Category Archives: Italy

Florence Architectural Gems

7 Architectural Wonders of Florence, Italy that are not to be missed

Florentine ArchitectureFlorence. Perhaps no other city in the world evokes as many cultural, artistic, and architectural visions as the capital of Tuscany in Italy.  Home of the Renaissance, this city filled with museums, palaces, and churches holds a huge number of the world’s cultural treasures. Perhaps, the most important of  Florence’s sites are the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Cathedral, but the San Lorenzo library is certainly the finest example of Michelangelo’s architectural gift and should not be missed.

Those who are on last minute holidays or seeking the Italian Renaissance, need only look upon the palaces, buildings and squares of Florence for each of them are masterpieces.  Many of them built by the most admired artists of all time. In Florence, when you want to see the work of Michelangelo or Brunelleschi – there is no need to go indoors to a museum.

1) Piazza della Signoria is an L shaped plaza in the heart of Florence that serves as the historical and cultural center of the city. While unremarkable in terms of design itself, it is the surroundings and the history of this piazza that make it a must visit location.  Surrounding the piazza you will find The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzao Vecchio, the replica of Michelangelo’s David, statues by Donatello, Cellini and others and as if that isn’t enough, the Piazza marks the place where both  return of the Medici family was and the famous Bonfire of the Vanities took place. The radical priest, Girolamo Savonarola who burned the books and treasures of the Florentine elite was later himself burned in the square – the exact spot is marked.

Florence Architectural Gems2) Palazzo Vecchio which literally means “Old Palace” is still the focus of the piazza. It was built in 1302 asthe seat of Florentine government and is still used for the same purpose. As such, only portions of it are open to the public. This was the original palace of the Medici family. The clasic blocky castle-like architecture is not centered on the tower for a reason, it was actually built around a tower which is far older and served as the substructure of the current tower.  This is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements.  Inside is a treasure trove of courtyards, salons, and more than a few priceless artistic works.

Bridge of the Arno Florence3)Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful closed spandrel bridge which crosses the Arno at its narrowest point and is believed to have been first built in Roman times but is first mentioned in the year 996. The bridge still has shops along side it and a hidden walkway along the top so that the Medici didn’t have to expose themselves to the public when crossing. It was originally constructed in wood but wasdestroyed by a flood in 1333 and rebuilt of stone in 1345. Culturally interesting is that right on the bridge is the place where the concept of bankruptcy was born. The statue of Cellini in the center is surrounded by a small fence festooned with padlocks. Lovers will lock the padlocks and throw the key in the river to bind them together forever. A sign surrounded by locks forbids the practice. Urban legend says that the tradition was started by a padlock shop owner on one side of the bridge. Smart move.

4) Torre della Pagliazza is also called the Byzantine Tower and the Straw tower. This is regarded as the oldest building in Florence (7th century) though there are several other candidates that might fit that description better, but none of them quite so wonderful as Pagliazza Tower. The tower today has been incorporated into the very nice Hotel Brunellesci but was once accommodation of a different sort – a female prison. This is the origin of the name “Straw tower” – female prisoners were given a bit of straw, a luxury denied to male prisoners.

Florence architectural gems5) The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St John) is also said to be the oldest building in Florence though it was built in the 10th century and so is not. Still, it is old and the stories of it being the oldest are based on the fact that it sits atop earlier structures – one even rumoured to have been a Roman temple to Mars. It is particularly famed for its three sets of wondrous bronze doors which have only recently been put back in place after extensive restoration and preservation work was done on them. The three sets were made by Pisano, Ghiberti including the famed East doors called by Michelangelo “The Gates of Paradise”. The Bapistery is built in a Florentine Romanesque style that served as inspiration for the later Renaissance styles to emerge in Florence.

6)The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore also simply called the Duomo of Florence was built from 1296 when the first stone was laid.The dome created by Brunelleschi with its exquisite facing of polychrome marble panels and the cathedral itself designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who also designed Palazzo Vecchio). The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed (completed in 1496) and the cathedral remains one of the largest in the world. The competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi was fierce to see who would get the commission for the dome – when it was awarded to both jointly, Brunelleschi feigned sickness until Ghiberti bowed out thus leaving full credit to Brunelleschi. The drama between the two is the stuff of great film and literature. The dome itself is made of more than 4 million bricks and pre-saged the mathematics that were later used to define it. Brunelleschi’s innovations served as inspiration to a young apprentice who worked on the dome’s lanern – Leonardo Davinci.

Basilica of Florence7) The Basilica of San Lorenzo Library is in the center of Florence’s straw market district and is where most of the Medici family are buried. This building is also claimed to be the oldest in Florence and has a pretty good claim since the church was consecrated in the year 393. The building was designed by Brunelleschi and contains Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The entire complex serves as an important bridge between the old architecture (pre-renaissance) and the new architecture which followed it.

Christmas in Copenhagen

Top Three European Christmas Destinations

Christmas in Europe is delightful, no matter where you go. The marriage of old world charm with unique traditions makes for a lovely holiday. Here are my picks for the Top Three European Christmas Destinations of 2012.

1.Copenhagen, Denmark – Tivoli Gardens

Christmas in CopenhagenChristmas in Copenhagen is nothing short of enchanting, especially in Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest amusement park in the world, originally opening on the 15th of August in 1843. It is a popular attraction throughout the year, drawing well over four million visitors annually. But you haven’t experienced Tivoli until you have visited for Christmas.

A complete and total fairytale, every holiday season the park and gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland unlike any other. There are over four miles of decorative lights, in addition to almost two-thousand fairy lights used to illuminate over four hundred trees. The glittering weeping willows and the giant Christmas tree are a spectacle to behold.

If you are traveling with children, they will be delighted by the forty-five meter toboggan run, the chance to sit with Santa in his sleigh, and by Pixie Ville. Pixie Ville is home to Tivoli’s mechanical pixies and elves, and you can watch them frolicking in the snow, ice skating, and settling down in their igloos. You can catch a further glimpse at the pixies preparing their celebrations when you chug by them on the Christmas Express. Keep an eye out for Santa and Mrs. Claus!

Even if you’re vacationing without wee ones, Tivoli is still worth the visit. The Christmas market is made up of over seventy decorated stalls that line the garden walkway. Here you can purchase a wide variety of handmade Scandinavian gifts and delectable treats, like iced donuts, caramel apples, and warm, mulled wine. Enjoy your treats as you tour the impressive ice sculptures, and then work off the calories by dancing the evening away to some live holiday music.

If you plan on making the trek to Copenhagen this year, you can expect to see the usual Danish décor replaced with a Russian theme. This includes a brightly colored reproduction of the famous and beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral. Visit Tivoli between December 26th and 30th, and end the evening with an impressive fireworks display.

2.Rome, Italy – The Vatican

Chistmas with Papa in RomeThis is not a trip I would recommend for families traveling with small children. The late hours and long masses are sure to make them sleepy and restless. However, for those wishing to celebrate Christmas in a deeply religious fashion, midnight mass at the Vatican will provide a moving experience.

You will need a ticket to attend this mass, as it draws quite the crowd. Tickets are free, but it is best to request them in advance to avoid rushing around, or worse, not being able to get in. Even the lines to present your confirmation and pick up your tickets can be extremely long, so dress accordingly. December in Rome can be rather chilly, another reason you may want to avoid bringing wee ones to this event.

Holy Father Benedict XVI will preside over two Christmas masses. The first will take place at midnight on Christmas Eve, December 24th. The second will take place on Christmas day, December 25th, at noon.

3.Nuremberg, Germany – Christkindlesmarkt

European Christmas MarketsCan you think of anything more charming than a Bavarian Christmas? Maybe it is just because I have an Austrian grandmother, so I grew up with rum balls and nutcrackers, but I find Christmas in this part of Europe absolutely magical. Germany is famous for its Christmas markets, and you won’t find another market like the one in Nuremberg.

Every holiday season, on the eve of advent, the market is officially opened following a prologue from the Christmas Angel. Dressed in golden robes with golden, flowing curls, the beautiful Angel ends her speech with, “You men and women, you who were once children, too, be a child again today. Rejoice when Christchild now invites you all to see this market. Whoever comes to visit will be welcome.”

You will find nearly two-hundred stalls selling their wares. From handmade crafts, ornaments, candles and wreaths to fruit cakes, spicy gingerbread, and mulled wine. This is the perfect spot to find a unique ornament that you can cherish for Christmases to come.

Children love the Christkindlesmarkt, and not just because the place is crawling with irresistible sweets. A ride on the steam train or around the old fashioned carousel is fun for the whole family. The House of Stars offers a plethora of ever-changing children’s activities, and every Tuesday and Thursday, the Christmas Angel will be there to read their favorite fairytales.

Melissa Rae Cohen is a travel writer from Portland, Maine. She recommends Auto Europe for your next car rental!

Offbeat Museums in Bologna

Sheet Music & Toilet Seat Art – 13 of Bologna’s Offbeat Museums

A visit to Bologna, Italy is usually characterized by great food, exploring the wonderful architecture, perhaps doing the Portico walks, checking out the tall towers, and perhaps enjoying music, art, or cinema at Bologna’s many festivals.

Offbeat Art in BolognaHidden in the midst of all of that, are several wonderful offbeat museums that are definitely worth your time.  First of all, near the train station and slightly away from the center is a museum filled with works that just about no one thinks of when they go to Bologna – Modern Art.

The Museum of Art Moderne Bologna or MAMBO is bursting with treasures both inside and outside. The Museum covers Italian Art from World War II to the present.

The Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Bologna opened in 1975 in the spaces specially designed by artist and architect Leone Pancaldi; it was born in the atmosphere of intellectual fervor that pervaded the city at the beginning of the Sixties. Before GAM’s opening, more than a decade of events, exhibitions and competitions had taken place in hope of its construction, culminating in the opening activities joint under the title “A museum today.”

Inside you’ll find a wide array of rotating exhibits and a wonderful permanent collection that ranges through such an eclectic mix as tribute to New York break dancing videos to Toilet Seat art (which, by the way, the security seems a little uptight about – when I began lifting the lids to see the symbols painted under them, a very upset guard began yelling at me in Italian and then followed me the rest of the way through the museum – my contention is that there was art under the seats, so obviously the artist intended it to be seen!) Due to the close scrutiny, I was unable to take a photo of this wonderful toilet seat display.  Shit!!

Mambo museum in Bologna

A shot of the wonderful Marcel Boadthaers at MAMbo in Bologna, Italy

When I visited there was an immensely interesting  Marcel Broodthaers  temporary exhibit which highlighted his artistic path and how it developed over the course of an extraordinary career that lasted just 12 years, from 1964 to 1976. Titled, Marcel Broodthaers. L’espace de l’écriture, the exhibition was extraordinary.

Another Bologna Museum that I found to be well worth my time was the Museo Internazionale e Biblioteca Della Musica (International Museum and Library of Music). While this was a small museum, for music lovers it is a must see.  Tucked away inside the 16th century Palazzo Sanguinetti, this museum was designed to hold the musical objects of the city of Bologna, but quickly grew to become an international library for sheet music! With wonderful murals, a delightful old curator, and plenty of old instruments – you won’t be sorry if you pay a visit.

Offbeat Art in BolognaThe frescoes alone are worth the price of admission as they are meticulously restored 18th century examples of Neo-Classical and Napoleanic art that are unlike just about anything else in the city.

Here is a blurb from the museum’s website:

The first and most important intent was to bring awareness to the greater public of the rich variety of musical heritage that the Comune di Bologna owns and has kept for a long time. Until now, much of this heritage remained confined in warehouses for various reasons – the first and foremost being the lack of adequate space – and was only brought out occasionally for temporary expositions.

The museum’s core musical collections were created by Franciscan Father, Giovanni Battista Martini in the 1700′s who was not only a great scholar and collector but also the teacher of Johann Christian Bach and Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. In addition to enriching his library day after day, gathering manuscripts and musical works of various kinds, Padre Martini collected portraits of musicians.

Offbeat Art in BolognaFor me, the most fun was to see the instruments: lutes, flutes by Manfredo Settala from 1650, the pochette, various little violin, the ghironde, the serpentoni, the extraordinary series of horns and cornets from the 16th and 17th centuries, and finally, the tiorba, which is in the shape of a khitára.

So, as you can see – Bologna offers much more than just food and architecture. Here are a few more museums you may want to explore while you are in the heart of good living.

1) The Tapestry Museum in Villa Spada
2) The Leccaro Collection of Modern Art
3) The Herb Museum
4) Missionary Museum of Chinese Art
5) Civic Medieval Museum
6) Museum of Comparative Anatomy
7) The Toy Soldier Museum
8) Resistance Movement Museum
9) Industrial Heritage Museum
10) The Communications Museum
11) The Museum of Bee Keeping

If those thirteen museums aren’t enough for you, there are about fifty more within the center of Bologna and that ought to keep you busy!