A trip to Perugia, Florence and Pisa

As some of you already know, for the past half a dozen years or so, I’ve made an annual trip to Perugia, a lovely little hill town in the middle of the Umbria region of Italy, about two hours north of Rome. The main reason is an amazing journalism conference run by my friends Chris Potter and Arianna Ciccone, a five-day extravaganza that involves more than 600 speakers and a dozen beautiful venues in the old city. Most of the historic center was built in the 13th century, and was constructed on the ruins of an even older city, one of the capitals of the ancient Etruscan empire sometime in the 3rd century BC. And every year, my wife Becky and I take a few days either before or after the conference to visit somewhere in Italy — one year it was Rome, and then Venice, and then Cinque Terre, and then the Amalfi Coast (I put together an interactive travelogue if you want to take a tour of some of the places).

After an amazing week in Perugia, filled with great dinners with old friends and lots of gelato meetings at my “office” (also known as the gelateria near the Brufani Palace), Becky and I took the train to Florence, which is just a couple of hours west of Perugia. We checked into a great little Airbnb apartment right near what everyone refers to as the Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers or the Santa Maria del Fiore, and then headed out to visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the premier collections of Italian Renaissance art in the world. It took us over three hours to see everything, and we still missed a lot — paintings by Giotto and Da Vinci, sculptures and busts and statuary everywhere. An amazing (and tiring) experience.

After the museum, we headed back to the Airbnb to relax a little and change, then we set off to meet friends at a local restaurant just across the Arno river, near the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. It was a lovely little trattoria — the Trattoria Cammillo — with excellent pasta and fish, including a local specialty called pasta Bottarga, with dried and salted roe (fish eggs) from bluefin tuna. After dinner, we chatted with the owners for awhile, who told us of the history of the building, which was partially destroyed in World War II, and showed us the water mark about eight feet up on the wall where the floods of 1966 crested (a flood that killed over 100 people and damaged millions of priceless works of art).

The next day, Becky and I took advantage of the cheap local train prices and caught a train to Pisa, which is about an hour west of Florence on the coast, a trip that costs about 8 Euros. We walked for about 45 minutes from the train station to where the famous leaning tower is, part of a complex of museums, cathedrals and other religious buildings that were constructed in the 12th century, when Pisa was a pretty powerful port city. In addition to the tower, there’s the Campo Santo — a massive enclosed cemetery lined with crypts and sarcophagi — and a huge cathedral that is almost as large and impressive as the Duomo in Florence. Over one of the many altars in the church is a see-through sarcophagus containing what is supposedly the body of Saint Rainerius, which some poor bugger had to put together from bits and pieces that had been scattered around the countryside.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and we had a great time wandering around the cemetery, the cathedral and the nearby museum — which had some marvelous watercolors that someone did of the massive murals on the walls of the Camp Santo, each of which told a religious tale in great depth, but most of which had been lost to time and the elements. There was also a small “Chapel of the Relics of the Saints,” set into the wall, which contained cabinets filled with goblets and reliquaries with bones and fingers and other bits and pieces of saints (allegedly). After a quick espresso, we made our way back along the river Arno to the train station and caught a local shuttle back to Florence.

After we got back to Florence, we spent the afternoon just walking around and then had dinner at a wonderful little restaurant not far from our Airbnb called La Boheme. And what a dinner it was, featuring a dish known as Il Botteca Florentine, or steak Florentine — a giant, two-inch-thick slab of beef with the bone in, weighing around 1.2 kilograms or so. The waitress seemed concerned that I was ordering it for myself, so I said that Becky would be helping, but as it was I ate most of it single-handedly. We then decided that a long walk around Florence was required, so we wandered down towards the river and through the various alleyways, watching people by the carousel in the main square and catching a sextet playing classical music near the site of the outdoor market. Becky and I both rubbed the nose of the boar statue known as La Porcellina, which brings good luck.

The next day, we had planned to head to the Accademia Gallery, where the statue of Michelangelo’s David is located. We had tried to book tickets online in advance, but by the time we got around to it they were sold out for the Tuesday. So we thought we would just see what the line was like, and when we got there it was about two blocks long, and a security guard said he thought it would take at least two hours. I had just finished saying to Becky that I thought we should just bail, when a man and his wife approached us and asked us if we wanted their advance-booking tickets — they didn’t have time to wait and see the museum, they said. Before we could even say thank you or offer to pay them the 24 Euros, they had left, and about 20 minutes later we were in the museum. And what a sight it was.

Although we didn’t take a tour, I learned a lot about David from reading the sign next to it (and also from eaves-dropping on other people’s tours). I didn’t know that a different sculptor started the legs of the statue and then either died or lost the commission for some reason, and the block of stone sat outside for more than 25 years, until Michelangelo — who was only 26 at the time — asked if he could complete it. The hands and the head are disproportionately large, which leads some historians to believe it was originally designed to sit high up on the roof of a cathedral, but when it was done it weighed about three tons (it’s 17 feet high) and so they decided not to put it there after all. The toes of the left foot were damaged by a deranged artist with a hammer who attacked them in 1991.

After seeing David and the rest of the paintings and sculptures in the Accademia Gallery (there’s a small musical instrument museum as well), we headed for the train station to pick up our bags — the free tickets for the gallery covered the cost of the bag drop service, so that worked out well. And then it was back on the train to Rome, which took a couple of hours. We had dinner with a friend who lives there and stayed overnight at the same quaint little hotel we have stayed at several times, and then caught our flight back to Canada. Another great trip in Italy, and lots of great memories. Until next time!

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