After arriving in Florence at the beginning of October, I giddily pronounced this blog to be back from the dead. Ultimately it wasn’t so much a resurrection of this blog after my four month break in the USA, as it was an anomalous blip. I blame this lack of material on my gig as a freelance writer, which enables me to support myself afford the postage for sending over a dozen postcards to friends and family in multiple countries around the world.
It was pretty much radio silence until a few weeks ago when all of a sudden I was volunteering at a refugee camp in Croatia. Since then I returned to my personal axis mundi, Split, then made a dash for Barcelona to meet up with Erin, a friend from home who’s traveling with me for a month.
Following an overnight trip to Narbonne and two nights in Bologna, I’m currently writing this blog on the ferry liner Marco Polo, en route to Split. I’ll be celebrating Christmas there with my friends Tomo, Gritzko, Kali, Jenny, and Luis (two of them are people, two are cats, and one is a dog, but I’ll let you figure out who’s who for yourselves). If you’re keeping score at home, this is the second time in a month that I come back to Split, but there are a whole lot of other gaps to fill.
It must be a bit confusing having me leap around like this, so I figured I would rewind back to when I showed up in Tuscany in October. In chronological order, here are three other places I visited–consider this a mini daytripper’s guide when you visit.
Lucca is a strange place. There’s a tall tower in the middle of the city with seven ancient oak trees planted on top. The current iteration of walls are only about 400 years old but they follow the footprint of the Roman and Medieval walls that stood here before.
I came here with Abby, a girl from Tennessee who chose to study abroad in Florence, the most American city in Italy. After hearing so much English being spoken we decided to visit Lucca so we might actually get to practice our Italian.
After we ate in an antique pharmacy-turned-restaurant (Abby tried gnocchi for the first time and was quite pleased by it), we walked across town and took a nap on a particularly grassy section of the wall that was shaded by trees just beginning to show their fall colors.
Along the way to the other side of town we passed by the church of San Michele in Foro, which features a gargantuan statue of the archangel Michael and a plethora of strange neo-Gothic carved faces dotting its western facade.
Before we returned to Florence we passed through the old Roman amphitheater, which still has its old façade but from the inside has been converted into a piazza with cafes, bars, and apartment buildings ringing the edges. It’s a really cool example of Roman architecture being appropriated into something more functional during the Middle Ages and I absolutely loved it.
I went to Arezzo with a singular purpose in mind: to visit the Basilica of San Francesco and see the masterful 15th century fresco cycle of the History of the True Cross painted by Piero della Francesca, a Florentine painter and mathematician who adapted the styles of artists such as Masaccio and Brunelleschi and a master in his own right. A monumental crucifix by a contemporary of Cimabue’s hanging in the nave of the same church offered me extra incentive to pay this place a visit.
Along the way I detoured at the archaeological museum, which sits adjacent to the ruins of the Roman amphitheater and has a sizeable collection of Etruscan pottery, including 2600 year-old jugs with tasteful swastika patterns etched onto them.
Arezzo is set on a hill, so after I walked up to the church where della Francesca’s frescoes are I had quite the appetite worked up. In the same square as the church is a Michelin-rated restaurant with gorgeous minimalist décor and a relatively affordable lunch menu, so I treated myself to a plate of fresh cavatelli with broccoli pesto and read Haruki Murakami’s The Windup Bird Chronicle. Spoiler alert: Like in Kafka on the Shore, the only other Murakami novel I’ve read, incest plays a large part in the plot. WTF, Murakami.
Anyways, after pasta and incest I stepped into the church and had a chuckle at della Francesca’s penchant for painting androgynous figures with a chronic case of resting bitch face.
Then I walked through the main piazza and up to a park at the top of the ridge, where a cool wind blowing down from the mountains was refreshing after I’d walked uphill with the sun at my back.
I was joined again by Abby to visit Siena, the great rival city of Florence during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
I’ve always has a soft spot for Siena, which suffered heavy fatalities during the Black Death and was never the same again. The best example of this is the Duomo, which was left unfinished after the plague ravaged Siena in 1348. They only ever finished constructing the transept, which itself is a behemoth of a building.
As you walk around a huge parking lot and see a car passing through a goddamned ornate portal on one edge of the square—the intended western edge of the church—you realize the ambition and power Siena had.
Before this city got its ass kicked by bubonic plague, Siena was a powerhouse. In the Piazza del Campo they still honor one of the old traditions of the city. The piazza becomes a horse racing track during the Palio, an ultra-fiery local derby but with a horse race instead of a soccer match, where rival neighborhoods of the city get belligerently drunk, shout each other down, and generally act like hooligans. Sadly we missed the Palio, but because it wasn’t going on we were able to easily navigate the piazza and enter the Palazzo Pubblico, which as you can see is smiling cheerily behind me in this photo.
The palazzo doubles as an art museum, with floor to ceiling artwork in just about every room. My favorite is the Lorenzetti brothers’ Allegory of Good Government because of its depiction of quotidian events in mid-14th century Siena such as workmen constructing houses, neighbors gossiping to each other, and people getting wild on the dance floor.
On the back side of the Palazzo is a balcony overlooking the countryside, and I used it as a backdrop to snap some portraits of Abby before the rain came and we returned to Florence.