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Florence, The Cradle of the Renaissance

“Visiting Florence was like attending a surprise party every day.” ~ Jennifer Corburn

sunny 15 °C
View Italy and Paris April 2015 on Anja Fourie's travel map.

The playground of the Medici's, Da Vinci's inspiration, Dante's writing desk. The beautiful seat of the Renenaissance. This is Florence.

Where did we stay? Villa Saulina Resort Hotel
Read about my previous visit to Florence here: Florence and Pisa in one day...

"In fact, one of the reasons artists in fifteenth century Florence made such great things was that they believed you could make great things. They were intensely competitive and were always trying to outdo one another, like mathematicians or physicists today—maybe like anyone who has ever done anything really well." ~ Paul Graham

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STATUES OF FLORENCE

The Piazza della Signoria is an L-shaped square in Florence. It is overlooked by the Palazza Vecchio, the town hall of Florence. It was, and still is, the political hub of Florence. In the square many famous sculptures can be seen, such as Perseus with the head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini.

Persues with the head of Medusa
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A replica of the most famous naked man, Michelangelo's David, can also be seen in this piazza. It took Michelangelo three years to sculpt the 5.17m high sculpture from marble and itt weighs 6 tons. It was unveiled in the Piazza in 1504. In 1873 the statue was removed the square and placed inside the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence to preserve it from damage. During World War II, the entire statue was entombed in brick to protect it from any damage of airborne bombs. The replica, which still stands in the square today, is the exact size of the original and also stands in the same spot as the original used to stand many years ago.

The replica of David
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Statues of Dante and Galileo in the Piazzo
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THE PONTE VECCHIO and the VASARI CORRIDOR

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) crosses the Arno river at its norrowest point. The first bridge was built here in 996, but was destroyed by flood many times over the years. The current bridge was built in 1345. The bridge has always hosted shops. It used to be butcher shops, but over time changed to jewellers and trinket sellers.

It is here that the term bankruptcy originated from. Merchants used to sell their wares on tables on the bridge. If they could not pay their debts, the table on which he sold his wares would be physically broken by soldiers. This practice was called bancorotto, meaning broken table.

The Ponte Vecchio
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On the close-up of the Ponte Vecchio, a small row of windows is visible at the top. This is the Vasari Corridor. The ruling Florentine family in the 1500s, the Medici, did not want to walk in the streets from their residence, Palazzo Pitti, to the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. Over 5 months in 1565, the corridor was built above Florence. It snakes its way around towers, over houses and across the bridge. The secret passageway is approximately 1km long. Today the Vasari Corridor can be walked as part of a tour. The corridor can be spotted from street level by its small prison-like windows.

Small windows of the Vasari Corridor
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THE FLORENCE CATHEDRAL

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Driving into Firenze, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore takes your breath away. Its magnificent dome stands out above the red tiled skyline of Florence. The cathedral is one of the biggest attractions for tourists visiting Tuscany and it is not hard to see why. Inside the square, the massive cathedral feels squashed in. It dominates all of Florence. To this day, it remains the largest brick dome constructed in the world.

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GIOTTO'S CAMPANILE

Adjacent to the Cathedral is Giotto's Campanile / Giotto's Bell Tower. The tower is 87m tall and has a whopping 414 steps to the top. The problem with these steps are that they are very narrow, and with people coming up and down, this is a nightmare zone for claustrophobic people. If you are in any way claustrophobic, prone to panic attacks, or unfit, do not attempt this climb. The stairs are steep and very narrow, and many people have collapsed on their way up.

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When we finally reach the top, the view is definitely worth the climb.

Views from the top of the tower
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Next stop: Pisa and the Field of Miracles

Posted by Anja Fourie 07:30 Archived in Italy Tagged italy florence cathedral da_vinci Comments (0)

Palermo, Sicily

"In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns." - Calo ~ The Godfather.

sunny 28 °C
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Today we are docked in the darker part of Italy. Mafia country.

Palermo is the home of the Sicilian Mafia, also known as the Cosa Nostra. The city has a quiet, eerie feeling to it. The streets are emptier than all the other Italian cities I visited. Could this be an effect of the Mafia? Or is this merely a fantasy playing out in my head? There are apparently up to 4000 active members of the Mafia in Palermo. On my trip here, I try to spot a Mafia member or something giving away evidence of Mafia activity. I find nothing, but I guess that is the point. If I could point a Mafia member out from the crowd, he wouldn't be a very good Mafia member, now would he?

1. Docked at Palermo
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Compared to the famous cities of Rome and Florence, Palermo looks poverty stricken and dirty. Palermo is the largest city and port on the island of Sicily. It used to be a part of Greece and later became part of the Roman Empire. In 1861, Sicily became a part of Italy.

2. Post office of Palermo
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A tourist map shows eight places of interest in Palermo. I give the Marionette Museum and the Archaeological Museum a skip. I follow the map to Quattro Conti, the exact city center of the old Palermo. The four buildings surrounding the city center are all decorated with statues and carvings. On every corner in Palermo, there are also horse-drawn carriages that take you around the city for 5 Euro.

3. City center of old Palermo
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All of the carriage men try to get my attention. One whistles at me and I decide it is time to brave the heat of the summer day. I leave the shadow of the buildings and walk down the road to the next destination on my map. A man on a Vespa suddenly drives up the sidewalk right in front of me. My first thought is that he made an accident, but he turns around a throws a big smile at me. "Gelato?" he asks. It takes me a moment to realise he wants to buy me an ice-cream. I shake my head no and start to walk away. This does not discourage him at all. He starts to follow me on the sidewalk, slowly riding his pale blue Vespa behind me.

My next destination suddenly appears before me. The Cathedral. Sanctuary from Mr.Blue Vespa and sanctuary from the Sicilian heat. This 12th century Roman Catholic church, with architectural styles from the Middle Ages, shows a stark difference to the Renaissance flair of architecture in Florence or Pisa. The appearance is almost Gothic and Middle Eastern at the same time. This could be leftover from the time that Sicily was under Arab rule.

4. Cathedral and grounds
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Further down the street, the last thing to see is the Palace. I can't find a way into the palace, but with the sun bearing down uncomfortably on me, I didn't look too hard for an entrance either. I rather just stroll through the palace gardens. Later I found out that this is the current seat of the parliament of Sicily and not a tourist attraction.

5. The Palermo Palace and gardens
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Walking back I accidentally stumble upon the Piazza Pretoria. This is a beautiful fountain which was originally built for a villa near Florence, but ended up here. Somewhere down the street I walk into a church. This isn't even on the tourist map, but I go in anyway. Here I just sit down a little to get away from the heat. It is really quiet, peaceful and beautiful inside the church. The great thing about beautiful old churches are that they are tourist attractions, but generally do not ask any entrance money.

6. Piazzo Pretoria
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7. Inside the little church
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As I walk back to the port to return to the ship, I buy myself a bottle of water. The shopkeeper realises I am a tourist and that I don't speak Italian. "Where? Where?" he excitedly asks.
"South Africa." My answer is met with a blank expression. "Africa?" I try again.
His face lights up as I see understanding sinking in. Then, confusion. "But...uh...you...uh...white?"
"Yes." I smile. The language barrier is far too great to explain this one, so I just show him my R5 coin instead. It looks exactly like a 2 Euro coin. Both have a golden circle in the middle, surrounded by a silver band. He gets immensely excited about the coin and I give it to him to keep.
"Ah, I remember! I always remember!"

I say my grazies and my ciaos and the shopkeeper hurries outside to wave to me as I walk down the road. Sicilians are definitely a lot friendlier than main land Italians. I smile as I wonder if I would be part the dinner conversation that evening.

Next stop: Barcelona

Posted by Anja Fourie 14:43 Archived in Italy Tagged horses fountain florence cathedral dirty sicily friendly palermo Comments (3)

Florence and Pisa in one day

"A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see." - Samuel Johnson.

sunny 29 °C
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When I got up this morning we were docked at a beautiful little town called La Spezia. La Spezia has a small harbour which made it another tender dock. This meant that the little shuttle boats had to take you to shore again. The entire town is set against a steep slope into the mountain. La Spezia is one of Italy's main commercial harbours and hosts one of the biggest Italian military industries, OTA Melara.

For 6 euro, a little train will take you to the town centre as the harbour is at the bottom of the mountain and a little way from the attractions of La Spezia. At La Spezia's station, I buy my train tickets for Florence and Pisa. I will be travelling in a lopsided triangle. From La Spezia to Pisa, from Pisa to Florence and from there back to La Spezia. The next train leaves in 10 minutes and after a hour we are in the centre of Pisa. I buy a bus pass for 1,10 euro. It takes me the Field of Miracles.

1. Even the McDonald's in Italy is stylish
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2. Entrance to the Field of Miracles
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The bus stops right at the square in front of the Square of Miracles. From outside the wall I can already see the Tower. I wish I had time to see more of Pisa's architectural wonders, but the Piazza dei Miracoli will have to do for now. It is also known as the Piazza del Duomo and is a walled area which contains the four great religious buildings of Pisa. This square has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The first thing you see when you enter the square is the large Romanesque dome of the Battistero (Baptistery). The other two buildings are the cathedral (Duomo di Pisa), and the Camposanto Monumentale (cemetery).

3. First sight of the complex
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4. The Field of Miracles
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That famous tower hides behind the massive cathedral and as you round the marble steps of the cathedral, the Campanile, the loose standing bell tower of the cathedral comes into full view. We all know this as the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Torre pendente di Pisa, or simply Torre di Pisa). The tower seems smaller than what I imagined it to be, but it is still magnificent in real life. Not a fan of the cliche, I decide that the tower can hold itself up for once and I just get some regular tower photos. You are allowed to enter and climb the tower once again as they have found a way to keep the tower from leaning. To gain entrance you just need to hand over your life savings and probably be weighed as well. Italians don't want any fatties to tip over their precious heritage.

5. Sinking base of the tower
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6. Me, myself and Mr. Leaning Tower
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Unfortunately my time in Pisa is up and I take the bus back to the station, just in time to catch the 12:00 train to Florence. Florence is an hour away from Pisa and 2 hours away from La Spezia. Florence is bigger, busier and dirtier than calm Pisa. I get a map to orientate myself and decide to walk down Via de Panzani towards the Piazza Giovanni.

"Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.” - Henry James.

Somewhere I take a wrong turn and end up at the Capelle Medicee. The Medici family was a very influential and important family for Renaissance Europe. They commissioned thousands of works of art which helped keep the Renaissance alive. Catherine de Medici (1519 - 1589) was the wife of Henry II of France and she ruled after his death. She was to the 16th century what Queen Victoria was to the 19th century. Her three sons were three different kings of France and her daughter in law was Mary Queen of Scots. It is believed that without her France would not have become Europe's first nation state.

7. Capelle Medicee
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Walking around the corner of the Capelle, you see the giant cathedral looming at the end of the street. It takes your breath away before you even get to the Duomo Piazzo. As you round the corner the massive cathedral and it's brilliance cannot even be described. The cathedral is topped by Brunelleschi's dome and it is the third biggest Christian church in the world today. It really is magnificent and you cannot seem to tear yourself away from this holy sight.

8. Duomo Piazzo
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When you walk up a side street it takes you to the Galleria dell' Accademia. This is where the real David by Michelangelo is housed. I am dissappointed at the very long queue as this means that with my limited time I will not be able to see the David. It is almost time to catch the train back to La Spezia, so I just decide to slowly make my way back to the station. As I'm walking through the beautiful streets of Firenze, my stomach starts growling. For 10 euros I get to eat an amazing multi-layered lasagna with a roasted chicken and vegetable salad. The lasagna is amazing and I never want it to end. But this is Italy after all, the birthplace of pasta.

The 15:53 train takes me back to La Spezia. The train ride will take about 2,5 hours which means I will only arrive in La Spezia at about 18:20. This doesn't leave much time to get back to the harbour to catch the last shuttle boat which leaves at 18:30. I don't worry about it just yet.

The train stops at La Spezia at 18:19. There are no taxis at the station. The little train I took up to the top is nowhere to be seen. I look down at my sandles and decide that I'll have to make a run for it. I've never been much of a runner, but the adrenaline pushes me down the hill like a mad person. Italians jump out of the way. The 25 minute walk has to be completed in 10 minutes.

I am unsuccessful. I arrive at the harbour at 18:40. I have about 500m still to go, but my legs are weak and my chest is burning. I can see the shuttle boat is already half-way towards the ship and they are packing up their gazebo. I run faster than I've ever ran. The officer sees me and screams for the shuttle boat to return. It's actually a scary thought when you think that the ship waits for no one. Laraine meets me in the room and freaks out that I almost missed the last boat as those who miss the ship's departure, have to make their own way to the next stop. The ship waits for no one.

Next stop: Rome

Posted by Anja Fourie 10:11 Archived in Italy Tagged food bus train italy pisa florence cathedral david leaning_tower la_spezia field_of_miracles Comments (2)

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