Saturday, July 27, 2013

Un po' di vino

We’re going to take a little break from sightseeing now, since the next two sights were churches, and you’ve probably had enough of churches for a while.  We’re going to a wine tasting.

The wine tasting took place the following afternoon, on our way back to Florence, after spending far too little time in Siena (I wasn’t the only person to feel this way).  As always, hurry hurry hurry to get on to the next place.

The place we visited was Tenuta Torciano Vineyard and Winery.  Checking Tripadvisor after I got home, I found that it generally gets very high marks.  I did find most of the wines good, as well as the balsamic vinegar they had us dipping our bread into at the end.  But the tasting went on far too long – I would say a good hour longer than it should have – mainly because our host, Pierluigi, the charming and humorous owner, was dividing his time between our group, out on the covered patio, and another group in the main dining room.  So he was back and forth, leaving us alone sometimes for too long.

Indeed, at the very beginning, most of us didn’t know what to do.  Young serving girls were coming around, pouring wine into our glasses, and setting little plates of cheese, salami, and bits of lettuce in front of us.  We had just finished lunch in Siena, so the food was not particularly appealing.  But initially we didn’t know if we were supposed to eat it, like an antipasto -- which it wasn't, quite -- or just drink the wine and wait for instructions about the food (but why would they put food in front of you, if they didn’t want you to eat it?), or wait for instructions on both counts.  Eventually most of us sipped at our wine and picked at the food, at which point Pierluigi came out and told us: try the wine with a bit of cheese, then a piece of sausage, then a bit of salad, and see which one goes best with the wine.  Aha!  This did prove to be an interesting experiment.  And we repeated the experiment with the later wines.  Diana, one of the women at our table who had been to other wine tastings, said they would be giving us a clean glass for each wine, but that didn’t happen.  One of the young women wordlessly showed us how to dump any leftover wine into a ceramic bowl, and we simply used the same glass for all the wines, which put Diana’s nose somewhat out of joint. (“How can you clear your palate?”)

I really liked the Baldessare red, which was a tiny bit less dry than the chianti (which I also liked), which was much less dry than the chianti classico, which was almost astringent.  I didn’t bother trying the dessert wine because I do not like sweet wine – have never been able to understand why you would serve a sweet wine with a sweet dessert.  Poor Pat didn't really care for any of the wines, as she is a white wine person.

My big problem was that I can no longer drink too much wine -- at least not unless accompanied by a full meal -- or I not only get impossibly sleepy, but develop a sugar-induced headache.  Thus, while everyone else was pretty much downing everything that went into their glasses, I really did just taste.  A few sips, along with a few bites of the food supplied, that was it.  But around me, the sound level got higher and higher as the amount of wine consumed increased.  Patricia and I were at the quiet table (as we usually were), rather than the boisterous one, which got very boisterous indeed.  Even at our table, the rather demure Gloria, one of the women traveling alone, eventually became shrill, as she became more and more inebriated.  She had a rather annoying voice anyway, that always sounded a bit as though she were whining, but when oiled with wine, it became positively shrieking, especially after she broke a glass, which she found both embarrassing and hilarious.  I actually liked Gloria, who was a pleasant, friendly lady and, as I learned when we made the long day trip to Pompeii together, she was very interested in history, including ancient history (as am I), people in general, and the stories that were their lives.   She was a widow from New York (and one of the things that made her voice unfortunate was that pronounced New York accent), who worked part-time in a social work capacity, which I found admirable.  

But in the present situation, I found myself eventually just wanting to get away from her; indeed, from all the raucous noise.  This was one of those times in my life when I felt acutely how un-group-oriented I am.  I availed myself of trips to the bathroom three times, only one of which was actually spent in the toilet.  The other two were spent out on the back step of this old farmhouse-turned-restaurant, staring around at the small garden to the left of me, the open patio to the right of me (where they have dining all’aperto, when they don’t have on-again-off-again rain, as they did that afternoon), and at the tall hedge in front of me, that separated the building from the country road, along which an occasional car would pass.   

They were now into the selling phase of the afternoon – “We can ship anywhere in the United States!” – and in this I had absolutely no interest.   So I went for a walk around the back garden, which was pretty, if wet.  Found a pen of animals in a far corner, and suspected that these game birds, that rabbit, even this goat were probably not pets, but destined for dinner in the restaurant at some point.

For many people on the tour this was one of the highlights of the trip.  For both Pat and me, it was a moderately interesting, but ultimately boring, experience.  Except for Kelly from Kentucky, who was in the early stages of pregnancy, and could not drink at all, I was the soberest person on the bus trip home.  But now I’d been to an Italian wine tasting.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Art: Food for the soul

Our next stop was the Accademia Gallery (AG), for a look at the famous David.  This most famous work by Michelangelo Buonaroti (and how many of you knew ol’ Michelangelo had a last name?) was begun when the artist was only 26, and took him three years to finish. This puts me in mind of Mozart, writing all those symphonies and other works before he was 20.  A genius is a genius, what can one say.  David originally stood in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which we were to visit later, and which really is one’s idea of a palace.  Today it houses the city government of Florence, and has an imitation David out front, as in 1875 the original was moved to the AG.

At the AG there were the usual long lines, coming from both directions along the narrow sidewalk on the narrow street.  As a group we were whisked to the front of one of the lines (there are definitely advantages to being a group!), ‘though we still had to wait a bit.  Once inside we were led by our guide to the Gallery of the Slaves, which leads to the statue of David, standing by itself in the center of its own well-lit rotunda.  In the dimly-lit GoftheS, it’s easy to be distracted by that big, beautiful man-child up there on his pedestal. I tried to pay attention to what the guide was saying about the Slaves, but unfortunately I had left my headphones at the hotel, and even standing near him didn’t help much, as the place was so noisy – a high-ceilinged, echoing room full of other guides talking to other groups – so I finally gave up, and just went to look at each of the slaves.

These are not crack-the-whip slaves, but rather slaves of the marble, trying to come out.  For that was Michelangelo’s belief: that sculptures lurked within the marble, and just needed the artist’s help to reveal themselves.  There are four of them, and they are in various stages of being revealed (or, one might say, finished).  Two of them especially look very crude, very unfinished.  To me they demonstrate that a “work in progress” might be intellectually interesting – and provide guides with lots to talk about – but emotional satisfaction comes from the finished product.

As to David, whom I ventured to visit next, while our guide was still pontificating on the Slaves, he is absolutely amazing.  The subtle muscles, the knees, the abs, the perfect buttocks, and that calm,
smooth, boyish face.  I’ve long held that the Mona Lisa, that millions also flock to see, is way overrated, but Michel-angelo’s David is not.  To see the real thing, not a picture in a book, is a deep pleasure.

By the time our guide had moved the group into the David room, I had moved on, to the two galleries that lie on either side.  These are taken up with those overblown paintings that I’ve mentioned I’m not crazy about: swirling robes, voluptuous women, chunky cherubim on fat clouds, everybody looking some degree of pained.  But what was interesting about these paintings was that they had all been restored, and there were small pictures below them, that showed what they had looked like before the restorers (or “cleaners”) went to work.  What a difference!  What a fascinating, but painstaking, job that must be.

I found fascinating the room at the far end of one of these galleries, called the 19th Century Room.  Here are lot of busts of regular folks who (nonetheless) could afford to have busts made of themselves.  These are not the austere, essentially interchangeable busts (and in some cases full figures) of classical Rome and Greece, but pictures in plaster cast (from which the final marble statues were made) that actually show what the sitter looked like, capturing not only dress and hairstyles, but expression, suggestions of personality.  It made me want to rush out and have a bust made of myself, although I really should have had that done before the days of a fattened face and drooping jowls were upon me.

Mary Magdalene by unknown artist, 1280-1285
I also visited two small galleries that contained beautiful examples of 14th century art – wood panels with gold leaf backgrounds, rich colors, Madonnas with ugly baby Jesuses who looked like miniature grown men, story-telling squares surrounding the main figure, halos around the saints, the angels, the Madonnas, almost a total lack of depth perception.  These are not realistic paintings, but serene religious commentaries, meant to inspire and instruct.  

And while I was enjoying all of this, the rest of the group were still standing around David, while the guide went on and on.  Pat said he eventually got to where he was telling them about other groups he had led, which included famous sport and entertainment celebrities who made amazingly stupid comments about the statues.  Perillo Tours, I think perhaps this part of your Marco Polo Tour could be improved upon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Next Stop: Firenze

The countryside beyond Padua gradually became more hilly, and beyond Bologna, which we just drove past on the highway, the northern end of the Apennine Mountains, which run up the middle of the Italian boot, rose on our left.  These are friendly mountains, as opposed to majestic ones.  We were soon deep in the mountains’ lushly green foot hills, going up and down, and around curves.  In little valleys you could see farms, with their ocher-colored, red-tile-roofed  farmhouses.  And eventually the traffic slowed noticeably – ah, yes, the famous terrible Italian traffic, which we had not had to deal with up to now.

By the time we rolled into Florence it was raining, and coming on to evening, so Gianni made the decision to wait on the planned trip to Michelangelo Square, to view the city.  And we were glad he did, since instead we visited there on our last day, when it was partly sunny and dry; much better for viewing, and picture-taking.  We now went straight to our hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Medici.  Like the hotel in Venice this one was elegant and well-maintained, although more sleekly contemporary in its interior decoration.  There are “testimonials” in one of the lounge areas from famous folk like Luciano Pavarotti calling the hotel an “oasis” in the heart of Florence.   The beautifully landscaped swimming pool to be seen beyond large windows and modern French doors certainly looked like an oasis; indeed, I regretted that we simply did not have the time to sit out there and relax for an hour or so.  (See Note of May 18, 2013)
Grand Hotel Villa Medici

The most disconcerting aspect of the hotel was the way the main elevator kept going on the fritz.  There was another elevator, just across the lobby from the main one, but it came out in a place that left you confused as to where you were.  And we never knew when the elevator would be out of commission, so everybody spent a lot of time wandering around upstairs, trying to figure out which elevator to take.

The best thing about the hotel was that our room, while considerably smaller than the room in Venice, had a balcony.  Pat especially appreciated this feature, since she could smoke without having to go downstairs and outside.  And I delighted in looking over the waist-high wall and watching the life on a Florence street: people going in and out of the small shops, the apartment buildings, the light traffic on the street: buzzing motor scooters, the small cars, the occasional tourist bus.  I discovered, when I went out looking for food later, that down a couple of blocks to the left there were numerous hotels and small restaurants, as well as a mini-mart that was able to supply me with my standby ham-and-cheese sandwiches (and was staffed by someone of obvious mid-eastern ancestry: shades of New York/Boston/ and many other large cities).  And we watched an absolutely gorgeous sunset from that balcony, while listening to swooping, whistling birds, that someone told us were swallows.
Sunset from our balcony

The next day we began our touring by visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, one of the few residential buildings in Florence dating from the medieval period.  We tend to have a Cinderella-ish idea of what a palace is, but among the Italians of old a palazzo could be simply, as this building was, the large home of a rich family.   From the front it is unprepossessing: a very flat – no protruding balconies, shutters, or even window sills – plain, brown building, four stories high.  Our guide pointed out that something the façade did have were iron sconces, to hold torches, and flags.  Medieval Italian city states, like Florence, were torn by internal factions, often a matter of guilds, who had their own flags.   Whatever group you belonged to, you flew their flag.  Even today, flag waving is very big in Italy.

There are also lots of iron hooks, curved upwards, called erri.  These were used to hang baskets of flowers from, or banners, on festive days, or to leash little pet dogs or moneys.  So presumably the façade was often much less drab than it appears today.

Inside, I immediately felt I had stepped back into Romeo and Juliet’s day.  The ground floor is actually a stone-floored courtyard, though it seems less like one now, because there is a roof four floors above, rather than the awning that would originally have been there, which could be rolled back to let in air, or rolled into place to keep out rain.  The wide double doors leading out to the street would have been left open during the day, and people would have entered and left at will.  Off this courtyard is, among other rooms, the room where banking transactions would have taken place, for the Davizzis, who built the house in the early 1300s , were wealthy merchants and bankers.  There is a stone stairway leading up to the first floor, where the family’s private rooms were located.  Halfway up this staircase is a heavy door, that would have been manned by a guard, to keep out the riff-raff.

Upstairs, on each floor, a gallery runs around three sides of the house, and looks down on the courtyard.  I could just imagine the young girls of the house, peering over the stone balustrade at some dashing young fellow in striped tights below.  The rooms open off of this galley – the Great Hall, where special guests would have been entertained, bedrooms – one of which had been painted to look like the walls are covered with beautiful tiles, the other of which seems to have beautiful fabric wall hangings, also painted on.  There’s even a toilet.  In most of the rooms a few beautiful, elaborately carved wooden chairs, tables, chests.  I saw why there were no shutters to be seen on the outside of the building – the heavy wooden shutters are inside, and fold up accordion fashion when you open them.
I loved the place.  Pat hated all the stone stairs.
Beautifully decorated building in Florence