10. Gorgeous weather — dry, sunny, overnight temps in the 50s, daytime temps in the 70s and 80s.
9. Gelato — ate some every day. The best quality and flavor combo we found was at a place in Florence called Vivoli, where we got the cioccolatta ricca (rich chocolate) and crema d’arancia (orange cream). We also had a good zabalione gelato in Lucca, and good hazlenut gelato mixed with chocolate in San Gimignano.
8. Pisa’s Duomo and leaning tower — boy, does it lean! Both have beautifully intricate marble carving on the exterior, almost lace-like. The tower is shorter than I expected, and at a very precipitous angle indeed.
7. Towers as shows of wealth and power — San Gimignano is the best survivng example of this, with 13 of its orignal 72 towers still standing. Families built these towers not so much for protection as to demonstrate wealth, power and status in the community. The view from the tallest tower in San Gimignano is one of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen.
6. Fantastic countryside — it’s every bit as beautiful as I had come to expect. Tall Italian cypress trees, olive trees, vineyards, popping around corners and seeing little hill towns in front of you, everything green and gold and russet against a very blue sky.
5. Medieval fortifications — Lucca’s old city walls are still entirely intact, and after work the locals and a smattering of tourists stroll around the old city center on the walls (some run and some ride bikes). Monteriggioni is also an entirely intact hill fortress, built to protect Siena from Florence. Florence, Siena and San Gimignano all still have some of their old walls.
4. Siena’s Duomo — this is the most over-the-top church I’ve ever seen! The splendor of the marble decoration was not at all what I expected, especially the intricate marble carvings in the floor. Both the interior and the exterior take advantage of different colored marble to very striking effect.
3. The Medici — even today you can’t walk around Florence without tripping over evidence of the power and impact on the then-independent city-state. Jobs, art patronage, huge public and private buildings. The two major collections of Medieval and Renaissance art, in the Uffizi Gallery and the Pitti Palace, are Medici family collections.
2. Brunelleschi’s dome — I was stunned at how big the dome on the Florence Duomo is. One of the highlights of the trip was climbing up to the top of the dome, which not only gives you a spetacular view of Florence and the countryside, but also enables you to climb between the two layers in which Brunelleschi built the dome so that he wouldn’t have to use scaffolding. The climb also enables you to walk along the lip of the inside of the dome, up close and personal with the frescoes decorating the dome’s interior, which are amazing.
1. David — Michaelangelo got every detail, and got them all right. He looks like he could walk off of the pedestal and shake your hand. And his hands and feet are not as grossly exaggerated as I had thought. The marble almost glows it’s so beautiful, and the detail of the veins in the arms and the bulging neck muscles to signal his exertion are really striking. They’ve also displayed himi beautifully — you can walk around back and notice details that you never realized, such as the strap of his slingshot going down his back and the freakishly realistic carving of his calf muscles differently on the standlng leg and the moving leg. It is rightly the symbol of humanism and individual autonomy, at least in my mind.
Also worth noting were how nice everyone was that we met, how patient they were with my almost-verb-free Italian, and the quality of the food and wine.