A Travellerspoint blog

Italy

From the Future to the Past in Florence

semi-overcast 18 °C

It's a long way from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, to Milan, but we had a few hours stopover in Istanbul to admire the amazing new airport...

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The airport is vast and when fully operational will be the biggest and busiest airport in the world. It serves 300 destinations from 6 runways and will have a capacity of 200 million passengers a year. It is so big it took us nearly 20 minutes to taxi to the gate from landing.
Milan airport is more manageable and in no time we were in the city centre for a one night stopover. We have blogged about historic Milan before but the modern city is also fascinating. These two apartment towers in the once decrepit Isola district are called Bosco Verticale, (vertical forests)...

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The twin towers are completely covered with living trees and vegetation that provide shade in summer and shelter in winter. The reflections of the verdant towers in the nearby glass skyscrapers make an interesting environmental statement – will Bosco Verticale be the future of urban design?

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Speaking of the future: at 300 kilometres an hour on a bullet train it's a short hop from Milan to Florence and we slipped back 700 years to visit one of the most recognisable historic buildings in the world: the beautiful Duomo (cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore ) in the centre of the city...

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In Uzbekistan we became a little overwhelmed by the number of ecclesiastical buildings all similarly clad in blue tiles. But this is Italy – home of marble – so it's natural that this beautiful stone should be used for sacred constructions. However, the splendid white, green and red marble façade of Florence's Duomo is just that – a façade. The cathedral was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style to replace an earlier construction and it took 140 years to build. The famous brick dome was finally completed by 1436 by Filippo Brunelleschi. However, the incredible marble façade by Emilio De Fabris was added in the 19th century...

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Alongside the Duomo is the Campanile (the Bell Tower) designed by Giotto and, just like the minarets of Uzbekistan, energetic visitors willing to wait in line can climb the 414 of steps to the top...

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Next to the Duomo is the Baptistery. The most famous, and photographed, features of this building are the fabulous gilded doors. But there is a problem...

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Yes – we are not alone. Although it is now November, and well past tourist season in the northern hemisphere, Florence is still heaving with visitors from all over the world. The line-up for the Duomo stretched halfway around the enormous building and similarly long queues formed outside the Campanile and Baptistery. There is much to see and do in Florence, but so many tourists seeing and doing it, that we thankfully have tickets to visit the most visited attraction,the Uffizi Gallery, tomorrow. In the meantime - how about some delicious panforte at one of the many pasticherias in the city..

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Posted by Hawkson 09:57 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

Getting About in Padua

semi-overcast 15 °C

As we resume our journey through the great cities of central and eastern Europe we were concerned that we had reached saturation point regarding medieval architecture – and then we came to Padua. How can we not show you the murals painted by Giotto in 1303 that completely cover the walls of the Cappella degli Scrovegni...
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If you are not impressed by 700 year old paintings how about an 800 year old palace of justice...
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The Palazzo dell Ragione was originally Padua's courthouse. Today it houses the public market and it is surrounded by stalls selling all manner of fruits, vegetables and foodstuffs.
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Padua has a wealth of historic buildings, but this blog is about the way the old city has come to grips with the traffic woes that dog so many densely populated communities. Firstly, private cars are totally banned on many of the city's narrow cobbled streets. Other streets are one way only and priority is always given to pedestrians, buses, taxis and cyclists. These cycles are parked in the square in front of the 15th century clock tower...
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The builders of this, and other, Italian cities from the 15th to the 18th centuries knew that shoppers would be more likely to dawdle if they were sheltered from the heat and the rain, so they covered all of the sidewalks with lofty colonnades...
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This was not just good for business. It enabled the developers to build the upper stories right to the edge of the road without impeding traffic and the contrasts of light and shade makes for interesting photographs...
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Perhaps Padua's greatest success has been with the ultra-sleek single track electric trams that run almost silently through the cobblestone streets. This tram is circumnavigating one of Europe's largest public squares - Prato della Valle...
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But how does a tram operate using only a single track? And why is a city the size of Vancouver unwilling to invest in such an excellent mode of public transit? Answers on a postcard please to the mayor of Vancouver, BC. Canada.

Our time in Italy is very short on this trip as we are racing to keep ahead of winter. The first snows are already falling in the Alps so we are pushing further east to Slovenia. Arrivaderci Padova - we will return.

Posted by Hawkson 01:51 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

Syracuse - Sicily in a Nutshell

sunny 22 °C

In so many ways Sicily is a microcosm of Italy. It has volcanoes, mountains and beaches, together with ancient cities containing a wealth of historical architecture. Its volcanic soils and sub-tropical climate nurture an abundance of oranges, lemons, almonds, olives and grapes, and the surrounding Mediterranean is rich in seafood. The city of Syracuse in the south of the island has a little of everything – including a fabulous array of produce at the Saturday market…
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Roman orator Marcus Cicero described Syracuse as "the greatest Greek city and the most beautiful of them all" in 54 BC. Much of the history of Syracuse lies on the Island of Ortigia which has been joined to the mainland by bridges for the past two thousand years, (thereby setting a well-established historical precedent for real islands having bridges).
This beautiful fountain is in Ortigia’s central piazza…
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Syracuse was a Greek city for a thousand years before the Romans arrived and evidence of this can still be seen in the architecture - particularly in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception…
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This cathedral was first built as a Greek temple in 1100 BC. It was rebuilt in 480 BC with great Doric columns and dedicated to the Goddess Athena (venerated because she was a virgin who gave birth to a son of god – sounds familiar?). When the Romans took over and eventually adopted Christianity they simply changed the temple to a church and kept the original columns. Then the Muslim Saracens took over in the 9th century and changed it to a mosque before the Normans booted them out in the 11th century and turned it back to a cathedral.

Being seen to be close to god was important for the Syracusian aristocrats in medieval times and the richest built their palaces in the cathedral square…
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Not everyone lived in a palace and Ortigia is filled with narrow streets lined with more modest buildings…
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Syracuse is stuffed with ancient architecture. There is an enormous Norman castle, a two and a half thousand year old Greek theatre and this Roman coliseum with a gory past…
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This is the triumphal arch through which gladiators marched nearly two thousand years ago…
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We have now left Sicily and are in London. The pavements are wet for the first time in nearly two months and the temperature has dropped nearly 20 degrees, but we are still warm from our time in the sun. Sicily is fabulous and so are the wonderful people we met there – especially the hosts at the guesthouses who made us feel so welcome. This is Nicoletta at the Shuruq B&B in Avola who put on the most fabulous buffet even though we were the only guests…
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Sicily – amazing sights, lovely weather and wonderful people… who could ask for anything more?

Posted by Hawkson 03:44 Archived in Italy Comments (6)

The Baroque Cities of Sicily

sunny 22 °C

At 9.00pm on January 11th 1693 a massive earthquake struck southwestern Sicily. It completely levelled several cities that had already been badly damaged by an earlier trembler and killed more than 60,000 people. The epicentre decimated Noto – a medieval mountainside city. However, Noto rose gloriously from the rubble at the beginning of the 18th century and Italian art historian Cesare Brandi described it as “The Stone Garden’ when he wrote about at the beginning of the 20th century. These are his words accompanied by our photos. This is the entrance gate to Noto…
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===The Stone Garden ===by Cesare Brandi

About 50 churches and religious institutes together with 15 noble palaces, residences of ancient aristocrats, are the flowers of this garden…
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The Baroque dwells in this town…
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It is splendid and conceited in the historic centre…
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It is tender and almost elusive in the high areas of the town and in its characteristic quarters…
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There are many climbs, many staircases and some streets that are less large than one metre…
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Let curiosity guide you and Noto will show you itself.

The nearby cities of Ragusa and Modica were also decimated and although rebuilt in the Baroque style they lack the grandeur of Noto. However, the cathedral in Modica is a splendid sight…
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…and the somewhat dilapidated backstreets and lanes are very atmospheric…
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Our circumnavigation of Sicily is nearing its end with just one more historic city to visit – Syracuse – see you soon.

Posted by Hawkson 02:06 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

Picture the Past

sunny 23 °C

Look around you; look out of the window; look down the street. Then wonder just how much of what you see will still be around more than a thousand years hence, or even five hundred years, or just a hundred. Pause for thought… then look at this villa's mosaic floor in the mountains of central Sicily which is more than one thousand seven hundred years old…
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Yes – these young Roman girls playing ball are wearing bikinis…
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…and these two female athletes are being awarded prizes.

The luxurious Villa Romano Casale was built at the beginning of the 4th century AD for the family of an aristocratic Roman landowner. The villa had numerous centrally heated state rooms, guest suites and private chambers, in addition to thermal baths, a toilet complex and its own basilica. Every room and even the surrounding courtyards are paved with the finest Roman mosaics ever discovered. This is the somewhat suggestive scene on the floor of the master bedchamber…
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While this is one of a group of whimsical chariots racing around an amphitheatre in another room…
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And this ancient stallion might just still bite
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Room after room; mosaic after mosaic… the quality and detail of the artwork is simply stunning. And where walls have survived they are covered with equally elaborate frescoes…
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However the villa’s finest feature is a wide hallway running the length of the building with a mosaic floor depicting the capture of numerous exotic beasts including rhinos, tigers and elephants. It is believed that the artists came from the Nile Delta in Egypt…
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The entire mosaic is far too large for one photo and has to be seen to be appreciated, but here is another snapshot…
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The incredibly detailed mosaics of the Roman villa near Piazza Armeria in Sicily are not reproductions nor have they been enhanced in any way. They have survived so perfectly due to the hand of nature: when the villa was nine hundred years old a massive landslide carried away the walls and engulfed the rest in deep mud. These mosaics lay undisturbed for the next seven hundred years until they were excavated in 1929,
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Posted by Hawkson 09:47 Archived in Italy Comments (6)

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