Stirling Castle & Mary, Queen of Scots

We took the train to Stirling to see Stirling Castle.  The train station was small and nicely designed. The train was very economical; it was only $16 for both of to go and return. The trip took about 50 minutes.Stirling Castel train small We walked up the hill (which we regretted as it was straight up) to the church of the Holy Rude  (means  Holy Cross).  We decided to look inside and catch our breath. church of the holy rood small  As with most old ( it dates from the  15th century) churches in Scotland, this one was a Roman Catholic church until the reformation.  Now it is part of the church of Scotland.  It is a place where  in 1567 the infant King James VI was crowned.   After exploring this church and graveyard, we walked up to the castle.  Here is a map of the castle; map of stirling castle smallThe castle sits on the top of Castle Hill with 3 steep sides for protection. Most of the principal buildings of the castle date from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1542 Mary, Queen of Scots was crowned in the castle.

What you see now when you visit the castle is  buildings that were constructed between 1490 and 1600, when Stirling was developed as a principal royal center by the Stewart Kings James IV, James V and James VI. The great hall was painted gold which was a surprise as we are used to the gray stone look of most old castles.  Stirling Castle great hall small We were told by the tour guide that all of the buildings would have been painted gold to show people the power of the Steward kings. Inside the castle (restored to the time of 1540s) you can see many examples of King James V’s desire to show visitors that he was the glorious king of Scotland.  Almost every room has a large and colorful coat of arms over the fireplaces.Stirling Castle james mary arms small  Here is a photo of the throne room of James’ queen, Mary of Guise ; Stirling Castle Mary guise throne 5x7They were the parents of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s father James V died when she was only six days old, leaving an infant queen on the throne. Her coronation was held nine months later at Stirling, one of the most secure places in the kingdom.She would spend most of her childhood here and return frequently during her adult reign.

Here are two views from the castle. You can see why it was such a secure place to keep the infant queen.Stirling Castle view smallstirling castle view 1  small I have always been intrigued by the sad story of Mary, Queen of Scots and it was moving to be in the same castle and rooms that she lived in during part of her life.  This is one of the reasons that travel is so valuable.  Now when I read the history or see a film about Mary, I can put her life in the place where she lived.

Wells Cathedral is a timeless beauty

We had heard that Wells was a wonderful little city to visit, but it was so much more beautiful than we expected.  The springs of water flowing from the earth have made this landscape a place of spiritual force from the early mists of Britain . Here is a photo of the water gushing out of one of the springs behind the Bishop’s Palace. wells Cathedral spring small The cathedral was built from about the 12th to the 14th centuries.  It has managed to hold up well without too many repairs. It is an imposing Gothic church.  wells cathedral small There are several medieval abbots (from about 1066 onward) that are buried inside the church.  This abbot had a 2 tiered memorial.  On the top is a body sculpture of him in his robes of office. Symbolizing his earthly power.abbot memorial wells cathedral small But just below this edifice he had a sculpture of his body in death.  Brought to the same level as all of us no matter our wealth or power in life.wells cathedral death small  It is surprising when you go to see the Bishop’s Palace which is located next to the cathedral.  Around 1330 the bishop felt the need to have a real castle built for his safety.  So he put up a wall, draw bridge and a moat for his protection.wells bishop castle small A bishop at this time was as powerful as a lord of the land.

We loved our visit to Wells.  If you get a chance you should go to see this gem of a city.  I will leave you with just one of the flowers that are planted in bowls wells flower pink yellow small all over the high street.

Goddesses at the Glastonbury Music Festival

Well, it has been raining on and off all week here in Somerset.  The Glastonbury Music Festival will be starting this week and I hope it stops for all those 135,000 people who will be camping.  We went back to Glastonbury Abbey to hear a moving concert by the Churchill Singers.  They sang Medieval and Sacred music in the 14th century Abbot’s kitchen.  churchill singers They are a very talented group and gave us a moving concert.  The acoustics in the circular building was excellent.  They even brought a  harpsichord with them and we were gifted with some 16th century music played by their director.harpiscord hands small I walked the gardens and looked at the lake in the abbey’s grounds.  I came across this baby duck trying to hide in the bushes. I thought it was a funny duck butt small Glastonbury was getting ready for the festival.  People were walking around in long skirts and flowers in their hair ( though I think it would be more fun without the sweaters).  glastonbury window gypsy small Goddesses are welcome here glastonbury goddess house smallMystic lady & dog small  I hope we can go back sometime next week and see what the town looks like in full festival regalia.  Stay tuned.


See the real Downton Abbey at Dunster Castle

We used our National Trust membership to pay for parking and entrance into Dunster Castle (saved about £25 by using our membership).  This is a real castle that has survived since 1066 when William the Conqueror gave William de Mohun the area of Somerset to defend.  De Mohun built a timber keep that was soon replaced by a stone keep.  But by the end of the 14th century the de Mohun family had to sell the house to the Luttrell family.  This clever and resourceful family managed to keep the castle until  1976, when they gave it to the National Trust and the people of England.Dunster castle small The castle was kept in the same family for over 600 years.  They continued to add on and improve the inside of the castle over time.

They only damage from war was incurred in 1650 during the English Civil War. The defensive walls of the castle were torn down by 300 men so that the castle could not be a problem again to Cromwell. This is what happens when you chose to support  the wrong side of  a civil war. Luckily, the Luttrells convinced the new government to leave the great gatehouse ( medieval construction ) and a couple of  wall towers. From the size of the gatehouse you can guess how big the walls were.Dunster guard house  small Here is all that is left on one of the tower walls.Dunster guard tower smallThe inside of the castle was turned into a Victorian manor house in the 1860s.  You can tour the inside of the house and see how upstairs compared to downstairs life.  Upstairs, the rooms are large and well furnished.  Here is the drawing room where the family would read and talk.Dunster drawingroom small There are bell ringers around the room to call the servants upstairs to wait upon them.  Here is what that system looked like downstairs in the mud room.Dunster castle  call board smallYou will recognize this bell board from Downton Abbey on TV.  Each bell had a slightly different tone and the poor hall boy (who worked cleaning everything in the mud room) would have to run to get the person who needed to respond to the bell.  If you look, you will see that there is a pendulum that is attached to the bell.  It would swing for about a minute in case the boy did not recognize the tone, or was out of the room for a moment!

Upstairs when there was a dinner party the butler and footmen would set the table.  Here is the crystal , china and the silverware at each place setting.  Dunster castle place setting smallThere must have been a lot of cleaning up for the scullery maid that night.  Here is her sink.Dunster castle downstairs sink small If she broke any of that expensive dinnerware it came out of her tiny wages.  But she only had 1/2 day off every month, so she did not have much time to spend it anyway.  They did eventually install a dumb waiter so the footmen did not have to climb so many stairs.  It had to have a steel door because of a fire that happened in another great home.Dunster castle dumb waiter small  But even if they were rich upstairs, they only had one toilet and one bathtub for the entire castle.  It was the first flushing toilet in Somerset.Dunster castle toilet small  It was an eyeopener to compare how each half lived in the castle/manor home.  It was great fun to see it all in person.    It was a time of graceful living if you were in the upper class.Dunster castle fountain 5x7 small We were off the next day to Tonbridge for our next pet sitting assignment.

Lucca, Italy; the Villa Guinigi story 1413 – 1430 (a national museum)

One thing that I admire about the Italian culture is their sense of history and preservation of their historical buildings.   They do not tear down old buildings but refurbish them to be used in a modern way.  This is exemplified by the apartment we are living in.  This is probably an 18th century building that has been divided into 4 apartments.  New walls and  IKEA- ized inside, and you have a building that is historical but practical to live in.lucca apartment small kitchen

The same is true of the Villa Guinigi National Museum. lucca villa Guinigi outside small This villa was built as the “pleasure palace”  (translate summer fun) for Paolo Guinigi’s family in 1413 just outside the medieval city walls of Lucca, and practically next door to our building.  It is a large, graceful villa with an extensive front and back garden which were behind fortified walls. Lucca Villa Guinigi model small ( This is a wooden model of what it looked like in 1420) Paolo was the city’s richest and most powerful man from 1400-1430.Lucca Villa Guinigi portrait small ( This is what he looked like, not the nicest looking man)  He had 4 wives ( the beautiful Ilaria that I wrote about earlier was his second wife) and many children.  When the citizens of Lucca decided that they wanted to return to being a republic in 1330  they arrested Paolo and threw him in prison where he died 3 years later.  They confiscated all of his property ( including this villa) and everything was sold.  Luckily, the city in 1924 decided to purchase it, repair it, and make it a museum with art and artifacts from Lucca’s history.  In 1948  it became a state property and the current exhibits were arranged for the public.

Almost no one knows about this excellent museum.  When I was there I was the only person looking at it.  They have a good collection of Roman art,Lucca Villa Guinigi 1 ad Roman artLucca Villa Guinigi 8th century art small medieval art Lucca Villa Guinigi 7th century soldier smallLucca Villa Guinigi medieval cross smalland baroque ( this is not my favorite so there are no photos of it).  In the back garden this is a well which all medieval fortified homes had to have in case they had to hole up behind the walls for a while. Lucca Villa Guinigi 15th century well small It gives the viewer a good over view of the history of this place.   I highly recommend it if you are in Lucca for more than a day.

Pisa, Italy: a visit to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the Field of Miracles, Campo dei Miracoli

We took the bus from Lucca to Pisa today (6 euros each for a round trip). It took about one hour to get there.  It was hot today; 86 degrees and humid.  Not the best time to sightsee but that is what the weather can be like here in Northern Italy.  The bus dropped us off right in front of the big gate into the “wide walled area located in Pisa, Tuscany, Italy, recognized as an important center of European medieval art and one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. Considered a sacred area by its owner, the Catholic Church, the square is dominated by four great religious edifices: the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery).” ( Wikipedia ).  Here is a photograph that I took as we entered the complex.Pisa field of miracles small This shows the Baptistry, the Duomo (cathedral) and the bell tower (the leaning tower) in the background.  We bought our tickets (8 euros each for all the buildings except the tower) and went to the baptistry first. It is the largest baptistry in Italy.  Pisa field of miracles baptistry small It was begun in 1153 but it was not finished until the 14th century.  The octagonal font at the center dates from 1246 and it is the largest one I have ever seen.  I climbed up to the top gallery to take a photo of it. Pisa field of miracles baptistry font smallThere is a statue of John the Baptist in the center and it is so deep that you can have an adult do full immersion.  The little side fonts were for babies.  The acoustics in the building are remarkable and every half an hour one of the staff sings in the center under the dome to demonstrate that.

We next went to the Duomo (cathedral).  Pisa field of miracles duomo small“The heart of the Piazza del Duomo is the Duomo, the medieval cathedral of the Archdiocese of Pisa, entitled to Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption). This is a five-naved cathedral with a three-naved transept.” (Wikipedia)  It is stunningly big and beautiful.  They began building it in 1092.  Here is a photo of the inside, it is not that sharp because the inside of the church is dark;Pisa field of miracles duomo inside small  There is 
an impressive mosaic, in the apse of the church, of Christ in Majesty, flanked by the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Evangelist.  This mosaic sparkles even in the dim light of the church.Pisa field of miracles duomo apse mosaic  small
After the church we went to the Campo Santo or the Camposanto Monumentale ( monumental cemetery).Pisa field of miracles Campo Santo copy This cemetery was built over an earlier one. It is a huge, oblong Gothic cloister that was begun in 1278 .  It was completed in 1464.  There are 43 arches in the building.  Most of the tombs are marble slabs set into the floor. Pisa field of miracles campo santo inside small Like this one for a knight in 1413.Pisa field of miracles campo santo 1413 tomb small There are 84 Roman sarcophagi left in the halls. Pisa field of miracles Campo Santo roman tomb small
And finally we went to look at the famous leaning tower of Pisa.  It is actually the bell tower for the cathedral.  The construction of the bell tower began in 1173 and took place in three stages over the course of 177 years, with the bell-chamber only added in 1372.  But there were problems that began to show 5 years into the building by the time they reached the 3rd floor.   The subsoil was weak and there was a poor foundation so the tower was sinking on the south side.  So they left it alone for a century and the ground settled.  They eventually added 4 more floors and the tower was leaning by one degree in 1372.  In 1990 that had turned into 5.5 degrees and they closed the tower and took 10 years trying to figure out how to keep it from collapsing.  You can read about it online.  I actually climbed the tower when I visited Pisa in 1987 before it was closed.  David decided that he did not need the pleasure of the 300 stairs today so he passed up the opportunity ( it now costs 18 euros to climb and you only get 30 minutes to climb up and down).Pisa field of miracles leaning tower small They have stabilized it again and people can climb it now but who knows for how long?
We found a Subway in Pisa and had a sandwich before boarding our bus back home.  It was a great adventure and it should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Lucca and a visit to its Duomo

Lucca’s main claim to fame is its intact 4-mile Renaissance wall that completely encircles the city.  This wall took a hundred years to build from the 15th to the 16th century, and it was never used to defend the city from outside attack.  But it was turned into a wonderful tree-lined promenade that many people in the city walk, run or bicycle around in the evening before sunset.  We have joined them in this relaxing tradition since we arrived.  Lucca walls small Lucca wall walk small Since the old town has been completely enclosed, much of it has retained the 11th to 15th century buildings.  The streets are still medieval and are so narrow that they can only be driven one way.  Many people use bicycles to get around and have eliminated the need for a car.  There are arches in the roads that lead to plazasLucca street vault small and there are 12th century wall plaques like this. Lucca 12th cent wall icon small

There are not many famous sites here so we are really living in this city, not touring it. The pace of this adventure has slowed down a lot.

There is a 12th century cathedral on the edge of the wall that continued to be built and renovated until the 15th century. It is  called St. Martin’s.  We walked there today to see it. Due to the 300 years of building, the cathedral has  architecture and styles from many periods that some how blend harmoniously together. lucca St. Martin  cathedral Here it is with its bell tower on the side. It is a Gothic arrangement with 3 aisles and a transept. You can understand how medieval people were overwhelmed by the sheer size of the church.  On the outside there are various statues and panels.  This one of a lion and another creature is very strange.  Neither David or I could figure out what he is doing.lucca St. Martin  cathedral  lion small  There are also 12 panels demonstrating the medieval tasks of each month of the year on the outside. lucca St. Martin  cathedral  month 10 small lucca St. Martin  cathedral month 12 small  From these images I would guess that you were supposed to store the wine in October and kill the livestock in December.

Inside the church there is a monument  to a beautiful young woman named Ilaria del Carretto who died when she was only 26 .  She was married at 24 to the town’s richest man, Paolo Guinigi, and they had two children.  She died giving birth to the second child. Her husband had Jacopo della Quercia, a famous sculptor, make her tomb.  He did a beautiful job as you can see.Ilaria The irony is that she is not buried in the sarcophagus but in the Guinigi chapel in another church.  She was Guinigi’s second wife, and he went on to marry 2 more times.  It was a short life for women, even ones in the upper classes.

After visiting the cathedral we went next door to the museum, where they display liturgical vestments, silver and gold vessels and ornamentation, and some tapestries from the last 800 years … in a building that’s about 500 years old itself. It was a warm afternoon and we heard some gelato calling, so we headed for home … never a long trek in this tiny town.

Left Florence today; arrived by bus in Lucca, Italy

We were sad to leave Florence this morning by bus but were looking forward to Lucca.  We met some nice people on the bus who were also going to Lucca.  They were from Australia and we talked all the way there.

Lucca is a small walled town nearer the west coast of Italy.  We rented a 2 bedroom 1.5 bath apartment that is inside the walls but at the edge of the town. The cost is $1400 for the month.  We are hoping for a quieter time here.  There are no important places to visit so we will be taking day trips out of the city to go to places like Pisa, and the lake district.  The idea is to see what it is like to just live here in Italy.

Our apartment is nice but there is a slight smell of cigarette smoke in the rooms.  I am hoping that I either get used to it or it goes away.  The only other problem is the almost vertical set of 32 stairs that go straight up 3 floors (no lift).  I am used to stairs (there were 60 in Florence, but they were not so steep, and there was a lift for when we had supplies, etc.) but these are so steep that I have to hold on tight to the little railing. lucca apartment small stairs We were spoiled in Florence since the apartment there was centrally located next to the market and the supermarket.

Well here are some photos of the apartment.lucca apartment small bathroom 1 lucca apartment small bedroom 2 lucca apartment small bedroom lucca apartment small kitchen

One thing that we have figured out since starting this adventure in January is that we can live simply in a much smaller space than at home.  We have also figured out that we can live for about the same cost (or maybe even a little less) in a major European city like Florence.  We still love each other and do not find the constant companionship difficult.  This adventure has been easier than we expected.  It is kind of hard only since we have a large house and maintenance costs at home that still demand our attention over a 9 hours time difference.

Bus day trip from Florence to San Gimignano, Italy medieval city of towers

We took a day trip to San Gimignano from Florence today.  We took the regional bus that cost us 13.60 euros each to take the round trip.  Tip for those who are taking bus day trips in Tuscany, get to the bus station early to buy your ticket and get on your bus.  The bus is normally there early and the first people on it get the best seats ( if there are not enough seats you need to wait for the next bus which can be an hour later).  This bus took us to a train station in the town of  Poggibonsi, where we had to wait about a half hour for another bus that would take us to San Gimignano ( the trip to the city took about 2 hours).

It’s pretty easy to navigate the bus system, as a lot of it is automated. Many stops have electronic signs that announce expected arrivals and departures (but I suspect they’re just schedules, and if your bus is late it won’t be reflected on the sign). This one is at the transfer point in Poggibonsi, and gives the schedule time, route, destination, and boarding area for each bus expected soon.

San Gimignano bus schedule small

San Gimignano is a medieval time capsule with 12 tower homes still in place.  In the 11th through 12th century rich people built tall tower homes with few windows and wooden stairways. San Gimignano towers small If they were attacked by other city states or sadly from other people in the town that they were feuding with, they burnt the stairway into the tower.  As they ran up the ladders for each floor, they pulled the ladders up with them until they were in the stronghold in the top of the tower where they stayed hopefully safe from the bad guys. In the 12th and 13th centuries there were about 72 tower homes in the town.   The Florentines attacked them in the 14th century and made them take down all but 12 towers . The black death came to the town and its population went from 13,000 people to about 4,000 people.  The town never recovered but stayed in a medieval time warp.  Now that time warp is the main tourist attraction.  Here is the main city gates that we arrived at with the bus.San Gimignano town gate  small

When you walk in the town it is like you are in the 14th century again.  The buildings have remained the same ; some of them like the town hall were built in 1245 and they are still in use.  Here are some photos; these two towers are the oldest remaining ones in SG. around the 10th century.  They are still standing and you can even spend the night in one of the rooms,San Gimignano twin towers  small  Most of the plazas had a well in the center for water when the town was under siege.  Here is the well in the city hall.San Gimignano well small  The tallest tower house that you can climb the 200 stairs to the top is called the Torre Grossa.  It is 177 ft tall and was built in 1300.  We decided to look at it from the bottom as I am afraid of heights.San Gimignano Torre Grossa tower small  The Duomo or main church is called the Collegiata.  It has a beautiful set of frescoes painted in the 14th century.  We purchased a ticket and went into the church but they did not allow any photos inside. Here is a photo of the plain outside of the building. San Gimignano Collegiata church small We had a late lunch in a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves called Locanda di Sant,Agostino.  We had the sausage pizza which is like a tortilla with cheese, tomato sauce and a little bit of sausage on it.  But it was filling and the service was good.  Here is David tasting the white wine that the town is famous for. San Gimignano Dave dinner small When you walk off the main street into the side streets you can almost imagine you are in the  14th century.  Here are some photos; San Gimignano medieval street small San Gimignano oldest towers small San Gimignano street vault smallSan Gimignano entry into town small  This is a hill town and so there were wonderful views of the Tuscan landscape like this one; San Gimignano landscape  small  The bus rides home took only 1.5 hours and we were quite happy to see our little apartment in Florence.

The Fiorita Commemoration of the burning of the monk Savonarola Medieval costume parade in Florence

People in Italy do a great job dressing up in medieval costumes and having parades on special commemorative days.  In addition to colorful costumes there are flags and drums.   “Every May in Florence flowers are donated in memory of the Dominican friar, Fra’ Girolamo Savonarola”.Savonarola Fiorita flowers small

Savonarola had a complex, love-hate, nine-year relationship with Florence and her rulers, but things kind of came to a head and he was hanged, his body burned, and his ashes thrown into the Arno in 1498, along with 2 other friars accused of being heretics and speaking against the corrupt pope.Girolamo_Savonarola (He does not look like a happy man)

“The Fiorita Commemoration takes place at the circular plaque embedded in the stones in Piazza Signoria, at the very spot in the square where this historic event took place.

Just as the townspeople had done the morning after the death of the preacher, today the citizens of Florence leave flowers for Savonarola who dominated the Florence republic from 1494 to 1498.

The ceremony is followed by a procession in period costumes leading to the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge that Savonarola’s ashes were scattered from. ” ( from The Florence Web page the photos are mine).  Savonarola Fiorita commemoration small Savonarola Fiorita drummers small Savonarola Fiorita flags small Girolamo Savonarola (Italian:  21 September 1452 – 23 May 1498) was an Italian Dominican friar and preacher active in Renaissance Florence. He was known for his prophecies of civic glory, the destruction of secular art and culture, and his calls for Christian renewal. ( wikipedia)  He also preached that the Pope in Rome ( Alexander VI ) was corrupt .  This was true; Alexandra was the Borgia pope who had 3 of his children and his current mistress living with him in the Vatican.  But on the other hand, Savonarola was responsible for inspiring Florentine people  to burn their ancient books , jewelry and art treasures in his  Bonfire of the Vanities. Unfortunately for Savonarola, the Pope had more power and people were tired of being told they were terrible sinners for enjoying life.