Monthly Archives: February 2010

All Aboard – Off to Florence

Florence, what a wonderful place. The train ride in was uneventful, which was nice. We took the express train so it was just an hour and a half ride. The weather was gray but not too bad. When we arrived we said no to the taxi cabs and walked away from the train station and got out the map – which way now? Our hotel was right next to the Ponte Vecchio so it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Still, the roads here, like Rome, zig zagged and only some had street signs. The next time we pulled out the map, a young woman asked if we needed help and gave us directions. A very nice welcome that was.

It was an amazing place, very medieval and very charming. It was full of people but not overcrowded. It was not too long a walk to the hotel, and the signs for the major sights were posed throughout the city so we had no trouble finding our way once we got the initial directions. We passed several outside markets – it was Saturday so I wasn’t sure if that was just on weekends that they were there. Walking through the Ponte Vecchio the first time was fun. Teaming with people and the gold in the jewelry store windows shone so brightly in the lights that it had a magical quality.

It was about 3:00 when we checked in so we dropped off our suitcases, I changed my shoes, I had worn my new boots for the trip to Florence, and headed for the Pitti Palace, down the street. The Pitti Palaces was built to compete with the Medici’s. The problem was the Pitti’s went broke and the Medicic’s wound up with it anyhow. The building itself is pretty ugly, but the artwork inside was amazing. And of course, once we entered, there they were – THE STAIRS! Once again a huge staircase awaited. Well, when the ceilings are 20 feet high, you get a lot of stairs.

How does anyone, or any family own such a collection of artwork, yes it was hundreds of years in the collecting, but still the question did come to mind. Our tour of Medici holdings didn’t end there. There was the Medici Palace and the Uffizi, all filled with paintings and sculptures belonging to the Medici family at some point. The interesting part was the palace was part museum and part city offices. I loved that, though is was confusing when we exited one exhibit area and wound up at the door of the police station. The last Medici donated all of it to the city of Florence. 

Beyond the Medici throw in the Acadieme Galleria where the original David is and the Bargello Museum where there are more Michelangelo and Donatello sculptures and you’ve got yourself an unbelievable place – all within walking distance of one another. Still, I liked seeing the fake David in the Piazza Della Signoria where it once lived, along with the other giant sculptures.  Just imagine living in a place where such grandeur is parked in the city center, outside town hall. 

It got to be rather comical keeping it straight, which were real and which were fakes since the Academia Gallery had roomful of of sculptures saying things like the original is in the Uffizi or the Bargello.  Most of the times when we were in museums there were groups of school children, it being during the week and winter. At one point as a group passed us I turned to Rick and asked if he thought they knew how lucky they were “Not a chance”, he answered. The fun part was watching how teachers and students responded to one another – there was no language barrier watching that. 

Going to the Medici Chapel was especially exciting – I had brought a page I had ripped out of my sketchbook with me that I was aching to be able to use.  A couple of months before we were to leave, I had taken a workshop to strengthen my drawing skills. The instructor made some mention of Michelangelo as we approached our break. I told him we were going to Italy, Florence in February. He told me he’d studied there for 3 months and it wasn’t enough time. – but he also told me there was a room in the Medici Chapel where they had locked up Michelangelo during an invasion to keep him safe. During his stay there Michelangelo had drawn all over the walls and it was an amazing place. He wrote down in my sketchbook the Italian for this place. He told me to ask a guard if I could see it.  After going through the chapel, which was undergoing major renovations, I took out my slip of paper and showed it to a guard. “no, no” she shook her head. She was a little startled, as in, how do you know about that? There was no way she’d let us in – wherever it was, and didn’t seem to have the authority anyhow. But it was very clear, she knew about it. I would have loved to have seen it, but the look on her face was very telling all by itself. I was also glad to see the chapel for Lorenzo d’ Medici, Michelangelo’s first patron. Michelangelo never quite finished what he’s started for Lorenzo, but I was glad to see the special relationship honored.

You can’t speak of Florence and not talk about the Duomo and Santa Maria del Fiori. It was spectacular. Covered in white, green and red marble, with mosaics and with soaring heights, it is beautiful and glorious. Throw in when it was built and it defies imagination.

Jaw dropping art was one reason to love Florence, the people were another. Our first night we went to Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco for dinner, it was right down the street from our hotel and had received good reviews from It was a great choice and we continued to eat there two more nights. We had “our table” and the wait staff was wonderful with us. The first night I had wild boar stew, what a treat. For so many years I had been reading books based in the middle ages and always they were eating wild boar – and now I got to have some. I also had the pumpkin ravioli. The best was on night 2 when Rick and I shared a Florentine steak. It was the best steak we’d ever had – including in Wyoming! With that being so good I had sliced sirloin with arugala, shaved parmesean and diced tomatoes. They gave us lemincello as a complimentary cordial the last night along with a little gift, a little clay dish bearing the wild boar insignia. 

The other treat was the stationary store near the duomo. We stopped in to see some of the famous paper made in Florence. The man was so nice, he gave us a demonstration of how they make marbled paper. He then dried the paper and gave it to me. It really was a great day.

The Vatican and more stairs ……

Walking was becoming our sole mode of transportation. On the way back to the hotel from the Trevi Fountain, we purchased tickets for the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica at the tobacco store – yes, that right, the tobacco store. That’s also where you buy tickets for the bus and subway. The shopkeeper also told us which bus to catch to get to the there so we were all set for the next day. The good part was that during our walk the view of the sun setting over the ancient sites was beautiful. At dinner I suggested we take a Taxi to the Vatican, it worked out well for going to the Borghese, and it was about the same distance. That was an easy sell.

Our tickets were for 10:30 and we arrived a little early so we roamed around St. Peter’s Plaza and watched some workers dismantling the Nativity scene and take the ornaments off the huge Christmas tree. It was quite and elaborate setup but if the Vatican can’t go all out who can. The time spent waiting was also another opportunity to people watch.There were people from all over, but the ones I like to watch are the Italians. Between their stylish clothes and their expressive way of speaking along with the hand gestures it was like watching a theatrical production every time a conversation broke out.

At the appointed time we went to the spot where our group was to meet and a guide walked us to the entrance to the museums. That was the extent of the guide’s job, which was fine. What followed was a stunning array of archeological finds, a few mummies and a lot of sculptures and religious artifacts. I patiently worked my way through the rooms, always keeping my eye on the signs for what was ahead.  There was a long room filled with frescoes of maps of areas of Italy over time. That was very interesting. But no matter what I was still holding out for the big one. We continued on, there seemed to be no end to the displays.

Another sign reminding us the use of cameras is forbidden and this is a sacred place was like a drum roll for me. We were about to enter the Sistine Chapel. The chapel itself was different from what I’d imagined there was dark wood along the walls with built in benches all around the circumference of the room. The chapel was long and rather dark, with an arched ceiling. I looked up and felt an emotional jolt. The colors were beautiful and the figures were so powerfully rendered that they had a presence all their own. Sitting in the corner, one of the figures seemed to be ready to step out of the fresco. As I continued looking I could see what I had recently read about. When Michelangelo reached the halfway point there was an unveiling, with the scaffolding removed so Pope Julius II could see the progress. When Michelangelo saw it from the floor, he thought the figures were too small. After that he made his figures larger, which when you look you can see how much more imposing the figures re closer to the altar.The wall behind the altar was amazing. We sat on the benches and just stared in awe.

After seeing the Sistine Chapel we continued on to a few more rooms before we decided to exit. I had wanted to see Raphael’s work but somehow we couldn’t find it. Maybe that we didn’t have a map had something to do with that. So Rick picked up his backpack and we returned our audiphones and out we went into the fresh air, another partly cloudy day in the 50’s. It was good weather for walking once again. Our other set of tickets was for St. Peter’s Basilica at 3:00 so we had time to find some lunch.

Just as the guidebooks say we headed off the main street in search of a place to eat. We found a little spot a couple of blocks away that had a sign saying it was recommended by Rick Steves and Frommers. That sounded good and in we went guided by a young lady standing outside inviting passersby to come in to dine. We walked down a few stairs and sat down at the table. It was a great choice I had spinach and cheese ravioli with a very light cheese sauce. The pasta was so light and delicious I wish I could go back many times again.  Several locals showed up as well and it was clear they were all well acquainted, another good sign. I also had a salad, there was no choice of dressing she just brought the oil and vinegar caddy to the table. That was good enough for me.

Sufficiently rejuvenated we headed back to the plaza. I tried a few sketches of the basilica which were not very successful but kept me occupied while we waited our next tour. It was good we rested, part two had us climbing to the top of the dome. It was worth it, but a little tiring to say the least with Rick once again repeating the refrain of Rome, more stairs. Then to the inside and yet more amazing sites. There were marble columns and the marble floors and mosaic work covered the inside of the dome.  Everywhere you turned there was more to be in awe of.  But there was yet one more site here that I was very anxious to see – the Pieta by Michelangelo. No one could made a piece of cold marble turn into real beings like him. It sat enclosed in glass and shining brilliantly.  I felt very fortunate to be able to see this stunning piece of art.

Once again I was being overwhelmed by everything I was seeing. It was getting late and time to think about heading back.  And once again we considered our transportation options. True to form we opted to go it on foot. The thinking was we could always get a cab if we ran out of steam. As we headed out we passed by a couple of the Swiss Guards. These guys must get their pictures taken more than super models. But who can resist the Michelangelo designed uniforms? A few quick pictures of them and we were on our way. The thinking was maybe we can make it to the Pantheon on the way back. Once again though we were part of a Roman sunset that made the scenes even more beautiful. Turning around now and again to see it was part of the journey back to the hotel. We knew this was going to be a long walk but walking was also part of experiencing the city itself. And of course there is that “when in Rome” business. The only hazard of walking is that bit about not getting run over by a car when crossing the street. At least the bridge we took to get back across the Tiber River was for foot traffic only,  it also provided a nice view of Castel Saint’Angelo.
The walk was long, we did get to the Pantheon, and we did make it back to our hotel, how we did that, I’m not really sure.

Rome – Borghese, Trevi, Poupolo

Rome is a truly exciting place. It is also a place of style. Everywhere we went people were well dressed and all the women were wearing boots. All manner of boots, heals, buckles, moccasin-like, suede,  you name it, but boots were all around us. The shops along the Via Nazionale were filled with boots as well. I wanted a pair in the worst way. Of course I could wear them all the time, not with all the walking we were doing before I got use to them, but still I had to have a pair. So on Friday, the day before we left Rome we went boot shopping with great success. Now I’m one with them!

Walking is what we’ve been doing since we got here. Each day we started with a Taxi ride to our first destination and then walked to the next and back to the hotel. The Borghese Gallery was the first stop and then we walked across the park to the Modern Art Museum. The Borghese was wonderful, we went on a guided tour with a young Italian man who was an art historian. He was also a big fan of Bernini, which made his tour all the better.  He believed that Bernini and not Michaelangelo was the greatest sculptor, very interesting. The gallery was built by the Borghese family as a place to show their art collection, makes sense when you have a collection like that.

The next stop was the Museum of Modern Art. That was less than terrific. There were only Italian artists there, I was hoping for a Monet or Van Gogh, but no such luck. There were some very nice paintings but all in all not all that exciting. But this is where this became “stair day”.  The Borghese had a winding staircase to the second floor which went on forever, and with our guide being a spry young man practically ran up them. He did give us time to rest at the top though. The Modern Art Museum had a grand staircase as well. It seemed every corner we turned around there was another grand staircase.

Our walking tour of Rome then took us through the park in yet another direction. This time when we exited the park, we were at the Plaza dei Popoulo. By now it had begun to drizzle. Umbrellas sprouted up everywhere. While we each had a fold up umbrella, they were back at the hotel room since the weather report didn’t call for rain. Street vendors were at the ready offering to sell an umbrella to anyone without one. So, in the hopes it was a passing shower we stopped in a cafe on the plaza and had some soup and cappacino. It hit the spot and the rain had eased up. That is until we started out to continue walking.  It was then that it hit me, I had been wanting to do a painting of people walking in the rain with umbrellas. I started taking lots of pictures. What could be better than having my street scene of people with umbrellas than it being of Rome?

As we continued on we came to another church to visit. There were so many old churches with artwork throughout that it was hard to keep track of them all. It was also another way to get out of the rain. When we emerged from the church, there seemed to be a break in the clouds so off we went, walking a little farther, not exactly sure where we were going, but in the general direction of more sites. Then we saw another plaza and headed down a side road towards it. Yup, we were now at the Spanish Steps, and no we did not climb all the way up. We took pictures and continued on our way. We did consult a map now and again but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the roads here. They change name and bend and turn in ways that boggle the mind. Couple that with the fact that crossing the street can be a death defying act and we did feel like we were flying on a wing and a prayer. But once again we turned a corner and came upon another stunning sight – the Trevi fountain. We threw our coins into the fountain and continued on. This time our hotel was our destination. Trying to get to the Pantheon was a thought that had to wait for another day. The next day was going to be the Vatican however, so maybe we can get there after that.

Indeed the next day we took a cab to the Vatican in the morning. We had tickets for 10:30 to go to the museums – which meant, the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter’s Plaza was busy with workers taking down the Christmas tree and nativity scene.