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.

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