Jul 072014

Come along with me and my daughter to the Tower of London where heads rolled and Crown Jewels glitter.
Tower of London
Photographs are not allowed as we entered the vaulted, huge, two ton doorway. The phrase “all that glitters is not gold” came to mind, as my eyes took in this array of diamonds and gold displayed on velvet.

Tower of London Crown Jewel Door
What is on display? Basically all the glitz and sparkle that is used in coronations as British symbols of the ruling royalty.  Most of the collection is from the coronation of Charles II , when royalty was restored to England in 1661.

The long glass encasements are low enough to peer in from the top and then crouch to see from all sides. Since there are no queues to stagger the crowd, you can stand or walk at your pace. With no photography allowed, no one is jostling to get a better picture.



What happened to the earlier monarchy’s wealth?  Charles I  believed in the divine right of kings and triggered an English Civil War that lasted six years. Defeat also meant that the divine right to keep his head was permanently severed and Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England.

The monarchy was abolished, but the newly created English republic found itself in a desperate financial situation. In order to raise funds, the personal estate of the monarchy was sold to the highest bidder. Much of the gold was melted down and used for coins.

For Charles II coronation, many items were replicated. The oldest piece made by the royal goldsmiths that survived and was returned was a 12th century Coronation Spoon. Also the Coronation Chair was used for Cromwell’s installation as Lord Protector and never sold.

St. Edwards Crown, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/

St. Edwards Crown, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bootbearwdc/

St. Edward’s Crown is placed on the head of the new monarch by the archbishop on coronation day. This 1661 remake with 443 gems weighs five pounds and worn for only 20 minutes. The original was known to cause headaches for the newly crowned royalty, if worn too long.

England is steeped in superstitions, and the most famous diamond in the world is the Koh-i-Nur or “Mountain of Light”. It has only been set in crowns made for female members of the monarchy. “It is said to bring bad luck to any man who wears it, but is believed to bring long life and happiness to any woman who wears it.” Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was 101 when she died, so this legend would seem to hold true.”

British Imperial Crown of India Photo by Wikipedia, CSvBibra

British Imperial Crown of India Photo by Wikipedia, CSvBibra

The only crown allowed to leave the country is the Imperial Crown of India. Set with more than 6000 diamonds, it was made especially for the Delhi Durbar in 1911 when George V was crowned Emperor of India.

It was overwhelming and difficult to comprehend all this glittering collection grouped in one room. There is very little description of each item, which keeps the crowds moving along quicker. One of the sceptres has the biggest cut diamond in the world, the 530-carat Star of Africa.

Queen Victoria and small diamond crown  Photo by Alexander Bassano, 1882

Queen Victoria and small diamond crown Photo by Alexander Bassano, 1882

Queen Victoria’s tiny silver and diamond encrusted crown measures only 3.7 inches tall. It was designed to be worn over her mourning veil, following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. Colored stones wouldn’t have seemed appropriate for wearing while in mourning. The 1,187 diamonds came from a necklace owned by Queen Victoria. After viewing such grand crowns, this coronet seemed so tiny and out of place in comparison.

The Crown Jewels were just a small part of our visit to the Tower of London. I could easily have spent another day absorbing this ongoing tradition of regalia, which aren’t just old, unused museum pieces. Should this collection of glitz and gold be replaced by fake gems or allowed to be photographed by tourists?

Feb 162014

Back in the days of Romeo and Juliet, cities like San Gimignano, Italy were run by feuding noble families.  By the end of the medieval period, this city’s richest families had built 72 towers over 230 feet tall.
San Gimignano tower
This mysterious Devil’s Tower is tied to legends. According to one story, the owner noticed when he returned from a trip, that the tower had a diabolical intervention and grew taller than when he left it. Another story is that the slashes on the left side were left by the devil or lightning – whichever you want to believe. San Gimignano landscape
We climbed up the highest hill to the ruins of the Rocca di Montestaffoli fortress.  Originally this was a castle and became a perfect place for lunch while enjoying the panoramic view of the city, parks, and olive groves.
San Gimignano streets
The lord of Tuscany forbade any spending on enlarging or improving the city around the 1500’s. This prevented any further destruction of old houses, towers and churches.  Fortunately, San Gimignano’s ancient appearance became frozen in time and allowed us a glimpse into the Middle Ages as we walked through this medieval city.
San Gimignano house San Gimignano buildings








No vehicles are allowed inside the city and we wondered if this is why these ancient stones stay so clean. The windows were purposely designed to be very narrow for added protection, but don’t allow much natural lighting.

Notches were built into the walls for wooden balconies.  When protection from the street robbers was needed, the wooden beams were removed so they couldn’t climb up into the towers.  Hot oil could be dumped on the robbers, as an added a deterrent.
San Gimignano church

Rick Steeves’ guide book warns about touristy over-crowding.  We traveled during the off-season and leisurely ate our gelato in the center of Piazza Duomo, near the steps of The Collegiate Church.

Bill, our experienced guide and son-in-law, added an overnight stay.  This gave us more leisure time to enjoy the local Vernaccia white wine and village food specialties, with a relaxing night’s sleep in one of the towers.

The medieval tower was our most unique place to stay, what was yours?

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