Better go and make yourself a cup of tea (or whatever beverage takes your fancy), because this is the longest post yet. Lots of pics too, but then you’d expect that from us by now!
We took advantage of a short break from school, to venture further afield and visit some of the more famous spots that Italy has to offer. Being my birthday, it was also a bit of a special treat and one we could all enjoy as a family. We left on Sunday (my birthday) and travelled to Pisa first. I think it would be best if I break this post up into the cities we visited. Here goes:
Coming into Pisa is not what I expected. You exit the autostrada and drive into what looks like a nondescript little town, but then you make a turn and suddenly you’re in this classic old Italian looking city. There is the Arno river in the centre, crossed at regular intervals by old arched bridges, and then on either side are solid walls of typical Italian townhouses and other ornate buildings.
We had been using my GPS (Co-Pilot Live) on my Android phone, but the route it had picked out turned out to be inaccessible due to a parade which was in progress. We ended up having to circle the river twice (because of missing the correct bridge, or taking the wrong turn…and it’s all one way!) before we finally made it to our centrally-located hotel. What is the first thing you do when in Pisa? Of course you visit the main attraction, so we set off on foot in search of the Leaning Tower. We made our way through the narrow cobblestone winding streets. Pisa appears like other Italian villages we have visited, but of course a little bigger and FAR more touristy. There are many restaurants, cafes and street vendors and when you get to the Piazza del Duomo there are many MORE of those vendors! As we visited in winter, and on a Sunday it was not what could be regarded as “busy”, but still there were people everywhere. The tower does indeed have quite a lean to it. In fact, it looks like it’s going down sometime soon, but apparently they spent 10 years restoring it recently so that it is stable and actually only has a 4 degree lean as opposed to the 5.5 degrees it had before. The tower is right next to the cathedral, which is right next to the Duomo, so you see them all at once. I think the tower is very pretty! The striped marble and ornate arches and columns are just beautiful. Likewise, the cathedral and dome share similar features. Architects were so confident in expressing such flamboyance back then, but I suppose there was no council approval required in the 12th century. We did try to get tickets to climb the tower, but unfortunately you need to be over 8 years old and we didn’t have any good way of securing the kids to one of the many bike racks around the square. We just had to content ourselves with doing the usual tourist antics:
After we had finished with the tourist stuff, we wandered around the streets of Pisa for a while. The main shopping street was really bustling and I’ve never seen so many boot shops in my entire life. If I didn’t already have more pairs of long leather boots than I’d care to confess in public, I would have been very tempted to go into some of those shops. We ended up having dinner that night in a small swanky restaurant. It was really lovely and had a very interesting menu. Being an Asterix fan, I had stewed wild boar in cocoa which tasted wonderful (a bit like a beef in red wine stew, but very spicy and rich). We ended the day quite full and tired…..and one year older!
The next morning, Chris went out at 7am to get some images of Pisa minus the tourists. Satisfied with our brief visit to Pisa, we headed off to Siena at around lunch time.
The journey to Siena took MUCH longer than we had anticipated. It is true that all roads lead to Rome and watch out if you get on one of them! We made it to the walled city after some totally arsey turns by Chris (translation from Australian: he just guessed and followed his substantial nose!). The GPS app on my phone is fantastic, but it is limited in these ancient walled cities so you have to use it in combination with the signage and some luck. The drive through the tiny streets was pretty hairy, but we eventually made it to our hotel: The Palazzo Ravizza. I won’t give you a complete review of the hotel (I do that on Trip Advisor), but this one was a gem. Central location, gorgeous historical palazzo converted into hotel suites and an amazing view beyond the walls.
We set out on foot again (andiamo a piedi!) and roamed the streets. Siena is a bit like Lucca, being an ancient walled medieval city, but the atmosphere in Siena is different. The buildings are taller, the streets twist and turn, and there weren’t as many people around. The shops look very “Diagon Alley” (for the Harry Potter fans) and there are lots of gothic doorways and little tunnel-like alleyways leading off. Of course there are many ornate churches here and there, with one spectacular Duomo di Siena looming up amongst the buildings. It is in the same style as the structures in Pisa (being built around the same time) with a separate bell tower as well.
We practically stumbled upon the Piazza del Campo which opens out before you at the end of many alleyways right in the centre of Siena. It’s HUGE! A great open amphitheatre-like space with a marble fountain and a very impressive tower (Torre del Mangia). The kids ran around the square for a while as I turned and turned, almost making myself dizzy, just to look at the surrounding buildings. We got some delicious gelati from a shop just off the piazza, and did some more walking.
Chris found a pro camera store and indulged in some retail therapy, purchasing a new lens (as if he needs one!) and another Manfroto tripod. He always said he wanted to get a Manfroto from the country it was made. We had dinner on the way back to the hotel in a little “hole in the wall” restaurant which had that traditional family feel that we like so much here.
We did some more exploring the next day (mainly shopping) and managed to get ourselves a bit lost amongst the winding streets. We made a mad dash back to the hotel, making check-out time to the minute, and regrettably left the wonderful town of Siena. I think it’s our favourite place so far! (and yes, I want to buy a townhouse here also, I think we may be up to 4 now….)
If we thought getting into Siena was difficult, then getting out was a nightmare!! We had a bit of a “thrill” at one point when Chris drove into oncoming traffic on the autostrada by accident (I think our French numberplate excused us as tourists, we just blame everything on the French now!) We stopped traffic, but managed to recover and set ourselves in the right direction to Firenze. Firenze is a BIG city. The GPS managed to navigate perfectly to our hotel in the centre of the city, but we were not sure what to do with the car. I got out and ran in and the guy at the desk told me to just get all of our stuff out and leave the car locked in the middle of the street with our hazards flashing. We did just that. Those crazy Italians! Eventually, a man from the hotel came to park it in their carpark while we checked in. Off we went on foot again (yes, I choose the hotels so that they are central and we don’t have to use our car in big cities). We walked straight down the end of the street and then almost fell over at the sight at the end of it. We had come to the Piazza del Duomo with the enormous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (a huge cathedral) and Giotto’s Campinile (a huge bell tower). I think we may have uttered the word “f*#k” a couple of times just at the sheer size of the structures there. I really ought to research our destinations a bit better, then I wouldn’t be so suprised at the things we stumble upon. But maybe that’s a good thing? I could gush on about how elaborately decorative these buildings were, but you should really just look at the photos.
Of course the piazza was packed with more tourists than we’ve seen so far in Italy, so we decided to do the tourist thing and go for a horse and buggy ride through the streets of Firenze. The horse’s name was Terry (yes, I always ask these things) and him and his driver did a fine job of giving us a quick overview of the city. It was such fun to be carried through the city like that, and I think it’s one of those moments we will always remember as a family. It was WORTH the 50 euros (I’ll pause here while Andrew picks himself up off the floor).
Firenze is indeed a beautiful city, full of statues and awe-inspiring architecture. Lots of shops too. We wandered around for ages, and came to the Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno river in the late afternoon. It’s such a famous bridge, with buildings actually ON the bridge (apparently quite common in Medieval times, although back then there were butchers etc not the souvenir and jewellery shops of today).
We wandered amongst the shops for a while and then back through the streets of Firenze. We had dinner in the most magical of places: right on the Piazza della Signoria with the Palazzo Vecchio in front of us. It was a perfect night, and we ate outside amongst the fairy lights. The only bad part being when the waiter drove a table leg right into my thigh (by accident I presume). The waiter apologised profusely and I have a bit of a bruise, no real harm done.
The next day, we decided to climb the tower (Giotto’s Campanile). It’s 84.7m tall and you need to climb 414 steps. It’s hard work going up that VERY narrow winding staircase, but there are breaks along the way where you can look out from internal platforms and admire the stunning decoration on the tower and see how far you still have to go. We reached the top and were rewarded with panoramic views of the city and a sobering sense of how high we were. The climb back down was much easier!
We left Firenze without incident and broke up the drive on the way back with lunch at an Autogrill which was built across the autostrada. Apparently, this reminded Chris very much of Europe when he was a little boy, so we just had to do it.
We had a wonderful trip and got some great photographs, but it was good to be home. It’s amazing how, in such a short space of time, Bagnone has become our home. The roads and landmarks are very familiar now and it’s hard to imagine how we could have been so daunted by the prospect of getting around here safely. One day when we return to the wide roads of Australia, we might feel lost with so much space around us!
I’ll end as usual with my favourite pic of the moment. Nice one Chris!