A Blending of Ancient History and Culture ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 2)

Our little farmhouse was well positioned for trips into the Tuscan countryside to explore quaint hill towns, as well as a day trip into Florence.  I had read about the Crete Senesi, which refers to the clay soil containing sediments that date back 2.5 million years.  The landscape within the Crete Senesi has been described as lunar-like, which fascinated me, so I knew a drive through that area was going to be on the agenda.  And it just so happened that a Benedictine monastery I had read about, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiorewas a stone’s throw away, so you know the expression “two birds with one stone”, and our day was planned.

I found the starkness of the landscape, with only a single villa, a few cypress, and a spot of green among rolling hills of clay quite beautiful.

In contrast, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, although still considered part of the Crete Senesi, sat tucked within a forested area.  After parking our vehicle in the lot above, we took a 10-minute wooded walk  down a long line of cypress to a medieval palace of red brick, the abbey.  In the courtyard a large statue of Saint Bernard Tolomei greeted us, holding the book of rules for the notably strict order to which he belonged.

In the year 1272, Bernard Tolomei, founder of the abbey, was born to an aristocratic family in Siena.  He had a distinguished career as a lawyer until he was called here to become a hermit monk at the age of 40.  He founded the Olivetan order of the Benedictines and in 2009 was made a saint.  This complex is the order’s mother abbey.

The beauty of the abbey and the simplicity of the Benedictine lifestyle is seen in the paintings, murals, and statues displayed throughout the monastery.

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We had spoken to those who enjoyed Florence more than Rome, but since we were flying back to the states through Rome, we decided to explore her in detail and give Florence more of a passing nod – a quick day trip.  So on another rainy day Terry and I drove to the hill town of Poggibonsi and caught the train to Florence.  With limited time to visit, we made the most of our day and tested our patience as we maneuvered through the hordes of tourists at the Duomo, then moved on to the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries.  Luckily I had made reservations for the galleries before our visit (truly a must) so didn’t have to stand in the longest of lines, but once inside, there was no escaping the crowds.  We just had to jump in and start swimming!

A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.
A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.

Florence is Europe’s cultural capital, so culturally rich that it has more artistic masterpieces per square mile than anywhere else.  It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world, and produced the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Dante, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.  As I write this I’m thinking we should have spent more time here, then I remember the mob of tourists, which outnumber the locals from April to October, and I shudder.

All sights in Florence diverge out from the Duomo.  The exterior is extravagant, covered in white, pink, and green marble, and in need of a good scrubbing. Brunelleschi’s lavish dome was the model for those that followed, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the U.S. Capitol building.  The inside, which I’m not sure yet how we managed to enter given the crowds, is underwhelming and felt empty to me.

If one must brave the Florence crowds it would be a tragedy to miss Michelangelo’s David, the shepherd boy with the perfect physique, armed with only a slingshot and five stones, who took on the giant Goliath.  All 17 feet of him is standing in naked glory at the Accademia Gallery, in a halo-like dome.  For me, seeing  David was worth the price of admission and the train ride to Florence.  Some of Michelangelo’s unfinished work, which looks to be trying to free itself from the slabs of unworked marble, line the hallway leading to the Renaissance man.

From here we headed to the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, one of Europe’s five top art galleries.  This is where the famous Botticelli’s Birth of Venus can be found.

From a window in the Uffizi Gallery you get your best views of the Arno River, second only to the Tiber River in importance in the Tuscany area.  Spanning the narrowest part of the river, the Ponte Vecchio can be seen, Florence’s most famous bridge, lined with shops since Roman times.

It seems famous statues can be seen in every plaza in Florence, and although I could regale you with so much more, I will stop here as I feel my head is about to explode!  I am not an art aficionado but it was thrilling to see works of art I had only seen in books or online.

Next Up:  A little less culture, a lot more sun…the Amalfi Coast

23 thoughts on “A Blending of Ancient History and Culture ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 2)

  • You have seen the original masterpieces that I’ve only seen in books. So many that you mentioned were a big deal in my Art History course in college. So glad you got to see the real things… Were they a lot more amazing in real life than in a book? Though, I imagine the crowds made it tough to get close and just stand and look.

  • That opening shot is wonderful LuAnn! We too got the train to Florence from Poggibonsi, but had two days there so added to what you managed to fit in we also climbed the campanile, went into the baptistry (the ceiling is magnificent) and went up on some hill for amazing views of the city. The Uffizi is an extraordinary collection and I’m glad I went if only to see the Botticellis. I think we could probably both do with more time in Florence – if we can stand the crowds! 🙂

    • Looking back, I wish we had had more time in Florence. When we were near the Duomo, you could hardly move for the crowds. I would have loved to visit the Baptistry. I couldn’t get a good shot of the Golden Doors for the people. I also loved all the statues in the Loggia della Signoria.

  • Beautiful slide show:) I love the stark countryside in your header photo. The tourist can certainly put a damper on truly enjoying your surroundings. But going knowing this can ease it a little. Another spectacular day!

  • I don’t mind extreme crowds in certain situations (like the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans) as long as they’re well behaved and happy. But it’s definitely not pleasant to visit a museum in a herd. Despite the crowds, your photos are wonderful—I love seeing the classics in person. And the abbey is gorgeous.

    • I struggle a bit with the crowds because selfishly I can’t get photos without masses of people in them. Terry sometimes has to step in and raise the camera higher than I can. Even with the crowds I’m so glad we had these experiences. The French Quarter Festival in NO has long been on my list.

  • I love the feeling of serenity that you’ve captured in your photos of the countryside LuAnn and the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore is beautiful. But talk about a contrast with your visit next to Florence and the crowds. You may be a bit “cultured out” after Florence but it must have been a thrill to see in person some of the world’s greatest masterpieces as well as the art spread throughout the city. Definitely worth the crush of tourists! Anita

    • We are now back home Anita and we have had the biggest challenge getting back out into any type of crowd. We didn’t expect that but know this too shall pass.

  • Florence was quite a bit of a drive from Naples, but I was three times. I love Florence. I actually never been inside Academia Gallery. I was fine seeing the ones you don’t have to pay. 🙂 The gallery does look plain, like a regular museum. The view from Michelangelo Plaza is one of the best overlooking views for me.
    That Duomo is huge. Hard to take picture of all of it. 🙂 It’s grand fantastic even in details anyways.
    Funny that because I didn’t know about that monastery, I actually find it the best part of this post.

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