11 March 2012

Hill Towns of Tuscany

On Saturday the 3rd, the school offered a guided tour of a small selection of nearby hill towns. I'd hoped that there would also be food and wine involved, but the two other students and I who went along were left to our own devices with regard to comestibles. Still, it was a great tour; the guide, Riccardo, drove us by car through the softly rolling hills and alarmingly green fields, and walked us through the main sights of each town.

We began in Cortona:


Most Italian towns have monuments to the fallen soldiers of both World Wars. Cortona's is my favorite:


Walking the back streets and through the marketplace:



Cortona also has an early Franciscan church, but the real eye-catcher is the church of Santa Margherita, about fifteen minutes' walk up a very steep hill:




(Obligatory pipe organ photo:)


Our next destination was Montepulciano, famous for red wine.



Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is so named because it was traditionally produced by the town's wealthy nobility. These noble families would produce and age their own wines in the cellars beneath their palaces (many of which are still used for this same purpose in modern times).

When you're buying Italian wines such as Vino Nobile, Brunello, or Chianti Classico, always look for the DOCG label! This is usually a pink or green sticker around or along the neck of the bottle, and is an indication not only of quality, but that the wine producers adhere to certain traditional procedures, such as the type of grapes (and methods of cultivation and harvest) and the length and method of aging.

The well in the town's largest piazza is topped with griffins (the symbol of Montepulciano) and lions (symbol of the Medici family—note also the Medici coat of arms). Montepulciano was an ally of Florence, itself ruled (at various times) by the Medici.


The Palazzo Pubblico and the Duomo in the main square:




Walking the ancient streets, surrounded by buildings at least five hundred years old:


Our last stop was Pienza, a small but elaborately-planned city whose Renaissance-era reconstruction was largely orchestrated by Pope Pio II. It's very, very small, with a trapezoid-shaped piazzal del Duomo and streets all named things like “Via del Giglio” (Lily street) and “Via del Bacio” (Kiss street).



Pienza's specialty is pecorino, or sheep's milk cheese. Pecorino can be fresco (semisoft and unripened), secco (aged and sharp), or infused with all kinds of flavors. The smell of it wafts down every street.



Next up: adventures in the heart of of Chianti.

Bonus photo of my host mom's kitty:


She looks very much like my Mango! Her name is Satri.

05 March 2012

San Domenico and San Gimignano

Well, the halfway point of my trip has come and gone—how is that possible? I have, obviously, been keeping busy. There's just so much to marvel at here, and my school sometimes puts on lectures and trips (last week, there was an olive oil tasting, and over the weekend I went to Montepulciano, Cortona, and Pienza), and as the saying goes, time flies when you're surrounded by some of the most profound beauty that the world has to offer and constantly awash in new and interesting experiences. (That is the saying, right?)

I'm short on time and, actually, I've covered many of the historical details before, so there won't be too much explanation in this post.

On Friday, I visited the Basilica di San Domenico. This cathedral, built in medieval times to venerate St. Catherine of Siena (and preserve her thumb and skull), has one of my favorite church interiors—it's dim and gray, without pillars or significant frescoes, and the ceiling is flat and unremarkable, but it is tall and open and peaceful, and sound does not carry except from a few particular places. It is extremely contemplative, leaving you to focus your own thoughts rather than trying to draw your mind to greatness with elaborate art and spectacle.

There are no photos allowed inside the church, and unfortunately, the outside is not very interesting to me. Still, it's a perfect example of the color of the Senese brick that was so ubiquitous in its medieval architecture, and against the brilliant spring sky, surrounded by cypresses and pines, it is a quintessentially Italian sight.



I wandered down the hill just past the church a bit to see where the staircase led (nowhere hugely noteworthy, except possibly Alma Domus, a nun-run hotel that I had wanted to stay at last year but missed out on).


A few blocks from San Domenico is the house where the beloved Santa Caterina grew up. Over time, it has been restored and transformed into a chapel in her honor, with each room containing paintings, statues, and frescoes depicting miraculous events in her life. Once again, no photos were allowed inside, but the courtyard is lovely.


On Saturday, I took the extra-urban bus to San Gimignano, one of the better-known Tuscan villages, with a distinct—and sometimes overplayed—medieval character. San Gimignano is famous for its towers; fourteen remain where sixty once stood, most part of the fortified homes of squabbling noble families. The oldest towers date from the 900s; by the Renaissance, however, towers had fallen out of fashion due to the development of cannons and other forms of weaponry capable of knocking them down.

Piazza della Cisterna, one of the larger and more commercial open spaces in this little hill town:




In Piazza del Duomo, with the Palazzo Pubblico (the civic/governmental palace), Torre Grossa, and the Duomo:


Have any of my readers played Assassin's Creed II? You know those funny square holes that are spaced at regular (convenient) intervals along all the towers and walls? Those were probably used to secure beams that supported balconies and other structures. Handsome young Florentine assassins might not have been able to use them to climb, but they could probably have waltzed right up a handy wooden staircase.


Shops throughout town sell famous wines such as Chianti Classico, Rosso or Nobile di Montepulciano, and San Gimignano's specialty white wine, Vernaccia; you can also find cinghiale (wild boar) sausage, salami, and prosciutto.


The view from where I ate my lunch (a wild boar prosciutto and pecorino cheese sandwich):


Even better, the view from the top of Torre Grossa:




Leaving the Palazzo Pubblico, and back to the steps of the Duomo:



A brief walk from the center of town leads out to a tiny medieval fortress, now a public park filled with olive trees, drenched in sunlight, and with a lovely view of the San Gimignano skyline from atop one of the fortress walls.


Clustered around the fortress are towering pines:


Back into town, I returned to Piazza della Cisterna, bought some gelato, and ate it by the well.


Night begins to fall:



Next up: still more gorgeous Tuscan hill towns (they really are endless).

27 February 2012

Il Duomo e la Fortezza

On Wednesday, word of an open-air market at the fortress was all over school, so a few of my classmates and I hiked around past San Domenico to Fortezza Medicea, once military fortress housing Florentine troops, and now an enormous public park.



Merchant stalls surrounded the ancient brick walls like the camp of an army laying siege, selling everything from clothes and shoes to kitchen utensils to beautiful meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables.


(I was much more interested in the latter.)



The fortress was built in the 1560s by order of Cosimo I de' Medici after his Florentine forces conquered the city. With its perimeter of over one kilometer, it's a popular spot for walking and jogging, as well as picnicking. I love to pick up a sandwich from a nearby bar or a bit of fruit and cheese from the market just across the bridge, and eat with a view of the majestic Tuscan hills or the city's three great towers.


My friends and I wandered back through town and parted ways at the Duomo, which I'd seen last year but wanted to visit for a second time.


One of my classmates asked me an impossible question: between the Duomo of Siena and that of Florence, which one do I like better?


I think I prefer the exterior of Santa Maria del Fiore, with its pastel colors and gentler Renaissance architecture. Siena's intensely Gothic façade and bold black-and-white stripes are a little too jarring for me.


Doesn't stop me from photographing the heck out of it, though.


The structure is mostly 13th-14th century Gothic, influenced by what was then quite fashionable in France. Note the similarities between this facade and that of Notre Dame, particularly on the upper levels. (The Duomo's first story, begun in 1215 and worked on until just before 1300, is more Romanesque, while the upper stories and the belltower were designed in the early 1300s.)

If you read my blog last year and are currently going, “but wait, this all looks so familiar!”, then you are right. I featured several shots from Siena's Duomo last year. That day, however, my camera battery died partway through the trip, so this year, I have taken pains to ensure that you'll get to witness as much of the Duomo as possible!


I mentioned before that I prefer the outside of Florence's cathedral to Siena's, but the reverse is true inside. While there is something to be said for the contemplative simplicity of Santa Maria del Fiore's interior (Siena's San Domenico is similar, and it's one of my favorite cathedral interiors), the tightly-woven complexity of Siena's really comes together for me. It is order just bordering on chaos, it's a bold celebration of contrast.



The interior includes works by Michelangelo, Duccio, Donatello, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Bernini, Pinturicchio, and still others.


From the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, you can climb up to a vantage point on the wall of what might one day have been the new façade, if not for the bubonic plague. The Senese intended to expand the existing cathedral to fill the entire piazza, making it the largest church in Europe (and more importantly, larger than that in Florence); after the plague, the project was abandoned, the populace fearing that the plague was punishment for their hubris.

In addition to another lovely view of the countryside, this place gives you an excellent angle on the cathedral itself.


Note the changing widths of the white stripes on the bell tower. From ground level, this creates the illusion that the tower is much taller than it actually is.



Later, I returned to Piazza del Campo to people-watch and get a bit of sun.


Next up: San Domenico, and a day trip to San Gimignano!