The Final Countdown: Europe, North America travel blog

Monte Cassino


the Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross), Piazza di...

Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), Baptistery of St John, Giotto's Campanile (Bel...

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of Saint Mary of the...

Giotto's Campanile and Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

Giotto's Campanile (Bell tower), Piazza del Duomo

Giotto's Campanile (Bell tower), Piazza del Duomo

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune, 1575) by Ammannati, Piazza della Signoria

A copy of David by Michelangelo (1504), Piazza della Signoria

Hercules and Cacus (1534) by Bandinelli, Piazza della Signoria


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Sorrento, Capri, Florence, Pisa

Wednesday, 26th September.

Day 11 To Florence (Firenze), 515km

Ciro is back as our driver today. We had a 7.30 start to avoid the traffic, but that didn’t work too well as we got caught in a traffic jam for around 40 minutes near Naples. Our morning tea stop is at Cassino, the Abbey of Monte Cassino is on the hilltop above us. During WWII the monastery was part of a German defensive line. In February 1944 the abbey was heavily damaged by Allied Forces in the Battle of Monte Cassino. The Abbey was rebuilt after the war; Pope Paul VI reconsecrated it in 1964.

We must have stopped on the way through Tuscany to have lunch, but we were fairly tired by this time, and accidentally deleting some of our notes has not helped!

We arrive in Florence around 3.30pm, and walk some distance to the main square, Piazza di Santa Croce. The art and the architecture are amazing, but sadly Florence seems much grubbier than other places we have visited. We are taken to a very, very, expensive leather goods factory, and though the coats and bags were wonderful they are not for us. There is a brief demonstration on leatherworking, showing how the gold embossing is applied, and then there is the sales pitch before we are let loose in the factory store. We need to use toilets by the end of it all, but they are pretty foul. At least the guys can stand, but the ladies have a disgusting toilet, and there is also water on the floor in there. The factory manager made a big thing about how we could trust the company, that there was a quality product, etc, but they couldn’t keep the toilets clean. Cynthea complained to Mariella, and she got them on to it smartly.

We all met up back in the square for a guided tour of the central Florence area. We visit the Gothic style Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (in English: Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower) a truly beautiful building that is the main church of Florence. The Duomo, as it is ordinarily called, was begun in 1296 and completed structurally in 1436. The exterior of the basilica is faced with marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white and has an elaborate 19th century Gothic Revival.

The cathedral complex, located in Piazza del Duomo, includes the Baptistery and Giotto's Campanile. The three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the historic centre of Florence and are a major attraction to tourists visiting the region of Tuscany. The basilica is one of Italy's largest churches, and until development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed.

The tour ended at the Piazza della Signoria, the centre of political life in Florence since the 14th century. The sculptures here have political connotations, many of which are fiercely contradictory. The statue of David by Michelangelo (1504) is a copy, the original having been moved to Florences’ Galleria dell'Accademia (Gallery of Academy of Fine Arts) in 1873. David was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio, facing Rome, as a symbol of the Republic's defiance of the tyrannical Medici.

Bandinelli's 5m statue, Hercules and Cacus (1534), to the right of the David was appropriated by the Medici family to show their physical power after their return from exile in 1512, and again in 1530. Here, the demi-god, Hercules, who killed the fire-belching monster Cacus during his tenth labour for stealing cattle, is the symbol of physical strength, which juxtaposed nicely with David as a symbol of spiritual strength, both symbols desired by the Medici. Although descriptions of its unveiling in 1534 provided verbal and written criticisms of the marble, most were instead aimed at the Medici family for dissolving the Republic and were not aesthetic. A few of the writers of these critical verses were imprisoned by Alessandro de'Medici, further suggesting a political commentary. The two harshest critics were Giorgio Vasari and Benvenuto Cellini, both of whom were champions of Michelangelo and rivals of Bandinelli for Medici patronage. Cellini referred to the emphatic musculature as "a sack full of melons," forgetting that Michelangelo had received similar deprecation previously by Leonardo da Vinci.

The Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune, 1575) by Ammannati was commissioned on the occasion of the wedding of Francesco I de' Medici with grand duchess Johanna of Austria in 1565. The Neptune figure, whose face resembles that of Cosimo I de' Medici, was meant to be an allusion to the dominion of the Florentines over the sea, celebrating the Medici's maritime ambitions. 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.

The Loggia dei Lanzi functions as an open-air sculpture gallery, designed in 1376. The statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head, by Cellini (1545), is a stark reminder of what happened to those who crossed the Medici, and along with Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines, are two of many beautiful sculptures found under the arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Medusa was an ugly-faced woman whose hair was turned to snakes and anyone that looked at her was turned to stone. Appropriately, the statue is surrounded by three huge marble statues of men: Hercules, David and later Neptune.

Our accommodation tonight is well away from the city centre, at the Holiday Inn, where we arrive near 8pm. It is very nice, and we even have tea and coffee facilities! There is internet here, but you have to pay.

Tonight we have another meal included as part of the tour, and this would have to be the worst so far. We had very poor table service, the waiter was either very new or very incompetent. There was no method to the service, he would take drinks orders one person at a time, and between orders he would be waiting on other guests who were not part of the tour group, so orders took ages to arrive. Our group was seated at three tables, and one table was completely missed for drinks service. A couple of people got sick of waiting for drinks service and went up to the bar themselves, only to be told go back and wait for service. Someone at the table complained that the whole table had been missed for drinks service, and was told they would get to them as soon as they could, and then he didn’t get a meal when the others were served, hmmmm. What a bloody shambles.

The meal was like the others, cheap and plain. The starter was dry bread (no butter), and once again we have pasta and a small serving of plain tomato sauce. Mains, if you can call it that, was one thin slice of veal, some cubed potatoes, and spinach. Two scoops of icecream or sorbet for dessert, if this is supposed to showcase Italian food, then they did a pretty poor job of it.

Nick was served veal, again, despite telling the tour company he was against that. He sent his meal back, but there was nothing forthcoming for him for quite some time. The table had finished eating and Nick still had not been served, so he complained to Mariella, and the waiter brought him a sandwich! Mariella and Ciro had a meal in the dining room, but were seated away from the group. It was with much envy that we watched as they dined on huge steaks and salad, pleased to see the tour company (or the hotel) looks after them, but as customers we felt pretty ripped off.

The hotel cocked up with the luggage too, (it was dropped off there while we were sightseeing), and was supposed to be in our rooms when we arrived. Nick, Liam and Steve, and a couple of others, had their bags left sitting outside their rooms for a couple of hours while we were in town. To apologise the hotel gave us all a glass of sparkling wine.

We knew when we booked the tour we were aware that we were not staying in flash hotels in the centre of the city, and on the whole there has been nothing wrong with the accommodation. However the food so far has definitely been lacking in appeal, and the servings have been on the small side. Mariella talked up Italian cooking all through the tour, wonderful food, and so generous with the servings, but the offerings so far have fallen well short of image. That is not to say there are not wonderful meals out there, we have had some great food while in Italy, it is just that none of it was supplied through the tour company.

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