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 Maggiore, was 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.
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!
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