1. - 5. Florence is stunningly beautiful. We were thrilled to arrive. These shots show Florence from the Boboli Gardens (Duomo in the distance), Chris on the north side of the Arno, the south side of the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio, and the tower by the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is always crowded. I can't imagine what it's like in July or August.
6. - 7. The Duomo, massive and in the middle of Old Florence. Brunelleschi's dome on the top, matched only by St. Peter's in Rome (but not bettered, as Michelangelo noted). Next to the Duomo is the Baptistery, where Ghiberti's famous door hangs.
8. - 10. A note to explain the pictures above. Chris and I managed to get into the Duomo for Easter services. We eluded the gigantic crowd at the front of the Duomo, and went in the side door. We got great seats for both the Colombo and the following Mass. The Colombo is this old (cough, cough, pagan, cough) ritual, in which a mechanical dove (or colombo) "flies" from a central post in the cathedral to this gigantic cart outside, does a U-turn, and then returns to the post. If it does this successfully, it is said by the farmers that the crops will be good this year. The huge cart that is shown in the first picture is drawn by mules or oxen or something, and wobbles up to the square, where most people are gathered. After the dove makes its lightning-fast trip, this cart shoots off an astounding amont of fireworks and sparklers. (He is risen, indeed!) These pictures show the cart waiting outisde, the priests parading in in traditional Florentine regalia, and then the beginning of the explosions.
One more note. Before this all happened, a very gentle, old priest came up to us and greeted us in Italian. We talked in a mixture of Italian and English to this beatific man, and then he pulled the whopper on us. After we agreed that yes, of course we would stay for Mass after the Colombo, he asked us if we would help him with the offering! Long story short, after the homily, Chris and I found ourselves in the sacristy being handed baskets to go and get the money from the people. Feeling like a three-time imposter (not Italian, not catholic, no experience), I shuffled out to learn on the job. Chris and I had some minor bungles that resulted in people coming after us to give us money, but we got the job done. After returning to the sacristy with the goods, we fled the Duomo. Buona Pascua!
11. - 13. Touring the beautiful Boboli Gardens.
14. - 15. The Uffizi. Packed with flavor. Chris' favorite was Da Vinci's Assumption. My favorite was Michelangelo's Holy Family, which shows that he was way ahead of almost all the other artists in the early Renaissance. His colors were just amazing, and were really on display here. He really combined the best of the Venetian and Florentine traditions.
16. St. Peter's and Rome in the distance, from the cupola.
17. On the way up to the cupola, you could look in and see the double dome construction, which support each other. Michelangelo got this tip from Brunelleschi's Florence Duomo, who in turn figured it out from ancient excavations.
18. - 20. Baroque and Rococo madness, but beautiful. St. Andrew and the cross, and Michelangelo's Pieta. He did this when he was only about 25 years old.
We also went to the Vatican Museum and saw the Sistine Chapel, which is astounding to see in person. We spent an hour to two hours gawking at it. Apparently, as the story goes, some folks were actually trying to knock Michelangelo down to size, and got the Pope to ask him to do the Chapel's ceiling. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Michelangelo was an incredible sculptor but not such an amazing painter. His rivals were looking forward to his failure or mild success at this arduous task. When Michelangelo finally accepted the Pope's request, he kicked almost everyone out for three years while he worked on the frescoes. Starting at only age 32, he emerged with a masterpiece that was the highpoint of the Renaissance and started to usher in the Baroque. OK, I know this sounds like a pamphlet, but the Chapel is tremendous to see. It is unlike anything that came before it, in its use of color, power, form, and storytelling. It is majestic and uplifting, unlike his adjacent Last Judgement, which is a little overdone (to me) and much more depressing. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures.
21. We never, well rarely, ate at these. OK, just a few times. Any port in a storm, as they say....
22. - 23. The Pantheon. 2000 years old, and the dome and occulus are still standing today. When we went in, there was an orchestra playing.
24. One of the many obelisks throughout Rome, celebrating ancient conquests.
25. - 26. The Coliseum.
27. - 28. Some of the amazing ruins we saw in the Forum. Those single-piece pillars are enormous.
29. Letting off steam outside Vatican City. We tried to go see this and instead ended up at the Passion of the Christ.
From Rome, we went back to Florence briefly, where Caroline joined us! The three of us then trained out to the small town of Castlenuovo di Garfargnana. Eighteen of us (!) stayed at an agriturismo (old farmhouse) outside of town. It was wonderful seeing my extended family.
30. - 31. The Azienda.
32. - 33. Views from the walk down to the nearest town, Riana.
34. - 35. Interesting signs from the neighborhood! The first one shows that the Azienda, with swimming pool, is to the left, but one should be aware of falling rocks, swerving cars, and snow. Interesting! The second helpfully tells you to be aware of exploding mines. Very helpful!
36. - 37. Steve and John! Chris, Caroline, Sophie, and Lucy in Cinque Terra.
38. - 39. Young love! Pop and Dianne at this great playground we found (near the town, currently submerged thanks to the local dam, that they expose every five years when they drain the water), and then again in Cinque Terra.
40. - 41. Terri, Rick, Pop, Dianne in Cinque Terra. Caroline is excited to have spent 16 Euros on an umbrella, and even more excited about carrying it back to the U.S. as carry-on luggage!
42. - 43. View of two Cinque Terra towns, from the path (to Vernazza?). Sunset at the train station after a great day.
44. - 45. Clowning around in Castlenuovo, and riding bikes in Lucca.
46. - 47. More clowning around (did I mention the excellent homemade grappa in Castlenuovo?). Il Duce.
48. - 49. Castlenuovo and the surrounding area was gorgeous. And the dinners were even better.
A little sad, but very relaxed, we all parted ways from Castlenuovo and the Azienda Vallechia. Caroline flew back to the U.S. from Florence, and Chris and went to Venice for a couple of days on our way back to London, and then home. Florence is incredibly beautiful, but Venice is magical, even with all the tourists.
50. - 51. Venice is St. Mark's town, and the lions are everywhere. So are the gondolas!
52. - 53. Just another magical day in Venice....
54. - 55. St. Mark's square and basilica. The golden domes inside seem to glow. This (mosaic?) is of the Pentecost. It's interesting to note that the Byzantine theme extends to the construction of St. Mark's, which is designed as a Greek Orthodox-style cross. In general, the whole feeling is much more of Christ triumphant than of Christ's crucifixion. Lots of lions, and many reliquaries (including St. Mark's body, a piece of the cross, and the crown of thorns, supposedly.)
56. - 57. More palazzi.
58. "Get the troops out of Iraq NOW." More protests, anticipating May Day.
59. Chris has always had a way with animals....
60. I can't wait to come back to Venice, or anywhere else in Italy!
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