A Travellerspoint blog

Puccini's Piano

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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

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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)

Palatial Florence

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For the entire 15th century the Medici family of Florence was the wealthiest dynasty in the world and their legacy can be seen in many of the imposing buildings including the Uffizi gallery and the Pitti Palace. Each of these palatial monuments contain a mind-blowing collection of the world's most valuable art and artifacts and visitors with limited time who attempt a double act in a day end up with spinning heads and sore feet. We have been before so knew the score. We planned carefully and had a programme starting at the Uffizi with Botticelli's Birth of Venus...

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Although we had booked in advance and had a timed entry ticket we constantly found ourselves at the back of the pack. The building itself is a work of art but difficult to appreciate through the crowds...

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And then a miracle occurred. An evacuation drill in the middle of our visit meant that everyone had to temporarily leave. We left, but timed our leaving so that we could be first to return. And what a difference...

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This is how Venus should be viewed...

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We also had clear views of all the other masterpieces until the crowds caught up...

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We were wise enough not to attempt the double act and the following day we crossed the River Arno to visit the Medici's enormous Pitti Palace. The Ponte Vecchio is still standing despite the enormous weight of all the gold in the dozens of jewellery shops that line either side of this medieval bridge...

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Anyone with a few days to spare could probably take in a good proportion of the treasures in the Pitti Palace, but would need another day or so just to appreciate the architecture and the magnificent ceilings...

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Florence was briefly the capital of a unified Italy from 1865 to 1870 and this was the opulent throne room in the Pitti Palace...

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Some sobering information before you book flights to Florence. Unlike London where all national galleries and museums are free, a combined Uffizi/Pitti Palace ticket normally costs $110 Cdn. for a couple and two small black coffees in the gallery cafe cost $17. However, just outside the Pitti Palace you can get a couple of small ham and cheese bagels and two coffees for only $39. Cdn. (In Uzbekistan we paid about $2.50 each for complete lunch).

However, not everything in Florence is ridiculously expensive. We are staying in a beautiful historic hotel in the Piazza Vittoria in the very centre of the city, the Pensione Pendini, where the beds are incredibly comfortable and the staff exceptionally attentive. This is Carlo Borghigiani, the manager, who not only welcomed all guests to breakfast each morning but insisted on making us a delicious Florentine breakfast of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes...

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From Carlo, the longtime manager, we learned that the 45 room hotel has been open since 1876 and in May of 1938 it was the centre of attention when the motorcade carrying Hitler and Mussolini swept across the Piazza in front of the hotel and passed through the giant archway overlooked by the elegant lounge...

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The streets and sights of Florence are heaving with tourists but the Pensione Pendini is an oasis of calm and we loved our time here.

Posted by Hawkson 00:43 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

From the Future to the Past in Florence

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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)

Uzbekistan - A Hidden Gem

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Our time in Uzbekistan has come to an end and looking back we have to be honest and say that after our twentieth madrassa; fifteenth minaret; tenth mosque; seventh mausoleum and fourth royal palace, all covered in blue tiles, we began to lose track. Most of the historic religious buildings are enormous and outwardly similar, but in Bukhara we visited this tiny one – the Chor Minor...

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Something that distinguished each of the historic buildings was the quantity and quality of carpets, cloth, clothing and trinkets on offer, (all handmade naturally). Another distinguishing feature was the Tourist Police offices. Uzbekistan is a very safe country that doesn't have any of the problems of some of its neighbours, but to reassure visitors the government has a specially trained force of multi-lingual officers whose job is to protect and assist tourists. There are offices conspicuously placed at the entrances to all the important sites but the one at this madrassa was just a bit too imposing...

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Travelling across the desert and through the countryside was fascinating. While the cities and city folk were all very modern we had occasional glimpses of the third world when we saw men riding donkeys and women tending the fields in the mountains....

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We never fully came to grips with the money in Uzbekistan. This is about $20....

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It is all well and good to know that 10,000 Uzbek som is roughly 1 euro or $1 U.S., but it's still a little disconcerting when you see prices for main courses as much as 25,000. ($2.50). On average we spent less than $10 a day each for food. Apart from the fact that the meals were heavy on meat, (although always accompanied by delicious salads), there was nothing particularly unusual on the menus. Plov is considered the national dish and is made from rice, carrots, apricots and meat, swimming in cottonseed oil. Plov is often made in large charcoal fired cauldrons outside restaurants...

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Cottonseed is the preferred oil for most cooking in Uzbekistan probably because they have a lot of it. It sells for about 10,000 som a litre, (Just $1), in the markets...

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Despite the fact that the Soviet system collapsed nearly 30 years ago there are still many reminders of that time. There are still bureaucratic requirements reminiscent of Russia. For instance: every hotel was required to give us a small form stating when we had stayed there and we were warned that we had too produce them on leaving the country, (though no one could explain what would happen if we didn't – maybe we would have to stay forever!). As in Russia: no one was in the least interested in the forms when we left Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks still speak Russian as a first language and all manner of Russian artifacts could be bought in the markets. This shop, (in a mosque precinct of course), had tons of old Russian items for sale...

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So much of Uzbekistan has been rebuilt and refurbished that it is difficult to distinguish old from new, but the elaborately carved wooden doors are always fascinating. This one is old – we think!...

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But the White Palace of Amir Temur still stands in its original, but ruined, state after 600 years...

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Did we enjoy our time in Uzbekistan? We loved the gentle, welcoming people; loved the excellent hotels; loved the fabulous food at ridiculous prices; loved the incredible cleanliness; and we loved the amazing historical sights...we could go on and on. Suffice to say “we loved it all”. Now we are in Italy we can say, “Bravo Uzbekistan. Grazie molto.” (We'd love to say that in Uzbek but would have no idea where to start).

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Posted by Hawkson 00:17 Archived in Uzbekistan Comments (4)

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