Florence: More Michelanglo, but first some cheese.

IMG_2147
Looking out the window of our hotel room in Florence onto a small Sunday market.

Florence is the third and final stop on our Italian tour, and our favorite by far. It’s a beautiful city, and very walkable. Best pizza of the three, too! Leslie admitted she could live here, even though they had snow in March. We’ve never considered Italy as a home, but Florence is a pretty amazing place. Gotta think about this.

We arrived by train (Frecciarossa 1000, cool high-speed train) from Rome on a Sunday afternoon. Our hotel is in a 16th century building on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, near the city’s historic center. When we arrived, the piazza was hosting what appeared to be a farmers market.

IMG_2155
This was great cheese!

Matteo, who admirably mans the hotel’s front desk, said there were a number of cheese vendors there. Well, I couldn’t resist that. We found the cheese, as well as vendors selling fruits and vegetables, shoes, bread, books, musical instruments, and just about anything else you might want. I scored a nice piece of cheese and noshed on it for the remainder of our visit. Bene. Molto bene!

The piazza has proved to be a great source of entertainment. There are always tour groups checking out the bronze statue of Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany and part of the famous Medici family (he was one of the good guys). Or you hear the cacophony of school groups being led through the piazza to a museum that was at one time an orphanage. Much quieter are the groups of art students sitting on the hotel’s front steps sketching buildings around the piazza. Bikes and scooters and tourists, oh my!

IMG_2178
David, the biggest attraction in Florence.

Just as in Naples and Rome, there are tons of tourists. Most are here to see the undisputed star of the show, Michelangelo’s 17-foot marble statue of David. It does not disappoint. Although Leslie and I noticed two things that didn’t quite fit. First, Michelangelo sculpted the future king of Israel with a slingshot over his shoulder and a rock in his right hand. But the statue is of a fully grown man, not a youth or a teenager as David was when he slew Goliath. Second, it’s obvious he’s not circumcised. But his father Jesse observed the Law of Moses, and would have circumcised all his sons when they were only eight days old.

Tour guide Frederica agreed with us, but said the work was consistent with the style of Renaissance art. Michelangelo wanted to create the finest representation of the human form. And he did. The detail in musculature and form is stunning. You can even see the veins in David’s forearm. Furthermore, Michelangelo purposefully picked a piece of marble that had been rejected because of the veins in it. He then used that veining to sculpt David’s legs so those marble veins look like veins in a person’s legs. Fascinating.

IMG_0253
Here we are with David. 

The only “imperfection,” as Frederica explained, is that the hands and head are too big. They are not in proportion with the rest of the body. Explanation: David was designed to stand in a niche near the top of the Duomo, more than 260 feet above the ground. Never happened, but that’s why he was carved with big hands and a big head.

Michelangelo worked on David between 1501 and 1504. It was originally displayed in the Piazza della Signoria. But in 1873, the work was moved into a specially built hall at the Galleria dell’Accademia. That’s where long lines queue up daily to see David. If you go (and this applies to just about everything in Italy), sign up for a group tour with a guide. You get more information that way, plus you don’t have to wait as long to get in.

In most cases, that is. We had to wait over an hour to see the Duomo of Florence, officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower). Frederica explained (and you could tell this bothers her) that the Duomo’s ruling authority recently revoked the tour group preference. Now everybody waits in the same line. That caused us to miss a few other places that were on the tour itinerary. The tour people are rightfully unhappy about it, and so were we.

IMG_2342
The “new” facade of the Duomo. You can see the dome in the back.

The cathedral is worth waiting for but we found that the inside is just OK. The real show is the building itself. It’s unlike any European cathedral we’ve seen. Almost as visually unique as Gaudi’s work in Barcelona. Construction began late in the 13th century and was completed in the 15th century. The building is covered with marble panels in various shades of green and red, bordered by white. All the marble came from areas near Florence, in what is now Tuscany. In the 19th century, an ornate Gothic Revival façade was added. This Wikipedia entry has a ton of information on how the dome was built. All you architects out there (Hi, Larry!) will be interested.

IMG_2197
This clock measured time from sundown to sundown, which was important in the Middle Ages.

In the back of the nave is an interesting 15th-century liturgical clock that still works. However, it has only one hand and measures time from sundown to sundown, rather than actually telling the time. It has to be adjusted weekly.

Workers are cleaning the cathedral now, so the scaffolding and the equipment detract from the view. You can easily tell which parts have been cleaned and which haven’t. The city is trying to keep things a bit cleaner now — at one time, some 800 buses a day drove through the piazza. Now, the only vehicular traffic is police cars and electric-powered city trucks.

The last significant attraction we visited was the Uffizi Gallery. This museum is home to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and a number of other fine works of Renaissance art, almost all of which were owned by the uber-wealthy Medici family.  Two of those works are by Leonardo da Vinci. Well, two and a half, according to our guide. In one painting, da Vinci painted an angel, while another artist did the rest of the work. Yeah, you can tell. It’s pretty obvious which angel Lenny drew.

IMG_2205
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” one of those paintings many of us have seen in one way or another.

So we’re done being tourists in Italy. But before I close this chapter, let me repeat something I’ve said to lots of people along the way: We have felt pretty safe everywhere we’ve been since October 2016. Italy was no exception, even though a few of our tour guides specifically warned us about pickpockets. All the major tourist sites here are heavily guarded by federal police and the Italian army. Some just look important in their dress uniforms, but lurking near most of the crowds are young men and women with automatic weapons at the ready. I paid close attention to these kids, and they ain’t just for show. I watched them carefully scan the crowds, looking for potential trouble. Very professional, in my opinion. Helpful, too. We asked for help from a heavily armed young woman in fatigues who spoke English, and she guided us to the street we needed. “Army?” I asked her. “Yes,” she replied. “U.S. Army Reserve, Retired,” I said, pointing to myself. She gave me a big smile, but no salute.

Now it’s time to get back to our primary mission, to find our next home, somewhere in the world. We’re headed to Montpellier, France, where we will be living for at least six weeks in a 16th century building overlooking the Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the city’s historic center.

Next post from Montpellier! I’ll leave you with more photos of Florence.

Ciao!

IMG_2161
Our Florence hotel, built between 1517 and 1527 as guest rooms for the monastery of a religious order. Its style mirrors a former orphanage across the piazza.
IMG_2184
Detail on the external wall of the Duomo, from a section recently cleaned.
IMG_2192
The inside of the Duomo’s octagonal dome.
IMG_0263
We thoroughly enjoyed a chamber music ensemble doing Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and other works, in St. Stephen Auditorium. This was one of the first churches built in Florence. It was revised and renovated many times through the centuries, then nearly destroyed in World War II. Renovation in the 1990s turned it into an excellent music venue.
IMG_2336
We finally found the Central Market, but it was late and most of the vendors had closed. Fortunately, the bars and restaurants on the upper level were still going strong. We found this little wine bar and enjoyed some nebbiolo and a bit of pate.

 

 

The Vatican: Michelangelo’s work impresses

img_2145.jpeg
St.Peter’s Square, where thousands of the faithful wait hopefully every time a new pope is elected. First time I saw this place was in the movie “Shoes of the Fisherman” with Anthony Quinn and David Janssen. Excellent movie, you should rent it.

On our last day in Rome, Leslie and I spent some time at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We saw Michelangelo’s work on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as well as his Pieta, completed when he was only 24.

IMG_2129
The Pieta, one of Michelangelo’s most famous, and most revered, works.

This was the second time Leslie has seen the Pieta. The first was at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The sculpture is stunning in its intricacy, and inspiring in its subject matter. As I tried to get a decent photo, which is difficult since the statue is protected by plexiglass, I noticed a young man make the sign of the cross right after taking a picture. His reverence was balanced, however, by those who felt they just had to get a selfie with the madonna.

Laura, our amazing tour guide, explained that Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. So when Pope Julius II hired him to paint the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, he refused. Turns out it’s hard to say no to any pope, so in 1508 Michelangelo started the project that would keep him on his back for four years. As Laura pointed out, painting frescoes is difficult because you must paint on wet stucco. Once the stucco dries, it’s too late. So he painted on wet stucco on a rickety scaffold about 60 feet above the marble floor. Is it any wonder the artist started dictating to the pope what he would and would not do?

But the ceiling, with the creation of Adam as the iconic focus, was just the first contribution Michelangelo would make to the chapel. Between 1535 and 1541, he also painted The Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar, on commission from Pope Paul III. While he was working on it, Michelangelo crossed swords with a powerful cardinal over the nude figures in the painting. But Michelangelo was older now, highly respected and powerful in his own right. He painted the cardinal’s face into the scene as Minos, judge of the underworld. When the cardinal complained to the pope about this, the pontiff said his jurisdiction did not extend to hell, so — no changes. Moral: You don’t mess with Mike! Michelangelo also painted his own face in the work, on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew. (Click on the link in this paragraph to see the whole work and get lots of details. Fascinating stuff!)

IMG_2089
Laura uses photos outside the museum to explain Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel is sacred space, and all are encouraged to be silent. Not everybody obeys.

Probably the coolest thing about the Sistine Chapel, though, is that this is where the conclave of cardinals meets whenever it becomes necessary to elect a new pope. I recall a great scene from the 1968 movie “Shoes of the Fisherman.” Anthony Quinn plays a Russian cardinal who attends the conclave only weeks after being released from a Soviet gulag. Nobody’s winning, even after lots of politicking and a number of failed votes. Suddenly, one cardinal makes an impassioned speech in which he practically deifies Cardinal Kiril, who isn’t even one of the candidates. His speech sways other cardinals, who end up proclaiming Kiril as pope despite his vigorous refusals (“My brothers, I beg you! Do not do this!”).

I would love to show you the incredible, high-resolution, professional-quality pictures I took of Michelangelo’s works. But The Vatican doesn’t allow photography in the Sistine Chapel. You can go to the Vatican Museum’s website to see what it looks like. And Khan Academy has a site that is very educational.

 

IMG_2127
Looking down the nave from the back toward the altar of St. Peter’s. That’s an enormous bronze sculpture, biggest in the world, that marks Peter’s burial place.

We ended the tour in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. Laura told us the basilica was built on the site believed to be where the Apostle Peter was martyred. Peter was crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same way Christ died. The Vatican claims Peter’s tomb is under the basilica’s altar. Therefore, only the pope can say mass at this altar.

The rest of the Vatican Museum was interesting — a good warmup act, if you will. Works of art in sculpture, painting, mosaic and tapestry. Gallery after gallery of stuff. Impressive, but in a way it made us think the church could sell off a small portion of these treasures and help the poor. Isn’t that what Christ wants us to do? I’m just sayin’.

IMG_2101
Greek and Roman sculptures, a small part of the Vatican Museum’s huge collection.

So it’s time to bid farewell to Rome. It will be a pleasure because Leslie and I have been sharing a summer cold during our time here. Now we move on to Florence (Firenze in Italian), birthplace of the Renaissance, and hope for better health.

Next post from Florence, and more about Michelangelo.

Ciao!

 

IMG_2141
One of the Swiss Guards, who provide security for the Vatican. Tour guide Laura said the uniform and the armament are traditional, but he’s got a gun under that outfit and he can get to it quick if he needs to.

 

IMG_2107
Sculpture of our favorite pagan god, Bacchus. God of wine.

San Miguel is Number One. Just like the Chicago Cubs!

Back when I was working, my good friend and colleague John Peterson and I always made it through depressing pro football and basketball seasons in Chicago by saying, “How long until spring training?” (OK, the Blackhawks are winners, but neither of us understands hockey!) Well, spring training has begun anew. And this year, the Cubs are defending World Series Champions!!!

The Cubs are Number One, and apparently so is San Miguel de Allende.  No, we haven’t reached a final decision, but if we had to choose today our retirement home would be SMA. Will we be here  when the Cubs win the 2017 World Series? Can’t answer that one yet. We’ve still got several places to see.

We’re both a little surprised that we like Mexico so much. I always felt that our primary focus for a retirement home would be Europe, probably Spain, and it might still be that. So why is San Miguel the leading contender right now?

img_1358
The iconic Parroquia, the beautiful parish church that dominates SMA’s “skyline.” As the sun shifts during the day, the colors change. So it looks different in the afternoon than in the morning.

The climate here is just great — warm and dry. It’s been as low as 69º F. and as high as 81º F. for daily highs, with humidities usually below 50 percent. And there’s very little rain this time of year. In the six weeks we’ve lived here it has rained twice, both times at night and only briefly. Local expats tell us that during the “rainy season” it either rains at night or for an hour or two in the afternoon. All-day rain or thunderstorms — very rare. Yes, it gets cool at night, but it rarely gets into the 40s until the wee hours, like 4 or 5 a.m. We’re snug in bed then. And in the dead of summer, daytime highs are slightly higher but nothing excessive because we’re at 6,200 feet altitude. Those who have been here awhile say to expect highs in the mid to upper 80s and lows around 60º F. We can handle that!

San Miguel, as noted in earlier posts, has an extensive arts scene with concerts, plays, operas, ballets, films, lectures and tons of art galleries. Many restaurants have live music on the weekends. One of our friends at St. Paul’s Anglican Church — and a long-time expat — put it best when he said, “I try to limit cultural events to one per day.” St. Paul’s is yet another reason to choose SMA. Good group of people there, and we like the rector, a retired Episcopal bishop from the States. There are also a number of charities here with many opportunities to volunteer. So we could stay pretty busy if we lived here. Or not.

Another person from St. Paul’s told us she has a good friend in the real estate business and can help us find a long-term rental. Lots of people come down here for six to nine months and rent their homes when they’re not here.

img_1371
This is a boveda ceiling in one of SMA’s many churches. Lots of buildings have this unique brick work ceiling. It’s even in some homes. Go here to see a two-minute video showing how they do it.

Then there’s the food. We love the fresh local produce we get at the mercados, and the meat we get at the carnicieras. But SMA also has a ton of great restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall chicken joints with locals lined up out the door, to high-end places with top-flight international chefs and stunning views. One could never go hungry in San Miguel.

International Living magazine touts Mexico as 2017’s top retirement country. Last year, I think, it was Panama. There are a lot of positives about San Miguel, and about Mexico in general:

  • Mexico boasts one of the strongest economies in the western hemisphere right now.
  • It’s close to the U.S., so we can get back relatively quickly and without great expense in case there’s a family emergency.
  • Health care here is excellent, as we noted with Leslie’s visit to the podiatrist. And we have friends who always see a dentist while they’re here to get crowns and root canals — just as good as in Chicago at one-third the cost, they say.
  • There are many creature comforts in Mexico, like theaters, shopping centers, good cell phone and internet coverage. In the cities, even the small ones, there’s nothing third-world about this country.
  • The cost of living in general is low, especially if you pay in pesos. Friday morning we met another couple at a popular breakfast spot and had a lovely meal for a little over $500 pesos — about $25 USD. For FOUR people.
  • There are a lot of other expats here, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but some from the U.K. and other countries.

OK, what are the downsides:

  • There are a lot of other expats here, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but some from the U.K. and other countries. No, that’s not a mistake. Too many gringos is a problem. It tends to drive prices, especially home prices, higher.
  •  We will need to learn more Spanish. We’re getting by OK with limited knowledge, but if we’re going to live here we need better command. And we would have to do that if we chose Spain, too.
  • We’ll have to adjust to time here, and how things are done. This is Mexico, things don’t always go as smoothly and perfectly as in the States. Even though they don’t do siesta here in San Miguel, mañana is a way of life. You have to be patient sometimes.

    img_1365
    Traffic can be a problem in SMA, but drivers are much more courteous here than in the U.S.

So we have a lot to think about. But now it’s on to the beach town of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast. We have already connected with the expat community there, and we’ve signed up for a dinner on Thursday night after we arrive Wednesday afternoon. This group has lots of social events like dinners and happy hours — every week!

The condo we’ve rented from a Canadian guy named Hal is very different from all the places we’ve lived in on this trip. It’s a modern townhouse in a gated community called Marina Vallarta. It’s on a fairly busy street, but it backs up to a golf course. We have three bedrooms and a huge outdoor area with a plunge pool. It’s nowhere close to the historic centro. We will be able to walk to the marina area and to the beach, but we’re unsure about how to access the local produce in farmers markets, as were able to do in Spain and to a lesser extent in Malta. Hal says taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. We’ll be in Vallarta for two months — all of March and April.

Next post from Puerto Vallarta!

44552eb3-10e9-4c99-b0f2-1fa8eec84026
Go Cubbies!

 

 

Guanajuato. Wow!

img_1408
The colors are even more amazing in person!

This is the colonial city of Guanajuato (gwan-ah-WHAT-oh), about a 90-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende. It was founded in 1548 as a silver mining town, and is now the capital of the state of Guanajuato (SMA is part of the state of Guanajuato). It was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. We were here a few days ago and were just blown away by the beauty of the place. The buildings are even more colorful than in SMA.

img_1413
Just had to take another selfie!

We see the yellow and orange and rust colors — like on the church just to the right of the top of Leslie’s head — on buildings in SMA, but look at the blue and pink! You may even be able to see some green. Most of that is paint, of course, but many of the buildings and sidewalks in Guanajuato were built with local sandstone, which can have pink or green hues, depending on the copper content.

The Spaniards discovered silver here in the 1500s. There were several silver mines, at least one of which is still in operation. There were also some gold mines, but silver has been this city’s claim to fame for hundreds of years. Freddy, our excellent driver and guide, told us that about two-thirds of the world’s silver comes from right here in this pretty little town.

Guanajuato played a major role in the 1810 Mexican War of Independence. In fact, Freddy started us out on the overlook where I took the above photos. There is a huge monument on the hillside to a poor miner, Juan José de los Reyes Martínez, better known as El Pípila.

img_1424
Monument to El Pipila from the lower part of the city.

When the revolution began, the Spanish elite and loyalist soldiers fled and locked themselves in the granary, an enormous building with few windows. From this veritable fortress they were able to pick off the insurgents when they attacked. El Pípila strapped a large flat stone to his back for protection and crawled to the wooden doors of the granary’s main entrance. He then smeared the doors with tar and set them on fire. Once the doors burned, the insurgents were able to take the building. The first battle of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain was a victory for the insurgentes. 

The granary is also where government forces later displayed the severed heads of the revolution’s four top leaders, including Ignacio Allende (he’s the “Allende” in San Miguel de Allende), one on each corner of the building. The structure is scheduled to become a museum soon.

Freddy showed us the San Cayetano Church, which is outside the central city near the Valenciana mine. The mine’s owner, Antonio de Obregón y Alcocer,

img_1417
A painting in this church shows Jesus with a white dove flying near His feet. No matter where you stand in the church, the dove appears to be looking directly at you.

spent  years in a fruitless search for silver, and prayed for God’s help in his effort. When his mine became one of the most successful in the world, he built this church (between 1765 and 1788) and dedicated it to Saint Cajetan. When his daughter got married, he had workers install a temporary sidewalk of silver bars. She walked on silver for several hundred feet, from the street into the church for her wedding. Inside there is amazing amount of gold on the altarpieces, as well as some enormous 19th century paintings.

The big white building behind Leslie (in the photo above) is a former convent, now the University of Guanajuato. We also saw the house where famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera was born. He lived in Guanajuato as a child, then his family moved to Mexico City. Some of his works are displayed on the second floor, but to see the good stuff you have to go to Mexico City museums.

The central city is in a valley, with parts of the town going straight up the hillsides. There are two streets on the upper level and two on the lower level. A funicular goes up and down one hillside, but the main way to get around is little alleyways called callejónes. Some are quite narrow.

img_1431
These up-and-down alleyways reminded us of Malta!

The most famous of these alleyways is the Callejón del Besos, or “Kissing Alley.” It’s only 66 inches wide in places, with balconies that nearly touch each other. Folklore states that couples who kiss on the third step are guaranteed seven years of happiness together. We spent quite a bit of time in a local silver shop (yes, Leslie has a couple of nice new silver trinkets) across from the San Cayetano church, so we didn’t have time to see this callejón. Guess we have to go back.

Most of the streets in the central part of the city are underground. Being in a narrow valley, Guanajuato was prone to disastrous flooding for many years. So a series of tunnels was built in the 18th century to protect the town.

img_1427
Some of the tunnels are wide enough for two-way traffic, and include sidewalks.

In the 1960s, a new dam permanently fixed the flooding issue. The tunnels were then widened and turned into streets. Much of the central city traffic — including foot traffic — is in these old tunnels. It’s fascinating.

Freddy told us that the alleyways are also the site of a university tradition. In the evenings, university students gather in the Plaza de la Paz and go through the alleyways playing guitars and singing, with people following them along the way. It sounded quite festive, so we will have to go back and spend a few evenings there to experience this tradition.

There’s a lot more I could say about Guanajuato, but this was just a day trip. It’s probably not a place we would want to live, especially if we have to go up and down stairs very much. Leslie and I are more focused on San Miguel de Allende, and we’re leaving soon. In the next post I’ll reveal how we’re feeling about this neat little colonial town we have called home for almost six weeks.

Hasta luego!

‘You’ll love San Miguel,’ our daughter said. ‘It’s an artsy place.’

That’s what Stephanie said when we told her San Miguel de Allende was our next stop on the retirement tour. Turns out, she was here a few years ago with a group of friends for a wedding. And she was right — there are small art galleries on nearly every street in the Centro. Leslie and I have already been to two concerts and we’re debating about going to the opera next week!

Go just about anywhere in SMA and you’ll see posters advertising the many cultural opportunities here. img_1362And every Friday we spend $15 pesos (not quite 75 cents) for a copy of Atención, the weekly English-language newspaper that includes a listing of all the cultural events in town.

There really is something for everybody. Here’s a sample:

  • Media Luna, acoustic world music, Restaurante Paprika.
  • Magical Kingdom, art opening, The Gallery.
  • The Dream Project, a play by Yonder Window Theater Company.
  • Javier Estrada, gypsy guitar, La Biblioteca.
  • History of Mexico, documentary film at Teatro Santa Ana.

You know we both love classical music. Last week we went to a recital by Misuzu Tanaka, an excellent young pianist with a commanding style. Remember that name — we think she’s going places. And on Thursday night we saw Amit Peled, img_1393an Israeli cellist who plays a 1733 cello once owned by Pablo Casals. Amazing performance!

Both concerts were promoted by the local arts group Pro Musica. They are offering two more concerts while we’re here: the concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a violin recital, and a performance by the Amernet String Quartet (on my birthday).

If classical is not your thing, just wait until next week for the Encuentro Nacional de Jazz. It’s the 14th annual jazz festival, Feb. 7-11 at Teatro Angela Peralta. See? Something for everybody.

Last weekend, the Instituto de Allende — a five-minute walk from our apartment —  hosted a two-day arts and crafts fair. Sure, there was a lot of stuff you would probably see at similar fairs wherever you live. And yes, some of them were expats selling hand-made jewelry. But there were some very nice things, too: wood carvings, paintings, photographs, wearable art. We spent some time there Saturday afternoon but didn’t buy anything. No room in our suitcases!

Finally there’s La Biblioteca. It’s a hotbed of cultural opportunities for expats. You can buy tickets there for most events in the city, and they host some performances, too. There’s an English-language library and a cafe where gringos hang out.

So we’re not starved for something to do here in SMA. On the contrary, we have to figure out which events we want to attend and which we can pass on. And if we were to live here full-time, we could certainly get involved in arts organizations or do volunteer work for some of the many charitable organizations that help families, children and animals.

Next time, more on the cost of living here in San Miguel. There’s good news and bad news. Hasta luego!

img_1379
The courtyard at La Biblioteca, something of an expat hangout.