No other country on the planet has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than Italy. It has more such sites than the traditional heritage powerhouses of Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt. All put together. Italy also makes the world's best Pizzas, Pastas, Tiramisu and Brinjal Parmigiana. It was hence no surprise that the second anniversary of our trip to Rome saw us headed back to Italy. But what was (and still is) a surprise is how the likes of Thomas Cook manage to show you all of Earth, Moon and Mars in the time we could pack-in just Tuscany. That too after giving up on two out of the three must-see sites and all other niceties in life, like a long post lunch Gelato breaks. What we couldn't cut out was the travel time. In this day and age of instant 3-D printed Raviolis, it still took us 24 hours to get from Pune to Siena, our first stop Under the Tuscan Sun.
One of the greatest Gothic cathedrals of Italy and also its best medieval squares are located in Siena. And we headed right there, bright and early, on our first morning, only to find out that nothing in Siena opens till 10:30 because that is when the busloads of tourists start arriving from Florence. After cooling our bottoms (literally on the cold cathedral steps) for a couple of hours, we took the first tour up to the cathedral dome. Unlike the other dome climbs, the best views are the ones looking back into the cathedral. The cathedral floor is exploding with mosaic panels, 54 in total and mostly depicting stories from the Bible, and the best way to see them all is from the top. The next hour was spent enjoying the bird's eye view of the mosaics from 50 ft up and human eye view from 6 (ok, ok more like 5'7") and being dazzled by the brilliant Piccolomini library. The greater cathedral complex is home to one other treasure - Santa Maria della Scala, the first hospital in Europe and whose walls are filled with a large collection of secular frescoes celebrating the clergy losing control of the administrative affairs way back in the 12th century. If you are into large secular frescoes, you can head next to Palazzo Pubblico (like we did) where Lorenzetti's The Allegory of Good and Bad Government is sure to not leave you disappointed. Right on top of the Palazzo looms a tall Torre del Mangia and a 342 huffs and puffs (also known as steps) will bring you to the top for one of the most breathtaking views in all of Tuscany. Unfurling in front of you in all directions is the city of Siena where every rooftop, every facade and even every dish antenna is of an uniform and unique shade of brown, unique enough to have its own name - the Burnt Sienna.
It was early afternoon and we had time to see one more Tuscan town before the sun will set for the day. We had to choose between Montepulciano and Pienza and we chose the former only because it was a more esoteric name to pronounce. Having missed the 2 pm train by few minutes, we paid a mini fortune to a taxi-walah to drop us at the gates of the hilltown. We spent the next couple of hours on a lovely passeggiata, the highlight of which was a bird's eye view of a text book example of a Renaissance Church - San Biagio by Antonio da San Gallo. The delightfulness of the passeggiata ended in the delightlessness of having to figure out how to get back to our hotel in Siena. Travelling between Tuscan towns is a supremely complicated logistical problem. If you rent a car, the closest parking is in Tunisia; the trains leave you even further away from the town, if that was ever possible; buses run notoriously off schedule; taxis have to be called and booked hours in advance and our phones did not work. What do you do when faced with such intractable problem? What else, but to knock at a church door. This is Italy. Churches are ubiquitous. Every priest knows someone at the tourist office and every person at that office has a fourth cousin twice removed who has a taxi and is looking for a client. 15 minutes of traversing this link list got us what we wanted - a ride back to Siena.
A direct bus service connects Siena and San Gimignano and we took the first of it the following morning, reaching there by 9. San Gimignano is one of the most visited small towns in Tuscany and for a good reason - most of its original 72 towers are still standing making it one of the most photogenic in the region. Add to that, the Collegiata's (the main church) walls are exploding with some of the best fresco cycles anywhere in the region. View from the tallest tower, the Collegiata frescoes, a stunning Maesta by Lippo Memmi and the best pizza of the trip made it a memorable morning. Like the previous day, what followed was the logistical conundrum of getting to the next destination - Volterra. It is easier to get to the moon from San Gimignano than to Volterra, which is, by the way, only 10 kilometers away as the crow flies or a couple of dozen as the car drives. Yet, there are no direct buses between the two. And today was a Saturday when the churches and tourist offices shut shop by noon. So the previous day's trick could not work. But, this is Italy. Pizzerias are ubiquitous and every pizza-walah has a fifth cousin thrice removed who has a taxi and is looking for a client. It took a bit longer to traverse the chain today, but finally, after two hours of search, we were in Volterra. Twice bitten, first thing we did was to find out our exit strategy. We learnt that there is a series of buses that will take us to Siena and first of the chain leaves Volterra at 5:30 in the evening. That gave us 3 hours. Plenty enough to walk the length and breadth of the town, check out its famous 1st c BC Roman Theatre, a less famous, but even older, Etruscan ruins and the more recent, but yet the oldest Palazzo dei Priori in all of Tuscany.
Foresight had made me book the only available transportation between Siena and Assisi - a direct bus, once a day that leaves Siena every morning. Yes, yes, I know what you are thinking. Yes, Assisi is not in Tuscany. Yes, it is in Umbria. And Umbria is not Tuscany. Yes, I know Guelphs and Ghibellines hate each other and thou shalt not confuse the two. You know what - just call me a Paki once and we shall call it even. Ok, where were we? Ah yes, getting to Assisi. Getting there was a breeze. The challenge was to sight-see with all our luggage in tow. A Spanish lady who was (wo)manning the public toilet came to our rescue. Seeing me struggle more with my Italian than the luggage, she mistook me as her fellow countryman and gladly offered to stow the luggage for us. I somehow managed to keep the conversation to the minimum and the misconception going. Assisi, for the uninitiated, is the birthplace of St. Francis, the first to receive the stigmata and after whom is named every city which calls itself San Francisco. There are two large Basilicas here and only the lower was open for us infidels on a Sunday. The Lorenzetti's frescoes in the lower Basilica alone made the entire ordeal of getting here worth it. After a quick in and out and trying and failing to gate crash the mass in the Upper Basilica we took a taxi to Perugia. We hatched a cunning plan to get rid of our luggage. We headed straight to the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, a museum we were planning to visit anyway, checked in our bags at the cloak room, sneaked out of the back door to see rest of Perugia. Getting to see the massive Piazza IV Noviembre with its impressive Fontana Maggiore and the Raphael's debut fresco at the Capella di San Severo were the reward for our plan. As Perugia is a large enough a city to afford an unmanned mini-metro to get to the station, rest of the day of getting to our night stop, Arezzo, was rather uneventful.
The small city of Arezzo packs quite a few treasures, the foremost of which is the Pierro della Francesca's magnum opus - The Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle on the apse of the Basilica di San Francisco. Another Pierro gem, Mary Magdalene, hides inside the city cathedral while at the nearby San Domenico hangs one of the best preserved Cimabue crucifix. On top of all this, the man who coined the term "Renaissance", Giorgio Vasari, was from here and his house which he frescoed himself is open to public. Since we overnighted in Aerzzo, we could get through this list before the day trippers arrived from Florence. That gave us a few extra unplanned hours and we decided to check out Cortona because everyone else does. Views there were really impressive and so was the small little Museo Diocesano.
After four days of traipsing around in Tuscany and 6 paragraphs of rambling, we have now finally reached the highlight of the trip - Florence. And our first stop: Uffizi, the museum with the largest collection of Renaissance masterpieces and the largest collection of Machiavellian rules governing its entrance. After spending half an hour figuring out what to do with a Firenze Card, we eventually got in to the 8:30 slot, early enough to see the Botticelli masterpieces in relative solitude. After Uffizi, we made the mistake of heading to the Galleria because by the time we reached there the time was well past 11 and the dreaded buses had arrived. Despite having a timed entry, we had to queue for an hour. Any doubt of whether the statue could live up to this much hype simply evaporated the moment we entered the main chamber where it majestically stands on a high pedestal. The piece, David - to give it a name, was simply breathtaking. In any other city, knocking off the top two sites would make the rest of the day a complete drag. But this is not any city and they don't call it Florence for nothing. Rest of the day included being transfixed by Fra Angelico's frescoes, especially the Annunciation, at San Marco, mesmerised by Donatello's Magdalene and Habakkuk and Michelangelo's other Peita at the Duomo Museum, gaping at the 13th century Byzantine mosaic ceiling of the Baptistery, climbing Giotto's Campanile and ending the day at the Piazzale Michelangelo, the only place where you can take in all of Florence in one shot.
What Uffizi is to painting is what Bargello is to sculpture - the premier repository of Renaissance art of its type. For some reason, hardly a soul visits Bargello. Which is a pity as there aren't too many things in the world better than the Donatello's David, Michelangelo's Bacchus or Giambologna's Mercury. As I am going to lose even the one or two readers who have stuck with this journal so far if I go into the detailed itinerary for the day, I will switch to my usual one sentence summary for the rest of the day. Which would be paying homage to the Italian giants (Michelangelo to Galileo) at Santa Croce, feeling like a Lilliput in the massive Sala del Cinquecento at the Palazzo Vecchio, trying to identify Dawn, Dusk, Day and Night at the Cappelle Medici, being bowled over by each and every one of the fourteen statues that stared down at us from the outer walls of Orsanmichele and ending the day at the never ending cloisters of Santa Maria Novella.
The third day in Florence saw us heading to Palazzo Pitti, a sumptuous palace that Elenora built because the current Medici residence was not befitting a Duchess. And she seems to have known her palaces. She ended up building one of the most luxurious in all of Europe. The never ending array of lavish rooms overflowing with Medici art collection is sure to leave anyone speechless. Behind the palace exists one of the first formal gardens of Italy, the Boboli. The palace and the gardens took most of our morning. Summary for rest of the day included being amazed by Masaccio's frescoes at the Brancacci Chapel, wondering 'how can anyone think of leaving this place' at the Magi Chapel in the older Medici residence (one that Elenora had left), searching and finding the obscure Last Supper fresco at Sant'Apollonia, repeating 400 BC multiple times in disbelief as that was when the stunning bronze Chiemera of Arezzo was casted and finally, finally, getting to climb THE dome of Brunelleschi.
On the last day of the trip, after 3 days of maxing out on our Firenze Card, we headed to the only place in Tuscany the 12 year old us could have recognised - Pisa. An hour on the train and a short taxi ride brought us to the most astonishing squares on the planet - the Piazza dei Miracoli where it does look like the Tower has no choice but to lean in order to be visible in the group photo with the Baptistery and the Cathedral. Climbing the tower was indeed an experience not to be missed as once you are on it, it is suddenly, the rest of the Universe that is leaning. When you are here, it is often easy to miss the Campo Santo, the 12th century cemetery with a stunning inner courtyard. There isn't much to see beyond this piazza in Pisa and so it is easy to add on Lucca if you have an entire day to spend. With a tight compact centre, best preserved Renaissance wall in Italy, churches with dazzling Romanesque facades, many towers that you can scale to get inspiring views, a perfect oval piazza and few Robbia masterpieces, Lucca had enough to keep us, now a complete veterans of Tuscan towns, engaged and a wonderful town to finish our journey.
As it always, always, always happens, the devil is in the return journey. This time around, for a change, we knew exactly what was coming. Somebody had to win an election. So a particular neighbour had to be shown their place. And that neighbour needed some face saving retaliation. The end of it all, it was decided that the solution is close the neighbour's airspace to us - civilians returning from a holiday. All this happened after we had booked our tickets. This added an hour and a half to our incoming flight to Delhi which made an easy 4 hour connection to a 2.5 hour sprint. And the sprint had to be done at 3 am. Which we somehow did and also managed to woof down a plate of idli each from Vaango.
Click here for more photos from Siena.
Click here for more photos from San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Cortona, Volterra, Perugia and Assisi.
Click here for more photos from Arezzo, Pisa and Lucca.
Click here for more photos from the various museums in Florence.
Click here for more photos from the various churches in Florence.
Click here for more photos from rest of Florence.