Europe 2007 - 3: Pisa, Tirrenia and Firenze

Pisa and Firenze

After wonderful evening in Verona, the next day after a very good breakfast (they even had whole-wheat breads), we spend few hours in the garden of the hotel and taking pictures of the peacocks and around 10:30 we left towards the coast, south and the leaning tower.

The road we took was mostly on toll highways – the directions in Google maps were very useful. Not far away from Pisa you start to see the oleanders in the space dividing the highway directions – something that in my mind was always intimately related to being in Italy.

The hotel we had reserved was located not very far from the railroad station. We got there easily, the only excitement was (after unloading the luggage) getting to the parking spot. Hotel has the garage about 150 m away from it, and the shortest way there would require going twice in the opposite direction in a one-way street. I asked the guy at the reception for directions how to get there. He was very enthusiastic to help and went out to navigate me – using the shortest path :-). No polizia, no problemo. Viva la Italia.

The main attraction in city of Pisa is Piazza Dei Miracoli – the only part of Pisa the most people know about. We have been there before, but it always makes the same very deep impression of very special place. We went there first in the evening of the arrival, walking (about 25 minutes) from the hotel. There were many more people than when we were visiting back in September 1993. At that time, we just made a quick stop on the drive from Calabria to Switzerland and had only 1-2 hours. This time, we did have time and really enjoyed all four of the monuments: Duomo, Battistero, the Tower and the Camposanto. We did not go up on the tower – the lineup was too long for my taste – but spent lot of time in Duomo and the Camposanto. You need tickets for all of these, sold in the museum at the end of the street, prices are very reasonable. The best deal is to buy basilica entrance separately and then the “two pack” allowing to enter the other two. But there are many other nice places besides the Piazza in Pisa – as you can see here …

In Pisa we have started our culinary excursions into la cucina italiana vera – true Italian cuisine. Around the Piazza, there are lots of restaurant, with the “headhunters” on the street trying to convince you in. Almost every one had sitting on the street as well as indoor. Our criteria was stop and while reading the menu (also conveniently located outside) listen how many italian speaking people were there: we never went to restaurant that was either too empty or occupied mostly by mostly foreigners (meaning non-italian speaking guests). It worked like charm. We had the most tasty pastas and antipastas I have ever eaten. The best were simples dishes – Spaghetti carbonara or Pasta Frutti di Mare. I do not know how they do it, but it just taste so much better …

We have stayed two days in Pisa, because of the sea proximity, we went for a splash on day two. The drive to sea is about 20 minutes and there are beaches all around. The receptionist recommended us Tirrenia rather that Lido di Pisa, and we ended up there. Originally we wanted to drive down to Cecina, but decided to stop at Tirranea and give local spiaggia a try. It was great so we stayed. If you arrive early, there is lot of good parking on the street. Not free, but very affordable, 1 Euro for 2 hours. Considerably cheaper than in Ottawa downtown :-).

There is not much to add to being at the see – water was warm, waves just right, beach much cleaner that I have expected. At this point I started to re-evaluate the myth that “you have to drive down to south because sea and the beaches in the north are dirty”. That may be true in the east coast around Bibione and Venezia, but certainly not in here. Some pictures are here.

Silvana loved the sea so much that we planned to stay another day at the Tirranea and drive to Sienna afterwards. The heavy rains in the morning and weatherman promising rains at the coast but better weather more inland, made us switched to Plan B – brief tour of Florence instead.

Pisa and Florence are interconnected by very good, toll-free highway named PI-FI-SI, standing for Pisa, Firenze and Sienna. It is also fairly close – about an hour drive and not very interesting. The real fun begins afterwards, when you actually arrive to Florence and try to navigate there. The web of one-way streets with heavy construction sites, badly marked detours and Italian driving habits makes it life-long experience.

After about 40 minutes and about 15 wrong turns we (by pure accident) ended up in parking garage close to railway station and not very far from where we actually wanted to be. The entry to parking was about 45 degrees steep slope downwards, barely wide enough for two small cars, with a right angle turn in the middle. It is also the only entrance and exit for both the cars and the customers of the garage … so you really have to awake that sleeping Italian deep inside you and take it easy when a pedestrian jumps into front of your car. I have seen a car going downwards to stop in front of the curve, unload baby carriage (fortunately empty) to get out something from the trunk, place it in the other lane right behind the curve ….

The cars are parked in two levels in one-car lifts. you have to give them the car keys. Leaving fully loaded car with all our luggage created a bit uneasy feeling in me at first – but nothing disappeared, all was OK.

Florence as city was a big disappointment, mostly because of the mismatch between the hype and reality (we have had very high expectations) – but also because we have been comparing to Verona and Pisa. It was overcrowded, with literally thousands of people everywhere, huge lineups to any attractions. Lesson learned – never visit in high season – June or September may be much better. For me, all atmosphere was killed by the commerce – very aggressive attempts to make most money from swarms of tourists: the kiosks selling everything are everywhere. In addition to selling articles actually connected to the city (souvenirs, T-shirts, leather products) you see lot of fake brand merchandise – sunglasses, Rolex watches, bags, clothing – you name it. As if these kiosks would not be enough, there are large amounts of “mobile” sellers – walking around with their collection and annoying people around.

I was really surprised why the selling of the fakes is tolerated by the police. Legally, in Italy not only selling but also knowingly buying these counterfeits is a crime…

The city itself is not very well preserved and maintained as the hype would make you believe. Having no time to go into museums (waiting in line to get there would take hour or more) we walked around parts of historical core, visited Ponte Vecchio – which looks very nice from the distance. Unfortunately, the bridge itself is loaded with jewelry and touristware junk selling stores. I would much more appreciate to have an opportunity to see (and buy) some traditional hand crafted products of local craftsmen – rather than jewelry and toys Made in China.

We did not stay too long and are leaving around 4 PM to get to Siena while there is still daylight. The evening comes every time sooner – not only as August progresses, but as we go south, we are really moving eastward as well, which means earlier sunrises but also earlier sunsets.