Well who would have thought it? It seems that there is more to see in Pisa than just a poorly built tower. I remember being surprised the last time I was here ten years ago at just how many fine buildings stand alongside the tower. Then we only had an hour here before we were bused off to Florence. This time we had a whole day to kill so it’s just as well that off the well beaten tourist track are a number interesting things to see and do.
The area around the tower was packed with tour groups of all ages and scores of people standing with their hands in the air all hoping to right the towers tilt. We took a few photos and quickly moved on.
We found the botanical gardens to be deserted and a real sanctuary from the busy streets. There were large areas of bamboo – what is it about that plant that always makes a place seem so tranquil? I’m sure that if I planted some at the bottom of my garden I would enter a zen like state when out there.
Lunch was a large plate of spaghetti carbonara. Doesn’t matter how hard you try no one can make it like the Italians and sat in a street cafe eating it was just perfect.
We then walked down to the river which was lined with a fantastic variety of old buildings and back through a piazza in the university quarter again with some fine old buildings.
Then back to reality and to return the hire car at the airport. How anyone found anything in this country before the invention of satnav I have no idea, the road signs are awful to non-existent making finding anything challenging. Fortunately I had Helen acting as copilot and we got there eventually.
So now I am sat typing this in the departure lounge of Pisa airport which looks and feels like any other. The one difference being the Italian relaxed attitude to security made getting in a doddle!
Our last full day and we chose to spend it in San Gimignano some two hours away by car.
The Italians are, on the whole, awful drivers. Frequently on the phone while driving they drive inches from the back of the car in front before pulling out to over take into oncoming traffic or at a blind corner. They think that they are Alberto Ascari when they are more like Andrea de Cesaris (look him up). I mention this only as background and mitigation for what happened.
We decided to take the “quick” route there which while was via the autostrade it was 30 mins shorter than the direct route. Or at least it should have been had there not been a hold up along the way. Now I detest sitting in traffic on motorways at the best of times but it is particularly irksome when on holiday. I mention this only as background and mitigation for what happened.
After two long hours we finally arrived at San Gimignano only to discover that it was full, or at least all the car parks were and there was no space at the side of the roads either. We drove round a couple of times but we weren’t alone in looking and it was proving impossible to find anywhere. We were suddenly faced with having to turn straight back round and spend another two hours in the car. What happened next is censored but let’s just say that we drove to a nearby town and regrouped over a very frosty and disgusting lunch.
A couple of hours later and suitably chastened we went back to San Gimignano and this time had more luck in finding a parking space. It was good that we did as it is a beautiful place, especially if you like towers.
The journey back we avoided the autostrade and went the back roads. We met countless tractors and Andrea de Cesaris but we didn’t mind. Much.
A day spent travelling to some of the lesser known places of the region today including Bagni di Lucca & Barga. We had decided to travel slowly and avoid the autostrade but hadn’t bargained on it being up the side of a mountain and on a road which when viewed on a map looked more like my signature. It was fun but edge of the seat stuff through some of the villages.
The highlight of Bagni di Lucca was the Devils bridge and if you look at the pictures you will see why it is named. Given how religious they are in these parts it is amazing that anyone dares to cross it.
In the evening we took the funicular to Montecatini Alto and had a meal in one of the restaurants in the centre. An excellent meal was spoilt somewhat by being ignored by the waiter for long periods. Even with a polite “scusi” he resolutely ignored us. This led us to ignore leaving a tip at the end.
We travelled down by funicular in the dark watching the lights of the town below.
For some reason we had decided that it would be a good idea to visit Florence today on a hot July Saturday, no other tourist was going to think the same now were they?!
We got to the station in Montecatini Terme about 10 minutes before the train was due to leave giving us plenty of time to purchase a ticket. Unfortunately, this being a Saturday during the height of the tourist season, the ticket office was closed and there were no automatic machines or any indication of where to buy a ticket. Fortunately there was a kindly local who spoke English and directed us to a newsagent just up the road where a surly Italian and his surlier daughter served us. We dashed back to the station with, as it turned out, plenty of time to catch our train. An hour later we were in Florence with just one or two others.
Florence, like Rome, is one of those cities where there is something to see and do around every corner. The colours on the architecture, whites, greens and reds, are just great after the usual sandstones and, above head height, you could believe you were the only one there. After a few hours plodding around looking at the sights we found a side street that looked like it might take us higher and give us a view over the city. Around every corner we told ourselves would be an end to the houses and a clear view, but it was not to be and we found ourselves walking back down to a bar for lunch where we regrouped and consulted the guide books. We had, more by luck than judgement, found ourselves sitting in a bar at the bottom of a climb to the Piazza Michelangelo which offered the height and the views we had been looking for. It also had a bus stop with a bus to take us back down to the station, 2 euros well spent.
We spent the evening on the hotel terrace watching the sun go down over Montecatini Alto.
The locals have taken a real fancy to my legs (and no wonder!) and I am bitten to shreds. I am usually impervious to the little buggers but not the Italian variety it seems. This led to us having to find a pharmacy where a touching mime ensued. The pharmacist took a look at the bites and enquired “before or after?”. I felt that this was pretty obvious.
Busy day today. We spent the morning in Montecatini Terme spa, a beautiful building and grounds just a short walk from our hotel. The waters themselves are supposed to have healing properties and, inevitably, tasted disgusting.
Next we took the car and made our way to Lucca stopping on the way at Pescia. Having parked up In a back street car park we were approached by a man trying to sell odds and sods. I had hoped that my ignorance of the language would suffice but, no, even “street traders” speak English. When I refused to hand over money, which I was assured was to “ensure the safety of my car”, the talk turned vaguely threatening. We walked off with me wondering what the excess was on damage to the hire car.
Lucca was much more rewarding. It has a largely complete wall which is the widest of any city wall I have ever seen. Lucca also has its fair share of towers and this time I was able to go up and get a wonderful view over the city. It was strange, however, not to go up without my tower climbing companion Grant.
Finally, after a quick bite to eat, we made our way to Calci. Not somewhere that is on the normal tourist track but it was where Mat was playing his first concert this evening. It was great to see him and hear him and the rest of the orchestra play. He seems to be having a fantastic time and certainly isn’t missing us, which is how it should be, but he did look pleased to see us.
Tomorrow Mat now goes south and we won’t see him until he returns to the UK. We, meanwhile, will be tackling Florence.
Day one of our trip to Italy to stalk our younger son who is also visiting the region as part of the Berkshire Maestros Guitar Orchestra. He set off on Tuesday morning by coach. We set off Wednesday morning by plane. We were both supposed to arrive at roughly the same time – 2pm Wednesday. When we caught up with him briefly today at the beautiful hilltop village of Montecatini Alto it transpired that their journey had taken an additional 10 hours caused by three coach break downs and finally a fire that put paid to the coach altogether. They were then stranded on the side of a motorway with their luggage waiting for a new and hopefully more reliable coach. They finally arrived at their hotel at 2am.
This drama seems to have added to the adventure rather than diminished it in any way. Whether the adults accompanying the 60 children feel the same is open to debate!
You can see more pictures of Montecatini Alto here