However, the town is very beautiful.

We walked through the town when they were having a "most beautiful patio" competition and the flower displays were quite lovely. The town is also cute because it has used the old Roman ruins to its advantage. The arena is now a housing subdivision and the acquaduct still works! How cool is that? I also discovered that I had completely underrated the whole "nun in a convent" business when we came across the "Nun Spa Museum". Who knew?


While looking for a parking space in Pisa, I couldn’t help but remember Kenna’s story of driving round and round trying to get to the tower but somehow always missing it. There is a huge wall around the Field of Miracles, probably to prevent tourists from catching a glimpse without running the gauntlet of tacky souvenir stands. The closer you get to the tower, the less you can see it and the city around the tower is not all that swanky, let me tell you. That coupled with the fact that many Italian cities have hefty fines for unlucky tourists who mistakenly drive in the “forbidden” zones creates a sort of angst when approaching tourist sites. Much of the driving in Italy is a sort of guessing game, though. What is the car at the stop sign going to do? Why is the car ahead of us drifting into our lane? Why are speed limits posted? It’s all part of the fun.

We did find a spot to park and we didn’t get fined…I don’t think. They send it to your home address so since our address is posted as the man we bought the car from, we’ll find out when we take the car to resell it to him if we’ve got any fines. Again, a sort of surprise the tourist kind of sport.

The most interesting thing about Pisa is that the whole city leans, not just the tower. It is built on unstable soil which apparently didn’t stop construction and as the buildings have stood for centuries turned out to be not all that big a deal. Personally, I would feel a wee bit uncomfortable entering my sagging home each night. Is this the night the house collapses? It does add to the tourist charm.

The tower was breathtaking. It is another one of those icons that makes you feel honoured to just be in its presence. I stood on the same tower as Galileo and I was tempted…oh, so tempted, to drop something over the side…but they all came back down the stairs with me in the end. The climb to the top was like something out of a fun house. Though you can see the angle from the outside, it doesn’t have the same impact as trying to climb the staircase that spirals around up to the top. The stairs start out quite steep and then suddenly you feel almost like you are going down the stairs as you circle around. It plays with your sense of balance, making your head feel a bit woozy like three or four glasses of wine can do.

We also visited the Baptistry and the Duomo (read: church) where Galileo got his inspiration during the Sunday service. He was watching the pendulum motion of the incense burner and noticed it took the same amount of time no matter how wide the arc, (see picture below). This just creates some lovely images for me. How did he get the thing swinging? What was the rest of the congregation doing? How many were swinging? Are all sermons this much fun? And how did Galileo manage to make the connection between the party time in the duomo with measuring the universe?

The whole Field of Miracles was gorgeous, white and green. The buildings were white. The lawn was green. We did only spend half the day there, though, because we wanted to cycle the rampart walls in Lucca.

We rented bicycles and did our thing on the walls. The walls were crowded with people so cycling wasn't so much about enjoying the view as cleverly negotiating the human obstacle course. However, we managed to get around more than once. As we went for our second round, the sky grew dark, thunder rumbled and sure enough, water began to dump from above. The kids were far ahead so Tom and I ducked beneath a tree to wait it out. Most of the wall-walkers were doing the same thing and there was a certain feeling of camraderie as we all huddled together.

The rain seemed to lift after a while so we hurried to catch up with the kids but we hadn't gotten far when it became hard to see so we stopped again under a tree. We were pretty sure we were close to where we were supposed to meet the kids so we decided to make another break for it. By the time we got within sight of them, the rain was coming down so hard, sheets of water were running in rivers along the wall. The kids were both out in the deluge cycling in circles without a care in the world. Ah, youth. We managed to convince them to come down to where we had rented the cycles and huddle under a doorway. We had to yell above the roar of water falling to make ourselves understood. Finally, the clouds had spent themselves and it stopped. The sun came out and it warmed up. However, the damage was done. We were all completely soaked. We skipped the rest of the town and headed to the car, hoping to dry out on our drive home.

Our car has an unusual feature just above the rearview mirror. There is a vent of some sort, though I'm not sure why. It obviously leads to the outside because when it rains, water gathers inside and as the car turns a corner, that water turns on like a tap. This is quite hilarious to the rest of the car passengers as the tap is centred directly over me. So, as the family dried out, I endured the frequent spouts of water. I am pretty sure that Tom takes those corners hard just to see it happen.

This day was the first of many like it. The day would start hot and sunny and in the late afternoon the clouds would roll in, the wind would pick up and suddenly it would get dark. Boom! The thunder would begin, then the lightning and pretty much within an hour there would be torrential rain. It was always warm, although the temperature would drop by up to 15 degrees. We got caught in these torrents more than once but by the time we started carrying an umbrella in the sunshine, the weather stabilized. Naturally.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Florence was my favourite big city in Italy…so far. It may have been helped by the fact that we parked our car in a lot overlooking the city and walked down into it. I don’t know what it is about having a view into the city but each of the places where we’ve had a walk down into the city has left memorable impressions. Bath, Prague and Florence all stand out as favourite experiences. We visited Florence three times and each time was just as wonderful. We ate lunch at the same delicious lunch place, had gelato at the same delicious gelato place and wandered many of the same atmospheric streets.

Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. I think I would have enjoyed the Renaissance. I certainly enjoy it today. The period of time they call the Renaissance was a “rebirth” of a love for humanism. The Middle Ages were all about doom and gloom. People toiled their whole lives to get into heaven. There were rules about what to wear, what to eat, what to say, where to live, who to marry and so on. Severe punishments were handed out for transgressions such as “gossip” and “drunkenness”. All art was to the glory of God which may not seem such a bad thing but there were rules about what THAT could look like as well. Art from the Middle Ages all looks the same: nary a countryside scene or bowl of fruit to be had. It’s all pictures of that "Lady and her Baby" as Tom has taken to saying. The church had an iron grip on the land and instead of using it to help the people flourish, the leaders became corrupt in their power and used the money to surround themselves with lavish wealth in the name of God. God’s name was used to murder and torture citizens, conquer new lands and peoples and generally keep the population terrified.

Renaissance was an awakening from the “darkness”. In fact, the term, “Dark Ages” was coined by the thinkers of the Renaissance. I think it is quite fascinating that the Renaissance took hold right in the heart of Italy, close to the epicenter of the Catholic church. The Renaissance men (women hadn’t yet gained a voice) were accomplished in a variety of areas. Leaders were charismatic people who were good looking, athletic, learned and religious. They were also rich and used their wealth to support genius. For the first time in centuries, genius flourished. This was the era of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Gallileo, Botticelli, Shakespeare and Raphael. It was finally “cool” to sit around and philosophize again. Debate was embraced and the words of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato were bandied about once more. Imagine what a joyful and promising time it must have been, filled with a sense of hope and possibility. Okay, so they were also killing each other off at a surprising rate as they all fought to be top dog, but still.

Florence was ruled by the Medici family, a family of doctors who made good. That's their house to the left. They were not nobility but managed to be perhaps the first middle class family to use the “American Dream” to claw and scrape their way into the upper class. Once there, they gloried in it. They have palazzo’s, gardens and numerous structures to prove it. They even had a covered walkway built from work to home as you can see in the picture of the covered bridge above. The walkway starts in the building in the foreground. Now that's rich. Yet, they supported genius. Without the Medici family we probably wouldn’t have Michelangelo, who was raised as an adopted son by the Medici’s. Anyone who has ever seen the Sistine Chapel knows what a tragedy missing Michelangelo would have been.

We visited the art galleries over several days. The galleries are not huge and exhausting. They actually have reasonable quantities of art spread out in understandable sequences. I loved seeing “David”. Did you know he is 14 feet tall? I didn’t realize he was so big! Imagine the size of the giant! The picture you see is not the original, of course. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the museum. This is a much smaller substitute idling in the same spot the original used to stand. Michelangelo “freed” him from the stone as a decoration for the top of the Duomo but everyone loved him so much he never made it to the top. Instead, he stood in a piazza where people could get up close and personal with him. He resides indoors at the Accademia now in order to protect him from the elements. We’ve seen what can happen to art left outdoors for 2000 years and it’s not pretty. I have to say, though, that while David was awesome in a “there he is!” kind of way, I liked Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne better. However, I like the message David conveys. Florence used David as their symbol of power. David is the boy who conquered a giant. His is the story that says, “believe in yourself, aim high and there is no obstacle too large to overcome”.

Speaking of large obstacles, a surprising number of vehicles drive the narrow streets with all the pedestrians. We took the picture above to show you that it is often hard to see the cars because they are mostly smaller than the people swarming around them. These are not golf carts. They are city cars. You can see the power cord coming out the back of the black one. They plug in like cell phones.