Bob's World Travels

On this page:

Grand Canyon Backpack April 17, 2017
Dolomites, Part II October 10, 2016
Burano October 9, 2016
Dolomites, Part I October 7, 2016
Venice September 28, 2016
Tuscany September 25, 2016
Siena September 24, 2016
Lucca September 21, 2016
Pisa September 19, 2016
Florence September 19, 2016

Grand Canyon Backpack

A CMC trip lead by Tim Musil in 2017

We had a thunder snow on the rim, in the Grand Canyon Village, the night before we were supposed to descend into the Canyon.  We lost power for several hours during the night and awoke to find the ground and trees covered with an inch of snow. In the morning, we made a unanimous decision to proceed with our hike. Late in the morning, we descended from Grandview Point under heavy skies.  There was snow along the trail through the Kaibab layer, immediately below the rim.  As we descended graupel started to fall, which turned into snow.  It was beautiful looking across the canyon through the falling show. By the time we had descended down winding trails through the vertical Coconino Sandstone to the more gentle Hermit Shale layer the snow was gone and we saw our first wildflowers, scarlet red paintbrush. Our views throughout, were over to the towers, buttes and mesas on the north side of the Canyon.

Backpacking the Grand Canyon is all about the wedding cake of geologic layers. The sandstone and limestones  tend to be harder and more vertical, while the shale layers are softer and a bit more gentle.  Most of the layers were deposited under ancient seas between 250 and 550 million years ago. Hiking down the tallest layer, the Supai Layer, we saw many flowers, including white fendlerbush, red beardtongue, and purple milk vetch. At the bottom of the Supai was the hard and vertical Red Wall, famous for being an obstacle to ascent and descent. The climb down the wall was steep, rocky and rugged with loose stones, but at the bottom, we rested on the Bright Angel Shale, on the Tonto Plateau, where we would spend most of our backpack. For the next five days we would be hiking on the rolling Tonto trail, staying on the shale platform through the carpet of prickly blackbrush bushes. Late in the afternoon, we arrived with sunshine at Cottonwood Creek, where we camped among the green Cottonwood trees and Redbud trees, with their purple blossoms.  This first day, we had descended, 3,700 feet, making it a particularly difficult day. From our camp, we had a view of Angels Gate, a mesa with two rock formations on top.

The next day we hiked around a large section of the plateau, sometimes on the edge of the plateau with the vertical Tapeats Sandstone below us and below that the ancient Vishnu Schist, twisted and tortured by the enormous pressure of the past billion and a half years with jagged lines of igneous rock running through it. This rock is the foundation of North American. At times, we could see far down to the Colorado River.  All during the hike, there were beautiful mariposa lilies scattered throughout the blackbrush. As we hiked, we viewed a number of different formations on the north side of the canyon. In places, the shale hillsides were covered with bright yellow, wild sunflowers. We turned south and hiked on the edge of the enormous side-canyon of Grapevine Creek. We camped far up the creek in a very green area.  After setting up camp, four of us bushwhacked through the brush up a side canyon which became increasingly narrow until we could go no further. It was a warm and sunny evening with some rain during the night.

The following morning, I was ready to go before the others and left by myself at 7:30 am. I enjoyed the early morning light, and crossing one dry stream bed, I found a deflated valentines helium balloon. It is my experience that these balloons like to go to great wild areas to die. The views of the formations were constantly changing and at one point, we again looked down at the river. We camped at a spring where there were tadpoles in the pools. In the evening as we watched the sunset, there was a full symphony of frog voices with high and low pitched parts, some continuous and some with a definite beat. It reminded me of contemporary avant-garde music; perhaps like John Luther Adams or Tim Hecker.

Hiking again the next morning on the Tonto Trail, among the mariposas and sunflowers, the Zoroaster and the Brahma Temples with their high, light tan colored, Cocino caps, dominated the scenery to the north. Midday, we had to descend and climb steeply through rugged, dry side-canyons, and then we climbed steadily to meet the Kaibab Trail.  From a distance, we could see people on the Kaibab Trail.  We had rarely seen anyone on the Tonto Trail. On the busy Kaibab Trail, we climbed steeply down into the Vishnu Schist where we could see the river below and the black bridge crossing it. I crossed the bridge ahead of most of the group but with a number of other people and hiked down to the riverside where there were some ancient, native ruins, covered with sunflowers.

We set up camp in a group site in the Bright Angel Campground, where we had our own stone shelter and a couple of us walked up to Phantom Ranch for a beer. When we got back to camp, we heard thunder and it began to pour rain.  Fortunately, we had the shelter where we waited, shivering, for the rain to stop.  It continued to drip and drop for a couple of hours, but stopped just in time for us to go to dinner at Phantom Ranch. We ate dinner in a rustic, historic stone building where there were long tables.  Everyone ate family style passing large bowls of fresh salad, pots of beef stew, and bowls of corn bread.  The staff was happy to bring a new pot of stew, after we finished the first one. There was chocolate cake for desert.  After eating dehydrated food for several days, we loved the real food, carried down to the ranch on mules,. My tent had been out in the heavy rain but was dry inside when I went to bed.  It was a warm night.

We had planned to climb out the next day on the Bright Angel Trail but found out it was closed due to a rock fall.  We had a great breakfast at Phantom Ranch with eggs, bacon, pancakes, canned peaches, fresh-brewed coffee and orange juice. After breakfast, we climbed out on the Kaibab Trail, which we had descended the previous day. We climbed the 1,500 feet back to the intersection with the Tonto Trail.  We hiked an additional section of the Tonto Trail west to the Bright Angel Trail and the Indian Gardens campground.  This was a particularly beautiful section of the Tonto Trail.  I found my friend Heeja eating an apple she had purchased at Phantom Ranch. So I stopped and ate my apple and we hiked the rest of the way together, and when we stopped again for a break, I read her a part of Slaughterhouse Five which we discussed.  It concerned the poor condition of American enlisted men in World War II and America's peculiar notions of social class. It seemed to fit the current national situation. We had great views to the north side and down to the river, and crossed a lovely oasis on Pipe Creek with cottonwood trees and a running stream. Indian Gardens was a beautiful shady campground with a variety of large trees.  Our group site had two shelters with picnic tables. In the evening, the group walked out to Plateau Point where we looked far down to the river and watched two rafts navigate rapids.

Our final morning was bright and cool, perfect for the 3,000 foot climb back to the rim which was in front of us.  Heeja and I set out climbing up through the layers, through a break in the Red Wall, up the tall Supai layer of soft shale and up the beautiful cliff of the Cocino sandstone, constructed from ancient sand dunes. I felt great and enjoyed the climb immensely, my endurance strengthened by six days of hiking.  I enjoyed my final experience of the distant views, the endless variety of shapes and the prehistoric stone. I popped up into startling civilization at about 9:30 am.  The trail head was in the very center of the village.  I immediately went into the lodge and bought a vanilla latte and a pastry and then waited for the others in the bright sunshine in front of the vast expanse of the canyon.


Dolomites, Part II

From Rifugio Averau we descended past Cinque Torre and traversed up and down across the top of Val Cerna, where we continued to have views of Cinque Torre. We descended to Rifugio Fedare and climbed over three passes.  The last pass, Forcella Giau gave us a view down into the Mondeval de Sora basin where a 7,500 year old burial site of a Mesolithic hunter has been found. The basin took the form of a broad green curve between high points.  After a packed lunch among the white boulders high in the basin, we continued to traverse the Mondeval de Sora under the peak of Lastoi de Formin. We crossed the Ambrizolla pass under the the isolated Beca de Mezondi peak. After crossing more passes with great views of distant mountains, including the pyramid shaped Antelo, we descended to Rifugio Città di Fiume, located underneath the Pelmo mountain massif,  where we spent the night.  This Rifugio was small and very rustic but was full of trekkers.  The room shared by the men in my group had low rafters that we had to bend under and the shower had to be repaired after over use.

It rained over night, and it was wet and grey when we started the next morning. We hiked below Pelmo (also known and the Throne of the Gods).  We traversed around the northwestern side of the Pelmo and descended a short distance to Rifugio P'so Staulanza.  We then descended a short distance down an asphalt road and turned on a dirt country road and walked to Malga Vescova,a dairy farm with a very rustic restaurant. For lunch, I had fried cheese with polenta and french fries.  It was simple and delicious. The farm wife serving us was delightful.  She did not speak a word of English, but she smiled and laughed constantly with us as we tried to place our orders.  As we paid our bills, I tried my broken Italian which in this case worked.  I tipped her and she smiled delightfully.  As we were leaving, she showed us the room where they made cheese.

During lunch, the weather had changed from cloudy and hazy to bright and crystalline clear.  We climbed steeply from behind the farmhouse, and at the top of the ridge, we had beautiful views of mountains in all directions, including a clear, dramatic view of Pelmo. We hiked through lush green meadows. We hiked up a valley to Cra di Pioda, where we began a very rocky and steep climb. I felt strong and climbed ahead of the others.  It felt like a cool, bright autumn day and the scenery was spectacular. As I approached the Rifugio a Sonino al Coldai, just below the Coldai pass, the Civetta towered above and Pelmo behind me, both among the ten tallest mountains in the Dolomites. Again, at this high rifugio there were great views, including to Antelao far to the east.

The next morning, we climbed from the rifugio a short distance over Coldai pass. The light was clear and glowing and there were views from the pass in all directions. On the other side of the pass, we hiked around Lake Coldai and traversed for several miles around the bottom of Civetta. For lunch, we climbed steeply to Refugio Tissi, which was high on a ridge with great views in all directions. At the summit of the ridge, we were on top of a cliff with a 1,500 foot drop to Lago de Alleghe and the town of Alleghe far below.  After lunch, we hiked back down to the Alta Via l in the Val Civetta. We continued on the trail around Civetta and descended through the forest to Rifugio Vazzoler located under the high walls of Cima Della Busazza. We had descended 3,000 fee and my bruised knee hurt, and after days of hiking, my legs were tired.  I was glad to reach this nice Rifugio in the forest.

On September 7, we descended some from Rifugio Vazzoler and traversed around the Moiassa Sud massif and crossed over the Col D'Ors pass. As we climbed, we could see back to the towers of Civetta. From there we traversed and climbed more through dwarf pines, followed by a dense Larch forest, to Rifugio Bruto Carestiato where I had a lunch of a wonderful local specialty, beet ravioli, on the sunny deck where we enjoyed more great views. When you hike for days, you get urges for things you normally don't desire.  I wasn't sure whether I wanted a Coca Cola or a beer, so I had both.  By this point, calories just didn't matter.  From there, we descended through the forest to Duran pass and Rifugio Duran where we had plenty of time to rest, shower, and wash clothes, which was good, since I was increasingly tired by the end of the day.  We were the only trekkers staying at this rifugio. San Sebastiano peak rose high above us on the other side of the pass, and we could see Pelmo in the distance.

The following day from Passo Duran we descended on the paved road until we turned onto a path and climbed and traversed around Tamer mountain. We climbed for some time to a final pass where there were more beautiful views and the ruins of a World War I era building.  We descended through Larch forests to our lunch stop at a small dairy farm, named Malga Pramper, where we had a good lunch out in the sun with great cheese. From there, we descended through the forest to the town of Forno de Zolda and the Hotel Titian.  This was a real town with a church, shops, a pharmacy, and restaurants. After the rustic rifugio, the hotel was luxurious.  The bathroom my roommate and I shared was beautiful and larger that some of the bedrooms in the rifugios. We enjoyed the luxury and the nice hotel bar and went to a gourmet restaurant for dinner.

The next day we rode back to Venice to spend a day and a half before our flights home.  In nine days trekking on the Alta Via I, we hiked over 63 miles and climbed almost 20,000 feet in elevation gain.  This had been a wonderful extended hike through uniquely sculptured scenery and with very hospitable lodgings and people.



After the Dolomites, we had a day and a half to spend in Venice.  On the last afternoon, a number of us took a boat ride to the islands of Murano and Burano.  At Murano we visited a glass company where we had a glass blowing demonstration, and we visited the gallery displaying the high-end, glass art.  On to Burano, I skipped the lace making demonstrated and toured the uniquely pretty town.  Multiple canals crossed the town and all the buildings were painted with bright colors.

Dolomites, Part I

In Venice, I had to wake up the hotel clerk to check me out. It was Sunday, August 29 and I was to meet my Colorado group at Marco Polo Airport. I got to the hotel office before 7:00 am, and the door to the office was locked, so I knocked on the office door. I heard someone moving and eventually a clerk I hadn't met opened the door.  There was a cot in the room and he looked still asleep as he let me in the office.

"I need to check out", I said.

"I thought you were checking out in the morning," he said.

"It is morning."

So he checked me out of the hotel.  I walked through San Marco plaza which is particularly lovely early in the morning.  There were few people and many pigeons. I walked out to the waterfront and bought a ticket for a boat ride to the airport. It was a long ride in the relatively open waters of the Laguna Veneta stopping at Murano Island and at the Lido resort before the fast ride to the airport.

I had already met with our leader Denise and her husband the previous night, and had a seafood dinner with them before the Vivaldi concert.  In the morning, I met them first at the airport and then the others when their plane arrived.  We loaded up in a couple of vans and started the trip to the Dolomites. From Venice, we had a lovely ride from Venice to Dobbiaco, crossing a river gorge over a high bridge and driving through busy resort town, Cortina. The rugged mountains grew around us as we traveled.  We checked in to a lovely Tyrolean hotel in the small town and took a ride by train and bus to a park area with a lake.  The next day we took train and bus to the Sexten Dolomites park for a training hike. We did not go as far a originally planned because of forecasts for thunderstorms in the afternoon. We climbed steeply through the forest to places where we had a view of the dramatic mountains around us.

On Tuesday, August 30, we started our ten day trek on the Alta Via 1. We used public transportation to get to the Lago di Braies. Around the lake, ragged clouds hung across the surrounding mountains. From the lake, we climbed steeply up the dolomite wall and crossed a ravine, high on a flattened log bridge. We hiked up the ravine into a high mountain basin below shining cliffs. We climbed out of the basin steeply to a place where I pulled myself up by holding onto metal cables.  On top, we ascended through a narrow canyon and then descended through a very rock area to our first Rifugio, named Biella. The small lodge was very rustic with interesting Tyrolean carvings and photographs, and it was full of trekkers. There, I had a lunch of pasta with a crème and mushroom sauce. From the lunch stop, we followed a road and then a rough trail through a rocky landscape with very green grass. We descended to Rifugio Federa Vedla, located below a massive mountain, where we spent the night.

The next morning, from Rifugio Vedla, we hiked steeply down a road to Ucia Pederu, a low spot and lodge where buses brought people to hike.  From there, we hiked steeply up to a rifugio where we had lunch and on to Rifugio Fanes were we stayed. My roommate Rick and I climbed to a high spot above the rifugio where we had a 360 degree view of the dolomite mountains all around us, including Sasso della Croce, Sasso della Nove, Sasso della Dieci with its dinosaur fin, and the Lavinores. I took pictures of scenery and flowers and spent time sitting in the grass.


On Thursday, we climbed from Rifugio Fanes to the high point with a cross where Rick and I had been the previous afternoon. We walked by beautiful small lake, Lago di Limo and next through a lovely green valley towards the twisted peak, Cime Campostrin, which looked a bit like Uncompahgre Peak in Colorado. In the distance,  we could see Mormalada, with its glacier and at 10, 989 feet, the tallest peak in the Dolomites.

From the valley we climbed steadily to a Forcella di Lech pass between Cimo Lago and Puntedi Fanes. On the rugged pass, we could see the trail descend steeply to a ledge where it disappeared over the edge.  Below the ledge the trail descended steeply down tight switch backs, and we had to be careful with our footing, but the trail was good and we descended towards a lovely lake where we ate our packed lunches next to the ruins of a World War I building. From the lake, we started up gradually over very rocky terrain.

Soon we started to climb steeply towards the next rifugio above us on the summit of Mount Lagazuoi. I felt very good and climbed ahead of the others. As I climbed, I passed the remnants of World War I fortifications. I passed an old shack built into the rocks which served as officer quarters. I went into one tunnel where there was a slot for a sharpshooter and an opening for a machine gun.  In another tunnel there was still a machine gun. The Austrian troops fired down on the attacking Italian troops from these fortifications.

They are still finding the bodies of soldiers in the Dolomites.  Thousands died in avalanches, some actually triggered by the enemy.  Soldiers rolled boulders down on the opposing troops from above.  In the winter, frost bite and exposure was a threat and food supplies were not reliable.  Tunneling under the enemy became the preferred, if ineffective, strategy, and both sides dug deep into the mountains creating galleries for troops, guns and artillery. It was an unusual alpine campaign and one of the most horrible fronts of the Great War.

We climbed a short way above the Rifugio to the 9,300 foot top of the mountain where there were magnificent views in all directions of the broken, white, pink and grey Dolomites.  When we went back to the high, Rifugio Lagazuoi, I drank a large beer on the deck in front of the endless scenery, high above the valley below, and with my beer, I ate a very nice strudel with gorgeous whip cream.  What a spectacular day!


On Friday, August 2, we climbed down from Lagazuoi, the high point on the Alta Via I.  We passed the fortifications and hiked through a rugged valley with a chaotic scattering of stones.  In that valley, we found ruins from the Great War and explored among the caves, stone walls and ruined buildings.

We hiked on under the high cliffs of Tofana De Rozes and climbed a broken trail above the Alta Via towards the cliffs above us. Near the top, we climbed through loose rock, and at the top, we crouched to enter a dark cave entrance and found a carved gallery with a number of openings allowing daylight to enter the space. This was Galleria del Castelletio, excavated during World War I with side rooms for personnel, a privy and openings for machine guns and cannons. There was still an old cannon in the opening at the far end of the gallery.  We imagined bringing artillery up the steep and treacherous climb we had just completed.  Apparently, they brought the steel cannons up in pieces.  I was particularly concerned about the descent back through the loose scree.  Denise, a thoroughly accomplished mountain climber,  gave me some helpful tips.

"Put your foot down more gently before you put weight on it."

We made it safely back down to the Alta Via and continued around Tofana De Rozes and down to Rifugio Pomedes, where for lunch I had a purple blueberry pasta with cheese and bacon. We next descended steeply on a trail through the Larch forest. At the bottom, we crossed the road to Cortina and began to climb steeply. We hiked through forest until we reached a large dolomite tower, rising as a monumental rectangle two hundred feet into the air. We hiked under the rock which was the primary massif of Cinque Torre a rock formation with five towers.  We continued to climbed first through lush pastureland where we passed a herd of sheep. Then, we climbed more steeply through rocky terrain to Rifugio Averau at Forcella Nuvolau pass, where we would spend two nights. Again, there were spectacular views from the Rifugio.


I saw the grandeur of Florence.  Florence changed the world and created the greatest acceleration in the arts and science in human history.  There is profound order in that city.  Venice can't claim any of those superlatives.  Florence is tied to the hard work and productive lands of Tuscany.  Venice is tied to the sea and to foreign lands. In Venice there is more decadence and decay, but Venice is glorious with its special and unique beauty. Venice presents itself with a broad flourish.

They work to keep cars out of the old, central part in Florence, but in the early morning especially, there are delivery vans, taxis and cars in old Florence. Venice is made up of many islands separated by numerous canals with boat traffic and occasional pedestrian bridges.  There are no wheeled vehicles in Venice. It is a grand place to walk.

I took a taxi to the train station in Siena and regional rail to Florence.  From Florence, I took a fast train to the Santa Lucia train station in Venice.  On the train there were many tunnels with glimpses of rugged forests in northern Tuscany followed by the flat Veneto plain. It reminded me of old Tidewater in Virginia, except here there were scattered Italian buildings. Later, there were sharp hills jutting from the plain before it was flat again. I had time to think on this train ride. I saw this trip as an entry to a new life.  When I returned to the States, I would no longer be an executive, no longer a department director, and no longer responsible for so much.  I wasn't ready before.  Now I had fully separated myself from that old life. Thank you Tuscany; I'm ready now.

I arrived in Venice at the Santa Lucia station which is located on the Grand Canal, the main street of Venice. I found a vaporetta (a boat bus) that would take me to San Marco plaza where my hotel was located. I ended up on one of the faster routes which did not go on the Grand Canal but instead went around on the much wider Canale delle Giudecca. The San Marco Plaza is an enormous piazza and it was full of people. My hotel was in a small building on the densely packed and heavily visited Calle Larga San Marco next to the great Piazza. The plaza is anchored by the Campanile, the Basilica San Marco and the Doge's Palace.  The Doge was the ruler of Venice, elected by the aristocratic families of the city.  In the palace, I was most impressed by the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Hall of the Great Council) with its enormous paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, and others. I went through the Bridge of Sighs to the prison, the route prisoners took when convicted in the palace. I admired history and art in the Museo Correr and the Accademia.  I was in the Accademia in the evening and was practically by myself. The focus of the Accademia tended to be 16th century art and particularly the art of Tintoretto. I was amazed throughout the city by the Gothic architecture with an oriental flair.

The community mythos says that Venice was founded by Romans fleeing from Attila the Hun in the fifth century.  They escaped to the many small, swampy islands in what is now the Laguna Veneta.  In medieval times, Venice became the great trading city of the world and the premiere naval power of the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean. Eventually, fill operations created more land and long wooden poles were driven into the substrate to create foundations for buildings.

The next morning, I walked by the enormous Santa Maris della Salute Cathedral to Punta della Dogana, the scenic point on the south side of the entrance to the Grand Canal.  The morning view over the water to various parts of the city was wonderful.  Then I had a cappuccino and pastry waiting in the lovely piazza Campo San Barnaba for the Ca’ Rezzonico to open.  The Ca’ Rezzonico is a large, opulent and decadent palace from the baroque era.  I experienced the gilded rooms, antique china and art in that palace.  After that, I mostly walked the narrow streets, bridges and many piazzas of the various districts of Venice. Back in the neighborhoods, where the local people lived, there were gems to be found.

When we returned to Venice from the Dolomites, we rode on a slow vaporetta down the length of the Grand Canal, viewing the beautiful old buildings on this main thoroughfare.  The boat traffic in the canal was heavy. Continuing to walk around the old city, I enjoyed a meal of clams and pasta in a restaurant with a back outdoor area under a beautiful green arbor.  Our group had a dinner on the Campo Santo Stefano.  San Marco was the large civic and ceremonial piazza of Venice.  However, some of my favorite piazzas in Italy were the smaller, more intimate, neighborhood piazzas in Venice.  Many of these piazzas contain a cistern/well which collects rainwater, since in this tidaI environment, fresh water was difficult to find.  I enjoyed the Campo Santa Margherita in the Dorsodura district. Walking through a neighborhood inhabited by local residents, I came upon the Campo Bandiera E Moro which was full of children playing.  But my favorite Piazza was the Campo Santo Stefano. Like many of the best Venetian piazzas, it had a shady area with trees, some grand buildings, outdoor cafes and a statue. Like the other neighborhood pizzas, Santo Stefano provided an intimate, comfortable place to relax or have a meal. Santo Stefano is a linear piazza, comfortably narrow and but with a changing experience as one walked its length.  On one end was the Chiesa San Vidal, a grand old church which now serves as a concert hall.  In this hall, I heard Vivaldi.  It was one of the peak experiences of my time in Venice.

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The Baroque Composer Vivaldi was born, lived, composed and performed in Venice. In San Vidal, among the beautiful sculpture and paintings, I heard Vivaldi intensely and vigorously performed by Interpreti Veneziani.  They played the Four Seasons and a Cello Concerto by Vivaldi.  The interpretation was interesting and dramatic. The Cello player performed the Concerto with great brio and expression. It fit well with intense beauty of Venice.





On August 25, I toured Tuscany.  I had asked the Alma Domus people to set me up with an all day tour that would take me around the countryside and to some hilltop towns. So my guide, whose name was Francesco, picked me up in the lobby of my hotel in Siena. I was the first customer and Francesco told me I would be the only person until we picked up a couple in San Gimignano.  So we headed towards that town.  Francesco told me about the area and we stopped for an initial view of the town with its walls and towers. San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is another medieval town frozen in time by the plague of 1348.  San Gimignano prospered because it was located on pilgrim trail from Canterbury to Rome, but later the trail was moved away. Francesco let me tour the medieval town on my own for a couple of hours and then we picked up the young couple. It turned out they were on their honeymoon, he was from Toronto and she from the Netherlands.  Like most people I have met from the Netherlands, she spoke perfect English with an American accent. They lived in London.

I met more than one international couple on my trip.  Waiting to climb the Duomo in Florence, I spoke with a young couple, she from Turin Italy and he from the Netherlands.  They both spoke perfect English.  I asked if he spoke Italian or if she spoke Dutch.  Neither spoke the other's native language, so they conducted their relationship in English.  I saw this as an interesting sign of an increasingly global culture.

Driving around the countryside, we had pleasant conversations.  Francesco told us about the local culture, agriculture and history.  Like many other non-Americans on this trip, the couple had to ask me about the upcoming American presidential election, but they were very polite about it. We talked about popular music and Francesco told us that he listened to Nirvana when he was young.

After San Gimignano, we stopped at the Torciano winery for a wine tasting in a lovely flowered arbor attached to the rural winery.  After a lesson from a woman of the family on how to taste wine, we tried five wines while we munched antipasto. They gave us some nice lasagna for our lunch. I liked the Vernaccia white and the Chianti.  The high-priced, full bodied Brunella excited the others who actually knew something about wine. Needless to say, we were feeling pretty good when we resumed our tour.

We next stopped at Monteriggioni, a medieval hilltop settlement which looked more like a garrison than a town with its high walls.  In fact, the city of Siena used this fortress for the protection of its outlying areas. Like the other hilltop villages we visited, it had great views of the surrounding countryside.

We next stopped at another winery known for its Brunello.  On the way, we stopped for the newlyweds to take pictures in a field of head-tall sunflowers. After we went into the winery and looked at some of the traditional equipment and talked about the rural culture, we sat at a long table to taste wine with another tour group of mostly British people.  By coincidence, the group included a couple from Wales who I had met and conversed with at the restaurant the evening before in Siena. I have found the British tend to let go and have fun on their holidays.  So our wine tasting turned into quite a party with a great deal of joking and laughter. When the newlyweds left the table for a moment, I told everyone they were on their honeymoon.

After the couple came back, the word was out. We were all surprised when the paterfamilias of the vineyards came to our table and began talking to the newlyweds.  He hugged the bride and gave a speech in Italian, with our guide translating, telling the couple the importance of being faithful and loving to each other.  He hugged and kissed the bride again and hugged the groom.  He then turned music on and danced with the bride. The whole group laughed and applauded and had a great time.    The bride was slightly embarrassed but hopefully, it was an experience they will never forget. At the end, the family brought us a shot glass of grappa, a liquor made from the remains of the wine making process. Following the lead of the family, we toasted the couple, counted down from five, and down the hatch.

Our last stop on the tour was to another ancient, hilltop town Montalcino.  Montalcino is in the Val d’Orcia, and area that has been designated as another UNESCO World Heritage site. This is an area of wide-open, classic Tuscan landscapes portrayed in much art from the paintings of the Renaissance to contemporary photography.  It had been a grand day in medieval towns, wineries, and sunlit rural landscapes.



On Tuesday, August 23, I moved myself and my belongs south from Florence to Siena on a bus.  I knew the Florence bus station was tucked away somewhere near the train station, but I couldn't find it.  "Dove autostatione?," I asked several people. I got answers I couldn't understand.  Finally, a man took me a block to the bus station.  It was a nice bus ride through Tuscany.  The rolling hills, farmlands and villages flowed by me.  On several hills in the distance, there were ancient towns, with walls and towers. After I disembarked at the bus station in Siena, I couldn't find my hotel.  I walked the wrong way showing people the written address to ask directions without much success.  Finally, I found the hotel down a small, ancient side street. It was the Alma Domus Hotel which was a modern hotel in an old brick convent building still owned by the convent. From my room there was a wonderful view of the Siena Duomo on the hill above me.

Siena is full of brick buildings and has a particularly medieval feel.  The city thrived before 1348 when it was struck particularly hard by the black plague. Two centuries later, Florence conquered Siena and permitted no further development.  So in many ways, much of Siena is a city preserved in time. The great cathedral in Siena is a fully Gothic cathedral and is particularly spectacular. The front facade is fully elaborated with sculptures, and the rest of the building is striped with dark marble, but the cathedral was never fully finished.  There is a tall unfinished facade for the unfinished nave. I climbed the facade and was given a sweeping view of the city from the top. The Siena Duomo may be my favorite in terms of its interior, which was dark with black and white stripes. There is a beautiful bronze statue of John the Baptist by Donatello and a number of fine paintings. The Piccolomini Library is particularly striking with a brightly painted ceiling and a series of colorful and exquisite frescos by Pinturicchio.

I visited the flowing Piazza del Campo, the great civic space of Siena which is anchored by the Palazzo Pubblico with its tall clock tower. This is a fine space, but people were concentrated in the shady portion. There was a woman playing the tsymbaly in the Piazza and at another time near the Duomo.  The tsymbaly is a musical instrument similar to a hammer dulcimer.  I enjoyed the music and bought a CD from her. I finished the day eat dinner outside, near my hotel with a beautiful view of the Duomo on the hill, glowing in the evening sunlight.  I had a fine dinner, including Tuscan steak.


From Pisa, I took a short train trip to Lucca.  Lucca was a revelation.  Walking its regular Roman grid of narrow streets under old four to five story buildings and numerous towers and into lovely piazzas, you can believe it is an earlier age. The well-preserved old town is located within old fortification walls. The broad walls are topped by a broad path, creating a circumferential open-space around the town. I went into the beautiful San Martino cathedral.  I climbed to the top of the 145 foot high Torre dei Guinigi which is unusual because there are trees growing on top. I visited the lovely elliptical Piazzo del Mercato, also known as the Anfiteatro Romano because it was built on the site of a Roman amphitheater. I started to walk around the two mile long path on the shaded top of the wall, but left to get a meal.  I ate in a small piazza at an outdoor restaurant where most of the customers were Italian.


Monday, August 22 was another hot day, but this time I spent the morning in Pisa.  I took a short train ride from Florence to Pisa and walked some along the Arno River before walking north across the town to the Duomo.  The old buildings along the Arno are very attractive.  Otherwise, the town was not as interesting as Florence. I arrived at the Cathedral early so the crowds were light.  The Cathedral and Baptistery were begun in the eleventh and twelve centuries, while the leaning bell tower was a later addition, started in 1350. All the structures were placed in the wide open Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) so that they can easily be viewed together. The striped marble exteriors of the buildings are all beautifully designed and constructed. I went into the ticket office and found that the ticket to climb the leaning tower was expensive and that I would have to reserve a time later in the day to enter it.  So I did not climb the leaning tower. The interiors of the Baptistery and Cathedral were beautifully designed with pointed arches and large columns.  I was not so impressed, however, by much of the baroque era art inside. By the time I finished touring the interiors, the Camp dei Miracoli was full of people, and many of them were taking the standard photograph of someone "holding up" the leaning tower making it difficult to take pictures. I walked back south and stopped at a coffee bar near the train station with tables in the shade.  I consumed a cappuccino and cheese pastry and rested while I waited for the train.


It was the most difficult travel day of my life.  Before I left Denver International Airport on Thursday, I already had a flight delay, a cancellation, and another delay.  The United folks booked me on a direct Lufthanza flight from Denver to Frankfurt.  When I arrived at the Lufthanza, they told me the flight was canceled and United put me on a flight through Chicago. They assured me my luggage would go with me.  I arrived in Florence on Friday evening.  My luggage arrived on Sunday.

By the time I got to my hostel, it was nighttime on Friday. I asked the person at the desk where I could get something to eat and they directed me to the nearby central market.  After climbing the broken escalator, I found the second floor market where they were serving appetizing local food from open counters.  The place was extremely busy and I was too tired to deal with the crush, so I headed back towards the hostel.  I ducked into a small pizzeria, where a very nice woman served me a pizza and a beer.  She even helped me with a couple of words of Italian. This encouraged my delusion that Italians would be interested in helping me with their language.

On Saturday morning, I wanted to go by the tourist center near the hostel and train station to buy a Firenza pass.  This pass provided access to most of the places in Florence and allowed me to bypass the long lines. While I waited for the office to open, I went to a pharmacy to buy some toiletries which were in my lost bag, but they didn't have a comb.  Nearby, I discovered the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella which was a beautiful open plaza next to the patterned gothic church. There was a cigarette shop on the plaza, and I asked the shop keeper if he had any combs.  I had to pantomime combing my hair until he said the Italian word for comb, pettine. He opened a drawer full of combs and sold me one.

When the Santa Maria Novella church opened, I entered my first renaissance church, which was empty of people. The paintings in the church were overwhelming in scale, depth and color. The human faces were expressive and real.  I admired the paintings by Ghirlandaio and particularly, the strenuous movement portrayed by Filippino Lippi. I enjoyed the quiet meditative act of looking at this profound art in such a beautiful, quiet place.

From San Maria Novella, I walked to the Duomo, experiencing the ancient narrow streets for the first time. When I reached the Piazza Duomo, I was dwarfed by the buildings. With the monumental cathedral, campanile bell tower and bapistry, it took me some time to walk around the structures, certainly the most patterned and ornate I had experienced.  The enormous scale and grandeur of the buildings overwhelmed me with the high walls towering above me.  I found it difficult to get a sense of the whole, because I couldn't see or take a picture of the total complex from the tight piazza around it.

The Duomo is something experienced in parts.  I started by climbing the Campanile.  The bell tower is 278 feet tall and covered in white, green and pink Tuscan marble. It also is covered by many sculptures with a variety of themes. It was designed by the painter and architect Giotto and completed in 1359. I climbed the 414 stone steps through narrow corridors and around tight spirals.  From the top, there were broad views of Florence and of the rest of the Duomo including to the slightly higher great Dome.  I was thrilled by my first views across the ancient city with its red-tiled roofs.  After descending the stone steps, my legs hurt.

From the Campanile, I made my way through the narrow streets to the Galleria dell'Accademia.  It was furnace hot in the sun, so everyone stayed on the shady side where it was comfortable. Walking down a hallway in the Accademia, I spotted the premiere attraction.  Michelangelo was the superstar of Renaissance Florence and his David is the ultimate experience. David was originally displayed outside in the Piazza dell Signoria, next to the grand Palazzo Vehicco, the great old palace and town hall of old Florence, and a replica of the statue remains there today.  Much of the outdoor art of Florence has been moved indoors for protection. You spot David down the hall under a dome that lets natural light stream down on the masterpiece.

It is hard to understate the impact the statue has on you when you experience it in person. The statue is monumental and radiates strength.  Michelangelo managed to fully capture physical perfection.  It is not the complete nudity itself that impresses, since the nudity is essential in the portrayal of that perfection. Instead, the image is of a strong man, full of profound confidence.   Rennaissance Florentines had a great deal of pride for their independent republic, and David was the symbol of that independent strength. Amazingly, it took Michelangelo just eighteen months to complete this majestic artwork, which became a symbol of the new humanism. Like most people, I was surprised by the power of the work and spent much time admiring it from all angles.

The Accademia contained other great works of art including a number of sculptures by Michelangelo. From the Accademia, I walked to the San Lorenzo church which was the parrish chapel of the Medici family.  The highlight of this visit was the chapel with the tombs of the great Medici's from the renaissance designed by Michelangelo and adorned by his wonderful sculptures depicting Night, Day, Dawn and Dusk. Several of these figures are aligned or twisted in positions of muscular distortion portraying great energy.  These tombs are set in a room of classical order and simplicity, while in contrast, the large octagonal room housing the tombs of later Medici's is impressive and full of multi-colored stone and bright paintings but is somewhat gaudy compared with the older, Michelangelo room.

In the Michelangelo Room, I discovered the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent and his murdered younger brother, Giuliano. On Sunday, April 26, 1478, a growing conspiracy against the increasing political power of the Medici family erupted in violence at the great Duomo Cathedral beneath the relatively new Brunelleschi dome. Near the entry Giuliano was murdered, while near the High Alter, Lorenzo and his friends successfully fended off the attack with their swords. Lorenzo escaped with only a minor wound. Later the conspirators were caught and hanged.  An archbishop who helped lead the conspiracy was hanged in his robes out a window of the Palazzo della Signoria, now the Palazzo Vecchio. Lorenzo commissioned  a fresco to be painted by Botticelli on the side of the Palazzo of the conspirators with nooses around their necks. Later, the painting was destroyed as a part of the eventual peace treaty with Pope Sixtus IV who had backed the conspiracy.

Lorenzo was educated in the classics and in the new humanist philosophy and arts that had been so strongly supported by his grandfather Cosimo. Lorenzo was an intellectual and a poet and like the rest of his humanist circle was attracted to the philosophy of Plato. At the same time, like most intellectuals and artists of the high Renaissance, Lorenzo remained deeply religious. The Medici family held the leading banking house in Europe and this was the source of their wealth and power. However, Lorenzo showed little interest in learning the banking trade. Instead, he was interested in ruling Florence and making it the center of a new cultural awakening. He ruled by ensuring that his supporters were appointed to the key government councils. While he effectively dealt with matters of state, including the continuing relations and rivalries with the other Italian city states and with the pope, Lorenzo was at the same time deeply involved in philosophy, literature and the arts. Lorenzo had a practice of bringing promising young artists to live in the Palazzo Medici. It is amazing to believe that at different times, he may have had Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo at his dinner table, along with his collection of poets and philosophers.

From San Lorenzo, I walked by the Duomo and through the Piazza della Signoria to the Bargello.  The Bargello is a old town hall and prison, which now serves as a museum housing famous sculptures including Mercury by Giambologna, David by Donatello and Bacchus by Michelangelo.



I next walked to the lovely Piazza di Santa Croce, like the other great piazzas, it was surrounded by multi-story historic buildings and anchored by a lovely grand building, in this case by the ornate, gothic Santa Croce church. Inside the complex, I visited the domed Cappela de'Pazzi chapel, designed in the classical manner by Brunelleschi who also designed the Duomo, the dominant dome on Florence's great cathedral.  I admired the orderly geometry and color patterns of that place.

I walked to the Piazza dell Signoria, which was another well designed Piazza which once served as a center of civic life. This great piazza was anchored by the Palazzo Vecchio, the large brick City Hall with its tall clock tower.  I toured the palace which was full of art, including Victory by Michelangelo.  The large Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred) with its enormous paintings of the historic battle victories of Florence particularly impressed me.

In the evening, I finished my first full day in Florence with the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo, near the Duomo, which contain the originals of much of the exterior art from the Duomo. It includes the original Gates of Paradise doors from the Baptistery.  The doors were created by Ghiberti after winning a competitiion in 1401.  It took him 21 years to finish the cast bronze door which are sculptured to display scenes from the life of Christ.  They are considered great early Renaissance art because of their use of perspective and life-like depictions. I was particularly impressed by Donatello's wooden sculpture,  Penitent Magdalene, which images a haggard and gaunt Mary Magdalene. The sculpture radiates a deep and soulful spirituality.

Early the next morning, I spent time back and Duomo taking pictures of the sculptural details on the exterior of the great cathedral.  The building is so large and the details so numerous that you could hardly see all of artistic items. I next was one of the first to enter the Uffizi when it opened. The Uffizi had originally been built as government offices.  Later, it was converted to house the Medici collection of art becoming one of the world's great galleries. The Medici family and dynasty sponsored the glories of the Renaissance, produced popes and autocrats and a great queen of France, but by the early 18th century the glories of the family in Florence had nearly disappeared. Anna Maria Luisa was the last of the line who died in Florence in 1742 unmarried and childless.  However, in death, she perhaps performed the greatest act of the family. After her death it was found that she had left a will leaving the great Medici collection of art, jewels, libraries and other valuables to the City of Florence where they reside today. The highlights of the gallery are the high renaissance pieces.  The great paintings of Botticelli, including Primavera and the Birth of Venus, amazed me. In addition, I admired Uccelo's Battle of San Romano, one of my favorites, with its bright colors, the bold lines of the lances cross horizontally and vertically  and its bulbous horses and figures, almost cartoon-like.

From the Uffizi, I walked to the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge built across the River Arno in 1345. It was covered by two buildings with mostly jewelry shops on the first floor. Across the bridge I entered the Oltrarno portion of the old city on the south side of the river, and walked a short distance to the Palazzo Pitti. This palace became the home of the Medici family in 1560 during the rule of the autocratic Duke Cosimo de Medici. Cosimo oversaw the completion of grand gardens next to the palace which are now known as the Boboli Gardens.  I passed through the palace and climbed through the rather open and stark gardens up to the highpoint in the Forte di Belvedere, where there were sweeping views of old Florence.  There was also a showing of contemporary metal sculptures by Jan Fabre, called Spiritual Guards.

From the Fort, I walked on a back street to the Bardini Gardens which were much more intimate and heavily vegetated than the Boboli Gardens and, like the Fort, had broad views of the city. I left the Bardini Gardens and walked along Via di San Leonardo which was a back lane with stone walls on either side and no sidewalk.  This was a residential street with some of the more expensive homes in Florence.  As I descended the hill, I spotted a sign on a building which stated that the composer Tchaikovsky had spent time in that particular villa.  I continued to Viale Galileo Galilei and descended that road towards the Arno until I found a rough path up to San Mintato al Monte, which was another beautiful church with views back over Florence.  I went in the church and sat in the cool, dark interior while they played organ music, enjoying the peaceful serenity of the place.  I left when priests began to celebrate mass.

Across the Viale Galileo, I found a pedestrian pathway which descended steeply down into the Oltrarno.  I was hungry and just inside the gate through the old city wall, I found a nice restaurant with a garden eating area.  It was cool in the garden with a breeze, and I ate pears sprinkled with local cheese and honey, followed by pasta with tomato sauce and chunks of wild boar, which are apparently common in Tuscany.  After crossing the Arno, I visited the Galileo Museum, which was full of old scientific instruments including some telescopes and other equipment owned by Galileo.  Galileo was born in Pisa and lived for some time in Florence.  Galileo has been called the father of science, but he was a man of his times.  Galileo's father was a famous Lute player and composer and Galileo was apparently an accomplished Lute player himself.  It was not unusual for the intellectuals of the time to embrace all fields of learning, including science, philosophy and the arts. The great renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo, did not separate art from science and spent time studying anatomy, mechanics and architecture.

I spent my last afternoon in Florence by touring the great Duomo Cathedral.  First, I climbed to the top of Brunelleschi's dome. The dome was the largest of its time.  Brunelleschi studied the Dome of the Pantheon in Rome and used construction methods from that structure, along with others he devised, to build this dome without scaffolding.  The dome is the defining skyline feature of Florence and from its top there were more grand views of the city. The ceiling of the dome is covered by Vasari's fresco, Last Judgement, including scenes of the agonies of hell. As we climbed into the dome, we got close to the those paintings which were terrifying. I enjoyed time down in the Cathedral with its classical geometry and fine paintings.

The Piazza del Duomo is one of the largest public spaces in Florence but is experienced as tighter, smaller places because of the Cathedral in the center with its high walls.  This Piazza is accessed by narrow streets so that it is almost always a surprise when the enormous buildings suddenly appear. I enjoyed an outdoor dinner in one of the spaces below those walls as the sun set and the lights came on; surely one of the best spots in the world to relax and have a quiet meal.


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