July, two weeks in Tuscany. Hotel Del Lago. Florence, San Gimignano, Pisa, Siena.

Pisa

Day Fourteen – Homecoming

It seems as though time has flown by very quickly, but then it always does when you are on holiday!

Having spent two weeks here in Tuscany, it is finally time to pack our bags and head for Florence airport for the long journey home.

We woke up very early, and were the first for breakfast on a crisp and fresh morning. We filled ourselves up with croissants and cappuccino, and were very kindly offered a lift to the train station by the older gentleman we had seen each evening in front of the television. Feeling the weight of our bags, we quickly welcomed the offer and went to get our bags from our room.

When we came down, the hotel staff presented us with a bottle of wine as a leaving gift. I have never been given anything from a hotel before, and I was quite touched by the gesture. Usually, hotels cannot wait to get the room free for the next guest, but the staff seemed relaxed and we all said our “Thank You’s.”

The drive to the station was typically scary, as the driver careened around corners faster than I think his Fiat Punta was designed for. We hurried into the station and caught a train pretty much straight away. From Florence central, we headed to the coach station to get the bus to the airport.

It seems that Florence Peretola doesn’t like people sitting down, as there were no chairs for people to sit on. We wandered up to a café and enjoyed a freshly squeezed orange juice whilst watching planes leave and arrive through a big window over hanging the airfield.

We eventually arrived back in Southampton at about 7pm BST, and everything was going okay. However, it is never a good sign when you are the last person standing by the baggage collection area and the conveyer belt gets turned off. We weren’t the only ones though, and we headed over to Alliances main desk in the terminal building to enquire where our bags were.
It seems they were still in Paris, being carted around the airport looking for their owners. I remember sitting in the departures lounge wondering what happens to bags when there is a long time before the connecting flight? I wondered if they go to a big compound where they are stored, or if they just leave them on the lorry? I suggested wiring a bag up with a tiny camera to see what happened to them, but Claire said I was being silly.
I guess I sealed the fate of our bags by discussing this in Paris, but the lady at the Alliance desk seemed very helpful and promised our bags would be taxied out to us as soon as they came in, probably on the next flight in.

Feeling a little dejected, we organised a taxi and went home. A mountain of mail greeted me on the door mat, and hundreds of emails clogging up my inbox made me fearful of turning on my computer! Instead, I decided to open the bottle of Chianti given to us by the hotel, had a drink and fell asleep.
Holidays are fantastic, but coming home is by far the worst part.

Our luggage arrived the following day, although I am still awaiting an apology letter from the airline/baggage-handling company – I have given up holding my breath!

Same again next year? You better believe it!

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Day Twelve Thirteen – Wrapping Up Basilicas

As our two week holiday drew to a close over the weekend, the idea of packing everything up again and heading home seemed disappointing. If I could, I would like to stay here a little longer, swim some more, read some more and relax some more.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work like that, and the pleasant time spent away from the humdrum of usual pastures and routines has to end.

Over the weekend I sat down in the grounds of the hotel and watched the wildlife move about as I wrote out a little more of my experiences here. My (still damp) notebook contained notes that would have been nonsense to me two weeks later, and needed fleshing out a little before I put this holiday behind me.
I sat in the warm air, recounted my experiences and read a little more. I probably read the wrong book at the end of the holiday (Annie Hawes’ Extra Virgin), but instead of making me feel bad about leaving, it confirmed what a wonderful country this is.

Claire and I have seen much more now, combined with Sorrento and our 2003 tour I now have a good understanding of how this country works, plays and lives. I have enjoyed learning new things, and experiencing different tastes, smells and cultures brings a continuous smile to my face

I am sure that we will return in the future, but for now I will just have to cope with the little tingly sensation I get whenever I think of Italy.

As promised in a previous post, I will verbally walk around a typical Italian basilica. I wrote this short bit of text over the final weekend, and although I haven’t read it since, I liked it at the time.

…Having ventured into a fair few basilicas in Italy, I have come to the realisation that I have not yet discussed any of the interiors before. And with an understanding ban on flash photography in almost every single one, pictures often don’t do the building any justice at all. On the note of photography, it also often quite a challenge to capture the exterior of the building as Mussolini had decided (in his infinite wisdom) to allow other structures to be built so close, surrounding and suffocating what is a monumental piece of architecture.

Most basilicas are the same in terms of design, typically laid out in plan view as a cross, with a dome at the crossover point towering above the alter inside. Some basilicas have a campanile either attached on one wall, or separated off to the side. As with the campanile, some cathedrals also have a baptistery adjoined at one end, or similarly separated.
Where these buildings differ is usually in their size. Larger (more powerful) Italian cities, such as Milan, Rome, Florence have huge basilicas which completely dominate the centre. Other smaller cities still manage to control the skyline with their cathedral, but were originally built on a slightly smaller scale.
Another difference worth noting in order to separate ‘the men from the boys’ is down to who has been laid to rest inside. Important or influential/wealthy residences usually get buried in the most important building in their home town. This important factor marks out the distinguished basilicas from – I guess – the common ones. Although, looking at a ‘small’ Italian church is awesome in itself!
Along with deceased, art is another important criteria when deciding which place of worship is more worthy of a visit. The most famous example being the Sistine Chapel in St Peter’s. Michelangelo’s masterpiece that adorns the chapels ceiling attracts thousands of visitors a year, and is a fitting testament to a great building combined with great art.

So on with my tour…
…From the outside the building stands tall and solid, blocking out the sun and looking powerfully and intimidating on the city it governs.
Usually covered in white marble or white stone on the outside, the exterior stands out against anything nearby. I guess this was the idea, as the church was/is the drawing point of the town. In the UK, the local pub is central gathering point. In Italy, it is – without question – the basilica. Unfortunately, a lot of these wonderful buildings are hidden amongst the humdrum of 21st Century life. It is most strange to see an extraordinarily amazing building surrounded by Gap, Gucci and Prada outlets. The only church I have visited that has avoided Mussolini’s regime is Pisa’s Duomo. Set out on a field (that ultimately led to its leaning fame), you can really appreciate its size and presence from afar.

The design of the exterior varies, with Milan’s Duomo looking incredibly gothic, and Florence’s and Pisa’s looking more ‘cosmopolitan’ with the use of colour to define a sense of style and decoration.
Often, but not exclusively, these mammoth buildings will be built on hills, so as to look even larger and grander. If a hill wasn’t available at the time, it seems that the architects would artificially raise the ground slightly and build a seamlessly never-ending set of steps leading up to entrance. I guess it gave the impression of being ever-so slightly closer the God!?

Now I have admired the exterior briefly, we need to walk through the over-sized doors and gasp at the cool and elegant interior.

The first thing I always notice when walking into such a place is the change in temperature. Italy, being a hot country, obviously realised that if people are to spend hours inside basilicas praising God, it needs to be cooler than the oppressive heat governing life outside. I suppose that if residents realised that the climate was more comfortable in the house of the Lord, there would be more of a belief in the religious structure. (A bit of a cynical point, but everything is done for a reason in my opinion!)
So, the temperature is certainly cooler, and that always brings a sigh of relief to me. After taking a deep breath, I usually look up at the ceiling. I usually have to really arc my neck a fair bit though, as the ceilings tend to be really, really high up. When viewed from the outside, one is amazed at the size of the structure. But it never really dawns on me until I walk in that there are no separating floors hiding the true interior height. What you see on the outside really is what you see on the inside.
Suffering from neck-ache, I slowly bring my line of sight down – following the light – to look straight ahead and along the middle of the building to the altar at the far end. It is often a strain on my eyes to see down to the end, but the crossover is usually the brightest part of the church. The altar is usually decorated in gold and other such light-reflecting metals and gems that make it seem ever more overwhelming. The light from the dome above also shines directly down onto this centrepiece to make it the point of attraction at all times.
The ceilings are always ornately decorated and always look stunning. I am also particularly impressed with the thought of people balancing on the beams with no safety equipment, painting the wood and placing works of art on the joining side walls.
The walls house stained-glass windows, depicting stories from the Bible, just as UK churches do. Beneath these windows would typically be art work (usually a Madonna holding Bambini) and maybe a crypt with a sculpture depicting the life of the deceased. The floors are often littered with graves; with engraved words detailing the person buried beneath and give the floor an unusual textured feel under the foot, forever reminding guests that they are there!
The sides of the basilica are separated from the main concourse by a series of pillars, placed for architectural reasons (they hold the roof up). These pillars create natural walkways along each side of the interior, and allow the space in the middle to be used for the congregation. This also means that during a service, the guests are less likely to be distracted by the art surrounding the walls and improves concentration on what is spoken.

It is a long way down to the altar, and I find it hard to understand how people were able to follow the sermon from the back in the pre-PA days. I presume it must have been such a routine that the late-arrivals didn’t necessarily have to hear what was being said – they just knew what was happening. Or maybe it was because these people were so poor, it was felt that they didn’t deserve to fully hear the words of the Lord?

Moving forward, the main attraction begins to slowly reveal itself. The giddily high ceiling reveals a ‘little’ spot where it defies physics and reaches ever closer to the moon. The wonderfully decorated, but poorly lit roof gives way to a beam of bright and dazzling light shining through the dome, aimed directly at the altar below, and illuminating the bishop as if by a higher power.
The dome is often the part of the basilica that is the ‘keeping-up-with-the Jones’s’ point. The church would usually commission the most famous and most recognised architect to construct the biggest and most glamorous dome going, simply to ‘prove’ their importance and stature in the political world.

Either side of this major feat of medieval engineering are the naves and smaller chapels. These areas were presumably set aside for the rich dignitaries who resided nearby. The chapels and crypts were no doubt reserved for only the most devout/wealthy of the congregation and the floors and art in these areas are usually better preserved – probably due to the minimised trampling from tourists.

Behind the altar hangs a crucifix of monumental proportions, reminded all those looking why they are here. Behind this is space for choir stalls and areas for other speakers to read. As most basilicas are still used as they were originally intended, an organ is usually installed on either the left or right.

Some basilicas allow visitors to climb the tall campaniles to view the cathedral from above. Most notable are Milan and St Peter’s in the Vatican City. I have only climbed Milan, and that is, I have to say, enough for me. The views were though, most impressive, and it is only when you climb the hundreds of steps do you realise just how big the building is.
Other great views of Italian basilicas can be gained from climbing Florence’s campanile and from the extended half-wall at Siena, which is detailed in my previous post.

The buildings really are beyond the English vocabulary, and as such, cannot be done justice with my language. The only way to truly appreciate what our medieval ancestors and Roman neighbours achieved is to visit them for yourself. To look up and gawp at the ceiling and to look down from above on civilisation below is unforgettable. To look around the interior at what was once a full building brimming with harmonious atmosphere, singing praise and chanting the words of the Gospels in unison is incredible.

The best sum up I can think of is this:
Think of St Paul’s in London. Easily add on 50% in each direction to get a feel for size. Add a strong gothic influence to the exterior and tastefully glam up the inside. From this you get a crude idea of what an important Italian basilica is – governing all those who live beneath, and controlling politics across the land to the next city.

This text describes what basilicas were, and occasionally still are. Simply beautiful. Simply amazing. Simply breath-taking.

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Day Eleven – San Gimignano

Another long train journey was involved when trying to get to this small hill town, located in the mountains on the way to Siena.
Due to the location of the town, the train stops at a small place called (amusingly) Poggibonsi. From here, a 12 kilometre bus ride up hills and down dales took us to this remote and beautiful part of Tuscany.

As the bus wound its way up the hills, San Gimignano stood out from quite a distance with its large towers sticking out the hill like a typical American panoramic view.
The town is contained within its walls and is a no go area for cars. There is a bus service that circulates the town, but this seems very unecessary, as you are able to cross the place on foot in about 15 minutes.

The main entrance point takes you up a hill to the main piazza. The streets are quite touristy, with souvenir stalls lining each side. However, it appears to have been tastefully and delicately arranged. Much like Winchester in the UK, it would have been possible to pass a McDonalds (had there been one, which there wasn’t) without noticing it.

San Gimignano was once a powerful and influential town, until it relented to Florentine control and then fell to the Black Death, reducing its population by two thirds. It never really recovered from this until tourism found it again in the mid 20th Century, where since it has prospered again.

The city is incredibly beautiful; with views of the Tuscan hills I cannot see why more people don’t live here. It has managed to keep its charm despite the hundreds and thousands of people who tramp the cobbled streets each summer. It seems odd that such a small place can cope with what is put upon it, but it seems to do well and looking briefly in an estate agents window, you would have to part with a good few Euros to live here.

San Gimignano is made famous by its towers. Once a sign of prosperity and power, there were originally 72 of them standing tall on this hill. Now, only 15 have survived, but it still looks remarkable and very odd to see. I understand that medieval Italians could build enormous churches and monuments, but these buildings had/have an important reason. These towers appear to have been built simply a way of showing how much money the owner had. The higher the tower, the wealthier you were. Most of the constructions have bells on top, but I think 72 bells in a town no larger than a mile by a mile is a little excessive!

We decided to climb one the towers – the Torre Grossa – to admire the view of the surrounding area. It only costs €5 each, and although the staircase scared me to almost death, even I was happy once on top. The tower is only about 8 or 10 metres long on each side, but I was trying not to think about how thin and tall the ancient construction was! It had a huge bell in the middle, caged off to prevent tourist changing time, and very little in terms of safety barrier. Claire was able to lean right over the half wall to take some interesting photos. I just looked straight out at the horizon, occasionally lifting my camera to immortalise my bravery.

Once we had descended back down to terra firma, we went for a relaxing walk around the back streets to find a spot for lunch.

It was when we were wandering around some gardens that I first felt a spot of rain splash on my arm. Looking up I could see clouds gathering and the breeze increased into a small gust. To Claire and I, this was a welcome relief and we embraced this cool weather and continued as normal. We should have taken more notice of the Italians all running for cover. We should also have taken more notice of the tourists all buying umbrellas and ponchos. But alas, we did not.
About 15 minutes after feeling the first drop, and in one of the more remote and exposed parts of the town, the Heaven’s opened and more rain fell than I have ever seen in my life.
The downpour lasted about an hour, and we were both soaked right through. The Rough Guide was turned into a pulp, my shoes filled with water and my jeans tripled in weight. All of a sudden, I felt very British and slightly foolish.

We spent the best part of day in San Gimignano, and I would definitely return. I would recommend coming here out of season, as the amount of visitors shocked me and it did seem quite crowded at times. I would also recommend taking a rain coat with you!

On the return journey, we visited a clothes shop in Poggibonsi and bought some replacement t-shirts and trousers before the long train ride to Florence. A quick make over in the station toilet and we felt much warmer and much more comfortable. The Rough Guide survived, amazingly, as did my camera and Claire’s minidisk player.

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Day Ten – Relaxing Hotel Review

Claire and I spent today relaxing by the lake, reading and generally trying not to exert ourselves too much. We intend to make our final trip tomorrow, involving a long journey to San Gimignano.
As we did very little today, there is nothing to tell and nothing to read. Instead, I will post a review of the hotel we stayed at – Hotel Del Lago.

Hotel Del Lago

Hotel by the lake is the direct translation, and the hotel is indeed by the lake. Situated on the banks of Lake San Cipriano, approximately 30km south of Florence and 4 km from the nearest train station (San Giovanni Valdarno), the hotel is very peaceful and relaxing, set in between the Pratomagno and the Chianti mountain ranges.

If I return, I would almost certainly hire a car though, as the hotel is reasonably remote and walking along the winding roads with no pavements can be scary when it is completely dark. Walking back from the Taverna at 11pm is particularly hair-raising!

Top tip: Take a torch, as the walk back from the Taverna (after a few glasses of Vino) takes you along a road with trees either side, blocking out any moonlight and making the road completely pitch black. I couldn’t even see the white line marking the edge of the road.

The area is quite industrial, with a few factories and a power station nearby. It isn’t the most picturesque, but a 10 minute drive takes you into the beautiful heart of Tuscany. Alternatively, you could just swim out into the lake and forget about everything.

From the outside, the hotel looks like a new building, set out on two floors in a farm like area, with horses grazing and chickens running around. The hotel also own a few cats which stalk the grounds and enjoy the attention from the guests. There is plenty of parking along the main drive, and there is ample seating all around the hotel, ideal for wasting away hours with a drink and a good book.

Inside there is a breakfast area situated opposite the main desk, which is usually buried under a wide range of maps and tourist information leaflets. At the back of the lobby area is a huge fireplace surrounded by large leather chairs and a television.

The room we stayed in was comfortable and pleasant. We had a wardrobe, desk and TV, ‘double’ bed and an en suite bathroom with a shower. Although there was no air-con, once we had worked out the window system (see previous entry) the room was reasonably cool.

The hotel does not do food other than breakfast, but the Taverna Del Lago, about 2 km up the road is happy to feed guests at reasonable prices – the food here is amazing, and the service is equally superb.

I found Alberto and his staff to be friendly and attentive. Alberto was more than happy to help us, and we occasionally got lifts to and from the station. Surprisingly, we were not charged for this.
None of the staff spoke much English, but communication was not really an issue. We found that whenever we attempted Italian (even if it was read from a phrase book), we were welcomed with a glowing smile and lots of typically Italian hand gesturing!

The hotel is relaxed and warm, making any guest feel welcome and at home. The only drawback for me was the lack of activities. I would have liked to have been able to hire a bike, or a dinghy to go out on the lake in. It isn’t necessary to offer these extras, but I think it would improve the appeal of the hotel and entice more visitors to choose this hotel over others in Tuscany.

I really enjoyed my stay at Hotel Del Lago, and would happily recommend the place to others.

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Day Nine – Siena

For €30, Claire and I bought ourselves 2 return tickets to Siena today. This was our penultimate excursion, and with the weather starting to get a little cooler we were able to enjoy the journeys in more comfort.

Once again going via Florence, it took us about 90 minutes to get to this city, about 60 kilometres South of Florence nestled on the western side of the Chianti mountain range. The long journey provided me with a chance to study the Rough Guide, and continue reading a book called e. Easy reading – I know – but I am on holiday. I don’ want anything too thought provoking!

For reason that wouldn’t become clear until later on, the station in Siena is located about 2 kilometres from the city centre. Also surprisingly, the buildings here seem very new and modern, and are quite unlike any I have seen in Italy. Until now, I thought every building in this country was at least 200 years old.
There is a bus ticket office in the main station terminal, from which you can by tickets to get you into the centre. They cost less than a Euro and the all the buses go from outside the station car park on the other side of the road. Just follow the other tourists!

So eventually we arrived at the old city boundaries. It was now abundantly clear why the station had to be located so (seemingly) far from the centre. Siena is very built up and very condensed. It appears that this was once a very prosperous place and they had to cram as many buildings and piazzas as they could within a probably already designated boundary wall. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that some bright spark said, “Hey, where are we gonna put the train station?” Still, it isn’t too much of a hardship to get here, although I imagine that 40°F heat would have made it considerably worse.

First stop was the famous Il Campo (Piazza). A lot of people have probably pictures of this town square, but simply not realised what they were looking at. Siena holds a horse race twice a year around its square, called the Palio. It’s a crazy race where the only rule is that you are not allowed to interfere with another rider’s reins. It runs over two laps of the piazza and is a tourist hot spot as well as a serious event on the Italian calendar. Unfortunately, there was no race during the time we spent here, but from what I can gather, it is not too dissimilar to the event in Spain where they chase a bull through their streets – not 100% politically correct/animal welfare/health safety. But then I wouldn’t expect that from Italy!

Along one side of the piazza is the Palazza Pubblico. The palace is an impressive building with a huge bell tower, which is another emblem of this city. It is possible to view the interior of this palace and climb the tower, but the price was a little high and the queues were quite long. Instead, Claire and I decided to wander around and absorb everything else.

Wandering down one the side streets leading away from the piazza we found the Duomo and attached buildings. Once again, the basilica had a Campanile, Baptistery, Crypt etc…
Surrounding the tightly packed area is the old hospital, which has now been converted into an art gallery and museum. About 40 or 50 metres to one side of the main Duomo, there is a wall standing out on its own. And it isn’t a small wall! Standing at about the same height as the Duomo, it appears to be misplaced and looks as though it would fall over at the slightest of breezes. According to the Rough Guide, the Church had decided to ‘keep-up-with-the-Jones’ and extend the basilica out to where this wall had been constructed. Obviously, they had started to do this but work soon stopped when the Black Death arrived and decimated the population.

The Duomo is very similar to Pisa, using the black and white striped effect on the pillars and campanile. Inside it is the customary awe and amazement at how such a building could be built and still stands strong to this day. With incredible ornamentation and architecture – I often wander how buildings like this cannot be built in today’s sterile world?

Leaving the Duomo behind and realising the Campanile is a no-go area, Claire and I ventured into the museum and gallery. From here, it is possible to climb the half-built wall to view the city at beyond. It is about the same height as the Duomo, but somehow a lot scarier.
I got about three-quarters up and after 5 minutes decided that this was enough. Claire went to top and got some wonderful photographs.

From the museum, we walked around the Baptistery and Crypt before getting lunch and resting our weary feet for a while.

We headed out after lunch, deciding that now we were fully charged again; we would walk back to the train station.
Siena is very beautiful, if a little confusing with regards to layout. The Basilica was definitely worth the few Euros we paid, and if the queues were a little shorter, I think the Palazza Pubblico would also be an enjoyable tour. I imagine the weekend surrounding the Palio is a very congested time and I was secretly happy when I learnt that we would be able to enjoy this city without the hordes of tourists.

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Day Eight – San Giovanni Valdarno

After the previous day’s trek around Pisa, Claire and I woke up late and left it until the last moment to enjoy breakfast.
For the first time since arriving, I woke up feeling a slight chill in the room. This is a much needed and muchly welcomed relief from the oppressive heat that burns through everything. I should also point out the rather complicated window system in Italy.

At home, we have a simple pane of glass, embedded in a frame with hinges on one side and a lock or latch on the other. In some cases, the window may be double-glazed and curtained on the interior.
In Italy, it is a little more complex. Working from the outside in, they have the external wooden shutters, then a net blind to keep the bugs out. Moving ever closer, the standard glass frames are next finally followed by the curtains. I’m sure you can work out the amount of combinations available, and initially I thought this amount of window ‘decoration’ was simply excessive.
After staying here a short while though, I worked it all out. During the heat of the day, everything is shut. Most importantly, the thick oak shutters which shield the room from the sun. No sun, no heat. (And I’m not talking tabloids here!)
In the evening, when the sun has finally disappeared beneath the horizon, you open everything up except the bug-net. Come the morning the room is nice and cool, and all the sweat that left your body when you first got into bed has now dried hard into the sheets. Perfect!

Anyway, with the prospect of a slightly cooler day, Claire and I decided to change our plans and go to San Gimignano today, instead of tomorrow. Knowing that it would be a long journey, we knew a cool day would make it infinitely more enjoyable.
So after breakfast we packed our day bags and headed out of the hotel.

Only about 45 minutes had passed since the change in decision and the point at which we left. But in those 45 minutes, the overcast skies had cleared and the sun was now taking revenge and shining quite intensely. By the time we got to the end of the drive, we decided to turn around and walk straight back to the hotel. Maybe tomorrow…
…With no sign of cloud again, we gave up going to San Gimignano (pronounced San Jimmy Yarno) and contemplated new ideas.

Eventually, we decided upon an easy trip into San Giovanni Valdarno. Although we had been here quite a few times now, as the train station is the only means of leaving this town, we hadn’t actually passed the sign: ‘This way to elsewhere’.

When we did wander a bit further into the town, we were pleasantly surprised. There was a reasonably long High Street with a good choice of clothing shops, groceries and mobile phone outlets. Interrupting these businesses were café’s and bars and the occasional tabacchi. The Town Hall was an impressive affair, with shields of different designs surrounding the outer wall. The Hall was at the top of the main piazza, which had a small fountain near the centre. Behind the Town Hall were a couple of churches. One of which we quickly toured and admired.

All in all, I was pleased. I didn’t expect to find much as the area seems more remote. This little place appears to be the hub though, emphasised by the largish Coop – which was ideal for stocking up on lunch items and juice.

This is where I learned that when a Euro is in Italy, it is equal to the finest gold ever produced.
The total came to €16.02. I gave the check-out girl a €20 note, and asked her to wait while I rooted around my pocket trying to find a 2 cent piece. Sure enough, I had one and thought this would be okay and would obviously mean me having less change to cart about.
The girl ordered for a €1 piece to bring the change up to a €5 note. Agreeing that this would be ideal, I had another root around, and all the time the queue is getting ever longer. Not having one, she gave me the most evil look anyone could and grumpily handed me two €2 coins.
I found this a little over-the-top. For sure, it is better when customers have the right money, or can make the change up to a round number. But getting stroppy over it is unnecessary.

After our short trip to town, we enjoyed further swims in the lake and further reading. Rich Hall is actually quite a humorous writer – I never realised that until now.

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Day Seven – Pisa

Today is Pisa day! We took ourselves up to Florence, and then travelled West to Pisa. Situated almost on the coast, Pisa is a city we didn’t manage to get to visit last time around.
Costing about €14, the journey is reasonably straight forward, and there are plenty of trains going in both directions between these two major cities.

Arriving at Pisa Centrale train station, it is quite a long walk to the main drawing point – the leaning tower. Although it is a simple straight road, which takes you over the River Arne, it does take about 20-30 minutes to get there. And as we didn’t arrive until late morning, we went for lunch first before diving into the tourist pool.

One note of caution: If you intend eating in Pisa, make sure you head away from the tourist traps. Claire and I ate at one of the restaurants lining the road as you near the Campo dei Miracoli, and were far from impressed. The food tasted like something from a packet, and was not what I would expect from Italy. My pasta dish was boring, and Claire’s pizza was dry and stodgy. The prices were also a little higher here, nearing the €10 mark for the simplest of dishes, I really would recommend walking a bit further away and finding a quieter tratoria for luncheon.

After our lunch we headed back into the throng of visitors, typically all standing in front of the tower with their hand up.

The Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) is certainly very impressive. The Duomo is immediately in front of you and takes up the most space. To the left is the baptistery, and to the right is the lunatic looking tower. Behind the Duomo is the Camposanto and ticket office. As you stand in awe at the whole site, there is also a museum behind you, contained in a newish looking brick building. Surrounding the field are stalls selling just about anything they can to anyone they can. The usual array of cheap figurines and t-shirts, and nothing really worth mentioning.

So onto the ticket office, which is well sign posted, and takes you past the tower and the Duomo. Now, this is where it gets a bit tricky. I will do my best at explaining the complex system, but I cannot be 100% certain of accuracy due to the ridiculous nature of what they* have done.
To scale the Leaning Tower of Pisa would cost you €15. Because of the obvious conservation concerns, they have limited the amount of people on the tower at any given time, and force you to go up as a group with a guide. They give you 40 minutes, and run guides from 8.30am through to 8.30pm during the Summer months. However, as I’m sure you can imagine, it tends to get booked up quite quickly. We arrived at the ticket office at about 2pm, and the next available trip was not until 8.30pm – the last one for the day. Did I mention it costs €15! That’s over £10!
Entrance to the Duomo is a more satisfactory €2. Entrance to any of the other monuments is a fair €5. If you want to do 2 sights and the Duomo, then the combined ticket is €10. Although, you cannot include the tower in any of the combination tickets – the tower is €15. Four sights cost more, but does not include the Duomo. The tower is €15.

How they manage to get away this I do not know? The prices are extortionate, unless you’re just here for the Duomo. Why they have put together an overly complicated combination system is beyond belief, and only confuses visitors. There were only 2 people ahead of us in the queue, but it took about 10 minutes for them to be served while the staff tried to explain the system in broken English.
Utterly ridiculous and utterly unnecessary!

Claire and I opted not to wait 6.5 hours or part with over £20 to go up a leaning tower. Instead we parted with considerably less and toured the basilica and Camposanto.

The Duomo actually leans in the opposite direction to the tower, which is all due to the soft sandy soil they were built on. Although as the cathedral is more square and sturdy, the lean is less noticeable at first glance. What I did notice, which I found quite odd, were the bricks on the exterior wall. Some had engravings on, but clearly did not belong to the building. The engravings were either upside down, or stopped mid-flow. It was most peculiar, and I can only presume they have replaced some bricks and not bothered to source unmarked ones!?

Inside, it is mightily impressive and breath-taking. Just looking up at the roof made me feel faint! It was built between 1064 and 1164, and contains some rather dazzling black and white marble, which gives the pillars a striped effect. Once again, I will let the photos do the talking. I will also go into more detail on Italy’s basilicas in a later post.

To the rear of the Duomo is the Camposanto. A long white building that covers the rear wall of the field. It was originally built as a cemetery, and contained over 2000 metres of frescoes along its walls. Unfortunately, during WWII, it was hit with Allied bombs on July 27th 1944, and the blazing roof damaged most of the artwork below. Restoration work has started and the building has a new roof, but some of the frescoes may never be fully restored. One lucky survivor was the Triumph of Death cycle, that was completed just months into the arrival of the Black Death in 1348.
The Camposanto is a very spiritual place, full of sarcophagi’s and tombstones. I would thoroughly recommend to all a visit to this site.

All in all, I was a little disappointed with Pisa. I cannot believe the costs of seeing the monuments. I understand the need for conservation and preservation, and that there is a huge cost involved with this. But I feel the visitors are being taken for a ride and not welcomed to share these wonderful buildings with one another.

* I don’t know who they are, but I presume it is the local authority combined with a national conservation agency.

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Day Six – Drama On The Lake

With the whole country shutting down on Sunday’s, Claire and I decided to stay in and around the hotel enjoying the lake and reading some books.

It is still ridiculously hot, but there is a faint breeze today, which teases more than it helps.

There were a lot of fishermen down by the lake today, all with their NASA designed equipment set up like something out of a sci-fi movie. At one point, when I was quietly and innocently reading, the teasing breeze picked up and was enough to blow the inflatable ring away. I noticed immediately, but initially, I couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it. Unfortunately though, it was moving towards the fishing lines, so I hauled myself up to go and get it. What followed is probably very close to a Carry On film script…
…Each time I went to grab the blasted air-filled ring, the breeze blew it further out of my reach. As I neared one fisherman and his family, I decided to make a lunge for it. I might look stupid and melodramatic for it, but it is better this than disturbing someone’s peace. As I went for it, the breeze became a wind and blew the ring right into the path of the lines. I almost ran into the invisible things. I promptly left the water, trying my hardest not to disturb it too much.
Seeing all this, the father of the family (who looked a bit grumpy, but I think this was because he had been forced to bring his family with him), leapt up and jumped into his dinghy. In doing so, he managed to lose a flip-flop, which followed the offending ring out to the middle of the lake.
About 10 minutes later, and much faffing about, the ring was returned, and the diligent fisherman had his sandal firmly back on his foot.

All this drama led me to tie the rings up when they weren’t being used. Something I probably should have done from the start.

In the afternoon, we amused ourselves by watching the Hungarian Grand prix on Italy’s RAI television channel. The Italian commentators were just as over-excited as our British equivalents, and the whole show was very similar to ITV’s. It was much fun trying to hear the British spoken press conference dubbed over in Italian.

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Day Five – Arezzo

Arezzo is a smallish city to the South of where we were staying. Its major attraction other than the usual mix of architecture and art is its links to gold. With the worlds largest gold manufacturing plants located nearby, the city has numerous jewellers lining its streets.

Our first stop was the Basilica of San Francesca. This church has a great façade of stone, which gives it a pebble-dashed look when viewed from afar. Inside, Piero della Francesca’s frescoes adorn the walls, and have very vivid colours that stand out like they were new.
The basilica is free to enter, but some parts containing the frescoes are cordoned off. It is possible to view them closer, but tickets are required and no doubt money will need to be paid. Claire and I chose not to do this, but to instead admire the building in all its wonderous glory.

The city does have a few towers dotted around, but alas, they are not open to tourists. It quickly became apparent that this place was not as welcoming to visitors like other parts of the region. It’s not that they disliked tourists, but there seemed not much available for us to do. I think that maybe this is one area that could capitalise on travellers and offer more. But for me though, the architecture was enough to keep me occupied.

To the North of the city lie the ruins of Fortezza Medicea. A crumbling wreck of an old fortress is only saved by the fabulous gardens accompanying the place, and with views stretching out over the Tuscan hills it is a pleasant and peaceful place.

This is all we did in Arezzo. We had planned to spend the whole day here, but with little to do, we headed back towards Florence to do some shopping and post cards to relatives.

Claire wanted to see the Musea di Storia della Scienza (Science Museum), but this was closed on Saturdays, as are a lot of things in Italy.

Feeling a bit dejected, we returned to the hotel in the early evening for a swim and a spot of sunbathing by the lake.

I probably wouldn’t recommend Arezzo as a day trip to anyone thinking of going, simply due to the lack of things to do. I may have been blind, but the guides I have perused only give the city a few pages. Whilst it is an important place in the history of Italy, it isn’t quite so today.

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Day Four – Chilling Out

We decided to have a more relaxing day, today. The most active thing I did was swim in the lake and turn the pages of my book.
The temperature was ferociously hot again, tipping 100°F and causing my body to perspire gallons of water.
We worked out the bus route and times, thanks to a little help from Alberto, and planned a day in nearby Arezzo for tomorrow.
I’m enjoying this holiday malarkey…

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Day Three – Florence

It was an early morning for us, and our now usual stuffing of croissants and coffee for breakfast. After digesting our feast, we headed off for San Giovanni Valdarno train station, with the day in Florence ahead of us.

Neither Claire nor myself realised how far we had travelled in the car when we first arrived. I was sure the journey was only 5 minutes, but the hike into town took us an hour and covered about 4 miles. Most of this was on the side of the road, as the local authorities obviously didn’t bother building pavements this far out in the sticks! And what with Italian drivers, we decided to investigate the bus tomorrow.

So after our exhausting trek, we were pleased to be sitting down on the train and steaming back up the line towards Florence.

In 2003, Claire and I visited this cultured city and took in some of the sights. We only stayed here 3 days, and therefore missed some of the attractions. This jaunt was to cover what me missed, and once again admire the beautiful city.

First stop was the Duomo. Whilst we did come here 2 years ago, we didn’t get to venture inside due to massive queues. This time however, the piazza seemed quieter. I still don’t know why it wasn’t as busy – it was the same time of year, after all. But this played into our agenda rather well, and the waiting time was only about 5 or 10 minutes. Praise is needed here to the people who run the attraction – they wisely made tourists queue on the shaded side of the building. This little bit of common sense escapes some British attraction managers!

Entry to Santa Maria Del Fiore was free, and it was nice to be inside in the cool (but typically musty) air.
The building is an amazing feat of engineering, and quite a spectacle from the inside and out. I’ll let the photographs do the talking.

After touring the basilica, Claire wanted to scale the campanile to see the views across the city. With 412 steps, I decided it was a bit too high for me, but Claire was more than happy to pay the €6 and get giddy whilst taken more pictures from the top.

Feeling shaky (Claire from the 412 steps, me from looking at the 412 steps), we went for a saunter along the River Arne up to the Ponte Vecchio.
This bridge – which has linked the North and South banks of the river since 1345 – was named Vecchio, which means ‘Old’ after the previous wooden bridge was washed away in floods. It now famously has goldsmith stores lining either side to sell their exotic gifts to the wealthy.
I didn’t notice last time, but there are some apartments above the shops with people actually living in them. I bet the estate agents love selling these places!?

The Ponte Vecchio was crammed with tourists, so we continued a little further along to Piazzale Degli Uffizi, and the Accademia. Housing some of the most important works of art ever produced, it is quite a draw for tourists. Many of which only come here to see Michelangelo’s mis-proportioned ‘David’.
Instead of queuing for an eternity, and shelling out €6.50, we looked at the replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where the original stood for a 369 years before being moved into a purpose built area inside to ensure its conservation.
I say mis-proportioned, as Michelangelo, who obviously worked very close-up to the marble, wasn’t able to view his work from afar due to limitations of the studio in which he worked. Thus, Davids hands a slightly oversized, his legs are too short and his arms too long.
All this though, doesn’t take away the appeal of the work, and the impact it had on Florentines, who always saw David in armour and battle. This work famously focuses on the human emotive side of the story, depicting a vulnerable nude David.
David is still the emblem of Florence, and I’m sure will continue to be for many hundreds of years to come.

After the Accademia, we wandered through the back streets to Santa Croce, a basilica that houses some of Florence’s famous and distinguished people. A €4 entry fee took us into a cathedral that has a resemblance to Santa Maria Del Fiore. The façade has been added since the structure was built to imitate the Duomo, and looks almost as spectacular.
Inside, the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli (to name just a few) line each wall. Over 270 tombstones make up the floor that leads you around this magnificent place.

After lunch, we returned to Ponte Vecchio and admired the views to the East and West and refilled our water bottles at the public fountain in the middle. This bridge gets very crowded with tourists during the day, all looking at expensive jewellery. But it does quieten down in the early evening and the views are really nice.

Whilst in Florence, I bought a pair of shoes that will serve me well for the rest of our vacation.

We left Florence in the evening and returned to San Cipriano just as the Taverna was opening. Perfect timing for a well-deserved meal and a litre of the house wine. Well, it was only €5!

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Day Two – Exploring

We arose from our slumber at 8am and headed downstairs for breakfast. The morning staff welcomed us and brought over an array of croissants and spreads, and offered us a wide choice of coffee, juice and other beverages. In Italy though, there is only one breakfast drink – Espresso. Not certain how my body would cope with a sharp and sudden kick of super-strong caffeine, I chose a cappuccino and devoured my pastry’s like there was a national shortage.

The staff spoke very little English, but made up for this by their attentive service and offerings of food and drink. They seemed very happy and have a caring ‘motherly’ nature. I certainly felt very welcome and comfortable.

We decided that today would be an exploring day, getting to know the hotel and local environment. The building is wonderfully maintained, with plenty of seating inside and out – perfect for wasting many hours of the day with a good book. To the rear are steps leading down to the bank of the lake, with gorgeous views across the water to the Chianti Mountains. The water looked cool and appealing in the strong morning sun. It was already 74°F at 9am, which is about as hot as the hottest day in the UK!

As the station in San Giovanni is the only means of transportation other than driving, Claire and I decided to try and re-trace our drive here by walking down into the town. As usual though, we ended up getting sidetracked and wandering off somewhere else to explore. We walked along the main road to Santa Barbara (the neighbouring community), and up and around to the other side of the lake. There was a lot of building work being done here, with a lot of houses being erected by burly looking Italians who probably had no plans or permission to build!
The views of the lake and countryside were amazing, but the sun was getting stronger and we decided to head back to the hotel for lunch and shade.
On the journey back, we found the local Tabacchi and Coop. It is important to know the location of these two places in Italy, as they are the shops that support small towns in middle of nowhere. The Tabacchi sells just about anything, from bus tickets and newspapers, to cigarettes and wine. The Coop sells more of the same, with food and drink supplies. Much like a Tesco Extra or Spar in the UK.
With lunch and juice paid for, we continued back to the hotel.

A cooling swim was needed to help regulate the temperature a little. And in true British style, we bought our inflatable rings – much to the amusement of the hotel staff! The water was perfect though, and just what was needed after a sweaty hike around the lake. There were a lot of fish in the water, and we could see fishermen all around the banks, trying to catch their supper with some serious equipment. They had huge rods sticking out over the surface with (I presume) motion sensitive beepers to warn of any bites. This device, I later worked out, allowed the fisherman to sit back in his chair, sip wine and generally do nothing. I think a lot these so-called pescatore were just here to get away from their wives!

After further relaxation, we headed the other way around the lake to find the local restaurant. The hotel doesn’t actually do any food aside from breakfast, but a kilometre up the road is Taverna Del Lago.
A bar, pizzeria and restaurant, this place is amazing. It has seating inside, around the corner from the well-stocked bar. Outside, it has at least 30 tables under huge awnings to shade guests from the glare of the sun. The staff spoke good English here, and food was incredible. The restaurant specialises in seafood, but being in Tuscany, the meat dishes are equally superb.
Prices start at €6 for a simple (but yummy) Penne Alla Carrettiera (penne pasta in tomato and herb sauce). I ate this dish many times during my stay here. At the other end of the price spectrum, there is some kind of speciality seafood ensemble for €18, or Florentine Steak for €42 per kilogram.

Before we left, Claire and I did some research into the area, and Taverna Del Lago is mentioned in one of my guides. Taken from City Secrets: Florence, Venice The Towns Of Italy, Edith Isaac-Rose writes;

“Right outside of Cavriglia (in the section called San Cipriano) is a beautiful man-made lake surrounded by hills and woods, with no houses except Taverna Del Lago – home of the best spaghetti vongole I ever ate.”

It is always nice to eat at a place where the local residents dine as well. It makes it seem like that the food is better and more authentic.

After our hearty meal, we decided to have an early night. We plan to head towards Florence tomorrow, to do all the things we didn’t have time for in 2003.

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Day One – Arrival

A long journey from Southampton to Florence started at 7am, with a taxi ride to the airport. The first day is always exciting, even if the arduous task of lugging heavy bags about gets tiresome after a while.
Our flight was due to leave at 9.05am, but I like arriving early to get the bags out of the way. As soon as I’m freed from this weight I can sit down and enjoy a coffee while taking everything in.
I was quite surprised at the increase in security at what is little more than an airfield. Obviously with the recent activities in London, I expected a few more officials wandering around, but to see three armed police officers with rifles bigger than me was a shock. I haven’t seen guns that big since I was in New York in January 2004. When Claire and I went to go to the departures lounge, I was asked many questions by a senior staff. He asked me about my journey today, my job, how I got to the airport – very thorough indeed. But all this did make me feel comfortable. It wasn’t like they were trying to scare people or create an intimidating atmosphere, they were just reassuring passengers.

Anyway, we were soon on our way to Paris Charles-De-Gaulle, were we had to connect to another flight which took us onto Florence Peretola airport. It was interesting to see a stark difference in security at Paris. I don’t even think my passport was checked!

The flight took us over Lake Geneva and the Alps, down the West coast of Italy to Pisa and then along to Florence. It was quite cloudy over Europe until we neared our destination where the sky was clear and the views amazing.

No passport control at Florence, we just grabbed our bags and left the building. The airport is about 5 miles North of the city, but there is a regular (every 30 minutes) bus service transporting passengers to and fro all day. It is quite expensive at €4 per person, but it is quick and comfortable.

Arriving at Florence Santa Maria Novella train station, the temperature really kicked in. It was about 35°C and quite a sharp contrast to the air-conned plane and bus. But we didn’t have to wait around for too long. I had booked 2 tickets to San Giovanni Valdarno online before leaving. The ticket machines had an English option and were very easy to use. Soon we were on our way to our final destination in middle of the Tuscan countryside.

Once at San Giovanni, Claire ‘phoned the hotel and asked for a lift in her best Italian. It wasn’t long before we were being whisked away in Renault Megane that had more scratches and dents than a Sherman Tank post war!

Alberto, the hotel owner warmly greeted us and directed us to room 15, which was on the first floor of the 28 roomed farmhouse style building.

It is very beautiful and tranquil here. Sandwiched between the Chianti and Pratomagno mountains and resting on the edge of Lake San Cipriano, there is nothing but peace and quiet for miles around.

An early night is needed to recover from the long journey and prepare us for our 2 week holiday.