2009 Otha Turner Family Goat BBQ Picnic

I was fortunate enough to experience a precious echo of an old Southern tradition yesterday, attending this year’s Otha Turner Family Goat Barbecue Picnic outside of Senatobia, Mississippi.

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The picnic is an annual event held by the Turner family to help keep the memory alive of Otha Turner, a classic Mississippi hill country fife blues player that died in 2003 after a long, influential career. Fife and drum blues is not known well far beyond the South (mostly around Memphis and northwest Georgia), but it is one of the most traditional forms of the blues, with the use of instruments similar to those known in Africa to recently arrived slaves. While the standard, guitar-driven blues is more familiar, fife and drum blues (particularly those played with a traditional bamboo fife) can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It is a more stripped-down sound, often performed with no lyrics, where the fife player usually directs the drummers, which are playing snare, tom, or base drums, to carry a particular beat, while the fife plays over it.

The crowd this year was smaller than last year, according to some folks we talked to who attended the past few years, probably due to a North Mississippi All-Stars show at the Shell in Memphis. (The All-Stars have a big following in the area and have played the picnic in the past.) However, while there were fewer folks this year, the weather was excellent and the music was original and inspired.

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The house to the right has the porch where the performers used to play, in years past. The old timers from the area staked out their spots early on the traditional porch. Everyone else needs to bring their own chair or blanket.

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Frank and Steve really enjoyed the day. (Thanks to Steve and Leigh for bringing this event to our attention…)

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Frank may look serious in this picture, but he definitely had a good time. And a goat BBQ sandwich, which we all tried. Yum! Canned beer was $2, the goat and pork BBQ sandwiches were $3.50, and you could even buy a fife for the kids that want to participate and learn a new skill.

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The highlight of the evening, for me, is the fife and drum group that forms around sunset. They slowly move around the farm, playing and pausing, while the crowd floats around them, soaking it in. Kids that bought fifes joined in, mimicking the soloist, while the drums beat out an ancient rhythm. Magical. I dare you to just stand nearby and not start moving.

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I hope I get the email next year announcing the event. This is something I definitely want to attend again.

The Pantheon and a Brush with Power

Near the Vatican is impressive Castel Sant’ Angelo, which has been a castle, fortress, and prison for various popes over the years. The Ponte Sant’ Angelo in front of the castle is a beautiful bridge, full of very statues in dramatic poses.

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We stumbled across the city, bouncing from gelateria to shoe store, eventually ending up at the Pantheon, which is one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever been in. Most impressive is the concrete dome, poured in place with scaffolding, which is one of the first uses of concrete and definitely one of the earliest examples of concrete that still exists and is useful today, more than 1900 years after it was built.

Even Kath was impressed…

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After seeing the sights in the Pantheon, I went outside to rest and soon heard a commotion nearby. Thinking that someone may have been hit by a car, Kath and I joined the crowd streaming that direction. Instead of a traffic accident, we got a picture of Prime Minister Berlusconi emerging from a gelateria with a big cone full of the good stuff, looking very happy and flanked by a dozen security guards that melted into their vehicles when it was time to speed away.

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To make sure that we come back to Rome, we had to make a final stop at the tourist mecca, the Trevi Fountain. Kath drew the short straw and got picked to throw the coin over her shoulder in the fountain, which is a tradition that is supposed to bring you back to Rome at some point in the future. It was quick and painless, and we got out of there.

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Rome was much more than I was expecting, and the trip, as a whole, was even more enjoyable than I could have hoped for. We had a blast, and I hope to return to Italy someday and explore another set of niches of the country, such as Sicily, Lake Como, Cinque Terre, or Milan.

Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum

Where the Vatican gets you, so far as money is concerned, is the Sistine Chapel. I would estimate that the Sistine Chapel is, easily, the thing most people want to see in Vatican City, as it has images that some of the most beautiful and recognizable among any in Rome. I mean, that ceiling is something else, and the folks that run Catholicism aren’t stupid. They know a revenue opportunity when they see one.

So, what did they do? Well, even though the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica are right beside one another, they’ve set up a system where you have to enter the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, and it costs 14 euro per person to enter the Vatican Museum. Also, because you are so far from the Sistine Chapel once you enter the Vatican Museum, you have to walk half-way across Vatican City, twice, to get back and forth from the Sistine Chapel.

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What’s the good news? Well, for one, it’s worth it. Also, while you are trapped in the Vatican museum, the other exhibits are pretty good and worth seeing, and the cafeteria isn’t a rip off. All in all, it is still a must-do when you are in the area, but just try to put all the pointless walking out of your mind. At least you are walking down beautiful (but extremely long) corridors that look like this:

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Once you get to the Sistine Chapel, the hallway narrows and you have to kinda squeeze through a little door to make it inside. Once there, you aren’t supposed to (1) say anything or (2) take pictures. However, everyone there (and it is usually standing room only) is doing both of those things, just about has loud and fast as they can.

The tourist-factor aside, the ceiling and walls (and just general architecture of the place) are amazing.

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We visited in 2009, a few years beyond a reconditioning of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and the colors were so vibrant, so alive, the painting really spoke to you, even with the tourist throng all around and the ushers coming in ever few minutes and yelling, “Silencio!”

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The paintings extend down to the walls from the ceiling, with some characters in one painting bleeding over into another scene. The optical illusions must have taken years to perfect.

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Outside, we found one of those wonderful, free, clean water spigots that are located all over Rome. While most folks just filled up their water bottles, I drank the cool water straight from the source. Yum!

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We went to several very good exhibits and ate lunch there, and finally, we were ready to move on and see some more of Rome. The stairs as you leave the Vatican Museum were a final treat though. Quite trippy going down…

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I really enjoyed the figurines on the stairwell railing.

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Next up, we headed back into Rome and across the city.

It’s Holy, See?

We only had one full day in Rome, and we were determined to make the most of it. One place that seemed like it would provide a lot of bang for the buck is the Vatican, so we took the metro from the train station and zoomed under the city to the doorstep of the Vatican Museum.

As you are probably aware, the Vatican is a city within a city. Rome completely surrounds it, and while there is no document check to move from Rome to the Vatican, you can certainly feel the difference. Many buildings in the Vatican are visible from Rome. This is the view of St. Peter’s Basilica from the Ponte Sant’ Angelo.

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Once you enter St. Peter’s Square, the immensity of the place really hits you. So much of Rome is made up of tiny little streets that crash into each other in seemingly random ways. It can be like a jungle, where you can’t see any landmarks and you aren’t sure which way is north or, even, which way you came from, if you turn around.

This is not a problem in St. Peter’s Square. The obelisk and fountain, plus the statues that surround the place, will help to remind you exactly where you are. And, if you get lost, some helpful (and colorful) Vatican guards will gladly show you the way.

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The front of St. Peter’s Basilica also gives a little foreshadowing of how big it will be in side. Those little specks at the bottom of this picture are people trying to get in the main entrance.

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Inside, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff, including a dead pope.

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Katherine got to touch the foot of St. Peter’s statue (a traditional Catholic ritual), while I gazed away at the amazing dome above it all.

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When I turned off the flash and cranked up the exposure, I got a nice shot of light coming in the center of the dome.

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St. Peter’s Basilica is free to visit, but be aware that there is a very strict dress code. No shorts are allowed, or dresses higher than the knee, or any shirt that exposes the shoulders or is too revealing. We saw several folks pointlessly arguing with the Vatican guards, seeking entrance when they were wearing totally appropriate clothes for a 41 degree Celsius day in Rome that didn’t meet the Vatican standards. Some of these folks were pretty angry, so be sure to dress appropriately, if you don’t want to make a quick trip back to the hotel to change.

When In Rome…

After dropping off the rental car, taking a shuttle in from the airport, and getting settled in our hotel (Hotel Assisi, near the train station), we headed out to explore the city. Our first stop was to pick up my brother’s leaf. For the last few times we’ve gone abroad, my brother will get on Google Earth and pick out a tree somewhere near a place were we are going to be visiting. In the course of the trip, we track down the tree, get a leaf to take home to him, and take a photo. This trip’s tree was in the Parco del Colle Oppio, just to the northeast of the Colosseum. And, man, it was hot. And dry. But we got the leaf.

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The Colosseum and the nearby Arco di Costantino don’t really look real up close. In fact, a lot of things really don’t look real in Rome, but you have to learn to just trust your eyes and enjoy what you can, trying your best to ignore the crush of tourists, and hawkers that follow tourists, and guys dressed as Roman soldiers that want you to take a picture with them, and tour guides that chide you in your native language if you don’t use their services.

Perhaps the most interesting physical thing about the Colosseum is the sheer number of holes in its ancient structural walls. Near every intersection of the marble blocks in the travertine pillars facing out has a huge hole in it, some so large that you can’t understand how the entire structure can stay up. Apparently, I’m not the only one that noticed this. The odd thing about these holes is that they formed so long ago that no one is exactly sure what caused them. The leading theory is that iron clamps were in place to hold the blocks together but were taken out in the 5th century to be used for other things, during a period the Colosseum was starting to be used as an unofficial building material warehouse.

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Another of the most interesting remains we came across is the Porticus Octaviae, which has a fascinating history and allows the visitor to see several different styles of ancient architecture, materials, and architectural purpose in the same building, while standing the exact same spot. There is something that stirs within you imaging this place as a library, curia, and fish market through the years, this now ramshackle, almost dangerous-looking ruin located a dozen or more feet below the current level of the street. You can see the ancient (and largely destructive) attempts at patching it, to keep it a viable building for daily use.

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Nearby the Porticus Octaviae is the Temple of Apollo, or what stunningly remains of it.

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Rome wasn’t all old carved marble to us, though. We wanted to experience some of the street life, and we found some of the best local flavor and least tourists, in the old part of town at least, in the Trastevere area. I mean, who could not love a place that could make a meringue cookie this large?

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The Pantheon was a treat, as well, but we wanted to spend more time than we had left in the day, so we bookmarked the spot in our mind and agreed to come back tomorrow.

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While walking back to our hotel, we practically stumbled by the famous Trevi Fountain, which only has its majesty diminished due the crushing crowds that jostle for position near the edge of the water and along the steps beside. The scene on the fountain confused me, but I’ve since learned that is depiction of virgins leading Roman citizens to the source of pure water outside of Rome that ends up in the fountain. Ironically, the carvings of natural rocks, which are actually carved out of natural rock (marble), make the fountain so striking, in addition to it’s sheer size.

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Once the blasting heat of the sun starts to fade, Rome really starts to turn on the charm. Street life has this kind of intimacy in Rome, one where you can’t help bumping into strangers as you scan your surroundings for the ever-present little nuggets of art, tiny treasures that Romans have come to expect and internalize and take for granted.

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I had come expected a gritty city, but Rome had begun to charm me, despite the heat of mid-July.

View all of our photos of Rome

Around Garfagnana and Northern Tuscany

We were due back in Rome in a few days after returning from Grado, and other than the roads, we hadn’t seen much of the Garfagnana region. The next  morning, we headed down the main road of the region, along the river, heading south toward Lucca. Along the way, we came across this cool old medieval bridge, the Ponte della Maddelena (or sometimes called the Ponte del Diavolo – the Devil’s Bridge).

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It was very steep in the middle and more than 900 years old, but as amazing as that is, I found it more strange that the hundreds of motorcycles moving on the roads on either side of the river didn’t want to cruise up and over the bridge. After all, there were no stairs to block them. I guess the few tourists taking pictures at the top of the bridge really put them off of that idea.

We wandered through several of the larger and smaller towns of the region, including Castiglione di Garfagnana, where Katherine took a quick rest in a very beautiful spot.

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One of the wonderful things about the Garfagnana region is that you can really get far, far away from the major roads and enjoy nature with Italians doing the same thing. During one of our loops off of the main road, we drove beside the Lago di Vagli, which features a picturesque town toward the middle of the lake, which was formed by a dam and has an abandoned village at the bottom of it that you can actually visit every few years, when they drain the lake.

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All along the way,  I made sure to keep myself caffinated. But all of those uppers required some downers for, well, you know, equilibrium, so you have to balance it out with a beer or a glass of wine. The risk, though, of course, is that you can look like this at the end of the day.

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Rather than zooming directly back to Rome via the autostradas, we headed west over the mountains and were able to see many of the famous mountains that contain some of the world’s finest marble. And the scenery wasn’t half-bad either…

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We emerged from the mountains near the sea and headed south to a very crowded Pisa. The leaning tower was the major draw, as you might expect, but the tourists were almost a sight to see by themselves, disgourging from buses and bumbling through ramshackle street shops, wandering into the light and expressing their wonder at the sights in front of them by acting like they were holding up the tower for hundreds of photos taken per minute. I mean, there was literally a line of people waiting to get the correct perspective to make the same optical illusion joke as the person directly in front of them.

Oh well, the duomo and the tower are very beautiful and worth experiencing close up.

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And that lean is very real. I really didn’t expect to really worry about the structural integrity of the tower, but even with the actions they’ve recently taken to preserve the tower – like taking out the marble columns on the downward side and replacing them with lighter materials – I’m not sure I would want to go up there. And the waiting line of tourists and high admission price settled it.

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Before the Romans dominated the peninsula, Etruscans ruled the roost. We swung into the Tuscan southern highlands and explored a few ancient towns founded by Etruscans among an area of hot springs. We also explored a small island connected to the mainland by a small spit of sand and a bridge. Porto Ercole really looked like an interesting place, but we were running out of light.

We didn’t actually make it Rome that night, but we did find a decent pension 30k north of Rome, along the sea.

Click here to see all of our northern Tuscany photos

Visiting the Lukas Family in Grado

Off and on before the trip, I kicked around the idea of meeting up with Aaron and his family somewhere in Italy. Aaron and family are currently living in Austria, and so a few days before (and after kicking around a totally unworkable plan of meeting in Venice), we made plans to meet in the resort town of Grado, at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, and spend part of the day together.

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I hadn’t factored in just how far back in the Garfagnana mountains we would be when we started this journey. I also hadn’t counted on the fact that the autostrada could just come to a complete halt and stay that way for a half-hour or more. It took us driving over two mountain passes and three hours to even get to the autostrada from our apartment in Petrognano, and we still had to cross most of northern Italy, both ways, in a single day. Somehow, Kath and I did it, and being able to catch up with Aaron, Carrie, and the kids was worth it.

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The day was a bit stormy and cloudy, but the company was enjoyable. We really enjoyed our time with the Lukas family, and I hope to see them again soon at some point.

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Going to Garfagnana and Northern Tuscany

After leaving Montepulciano and heading north, we crossed through central Tuscany, scooting below Siena and Florence and taking in a few sights in San Gimignano and Vinci before ending up at Petrognano, deep in the Garfagnano region, where we had a room booked for the next three nights.

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San Gimignano caught our eye in the guidebook due to the large number of towers in the town. Apparently, towers were a way during medieval times for merchants and others with money and power to show it off and provide a better defensive position for their household. This kind of tower building happened throughout Italy and in other places, but what makes San Gimignano unique is the sheer number that were built and the number that survived until today. While Florence probably had more than 100 of these towers, San Gimignano, a much smaller town, had 76. Most town during that time had only 1 or 2. While these towers were taken down (or fell down) throughout the region over the years – in San Gimignano, towers were occasionally purposefully torn down by order of the commune if a family became too powerful or if punishment warranted it – San Gimignano is the only town in the area that still provides a view of the towers grouped close enough together to give a decent perspective for how things used to look 800 years ago.

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Vinci is the birthplace of the genius Leonardo di Vinci, and while he didn’t spend a lot of time in the town after growing up there as the illegitimate son of a notary (and we didn’t either), the town has thought enough of him to reconstruct his birth site to what it approximately looked like when he was born. We ate lunch up there, above the town, in a parched olive grove, hanging out with a couple of unicyclists. Seriously. They rode up the hill and down. The sad thing about unicycles is that you can’t coast. The good thing about them is, if you are good, you can just have a chair that roll you around with little effort. Anyway, if you end up visiting Vinci, definitely skip the Leonardo museum in the town, which must be one of the worst museums I’ve ever seen. The exhibits are childish, and the emphasis on the pop culture interest in Leonardo is over the top.

To get up to Petrognano, we headed on the backroads through Pistoia, though the mountains, which ended up being beautiful but requiring much more time that I had expected. (However, randomly, we did come around a corner and happen upon preparations being made for a big party for the Communist Party of Italy.)

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We didn’t get to Petrognano until dusk, and we couldn’t find where we were supposed to stay. Thankfully, when we did locate the apartment and couldn’t find the woman that rented it to us, the kind elderly couple downstairs took us in and even called the woman’s cell phone to let her know that we were here. It was here that I started to realize that we were in a very different place than in southern Tuscany. It wasn’t the kindness of the older couple – almost everyone had been kind to us since we landed in Rome. Rather, no one here spoke any English. At all, really. Even the woman who we rented the apartment, someone who supposedly meets quite a few foreigners, couldn’t speak much English. (But, obviously, she spoke more English than we did Italian.)

We were starting to realize what a special place the whole Garfagnana region is for travelers like us, folks that like seeing more of the country and meeting people outside of the larger “tourist industry,” which is endemic through most of Italy. In Garfagnana, nobody really gave us a second look or tried to sell us anything, you could drive 30 minutes on a back road before seeing another car, and some restaurants didn’t even have menus (you ate what they were cooking). It was a great introduction to the third very different area we had experienced in Italy. However, before we could really dive in a see the sites, we had an appointment to see some friends.

See all of our photos of traveling to northern Tuscany

Florence is Hot

OK, fast-forward a month. We are back from Italy now, and the remainder of the trip was a pleasant blur filled with new taste and sight sensations. After our last post, we never regained access to Internet access long enough to post or upload many photos, so we gave up the blogging experiment and focused on enjoying our trip.

Even as a tourist, I agreed with this...

I’ll post more on the trip over the coming months. I would like to review the places we stayed and pass along some tips on places to go and things to see that fall outside most guidebooks. So, stay tuned. And, to continue where my previous post left off…

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“Florence is hot.” That’s all we could really get out of Isolina, the lovely woman that was taking care us while we were staying at Casale a Poggiano, near Montepulciano. This came out at another of the wonderful breakfasts Isolina prepared for us before we wandered off in our Fiat Panda to explore another fragrant vineyard or hill-top town. That day, we were pretty adamant about heading for Florence, which was about two hours away by autostrada (fast toll road), and spending the day looking around. In addition, some friends from Memphis, who had been in Florence a few weeks before, had cached a surprise for us in the old part of town and sent some cryptic instructions about how to find it, so we were eager to locate it and find out what it was.

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After we got to Florence, we really found out what Isolina was talking about. Florence was hot. Very hot this time of year. We had arrived in the middle of a little heat wave, and temps in Florence were above 41 Celsius, with Rome hitting 44. The stillness of the countryside, which I had really enjoyed, translated into a lack of a breeze in Florence, which made walking around an exercise of staying in the shade as much as possible.

The heat notwithstanding, Florence is, of course, lovely. We parked at one of the monster underground car parks located in the ring around the old city and hoofed it toward the Uffizi (probably the top gallery) and the Ponte Vecchio, near to where our surprise was cached. The line at the Uffizi was way too long to handle, so we moved on over the bridge to find the cached surprise. Unfortunately, someone had found it before we got there (it was a little bottle of grappa tied up with wire behind a street sign that backed up to a wall), but we consoled ourselves (and cooled off) at a wine tasting place nearby. There, we discovered the pleasures of Brunello de Montalcino, plus gourmet vinegar and all of the different things you can mix with it. The whole place was a yummy meat, cheese, wine, and vinegar treat, and we brought a few things from that store home with us.

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We spent the rest of the day roaming around Florence, eating, checking out the sites, trying to stay cool, eating sorbetto, and trying to figure out where we parked the car. Dinner that night was in Montepulciano, and we should have gone to Pienza again, but seeing Montepulciano after the tourists are (mostly) gone was worth it.

The next day was spent traveling the back roads up past San Gimignano, skirting Florence and Siena, and heading toward our next stop in northern Tuscany, deep in the Garfagnana region, inside a tiny village named Petrognano, beside a rushing mountain river, and beyond that, a trip to see friends half-way across the country.

Click here to view all of our photos of Florence