Italy – Florence To Pompeii

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In the last part, we covered our travels up to Pisa, the city of the famous Leaning Tower. From Pisa, we proceeded eastwards to Florence, which is considered as one of the top most artistic cities of the world. It is the city of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Giotto, Dante, Botticelli and other great artists. Their presence is all around in the form of marvelous paintings, sculptures and architecture.


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FLORENCE


Florence is in the middle of Italy, approx. 180 miles south of Milan and 170 miles north of Rome. It is the main city of the Tuscany region. The city has a very long history.  In 59 BC, the Romans founded the colony of Florentia. Over the many centuries, it was ruled by the Romans, the Medici family, the French, the Austrians. For a few years in the 1800s, it was the capital of Italy. Some of the important places we visited were the majestic Duomo built in 1296, Academy of Fine Arts where Michelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture of David stands and the Uffizzi Art gallery.


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THE CATHEDRAL OF DUOMO OF FLORENCE


The work on this Cathedral started in the 13th century and lasted for almost six centuries. The gigantic octagonal cupola (the dome) is very distinct and special and is a symbol of the entire Tuscany. It was created by Brunelleschi during the Renaissance period. It is approximately 142feet in diameter at the base and has eight sides and was built without scaffolding. It has a double cupola of brick, laid herringbone fashion and is over 300 feet high, a thickness of over 20 feet and is completely self-supporting. 


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THE CATHEDRAL OUTSIDE VIEW


This is a massive cathedral. The fa?ade of the Cathedral is very colorful with beautiful designs on red, green and white marble.


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PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA (TOWN SQUARE)


There are many beautiful fountains and sculptures all around this square. There is an excellent copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ here. The original ‘David’ is inside the Academy of Fine Arts (more information below). On one side stands the beautiful Palazzo Vecchio.  This was built as a Fortress – Palace for use by the elected members that ruled the Republic and later occupied by the Medicis.


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OUTSIDE THE UFFIZZI GALLERY


Very close to the Piazza Signoria is the world famous Uffizzi Art Gallery. Inside this Gallery contains the most famous collection of classic sculptures,  Renaissance arts and a great collection of Venetian and Flemish paintings. There are no photographs allowed inside and the lines to get in are very long. Being part of a good tour group, we had an easier entrance as well as once inside received excellent descriptions of the artworks. For all art lovers, this is a must see in Italy. During the time of our visit, one whole wing was dedicated to display the creations of Leonardo Da Vinci- his sculptures, paintings, writings, engineering models and human anatomical works. The genius of this man and his creations is simply one of a kind.


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PONTE VECCHIO, VIEW FROM THE UFFIZZI GALLERY


Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the Arno River, is the oldest bridge in Tuscany. It has existed in the same place since the Roman times. Inside is full of jewelry stores, leather stores and many other fine merchandise stores. Originally these types of covered bridges were built for the Medici family members to travel from one palace to another without exposure to the general public. A few lines about the Medicis…they were the nobility of Tuscany. Primarily, they were the bankers of Italy and a great business house. Some of them were married to the nobility in France and had strong connections with Popes in Rome. Some of the Medicis were elected as  Popes. In addition to being a powerful ruling family, they were great patrons of the art. They believed in the rebirth of learning in Europe and during their time, the Renaissance came into full bloom. The great artists of Florence such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello  flourished under their support and patronage. Lorenzo, the Magnificent, a Medici is the great benefactor of Michelangelo.


MICHELANGELOS DAVID
( No photography is allowed inside this museum)


After this we visited the Academy of Fine Arts, which is a separate building. There are may fine art works here; however, the primary purpose of the visit was to see  Michelangelo’s original "David". This is one among the most beautiful sculptures created ever. Michelangelo worked to perfection for more than three years to create this statue depicting the biblical hero, David, in the greatest moment of his life, the act of slaying the giant Goliath. This is David , portrayed before the battle. He is tense in the mental state but calm in exterior disposition, slingshot he carries over his shoulder is almost invisible emphasizing that the victory was one of a clever and well-prepared mind of David rather than brute force. He waits superbly prepared, well poised with a calm determined look, eagerly ready to engage the giant in combat at a moment’s notice. In this David, you can see the veins bulge out of his lowered right hand and the twist of the body conveying the moment that he is in motion and ready for action.   


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TUSCANY COUNTRYSIDE


From Florence, we continued our journey in the Tuscany region. The beauty of the Tuscany countryside is very well known. It is the region consisting of three important cities, Florence, Sienna and Pisa. Besides that there are numerous quaint, medieval cities on hilltops, still vibrant and living with the old world charm. The countryside is exquisitely beautiful. It is like watching a beautiful painting of natural landscapes. The picture above is taken from the moving bus and of course, with the window glass next to the lens, it is not that clear. Still, I think it gives a good sense for the surroundings – the waves of rolling hills, nicely laid out vineyards, lush green trees and dark, narrow tall cypress trees lining the distant horizon. In some other areas, the hills are sprinkled with medieval castles and farmhouses. We traveled through the Chianti wine region with miles and miles of vineyards and beautiful olive orchards. During the time we were there, the grape picking was over and they were getting ready to make the wines. Olive trees were full of olives and harvesting was supposed to have taken place in late October, just after our trip. There are many custom tours available in the region such as Tuscany cooking tour, Guided wine-tasting tours, Tours of the Etruscan( civilization that existed before the arrival of the Romans) artifacts, tombs, caves etc. We did not have the time to fit in these special tours. We proceeded to see the medieval walled city of San Gimignano.


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 STORE IN SAN GIMIGNANO


San Gimignano is a city on a Tuscany hilltop. It is about 35 miles south of Florence. The powerful families that controlled this region built the castle with fortress like walls and with lots of tall look out and fortification towers. Supposedly there were once 72 towers, now 14 remaining. Some tower houses are as tall as 150 feet high. The towers were considered as symbols of power and wealth. In medieval times this was an important stopping place for the pilgrims traveling from Rome to Florence and beyond. Now the city is full of beautiful gift shops containing many Italian handicrafts and other special items from around the world. Above is a picture of a Terra cotta (pottery) gift shop on the side of a cobblestone street inside the walled city.


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SIENA – PALIO GROUNDS


The distance from San Gimignano to Siena is short. Siena is considered as the best-preserved medieval city in all of Italy.  This city was a fierce rival of Florence for supremacy of the Tuscany. They fought many wars. Mostly the larger Florence won. Siena fell under the control of Medicis from Florence and stayed that way for many centuries. They controlled Siena but did not spend any resources for development, thus Siena remained frozen in time in the middle ages. Ironically, that is a gift to modern day travelers, to see a beautiful medieval city functioning with all the charm and grace of the ancient days. The picture above is that of Piazza del Campo, famous for the Palio horse-race. The race takes place twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th.  Thousands of people jam-pack the entire inside of the plaza. On the outer border is where the race takes place. This is a competition among the various groups of the city of Siena; which are known as the Contradas. People are highly loyal to their contradas or groups and the race is fought fiercely. The winner gets the medallion and the flag and get to display them in high places wherever they want during the year, kind of showing off who is supreme. This race has been going on each year for over four hundred years. This piazza is very well known for the beautiful layout, gently sloping grounds with numerous restaurants, gift shops and housing quarters. The color of the brick is striking; this is where the name of the color "Siena red" comes from. 


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SIENA – PAINTINGS INSIDE THE CATHEDRAL


The Cathedral (13th – 14th centuries) is also known as the Duomo of Siena. This Cathedral is among the highest artistic expressions of the late Middle Ages.  The outside built by Pisano is beautiful and includes impressive columns and spires. The real glory and artistic wealth belongs to the inside.   The two photographs, one above and one below this writing give a good example of these master works. The colors are crisp, clear and well balanced. Great artists from Siena during the 12th to 15th centuries, such as Pisano, Duccio, Lorenzetti  had a profound influence on the course of the Italian and the European art.


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SIENA – PAINTINGS INSIDE THE CATHEDRAL


Inside the Cathedral, there is a very special library of musical books. Some are illuminated for easier reading. Books themselves are precious. The frescoes and paintings surrounding the walls and covering the ceiling are truly outstanding as you can see from the above two pictures. They look fresh as if they were painted recently; the truth is they are 500 years old art work and never have been retouched or cleaned during this entire period.


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SIENA CATHEDRAL – MARBLE INLAY FLOOR


The floor of the Duomo has the most exquisite marble inlay that I have ever seen in my travels. This complex and challenging work started in the 14th century and was completed only in the 19th century.  Some of the scenes look like master works of painting. The characters depicted span the history of western civilization in its philosophical and religious high points, from pre Greek to Greek – Roman, Old Testament and New Testament. To me this floor looked similar to a most exquisite, rich and intricately designed tapestry laid out on the entire cathedral floor, except that this is made out of pure marble inlays rather that silk and wool. The floor is exhibited only from the end of August to the end of October. During the rest of the year, it stays covered to protect its original structure from the foot traffic and the wear of time. We happened to be there during the third week of October and were fortunate to see this magnificent art work. While traveling, as most of you travelers know, in some places the luck is on your side and you get to see some outstanding events, shows and art works and at some other times, it does not work that well. It happened to us in Florence, we wanted to see the inside of the Cathedral of Santa Croce, where Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini were laid to rest; however just before we reached the church, they had closed the doors and the next morning we were on our way to  Siena.


NAPLES


From Siena, we left for the Port City of Naples. Naples is the third largest city in Italy. The Greeks, after landing and staying in Sicily, moved northward and for a while settled in Naples. Its location as a port city in the Mediterranean was an ideal place to build a permanent settlement. From there, they moved onto Rome and later on it is the beginning of the Roman empire.


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NAPOLI HARBOR


Naples has a beautiful harbor. Traveling from the middle of Italy, seeing the hills, mountains, farmlands, vineyards, corn fields, stone quarries etc, and then all of a sudden looking at this Port city with major cruise ships docked in, is a memorable experience.  Now we are connected to the rest of the world. The renaissance towns, the medieval cities, quickly disappear from the active mind and the City on the Mediterranean takes over with its busy life and the panoramic vistas of the sea.


We stayed in Naples only for a few hours. We visited the main plaza which is enormous in size and is surrounded with grand structures. Naples is supposed to have tremendous amounts of great Italian restaurants, and is the birth place of pizza and pasta (actually, this is hard to judge, because this claim is made by other cities also).  


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VIEW ACROSS THE BAY OF NAPLES


There is a long public park all along the harbor.  The picture is taken from the Park looking across the blue waters of the Bay of Naples. Mt. Vesuvius is in the distant horizon.  Within a couple of days, we will go there to see the ruins of Pompeii.


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SORRENTO, BEGINNINGS OF THE AMALFI COAST


From Naples to Sorrento, it is only a couple of hours drive. However, suddenly the landscape changes. The road winds up and down on steep rocky cliffs dropping precipitously into the ocean. You kind of admire the sheer beauty of this steep coastline, while holding your breath, thinking of what, if?Fortunately we had a very experienced, professional bus driver who made us relax and enjoy the scenery.  Sorrento is at the beginning of the scenic and renowned Amalfi coast. Sorrento itself is a very popular vacation resort located over white steep cliffs. The view of the Bay of Naples is majestic – the deep blue waters with fishing boats and sailing ships with the skyline of the city of Naples at a distance. In a slightly another direction, you have the views of the towering Mt. Vesuvius. 


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SORRENTO   FOLKLORE MUSICAL


At night, we went to see a popular Sorrento Musical at the town center. It is a folklorio of local tales in songs and dances with colorful and festive costumes. Even though it was all in Italian, being a fun and entertainment show, we could all feel and follow the emotions, humor and the little stories that were part of this joyful production.  


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SORRENTO…CLIFF HUGGING BUILDINGS


Next day, some of the folks in our tour group decided to take a private tour of the Amalfi coast, going down to Positano and back. My wife and I and several others, decided to go and spend the day in the island of Capri. For that, we took a bus from our hilltop hotel to the Sorrento harbor and then a catamaran trip to the island. It is another memorable trip with beautiful panoramic vistas of the mountains, rocky cliffs of the coastline, skyline of Naples and deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.


ISLE OF CAPRI


The special beauty of this island need no explanation, just the few pictures that I have here, which is a small sampling, will convey the feel for this utterly magical island. This is a photographer’s paradise. 


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CAPRI


From Sorrento, our boat landed in the Marina Grade harbor in Capri. The town of Capri is in the eastern half of the island. We took a funicular to climb up on the steep hill and reached the town center. The center is full of nice restaurants and stores and from here we could take several scenic walks. From Capri, we took a small bus to go to Anacapri. This bus winds around the edges of the island with the views of the ocean below and climbs up to Anacapri at an elevation of almost 1000 feet. The beauty of this island is truly enchanting. Small picturesque villages, steep hills and cliffs, vineyards, olive groves and gardens and terraces over looking the deep blue waters.


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CAPRI..GARDENS


The diversity of flora in the island is astonishing. There are oranges, lemons, palm trees, banana type of trees and numerous types of bright flowers. We were surprised to see giant cactus trees growing on the side of the steep cobble stone streets as well as in formal gardens. There is a fantastic garden on top of the island, known as ‘Giardini Augusto’, a must visit place once you are in Capri. The temperature throughout the year is soft and mild, ranging from 45 degrees(FH) to 80 degrees(FH); that pleasant range must be one of the secrets for this vast treasure of floral diversity. And the constant moisture from the Mediterranean may be another factor.


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FAMOUS FARAGLIONI ROCKS


These two giant rock outcrops, jutting straight out of the ocean, standing in their erect positions, is a major symbol of Capri. In ancient times, the sailors used them for navigational purposes. The sighting of these two rock outcrops meant they were close to the coast of Naples and the main land. This area was also hit many times by the pirates. As a result, lots of the wealthy settlers moved to higher elevations. In one of the rocks, similar to the ones you see above, is a natural arch, where in a small boat, you can go under and to the other side. That is known as the ‘Blue Grotto’. The day when we visited Capri, they were not offering the trip. We heard it is due to the tide level, which does not allow for enough clearance. The water of the sea in general is very blue, but in the Blue Grotto, it is a very special deep blue. It is attributed to the reflection and refraction of lights from the ocean  as well as from the lime stone arches of the cave.


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ANACAPRI VILLAGE


Capri is a fairly small island, about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. A lot of the structures and living is on almost vertical surfaces, on cliffs, hillsides, rocky ledges, etc. If you include all that surface area, the inhabited area could be fairly large. The beauty of the island has captivated millions over thousands of years. Roman Caesars had their villas here. Now the rich, the movie stars and the artists make this their home.  We were told that the crowds in summer months are extremely large.


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THE RUINS OF POMPEII


Now it is time to go and see and explore the historic, ruined city of Pompeii. It is only about 15 miles from Sorrento. It was in 79AD, the volcanic mountain Mt. Vesuvius erupted and the molten lava flow and ashes buried a thriving city with everything in it. Almost 2500 people were buried by the explosion and the ensuing lava and the dust.  Pompei, frozen in time remains to tell the story of a wonderful civilization and masterful city planning. We saw the water systems (aqueducts that provided running water to the entire city), Roman baths, villas, temples, market places, stores, amphitheater and Grand amphitheater. 


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POMPEII WITH MT. VESUVIUS IN THE BACK


Mt. Vesuvius is only one of the two active volcanoes in Europe, the other one being Mt. Etna in Sicily. The mountain is almost 4,000 feet high and is like a towering giant watching over Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri and the entire region.  The huge eruption of 79AD buried the entire city with over 25 feet of volcanic dust and destroyed a thriving civilization. There were a few people who escaped death and lived to tell first hand the day of the historic destruction. Then, it was silent for the next 1500 years. The city remained buried and undisturbed under mountains of ashes and cinders and volcanic rocks. First excavation took place in 1748. The importance of the discovery became major news among archeologists and history scholars. Now, it is a great place to visit and learn about a civilization that existed 2000 years ago and to obtain more insights into Roman history.


In Part I and II of this series, we have traveled in many cities, and on many roads. Now, as the saying goes, "All roads lead to Rome", and that is our next destination, Rome, the Eternal City.


To be continued…

Author: J. M. Bhandary- USA


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