A March 2004 trip
to Tuscany by moatway
Quote: Avoiding the large center of Florence, we opted to see a few smaller centres that appealed to us as an introduction to the area.
We actually passed down through Tuscany on our way to Assisi from France and so our first stop was Pisa. Pisa was a duty... everybody goes, so one has to go. And the Duomo and the area surrounding it are impressive. But the next day in San Gimignano was next to magic. I can't imagine many more attractive places... particularly in such small packages. Regardless of what else you choose to do in central Italy... go there.
Having settled in western Umbria, we had the ability to see much of eastern Tuscany if we chose. We spent part of one day in Cortona... I can't recommend it more highly... it really is a wonderful town with a combination of size, historical sites, restaurants and shops.
Sienna was really the key to the whole trip... I had vacillated on whether or not it was worth the drive, and it certainly was. The palazzo, the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo are firmly imprinted on my mind. It is another of those magical places with something for everyone.
Having decided to do a small-city exploration of central Italy, I must admit that I had a hard time differentiating between Tuscany and Umbria, so I recommend both most highly.
Cortona is close to Castiglione del Lago in Umbria... the two make a really nice way to spend the day.
At the risk of being redundant, it's all about San Gimignano and Siena... visit by all means, both are really easy to navigate.
Most hill-towns, regardless of where they are, feature parking... that is, if they are mentioned in any tourist guide printed in any country. Let's face it... a lot of this area is all about tourism. The function of the community is to move tourists through as expeditiously as possible.
You really need a car... and before I left, I had read a lot of things about the terrifying habits of Italian drivers. Don't worry about it... there is a lot of really fast driving, but the biggest problem I saw, out in the country, was the combination of older ladies on bicycles and elderly gentlemen driving little three-wheeled pick-ups at incredibly slow speeds.
There don’t seem to be a lot of places to eat nearby, but I could be mistaken. There is a good-looking pizzeria just up the street in the Piazza Victor Emanuele II and the hotel was able to recommend a very good restaurant just 30 yards away. By the time you arrive, it may have its own… renovations were on-going for at least a bar… and with the space involved, I suspect a restaurant.
It is a charming place. Our room was queen or king bedded (I have a hard time telling in European hotels… is the bed large or is the room just small?) with an armoire and mini bar and shuttered windows overlooking the street. The bath was four pieces (no tub). It was all extremely clean, bright and well-decorated. The rate of 110 Euros included a buffet breakfast which was very good. There was a diminutive, monitored parking lot – the price is posted at 20 Euros but it was given for a more reasonable (?) ten. I suspect in summer you will have to pay 20 Euros… 65 rooms + 10 parking spaces = demand.
The hotel does not accept traveller’s cheques, but they offered a five Euro discount if I paid cash. Last note… the hotel does have a Chrysler mini-van… they will pick you up at the airport or perhaps even the station.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 2, 2004
Hotel Bologna (Pisa)
Via Mazzini, 57
Attraction | "Wandering Pisa"
Except for the Duomo, the Leaning Tower and the museums attached to them, Pisa seems pretty pedestrian. There are other things to do, of course, but they are really overshadowed by the big site.
It was March and everything at the Duomo site closed by 5:30, so we considered all the ticket combinations, the likelihood of really getting involved in another painting and decided to opt for the Duomo and the Baptistry… a combination ticket costing 6 Euros. That’s not too ambitious when you consider that there are six venues on the site… we omitted the Composanto, the Leaning Tower (can see it, don’t need to climb it) and two museums. A while later, sitting in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II having a beer, it all made sense.
The Baptistry is as it suggests… a place for baptism. But it is large with an accessible upper gallery, has incredible acoustics, is 12th to 14th century and encompasses two architectural styles. It features an amazing marble pulpit and, of course, a huge font.
The Duomo is a breath-taker. Dedicated to St. Mary, its cream and green marble striping is typical of Tuscan churches. Begun in the 11th century, it has 5 naves… two side aisles on each side of a central nave. What you will notice… the blue and gold coffered ceilings which are found everywhere except in the apse and the dome in the center of the transept. Under the enormous picture of St. John on the ceiling of the chancel, you will find amazing marble-work. Absolutely marvelous. The transept contains two large chapels… visitors enter through one, the other is set aside for prayer.
Standing in the central nave, you will be struck by the height. The Corinthian columns before the side aisles support a substantial gallery above. The stained glass is in small Romanesque windows in the side walls of the aisles. In the nave, light pours in through small, clear windows over the gallery.
The side walls are also the home to huge works of art depicting various scenes from the Bible… this is a heavily decorated church showing little sign of its age. Well worth the time. Oh, by the way, about the time… I indicated that we were a little pressed… the two sites took remarkably little time… hence the retreat across town for a beer. Pisa is a sightseeing mecca – expect to be surrounded by crowds from all over the world.
Attraction | "A Visit to Cortona"
There are signs everywhere, so it’s easy to find the sites here… around the corner from the square is the Cathedrale di Santa Maria and the Museo Diocesano. I am not normally a big devotee of Musee Diocesanos and have avoided a number of them, but I do recommend that you see this one. The Palazzo Pretorio dominates the Piazza Signorelli and opposite it is the town’s main shopping street, which is actually also the conduit to the town’s collection of churches and the tomb of Santa Margherita, which lie even farther up the hill. Whether or not you choose to see the churches, do walk up the street. There is, apart from tourist information, an interesting collection of small shops selling everything from leather goods, to wine to antiques. At the end is a small park with splendid views of the countryside below.
Frankly, Cortona is delightful, with twisting lanes and stairs leading away from the main streets and wonderful view over the valley below. You will be captivated with the many small shops and there are a number of nice looking restaurants. As a note, we lunched at a pizzeria with the unlikely name of Fufluns at Via Ghibellina, 3 (websitefufluns), which is immediately off the Piazza in the direction of the parking lots below. We really enjoyed a good lunch in a nice atmosphere.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 2, 2004
Attraction | "A Taste of Montepulciano"
Entering through the city gate, you will have the opportunity to see much of the old city and see exterior views of many of its fine old mansions. There is also the usual bevy of churches, but really, Montepulciano is just charming… not a lot of "Wow" factor, just a pleasant place to pass a little time.
You have arrived in a wine capital… there will be opportunities to taste and you will want to try and probably buy the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. You will want to make your way up to the Piazza Grande where you will find the Palazzo Communale and the Cathedrale Santa Maria. Although it is not always open, from the tower of the palazzo there are great views of the countryside below… but frankly, you will see many of those views as you walk about the town.
The Cathedrale is an interesting, but not notable, church. It has three naves, a barrel-vaulted ceiling and is impressively wide relative to its height – it is worth a look. I think it must be time to get back to that wine-shop down the street…
Montepulciano (Medieval and Renaissance hill town)
Attraction | "Museo Diocesano, Duomo (Cortona)"
A visit to the Piazza Duomo is worth it just for the views across the countryside. The cathedral, which is on the right side, became such in 1507. Considerable work was done on it in the 16th century and much of the artwork was added through the 17th. It is a three-nave church, the most interesting feature of which is its decorated barrel-vaulted ceiling. The altar is interesting and the rear of the apse is lit by a single stained-glass window with a cupola overhead. It is an interesting church, but not outstanding.
For outstanding, you will have to cross the small piazza to the Museo Diocesano. It occupies the former church of the Society of Jesus, which was finished in 1505. The building itself then has some interesting spaces with nice coffered ceilings. Downstairs, at the bottom of a monumental staircase is an attractive oratory which is surrounded by carved wood seating, a large altarpiece and frescoed ceilings.
The museum contains, in a number of rooms, an excellent collection of art, church vestments and artifacts. The artwork ranges in age from the 13th – 18th centuries. There are pieces honoring the town’s patron saint, Saint Margaret and works by Fra Angelico, Luca Signorelli and Pietro Lorezetti. I do recommend that you pick up an audio guide… it was a good visit.
Museo Diocesano, Duomo (Cortona)
Piazza del Duomo
Attraction | "Siena and the Palazzo Pubblico"
Piazza del Campo is ringed with restaurants and obviously they are tourist traps and food quality can be at best, mediocre (and a beer can be 9 Euros, even I got sticker shock, particularly as a bottle of house Chianti was only 11 Euros). But of course, those restaurants are great places to sit in the sun and people-watch.
But you have really come here to see the Palazzo Pubblico and here you get two for one… a civic museum and the 14th century town hall. The museum itself, with its artifacts and art, was very nice, but it was the building that is a real treat. Inside, you will find a 15th century chapel with frescoes by Bartolo, a marble altar and beautifully carved and decorated choir stalls. There is a Consistoro, the seat of Sienese government. In the Sala de Mappamondo there is a grotesque painting of Herod’s slaughter of the Jewish children, which is an odd counterpoint to Simone Martini’s "La Maeste" on the wall which is dedicated to the Virgin. I particularly liked the first room… more recently decorated and illustrating the events of Italian unification… it was just wonderful.
On the museum side, my wife had commented that she was getting a little tired of all the Madonna and Childs that she had seen… the civic museum had a whole room of them, but apart from that kind of overkill, it was a great visit.
Normally the tower, the Torre del Mangia is open (and it certainly is a tall one) but unfortunately during our visit, it was closed for renovations. There are 505 steps… but what a view of the piazza below. Oh well, I bought the postcard.
Historic Centre of Siena
Attraction | "Duomo (Siena)"
The cathedral floor is patterned but it also contains marble narrative panels… apparently there are 56 of them, but the majority have been covered up to protect them. Several of the larger panels can be seen but the public is discouraged from walking on them.
There are so many beautiful things here… in the apse, the marble altar with its bronze statuary or the pulpit sitting on ten columns, four of which rest on the backs of marble lions. For 1.50 Euros, you can see the Libreria Piccolomini, a beautiful room designed to house a collection of manuscripts. The murals on the walls are scenes from the life of Pope Pius II. I thought the 1.50 was money well spent.
For six Euros, you can visit the crypt. Well, it’s not a crypt at all – it’s a 12th century chapel. When the apse was enlarged in the 14th century, the chapel was suddenly filled with brick arches to support the floor above. It remained hidden until five years ago and is an interesting archeological site. The murals on the walls are currently being restored. Was it worth six Euros? No, not really.
For three Euros, you can see the baptistery to the rear. It is interesting and beautifully painted, but after the duomo, it is an after-thought. It’s a fair price and it’s your three Euros. If you haven’t been hit with overkill as we were, the Museo del Opera del Duomo is next door at six euros. It includes a panoramic view of the area from a high lookout.
Siena Cathedral/Duomo di Siena
Piazza Del Duomo
Siena, Italy 53100
If you’re driving down from Pisa on S429, the drive into town on a winding road through Chianti country is beautiful. There are a number of parking areas around the city. I did the obvious, settled in the first available space without any consideration of how far I actually was from the city gate. It turned out to be only five minutes up the hill and we entered through the Porta San Matteo. At the other end of the city is a larger lot (where the tour buses park) and entry is through the Porta San Giovanni. Regardless through which gate you arrive, you will walk to the other through the streets which are named for the gates.
In the middle is the Piazza Duomo. The walk to that point from either end is a walk through a tourist mecca. There are artists, artisans, restaurants and souvenir traps. It may be the busiest little village in Italy.
Perhaps you should start your visit at Tourist Information in the Piazza Duomo, which features an exchange and information on combined ticket purchases. Next to it, the duomo, actually the Collegiate, is well worth the 3.50 Euro price of admission. It is a three-nave church that has been entirely covered with frescoes. Light streams through plain windows high up in the vaults of the church. The steps to the chancel are a handsome red marble and the chancel itself is surrounded by eight side chapels.
One of the side chapels is dedicated to Santa Fina, the patron saint of San Gimignano. The story says that she had devoted herself for five years in detention in prayer when she disobeyed her mother’s orders. (She had been told not to accept an apple from a male suitor.) Her remains are apparently in the chancel.
The most powerful fresco in the church is at the rear. It depicts St. Sebastian pierced with arrows… a lot of arrows. Of course, a beatific, somewhat enigmatic expression remains on his face. The frescos are the work of a number or medieval artists – the result is quite enjoyable.
The second site in the Piazza Duomo is the Civic Museum in the Palazzo Communale Pinacoteca and the Torre Grossa. One ticket… 5 Euros gets everything. While you’re picking up your ticket you might consider getting an audio guide for the whole town. I tried it but found it all a little confusing and didn’t use it much. The museum in the palazzo brings together two things: the building itself is beautiful with its frescoed walls and old council hall. In the pinacoteca or picture gallery are religious works and altar pieces of a number of 14th and 15th century Tuscan artists.
The Torre Grossa is a must-do. It is the tallest of the square’s seven remaining towers. The first few steps are awkward tile but after that, a modern steel-grate stairway will take you to the top. (Don’t hit your head on the bell cage) From the terrace at the top of the tower you will have amazing views far into the countryside of Tuscany.
There are a number of other civic museums and sites in the town… use your judgment, but you are more likely to be distracted by the town's many little shops.
Riverview, New Brunswick