Sunday, May 22, 2011

Our plan for our last full day in Florence was to get tickets to Galleria Uffizi, which is the second oldest museum in the world (the first oldest being The Louvre - which is most famous for The Mona Lisa which is an Italian painting - all of this was told to us by Yuri, our enthusiastic hostel manager and seems like an age-old argument for Italian pride). Anyway, this museum has a reservation office that we were going to visit to buy tickets before heading to the Basilica de Santa Croce. It turned out that we were actually a bit early and that the reservation office wasn't actually open so we thought we would try the Galleria itself as the line might be short enough. Apparently this place is very popular as, even as early as it was (9am) the line was ridiculously long; even longer that the one at the Colosseum had been! We decided to go to the Basilica first and hopefully by the time we'd done that the reservation office would be open and we could skip the queue.
Now, Shelley and I have this theory that the outside of a church is usually the bit that is most interesting and the part that sets it apart and makes it different to other churches - inside they are all pretty much the same really. However, when we found Santa Croce, we had a moment of wondering if we had gone in a circle and were back at the Cathedral, see:


Santa Croce:

Ok - so they look quite different in these pictures (which I had to borrow from the Internet because we can't get photos this good when we try), but they definitely look alike in real life, they are both all Green and White and wedding cake like. Anyway, we realised of course, that this was a different church and went off in search of an entrance. For possibly the first time in our adventures we not only turned up somewhere before it had opened, but also before a queue had formed! The only other people there were two lovely young girls from Brazil who we spoke with while we waited for the church to open. A little bit of an interlude is needed here to explain why we waited around for the church to open. Yuri had told us that this church is where quite a few famous people are buried, Michelangelo, Galileo and Dante amongst others; very helpfully they give you a map that points out where the "Tombs and Sepulchres of the Great" are. Having previously done a project on Galileo Galilei, I was most interested in seeing his tomb and, happily, his is the first you come to when walking around the church.

As you can see Galileo is shown holding a telescope and resting on a globe. Directly below him is carved a representation of the solar system, with the sun at the centre. The two marble muses standing on either side of him are holding geometrical drawings. The whole thing is a beautiful testament to the visionary buried there! I had tears in my eyes when I saw it. Anyway, enough of my enthusing. . .
Next up was Michelangelo himself. Above his tomb is a picture of 'The Pietti', which is the bible story his sculpture in the Vatican is based on (you know the one - woman holding a dead Jesus tenderly). Directly below this is a marble bust of the man himself and below that, three statues of women that represent Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Pictures in order follow:

Pietti and marble bust




The whole thing

Next was Dante:

Then there was a Machiavelli (The Machiavelli to be exact, but we didn't know that till we got home) and a couple of people whom we didn't recognise, including this guy:
Anyway, we then saw the rest of the church which was, you know, church-like. (except for a couple of GIANT paintings that creeped the hell out of us!). Our tickets included entrance to Casa Buonarotti which was Michelangelo's family house that has since been made into a museum/shrine to Michelangelo so we went in search of this. One very unhelpful guard simply told us that it was 'around the corner', but another one gave us slightly more detailed directions and off we trotted. We arrived at a relatively non-descript on the outside house and arrived. Michelangelo's descendant, Michelangelo the Younger, had set about collecting together as much of the Master's work as he could, along with images of the man and some other things he found interesting. The most notable of which is a giant stone eagle that stands at the top of some stairs, ready to give all visitors the heebie-jeebies!
In one room, I raised the camera to take a photo of something only to be told by an official that no photos were allowed. We hadn't seen any signage to indicate this, which is why the camera had been out anyway, but as soon as I was told that, I turned the camera off and relegated it to my shoulder. This didn't deter the woman however as she had obviously decided we were bad news and followed through the rest of the rooms, trying to look as if she wasn't! It was extremely frustrating as we are decidedly NOT 'those' tourists and there were other people who were not only taking photos, but also using flash which is like ten times worse! (Something about the light emitted causes damage to old things that require a controlled temperature and low lightling). Anyway, it was nice to be away from her and I think the whole experice would have been much more enjoyable if she hadn't followed us, as this building actually had some really cool things in it but knowing that someone was watching us really put a damper on things.
Our next stop was the Ponte Vecchio or 'jewellery bridge' where we found some pretty things to buy each other. It being a Saturday, it was EXTREMELY crowded and when I got back from buying Shelley's present, she clutched on to me as all of the people had made her worry she would never see me again. Lunch was found and then much shopping for presents for other people was done before heading back to the hostel to escape the masses (and masses, and masses) of people.
After a brief rest, we sadly packed our bags in preparation for tomorrow's journey home. We then decided to enjoy our last night in this beautiful city by drowning our sorrows at having to leave it. We were in the Hostel's common room and the TV was on, the news came on and, as it was in Italian, we didn't understand it. But we saw a picture of The Pope and then something about a vigil in St. Peter's Square. Us not knowing a lot about Catholicism, we thought that maybe the pope was seriously ill or something! Later on, Yuri and his friend joined us in the drinking and, Yuri's english being not that great we attempted to ask about the vigil. For those of you who remember the Waikato ad that didn't have any talking in it, Amber used the sign for 'Does the pope wear a funny hat?' to ask about it. Turns out that this is what Catholics do the night before Easter Sunday.

Which brings us neatly onto Easter Sunday.

As you all know, Shelley and I are extremely unreligious, so, when we booked this trip it didn't even occur to us that we were going to be in a Catholic country over Easter! By the time we did realise it, it was Good Friday. As we had to travel on Easter Sunday, I looked up public transport over Easter in Florence and discovered that if you have to be in a Catholic city over Easter - Florence is THE place to be. With this place in mind, our alarm was set early. We go reasonably good positions at the square in front of The Cathedral to witness just how exactly Florence celebrates the rising of that Christ guy (sorry to our religious friends, every thing we say during the following is in jest, please remember that). Anyway, I've always been fascinated with how Catholicism manages to mix paganism and christianity and never has this been more in evidence that Easter Sunday in Florence.
After a couple of hours of waiting and watching people running around a lot and armed guards keeping people back a certain distance.

The action started. First to arrive was a parade of olde worldy style people with drums and trumpets.
These people were followed by a donkey pulling a cart and then four, pure white, very decorated, bulls pulling a GIGANTIC decorated cart.
(Shelley thinks it looks like a Dalek here - and she calls me a geek!)

Some 'peasanty' style women then bought out carts filled to overflowing with flowers and sprigs.

After a slight delay where men in tights entertained us with dances and flag throwing, Lating chanting and 'hallalujiahs' could be heard. A procession of priests meandered past us carrying crosses, chanting and waving incense. Finally, a cardinally looking priest guy, with an entourage of lesser looking priests and carrying a brush and some holy water, splashed water on the giant cart (the animals and plastic had been removed by this point), and blessed it. He then walked about the square blessing and throwing holy water over all the people gathered, (Including us - We looked for burn marks but couldn't find any), the olde-worldy people and then, finally, wagons of flowers. After everything had been thouroughly holy watered, he disappeared back inside the church and all the peasanty people started handed out sprigs, flowers and eggs. (the last is for 'bambinos'). We can only assume that this is for luck in the coming year. We were given a sprig each, and Shelley was even given an egg!!
After a slight pause, the following happened:

Basically, a dove shaped rocket comes flying from the church to crash into the giant cart and fireworky madness ensued. They even create a smoke wall so you can see the fireworks during the day!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

In the land of Firenze

That is Florence to all the non-Italians out there reading this! We packed our bags and headed of to the train station with plenty of time to spare and went to one of the automated machines to collect our tickets. I say collect as Amber had already gone to the trouble of purchasing them online before when even left the UK. However, when we typed the booking number into the machine It told us that there was an error and would not give us our tickets. We joined the cue for the rail company (which was very very long) and began the wait to talk to a human about our tickets. Much later we finally got to the counter and produced the booking info that had been emailed to Amber when she made the booking. The human looked at it and then handed us our tickets. My question which was never explained by the way, was why did we have to wait in line at all? Apparently the Italians don't fully understand the concept of pre-booking.

So tickets brought we found a spot underneath an electronic departures board and parked ourselves and waited. Eventually our train info came up. At this point Amber and I would have been much better off if either of us spoke or understood Italian. The platform number for our train and indeed the only one with such a platform number which was 2E. We would have both preferred it I think if it had been listed as platform 9 & 3/4 at least we would have seen the humor. Looking at all the platforms we could see that they numbered 1 through 9 but we could not see any letters. Nor could we see any helpful people to ask. After getting a bit snippy each other and not seeing any better ideas Amber joined another cue. Eventually we were informed that platform 2E is joined to the end of platform 1. "Of course" we say "How normal". We set off down platform 1 which is very very long. Eventually we come to a train that is all alone and it kinda looks like maybe Thomas and his friends didn't like this train and so he was made to sit all by himself way down at the end of the platform in solitude, either that or he was a naughty train and was in time out. Anyway eventually we make it onto the train and found seats and then got comfortable for a very long journey.

The train journey was very pleasant, there was much pretty countryside to look at and we passed through many small towns. At one stop 2 fully armed policemen got on board the train which kind of freaked us out. I don't think we will ever get used to the idea of that.

We had checked on google maps for directions for the hostel so once we got out of the station at Florence, Amber took point and led us to our hostel. Unfortunately for her she led us right through the middle of what looked like the biggest leather market I had ever seen. The pack on my back felt like it weighed about 5kg more than when I had put it on that morning so I did not really linger but made a mental note to come back at a later date. We found the address and then walked up 3 floors to get to the hostel. This one turned out to be very small with only a couple of rooms. We dumped our stuff and took off to find dinner. Our very helpful hostel manager, Yuri, had given us a map and pointed out places to eat, see, and shop. Once dinner was over we went for a walkabout we ended up at a massive square in front of a church (turns out that this was The Cathedral of Florence or The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore). There were heaps of people about, it reminded us of Barcelona. Heaps of people just hanging out and socialising even though it was after 10pm. We brought some very tasty gelato and then went back to the hostel for some much needed sleep.

When we woke up the next morning and discovered that we were the only ones still in the dorms. Our new dorm mates were very quiet, something we greatly appreciated. We dressed and then set off for breakfast. I pretty much pick the places we eat at when aboard and we ended up at a cafe/patisserie/bar where the Barista's were all wearing suits and there was a chandelier on the ceiling. The food looked very good and although the whole place looked very wanky I decided that this was the place we were going to have breakfast. In Italy there is an additional surcharge added if you sit at a table and get waited on. In this kind of establishment I figured that it would probably cost our entire days allowance if we did that so we declined to be seated and stood at the bar for breakfast. The thing about sitting down in a cafe, is that you can just point at an option on the menu without having to pronounce it. With the option I picked we had to look at the food in the serving case and decide what we wanted and then go over to the cashier and pay for it. Then she gave us a ticket which you took to the lady at the serving case who would then look at the ticket and give you the food you think you asked for when you paid for it. Amber had pointed at something she wanted to eat and I had picked something that I thought looked like brioche. Once we got the food sorted we took the same ticket to the man and ordered coffee. Then once this was done we could stand at the bar and eat. My breakfast turned out to be some very tasty cake like thing that had been soaked in some kind of liquor, it was not at all what I expected. The coffee was very strong which was good. The verdict was that we were going to revisit this place for breakfast again, maybe we would actually get brioche on the next visit.

After breakfast we went for a wander and ended up at Palazzo Vecchio which is a massive palace that belonged to and was occupied by the Medici family back in the day. There was also an additional exhibit named 'For the Love of God' by artist Damien Hurst. We decided that we would pay the extra charge and see both the palace and the exhibit. The museum was set out so the exhibit was the first thing to see. I will explain a little about this as it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the palace and I have no idea why they chose to exhibit it there, the only conclusion I can come up with is that it is a place where lots of tourists visit and therefore they would make more money with this added feature. The exhibit is made up of one piece and it is a diamond skull that the artist constructed from a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a pear-shaped pink diamond located in the forehead. Costing £14 million to produce, It is probably the most dazzling thing I have ever seen. Photography is not allowed inside this exhibit so I am going to rely on google with some images so you can get the general idea.
The palace itself was much more amazing to look at though and we spent along time wandering through its rooms.

Once again I have resorted to the Internet to for some photos as they are not better than the ones we took (they are filled with tourists). At this stage I had hold of the camera and became very interested in what had been painted on the walls. I found it amazing that a painter had spent so many hours/days/months/years painting individual characters with so much detail.

This next room is called the room of the lilies it was pretty fricken amazing.

What the ceiling looked like

Sorry for the fuzz, at this stage the camera was nearly dead so I was trying to take photos quickly before the battery completely ran out. Our favourite room in the palace was the map room. It had a giant globe in the middle of the room and all the walls were lined with maps, according to the info on the room each section of wall was actually a wardrobe so when we found that out we liked this room even more.

The maps were also pretty cool, not too accurate though.

After the palace we continued on our walk-about and came to Ponte Vecchio which is a bridge that is a bit like the Rialto bridge in Venice, completely filled with shops! The best thing about this bridge was that all the shops were jewellery shops. After much wide eyed, open mouthed staring Amber reminded me about a passage in a Terry Pratchett book that she likened to me.

"Wentworth was sitting on a large, flat stone, surrounded by sweets. Many of them were bigger than he was. Smaller ones were in piles, large ones lay like logs. And they were in every color sweets can be, such as Not-Really-Raspberry Red, Fake-Lemon Yellow, Curiously-Chemical Orange, Some-Kind-of-Acidy Green, and Who-Knows-What Blue.

Tears were falling off his chin in blobs. Since they were landing among the sweets, serious stickiness was already taking place.

Wentworth howled. His mouth was a big red tunnel with the wobbly thing that no one knows the name of bouncing up and down in the back of his throat. He stopped crying only when it was time to either breathe in or die, and even then it was only for one huge sucking moment before the howl came back again.

Tiffany knew what the problem was immediately. She’d seen it before, at birthday parties. Her brother was suffering from tragic sweet deprivation. Yes, he was surrounded by sweets. But the moment he took any sweet at all, said his sugar-addled brain, that meant he was not taking all the rest. And there were so many sweets he’d never be able to eat them all. It was too much to cope with. The only solution was to burst into tears.

The only solution at home was to put a bucket over his head until he calmed down, and to take almost all the sweets away. He could deal with a few handfuls at a time."

In case you couldn't figure it out, I am Wentworth by the way. It took me awhile to get over this bridge. I still dream about it. Maybe when I die I could have my ashes sprinkled there. (Makes mental note to tell Amber about this)

After Ponte Vecchio we wandered back through Firenze to the Leather Market around the corner from our hostel . . .We have a theory that this market is to cows what Elm Street is for humans. After spending far too much money here, we found a supermarket for food and then it was home for an early night.
The next day was Good Friday, we had planned an early start in an attempt to see the inside of The Cathedral but we decided that, well, actually the pretty part of the church is generally actually the outside and the inside of a church usually looks the same after a little while so, after some breakfast we hunted down the Summer Palace of the Medici Family or The Palazzo Pitti as it is known. There were two options for tickets and we chose the one that included the gardens for Ten Euros each. Gardeni Boboli is the Garden we explored, although 'garden' might be a slighy understatement. The grounds here are so big that we would have had trouble finding our way around if it weren't for the signs and maps everywhere. We're not entirely sure how they managed back in the day, we have a theory that they had to send out search parties for missing family members. Anyway, after not too much trouble we managed to find what we were looking for - Grass!!! Grass that didn't come with 'keep off' signs or little men with whistles. We spread out and soaked up some sun while we read and dozed. . .After a couple of hours we decided to go in search of the other things on our ticket, only to discover that it was all closed for one reason or another (not being able to understand Italian we don't actually know why). At Ten Euros a ticket we felt it was a bit of a rip off but there wasn't much we could do about that really. The gardens were pretty but hardly any of the fountains were working, the statues all needed a really good clean and there were some things that were boarded up and didn't seem to be having any work done to them. Considering what we paid and how many people there seemed to be wandering around it did seem like things could have been in better repair. Here are some pictures:

This last photo proves that Shelley does wear dresses!!
Anyway, after the gardens we pretty much went back to the supermarket and the hotel.