July 2, 2012

Baking Under The Tuscan Sun

From Rome we took a train north through the regions of Umbria and Tuscany to explore the hill towns of central Italy. It was hot and the sun was searing. Thank goodness for chilled white wine, gelato, and Italy’s ubiquitous water fountains – literally fountains from which you can drink the water.

To be honest, we struggled a bit with central Italy. I hate to sound negative because we would never want to discourage anyone from seeing it for themselves. We believe that our experiences in Florence and the sounding area had a lot to do with two variables very specific to our time there: (1) the heat and (2) reaching our saturation point with churches + art + church art.

That said, we got to traipse all over Tuscany and saw sites like this. We can not complain.

Here are our favorite memories…

We kicked things off with the ultimate Italian hill town, Civita di Bagnoregio. We’ve never seen anything like it before. It is an island in the air.

A long time ago the two towns of Civita and Bagnoregio were connected on a cliff. Over time the middle of the cliff eroded, and Civita was left stranded. Now it is only joined by a bridge for pedestrians and scooters. Civita is called “the dying village” because every year more and more of it wears away. Eventually Civita will be gone forever.

It’s really a shame because the village is so cute. It takes 5 minutes to walk from one end to the other...and by "end" I mean that you would fall off a cliff. Everyone who lives there seems to have a green thumb. It's probably because they have nothing better to do with their time.

Orvieto is a medium-sized hill town accessible by a shiny red funicular. It has ramparts reinforcing its cliff, which when lamp-lit at night, makes for a romantic little stroll.

Siena’s major piazza is an eccentric place.

The people there have some sort of delusion that they live at the beach. They lay out on the ground as if they’re on sand. Instead of the ocean, the piazza slants down towards their lopsided Town Hall.

My favorite fun fact about Siena is that the color of the “beach” and the Town Hall is how we get the color Burnt Sienna. I know my artist friends will appreciate that!

Twice a year Siena’s 17 different neighborhoods square off in an intense one-minute horse race around the piazza called the Palio. Each neighborhood has its own mascot, flag and coat of arms.

All of the streets are decorated with the neighborhoods’ colors and the town packs down dirt on the outer ring of the piazza to form the race course.

We just missed the race by four days. Dang it! But the course was set and the bleachers were going up. In fact in the days leading up to the Palio, the race course becomes a dining room for the nearby restaurants.

We first spotted a black-and-white striped church in Orvieto. We didn’t know it at the time, but these Candyland churches are ubiquitous north of Rome. Siena’s striped cathedral was draped in white, green, pink and gold on the outside and was even more dramatic on the inside. Every time I saw it, I could not help but sing, “We represent the lollipop guild…”

While Steve and I were inside the church, we looked across the pew aisle and spotted Joel McHale from The Soup! I am notoriously unlucky when it comes to celebrity sightings, so it just figures that I would need to come all the way to Italy for something like this to happen. We laughed that of all the celebrities we could have seen, Joel McHale might be the only one that Steve would actually be able to appreciate.

Next up was the Renaissance-dripping capital of Tuscany, Florence.

The city is much smaller than we expected, and so for the first time in 5 months, we actually felt like we were in a place for TOO long!

I am sure there will be people who disagree, but for us personally, Florence was a bit overrated. Maybe if you are on a two-week vacation it would be a breath of fresh air. We are going on 5 months of churches, cathedrals, basilicas, baptisteries, alter screens, pulpits and loads and loads of religious paintings to boot. We were just all worn out from the art.

That said, we did have two really nice artsy moments in Florence….

Michelangelo’s David – before laying eyes on this oh-so famous Renaissance relic, I thought to myself, “How good could one marble statue really be?” David does not disappoint.

Representing David from the Bible story of David and Goliath, he originally adorned Florence’s major outdoor piazza. Since 1873 he has been safely tucked away in Florence’s Academia Museum in a room built specifically for him. It’s funny to think that museums even existed in 1873.

When you round the corner, your instant reaction is to his size…14 feet tall. He is clean, shiny and lit flawlessly with natural light from above. His eyes and his facial expression are just perfection…his mood changing depending on the angle you view him from. I liked him so much that I barely even cared that Florence pimps fake Davids throughout the city.

Duomo Concerts – we happened to be in town over the weekend when the Florence Opera House was putting on an outdoor concert. On both Friday and Saturday night we got to see these wonderful musicians and singers perform under the watchful eye of Florence’s famous Duomo.

Heading north from Florence, the old town of Lucca is still completely surrounded by its defensive walls. These aren’t fairytale walls like in Avila, Spain. On the contrary they are short, wide and ugly…built to withstand cannonball attacks. What makes these walls unique is that after their military use declined, Napoleon’s widow turned them into a city park. Now the townspeople use them to enjoy a run or bike ride set above the city. 

The grand finale of our time in central Italy was Pisa and its leaning tower. We were surprised how attached we became to this silly tourist trap, but we absolutely loved it!

When you first see the tower, it’s smaller than you’d expect. It was recently cleaned and is gleaming white. Of course it was no surprise that it was leaning, but wow, that thing really leans…15 feet left of center.

We were interested to learn that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually just one part of a larger complex called The Field of Miracles – made up of a church, bell tower, baptistery and cemetery. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually the church's bell tower!

For our last night in central Italy, we got a pizza and spent it picnicking on the Field of Miracles under the tower. For as touristy as it was, the Leaning Tower of Pisa will go down as one of our favorite memories in Italy. I liken it to Mount Rushmore. It's one of those quirky yet iconic places that you've always wanted to go to, but you never think you'll actually make it. When you finally get there, you feel like a kid again. 

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