Posts Tagged ‘Travel in Italy’

I am an incomplete paraplaegic, injured at T7/T8. I walk short distance with crutches, can climb steps (but i need assistance if they are high), and my wheelchair has hooks to carry my crutches when I am not using them. I am a 57year old woman living in New Zealand. I am very fit and my upper body is strong. I write this so my comments can be put in context. If you want to know more, read the tab “About Me”

Useful Information:
If you are driving in Italy take your disability parking permit with you. You will be able to park free on the street or in a parking building. You may need to produce photo identification showing the disability or handicap symbol when you use a parking building. In some parks you will need to get your parking chit validated. Italy is trying to cut down on white collar crime so you will nearly always be given a ticket (for parking or for entry to an attraction) that has to be validated. If all the designated parking for the disabled is being used you can use other parks for free. The only parking places to avoid are those disabled parks that have a number because they are assigned to a specific person.

Cities and towns in Italy offer people with disabilities and a companion free entry to all civic and state owned attractions. Many privately owned attractions offer free or discounted entry to people with disabilities. 

People with disabilities do not need to queue for tickets to attractions but can go straight to the ticket office. I suggest either getting the attention of a security guard or going to the ticket office for tour groups and people with reserved tickets. You may need to produce photo identification showing the disability or handicap symbol. I used a New Zealand Operation Mobility Card, some countries have parking permits with ID, otherwise I suggest a letter from your doctor with an Italian translation.

Many hotels, motels and hostels have rooms that are modified for use by people with disabilities. These are usually on the ground floor because even if the building has a lift it often won’t fit a wheelchair in. Contact accommodation directly and be careful to clearly and precisely specify your needs.

It can be difficult to visit towns in Italy because the roads are cobbled, and often steep. However, if you are prepared to have a helper, it is well worth the effort and inconvenience. Also, if you are prepared to accept the help of strangers and explain how they may help, Italians  will go out of their way to help and leave your dignity intact. You don’t have to speak Italian. Body language works, and if you speak English, most Italians understand you well enough.

I visited the following towns in August/September 2012. They are in Umbria and Tuscany (although Tivoli us in Lazio, an hours drive from Rome) Here are my comments on accessibility.

The Hotel OC Villa Adriana has a ground level room with excellent facilities for people confined to a wheelchair. The hotel had a half price special and the room cost us 48euro a night, including breakfast. It is three star plus quality. The staff were extremely helpful and understood my mobility needs. 

The receptionist booked a golf cart to carry me and my husband around the Villa d’Este, a terraced garden with hundreds of fountains. The cart and entry was free.

I visited Hadrian’s Villa. Not all of the grounds are accessible by wheelchair, but the Canopus Pool and other great places are. I can walk with crutches, so I took my wheelchair and crutches and managed to see the entire area. There is an accessible toilet at the main entrance. The attendant has the key.

Old Tivoli is on a steep hill. It could be negotiated in a wheelchair but only with a strong helper to help push up hill on lightly cobbled roads. I walked  down, then up again using crutches. 

The restaurant Sibilla is wheelchair accessible and is in a superb location above the river. The food is wonderful and the ambience is superb. (it’s set beside temple ruins)

Civita di Bagnoreggio
Civita is inaccessible by wheelchair. I walked with crutches across the kilometre long bridge, then up steps. It took me a long time. We stayed in an old monastery which had steep steps up to it. The bathroom has a wet floor shower. If you can walk up steps on crutches, and can walk the distance, it’s really worth the effort to stay the night. Fantastic. Otherwise, give it a miss.

I am not aware of any hotels in the historic centre of Orvietto with disabled facilities. If you are wheelchair bound you will probably need to stay in the town of Orvietto. I stayed in Hotel Virgilio in the square opposite the duomo. There is a lift but a wheelchair will not fit in. I used my crutches. You can park near the duomo for free and for unlimited time if you display a disabled parking permit. 

If you use the funicular to get to the historic centre, you can use a bus to ride to the duomo because the buses have ramps. 

The duomo is wheelchair accessible.

I used my crutches to climb down St Patrick’s well, and to go part way through the Underground Caves. The guides are very helpful.

The town is flat so you can wheel its length, less than a kilometre. There are a few steps into the duomo but a helper can help negotiate them. There may be a step into the Santa Maria but it can be negotiated with a helper. There is also a portable ramp kept at the information centre to access the church, the Etruscan Museum and the toilets. A newly renovated church that has been converted to a museum has a ramp.

Il Tomba, an excavated Etruscan tomb about one kilometre away, can only be negotiated with a helper strong enough to tip your chair on its back wheels and push. You will be able to be drive up close to it, providing the driver takes the car back to the car park. You can also be driven to the top of Il Cavore, an Etruscan road that has been carved out and has walls that are from three to twenty metres high. You should be able to wheel down the dirt road.

This town is on a steep hill. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the main square where the duomo and enotecas are. The main road was too long and steep for me to use my crutches so I used my wheelchair. The surface is cobblestone and at times I needed my husband to help push me. The enotecas here represent one vineyard, so choose one (or try more than one!) Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is the specialist wine here. There is an accessible toilet in the square.

Montalcino is also on a steep hill. We had no problem parking at the top  of the hill, and used the disabled parking permit. I was able to independently wheel to the enoteca at the top of the hill. I suspect that the rest of the town will be the same as Montepulciano, a struggle for someone with mobility impairment. The enoteca here has Brunello wines, (special wines to the region) from every vineyard and you pay according to how many wines you want to try, and what quality wine you want to try. You get a wine master all to yourself, and they seem to be able to cater for many languages. It’s very entertaining.

I could wheel around this town but the big problem is a lack of toilets, western toilets, let alone accessible toilets.

San Galgano
There is plenty of parking, the road is level but unsealed. I could wheel independently through the ruins. There is an accessible toilet. Most people walk the half kilometre to the chapel on a nearby hill, but disabled people can drive up. There are a few steps into the chapel so I used my crutches. The view from the hill is great, so even if you can’t get into the chapel (although a helper may be able to get you up the steps) its worth going there.

San Gimignano
This town is also on a hill. There are at least three parking lots, all of which have parking for the disabled. A disabled person can use the park and ride buses for free, but they have steps, so unless you can climb them your best chance of visiting this town in a wheelchair is to park in the car park outside the front gate entrance and wheel up to the hill to one or both of the squares. It’s over a kilometre. You may need someone to help push you up the steeper bits.

If you can walk with crutches and climb on the bus, leave your wheelchair behind. Have the bus driver drop you off at the first square (it has the well). The second square with the duomo is about a hundred metres away, and the fortress is another two hundred metres. An enoteca is just below the fortress.  You can catch the back down the hill.

There are accessible toilets in the Piazza Duomo.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact the local commune to get authorisation to park in the TZL.
Instead I parked in the Campo car park which is about 400 metres from Il Campo. The path is wheelchair friendly. However, I used my crutches to get around Siena. From Il Campo there are steps up to the Baptistry and more steps up to the duomo. 

The duomo has wheelchair access but to get to the duomo  by wheelchair you would have to park in a parking building on its level. 

Florence is great to people with mobility impairments. I emailed their office that deals with people with disabilities and they were very helpful. I emailed in English. Contact details are:
upd@serviziallastrada.it  free call number 800.33.98.91 
They authorised me to drive and park in the ZTL. 

Florence is flat but the paths and roads are cobblestones. Still, it’s not too difficult to get around in a wheelchair. Most of the attractions have accessible toilets, eg San Lorenzo, Ufizzi, Del’Accademia, and have ramped access.


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Friday 7 September

Peter now has no difficulty driving around Florence. We are soon on the motorway where the traffic is heavy and slow. Once it opens up cars start moving really quickly. Peter is doing the speed limit, 130k, and is being overtaken. He speeds up and is still being overtaken. He tells me eventually that he has been driving at 180k!!!!! Over a hundred kilometres of motorway has cost us 6euro 80c. I think that that is a pretty inexpensive opportunity to drive at a speed he is unlikely to ever drive at again …

We approach the Bologna interchange. Spaghetti junction as in a very big bowl of spaghetti (spaghetti bolognese?). Peter threads his way up and round and down and across and up and back  and around and around and up and over and across and under… Good job!

We are no longer driving through the hilly roads of Tuscany, the land is flat as far as the eye can see.

We see some interesting sights. Trucks with number plates from Slovenia, Hungary, Romania …  And a little scooter with pillion passenger doing 120k!

Another 100km and we are approaching Venezia! (10euro 70c for this stretch of motorway – 17euro 50c tolls from Florence to Venice and about three hours of mostly straight roads with a few hold ups). The secondary roads would be prettier, but take much longer to drive.

We are staying at a Novotel hotel on the outskirts of Venice, because it will take us only about twenty minutes to get to the airport in the morning.  Horrible sterile hotel. Noisy sterile restaurant. Still, it’s only one night.

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Saturday 8 September

We arrive at the drop off point for Europcar Venice only to find that it is 500m from the airport. Europcar Rome had told us that the drop off point is beside the terminal … It’s not! Europcar Venice has no way of getting me to the airport so I begin to walk. It will take a while, but Peter has priority check in and it turns out that the flight is running late, so no problem.

I’m sitting in the Marco Polo Lounge alone. Peter is watching the All Blacks … With Italian commentary …

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Thursday 6 September

The wall around Luca is still complete and there are few gates through which we can drive to reach a car park. Rather than drive around the city looking for the name of the gate we should use, Peter relies on the satnav. It takes us into the ZTL and the city centre. This is not good. When we park I ask Peter to check with the Parking attendant if the disability permit allows us to have done so. She is very helpful and, with the help of a someone who speaks English and who offers to help, she contacts the local authority to provide details of my permit number, licence plate number and so on, so that any driving infringements will be waived.

On first impressions Luca is an unattractive town with little to recommend it. Its main attraction is its wall and the fortifications around it. The wall is wide. People walk, cycle and run here. It’s like a road with picnic areas, grassed areas and playgrounds dotted  everywhere alongside it. In most places trees line either side of the road. It’s much greener than most Tuscan towns. There are two restaurants and plenty of places to sit down and rest. It’s pretty. 

Before heading to the wall we check out two of what are described as Luca’s three significant churches. San Michaele has a very pretty facade made of white marble and a few stripes of green marble. Some of the marble columns between three levels are “plated” some have what look like simple black painted symbols or maybe marble inlay, others are pink marble, some are shaped. The columns and the surrounding statues have an oriental appearance. The church was built originally in the eighth century over a roman temple built in the third. Little remains of either because the church has continued to be modified from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries. It’s a dogs breakfast. Almost no natural light enters because the window arches are filled in. The stained glass windows above are Little more than slits. Most frescoes have been destroyed during changes made to the church, although the few that remain are beautiful. The eighteenth century replacements and added chapels are typically ornate and over the top. I would say its a shame, but then I’m judging it by today’s standards. In the eighteenth century the rococo fashion was considered pretty. 

San Fernando, built in the eleventh century, has also been changed according to fashion dictates, however much more of the original art and architecture remain. The vault of the nave soars upward, and the ceiling is a beautifully simple wooden beam structure. The columns and walls are a simple grey stone. Here too chapels have been added in a rococo style. A rather gruesome curiosity is an encased corpse, clothed but with face and hands visible – this is no sleeping beauty.

We eat our picnic lunch on a grassed bank under the shade of oak trees. It’s warm and sunny. I nice place just to rest!

On the way to the duomo we stop at an exhibition under part of the fortifications and explore the tunnels that run under one of the bastions. The fortifications and tunnels were built by the Romans, were expanded in medieval times and could still be used today. The tunnels are built of small red bricks held together by cement. They are nearly three metres high with curved, ribbed arched ceilings.  It’s amazing how such a structure built by the Romans two thousand years ago is still intact!

The duomo was built in the thirteenth century, much later than the other cathedrals, and does not provide the main piazza in the city – San Michaele is more the centre of life in Lucca. It is unremarkable, but its museum has two wonderful paintings. One is by Ghirlandaio from the 1200s. The figures are three dimensional, and one, a monk, is looking directly at the viewer. The other is of St Jerome. The figure glows against a dark background. The composition is superb. The facial features, the skin, the musculature, the loincloth …  It was painted in the  1500s and is as good as any renaissance art.

In the middle of Luca is a tower on top which are growing oak trees! The trees are growing out of the tower from dirt that has accumulated there. Peter climbs the tower and says the view of Lucca from there is interesting. It’s a smallish area within the fortifications but is crammed full of dense buildings.

As we leave, the sun is beginning to set, casting a pink glow over everything. The facade of San Michele is luminous and I can see why the people who live here are so proud of it.

We drive back to Florence passing a few hill towns including one with many towers. I’ve no idea what towns we are passing. One of the attractions of driving through Tuscany is seeing these pretty towns nestling into, or perched on top of a hill. Or coming round a bend and a tower “pops” out of the forest. The speed limit is 130k and it’s an easy drive.

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Monday 3 September

From San Gimignano we drive to Florence through heavy rain. We are on a secondary road, but it is a highway yet it is narrow and winding as they are in New Zealand. They are not well cambered so the water lies on the road, which is flooded especially in fast lane!  

We approach Florence and peter relies on the satnav to guide us to our hotel which is in the ZTL. We are lost. The satnav  sends us round in circles for an hour. We know where the hotel is, but not how to get to it by car. Peter stops near our hotel and goes on foot to ask how to drive there. Its just as well I have authorisation by email for using the ZTL or we’d have dozens of 100euro fines … Peter is able to park the car 50 metres from the hotel in a disabled park, in the ZTL. Fantastic. 

Anyone want to drive with me and stay in the heart of Florence?

Tuesday 4 September

Our hotel is in the historic centre of Florence, and at one time must have been a very fine residence. Its faded grandeur is charming. The room is enormous! At least the size of two hotel rooms! The wooden furniture is old and worn but beautiful. (And the bathroom is completely accessible!)

It is a block or so from San Lorenzo markets. That’s dangerous! Especially as I am the first customer of the day. It’s early and no one is buying. I like bartering.  I buy a nice leather jacket (very, very soft) for what I think is a good price. Peter has a nice tie from Florence! And more … but not much more …

Is it ironic that the markets surround a church?

I need to use a bathroom so, knowing that most major attractions in Italy have accessible toilets, I ask at the San Lorenzo church. Iam directed to the Crypt … which is closed to the public! Peter comes with me as i wheel a few hundred metres under the church. We see Medici tombstones, marble heraldry and best of all, some fabulous frescoes. It is amazing!

The San Lorenzo church was built in the 300s and is the oldest church in Florence. It was Renovated by the Medici family in the 1400s and used as the family chapel.  The front facade of rough horizontal bricks  was left in its original style and is simple but wonderful to look at. The church is massive, with a long nave and high vault. There are gold stars on a blue background on the romanesque style vaults in the side chapels. The nave ceiling consists of white square boxes framed with gold florets. The Medici  coat of arms, a shield with five red balls and a globe is in the centre. There are striped marble arches above grey marble columns.  A fabulous floor to ceiling fresco is on part of one wall. It paints the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo. The people in it are lifelike. The men in the foreground have rippling muscles, and all the faces wear intense emotional expressions, some of revulsion, some otherwise. Donatello sculpted the pulpits. The old sacristy has a marvellous dome the inside of which is painted with astrological stars in a night sky. 

Next we visit the Medici chapels. The first chapel is a huge marbled, opulent mausoleum. It is the  chapel of princes, and despite visitors having to enter from outside, the chapel is behind the main altar of the church. It has six huge marble Medici sarcophogae. The walls, columns, sarcophagae, floor …  everything, are made of dark solid marble.  Each sarcophagus has a crown on top. The floor has elaborate marble inlay.  Originally there were six bronze statues. Two remain. They are larger than life and impressive.

Even grander is the octagonal domed ceiling. It soars above, high, high, high above. On it are vibrantly painted scenes from the Old and New Testaments. They are gorgeous. I want to keep looking at them, but I’m getting dizzy from looking up. 

The chapel is extraordinary and magnificent, but after a while the dark marble becomes oppressive.

It is the second chapel that I really want to see. It has statues carved by Michaelangelo. Thus chapel is the mausoleum for Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother. Lorenzo provided the catalyst for the Renaissance. He spent much of his time in the company of artists, philosophers and poets. He encouraged and supported great artists of the time – Michaelangelo, Donatello and others. His ideas inspired great works of art, and changed the way people saw the world. 

Lorenzo believed that time rules all men, and the sculptures represent that concept. Above Lorenzo’s is “Dawn and Dusk”, above his brother’s is “Night and “Day”

Each pair is of a reclining man and a woman. Man is dawn, awakening from sleep, and day. Woman is dusk preparing for sleep, and night. They share many of the characteristics of “David”- graceful, strong lines, musculature that suggests both relaxation and tension, and a sense that the marble lives.  I love how Michaelangelo has left parts of the figures emerging from the marble, and has left some parts unformed. Like the Pieta, and David there is a sense of human-ness, even though these sculptures are allegorical.

Last time we were in Florence we toured the duomo but did not look closely at the baptistery. I am so glad that we are seeing it now! It is an octagonal building from around 1090. The ceiling is mind-blowing. It is probably the finest example of Byzentine mosaic that i will ever see. Gold, gold gold. It shows scenes from christs life, and in the centre is a huge circular painting of Jesus. The walls are very simple though, with striped marble and simple grey/green shapes on the walls. Even the font is quite simple. The ceiling is the star! 

There are grills in the floor through which can be seen the foundations. 
It is always interesting to see the original construction methods.

The bronze doors are spectacular.  Each door displays relief sculptures showing scenes set in small 30cm squares. The north doors show scenes from christs life, the south doors in the top four squares show scenes from John the Baptist’s life then below them, representations of the virtues. The east doors are called the gates of paradise, and are gold.

We also intend seeing the Palazzo Vecchio this time. We walk through the piazza della signoria which is always busy but which has the most amazing statues, any one of which would be celebrated elsewhere as a work of art in its own right. 

The rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio were painted by Vesari and his workers. We start at the top on the third floor. The art is spectacular! Why did we miss this last year? The first room is the Room of Elements.  The ceiling is painted on wood, the walls are frescoes on plaster. The element, Air, is on the ceiling and features a god being mutilated for sperm to create the gods. Water is represented by Venus, Fire is an ironmongery, a furnace, and Earth is represented by people lazing round in an orchard. There are also paintings of Pluto and mercury. My favourite is Fire. I like how lifelike the figures are, and the attention to every detail. 

The sentiment of each scene is repeated in each of the rooms directly below and dedicated to a Medici. The intention is to associate the Medicis with the gods and to deify them.

On the top floor is also the Hercules room which has scenes of Hercules killing everything, the Juno terrace, a room of Jupiter where the ceiling features Hercules being suckled by a goat, as well as a  Room of Opus and a Room of Ceres.

I think that the real treasure is on the bottom floor, rising two floors -the salone dei cinquecento. 

All the painting has been done by Vesari. The ceiling is best seen from the third floor where it can be seen close up. It is a similar style to that of the ducale palace in Venice, with paintings framed by gold boxing, but much better.

Three gigantic frescoes are on two opposite walls. Vesari is magnificent!I have seen little of his work but this makes me an ardent fan. It is thought that Vesari preserved a Michaelangelo painting underneath part of his frescoe and efforts are underway to uncover this without damaging either master’s work.

Finally we look at the First floor Medici apartments underneath the Elements Room. The first room is that of Leo tenth who commissioned all the painting. His room is under the room of elements and he is represented as a roman ruler. It is highly mythical in Greek and roman style. The second is Lorenzo the magnificent’s as diplomat and philosopher, and his is under the room of opus, mother of jupiter. The third is Cosimo’s and his is under Ceres. The theme of his room is astrological with astrological signs.

The Palazzo Vecchio is fantastic. Every room is a surprise, wonderful, and demonstrates the power and talent of the Renaissance artists and thinkers.

Peter climbs the Vecchio tower at sunset. While he does this I sit on the steps of the della signoria.  It is a warm night, I listen to buskers and enjoy  some great guitar music.

I (slowly) walk all the way back to the hotel with Peter. It’s been a good day.

Wednesday 5 September. 

We walk to the Santa Maria Novella. It’s not far, maybe three blocks, but I’m exhausted from walking yesterday. My legs don’t want to work and my shoulders and arms are on strike. Just as well I had suggested that at some point Peter get the car so we can drive to some attractions! I’m going to need the car soon.

The Santa Maria Novella is a large church that had been built in the 1300s. The exterior is fairly simple with white and dark green alternating marble stripes. On one side, (that turns out to be a wall sheltering a garden alongside the church) are small statues and coats of arms in white marble mounted on the striped exterior. The front has slightly larger statues but is still quite simple. 

Originally the church had been divided in two with the priest virtually unseen on one side of the divide, and the congregation on the other side. In the 1500s Vasari was asked to redesign the church. He pulled down the Divide and had his students, who were also working with him on the Palazzo Vecchio at the time, create large paintings on wood. Vasari painted a magnificent frieze. Larger than life figures in the foreground have defined musculature, and their clothing is painted in vivid colours. One figure is wearing a rich red cloak with folds that feel as if you could reach out and touch them and they would be warm and soft!

I had planned on walking the next few blocks to the Orgisanti to see the Orgisanti crucifix, recently restored and back in place after many years.  I am so tired that I can only walk very very very slowly. My head doesn’t feel tired, only my body – frustrating.

Eventually we arrive and my effort and Peter’s patience is rewarded with the organ playing, and not only the crucifix, but a Botticelli and two wonderful Ghilandaio friezes!

The church was built in the 1100s and the crucifix, made about a hundred years later, is thought to have been painted by Ghiotti. Its colours are vivid reds and blues and gold. On each side of the cross are painted a picture, one of Mary and one of John. Above is a picture of the risen Christ.  It’s highly decorative and remarkable for the time in which it was made.

The frescoes are superb. One  Ghirlandaio is in the stye  of Botticelli and the facial expressions, body composition and attention to detail are fabulous. They were both painted in 1450.

The other Ghirlandaio is more traditional for the time but is just as wonderful. The facial expressions! One significant.character looks directly at the viewer

While Peter gets the car I stand by the Arno. A weir controls the water flow.  A lone oarsman approaches then turns  before the weir. The current is so slow that his wake remains for several minutes. It’s peaceful here. If I look up upriver I can see the distinctive yellow windowed walls of the Ponte Vecchio, just one bridge over.

We search for a park as close as possible to the Sante Croce. Eventually we find one a block and a half away. Even though I only have to walk 300 metres, I am struggling to  get my legs to cooperate. I had thought that because I’d walked so far yesterday, I could do it again … Wrong!

When we arrive I am offered a wheelchair. For an absolute first, I ACCEPT! Sante Croce is a very large basilica with cloisters and chapel, built in the thirteenth century.

The church has a Giotti tryptic. It’s a dark painting and difficult to appreciate. Painted in early 1200s it’s not the usual gold framed, gilt laden, flat painting of the time, but Is three dimensional and dark, but the features of each figure are clearly those of a real person.

The Cloister is peaceful with few people. I’ve noticed that they don’t stop to feel the tranquility of these places which is why they are there. They rush from one attraction listed in their guide to the next.

The chapel has a beautiful blue dome above the entrance. Inside it has tall arched windows, and a simple dome above the altar. Around the dome are four blue medallions representing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

To end the day on the highest possible note we visit the del’Accademia and David. He is beautiful. Nothing can do him justice. No picture, no photo, no words, although Vasari came close when he wrote that “to see David means that you never need see another sculpture. The combination of arms, legs and flesh is perfect” (paraphrased). I hope I can hold in my head the images of his hand, his profile, his torso,  his legs.

Thursday 6 September

This morning we are driving to Lucca for the day. It’s about an hour from Florence and we choose to drive here rather than to Pisa on the recommendations of others and because most travel forums indicate that Lucca is better.

Friday 7 September

Our last day in Florence … We drive to Venice this afternoon to catch a plane tomorrow morning to Istanbul!

We decide to visit the Uffizi. We leave the car parked immediately outside the hotel … In a tow away zone, but the hotel owner assures us that its ok! the hotel is about 1.5km away from the Uffizi, and we walk through the San Lorenzo markets.

We are going to be selective in what we see, revisiting our favourite artists. Lippi, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Titian, Tinteretto, Veronase, Vasari, then on to the “foreign” artists: El Greco, Marelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Raphael and finally, Caravaggio after going through a temporary exhibit of Gothic Florentine art and sculpture.

I’m exhausted! Overwhelmed! So much many paintings! It makes me want to revisit the Louvre and the Rodin museum. 

We return to the car … Venice is a few hours away

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 San Galgano

Monday 3 September

We leave Siena for Florence but on the way we will drive to the ruins of San Galgano and to San Gimignano.

I expect the ruins to consist of little more than foundations and some walls in a pretty rural setting. It certainly is in pretty countryside. As  I stand within the walls I can hear the sounds  of pigeons and birds. I am overcome by a sense of peace and tranquility.  

And there is much of the abbey still standing. Much, much more than I expected. The church is roofless but the external walls and internal structures, like columns and archways, remain. The side chapel and sacristy still have their roofs so their vaults can be seen. The romanesque church, built in the 1100s, is made mostly of narrow red bricks, but the lower part of the front facade is a light coloured marble. Intriguingly and somewhat poetically, the main altar remains. It is a flat stone resting on stone legs, and is worn by the rain and elements to which it is exposed.

We drive a few hundred metres up a short hill next to the abbey to the Chapel of san Galgano a Montiaseppi. Here is where a hermit lived til 1181. It was consecrated in 1185. The hermit had been a knight, but renounced his lifestyle and symbolically thrust his sword into a stone. The sword and stone remain in the tiny chapel which is still consecrated and used to celebrate mass in.

From the hill we can see a huge empty car park, capable of holding hundred and hundreds of cars. We are curious and wonder what it could be for until we realise that thousands of tourists flock here to see the ruins. We are the only ones here now, but earlier in summer this is popular. I am so glad that we have been able to enjoy a real sense of peace here.

We continue our drive to Florence, but head for San Gimignano.

San Gimignano

Monday 3 September

Even though it is not the weekend when, we are told, San Gimignano gets really busy, there are people everywhere and it is difficult to find a park. We ask a policeman monitoring traffic near the entrance if we can park nearby but he tells us that the disabled parks are taken and he directs us to the park and ride area kilometres downhill! We take a bus to the first piazza and sit in the sun on the steps of a well, and eat lunch. 

The Duomo was built in 1148 but made into the gothic style in 1400s. Fortunately the front columns and floor is exposed so the original stone blocks can be seen. The brick walls have been plastered so that frescoes could be painted.  These are extensive, from floor to ceiling. One side has frescoes showing the life of Christ, the other side old testament stories. On one side of the front arches is painted heaven, the other side is hell.

While Peter is climbing the highest tower I  sit on the duomo steps, suddenly surrounded by young Australians calling everyone else “so bogan” and talking up how much they’ve drunk. It’s funny … And sad.

We walk to the Rocco and are welcomed to the courtyard by a harpist. The music is delightful. There are olive trees growing here and its very peaceful. I climb a few steps up a small tower. The views are over rooftops to small vineyards, pastures and away to forests and hills. They are beautiful Tuscan views. We hear thunder and see dark clouds and rain literally storming towards us. From hot sun to rain, and it’s become humid and dark – at 4. 

It clears a little and as we make our way down from the Rocco we look for an enoteca where Peter can taste some local wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. He buys some. Again, a good souvenir because it can’t be drunk for at least five years.

We  catch a bus back to the car park. Neither bus nor car park costs us anything because of the disabled parking permit!

And it’s onwards to Florence!

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Sunday 2 September

We park in the il Campo building,  just inside the ZTL area because it’s supposed to be only a short walk to the Campo. It seems ok to walk and not take the wheelchair. The distances between attractions in Siena are small, and it turns out that the parking building is truly only a few hundred metres from the Campo. (Italian metres seem to be triple kiwi metres). 

Peter hears the drumming first.

We arrive to a parade of flag twirlers. Apparently there are seventeen districts in Siena and each one has a patron saint whose feast day is celebrated by this ceremony. The flag twirlers and drummers walk around Siena visiting the churches – all day!!!! Today there are two districts because their patron saints feast day falls on the same day … So it is especially loud and colourful! It seems that this ceremony is related to the Palio  – the same districts, the same participants, the same enthusiasm!

Peter climbs the Campo tower while I visit the baptistery. I no longer feel the need to climb every mountain, I am more selective in choosing my challenges!

The walls are covered in frescoes but the main feature of the baptistery is the bronze font. It has a statue of St John the Baptist on top, and has six sides, each of which is a relief sculpture depicting scenes from the bible. Two scenes by Donatello are outstanding.

Peter and I meet outside the cathedral. Before we meet, however, I see some lovely scarves and buy two … Markets and churches, churches and markets, side by side …

The exterior is extravagent, built in marble, striped black and white on the sides, and the front facade is pink and white and pale green marble. There are three arched doorways, the centre one has a rose window above it and all have triangular friezes above them The friezes are gold mosaics with vibrant colours. They shimmer in the sun.

But the inside is spectacular. The floors are uncovered! This is very significant because usually the floors are covered by cardboard to protect the mosaics underneath. The entire floor is covered in amazing pictorial mosaics! Each scene tells a story or has some meaning, either religious, philosophical, mythical or about Siena. They are astonishing.

The library is even more spectacular! Down one side is a bench with  pages of calligraphy and illustration. The walls and ceilings are covered in frescoes, some representing times of the life of the appeal for whom the library was built. They are six hundred years old and fabulous. We spend at least an hour in this room, and return before we leave….

Outside the library is a chapel sculpted by Michaelangelo. In a side chapel is a bronze statue by Donatello of John the Baptist. He also did bronze relief sculptures on the four sides of each the pulpits, and sculpted the marble body on top of a coffin shaped tomb.

I notice that the organ has trumpets extending out horizontally! Everywhere you look is something to see!

Below the Duomo is the crypt. It was built at the same time as the duomo but was never used and filled up with debris and junk. It was rediscovered around 2000. It has the most amazing series of frescoes depicting scenes from the new testament. Among the scenes are the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Kiss of Judas, Crucifixion, the bringing down from the cross, and Entombment of Christ. The colours in the frescoes are in vivid  red, blue and gold.

Also in the crypt is an exhibition about St John the Baptist which includes a painting of John the Baptist by Titian, and large relic box of solid silver and gems from the 1400s. 

We go to the duomo museum expecting it to contain the usual treasury such as chalices, monstrices and relic boxes. First, I am asked by a security guard if I would like to go to the viewing platform! Usually they do their best to dissuade me from climbing steps. The panoramic view over Siena is great, almost as good as from the Campo Tower, Peter says.

We look in all the museum rooms on three floors. I am astonished at the art. There are paintings on wood from the 13th and 14th centuries, and a spectacular wooden painted figure of Christ on a cross made from a y shaped piece of yew.

The next room has chalices, monstrices, relic holders … With skulls, jaws, yuk …

Then we enter a super-air conditioned, dark room, with a 13th and 14th century painted wooden sequence (each painted picture is on a square, and the squares are in two lines, except for the central painting which is of the crucifixion and is four times the size of the others. It is the  height of two and width of two. I finally realise that it is to be read from bottom left to right, then top left to right, and is the story of the passion of Christ. There is amazing detail, showing folds in clothes, and bright colours with vibrant gold trims on Christ and Mary. The next sequence is of  of christs life but with some squares missing.

The next room includes four remarkable paintings by Bazzi, known as Sodomi (guess why). The paintings are similar to those of Titian in terms of muscle definition and composition, maybe better. The dead, slumped body of Christ is particularly compelling.

The rooms go on and on! Next are superb painted wooden sculptures by Pisaro. They have tremendously detailed facial features, and hair and clothing is lifelike. One subject has strong defined musculature. 

In the last area before the exit are original pieces from the facade and interior that have been replaced. These, like all the facade statues, have been sculpted by Pisaro. Close up I can see detailed lifelike features, even though high up on the facade these details would never  be seen. And even though they have damage suffered from weathering, their beauty is readily seen.

It’s been a long day. I am exhausted from walking but i make it back to the car. And, as in all of Italy, because the car displays a disability permit we pay no parking fees, despite having been in Siena for eight or nine hours. A nice way to finish the day …

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