Monday, September 27, 2010

Spello and Gubbio

The next day, we visited two other hill towns in Umbria: Spello and Gubbio. First up: Spello, just a few miles away from Assisi, but much quieter and less crowded. I would guess it's probably one of the prettiest towns in the area. There's not that much to do other than wander its picturesque streets and visit two churches, but that's pleasant enough. In addition, the area is famous for its olive oil, which we had a chance to taste (and buy). There's also some nice art by Pinturicchio in the two churches: a finely frescoed chapel in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, and a Madonna with Saints in the church of Sant'Andrea.
Afterwards, we drove to Gubbio, stopping on the way to have a picnic in the hills with a view of Perugia. It's larger than Spello, and with more sights, but without the sunny hill town vibe of Spello. That doesn't mean it's not hilly, though: to get to the main square, we took a public elevator. Further uphill, we visited the cathedral and the Palazzo Ducale, where we were lucky enough to get free admission (it was the day of culture, or something like that), and saw a nice exhibition of Umbrian maiolica. Finally, it was off to the cable car up to the Basilica of Sant'Ubaldo. Described by the Lonely Planet as looking "frighteningly like an open-topped human birdcage," that seems like an apt description. The church at the top was decent enough (more remains of a saint!), but the ride up was definitely the highlight. Afterward, it was back to Florence.


My parents came to visit last weekend, and since they've been to Florence several times now, we decided to go out and see something new. We decided on Assisi and surroundings, so Saturday morning we drove down from Florence, hoping that the weather would stay nice (it did for the most part). Assisi is, of course, the home of St. Francis of Assisi, where he preached, and is now the goal of many pilgrims.
The city itself is much like many other hill towns in Umbria and Tuscany: steep streets, bare stone houses, many churches. The highlight here is the Basilica of St. Francis, where the saint's remains are stored. Consisting of an upper and a lower church, both decorated with some fantastic frescoes by Cimabue and Giotto, among others, it really is a sight to see. We then went to see some of the other churches in town, among them the Romanesque Basilica of St. Clare (with her remains) and the Duomo di San Rufino. The town is nice enough, but I do wonder what St. Francis would have to say about the crass commercialization.
In the late afternoon it started to rain, and since we still had plenty of time before dinner, we drove down the hill to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was built around the Porziuncola chapel, where the Franciscan movement started. I liked the small chapel, but like with the sights in town, I'm guessing they have much more significance to true believers.
After a mediocre dinner in town (note to self: make reservations for the recommended places), we walked up to the Rocca, from which we had a great view onto the monuments of the city, lit up in the night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Last suppers

Italy abounds in depictions of the Last Supper. Of course, there's the famous one in Milan by Da Vinci, but every convent or monastery (there are a lot of those) has a refectory, and the popular motif to decorate it is a scene of the last supper. Also in Florence, several famous ones exist, and since I've seen pretty much everything else a tourist would think of visiting here, I decided to go to the ones I hadn't been to.
Already last year, I visited the Cenacolo (refectory) of Ognissanti for the fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio, directly next to the church of the same name (but not with the same opening times). A fairly traditional take, though the birds in the background add a nice touch.
Last weekend, I took the bike across town to the monastery of San Michele in San Salvi, where there's another fresco by Andrea del Sarto. This one is a bit unusual in that Judas is sitting next to Jesus (instead of across the table, isolated).
Finally, yesterday I went to the final ones missing in my collection, all conveniently close to the market where I had to go anyway to get produce. First stop was the Cenacolo di Fuligno, with a fresco by Pietro Vannucci, known as 'Perugino'. No pictures allowed here, though the sign only prohibited flash. I've noticed that the rules concerning taking pictures in churches/museums/etc. are not very consistent, so usually it's better to just take pictures and not ask. The worst that can happen is that they'll ask you to stop. The last supper, by the way, was pretty standard.
Next stop was the Cenacolo di Sant'Apollonia, with a fresco by Andrea del Castagno. The people here looked less realistic (Judas looks like a satyr), and the background has fake marble insets. From there, I went to the nearby Chiostro dello Scalzo, which features some beautiful monochromatic frescoes by del Sarto depicting the life of John the Baptist. (No pictures here, either)
All of the places described here can be visited without an admission charge, though the opening times can be limited, so check the museums site of Florence first. It goes without saying that these places are off the radar for most tourists (and don't appear in most guides), so you'll likely encounter few other visitors.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Leonard Cohen and band in Piazza Santa Croce

After a longer drought in terms of pop concerts, we went to not one, but two concerts by big acts this week. First up, on Wednesday, was Leonard Cohen in Piazza Santa Croce here in Florence. This was probably the biggest concert in Florence this year, and it seemed like half the city was here. The start of the concert was a typical Italian situation: apparently not anticipating that anything could actually start on time, the first two songs were basically disrupted by people trying frantically to find their seats. I also had the impression that Cohen needed a little while to warm up (not surprising, considering that he's 75!), but after a few songs he had found his groove. He played most of the favorites on his Live in London album (a fantastic album -- check it out), and added some of his older songs, like Chelsea Hotel No. 2, Famous Blue Raincoat, and The Partisan. Like Bob Boilen, I was particularly intrigued by Javier Mas, one of Cohen's bandmates, who got to shine on various stringed instruments such as bandurria and archlute, especially on an extended introduction to Who By Fire.

Arcade Fire in Bologna

The next day, we went to Bologna for the I-Day festival, which had the impressive lineup of JoyCut, Chapel Club, Fanfarlo, Modest Mouse, and the highlight: Arcade Fire. We had rented a car (there's no way to get back from Bologna after 8:30pm using public transportation) and got there quite early, during the first set. Since it was still quite empty, and also sunny, we sat down in the shady grass at the outskirts of the festival grounds during the decent sets of JoyCut (an Italian indie band) and Chapel Club. The crowd started to grow a bit during Fanfarlo, who played a good, though brief, set, and seemed genuinely excited to be there, taking pictures of the crowd. I think their neo-folk/indie style resonated well, at least with me (maybe it's the trumpet, but they reminded me a bit of Beirut). Next up were Modest Mouse, and Kristen joined me in front of the stage. I wasn't too familiar with their music, but I liked their energetic set. They were a good opening for the highlight of the evening: Arcade Fire. What can I say? They're an awesome live act, and a fantastic stage presence as well, going all out. I thought the songs from their new album, which sometimes seem to go on a bit long on the record, worked much better in a live setting. And there's nothing better than thousands of people singing along on Keep The Car Running or Wake Up. Apparently the concert was broadcast live on Italian radio, and there's a YouTube of that here.

Things You Don't See in the U.S. #8

Cigarette girls. At least I've never seen one, but Wikipedia says they still exist.