Tuesday, 6 October 2015



What a beautiful city! After its loss of power to rival Florence during the 13th century, and a devastating plague that wiped out two thirds of its citizens, Siena became one of those cities locked in time – in this case a Medieval hilltop city with a great deal of its gothic heritage still intact. You cannot look around anywhere without spying an ancient pointed arch window, a decorative bronze hitching post, some old carved cornerstone that has stood there for hundreds of years. It is like an organic growth, with new structures propping up the old, trendy shops within ancient stone facades and mysterious bricked in doors, boarded-up basements and tacked-on roof-top rooms that I’m sure have their own stories to tell.

Always look up - cornices in Siena's oldest pharmacy

Siena’s museums, churches and palazzos are rich in the iconography of pre-Renaissance art: so many Madonnas with strangely adult Christ-child; saints suffering the most grisly fates with calm, beatific expressions – St Sebastian stuck full of arrows, St Lorenzo roasted over hot coals, St Agnes bearing her severed breasts on a platter; crucifixions and resurrections. They are beautifully decorative in deep blues and gold leaf (if you don’t look too closely at what is happening) but very formulaic. After a while, the images blur into a kind of code, a very useful thing for non-literate people to learn the scriptures. I’m just thankful that Giotto, Raphael and the others eventually arrived on the scene, bringing a more naturalistic, human perspective to art.
From Medieval...
to Renaissance

The Cathedral is a spectacular construction in green, white and red marble with massive striped columns supporting the Duomo. In typical Gothic style, every niche, corner, projection and surface is ornately carved – you can spend hours discovering characterful faces and strange creatures looming down at you amongst the typical religious tableaux. Off to one side is a beautiful library showcasing illuminated manuscripts and music, and painted with vivid frescoes on each wall panel. My favourite shows a fleet of ships about to be pounded by a typical Mediterranean squall – clearly some things never change!

The library

Impending storm

And the middle ages live on, not just in the buildings and artworks, but deep in the culture of the Sienese themselves. All paths lead to the huge sloping piazza known simply as Il Campo, where the famous horse race, the Palio, takes place twice a year. 12 of the 17 Contrade  (rotational) or districts compete, with lots of ritual and pageantry surrounding the mad race (of about one minute’s duration) around the perimeter of the Campo. We accidentally timed it perfectly for the week before the Palio, so we got to see a lot of the build-up without the price hike in accommodation that accompanies the actual event. To see it, you can choose between the crush of the central enclosure, or paying 400 euros to watch from a cafĂ© on the outside of the course. Each Contrada has its own colours, symbols, church, heroes and bitter rival amongst the others. One man told us that is possible to marry outside your Contrada, but – he shook his head and performed an Italian gesture suggesting dire tragedy – there are always difficulties.  Romeo and Juliet of the Palio? You begin life being baptised twice – once in church and then again in the fountain of your Contrada. It is all surprisingly contagious. After a couple of days we felt a real allegiance to Civetta (the owl), the district where our apartment was located, and I couldn’t resist buying the appropriate red, black and white scarf, and feeling that we were in “enemy territory” when walking through Leocorna (Unicorns), Civetta’s traditional rival Contrada.
Flags of the different contrade
Old engraving of the Palio
Monte di Paschi
Bank ledgers from the 17th century

And of course Terry had to do a pilgrimage to Monte dei Paschi di Siena – the world’s oldest bank still in operation. Its charter, dated 1472, was on display in the archive, along with ancient ledgers, seals and other quite fascinating artefacts, including a loan document for a loan to Napoleon. And of course the narrow streets are full of great restaurants and cafes, artisan ceramics and textiles, interesting shops and the delightful Sienese themselves – elegantly dressed and animated as they make their evening passegiata.
Watching it all go by - with Aperol spritz, of course

This Prosciutteria had three underground levels of cured hams, a restaurant, and a dusty wine vault



Very expensive hand made shoes
And one final highlight before we took the train back to Pisa - a concert of Italian opera classics with all the passion and expressiveness you would expect from a real diva!

Back to Marina di Pisa to plan the next stage - on to Porto Venere, then to Genoa.
(These pictures don't quite fit in anywhere, I just wanted to share them :)
Ancient gardens
Philosopher resorts to lowest form of argument

Bizarre reliquaries


A dog always seems to upstage the dignitaries



Thursday, 24 September 2015

From the mouth of the Arno to Pisa, Florence and Siena

Rub the boar's snout to ensure that you return to Florence
On the recommendation of Anne and Gordon aboard Sarah Grace, we ‘sailed’ (a Mediterranean term for motoring into a headwind) from Elba into the mouth of the Arno River. Here, besides the big new Marina di Pisa complex, there are small marinas and jetties for a couple of miles along the river bank. Marinanova is a quaint and pleasant little spot where the two friendly marina dogs race to greet you before you see the “Please do not Feed the Dogs” sign. Paolo, who owns and runs Marinanova, has a PhD in Economics but he enjoys the simple life sleeping on his boat and keeping company with the local fishermen. Nets are strung all along the river bank and there seems to be plenty to catch, but thinking of the major cities, towns and farmlands upriver, we weren’t that keen on a seafood dinner. A regular bus service runs along the main road behind the marina so it’s easy to travel to the local town, or into Pisa or, with a couple of bus/train changes, to Florence and Siena. So that’s what we did.
Tai the Marina dog
Fishing huts and nets on the Arno

The first excursion was about ten kilometres to the city of Pisa to see the Field of Miracles and the famous Leaning Tower. No matter how many times you’ve seen it in photos or films, seeing the actual tower listing at that angle is a surreal experience. Galileo conducted his canon ball experiment here (whether it was an actual demonstration or a ‘thought experiment’ is still debated, though it’s fun to imagine him up there!) He thus proved conclusively that Wil E Coyote couldn’t possibly have been crushed by the ACME anvil that he pushed over a cliff to catch the Roadrunner (the theory does have some other minor applications.) A stroll across the bridge and through the lamplit town, and dinner at Osteria I Santi, was a lovely way to finish the evening.

The Tower
Detail - the Leaning tower
We managed to resist taking the 'holding up the tower' shot

Our next, more ambitious effort was a round trip to Florence for three days, the same in Siena, then back to Pisa. I feel quite inadequate to describe either of these wonderful cities, but I hope the photographs will provide some sense of their uniqueness.

My first glimpse of Florence was a day trip with our mates Jenny and Robbie, who spent ten days with us in Rome – but I want to leave that story for their Guest Blog. Terry and I booked into a nice little ground floor apartment, within easy striking distance of the Duomo, which of course is a spectacular must-see. Built from white, grey-green and pink marble from the outposts of the Empire, it is one of those buildings that proclaim, “We are the centre of the world” which, in the sixteenth century, Florence was. Inside, it is surprisingly plain: light and space provide the sense of awe rather than the usual spectacular decoration. Florence is the city of the Renaissance, a testament to what happens when great wealth, new ideas, enlightened leadership (the Medicis, of course) and genius in several fields (art, literature, architecture, science…) coincide and enhance each other.

The Duomo, Florence

So, it was off to Santa Croce, where several of the great figures of the time (and later times) are buried, to pay tribute. Besides the great Galileo himself, the scientists Fermi, Marconi and Barsanti (co-inventor of the internal combustion engine); artists like Ghiberti and the great Michelangelo; writers like Dante and Machiavelli, amongst many other notables in different fields, are buried here. Michelangelo created a beautiful Pieta for his own tomb, but sadly it is elsewhere and he is left with a fussy, ostentatious edifice which I doubt he would have appreciated.




Fortunately I had been to the Uffizi with Jenny and Robbie – there was no getting in this time around with the holiday crowds in full force. It’s a strange phenomenon that only the really major tourist attractions are ever crowded – perhaps this is because of the itineraries of cruise lines and tour buses? Pompeii will have a hundred thousand tourists, while Ostia Antica has ten! In Florence, places like the Bargello (sculpture museum) and the Pitti Palace (home of a rival family to the Medicis, housing a great art collection) were not at all crowded, making it easy to stroll around and really look at things properly. Donatello’s sculptures, beautiful paintings by Rafael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio – what a feast!
Donatello's rather camp David

Living large Renaissance-style in the Pitti Palazzo

Amazing detail from an inlaid stone table

Rafael Madonna and Child
Titian's beautiful repentent Magdalene

Rubens bringing dynamic movement to Florentine art

And speaking of feasts, we enjoyed several including this Florentine bistecca at Rubaconte Ristorante -  simple but sensational.

Florence is one of those inexhaustible cities to which you could return again and again, and it would still reveals more layers, more treasures. I hope we can return some day. And now, to do justice to the equally beautiful, but quite different city of Siena, I think I will save it for the next blog.

Sun sets on Marinanova

Monday, 17 August 2015

Porto di Roma to Elba

Grand sea views must be something we’ve only recently come to value. It seems that in the past, explorers would discover a lovely island or a dramatic bit of coastline and say to themselves, “This spot would make a splendid prison/asylum/leper colony/cemetery!” The island of Elba, largest of the Tuscan Islands, would have to be one of the world’s most beautiful prisons – though I suppose that’s a bit of a stretch as Napoleon had a pretty free range of the island and he was only here for nine months. The Elbans remember him fondly; an incurable leader, he organised to have roads built and reformed the punitive tax laws on the island. His death-mask has pride of place in the palazzo which is now a museum.
Elba - mountains, forests, clear blue bays

Our passage to Elba from Porto di Roma wasn’t ideal – sloppy short chop and variable winds all the way.  We bypassed Isola Giglio as the moorings didn’t look at all inviting, checking out the site of the Costa Concordia disaster on the way through. More slop and chop, then finally a couple of hours of sail until we put down the anchor in Porto Azzura, Elba, at 1700. Any excuse to get in the water, I checked our anchor and found a surprising bonus - right beneath us was a perfectly good mooring block, still with loop, but minus float! Terry hooked us up, we left the anchor down as a decoy and voila! We weren’t going anywhere.
Sea turtle rescue! We found three floating mid ocean - gave them away to kids

Rocks where the Costa Concordia struck

And that was just as well, as our second day saw the arrival of one of those sudden, spectacular thunder storms that appear out of nowhere in these parts, no doubt because of all the warm humid air being pushed up mountains and cooling quickly. Well this one precipitated great lumps of hail that really hurt when they hit you, but were handy for cooling the evening Aperols.
Thunderstorm - I snagged a lightning strike!

Porto Azzura is a stunning anchorage, with room for at least 100 boats at anchor –and that was just as well too, because the summer crowds were out in force. Despite this, Elba felt very relaxed and friendly – it is a fertile island and has a bit of a rural feel to it once you get away from the immediate waterfront in the main towns. We hopped on a local bus to see some of the countryside, which is mountains, forest and rich farmland, and the main ferry port at Portoferraio. The port is so named because Elba has some good iron ore deposits, which have been mined and shipped from here since ancient times – so this is where a few of those helmets, swords and bronze gods in the museums had their origins, perhaps.
Porto Azzura

Fertile farmlands in the valleys

Five days of exploring, swimming, reading and a few drinks and excellent meals ashore passed surprisingly quickly, as is the whole summer, in fact. So, with so much more of Italy still to see, we decided to park Common Sense in a low cost marina at the mouth of the Arno River for a week and jump on a train to Florence and Siena…

Pizza - simple and perfect

Beer Blogger hard at work