Palazzo Blu (Blue Palace)

Get a closer look at Pisan high society in the beautifully preserved Palazzo Blu (Blue Palace). This art gallery, museum and cultural center showcases the work of Pisans from the 14th century onward in its permanent collection. It is a cheerful sight indeed, looking down onto the Arno River.

The Blue Palace showcases the artistic wealth of Pisa. The Leaning Tower isn’t this town’s only claim to fame. The palace’s elegant sky-blue façade, arched stone doorway and classic tiled roof, makes it stand out from the more neutral-colored buildings around it.

The permanent art collection was begun by the Palazzo Blu’s foundation in the 1950s and includes many works by 17th-century painters, significant sculptures and modern purchases. Most of the works have some connection to Pisa, either through their artists, clients or subjects.

The Palazzo Blu has a 14th-century construction with sumptuous 19th-century interiors. You’ll be able to see sculptures, paintings, coins, artifacts, antique furniture and modern design pieces. The art gallery houses various temporary exhibitions throughout the year as well, often of great artists of Europe and the wider world.

The Knights’ Square

The Knights’ Square or Piazza dei Cavalieri, lined with splendidly decorated buildings, has for centuries been the political heart of Pisa and is the second most important square after The Square of Miracles. A visit to the Renaissance church of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri will give you a real insight in the colourful maritime history of the city.

It was in this square that in 1406, Florence’s emissary proclaimed the end of the independence of Pisa. One hundred and fifty years later Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, asked his favourite architect Giorgio Vasari to modernise this space in Renaissance style. He dedicated the square to his recently founded military order of the Knights of Saint Stephen, whose duty it was to fight the advancing Ottoman Empire.

Pisa Cathedral

Pisa Cathedral Dome is the Cathedral, it is not sacred as Basilica (the only one in Pisa is San Piero a Grado), but is the main church as well as the Archbishop’s Office.

Its origins are medieval and although devoted to Santa Maria Assunta, it was originally called Santa Maria Maggiore.

Begun in 1063/1064 (Pisan Calendar applicable at that time) by the architect Buschetto, with part of the loot of the battle/war in Sicily against Muslims, it was created with the merger of different stylistic elements from classical, Byzantine, Lombard-Emilian and Islamic, as a demonstration of the power of the markets of Pisa at that time at international level.

In 1092 from simple Cathedral, the Church became Primatial (title of primate conferred by Archbishop Daibert and Pope Urban II ), today only formal title.

The Cathedral was consecrated in 1118 by Pope Gelasius II, expanded over the years, with projects of changing the façade until the present appearance of the complex building, which is the result of repeated restoration campaigns occurred in different ages (the more radical intervention was a result of the disastrous fire of 1595, where even the roof was rebuilt!).

Magnificence in prevalent Romanesque style (Pisan Romanesque), it symbolizes the prestige and wealth of the maritime Republic of Pisa at the height of its power and of its strength. Five naves compose its structure with transept to three naves, architecturally composed from three basilicas (Central Body and two transepts). Its external style is full of multi-coloured marble decorations, mosaics, including the most important one, that of the ” Apse Catino made by Cimabue, and many bronze objects. The arches recall the Muslim influences and southern Italy and many objects and decorations are the result of war spoils, as the immense granite Corinthian columns between the nave and the apse, which come from the mosque of Palermo.

Fonte Gaia Fountain

The magnificent Fonte Gaia fountain, designed by Jacopo della Quercia around 1419, adorns the higher part of Piazza del Campo. The fountain we see today stands on the exact spot occupied by a previously existing fountain in 1346. The water that feeds the fountain travels from a spring in the nearby countryside through 25 kilometres of underground passages known as Bottini, built in the Middle Ages and named thus on account of their barrel vaulting.

The fountain is named Fonte Gaia on account of the great celebrations that took place when the inhabitants of Siena saw the water gushing out from the fountain for the first time. Although Jacopo della Quercia received the commission to design the fountain from the Comune in 1409, construction did not actually take place until between 1414 and 1419 because of the sculptor’s prior engagements in Lucca, where he was completing the tombstones of Lorenzo Trenta and his wife in the Trenta family chapel at San Frediano in Lucca.

Della Quercia drew the inspiration for his design of the fountain from the traditional designs of Medieval Senese public fountains. A large, altar-like rectangular basin is surrounded on three sides by a high parapet. The sides are decorated with reliefs of The Creation of Adam and The Flight from the Garden of Eden. Two female figures adorn the front two columns, traditionally believed to represent Rea Silvia and Acca Larentia, in remembrance of Siena’s legendary associations with Rome. The long section of the fountain is adorned at the centre with a Madonna and Child, surrounded by allegories of the Virtues.

Although in poor condition, the sculptures are still a clear indication of the originality and power of Jacopo della Quercia, who has managed to capture an extraordinary sense of movement in so few simple lines. By the mid-19th century the fountain was in such precarious condition that it was decided to replace the original with a copy. Tito Sarrocchi was commissioned to sculpt the new fountain in 1858 and he completed it in 1869, albeit without the two statues on the final pilasters. What remains of the original fountain by Jacopo della Quercia is kept in the Loggia of the Palazzo Pubblico.

Mangia Tower

Siena Cathedral

The exterior of the cathedral is pretty impressive, and if you don’t have a lot of time in Siena, you might not even go inside and just enjoy the outside. Built between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure, the cathedral is in the form of a Latin cross with a slight projecting dome and bell tower. The exterior and interiors are decorated in white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes, black and white being the symbolic colors of Siena.

If you have time to visit the cathedral, you might be tempted to skip it once you realize you have to pay to get in… but it is certainly worth it and, with the pass, it’s actually a great value! The pass gets you into the cathedral as well as the baptistery, crypt and Opera museum and is valid for 3 days so it most definitely worth the 10 euros!

If you’re visiting Siena after having visited Florence and its cathedral, you’re in for a shock! While Florence’s cathedral is immense and its cupola impressive, its interior is pretty spartan in comparison. In Siena, on the other hand, you don’t know where to look. The columns continue the white/black marble striped motif and, if you look up, there are busts of past religious men of Siena looking down upon you. I recommend you take a special look at the pavement: the most impressive and beautiful of the treasures the cathedral holds are on the floor, where the pavement is decorated with the art of mosaics (using various techniques) to create storytelling masterpieces.

The 56 etched and inlaid marble panels were designed by 40 of leading artists between 1369 and 1547, all from Siena except for Bernardino di Betto, known as Pinturicchio who was Umbrian. Completion of the designs took six centuries, the last ones finished in the 1800s. Today, the mosaic panels in the nave and aisles are usually uncovered although protected from passing feet by barriers, but the most precious ones are under the apse and in the transepts and these are generally protected by special flooring since this is where people sit for mass; these are only uncovered in honor of the Palio and a pair of months during the year, often in September and October.

Piazza del Campo

A universal symbol of the city, the distinct formation of the Piazza del Campo is just one of the reasons why UNESCO recognizes Siena as the ideal embodiment of a medieval city. Built in the exact place where the three antique hilltop towns sloped together, before eventually combining to create the community of Siena.

The main square, commonly called “il Campo” was built on the intersection of the three main roads that lead to and from Siena, destined to be a neutral ground where political and civic holidays could be celebrated. The homogenous architectural form of the square and the buildings facing it was not an accidental happening; the government created guidelines in 1297, before the actual building of the square and civic buildings. If any structure didn’t adhere, then they were torn down – as was the antique church for St. Peter and Paul. This signifies that it was always the city leader’s intention to create a harmonious structure between the buildings and the square.

The square, with a circumference of 333 meters, is paved with a fishtail design of red brick divided by 10 lines of white travertine stone creating a shell like appearance with 9 sections pointing directly to Palazzo Pubblico, the civic headquarters. Each section representing one of the ruling 9 governors in the “governo dei nove” and long considered to be one of the most stable and peaceful governments in Italy. Artistically speaking, the sections were to resemble the folds in the Virgin Mary’s cloak, who was not only the patron saint, but considered the “ultimate ruler” of Siena. Though some have suggested that the harmonic construction of the square is an artistic representation of the valley of Montone.

Lucca Cathedral

Lucca Cathedral is a place of legend and emotion. It’s the jealous guardian of the Volto Santo, or Holy Countenance. It’s also houses the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, one of the finest works of 15th century Italian sculpture.

The Romanesque exterior, with its elegant portico, arcades and beautifully decorated doors, warrants a good look before you even step inside the church. Notice the vividly expressive equestrian sculpture (circa 1240) dedicated to the episode that changed the life of San Martino.

Under the same arcade is a labyrinth carved in stone; a figure much-loved by mystery seekers that represents a journey of spiritual awakening and, for the more religious, salvation through faith. On the right hand side a latin inscription reads: “This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete, from which none could escape except Theseus helped by Ariadne’s thread.”

Torre Guinigi (Guinigi Tower)

Built of red brick and topped by several ancient Holm oaks, the 125 foot high Guinigi tower house is one of the few remaining tower houses in Lucca. It was built in or around 1384 by wealthy silk merchants, and, although no one know exactly how old the rooftop garden is, it dates back to at least 1600 when it appears in a contemporary drawing of the city.

Once bristling with as many as 250 defensive tower houses, today, only about 9 remain in the ancient walled city . The towers were built during the mercenary-filled post-plague years in Italy, when Tuscany was repeatedly turned upside-down by disease, raids, and outbursts of politically charged violence. The 14th century in Italy was, as they say, Interesting Times. It made sense to have a personal defensive tower.

The center of Lucca dates back to Roman times, but it found its stride during the middle ages as a crossroads of trade and a center of the silk trade. Independent since 1119, in 1314 Lucca was raided and fell under the power of a local born condottirere, or mercenary, Castruccio Castracani. Ambitious and ruthless, Castracani set his sights on conquering more land including nearby Florence, and spent the remainder of his rule making war on the neighbors (his life story was documented in detail by Machiavelli).

Following his death, rule of the town fell to the Guinigi family. As in nearby Pisa, Sienna, and Florence, the wealthy landowners began building a tower onto their palace home, both as an overt manifestation of their wealth and power, but also as a defensive position and lookout when things got rough. Throughout Tuscany, the shape of crenellations on the top story often indicated the loyalty of the owner. The tower building mania became enough of an issue that many Tuscan towns established building limits on height and style of the towers. In battles, destruction of the towers – often specifically targeted properties of certain families – was common, and a blow to the pride of the victimized town thereafter.

Napoleon raided Tuscany in 1805, annexed it to France, and gave Lucca to his sister Elisa in 1809. She held on to her title of Grand Duchess of Tuscany until 1 February 1814. She can be credited with the beautifully maintained outer walls and the trees planted along them.

Restored and reopened in the 1980s, today the tower’s rooftop garden is accessible via a climb of 230 stairs (a modern addition – the original stairs were on the outside). From the rooftop you can see the outlines of the three concentric city walls, the Roman center of town, and the few remaining other towers. Across town, the Torre della Ore (clock tower) is also open for climbing.

Piazzale Michelangelo

Piazzale Michelangelo is one of the best and most famous lookouts for a stunning view of Florence, day or night, and best of all it is free! It just takes a little legwork and there are a few easy ways to get there.

One is a lovely walk along the south side of the river upstream towards the Torre San Niccolò, an old tower of the now destroyed medieval city walls which you can see jutting out over the rooftops from afar. Here, you are directly underneath the piazza, simply follow the looping ramps up to the top of the hill. Another nice walk is from the Porta San Miniato gateway, accessible from Via San Niccolò. Go through the gateway and up a short but steep street; in front of you is the “shortcut,” picturesque stone steps that will lead you straight up to the piazza in a matter of minutes. You will pass by the entrance to the lovely rose garden on the way up. Don’t forget to take a peek behind you to catch the growing panorama of Florence.

The other way up to the piazza, for those who are saving their energy, is to take the local bus number 12 or 13. Find them at the train station, near the taxi stand, either one will take you all the way up to Piazza Michelangelo for the cost of €1.20 a single ride (tickets must be purchased in advance at a tabaccheria, tobacconist).

From the piazza, a five minute stroll up past the church of San Salvatore will take you to the unique and beautiful monastery of San Miniato al Monte. With absolutely the best view of the city, San Miniato al Monte is a stunning example of original Tuscan Romanesque architecture dating from 1013. The monks still make honey, tisanes and liqueurs to sell to visitors and it is also possible to visit the church while the monks sing Gregorian chant at 5.30pm.

In the grounds surrounding the church there is a beautiful monumental cemetery laid out in the mid-1800’s and protected by the old defensive walls of the church designed by Michelangelo during the Siege of Florence in 1529-30.

A wonderful panoramic walk from San Miniato back to the centre of Florence can be enjoyed by turning left (with the church behind you) onto Viale Galileo, the tree lined boulevard. As the road winds along and you enjoy the shade of the trees there are the most splendid views of Florence until you reach Via di San Leonardo on your right. Taking this charming narrow street, look for the plaque on the wall of the first villa on your left that says Tchaikovsky lived here in 1878. Continuing along past beautiful villas and the tiny eleventh century church of San Leonardo in Arcetri you will come to the Forte Belvedere and the 13th century Porta San Giorgio. Here you can either go through the arch of the old city gate and straight down the hill to arrive at the Ponte Vecchio, or you can follow the old city wall to the right and back to the area of San Niccolò, below the Piazzale Michelangelo.