Thursday, September 4, 2008

Florence I

Yesterday was spent traveling from Cinque Terre to Florence. We stopped off in Pisa along the way to see the so-called "leaning tower." Too bad we don't currently have the capability to post pictures, but let's just say it was worth the stop. The tower is on a campus with a church and baptistry, so we toured these as well. After another freshly made deli sandwich, we continued on our way to Florence. The evening was spent getting settled into our hotel, doing our own walking tour of Florence, and enjoying our first pizza dinner here in Italy - very tasty!

Today was our first FULL day in Florence, and I mean that in every sense of the word. We woke up early for our 9am reservation at the Uffizi Gallery, the largest collection of art in Florence. The gallery is huge and amazing. It begins with primitive-looking religious art from the fourteenth century, and progressing through the almost 45 rooms which wind their way in a horseshoe shape, ends up in the eighteenth century, so you can see the advances in style and technique unfold before your eyes. And of course, there are some big names there as well -- It boasts work by artists such as Botticelli (including the Birth of Venus), Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Rafael and Leonardo Da Vinci. It was a mentally-exhausting, nearly 5 hour tour, but a rewarding experience.

We had lunch at a delightful little wine bar, or "Enoteca" that we happened upon. We sat with our sandwiches and shared glass of wine, then after much debate and some wasted walking, decided to go to the Pitti Palace. Here, we toured a portion of the science museum which is temporarily on display, which details the scientific developments that occurred in Florence under the Medicis, including the rediscovery of Euclid's works on geometry, original discoveries of Galileo obtained using his newly-developed telescope (an original was on display!), and various tools developed during this time used for navigation, astronomy, and engineering. Our ticket also allowed us to tour the palace gardens, which consisted of well-manicured lawns and shubbery, sculptures, fountains, and a terrace with a beautiful view. This was somewhat different from what we expected (no flowers), but was still a nice escape from the bustling, noisy city, and the mental effort required by museums.

Dinner was at La Trattoria Marione. A very charismatic waiter ushered us in, and convinced us to let him surprise us with two pasta dishes. We ended up with ravioli and spaghetti with meatsauce. Both were excellent, as was the €3 wine. We topped off the meal with Tiramisu.

After a short rest at our hotel, we were persuaded to drag our tired feet out one last time to visit a unique-looking exhibit on the Impressionists just a block from our hotel. This turned out to be a terrific complement to our Uffizi tour, as it picked up where the Uffizi left off. Starting from one or two neo-Classical paintings, it walked you through impressionism, with a focus on the techniques and technology used by the impressionists to create their paintings. It also let you in on some of the controversy surrounding their work -- critics said that this new style of painting looked like mere unfinished sketches. By the end, combinded with the Uffizi, it felt like we had received a miniature course in art history.

So all in all, a very long day (three museums!). But it was worth it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cinque Terre

Despite last night being our first real sleep in two days, we woke up fairly refreshed at 8:00, had croissants and cappucino at the local coffee bar where we bought our phone card, and set out on our hike of the Cinque Terre. These five towns, part of a recently-established national park and World Heritage site, are connected by seven miles of hiking trail. Each town is set on a (steep) hillside by the sea, and consists of little more than a single narrow, uphill street, surrounded by colorfully painted buildings.

The first leg of the trail, from our "home" of Riomaggiore to neighboring Manarola, is called "la Via del Amore," after the young couples that frequent it. It is flat and easy, only about 20 minutes walk. In Manarola, which is prettier than Riomaggiore, we watched a short movie at the wine museum about the local dessert wine "Stracciatella." Evidently they have been making it for many centuries.

After a short walk around town, we continued on the trail to Corniglia. This trail was longer and slightly harder, taking a little over an hour. We got lots of great seaside views of the clear, blue-green water, and the amazingly regular boulders at the bottom. As we approached Corniglia, we skipped the nude beach (a decision, however, which we questioned somewhat as the day got hotter), and proceeded up the 384 steps to the town, which unlike the others is perched high on a hilltop. We bought a picture from a local artist camped at the bottom of the stairs. In Corniglia we ate our first deli-bought ham, (local) cheese, and (to-die-for) salami sandwich, which is a cheap, delicious, and fun way to eat lunch.

Onward to Vernazza! This section of trail was much hillier, much rockier, much longer (about 1.5 hours), and (due to the time of day) much hotter. Tara's flip-flops really got a workout on this one. This trail was more through the forest above the sea, so we didn't get as many views to go with our workout. We also passed an enterprising guy who set up a restaurant halfway along the trail, but since he wouldn't fill our water bottle we continued on. Eventually we made it to Vernazza, which was a little bigger and busier. We had our gelato of the day here.

We skipped the last trail segment, which is 2 hours long and even rockier than the previous one. Instead we took the train to Monterosso, which is the busiest and beachiest of the five towns. Having lost all of our posessions on the flight over, we were excited to find a few cheap clothes here -- a shirt for Tara and some shorts for Scott. After a stroll around town and some pizza focaccia, our tired feet carried us back to the train station to make our way home. Dinner in Riomaggiore was at a nice seafood place, with some amazing pesto linguini, swordfish with marinara, and a half-bottle of local wine.

We really enjoyed this day of our trip. The combination of hiking through the seaside scenery and strolling through small, tradition-filled towns was an ideal first day of our vacation.

(pictures to follow)