Friday, December 20, 2013

Milan, Italy: The Duomo

I will admit that, when we planned this trip out, Milan was the place we were least interested in visiting. We wanted to experience Italy, not another big city. We were in for a BIG treat! In fact, there were so many wonderful parts of Milan, that we got to go see that they all won't fit in one blog...not even two blogs! It will take 3 installments to cover Milan! And, when we finally left, I had a feeling that all we did see was simply the tip of the iceberg. I definitely want to go back! (remember to click on the photographs to see the larger versions!)
 Of course I had read about "The Duomo of Milan" (Duomo is Italian for Cathedral) in our brochure but I truly had NO IDEA that it looked like this. Our first glance of this wonder of architecture was from the bus on our way through the city to our hotel. 
 We took the subway system downtown the first day so we could walk around and see the Galleria. Our real tour was the next day so this was getting a jump on it as something to do. I wasn't thrilled with the subway since I'm mildly claustrophobic. It was packed and then it broke down for 10 minutes. It wasn't fun. But, as are all forms of transportation, it was necessary and I was on my way to see the Duomo and that was all that mattered. What I didn't know was that the Galleria is as amazing as the Duomo! We walked past the Opera House (sadly closed so we couldn't see inside) and past the Leonardo DaVinci statue to enter the Galleria.
 The Galleria was built to be a beautiful shopping area for the upper class in Milan in the mid 1800's. Closed in by a beautiful glass ceiling, the wealthy could meet here to shop and eat and spend a leisurely afternoon. While also crowded by tourists now, the Galleria is still upscale and designed for the rich. Prada, Gucci, Chanel...all of the upscale brands of the world are here.
 In the center of the "street" there is a mosaic of a bull. Legend says that if you stomp on the bulls testicles you will bring yourself good luck. This has been done so many times that there is now a hole there instead. While others were trying to get their turn at the bull I looked UP instead. The ceiling is magnificent!
 Each section of the ceiling has beautiful artwork below the glass and below the artwork are apartments that are still owned by the wealthy shop owners.
To give you an idea of the scale of this place, these statues that adorn the front of the apartments are human size. So look back a the previous photograph and you will get an idea of just how big this place is!
 Along the street where all of these upscale shops are, across from the Duomo, are square donut shaped blocks. The outside of the "donut" are the shops but the inside are beautiful courtyards to the homes of the shop owners. Beautiful!
 As we were walking it began to rain. Now the shops are protected from covered walk ways so we were in no danger of getting truly wet. Most of our group was upset but I was thrilled. I love the way the Duomo looks in the rain. It was a brief shower and we were back to exploring but our day was fairly over and it was time to get back on the subway to our hotel.
 The next day we started out for the Duomo again, this time by tour bus since we had two other stops to make on our tour of Milan. As you travel through Milan you see many different types of architecture due to the different styles that were popular to those who ruled at that time. A lot of what we saw had a French influence from when Napoleon was in power.
 The Duomo is stunning. It took six centuries...yes, centuries, to complete and is the 4th largest Cathedral in the world. It is my favorite type of architecture. It's Architecture As Art. 
 The highly ornate outside of this Cathedral could keep you occupied for days just trying to see everything there is to see.
 Of course the busy ornate details immediately distract the eye from the background beauty of this structure. The use of Candoglia marble was a controversial decision that started a movement of it's own in the architectural world. But the shades of cream, grey and peach are one of the reasons this church is so stunningly beautiful.
 One of the things I love about Italy is that, as buildings age, they replace broken or damaged pieces with pieces crafted to look the same so that the repairs are almost unnoticeable.
 With one hundred and thirty five spires and pinnacles the Duomo is a masterpiece of design and beauty.
 With over 1800 statues there is plenty to explore on the outside. And the statues range from beautiful to horrific. One of them depicted a saint that had been disemboweled! Yes, horrific! But I adore the gargoyles! During our brief rain the day before I kept hoping it would rain hard enough so we could see the gargoyles in action but we just didn't get enough rain to be able to see it come pouring out of the gargoyle mouths.
 Everywhere you look there are details upon details. The scale of this building is hard to take in as well. The photo above is from the ground and only a small part of the side of one part of the building. The photo above that shows the statue to the far right in this photo as a close up. Yes, this building is massive! 
 St. Michael is my favorite that I was able to spy. There is something so "here I come to save the day" about him. Romantic and noble. 
 Because this was made over so many centuries there are statues that represent every era. Including the Knights of the age.
 In each spire are even more statues! There are "cubbies" in each section of the spires and statues in each of those sections. Amazing!
 I love this photograph because my first impression of the Duomo was that it looked like lace made of marble. Starting with the balcony above the window to the details on the window to the lines of gargoyles and statues all the way down to the lace-like details on the bottom of the columns, this looks like marble lace to me. Just beautiful!
 The inside is beautiful as well. With beautiful stained glass and ornate iron work there is plenty to see inside the Cathedral. One of the details I learned long after we left Milan, and another reason to return for me, is that there is a way up to the roof of the Duomo where you can see some of the spires up close and have a beautiful view of the Galleria and surrounding neighborhood. Believe me, knowing that I missed that opportunity, as a photographer, leaves me just gutted. Something I added to my bucket list immediately.
But the Duomo is a sight that you can not let go unseen if you have any reason to be in Milan. Take your time. We were there for several hours and I still didn't get to see it all. It really is just stunning in it's beauty!

Next week is Christmas but the following week we'll continue our tour of Milan. Hope you can come back then to join us!


Monday, December 9, 2013

Pisa, Italy

The trip to Pisa was the surprise of this trip. With Go Ahead Tours you have the choice to select some extra excursions. They range from about $30 to $100 per person and usually take a good part of the day. If you choose not to go then you have a free day at your location. We usually do a couple of the excursions but pass on some of them. We almost passed on this one but one of my friends told me to trust her and GO. We wouldn't regret it. She was SO right!
 We arrived to find these really high stone castle walls and a gauntlet of vendors who were selling everything from Pisa souvenirs to knock offs of purses and jackets. There are perfume spray girls who have nothing on these guys when it comes to pushing merchandise. I was beginning to think we'd made a huge mistake when we came to the archway that leads into Pisa.
 And then I came to a standstill and just gaped. Those who know me know I shoot first and admire after. This is one of those times where I just couldn't believe what I was seeing and almost forgot to take a photo of it from that vantage! 
 I had done some research on Pisa and really only came up with info on the Tower so I had no clue that there were actually four buildings there! The problem was that I didn't know about The Field of Miracles, where all four buildings sit upon...I only knew about the Tower. I was searching on the wrong thing!
 What we were to learn over the next few hours was fascinating. The buildings are actually made up of recycled Roman ruins that have been pieced together. So what, at first glance, just looks like beautiful buildings becomes much more interesting as you actually study the buildings and how those puzzle pieces fit together. 
The columns were exquisite with the marble carved into intricate designs.
But they were not all the same. Two different columns carved in a similar fashion were placed in the same doorway and it wasn't until you looked closer that you realized they were very different.

For instance, along the main wall of the Cathedral is this block with carved lettering. Just a puzzle piece that fit in that particular place.
 The carving was simply beautiful. We spent a good deal of our time outside of the buildings looking at all of the details like this Madonna and child.
 The four buildings are the Cathedral, The Baptistry, The Tower and the building that this carving topped which was the entrance to the Monumental Cemetery.

 When you stopped to really study the buildings is when you became really impressed at how the pieces all fit together and how they were able to match the blocks so that they coordinated perfectly with the other blocks. As you can see, the two arches, while similar, are actually quite different.
 The only big difference that really sticks out is the roof of the Baptistry. One half of the dome is of one material and one half a very different material because they didn't have enough of either material to complete the dome! 
 As you can see, they loved their statues! When designing the way the pieces would fit together they made sure that there were as many carved faces and statues as possible on each and very building.
I simply loved this one because it fit but didn't seem to fit all at the same time! What sense does it make for a ram to be charging out of the side of a Cathedral?
 But we finally did make it to the inside of the Cathedral and Baptistry and were not disappointed there either! Striped arches dominated inside along with the cream colored marble. Wall sized pieces of fine art adorned the walls and it was all topped by the Medici ceiling of pure gold and cobalt.
A great example of the art is this piece. The circular top of the piece was carved from one piece of marble. Simply amazing!
 The Cathedral was beautiful. A return trip to Pisa would include a lot more time inside of it to examine every corner. 
 The Baptistry was the highlight of this tour. Beautiful in it's own right, the Baptistry holds a secret.
 As we stood admiring the high arches, the carved marble and overall beauty of the building we were told to be quiet for a demonstration. A young man walked into the very center of the room and began to sing 6 notes slowly. As each one echoed around the arched room we suddenly realized that they were transformed into the sound of ringing bells! We watched and listened with rapt attention, completely fascinated by this phenomena!
 Lest you think we forgot all about the Tower, we didn't. It just really wasn't as interesting as the rest of the buildings. The most interesting part is learning that it was built in three sections over almost 200 years! Built on a wetland, all of the buildings are leaning or sinking but the first sections of the Tower were so heavy it started leaning to one side almost immediately. The second architect to take it on thought he had the answer and made the walls on the non-leaning side thicker and heavier than the walls on the leaning side. This helped correct the lean a bit but didn't stop it. The final architect said that the best that could be done was to build just enough sections so they could see the sea, since the Tower was a look out for protection of the city, out of very thin marble. For awhile it looked like he was right and the Tower stopped leaning. But then it started again. It wasn't until the 1980's that engineers were able to figure out a way to stop the leaning progression. They couldn't totally correct the angle of the leaning but they did stabilize it. 
The bell tower had seven bells installed over several decades in the last section of the Tower, the last one installed in 1606.
There are 296 steps to the top of the tower and it cost $14 Euros to take that tour. We decided to spend our time exploring the other buildings instead but if I were to return to Pisa I would definitely take the trip up to the top for the view!
The Field of Miracles and the Leaning Tower of Pisa are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Pisa. It's like seeing the Eiffel Tower and not seeing the rest of Paris! So if you get a chance to wander the streets, stay in a little hotel on the river, enjoy the ambiance of the world within the gates then go for it! It's Amazing!

Next week we'll head off to Milan! Hope you can join us back here for that. In the meantime you can always find me on Instagram. Just follow shutterbugtraveler there!


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Portofino, Italy

One of the reasons we love traveling with Go Ahead Tours is that we have a lot of free time to go do whatever we want to do. This is wonderful for us since I do a lot of research and always find places that we want to visit that are not on the tour! The only bad thing is that we always sort of freak out our guide when we go off like this. The trip to Portofino was no different in this regard! The tour guide was heading down on a walking tour of Santa Margherita, I shared those photos in the last blog entry, and we had decided that when we all reached the harbor the two of us were going to catch the ferry and head over to Portofino for the rest of the afternoon. When we got to the harbor we pulled out our map and asked our guide to help us locate the ferry stop and the others on the tour wanted to know where we were going...and wanted to know why they were not going there too! We took the ferry and when we arrived we discovered that the rest of the group had arrived by bus! Guess they talked the guide into going to Portofino instead of continuing their tour of Santa Margherita! 
 One of the great benefits of taking the ferry is the incredible views of Santa Margherita from the water. Beautiful!
 Left over battlements dot the shoreline here and this family decided to incorporate it into their home!
 And homes like this one made it a gorgeous ride to Portofino. The ferry only cost a few Euro's and our only complaint is that it doesn't run as late as we had hoped. Other than that it was a wonderful ride!
 Cervara Abbey is right on the coastline up from Santa Margherita ligure and it is the one place I will be visiting the next time we go anywhere near this area! You can actually stay in the Abby and the gardens are simply gorgeous! Seriously, click on the link. You will want to go too!
 Many of the stately villas that dot the coastline are now hotels or Inns of some sort but our imaginations were running wild as we passed these gorgeous homes.
 It is hard to imagine actually living in one of these magnificent homes. Perched on the hills around Portofino and fortified by the battlements they are the personification of romance!
 Pulling into Portofino was an out of body experience to me. I'm a Disney girl. At Epcot in Walt Disney World in Florida they have a Portofino area. Well, Disney did a great job. It was surreal to be gazing at the real thing and thinking "Oh my! It looks like DisneyWorld!" and then mentally chastising myself when I realized it's exactly backwards...DisneyWorld got the details of the real Portofino down perfectly.
 This grand Villa stands on one side of the small harbor and marina of Portofino. Stunning!
 I see photographs of Portofino all of the time. I would say 90% of them have punched the color up so that the buildings are almost florescent! As if the actual Portofino isn't beautiful enough just the way it is. My goal as a photographer is to take photos that look like the view you would see if you had been standing right next to me not produce some stylized version of what the real thing looks like. Reality is beautiful enough.
 My big surprise in Portofino was Castello Brown. It sits on the other side of the entrance of the harbor from that gorgeous Villa I pictured earlier in this post. One of my favorite "Indy" movies is called Enchanted April. Four ladies go for a holiday in Italy and they stay in this beautiful "Villa". I knew immediately that the "villa" was actually Castello Brown the moment I saw it from the ferry! For a movie buff this is a big moment!
 All along the marina edges are wonderful little outdoor cafes so you can have a bit of lunch or an afternoon snack. Or visit the many shops along your way. There are plenty to visit!
 The marina was the site of an Art Show while we were there! This hanging rhino made us laugh each time we saw him!
 But the boats are what stole my heart. Wooden boats are not common here in the US. And it's a beautiful art that is slowly being lost. This is one of my favorite photos from this trip simply because I find the boats to be so gorgeous.
 Portofino is a tourist town so, even during the break hours of 1-4pm, many of the shops and art galleries stay open. We walked up this path to Castello Brown.
 Yes, it's really this beautiful. For me this is one of those "a picture speaks a thousand words" shot. (click on the photo to see the full sized shot!)
 As we made our way up the hill we got an even better view of Castello Brown. You have to love a country where gorgeous castles dot the coastlines!
 The Church of San Giorgio is at the top of the hill above Portofino. With limited time we had to decide just how high we were going to climb and when we found out that the inside of the church was under renovation and we couldn't actually go in, we decided not to take the time to climb all the way up.
 The view of Portofino from above. Gorgeous! Story you see the yacht on the left hand side of this photo? We were walking back down the hill and suddenly saw all of this crew appear on the back of the boat. They were all in finery, full uniforms, and lined up. A well dressed man carrying a briefcase came down the walk from the shops of Portofino and the Captain of the boat welcomed him on board. Each of the crew did the same. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, indeed. 
 We loved everything about this gate that was on our walk down the hill. The details are amazing in Italy.
 What a life it must be to actually own one of these boats, like the man in the red shirt, and spend your day getting it ready to take out for an afternoon cruise!
 Ok...funny if not slightly embarrassing story here. We decided to walk up to Castello Brown and found these shops on our way deciding to stop in on our way back. Well, the shops are very small and claustrophobic so while my mom ventured all the way into the shop I only went to just right inside the doorway. What enticed me in was seeing a bottle of my favorite wine on the shelf. Now I've been a huge fan of Santa Margherita Pino Grigio for years. It's a costly bottle, about $30 here at home, so it's reserved for special occasions in our house. Knowing it is an Italian wine I figured I might get it a little more affordably there and I was amazed to find it there in this tiny shop in Portofino! And then it hit me. Santa Margherita Pino Grigio...what are the first two words? And where were we staying? wasn't till that very second that I realized that my favorite wine was produced exactly where we were staying! I was excited and feeling very stupid all at the same time. Then I noticed the price was only 9 Euros! That's about $14 US. I promptly bought two and prayed they would get home in one piece in my luggage! (I'm happy to report that they both made it and my luggage doesn't smell like my favorite wine!)
After walking and shopping and walking some more we decided to stop off at a little bakery and buy some pastries and then sit in this lovely outdoor cafe overlooking the marina and sip our afternoon cappuccinos. How I would love to be back there right this minute doing exactly the same thing!

After our leisurely coffee break, which the Italians highly encourage, we found out that we had missed the last ferry going back. So we had to figure out how to take the bus. This very fierce lion was at our bus stop and I adored him immediately. We later joked that he was there to give us courage to sustain us through the harrowing bus ride back to Santa Margherita! The streets are more narrow than a country lane and there are parts where you swear the bus won't fit much less any other cars and then a motorcycle would come barreling past us and we'd cringe waiting for the impact and splatted rider...but that never came. The amazing bus driver navigated the insanely small roads and in no time we were back in town. Admittedly, we both wanted to kiss the ground, but we were safe and sound! 

I'm off on another trip this next week taking new photos to share with you all so the week after I'll take you with me to see Pisa! In the meantime, and to get a sneak peak at what upcoming blogs will be about, you can follow me on Instagram. Just follow shutterbugtraveler !