MONTEPULCIANO: Our visit to Paestrum on the Italian coast at the Gulf of Solerno (at the ankle of the “Italian boot”), marked our furthest point south in Italy. For most of the 17 days we spent in Italy, we had experienced delightfully warm, sunny days and cool nights. It was hard to leave such wonderful late Fall days in southern Italy, but it was time to head north through a few of the towns we had saved to see along the way as we headed out of Italy and back into France.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves north of Rome in the heart of the famed Tuscan hills. Each bend in the road produced another picture-perfect Tuscan postcard scene. Vineyards and olive groves on the outskirts of small hill towns dominated an immaculate country scene.
Our guidebook had recommended four small Tuscan hill towns as worthy of a visit, so we decided to take a chance and see if we could find parking in one of the towns so we could take a walk around. As soon as we pulled into a large parking lot that allowed overnight campers just outside the ancient walls surrounding Montepulciano, we knew we had found the perfect overnight camping spot.
For the time being, however…we had several hours of daylight left, so we took a long lazy uphill walk through the narrow picturesque streets of Montepulciano.
The slow uphill climb was worth it for the views we had of the valley below.
Before long we had reached the high point of the town at the Piazza Grande, where we did a little wine tasting at Contucci Cantina, followed by a brief walk through their wine cellar with its giant barrels of aging wine.
SIENA: The next day we had a very short ride to Siena, a perennial hill town favorite of travelers. Siena struck us as more authentic than some of the other tourist cities we had visited. We took a stroll through town and dropped in on the Church of San Domenico, the parish of Siena’s beloved 14th century home town saint, St. Catherine of Siena. Both the interior as well as the exterior of the church was very plain, in keeping with Dominican ideals of simplicity.
What struck us as a bit ghoulish was the display in little glass boxes of St. Catherine’s thumb and head, with skin and facial features still recognizable…
One of Siena’s two top attractions was its cathedral, the Duomo, which had one of the most beautiful facades we had ever seen anywhere in Europe.
Lacy, ornate statuary and designs, all cleaned and in good repair, covered the exterior. The striped pattern of green stone with white stone was very lovely to the eyes! The inside of the Duomo also had a pretty big wow factor, with its giant green and white striped columns,
incredible inlaid stone design on every spare inch of its floor,
and brilliantly frescoed library.
Siena’s other 3-star attraction was its unique bowl-shaped main square called Il Campo. This was a great place to sit and just relax and people watch. Better yet, it was a great place to have drinks and a light dinner while savoring the view.
FLORENCE: There were two big reasons we detoured back into Italy before heading over to Spain and Portugal for the winter. One reason was to visit Venice, which turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire European RV adventure. The other reason we came back to Italy was to visit Florence, the home of the Renaissance. While trying to organize our 2-day visit to Florence, it soon became apparent that the city fathers in charge of Florence tourism had done a monumental job of needlessly complicating attempts to visit Florence’s world-class sights. The hated expensive one-price ‘combo ticket’ scheme of pairing up less quality sights with the two museums everyone wanted to see was, well, most annoying! In addition, both of Florence’s world-renowned museums, the Academia and the Uffizi, could only be seen by means of a reservation for a timed entrance…for an added cost per ticket, of course. Nevertheless, for a chance to see some of the best Renaissance art anywhere, we jumped through the hoops of the reservation system, at an additional cost of about $20, and soon had a reserved 15-minute entrance window on our coveted admission tickets. Turns out even when we arrived an hour early to both museums, we were promptly waved right on in! Can’t figure out what the ‘timed reservation’ thing was all about…well, maybe I can.
The Academia’s claim to fame was the statue of Michelangelo’s David, a 17-ft masterpiece in marble that literally took our breath away on first sight. It was masterfully displayed in its large custom-made niche that had natural lighting from a clear dome above.
(copy of David displayed outdoors)
David had everyone’s attention. I couldn’t help but think that the dozens of amateur art students who were carefully doing pencil sketches of David in their notebooks sure picked a tough act to imitate…
During our visit to the Uffizi the next day, we found equally grand Renaissance art. Our favorite room was the Botticelli wing, where it was clear that Botticelli had taken his craft to a whole new level of expertise.
Botticelli's "Madonna of the Pomegranate"
With its pink, green and white Tuscan marble façade, Florence’s Duomo Cathedral was even grander than Siena’s.
The Duomo’s claim to fame was its unparalleled Brunelleschi dome,
incredibly large and ingeniously designed as one-of-a-kind in its time.
We spent our final hours in Florence at sunset looking at all the gold and silver jewelry shops along the famed Ponte Vecchio, a covered bridge that spans the Arno River.
Looking back on our visit, we were glad we had come to Florence, both for its historical importance and for its collection of world-class Renaissance art.
PISA: Our last planned stop in Italy was at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Al had visited Pisa as a young naval officer over 30 years ago, so he was familiar with the scene. My first thought as I rounded the corner of the nearby church was: What keeps this tower from toppling over? The Tower’s 15-ft lean from vertical was most impressive.
We couldn’t resist doing some silly shots that seemed so popular with the crowd.
The entire ‘Field of Miracles’ complex was very lovely with acres of perfect grassy areas surrounding the cathedral,
and the Camposanto Cemetery cloister, which was especially peaceful and beautiful, even the sarcophogi.
We rounded out the day in town with our favorite early evening Italian drink, a ‘spritz’ for each of us. What a perfect sunny day we had in Pisa--such a fitting finish for our visit to Italy… Ciao!
“Every exit is an entry somewhere else.” Tom Stoppard