About Me

I am a 45 year husband and dad, currently adjusting to life back in the United States after living in Italy for a little over two years. I love spending time with my family, cycling, model railroading, mosaics and watching TV and movies.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pisa and the Mediterranean

After a good night of sleep, we got ready for the day and went downstairs and around the corner for breakfast. Our hotel gave us coupons for free breakfast at the bar.

Pisa reached it peak in power in AD 1200. It rivaled Venice and Genoa as sea trading powers for three centuries. Because of the Arno River, the city enjoys easy access to the Mediterranean.

We had a 10am reservation for the leaning tower. We arrived early to take pictures and check our bags. You cannot carry any bags, purses, backpacks, etc up the tower.

The Pisa Tower is famous throughout the world. It is well worth seeing in person. The leaning tower parallels Pisa's history. It was started when Pisa was at the peak of power. As Pisa's power declined, so did its tower reclined. It is said that more money is spent keeping the tower upright and leaning than if it leaning were completely fixed. After a 10 year closure due to unsafe conditions, the tower has undergone a multimillion dollar renovation and stabilization effort. Some say the tower is now good for another 200 years.

At 10am it was time to climb the tower. It is a 294 tilted step climb to the top. Only 30 visitors are allowed at a time and children under 8 are not allowed. We found that the climb was most of the fun. The slanted climb was easy, then hard, then easy, etc. You can see the evidence of the lean in the worn marble steps.

The tower is 200 ft tall and 55 ft wide. It weighs 14,000 tons and currently leans at a 5 degree angle - 15 feet. It started to lean almost immediately after construction began. There are 8 stories, a base and a belfry at the top. The inner structure is a hollow cylinder of limestone bricks.

Stairway to the top.

View from the top.

At the top.

Family picture

Bells of the tower.

This afternoon we decided to take the short drive out to the Mediterranean coast. First off, we stopped at McDonalds. Its funny, we eat at McDonalds much more than we ever did in Corvallis. Its a taste of home and its not Italian food. Sometimes we just get tired of meats, cheeses and pastas.

Brandon's funny photography

McDonalds in Pisa

We found the coast and walked down the waterfront for a few blocks, stopping for gelato before turning around. The afternoon was beautiful and warm. A great day to be at the coast.


Gelato at the coast.

After some time at the coast, we headed back to Pisa. Brandon wanted to hang out on the lawn near the leaning tower, so I hung out while Katrina took picture. Brandon chased pigeons. This led to a bad experience for him. He was herding and chasing pigeons when he accidently stepped on one. It really upset him. He was very worried that he had hurt the pigeon.

Chasing pigeons

What a handsome boy.

We took an afternoon break in the room before heading out in the evening to see the Arno River in town and find some dinner. There was an artists market setup on the street outside our hotel. Katrina found some very nice necklaces for a great price. We found the river, then looked for a place for dinner. We ended up back at the leaning tower for some night shots.

Arno River at night

Leaning Tower at night

We found a restaurant near the tower that was serving dinner early. Brandon and I had some great pasta al bolognese. Katrina had a Mediterranean salad. We also had a couple glasses of wine, of course.

We saw this on a sidestreet. You can get hot pizza or a pasta dish from a vending machine!

Back to the room for another early night. We all read for awhile then hit the sack early.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Volterra and Pisa

This morning we packed up and made our way back down to the car, picking up some pastries to eat along the way.

Our hotel in Siena - a very old building.

We were headed for Pisa for two nights. Along the way we planned to stop in Volterra, another Tuscan hill town.

More Tuscan scenery to enjoy as we drive to Volterra

Volterra sits on a high hill, surrounded by large walls and protected by a grand fortress. Volterra was once one of the most important Etruscan (pre Roman) cities. The city eventually became a part of the Roman Empire and was an enemy of the Florentines in the Middle Ages. In the end it lost and was given a fortress atop the city to 'protect' its citizens.

We found parking near one of the lower gates to the city, then had to climb up many steps to the city.

Many steps to climb to reach the city.

Our first stop in the city was the Etruscan Museum - Museo Etrusco Guarnacci. This museum is filled with Etruscan artifacts. This museum is considered the third best Etruscan museum in the world.

The Etruscans were a pretty advanced pre-Roman civilization. Many of the artifacts are funerary urns. Most show that the Etruscans believed in a happy after-life. The museum also displays an extensive array of Etruscan coins, mirrors and jewelry.

Etruscan urn.

Etruscan burial


After the museum, we made our way down to Porta all'Arco, Voterra's famous Etruscan Gate. It was built of volcanic rock in the 4th century.

Porta all'Arco

Working our way back up hill, we passed the Medici Fortress. In the old days the fortress protected the city and kept enemies out. Today it is a maximum security prison with about 60 inmates.

Next to the fortress is Archaeological Park. This area was once the acropolis of Volterra from 1500BC to AD1472 when Florence conquered the city and burned down its historical center. Today it is a beautiful park.

Archaeological Park

Enjoying some swing time.

Archaelogical Park with Medici Fortress in background

We made out way out of the park and into the heart of town. We were hungry and found a cafe that served a fantastic lunch.

After lunch we found an overlook with great views.

View from the city.

Katrina wanted to visit the Pinoteca, a museum filled with 14th century art. Brandon and I were not interested, so we chose to hang out in the nearby piazza. After exploring the piazza a bit we found that the New Moon book has a chapter titled "Volterra". The chapter actually takes place here, but the movie scenes were actually filmed in Montepulciano.

City Hall

When Katrina rejoined us, we wandered down the main street to the Roman theater. This theater was built around 10 BC and is considered to have some of the best acoustics of its kind. The back of the theater consists of the high town wall, where you can peer down from above. The theater was abandoned in the 4th century AD. Some of its stones were used to build elaborate baths behind the theater. The theater eventually became the town dump. Trash was thrown over the town wall, covering the remains of the theater. The original stage wall was three levels tall. Today, only a small two story portion remains. The theater was rediscovered in the 1950's.

Roman theater

Roman jacuzzi

It was time to head to Pisa. We had about an hour drive and arrived in late afternoon. We found parking outside the city walls and made our way to the hotel. We stayed at the B&B Borghi Due in the heart of the old city. It was a bit of a walk, made up for by the fact we had to pass the leaning tower on the way. We stopped to buy tickets for the leaning tower for tomorrow morning.

Interesting architecture in Pisa

Brandon became pretty good at spotting the Medici Coat of Arms.

Daaaad! How long do I have to hold this up?

Duomo with leaning tower behind

The Baptistry.

After getting settled in our room, we headed out to look around and find a place for dinner. We had dinner at a pizzaria downstairs from our room. Once again, very tasty.

Unfortunately, I had to walk back to our car. I left my wallet in the door panel and didn't feel safe leaving it there overnight. Katrina and Brandon paid for dinner and I took off towards the car.

I followed what I thought was the correct route to the car and eventually became really lost. Long story short, I overshot the parking lot by about 6 blocks. It was dark and I had no idea where I was. I even called Katrina to help me by looking up my location on the GPS. We gave up on that and I wandered until I found a gas station to ask for directions. Funny thing is, the gas station ended up being the one at the entrance of the parking lot I had been searching for.

After a long walk back to the hotel, we crashed early again. Tomorrow we check out Pisa and the leaning tower.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Siena and Tuscan Hill Towns

This morning we spent some time wandering around Siena. We didn't really have a plan, so we just wandered. At one point Katrina and Brandon wandered on their own while I went back to the room to relax. We met up again a little over an hour later. Siena has many interesting streets that seem to go in every direction.

One of the neighborhoods that is very proud of their Contrade.

Many, many streets look like this...all over Italy.

A breakfast treat...one of many donuts Brandon enjoyed on this trip.

Eventually we ended back in Il Campo. Our plan was to spend the afternoon visiting some more Tuscan hill towns. The day was cloudy and a bit chilly. I stayed with Brandon so he could run around Il Campo a bit while Katrina went back to the room to gather our coats.

Back in Il Campo.

Chasing pigeons.

Viewpoint in Siena

We made our way down to the car and entered Montalcino into our GPS. It took about an hour to drive there. It was a cloudy and sometimes foggy day in Tuscany.

Montalcino is a wine town, overlooking vineyards and valleys. It is famous for its Brunello di Montalcino red wine. In the Middle Ages Montalcino was Siena's biggest ally. Montalcino was originally allied with Florence, but quickly switched sides after Siena beat up Florence in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Its properity waned after the Medici took control of the region, only to become prosporous again in the late 19th century when the Biondi Santi family created a dark red wine.

After parking and walking up to the town, we entered the gate of the Fortezza, a 14th century fort built under the rule of Siena. Today it is little more than a shell with an Enoteca (wine bar). This is where we chose to have some lunch. We enjoyed a plate of cheese and meat, along with some local honey and glasses of red wine. Yum!


After lunch Brandon wanted to walk on the ramparts of the fortezza. We walked all the way around the Fortezza and climbed up one of the towers.

A narrow doorway leads to the ramparts.

Walking on the ramparts.

View of inside the Fortezza.

Climbing to the top of the tower.

On top of the tower.

View of the town from the tower.

The Fortezza had some dark narrow passages - only lit up because of my flash.

We also spent a little time walking around the town. Not much was open. It was lunch time and it is the off season.

Did I mention that hill towns have hills.

I thought this was an interesting sign.

Fall is in the air.

Fun in the fall.

Off to our next hill town, Pienza. It was about a 40 minute drive to Pienza.

Pienza sits on the crest of a large hill surrounded by green rolling hills. This is a Renaissance town. In the 1400's Pope Pius II, who was born here, decided to remodel the town in the Renaissance style. It was transformed from the town of Corsignano to Pienza in only five years. Not all of the town was remodeled. Work ended in 1564 when the pope and his architect both died. The town is full of the areas specialty - Pecorino cheese - which is wonderful to taste, but the smell of the cheese shops can be overpowering. Pecorino cheese is a pungent sheep's cheese.

The town is full of greenery. Trees, potted plants and flowers can be found on every street and balcony.

As we walked up the main street we were halted by yellow vested security guards. They were there to keep us tourists from walking into the movie scenes being shot in the Piazza Pio II.

A movie was being filmed in the piazza.

We had to bypass the movie location, so we wandered down the side streets and lanes. Pienza is a very beautiful little town. The only drawback was, as we were leaving we wanted some gelato and a drink. This town does not seem to have gelato (very suprising) and no Coca Cola.

A beautiful little piazza.

It was getting dark, but it was still early. We decided on one more town as we headed back towards Siena for the night.

The next town, Montepulciano. Montepulciano is a town built on a ridge. Its main street winds its way to the top of the ridge. The city has been under Sienese and Florentine rule through the ages. Like Siena, Montepulciano is divided into districts of medieval contrade. On the last Sunday of August the neighborhoods compete in the Bravio delle Botti, where teams of men push large wine casks uphill, all hoping to win a banner and bragging rights.


We arrived in the dark and found a parking lot near the fortified Porta al Prato gate. We wandered up the street, and I do mean up. We were at the bottom end of town and it is uphill all the way to the other end of town.

Many of the shops were still open, but not many tourists were around. There were many Pecorino cheese shops and wine shops. We visited one wine shop that offered a free underground tour. The self guided tour followed underground chambers from Gothic and Renaissance times. It was amazing how extensive these tunnels and chambers were, and they were almost all full of giant wine casks.

Shop with meats and cheeses.

Brandon posing next to one of many wine casks in the underground passages.

We slowly, very slowly made our way up to Piazza Grande, one of the main piazza's in town. It is located all the way up the long steep hill. I had to pull Brandon and Katrina up the last few hundred meters. We all laughed and quickly found a bench to rest our legs. We were tired! We finally got up and spent some time picking postcards at the only tourist shop open.

One interesting tidbit about the town. We noticed that many of the stores were selling t-shirts, pictures and other random items with references to the upcoming New Moon movie. Apparently, many of the Italian scenes were filmed here in town.

It was a long walk back down hill. Even that was tiring. We found our car and drove the hour back to Siena. Thank goodness for GPS on those dark twisting Tuscan roads.

We ended up picking random items for dinner. I had a slice of pizza. Brandon and Katrina shared some fruit and crackers from a corner market. It was a long but great day. We climbed into bed early and slept well.