The Grand Journey – Touring Tuscany

My cruise posts aren’t over yet. Editing photos and writing up these posts is time consuming and I’ve been too busy to keep up.

So we’re going way back to Sunday, Nov. 17 and our stop in Livorno, Italy. The most popular excursions from this port go to Florence. We really wrestled with our decision on this one but chose to go to Tuscany. As I thought about it, I was only really considering Florence because I felt an obligation to go since other people said I should. I may give in to that in real life but not on vacation.

san gimignano in the distance

Our tour started in the medieval town of San Gimignano or St. Jimmy-John’s if you’re asking Mr. McB. It is that collection of distant towers in the photo above.

tuscitywallSan Gimignano’s trade came from wine, cloth, and saffron. During the middle ages, there were 10,000-12,000 residents; there are 1,400 now.

San Gimignano is known for its tower houses. In its heyday, there were more than 70 within the city walls. These were constructed with one room stacked on top of another. Workshops were located on the ground floor and living areas were on the the floors above. The levels were connected by moveable ladders instead of stairs for security purposes. The kitchen was located on the highest floor making it easier to escape in case of fire.

tustower1As with modern skyscrapers, the height of your tower was a direct indication of the size of your bank account. The highest tower was said to be about 50 meters or 164 feet tall.

tustwintowersWhen the Palazzo Comunale, or town hall, was constructed, there was a rule stating that no tower could be taller than the town’s tower. Officials removed parts of some structures to ensure that the rule was obeyed. The powerful Salvucci family got inventive and decided to create twin towers. Neither tower was taller than the town hall, yet their combined height would dwarf the municipal building.

tustower2San Gimignano was a popular stop for pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena between Canterbury, England and Rome. The city was very prosperous between 1199 and 1353 but then it fell to the Florentines. In a show of power, they destroyed many of the towers and only 14 remain today.

The town is more than just towers though. It is full of many lovely sites including the quaint Piazza della Cisterna. The well is made of travertine. It was originally installed in 1273 and enlarged in 1346. Guccio dei Malavolti, the craftsman who enlarged the well, left his insignia on the side. See the ladder in the picture below?

tuswhellSan Gimignano is also the site of the Basilica Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta.
This duomo is rather modest from the outside but we heard the inside is very striking and features black-and-white marble arches and vaults. There are also a number of impressive frescoes. It was Sunday, so we could not go in. We could see the procession of tractors and other farm implements that were going to be part of the harvest blessing at the church.

tustractorThis was shot as we walked into town.

tustractorblessingThis one was in front of the church. It was nice to get a glimpse into the traditions of this little town.

While the paintings inside the church were off-limits, we were able to see some frescoes in the courtyard of the Palazzo Comunale.

tusmural2Painted in 1507 by Giovanni Sodoma, this is St. Ives Administering Justice. On the right side, the rich folks are trying to offer bribes but virtuous St. Ives has barred the door. He is interested in handing out real justice not being a puppet of the powerful.

tusmural1This is another mural in the courtyard. This one was painted in 1370. You can see San Gimignano in the hands of the figure on the left side.

We also did a little shopping. Our niece asked us to bring back a jewelry box. This seemed like a simple request but we were disappointed with the choices up to that point. Thankfully, San Gimignano came through for us in a big way and we found the perfect box. It was made from Carrara marble from a nearby mountain. It was a very elegant (and heavy) piece.

tusdoorwayBuilding in San Gimignano

gate in san gimignanoAnother shot of the gate

tuswarmemorialThis is a memorial to soldiers from WWI.

We were soon back on the bus. On our way to Siena, the driver stopped to allow us to take some landscape photos and check out some of the olive trees that were almost ready for harvest.

tusvineyardtusolivetuscanySiena is yet another medieval town. Today, the city is known for its horse race called the Palio. While the Palio’s roots stretch back to the 6th century, some will recognize it as the horse race in Quantum of Solace.

tuscsquareThis is the Piazza del Campo where the race takes place twice each year. The spectators are in the middle and the horses race around the on the black stones.

tuscbalconyThe buildings in the square also have little balconies that are very popular during the race.

The race is an opportunity for Siena’s various districts known as Contrade to compete for civic pride. The city has 17 Contrade that are represented by animals or other natural symbols. These are difficult to miss as you walk around the city.

tuspalhorseThis is found on a building in the Contrada of Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram). Traditionally, the inhabitants of this neighborhood were tailors.

tusctwocontradaThis is the intersection of Aquila (eagle, one of the four noble Contrade) and Selva

            We saw the goose, the symbol of the Oca Contrada, everywhere.

tuscgooseflag
tuscgoosecontradaThis is another noble Contrada. It was also one of the two Contrade that won a Palio in 2013. As winners, they are eligible to hang and burn the celebratory lights you’ll see below.

tuscgooselamp The residents of Selva just celebrated their big feast so they were also allowed to hang their celebratory lanterns though only for a few days. If you look carefully, you can see the differences between the lamps. The ones below are decorated as branches with leaves. Selva is the forest so this is very logical.

tuscfeastlampsVisit http://www.ocaioloextramoenia.it/Palio/contrade.htm for more on the Contrade. Click “English” beside each link for translations.

Siena is also known for its duomo built between 1215 and 1263. Much of the decorative facade was added later. The mosaics came in the 19th century.

tuscsienacathedraltusccath2tuscsienacathcloseThe marble church is a fantastic representation of Italian Gothic style. It is almost too much to take in at once. There are so many decorative elements. I’ve seen it before and it was just as stunning the second time around. I wish we could have gone inside to see the black-and-white pillars and ornate decorations. As it was, there was still more of the church to see from the outside.

tuscathedralsideThis is the cathedral’s bell tower or campanile. It was added in the early 1300’s and matches the rest of the church very well. The black-and-white color combination is popular in the city and is said to represent the horses of its legendary co-founders Senius and Aschius.

As majestic and large as the church is today, there were plans to make the duomo larger than St. Peter’s in Rome. Due to missteps in the construction followed quickly by the Black Plaque, the expansion never occurred. Visitors can still see some of the remnants of the attempt.

tuscwalltuscbuckleIf you look closely, you will see that the top part of the column juts out a bit and there is some buckling due to the weight of the roof.

Our tour of the city also included a stop to see San Domenico, a church devoted to Saint Catherine. Our guide said that the color of the church is the inspiration for the “Burnt Sienna” Crayola crayon.

tuscstcatherineCatherine is credited for bringing the pope back to Rome from Avignon, France. One of 22 children, she lived a very interesting life. You can read more here and here. Her skull is displayed in a reliquary inside the church. While I feel sad about missing the interior of the other churches we visited that day, missing the skull didn’t bother me.

Walking away from austerity and vows of poverty, we made our way to Palazzo Tantucci which is held by Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world.

tuscoldesbankThis is just one of the three palazzi belonging to the bank.tuscbankdoorIt’s a bit more elegant than my local branch of BB&T, that’s for sure.

We had a little bit of time to wander around on our own before it was time to meet back up in the Piazza del Campo.

tuscsinstreetI spotted these fuzzy Christmas decorations,
tuscchristmasthis statue,
tuscsculptureand this one.
tuscmamaShe looks forlorn. Can you blame her with all those kids and all that bird poop?

We made it back to the square just as the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. It was still overcast but there is no rain obscuring my photo of the town hall or Palazzo Pubblico. Visitors can go to the top of the tower but we didn’t make it during our visit. It’s a reason to go back, right?

tusstowertuscfountainIt took eight years for workers to bring water to Piazza del Campo. This accomplishment was celebrated with the creation of the Fonte Gaia which is loosely translated to mean joyful fountain. The figures were created by Jacopo della Quercia.

tuscsienatuscmichaelMr. McB and I pondered the day in our own way.

tuscangelasitting My grandfather was a brick mason. He loved looking at the way things were constructed and could often tell you about the weather and other conditions when the work was done. I thought of him many times during our visit to the Colosseum and our time in Tuscany. There are so many bricks. He would love to see all of this architecture. Some how just sitting there and literally soaking up the heat from the bricks, I felt close to him.

It was a great day in Tuscany. Next time we’ll do Florence, Pisa, or maybe both.

 

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The Grand Adventure Continues – Palermo

After visiting the cathedrals in Palermo and Monreale, I returned to the port and then sat out to meet Mr. McB for lunch in Palermo.

On my way to our meeting point, I walked past the Teatro Politeama. Initial construction on this theatre was finished in 1874 with the roof being added around 1890. The bronze chariot is driven by characters meant to represent the artistic talents. The building’s ochre exterior is reminiscent of ancient constructions.

teatro politeama
I met Mr. McB outside the Teatro Massimo. This opera house is the largest in Italy and is the third-largest in Europe. Does it look familiar? Yes, this is the site of the opera house scenes in The Godfather III. On the day of our visit, many of the students who participated in the general strike were milling about smoking and talking. There were also a number of vendors trying to sell flowers and umbrellas.

teatro massimoAfter meeting up, we briefly considered our options and decided on a nearby pizzeria. Ristorante al 59 is the kind of place that is popular with tour groups because it is very approachable and has a little personality. It also has free WiFi but McB and I got to talking and totally forgot to take advantage of this. The bathrooms are also quite clean.

2ristorante59We enjoyed pizza bianca or white pizza. It was very tasty with a crispy crust and quality cheese. Just like every other sit-down restaurant in Italy, and most of Europe for that matter, you are not going to hurry through lunch. The service is good but European. If you want to make a quick getaway, you will need to communicate that with your waiter.

2pizzabiancoAfter lunch, Mr. McB decided to go back to the ship while I still had more exploring to do. I made it back by the Quattro Canti for another look.

quattro canti I took a quick left and ended up at Fontana Pretoria. Our pre-trip research warned us that this racy fountain caused quite the stir back in its day thanks to all the nude figures.

2palmafountainbwThe enormous fountain was originally housed at a Medici villa and was later sold to the Senate of Palermo and moved. Buildings were demolished to make way for this installation.

2nakedfountainpalermo2nakedfountain3The “fountain of shame” is located very close to a police station. It’s a bit comical to see those saucy nudes so close the the officers of the law.

2nakedfountain22cherubThis little cherub stands on the outer edge of the fountain. Can you see the trinacria on the disc above his head?

The statue below is the only one in the whole area wearing clothes. He seems a bit disgusted by all the nudists behind him, doesn’t he?

2clothedfountain
The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio or San Nicolò dei Greci, commonly called the Martorana is located near the fountain. The church’s foundation charter is in Greek and Arabic and dates to 1143. Just like Monreale, the church’s architecture shows a strong Islamic influence.

2churchesHaving seen interior photos since our trip, I’m sad that I didn’t take time to go inside. Oh well, there were other things to see.

2palmermobuildingsWhile the rain and fatigue kept me from walking toward the Norman palace and other sites, I did take my own sweet time heading back to the ship. I wanted to get a feel for the city.

2buildingpalermo

2statue2carriageForget a tour bus, this tour carriage seemed to be the way to go.

2gatesFriday afternoon traffic was picking up and my body was ready for a sit so I walked toward the water by the Porta Felice.

2marinaLittle boats

2ourshipMy boat

We were on the port side of the ship which just happened to be facing what looked like grain silos. After relaxing in our cabin, we went out to the sun deck to take some final afternoon shots of Palermo.

2cityWe had reservations for Jacques, the ship’s French restaurant but neither of us was in the mood to have a four-course meal at 8:30 so we went to the other extreme and ordered room service which meant a four-course meal in pajamas on our couch at 6. It was a really nice change of pace. I recommend taking advantage of room service if you are feeling a little “eh” and just need something low key.

2portCiao Palermo!

2screenRome, here we come!

Grand Journey – Our Day at Sea

With 483 nautical miles between Palma and our next stop in Trapani (Sicily), we spent the fourth day of our cruise on the high seas.

While I wouldn’t want too many sea days on a cruise, they do provide a chance to explore the ship and rest. The shore excursions can be grueling and a day on the ship means setting your own pace.

We slept in a little and woke to see gray skies. Later, there were low clouds with an odd yellowy tinge. Soon we were sailing in the middle of a rain storm. Mr. McB and I stood out on the veranda and watched it for quite some time. It was very interesting and we’re easily entertained. As the rain slowed a bit, we spotted the rainbow that appeared just outside.

sea_rainbowI will admit to boosting the color in Photoshop but this is pretty close to what we saw with the naked eye.

We spent the morning hanging out in the lounge chairs by the pool. It was a little cool to be in the pool but lounging around and reading was definitely in order.

sea_pooldeckBy lunch, the sun was shining so we found a spot on the Terrace Cafe’s outdoor dining area on the stern of the ship and enjoyed the view of the sparkling blue Mediterranean.

We took afternoon tea at 4 p.m. Sadly, I had the zoom lens on my camera so there are no shots of the white-glove service or the delicious praline cakes. There will be some high tea shots from later in the trip just not from this particular day. The whole experience was lovely and very civilized. A string quartet plays as you relax with tea and enjoy countless treats. We had scones with clotted cream and felt very proper.

oceania tea service at seaThis server is taking away some of the many used tea pots and plates. You can’t see it but he has just descended a spiral staircase carrying all that china. I admire his poise and balance.

sea_mjmMr. McB is enjoying the sunset and waiting to snap a few shots.

As you’ll see, the clouds and rain did lead to a gorgeous sunset.

sun set on the med

sea_sunset2

sea_sunset3After watching the sunset, we enjoyed dinner in the Grand Dining Room. Mr. McB had Jacques Pepin’s steak frites (steak and fries) and thought it was delicious. He finished his meal with the Canyon Ranch creme brulee and decreed that it was very tasty despite the fact that it was a diet version of the classic dessert. I had escargot; it was so delicious, someone could have easily lost a finger had they tried to sneak one of my snails. I also had the eggplant rolls and a gorgeous fruit tart with shortbread crust. The meal was lovely and I’m sorry that there are no photos to share. My taste buds are sorry I can’t easily whip up something like this right now.

I leave you with this sneak peek of Trapani. My post about the stop is going to be delayed but you can read Mr. McB’s recap of our excursion to Erice and time in Trapani.

sea_sneak

 

Traveling Thursday – Drive safely

For many, summer vacation involves driving. Here are a few tips and tricks to make your journey as safe as possible.

  • Make sure your tires are properly inflated. Both under-and-over inflated tires can cause you trouble so use the tire gauge to ensure that your tires are at the proper pressure. Check your tire pressure before you start driving. The recommended tire pressure for your vehicle should be listed in the driver’s side door, on the glove box door, or in the owner’s manual. Don’t confuse the recommended pressure with the maximum pressure that is stamped on the tire itself.
  • Don’t skimp on service! Regular oil changes are even more important in the heat of summer when your engine needs even more lubrication. If your summer routine involves pulling a boat or other equipment, ask your mechanic if you should switch to a more viscous oil.
  • Just as you are taking precautions to keep yourself hydrated, make sure your automobile’s fluids (coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid, windshield washer fluid) are at proper levels.
  • If your vacation takes you to the mountains, consider downshifting instead of riding your brakes down a hill.
  • Keep an eye on your temperature gauge. If you start to overheat, try turning the heat on in your car. This should bring the temperature down a bit. If you have to stop to cool the engine down, remember that you should wait a bit before opening the hood.
  • Check out your wipers and replace if needed. Sun and heat can cause your windshield wipers to wear faster.
  • Check out the air conditioner. Not only will you get uncomfortable if the air conditioning goes out, but may also lose other important engine systems.
  • If you are taking a long drive or heading to a sparsely populated area, consider packing a gallon of water, extra coolant and oil. These items may come in handy during your travels.
  • Remember that there are areas were the GPS doesn’t get a signal. Buy an atlas or print your Google map as a backup.
  • For driver safety, be sure to take routine breaks. I know someone who drove so long that when he got out of the car, his legs locked up and he fell hard in parking lot. He always thought I was a wimp for taking breaks to stop and stretch my legs but that changed after he bloodied his knees. Be kind to your body and plan to stop about every two-hours or 100 miles.
  • Don’t drive when you are sleepy. Drowsy driving can cause accidents. Pull over at a rest area to take a cat nap or treat yourself to a night in a hotel. Check for coupon books at interstate rest stops to bring the cost down.

Traveling Thursday – State Department Resources

Most of us do a great deal of research before traveling, especially when international destinations are involved. The State Department’s website offers useful resources to aid those traveling abroad.

You can find fact sheets on every country in the world on the State Department’s site. These pages offer valuable information about destinations including brief descriptions of the country, consulate locations, entry requirements for US citizens, safety tips, accessibility guides for disabled travelers, health information and even information on how the FAA views the country’s aviation safety. Whether you are still deciding on your destination or studying up before you leave, these pages are very helpful for travelers. In addition, there is information concerning current travel warnings.

In another section, the State Department seeks to answer all of the gnawing, negative “what if’s” in this section about emergencies abroad. It’s great to know that there is help if you lose your passport, fall victim to a crime, get arrested or face another crisis. While it’s not necessary to memorize all of this information, it’s not a bad idea to take down the emergency numbers that are listed on the page. For assistance for US Citizens traveling abroad, dial 1-888-407-4747 (from within the US) or 1202-501-4444 (from outside the US).

There are also general tips for staying safe and healthy during your travels and even a specific section for those making the Hajj.

Finally, the best resource on this site is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP is the system that allows you to register details about your international travels with the government. Why would you want to do that? In the event of a natural disaster or uprising, you want the U.S. embassy/consulate to have your information so they can help you and/or communicate with your loved ones. This is a great service and one that everyone should take advantage of. If you are traveling on a group tour, ask your operator if they have already registered you for STEP or if you should do it on your own.

I hope you’ll take advantage of the State Department’s site before planning your next international journey.