Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Italy Day 5 Florence: Piazzale Michelangelo, Great Synagogue of Florence, Accademia (The Statue of David), Chabad of Florence

The second day in a row of waking up early to take a train found my sister Ilana and I in a grumpy mood.
OK it wasn't so bad.
OK we were excited to go to Florence!
The first thing we did out of the train station in Florence was duck into the tourist information place to purchase our Florence Cards. The Florence Card is a 72 hour pass to all public transportation and most museums throughout the city. They're €50 each, so we wanted to make sure we got our money's worth. The great thing about the cards is that they let you skip the lines at any of the museums that accept them - so there's no need to worry about scheduling a specific entry times. 
From the tourist stand, we went to our hotel. This hotel was a disappointment compared to the rest. The Hotel Palazzuolo on Via Palazzuolo is a block South of the train station. The people at the desk rarely spoke English, and our room felt inexplicably damp the entire time. 
The view down Via Palazzuolo from the hotel entrance. Also Ilana!
Nothing could be done about it so there was no use complaining. We dropped off all our stuff and took the bus (using our Florence Cards) from the train station to the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The Piazzale Michelangelo is an elevated look out point on the Southern bank of the Arno River. In the center is a bronze copy of Michelangelo's statue of David. 
Que heavenly music.
More important than the copy of David, is the view from the Piazzale. Throngs of tourists are constantly snapping pictures from this vantage. We joined the throng for about a half an hour.
Also Flornce - you know what? I'm going to save a lot of time and just say this is all going to be Florence.
We are photogenic.
A little bit afraid of heights here...
Down the Arno River.
So now we're across the river from central Florence, and are not sure exactly what to do next.
We went for our default - the Jewish attractions. We did get a little lost wandering around trying to find the Synagogue area, but we got to see some parts of Florence we probably otherwise wouldn't have:
Florence happens to be a beautiful place.
The Great Synagogue of Florence is on Via Luigi Carlo Farini which is about a quarter mile East of the Duomo. We tried to visit the Synagogue through the museum and sanctuary entrance, but were disappointed to find that they close in the early afternoon on Fridays to prepare for Shabbat. Next door to the Synagogue, there's a milchig kosher restaurant named Ruth's, so we had lunch.
If you ask me, the food was pretty so-so, but it's good to support a small Jewish Community that relies on tourism.
Yay! I'm supportive!
The very helpful waiter, restaurateur, and shamos of the Synagogue, Thomas Jelinkek, knew we wanted to enter the Synagogue and the museum before Shabbat started. He came to our table while we were waiting for our food to let us know that there was a wedding service going on in the Synagogue, and that they needed people to complete a minyan if we still wanted to go inside. Of course! Why not?

There were Italian armed guards at the entrance to the courtyard of the Synagogue. This is yet another sign that vandalism of Jewish holy places is on the rise, but it was nice to see that the Italian government is doing something to prevent these acts. Once again pictures weren't allowed but we sneaked a couple anyway.
From what we could gather, an Italian-Israeli wanted to have their wedding  in the Synagogue of their roots. Pretty cool, huh?
After our mediocre lunch and nice visit to the Synagogue museum, we headed in the direction of the Accademia Gallery (of Florence - there's also one in Venice). The Florence Card got us in front of the line and into the Accademia in about twenty seconds. Go Florence Card!

The Accademia houses Michelangelo's statue of DavidIf seeing The Goonies a billion times has taught me anything, it's that this statue is famous:
You've probably seen it before.
Seeing the David in person is kind of surreal. It's like seeing the Eiffel Tower, or the Mona Lisa, or any truly famous sight in person. You've seen pictures of something your entire life and then you're actually seeing it! It feels like your eyes are expecting the image to be in two dimensions and then it's not. Eerie...

The statue is of David as he is about to face Goliath. He's got the slingshot draped over his back from his left and he's holding the stone with his right. The detail of things like the veins sticking out of David's arm and stuff like that are so life-like... Michelangelo was a genius. David's head and hands are overlarge. The explanation for this is the statue was originally supposed to be displayed along the roof of the Duomo so details like those would've been hard to make out from ground level. Unexplained is why David decided to fight Goliath in the nude.

There's also a musical instruments section of the Accademia and some other remarkable renaissance and medieval pieces, but the second best reason to visit the Accademia is the collection of the unfinished Michelangelo sculptures. Michelangelo was such a genius, that his unfinished works could pass for masterpieces. Here they are:
Michelangelo would say that he could see the figures inside the marble and all he did when he sculped was chip away at the excess marble... what a guy. 
Next we strolled lazily back to our hotel on Palazzuolo taking in Florence.
So stylish.
Enjoyed some time in the Piazza del Duomo:
We spent an hour or two lazing around our hotel. I know that vacation time is very precious, but this was our fifth day in Italy. We needed a break during the day of some sort. The hotel was a nice enough spot to lay around and watch Italian-language television (mostly we watched television claiming that a salve if rubbed on the midsection could remove up to 5 inches from the waistline - crazy Italians...). 

For our Friday evening, we took a taxi back to the Great Synagogue. We participated in the Shabbat evening services at the Great Synagogue. Mostly the tunes of the prayers were unfamiliar to me, and the space itself with its extremely high ceiling and extremely small congregation - did not make for the best acoustics. The high ceiling and colorful (but dark) decorations did make for a very beautiful setting. The Synagogue itself has a lot of architecture reminiscent of Turkish Mosques. 
After the Kiddush in the courtyard above (provided by our former waiter, Thomas Jelinkek) we were invited to Shabbat dinner at the Chabad of Florence. Anyone familiar with Chabad would expect exactly what we got there: A traditional Shabbat meal (chicken was a bit iffy, but I suppose they must have obstacles in the way of obtaining kosher food on a regular basis), lots of Jewish tourists/students studying abroad, and a spirited sermon delivered from the Rabbi - Rabbi Eli Dovid Berenstein. 

When I say spirited I really mean it. He said he gives the same sermon every week, so if you ever find yourself there you're in for a treat. Basically, he more and more excitedly builds up to a point about why you (as a Jew) came to Florence for the sights (at this point which he reaches several times, he will list the sights of Florence in rapid succession - ThePonteVecchio!ThePalazzoVecchio!TheDavid!The...!), but since you came to see the sights, and are celebrating Shabbat here, you are also bringing another place in the world closer to an ideal level of spirituality. It was nothing if not entertaining.
Shabbat Shalom from Florence!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Italy Day 4: Siena

Siena! We spent a day in Siena. We had time for one day in one small Italian town and it came down to Pisa, Siena, or Assissi. Siena won out. Siena is a little Tuscan town, most famous for being the origin of the Crayola color "Burnt Siena".
Just kidding, not about the origin of the color, but of the "most famous" part.
We left Rome very early in the morning by train. From the train station we sought out our hotel - the Borgo Grondaie.  The Borgo Grondaie is a Tuscan farm converted into an interesting little bed and breakfast complex. It was the nicest hotel we stayed at the entire trip - too bad it was only for one night and we spent no time at the hotel...

We had this whole townhouse to ourselves, and for not much more than the cheapest hotel options I found for the whole trip!
However nice the hotel is, it's kind of a hike from the train station - probably should have found a way to call for a taxi. We dropped off all our stuff and after taking the most beautiful picture of my parents, took a taxi about a mile into the city walls of Siena.
Told you it was beautiful.
Siena is like a Medieval town unchanged since before the Renaissance, except for the inclusion of certain modern comforts (automobiles, refrigeration, and lots of fashion stores). It was once one of the two great cities of Tuscany, but plagues and wars left Florence number one... I mean, it's still pretty great. Just not as great in size and scope as Florence.

We taxied from across the train tracks into the city walls of Siena. On our way to the tourist-y things of Siena, we got a little distracted by this huge souvenir market.
I don't care for shopping so much...
Lots of trinkets.
The souvenir market is in Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, but only on certain days in case you were wondering.
So we made our way south towards Il Campo.
Il Campo translates to "The" Campo
As you can see, Il Campo is the central town square of Siena. The plaza itself is all curved/slanted downward toward the entrance to the town hall. The semicircular plaza is divided by lines of brick flooring into nine trivial pursuit-like wedges, for the nine Noveschi who ruled Siena during the height of its power. Believe it or not, since the 1650s Il Campo has been the site of the Palio di Siena horse races. Twice a year, the Campo is covered with a thick layer of dirt and a three-lap horse race around the plaza is held. Hard to imagine the place converts from the setting seen in the above picture to this:
That clock tower building dominating the left half of the picture is the town hall. It, along with most of the impressive buildings of Siena is an impressive example of Medieval architecture. The clock tower was the tallest structure in Italy when completed and has no metal reinforcements at all within the shaft of the tower. It was built mostly to out-do Siena's then-rival city Florence. Our very brief stay in Siena didn't allow us the time to take the full tour/climb of the town hall - but we hung around the outside/courtyard for a bit.
We are hilarious.
Across from the town hall is the Fonte Gaia - Fountain of Joy. Like the Trevi in in Rome, it was created to be a focal point for where the aqueducts that brought water to the city ended. The fountain itself is so-so. It's not quite on the same scale as the Trevi fountain in Rome, but there is one remarkable thing about it: the pigeons. Somehow the fountain has hypnotized these birds into being orderly water consumers. See this dog water spout?
Well - pigeons are known to wait patiently in line along the heads and backs of these dogs to take their turns leaning over the dog noses to take a drink directly from the spout. Why not drink from the rectangular bowl of water sitting right there? Perhaps they find the water from the spout more refreshing and clean? Perhaps they look down on the other pigeons of the world for being so inconsiderate to one another and unrefined as to simply drink water from wherever they find it without offering up their spot in line first with an, "after you, good sir." The world may never know.
"I must say this water is most refreshing to me on this most humid of days!" - polite pigeons of Siena
Before we left Il Campo, I tried out an old Ohio State University legend: that if you yell out "O-H!" in a crowded tourist square anywhere in the world, that someone will shout back, "I-O!". You can't really hear it, but it worked!
After Il Campo we headed toward the Siena Cathedral - referred to as the Duomo. It's impossible to miss the tell-tale white and dark green striped complex of the Duomo. It's really several tourist attractions in one. There's the cathedral itself, the museum which includes the attempted extension of the Duomo, the crypts, and the baptistery. If you've got the time, I highly recommend the all-encompassing ticket that gets you into all of these museums. The place is incredible - even more so because it was all built in the 1200s.
Looks like we made it. 
That's me in the blue shirt in front of the center door.
The Duomo is set up in a traditional Cathedral style. Typical floor plan. Click this link and you'll get a pretty good idea. At the level above the arches formed by the columns, encircling the entire nave of the church, is a row of heads with the names of all the popes from Peter to the 1200s listed beneath them. The heads are actually just the same four figures used over and over.
Pope heads.
Awesome Pulpit.
Hey look! There's the dome!
Also of note is the floor of the Cathedral which is spattered with enormous and elaborate mosaics depicting scenes from the bible.

There's a room just off of the nave of the Cathedral called the Piccolomini Library. The walls are filled with colorful murals depicting scenes from the life of Piccolomini who was from Siena and became Pope. The walls are lined with displays of ornate choir books.
Scenes from Piccolomini's life.
More scenes - these blocked by some nudes.
My mom sits below a choir book that is nearly her size.
After the main building of the Siena cathedral, we sat for a little while on the front steps... dad took a little nap.
OK time for a history lesson. Here's how most churches are arranged:
It's a cross - get it? Cause of Christianity?
And here's the layout of the Siena Cathedral.

The nave here is labeled "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" and you can figure out the rest. 
You see that part extending out to the right? The red wall that's an almost complete rectangle? Got it? OK. See, in their quest to be the number one town in Tuscany over Florence, the people of Siena decided they were going to expand the cathedral. They were going to do this by making the existing cathedral the transept/crossing of the new cathedral. That doesn't sound as dramatic when I read it... The expansion was going to more than double the existing cathedral. It was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. Too bad the black plague came through and decimated the town. The plan was abandoned, but the beginnings of the project were left up and incorporated into the cathedral museum (labelled on the map).
Line of arches and the inside of a would-be new facade of the unfinished expansion. See those two levels of empty windows over there on the right? We're going to climb that!
The museum is in the building above. It contains many great works of art including original stained glass windows from the Cathedral. No pictures were allowed, but in a back room away from the docents I took pictures of a couple of wooden statues. I believe they might both be candidates to be the next big internet memes. So I made some mock-ups for a test run.
Skeptical Saint is skeptical.
Modest Mary is modest.
The museum is the entrance to the would-be facade of the expansion of the church. Access to the two different levels of the expansion is granted via tiny spiral staircases.
My mother is afraid of heights. Very afraid. When we went on a family trip out west and came to the Grand Canyon, she became so overwhelmed on one of the walking paths that she crawled along most of the way to the look-out point. She didn't even let my younger sister out of the lodge there for fear that she would fall in along with the hundreds per day that also fall in according to her. Climbing the extension to the Siena Duomo was a huge step for her. Just look at this nervous smile:
Also this nervous smile:
She did put on a good face for most of the pictures, but not for all of them:
Consider this video a gift to the world:
Some of the views were pretty incredible:
Il Campo.
Tuscan fields.
look at all the burnt siena
The Duomo.
We all made it back down alive!
The Siena Duomo Baptistery is at the base of the retaining wall holding up the extra part of the hill that had to be built to support the Siena Cathedral - see map above. A Baptistery is a separate chapel meant specifically for baptisms (big surprise there). Usually they come with batismal fonts - ornate holders for the holy water used in these baptisms. That was our final stop in the Siena Duomo complex.
Baptismal Font depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist (another big surprise).
The last real attraction we visited was the Basilica of San Domenico.
There it is across this valley.
We walked the long way around to avoid the climbing. The inside of this Cathedral is very plain. Virtually no decoration compared to every other church we visited in Italy. The plain walls made it seem even bigger than most, but overall we probably could have skipped this one and done something else. One remarkable thing we saw here was the head of Saint Catherine of Seina. No exaggeration. Her head! Apparently the people of Siena smuggled her head and thumb back to Siena in order to be put on display as relics. The practice of displaying human remains as relics is strange to me personally. We didn't see it at all in Rome, but in Siena and Florence it was everywhere. 
The Siena Duomo from nearby to the Basilica of San Domenico.
We ate dinner in a restaurant called Trattoria Papei. It's next to the large gazebo on the opposite side of the town hall from Il Campo. The food was very delicious and my dentist mother bonded with the dental hygienist waiter from Kosovo who served us - so he gave us some limoncello liqueur for dessert! My younger sister took advantage of the lenient drinking age laws in Italy.
Buon Appetito!
After dinner, we took a taxi back to our villa at the good ol' Borgo Grondaie.
Farewell, Siena.