Sunday, May 6, 2012

Italy Part 1 - Tuscany

The official Tuscan greeter.  

We traveled to Italy for Grant's Easter break.  Since we were venturing to one of the most Catholic nations in the world during one of the most important religious holidays, we opted to spend Easter weekend in the Tuscan countryside.  For the next three days we drove around Tuscany - enjoying the beautiful hills, visiting old hilltop towns and fortresses, eating pasta and, unfortunately, getting wet in the rain.

The view in the back of our hotel
An olive oil press at our hotel

We started the trip by landing in Florence, where we skipped seeing Michelangelo's David, the Duomo and the millions of tourists.  Rather we drove to the small town of San Gimignano.  Besides having a name that is difficult to pronounce, San Gimignano is a small hill town with seven medieval towers.  At one time the town had over 70 of these towers which were used for defense and to boast of wealth.

Several of the seven remaining towers

View of the Tuscan landscape

The amount of history is incredible -- every building is old and they all have frescoes

They're leaning on a handrail not a bar

Typical medieval town street

We liked the windows on this building

Interior courtyard with and old well
We also visited Siena, a much larger city but still very well-preserved.  The Duomo, built in the 13 and 14th centuries, is said to be one of the best in Italy.  Beneath the Duomo is a crypt, that was forgotten and hidden for over 700 years until it was re-discovered in the early 2000's. Siena also has a huge town square, or piazza, but it was cold and windy so our visit was short.

The Duomo, or cathedral

One of the altars decorated for Easter

The black and white striping is somewhat unique.

The front entrance is extremely ornate 

There were no signs explaining what this music was, but it looked very old and very interesting. 

Close up of the facade. 

The oldest stained glass in Italy, finished in 1288.  

The tile floors took 40 artists over 200 years to complete.  
Twice a year there is a horserace around the Piazza del Campo.  The race was first held in 1310 and it is described as "raw and arbitrary".  Horses are chosen at random 3 days before the race.  There is not enough room for the 10 horses so falls and collisions are inevitable.  Jockeys ride bareback and are mercenaries from surrounding towns.  
Another view of the Piazza del Campo

In Radda we toured the Badia a Colitbuono, or Abbey of the Good Harvest.  Monks have made wine there since the 1100's and did so until Napoleon shut it down in 1810.  The Abbey has been in the same family since the mid 1800's and they sell wine, olive oil and honey that they make.  We discovered that it's very cheap to ship wine within Europe so we bought a case.  

Badia a Colitbuono

The grounds included a cedar tree with trunk with a circumference of 7 meters making it one of Tuscan's "monumental" trees.  

We were too early for most of the flowers

The Abbey had an antique grain cleaner based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci.  

The Abbey's wine cellar had wine from the 30's on, all sorted by year.  These bottles were from the year of my birth and look to be in about the same condition as I am.  

The current owners converted the crypt to a wine aging room to take advantage of the constant cool temperature.  There are over 100 of these barrels.

This wall "safe" was where the monks stored their salt.

Frescoes inside the Abbey meeting room.  

An interesting fresco at the abbey...a monk holding a skull  

An old building in Volpala, a town of about 100 people at the top of a hill.  There were hundreds of little towns just like this one.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Happy Birthday, Queen Beatrix....a little late

Monday was Queen's Day in The Netherlands, a national holiday with schools and offices closed.  It is a celebration of the Queen's birthday, but it's a little more complicated than that.

As you might expect, Queen's Day actually began as Princess's Day in 1885 to celebrate the birthday of Princess Wilhelmina on August 31.  It started as a holiday to promote national unity and the Princess was chosen as the celebrant since her father the king was fairly unpopular.  When she ascended to the throne several years later the holiday was renamed Queen's Day.  

In 1948 when Juliana took the throne the holiday was moved to her birthday, April 30.  But in 1980 when  the present Queen, Beatrix, ascended to the throne she elected to retain the holiday on her mother's birthday.  The official reason was to honor her mother.  The unofficial reason was that Beatrix was born in January and a holiday in Holland in January that doesn't involve ice skating would be a waste of a day off.  

More questions will arise when Queen Beatrix's son, Willem-Alexander becomes king.  He was born on April 27 so the date probably won't change.  But will it be called King's Day?   The Royal Family celebrates by visiting two towns each year to join in the local festivities.  Veenendaal was one of the towns they visited this year -- you'll recall that is Joan's ancestral home.  Too bad Don and Joan didn't visit us this year; they could have seen the Queen.  

Queen's Day continues to be a day of national unity.  As a show of pride, everyone wears orange, lots of orange.  Readers may be surprised to know that I had to choose between 3 different orange shirts that I own.  And none of them were t-shirts.  Queen's Day is also known as vrijmarkt dag, or free market day.  You are allowed to sell second hand items anywhere without a permit.  This is especially encouraged among children.  As a result kids line the downtown streets, throwing down a blanket to display their wares for sale.  It is one huge garage sale all day. This is also accompanied by lots of food stands, drinks and live music.  So it's a garage sale and party combined into one.  No wonder it's so popular.

This is the end of the garage sale in Wassenaar.  Hard to believe that Lori and I didn't arrive sooner.  

This swan's nest is along the bike path into town.  As you may know, swans mate for life and the male shares in duties of incubating the egg.  

Swans are extremely protective of their nest.  It didn't take this one long to come after us when we were taking pictures.  According to Wikipedia, a swan attack several years ago caused a man to drown.  

After a short stop at the town garage sale we biked around some nearby flower fields.  

If you look closely you can see some yellow tulips among the pink ones.  Kind of like volunteer corn in the soybeans.