Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Great Italian Road Trip: Parma and Milan

Leaving our happy Tuscan Euro camp experience, we headed north toward Milan. On the way, we decided to stop for lunch in Parma and stroll the Old Town.

We found what looked like a very local joint down one side road.  I snuck this picture while Rob was helping the kids finish up their pizza.  It was so chaotic, with the guy ordering a drink at the counter, the dog roaming over to say hello to us, and none of the staff speaking English.  They did have a sign on the wall though that claimed they had the best pizza in town. 

They totally had the best pizza.  Rob got pesto and pecorino on his and I got the Buffalo mozzarella on mine.  As you could see from the first photo, we ate them ALL.

When we left the pizza place, very fat and happy, we turned the corner to see and hear this opera singer singing from the balcony of the theatre.  We only caught the last half of the performance, but it was lovely.

Turns out we were witnessing the opening of the week long Festival Verdi.

We strolled past the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, built in 1604, and then headed back to our car to drive the rest of the way to Milan.  Parma was fun that it was totally NOT a touristy spot, but there also wasn't much to do there.

We arrived at our airbnb apartment in Milan, and walked over to the nearby shopping mall and grocery store for some breakfast and snack items.  Rob decided to grab pasta and sauce and made dinner back at the apartment (we were still pretty full from our pizza-fest at lunch.)

The next morning we walked two blocks to the metro, and rode down to the Duomo stop.  As soon as we popped up above ground we were greeted by the Milan Cathedral.  The largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest of any kind of church in the world.  They started building it in 1386, and it was finally finished completely in 1965.

We made our way to the ticket office and bought tickets to go inside the cathedral and to visit the terrace on the roof.  There was an even happening in the cathedral that morning, so they said we wouldn't be able to go in until noon, but we made our way to the elevators and went up to the roof first thing.  (While there was no line.)

We walked around the rooftop with no crowds at all and enjoyed looking at the sculptures, views of the city below, and intricate Gothic architecture.

Although my personal style is quite minimalist, I do appreciate the "more is more" Gothic look sometimes.

Mark Twain visited Milan in 1867, and said this about the cathedral, 

"What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems ...a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!... and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest...everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself...Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond. ... (Up on) the roof...springing from its broad marble flagstones, were the long files of spires, looking very tall close at hand, but diminishing in the distance...We could see, now, that the statue on the top of each was the size of a large man, though they all looked like dolls from the street... They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands."

After our visit to the roof, we sat for a moment on the steps and took in the rest of the Piazza del Duomo.

On our left there were two very similar buildings.  This is one of them.  These were built during the Fascist era in the 1900s.  Mussolini liked to make use of this balcony to address the people on his visits to Milan.  The building is now a modern art museum.

On our right from the cathedral was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  This arcaded shopping area behind Rob and Amelie was built in the 1860s.  (This is around the same time the Eiffel Tower was being designed in Paris, and it felt similar to that with the beams and glass, and daylight streaming through the arcade.)  It is full of posh high street shops, cafes, and tourists.

The architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, sadly fell to his death from the scaffolding just weeks before his 14 year project was completed.  For luck, (and to avoid the same fate?) the Milanese, and many, many tourists, spin on the testicles of this bull mosaic.

Apparently the mosaic needs to be repaired regularly due to the damage of this tradition.  It looked perfectly fine while we were there though.  Only Charlotte and Toby wanted to participate in this ritual from our family. 

We strolled out the other end of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to see the Opera House, La Scala.  La Scala opened in 1778 and is one of the premiere opera houses in the world.  There is an opera museum... but we didn't think our kids would tolerate that very well.

In the square facing La Scala is a monument to Leonardo DaVinci. In the late 1400s Leonardo left his work in Florence  and moved to Milan where he worked for a period.  His most notable work while in Milan is the Last Supper.  I tried for MONTHS to get us tickets to view the Last Supper, but was unsuccessful.  Oh well, life goes on.

We next walked over to Sforza Castle to look around.  Like the Medici family in Florence, the Sforza family held the power in Milan moving from the dark ages into the Renaissance.  Sforza Castle was built in the 1400s, but enlarged in succeeding centuries.

It is now an art museum, but we just enjoyed strolling around the inner courtyard.

Milan was very grey after the beautiful weather that we enjoyed in the Cinque Terre, Tuscany, and Florence.  I think we were also winding down and feeling ready to head back home to Germany.

For our last stop in Milan, we finally got in line to go inside the Cathedral. The line was long, but not as long as it had been earlier in the day, so I'm glad we waited.  We ordered some gelato to make the wait less painful.

The doors to the cathedral are every bit as complicated and intricate as the rest of the building.

I took this up close photo of one little part of a wall while we were waiting in line.  The kids liked looking at each individual face's expression, the biblical scenes, and how the human sized sculptures are straining to hold up the pillars of the church.  Super interesting artwork.

Almost there...

And finally!  We made it inside the cathedral! 
There is no denying how immense the interior is.  It looks large from outside, but inside it somehow felt even larger and made the people look like tiny ants by comparison.

In the back of the church, there is a replica of the 13 foot tall Madonna that sits atop the tallest spire.  The original was made in the 1700s.  The stained glass in the church comes from many different eras, as the church took so long to be built.  During WWII, the windows were all taken out and stored in a crypt below the church to protect them, and the Madonna was wrapped in gray-green cloth so as not to provide an easy target for Allied bombers.

I tried to take some panoramic shots of the interior to show the scale, but I don't think this does the church justice.  It was a fitting finale to our Italian road trip!

After the cathedral, we took the metro back to our apartment and played on the playground for a little while.  The drive back home took about 8 hours the next day and we were all SO HAPPY to be home and sleep in our own beds.  On the way back I asked Rob which Christmas markets he would like to visit this year and he said any that are close to home!  Between our three road trips this year (Great Britain, USA, and Italy) we have driven over 9,000 miles.  I agree, it is time for us to spend a little time at home.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Great Italian Road Trip: Tuscan Joyride and San Gimignano

The next day was planned to be a relaxing one. We slept in a bit and then loaded up the minivan to drive the Strado del Vino, or Route 222, through Chianti.

We aren't wine drinkers, but we did love all of the views of the vineyards and the picturesque VERY Tuscan scenery.  There were very few cars, and we were more likely to get stuck behind cyclists on the road than anything else.

There were many little farm type shops along the route offering wine tastings, local wine, and local olive oil.  We just enjoyed the leisurely morning drive in the countryside.  In case you're wondering how the kids felt about this, it probably wasn't their favorite thing about this trip, but we did listen to a Harry Potter audiobook in the car and they did enjoy that.

Eventually we wound our way to the hill town of San Gimignano for lunch.  This medieval town sits atop a Tuscan hill and is a pretty big destination for day-tripping tourists- like us. The main road was quite crowded as people browsed the shops: souvenirs, pottery, wine, olive oils, cured meats, gelato, and so on.

In an effort to escape the tourists, we made a left down an alley and suddenly we were completely alone.  Sometimes it doesn't take much of a detour to get off the beaten path.

One more turn and we found Osteria Baccano.  We sat at a quiet table outside and ordered the BEST food we ate in Italy. This was Rob's appetizer of roasted local onions with a balsamic glaze reduction.

I got homemade tortellini stuffed with ricotta and spinach that was awesome.

And Rob's pasta had some sort of creamy pesto completely smothered in pecorino cheese and truffles.  I stole a bite, and it was so rich and decadent!  And our kids ate pizza.  (Of course.)

After our completely amazing lunch we had to walk it off a bit, so we followed the signs to the park.  This took us uphill to the highest point of the walled medieval town where there were olive groves and incredible views.

This is part of the park.

And here is the view of the countryside from the top.

Looking back toward town with the towers behind us.

Originally San Gimignano had 72 towers like this!  Today there are 14 still standing, which is still a lot.

We began our walk back down through the town and stopped in the central square by the well.

Then we split up; Rob, Charlotte, Toby, and Amelie went to an award winning gelato shop with a long line out the door to see what all the fuss was about.  Jake and I went to a chocolate shop where I had the best chocolate chip cannoli on the planet, and Jakey had some chocolate bark that he chose.  

Jake has the least sweet tooth in our whole family and it isn't unusual for him to not finish his dessert, but even I was surprised that he took a bite or two of this and then saved the rest to share with his siblings.   That was good, because while Rob enjoyed the artisan gelato they got, the other kids were disappointed by the strong and strange flavors they got and were happy to eat Jake's treat.  (Apparently Charlotte's mint ice cream had chopped up mint leaves in it and was too intense for her to eat.)

We headed back to the campground along the same route we had come on, and stopped at a local shop to buy some olive oil. When we got back we changed into swimsuits and hit the pool for a while.  Then we ate dinner at the campground's restaurant.  Their food was also very good, but we were all so tired out from several days of sun, walking, and swimming, that we headed right to bed after dinner to rest up for the next day's adventure.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Great Italian Road Trip: Pisa and Florence

We drove through Pisa on our way to Florence, mainly just to see the Leaning Tower and take the obligatory photos. It turns out we are pretty terrible at taking these "holding up the tower" photos, but I thought it was fun anyway. It was very crowded, buggy, and hot though. So we didn't stick around long.   Enjoy the pictures... I'll get back to the descriptions after the Pisa pictures.

After Pisa, we hit the highway to head to a Euro Camp we were staying in outside Florence.  The Italian Autostrada is nice, but the tools really added up over the week we used it!

We stopped at ye olde McDonald's for lunch on the way.  The kids got their standard McNuggets, juice box, and fries, but the Happy Meals also included a large wedge of fresh pineapple.

This was our Euro Camp "cabin."  It was actually perfect- two bedrooms, two bathrooms, little kitchen and patio.  We stayed here for three nights, and tried out the pools, water slides, restaurant, and gelato, and they were all great.  Awesome value for a very little price tag.  (We did purchase everyone a new swimsuit at the shop so we could enjoy the pools.)  It was also well located near Florence and the Tuscan hill towns.

In the morning we drove into Florence.  We made a few wrong turns (thanks GPS,) and got stuck in some rush hour traffic, so by the time we parked in a garage we didn't have very long to figure out how to get to the Accademia for our 10:00 reservation. We might have hopped a street car without paying, and we might have carried lagging kids a mile or so, but we made it there on time and got in to see Michelangelo's famous David.

So, why does David matter?  This is the question I get asked about nearly every piece of art/artist by my kiddos, and sometimes I just don't know other than IT DOES.  Here's what I do know about David.  He is 17 feet tall, really bigger than I thought he would be.  He was unveiled in 1504, that is a looooong time ago for him to still be in such pristine condition, he must work out. Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he began carving it and it took him two years. And also, it is just amazing how you can see the outline of muscles and even veins- Michelangelo was just an artistic genius, and this may have been the first work where his contemporaries realized that.

The Accademia is surprisingly small, but we did also enjoy this room that showed how sculptors and their apprentices worked from models, made plaster molds, and carved out of stone.  Statues like this have become a lot more interesting since Charlotte and Toby have learned about all of the Greek Gods and Goddesses and can now tell us about the statues and stories behind them.

After the Accademia we strolled down to the Duomo. The Florence Cathedral was begun in 1296, and completed with this dome in 1436.  I love that when they began building it, there wasn't even an understanding of how to make a dome this large, but they just left a hole and figured someone would figure it out eventually, and they did. (The ancient Romans had the knowledge, but it had been lost since that time.)

The cathedral and bell tower are so large, and the streets are so small, I found it impossible to get far enough away from it to take a complete picture, but it is beautiful, and Gothic, and I'm sure to medieval Florentines it was a symbol of their prominent place in the world and God's kingdom.

The Baptistery next door is home of the Gates of Paradise doors by Ghiberti. Ghiberti wom the commission when he was only 21 (Florence was a young men's town I guess) but it took him 21 more years to complete them. There are 28 panels, 20 of which depict the life of Christ. (The other eight feature prominent Saints.)  These doors are actually a replica-the originals were moved to a museum in 1990 for preservation.

Next we strolled over to the Piazza Della Signoria, which is the town square in front of the Town Hall.  We took along with us on this trip a Treasure Hunt for kids book about Florence that Rob's mom had sent us.  It was great for keeping the kids engaged and awarded points for things like finding out who this sculpture is of.  (It's Cosimo de Medici, the first Medici to really run Florence behind the scenes.)  This square was also where the Bonfire of the Vanities occurred: in 1497 the Church in Florence gathered things they though might lead people to sin, including mirrors, make-up, books, musical instruments, paintings, and so on.

Also on the Piazza Della Signoria is the Loggia dei Lanzi. This is basically an open air sculpture gallery, and a lovely place to sit in the shade and watch people.

This was our favorite sculpture in the Loggia dei Lanzi, with a view of the Palazzo Vecchio in the background.  The "Old Palace" is the Town Hall.

 The next stop on our Venice stroll was the Ponte Vecchio.The "Old Bridge" had market stalls built into it that were originally home to butchers that would toss their waste into the Arno River below.  At some point the shops were taken over by Florence's gold and gem dealers.  It was fun to do some posh window shopping.

This is what the bridge looks like from the riverbank outside the Uffizi Gallery.

By this point we were all ready for a nice long Italian lunch.  We found a restaurant on the Piazza Della Signoria and settled in.  I love how European restaurants with patio seating with blankets.  (You can see the lady behind Toby using one.)  Toby tried to survive this trip by only eating McDonald's and pizza I think.  It was really good pizza though.

Rob loves the Aqua Panna and always tries to order the most interesting pasta on the menu.  (You can just see Amelie's hand next to him trying to draw the Florentine crest in our little Treasure Hunt book.)

Our appointment for the Uffizi Gallery wasn't until 4 pm, so we had some more time to stroll and shop for souvenirs after our meal.  We really liked all of the fancy paper shops, but they didn't seem to love our four kiddos roaming around touching their fancy papers- so no photo of that.  We did manage to find Dante Alighieri's old neighborhood though, and take a few pictures there.  This was the church he attended in the late 1200s.

And here we found a bust of Dante glaring down at us... "All hope abandon, ye who enter here!"  He doesn't seem like he was the cuddliest sort of guy.

Then FINALLY it was time for the Uffizi Gallery.  We made reservations ahead of time and so we were super surprised to see the massive line we had to wait in.  Turns out there had been a not-really-a-strike strike by the gallery employees that morning and they told everyone with reservations then to just come back at any point during the day.  Sheesh.  Also, it was a strategic error to plan the biggest museum for late in the day when the kids are pretty over it, but oh well!  Onward!

You guys.  The art in this place is AMAZING.

Just masterpiece after masterpiece.
Sometimes we'd let the kids take a break in the hallway and Rob and I took turns going into individual galleries because they were so tired.  But it was an experience I will never forget.

There were so many famous paintings, that I couldn't possibly take a picture of each of them.  And seeing art in real life instead of a photo is just a different experience.  Seeing the layers of paint, brush strokes, glossiness, and details.  Did I mention I loved it?

At the end of the top floor you can poke out onto this terrace and get an up close view of the Palazzo Vecchio and some fresh air. A lot of people ditch out at this point and skip the special exhibitions on the lower floor.  We powered on and boy were we rewarded!

Do you know what this is?  It is Leonardo Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi from 1481.
It is hard to tell in this photo, but it is HUGE, and unfinished, and just came back to the gallery after 6 years of restoration work.  Da Vinci had to give it up when he moved to Milan (to paint that Last Supper fresco you may have heard of.)  It was neat to see an unfinished work, with the sketches, and kind of see his process a little bit.  I loved it!

But boy, did I wear these guys out.

After the Uffizi Gallery we had a loooong walk (without transit fraud) back to our car.  We did stop in a chocolate shop and buy some mini-cannolis, fruit tartlets, and such for sustenance though, so that helped perk everyone back up.