The city, the Duomo, the alleys and the squares will be illuminated with colors and images that will tell stories and dreams, visions and suggestions of artists who, with their creations, the games of light and shadow, will give life to this Christmas show. Free admission.
Typical religious procession with the famous basket of flowers in the streets of the village of Santa Maria a Monte. Santa Maria a Monte was the birthplace Galileo Galilei’s father Vincenzo, a distinguished composer and lute player. The family of the poet Giosuè Carducci lived in Santa Maria, where his father was a rural doctor. Every year on Easter Monday, the Processione delle Paniere (procession of the baskets) winds its way through the town. At this festival, girls carry a basket of flowers on their heads in honour of the Blessed Diana Giuntini, a wealthy fourteenth-century lady who gave up her belongings to live in poverty.
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 two historical quarters of this side of the city, Mezzogiorno, are divided by a very lively street: Corso Italia, the High Street of Pisa.
An ideal walk can begin from the Central Station, which was built in 1863 and then refurbished after the bombing of the Second World War.
Actually, this part of the city still has very clear signs of the atrocious bombings of 1944 when Pisa was attacked for 45 consecutive days: 57 bombings, over 3000 civilians killed and 50% of the buildings were destroyed.
This tragedy is evident walking from the station towards Corso Italia. All the buildings are modern or have been rebuilt.
Walking through via Gramsci, we arrive at an elliptical square, quite chaotic because of the traffic: this is Piazza Vittorio Emanuale, represented by the statue in the middle. Remember this square: most of the city busses stop here, there will soon be a major underground parking garage and the central Post Office is located here.
The buildings in the square are neo-gothic in style and were built with the square in 1872 after the demolition of part of the city walls and the old Gate of San Giulio.
Also located in this square is the church of Sant’Antonio, which gives its name to one of the quarters. The church was rebuilt after the bombing with the exception of the façade, which is in the typical Pisan style.
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.
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 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.”
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 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.
The Piazza della Signoria has been the center of political life in Florence since the 14th century with the prominent Palazzo Vecchio overlooking the square. It was the scene of great triumphs, such as the return of the Medici in 1530 as well as the Bonfire of the Vanities instigated by Savonarola, who was then himself burned at the stake here in 1498 after he was denounced by the Inquisition as a heretic. A marble circle inscription on the piazza shows the location where he was burned.
The sculptures in Piazza della Signoria bristle with political connotations, many of which are fiercely contradictory. The David (the original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia) by Michelangelo was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio as a symbol of the Republic’s defiance of the tyrannical Medici.
Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (1534) to the right of the David was appropriated by the Medici to show their physical power after their return from exile. The Nettuno (1575) by Ammannati celebrates the Medici’s maritime ambitions and Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Duke Cosimo I (1595) is an elegant portrait of the man who brought all of Tuscany under Medici military rule.