April 14th, 2020
Amber- precious & preservative
Hohensalzburg fortress , a largest fully preserved medieval fortress in Salzburg, Austria sits atop a hill. It can be reached walking the zigzag path or by a funicular car departing from the foot of the hill in Festungsgasse. As you exit from the funicular you are led through a gift shop that sells amber jewelry and polished rocks and minerals both indigenous to the region.
Study of Biology, Taxonomy and Evolution have benefited immensely from the amber preserved fossils.
Because of this we have a valuable record of the organisms which lived in the Earth's past. Although considered a gem , amber is a wholly- organic material derived from the resin of extinct species of trees. Eventually when the trees died and over millions of years sank into the coal bed, the tree sap hardened and formed amber stones. Amber has been carved into beads for jewelry and ornaments. However, it is valued highly by the scientists for it's preservative properties. The resin overtime polymerizes and any living thing that got trapped in it is successfully preserved.
Modern scientists have collected valuable information about extinct species since amber fossils are three -dimensional with life - like colors and patterns. Even the internal structures of the cells may stay intact. Insects caught in amber resin have been found in active poses, along with their predators, prey and with internal and external parasites. Intact frogs, lizards, snake skins, hair, bones and blood of mammals, plants, leaves , spores and pollen , hair from dinosaurs called "dino fuzz", have been discovered in amber, opening to us a window into our primitive world of unknown genera of fossilized organisms.
Baltic amber is formed from a particular type of pine- Pinus succinifera and is called succinite. Geological knowledge of each fossil resin is important to their botanical classification. Even when the fossil resin comes from the same plants, it might be different since it got fossilized in different conditions.
Also, in order to be more accurate a place name is also given to amber fossils such as Baltic amber, Siberian amber, Spain amber, Dominican amber or New Jersey amber etc.
Kochenite, from Kochental ( a valley in Tyrol, around Innsbruck, Austria) is another variety of Amber found here. Spider beetles, belonging to Genera Ptinus have been found in Baltic amber more than a century and half ago. The amber of this coniferous tree belonged to early Tertiary (about 70 million) years ago.
Lyme disease is caused by ticks carrying Lyme disease bacteria- Borrelia burgdorferi. We recently have gained new insight and information about the bacteria and it was found preserved in amber. In 2014, Oregon State University researchers working on amber samples from the Dominican Republic and discovered ancient ticks infected with the bacteria, remarkably similar to modern Borrelia. Ticks were dated back to 15-20 million years and indicate that even our early ancestors had to deal with conditions similar to Lyme disease.
Insects as old as 20 million years old believed to have roamed the earth alongside dinosaurs and before the ice age three million years ago have been found. Last year, researchers found fossilized tobacco in the northern Amazon establishing that the plant dates back to the Pleistocene Era, 2.5 million years ago and that it originated in northeastern Peru.
There is a controversy if DNA can be extracted from the fossilized organisms and compared with that of its modern day counterparts. This concept was the basis of the movie "Jurassic Park" where the idea of extracting dinosaur DNA from blood eaten by mosquito and cloning new dinosaurs was used. A 46 million year old fossilized mosquito found by an amateur fossil hunter in Montana contains the blood of an unknown ancient creature. Scientists used x-ray spectrometry and found the abdomen full of iron which is what you would expect from blood. With mass spectrometry, the presence of heme, the compound that gives red blood cells their distinctive color and allows them to carry oxygen throughout the body was found. However, it was not possible to say which creatures blood was preserved in the mosquito's abdomen. That's because the DNA degrades quickly to possibly survive 46 million years of being trapped in amber ( or stone). Assembling a full genome from DNA fragments requires us to have an understanding of what the whole genome looks like and turning it into a living breathing animal would require putting that DNA into an ovum of a living species closely related to the mystery creature that we do not know about.
With improvements and advances in techniques and technologies perhaps some day a Dino park may become a reality.
If you want to buy a real amber jewelry there are two tests for it. Real amber floats in salt water and if you touch a hot needle to the surface of amber bead the smell should be pine-like.
Biomimicry- When nature inspires
Discipline of Biomimicry takes its name from the Greek word "bios" meaning life and " mimesis" meaning to imitate. We can say this field is as old as life on earth, 3.8 billion years, as organisms have been fine tuning themselves since then. We have been observing, analyzing and problem solving by looking around us ever since we have stepped on this Earth. It is an inherent nature of the human mind. All things biotic or abiotic have been our muse.
This became even more prominent for me on my trip. Let me give some examples:
In the museums I visited, at all the amazing architecture I looked at, in paintings by various artists, even the royal china at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna I could see inspiration drawn from the natural world. The royal china is painted with beautiful patterns of butterflies, flowers, fish, lobsters, hummingbirds, ducks, roosters , shells and coral. A collection of plates had Lantana aculeata , a perennial flower painted on them, Rosa indica is of course the most common preference on such items. Archduke Franz , an emperor of Vienna during 1820's actually took up gardening as a hobby since he liked Botany. His collection of dessert plates (96 pieces) had all sorts of beautiful flora and fauna. Now, these days we might not like to eat in such fancy plates but we still like to decorate our dinner tables with fresh flowers and fruits.
At the BMW museum in Munich , I was delighted to find out that the radiator grille of the BMW cars is a double oval known as a kidney because it mimics the symmetrically placed pair of kidneys in our own bodies. More so in the older models than in the newer ones.
The archaeological findings- vessels, ornaments, tools used by our ancestors, displayed at the Acropolis museum in Greece testify that mankind has learned many things from observing other species and adapting their needs accordingly.
Leonardo Da Vinci was a big proponent of learning from nature. His designs and sketches that led to numerous inventions are closely linked to designs found in the natural world. Code Atlanticus is 1,119 pages and the contents are flight of birds to weaponry to designing musical instruments, mathematics and botany. In April this year I had an opportunity to see these wonderful drawings of Da Vinci in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts.
In Barcelona, Sagrada Familia is Gaudi's ultimate tribute to nature.
At the Viktualienmarket in Munich I saw the Durian plant fruit. Well, then found out that the Esplanade theater in Singapore has it's exterior or the building skin inspired by this fruit. Durian plant uses it's semi rigid pressurized skin to protect the seeds inside. Similarly, the buildings exterior is part of an elaborate shading system that adjusts throughout the day to allow sunlight in and protects the interiors from overheating.
The ladder model of double helix of the DNA as staircases in buildings is a popular design. There is one in the courtyard of the global accounting firm KPMG in Munich.
Photovoltaic systems, which harvest solar energy are mimicking the ways a leaf harvest energy by photosynthesis. Solar cells are able to split water into hydrogen and oxygen the same way leaves do trapping sunlight in the chlorophyll.
Biologists, researchers and other science professionals, artists, designers, engineers are all practitioners of Biomimicry. By observing nature and its inner workings we can make connections between human problems and natural solutions.
Nature is inspiring next generation of drones and robots after seeing how moths cope with turbulence. Robots are being designed with bird like grasping appendages.The developments are inspired by numerous other organisms such as bats, insects even flying snakes.
Researchers are certainly taking inspiration from all corners of the animal and plant kingdom.
My this experience makes me think that anybody who is an observer of nature can " biologize" a challenge, can query the natural world for inspiration, can evaluate, can apply the scientific methods to make sure that the final design mimics nature in form, in process and in ecosystem.
So, my dear students get ready to become a bio " mimic" king.
Check out the pictures from my trip that biomimic nature.
It is the German Bavarian capital, known for Oktoberfest. If you are a soccer fan you have probably heard about their best team FCBayern and if you are crazy about cars , then Munich is the birthplace of BMW and Mercedes Benz , the 11th and 12th ranked cars in the world.If you are a foodie you will love Munich for its white sausages, roasted potatoes, lieberkese , dumplings, baked pretzels, apple strudel and beer, lots of it. It is also a tech start-up hub.
Munich is consistently ranked as having one of the best qualities of life world wide and I was not surprised. People love their communities and their environment. Thecity showcases it's culture and traditions through festivals, street fairs, organized eents year long. I was there in May an could see that the city really know how to celebrate life and community. Spotted families , friends and neighbors gathering by the river, in a park or at the biergarten. People had a cozy, unhurried and a relaxed demeanor. It was delightful to see families and their dogs in parks, or riding bikes or walking along their neighborhood or sitting and enjoying the evening in their backyards or cheering their kids at a game of soccer.
Munich is also extremely environment friendly. We spotted a bike room on the ground floor in every apartment building, bike coach in a train, bike area on a metro, bike stands in public areas, all for free. It is as if if you don't have a bike you don't exist in Munich. There are bike city maps, bike route planners, bike tours and adventures, annual bike events etc. You can spot parents with bike trailers , people riding to/ from the office in their suits, to/ from supermarkets with grocery bags, to / from parties on weekends in heels. There is miles and miles of bike lanes in the city. I was shooed away by a biker when I happened to be walking in the bike lane while crossing the road at a traffic light.
Another notable thing was that Munich seems to have a very serious and meticulous recycling system. I spotted atleast three or four big garbage containers in people's patio. You will definitely need to learn what goes where. Blue container for paper, Brown container for organic waste, Grey for remaining household waste. Not to forget that plastic and glass bottles along with the cans should not be thrown away but brought back to the store where there are automatic machines to return them and you get back your money 10 or 20 cents which was an extra payment you made when you bought your beer. It is like a deposit to make sure you recycle. It is called Pfand in Germany. You can't forget your grocery bags when you go shopping because you will be charged for plastic bags.
The most impressionable were the solar panels and the windmills in the suburbs. As we travelled to Dachau and Fussen by train you couldn't help noticing that almost every building be it a big school, or a small house or a supermarket or a corporate building or a farm had solar panels on the top. Conserving energy is certainly part of daily life here.
Salzburg is an Austrian village on the bank of river Salzach , straight out of a storybook. It has numerous well manicured parks, stunning medieval and baroque edifices, grand churches,museums and the most prominent and formidable, the clifftop fortress, set against the backdrop of the northern border of the Alps.
It is important to mention the city's most prolific composer, the musical pedigree- Wolfgang Mozart who was born and baptized here. Also,the film locations of the movie "The Sound of Music" that so compellingly bring throngs of tourists to this beautiful place.
Salzburg's Old Town is a UNESCO's world heritage site and best preserved city center. It is walkable, easy to navigate, and full of sights to check out.
We arrived here late in the night by train from Innsbruck. Hence, spent the night resting. Next day, early morning descended at the Mirabell Gardens. Not only is it tranquil but it is one of the best free things to do in Salzburg. You can enjoy the rainbow of flourishing blooms and the Mirabell Palace in the background. It was here that Julie Andrews tromped with the Von Trapp kids in the Sound Of Music singing "Do,Re,Mi". You'll recognize the Pegasus fountain,the gates, the Gnome garden along with the hedge tunnel.
Mozart Wohnhaus is nearby. It is a museum about the Mozart family displaying objects from the family estate including the original piano. It was interesting to learn that Wolfgang's sister was also an accomplished musician.
Mozart's Geburtshaus is his birthplace across the river. He was born in the third floor of the building.This museum houses much of the stuff from his early life.
From here we headed to the Salzburg Cathedral- Dom zu Salzburg. Built in 774 in Baroque style. It was rebuilt after a fire and then again in 1950 after being damaged in WWII. The three bronze gates represent Faith, Hope and Love. The Cathedral has a beautiful nave and domes.
An interesting man on top of a giant golden globe in Kapitelplatz is a sculpture called Sphaera by Stephen Balkenhol. Interpretation left totally to the observer.
From here we took a cable car to the Hohensalzburg Castle on top of the hill. You can also walk the strenous 15 minute walk from the center to the top of the hill. It is one of the oldest fort which was built in installments. Inside the castle is a Marionette Museum devoted to the art of marionette theatre of which Salzburg has a rich history and still offers performances. There is also a display of predictably terrifying torture devices as well.
It will be unfair not to mention the Makartsteg footbridge that connects both the sides of the town. This bridge has a sea of padlocks on its fence. These love locks are a craze across Europe when it comes to publicly declaring eternal love.This practice is viewed as a tradition, a romantic gesture and some view it as vandalism- go figure.
As we came back to the town center we ran into a crew of film makers who were in the midst of shooting a scene.
From the Old Town we took Bus 25 to Hellbrunn Palace and Gardens, which is about a 25 minute drive outside of the city.
Well, there are palaces all over Europe that are full of opulent rooms, filled with antique furniture, pictures , royal memorabilia. But the Hellbrunn Palace and Gardens have fun and funky contraptions that bring a smile on your face because they are for entertainment and relaxation. Markus Sittikus, a prince and an archbishop hired Santino Solani, who also built the Salzburg Cathedral to build the Hellbrunn palace. This palace has no bedrooms. What it has are these amazing fun and funky gardens that bring a smile on every visitors face.So the main attraction is not the palace but the gardens where you will find statues, grottos and fountains that operate with hydraulic technology . These moving objects are called -Wasserspiele.
These trick fountains work with a sophisticated system of pumps that automate the fountains.Grottos are a scientific marvel. In them the bird calls are very cleverly engineered by water pipes, turbine like water wheels, bellows driving the wind into the sound of an organ. These machines have been in existence since circa 1830.
Neptune Grotto is a tin face that rolls it's eyes and sticks out it's tongue, all movements driven by water.The mechanical theater is a tower palace that showcases the daily court life,all figures are water driven marionettes. Total of 141 mobile and 52 immobile figures demonstrate various professions and trades of the period.
The picnic table, from where the tour starts is no ordinary table. Imagine you as a royalty in your lovely fancy gown or dress having a picnic with the prince who has hidden controls,and then the fountain erupts right beneath you.Not sure if the prince was being just plain silly or actually settling scores.
It is heartening to see that the palace and the gardens still bring out what the Archbishop intended- screams, squeals and smiles.
A day in Salzburg was well spent with a whole bunch to add to memories. One thing that I learnt from my interactions with the locals was..... never bring up Schwarzenegger:)
Innsbruck is a natural haven and cityscape all rolled into one. Nestled in the Austrian Alps, Innsbruck is for mountain lovers, golfers, hikers, skiers, cycling enthusiasts or strollers like me.The golden lights reflected off Nordkette, the jewel of the Alps pleases all visitors who flock to this urban city.You can take a cable car to get to the peak to get a good view of the valleys and mist-shrouded summits.
We arrived here on a Sunday morning, hence, practically had the streets to ourselves. Since all the museums were closed we started our random walk from the railway station towards the Old Historic center.Undeniably, no matter where you are the city has endless views.
Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo style buildings share spaces and stand together in timelessness.
We started our stroll from the railway station and reached near Landestheater, near the historic Altstad. The theater is surrounded by the imperial Hofburg, Hofgarten and The University of Innsbruck. Innsbruck is home to about 30,000 university students. Walked through to the Golden Dachl - Golden Roof- city's most famous sight. Built in 1500 by Emperor Maximilian to honor his marriage to Bianca Sforza. It is decorated with about 2,657, fire-gilded copper tiles.The emperor and his wife used to sit in the balcony and watch celebration of festivals, tournaments and other events that took place in the square below. A jazz group was playing in the balcony of the building entertaining the crowds sitting and relaxing or eating in the eateries below.
There is a beautiful Baroque style building in the corner opposite the Dachl that you can gawk at.
We walked along the golden roof side of the path a little way down and came to an opening and saw the beautiful view of the Alps.There is a small bridge on river Ine. Wondered around this place taking in the views and took innumerable pictures of the houses lined along the river.
Walking through the narrow streets couldn't help noticing the souvenir shops selling beautiful handcrafted things- aprons, bags, crocheted table linen, funky hats, sweaters and a myriad of other stuff. Tracht- is a traditional attire comprising leather breeches for men and frilly corset dresses for women.This alpine attire is a beautiful local costume. Some other unique items you can pick include tree hangings, wooden and fabric puppets, locally made honey or Honig as called in German, house shoes called Doggin. Tirolean bacon and schnapps and for a delicacy- Tirolean grey cheese- with a bold flavor, served with vinegar , oil and onions. Not to forget the irresistible snow globes, now a staple souvenir in stores worldwide. Snow globes were created by a surgical instrument mechanic Mr. Perzy I , an Austrian in 1900. He came up with the idea when attempting to improve the brightness of the newly invented electric lamp.
Right around this area is a Swarovski store. If you do not want to venture out of the town to the Swarovski Crystal World, this store is enough to smother you with shimmering stones.
From here we came to the Maria Theresien Street walking towards the iconic Triumpforte. It is a Roman inspired triumphal arch gate built by the Empress Maria Theresa. It commemorates the wedding of her son Archduke Leopold on its south side and a tribute to the death of her husband Francis I, on the north side.
Innsbruck is a very walkable city and in a day we had a great time exploring and soaking in the sights.
Neuschwanstein means "New Swan Stone" is located in the village of Hohenschwangau near Füssen in southwest Bavaria, Germany.This castle was commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria, who paid for most of it out of his personal fortune rather than dipping into the Bavarian coffers.Ludwig II is known as the fairy-tale king. The inspiration for the castle came to the eccentric king from the theater themes, musical mythology and operas of Richard Wagner,his close friend.
I wanted to visit the Castle primarily to see what and how a medieval- style chateau called the Neuschwanstein Castle, that was built for no strategic or defense purposes, inspired the Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle. Well, it turns out that the dainty turrets, cylindrical towers and the romantic views surely did inspire Walt Disney and then forever became a fairy-tale oasis.
The Castle is a hybrid of shapes of Romanesque with cuboid and semicircular arches,Gothic with slim towers and delicate embellishments, Byzantine art and architecture all mingled in an eclectic fusion for a nineteenth century castle.The white sandstone was sourced from a nearby quarry and the sandstone brick for the portals and the bay windows along with the marble from places near Salzburg.
Despite its size the castle does not have space for a royal court, only private lodgings and servant quarters. Ludwig II lived as a recluse in the castle for a total of 172 days only. He was found dead in a nearby lake along with his psychiatrist. He was 40 years old. His death is still a mystery as to if it was a murder, suicide or purely accidental. When Ludwig was stripped of all real power, historians believe he decided to retreat into his fantasy kingdom in the Alps, living in alternate reality in which he could play his operatic daydream of christian knights and magical swans. He would sleep during the day and wander the castle at night.
He had a perfect location picked out as the castle sits near his childhood castle of Hohenschwangau. It has a 360 degree views of pristine alpine scenery of lakes, lush valleys and towering peaks. Had the castle been completed it would have had 200 rooms, with all technological comforts such as electricity, sewage system, central heating and electric buzzers to summon servants. However, only few rooms are in service - The Throne room, Ludwig's Suite, The Singer's Hall and the Grotto. The castle has been featured in movies such as The Great Escape ( 1963) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ( 1968).
To get to the castle we took an early morning train at 5.45 am from Munchen HBH ( Munich's Central Station) to Füssen. The early morning journey was a window into the Bavarian countryside.The rolling green meadows, farms, windmills and solar powered barns made up much of the scenery. The herd of cows strolled and grazed in open un-fenced fields. It drew my attention to the cow bells around their necks. Beautifully handcrafted with representative alpine figures they are hand carved or cut out of wood or bronze with leather collars. Some have sleigh bells jingling, telling the herdsmen how far the cows have cruised out. It keeps the loitering cows safe from wandering off the cliffs as they search for greener pastures. The noise of the bells also keeps evil spirits at bay, such is the belief. The clanging and chiming of the bells is certainly a key part of living on alpine pastures, keeping the old fashioned farm culture and life alive. So then in that moment I decided to buy a cowbell as a souvenir to represent the memories of this trip,
On arriving at Füssen we took Bus 78 that drops you off just downhill at the ticket center by the castles. From here you can go to the two other neighboring castles or take a bus to Neushwanstein castle. A small ride and you get dropped off at a station to hike the rest of the way to the majestic entrance of the castle. Along the way you can take pictures of the beautiful Bavarian scenery that frames all three castles.
The entrance ticket is timed. No photography is allowed of the interiors. It takes about 45 minutes to complete the guided tour.
King Ludwig built a beautiful castle using his vivid imagination. No wonder 1.5 million visitors flock in every year to check it out.
Pisa and The Leaning Tower
Misadventures are part of adventures as well. I sure did realize this when I overslept and missed my early morning train to Pisa. Well, sometimes you have to reassess, reorganize and reset and go on.
So, if you want to travel in Italy, all the trips can be done by train. Trenitalia has a good network and is cheap. For all the places you want to go, you can buy the ticket at the counter, in vending machines or online. We took the train from Firenze (Florence) to Pisa- a scenic train ride through Tuscany. It took a little more than an hour. Got off at Pisa Centrale train station.
Well, when you imagine Pisa, Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is of course the leaning tower. And as is a cliche in life "to tick off" the major sites, this was exactly my plan, until I bought a map of the city. It showed all the sites to visit clearly and I got my bearings for the city and now I had a plan. I had an entire day and it was a bit overcast, so me and my husband set out on our own pace.
Walked out of the station into Piazza Vittorio Emanuel, got a pic with the man himself. Since it was early morning, it was quiet, a few hawkers were lining up the pavements and arranging hats, sunglasses, umbrellas and all kinds of "leaning" souvenirs. We saw groups, actually hoards of youngsters with backpacks gathering around the square with the Polizia in the side lines. I could smell a rally of some sort.
Right around this area I was excited to find a mural made by a Pisan student and artist Keith Haring of New York. Keith has also designed a jacket worn by a pink-wigged Madonna for a performance of her song "Like a Virgin" for the TV dance program Solid Gold . This mural is titled "Tuttomondo" and what is really cool about it is the theme, which is that of peace and harmony in the world, which can be read through the links and divisions between the 30 figures which, like a puzzle, occupy 180 square meters of the south wall of the church of St. Anthony. It is easy to miss. Check it out in the pictures. It is an awesome piece of art by an artist who brought AIDS into public view through his street art style subway drawings.
The piazza leads into Corsa Italia, a chic street lined with boutiques, bakeries, art galleries, leather goods shops and cafe's and more.You can have your fill of shopping here. It's fun walking into each one of these unique stores for you have no idea what you may like and end up buying. Not a perfect analogy, but it's like listening to a radio, you don't know which is the next song to be played and it could be your favorite. The department store H+M had its ceiling painted a la Renaissance style. Along the way, as I love diving into alleyways in a quest not to miss anything interesting, we got happily lost and came out on a bridge on River Arno.
The river, slightly muddy, runs through Pisa. It has several bridges going over it and the view of the city running alongside it is beautiful. The yellow, red, orange, blue buildings reminded me of Venice. As the city was still waking up we walked towards a little church, Santo Sepalcro, a unique church which is octagonal in shape made with locally quarried stone and has slits for windows. It has a red pyramidal top sitting on the columns. Further down the river is another church Santa Maria della Spina, it owes it's name to spina ( thorn) from Christ's crown of thorns, one of which is housed here since 1333, or so the story goes. The exterior is beautiful, ornate with many sculptures.
Had a cup of coffee and proceeded on Via Santa Maria peeking into interesting shops and came to Piazza dei Cavalieri or Knight's Square. This is now a center of education.Three imposing monuments here are - Palazzo dell' Orologio, Palazzo della Carovana and Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri. This square was a popular gathering place where all discussions, protests and victories were conducted or celebrated. The Piazza della Caranova has a beautiful facade done in sgraffitti (technique of layering and then scratching the paint). It has six niches that have busts of grand dukes of Tuscany tucked in them.
With a little more legwork reached Piazza dei Miracoli. It had started to drizzle by now. In this piazza is the 'star' attraction of Pisa- the leaning tower called Torre di Pisa also called Campanile also called the bell tower. You will be surprised once you reach this place because you find more than you had expected. The leaning tower shares the space with a Duomo, a Baptistry, and Camposanto Monumentale.
As you take it all in, you realize that opposite to the massive cathedral with the Duomo, the leaning tower actually looks smaller than you think it is. Also, the tower looks very fresh, not aged, clean and almost fake, so does the very green grass surrounding these monuments. The tilt, however adds a unique dimension to the monument which resembles a wedding cake. The height of the tower from ground to the top is 55.86 meters on the tilted side and 56.70 meters on the higher side. The tower was leaning at an angle of 5.5 degrees and after the restoration work between 1990 and 2001 it is now leaning at about 3.99 degrees. When it was built in 1772, it started tilting because the foundation was unstable. Various attempts were made to fix the problem, but the city relies on the "tilt "as it is worth the tourism it brings.
The entire sensation of exploring the leaning tower was done and dusted in about an hour, unless you want to climb some 300 steps to the seventh floor of the tower for 18 € and ring the bell. I weighed the idea and decided more fun than doing this was watching tourists "pushing" the tower. Frozen in this pose for at least 10 minutes. Some were very serious and determined to get that perfect pic. Every body was trying to get the classic cheesy picture just right. You can make fun or join the fun, which I did and got my cheesy picture after a few retakes. We hovered around the tower a little more. Had a little picnic on the greener than green grass. I had packed some pesto and mozzarella sandwiches with some hot tea in a thermos. Perfect for the rainy day.
Then we proceeded on to check out the Baptistry . It is beautiful, very ornate and we probably took more pictures of it than the tower. We got out of the old walled gate into Piazza Mann and found ourselves in a bazaar. Got some souvenirs, some gifts and then walked on Via Roma towards the train station. It was around 3 p.m by now.
We passed through Oto Botanica, a garden which is part of the University of Pisa. Well, Pisa is a University town. There are 60,000 students out of the 100,000 inhabitants. The math and science department are considered very strong in this University. There is also an Institute of Anatomy and Museo Anatomia. Pisa is also the birth place of the famous Galileo Galilee- a mathematician, a physicist and an astronomer. I had no idea that the famous Medici family helped him complete his studies at the University of Pisa as he struggled through it.There is also a famous myth that he dropped two cannon balls from the leaning tower of Pisa to test mass vs. speed. But that is debatable as there is no evidence to support it.
Came back to along river Arno and walked past the Cittadella Vecchia, an area which was a shipyard in the 13th century. What is left of the monument are some brick arches.
By now with all the walking and sightseeing we had definitely worked up an appetite. So what do you eat in Pisa? Pizza, of course. Had dinner at a trip advisor recommended restaurant called "Dabbe". It was quite an experience I will remember every time I order a pizza. The waitress helped us understand the menu and recommended to try " a new kind of pizza", remember it's all about getting out of your comfort zone. So I got a pizza with anchovies. Well, I have to admit it didn't go well on my palate.
Walked back to the square Vittorio Emanuel. The huge gathering had certainly become a protest to legalize cannabis. We watched the protesters for some time.
By now we had recorded 16,715 walking steps on our Fitbit and my feet were begging for a break. Took a train back to Firenze. Had a very memorable trip.
This is a city where foundations of Renaissance were laid. It is choked full of history, art and architecture and culture.With your first step into the city you will go back in time. Renaissance is written all over this town beautifully preserved in it's architecturally perfect historical buildings and breathtakingly sculpted art everywhere. This city is settled around river Arno, where Julius Caesar, who can be named as the founder of the city gave land to retired soldiers of his army in 59 BC.
The city owes most of its masterpieces to the Medici family. Many monarchs of Florence and three Popes come from this family.
Even if you know nothing about the history behind Florence's art and architecture, you will be struck by the power and beauty of this place.
For the five days that I was here, these are the places I checked out .
Duomo- Cathedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore
The red brick Duomo is imposing in the skyline of Florence. Inside the Brunelleschi's dome ( the largest in the world) you find one of the most beautiful pieces of art you will ever see. Frescoes of "The Last Judgment" by 16th century painter Giorgio Vasari fill the cupola. To see it up and close I made a hike up 463 winding stairs to the top of the Duomo. It is challenging and claustrophobic but the 8 € ticket, a few dizzy spells and sweaty brows are all well worth the view in side the Duomo and of the beautiful city.
The dome is octagonal and built without the supporting wooden frame, unheard of at that time.The buildings exterior is covered with marble panels in shades of green, white and pink.The floor is marvelous marble mosaic pattern.
The Cathedral's 44 windows constitute the most extensive stained- glass art work of 14th and 15th century Italy.
In this piazza are many other important buildings such as the Baptistry and it's famous Ghiberti's bronze doors, Giotto's bell tower and the Archbishop's Palace.
Galleria degli Uffizi
Holds the world's most important collection of Renaissance art. In the museum are the works of Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Da Vinci and Raphael.There are about 3100 works of art, about 1700 on display at a given time. Not to miss art works are Michelangelo's Doni Tondo, da Vinci's Annunciation, Fabriono's Adoration of the Magi and many more.
Florence, Medici and Renaissance indeed played a huge role in art, architecture, science and in molding the world as we know today. I was glad I got the tickets online in advance as the lines just to get in the museum were long.
Galleria dell' Accademia
Treasures Michelangelo's "David",easily the most famous sculpture in the world. There is also his Saint Matthew and the Four Slaves. Other highlights are Botticelli's Madonna and Child and Madonna of the Sea.The museum also holds extensive collection of 40 historic musical instruments.
Strolled over the bridge to the other side of the river into a beautiful and sprawling English garden on the hillside.
Is the largest palazzo owned by the Medici family. There are 8 different galleries in this palace. It is massive and can wear you down . Here you can take a trip back into time into three eras- Roman ruins, a Medieval fortress and an amazing Renaissance chambers and paintings.
Is a covered market which has been open to business since 11th century.You can find souvenirs along with leather handbags, belts and wallets, shoes and hats, shawls and scarfs and various other knickknacks.
The most famous attraction here is the Fontana del Porcellino, a bronze statue of a wild boar created by Pietro Tacca. Visitors rub the pig's snout for good luck. Also put a coin in his mouth, if the coin rolls into the grater where the water flows then your wish will be granted.
Is a bridge, an ancient one that survived the bombing during WWII.It is lined on both sides with shops mostly selling gold jewelry. Some of these jewelers have been here for generations. It is a lively place, busy and crowded with tourists, musicians, street sellers. However, the beauty of the bridge is to be admired from a distance with it's colors and reflection changing as the day goes by.
This square is on a hill in the Oltramo district that can be reached by climbing up some 150 stairs. The observation point on the square gives a panoramic views of the city often seen on postcards. I was there in the evening and it was amazing seeing the city bathing in the changing lights of a sunset.
The Piazzale honors the sculptor and artist Michelangelo. There are bronze replicas of Michelangelo's David as well as the four allegories of the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo.
Over 1000 items are in collection here, historic scientific instruments including large globes, stethoscopes,
Compass, telescopes and scientific measuring instruments are on display.
Piazza della Signoria
This is Florence's most popular square. It is dotted with statues, a fountain and important buildings.
Loggia dei Lanzi is a corner building with high open arches that has the statues of Medici Lions by Fancelli and Vacca.There is a copy of David in marble by Michelangelo in the same spot where an original stood for 69 years after it's completion in 1504. Next to it is Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli, a bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I de Medici and Rape of the Sabine women by Giambologna, Judith and Holofernes by Donatello, Persus with the head of Medusa by Cellini.The Fountain of Neptune is octagonal in shape with Neptune on a high pedestal designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati.
That's what I was awestruck by in Florence. The sheer scale of the buildings, paintings, statues and churches. It feels like being in Alice in Wonderland...where you feel dwarfed once you pass through the rabbit hole.
The painted ceilings. I have no idea how the Italian artists did it. But they love an ornate, fancy painted ceilings. I challenge you to walk around with your head thrown back and not have your mouth wide open and eyes popping out.
I'm not a Catholic, but I would light a candle and say a prayer when visiting such majestic churches and get humbled. I guess the spirituality that permeates brings you closer to God, can't deny the divine connection here.
Florence is all about the views. Dusk time is simply magical as the crowds thin out, you can watch the street musicians, wander around the romantic cobbled streets , watch men in their best tailored suits riding their bikes, admire women in high heels clattering on the pavements, talk to University students hanging out at cafés, oogle some more at the gorgeous architecture.
You will not want to leave this beautiful city.
Being Italy's business and commerce capital, Milan does not get painted with the same rustic charm beauty brush as other Italian destinations. However, Milan's Duomo is decidedly the most impressive structure. It covers almost an entire city block with a capacity for 40,000 people. It is the 4th largest cathedral in Europe -(in case your curiosity is piqued the other three are St.Peter's in Rome, St.Paul's Cathedral in London and Seville Cathedral in Spain.) It is more than 600 years old and has an amazing facade.The Gothic facade is adorned by 3159 statues of which 2245 are on the exterior, 52 spires, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures that decorate the pink hued marble facade. Inside is some pretty spectacular marble flooring, not to mention the jaw slackening splendor of the space as a whole. In the piazza was a sculpture of a giant apple with a patched up bite. It was part of the Expo Milan on Foods and Art exhibit. Also went to the Museo de Duomo where you can get up and close with the statues, gargoyles and Saints that adorn the Duomo.
Getting a bird's eye view of a city is my favorite thing to do, so I climbed the stairs to the roof top of the cathedral to capture the personality of the city and for an incredible view from above.
My other favorite view of Milan was from inside the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele,which is alongside the Duomo and competes with it for attention. The Galleria has a high curved glass and iron ceiling and a glistening marble, mosaic tiled floor. It is a splendid mall that has an ambiance of part Saks Fifth Avenue and part Vatican Palace. It houses exclusive stores such as Vittorio Emanuele, Louis Vuitton, David Campari, Gucci, Prada, Boss, Umberto Boccione and many more. It is a graceful, light-filled mall that offers some of the best people-watching in the world. And even if haute couture is not your kinda thing , it's worth the window shopping stroll. Well , Milan is definitely the fashion hub.
Next stop Da Vinci's " The Last Supper" which is in the dining room of a church Santa Maria della Grazie, and believed to be completed between 1495- 1498.The Last Supper is a painting and not a fresco which is 15 ft by 29 ft painted directly on a drywall and it is deteriorating fast. It has narrowly missed being destroyed from bombing during WWII. The paintings iconography was used as a central theme by author Dan Brown, native of Exeter, New Hampshire in his best seller "The Da Vinci Code" which was also made into a movie.
For the evening , I headed to the Navigli neighborhood which has a system of canals designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 17th century. It was once the lifeblood of Milan and today it lends historic charm to this lively part of town. I strolled around the picturesque waterway, wandered off into the streets and alleys that stem off from it and walked past all sorts of bohemian bars, restaurants, antique shops and art galleries immersing in the hipster atmosphere. This area offers a totally different vibe from the main city. Selected a restaurant and settled down for a dinner. The nightly ritual of Aperitivo- where a predinner drink morphs into a full flegded buffet of meats, cheese, risotto, pasta , canape and more. It is the happiest of the happy hours. Restaurants are crowded and humming at this time. .
Next day headed to Sforza castle which is home to seven museums which are dedicated to everthing from ancient art, 15th- 21st century wooden sculptures, prehistoric/ Egyptian archeology.
Another museum Biblioteca Ambrosiana has about 30,000 manuscripts exhibited. My go to section here was 1,750 drawings by Da Vinci, you guessed it he's my favorite scientist. I checked out his codex Atlanticus
Next stop was the Royal Palace of Milan, inside is a sweeping staircases and elegant halls designed by Luigi Vanvitelli in 1769. The leading artists of the time were commissioned to decorate the interiors.The most stunning room is the Hall of Caryatides which escaped the bombing during WWII unlike other parts of the Palace which were later restored. The palace is an eye candy adorned with beautifully decorated ceilings, chandeliers, murals and rich tapestries.
Milan very gracefully blends the old with the new.