If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Salzburg

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Passing through the Alps on the way to Salzburg

Today was mostly a travel day for us. After only one day in Zurich, it was time to move on, so we boarded a Railjet train for Salzburg. The trip took more than five hours, but it was beautiful. One minute we’d be passing farms with green fields and the next we’d be in the mountains with several inches of snow. The whole trip made me think of Heidi. I actually enjoy train travel (usually) and I spent most of the trip listening to an audio book while I looked out the window at the spectacular scenery.

When we arrived in Salzburg, we checked in at our hotel, did some laundry, and went to dinner. We walked around a bit and then went back to the hotel, so there’s not much to report. We’re just resting and conserving our energy for the two tours in Salzburg we’ve booked for tomorrow.

While you’re waiting for our adventures to continue, you may want to check out this page where I’ve collected some things we’ve seen that interested and/or amused us, but that I didn’t mention in a post. Maybe they will interest and/or amuse you too.

Too Much Zurich, Too Little Time!

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View from the train

Zurich is a bonus city for us. We originally intended to visit Venice, but getting there by train from Milan is difficult and, since Salzburg was already on our list, it made sense geographically to slip in a day in Zurich in between. But one day is not enough.

Our day started with the train ride from Milan. The ride was much more comfortable than our other train trips, probably because the seats next to us were empty and we could stretch out. The views out the window as we passed from Italy into Switzerland were gorgeous. It was misty and a little drizzly, but that just added to the beauty. My photos look almost like black and white images, but you can see some hints of color.

We were often lost in Zurich. I know practically no German, so signs were totally useless; we had to depend on maps and landmarks, and we got turned around often. We made it to our hotel and the kind young man behind the desk, who spoke English very well, mapped out a quick walking tour of Zurich’s Old Town for us.

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The Limmat River

We visited Grossmünster, the largest church in Zurich, and walked by Fraumünster hoping to go in to view the Chagall stained glass windows, but it was closed for a service. We then visited some shops and bought some chocolate to bring home. Zurich was a nice change from the cities in Italy. The streets were quiet and uncrowded, making the walking much easier.

In the evening we attended a concert with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (Zürcher Kammerorchester). The concert hall is not at all like the concert halls and opera houses in Italy. It’s very austere looking, but the acoustics are excellent. We ordered our tickets late so our seating choices were few, and we ended up at the last two seats of the very first row. I generally don’t like being that close to the stage or that far from the center, but in this case it was a great place to sit because it gave us an interesting view of the orchestra. The stage is simply a platform with no wings so we were able to see the anteroom where the conductor and soloist entered.

The first piece was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major  with Gil Shaham as soloist, and it was exquisite. This was one of those times when I realized I was in a room where something very special was happening. I’m not sure if it was the excellent acoustics in the hall, the relationship between soloist and conductor, or if Gil Shaham is just brilliant, but this was a performance I will never forget. It was probably a combination of those factors. When Gil Shaham left the stage, we could see him in the back, jumping up and down with joy! He returned to the stage for several bows and then an encore.

The second half of the concert was Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. It was wonderful to hear it played by a chamber orchestra rather than the large symphonic orchestras we generally hear. Paul pointed out that Beethoven wrote for a smaller orchestra so that’s probably how he intended it to be played. Again, our seats in the front corner of the hall were interesting. We were seeing the winds from behind, and they stood when they played which makes sense on a flat platform stage. Their conductor was Sir Roger Norrington, former principal conductor who returned for this performance. The whole orchestra played with such passion, and it’s obvious that they loved the conductor, and the conductor loved them and the audience. He encouraged applause between movements, applauded the players, and they applauded him. In all, this was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended.

I wish we had more time to explore Zurich, but tomorrow we are off to Salzburg!

Duomo di Milano and More of La Scala

When you’re on vacation and not following a normal routine, you tend to lose track of the days of the week. Our first priority today was to visit the La Scala museum and their special exhibit Maria Callas Onstage. We totally forgot that today is Sunday and the museum is closed. This was a major disappointment, but we decided instead to check out Milan’s largest cathedral, the Duomo.

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Milan’s Duomo at night

As we walked in there was a service in progress, and it was a bit bizarre to see and hear people attending Mass while tourists with earbuds and selfie sticks wandered all around them. It was an unexpected treat, however, to hear the organ play as a soprano voice sang Holy, Holy, Holy. The cathedral is beautiful with its stained glass windows, sculpture, and sarcophagi. We bought tickets to visit the Terraces, allowing us to take an elevator up to the top of the cathedral and wander around among the spires and flying buttresses. It was spectacular. We then visited the Duomo museum. This museum contains everything related to the cathedral including statues, tapestries, and models in wood or terracotta.

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View from the Duomo Terraces

In the evening we went back to La Scala where we had tickets for a concert. The program was the Requiem for Rossini. It’s a seldom heard work that was written in a collaboration of several composers for the first anniversary of Rossini’s death. Our seats were high up in the Gallerie (balcony) this time, and although it’s difficult to see everything from there, you can certainly hear it all. The chorus was excellent as was the orchestra, and the soloists were serviceable. In all, it was an enjoyable concert, and one last chance for us to enjoy being in this spectacular hall.

Tomorrow we say one final “arrivederci” to Italy and move on to the “and beyond” part of our journey. First stop – Zurich!

 

So This is Milan

It’s said that the Fascist Mussolini made the post-war trains run on time in Italy (not true) but they don’t run on time now. Our train to Milan was quite late, but the trip itself was pleasant. We were seated with two women (mother and daughter) who spoke English fluently so we felt quite at home. The mother, Dawn, is about our age and originally from Long Island, New York but moved to Florence to get her Masters Degree and stayed. Her daughter was born in Italy and lives in Rome. We talked about American politics, music, art, education and our children. Dawn is recently widowed and has turned her home outside Florence into an Airbnb and if she sends us a link to her site, I’ll share it.

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The Last Supper

Milan is not like Florence where you can walk to almost everything, so we were often lost. We did manage to find the Metro and get to the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie where we got a tour including Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. This is an image we all grew up with, and seeing the original was especially satisfying.

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Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie

You can’t just walk in and look at it, you have to have reservations or be with a group. The room is entered and exited through rooms that serve as air locks, and each group is allowed only 15 minutes of viewing time. Our tour guide explained that Leonardo did not like to use the fresco technique of painting on wet plaster because it dries quickly and once dried cannot be changed. He liked to work slowly so he used tempera paint over the plaster, and over the years the humidity and other factors have done a lot of damage. It’s still impressive and much bigger than I expected.

Our tour continued on to the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore where the walls and ceilings are covered with Renaissance frescos. It’s often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Milan. The church is divided by a wall forming a separate nuns’ hall where there’s a huge organ built in 1554. From the church we went to the Sforza Castle, a large citadel that was impressive and extremely crowded. There are several museums there that we could have visited, but it was getting late and we had to get some dinner and  make our way to the Piazza del Duomo.

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La Scala

The Piazza del Duomo in the heart of the city is a happening place. There were tour groups, street performers, and a group of people marching for animal rights (we first saw them at the Sforza Castle). Our destination was the renown opera house La Scala because we had tickets for the last performance of their 2016-17 season, Verdi’s Nabucco. We got our tickets online in August, and the only ones left had a limited view of the stage and weren’t together, but we jumped at the chance to see an opera in the most famous hall in the world. Our seats were in separate boxes, and it was hard to see, but it was still La Scala!

We recently saw the Met Live in HD production so it was hard not to compare. I have to admit that I prefer the Met production. The opera is set in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, but sometimes directors choose to change up things a bit and set the opera in more modern times, so this one looked like a black and white movie from the 30s. I know I should be more open minded about such things, but I really prefer the original settings (same with Shakespeare plays). Sometimes it almost works, but not this time. I was also disappointed in the chorus, probably because I was comparing it to the Met. There’s a chorus in the third act, Va, pensiero, or the The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves that was so beautiful and moving in the Met production that the audience demanded an immediate encore. That was not the case with this production. The chorus was not together and did not project that same sense of melancholy I was expecting. Still, it was La Scala! I’m happy we had the experience.

A Day for Slow Strolling and Taking in the View

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View of Florence from the Boboli Gardens

Our plan for today was to take a bus to Siena for a day trip, but we found out this morning that the drivers may be going on strike, so we decided not to chance it. Instead we used our found time to use up our Firenze card at the Pitti Palace and stroll around the Boboli Gardens.

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Neptune Fountain

It was a beautiful day, perfect for slow walking with lots of stops to admire the sculpture, the grounds, and the beautiful views of Florence down below. This was a bonus day, so we decided to take our time and not try to see it all. We loved the Boboli Gardens (thanks to Sarah Sutter for suggesting it), especially the 15 minutes or so when we sat on a bench and watched a toddler chase the pigeons all around the Neptune Fountain.

After about an hour in the gardens, we wandered inside for coffee and then entered the Palatine Gallery, a huge collection of Renaissance art in rooms with painted ceilings celebrating Roman mythology. The rooms were jam-packed with paintings, many by artists I never heard of, but there were also many by Raphael, Titian, and a few Caravaggios thrown in. There’s much more to the Pitti Palace, but it was a beautiful day and we wanted to get back outside. We took a leisurely walk back over the Ponte Santa Trinita and stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant on the way back to our hotel.

We spent the rest of the day getting organized, washing some clothes, watching Italian TV, and packing for tomorrow when we take a train to Milan. I’ve worried a little that we might over-schedule ourselves during this trip, so taking a slow day like today was an excellent idea.

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again

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Mercury

Visiting Florence can seem like being in a time warp. You’re surrounded by the Renaissance in the museums, galleries, churches, and public places. We spent this morning following the Renaissance walking tour (from the Steves book and app again). The tour took us by the Bargello and we decided to stop in. This small museum was quiet and uncrowded, so it was a pleasant change from the streets full of tour groups. It contains a large courtyard, several Michelangelo sculptures on the ground floor and Donatello sculpture in the room above (add some Leonardo and Raphael and you have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). There’s also a famous bronze statue of Mercury by Giambologna that made us think of flowers.

We also visited the Bapistry where we admired its bronze doors and ceiling mosaics, especially the Last Judgement where you can see Christ giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to the dead who wish to enter heaven. (Really! Look closely at the picture and check out the hands.)

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Last Judgement

The Orsanmichele Church was open so we walked in. This church was originally a granary and you can see signs of that in the design. Inside is a beautiful Gothic Tabernacle and the exterior of the church has niches in the walls where statues (two more Donatellos) are housed. After a long morning of walking, we decided to get some gelato and then return to our hotel for a rest.

For the evening’s entertainment we ventured outside of the touristy part of Florence to the Nelson Mandela Forum where it was truly time to do the Time Warp again. We saw a touring company perform the Rocky Horror Show and it was great fun. It was in English of course, except for an Italian speaking narrator who apparently was a local celebrity because he got a lot of applause as soon as he entered. We enjoyed this little break from the Renaissance and a time warp back to the 70s.

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Rocky Horror Show

 

My Fitbit Loves Florence!

If Paris is for lovers, Florence is for walkers. My Fitbit says I walked 15,378 steps yesterday and 14,422 today.  Walking is the best way to get around, but it can be treacherous. There are many traffic-free areas in the tourist areas north of the Arno, but some of the smaller, winding streets have very narrow (or no) sidewalks, and buses, cars, and the ubiquitous scooters come zipping around the corner at any time. Still, we’ve enjoyed walking these past two days, once the rain stopped. But, as much as we enjoy walking, Paul’s knees do not like steps, so we decided not to climb to the top of the Duomo’s dome for what we’ve heard is a spectacular view.

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View of the Ponte Vecchio

Our wanderings today took us to the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that’s featured in every movie or novel set in Florence. It was bright and sunshiny today, so we had a good time strolling along and taking pictures.

We then made our way to the Uffizi Gallery where we let Rick Steves and his app guide us through what was supposed to be a two-hour tour but took us much longer. Again, having a guide, or in this case a recorded tour, was extremely helpful. It helped us notice things we would have missed and make the historical connection necessary to truly appreciate what we were seeing.

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Botticelli – Birth of Venus – Uffizi Gallery

Then, for something completely different, we decided to check out the Galileo Museum. We downloaded their free app that has more information that anyone can possibly process while standing before showcases of old scientific instruments. We ran out of steam after the first floor, but it was a nice break from all the statues and paintings.

After a little rest, we took a bus to the Piazzale Michelangelo. This is where all the tour buses stop because there is a spectacular view of Florence and the Duomo. We took some pictures, but we were there primarily to visit the San Miniato Church and attend the Mass of the Gregorian Chants. This involved walking up a lot of steps, but it was worth it. The church is undergoing some major restoration so it was very noisy when we entered, but that stopped before the mass. The mass was sung throughout, and it was lovely and peaceful to listen to.

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The view from San Miniato Church

We decided to walk back (downhill is much easier) and it took us about a half an hour to get to our next destination, Teatro Verdi, where we had tickets for a concert by Orchestra Della Toscana. We had dinner in a restaurant across the street from the theater (quite convenient). The hall was smaller than I expected (and a little shabby) but we had good seats, right behind four young girls who entered carrying cushions to sit on (to see better). They seemed to thoroughly enjoy the concert and each other’s company and we appreciated seeing young people at a classical concert.

In the first half, the conductor also was the cello soloist in three pieces for cello and orchestra by Strauss, Glazunov, and Dvořák. He was excellent, but conducting while playing is a challenge, and he gave cues with his head and occasionally his bow. Fortunately, the concert master was also excellent and kept the strings together. After intermission, we heard Schumann’s Spring Symphony, No. 1. This is not the best orchestra I’ve ever heard, but they played with a lot of heart and obviously enjoy playing with this conductor.

After the concert, we took a taxi back to the hotel although my Fitbit would have been even happier if we had walked.

 

And Today We Saw David

Our morning was spent packing, riding the train to Florence, and finding our hotel, but we still had the afternoon to wander around, get our Firenze pass, and visit a church and a museum.

The Duomo is a Gothic cathedral with a huge dome that can be seen all around town and makes a good landmark in a city of narrow winding streets. We found the Mercato Market where we had lunch and then walked through the Duomo to get a sense of its grandeur.

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Michelangelo’s David

From there we went to Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. Our Firenze cards let us skip the long lines and walk right in. I expected the crowd to be huge but it wasn’t bad at all, and we were able to see this amazing statue up close and from all sides. This is truly a marvelous work that you cannot possibly appreciate from photos alone. You have to see it. I remember that the statue was attacked in the early 90s by a deranged  man with a hammer and a toe was broken (and repaired). Nowadays you can’t get that close because there are plexiglass panels all around it.

To get to David you pass by a series of incomplete statues know as the Prisoners. They are called this because Michelangelo believed he was freeing his sculptures from the stone in which God had imprisoned them. Because they are unfinished, they do appear to be emerging from huge blocks of marble.

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The bass of Paul’s dreams

Also in the Accademia there is a little bonus room, The Museum of Musical Instruments. This room holds mostly string instruments, including several Stradivarius violins. I got the feeling I sometimes have when I see animals in a zoo. Those violins should be played, not just looked at. Paul was enthralled by a double bass and asked if I would buy it for him, but I think we will remain a one-bass family for now.

Late last night, from our hotel room, we heard laughing, shouting, and chanting in the street below us. Apparently there was a football game (not American football, but the less barbaric game the rest of the world plays) between Rome and Florence. The Rome team won, but apparently some folks in Florence were quite happy about that. If I were younger, I might have gone out on the street to join them.

 

Everything I Knew About the Vatican I Learned from Dan Brown

9DC5287E-A6BB-4431-92EA-F371FFB54F4FUntil today I didn’t really know much about the Vatican other than what I had gleaned from history courses taken long ago and from reading The Da Vinci Code. We could have wandered through the various museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica on our own, but we decided to pay a lot for a five-hour tour with a guide. This turned out to be a good decision for us because we would have spent a lot of time on the wrong things and probably would have run out of steam before we got to the good parts.

Our tour guide was Maria. She said her real name was Mary Freedom, a name given to her by her hippie parents in the 60s, but I don’t believe it. She seemed too young and too Italian for this to be true (although the business card she handed us at the end of the tour gave her name as Maria Libera Del Vecchio). She seemed a bit flip at the beginning so I thought this would be another one of those tours where the guides just made up stuff, but she turned out to be quite knowledgeable. She’s an art historian who specializes in Renaissance art and she has such a passion for it that listening to her was never boring. In each room of the museums she skipped past all the minor works and went right to the best ones.

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The Pieta

Five hours is a long time to listen to someone talk, and sometimes it was hard to keep up, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I learned a lot about Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio (and Bernini) that I never got from any art history course. Maria carried a tablet with her to show us details of paintings and sculptures, and to give a quick overview of the Sistine Chapel before we entered it because you’re not supposed to talk inside it (or take pictures). She was well versed in ancient Roman history as well as the history of Catholicism, although she seemed a little baffled by the current Pope, often saying, “But Francis will be Francis,” as she described his breaks from tradition.

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Tomb of Alexander VII

The Vatican is an amazingly beautiful, historic place and I highly recommend touring it with a knowledgeable guide. The tour wore us out (lots of walking, stair-climbing, neck-craning to view ceilings and the dome) so afterward we returned to our hotel for a quiet evening of reading and writing.

 

There’s so much more to see and do here, but tomorrow we must say, “Arrivederci Roma” as we board the train for Florence.

Sta piovendo!

First thing this morning I checked my weather app, but I didn’t believe that little icon that shows a lightning bolt. It turned out that the thunder storms this afternoon had an effect on our plans for the day.

After breakfast we decided to take the Rick Steves book and do our own walking tour of the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain. We managed to find the right bus and get off at close to the right stop. The Piazza Navona has lovely (Bernini again) sculpture and fountains. We wandered into the Church of St. Agnes where an organ was playing (Bach) so we sat for a few minutes to listen and admire the artwork all around us. We then went to the Pantheon. It was crowded and a little dark because the only light source is the oculus in the dome and it was cloudy. It must be spectacular on a sunny day when the light streams through the oculus forming (as our intrepid guide Rick Steves says) the greatest column in Rome.

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The oculus in the Pantheon

The rain began as we headed to the Trevi Fountain but at this point it was just drizzle. There were huge crowds at the fountain, so getting close enough to toss in a coin was impossible, but it was still worth the trek. I’ve read about and seen pictures of this fountain and I’ve seen it in the movies, but I never understood how it just suddenly appears as you’re strolling along and you hear it before you see it.

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The Trevi Fountain

We strolled on to the Spanish Steps to get on the Metro back to Termini. We heard some thunder in the distance but didn’t think much of it. By the time we left the Termini station the drizzle had become a downpour and we had to walk a few blocks to our hotel. We were wearing raincoats and had umbrellas but it didn’t matter. We were soaked by the time we arrived at the hotel. The streets had filled with water so there was no way to cross without fording a stream, so our shoes were very wet.

Our plan for the evening was to go to the Auditorium Parco Del Musica to see if we could get tickets to see Chick Corea. I know that it seems odd to see an American jazz artist in Rome, but it would have been fun. Unfortunately, our shoes were wet and we didn’t want to get our backup shoes wet too, so we decided to stay in the hotel, take a nap, and then go to dinner.

We missed Chick Corea, but here’s a little clip of a street band we heard in Piazza Novona, playing American standards with some Italian flavor.