Menton – Pisa – Florence – Tuscan Countryside
June 4, 2019
We said goodbye (a hard goodbye!) to France this morning and said hello to Italy! Driving along the Mediterranean, we went through a tunnel every mile or so, some which were probably 1 or 2 miles long themselves. It seemed that whenever we came out of the tunnel, we would go over a bridge spanning a valley, exposing a view of the sea. Most of the time there was a separate town in this valley, with the center being right on the coast. We passed through Genoa, the sight of a tragic bridge collapse on August 14, 2018. It hasn’t been repaired, so traffic through that area was especially bad due to only one route existing from the French Riviera. Travel stops in Italy are not quite as nice as the French ones, and resemble a very nice gas station in the US with an adjoining restaurant. Getting closer to Pisa, the view of the sea disappeared and gave way to more countryside views. We passed several marble/granite yards which contained hundreds of pre-cut slabs. These things were huge. They looked big enough to have enough for about 10-15 countertop slabs each!
As we approached Pisa, the area looked quite destitute with run-down buildings and just a general lack of aesthetics. There were fields upon fields of grass just along the outskirts. Then all of a sudden, we caught just a glimpse of the top of the tower as we pulled in to a massive parking lot with probably 20 to 30 coach busses already parked there. We made our way to the tower as several large groups with name tags that said “MSC” passed by. Apparently cruise ships offer excursions to Pisa, as the sea is not too far away for this. After researching, MSC Cruises is a Geneva based cruise line, which itself is a child organization of the Mediterranean Shipping Company. Continuing toward the tower, the smell of Italian leather permeated the air as we passed stand after stand of purses, handbags, hats, belts, and all kinds of other souvenirs. I’ve never seen so many souvenir stands! At this point the tower was obstructed by an old 10 foot high wall.
We finally made it to the gate, and upon turning the corner we saw the tower! It looked just like I expected, and there were tourists EVERYWHERE doing funny poses just like I expected. What I did not expect were the buildings around the tower. There was a beautiful cathedral and two other buildings in the same square. The square’s official name is Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles). When we got close enough to the tower, we of course took all of the classic touristy pictures.
We got a bit closer to the tower and admired the stone work. Due to the grain of the marble used, no column or stone looked the same. It was also a nice white color.
We learned that due to the soft soil in the region, the south side of the tower sank, but they continued construction on it anyway. Mussolini wanted to destroy it because he said it was an “eyesore.” Also, it almost got bombed during WWII because it offered a great lookout point for the Italian troops. The allies never did end up bombing it, however. The cathedral across from it was also a beautiful building. All of the areas above the windows featured different geometric designs. Beautiful stone once again.
Making our way back to the coach, we stopped in a small Cafe. I got a slice of pepperoni and cheese pizza (pizza at Pisa!), and Emily got a tomato basil mozzarella focaccia. The pizza was good; the pepperoni were especially flavorful. They also spoke pretty good English to us and were friendly staff. As we were walking in, we were imagining how much one would probably would hate tourists if you lived and worked in Pisa…yikes! But they were friendly anyway.
After being declined to use a 5 Euro note to buy a postcard (she wanted exact change) we found a good one for a souvenir and headed back to the coach to continue on our way to Florence.
Upon our arrival, we immediately went on a walking tour of the city. We saw the building that was the “prototype” for all Renaissance architecture, the Palazzo Medici. It featured some big square stones for the first story, but the upper stories were a bit smoother and used smaller stones.
Walking around the city, that design proved to appear over and over. We saw the line to see the statue of David…it wrapped around the building and we were told it would take about 2 hours to even get in to see it. While we did not see the original statue, we saw the replica which was located in front of one of the political buildings of Florence. They apparently put it there to say to other nations “don’t mess with us” just like David slayed Goliath, Florence would slay anyone who tried to take it.
The jaw-dropping moment, which our guide had been saving till the end (intentionally leading us down streets where we couldn’t get a glimpse of it), was seeing the great cathedral. There was not one square inch of it that was not completely ornate. I asked the tour guide how they paid for it. She mentioned that 1) the textile trade was highly prosperous at that time, so the city made much revenue from that, 2) Jews operated the banks and collected interest on loaned money (since Christians couldn’t charge interest, it had to be the Jews) and 3) essentially the entire population was Roman Catholic, so that was an extremely important part of their life, so they not only had an interest in the project but also likely tithed to the church.
We enjoyed walking down the alleyways of Florence, passing by a Restaurant here, a produce stand there, many many leather shops and clothing stores. We even passed a shop that sold renaissance period clocks and pictures. Each alleyway had so much charm to it, especially with the windows and colorful shutters that towered over the streets.
We searched for a place to eat and found one that looked good, but as soon as we were about to go in, the owner was locking up the place and told us that they would start serving dinner at 7:00. We found another place that looked good and we sat down, only to be given the wine menu. Again, they wouldn’t serve dinner until 7:00! We asked for a recommendation, and he mentioned to us we could go to the main square to get some dinner. We found a place called Donnini, where Emily got an unbelievably good Ravioli in meat sauce, and I got a simple spaghetti with meatballs. It was probably the best that I’ve ever had. We also got a nice red wine to go with the dinner. We just split one glass to save a bit. When we were done, we let 10 minutes go by…15 minutes…20 minutes…no check. I think it is quite common for the wait staff to not bring the check until you request it. Finally we were able to catch one of the staff (not our waitress) to bring us the check. Tipping is also a bit tricky because you cannot leave a tip on your card. If you pay with card, you’ll have to tip with cash. Additionally, people say different things about tips. It seems like most websites that I’ve checked say 10% is in the normal range…maybe 15% if it was exceptional. Some sites have said a tip is not necessary, especially for lunch, so I’m still not positive about the whole thing. After dinner we headed to find a great gelato place (or as they call it, a Gelateria)…I ended up getting chocolate and mango gelato…so good!
After walking around and enjoying Florence a bit more, we headed back to our coach to head to our hotel. Overall, Florence has a lot of charm and I love the architecture and the look and feel of the city. Not sure if I want to come back, as it seems a bit commercialized, but I was happy to see it!
We got on the road for about 45 more minutes to our hotel in the Tuscan Countryside. The view from the highway was beautiful–so much green everywhere with fields and vineyards flanking both sides. The most picturesque aspect was the skinny evergreen trees, which I found out are Italian Cypress trees. It’s the ones you see in all of the paintings of Tuscany, but there they are, so characteristic of the area. So there were the fields and vineyards decorated here and there with the evergreens. After getting off the main highway, it seemed as if we were in the middle of absolute nowhere. Fields on both sides, no houses in sight. But we finally pulled up to our hotel, the Antica Tabaccaia resort, which is supposedly a 4 star hotel! Our A/C started blowing heat, and we had a picture of the statue of David awkwardly displayed in our room, but it’ll be a quick night here before we hit the road again for Rome.
Step Metrics: 14,950 steps; 7 miles; 671 cal; 2h 39m time
Q: What are the details of the construction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
A: Construction of the tower occurred in three stages over 199 years. On August 9, 1173, the foundations of the tower were laid. Work on the ground floor of the white marble campanile began on August 14 of the same year during a period of military success and prosperity. The tower began to sink after construction had progressed to the second floor in 1178. This was due to a mere three-metre foundation, set in weak, unstable subsoil, a design that was flawed from the beginning. Construction was subsequently halted for almost a century, as the Republic of Pisa was almost continually engaged in battles with Genoa, Lucca, and Florence. This allowed time for the underlying soil to settle. Otherwise, the tower would almost certainly have toppled. On December 27, 1233, the worker Benenato, son of Gerardo Bottici, oversaw the continuation of the tower’s construction.On February 23, 1260, Guido Speziale, son of Giovanni Pisano, was elected to oversee the building of the tower. On April 12, 1264, the master builder Giovanni di Simone, architect of the Camposanto, and 23 workers went to the mountains close to Pisa to cut marble. In 1272, construction resumed under Di Simone. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, the engineers built upper floors with one side taller than the other. Because of this, the tower is curved. Construction was halted again in 1284 when the Pisans were defeated by the Genoans in the Battle of Meloria. The seventh floor was completed in 1319. The bell-chamber was finally added in 1372. It was built by Tommaso di Andrea Pisano, who succeeded in harmonizing the Gothic elements of the belfry with the Romanesque style of the tower. There are seven bells, one for each note of the musical major scale. The largest one was installed in 1655. From Wikipedia.
Q: How did they stabilize the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
A: Numerous efforts have been made to restore the tower to a vertical orientation or at least keep it from falling over. Most of these efforts failed; some worsened the tilt. On February 27, 1964, the government of Italy requested aid in preventing the tower from toppling. It was, however, considered important to retain the current tilt, due to the role that this element played in promoting the tourism industry of Pisa. A multinational task force of engineers, mathematicians, and historians gathered on the Azores islands to discuss stabilisation methods. It was found that the tilt was increasing in combination with the softer foundations on the lower side. Many methods were proposed to stabilise the tower, including the addition of 800 tons of lead counterweights to the raised end of the base. The tower was closed to the public on January 7, 1990, after more than two decades of stabilisation studies and spurred by the abrupt collapse of the Civic Tower of Pavia in 1989. The bells were removed to relieve some weight, and cables were cinched around the third level and anchored several hundred meters away. Apartments and houses in the path of the tower were vacated for safety. The solution chosen to prevent the collapse of the tower was to slightly straighten it to a safer angle by removing 1,342 cubic feet of soil from underneath the raised end. The tower was straightened by 17.7 inches, returning to its 1838 position. After a decade of corrective reconstruction and stabilization efforts, the tower was reopened to the public on December 15, 2001 and was declared stable for at least another 300 years. After a phase (1990–2001) of structural strengthening, the tower is currently undergoing gradual surface restoration in order to repair visible damage, mostly corrosion and blackening. These are particularly pronounced due to the tower’s age and its exposure to wind and rain. In May 2008, engineers announced that the tower had been stabilized such that it had stopped moving for the first time in its history. They stated that it would be stable for at least 200 years. From Wikipedia.
Q: What were the other buildings around the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
A: The Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), formally known as Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), is a walled 8.87-hectare area located in Pisa, Tuscany, Italy, recognized as an important centre of European medieval art and one of the finest architectural complexes in the world. Considered sacred by the Catholic Church, its owner, the square is dominated by four great religious edifices: the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Campanile, and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery). Partly paved and partly grassed, the Piazza dei Miracoli is also the site of the Ospedale Nuovo di Santo Spirito (New Hospital of the Holy Spirit), which houses the Sinopias Museum (Italian: Museo delle Sinopie) and the Cathedral Museum (Italian: Museo dell’Opera del Duomo). The name Piazza dei Miracoli was coined by the Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio who, in his novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910), described the square as the “prato dei Miracoli,” or “meadow of miracles”. The square is sometimes called the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles). In 1987, the whole square was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Wikipedia.
Q: Why are there city names on signs with a red diagonal line through them in France and Italy?
A: In the image below, the left sign indicates a Provincial boundary (entering the Province of Venezia, leaving the Province of Padova). The right sign indicates the end of the motorway. Similar signs exist for advisory speed limits and the end of Home Zones.
Q: What are the typical mealtime and general business hours in Italy? Seems like dinner at 7 PM or later is pretty standard.
A: In the summer, Italians usually eat fairly late meals. Lunch will not start before 1 PM and dinner not before 8:00 PM. In the north and in winter, meal times may be half an hour earlier while in the far south in summer you may eat even later. Italian business hours are approximately from 8 AM to 1 PM and from 3 PM to 7 PM, Monday to Friday.
Q: What’s a typical tip in Italy?
A: First, one thing to keep in mind: Waiting tables in Italy is much different than waiting tables in the States. Many Italian waiters are paid off the books, meaning they’re not paying taxes. If they are on the books, then they get paid vacations (some six weeks per year or more) and paid sick leave. And they have national health. Furthermore, if servizio has been added to your bill (see above), then leave nothing on top. Rest assured knowing that, since most Italians won’t even have this servizio on their bill and won’t tip, you’re still tipping quite a lot in comparison. So if all that’s been added to your bill is pane e coperto, or nothing at all, and your service has been good, then maybe leave something. But not 20 percent. Not 15 percent. Not necessarily even 10 percent. A few coins, or rounding up, is sufficient. While that makes many Americans grimace, remember: Italy is a different culture. And it’s a different tipping culture, too. Adjusting to it is not only part of the experience, but shows respect for the locals. (From Walks of Italy)