The McCarthy family has returned from a family trip to Tuscany, Italy and London, England. It's a lot to describe here, so I am pursuing a strategy of "progressive elaboration". I will add detail here and there, but the pictures will tell the story. Here are the few that start the tale....
My daughter Erin makes the transition from car to plane with no side effects except sleepiness.
London UK: Day One of Foreign-ness: Angie, Erin, my father-in-law George and my mother-in-law Linda made the trip to visit Angie's sister Sherry, her boys (Sean, Kyle and Brendan) and her husband Steve at their new home in London. I get less vacation time than Angie, so I took a flight three days later. When you see these pictures of vacation bliss, think of me with my nose still down to the grindstone back in the States.
Tuscany Villa - Day One (Easter Sunday). I call it Day One even though we arrived late Saturday night. We arrived in Rome at a reasonable hour (something like 5 or 6 PM), then rented cars and made the three hour trek to the Val d'Orcia region (pronounced "Val-Dorcha") of Tuscany. The nearest point of interest to our villa is the medieval hilltop town of Montepulciano (pronounced "Monta-pulch-ahno") about 5 miles away. An even closer point of interest is Villa la Foce, a 3,500 acre estate that marks the beginning of the driveway-like steep gravel road that takes you up the mountain to our villa named Palazzolaccio (I won't even try to do the phonetic spelling with that one!). All of the villas on our impossibly bumpy, steep, gravel path of a road had Italian names like that. The house-naming thing kind of reminds me of the beach cottages in my home town in Massachusetts: "Seaside Solace" or "Dunecrest" or "Ebbtide", but I have no idea what ours meant in Italian.
Here are some pictures of the villa. The first day was perfect for kicking back and getting acclimated to the time difference and jet lag.
Day Two - Travel Day. We drove about 5 miles to Montepulciano - a premier wine producing region in Tuscany - famous for chianti and brunello.
Day Three - Travel Day. We drove about 15 miles to Montalcino. Montalcino is an archetypical Tuscan hill town with a medieval center packed with fine architecture and a view ranging across the Val d'Orcia from the Siennese hills in the north to Monte Amiata to the south. The fortress of 1361 forms the highest point of the town and dominates the surrounding valleys. Brunello di Montalcino remains one of Italy's best red wines.
Sightseeing in Siena
Day Four - Travel Day. We drove about 30 miles to Siena for a day trip. Siena is the largest city we visited during our stay in Tuscany. Florence is a larger Tuscan city and more popular with tourists, but Siena is a wonderfully scenic and historic medieval city with much to offer and should not be missed. I was a big proponent of giving Florence a shot because I'd learned in my college art history class about Renaissance art and all the architecture, sculptures and paintings there. But Florence would have been a stretch for us to visit as a day trip with four young kids - probably 2-3 hours in the car each way, whereas Siena was about an hour and a half from our villa. Once we got there and visited the Duomo - the immense and impossibly ornate medieval cathedral in the center of town - I was excited to hear the local rumor that several Michelangelo sculptures and paintings are inside the Duomo but all on the "down-low" without attribution. You might think that's far-fetched, but not after you walk around the cathedral and see what's inside. I don't think Siena's architecture and artwork is as publicized as Florence's, so when you add up the positives of avoiding the crowds of tourists lined up to see Florence's big ticket items and enjoy Siena's beauty and history, I didn't feel like I missed out on anything.
Siena's cathedral was begun in the 12th century and its main facade was completed in 1380. Can you imagine taking over one hundred years to get most of the way done with a large public works project? And I say most of the way done because they never finished the construction. It was supposed to be the largest cathedral in the world, but the money ran out towards the end, so it's full symmetrical design was never completed. However, it is a stunning work of architecture. I have never seen any cathedral as ornate as this: it "out-bling"s Notre Dame in Paris, blows the doors off Westminster Abbey in London, and makes St. Patrick's in New York City look like a rough draft. Every single inch of the Duomo is decorated with over-the-top masterpieces in stone and marble sculpture and larger than life mural-sized paintings. I just walked around this cavernous structure with my jaws open in awe - it exceeds all expectation. Some art purists regard this as too ornate for a house of worship - kind of like a five-tiered wedding cake when a modest tiramisu would have sufficed. But I say it was worth it! This is one cathedral you will never forget if you have the good fortune to see it.
Palio di Siena
July 2 and August 16 are the dates when the Palio di Siena is held. The Palio is a traditional medieval horse race is run around the Piazza del Campo each year. This event is attended by large crowds, and is widely televised. Seventeen Contrade (which are city neighborhoods originally formed as battalions for the city's defence) vie for the trophy: a painted flag, or Palio bearing an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ten of the seventeen run in each Palio: seven run by right (having not run in the previous year's corresponding Palio) together with three drawn by lot from the remaining ten. A horse is assigned to each by lot. Though often a brutal and dangerous competition for horse and rider alike, the city thrives on the pride this competition brings. This event is not without its controversy however, and recently, there have been complaints about the treatment of the horses and to the danger run by the riders. In order to better protect the horses, steps have been taken to make veterinary care more easily available during the main race. Also at the most dangerous corners of the course, cushions are used to help protect both the riders and horses.
The Travel Section