A Travellerspoint blog

November 2019

Great Britain

semi-overcast 8 °C

We thought we might stumble into a little history when we arrived in England and we made a start with a city closely connected to North America. This is the harbour in Plymouth...

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While every American firmly believes that: a) the Pilgrim Fathers were the first European settlers in America, and: b) the Mayflower began its transatlantic voyage from Plymouth, the truth is a little different. Here's the proof. This is us in 2010 in Southampton at the actual starting point...

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There were already many European colonies in North America by the time the Mayflower and a smaller ship, the Speedwell, set sail from Southampton on August 5th 1620. However, the Speedwell ran into difficulties in the Atlantic and was leaking so badly it returned to the nearest port, Plymouth. The Pilgrims continued to the New World on September 6th aboard the Mayflower but the voyage had begun in Southampton.

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As we watched this two-master leaving Plymouth under the cannons of the Citadel we could not imagine the conditions under which the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic 400 years ago – more than a 130 passengers and crew on a ship only 100 feet long. The Mayflower reached America in November but more than 65 Pilgrims and crew had died by the following spring when they finally found a safe place to land. While Plymouth wasn't the starting port of the Mayflower it was the place that Sir Humphrey Gilbert set sail for Newfoundland on Jun 11th 1583 to claim it for Queen Elizabeth I.

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This is Plymouth Hoe – the greensward where, it is alleged, that Sir Francis Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before he sailed to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. Here's Sir Francis standing high above the Hoe...

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And this is the entrance to the 16th century fortress, the Citadel, that is still a naval base today...

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Sir Francis Drake was an English Naval officer, a privateer, a slave-trader and a pirate who made his first voyage to the Americas in1563 with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, (Not related to James – Or was he?) The Hawkins family of Plymouth owned a fleet of ships and, between 1577 and 1580, Drake sailed around the world and returned home with looted Spanish treasure worth more than 500 million pounds today. Queen Elizabeth I was very grateful as the treasure cleared the national debt. Sir Francis died and was buried at sea but his benefactor, Queen Elizabeth I, lies here, our next stop, in London's Westminster Abbey...

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There is so much history in Westminster Abbey that we wouldn't know where to begin. Thirty English kings and queens are buried here along with hundreds of Britain's elite. It is a magnificent building nearly a thousand years old but we were not allowed to take photos inside. We can show you the Pyx Chamber under the Abbey...

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This vaulted strongroom built in 1070 was where official samples of gold and silver coins were kept so that newly minted coins could be tested against them.

And so to the last event of the day – a thunderous evening of classical music at the Royal Albert Hall culminating in Puccini's Nessun Dorma, the 1812 Overture complete with cannons and muskets, and a rousing rendition of Land of Hope and Glory.

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It's enough to make us feel nostalgic!

Posted by Hawkson 06:08 Archived in England Comments (5)

Picture Perfect Pisa

sunny 18 °C

As our Silk Road experience nears its end we couldn't resist revisiting Pisa. No matter how many times we have seen the Cathedral and its alarmingly tilted bell tower we are still awed by its beauty...

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Pisa cathedral is unusual because it was deliberately built outside the city walls starting in 1063 in order to show the Venetians, Florencians and Luccans that the Pisans were not scared of their regional rivals. It is also unusual for the numerous Islamic elements included because the Pisan merchants traded with the Byzantines in Constantinople – the end of the Silk Road and one of the centres of Islamic power. This bronze sphinx is one of the many Islamic features of the cathedral...

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The baptistery is a particularly beautiful structure.

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Imagine being baptised in this font!...

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Impressive cathedrals were used as symbols of wealth and power in the middle ages and each of the feudal states sought to build the biggest and most beautiful. Pisa cathedral is certainly spectacular though whether it is the best – who knows? The apse is truly impressive...

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However, the Campanile, the cathedral's most famous structure, is certainly the most unique feature because of its alarming lean. No matter what angle you view the tower it is difficult to believe that it isn't about to topple...

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The bell tower was started in 1173 but it took 199 years to complete because of wars and construction problems. The foundations were laid in soft soil and 5 years after construction began, when only two floors were finished, the whole thing began to sink. Luckily for the tower, and for us, Pisa then became involved in almost continuous wars with its neighbours for half a century that gave time for the foundations to settle.

It wasn't until 1272, that construction fully resumed and, in an effort to compensate for the tilt, the engineers built upper floors with one side taller than the other. Because of this, the tower is curved. Then there was another war and construction was halted again in 1284. The seventh floor was completed in 1319 and the bell-chamber was finally added in 1372....

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Over the next 600 years the tower gradually tilted further and further until at the end of the last century it was believed to be on the point of falling. Then a miracle, (and some very strong steel cables), held it up until the foundations could be reinforced. It should be good for another 200 years – but it still looks precarious.

That's it for our time following the Silk Road from Uzbekistan to France and Italy. Next stop - England for some family time. Maybe we will discover some fascinating history there?

Posted by Hawkson 12:15 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

The Walls of Lucca

sunny 18 °C

If only these walls could talk, what a tale they would tell...

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They would tell of their first builders and masters, the Romans, who came here with their legions in 180 BC to plunder the verdant valleys of the Northern Appenine mountains, and of the Etruscan inhabitants who were unable to fend them off...

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Almost all of the Romans' constructions now lie in the foundations of later buildings, but as we walk and cycle around the top of tree-lined walls we still wonder at the incredible feats accomplished by them more than two thousand years ago...

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The Roman walls stood for more than a thousand years until the 11th century when the city outgrew its bounds and needed stronger and higher walls to protect its growing riches. It was at this time that great churches like the cathedral of San Martini rose high into the sky above the walls...

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But Lucca just kept growing and growing and by the 14th century the walls were pushed out even further into the surrounding countryside – closer to the Appenine mountains with its hot springs, olive groves and vineyards. But walled cities need fortified gates and the original three, in the north, south and west, still survive...

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Lucca's greatest claim to fame today is the completely intact city wall that was built at the very end of the medieval period beginning in 1504. No no-one can avoid the imposing wall because the way into the historic city is through one of the fortified gatehouses...

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The drawbridges and portcullises are long gone and there are no soldiers pouring boiling oil or dropping rocks onto potential enemies today. Five hundred years ago the inhabitants were ready to fend off attacks from their powerful neighbours, the Medicis, and for that reason there was no gate on the eastern side of the city: from the direction of Florence - the centre of Medici power. In addition to the great gates there are easily defended secret passageways that snake up inside the walls that are only wide enough for pedestrians...

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If these walls could talk they would tell of two thousand years of political intrigues, of commercial wranglings, of romantic assignations and war. Despite the walls the city was occupied by Louis of Bavaria in 1408, sold to a rich Genoese, Gherardino Spinola, then seized by John, king of Bohemia. It was pawned to the Rossi of Parma, ceded to Mastino II della Scala of Verona, sold to the Florentines, surrendered to the Pisans, and liberated by the emperor Charles IV. In short, Lucca doesn't need a museum – it is a museum - and from the top of the wall we look down on history. The rich Luchese built soaring towers to show off their wealth in the middle ages and some survive. This is the most famous 12th Century tower– the Torre Guinigi...

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However, many medieval palaces survive and one of the finest is the Palazzo Pfanner with its beautiful grounds...

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The palace was built in 1660 by Luchese nobility – the Moriconis. However, as soon as it was completed the Moriconis were financially ruined and forced to sell. After many owners the palace became a brewery but has now been restored to its former glory complete with a statue garden full of lemon trees...

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The sun is shining so we are off to visit one of the wonders of the world.

Posted by Hawkson 09:35 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

Puccini's Piano

semi-overcast 17 °C

As we stroll the largely traffic free medieval lanes of Lucca we are transported back to a quieter time - long before the infernal combustion engine drowned out the laughter of children, and the tweeting of cellphones replaced the twittering of birds. However, Lucca was a city of more than a hundred churches and so, in the stillness of a crisp autumnal Sunday, the songs of angelic choirs would have echoed from all corners of the city and especially from the cavernous nave of the great cathedral – San Martino...

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Begun in 1063, just three years before the Norman Conquest of England, this cathedral has weathered almost a thousand years of wars and tempests largely unchanged. And had we been here on December 22nd. 1858 we may have heard Michelle Puccini playing the organ triumphantly to announce the birth of his son, Giancomo. This is a statue of Giancomo Puccini which sits outside his boyhood home in Lucca...

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By all accounts Giancomo Puccini had little interest in following his father's footsteps as a musician, but it is a foolish boy who defies an Italian mother. And so, with more than a little persuasion, Giancomo became one of the greatest opera composers in the world. And this is the piano on which he wrote many of his 12 operas...

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In 1904 Puccini was so famous that when his opera Madame Butterfly debuted at La Scala in Milan he could only get a 5th row seat for his sister. He died almost a hundred years ago but he would easily recognise the streets surrounding his boyhood home today. He would certainly have ran through this tunnel many times...

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This tunnel and several similar ones leads to one of the most intriguing sights in Lucca – the Roman Amphitheatre...

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Around two thousand years ago the Romans built a great amphitheatre in the centre of Lucca and over the centuries it was gradually taken over by shopkeepers and home builders. Parts of the stadium still exist underneath the shops and apartments, and the four triumphal arches, where the gladiators once marched into the arena, still give access to the centre. Maybe Julius Caesar watched a tournament here when he visited in 56 BC.
Although most of the shops in the amphitheatre have now been taken over by modern cafes and restaurants, there are many shops in Lucca that have been around well over a century. For instance: the Bottega di Prospero is a delicatessen that has traded from the same shop since 1790...

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In any other place the Bottega would be considered a working museum, but in Lucca it is just a part of everyday life. Most of the dry goods are still weighed and packaged just as they were more than two hundred years ago and we can imagine little Giancomo Puccini being sent her by his mother for a quartucci of beans and a jug of olive oil...

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We could not visit Lucca without attending a Puccini concert in one of the many churches where he played the organ as a teenager...

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The scene was set and we spent an enjoyable hour listening to a couple of sopranos lifting the roof with some of Puccini's high spots. We couldn't record the performance but if you would like some classic Puccini click here.
https://youtu.be/cWc7vYjgnTs

Posted by Hawkson 12:11 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

Laid Back Lucca

semi-overcast 17 °C

While most people can name Venice, Florence, Naples, Rome and a handful of other Italian cities, few can pinpoint Lucca on the map. Yet here we are, just a day's donkey ride away from Florence in one of the most intact medieval cities in Europe.
Our journey in search of the Silk Road took us through Istanbul to the very centre of this ancient trade route in Uzbekistan, but now we are back in Europe in a city in Tuscany that became enormously prosperous during the 8th-10th centuries because of the Silk Road. Lucca became rich because its merchants and artisans bought raw silk in China and transported it via the Silk Road to Constantinople. From there it was shipped to nearby Genova, (called Genoa in English) and processed in Lucca.

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Lucca was already an ancient city in medieval times. It was an Etruscan city three hundred years BC and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. And, at the Lucca Conference in 56 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance known as the First Triumvirate at the Forum that stood on the spot where this church was built in the 11th century...

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Pause for a moment to reflect that Julius Caesar walked these streets and piazzas more than two thousand years ago and the Church of Michael the Archangel, (San Michelle). has now stood here for a thousand years. Consider as well that priests have been climbing these stone steps to deliver sermons here for the past six hundred years...

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Lucca truly flourished as the centre of silk weaving in the 14th and 15th centuries when this lectern was installed. More than three thousand looms were in operation in the city and its cloth was exported throughout Europe. The number of lavish churches was a testament to the richness of the city and its inhabitants in the Middle Ages and Lucca is known as the city of 100 churches. Some, like the Cathedral, have beautiful exteriors and soaring bell towers...

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While others, like the 12th century Santa Maria Corteorlandini just outside our apartment's front door, have plain exteriors but amazing interior decorations...
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Although we have been to Lucca many times we are spending a week here because we love its beautiful medieval architecture, its superb cuisine and its laid back atmosphere. Its labyrinthine traffic free streets are a picture...

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And its numerous delicatessens a gourmet's dream...
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When James first visited Lucca some 40 years ago he had difficulty finding the Tourist Information office because, as he was told by the attendant, Lucca did not want too many tourists. Today, despite the office being clearly marked on the map, we could not find it. Thankfully, some things don't change. Lucca may be quite near Florence but in some respects it's many leagues away.

Posted by Hawkson 08:52 Archived in Italy Comments (3)

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