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.

 

 

Stops along the way.

Leslie and I left the U.S. on Friday, April 13, for our two-week transatlantic 25th wedding anniversary celebration on the Celebrity Reflection. We next saw land on Saturday, April 21, as our ship docked at Tenerife (tenorREEF), which is off the coast of North Africa but is part of Spain. We also visited Malaga (MAH-lah-gah), Cartagena (car-tah-HEY-nah) and Murcia (MIRTH-ee-ah) in Spain, as well as Ajaccio (ah-JAH-see-oh), the capital of Corsica, which is a French island. In a few hours, when we dock at Civitavecchia (Rome), we’ll be in our fourth country on this cruise.

Spending time in Spanish cities has made us think fondly of our first foreign living arrangement over a year ago in Alicante, Spain. As we head for the final country tryout (France), Mexico is still in the lead to be our new home in retirement, but Spain is a very close second. Yes, it’s a long way from family and friends, but the pace of life and the general feeling in Spain just can’t be beat. It’s very civilized. This is going to be a tough choice.

I don’t have much to say about our stops along the way on this cruise, so I’l just be visual. You visual learners will just love this:

IMG_2002
The view of Tenerife harbor from our ship as we departed on a gray day
IMG_2227
Murcia’s cathedral and part of the plaza major. We had some very fine paella at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant here.
IMG_2249
The Roman theatre in Cartagena, which was not discovered until the mid-1980s. Restoration work is continuing. In its original form, it could seat seven thousand people.
IMG_2255
Corsicans don’t really like Napoleon Bonaparte because he fought for France and not his birthplace of Corsica. But tourists flock to Ajaccio to see this monument and the house in which the future emperor was born. As long as he brings in tourist dollars, Napoleon is OK.
IMG_2220
And of course, the obligatory selfie. We are on the well-kept grounds of a monastery that overlooks Murcia, Spain. The countryside here is beautiful.

Our visit to Malaga was for a wine-and-tapas tasting tour. For some reason, I’m unable to upload photos I took of our little group. We drank some wine, but not so much that it would affect the photos!

Hope you enjoyed the pics. Now on to Italy!

 

Ciao!

 

 

 

Moving on; one stop left in Phase I

We’re at the end of our six weeks in Mérida. Tomorrow, Leslie and I hop on a bus and travel to the beach city of Playa del Carmen. We’re looking forward to slightly cooler temperatures and a more walkable town.

Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan, is an interesting city.

chair-1670
Merida’s many parks feature these “conversation chairs,” also called “Las Sillas Confidantes,” or  “Tu y Yo,” or “De Los Enamorados.” This young couple shows the original purpose.

There are some good things about it:

  • While there are lots of expats here (fewer in May when it’s so hot), the percentage is smaller than in the other cities we’ve been to so you don’t often run into other Americans or Canadians on the street.
  • The cost of living seems a bit lower here, especially for food at the local mercados and for real estate.
  • There’s no beach in Mérida but in 20 to 30 minutes you can be on the tip of the peninsula and enjoy neat little beach towns like Progreso.
  • Orquestra Sinfónica de Yucatán performs in a very nice concert hall. They’re pretty good, too. And there are classical music performances every Sunday at a smaller auditorium on the other side of the park. Last week we saw the chamber orchestra Orquestra de Cámara de Mérida do seven Vivaldi works. A free concert!
  • St. Luke’s Anglican Church has warm, helpful people and an energetic priest who gives insightful sermons. Sunday (June 4), we helped inaugurate the new church building just five blocks from our house.
Cathedral-1655
Merida’s cathedral, completed in 1598. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral on the American mainland. This cathedral and the one in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) were the only American cathedrals built entirely during the 16th century.

Never say “never,” but Leslie and I agree Mérida won’t make our final list. Here’s why, in a nutshell:

  • I never thought we would say a place is “too hot,” but Mérida is too hot. And too humid. Maybe it would be perfect in January, but we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • This is a city of almost a million people. It’s big and spread out, and outside the centro it’s not very “Mexican.” We liked the smaller towns better.
  • Being a big city, of course, means it’s not very walkable, and walkability is a big asset.
  • Transportation back to the States is not simple. When I looked for ways to get back quickly for a funeral, the only options were to fly to Mexico City and catch a flight north, or take a bus or private car to Cancún and hop on a direct flight to Chicago or  another U.S. city. Connections are not the best.
  • Did I say it was too hot?

So it’s on to the final Mexican stop on this part of our journey — Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, about 30 miles south of Cancún. I’ll leave you with some photos of the places we’ve visited here and the things we’ve seen — pics that haven’t made it into any previous post.

Next post from Playa!

IMG_1815
We visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, where henequen (sisal) is grown and made into fibers that are used to make rope, carpets and burlap bags. It’s the only henequen hacienda still operating. At one time, the Peon family alone owned 14 henequen plantations in the Yucatan. Our guide Jose (left) and one of the workers showed us how rope was made by hand, using this simple machine. We saw every step of the fiber-making process. Now, they only produce the fiber as a working museum for tourists and for use on the plantation, and the plantation is dramatically smaller than in the early 1900s during the “green gold” boom.
IMG_1851
Henequen fibers come from a type of agave plant. Yes, agave is used to make tequila. Different kind of agave. At the end of our tour, though, I had a margarita made with henequen liquor rather than the normal agave tequila. It was OK, but not great. Once a plant is started, it’s seven years before any of the fronds can be harvested. Then you can only harvest seven fronds per month.
lr-1869
Hacienda Sotuta de Peon has one of the Yucatan’s many cenotes. We enjoyed about an hour swimming here, and there were no crowds. Leslie enjoyed floating in the crystal-clear water. This cenote is in a cave.
IMG_1775
Uxmal (OOSH-moll), an ancient Mayan site dating to 700 A.D. The temple is to the right, and palaces to the left where priests, scribes and other professionals lived and worked. Lower class Maya lived in villages outside the temple grounds. This site was apparently abandoned around the 10th century.
kabah-1789
Mayan figures at Kabah, a smaller site near Uxmal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Different Parts of Malta, Part Two

In the last post I forgot to say Leslie and I had a great Christmas with our daughter, Stephanie. We enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner in our house and went to church Sunday at St. Andrews, where we sang carols and heard an excellent message from Pastor Kim Hurst.

After the service, we feasted on Christmas dinner with about 40 people from the church and the community. There were people from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Malta, of course. Maybe a few others. We didn’t get to talk to everyone.

Our new friends Franklin and Judy cooked turkey and dressing with lots of potatoes and vegetables. Since they are Canadian, Judy called it, “a traditional North American Christmas dinner.” Here we are:img_1297

 

Now, Part Two of our private guided tours of Malta, conducted by Victoria, who did a great job. In the last post I detailed our visits to the Blue Grotto, two of the island’s megalithic temples and Casa Bernard. But there’s more!

We had  a “Taste of Malta” experience that started with some Maltese coffee and traditional pastries. Didn’t like the coffee. It has anise in it, and I don’t like that flavor. Leslie liked it, but not enough to make it at home. The pastries, on the other hand, were very nice. We each had something different, and we also tried traditional nougat treats. For lunch, we dined at Diar Il-Bniet in the town of Dingli, a restaurant featuring food from a nearby farm. We asked Victoria about the menu and she said, “Everything they serve is food that Maltese people prepare at home.” Baked macaroni with minced beef, beef marrows, beef olive with Maltese sausage, and cauliflower lasagne. Probably the best meal we have had in quite some time. Maltese food is very flavorful!

But we did more than eat. We also walked through the walled city of Mdina, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century and Malta’s capital until medieval times. Only a few hundred people live within the walls, mostly members of Malta’s noble class.

The biggest attraction in Mdina is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Originally built in the 12th and 13th Centuries, the cathedral was severely damaged in a rare earthquake in 1693. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style we see today. img_1400

The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while being taken to Rome to stand trial before Cesar, his right as a Roman citizen (see Acts 21-26 for the whole story). The cathedral is dedicated to him, and most of the art is about Paul, including a beautiful frescoe above and just behind the altar depicting the shipwreck.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is known for its Christmas “crib,” what we in the U.S. would call a nativity scene. Only this one is massive. There are so many people and animals in this crib that it’s hard to even find Mary and Joseph! It’s probably 12 to 15 feet across. This is a Maltese tradition. Many of the faithful have cribs in their homes, or in a display case right beside their front doors.

Here’s the cathedral’s crib — shepherds on the left, angels descending from Heaven:img_1410

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the close-up (below) you can barely see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Look near the center, then see the Magi just to the right of the baby:img_1411

We left the cathedral to visit the Mdina Glass factory, which is actually in the village of Ta’ Qali. Each piece the company sells is hand-made. We watched glassmakers working, effortlessly creating items like the ones on display in the shop. Leslie and Stephanie both contributed to the economy of Malta!

If you want to know more about the art they produce, click on the link in the previous paragraph.

Finally we visited Meridiana Wine Estate, also in Ta’ Qali, where we got a tour of the winery and did some tasting. This winery, and its vineyards, are on land that was a British airfield during World War II (see photo, below). Vines were planted and the winery built in the 1980s. Click the link above to learn more.img_1426

Leslie and I had tried some Meridiana wine at a wine shop in Valletta a few weeks earlier. We were surprised at how good Maltese wines are. Meridiana is our favorite, but there are other excellent wines here.

Our good friend Sean Chaudry at Hinsdale Wine Shop really needs to try and score some of their Isis Chardonnay. It’s one of the best chardonnays I have ever tasted, but I doubt it’s available to distributors in the States. Sean, your next trip should be to Malta! You won’t regret it. img_1423

This photo (left) shows Leslie and Stephanie in the barrel room. We descended a tightly wound spiral staircase into the cellar and learned how their wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak barrels, like these.

All their wines are named after Phoenician gods, such as the goddess Isis, previously mentioned. I know what you’re thinking — Isis was an Egyptian goddess! Well, it seems folks here on Malta think she was a Phoencian goddess first, and the Egyptians borrowed her. Either way, the wine named for her is stunning. Crisp and citrusy. Great with Maltese seafood.

Steph bought a few bottles, some red and some white, to ship home to San Diego. Leslie and I got a few bottles for ourselves because the winery price was lower than the Valletta wine shop price.

Since we don’t have a rental car, these tours gave Leslie and me a great chance to see more of Malta. And it was super entertainment for Steph. We all learned a lot.

But then it was time to say goodbye to our beautiful daughter. She took a very early morning flight to  London on Dec. 29, and arrived safely — much to the delight of her two cats, Louis and Piper. Fortunately there was no hijacking this time!

Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve by attending The President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Then we will watch the fireworks. We haven’t decided where to go yet; there are several possibilities. We may join the crowds in Valletta’s St. George’s Square or watch from Upper Barrakka Gardens, near the underground bunkers where the Allies planned the Mediterranean campaign in World War II. Or, if it’s too cold, we may head back home to watch the fireworks from the Three Cities side of The Grand Harbour. We’ll let you know.

Happy New Year!