Royal Caribbean’s Italy Cruisetour Maximizes Time & Place

By Karen Rubin

It’s no coincidence that within 200 meters from where we stand on a narrow street in Florence, gazing up at a window with open shutters where DaVinci painted his beloved “La Giaconda” (the painting we know as the Mona Lisa) in 1505, Michelangelo created his most famous statue, “the David” (1504), and Botticelli, his “Venus” (1484).

Or that, as we stroll through the colonnade at the Uffizi, the statues that line the route are of some of the most significant figures of the Enlightenment, all associated with this city-state: scientists and explorers like Galileo and Vespucci, writers like Machiavelli and Dante.

Santa Maria del Flori and the Basilica, Florence's most famous churches, at night (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

And it is only somewhat coincidental that at the very hour of the very day that Michelangelo’s “David” was displayed for the first time (given the time difference), halfway around the globe, Amerigo Vespucci arrived in Key Largo, Sept. 8.

Nor is it really a coincidence that Amerigo Vespucci, an unlikely explorer, grew up just a few kilometers away from Giovanni da Verrazano.

This is Florence. For 250 years it reigned not just as the center of commerce, the richest city in the world, but as the center of a cultural movement that encouraged new ideas and new ways of expression.

My last visit to Florence, Italy, I was a college student, backpacking my way around Europe, but when we came to Florence, we were so entranced, we actually settled in for two weeks.

And yet, this time, when I visit just for one full day on a Royal Caribbean five-day Italy cruisetour, I came away with greater understanding of the City and its central place in Western Civilization, than that time so long ago.

Part of it (I like to think) is a larger foundation of experience of all those years upon which to process the information; but it also is being in the company of knowledgeable guides (we never would have done such a thing back then). Part of it, too, is the luxury of being in an organized group, not waiting many hours on lines, and having a coordinated itinerary. This seems to expand time in a place that compresses it. And yet, there is not enough and could never be enough.

We have come to Florence after a 2 1/2-hour bus ride from Venice. I was delighted to have this opportunity to see the Italian countryside. I really expected that Venice was a living-history museum, a kind of insulated Brigadoon, and that once outside, I would see a very modern, suburban landscape. I was surprised that except for the modern highway and the wonderful rest stop (imagine, a gourmet market!), the countryside was as you might see decades ago – farms and villages clustered around a steepled church – more like Vermont than Long Island. I even see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps in the distance.

About midway through our trip, we come into Tuscany – a landscape I had been really intrigued about since I saw “Under the Tuscan Sun” and the glowing reports of everyone I know coming back from trips – biking, honeymooning, etc. – through Tuscany.

We arrive in Florence, and as our bus takes us past the Duomo, we find that as in Venice, our hotel, the Astoria, is centrally located, right in the historic district, just a few blocks from the Duomo, and walking distance to the major attractions we will visit.

The Duomo is the enduring symbol of Florence and its greatness (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

It turns out that The Astoria is in a 500-year old mansion home of the Gaddi family. I poke my head into the ballroom with its painted ceiling and elaborate decorative moldings, the staircase adorned with tapestries, stained glass and artwork, glorious architectural detail everywhere. The breakfast room, where a splendid buffet is served, facing an interior courtyard with skylight are exquisite, and there is rooftop terrace on the sixth floor, with a fantastic views of the city (dinner and drinks are served at the American Bar Arrighetti on the roof from 7:30).

Our room here is probably twice the size of the room in the Hotel Principe in Venice (that is to say it is spacious), as is the marble bathroom. I discover another feature: the hotel has a rooftop terrace on the sixth floor, from which you get the most wonderful views of the city.

It is only the afternoon, and I head to an outdoor market just down the street from the hotel, and then begin my exploration which takes me to the Duomo, probably the signature building out of all the exquisite buildings in Florence, down narrow streets into a wide square, the Piazza di Signoria (where City Hall is), through the colonnade of the Uffizi, to the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River.

By then, it is time to meet up with our group. Every Royal Caribbean cruisetour has a special dinner, and though this is usually done at the end of the trip, our group is being taken to the Castello di Verrazano Winery, 20 kilometers out of the city.

Castello di Verrazano

The bus trip itself, in late afternoon as the sun begins its descent, brings us to that magical landscape that I had imagined. The roads become narrow, twisting, and up and down to follow the contours of the hills of Chianti, the region that gives the wine its name.

The colonnade of the Uffizi at night (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

We arrive at Castello di Verrazano just as the sun sets, the orange, purple light coloring the landscape.

We enter the estate – a tall stone tower is the centerpiece of the manor house. It is the last vestige of the original castle that has stood for 1000 years (the castle itself dates back to 700), and was, in fact, the home of Verrazano family from 700 to 1819.

Verrazano. The Verrazano.

The navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano, born here in 1485, explored New York harbor in 1524 under the flag of Florence, and is for whom New York’s bridge is named.

In fact, New York City Mayor John Lindsay visited in 1963, bringing three stones from the Hudson River, and taking back with him four stones from the castle to be placed in the bridge.

Equally astonishing, Amerigo Vespucci, who named America, grew up just three kilometers away. Consider the context: two men in the middle of Tuscany, miles from the sea, becoming navigators to discover unknown worlds.

This all becomes part of the story as we learn more about the evolution of a wine best known in the 1960s for the bottles we kept as candleholders, to a collection of fine wines.

Except for the tower, which is 1000 years old, the manor house dates from 1500; in 1958, it was acquired by the Cappellini family of Florence, and is one of the few castles kept as a home. The Capellini was the first to open the estate to wine tourism 35 years ago; now, some 40,000 people visit a year.

Here at the castle, the light is fading, but we see the glorious reflections in a fountain of the tall Cypress trees that are part of the Renaissance gardens.

The estate, which spans an astonishing 500 acres, is practically self sustaining – it has olive trees, water, fruit trees, bees, wine, even wild boars which we can see foraging below us.

The castle is located on a hilltop in the Chianti Classico area, the first grape growing and wine producing area in the world to be designated by official proclamation, by the grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1716.

View of building tops including the Duomo, from the Hotel Astoria rooftop terrace (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Commanding a high position over the Greve valley, the castle was once of strategic-military importance; today it is possible to easily overlook the vineyards which fan out across the slopes to the edges of the wood further down the valley. The castle was an Etruscan then a Roman settlement before becoming the property of the Verrazzano family in the 7th century.

In fact, we gaze over to a castle on another hilltop, known as “The Enemy.” We think it is a joke, but in fact, the two castles fought each other, we assume generations ago.

The “vineyards situated in Verrazzano” are mentioned in a manuscript which dates back to 1170, and the estate was part of the Consorzio Chianti Classico since 1924, the year the consortium was established.

Beginning in 1960s, though, there was a big change in the method and the recipe to produce high quality Chianti.

Gillian Maddalena, who guides us through the winery and teaches us in the art of wine-tasting, describes the challenges of producing wine – how you want the grapes to be stressed in order to produce fewer grapes of higher quality, how the Verrazano winery uses organic methods, and removes less desirable grapes from the vine in order to make the remaining grapes better, not adding sulfites (that’s what gives you a headache, yet is required by the FDA for American producers to sterilize the wine and give it a longer shelf life), and using roses as an early warning system for disease.

“They are sexual traps for insects – very Italian,” she jokes. They also use an organic fertilizer – beans – that accumulate nitrogen in the roots.

We go down into the ancient cellars, and see some of the ancient barrels from medieval times, when tenant farmers were given a small house and a little land, and in return, gave half of their harvest to the landlord.

We learn the different aging techniques that give the wines their character and finish.

The famous Ponte Vecchio, the bridge of the Arno River in Florence (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

In one room, we see the enormous wood barrels where the wine is aged. Each barrel, she says, has its own “personality” and would give the wine a distinct taste, so the wine is moved around.

Then we go into dinner – there is an open hearth where thick steaks are being grilled. The courses come one more spectacular than another – antipasto, two types of pasta, garlic bread with the estate’s olive oil, salad with a balsamic vinegar produced here, the steak – each course with a tasting of a different Verrazzano Chianti wine.

We learn how to hold the glass at the base, swirl the wine, the proper way to smell it, study its color (you are looking to see if the color is correct for age), look for “legs”, and taste by rolling a mouthful around to hit all the taste buds, and how the different wines complement the food.

I have been on winery tours in California and Long Island, but never learned as much or appreciated wine and wine-making as much, nor have been in such a historically, authentic and culturally significant context. And I don’t think I have ever been as appreciative of an organized tour – I would never have known to visit the Verrazzano winery, and getting out here, without a car, would have cost a small fortune in cab fare.

There are various ways to visit the winery; tours are offered daily beginning at 10 a.m.; there are tours that include lunch or dinner, and special programs for groups as large as 250.

It is even possible to stay overnight on the Verrazzano estate in the recently restored farmhouse, the “Foresteria Casanova “, which is approx 1 kilometer from the Castle. The farmhouse has two apartments with 7 double rooms. All the rooms are furnished in typical rustic Tuscan style, each with private bathroom and there is a common room for reading and relaxation. Outside there is a patio with tables and chairs. (info@verrazzano.comwww.Verrazzano.com).

The Arno River, Florence(© 2008 Karen Rubin).

We are so full of mischief and frolic after the wine tasting, we consider launching an attack on “The Enemy”, but settle for singing songs on the bus.

The view of the city at night is breathtaking, and when we arrive back at the hotel, I cannot miss an opportunity to experience the city at night, so we walk back to the Duomo, back through the cobblestreets to the Ponte Vecchio.

Center of Culture

You appreciate how magnificent these structures are, but our guide, Bernardo Randelli, helps us truly understand what they represent. Over the course of the next several hours (the time literally flies by), he puts into context the political, economic and cultural forces at work during this Golden Age of Florence, which coincided with the Renaissance.

And so we learn that it was not coincidence, at all, that Michelangelo, DaVinci, Botticelli, Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, all were here during Florence’s 250-year reign as the leading power in the world.

In its Golden Age, Florence had 360,000 inhabitants – the largest in Italy, and the second largest after Paris, with 460,000, in the “known world”. In contrast, London had 15,000 people and Rome, after the fall, had just 25,000.

Florence was the richest in city in the world, with merchants and bankers. They financed the five most important “kings” in the world: England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Pope, and they paid taxes to the Florentine government, an independent city-state.

The bridges, frescoes, churches, towers, paintings and statutes that we see that are so famous, all stem from this Golden Age, a 250 years period from 1280 to 1530. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance.

The Church of Santa Croce, built to demonstrate that the New Italy welcomed diversity, is where a pantheon of Italy's greats are interred (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Randelli, who has a Masters in Art History, notes that the other Italian cities famous for art are from an age either before or after, but in this timeframe, it is Florence that holds the franchise.

He talks to us through our personal audio system as we walk through the narrow streets to the Galleria dell’Accademia – where Michelangelo’s David is housed (having been moved inside in 1873 from the City Square to protect it from the elements and from periodic uprisings). His commentary more meaningful, it seems, because we are moving along with the story.

The various schools of art – sculpture, painting – used to be separated, but for the first time in the world, all of them were put it all together in the Accademia. Then, in 1750, Peter Leopold opened the collection for public viewing.

Once “The David” was moved inside, everything changed. The Academia became the third most visited attraction in Italy, with 2.8 million tickets sold a year, eight times the population of the city.

We arrive at the Accademia, entering through a special door in the back of the building for group tours, so we do not wait on line.

We walk into a long corridor, lined with statues – all of them by Michelangelo.

At first blush, the statues look unfinished – the forms only half way extracted from their marble block. But this was Michelangelo’s intention, and his genius was to make each of the figures so real, they seem to be in motion, even though they seem to still be encased by the stone. “The Prisoners” is what Michelangelo called them – prisoners of sin. What strikes me is how modern a concept these are.

And then we make our way to The David, at the end of the hall, in its own sphere.

Michelangelo was a 26-year old upstart, self-confident, arrogant and presumptuous, when he undertook on the task of sculpting the biggest statute ever made out of a single block of marble. And the marble was a challenge in itself, refused by other artists. Every time it was struck with a hammer, sparks would fly. Instead of pure white, it was marbled with dark lines. The statue was intended for display in Florence’s most important church, the Santa Maria del Fiori, the Duomo.

The street where Dante lived. Florence was a magnet for the most creative minds of the Renaissance (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

Michelangelo worked for two years by himself, a cage around him. When the statue was unveiled, the people were shocked. Instead of a 12-year old hero, Michelangelo had made “a big, white naked giant.”

“When people saw the statue, they understood it was spectacular but not for church in 1504. It was avant garde for its time,” the first of the Renaissance, and an inspiration to others.

Instead of depicting David in victory, having killed Goliath, he imagined the young man at the moment between “conscious choice and conscious action”.

“For the first time in art, David is represented before killing Goliath. He is not 12. He is an athlete but not a warrior. Michelangelo joined together religion with culture. David was an excuse. Michelangelo would have done the same with another subject. He wanted to show the idea.”

Instead of the church, a commission of seven including DaVinci and Botticelli decided to place The David outside, in the square, where it stood for 370 years.

The David, he says, is the best known statue of all time. A miniature of it was sent by NASA in a capsule containing just 10 items symbolizing Western culture.

The concept of women’s beauty is subjective and has changed over time, he says, but The David captures “timeless standard of beauty – Greeks, Romans, Middle Ages, Renaissance� today and probably tomorrow.”

The view of the Castello di Verrazano estate and Tuscany countryside (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

And it turns out, he says, David is not an imaginary ideal; the model was likely a 6’4″ tall slave brought from Constantinople.

We leave the Accademia, and Bernardo continues to describe the city as we walk, because of our headsets.

He points down a narrow street to a building that was his high school, as well as that of Carlo Collodi, the author of the Pinocchio story (hence all the Pinocchios around in the shops), as it was Galileo’s school.

We walk toward the Duomo, the Santa Maria del Flori. This was the church that the David was made for; Michelangelo’s workshop was just behind it.

He notes that because the government paid to build the church, it must have had a political purpose and that was to show how wealthy Florence was. So they built the largest church in the world – one meter longer and larger than the Cathedral of Siena. But as soon as Siena realized this, they enlarged their cathedral. Back and forth, over the next 140 years, each time one enlarged the other the same, like an arms race. At the end, Florence won because Siena ran out of money.

After 140 years of building and enlarging, they didn’t know how to finish the Dome. Then, in 1417, Filippo Brunelleschi saw the Pantheon of Rome and finished it in a mere17 years, earning him the nickname, “Fast Filippo”.

No other building in Florence can be higher than the Duomo, 119 meters.

The cathedral faces the oldest baptistery in Florence, built between 1012-1059, making it a mind-boggling 1000 years old. While it is not known who put up the original baptistery, they know who made the gilded bronze doors in the 1400s, because Lorenzo Gilberti and his son (who finished it), put their own faces on it.

The panels depict scenes from the Old and New Testament. One of the panels shows God taking away the rib from Adam, which, Bernardo says, was the first time the figure of God was depicted, and 70 years before Michelangelo painted the image of God’s finger touching Man’s in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. “This panel inspired Michelangelo,” he says. “Michelangelo said the door was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, that it should be at the Gate of Paradise.”

We stop in front of the narrow side street where Dante’s house is located, now a museum. He was the father of the Italian language, he said. Up until Dante, books were all written in Latin; he was the first to write in the language of the people.

He stops on a small side street near the central square and points to a window of the building just above us, where the shutter is always open. That was the workshop, he says, where DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa. Only 200 meters separated the Mona Lisa (1505), The David (1504), and Venus by Botticelli (1484).

The view of the Tuscany countryside at night, from Castello di Verrazano (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

“There was a cultural movement because of the money. For 200 years, the most famous artists, scientists (Galileo), writers (Machiavelli) all assembled in Florence.

We come to the Piazza Signoria, where there is a Tower, built in 999, the year before new millennium. “They thought 1000 would be the end of world. They wanted a tower to get to heaven.”

This was the seat of the Medici government, who ruled for 300 years, from 1430 to 1747. Ironically, the buildings and the artwork they financed remain, but there are no descendents of the Medicis left.

All around, there are major sculptures of the Renaissance. “No other place in the world can you find 16 Renaissance masterpieces, outside for free,” he says.

UNESCO has calculated that 8 percent of the masterpieces of the world are in Florence, the highest concentration anywhere; Rome has 6% (Italy altogether has 38% of the world’s masterpieces).

Florence is open-air museum. Everywhere you look there is something of importance. There are 193 churches older than 100 years; 103 museums.

In just a half-day, we have seen a lot and learned a lot more, though you could easily spend that much time in any one of the museums, alone. The Uffizi is the most visited museum in Italy, and the second most visited in the world, with 4.5 million visitors last year. It is most famous for the Michelangelos, DaVincis. We walk past it, but, alas, there is no time to visit.

We walk to the Arno River where we can see the Ponte Vecchio. And here he tells the story of General Mark Clark, a World War II American commander, who said he wanted to be famous for freeing Florence, not destroying it. So in an era before smart bombs, and even as other cities were bombed, he targeted the train station and places 200 meters away, but not the Ponte Vecchio and other important places housing the most significant art.

View of a rival castle from Castello di Verrazano at night; in the mid-Ages, they were literally "The Enemy" (© 2008 Karen Rubin).

“We are so grateful to the American 5th Army. Mark Clark freed Florence. We are here today because of Medici and Clark.”

Florence is not just famous for its artists, but its men of science, as well.

He tells us of Amerigo Vespucci, whose sculpture is in the colonnade. The head of Medici’s bank, he arranged financing for merchants. After the fall of Constantinople, it was no longer safe to sail to China for the silk and spices by going east, through Asia. Everyone was trying to find a westerly route.

Vespucci studied seamanship because he needed to calculate how long and how much money to give to the merchant. He gave money to Columbus, but realized that Columbus couldn’t have found India because he went and returned in three months. He became sure there was something in between. So 12 years after Columbus, in 1504, Vespucci set sail, coming to Hispanola, then Cuba, then Key Largo, in Florida, arriving on Sept. 8, 1504, and realized he had found a new land.

“On that same day in Florence at same time, 1 p.m.. calculating for the time difference, David was shown in the square for the first time,” Bernardo says.

We come to the Church of Santa Croce, built outside the city walls at the time because the Franciscans wanted the Pope to give to the poor, but eventually people left the town to live around the church, and finally, the city walls were taken down and Santa Croce became the center of the city in 1450.

Vineyards in Chianti, in Tuscany(© 2008 Karen Rubin).

The church is notable for a massive Star of David on the front. Bernardo notes that a Jewish star inside a church was meant to remind worshippers that Jesus was a Jew. But a star placed outside was a political message, which was added when the church was rebuilt in 1859, when Italy was a unified country.

“The King wanted to give a message,” Bernardo says. “It doesn’t matter who you are – what language, religion – we are Italians – inclusive. Jews were persecuted all over Europe at the time. The King showed he welcomed Jews. It was open minded, progressive for time.”

Why this church when there are 50,000 churches in Italy? Santa Croce is special. It is where Michelangelo, Galileo, Marconi, Fermi, and Machiavelli (his inscription says “Name is enough.”) are buried – a veritable pantheon of Italian glory. “‘Be proud,’ is what he was saying.” (Bernardo Randelli is a licensed tour guide who leads private tours,bernardorandelli@virgilio.it).

Street entertainers are in the plaza, as we walk 30 minutes back to the Hotel Astoria to pick up our hand-carry (our luggage has already been taken from our rooms, loaded to the motorcoach and sent on its way), and walk a few blocks to the train station for our 1 1/2 hour ride to Rome, the Eternal City.

See also:

Tuesday, 30 December, 2008

© 2008 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit us online at www.travelwritersmagazine.com and at www.familytravelnetwork.com. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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