Monday, October 31, 2011

San Marino City, San Marino

The independent country of San Marino, located inside of Italy, is a 210 km (~130 mile) drive from Florence.

It's capital city is also called San Marino and it's a beautiful town with winding, hilly, cobblestone streets. The historic center was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

The Basilica di San Marino is the town's main church and is located in the northeast part of the city. The Catholic church was built in 1836. It's next to the Church of St. Peter which was originally built in 600 AD.

The neo-Gothic Palazzo Pubblico is San Marino's town hall.

In front of the town hall is the Statue of Liberty. It was dedicated in 1876. Lady Liberty's crown features the three towers of Monte Titano.

Guaita was the first fortress built. It was carved out of the mountain in the 11th century. It was an important guard tower and for a brief time it served as a prison. This is the most impressive tower. However, from the second tower you get the best views of the first and third towers.

The second tower, Cesta, was built in the 13th century due to the Crusades. It is located on the highest of Mt. Titano's summits. Cesta houses a museum of antique weapons.

The third tower, Montale, is the smallest of the three towers and sits on the lowest peak. It was built in the 14th century. The first two towers are open to the public but the third tower is closed.

The three towers are worth exploring and offer great panoramic views. Unfortunately, it was kind of cloudy today but not enough to put a damper on the sightseeing.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Back to Florence, Italy

The third stop on our tour of Tuscany was Florence. I guess rubbing Porcellino's snout last year must have worked. Yeah Porcellino!!

Florence is the capital of Tuscany and is one of the world's most beautiful cities. It's no wonder why it's a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was so nice to come back even if only for a day.

My favorite square is still the Piazza della Signoria. You've got to love all of the free art.

Most people climb to the top of the Duomo for a great view of the city. The line was way too long today for a trip to the top.

However, the best panoramic view of Florence's famous sights, including the Duomo, is a 25-minute walk away at Piazzale Michelangelo, high above the city.

The square was built in 1869 and there's also a bronze copy of David here. Plus you don't have to pay €8 (~$10.50) to enjoy the view.

It was a great day in Florence. And you can be sure that I went back to rub Porcellino's snout to insure another visit.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Siena, Italy

After San Gimignano, our second stop of the day was Siena. During the Middle Ages it was an independent city-state until it was defeated by Florence. Afterwards, for a few hundred years, it was so poor that it could not afford to tear down its medieval buildings and replace them with more modern ones. Today, it is a beautifully preserved city right in the heart of Tuscany. Siena was built on three hills, has winding cobbled streets, and is more or less still surrounded by 13th century walls. The historic center was declared a UNESCO Word Heritage site.

The Piazza del Campo is one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. It is shaped like a shell with scalloped edges. This is where the Palazzo Publico (city hall) and the Torre del Mangia are. At 102 meters (334 feet), the bell tower is the city's second tallest structure. When it was built in 1848 it was the exact same height of the Duomo to show that the state and church had equal amounts of power. We wanted to visit the tower but unfortunately we got there right after it closed. Next time.

The white marble Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) was built in 1419. The original is in a museum somewhere in the city. However, the fountain in the square, which all of the tourists take pictures of, is an exact replica of the original from the mid-19th century.

The Cathedrale di Santa Maria is Siena's cathedral and is simply called Duomo. It was completed in the 13th century. In the 14th century, work began to make the Duomo as grand as St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. However, the plague put an end to that effort in 1348.

It is gorgeous!!
The façade is white, red and a dark greenish-black marble. The interior has the same greenish-black and white marble. The main attraction inside is the marble inlaid floor with ornate mosaics that cover the entire floor.

Inside is the Piccolomini Library with beautiful frescoes and old choir books.

Il Battistero di San Giovanni
is the baptistery. The 14th century building is right behind Il Duomo.

During the Middle Ages, Italian cities were made of districts/wards called contrade. Siena used to have 59 contrade but consolidation over time has left the city with 17. Each of the 17 contrade has its own name, coat of arms, traditional colors, etc.

Siena is best known for the Palio a horse race that is held twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th. Ten horses and riders, dressed in the colors of each respective contrada, race against each other. The race is bareback, three times around the Piazza del Campo and lasts about 90 seconds.

Only 10 of the 17 contrade get to participate in each race. The honor goes to the seven that didn't get to ride in the previous Palio and three more chosen in a drawing. I've heard that the pageantry and rivalries between the contrade are not to be missed. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll be back in Siena again on a July 2nd or August 16th.

It was 72 km (~45 miles) from Siena to Florence. The drive through Tuscany this afternoon was so beautiful!!

San Gimignano, Italy

Last night, Miran, his friend Brane, and I began our Italian road trip to Tuscany and San Marino. We left Murska Sobota at 6 pm and spent the night in Monselice. It's in northeast Italy, about 20 km (12 miles) from Padua, near Bologna and Venice. We didn't have any time to explore Monselice but it looked like a cute little town and I'll be sure to put it on the list of places to visit. Possibly next year since I hope to visit Venice in 2012. Anyway...moving on.

From Monselice we made our way down to Tuscany. Our first stop of the day was the small town of San Gimignano. The town looks like a little medieval metropolis with its 14 preserved stone towers. San Gimignano is sometimes called the "Medieval Manhattan".

The city was founded in the 3rd century BC by the Etruscans. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance era it was an important stop for Catholic pilgrims on the way to Rome and the Vatican. The city did well until 1348 when, like the rest of Europe, it was hit hard by the plague. It wasn't until the 19th century that San Gimignano became popular as a tourist destination.

San Gimignano is a beautiful hilltop city but you can pretty much see everything in just a few hours. At the Piazza del Duomo is the cathedral, town hall and the Torre Grossa.

The best part for me was the Torre Grossa which, at 177 feet, is the tallest tower in town. Once you climb up to the top of the bell tower you have a great view of the city and the surrounding vineyards.

In 1990, San Gimignano's historic city center was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

One of the best things about being in a car, as opposed to taking a bus tour, was that we were able to explore the surrounding hills to find a great view of the town's towers.

After we took all of our photos it was time to drive about 45 minutes to Siena.

Rick Steves does a far better tour that I do so here's his video on San Gimignano which I found out on YouTube. Enjoy!

©Rick Steves

Friday, October 28, 2011

Murska Sobota, Slovenia

Murska Sobota, with around 15,000 residents, is the largest city in the Prekmurje region of Slovenia. It is the northernmost town in Slovenia. It's 30 minutes from Maribor but only 10 km (6.2 miles) from Austria, 20 km from Hungary and 30 km from Croatia.

It's a quiet little town but there are a few things worth checking out.

The Church of St. Nicholas was built in the 13th century. In 2006, it became the cathedral of the new Roman Catholic Diocese of Murska Sobota.

The Neo-Gothic Evangelical Church was built in 1910.

Across from the Evangelical Church is a nice city park.

This is also where to find the local 13th century Renaissance style castle which is home to the Regional Museum of Murska Sobota. I'll hit the castle on a future visit.

In the center of town is Trg zmage (Victory Square) and the Victory Monument which was a gift from the Soviet Union. It commemorates the Soviet Army which liberated the town from Nazi occupation in May 1945. It features statues of a Red Army officer and a partisan, with cannons on the side and a star on top.

Like I said, it is a very small town. I loved the yellow bicycles that the post men use to deliver the mail.

There wasn't enough time today to make it to the train station. In January 2010, the first Holocaust memorial in Slovenia was unveiled. It is dedicated to all of the Jews that were exiled from Prekmurje during WWII. I'll be sure to see it next time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Prekmurje, Slovenia

I'm headed back to Slovenia tomorrow. I will change trains in Vienna and then Miran will pick me up in Maribor. From there it's just a half hour drive to Murska Sobota the regional capital of Prekmurje.

Prekmurje is in the north east part of the country. The name means "over the River Mura" which separates this region from the rest of Slovenia.

The region is located near both the Austrian and Hungarian borders. There are Hungarian and Roma (Gypsy) communities here but the majority of residents are ethnic Slovenians. Prior to WWII, there was a large Jewish community.

The majority of people here speak Prekmurščina which is a dialect of Slovenian. People here have no problem understanding Slovenian. However, the people in the rest of Slovenia have a really difficult time understanding Prekmurščina.

I believe that the region is best known for Prekmurska gibanica (Prekmurian layer cake). It's a pastry made with layers of poppy seeds, walnuts, raisins, cottage cheese and apples. It sounds super sweet but I'll be sure to give it a try.

If you look at a map, the shape of the country sort of resembles a chicken. Residents consider Prekmurje to be the "head of the chicken" and people in Murska Sobota consider their city to be the chicken's brain. I guess I'll see.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Republic of San Marino

The Republic of San Marino is the 3rd smallest country in Europe, after the Vatican and Monaco. Like the Vatican, it is an independent country located inside of Italy. The entire country is 61 sq km (~24 sq miles). It is about 1/3rd the size of Washington, DC. It has a population close to 32,000 and the capital city is Città di San Marino.

Founded in 301 AD, it is the world's oldest republic. The country's constitution was enacted in 1600 making it the world's oldest constitution still in effect. Oddly enough, it had the world's 1st democratically elected communist government from 1945 to 1957, and then again from 2006 to 2008.

San Marino is not a member of the EU but it is a member of the Eurozone. Euro coins issued in San Marino tend to be popular collector's items.

The entire country is hilly. The highest point is Monte Titano. San Marino is best known for its three towers Guaita, Cesta, and Montale, built on Mount Titano.

In 2008, Mount Titano and the historic center were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

On Thursday, I'm headed back to Slovenia to visit this really nice guy I met while on vacation. We're then taking a short road trip to Tuscany (San Gimignano, Siena, and Florence) and San Marino. This will make San Marino the 24th country I will have been to since moving to Europe. I wonder what #25 will be. But one step at a time.

Here's a short Rick Steve's video on San Marino that I found out on YouTube.

©Rick Steves

Monday, October 24, 2011

Expat Tram Ride

The Brno Expat Centre is an NGO that was founded here in Brno a little over a year ago. It's goal is to help make the transition to living in Brno a little easier. If only the information that they provide had been available when I first moved here in 2009. Of course, then settling in here might not have been as big of an adventure as it was.

The good folks there organized a free tram ride tour, for yesterday, through the city. Even though it was an RSVP event way more people showed up there were planned for. But it was still a good time.

We met up at a tram stop near Lužánky park. Our private tram then took us around town to several different points in the city where we got to mingle with other expats. It was cool to find some new places worth checking out.