During December we witnessed the transformation of Florence (and all the surrounding cities) in anticipation for Christmas. For the entire month, the city was awash in lights and festivals. It made for enchanting nights and splendid memories. Here are my Top 5 Memories from the month of December:
5. A day trip to San Gimigniano and Volterra. Situated in the countryside outside Siena, San Gimigniano and Volterra represent all than an ideal Tuscan town has to offer: a walled city perched on a small hilltop, panoramic views, wineries and olive orchards dotting the surrounding hillsides, and artisanal foods and/or crafts (proudly displayed in city center). We loved both cities, enjoyed our walks through the cities, counting towers, envisioning medieval battles and defensive maneuvers, and exploring back alleys and less traveled streets. While more touristy than Volterra, San Gimigniano did offer the most astonishing views and city was particularly well maintained. Visiting in November was ideal, because there were only local Italians visiting the sites.
4. A day trip to Lucca. We had anticipated our trip to Lucca for some time, having heard it was a fantastic destination – we were not disappointed. This was also our first excursion with my parents, who had flown over to Italy to celebrate Christmas with us. Lucca is a walled city; but, unlike other destinations, Lucca’s walls are surrounded entirely by a park (including the tops of the walls), giving it a truly unique flavor. The city offered a variety of attractions, churches, piazzas, a converted amphitheater (now a piazza), and fantastic corsos and shopping. We all loved the city; however, our big disappointment was the weather – snow and slush throughout Lucca soaked through our shoes (making it cold and wet) and made walking precarious at times. Nonetheless, all of us were enamored by Lucca and plan to return.
3. The Santa Croce Christmas Festival. For all of Advent, Piazza di Santa Croce was host to a Christmas Festival featuring artisans from all over northern Europe (namely Germany). The festival was open every day and showcased Christmas wares, gifts and foods that captivated children and adults alike. Our boys, Anthony and Caleb, made daily visits to the festival (about 200 meters from our apartment), and became intimately familiar with many of its treasures (including the mineral store and sweets shop). Janelle and I became close with the stand offering hot, mulled wine (a welcome treat on a cold night). My parents were also fortunate to arrive in time to enjoy this event, and blessed our family with a beautiful Nativity set (hand-made in Germany) – it is an heirloom gift that we’ll treasure for years.
2. Christmas Mass at the Duomo. It wouldn’t be Christmas without attending church, and what better place in Florence than the Duomo (Santa Maria della Fiori). The entire mass was in Italian (and comprehensible only by myself and my two sons); however, for all of us it was a treat to be celebrating in Christmas in Italy. The church was packed with people from all around the world, the celebration was magnified by a huge, reverberating organ, and great works of art and history surroundedus. Sitting in the midst of it all, I could see where a populace centuries ago (who were not literate) could be educated about the life of Jesus Christ simply by studying the paintings and stained glass. It was truly inspiring. My only wish is that we would have sung more Gloria’s together before mass was over. I love Christmas music.
1. Weekend trip to Orvieto, Civita and Montalcino. Certainly the most memorable experience in December was an extended weekend trip to Northern Lazio (Civita), Southern Umbria (Orvieto), and Central Tuscany (Montalcino). We started with a drive to Civita di Bagnoregio, an Etruscan hilltown in Northern Lazio, where I had spent a summer as a college student; and later returned as a graduate assistant. Civita is an ancient Etruscan village built on a rock outcropping that is slowly eroding away, and accessible only by a foot bridge. It is a tranquil enclave, which offers a surreal glimpse into the past (unfortunately frequented by too many tourists!). I was happy to share my prior experiences living in Italy with my parents and family, who heard countless stories of my stays. After saying hello to several old friends from Civita, we made our way to Orvieto for the night. Our kids gave my parents a first-rate tour of the city, and we browsed several shops during the evening passegiata. The next day we had the pleasure of attending mass in the Orvieto cathedral, including the blessing of the nativity scene (presepe). Our boys managed to get their cheeks squeezed by an unknown grandmother (a sign of affection) - they laughed. After a picking up some last minute items in Orvieto (ceramics and rubber band guns), we made our way north through the Tuscan countryside. We got several “calendar-quality” pictures along the way of indescribable scenes, and stopped by quaint little towns (Radicofani, Bagno Vignoni), before making it to Montalcino for dinner. Set upon a hilltop surrounded by world-reknowned wineries, Montalcino is a magnificent hilltown. Appropriately, a great fortress sits upon the top of the hill next to a soccer field (offering splendid views and wine-tastings), but the main corso stretches diagonally downhill. As a result, Montalcino is not for the faint-hearted; the streets and stairways are steep, making it a work-out to traverse. However, we loved it and the wines were a worthwhile reward!
Other honorable mentions for Top Memories from December 2009, include: a visit to the Palazzo Pitti Musuem with my parents (Rafael, Tiziano, and Allori were impressive), a day trip to Pisa (and walk up the leaning tower), snow days in Florence, a day trip to Fiesole with my parents, and, of course, lazy days that included playing cards (Nerts!), watching movies and simply enjoy the splendor of Florence during a casual stroll.
Thanks again to my parents (Opa/Oma) for making the long trip to Italy and sharing these memories with us! We are looking forward to what 2010 has in store for our family!