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  • Writer's pictureBil

Tuscany and Florence

Streets of Castiglion Fiorentino
Local historical group preparing for a wedding performance

For many folks, a vacation in Italy conjures up visions of a romantic villa in Tuscany, with sweeping, panoramic views of vineyards, olive groves and rolling hills covered with sunflowers. Even though “the Maestro” said all the best places in Tuscany have been taken, we found a wonderful spot in Castiglion Fiorentino and settled in for a week to relax and enjoy the countryside.

This part of central Italy was originally inhabited by the Apennines, then the Villanovans and eventually the Etruscans who evolved into a modern-day society (for that time, until ~500 BC) before being absorbed by Rome. Many of the current towns, like Castiglion Fiorentino are situated on hilltops overlooking the low plains, giving them a strategic advantage.

Church tower in Castiglion Fiorentino

Castiglion roughly means fortress, and Fiorentino (it had different names in previous decades) meant the village had allegiance to Florence. The town has now spread out considerably around & below the original city walls, but the old inner section is very cool, with narrow roads winding between tall, brick structures, punctuated with a variety of ancient and modern windows & doorways. Decorated window baskets spill colorful flowers and plants into the alleys.

Las Casa de Amanda, our lovely little “villa” was actually a set of multi-level rooms in a medieval building, near the eastern walls. No one else was in the building, so we had 3 outdoor porches to ourselves, along with a large bedroom, study with many books, living room, tiny bath and huge kitchen. Several bars (coffee shops) were nearby, and the grocery & train station about 20 minutes walk. Our favorite pastime was drinking cappuccino while watching the rock doves across the alley (at the 3rd floor level) nurturing their baby, who looked ready for his first flight at any moment. Unfortunately, he never took off before we did. ☹

We visited the Cassero fortress and museum, learning about the Etruscan & Medieval

Main room at Casa de Amanda
Main room at Casa de Amanda

history, and I climbed to the top of the bell tower which afforded 360° views of the countryside. When the Roman Empire collapsed, so did the maintenance of the viaducts and water management systems, flooding most of the low-lying land in these parts, creating swamps & marshes, contributing to the “dark ages".

On Monday, 7/26/21 we took the train south to Orvieto, another town with similar history in the neighboring region of Umbria, and then rode the funicular (cable car) through the ramparts to the upper city. Situated on a steep butte of volcanic tuff, Orvieto also had a natural, defensive location, making it an important point for every civilization that occupied. After the fall of Rome, it became a center for the Popes as a vacation spot, and later as the centre of power for the Papacy. A magnificent piazza, palace and cathedral were constructed, along with a huge labyrinth of tunnels and caves beneath the city.

The famous dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi
Florence Cathedral and the famous Duomo

After thoroughly enjoying our week of leisurely sightseeing and relaxing, it was now time to point our bags north – towards the epicenter of the Renaissance, Florence. Wow – back in the city – and the crowds! Seemed much busier than any place else so far, even Rome. But still not as much as pre-Covid. Here we had a tiny hotel room for about the same price (90 USD), but it was clean & fine, with fast Wi-Fi!

Susie had firmly & emphatically put me in charge of activities for this portion, and I had booked several things already. Although I still relied on her to get us around and arrive on time! (Thank you again Sweetie!) And she had added a couple things – like a free walking tour the evening after we arrived.

So, after checking in to our room, we joined the throngs of people on the streets and headed to the main area of attractions, on the north side of the Arno River. Most of the tourists seemed to be Italian, but our walking group had folks from 5 different Euro countries, and a guide who was well-versed in Florentine history, pointing out the various

Masterpiece in marble
Michelangelo's David

buildings and the difference in architecture as the centuries passed. Romanesque gave way to Gothic, then Renaissance and Baroque. Some of the changes were pretty subtle to my eyes, with the arches over windows a bit more pointed than previously.

Thursday, we started at the Galleria dell'Accademia, which houses many statues and paintings, and one of the most famous in the history of art – the David – by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni.

Two sculptors had started to work the large block of marble (6 tons when completed), then left it for 25 years before Michelangelo was awarded the contract, at age 26, and worked over two years before submitting to the Vestry Board. The board was so impressed they placed the statue in the Piazza della Signora where it could easily be admired up close, instead of the initial, intended placement which was 80 meters in the air, under the roofline of the Cathedral of Florence. Two interesting items are that David’s head and right hand are considerable larger than normal, and the prevailing theory is that Michelangelo enlarged them so they would look normal when viewed from 80 meters below, if it was installed in the niches of the cathedral.

Renaissance room in the Uffizi Gallery

After lunch we entered the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the most famous museums in the world featuring ancient paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages to Renaissance to modern, with the rooms roughly grouped in order by age. Again, we used the Rick Steves audio app to roam through this huge building, which was originally the offices (Uffizi) of the Medici family and understand what we were looking at.

Too many to describe here, but many by Giotto, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and Botticelli, featuring his masterpiece, the Birth of Venus. Amazing…. and overwhelming!

Back to the room to freshen up and rest for a bit – then out to look for a bite – walking away from the crowded main plazas – and came across the Crown of India. OK. Looks great for a

DaVinci's design for a self-powered roasting spit
Who wants some rotisserie chicken?

change of pace. And it was! We sat in a quiet, small open-air alcove with tablecloths and beautiful silverware & place settings. Every single thing was delicious, from drinks to appetizers to entrees. So good!

We had bought tickets to the DaVinci Museum so walked on over there Friday morning. Housed in a few small rooms in an old building, the exhibits were mostly replicas, and many were interactive, with a children’s area in the lower level. Fascinating to see how many ideas were percolating around in this guy’s brain all the time. A genius on so many levels!

After that we moseyed over to the street where our guide had recommended to get some sandwiches, and there were lines about 2 blocks long! With guys directing traffic! Moving down the street we found another small one-man shop that looked like a middle eastern gyro place, and got 2 huge, delicious sandwiches. While we were eating at a small table outside, the guy leaned out the window and started berating us about something. We had no idea what he was saying but was obviously not happy with us! Oh well. We finished & moved on – probably won’t go back! 😊

Former Medici residence - now a fabulous museum
Grand hall in the Pitti Palace

One more museum on our list, the Palazzo Pitti – the largest in Florence, south across the Arno River. This palace was the main residence for the Medici family for years, the base for Napoleon for a time in the 18th century and finally donated to the Italian people. The extensive galleries feature paintings and sculptures from many of the Renaissance masters, as well as rooms lavishly decorated and furnished.

That place was so huge we were over saturated with art if that’s possible! (yes – it is) So we wandered outside to the huge Boboli Gardens, which were laid out for Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de' Medici, because she complained her other apartments had no green areas. There were some fountains & statues, and many steps led to a panoramic view of the city across the river. We were surprised at the lack of flowers and green plants that we have seen in many other large gardens, although we did not walk the entire garden, which was huge, about 111 acres. And it was very hot, so we found a shady area under some trees and sat down to read a while, as many other folks did.

Saturday morning, we slept in; then got out to meet our walking tour at 10:30. Same

Produce, butcher & tanner shops have been replaced by jewelers, watches & pricey souvenirs
The Ponte Vecchio ("Old Bridge")

organization as last time, but this tour focused more on the Medici family & history rather than the buildings. Debby, our guide was also well-informed, and much more personable than the last person. That evening we ate at The American 1950 Diner near our room. Cute version of a classic US diner with the wait staff on skates! Milkshake was great!

August 1st – nothing special to do today. Stopped for brunch at a Chinese café (delicious!) and met a really nice young couple from the Philippines. They are currently living in Geneva where she is the ambassador to Switzerland! Maybe we will see them on our next leg of the trip. Afterwards we just wandered around the city, admiring the architecture and people watching. Later, back to the Crown of India, for another meal as good as the last.

OK – it’s Monday – and time to split. Walk to the train station with our bags, grabbing some cappuccino & pastries on the way. Riding the Frecciarossa, the fast, red train to Venice!

More Tuscany & Florence photos at:

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18. Aug. 2021

Absolutely amazing the life one can have there, so rich and fascinating and delicious. I would so love to be there and am glad that you are.

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